A Christmas Carol (2009) Stave I: A Fairly Promising Start

This Christmas, I’ll be doing something different on The Adaptation Station. I’ll be going through one particular adaptation, analyzing it scene by scene. I’m not doing it because I love Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, more than the source materials of many of the other things I’ve covered on this blog. There are plenty I love equally. Neither is Robert Zemeckis’s 2009 animated adaptation one of my favorite retellings of the story[1]Its official title is Disney’s A Christmas Carol to distinguish it from all the other Christmas Carol movies, but Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol gives you a better idea of what to expect … Continue reading, though I do find it interesting. Hopefully, it’ll be interesting enough to benefit from the longer format. I hope readers enjoy this because I’d love to give some other movies this treatment. But naturally, those who haven’t seen this film yet and wish to avoid spoilers are also going to want to skip this series. Now that I’ve got that warning out of the way….

The movie’s first moments are pretty great, establishing the atmosphere of A Christmas Carol-or rather its two contrasting atmospheres, which might be called the Merry and the Scary. First, jolly, joyous music is heard on the soundtrack, and we get a beautiful of image of a well-to-do Victorian Christmas.

Then the music grows ominous as the camera pans down to a copy of A Christmas Carol. It flips open and we zoom in on the haunting (no pun intended) first words, “Marley was dead.” Then the page turns, and we’re confronted with an illustration of the man himself, a corpse with a bandage wrapped around its head, lying in a coffin.

The illustration dissolves into reality or rather into animation. The dead man’s business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) signs the certificate of death, which is the first thing we’re told the character does in the book, so that’s pretty great adaptation.

I kind of love Scrooge’s handwriting. It looks just how I’d imagine it based on his personality.

Scrooge’s interactions with the undertaker (Steve Valentine) and his young apprentice (Daryl Sabara) do a great job of establishing his cold, miserly character and are quite entertaining in their morbid humor.

I’ve put off talking about the animation long enough. I don’t really like mocap animation. At least not for entire movies. There have been many live action ones that used it for individual characters with great success, but I’m not sure if there’s ever been a great movie entirely animated with motion capture. There’s always something about the human character’s faces that distracts me. That being said, I don’t hate it as much as many seem to do. And the movie’s backgrounds are quite beautiful. The character designs are also wonderfully Dickensian, that of Scrooge himself being a case in point, though I noticed some of them getting reused on a number of the background characters.

A quirk of Robert Zemeckis’s mocap movies is that they tend to have small casts with each actor playing multiple roles. I don’t really understand the point of this. Is it just cheaper that way? Do fewer actors balance out the cost of the technology itself or something? Is it just to show off the range of each member of the cast? Or is it something they do just to show that with motion capture they can?

Anyway, Scrooge leaves the undertaker and makes his way down the streets of London, stopping to silence some carolers with a look and scoff at some boys hitching a ride on the back of a carriage and, in a great nod to the book, scaring away a seeing eye dog.

As the opening credits roll, we get a montage of the city. The swooping, zooming cinematography makes it transparent that this movie was meant to be in 3D, but honestly, I love it. The soundtrack by Alan Silvestri is the best of any Christmas Carol movie in my experience. And the scene does a great job of establishing the cultural milieu of Charles Dickens. I especially love the vignette of the boys begging by the Lord Mayor’s house. It’s a bit weird though to spend so much time establishing the world seven years prior to the story’s main events.[2]The 1999 made-for-TV Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart does the same thing by the way.

Cut to “seven Christmas Eves later,” Scrooge is counting money at his office while his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) rubs his hands together for warmth and looks longingly at the coal box and the key to it on Scrooge’s desk. Scrooge’s nephew (Colin Firth) enters to invite him to Christmas dinner the next day with his wife. The two of them debate the merits of the holiday. After the nephew departs, two gentlemen (Cary Elwes and Julian Holloway) enter, asking for a donation to help the poor and needy. Scrooge coldly replies that the “surplus population” have the prisons and workhouses to take care of them. (The way Scrooge casually dangles the charity collectors’ credentials over a candle, nearly burning them, is a great little touch.) If you’re wondering why I’m summarizing so much of this, it’s because the dialogue in this scene is very close to the book, all but word for word. Since I love the book, I also love it and if you’re not a fan of the material, well, I’m sure you know enough not to bother with this movie at all. The acting ranges from good to great. At least, I think it does. It’s hard for me to judge mocap performances. Personally, I wish Colin Firth had been Scrooge. It seems like a role in which I’d be much more interested in seeing him. But it’s not as if he’s bad as the nephew or as if Jim Carrey were bad as Scrooge.

Here’s an example of the movie reusing character designs. The grocer who appears at the end of the movie (with the giant turkey for the Cratchits) looks just like the guy on the left.

After Scrooge begrudgingly gives his clerk the next day off and locks up for the night, a jubilant Bob slides down the hill “in honor of its being Christmas Eve,” another fun little detail from the book. I didn’t think much about him wiping out and landing on his butt on my first viewing, but in retrospect, it’s a sign of things to come. Meanwhile, Scrooge arrives at his effectively creepy house.

On the doorstep, Scrooge drops his key. “Alter it!” he grumbles, an amusingly appropriate curse as the doorknocker in the frame with him at the moment is about to undergo a transformation. “Why do these things always happen to me?” he says after stooping down to retrieve the key. He doesn’t yet see what the viewer does: that his doorknocker has been replaced by the face of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley. Apart from its eyes being shut, it looks much as the book describes.

“It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.”

Well, it doesn’t seem like part of its own expression in the movie at first. Then after Scrooge has stared at it for a little bit and reached out to touch it…

I’ve come to the realization, by the way, that I don’t really like jump scares in movies, mainly because once you figure out the concept, you start to expect them right before they happen which ruins the whole point. Being a character rather than a viewer though, Scrooge is effectively freaked out and falls backwards on the steps. When he looks up, the knocker is back to normal. Scrooge enters the house, lights a candle and makes his way up the stairs.

Again, this movie’s backgrounds are great.

The movie includes the details of Scrooge, slightly on edge, double locking the door to his bedroom and checking the lumber room. Sadly, it doesn’t include Marley’s face reappearing in every image on the tiles around the bedroom fireplace. I don’t know why so few movies include that detail, given how cinematic it is and how often A Christmas Carol has been and continues to be adapted for the screen.[3]The 1984 and 1999 films are among the few. As in the book, as Scrooge sits by the fire and eats gruel, all the service bells in the room begin to ring of their own accord, the noise growing to a thunderous clamor and after they’ve died down, Scrooge hears the sound of chains being dragged on the floor up the stairs and down the hall to his room. In your average Christmas Carol, these chains would be accompanied by pounding ominous music. Here they’re heard against a background of complete silence. The music only returns when the chained ghost of Marley (Gary Oldman) comes through the door. It works very well.

In general, Marley’s creepiness is highly effective. The way his eyeballs never quite look at Scrooge until they roll slightly down in their sockets is a great gross touch, though his spittle flying at Scrooge[4]In 3d! is pretty stupid. The dialogue, in which he tells Scrooge how he (Marley) is doomed to wander the world in torment for eternity as punishment for the missed opportunities of his life and how the three spirits who will haunt Scrooge over the course of the next few nights are his only hope of escaping the same fate, is very faithful to the book. Unfortunately, there’s one really dumb part of this otherwise exemplary scene. At one point, as in book, the bandage around Marley’s face is removed and his jaw drops open. What’s not in the book is the attempt at comedy as Marley is unable to talk with a detached lower jaw and has to try to hold it up as he speaks. Not only is this not funny but the Zemeckis inexplicably chose to have it when Marley gives one his most pivotal speeches.

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Why would you want the audience to be distracted during those words is beyond my imagination. Finally, Marley readjusts the bandaging, and you think the dumb joke is going to die, but no. He’s now rendered himself unable to speak and has to readjust it again. Let’s just say Marley’s eyes weren’t the only ones rolling at that point.[5]To be fair, there was always a bit of grim humor in the way Dickens described Marley taking off the bandage “as if it were too warm to wear indoors.” The 1999 movie strangely decides to … Continue reading

As Marley departs out the window, his chains wrap around Scrooge’s chair, pulling it after him before vanishing. Scrooge leans out the open window and gets a glimpse of the spirit world.

This movie has the most emotionally intense depiction of the ghosts who, like Marley, “sought to interfere for good in human matters and had lost the power forever.” Dickens writes that Scrooge “had been quite familiar with one old ghost” crying over a homeless woman with an infant. That seems to be the case here, as Scrooge’s screams grow even louder when it looks up to face him. It flies towards the window, but Scrooge races to his bed and pulls the curtains shut. Right before he does so, we see the window close and the phantoms outside it disappear. It’s an imperfect but fairly promising start to the movie.

Next Week: The Ghost of Christmas Past is on Fire. Literally.

References

References
1 Its official title is Disney’s A Christmas Carol to distinguish it from all the other Christmas Carol movies, but Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol gives you a better idea of what to expect from it.
2 The 1999 made-for-TV Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart does the same thing by the way.
3 The 1984 and 1999 films are among the few.
4 In 3d!
5 To be fair, there was always a bit of grim humor in the way Dickens described Marley taking off the bandage “as if it were too warm to wear indoors.” The 1999 movie strangely decides to play the moment for laughs rather than horror too, though it works better there.
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When Ebenezer Scrooge Met Frosty the Snowman

Note: I’ve been having unexpected trouble with this blog lately. For some reason, half the images in this post and in some other posts aren’t showing up, at least not on Microsoft Edge. They do seem to be visible on Google Chrome so please use that. The post will make much more sense if you do. If I ever figure out the problem, I’ll fix it.

Television producers Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. and novelist Charles Dickens are inseparable from the Christmas season in many people’s minds. But few know that they actually collaborated a couple of times.

Well, OK, that’s not exactly true. For one thing, I mean by “collaborated” that Rankin and Bass made two specials, animated in the same style as their Frosty the Snowman, adapted from Charles Dickens. And while Dickens may be inseparable from Christmas in people’s minds, it’s mostly because of one novella he wrote, the immortal A Christmas Carol in Prose. Of his four other “Christmas Books,” only one of them (The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain) actually has to do with Christmas[1]The Chimes is actually about New Year’s. and none of them are as great as Carol. All of them are written in basically the same style and it’s a wonderful style, but A Christmas Carol is the only one to have a completely satisfying story. As for Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, they’ve definitely defined the holiday for some past generations, though I don’t know if they’re doing so for the current one.

I’ll be honest. I’m much more of a Dickens fan than I am a Rankin/Bass fan. Not that I hate them or anything, but even as a kid, I felt like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas were funnier and had more interesting stories. Still, there’s a place for completely innocent, sincere television aimed at the youngest viewers and it can be amusing to see how crazy Rankin and Bass can be when stretching out the plot of a simple little jingle to make a roughly hour-length story. I mean, who would have guessed that the little drummer boy hated humanity because his parents were brutally killed by Roman soldiers?[2]Didn’t it occur to him that his parents were humans themselves? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to just hate Romans? Or that Rudolph had already proved that his shiny red nose was an asset before that foggy Christmas Eve by using it to defeat an abominable snow monster, gaining him the respect of the other reindeer and rendering the main part of the song redundant? Christmas puts me in a forgiving mood, and I’ll usually watch some of these specials when it comes around. (Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town is probably the best of them.) And I was interested to see how Rankin/Bass would taste when mixed with the flavor of an equally iconic but very different titan of Christmas entertainment.

So, without further ado….

Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

This special begins with the narrator, Crockett Cricket (voiced by Roddy McDowall), telling how he first came to live at the house of humble toymaker, Caleb Plummer (Danny Thomas.) On that very day, he witnessed Caleb’s daughter, Bertha (Danny’s daughter, Marlo) bidding a tearful farewell to her betrothed, Edward Belton (Ed Ames), who is joining the navy.

Years later, the Plummers receive word that Edward has been lost at sea. Bertha goes blind from shock(?) and Caleb loses all his money taking care of her. Eventually, his only choice is to accept a miserable position working for evil toy magnate, Tackleton (Hans Conried, entertaining as always.) Caleb takes advantage of Bertha’s blindness to convince her that their wretched new home is actually “splendid” and that their new employer is a kind man-which unfortunately makes her susceptible to Tackleton when he proposes marriage to her.

If you’re familiar with Charles Dickens’s 1845 book, The Cricket on the Hearth, which most people aren’t, you’ve already noticed that this special takes huge liberties with the plot. (The credits actually describe the thing as being “suggested by the story of Christmas by Charles Dickens.”) This version of Bertha Plummer is actually a combination of two different characters from the book, the main protagonists of which, John and Mary Peerybingle, don’t appear here at all. That story was mainly about underlying tensions in a seemingly blissful marriage and whether or not the wife was going to cheat on her older husband-none of which made it into this adaptation. In some ways though, this Cricket on the Hearth is darker and more stereotypically “Dickensian” than the literary one. It shows the Plummers’ fall into poverty and their grief over Edward, which were all in the backstory in the book, in some detail. The messenger (Paul Frees) who brings them the bad news is ridiculously ominous too.

There are even three characters who die though they’re all villains.

