Saturday, July 24, 2021

Family Fun Saturday - The Happiest Millionaire

Disney, 1967
Starring Fred MacMurray, Leslie Ann Warren, John Davidson, and Tommy Steele
Directed by Norman Tokar
Music and Lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman

This started life as a non-musical play in 1956, based after the autobiography My Philadelphia Father by the real Cordelia Biddle. Disney bought it in the early 60's, but had no intention of adding songs until the success of his own Mary Poppins in 1964 and The Sound of Music a year later made epic family musicals all the rage. How does this more domestic tale fare? Let's start in Philadelphia as Irish immigrant John Lawless (Steele) searches for employment in 1916 and find out...

The Story: Lawless takes the job as butler to the wealthy but eccentric Biddles. Patriarch Anthony Drexel Biddle (MacMurray) runs his own boxing and bible class in the stable, keeps pet alligators in the conservatory, and is a major advocate for the US entering World War I. His daughter Cordelia Biddle (Warren) was educated and raised at home, but is tired of being a tomboy and knowing about nothing but boxing, bibles, and alligators. She and her stuffy Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper) convinces Biddle that she'd be better off at a girl's boarding school. 

While at a school dance, she falls for handsome Angier Buchanon Duke (Davidson). Angie wants nothing more than to get involved in designing cars in Detroit, but their parents would rather turn their wedding into the social event of the season. When Angie gets fed up and walks out, John takes it on himself to make sure the couple comes together, and their parents understand how important it is for the younger generation to follow their own dreams.

The Song and Dance: Definitely one of the stranger Disney live-action musicals. It's more like a long sitcom set in the early 20th century than a typical musical. Warren and Davidsonmake a charming couple, especially while riding in his shiny new automobile mid-way through. Steele's a lot easier to take as a robust Irish servant than he was as a leprechaun in Finian's Rainbow a year later. He has some nice bits in the beginning and end of the film, especially his dealing with the alligators and his speeches directly to the camera. (Look for the sequence where Biddle catches his fourth-wall-breaking and has no idea what's going on.) 

Favorite Number: We kick off with John Lawless explaining why "Fortuosity" brought him to Philadelphia and the Biddles, in a jaunty number he reprises several times. Cordy admits her confusion about whether she prefers "Valentine Candy" or boxing and bibles. John tells the Biddles and cook Mrs. Worth (Hermoine Badderly) why "I'll Always Be Irish" and still appreciate his new home country as he teaches the trio a delightful jig. Cordy's roommate at school (Joyce Bulifant) claims that the dashing Vamp number "Bye Yum Pum Pum" is all the rage. 

"Are We Dancing?" is Cordy and Ange's big duet at the dance, as they waltz on the patio and fall in love. "There are Those" claims Aunt Mary and Angie's snobbish southern belle mother (Geraldine Page) as they priggishly compare Philadelphia and New York society. "Let's Take a Drink on It" John tells Angie as his attempts to keep him drinking at a local bar turns into a huge barroom dance number, and then into a brawl.

Trivia: Leslie Ann Warren's film debut. 

The last live-action film Walt Disney personally oversaw. He died shortly after the first cut was completed.

What I Don't Like: This little father-daughter story was never meant to be a big epic musical. Cordy has two brothers who sing to her beau early-on about how she's punched other boys who took her out to scare him off. They do their number and are never heard from again. Likewise, Cordy's pal Rosemary teaches her "Bye Yum Pum Pum" and vanishes after the school dance. They should have focused on Biddle and his odd ideas or Cordy and her romance, not both. There's no real conflict or challenges until mid-way through, and most of them, like Cordy going to school, are settled much too quickly. 

The Big Finale: Too long and unfocused to be for anyone but the most ardent Disney, Steele, or Sherman Brothers enthusiasts. Look up some of the better songs and skip the rest. 

