Review: Disenchantment Season 1

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In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

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The Secret Life of Sausages

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In The Secret Life of Pets, released last week, rival dogs Max and Duke, on the run after losing their collars and being separated from their owner, sneak into a Brooklyn sausage factory and eat to their hearts’ content. Their binge is interpreted as a dream sequence full of singing and dancing sausage links, set to Grease‘s “We Go Together” in a giant production number. (Co-director Chris Renaud has more to say about it here.) Of course it ends with Max and Duke chomping down on the wieners, even as the musical number continues. Yes, it’s reminiscent of the “Land of Chocolate” sequence from The Simpsons; Secret Life felt like it borrowed quite a few spare parts from other animated films, but that’s beside the point.

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I hadn’t heard about this sequence or seen it in any of the advertising for The Secret Life of Pets, but it’s actually the first of three films scheduled for release this year that feature anthropomorphized hot dogs or sausages. Sausage Party, scheduled for an August 12 release, is an animated feature (story by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) about a hot dog whose idyllic life in the grocery store comes to a horrifying end when he learns that the whole point of his (and his friends’) existence is to be eaten. From the trailer it looks to be a savage, raunchy twist on the Pixar “secret life of _______” formula, but no matter what, it definitely features a crew of talking hot dogs.

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Then there’s Yoga Hosers (September 2), the latest from Clerks mastermind Kevin Smith, and the second installment of his planned “Canadian trilogy” after the gonzo body-horror movie Tusk. Although live action, Yoga Hosers looks to be cartoony in its own way, as it features a pair of convenience store cashiers (Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith) who confront an army of living Nazi bratwursts (“Bratzis,” of course). I’m not gonna lie: as dumb as this looks, it’s the kind of movie I would have loved when I was thirteen, and even now I appreciate a film that takes an absurd-on-its-face premise and runs with it. (At the very least, it’s a suitably weird follow-up to a movie about a mad scientist surgically transforming a man into a walrus.)

So what is the explanation for this coincidence? (Other than sausages being hilarious, I guess.) Paid product placement by Big Sausage (or, more likely, since all of these examples end up making meat-eating look kind of horrible, pro-vegetarian propaganda)? Synchronicity? A message from an alien race of talking wieners? I have no answers. All I know is that these three movies would make for one heck of a triple feature, or at least a very strange montage at the Academy Awards when all three films are inevitably nominated for Best Picture.

Over the Garden Wall at The Solute

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Last week, Cartoon Network ran its first animated miniseries, Over the Garden Wall, described as a “five night mystery adventure.” Created by Patrick McHale, previously of CN series Flapjack and Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall leans on the traditions of fairy tales, classic animated cartoons, and much more, and featured enough star power (including such names as Elijah Wood and Wichita’s own Samuel Ramey) that it fully lived up to its “event” status. Over the Garden Wall also draws on the archaic, mysterious body of song and folklore collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music, described by Greil Marcus as “The Old, Weird America.” I’ve written before about my love for the Anthology, so it will not surprise my regular readers to find that Over the Garden Wall‘s synthesis of influences was catnip to me.

I wrote more about it in my review at The Solute; although television rather than a film, I felt that under two hours total (leaving out commercials, of course), Over the Garden Wall could be considered a ten-part feature, and works well in that format.

Wonder Twins: Gravity Falls Returns for S2

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Last week, in my write-up of the 1935 Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire, I noted that juvenile leads Frankie and Betsy Baxter (played by Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross) “anticipate[d] the inquisitive child protagonists of Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers of the 1980s.”  By coincidence, another pair of mystery-solving siblings returned to television this weekend after a long hiatus: Dipper and Mabel Pines (voiced by Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal), the twin brother and sister at the center of Disney’s cult hit Gravity Falls, which began its second season with a new episode on Friday, August 1.
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It had been more than a year since the last new episode, but “Scary-Oke” contained enough exposition to bring viewers up to speed: twelve-year-old twins Mabel and Dipper are halfway through their summer with great-uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan in the weirdness-drenched town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. In Season One they encountered a slew of bizarre creatures and occurrences as they followed in the footsteps of past paranormal-themed shows such as The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Eerie, Indiana. With its quirky side characters and witty, wide-ranging humor, it’s drawn comparisons to The Simpsons as well.

