Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Toei's Puss 'n Boots

Before Antonio Banderas put his accent on the character, perhaps the most internationally reknowned version of Puss'n Boots was the animated character from Toei studios. So popular was little Pero and the three films to feature him that he became the corporate logo for the company.

Trailer for The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots.

Pero is named for Charles Perrault, who provided the source material to be embellished in The Wonderful World of Puss n' Boots (1969). In the Mediaeval fantasy world of the fairy tales, Pero has been expelled from the Kingdom of the Cats for having let some mice escape his grasp. Making his way in the world of humans, he comes across a young boy Pierre and conspires to help him improve his lot in life. The oportunity arises when the king itches to give away his daughter's hand in marriage. This Puss 'n Boots is just as crafty as his literary equivalent, but a wrench is thrown into the works by the princess' other suitor: the nearly all-powerful, shape-changing Lucifer. Nor does it help that a trio of hapless hunters have trailed Pero from the Kingdom of the Cats.

Puss 'n Boots was the 15th of Toei's stellar animated films and featured some of the early work of Hayao Miyazaki. The endurance of the film is testified to by Pero becoming Toei's mascot, a Mickey Mouse for the "Disney of Japan", and it begged a pair of sequels of a sort. The next in the series was Return of Pero in 1972. Instead of fairyland, the action is here transplanted to the Old West.

Pero and his friend Jimmy arrive into town aboard a stagecoach that also brings the daughter of a saloon owner. Unfortunately she returns just in time to see her father lying on the floor of his saloon in a puddle of his own blood, clutching a Mexican peso. With that as their only clue and Jimmy taking up the vacated mantle of town sheriff, Puss 'n Cowboy Boots brings this outlaw band of counterfeiters to justice.

As the Sixties transitioned into the Seventies, cost-saving measures hit Toei and the quality of Return of Pero is not to the same level as the original. This trend would continue into 1976 with the third and final Pero film, Puss 'n Boots Travels Around the World in 80 Days.

Full English dub of Puss 'n Boots Travels Around the World in 80 Days.

In this episode, Pero is still on the outs with the Kingdom of Cats thanks to his pro-mouse political views. As a consequence, he has taken up residence in a version of the 19th century populated by anthropomorphic animals. While working as a waiter in a cafe, Pero offends the wealthy Mr. Gourmon (a massive pig) by suggesting that a person could circumnavigate the globe in a mere 80 days. They put it to a bet: if Pero can accomplish this task then he gets all of Gourmon's estate, and if he does not then he becomes Gourmon's slave for life. Puss' trio of pursuers are back again, and if that weren't enough, Gourmon has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Dr. Garigari, a Professor Fate-like mad inventor.

Despite the drop in animation quality, Around the World in 80 Days is much more fun than Return of Pero. Most of that has to do with the caper-style chase involving all manner of conveyance. First Pero goes from a little paddlewheel steamer to a horseless carriage, and from that to a balloon, then to a submarine, a windwagon, and an aeroplane. Dr. Garigari gives chase in a drill-tank-thing, a much larger submarine, and even a giant, robotic woolly mammoth. The race takes us across the Garabian desert, into Pindia and Pong Kong, under the seas in the vicinity of a lost civilization, and to America's Minikiki River. Here can be heard definite echoes of 1956's Around the World in 80 Days and 1965's The Great Race.

Though having gone for far too long in the West without a widespread release, Toei's Puss 'n Boots is an enduring and loveable furball whose exploits are worth finding in one way or another.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Today's special post is part of the Sword and Sandal Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Thanks for letting a blog about Victorian Science Fiction be a part of a blogathon on films about Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome! To see the complete line-up for the blogathon, click on the banner above.

1923's The Ten Commandments has a unique place in motion picture history: it was the first major telling of the story of Moses, and one of the only films to be remade, decades later, by it's original director. The Bible furnished director Cecil B. DeMille with both his first great "Swords and Sandals" epic, as well as his last. He only barely finished the more famous 1956 version of The Ten Commandments after suffering a heart attack on set, and it would turn out to be his last film before his passing in 1959.

Before this feature length version of The Exodus, there had been a small number of shorts produced mainly in Europe. Pathe released The Exodus from Egypt in 1907, Israel in Egypt in 1910, and The Infancy of Moses in 1911. These featured confetti in place of manna, streamers in place of flames, a God with a paper halo, and a running time of about 5-10 minutes. Vitagraph released a series of films entitled The Life of Moses between December 1909 and Feburary 1910. Then came Cecil B. DeMille's first draft of one of the great religious stories.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Steel Fantasia (2006)

Given the popularity of Flash animation in the Western world, it should come as no surprise that Flash anime from the East should come down the series of tubes known as the Internet. Steel Fantasia (2006) by the Iyasakado studio is a series of Flash anime shorts that appears to be a steam-driven Pulp-esque heir to the feature film Robot Carnival (1987).

