Back Row Thoughts – Animation Nomination, Part 3

I am now 24 films deep into this year’s field for the Animated Feature Oscar. Only three entries remain after this, and of those three, only one will definitely become available this month. The debate for me then becomes whether to watch it and give it a standalone review, wait until the other two get releases, or just leave it be. I haven’t decided yet, so if you want me to attempt to finish the full slate, knowing it could take weeks (or longer), please say so.

For now though, we have three more movies to get through, and boy do they run the gamut. One is superb, another is fine, and the third might just be the worst of all of 2022 cinema. Let’s get to it, and keep our fingers crossed that we can complete this little journey soon.

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank

There are very few things in the world of film that I think should be sacrosanct. One of those is that if a movie has been elevated to “all-time” status, it should be left alone, even if (or especially if) it’s a product of its time that would be unfairly judged by modern standards. Part of the joy of films like Freaks is that it can never be properly remade, because public sensibilities are such that no matter what you do, if you try to create a new version, it’s going to fail. I mentioned this in my video ranking my favorite horror movies back in October. If you tried to remake Freaks with non-disabled, non-deformed actors – or if you tried to recreate the characters’ unique body types with CGI – there would be a public outcry about a lack of representation. If you did use those very specific actors, there would be an outcry that they were being exploited. Either way, the beauty of the story would be lost, as well as the suspenseful moments that were truly terrifying 90 years ago. There’s no point in trying, because there’s no way it would work, which is why it’s such a gorgeous film to view as a sort of time capsule of the pre-Code era.

The same thought process should have applied to Blazing Saddles, arguably the greatest comedy ever made. Instead, we got Paws of Fury, and it’s disgusting. Originally titled Blazing Samurai, and somehow receiving the blessing and participation of Mel Brooks, this piece of animated excrement lifts the basic plot and framing of that hilarious classic, and also outright copies several of the jokes, but it woefully misses the point in a way that almost seems intentional, as if the entire purpose was to prove that anything can be bastardized beyond recognition.

Taking over for Harvey Korman, the first lame recycling of actual humor comes from, of all people, the amazingly funny Ricky Gervais. He plays a feudal cat called Ika Chu, so that the shogun (Brooks) can constantly mistake his name for Pikachu or something similar. This immediately sets the tone for how lazy the jokes are going to be. Yes, in the original movie, Korman’s character, Hedley Lamarr, was constantly called “Hedy” in reference to the famous actress Hedy Lamarr. It was a kitschy running gag that hinted at the film’s self-awareness (obviously brought to the extreme as the climactic fight spills out into the entire Warner Bros. studio lot), including a line from Brooks about how the story is set in the 1800s so he can technically sue her for infringement because Hedley predates her. Here, it’s just an excuse to either make irrelevant pop culture asides or do juvenile scatological bits by calling him “Icky Poo” or some other such nonsense. Previously, even when the bit wasn’t logical, it was still presented as a germane aspect of the overall silliness. This is just noise, because the target audience has no connection to these actors or their careers to make the shtick land.

Anyway, Ika Chu sends his muscle Ogha (George Takei, taking over for Slim Pickens) and a gang of ninjas to scare off the citizens of the peaceful village of Kakamucho. You read that right. Instead of something generic like “Rock Ridge,” or even something vaguely Asian (since former Sony Animation chief Yair Landau conceived the project as a reversal of “Westernizing” Asian cinema), the name of the town is a play on the Spanish for “a lot of shit.” Just like in Blazing Saddles, the sheriff, er, samurai of Kakamucho is taken out of the picture, so the citizens appeal to the shogun for a replacement. Not wanting anyone to interfere with his devious plan to unveil a palace complete with a giant toilet, Ika Chu decides to spare the life of a dog named Hank (Michael Cera) who is set to be executed, thinking that appointing him samurai will lead to the people of Kakamucho driving him out or killing him themselves, which would legally clear the way for Ika Chu to have them all arrested and the town demolished.

Now again, this basically mirrors the plot of the original. Cleavon Little’s Bart was also set to be executed before Lamarr sent him to Rock Ridge in hopes of getting him killed. The big differences here are in the characters themselves and the motivation, and none of the decisions here comes close to anything resembling the provocative spirit of the source material.

