When Blitzen suddenly announces his retirement from Santa’s elite team of reindeer, Santa needs to find a replacement. Filled with dreams of pulling the famed sleigh, Elliot the pony and his best friend, Hazel the goat, set out to prove that he is the horse for the job. As Elliot and Hazel take on the North Pole reindeer try-outs, Hazel learns that Christmas, as we know it, may be headed for disaster. When he discovers that a villainous woman is threatening the family farm back home, Elliot is faced with the biggest decision of his life.
Written and directed by Jennifer Westcott, the film’s sense of wonder and adventure ensures that it will fit nicely into any family’s rotation of annual Christmas. Animated in a style reminiscent of such Christmas classics as The Polar Express, Elliot the Littlest Reindeer has a timeless feel from the outset. Featuring a stellar cast from Martin Short, Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee and more, the script also offers them opportunities to shine in each of their various roles. (This is particularly true of Short who voices two different villains in the film.)
At its heart, Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is a tribute to believing in what someone can achieve, even if others don’t believe it’s possible. Though he yearns to pull Santa’s sleigh, Elliot is consistently looked over by those around him simply because he isn’t a reindeer. Although he has the drive, the heart and the ability, he is consistently told that he doesn’t measure up to the others because of his species. By viewing him through only one lens, his peers stereotype him in a way that continues to be limiting. In fact, only after dressing in a reindeer disguise is he respected enough to be included in serious conversation about whether or not he has the talent to achieve his dream. (Interestingly, as he becomes increasingly accepted as a reindeer, Elliot also must struggle with his views of others as he begins to take on the personality traits of the bullies that once intimidated him.) In doing so, the film serves as a reminder of the importance of knowing who we are and the dangers of limiting others with stereotypes.
In the end, Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is an entertaining children’s film that speaks to more than believing in Santa Claus and leaving presents under the tree. By looking at what happens when we view others through one set of lenses, Elliot speaks to the importance of accepting ourselves—and one another—for who we are.
For audio of our interview with CG Supervisor Sumira Dhawan, click here.
Special featurette on the Blu-ray is “Meet Eliot.”
While he is perhaps best known from his time playing the affable Kirk Gleason in Gilmore Girls, Gunn has stepped into the forefront recently for his role as Kraglin in the Guardians of the Galaxyfilms. However, he has also found himself in the unique position of serving as physical stand-in for CGI fan-favourite Rocket the Raccoon as well. As Gunn prepares for the return of Rocket in Avengers: Infinity War, he credits his brother, Guardiansdirector James Gunn, for bringing him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Really, it was when my brother got involved,” he starts. “I know that my brother, James, was at a point in his career where he was a little down on directing movies because it was such a hard job to get it on one of these big tent-pole movies. Then, when he ended up being up for Guardians, getting that job, I was totally ecstatic for him.”
“I play both Kraglin on-screen and I also play Rocket [the Raccoon] on-set. That kind of came about during the first movie. [James] and I had worked together so much on various things in our career and he knew that he wanted an actor that he knew, trusted and had worked with to be able to play Rocket on set so that he’d have a real actor there to do it and not just a tennis ball on a stick or a PA holding up script in their hands or something like that. So, he asked me to do it and we ended up kind of figuring out on the go what the method was for that to work. Then, it turned out that it was basically me just getting down on my hands and knees and playing Rocket just as though he was there and it was really helpful to the other actors and the visual effects team. They weren’t able to use me for reference them when they started to animate the character and then I think it was a matter of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. So, then you know, it worked so well for the first movie that I ended up doing it again for Guardians Vol. 2and then for both Infinity Warmovies as well.”
Though most people associate Rocket the Raccoon with Bradley Cooper who supplies his voice, it’s Gunn’s work that lays the groundwork for the performance. By providing much of the physical acting for the character, Gunn appreciates the hard work of the animators who can take his movements and bring Rocket to life.
“I play Rocket the entire time on-set…,” he recalls. “Then, the visual effects team then goes in and they start to put together a draft based on what I did–our movements, hand movements, and particularly my face, some facial expressions, things like where Rocket’s looking… For just little things like that, the animators will use what I’m doing as a reference. Then, later Bradley Cooper comes in and he does the voice of the character and they can change things then. He’ll flesh the character out and sort of put his thing on it and then if they want to make some changes based on either what he’s doing or some combination thereof, they can make those changes at that point as needed.”
