Night at the Museum (2006)

Longtime readers know that we almost always watch family movies and adventure movies from the past, to give our kid a look at what entertained generations before him. I took it for granted that he’d see Night at the Museum on his own, because day cares and child cares and other families where he might play or have overnight sleepovers are more likely to have contemporary family movies on offer, and not expect kids to watch stuff in black and white, or stuff from the seventies with rotary dial telephones and chain-smoking dad characters. That’s why our son’s never asked to watch most Pixar movies: he saw them all already.

So Night at the Museum served a dual purpose for me: I did want to watch a more recent family film with him, and somehow, I managed to sneak this one in before some other family or after-school care program got there. I figured this would be as ubiquitous as the Toy Story series, but he had never heard of it and had no idea what it was. It sure is fun seeing him discover what a movie’s about. Brilliantly, this movie opens its supernatural discoveries with its biggest one: it’s the big Tyrannosaurus skeleton that comes to life first, knocking the child audience’s socks off, and then calmly adds additional layers of mayhem atop each one. He adored it.

Joining Ben Stiller in the chaos: Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and several more. I think it’s just an imaginatively good script until the third act, where the villains and their motivations are revealed and a critical eye might want to work backward and spot all the holes in the plan, but as long as you just let everything go and accept the strange – and mighty convenient – rules of Ahkmenrah’s tablet, it’s a fun and silly roller coaster.

They made two other Night at the Museum movies, and I don’t know that I’m ready to believe they’re all that essential, but I’m glad I picked this one up for my son’s own collection. It ended with him saying “Now I want to work in a museum,” which made my heart grow three sizes. That’s where I wish I worked, too.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Sometimes, writing this blog, I’ve learned that time has marched on a little too far for the classics of the past to have much of an impact on kids of today. When I was about nine years old, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or any one of a hundred imitators of Creature from the Black Lagoon, would have had me completely captivated. Our son was alternately bored out of his skull or irritated by the downright dumb decisions of the characters. One guy in particular is so desperate to kill the monster and bring its carcass back to society for accolades and celebrity that you can see a color bullseye on his back in a black and white movie.

So this was a big disappointment for him, especially since he has a three-inch glow-in-the-dark action figure of the Gill Man and has been looking forward to seeing this movie, but really only the design of the creature held any interest. I think it’s a very fine film for its day and has aged extremely well. Only two things really ring fake and hollow almost sixty years later. There’s the stock “jungle noises” sound effects in the background – count how often you hear the unforgettable ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ah-ah-ah-ah animal from every movie set anywhere remotely like Brazil – and there’s a wholly unnecessary fake bat in a cave held up by giant wires. Maybe a modern remake would have a more diverse cast shot on an actual location, but it wouldn’t be a very different movie than this. I wonder whether they could find a female lead anywhere as beautiful as Julie Adams, though.

Actually, for a boatload of scientists, our son’s right, and it’s true the people in this movie do act like dimwits. They keep talking about the Gill Man in the singular, like they knew the budget only extended to one really good costume. Surely one of them would have realized that there must be a large colony of them to have survived into the present from the Devonian period. Wouldn’t that have made a much more thrilling ending, to have just gone thirty seconds more at the end, realizing their terrible mistake?

Maybe I should have gotten to this one sooner. I did begin by recapping that Them! was considered terrifying in its day, but was more of an exciting action movie for him, and that’s how he’d probably feel about this one. But time has marched on so much that the isolated thrills that this movie offered the audience of 1954, and certainly for many years after, have long been eclipsed by more immediate and greater dangers.

Netflix just released a new season of one of our son’s favorite cartoons, Jurassic Park: Camp Cretaceous. It’s a show packed with threats and frights and it moves like lightning. Even starting him off on old movies as early as we have, he’s growing into realizing that many of the classics of the past – particularly the ones that relied on urgency and scares to keep the audience riveted – can really only be viewed through the prism of looking back at how these things used to be made. If things work out, we’ve got another Universal classic horror film in the pipeline for March; hopefully we can make sure he appreciates it as an effective period piece instead of something that’s going to give him the same frisson as everything he can find on his own. Fingers crossed!