In Blazing Saddles, Bart is a near-slave building a railroad (that will eventually go through Rock Ridge if Lamarr gets his way). He’s among several black and Asian workers being treated like shit by Lamarr’s goons, including being sent off on a deadly scouting mission to survey for quicksand. When Pickens saves the rail cart rather than Bart and his friend – one of the funniest and most damning statements on race in a picture full of them – Bart whacks him on the head with a shovel in retaliation, leading to his arrest and pending execution.

What was Hank’s crime? He’s a dog who showed up in cat territory. That’s it. Like an old Peanuts cartoon, the villages have “No Dogs Allowed” signs posted, but because Hank wants to become a samurai oh so badly, he crossed the border illegally, which bears the penalty of death, apparently (I didn’t know cats were hardline Republicans). We don’t even meet Hank until he’s in the jail about to be taken to the gallows. With Bart we had several minutes of action, exposition, and humor to establish his character, why he takes no shit, and why he’s worth rooting for. Hank literally just shows up. Why should anyone care?

Things only get worse from there. When he gets to Kakamucho, Hank has absolutely no skills of any kind, a complete 180 from Bart. He whines for basically every line, and his eventual companion is not a drunk-but-lovable ally like Jim, “The Waco Kid,” played by the late great Gene Wilder, but a shamed former samurai named Jimbo, voiced lazily by Samuel L. Jackson (he literally has to say “What the mother father cocker spaniel” at one point), who just mopes about before reluctantly accepting Hank as his pupil, which completely betrays the dynamic between Bart and Jim in the original. There Jim was Bart’s only white friend in a sea of bigots, someone who had his own flaws, in whom Bart could not only confide, but also strategize and just shoot the shit, because they treated each other as equals. Here, by creating a student-teacher relationship, Paws of Fury makes it part of the plot that Hank, as a dog, is inherently inferior to cats, and has to prove himself to them. Bart didn’t have to prove himself to any of the Johnsons in Rock Ridge. He was just enjoying his freedom and trying to do right by everyone because he was a good person. That he used his savvy and resourcefulness to save the town and win them over is a byproduct of his character. By making Hank permanently second class, you’ve literally undone everything Blazing Saddles accomplished.

And this is still in the opening 20 minutes, before we get to Djimon Hounsou as Sumo (instead of Mongo, who is defeated by Jimbo while Hank cries like a baby instead of performing a hilarious display of cunning like Bart did), a parade of lit farts (Brooks included the campfire farting scene as a protest to studio heads who wanted to overrule the final cut clause in his contract; here it’s just superfluous toilet humor), and the annoying Emiko (Kylie Kuioka), who only exists because we can’t have a kids movie anymore without a completely perfect, smarter than everyone, secret badass little girl character who’s always right. You know, because if you don’t shoehorn her in, that’s sexist or something.

But of course, worse than everything else, this movie flies in the face of what Blazing Saddles stood for, because by the nature of its marketing and target audience, it has to. The whole point of the original movie was to hold a mirror up to racism by leaning into its inherent absurdity and playing it for laughs as a means to diffuse it. When Bart arrives in Rock Ridge, the townspeople all point guns at him after repeatedly saying the n-word, so what does he do? He points his own gun at himself, threatens to kill the same n-word if the others don’t lower their weapons, then plays up a minstrel act to pretend to be scared OF HIMSELF! When the people get tricked into changing their tone, Bart drags himself to the sheriff’s station, closes the door, and sighs, “Oh baby, you are so talented, and they are so dumb!”

You literally can’t get away with that in a children’s movie. First of all, kids don’t understand racism in such layered terms, and they certainly can’t translate that to ironic comedy. All they see are cats and dogs, who always fight in other cartoons. Second, even when you neuter some of the jokes for a G-rated crowd, the root of the humor in Brooks’ masterpiece goes right over their heads, so all you can do is rote slapstick that isn’t the least bit funny. Third, you can’t have any social commentary, because the young audience will get bored, so instead the entire plot is reduced to a standard “follow your dreams” motif that’s been done hundreds of other times.

