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Rental Corner: “Babes” lacks in story but strong on visuals

Ironic as the set behind them is more interesting...

Ironic as the set behind them is more interesting…

Once upon a time, Walt Disney owned the rights to the Oz books and wanted to do a movie with it. At one point, there were plans to make one (titled “The Rainbow Road to Oz”) but they never came together. Thus, 1961 saw the release of “Babes in Toyland” instead. A movie that was not only the studio’s first foray into movie musicals but very much the studio’s first venture into movie musicals and how they work…and it shows. I can understand Walt’s reason behind this movie seeing it does have a “Wizard of Oz” quality in the sets but its easily lacking in heart and audience.

The movie oddly opens up with a stage curtain which confuses me a bit seeing this is our entrance into a world filled with characters from nursery rhymes. This is our first entrance into this unnamed world (supposedly “Mother Goose Village” if you go by the opening song) of colorful characters and I have the feeling I’m watching a staged show. In fact, the first opening number is staged like a live show with obvious sets and the choreography feeling like the actors have rehearsed this for months on end. As much I don’t want to nitpick too much, this is my first problem with “Babes.” The way its set up and executed feels more close to a live telecast/stage show and less like a movie. Jumping to “Wizard of Oz,” its choreographed and executed like a movie and regardless of it being studio shot, there is craft and effort to give Oz a bit of depth. Disney’s “Babes” has flat cardboard sets that feel like a drive-through amusement park ride but at the same time some distinctive charm in design.

The story (if you call it that) revolves around two lovers named Tom Piper and Mary Contrary who go on a set of strange adventures provked by the evil Barnaby who plans to wed Mary and sees all he can do to sepreate the love birds so he can take his opportunity. Apparently, Mary is to be given a huge inheritance upon marrying (yeah, I don’t think that is how marriage works but oh well) and Barnaby wishes to be her husband to gain some dough.

Ray Bolger as Barnaby, a role that hasn't been this over the top and iconic since his perfomace as Oz's Scarecrow

Ray Bolger as Barnaby, a role that hasn’t been this over the top and iconic since his perfomace as Oz’s Scarecrow

He and his henchman do all they can to sabotage the marriage ranging from selling Tom to a batch of gypsies to letting their sheep roam about lost in the Forest of No Return. The first half of “Babes” is not too bad with the exception of having to sit through one musical number too many as characters speak their words out in song and less in dialogue that could have strengthen a lot of character depth. The second half of “Babes” starts to get a bit odd as Tom, Mary and a group of kids find themselves in Toyland after a series of misadventures and try to help poor Ed Wynn who plans an absent-minded Toymaker who is trying to meet the Christmas deadline. At his side is the assistant Grumio who the Toymaker wishes he would invent something useful even though most the inventions the Toymaker tries out blows up in his face due to misunderstanding its purpose.

The first half knows what “Babes” wants to be but the second half veers into a totally different movie by then. All the staged show feeling glomps down into a strange quirky tone that clashes with the timeless feel in the Mother Goose Villiage. In the Mother Goose Villiage, we get patrons of nursery rhymes while in the workshop of the Toymaker we see toy making machines and a shrink ray that screams 1960’s science fiction. These are two different tones that don’t seem to mesh together and it eventually pulls us out.

On top of that, the two romantic leads played by Tommy Sands and Mickey Mouse Club veteran Annette Funicello are unfortunately uninteresting.  Most of the movie, our time is spend seeing them sing their heart out to one another rather than develop their relationship in verbal dialogue. The more they sang a note, the more I wanted to understand them in verbal exchanges.  Even worse is Annette who does nothing in the movie but act sad when things go wrong or just watch on in confusion or amazement. Tom, on the other hand, does have more to do as in one humorous scene he poses as an elderly gypsy woman and acts like a straight man in the second half but I don’t find myself cheering on. He unleashes an army of miniature toys against Barnaby and my reaction is “so what?” Why spend your screen time singing your personality when you can talk it? Because we get to understand how the character talks and how we can connect to him/her.