Porco Rosso (1992)

Shout! Factory and GKids have been releasing director Hayao Miyazaki’s films for Studio Ghibli in these beautiful steelbooks with minimal design and bright, solid colors. I told myself years ago that I would not, would not, would not let myself be tempted down the steelbook path, but all of my Ghibli films were badly in need of upgrades, and I prefer uniform design, and they’re all so gosh-darned pretty.

I was a little concerned and discouraged, because Miyazaki is not the only director with that studio, and their other output deserves the same treatment. Happily, they have announced that the next two in the series were directed by other people: Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, coming in March. I’m very glad to see them shift the focus to the rest of the really talented directors at that studio, and while it does mean that Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, as well as The Wind Rises, will have to come later on, I don’t mind waiting. After all, I’d waited 29 years to watch this one already.

I sincerely have no idea why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie. It’s been on my get-around-to-it list for decades, but when I decided to introduce our son to old and beloved films together around the structure of this blog, I just picked up a copy seven years ago (DVD, from the Book Nook in Marietta GA, the receipt tells me) and let it collect a little dust until it came up in the rotation. It was worth the wait; we all enjoyed this tremendously.

“Porco Rosso” is the unflattering nickname given to a man originally named Marco. He was a seaplane pilot in the 1910s with many friends, but somehow – and I love how this is not detailed at all – he was cursed by a witch and now has a pig’s head. So he keeps to himself and works as a bounty hunter in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, which are beset by dangerous, albeit lovably stupid, air pirates. One of his old friends runs a hotel and restaurant nearby and he goes to see her occasionally, and another old pal is a mechanic in Milan who occasionally gives him a small line of credit to repair all the massive damage his plane takes.

So one day, a hotshot American contracts with the pirates and shoots Porco out of the sky while he was on his way to Milan for repairs. Milan isn’t safe anymore, and all the young men have joined the army and the air force, but the mechanic insists that his seventeen year-old granddaughter is a great engineer and his all-female crew is perfectly capable of rebuilding his plane. But can he get out of Italy before the secret police find him, and do something about that American flyboy?

So no, I shouldn’t have waited so long to watch this. I really enjoyed it, probably even more than our son, who chuckled and laughed all the way through over the pirates’ dumb shenanigans and people refusing to back down from escalating situations. Miyazaki pulls out several tricks he’d used in earlier movies about flying, including the lever-pulling tech within cockpits, and planes moving in and out of clouds, so it’s familiar in many ways but it’s such an interesting story. It’s set in someplace broadly like our history, but at kind of an odd angle.

I like the characters of Porco and Theo quite a lot, and just love the way the story is told, especially the ending. Perfectly, it sets up a possibility or two after the climax and lets the audience wonder about them. It’s a very, very good film. When Shout! announces the steelbook, I’ll have a preorder in at RightStuf immediately.

Back to the Future (1985)

About a week before we took our blog break, I was with our son at the local Barnes & Noble to pick up Paul McCartney’s new album. There, he spotted one of those expensive little things in the media department for nostalgists with a few more dollars than sense: a picture disc LP of the Back to the Future soundtrack. He asked what that was, and I thought he was asking what a picture disc was. Somehow it just didn’t occur to me that Future would be a perfect film for this blog, where the whole idea is that I’m introducing him to movies of the past – particularly the age-appropriate ones – that he might enjoy.

Although, having said that, I think the MPAA standards have definitely changed since 1985. This film’s downright full of cussing, some of it hilarious, and there’s an attempted rape. It was a PG then, but I really doubt it would get one today.

Amusingly, introducing a kid to this film in the far-flung future of 2021 means that the popular culture of two different time periods will be unfamiliar. I did pause the movie at a couple of points, not to burden him too much with the trivia of yesteryear, but otherwise he might have missed some really good gags, like B-movie star Ronald Reagan, a man about whom no studio executive in 1955 ever offered greater enthusiasm than “he’ll do,” ending up president, and what Pepsi Free was, and how Hill Valley was just on the precipice of being ready for Chuck Berry, but not Eddie Van Halen.