Oh, yes. About that…

The cricket in Charles Dickens’s Cricket on the Hearth wasn’t actually a character, so much as a symbol. The sound of its chirping gave comfort and wisdom to the good characters who listened to it, helping them through the most difficult times. The villainous Tackleton, on the other hand, saw its chirping as a nuisance to be “scrunched.” Crockett Cricket, in this animated special, is a character with human intelligence who actively tries to help Caleb and save Bertha from a terrible marriage. And he’s not the only anthropomorphic animal in the story. Tackleton has a corvine sidekick, Uriah Crow (Paul Frees again), whom he orders to get rid of Crockett when the little insect starts to interfere with his plan. There’s actually an entire tavern for talking animals where Uriah goes to hire some assassins and where we hear a feline chanteuse (Abbe Lane) sing about fish and chips.

Seriously.

A plot point about toys briefly coming to life at midnight on Christmas Eve isn’t from the source material either but it sounds much more like a Victorian children’s fantasy and if I hadn’t read the book, I would have assumed it came from there.

Cricket on the Hearth (1967) is hardly a classic. The reimagined story is kind of a mess. The songs are almost all boring and there are a lot of them. But I can’t find it in my heart to actually dislike it. Like most of Rankin/Bass’s oeuvre, it’s likeable in its corniness. And the combination of Dickens’s sensibility with theirs is…interesting if not always successful. I kind of admire it for not having Bertha’s eyesight be miraculously restored in the end.[3]Compare this to The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975), another obscure Rankin/Bass special about a blind person. They don’t even explicitly show the Plummers’ financial situation improving though it can be deduced that it will. I remember watching this in the December of 2020 when many families were unable to visit relatives or throw traditional Christmas parties, and the theme of making the most of the season under less-than-ideal circumstances…well, let’s just say it resonated.

The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

This later Rankin/Bass special, adapted from A Christmas Carol, also begins with an insect (this one voiced by Tom Bosley) introducing himself to the viewers. “Who am I? The London Humbug, of course. B. A. H. Humbug to be precise.” That should give you some idea of the writing for this. It makes me roll my eyes but with a smile on my lips. He welcomes us to the house of Ebenezer Scrooge (Walter Matthau), “the kindest and most generous man in town.” Scrooge wasn’t always so generous, he acknowledges. This transitions to a brief song, a fragment of one really, about how cruel and stingy Scrooge was. “Until the ghosts came,” says Humbug ominously. We then cut to Scrooge’s bedroom, and we get a tantalizing glimpse of Jacob Marley (Theodore Bikel.) Wow, this adaptation moves fast, I thought. But this turns out to be just a teaser. It’s an unconventional way of beginning A Christmas Carol but a very hooky one in my opinion.

The voice acting throughout is very good, though nobody sounds convincingly British. Walter Matthau, in particular, is good as Scrooge, though he’s not exactly Dickens’s Scrooge. For one thing, he manipulates Bob Cratchit (Sonny Melendrez) by pretending to cry over giving him a paid holiday rather than bluntly objecting to it. Also, he immediately panics over seeing his dead partner’s face in a doorknocker and asks why he has come to haunt him where in the book Scrooge defiantly refused to accept the supernatural until he had no choice. Then again, this doorknocker face is much more frightful than the one Dickens described.

“Its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control rather than a part of its own expression.” Guess this adaptation never got the memo.

That’s not the only silly moment in this Christmas Carol. There’s also the weirdly abrupt appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past without any fanfare and how laughably easy it is for Scrooge to lay it to rest, something Dickens describes as quite a struggle in the book.

This is one of the few Rankin/Bass specials to have songs by someone other than Maury Laws. That’s because it’s actually a remake of a 1956 live action special starring Basil Rathbone, which had music by Daniel Spielman and lyrics by Janice Torre. These songs are actually The Stingiest Man‘s secret weapon, even if their number makes it a little crammed, the original special having been considerably longer. The only one I don’t really like is Listen to the Song of the Christmas Spirit and even that one I don’t dislike. I might just be biased against it because it’s sung during a pointless scene of one of the spirits randomly shrinking Scrooge to the size of a bug. (Could Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009) possibly have been influenced by this?)

One of the best songs is Humbug, a duet between Scrooge and his nephew (Dennis Day) featuring such great Scrooge-like lyrics as “I abominate Old Saint Nick/His reckless spending makes me sick.” Amusingly, this horrifies Bob Cratchit and B. A. H. Humbug more than anything else he says. This is Rankin/Bass after all.

Jacob Marley’s song, I Wear a Chain, is genuinely haunting in a way I don’t expect from this kind of special.

There’s also Yes, There Is a Santa Claus, which is pretty much adapted from Francis Church’s famous response to Virginia. It’s a bit out of left field thematically but pretty, nonetheless.

Then there’s Birthday Party for a King, a song about Jesus which is arguably a bit less out of left field.[4]Some have described A Christmas Carol in Prose as the first secular Christmas story. Others have described it as Christian. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

And then there’s One Little Boy, an anti-Malthusian song about Tiny Tim which gets right to the heart of Dickens’s message[5]Thomas Malthus was a controversial economist who worried about population growth. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in part, as a reaction against his ideas. and is the best thing about this adaptation.

I lied when I wrote above that I consider Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1979) to be the best Rankin/Bass special. Actually, it’s this one since it’s the one I believe has the best story and the most powerful themes. Now is it the best retelling of that story? No, but, granted that its style isn’t exactly Dickensian and that it’s aimed at a somewhat different audience than the book, it’s a fairly honorable retelling and a more than honorable one at its best. Those aforementioned powerful themes are conveyed with a surprising emotional punch.

By “punch” I mean force. I’m not talking about the drink.

References

References
1 The Chimes is actually about New Year’s.
2 Didn’t it occur to him that his parents were humans themselves? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to just hate Romans?
3 Compare this to The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975), another obscure Rankin/Bass special about a blind person.
4 Some have described A Christmas Carol in Prose as the first secular Christmas story. Others have described it as Christian. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
5 Thomas Malthus was a controversial economist who worried about population growth. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in part, as a reaction against his ideas.
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Charlie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factories

One of the most inflammatory questions you can ask is which of the two movie adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl is superior.

OK, not really, but it’s still pretty controversial. Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) have their ardent fans and their detractors. Probably the most polarizing thing about either is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the chocolate maker extraordinaire Willy Wonka in the 2005 version, so I’d like to get it out of the way at once. Some people find this take on the character entertaining or at least interesting. Others, even some who love the rest of the movie, can’t stand it. I’m firmly in the negative camp on this issue. Unlike some though, I don’t find Depp’s Wonka too creepy. I just think he’s horribly annoying! To be fair, as a fan of the source material, I was never going to be a fan of the way this adaptation, despite its reputation as the generally more faithful of the two, deconstructs the character’s reclusiveness and lack of empathy, making him a socially stunted manchild.[1]He’s arguably a manchild in the book too, but not a socially stunted one. But the high-pitched voice and irritating mannerisms Depp gives him make the script worse than it had to be.[2]To be fair, Roald Dahl describes Willy Wonka’s voice as “high and flutey.” The movie aims for cringe comedy with this characterization, but it mostly comes across as cringe.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, on the other hand, is usually considered the best thing about his movie. I don’t really like it either though. I can understand why the super hyper character from the book might have come across as annoying, but was it really necessary to go so far in the opposite direction and have him be so aloof and brooding? Both Wilder and director Mel Stuart seem like they’re trying to fight the goofy nature of the material and be all poetic and Romantic.[3]I wouldn’t say Roald Dahl was incapable of being poetic, but he wasn’t trying to be with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And, honestly, I find his voice and mannerisms a little bit annoying too, though not as much as Depp’s in the 2005 movie. Maybe it’s seeing one particular image of him being memed.

On to less controversial stuff. Both adaptations actually make a number of the same decisions. Both begin with opening credits montages of chocolate being made. Both have the five children to win an exclusive tour of Wonka’s factory be from different countries. They even have them come from the same countries. Augustus Gloop (Michael Bolner in 1971; Philip Wiegras in 2005) hails from Germany, Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole in 1975; Julia Winter in 2005) from Britain and Violet Beauregard (Denise Nickerson in 1975; Anna Sophia Robb in 2005) and Mike Teavee (Paris Themman in 1975; Jordan Fry in 2005) from America. In what country young hero Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum in 1971; Freddie Highmoor in 2005) lives is ambiguous.[4]He and some of his family members speak with English accents in the more recent movie but he uses American currency. Both make it so that only one parent of each winner accompanies them. This has a downside as a lot of the book’s comedy came from the contrasting personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Gloop (Kurt Grobkurth and Ursula Reit in 1971; Harry Taylor and Franzika Troegner in 2005) and Mr. and Mrs. Salt (Roy Kinnear and Pat Coombs in 1971; James Fox and Francesca Hunt in 2005.) But it allows them to develop the individual parent characters and their relationships with their children in a way the book didn’t. Both movies also expand on the climax by giving Charlie a final test of sorts where he proves his worth just as the four not so lucky golden ticket winners prove their lack of it. I’ll just save my opinion on that for the end.

Both movies also have some of the same virtues, mainly fun, quotable dialogue and, aside from Wonka at least, good casting. In many ways though, they have individual, even contrasting, pros and cons. The 2005 movie makes the Bucket family’s poverty more ridiculously over the top. This does a better job of establishing the goofy and fantastic nature of the story than the 1971 movie, which arguably comes across like a serious portrayal of a disadvantaged kid initially. On the other hand, that arguably made it more emotionally engaging.

David Kelly’s Grandpa Joe in Charlie looks far more aged and decrepit than Lou Albertson’s in Willy Wonka, making the moment when he finally rises from bed much more impressive. But the latter comes across as more of a fun character and has a more palpable bond with Charlie. Still, it’s nice that the 2005 movie gives the other grandparents more personality than the book did. The 1971 movie actually gave them less. In particular, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina (Ernst Ziegler and Dora Altmann there; David Morris and Liz Smith in 2005) were obviously just present because they were in the book, not because the movie had any idea what to do with them.

The first act of Willy Wonka is rather slow, packed as it is with brief scenes showing the desperate worldwide search for the golden tickets. Most of these are really funny. Charlie’s schoolteacher, Mr. Turkentine (David Battley) and the bit with the computer program are particularly great. And the slower pacing arguably helps get us invested in Charlie’s plight. But it could also be described as overindulgent. While Roald Dahl’s book included anecdotes about people across the globe trying to find a ticket, they were confined to Chapter 6 and lasted a couple of sentences at most. The faster pacing of the 2005 Charlie arguably captures more of the book’s sprightliness. Still, I wish it had, like the previous adaptation, taken more time to show the wonders of the factory that weren’t necessary to the plot. Screenwriter John August has kindly made the script available to read online, two drafts of it actually, and it’s frustrating to learn that the Square Candies That Look Round were going to be included but were cut.[5]A screenplay for Willy Wonka (1971) is also available online. It’s an early draft that in some ways is better than the final one and in other ways was improved upon by it. Annoyingly, … Continue reading

The 2005 movie features a number of fan-pleasing things from the book that were cut or changed from the 1971 version. Charlie’s father (Noah Taylor) is present, and the adaptation even comes up with a clever way to connect the loss of his job with the main plot. The irrelevant but entertaining story of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra) is included. Best of all we get Wonka’s nut sorting room with the trained squirrels for which they simply didn’t have the special effects in 1971. Instead, they had the much less interesting geese that laid golden chocolate eggs, which couldn’t very well toss Veruca Salt down the garbage chute, so she sang the most pointless of the movie’s musical numbers, I Want It Now, not about how she wanted a goose specifically but just about how she wanted random stuff, and just happened to stand on the “eggdicator”, which dubbed her a bad egg and dumped her. In 2005, Veruca was found to be a bad nut by the squirrels as it should be.

Except maybe it shouldn’t have been. Because the comeuppances of Veruca, Augustus, Violet and Mike somehow aren’t as fun and satisfying in the 2005 movie as they are in the book or the 1971 film. While they’re as unlikeable as you could wish, it’s not fun to watch a kid desperately screaming for their loving parent to help them while said parent can only stand by helplessly. It feels a bit like something from a horror movie but it’s too goofy and not actually horrific enough to work as a good horror movie. It’s just weirdly dark and unpleasant.[6]Some would say director Tim Burton’s movies are generally like this, but I wouldn’t say all of them are. Corpse Bride, which is also from 2005, I consider a very fun film. And, of course, … Continue reading This criticism may sound bizarre, but I wonder if the young actors are too good, making their characters seem like real people rather than the caricatures they’re meant to be.