It just simply cannot work, no matter what you do, so why did Paramount (the project changed hands multiple times since it was first announced in 2010) even bother? There was no way this would make money, because parents would never subject themselves to this for the sake of their kids when they can just watch Paw Patrol for 14th time. But more importantly, there was no way to do this correctly, and someone should have stood up and said “NO!” when they had the chance. Unfortunately, because no one can just take a loss anymore, they took one of the most beloved films of all time, one that redefined how we look at both comedy and racial tensions by turning the slurs on their ear, and sullied it to the point of creating a new form of cultural insult. This makes The Boss Baby look like Citizen Kane.

Grade: F

Goodbye, Don Glees!

Let’s talk about something far more pleasant, shall we? Like Drifting Home, this anime feature deals with adventure in a transitional period in its characters’ young lives. However, there’s nothing truly fantastical about how the story is presented, no impossible gimmick or set piece to drive the journey. Instead, this is a much more grounded, mature tale, that is nonetheless pure magic.

Best friends since childhood, Roma Kamogawa (voiced by Natsuki Hanae in Japanese and Adam McArthur in English; in a rare touch, the Japanese actors’ names are listed in the opening credits in English as a testament to how important their work is here) and Toto Mitarai (Yuki Kaji/Nick Wolfhard, Finn’s older brother) formed a secret club just for themselves call the Don Glees due to their relatively introverted natures and the fact that they only had fun with each other rather than the rest of their classmates. The name is an intentional malaprop of “Don’t Glee” in English, essentially a pledge that they won’t be happy except when hanging out together. Through their time in their secluded club, they suffered bullies, had private jokes, and even learned to take a risk or two, like Roma calling Toto’s crush, Tivoli (Kana Hanazawa/Victoria Grace) after she moves to Ireland in hopes of getting Toto to admit his feelings.

However, after spending their first year of high school apart – Toto lives on a family farm and went to the local school while Roma is in a cram academy to eventually get into medical school – their lives have started to diverge. Toto is even more isolated than before, only taking solace in Roma’s return so they can resume Don Glees activities, while Roma is very much in the mindset of “putting away childish things” and feels the pressure of his family’s expectations, so he wants to end their hobby and assimilate.

Not ready to let go of his one source of positivity, Toto inducts a new member into the group, Drop (Ayumu Murase/Jonathan Leon), who quickly latches on and encourages an almost devil may care attitude, because he wants to live with no regrets. This manifests in Toto taking up a playful suggestion Roma made the year before, spending all his money on fireworks and a drone, so that they can have their own personal display in the hills outside their small town during the regional festival. On the big night, their explosives turn out to be duds and a heavy wind carries the drone miles away before it crashes. Meanwhile, a wildfire breaks out on another hill, and because teenagers are incorrigible gossips, the other youths in town immediately jump to blaming the Don Glees for the fire as a way to further ostracize them. Hoping that the footage from the drone can prove their innocence, the three set off on their bikes and scooters to recover it.

I absolutely love the dynamic between the three boys, because it’s completely natural and never once feels forced. Childhood friends do grow apart as they age, and as emotions develop, it can be difficult to swallow one’s pride and admit that their needs and wants have changed, especially if doing so will upset someone they care about. There’s also a good degree of juxtaposition as Toto and Roma have matured, as Roma was once the impulsive one who became reserved, while Toto is trying to come out of his own shell while goading Roma into embracing his sense of wonder once more.

And then there’s Drop who, as the new kid in town, would be totally understood if he just kept to himself. Instead, his zest for life and his ability to see the humor in everything that happens as an outsider is part of his infectious charm. As the group travels, he tells stories about how he’s spent his whole life searching for his “treasure,” which isn’t necessarily a physical possession, just a feeling he’ll know when it happens. He tells of a trip to Iceland where he scoured caves looking for a legendary golden waterfall with a phone booth because the idea of it sounded so wondrous to him. Between the three of them, you get the sense that they can work through anything together, each one supplementing the personality gaps of the other two, and it’s beyond endearing.

All of this leads up to a truly surprising ending that I did not see coming, and what’s even better about it is that I looked up the crux of the underlying concept and found it to be 100% accurate. It’s a highly improbable conclusion, but one that is legitimately possible, and I’m amazed that the filmmakers thought it up. Combine that with some excellent character work and some gorgeous scenery and shadow work in the animation, and you’ve got one of the sleeper hits of the year!

