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CLAMLET (a Disney Studios and Miramax production, June 2011)

Cast of Characters

Clamlet – prince of the yard (a Clam-shaped Fiberglass Resin Planter) – Justin Bieber

Gertitude – Clamlet’s mother; queen (an ornately embellished Plastic Grecian Urn) – Fran Drescher

Clawdius – Clamlet’s uncle/stepfather; king (a Faux-Stone Gargoyle Key Hider) – Nicholas Cage

Toratio – Clamlet’s steadfast friend (a Concrete Stepping Stone Tortoise) – Angus T. Jones

Ocreelia – Clamlet’s love interest (a Wicker Fishing Creel Letter Basket) – Miley Cyrus

Hosenquince – goofy pal (a Yellow Garden Hose) – Jon Lovitz

Gildenflume – goofy pal (another Yellow Garden Hose) – Jon Cryer

Pellmellus – gate sentinel (a Powder Coated Cast Iron Lamppost Leaner) – Kenan Thompson

Ghost of Clamlet's Father – King Clamlet (a Reconstituted Granite Tiered Clamshell Fountain) – Lewis Black 

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Something's AWESOME in the estate on Denmark!

So goes the bright, snappy teaser for Disney’s latest surefire hit. We find out soon enough that “Denmark” means "Denmark Street”— a beautifully tree-lined cul-de-sac in a gated community of 3-to-5-acre “estates.” As the scene opens, the neighborhood takes on a magical glow and we are borne dreamlike to our destination – the Elsinore’s elegant home at #5. The lush lawns and grand stately entrance of the faux-Romanesque mini-mansion provide a properly faux-royal feel to the setting. As the mists rise mysteriously from the yawning arched gateway, we immediately sense that this is a place of intrigue and adventure.

But who knew there'd be clams?

Well, clams of a sort. The titular character of this latest Disney salute to the Bard would be defined more accurately as “clam-shaped garden statuary”: a Hamlet-inspired, technically non-bivalve player in the newly released Clamlet — Disney Studios' animated kid-friendly introduction to Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedy.

Building on the popularity of the Hamlet-themed Lion King and buoyed by the reception of Gnomeo and Juliet (this winter’s 3D romp of the garden gnomes in a vaguely recognizable Romeo and Juliet), Disney now courageously flexes its literary chops by crafting Clamlet as its most overt Shakespearean tribute to date. The initial nanosecond of surprise at the landscaping nature of Clamlet's characters is followed by an "aha!" moment as we recognize the emerging pattern.

Post Lion King, Disney met Shakespeare out in the open with Gnomeo as a take on Romeo and Juliet — a play that, while seemingly done to death, was a natural to be Disneyfied. The rousing clashes and youthful romance screamed kidfest from the get-go, although the spewing hatred, mindless bigotry, suicide mongering, and rampant murdering seemed problematic. Then, in a fateful Disney moment, the story editor’s epiphany: those seething antipathies of the Montagues and Capulets could translate seamlessly into tolerable dramatic tensions when depicted by adorable garden gnomes who would carom every scene into gleeful vignettes of comic relief.

Thus was born a new spin-off of the golden Disney Formula. Offer kids the "high" culture of Shakespeare's timeless plays, but with a breakthrough twist: replace human beings with lawn ornaments, tragedy with comedy, and style it all in 3D animation! In Clamlet, the suburban garden neighborhood (introduced with the “Verona Street” duplex in Gnomeo) gets a real estate upgrade to the tonier "Denmark Street," but the formula persists with entertaining success. And this time, the backyard denizens — once again lawn décor of all stripes — live out their adventures (when the Elsinores aren’t looking) in a court of royal construct: king, queen, and prince in true parallel to the setting of its Shakespearean inspiration.

Almost reverent in its occasional adherence to the Bard's own rendering, yet mindful of childhood sensibilities, Disney works its magic on archetypal themes of Death, Corruption, Madness, Incest, Betrayal, Revenge, and Murder. Taking a cue from the Bard that “brevity is the soul of wit,” Mouse House scriptmeisters make judicious cuts from the majority of scenes, including any allusions to poison, suicide or morbid thoughts; all six ancillary deaths caused by the prince in Shakespeare’s original play; and deft deletions of the characters of Polonius and Laertes (resulting in elegant streamlining of a tangled plot line and adroit sidestepping of a whole lot of death). Ironically, the Hamlet-derived “brevity” quote is a line from a speech by Polonius. But every change is to good effect — reducing the bloat while at the same time expanding, even altering select characters, the better to showcase the abundance of voice talent riches in the all-star cast.