I can already hear a lot of people protesting that Roald Dahl’s children’s books are dark and creepy…but I’ve honestly never found them to be that way. That’s in part because I never really believed in them. While Dahl is commonly compared to Charles Dickens and not without reason, his characters lack the solidity, for lack of a better term, of Dickens’s.[7]Of course, this is subjective but it’s worth noting that every Roald Dahl movie adaptation makes the story more serious and emotional than the original book. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. … Continue reading Death never feels like a reality in Dahl’s kids’ books as it does in some like The Chronicles of Prydain, The Chronicles of Narnia or Charlotte’s Web. (For the purposes of simplicity, I’m only going to discuss his contributions to children’s literature here. His adult books are darker as far as content goes, though some of them of what I’m writing about tone applies to them too.) If any character is going to die in a Roald Dahl kids’ book, you know it’s going to be someone the reader hates and whose demise will be entertainingly creative. When innocent characters, like Charlie, James or Matilda, suffer, that’s part of the fun as the reader knows things will turn around for them eventually. And the nastiness of the baddies is also part of the fun as we wait for them to get their comeuppance. Sure, when I first read about Augustus going up the pipe to the fudge room (through his own fault) and the Oompa Loompas song implying they planned it, I worried something sinister was afoot, though I was also highly amused.[8]I can’t really explain what makes it funny without quoting a large chunk. But as the story went on, I forgot to be worried and began to look forward to seeing each bratty tourist get what they deserved.[9]It helped that while Augustus was simply grotesquely gluttonous, Violet, Veruca and Mike were boorish and rude as well. And that at the end of the book and, for the record, the 2005 movie, we see … Continue reading Dahl’s works were more cynical than traditional children’s literature, but it was always a cheerful surface cynicism that was partly tongue in cheek. At his most mature[10]Again, leaving his actual adult literature out of the discussion., his edginess was the edginess of a mischievous dad telling bedtime stories to his kids and trying to titillate them. At his least mature, it was the edginess of a fourth-grade class clown using or alluding to dirty words.

Theoretically, the cynicism of the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is also light and humorous, but there’s something oddly grim and joyless about the execution. I can’t put my finger on it but it’s there. The opening credits make the chocolate factory look ominous and menacing which is a big problem. How are we supposed to get invested in Charlie’s wish to see inside of it when the movie keeps implying that it’s dangerous?

Watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), it’s hard not to wish it had been made in more modern times. It was so limited in bringing to life many of the book’s fantastical images, such as the great glass elevator or Violet turning into a giant blueberry.[11]It’s a pity neither of these Chocolate Factory movies was entirely animated. I feel like only a cartoon can capture the book’s exuberance and create the detachment necessary to enjoy the … Continue reading These were all topped by the 2005 movie, which was also more visually interesting than the older one. But they also arguably show the downsides of CGI. Not only do none of the tourists, except for Charlie and Grandpa Joe, feel comfortable with Willy Wonka but none of them, including Charlie and Grandpa Joe, seem that impressed by the factory’s wonders. (Of course, that’s the point with the jaded and cynical Mike Teavee, but he should be an exception.) This is problematic since the story is supposed to be about Charlie falling in love with the place. It’s instructive to compare this to the movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is also came out in 2005. The child actors in it do a much better job of looking awed by the world of Narnia and they’re just supposed to be reacting to a snowy wood, not a giant waterfall of melted chocolate!

If you click on the “musicals” tag at the bottom of this post, you’ll find that I’m quite capable of enjoying them. But I really don’t get the idea, which was prevalent for some time and gets resurrected every now and then, that every children’s movie has to be a musical. There are kids out there who don’t like singing, you know. And when the musical numbers aren’t actually good, or even if they’re good but don’t fit into the movie’s pacing, they can be a pain. I know there are some people with a lot of nostalgia for the songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Two of them at least, The Candy Man and Pure Imagination, have become part of pop culture. I find them sappy and don’t think they really match the tone of the script. In particular, I wish the first one could have provided exposition about how Wonka could make non-melting ice cream and hot ice cubes for keeping drinks warm, which would have done a better job establishing the movie’s genre, instead of feel-good sentiments about wrapping rainbows in smiles. My favorite song is probably I’ve Got a Golden Ticket. My least favorite is Cheer Up, Charlie. Even a number of Willy Wonka fans will agree with me on that one. It’s one of the main reasons I called the movie’s first half overindulgent. Since the tunes for these songs are also the main musical themes of the score, I don’t like it much either.

Of course, the book had songs sung by the Oompa Loompas and it could be the filmmakers felt it would be weird to just have those without the whole movie being a musical. In that case, it was arguably a necessary evil since the mischievous/moralizing poems are a big part of the book’s appeal-not that the lyrics in the 1971 movie draw from them. The four Oompa Loompa songs by Danny Elfman in the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are directly adapted from them to its credit. The first time I saw the movie, however, I found the tunes irritating. Repeated exposure has happily made me kind of like them. Well, some of them at least. The one that’s a punk rock song still annoys me.[12]In this adaptation, each Oompa Loompa song that plays for one of the bratty kids’ departure has a different style that corresponds to said brat’s milieu. Augustus Gloop, who is led around … Continue reading I think the real problem was the decision to give the Oompa Loompas goofy chipmunk voices, which makes sense in theory, but it isn’t always candy for the ears. I dislike the soundtrack’s weird and edgy main theme for reasons which should be clear by now.

Now I’m going to discuss the different subplots these movies add to beef up the story’s climax. If you haven’t seen either one and wish to avoid spoilers-or if you haven’t read the book itself-just skip to this post’s closing paragraph for my overall thoughts. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) has a man claiming to be Arthur Slugworth (Gunter Meisner), Wonka’s biggest candy making rival, approach each golden ticket finder and offer them money if they’ll get him the prototype for Wonka’s newest creation, the Everlasting Gobstopper. Credit where credit is due, this is the best idea for making the story more suspenseful in either adaptation. Where it goes from there works less well. In the Fizzy Lifting Drinks room, Charlie and Grandpa Joe partake of treats Wonka forbade them with nearly disastrous results. Unlike the other tourists who did this, they manage to escape, but at the end of tour, Wonka angrily tells them that Charlie will not receive the promised lifetime supply of chocolate since he broke the rules and violated the terms of the contract he signed earlier. (Gene Wilder’s performance in this scene is much more intense than anywhere else in the movie, apart from the infamous Tunnel sequence, to the extent that it’s kind of awkward and uncomfortable to watch.) Grandpa Joe wants to give the Everlasting Gobstopper Charlie was given as a souvenir to Slugworth as payback, but Charlie refuses and returns it Wonka, who then reveals that the entire thing has been a test of character arranged by himself and that he is leaving the factory to Charlie, etc.

Part of the appeal of the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is that it taps into the appeal of traditional fairy tales without using any of the surface trappings, such as witches, fairies, princes or princesses. Charlie is basically the downtrodden youngest sibling whose virtue triumphs and who is rewarded in the end. The other four children are the relatively better off older siblings whose vices lead to their downfall. Having Charlie make the same mistake that they do breaks the pattern and mars this. Perhaps if the others were shown to have a few good qualities just as Charlie is shown to have a few faults, the story would work as its own thing even if it weren’t quite the book’s story, but that’s not really what they do.[13]Veruca does express concern for Augustus at one point, so I guess there’s that. And, all questions of morality aside, I don’t buy that either Charlie or Grandpa Joe would be stupid enough to do this after seeing what happened to Augustus and Violet after they ignored Wonka’s warnings. True, they establish that Joe hates how much stress Charlie has in his life and wants to encourage him to have fun. But they also have Joe call Violet a nitwit for not listening to Wonka about the experimental chewing gum. It really feels like the movie is forcing this on the characters to make its plot work.[14]The stage adaptation, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, actually has Charlie admit of his own accord that he sampled the Fizzy Lifting Drinks and say he doesn’t deserve the lifetime supply of … Continue reading And it feels a bit lopsided that Charlie gets a chance to redeem himself and the other kids don’t. Favoritism much, movie?

Roald Dahl never wrote any backstory for Willy Wonka for the very good reason that he’s supposed to be a mysterious character. But the 2005 film intersperses the factory tour with flashbacks of his childhood with his strict dentist father (Christopher Lee), who never let him have any candy, which led to them parting on terrible terms. Again, credit where credit is due, “tyrannical dentist won’t let his poor son have any candy” sounds like something Roald Dahl would write, though I doubt he would have gone for the redemptive ending the film gives the character. You see this trauma has left Wonka with such an aversion to parents[15]Which makes it odd that he would have the kids bring one of theirs with them on the tour, but I digress. that when he makes a present of the factory to Charlie, it’s on the condition that he leave his family behind. Of course, Charlie refuses and after a few weeks(!) of angst, Wonka seeks him out again to renew the offer. This leads to Charlie helping him reconnect with his father who turns out not to have been such a bad guy after all.

This may lead to a good message and the moment that reveals Dr. Wonka’s true feelings for his son is genuinely sweet, but it doesn’t connect to the main body of the story at all thematically and renders it padding.[16]A generous reading might be that the overly strict Dr. Wonka is meant to be a foil to the overindulgent parents of Augustus, Veruca, Violet and Mike and that Charlie’s parents are meant to be … Continue reading It also completely misses the point of Wonka’s character. If Charlie is the good youngest sibling in this fairy tale and the other kids are supposed to be the bad older siblings, Willy Wonka is the disguised fairy dishing out rewards and punishments. He’s supposed to stand outside morality so to speak. That’s why Charlie and Grandpa Joe show concern for the other ticket winners and he doesn’t.[17]Though it’s worth noting that in the book Wonka is much more apologetic and reassuring-at least he tries to be-to the Beauregard and Teavee parents than either of the chilly Willies are in the … Continue reading Having him need to learn a lesson of his own is all wrong. I don’t think either of the reimagined climaxes/final tests for Charlie really work but at least the one in 1971 still has Wonka be in control and at least Slugworth, Fizzy Lifting Drinks, and Everlasting Gobstoppers all come from the book though they don’t perform the same functions.

You may have guessed by now that I don’t really like either of these movies on the whole. But I honestly had a lot of fun revisiting them to prepare for this blog post. If a friend suggests we watch one, I’ll agree and find ways to enjoy doing so. (Well, not right now probably since, as I wrote, I just watched them, but someday.) I don’t think either of them quite understands the appeal of the book they’re adapting. When the 2005 one misunderstands it, it misunderstands it worse and when it annoys me, it annoys me worse than the 1971 version too. But I don’t wish to undervalue the real advantages it has over it. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) has been called a cult classic. I define a cult classic as something that’s not really good enough to be a classic but has too many virtues or is too interesting to be simply dismissed and forgotten. I think that’s a good estimation of both movies. If I persist in preferring the original book, maybe that’s appropriate since part of its message is that literature is superior to television.

“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray/ Go throw your TV set away,/And in its place you can install/ a lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

Bibliography

Dahl, Roald. (1964) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. New York: Penguin Books Inc.

willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory-1971.pdf (scriptslug.com)

Charlie PINK.fdr (johnaugust.com)

References

References
1 He’s arguably a manchild in the book too, but not a socially stunted one.
2 To be fair, Roald Dahl describes Willy Wonka’s voice as “high and flutey.”
3 I wouldn’t say Roald Dahl was incapable of being poetic, but he wasn’t trying to be with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
4 He and some of his family members speak with English accents in the more recent movie but he uses American currency.
5 A screenplay for Willy Wonka (1971) is also available online. It’s an early draft that in some ways is better than the final one and in other ways was improved upon by it. Annoyingly, there’s one page missing and it’s one that’s vital to the plot.
6 Some would say director Tim Burton’s movies are generally like this, but I wouldn’t say all of them are. Corpse Bride, which is also from 2005, I consider a very fun film. And, of course, some of his movies actually tell stories where a dark tone is a must.
7 Of course, this is subjective but it’s worth noting that every Roald Dahl movie adaptation makes the story more serious and emotional than the original book. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox seems to be the ultimate example of this, but even Danny Devito’s Matilda, which is one Roald Dahl-inspired movie that really nails the tone of its source material (though I prefer Steven Spielberg’s The BFG as an overall viewing experience) does it.
8 I can’t really explain what makes it funny without quoting a large chunk.
9 It helped that while Augustus was simply grotesquely gluttonous, Violet, Veruca and Mike were boorish and rude as well. And that at the end of the book and, for the record, the 2005 movie, we see that they all survived their misadventures albeit with side effects and the Oompa Loompas really were joking. The 1971 movie doesn’t show this and subtle changes to the dialogue imply that Wonka’s proposed cures might kill them, but the final reference to the characters suggests their misfortunes may be more redemptive than punitory.
10 Again, leaving his actual adult literature out of the discussion.
11 It’s a pity neither of these Chocolate Factory movies was entirely animated. I feel like only a cartoon can capture the book’s exuberance and create the detachment necessary to enjoy the “dark” parts. And Tim Burton actually has a couple of animated movies under his hat.
12 In this adaptation, each Oompa Loompa song that plays for one of the bratty kids’ departure has a different style that corresponds to said brat’s milieu. Augustus Gloop, who is led around by his most basic instinct, gets a primitive sounding tribalistic chant. The jaded and media saturated Mike Teavee gets an MTV-style music video.
13 Veruca does express concern for Augustus at one point, so I guess there’s that.
14 The stage adaptation, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, actually has Charlie admit of his own accord that he sampled the Fizzy Lifting Drinks and say he doesn’t deserve the lifetime supply of chocolate. This strikes me as better dramatically speaking. The 2013 stage musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was supposedly based on the book but borrowed heavily from both movies, also had Charlie break a rule but with a positive twist. While Augustus can’t resist eating chocolate, Violet can’t resist chewing gum, Mike can’t resist watching television and Veruca can’t resist…anything, Charlie can’t resist inventing-which makes him the perfect successor to Wonka!
15 Which makes it odd that he would have the kids bring one of theirs with them on the tour, but I digress.
16 A generous reading might be that the overly strict Dr. Wonka is meant to be a foil to the overindulgent parents of Augustus, Veruca, Violet and Mike and that Charlie’s parents are meant to be perfect happy medium.
17 Though it’s worth noting that in the book Wonka is much more apologetic and reassuring-at least he tries to be-to the Beauregard and Teavee parents than either of the chilly Willies are in the movies.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations | Tagged , | Comments Off on Charlie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factories

These Specials Are Underrated, Charlie Brown

Peanuts is awesome. Not only does it have a unique and extremely funny sense of humor, but its characters and images are like mythic archetypes that sum up aspects of the human experience. Do Sisyphus and his boulder represent the inevitability of failure better than Charlie Brown and Lucy’s football? Does Viola’s speech in Twelfth Night about “Patience on a monument” describe the pain of unrequited love, unexpressed unrequited love in particular, better than the little red-haired girl? Besides the comic strip itself, Peanuts has provided us with countless animated specials.[1]Well, OK, they’re not literally countless. You can count them but it’s intimidating. But you’re likely only familiar with three of them[2]If you’re American anyway. If you’re from another country, you may not even be familiar with those., A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. And there’s a school of criticism that claims the last one of those is inferior to the other two.[3]I, myself, sometimes think It’s the Great Pumpkin is a little overrated but that’s not worth a fight.

