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Monday, 21 January 2013

Luau (1982)

Directors: Tim Burton & Jerry Rees
Stars: Mike Gabriel, Sue Frankenberger and Terrey Hamada

I grew up watching Tim Burton pictures, with Beetlejuice my favourite and Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns not far behind, so it isn't surprising to find that I've seen all his features, at least up to Sweeney Todd; somehow I can't drum up the courage to watch Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. What's more surprising is that I haven't gone backwards yet; of his various early short films, I've only seen Vincent, albeit a number of times. The release of Frankenweenie, the 2012 animated feature, prompted me to do just that, as it was based on a live action short that Burton directed back in 1984 when working at Disney. So I began to work backwards from Frankenweenie, a black and white piece that runs half an hour and plays as you might expect, something of a test run for Edward Scissorhands. Vincent also fits easily in Burton's career, an autobiographical stop motion poem about a boy who wants to be the narrator, Vincent Price.

Yet going back another step, I was truly floored. What was 1982's Luau? Where did it come from? It was as unexpected and jarring as Frankenweenie and Vincent were expected and natural. It took a little background to figure out what was going on. In the late seventies, Burton certainly seemed to be on the right track. He'd studied at the California Institute of Arts, the school that continues to supply the animation industry with almost everyone you've ever heard of. Like so many CalArts graduates, he was hired by Walt Disney Animation, perhaps especially because of the stir generated by his short animation, Stalk of the Celery Monster, which had impressed his classmates, including John Lasseter, future head of Pixar and now chief creative officer at Disney Animation. He must have felt on top of the world. Unfortunately, he'd picked exactly the wrong time. In the early eighties, Disney were at their lowest creative ebb.

Burton himself has said that the company was floundering at the time. Walt Disney had died in 1966 but a number of his talented peers survived him. Gradually, though, they left the company, retired or died themselves, and by 1980 Disney was being run by what Burton calls 'people who were the third or fourth on the tier', simply because they were the only ones left. He was far from the only employee feeling pain at the rampant confusion in the company. He's said that he 'felt like a trapped princess', with the creative freedom to draw whatever he wanted but a frustration born from none of it ever being used. He worked as a conceptual artist on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, but none of his work is visible in those films. So, he and a set of similarly frustrated colleagues made a couple of live action shorts to let their imaginations and cinematic influences run riot in a way that they could actually see.

Luau was the second of these, shot on video in 1982, written, produced and directed by Burton and Jerry Rees, whose next film as a writer/director would be The Brave Little Toaster in 1987. It's a wild mashup of influences that veers frenetically every which way all at once, not merely the braindumps of a host of frustrated creative souls but an acid trip through them. The framework is a parady of an AIP beach movie, with a very reminiscent plot, such as it is, centering around Bob forgetting about his girl Arlene because she introduces him to Princess Yakamoshi, who's staying with her family for the summer. This prompts every sort of gag, from low puns through Japanese accent jokes and dialogue overdubs to Three Stooges slapstick and eventually to Monty Python surrealism. There's even a running joke, as Kahuna changes his name back to Vladimir Moonface Jr, then disappears, only to reappear vicariously through Kahuna sightings all around the country.
Much of what we see is there because it has to be in this sort of parody, such as the luau of the title because there's always a party in a beach movie. There's always a celebrity guest too and here that's Ray Wonder Jr, a cross between Stevie Wonder and Ray Parker Jr. There's a musical number and a fight scene and a surfing contest and all the other things you'll expect if you've ever seen anything featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. There is fun to be had here, but it's the sort of fun that prompts laughing and cringing at the same time, because yes, they really did that. None of it is remotely groundbreaking, though the catharsis these folk enjoy is in your face obvious. Technically it's as inconsistent as everything else, which means that on one side there's some some adventurous editing, some minor live action animation and some good ideas for camera movements, but on the other there's a great deal of terrible lighting.

It's the surreal side that carries most interest. Ten minutes in, IQ finds a disembodied head inside some sort of metal can, one that's very much alive and played by Tim Burton himself. 'I am the most powerful force in the universe,' he tells everyone. 'You are here to do my bidding.' He can even hypnotise people with haunting tunes but for the most part he's completely ignored, until he challenges Bob to a surfing contest. Given the effects they had to work with, this isn't nearly as wild as it should be, even when he elicits the assistance of a killer crab, but it's very telling when you think about what it really means. Burton was feeling as ignored as crippled and this head and the businessmen who ask them all to keep quiet on the beach are surely their bosses at work. No wonder they're the enemies in the fight scene. Luau would be just another home movie, albeit an ambitious and imaginative one, if it wasn't for this background.

Almost everyone here stayed in the animation industry, eventually getting past the down times and going on to important work. Bob is played by Mike Gabriel, who wrote the story for Oliver & Company and directed The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas. IQ, the chunky kid who finds the head, is Joe Ranft, now a voice actor for Pixar, voicing characters like Wheezy in Toy Story 2 and Jacques in Finding Nemo. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of major features, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Toy Story. Randy Cartwright animated Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Zazu in The Lion King. Jay Jackson animated Milo in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Morph in Treasure Planet. Philip Young, who plays Kahuna, animated Mufasa in The Lion King and Kuzco in The Emperor's New Groove. Of course, because we don't know what animators look like, only Tim Burton remains recognisable. It's good to see him actually act.

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