Monday, February 27, 2012

Movies That Suck: The Screaming Skull (1958)

The Screaming Skull opens with a shot of a coffin which opens up by itself, with a narrator who tells you that because the film is so scary, you may die of fright and therefore, the producers have arranged a free burial for you in case you do die. There's even in a plaque inside the coffin that reads Reserved For You. In his entry of his 2010 Cinemassacre Monster Madness where he talked about this film, James Rolfe said that the only thing you're liable to die from in this movie is laughter. I disagree. You're not going to die of fear or laughter. You're going to die of boredom. I remember how I first came across this movie. It was one of two movies on a double feature VHS that I got for my birthday in 2001. The VHS was meant to simulate the experience of a drive-in movie double bill with cartoons and trailers before and in-between the two films (incidentally, the other movie was The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, one of Paul Naschy's werewolf movies). I had never heard of The Screaming Skull before I got this VHS and after I saw it, I understood why. Now, I'm all for cheesy, bad movies but this one just doesn't do it for me. I just find it to be a boring, stupid, convoluted piece of shit of a film.

Newlyweds Eric and Jenni Whitlock arrive at the old house where Eric used to live with his first wife Marianne before she died after slipping and falling into a small pond on the property. Jenni is warmly received by Eric's two friends, a local reverend and his wife, but the property's strange gardener, Mickey, remains ambivalent about her since she had a very close relationship with Marianne. It turns out that Jenni had a history of mental illness and spend a lot of time in an institution after she witnessed the drowning death of her parents. From the first night that Eric and Jenni spend in the house, strange things begin to happen to Jenni, most notably a skull that appears to her out of nowhere at unexpected moments. Is Jenni going insane again or has Marianne returned from the grave?

In the 1950's, independent films, particularly horror and sci-fi films, were played mostly at drive-ins, distributed by studios such as American-International Pictures (as this movie was), and weren't as prevalent or respected as they are now. Low budgets, especially in the 50's, force directors to be creative and use ingenuity to make a good movie despite their money limitations. As a result, you have such beloved films as The Blob, The Giant Gila Monster (which, despite its major schlock factor, is quite a charming little movie) or even the movies of Ed Wood, which one can't help but like despite how awful they are on every little. The bottom line is that a low budget is not the sign of a bad movie. It can result in a movie that's admirable or so bad that it's good. Unfortunately, a low budget can also hinder a movie, particularly when it's made by a director who isn't that skilled to begin with. That's the case with The Screaming Skull. The effects are bad enough with the low budget but when you add in a plot that's far too complex for its own good, you've got one stinker of a movie. I know there are some that enjoy this movie but in my opinion, everything in this movie blows.

The film's leads are played by actors who were mainly known for acting in radio and television. Peggy Webber, who plays Jenni, was in very few films in her career, appearing mostly on radio and in television shows like Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, I Spy, and many others. Her most notable movie appearance, even though her part in it was very small, was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. I'm pretty sure that this was one of her few leading parts and you can see why it was so. She tries her best but in the end, it's obvious that she can't carry a movie. Her attempts to come across as sympathetic and troubled aren't terrible but they're nothing to rave about. Her terrified performances, however, aren't that good because they involve her either sitting up in bed and looking around for about five minutes straight, walking around for about five minutes straight, or screaming her head off (her scream is particularly irritating, I might add). There's also mention that the portrait of Marianne in the house looks like her mother, whom she hated. Unfortunately, that subplot goes nowhere and she doesn't get to do much with it before it's discarded. I'm not trying to be mean and, again, she's not horrible but I just don't find her to be that remarkable of an actor here (although that could be due to the lack of good direction she probably received).

Eric is played by John Hudson, another actor who appeared mostly in television and whose last film role was in 1961 before he went into TV full time. I'm just going to go ahead and tell you right now that Eric is trying to drive Jenni insane again because her family is rich and he wants her money. Honestly, that secret is very clumsily hidden, especially when you re-watch the movie and think back on it. First, Hudson plays Eric as being really nonchalant about his first wife's death (no doubt because he, in reality, killed her), which Jenni should have seen as suspicious and, as a result, makes her look stupid. Second, whenever Jenni experiences the weird phenomena, Eric is nowhere to be found and only appears after the spooky stuff has stopped (which raises even bigger plotholes that we'll discuss shortly). Third, Eric's plot is revealed fairly early on when, after burning a portrait of Marianne that Jenni seems disturbed by, a skull is revealed in the ashes. Eric says he doesn't see the skull but after Jenni faints, he picks it up and drops it into the pond. You know, most mysteries wait until the end to reveal their twist but by doing so when there's still about twenty minutes left, you really destroyed what little suspense you already had. It's eventually revealed that there is something supernatural going as well but by that point, you just don't care anymore because it's been so clumsily handled. If they had waited until the end to reveal that Eric was trying to drive Jenni mad as well as there being paranormal phenomena going on, it still may not have made sense in retrospect but at least it would have been a bit more effective. (It's like if High Tension had that ridiculous twist right in the middle of the movie. The movie still blows but that would have made it suck even more.)

You may have been surprised that I didn't mention the movie's director before the cast as I usually do. That's because Alex Nicol, the director, also acts in the film as eccentric gardener Mickey. As an actor, Nicol was in over sixty movies and television shows from the 50's all the way up to his retirement in 1976. The Screaming Skull was his first shot at directing but he only directed a few more movies, two of them Tarzan movies, up until 1973 but he did manage to direct a bit of television. I've already mentioned some of the reasons why he didn't direct much after this and I'll go into more later but all in all, he proves with this film that he wasn't a very skilled director. Acting-wise, he's passable as the eccentric Mickey who was really close to Marianne and doesn't like that Eric is living in the house again with another wife. Mickey is, of course, meant to be the person whom you're supposed to suspect is the one behind the strange events occurring but he's not because it's so obvious. In fact, this character is completely useless. He never does anything except wander aimlessly around the grounds, "talk" to Marianne, and get blamed for the strange occurrences. The ending leaves us with the feeling that he knows about Marianne's spirit but that didn't even come into play in the grand scheme of things. The only important thing he does is let the kindly reverend and his wife know what Eric is up to but you could have easily have had them find that out for themselves. You have to wonder if Mickey is in this movie simply because Nicol wanted to act in it as well as direct because, as I said, he's an unnecessary character and his backstory is even more pointless.

As for Reverend Snow (Russ Conway) and his wife (Tony Johnson), they don't have much to do but they're fair enough in their acting. I thought Conway came across as a fairly compassionate reverend who cares for Jenni and wants to see her keep her peace of mind. Johnson also comes across decently and compassionately as Mrs. White but she has the least to do out of all of the characters. While Johnson apparently only appeared in one other movie after this, Conway was a veteran appearing in over 200 films and television shows up to the 1970's (most of his career was TV, like everyone else in the movie).

For the most part, this movie's camerawork and set-ups aren't that good. There are moments where it feels like Nicol doesn't how to set up a shot. One of the most glaring examples comes at a moment when Eric is looking for Mickey in the garden. As he yells, there's a shot of Mickey running towards the camera, as if he heading towards Eric. But the next shot of Mickey is him running away, like he's trying to hide from Eric. Nicol apparently didn't know how to direct himself or other actors. There are also moments where the whites in the picture go really strong for some reason (and since this movie is in the public domain, it can make an already bad print almost unwatchable). I don't know if I can blame Nicol for this or if I should just blame editor Betty Jane Lane (I couldn't help but snort when I saw that name in the credits) but this movie has a lot of really bad editing problems. There are several unexpected jump cuts. During the first night time scene, Jenni gets up because she hears a knocking sound and goes to investigate it. We see that it's an open window that's knocking due to the wind blowing but I'm not sure if Jenni saw it or not. In any case, she starts to walk across the hallway when there's a sudden jump-cut and the next thing you know, she ends up crying in Eric's arms. It's not just the print I saw. James Rolfe and even the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys saw the same thing. There's another one where Jenni is talking to Eric later in the film. For a millisecond, there's a shot of Jenni's face and then it goes back to the shot of both of them in the frame. A similar thing happened in The Killer Shrews. You have to wonder how this happens, if the director or the editor don't know what they're doing or what. Either way, it's a distracting sign of terrible filmmaking.

When I said that the only thing you're liable to die from in this movie is boredom, I meant it. Even though this movie is only 62 minutes long, it was one of the most uninteresting and dull viewing experiences I've ever had, both when I first saw it and when I watched it again for this review. Nicol tries for a slow build with the terror and while that's normally a good thing, you've got to do it with actual creepy stuff happening. Most of the "terror" involves Jenni sitting in bed and listening to weird sounds. That can be scary if done right (look at Paranormal Activity for example) but when the sounds aren't particularly scary, when you're shown the same thing two times in a row, or it goes on far longer than it should, it becomes boring. That's the case here. That particular scene goes on for about three full minutes, if that. You're just like, "Do something!" The following scene where there's a knock at the door and Jenni takes a long time to finally answer it is equally dull. It has basically this pattern: Jenni walks a little bit, there's a few knocks at the door, she stops. Jenni walks a little more, there's a few more knocks, she stops again. It gets monotonous really quick. Like I said, there's a slow burn of suspense and then there's having nothing interesting happen on-screen for a while.

Where this movie gets downright silly is in the execution of the supernatural aspects. It's really hard to take something serious when the threat is a skull that floats, rolls, and even knocks on doors (more on that later). Jenni's reaction to the skull is a little strong, I feel. I know finding a skull that seems to be stalking you is eerie but you think you'd get used to it after a while and stop screaming your head off like she does. Even a bit of camerawork that could have been creepy, an apparent long-tracking POV shot around the house, is ruined when you realize that what you're probably seeing is the POV of a skull floating in the air. Things get even sillier near the end of the movie when the skull comes out in full force. Sometimes it's a transparent, full-bodied spirit and another time, it becomes a solid skeleton in a dress and hat. After that, you actually see the skull floating in the air and it's transparent. There's no consistency and the effects are ridiculous. The skull doesn't even really scream. Instead, it makes a high-pitched roar that sounds like something a monster in a Godzilla movie would emit. But here's the biggest problem and it's a simple one: it's a freaking skull! I'm sorry but I'm just not scared of a skull. Sure it does attack Eric at the end of the movie by attempting to bite his neck but the acting is comparable to how Bela Lugosi made it seem as if the octopus was attacking him at the end of Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster, ruining the effect completely. When your antagonist is nothing more than a skull, supernatural or not, you've got problems.

