Jim Cummings

Buster and Chauncey’s Silent Night (1998)

BUSTER & CHAUNCEY'S SILENT NIGHT, 1998

Buster and Chauncey’s Silent Night deserves to be a better movie than it is. Despite a talented voice cast that includes Phil Hartman, Jim Cummings, and a young Lea Michele and a couple songs from the songwriting team that gave us Anastasia and Broadway’s Ragtime, this Christmas film suffers from uninspired animation and writing. Still, this tale about the first performance of “Silent Night” works some holiday magic, and if your heart is big enough, you may want to add it to your Christmas queue.

Based on real events, the story recounts the origin of “Silent Night.” The popular carol was originally performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in St. Nicholas’s Church in Oberndorf, Austria, and Fr. Joseph Mohr did write the lyrics to be accompanied by organist Franz Gruber on the guitar. However, it was Gruber who composed the music and not in fact a skinny mouse named Chauncey (Hartman). Nor did Chauncey’s chubby friend, Buster (Cummings), who wants to gain fame and fortune by playing for the queen (Marie Osmond), figure into the actual story

The rest is reliably fairy tale. The two mice are an odd couple; Buster has ambition to match his waistline while the meeker Chauncey is happy just fiddling on his violin and curling up in a warm mouse hole. Chauncey shows his Christmas, and Christian, spirit when he befriends an orphan, Christina (Michele), and tries to save her from two thieves intent on robbing the church during a welcome celebration for the queen. The harsh and unforgiving Mayor Huffenmeier inadvertently makes life hard for everyone though, and his fat cat wants to make a meal out of the little mice.

Though the film is a direct-to-video effort, I’d hoped for something more than a bonus episode of a Saturday morning cartoon. The warmth of an old Austrian Christmas coupled with a feel-good message of generosity and humility is prime material for a animated family film starring anthropomorphic mice, but nothing builds on this basic framework. Buster and Chauncey’s relationship with Christina is fleeting though the climax turns on their supposedly close friendship. The mice are more believable buddies, but even here they are generic rodents, possible escapees from the set of Cinderella. I was most disappointed with the animation, however. Aside from some lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, it’s hard to tell the story takes place in Austria. I wanted to be swept away by the wintery mountain landscape and walk between the cozy wooden houses. Chauncey’s big, unselfish heart, makes up for some of the film’s shortcomings; we could all use some of that this time of year.

Released: 1998
Prod: Buzz Potamkin
Dir: Buzz Potamkin
Writer: George Taweel, Rob Loos
Cast: Phil Hartman, Jim Cummings, Lea Michele, Marie Osmond, Tom Arnold, Townsend Coleman, Harry Goz, Paul Kandel, Judith Blazer
Time: 49 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Road to El Dorado

road to el dorado

Somewhat like its main characters, The Road to El Dorado has designs for greatness but comes up short. The middling Dreamworks production boasts fine voice talent, a sterling music team, and a story rich with artistic potential but doesn’t coalesce around any strong creative vision. I watched with a constant yearning for something more majestic. Visually, the film should be stunning; El Dorado, after all, was a mythical city of gold, cradled in the mountains and forests of South America and lusted after by European explorers. With only the imagination as reference, this new world should be an animator’s dream. And musically, a collaboration between Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer all but promises a charged and award-winning soundtrack. Of John and Rice’s previous two projects, their Broadway hit Aida won an armful of Tonys and spawned numerous touring productions while The Lion King, and I’m not being hyperbolic, defined a generation.

But El Dorado doesn’t seize on any of these opportunities, and it’s surprising how uninspired the whole movie turns out. Besides its lifeless animation and forgettable music, the story settles for an average plot and characters that only go through the motions of a great adventure. It’s as if the filmmakers, sensing their lack of vision, dump the rogue explorers, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh, the fairest Spaniard of them all), into the fantastic, fabled city and continue on their merry way.

Tulio and Miguel’s friendship should guide the enterprise and does form the backbone of the plot. We are introduced to them as they con their way through the streets of 1500s Seville. Miguel, the daydreamer, scores a map to El Dorado, and before the practical-minded Tulio gets a chance to talk his friend out of the journey, they both accidentally find themselves Hernán Cortés’s (Jim Cummings) ship bound for the New World. After prematurely parting ways with the raging conquistador, they stumble upon the hidden city.

