Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Sadism of the Lucas/Spielberg Syndrome

http://www.konbini.com/fr/files/2014/04/how-steven-spielberg-made-millions-off-star-wars-after-a-1977-bet-with-george-lucas.jpgDuring my years in grad school, I happened to mention to a faculty member my lifelong affection for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. He replied that he couldn’t really share my liking because he found Jurassic Park “such a sadistic film.” This remark stayed with me for the obvious reason that my professor was absolutely correct. With its litany of attractions – such as a man being unceremoniously plucked off the toilet to be devoured by a T-Rex, a young girl being drenched with brachiosaur snot, an even younger boy being zapped with 10,000 volts of electricity, and a woman being menaced and terrified to the point of near catatonia – Jurassic Park is indeed a pervasively sadistic film. My liking for it nonetheless, however, is due to the fact that it uses a certain aesthetic register of sadism – one that Spielberg and his friend and collaborator George Lucas largely innovated between themselves.When he first undertook Star Wars, George Lucas was just coming off the success of American Graffiti, a project he had only undertaken in reaction to the failure of his first feature, THX-1138. That film had failed to resonate with American audiences who were, to say the least, unused to coolly cerebral art films couched in an idiom of hard science-fiction (2001 would seem the obvious exception, but perhaps that film had already been reified into total uniqueness). Ever since film school, Lucas’s interests had been clinical ones of formal experimentation – abstract filmmaking, tone poems, collections of images – with emotive human drama incidental, if there at all. His 1966 student short Freiheit (which can be seen you YouTube here) shows this sensibility in full effect. Following the failure of THX 1138, however, Francis Ford Coppola apparently encouraged Lucas to try something warmly human and emotive – an idea that Lucas fiercely resisted, saying that “emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” But he eventually came round, and the nostalgia-fest American Graffiti was the result. It was a big success, but still nothing compared to the pop cultural waves that would be made two years later by Jaws – the work of twenty-nine year-old wunderkind Steven Spielberg.
http://static.rogerebert.com/redactor_assets/pictures/far-flung-correspondents/youre-going-to-need-a-bigger-boat/jaws_red_board_shark.jpgThis was the film that introduced American audiences to devoured beach bunnies, dead children, chomped-off legs, eyeball-less severed heads, and sundry other horrors – and American audiences loved every second of it as the most fun they’d had at the movies in years. Clearly the rules for cinematic convention had changed. The “movie brat” generation, as they were sometimes called – the first generation of filmmakers raised from infancy on post-war pop culture – were clearly no longer interested in maintaining a pretence of narrative “innocence” that a movie’s formal logic didn’t merit just out of sheer dutiful convention. From now on, they would have to self-consciously fake it.
Star Wars, therefore, was the result of Lucas having learnt that cynically calculated positivity could produce big aesthetic breakthroughs. He duly approached the film in the spirit of filling the lacunae whereby “Disney had abdicated its reign over the children’s market, and nothing had replaced it.” His goal was thus to reactivate the sort of affect that old-fashioned pirate and western matinee films used to produce – creating a one-dimensional spectacle that would “reintroduce a kind of basic morality. Everybody’s forgetting to tell ‘Hey, this is right and this is wrong.’” The problem is that this sort of thing isn’t as easy to fake as Lucas thinks. The history of American film is filled with artists like Walt Disney, Robert Flaherty, Frank Capra, and Clarence Brown, whose own sensibilities pretty much matched the warm-and-fuzzy-inner-child glow of their films. And the more generic old kiddie matinees were, by and large, made by journeymen whose imaginations presumably didn’t stretch much further than the complacent products they were making. For a more cerebral artist like Lucas, however, so filled with formalist ambitions and ideas, preaching a faith that you don’t really believe is always going to create a lot of evasions and suppressions that will inevitably return in all kinds of nasty forms. Hence, the sadism to come.

http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120108175034/starwars/images/6/67/WorstSoreThroatEver-ESB.jpgThe Empire Strikes Back is still unarguably the best of the six Star Wars films because, unlike the first instalment, Lucas had the sense to largely drop the “Disney moralism for children” pretence, and make a film that, while still available to kids, is aimed squarely at adults, or at least bright teenagers. Its most grisly moments seem not so much gratuitously sadistic as just organically chilling. There is the moment when, following the Millennium Falcon’s dodge into the star destroyer’s sensor blind spot, a deck officer reports “Captain Needa, Lord Vader demands an update on the pursuit!” Needa – played by Michael Culver, one of those indefatigable British character actors – blithely declares: “get a shuttle ready. I shall assume full responsibility for losing them, and apologize to Lord Vader,” evidently not fully realizing what this means. We, however, having seen Admiral Ozzle’s abrupt demise earlier in the film, know better. A few scenes later, thus, we get a shock cut onto Needa collapsed to the floor, his eyes bugging out as he’s gruesomely strangled by the Force. “Apology accepted, Captain Needa,” intones Darth Vader, as a pair of flunkies immediately dart in to drag away his body like a piece of carrion. One wonders how many thousand military officers in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia one just saw encapsulated

http://abacaxivoador.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/05-Oola_20anos_depois_06.jpg?36ba0eIt’s only when you get to Return of the Jedi, however, that the bills for Lucas’s insincere moralism really start to fall due. The early scenes in Jabba’s palace centre around the trapdoor leading down to the rancor pit, which for sheer sadistic fantasy value surpasses even Ernst Blofeld’s various death-devices for his henchmen. We first have it established with the Twi’lek dancing girl Oola, who for resisting whatever unspecified sexual overture Jabba was making, immediately finds herself down in the deep dark pit, her fate conveyed only by a great roar and her bloodcurdling scream heard back up in the throne room. It’s that single brief shot of her picking herself up upon landing down there – hobbled by terror at knowing what’s coming, and her garish lipstick, makeup and costume suddenly forming a grotesque contrast with the stygian dungeon surrounding – that always gets me, however.