As I've said, Eric's plot to drive Jenni insane by using a skull and the presence of Marianne's vengeful spirit don't gel together very well. Up until the climax when Marianne really does rise from the grave and attempt to kill Eric, we're led to believe that everything we've seen up to this point has been Eric's handiwork but when you think back on it, it doesn't make sense. We can surmise that Eric put the skull in the dresser that Jenni finds it in at one point but after she throws it out the window, are we supposed to believe that those POV shots of the skull turning and then apparently floating were Eric doing so? Fine but why would Eric slowly and methodically turn the skull over, pick it up, and carry it to the front door? There would be absolutely no reason for him to do that. Moreover, when Jenni answers the knocking at the front door and sees the skull, she backs away in fear and the damn thing suddenly rolls toward her. How did Eric manage to do that? So these events are caused by the actual ghost? That would be a better explanation but the end of the film makes it clear that Marianne is after Eric. If that was Marianne doing that earlier, then why was she scaring poor Jenni, who never even knew her? The reverend and his wife talk about Jenni being much different than Marianne because she's kind, suggesting that Marianne was not a good person. It's only a suggestion but if they were going to go that route, they should have made it more concrete. If so, then it would have made a bit more sense why both Jenni and Eric are being haunted. Let's go one step further and talk about when Eric and Jenni burn the self-portrait of Marianne. This is where we find out that Eric is behind the mysterious events. Before that, we hear the skull scream as the painting is burning. How did Eric arrange for that sound to emit from the painting (moreover, how did he create that sound and emit around the house in the first place)? Also, how did Eric put that skull underneath the painting without Jenni noticing? Did he ask her to stay behind while he put the painting in the fire-pit? If so, once again I have to ask why Jenni didn't think that was suspicious. This movie wants to have it both ways, for it to be both a ghost story and a tale of psychological torment but neither part works and even if it did, the payoff is not worth it in the slightest.

It's amazing that the music in this movie was composed by Ernest Gold, who would go on to do music for over a hundred movies and would win an Oscar for his work on Exodus three years after this. The music in this movie is just as dull and unremarkable as the movie itself. It has two main bits: a lousy horn theme that goes "Dun, dun, da, da, da" and a choir of vocalizing voices that's meant to be eerie but just comes across as annoying. The opening credits music is nothing to write home about either.

I know there are fans of The Screaming Skull (while the film only currently has a 3.0 rating on IMDB, I know that there are supporters of it) and I hope none of them are too offended by my thoughts but to me, it's boring, stupid, and not scary at all. It's in the public domain so it's easy to find but I've never seen a very good quality print of it and I don't recommend seeing it in any case. If you want a laugh, though, I would advise watching the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that featured this movie. It is quite funny.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Stuff I Grew Up With: Pilotwings 64 (1996)

This is one of those games that, given my tastes, I shouldn't have ended up owning but I did. I know exactly why I did end up owning it. It was featured on a videotape I received from Nintendo Power in 1996 about the upcoming Nintendo 64 along with Super Mario 64 and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (this game, along with the former, were the launch titles for the N64 in North America). Needless to say, I was most excited about Super Mario 64 and even though I hadn't seen any of the Star Wars films at that point, Shadows of the Empire looked pretty fun too. Pilotwings 64, however, I wasn't too sure about. It looked interesting from the clips shown on the VHS but, as I said, it's not the type of game I typically play. I'm more into platforming games and shooters, not sports games or flight simulators such as this. But I figured I'd might as well give it a shot I got it for my tenth birthday in 1997 (my family always gives me money so I can just get what I want) and it ended up being one of the first N64 games I ever owned. However, when I got home and played it along with my cousins who had accompanied me during the shopping trip, I instantly realized that this game wasn't a good match for me. I won't say I out and out hate the game but I find the challenges to be more of a chore instead of being enjoyable and the rewards not all that satisfying.

A sequel to the original Pilotwings for the Super NES (which I didn't even know existed before this game), Pilotwings 64 involves you choosing one of six pilots to use in a series of flight tests that you must complete in order to earn various medals and get your pilot license. There are three different weight classes that the characters fall into (two for each class) and each has his or her advantages and disadvantages depending on the conditions of the test. There are three types of flying vehicles: hang gliders, rocket belts, and gyrocopters and there are four different tests for each of them (Beginner, Class A, Class B, Pilot), each of them becoming more difficult as you go from the former to the latter. Each test has up to three missions (Beginner has just one, Class A has two, and Class B and Pilot have three) and you're graded based on time, landing accuracy and softness, usage of fuel, and so on. Points are deducted if you're damaged (i.e. touch anything other than what you're supposed to) and if you crash (which, if you're like me, you will end up doing quite often), you fail except for the points you received from the targets you managed to hit before doing so. You have to win at least a bronze medal in each test to move onwards through the various tests of each vehicle and if you win at least a silver medal in the different difficulty level tests for each vehicle (like for the Beginner tests of all three vehicles and so on), you can unlock bonus challenges involving human cannonballs, skydiving, Jumble Hopper, and Birdman (I'll explain the latter two later).

I'll admit right now that few games gave me more screaming fits as a child than this one. There are a lot of frustrating games out there and I've certainly dealt with more than my fair share of them but usually, I'm able to overcome the difficulties of a game by repeated trial and error, becoming familiar with what's around each corner, getting accustomed to the number of enemies in a given level, etc. This game, however, is something else entirely. While trial and error does play a factor into becoming good at it, this game can still drive me nuts because of how precise the grading of the tests is. There were so many times (particularly during the damn hang glider tests) where I was sure I did good but then when the test was over, I still hadn't gotten enough points to at least get a bronze medal and move on (or for the medals necessary to activate the bonus challenges). It would just drive me insane and I couldn't figure out what the game wanted from me. (You can tell whether you did good or not before the result screen comes up by watching how your character reacts. You have to watch whether they nod or shake their head and how fast they do each motion. If your character shakes their head very fast, you've failed.) Because of those bad memories, I dreaded having to play the game in order to do this review but to my surprise, I managed to actually progress through many of the tests and, at least, try the rest of the challenges. I think the reason for that is I've grown a little more patient (and a little being the key) with games and I now take my time and actually try to learn the ins and outs of how to properly succeed in various aspects of them. Case in point with Pilotwings 64: I took time to learn who was best for operating each aircraft in what situation, how to operate said aircraft, how to land as gently as possible, and so on. While some of the missions I still find impossible to get good scores on without using GameShark cheats (which I had to use to see the entire game and do this review properly), I will say that I'm much better at the game now than I ever was.

I think one of the biggest problems I had when I was younger was that I would just choose a character based on how cool I thought they were and I didn't care about their practicality for the task at hand. The characters Lark and Kiwi are the lightest ones and are the best ones to use for the hang glider, especially when using thermal currents. The heavier characters sink too fast but at the same time, they're much more stable when there's a strong wind. Still, it's better to use either one of the lightest characters for the hang glider. The two middleweights, Goose and Ibis, are pretty good choices for the rocket belt or the gyrocopter because the wind doesn't affect them much and they can turn very well. The heavyweights, Hawk and Robin, are best used on very windy stages or stages where you need to be able to sink very fast. I find I'm actually able to use Hawk on the rocket belt stages with little to no problems but that could be just because the rocket belt is the vehicle I can operate the best. But like I said, it's typical not a good idea to use the heavyweights on the hang glider. Speaking of the characters, have you noticed that whenever you select a character, the women actually say something (Kiwi says, "Here we go", Ibis says "All right!", and Robin very sultrily says "Oh, yeah") whereas the guys just either yell "Yahoo", "Yee-haw!" or, in Hawk's case, give out an animal-like yell? Bit of favoritism towards women there? (I'm just kidding! Don't hit!)

As I've made it clear already, I despise the hang glider. That damn thing causes me so much trouble, even when I use the correct characters and the best techniques. Where the game always screws me over is when it comes to landing. First, you have to land as close to the bull's eye of the landing platform as possible and while that's easy enough on some levels, it's almost impossible on other levels. No matter how accurate I try to be or how much I slow myself down by repeatedly pushing the B-button in order to brake, I almost always end up overshooting the center of the platform or worse, land outside of it. It's even worse on a level where there's a lot of wind but you have to use one of the lighter characters in order to accomplish the objective. I can come towards the center all I want, that wind will still blow me past the center. Besides that, you're also judged by how softly you land on the platform. Sometimes when I need to land the glider, I can't judge how hard I'm going to land and I get penalized for it. Also, there are times where I can't slow down enough and even when I think I'm going slow enough, I still end up crashing. Getting at a very high altitude for points is easy enough when you're using a light character and flying into thermal vents (these rotating columns of air) which carry you upwards. But going up very high makes landing the ground-based target very difficult. Time also gets to me during the hang glider levels, particularly when I've accomplished a task that took a very long time and I still get penalized for it or end up crashing (the latter of which really irks me). There are some missions where you have to take a picture of something and you basically have to get right on top of it in order to get the maximum amount of points. Doing so is usually easy enough but pulling up and getting to the landing spot or the thermal vent necessary to gain more altitude is usually a real problem. Flying through rings doesn't usually give me problems but when they're situated down a steep dive that's hard to get out of without crashing or spread out around a big area, they can be a nuisance. So, yeah, I am not a fan of the hang glider.

The rocket belt, however, is another kettle of fish. I excel at this thing and was able to get either a silver or gold medal in all the classes without much difficulty or using cheat codes. It really doesn't matter who you use for the rocket belt but I prefer using Hawk because I'm actually able to control him with little difficulty and he's particularly handy during the windier levels. The controls are easy to figure out: A-button to accelerate, move the control stick in the desired direction to go that way, and the Z-button allows you to hover, which is great for lining yourself up with a target. I also have the easiest time landing the rocket belt. All you have to do is position yourself above the center of the target (switch camera positions to make sure you're on target), hover, and gradually fall, braking with the hover until you land softly. Simple. The rocket belt isn't without its drawbacks, though. It runs on fuel and tends to burn through it rather quickly (hovering really eats it up). In levels where you have to have land on floating platforms, you don't have much fuel to begin with and while you do get some fuel when you land on each platform, it tends to not be very much. You also get points deducted if you bump into anything other than the landing points or the balloons and balls you must touch in certain levels. There are also only two camera angles in this mode: behind you and above you and that can make navigating cramped spaces without bumping into the walls difficult. However, I'm usually able to overcome these difficulties, making the rocket belt my favorite vehicle in the game.

I may not like the gyrocopter as much as the rocket belt but I do find it easier than the hang glider. Like the rocket belt, the controls are simple enough to figure out: A-button to accelerate and B-button to brake. Turning is where the vehicle tends to get me. Sharp turns are best done with your finger on the brake but when you're flying slowly, that's when the wind becomes a bit of a problem. Heavyweights also have a hard time at turning so it's best to go with the middleweights. Pulling out of a dive can also be a little tricky, particularly when you have to do so to fly through a ring near the ground. Speaking of flying through rings, it can be difficult to go through when you come at them from an angle instead of straight on but sometimes you have no choice. Landing can also be a bit tricky. The landing accuracy is judged by how close you are to the center-line of the runway you are when you stop. You get the most points when you get down on the center-line and stay on it until you stop, which is very difficult because the gyrocopter has a tendency to skid to the edge of the line. Landing impact can also be tricky because the game will sometimes give you a good score if you come down rather rough but bounce correctly (how it determines a correct bounce, I have no idea). You also get to fire missiles from the gyrocopter to hit bull's eye targets among other objects. This can sometimes be tricky, particularly if it's windy and you have to fire the missile in the opposite direction of the wind in relation to the target. There are also times where you're sure you've got the target perfectly in your sights but the missile still misses (sometimes it's because you underestimated how far away the target and sometimes it can be because of a game glitch). One thing that the gyrocopter does have over the rocket belt is that, while it also runs on fuel, it doesn't eat it up nearly as quickly. While I prefer the rocket belt, the gyrocopter does have its own benefits.

