jueves, 15 de enero de 2015

The Fearless Four (1997)

This article contains lots of SPOILERS, read it at your own risk!

So... it’s been a while since I last posted something... er... non-idiotic here xD So, let’s jump right into my newly discovered gem.

Well, not quite, because I’d like to tell you about the context first, because that’s an important part for me (since almost everything I ended up loving came from an unexpected source). You see, I was playing a visual version of our beloved «Guess That Cartoon Character» over a Watership Down forum when someone posted a picture from this movie... I obviously didn’t recognize where it was from, as I didn’t even know that the movie existed, but I worked with what I had at hand (this picture) and I finally had it figured out. I was kind of amazed at the image of these animals holding instruments and singing, because I LOVE animal cartoons AND musicals, so that looked promising. A few hours later, I found a watchable copy of the darn thing lying on YouTube (yes, I also thought it was weird to have it there when it’s YT especially to yank things out).

Let’s just say that I was reasonably excited about the movie when it first started, but let me tell ya that not even ten minutes in, I was blown away by it. I mean, what would you say if your movie starts off by playing a song that contains this image?:

(And yes, that’s a vixen).

Upon to that point, I realized that I was digging up gold.

But okay, enough beating around the bush... let’s talk about the plot.

The movie is loosely based on the popular children’s book «Town Musicians of Bremen» by Brothers Grimm and even when it takes a LOT of liberties, the results are quite amazing and actually enjoyable. The movie plays it wisely at introducing the characters, because it doesn't spend a lot of time with neither of them, but nails everything it has to without becoming a nuisance. Take Buster the Dog for example, it is stated that he LOVES music and hates to be pulled by the tail, so the first two things he does are exactly those: he sings to and dances with a Vixen and breaks a place apart when some fool pulled him by the tail. The same happens with the rest of the characters, and their introductions are equally as solid... Gwendolyn the Cat finds herself about to get killed because her owner died and the people who inherited her house are forced to take charge of her in order to get the heritage, but they don’t want to do that, as they hate her... so they figured that she can have «a little accident» of her own (who’s gonna blame them? They though, but then again, they tried to POISON her... so, yeah). Fred the Donkey it’s probably the most heartfelt and honestly sweet character of them all, so you ended up feeling bad for him when his master punishes him for his signing and a little more when he does everything he can to demonstrate that the animal is no longer useful at the farm (going as far as to overload his back with a DOZEN of sacks)... and by the time he is sold by meat to the local butcher, the whole thing has become ridiculously sad... but that’s not all, now is it? Fred’s introduction works in yet another way... because is in this precise part that the movie does the most blatant use of CGI yet (it did it a few times before, but this was the very first «full-size» use of it in the movie) in the form of a giant robot that is, of course, accompanied with a song (a good song I should add). And you know what? For a movie made two years before Wakko’s Wish this really doesn't look all that bad either. The CGI work is kind of amazing and it really makes me wish that more movies would have done this.

The last of our heroes is Tortellini the Rooster (amazingly voiced by the Italian singer Zucchero Fornaciari). He is more of less the comic relief of the group and is also responsible for a number of shameless actions (including auto-proclaiming himself to be the leader of the group). His introduction has him leaving the farm in which he spent all his life (having reached a god-like status amongst most young females) because of an argument he had with the leader of the Chickens. Upon being released from the cage he was trapped in, he begins to show off to the others, going as far as to compare himself to Michael Jackson AND Elvis. Such a great character.

Now, the way the group is assembled is actually pretty clever, and deserves a deeper exposition. After being sold to a taxidermist and tearing the place apart, Buster flees his home and finds himself resting under a tree, minding his own business, with no rush into thinking what to do next. At the exact same spot, the truck that was carrying Fred to the slaughterhouse was attacked by a swarm of bees, and the old Donkey ended up landing at the same tree, while said truck continued it’s way without noticing the missing load... now, the unexpected twist is that the truck rotated the road signs, and thus our heroes are now accidentally heading to Bremen, even when they had decided to go to Paris instead. With all fairness, they DO realize this before reaching said city, but only to learn that there’s no pleasure in what lies ahead.

This is good, however, because now they are in time to hear Gwendolyn sing «Big girls don’t cry», one of the best songs in the movie. Oleta Adams (her voice-actress) puts a lot of soul into the number, and the results are quite touching without being too sad, reverting the classic "Disney" formula that tends to be so common in movies like this. Now, even when I DO like the character, I can’t help but find it weird that she lived BEYOND the road sign, and she still couldn't tell the others that they were heading to Bremen instead of Paris. But that’s a minor «mistake» that does not reduce the quality of the movie by any means.