This is only the set-up, however, for the later scene where Jabba drops Luke into the rancor pit, and one his porcine Gammorean guards, Jubnuk, accidently falls in too. The first few moments down there, accordingly, are devoted to Jubnuk’s pathetic attempts to get back up the drop shaft, and his plaintive squeals. These switch to shrieks of terror as the grille is raised and the rancor emerges and makes straight for him. Lucas makes sure the ensuing shot is held for long enough that we really get to savour the spectacle of Jubnuk being hoisted screaming up to the rancor’s mouth and devoured in one huge chomp. Meanwhile, a few yards away, Luke seems no more concerned than if a twig or an icicle had been broken.

http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130401043102/starwars/images/2/2b/Kithaba_death.pngAfter Luke battles and kills the rancor, the emphasis shifts. C-3PO, in his immortally effete tones, then informs our heroes that they are to be “taken to the dune sea, and cast into the Pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the all-powerful Sarlaac.” “That doesn’t sound so bad,” says Han, cuing viewers by now used to the Lucas/Spielberg aesthetic to think “wait for it…” And, of course, C-3PO then continues that “in its belly you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.” This line/image then conditions our viewing of the following battle sequence above the Sarlaac pit, as we get the full sadistic import of seeing innumerable of Jabba’s lackeys fall or be knocked into the Sarlaac pit. By now, Lucas’s assertion that he was making a Disney film for children, that would re-introduce a basic white-hat morality, could be fully appreciated for the self-delusion that it was.

After Return of the Jedi, Lucas was pretty much finished as an original filmmaker, his subsequent projects adding nothing to his original achievement with the Star Wars trilogy. Howard the Duck would prove totally unwatchable; and Willow, while not nearly as bad, now in the age of Peter Jackson, seems more of historical interest – for introducing audiences to the digital morph – than something one watches for real entertainment. The Star Wars prequel trilogy would vastly expand the imaginative/spectacular horizons of the original trilogy, but it would all be on such a grand, de-personalized scale that the sadistic frissons of the first films would not be recaptured. After this, therefore, it fell to Spielberg alone to continue the evolution of the trend they had initiated, and Jurassic Park would be one of the most significant milestones in this regard.

http://jp.popapostle.com/images/episodes/JP/attack-on-Muldoon_02med.jpgWhereas the business with the rancor and Sarlaac in Return of the Jedi felt somewhat gratuitously sadistic – a case of cramming too much into the first act – Spielberg, with Jurassic Park, would succeed in organically integrating the same sort of business across the whole length of the film. The key scene here is when, early on, Dr. Grant goes over to the obnoxious kid who says that velociraptor “looks like a six-foot turkey,” and brandishes his velociraptor claw. Grant then gives a monologue about how velociraptor is a pack hunter, and would attack you with “a six-inch retractable claw, like a razor, on the middle toe. He doesn’t bother to bite your jugular like a lion, say,” but will rather slash you, “here, or maybe here,” he says, sharply drawing the claw down the kid’s side and across his sternum to mime to point. “Or maybe across the belly, spilling your intestines,” he continues, drawing the claw across the kid’s tummy. “The point is, you are alive when they start to eat you. So, you know, try to show a little respect.” 
http://download.lavadomefive.com/members/BigClawz/JurassicPark-RaptorClaws3.JPGIt will be well over another hour into the film before we see an adult velociraptor, but that initial scene is not going to go away, and conditions our understanding of what’s at stake when the scenes do come where our heroes are menaced by the raptors. Also what’s in store when we see the matriarch raptor tackle Muldoon to the ground and the camera cuts away. It’s a lot less gratuitous-seeming than the Sarlaac business in Return of the Jedi, but the foreshadowing principle is basically the same. It also provides the basis of one of the most vivid framings in film – the one where Lex and Tim are hiding low on the kitchen floors, and the under the counter they see one of those claws attached to a live velociraptor, ominously clicking up and down against the tiled floor. We know what it means, and since Spielberg has actually succeeded – against much Hollywood practice – in making these kids sympathetic instead of so annoying that we’re rooting for the raptors, the suspense is very acute. It’s a calculated sadism, but one managed masterfully. 
By the mid-1990s, in the wake of Jurassic Park, a new generation of blockbuster filmmakers had emerged – Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, and Stephen Sommers being among its most prominent members – who had absorbed the lessons of Lucas and Spielberg’s kind of calculated sadism, and were raring to try it out for themselves. Emmerich’s 1992 film Universal Soldier – about Vietnam casualties being resurrected as genetically enhanced super-soldiers – doesn’t quite follow the pattern strictly, insofar as its sadism isn’t of the foreshadowing type discussed hitherto. What it does instead is have its hero and villain kill each other within the first five minutes, as a way of setting up a rationale whereby since they’re already sort of “dead” anyway, they and their fellow “Uni-Sols” can be abused and re-killed to absolutely any extent whatsoever throughout the course of the film.
More in the orthodox foreshadowing vein described above is Michael Bay’s The Rock, in which one hears about the effects of VX poison gas in the following terms: “It's a cholinesterase inhibitor. Stops the brain from sending nerve messages down the spinal cord within thirty seconds. Any epidermal exposure or inhalation and you'll know. A twinge at the small of your back as the poison seizes your nervous system...Your muscles freeze, you can't breathe, you spasm so hard you break your own back and spit your guts out. But that's after your skin melts off.” In a Hollywood film made under the Production Code, you wouldn’t even have been allowed to hear all that, the imaginative pictures it conjures up are so outrageous. Now, however, under this second, purer generation of blockbuster sadism, you stand no chance of not actually seeing it – not once even, but twice.

The Rock nonetheless works brilliantly as a film, however, because Bay actually knows what he’s doing. The aesthetic of blockbuster sadism described here only goes horribly wrong when a film is helmed by a horrifically clueless director who has no idea how things actually signify or win empathy from the audience. And this brings us to Deep Rising and Stephen Sommers – the future dubious auteur of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, and G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. With all of those films, however, he would obey the corporate Hollywood diktat to always neuter things for the PG-13 rating. With Deep Rising, however, he was allowed to embrace the R, and all the sadism that allows. The result is what is, without a doubt, the most horrible and repulsive film I have ever seen produced on a mainstream blockbuster scale.

The basic plot involves a luxury liner attacked by an absurd deep-sea octopus monster whose tentacles double as innumerable mouths and throats. Described as “some kind of strange off-shoot of the Archaea Ottoia family,” the creature, we are told, does not “eat” people. “No, they drink you. They drink you alive. Sucking all the fluids out of the body before excreting the skeletal remains.” This is the key bit of foreshadowing exposition, and if this sounds to you like it would be intensely, horrifically, agonizingly painful, the film makes clear in no uncertain terms that you’re right. There’s one particularly horrific sequence where we see the “heroes” (none of the character are really prepossessing or sympathetic) shoot open one of the Ottoia tentacles, only to see it spill out one of their previously-devoured comrades, who is now, thanks to CGI, partially-digested but still alive, and obviously in the most acute agony possible. In supplying a large cast just to have the maximum number of victims for this established fate, this film’s sadism is some of the purest I’ve ever seen.  

