Lady Goosepelt

St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

Tag: film

The Ugly Duchess

The Duchess by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.
The Duchess in John Tenniel’s original illustration, 1865.

The illustration of the Duchess from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should be familiar to anyone who’s read the book. The original illustrations for Alice are rightly beloved and have withstood the passage of 150 years a hell of a lot better than I expect I will. This is partly down to the talents of Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated both Alice books, and partly because Tenniel worked closely with Lewis Carroll and the illustrations are therefore part of the text. Over the years dozens of artists have done their own illustrations for Alice, but very few of them compare to the originals. They are part of the novels and it’s folly to try and replace them. (Although the illustrations by Salvador Dalí and Mervyn Peake are worth checking out, but it’s bloody Dalí so he can do what he likes. As the Duchess would say, the moral of the story is don’t do your own illustrations for Alice unless you’re a genius.)

It’s been said that “Jabberwocky”, the poem from Through the Looking-Glass, makes a great study in translation because of the unique problems in translating reasonable-sounding nonsense. (“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves…” Course it was, mate.) The same is true of the Alice books themselves because they must be the most adapted novels in the history of cinema. Wikipedia lists no fewer than 36 screen adaptations, and that’s not even counting new works set in that universe like Tim Burton’s two films or the miniseries on the Syfy channel. Three of those adaptations alone are silent films — a particular fetish of mine. But how the hell do you adapt something as visually bizarre as Alice for the screen? It’s not too hard to draw a cool-looking Cheshire Cat or Queen of Hearts, but how do you actually film talking cats and playing cards without making it look unbelievable?

For my money the character of the Duchess makes a really good yardstick for the style of an Alice adaptation. But before we go forward in time, let’s go back — to c. 1513 when Quinten Massys painted “An Old Woman” (aka “The Ugly Duchess”):

"The Ugly Duchess", Quinten Massys, c. 1513.
The Ugly Duchess, Quinten Massys, c. 1513.

I don’t think I need to argue too hard that Tenniel’s illustration of the Duchess was nicked from this painting. For a while there art historians tried to argue that Massys himself took his inspiration from a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, but it turns out this human centipede ends with Massys, not da Vinci. The consensus now seems to be that Massys got in first and da Vinci (or someone in his circle) copied him later.

If you’re animating your Alice adaptation then you’re laughing — you get the same Get Out Of Jail Free card that illustrators have and you can draw pretty much whatever you like (though it’s worth noting that the best-known adaptation, Disney’s 1951 animation, omits the Duchess entirely). But if you’re going for a live-action adaptation, you can go two routes: not even trying, or shooting the moon. The adaptations that don’t even try simply have humans depicting the animals without costumes. These appeal to our understanding that we’re watching Alice in Wonderland and we should know that that guy wearing a three-piece suit is actually supposed to be a frog. The adaptations that shoot the moon go all-out to stylize the characters with theatrical costumes on the understanding that it’s impossible to film a realistic live-action Alice so you may as well go for broke.

The Duchess is sort of hard to make out in the 1903 and 1910 films, so let’s skip ahead to 1915:

The Duchess, "Alice in Wonderland", 1915.
Alice in Wonderland, 1915.

Now this is some prime-time wackadoodle moon-shooting. They’ve gone for some very theatrical-style masks that appear to be based off the Tenniel illustrations. And I’ll be honest, you could do a lot worse than simply wearing giant carnival-mask versions of Tenniel’s work. If the original is that brilliant, then you can’t go too far wrong if you just copy it.

We have a slightly more subtle take on the Duchess in 1931:

The Duchess, "Alice in Wonderland", 1931.
Alice in Wonderland, 1931.

She looks a lot more like a real person here, although still stylized and very clearly based off the Tenniel illustration with that giant headgear and a putty nose to emphasize her ugliness. I only wish the 1931 White Rabbit came off half as well:

The White Rabbit, "Alice in Wonderland", 1931.
This thing gives me bloody nightmares.

