I consider myself to be a very well-rounded movie watcher, but there’s been a blind spot through much of my film going experience: family movies. Live action, animated, whatever; for most of my life I’ve shunned just about anything that seemed like it was being made for children. I’ve consistently felt that way even though we just went through a decade in which family films have been really hip. So hip in fact that in 2011 I broke down and started a blog series where I watched every film made by the Pixar Animation Studio and wrote commentary about each one of them. It was a bumpy but rewarding experience and while I didn’t love all the films I saw in it, I did enjoy a lot more than I expected to.
It’s been a little over a year since I concluded that marathon and looking back I’m not sure my journey was really over. There were a lot of acclaimed family films made in the last ten or so years that weren’t made by Pixar, and they’re just as much of a blind spot for me as the Pixar movies were. And so, I’m now going to embark on a new journey into the realm of family cinema, but I’m changing up the format a little this time. Instead of doing one movie a month I’ll be looking at films in sets of two with each pair having either a theme or a creator in common. Half of the pairs I’ve chosen are meant to be samples of various trends that existed in family cinema over the last decade. The other half of the year’s selections will be a sub-marathon looking at the films in the Harry Potter franchise, which I initially ignored only to see it become one of the most popular and acclaimed series of our time. With this series I mainly plan to look at some of the most popular family films made after the turn of the millennium, but before I do I want to look at a pair of films from the late 90s which, in retrospect, have proven to be important precursors of what was on the horizon.
The late 90s were a chaotic and uncertain time for mainstream animated fare. Pixar existed during this period, but they weren’t really the mammoth institution that they are today and they hadn’t yet proven that they could succeed outside of their Toy Story franchise. Meanwhile, Disney-proper was struggling to recapture the success they had experienced earlier in the decade. While films like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan were all sizable hits they were both artistically and commercially inferior to what had come before and the “mouse house” would only slide further into irrelevance going into the next decade. The rest of the major studios could clearly tell that there was blood in the water because we started to see studios like Warner Brothers and Dreamworks dipping their toes into the massive ocean of animation. One of these studios would work with a future Pixar poster-boy to make a cult classic during this era only to then bow out of animation after they watched it crash and burn at the box office, while the other would make a film that is now regarded as a forgettable mediocrity but be encouraged enough by its moderate box office success to stick with this animation thing, a decision which would eventually make them one of the most profitable ventures in Hollywood.
The Prince of Egypt
1998 was a major year for the newly formed Dreamworks SKG. It was the year they topped the box office with Saving Private Ryan, but perhaps more importantly it was the year that its animation division released its first two feature length releases: Antz and The Prince of Egypt. The former film was a clear shot across the bow in the direction of Pixar and is mostly remembered as “that other movie from 1998 about talking bugs” while the later is clearly meant as a film that would out-Disney Disney. To achieve this goal Jeffrey Katzenberg brought together a group of three directors including Simon Wells, Steve Hickner, and most notably Brenda Chapman, who’s hiring would make her the first woman to direct a feature length animated film for a major studio.
The hiring of Chapman (who would later go on to co-direct Pixar’s Brave) is perhaps ironic given that, between this and future projects like The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, it’s pretty clear Dreamworks was trying to set themselves up as a more boy-friendly PG rated alternative to Disney. You’ll notice that this movie pointedly has the word “prince” in its title, which would seem to be the opposite of what their princess-emphasizing competitor would do. The film also relegates any kind of love-story to afterthought status and its slightly misleading advertising campaign heavily emphasized the film’s actions scenes and epic scale. In fact, the film does a rather laudable job of scrubbing away a lot of the sillier elements of the Disney formula that turned me off for so many years. There are no talking animals, the two characters that are meant as comic relief (a pair of aids to the Pharaoh voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short) aren’t nearly as broad or annoying as their Disney counterparts probably would have been, and the film also doesn’t shy away from many of the story’s darker elements like slavery and deity assisted genocide. On paper these are all moves that I approve of, but that doesn’t change the fact that this ended up being a mostly forgettable movie.
The fact that this is an adaptation of a bible story was mostly downplayed in its marketing, but the film itself isn’t exactly shy about it. This is mostly the story of Moses as told in the bible with few major modifications and god himself makes a handful of appearances throughout the story. To the film’s credit, they do a pretty respectable job of taking a story that took Cecil B. DeMille 220 minutes to tell and having it play out in less than half of that run time. I also liked the way that the film was able to humanize the Pharaoh by emphasizing that he was once Moses’ adopted brother. I wish that the filmmakers had found a similar way to flesh out Moses himself, but they really don’t, and every single other character in the film is pretty much a non-entity. Additionally, even this early on Dreamworks was already infatuated with the prospect of stuffing their films with celebrity voice actors and that really backfires here because Val Kilmer is completely lifeless in the film’s title role.
Hard as the film tries to set a more realistic tone than Disney, the film still tries to be a full-on musical and this ends up being one of its biggest problems. Aside from the fact that these musical interludes don’t really fit the rest of the film’s tone and the fact that they usually bring the story to a standstill, the songs really just aren’t very good. The Oscar winning track “When You Believe” is the only tune here that’s remotely memorable and even it pales in comparison to even the second rate songs you’d hear in a Disney film. The film’s animation doesn’t exactly measure up to Disney standards either. For the most part the film looks pretty good and they do a particularly good job creating a character model for Moses, but there’s nothing at all special about what they’re able to accomplish and the places where the film tries to integrate computer animation looks pretty dated today.
Overall I found The Prince of Egypt to be pretty generic and boring, but I mostly respect what they were trying to do they just didn’t go far enough. The film would make about one hundred million dollars at the domestic box office, making it the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film of all time until it was surpassed by The Simpsons Movie in 2007. That sounds like a success, but that probably says more about how commercially unimportant traditionally animated films would be in the coming decade than it does about the film’s popularity. In reality this gross wasn’t much higher than the film’s seventy million dollar budget and was only half of what Dreamworks would make on Saving Private Ryan that year. The studio would go on to make three more traditionally animated films, but that wasn’t the medium upon which they were destined to make their mark. Instead, Antz proved to be a lot more indicative of the formula the studio would eventually embrace: dumb humor plus simplistic moral equals lots of money.
The Iron Giant
Of course Dreamworks would become a force to be reckoned with over the years and in its wake 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Paramount (via its Viacom partner Nickelodeon) have all followed suit and developed similarly soulless animation divisions. The only studios that haven’t really bitten are Universal and Warner Brothers. That Warner Brothers haven’t tried for a piece of the pie is particularly surprising given that they do have an animation legacy going back to the 1930s and is responsible for the ever popular “Loony Tunes” stable of characters. In fact, Warner Brothers current disinterest in feature length animation seems to be largely rooted in a pair of bad experiences they had with the medium in the 90s when they tried to merge Turner Animation Studios into a larger Warner Brothers Animation Studio. The first film produced by this division was a film called Quest For Camelot, which was a troubled production from the beginning and which bombed so badly that the studio decided that animation was just not worth the trouble. Fortunately their next planned animation project was already in production and the studio’s newfound apathy for the whole endeavor gave its young director, Brad Bird, a level of creative freedom which allowed him to turn The Iron Giant into something far more solid than was otherwise likely to have been made otherwise.
The setting for The Iron Giant is a small 1950s town (appropriately called Rockwell, ME) and the film’s visual style reflects that. The film uses a cinemascope widescreen frame and uses the color palate one would expect out of a 50s Technicolor film like Bigger Than Life, Payton Place, or All That Heaven Allows. The film’s character models look like they walked straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting and while they aren’t overly detailed they have realistic anatomy and are very expressive. The film opens with a sequence that’s vaguely reminiscent of the opening scene of the 1954 film Godzilla in which a fishing vessel finds itself in the middle of violent waters as a large figure emerges from beneath the waves. The water in this scene is computer generated and was reminiscent of some of the weird looking CGI water in The Prince of Egypt, but aside from that and a scene towards the end involving a missile the film wisely chooses to only really use obvious 3D computer animation for effects that involve the titular giant. In these scenes the alien nature of the computer graphics is appropriate rather than jarring.
