The 1980s were grim years of faceless corporatism, and this was felt in the decade’s cartoons. Who made He-Man & Masters Of The Universe? Nobody knew. It appeared on your TV once a week, as if by magic. You knew the studio, of course: millions of grownups still have conditioned Pavlovian reactions to the Nelvana bear, the bouncing DIC ball, the “Filmation presents…”. But you kinda forgot that human beings created the show. No kid could name one of them.
This changed in the 90s, when a fad for “creator driven” content meant networks began branding shows around their lead creative personnel. Everyone knew The Simpsons was “made” by Matt Groening, and Ren and Stimpy was “made” by John Kricfalusi. It was easy to believe that the show was the sole creation of a wacky genius doodling in his artist loft.
This creator-driven approach could backfire. Sometimes “creators” were self-destructive assholes. Sometimes they were untalented hacks who’d lucked into (or stolen) their one good idea. Associating a brand with a (flawed, complex) person means the brand can easily become toxic: attempts to restart Ren & Stimpy now face the obstacle of John Kricfalusi’s personal life, and The Simpsons‘ wholesome “stick it to the man” satire becomes tough to laugh at if you think Matt Groening took executive-class flights on the Lolita Express.
But it was still an exciting era that rewarded strong personalities and odd perspectives. None of the tentpole shows of the 90s (Beavis and Butthead, South Park, Daria, King of the Hill) could have existed in the 80s. They were derided as juvenile toilet humor at the time. In hindsight, the reverse was true: it was the decade where TV animation grew up.
The 90s should have been Ralph Bakshi’s moment.
You might have heard of him. X Rated cartoons. Rotoscoping. Blaxploitation. He’s one of animation’s greatest auteurs, and his work is suffused by a violent, turbulent energy that elevates the lowbrow material. Ralph Bakshi isn’t always good, but he’s always Ralph Bakshi.
He’s a titan of 2D animation, but it’s easy to slip into past tense when discussing him. His classic films all date from 1972 to 1983, and by 1990 he hadn’t made anything good for a very long time. Was he still relevant?
His 1992 film Cool World was a devastating misfire. A jokeless, plotless, idealess nothingburger featuring bad animation and bad live action film composited in a bad way. Roger Ebert had the best pan. Cool World marked the final death rattle of the adult animated film, with rubbish such as Heavy Metal 2K being the final meaningless puppeteering of the medium’s lifeless corpse.
But adult animation, it was believed, still had a future on the silver screen, where the stakes of a failure weren’t so high. And in the mid 1990s, HBO gave Bakshi a shot at redemption.
He “redeemed” himself with Spicy City.
It’s a sci-fi anthology show, hosted by an Elvira ripoff called Raven. In classic Bakshi fashion, most of the budget was spent drawing very large breasts. Truly, he is to boobs what Robert Crumb is to asses.62.5 hours were spent workshopping a joke about the irony of a man called “back-she” being more interested in womens’ front sides but one of our financiers backed out, saying it was … Continue reading
The show (which was laughably advertised as the first “adults only” cartoon) failed miserably. It was a one season wonder, cancelled after six episodes.
But that means nothing, in and of itself. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Let’s find out.
I exhaustively deep-dived into Spicy City. Which means I watched three episodes that someone uploaded to Youtube.
Tears of a Clone
An eyeless detective is hired to track down a human blob’s missing “daughter” who somehow escaped his gravitational field.
…Or, as the show relates the plot: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah? Blah blah blah.”
Holy fuck, this is the talkiest cartoon I’ve ever seen. Where’s the action? The dialog scenes go on and on and on and on. I want to go back to nineteen-twenty-whenever and throw Max Fleischer’s Phonofilm sound equipment in the Potomac in the hopes that cartoons remain silent.
Maybe it would help if the characters occasionally said things that weren’t cornball detective cliches, like “there’s just the small matter of my fee…”
That brings me to another issue: Spicy City’s setting.
The show aspires to an edgy cyberpunk aesthetic (the city itself is just Gibson’s Sprawl). But 59-year old Bakshi had no natural affinity for high tech worlds (or desire to learn) so he said “screw it” and went with film noir.
Think of the hackiest noir cliche you know: it’s here. A private eye who’s down on his luck? A dame in trouble? Smoke-filled clubs filled with sleazy characters? Fashions that consist of trenchcoats, fedoras, zoot suits, cocktail dresses, and pearl necklaces? All here.
