Movies of My Yesterdays: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

This might be the first entry in this series from my time in college. It’s not quite from after the inception of this blog, but getting very close to it. It wasn’t long after when I saw this movie when I got my first opportunity to go back and catch up on movies I’d missed. But that wasn’t the way I saw this one.

I first saw Talladega Nights because it belonged to my my freshman roommate, who set up his TV, small movie collection, and mini fridge, told me I was welcome to use all of them, and then found friends outside the dorm to spend all his days and nights with, leaving me alone with the whole room pretty much all the time. I can’t recall whether this movie got played in one of the rare times he was there or if I put it on myself in a bolder move in using his stuff, as using somebody else’s movies without their direct permission still seems like a breach to me even if blanket permission has been given (it occurs to me that I don’t feel this way about the massive movie and game collection of another roommate I had in the early days of the blog, which was probably represented multiple times on here). I’m pretty sure that was the only time I saw it until now.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Mosaic Media Group 2006.

Born in the back of a speeding Chevelle, Ricky Bobby grew up not knowing his father, who left to race cars and do more shady things, which may have imparted his obsession with speed to him. Ricky only saw his father once in his childhood, making an unexpected and ignominious appearance at his class’s Career Day, but he left him with the dictum that “if you’re not first, you’re last”, a phrase Ricky went on to model his life on. Without many career prospects, Ricky found his way into the pit crew for Dennit Racing, finally getting his opportunity to enter a NASCAR race as a replacement for the driver who walked out in the middle of a race while in last place, and Ricky proves himself by finishing third, becoming a racing star. Backed up by his best friend Cal driving Dennit’s second car, who always gives him the assist to get to first, Ricky quickly achieves a life of fame and fortune, living in a mansion with Carley, the smoking hot fangirl he married, their two disgracefully disrespectful sons, and Carley’s father who impotently disapproves of how his grandkids are being raised. Ricky’s maverick driving style makes him a fan favorite, but costs him with the sponsors and the tournament judges, and therefore does him no favors with the new head of Dennit racing, Larry Jr., who hires openly gay Frenchman Jean Girard from the Formula One circuit to be his new, dependable lead driver with European precision. Ricky’s jealousy overwhelms him, causing him to crash and have a psychological breakdown that endangers his ability to ever be able to get behind the wheel of a car again.

This felt really raunchy at the time, but while it’s still kind of raunchy, it doesn’t feel like that’s an exceptional thing. I think the raunchiness largely comes from how it’s both a parody of the contemporary machismo but also kind of an earnest celebration of it. It feels entirely a product of its time, but no moreso than in the jokes about Girard being gay. This is tempered by Girard being revealed to be an honorable guy looking for an equal on the track and definitely a much more rational person than Ricky, but the jokes still significantly Other him. It occurs to me now that by being gay and European, Girard is specifically designed to be the antithesis of the NASCAR stereotype and the American nationalist cultural moment that NASCAR was a significant component of at the time. His being French is probably targeted at the specific distaste for the French after the country refused to support the US in doing some post-9/11 lashing out.

While the extreme farce style can easily get out of hand in a bad way, there were still plenty of laugh out loud moments. Its extremely contemporary nature probably keeps it from being as timeless as Anchorman, but it’s still a lot of fun. It’s not something I would come back to a lot, but I can see occasionally revisiting it to get my expectations exceeded again.

Movies of my Yesterdays: The Secret of My Success

I’m not sure how this evaded my first pass through the filmography of Michael J. Fox in middle school/high school when I discovered Back to the Future. Maybe it was because the library didn’t have it. This one, I found in a rummage sale. I feel like the idea of seeing his character get rich successful quick was an element that attracted me, but mostly it was just that I was a fan of his work.

The Secret of My Success. Rastar 1987.

I think there’s a reason I get a bit of a similar feeling to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in parts of this movie aside from the fact that they both use “Oh Yeah” by Yello, which I’m sure is the main link between them. Perhaps it’s a general 80s yuppie aesthetic.

