Director: Enrico Casarosa
Release date:
June 6, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★½
Review:

In ‘La Luna’ a little boy accompanies his father and grandfather on a boat trip with an original and unexpected destination.

This cute little film features dialogue, but as this is quasi-Italian gibberish, the story is told through the expressions and body movements of the three characters. There’s a subtle undercurrent of passing on traditions and finding your own voice within tradition.

The film explores no new territories technically, but features a superb color design, rendered in beautiful blues and yellows. The sound design, too, is worth mentioning. Especially, the sound of the stars is very well done. Less successful is Michael Giacchino’s score, which sugarcoats the action too much.

‘La Luna’ was shown before ‘Brave‘. With this film director Enrico Casarosa clearly digs into his own Italian roots. The result is a modest homage to a child’s wonder and fantasy.

Watch ‘La Luna’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘La Luna’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Brave’, as well as on the ‘Pixar Short Films Collection, Vol. 2’

Directors: Joann Sfarr & Antoine Delesvaux
Release date: June 1, 2011
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is the film version of the comic strip series of the same name, which comprises eleven volumes thus far. At the time the film was made there were five albums, and the film retells the contents of volume one, two and five very faithfully, with a lot of panels and dialogue being transformed directly from comic strip drawings to film scenes.

Perhaps this is no wonder, as the comic’s author Joann Sfar co-directed the film. He must have had an important vote in the production, because the film flawlessly transcends Sfar’s idiosyncratic drawings to the animated screen

‘Le chat du rabbin’ is set in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, when it was still a French colony. It’s a little hard to date the time setting film, but because carbon dating is mentioned and because of the presence of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt this limits the time period between 1947 and 1953. In Algiers, the French, Jews, and Muslims all live together harmoniously, and we follow a rabbi of the Sephardic community, and his cat, who turns into a talking creature after swallowing a parrot.

It’s the cat who is the narrator of the film, and we see the events often through his eyes, although, unfortunately, this isn’t maintained consequently. The scenes with the talking cat, mostly recreating the first book, are the film’s best, for the cat turns out to be a skeptic and he asks his master philosophical and theological questions, which are all valid, but drive the poor rabbi mad.

Unfortunately, not only the cat, but the whole movie is rather talkative, and far too dialogue rich, a problem all too common in all French cinema. But this is not the movie’s main problem. No, regrettably, the film also shares the many story problems of the original comic books. Sfar seems to have started his comic book series without a plan, and the volumes are highly different in tone and content. Story ideas are introduced and dropped, and there’s a frustrating lack of focus.

The same accounts for the film. For example, halfway the cat loses his speech again, and with the film immediately loses its main attraction. Even worse, the most interesting character of both the comic books and the film is Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter, but she lacks a story arc, and is rarely seen, especially during the second half of the film, which focuses on the contents of volume five, in which the attention shifts to a far less interesting character of Russian origin in search of a mythical city of Jews somewhere in Ethiopia. With this part we also leave Algiers and all hope of a consistent story. I actually find the Russian’s quest utterly boring, and I wish the film makers dared to stay in Algiers and tell more about Zlabya. What certainly doesn’t help is an irritating and incomprehensible encounter with famous comic book character Tintin, who turns out to be a complete dork in this film.

The film’s designs are gorgeous, transferring Sfar’s sketchy comic book’s drawings very well, and applying very attractive color schemes, which evoke the subtropical, Mediterranean, and North African settings excellently. Especially the background art is gorgeous. Although heavily hatched, and thus very graphical, the animation reads very well against those background drawings, and it’s nice to see such a consistency of style from animated drawings to background art. There are even some very attractive Van Gogh influences visible in some of the night scenes.Olivier Davaud’s music, too, attributes to the Arabian atmosphere, with its quasi-Arabic style elements.

The animation, on the other hand, is not always that good. For example, when Zlabya plays the piano, the animation and the music aren’t in tune, at all. The animation is at its best when deviating from realism, as in the cat’s dream. In this dream sequence a bolder style is explored, with a lot of metamorphosis, absent from the rest of the film. The finale, too, explores a bolder style, just like the comic book does in these scenes, and I guess with this Sfar tries to tell us by then we’ve abandoned reality and entered the realm of tall tales. These scenes are certainly interesting to look at, but as said before, by then I at least had lost all interest already.

In all, ‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is a visually very attractive film, showing what traditional animation still can do in terms of original styling, but its rambling tale and its lack of focus make the film a frustrating watch. But to be honest, when reading the original comic strips one will experience the same frustration, thus the original source material is to blame. One wishes Sfar was as good a story teller as a visual artist, but let’s face it, he isn’t.

Watch the trailer for ‘Le chat du Rabbin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Release date:
May 26, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★½
Review:

‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008) was a nice if not too outstanding film, so it came as a pleasant surprise that its successor was even a better film. In fact, I crown ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ one of the best animated sequels ever, on par with ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999) and ‘Shrek 2’ (2004).

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ te film immediately grabs attention with a Lord of the Rings-like introduction, rendered in gorgeous 2D animation, making clever use of cut-out techniques to simulate a shadow play. This sequence introduces the film’s villain, Lord Shen, a white peacock and one of the most layered villains one can find in animated film. Masterly voiced by Gary Oldman, in fact Lord Shen is comparable with other great villains like Saruman, with whom he shares a fortress full of furnaces, and Darth Vader, who also massacred the hero’s kin before the start of the film.

This background story also gives extra and necessary weight to the character of Po, who becomes more dimensional than in the first film, now having to battle the ghosts from the past inside his head, which clearly hinders him in finding the ‘inner peace’ Master Shifu tells him to seek. Moreover, we now have a background story for our hero. Indeed, the film end with a clear invitation to a sequel. Indeed, there would be a ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ in which Po’s story was round up, if rather disappointingly.

Because of this deepening of Po’s character, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, much more than its predecessor, is a delightful combination of adventure, action, comedy, and drama (Po’s reminiscence scene is actually moving). Moreover, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ shares a theme with the classic wuxia movie ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ (1991) exploring the tensions between kung fu and firearms. In this respect Po delivers the movie’s best line when addressing two demoralized kung fu masters: “you stay in your prison of fear with bars made of hopelessness and all you get are three square meals a day of shame!”. Not that ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ long dwells on Po’s inner turmoil, the film is very action-rich: the first great kung fu battle comes quickly, and is followed by several others, ending with a spectacular finale.

