SF literature, at its best, is able to consider in depth serious issues and use a future or imaginary setting as a background to the discussion of that serious issue. The best of the best combine this social examination with vivid characters, exciting story and an involving secondary world created from the writer's imagination. The reader interacts with the author's creation at several levels, and the length and depth of the descriptive creation enable the fantasist to explore the world, its implications and its relevance to the world in which s/he is working.
Given the restrictions of length and budget, and the simple fact that a visual element is involved, no movie is able to duplicate the kind of secondary world creation that is taken for granted in the novel. So, when a version of a novel such as Dune is made, there is no place for the background material on the religious and ecological implications of the creation or for the reader's personally imagined version of the world. We are left with one person's view and with the necessity of telling the story, to the detriment of all the background that we find appealing in the literature.
SF movies are at their best, not when they are trying to be a sort of visual literature, the result of which is usually a fairly static and boring hybrid, but when they are appealing directly to our emotions and using the resources unique to the visual medium to tap into our sense of wonder. This appeal has to complement the maintenance of logical and appealing characters and story. I am not a fan of effects for effects sake, but rather use of the medium to give depth and substance to the narrative. The Special Effects, at best, should be an integral part of the Fantasy and should evoke a reaction of viewer acceptance, not startle one into saying, "How'd they do that?", a reaction which breaks the involvement in the creation.
The best SF movies, Things To Come, Forbidden Planet, 2001, Dr Strangelove, Star Wars (IV - A New Hope), Alien etc, are ones that carry the audience along and present stunning visual images that can act as substitute for the detailed background description that is usual in the novel.
The putative Hugo winners for 1989 and 1990 are both movies in this category and both are brilliant.
Watch me pull a rabbit ...
The best SF movie of 1988, and, therefore, the Hugo winner for 1989, was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It doesn't succeed only because it has good story or some great acting or a depth of moral ideas (which are deeper than is perhaps obvious from first principles). It is a great movie because it utilises the techniques of the cinema in a way that they have never been used previously. The scene at the start where the cartoon and the studio interact and Baby Herman strides out into the real world is stunning. To maintain the interface through the bulk of the film is even better. They kept topping themselves with even better uses of the interaction between toons and people.
They have created this cross-over between fantasy and reality with such love and care that the viewer is carried away from the real world into the reel world where magic is quite permissible and the live action is part of the cartoon world rather than vice versa. Such is the power of the fantasy that the film develops and puts over its own logic. One keeps seeing things that amaze and confound one's expectations, that use the techniques of the cinema to achieve astounding effects, and, while part of the brain is saying, "Wow! Look what they've done now", the majority is saying, "Yep, that's part of this strange logic".
I was particularly impressed with some of the ancillary ideas, the way in which they filled the background: the scene of the Fantasia hippo sitting on the bench; the wizard's brooms being manipulated to do the cleaning work; the personality of Eddie's dum-dum bullets; the cameos by uncounted Warners and Disney characters (each lovingly recreated and accurately voiced); Donald and Daffy's duet; Betty Boop's cameo; Toontown as seen from Acme's factory etc.
Even though the human cast does not keep up with the toons, Bob Hoskins deserves some sort of award for his Eddie Valiant but, like Steve Martin the year previously in Roxanne, he found the Academy nominators unsympathetic to his cause. Rather like the dancing bear, the amazing thing about Hoskins' job is that he does any sort of acting at all. Most of the time he has to play to an empty set, since he shares so many scenes with either Roger, Jessica or another of the toons. In spite of this, Eddie is a fully fleshed character and a steady point-of-view around which the lunacy revolves. It's a great job of acting, but just what you'd expect from an actor of Hoskins' ability. Joanna Cassidy, the actor in Blade Runner's replicant troupe, provides the love interest in just the right level of over-the-top sexiness. Hers is a controlled performance but Christopher Lloyd goes right over the top. Pity about Lloyd but he keeps trying to redo the mad inventor of Back to the Future in every role. Stubby Kaye, everybody's second favourite 'Nicely Nicely' Johnson, gets a telling cameo as Marvin Acme, but the boy's looking a little old and tired.