Brantley Foster, fresh out of college from Kansas, arrives in New York with the promise of a job in big business and high hopes of growing an impressive career from it, only to find that the job evaporated the day he arrived. Stymied everywhere by entry level jobs demanding experience he hasn’t got, he seeks an audience with Howard Prescott, the CEO of Pemrose Corporation, with whom he has the sketchiest of family ties. Impressed by his brief moment with his “nephew”, Prescott begrudgingly gives him a job in the mailroom. Eager to make the most of this opportunity, Brantley uses his position in the mailroom to learn everything about Pemrose’s operations, and after answering a phone in a vacated office and making good executive decisions for the harried manager on the other end, Brantley hatches a plan to create a fictional executive named “Carlton Whitfield” from his vantage point in the mailroom and commandeer that vacant office to prove his worth to everyone who won’t give “Brantley from Kansas” a chance. Not only do “Whitfield’s” ideas shake up the status quo so much that Prescott worries that he’s a spy from the corporate raider trying to make a hostile takeover of Pemrose, they get him close to the beautiful executive of his dreams Christy Wills. However, his time in the mailroom also got him the attention of an executive’s wife seeking revenge on her cheating husband by having an affair of her own, the executive in question turning out to be Howard Prescott himself.

While the first few times I watched this movie I learned a lot about how hostile takeovers work and vaguely got the idea that the trendy but panicked cuts to expenditures would cause a panic in the market while bold expansion could strengthen the company’s value, what struck me this time is just how much inefficiency is in the upper levels of Pemrose. Of course, Brantley notes in his studies that there are departments with overlap that don’t talk to each other or do their job well, but for all the talk of cutting the company’s expenses to the bone, no mention is made of options like reducing executive salaries, putting the space taken by the company gym to better use, or not using the limousines from the motor pool to chauffeur around non-employees (though Prescott’s wife is technically the company owner). The Suits really do live comfortably on the backs of the trench workers they’re ready to turn out in the streets to raise stock prices a few cents.

The directorial choices often feel like a dream. There are multiple mopey montages set to sad power ballads. Flashbacks aren’t accompanied by any visual language identifying them as flashbacks, leaving it to the intelligence of the audience to work out that this already happened. There’s also one or two dreamy imagine spots just intercut with the scene like they’re supposed to be diegetic. The climax also feels a bit underwhelming. After spending so long frantically keeping all these plates spinning with some big, madcap close calls, Brantley gets outed relatively quietly.

This movie is the main source of my interest in mailroom work. I’ve also since gotten experience that translates well to a corporate mailroom, but mostly I always thought what I saw Brantley, or rather his slacker partner, doing in the mailroom, was work I could handle pretty well. Even that looks better than anything I’ve done until my latest job. And there are plenty of “worked their way out of the mailroom” stories, even if most didn’t do it with the flash of Brantley Foster.

When I first saw this movie I was a bit entranced by not only the elegance of the executive lifestyle, but also the raw independence of Brantley’s meager life on his own in a new city. Having lived through my own “starting out alone in a new city” and gotten jaded by the excesses of the wealthy, a lot of the shine has worn off this movie, but there’s still a kind of melancholy splendor to it. It’s a more mature movie than I could really appreciate at first.

Movies of My Yesterdays: Snow Day

I saw this movie in a theater, but it wasn’t one I chose. A friend had a movie party for his birthday, and I don’t think I knew what we were going to see until we got to the theater. It seems like the kind of movie that was selected more based on what was playing on the date they wanted to have a party than because it was anyone’s first choice, but I remember it was fun in a very late 90s/early 00s Nickelodeon way. I must have recognized Chevy Chase at the time but I completely do not remember him. Actually, the main thing I remember about this day aside from some shots of kids and adults in snow is that it was the first time I heard of Superman ice cream.

Snow Day. Nickelodeon Movies 2000.

In a small neighborhood in upstate New York, an unseasonably warm winter suddenly gets a massive snowfall, and to the delight of all the kids in town, a snow day is declared. Hal and Natalie Brandston’s father Tom Brandston, the third-rated meteorologist in a three-station town, is hoping that having been the first to predict and report on the storm will be his ticket to pulling ratings over showboat weatherman Chad Symmonz and escaping the demeaning costume stunts his producer keeps forcing on him. Natalie’s friends Wayne and Chet make it their mission to stymie the Snowplowman, and maybe for once get a second snow day in a row. Hal spends all day trying to get the attention of Claire, the most popular girl in school, seeing it as destiny that he found her bracelet on the day that Claire broke up with her bully boyfriend Chuck, and drags his friend Lane along in his stunts even as she tries to get him to see how delusional he is.