Overall, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is an impressive piece of teamwork. Everything clicks in this film: the story is engaging and well-told, the animation is outstanding, especially the character animation on Po, Po’s dad, and Lord Shen. The cinematography is breathtaking, full of dynamic camera movements and fast cutting, the color schemes are daring and beautiful, and the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer & John Powell, with its mock-Chinese ingredients, very apt for both the action and the emotions involve. Their music during the paper dragon scene must get especially mention.

Not that ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is entirely without its flaws, however. By now Po has become nearly invincible, which renders him slightly flatter, despite the deepening of his emotional side. Moreover, the other characters are less prominent than in the first film (especially Master Shifu hardly gets any screen time), even if they still shine much more than in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, which reduces the five to mere background players. Then there’s an obligate ‘all is lost’ moment, so typical for modern Western computer animation films (see e.g., ‘Rango’ from the same year and ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ from a year later) and a scene in which the villain says ‘What?!’, replicated by the same studio in ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ (2014). But these are minor defects of an otherwise great piece of animated entertainment.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Eric Khoo
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The film ‘Tatsumi’ celebrates the work of Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015). Tatsumi is the inventor of the gegika manga style, a grittier, more alternative form of manga for adults. The film re-tells five of Tatsumi’s short stories in this this style, all from 1970-1972. These stories are bridged by excerpts from his drawn autobiography ‘A Drifting Life’ from 2008.

Thus, the film is completely drawn (only in the end we see the real Yoshihiro Tatsumi), but to keep the manga style intact the film was animated with Toon Boom Software, specialized in ‘animatics’, which brings story boards to life. Thus, full animation, although present, is rare, and most of the motion is rather basic, often lacking any realism of movement. The animation is enhanced by limited digital effects, and the first and last story are digitally manipulated to make the images look older.

The complete film thus is little more than slightly enhanced comic strips. One wonders if this is the best way to present Tatsumi’s work, as most probably his stories work better in their original manga form, but of course the movie is a great introduction to his work, which without doubt is fascinating and original.

Tatsumi’s manga style clearly deviates from his example, the great Osamu Tezaku. Tatsumi’s style is more raw, sketchier and knows nothing of the big eyes so common in manga. All but one story use a voice over narrator. And all but one are in the first person. The stories themselves are gritty, dark, depressing and bleak. The second story, ‘Beloved Monkey’, in which a factory worker falls in love with a girl at a zoo, is particularly bitter. The outer two take place just after the end of World War II and show the effects of Japan’s traumatic loss. All are about the losers in life, struggling at the bottom of society. As Tatsumi himself says near the end of the movie:

“The Japanese economy grew at a rapid pace. Part of the Japanese population enjoyed the new prosperity. The people had a great time. I couldn’t bear to watch it. I did not share in the wealth, and neither did the common people around me. My anger at this condition accumulated within me into a menacing black mass that I vomited into my stories.”

Surprisingly, the protagonists of all first-person stories, including the autobiography, all look more or less the same, as if Tatsumi couldn’t create more than one type of hero. Only the third story, ‘Just a Man’, the only one to use a third person narrator, stars a different and older man, while the last story, the utterly depressing ‘Good-bye’, is the only one to have a female protagonist. Tatsumi’s own life story is told in full color which contrasts with his short stories, which are mostly in black and white. Tatsumi’s autobiography is less compelling than his story work but adds to the understanding of the artist and his work.

Surprisingly, for such a Japanese film ‘Tatsumi’ was made in Singapore and animated in Indonesia.  According to Wikipedia Singaporean director Eric Khoo was first introduced to the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi during his military service, and immediately was stricken by his stories. When ‘A Drifting Life’ was published in Singapore in 2009, Khoo realized that Tatsumi still was alive and wanted to pay tribute to him. Tatsumi himself was greatly involved in the film and narrates his own life story. The movie is a great tribute to one of the more original voices in Japanese manga, and well worth watching, if you can tolerate a dose of sex and violence.

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

‘Tatsumi’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release date: May 7, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

After the intimate and realistic ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ (2007) director Makoto Shinkai embarked on an ambitious, long and way more fantastical project, which is ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’. The film remains an oddball inside Shinkai’s oeuvre and shows a huge Ghibli-influence absent from his other films.

The film starts realistically enough, with little schoolgirl Asuna exploring some gorgeous nature at the other side of a railway bridge and visiting a secret hideout there. But the fantasy immediately kicks in when she brings forth a strange radio-like apparatus based on some sort of crystal. The use of this device triggers a series of events that eventually leads her to no less than the boundary between life and the afterlife.

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ knows high production values. Like ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ the background art is no less than stunning to begin with, especially the views of and from Asuna’s hill are gorgeous pieces of mood and light. Other scenes are perfect renderings of a hot summer. And like in the previous films, some of these intricate background paintings are only visible for a few frames. Typically for Japanese films some shots are just short mood pieces, in this film surprisingly often depicting insects, like dragonflies and cicadas.

The animation, too, is excellent, as is the shading on the characters themselves. The character design, on the other hand, is less original, and remarkably reminiscent of Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s work at the Toei Studios during the 1970s.

But this is only one of the obvious Ghibli-influences. Asuna herself is almost a typical Miyazaki-heroin: living without a father and a largely absent mother she’s depicted cooking and caring for herself and doing all the household work. She’s thus one of those working children that crowd the old master’s films. She’s joined by a cat called Mimi, which immediately brings Jiji to mind from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989). There’s a villain that echoes colonel Muska from ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986), and there are some God-animal hybrids seemingly coming straight out of ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

Shinkai absolutely succeeds in painting Asuna’s world. It’s a pity that most of the film takes place in Agartha, a mythical place underground the design of which is less compelling and even disappointing. When compared to the fantastical works of Ghibli’s ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) Shinkai’s worldbuilding clearly is subpar. For example, this subterranean world knows blue skies, sunlight, clouds, and rain, which all go unexplained. Apparently, there are no stars, but that’s about it. The underworld characters live in some quasi-medieval society, but this too, is hardly worked out or explained to the viewer. Shinkai’s erratic handling of the underworld seriously harms its believability. After all, it’s hardly different from ours, and both its reason of existence and its purpose remain vague and undecided.

It doesn’t help that Asuna explores this world with one Mr. Morisaki, who is a member of some secret society, but who descends into the earth to retrieve his deceased wife. Both Morisaki’s background story and introduction make frustratingly little sense. For example, there’s a flashback which seems to indicate he was alive during world war I, and for no apparent reason and with little likelihood he poses as Asuna’s substitute teacher. The secret society is utterly unnecessary to the plot, which is too complex for its own good. Moreover, Morisaki remains a vague and unconvincing character getting much too much screen time, and he never turns into either the scary villain Muska was in ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’ or one of those cleverly ambivalent antagonists of Miyazaki’s other films.