Maybe it's the ping-pong ball eyes.

Maybe it’s the ping-pong ball eyes.

Dipper is the Fox Mulder of the two kids, convinced that “the truth is out there” and determined to find it with the aid of an old journal he found in the woods, and which describes many of the area’s secrets.  Mabel isn’t a skeptic like Dana Scully: she’s seen enough to believe in Dipper’s mysteries, she just doesn’t dwell on them like Dipper.  A true optimist and free spirit, Mabel supports her brother but encourages him to lighten up.  Stan Pines, for his part, runs a run-down and obviously phony tourist trap, privately poo-pooing any claims of the supernatural.  It’s been hinted since the first episode of Season One that Stan knew more than he let on, even as he faced off with his Napoleonic rival, the charismatic and twisted Lil’ Gideon.  By the season finale it was clear that Stan was deeply connected to the journal and its two matching volumes, bringing them together to complete some kind of ritual in a secret lab underneath the Mystery Shack.

“Scary-Oke” picks up where last season left off, with Stan activating his journal-powered ritual/machine; we don’t find out exactly what it does, but it does send out signals strong enough to get the attention to two X-Files-like government agents, Powers and Trigger, who are clearly going to be involved as Season Two unfolds.  Although obviously catching up new (or forgetful) viewers and setting the table for Season Two, the episode features a satisfying moment as Grunkle Stan reveals that of course he knows about the strange things going on in Gravity Falls (“I’m not an idiot!”), and his affected skepticism was meant to protect Dipper and Mabel.  Indeed, he is far more aware of the dangers of the supernatural than Dipper, who is so desperate to prove his usefulness to the G-men that he uses the journal to summon a horde of zombies just so they’ll take him seriously.

That’s just one example of the show’s strength: unlike many monster-of-the-week shows (and even many kids’ adventure programs), the paranormal is almost always thematically intertwined with the main characters’ emotional journey, metaphorically highlighting opportunities for growth: it’s more Buffy than Scooby-Doo.  This is especially true when the story dwells on the central relationship between the twins.  Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch has stated that Dipper and Mabel are partially based on himself and his own twin sister, and although they are frequently at odds, their essentially supportive relationship is meant to counter the often fractious siblings typically depicted on television.  As Hirsch said in a recent interview with Erik Adams of The A. V. Club,

I remembered myself and my twin sister, when we were in school, we would bicker and fight and get on each other’s nerves and butt heads.  When we were in a familiar situation, we tended to be more distant.  When we were in an unfamiliar situation, and all we had was each other, we became much closer.  We needed each other more, and we actually got along better.

If “Scary-Oke”‘s conclusion is anything to go by, Gravity Falls may go the way of The Simpsons, continually setting up conflicts for which the answer is always “family,” the characters learning the same lessons about love and forgiveness over and over again, but I’m not too worried. Balancing strong characters with complex plotting over the long haul is a challenge, but Gravity Falls showed tremendous poise in its first season; it’s a safe bet that the show’s strong serialization and over-arching mysteries will keep it from becoming static.

Perhaps sibling relationships have been on my mind since I just returned from a family trip where we met up with my sister.  We aren’t twins: she’s four years older than me, and being around her brought back a lot of memories.  When I was very young, she would teach me the latest swear words she had learned from her peers and send me to repeat them to our parents (they knew who had put me up to it).  Then there was the time I was afraid to watch Return of the Jedi because my sister (who had seen it first) told me that Darth Vader takes his helmet off and reveals his naked brain at the end; as mild as that scene was in reality, even the exploding head from Scanners wouldn’t have been able to compete with the images I conjured up myself, and I got so anxious knowing it was coming that I had to leave in the middle the first time I tried to watch it.  That’s not how she remembers things, of course, but she’ll need to start her own blog if she wants to share her side of growing up with an annoying younger brother.