All this would still be potentially workable if Sommers possessed a competent understanding of screen presence. Alas, he doesn’t, and in casting Kevin J. O’Connor as the insufferable “Joey Pantucci,” Sommers creates the most vivid example I’ve ever seen of what might be called the MUCHAS (Mind-bendingly, Unwatchably Creepy, Hateful, Annoying Sidekick) character. Seriously – every moment this guy is onscreen, there is only one candidate a viewer can possibly be thinking of for who needs to be drunk by the Ottoia tentacles next. And yet Sommers persists in the delusion that he’s somehow funny and likeable, and wins viewer empathy. This reaches an absurd peak at the end of the second act when, trapped by one the tentacle-maws, one of the (actually empathy-winning) mercenary-villains uses his last bullet trying to kill MUCHAS instead of sparing himself a gruesome and horrible death. Of course it doesn’t work and MUCHAS just does some more stupid “WTF?” mugging. Badly done sadism of this sort works very differently than the competently-done kind: namely, the latter plays on your humane impulses, while the former simply turns you into a sadist yourself. Watching Return of the Jedi, I always wish I could save Oola and Jubnuk, and watching Jurassic Park, I almost never find myself cheering for the raptors to eviscerate and devour Lex and Tim. Remembering Deep Rising, however, beyond wanting to see MUCHAS get half-drunk, regurgitated, and then drunk again, my only thought is that, for using the character the way he did, I wouldn’t feed Stephen Sommers to the Ottoia even if I could. It would be too good for him.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Voices of a Distant Star

This is a film that I discovered back in the summer of 2013 purely by accident, picking it up off the shelf of a public library on nothing more than a vague whim that its cover looked interesting.  This is, incidentally, the same way that I discovered my reigning favourite film: Ken Russell’s The Devils. And in exactly the same way, coming across Voices of a Distant Star introduced me not only to a great new film, but opened a doorway to the world of a fascinating new filmmaker: Makoto Shinkai. As a Japanese animated film, Voices of a Distant Star is situated within the established traditions of anime: the character designs are the familiar simplified bodies with exaggeratedly expressive eyes; their movement in the frame is minimal, compensated for by the inordinate atmospheric detail of the backgrounds; and the plot is a genre work that eventually involves giant combat robots, here called “Tracers.” The benefit of being part of such a well-established tradition, however, is that you can hit the ground running and know that you and your audience are on the same page. Voices of a Distant Star is a debut independent short that Shinkai made totally according to his own lights, but the film manifests none of the qualities that we associate with “independent” filmmaking here in the West – such as an a priori rejection, on principle, of the norms of the mainstream. Like the features that Shinkai would go on to make after it, the film’s visual style and tone are essentially the same as innumerable more mainstream anime films or series, but just better – the product of a superior imagination at work on its own terms.

The film’s basic narrative has a teenage girl, “Mikako Nagamine,” being separated from her (boy)friend “Noboru Terao” by virtue of being recruited as a pilot cadet for the “UN Space Armada” about to depart Earth. Off in space, Mikako can only communicate with Noboru via cell phone messaging. Voyaging via hyperdrive further out into, and finally beyond, the Solar System, however, her messages – moving only at the speed of light – take progressively longer and longer to reach their recipient. Mikako and Noboru’s relationship inexorably becomes more theoretical, as however deeply they reside in each other’s hearts, millions of kilometres of separation nonetheless take a toll. The UN Space Armada to which Mikako belongs is notionally heading out into space to find and engage a hostile alien force called the “Tarsians,” but this narrative premise is left highly ambiguous. Shinkai certainly doesn’t go into full-on Starship Troopers-style sardonic satire, but there’s nonetheless an inescapable suggestion that this whole deployment and war might not be necessary, or could have been avoided. This makes the pathos of Mikako and Noboru’s separation all the greater.

One of the very first things one notices about Voices of a Distant Star is its utter lack of any concession to the inattentive spectator. Like so many Japanese artists throughout history, Shinkai possesses a keen eye for the juxtaposition of visual elements within a composition, as well as an apparent fondness for the “pillow shots” (like at left) that some Western scholars have attributed to Ozu – cut-aways to details of a sequence’s environment that have no immediately apparent narrative motivation, but which do an inestimable amount to create atmosphere. All these, however – like most of the film’s images, in fact – zip past at a split-second rate, such that a spectator who glances away from the screen for even the briefest of moments is royally screwing themselves. This isn’t done in the name of Michael Bay-style hyperkineticism, however, but is a considered aesthetic choice to cram the maximum amount of narrative information in to the film’s short 25-minute running time. Probably very few spectators could maintain the required level of sharp-eyed attentiveness for a full 100-minute feature length, but for a quarter of that, it works.

One result of this editing style is that the film really gets an aesthetic of intellectual montage going. The spectator who has an active visual imagination, and a long-standing interest in science fiction matters, will get far more out of this film than one who doesn’t. For instance, getting to the space station in Jupiter’s orbit, Mikako mentions “the Flux Tube between Io and Jupiter… the hugest lightning in this Solar System!” and “I never get bored of looking at Jupiter’s clouds.” These observations are only accompanied by brief images, but their dramatic treatment and the sentiments at work unlock a whole host of reminiscences in me, of images such as the above painting of Jupiter’s “surface,” or the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact in 1994. A film that offers me these sorts of pleasures is incredibly rare, and resonates deeply with me.

Before this, however, one of the film’s absolute highlights is a sequence on Mars, where Mikako’s training as a Tracer pilot takes place. We dissolve in on an astonishing vista of the Martian surface, with a vast canyon wending its way from the bottom of the frame up, between vast craters. White and green clouds hover above it all, still beneath the frame’s point-of-view… and then the silence of it all is shattered as Mikako’s Tracer blasts down from the top of the frame, zooming off across this vast horizon. We soon hear about how she’s seen Mount Olympus and the Marineris valleys, again accompanied by brief-but-vivid accompanying images, and some further shots of a squadron of Tracers swooping across an awesome Martian vista of plateau tops poking out above the clouds. And all this isn’t even to mention the Tarsian ruins (pictured) that now exist on Mars in this film… Later, the UN Armada reaches the very edge of the Solar System, and we see the Lysithea pulling up to the bleak twin worlds of Pluto and Charon. Images such as these speak to my deepest-held instincts about animation: the idea that the graphic nature of the medium frees you to realize any narrative spectacle whatsoever, making filmmakers limited only by their imaginations.