More screen time is spent on Ray Bolger and his performance as the wicked Barnaby complete with top hat, mustache, cape and cane. This is the perfect definition of a stereotypical villain that twirls his facial hair while the damsel is tied to the railroad tracks. And surprisingly, Bolger’s villian is far more interesting and more developed. Ray Bolger tackled vaudeville and played the Scarecrow in 1939’s Wizard of Oz (further cementing Disney’s Oz obsession) and its a nice change to see him playing the antagonist. He doesn’t hold back and you can tell he’s having a good time as he tap dances his villainy one step at a time. His goons for hire Gonzorgo (Henry Calvin) and Roderigo (Gene Sheldon) also pull in some heavy laughs. Coming off of TV’s Zorro, its interesting to see the characters that made them famous transitioned here (with Gene’s mute performance from Zorro also used here to some memorable moments.)

Our heroes in the Forest of No Return, much like how lost we are

Our heroes in the Forest of No Return, much like how lost we are

“Babes in Toyland” can be summed up just one massive cartoon adapted for live-action. The sets, tone, humor and everything around it screams Disney cartoon. I do appreciate Walt going the extra mile in not animating this but it only leaves me wondering how this would have played out if it was hand-drawn and not three dimensional. Some of the special effects in this movie complement that as Tom sees animated stars after getting hit on the head and a malfunctioning machines screams “HELP!” in voice and in animated captions. This doesn’t detract too much but it can be bothersome. Case and point is the Forest of No Return as walking, talking and singing trees with googly eyes feel laughable and less menacing (which is my personal favorite scene for the wrong reasons. I end up rolling with laughter but the song with this scene is catchy too.)

The biggest highlight is the climax which is a lot of fun where a shrunken Tom unleashes an army of toys against Barnaby which is fun to watch and the technical work in the effects make me wonder why wasn’t the whole movie filmed and executed like this to begin with. As much as I have a heart for the sets, special effects and other odds and ends here, “Babes in Toyland” doesn’t fully come together. I still enjoy it for the nostalgia sake but not as much as I did as a kid. Its obvious the target here was for a younger crowd and it shows but I feel youngsters might be bored with Tom and Mary who are the heroes of the film.

I only see this movie working if it was done as either a live-telecast in the 1960’s or perhaps a Broadway show made by Disney seeing the sets easily transition it to that feeling and state. The other option is to see this expanded into a length roadshow production as some subplots do go unresolved. We never see Bo Peep get her missing sheep and we don’t know if the Toymaker’s Christmas delivery is made. On the whole, “Babes in Toyland” is not a terrible movie but its very uneven. Its not timeless as Oz was and it does have the 1960’s tint that makes it dated despite efforts in the creativity.  I can’t say I didn’t enjoy as I did get a kick out of the side characters and some of the songs are enjoyable. And the restoration effort on Blu-Ray is good enough to recommend it for those nostalgia collectors. But the biggest fault is that “Babes” easily is trying to target ages 0 to 8. And anyone older than that will find it tiresome or enjoyable just for its overly cartoony nature like I did. While its far from being bad, its so far from being a classic. For if little happy blue birds can fly beyond the rainbow, why…oh why, can’t I?

Rental Corner: “Pussycats” fun but lack much bite

It could have been worse...

It could have been worse…

“Josie and the Pussycats” are a popular rock group that originated from the Archie comic’s hometown Riverdale but people probably remember them best for the Hannah Barbera TV show. I do recall seeing some episodes as a kid but my memory is very faint. I do recall the significance of the band was how they were dressed up like cats complete with ears and tails. Joining them at the aid were two managers that were shifty and acted more villainous than heroic which struck me odd as a kid. What I do remember is seeing promos for the 2001 live action film and thinking how could they take another childhood property and make it for the adults. Now that I’m older and finally got around to seeing it, I wonder more why this wasn’t given the wider appeal for kids and adults because its light nature could be perfect for family viewing. And yet, fun as it can be, it has problems.

Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson do a great job bringing the band to life as the Pussycats are depicted as less of a 1970’s disco act and more of a modern rock band with a tablespoon of punk. At times, they can be be fun to watch with how their different personalities play off of each other (with the exception of Tara’s bubbly performance of Melody getting split laughs and groans) but it teeters too close to a Spice Girls parody and feeling like a Spice Girls clone at the same time. Its the standard group with different character traits that play off each other but its handled fine.

