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Director: Michel Ocelot
Release date: 1982
Using beautiful designs inspired by medieval woodcuts, little animation and no dialogue, Ocelot tells about a young hunchback who tries to win the heart of a beautiful princess, but who’s maltreated by the nobility and ridiculed by the crowds. When he’s stabbed in the back, he becomes an angel carrying the princess off into heaven.
Despite the paucity of animation, the film is beautiful and moving, if not as impressive as ‘Les trois inventeurs’.
Watch ‘La légende du pauvre Bossu’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Michel Ocelot
Release date: 1979
In this film he uses elegant cut-out designs with a stunning virtuosity to evoke the gallant world of the late 18th century. The elaborate and graceful cut-outs recall the works by Lotte Reiniger from the 1920’s, although Ocelot uses white laced paper on monochrome backgrounds, opposed to Reiniger’s black shapes.
The story is told with a little voice over, and a small amount of dialogue. The narrator introduces to us a family of inventors, a man, a woman and a little girl whose inventions (a balloon, a knitting machine and an automatic bird, respectively) are misunderstood and destroyed by the fearful, jealous and narrow-minded townspeople. When they try to show a steam engine to their neighbors, things go particularly awry.
True enough, the film suffers from bad sound designs and rather ugly harpsichord music. Yet, the film is not only beautiful to look at, Ocelot succeeds in evoking real emotions of disappointment, loss and fear. Its ending is disturbing enough, making it a true classic from the late 1970’s. Indeed, the film won several prizes. Later, Ocelot would become an even greater voice in the animation world, especially with his feature film ‘Kirikou et la sorcière’ (1998).
Watch ‘Les trois inventeurs’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: René Laloux
Release date: March 24, 1981
In the science fiction film ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Jaffar, the muscular pilot of a spaceship, tries to rescue the little orphan Piel, who is the sole survivor of a massacre on the dangerous planet Perdide.
Jaffar’s only means of contact with the little boy is through an egg-shaped microphone which Piel calls ‘Mike’. Jaffar is aided by a jolly old man called Silbad, and two little telepathic creatures Silbad rescued from a flower, called Jad and Yula. His only passenger, however, the evil prince Matton, on escape with a treasure, tries to kill Piel in order to get sooner to Aldebaran…
‘Les maîtres du temps’ was René Laloux’ second animated feature film and it shares many characteristics with his first, ‘Le planète sauvage‘: it’s a science fiction film based on a novel by Stefan Wul and using designs by a famous french illustrator, this time comic artist Moebius (Jean Giraud). ‘Les maîtres du temps’ nevertheless is less outlandish than ‘Le planète sauvage': it’s an ‘ordinary’ cell animation film and Moebius’s drawings are less surreal than Topor’s. Yet, they still manage to give the film an otherworldly quality. Especially his designs of Perdide are disturbing, rendering it an uncanny, dangerous planet, indeed.
Moebius’s style is very visible throughout the picture, except for the humans, who are drawn pretty uglily and fail to live up to Moebius’s own high standards. Only the little orphan Piel and the jolly old man Silbad are true to Moebius’s designs. Consequently, they are both very believable and likeable characters, where the others remain flat cardboard examples of ‘the hero’, ‘the beautiful woman’ and ‘the villain’. Their animation, too, remains stiff and unconvincing In contrast, the funny little gnomes Jad and Yula are rendered very flexible and are responsible for some of the most beautiful animation in the film, which was practically all done by the Hungarian Pannonia Film Studio.
‘Les maîtres du temps’ is far from perfect, but mainly thanks to Piel’s character, with whom we can identify immediately, it’s a film with a heart. This, combined with some impressive science fiction images, especially of Perdide and of the planet Gamma 10, make the film one to return to over and over again.
After ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Laloux would make yet another Science fiction feature, now based on drawings by French comic artist Caza: ‘Gandahar’. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the weakest of the trio.
Watch the trailer for ‘Les maîtres du temps’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Paul Grimault
Release Date: 1947
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In this version, written by poet Jacques Prévert and undoubtedly inspired by the recent experiences of World War II, the soldier is actually an acrobat doll who gets drafted by a humming-top into an unexplained war.
In his absence, Jack-in-the-box tries to seduce his love, a ballerina doll. And when our little soldier finally returns from the battlefield, injured, Jack tries to kill him by taking his heartformed winding key away and in an attempt to drown him into an icy river. Fortunately, in a dramatic climax, the ballerina saves her love from drowning, while the villain gets stuck in a gin-trap.
‘Le petit soldat’ is entirely told in pantomime and a great improvement upon ‘La flûte magique‘, Grimault’s film from the previous year: its storytelling is better, its settings more dramatic, its characterization more convincing, and its animation more sophisticated. Indeed, this beautiful short about triumphant love arguably is Grimault’s masterpiece, even topping his beautiful, but uneven feature film ‘Le roi et l’oiseau’ (1952/1980), which is also based on a Jacques Prévert story.
Watch ‘Le petit soldat’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Paul Grimault
Release Date: 1946
The nobleman destroys the minstrel’s lute, whereupon a little bird gives the boy a magical flute, which makes alle people dance, including the evil nobleman and his birdlike soldiers.
This pantomime story is elaborately animated, but its designs belong more to the thirties than to the forties, and its story is hampered by uneven timing.
The idea of a flute making people dance was reused twelve years later by Belgian comic artist Peyo in his ‘La flûte à six schtroumpfs’ introducing his famous creations, the smurfs. This was also made into an animation film in 1976.