Welcome to the future. We dress like this.
Bakshi’s cyberpunk world looks like a 1940s Hollywood film lot, with story choices to match. It’s so dated and old that it’s totally jarring when a character (for example) uses a computer. Yes, cyberpunk draws on noir. But Spicy City does so excessively, and the sci-fi plots (cloning, virtual reality, and cyborgs) are tonally incongruent with Bakshi’s world.
In short, nonsensical setting, weak story, twice as much dialog as necessary, and hideous character design. Fuck finding the girl, this guy needs to find his missing eyeballs.
A bongo player called Mano Mantillo is the hottest thing in town. That’s Spicy City worldbuilding for you: an cyber-metropolis where everyone’s wild about bongos.
Mano’s hands made him a star, but they have a life of their own. When mob enforcers cut them off for nonpayment of debts, they begin strangling people.
Here we see Bakshi’s lifelong fascination with black/latino culture, mixed with the trope of the demon-possessed musician (Robert Johnson, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Soul Music, Rock & Rule, and so on). In effect, it swaps one set of cliches for another.
I didn’t love “Mano’s Hands”. It has less dialog and it’s certainly gruesome enough, but the premise is dated and lame. Is this really what we’re doing with the “world’s first adult cartoon show”? Ripping off EC Comics and The Addams Family?
By the way, Mano is Spanish for hand, so the episode’s title is “Hand’s hands”. I wonder why his surname isn’t Martillo, which is an eighth-note bongo pattern. Mantillo simply means “mulch”.
“Love Is a Download”
Same setup as “Tears of a Clone”. A private detective is hired to track down a missing girl. However, the client is clearly an abusive stalker, and the PI develops feelings for the girl.
Here the action takes place in virtual reality. Essentially, it’s Baby’s First Cyberpunk Plot: “what if virtual reality was better than real life?” The detective’s an obese slug in reality, and the girl’s a battered victim. But in cyberspace he’s a buff stud, and she’s a…helpless geisha? Empowering stuff, ladies.
Bakshi’s cultural references finally leave the 1940s. The stalker Jake (who appears as a shark in the VR game) is dressed like a Miami Vice extra. Again, it doesn’t quite work in a cyberpunk setting, but at least it’s not ridiculously off.
I was confused by the choice to make the woman gorgeous in the real life. Shouldn’t she be ugly, like the male detective? I guess she had to be attractive for Jake to have an interest in controlling her. But couldn’t he have a different motive (maybe he’s after her inheritance)? I don’t know. In a show about the gritty side of life, it’s strange that woman aren’t ever allowed to be unattractive.
I have mixed feelings about “Love is a Download”. The main problem is that the virtual reality sequences are incredibly long and overwhelm the episode. I think this is because they’re barely animated and must have cost virtually nothing to create. It’s like watching a slideshow.
So that’s my taste of Spicy City.
Maybe I saw the three worst episodes. Unlucky. I’ve now watched 50% of the show, and probably won’t bother with the other 50%.
It has no spark to it. It wants to be the edgiest thing on TV but it comes off as dated, lame, and “OK boomer”. The basic plots are all 20-50 years old. Raven is excellently animated but the rest of the show is just barely acceptable. The adult content seems tame next to, say, South Park, or even less famous fare like Crapston Villas. As a sci-fi drama it doesn’t even reach Aeon Flux’s knees.
But I don’t regret watching it, because I had an epiphany about Bakshi.
He’s not a creator. He’s an enhancer.
Fritz the Cat is Robert Crumb.
Wizards is Vaughn Bode.
Lord of the Rings is JRR Tolkien.
Fire and Ice is Frank Frazetta.
In all these cases, Bakshi acts as an amenuensis, an artistic midwife, adapting the art of someone else into film. He does a creditable job, capturing what’s great about the original and infusing his own style and personality. But he’s not building castles in the sky: he’s working from a foundation already established. That’s what he’s always been good at. You do not allow him to create something from the ground up.
He’s like a podcast host who can “riff” hilariously in a room full of funny people, but who could never carry a solo comedy act. Spicy City demonstrates what that looks like: a dull, derivative slog with plentiful boobs but no clear sense of what it is.
Bakshi fans in 1997 had no idea of the drought that was about to follow. The lone and level sands stretch far away.