There are other bonus challenges you can unlock by winning silver and gold medals in the various classes. The Birdman levels aren't a challenge so much as a break from the pressure of the rest of the game. It's not a vehicle so much as whatever character you choose donning a pair of makeshift wings. You can actually become the Birdman in certain levels by flying into stars you find but you unlock the  first actual Birdman level by getting silver and gold medals in the Beginner Class for all the normal vehicles and unlock the further ones by getting silver and gold in the hardest levels of the other bonus challenges. It doesn't matter much what character you choose. Control-wise, you just press A to flap your wings to gain speed and press B to hover in the air. As I said, there are no challenges in the Birdman levels. Just fly around for as long as you want (unless you crash into something) and enjoy the scenery. You can also take pictures and store them in your album. While I don't play it much, this is a nice relaxing alternative to the game's real challenges.

To my surprise, I managed to just recently open up the Cannonball stages after years of trying to. The Cannonball is simple: your character (it doesn't matter who you choose to be honest) is put inside of a cannon and you have to fire yourself at a bull's eye. You can get up to 25 points depending where on the target you hit. You get three tries for each level and only the attempt that resulted in the most points will be scored. Sounds simple but I find it to be the most difficult of the game's bonus challenges. You have to position the cannon itself in the direction of the target, which is harder than it sounds because you have to watch a meter on the bottom of the screen to see which direction you're aiming. That's done by moving the stick to the left and right. You also have to adjust the angle by moving the stick up and down, keeping your eye on the meter on the right side of the screen. Finally, you have to make sure of how much power you use when you fire the cannon. The power meter is on the left side of the screen and you fire when you feel it's reached the appropriate level. I'm not good with precise stuff like that and even after you get those aspects situated, you still must take the distance of the target and the wind into account. I can't tell you how many times I've felt that I was lined up perfectly and still either overshot or undershot the target or hit it very far away from the center. One of the worst challenges is one where the target is behind a hill and you have to use your radar to find its position. Even then, I still end up missing more often than not. I think it's plain to see that the Cannonball is my least favorite of the bonus challenges.

Skydiving is also a little tricky. There are two parts to skydiving. The actual free-falling section involves you completing five formations with your fellow divers. You have to line yourself up with a yellow, blinking silhouette of yourself that you see positioned along with the other divers who are already in formation. It doesn't matter if you're a little to the left or right of the silhouette as long as you're at the right angle. If you fly past the silhouette, you can press A to brake back up to it. When you've positioned yourself, you have to press A each second until the word GO! appears on-screen and you can move on to the next formation. You don't get a high score if you miss any of the formations. Light and middleweights are best suited to this whereas heavyweights tend to fall too fast and are harder to control. Once you've fallen a certain distance, the other divers will leave you by yourself and you'll break through the cloud cover and have to land. As with most challenges, I tend to find landing to be tricky. You have to pop open the chute at a certain height (250m) and once you've opened it, you have to circle around the target by using the overhead camera angle and brake until you land softly on the target. First time I tried the challenge, I ended up landing outside the target. Even if you follow all the right steps, it's still hard to land perfectly in skydiving and it all comes down to precision (which, as I've said before, I suck at in video games).

The most unusual challenge in the entire game is the Jumble Hopper. In this challenge, you don a pair of these spring-loaded shoes that allow you to jump very high in the air and hop to a designated goal area. You can't be stationary at all in this challenge and between jumps, you have to align yourself in the direction you want to hop next. You hold the A-button for more powerful jumps and hold the control stick to move in the direction you need to travel while jumping. The lightweight characters can jump high and over long distances but it's rather slow and the wind blows them away easily; the middleweights' jumps are shot but very fast and they resist wind very well; the heavyweights resist wind the best but they're the worst jumpers. I think the choice is clear. You can't crash with the Jumble Hopper but you can temporarily knock yourself down by jumping into a building or jumping into something from the wrong angle. If you jump into water, you get points deducted each time you touch it. You also get penalized if you take too long to get to the goal. Despite the setbacks, this challenge does tend to be rather fun, allowing you to go places in the levels that you're unable to in the other vehicles.

Design-wise, Pilotwings 64 is very pleasant to look at with its bright and colorful graphics and how the levels look in various weather conditions (sunny days, overcast, dreary days, cloudless nights, etc.) All the tests take place on several islands. Holiday Island is the smallest and most picturesque with its hilltop castle, hotel, airport, and amusement park. All the Beginner classes take place on this one. It also has an interesting Easter egg where you can turn the setting to night by flying into a cave near the castle (just don't fall in the water).  Ever-Frost Island is an arctic piece of land with an oil refinery and ski village being the only traces of civilization. Visibility on this island tends to be very bad in the levels where it's snowy, making the gyrocopter class on this island (the Pilot one) rather difficult. Crescent Island is a lovely little C-shaped island with a hotel in the middle of it. Ironically, I don't have many problems with the rocket belt class on this island despite the fact that it's the Pilot class but I do have trouble with, of course, the hang glider, which is Class B. The largest and most interesting island is Little States, a compact version of the U.S. You can find so many different features of America here like Mount Rushmore complete with a Mario head (which becomes Wario if you hit it during the cannonball stage), compact versions of New York City, L.A., Cape Canaveral, and Seattle, and even a tribute to the Loch Ness monster in the form of Missy, an orange river monster that you have to photograph.

The music in this game isn't one of its most stand-out features. It's not horrible, mind you, and it fits the game but there's nothing to write home about. The music over the title, challenge selection, and character selection screens are pretty good. I can't say I like the music during the hang glider levels. It may be a calm, nice melody but when you don't like the vehicle and it's taking a long time to complete your objective, it tends to get a bit monotonous. I do like the cool music during the rocket belt levels and I especially enjoy the music that plays during the gyrocopter levels. The cannonball music is a little too silly and can get kind of annoying. The skydiving music isn't too memorable either but the Jungle Hopper music is so silly that it's actually fun. I think my favorite bit of music in the entire game is the calm, relaxing music during the Birdman levels. It's the type of music that you want to listen to on a lazy evening where all you want to do is kickback. All in all, the music in the game isn't bad but some of it could have been better.

The first test for the hang glider is easy enough. All you have to do is fly into a thermal vent and go through three rings before landing on the target. The first test in Class A of the hang glider is simple too. You have to ride another thermal vent, take a picture of a flame coming out of the smokestack of an oil refinery (you'll more than likely get burned but you won't lose any points and the result is actually pretty funny), and then land. The other test in Class A, though, is where it starts to get difficult. You have dive through this steep chasm and go through as many rings as you can before pulling back up and landing. The problem is that there's a mountain right behind the last ring and if you don't do some fancy maneuvering, you'll end up crashing right into it. I can get a lot of the rings but I've never been able to get all of them without crashing. I just can't pull out of the dive before hitting the wall. The fact that you more than likely need to use one of the heavyweights in order to drop sharply complicates matters further since they can't turn that well. I'm sure someone out there has figured out how to do it (possibly with some of the lighter characters) but I just can't. (I was busting my brains trying to get a good score on this challenge in order to unlock the cannonball challenge but all I needed to do was get a better score on the previous one, which is simple.)

Class B of the hang glider is where the game really gets unforgiving. In the first test, you have to use a series of thermal vents to ascend to 400m in the sky before landing. The former is easy but, as usual, the landing is difficult for me to accomplish. I can never land on the center of the target. I always overshoot it, sometimes landing outside the target which is really annoying, and you must use light characters in order to reach the required height, which makes you susceptible to the wind. The second test is another Shutter Bug level. You have to photograph a whale swimming in the cove below your starting point and then photograph the fountain of the hotel in front of the landing point. Photographing the whale is simple but photographing the fountain used to give me trouble until I figured out which direction to come at it from and that you have to circle around before attempting to land. The landing still trips me up sometimes but as badly as other levels. The third test I find to be ungodly cruel. You have to fly to the other side of the island and land on the target in exactly three minutes. I want to know who came up with this challenge. What is it some sicko of a programmer who thought the game wasn't difficult enough so he decided to put in this unfair challenge? I've never been able to do this perfectly. You have to fly past a big mountain on the island, go very far out to sea, and then turn around in order to land properly. If you manage to do this perfectly, you deserve the medal you get. Now we come to Pilot Class and they really ratcheted up the difficulty for the final batch of tests. The first test has you use a bunch of thermal vents to reach 650m before landing. The first part is long and tedious (not to mention that the vents disappear after four minutes) but you can accomplish it. Landing is where you may trip up because you have a long way down and it's difficult to slow down enough so you won't crash. I guarantee you that you'll want to break your N64 if you crash since the main objective takes so long to do. The second test has you fly through eight out of fifteen rings. This one is also frustrating because the rings are spread out over a large area and your constantly ascending and descending to go through them takes up a lot of time. Landing isn't too difficult but, as I said, you'll more than likely get penalized for taking too long. By the way, do not take the waterfall route at the beginning of the level. It's too difficult to get through the three rings there without crashing. The final test is another Shutter Bug and it's the hardest of them all. You have photograph Missy the monster, a cruise ship in the ocean, and a launching space shuttle at Cape Canaveral. Finding the objects is a cinch with the radar and Missy and the ship aren't too difficult to get good pictures of. Maintaining your altitude after doing so can be difficult, (there are plenty of thermal vents but it's sometimes hard to get to them before you crash), and the space shuttle is the hardest to photograph because you have to be at the right altitude and come at it in the right direction in order to get a good picture. Even after that, you have to turn around to land and believe me, the game has screwed me over by causing me to crash after my hard work.

The first rocket belt test is a cinch: fly towards a floating balloon, pop it by flying into it, and then land. If you can't do that, you might as well quit trying to play the game. The first test in Class A has you fly through nine rings scattered in a city. It's not too hard but it can take some time and it's best to use the smaller characters since it's easier to avoid bumping into the buildings which will deduct points from your score. The second test has you land on a series of floating platforms scattered across the countryside. It's not too hard, other than you better use the heavyweights since there's a lot of wind which can make accurate landings with lighter characters difficult. Besides that, you start with a fair amount of fuel and you get more each time you land. The first test of Class B is also pretty simple. You have to burst two balloons, each of which breaks up into five smaller ones. Bursting both sets is pretty simple but you have to be a little quick because they can get away from you if you let them. It's easy to think that you've popped one when you haven't so make sure you see the Balloon Cleared message on the screen before moving on. This is another level where it's best to use one of the heavyweights since there's a lot of wind. The second test has you fly through rings but it adds complications by having some rings become timed rings which revert back to normal after a short while. You must fly through all the timed rings along with the normal rings to get a perfect score. I don't find this to be all that difficult either. The third test is the first of two where you have to bounce a big green ball into a goal area. This isn't hard so much as it just gets monotonous. You have to hit the ball in a certain area to make it bounce the preferred way and if it bounces too high, you have to wait for it to come back down. Again, not difficult per se, but just kind of annoying. I will admit that as good as I am with the rocket belt, the Pilot Class tests did give me a bit of trouble. The first one, where you have to fly through a narrow cavern, took some practice. It's best to use a lightweight to avoid bumping into the walls but that's still not the hardest part. That comes when you have to fall down this steep waterfall in the cave and even if you get that right, you have to fall down a slanted tunnel without touching the walls or falling into the water. That can get pretty difficult. You'll also use up a lot of fuel doing this. I have gotten to the point where I can use Hawk for it but this was frustrating at first. The second test is another bouncing ball level but this one is much more difficult. There's a lot of wind so you better use a heavyweight. The biggest problem is that the ball is on top of a peak and when you hit, it will more than likely fall into one of the chasms along the side of the mountain and you have to wait for it to slowly make its way down to the beach. This is where the two camera angles for the rocket belt cause problems because, despite its size, it's easy to lose the ball since you're limited to where you can see. Finally, you're under a stricter time crunch. This is all adds up to make this a pretty tough rocket belt level. The final test is another Touch and Go but this time, the floating platforms are spread out farther and you begin the level with much less fuel than before. Once again, there's a strong wind so use a heavyweight. First time I tried this, I did get frustrated because as you get farther along, it's hard to find some of the platforms because they're hidden well (there's one right below the platform before it but it's hidden by a ledge so you're almost guaranteed to miss it). Also don't be fooled and go into the cave you went through in the first test just because there's a platform in front of it like I did. It's frustrating but I eventually did get it. (I know I probably glossed over the difficulties of some of these levels but the rocket belt levels, except for the last ones, rarely ever gave me much trouble.)

