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THE ROAD TO EL DORADO: fun but erratic animation lost to the ages (2000 In Film #13)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 31st, DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado

Though containing all of the elements you would imagine might make a rip-roaring, animated comedy adventure, The Road to El Dorado was, surprisingly, one of the biggest initial box office failures of the year 2000.

DreamWorks Pictures, founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, as an arm of his own Amblin studio, had up to this point been on something of an animated roll. Antz did well in the animated battle with the similar A Bug’s Life, from their rivals Pixar. The Prince of Egypt was a prestige animated picture, with a star cast and a blend of animation and musical picture elements in working to recapture the scale of The Ten Commandments for new audience. The Road to El Dorado was very much designed to follow suit in Katzenberg’s eyes – a sizeable rival to Pixar’s almost immediate, revolutionary skill with Toy Story, and part of a challenge to Disney’s long-held animated dominance.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, despite the alchemy that one would consider a recipe for success. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, both talented comedic and dramatic actors, voicing the lead characters; a clear and recognisable legend and setting with the 15th century and the lost city of gold; and even songs from Elton John & Tim Rice, who helped define 90’s Disney animation with their music for The Lion King. A sure-fire hit would almost certainly be a safe bet and while The Road to El Dorado opened fairly well, second on it’s debut weekend ahead of Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity while in the slipstream of the rampant Erin Brockovich, it soon plummeted to a worldwide gross twenty million under it’s hefty, near $100 million budget.

This is probably the main reason The Road to El Dorado has ended up forgotten in the annals of recent animated cinema: nobody went to see it.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

From the Vault #21: STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 20th, 2017, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.

Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.

The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.

From the Vault #20: STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 17th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

A million voices suddenly cried out, not in terror, but rather jubilation, upon watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The most hyped, anticipated and promoted motion picture probably in the history of cinema came with enormous expectation and pressure on JJ Abrams, an oft-divisive filmmaker (though heaven knows why), to equal the original Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas, which again are probably three of the most beloved, iconic movies in the history of the form.

What people wanted perhaps even more, however, was the lingering stench of Lucas’ three prequels to be expunged, having disappointed an entire generation of fans with three stilted, lacklustre additions to the Wars canon. Upon Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm three years ago, and Lucas’ subsequent relinquishment of the reins to his creation–having long insisted he would never make sequels to his original trilogy, even claiming so much as no plans ever existed (a blatant lie)–the universe lay open once again, ripe for reinvention and reintroduction. In a world of Marvel cinematic universes and multi-film franchises, Star Wars returning to claim global cinematic dominance was an inevitability. Multiple generations now, from kids new to the world to grandfathers who saw the movies as children themselves, all asked one unified question… would the Force be with a new trilogy?

The answer, resoundingly, is yes.

New Podcast: STREAMING WARS #1 – ‘Watchmen / His Dark Materials / V-Wars’

Welcome to my newest podcast on wemadethispod.com… the STREAMING WARS podcast!

I’ve wanted to put together a TV podcast for a while now given we’re entering an exciting age of streaming service rivalry and a bevy of TV every single month. There is always something to talk about, so every fortnight or three weeks with a new guest, I’ll be doing just that.

For this opening episode, I’m joined by Wynter Tyson, who last appeared with me on the Years and Years podcast earlier this year, to talk a cluster of new shows – Watchmen, His Dark Materials, V-Wars, plus Elizabeth Is Missing, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Vikings and more…

New Podcast: MOTION PICTURES #5 – ‘The Disney Paradox’ (Frozen II)’

The latest episode of my podcast about cinema with my friend and podcast buddy, Carl Sweeney.

Motion Pictures is designed to be more of an informal, free-flowing chat about movies, geared around a topic of the week. There will also be choice episodes around an idea, whatever takes our fancy really! It’s an exciting project.

As Frozen II arrives on the scene, we’re this week discussing Disney.

After decades producing some of cinema’s most beloved and well known animation, the House of Mouse have over the last decade under CEO Bob Iger expanded their dominant reach across Hollywood – Pixar, LucasFilm, Marvel Studios and most recently 20th Century Fox all now fall under the Disney umbrella.

But what does that mean for cinema itself? Disney now control a significant proportion of the global box office for 2019. They have just launched their streaming service in the States, Disney+, releasing original movies such as their life-action remake of The Lady and the Tramp as an exclusive for the service. They are actively curtailing screenings of certain classic pictures they now own by independent cinema chains as control over lucrative IP tightens.

Is their corporate hegemony likely to finance bigger and better franchises, providing exciting and varied entertainment to the masses? Or is it part of a creeping cinematic dystopia? A corporate subsuming of original ideas, vibrant talent, and cinematic revolutions which led to some of the greatest film movement of the last 100 years?

From the Vault #9: FROZEN (2013)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Frozen II arrives in cinemas, is from April 15th, 2016…

It’s hard to imagine a film, let alone just a Disney movie, which has had more of an impact on pop culture in recent years than Frozen.

A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee’s film went on to be a behemoth almost beyond reckoning; now sitting ninth in the top ten grossing films of all time, with Academy Awards at its feet and songs such as ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ that have evolved beyond the movie into TV musical talent shows and pop singles etc… it’s without doubt the biggest and most beloved of Disney musicals since the early 90’s successes of Beauty & the Beast or The Little Mermaid, indeed it almost feels at times like a throwback to both that age of Disney musical and the 1960’s classics beforehand.

Frozen, in fairness, deserves to stand toe to toe with such legendary musicals, as beyond the fact the animation is second to none, the whole piece is an absolute delight of a picture; brilliantly written and well performed songs that stay in the memory, terrific performances from Kristen Bell in particular as the voice of Anna, and a genuinely fun, witty script which tells a classic story damn well.

New Podcast Guest Appearance: WITHOUT A MOUSE – ‘The Love Bug’

Hosted by Disney fanatics and film fans Tim Henton and Chris Wilson, Without a Mouse is one of the podcasts on my network, We Made This.

Every fortnight, Tim and Chris look at a live-action Disney movie and see if it holds up from our modern perspective. With Chris away with the man flu, I stepped in and joined Tim alone to discuss one of my favourite childhood movies, 1968’s The Love Bug, starring Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle.

It was a real pleasure joining Tim for this as I grew up loving Herbie and the Disney movies featuring him, so revisiting The Love Bug after so long was an absolute joy. Hopefully I’ll be on again in 2020 talking Herbie Rides Again too…

Tony Talks #16: Me and Rakuten TV

The age of streaming is well and truly upon us, guys.

This, you already know. You no doubt subscribe to a wealth of different providers. If you’re in the States, you’re overloaded with cable channels alongside streaming giants. If you’re in the UK, satellite TV and the dominance of Sky has given way to Netflix or Amazon Prime, and soon the new big movers and shakers on the immediate horizon – Apple TV+ and Disney+. You even have, tucked away within Prime, a range of sub-channels depending on your taste – Mubi, StarzPlay, BFI, Shudder and if you want a reality TV fix, Hayu (though I doubt many readers of this blog are subscribers there…).

I’d like you to pause for a minute or two and consider another kid on the block. He’s been there for a while, lurking on your plasma smart TV’s, quietly waiting for a chance to impress. His name is Rakuten and he’s actually got some skin in the game, I’ve found recently. Here’s why.