Episode #36 of The Swampflix Podcast: Disney Ride Movies & Ghoulies II (1988)

Welcome to Episode #36 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-sixth episode, we enjoy what’s left of the summer with a trip to cinematic amusement parks. Brandon makes Britnee watch the carnival ride-set Gremlins knockoff Ghoulies II (1988) for the first time. Also, Brandon & Britnee discuss Disney movies that were adapted from their corresponding theme park rides (as opposed to the other way around). Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

The Iron Giant (1999)

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I was a little surprised last year when Brad Bird’s live action Disney sci-fi epic Tomorrowland failed to find an audience, but I probably shouldn’t have been. For some reason, atomic age sci-fi throwbacks have an iffy history among moviegoing audiences, which has played to the detriment of films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Rocketeer, despite (in my mind) the genre’s easy likability. Given this track record, I guess what should more surprising than Tomorrowland’s lackluster response would be Brad Bird’s past success with making an actually popular atomic age throwback in the late 90s. The problem is that success was entirely critical & the movie financially flopped.

Brad Bird’s directorial debut, The Iron Giant, has earned a glowing reputation in the years since its release, but it bombed hard in the theaters, losing more than half of its production budget. I don’t know what it is about atomic age sci-fi that lends itself to slow-building goodwill instead of immediate success. Perhaps the era’s clean-cut suburban earnestness suggests a hokey aesthetic people associate with microwave popcorn on the couch VHS rentals instead of large group family outings to theater. Whatever the cause, Bird’s two stabs at the genre have both proven to be gambled-and-lost endeavors financially for major studios who’ve backed him. The difference between them is that The Iron Giant has had a consistently strong critical reception since its release, one that’s only grown as the children who did happen to catch it in the VHS rental era of their lifespan have grown up remembering it fondly. No word yet on if Tomorrowland will enjoy a similar kind of longevity in the public imagination, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The Iron Giant is an animated tearjerker about two out-of-place misfits who form an all-too brief friendship in the face of a world hellbent on tearing them down. One friend is a loner nerd middle school student who fills his days with adopting strange pets & his nights with watching 50s sci-fi schlock on television broadcasts. The other is a seamless combination of those two interests: a physically damaged space alien robot with the mind of a child. The unlikely pair form a sort of dual coming of age story while hanging out in a beatnik’s junkyard & evading persistent inquiries from the NSA. The human boy learns to take on responsibility & to adopt a “Who cares what those creeps think?” attitude towards his bullies. The gigantic robot learns to hate the very thing he’s designed to be (war & weaponry) & to exercise free will in a way that allows him to overcome his nature. Their greatest enemy is a warmongering G-Man just drooling to see the alien “invader” destroyed & their story plays out against a Cold War suburbia backdrop that contrasts the innocence of carefree youth with details like a duck-and-cover nuclear bomb scare film titled ATOMIC HOLOCAUST. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is how it provides a satisfying arc for both the boy and the robot, as well as an emotionally taxing climax, all while feeling like a relaxed hangout film about two buds being buds.

There’s a lot of interesting technical aspects to The Iron Giant that suggest Brad Bird came out of the gate as a strong directorial talent. First of all, the film knows the source material it’s evoking quite well, cobbling together plots from other sci-fi fare like Superman comics, giant robot stories, and alien invasion features into a single, The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable that makes great use of its various influences. The film also looks like a feature-length adaptation of a toy raygun, perhaps the most accurate evocation of the era’s style since Joe Dante’s Matinee. I’m not a huge fan of CG animation, but the way The Iron Giant‘s computer graphics mix with its hand drawn style actually serves the mechanical nature of its subject matter quite well. Even the sound design is on point, pulling great period setting authenticity from The Coasters song “Searching” & utilizing a rusted metal vocal performance from a Groot-mode Vin Diesel as the titular robot without overworking the gimmick. Bird’s first feature is an amazingly balanced work that impresses both in its narrative & technical proficiency as well as its ability to inspire a genuine emotional response. It’s downright bizarre that it didn’t immediately strike gold at the box office, but it’s also no wonder that it eventually found an enthusiastic audience once it hit home release.