While I admit Back to the Future‘s never been a film that I’ve really loved, I wouldn’t argue against it. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale really have a lot they can be proud of with this one. It was a movie beset with production problems – go read the story of Eric Stoltz’s involvement and how Michael J. Fox functioned on about three hours of sleep a night while they made it, it’s all amazing – but they set out to make a crowd-pleaser and really nailed it. It’s simple and easy to follow – call it the anti-Primer – and it’s full of great gags and extremely likable performances from Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson. Actually, Thompson gets one of the movie’s best and most understated gags: it’s always horrifying to learn that your parents were so much naughtier before you were born.

So how’d that discovery of the overpriced picture disc – $36!! – work out for the kid? He chuckled and laughed all the way through it, loving the chase around Hill Valley’s town square and cringing during the embarrassing bits, and said during the credits that he wants a Lego set of the DeLorean. Sadly, he’ll need a time machine himself to get one for a reasonable price. Lego put one out in 2014 and it can only be bought these days by other people with more dollars than sense – $282!! – but for our boy, wanting a Lego set of what he just watched is the highest accolade that a movie can receive.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

I suspect that the question “will there always be a Ghibli” keeps some people up at night. After all, Isao Takahata has passed away, and Miyazaki is working on what must surely be his final movie, unless of course he un-retires again after it so that some other people can make more documentaries about him. Hiromasa Yonebayashi must have once been seen as the hope of a new generation. 2010’s Secret World of Arrietty had been successful and promising, but then he went and co-founded another studio, called Ponoc, after his second Ghibli feature.

And what he took with him, I was disappointed to see, was basically a great big box of Ghibli tricks. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically what happens when you throw Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa in a blender and make the inside of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies look like Howl’s Moving Castle. When Mary tries mastering her broomstick, our son quietly said “This looks a lot like Kiki.” Visually, there’s not a single surprise in this movie, and the same goes for the script.

Ehhh, the kid was pleased. This is just a simple family adventure movie by the numbers, so just right for elementary and middle school-aged audiences. Strong teen girl protagonist, relative with a secret, magical world just on the other side of reality, danger that threatens our world, villains who talk too much, annoying boy who needs rescuing, merchandise-friendly animal familiar, you’ve seen it all before, although possibly not animated quite as well as this. It certainly looks like they spent millions on it to make it move and breathe with clarity, but the story’s so slight that I don’t imagine that our son will be in a big hurry to revisit it, or remember it very much down the line, when all the movies that are in this one’s DNA are crying out to be rewatched again instead.

On the other hand, I’ve got Howl’s Moving Castle on the calendar for the spring. Who knows, when we watch it, he may just quietly say “This looks a lot like Mary.”

The Trollenberg Terror (1958)

Times have certainly changed. The very beginning of the DVD presentation of this film is the BBFC card certifying that this movie, better known in the United States as The Crawling Eye, is not to be shown to an audience with anybody under the age of sixteen in it. Sixteen?! I first saw clips of this on some HBO special about sci-fi or monster movies when I was about our son’s age and could not freaking wait to see it. Later, its unconvincing icky-squicky monsters got it a brief revival moment in It Came From Hollywood – about which, stay tuned! – but when I finally landed a copy, when I was about, yes, sixteen, I realized this movie was all about everything except the icky-squicky monsters.

It really is a shame about the monsters. If they weren’t here, this film would probably have been forgotten. Instead, it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons. That’s why, when I gave our son a brief introduction, I glossed over the American title very quickly and moved right on. It’s a badly flawed film, but when it shines, it’s really creepy and really effective. Before the icky-squicky monsters decide to take matters into their own tentacles, they’re using clouds to decapitate people and frozen corpses to go after psychics with meat axes and knives. There are moments of this movie that are really skin-crawlingly gruesome and work tremendously well, and it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain it all the way through.