In rewatching this movie, I didn’t come up with any concrete memories of how I felt at the time, but all the same, the sinking realization that the younger kids’ vendetta with the Snowplowman was relegated to the B-plot behind the high school boy’s quest for unrequited love that doesn’t at all need a snow day to take place on felt very, very familiar. In 2000, I was about the age of the younger kids in the movie, and while I never had the magical adventures this movie invokes of snow days with rose-tinted screenwriter glasses (as an indoorsy kid who lived on unwalkable roads nowhere near any friends, snow days were spent in our house probably watching TV under a blanket and meant relaxation), I think I was very disappointed that the whole concept of “kids having a snow day” got sidelined for a romance plot. They say kids are most interested in the next step up as a preview of what they can expect, but in this case, why would you have a movie called “snow day” and not center actual snow day adventures? It’s hard to push past that fault plus how tired the “guy can’t see the girl right next to him because he’s only got eyes for the unobtainable girl” plot is and get too objective on whether Hal is as lacking in relatability as it seems.

While the movie makes a point of saying how close Hal and Natalie usually are, and how they would usually be playing together on a snow day but he ditched her to go chase his dream girl, I really wish we’d gotten to see that somehow, so it means more to us to see them separate. When they’re together they speak warmly to each other, aside from Natalie being kind of resentful of how obsessed Hal has gotten, but the most significant interaction they have is Hal telling Natalie not to play with his collection of action figures that he wants to keep in pristine condition so he can sell them as a set. Oddly, Natalie acts like they’ve previously played with them before since she identifies him with a specific member of the group of figures.

Natalie’s friends are another missed opportunity. Wayne is marked by being the fat, wimpy kid who’s good for getting damseled and letting the filmmakers substitute farts for jokes, while Chet is… also there. Apparently Wayne and Chet made a snow cave that they were going to hang out with Natalie and Hal in that they brought a video game console out to, but it’s only used in one scene and destroyed by the Snowplowman to make him an extra-personal villain. The snow cave is the kind of thing one would expect to make up the main focus of the movie.

I think I need to come to the conclusion that the best part of this movie, at least as an adult, is Chevy Chase’s subplot, because it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be/ought to be. I think he won the crowd a bit too easily in the end, but this is a movie for middle schoolers and there isn’t really time for something more realistic.

While this is fun, especially for kids, it’s definitely an unbalanced script and isn’t primarily interested in what it claims to be interested in. It’s really hard to put aside all the small ways it disappoints and enjoy it for what it is when it isn’t even concerned with being what it says it is. There are some good seeds of movies in here, but the execution was almost entirely lacking.

Movies of My Yesterdays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

I recall this movie coming into the house through a joint garage sale with my aunt’s family. Or rather, I remember seeing the tape at one of the garage sales, and then I remember finding it in our collection months or years later. I don’t know why it didn’t interest me for a long time, but I think I didn’t get to it until I was in my 20s or late teens. I can’t recall now if the portion I saw on TV (I mainly remember hearing “Mele Kalikimaka” for the first time) got me interested, or if I was just going through the video collection and connected it with the Christmas movie everybody liked and decided to watch it for that reason. I’m a little surprised I didn’t seek it out when I was in my significant “all the traditions” phase, but I think I would’ve been scandalized at the time if I had.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Hughes Entertainment 1989.

Clark Griswold and his family is hosting Christmas for the extended family for the first time, and Clark is determined to make it perfect. He marches his wife Ellen and their children deep into the forest to find The Perfect Tree, he blankets the house in 25,000 lights that he can’t get working, and packs every room with family members, including the son and daughter of his wife’s uninvited cousin Eddie, who drove the rusty trailer they live in to join the family. Clark is also starting to wonder where his Christmas bonus check is, which he badly needs to cover the deposit he already laid out to install a swimming pool.