Home Media: Easily available on DVD and streaming; it debuted on Disney Plus last month. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Warner Bros, 1943
Starring Dennis Morgan, Eddie Cantor, Joan Leslie, and SZ Sakall
Directed by David Butler
Music by Arthur Schwartz; Lyrics by Frank Loesseur

This was the first Warners contribution to the "all-star musical semi-revue" genre. We've already seen their second, Hollywood Canteen, but this one gets away from the servicemen to focus on the studio and its star roster. In the 30's and 40's, Warners specialized in action and adventures, thrillers, gangster films, and the occasional wise-guy comedy. Busby Berkeley moved to MGM in 1939...and his kaleidoscopic fever dreams gave way to more typical backstage shenanigans, without the major talent of musicals at other studios of the time. How did Warners get around this? By bringing in their dramatic stars as well. Let's start with Dinah Shore on the real-life Eddie Cantor radio show to see how well they did with integrating their tough guys and gals into a patriotic revue...

The Story: Theater producers Dr. Schlenna (Sakall) and Mr. Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) want Dinah Shore to appear in their big theater revue for the troops, but she's under contract to Eddie Cantor and he won't let her appear without him. Cantor, however, has a reputation for taking over any production he appears in...and proceeds to do just that, shutting out the producers and drilling everyone until they're ready to throttle him. 

Meanwhile, aspiring songwriter Pat Dixon (Leslie) falls in with singer Tommy Randolph (Morgan) and dramatic actor Joe Simpson (Cantor). Simpson is a dead ringer for Cantor and can't get an acting job because everyone expects comedy from him. Randolph wants to be on Cantor's show, and then in the revue, but Cantor's beefy flunky Olaf (Mike Mazurki) throws him out. Pat finally comes up with the idea to replace Cantor with Joe and allow the show to go on, with a vast array of Warners stars.

The Song and Dance: Warners keeps surprising me with their musicals of late. This one was a lot cuter and funnier than I expected.Warners has a field day making fun of Cantor's image as a hilarious and yet hard-nosed and egotistical ham. He has a great sequence in a sanitarium when they nearly remove part of his brain. Leslie and Morgan also have a lot of fun as the duo who do most of the scheming...and I appreciate that Pat comes up with most of the schemes and it's the guys following her wild ideas, rather than the other way around. 

I also like how Warners gets around most of their star roster not being musically inclined and find ways for them to stay in character and appear in the show. Errol Flynn and Bette Davis are the winners here, but Humphrey Bogart gets a great bit where Sakall manages to intimidate him. 

Favorite Number: John Garfield spoofs his image as the resident Warners young and tragic hoodlum with his attempted rendition of "Blues In the Night." Cantor tells his unimpressed staff and the producers how "We're Staying Home Tonight" with his baby due to wartime restrictions. Comic orchestra Spike Jones and His City Slickers liven up Gower Gulch with the wacky "Ridin' For a Fall." Alan Hale Sr. and Jack Carson are vaudevillians who claim "I'm Goin' North," no matter how bad the weather is. We hear "The Dreamer" twice, first with Shore as a farm girl lamenting she's missing her sweetheart, later from George Tobias with Olivia DeHaviland and Ida Lupino dressed as 40's hipsters in striped swingy dresses and a scaled-down zoot suit. Leslie and Morgan get an entire restaurant to understand why there's "No You, No Me." Hattie McDaniel and a host of chic Harlem residents encourage "Ice Cold Katie" to marry the handsome soldier courting her in another big number.

Ironically, the biggest hits came from the stars with no musical talent at all. Errol Flynn sings pretty well and sounds like he's having the time of his life telling a pack of Brits in a pub "That's What You Jolly Well Get" when you've lead a life of wild adventure like he has. The standard here is "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old," performed by, of all people, Bette Davis as a woman who is very tired of men her age having gone off to war. Davis basically talks through the number, but the song is so good and the boys and old guys she dances with are so funny, it hardly matters.

What I Don't Like: For most people nowadays, Eddie Cantor is an acquired taste at best...and there's a lot of him in this movie. If you don't like him or his style of manic slapstick, you probably won't enjoy this. Also, while the plot is less overtly patriotic and goofier than Hollywood Canteen or This Is the Army, it's still pretty thin. We never even get to hear the sentimental ballad Pat's trying so hard to push to the studios in the early part of the movie. Some folks might be more offended by the Native Americans who grab the real Cantor to get him out of the show mid-way through, but like everything else, they're played for comedy and acknowledge the stereotypes. 

