Marco Reviews

  • Sep 02, 2010

    This was one of my first reaches into the depths of obscure cinema, and to my surprise, it holds up very well some 8 years after I first saw it. Best known for their stop-motion animation holiday specials (RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, etc.), the Rankin-Bass team occasionally attempted feature films, one of which was the curious, almost totally forgotten, yet highly enjoyable MARCO. History goes mostly out the window here; the film shows Kublai Khan as, for the most part, genial and paternal, and a deal of the humor is decidedly contemporary (at least to the early 70s). But taken as a good-natured fantasia, the film's qualities become apparent. Desi Arnaz Jr. proves to be a most likable Marco, boasting an easy-going charm and good singing voice. He tackles Marco's development well, going from free-spirited adventurer to stiff-backed merchant (and back again). It's not a hugely accomplished performance, but it suits the role just fine. Zero Mostel is quite enjoyable as Kublai Khan, and if he sometimes lapses into his old schtick, well, his old schtick was hilarious. Thankfully, he manages to balance being the Zero audiences know and love, and being the ruler of an empire that stretches "from the mountains of Himalaya to the Sea of Nippon". Happily, he avoids stereotyping, and if his casting was not exactly P.C., he makes up for it; despite the generally genial nature of his Khan, he lets the ruler's fierce side show through, and convincingly at that. As the proto-feminist Aigiarm, Cie Cie Win (who was introduced here and seemingly never made another film) is delightful, being both assured and likable; thankfully, the script never weakens Aigiarm by calling on her to be a "typical woman"; she is best summed up by her line (one of the funniest in the film): Oh Buddha, save me from feminine reactions! Bah, what do you know, you're a man! Her theme, "By Damn", is a rousing song (reprised twice in the film), and Win makes the most of it. That she seems to have vanished completely is unfortunate, but her performance here is a solid legacy. Jack Weston is decent, if a bit too modern-New Yorkish, as Marco's cheerful uncle Maffio; Fred Sadoff has the thankless role of Marco's stiff-backed father, Niccolo, but does what he can; however, Aimee Eccles, as the Princess Kuklatoi, has a poorly-written role (culminating in a scene which depends on a very weak joke) and is essentially window dressing. Romeo Muller's script and lyrics are uneven, but at their best, quite clever. The plot, such as it is, goes a bit askew in the second half, and at times feels like a shaggy dog story (and the feeble climactic scene with Kuklatoi doesn't help), but the dialogue is often witty, and the lyrics are likewise clever, complemented by Maury Laws' excellent music. From "By Damn" to the stirring "A Man Who's Free", to the charming "Peace Berries", to the comic songs "Spaghetti" and "So Be It" (a patter song for Mostel), Laws' music is delightful--except for the obligatory romantic solo, sung by Marco to Kuklatoi, which feels, in every way, obligatory. Seymour Robbie's direction isn't terribly distinguished; he was primarily a TV director, and one could mistake MARCO for a TV film (it's not, though). He moves the action along smoothly, which is just fine for an easy going film like this. What stands out is the spectacle. Rokuro Nishigaki's cinematography is a bit flat, but the production design by Shinobu Muraki, and the costumes by Emi Wada (who would later win an Oscar for Akira Kurosawa's RAN) are lavish and colorful, and while it's unclear how much of the film was made on sets and how much on location (the credits list the film as having been made in Japan and "various locations in the Far East"), but the film not only looks good, but CONSISTENTLY good; there is no disconnect between set and location. When the pace slows down--and at 109 minutes, the film does feel a bit overlong--one can admire the view. This may or not have been an expensive film, but clearly care was taken in the production. As noted before, MARCO is almost completely forgotten. Audience reviews are few, and reviews from major critics even fewer, and those largely dismissive. A shame, because it can hold its own alongside other family films; although the liberal use of the word "Damn" and the fact that, when the song is first sung, Aigiarm is in the process of ripping off the fancy gown Kublai forced her to wear, may make it a bit much for very young children. MARCO is not a masterpiece, but it's unfairly overlooked, and deserves rediscovery, not only by fans of Rankin/Bass and Zero Mostel, but by seekers of family entertainment.