But is it true that there are only two or three truly great Charlie Brown specials? I say nay! And I am going to write about the ones that I think are the most underrated.[4]I’m actually doing this as both a YouTube video and a blog post. If you’d like to watch the video version (and check out of my extremely modest YouTube channel), here it is, but I warn … Continue reading

Charlie Brown’s All Stars (1966)

This one has a particularly good vintage, coming out right between A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown but, not being associated with a holiday, it hasn’t gotten the same amount of airtime. Just as It’s the Great Pumpkin adapted a number of great Halloween-themed Peanuts comics, this one adapts a number of great baseball-themed ones and just as A Charlie Brown Christmas featured a dramatically compelling original story, so does this.

Charlie Brown (voiced by Peter Robbins)’s team has finally had their fill of losing and quits, but he’s able to lure them back when local department store owner, Mr. Hansen, offers to be their sponsor and provide them with uniforms. (Like the average adult in a Peanuts special, Mr. Hansen is never seen, and his voice is represented by a foghorn-like sound effect.) But then Charlie Brown has to turn down the offer for a good reason, but one which he can’t explain to his team without hurting them. This leads to a pretty devastating scene, but a happy ending is reached-only to be undermined in typically humorous Peanuts fashion.

Play It Again, Charlie Brown (1971)

Pamelyn Ferdin was probably the best voice actress who ever portrayed Lucy. She could bring out the character’s vulnerable sensitive side while still sounding as brash as she should. This special focuses on her hopeless love for Schroeder (Danny Hjeim) and makes the most hated member of the franchise’s cast quite sympathetic. In the final act, after several hopeless attempts at gaining the miniature musical prodigy’s affections, she manages to get Schroeder the opportunity to play in front of a large audience. Unfortunately, it requires him to play music besides Beethoven and Schroeder has to decide whether or not to compromise his artistic principles. (His reaction to Lucy’s assumption that his piano needs to be plugged into an amplifier is a scream. Literally.)

This conflict does create a continuity problem with A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown where Schroeder seemed perfectly happy to play the works of Vince Guaraldi, John McCormack and others. There’s arguably a callback in the dialogue to the first special, so it’s not as if they’re taking place in separate continuities. But if you’re willing to ignore that little hiccup, this is one of the most interesting Peanuts specials.

You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972)

Charlie Brown (Chad Weber) is indeed not elected, but what the title doesn’t tell you is that it’s actually Linus (Stephen Shea) who is running for school president with Lucy (Robin Kohn) as his ruthless campaign manager. This special is a great satire of the election process in the USA and much of its humor is still relevant. A scene of Linus doing a radio call in show is especially hilarious. While it’s adapted from a storyline in the comic strip, this special lengthens the plot a bit, making it more suspenseful, and has several jokes of its own. So even if you remember the premise from the newspaper, you should still give it a viewing.

They used to air You’re Not Elected on TV every year after It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Maybe they still do. But they edited it to make time for commercials and I’m sorry to state that they butchered it. Jokes were cut and sometimes punchlines were kept without their proper setups. The pacing and comedic timing were totally ruined. If you’ve only seen the edited for television version of this special, you haven’t seen it.

There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown (1973)

This special begins with a seven-minute montage of the characters struggling in school. It’s basically a bunch of thematically related strips from the 70s one after the other. Some may find this lazy, but I love it. This montage is hilarious and, for someone like yours truly who looks back on their education with little fondness, perfectly captures the futility of school, best exemplified by this quote from Linus (Stephen Shea): “Well, I think that the purpose of going to school is to get good grades so then you can go on to high school; where the purpose is to study hard so you can get good grades so you can go to college; and the purpose of going to college is so you can get good grades so you can go on to graduate school; and the purpose of that is to work hard and get good grades so we can get a job and be successful so that we can get married and have kids so we can send them to grammar school to get good grades so they can go to high school to get good grades so they can go to college and work hard…

Before too long a plot emerges with Charlie Brown (Chad Weber) needing to get a good grade on his report on a field trip to the art museum. When he gets there, there’s a hysterical mix-up, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t watched this special. Suffice to say that this is one of the funniest Peanuts stories ever. Nor is it lacking in drama as it’s an interesting exploration of the love triangle between Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty (Christopher DeFaria) and Marcie (Jimmy Ahrens.) It’s a bit odd that both this special and It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown portray Marcie as the dumb one when she’s arguably the smartest character in the comic strip.[5]Of course, she is the only one who freely enters into Snoopy’s WWI flying ace fantasies, but does that make her dumb or smart? Both the specials and the strip were written by Charles M. Schulz so it’s not a case of Depending on the Writer. Anyway, moving on…

It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown (1974)

This comic isn’t actually adapted in this special since It’s a Mystery is one of the Peanuts specials entirely composed of original material. I’m just putting it here because it alludes to a Sherlock Holmes book.

In this special, Woodstock’s nest vanishes and Snoopy searches for the thief. (Both of them are voiced by Bill Melendez as always.) Despite the title this actually isn’t a mystery as an early scene pretty much gives away the culprit’s identity. What it is, is a great comedy. Some Peanuts fans who don’t care as much for the silent comedy of Snoopy and Woodstock may not love it, but I do. (I’m especially fond of the way the bubble pipe Snoopy “smokes” in his detective persona keeps inconveniencing Woodstock.) And it’s not like there’s no verbal comedy as Snoopy interrogates various Peanuts characters. Linus (Stephen Shea) only has four lines, but he makes every one of them count. And it all culminates in a trial scene which is one of my favorite set pieces in Peanuts animation. Check it out.

It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown (1976)

OK, I have to admit that this isn’t as great as the other specials on this list, mainly because the voice acting isn’t on the same par. In particular, Gail Davis is kind of annoying as Sally. (It’s true that she’s supposed to be a shrill character, but I’ve heard plenty of other Sallies who were shrill without being so annoying.) But it is one of the best written Peanuts specials. Sally has to do a report on Arbor Day, which leads to her planting a garden and where she plants it and how it plays out is…well, let’s just say it’s perfect.

This is just a list of the Peanuts specials I consider the most underrated. It is not a list of the only underrated Peanuts specials or the only good ones. The 1960s gave us such great ones as You’re in Love, Charlie Brown and He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown. It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (1974) features a hilarious subplot about Marcie learning to color Easter eggs and a great ending which makes for an interesting counterpoint to It’s the Great Pumpkin. Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown (1975) has a wonderful scene of Snoopy putting on a romantic “paw-pet” show and a clever bit where he provides visual accompaniment for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? (It makes sense in context.) It’s true that the music and voice acting in these specials took a bit of a drop in quality in the 1980s, but some from then were still worth a look. Is This Goodbye, Charlie Brown? and Snoopy’s Getting Married(!), Charlie Brown adapted highly dramatic storylines from the comic and made them even more dramatic. And while the specials in the 2000s, such as A Charlie Brown Valentine and I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown, arguably suffered a bit in the writing department from the passing of Charles Schulz,[6]Technically, they were still written by Schulz as they were directly adapted from his comics, but they didn’t always do as good of a job of stringing thematically related comics together into a … Continue reading they featured some great vocal performances, such as those of Ashley Rose as Lucy and Corey Padnos as Linus. If you’ve confined your viewing of Peanuts specials to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I hope I’ve made a good case that that should change.

References

References
1 Well, OK, they’re not literally countless. You can count them but it’s intimidating.
2 If you’re American anyway. If you’re from another country, you may not even be familiar with those.
3 I, myself, sometimes think It’s the Great Pumpkin is a little overrated but that’s not worth a fight.
4 I’m actually doing this as both a YouTube video and a blog post. If you’d like to watch the video version (and check out of my extremely modest YouTube channel), here it is, but I warn you I’m much better at writing than speaking, so this blog version is better.
5 Of course, she is the only one who freely enters into Snoopy’s WWI flying ace fantasies, but does that make her dumb or smart?
6 Technically, they were still written by Schulz as they were directly adapted from his comics, but they didn’t always do as good of a job of stringing thematically related comics together into a special.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Comments Off on These Specials Are Underrated, Charlie Brown

Another List of Great Screenplays

If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember I recently did a post about the scripts for the 2018 BBC miniseries of Les Misérables, which are available to read online. Sometime before then, I did a post about which movies I’ve covered on here had the best adapted screenplays. You probably gathered from that that I enjoy reading scripts online. That’s to say, I enjoy reading them when they’re for movies I think are good or at least OK. I wish there were more available for free besides the ones put up for award consideration, but naturally a lot of the ones expected to win awards are based on capital-C Classic books and it’s even more obvious from this blog that I’m interested in those. Which of them are the best reads? Here’s my list. I’ve included links to each one, so if any sound intriguing to you, give them a click. You may find the screenplay format as enjoyable to read as I do. (Then again, you may not.) Note that this list is in alphabetical order as I find it too hard to rank all of them. The last one mentioned isn’t necessarily the best and the first one isn’t necessarily the worst. [1]Well, the last one might be true, come to think of it. Also, I’m not including screenplays on archive.org since you have to be a member to borrow them. If I did include them, there would be more Shakespeare on this list.

Honorable Mentions

While my favorite adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is Douglas McGrath’s 1996 movie, its script is sadly not online for everyone to read. Eleanor Catton’s script for the 2020 movie is though, and while it’s not as inspired as the other Austen-inspired screenplays on this list, it’s quite engaging and does a good job of restructuring the novel as a movie. There’s an argument to be made that it tells the story better than McGrath’s script did-indeed, it does a better job than the final movie did. Many scenes and lines were cut that shouldn’t have been in my opinion. Catton also relies on the actors’ faces to convey their inner lives a bit too much for her own good and, if you ask me, the 2020 movie’s cast let her down, so reading this script is actually more satisfying than watching the film.

I think I’ve written enough about Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship in the past, though I do regret that every time I write about it, I have to mention that I don’t think it quite as great as it could have been. As it is, it’s still wonderfully quotable thanks to both the source material and the adapter.

Part of me feels like Moria Buffini’s script for the 2011 movie, Jane Eyre, deserves more than just an honorable mention. The only reason I don’t favor it more is that I’m not a huge fan of the book by Charlotte Bronte, though I can certainly see its appeal, mainly because I don’t really buy into the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.[2]I can understand why he’s attracted to her but not why she’s so into him. Regrettably, since the script has to trim down the dialogue between the two characters, I buy it even less there. But for the most part, Buffini does a beautiful job of adapting the book, staying true to its story and spirit while making it feel cinematic. I know not everyone likes nonlinear storytelling, but I applaud the decision to begin with Jane’s desperate flight from Thornhill and intersperse flashbacks of the events leading up to it with her stay with the Rivers family. As the latter is basically a character study albeit an interesting one, it would have felt boring and anticlimactic after the melodrama of the former. This restructuring also makes it more of an open question with which of her two potential love interests Jane will end up. The opening montage contains a lot of details from the book which were sadly cut from the final movie as was a scene explaining the backstory of Rochester’s ward, Adele.[3]There are actually two drafts of the script to read online, the shooting script and an earlier one. I believe the final script was the best on the whole but there are some interesting things about … Continue reading

Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci’s screenplay for the 2019 movie, The Personal History of David Copperfield, is less true to its source material than most, if not all, of other scripts on this list. Not only does it take liberties with the story and some of the characters, but it leans much more into comedy and away from sentiment and its sense of humor isn’t exactly the same as that of the book either. But it’s so witty and fun that I had to include it and I’ll begrudgingly admit that, even more so than Charles Dickens’s other long novels, David Copperfield, with its loose “autobiographical” structure, needed a certain amount of reimagining to work as a movie. In most adaptations of it, even some of the longer ones, there are allusions to a number of things that don’t get any payoff, such as the traumatic backstories of Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick. That’s not the case here. (Ironically, this version does more justice to the serious aspects of the latter character than most of the more serious adaptations.) I still feel the version of the script that’s available online is a little too clever for its own good and tries to do a little too much visually. The movie was wise to back away from it a little bit. But I’m very grateful for the opportunity to read the script and compare it to the final product. Especially interesting to Dickens fans are the allusions to other books of his and not just the most famous ones. Again, I think it was the right decision to cut these since they’d have been confusing to mainstream audiences, but I find them fascinating.

