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When you think of Lucasfilm, you probably think of Star Wars. Or at least, you think of Indiana Jones. If nothing else, it's safe to say you probably don't think of experimental biopics about illustrious Japanese authors, improvisational 2D animated films about nightmares, or movies about the invention of ill-fated cars.
But although Lucasfilm has, since they were taken over by Disney, become an institution exclusively dedicated to all things Star Wars (and, coming up, more Indiana Jones blockbusters as well), George Lucas's company has a long history of supporting independent artistic visions and stylistic innovation. Say what you will about Star Wars, but Lucas used the success of his most popular creation to try to give his contemporaries creative freedom, or to put their most challenging works of art in front of a larger audience, or to attempt - and sometimes, yes, even fail - to make interesting motion pictures with unique production challenges.
So as we celebrate the release of the latest Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and as the franchise becomes increasingly commonplace, a yearly occurrence instead of a wondrous anticipation, let's take a look back at many of the films Lucasfilm helped release that were, more often than not, truly unique and fascinating... whether or not they were successful.
American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas’s second feature film is an energetic and earnest nostalgia throwback to the 1950s, with a group of friends separating on the last day of summer vacation and getting into a series of lovable misadventures. Richard Dreyfuss pursues the woman of his dreams all over town, Paul Le Mat finds himself babysitting a bratty kid in his hot rod and racing with young Harrison Ford, and Ron Howard and Cindy Williams argue about the future of their relationship.
American Graffiti was a sleeper hit in 1973, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It’s easy to see why: Lucas demonstrates an uncanny ability to make the past seem fresh and relevant, a quality he would later capitalize on when he updated his love of old Flash Gordon serials into a modern blockbuster called Star Wars.
More American Graffiti (1979)
After the success of Star Wars George Lucas once again returned to the world of American Graffiti, but this time his approach was more experimental.
Seemingly inspired by the non-linear storytelling of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II, the sequel More American Graffiti followed most of the characters from the original film (Richard Dreyfuss stayed home this time) over the course of four New Year’s Eves - 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967 - with each timeline represented by a different filmmaking style. A widescreen approach for Paul Le Mat’s racing storyline, a 16mm documentary feel for Charles Martin Smith’s Vietnam story, a split-screen conceptualization for Candy Clark’s hippy segment, and a more conventional approach for Ron Howard and Cindy Williams’ marriage woes.
More American Graffiti was directed by Bill L. Norton, not George Lucas, and made money at the box office but was largely written off as inferior to the original. Watching the film today, however, reveals an impressive and exciting motion picture experiment, with more great acting and humor, and thoughtful commentaries on the way these characters developed as their world changed around them. An argument could even be made, quite reasonably, that it’s a more fascinating and distinctive artistic accomplishment than the original. More American Graffiti deserves to be rediscovered.
Twice Upon a Time (1983)
The first animated Lucasfilm is another fascinating experiment, a mixture of live-action and 2D animation and stop-motion, with conversational humor and imaginative fantasy. Twice Upon a Time stars Lorenzo Music (the original voice of Garfield) as Ralph, The All-Purpose Animal, who along with his silent friend Mum get wrapped up in a sinister plot to explode the “real” world into a land of horrifying nightmares.
Twice Upon a Time was directed by John Korty (who would later helm the first Ewoks movie) and Charles Swenson, and it’s been released in two versions. The first featured crass dialogue and cussing, and the other (the directors’ preferred version) is more appropriate for all ages. The animation style ranges from charmingly simplistic to attractive and ambitious, and the film’s conversational humor approach yields few belly laughs but lots of affable charm.
Just like More American Graffiti, Twice Upon a Time was largely unavailable for many years, and its reputation suffered as a result. But although it never quite achieves greatness, there’s an innovative spirit to this underrated animated film that warrants another look and a fresh perspective from audiences who might never have seen anything quite like it.
Haskell Wexler, the brilliant cinematographer behind American classics like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night and Days of Heaven, worked with George Lucas as a “visual consultant” on American Graffiti. When the time came for Wexler to direct his second feature film, after the 1969 cult hit Medium Cool, Lucas helped the film get distribution under the Lucasfilm banner.
Latino stars Robert Beltran (Star Trek: Voyager) as a Mexican-American soldier, assigned to train rebels to attack the Nicaraguan government, who falls in love with a Nicaraguan woman and begins to question his loyalties. The film is forthrightly topical and political, and features a strong lead performance from Beltran. It’s easy to see why - especially with Wexler’s pedigree - the film played at the Cannes Film Festival.
It’s also, sadly, easy to see why Latino has faded into obscurity. Despite the film’s obvious good intentions, it’s a predictable and in many ways conventional motion picture, without much to make it stand out narratively or visually. Which is a pity, of course, since its potential as a salient and powerful drama is clear right from the beginning, even though Wexler never fully capitalizes on that.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, on the other hand, practically pops out of the screen. It’s a dazzling and innovative motion picture, and one of the most interesting cinematic explorations of the way an artist’s work represents their inner turmoil.