In fact, the scenes in Agartha start to drag, and the film loses focus, when leaving Asuna to concentrate on one of the underworld’s inmates, a boy called Shin. In the end Asuna is an all too will-less pawn in Morisaki’s scheme and she lacks her own clear story arc. This is in fact the film’s core problem: this should be Asuna’s story, but the film loses her halfway. It doesn’t help that Asuna’s own relationship to her deceased father is hardly developed, if at all. Particularly puzzling is a scene in which Asuna suddenly utters that Morisaki is like her father. Now where did that come from?!

The roles of Shin and the mute Manna remain vague, too, and feel half-baked. For example, Manna is abandoned halfway the film not to return. Instead, they add to the complexity of the story, further obscuring Asuna’s story arc. During the finale, in which Morisaki finally meets God (!) and Asuna is even depicted in the afterlife (!!) the last traces of believability go out of the window. Compare this rather blunt and all too direct storytelling with the Orpheus myth itself, which is clearly one of its inspirational sources, and one regrets Shinkai didn’t go for much more mystery.

The aftermath, in which our protagonists wander all the way back home is even worse, done in a short montage the story deflates over the end titles, accompanied by a cheesy song. This is a disappointing ending of an overlong and poorly timed film, indeed. Add some unnecessary gore, a plethora of unresolved story lines, three all too forced explanation scenes, and one can only conclude that Shinkai utterly fails where Miyazaki succeeds.

Luckily, ‘Childern Who Chase Lost Voices’ remained a one-time experiment. With his next film, ‘The Garden of Words’ Shinkai returned to much more familiar terrain, with far better results.

Watch the trailer for ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Michel Ocelot
Release Date: February 13, 2011
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

This is a review of the 2011 film, not to be confused with the television series from 1992, which explores a similar style.

After two Kirikou movies (1998, 2005) and the praised ‘Azur & Asmar’ (2006) French director Michel Ocelot returned to the silhouette style he had explored in ‘Les trois inventeurs’ (1979) and in ‘Les contes da la nuit’ (1992) in particular. The result was a series of ten episodes for Canal+ called ‘Dragons et princesses’. These were aired in 2010, and more or less compiled in the feature film ‘Les contes de la nuit’ from the next year. This film compiles five of the ten stories from ‘Dragons et princesses’ and adds an extra one, called ‘La Fille-biche et le fils de l’architecte’ (The Young Doe and the Architect’s Son).

All stories are original, conceived by Ocelot himself, including the dialogue. Yet, their style is firmly rooted in ancient storytelling and fairytales. Thus, the heroes are pretty emblematic, a given that is emphasized by the bridging ‘story’. In these bridging episodes an old man teams up with two children to invent the stories. The children then act them out, while the old man does some background research on architecture and clothing and such. The two youngsters are then dressed by robot arms, and the tale can begin.

And so, each tale stars the same two children, and almost of them are about love. To be fair, these bridging parts make very little sense, and after the sixth story we don’t even return to this setting.
Much more interesting are the stories themselves. Set in different times and places, they have a surprising universal character and really feel as a homage to classic storytelling, a form of narrative other modern animation film makers seem to have lost. In fact, Ocelot’s most obvious inspiration is Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981), who also told classic tales in silhouette animation. Ocelot truly is her artistic successor, even though he trades the scissors and cut-out animation for 2D computer graphics.

As all stories are told in silhouette, the story depends greatly on body language and dialogue. It’s a little unfortunate then that the 2D computer animation is often rather stiff and unconvincing. At times the heroes’ faces are seen from the front, showing their eyes, but not their mouths, which makes one depend on the dialogue even more.

The stories themselves nevertheless are entertaining. The first, ‘the night of the werewolf’ takes place at the Burgundian court of the 15th century and tells about two rival sisters. The third, ‘The Chosen One of the Golden City’ takes place in Mexico in the 16th century and tells about a conquistador visiting a city of gold. This story knows some very stylized background art. The fourth, ‘Tom-Tom Boy’ is set in West Africa and takes us back to the world of ‘Kirikou et la sorcière’ (1998), with its bare breasted women. The fifth, ‘The Boy Who Never Lied’ is set in medieval Tibet, and certainly the most tragic of the collection. The mountainous background art in this story has the most 3D-feel to it of the whole lot. The final story, ‘The Young Doe and the Architect’s Son’ returns to France. Set in the 13th century it features very detailed gothic background art and a short piece of 3D computer animation.

The best story, however, is the second, ‘TJ and the Beauty Unknowing’. This story starts in the Caribbean, but soon the hero enters the land of the death, in which he must fulfill three tasks to save his life. This story makes great use of the tropes of ancient fairy tales, without following the classic love story tropes of the other entries.

Watch the trailer for ‘Tales of the Night’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Les Contes de la nuit (Tales of the Night) is available on DVD

Directors: Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall
Release Date: April 15, 2011
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In 1961 Walt Disney obtained the film rights to A.A. Milne’s famous books, and over the years made five short specials about the character (1966-1983), of which the second (Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, 1968) and third (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, 1974) have become absolute classics. In 1977 the first three were stitched together into the feature film ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’, and its in this form they’re available on home media today.

Now, one can lament the fact that many children will know Winnie the Pooh better by its Disney version than by E.H. Shepard’s original irreplaceable illustrations, but within animation history these specials are highlights of inventive story-telling and wonderful character animation. A particular delight are the playful interactions of the characters with the pages of the book they appear in. Moreover, Disney retained the contrast between the naive stuffed animals and the pompous forest animals, Rabbit and Owl, who only think they’re wiser than their plush counterparts.

Unfortunately, following these classic specials, Disney took more and more liberties with the Pooh franchise, resulting in television series, direct to video movies, and even video games. Also, the three feature films made by the Disneytoon Studio division, ‘The Tigger Movie’ (2000), ‘Piglet’s Big Movie’ (2003) and ‘Pooh’s Heffalump Movie’ (2005) seemed to drift away more and more from the source material than either desired or necessary.

