Anastasia and The Swan Princess: Two Decent Films Worth A Look

All I can say is that this was a damned tricky post to write!

I watched both Anastasia and The Swan Princess last week as I had never seen them before and while one left me pleasantly surprised, the other made me feel like I had watched an hour and a half of my life disappear without any chance of getting it back.

The Swan Princess is by far the more entertaining film. OK, it’s pure fantasy, but at least its enjoyable. The characters are relatively simple, yet fun. The main characters are your typical princess, prince/hero and villain. There is  a nice character development sequence at the beginning that follows the prince and princess as they grow up. There are some humourous moments and it provides a good background to the characters mutual hatred for one another all through their childhoods. While both characters are not near as rich and developed as I would have liked, my enjoyment of the film was not hampered by it.

The animation, with plenty of nice, hand-drawn goodness, is grand. The nice thing about this film is that it doesn’t pretend to be complicated film vaulting for the critical appraisal. It was created for the family-friendly market and that is squarely where it is strongest. Adults will have a tougher time enjoying this film for the simple reason that it came out before Toy Story, when animated films generally didn’t appeal to adults as well as kids.

Anastasia, in comparison, is the juggernaut from Don Bluth and FOX. It aims high with lush, fluid animation, a high concept storyline and plenty of top-notch animation filled with complimentary CGI. On paper, it should be by far the better film however in reality, it is anything but.

I found it an OK film in that there is nothing inherently wrong with it, just that I found it less enjoyable than I was expecting. Perhaps I was hoping that it would be up to par with the Disney films of the same time and unfortunately, myself and audiences of the time agree that it is not. The animation is superb, the plot is fine, the pace is a bit erratic and there is an anti-climax at the start of the final act. However, the biggest letdown are the characters.

The God-awful voice-acting of Meg Ryan and John Cusack doesn’t help either. These two are clearly not voice-actors. Their performances are about as flat as you can imagine. There is none of the energy that you normally see and expect from an animated film and it really does show during the dramatic scenes where I found it very hard to care for the characters for the simple reason that they seemed so fake. Even the great Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin is powerless to balance the monotony of these two, who, in all honesty, end up sapping so much life from the characters of Anastasia and Dimirti that they become almost unwatchable.

Overall, both films are fine. Neither advances the animation artform any more than what came before it but that should not detract you from searching them out and giving them a shot. I was surprised by both (for different reasons) but I am glad I watched them, despite what I said in the opening paragraph.

PS. Apologies for the insular nature of this post.

Anomaly Appraisal: Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest

Via: The Internet Movie Poster Awards

Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is one of those films that I must have seen when I was younger. I was smack in the middle of the target audience at the time and I definitely did see Aladdin when it came out mere months before/after.

Yet I had forgotten about it for years until last week when I was at Wal-Mart. Having picked up a bicycle seat (as you do), I strolled past the DVD section. Lo and behold! There was a $5 bin stuffed to the gills with DVDs.

Since I like animation in all shapes and forms, I have become accustomed to rummaging through such bins because you never know what you’ll find. Naturally I came across Fern Gully. For $5? How could I not! So I did, and the other night, I watched it.

What can I say? It’s a decent enough film that left me pleasantly surprised. The animation is superb with plenty of lovely traditional animation and hand-painted backgrounds. There’s also some 3-D CGI that is as good as anything Disney put out at the time. Hans Perk (of A. Film L.A.) did some animation, as did Ralph Eggleston. So it seems that at least a few famous folks were involved in making this film as beautiful as it is.

The plot is fine, if somewhat generic. Sure, it plays on the whole ‘environmentalism’ fad that was happening at the time (remember this was the early 90s) although it is quite believable in the context of the setting. The script itself is slow. A large portion of the movie is devoted to the main characters travelling around the world they live in. It may be a side effect of the short running time (80 mins) that leaves the actual plot to do with Hexus as something of an afterthought.

The music (as excellently composed by Alan Silvestri as it is) is now rather dated, as is the film itself. Besides the music, the big giveaway is the language. “Tubular” and “bodacious” are just two and are far from the only examples. Yes, this film is very much from the late 80s/early 90s.

Indeed, Fern Gully has company in this regard. Tangled walks the very same, fine line that divides a film between being timeless and being time-framed. I have no doubt that in ten years, Tangled will look much the same age as Fern Gully looks today, unfortunately.

As for the characters, they are certainly likeable. There’s nothing wrong with that except that their development is cut short by the running time. They are the usual motley crew that inhabited animated films before Pixar came along. I.e. the smart one, the good-looking dumb one. the hangers-on, the hero, the villain. Nothing makes most of them stand out from the crowd. Having said that, I did find two characters who did.

Crysta, our protagonist, is by far the most interesting of all the characters. There is a lot on her shoulders (as we learn throughout the film) that weighs upon her mind. She is strong character that is determined in her ways while at the same time caring for the bewildered human (Zak) who has literally fallen into her life.

She has that happy-go-lucky charm that imbues all the virtues of a good female character while being assertive enough in her ways to avoid being labelled a pushover. Look at the screencap below.

Now there’s a great shot. The crossed arms, the lip-bite and the dozens of eyes staring out just scream the inquisitive nature of our heroine. How about another one:

I’ve seen that face literally dozens of times. She does exactly that with my face as well and every time it makes me wonder whether I’ve missed my calling as a clown.

Crysta is the most developed of all the characters, so much so, that without her, the film would be indubitably more boring.

The second characteris given some criminally short screen time. That would be Hexus, voiced by the one and only Tim Curry, who manages to bring out so much of the sleaze and evilness in the character, it makes you wonder how awesome the film would be if he’d been given more screen time.

Tim Curry provides a superb balance to Robin Williams who hams it up as Batty. Hexus is effortlessly sublime to Robbin’s lunacy, which is far more abrasive than his other performance of the year as the Genie in Aladdin. Of note is something Brad Bird posted over on Cartoon Brew a few years ago (how I manage to find these things I do not know):

Very few people remember that Williams was also the voice of a key character in FERNGULLY that same year and it didn’t help the film’s boxoffice.

Sadly it didn’t, although the film is no worse for it. Williams is given a wild script but it is clear that he was not given the same freedom that he was for Aladdin, where the character of the Genie was so dependent on him being who he is.

Interestingly enough, Fern Gully is set in Australia and was partially produced there. As such, I asked Australia’s favourite son and my good chum, Elliot Cowan what he thought of it:

Fern Gully is an enormous pile of shit that is about as Australian as Abraham Lincoln.

So The Secret of Kells it isn’t. That should not detract you from seeking Fern Gully out though. You will be rewarded by a lovely looking film with some very 90s songs that may provide a bit of a respite from all the CGI that is being thrown your way these days. Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is available at Wal-Mart and Target for the low, low price of $5 (plus tax).