Where we really enter nightmare territory is the 1933 film, which takes us plunging back into maskland with some frankly terrifying costumes:


Can this costume get any more horrifying? I’m glad you ask:


Mercifully Alice adaptations after this time start to allow the Duchess to look like a goddamn human being and not a blob-woman from Mars:

The Duchess, "Alice in Wonderland", 1966.
Alice in Wonderland, 1966.

Except, of course, when your Alice adaptation is pretty much just filming a stage production, as in this 1983 version that features lots of flappy-mouthed masks, sets that look like line-drawings, a Cheshire Cat with a mechanical tail and light-up lamp eyes, an inflatable baby, and this Duchess who looks suspiciously like a dead drag queen:

The Duchess, "Alice in Wonderland", 1983.
Alice in Wonderland, 1983.

The original illustrations will always hold a special place in my heart, and although Alice might be ill-advised to follow the letter of the originals, I have a soft spot for human-based adaptations that take their cue from Tenniel rather than attempting to do their own stupid thing that usually doesn’t come off. I’ll leave you, then, with one of the great Duchesses — Elizabeth Spriggs in the 1999 film, rubber baby and all:

The Duchess, "Alice in Wonderland", 1999.
Alice in Wonderland, 1999.

Muppets Most Wanted

or: How the Critics Got It Wrong and the Muppets Got Their Mojo Back

Muppets Most Wanted

I wouldn’t have gone to see a Muppet sequel if it hadn’t been for Ricky Gervais. He’s been a fan of the Muppets for years, and the kind of camp-loving glee he has for them is hard to hide. Go back and watch The Office and count the number of Muppets references. Gervais actually does Muppet impressions on-screen. He sings “Mah Nà Mah Nà”! So when I saw the trailers with Gervais actually in a Muppet movie, I knew I was in for a good time. When people are having fun while they make a movie, that good feeling reaches the audience too. How could some of the world’s best comic talent plus the fun-loving Muppets ever go wrong?

The answer is: they didn’t. Muppets Most Wanted is an unqualified success. I left the cinema buzzing from the great jokes and the catchy musical numbers. I’d expected the critics to agree, but what surprised me was that the reviews of this movie were so quick to dump on it. The top reviews from Rotten Tomatoes use phrases like, “the magic is largely missing”, “lacks some of the gang’s usual feel-good joy”, and “[not] as giddily entertaining as its predecessor” — and these are the guys who liked it. There’s a popular consensus: the last one was great but the new one is a bit iffy.

But really? What planet are these people living on? 2011’s The Muppets was a turkey. I saw it with a friend who worships the Muppets, and even he thought it was hard to watch. With The Muppets as their great reintroduction to the public, it’s a wonder they got their sequel at all.

The main criticism against Muppets Most Wanted seems to be that there was a lot of genuine emotion in The Muppets, particularly in the love story, that was lacking from its sequel. Let’s break this down. The Muppets has three attempted tear-jerkers. One is Walter, who is adorably useless and out of place, and who eventually gets invited to join the Muppets. The second is the Muppets attempting to get back together after being separated for the past ten years. The third is this dippy couple who are supposedly having relationship problems. Walter is cute, I’ll grant you, and his story is the most successful of these three. Then there’s the plot to get the felty little fellahs back together. Good good, but that’s all over in about 20 minutes out of a 100-minute movie. Then there’s the romance. Ah. This is the bit that really got my goat. I hate movies that expect me to care about some dippy couple who moan about their relationship that doesn’t have any real problems. The Marx Brothers made the same mistake by shoe-horning a love story into all their movies. We’re not here to watch the white-bread couple dither around before finally hooking up at the end. Either get real problems or shut the hell up.

