Friday, December 14, 2012

Kiddie Lit-ter

Wise: Zzzzzzz...

Werth: Wake up, Wise.  It's time for Gab.
Wise: Sorry, work has been crazy and with the holiday season in full swing, I've been running myself ragged.  

Werth: You should relax.  Make yourself a hot chocolate and curl up with an old favorite book.  

Wise: I tried that. But I just nodded off.

Wise: Then maybe you should watch a favorite old book movie like The Hobbit which opens in theaters today. When I was a kid, Tolkien's book was all the rage and became a big screen cartoon starring the voices of John Huston, Otto Preminger, and Hans Conreid.

Wise: Popular childhood books always seem to make their way to the big screen. Published in 1952, Mary Norton's The Borrowers became an instant hit both in Great Britain and in the U.S.  The book features Arrietty, the adolescent daughter of Pod and Homily Clock, and her struggles as part of a tiny race of people known as Borrowers who live inside the walls of houses and make their living by "borrowing" from human "beans."  Their home is behind a hall clock inside an estate deep in the country, populated only by bedridden old Great Aunt Sophy and a cantankerous housekeeper and gardener.
Arrietty longs for companionship—the house is empty of little people except for her family—and she strikes up a tentative friendship with a human boy who has been sent to his great aunt in the country to recuperate from an illness.  Eventually, their friendship is discovered by her parents who insist she give it up and by Mrs. Driver, the cook, who enlists an exterminator to take care of what she thinks of as "vermin."  

Werth: I wish she would take care of my downstairs neighbor.

Wise: In the end, the Clocks must abandon their home and flee across the fields in hopes of finding other Borrowers who emigrated years before. It's something of a melancholy end to a book about loneliness, displacement and fear of the unknown.  The book's cliffhanger ending inspired four sequels and at least a half dozen film adaptations, each of which is more or less enjoyable, although none equal the original in emotional heft.  The book shares with a lot of other juvenile British classic a concern with the isolation of childhood and the fear of parental abandonment.  The films are mostly about special effects.  

Werth: Yeah, The Borrowers doesn't exactly lend itself to cinematic realism.

Wise: One of the earliest adaptations premiered in 1973 and starred Eddie Albert as Pod and Film Gab favorite Judith Anderson as a very tipsy Aunty Sophy.  Largely faithful to the book, the film suffers from an overly stately pace plus an expansion of the adult roles that leads to a lot of preening overacting by Albert that relegates Arrietty's longings to a subplot. 
Perhaps it's just as well because Canadian child actor Karen Pearson seems to have been cast more for her resemblance to Arrietty in Beth and Joe Krush's illustrations than for her acting ability.  Dennis Larson as the boy she befriends is even less compelling, although to be fair, both youngsters shared most of their scenes with a green screen instead of another actor.  

Werth: Judging from their IMDb movie resumes, I don't think we can blame the green screen. 

Wise: The 1997 Borrowers may be much less faithful, but it is filled with eye-popping special effects.  Exchanging Norton's late-Victorian setting for a storybook version of post-WWII England filled with late 20th century American product placements, the film is obviously attempting to capture the gross-out humor/kid revenge vibe of the Home Alone films.  John Goodman stars as Ocious P. Potter, a nasty lawyer invented for the film who is attempting to swindle away the house of the hapless Lender family.
Arrietty (Flora Newbigin) is joined by her screenwriter-invented younger brother Peagreen (a whiny Tom Felton before he went platinum and menaced a more famous Potter), and together they attempt to stop the villain with a lot of bathroom jokes and booby traps that tend to splatter.  Luckily, in this version Pod is played by Jim Broadbent who brings eager nobility and daft humor to help save the day.

Werth: Jim Broadbent's daft humor always saves the day.

Wise: There is also an adaptation written by animation genius Hayao Miyazaki for his Studio Ghibli that I haven't yet seen, although I've heard that it may come closest to capturing Norton's classic tale.   

Werth: While you're Netflixing that, some of my favorite books to read when I was a kid were about the ancient Greek myths. Like super-hero soap operas  from antiquity the stories of the Greek gods were a constant source of drama, lust and gore. And in 1981 director Desmond Davis brought all that fun to the big screen in Clash of the Titans. Clash tells the tale of Perseus, who starts off life being chucked in the ocean in a box with his mother because she had a baby out of wedlock.

Wise: Wow. I would think the ocean would have been full of boxes with babies and mamas.

Werth: Luckily for Perseus, the baby daddy is none other than king of the gods, Zeus (none other than king of the actors, Laurence Olivier). Zeus saves the boy and his mother and Perseus grows to be a strapping, bare-chested, pillow-lipped Harry Hamlin.

Wise: Pillow-lips seem to run in that family.

Werth: The plot of Clash, like the Greek myths it borrowed loosely from, becomes very complicated with Perseus' quest to save the beautiful Andromeda (Judi Bowker) taking him all over Greece. Perseus tracks down Stygian witches, battles Medusa, jousts with giant scorpions and faces off with the Kraken.
All this while a menagerie of gods bicker and vengeful ass-face Calibos (Neil McCarthy) does his best to kill the mighty hero. It's all great fun with a wonderfully campy crew playing Greeks and Olympians including Olivier, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress (they gave her one line), Sian Phillips and Burgess Meredith playing the Greek version of Mickey Goldmill.

Wise: Better Mickey than the Penguin.

Werth: But the real star of this film is legendary special effects god, Ray Harryhausen. Using good, old-fashioned stop-motion puppetry, blue-screens, and matte painting, Harryhausen brought all the fantastical creatures from myth to life, and while none of them
look realistic by today's CGI-obsessed standards, Harryhausen's pets were good enough to strike terror into kids' hearts everywhere—especially a certain kid whose worst ophidiaphobe nightmare is a snake chick who has more snakes for hair.

Wise: I'm surprised you survived your initial viewing.

Werth: Harry Hamlin's gams kept my eyes off Medusa. Clash earned a bucketload for MGM and was even resurrected in 2010 for a more tech-savvy audience. It is one of those films that holds a revered place in my heart, because whenever I see it, I'll always be the myth-obsessed nine-year-old who wondered what it was like to be a hero... or a lady with snake hair.

Wise: Well Werth, I'm officially relaxed.

Werth: Good, but don't get too relaxed. You have to be ready next week for Film Gab's Christmas Spectacular! 

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