In this light one cannot but be weary before approaching the 2011 film, called ‘Winnie the Pooh’ in surprisingly plain fashion. However, the film deviates significantly from the trends set in the previous decade: first, it was made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios itself, being Disney’s last hand drawn animated feature to date, and the quality of animation simply is undeniable. Especially Andreas Deja’s animation of Tigger is fantastic. Moreover, there’s only a little computer animation, most notably the swarm of bees and some flowing honey. Second, the film returns to the original source material, mixing two original chapters together: ‘Eeyore loses a Tail’ from Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and ‘The Search for Small’ from ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ (1928).

The film is surprisingly concise, only lasting 51 minutes, and not dragging one second of it. On the contrary, I rank ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as one of the best told and most entertaining of all 2010s animation films. The film successfully revives the playful spirit of the original specials, greatly helped by using John Cleese as its narrator. There’s plenty of humor, mostly deeply rooted in the interplay between the contrasting characters. For example, at one point Owl boasts he has “achieved completion of [his] autobiographical treatise”, prompting Winnie the Pooh to reply “Oh. Was it painful?”. In another sequence there’s a great confusion when the words ‘not’ and ‘knot’ are mixed together.

Two of the original songs are reused, the ones introducing Winnie the Pooh himself, and Tigger’s song. Five original songs are added, penned by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. These are functional, pleasant and short enough to please even a musical aversion-bearer like me. Even better, the Backson song is accompanied by a wonderful fantasy sequence emulating the 1950s cartoon modern style. The ‘Everything is Honey’ song is illustrated with surreal images of honey pots in the forms of e.g. crabs, jellyfish and whales.

The voice cast, too, is excellent. As the voice of Pooh Jim Cummings does an excellent Sterling Holloway imitation, Bud Luckey sounds delightfully gloomy as Eeyore, while Craig Ferguson and Tom Kenny make their characters Owl and Rabbit perfectly pompous and self-important.

Even the end titles are a delight. First, the film’s adventures are retold using stills of the live action puppets in Christopher Robin’s room, then the rest of the titles are accompanied by several antics of the characters, much in the vein of the titles of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003). And there’s a surprise at the very end of them, so keep watching!

In all, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is a wonderful surprise, a true gem of a film, no doubt delighting children and adults alike. Unfortunately, it was to be the Disney studio’s last traditionally animated feature. It’s unbelievably sad that the high art of drawn animation was abandoned even by the studio that had elevated the technique to inconceivable heights in the first place. I surely hope Disney will return to this art form one day.

Director: Tatsuyuki Nagai
Airing of first episode: April 14, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

After ‘Erased‘ this is only the second Japanese anime series I’ve seen. The two series are from the same A-1 Pictures studio, and they are about of the same quality, so how they compare to others I wouldn’t know. Like ‘Erased’ ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ deals with friendship and loss, this time featuring on a group of six high school friends.

In the first of eleven episodes we learn that Teenager boy Jintan, who has dropped out of school, is troubled by a childish blonde girl called Menma, but it turns out he’s the only one seeing her. Soon we learn that Menma is dead, and that she was part of a group of friends led by Jintan when they were kids. After her death the group fell apart, but Menma is back to fulfill her wish. Unfortunately, she herself doesn’t know anymore what her wish was…

Menma’s unknown wish is the motor of the series, as the friends slowly and partly reluctantly regroup as they are all needed to fullfil Menma’s wish. On the way we learn that each of them had a particular relationship to either Jintan or Menma, and they all have their own view on the day of Menma’s fatal death. And what’s more, there are more traumas to overcome.

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is surprisingly similar to the later ‘Erased’: there’s a jumping from the now to the past (although in Anohana these are flashbacks, not real jumps through time), there’s a supernatural element, there’s a group of friends, and one important mysterious girl who’s dead.

The first episode contains enough mystery to set the series in motion, but the show progresses painfully slowly, and at times I got the feeling Mari Okada’s screenplay was stretched over too many episodes. Especially episode five and six are of a frustratingly static character. In these episodes Jintan, the main character, is particularly and annoyingly passive, hardly taking any action to help Menma or himself, while Menma’s continuous cooing sounds get on the nerve.

The mystery surely unravels stunningly slowly in this series, and only episode seven ends with a real cliffhanger. Even worse, there are some serious plot holes, hampering the suspension of disbelief. Most satisfying are episode eight and ten, which are both emotional, painful, and moving. In contrast, the final episode is rather overblowing, with tears flowing like waterfalls. In fact, the episode barely balances on the verge of pathos. To be sure, such pathos occurs regularly throughout the series. In addition, there are a lot of unfinished sentences, startled faces, strange expressions, often unexplained, and all these become some sort of mannerisms.

The show is animated quite well, with intricate, if unassuming background art. Masayoshi Tanaka’s character designs, however, are very generic, with Menma being a walking wide-eyed, long-haired anime cliché. Weirdly, one of Anaru’s friends looks genuinely Asian, with small black eyes, while all main protagonists, with the possible exception for Tsuruko are depicted with different eye and hair colors, making them strangely European despite the obvious Japanese setting. For example, Menma has blue eyes and white hair, while Anaru has hazel eyes and red hair.

In all, if you like an emotional ride, and you have patience enough to watch a stretched story, ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ may be something for you. The series certainly has its merits, but an undisputed classic it is not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ and tell me what you think:

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is available on DVD

Director: Carlos Saldanha
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Rating: ★★
Review:

I will get down to business at once: I didn’t like this movie. It’s not so easy to pinpoint what’s wrong with it, though, and clearly most people rank this film higher than I do (it gets a pretty solid 6,9 on IMDb for example), but I’ll try to unravel what I think is wrong with this picture.

‘Rio’ tells about Blu, a blue macaw who by chance ends up with little girl Linda in Moose Lake, Minnesota (Wikipedia says Blu is a Spix’s Macaw, but I’m pretty sure the film makers intended Blu to be a fantasy species). A short sequence shows us how Linda and Blu grow up together as inseparable friends. Linda even names her bookshop after her pet. Then ornithologist Túlio comes along, telling Linda that Blu may be the last male of his species, and that he wants him to mate with a newly found female in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Linda reluctantly agrees, and the rest of the film takes part in Rio de Janeiro, where the two birds get stolen, and Linda and Túlio have a hard time getting them back…

Now, from the outset it becomes clear that Blu and Jewel, the wild female, are meant for each other, despite their obvious differences and life histories, but the film also immediately couples Linda and Túlio in a far from subtle fashion. And when little boy Fernando declares he’s an orphan, and we follow him for a little while in his loneliness, we know where he will end up at the conclusion of the film.