Coriolanus (2011) by John Logan

There are handful of screenplays adapted from William Shakespeare available to read online, though sadly not as many as I might wish. My favorite is actually based on one of his lesser-known plays. Coriolanus himself is a notoriously hard protagonist to like with his violent nature, his defiant pride and his cruel contempt for the common people.[4]Whether Shakespeare agreed with the snobbery of his patrician characters in Coriolanus is hard to say. The citizens are shown to be pathetically gullible and easily swayed. But when they’re not … Continue reading But while I don’t approve of many of his actions and attitudes, I do like him in a weird way and pity him. Maybe it’s because I relate to many of his character flaws[5]His lack of people skills leads me to think he has Asperger’s Syndrome like myself. unlike those of Shakespeare’s more popular tragic heroes, like Hamlet, Romeo, Cleopatra and King Lear, whom I mainly tolerate for the many great quotes they’ve given the world. Corionalus has one of the most powerful endings in Shakespeare in which we see both how much the main character is able to bend and how much he hasn’t changed at all. The latter might be the real tragedy of Coriolanus.

Logan’s screenplay does a magnificent job of expanding on Shakespeare’s minimalistic stage directions. His descriptions of the characters are all on point. The updating of the time period makes much more sense than other modern dress versions of Shakespeare plays, though maybe that’s more thanks to the source material than to this adaptation. The script also excels at rearranging and cutting the fat, so to speak, from Shakespeare’s text while still being loaded with great quotes. It’s about as accessible to modern audiences as possible without dumbing anything down. A couple of memorable details, Coriolanus’s son chasing and “mammocking” a butterfly and a poor man in enemy territory showing Coriolanus kindness, are shown rather mentioned. The script flows like a movie, not a stage play, yet it’s as Shakespearean in its content as you could wish. I haven’t actually watched the movie itself, apart from clips, due to the bloody, gruesome nature of the beast and my own squeamish stomach. But if it lives up to the screenplay’s potential, it’s awesome.

Great Expectations (2012) by David Nicholls

Unlike The Personal History of David Copperfield, this screenplay stays very true to story and spirit of its Dickensian source material, though it arguably had an easier job since Great Expectations, while a complex work in many ways, is dramatically tighter and has fewer subplots than other doorstoppers by Charles Dickens. Nicholls does justice to all the different aspects of the book, the humorous, the tragic, the creepy and the heartwarming.[6]By contrast, the acclaimed 1946 movie does a great job with the creepy aspects but not with the heartwarming. The plot is certainly compressed compared to the slow paced novel, particularly the last act, but it never feels compressed if you know what I mean. I do have a minor problem with how it drops a redemptive act on the part of Pip and Miss Havisham. But it’s amazing just how much of the plot it includes without feeling crammed. I have a bigger problem with how it compromises the character of Estella, implying that she’s much more capable of love than she admits.[7]The creepy character of Mr. Jaggers also ends up being softened but I don’t mind that much. But that’s less of a problem reading the script than it is watching the movie. This one of those screenplays where I love the movie that plays in my head when I read it much more than the one that was actually made from it. The script includes some great scenes and lines for Herbert Pocket and Biddy, the wisest character in the book, which should not have been cut in my opinion.[8]In the movie’s defense though, cutting a pointless scene of Pip and Herbert holding a housewarming party was the right decision and the movie has a great line from Joe Gargery that isn’t … Continue reading

Little Women (2019) by Greta Gerwig

I feel like I’ve written enough about this script already.

Miserables, Les (2012) by William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer

Ditto.

Sense and Sensibility (1995) by Emma Thompson

As I wrote in a previous post, I find this movie to be quite drab and lifeless to watch[9]To be fair, a movie set in England during the summer may inevitably be too drab looking., but the published screenplay is wonderfully fun and engaging to read. It’s full of witty lines and humorous characters that either are from Jane Austen or feel like they could have been. (In the one of the many great lines and scenes that were shamefully cut from the final film, a dying man, discussing the future of their daughters with his wife, says that the youngest “will go to sea and become a pirate so we need not concern ourselves with her.”) But Thompson also brings a warmth and humanity to the material which I don’t usually associate with Austen’s aloof prose style. Despite its anti-drama queen message, Sense and Sensibility arguably has one of its author’s more dramatic plots and the script takes full tearjerking advantage of that.

If I have a problem with this adaptation[10]Of course, I’m just a casual fan of Austen. The “real” fans are notoriously hard to please and could tell you more problems., it’s that it makes the character of Col. Brandon too obviously a romantic hero from the beginning, long before we learn his melodramatic backstory. Having him come across as awkward and unappealing at first and having his true nature be a twist, as in the book, would have been more interesting.[11]And I think he could easily have attracted fangirls anyway. But I have to give Thompson credit for staying as true as she does to the message of the source material, that letting one’s emotions be unrestrained leads to suffering not only for others but for oneself. This wasn’t very popular in the 1990s and has become even less so now when bottling up emotions is seen as dysfunctional. While this script probably leans a little more into the idea that it’s OK to be emotionally vulnerable once in a while, it’s amazing how relatively little the original message is compromised. It’s something modern people might not want, but probably need, to hear.

References

References
1 Well, the last one might be true, come to think of it.
2 I can understand why he’s attracted to her but not why she’s so into him.
3 There are actually two drafts of the script to read online, the shooting script and an earlier one. I believe the final script was the best on the whole but there are some interesting things about the older one. It’s worth checking out if you’re a fan.
4 Whether Shakespeare agreed with the snobbery of his patrician characters in Coriolanus is hard to say. The citizens are shown to be pathetically gullible and easily swayed. But when they’re not formed into a mob (“the beast with many heads”), their dialogue demonstrates that at least some of them can be reasonable and even insightful. In any case, John Logan’s script leans toward sympathizing with the common people but it doesn’t back away from their dark side.
5 His lack of people skills leads me to think he has Asperger’s Syndrome like myself.
6 By contrast, the acclaimed 1946 movie does a great job with the creepy aspects but not with the heartwarming.
7 The creepy character of Mr. Jaggers also ends up being softened but I don’t mind that much.
8 In the movie’s defense though, cutting a pointless scene of Pip and Herbert holding a housewarming party was the right decision and the movie has a great line from Joe Gargery that isn’t in the script and may have been an adlib.
9 To be fair, a movie set in England during the summer may inevitably be too drab looking.
10 Of course, I’m just a casual fan of Austen. The “real” fans are notoriously hard to please and could tell you more problems.
11 And I think he could easily have attracted fangirls anyway.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 4

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

I’ve made the claim that Dreamworks’s four hand-drawn animated films didn’t have a formula and I’ll stand by that, but it can be argued that they came in pairs. The Prince of Egypt and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron are both serious dramas about people (or horses) wanting to be free which follow their protagonists from infancy to maturity and leadership. The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas are both comedy/adventures about criminals seeking treasure in unexplored regions. Of the four, I feel like Sinbad is the least well known. If you were to ask people of my generation about these movies, I feel like a large number of them would remember seeing commercials for Prince of Egypt, El Dorado and Spirit and have some idea what they’re about even if they haven’t watched them. Mentioning Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas will probably draw more blank stares. That’s kind of a shame since despite it leaning more into adventure than comedy, I find John Logan’s script for Sinbad to be much funnier than that of Road to El Dorado and it’s the only Dreamworks hand-drawn animated movie besides The Prince of Egypt to have a really strong story.

It begins with Sinbad the pirate (voiced by Brad Pitt) about to steal the Book of Peace, a mystical artifact (and blatant MacGuffin), for ransom. It turns out to be guarded by Prince Proteus of Syracuse (Joseph Fiennes)-who just happens to have been Sinbad’s best friend from childhood. But then a sea monster attacks Proteus’s ship in the first of the great action scenes that are the movie’s bread and butter. Sinbad proves instrumental in defeating the creature and ends up as Proteus’s guest at a royal banquet. That night the Book is stolen by Eris (Michelle Pfieffer), the goddess of discord[1]You may remember her for setting the Trojan War into motion. and Sinbad is blamed for the theft. He’s about to be executed when Proteus claims “the right of substitution.” Sinbad has ten days to retrieve the Book from Tartarus, Eris’s realm. If he doesn’t return by then, Proteus will die in his place.

You may have noticed that that summary has nothing to do with The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights. Two of the monsters that Sinbad encounters in the movie come from there but the rest come from Greek mythology and the basic premise owes more to the Legend of Damon and Pythias. Which isn’t to say the movie is very accurate to Greek mythology either.[2]For one thing, Tartarus wasn’t Eris’s realm. While Syracuse and the other cities that get namedropped are real, the government of “the twelve cities” is fictional and the clothing and architecture we see don’t really scream Arabian or Greek.

I like that about the movie.

Whatever artistic license they take, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron all try to create the illusion of a real historical culture. There’s something weirdly refreshing about the relaxed approach to worldbuilding of Sinbad: Legend of the Seas.

You may remember that I found The Road to El Dorado‘s leads to be very unlikeable. Well, Sinbad is even more of a jerk-but I don’t mind since the movie knows he’s a jerk unlike in The Road to El Dorado where we’re supposed to just accept the main characters’ vices and immoral actions as part of the material. And Sinbad has much more interesting ideas about how to redeem its antihero. It also helps that there’s an entirely noble character, Proteus, whose life depends on Sinbad’s success, so however much we dislike him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.

Proteus’s fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who accompanies Sinbad on his journey, is a very generic leading lady for this kind of movie and her Han-and-Leia-esque relationship with Sinbad isn’t anything unique either. But once we grant that, I’d still rank her as the best female love interest in Dreamworks’s hand-drawn animated films[3]For those interested, the mare from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would be at the bottom of my ranking. and Sinbad’s crew as the most fun supporting cast.

Eris is definitely the most memorable character. Michelle Pfieffer has a rare gift for creating an atmosphere with just her voice, one which was mostly thrown away on her character in The Prince of Egypt. Her vocal performance is the best in this movie which is no faint praise as the whole cast is excellent. The flowing, misty way she’s animated is also great, much more memorable than how the Greek gods were depicted in Disney’s Hercules.

There are no songs in this movie, and I applaud that. It’s not that I have anything against the musical format per se. I began this blog with a three-part series celebrating a musical film and removing the songs from The Prince of Egypt would be a huge loss to it. But the songs in The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron were more of a nuisance than anything and I don’t think American animated films should feel like they have to include musical numbers just because it’s tradition, especially when you seem to be trying to go after a target audience other than Disney’s as Dreamworks seemed to be doing. The soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams is very effective.

The middle section of the story is basically a series of action scenes, one after another. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it’s exactly what I expect of a story about a fantastical voyage like this. They’re all exhilarating to watch and great fun. The movie does a lot of things in them with which you could only get away in a cartoon. Actually, all the action scenes in Dreamworks’s hand-drawn movies do that but this might just be their tour de force in that area. Surprisingly though, the climax is not an action scene and it’s a risk that pays off.

The movie admittedly suffers, to an unusual extent for Dreamworks, from computer animated elements not blending in with the hand-drawn stuff. Once you get past that, the visuals are great.

The movie does write itself into a bit of a corner with the love triangle. Granted that he improves by the end, but Sinbad is still clearly Proteus’s moral inferior and the prospect of him getting the man’s fiancée in the end is not pleasant. The idea that Marina would just abandon her duties as an ambassadress to run off with a pirate is also pretty ridiculous. On the other hand, the main body of the film is about developing a relationship between Marina and Sinbad, not Proteus, so there’s no way for them not end up together without ending on a downbeat note. There may have been no perfectly satisfying way to resolve that part of the story but the rest of the movie is satisfying enough to make it forgivable.

Concluding Thoughts

Even the more financially successful of Dreamworks’s hand-drawn animated weren’t the hits they’d hoped them to be, and the low box office returns of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas were the nail in the coffin for this kind of animation at the studio. That’s pretty sad since The Prince of Egypt is a great movie, Sinbad at least a very good one, and as for The Road to El Dorado and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, well, I don’t believe they’re that good myself, but I can understand why there are people out there who love them. They’re both more interesting, if not strictly speaking better, than the many anonymous computer-animated comedies about talking animals Dreamworks released in the 2000s.[4]I don’t mean you, Kung Fu Panda. Never you. And whatever the quality of any of these movies as overall viewing experiences, the hand-drawn animation in them is beautiful, aside from some minor quibbles. I can’t help but wonder what other films like this, good and bad, they might have made.

References

References
1 You may remember her for setting the Trojan War into motion.
2 For one thing, Tartarus wasn’t Eris’s realm.
3 For those interested, the mare from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron would be at the bottom of my ranking.
4 I don’t mean you, Kung Fu Panda. Never you.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 3

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

Dreamworks’s third hand-drawn animated movie, which tells the story of a wild mustang in the yet to be tamed American West, presents me with one of the hardest challenges for a reviewer: something that doesn’t have a lot obviously wrong with it and even quite a bit good, but which I can’t really say I like.

