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.

Movies of My Yesterdays: Meet the Robinsons

I remembered this movie as having come out a little earlier. Spring of course, but I didn’t remember that it was my final spring as a high school student. I do remember that spring and summer being significant to me in a lot of ways that made me feel like I was growing up and defining my own tastes. Placing it in that year, I know that I had a car that was mine to use rather than borrowed when I needed it for the first time. It was a good year for listening to songs on the radio, which is something I rarely chose to do. I think I was making occasional trips to bookstores by myself to browse.

However, this was not a movie I found all on my own. I knew it was coming, I was looking forward to seeing it, but soon after its release, my grandfather wanted to take me to a movie. Looking at what was coming out around that time, I can see that this was pretty much the only option for us.

Meet the Robinsons. Walt Disney Pictures 2007.

Sometimes I talk about movies coming out at the right time for me. Usually that probably just means they were things I’d have liked anyway reaching me at an age when I was old enough to think about it a little more deeply than a child, but still simply enough to easily generate nostalgia for it later. I suspect that’s the case with Tarzan, though it did introduce me to the music of Phil Collins. But I feel like Meet the Robinsons was perfectly suited for my mindset at the time, and considering that I was about to graduate high school, it’s easy to see how a story about a bright kid dropped into a colorful future that turns out to be of his own making might’ve particularly spoken to me.

Lewis, a 12-year old abandoned at an orphanage as a baby, is already an inventor capable of revolutionizing modern science when he sets his mind to it. Still unable to get adopted at his advanced age, he decides to invent a memory scanning machine to help him find the mother who left him years ago. However, at the science fair, Lewis encounters a teen claiming to be from the future, and a mustache twirling saboteur with a sentient bowler hat. In order to get Lewis back on track, Wilbur Robinson takes him to the future to prove that he is a time traveler, and Lewis gets mixed up with Wilbur’s eccentric family. If meeting his mother doesn’t work out, surely Lewis could find a home with the Robinsons.

I still love the fanciful spin on classic futurist design. Robots, another William Joyce-inspired movie, was made in a similar style, but I like the results here better for some reason. The music doesn’t grab me now like it did at the time, both the neo-swing I was very into back then and the 00s Disney boy band songs that did a lot of the work of opening me to modern pop.

I’m always impressed with how well the non-destructive time travel is set up and paid off. The Cornelius loop as well as the orphanage steps and Bowler Hat Guy’s origins are meticulously detailed and make repeat viewings rewarding. It’s so well done that the rewritten timeline begins to seem like an illusion that Cornelius somehow arranged in order to get Lewis set on the right path. After all, Cornelius did invent the evil hat that started it all.

It’s probably never going to be as good as the first and second time I watched it, but Meet The Robinsons will always hold a special place with me for when it came to me, and as long as I like time travel stories, it will stand among the better ones for me.