Alan Cumming plays a sneaky promoter named Wyatt Frame from MegaRecords who recruits the band in becoming their manager in hopes of getting a big hit for the company after his last band goes down in a plane. But as it turns out, there’s a great conspiracy at MegaRecords as its owner (Parker Prosy) wants to use music to send out subliminal messages so listeners (mostly teenagers, obviously) to manipulate their spending habits and lifestyle ranging from what coffee they should drink to even the style of clothing. Even Josie and the gang gets subjected to the brainwash as their band becomes number one within a week and slowly the group starts to wonder just what is behind those platinum selling CDs that are being produced.

In some ways, this is a good concept on satirizing big corporations and their motive on what they sell to young minds advertises their identity, but it doesn’t feel completely there. Some scenes lead to great comedic moments with teens rushing for the next “big thing” they should have and moments of demonstration do get a decent chuckle. But what contradicts it has to be the never ending line of product placement that is every single frame of the movie from beginning to end. This helps it as well as harming it to the point midway we either get the message and wish it would stop or just cut to the point and stop littering the screen with Coca Cola products or the logo for Target.

I fell like this is a much lighter take on John Carpenter’s They Live where aliens are trying to convert humans into consuming machines with billboards that read “Consume and Marry” or money that says “This is your god.” But the tone of the film is more incline with The Incredible Shrinking Woman and Wayne’s World (actually more Wayne’s World) and they didn’t resort to the point where the aspect of product placement was literally hitting you over the head with it. It all builds up to a big joke in the end but it doesn’t feel like a satisfying payoff. The acting complements this with Alan Cumming going hilariously over the top when needed while everyone is aware of the ridiculous nature of the movie without sending too many “winks to the camera.”

In fact, the whole tone of “Josie and the Pussycats” is rather cartoony and over the top to the point it can’t be taken seriously. Its a tour de force comedy that is trying out satire rather than throwing something at the screen and seeing it sticks. Most of the satire does work but some of the jokes don’t get too many laughs. As said, the character Melody is so bubble-headed that you wonder if she was experimented on by scientists before being let out into the real wold with her absent minded personality. Even the villain’s motive is so stupid that you can’t help but laugh at how so much effort went into an evil plan for such a silly reason.

I don’t think this movie is that bad as many make it out to be but it falls flat of being anything perfect. At times it can be smart and clever and at times it feels more like a Wayne’s World clone with the idea of an underground talent being manipulated for sponsorship or in this case controlling the mind of America’s youth and pop culture. But there really isn’t that much risk going on here. When something bad happened in the universe of Wayne’s World, it felt like the whole world was in peril. In the universe of Josie and the Pussycats (at least the movie), if something bad happens, there really is no feel of endangering our characters because when someone gets hurt, they come back in a cast or with minor scratches. Again, I know “Josie” is meant to be light-hearted but with a movie taking on themes of subliminal messages and consumerism, you wish it took more risks. But as it stands, its a harmless flick I’m sure you’ll be safe watching. I can’t remember any bad morals it was saying or anything completely offensive about it (well, maybe the Valerie character getting the shaft at times which is questionable). Its just goofy fun that I’m sure won’t rot your brain. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pre-order Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Turtles movie while purchasing a furry suit and hoping my grocery store has plenty of Cherry 7 Up in stock….wait, what?

Rental Corner: “The Missing Pieces,” or Signs of a Lost Good Movie

Prior to its Blu Ray release, The Missing Pieces had its unique premier

Prior to its Blu Ray release, The Missing Pieces had its unique premier

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” has been known for two things in the Twin Peaks fanbase. First being a prequel to the TV series in revealing the moments up till Laura Palmer’s death. The other thing is the never-ending mound of deleted scenes that exist. Now, it is common for a movie to have certain moments removed up during post production wither it be an entire sequence or a conversation that needs to be trimmed down for pacing purposes. Less is more. But in the case of “Fire Walk With Me,” more apparently was needed.

The recent Blu-Ray box set, dubbed “The Entire Mystery,” has both the original TV series that started the cult craze and its prequel movie to accompany it. But the biggest highlight of all is a supplemental section of the deleted footage from the movie dubbed “The Missing Pieces.” Now normally a typical movie could have anywhere up to 10 or even 20 minutes of removed scenes. “Missing Pieces” on the other hand contains roughly 90 minutes of deleted/extended scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut and could have improved David Lynch’s strange big screen adaptation in many ways.