The Big Finale: This is probably my favorite of the three movies on that Warners Homefront Collection DVD set. Hilarious and filled with unique performances you won't see anywhere else, this is recommended for major fans of Cantor, World War II, or 40's musicals.

Home Media: Currently disc-only; the Blu-Ray is from the Warners Archive. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Orchestra Wives

20th Century Fox, 1942
Starring George Montgomery, Ann Rutherford, Lynn Bari, and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Directed by Archie Mayo
Music by Mack Gordon; Lyrics by Harry Warren

Big Band music reached its zenith during the late 30's and 40's, when bands like Glenn Miller's and Benny Goodman's toured the country. Their albums sold in the millions; their dance concerts raked in big bucks and lifted spirits during some of the most difficult times in the mid-20th century. Leaders of major orchestras were celebrities in their own rights, appearing on film and in their own radio shows. Most big band orchestras tended to be limited to specialties in bigger musicals, or heading fluffy B pictures. This is a rare A movie where the big band is front and center. How does this look at the world of one woman who marries a musician in a popular orchestra look nowadays? Let's start in New York, as Gene Morrison (Miller) and his boys rehearse "Chattanooga Choo Choo," and find out...

The Story: Connie Ward (Rutherford) is a huge fan of Gene Morrison and His Orchestra. Her boyfriend (Harry Morgan) takes her to a concert, and she's in seventh heaven when skirt-chasing trumpet player Bill Abbott (Montgomery) flirts with her. After a second concert, they jump into a hasty marriage before he has to go on tour with the band. The other wives traveling with them do their best to make life difficult for the newcomer, throwing out catty gossip about Bill chasing women. 

When she catches Bill with singer Jaymie Stevens (Lynn Bari), she finally leaves him and tell the other women flat-out that they're being obnoxious. That, however, makes the other band members realize they're neglecting their women, and the band splits. It's up to Connie, Gene, and pianist St. John (Caesar Romero) to reunite the group and patch up hurt feelings.

The Song and Dance: This is an unusual movie in many respects. Musical dramas were extremely rare in the early days of World War II. Though stage shows started to experiment at this point, most film musicals were made to be escapist fluff. This one has a bit more bite in it. It's more interesting during the second half, when we see the band travel and perform and get to hear some terrific numbers, including the Oscar-nominated smash "I've Got a Gal In Kalamazoo." Montgomery and Rutherford aren't bad as the slick musician and the small-town girl who jump into marriage without considering the ramifications or responsibilities. Carole Landis is another stand-out as the nastiest of the wives, while Lynn Bari is appropriately snarky and slinky as the band's glamorous singer. 

Favorite Number: Along with "Kalamazoo," the big hit here was the ballad "At Last," which is sung by Ray Eberele and Pat Friday (dubbing Lynn Bari) during the second concert. Though better-known for soul singer Etta James' rendition twenty years later, this one is a little faster (to the point where you don't catch all the lyrics), but still lovely. Friday also gets the other major ballad "Serenade In Blue" towards the end, when Connie and Bill are having problems. 

Of course, the smash was "I've Got a Gal In Kalamazoo." It became one of Miller's most popular songs, and it gets a routine worthy of it, too. After Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, and the Modernaires give the song an enjoyably relaxed work-out, the Nicholas Brothers tap up a storm with an incredible dance routine full of their trademark splits and fast footwork.

Trivia: In addition to Bari being dubbed, actual Glenn Miller trumpeter Johnny Best did Montgomery's playing, and pianist Crummy McGregor dubbed Romero. 

Film debut of later cowgirl Dale Evans as one of Connie's buddies. Look for a young Jackie Gleason as another member of the orchestra. 

"At Last" was recorded for Sun Valley Serenade, but held over for this movie. 

"Kalamazoo" was nominated for an Oscar. 

What I Don't Like: As much as I commend 20th Century Fox for trying something different, the story is bogged down by annoying and overwrought melodrama. It get so ridiculous that when Connie laughs bitterly at the other wives fighting each other after they're told their husbands are straying, too, you have to laugh right along with her. The whole plot with the band breaking up just because their wives whined about them leaving home is too much.

This is also pretty small-scale for a musical of this time period, and in black and white to boot. Obviously, this isn't for someone looking for a bright, fluffy romance or a bigger, bolder show. 