Yes, we had plenty of conflict between us as we grew up, but also moments of togetherness.  By coincidence, my own children are the same distance apart in age as my sister and me, and I see a lot of similarities between them–the older sister and younger brother–and us (similarities strong enough that my dad frequently calls my daughter by my sister’s name).  They struggle with the age difference and don’t always want to do the same things; they compete for their parents’ attention.  I went through this with my sister, too, as I keep reminding myself.  There was a stretch when we didn’t have much to do with each other at all: as we got older, our relationship was something more like that of Sam and Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks, moving apart as we each followed our own trajectory.  Now, as adults, we’re friends. I only see my sister a couple of times a year, but we keep in touch, and when we get together it’s like no time has passed.

Stories about twins (at least those that don’t truck in “evil twin” stereotypes) often have an underlying theme: from the beginning of their lives, twins are as close as two people can possibly be, but the world has ways of getting between them. They have different experiences and perspectives, and in order to become their own people, they must eventually separate. By contrast, siblings born years apart rarely see eye to eye; a gap of a just a few years can be insurmountable in early life.

I’ll never forget the night we brought my son home from the hospital; my daughter, almost four, hadn’t seen her mother in days and wanted to sit on her lap; upon seeing the new baby there, in her place, she burst into tears.  I sympathized: it must have been a shock.  Luckily, such first impressions don’t have to be permanent, and four years later it’s a pleasure to see the two of them playing together, making up games on the spot; just the other night I was treated to “pizza” and “dinosaur steaks” (actually pillows) that they enthusiastically prepared for me in their “restaurant.”

As in friendships and marriages, age differences between siblings dwindle in importance as we grow older, and it’s the common experiences that have more meaning. If we’re lucky, we find that we share our parents with someone who’s actually pretty cool.  But not everyone is as fortunate as my sister.

Stop! In the Name of Motion

Speaking of stop motion animation, my son, who is three and a half years old, has recently discovered the stop motion masterpieces of the late Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans. I had purchased a tribute issue of Famous Monsters with some of Harryhausen’s iconic creations on the cover, and my son started asking about them.  I explained the technique of stop motion animation—taking hundreds, sometimes thousands of successive pictures of slightly adjusted models, creating the illusion of motion when projected in sequence—always being clear that they were models, like toys, not real.  As fascinated as he is by monsters—he’s a boy, after all, and before Harryhausen he was curious about the Godzilla movies I had lying around, and of course we have lots of discussions about dinosaurs—I wanted to make sure he could draw a distinction between creatures of fantasy like the Kraken and real but extinct animals like Tyrannosaurus rex.  Overprotective?  Perhaps, but I remember being kept awake at night by fears of the giant ants from Them!, and at an older age than my son is now.  If I give him nightmares, I’ll hear about it from his mother.

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

From my explanation it was a short leap to hunting for clips on YouTube and the excellent documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan on Netflix, which explained Harryhausen’s methods better than I could and held my son’s attention for a good twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch (the documentary is feature-length: we watched it in installments).  For a few weeks after, my son would ask about the “model movies” and we would watch a scene or two from Clash of the Titans, the only Harryhausen movie I have on disc.

Harryhausen is nostalgic to me for a few reasons.  I remember seeing Clash of the Titans when it was new in 1981, at the downtown movie palace that would close a few years later, replaced by the four-screen “multiplex” at the mall.  The mythological references went over my head, but I’ll never forget the terrifying and fascinating Medusa and its gruesome death scene. Even more than that memory, I associate Harryhausen with holidays: most of his movies I saw on television during Thanksgiving or Christmas breaks, probably counterprogrammed against football games in those days when cable TV meant having a few dozen channels instead of hundreds.

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I’ve previously indicated my obsession with animation and effects as a kid.  Any time there was a behind-the-scenes show about movie special effects, I was there.  The best parts of these shows were often clips of other projects the filmmakers had a hand in, the kind of thing that was unlikely to show up on TV by itself.  For example, I knew who Phil Tippett was because of his involvement with Star Wars and the big special effects movies that followed in the 1980s, but I was never able to get more than a glimpse of personal projects like Prehistoric Beast, from 1984. Unless they were part of a film festival showing or I was lucky enough to catch them on Night Flight or MTV, there wasn’t much I could do to track them down in those days.

