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

The Eagles Are Coming: Birdemic!

There is a storm brewing on the horizon. Ever so ominously does it gather wind. The dark spectral clouds spread their terrible girth to blot out both sun and hope. Its power will be both awesome and inexplicable…to some. Has cinematic ineptitude triumphed once again? Yes. Yes, it has. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) has arrived and it is gradually picking up steam. I’d grab an umbrella if I were you.

...O...M...G...

…O…M…G…

For those of you who celebrate bad cinema and were wondering what—if anything—could possibly follow Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), wonder no more. I saw Birdemic at a sold out screening at The Silent Movie Theater (a place that has never let me down). There I witnessed firsthand the birthing of a growing cult. And writer/director/producer, James Nguyen, was there to answer questions following the show. It was a night to remember.

birdemic 2

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is the story of a quiet coastal town that is beset by extremely aggressive birds amidst all the human drama of a budding romantic relationship and an impromptu genesis of a makeshift family unit. If it sounds like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), it’s no wonder because Nguyen loves that movie and made this film as a respectful homage to it. Nguyen’s film is decidedly more ludicrous, but, I submit, equally entertaining. Protagonist, Rod (played by Alan Bagh with heightened vapidity reminiscent of Keanu Reeves on a really bad day), is in sales. Rod also has a horny best friend, a hybrid car (that never seems to go more than 12 miles per hour), a plan for inexpensive and efficient solar power, and he just met a girl he went to school with back in the day. Said girl, Nathalie (Whitney Moore who, God bless her, is trying), is a working model that just got a gig with Victoria’s Secret. She and Rod hit it off pretty well despite the absurd awkwardness of their first encounter and their abrasive lack of chemistry. Rod has got it pretty good. Sounds that way, doesn’t it? You’re probably thinking it would be pleasurable enough just watching Rod fill his car up with gas, close ambiguous million dollar sales from his woefully ill lit cubicle, and go on awkward date after awkward date with Nathalie. What more could a movie need? If you’re Birdemic you already know the answer: hordes of psychotically bad CGI eagles and vultures inexplicably dive bombing people (and exploding into flames) that represent a thinly veiled (or perhaps bludgeon-like) plea to stop global warming.

Revelations spoke of this.

Revelations spoke of this.

Soon our heroes (heroes?) are on the lam from their avian attackers. They pick up some new—and just as emotionally and intellectually absorbing—characters along the way. SPOILER ALERT: some will not make it to the end of the movie. FORTUNATELY: all the characters have the memory/attention span/I.Q. of goldfish thus rescuing the movie from getting bogged down in the senseless mourning for the dead. When a little girl can go from crying about eagles mercilessly slaughtering her parents on the roadside to complaining she wants a Happy Meal in only a few hours, you know this movie is not terribly preoccupied with the human condition…unless perhaps it is all a metaphor or scathing social satire (she was all smiles a few minutes after their death when presented with a Gameboy).

The screeching mayhem unravels the town and stretches the wills of all who fall victim to it, until at long last the birds just decide to leave. The end.

Hair?

Hair?

I’m getting sidetracked because it’s not about the plot. The hilarious acting, writing, directing, music, and cinematography all work together (or not) to make something that by all accounts and reasoning should be atrociously unwatchable, yet somehow this movie succeeds. Never before has nothing working together resulted in so much mirth…well, maybe not. Bad movie aficionados will recognize the obvious charm of excessive delusion. Wiseau’s The Room, Sam Mraovich’s Ben and Arthur (2002), Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), Rick Sloane’s Hobgoblins (1988), Antonio Margheriti’s Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983), Cetin Inanc’s Turkish Star Wars (1982), George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Vic Savage’s The Creeping Terror (1964), Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953), etc. are all watched today by happy movie schlock buffs. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror takes its rightful seat right next to the films I have just mentioned. And I’d rather watch these movies than the perplexingly popular Transformers.

Just hangin' out. Hangin' out. Hangin' out with my family. Havin' ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Just hangin’ out. Hangin’ out. Hangin’ out with my family. Havin’ ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Why do we remember and celebrate names like Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959) and Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961) while we tend to completely whitewash from our memory names like Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, 1939)? It is because these filmmakers, for better or worse have conspired to say something personal. They put all of themselves into their work. They were earnestly attempting to capture some of the greatness of the films they themselves loved. For some reason their failure is so complete that they achieve a kind of immortality. No one will remember a mediocre or merely bad movie, but everyone will remember the epically awful. There is a greatness and a power in that.  So I ask, did they really fail? They bring happiness and joy to millions of people. Is that not what good films are trying to do? Why do I still watch Godzilla movies? Because they delight me.

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

But what of the filmmakers themselves? Are they not distraught and humiliated that their finest work is presented as a laughable sideshow and monument to their own ineptitude at the craft they have devoted their lives to? Some are, yes. Denial, vanishing into obscurity, devolving into drugs and alcoholism, suicide attempts, etc. are all examples of some of the coping mechanisms of a few of these directors. Some, however, do find the humor in it all. It may not have been the recognition they were searching for, but their films are being celebrated and enjoyed by generations. That’s a magic that can only exist on its own. It’s a magic that cannot be manufactured. They had to believe in their work or it wouldn’t be funny.

James Nguyen

James Nguyen

James Nguyen seems to be taking things well. I’m glad. I don’t know whether he understands everything about his film or exactly what is fueling its mounting popularity. He knows people laugh at his movie. He knows he didn’t have the money he needed to fully realize his vision. He knows it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Seeing it in the venue I did—a sold out midnight screening—really made the experience too. Like the cult following The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), people jam-pack the theater and shout at the screen. Movie-going becomes much more lively and informal for films like this. It’s a special kind of audience with their own unique electricity in the air. It reminded me of the first time I saw Troll 2. It was with a large group of people, some had seen it already, others were new to it, but we all had a blast. People curled up into balls of mirth and collapsed rolling in the aisles for Birdemic. Mr. Nguyen brought that happiness to us.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

Nguyen is currently winding up for a sequel (set to be released this September). As he grabbed the glasses on my face and jerkily jiggled them, he crazily announced it would be in 3-D. Will it go the route of the Turkish Star Wars and Hobgoblins sequels; too self-aware to duplicate the unexpected magic of the original? Let’s hope not. In the meantime, let us support James Nguyen and his cock-eyed vision that is Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

[Update: The sequel has been completed and I wait with bated breath to see if it will live up to my ambivalent expectations…I have been informed that it is fun, but nowhere near the wondrousness of the original.]

 

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