Since this is called The Road to El Dorado, you might think this was some sixteenth century version of a road trip movie, which is it for awhile. But the time Tulio and Miguel spend stranded on a boat or lost in the forest is neither formative nor very much related to what ends up being the main story. The two strange looking Europeans are mistaken for gods when they arrive and, conveniently for them, are honored with mountains of golden baubles. They meet the benevolent ruler (Edward James Olmos) who is depicted not unlike a genial Hawaiian surfer king, a raging pharisaic priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), with authoritarian ambitions, and Chel (a slightly less Brooklyn Rosie Perez), a spunky, shrewd woman who sees through Tulio and Miguel’s deception. It’s a trio almost as discordant as the voice casting.

El Dorado ends up sparking a change in both characters, but this is only explored superficially. Tulio falls for Chel and wants to make off with her in one hand and the loot in the other, but his most impassioned affections are reserved for inanimate objects. Even if he really is nothing more than a charming thief, he doesn’t have enough emotional gravity to pull the audience towards him. Miguel at least has the benefit of introspection, and my favorite scenes are when he begins falling under the spell of this breathtaking city. When he considers staying in El Dorado, you expect some weight in the conflict between the friends, but there is hardly any. Instead, there is a giant rock monster that comes to furious life, bringing the movie to a lively crash of an end.

“El Dorado” by Elton John:

“Someday Out of the Blue” by animated Elton John:

“Without Question” by Elton John:

“Friends Never Say Goodbye” by Elton John:

“The Trail We Blaze” by Elton John:

“16th Century Man” by Elton John:

“The Panic in Me” by Elton John:

“It’s Tough to be a God” by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh:

Released: 2000
Prod: Brook Breton, Bonne Radford
Dir: Don Paul, Eric Bergeron
Writer: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Jim Cummings, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos, Frank Welker
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Gnomeo and Juliet

gnomeo and juliet

The beloved bard’s tales, forever ripe for reinvention, gets the animated treatment in this kid-friendly reimagining of Shakespeare’s popular play. We lay our scene in fair Verona, a pleasant English street, where two households both alike in dignity hate each other’s guts. Ms. Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) are warring neighbors who have a penchant for lawn ornaments. Their ceramic gnomes and plastic animals spring to life and carry on the feud when their owners are not looking, marking one of the more creative use of garden decorations.

Montague’s blue gnomes are ruled by the matron Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), whose nimble son Gnomeo (James McAvoy) engages in dangerous lawnmower races with Tybalt (Jason Statham) of Capulet’s red gnomes. They are led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), who keeps close watch over his daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt). The spirited heroine resents being literally put on a pedestal, which her father does in order to keep her from being smashed; it’s a dangerous life. One night, she sneaks out in disguise and bumps into a camouflaged Gnomeo. It’s love at first sight for the two, until they realize they have just cavorted with the enemy.

The films hews close to its source material but adds a few flourishes. Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is a lonely plastic flamingo, separated from his love when his owners divorced and divvied up the lawn ornaments. He warns the young couple that others’ hate can destroy their love. Gnomeo’s exile following Tybalt’s violent death by lawn mower crash leads him to a giant statue of Shakespeare (Patrick Stewart) in the park. He learns that similar stories have ended in tragedy, which he considers a load of rubbish.

The animation does not jump out – although the film was screened in 3D, but it is bright and cheerful. The gnomes surprisingly retain their gnomish figures. Juliet is a good deal frumpier than her animated counterparts. Meanwhile, Gnomeo is handsomely rotund and sporting a thin silver beard, as is the fashion. And though the movie is self-referential (I liked the Tempest Teapot truck), it manages to avoid tripping over too many pop culture references. Elton John, who supervised the music, provides the soundtrack, and we won’t count him as contemporary. The best part is the voice cast. It is a parade of Britishness, with a sparky Dolly Parton and growling Hulk Hogan thrown in.

“Crocodile Rock” performed by Nelly Furtado, featuring dancing gnomes:

“Hello Hello” performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga:

Released: 2011
Prod: Baker Bloodworth, David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw
Dir: Kelly Asbury
Writer: John R. Smith, Rob Sprackling
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Cummings, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, Dolly Parton
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014