I admire, well, respect the movie for committing to its difficult to market artistic vision, never giving dialogue to the horse characters, who dominate the story, except for the first-person voice over narration (supplied by a somewhat miscast Matt Damon, who delivers lines like “And so I grew from colt to stallion as wild and reckless as thunder over the land, racing with the eagle, soaring like the wind” with roughly the same passion of someone reporting traffic.) It relies almost entirely on the animators to personify the horses and while I hesitate to say they invest them with much in the way of specific personalities, they do give them a lot of emotion.

Even the human characters don’t really rely on dialogue much. For a Dreamworks movie, there’s a shocking lack of celebrities in the cast. And it’s also the least humorous film in their canon, even more so than The Prince of Egypt. (The fact that their last hand-drawn movie had been the almost purely comic Road to El Dorado reinforces my claim that they didn’t really have a formula for them the way that Disney did.) Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron aims for epic grandeur and raw emotional power. Sometimes it achieves it. The opening montage, for one, is pretty breathtaking.

Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook had worked on an impressive list of animated films prior to directing this one and it’s exciting to see what story artists and animators will do when they finally get put in the director’s seat.[1]Somewhat sadly, this would be the last time Cook sat there. All in all, they do a good job telling this story.

I just don’t think that story is very good.

The first half hour or so, showing Spirit’s[2]He’s only named at the very end, but I have to call him something. coming of age in the wilderness, his capture by the American cavalry, and his defiant resistance to being broken, works pretty well for me. But once he escapes only to be captured by the Lakota, the movie’s dramatic interest just kind of peters out. You see, the Lakota, unlike the cavalry, are supposed to be sympathetic but we’re not supposed to want Spirit to become contented living with them. We’re supposed to want him to be reunited with his herd. Theoretically, that makes this part of the story more interesting dramatically, as, in Spirit the narrator’s words, “for the first time, my heart was torn in two.” But, in practice, it’s just kind of boring. We’re not really rooting for anyone or rooting against them either. Before too long, the cavalry attacks the Lakota camp and there’s quite a bit of action in the final third, but I’d already lost interest in the characters by that point.

This is Spirit’s reaction to getting captured by new foes right after escaping his old ones. It’s pretty great.

Maybe it’s the music that lets the movie down. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine but not at all memorable. There are also some rock songs by Bryan Adams, about which I can’t think of a single thing to say. Movies whose main goal is to be emotionally resonant this way arguably live and die by their soundtracks.

In my opinion though, the real problem is the characters. I wrote before that the protagonist and the antagonist of The Prince of Egypt were complex and compelling but that the supporting characters were pretty shallow. (I wouldn’t say any of them were terrible characters per se, just not particularly interesting ones.) Well, Spirit has a protagonist that’s fine at best, a dull antagonist and supporting characters that are even shallower. All the relationships are developed perfunctorily. Maybe if the movie had been longer and slower paced, it could have made them more interesting. But what we see doesn’t intrigue me enough to make me wish for more of it. There’s also nothing like The Prince of Egypt‘s nuanced depiction of its Egyptian villains.[3]Well, the third act does briefly show a white guy who’s gentler with Spirit and less offputtingly macho than the rest. This technically adds a bit of nuance to the movie, but it doesn’t … Continue reading Every one of the cavalry’s horses that we see is a downtrodden miserable soul, who welcomes Spirit’s rebellion, while all of the Lakota’s horses seem content with their lives to the point of bliss. Realistically, wouldn’t some of them be still in the process of being broken and some of the cavalry’s horses resigned to domestication? The fact that I thought about this instead of enjoying the movie’s moral simplicity shows it wasn’t working for me.

I guess the aim was for an archetypal fairy tale quality and, hey, I love me some fairy tales. But not all fairy tales are created equal.

I have to give the movie credit for the character of the young Lakota brave, Little Crane (voiced by Daniel Studi), who bonds with Spirit, in that it’s very difficult to do a character of his nationality without being offensive and I haven’t heard of any Native people being offended by him.[4]If you’ve read any articles by some who are, feel free to send me a link. They’re probably more interesting than this blog post. Then again, if he were some kind of offensive stereotype, writing about him would be a lot more interesting. And I suppose I admire the movie for underplaying the character of the colonel (James Cromwell), who’s the main antagonist, and resisting the temptation to make him over the top. Then again, if he were a hammy cartoon baddie, he might be more memorable.

This quote from a review of a Disney animated film released the year before actually sums up my thoughts on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron quite well. “Midway through I found myself longing for a dancing gargoyle, a singing candlestick, a piece of toast wearing a diaper, anything to crack the classy sophisto-sheen that coats every frame — a little bit of tackiness would at least give (the movie) some life… It’s so swaddled in its own good taste that it sinks itself.” I began this post by praising Spirit for not pandering, but maybe the creators should have gotten off their high horse and pandered a little bit. Recently, Dreamworks released a computer animated sequel/loose remake called Spirit Untamed, which, judging by the trailer[5]I haven’t watched the film itself and am not in a hurry to do so., focuses more on the human characters, has more humor and action and is generally more kid/audience friendly. If I were a fan of the original, I’d be affronted. As it is, I wonder if it might be an improvement.

Stay Tuned

References

References
1 Somewhat sadly, this would be the last time Cook sat there.
2 He’s only named at the very end, but I have to call him something.
3 Well, the third act does briefly show a white guy who’s gentler with Spirit and less offputtingly macho than the rest. This technically adds a bit of nuance to the movie, but it doesn’t make the man himself an interesting character.
4 If you’ve read any articles by some who are, feel free to send me a link. They’re probably more interesting than this blog post.
5 I haven’t watched the film itself and am not in a hurry to do so.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 2

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the screenwriters for Dreamworks’s second hand-drawn animated film, have had their hands in kicking off some highly successful movie franchises, such as Aladdin, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. They’ve also written a number of movies that didn’t do well and of which you’ve probably never heard. The Road to El Dorado is probably somewhere in between. It begins in the year 1519 with two Spanish scoundrels, Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), winning a map to El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold in a game of dice. Through a series of entertainingly ridiculous events, they end up on board one of Hernan Cortes (Jim Cummings)’s ships bound for the “New World.” Through an even more ridiculous series of events, they end up getting there ahead of him in a longboat with a horse. They use the map to find El Dorado and are mistaken for gods by the populace (it has to do with them having a horse), a circumstance they are happy to exploit so they can carry off as much gold as possible.[1]If you’re wondering how they all speak the same language…your guess is as good as mine.

Right there lies my problem with the movie. I just don’t find Miguel and Tulio that likeable. They begin the movie by cheating people out their money with loaded dice and they don’t get much better from there.[2]When they win the map, it’s the only time they’re forced not to use the loaded dice, which, to be fair, is a pretty good way to give the moment a feel of destiny. Watching the movie, I’m not really rooting for them to get found out and executed by the El Doradans, but I’m not really rooting for them to succeed in conning and exploiting all these innocent people, granted that they end up reforming the city’s corrupt religious system of human sacrifice, though I’m not sure if adherents of Postcolonialism are likely to warm to that aspect of the plot. (Those leery of White Savior narratives may want to sit this one out.) There’s not really much reason to care about what happens to them except morbid curiosity and once you’ve seen the movie, there’s not much reason to watch it again. In my last post, I commended Dreamworks for doing things Disney animation didn’t typically do, like have antiheroes as the leads. But watching Road to El Dorado, you can kind of see why Disney typically didn’t do antiheroes.[3]Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled actually strikes me as a highly superior version of Tulio, right down to him having an uneasy relationship with an equine supporting character.

Of course, the movie is primarily a comedy and in comedy, funny sometimes counts for more than likeable. Miguel and Tulio are…well, they’re certainly not unfunny! Branagh and Kline are both awesome hams and they make the script about as fun as it could have been. Rosie Perez is also fun as Chel, the El Doradan con artist who helps them pull of their deception. The movie has enough good jokes in it, mainly visual ones, to keep it reasonably engaging. The nice thing about Dreamworks is that their animators have really good comedic timing, and this makes their comedies go down easier when the jokes aren’t actually funny.

The movie’s funny, but it’s not often hilarious. The dynamic between the cheerful, impetuous Miguel and the more pragmatic, long suffering Tulio is nothing new and the movie doesn’t do anything that interesting with it. According to the creators, the film was made in part as a reaction against movies where the protagonists pale in comparison to the more fun comedic supporting characters. Ironically, if Tulio and Miguel were supporting characters, they might well be the most entertaining part of a movie. But they just don’t have the depth to be the center of a narrative and Chel has even less. Despite the filmmakers’ goals, the animal sidesticks still end up largely stealing the show.

Considering what a megahit The Lion King (1994) was, it’s amazing that popstar/composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice weren’t invited to collaborate on more soundtracks for animated films. Amazing but not much of a loss. You see, they’re both artists who are capable of doing great work but can’t be relied upon to do great work regularly. It was a happy accident that The Lion King‘s soundtrack was of as consistently high quality as it was and probably owed as much to others, such as Hans Zimmer and Lebo M.[4]Though, for what it’s worth, Zimmer was also involved with El Dorado‘s soundtrack. The best thing about The Road to El Dorado musically is The Trail We Blaze, a great little song that plays over the montage of Miguel and Tulio making their way through the jungle.[5]Considering that the title is The Road to El Dorado, it’s surprising how little time the journey part of the story takes up. Actually, that’s not true. The best thing might be the ballad, Somewhere Out of the Blue, which plays over the end credits and has absolutely no connection to the movie, thematically or tonally.[6]Seriously! It’s like they just picked a random song. If I concentrate really, really hard, I can hum the title phrase of It’s Tough to be a God and it gets credit for being the only song in this comedy to have humorous lyrics, something which can add to the comedy with some movies but here is a just an oddity. It’s rather odd though that it’s the only song to be sung by the characters rather than a singing narrator and it’s rather baffling that the singers are singing out loud that they’re conning the people around them and nobody notices. If the movie were a traditional musical throughout, I’d have an easier time accepting this as a convention. The rest of the songs are forgettable at best, cheesy and annoying at worst.

I once heard this movie criticized for being so relatively realistic in its character designs and not embracing cartooniness. Once I’d heard that, I couldn’t get it out of my head. This movie does so many things with which only a cartoon could get away, such as the incredible coincidence that allows Miguel and Tulio to “prove” their powers to the El Doradans or the bit where they cheat at a game by substituting a rolled-up armadillo for the ball. Why not have the visuals be a little sillier looking to really set the tone?[7]Along similar lines, The Prince of Egypt might have done well to make the character designs for the Egyptian high priests less caricatured since, despite being voiced by comedians, they’re not … Continue reading Ironically, the character with the most cartoony design, of the humans anyway, is the ruler of El Dorado (Edward James Olmos)-who is actually one of the ones played for laughs the least.

This is another area where Dreamworks actually might have done better to copy more from Disney’s playbook. This definitely isn’t true of every decade, but formulaic though they were in the 1990s, Disney employed different visuals styles to suit the specific tones of their animated movies. (Just compare Pocahontas‘s character designs with those of Hercules.) And in the early 2000s, they would get even more experimental design-wise with The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch. By contrast, while the four Dreamworks hand-drawn animated movies are very different from each other narratively, they all pretty much look the same. Still, as I wrote above, the quality of the character animation itself is great. The team of artists that worked on Tulio’s facial expressions are the movie’s MVPS for my money.[8]Heh. Money. City of gold. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.

But the story just isn’t that good. (If you don’t want the plot spoiled, skip this paragraph.) In the third act, El Dorado’s human-sacrifice-happy high priest, Tzekel-khan (Armand Assante), discovers evidence that Miguel and Tulio are imposters. Instead of doing the obvious thing and sharing this with the people to turn them against the main characters, he conjures up a giant stone jaguar to attack them. This is rather jarring since the only indication that there’s been anything supernatural going on in this story has been a few brief magic tricks on Tzekel-khan’s part. Meanwhile, Tulio and Miguel have a really lame misunderstanding just so they can reconcile and give the movie some kind of heart. After the jaguar has been defeated, we get another less memorable action scene for the climax and the story ends with none of the main characters getting what they want. I suppose it’s inconsistent for me to first criticize the characters for being unlikeable and then criticize the climax which is supposed to be a redemptive sacrifice for them.[9]If you really want it spoiled, Miguel has to give up his new life in El Dorado to save the city and Tulio has to give up all the gold he’s collected. But it really doesn’t feel like the movie has been wanting us to root for these characters to redeem themselves. If anything, it feels like we’ve been supposed to be rooting for them to achieve their goals. The ending would only make sense if it were setting up a sequel. There wasn’t a sequel, and I don’t believe the movie deserved one.

