It’s About Time

Future Thanksgiving

Future Thanksgiving

H.G. Wells’ stories have been adapted countless times from the good, James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), to the not so good, Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods (1976). My personal favorite movie take on Wells is The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Arguably, however, his most famous novels were War of the Worlds (adapted into okay but flawed films in 1953 and in 2005) and The Time Machine (adapted most famously in 1960 and 2002).

It's right behind me, isn't it.

It’s right behind me, isn’t it.

Originally published in 1895, The Time Machine, like most of H.G. Wells’ books was more a social commentary than straight up science-fiction. If Jules Verne was more about the possibilities and potential of science untethered, then Wells was brimming with parables condemning contemporary mores. In the story we meet the Time Traveler, a turn of the century man (like Wells himself) who gets the opportunity—via the eponymous time machine—to see what the world is destined to become.

One ring to rule them all...

One ring to rule them all…

In the future, the Time Traveler encounters two subdivisions of humanity. Evolution has divided the human race into the blissfully ignorant, childish, and decadent Eloi and the subterranean, industrial predators known as the Morlocks. Knowing a thing or two about Victorian classism helps illuminate what the tale is really about. The Eloi are the ultimate conclusion of the aristocracy—they care little and know less and they live lavish lifestyles with no work so they become ambitionless and infantile. The Morlocks are where the workers are headed—spending their entire lives in dehumanizing factories, never seeing the light of day. The irony is that in the Time Traveler’s era, the rich exploit the working class and in the future the rich have become the docile cattle for the cannibalistic proletariat.

While I like and dislike things about both the 1960 and the 2002 versions of The Time Machine, regrettably this cuttingly dark satirical element is never quite expressed in either.

time machine10

I miss you, Lolita.

The Good

The 1960 version of The Time Machine, directed by George Pal (War of the Worlds), stars Rod Taylor (The Birds) as the inventor. His Victorian gentlemen pals think he’s insane when he proposes the impossible idea of time travel. Sebastion Cabot (The Jungle Book) and Alan Young (Mr. Ed) memorably play two of his skeptical friends. It is through Young’s character (Filby), the sensitive and affable bookend, that gives this film the heart it needed.

The time travel sequences themselves are great and wonderfully executed (copious usage of stop-motion and time-lapse photography). The wild plains, vegetation-overgrown minimalist future-buildings, and the Morlock sphinxes are atmospheric and good as well.

Filby and  VOX

Filby and VOX

The 2002 version also has some good points to it. It was directed by H.G.’s great-grandson, Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt), and starred Guy Pearce (Memento). They up the stakes a tad by giving the inventor a deep, personal reason for building the time machine: his girlfriend is killed by a mugger. At first he goes back in time to save her, but he cannot seem to change the past. If he averts danger once she will only be killed in a different way. He then travels forward in time to the future to find the answer to why he cannot change the past.

This premise is actually pretty good. Like the 1960 movie, he stops in the near future first and witnesses the effects of war and progress, but he also meets a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) who helps provide necessary exposition and some subtle comic relief. The librarian character is totally new and I actually think he services and amplifies the story in an innovative way.

Again, the time travel sequences are really well done (this time with computerized special effects). The impressive images and swelling score captures the breadth of change on a cultural and geological scale.

1.21 gigawatts?!

1.21 gigawatts?!

Lastly, the Time Machine itself. Both films feature similar designs for the title apparatus. Both feature a barbershop chair, home-made doorknob cranks, a spinning mechanical calendar, and a huge disc positioned behind the passenger. Rod Taylor’s machine looks a bit like a steampunk swamp-mobile and Guy Pearce’s incorporates two large, spinning thingies that create a time envelope around the entire machine (looks like a shiny, giant hamster ball). Seriously, both time machine designs are awesome.

The Bad

I insist both films have some great setups and great gadgets and both Time Travelers are played by fine actors and both have at least one solid supporting cast member. Their depictions of Victorian England/New York are well done and the time travel sequences are fantastic. But then we get to the future. Both Time Travelers make a few pleasant and intriguing stops along the way before the year 802,701 AD, but once at their final destination the films seem to be on autopilot.

time machine comparison 2

Everything leading up to 802,701 had been changed or expanded upon from the original novel. The changes were appropriate and added dimension and soul. But Wells’ future loses all social significance in both films and the filmmakers (George Pal and Simon Wells) seem unsure of what to do with the Eloi and the Morlocks and the context of two opposing races of humans where one feeds on the other.

While neither film gets the Eloi or the Morlocks quite right, the 1960 version does come closer. Both versions insist on making the Eloi too human, while the book describes them as nonverbal alien babies with no long-term or short-term memory. But all movies seem to require romance and since he cannot fall in love with a Morlock, the Time Traveler naturally develops feelings for an Eloi girl (Weena, played by Yvette Mimieux in 1960 and Mara, played by Samantha Mumba in 2002). In the 1960 version, Rod Taylor gets appropriately frustrated with the Eloi and eventually pities them and their broken culture. In 2002, Guy Pearce is just innocently learning the ways of a somewhat naive but defined culture that vaguely resembles Native American societies. . . or Ewoks.

