Darby O’Gill and the Little People


Oh singin’s no sin, and drinkin’s no crime, if you have one drink only, just one at at a time.

As an adult, The Quiet Man (full review) is my favorite Irish fantasy, but as a kid, nothing could beat Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Sean Connery with fearsome eyebrows as a young man taking over the job of Darby as groundskeeper, because the old feller sees leprechauns a little too often. Well, being a Disney movie he ain’t drunk or crazy. And for the ’50s, the effects are pretty impressive. Enough to keep our little butts planted in front of the boob tube every St. Patrick’s Day.

Darby holdin’ court at the pub

Between this and The Gnome-Mobile (based on a book by Upton Sinclair, of all people) Disney had the short people racket cornered, and we loved it. Darby O’Gill’s story is simple- we’re thrust into a picaresque Irish village, where Darby tells tall tales at the pub every night about the faerie folk while his daughter pines away for a husband. He’s getting on in years and chews the fat more than he cuts the turf, so his employer forces him into retirement, bringing in a young and sturdy replacement as the new caretaker. That’s a job wanted by mean old lady Sugrue for her bully of a son Pony Sugrue, and she begins conniving forthwith against newcomer Michael McBride.

“Marry me, and I’ll stop singing!”

That’s Sean Connery, a few years before Bond, and a perfect catch for Katie O’Gill (cutie Janet Munro, Bertie from Swiss Family Robinson, who died far too young). She’s a bit fiery and distant until she catches him singing while swinging the scythe with his manly arms. It’s almost unfortunate that this is a Disney movie, because Connery looks like he’s barely able to contain his devilish demeanor. With his expressive eyebrows and grin, we expect a shotgun wedding any moment, but he’s a perfect gentleman.

She needs a man, she’s been churnin’ that thing all day.

The story begins in earnest when Darby tells the pub how he once caught the King of the Little People, King Brian, up at the castle ruins on the hill one evening. He even got his wish of a crock of gold, before he was tricked into making a fourth, and forfeit them all. But King Brian hasn’t forgotten him- and when he learns that he’s being put out to pasture, he puts a glamor on Darby’s horse so he knocks him down a well that leads to the land of the Little People. Down there, the King tells him he must stay forever. Thus begins the best part of the story- how the 4,000-year old king of the leprechauns and clever old gaffer Darby O’Gill, as they continually trick each other.

insert Fiddler’s fart joke here

First Darby has to trick his way out to the real world again, and once he does, he needs to keep King Brian (the perfectly cast Jimmy O’Dea) from dragging him back, so they have a whiskey-drinking and rhyming contest till dawn. Once there’s daylight, the leprechaun’s powers are gone, and Darby just needs to sic the barn cat on him to get his way. From then on he’s got the king in a sack, and the battle is on to see if he can get any of his wishes before the King can make him waste them all! It’s great fun, interspersed with the chaste romance of Katie and Michael, set on the Disney backlots with some nice matte paintings reminiscent of Ireland. Having been there, the castles and ruins stood out as unlikely, but I could imagine a ring fort instead.

“I’ll not be yer fancy feast!”

Once we’ve had all our fun with a leprechaun in a sack, it’s time for Sheelah Sugrue and Pony to start their mischief, turning Katie against Michael with chicanery, so she flees on the mountain road on the night the banshee howls. That banshee scared the shamrocks out of me as a kid. Now I have my grandfather’s shillelagh and a belt of Jameson handy to protect me, but back then it was good for a nightmare or two! The story turns true to its fairy tale roots then, as the banshee haunts poor Katie, and the Death Coach comes for her. Darby’s fight for his daughter’s life could be right from the classic deal with the devil, and not even King Brian can save him from his fate- or can he?