The Big Finale: Fans of Miller, big band music, the Nicholas Brothers, or the cast will want to hit the road and take a look around for this one.

Home Media: Alas, out of print and expensive on DVD. You may be better off looking for this one used or catching it in an occasional appearance on TCM.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Animation Celebration Saturday - Animalympics

Listberger Studios/NBC, 1980
Voices of Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, and Michael Fremer
Directed by Steven Listberger
Music and Lyrics by Graham Gouldman

This rare film had a long and convoluted road to the big screen. Listberger first came up with the idea in 1976 after being inspired by the hype surrounding the Olympic Games that year. He initially made a seven-minute short; after that went over well, NBC asked him to expand it into two half-hour specials for the 1980 Olympics. The Winter Olympics segment aired as planned, but the Summer special ended up scrapped when the US boycotted the Summer Games from Moscow. Still hoping to get more of an audience for the segments, he finally edited the two parts together to make this film. How does this spoof of Olympic glory and sports celebrity look today? To answer that question, we follow four animal athletes bearing the torch to the lost island of Atlantis to watch the games begin. 

The Story: It's guts, glory, and flying fur as sports network ZOO brings us coverage of the first ever Animalympics. This mélange of winter and summer sports showcases some truly bizarre athletes from every continent in the world and "Eurasia" (aka Russia). Between events ranging from soccer to volleyball to figure skating and weightlifting, we mainly focus on three "main" stories that carry throughout the film:

African lioness Kit Mambo and European goat Rene Fromage are the favorites to win the marathon. They're neck and neck for almost the entire race...but no one knows what to do when they fall in love...

European Weiner dog skiing star Kurt Wuffner wins the slalom event, only to vanish mysteriously in the mountains before the big downhill event. 

American alligator high-jumper and sprinter Bolt Jenkins literally clawed his way out of the New York sewers to become a major track star. He reveals a keen sense of fair play as well when he protests the results of the 100 Yard Dash.

The Animation: Surprisingly good for an independent animated film originally intended to be two TV specials. Listberger went on to do the groundbreaking computer animation for the first Tron film; it shows in the incredible opening logo, with its satellites and muscular man who somewhat resembles Tron himself. There's a few too many static shots of non-moving artwork for their own good, but they make up for that with some wonderful work on the designs of the animals. You have no trouble telling what each critter is supposed to be and how they manage to play their respective sport. The movement in particular is quite well done.

The Song and Dance: I've loved this film since I saw it during frequent runs on HBO and Showtime in the mid-late 80's. The real highlight is the hilariously satirical script, played to the hilt by four talented comedians and voice actors. Each animal has such a distinct voice and character, you'd never realize the cast is so small if you didn't read the credits. Everything is true-to-life of sports broadcasts in the early 80's, from the flashy early CGI titles announcing each event to the puff-piece interviews to the dead-on spoofs of sports celebrities, endorsements, and rivalries (some of which exist to this day). Gouldman provided a memorable soundtrack, too, one that's lingered in my mind for years afterwards.

Favorite Number: "Born to Lose" is Bolt's number, showing how he went from a poor sewer dweller destined to be a hand bag to a beloved track star. "We've Made It to the Top" is the montage mid-way through depicting fierce competition in many smaller track events (along with cycling and an especially violent field hockey game). "Go For It," the disco dance routine at the Ark nightclub, spoofs Saturday Night Fever and other disco movies by showing the animals we've seen to this point happily carousing and letting off steam. 

"Away From It All" is the gorgeous ballad performed over the sequence that depicts what happened to Kurt Wuffner after he vanished, and how he loved and lost the female dog of his dreams. "Underwater Fantasy" gets more than a little surreal as we see what happens when Dean Wilson dives and really goes "into his own world." Kit and Rene have two ballads showing Rene's initial resistance to love, and their eventual coming together, "Love's Not For Me" and "With You I Could Run Forever." 

Trivia: Though the movie was shown theatrically in Europe and elsewhere, it went straight to cable in the US in 1984. It proved so popular in its frequent airings on HBO, Showtime, and later The Disney Channel, it's now considered a cult classic. 

