Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bartok the Magnificent (Fox Animation Studios, 1999)

In 1994, Disney released a direct-to-video movie called The Return of Jafar. This was a sequel to Aladdin, and was made not by Walt Disney Feature Animation (as it was then known), but by Walt Disney Television Animation. WDTVA, or DisneyToon, as they came to be known, had previously made a Duck Tales movie in 1990, but this was their first film produced directly for the home video market, and the first sequel to one of their modern animated classics. Another Aladdin movie followed, then a couple for Beauty and the Beast, then the Lion King, Pocahontas and more. By 1999, they had set up quite a little cottage industry of VHS cheapies. And that’s an industry Fox wanted to be a part of. So, armed with a fairly popular supporting character from a recent hit, the studio set Bluth and Goldman to making something profitable, and if it was watchable, hey, bonus.

GOOD CASTING!

OKAY WRITING!

PASSABLE MUSIC!

ACCEPTABLE ANIMATION!

ALSO SOME TERRIBLE ANIMATION!

IT’S BARTOK THE MAGNIFICENT!




Okay, so first, a little bit about Bartok, because I ignored him all through the Anastasia review. He is a pretty blatant rip on Iago from Aladdin, a little flying beastie that helps out the tall, berobed villain, and utters occasional sarcastic rejoinders in an anachronistic tone. The difference between the two was that Iago was… Well, Iago was a bad guy. He actively enjoyed causing mayhem and helping the villain, and took great pleasure in tormenting the heroes. Bartok, on the other wing, just sort of vaguely hung out and offered generic character-building advice, then left before the final fight, having basically no impact on the plot.
"Hey, anyone here know what a bat looks like? Ah, I'll just guess."

But people still loved him. He was fairly charmingly written, and masterfully voiced in a generically Eastern European warble by Hank Azaria, so when the time came for a spinoff, it made perfect sense to feature him. I guess it’s a prequel, since there’s a Tsar in it, but frankly, the movie doesn’t care and neither do I. The story removes him from henching entirely, casting him as a traveling showman who delights Russian citizens with stories of how he killed various and sundry monsters all over the world. It’s all malarkey, of course, but then the young Tsar is kidnapped, the people of Moscow turn to the famous monster hunter Bartok to take down the evil Baba Yaga. The obviously evil regent Ludmilla agrees to this, figuring that Bartok is an incompetent clown who will fail, and she can take over with the people knowing she did all she could to stop it. It’s a lot like the plot of Ace Ventura 2, only a lot less racist.

I guess since Bluth is an animator at heart, it only makes sense for us to talk about the animation first. I’m willing to make some concessions for the obviously reduced budget, but it’s still a mixed bag. The animation on the main characters is quite good, if a bit simplified. It looks like Bluth mostly forsook rotoscoping in this one, and the exaggerated characters look great. Their general design and style of movement is pure Bluth. The background people, though… Look, I get that the budget had to be cut somewhere, but there are several points in the movie where the background people have “animation” that consists of just cutting between three static poses, with no in-between animation. It’s hideous. And the integration of animated characters with painted backgrounds and CGI elements is terrible. But it’s DTV, so I give it a lot of slack. And it still effectively tells the story.

Someone dramatically drinking a magic potion like they're in a Mountain Dew commercial is tough even with a budget.

The voices, on the other hand, are still phenomenal, and I’m really seeing this as one of Bluth’s strongest fields. Hank Azaria is Bartok, of course, and he’s amazing, of course. For those that don’t know, Azaria is a character actor who’d had a few bit parts in the mid-80s, when his agent booked him a voice-over role, playing a bartender on a cartoon sitcom. Despite having no voice-over experience, the 25 year old Azaria impressed the producers, who brought him back to play an incompetent police chief and an Indian store clerk. Those of you who do know him know where this is going. When the Simpsons was renewed for a second season, Azaria was hired as a regular, and added to Moe, Chief Wiggum, and Apu such diverse characters as Carl, Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel, Comic Book Guy, Professor Frink, the Sea Captain, Frank Grimes, Dr. Nick, Disco Stu, the Wise Guy, Milhouse’s dad, Snake, and Dr. Nick. What I’m getting at here is that he’s massively talented as a cartoon voice. Yet despite this, he’s done very little animation work, preferring to work in live action, taking on a large range of character and lead roles, in such diverse roles as the gritty showtime drama Huff, the wild farce The Birdcage, and the superhero comedy Mystery Men. What he did not do was any more voice-over stuff. Anastasia was a tiny blip on a voice career that consists almost entirely of the Simpsons and a few arthouse-type cartoons.