The banshee, source of many childhood nightmares

Sure it’s cheesy Disney, but it’s one of their best live-action fantasy films. It takes a while to take off, but it’s good clean fun. The perspective effects are quite good, and when they’re not- such as when it’s an obvious doll being thrown into Darby’s gunny sack, or a hilariously fake little arm fending off the cat- it just makes it even more endearing. The glow effects for the Death Coach and the Banshee are very dated, but work in this case- they’re used sparingly and in misty darkness. And when you see the banshee’s face, it’s still creepy 50 years later. For the adults, there’ll always be John Wayne having to prove his mettle to Maureen O’Hara- a movie with nearly as idyllic a view of Ireland as this one- but for the kids, watching Darby O’Gill play his fiddle for a roomful of leprechauns is still great fun.

Death Coach for Cutie

3 out of four leaf clovers

Best Animated Feature

This is part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars.

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is only as old as 2001. Ten years prior, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast broke out of the animation ghetto and was nominated for Best Picture. In the next decade, Pixar would explode onto the scene with Toy Story, a technical breakthrough that ironically brought us back to animation’s sentimental, universal roots. The sequel Toy Story 2 came in 1999, and surpassed the original in both visual and emotional achievements, and in my mind, should have been nominated for Best Picture. It won the Golden Globe that year for Best Comedy/Musical, and I have a niggling feeling that the Academy recognized that animation just ain’t for kids anymore, and that influenced their decision to give them a separate but equal category.
And yes, I chose words with bad connotations for a reason. For while it is nice for animated film to be recognized at the Oscars, it is unfortunate, especially now that CG has become so prevalent, to be shuffled off into their own little category. Is 300 an animated film? Is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Should Persepolis be forced to compete with Ratatouille? Both are excellent films, but one chose a simple visual style over Pixar’s insanely detailed character designs, where you can count rodent hairs, if you want a future job as an FDA food inspector. By pigeon-holing them in the same category, Persepolis is at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps it’s no different than comparing Frost/Nixon‘s simplicity with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s visual excess, and giving Animated Features their own category helps raise awareness for them.
However, the rules for the category seem to favor the big 3. The rules state:

In any year in which 8 to 15 animated features are released in Los Angeles County, a maximum of 3 motion pictures may be nominated. In any year in which 16 or more animated features are submitted and accepted in the category, a maximum of 5 motion pictures may be nominated.

So if fewer than 16 animated films are released in L.A. County, the Academy only nominates 3 films. And if fewer than 8 are released, there’s no category that year. There have not been 5 nominees since 2002, when Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won.

This year it’s just the big three: WALL-E (Pixar), Bolt (Disney) and Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks). The rules are why the excellent Horton Hears a Who! was overlooked, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful films of the year, and certainly better than Bolt and Kung Fu Panda for storyline. And I really liked Panda! Blue Sky Studios, who made the Ice Age movies, did a great job adapting Horton to the big screen and expanding it to feature length. It’s a shame it couldn’t be nominated. Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli soldier’s nightmares after the first Lebanon war, sidesteps the animation cubbyhole by being in a foreign language; Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea didn’t get a U.S. release, so it’s out.

But let’s get on to the Big Three.

1. Bolt
Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as “24 meets Inspector Gadget– he’s a super-powered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist’s daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she’s the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy fuzzball in a hamsterball, has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.

I enjoyed Bolt, but don’t think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!– it’s good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She’s there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She’s nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me. I’m sure the kids loved him.

The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole “He’s a TV star who thinks it’s real!” gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar’s toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There’s a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, and I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!

Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they’ve finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it’s a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove left off.

2. Kung Fu Panda

I reviewed this in great detail here. I loved Kung Fu Panda, despite it being another Dreamworks film chock full of celebrity voices, because it has heart. It takes a standard kung fu story that could be a Sammo Hung movie, with a fat panda who works in his father’s noodle shop, but wants to be a Shaolin warrior. When he tries to spy on the choosing of the legendary Dragon Warrior at the Temple, he gets inadvertently chosen by the Master for training, and hilarity ensues. Can a clumsy, goofy fat glutton save the village from Tai Lung, the sinister snow leopard?