Of the fresh toons, Jessica is outstanding. (Sadly, a search in the US for Jessica memorabilia was fruitless. Craig Miller reckons there was some originally but it soon dried up. Apparently, Disney thought Jessica a little too sexy for their line of country. Disneyland is replete with Roger stuff (and the rabbit was even making personal appearances) and Baby Herman gear was not hard to find, but Jessica ... nowhere to be found.) Personally, I thought Jessica's performance deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Whether it should go to her body model (credited) or her uncredited voices (Kathleen Turner for speech and Amy Irving for song) is a question I would have gladly left to the Academy. The failure to nominate her shows that anti-toon discrimination is no better in 1989 than it was in the immediate post-war period.
Also worthy of note is Robert Zemeckis, gradually emerging from beneath Spielberg's shadow to claim the credit that is his. Following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future, WFRR shows that he has a deft touch with light comedy and with slapstick. (Perhaps, Spielberg should take some notes for his own attempts at comedy.) In WFRR, he has a strong ally in Animation Director, Richard Williams, and the two work hand-in-glove to combine the live action and drawn elements of the movie to provide a level of 'sensa wonder' that has rarely been enjoyed in, but should be the hallmark of, good SF film.
WFRR is a great movie because of its employment of the techniques of cinema to complement a reasonably told detective story, intermixed with just enough factual background (the Red Car really did run in LA before the war) and a wealth of cartoon references, puns and in-jokes for the movie connoisseur. You come out feeling good and that's what movie-going should be all about.
Tall tales and true ...
Terry Gilliam has consistently demonstrated his mastery of the visual medium: from his linking pieces that held together the anarchic comedy of Monty Python's Flying Circus to his successively more sure direction of feature movies in Time Bandits, Brazil and now The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam has always been determined to ensure that his vision is preserved through the final cut and this led him into conflict with his American producers with Brazil. (A conflict which continues with the Cable TV version which is, apparently, the producer's, not Gilliam's, cut.)
I get the feeling that his artistic conflicts have continued with Munchausen which has got neither the promotion nor the distribution in the US that a film of this calibre (and this expense) deserves. I think that the front-office persons are not sure how to treat the movie or whom they should target as the audience; and without simple responses to such conundra, the money-types can badly injure a movie by a failure to give it a proper release.
However, in Munchausen, Gilliam has given his imaginative creativity full reign and the audience is carried away into a fantasy land and on fantastic adventures with the same disregard for their illogic that characterised the reaction to Roger Rabbit. Munchausen's adventures take off from an early modern city under siege and follow a picaresque path through several exotic locales as the Baron battles to save the city. In Brazil the dream-like sequences seemed almost foreign to the rest of the movie but, here, they are integrated. Like WFRR, Munchausen has that quality of involvement that leaves the audience with no desire to dissect or dissent as the narrative carries one through successively more incredible locales and adventures.
Gilliam's cast is interesting in the way it operates: his leads are generally 'unknowns' (with the possible exception of Eric Idle), while the smaller roles are filled by better known faces. This latter facet of the film has the potential to distract the audience from the fantasy, but the creation is powerful enough to maintain the illusion, except perhaps during Robin Williams' uncredited appearance as the King of the Moon. Certainly, the other cameos, especially Una Thurman and Jonathan Pryce, meld right into the mood of the piece and help advance the action. The lead roles are filled competently, with John Neville being Munchausen in much the way that Ben Kingsley was Gandhi and F Murray Abraham was Salieri.
Once more the hallmark of Gilliam's work is the love and care he takes with the unreal aspects of the story. Such is the careful blending of these elements into the world as we know it that the emerging fantasy creation becomes a believable reality and one that convinces us to go along with it, through its rapidly changing locations. Whether we are transported to the moon, plunging into Vulcan's world, in the depth of some submarine leviathan or battling the Turk, the audience is stimulated right in its sense of wonder. A film like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has to maintain our willing suspension of disbelief if it is to succeed. Its director and creator has done such a great job that the audience never questions whether disbelief has been suspended ar all.
These two films do what we should expect all genre films to do. They use the techniques of cinema, the tools available only to the feature film maker, to create a wildly imaginative secondary world, peopled with fantastic creatures, acting in a believable way. They demonstrate the success attendant on the careful use of the methods of film production and what can be achieved by the treatment of the audience as a willing accomplice of the creative imagination. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? reaped its Box Office reward and should garner the upcoming Hugo. The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen has not so far been rewarded in terms of its success in takings - if it finds its audience, it should. It should be favourite for the Hugo in 1990.
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).]
Also in CM
Last updated: 28 September 2004