With the animations only appearing in Japanese on a primarily Japanese site, some of this review will be pure conjecture, but nevertheless... The vignettes of Steel Fantasia all appear to take place in an industrial fantasy version of our modern world in which steam power has become the dominant form of propulsion for all manner of horseless carriage and zeppelin airship. The natural world is unseen unless it is being blown up, and the citizenry live in monumental, patchwork skyscrapers. Televisions resemble old time radios and the laptops look not at all unlike those voluminous, repetitive ones constantly seen across Steampunk blogs and message boards. However, against this bleak backdrop are played out adventures that are often delightful, light-hearted and fanciful.

The first episode, Commuters turns an aerial dogfight between competing fighter aces and a Red Chinese airship convoy into a daydream metaphor for the daily competition for the last seat on the steam-metro. The second, and my personal favorite, is Rattenjaeger "Usigaeru". In this, an apartment renter brings home a newfangled miniature tank to take out a pesky kangaroo rat that the house dog is too lazy to bother with. As the Rattenjaeger - Rat Hunter - breaks the room to splinters in hot pursuit of its quarry, the dog finally interferes to save the rat... leading to a high-speed freeway chase aboard an abacus into the very heart of the Rattenjaeger factory.

The third episode, Harunohi, takes us into the imagination of a bored college student who dreams of flying through the heavenly skies on the back of a mechanised aero-seamonster, surrounded by nuts-and-bolts aero-squid, updraft-dwelling jellyfish-cities and cloud-whales. But it is from the Heavens into Hell with the fourth episode. Two Legged Tank is a dialogue-heavy war story about a team of, yes, two-legged tank operators taking on a platoon of the enemy's worst two-, four- and six-legged versions.

The first act of genius on the part of Steel Fantasia is to not let the setting dominate the stories. These aren't stories about this steam-driven Pulp fantasy world... These are stories about the fantasies and adventures of the people (and kangaroo rats) in that world. The setting is pure candy, and a delightful-tasting bowlful it is.

The second is the quality of the animation. These films are but one step removed from real, honest-to-goodness, pen-and-ink anime. The motion is fluid and the sketch-like quality of the art most welcomely obscures that it is Flash animation, in addition to looking perfectly and typically like Japanese anime. Often it is easy to forget that you're not watching "real" anime.

Furthermore, the scripting and draftsmanship is impeccable. With the exception of Two Legged Tank, the story is carried primarily by the action. No subtitles are required, and the folks at Iyasakado know what it really means to create universal art on a universal medium like the Internet. Steel Fantasia's entertainment value breaks down cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Click here to watch Steel Fantasia

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Original Doctor Who: The Dark Planet (2013)

The Dark Planet, another lost story from the run of the original Doctor, shoots forwards... and backwards... in time from the previous stories. Farewell, Great Macedon, The Fragile Yellow Ark of Fragrance, and The Masters of Luxor all happened in quick succession after the televised story of The Reign of Terror. This one, on the contrary, takes place somewhere during or after the second season, after the Doctor's granddaughter Susan has left the TARDIS and Vicki taken her place. Yet it takes place near the beginning of the universe, on an unknown planet orbiting a dying star.

Drawn to this mysterious, desolate world, the Doctor, Barbara, Vicki, and Ian (the latter two lend their voices to this dramatization) discover beautiful crystalline statues and are attacked by a savage black fog. To their horror and curiousity, the discover that both of these things are very much alive. One is a race of light-based energy beings who can resonate their bodies into crystalline forms, the other is a race of darkness-based energy beings sharing a single consciousness. Each wants the other dead, and each is developing their own strategies for how to accomplish that goal while sustaining their own existence after the dying star finally burns itself out.

Dialectic conflicts were an understandable topic of dissection in the Sixties, considering that this was the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. Televised Science Fiction enjoyed a brisk trade in crude allegories for such things. Consider the Federation and the Klingons in the original Star Trek, or the particular episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in which the two final survivors of a war-torn world are keen to see each other to the grave, for no other crime that being half-black and half-white but on opposite sides of the body.

