Saturday, 7 December 2013

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1996)

Director: Mark Shekter
Writers: Mark Shekter, Robert Sandler
Producer: Garry Blye
Cast: Clara Blye, Don Francks, Jennifer Martini
Country: Canada
Year of release: 1996
Reviewed from: UK VHS (Channel 5)


What the hell?

That was my reaction at the start of this 45-minute animated version of the Jules Verne classic which is very different in both approach and execution to the slightly later Franco-Belgian animated version. We start, according to an English-accented female narrator, in London in 1897 where 13-year-old Alexa Lindebruck (who has a very American accent), has entered the annual science fair.

What the hell?

Her demonstration involves showing that her pet guinea pig Hercules can find his way through a maze to a plate of ice cream before it melts.

What the hell?

Hercules sets off but is grabbed by a bat (what the hell?) which tries to carry him off, but Alexa uses the judge’s monocle to shine sunlight into the bat’s eyes (what the hell?), causing him to drop Hercules into the ice cream. Alexa is promptly awarded first prize.

Oh and Hercules can talk.

What the bloody hell is all this?

Apart from the girl’s surname, which is reasonably close to ‘Lidenbrock’, this has absolutely nothing to do with Jules Verne. My hopes for the rest of the story were low.

Alexa’s father, Professor Lindebruck, wants ‘the Academy’ to back his expedition to follow in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm, an explorer who may have discovered a way to reach the centre of the Earth. The professor has a rock which was discovered in Italy but has been shown to have originated in Iceland and he believes this proves that there is a vast network of tunnels and caverns beneath the Earth. The president of the Academy, Doctor Greed, pours scorn on Lindebruck’s suggestion and sends him packing.

So now we’re getting a bit more like the book. I mean, talking guinea pigs - what the hell was that about? Okay, we’re in London in 1897 instead of Hamburg in 1863 and instead of a nephew named Axel the Prof has a daughter named Alexa. But at least we have references to Arne Saknussemm and there are even passing references to a housekeeper named Martha so these people have actually read the book. The difference between the book’s Axel and the cartoon’s Alexa - apart from sex, name and relationship to Prof. Lindebruck - is that where Axel was a bit of a harmless idler, uninterested in science, Alexa is a keen amateur scientist. As we have seen.

Back home with his daughter, Professor Lindebruck tosses the rock onto the fire where it breaks, revealing inside a message from Saknussemm, explaining where and when in Iceland the entrance to the caves can be located. The Prof is off, leaving Alexa at home, but she decides to pack a bag, grab Hercules, saddle a horse and catch up with her father. Unfortunately she bumps into Dr Greed who is in a carriage with his pet, the bat from the opening scene. Oh, and the bat, whose name is Ivan, also talks. The carriage is driven by an orphan teenager named Gower who works for Greed and who is sent to spy on Lindebruck. He stows away on a steamship chartered by the Professor and finds that Alexa and Hercules are already aboard. Dr Greed follows on a faster ship, gets to Iceland first and hires a hulking thug named Crunch to assist him.

Prof. Lindebruck, still unaware that the two youngsters are aboard, reaches Iceland, follows Saknussemm’s instructions and begins his journey underground where he finds that the explorer has thoughtfully marked the way with arrows. The kids follow him, and Greed follows the kids.

When Alexa and Gower fall into a deep pool of water, Hercules races ahead to find their father who returns and rescues them. But that night Gower is whisked away by Crunch to Dr Greed, who forces him to run ahead and change a Saknussemm marking, which sends the Lindebruck expedition down the wrong tunnel. When, having escaped a Raiders-style rolling boulder, they find themselves trapped on a shelf above a precipice, Gower confesses and apologises.

The team parachute down to the shores of what is swiftly named the Lindebruck Sea and for a short while we’re back in the book. They spot phosphorescent lighting illuminating the vast cavern and a subterranean forest from which they construct a raft and they put to sea swiftly when they are attacked by a mastodon. Out on the water, they are picked up by a giant turtle and then watch a fight between a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur (neither of them terribly anatomically correct). Alexa falls overboard; Gower rescues her but he is then sucked down into a whirlpool.

On the far side of the Lindebruck Sea, Hercules finds a key marked ‘AS’ in the sand and this unlocks a set of large doors which lead into another vast cavern. (Though we have departed from the book once again, it is at least in keeping with the book that one of the problems with a story like this, if it is not to take place in a network of narrow caves, is the required presence of enormous caverns with their own illumination system.) Inside this particular cavern is a lost city - “possibly Atlantis” suggests the Prof - and inside a temple at the centre of the city is a circular, dishlike altar with a large emerald at its centre.

“The absolute centre of the Earth!” gasps Prof. Lindebruck, which is rather a literal and impractical interpretation of the book’s title. If that really is the centre - assuming that all the theories about fiery balls of magma are incorrect - isn’t there some problem with the gravity which is keeping these people standing around the altar?

Anyway, Greed and Crunch are there too, having crossed the sea on Saknussemm’s own boat, and they tie up Lindebruck and Alexa and put Hercules in a handy birdcage. But Gower arrives and quietly unties them. Just as they free themselves, the ground shakes and a geyser of volcanic lava bursts up underneath the altar dish, lifting it up. Our four heroes scramble aboard but Greed won’t leave the piles of emeralds which litter the temple. The dish shoots up and bursts out of the top of a volcano, riding down the slope on a lava flow and delivering the quartet safely into the European countryside. They ask a passing urchin where they are in English, French, German and finally Italian, which works because the volcano from which they emerged was Stromboli.