Fans will be pleased to hear that many discarded moments will be seen in their glory as they refer to it as the “Holy Grail” of Twin Peaks fandom. Indeed, a lot of the footage does brush upon certain aspects like the spirits of the Black Lodge and many subplots that could have been better fleshed out or developed better. Among the batch is more of Bobby and Laura as we see a relationship on the rocks. One notable highlight is Laura visiting his boyfriend Bobby for something less intimate than he thinks. Its made quite clear that she only wanted him for the drug trafficking he’s been doing. I do admit when these two are on-screen, you can feel a tragic sense greater than Romeo and Juliet. That is if you knew the show well-enough that is.

We also get to see more of the Palmer family but not as sublime in the final cut. One scene that I’m sure everyone will be talking about is Leland Palmer teaching his wife and daughter some Norwegian which references a key element in the pilot. Scenes like these show that not everything is gloom and doom in the family while giving us a bittersweet feeling in contrast to later when Laura becomes suspicious and fearful of her father. Its a nice and humorous moment that could have balanced the dark nature.

Another crucial addition is David Bowie’s appearance as the strange agent Phillip Jeffrie whose brief moment in the final cut is expanded upon just a little bit. We get to have more time and devotion to his appearance as opposed to the theatrical cut where his moment is jarringly edited with the inhabitants of the Black Lodge mugging at the screen. Unfortunately, we may get to see more of Phillip and elaborate on his talks of “Judy” (a character that we never see in the show or the movie) but some things are never explained like his odd power to teleport from one place to the next. “The Missing Pieces” does show where he came from but never elaborates on the strange phenomenon.

Certain elements are made more clearer like the ring Teresa kept which could have played a bigger role in future continuations and the motive behind Tersa’s death in the beginning. But much like most of these scenes, we get new information but at the same time raises more questions. I’m glad to see more of the Black Lodge and its bizarre inhabitants but it only leaves me wondering exactly what kind of people they truly are and the reason for their existence. But moments like Kyle McLaughlin’s Agent Cooper talking to/practicing to talk to Diane really has me raising eyebrows. In the series, he would often recap events into a tape recorder supposedly for a secretary named Diane. We never do see this “Diane” (not even the deleted scenes hint who this is) and this only questions further if she is real or not. My argument for the series is that “Diane” is the tape recorder but then this bit completely obliterates that theory.

Also in the mix are a series of characters from the show that intended to make an appearance.  Among the notable include footage of the late Jack Nance as wood mill lumberjack Pete Martell arguing with a customer over a two by four board. It doesn’t add much to the plot or enhance anything but something about it feels humorously engaging. Others include some extra bits in the Sherif’s office that never made it into the final cut and more of Ed and Norma’s romance fling is expanded upon considering where it leads in the series. Bits like this could have allowed more time in the town of Twin Peaks and even see about the place. Wither it would have detracted from the main storyline is their own to question.

However, not every additional moment is good. As said above, the “two by four” argument really has no value or place and there’s little moments here and there that just don’t work. There’s a physical fight scenes that goes on for quite a while but something about it doesn’t work. There’s a purpose for it but the way its staged with the handheld camera and the awkward pans around the two duking it out really kills the excitement over the clumsy execution. I’m sure fans will be pleased to see this “long talked about” sequence but I unfortunately found it as too poorly shot. But does it deserve to be seen? Well, yes.  Most cut footage has a right to be examined and looked at to understand why it got cut or why one thinks it could have helped the movie.

But the biggest moment I’m sure fans will be talking about is the “extended” ending we get. Included is a five minute sequence that elaborates more on the final moments of the season two finale and while it does answer a lot, it sets things up for a sequel that never came to. Again, I’m glad to have seen this but it only makes matters more frustrating when you hope for an answer and instead just adds more cliffhanging frustration to the point you feel the story is unfinished.

Its best to see “The Missing Pieces” as a supplement as opposed to the “deleted movie versions” of the Anchorman films considering the string of “lost vignettes” that are included. While edited in a continuity form to help understand how it would have played out, I do think this could have benefited earlier on with that footage added in for a two-night TV airing. Now that would have been something back in the day. As it stands, “Missing Pieces” is more of an interesting afterthought much like its feature film revealing the biggest mysteries that were left behind from the show. The only negative is that while it does enhance and expand on a few things, not everything is going to be adjusted. We don’t know if one character escaped from the Black Lodge (possibly stuck there for life) and we don’t know much about how the supernatural elements work here. Perhaps to best quote David Lynch himself, “There is no end to the mystery.”