A number of speakers in the Special Effects Titan documentary comment on stop motion’s “dreamlike” quality.  That’s a polite way of saying it doesn’t look real, but realism wasn’t exactly the point.  To my knowledge, Harryhausen never proposed replacing human actors with stop motion likenesses in the same way computer graphics have been put forward as a “fix” for aging actors or a replacement for the long-dead.  There is something mysterious about the sometimes-jerky movements of stop motion; even when done by a master like Harryhausen, it has a certain distinctive “look.” Along with other film tricks like rear projection and altered film speed, the ratcheted movements of stop motion are burned into my mind as a filmic style that isn’t “real” but is aesthetically gripping.  As a less obvious example, Dragonslayer’s composite landscapes, with their fast-rushing clouds, heightened lighting, and blend of full-size and miniature models, are just as artificial as the computer-assembled Middle Earth of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but I still cherish them.  Perhaps it’s simply the density of elements that are brought together that grabs me.

I don’t hold that traditional stop motion is superior to computer graphic animation because of its difficult and time-consuming nature: that line of thinking is to my mind a moral rather than an aesthetic argument.  The goal of either technique should be involvement in the story rather than calling attention to itself.   If we accept the premise that film—all film, from The Great Train Robbery forward—contains shifts of viewpoint that were once associated with either dreams or godlike omniscience—the ability to jump from one point in space to another, to cut between views—then CG’s ability to create images purely from light and numbers represents the culmination of cinema’s potential: it is of a piece with all effects work that has come before.  If cinema would continue to be vital, why cut off any avenue of development?

Of course CG is understandably used to save time and money, and sometimes by filmmakers who have more of both than they have imagination.  If anything it’s the low barrier to entry that has given CG such a bad rap; nevertheless, a bad film is a bad film.  I will say I prefer practical effects for their sense of heft and reality in space, and I appreciate the level of craftsmanship and dedication that handmade filmmaking shows off, but I wouldn’t deny that those can be qualities of CG. Perhaps the joy of practical effects work is in the ingenuity with which filmmakers solved problems; it could be the “personal touch,” sensing the involvement of an animator handling a model (like the marks left in King Kong’s fur by Willis O’Brien) or dragging a brush across a cel.

Ultimately the effectiveness of special effects lies not only in their execution but in how they are used—how effects shots are framed, how they are built up to and cut away from through editing, and their function within the story.  Jurassic Park, still a landmark of CG effects after more than twenty years, looks better than many CG films made last year simply because of the care with which Steven Spielberg and his crew combined CG with models and other practical effects, edited seamlessly together to create an illusion of reality.  Conversely, a carelessly executed effect will look crummy and take the viewer out of the film whether it’s CG or practical.

One reason traditional stop motion looks eerie compare to actual moving objects on film is the uncanny clarity of each frame: when live motion is filmed, there’s a slight blur as the actor or object is caught in motion while the shutter is open.  Animators have ways of getting around that (even in hand-drawn animation), introducing more naturalistic blur after the effect (or even in-camera, through a process dubbed “go motion”).  Nowadays, CG can be used to smooth out the inconsistencies and simulate the blur of motion even when models are still animated by hand (such films as Coraline and Paranorman are examples of this hybrid style).

As it happens, The Lego Movie, which I wrote about enthusiastically last time, is animated almost completely in CG rather than stop motion, but the constraints of animating a world made (almost) completely out of Lego bricks lead to some interesting results.  In an interview with fxguide, CG Supervisor Aidan Sarsfield of Animal Logic (the studio that animated The Lego Movie) spoke of the filmmakers’ desire to “stay true to the medium” of Lego, treating it very much as if it were a stop motion film on a real Lego set (albeit one of huge scale and complexity).  The CG bricks were treated as rigid: there was no stretching or distortion, and the only movement was at points of articulation.  Even effects that are generally ephemeral or subject to fading (such as flames, laser beams, smoke, explosions, and moving water) were virtually “built” out of bricks or other Lego pieces, which were “binary”—either there or not there.  Sarsfield describes the process by which colors or brick sizes could be cycled through to give the impression of fading clouds of smoke or moving waves; the effect is unlike anything I’ve seen, and more to the point most of it could by recreated in actual bricks and animated by hand (even though it would probably take forever).