So The Trollenberg Terror started life as a six-part serial for British commercial television. So did another film, The Strange World of Planet X, made as a seven-parter for ATV, and The Creature, a one-off play for the BBC written by Nigel Kneale. All three of these productions, which I believe were all destroyed by the TV companies, were made into feature films in 1957-58, starring that fine actor Forrest Tucker, who was living and working in the UK and playing the American lead role so that movies made there would stand a better chance at landing American distribution. These three all got more lurid names in the States: Crawling Eye, Cosmic Monsters, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Interestingly, the film version of Trollenberg retained one member of the TV version’s cast, Laurence Payne, who plays a journalist who figures there’s a story in all these missing person reports coming out of Switzerland, and knows it must be true when a UN troubleshooter who had investigated a similar case in the Andes a couple of years before turns up. Several other familiar faces from the period are in the film, including Janet Munro, Colin Douglas, and Warren Mitchell, who seems to have employed a different European accent in everything I’ve ever seen him in.

The kid found this satisfyingly creepy, and gave a resounding noise of disgust and disapproval when the icky-squicky monster shows up, which I was glad to see. This is a very old-fashioned film in its pace and mood; Jimmy Sangster’s script has plenty of moments of shock and terror, but like quite a lot of fifties sci-fi horror, there are plenty more moments of people drinking like fish and smoking like chimneys while debating what to do next and demanding more proof before they can act. But he came through it just fine, and later in the evening discussed where the crawling eyes should end up in a “monsterpedia” that he’d like to see somebody write about movie monsters. There are probably many such books, although I fear the crawling eyes probably don’t command too many pages in them. Possibly an occasional footnote.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Around these parts, the late comic artist Dave Stevens is best remembered for two things. The one you can’t have known about was providing the cover of a notorious issue of Eclipse Comics’ DNAgents that featured the sexy female lead in her underwear posing like a classic pinup. I bought that issue when I was in high school, didn’t think twice about whether I might need to discreetly put the other three or four comics I bought on the top of the stack, and suffered the wrath of my outraged mother for the better part of a month after she saw it. Knowing a good thing, Eclipse issued the cover as a poster. I may have had a cheesecake photo or two on my wall as a teenager, but even I wasn’t so dumb as to buy that poster.

The other thing is, of course, creating the throwback superhero the Rocketeer, although he did surprisingly little with a character that ended up as the star of a big, fun, Disney adventure film. There’s honestly not a lot of Stevens Rocketeer work in print, which kind of reminds me of how very little Steve Ditko Hawk & Dove there is. Stevens created the project as a love letter to icons from his youth like the Rocket Men from Republic’s adventure serials, Rondo Hatton, Bettie Page. I gave our son a quick visual rundown of the three last night, selecting a nice, tame picture of Bettie, nothing as envelope-pushing as that DNAgents cover, and he went to bed very, very skeptical about this movie.

So of course he enjoyed the heck out of it once it got going. It’s a very good adventure film full of explosions, stunts, and gunfights. It was directed by Joe Johnston, a director whose work I really enjoy, and he brought some terrific performances and energy to a really fine and tight script. I think the only flaw in the film is that it needs an establishing shot of the Hollywoodland sign early on, before the last four letters get abruptly blown up in the end. It stars Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly as the leads, with Timothy Dalton as the villain, and a powerhouse assortment of great character actors from the period, including Alan Arkin, Eddie Jones, Terry O’Quinn, Jon Polito, and Paul Sorvino, backing them.

It’s surprising that a film this good was made in the era it was. Thirty years ago, movies based on comic books were uncommon and largely awful, and the Rocketeer was hardly a household name. He – I mean she – may become one before much longer, though. One of the Disney channels has a new cartoon starring Cliff Secord’s great granddaughter as the modern Rocketeer. She could be the next Doc McStuffins! But I like the low-tech and throwback charm of this movie, with G-men and gangsters and Nazi saboteurs and Hollywood royalty and restaurants in buildings that look like bulldogs. It’s even got Howard Hughes in it! I’ve explained the Howard Hughes analogues that we’ve seen in this blog to our son before, in episodes of The Bionic Woman and The Ghosts of Motley Hall, but this is the first time the actual historical figure is a character in the narrative!

I paused the movie early on to make a point with our son. He was rewatching 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters last night, and we talked about how I’m just not as wowed by modern special effects as what they did in older movies. There are certainly some very interesting shots and compositions in the monster movie – Ghidrah’s reveal is breathtaking, and better than his introduction in any classic Toho film – but when everything amazing is done on computers, there’s less of a wow factor for me. There’s a bit early on in The Rocketeer when Cliff lands a tiny one-seater plane without landing gear, on fire, on a dirt track runway. I am more impressed with what the special effects team and stuntmen accomplished under the hot California sun that afternoon than I am anything in any modern Godzilla movie. I hope one day he’ll agree.

