Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: July 20, 2001
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Spirited Away © Studio GhibliAfter several very fine films, like ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988) and ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), Miyazaki tops himself with his masterpiece ‘Spirited Away’. This film single-handedly places him among the greatest masters of animation of all time.

The film depicts a strange and inexplicable, yet surprisingly complete fantasy world, with a conviction and originality that has rarely been seen since Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. At the same time, unlike several of Miyazaki’s earlier films, one feels that ‘Spirited away’ could only have been made in Japan. Its setting of a public bath, with its numerous gods and demi-gods, is totally Japanese.

Yet, its story about coming of age is universal as is its appeal. The little girl Chihiro (or Sen, as she’s called most of the film) is the greatest of Miyazaki’s heroines. Like Kiki in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989), she matures during the film, but the fears and terrors she has to conquer are far more alarming than Kiki’s, and her growth is way more convincing. Not only has she to proof herself, she has to regain her name, and most importantly, she has to rescue her parents, who have been transformed into pigs in a particularly horrifying scene. At one scene we see her stricken with traumatic stress. In another we watch her breaking down. Despite some exaggerations (a flood of tears, for example), these scenes are so surprisingly real, they startle every viewer used to the formalized emotions of many commercial animation films, either Japanese or Western.

However, the character animation of Chihiro is outstanding throughout the film: she is a real girl and not an adult in disguise, and her emotions feel real and seem deeply rooted in observation of genuine human behavior. We identify immediately with her, and she’s strong enough a character to make her extraordinary journey in that strange, mysterious and dreamlike world believable.

Typical for Miyazaki, even in this hostile world our young heroine is not without friends, and even the most unpleasant characters (Yubaba and Without Face) are not without their weaknesses or positive character traits. On the other hand, even the good can look fearsome and unpleasant (Yaku in his dragon form). Also typical for Miyazaki is his depiction of children at work (see ‘Laputa – Castle in the Sky‘ (1986) and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’). On the other hand, his recurring theme of man versus nature is less apparent in this film, although it does appear in the form of a polluted river god.

In all, ‘Spirited Away’ is a rich film of pure delight and will enchant everyone everywhere in the world.

Watch the trailer for ‘Spirited Away’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Te Wei
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Feeling of Mountain and Water © Te WeiAfter a hiatus of 25 years, China’s pioneering star animator Te Wei returns with this powerful  and serene film, which is probably the most Chinese film ever made.

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’* tells about an old master passing of the Guqin, a Chinese zither, and most revered of all Chinese classical instruments. Feeling his time has come, the old master passes his art on to a musical boyish fisherman.

The designs of this short are extremely beautiful, the watercolor backgrounds are on the verge of the abstract, and the animation is delicate and sophisticated. The film knows no dialogue, and much of the story is more suggested than shown. In the end we watch the boy playing an ode to his master and to nature on the guqin, which is now his.

Te Wei must have felt close to the film’s subject, as he himself was already in his seventies when he made this. Meanwhile, a younger gang of Chinese animators had taken inspiration from his films from the 1960′s in what must have been a Chinese animation renaissance since the devastation of the cultural revolution.

‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ is a very beautiful and meditative film on nature, music and life, and to me the masterpiece of Chinese animation.

Watch ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* this film is also known by its French title: impression de montagne et d’eau

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

My Neighbor Totoro © Ghibli StudioSet in the early post-war period, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is the sister film to ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘, released on the same date as a double bill.

The film is a way more lighthearted affair than ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, however. With ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Miyazaki definitely entered the children’s world, which he had already explored a little in ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky‘ (1986). But where the latter film firmly puts the children into an adult world, in ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Miyazaki explores the children’s world itself.

The film focuses on two little girls: ca. eight year old Satsuki and her sister, four year old Mei. They move with their father to an old ramshackle house in the countryside to be near to the hospital, where their ill mother is staying. In a giant camphor tree next to this new home Mei and Satsuki meet the Totoros, three forest spirits: a tiny one, a small one and a huge one. When Mei gets lost, the giant Totoro and a cat bus help Satsuki to find her.

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a delightful film for children and their parents. There’s no conflict or villain whatsoever, and even when there seems to be drama, when the two children think their mother might going to die, there’s really nothing to worry about. But like in ‘E.T.’ (1982) we share the children’s point of view, in which there really is a problem. ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ draws us convincingly and irresistibly into this magical world of children. The film knows no dull moments, and is full of wonderful scenes, the best being Satsuki, Mei and the giant Totoro waiting for the bus in the poring rain. Its strong focus and perfect execution makes ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ arguably the best of all Studio Ghibli films.