The Beginner Class for the gyrocopter simply involves you taking off, flying through three rings, each of which appears after you've flown through the one before it, turning around, and landing back on the runway. Simple and a good way to learn the ins and outs of flying the vehicle. The first test in Class A involves you flying through more rings (fifteen out of many to be exact) and land. Again, not too difficult but some of the rings do test your maneuvering skills. The other test is the first one that involves blowing up targets with your missiles. There are only three to blow up and they're not terribly difficult to hit. The one thing you have to remember is that you can't fire more than two missiles at a time. The first test in Class B is a much harder version of the first one in Class A. You have to fly through all the rings across this section of Little States, most of them placed along a winding river with. Some of them are beneath bridges and can be tricky to pass through without hitting the water. There are instances where you see two or more rings beside each other but you only have to fly through one. Some are worth more points than the others and those are trickier to get. With a little practice, you can do well on this test practically every time. The next test is another missile firing one, this one with ten targets spread out across a canyon and with winds that can easily blow the missiles away from the targets. Some targets are also located around tight corners and are pretty hard to get good shots at. This is definitely one of the most frustrating gyrocopter levels because you must destroy every target for a good score. I crashed a lot of times while trying to do that. The third test is the first of two confrontations that you have with a giant robot called Meca Hawk. Meca Hawk isn't attacking so much as just wandering around a field but you still have to take him down. It takes five missiles to destroy him but he can be hard to hit because his movements are erratic and he'll often stop to throw boulders at you. It can be annoying when you have to turn your copter around to get another shot because Meca Hawk has a tendency to walk right underneath you. You also can't take too much time. Even though I eventually brought him down, this was still a pretty difficult test. The Pilot Class is a real ass-kicker. The first is another one involving rings but this time, there are many spread throughout the island (you don't have to get all of them but you still have to get a majority of them), there's a strong wind, some of the rings are positioned at an angle that makes them difficult to fly through, and you can waste a lot of time trying to rack up points and still wind up with a mediocre score. I've never been able to get a very good score on this one. The second is easier. You have to destroy twenty out of thirty balloons but unlike missile targets, you can pop these with your vehicle as well as shoot them with missiles. They're all in one area and there's no wind, making this test simpler. It can still be time-consuming, though, because a lot of balloons are in clumps and you often have to make one or two passes to get all of them. The final test is another battle with Meca Hawk. This one is even more difficult because the robot is swimming in the ocean next to the island and you have fewer clear shots of him than before. The only time you should bother shooting at him is when he stop and throws big ice chunks at you. Trying to hit him when he's swimming is difficult and you can't hit him when he dives underwater. And again, even if you manage to destroy him, the time constraint can still get you. (I'm not going to go into detail about the bonus challenges' levels because the tasks remain the same and all that changes is the difficulty, either by you having less time to complete the tasks, the goals becoming harder to get to, or the targets harder to hit.)

It's really amazing that I got Pilotwings 64 as a kid, let alone that I've had it for fifteen years now because it's really not my type of game. These kinds of games where you have to be so precise and on the nose are not good for an impulsive, impatient gamer like myself. Granted, in preparation for this review, I have become much better at this game than I ever was before. I managed to complete some tests that drove me bonkers for years, mainly because I've learned in recent years to think about what you're doing in video games. Still, I did have to use GameShark codes to unlock the entire game to do this review justice. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to part with this game pretty soon because completing it properly was more of a chore than anything else and if I didn't have this blog, I would have probably gotten rid of it long ago. It doesn't have much replay value once you get good at the tests anyway. I know there are a lot of fans of this game and I respect them but this, ultimately, is just not a game that I get much honest enjoyment out of.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Movies that Suck/Disney: Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure (2001)

Disney direct to video and DVD sequels. I just can't help but question why these things exist, let alone why there's so many of them. In my opinion, the only good ones are the ones to Aladdin, partly because I grew up with both the original and its first sequel, and maybe the sequels to The Lion King. The rest of them tend to be cheaply made cash-ins on the original film's name, marketed towards young kids who, most likely, have never even seen the original and, therefore, have no idea or conception about how mature and well made they are. To that end, the films are produced with as little effort as possible not only in the animation but in the storylines and characters. Knowing what the audience is, they're made to be overtly goofy, silly, and generic, giving young kids the wrong impression of the original films. I just don't get why Disney taints their classics with these sequels that are marketed towards kids who only know the name and nothing else, which will influence how they think of the originals long before they even see them. They're also alienating those who grew up with and love the originals by making these juvenile cash-ins. That's the case with our subject here: Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure. As I said in my review of the original, it may not be one of my absolute favorites from Disney but I do see it as a charming, romantic, and very adult film. This thing is nothing of the kind. It's a cheap, generic (prepare to see me repeat those words a lot), rehash of the original's plot with none of that film's maturity or sophistication.

As the title suggests, this movie focuses on Scamp, Lady and Tramp's only son. Scamp is very rambunctious and mischievous, often getting into trouble and breaking the rules of the household. After causing a huge mess that ends with him being chained in the backyard and after a heated argument with his father, Scamp runs away from home to be "wild and free." He meets up with Angel, a stray female pup and later joins the gang of junkyard dogs that she's a part of. The leader, Buster, doesn't like Scamp getting friendly with Angel, whom he considers his girl, and it's later revealed that Buster is an old friend of Tramp's who has never forgiven him for going to live with Lady's family and abandoning him. Once Buster discovers that Scamp is Tramp's son, he uses the rift between the two of them to get revenge on Tramp by steering his son wrong and, ultimately, abandoning him to the dogcatcher, leaving Angel to try to save him with Tramp's help.

The main director is Darrell Rooney, who's actually had a long history in animation. He's been a layout artist on stuff like The Smurfs (the TV show), the basically forgotten Pac-Man cartoon, The Brave Little Toaster, and Once Upon a Forest; a storyboard artist on films like A Goofy Movie, Cats Don't Dance, The Pagemaster, and a couple of the endless Land Before Time sequels; a pre-production script developer on Beauty and the Beast; and an effects animator on Something Wicked This Way Comes and TRON. He actually wrote the story for Aladdin, which surprises me, but directing wise, he's only directed three other films: a 1997 Three Little Pigs short, The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride (which I think is okay), and Mulan II (which I've never seen but I'm sure isn't very good). He hasn't directed anything since Mulan II and that was back in 2004. He's had more directing credits than his co-director, Jeannine Roussel, who hasn't directed anything since this movie. She's mainly been a post-production coordinator and post-production manager on stuff Captain Planet, 2 Stupid Dogs (which, as you know, I thoroughly enjoy), the 1993 animated Addams Family, among others (including being a producer on the first of those Tinkerbell movies). I have to wonder why Disney put these two in charge of making a sequel to one of their classics (I guess I could ask that of all these sequels actually). I think there's a good reason why neither of them have directed in years.

This movie really should either be called just Scamp's Adventure or Angel and the Scamp because Lady and the Tramp are secondary to this movie. Scamp, voiced by Scott Wolf (whom I'd honestly never heard of before this), is pretty much what Tramp was in the original: an adventurous, rambunctious rascal of a dog. The only difference is he was born into a family, unlike his father (again, going back to my thoughts on the original, or so we can possibly deduce), and wants to be wild and free (which he says several different versions of throughout the movie). Once free, he meets up with Angel, a rebellious, street-smart young female dog (voiced by Alyssa Milano) who, of course, becomes his love interest. So basically, the story is the same as the original, only with role reversal: the male dog is the one from a posh, upper class family and the female is the one from the streets. The motivations are also reversed: the dog from the family wants to stay on the streets and the dog from the streets longs for a family. This could make for an interesting story... if the characters were at all interesting. I don't mind the voicing acting from Wolf or Milano (even though it still doesn't blow my mind) or even the characterizations. The problem is that they're just not interesting enough for me to care about them. Again, while I don't hate the characterizations, Scamp's hyper rebelliousness and Angel's tough act that hides a sensitive, hurt girl underneath are still so cliched. The fact that they're reversed rehashes of Lady and Tramp doesn't help. Angel even gives a Scamp a nickname (tenderfoot), the same way that Tramp called Lady "Pige" and "Pigeon" and they both have a spaghetti dinner. Where have I seen this before? Maybe in a movie not connected to Lady and the Tramp, these characters, with better development and changes, might work but here, they're just not compelling in the slightest because they're simply in-verses of characters I already met and grew to care for in the original.

To be fair, one scene with Scamp and Angel that I did like was when Angel discovers that Scamp is the son of Tramp and the two of them look through a window into his home. They see Lady and Tramp, his sisters, Jim Dear and Darling, and especially little junior gathered around the fireplace, missing him deeply. That's when you know that Scamp is beginning to realize how much his family does care for him. Also, Angel admonishes him for running away from such a lovely home and Scamp's reasons for running away don't help his case either. While I may not have found the characters to be that interesting, I did think that scene between the two of them was well done (let it never be said that I'm not completely fair).

The villain in this movie, Buster, is just lame and uninspired. I feel bad for Chazz Palminteri because he does what he can with what he has but what he has isn't much. Let's think of the logistics of this character: Buster says that he was Tramp's friend (and mentor in being a street dog, apparently) but he feels betrayed and hates Tramp for abandoning him to go live with Lady. Where the hell was this character during the events of the original film? Tramp never once mentioned him. To compound things even more, Buster says that he confronted Tramp and said, "It's either her or me." When in the course of the original movie did Buster have an opportunity to do that? When Lady had been put in the pound? Maybe but I doubt Tramp had decided to live with her at that point. After Tramp got out of the crashed dogcatcher wagon? What, did Buster come out of nowhere right before Tramp was about to be invited into Lady's family? Okay, you could make an argument for that since we didn't see what happened between that and the ending scene of the film. But I have to ask again, where was Buster throughout the rest of the film? Tramp must not have thought much of him if he never even mentioned him and to that end, Buster not have thought much about Tramp to begin with to not be around, which makes even less sense for him to throw an off-screen temper tantrum about his "friend" abandoning him. And let's say that was the case, that that supposed scene between the two of them did exist. It still wouldn't matter because Buster is a generic, boring villain. He's not threatening or intimidating in the slightest. He tells Scamp that if he ever runs into a relative of Tramp, he'd be dog food. So does Buster try to do so to Scamp when he discovers that he's Tramp's son? Nope. All he does is trick Scamp into getting caught by the dogcatcher. Some revenge. Buster just comes across as a big baby of a bully who has to have everything his way. There could have been an interesting villain here, like a very embittered dog who decides to kill Scamp for revenge, forcing Tramp to battle his former friend. But Tramp never does confront Buster and Buster's comeuppance is just as lame as he is so it's wasted.