    This was one of my first reaches into the depths of obscure cinema, and to my surprise, it holds up very well some 8 years after I first saw it. Best known for their stop-motion animation holiday specials (RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, etc.), the Rankin-Bass team occasionally attempted feature films, one of which was the curious, almost totally forgotten, yet highly enjoyable MARCO. History goes mostly out the window here; the film shows Kublai Khan as, for the most part, genial and paternal, and a deal of the humor is decidedly contemporary (at least to the early 70s). But taken as a good-natured fantasia, the film's qualities become apparent. Desi Arnaz Jr. proves to be a most likable Marco, boasting an easy-going charm and good singing voice. He tackles Marco's development well, going from free-spirited adventurer to stiff-backed merchant (and back again). It's not a hugely accomplished performance, but it suits the role just fine. Zero Mostel is quite enjoyable as Kublai Khan, and if he sometimes lapses into his old schtick, well, his old schtick was hilarious. Thankfully, he manages to balance being the Zero audiences know and love, and being the ruler of an empire that stretches "from the mountains of Himalaya to the Sea of Nippon". Happily, he avoids stereotyping, and if his casting was not exactly P.C., he makes up for it; despite the generally genial nature of his Khan, he lets the ruler's fierce side show through, and convincingly at that. As the proto-feminist Aigiarm, Cie Cie Win (who was introduced here and seemingly never made another film) is delightful, being both assured and likable; thankfully, the script never weakens Aigiarm by calling on her to be a "typical woman"; she is best summed up by her line (one of the funniest in the film): Oh Buddha, save me from feminine reactions! Bah, what do you know, you're a man! Her theme, "By Damn", is a rousing song (reprised twice in the film), and Win makes the most of it. That she seems to have vanished completely is unfortunate, but her performance here is a solid legacy. Jack Weston is decent, if a bit too modern-New Yorkish, as Marco's cheerful uncle Maffio; Fred Sadoff has the thankless role of Marco's stiff-backed father, Niccolo, but does what he can; however, Aimee Eccles, as the Princess Kuklatoi, has a poorly-written role (culminating in a scene which depends on a very weak joke) and is essentially window dressing. Romeo Muller's script and lyrics are uneven, but at their best, quite clever. The plot, such as it is, goes a bit askew in the second half, and at times feels like a shaggy dog story (and the feeble climactic scene with Kuklatoi doesn't help), but the dialogue is often witty, and the lyrics are likewise clever, complemented by Maury Laws' excellent music. From "By Damn" to the stirring "A Man Who's Free", to the charming "Peace Berries", to the comic songs "Spaghetti" and "So Be It" (a patter song for Mostel), Laws' music is delightful--except for the obligatory romantic solo, sung by Marco to Kuklatoi, which feels, in every way, obligatory. Seymour Robbie's direction isn't terribly distinguished; he was primarily a TV director, and one could mistake MARCO for a TV film (it's not, though). He moves the action along smoothly, which is just fine for an easy going film like this. What stands out is the spectacle. Rokuro Nishigaki's cinematography is a bit flat, but the production design by Shinobu Muraki, and the costumes by Emi Wada (who would later win an Oscar for Akira Kurosawa's RAN) are lavish and colorful, and while it's unclear how much of the film was made on sets and how much on location (the credits list the film as having been made in Japan and "various locations in the Far East"), but the film not only looks good, but CONSISTENTLY good; there is no disconnect between set and location. When the pace slows down--and at 109 minutes, the film does feel a bit overlong--one can admire the view. This may or not have been an expensive film, but clearly care was taken in the production. As noted before, MARCO is almost completely forgotten. Audience reviews are few, and reviews from major critics even fewer, and those largely dismissive. A shame, because it can hold its own alongside other family films; although the liberal use of the word "Damn" and the fact that, when the song is first sung, Aigiarm is in the process of ripping off the fancy gown Kublai forced her to wear, may make it a bit much for very young children. MARCO is not a masterpiece, but it's unfairly overlooked, and deserves rediscovery, not only by fans of Rankin/Bass and Zero Mostel, but by seekers of family entertainment.