By comparison Muppets Most Wanted doesn’t make any real grabs at our heartstrings. The Muppets have traditionally had some heartwarming threads in their movies and this has its moments too — Kermit being replaced and eventually needed again is just as sweet as Walter’s story from the previous film. The difference here is the teary stuff doesn’t take center stage. I think this is why critics objected. Instead of spending the whole movie trying to make us cry, Muppets Most Wanted is a free-wheeling, anarchic, fun-loving romp. And what’s wrong with that? That’s surely heaps better than pretending to care about Jason Segel and Amy Adams’ lame relationship. Muppets Most Wanted was a hoot — there were great jokes (and, this being the Muppets, plenty of deliciously bad ones too), there was adventure, there were slapstick and sight gags, and the film was loaded to the brim with celebrity cameos. So where do the critics get off saying, “Well sure it was funny, but where was the ham-fisted, phoned-in love story?” The Muppets might have been just as funny if it hadn’t spent so much of its time being maudlin instead.

Then there’s the music. I just watched it but I can’t remember one original song from The Muppets. The music wasn’t wholly useless — they did a great parody of “Rainbow Connection” sung by the Moopets with lyrics advertising a casino (“Why are there such great deals / On our hotel rooms?”) They also did a very sly joke where the chickens sing CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You”, which I’m sure Kermit would have introduced as “Cluck You” if he could have got away with it. But neither of those songs is new, and I honestly don’t remember a single other song from the movie. No, wait, the bad guy had an excruciating attempt at a rap song. Yeah. Let us never speak of it again.

But make room for Muppets Most Wanted! The soundtrack for this movie was interstellar. I was hooked right from the opening number, “We’re Doing a Sequel”. I left the cinema humming this and I’ve been humming it for about a week now. Throw that into the mix with other equally strong numbers like “I’m Number One” and “The Big House”, and you have a movie that’s already brimming with memorable original songs. I’ve been annoying my boyfriend by playing them non-stop and quite badly on my ukulele. Bret McKenzie contributed the songs to both movies, but it really feels like they let him off the leash in Muppets Most Wanted. Investing in McKenzie’s talent paid off big-time.

The impression I get from The Muppets is that of a very cautious re-launch. Veteran Muppet performer Frank Oz called the movie “a little too safe”, and I think he hit the nail on the head. Disney were petrified of coming on too strong so they turned the volume way down. This was a critical mistake. Nobody goes to see the Muppets to see calm and quiet. We go to see good-natured anarchy. If nothing else the Muppets have bags of personality, and it’s criminal to dial that down. What I liked so much about Muppets Most Wanted was that they hit you in the face with their exuberance in the opening number and they don’t stop. It’s like the scriptwriter and composer and actors thought, “Fuck it, let’s just have fun with this one.”

And that’s exactly what a Muppet movie should be. If the makers are all tip-toeing around cautiously, how is the result ever going to be fun? But if the makers are having the time of their lives (and it’s clear Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey are delighted to be there), then the audience will too. So film critics, please come back from whatever strange dimension you’ve been visiting and appreciate Muppets Most Wanted for what it is, not just to give the cast and crew the recognition they deserve, but because if this movie gets a lukewarm reception they might not make another.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ending

Indiana Jones movie poster

Indiana Jones might be the worst hero of all time. I adore the movies — what kind of killjoy doesn’t love the non-stop action and over-the-top adventure? People bitched and moaned when Indiana Jones “nuked the fridge” in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I reveled in it. How can you hold the atomic fridge against him? Ridiculous action sequences are exactly why we fell in love with Indiana Jones in the first place. And yet, there’s something unsettling wrong about the series.

The big issue for me is that there are not actually four Indiana Jones movies. There are only two. Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are actually the same movie made three different times. Think about how they end. Indiana Jones loses and the bad guys get what they came for, but the thing they came for turns out to be a horribly ironic punishment. The ark kills all the Nazis, the holy grail kills all the Nazis, and the crystal skull kills all the Communists. The only way Jones beats the bad guys in the end is by being just a little bit crap and failing to save the day. He gets saved in each movie by some bit of deus ex machina.

