“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”
— Elmer Fudd
Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.
What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”
Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.
For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.
I saw Dick Tracy during its original theatrical run, and I don’t remember a Roger Rabbit cartoon with it. Then again, I don’t remember tee shirt tickets, either. So, what do I know?
Directed by Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall, Roller Coaster Rabbit is essentially a Warner Brothers cartoon — right down to the logo at the beginning. Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is left to babysit Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) at a county fair while his mother (April Winchell) goes off and … does something else. I don’t know what.
A red balloon is the impetus for the insanity: Baby Herman drags Roger into a series of painful mishaps involving darts, gunshots, cogs, a roller coaster, and a grazing bull (Frank Welker) whose nuts become an object of Baby Herman’s curiosity. The story is a group project: Bill Kopp, Kevin Harkey, Lynne Naylor, and Patrick A. Ventura all contribute. Clearly, they’ve seen their share of ‘40s and ‘50s cartoons. There’s even a cameo by Droopy (Corey Burton). I respect that. Roller Coaster Rabbit is a fun piece of fluff.
With Kathleen Turner, Charlie Adler
Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.
Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.
After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.
The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.
Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.
Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.
With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright
Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
Part comedy and part horror, Hot Dog Hands by Matt Reynolds is a squiggly little story involving bullying and body issues.
A woman (Gillian Wallace Horvat) becomes a recluse when her hands sprout plump fingers that look like hot dogs — and they won’t stop. The boys on her street notice; they stand in a group outside her house and chant, “Hot dog hands!” It’s upsetting to say the least.
A piece of junk mail leads the woman to a cure, but it’s not what she (or I) expected. It’s a weird but cute and kind of sweet solution that made me smile. Stuck between features of a horror movie marathon during the wee hours of the morning, it also gave me a jolt of energy that perked me up and allowed me to move onto the next film awake. Bravo!
Max Fleischer’s Snow-White is nothing like Walt Disney’s — and that’s good. Fleischer offers a dark, edgy, and weirdly trippy death-focused version of the story most know from Disney. He “staffs” this short with characters from his Betty Boop cartoons.
Betty Boop (Mae Questel) — as Snow White — is off to a bad start when a magic mirror with Cab Calloway in it tells the Evil Queen (Questel), who looks and acts a lot like Olive Oyl, that Betty is “the fairest in the land.” The Queen orders her flunkies, Bimbo and Ko-Ko the Clown, to kill Betty — off with her head!
Bimbo and Ko-Ko don’t really want to hurt Betty. They take her to the forest, where she escapes by jumping into a river that freezes her into a box that looks like a coffin and carries her down a hill to the seven dwarves. Meanwhile, Bimbo and Ko-Ko fall into a hole and land in a cave where the Queen is. She turns them into monsters as they sing a blues number.
The Queen asks the mirror again who the fairest in the land is, and this time the mirror explodes into a puff of smoke that puts her face to face with Betty. Things don’t end well for the Queen.
Roland C. Crandall’s animation is rough and jagged and kind of jumpy, giving the whole thing a nervous energy and a sketchy vibe. He loads this cartoon with ghosts, skeletons, armored executioners, and other creepy goblins. Ko-Ko dancing to “St. James Infirmary Blues” is rotoscoped from footage of Calloway performing the song. This Snow-White has a Cajun flavor to it. It’s an interesting approach.
Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, now streaming on Netflix, is a lot of things; dull is not one of them. A slick, fast-paced, mesmerizing mix of fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, action, satire, and social consciousness, this film has a lot going on—and a lot going for it. I was lucky to see it on the big screen before its official release, and that’s how I recommend seeing it if you can. Sorry, Netflix, Okja is simply too good for TV.
The story begins ten years ago in 2007: in a desperate but brilliant attempt to rebrand a disreputable family business—to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak—Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces her master plan to breed an all-natural “superpig” that leaves a minimal footprint, feeds the world, and tastes great (https://superpigproject.com). Her company, Mirando Corporation, devises a competition, sending twenty-some piglets to real farmers across the globe to raise them; the company will monitor each pig over the next ten years and declare a “winner” based on the results. Mirando hires animal television show host Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a zoologist whose star is fading, to lend credibility to the project as well as to generate public interest in it.
Fast forward to 2017: Mirando’s plan is coming to fruition without any hiccups, which makes her happier than a pig in…well, you know. Unfortunately for Mirando, a young South Korean girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), whose grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) signed onto the project, threatens to derail the entire mission. Mija, you see, essentially raised her grandfather’s pig, Okja. They’ve become dependent on each other. He never explained to her what the deal really is—that Mirando’s silk purse is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.
Dr. Johnny and his television crew show up at their home in the mountains and marvel over Okja, now a magnificently enormous hippopotamus-like creature. He presents her grandfather with an award and takes Okja to Manhattan—actually, New Jersey—for a pig roast sponsored by the Mirando Corporation.
To put it lightly, Mija’s not having it—she takes off after Okja on a chaotic chase through Seoul, where she encounters the Animal Liberation Front, a group of inept animal rights activists led by idealistic but ineffective Jay (Paul Dano). They make a pact, but unfortunately she doesn’t speak English. Mija ends up at the world headquarters of Mirando Corporation in New York City, completely unaware of the cards she holds.
I went into Okja blind—the only thing I knew about it was that its central character is a big pig. I left more than satisfied: the cast is stellar, the effects are flawless, and the script is smart and strong despite its flaws. If that don’t beat a pig a-pecking, I don’t know what does.