Of course, playing two different characters within the same film brings its own set of challenges as well. During scenes where Rocket and Kraglin shared screen time, Gunn claims that he had work twice as hard in order to be prepared.
“There are four different scenes where [Rocket and Kraglin] are not only together [in Vol. 2], but they both have dialog. We really would just kind of shoot around each character and plug me in as much as we could. I always think that the preparation and focus are the most important components to go to acting on set and I had to sort of double my preparation and double my focus on those days. It wasn’t easy because I can’t really squat down as Rocket in Kraglin’s wardrobe. So, I was also having to do these costume changes where I would get and jumpsuit, which is a little stiff and hard to maneuver, and into my Rocket sweats, which is basically a track suit that I’m wearing. So yeah, we’d just have to go back and forth. We’d really have to just take a little longer to shoot and I would be doing the scene twice from the point of view of each character.”
Of course, the Guardians franchise signaled a shift in tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe upon its release. While offering more humour and brighter colour schemes than other franchises (and not to mention the best soundtracks in the MCU), the most interesting thing about the Guardiansfranchise has been its ability to help audiences fall in love with the anti-hero. When asked about whether he feels this franchise looks for the good in the ‘bad guys’, Gunn argues that the backstories of characters like Rocket gives them the chance to explore what it means to be a hero.
“Well, I certainly don’t view them as bad guys,” he explains, “but they’re not motivated by altruistic qualities the way that the Avengers are certainly… But, I agree with your premise that over the course of the movies, I think the arc of those characters are still learning to identify the goodness that’s already inside of them. I think they’d had lives that have encouraged them to squash the goodness, like Quill living with the Ravagers or Rocket having been where he’s been, sort of lonely most of his whole life. They’ve been encouraged to not think about the good inside of them so I think part of the movies is them finding that.”
Having worked with an ensemble cast on Guardians, his experience on Avengers: Infinity Warmoves to another level entirely. Billed as the ‘largest cross-over event in history’, the film features most (if not all) of the major characters that Marvel has introduced to audiences over the last decade. Nevertheless, Gunn believes that the film honours each character and hopes that the fans agree.
“There are a lot of characters and I think that that’s handled particularly well over the course of the two movies–which, if I can’t talk about the first one, imagine how little I can say it about the second one,” he muses. “We filmed them back to back. There’s still some additional photography to do for the second movie as is always the case and but I think the way that that issue of all these different characters participating in one story is really interesting and I think it works really well. We’ll have to wait and see what people think about. It certainly is a lot of balls in the air to juggle.”
Providing the motivation for the Avengers to assemble this time is the impending threat of alien overlord, Thanos. Hell-bent on destroying the universe, Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones is rumoured to give the film a darker tone than other entries into the MCU. Despite its intensity, Gunn also feels that Infinity Waralso balances it with Marvel’s trademark humour.
“I haven’t seen the movie yet so I’ve got to start with that,” he begins, “but I do think that it has a heaviness to it that I think is super cool. I think it’s warranted, personally. I mean you can’t have all these disparate franchises that you’re tying together under one massive banner and be sort of glib about it. I think that these movies are going to be serious. There’s certainly plenty of comedy though. I mean, you know, we have the Guardians in there. We’ve got the crew from Ragnarok in there. I think there’s a lot of laughs, but I think the overall tone of piece is not super light. I think fans will like that because it’s pretty serious. Thanos is serious business.”
Furthermore, one of the highlights for Gunn of working on Infinity War was the opportunity to combine the Guardians crew with a more diverse cast, allowing new interactions and conflicts.
Says Gunn, “I think every actor in one way or another helps define who the character you’re playing is, particularly from Rocket’s point of view. Rocket has been in space his whole life. He knows very little about Earth or the people who live there other than what he knows through his friendship with [Peter] Quill. So, his whole relationship to the earth is based on what Quill has told him and when he comes across any of these people from the Avengers universe, he has a very different perspective of them than any of us would have of them from down here. If anything, I think they’re not quite so impressive to Rocket.”
With his success in the Marvel Universe and Gilmore Girls, one might wonder what Gunn hopes to do next. Still, rather than get preoccupied with what is to come, he prefers to simply focus on looking for great stories to help bring to life.
