Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: The Magic Voyage

Here's the second of two movie reviews I wrote in 2012 but haven't published until now.

The Magic Voyage

Dom DeLuise is the voice of Christopher Columbus in a retelling of his voyage to the New World in which he is best friends with a talking woodworm voiced by Corey Feldman. Yes. That is a thing that happened, and evidence of it still exists in this realm.

Director: Michael Schoemann, 1992

I am a member of the second and final generation to grow up with stores that rented videos. Once a week, we'd go down to the local tape rental and I would select a movie based on what the back of the cardboard sleeve said. In retrospect, most of what I saw was crap, and I simply didn't have enough experience to recognize the difference between good and bad. I don't even remember the names of most of the movies, but when I recognized one of them at the thrift shop, I decided to compare past and present impressions.

Sure, he's mad now, but his hair appears to be clapping, and how long can a man with clapping hair stay mad at anything?

"The Magic Voyage" is a partially singing, crudely animated, not-quite-all-star cast interpretation of Christopher Columbus' trip to the New World. That it takes liberties with the story is to be expected, because a children's story needs good guys and bad guys, not a bunch of pro-and-con arguments about how one guy might have totally ended up ruining two whole continents for everyone who was already living there. History is complicated. Cartoons are not. Thus, "The Magic Voyage" presents Columbus as an affable stooge who believes the world is a cube. He is voiced by Dom DeLuise. He is the Columbus we deserve.

The movie opens with a bunch of seagulls fighting over a fish in a port, interfering with a dock worker and causing him to drop a crate full of books. Out of one of the books comes our protagonist, Pico the Woodworm, who shoulders a tiny bindlestick and sings to the fourth wall about how he used to be a bookworm. He's then set upon by one of the seagulls and escapes up a mooring line to a ship. Here we encounter Christopher Columbus, angrily consulting his charts and oddly shaped globes before throwing them out the window. He mournfully consults the last one, the cube, before Pico introduces himself by chewing all the corners off of it, making it sort of a sphere.

The two immediately form the sort of classic man-xylophage friendship that inevitably leads to a shared musical number.

So, time to take stock. It's just over six minutes into the film and we've been introduced to square-Earth-Columbus by narrator Mickey Rooney, who never returns; we've watched a singing woodworm outwit a seagull by drilling through its beak; and we've heard Dom DeLuise say "My mappa, she sure stinka." Gird your loins. There are 76 more minutes of this.

When I was a kid, I'm not sure I ever saw a cartoon I actually disliked, but the flip side of that coin is that I got too lost in bright colors to actually appreciate quality. In other words, I - and God knows how many other children who are now old enough to drive, vote, and take out crushing student loans - liked seeing animation so much we didn't register any of the aspects that make it good or bad.

Pictured: Bright colors. Not pictured: Squash and stretch. Bonus: The woman in green is actually gyrating pretty quickly for no apparent reason.

For instance, one of the tenets of good animation is "squash and stretch," often summed up in as an animated loop of a bouncing ball. When the ball hits the floor, it deforms on impact before popping back up and resuming its original shape. The technique of squash and stretch is key to making things that change shape look realistic, and "The Magic Voyage" does not have this. The finished project has lines with all the squash and stretch of overcooked spaghetti, causing faces to billow and collapse and bodies to twitch and shuffle. On the plus side, Corey Feldman is a talking woodworm who does his own singing.

Columbus did not pay for that pie.

Columbus and Pico drive to the castle in town, where they plan to shop Columbus' ideas on navigation to King Ferdinand. In doing so, they (and passers-by) share in a musical number where the refrain is "All because I met a fella like you," which sounds like something a down-on-his-luck Tarantino villain would say while spitting blood.

They then arrive at the hall of inventors just in time to watch King Ferdinand and his henchman, Stupedo, throw a man in a flying machine out the window. He is saved from certain death by landing in a tree on the way down, but the other inventors are spooked enough to run away, leaving only Columbus.

I'm sure this is completely historically accurate.

Ferdinand doesn't take well to Columbus or his chewed-up globe, but the incredibly hammered Queen Isabella does. They are voiced by Dan Haggerty and Samantha Eggar, who sound like they're in a sporting contest to see who can be more ridiculous. Columbus gets invited to eat dinner with them. Isabella fawns all over him to the point that Pico gets disgusted and leaves, while Ferdinand sits at the other end of the table and breathes angrily through his mouth. It's a hard thing to watch your wife, who already looks like a partially deflated blow-up doll, hit on a man with a child's-coffin-shaped head.

Outside, Pico climbs up a tower with a light in the window, where he meets Marilyn the fairy (or "firefly," as the tape case insists), who tells him her tragic story. She was originally from the land of Terrible Analog Effects, where all the firefly-fairies live, but was kidnapped by the Swarm. The Swarm is a huge swirling cloud of insects that wanted the firefly-fairy magic for itself, and didn't believe Marilyn when she said it couldn't be used for evil. So she's locked in this tower.

 Trying to drive here at night is hell.

Marilyn is voiced by Irene Cara. If you don't know her by name, she's the singer of "What a Feeling," which she also co-wrote, from "Flashdance." In case you were wondering what happened to the refugees of the 1980s once all the leg warmers were buried, now you know. Pico naturally wants to help her escape, but he only succeeds in alerting the Swarm to his presence, and Marilyn is spirited away across the ocean. Well, damn.

Fortunately, King Ferdinand gives Columbus some ships to be rid of him and the next day they're off. En route, Pico is attacked by some ship rats (formerly harbor rats his got to leave him alone there by telling them there was food on the ships) and Columbus' crew finds out he's friends with a woodworm and starts to turn on him.

