Captain Americana: The Films of Joe Johnston

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Bullock

Born of the Spielberg stable that also gave us Joe Dante, Joe Johnston has emerged along with those two filmmakers as one of cinema’s top purveyors of fantastical Americana. Like Spielberg and Dante, Johnston has a fondness for a good ol’ fashioned ripping yarn, an undiminished love of period settings and an admiration for a noble and idealistic hero. Yet, Johnston isn‘t a household name like Spielberg; he‘s not beloved by cult cineastes like Dante. Lacking both Spielberg’s unerring ability to tap into public feeling and Dante’s appealingly excessive anarchy, Johnston has become somewhat lost, ignored even, his films obscured by the achievements of his more well-known ‘brothers’. As 2011 draws to a close though, things are starting to change and Johnston is beginning to win the respect he deserves.

December sees two key Johnston films released onto DVD and Blu-Ray. The first is this year’s Captain America: The First Avenger, a winning adaptation of Marvel’s trickiest hero and one of the biggest films of the summer; the second is The Rocketeer (out on Blu-Ray in the States), a similarly retro comic book film that disappointed upon release in 1991 but has come to enjoy a second coming in this, its twentieth year. As sincere and naïve as the protagonists they depict, these films are low on irony but high on heart - more Caped Crusaders than Dark Knights. That’s not to say Johnston’s films are packed with Adam West-style POW, BIFFS and BAMS though. Captain America’s delightful running fondue gag gives a nice impression of the gentle blend you get with a Johnston picture. These are smart, sophisticated and dramatic genre movies laced with a wicked edge.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Johnston would become the director he is considering his pedigree. As a concept designer and effects technician on Star Wars, he was influential in building the indelible look of George Lucas’s seminal sci-fi, contributing to the art for iconic characters like Boba Fett and Yoda and vehicles such as the AT-ATs and the Imperial Star Destroyer. Such was his success in that galaxy far, far away, Johnston was hired to perform a similar duty on the Indiana Jones franchise, work that first introduced him to Spielberg. He’d finish the 80s having played a significant role on five of the six Star Wars/Indy films, missing out only on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. By that time, he’d gained directorial experience too, shooting second unit on the Spielberg production *batteries not included and designing the aerial scenes on Spielberg’s own Always. But greater things beckoned and while working on those films, he was creating his own - Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. 

A family-friendly comedy, a sci-fi spectacular, a meta-film referencing genre history, this entertaining adventure about an eccentric inventor who accidentally miniaturizes his own children was the perfect transitional film for Johnston, playing to his design strengths while allowing enough narrative scope to prove himself as an effective storyteller. Admittedly, that story is a neutered Incredible Shrinking Man that largely lacks Richard Matheson’s dark edge and character complexity, but Johnston’s tale isn’t entirely devoid of smarts. Possessing a skewed view of suburbia akin to Tim Burton’s best, Johnston’s world is one where your own backgarden is a dystopian nightmare populated by gigantic bugs and under constant threat from carnivorous lawnmowers. In one of the film’s most famous sequences, the children find themselves swimming in their oblivious father’s cereal bowl, only an eleventh hour reprieve saving them from a nasty fate. Fathers eating their children? Dante isn’t the only one who can do satire.

It’s a little sweeping to suggest that this image defines Johnston’s career, but it is true that the scene acts as a nice key to sum up the overarching motif of all his films – the small story set against the epic backdrop. With their respective World War II and Golden Age of Hollywood settings, Captain America and The Rocketeer are obvious examples, but 1995’s Jumanji remains the director’s boldest use of this theme. The film stars Robin Williams as a man who escapes from a jungle board game with the help of two young children. All three have lost parents and during the course of the film become surrogates for each other. Johnston delights in playing these emotional crises out visually, meshing the gigantic unreality of the game’s jungle creatures with the unassuming realism of the world they’re invading. This is a film about the chaos inflicted by death and the smallness of human beings in the wider scheme of things. Like so many Johnston films, its visuals are its substance.

Made for $65million, the film far exceeded that in total gross and remains one of Johnston’s most profitable films. Success hasn’t always been so easily come by, though. The Noughties were a particularly bleak period, yielding only three films, none of which set the critics or the box office alight. Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo and The Wolfman are classic genre pictures, featuring outsider lead characters and told on epic canvases. Johnston was the obvious choice for all three - and perhaps that’s the problem. With Honey, The Rocketeer and Jumanji under his belt, Johnston has become pigeonholed as the go-to guy for family friendly genre entertainment, and the familiarity seems to have bred contempt. Hidalgo, which tells the story of long-distance horse racer Frank Hopkins and could have been Johnston‘s masterpiece, proves a particularly underwhelming experience. His talent has always been in designing worlds, but with the Arabian backdrop already in place and no setting to design as such, Johnston seems at a loss and his direction is sadly flaccid. Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman are similarly tired.

After such a poor period, Johnston was an unexpected choice for Captain America, but an ultimately inspired one. Johnston’s adaptation is a delightful and faithful creation and along with the nostalgia surrounding The Rocketeer, it’s helped put the director back on the map. So where next? It’s difficult to predict. A Captain America sequel and Winter Soldier spin-off have been mooted, but both rely heavily on the direction The Avengers takes. Even if Johnston does get the chance to return to the adventures of Steve Rogers, he may not want to. An often unpredictable director, Johnston is just as likely to use his newfound bankability to take on a small-scale drama as he is a big budget blockbuster. He did as much with Jumanji’s follow-up October Sky. A melancholic biopic of a young man who tries to build a rocket during the space race, it’s an under-rated film - perhaps his most personal and certainly his best. It reminds you that genre films aren’t all about whiz-bang special effects and outlandish set-pieces. Most are about dreamers, outsiders, little guys. Most are about people like Joe Johnston.

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