Watch ‘La flûte magique’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Andreas Hykade
Release Date: September 2006
Hykade’s simple and cute designs, and use of bright colors contrast with the film’s grim story, but they also make it watchable for everybody. There’s practically no reference to any time or place, and its story about death and coming of age has a universal appeal. Its timelessness makes the film an instant classic.
‘The Runt’ may not be as bold as his previous film, ‘Ring of Fire’ (2000), it is a great example of Andreas Hykade’s talent. He has succeeded in creating one of those rare shorts that make you think.
Watch ‘The Runt’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Gitanjali Rao
Release Date: May 2006
In this film Rao contrasts the dull and lonely reality (in grey tones) with the colorful matchbox-based fantasies. The mood is poetic, and the film progresses at a gentle speed. Rao’s designs are sometimes naive, but her animation skills are splendid. She’s absolutely one of the masters of painted animation. Especially noteworthy is her animation of the cat. Also important is Rajivan Ayyappan’s sound design, which is spot on.
‘Printed Rainbow’ is by all means a mature work. Rao’s work is even more impressive, when one considers that she wrote, animated, directed and produced the film on her own in India, a country with a rather short animation history. Although India has made some strides in commercial animation, independent animation is still very rare. Thus Rao’s work is all the more wonderful. Luckily, more people saw it that way and Rao’s film won no less than 22 awards.
Watch ‘Printed Rainbow’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Release Date: November 15, 1978
I’m going to spend only a few words on this film: it is not an animation film. It may be drawn, animated it is not. Practically every movement is rotoscoped, with some scenes containing little more than colored live action footage.
The result is a surplus of movement, a severe inconsistency of style, a general feel of cheapness, and, animationwise, absolutely nothing to enjoy. On the contrary: the result is appalling.
Furthermore, the acting is tiresome, the pace painstakingly slow, the characters more often than not rather unsympathetic, the story incomplete, and the settings often in lack of dramatic effect, though I must admit that the film shares some strikingly similar scenes with the Peter Jackson’s later live action version (which incidentally contains much, much more animation than Bakshi’s film).
In short, Bakshi’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is by all means a failure, and one the most hideously ugly films I’ve ever seen in any genre.
Watch the Balrog scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: 1983
The cartoon consists of one scene in a blue room in which a bespectacled little boy imagines himself as the sport stars he watches on television. The little boy’s imagination is shown by metamorphosis: we watch him change into the sport stars, growing with every metamorphosis.
‘Sigmund’ is a sweet short, but neither memorable, funny or one of Bozzetto’s best.
Watch ‘Sigmund’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: October 31, 1968
‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’* is Bozzetto’s second feature, and it a great improvement on his first (‘West and Soda‘ from 1965).
The designs are bolder, the pace is higher, the timing sharper, and the story more original. The film starts rightaway with a hilarious history of the VIP superheroes through time. It then introduces our heroes, the superhero SuperVIP and his weak little bespectacled brother, MiniVIP. They end upon an island where a super-villain plans to turn mankind into brainless consumers.
The result is a very nonsensical superhero story, told to a great effect, with the minimum of means and very limited animation. It also shows Bozzetto’s aversion against consumerism, a theme he would expand upon in his masterpiece ‘Allegro non troppo’ (1976). unlike that latter feature, ‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’ remains virtually unknown. This is a pity, for this funny film deserves a wider audience.
Watch and excerpt from ‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’ yourself and tell me what you think:
* also known as ‘My Brother Superman’
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: 1967
In this cartoon Bozzetto reduces a man’s whole life to several minutes. The main character’s life takes place in and between depressingly tall grey buildings. He is only allowed brief episodes of sheer joy : during is boyhood, when he falls in love, and when he becomes a father. These short episodes are depicted by colorful pictures of nature, accompanied by lyric music.
‘Una vita in scatola’ must be Bozzetto’s most perfectly timed cartoon, and it is his first real masterpiece.
Watch ‘Una vita in scatola’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Alain Ughetto
Release Date: June 10, 2013
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 everyday lives of 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
It 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
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
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: Bill Plympton
Release Date: October 11, 2013
‘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: Alexandre Alexeieff
Release Date: 1933
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: Ruth Lingford
Release Date: 1997
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
‘Death and the Mother’ is Ruth Lingford’s re-telling of a classic fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s an animation masterpiece: its strong and gritty animation, the beautiful string quartet music by Nigel Broadbent, the subtle sound effects – all add up to a very strong, dark and emotional film. Lingford makes clever use of the computer to create a very graphic film that looks like an animated woodcut. In an age in which computer animation almost equals 3D animation, this is a refreshing technique, with a stark impact and an imagery unparalleled in the animation field.
Moreover, Lingford captures Andersen’s tale of grief, love and sacrifice very well, without trying to update it. Just by staying true to the essence of the original story she has made a timeless classic. Her wordless film is as universal as it can get, and capable of communicating to audiences worldwide. It’s a welcome antidote to the Disney fairy tale retellings, which get more and more watered down, and which lose a lot of the originals’ charm with it.
Watch ‘Death and the mother’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Osvaldo Cavandoli
Release Date: 1991
Stars: La Linea
We watch La Linea dressed like an 18th century composer playing Mozart’s K545 sonata on the grand piano. Meanwhile he encounters several animals and people.
Unfortunately, the cartoon is slow, repetitive and rather unfunny. La Linea’s irresistible voice is hardly heard and this cartoon lacks the brazen humor of the earlier entries. And it completely pales when compared to classic piano concerto cartoons like ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946) or ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947).