Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Favorite Films: "The Rocketeer"

It's easy to love a perfect film, to watch Jaws or The Godfather or Chinatown or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure over and over and realize that there's no way the movie could get any better.

Flawed films are tougher to love, and no Hollywood studio has made flawed films as consistently and as near greatness as Disney.  Almost from the very beginning, with movies like The Sword and the Rose, Disney couldn't quite crack the code of live-action films in the way it did with animation.  It was especially true of Disney in the 1970s and early 1980s, when it made movies that were downright terrible, like The North Avenue Irregulars and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, leading up to three of the most ambitious and disappointingly muted films in its history: The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods.

(Side note: I've always wanted to write more about The Watcher in the Woods than I did when I wrote a review of it in Mrs. Patterson's 10th-grade English class, but I just can't bring myself to put it in the category of my "Favorite Films." Still, it remains a source of fascination and a strange sort of awe to me.  If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and don't; if you're one of the many who think of it as a childhood horror classic, do yourself an even bigger favor and never try to rewatch it.  If, however, you're a fan of some bizarre-but-true stories of what can go wrong in Hollywood, by all means read this terrific Vulture essay on this weird movie.)

By the time The Rocketeer came around, Disney had finally reversed its fortunes.  Thanks to Touchstone Pictures in the late 1980s, it was, in fact, a powerhouse in live-action movies, and very little that Disney produced failed at the box office.  Then, in 1990, came Dick Tracy, a film so expensive and so weighted down by expectation that even Disney's studio head said it "may not have been worth it."

Maybe it's because I was of the age to have been moderately aware of all of these machinations of Hollywood that by the time summer 1991 rolled around, The Rocketeer seemed the answer not only to the perplexing problems that Disney was starting to experience, but to the feeling of sameness that had started to creep into moviegoing.

Looking back, the age of the massive blockbuster had begun, and every summer promised aggressively loud, modern action movies about cops or aliens or sometimes both.  Everything about The Rocketeer looked different.

And, in fact, it turned out that The Rocketeer was different.  Too different.  It was a disappointment at the box office.  Critics had a hard time being enthusiastic about it.  Even its fans had a hard time being enthusiastic about it.  Twenty-five years later, that sort of reception is understandable.

The Rocketeer hasn't improved with age -- but, and here's the very important but, it hasn't gotten any worse, either.  It's remained just as off-kilter, just as charmingly not-quite-perfect as it was when it debuted a quarter of a century ago.  Something about The Rocketeer is not quite right for modern sensibilities; its pacing seems off, the acting feels a little forced and fake, which is exactly how the movie serials that inspired it used to feel, too.

Surprisingly, those flaws actually make The Rocketeer a better movie than maybe it actually is. It's a satisfyingly timeless movie, an action-adventure that romanticized and fetishized a bygone era so perfectly, it seems almost to have sprung fully formed from that time, which is both a compliment and a criticism.  It has the pacing and style of a big-studio movie from the 1940s, a period (as Disney itself came to perfectly describe it) "that never was and always will be."  The thing is, the pacing and style of movies had evolved by the 1990s, but The Rocketeer hadn't.

The sheer determination of The Rocketeer's director, Joe Johnston, to maintain that romantic, heroically glamorous appeal is exactly what keeps The Rocketeer so gosh-darn neat, which is exactly what it wants to be, should be and is.  It's just swell.

That's especially true considering how, 25 years after The Rocketeer, super-hero action movies have become insular and exclusionary.  They intentionally lock out audiences who aren't familiar with their stories.  The Rocketeer doesn't have that problem; if anything, it spends so much time trying to explain its story that you want it to pick up the pace a little bit.  But, then, to want it to be a different film is to want it to be something other than The Rocketeer, which is a terrible thing to want.

But, gosh, for a movie that I profess to adore, I feel awfully critical of The Rocketeer when there's so much to love, from its exquisite visual design to its polished-to-a-sheen cinematography.

There's its brilliant, hummable, perfect score by James Horner, with one of the all-time great musical themes.  (No, seriously, this is one of the very best movie scores ever written.)

There's the casting that's perfect down the line, from Bill Campbell, who manages to be both chiseled and giddy; to Jennifer Connelly, who's simultaneously sweet and sensual; to Timothy Dalton, who is almost as good at being Errol Flynn as Errol Flynn; to Alan Arkin as the sidekick and Terry O'Quinn as a perfectly cartoon version of Howard Hughes.

And yet, I can't deny that all of the dazzlingly perfect parts of The Rocketeer never quite add up to an equally dazzling whole.  There's a reason the movie has remained locked stubbornly in the world of fan-driven love, that it hasn't been and probably never will be rediscovered: It's just slightly too entranced by its own charms to be entirely lovable.

The Rocketeer may never make it onto any list of truly great films, which is fine with me.  Everyone knows the great films.  It's the not-quite-great ones that remain little secrets.  I like my little secret of The Rocketeer, I enjoy knowing I share my fondness for the movie with people who also find so much to love about it.

From the standpoint of Hollywood and Disney history, The Rocketeer holds an interesting place, it's an early casualty in the industry's fascination with making things bigger and more expensive, but not necessarily better, and one of the bigger stumbling blocks in Disney's long and not-always-easy climb from live-action obscurity to its global dominance today.

The Rocketeer needed to be made, and it needed to be made by Disney.  Like the jetpack its hero finds, it was designed to be a game-changer, but that wasn't its destiny.   The Rocketeer never became the hit, the "franchise" that its producers wanted it to be, and maybe that's for the best, but the way it turned out, its fate makes me love it that much more.

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