Tuesday, November 22, 2011

HOME ON THE RANGE (2004); A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *(1) poor, (2) fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *(1) comedy, (2) drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*


The only thing that I'm grouping these two animated projects together is that I happened to have seen them within weeks of one another-- though as it happens, both happen to be Disney films.

HOME ON THE RANGE is the first film I've reviewed here which is "marvelous" in one restricted manner: its heroes are animals who resemble their real-world counterparts in every way except that they can think just like human beings, and can carry on fluent conversations in humanspeak with other animals though never with humans.  The fantasy-critic Todorov claimed that he didn't think that fables about talking and/or thinking animals should be labeled as "marvelous" works, but I take the opposite stance.  With this in mind, I rather wonder why none of the fantasy-film concordances have ever considered entries for the various PEANUTS films, or at least the ones in which Snoopy appears.

RANGE is perfect for small kids in that it presents a ranch way out west where the animal stars are part of the ranch-family, rather than sources of revenue and/or dinner.  The plot is pretty standard: the ranch "Patch of Heaven" is in dire straits financially.  Three cows-- Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench), Grace (Jennifer Tilly), Maggie (Roseanne)-- decide that the only way they can save their owner's property is to go out and capture noted outlaw Alameda Slim.  I suppose the writers thought that it would be intrinsically funny to see these cows-- who comprise sort of a "Joy Udder Club"-- trying to perform heroic deeds, but in my opinion all they did was to prove that cows don't make good animated film-heroes.  Borrowing a trope from the "Jack and the Beanstalk" folktale, the villain whom the heroes pursue turns out to be responsible for their financial woes, as Slim is not just an outlaw, but an evil banker set on buying up all the land in the state, with "Patch" being the only holdout.

The voice-work is skilled and the traditional animation is fairly attractive, but neither can save the unremarkable script.  Only Slim's assistants, his three dumbell nephews, are a little funny, but that's just because dumb is easy to make funny.  Real comedy, as others before me have said, is hard.

Genre-wise Dickens' CHRISTMAS CAROL in some ways feels halfway between drama and comedy.  Certainly Scrooge's reprieve from a meaningless death (though not, obviously, from death as such) has a comic feel to it.  But on the whole the story of Scrooge's haunting is generally serious, and this version (starring comedian Jim Carrey as Scrooge) emphasizes the dark, forbidding aspects of Dickens' tale with no comic relief throughout the bulk of the film.

As with other "capture animation" projects, one ought to speak of the "voice actors" (Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth) as "voice-and-body actors," since the performers act out some if not all of the actions of their animated personages.  Carrey's Scrooge sports a craggy face with a nose like an icicle of flesh, as well as playing younger versions of Scrooge and all of the Ghosts of Christmas.  This is a nice conceit, as one could interpret the ghosts as elements of Scrooge's own psyche, though thankfully the film doesn't dwell on the matter.  By and large it's a faithful retelling of the original, though to liven up the film for modern audiences, Scrooge is put through some over-the-top ordeals, like being rocketed into the sky or shrunk to the size of a mouse.

Precisely because CAROL is a faithful adaptation, there are no real surprises aside from those inherent in the capture-animation technology.  While it's not to my taste, director Zemeckis and his team did a much better job of "humanizing" these computer-figures than they did in the previous POLAR EXPRESS, which I found nearly unwatchable.

The rating for CAROL's mythicity is "fair" only insofar as it reproduced elements of the Dickens story, not because of anything Zemeckis and Company brought to the table.

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