I do have a couple of minor complaints about the product we watched. I picked up the DVD from the era when they were advertising DisneyMovieRewards.com on everything, and firstly, the transfer is downright godawful, very soft and artifacty. And it doesn’t have a very, very good 40-second teaser trailer that you used to see, with the letters in “rocketeer” punctuating some very quick cuts of the action; it has one of those “spoil everything” trailers, for a film you now need not see. I’m tempted to upgrade this to a better Blu-ray edition. It’s a good film that deserves a good home media experience.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

I’m wouldn’t call myself a Tim Burton fan. He’s made four films that I enjoy – all of which star Johnny Depp – and many more that I didn’t like at all, and three of the ones I liked have music that drives me completely nuts and takes me out of the experience. You have no idea how much I wish that somebody, anybody, would’ve told Danny Elfman to stick with Oingo Boingo and stay out of movie theaters. My favorite Burton film? Ed Wood, by a mile. Elfman didn’t score it.

So with the caveat that the music is so intrusive that it absolutely spoils several scenes for me, Edward Scissorhands is a charming and occasionally lovely fantasy in a pastel suburb. All of the adults are in some completely different world divorced from reality – I love how at least three of them “know a doctor” who might can help Edward but never seem to phone him – while the teenagers seem to have wandered from our world onto a film set they can’t escape.

I don’t say this next bit to dismiss the script or acting at all, because it’s wonderful, but this film is triumphant with me because of its absolutely impeccable design. It was made in a real place, albeit one whose residents agreed to have all of their homes painted one of four pastel colors, and shot in a real location – Lakeland’s Southgate Shopping Center still looks exactly like that, Publix and all – but it’s unreal nevertheless, populated impeccably by pristeenly-painted, nondescript, and horribly ugly Dusters and similar heaps from the 1970s. The homes, completely free from clutter, are all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same, inside and out, with empty spaces that are so large that they swallow the actors. This is a film where a cul-de-sac ends with the entrance to an abandoned, decrepit, “haunted” castle-mansion on a mountain, and it’s the homes below it that are the scary places.

Johnny Depp was then the teen heartthrob who people watched on TV’s 21 Jump Street while ignoring the plots, and Winona Ryder was omnipresent at the time (no, I don’t like Beetlejuice), and this weird and delightful film surrounded them with a perfect supporting cast. It’s such a neat, strange trick: the fantasy world of this neighborhood and its local TV show is so big that the main characters feel small inside it. They’re trapped by suburbia; Dianne Wiest, Alan Arkin, and Kathy Bates just naturally dominate their fantasy world while the audience’s eyes try to focus on Depp and Ryder.

About the only time that Depp starts to dominate the picture is during the scene that my son and I loved the most. While carving up some topiary, Edward notices a small dog badly in need of grooming. I don’t think Tim Burton’s ever done better. Most directors don’t. Every shot, every reaction, the place where it’s staged, the timing, the reveal, everything is just howl-inducing, and it builds effortlessly to the next shot of the neighborhood full of housewives with puppies in line for their own grooming.

As I occasionally do, I kept the reveal of the character’s look a complete surprise to our son, and deflected his question – “he has scissors for hands?” – by telling him a great big lie. “You mustn’t trust the names people give their neighbors. It’s about a young man who’s extremely good with trimming shrubbery.” And as I occasionally do in this blog, yet again, I bemoaned the kid’s inability to recognize actors. Earlier this week, before I put it in storage for his future, we dusted off War Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea for another viewing, and the dratted kid still didn’t recognize Vincent Price, who has a small role as Edward’s inventor. This was Price’s last appearance in a major film, and even though it’s a small part, he’s completely terrific.