Many of the animators involved in this film went on to far bigger projects in the 90's and 2000's. Brad Bird became a frequent Pixar director, including on The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and Roger Ailliers was one of the directors on The Lion King

Dean Wilson was named for surf rock musicians Jan Dean and Brian Wilson. 

What I Don't Like: The episodic structure makes it pretty obvious this wasn't originally intended to be a feature-length film. The movie lurches from sport to sport and from segment to segment with no rhyme or reason. Those frequent static pictures also reminds us that, while relatively high-budget for something initially made for TV, this is still lower-budget than the offerings from Disney or Don Bluth later in the decade. There's also a surprising amount of mature material and gags, from some of the hook-ups at the disco to Dean Wilson's assessment that Kit and Rene are going to go "all the way," along with several weight and stereotypes jokes that may not sit well with some folks today. 

The Big Finale: If you're a fan of the real-life Olympics, animation from the 80's and 90's, or other animated animal tales like Zootopia, you'll want to sprint to Animalympics Island and track this one down.

Home Media: It finally came out on DVD in the US in 2018 and can be found easily on streaming as well.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Blue Hawaii

Paramount, 1961
Starring Elvis Presley, Joan Blackman, Angela Lansbury, and Nancy Walters
Directed by Norman Taurog
Music and Lyrics by various

Vegas wasn't the only exotic vacation spot Elvis visited in his 50's and 60's vehicles. Hawaii and Hawaiian culture became a cornerstone of all things fashionable in the mid-20th century, especially after Hawaii was ratified as the 50th state. Tiki bars like Don the Beachcomber's and companies specializing in Hawaiian luaus and tropical parties sprouted across the country. Suburbanites bought rattan furniture, ship's wheels, and massive overhanging potted palms and dreamed of living in their own warm sunny paradise. TV shows like Hawaii 5-0 and movies like this one gave those who couldn't afford the cross-country trip a glimpse of tropical paradise. How does Elvis' first Hawaiian movie look nowadays? Let's start at the Honolulu International Airport as Chad Gates returns home from the Army and find out...

The Story: Chad is glad to be back in Hawaii, surfing with his friends and spending time with his girl Maile (Blackman).  His father Fred Gates (Roland Winters) and flighty southern belle mother Sarah Lee (Landsbury) wish he'd take over the family's Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company, but he has no interest in following in his father's footsteps. He takes a job as a tour guide for the agency where Maile works. 

His first assignment is to squire teacher Abigail Prentice (Walters) and her five teenage girl charges around the islands. Abigail and her girls are utterly thrilled by the luaus and pineapple picking, except for bored and spoiled Ellie (Jenny Maxwell). She throws herself at a tourist during a luau. After Chad moves in to defend her, the ensuing riot costs him his job. His parents still want him to return, but he wants to find independence. Abigail and her students may have the answer. With the help of Fred Gates' more laid-back business buddy Jack (John Archer), they finally find a way for Chad to have a life of his own, in his own way.

The Song and Dance: This was a lot better than I expected it to be. Once again, having a veteran director who knew how to handle fluffy musical vehicles made all the difference. Taurog spent his career directing similar musical romances for Bing Crosby and Lewis and Martin and ended it doing the majority of Elvis' Paramount films. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, showing off the lush tropical beauty of Hawaii in all its Technicolor widescreen glory. Love the references to real Hawaiian traditions and ceremonies and the fidelity to its culture, including the lavish wedding ceremony in the finale.

Favorite Number: We kick off with Chad singing to Maile how he's "Almost Always True" as she needles him about all the girls he must have met in the Army on their way back from the airport. "Rock-a-Hula Baby" is his big number at his parents' swank party, as he and his band buddies mix Hawaiian hula culture with the emerging rock culture. He makes the girls and Abigail swoon by crooning about how they can take a "Moonlight Swim." "Ito Eats" is a very funny number at the aborted luau about Chad's overweight, always-eating buddy, which goes straight into the big chorus dance routine "Slicin' Sand." Chad's singing the "Beach Boy Blues" when he and his buddies land in jail after touching off the riot at the luau. 

The big one here is one of the King's most enduring hits. He sings the simple but gorgeous ballad "Can't Help Falling In Love" to Maile's grandmother after he gives her a music box he brought back from Austria. It may not be flashy, but it's so lovely and sweet, you can understand why she appreciated it so much.