Mishima tells the story of Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata), the celebrated 20th century Japanese author who, later in his life, assembled his own militia and tried to take over the country. Schrader charts this tale via a complex tapestry of flashbacks and adaptations of Mishima’s works, which take on wildly disparate visual styles and which illustrate his fascination with beauty, purity and nationalism - even as we simultaneously watch those obsessions lead him to ruin.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, just like Latino, but unlike Wexler’s film Mishima won a prestigious award for its musical score, production design, costume design and cinematography, and is now available on home video from the Criterion Collection. It’s a stunning artistic accomplishment, and one of the finest motion pictures ever to come through Lucasfilm.
George Lucas teamed up with Jim Henson to bring one of his beloved puppet fantasy films to life. Labyrinth stars Jennifer Connelly as a young woman who resents her baby brother, and accidentally wishes him into the center of a bizarre labyrinth full of creepy creatures and an alluring but malevolent Goblin King, played by a dynamic David Bowie. To save her brother, she has to solve a series of eccentric conundrums and grow up, very rapidly, into a more mature and capable human being.
Labyrinth has a large cult following, and it’s easy to see why. Directed by Jim Henson, the film features a peculiar but intoxicating blend of sincere fantasy and almost Python-esque whimsy, and plays like a contemporary and empowering retooling of the old Alice in Wonderland fantasy mold. The music, much of it by Bowie, is catchy and sometimes romantic, in an ethereal sort of way. It’s a treat of a motion picture.
So it’s odd to think that the film was met with mixed response and weak box office numbers when it was originally released, and only found success over time on home video. Audiences gradually fell under Labyrinth’s spell, which is a heck of a lot more than could be said for…
Howard the Duck (1986)
Howard the Duck is, if you’ll forgive the terminology, a turkey. The first theatrical feature film adaptation of a Marvel comic book (after several serials and TV movies) stars Chip Zien as the voice of Howard, an alien from the planet Duckworld who gets sucked through a vortex onto Earth, where he falls for a human singer (Leah Thompson), befriends a nerdy scientist (Tim Robbins) and fights a horrifying lobster creature to save the planet.
Say what you will about Howard the Duck, but at least it’s imaginative. Willard Huyck’s movie uses a variety of innovative filmmaking techniques to tell a satirical story of the immigration experience, and also populate his film with monsters and musical numbers and - for some baffling reason - topless female duck nudity. Although it’s based off of a comic book with adult themes and sharp commentary, the movie clearly has trouble picking a tone, and waffles between family-friendly and too “adult” for comfort.
Howard the Duck is, in no uncertain terms, a mess of a motion picture. There are elements that work, and it’s certainly never boring, but it’s the kind of catastrophic big budget misfire that becomes legendary for a reason. It’s hard to imagine how this movie got made, especially in this Frankenstein fashion, and it’s easy to see why it was a huge critical and box office flop. But it’s also easy to see why, more than 30 years later, Howard the Duck also has developed a small cult of loyal fans who respond favorably to the film’s off the wall quirks.
After successfully melding the fantasy and sci-fi genres with Star Wars, George Lucas and his American Graffiti star Ron Howard teamed up for a more old-fashioned magical adventure. Willow stars Warwick Davis (himself a Lucasfilm veteran who co-starred in Return of the Jedi and the two Ewoks movies) as an amateur wizard tasked with protecting a baby, destined to save the world, from an evil sorcerer queen.
It’s an ambitious production and, all things considered, a rollicking adventure filled with impressive monsters, memorable characters and thrilling action. It’s no wonder that Lucasfilm would later turn back to Ron Howard to direct a Star Wars movie. He brings a sincere approach to what could, in lesser hands, have been silly material, and Willow benefits from the storytelling style. The characters and their adventures are absorbing and fun.
Willow was a modest financial success and earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects. Then again, it also earned two Razzie nominations for Worst Screenplay and Worst Supporting Actor (for Billy Barty). Reactions were mixed when Willow came out but the film’s reputation has mostly improved over time. It’s a very entertaining film that deserves to be remembered as one of the better big budget fantasy epics.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Francis Ford Coppola was considered one of the greatest filmmakers in the world in the 1970s, but by the late 1980s it had been a long time since he’d made an unabashedly great movie. Your mileage might vary, but this biopic about an ambitious but ill-fated car manufacturer might be the last truly “great” motion picture he ever made, even though it’s relatively obscure now.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream stars Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker, who tried to change the automative industry with an innovative new car, challenging the “Big Three” of automakers and putting himself in some serious legal crosshairs. The film begins as a Capra-esque tale of wholesome American ambition and segues into a spirited, but bittersweet saga of capitalism crushing competition, and the contrast is pointed and dramatically satisfying.