The Dark Planet takes this dialectic theme to its most precise analogy: one side is literally Light and the other side is literally Dark. Their existence is tied to each other and they have the knowledge to help each other survive if they would only put down arms (so to speak). And in Doctor Who nothing is as simple as the Light side being morally good and pure, nor the Dark side being irredeemably evil. Can the Doctor reconcile these two sides and restore their sun?    

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Original Doctor Who: The Masters of Luxor (2012)

Big Finish's foray into the unproduced scripts of Doctor Who history continued, for the First Doctor, with The Masters of Luxor. One of the greatest of the series' "lost stories", The Masters of Luxor was originally intended to be the second serial after An Unearthly Child. That was, however, bumped from the schedule in favour of The Daleks, which history has shown to be the better choice. Not that The Masters of Luxor is a poor story. It's just a reflection on how the Daleks almost single-handedly saved the show.

After their adventures in Macedon and the planet Fragrance, the TARDIS is pulled towards a desolate world on which the only sign of life is a great pyramid-like structure on a mountainside. Inside, they discover a society of increasingly more human-like machines in servitude to an absentee race called "The Masters of Luxor." Despite the evocative name, these people having nothing to do with ancient Egypt. Instead, they are a scientifically-minded race who carried their experiments into eugenics and robotics much too far. The product of their research is The Perfect One... An almost exact facsimile of a human blessed with free will, but no soul. His free will is trapped within the protocols and limitations of a machine, and he is prepared to do anything to rip the soul from any living person he encounters.

Though their plots radically diverge, it is easy enough to see where the ideas in The Masters of Luxor and The Daleks overlap. You have worlds devoid of true humanity, victims of a society's own ill-conceived experimentation into the fabric of life itself, creating terrifying monsters in the name of trying to improve humankind. The Masters of Luxor provide a more intimate, personal take on the material. The Perfect One is not a nameless, faceless drone. He, instead, agonizes over his condition. His frustration and motivation are palpable. His is a sympathetic monstrosity, with an equally monstrous creator, echoing Frankenstein.

Therein lies the strength of the story, but also its weakness relative to Doctor Who history. The Daleks lack any humanity or personality, and that is what makes them so powerful as villains. Its the same reason why the Borg took off so well in Star Trek. The Frankenstein story is, of course, a primal one in human culture... It was itself a modernized form of ancient Promethean myths. But the Daleks (and the Borg) tap better into the truly modern anxieties about anonymity in materialist, technocratic society. Their facelessness and lack of individuality is what makes them so appealing and so frightening.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Lost Zeppelin (1929)

Based loosely on the loss of the Airship Italia over the North Pole the year before, 1929's The Lost Airship is a rather stiff early talkie, as many early talkies tended to be. The loss of the Italia and the subsequent rescue efforts, including the death of polar explorer Roald Amundsen in the attempt, created an international sensation that was easily exploitable for film. The Lost Zeppelin even replicates several of the voyage's incidents, though transposing the misadventure to the South Pole.

Though the film has many nice set pieces and matte paintings, the actual Antarctic portions in its latter half are underwhelming and victim of some bizarre plot holes ("Okay men, let's split up so we can get rid of all this supporting cast!"). Unfortunately this is not very well offset by the dramatic plot, which is a love triangle between the expedition's captain, his wife, and the first mate. Just sheer enjoyment of the genre, time period and setting go a long way in my book, and even I found this one a bit of a slog. You can decide for yourself...

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger is director Joe Johnston's prequel to Marvel's The Avengers, with all the faults of being an extended prologue. While it has some sexy pieces of World War II-era Sci-Fi hardware, even that much is undone by the meaninglessness of the setting. It's a shame because there's a couple ways in which Captain America could have been a more interesting film.

Johnston was a logical choice for helming this project, for besides directing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, he is probably best known for The Rocketeer. The latter is a consummate bit of period adventure though itself does not aspire to the best of the genre, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. There were quite a few nods I appreciated, including a cute dig at Raiders, and I admit that the growth of Captain America from a celebrity into a hero was well-played. The World's Fair scenes were particularly nice, and Hydra's Tessaract-based technology was attractive (though it mainly just wanted to make me play Wolfenstein again).

While I could nit-pick at a few designs I didn't like (Captain America looked more authentic in his leather jacket and blue helmet than in his costume, Red Skull would have looked better in a straightforward SS uniform), there was a greater overall problem with the setting: an inability to commit to it. This film was very obviously designed as the prequel to The Avengers and it's sole purpose was getting us to that point. The device from Thor's Frost Giants ends up in the hands of Captain America's Red Skull so that it could be passed along The Avengers' Loki, with the ancillary benefit of introducing us to one of the characters that apparently has to be in the team of so-called “Earth's Mightiest Heroes” (I'm primarily a DC Comics guy, so my money is on the Justice League in that fight).