In other words, utter predictability is one of Rio’s main flaws. Outside of that it never deviates from familiar tropes. There are the two inept henchmen, there’s your obligate break-up scene, there are two birds whose sole existence seems to be comic relief. Everything in ‘Rio’ is tried and done. Even worse, in ‘Rio’ it isn’t done so well. For example, the two comic relief birds, Pedro and Nico are hardly funny and both have very shallow personalities.

The latter is the problem of all personas in ‘Rio’. Even main star Blu is hardly defined. An early scene with some Canadian geese suggests he’s a bit of a nerd, but during most of the film Blu’s actions follow from the facts that he has been a pet whole his life, and that he cannot fly. These can hardly be called character traits. During the break-up scene he even acts like a complete jerk, for no apparent reason. Voice actor Jesse Eisenberg has difficulties in breathing some sympathy into Blu, anyway.

Even worse fairs Linda, of whom I can only say she loves Blu and that she feels out of place in Brazil, and Túlio, who’s depicted as a quirky, not to say rather loony scientist. Why does he have to be loony, why can’t he just be a devoted scientist, for @#% sake!

Because Linda and Túlio hardly have a story arc together their bonding feels forced. Because Blu and Linda are forced to spend some time together, their bonding feels more natural, even if it follows all predictable patterns.

Another problem I have with the story is that it lacks a strong villain. Sure, the cockatoo Nigel is evil enough, but in the end he’s only a henchman of some petty crime thieves. In the all too quick and easy round up at the end of the film all visible criminals are punished, except for the mysterious off-screen buyer of the two rare birds. A very unsatisfying ending, indeed!

‘Rio’ isn’t a musical, but Nigel sings one of two songs that suddenly emerge. The song gives Nigel some background story, but he doesn’t need one and the song is completely superfluous. The other song is an R&B song by Pedro (musician will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas fame) and Nico (actor Jamie Foxx). Curiously, the two actors are black, not Latino. In fact, only Rodrigo Santoro, who voices Túlio, is a Brazilian, and George Lopez (Rafael) the only other Latino among the main characters.

And this brings me to another problem with ‘Rio’: Rio de Janeiro is well-depicted visually, but aurally little is done with the rich musical tradition of Brazil. True, the film opens and ends with an English language samba, and the toucan Rafael shortly sings ‘The girl of Ipanema’, but the two original songs mentioned above have no grain of Brazil in them, nor does the rest of the soundtrack, which consists of rather standard and uninteresting action fare. Likewise, the film fails to convey the magic of the Brazilian carnival. The parade is wisely chosen as the place of the grand finale, but unfortunately this is cut short in favor of one taking place on a plane. This makes sense in forcing Blu to fly (but nonetheless his sudden ability to do so feels more magical than natural), but also feels like a missed opportunity.

Apart from all story problems, ‘Rio’ also suffers from all too generic designs. Nothing in the film breathes particularly ‘Blue Sky’ and the film has none of the character ‘Ice Age’ (2002) and ‘Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!’ (2008) had. Moreover, the human designs and animation are surprisingly weak in this film. I particularly disliked the design of Linda, and the animation of Fernando, which looked disappointingly wooden. These straight characters fair less well than the broad comic ones, like the two henchmen Tipa and Armando, who are much more delightful to watch.

In all, ‘Rio’ is a too mediocre and too generic film to become an all-time classic. Instead, the film is a good example of the lazy, trope-driven plots and more and more common designs that started to overtake American animated feature film making during the 2010s.

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

‘Rio’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Stevie Wermers-Skelton & Kevin Deters
Release Date: March 5, 2011
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The theatrical release of ‘Winnie the Pooh‘ (2011) came with a charming short called ‘The Ballad of Nessie’. Narrated by Scotsman Billy Connolly in Dr. Seuss-like rhymes the short tells about Nessie, who has to leave her small pond when one McFroogle turns it into a golf course.

Everything in ‘The Ballad of Nessie’ breathes nostalgia. The short is very reminiscent of Disney shorts from the 1950s, not only because of its use of rhyming narration, but also because of the full animation combined with cartoon modern designs, and Mary Blair-inspired background art. I especially liked the tartan hills in the background.

The short is not particularly funny, but clearly made with love, and a welcome return to traditional animation in a time even Disney abandoned its own classic art form for computer graphics.

Watch ‘The Ballad of Nessie’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘The Ballad of Nessie’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Winnie the Pooh’

Director: Gore Verbsinki
Release Date: April 3, 2011
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

One of the most original mainstream feature films to come out of the United States in the 2010s was ‘Rango’, a Western with desert animals.

‘Rango’ was the brainchild of director and co-producer Gore Verbinski, a live action director of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fame. The film was made at Paramount, which hadn’t had an animation studio of its own since the closure of the Paramount Cartoon Studio in 1967. In fact, the animation was essentially done at Industrial Light & Magic, supervised by Hal Hickel. Apparently, Paramount gave Verbinski a lot of freedom, because ‘Rango’ is a pretty quirky movie, boasting an original visual style and none too serious storytelling.

Star of this original Western is a pet Chameleon (Johnny Depp) with a lot of fantasy, who accidentally ends up in the Mojave Desert, where he poses as some kind of Western hero called Rango, prompting the villagers to appoint him as a much-needed sheriff. Rango then has to solve an aquatic crime, which he does cluelessly, but with much bravado.

The first thing that strikes ‘Rango’ as different from all other American computer animated films, is its surprisingly gritty visual style. Rango himself, for example, has a crooked neck and an asymmetrical head, while his love interest Beans is a lizard, whose curls do not hide the fact that she’s clearly a reptile. One of the villains, Gila monster Bad Bill looks particularly rough, while the mayor, a tortoise, looks uncannily like actor Fred MacMurray. Another curious addition is ‘the spirit of the West’, who looks like an aged version of Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ persona. The whole film breaths spaghetti western, especially in its cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s musical score.

‘Rango’ doesn’t really deviate from the familiar story lines of current American animated features, however. For example, there’s an ‘all hope is lost’ moment, a familiar trope in the 2000s and 2010s, but the story is unpredictable enough to entertain throughout. Moreover, apart from a unique visual style, the film boasts some off-the-wall story devices, like a band of mariachi owls, who bridge several scenes, frequently predicting the chameleon is going to die.

Although the crime plot is played with seriousness, the film never loses sight of its own silliness. There are some peculiar touches, like Rango talking to a halved armadillo, or Beans suddenly freezing mid-sentence. Much of the dialogue is delightfully funny, and there are plenty of references to Western cinema, as well as one to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1998), which also starred Johnny Depp.