“I try not to prognosticate or wish too much about where my career is going to go because then you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. I’ve been very, very lucky to work with incredibly talented people with my brother in Guardians, with the Russos and everyone else they’re working with on Avengers and the list goes on and on, but also with Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Dan, on Gilmore Girls. They’re such great writers and I’ve been so lucky and I really just try to chase the words. I think story is king still. Good stories and good content still rule the day and I just want to keep doing stuff like that. I’d love to revisit Kirk on Gilmore girls if we ever make more, which I don’t think would happen anytime soon. I’d take a look at the character again at some point down the line. I’d love it.”
To hear full audio of our conversation with Sean, click here.
Avengers: Infinity War opens April 27th, 2018.
What happens when creativity gets replaced by redundancy and reiterations? With the impending arrival of Jurassic World, following years of exec producing the terrible Michael Bay Transformers films, has Steven Spielberg finally given up on telling original stories that transport us to other worlds? Is he no longer interested in taking us there so he can turn us back to see ourselves without pretense here?
Before we come to any real conclusions, let us quickly (if possible) recap the forty-year career of one of the greatest cinematic minds of all time. Briefly.
Steven Spielberg has generated 8.5 billion dollars worldwide with the pursuit of his art, netting a solid 3 billion plus himself (per Forbes). The writer, director, and producer made a name for himself by directing Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and a mechanical depiction of a shark around in Jaws (1975). He stormed out of the gate in the sci-fi department with an extended, remade version of his independent film, Firelight, remastered with Dreyfuss as the star in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
In 1981, Spielberg teamed up with his Star Wars buddy, George Lucas, and Lucas’ star, Harrison Ford, to direct Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). A year later, he returned to the science fiction with E.T. the Extraterrestrial (the same year he wrote and produced the original Poltergeist which he ‘technically’ didn’t direct).The two sequels to Raiders sandwiched his producer role on Back to the Future (and the sequel), a writing role on The Goonies, and directing The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Always. He delivered the Robin Williams-led fantasy, Hook (1991), and the first Jurassic Park (1993) to cement his place in the science fiction/fantasy Hall of Fame.
Soon, Spielberg was diving into more practical, realistic material like 1993’s Schindlers List that saw him win an Academy Award for Director. Amistad (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (another Academy Award in 1998) soon followed. Average human fair like Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Terminal (2004), and Munich (2005) consistently provided some degree of entertainment, but certainly at a lower level than what we’d come to expect from the bearded savant. Yes, Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), and War of the Worlds (2005) broke up the realistic monotony, but the trend had turned. Following his failed attempt to meld Indy with his sci-fi love (the dreadful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), he directed War Horse (2011) and Lincoln (2012) to critical acclaim (and produced The Hundred Foot Journey for good measure).
But Jurassic World, the film which looks to follow on the commercial (but not necessarily critical) success of the previous Jurassic Park films, looms on the horizon like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s been a decade since Spielberg tackled a science fiction film (I refuse to count the absurd result of Indy’s latest adventure) even though I believe that sci-fi is the one, true love of Mr. Spielberg. The passion of the outsider included when their true value is revealed plays well in stories concerning artificial intelligence (A.I.) and aliens (Close Encounters, E.T.) Those stories resonate in the heart of a man who grew up as the bullied son of Orthodox Jews, who captured stories over and over again that remind us of the deeper things in life.
There’s a freedom in science fiction that you can’t find when you’re telling a historical story. You can’t find it when you’re basing it in reality in the midst of the world the way it really is. It’s much easier to take those truths, those beliefs about the world in its best and worst, and wrap them up in an entertaining tale that takes the personal out of it and lets people consider them. Your audience no longer realizes you’re critiquing them, at least not until it’s too late.
In the long run, I think Spielberg is more sci-fi prophet than historian. I think he uses science fiction the way that Jesus used parables about an agrarian lifestyle. In the long run, I think that’s what makes Spielberg the consummate storyteller. It’s why others want him to executive producer their horribly botched, overloaded CGI insults of film. We want to know truth the way Spielberg sees it: to know with conviction that we’re not alone, that we’re not as bad as we sometimes think we are, that one day the world will be made right again when we recognize that we’re all in this together.
If we can survive the dinosaur attack.