It’s a very good film. I don’t revisit it as often as I should. I’ll show the kid another Burton/Depp movie, Sleepy Hollow, around next Halloween.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

This morning, we sat down to enjoy the funny and very entertaining film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s flawed, but I’ve always liked it very much. It’s true that it occasionally feels like the work of a talented repertory company doing a speed-read of the original, but I was still impressed by just how much of the original that they kept in, even when it wasn’t necessary. I mean, if you’re going for a lean and compact 100-odd minute movie, then the sperm whale bit is really not needed. But since Hitchhiker’s Guide was never meant to be a 100-minute movie, it was always going to feel a little odd, no matter what they included or chopped out.

I try to believe in judging things on their own merits, rather than against what came before. With that in mind, I’m perfectly pleased with what Hitchhiker’s Guide accomplishes. I think Ford Prefect is badly underwritten, and that’s the movie’s biggest mistake. Everything else is charming and fun, just a bit rushed.

So this time out, Arthur Dent is played by Martin Freeman (fourth billed!), with Mos Def as Ford, Sam Rockwell as Zaphod, and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian. Guest voices are provided by Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, and Helen Mirren, and Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. The story is largely much the same as episodes 1-4 of the TV series, and most of the first book, with a radically different ending, two huge detours, a lot more Vogons, and a gigantic change that actually makes a huge amount of sense: the order to demolish the Earth was signed off by Zaphod, who, idiotically, thought somebody was asking for his autograph. It helps get Arthur and Trillian together a whole lot faster, for those of you hoping Earth’s last survivors would become a couple.

The movie kind of signaled the beginning of Zooey Deschanel’s Imperial phase, where she spent the mid-2000s as the It Girl of pretty much everything I was interested in. The records she did with M. Ward as She & Him were everywhere, and she was on TV in Tin Man and breaking my heart in (500) Days of Summer. I didn’t watch everything she did, but I adored what I had a chance to see, and she’s perfect as Trillian.

She’s so perfect that the rescue scene makes all kinds of sense, while I think that if the TV Trillian were to get abducted by Vogons, I’d just shrug a little. This leads to the movie’s greatest moment: the Vogon planet’s defense system, keeping anybody on the surface from having any kind of original thought. Our son liked the film very much, but he and I howled the loudest here. The Vogons are particularly amusing. Their design is terrific and I think there’s a little sensible magic in making the guard’s “Resistance is useless!” such a dull afterthought of a catchphrase. They’re bad-tempered but really lazy, after all.

Hitchhiker’s Guide was one of those unfortunate movies that made a little money, but not enough to justify a sequel. It’s a shame this team couldn’t have taken the story to Milliways and places further on. Maybe we’d have got the Krikkitmen and Fenchurch and the Grebulons… well, probably not Fenchurch. It’s a funny, clever movie with some great visuals, “Journey of the Sorcerer,” John Malkovich, the original BBC Marvin costume, and the beautiful sight of all those bad-tempered and lazy Vogons all becoming incredibly depressed as well.

Plus, now that we’ve seen this movie, Marie can go ahead and read Life, the Universe, and Everything to our son. Just as soon as she finishes the Target novelization of “The Wheel in Space,” anyway.

Arcadia of My Youth (1982)

Last summer, we sat down to watch Horus, Prince of the Sun and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my old pal Mike Toole had done a commentary track for Discotek’s release, so I got to pop back and watch it again the following week to hear that. This morning, I learned that Mike’s also got a commentary track on 1982’s Arcadia of My Youth, which I haven’t seen in about thirty years. Reckon I’ll be watching it again next week!

We used to call the movie My Youth in Arcadia. It’s the origin story of Captain Harlock, a space pirate who gives no quarter to Earth’s enemies and who occasionally appears in TV series and makes cameo appearances in other series created by Leiji Matsumoto. It’s one of those movies that I used to enjoy very much and watched a dozen or so times in three or four years and then didn’t need to see it again for decades, until I had a kid who needs space battleship action.

Whatever you call it, it’s a very, very good film, albeit one I’ve always felt is simultaneously a little long while also calling out for a little more space and explanations. It was directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, who did a lot of animated films and TV series for Toei in the period, and the earthbound material in the first half has a weird pace to me; it seems like far too much happens offscreen in what is depicted as only minutes between incidents. Throughout, there’s the recurring theme of a pirate radio broadcaster, the Voice of Free Arcadia, giving hope to the people of Earth as the population suffers under alien occupation.

