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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Great Mouse Detective


Title: The Great Mouse Detective

Year of Release: 1986

Date Viewed: July 23rd, 2011

MPAA Rating: G

"I only hope we never lose sight of one thing. That it was all started with a mouse."

- Walt Disney

In the past few weeks, sales of mouse traps have increased at the department store I'm employed at. The surge occurred right around the time of my viewing of The Great Mouse Detective; Disney's adaptation of Eve Titus and Paul Galdone's children's book Basil of Baker Street. Just a funny coincidence I'm sure. But for the conspiracy enthusiasts, here's some food for thought. Perhaps the Disney animators were trying to warn us of a coming rodent apocalypse through the subtle guise of a kid's detective story. Consider for a moment that the movie is scientifically accurate. That means for every human that resides in a living space, there is a mouse counterpart hiding somewhere within the interior, imitating the lifestyle of the larger being. If you're a chef, there's a creature that makes his own specialty dishes using the food that spills off your table. If you're an accountant, something is auditing your grocery receipts as we speak. As for what could reside in my home, there's probably a mouse sitting in our attic somewhere typing movie reviews on a smart phone while munching on gummy soda bottles.

The title character is the mouse counterpart to the one and only Sherlock Holmes. Basil of Baker Street's (voice of Barrie Ingham) reputation of crime-fighting case-solving exploits reaches every corner of underground London. His most fateful mission begins when a scary yet clumsy bat creature kidnaps a local toymaker, orphaning his young daughter Olivia (voice of Susanne Pollatschek). The somber opening is quickly counterbalanced with Henry Mancini's catchy and uplifting music, reassuring us that a fun ride awaits.

Following a fortunate meeting with off-duty military doctor David Dawson (voice of Val Bettin), the pair inquires Basil to help them reunite Olivia with her father. Basil is an eccentric personality and barely even acknowledges his clients' presence on the first meeting. But he devotes himself to the case upon realizing that it's masterminded by his hated nemesis Professor Ratigan (voice of the legendary Vincent Price); the city's biggest crime boss. This villain doesn't act all that intimidating, but those who make the mistake of underestimating him or point out that he's a rat will end up as food for his pet rancor cat. Ratigan is not the most inspired villain created from the Disney studios but that doesn't stop Vincent Price from having the time of his life. Someone with that level of talent can transit charisma without any layover. Price owns this show like a tycoon.

Even for something conceived to be Sherlock Holmes-lite, the plot is disappointingly too straight forward. The "clues" don't really add up to anything since the heroes end up locating most important things by accident anyway. Basil's genius can only be appreciated in a single scene which also happens to be one of the best. He and Dawson are stuck in the most unnecessarily elaborate death trap. Basil considers each possible component for weaknesses all while trying to fight back his depressed mind. At the last possible moment, he supports one of my favorite personal thesis' which states that sometimes the hardest problems have the easiest solutions.

Today's youth may overlook the fact that The Great Mouse Detective was a technical leap forward for animated films. While the majority of the illustrations result from traditional hand-drawn two dimensional pictures, the best sequences could stand beside those of the twenty-first century. How did they do it? ("It's elementary, my dear Dawson.") By using a computer generated background, it became possible to sequence events like how live-action directors could shoot things from multiple angles. The technique helps bridge the gap that we the audience have from observing the animated subjects within their own line of sight. The final clock tower chase is a masterpiece because of how credibly lifelike the setting becomes.

The music fare is far lower in quantity that what was typical in 1980s animation. The World's Greatest Criminal Mind is a simple and fitting anthem for Ratigan. I'd love to visit a dueling piano bar that plays that song for a spirited crowd, if any such wonderful venue exists. Let Me Be Good To You is an out of place tune for an out of place scene. The movie ends with a brief number titled Goodbye So Soon which pretty much sums up my reaction to this seventy-four minute long treat. I enjoyed what I've seen, but would an encore be too much trouble?