Jodi Benson, best known as the voice of the Little Mermaid herself Ariel, is the voice of Lady in this movie and she's good choice, radiating warmth and love, which keeps with the character now being a mother. Too bad she has crap all to do in this movie. The only reason she's even in the movie is because the title is Lady and the Tramp II and she must make an appearance. Other than worrying about Scamp and maybe feeling much more responsible now that she's a mother, she has literally nothing to do and it's a real shame. (I'm also not sure if I like that she actually calls her beau "Tramp." I know I've called him that but I always felt that he really didn't have a name and that "the Tramp" was just a title that the dogs gave to him.) Tramp has much more to do in this movie. I thought Jeff Bennett did a pretty good job at voicing him and I also thought he complimented Larry Roberts' performance adequately (I also like that he still calls Lady "Pige"). I will admit that I did like Tramp in this movie. He's now a house pet, no longer the wild mongrel he used to be with a new huge sense of responsibility, especially since he's a father. He also has to deal with the fact that his son is the way he used to be and you learn that he never told Scamp that he was once a dog of the streets. He's at first hard on his son about him breaking the rules and tries to make Scamp come home with him when he eventually finds him but he soon realizes that his son needs to learn on his own and he eventually proves to be a great father when he saves his son from the pound. As I said before, though, I really wish that, along with Buster being better developed, there had been a final confrontation between Tramp and Buster at the end but there isn't. But, all in all, I did like Tramp in this movie and wish that he was the focus, not Scamp.

Jeff Bennett also voices Jacques and Trusty. I thought the way he voiced Trusty was fine, if not as refined as Bill Baucom was in the original. But I thought the way he did Jacques was far too over the top with the Scottish accent. The accent Bill Thompson used funny but it sounded natural and wasn't an overdone, Braveheart-like caricature. But the one character in the movie that I really can't stand is the stupid, Don Knotts-like dogcatcher, also voiced by Bennett. This character is so unnecessary, annoying, and overly goofy that it's cringe-inducing. I know there wasn't much focus on the dogcatchers in the original film but at least they acted like normal people and caricatures. This guy is nothing but a bumbling comic relief and even when Scamp is caught by him, there's no tension because the character is so ridiculous. He's a prime example of what I meant earlier when I said that Disney often makes these sequels juvenile and insulting towards their parent films.

There a lot of characters that return from the original because the studio felt obligated to put them in here but they don't do anything with them other than cameos. I thought the performances of Nick Jameson and Barbara Goodson as Jim Dear and Darling were fair and they weren't the biggest part of the original anyway so that didn't bother me (their faces are seen way too much, though, and also, why do they refer to Tramp as such?); Aunt Sarah, voiced by Tress MacNeille, has no reason for popping up here but she does, as do Si and Am, even though they barely do anything. (Note that Si and Am are voiced by Mary Kay Bergman and Tress MacNeille, two different actors, and yet they don't see anything, while Peggy Lee voiced both of them in the original and sang a duet with herself in the process. Weird priorities, huh?) Tony and Joe also make cameo appearances and Tony even makes a spaghetti dinner for Scamp and Angel. What, does he give spaghetti to every couple of dogs that comes around his place? (By the way, while Tony is voiced by Jim Cummings, Joe is voiced by Michael Gough. I don't mean the beloved English actor but a voice actor with the same name. It's a good thing I double-checked on that because I was about to rip Disney a new one for bringing in a great actor for such a minor role.) Kath Soucie and Debi Derryberry voice Scamp's three sisters, Annette, Danielle, and Collette (who are only named in the credits), all of whom look like Lady. They come across as really prissy and aren't worried about Scamp at first but do grow to miss him eventually. Nothing else to say. As for Buster's gang of junkyard dogs, you have Ruby (Cathy Moriarty), an Afghan Hound who seems to like Scamp a little too much to me; Scratchy, a mongrel who has a serious flea problem; Sparky (Mickey Rooney), an Irish Wolfhound who apparently once knew Tramp and tells an exaggerated, false story about him; Francois (Bronson Pinchot), Boston Terrier who has a French Accent; and Mooch (Bill Fagerbakke), a dim-witted and enthusiastic English sheepdog (like the dogcatcher, I really didn't care for how much of a caricature he was).

With any direct to video animated film, you know that they didn't have that big of a budget and therefore, the animation is really going to suffer. Animation-wise, DisneyToon Studios, which handles a good majority of Disney's direct to video releases, is pretty hit and miss. For years, the studio was housed at the now closed Walt Disney Animation Australia, which produced some of their classic 80's and 90's TV shows like Goof Troop, Darkwing Duck, and so on. While the animation for those shows were suitable because they were created for television and the animation for their occasional theatrical releases like The Jungle Book 2 and Return to Neverland, while not top notch, was fair, the animation for the direct to video movies is almost always very poor and Lady and the Tramp II is no exception. It may be better than the animation Hanna-Barbera often cranks out but when compared to Disney's legacy, it doesn't hold up. I usually don't mind the digital coloring technique when it comes to television animation (I actually prefer it in that instance) but here, everything just looks very flat and uninteresting, unlike the inspired production design of the original. The lighting in particular has no character. In the original, the lighting was used to establish a mood, particularly during the fight between Tramp and the rat. Here, it's either bright florescent light during the day or slightly dark at night. That's it. As for the actual animation, while I've seen a lot worse, it's still very generic and nothing to get excited about. I realize that these direct to video films were produced on a budget but they could at least be creative with their restrictions. This is just instantly forgettable.

Speaking of forgettable, the songs in this movie don't fair much better. I'm not even going to talk about the actual score by Danny Troob because, other than some overtly silly music whenever that stupid dogcatcher is on-screen, I can't remember a single note from the entire score. The actual songs, for the most part, are either forgettable or unbearable. The opening song, Welcome Home, performed by a chorus and many of the voice actors, is about independence, which you can say is the theme of the movie, but I remember few of the actual words. World Without Fences, performed by Roger Bart as Scamp's singing voice, is so cliched and generic. Scamp sings about how he wishes to be wild and free. Big deal. Junkyard Society Dog, sung by all of the voice actors playing the junkyard dogs except Chazz Palminteri (Buster's singing voice is Jess Harnell), was the worst for my money. I just couldn't stand how uncreative and run of the mill it was as a song. I Didn't Know That I Could Feel This Way, performed by Roger Bart and Susan Egan (Angel's singing voice), is the love song between Scamp and Angel and it's not memorable either (with the characters thinking the lyrics, it felt like the actual Can You Feel The Love Tonight? between Simba and Nala in The Lion King). The last two songs I don't have a problem with, to be honest. Always There is sung by Scamp, Angel, Lady, and Tramp. It starts when Scamp is caught by the dogcatcher and he wishes he was home. At the same time, Angel is peering into the windows of house and upon seeing dogs playing with their owners, wishing that she had a family too. Lady and Tramp's part of the song comes from their missing Scamp over his decision to stay on the streets. The song wasn't too bad, all things considered, and Roger Bart, Susan Egan, Jeff Bennett, and Jodi Benson's singing was pretty good. The first song to play over the ending credits is a pop arrangement of Bella Notte, sung by Joy Enriquez and Carlos Ponce. I know many purists will probably hate this modern remake of the classic song from the original but I didn't mind it. It had a nice, soothing sound to it. Other than those last two songs, Lady and the Tramp II has some really forgettable music.

Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure is the definition of unnecessary. It wasn't needed or wanted and was simply made to placate kids who've probably never even seen the original film and therefore, will get the wrong impression of it from this. It's just a poorly done, in-versed rehash of the plot of the original with low budget, generic animation and design, two uninteresting and cliched lead characters, a lame villain, and songs that are either forgettable or really bad for the most part. I'm sure that there are people who like this movie out there and if you're one of them, that's fine. To me, though, it's just another in a long line of unneeded, lowest common denominator sequels that can potentially hurt the legacy of their classic parent films.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Disney: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

As with most Disney movies, I'm not exactly sure when I became aware of Lady and the Tramp since the studio's movies have been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. Now having said that, I want to clarify that I didn't grow up with this movie. What I meant was that I'm unsure exactly when I became aware of Disney's individual films if I didn't grow up with them. I saw a little bit of Lady and the Tramp at some point during my elementary school years (in fact, I saw it while I was at school and it may have been around the time the film was re-released on video in 1999, which would have been when I was eleven years old). I knew of it before I saw that little bit but I wouldn't see the entire film until I got the Platinum Edition DVD in 2006 when I was sixteen. Funny story about that DVD. I bought it at Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World in Orlando. I tried to get it from a dispenser machine that had DVDs in it. It had a rotating rack of DVDs in it and you put your change in, you had to push the button the minute you felt you could get it. I wasted so much change trying to get that DVD (it didn't help that the machine came with a voice that would say, "So close!" every time I lost) and I eventually had to buy it at one of the shops. Of course, by the time I sat down to watch it, I pretty much knew the story and about certain scenes (the spaghetti scene, obviously) as well as that it was supposed to be one of Disney's sweetest films. My thoughts on the film are the same now as they were then: it's pretty good. It's not one of my absolute favorites from Disney but it's a charming, well-made little film.

It's interesting that I saw a fan-made music video on YouTube that set scenes of the film to Billy Joel's Uptown Girl because that's pretty much the story of the film. If you put aside the fact that the characters are dogs, the film becomes the ageless tale of two people from completely different social classes falling in love. There's actually two plots. The other is the world and lives of humans as seen as through the eyes of dogs and how a beloved pet would process its owners having a new addition to the family. You see Lady from when she comes into her owners' family as puppy to when she grows up into their dearly loved pet, has to deal with their expanding family, and ultimately how she finds love in the most unlikely of places. It also doesn't hurt that the story is told with a lot of grace and skill.

One thing that makes Lady and the Tramp unique among Disney's library of animated features is that it's one of the few that is an original concept, not based on a fairy tale, folklore, or a book as most of them are. There was a novelization of the film but it was made in conjunction with it. The production team combined an original idea from story man Joe Grant and a short story by writer Ward Greene. Greene would eventually write another novel that would become the primary basis for the film's story but it was written while the story was being developed and was released two years before the film was finished in 1955. So while there is a novelization basis for the film, it was created as the story was being developed at the studio so it can safely be said that Lady and the Tramp is an original creation of the Disney Studio. The film's three directors were Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wilfred Jackson, who worked on a lot of the studio's cartoon shorts and who were on a veritable role at the time, having directed Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan back to back before collaborating again on Lady and the Tramp. While this would be the last film Jackson would direct, Geronimi and Luske would go on to direct together again on One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Geronimi would also go on to be one of the four directors on Sleeping Beauty and Luske would direct the enjoyable Donald Duck educational film, Donald in Mathmagic Land.