At any rate ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a gem even among Miyazaki’s films, which are of a constant high quality throughout. He must have felt so himself, for it’s the large Totoro which gave the Ghibli Studio their studio icon.

Watch the trailer for ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Grave of the Fireflies © Studio GhibliBased on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a strong, emotional and immensely sad film. It kicks in right away, when we hear Seita say “September 12, 1945. That was the night I died”.

What follows is Seita’s story: this boy, about fourteen, first loses his mother in the fire raid of Kobe, which destroys the wooden town completely. Then he and his little sister Setsuko try to live at their aunt’s place, but the initially kind woman grows increasingly hostile to them. So Seita decides to find his own living space for him and his sister in an abandoned shelter, first trying to get food by buying it, then by stealing. Unfortunately, Setsuko sickens from malnutrition, and while he finally has a real meal for her, she dies. Seita manages to build her funeral, but although not shown, the film suggests Setsuko’s death has broken his will, leading to his own death as depicted in the first scene.

The rather straightforward story is told with several flashbacks and flash-forwards and with a unique focus on details of everyday life, which really makes the two children come to life. The realism of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is unprecedented, the animation of Setsuko in particular being very lifelike, despite a less fluent animation technique. Never before has such a realistic and endearing child entered the animated screen.

The film’s subject matter, which confronts the Japanese viewer with the lowest point in their modern history, is daring and so is its execution, with its consise focus on human suffering, instead of heroism or action. The film makes the viewer really feel the impact of war on innocent civilians: the agony of shortages, hunger and despair, while the rest of the war remains at the background.  Takahata focuses on Seita’s love for his little sister, and his struggle to shield her from the effects of war. Seita is a sympathetic character, but not without flaws. His struggle to survive and to nurture his sister is heroic, but his decision to leave his aunt is partly inspired by pride, and it’s partly his own stubbornness that prevents him from reconciling with his aunt, which may have prevented Setsuko’s death. It’s hard to blame him, though, for he’s a child himself, after all.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the most serious animation features ever made, dealing with war and death. It’s also very sad, bringing tears to the eyes of almost every viewer. Like ‘Animal Farm‘ (1954), ‘Le planète sauvage‘ (1973) or ‘Watership Down’ (1978), ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the few truly serious animation features, expanding the medium’s subject matter, and it’s a cinematic masterpiece by any standard.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ was released as a double bill with ‘My Neighbour Totoro‘, which is equally classic, but very different in tone, indeed.

Watch ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: July 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Akira © Katsuhiro OtomoIn 2019, 31 years after World War III, which destroyed the old town completely, Neo-Tokyo is even bigger and more urbanized than the old one. And more violent, too. The city is constantly on the brink of anarchy.

We follow Kaneda and Tetsuo, two members of a rough motorbike gang. When Tetsuo is hospitalized and taken away from his friend, Kaneda tries to retrieve him, while getting involved with a girl, who’s a revolutionary and whose troupe is after Tetsuo, too. Tetsuo, meanwhile, discovers he’s getting immense powers. Tetsuo suffers from an inferiority complex, and he realizes it’s payback time. He sets out to seek the mystical Akira, destroying most of Neo-Tokyo along the way. But in the end his powers take control of him, and while he and Akira merge to form a new universe in a very 2001 A Space Odyssey-like ending, Kaneda and his girlfriend Kei can look to a new future in a partly destroyed Neo-Tokyo.

If this plot line may sound a little hard to follow – it is, and I left quite some subplots out of it, too. ‘Akira’ is a violent and action-loaded science fiction film. Its plot may be vague and all too complex, the violent images never cease to impress. The film’s depiction of apocalyptic destruction, its speed, its wide range of characters, and its use of extreme camera angles are unprecedented in any animation film, and sometimes the grandness of the film’s scale is staggering. Some of the scenes are very complicated, with many people animated within one frame. And the story, too, seems to aim to encompass everything within the feature’s 124 minutes. Not surprising, considering that the film is based on a manga story six fat volumes thick.

