Michael Cavna on the Visual Beauty of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”
Posted on October 18, 2018 at 1:31 pm
Michael Cavna, who covers comics and animation for the Washington Post, has a lovely essay about a television classic, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” He writes about “Linus’s bewitchingly liquid-violet skies and Snoopy’s clouds of fantastical peril, as autumnal tints pop from the trees and leaves” and the use of camera movement to give an intimate, dynamic, cinematic feel to the show. And he reminds us that one Snoopy scene was so iconic it even became an official US postage stamp. The man behind the show agrees.
“Of the 50 prime-time specials we created with Charles Schulz,” Mendelson says, “I believe ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ is Bill Melendez’s animation masterpiece.”
Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Some schoolyard language
Some peril, no one hurt
A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
September 28, 2018
The Yeti, sometimes known as Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman and akin to Sasquatch, is a mythical, or, shall we say, so far unproven creature of enormous size, something like an ape. “Smallfoot” takes a charming switch-up — here it’s the Yeti who don’t believe there is such a thing as humans — and turns it into a surprisingly thoughtful film. In between its colorful musical numbers, silly jokes, and action scenes, somehow manages to address some pretty big and complex issues like fake news, xenophobia, and personal integrity, and to do so in a manner that is accessible and nuanced.
Our hero in this movie is Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), who is perfectly happy and wants everything to stay exactly the same. His home is “harsh, jagged, freezing, and awesome.” “It’s a day like any other,” he sings, “and I don’t want to change a thing.”
We can understand why. The gorgeously imagined tundra of the Himalayas is wonderfully enticing here, with a color palette of blue and white with sparkling snow and Prussian shadows, and the community has an inviting design of homes made from stone and ice. It is a close and cooperative neighborhood, led by the Stonekeeper (Common), whose robes made of stone lay out the immutable laws. The gong must be rung each morning to raise the sun. The mammoths that hold up the mountain must be fed. And, very important, no one may question the laws or traditions. “If there’s a question causing you to go astray, just stuff it down inside.” As Migo’s father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito) says, “Do what you’re told. Blend in.”
Migo and Dorgle have the very important responsibility of ringing the morning gong. With Dorgle’s head (explaining why it is so flat and he is so short). Each day, Migo launches his father like an arrow through a sort of giant bow. He dreams of someday having the honor of getting launched at the gong himself. He finally gets his first try, but misses the target and ends up out in the snow, where he witnesses a plane crash and sees a human, what the Yeti call “Smallfoot.” The pilot sees Migo, too, and is equally surprised and a lot more scared.
No one believes Migo, and when he insists that he is not lying about what he saw, he is banished by the Stonekeeper. That is when he discovers a kind of Yeti Resistance movement, led by the Stonekeeper’s spirited daughter, Meechee (Zendaya). She believes in curiosity, exploration, challenging assumptions, and testing hypotheses: “Questions lead to knowledge, and knowledge is power.” Migo sets off to go beneath the clouds in search of Smallfoot.
Below the tree line, a British television personality named Percy (James Corden) is “under pressure” (he performs a Karaoke version of the song) because his once-popular television programs about animals have been eclipsed by amateur cute animal videos on YouTube and Facebook (the musical number features floating Facebook “likes”). He tells his colleague, Brenda (Yara Shahidi) that he plans to fake a Yeti sighting, and then go back to having integrity afterward. But then Migo, a real Yeti, shows up. Migo wants to take Percy back to his community to show that he was telling the truth. And Percy wants to film Migo so he can make a lot of money.
Amusingly, they have no way of understanding each other’s form of communication. We hear what each of them sounds like to the other, Percy’s little squeaks and Migo’s growls. Migo wraps Percy in a sleeping bag, wears him on his huge hairy chest like a Baby Bjorn, and begins to climb back up to the peak of the mountain.
This is where most movies for children start to move toward the themes of friendship, home, and believing in yourself. But “Smallfoot” goes in a different direction, somewhere between “The Matrix’s” blue pill/red pill choice between being safe and knowing the truth and “Black Panther’s” choice between isolationism and, despite the risks, finding a way to help and learn from others. Migo learns the reason for the Stonekeeper’s insistence on perpetuating the myths of the Yeti world, and he has to consider carefully whether it is worth putting his friends and family at risk in order to learn the truth.
This is some pretty existential stuff. “If I’m not the gong ringer, who am I?” Migo asks. It is heartening in this era of fake news, when it is tempting to outsource our knowledge base to our devices, to have a movie about curiosity, critical thinking, and challenging the status quo.
Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, brief potty humor, action/cartoon-style peril (no one hurt), and discussions of past violence.
Family discussion: When did you find that curiosity led you to something you would never have expected? Why didn’t the Stonekeeper want anyone to know the truth? Who should decide what knowledge is available?
If you like this, try: “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Surf’s Up!”
Not another superhero movie, you say? And how far down the list of comic book characters do we have to go? The Teen Titans are way ahead of you. Silly, surreal, super-snarky, self-aware to a fault and smashing the fourth wall into smithereens, the “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” movie is a superhero movie about a third-tier superhero who only wants to fight the bad guy because that’s how he’ll get to be in a superhero movie. Got it?
It’s got plenty of inside humor for the fanboys who will know why it’s especially apt to have Nicolas Cage providing the voice for Superman, why it’s funny to have a Stan Lee cameo in a DC movie, who the Challengers of the Unknown are, and why the arch-villain Slade (producer Will Arnett) keeps being mistaken for Deadpool. And it has action, heartwarming friendships, and plenty of potty jokes for those who have no idea who the Teen Titans are, and, believe me, will not know much more about them when the movie is over.