Rating: 6

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice


Title: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 21st, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

According to a 2010 CBS News poll, an estimated forty-five percent of Americans are unhappy with their jobs. That probably means the vast majority are not living the dreams they had set out for themselves when they were young. Chances are many fantasized of glamorous realistic careers like stockbrokers, business owners or doctors. And some went for unrealistic ones like hockey players, astronauts, or magicians (real ones, not fake ones like Copperfield). Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel) is the title character of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a story inspired by a classic short film featured in Disney's Fantasia. His written destiny is to become a real magician. A pretty cool job, wouldn't you think? Having extraordinary powers is probably the most common wish among daydreaming school kids. For any of them who watch this movie, Dave's resistance will boggle their minds. He wants no magic in his life. No thrills. No danger. His only wish is to be left alone as a ordinary insignificant person.

The fear originated from Dave's first experience with magic as a young child. A sorcerer named Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) has been assigned to seek out the Prime Merlinian; the prophesied successor to the fabled wizard Merlin. Thirteen hundred years later, the diamond in the rough walks into Balthazar's Manhattan antique shop hideout by accident or perhaps by fate. Before the orientation gets underway, Balthazar's former friend and current rival Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina) interferes by initiating the first of many wizard duels over the course of the film. The first one imprisons them both in an urn for ten years. By the time their souls are released, Dave has grown into a young college student so emotionally scarred by the experience to the point that it turns into a distant suppressed memory. 

Of course there's a reason why the movie is called The Sorcerer's Apprentice and not The Kid Who Refused to Become The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Dave eventually warms up to the idea much like how I warmed up to the movie's strengths that are not clearly apparent from the onset. To tell a story about magic, it only makes sense to show off a little of your own. Backed by producer Jerry Bruckheimer's high ceiling budget, Disney's CGI team more than lives up to that mission statement.

Favoring style over substance always has a cost. Trevor Rabin's music score is exciting ear candy but way overdramatic in context. A sequence where a kid chases a love note from his girlfriend on a recreational bike should not sound like a highway car chase is going on. But what's sorely missing here is a credible backstory. Even though the movie opens with a flashback sequence of Balthazar's past, it fails to properly explain how the Prime Merlinian came to be and why only the Merlinian can counterbalance the dark magic. I guess they figured that if Star Wars can get away with such vague prophecies, so can they. But while Star Wars has the advantage of having its own religion to sustain all myths, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is forced to make up the rules as it goes along. The limits of magic are never made clear, but we are led to believe that sorcery is more about transforming what already exists rather than creating things out of empty space. Sadly though, none of the duels are as fun to watch as the one between Merlin and Madam Mim in The Sword and the Stone.

Differing from its Harry Potter-esque peers, The Sorcerer's Apprentice takes pride with its comedic tone. With Jon Turteltaub in the director's chair, that's no surprise. The Fantasia homage is a delight to watch. Mickey Mouse's hat even makes a cameo after the end credits. Nicolas Cage's brave and sarcastic screen personality carries over from the National Treasure series and fits in surprisingly well here. Cage seems to win the most crowd favoritism when playing the sadistic archetype. But I think I prefer him in movies like this where he doesn't have to try so hard. Jay Baruchel's character is a socially awkward and somewhat speech-challenged nerd. I was prepared to write him off as the most annoying person since Sam Witwicky. But then I realized that I knew several real-life people with very similar personalities and it's a little refreshing to see a realistic protagonist that doesn't come across as a parody.

The number of avoided cliches is actually pretty incredible for a film with the names Bruckheimer and Turteltaub attached. Balthazar had been living in Manhattan for a long time before meeting Dave. He is well adapted to modern culture. This spares us from any lame gags involving an ancient man acting like a fish out of water. Dave's romance angle is lame except for one saving grace. The girl gives him a second chance despite the first date getting completely botched. Just because she likes him. That's affection right there, folks. Not this fall on one knee and beg for forgiveness crap that we've been trained to accept since the days of watching soap operas on sick days.

Despite some distracting plot problems, I'm giving The Sorcerer's Apprentice a passing grade for the fun factor alone. The occasional touches of cleverness and reality make it better than okay. But with five writers attached to the project (and most likely a struggle for creative direction), the film feels like a compromise, falling just a little short of the epic spectacle that a Fantasia spinoff deserves.

Rating: 7