Although Anime had known earlier masterpieces, it’s ‘Akira’, which set new standards in its home country. Moreover, it’s this film, which put the Japanese animation feature film industry firmly on the map in Western countries, which thus far practically had known the country’s television series, only. Thus, for most Westerners Japanese animation was synonymous to cheap animation, and the use of ridiculously large eyes. However, ‘Akira’ showed the Western world that Japan was perfectly capable of producing films of a high quality and stunning originality. Japanese animation has only grown in popularity since Akira’s release, and has become a major inspiration for many Western films and television series, animated or not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Akira’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: August 2, 1986
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Laputa Castle in the Sky © Studio GhibliDrawing inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Laputa, Castle in the Sky’ takes Miyazaki’s love for flying machines to the max, introducing a humongous flying island.

Its story is set in a parallel world, which has a genuinely late 19th century European feel, but where flying machines are very common. The strange machines imagined for the film are both wonderful and convincing.

We follow the two orphan children Pazu, a poor mine worker, and Sheeta, who falls from the sky carrying a mysterious amulet, which reveals that she’s a Laputan princess. Followed by the Dola clan, a gang of pirates led by an old pink-haired woman, and by the military led by the enigmatic gentleman Muska, the children seek out to find the flying island.

Unlike other films by Miyazaki, ‘Laputa’ knows a real villain, the ruthless prince Muska. While the children admire Laputa for its nature, and while the pirates and the soldiers are only after its treasures, Muska seeks the island’s destructive possibilities to obtain world power. On the way, the film moves to a grander and grander scale, with a finale on the floating island that shows us dazzling heights, and which doesn’t eschew many killings, making ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ Miyazaki’s most violent movie.

‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ is akin to the earlier ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind‘ in its focus on the importance of love and nature and its aversion to short-minded people only interested in power and destruction. Despite its violent finale, ‘Laputa’ is more overtly a film for children than ‘Nausicaä’. Its focus stays with the rather naive children, and it contains more humor, especially in the depiction of the pirates, who are almost used as a comic relief only.

In any sense, ‘Laputa’  is a powerful film: its depiction of an original made-up world is convincing, its animation is outstanding, and its message complex and far from black and white. It once again shows the mastery of Miyazaki and the Ghibli studio.

Watch the trailer for ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1985
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Straw Man © Hu Jinqing‘The Straw Man’* is yet another example of China’s typical preoccupation with nature, water and fishermen.

Based on an ancient proverb (which one could translate into ‘it’s dogged as does it’), this film tells about a fisherman who is disturbed by two pelicans and who disguises himself as a scarecrow to catch the two birds.

The cut-out animation of the birds is very naturalistic, yet the backgrounds, based on paintings from the Tang dynasty, are are very graphical. Unfortunately, compared to the stunning animation of the animals, the animation of the fisherman is very crude and primitive, and the film suffers a little from a slow pace and all too present music.

Watch ‘The Straw Man’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘l’épouvantail’

Director: Hu Jinqing
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Snipe and the Clam © Hu Jinqing‘The Snipe and the Clam’*  is one of many Chinese films based on ancient tales.

And like many other Chines films it has a look based on ancient Chinese paintings, it’s set in nature, and it deals with a fisherman.

In this film, a fisherman, a kingfisher and a snipe try to open a giant clam. When the snipe gets stuck, it’s the fisherman who wins the day. The film is based on an ancient Chinese proverb, which can be translated into “two dogs fight for a bone, and a third one runs away with it”.

In ”The Snipe and the Clam’ Hu Jinqing excels in gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, beautiful designs, great silent acting and remarkably naturalistic cut out-animation of the animals. In comparison, the animation of the fisherman is simple and rather crude. The film unfolds at an unhurried, almost meditative speed, which can make it difficult to enjoy.

Watch ‘The Snipe and the Clam’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘l’aigrette et j’huitre’

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: March 11, 1984
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind © Ghibli StudiosAlthough the titles say ‘based on the graphic novel’, the manga of the same name was actually created to be able to make the picture.

Based on his own original story, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is Miyazaki’s first mature film. It’s already a typical Miyazaki film, with its strong environmental message, strong female characters, the absence of clear villains, and the setting of an alien, yet totally convincing world.

The film tells of Nausicaä, princess of a small medieval-like state in a green valley, which is threatened not only by the strange, hostile and poisonous insect world nearby, but also by other human states, especially the militaristic state of Tolmekia. The humans are more preoccupied with destruction than with comprehension. Because of this shortsighted and drastic behavior, the humans almost destroy their entire environment. It is Nausicaä, with her unique understanding of animals and her pacifistic nature, who saves the day.

‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is an epic science fiction film, made on a grand scale, with layered characters, beautiful designs, and excellent animation. Its production led to the foundation of the Ghibli studios, which high quality standards it already meets. In no sense it feels like a first-born or a dated film. Even though it’s from 1984, it is remarkably fresh and its message still viable. In other words, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is the first of a long series of Ghibli studio classics.

Miyazaki would revisit the theme of a sick and angered nature in the similar and equally impressive ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997). Once again it’s a princess who saves the day…

Watch the trailer for ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Zhou Keqin & Ah Da
Release Date: 1981
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Monkeys Fish The Moon © Keqin Zhou‘Monkeys Fish the Moon’* tells about a troupe of monkeys who try to catch the moon.

When they finally succeed to catch its reflection in a bowl, they drop it, only to discover that the moon still is in the sky.

‘The Monkeys who tried to catch the moon’ is, like many other Chinese films, based on an ancient fable. And, like may others it uses silent acting to tell its story. Nevertheless, the film is also a little atypical. Its elegant designs are not inspired by ancient painting, but more akin to Lotte Reiniger’s films. Moreover, the movements are not really naturalistic and the film doesn’t use Chinese music. Instead we have a lush and colorful forest world accompanied by rich film music. The cut-out models of the monkeys are soft and elegant in design, and there’s a striking use of light.

The result is one of the most beautiful Chinese animation films ever made.

Watch ‘Monkeys Fish the Moon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* this film is also known by its French title: ‘les singes qui veulent attraper la lune’

Director: Alain Ughetto
Release Date: June 10, 2013
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Jasmine © Alain UghettoAfter ‘Persepolis’ (2007) ‘Jasmine’ is the second animation film about the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In his strongly autobiographical film Ughetto rediscovers his love relationship with Jasmine, a young woman from Iran, whom he visited during the turmoils of 1978/1979, and whom he left behind, to return to France, alone.

Ughetto doesn’t spare himself, and realizes leaving her was a big mistake on his part. To tell his story he uses love letters from the time, 8mm film images he shot during the Iran revolution and clay animation. He also shows the clay animation process, his elaborate sets made from styrofoam packaging material and collections of clay figures.

Unfortunately, Ughetto’s clay animation is very limited. His plasticine figures are devoid of any facial expression, and they all look the same. The only difference between the Alain and Jasmine puppets is their color (caramel vs. blue – reflecting the color of her eyes). There’s only a limited amount of animation, and little of it is expressive.

Because of this, the film relies heavily on the voice overs, Alain telling his story, a woman reading Jasmine’s love letters. Without the soundtrack the film becomes utterly incomprehensible. Only at one point in the film, the animation images leave a strong impression themselves: when the oppressive forces of the new Islamic regime strike down and kill the former revolutionaries. This is shown by giant floating turbans suddenly falling down and crushing discussing people.

‘Jasmine’ is an intimate, very personal and honest film, and the story of the Iranian revolution and its effects on the lives of everyday people remains moving. But ‘Jasmine’ is no ‘Persepolis’ and in the end falls short as an animation film. It could easily have been a live action film, a documentary, or even a novel, instead.

Watch the trailer for ‘Jasmine’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Âle Abreu
Release Date: September 20, 2013
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

O menino e o mundo © Âle AbreuIt seems that with their growing economies the BRIC countries enter a new creative era, in which costly projects like animated features are now possible. Especially Brazil is a surprising new country from which unique and distinct animation films sprout.

In 2013 the Holland Animation Film Festival showed the ambitious ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria‘, this year it’s the charming film ‘O menino e o mundo’ (The Boy and the World). Surprisingly, given the extremely different animation styles, the two features have more in common than one would expect.

According to Abreu* the idea of ‘O menino e o mundo’ was conceived when this little character suddenly appeared in his notes when studying Latin American protest music of the last hundred years. The film tells about a little boy growing up in the countryside, near the jungle, who goes to seek his father, who has left for the city to work. On his trip he discovers the real world that is Brazil, far from his idyllic place in the hills. He meets cotton pickers, people in the cotton industry, and even discovers how cotton is shipped to some futuristic cities (vaguely resembling the US) to be made into clothes which are shipped back to Brazil to be sold at ridiculous prices.