Trivia: Alas, the historic Coco Palms Resort, where the "Hawaiian Love Song" number and hotel scenes were filmed, was damaged badly in Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and abandoned; as of June 30th, it's scheduled to be demolished. 

Angela Lansbury and Nancy Walters were only about 10 years older than Elvis.

The film and soundtracks of Blue Hawaii were the biggest hits in Elvis' career. 

What I Don't Like: For all her chemistry with Elvis, Blackman can't match his overwhelming laid-back charisma in front of a camera. She's dull as dishwater in a thankless role. The dark makeup she wears only makes her look that much more fake around the real Hawaiians in the cast. Lansbury's equally fake Southern dithering can be as annoying to the audience as it is to Chad, especially when she's going on and on about how her little boy is doing naughty things and treating a 30-some-year-old man like he's five. (Not to mention, she doesn't get to sing or even join in on the chorus numbers.) And no matter how much she deserved it, Chad chastising Ellie's obnoxious behavior by giving her a spanking may be just as disturbing for some members of the audience nowadays as it is for her.

The Big Finale:  Another good "starter" Elvis film, especially as it features one of his most enduring hits. Recommended for lovers of the Pineapple State, the King, or 60's musicals.

Home Media: Easily found on DVD (often for under five dollars) and on Paramount Plus with a subscription.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Viva Las Vegas

MGM, 1964
Starring Elvis Presley, Ann-Margaret, William Demarest, and Ceasare Danova
Directed by George Sidney
Music and Lyrics by various

Normally, I'm not the biggest fan of Elvis or his films. I do like some of his songs, but he often came off as smarmy onscreen, or the movies were too bland or silly and not worthy of his talents. This week, I'm going to give the King of Rock a re-evaluation with two of his best-known musicals. The King was still on top in the mid-60's, with this one actually outperforming the Beatles' Hard Day's Night at the US box office and Elvis shattering records with his performances at the real Vegas. Does it still deserve the adulation nowadays? Let's head to the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas as the drivers of the Grand Prix and find out...

The Story: Lucky Jackson (Presley) needs a new engine for his beloved custom race car. He does manage to get the money working as a waiter, then loses it when Rusty Martin (Ann-Margaret), the pretty swimming teacher he has his eye on, shoves him in the pool. He does strike up a romance with her, but that dissolves when it turns out she wants marriage and he's more interested in his car. He first joins a talent contest to get the money...but she does, too. Doesn't help that his racing rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Danova), is also interested in Rusty. In the end, Rusty comes to realize how much racing means to Lucky...and he gets a new appreciation of her, too.

The Song and Dance: This is one of the only Elvis movies I ever really liked. Most of the leading ladies in his films tend to pale besides him. Ann-Margaret more than matches his charisma and cool, to the point where they dated for a while during filming. It's also one of his only movies to feel like it could be an MGM musical of a decade before. Having musical-veteran Sidney at the helm may have caused some headaches with the budget, but it also did wonders for the film's tone. There's some fabulous numbers here, including the hit title song that continues to be associated with Vegas and Elvis to this day, and gorgeous widescreen cinematography showing off neon-lit Vegas and the Nevada desert. Look for William Demerest getting some hilarious lines in as Rusty's crusty father. 

Favorite Number: Elvis leads a group of cowboys in a bar where he's looking for Rusty through the Lone Star State standards "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "The Eyes of Texas," managing to get them out for a grateful manager. "The Lady Loves Me" says Lucky with his guitar...but Rusty doesn't agree in this hilarious duel of wits performed around the Flamingo's pool. Surrounded by loving couples in the Flamingo's bar after Rusty gets angry and walks out, Lucky finally admits in a shadowy number that "I Need Someone to Lean On." Rusty gets a red-hot stripper number under a white mink coat in the hope that someone will show "Appreciation" at the talent show, while Elvis joins a line of Vegas feathered chorus girls for the catchy title song. Rusty, fed up with playing second fiddle to an automobile while making a picnic lunch for her and Lucky, sings about how "My Rival" is a curvy, shiny car.

