Thursday, March 10, 2005

Amazing Stories

Of course everybody's talking about Brad Bird now, but if you want to see him in action, as opposed to just hearing his voice coming out of some animated fashion designer, you'll have to seek out the second episode of Steven Spielberg's anthology series Amazing Stories, "The Main Attraction." Bird, who had just left Disney, co-wrote the episode with Mick Garris, from Spielberg's idea; it was about an obnoxious high school jock, overly conscious of his own attractiveness, who gets hit by a meteor and becomes literally "attractive" -- a human magnet who causes everything to stick to him. Bird not only wrote it, but appeared onscreen as one of the geeky scientists investigating the meteor shower.

The credit was important for Bird's career, not so much because of the episode itself, but because it got him the chance to write and direct the only animated episode of Amazing Stories, "Family Dog." Bird originally wanted to feature the dog -- a hapless, Chaplinesque character stuck in a family that casually mistreats and belittles him -- in a series of theatrical shorts, and in some ways it doesn't seem like there's enough story here for a full half-hour. But the episode is very funny and well-animated, and at a time when most animation was pure kids' stuff, it was a revelation: animation was being used to tell a story that wasn't just for kids, and the main character, who didn't talk, took on a distinctive personality and became sympathetic just because of the way he was animated: the way he moved, the way he reacted. The use of camera angles and "cinematic" technique was unique in TV animation at a time when most TV animation had static shots and put everything in the foreground. And "Family Dog" became an important source of talent for the animation revival of the late '80s; several of the animators went on to do "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for Spielberg, and Bird (sensibly turning down the chance to do "Family Dog" as a series; it was done, and flopped, without him) went on to help give "The Simpsons" unusual visual sophistication for a TV cartoon. John Kricfalusi once pointed to the fact that even though Spielberg claimed to love cartoons, "you will never see a Bob Clampett rise up in his organization." He had a point, as far as Spielberg's TV cartoons went, but the rise of Brad Bird owes a lot to Spielberg and Amazing Stories.

Amazing Stories, the TVTome Guide says, will be out on DVD this fall. (Don't look for "Family Dog" in the first set, though; that was the second season.) It was an odd, frustratingly uneven show. Spielberg wanted to do an anthology series in the classic '50s and '60s style, but with a bigger budget; the show featured many different types of stories -- comedy, romance, horror -- but all with some kind of fantasy theme to them, and usually with a Serling-style twist ending. The idea was fine. But the show clearly had no kind of quality control. Good episodes alternated with episodes that were so bad you couldn't believe anyone had looked at the script before they started shooting; most of the really bad ones were in the second season, but even the first season had some real clunkers like "Remote Control Man" (a fat loser finds a magic remote control that brings TV characters to life, providing an excuse for a half-hour of lame cameos by "stars" like Dirk Benedict and Gary Coleman). The pilot, directed by Spielberg, was an example of how the show failed to live up to its potential: it was beautifully produced, beautifully photographed, beautifully scored, and well-acted, but it was twenty minutes of pointless, uninteresting writing followed by a "surprise" ending that wasn't all that surprising.

The show occasionally pulled off a really good episode, like Martin Scorsese's "Mirror Mirror," a horror story about a Stephen King-esque writer (Sam Waterston) who sees a horrible nightmare version of himself (Tim Robbins, perfect as always for playing horrible nightmare versions of people) every time he looks in the mirror, or "The Doll," a sentimental romantic fantasy written by Richard Matheson and starring John Lithgow in an Emmy-winning performance; or Paul Bartel's "Secret Cinema," about a young woman whose whole life is actually a movie (based on an earlier short film by Bartel, this was the obvious inspiration for The Truman Show). But the really good episodes were few and far between; usually you would get a mediocre one or a really bad one, and it wasn't worthwhile tuning in every week to see if this would finally be one of the good weeks. That's the problem with anthology shows, of course; they are inherently inconsistent, which is why the best of them are the ones that have some kind of consistent style and tone imposed upon them, like the style and tone Rod Serling brought to The Twilight Zone. Spielberg basically just invited over the writers and directors he liked and turned them loose; sometimes, as with Brad Bird, this proved to be a great idea, but other times it turned out very badly.

The other thing about Amazing Stories was that it attempted to be a director's show, something that most TV series aren't; TV has traditionally been a writer's medium and most of the top creative figures in TV have been writers. Amazing Stories, with its large budget, gave a lot more freedom to its directors than TV directors usually have, and Spielberg employed a lot of prominent feature film directors; episodes were directed by Spielberg, Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, Irvin Kershner, Danny DeVito, and Joe Dante. Though many of the best episodes were the ones helmed by younger, less well-known directors like Bird, Phil Joanou and Todd Holland. Also, the music was of a higher standard than usual for TV music; most of the episodes had full-fledged original scores composed by the likes of John Williams, Danny Elfman and Georges Delerue. It was, all told, one of the biggest and most expensive examples of the fact that lots of talent and money can add up to not a whole lot if there isn't a firm guiding hand behind a series. But without it, there might never have been a "Family Dog," or a "Simpsons," or a "Roger Rabbit," or... all the way up to "The Incredibles." That's a pretty good legacy for a show that lasted only two seasons.

No comments: