The Land Before Time/Oliver and Company

April 30, 2021

The fact that Oliver and Company and The Land Before Time opened on precisely the same day represents a real clash of the titans. In the world of animation, that is.

Oliver and Company is the latest offering from the recharged Disney animation folks and Disney, after all, is supposed to set the standard.

But Land Before Time comes from former Disney animator Don Bluth, whose An American Tail was one of the big cartoon hits of this decade. (Land Before Time also carries the considerable backing of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as executive producers.)

The surprise here is that Bluth has managed to out-Disney Disney. Land Before Time is really a homage to the classic Disney animation, to the soft, luscious visual style of Fantasia and Bambi. It’s about the adventures of a group of baby dinosaurs who trek across a continent in search of a fabled land of milk and honey.

It’s a slight story, not so much written as cribbed together, but the visuals are so lush and the baby dinos so adorable that it all works very neatly. The film doles out the expected behavioral lessons in an unforced and charming way, with the little characters clearly and winningly delineated.

Oliver and Company, by contrast, catches the Disney animators in an upbeat and modern mode. The story is loosely based on Dickens, but Oliver Twist is merely a jumping-off point.

Oliver is a stray kitten lost in the streets of contemporary New York City. He’s taken in by “New York’s coolest quadruped,” a hip hound, Dodger (whose voice is provided by Billy Joel).

In this version, Fagin is a homeless rogue who, somewhat disconcertingly, speaks in the voice of Dom DeLuise. Fagin has a bevy of dogs working for him, an entertaining batch of canines who furnish the movie’s best moments. (A peppery chihuahua is given voice by Cheech Marin, who has fun.)

Oliver also falls in with a rich little girl who needs a friend. The little girl’s other pet is a pampered, blue-haired poodle named Georgette – vocal by Bette Midler, who knows what to do with such an opportunity.

Oliver, directed by George Scribner, is a spirited outing. There are some interesting angles and effects in it, and a dramatic chase on subway tracks that is quite good. At the very least, it continues the upswing in energy at the Disney studio, which became sluggish and something of a dinosaur itself by the 1970s.

It seeks to be light and jazzy, and it succeeds at that, but the movie’s fundamentally soulless. Even the quality of the animation is a bit off; the jaggedness of the drawing is nowhere near as lovely to watch as the round shapes and subtle colors of Land Before Time. In the battle of the cartoon giants, Bluth and company came out on top this time.

First published in The Herald, November 24, 1986

Big Thanksgiving showdown here. Just checking out the stills from Oliver, the film really looks like a relic of Disney’s past; The Little Mermaid would bow in ’89 and change everything. Bluth returned in ’89, too, with the so-so All Dogs Go to Heaven.

The Accidental Tourist

August 20, 2012

The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist is Macon Leary, a travel writer. Macon is leery of most of life’s experiences, including, oddly enough, travel. But this makes him the perfect person to write his businessman’s guides to different cities; Macon describes how to travel so that you never feel you’ve gone anywhere.

Where do you find a meal in London that will taste like a meal in Cleveland? Where are the American hotels in Paris? Macon finds ways for travelers to cocoon themselves away from any experience of strangeness. And always pack lightly: “In travel, as in life,” he advises, “less is definitely more.”

Macon’s cocooned life is shattered by his son’s death and his wife’s departure. Tyler’s novel, and the film adapted by director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan, describes Macon’s struggle with his lifelong tendency toward self-insulation.

He is an intriguing character, and perhaps only William Hurt could play this role; this is one of those rare movies in which the hero’s purpose is not to act but to think. Hurt can convey this, although his passive presence at the center of a film begins to make the movie seem washed-out and bland.

There isn’t a lot of story to speak of. When Macon’s wife (Kathleen Turner) leaves him after accusing him of leading a muffled existence (“I’m not muffled,” he says, “I endure. I’m holding steady”), he continues writing, tending to his increasingly contrary dog, and watching the Home Shopping Network during long afternoons. Then he meets a kooky dog-trainer (frizzy, frazzled Geena Davis) who tries to scratch away at his barrier.

The film also spends considerable time with Macon’s family, to whom he retreats. His siblings are just as controlled and eccentric as he (and they are amusingly played by Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, and Ed Begley, Jr.).

Kasdan, who also directed Hurt and Turner in Body Heat, has made a literate and thoughtful film. He and co-screenwriter Frank Galanti are faithful to the novel, even retraining much of the book’s dialogue. But they haven’t quite fashioned a living, breathing movie out of it. The film is sketchy and controlled; in its own way, it’s as overarranged and self-conscious as its unhappy hero.