Despite the silliness, the film boasts surprisingly high production values. The animation, the cinematography, the rendering and the soundtrack are all of a fine quality. The film’s scruffy look may not appeal to everyone, but is a welcome diversion from the mainstream.

‘Rango’ was such a commercial and critical success, even winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that Paramount was confident to create its own animation studio, releasing its first feature, ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water’. Nevertheless, until now the studio has failed to carve out a unique spot in the crowded feature animation field. It at least never again released such a quirky movie like ‘Rango’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Rango’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘Rango’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Martin Georgiev
Release Date: October 17, 2012
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘7596 Frames’ is a computer animated film taking place in an endless black and white landscape, in which countless abstract black shapes fly by due to an extraordinarily strong current.

One of the abstract shapes crashes amidst the debris already present, and starts to wander against the never changing wind, gaining material as it walks along, as objects keep on flying into him. When the semi-abstract figure has grown too heavy for its legs to carry it collapses, but manages to become a more dragon-like shape. At this point it comes under attack, and in the end its struggle is in vain.

At points Martin Georgiev manages to give his semi-abstract forms real character, allowing the viewer to sympathize with the creature’s helpless struggle and its suffering before its final defeat. The camera is never still, and takes some striking positions to show the creature’s efforts, e.g. taking a worm’s-eye view to show the thing towering above. Less successful is the industrial music, which unfortunately adds nothing to the animation.

Watch a preview of ‘7596 Frames’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘7596 Frames’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Directors: Frank Braun & Claudius Gentinetta
Release Date: July 16, 2010
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

‘Schlaf’ is a black and white film using white lines on a black canvas. The film is very poetic and follows the rhythm of a snoring person, with images alternatingly speeding past the camera, or being more or less calm, allowing the viewer to register what’s in them.

Once one realizes he watches an enormous ocean liner full of people with oars, one also notes the ship is sinking, as if the ship depicts the sleeping person’s consciousness drowning into a sea of sleep. The idea is so strikingly original and its execution so well done, ‘Schlaf’ easily holds the attention throughout, despite the puzzling imagery.

Watch ‘Schlaf’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘Schlaf’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Director: Andreas Hykade
Release Date: February 24, 2010
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

After a sublime narrative trilogy on the loss of innocence (consisting of ‘Wir lebten im Gras‘ from 1995, ‘Ring of Fire’ from 2002, and ‘The Runt‘ from 2006), Andreas Hykade made a surprising move to a non-narrative film with ‘Love & Theft’.

In this film Hykade uses many animation cycles and continuous metamorphosis, not to tell a story, but to bring a homage to the great characters of animation and comics in mesmerizing and hallucinating images that never fail to entertain.

Greatly helped by Heiko Maile’s score, ‘Love and Theft’ knows an almost perfect build-up, starting very modestly in black and white, and with the simplest drawings. The first recognizable characters morphing into each other are Charlie Brown and Hello Kitty, soon followed by Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Spiderman, and later e.g. Spongebob Squarepants, Bert from Sesame Street, Tweety, Blossom from the Powerpuff Girls, Betty Boop, Ryan Larkin (as depicted in Chris Landreth’s animated short ‘Ryan’ from 2004), Gromit, Droopy, Koko, Donald Duck, the penguin from ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, Barbapapa, and countless others, including even Karl Marx, Che Guevara and Adolf Hitler.

Once changed into color, the animation goes completely berzerk, as one long psychedelic kaleidoscope. This particular sequence seems to owe something to Jim Woodring’s Frank, and somehow Andreas Hykade manages to capture the comic’s surreal atmosphere very well in this otherwise semi-abstract film.

Rarely were animation cycles and metamorphosis employed so creatively and entertainingly. ‘Love & Theft’ is a film that can be watched over and over again, without losing its gripping power.

Watch ‘Love & Theft’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘Love & Theft’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Director: William Joyce
Release Date: January 30, 2011
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ a young man is swept away by a storm to an unknown land where he come to live in a mansion full of living books.

‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ is a gentle, wordless film that seems to want to say something about the magic of books, and that reading good books will lead to more reading, and a lifetime of adventure.

The short is full of references. The young man himself looks a little like Buster Keaton, while the storm scene is a direct visual quote from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939). Like that film ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ plays with color and black and white, this time to illustrate how books can color your life.

‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ is well made, and makes good use of the animated medium to tell a fantastic story, but the art design is, to be frank, very conventional and unadventurous, and the story rather puzzling, which actually hampers the message. Moreover, John Hunton’s music, with its ‘pop goes the weasel’ theme is a bit obnoxious and very in your face. Many critics clearly think otherwise, as ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ won the Academy Award for best animated short of 2011.

Watch ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ is available on the DVD box set ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 7’

Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

After feature adaptations of several fairy tales and children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on aerial warfare (‘Victory through Air Power’ from 1943), ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ marks the studio’s very first animated adaptation of classic literature, in this case the historical novel of the same name from 1831 by French author Victor Hugo.

Of course, Disney’s version is not the first movie adaptation of Hugo’s hefty book. The most famous predecessors are a silent version from 1923 starring Lon Chaney as the title character, and one from 1939 starring Charles Laughton. The latter adaptation changed Hugo’s bleak and depressive ending into a more uplifting one. Disney gladfully follows suit, ending its own film remarkably upbeat, which is something the more avid Victor Hugo fan will hardly get used to. But more about that later.

The film starts with a ‘Pinocchio’-like opening shot with the camera zooming into the streets of Paris. Immediately it becomes clear that this new adaptation of ‘The Hunchback’ will be a musical, because the first song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ kicks in right away. It is sung by puppet player Clopin (Paul Kandel), whom we zoom into shortly, and who is the initial narrator of the tale, telling about events occurring twenty years before. This is the first of nine songs in 81 minutes, making ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ one of the most song-rich of the Disney musicals.

After the six-minute intro the film’s title appears, and we immediately cut to young adult Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), who remains misshapen as in the original novel, having both an asymmetrical body and face, with one bad eye, a hump, and a limping walk. But the animators also immediately make clear that this is a friendly, kind-hearted, and harmless person. Disney’s Quasimodo is kind and gentle and has a nice voice (by Tom Hulce), so we as an audience hardly must overcome any prejudice.