Fortunately, the main villain is one of those awesome baddies who believes very strongly in honor. As Harlock and his allies start working together and gathering strength, he gives him enough rope to lead to a really brilliant climax. And along the way, there are massive casualties among the supporting cast and grievous wounds to carry. Like many other Matsumoto stories, this is very much science fantasy and magic despite all the hardware and tech. At one point, the last survivors of a dead race sacrifice themselves to a fiery space witch that pulls down the life essence of travelers in her sector of the cosmos, which doesn’t make much sense, but gives the story grim purpose.

The kid was restless in places, but once Harlock, Tochiro, and their allies leave Earth in their big green flying battleship, he was on the edge of his seat, and that brilliant conclusion I mentioned had him wide-eyed and laughing in excitement. I told him this movie would have space battleships blowing everything up and it delivers. I love how the spaceships of the 30th Century are designed with windows for the captains to salute each other before pivoting around for broadsides.

Anyway, the kid had a complete ball and was swept away in the end. Just as casual as you like, I pointed out that they made a follow-up 22-episode TV series with the characters, and he wants me to order that as well. This darn blog’s gonna break me, I tell you.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

I confess that I was not at all certain how well Fantastic Voyage would go over with our son. Like the last film that we watched together, Planet of the Apes, it was a big favorite of my father. But Apes went down like a lead balloon, and the kid is hungrier for faster-paced adventures than the often slow spectacles of older science fiction.

(Dad was also a big fan of One Million Years B.C., which we’re going to watch in 2021. The presence of Raquel Welch in two of Dad’s favorite sixties films is probably not a coincidence.)

The other concern is that Fantastic Voyage is a story about shrinking people and injecting them into the bloodstream of a patient to operate on a blood clot in his brain. That was probably a remarkably outrĂ© concept for mainstream audiences in 1966, but it’s old hat now in a world where Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly star in billion dollar Marvel movies. Plus, the visual effects that a viewer in the present day can expect are a bit more sophisticated than lava lamps and bouncy-house sets.

But boy howdy, it worked. This is a fine, fine film, and our son was completely captivated and excited throughout. He enjoyed it tremendously, thank goodness. He got a little squirmy about halfway through, but that’s mainly because he was worried about the characters.

The visuals really feel only a little dated to me. As for how the rest of it has aged, there’s the expected “this is too dangerous for a woman” – slash – “what’s a nice girl like you doing on a mission like this” business you got in sixties cinema, and it does take what feels like forever to get moving. That said, I confess that a mischievous part of me wonders whether this might not have been a little bit intentional. This was 1966, after all. Drop a tab of LSD when the Coming Attraction trailers start, and, assuming you got a good dose, that stuff’d kick in right around the 39 minute mark, when it all goes psychedelic.

But I think it worked well with a kid from the modern day because even though the Quantum Realm and whatever else that Ant-Man and the Wasp do has its own specific look and feel, nothing looks like Fantastic Voyage. This is an incredibly imaginative movie full of wild designs, and just because special effects wizards do things differently these days, what 20th Century Fox did in 1966 still looks amazing. Add in some remarkable sets for the “real” world and the whole shebang just glows with all the effort put into it. The control center is a jawdropping multi-tiered set with the submarine hangar on one side, an operating theater on the other, and the room where all the generals and majors bark their orders above and between them. And I was so convinced by the crazy corridors of the headquarters that it honestly took me several minutes to realize they filmed it on location in a stadium somewhere. (It was the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the original home of the Lakers when they moved to California.)

As for the plot, it might start out slowly, but it’s an interesting bit of Cold War paranoia, with a dirty commie saboteur somewhere around, and lots of men speaking urgently to each other across black and white monitors. Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasance are among the team whose submarine “is riding through somebody’s brain,” as Dar Williams once sang. The script may have had conventional roles for all the characters, but the acting is top-notch and the visuals are terrific. It’s done with an almost real-time urgency and an escalating series of unexpected obstacles.

I am very, very glad our son enjoyed this more than he did Apes. I did as well!