Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.
One thing can be said about this Disney movie--it is certainly original. In a galaxy far far away we meet Experiment 626. Created illegally by a mad scientist named Jumba (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) this little blue alien--with four arms big ears and a very bad disposition--can't be reformed. The Galactic Federation rules he must be banished to an uninhabited planet but in the transfer 626 escapes and crash-lands on a primitive natural wildlife preserve--otherwise known as Earth. There on the island of Kauai he disguises himself as a dog named Stitch and befriends Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase) a lonely little Hawaiian girl with a penchant for Elvis Presley songs (and thankfully none of the characters burst into original songs). Lilo's older sister Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere) has become her sole guardian after their parents were killed but a big bad social worker named Cobra Bubbles (voiced by Ving Rhames) will take Lilo away if Nani can't prove she is fit to take care of her little sister. Of course throwing the destructive Stitch into the equation doesn't help matters much. Now being pursued by the Federation Jumba and an Earth expert named Pleakley (voiced by Kevin McDonald) the blue devil at first tries to find a way off the planet but soon takes a liking to his new surroundings and learns the meaning of "ohana"--the Hawaiian word for "family."
Although there are no "star" voices being utilized in Lilo & Stitch each character is still stamped with his or her own unique voice. Carrere (Wayne's girlfriend in Wayne's World) and newcomer Chase do a nice job with their sisterly roles and Rhames is easily recognizable as the tough Bubbles who seems a little bit more Men in Black than a mere social worker (obviously intended). Interestingly there really isn't one major villain. Characters like Jumba Bubbles and even Stitch start off as baddies but end up redeeming themselves. Only the Galactic police commissioner Captain Gantu (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) a 20-foot shark-like alien seems to be the one who never veers from his malevolent path to bring Stitch to justice but he's only in about one-third of the film. The star of the show is Stitch voiced by Chris Sanders. The devilish imp is a lot funnier when he's being a bad boy--running around saying the most awful things we can't understand--than being the good little alien. In one hilarious scene he builds a replica of San Francisco with Lilo's toys and then pretends he's Godzilla stomping and chewing his way through. But alas it's a Disney film so he has to come around realize he wants to be part of a family and find the goodness within himself. Ho hum.
Disney Studios were once the giants of animation. Remember when they could do no wrong as their movies grossed millions of dollars? Sure they still pride themselves on their heartwarming cutesy movies but as the hip and funny computer-generated Shrek and Ice Age dominate the current trend in animation Disney is having to keep up with the Joneses. With Lilo & Stitch it is trying. This movie is in the same vein as Aladdin and The Emperor's New Groove in which the humor and wit aim right for the older audiences--and it's appreciated. There are several laugh-out-loud moments. Plus it looks like Disney animated films are finally moving away from the original songs (which were never the same since lyricist Howard Ashman died). It's a nice change of pace. The animation is also up to par illustrating a lush and beautiful Hawaiian landscape. (But how could you go wrong with drawing Hawaii?) Still the true audience is the younger set so those Disney-esque elements have to be in place. Stitch has to become "human." Things have to wrap up neatly at the end. Maybe someday just once a Disney animated film will surprise us.