Mumba vs. Mimieux

I understand why they humanized the Eloi so much. The filmmakers probably don’t think an audience would go for our protagonist being truly alone with no real good guys versus bad guys. That said, the Morlocks also suck. 1960 has blue, dopey sumo guys with furry arms and lovehandles—but their eyes do glow! They also get killed way too easily to be scary, but at least their design in more interesting than in the 2002 version.

time machine morlocks

The newer movie has boring, beige, gorilla-like Morlocks that are big but not scary. . . until we meet the Uber-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons (The Mission). Irons is the smartest person in this future and he is able to relate all the horrors of the past few millenia and even is able to answer the Time Traveler’s question. Unfortunately he only has about 5 minutes of screentime and his character feels tacked on (because the movie needed a clear villain).

The 1960 version has a Rod Serling-esque nightmare Eloi harvest. A siren calls the complacent Eloi to parade quietly into the Morlock sphinxes. It is an inbred Pavlovian memory of the air-raid sirens that told their ancestors to flee underground. The 2002 update rips off The Planet of Apes (1968) round up scene. Big guys in suits chase and capture dudes who look like extras from Apocalypto.

time machine12

Stand back. There’s a giant Bugs Bunny around here somewhere.

Ultimately

I actually like both films to a degree. I really do enjoy the George Pal version from 1960, despite a weaker third act (that is somewhat resurrected through Morlock massacre and Filby’s adorable conclusion back in the past). The structure is good and it’s a very well done science-fiction film that just loses its way ever so slightly after 802,701 AD. It’s a solid movie that might underplay the social satire and not do justice to the Eloi or the Morlocks, but it makes up for it with great characters, atmosphere, and pleasant bookends.

And that's how I did it.

And that’s how I did it.

The Simon Wells 2002 adaptation has a solid and thoughtful beginning and setup that unfortunately devolves into a weak action movie after 802,701. It royally screws up the Eloi and removes the darkness from the Morlocks (with the exception of the added Jeremy Irons character in the homsetretch). It doesn’t totally work, but it doesn’t totally suck either. It just can’t consistently deliver the goods the way it should.

For all their flaws, both movies have some charm, pleasing eye candy, and add some of their own intriguing elements to Wells’ original novel. The Morlocks as depicted in Wishbone were better, but I’d still recommend checking out these guys again.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30th, 2013.

The Other Toy Story

Nighty night.

Nighty night.

Jiří Barta is renowned as a master of stop-motion animation. He is hailed alongside fellow Czech animator, Jan Švankmajer. He has also had a dickens of a time getting a new movie made, but he has finally done it. Jiří Barta’s latest creation, the feature film In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? (2009) (aka Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?) [update: recently released on DVD in the US with English dubbing under the title Toys in the Attic], is a wonderfully imaginative fairytale adventure. I was blessed enough to see it for the LA premiere at the Silent Movie Theater for their animation festival.

Scenes from Golem.

Scenes from Golem.

Some of the most innovative animators in the world seem to be coming from Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe. Names like Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales), Alexander Petrov (The Mermaid), Karel Zeman (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ivan Maximov (From Left to Right), Jiří Trnka (The Cybernetic Grandma), George Pal (Tubby the Tuba and Puppetoons), Jan Balej (One Night in One City), Ivan Ivanov-Vano (The Battle of Kerhzenets), Jan  Švankmajer (Dimensions of Dialogue), Władysław Starevich (The Mascot), and Barta are all names to look out for. If any of these names are mere foreign words to you, then you definitely need to check out some of their brilliant work.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

In the Attic represents Jiří Barta’s return to stop-motion animation after several years of trying to get his failed Golem project off the ground (and the small amount of footage he did produce for Golem is nothing short of staggering). Barta has achieved much recognition for his enchanting short animated films (many of which can be seen in the excellent Barta DVD compilation Labyrinth of Darkness), but has completed only one previous featurelength movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985). Unlike the dark, gnarled near-nightmarescape of Pied Piper, however, In the Attic is a far gentler film and made to be appreciated by children.

Check out Pied Piper, it is also quite good.

Barta’s newest movie is a richly textured, quiet, and tranquil story punctuated by some fun action and brilliant cinematic innovation and magic. At heart In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a light rescue movie filled with fun characters, exciting peril, cross-country journeys, and wild vehicles. It is the story of old toys in an attic and although the subject matter might remind you of Pixar’s Toy Story, the dazzling inventions will hearken back to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit adventures, while the style remains more reminiscent of the opening of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and some things dreamed up by the Brothers Quay or Švankmajer. In the Attic might remind you of all of these things, but it is all Jiří Barta.

Choo choo.

Choo choo.

The story is simple and sublime and despite being geared at children it does have some potent anti-communist political themes. It takes place, quite aptly, in an attic—the rest of the title comes from the recurring gimmick of the characters rolling the dice every morning to decide whose birthday they will celebrate that day. Buttercup is a sweet little doll who lives in an old trunk in the attic along with her friends; the sleep-loving Teddy, a tattered stuffed bear; the quixotic Sir Handsome, a battered and delusional marionette; and the feisty Schupert, a ball of clay with a pencil nose. She cooks and cleans for them and the boys go off to work on the railroad or fight inflatable alligators and all is idyllic tranquility (so women’s lib). Indeed, I was beaming with delight and my smile could not be suppressed by the sheer cuteness of the whole spectacle.

