Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

Our son was four when we started this blog, and while he remembers many of the programs and movies that we watched in its first couple of years – in part from repetition – many others have faded away. That’s the nature of memory of preschoolers; we all have a few solid memories from age four and five, but it takes more than a single viewing of even an exciting movie that a kid really enjoys to sink in during the years when there’s so much else in the world to absorb and remember. And if it’s a movie that I got from the library, then there’s no opportunity for repetition.

So since some other action-adventure films in the Jules Verne tradition and style – the various takes on Journey to the Center of the Earth and In Search of the Castaways – have largely faded from his memory, Disney’s 1974 adaptation of Ian Cameron’s novel The Lost Ones wasn’t nearly as familiar and old hat to him as it was to his parents. We had never seen this film before, and yet we kind of did.

One thing I really appreciated: this film gets in gear immediately. I was talking with an old pal about the unbearably bloated Godzilla: King of the Monsters this weekend and told him how I just missed ninety minute movies. I checked the running time, saw this movie was only an hour and a half long, and breathed a happy sigh of relief. The characters and situations are introduced on the go, and all the background events necessary to get the expedition started are explained as we’re moving along with them.

Island stars David Hartman as a turn-of-the-century scientist. And yeah, it’s the same guy who’d later host Good Morning America forever, which might’ve sparked the same oddball reaction from me as when people in Britain learn that the longtime Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves had been in Doctor Who for a year in the sixties. Donald Sinden plays the millionaire looking for his missing son, Jacques Marin is the captain of an airship, and Mako, who guest-starred in everything in the 1970s, plays an Eskimo guide.

So was it any good? It certainly didn’t do anything new, and every plot beat, from the lost civilization to the gods being angry to characters who we thought were dead showing up again to the only female having a heart of gold to help our heroes, was one we’ve seen before. The science was absurd and the movie keeps confusing archaeology with anthropology. But it still unfolded at a pleasantly brisk pace, and kept the kiddo excited and surprised, and it gives us lava, explosions, hidden passages, whirlpools, and dangerous animals. If you’ve never seen it before, or if you’re young enough that you might as well not have, then it’s a splendid picture.

This post has been written amid the remarkable distraction of our son watching The Avengers for the tenth time.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I think I’ve probably seen Nausicaä – or at least 85% of Nausicaä – more times than I’ve seen every other Miyazaki movie combined, but I’ve never seen it on a big screen before tonight. There’s one off the bucket list.

Nausicaä is Miyazaki’s prog rock movie. He started developing it in the late 1970s, around the time he was working on the TV series Future Boy Conan and going through some issues with the rise and fall of civilizations, cycles, rebirths, that sort of thing. This feel is enhanced by one of my favorite scores to any movie, ever. Joe Hisaishi spends parts of this film channeling Rick Wakeman and other parts channeling Nick Rhodes. Hisaishi has scored all of Miyazaki’s movies since this one, and they are all wonderful and memorable, but there’s such an odd mix of styles in this movie that it stands out as the most unique and weird. It kind of has to be heard to be believed.

When I was fifteen and sixteen, I inhaled this film. I had a copy of the original English language dub, which was called Warriors of the Wind, and I watched it constantly. To the disgust of purists, Warriors was edited by twenty minutes, down to a lean 100, so that after it finished its theatrical run, New World Pictures could sell it to TV stations for a two-hour slot. So sure, tampering with Miyazaki is eee-eeeevil, but that original voice cast was so much better than the one they got to perform the contemporary dub. It’s not just that Patrick Stewart just phoned in his lines and sounds like he wasn’t in the same country, never mind the same studio, it’s that everybody in the original sold the hell out of it.

The original English voice for Nausicaä – well, they renamed her Zandra, and I can’t defend that and won’t try – was Susan Davis, who was the original English language voice of Pippi Longstocking in Fred Ladd’s dubs. She was perfect. There’s a scene in the Warriors cut where Nausicaä slides backward on the shore of a lake of acid. She’s been shot twice and her ankle, wounded and bloodied, slides into the acid and she lets out a scream that still makes me shiver. This new girl sounds like she stubbed her toe.