Moreover, within the limitations of the character’s literally description, the character designers really tried to make Quasimodo as appealing as possible. For example, compare his appearance to that of either Chaney or Laughton, who both look much uglier, and must overcome initial repulsion by the audience by great acting. Disney’s Quasimodo, on the other hand, is instantly likeable, and the viewer even struggles to comprehend why he isn’t loved more by the citizens of Paris.

Quasimodo’s first scene also shows the weird dualism of this movie: at one hand the studio really wants to tell a serious story, with heavy-handed themes, and dramatic music. On the other hand, the film makers apparently don’t dare to leave the cuddly-wuddly world of earlier Disney children’s films, and this leads to a schizophrenic end product, failing to be either entirely for children or the dark tale it could have been.

For example, the studio gives Quasimodo three humanized gargoyles to talk to (perhaps another idea taken from the 1939 film version, which ends with Quasimodo talking to a gargoyle). The appearance of the three gargoyles feels disappointingly formulaic and out-of-tune after the dramatic introduction. The childish half of the movie is further enhanced by the present of an intelligent pet goat and an equally humanized horse called Achilles. These two animal characters don’t speak, but clearly belong to the world of obligate animal sidekicks, which permeate the Disney films since ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).

True, the gargoyles appear only to be real to Quasimodo, turning to stone as soon as any other character is in the same room, but as we often watch them move without Quasimodo being aware of them, we’re led into believing these stone characters are real, and only pretending to be lifeless when other people are around.

Despite the presence of these cute characters, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is arguably Disney’s darkest movie since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), addressing issues like prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hypocrisy.

Most striking in this respect is the character of the villain judge Frollo, voiced forcefully by Tony Jay. His lust for Esmeralda is clearly an adult theme. This becomes most apparent in the character’s own song of desire, with its erotic fantasy depictions of Esmeralda depicted in the flames he watches. Masterly animated by Kathy Zielinski, this is arguably the movie’s best song, highlighting the complexity of the character. Frollo isn’t just bad, he’s torn inside. Frollo all too willingly marries his lust to his sense of justice and sees no problem in purging the town’s gypsies only to find his object of desire. In fact, Frollo is the most interesting character of the whole film, and certainly one of the most interesting of all Disney villains, for his evilness comes from partly from fanatism and bigotry, and is not purely selfish, even though that’s an important component of his character, too.

Another adult theme is the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and captain Phoebus. Esmeralda is the focal point of the movie, being the object of desire of the three male leads, if in different ways for each of them. Phoebus is a bland hero character, and the only one who doesn’t sing. At one point Quasimodo actually believes Esmeralda loves him, and he has to overcome his jealousy of his more handsome rival to help Phoebus finding Esmeralda.

Yet, as the film makers don’t really choose between a light-hearted and a serious narrative, the film remains an odd blend. For example, Quasimodo’s rescue scene is played out very dramatically and seriously. But this scene is followed by a rather frivolous storming of the cathedral, full of silly gags and broad, cartoony animation. One can even hear the Goofy yell when the soldiers fall from great heights to a – I’d say – certain death. This lack of choice troubles and harms the film big time. A Disney cliché scene in which a character seems dead but turns out not to be (see ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Jungle Book’) doesn’t help either.

But what really becomes hard to swallow is the film’s ending, which is all too happy, defying every believability. In Disney’s version Quasimodo seemingly starts a revolution, and the film makers want us to believe that following the film’s events the Middle Ages stopped right there and propelled all citizens of Paris into a post-modern world of tolerance and rainbow harmony, free from despotism, prejudice, and discrimination. If only. For example, ninety years after the events depicted here Paris would witness the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. I’m afraid that although Victor Hugo’s original ending may the more gruesome, it’s also the more realistic one.

The film is more successful as a musical than as a retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel. Alan Menken’s music is in the same modern musical vein as earlier Disney musicals, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992), but the tone is much more dramatic, verging on the edge of bombast.  Unique for this movie is that the score remains its musical character even when there’s no singing. An unexpected element of his score is Menken’s use of leitmotivs. Especially Frollo is identified by a particularly well-composed melody, which recurs throughout the movie. Menken may count this melody as one of his very best ever. Frollo’s song is the film’s dramatic highlight, and as said the best song of the whole film, but Menken’s score reaches epic heights during the rescue scene, when a choir singing in Latin adds to the musical suspense.

The only real mistake in the score is the Gargoyle’s song, the film’s only light-hearted tune. In this tune we’re suddenly confronted with many anachronisms and French cliches completely out of tune with the rest of the movie, like images of a casino, a barber, and a grand piano. What worked in ‘Aladdin’ falls completely flat in ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’. These anachronisms come across as a lack of ideas, instead of original twists, and pull the viewer out of the story, instead of taking him further in. Yet, it must be said that even this song shows the grim image of three people being hanged, even if it’s in puppet form. In the same way, a later song by a bunch of scoundrels remains very merry, even though it’s about killing.

The film’s design is noteworthy for its moody color palette, with blues, purple and orange as its principal colors, which permeate almost all scenes. The human designs are more elaborate, yet less artful than before, with Esmeralda and Phoebus being particularly bland. Unfortunately, somehow, it’s this more generic design that would become standard in the final traditionally American animated films of the late nineties and early 2000s.

The human designs may lack character, their animation is by all means outstanding, and shows that the Disney studio was at the very top of its craft. An example is the Topsy-Turvy song. Set at the Feast of Fools (which was actually forbidden by 1431, while the action takes place in 1482, but this is Victor Hugo’s error), this song features elaborate movement, fast cutting, all kinds of camera angles, and many different characters, both traditionally animated and computer animated. But all the movement and the characters’ emotions remain readable all the time. In fact, one can watch this sequence in silence and still know what’s going on.

Other pieces of animation I particularly like is when Frollo wriggles his sword out of a piece of wood while entering the cathedral, and the one in which Esmeralda asks Quasimodo to come outside, shot from Quasimodo’s perspective, thus making Esmeralda reaching out to us. But these are just examples in a film overflowing with excellent character animation.

Computer animation is limited to special effects, especially for creating crowd scenes. With help of computers, the studio could generate crowds of hundreds of people, without having to animate each person individually. When one looks closer, the animation looks terribly stiff and lifeless, but as the eye normally follows the fully animated leads, the result is convincing enough, and luckily not out of tune with the fully animated lead characters.