But that’s enough about the interesting and varied career of Hank Azaria. I mention it only to say that he’s one of the absolute best voice guys in the business, but it’s a rare treat to hear him off the one show. And the best part is that he isn’t just doing one of his Simpsons voices. It’s a completely original voice unlike any I’ve heard on that show (though he seems to come from the same generically European country as Dr. Nick).

Baba Yaga's weirdly flat nose must have been annoying to animate, and it adds nothing.

The rest of the cast approaches the same level. It was a much tougher sell to get big stars to do a direct to video movie  voice back in those days, before Disney really clicked the DTV machine into overdrive, but Bluth has friends. Two Anastasia vets return in different roles. Andrea Martin is used to far better effect as the Baba Yaga than she was as a few random villagers, and Kelsey Grammer drops the Russian accent to play Bartok’s partner, a cultured and intelligent bear. Catherine O’Hara plays the villain, and is wonderful as always. Jennifer Tilly and French Stewart play mythical beasties that Bartok encounters on his journey, and it’s a real tribute to Tilly’s talent that I didn’t find a magical stretchy scatterbrained hairy pink snake thing to be extremely annoying. Diedrich Bader, at the very start of his prolific voice acting career, played the captain of the Tsarevich’s guard with the spark of energy that would serve him well in cartoons to come. Tim Curry plays a big metal CGI skull that asks riddles, and at least he sounds like he's enjoying himself. Oh, and because it wouldn’t be an Anastasia movie without an weirdly semi-famous extra (I mean, apparently), Tim Burton mainstay Glenn Shadix is credited as “Townspeople”. Weirdly, there are no other townspeople credited, which seems to imply to me that he’s more of “Townsperson”, but whatever.

For some reason I'm not bothered that the bear has a hat, but the fact that it's full of marshmellons annoys me to no end.

The music is okay, I guess. Stephen Flaherty returns, but he’s writing his own lyrics this time. He isn’t bad, but I think it took the wind out of his sails a bit. Of the several songs, only the first one has either lyrical spark or a memorable tune. They’re all passable, but they’re kind of cliche storms. I didn’t hate any of the while I was watching, so that’s something, I guess.

So yeah, better than I thought it was going to be, for whatever that’s worth. It’s not one of Bluth’s better movies, but it’s far far farrrrrr from his worst. And considering he only had one more movie in him, it was good to see that he was still innovating and going with gusto, even when tasked with making a DTV cheapie. Coming up next is the final film for both Bluth and Fox Animation Studios. It’s a gritty space opera released on the heels of Star Wars Episode 1. I loved it when I was in high school. I have the feeling I’m going to be disappointed.

"Okay, just put the 2D snow all over the CGI tower - no, it will look absolutely seamless, I promise."


ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

* Hank Azaria’s current salary for the Simpsons works out to about $50,000 an hour. Nice work if you can get it.

* He’s also really done hardly any animation work other thank the Simpsons. He was Venom on the 90s Spider-Man series, and a pair of chicks in "Hop", a movie that I have never seen and probably never will. Other than that and the artsy indie stuff i referenced before, it's all been live action character roles and stage stuff.

* There's a bit where Baba Yaga gives Bartok a potion that will amplify the goodness inside of him to make him a real hero. I'd assumed it was a Dumbo's magic feather deal, and the real magic was inside him all along, but then the villain drank it and turned into a dragon, so now I don't know what's what. * Speaking of, while she was transforming, her body slowly changed over the course of a song, with notable bulging of her chest and hips. When looking for images for this post, I found a SUSPICIOUS number of screencaps of this scene, IF YOU GET WHAT I AM IMPLYING ABOUT CERTAIN SCREENCAPPERS. * Given my writing speed, it might be a while, but I may as well tell you now, Volume 3 of this blog is "My Year With DisneyToon Studios". So that's fun.

* That's it. This movie's not worth too much thought. Here, have a crazy fanart.


4 comments:

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  2. Why did the potion turn Ludmilla into a dragon?

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    1. Hard to say. Maybe it would have also turned Bartok into a dragon.

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