I say Brazil, but Abreu insists that this story is the story of practically every Latin American country, or even every world country emerging from a dark dictatorial past and now being caught up in the World Economy. Indeed, the film’s world is one great fantasy,  with vehicles like animals, towns like mountains, and great futuristic cities in the sky. Yet, what happens in this world is instantly recognizable to people all over the world,

Meanwhile, the film clearly shows the grand effects of the global economy on the lives of ordinary and poor people. Without reservation Abreu shows us cotton pickers being fired because they are old and sick, workers working ridiculous long hours in hot industries to produce cotton, only to be replaced by a machine in the end. We watch poor people live in favelas (slums), while advertisements on the streets and on television produce images of a happy life they’ll never be able to reach. We watch people who demand more freedom being oppressed by military police, in a particular powerful sequence in which a colorful bird of freedom is crushed by the black bird of oppression, etc.

It’s this focus on social injustice that ‘O menino e o mundo’ share with ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’. Unlike the latter film, however, Abreu’s film never becomes too heavy-handed, because we keep on seeing this world through the eyes of a child. To achieve this, Abreu uses a wonderfully naive style resembling children’s drawings and pastel crayons. All images are drenched in imagination and wonder, even those of the city and the oppressive forces, whose tanks look like large elephants. When the boy approaches the city, more and more magazine clippings are added to the colorful images. Abreu says he wanted to tell a tale about freedom, so he wanted to have freedom during the making of this film, too. He says: “A director should listen to the voice of his film, and listen to where the film wants to go”.

The result is an absolutely gorgeous looking film, simply bursting in color and fantasy. The animation, too, is superb, especially when considering that most of it was done in Photoshop. According to Abreu the drawings were then printed, filmed, and imported in After Effects for compositing. Moreover, the whole film was made with a very small crew. Nevertheless, the makers have reached a high quality by any standards.

To tell his story Abreu uses no dialogue. Yes, we hear people speak, but in a language that is constructed of Portuguese words spoken out backwards. Indeed, the voice actors had to act and sing in this backward language. However, in no way comprehensible dialogue is missed, for Abreu is perfectly capable of storytelling by images alone. Added to the mix is the cheerful score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat, which is a perfect match to the colorful images. According to Abreu, even the sounds of nature are made by musical means, like hand claps for rain.

‘O menino e o mundo’ is a magical film of sheer delight, deserving to be shown everywhere in the world. And unlike American films, it doesn’t shun the big questions our world needs to answer. For this bravery alone, it deserves a large audience.

Watch the trailer for ‘O menino e o mundo’ and tell me what you think:

* Quotations from Abreu are taken from his introduction and Q&A at the screening of his film at the Holland Animation Film Festival, March 20, 2014.

Director: Rémi Vandenitte
Release Date: June 8, 2013
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Betty's Blues © Rémi Vandenitte‘Betty’s Blues’ is Vandenitte’s ode to the country blues, and its origins in the South of the United States.

The film is a frame story, with two distinct styles. The framing story is told in stop-motion. We watch a young black blues singer perform in a small and empty bar near a metro line (we hear the cars rattling by from time to time). The singer tells his audience the story of Betty’s Blues. Enter the drawn animation.

The story itself is about a blues singer who loses his girl to the K.K.K. and becomes blind himself. In return for his blindness he receives the gift to make everybody dance to his guitar playing. When he meets the K.K.K. again, his revenge is sweet. The film ends with the audience shocked with horror by this rather violent story.

Both Vandenitte’s stop-motion and 2D animation are of a high quality. His stop-motion puppets have a delightfully gritty texture, and Vandenitte’s animation of guitar playing is wonderfully convincing. In the 2D sequences Vandenitte makes use of a technique simulating wood carving, combined with bold and evocative coloring, sometimes mimicking the color palette of that great cinematic ode to the musical South, ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. The result is a gorgeous film, if a little shallow in the end.

Watch the teaser for ‘Betty’s Blues’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Sabrina Peña Young
Release Date: 2013
Rating: ★
Review:

Libertaria - The Virtual Opera © Sabrina Peña Young‘Libertaria: The Virtual Opera’ must be one of the most unwatchable animated features ever made.

This science fiction film is utterly pretentious, using heavy texts to tell a dystopian story about some post-apocalyptic America. The film makes use of some interesting split-screen techniques, but is hampered by erratic storytelling and the most primitive computer animation techniques. The animation of the characters is appallingly poor and amateurish, and the designs hideously ugly. The emotions of the songs are not mirrored in the images, at all. Even the cheapest video game looks better than this.