In this spirit, the film’s moments of greatest sublimity come after the UN Armada – after a sudden and vicious engagement with the Tarsians – has had to make an emergency hyperspace jump away from Pluto and Charon which takes them 8.6 light years away from Earth, to the Sirius Alpha Beta system. “Since the last century, we’ve known that Sirius has its own planetary system,” Mikako narrates, “but we are the first in all humanity to observe another planetary system with our bare eyes.” The film then takes us down onto the surface of the new planet, christened “Agartha,” with some vertiginously huge tilting shots – one from above the planet up in orbit, another down to the surface from below. We see an alien stag-like animal, standing on a hilltop, looking up at the Tracers as they descend through the sky. This presages an astonishingly beautiful sequence on another world that is Earth-like, but subtly different. In just one beautiful image among many, we see Mikako’s Tracer standing on a ridge before a vast grassy landscape, with the edges of cliff faces surrounding her. Rain clouds are pouring across the landscape, but through a few scattered holes, sun beams shoot brilliantly down.

And yet having been exposed to this long succession of sublime cosmic images, Mikako’s ability to feel awe and rapture ultimately fail her. Inside her Tracer pod, we see the rainfall suddenly stop as the clouds above her part. Seeing the beams of the alien sun break through and fall upon her – a distant star becoming her own – she looks directly upwards in reverential awe for a moment, then breaks down in tears. She simply wants “to be hit by the rain,” and “to go to a convenience store and eat ice cream” with Noboru, she narrates.

At this point, taking a cue from Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, Shinkai has Mikako have a telepathic encounter with one of the Tarsians on Agartha. The telepathic avatar appears to her, hovering in mid-air outside her cockpit, as herself, dressed in her old school uniform again, rather than her Tracer flightsuit. It then says to her, in her own light, ingenuous teenage voice, that “to become an adult, pain is necessary to. But you will probably be able to go much, much farther, even to other galaxies and other universes.” This is the final humdinger of the film’s narrative evocation of the Tarsians, since it’s the most diametrically-opposed moment imaginable to Independence Day’s captured alien demanding “DIE…” This alien emissary seems to be offering nothing but wise and inspiring words, indicating a utopian vision of humanity someday taking its place a larger galactic community. And yet then the big climactic battle starts up anyway.

In the course of the following, extremely gruesome, combat, the film’s aesthetic agenda reaches new heights of fascination. We’d already learned from the battle around Pluto and Charon that, regarding her actual Tracer piloting skills, Mikako is a brave and resourceful pilot. This is confirmed again as, during the ensuing sequence, she royally kicks ass, at one point pinning a Tarsian warrior-entity by the neck and bloodily blasting its head off with her Tracer’s wrist-mounted guns. The film, however, is not really interested in this side of things, and treats it all in a very detached and aestheticized manner. The soundtrack, for instance, consists of an ethereally romantic pop song called "Hello Little Star." During the battle, Mikako rockets back up into orbit over Agartha, all the while narrating an imaginary conversation with Noboru about all the small pleasures of everyday life on Earth, which she misses so sorely out in the distant reaches of space. They include “things like summer clouds and cold rain; the smell of fall breeze; the sound of rain drops hitting an umbrella; the softness of spring soil; the feeling of peace at the convenience store in the middle of the night; the cool wind after school; the smell of chalkboard erasers; the sound of a truck passing by in the middle of the night; the smell of asphalt in the rain.” Once this recitation ceases, the battle reaches its climax, with Mikako making a kamikaze run against the Tarsian mothership. This leaves her Tracer crippled and drifting off into space, both it and its pilot seemingly totally drained and spent.

With Voices of a Distant Star, thus, Shinkai has made what amounts to a pessimistic rewriting of 2001. Mikako is so wedded to all her Earthly loves and attachments that she can’t let go of them even when confronted with cosmic visions of incalculable wonder. As an analogue to Dave Bowman, she fails to become the Star Child, and instead ends up like Frank Poole. Her constant attention to texting on her cell phone thus seems an appropriate master metaphor here. Even though, narratively speaking, her use of it is entirely valid – keeping in touch with Noboru – it nonetheless ultimately seems a limiting device, what with her glancing down at it whenever any important new development beckons  exactly, BTW, the habit you need to avoid when watching this film. Shinkai certainly isn’t belaboring any moralizing point about the younger generation of today, but just seems to be making a simple observation – one that, again, deeply resonates with me. 

Around the same that I first saw this film, I had a dream that I woke up having been transported tens of thousands of years into the future. My humble little apartment now opened out onto a balcony, from which one could appreciate the view from an upper-atmospheric skyhook (roughly like the image at left). There was nothing but cloud visible beneath me, and looking up, I could clearly make out a 2001-style space station hanging in low orbit – probably equidistant to me, or closer, than the Earth’s surface. And yet, I remember from my dream, my first thought upon taking all this in was “damn, what’s millennia worth of e-mail Inbox build-up going to do to my cell phone?” This is the level of simpatico with my deepest subconscious imagination that Shinkai shows with this film. Truly a rare experience.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Prince Caspian

Let’s begin with the obvious: Andrew Adamson’s 2008 film adaptation of Prince Caspian is a work of literary vandalism of the very highest order. It distorts its source’s moral meaning, it loads it down with an inordinate surplus of violent spectacle, it displays an overt cynicism in its imitation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and just for good measure, it adds a teen soap-opera angle that C.S. Lewis would never in a million years have countenanced. And it’s all a joyous, brilliant experience to behold. I walked into this film with my teeth firmly gritted, having hated every minute of Adamson’s film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe three years before, but nonetheless masochistically wanting to keep up with the latest Hollywood fantasy spectacles. Imagine, then, my surprise at finding that the blockbuster success of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had evidently emboldened Weta and Disney to let Adamson try some new things second time around, and he in turn used this looser reign to make a very different movie than Lewis purists probably expected.