62.5 hours were spent workshopping a joke about the irony of a man called “back-she” being more interested in womens’ front sides but one of our financiers backed out, saying it was tasteless in light of the war in Ukraine. We don’t understand the connection but regret any offense.
This film was preceded in 2000 by hype: it was a smart sci-fi horror film that would revolutionize a stale etc.
It’s amazing, the way movies are preceded by hype. Has anyone else noticed this? Whenever a big budget film arrives, countless advertisements coincidentally appear, all of them telling you to see it. How convenient. It’s almost like someone’s being paid off. The human race sickens me.
I rewatched The Cell to see if it was as good as I remembered it being. Then I realized that I’d never watched it in the first place. It’s about a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) who performs virtual-reality based therapy on coma patients, entering their minds and speaking to them in Plato’s cave, as it were. When a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) becomes comatose in police custody, she jacks into his mind to learn the location of his latest victim.
It’s indeed a “did I watch this?” kind of film. The story blurs messily into other “smart” serial killer movies like Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, and Se7en. Even the title seems designed to be forgotten. The surrealist moments are great but the real-world scenes are thuddingly generic: how many shots of grizzled detectives shaking their heads at crime scenes do we need?
Ignore the cop show crap and you have an oblique, arty film set in the disturbed (and disturbing) psyche of a sociopath. D’Onofrio’s mental landscape is basically a Saatchi exhibit on a bad batch of PCP, and J-Lo sees creepy dolls, mutilated animals, bondage equipment, and so on.
Some sequences are almost brilliant enough to redeem the film. When Lopez enters the throne room and encounters the King (and a driving, one-note stab of brass ratchets up the tension)…well, I was hooked. It was beautiful and it was frightening. It would have been even better if something had happened, but nothing does. Lopez leaves the dream without payoff.
That’s the other big issue with The Cell: it doesn’t know what to do with its visuals. They’re strangely unmotivated, just hanging in the air without connection to the story. The surrealist stage dressing produces horror and awe, but it doesn’t build, it only exists.
Much of the film’s imagery cannot be explained except as a show-offy director demonstrating knowledge of Very Important contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Ermin, and Sarah Lucas. Remember those three women, staring open-mouthed at heaven? Does this relate to the story or characters in some way? Nope! It’s an Odd Nerdrum painting. Name-dropping, on a 33 million dollar budget.
It’s frustrating to watch genuinely inspired scenes (suspended in a glass cube floating in space, Lopez pushes her way out of the top…and discovers it’s actually the bottom!) squandered amid “quotations” and “references” to whatever the YBAs and the New Contemporaries were doing that year. Who cares? I don’t like that stuff to begin with, and why not make your own art instead of regurgitating someone else’s?
Would the mind of a serial killer really look like a disturbing Alice in Wonderland mindfuck, as movies perennially portray it?
I don’t know. When I read the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto I was amazed at how dull and flat he seemed. More like a line drawing than an actual human. He wanted to be cool – that was his only ambition. When skateboarding became popular at school, he skated. When hackeysack became popular, he kicked a little bag around. Like the film’s director, he spent a lot of effort imitating cooler kids, and when he saw behavior he couldn’t copy (boys having romantic encounters with girls), jealousy and frustration drove him to kill. Delving into his mind was somewhat interesting, but it wasn’t a Hieronymous Bosch painting. If you want a vivid mental landscape, mindjack a furry. That’s where the action’s happening.
The Cell is the first film of Tarsem Singh, previously (and afterward) known as a music video director. The pipeline from there to directing feature films is a troubled one. Music video directors tend to make films that focus on sets, sets, and more sets, with plenty of open space for a nonexistent rockstar to cavort around in. Movies need to be more than the sum of their stage dressing.
Singh is obviously talented, with a good visual eye. I enjoyed a lot of the shots and costuming, and so on. But again, he’s mostly dropping names, not making a movie. The most famous scene in The Cell is the horse guillotine…
In the comments, various people offer glib analysis (“this boy’s mind had a morbid fascination with dissecting everything and seeing on the inside, not afraid to see the blood and guts. At the same time doing it in precise surgical fashion – each segment equidistant”), as if it’s not just ripping off Damien Hirst’s Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.
Did I say ripping off? I meant quoting. Art builds on art – everyone knows this. It’s the highest form of appreciation to just put a famous work of art in your movie, unaltered, with no commentary or context. You’re quoting. Quoting is good.