The film does becomes animated by Geena Davis’s presence. She’s the character who’s supposed to put Macon in touch with the lifeforce, and Davis (a tall, adorable actress who was so good opposite her husband Jeff Goldblum in The Fly) is fine at catching the character’s bubbliness and also her underlying layer of grit. Kathleen Turner, on the other hand, is relegated to a supporting role (she disappears from the film for a solid hour), and there isn’t much she can do to explain the wife’s uneven behavior.

Much of the peripheral business is nicely done, such as Macon’s publisher (Bill Pullman), a disappointed yuppie who becomes attracted to Macon’s sister, despite or because of the fact that she’s the kind of person who alphabetizes food on kitchen shelves. This film’s pleasures are real, though I think it fundamentally misses the mark. The New York Film Critics disagreed; they named The Accidental Tourist best picture of the year.

First published in the Herald, January 5, 1989

Nobody talks much about the movie these days. I think I’ll stand by the review, although the movie is not a stiff, by any means…just a little too exactly-everything-you’d-expect. Geena Davis won an Oscar for her performance.

Turner & Hooch

August 2, 2012

During his first-ever stakeout, a small-town cop sits in his car with the only witness to a murder. The witness is a dog, a big, ugly, smelly mastiff, and the cop’s only sanity-saving device is to free-associate on whatever subjects come to his mind, which range from some helpful advice on the dog’s drooling problem to fond remembrances of an almost-forgotten 1960s TV show with talking chimps.

That the actor who plays the cop is Tom Hanks has a lot to do with why this is the most appealing scene in Turner & Hooch, the latest grown-up variation of the boy-and-his-dog story. Hanks’s playing is so wonderfully fluid, so inventive, that he lends the scene an air of breezy improvisation.

The rest of the movie should be so inventive. It’s redundant in its very concept: Just a few months ago, we had K-9, a dreadful film about a cop who was partnered with a dog. The cop didn’t like the dog at first, but of course he grew to love the beast.

In Turner & Hooch, Turner (Hanks) isn’t partnered with the canine, but he does need to bring Hooch into his house and keep him around for possible culprit identification. The man-dog interaction has a familiar ring to it, despite Hanks’s best efforts (he taunts the hapless dog, “This is what you can do when you’ve got thumbs!”). The obligatory love interest, played here by Mare Winningham (as a sympathetic veterinarian), fares somewhat better.

The script bears the credits of some of Hollywood’s highest priced writers, who together have managed to create a property utterly without any personality. For instance, the Hanks character begins the film as a compulsive neatness freak; he learns to relax because of the dog’s friendly slovenliness. Only problem is, this feels like one of those conflicts that writers dream up in order to give a story bite; it’s artificial.

Director Roger Spotiswoode has shown an offbeat comic touch in the past (check out The Best of Times on video), but he can’t do much more than make this slick package look good. When the introduction of Hooch is accompanied by slow motion and the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (aka the 2001 theme), you know it’s a desperate moment. Hooch, for his part, performs like a champ. In real life a De Bordeaux named Beasley, he is a frightful creature.

First published in the Herald, August 3, 1989

Hanks said somewhere that this was a key film for him, in the sense that it forced him to truly be inventive and original (or something like that) in his acting, because his co-star was an animal, and that he was proud of his work here. That doesn’t mean I have to like the movie.


July 24, 2012

“He’s not just a dog. He’s a cop.” These words are spoken, with complete seriousness, at a dramatic moment in the new film K-9. They pretty much sums up the concept, although the movie generally has more of a sense of humor about it.

K-9 is the latest cop-buddy movie, the twist being that one half of the crime fighting team is a German shepherd. The other half is played by James Belushi, who has the unenviable task of trying to make this thing work.

Belushi’s a funny guy, but he can’t bring it off without some good support. There is none here. Oh, the dog, Jerry Lee, is fine, but the script is a connect-the-dots enterprise, and the director, Rod Daniel (Like Father, Like Son), can’t tell a joke to save his soul.

The story follows a predictable format. Belushi is reluctantly teamed up with the canine, one of those trained dogs able to sniff out hidden drugs. (The plot has something to do with brining down a big drug kingpin, although the story is so feebly told that it barely registers.)

Belushi and Jerry Lee have a personality clash at first; Jerry Lee elects to sit in the front seat of Belushi’s 1965 Mustang, and disdains the doggy deodorant Belushi picks out for him. But when Belushi gets caught in a sleazy bar by some ruffians, Jerry Lee comes to the rescue by snapping his fangs closed on the bad guy’s crotch. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship.

There are jokes about dog food (chili is preferred), dog flatulence, and dog sex. The latter involves a tete-a-tete between Jerry Lee and a white poodle, in the privacy of a Mercedes. Immediately after this encounter, Jerry Lee romps around to the strains of a James Brown song and heads off with Belushi into a San Diego sunset. He does everything but light up a Pall Mall.