This combination of dead serious pretentiousness and extremely poor execution make the film a nightmare to watch. Its best aspect is its music, because that, at least, has some quality. Indeed, Sabrina Peña Young is a composer, not an animator, and it remains puzzling why she wanted to make this film in the first place.

Cobbler, stick to your last!

[UPDATE: Sabrina Peña Young reacted to this blog post to explain why she made this film. Please read her response below]

Watch ‘Libertaria: The Virtual Opera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Sam Stephens & Christopher Mauch
Release Date: May 2013
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Tumbleweed Tango © Sam Stephens & Christopher Mauch‘Tumbleweed Tango’ is a charming little film about two balloon dogs falling in love in a menacing desert full of prickly cacti. The two dance a romantic tango, and together transform into a large bird, escaping the threatening cacti world. 

‘Tumbleweed Tango’ is a virtuoso computer animation film, full of swooping camera takes, elaborate landscapes, and convincing animation on the two balloon dogs. Even their metamorphosis into the balloon bird is believable.

Watch ‘Tumbleweed Tango’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bill Plympton
Release Date: October 11, 2013
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Cheatin' © Bill Plympton‘Cheatin’ is Plympton’s sixth feature – no small achievement for an independent animator who insists on drawing everything on his own.

‘Cheatin’ is no exception to his rule. True, for this film Plympton had hired some staff to reproduce the looks of his watercolor illustration style, but he still drew every single frame himself. According to Plympton, the costs of the extra staff broke him, and he had to go for a (luckily successful) Kickstarter campaign to be able to finish his film. Unfortunately, distribution in his homeland, the United States, will remain problematic, as, according to Plympton*, ‘Cheatin’ is 1) no computer animation film, and 2) it’s not directed at children. Both ‘handicaps’ are enough to alienate the average American distributor. Add the absence of dialogue, and ‘Cheatin”s chances become mighty low, indeed…

This is a pity, for Plympton is in great shape in this film. His sketchy drawing style is as virtuoso as ever, and his human protagonists are drawn to the extreme – using weird camera angles and outrageous exaggeration. Practically every single frame is a beauty.

‘Cheatin’ is a surprisingly lighthearted love story. It tells about Ella and Jake, who meet each other at a bumper car stand – and it’s love at first sight. They marry shortly after, and nothing seems to stand in the way of their happiness. Unfortunately, more women take interest in the muscular Jake, and one of them frames Ella – making Jake belief she meets other men. Prostrated with grief, Jake decides to take revenge, and to pick up as many girls as possible himself…

At this point, the film starts to falter a little. Plympton steers away from reality to plunge into a weird plot using a strange machine to get to his happy end. This is a pity, for his outrageous portraits of the common aspects of love are perfect in itself. To me the film would have been better if he’d stuck to a more familiar pattern of love, rut, adultery, and revenge. For example, Plympton’s depiction of Ella opening her heart to let love in is the most endearing sequence in the whole film. And his depiction of the married couple’s happiness accounts for the film’s most stream-of-consciousness-like sequence, accompanied by the drinking song from Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’.

When Jake starts cheating, Plympton focuses on his behavior at the EZ motel. However, it remains a rather unclear how Jake behaves at home. He has clearly become cold and distant, and denies Ella the love and sex she desires. But at no point in the film there’s any trace of irritations, rows or fights between the two lovers.

Plympton says the film is based on a experience of his own, in which he discovered he wanted to strangle and to make love to his girl at the same time. There’s indeed a scene depicting this feeling. However, it gets a little lost in the strange plot twist. What it does show is that Ella’s desire to hurt Jake is weaker than her desire to be loved by him. Although both characters look rather cliche, in the end Ella is a far more interesting character than Jake, who remains a rather simple strong man loaded with testosteron. Plympton doesn’t show much of Ella’s character, but her more complex inner feelings can be distilled from several scenes.

Despite the plot flaws, ‘Cheatin’ remains a well-told film throughout, making clever use of Nicole Renaud’s gorgeous score, and of some classical pieces –  apart from Verdi, e.g. Leoncavallo’s ‘Ridi Pagliaccio’ sung by Caruso, and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The absence of dialogue never becomes a handicap –  on the contrary. And the emotions of the characters are played out well – sometimes grotesquely cliche, like Jake’s ride of grief; sometimes subtle and sincere, like Ella’s suffering from Jake’s rejection.