What isn’t good is The Cell’s casting. Here’s a tip: maybe don’t cast the most famous woman in the world as your quiet, mousy psychologist. Jennifer Lopez hasn’t a prayer of inhabiting the role written for her. Vincent D’Onofrio is a good actor, but he’s very wrong in this. He’s a blue-collar truck driver who comes off as a dangerous, slack-jawed idiot. We don’t believe for a second that a man like him would have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art, or be hip to the London YBA scene. His pudgy, brutal face is impossible to feel sympathy for, which sours all the smarmy crap at the end. The killer was abused as a child! All he needed was a hug! Spare me.
The film, like its characters, fails to handle the distance between dream and day. Time and time again, the movie pulls us out of surreal fantasy and into its own stupid version of reality, so the usual Hollywood cliches can appear (the ticking clock, the generic FBI agents, etc).
The Cell is a disappointment of the worst sort: a bad movie that could have been a good one. It sends phantasmal imagery winging into the air…and then shackles it to millstones of literalism and pretentiousness, plunging it to the ground. I wanted something more or new. Not flashbacks to a tearful child being yelled at by his dad. I’ve seen all that before, and I don’t care.
Here’s an idea: why not reveal at the end that everything we thought we knew about D’Onofrio’s childhood was fake?
We’re in the mind of an unhinged lunatic, after all. Are his memories to be trusted? D’Onofrio has every incentive to distort the facts to create sympathy for himself – couldn’t his redemption arc be just another trap for Lopez? Why wouldn’t a man capable of murder also be capable of lying?
There’s not much I can add to the praises The Thief and the Cobbler has received except to say “yes, it’s THAT good”.
It’s the troubled masterpiece of Canadian-British animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, etc), who was an obsessive perfectionist and auteur in a world that tolerates neither of those things. It’s said that The Thief and the Cobbler took thirty years to make, but that’s not quite true. The film was never finished. The Thief and the Cobbler took thirty years to not make.
This adds to the film’s aura: strictly speaking, it doesn’t exist. Not that it needs aura. The Thief and the Cobbler is famous for having possibly the best 2D animation ever seen in a feature-length workprint.
It’s 90 minutes of a master animator making cel sheets his bitch. The film is beyond technically amazing, and enters the realm of insanity. Richard Williams storyboards things you’re never supposed to do in 2D animation and then does them twice, backward, wearing Persian slippers. Revolving POV shots. Crowd scenes. Textured fabric. You name it, this movie has it. The only computers involved were the ones that finalized his studio’s bankruptcy.
Any animation nerd can quote their favorite moments by heart. Tack tumbling out of his workshop, with dozens of individually animated tacks spilling from his pockets into Zigzag’s path. The Thief crawling through the palace sewer system, with pipes bulging out comically. Zigzag climbing a spiral staircase. Tack fighting the Thief for Yum-Yum’s shoe inside the MC Escherian palace. The Thief getting thrashed by polo players, with the ball implausibly following him around like a target-seeking missile. The dolly shot of One-Eye’s camp, zooming out from the middle of his iris.
And of course, the destruction of One Eye’s massive war machine, which is so excessive and overstimulating that you’ll snort coke just to calm down. It’s not just animation for animation’s sake, either. The film has a lot of style, and evokes the mythical Orient far more effectively than, say, Aladdin (which comes off as American teenagers at a Vegas hotel by comparison). The Thief and the Cobbler looks the way a Persian carpet would if the stitches could move.
Margaret French’s story is a simple fairytale, and isn’t that interesting when stripped of its visuals. It’s a good example of how technique itself can be art: instead of animation being used to tell a story, a story is used as a scaffold for beautiful animation. Which is fine, although it requires a shift of thinking for some people.
The characters are stock archetypes: Tack is a silent film hero, The Thief is a silent film villain. Nod is a sleepy king. One-Eye is a barbarian invader. Zigzag (with a cel-sheet chewing performance by Vincent Price) is a hilarious camp villain. The characters’ behaviors are as simple as their movement is intricate: this is a movie simple enough for the smallest child to understand.
The tale of the movie’s production is long, harrowing, and (ultimately) tragic. After decades of tinkering on the film (with a few injections of cash from such parties as the House of Saud!), Williams finally received full financing in the late 80s. This lifeline became a noose. When he failed to deliver the film on time, the project was taken away from him, and auctioned off in a lowest-bidder situation to whoever would get it done cheaply.