Having only seen The Iron Giant & Tomorrowland once a piece, I can confirm that the former is the better work & totally deserving of its reputation as such. I’d like to think that there’s enough room in the world’s heart for both atomic age children’s epics to earn long-term success, though, and I hope Tomorrowland eventually joins The Iron Giant’s ranks as an initially-overlooked crowd favorite. If nothing else I’d just like to see its esteem grow so Brad Bird could maybe, just maybe, find funding for a third product within the genre, despite its reputation as box office poison. He’s damn good at making these things & I honestly believe his two entries in the genre are his best, most personally distinct work to date (no offense to the diehard Pixar crowd who’d likely stand up for The Incredibles or Ratatouille in that regard). We don’t have many directors working who still understand the appeal of the genre as Brad Bird & it’d be a shame to let something as pedestrian as money stop him from making more.

-Brandon Ledet

A Latecomer’s Journey through the Mission: Impossible Franchise

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A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation was to be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) was to come to know & understand the series from the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”. It turns out that  the story of the Mission: Impossible series is the story of five wildly different directors adopting five wildly different plans of attack on a franchise that didn’t really come into its own until at least three films in.  It’s also, to an even greater extent, the story of Tom Cruise’s fluctuating hair length.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all five feature films in the Mission: Impossible franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Mission: Impossible world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s classy-trashy beginnings, I highly recommend starting with the third installment & only doubling back to the first two films if your curiosity is piqued by the heights of the most recent three.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
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What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue, but there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

In the director’s chair: Movie of the Month veteran Brian De Palma, who can be credited for elevating this film above the typical 90s action flick through his ludicrously excessive camera work & lack of visual restraint.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Short, conservative, handsome. This may not seem important yet, but I swear it will be soon enough.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

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It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually alive & well in the the second installment of the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste. Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission: Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick. The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the series’ original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s wardrobe was downgraded. He traded in his tux for a leather jacket that he shows off on his super cool motor bike while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.

In the director’s chair: John Woo, who takes such a strong grip on the franchise’s throat that it feels a lot more likely that this is a spiritual sequel to his Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair:  Along with Cruise’s douchier wardrobe, he also adopts a much less respectable hair length that allows his greasy locks to flow in the wind as he slides around on his motorbike & jams to Limp Bizkit. Blech.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

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It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for John Woo’s rap rock shit show than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as a late 90s badass so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job. It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the Limp Bizkit abomination). What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology, two Phillip Seymour Hoffmans engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat. Bonus points: this film features the most Ving Rhames content of any Mission: Impossible film to date.

In the director’s chair: JJ Abrams, who had only worked in television before rescuing this troubled project from developmental Hell (at one point David Fincher was attached to direct!?). Abrams not only pulled this series’ shit together against the odds, but he also found a way to make the film’s escapist, popcorn movie action clash effectively with its more disturbing elements, specifically Hoffman’s personification of terror.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Much like the movie as a whole, Cruise’s hairdo ditches the embarrassing crudeness of the second film & returns to the handsome tastefulness of the first. I’m telling you; this hair stuff is important.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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If the third Mission: Impossible movie was an instance of the series suddenly pulling its shit together by making its protagonist Ethan Hunt out to be a real human being, the fourth film takes that cohesion a step further by helping define the team behind Ethan’s success. There have been so many face-removing, duplicitous double crossings in the series’ past that it’s been difficult to trust anyone at all, but Ghost Protocol finally eliminates that sense of distrust by shrinking Ethan’s team into a core group of murderous super spies with hearts of gold. Unfortunately, Ving Rhames is missing from this team almost completely (he at least drops in for a last second cameo), but picking up the wisecracking slack are Simon Pegg & Jeremy Renner, who both deliver some great tension-relieving one-liners, sometimes in unison. Besides these two sarcastic goofs, Cruise’s also backed by Paula Patton, the badass lady antidote to the franchise’s serious damsel-in-distress problem of the past. Once Rhames (hopefully) rejoins this ragtag crew in future installments, the series will almost certainly hit its pinnacle. Honestly, it’s kind of exciting to think that the best is still yet to come.

Besides honing in on the perfect small crew to back up Ethan’s world-saving espionage, Ghost Protocol also tightens up the series’ action. After the grossly excessive shoot-em-ups of the Limp Bizkit-soundtracked second film, the series has been moving more towards the large-scale, remote warfare that makes a lot more sense for international super spies to be wrapped up in. The attacks of violence in Ghost Protocol are unexpected bursts of terror that serve as shocks to the system, with or without Renner & Pegg’s nervous joking to break up the tension. There are some ridiculously over-the-top sequences that feature Cruise running down the side of a skyscraper in Dubai or somehow outrunning a sandstorm or Renner physically hacking into a gigantic supercomputer, but those more fanciful tangents are mixed in the real life dangers like car crashes & embassy bombings.