I seem to recall that before I first saw the movie,I didn’t think the poster was very much help in understanding what it’s about, but the problem is that it’s an extremely episodic movie that doesn’t have a more significant overarching plot than “Clark tries to make a perfect Christmas for his extended family”, which is hard to convey on a poster. Just about every scene is a vignette of a crazy family Christmas, but the lights and the bonus check are the most consistent throughlines. So a lighting accident it is.

While it’s a Chevy Chase vehicle with many scenes stolen by Randy Quaid, this is the first time I noticed that Clark’s son Rusty is played by a young Johnny Galecki, best known for The Big Bang Theory. Even at the young age, there were moments where I recognized his acting style. My wife also pointed out that Beverly D’Angelo has a strong resemblance to Amy Pohler. I don’t know if any of the elderly uncles and grandparents are notable actors, but many of them are also doing very memorable character work.

This movie is somehow pitched to the point of absurdity yet relatable to the point it at times feels almost like a set of generic scenes of the Christmas experience. John Hughes may have hit a bigger classic with Home Alone, but I think this is better at creating the adult experience of Christmas. I suspect that there are people for whom it’s so relatable, it’s too stressful, like my experience watching The Long, Long Trailer so soon after driving a trailer across the country. It may not be a Christmas staple to me, but it’s always welcome. Because while we have plenty of opportunities to remember warmth and generosity at Christmas, it’s also just a real catharsis to have a laugh at the hassle we impose on ourselves too.

Movies of my Yesterdays: The Rescuers Down Under

While not as embedded in the landscape of my media childhood as Lady and the Tramp or The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under was always there as far as I can recall. I associate a very youthful spirit of adventure with it that I think predates the time in my adolescence when I was defining my own tastes for what seemed like the first time, the “hit me at the right time” years.

While the original The Rescuers probably more deserves the appreciation of a mature reviewer, I don’t have the same fondness for it. The two movies came from different eras of Disney animation and have a very different look and feel. The first came from the time of The Fox And The Hound and 101 Dalmatians, but it’s almost as obscure as The Black Cauldron and hits a lot more of the same notes. Sensibilities had changed at Disney in the time between the two Rescuers movies and the latter is part of the upward trend moving toward the Disney Renaissance.

The Rescuers Down Under. Walt Disney Pictures 1990.

Cody, a very American sounding Australian boy, is a friend to the animals of the Outback, and rescues a giant Golden Eagle from a poacher’s trap. She gives him one of her golden feathers as a keepsake, and then on his way home, Cody finds a mouse tied up as what turns out to be bait in a trap sat by ruthless poacher MacLeach. MacLeach finds the golden feather and realizes that Cody knows where the last Golden Eagle is, so he kidnaps him in order to try to get him to divulge the location of the bounty. The rescued mouse reports Cody’s peril to the Rescue Aid Society, and soon Bernard and Bianca are on their way through the Outback to him with Australian Jake as their guide.

Where the first was likely modeled after a pulp adventure novel, this feels more like an action adventure movie. It has modern pacing sensibilities, but I think the first is stronger in that as I recall, Bernard and Bianca spend most of the story trying to find a way to get Penny out of her situation, this one doesn’t have them get to Cody until the climax. There’s not much for them to do but ride more Australian animals across the landscape while Jake tries to flirt with Miss Bianca and Bernard tries to find a moment to propose to her. It’s a comic relief subplot, but moreso Wilbur and the hospital mice fixing his back with extreme force.

Two things make this movie feel epically sized: the music and the sweeping three dimensional camera moves. Disney shopped out many backgrounds to Pixar, and while sometimes they’re obviously very primitive CG by today’s standards (I’ve seen previsualization renders more convincing than the city skyscrapers and cars), they do bring to life the camera perspectives and the Outback. People talk a lot about the clock gears in The Great Mouse Detective and the Ballroom in Beauty and the Beast, but I think this is the best demonstration of what cel animation can do with CGI backgrounds as a tool in the kit.