What I Don't Like: Some aspects of the story haven't dated well. I wish Rusty hadn't caved in so quickly to Lucky's charms. That "Lady Loves Me" number is just so funny, and sets up Rusty as a far tougher character than she proves to be later. Her obsession with marriage was still considered typical for most women then, but may seem a little too hasty or needy to some folks nowadays. There's also the fact that, while not as fluffy as some other Elvis vehicles, this isn't the strongest story in the world. The second half in particular loses slight momentum once Rusty changes dates and Lucky starts focusing on getting that engine.

The Big Finale: If you want to see an Elvis movie, this or Jailhouse Rock are probably the best places to start. A top cast, terrific production, and great music makes it one of, if not the best of his movies. Highly recommended. 

Home Media: As one of the most popular Elvis films, it's easily available in all formats. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Animation Celebration Saturday - James and the Giant Peach

Disney, 1996
Voices of Paul Terry, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, and Jane Leeves
Directed by Henry Sellick
Music by Randy Newman; Lyrics by Randy Newman and Roald Dahl

After the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993, director Sellick looked into other properties that could be done as stop-motion. The book was suggested as a possible animated film in the early 80's, but Disney didn't actually buy the rights until 1992. Sellick tossed around doing it as live-action, then all stop-motion, before finally hitting on a blending of the two. How does the bizarre story of a boy and his insect friends who travel to New York in the title fruit look almost three decades later? Let's start with James and his parents as they dream of a better life in the city and find out...

The Story: After his parents' death by rhino, he's sent to live with his abusive aunts Sponge (Miriam Margoyles) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley), who treat him like a servant. One day, after saving a spider from their insecticide can, he's given magical "crocodile tongues" by a strange old man (Pete Postlewaite). He accidentally drops most of the tongues, who burrow into the ground. 

The next morning, an enormous peach grows on a withered tree. The aunts claim it for themselves and turn it into a tourist attraction. James sneaks out at night and finds one last tongue, which he eats along with part of the peach. The part he eats forms a tunnel into the pit, where he encounters a talking centipede (Dreyfuss), glowworm (Margoyles), spider (Sarandon), earthworm (David Thewlis), grasshopper (Simon Callow), and ladybug (Leeves). They face many dangers on their way to the Big Apple, but learn in the process about the importance of following your dreams, and that the family you find can be just as important as the one you're born into.

The Animation: While not as detailed as Nightmare, it has its own good qualities. The snow when they drift into the Arctic and the tense action sequence on the ocean with the mechanical shark are especially well-rendered, and the peach and everything in it is so nicely done, you can see the fuzz in places. The bugs...well, it's probably hard to do stop-motion bugs without making them look creepy. The clothes and accessories do help alleviate the nightmare fuel somewhat, especially with Mrs. Ladybug and Mr. Grasshopper. 

The Song and Dance: Weird as this is, it has a certain charm to it, especially once they get into the peach. The voice acting is delightful, especially Terry as James, who is determined to get out of his aunts' shadow and find a place where he truly feels welcome, Sarandon as the sensual spider he rescued, and Dreyfuss as the cocky Brookyn centipede. Postlewaite brings the right amount of gritty strangeness to his role as the old peddler who starts James off on his adventure.

Favorite Number: The touching and sad "My Name Is James" kicks off the film as he wishes he could cross the ocean and see the city of his dreams, far from his uncaring aunts. "Eating the Peach" comes straight from Dahl...and it explains some of the more disgusting lyrics as the bugs compare the peach to their favorite delicacies from the garbage heap. "Family" has the bugs remind James that he's the one who brought them together right before they make it to New York - they've come too far to quit now.

What I Don't Like: The less-detailed animation and reliance on live-action for the first and last 10 minutes of the film makes it obvious that this was a lower-budget production than Nightmare. The oddball visuals, with their nightmarish cut-outs and mechanical sharks and Jack Skelleton-like pirate ghosts, makes this for older kids, as do Lumley and Margoyles' shrill performances as the worst aunts in the universe. 

The Big Finale: Too offbeat to be for everyone, but if you or your older-elementary and pre-teen kids enjoyed other bizarre Dahl books-turned-movies like Matilda or The Witches, you'll want to follow this peach to the city and give it a try as well.

Home Media: Easily found on disc and streaming (including Disney Plus with a subscription).