Prince Caspian begins being remarkable in its very first image, which is a sudden, intense zoom-in onto a woman screaming in the throes of childbirth. This is striking because the female, procreative aspect of Nature is one which Lewis always instinctively resisted. Certainly there was nothing like this in his original book, which glossed over the whole development with the phrase “there came a time when the Queen seemed to be ill and there was a great deal of bustle and pother about her in the castle and doctors came and courtiers whispered.” Anything more than this would have led Lewis places he wasn’t willing to go. The phrase “Mother Nature” is not a mere accident of idiom, but contains the inherent truth that it is woman, with her procreative function, who really embodies Nature and its fecundity and continuity. In the most blunt biological terms, we men are little more than sperm donors, with the potential additional uses of bodyguards and/or errand boys. As Camille Paglia once wrote, the invention of a patriarch creator-God was the male of the species’ “declaration of independence” from this state of irrelevance before Mother Nature. In other words, men had to invent a He who, in turn, had created the She of Mother Nature and all her workings. Paglia viewed this as a useful fiction because it has, over the course of human history, emboldened men to invent and organize a great deal of useful things that are surplus to the basic requirements of Mother Nature. Lewis, however, would have been repelled by this characterization of Christian monotheism as “a useful fiction,” because he genuinely believed in it. Thus, dwelling on the biological workings of Nature, in all its feminine procreative aspect, is verboten in his work. That Prince Caspian the film so blatantly contradicts this in its first sixty seconds gives one an initial sense that all bets are off, and that this film could go in any direction...
And so it proves. After this initial childbirth scene, we see a Telmarene soldier enter a throne room and tell Lord Miraz that he has a son, after which we introduced to our titular hero and his tutor, and a few shots later the film’s first action sequence – a big chase on horseback – has begun. What with all this, we’re almost ten minutes into the film before we cut to 1940s England and meet Susan, Lucy, Peter, and Edmund, and by this point it comes as something of a shock. In Hollywood cinema especially, the first few minutes are always the most crucial in establishing the terms of a film’s world and worldview, and Prince Caspian has here knowingly and deliberated violated the basic narrative structure of Lewis’s first four Narnia books: namely that we begin with the Penvensies/Eustache/Jill in the “real world” of wartime and post-war England, are then magically transported to Narnia for the book’s adventures, and are finally returned to the “real world” of England at the end. Prince Caspian’s refusing of this logic ties in with its emphasizing of female fertility.

Even though Lewis’s Narnia books never actually invoke the “it was all a dream” approach of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the film version of The Wizard of Oz, there is nonetheless a sense of hierarchy of reality at work, whereby Narnia is a sort of figuration of the realm of Faerie – accessible only to prelapsarian children for purposes of socialization, who must of necessity be banished from it as they mature. This theme would eventually be brought to a hideous culmination which I’ll discuss later on, but for now it’s sufficient to say that the unspoken-but-obvious corollary is that “mature” here means sexual maturation – or beginning to exist on the terms of the Mother Nature who Lewis cannot admit of. This gives the game away, insofar as Lewis isn’t wanting to depict Narnia as a literal “other world” in comic-book terms of “another dimension,” or Philip Pullman-style “another string in the multiverse,” or even Tolkien’s planet “Arda,” but as a sort of ur-reality that shows how the world should be, if only it didn’t have this damned fact of female-sexuality-cum-Nature in it. “Since the fairy-story deals with ‘marvels,’” Lewis’s friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion.” What with all the ideological baggage described above, Lewis’s Narnia stories still clear this requirement, but only just. By literalizing Narnia’s existence in such blunt “other dimension” terms, Prince Caspian the film simply obviates and dismisses all this tortuous logic. It’s another beautiful example of the film’s steak of creative vandalism.

In keeping with this idea of Narnia as a realm of moral socialization, moreover, one of the things I’ve always found most distasteful things about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, both book and film, is the way that while Lewis pays lip service to the idea that there’s always room in Heaven for a repentant sinner – what with Edmund being redeemed and forgiven after being inveigled by the White Witch – there’s always seemed to be a deep undercurrent of smugness to the whole business. Lewis loads all of the sinful fallibility onto Edmund’s character, while keeping Peter and Susan’s consciences spotlessly clear, and making Lucy the cherubic angel of the bunch. This one-dimensionality is too much even for a children’s story, or perhaps especially for one. Of course you’re forgiven, the story seems to say, but the rest of us children have never been bad – never done anything we need to be forgiven for, have we? Excuse us while we smirk and snigger superiorly at you behind your back… Prince Caspian the film is brilliant because it seems to sense this same logic, and takes drastic steps to neutralize it. The film moves aggressively to knock Peter off his high horse. Our first sight of him in England has him brawling with some other schoolboys in the tube. After meeting Caspian, the film turns into a fiesta of clashing egos between the two kings. And then, at the climax of the second act, the film offers perhaps its most mind-boggling scene. We see, through a magic mirror/screen, the avatar of Tilda Swinton’s White Witch, just a single touch away from reviving and living again. She begins seducing Peter with promises that he can recapture his former glory. Peter is obviously amenable. She reaches out… He’s almost about to seal the deal with his touch… When suddenly the screen shatters and collapses, taking her out again. We see that Edmund has stabbed it from behind. “Yeah I know, you had it sorted,” he quips, fixing Peter with a very knowing look. It’s one of the most brilliant moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, in how it fluently reverses Lewis’s moral logic.