If this had Ashman/Menken songs, it would be 20 minutes longer, but it would also be at least at the level of the actual Renaissance Disney movies. The plot structure makes a lot of the returning or pseudo-returning (Wilbur is allegedly Orville’s brother despite how very different they are aside from being airline albatrosses) characters redundant, but it’s a fantastic adventure for the whole family, and it should be remembered as fondly as Disney’s biggest hits of the 90s.

Movies of My Yesterdays: UHF

As I grew up, I eventually discovered my parents’ music collection, and among it, my father’s Weird Al CDs (and eventually the Doctor Demento cassettes and tape recordings of Weird Al vinyl albums). I considered myself a fan of Al Yankovic, but eventually I learned that there was a lot more than just the self-titled album, Even Worse, and Alapalooza. But I think I was in high school before I found UHF.

UHF. Cinecorp 1989.

While I usually came to these kinds of things through library catalog raids, I distinctly remember my favorite high school teacher showing this movie on a slack day, and a lot of the most iconic parts of the movie were definitely new to me at the time, so except for possibly passing some of the more random elements while channel surfing and not knowing what it was, I’m confident in saying that my teacher playing it in class was the first time I saw this movie, although I don’t think we finished it then (a common theme among movies played at school, considering a class period is a little less than an hour and a movie is at least 75 minutes). I eventually saw it on DVD, the menus of which are how I first encountered Al’s updated (hair down, no mustache, no glasses) look that was probably old, old news by then.

As recall, the plot is probably the most forgettable part of the movie, though it’s clearly constructed as a means to let Al’s comedic ideas and abilities (and those of his writing partner) play. Al’s character George comes into control of a tiny local TV station and builds it into the area’s most must-watch TV through just having weird ideas nobody in the TV industry would have, a sure threat to the big network that wants him out of competition for their ratings.

There’s more story and fewer sketches than I remember. Stanley is shown at the beginning to be a daydreamer, but that’s not carried through most of the movie. The cutaways are almost entirely station ads once the story gets going until the big Rambo parody daydream at the end. The Beverly Hillbillies music video could be argued to be continuing his flights of fantasy, but it’s framed as a dream instead of a daydream, and it’s so different from the imagination sequences that it just seems awkwardly shoved in.

I’m not sure if RJ Reynolds seems like a parody of someone specific in broadcasting or if Kevin McCarthy is just that much of a presence in his own right. He feels like the most noteworthy actor in a movie with Weird Al, Kramer, and The Nanny despite the fact that I had to look up his name. He seems like a Leslie Nielson type whose serious appearance is usually played for comedy.

It’s unfortunate that this movie didn’t do well enough to let Al continue to make movies in the 90s. He’s only in the last few years been able to take the time to pursue comic acting alongside his music career as he reached the end of his album contract. This is at least as good as a classic National Lampoon or Airplane!-type movie, and he seems like he could’ve done more. I should probably look up AlTV, which sounds somewhere between talk show parody and actual talk show, but more in this vein would have been on another level.

Leftover Stuffing

I don’t really have enough time for a review this week, so here’s a collection of my favorite Movies of My Yesterdays posts. One might say they’re Movies of My Yesterdays Of Yesterday, but one would be reaching dangerous amounts of meta.

In looking back on these posts, I realized that when I began, I used an introduction that I forgot about by the third entry:

Movies of my Yesterdays is an irregular series where instead of writing about a movie I’ve never seen, I choose a movie important to my past and discuss why that is.

Movies of My Yesterdays: Howard the Duck

This is a little later than most My Yesterdays selections, but it’s still formative. I first saw this movie shortly before starting Yesterday’s Movies and I had Opinions, and at the same time I was looking for an internet project I could add to on a regular basis. And now it’s been ten years of putting my unsolicited thoughts about movies people have forgotten about into the void.

Howard the Duck. Lucasfilm 1986.

On one night of his perfectly ordinary life in a world run by humanoid ducks, Howard is suddenly sucked into space by an interdimensional portal, and lands on our Earth. Stuck in a world that finds him weird, freakish, and otherwise a magnet for harassment, Howard quickly gets mixed up with Beverly, singer for a great girl band with a bad manager, and helps her out. As romance kindles, suddenly a group of scientists arrive and explain that Howard was brought here by an accident with a “laser spectroscope”. Before Howard has a chance to get them to reverse the beam and send him home, there’s another accident with the machine, the police show up and arrest Howard, and the lead scientist, Dr. Jennings, has a Dark Overlord of the Universe taking over his body.

