Sunday, February 26, 2012

Awaiting The Croods: The Agony & The Ecstasy

Have you ever looked forward to a film with an equal measure of anticipation and dread? More specifically, have you ever felt the anxiety of waiting for a new film from one of your favorite directors, hoping beyond hope that he or she will deliver yet another masterpiece, while simultaneously fearing that this may be the first movie by them that you find less than life-changing? That's the bi-polar battle my brain is currently waging over The Croods. On the one side, there's this exponentially increasing excitement over the fact that CHRIS SANDERS IS ABOUT TO RELEASE HIS THIRD MOVIE! Dude has NEVER let me down! On the other side...well, no one's artistic output remains unsullied forever.

Don't get me wrong. I realize that expecting perpetual perfection from anyone is unreasonable, unfair and just plain stupid. Making this all the more ridiculous is the fact that the aesthetic criteria and emotional demands I'm secretly hoping for The Croods to deliver on are mine, not Sanders'. Or, to put it another way: I'm asking Chris Sanders to fulfill the unspoken wishes of someone he's never even met.

And this is the SECOND time I've done this.

A li'l back-story:

Chris Sanders is, in my personal pantheon, one of the capital-g Greats. I don't know about you, but Lilo & Stitch slays me every time I watch it. The way that Sanders and co-director Dean DeBlois managed to blend quirky comedy with a heart-breaking treatise on the meaning of family is an artistic feat on par with Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, Mamoru Hosoda's Summer Wars, and Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. It's been ten years since Lilo & Stitch was first released, and I still find myself tearing up during Stitch's final scene with the Grand Councilwoman. ("This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.") Never mind the scene on the bed between Lilo and Nani. (“I like you better as a sister than a mom. And you like me better as a sister than a rabbit, right?") I can't be the only one who feels this way.

Maybe it's my being a product of a 'broken' family, but this film really resonates with me. There is something so achingly honest about the way that Sanders and DeBlois portray the emotional fragility and combustibility of Nani, Lilo and Stitch. When arguments arise, it's a roll of the dice as to whether they're going to cry, scream or tear off down the hallway in a huff. This is exactly how it is with my make-shift family. And just as with me and mine, throughout it all, there's an equal and opposite set of emotions also at play. The unconditional love, unfathomable affection and intuitive understanding, all colliding and combining to create an unspoken, unbreakable bond that somehow ends up being spoken just the same. (Sometimes there's nothing quite as comforting as having someone say the obvious.)

Last Thanksgiving, while watching Lilo & Stitch with the remnants of a family separated by death and divorce and countless inner and outer-demons, I experienced one of those fabled 'Paul on the road to Damascus' moments. Looking around at my girlfriend, her siblings, their partners, and all of their kids, I was powerfully reminded (or was it a realization?) that we are no less a family because our parents are gone or avoided or even because all of us do not share the same blood. I know that this sounds obvious, but it hit me hard. Since then, I've been making it my mission to wrangle what's left of my 'broken' family together as often as possible. Where we were once in danger of drifting apart, now we are...less so. And I have Lilo & Stitch and Sanders and DeBlois to thank for this.

Okay, so I might have been a total sucker for this film had it simply been the gentle, occasionally sentimental movie I described above. But it's sooo much more! You've got the hyperactive hi-jinx of the now-iconic Stitch. The Laurel and Hardy antics of Jumba and Pleakley. The ingenious inclusion of Elvis (the man, the myth and the music). The extended surfing sequence. The gorgeous watercolor backgrounds AND the eye-gougingly good character animation. What's more, Sanders and DeBlois found a way to fit it all together seamlessly. In doing so, they created - what is to me - an A+ production. I know I'll raise some eyebrows when I put Lilo & Stitch up there with Beauty & the Beast, but I'm gonna go ahead and do it anyway. Hell, Roy Disney said it's as good as Dumbo, and you don't think you know more about Disney animation than Roy Disney, do you?

So that was the movie that started it all. The movie that made it impossible for me to approach Sanders and DeBlois' next film, How To Train Your Dragon, with anything less than exceedingly high expectations. Luckily for me, they delivered.

A li'l more back-story (this batch more recent than the last):

When I initially read the press releases for How to Train Your Dragon, I was less than enthused. First off, I'd been a bit of a dick about DreamWorks' animated output thus far, judging them solely (and harshly!) on the Shrek films, while conveniently dismissing the better moments of such films as Antz and Over the Hedge as statistical flukes. Secondly, I 'knew' that the film that Sanders and DeBlois REALLY wanted to make was American Dog, but that John Lasseter had fired them from the picture because it was "a little too quirky for its own good." It was this he-puts-the-ass-in-Lasseter act that resulted in Sanders and DeBlois hopping over to DreamWorks to take over The Croods (previously being handled by Aardman), before being reassigned to HTTYD (previously being handled by The Country Bears director, Peter Hastings). You see what I'm saying? This didn't exactly sound like a 'passion project' for anyone involved. Thirdly (don't worry, I promise not to drag this out to the double-digits), the voice cast was comprised almost entirely of the dreaded, de rigueur, DreamWorks assemblage of currently 'hot' actors and actresses and SNL alumni. The girl from Ugly Betty? Seriously? Lastly, Sanders and DeBlois were being given "just over a year to rewrite and direct the film." That right there seemed to sound the quality death knell.