I admit though I may just be biased against the movie since it has an atheistic message and I’m not an atheist. Both the villains, Cortes and Tzekel-khan have religious motivations, something I’ll freely acknowledge has a historical precedent, and the most moral character in the story is the explicitly atheistic/agnostic chief-maybe the only likeable character actually. On the flipside however, I imagine this gives The Road to El Dorado a special appeal for viewers who are atheists and don’t get to see their views represented in these kinds of movies that often. As I wrote in my last post, if you appeal to one group, you’ll usually alienate another and maybe the lesson Dreamworks learned from their first two hand-drawn animated films was not to involve religion at all, either positively or negatively.[10]I’m informed that Happy Feet (2006) has an anti-religion message far more overt than anything in The Road to El Dorado but that one seems like such an outlier. What themes would they touch upon instead? Well…

Stay Tuned

This image has nothing to do with the preceding paragraph. I just realized I hadn’t given a really good look at the movie’s backgrounds, so I’m plunking this one down here.

References

References
1 If you’re wondering how they all speak the same language…your guess is as good as mine.
2 When they win the map, it’s the only time they’re forced not to use the loaded dice, which, to be fair, is a pretty good way to give the moment a feel of destiny.
3 Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled actually strikes me as a highly superior version of Tulio, right down to him having an uneasy relationship with an equine supporting character.
4 Though, for what it’s worth, Zimmer was also involved with El Dorado‘s soundtrack.
5 Considering that the title is The Road to El Dorado, it’s surprising how little time the journey part of the story takes up.
6 Seriously! It’s like they just picked a random song.
7 Along similar lines, The Prince of Egypt might have done well to make the character designs for the Egyptian high priests less caricatured since, despite being voiced by comedians, they’re not all that funny and they stick out like sore thumbs next to all the other characters who are drawn realistically.
8 Heh. Money. City of gold. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.
9 If you really want it spoiled, Miguel has to give up his new life in El Dorado to save the city and Tulio has to give up all the gold he’s collected.
10 I’m informed that Happy Feet (2006) has an anti-religion message far more overt than anything in The Road to El Dorado but that one seems like such an outlier.
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Animation Station: Hand-Drawn Dreamworks Part 1

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have guessed that I’m interested in the art of animation. This month rather than blogging about adaptations, I’m going to be blogging about a series of animated movies, some of which will be adaptations, some not. Since only my loyal family members read this blog, I trust they’ll be fine with me breaking the rules I set for myself.

Which animated movies should I do? Some would say that Studio Ghibli is the greatest animation studio out there, but while I’ve greatly enjoyed (dubbed versions of) some of their movies, as an American, I wouldn’t understand their cultural context the way I do the cultural context of the other things I’ve covered on this blog. Disney is probably the most influential American animation studio, but I’ve just finished a four-part series on movies produced by the Walt Disney company. So instead, I’m going to write about movies from their rival, Dreamworks Animation. However, their films are more notable for their quantity than their quality[1]That’s not to say all of them-or even any of them-are terrible. Just that they’re far from being consistently great. and the thought of sitting through every last one and coming up with a post for each fills me with dull dread, so I’m just going to look at their four hand-drawn animated movies.[2]Yes, I know they all use computers, but you know what I mean. By the way, I’m just going to count theatrically released hand-drawn movies. I won’t be writing about Joseph: King of Dreams … Continue reading

Whatever your opinion may be of their output, there’s something for which I think Dreamworks deserves credit. In the 1990s, Disney animated movies followed a strict narrative formula and other studios going after their fanbase followed it too.[3]If you’re a big fan of animated Disney movies from the 90s, please don’t take offense. Being formulaic isn’t the worst thing from my perspective, I consider the narrative formula … Continue reading With their hand-drawn animated movies, Dreamworks went places Disney wouldn’t with dark and violent themes, risqué humor and an emphasis on antiheroes and bittersweet endings. In a time when all American hand-drawn animated movies were rated G, or aimed for it at least, three out of four of Dreamworks’s were PG. And in their own ways, they all earn it, even the one that got a G arguably. The four of them don’t really have a formula in common and not one of them feels like it’s trying to be a Disney movie. Sheesh, you could argue that Dreamworks’s computer-animated Shrek, for all its anti-Disney posturing, dances to the Mouse’s tune more than any of their hand-drawn animated movies.[4]Sure, Shrek begins with a page from a fairy tale book being crumpled up and used for toilet paper (literally), but it ends by revealing that its story has become just such another storybook (also … Continue reading Having said that, the downside of not following a formula is that just because you like one of these movies, there’s no guarantee you’ll like any of others. And having given them credit for thinking outside the box, I have to add that it didn’t mean that the dark and violent themes were automatically compelling or the risqué humor automatically funny or the movies themselves automatically good…

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

You can’t criticize Dreamworks for a lack of ambition. Their first hand-drawn animated movie, The Prince of Egypt, takes as its inspiration the biblical book of Exodus. Its protagonist, Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer; singing voice Amick Byram), is born into slavery in Egypt and gets adopted by the royal family in his infancy through an extraordinary chain of circumstances. When he learns of his origins in adulthood, he cannot bear to live a life of privilege while his people, the Hebrews, are suffering and flees into the wilderness. Years later he is called upon by his people’s God to return to Egypt and demand their release. This pits him against Rameses II (Ralph Fiennes who does his own (minimal) singing), his former brother.

Since the story of Moses is part of three major religions and several minor ones, it has a great appeal for Hollywood. But it’s also a challenge since while those religions all revere Moses, they don’t agree on much else and it’s hard to do a movie about him without alienating one group or another. Hollywood also wants its movies to appeal to as many people as possible, so they’re going to want Secularists to enjoy their Moses movie too and that’s not even getting into the artists wanting to make something that reflects their own beliefs. It’s a very difficult balance and, if we’re being honest, probably better off not attempted. But The Prince of Egypt, with its vibe of The Ten Commandments (1956) meets The Lion King (1994), succeeds as well as it ever could and better than you might expect. It may not please everyone-what movie does? Some nonbelievers will find parts of it unrelatable and some believers will take offense at the artistic license it takes, but I do hear both atheists and Christians, the most vocal religious groups in my country[5]I know calling atheists a religious group is questionable, but you know what I mean., praise it and that can’t really be said of any recent film based on the Bible.[6]If you’re interested in which aspects of the adaptation are inspired by which religions, here’s my attempt at a list. As in Hebrew midrash, Moses’s sister predicts he will free his … Continue reading

The part of the Exodus story, at least the section covered by The Prince of Egypt, most likely to offend secularists and humanists is its portrayal of the Hebrews alone as God’s chosen and the horrifying punishments He rains down, not just on Pharaoh who has defied him, but on all the Egyptians.[7]Well, maybe proponents of Critical Race Theory will appreciate that. The movie emphasizes that the Egyptians as a whole are ordinary people, not villains to a man, which is actually less revisionist than you’d think. (The book of Exodus portrays Pharoah’s daughter as having compassion for the infant Moses and the Egyptians as being favorably disposed enough toward their former slaves to give them gold and jewelry as parting gifts.) It even refers to them as “innocents” who suffer for the fault of their ruler. It also scapegoats God, so to speak, and has Moses himself, who was raised Egyptian, be disturbed by the plagues. In theory, the last one strikes me as a lame cheat, but in practice, it actually makes for pretty great drama. [8]And for a prophet to hate the job he has to do is actually pretty consistent with Abrahamic faiths. The scene of God smiting the firstborn of Egypt, arguably the most disturbing plague, has no background music as if the filmmakers are declining to offer judgement on it, which works very well artistically.

God also has a more “positive” role in the story, preserving and empowering Moses and the Hebrew people. This is most obvious in the numinous scene of Moses encountering Him for the first time and in the climax at the Red Sea but is implied throughout right from the start. The aforementioned scene of God smiting the Egyptian firstborn also emphasizes how the pious Hebrews who obeyed divine commands are protected. The main theological points of the book of Exodus, God’s superiority to all other powers, temporal and spiritual, and His care for His people, are conveyed through the movie’s powerful visual storytelling.

In 2017, a stage musical adaptation of The Prince of Egypt premiered which, from what I understand, emphasized the heroism of the human characters even more and leaned harder into the God-as-villain interpretation. I don’t doubt that was more satisfying for writer Philip LaZebnik and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz to work on than the movie since it’s more enjoyable to make a work of art that reflects your own beliefs without having to cater to any particular group. But I’d argue those things actually make the musical less interesting and (ironically) more predictable than the movie was. Broadway musicals that subvert biblical accounts for their own Secular-Humanist purposes are fairly standard. Mainstream animated movies that try to do justice to the traditionally pious take on the Bible, or as much of it as can be reconciled to their own views, are something else.[9]Also the new songs for the stage musical, with a few exceptions, aren’t nearly as memorable as the themes from the original movie, but I digress.

Did I write something about powerful visual storytelling? Yes, I did.

This film’s visuals are technically equal or superior to anything Disney was doing at the time. For sheer eye candy, it may actually be the best thing Dreamworks has ever done. All of the miracles appear to maximum effect and even when nothing supernatural is happening, the movie has an awe-inspiring sense of scale.[10]The colossal monuments and palaces of Egypt are depicted as much larger than they would have been historically. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers to make the characters … Continue reading Equally great but less showy is the character animation, which rewards multiple viewings. Pay attention to subtle facial expressions and body language, such as Rameses’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reaction to the rather pathetic attempt of his priests (Martin Short and Steve Martin) to duplicate Moses’s miracle of turning the Nile to blood.

According to the movie’s novelization by Lynne Reid Banks, “Moses seemed to see the eye of his mind closing.”

Equally powerful and vital to the film are the Broadway-style musical numbers by Stephen Schwartz and score by Hans Zimmer. It’s a crime that so little of the latter is included on the official soundtrack. For its final scenes, the movie uses as little dialogue as possible, letting the music and visuals tell the story by themselves and giving what dialogue there is as much impact as possible. And it is awesome.

The part of the movie with which viewers for whom the source material is sacred are most likely to take issue is its portrayal of Moses’s brother, Aaron (Jeff Goldblum, whose character doesn’t do any singing), as a mostly negative, though not unsympathetic, character who only redeems himself at the end. While there is precedent for Aaron being weak in the Pentateuch, mainly the golden calf incident, he was delighted to be reunited with his brother and was arguably the second biggest hero of the Exodus after Moses. He was also the head of the Levitical line of priests, making him an important figure in Abrahamic religions. The Prince of Egypt‘s depiction is pretty offensive, though I can sympathize with the dramatic reasons behind the change.

The movie’s biggest shortcoming artistically is that while Moses and Rameses emerge as complex and compelling characters,[11]I haven’t given you a good idea of the movie at all by not writing more about their arcs, but to do so might spoil someone’s first-time viewing experience. everyone else’s characterization consists of one or two notes. This is happily more of a limitation than a drawback, but considering how much the camera focuses on Aaron, Moses’s sister, Miriam (Sandra Bullock; singing voice Sally Dworsky), and his wife, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfieffer,) during the final scene, it does seem like we’re supposed to be more invested in them than I think we actually are. I’m not sure how the movie could have developed anyone further though without sacrificing its effective pacing which packs a whole lot of storytelling into a short running time and feels neither slow nor rushed. And, of course, the story is supposed to be about a people, not about individuals. Considering that I’m more interested in stories about individuals than people groups, the fact that The Prince of Egypt works so well for me might just be one of its finest achievements.

Stay Tuned

References

References
1 That’s not to say all of them-or even any of them-are terrible. Just that they’re far from being consistently great.
2 Yes, I know they all use computers, but you know what I mean. By the way, I’m just going to count theatrically released hand-drawn movies. I won’t be writing about Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) or the various Kung Fu Panda supplementals, but my memories of them are positive.
3 If you’re a big fan of animated Disney movies from the 90s, please don’t take offense. Being formulaic isn’t the worst thing from my perspective, I consider the narrative formula for 90s Disney animation to be very solid as far as narrative formulae go, and at least of their films from this decade, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, are favorites of mine. But I can see how people actually living through the decade, as opposed to people in the present looking back on it nostalgically, would find it tiresome.
4 Sure, Shrek begins with a page from a fairy tale book being crumpled up and used for toilet paper (literally), but it ends by revealing that its story has become just such another storybook (also literally.) And even the subverted storybook prologue serves to provide legitimate exposition.
5 I know calling atheists a religious group is questionable, but you know what I mean.
6 If you’re interested in which aspects of the adaptation are inspired by which religions, here’s my attempt at a list. As in Hebrew midrash, Moses’s sister predicts he will free his people from slavery long before it happens. God sharing a voice actor with Moses reflects the Jewish tradition that when anyone hears God, He sounds like their own voice. Moses’s motives for leaving Egypt are more in keeping with the New Testament book of Hebrews, which describes him as choosing “to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time,” rather than him running for his life as in the book of Exodus. (That probably also reflects Jewish tradition.) More debatably, the flames around the famous burning bush visually evoke the fire of Pentecost. As in Qur’an Surah, Pharoah’s wife (Helen Mirren) is portrayed as instrumental in the royal family adopting Moses (and his basket washes up on the shore rather than being left on the bank) and Pharoah threatens to kill the sons of Israel to spite Moses. (Ironically, in The Prince of Egypt, he does this right before God smites the Egyptian firstborn.) Of course, it’s probably an exaggeration to say any of these things were specifically inspired by any religious tradition. Many of them have obvious dramatic appeal and could easily be coincidental. But the movie did have Jewish, Christian and Muslim consultants so who knows?
7 Well, maybe proponents of Critical Race Theory will appreciate that.
8 And for a prophet to hate the job he has to do is actually pretty consistent with Abrahamic faiths.
9 Also the new songs for the stage musical, with a few exceptions, aren’t nearly as memorable as the themes from the original movie, but I digress.
10 The colossal monuments and palaces of Egypt are depicted as much larger than they would have been historically. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers to make the characters relatable to viewers familiar with modern skyscrapers.
11 I haven’t given you a good idea of the movie at all by not writing more about their arcs, but to do so might spoil someone’s first-time viewing experience.
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The Taming of the Shakespeare

As anyone familiar with Shakespeare should know, his early comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, is about two Paduan sisters. The younger one, Bianca, is sweet, demure and charming at least on the surface. The elder, Katharina, is shrewish, angry and violent (also on the surface?) Naturally, men are lining up to marry Bianca, but the girls’ wealthy father, Baptista Minola, either wants to keep Bianca to himself, feels sorry for Katharina or is just desperate to get her out of his house because he’s declared that the younger shall not marry before the elder. Bianca’s suitors are reduced to zany schemes to woo her behind her father’s back. Finally, a husband for Katharina comes along: Petruchio, who loves a challenge, seeks to marry into money and won’t take no for an answer.