The Teen Titans as they are currently portrayed are Robin (Batman’s sidekick, voiced by Scott Menville), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who can turn himself into any animal, alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch), who signifies her other-worldliness by inserting “the” randomly in front of other words, the gothy Ravan (Tyra Strong), who can create portals from anywhere to anywhere, and Cyborg (Khary Payton), who can adapt his metal shell to create any machine. Insulted that they are not even invited to the premiere of the new Batman movie, Robin is even more horrified to see that upcoming sequels include movies about Batman’s butler, Alfred, and even one about his utility belt, but nothing about Robin. He appeals to the director, Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), but she says she cannot make a movie about him unless he has an arch-nemesis.
Enter Slade, “an archenemy whose name is fun to say in a dramatic way.”
There are songs. There are action scenes. There are many, many jokes about the world of comics, from the ultra-obscure (stay all the way to the end) to the widely accessible (yes, there are a lot of superhero movies and Green Lantern is still embarrassed about his). It makes fun of itself and then it makes fun of itself for making fun of itself, and then it makes fun of us for watching so many superhero movies. It is unpretentious, the look harking back to low-budget Saturday morning cartoon shows. And that makes it refreshing and delightful.
NOTE: The movie is preceded by a very cute DC superhero girls short called “The Late Batsby,” with Batgirl racing to catch up with her super-friends to fight Mr. Freeze.
Parents should know that this film includes extended cartoon-style action/superhero peril and violence, explosions, chases, fire, some characters briefly injured, potty humor, and schoolyard language.
Family discussion: If you made a movie about one of your friends, what would you include? Why did Robin want a movie so badly?
If you like this, try: the Teen Titans television series, “Incredibles 2″ and “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”
Comic, cartoon-style peril and violence, weapons, fire, attempted murder
A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
July 13, 2018
Date Released to DVD:
October 8, 2018
“You have to be carefully taught,” according to the Rodgers and Hammerstein song in “South Pacific.” Lt. Cable and Nelly Forbush sing ruefully about the prejudices drummed into them as children: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught.” That same sober theme is gently raised in the midst of the silliness and fun scares of this third in the animated “Hotel Transylvania” series about Drac, the doting-to-a-fault vampire dad voiced by Adam Sandler, his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), and her very mellow human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg).
In just about every other respect, it’s pretty much the same movie as the first two, with slightly less clever monster jokes than the first one and a slightly more appealing storyline than the second one. Basically, Adam Sandler gets to do his two favorite things: speak in a “funny” accent voice and be lazy, preferably in an exotic location (IRS, check to see if he deducted a cruise as a business expense in developing this one).
Drac is still over-involved in his daughter’s life, worrying way too much when you consider that it is very difficult to harm a vampire. In case we were not clear on that, it is spelled out for us in the movie’s opening flashback, set in 1897, where vampire killer Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) is trying to destroy Drac. But he is no match for a vampire with nimbleness, courage, and imperviousness to any threat but garlic or a stake through the heart. The original story’s third weapon against vampires, a crucifix, is omitted in favor of cartoon secularism, as is the ickiness of subsisting on blood, the inconvenience of sleeping in sunlight, or the problem of marriage between someone with a human life span and someone who never ages. Any concerns about those issues are for Twihards.
These are cute and cuddly monsters, including the Invisible Man (David Spade), Frankenstein and his bride (Kevin James and Fran Drescher), Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Mr. and Mrs. Wolfman (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), with their dozens of wolf-babies. There’s nothing at all scary about them and they seem to spend all of their time hanging out with each other, first at the resort that gives the series its title and then at Mavis’ surprise vacation — a cruise ship with all the amenities. As Drac points out, that means it’s just his hotel except on a boat. There’s one other big difference, though. He’s not in charge, which is both worrying and a little bit relaxing as well. “You need a vacation from managing everyone else’s vacation,” Mavis tells him. And this will be a chance for them to have some quality time together as a family.
Drac insists that the cruise, headed for the Bermuda Triangle and the lost continent of Atlantis “is not the Love Boat.” But he is beginning to think he might be interesting in finding romance (the vampire term is “zing” for love at first sight), many years since the death of Mavis’ mother. He even tries to find someone he’d like to swipe right on on the monster version of Tinder, called Zinger. And then, he takes a look at the beautiful — and human — ship’s captain, Erika (Kathryn Hahn), and ZING.
There’s some “monsters gotta be monsters” stuff — “We’re here, we’re hairy, and it’s our right to be scary!” Though of course they’re not scary after all and as in the other films it is the humans and their unwillingness to look beyond the tentacles and fur to see that just like us, monsters love their families and don’t want to hurt anyone. There’s a lot of silly stuff, a cute dance number, some appealing if uninspired pop song selections (Bruno Mars, the Beach Boys, the ubiquitous Mr. Blue Sky), plus the one song no one can resist dancing to (I won’t spoil it, but the audience groans suggested no one was surprised). It turns out music does have charms to sooth the savage beast after all. And this movie has enough charm to soothe little savages on summer vacation for 90 minutes or so.
Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, potty humor, peril and violence (including attempted murder of monsters and a character who is badly injured and ultimately almost entirely prosthetic).
Family discussion: Why did Van Helsing hate monsters? Which monster would you like to be and why?