Three G-rated, animated features open citywide today, allowing audiences to choose among a flawed masterpiece, a gargantuan toy commercial and an amateurish bore--the good, the bad and the ugly.
In many ways, "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) represents the culmination of Walt Disney's effort--begun in the 1930s with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"--to elevate animation to an art form. The Disney artists spent nearly six years endeavoring to fulfill Disney's demand for "a moving illustration" blending color, motion, design and sound into a film of extraordinary richness.
"Sleeping Beauty" will appeal more to the students and young adults who flock to contemporary fantasy films than to the children usually regarded to be the Disney audience. Its more fantastic elements--the cruelly beautiful sorceress, Maleficent; the climactic battle between Prince Philip and the Dragon of Evil; the vision of medieval life as an opulent pageant--have never been matched in a live-action film.
But the picture lacks the strong story line of the other Disney features. The central romance between Prince Philip and Princess Aurora isn't very interesting, and this Beauty sleeps for only a single night, rather than the 100 years of the original fairy tale. But these flaws become apparent only in hindsight; in the theater, the visual splendors of the film enthrall the viewer.
Sadly, "Sleeping Beauty" could not be duplicated today, even with three decades of technological advances. The art that could render the delicate grace of a waltzing princess or the feral power of an attacking dragon with equal facility has been debased into a vehicle for the formula movements of miniature robots and repulsively cute, stuffed animals.
Despite the recent spate of news stories about the efforts of various groups to protect children from exploitation, no one seems to be protecting them from advertisers, as the arrival of "Care Bears II: A New Generation" demonstrates.
"The Care Bears Movie," a badly animated toy commercial disguised as a diversion for children, earned more than $24 million last year--not counting the added product sales. The new film, a sort of prequel, is even more sloppily made and hawks its goods even more shamelessly. The Care Bear Cubs and the Care Bear Cousin Cubs--baby versions of the familiar characters--constitute the new line of toys, and the film makers do everything to spotlight those cubs except sell them in the lobby.
The ineptly told story features the hollow menaces, uninteresting villains, bland heroes, predictable confrontations and static animation that have become standards of the genre. The climax borrows so flagrantly from "Peter Pan" that it seems less an amusement than a case of animated larceny.
What makes the Care Bears so much more distasteful than other product characters, including the GoBots, is the attempt to disguise crass commercialism behind saccharine talk about "caring" and "feelings." The film makers seem more concerned with showcasing the toys than providing entertainment; shared profits obviously count for more than shared feelings. If someone started selling "Hate Bears," there undoubtedly would be a film about them.
The GoBots are a popular group of robot toys by Tonka that can be transformed: When their limbs are bent or twisted correctly, the figures turn into something else--airplane, car, scooter or tank, etc. They're already the subject of a syndicated television series; "GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords" represents their first appearance in a theatrical film.
Unfortunately, the story, script, voice actors and animation all prove less flexible than the toys, and the film never turns into entertainment. GoBots are more fun to play with than they are to watch.
Jeff Segal's script sounds like something written in Screen Writing 1A by a student who barely passed--the dialogue is crammed with cliches and unintended laughs. As the voices of various characters, Telly Savalas, Margot Kidder, Roddy McDowall and Michael Nouri overact shamelessly, proving that it's possible to mug even when you're not on camera.
Nor can the action carry the story. The characters manage to bluster, threaten, fight and trek through alien terrain without generating a shred of suspense or excitement. The good-guy GoBots are defeated so easily by the bad-guy Renegades in every confrontation except the final one that there's no reason to root for them.
Eight-year-old boys who collect toy GoBots and watch the television show may enjoy "Rock Lords," but anyone who hasn't made that kind of investment in the characters quickly will lose interest in this leaden exercise in ennui.