With the entry scene unfolded, the mood slams right to hilarity as Pellmellus, Kenan Thompson’s raucously inebriated Lamppost Leaner, launches a dizzying scene of in-your-face comic chaos, unaware of the emerging materialization going on behind him: The Ghost of Clamlet’s Father! We’re in stitches even before his classic spit-take as he careens right through the incorporeal King Clamlet. The comedic interaction between Thompson’s droll and disorderly Leaner and Lewis Black’s Ghost — irascible, abrasive, and farcically frustrated — is in itself worth the price of admission.

Amid the antics, The Ghost finally gets to sputter out the tale of King Clamlet’s murder by the evil Clawdius, who had deviously polluted his intake pipes with lead paint, rendering him unsalvageably toxic. The Ghost cries for revenge, sending Pellmellus stumbling off to seek Clamlet, only to trip on the Tortoise Steppingstone (Clamlet’s friend, Toratio) and fall unconscious/pass out. Toratio mutters “Oh, why don’t I just get that . . .?” and scrapes away to tell Clamlet.

Already stung by Clawdius’ dual grab for his own brother’s wife and his nephew’s rightful throne, Clamlet is crushed to find that his uncle’s plot also involved murder. But he demands to hear it direct from The Ghost, a fortunate plot turn as it allows Disney to highlight Black’s signature comic viewpoint in the ensuing confusions of each face-to-ectoplasm encounter.

Is The Ghost really there? Rock-solid Toratio sees him too and both friends agree to the rightness of revenge. Of course, Clamlet must first prove Clawdius a murderer. But how? It is at this turning point that Disney trumps Shakespeare, sending Clamlet’s sassy love interest Ocreelia charging off her wall to the rescue in a dynamic girl-power revamping of the Ophelia role. Ocreelia jazzes Clamlet out of his funk with some bouncy tunes and an awesome plan: Clamlet could more easily sneak around investigating, while getting Clawdius to let down his guard, by simply pretending to be totally bonkers!

What follows is an ideal animator’s playground of hilarious hallucinations and off-the-wall imaginings that usually end up with some (non-bivalve) character getting slammed in the crotch. The Disney talent for pitching the grown-ups while pleasing the kids is delightfully evident in this section. There are cute textual references in throwaway scenes such as Clamlet’s double take when a brand new fluted birdbath plinth – still

gaudy with its orange Home Depot sticker – is seen boldly planted not two days after an old friend’s demise to the rock pit. Then follows a sly vignette with Clamlet holding the chipped fragment that is all that remains of the castoff plinth:

            Alas, poor Doric, I knew him well . . .

This brief scene is brilliant on many levels, providing a hint of the original text, a wink at the audience, and entrée to a slew of clever Home Depot connections that serve to punch up the comedy while previewing Disney’s brilliantly apt merchandising link to the home store giant.

The hilarious extended mad-scene-to-the-max is also the perfect vehicle for Jon Lovitz and Jon Cryer to play up their goofball shtick as the slaphappy team of Hosenquince and Gildenflume. More benign and much more involved than their Hamlet counterparts, this wacky pair of hosers get riotously entangled in a series of manic mistaken identities and mismatched missions, totally shedding the treasonous duplicity of the original roles, to the entertainment benefit of all.

As all these crazy capers romp closer to uncovering the treacherous schemes against Clamlet, Clawdius ramps up his strategy, becoming bolder in his tactics to murder Clamlet with impunity and continue his reign with an untarnished public image. The slapstick potential is played to the hilt with input from the whole cast, notably Hosenquince and Gildenflume in their relentless bumblings that, unawares, foil plot after plot. Ocreelia’s maneuvers as spy and underminer to Clawdius’ evil designs build her image as an adventurer and strong female lead. In one tense moment, Clawdius catches her spying and, enraged, throws her violently into the deep currents of the drainage ditch. This enables another slick in-joke moment as Hosenquince and Gildenflume gasp at the long silence following the splash:

Is she . . .?
NAH! She’s WICKER! She FLOATS you dufus! (laughs all around).