We loved that ending once. We even loved it twice. But I suspect the reason people came away from Crystal Skull feeling let down was not because it was a bad movie, but because they’d seen it two times already. If you’re inclined to let George Lucas get away with this bit of hoodoo, consider the fact that the movies would have ended the exact same way if Indiana Jones had not even been in them. In fact if Jones had let the Nazis have the ark in Raiders, Hitler would have been killed before the Second World War even started. Thanks a bundle, Indy. But this is a big issue. If your protagonist is essentially useless, you have a very serious narrative problem.

Because the other movies are stuck with sucky endings, I have to give credit to The Temple of Doom for being what it is — the second and last new Indiana Jones movie. It is the only one where Jones actually saves the day. The movie ends with him and Mola Ram, the sacrificial priest, dangling over a precipice and fighting over the three magic stones. Jones casts an incantation that makes the stones red hot, sending two of them tumbling into the gorge. Mola Ram attempts to grab the last one, but it burns him and he falls, leaving Indy to snatch up the last stone and return it to its owners. Hooray for Indy! It’s the first and last time he actually beats the bad guys.

The endings aren’t the only thing amiss in the Indiana Jones movies — and I hate to say it, but the bulk of these problems have to be laid at George Lucas’ feet. Lucas loves a comic relief character, but is monumentally crap at doing them. He got away with it once with C-3PO as the much-loved comic relief character from the Star Wars movies. But give C-3PO a lick of fresh paint and suddenly you have Jar Jar Binks, one of the most reviled characters in modern cinema. Nobody could stand just how annoying he was. Give him another lick of paint and you have Willie, the ditzy night-club singer from Temple of Doom. George Lucas, nobody likes your complainy, prissy, slapstick characters. Please stop doing them.

Perhaps more seriously, though, Lucas also has a real problem with racism. Every foreign character in Indiana Jones movies falls into some kind of horrible colonial stereotype, most often being shown as bad guys but also fulfilling the roles of comedy or mystical characters. The French, Germans, and Russians are common bogeys, but we’ve also got Chinese gangsters and devil-worshiping Indians in Temple of Doom, and some generically nasty fez-wearing Middle Eastern types in Last Crusade. The only nice foreigners in these movies are the starving Indian villagers in Temple of Doom, who slot neatly into the role of wise mystics (because all old, white-haired Indian men are wise and mystical), and Jones’ Chinese sidekick Short Round, who only seems to be there because of his comedy accent. The same kinds of accusations were leveled against Lucas over the new Star Wars movies. Read a book on Post-Colonialism, George Lucas. You can’t keep saying this kind of thing.

Much as I dislike Willie and Short Round, the sidekicks in Temple of Doom, they actually count in the narrative’s favor. They might suck as characters, but both Willie and Short Round actually do stuff in this movie, like saving Jones’ life and helping defeat the bad guys. They’re not just window dressing, and Lucas deserves some credit for giving them real things to do. This is the only Indiana Jones movie where the characters influence the outcome, which means that technically it’s the best of the four.

But is Temple of Doom really the best Indiana Jones movie? It’s a tough call. I’m not sure I could even name my own favorite, let alone decide that one movie is better than all the others. Because we don’t watch Indiana Jones for the narrative. God knows, you’d have to be brain-dead to think that any of the movies has any plot. The reason we watch Indiana Jones is because of the action and the adventure. They are fun movies, but that doesn’t mean the fun can stand alone. If it could, people would have loved Crystal Skull. Even if they’re not the main features of a movie, you have to have a foundation of plot and character to support the rest. You might get away with it once or twice, but sooner or later you get stuck in a rut, making the same movie over and over again. Even after a 20-year break Lucas couldn’t come up with a new story for Indiana Jones. He’s playing our favorite song, but he’s been playing it for 30 years now. It’s getting old.

I would never want to retire Indiana Jones because I love the movies so much. But how about we give him something new to do, huh?

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