One element that got way less real (but very much appropriate for a throwback espionage franchise) was the film’s supervillains, which shifted from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s nightmarish turn in Mission: Impossible 3 to a stunningly beautiful super model assassin & a “nuclear extremist” who wants to achieve peace on Earth by obliterating the human race. These cartoonish elements, along with more overreaching gadgetry (like a real-life invisibility cloak), clash very well with the movie’s more gritty, violent sequences and leave the impression of a well-rounded, but highly ridiculous action flick in their wake.

Cruise continued his hiring of disparate, auteur directors here by giving the project to Brad Bird (who is typically associated with children’s media like Ratatouille, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Tomorrowland). The list of directors who’ve worked on the Mission: Impossible films so far (Bird, Abrams, Woo, De Palma) have all brought unique (and varyingly successful) takes on the series to the table, which is highly unusual for this type of popcorn action flick. It’ll certainly be interesting to see where the director of the fifth installment, Christopher McQuarrie, will take the direction of the franchise when Rogue Nation hits the theaters. McQuarrie is a relatively unknown director, but he has worked with Cruise before on two of his more interesting recent projects – the Werner Herzog as a fingerless villain Jack Reacher & the Groundhog’s Day meets Starship Troopers sci-fi action flick Edge of Tomorrow.

It’ll also be interesting to see what haircut Cruise brings to the next flick (I’m serious!), because it really makes a difference. He did slip back into his awful M:I 2 hair in Ghost Protocol, but since he begins the film in a Serbian prison & Bird did a much better job with the material than Woo (I’m serious!) I’ll let it slide for now. Adjusting some major problems in a relatively short amount of runtime, Mission: Impossible 3 & Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol have together unmistakably set the series up for future success. It has so much potential to reach new heights in the next installment that I’m hoping with the right amount of Ving Rhames, the perfect over-the-top villain, and a tasteful length for Cruise’s hair, Rogue Nation just might be the best in the series so far. We’ll see.

-Brandon Ledet

Tomorrowland (2015)

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Don’t believe the (negative) hype. Brad Birds’ live action Disney epic Tomorrowland is a great kids’ movie. Three weeks into the movie’s theatrical release, it’s still $20 million dollars short of recouping its budget and most of that money came from outside of the United States. Tomorrowland might eventually break even, but considering those numbers & its middling critical response it’s still hard not to see it as an all-around flop. That fact has little to say about the movie’s quality, though. Just as with Disney’s other most infamous live action flops, The Rocketeer & John Carter, Tomorrowland is a little hokey & old-fashioned, but also way better than its reputation indicates. Actually, I’d even go far enoguh to say it’s an easy best out of the three.

Although it’s admittedly a ham-handed parable about the power of positive thinking, Tomorrowland also manages to be the exact kind of smart-scary-dark-ambitious kids’ media that people are supposedly hungry to make a comeback, the kind that doesn’t treat its pintsized audience like dolts. It’s not afraid to confront children with big sci-fi ideas like parallel universes & the ways utopias can devolve into dystopias. It’s also not afraid to feel dangerous. People get scuffed up, occasionally die even, in a way that suggests that actions have consequences. Characters zip around in jetpacks & rocket ships, but never in a way that feels completely safe from bodily harm. After suffering through the horrendous ad for the Minions sequel that preceded the film, it was refreshing to see Disney take a chance on something that challenges their younger audience’s imagination, intellect, and desire to be scared. It was also a bummer that it was a gamble that didn’t work out for them financially.

In an alternate reality, a George Clooney-starring sci-fi fantasy epic about saving the world from its inevitable demise through sheer optimism might have been a hit. In this world, it’s failed to make much of a splash at all. In a lot of unexpected ways, Tomorrowland reminds me of another live action children’s media flop from the past decade, 2008’s City of Ember. Although City of Ember didn’t do well at the box office, it’s a smart & scary parable that covers a lot of the same ground as Tomorrowland: climate change, the dangers of stagnant thinking & an over-controlling governing body that thinks it knows best, and the idea that optimism and self-actualization can change the course of world’s seemingly hopeless path to self-destruction.

I honestly believe that both Tomorrowland & City of Ember will connect with enough young minds to have a cultural staying power that will only grow as the years go on. In the meantime that kind of gradual cult following is going to do little to encourage studios to take risks on ambitious children’s media like Tomorrowland instead of churning out more Minions sequels or whatever, which is sad considering the vast difference in quality (something I’m guessing about, based solely on an ad). But maybe I should think more positively and hope for the best. The future might be better for it.

-Brandon Ledet