This might be where the purists might add that I could just watch the subtitled version, and they’re not wrong, but our son is still too young to happily go along with reading movies. Once he’s ready, I’ve got some subtitled Dr. Slump cartoons for him. I’m still steamed those aren’t dubbed.

Our son was mainly in it for the fox squirrel. He had a great belly laugh when three old codgers steal a tank, and he joined in with the rest of the theater chuckling when a soldier tries to rally his troops to kill the planet’s best swordsman, but the cute animal is all he wanted to talk about afterward. There’s probably a plush cuddly toy if he wants to save his allowance. They’ve merchandised everything else with Miyazaki’s name on it.

He didn’t like it as much as Castle in the Sky and Marie didn’t like it as much as Spirited Away and I didn’t like it as much as Warriors of the Wind, but I got to see it on a big screen and it was beautiful. Fathom Events has another good lineup this year. We’re going to see three more new-to-him films in this year’s Ghibli Fest by some of that studio’s other directors. Might watch Totoro again, too. Hard to pass that one up on a big screen…

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Willow (1988)

You can add Willow to that long list of fantasy films from the eighties that I never cared to see at the time, and like most of them, it turned out to be more entertaining than I expected. Directed by Ron Howard from a story by its producer, George Lucas, it’s a movie that many people I’ve known have seen and enjoyed. Glad to see they weren’t wrong.

But our kid… he completely loved this. It’s a movie with lots of chasing and lots of fighting and he loved them all, especially a scene where Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer – and the baby that they’re protecting – are rocketing down a snow-covered mountain on a runaway sled. There’s also a recurring gag about a sorceress who was transformed into a rodent many years ago, and Willow’s attempts to reverse the spell just results in her changing into different animals. That went over extremely well.

The sorceress had been stuck in that body by the evil magic of a wicked queen played by Jean Marsh. She had been Princess Mombi in Return to Oz a couple of years before and would play Morgaine Le Fay the following year; I suppose this was Marsh’s Witch Period. Marsh has kind of a one-note character, though. The heroes, led by Davis and Kilmer, along with a couple of three inch-high “brownies” and, once she decides to betray her evil queen mother, Joanne Whalley, are much, much more interesting. This isn’t a movie for those of us who like compelling villains, but the swordfighting, mayhem, and wit are good enough.

I was also surprised by how dark this film starts. Our heroes are protecting this baby because a prophecy says that she’ll overthrow the evil queen, and before the titles have finished, the mother is executed and the midwife who spirited her away is eaten by wild dogs. The baby floats far downstream to a village of little people – the great Billy Barty is the village’s wizard and apparent leader – and eventually, the villagers decide that they need to find some humans to whom they can return this kid. Since Willow and his family found the child, he gets tasked with taking it to the Daikini (humans), before any more wild dogs get its scent and rampage through their homes.

I was pleased that I was able to predict just one single thing this movie did. Granted, I really try not to spend any little gray cells on guessing where stories will go the first time that I watch a film, as I prefer to be caught up and taken for a ride, but I figured the guy with the skull helmet was going to kill the guy with the beard, and that was it. At one point, a spell goes awry and there’s a monstrous, two-headed fire-breathing thing that Ray Harryhausen would have found acceptable raining nine kinds of hell on an army of evildoers, and I couldn’t have been happier. I’d say that was two hours well spent, but our son says that was two of the most awesome hours ever.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

A few months ago, I amused myself by “wondering” in print here whether we would be able to get caught up with these movies before the release of Captain Marvel in a few days. This was never really in doubt, but my plan to blog about each of the last several was stymied because I just didn’t have much of anything to say about most of them. The kid has adored all the mayhem, of course, and he’s been rewatching them whenever he has some free time.

Like most seven year-olds, he’s criminally impatient, and by the time we reached the cliffhanger ending to the surprising and silly Ant-Man and the Wasp, he’d had the time of his life – again – and now he’s hopping with a mix of anxiety and frustration that he must wait eight whole weeks to see what will happen to Hank, Janet, and Hope, and whether Scott will be trapped in the Quantum Realm forever. You know, like the rest of us.