Unfortunately they have no proof of their adventure - except they have because Gower thought to stick one of the emeralds in his jacket. Prof. Lindebruck gives a successful lecture to ‘the Academy’, takes on Gower as his new lab assistant and ponders his next project - a voyage to the Moon.

Hmmm. The bare bones of Verne’s book are here, with Alexa substituting for Axel, with Gower sort of substituting for both Axel’s fiancee Grauben as the love interest and the Icelandic guide Hans as the extra pair of legs on the journey, and with Prof. Lindebruck being decidedly kinder and less driven than the novel’s Prof. Lidenbrock. The whole subplot with Dr Greed racing them to the glory of discovering the subterranean world is entirely new, but it does give the story some narrative structure, as does the forced duplicity of Gower. The original novel is very episodic, as Verne was wont to be, and largely relied on impressive set pieces, but with only 45 minutes to tell the whole story there’s really no room for such set pieces, the Lindebruck Sea sequence aside.

The cartoon features three songs: when Alexa nearly collides with Greed’s carriage, he sings about how the only things that he cares about are fortune and fame; Hercules performs a Broadway-style song, explaining that most scientific advancements were actually made by guinea pigs (which is a clever and amusing idea); and there is a very sweet duet between the two teenagers as each wonders what the other thinks about them. Each of the songs is accompanied by fantasy sequences, placing the characters into other times and places, and they don’t feel intrusive, occurring naturally at suitable points in the story.

For all its undoubted liberties, this version of Journey to the Center of the Earth has a distinctly Verne-ian feel and never gets distracted or anachronistic (once we get past the ‘science fair’ scene). Even the talking animal sidekicks aren’t too bad, played for genuine comedy rather than the usual misdirected attitude that assumes that cartoon animals are inherently funny.

So where did this version come from? The tape starts with a bewildering succession of animated logos - for Channel 5 (the video label, not the TV channel), Macrovision Quality Protection, Abbey Home Entertainment/Tempo Video and Goodtimes Home Video Platinum Series - before launching into the title sequence for Goodtimes Family Classics, a generic animation of characters and books with insert shots from this particular story. After the end credits there are further idents for Blye Migicovsky Productions Inc., Phoenix Animation Studios Inc. and Bedtime Primetime Classics, with a copyright notice reading ‘Jaffa Road Liv Ltd Partnership.’

Even more complicated than the various logos is the battery of credited producers. Garry Blye (of, presumably, Blye Migicovsky Productions Inc.) is actually credited as ‘producer’, Mark Shekter is the ‘senior producer’ and Michael B Hefferon is the ‘supervising producer’; Shekter, Blye and John Migicovsky are ‘executive producers’ with Charles Falzon as ‘co-executive producer’. There is a ‘production executive’ with the great name of Tammy Litwack Brown who presumably has a different role from the executive producers and indeed from the ‘executives in charge of production’ who are Tony Stevens-Fleischmann from Phoenix Animation Studios Inc. and Nancy Chappelle from Catalyst Entertainment Inc. (who somehow missed out on including their animated logo on the tape). There’s a ‘line producer’ too, but by that point my hand was getting tired so I gave up taking notes. Good grief. How many people does it take to make one cartoon?

Shekter and Blye are still working together for a company named Microtainment Plus and between them have a very impressive roster of people and shows that they have written for or produced, including Steve Martin, Bob Hope, the Smothers Brothers and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Their most recent production is the rather self-explanatory teen series Vampire High. John Migicovsky went on to become President of the Columbia Tristar Media Group while Charles Falzon became President of Gullane Entertainment (who own Thomas the Tank Engine, among other things).

Although this is a Canadian production there is nevertheless a credit for an animation studio in Seoul, which seems odd as none of the many names in the credits are Korean. There are also, bizarrely, credits for ‘live action sequences’ of which there are, um, none at all. My guess is that when the series of which this was part, Bedtime Primetime Classics, was originally aired on Canadian TV it had some sort of wraparound live-action framing story. The video release was then probably renamed Goodtimes Video Classics, with a purely animated title sequence - but with the original end credits. That’s my guess, at least.

Glenn Morley and Marvin Dolgay are credited with the music although Mark Shekter is credited (at least on the sleeve) with the songs. The animation and character design are actually pretty good, of a standard that one might expect to see on Cartoon Network or Saturday morning shows. Alexa could almost be an ancestor of Kim Possible.

The interesting cast, whose roles are not identified, are: Clara Blye (probably the narrator), venerable Canadian institution Don Francks (My Bloody Valentine, Johnny Mnemonic and every TV show under the sun), Jennifer Martini (Babar, Goosebumps), James Rankin (Super Mario Brothers cartoon), Ron Rubin (Angela Anaconda, Sailor Moon), Stuart Stone (Voodoo Dawn, Serial Killing 101, Donnie Darko) and Colette Stevenson (Rats, Replikator - I think this is a different actress to the one who was in Corrie in the early 1990s).

Despite my initial trepidation, I ended up actually enjoying this version of JTTCOTE. I think its intended pre-teen audience would lap it up - and might be encouraged to perhaps try one of Verne’s books for themselves. In contrast, the 2001 Franco-Belgian version, in staying truer to Verne, is more suitable for an older audience who don’t expect songs or animal sidekicks in their cartoons. As far as I can tell, there are four other animated versions of the story: an accurate-looking Spanish one, a less acurate one called A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (which features a Dr Greed-like rival named Professor Kippner), an episode of a pre-school series called The Triplets and the second Willy Fog TV serial.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 8th August 2005

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