The Mouse and His Child (1977)

Regular readers should know that we typically don’t watch bootleg films and TV shows for the blog. Trying to set a good example and all. But The Mouse and His Child has never been released in English on DVD, and I remember enjoying it as a kid, when HBO showed it frequently. There are bootlegs floating around with that omnipresent rainbow at the top of the screen that you’d get from VHS tapes, and this morning, I broke the rules and we watched it.

The movie was made in California by Murakami-Wolf Productions, the team behind many very forgettable 1970s TV specials, with some level of production or financial assistance from Japan’s Sanrio and, hidden right on the very last screen of credits at the end of the movie, Charles Schulz. I wonder what he brought to the table. Peter Ustinov voiced the villainous Manny the Rat, and Cloris Leachman and John Carradine joined him in the studio. It got a theatrical release in this country and was an HBO regular for most of a year. There were two VHS releases, but it’s been largely unavailable in English since the early nineties.

It’s actually a very strange film, defying a few of my expectations along the way. It’s sort of a proto-Toy Story, where tin toys come to life when nobody is looking. The protagonists are, interestingly, completely helpless without assistance. The Mouse and his Child are tin toys joined at the hands and they require somebody to wind them up in order to move anywhere.

Other than an eardrum-disintegrating song warbled by a little boy that tops and tails the movie, it’s pretty good. Our son enjoyed it, guffawing at some of the slapstick and curious what would happen next. I was intrigued by the filthy world of the story. It’s set in a city dump and the neighboring creek and pond, which are practically buried in trash and garbage that the animals have scavenged. The villain is a rat who uses wind-up toys to bring trash back into the dump for him to nebulously build some sort of empire. When the Mouse and his Child escape, thanks to a fatal mistake by one of his underlings, the villain becomes unreasonably obsessed with recapturing them.

I liked that there’s a level of danger in this film. One of the captive wind-ups is dismantled for scrap early on, and the henchrat I mentioned gets gobbled by a badger. The villain’s fate is prophesied, and so you’ll spend the entire movie waiting for a junkyard dog to show up and do him in. I was pleased that while the prophecy does come true, a dog does rise and a rat does fall, it doesn’t quite mean what we expect. There’s also one remarkably grisly moment when the villain loses his temper and the camera doesn’t show what he’s doing, but focuses on the bad guy as he realises that he has gone too far.

You’ll notice I’ve written more about the villain than the protagonists. That’s probably because the Mouse and his Child are so helpless and swept along by “destiny,” physically moved from location to location by other characters. They have an objective – the Child wants two other wind-ups to become his mother and his sister and his dad just agrees – but they’re largely incapable of doing anything about it until the final reel. Of course, that’s also because when you put Peter Ustinov in the recording booth, you were largely giving him carte blanche to steal the show. So sure, it’s a flawed film, but a pretty good one, and now that I’ve watched it again, I can place the odd little fragment of memory of somebody in some forgotten movie yelling “Treacle brittle!” into its correct context.

The Night Strangler (1973)

The second of ABC’s two TV movies about Carl Kolchak seems to suffer by comparison to the original in the public mind, but it’s still a truly fine and creepy movie. Our son certainly suffered. He was so strung out by the murders in Seattle that when I quietly pointed out that one actress was the Wicked Witch of the West, even that set him behind the sofa.

The Night Strangler reunited Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland with writer Richard Matheson and producer Dan Curtis, who directed this time out, in a story about another series of killings. These strangulations – six of them – happen over an 18-day range every 21 years. Time is ticking. If the murderer isn’t found, he’ll vanish without trace until 1994.

As much as I love the original Night Stalker, I think this movie is almost as good. True, some of the set pieces are very familiar. There’s a repetition, not just of tone, but of incidents. But the setting is delightfully unusual, which gives the movie a really interesting angle. Television just didn’t go to Seattle in the 1970s, and so the story finds a reason for Kolchak to ride the monorail, and to take his girlfriend-of-the-story to lunch at the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle.

But the draw is the Seattle Underground, which had just opened to the public a couple of years before this was filmed. The historian who started the tour and led the public fight to get the old streets opened again, Bill Speidel, even gets a cameo to talk about it before Kolchak joins a tour. I don’t know about you, but I can just imagine Curtis or Matheson reading a newspaper story about how all these eighty year-old boarded-up storefronts and muddy cobblestone streets had been unearthed and thinking what an amazing place that would be for some supernatural killer to hide out.

The film clearly takes some liberties with just how much old Seattle might be underneath Pioneer Square – a little visual effects trickery around a heck of a good set makes the final confrontation look more like Judge Dredd’s Undercity than what tourists will really find – but I love the symmetry between Kolchak’s long, edge-of-your-seat look through a boarded-up house in the first movie and the just-as-long, just-as-tense search through a boarded-up city block, complete with skeletons posed around a dinner table and cobwebs everywhere. Nightmare fuel.

Anyway, joining Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland for this adventure are Richard Anderson as the mysterious killer, along with the aforementioned Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, and John Carradine, Wally Cox, Al Lewis, and Jo Ann Pflug. Sadly, Pflug wasn’t asked back when the weekly series started about a year and a half later, although she is last seen joining our fired heroes on a cross-country drive to New York to start fresh. Kolchak and Vincenzo would be setting up shop in Chicago, and when I told our son that we’ll be watching that show next month, he winced, grimaced, and gulped. He said that this story wasn’t so much “scary” as it was “insane.” I wished him pleasant dreams.

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.