Sarsfield also noted that very little motion blur was used, giving most of the action a staccato feel similar to old-school animation. For extreme fast motion, however, the animators devised a technique for what they called “brick blur:”

Brick blur was created by a little strip of bricks. The colors of the character matched the string of bricks but the silhouette was defined as if someone has structured the motion blur with bricks.

I previously mentioned how much I enjoy the abstraction of animation, especially stop motion.  In this case, the squared-off forms of Lego bricks and minifigures are matched perfectly by the jumpy, ratcheted motion of the animation style. (It’s worth noting that the Lego characters’ faces are smoothly animated—there are limits to abstraction, after all.) Subtleties like “brick blur” and the audacity of (for example) an entire surging sea made of constantly shifting Lego bricks are great examples of filmmakers exploiting the unique aspects of their medium to create something truly novel; and the end result shows how computers can be used without losing the handmade qualities that made the project appealing in the first place.  Aidan Sarsfield mentions that the animators knew they had been successful when the first trailers appeared and audiences couldn’t tell whether stop motion or CG had been used; I wouldn’t be surprised if The Lego Movie inspires another generation of animators and model makers.

GFan

Lego House on the Prairie

I saw The Lego Movie this weekend, and I loved it.  This isn’t a review, and I won’t spoil anything, although I will direct you to Charlie Jane Anders’ review at io9 and its (accurate, in my view) contention that a successful genre spoof must authentically partake of the genre it sends up (in this case, the summer blockbuster and the hackneyed “chosen one” motif).

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Like all the recent movies based on beloved toys, The Lego Movie is at least partly pitched toward the nostalgia center of viewers’ brains.  Sure, I played with Lego bricks as a child, and still enjoy them now that I have my own children to provide cover. If that were all there were to it, however, I doubt I would have reacted so strongly to the film; the other Lego spin-off video games and cartoons I’ve seen are entertaining, but not profound.  No, what I feel compelled to explore is how successful the film is at building an elaborate world out of familiar components, and its connection to the student films and music videos that did the same thing with toys when I was a kid.

The idea of toys (or other inanimate objects) coming to life is hardly new, of course: before the Toy Story movies there was Corduroy and The Velveteen Rabbit and Raggedy Ann, back to the fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann and beyond.  In all likelihood we could trace it all the way back to the idea of “household gods” and the pervasive spirits of pantheistic animism, or perhaps the unity of self and environment in earliest infancy.  In any case, that’s not really my point; what connects my memory of playing with Lego bricks to the new movie (and makes it successful at driving its themes home) is the constructive nature of Lego: all imaginative play gives back only what you put into it, but Lego is explicitly open-ended.  Since the first bricks were produced in 1949, every piece is part of a compatible system and can be connected together in some way.  That’s the first prong of the movie: the pleasure of digging up and recombining the different “worlds” Lego has produced over the years (including some “deep cuts” like Fabuland).

The second prong of the movie’s appeal is how this world is set in motion cinematically.  As a kid, I was obsessed with stop motion animation: my first exposure was probably on shows like Sesame Street, which, among its many other virtues, was often a showcase for inventive (and sometimes downright experimental) film.  The Carmen-singing orange was one I remember (although I had forgotten the rubbery ‘70s-era synth soundtrack, another element that connects it to many childhood memories):

Obviously, there’s a lot more where that came from.

What remains captivating about many of these little films is their handmade quality, and their use of everyday objects: toys, food, utensils.  As with furnishing dollhouses, creating dioramas, or assembling Rube Goldberg-like marble slides (think of the game Mousetrap!), there is an obvious pleasure in the handicraft involved in the creation of a tiny world, playing God on a child’s scale.  When given the illusion of movement, it made it easy to imagine the ordinary objects I saw all the time having a secret life when I wasn’t around, both tapping into and feeding that sense of domestic enchantment alluded to above.

It also made it look easy to get into the game: I recently discovered this short Super 8 film, made in 1980, and starring 12-year old Stefano Paganini’s Lego collection:

It’s rough—I know I wouldn’t have been able to do any better at that age—but it has the same sense of play that the makers of The Lego Movie explore on a grand scale.