Dreamworks learned that you don’t need to recognize the voice actors to get asses in seats. Jack Black does his Jack Black thing, but everyone else blends into their character and doesn’t go all Robin Williams wacky on us. Seth Rogen and David Cross are delightfully amusing as Mantis and Crane; Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu have understated spots as Tigress, Monkey and Viper. As you can see from the animal choices, they did some kung fu movie research before they made this, as the “Furious Five” are modeled after the 5 Animal Styles of Shaolin Kung Fu. And while much of the gags are on panda’s big belly and goofy nature, when Master Shifu- played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman- decides to train the big galoot, the fantastic “chase the dumpling” sequence is as exciting as any such “battle” from a real kung fu film.

They even inject some emotion into the tale with Mr. Ping (the always-excellent James Hong), Panda’s unlikely father, who is a duck. I expected this to be forgettable but fun, and it ended up surprising me. I would not mind being forced to watch this a dozen times with kids, and while Jack Black may grate on my nerves on the sixth viewing, Dustin Hoffman’s wizened red panda and James Hong’s hilarious duck characters will keep endearing the story to me. And the tragic character of Tai Lung, voiced by Ian McShane, is not your typical villain. It also helps that the animation is gorgeous; if this is the first kung fu film you’ve seen since critics told you to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

3. WALL-E
My full review has plenty of gushing, so I’ll try to hold back. Imagine a simple story about a trash-compacting robot in the far future, the last of his kind still dutifully cleaning up our mess on Earth. His only friend is a cockroach, until one day he gets a visitor from above. And for the entire first act of the movie there is no real dialogue. Now imagine being in a theater full of kids watching this first act, with few if any big splashes or booms to keep them occupied. I thought it would be a nightmare of squalling and kicking and whining. But when I saw WALL-E at an early show, the kids were silent. It was as gripping for them as it was for me, watching this comical little robot go through his daily routine of crushing junk, saving little doodads that caught one of his mechanical eyes, finding Twinkies for his cockroach pal to sleep in, and watching a battered VHS tape of Hello Dolly. When Eva, a flying robot seemingly designed by Apple’s SETI division arrives, we get a touching cybernetic love story that brought tears to my cynical old peepers.

It’s so damn effective that you almost don’t want WALL-E to have his adventure, where he meets the apex of human consumerism on a space ark where they await Earth’s renewal. This was a terrific gamble, sticking such an obvious jab of social commentary in such a sentimental film. Chaplin did it, but he was Chaplin. Well, Pixar got away with it because they’re Pixar- I think they only people who complained were Fox News and the Fat Acceptance wackos who envied the Buy-n-Large hoverchairs. The movie doesn’t give us easy solutions or perfect endings, which is even braver. It says that fixing things will be hard work, but we can do it. It speaks volumes more than the insipid Oscar-bait of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and if I had my druthers it would be competing there instead of this category.

So, my conclusion?

This year Pixar has it cinched- WALL-E is not only a new masterpiece on a visual and technical level, but simply one of the best stories this year, animated or not. If people think The Dark Knight got screwed out of a Best Picture nomination, WALL-E fans should be even angrier at the Animated Feature category. At least the Globes separate Comedy/Musical from Drama, which seems a bit more fair. I think as more movies like Beowulf, 300, and Sin City blur the lines between animated and traditional film, this category may disappear, or perhaps used for only traditional hand-drawn animation. Time and technology will tell. Disney is returning to traditional feature animation with The Princess and the Frog this year, and both Kung Fu Panda and Ratatouille have credit sequences that seem to yearn for the old days of hand-drawn. Let’s hope we see more of it, and this category can get more than 3 nominees in the years to come.

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R.I.P. Eartha Kitt – Emperor’s New Groove review, too

Jill of all trades Eartha Kitt passed away yesterday at 81; calling her a singer pigeonholes an artist of many talents, and robs a brave performer of her accomplishments. Probably best known as the singer of “Santa Baby” and as the second Catwoman in the Batman TV series, she performed alongside Sidney Poitier in film, under the direction of Orson Welles onstage, and in several Broadway shows, including Shinbone Alley and Timbuktu. She and Welles had a torrid affair, after which he called her “the most exciting woman in the world,” this from a man who knew plenty of exciting women.
In 1968 she was outspoken against the Vietnam war, and it was claimed she made Lady Bird Johnson cry when she spoke her mind at a White House luncheon; this led to a professional exile in the States, but at least she kept her principles. Details are here; being ‘uppity’ in front of a Texan first lady had her blackballed within hours. Sources vary, but one quote is that she said “We’re marching them off to die, no wonder they’re smoking pot,” and Lady Bird considered this “uncivilized.” Eartha would return to Broadway, disco hits, and movies in the ’80s after working in Europe. So Catwoman led 9 lives.