The points of outrageousness continue. In Lewis’s books, Father Christmas gives Susan a bow and a quiver of arrows, but also declares that “I do not mean for you to fight in the battle,” and “battles are ugly when women fight,” and we accordingly never see the weapon really used. Not so in this film. After first seeing it in the theatre, it was one of my bigger points of joyous incredulity that “you’d need a huge scorecard to keep track of how many people Susan kills.” Indeed, keep a sharp eye out at the 1:16:08 mark of the film, and you’ll actually see her dispatch one Telmarene soldier at close range by stabbing him in the groin with an arrow! Likewise, Edmund gets to be a great deal more kick-ass as well. In Lewis’s book, the fact that he is the one to fight an initial sword duel with the dwarf Trumpkin – by way of proving that although they seem to be children, they’re still warrior-king material – is tortuously legitimized with “No, let me do it. If will be more of a sucks for him if I win, and less of a let-down for all of us if I fail.” In the film, Peter simply declares “Not me. Him,” and Edmund then duly hands Trumpkin his ass on a platter. We’re left with the suggestion that Edmund is actually the more skillful swordsman, an impression strengthened during the later sequence of the abortive storming of Miraz’s castle. Among other bits of business, we see Edmund almost casually kill three Telmarene soldiers in quick succession, barely breaking stride as he dashes across a castle turret. Even Lucy’s character is made slightly sharper and harsher for the film. In the books, the dirk that Father Christmas gives her is never used. Here, keep an eye out for the 1:29:56 mark, and you’ll see her with it out and genuinely poised to slit Nikabrik’s throat. Moreover, when they finally meet, Aslan says to Lucy that “if you were any braver you would be a lioness” – a deliciously subversive line, in that it abruptly imaginatively cues us to wonder about Aslan’s sex life, something emphatically not gestured towards in Lewis’s books.

All of this is mere prelude, however, to the film’s greatest coup, and most invaluable vandalism of its source material. The most unacceptable part of C.S. Lewis’s book series, for me, comes at the end of the twelfth chapter of The Last Battle, where we learn that Susan “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” She is “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on growing up.” In other words, she’s grown from a sweet little girl, tractable to the Christian harness, into an actual grown woman, with all the amoral trappings of sex that Christianity has never been able to control or accept. She’s no longer a “daughter of Eve,” to use Lewis’s terminology, but a daughter of Mother Nature, showing up Christianity’s fictiveness and inadequacy. Lewis’s only answer to this is “banish the bitch,” so as to keep his imaginative Christian playground-utopia intact.

I’ve never been the hugest fan of films such as The Notebook, Mamma Mia, The Vow, or Eat, Pray, Love, or TV shows such Sex and the City, Girls, or Desperate Housewives, but I consider that more a failing in my own education than a reflection on the worth of these things. I find their very existence reassuring, as well as the fact that their fans take them very seriously indeed, because these facts in and of themselves constitute a stinging rebuke to Lewis’s hysterical attempt to deny the reality and legitimacy of adult womanhood. Thus, it was with enormous glee that I saw a great part of Prince Caspian seeming to have been made in exactly this spirit. 
Near the ten minute mark, when we finally cut back to England, the first Pevensie that we see is Susan, and our immediate impression is that actress Anna Popplewell – now pushing twenty in real life – is looking very grown-up indeed, with pillowy, lipstick-covered lips almost evoking Angelina Jolie. And occupying the frame thus, she is standing at a kiosk, reading a magazine – no doubt some gloriously frivolous teen thing which is feeding her love of nylons and invitations – before having to beguilingly and toyingly fob off some gormlessly awkward boy who’s trying to hit on her. Soon enough, she finds herself back in Narnia – evidently still a friend of it after all, in spite of everything – but nonetheless confesses to a certain ambivalence about the fact, having spent the last year of her life getting used to being back in England. In other words, Adamson & Co. have accepted and inverted Lewis’s moralism, the better to deflect The Last Battle’s monstrosity, an astonishing five books in advance! It’s almost a shame The Last Battle will never get made, just so we can see what would ultimately have been done with it when the time came…

In the event, Susan’s new, more grown-up characterization is soon used to generate a romantic subplot with Caspian, played by the swoon-inducingly swarthy Ben Barnes. They don’t conclusively end up together, because, as Susan says after their (very striking) good-bye kiss, “we would never have worked anyway … I’m 1300 years older than you.” To say that all this was not in Lewis’s novel would be an understatement of the century. Any cyclones in the vicinity of Headington Quarry’s Holy Trinity Church can henceforth be explained by the intensity with which Lewis is spinning in his grave. And yet, even beyond its specific application in this case, this is exactly the kind of literary adaptation that I most appreciate – the kind that is unafraid of making big, shameless bowdlerisations to its subject matter simply in the interests of cinema. As well-done as a film like Atonement was, that kind of filmmaking’s abject servility to its source material always exasperates me. How much more fascinating would it have been to simply – in an impishly contrarian spirit of mischief – rewrite Ian McEwan totally? For instance, having Briony be deployed across the channel as a nurse and redeem herself by finding and rescuing Robbie? Or having the library-tryst scene result in Cecilia becoming pregnant, and her daughter then vengefully stalking Briony in later life?

One of my favourite examples of this kind of adaptation – one of the few that approaches what Adamson does with Prince Caspian – is the 1994 version of The Jungle Book, which rewrites Kipling to make Shere Khan into a benign and noble guardian-figure. Listening to the DVD commentary for the film, one hears director Stephen Sommers blithely declaring, with a total lack of self-consciousness, that the tigers they hired to play Shere Khan just looked so majestic that demonizing them as villains just didn’t seem cool, so they rewrote the story accordingly. One can readily image Kipling purists’ reaction to this approximating Calvin’s at left, but I always sympathize more with Hobbes’s look of jubilation at his own chutzpah. It’s my firm belief that, fundamentally, this is how art really advances, rather than though the dignified refraining from “taking liberties.” And as such, I’d rate Prince Caspian a very great piece of film art indeed.

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Land Before Time

Back in January, I had the chance to see The Land Before Time on the big screen, thanks to the Family Favourites weekend screenings that Cineplex Odeon runs. This was a film that I saw for the first time when I was only four or five years old, and which made such a tremendous impression on me at that tender age that I’ve never forgotten it since. The juvenile dino cast of Littlefoot the apatosaurus, Cera the triceratops, and their hangers-on Ducky the saurolophus, Petrie the pterosaur, and Spike the stegosaurus, had become part of my imaginative landscape, and the movie they starred in part of my innermost canon. The obvious caveat to all this, however, is that such childish loyalties are not based on real critical judgment, and when you go back and revisit their source more than twenty years later, you almost always find things very different than you remember. My experience seeing The Land Before Time was no exception.

The first three and a half minutes of the film are pure movie magic – every bit as wondrous as I remembered. We open on a wall of sediment, lit with a deep underwater blue, and for the first forty-seven seconds of the film simply watch a long, sustained take of this background, punctuated by periodic upsurges of bubbles and the occasional small creature passing before the frame. The point of this lengthy, sustained image seems fundamentally atmospheric – to establish in no uncertain terms that this is a film of some depth and grandeur of conception, not a typical “cartoon for children.” James Horner’s nobly swelling music emphasizes this strongly.