In my opinion, Lady is the true main character of the film. She's the character you see grow from a playful pup to a prim and proper full-grown cocker spaniel. You're with her right from the first real scene of the movie and there are few scenes throughout that she's not part of. What I like about her is that even though she's from a wealthy family, she's not snobbish in the least. You sort of get the sense that she doesn't think about social classes or anything like that and just sees other dogs as equals. She has only scene with Tramp before the two of them grow close but she doesn't look down at him at all. Even so, she does have her lady's honor and feels betrayed when she discovers that she was the latest in a long line of girlfriends that Tramp has had. You also see her having to deal with her beloved owners not being able to spend much time with her due to their newborn baby and her growing fond of him as well. I think some may feel that she learns about the enjoyment of the free life of the "unleashed" dogs but I don't think so. She may enjoy her evening with Tramp but she's clearly not too fond of the streets and while she does admit to Tramp that a life in the countryside without fences or houses does sound wonderful, she loves her family and can't leave them. Plus, the posh, highly cultured life is all she knows. So I do like and sympathize with Lady as a character. If I have one complaint, it's Barbara Luddy as her voice. I'm not knocking the performance, mind you. The performance is sound. The thing is that Luddy was almost fifty at the time and she sounds a little old for Lady, who's supposed to be less than three dog years old by the end of the film so therefore, she should sound relatively young. I guess they had trouble finding a young woman who could sound as classy and graceful as Lady is supposed to be and while it's not that big a deal, I tend to forget that Lady is supposed to be rather young.

Whereas Lady comes from the cultured side of town, her eventual beau Tramp is a carefree bachelor of a dog who loves life without a leash. He enjoys going wherever he pleases, eating whatever he wants, chasing chickens, outwitting the dog catchers, and being a playboy with all the female dogs. He's also quite cynical when it comes to the bonds between dogs and humans. He considers the whole "man's best friend" concept to be a complete joke. In fact, when he's telling Lady what effect the birth of the baby will have on her life, he says he's the "voice of experience", suggesting that he once had a family but was booted out when said family had a kid, which would explain not only his life on the streets but also why he doesn't buy into the whole owner thing. Tramp later tells Lady that he visits a different family every day of the week, mainly just to get food, and says that, "none of them have me." While you could see that as him simply commenting on not being anybody's pet, he might also be saying that he doesn't get close to any family in order to not be hurt again. (And yet, you also have to question that because Tramp looks like a mutt and, therefore, was probably born on the streets. When he says he's the voice of experience, he could simply mean that he's seen it happen to other dogs and that's why he's content with being nobody's pet.) Whatever the case with Tramp, he tries to show Lady (whom he calls "Pigeon" and "Pidge") what he considers to be a real dog's life and even after their romantic night together, when Lady wants to go home, he doesn't try to keep her for himself like he could. That's the endearing thing about Tramp: there's a heart of gold underneath the rascal. He saves Lady from some vicious dogs, helps her get a muzzle off her face, and comes to her aid, despite her being angry with him, to save her owners' baby from a hideous and terrifying rat. While he has had many girlfriends before, you can tell that he does generally care about Lady and wants to make her happy. I thought Larry Roberts did a good job at voicing Tramp. He plays the cynical side of the character not as emo and dreary but simply as someone who finds others who follow the adage of man's best friend to be both amusing and naive, unable to believe that they don't see it for the joke that he sees it as. He also excels at playing the charming, street-smart side of the character. If I have one problem with the Tramp character at all, it's that I don't get why he suddenly changed his mind and became another pet for Lady's owners. I guess you could say that it's because he's decided that Lady is the one but even so, would he really be willing to give up the free life? I just wish we could have had a scene where we see him make that decision based on his feelings for Lady. Oh, well.

Lady has two friends in her part of town: Jacques, a Scottish Terrier and Trusty, an old bloodhound. Jacques (voiced by Bill Thompson), is one wily, slightly tempermental little dog. My favorite moment with him is when they first meet Tramp. Both Jacques and Trusty take an instant disliking towards the mongrel and I love when Jacques has finally had enough of Tramp and tells him off: "We've no need for mongr-r-rels and their r-r-radical ideas. Off with you now! Off with you! Off with you!" Tramp replies, "Okay, Sandy." The response: "The name's Jacques." "Okay, Jacques." "Heather Lad of Glencairn to you!"That's just great. Trusty (voiced by Bill Baucom) is a charming old bloodhound with a Southern accent. He used to be one of the best bloodhounds ever but, according to Jacques, has lost his sense of smell in his old age. He manages to get it back at the end when he and Jacques have to search for the dog catcher carriage with Tramp. He's always referring to his grandpappy Ol' Reliable and there's a running gag throughout the film where he's trying to quote Ol' Reliable but never gets a chance to. When he finally does at the end of the movie, it turns out he forgot what Ol' Reliable used to say. Best thing about the both of them is that they're dependable, honorable guys who really care for Lady. Not only do they try to cheer Lady up when she's down about her owners acting strange towards her when they're expecting their baby, they also try to protect her honor by offering her "marriage" (whatever that means to dogs) after they hear what happened between her and Tramp (more on that later). Like I said, they also attempt to save Tramp from the dog catcher when they discover he's been blamed for something he didn't do, They do succeed but Trusty pays a heavy price, namely a broken leg. Speaking of which, Trusty was supposed to die at the end and you can tell. The image of him underneath the carriage's wheel and Jacques shedding a tear and howling is clearly meant to suggest that he's dead. However, Walt didn't want to go through the controversy that happened with the death of Bambi's mother again and so they changed it to where Trusty was only injured. I'm glad Trusty didn't die but it's odd to have a scene that's meant to be mournful and then have Trusty be alive in the following one.

There isn't much to say about Lady's owners, Jim Dear and Darling (Lee Millar and Peggy Lee) since they're not important to the plot. All you know about them is that they seem to be nice, decent, upper class people although I have to question their parenting skills seeing as how they go off on a trip and leave their practically newborn child behind with a babysitter (maybe it was an important trip but we never get an explanation for it). Still, Darling was having second thoughts and felt that she should probably stay. Speaking of which, my favorite scene with the couple is when Lady curiously walks into the baby's room while Darling is singing to him. She tries to get a good look at the baby but has trouble and finally Jim Dear picks her up so she can see him. The look on Lady's face when she sees the baby, the closeup of her wagging tail, and the two humans petting their beloved pet is as heartwarming as you can get. You can't tell me you're not touched by that scene.

There are some villains in this film but they're not major. I wouldn't call Aunt Sarah (Verna Felton) a villain per se. She means well but she's a real busybody who clearly doesn't like dogs and the way she treats Lady (throwing her out of the baby's room, putting a muzzle on her) can make you dislike her. According to Jim Dear, she did send them some dog treats so maybe she learned that Lady and Tramp weren't bad dogs. Her cats, Si and Am (both voiced by Peggy Lee), on the other hand, are definitely villains. They're just two slinky little troublemakers who do what they please when they emerge from Aunt Sarah's basket, which includes attempting to eat the family canary and goldfish, steal the baby's milk, and, most loathsome of all, make it look as if Lady damaged the living room and attacked them, which results in Lady being muzzled. They're only in that one scene but it was enough for you to despise them. (I'll discuss the other villain of the piece later.)

The rest of the side characters are actually testaments to voice acting as most of them are voiced by just two or more people. The most memorable, despite her only being in two scenes, is Peg, the sultry female dog modeled after and voiced by Peggy Lee. You just got to love her sexy voice and her crooning over Tramp in her signature song He's a Tramp. The beaver (Stan Freeberg) that Lady and Tramp encounter in the zoo who helps remove the muzzle from Lady's head can definitely be seen as a predecessor to the character of Gopher in the Winnie the Pooh films and TV shows with his whistling speech patterns (which Freeberg created by using a real whistle). Not much else to say about that character other than he's a gullible little guy who inadvertently finds a use for Lady's muzzle after he removes it. George Givot voiced the brief character of Tony, the Italian cook who brings Lady and Tramp their spaghetti dinner and proceeds to serenade the two of them with his deep, operatic voice. Bill Thompson really gets a chance to show off his voice acting skills here. Besides Jacques, he also voices Bull, the English bulldog; the Irish policeman outside the zoo; Dachsie, the dachsaund who's trying to dig his way out of the pound; and Joe, Tony's assistant cook. One last character I have to mention is Boris, one of the dogs that Lady encounters while she's in the pound. He's not worth mentioning because of his importance (he's only in that one scene) but because of who voiced him: Alan Reed, who would become the first voice of Fred Flintstone. There's some interesting animation trivia for you.

As with most of Disney's animated features, the actual design and look of the film is very well done. While the exact year is never made clear, it's obvious that the film is set some time around the turn of the century. I think I've heard that the look of the town was based on Walt Disney's hometown of Marceline, Missouri and it's fitting since Walt was born in 1901 along with the 20th century so why not base this movie's setting on it? (Who knows, maybe Jim Dear and Darling's baby is meant to be Walt in a strange way.) It's also interesting in that this was the first animated feature to be filmed in Cinemascope, a decision that was made while it was already in production, forcing the artists to extend the backgrounds (in fact, it's the widest film Disney has ever produced). Also, since a lot theaters at the time still weren't properly equipped to show a Cinemascope movie, that led to there being a fullscreen version of the film as well as the widescreen (I can't think of another animated movie where you have to choose the format you want to watch on the DVD).

As I said, the other plot of this movie is the world of humans as seen through the eyes of dogs. First, the dogs are convincingly animated and move like real dogs (the animators studying dog movements really payed off). They've got the normal movements, the threatening gestures, the wounded movements, the sad movements, etc. They've got everything down pat, helping to remind us that the characters are still dogs despite their being able to talk. Second, the artists decided to keep the film entirely at a dog's perspective. Everything is at a low angle and the human characters' faces are almost never seen. It's not something you automatically process when you first watch the movie but when you hear about it in the supplemental features and go back and watch it again, you see that it does click. Finally, and best of all, there's how dogs process the lives and habits of humans. There's the fact that Lady's owners are simply known as Jim Dear and Darling. This is meant to keep with Lady's point of view. Since she lives with them and that's all she hears them call each other in such an intimate setting, that's what they are to her. Of course, the most obvious example is the subplot with Lady dealing with the coming of Jim Dear and Darling's baby. Being young and naive about the habits of humans (or the mating habits of all creatures, in general), Lady doesn't know what to think when her owners begin acting rather coldly toward her. Jacques and Trusty, who are more experienced with but still not entirely informed on the manner, give Lady their own "birds and the bees" talk. Naturally, they don't go into the details (probably because they don't know them) but they do their best to describe what a baby is to Lady. You also see Lady observing the consequences of the various stages of Darling's pregnancy: trying to decide when the baby will come, Darling developing weird cravings and sending poor Jim Dear out into the cold to satisfy them, their friends having a baby shower for them, and finally, Jim Dear being an overly excited father when the baby does come, seeming like a lunatic to Lady. All of this makes Lady decide to find out what a baby is to herself, leading to that heartwarming scene with the baby that I mentioned earlier.