In the average Shakespearean comedy, if there’s a battle of the sexes, the leading lady runs circles around the man.[1]cf. Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The battle arguably ends in a stalemate in Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare often had the heroine of his romantic comedy be the character most in control of her situation[2]cf. The Merchant of Venice or As You Like It. or at least have the widest understanding of what’s going on around her.[3]cf. Twelfth Night. For once, however, the male is victorious in The Taming of the Shrew and it ends, more or less, with the heroine declaring that it’s hopeless and unnatural for women to try to master men and they should just make the best of things. There’s reason to believe some found this play misogynistic even back in the day[4]John Fletcher wrote a deconstruction of it called The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed. and even modern people who agree with the idea of wifely submission will look askance on some of Petruchio’s motives and methods. The idea that kindness and gentleness are the best ways to win over a woman is pretty thoroughly debunked by the Shrew. Even betting on your wife, as the husbands do in the last scene, is frowned upon now. Yet The Taming of the Shrew hasn’t been relegated to the same dustbin as such offensive Shakespeare plays as The Two Gentlemen of Verona or All’s Well That Ends Well, which are seldom performed now or if they are, it’s by professional Shakespeare companies with the resigned air of “it’s Shakespeare so it must be good for you.” People still keep putting on productions of this play, still keep paying to see it, still keep trying to find a way to reinterpret it be socially acceptable.

Why? Well, this play has a dirty little secret.

It’s funny. Really funny. Hilarious even.

It also has to do with the tone and I’m not just talking about the fact that The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy and Shakespeare wasn’t recommending acting like Petruchio in real life.[5]Given his culture, what Shakespeare would have recommended might have been worse actually. While the story is ostensibly about Katharina having all the pugnacity drained out of her, her dialogue doesn’t make it sound like she’s losing her energy the more time she spends with Petruchio. If anything, it sounds like she’s exhilarated. Compare her generically shrewish lines in her first scenes with her battle of snappy insults with Petruchio on their meeting. In the later scenes of Petruchio blackmailing her into agreeing with him no matter what ridiculous thing he says, she doesn’t just mechanically repeat his absurd statements, a weary broken shell of a woman, but picks up and elaborates on his fantastical suggestions with some flair.[6]For a full analysis of Katharina’s character arc along these lines, read Alexander Leggatt’s excellent book, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. I’m not normally a fan of interpretations that posit all of a character’s clearly expressed opinions as lies on their part, but the idea that Katharina is attracted to Petruchio, on some level, from the start and that her protests are a subterfuge works so well in practice that I’m ready to declare it canon. Then again, I don’t think it’s good advice to stay in an abusive relationship for the thrills and many would object to the idea that if a woman initially rejects a man, it’s because she’s in denial. So maybe this play really is unsalvageable…

If you have an open mind about the material though, there’s a lot to love about director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 cinematic Taming of the Shrew[7]Keep in mind the person writing this has no experience with domestic abuse. If you or a loved one of yours has, your take may well be different., starting with the raucous local carnival during the opening credits that vividly establishes this isn’t going to be some lofty, philosophical Shakespeare movie. It’s going to be loud, boisterous and potentially rather offensive. The film brims with clever ideas for staging scenes in ways Shakespeare didn’t and in some cases couldn’t.

I love Bianca (Natasha Pyne)’s first sight of her love interest, Lucentio (Michael York), effectively tricking the viewer into thinking they rather than the less conventionally attractive Katharina (Elizabeth Taylor) and Petruchio (Richard Burton) will be the leads, and our first view of Katharina leaning out an upper story window and yelling like an anti-Juliet. The cast is all wonderful. I have to give special credit to Pyne, who despite having so many of her character’s lines from the play cut, manages to perfectly convey Bianca’s personality. And of course, there are Burton and Taylor’s crackling performances at the center.

Some critics have condemned the movie for focusing so much on elaborate slapstick set pieces and other forms of “lowbrow” comedy at the expense of sophisticated verbal wit. To this I can only reply…have those critics ever read the play at all?! It was never exactly meant to be highbrow. It’s admittedly true that the script by Zeffirelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Paul Dehn plays a bit fast and loose with Shakespeare’s text. It cuts much of the original dialogue and even goes so far as to add a few original non-Shakespearean lines. The language is occasionally updated, gaining clarity for modern audiences while sadly losing a bit of depth.[8]For example, Katharina accuses her father of trying to make “a whore of (her) among (his) mates” rather than a stale, rendering her meaning clear but losing the pun on stalemate. Some of the cuts have unfortunate side effects. Lucentio’s second sidekick, Biondello (Roy Holder)[9]Tranio (Alfred Lynch) is his first sidekick, lacks a proper character introduction and one of Bianca’s hapless suitors, Hortensio (Victor Spinetti), transferring his affections to a wealthy widow (Bice Valori) comes completely out of nowhere. But in general, the movie’s reimagining of the play is brilliant and perfectly true to its original, anarchic spirit.

The most interesting, though not necessarily the most successful, way this film adapts the play is how it seeks to add depth to the main characters.[10]Some would say they always had this depth, but I think that since Shakespeare later became famous for the psychological depth and nuance of his character, people sometimes read it into his early … Continue reading In Petruchio’s first scene, Hortensio’s expressions of friendship for him, which in the play seem to have been genuine, are here a complete form. He’s clearly irritated by Petruchio’s boorishness and can’t wait to get him out of his hair. Only when Petruchio announces his desire for a wealthy wife and Hortensio sees a way to marry off Katharina, clearing the way to Bianca, does he become sincerely welcoming. Thus, both Petruchio and Katharina are portrayed as having no friends, making it (at least potentially) more satisfying when they find love in each other. The movie and Burton also suggest that Petruchio’s swagger may be just that and he’s not as secure in his shrew-taming abilities as he pretends to be. In his soliloquy in Act II Scene I, in which he plans his strategy for wooing Katharina, he comes across as genuinely nervous. In the final scene, where he makes a bet with the other new husbands as to which of their wives will come when called, he briefly appears worried that his will let him down. And when she gives her speech on what wives owe their husbands, which she does of her own initiative in this version, rather than exulting in his power over her, he appears deeply moved to the point of speechlessness.

After her wedding, Zeffirelli starts to humanize Katharina too. (Arguably, so does Shakespeare.) Her humiliation at her wedding is too hilarious to be sad and even Petruchio dragging her off, kicking and screaming, to her honeymoon is entertaining in its sheer outrageousness, especially with Taylor’s invulnerable performance, daring anyone to pity her character. But between those two scenes, the movie creates a moment where Katharina sees her father give Petruchio his two thousand crowns for marrying her, and appears disappointed as if she’d hoped, despite her protests, to have found someone who really loved her.[11]In the Taming of the Shrew-inspired 1999 comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, this would become a major plot point. When Katharina, forced to ride through the icy rain, falls into a puddle and holds out a hand for her husband to help her, only for him to laugh and ride off, she becomes a genuinely pathetic figure.[12]As the play describes this moment, Petruchio didn’t help her but he didn’t laugh at her either. Instead he pretended to blame his servant, Grumio (Cyril Cusack in the movie), for the … Continue reading After this, she takes on a more positive role, making over Petruchio’s dirty, messy house and befriending his shabby servants.[13]There’s some precedent for the latter in the play as the servants express sympathy for Katharina in Act IV Scene I (“By this reckoning he is more shrew than she.”) and she defends … Continue reading This humanization of the character is a double edge sword. On the one hand, it makes her less of a misogynistic stereotype.[14]To be fair, all of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew are stereotypes, male and female. On the other hand, the more we see her as a real person, the harder it is to laugh at her treatment at Petruchio’s hands and to see her contentedly married to him as a satisfying ending. Her refusal to submit to him threatens to come across less like childish stubbornness and more like heroic resistance.

Much of Katharina’s character development in the movie’s second half is conveyed through wordless moments and facial expressions. It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what those indicate. This is the kind of movie that demands a director’s commentary and doesn’t have one. But when reading Shakespeare’s plays, I often feel like the characters have something go on in their heads that I don’t understand and wonder what motivates them to do what they do. In that sense, this movie may be one of the most accurate presentations of Shakespeare ever. When I try to analyze it, I’m not really sure that it works, but I keep returning to it and enjoying it just as I do the play, so apparently it does.

Some of this Taming of the Shrew‘s punches are pulled. Katharina explicitly isn’t forced to go along with the wedding by her father (Michael Horden.) Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this version of Baptista being able to force his daughters to do anything. And Petruchio’s most potentially disturbing method of controlling Katharina, denying her food until she acquiesces to him, is dropped.[15]Though careful productions can still make that part funny. Katharina actually ends up getting the better of Petruchio when he blackmails her into kissing him in public in the bit from Act V Scene I, which has the benefit of making their kiss in the next scene a bigger moment. But a significant punch isn’t pulled or is pulled in a subtle way. (I guess the punching metaphor breaks down here.) According to Hollywood legend, the filmmakers expected Elizabeth Taylor, who was hardly know for submitting to the men in her life, to give an ironic reading of Katharina’s climactic speech on proper wifely behavior. I don’t know what thespian instinct made her give the stern and serious reading she did, but whatever might be said against the speech from a moral perspective, she was quite right from a dramatic standpoint. If Katharina is obviously bitter and sarcastic at the end of the story, just as she was at the beginning, then her whole character arc becomes meaningless.[16]The idea that she’s putting on a show for others’ benefit in this scene is more workable and in keeping with the play’s motifs of trickery and disguise. But it amounts to Katharina … Continue reading Only if she comes across as sincere can the story work. Of course, the movie doesn’t quite end there. After delivering his final lines, Petruchio turns around to find that his wife has run off and he must chase after her yet again, implying perhaps that, in the words of John Muirden’s Shakespeare Well-Versed, “despite the play’s name/Kate will never be tame.”

Bibliography

The Taming of the Shrew: Scene Index (shakespeare-navigators.com)

Shakespeare’s comedy of love : Leggatt, Alexander : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Shakespeare well-versed : a rhyming guide to all his plays : Muirden, James : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

References

References
1 cf. Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The battle arguably ends in a stalemate in Much Ado About Nothing.
2 cf. The Merchant of Venice or As You Like It.
3 cf. Twelfth Night.
4 John Fletcher wrote a deconstruction of it called The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed.
5 Given his culture, what Shakespeare would have recommended might have been worse actually.
6 For a full analysis of Katharina’s character arc along these lines, read Alexander Leggatt’s excellent book, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love.
7 Keep in mind the person writing this has no experience with domestic abuse. If you or a loved one of yours has, your take may well be different.
8 For example, Katharina accuses her father of trying to make “a whore of (her) among (his) mates” rather than a stale, rendering her meaning clear but losing the pun on stalemate.
9 Tranio (Alfred Lynch) is his first sidekick
10 Some would say they always had this depth, but I think that since Shakespeare later became famous for the psychological depth and nuance of his character, people sometimes read it into his early plays, like The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, when it isn’t really there.
11 In the Taming of the Shrew-inspired 1999 comedy, 10 Things I Hate About You, this would become a major plot point.
12 As the play describes this moment, Petruchio didn’t help her but he didn’t laugh at her either. Instead he pretended to blame his servant, Grumio (Cyril Cusack in the movie), for the accident and beat him while Katharina waded through the mire, so it was a deliberate decision on this adaptation’s part to make Petruchio more of a jerk and the situation less funny.
13 There’s some precedent for the latter in the play as the servants express sympathy for Katharina in Act IV Scene I (“By this reckoning he is more shrew than she.”) and she defends them from her husband. Act IV Scene III, however, implies that they are complicit in Petruchio’s plan to starve her into submission.
14 To be fair, all of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew are stereotypes, male and female.
15 Though careful productions can still make that part funny.
16 The idea that she’s putting on a show for others’ benefit in this scene is more workable and in keeping with the play’s motifs of trickery and disguise. But it amounts to Katharina just being a more competent version of Bianca. Is that what we’re supposed to want? The worst solution is to try to present the play as a tragedy about Man’s inhumanity to Woman. The writing style Shakespeare employed in it simply isn’t flexible enough for that.
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