When the image finally does shift, it does so with the impression of a camera track to the right, following a small amphibian-like creature through a richly detailed underwater vista, as it chases a small red minnow, and narrowly escapes the jaws of giant mosasaur-like creature. The image dissolves onto the image of a clutch of weeds swaying gently underwater, before a dinosaur’s mouth descends into frame to chomp them away. With this, the frame seems to track past a natural obstacle, momentarily blacking out the screen so as to display the title, to a surging crescendo of Horner’s score. Following this, the frame continues to track right – onto a richly-detailed wide shot of a group of turtles seeming to soar majestically through the water, in front of a vast underwater cliff face. The frame tracks right with the turtles, eventually losing them behind another underwater outcropping, which masks another cut to a brief close-up of the surface of a pond, with small creatures jumping past the water lilies. We continue tracking right, and dissolve into another wide composition where the long necks of a pair apatosaurus are graphically matched with the tree trunks surrounding them, until they lean their heads down into frame to browse the vegetation on another nearby outcropping.

During all of the above, a voice-over narration, read by Pat Hingle, kicks in on the soundtrack.  “Once upon this same Earth,” he intones, “beneath this same sun… Long before you, before the ape and the elephant as well… Before the wolf, the bison, and the whale, in the time of the dinosaurs.” His deep, curmudgeonly/grandfatherly voice really complement the images here to – just like the opening shot against the underwater wall – suggest that this is going to be a film of much greater aesthetic ambition than most “animated kiddie flicks.”

As Pat Hingle finishes the opening phrases of his VO, the camera continues to track behind the latest obstacle, which masks another cut – this time out into a vast open landscape shot. And it is here, two minutes and forty seconds in, that the film begins to show its true majesty. Throughout the following moments, we see a herd of triceratops migrating off into the distance, down from a hilltop and across a plain towards a mountain range that frames the setting sun; we see a herd of saurolophus migrating across a barren volcanic landscape, with flaming volcanoes in the distant background and clouds of noxious orange-yellow fumes blowing through the foreground; and we see apatosaurs migrating past a lake beneath a full moon, overflown by a flock of pterosaurs. Ultimately, we cut back to the saurolophus herd, which has encamped by a stream in order to nest their eggs.

And it’s here, exactly 3:32 in, that the film goes slack and never really recovers. Because as soon as the eggs do start to hatch, they do so in a cartoony “stretch and squash” style – the ovals seem to strain from inside, and elongate exaggeratedly – which becomes the modus operandi for much of the rest of the film, with spastic and energetic cartoon action taking the place of the sense of real weight and solidity we’ve seen up to now. Everything before this has been done in a fluently hyperrealist style which fully demonstrated the principle that before CGI, animation was the most promising way to depict things that couldn’t actually be photographed or shown convincingly in live-action. Realistic drawings could offer a vivid simulacrum of the real, as with Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania in 1918. Depressingly few films ever did actually use cel animation along those lines, but for its first few minutes at least, The Land Before Time reaffirmed the principle. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of great hyperrealist footage in the rest of the film – there certainly is – but it has to exist in an awkward aesthetic synthesis with cartoonish animation that embodies a diametrically opposed use of the technique. The hybrid nature of the bulk of the film badly undermines the visual majesty that the first few minutes tantalized us with.

All this, however, is simply formal criticism of animation style. If the film’s awkward hybrid of hyperrealist and cartoon animation had been its only problem, I might still be calling it a masterpiece. Alas, the film’s really fatal problem is its script. Apparently, Lucas and Spielberg were interested in making The Land Before Time wholly dialogue-free, and just letting it play out with music and graphic logic, like the “Rite of Spring” dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. When the obvious fact sunk in that this would be commercial suicide for a mainstream animated film, Lucas and Spielberg grudgingly commissioned a script. And it’s perhaps here that the film’s problems began in earnest. Because they’d never wanted to have to have a script in the first place, the relative quality of it seems not to have mattered to them. It’s as though writer Stu Krieger was simply assigned to generate a completely generic iteration of all the usual bromides and formulas – the routine “words of wisdom” from a “wise elder” character early on, which the protagonist will spend the rest of the film trying to live up to;  the “character friction” moments which precede the inevitable rapprochement and “character bonding” moments; the wholly contrived “setbacks and adversity” which precede the inevitable happy ending; and, of course, the lame comic relief which must run parallel to it all. When written with sufficient investment and purpose, the formula aspect of all this can be completely forgotten, and the story seem fresh and vital even if it isn’t remotely. This investment and purpose, however, is totally lacking in The Land Before Time. Virtually all the film’s best moments are those which are free of dialogue, and Lucas and Spielberg can to some degree approach their original ambition and channel the “Rite of Spring” sequence in Fantasia.

Again, had the script been merely generic – and avoided committing any unforgivable gaffes – the film might still have worked at least reasonably well. Alas, however, this was not the case. The one truly irredeemable idiocy of The Land Before Time’s script is what might be called “the Sharptooth factor.” Simply put, the film’s treatment of its T-Rex is idiotic beyond words, and Lucas and Spielberg ought to have known better. The film demonizes the T-Rex, which it calls a “Sharptooth,” as a cruel, slavering monster, from which we are meant to recoil with fear and hatred. How Lucas and Spielberg – the two Hollywood directors most known for their acute insight into the 6-year old mind – could have been so stupid simply boggles the mind. Every child in the world is of course going to view the T-Rex as the real hero-star of the film, and if not actively root for it to eat Littlefoot and his friends, then at the very least not be onboard with wholesale demonizing of it for trying to do so. Furthermore, it’s the word “trying” that takes the film to a whole new level of idiocy. Because of course the Sharptooth can’t actually succeed in killing and eating Littlefoot or any of his friends, and so ends up doubly insulted by being characterized as terrible on the one hand, and yet impotent on the other. This is the very scummiest, most infantile, dynamic of genre filmmaking, whereby a film characterizes its villain in broad, crude terms as totally monstrous and dangerous; but in a childish, temper-tantrum-style insistence that the heroes must always be invincible and immortal and never get so much as a hair out of place, the film can’t ultimately give the villain anything concrete to do to justify their dangerous-monstrosity characterization. The ultimate implication is, simply, that he’s bad because he looks/acts different from the hero, and must therefore be destroyed. In animated films particularly, you can generally judge a film’s worth by how closely it adheres to this logic. The Lion King stands as such a masterpiece because it had the narrative courage to let us fully savour Scar’s killing of Mufasa, giving real weight to his subsequent actions. Last year’s Epic, at the other extreme, was particularly disgusting in its treatment of the Christophe Waltz-voiced villain “Mandrake.” My first thoughts on leaving the theatre after seeing Epic were about the sheer breathtaking effrontery of children’s films which present themselves as morality tales, when their ultimate moral basically seems to be “never play fair.”