Johnston does probably as good a job as he could given this circumstance... A problem faced by every director handed a Marvel project and likely the cause of auteurs like Edgar Wright leaving films like Ant-Man. Say what one will about DC's attempts to craft their own cinematic universe, at least they are willing to take risks on directors with substantive creative visions, like Zack Snyder. Johnston manages to pack the legend of Cap as well as he can into this. Nevertheless, all the sequel bits are in place, from the Tessaract to Bucky's impending return as the Winter Soldier to Cap's absurd sacrifice and preservation. Nevermind that apparently Hydra's flying wing had an auto-pilot, but someone who drowns in the Arctic and is discovered 70 years later should be a very dead ice mummy. It's always some little silly thing like this that breaks the suspension of disbelief. Were it some freeze-drying property of the Tessaract, I could have accepted that. It comes from Frost Giants after all. Alas no.

These flights of fancy are underscored by how utterly unnecessary this setting was. The freezing and thawing of Captain America was originally a device to bring a character from the Forties into a comic from the Sixties without having to reboot everything the way DC Comics was doing with Green Lantern, The Flash and the rest of its cohort. When adapting an entire universe to a new medium almost from scratch, there was no need for Captain America to be set in WWII. Any potential for exploring themes like the difference between America's ideals then and now was totally missed in the low ambitions of this film and probably could have been done better in one set in modern times. Was there really no place for a Captain America in a post-9/11, “War on Terror” world? A propaganda machine invented to give a positive face to one of the most questionable and ambiguous of America's military actions? It is not without precedent, considering Iron Man.

Though I love period Sci-Fi and liked many of the particular designs in Captain America, I nevertheless found myself wishing it had foregone the setting I love to become a better movie.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Jolly Top Hat (2006)

The Plimptons explain Victorian economics and class warfare through a giant robot...

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Grimm's Ghost Stories: The Aliens and the Captain (1972)

Grimm's Ghost Stories was Western Publishing/Gold Key's tamer answer to EC Comics, hosted by a Cryptkeeper-like figure named Hephzibah Grimm. Its stories varied wildly from setting to setting, but each had some spooky twist to them. Stories from the series were comparable enough in tone that Gold Key included the following in a digest of its Twilight Zone comics (Mystery Comics Digest #9). In this weird tale, we have a meeting between cowboys and aliens that only gets weirder after that. Click on each image to embiggen it.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Justice Riders (1997)

DC Comics already has a strong showing when it comes to Western themes. Enjoying a good run through the 70's with Weird Western Tales and characters like Jonah Hex, El Diablo and Bat Lash, the company has been working hard to retcon their line-up to provide something even more unique in the Western genre. Under the pen of writer Joe R. Lansdale and DC's mature "Vertigo" imprint, Jonah Hex fought zombies. More recently, in DC's New 52 phase, Hex spent the better part of his time in Victorian Gotham City, laying out groundwork for plotlines resolved in concurrent Batman comics. Meanwhile, El Diablo transitioned from a straight imitation of Zorro to a cross between him and Ghost Rider.

The Weird West - a genre given a name by DC - was also an irresistable lure for DC's Elseworlds titles. In Justice Riders, the famous Justice League gets a makeover as Sheriff Diana Prince gathers a gang of oddball gunslingers to take down the murderous railway baron Maxwell Lord. Joining her are the preturnatually fast Kid Flash, flying Native shaman named Hawkman, screwy inventor Blue Beetle, riverboat slickster Booster Gold, and the shadowy Martian Manhunter. Complicating matters is a Pinkerton named Guy Gardner who is on Kid Flash's trail.

As a Western, it is a serviceable tale. Like most Elseworlds, it is more abreviated than it really ought to be. When putting together a super-powered Magnificent Seven, it needs an epic print run to do it full justice. Official DC continuity has the world of Justice Riders as being Earth-18 of the 52 parallel realities. The door is open for a revisit.

As a superhero comic, Justice Riders is a lot of fun. To anyone who read Justice League International during the 1980's, under the helm of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, the line-up reads like a yearbook full of old chums. Not only are Booster Gold and Blue Beetle back, suffering Guy Gardner and Maxwell Lord, but even Oberon makes a cameo. Behind Lord's unearthly technology is an alien menace from one of DC's earliest company-wide crossovers. While lacking the same sense of humour as JLI, it is enjoyably nostalgic to see these characters again.