There’s not much human sex, although Belushi is given a decorative girlfriend, in the form of Mel Harris, who plays Hope on “thirtysomething.” But the movie can’t work up much interest or affection for her, not with that scene-stealer Jerry Lee around; he has all the good lines.

First published in the Herald, April 1989


The Plague Dogs

August 24, 2011

I usually manage to find a way to avoid going to see full-length animated features. I’m really not sure what it is about the format that holds so little allure for me, but I’ll almost always grab any excuse that will help me steer clear of a 90-minute cartoon.

Perhaps it’s because, although animation methods have improved technically since the days of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the art form does not seem to have grown imaginatively. Snow White still shines as a triumph, and most modern-day animation looks withered next to it.

But an animator named Martin Rosen made a movie a few years ago called Watership Down that was a vibrant rebuke to this sad trend. Seeing his name in the credits of The Plague Dogs made it easier for me to drag myself to this new animated feature.

Like Watership Down, this one is based on a novel by Richard Adams, and has talking animals as its main characters. So I was prepared for a movie where dogs spoke with British accents. Okay.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that The Plague Dogs would be so compelling. It’s not just that the animation is impressive. It is; but the story is startlingly engrossing and uncompromising.

Two dogs at a research laboratory have been undergoing painful tests for some months. One night, they sniff a way out into the English countryside, and delight in their freedom. But they find mere survival quite a struggle, and soon they’re the subject of an intensive search: they may have been exposed to some plague virus at the laboratory.

With the help of an uncharacteristically trustworthy fox, they learn how to scavenge and even kill to survive. The scenes in which they trap and eat sheep are surprisingly graphic.

Indeed, some elements of The Plague Dogs may be disturbing to younger children, especially the harrowing atmosphere of the research center and the accidental death of a hunter caused by one of the dogs.

However, these elements are also what make the film admirable. It is so powerful in large part because it is unflinching. There’s nothing icky or cute about these cartoon characters and situations; the stakes, after all, are life and death, and if a film—even an animated one—is going to deal in those terms, it may as well do it without blinking.

The personalities of the dogs are—pardon the phrase—well-drawn; Snitter, a sharp-witted terrier, is giving to occasional hallucinatory experiences, thanks to the fact that some of his gray matter was lifted out by scientists. Rowf is a skeptical black Labrador who vows not to let the “Whitecoats” take him back alive.

Given that set-up, there is slim chance of the customary happy ending. And The Plague Dogs offers an odd, bold alternative. I won’t say what it is, but I found it strangely moving, and rather courageous—an appropriately offbeat ending for an animated feature made unusual by its quality.

This is the film’s American premiere engagement.

First published in the Herald, December 16, 1983

“May be disturbing for younger children.” Well, I am known for understatement. This is one traumatic movie, and it will be too disturbing for most adults I know. This is from the days when Seattle was a popular market to launch misfit movies, and The Plague Dogs certainly qualifies; a cartoon guaranteed to keep a young audience away—who is this movie for? It was very good, and Martin Rosen went on to make an interesting 1987 live-action picture, Stacking, but I don’t know where he went after that, except for an IMDb listing about a Watership Down TV series. It’s kind of interesting to recall this pre-Little Mermaid moment when feature animation really was in a long period of doldrums, from which it didn’t seem particularly likely the form would recover. Feature animation still interests me less than just about any other kind of moviemaking, but the quality level has gone way, way up.

Benji: The Hunted

August 22, 2011

Oh my god, how adorable is that, right?

You’d probably forgotten all about Benji, the scenery-chewing little mutt who starred in a series of movies and TV specials during the late 1970s and early ’80s. But the pooch was a bona fide phenomenon, and Benji: The Hunted just goes to show you can’t keep a good dog down.

This time out Benji plays “himself,” as the credits have it. (And, by the way, this is the first film in my experience to acknowledge “special cougar work” in the opening credits. Must have a strong union.) As the film begins, a reporter breathlessly announces that the internationally famous canine star has been washed overboard in a storm at sea. Trainer Frank Inn (who also, interestingly, plays “himself”) sets out in a helicopter to try to locate his prize pup, but he mourns that he may already be too late.

Not a chance—Benji, as we will see in the course of the film, is one resilient puppy. He dog-paddles through the surf to splash ashore on the Oregon coast. No sooner does he shake himself dry than he witnesses the shooting of a mountain lion. Then Benji stumbles upon the cat’s four orphaned kittens, alone and hungry in the woods.

Benji scopes out the situation very quickly, and the film is taken up with his care for these cougar cubs, even at the risk of his own scruffy neck. The main threats are a hunter, a big Kodiak bear, and a black timber wolf.