I found Avengers: Infinity War horribly unsatisfying the second time around. The bleak climax is no point to end on; the movie is badly, badly lacking a rising, thunderous cliffhanger to lead us into the next adventure. I left the theater last year in a sour mood because of the missed opportunity, and seeing Ant-Man and the Wasp six or seven weeks later lifted my spirit tremendously. It’s a fun and inventive movie, full of surprises. The tone’s just right. It’s lighthearted and takes serious situations seriously, while finding goofy and unexpected ways around the obstacles. And that car chase in San Francisco is a real beauty.

I read that Michael Douglas was advocating for an eighties-set movie starring himself and Michelle Pfeiffer as the original Ant-Man and the Wasp. Marvel’s been understandably cagey about their plans beyond this summer, but as much as I enjoy Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly together, I can totally get behind that. Fingers crossed for 2020!

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

When I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark a few months ago, I retold the circumstances behind my first trip to see the movie, because I remember it very well. I also remember going to see 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom very well. We missed about the first half of the movie.

This time, it was the mom of one of my younger brother’s friends who arranged the trip to the theater with her two boys. She was a well-meaning woman, but kind of a hopeless dingbat. Three years previously, she’d taken the four kids to see the 3-D western Comin’ at Ya!. I’ve never seen a frame of that film since. All I remember was a topless woman jiggling in 3-D mere minutes into the movie and being dragged out with the other three kids. I don’t remember what we ended up seeing instead. Possibly Raiders.

So anyway, Atlanta once had a theater across the road from what used to be called Crawford Long Hospital. It was built in the 1920s and was renamed the Columbia in its final decade. It boasted the largest screen in the city, an 80mm screen larger than the Fox’s. (Astonishingly, Skips Hot Dogs, now in Avondale Estates, used to have a location on the same block!) I don’t know why Mrs. P wanted to take us downtown instead of one of the many theaters in our li’l suburb, but I’m glad she did, because it was my only trip to this piece of Atlanta history. And I didn’t mind walking in so late that the first thing we saw were the heads of monkeys being placed in front of the guests at some banquet or other. Suddenly there were chilled monkey brains and the same four kids who got shoved to the exit of that one theater were jumping up and down over the grotesque but awesomely cool spectacle of nasty food before we even got to our seats.

Mrs. P talked to somebody in charge and we got to see the movie in full after finishing the half we saw. We got to see the chilled monkey brains twice and were still talking about them when school started and they served us jello.

The gross-out factor of Temple of Doom remains its greatest calling card. Hours later, our kid was still wondering what animal gave up the eyeballs in the soup, and when he let out a typical “blech” when Indy and Willie embrace in the catacombs, he quickly clarified “I don’t think it’s gross because they’re smooching, I think it’s gross because of all those bugs!”

However, if you read the story about Raiders, you’ll recall that my Concerned Dad gene activated at the end of that movie. I couldn’t ignore it this time. When Mola Ram pulled that victim’s heart out of his chest, my hand was clamped over my son’s eyes.

Convention has it that Doom was the weakest of the first three Indiana Jones films. I absolutely agree. In fact, apart from the terrific opening scene in Shanghai (that diamond, by the way, is the Peacock’s Eye), Indy and Willie’s “five minutes” flirting, and the fantastic scene on the bridge, I don’t care for this one. It’s too long and too brutal. There’s too much glee in the torture, and no glee anywhere else. Kate Capshaw is wonderful and Harrison Ford gets to be memorable in a few places, but if I was in the government of India, I wouldn’t have wanted this patronizing, ugly, violent movie made in my country either.

But that bridge scene… I could suffer through a worse movie than this for that bridge scene. I was looking forward to the bridge scene a couple of days ago and it didn’t disappoint, which is more than I can say for the rest of the film.

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Castle in the Sky (1986)

Every once in a while, I’ll enjoy seeing a thread on a forum or Twitter where people will reminisce about the mountains we used to scale to watch old TV shows, or cartoons from other countries. Uphill in the snow both ways, you remember. In the mid-eighties, I watched a fair amount of Japanese animation, enjoying the camaraderie more than the cartoons it must be said, and lots of it was untranslated. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 film Laputa – that’s what we called it then – was one of those movies. I think you had to either get it on a T-160 tape or get a SLP/EP copy of it because the darn thing’s a hair too long to fit on a proper T-120 on SP speed.