This still seems like two incompatible movies to me. The first act and the epilogue are a very upbeat music-filled story that’s almost a romantic comedy, but once Howard and Beverly are starting to settle into a relationship, an entirely different movie, and not a better one, crashes the party and takes the plot in a completely different direction. It felt like half and half originally, but the space alien section seems much longer now, mostly due to the action scenes that last three times as long as they need to.

I guess the point of that turn was to spend some time establishing a status quo before getting on with a surreal adventure, but Howard still just got there and wants to leave. Nothing is normal for him and Beverly. They’re just interrupted as they’re beginning to figure out what to do with themselves.

The swift escalation of a lot of confrontations between Howard and people who don’t get him is still cartoonish. There are the people who assume he’s a human in a costume or some kind of puppet, and the people who think he’s a deformed human or animal, but somehow, way too many of them, when they find out he’s not what they think, go straight to “picking a fight”. To the point that he practically almost gets lynched at least once. If duck people were common and a lot of humans knew them as a race they wanted to subjugate, that would make more sense than “thing I can’t identify is giving me some lip”.

The filmmakers wanted to “have fun with it”, but the main part of the movie is not much fun. There are some scenes that are trying to be comedic and muddying the tone, but the overall way the Dark Overlord story is handled is a slog of bad to mediocre ideas. It’s not a complete travesty of a movie, but it really doesn’t have much understanding of how to handle itself.

Movies of My Yesterdays: Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves

I usually avoid sequels here, and yes, it’s direct to video, but this one means more to me than the original Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I don’t remember if it’s the one I saw first, but it’s the one I saw most back then. I knew it was a sequel to “Kids”, but at first I didn’t realize that there was another one in between the two (Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, which is about the toddler getting bigger and bigger until it gets into “Attack of the 50-foot _____” territory).

This one, and the TV series that apparently came out the same year, but doesn’t seem to be related, came to me right at the time when I was not only in a period of discovering my own new favorites for what seemed like the first time, but also particularly interested in invention, and so stories starring the wacky tinkerer Wayne Szalinski and his quirky inventions especially appealed to me.

Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves. Walt Disney Pictures 1997.

Years after making his name with the Shrink Machine, Wayne Szalinski has founded Szalinski Labs, a “throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks” R&D company, which he operates as the president of and his brother Gordon heads development projects for. Wayne’s son Adam has no interest in Wayne’s passion for science and would much rather go to baseball camp instead of the math summer camp Wayne has picked out for him. The family is preparing for a weekend where Wayne and Gordon’s wives Diane and Patti go on a vacation and Gordon as well as his and Patti’s kids Jenny and Mitch will be staying with Wayne and Adam. Just as the weekend begins, Wayne has Gordon help him haul a gigantic tiki sculpture that Diane hates up to the attic, where he intends to use the Shrink Machine one last time before it goes to the Smithsonian to shrink it to pocket size. But a mishap with the machine also shrinks Wayne and Gordon, and soon after, Diane and Patti get shrunk too. Returning from an errand to find no parents in the house, the kids come to the obvious conclusion: house party.

Much like Home Alone 2, I think the success of this movie comes from delivering more of what made the original interesting. As I recall, “Kids” is mostly about the shrunken kids spending the weekend crossing the backyard, which is now a harsh jungle from their perspective. While that story was more about surviving in unforgiving nature, this story is set entirely in the house, making even more familiar household objects into an alien landscape for the parents to navigate. There’s also the added angle that the parents are able to observe what their kids are doing when they think they’re unsupervised, and so the dramatic irony is much richer than “where are the missing kids? Right out the back door!”

Of course in the third act, after things get too out of hand for the kids, they start to display the ways in which they were raised right after all. It’s a pretty standard trope, especially for Adam having some of Wayne’s science knowledge rub off on him after all, but I’m impressed now that the culmination of Jenny’s story is that when the boy she has a crush on gets her alone and forces a kiss on her, she pushes him away and tells him off for not asking. For 1997, that seems like a rare storytelling choice.