Though acclaimed, Tucker: The Man and His Dream was not a big moneymaker, although it did spark a career resurgence for co-star Martin Landau, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film holds up well today as a thoughtful and exciting biopic, filled with great performances and an infectious exuberance. Like several other Lucasfilms, it too is overdue for rediscovery.
The Land Before Time (1988)
In the 1980s, when Disney’s animated films were floundering, Don Bluth struck out on his own and became a powerful competing force in the industry with hits like The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up with Bluth to produce one of his most beloved motion pictures, The Land Before Time, about a group of young dinosaurs searching for an idyllic land as the time of their species rapidly approaches an end.
The Land Before Time is one of Bluth’s many masterpieces. The film is inventively presented, with a careful eye towards capturing the massive scale of adult dinosaurs and the tiny world of their juvenile offspring, spiked with dynamic and terrifying shots of the “Sharptooth” carnivorous dinosaur chasing after the heroes. What’s more, in typical Bluthian fashion, the film dives headfirst into heavy emotions, with earnest depictions of death, grieving, racism and hopelessness transforming what could have been a flighty piece of children’s entertainment into something with lasting dramatic impact.
The Land Before Time was such a hit that it spawned an incredibly long franchise of straight-to-video sequels. The most recent entry in the series, Journey of the Brave, came out in 2016, bringing the total number of Land Before Time movies to a whopping 14. None of those follow-ups were made with the participation of Bluth, Lucas or Spielberg, however, and the original still towers over them.
Radioland Murders (1994)
The only Lucasfilm released in the 1990s that wasn’t called Star Wars is Mel Smith’s retro comedy throwback Radioland Murders, the sort of fast-talking, fast-paced comedy that was typical of the 1930s and 1940s, but was increasingly rare in the 1990s (and seems to have all but vanished from theaters today).
Radioland Murders takes place on a particularly eventful night for the 1939 radio station WBN, where a big investor is visiting but - wouldn’t you know it? - people keep winding up dead. It’s up to the station’s head writer, played by Brian Benben, to solve the murders and keep the station afloat, but a series of wild misunderstandings and slapstick gags repeatedly get in his way.
Audiences stayed away in droves, and the film made back only $1.3 million of its $15 million budget. Which is a shame, because although Radioland Murders isn’t a comedy classic by any stretch of the imagination, it’s an enjoyably peppy motion picture with funny gags and an engaging energy. It also features pioneering digital matting effects from Industrial Light and Magic, making it unusually technically ambitious for a broad comedy. So at least it remains a historical novelty.
Red Tails (2012)
After George Lucas finally completed his Star Wars prequel trilogy he turned back to one of his long-standing passion projects, a rousing adventure about the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the heroic black flying aces who became legends for their heroism in World War II. Written by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and directed by TV director Anthony Hemingway (American Crime Story), the film later underwent reshoots directed by Lucas himself, with rewrites by Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks).
Like many Lucasfilms, Red Tails is a rousing story steeped in the sincere appreciation of history. In this case that description applies to the Tuskegee Airmen themselves, as well as the storytelling style, which has the same rah-rah hero worship that was typical of World War II dramas in the 1940s. Although the perils of war are never forgotten, the film is a forthrightly inspirational tale, replete with corny dialogue and overt messaging.
And although you can argue that those elements are, by today’s standards, a little clunky, it’s hard to argue that Red Tails doesn’t work. The aerial dogfights are thrilling and a truly remarkable ensemble cast, with performances by Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Leslie Odom Jr., Andre Royo and Michael B. Jordan. The film came and went fairly quickly in 2012, but it deserved better, and deserves another chance.
Strange Magic (2015)
The last Lucasfilm that didn’t have Star Wars in the title was quickly shoved under the rug, receiving a “blink and you’ll miss it” release from Disney shortly after they acquired the company and begin churning out Star Wars movies.
Directed by award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, Strange Magic is an animated fantasy musical, loosely based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, about a group of faeries who fall in love, almost go to war, and sing a series of forgettable covers of beloved pop songs. It also features some off-putting animation, some of which is bizarre enough to have become a meme on the internet.
Strange Magic wasn’t a small production. The film stars Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristen Chenoweth and Alfred Molina, and some estimates place its production costs as high as $70-100 million. It only made $13.6 million worldwide and, although its not quite as bad as that number implies, it’s easy to see why. It’s a forgettable family movie, the type of material that usually goes straight to video nowadays. Harmless, perhaps, but not much of a swan song for Lucasfilm to go out on before they pivoted entirely to making new entries in their Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.
Which of these Lucasfilms were your favorites? Are there any you've never heard of? Let's discuss in the comments!
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Source : http://www.ign.com/articles/2018/05/22/the-other-lucasfilms-all-the-ambitious-movies-that-werent-star-wars