That someone was Fred Calvert, who “finished” the film in 1993. I don’t mean he completed The Thief and the Cobbler. I mean he slapped together a film-shaped object for as little money as possible, which incidentally contains some of Williams’ animation. The Thief and the Cobbler’s destruction has defined Calvert the way its creation defined Williams.
Fans universally regard Calvert as having ruined the film. He’s remembered as the ultimate bad Hollywood stereotype: the studio hatchet man. The movie’s final gag (which involves the thief ripping the film from the reel and stuffing it into his pocket) seems eerily prophetic.
It might be time for someone to defend him.
Yes, It’s true that Calvert’s work was horrible, and did great harm to Williams’ vision. His new scenes look as shoddy and cheap as a Saturday morning cartoon: they stick out like twine and tissue paper holding together fine damask curtains. Calvert didn’t “edit” Williams’ footage so much as randomly guillotine it into shape. Important parts of the story are now gone: we don’t see Zigzag attempting to feed Tack to Phido, which lessens the poetic justice of Zigzag’s death. The brigands have nothing to do in Calvert’s version, while in Williams’ workprint we see them fighting in the final battle. Scenes of soldiers dying were shortened or cut (for violence?), which leaves us wondering where One-Eye’s army went.
He added four songs, because animated musicals were big that year. We shall not speak of these songs, because they make getting crapped on by an elephant seem like a joy.
In September 1993, the film saw limited release in South Africa (why?) and Australia (why?). It was released again in August 1995 after a further round of destructive edits and general stupidity. (Fun fact: the green women were cut because they could be interpreted as One-Eye keeping sex slaves…an edit personally requested by Harvey Weinstein!).
Neither release made money. The total production budget was in excess of $25 million, and although the movie’s box office profits are unclear due to the film’s complicated release history, they couldn’t have reached a million dollars. Shovel twenty five million dollars down a garbage disposal unit, and then sell a small piece of beachfront real estate in Florida. Congrats: you’re financially ahead of the Thief and the Cobbler.
Calvert minimized his role in the disaster, saying he never had creative control over The Thief and the Cobbler, and that most of the bad decisions (such as the songs) were forced on him by higher-ups. True, or false? Who knows? Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.
But Calvert can at least say he delivered a finished film. Mangled and butchered though it was, his movie exists. Richard Williams couldn’t finish his after thirty years and God knows how many millions of pounds. Look at the work print: it still wasn’t close to being done. The princess was barely animated. Critical scenes did not exist.
Calvert made some defensible decisions. He tightened up the story. The main villain (One-Eye) is established right at the start, instead of coming out of nowhere in the second act, and he has a better voice and a better death (his concubines throw him into the burning wreck of the machine, instead of sitting on him). The Thief’s characterization is more defined: he now has a fetish for golden things specifically, instead of just stealing everything he can. Detours (such as the maid from Mombasa) are cut, and the movie is better for it.
Blame should go to Williams as well as Calvert. The perfectionism that made The Thief and the Cobbler great also dug its grave: why did he waste so much time animating superfluous scenes of the Thief? They’re fun, but they’re not the movie. There’s enough effort on the screen to make three animated films, it just wasn’t used efficiently. He was his own worst enemy. There’s a saying in Hollywood that if the audience leaves praising the set design, the film is a bomb. The Thief and the Cobbler’s workprint is almost all set design.
Transhumanists speak about “paperclip maximizing”, conveying the idea that a superintelligent AI need not be malicious to screw us over. It might merely want to build as many paperclips as possible, until they cover the planet. No matter how benign or innocuous your goal (“make paperclips!”), it will destructive in the hands of a machine, because it can’t understand the big picture.
Williams was a human paperclip maximizer. He seems to have been guided by an imperative to make pretty animation, so he made more of it, and more of it, and more of it, and never knew when to stop. This would be fine, if he was spending his own money. But once outside financing gets involved, there’s only so long you’ll be allowed to chase a dream. If you owe a bank five dollars, that’s your problem. If you owe a bank five million, that’s their problem. Money always comes with strings attached, and when the sums are large, the strings become golden handcuffs.
The Thief and the Cobbler is a story of glory and grandeur, of madness and excess, of ruin and shadow and devouring flame. It’s also a film about a cobbler.