My SLP copy looked like garbage and had lots of tracking errors, not – this time – because I was too lazy and cheap to buy nicer quality tapes, but because I’d had one of those BASF T-160s in the red cardboard case snap when I rewound it. But I watched the heck out of it anyway, wondering what the dialogue was, and particularly baffled by the scenes deep down in the mine with Uncle Pom.

Certain films and shows possessed a real power to thrill me even despite the language barrier. I’ve always been interested in Miyazaki’s movies and shows even if I was watching them in the original Japanese. I figured out early on that lots of what we could get our hands on was either junk to sell toys and candy or it just wasn’t going to appeal to me in any language no matter how popular it was. I couldn’t get into Iczer One or Bubblegum Crisis or any of the many and varied forms of Gundam, but eventually two of my best friends went in on a laserdisc set of all 26 episodes of a 1978 TV series that Miyazaki directed called Future Boy Conan and I jumped. Seven tapes of that (SP, thank you, TDK E-HG) and I was set for weeks, leaving my college roommate absolutely baffled why I was watching a cartoon in a language I didn’t speak. They were such nice copies, too. Not a hint of a tracking error.

(Strangely, one of those said best friends doesn’t seem to have written an article about Conan at Let’s Anime, possibly because he seems to suffer from some major Miyazaki malaise. So read his story about Horus, Prince of the Sun instead.)

Anyway, so I’d struggled through the tracking errors and washed-out colors of my lousy copy of Laputa seven or eight times in the late eighties, and suddenly I had this beautiful old show which basically had the character dynamics between the young heroes that would be echoed in Laputa already in place eight years earlier. It was such a neat feeling, figuring out similarities in character and theme when I didn’t even know the names of most of the characters. Nowadays, Wikipedia figures it out for you.

Eventually, Streamline would release a dub of Castle in the Sky, as it would be renamed, and then Disney would redo it with James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, and Mark Hamill doing his Joker voice, and Cloris Leachman being absolutely amazing as the air pirate Captain Dola. I’ve always felt that Leachman is channeling Billie Hayes! Tell me that her Dola doesn’t sound like Witchiepoo. You’d be lying.

Fathom Events wrapped up this year’s run of Studio Ghibli films with Castle in the Sky this weekend. On my right, I had my son, who was probably more wired and more amazed in a theater than he’s ever been before, literally hopping in his seat during the train chase. On my left, a teen girl who started the movie insisting to her father that no, he had not seen this one, because she doesn’t own a copy, and who spent most of the two hours plus a hair quietly saying “Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.”

And they weren’t the distractions. It was just me, wondering why the heck I can’t get a nice English dub of Future Boy Conan on Blu-ray in this day and age.

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The Secret of NIMH (1982)

I realized this morning that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is intertwined with Flowers for Algernon in my head. I guess that we read both novels – or, more likely, condensed versions of them – in the sixth grade or so. Except, because I’m a dingbat, I couldn’t remember the name of Algernon, and as we watched Don Bluth’s masterful, albeit very loose, animated adaptation of NIMH this morning, I spent all 82 minutes completely distracted and wondering what the heck that book was. Marie instantly identified it when I asked whether she knew what I was remembering, because she’s usually less of a dingbat than me. Now I’m left to wonder why I thought the protagonist was called Jeremy instead of Charlie. That must have been a third book.

The Secret of NIMH was Don Bluth’s first feature film after leaving Disney, and it’s by some distance my favorite of his after-Disney movies. The only other one I like is Anastasia. This one’s mostly great, with a strong story and engaging characters. There is, however, a completely unnecessary use of magic that distracted me almost as much as half-remembering old books. The climax, during which a magical amulet levitates a concrete block out of a mud pit, even led our favorite seven year-old critic to interject “Oh, come on, that’s not real!” When the rules of the finale jar against the reality of the world presented in a movie’s previous 75 minutes so badly that even a kid makes a comment, you can’t call your ending a complete success.

But NIMH gets it mostly right with its interesting animation choices and some fine voice work by a strong cast of character actors from the period, most notably Hermione Baddeley, John Carradine, Derek Jacobi, and Arthur Malet. Dom DeLuise tried his darnedest to steal the show as a crow called Jeremy, though I’m afraid he mostly sounded like Bluth told him “You know Zero Mostel in Watership Down? We’re doing that.”