One thing I admire about Disney is that they make family-friendly pictures while still injecting some more adult material into their films (or they used to, anyway). Lady and the Tramp deals with two adult matters. First, while the film is light-hearted most of the time, it doesn't sugarcoat the darker aspects of the world of dogs. Lady is chased by some very fierce looking dogs and Tramp comes to her aid. We see most of the ensuing fight in shadow but the implication is that it's fairly brutal. When Lady is in the pound, she and the other dogs see, in shadow, a dog being taken into a room whose door says KEEP OUT. When you see that and hear the dogs call it the "One-way door", you know exactly what's going on: Nutsy, the dog in question, is going to be euthanized. You don't need to see anything else. Also, there's this hideous rat that Lady chases off at the beginning of the film but comes back near the end when Lady is tied up and sneaks into the baby's room. First off, that rat was originally intended to be comical but the end result is not funny in the least. It's a very frightening creature in that it's kept mostly in the shadows and all you mainly see are its yellow eyes, shining teeth, and slinking movements. The scene where Tramp goes inside the house to kill the rat is very moodily designed, with a lot of shadows and a storm raging outside. The actual fight between Tramp and the rat is fairly intense and while you don't see Tramp ultimately kill it, you do see Tramp come limping out from behind the curtain where he finished it off and lick his paw, indicating that the rat managed to injure him. Let's also not forget that circumstance lands Tramp in the dogcatcher wagon and Jacques and Trusty have to save him from being euthanized for something he didn't do and also that Trusty seems to be killed in the chase, even though we see that he wasn't. The movie may be light-hearted for the most part but it doesn't forget that a dog's world is very perilous.

The movie also doesn't gloss over the sexual side of romance. Lady and the Tramp, even though it's done very subtly, is quite a sexual film when you look into it. Let's start with Lady and Tramp's romantic night out. That spaghetti scene has become iconic as one of the most romantic scenes in cinema and for good reason. You really can see these two characters, particularly Lady, falling in love and it leads to them having their own night on the town. Walt himself even admitted that the fadeout from the two of them sitting on the hill in the park to the next morning with them sleeping next to each other is meant to imply that they made love. While I don't try to look for the supposed subliminal stuff in Disney flicks (mainly because I think a lot of it is a bunch of crap), if Walt himself said it then it must be true and even if you didn't know that, you can't deny that the implication is very strong. That's also why Lady feels dishonored when she hears about all of Tramp's past girlfriends, since she's the only one he did it with and why Jacques and Trusty propose marriage to her. They're trying to protect her honor in the dog community. Some may say that the night between Lady and Tramp is what led to the birth of their puppies that you see at the end of the film and that the reason those dogs that Tramp saved Lady from were after her was because she was in heat (which makes sense) but I'm not so sure. This is supposedly taking place in April or May, some time around there. If Lady got pregnant from her night with Tramp, that would mean that their puppies would have been born around July since the gestation period for puppies is typically two months. Going with that logic, I doubt those pups would have looked that young around Christmastime where the film ends. So you could argue that the puppies were probably conceived after Tramp was accepted into Lady's family and that Jacques and Trusty were tying to protect Lady's honor not because she was pregnant but because she had lost her virginity. Of course, the production team probably wasn't looking that deep into the movie and I could be thinking about it too hard. Still, there's no denying the fact that Lady and the Tramp is a very romantic film in more ways than one.

Lady and the Tramp is also a bit different from other Disney animated features in its songs. The film is a musical but in the traditional sense in that there are only a few songs that are actually sung by a character. The rest are either sung by an omnipresent chorus or, interestingly, in a character's mind. Besides voicing many characters in the film, Peggy Lee also wrote the songs along with Sonny Burke and collaborated with Oliver Wallace on the film's actual score. Lady has a really sweet theme that signifies her grace and innocence as well as her energy. Of course, there's also the romantic parts of the score during their date as well as the suspenseful music that plays whenever the rat is on-screen and in the fight between it and Tramp in the baby's room. When Jacques is first introduced, he hums and softly sings a modified version of a Scottish folk song called Loch Lomand. Most of the actual songs are also sung by Peggy Lee. The most obvious is He's a Tramp, sung by the character Peg that was modeled after Lee. That really is an enjoyable song simply because it's so sultry and sounds like something you'd hear in a bar. Lee also sang the Siamese Cat Song and had the odd task of doing a duet with herself since she voiced both cats. While she gave both cats the same voice, it does work and feel like a duet and compliments the evilly mischievous nature of the cats, even if some of the lyrics don't make sense (they intend to make the goldfish drown?). La La Lu, the sweet lullaby that Darling sings to her baby is, as I've said before, a very heartwarming melody and I feel fits with the love between a mother and her newborn child. The most surprising fact about the songs is that What Is a Baby?, the song sung by Lady in her head, is also performed Lee but I could have sworn that that was Barbara Luddy singing it. There's nothing else that special about the song other than it proves that Lee was quite an adept mimic. Everyone remembers Bella Notte (This is the Night) since it accompanies the most famous section of the movie. As I mentioned earlier, George Givot's deep, Italian baritone really sets the mood and so does the chorus that sings the rest of the song. There's also Peace on Earth, sung by Donald Novis and a chorus, which bookends the movie as does the Christmastime setting it's heard in (the film started at Christmas with Jim Dear giving Lady to Darling and it ends at Christmas with Tramp having become a new member of Lady's family).

Lady and the Tramp may not be one of my absolute favorite Disney animated features but I do enjoy it and understand why it's so loved. It's a simple, sweet little love story with loveable characters, a nice setting, memorable songs, and it's not afraid to subtly address the more adult side of romance as well as the dark part of dogs' lives. Since it's set around the turn of the century, it also takes us back to a simpler time when the world wasn't quite so corrupt and cynical (as Walt probably saw it when he was growing up around that time). If you've never seen it, I would highly advise checking it out, particularly with a loved one this Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Stuff I Grew Up With: The Disney Channel

When I was a young kid, Cartoon Network was the television channel that I watched the most. Many of the classic cartoons shown on that channel as well as its own original programming were big parts of my childhood. However, even though I wouldn't have bragged about it at the time, I did watch the Disney Channel as well. I think the reason I say that is because while Disney was part of my early childhood, from ages eight on into my mid-teens I went through this phase where the general consensus among my peers was that Disney was for little kids and Cartoon Network and the like were for big kids. Still, although it was mainly when I was over at my grandparents' house, I would watch the Disney Channel from time to time. I remember that very well because they hadn't actually purchased the channel and while the cable would still show the channel, there would be a big black text box instructing you on how to order that would block the picture and I'd have to keep pushing the VIEW button all throughout the show I was watching at the time. As an adult, I now realize that the Disney Channel was an important part of my childhood, even if I wouldn't have admitted it for a long time, and this post will be similar to the one I did on Cartoon Network: talking about the shows I liked, the phases I went through with it, and my opinion on what it's become now.

I honestly can't remember if I watched these shows originally on Disney Channel or not but I'm pretty sure I did. My earliest memories of Disney Channel (and earliest TV memories in general) are from shows like Welcome to Pooh Corner, Madeline, Babar and Paddington Bear as well as re-runs of classic shows like Zorro. (I realize some of those shows weren't necessarily originally created for Disney Channel but I do remember watching them on that channel.) There was also The Ink and Paint Club, which would show the classic Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy shorts, usually late at night (I don't think I watched that block as a kid.) The shows I definitely remember around that time were classic 80's animated series like DuckTales, Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Darkwing Duck (basically all the Walt Disney Television Animation that I watched on ABC on Saturday mornings were played again on Disney Channel.) As I said, while I enjoyed watching these shows again after enjoying them on Saturday mornings, I would never admit it to my peers at the time because it just wasn't perceived as "cool." There were some shows that were shown mainly on the weekend that I never got into, like Bonkers and reruns of The Muppet Show (the latter being because some of those Muppets kind of freaked me out). I didn't think much of Recess either, even though I was about the age of those kids when it was originally shown. I don't remember Disney Channel showing much of the studio's classic animated features (although I do have an early childhood memory of the last act of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), no doubt due to the studio's insistence on keeping those classic films in their vault and bringing them back out sporadically and for a limited time each. They did however show movies from other studios, some of which made sense like The Land Before Time and An American Tale films, Once Upon a Forest, and FernGully, and some that didn't make sense like Gremlins (why would that show that on Disney?). Also, when they were later creating their own original movies, they would show original movies from other channels like Seventeen Again, about a divorced couple of grandparents who end up becoming young when they come into contact with their grandson's experiment. I don't think I've ever heard of a channel showing another channel's original movie but I could be wrong.

Beginning in 1997, Disney Channel split itself into three programming blocks. Because it wasn't uncommon for the teachers at my elementary school to have nothing planned for big chunks of the morning, they would often have us watch TV and that's when we ran the risk of blundering into Playhouse Disney, the morning block geared towards preschoolers. While I personally didn't mind it, the other kids (mainly the boys) did and they would make their displeasure very vocal. Having always been a guy who shies away from tension-filled situations, that was like a living hell for me. Still, there were some Playhouse Disney channels that I enjoyed then and I still enjoy now. I will admit that I did like Bear in the Big Blue House as a ten to eleven-year old (and even some of the other boys seemed to as well). I thought Bear was cool. The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was a big part of my early childhood long before Playhouse Disney so I did indulge myself when it was shown on that block (never watched The Book of Pooh though). I always avoided The Little Mermaid TV show for obvious reasons (even though I did watch the movie a lot as a very young kid) but when I started to transition into my early teens, I did go through a phase thinking Ariel was hot (TMI?). Some shows I never liked even as an older person who could appreciate them were stuff like Rolie Polie Olie, Handy Manny, JoJo's Circus, Katie and Orbie (although I did think the concept was interesting), and Little Einsteins among others.

I'll tell you my absolute favorite Playhouse Disney show and it was the start of my getting back into Disney as a whole: PB and J Otter. It's interesting because the show didn't premier until I was eleven and I didn't start watching it until I was fourteen and it had ended its run by that point. Like most Playhouse Disney shows, my first reaction before I even watched it was, "Give me a break." But when I actually did watch it (although I don't know why I even did so), I ended up falling in love with the characters (particularly Jelly Otter), the setting, everything. Even though it was geared towards preschoolers, I was amazed at how smart and genuinely funny it actually was. It made me reassess my thoughts on Disney in general and realize how its films and shows could be enjoyed by all ages, not just little kids. Unfortunately, PB and J Otter is not shown on Disney in the U.S. anymore or on DVD. You can't even find clips of it on the internet that are in English. I hope it pops up again soon because I would love to revisit it.

Before I discovered PB and J Otter, I had begun to watch Disney Channel on a regular basis, mainly because I realized that there were shows on that channel that did appeal to me at that time. The one that got me interested was Going Wild with Jeff Corwin, hosted by a very funny and entertaining wildlife biologist (a few years before he would become much more popular with The Jeff Corwin Experience on Animal Planet). This show was one of the best wildlife documentary shows I had ever seen at that time. I loved it for two things: the animals and habitats that Jeff Corwin would explore as well as Corwin himself. I knew about him long before I found out about the late great Steve Irwin, a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter. He was, and still is, a very entertaining guy, able to make wildlife and biology fun. Going Wild only lasted two seasons and you can't find it anywhere, which is a shame because I would kill to revisit it as well. Disney Channel was where I discovered a nice little sitcom called Smart Guy, which starred Tahj Mowry as a brilliant ten-year old who attends high school because of his intelligence. This was another show that I wished lasted longer than it did because I thought it was funny and charming (albeit a bit edgy to be shown on Disney). I did later watch Sister, Sister when it started showing on Disney Channel and though I don't think I would watch it today, I did grow to like it (you can call me gay or whatever but I did like it). I will also admit that I did watch Boy Meets World when it was shown on Disney Channel but I must admit that I'm now kind of ashamed of it because I realize how downright stupid and annoying of a show it is (no offense to anybody who's a fan of it).