This goes on for better than 90 minutes, which, for a movie aimed primarily at children, is a mite too long, particularly since the movie is almost entirely without dialogue—dialogue that we humans can understand, anyway.

The writer-director Joe Camp, who has made all of the Benji movies, is pretty shrewd about pleasing the crowd. He also takes some surprising care in building an authentic sense of danger by composing shots of Benji and his predators within the same frame, although he could more easily have used separate shots. He dallies too much, especially toward the last 15 minutes, but the gags and the wet-eyed cubs will amuse kids.

Benji’s performance is quite dexterous—how does this dog do all those double-takes on cue, anyway? Reportedly this is not the original Benji, but the offspring of that first major star. Clearly, the genes are strong, and the pup learned a lot from Papa. Let’ just hope he also learned about not letting success swell his shaggy head, else the pooch “Go Hollywood” like that insufferable prima donna, Spuds Mackenzie.

First published in the Herald, June 20, 1987 says the running time is 88 minutes, so either this thing has been cut or I got something wrong all those years ago. In any case, the movie deserves some tiny amount of credit for eschewing dialogue (anticipating Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear by about a year?) and for actually bothering to follow some filmmaking rules about the importance of integral shots. If you don’t know Spuds Mackenzie, well, you really missed an era.

An American Werewolf in London

February 23, 2011

David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, parkas: AWIL

An American Werewolf in London is a super title; it suggests an arch, off-the-wall approach to a certain film genre, but also manages to affectionately evoke older, much-beloved horror movies, like Werewolf of London. It also provides enough information for an audience to be fairly sure of what they’ll see (Although writer-director John Landis has reported this his favorite interview question he’s been getting asked is, “An American Werewolf in London…now, what’s that about?”).

Funny thing is, once our American friend (head Pepper David Naughton) gets out on the streets of London (the lucky dog is accompanied by Jenny Agutter), the inventiveness and spirit that Landis has displayed in the first part of the movie starts dribbling away. Almost as though the title, finally, was enough; as though inspiration has been exhausted by the mere act of luring an audience into a theater (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, and Escape from New York are a couple of examples of this kind of thing: a wonderful premise for a movie—and audiences did come—gives way to the film itself turning out to be a lackluster disappointment).

Still, before Landis gets his werewolf to London, there is a good deal of fun to be had: two vacationing American boys disengage themselves from the back of a truck carrying sheep (“We’re gonna miss you guys”) and set off across the lonely moors of Northern England, with their backpacks and brightly colored down parkas distinguishing them as aliens in this world (a very striking, right touch). They don’t exactly seem like innocents abroad, however; in fact, they’re both likably wiseass. This is clearly a modern monster movie, not attempting to recapture the feel of old Universal horror films; still, Landis wants it to be scary as well as hip, and manages that up through Naughton’s stay in a London hospital (I won’t say what happened out there on the moors) where he has a really terrifying nightmare. In fact, this sequence—Naughton dreams his family is attacked by creatures from –well, from his own imagination—hints at ambitions in the film that are never quite confronted head on; could be Landis doesn’t want to risk bumming out his mostly teen audience, or maybe he’s just not ready to confront such issues within himself.

At any rate, most of the stuff that follows is pretty tame, and the finale is particularly disappointing. The ending is vaguely reminiscent of Altered States; though at that ending, Ken Russell had the delirious courage to back up Chayefsky’s contention that Love is the civilizing and conquering factor over darkness. Landis doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with a similar situation, and the movie just sort of stops. Or should we take this ending—the werewolf cannot answer a woman’s cry of love—as an autobiographical confession on Landis’s part? The filmmaker as werewolf, compulsively howling and shocking, needing to grab our attention but unable to articulate his feelings? Okay, I’ll let it go, even though the werewolf in Werewolf literally does rampage and suck the blood from a Piccadilly movie audience. John Landis has provided some very enjoyable times in the last few years (Animal House and The Blues Brothers) and one hopes that he might reconcile his cleverness with the expression of that hint of ambition; although his next project, Dick Tracy, would not seem to encourage that prospect. Landis has shown enough so that we might expect more than just genre-tweaking revelations such as the fact that a silver bullet is actually not necessary to kill a werewolf.

First published in The Informer, September 1981

Head Pepper? David Naughton was indeed the star of a series of all-singing, all-dancing commercials for Dr. Pepper. It seemed sort of logical that he would get the lead off a movie after that, even if bigger stardom never happened. There’s a lot to be said for the film’s remarkable effects and that opening sequence with the guys in their down parkas, even if the mixed review seems sound. I always enjoy the armchair psychologizing of these reviews written by a 23-year-old – but hey, maybe Landis wasn’t ready to confront such issues within himself. He didn’t make Dick Tracy, at least.