It’s the limitations of Lego—where they can fit together, the articulation points of the minifigures—that give it character and provide something for the filmmakers—for whom there are practically no limits anymore with the use of computers—to bump against.  As Brian Eno wrote in 1995 (published in A Year with Swollen Appendices),

Whatever you find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature.  CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.

Eno was mostly speaking of audio formats, but his prescient words have also proven true for visual styles.

The aesthetic qualities of Lego—abstracting familiar shapes into a grid, designed as “bricks” but able to approximate all kinds of shapes—are something that every child encounters one way or another.  Although Lego has introduced many angled and curved pieces to its arsenal, it’s the jagged sawtooth of the square pieces arranged in stair-step fashion that is still an essential part of Lego’s “look.”

Eno mentions 8-bit sound; I think the abstraction Lego encouraged was a reason I was similarly fascinated with the blocky graphics of the the video games that emerged in the late 1970s; just as with the stop motion videos that appeared to bring Lego bricks or candy to life, Space Invaders and Pong gave movement—controlled by the player!—to simple, even primal, geometric shapes.  I was so fascinated by this level of abstraction that I would practice breaking down pictures into their component pixels using graph paper.  I even briefly took up cross-stitching because it looked to me like video game graphics; the only tangible proof of that brief flirtation that I left behind was a sample sheet with a few segments of the Centipede from the game of the same name, rendered in cross-stitch.

I’m reminded of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten and its thesis that the first generation of twentieth-century modernists were shaped in early childhood by the highly abstracted geometric play that was a core component of nineteenth-century kindergarten. As developed by founder Friedrich Froebel in the 1830s and ‘40s, the geometric elements of kindergarten were centered around the series of about twenty “gifts,” playthings that were meant to introduce primary forms—the sphere, the cube, the cone, for example—and encourage young children to model aspects of the real world in a progression of graduated complexity.  Architect Frank Lloyd Wright would later credit Froebel’s system for developing his spatial faculties, but he was far from the only one.  According to Brosterman,

During the system’s heyday—roughly the half century before World War I—Frank Lloyd Wright was merely one of millions of people, including most of the so-called “form-givers” of the modern era who were indoctrinated, in effect, programmed, by the spiritual geometry of the early kindergarten.

Brosterman’s book is full of pictures juxtaposing nineteenth-century kindergarten projects made by small children with artwork made by adults of the same generation years later. The comparisons are suggestive, to say the very least.

From Norman Brosterman's Inventing Kindergarten

From Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten

In addition to the Froebel gifts, there were also “occupations,” which consisted of paper, string, and clay, media that could be used to create finished projects.  Brosterman quotes American kindergarten leader W. N. Hailmann as describing the distinction between gifts and occupations:

The gift gives the child a new cosmos, the occupation fixes the impressions made by the gift.  The gift invites only arranging activities; the occupation invites also controlling, modifying, transforming, creating activities.  The gift leads to discovery; the occupation, to invention.  The gift gives insight; the occupation, power.

Without wishing to overstate the case, Lego bricks descend from the same progressive concept of early childhood development as a process of discovery and mastery, and lend themselves to a similar kind of abstraction of the real world.

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Interestingly, the debt Wright and other modernists owe to Froebel’s kindergarten, as described by Brosterman, has not been lost on modern educators and toy makers (in this context “toy” may sound dismissive, but it’s relevant: Milton Bradley, for example, was an important U. S. maker of Froebel gifts).  Froebel USA now makes a “Prairie House Block Set” of abstract building blocks, both a tribute to the credit Wright gave to the Froebel system and, in all likelihood, an appeal to parents who might hope for a similar start for their own children.

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And while Lego has expanded its original system of interlocking blocks to include very young children with its Duplo blocks, it’s also moved in the other direction with its “Architecture” line aimed at teenage and adult model-builders.  Detailed Lego versions of real-life architectural masterpieces, including some by Frank Lloyd Wright, are available as kits.  (Here’s a more detailed description of the Prairie-style Robie House model shown below.)  With the Architecture line, the emphasis is on faithful recreation, but the pieces are just as compatible with the Lego system as any other.  That’s the beauty of it: whether following the instructions or building freely, it’s all up to you.  That’s a core component of Lego that The Lego Movie gets.

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