Plympton calls his film ‘anti-Disney’, but ‘Cheatin” is in no way a reaction to Disney’s world. One can say it’s decidedly non-Disney: the film stands on its own and shows us an animation world totally different from Disney’s, one in which American animated features are not synonymous to family films, but can be as wildly diverse as live action features.

I certainly hope Plympton’s world will once come true.

Watch the trailer for ‘Cheatin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* quotations from Bill Plympton are taken from his introduction to the film at the screening at the Holland Animation Film Festival, March 19, 2014.

Director: Ah Da
Release Date: 1980
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Three Monks © Ah DaIn ‘Three Monks’* Ah Da retells an ancient Chinese proverb: one monk can carry two buckets of water, two can carry one, but three…

Three monks visit a house on a hill top to meditate and to worship Buddha. Unfortunately, they have to fetch their water in the lake below. Only after a fire they are willing to cooperate in this.

The film uses clear and simple designs and very elementary backgrounds. Its storytelling is very lean, and uses no dialogue. Unfortunately, like many other Chinese animation films, it also suffers from slowness. Ah Da clearly takes his time, telling his story on a leisurely speed. The result is a meditative film, the comedy notwithstanding.

Watch ‘Three Monks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* this film probably is best known by its French title: ‘Les trois moines’

Director: Alexandre Alexeieff
Release Date: 1933
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Une nuit sur le mont chauve © Alexandre AlexeieffPredating Disney’s film to the same classical piece by seven years, this ‘video clip’ to the music of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ by Modest Mussorgsky is an impressive mood piece.

The Russian-French artist Alexeieff animated ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve’ on a so-called pinscreen, a device he invented himself , and which consists of a screen with numerous pins, which can be pushed further in or out, to produce a shadowy image together. This technique is highly original, and the images produced are totally unique.The film’s imagery has more in common with surreal paintings from the era than with any other animation film from the 1930′s. ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve’ was Alexeieff’s first film on the pinscreen. Together with his wife Claire Parker he would animate five more, of which ‘The Nose’ (1963) is arguably the best.

The film does not tell a story, but shows us a string of expressionistic images of animal and human forms, floating through air, and morphing into disturbing creatures. The animation is sometimes excellent (with a human figure circling through the air as a particular standout), but at times primitive, too, and the film suffers a little from the crude montage. Both shortcomings are a direct result of the limitations of the pinscreen. However, Alexeieff’s vision overcomes the film’s drawbacks, and ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve’ is rightly considered an animation classic.

Watch ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: David Hand
Release Date: December 19, 1936
Rating: ★★★
Review:

More Kittens © Walt DisneyThe success of Oscar-winning ‘Three Orphan Kittens‘ (1935) undoubtedly prompted this sequel, which is both less beautiful, less entertaining and less remarkable than the original short.

The film is aptly titled ‘More Kittens’, which shows its crowd-pleasing character. This time the kittens create havoc in the garden, while dealing with a fly, a tortoise and a teasing blue bird.

The cartoon is remarkable for introducing the good-natured St. Bernhard Bolivar, who would become Donald Duck’s dog in the comic strip two years later. He’s not named here, but the likeness is so stunning, not only in design but also in character, that there’s no doubt it’s him. True, there was also a St. Bernhard in ‘Alpine Climbers’ (1936), but this dog lacks Bolivar’s character, being more of a cliche St. Bernhard instead.

Watch ‘More Kittens’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 65
To the previous Silly Symphony: Mother Pluto
To the next Silly Symphony: Woodland Café

Director: Pinto Colvig, Walt Pfeiffer & Ed Penner
Release Date: April 17, 1937
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Clarabella Cow, Clara Cluck, Goofy
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Mickey's Amateurs © Walt DisneyMickey is only the straight man while hosting an amateur night at the theater.

We watch Donald trying to recite ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ while forgetting the words, Clarabella Cow and Clara Cluck performing an operatic song, and Goofy with an automatic one man band that goes haywire.

Donald surprises not only his but also the modern audience by drawing a tommy gun to shoot at the audience(!). However, it’s Goofy’s silly musical machine which draws the biggest laughs in a hilarious sequence, with particularly silly animation.

‘Mickey’s Amateurs’ ends with Donald getting caught in the closing end circle. Self-awareness gags like this were rare at Disney’s (another example is the burning title card in ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade‘ from 1935), but would become standard repertoire at Warner Bros. and in Tex Avery’s cartoons at MGM.

Watch ‘Modern Inventions’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 94

To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Moose Hunters
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Modern Inventions

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