Marie was pretty certain that Jeremy would be our son’s favorite character, but he liked Mrs. Brisby best. She’s resourceful and determined and a great protagonist. The movie’s punctuated with some seat-of-your-pants action scenes with just a hint of comedy in their outlandishness, and a truly fine villain in the form of Jenner, a hyper-intelligent rat who schemes to control their colony.

Jenner meets his end in a way that surprised me. You get so used to American animation from the eighties being comparatively tame, thanks in no small part to Bluth’s later, more family-friendly pictures, so the blood and violence of NIMH is a standout for the time. Even though we’re dealing with talking mice, rats, and shrews, it cements that reality that I mentioned above. This farm is a mean, unsafe place, and even though we’ve toughened our kid up with some really frightening monsters and horrors, I could certainly imagine John Carradine’s Great Owl scaring the pants off younger viewers.

On a small tech note, our DVD is a 2003 release and the picture is 4:3. According to a poster in the DVD Talk forum, there used to be a Don Bluth website that was for more than his current projects, and there, Bluth had once mentioned that 4:3 was the originally preferred ratio and it was matted for its theatrical release. That surprised me! Some of the sequences in this film are so visually interesting that I can’t help but wish to see more of them on the sides of the frame.

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Labyrinth (1986)

Labyrinth‘s one of those movies that I’m reasonably certain everybody likes more than I do. I’ve seen chunks of it several times over the years, but today might be the first time I’ve watched the entire movie since it was released. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it doesn’t spark my imagination very much. I kept paying attention to the technical tricks and the way that sheepdog dashes across the rocks in the Bog of Eternal Stench. That must have been the best trained dog to ever tread the boards at Elstree Studios.

This is a movie for kids and ours just adored it, as his mother predicted. We often try to take him into a new film a little blind, so he doesn’t know what to expect, and so the first appearance of all the goblins waiting for Jennifer Connelly to word her wish correctly surprised the heck out of him. He smiled and laughed all the way through the film, loving the wonderful battle between the goblin army and all the rocks that Ludo summons the best.

David Bowie never appeared on The Muppet Show, but his performance of “Magic Dance” is a pretty good imitation of how such an event might have appeared. Labyrinth was made during what I might charitably call Bowie’s Crap Period, with five new songs strung between the tentpoles of his two weakest LPs not really providing a lot of reason to go check these out. “As the World Falls Down” is the best of the five by miles, and I’m kind of annoyed that I’ll have “Underground” stuck in my head for the next month.

But while musically, it’s a weak set of songs, it’s impossible to dislike Bowie’s performance as the Goblin King, Jareth. He may not be one of the screen’s great villains, but he’s a fun, mischievous character who plays by rules and logic that our heroine doesn’t find fair. I wonder about all the goblins in his kingdom. Were these all children that Jareth has stolen from other worlds?

Apparently Terry Jones rewrote his script sixty-eleven times to please Bowie and Jim Henson, and he later expressed some frustration that the final draft didn’t have a lot of what he enjoyed creating left in it. But a lot of it works, especially Jennifer Connelly’s believably heroic-but-overwhelmed character. I like how her bedroom contains posters of musicals, Escher prints, and the Judge Dredd role-playing game. Speaking of Escher, we got to remind our son of “Castrovalva” before the climactic scene in the “Relativity” staircase room. It must be said that Henson pulled off that illusion rather better than Doctor Who did. There’s also a repeat of the classic riddle about the two guards, one truthful and one a liar, that Who had done in “Pyramids of Mars.”

Incidentally, I’ve actually seen more of Hoggle in real life than in this movie. He lives just about an hour from here. The Hoggle puppet was lost in transit when Henson was doing a lecture tour, and the insurance paid off. Many years later, Hoggle, badly decaying from water damage, was found in a trunk that had been purchased in a big job lot by Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro AL. The puppet was restored by an expert in Wisconsin, Gary Sowatzka, in 2006, and he now occupies a place of pride in the giant store’s front lobby.

This kind of reminded us that we should head back to Scottsboro to shop and eat sometime soon, and say hello to Hoggle. We just won’t take any peaches from him.

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