I have no complaints about the effects. There’s some things that I can’t tell if it’s good puppetry or very good CGI, but considering that it’s the late 90s and a direct to video budget, it’s probably puppetry. Sometimes the greenscreen compositing is a little obvious, but that’s hardly ever a solved problem even today, and it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the story that they basically have a choice between decent compositing and very good but obvious oversize sets. When dealing with the world on a much smaller scale, I’m not sure it’s possible to make things look real, because it will either be more detailed than we’re used to or less detailed than we expect.

This is still a lot of fun for a direct to video family movie. It’s aged incredibly well and possibly aside from Gordon and Mitch’s actors seeming like Wayne Knight and Jonathan Taylor Thomas stand-ins, it feels almost timeless. It’s nice to watch a movie with nostalgia value and not end up disillusioned.

Movies of my Yesterdays: The Iron Giant

I dimly remember actually seeing this movie in the theater, but for whatever reason, what sticks with me more is getting it for Christmas, in a set with a toy figure (example photo, not mine) that was both exciting and yet I don’t think I ever actually played with. I seem to associate the story with winter scenes as well, even though I know there are summer scenes. I guess it takes place over a longer period of time than I thought.

I do recall that seeing the movie in the theater was at least one of the first times I allowed myself to cry at a movie (in a dark theater). The emotion that this movie draws out of celluloid is one of the main reasons that it’s endured as a modern classic and stands out against the more bland landscape of contemporaries that, unlike the perennial vintage cinema, we can still remember. In the nine(!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve covered many movies from that year. Only a few of them come close to the legacy The Iron Giant immediately cemented.

The Iron Giant. Warner Bros. 1999.

Hogarth, a boy in advanced classes with an excitable imagination outside of small town Rockwell, Maine, goes investigating his missing TV antenna and comes across a 50-foot tall robot from space! The giant robot, which eats metal, tries to eat a power station transformer, and gets tangled up in power lines, and Hogarth rescues him by pulling the shutoff switch. As Hogarth investigates, the giant befriends him, and they quickly form a secret partnership with junkyard artist Dean for the use of his scrap metal so the giant won’t go hungry. But the reports of strange sightings draw government agent Kent Mansley, a cold war G-man who sees Soviet threats in anything he doesn’t understand. Kent quickly susses out that Hogarth isn’t telling all he knows, and if he can get proof that there’s a dangerous weapon in Rockwell, he’ll finally get the respect he thinks he deserves.

This might not be the first time I’ve watched the movie since that VHS, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed how much care was put into the art for this movie. I’m not sure I’ve seen better cel-shaded CGI before, but the Giant, Sputnik, and the missile are CG renders blended in so well it’s easy to forget they’re technically a different medium, and if they used it for other things, I couldn’t even tell or it wasn’t major enough to remember. However, the CGI was something I was aware of years ago. This time, I was also looking at the traditional animation, and especially the lovingly-created backgrounds. I think I’ve seen this movie called a love letter to traditional animated movies in an era where everyone wanted to make the next Toy Story, and I got it then, but I see it for myself now. As well, the music is quite evocative of cartoon features of a different age, and sometimes comes very close to evoking Looney Tunes incidental music.

My first instinct was to say that the messages of the movie are what makes it resonate, but there’ve been a lot of bad and forgettable movies with messages of “friendship is good, guns are bad, be yourself, help others, your past doesn’t define you”. What makes it effective is the execution. This story is not just character driven, but the characters express real emotion and profound thoughts that manage to all align to create a package of concentrated Feelings. It’s no wonder Pixar incorporated Brad Bird into their inner circle of creatives after this.

As the 1950s setting evokes a kind of nostalgia for a lost age of childhood, the movie is itself nostalgia for a generation, as it now approaches 20 years since its release. I’m sure that there are professional animators now who were inspired by this opus, and hopefully many of them are actually getting to do something close enough to that to satisfy them, as the market has moved away from traditional animation with any real budget for artistic flair. Being an inspiration is probably the highest honor a work of art can aspire to, and this is certainly one that has inspired careers as well as daily lives.