“The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work,” -Eartha Kitt

My favorite role of hers of recent memory is as the evil witch Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, one of the most underappreciated of Disney efforts. The whole film was nearly torpedoed by boss idiot Michael Eisner, and it remains one of the best of Disney’s final attempts at traditional animation, despite his meddling. She was to have a big music number in the film, but Eisner had it cut. This is detailed in a documentary called The Sweatbox, which Disney has unfortunately kept from wide release.


Like Lilo & Stitch, this was an original story with just enough hipness and wit to make it appeal to adults, some beautifully stylized animation, a kickass soundtrack with Tom Jones and Sting, and celeb voice actors who are recognizable but also craft characters instead of playing themselves. It’s great stuff. The story? Emperor Cuzco (David Spade) is your typical self-absorbed royal type; after he fires his witchy advisor Yzma and her henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton), she curses him and turns him into a llama. Hilarity ensues, and Cuzco has to beg for help from the lovable peasant lug Pacha (John Goodman) who he’s already humiliated by planning to build a pool on his ancestral village.
The humor varies from deadpan to cute to absurd, and perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it never felt like a typical Disney movie when I saw it back in 2000. They briefly embraced this kind of humor before diving face first into the pop-culture toilet with dreck like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but The Emperor’s New Groove holds up surprisingly well. Lacking any classic Batman episodes on DVD, I’m watching it now. Eartha’s Yzma is one of the funniest Disney villains, a self-effacing role that plays on her status as an aged diva, and she never misses a beat. Playing against the snarky David Spade at the height of his popularity is no easy task, and she nearly steals the show.
The movie isn’t perfect, and is kind of short at 77 minutes- Eartha’s song (included on the soundtrack CD) would have padded it to only 80 or so. But it’s a fine showcase of Eartha’s range, humor and talent, and shows she was still sharp well into her seventies. As recently as 2006 she was performing off-Broadway in Mimi le Duck, and her final role looks like a role in an indie film, And Then Came Love. She worked until the end, on her own terms, and what more can an artist want? 


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Bolt

Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as “24 meets Inspector Gadget– he’s a superpowered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist’s daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she’s the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy hamster in a hamsterball and has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.
I enjoyed Bolt, but don’t think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!– it’s good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She’s there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She’s nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me.

The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole “He’s a TV star who thinks it’s real!” gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar’s toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There’s still plenty to like- a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, for example. I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!

Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they’ve finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it’s a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove left off.

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Wall-E – Johnny Five with a Chaplin chipset

It’s hard not to like Pixar, especially if you like animation. They may have practically invented the 3-D stuff that criminally sounded the death knell for traditional animation, but they’ve brought such life to the medium that it makes you cast a look askance at what Disney’s been doing since Walt died- the same thing over and over.

He packs a lot of expression in those binocular eyes.

Wall●E is another fantastic entry in a series of movies that have kept raising the bar since Toy Story came out back in 1995. Cars was a mediocre entry for adults, but if I’d seen that when I was a young boy obsessed with Matchbox cars and Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, I’d have loved it. So I can’t fault them too much for catering to Nascar fans; they even made driving in a circle seem exciting, so Extra props for that. Pixar’s latest movie’s title is a nod back to their beginnings-a little computer-generated movie called The Adventures of André and Wally B., which was the pinnacle of computer animation at that point. We nerdlings sat in slack-jawed awe at its magnificence. From screenshots in Atari magazines. Without the youtube we had no way of seeing it, but it’s up there now.

Wally B.: Pre-Pixar Lasseter movie, c.1984.