Grade: A-

My Father’s Dragon

Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon had released four feature films before 2022, all of which were nominated for Animated Feature (The Secret of Kells, The Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers). Their fifth entry, My Father’s Dragon, a collaboration with Netflix, is definitely the weakest of the bunch, and will likely be the first of their output to miss out on the Oscars altogether. That said, this is still a quality flick that’s worth your time.

Based on the Newbery Award-winning children’s book from 1948 by Ruth Stiles Gannett, the film revolves around a young boy named Elmer (Jacob Tremblay), who moves to the big, stifling city of Nevergreen after being forced to close the once successful candy shop where he lived and worked with his mother (Golshifteh Farahani). After their savings quickly dry up thanks to their ill-tempered landlady (Rita Moreno), Elmer is despondent. He befriends a stray cat despite the house rules against pets, and finds that it can talk (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg), the cat revealing itself because Elmer showed her kindness. As a reward, she promises him a dragon, so long as he goes to Wild Island to find it.

Wild Island certainly lives up to its name, as it’s filled to the brim with dangerous talking animals, and is being held up by the dragon, named Boris (Gaten Matarazzo from Stranger Things) to prevent it from sinking into the sea. Elmer frees Boris from the restraints placed on him by a gorilla named Saiwa (Ian McShane) to keep him in place, believing that will be enough to “save” him, and thus allow him to help Elmer put on a street show to raise the money to open a new store and resume his happy life. However, Boris informs him that it is his job to save Wild Island, as it is the task given to every new dragon so that they can become an “After Dragon” and gain all the cool mythical powers like controlled flight and fire breath. Until that happens, Boris is just a timid kid who can barely hover. He’s also a bit of a bungling klutz.

Joining forces, Elmer and Boris look for “The Answer” (Allen Iverson does not appear in the film), the secret to stopping the island from being pulled beneath the waves, one that all other dragons know, but Boris was never told. Along the way, they encounter all manner of talking beasts, from a hyperactive whale (Judy Greer), a hotheaded macaque (Chris O’Dowd), an overprotective crocodile (Alan Cumming), and a trusting rhinoceros (Dianne Wiest), each of whom either aids or stymies the quest according to the needs of the plot.

I’ll admit, this started out fairly ho-hum. First and foremost, I was genuinely confused at the beginning, because given the title and the fact that the movie opens with a woman (Mary Kay Place) narrating about Elmer being her dad, it’s very odd that we never see him as anything but a little kid. I imagine the young target audience was similarly puzzled. Beyond that, Boris’ voice just doesn’t work (I’m sure Matarazzo is a fine young actor but he’s totally miscast here), the physical comedy isn’t all that funny, and every time someone asks about The Answer, all I want to do is scream, “42!” There’s a lot of conflict set up for its own sake that doesn’t really play into anything, an all too common side effect of adapting a 70-page children’s book into a feature length film. And honestly, Elmer isn’t all that compelling of a lead character.

That said, once things truly get rolling, it gets pretty good. The action scenes are decent, the writing and humor pick up around the midway point, and the theme of wanting to prove yourself to do right by others, which applies to both of our protagonists, is given the attention it deserves as Elmer and Boris go from convenient allies to genuine friends. When that happens, the signature Cartoon Saloon touches shine through, including highly creative character designs, a dazzling color palette, and the most expressive eyes in all of animation. It definitely takes a while to hit its stride, but when the film finally starts firing on all cylinders, you do find yourself getting invested, to the point that the resolution becomes genuinely affecting.

Like I said, it’s all but objectively the worst film Cartoon Saloon has put out to date, but just like Missing Link is that movie for Laika Studios, even their lowest quality is leaps and bounds ahead of a lot of their contemporaries and competitors. I don’t think it’ll be nominated, and honestly it doesn’t deserve to be, but this did ultimately become very entertaining, and if they ever decide to adapt the two sequel books, I’ll be there to see it.

Grade: B

***

And with that, we are now through 24 of 27 submissions. Hopefully this is not the end of this mini-series, but if it is, I’ve had a lot of fun. I hope you have, too. Three more films remain if I can find them all, and Oscar nominations are three weeks away. I can’t wait to see who makes the cut!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which was your favorite? Should I pull out all the stops to complete the journey? Let me know!

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