Clawdius nearly achieves his murderous goal in the curtain scene, where he lurks behind the flap of the Home Depot Pacific Casual Canvas Gazebo, ready to lunge at Clamlet with a flaming tiki torch. But Hosenquince and Gildenflume predictably bumble upon the scene, trailing a small crowd of revelers all belting out the finale to the pair’s one big musical number (spontaneously erupted by the flagstone patio just moments beforehand). Quick-thinking Clawdius saves face with a sleight-of-hand, making the weapon seem a festive prop in an ad hoc game of Flaming Limbo. Everyone joins in and thus Clawdius inadvertently triggers an impromptu festival — opportunity for a slew of Cyrus/Bieber duets and venue for Clawdius’ inspired “party sword fight” tournament.

The Bieber chartbuster “Never Say Never” works perfectly here as Clamlet jumps into the limbo line then is drawn into the games of “all in fun” swordplay:

See I never thought that I could walk through fire.
I never thought that I could take the burn.
I never had the strength to take it higher,
Until I reached the point of no return
.

With lush production and driving backbeat, Bieber’s song builds to climactic pitch as the fighting games escalate from half-baked to intense. Clamlet and Clawdius both recognize the serious undercurrents between them during the games, but Clamlet still falters in his drive for revenge. Meanwhile, The Ghost capers invisibly at his side tossing catcalls and commentary.

I be tryin' to chill         
I be tryin' to side with the thrill.

No pun intended, I was raised by the power of Will.

Tired of seeing all play and no blood, Clawdius shoves aside other game opponents to face Clamlet himself — and this time no pulling back for appearances. He advances with obvious deadly intent. The unchecked viciousness Clawdius reveals as he goes on the attack snaps Clamlet out of his waffling. Facing the reality of his uncle’s evil threat, Clamlet, no longer hesitant, has found his direction. Destination: WIN.

I will never say never! (I will fight)
I will fight till forever! (make it right)
Whenever you knock me down,
I will not stay on the ground!

Enraged that his plan is going awry, Clawdius finally loses restraint and, tossing aside the flimsy sword, lunges, at Clamlet with a masonry pick. He swings the heavy  rock-buster in a powerful arc. And misses. But he’s carried along with the momentum. As the hammer plunges into the sod, Clawdius goes flying, landing on his back so hard that his key pops out and catches on his scrawny brow horn. As he lies unconscious, a circling raven spies the key glinting in the sun and, swooping down for the shiny prize, carries it away along with Clawdius, to disappear in the clouds.

Clamlet’s exhilarating cinematic ride is the perfect vehicle for Bieber and Cyrus tunes, which keep the mood pumped and afford them some duet time. Some dazzling new originals also grace the soundtrack: the high point is Clamlet's soulful celebration of Ocreelia's empowerment, "You're Off the Wall," a predicted chart-topper. A number of other rockin' new crowd pleasers add to the fun factor. There's only one ear-scorcher in the bunch — the puzzling, retro "Do the Mulch," with Fran Drescher's Gertitude busting out 'tude but very shy on tune.

The fresh and vibrant soundtrack is, of course, intermixed with an obligatory handful of oldies in the traditional nod to ticket-buying parents and grandparents. In fact, it is a take on a maudlin sixties ballad, Buffy St. Marie's "Until It's Time for You to Go," that engenders one of the film's most successful scenes. In a skillful blend of musical moment and narrative explication, Clamlet and The Ghost of Clamlet's Father share a touching interchange of doubt, questioning, accusation, and ultimate acquiescence to fate. Clamlet admits feeling inadequate to his royal role, and The Ghost responds existentially — a heads-up that what will be will be:

I'm not a prince
I'm not a hero,
I'm a clam.
I'm not the king,
He's moldering,
Yet here I am.

Relieved of the complications presented by the deleted Polonius/ Laertes narrative intricacies, and unburdened of plot-dragging suicidal hesitations, Clamlet is able to focus on The Ghost's simpler message: revenge his murder and rid the land of evil so he can go home, wherever spirits go (which wisely hangs in theological ambiguity):

Don't ask how.
Don't ask why.
Just get the Gargoyle,
Then I can say goodbye.

The music, the voicing, the plot twists, and character revitalizations all combine to ensure blockbuster status for this delightful 90-minute romp. But, coming so close on the heels of Gnomeo and Juliet, it is apparent these must have been parallel productions —  strong hint of a far-reaching plan. And that’s a plan we can definitely get behind. As this welcome new Disney theme unfolds, one can only hope it continues its logical (and profitable) extension, and that the delightful and educational Clamlet is a welcome harbinger of lawn-ornament-themed Shakespearean adventures to come.

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B.J. Hilliard
June 2011