Buttercup.

Buttercup.

Naturally, conflict must enter in on the scene and disturb the quaintness of it all (unless you happen to be Hayao Miyazaki, who doesn’t seem to require villains to tell a great story). A mechanical tube with a human-like eyeball spies the peaceful lives of the attic denizens, reporting back to its master via an old television set that is obsessively monitored by a ruthless, old, cigar-chomping, golden bust with Hunter S. Thompson shades and an entourage of bugs and mismatched bits of rubbish. The tarnished voyeur spies Buttercup in her tatterdemalion serenity and concludes that he must have her for himself. Perhaps he thought of it himself or perhaps the nasty earwig with spectacles and a Dalí mustache who whispers wicked things into the head’s ear put the idea in his brain.

The puppet master?

The puppet master?

The evil golden head deploys hordes of beetles to terrorize poor Buttercup and hires a house cat to don clothing and trick the doll girl into stumbling into his bent corner of the attic. Once inside the land of evil, Buttercup is placed under arrest until she agrees to wed the head. She is forced to clean out the furnace all day and all night while the head’s cronies only dump more soot and ash on top of her whenever she gets done. Buttercup remains defiant to all of the head’s advances.

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

Back on the other end of the attic, Sir Handsome and Teddy discover their beloved Buttercup is missing. Together they start on a quest to bring her back from the land of evil. A brave lady mouse—who runs the attic radio—tinkers together to construct a flying machine out of an old vacuum cleaner and other discarded junk. She and a plump piglet toy band together with all of the other little toys and scraps (mostly wooden chess pieces) and fly out to meet Teddy and Sir Handsome who are already well on their way.

Pillows bloom and rise out of old dressers and steadily rise only to link together and snow on them like big, fluffy clouds. The cat opens up a wardrobe unleashing an inundation of blue sheets, cloaks, and fabrics to represent a terrible flood for the traversing toys. Most of the perils are truly imaginative and, yes, adorable.

What fun.

What fun.

At last our heroes meet up together, but then are plagued by more moth-eaten horrors sent by the golden head in the land of evil. The golden head has spies everywhere and will not tolerate simple toys trespassing on his side of the attic, nor will he risk Buttercup’s emancipation before he can brainwash her and make her his. Don’t worry. Things get hairy, but it all works out in the end and Barta has more animation tricks up his sleeve to share before this delightful excursion comes to a pleasing finale.

The Head.

The Head.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a beautiful film with much to love and to look at. It is sweet and charming and full of imagination and quirky gimmicks—like Teddy’s vanity when he shines his nose and brushes his teeth incessantly or Schubert’s battle to stay in one piece during a rainstorm on the roof—and the entire family is sure to enjoy it. I do admit that I love the Toy Story movies, but there is a big difference between these films and much of it has to do with the animation style. The slick and beautiful computer generated world of Toy Story is colorful and complex and it reminds me of certain toys I had growing up, but In the Attic is rich like a quilt made by your great-great grandmother. The characters of In the Attic feel like toys that always were. Where Toy Story’s characters are more like adults who understand the preciousness of the love of a child and depend on it yet banter and reason like grownups, In the Attic’s characters are independent and have the personalities and subtleties that only a child would give them during playtime. In addition to actually being three-dimensional they behave as I would imagine toys would behave had they lives outside of a child’s imagination.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

All in all In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a rare treat. It’s a completely innocent child’s fairytale full of adventure and friendship. It’s rich in nostalgia and imagination and it’s really cute. As I sat in the theater and let the simple, dully colored, tattered figures do their dance, I wanted to believe in this attic universe. It felt like how I always imagined my grandfather’s basement to be when I was a kid. His basement was full of old gadgets, toys, objects, pictures, and furniture and I always suspected that whenever I turned off the lights that it had a mind of it own.

Schupert.

Schupert.

Although still not available on home video, I have since emailed the production company of this film and they have responded with hints of an English dub for re-release for British and American theaters and possibly a subsequent DVD/bluray release. Let us hope that we may soon obtain copies and curl up under an old blanket by the fire and watch it with our families. [Update: yeah, scratch all that. It’s out now].

Top 1o Reasons to See In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?

1. It’s an adorable movie the whole family can enjoy.

2. It marks a legendary animator’s return to his craft.

3. They travel by land, air, and sea on their quest.

4. The mechanisms and social structure designed by the characters in the film are really clever and fun to watch.

5. It has deeper political themes instead of tired pop-culture references for the adults in the audience.

6. Jiří Barta fashions an entire world with its own rules and it is a pleasure to admire.

7. It’s got it all: damsels in distress, heroes, villains, monsters, adventure, inventions, and comedy.

8. If Švankmajer’s Alice was too dark or weird for you then this is a good alternative.

9. Teddy’s cheeks when he smiles are so freaking cute!

10. There is a weird thing with a pocket watch toward the end that is amazingly cool.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 13, 2010