The Land Before Time’s treatment of the Sharptooth stands as perhaps an all-time worst for this sort of thing. Most contemptible of all is the way that it censors itself in the one scene that might have balanced the scale a bit: the sequence of Littlefoot’s mother’s death, in a battle with the Sharptooth on a crumbling mountain ridge. The logic of the scene obviously seems to be that the Sharptooth kills Littlefoot’s mother, but in post-production, Lucas and Spielberg decided that this might be too scary/traumatic for children, and the scene was re-edited to give the impression that Littlefoot’s mother fights off the Sharptooth, and simply dies from the fall after the ridge collapses beneath her. The result is that throughout the battle sequence, Sharptooth never seems to get in a single bite or claw, while Littlefoot’s mom is constantly slamming him down with her tail. The scene is beyond infuriating to watch, and this was not an isolated incident. Apparently 19 scenes – a full 11 minutes of footage – almost all dealing with the Sharptooth, were shortened or removed from the film because they were deemed too traumatic for young children. This is American pop culture at its very worst – where everyone is more concerned with the cloyingly therapeutic aspect of representations than their actual quality. For my money, the damage done to children by showing them invidious shit is probably far worse, in the long term, than that done by showing them scary pictures.

So juvenile is the film’s sensibility that even censoring the sequence leading up to Littlefoot’s mother’s death wasn’t enough. They had to cap this whole part of the film by adding an idiotic dialogue-dump whereby a tearful Littlefoot runs into a wise old ankylosaur named “Rooter,” who imparts generic “wise counsel” about how the circle of life has begun, and he’ll always miss his mother, but she remains a part of him, etc. Pat Hingle pulls double-duty here, giving the same patriarchal gravitas that he does to the narration, but the effect is totally opposite. Lucas and Spielberg, who usually know their audience so well, have managed to completely miss the mark here, leaving viewers devoutly wishing that the Sharptooth would resurge and bite the stupid ankylosaur’s head off.

Less idiotic than the film’s treatment of Sharptooth, but still cringe-inducing, is its treatment of the little girl triceratops, Cera. Like so much that came out of Hollywood in the 80s, The Land Before Time lives in a world where a vacuous, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy is paradigmatic of humanity, and anyone or anything not conforming to this type is by definition strange and “Other.” One remembers that just the year before this, audiences had had inflicted upon them not only Corey Haim in The Lost Boys, but also Joshua Rudoy in Harry and the Hendersons. Littlefoot is, if not quite as bad, alas very much in the same tradition. Accordingly, Cera is routinely characterized as being prideful, arrogant, bossy, or outright mean. And just like Sharptooth, Cera isn’t even granted the positives to go with these negatives – the film makes sure to emphasize that she’s always wrong, deluded, and emptily boasting, and that when danger actually appears she’ll simply squeal and run. Even the film’s framing device gets in on the action, with the narration explicitly kicking in to diss her at one point. Early in the film, when Hingle’s deep, gravelly voice talked in generalities about “the mighty beasts who ruled the earth” and “a journey towards life,” the patriarchal gravitas worked dramatically. When, on the other hand, he intones that “Cera was still too proud to admit that she’d gone the wrong way,” it’s like having excrement shoved right up under your nose.

Despite all of the above, however, the film is not without a few redeeming points. As mentioned earlier, the brilliant hyperrealist animation which defined the first few minutes never really goes away, it just has to co-exist with the more cartoony animation. But the really moving, evocative hyperrealist shots – like one which slowly tilts upwards to follow Littlefoot’s mother walking off towards the mountainous horizon, through a forest of bare dead trees – stick in your mind much more than the crude cartoonish ones – like the protracted bit of business where a half-dozen or so pterosaur chicks fight over a berry. And speaking of Littlefoot’s mother, for all that the preceding Sharptooth scene befouled its premise, and the subsequent Rooter scene ruins its payoff, the scene of Littlefoot’s mother’s death is indeed every bit as soulfully dramatic as it was intended. It was perhaps karma that just five months before The Land Before Time’s November release, Disney re-released Bambi, allowing the audience to fully appreciate this film’s audacity in actually, heart-wrenchingly, showing what Disney had simply tiptoed around with suggestion.

And at its very end, the film’s penultimate redeeming feature is its end credits theme – Diana Ross’s performance of “If We Hold on Together.” Many animated films, even great ones like DreamWorks’s How to Train Your Dragon, simply cut to some fairly generic pop music for the end credits, and rely on the general energy and vibrancy to carry audiences out of the film. Ross’s “If We Hold on Together,” does far more than that. Again, I wasn’t more than five years old when I first saw the film, and the song moved me so deeply that, for twenty-three years afterwards – even as so much else of the film faded – I never forgot it or the end credits it accompanied. The song carries a tone of “bent and broken, but unbowed,” whereby the heroes have endured great misfortune, but still persevere because of their solidarity with each other. It’s reminiscent of the conclusion of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Aragorn declares that the fellowship will not have failed, so long as “we hold true to each other.” The difference, of course, is that at that conclusion, Boromir had just been killed, Merry and Pippin just been carried off to some gruesome orc-ish fate, and an increasingly tormented Frodo had wandered off on his own, so there was real weight and pathos behind Aragorn’s assertion. Yet again, The Land Before Time just has no comparable sharpness, even as a children’s film. To really be worthy of Ross’s song, it would have to have ended with Sharptooth having eaten one of the dino kiddies, and the Great Valley still out of reach, so that all they have to sustain themselves is each other. A conclusion on this note would have matched the faintly mournful, elegiac tone of the song far better than the saccharine “happy ending” that does close the film. It’s yet another element that seems either to belong in a better film, or indicate just how much better this one might have been if not for Lucas and Spielberg’s cravenness.