Appropriately, the acting is hammy; I love that Swinton plays twins again. She looks like a deranged Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. Gyllenhaal teeters on insufferable with his wimpy sniveling, but to his credit he manages to keep it in check. I’m usually unimpressed with computer animation, but here it’s amazingly well done; Okja looks as real as the humans. I think the trick is her eyes. Even with its Hollywood ending, Okja is definitely one of this year’s more interesting movies.
With Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo-shik, Giancarlo Esposito
Production: Kate Street Picture Company, Lewis Pictures, Plan B Entertainment
Oh boy. Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World is not good. It probably started out with some fun ideas, but man did they get lost in a morass of crap. A jailed cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) draws a scantily clad floozie, Holli Would (Kim Basinger), whom he fantasizes about and no doubt spills a lot of seed over while he’s locked up. Upon his release from the big house, he gets zapped into Cool World, a fifth dimension where humans (“noids”) interact with cartoons (“scribbles”). They can’t have sex with each other, though—as if that’s the first thing you want to do with a cartoon.
Oh, there’s also a random, inelegantly placed storyline about Detective Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), Cool World’s one-man vice squad, and how he ends up there after a motorcycle accident that kills his mother (Janni Brenn-Lowen).
Where to begin? The plot is full of unexplained holes, and I didn’t care enough to bother trying to fill them in. The jokes are lame, and there’s an awful lot of filler. I’ve never seen Basinger as boring as she is here, with lines like, “Now you can buy me more fries, dickhead.” Whatever. Byrne is an even bigger snooze, unable to feign an ounce of excitement over…anything. Cool World is a blatant ripoff of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, and even Tim Burton’s Batman; sadly, the finished product doesn’t come close to any of them.
The animation, however, is cool: a kind of retro-futuristic Ren and Stimpy thing. The soundtrack, which features original songs by the likes of David Bowie, Thompson Twins, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, is great even if it’s so 1992 with its techno-industrial sound. Plus, Pitt is actually decent despite the material, his affected accent and the awful suit and tie combo straight from U Men or Oak Tree aside. It’s strange and sad to see him in something as soulless as Cool World, but he’s nice to look at.
With Michele Abrams, Dierdre O’Connell, Frank Sinatra, Jr.
I caught The Tell-Tale Heart as an extra at Music Box Theatre’s screening for Reel Film Day. Directed by Ted Parmelee and narrated by English actor James Mason, it’s a nifty modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1843 short story about a murderer haunted by his victim’s heartbeat, which he hears from underneath the floorboards where he hid the body. Paul Julian’s design and Pat Matthews’s animation is shadowy and surreal, nicely depicting the horror and the madness of Poe’s classic. Boris Kremenliev’s score adds an eerie Twilight Zone feel.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, an engineering student at the University of Texas, Austin, killed his mother and his wife before taking over the observation deck of the 30-story Main Building on campus (“The Tower”). Known as the infamous “Texas Tower Sniper,” he then shot random passers-by on the mall below, terrorizing the campus for over an hour and a half. When it was over, 17 victims including him were dead and dozens were wounded (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Whitman). Quite possibly the first mass shooting on a school campus in the United States—and definitely the first of this magnitude—the event resonates nearly 50 years later.
Keith Maitland’s Tower is a sort of oral history of this tragic day, and it’s compelling from the outset. I may seem to be stating the obvious here—how could the story of such an event be anything but compelling? I haven’t mentioned that the whole thing is animated—as in, a cartoon. I must admit that I was skeptical. Turning a combination of archival footage and reenactments into rotoscopes that have an offbeat King of the Hill quality sounds dubiously unfitting for many reasons. Nonetheless, Tower works unsparingly well.
With barely a mention of Whitman—his name comes up toward the end, and only incidentally—Maitland chooses to focus on those caught in the confusion. He doesn’t say who is shooting or why, putting viewers into the thick of it. He let’s survivors, heroes, and witnesses narrate their ordeals: what they were doing, who was with them, and what happened to them. Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), a pregnant teenager who was the first one shot on campus, tells about seeing her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, die right next to her and losing her baby while she lied in a pool of her blood on the hot concrete. She also talks about the woman, Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam), who played dead to stay with her and keep her conscious until help could get to her. Aleck Hernandez (Aldo Ordoñez) tells about being shot in the shoulder while delivering newspapers with his cousin riding on his bicyle with him. Allen Crum (Chris Doubek), a middleaged bookstore employee, tells about dodging bullets to help a victim on the ground and winding up on the observation deck while Whitman was still shooting. Austin police officers Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette) talk separately about their roles in bringing down Whitman.
Each account is unflinchingly brutal with lots of personal detail. The animation is an odd but effective way to bring us close to the action in a way that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Considering how it’s presented, Tower is surprisingly emotional and personal. I haven’t seen a documentary like this before.
Fandango’s short and sweet synopsis says all you need to know about the plot here: “Lost in a forest, a 10-year-old girl meets animals, ghosts, and weird creatures.” Weird, indeed. A twisted story with some grotesque imagery sure to stay with me forever, like Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs, that bizarre nose and wart on Yubaba, the coal-toting soot things, the stink ghost, and No Face. Charming in the way that only Japanimation is, I enjoyed this one, to a point. It lost me about two thirds in, and reminded me why I am not into epic fantasies or science fiction.
Hayao Miyazaki tells a good story and gives us really strong characters in Spirited Away, but I don’t need to see it again. Ever.