By the time they get Tortellini, the group has grown in a very bizarre zoo that I really really like. I also like that the people who made this movie did not portray these guys in a generic way. It would have been SO easy for them to make them clash personalities without too much through involved, but fortunately, that didn't happen. Not even when they are lost in the woods at night, without a clue of what to do next they start to argue. This makes for more solid characters than your usual group of unrelated friends. Now, by the time they reach Bremen, they find out that the whole city is under a dictatorship that has forbidden all forms of art (especially music). How they got away with that, (being Bremen a German city), it's beyond my comprehension.

And speaking of the city, ever since they first set a paw on it, they kept running into a mouse composer (who kinda looks like Mozart) that desperately tried to get the group to play his music... only to be turned down every time. Now, this is a pretty enthusiastic fellow as he proceeds to follow the group around, trying to get them to play his compositions... heck, he even goes as far as to save their necks at some point and they STILL refuse to do what he wants. These guys are a little harsh, and the best reply he can got out of them is an unenthusiastic «that’s blackmail!» from Tortellini, as he offers to trade the way to escape from a cell in exchange for a concert.

Also on the city topic... there are big signs stating that the music is strictly forbidden there, and very first thing the group do is... play a song. This works because the people tried to ignore them at first, but they were slowly joining in with the music and by the time the song hits its -short- climax, most people is listening. This leads to one of the crudest moments of the movie: as the group is still playing their song, the car of the local «dictator» appears on the block, two of his goons are ready to «silence» (this is not stated, but it’s perfectly clear to the viewer) their concert... but of course that doesn’t happen, as their boss tells them that he has «other plans» in mind. The three step out of the car and offer the group a contract (and isn’t that amazing that the bad guys hire a BAND to appease the people about the fact that there’s no more MUSIC? I’m not criticizing the movie, it is just funny). Anyway, the group accepts the offer just because Tortellini says so, and that’s another thing I love about this quartet, they don’t like their self-proclaimed leader and yet, they do nothing to stop him.

Upon to that point, they seem to have succeeded at their goals: they have a nice play to stay and are making music for a living. But of course it couldn’t have been that easy, as they are forced to play the same annoying propagandist jingle over and over (until they are actually sick of it... literally), and are forbidden to play their own music. Unbeatable as they are, however, they soon come out with an idea to get rid of their enslaving contract... they change some of the lyrics of the annoying jingle during a live broadcast, making their employees look like the dictators they really are... but that doesn’t work either, as they are thrown in a prison instead of being freed (their plans tend to fail a lot, get used to that).

Anyway, they are finally released by their rodent stalker/friend (whose name seems to actually be Mozart according with some sites, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure that this is never mentioned in the flick) and a little help from an enraged Buster, whose tail was pulled by accident in the cell (with the expected results). Ummm... where was I? Oh yeah, while they are leaving the place, they overhear the bad guys talking about a new machine they are about to build called «Fast Food Sausage Machine!» (because aside from being rulers of the area, they also make sausages). This means bad news though, as they soon find out that the bad guys are making meals out of pretty much every wildlife they can put their hands on (and I mean it too). They way in which their discovery is animated is one of the highlights of the movie (I will try to make an analysis on the animation at the end of this). They fell off the ceiling, landed on flat, gray concrete and we only have their disgusted expressions to figure out what’s going on... then the camera pulls out to reveal a large room full of cages, spins around a little bit, and then quickly zooms into some of them. The effect (accompanied with some fitting music) it’s actually pretty effective and gives the shot the exact feeling it should have.

After such shocking finding, they start to rush to find a way to free the animals imprisoned there. Mozart fixes the prototype of the «Fast Food Sausage Machine!» (which has no blades or anything really harmful yet) and they send Tortellini as their scout thru the machine, hoping to get to the center of the facility in time to prevent the animals from being shipped to the slaughterhouse. I like how they remark the Rooster that he is THEIR LEADER when he hesitates. Perfect payback (although their «he is alive!» expressions sounded a little too surprised to me, almost as if they weren’t expecting that. Between the constant harassment of the rodent and this here, this guys are really evil sometimes). These few sequences are full of really good CGI too. They really cared about the visuals on this.