This picture gets even better if you try to imagine Dom DeLouise singing "Down with the Sickness." Seriously, just take a minute and try that.

Columbus then breaks out his accordion and tries to whip the crew into a not-killing frenzy with a song about seamanship. It is easily the best song in the movie. Consider this sample from the chorus:

The life of the sea is the life for me,
No lovers of land are we;
La la la la, la la la la,
La la la la la la

I wish I could say that the crew strung him up right then and there ("The Magic Voyage" has a LOT of strangling and strangling-type violence), but the tune actually placates them long enough for Columbus to turn in for the night. No, what actually prompts the crew to drag him out of bed and hang him is the sight of a derelict Viking longboat manned by skeletons. As they're hauling him up, Columbus spots land off in the distance and tries to tell them, but they don't listen. And it is at this point that the Swarm attacks.

This Swarm, here.

The Swarm is really the only part of this movie that held up to the expectations of my eight-year-old self. The idea of a cloud of insects that can think and act as one, as well as use the voice of Dan Haggerty, is objectively terrifying. Smile all you want from your black and white headshot on the back of the tape sleeve, Haggerty, but you are the voice of childhood terror. And also King Ferdinand, from earlier, but mostly childhood terror.

All the animation problems that undermine the rest of the film actually make the Swarm look that much more fearsome. Wobbliness and the whole squash-stretch problem look, if anything, appropriate in a huge cloud of flying insects. It shape-shifts from one pissed-off form to another as it attacks them, a huge cloud of angry, angry pencil scribbles. It's like some kind of childhood entertainment elemental, as though the medium of animation had summoned a champion to cull its own ranks.

"Well, that's animation school, folks. You can all go as soon as you can draw yourselves diplomas freehand."

As the swarm departs, having thoroughly trounced the crew, the ship abruptly runs aground. Columbus originally had three ships when he left Spain, but now we're somehow down to one. Columbus, wearing only his boxers and the noose, lasts long enough to plant the flag for Spain on the beach before passing out.

In a nearby Mesoamerican pyramid, the Swarm wakes Marilyn from her prisoner's sleep inside a solid gold idol to tell her that Pico is dead. Pico is not actually dead, although he is floating face-down in a puddle on the beach. There he is rescued by the last and most ridiculous major character, Bob the Beaver, whose house the ship ran over.

Bob meets up with Pico, who he drags out of the puddle, and the two remaining rats. As the rats pull themselves free from the wreckage, one comments to the other that the third one was knocked out cold. (They do have names, but their weird voices prevented me from understanding them.) This point always intrigued me: Did the guy who voiced the third rat die or quit the movie halfway through voice recording or something? I suppose I may never know.

"Well, the last thing I remember is throwing the stereo into the pool."

Those of you who know virtually anything about North American wildlife probably just asked yourselves why you've never seen a beaver in a documentary about tropical wildlife, and the answer is, of course, that they don't actually live quite that far south. And that would be the end of it, except that this is the one thing in the entire movie that they actually tried to explain. Not the loss of the other two ships, or why the king and queen of Spain were living on the coast when the capital city at the time was 200 miles inland in every direction. No, one of the rats asks Bob what he's doing here, and he explains that he was working on a dam that collapsed, and he woke up here. Sure.

Bob, Pico and the two rats march off into the jungle towards the temple. Columbus expresses fear of whatever "jungly-wungly things" might be out there, but, after looking over his shoulder for the requisite forest-full-of-eyes shot, runs after them.

There's something about this picture that really just sums up the entire Internet for me. For truly, are we not all climbing giant honeycombs in our boxers?

When they finally make it inside the temple they encounter a huge honeycomb, with the Swarm swirling around the top of it, guarding Marilyn and the idol. Columbus, blind with gold-lust, clambers up the side of the comb while Bob chews through the bottom. Pico drills up through to rescue Marilyn.

Having reached the top, Columbus sticks his hand into the Swarm but yanks it back, thinking for a moment that his fingertips are gone before remembering to unfold his hand. (The problem with this gag has always been that you can't fool both the character and the viewer with it; only one of them is going to see it from the proper perspective.) So he whips up a rag puppet out of the tattered Spanish flag he's been wearing as a cape, gives it a pep talk, and sticks it into the Swarm, which is moving so fast that the puppet catches fire.

Columbus battles the Swarm (mostly by dodging and being strangled) while Pico and Marilyn escape and Bob chews the rest of the way through the bottom of the honeycomb. The whole thing collapses, bringing Columbus and the idol down on the Swarm, smushing it flat.

Still less racist than Disney's "Peter Pan."
Then the temple collapses too, because why not, and the protagonists ride a nearby river to safety. They encounter some natives... who are actually grateful to Columbus for squishing the Swarm. They allow him to keep the golden idol, and everyone is happy.

There are a few additional points of context that should be shared. "The Magic Voyage" was originally released in German. Lord only knows what their versions of the musical numbers were like. I like to think it was all done by Rammstein.

 "Du hast?"

Additionally, "The Magic Voyage" was, according to the IMDb, the most expensive animated film ever made in Germany at the time, costing $14.5 million. That's the perfect opening for more jabs at the production values, but I think I've made my point and can ease up. Truthfully, the character designs, however poorly executed in the animation, are quite good, and the quality of the backgrounds is as good as anything from the classic age of Disney, which was no doubt the intent.

In fact, everything about this movie suggests that a group of people watched a whole lot of Disney without understanding any of it, from the poorly spaced musical numbers to the excessive use of talking animals. Only the idea of an angry cloud of insects that otherwise possesses the standard characteristics of a kids' movie villain is something that is completely unique. It will likely remain that way until Michael Crichton's "Prey" is adapted for film.

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