And yet...

Those marvelous motherf*ckers did it again. Defying all logic and internet speculation, How to Train Your Dragon was not only not a disaster, it was one of 2010's stand-out animated films. (This in a year that also saw the release of Tangled, Toy Story 3 and The Secret of Kells.)

Once again, Sanders and DeBlois aced the story's emotional arcs with ease. The tender friendship between Hiccup and Toothless? Immediately identifiable to anyone who had ever owned a pet or dreamed of doing so. Astrid and Hiccup's blossoming teen romance? Sweet without being saccharine, sarcastic without resorting to a distanced, 'Yeah, we know it's corny, too' attitude. Hiccup's inability to be the person his father had hoped? Another nuanced blending of "quirky comedy with a heart-breaking treatise on the meaning of family." It didn't matter if you were a boy or a girl, child or adult, or if your paternal problems stemmed from your relationship with mother instead of your father, this section of the movie spoke to everyone who'd ever felt a disapproving adult presence in their life.

As for the story itself, I believe its simplicity is what will make it an enduring classic. Is it The Black Stallion with a dragon? Yes! Is it Romeo and Juliet with the Vikings standing in for the Montagues and the dragons as the Capulets and with a super-happy, love-conquers-all ending tacked on by the Hollywood powers that be? Uh...why not! Heck, I even get a sick kick out of reading those pretentious and contentious commentators who try and make an argument for HTTYD being a piece of liberal propaganda encouraging kids to disobey their elders and befriend the terrorists.

(Here's where I wait for you to click those links to see if such readings really exist.)

Ha! Nuts, right? You owe me. And here's where I cash in that debt. Please continue to indulge me while I take this opportunity to admit my total lack of imagination regarding:

1. DreamWorks' handling of the picture

In regards to tone, 'tude and the inclusion of unnecessary pop songs, How To Train Your Dragon was certainly no Shrek. Thank you, DreamWorks!

2. Sanders and DeBlois' perceived lack of passion for the project

Whether or not they had it at the outset of the assignment, they certainly managed to summon it up during HTTYD's high-speed production. Never does the film feel like the micro-managed, highly manufactured product of an assembly line of artists - even though it is! The credit for this surely has to go to the two directors, whose positive energy and passion for the project must have been at crazy, near-Krakatoa levels in order to inspire the hundreds of cast and crew members listed in the closing credits. Which dovetails nicely into...

3. The vocal performances

The entire cast (including America Ferrera, a.k.a. the aforementioned "girl from Ugly Betty") did a great job imbuing their characters with personality, humanity, warmth and wit. Is it weird that the Vikings all have Scottish accents (except the ones that have American accents)? Sure. But never so weird that it took me out of the movie or inspired me to blog more than three sentences about it.

4. The film's rushed production schedule

To coin a phrase too awkward to ever be used again: I guess what doesn't kill a film makes it stronger.

Suffice it to say, How To Train Your Dragon was another outstanding animated achievement for directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. It was also another arrow straight to the heart of this daddy-issues Muppet-of-a-man just making his peace with cats after a long bout of Ailurophobia.

(For those of you keeping track at home, this put Sanders at a solid two for two.)

Fast-forward to today:

I'm sitting here, typing and re-typing this, trying to kill all of the unwieldy alliteration that naturally vomits forth from my fingertips (damn you, Stan Lee!), while working towards some sort of eloquent (ha!) and succinct (double-ha!) form of self-expression, all in an effort to get across the myriad of personal hang-ups and highlights that have led me to making the upcoming release of The Croods such a seemingly life-or-death moment in my movie-going existence.

Then it hits me. The question I was supposed to be addressing since the outset of this article. Why do I do this? Why do I go through this push and pull, this anticipation and anxiety, this all-caps AGONY AND ECSTASY over something my therapist would not hesitate to describe as fleeting and insignificant?

The truth is, the answer may have less to do with my love for Chris Sanders' films than it does with my love of film in general. This is, after all, not the first time I've felt this way. Nor will it be the last. Since I first started watching movies, whenever I found a filmmaker who spoke to me emotionally and honestly, who showed me a new and better way of looking at/living my life, I've felt a connection to them. Not just to their work, but to the artists themselves. These connections, although unarguably one-sided, are undoubtedly real. They're nearly as real to me as some friendships I've had, and a lot more real than most crushes I've had. These connections teach me, heal me and inspire me. On more than one occasion, they have saved me. Losing such a connection, even temporarily, is devastating. So why would I allow a single film to diminish an artist's entire oeuvre for me? Why would I do this repeatedly? Self-centeredness and unfair expectations, I guess. You read what I wrote about my daddy-issues. Still, knowing the fickle nature of these ephemeral connections does not make them any less vital to me. It just makes me realize how important it is to immerse myself in them while they still exist. That's why, every time I'm fortunate enough to make such a connection with a director and their work, I cherish it. I indulge it. I wallow in it. And in rare instances, I devote an entire year of my life to making a website about it.

Related: Awaiting The Croods: Great Expectations

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