Friday, April 22, 2011

Animal Crackups In My Soup

Animal behavior is a constant source of wonder to humans. Whether one is playing with a pet or scuba diving, riding a horse or studying the activity in an ant farm, animals never fail to inspire, amuse, and entertain us.

From wildlife documentaries to such beloved characters such as Donald DuckGarfield, Snoopy, and Bucky Katt, artists have tried to capture the spontaneity of animals in print and on film, in the wild as well as in their wildest fantasies. English animator Simon Tofield has done so with remarkable wit and simplicity, as demonstrated in the following three shorts:

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Over at  the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, three charming animated shorts take anthropomorphism to some interesting extremes. Yvette Edery's Jillian Dillon is about a hippoplatypus whose platypus mother lays eggs and whose hippopotamus father eats watercress.

Frequently teased by other animals, Jillian Dillon saves the day in this five-minute short that uses handmade puppets and song to put a fresh spin on the old Ugly Duckling theme. Here's a brief trailer:

Going further into anthropomorphism, Kelly Wilson and Neil Wrischnik's short, The Snowman, depicts what happens when a snowman loses his carrot nose within range of a family of hungry rabbits. What makes this short so charming is its solid story line, the magnificent animation (especially for the rabbits) and the way Dan Zank's impressive original score provides the perfect foundation for the action. You can watch a brief excerpt here.

Finally, we come to Ormie, a four-minute short by Rob Silvestri (who recently worked on Gnomeo & Juliet) that is every bit as delightful as the old Roadrunner cartoons. Ormie is pig who has spied some chocolate chip cookies resting in a jar on top of a refrigerator. Ormie will go to any extreme (no matter how ridiculous) to get the cookie that has become his latest obsession.

Ormie recently won the award for Best Short at the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children and Youth.  Just one glimpse of Ormie should tell you why Silvestri's short is so much fun!

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Having recently sat through press screenings for a couple of soon-to-be-released stinkers, I was more than a little surprised at the hostility that greeted Francis Lawrence's film adaptation of Sara Gruen's historical novel, Water for Elephants. Take, for example, Marshall Fine's comments:

"Watching a movie like Water for Elephants, knowing that it's not only based on a novel, but on a best-selling novel that was all the rage for book clubs, makes me wonder about the book -- specifically, how bad is it? Having seen this movie, I can't imagine reading Water for Elephants. Indeed, it makes me think less of the people who have. And I can't imagine anyone who read the book being able to stomach this snore of a movie."

I used to encounter this kind of condescending vitriol emanating from dyspeptic opera queens and music critics -- like the one from Texas who (prior to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic) told me that he would have to get really drunk in order to survive another rendition of that music. I eventually learned that their acid-tinged sniping offered a truer comment on the misery of their own lives than any performance they were describing.

Although I didn't read Gruen's novel, I had myself quite a lovely time watching Water for Elephants which (horror of horrors) actually has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Granted, it's not a perfect movie. Nor would I characterize it as a chick flick. But this film  has many things going for it, including a compelling story, some wonderful cinematography, and an impressive musical score by James Newton Howard. While the circus animals and steam locomotives (Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum #610 and McCloud Railway #18) help to beef up the ambiance, there is much more in this film that will please an audience eager for an old-fashioned romance.

Set during the Great Depression (when the use of homemade Prohibition-era substitutes for booze often led to paralysis and death), Water for Elephants contains more honest atmospheric grittiness than I have seen in some overly pretentious attempts at cinematic high art.

Christoph Waltz as August Rosenbluth

And, in its own peculiar way, Water for Elephants has some strong parallels to 1997's Titanic. Swap out a doomed ocean liner for a struggling circus, an unhappy woman engaged to a selfish socialite for an unhappy woman  in an abusive relationship with a mean drunk, and then add in an unlikely young hero who arrives on the scene with surprisingly little emotional baggage and ends up in a tuxedo. Have your narrator be the last living survivor of an historic tragedy and, voila!  Cheap melodrama.

What both movies do share is a tense romantic triangle set against a supercharged and somewhat exotic atmosphere.  The basics of Sara Gruen's story are easy to enough comprehend. Young Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is about to take his final examination from Cornell University's school of veterinary medicine when he is taken from the classroom and told that his parents have just been killed in an automobile accident.

Informed that his father's veterinary practice and home are worthless, Jankowski sets out on his own and hops a train which belongs to a traveling circus. The owner of the Benzini Brothers circus is August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), a jealous alcoholic with a penchant for throwing people off a moving train when they can no longer carry their weight with his circus.  August's wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is the ice queen he groomed to become the circus's star attraction.

Unfortunately, Marlena's prized white horse, Silver Star, is in terrible pain. Marlena thinks it's due to an abscess in the horse's right front hoof. Jankowski quickly identifies it as a terminal case of laminitis.

Marlena Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon) with the ailing Silver Star

Soon, Jankowski is under the tutelage of veteran carnie Camel (Jim Norton) and Kinko, a circus dwarf whose real name is Walter (Mark Povinelli). Sparks soon start to fly between Marlena and the young veterinarian. In a stroke of fictional genius, it turns out that August's latest purchase, a bull elephant named Rosie, understands commands spoken in Polish. Who knew?

Robert Pattinson as the young Jacob Jankowski

Water for Elephants begins and ends with two charming sequences featuring veteran actor Hal Holbrook as the 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski. If you're not a teenaged girl who screamed for Robert Pattinson in the Twilight series of vampire films, you'll find him to be a capable romantic lead. There were, however, moments when I had to pinch myself to make sure that Reese Witherspoon's body had not been taken over by Kristin Chenowith.

The strongest performance in the film comes from Christoph Waltz as August, a character of immense charm, frightening jealousy, and horrid brutality. Here's the trailer:

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