In 1998, Disney Channel introduced a very unusual programming block called Zoog Disney. This block would run from the afternoon to late in the evening, had shows geared towards teenagers, and was hosted by robotic, two-dimensional characters called Zoogs. For almost a full year from 2001 to 2002, they also had what they called Zoog Weekendz, with the Zoogs hosting the entire weekend lineup save for Playhouse Disney and Vault Disney (the latter of which would play classic Disney stuff). The Zoogs themselves were interesting and enjoyable characters but I can't say ever became mega-fans of them. Their look was revamped in 2001, with the block now being called Zoog 2.0, but they didn't last long after that.

It was around this time that I discovered the very well made original programming that Disney Channel had created for itself. While I had been aware of original shows like Bug Juice, the first Disney Channel original series that I got into was So Weird, a show that centered around a teenage girl touring with her rock star mother (played by Mackenzie Phillips) and the paranormal activity she encounters along the way. I first saw an advertisement for an episode of the show that featured Bigfoot and having been interested in the paranormal since I was a young kid, I was compelled to watch it. I ended up becoming a fan of the series and ended up watching every episode. This show stood out from other Disney Channel original series due to its rather dark tone, particularly the second season, which had the lead teenager discover a connection between the paranormal activity she was experiencing and the death of her father that had occurred before the beginning of the series.

Another show I was aware of for a long time but didn't become a fan of until after I started watching So Weird was The Famous Jett Jackson, which centered on a teenager who was the star of a hit television series but at the beginning of the series, has the production of his show moved from Los Angeles back to his hometown in North Carolina so he can have a normal life when he's not working. I really got into the show because I loved the characters (particularly Jett and his best friend J.B.), the situations, and the constant cutting back and forth between the actual show and the show within the show: Silverstone, where Jett plays a young secret agent. It was just a very well made, charming, and funny little show that I watched basically every day.

Even Stevens focused on the constant bickering between an immature, rude, and prank-pulling high school student and his older, uber-successful and talented sister. Years before he would become the star of blockbuster movies like the Transformers franchise, Shia LaBeouf got his star on this show as the goofy Louis Stevens (in fact, he won an Emmy for it). I found this to be one of Disney Channel's funnier shows, mainly due to the crap that Louis would pull and the constant conflicts between him and his older sister Ren, as well as his older brother Donnie and his parents. I will admit that as the series went on, Louis did become more than a little annoying when he was basically being a jerk to people. I will admit as well that I did enjoy Lizzie McGuire, the show that was basically a day in the life look at three friends (two girls and a boy) as they go through middle school. I know it was perhaps mainly intended for girls but I did enjoy it, particularly for the friendship of the main characters as well as the interesting use of the animated version of Lizzie who represented Lizzie's inner thoughts. There were other original series that I just never got into. I never watched The Jersey, a show about a jersey that could transport the wearer into the body of a famous sports player, because of my lack of interest in sports, nor was interested in their reality Totally shows (Totally Circus, Totally Hoops, etc., each of which would focus on kids in different professions). Nobody seemed to like In a Heartbeat, a show similar to NBC's Third Watch that was pulled after being on for less than a year.

I also got into Disney Channel's first two animated original series, The Proud Family and Kim Possible. The Proud Family is interesting in that it was originally intended for Nickelodeon but was picked up by the Disney Channel instead. You can tell because, while not adult by any means, the show's humor was a bit edgier than what you would normally see on Disney Channel. I really enjoyed this show, again mainly for the characters as well as the fact that there were a lot of episodes that were genuinely funny. It also had two distinct animation styles: one that was rather reserved and fairly Disney-like in style and another that was much more overtly cartoony. Kim Possible was a light-hearted, action-oriented show involving two high school students who lead double-lives as secret agents. My interest in this show was a bit more sporadic than most Disney Channel original series. There were some episodes that I really loved and others that I thought were simply okay. It's also the longest running Disney Channel original series to this day but I grew out of watching the channel while the show was still going strong so I missed the last two or so seasons. Up until Phineas and Ferb, no other animated Disney Channel original series had the same success that these two had. I remember plenty of throwaway, short-lived shows like Dave the Barbarian, American Dragon: Jake Long, and The Buzz on Maggie. One other animated show that I did become interested in just because it was so damn a-typical of Disney was Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, which focused on a snooty dog named Brandy and a smelly, disgusting rabbit named Mr. Whiskers who end up getting stranded in the Amazon rainforest. This show had its fair share of unusual and downright gross moments (one image they showed behind an episode's ending credits was an orangutan wearing a bikini!) which made it feel more like something you'd see on Nickelodeon. I did find it funny but man, was it weird for something you'd see on Disney.

Disney Channel has also had dozens of original movies. For a while in the 2000's, they were basically cranking a new movie out every month. There are two basic types: totally original ones and those based on one of the original series (usually serving as the series finale for that show since for a while, there was a weird unwritten rule that none would last past 65 episodes). The first one I ever watched was Don't Look Under the Bed, a Halloween original movie about a young woman who discovers that the mysterious pranks that are being blamed on her are the work of the boogeyman. This movie actually has some scenes that would scare younger kids and in fact, it did receive complaints from parents as a result. Other noteworthy original movies that I saw included The Thirteenth Year, the story of a teenager who discovers that he's actually a merman (noteworthy to me because the kid's name is Cody); Smart House, about a family who wins a completely automated house that grows to take on the role of the kids' deceased mother; Johnny Tsunami, about a Hawaiian kid who's forced to move to Vermont by his parents and has to learn to adjust to his new life (there was a sequel in 2007 called Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board but I never watched that one); Horse Sense, about a spoiled twenty-year old who's forced to spend a month with his cousin in Montana to learn about working for a living (a later movie called Jumping Ship is actually a sequel to this but I never knew that until recently); The Other Me, about a kid who ends up accidentally cloning himself; Mom's Got a Date with a Vampire, about two kids who set their divorced mother on a blind date with a man who turns out to be a vampire; Phantom of the Megaplex, about a big premiere at a local theater which is plagued by bizarre occurrences caused by a mysterious cloaked figure; The Luck of the Irish, about a teen who discovers that he's half-leprechaun; Hounded, about a teen who accidentally ends up with his principal's dog who turns out to be a monster when she doesn't get her medication; The Poof Point, about two teens whose parents end up regressing in age mentally after an experiment goes awry; and finally Cadet Kelly, about a free-spirited eighth-grader who ends up getting sent to a military school and bullied by her mean-spirited female drill sergeant. There were movies that became franchises like Zenon, Halloweentown, The Cheetah Girls, and, probably the biggest one of all, High School Musical (ugh) but I never got into any of those for the first two Zenon movies.

There were few of the original movies based on a series that I actually watched. I never saw Jett Jackson: The Movie all the way through but it had an interesting premise: Jett and his television character Silverstone end up switching realities. I never watched The Even Stevens Movie, which had the Stevens family thrown on an island where they're unknowingly put on a Survivor-type reality show, nor did I see the Kim Possible movies, mainly because I had developed other interests around that time. I did see The Proud Family Movie, which involves a mad scientist creating clones of the family, since I liked the show quite a bit. I enjoyed it but that movie had stuff even edgier than the actual show which really pushed for something on Disney Channel (including implied nudity and make-out scenes).

What got me fully back into Disney after years of having an ambivalent attitude towards it were reruns of the show House of Mouse on Disney Channel. In the summer of 2003, I was bored one day when I was taking care of my sister's pets up at her house and as a result, I watched an episode of that show. As tends to happen with me, that led me to watching another episode and so on and so forth until I fell in love with it and decided to revisit all the classic Disney cartoons and movies that I hadn't seen in years. I've been a big fan of Disney ever since so, despite what I'm about to say next, I just want to make it clear that I now realize what both Disney and the Disney Channel have meant to my childhood and my life in general.

Nowadays, both Disney and the Disney Channel are not what they once were. I've heard some say that the Disney Channel isn't really a Disney channel anymore and I couldn't agree with that more. The use of the Mickey Mouse ears as the channel's symbol is the only thing that reminds you of what station you're supposedly watching. This change, for me, started in 2003 with the premiere of That's So Raven. While I didn't think it was that bad of a show at first, it became immediately clear how different it was. While Disney Channel's shows did focus on teenagers and middle-schoolers, the big difference with this one is that it had a laugh track like an actual sitcom. I don't know why but that just didn't appeal to me. Seeing as how I liked and became accustomed to the non-sitcom approach that all the series before had, this was a big change I wasn't able to readily accept. It wouldn't have been so bad except many similar shows followed, such as Phil of the Future, Cory in the House (a spin-off of That's So Raven), The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly Place, Sonny with a Chance, and, the biggest one of all, Hannah Montana. Before I knew what had happened, the Disney Channel was no longer the channel I knew. Gone were any references to the classic Disney characters and the great animated shows of the 80's and 90's that it used to play and in their place were these dumb sitcoms aimed at teenage girls. I felt maybe the subsidiary channel Toon Disney would become what the Disney Channel used to be (such as what Boomerang became for Cartoon Network) but nope. Toon Disney was replaced by Disney XD, which plays pretty much the same stupid crap that its parent seems content to show.

Now I know that in order to thrive, a company has to market its product to the most profitable possible audience. I'm well aware of that. But Disney seems to have completely forgotten its roots and thrown the very characters that built it out in the cold. All you see of Mickey Mouse and the gang anymore is Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, the CGI-animated preschool show on Disney Junior (formerly Playhouse Disney). (Speaking of which, almost nothing is hand-drawn anymore but is instead computer generated, which just doesn't have the same feeling of character and life that hand-drawn does.) Sadly, all it comes down to is money. Even the president of ABC-Disney Television admitted that the shows on Disney Channel are meant to make money as well as entertain. You can't get more clear-cut than that. Disney, the studio that once made movies and television programming meant to please all factions, freely admits that it has now become a soulless corporation that targets the audience that will bring it the big bucks (I know some will argue that Disney has always been soulless but that's a discussion for another day).

 In my opinion, Phineas and Ferb is the one bit of chocolate in this sea of crap. I wouldn't say it has the classic Disney spirit and I do feel that it kind of thinks that it's smarter than it really is but on the whole, I think that it's an entertaining and genuinely funny show whose heart seems to be in the right place. Other than that and the promise of more traditional hand-drawn features (including one for Mickey Mouse), I have little use to the stuff Disney produces nowadays. I know I sound like an old stick in the mud but, to quote Brad Jones a.k.a. the Cinema Snob, if I want to watch something from Disney, I'll stick with the animated movies and shows of yesteryear, thank you very much.

Despite my ambivalence towards it in my early to mid-teens and my disgust at what it's become now, I do realize that the Disney Channel was an important part of my childhood. Its shows and original movies did keep me entertained while I dealt with the stress of attending a very tough private high school and for that, I am eternally grateful to it. If you were part of my generation and grew up with Disney Channel, I hope I've brought back some good memories to offset the frustration at what it's become in recent years. If you never saw a good majority of the shows I've mentioned, I would tell you to go check them out but I doubt if you can find them anymore and that's just sad. Either way, hope you've enjoyed this little retrospective.