When I watched through all the Pixar movies I noticed a marked difference between the studio’s normal output and the two films directed by Brad Bird. Bird is able to replicate the look and feel of a well made live action film more than any other animation director that I’m aware of. Bird’s films aren’t any more realistic than any other animated films (they often feature fantastical elements like superheroes and talking rats), instead the magic is in the details. You can tell that he plans his “shots” more carefully, that he more meticulously creates more detailed and realistic worlds for his characters to inhabit, and he also knows when to avoid cartoonish flights of fancy. If anything, The Iron Giant is conclusive proof that this professionalism has been part of his approach since the beginning and that he was ahead of his time in this regard. While The Prince of Egypt took certain half-measures toward making a more realistic alternative to the Disney style, Brad Bird (who complained that Quest For Camelot was a craven Disney imitation) went all the way and divorced what he was trying to do from any traces of what Disney was up to during that period. There are no songs in The Iron Giant, no dumb comic relief sidekicks, and the film isn’t based on any kind of fairy tale.
That isn’t to say that The Iron Giant is a wildly original story, in fact its main flaw is that it bares an extreme similarity to the film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and other films where a child has to protect an alien from overly fearful and aggressive adults with guns. It also suffers from a protagonist that’s something of a stock “gee-whiz” 50s kid who begins to grate on the viewer as the film roles on. In fact the film has a very simple story in many ways and if it were a live action family film I suspect that it wouldn’t really be all that noteworthy. That’s the thing about Brad Bird’s style, its so rooted in his ability to make animated filmmaking feel like live action filmmaking that when he tries to make an actual live action film (as he did with the vastly over-rated Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) there isn’t really much of anything special about it. Were I to rank it against the other major family film of 1999, Toy Story 2, I would probably rank Pixar’s film higher than the Brad Bird’s even though The Iron Giant is in many ways less of a flawed work if only because Toy Story 2 has better ideas at its core. Still, being a very well executed family film that never stumbles or panders is accomplishment enough to be more than worthy of praise.
The Iron Giant opened in 1999 on the same day as The Sixth Sense and ended up in ninth place for the weekend (just behind the remake of The Haunting, which was in its third week) in spite of Pixar-like reviews. This was in part due to a rather anemic marketing campaign on the part of studio that was generally disinterested in the film and was willing to let it suffer for the sins of Quest for Camelot. To this day, Warner Brothers has never really tried again to break back into the world of feature length animation, but things worked out better for everyone else involved. Brad Bird would go on to great success at Pixar and his influence rubbed off on and improved that studio’s output. The film itself also went on to have a pretty strong shelf-life and is frequently cited as a favorite among animation fans. I can’t say that I see it as a classic, but I did enjoy it quite a bit and feel like it’s given me a better grasp of why Brad Bird is as respected as he is.
I was about ten or eleven when both The Prince of Egypt and The Iron Giant were first released and I suspect that if I’d gotten someone to take me to them that I would have enjoyed both of them. Seeing them now I think they both do a handful of things right (one more so than the other) but I’m ultimately more interested in them for their respective places in the history of Hollywood animation than I really am in their merits as fine cinema, but that’s alright. Most of the films that I’ll be looking at in this marathon aren’t the same kind of sacred cows on pedestals that the Pixar movies I looked at two years ago were and I don’t really have the same kind of chip on my shoulder when they prove to be less than perfect. Next month I’ll start my inquiry into the Harry Potter series by taking a look at that franchise’s much maligned first two installments: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.