Their plans are foiled once more (big surprise) but they -and with that I mean Gwendolyn- come up with the idea of coming back to the prision, telling the bad guys that they have changed their minds and are ready to perform on stage once more. The sole idea of these goons giving the group that has already back stabbed them once a second chance to do it again says a lot about their competence, but it also leads to one of the most mind-blowing pieces of music and animation that I have ever seen in my life: The Song of Freedom.

This song is everything you can expect from such a powerful title. It starts off really really good, showing us an incredibly good animated choreography sequence of the animals as their perform (this is top-notch), then the camera pulls off to reveal the reactions of both the villains and the public to the song. The bad guys with their angered faces, marked frowns and tight teeth are another highlight, but the gold has to go to the public... it is just amazing to see how they are realizing the kind of dictatorship they live in, and how the song is finally giving them the power to fight back. This sole sequence it’s worth the entire movie, and the public part deserves especial recognition... how they look at each other in confusion first, how they react angrily later... it is just too good, man.

After sabotaging the concert, their next objective is to scare the bad guys off... by recreating a beast «with eight eyes and at least fourteen legs» (and yes, this actually works). And after a pretty entertaining battle in which the slippery floors played a big part and CGI blended perfectly with 2D Animation, they finally made it, they got rid of the bad guys and freed all the animals trapped. Too bad that this last scene has the unfortunate consequence of killing every chance of a sequel, because not only the bad guys are gone, but they are killed off-screen too, so there’s no chance of them coming back. What a true shame.

The true ending comes a bit later, though, as Gwendolyn finally finds the jewels that her owner hid in a painting and nearly got her killed at the beginning of the film. She uses the money to create an animal shelter for all the animals they freed, and the movie goes black with yet another beautiful song, sung by her and Buster.

Conclusion: I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I thought I would. I gotta admit that my first encounter with this flick (thru the image that I linked at the beginning of the article) didn't give me the best impression either... to me it looked like a cheap animé about musical animals (a topic in which I'm certainly interested, but I wasn't expecting anything that good in return for my time). Boy I was wrong!

Is not only obvious that a lot of love went into making this flick (the vixen part at the first capture wasn't necessary and there it is, however, fully animated too) but it is also obvious that everybody involved in the production of this film was a very talented professional.

Some of the CGI effects (that I won't be tired of praising) are top-notch and we wouldn't be seeing something like that until several years later, in series like Invader Zim (and even there the technique was scantly used). The regular 2D Animation is also excellent, and I don't think that I will be able to find any mistake on it (not that I want to). Some of the designs are simply fantastic (the crowd at the theater during "Song of Freedom" is fantastically varied and detailed... not your average two guys cloned all over the place). On the other hand, the backgrounds aren't anything special (but that's the exception rather than the rule), and I didn't say that they look bad, they aren't THAT good, but they are good.

If I have to choose two highlights of the designs, I will have to go with Gwendolyn's dance during the aforementioned "Song of Freedom" and Dr Greed's design as a whole. The first one is a slow-placed choreography synched with the music and accompanied with great facial expressions to make a whole concert out of a 2D character, while our main villain looks like a (much healthier) extremely evil version of Mr Burns. We get a lot from that guy just by the way he walks across the room, and his silent expressions of pure rage say a lot to the viewer. He is one of the most engaging villains that I have ever seen, and that's in large part due to his design and the way he is animated. Kudos to people who made this.

As for the music... well, this IS a musical, so a little quality was something to be expected but... boy, this surpassed my expectations. As not every piece of animation it's a winner, not every song it's perfect, but most of them really are, and that's what it counts. Of course that most of the songs were written to either Oleta Adams or Zucchero Fornaciari but I was truly impressed by the rest of the main cast (mostly because I wasn't really expecting anything from them, but still); Mario Adorf (Fred's voice) and Bernd Schramm (Buster's) proved to be quite talented, and the two songs they sung "solo" stand out amongst the broader elements of the soundtrack due to the simplistic -yet a little over the top- rhythm they utilize.

Another memorable song is Powertool's (the gigantic CGI robot mentioned earlier in the article). His song -filtered to sound mechanic- is strangely catchy, even with all those filters giving it a graver tone. It was one of those things that could have gone incredibly right or incredibly wrong, and fortunately, this was a hit.

Woah, did I really write all this? Yeah... I better shut up now. But one last thing before that happens... Go watch the darn movie! It's worth it!

First posted here: http://80scartoons.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=27121#27121

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