Wall●E isn’t about bees, it’s about a little trash compactor robot, the last of his kind left to clean up our mess on Earth in the far future. All his little buddies have broken down and he scavenges them for parts to dutifully keep making neat little cubes of trash on our poor used-up planet. His one friend is a little cockroach, also seemingly the last of his kind. Wall●E leads a mostly lonely life, doing his job and saving little bits of trash that amuse him, like a Rubik’s Cube, and his most prized possession, a VHS tape of Hello Dolly that he watches every night.

Wall●E falls for a pair of blue eyes.

Until one day he sees something he’s never seen before- something lands and ejects another robot, a sleek white little egg-bot named Eve. Her mission is a mystery as she scans every square foot of the planet, with Wall●E following close behind, eager for a little robotic companionship. Things play out with little dialogue, just bleeps and blurts and the occasional word. Like a silent film romance between Chaplin and a flower girl, it draws us in through their non-verbal cues and through some terrifically expressive voice acting. Wall●E’s been compared to Johnny Five from Short Circuit, but he makes the 80’s bot seem like Short Round with the symphony of expressive notes in his repertoire.

(Click image for enormous version)

The adventure really begins once Eve is called back from her mission, and we find out what happened to humanity. It’s a hilarious and pointed satire on consumer culture, where the planet was run by the CEO of Buy ‘n Large (played with the usual hilarity of Fred Willard), and 700 years later we’ve evolved into Cabbage Patch people riding around in hoverchairs with TV screens, cell phones, and a constant supply of Slurpee meals. This remains in the background enough to keep Wall●E and Eve’s story in the forefront, and without making the message too strident. (Though I imagine Fox News will try to make some sort of controversy about it.)

(Click image for wallpaper size version)

At 103 minutes, it was a bit long for a kid movie, but it never dragged once. The pacing is perfect, and if you thought kids would squirm and squall at a movie where a robot and a cockroach bleep at each other for half its length, you’d be wrong. Our theater was surprisingly quiet- the kids were enraptured by this simple story. And no one will be rushing out to buy pet Madagascar hissing cockroaches that will end up in shelters, at least. So, Pixar’s done it again. Not once was I bored. It’s a little on the smarmy side in points, with Hello Dolly, but it’s natural sweetness, not a high-fructose overload.

Pixar can even make cockroaches cute.

I’d go see it again today, just to stare longer at its rich backgrounds and simply stunning animation- they’ve raised the bar once again, and shown that Brad Bird isn’t the only guy in their studio who can make a movie just as exciting for kids as adults. Ratatouille and The Incredibles are two of my favorite animated movies, but The Iron Giant is hard to top. Wall●E doesn’t top it, but sits right alongside. It does, however, make you want to drag whoever at Disney greenlighted Beverly Hills Chihuahua and throw them in a trash compactor.

There’s also a hilarious Tex Avery-style short by Pixar called Presto, about a hungry rabbit dueling with his magician onstage, before the film. It’s not as madcap as Tex, but it’s funny and original, getting a lot of mileage out of its premise.

The Rocketeer

One of the best movie posters ever.
This week, I watched one of my favorite flops of the 90’s, The Rocketeer. Disney stupidly released it on the same weekend as Terminator 2, arguably the best action movie of its decade, preceded by a huge hype machine including music videos by Guns ‘n Roses, video and pinball games, Slurpees and sunglasses behind it. The li’l Rocketeer was trampled under Arnie’s motorcycle boot like a box of flowers in the mall.

That’s unfortunate, because while Rocketeer isn’t a perfect movie, it’s good popcorn fun in the pulp tradition. It tried to ride on the coat tails of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘s immense popularity, but misses the mark by embracing the old timey innocence instead of riffing off it, as Ebert put it in his rather scathing review. Only Ebert can make you not want to see a movie he’s given a decent rating. (His recent review of Mongol, the Genghis Khan epic, gets 3.5 stars and the entire review is complaints of how it’s nothing but blood and slaughter with a dash of torture flakes).

Not just blowing smoke.
I’m guessing Disney wanted to aim it at kids, which doesn’t really work in a story about a stunt pilot fighting mobsters and Nazis over an experimental jetpack. Based on a comic book that recalls the adventures of Skylar King of “Sky King,” and other “King of the Rocketmen” and “Commander Cody” serials, it doesn’t really update things except in visual flair. The end battle especially, which has a huge zeppelin with a Nazi insignia appear out of nowhere over Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, fits in a cliffhanger serial but not in a summer blockbuster. I’m reminded of the excellent Superman serials, where one episode would end with a car exploding in flames, and then the next would begin with Superman zipping in to save the passengers just before it crashed.
Despite the movie’s flaws, it’s a lot of fun. Too much fun, in fact. Cliff Secord, played by wholesome all-American Bill Campbell, is flying an experimental plane (a model of which actually broke the speed record in the 30’s) when G-men chasing mobsters burst through their airfield, shoot at his plane for no reason, and cause all sorts of mayhem. One of the mugs hides a mysterious package in their hangar before he’s captured.

Peevy and Cliff
Cliff and his handyman buddy, played by grumpy Alan Arkin like Pops from “Speed Racer,” are now broke and need to fly in the goofy airshow again… until Cliff finds the hidden package, which turns out to be an experimental jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (played decently by Terry O’Quinn, Locke from “Lost”). The movie reveals all its villains as it unfolds. Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas) leads the mobsters, working for Hollywood heartthrob Neville Sinclair– played with relish by devilish Timothy Dalton, channeling Errol Flynn. The Flynn vibe is so obvious they even parody the classic Adventures of Robin Hood, lest you not guess which star he’s supposed to be.

Everyone wants the jetpack, including a hulking giant named Lothar who also works for Sinclair. In a movie made for adults, he would have been more fun- he folds people in half to silence them, and when a troop of Feds open up on him with tommyguns, he pulls out two .45’s and starts blasting right back at them. The scene quickly fizzles, and I think director Joe Johnston is less suited toward adventure movies than stuff like Honey I Shrunk the Kids and October Sky, which I enjoyed. He also made the tepid Jurassic Park III, which makes me concerned about his upcoming remake of The Wolf Man with Benicio del Toro. That should be more of a horror drama, so hopefully it won’t be as silly as this movie is.

Hotter than the jetpack

The movie has a lot of special effects, but little of the action really engages you. After Cliff and Peevy figure out the jetpack, he saves a wayward barnstorming pilot with it, and not much else. His steady girl Jenny, played by a vivacious and practically bursting out of her clothes Jennifer Connelly, falls in with nefarious Neville Sinclair, who seems much more aware of her womanhood than flyboy Cliff, who feels like he walked out of an Archie comic. When he flies in to save her, it’s more like comic relief than heroics, with our Rocketeer buzzing around the supper club like a gadfly. There’s no rocket punches, or firing his pack to singe anybody; the best I remember is him kicking Lothar when he comes at him with a wrench. Indy used to shoot people, too. I guess it’s out of style for pulp heroes for now.

Too wholesome hero

A pulp hero needs to be good with his fists, and ours doesn’t get a lot of time to use them. He does fly off to deal with the Nazi zeppelin with a Luger in his hand, but Disney decided gunplay was too rough for the kiddies, I guess. Every chance for breathtaking action just peters out- there’s a fight on top of the flaming dirigible vs. the monstrous Lothar, and a battle between G-men, gangsters and Nazis who pop out the bushes that has a lot of flash, but feels more like Dick Tracy than Indiana Jones. Despite this litany of complaints, the movie manages to be entertain. TV prettyboy Bill Campbell just isn’t a great lead, and everything is dialed back to be kid-friendly. There’s nothing wrong with kid-friendly, but I thought Raiders of the Lost Ark was kid-friendly, when I was a kid. Now it would probably garner an R rating.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did a great job of updating a pulp concept into an exciting modern movie, helped in part by spectacular special effects. Rocketeer has so-so effects, with the rocket man glowing like lightbulb against the backgrounds. The movie is screaming for an update that keeps the story in adult territory. He’s such an iconic figure, with the art deco helmet and leather aviator jacket. And with Indy fighting Soviets, we could use a pulp figure to beat up hordes of Nazi thugs again.