In all, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is a well-made film with a very interesting musical score, and great animation. It’s a daring piece into more serious territory, something the studio would never repeat. And I understand why, because as long as the Disney studio doesn’t dare to leave its compulsory family character, it will never succeed in retelling dramatic stories like Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ convincingly. This film certainly fails to do so, despite all the effort, and remains a schizophrenic product that leaves the viewer wondering what it could have been if the studio would have made more daring choices.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ and tell me what you think:

‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Airing Date: January 1, 1997

‘Inflata Dee Dee/The Justice Friends: Can’t Nap/Monstory’ was the last episode of the first season Dexter’s Laboratory, and thus, alas, the last of the Dexter’s Laboratory episodes to be released on DVD. Why the other seasons never saw a home media treatment is a mystery to me. It sure is an eternal shame that this great show is not available in its entirety.

Inflata Dee Dee

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

In ‘Inflata Dee Dee’ Dee puts Dexter’s “hydroplasmatic inflation suit” on, making her floating like a bubble in Dexter’s lab, much to the little boy’s annoyance.

What follows is an almost classic chase sequence in which Dexter tries several ways to bring Dee Dee down. One involves a particularly silly suit with springs and a plunger. We also learn that Dee Dee has a watch with indicates when it’s time to play with Dexter. Dexter’s Laboratory rarely was so looney tunes-like.

The Justice Friends: Can’t Nap

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: The Justice Friends
Rating: ★
Review:

In another tiresome episode of ‘Justice Friends’ Valhallen takes a justice friend called White Tiger home, which behaves like a cat. Unfortunately, Major Glory is allergic to cats, and with help of Krunk goes at lengths to get rid of the creature.

‘Cat Nap’ is anything but funny, leaving the opening scene, which involves a particularly silly supervillain called Mental Mouse as the most inspired part of the episode. Nevertheless, White Tiger is well-animated, perfectly blending human and cat-like moves.

Monstory

Directors: Rob Renzetti & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

When Dee Dee visits Dexter to tell him a particularly stupid story, Dexter grabs an ampule with a silencer to shut her up. Unfortunately, he grabs the wrong elixir…

‘Monstory’ is great fun and knows some nice references, not only to Godzilla and other monster movies, but also to ‘Horton Hears a Who’ and ‘King-Size Canary’ (1947). The transformation scenes are particularly good, especially the first one involving Dee Dee. Also great is the montage in which a caterpillar-like Dexter lies dormant in a cocoon, with Dee Dee waiting for him to emerge.

‘Inflata Dee Dee/The Justice Friends: Can’t Nap/Monstory’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Airing Date: 25-12-1996

Dexter’s Rival (a rerun of episode 4)

The Justice Friends: Bee Where

Directors: Paul Rudish & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: The Justice Friends
Rating: ★
Review:

In ‘Bee Where?’ a bee visits the home of the three justice friends, scaring Major Glory to death.

This must be one of the most tiresome of all Justice Friends episodes. It just drags and drags on, without getting funny. Even the antics with the open or closed windows fails to become funny, lacking proper timing.

Mandarker

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Mandarker’ sees the return of Mandark, whose laboratory is still destroyed.

This time the two combat to win first prize at the science fair, a prize normally going to Dexter. It becomes clear Mandark goes to great lengths to achieve his goal, while Dexter has become arrogant enough to assume he will win anyway. Nevertheless, once Mandark enters the fair, events get a different turn.

It’s always nice to see the two rivals, but the best part of this episode is the finale in which the dialogue consists of the words Dexter and Mandark, only.

‘Dexter’s Rival/The Justice Friends: Bee Where/Mandarker’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Airing Date: December 18, 1996

Spacecase

Directors: Paul Rudish & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

This episode starts with Dexter activating an alien communicator.

Almost immediately he gets a visit of three aliens in a flying saucer. Unfortunately, they’re mostly interested in taking Dexter with them for further examination, but Dexter manages to send Dee Dee with them, instead. First he enjoys the bliss of her absence, but before soon remorse kicks in.

The scenes in which Dexter is taking in by guilt are a great echo of other guilt-cartoons like ‘Pudgy Picks a Fight‘ (1937) or ‘Donald’s Crime’ (1945). Also very entertaining is the heroic sequence in which Dexter ascends his space ship, which borrows elements from both Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars.

The Justice Friends: Ratman

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: The Justice Friends
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In this episode Krunk and Valhallen clog the toilet, so they have to go down in the basement to fix things. But something is lurking there.

‘The Justice Friends: Ratman’ is pretty silly, and overtly tongue-in-cheek, but also all too talkative. I’m not sure about the addition of the laughing track, which does add to the corniness, but which is also pretty annoying itself. Best is Tartakovsky’s staging, with the Justice Friends frequently taking dramatic poses.

Dexter’s Debt

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘Dexter’s Debt’ Dexter gets confronted by a bill from NASA of 200 million dollars.

Dexter’s attempts to raise the money are feeble, indeed, and what’s worse, Dee Dee outdoes him every time. ‘Dexter’s Debt’ greatly plays on the relationship between brother and sister, while both Dexter’s mom and dad get more screenplay than usual. Highlight, however, is the entrance of the two NASA men.

‘Spacecase/The Justice Friends: Ratman/Dexter’s Debt’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Airing Date: December 11, 1996

Way of the Dee Dee

Directors: Paul Rudish & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★
Review:

In ‘The Way of the Dee Dee’ Dee Dee shows Dexter that he has become out of touch with nature, so Dexter begs her to show him ‘the way of the Dee Dee’.

With Dee Dee as his guru Dexter steps leaves not only his lab, but dares to go outside. What follows are some antics in the backyard, but for the final challenge Dee Dee takes Dexter back to the lab for some self expression…

‘The Way of the Dee Dee’ plays with the themes of gurus and enlightenment. The scene in which Dexter steps into the light, accompanied by sitar music is the episode’s highlight in that respect.

The Justice Friends: Say Uncle Sam

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: The Justice Friends
Rating: ★★
Review:

Major Glory’s Uncle Sam will come to visit, so Major Glory teaches his friends how to behave, much to the latter’s distress.

Highlight of this otherwise dragging episode is the scene in which Major Glory calls his justice friends to assemble, accompanied by some particularly heroic music.

Tribe Called Girl

Directors: Rob Renzetti & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★
Review:

‘Tribe Called Girl’ is an episode like ‘Dee Dee’s Room‘ and ‘Dollhouse Drama‘, without adding much.

Once again, Dexter goes to Dee Dee’s room, this time to observe the behavior of girls. But then he’s discovered by Dee Dee and her friends Lee Lee and Mee Mee…

Dexter is presented as being completely unable to communicate with the girls, who, in one scene, treat him like a shy animal.

‘Way of the Dee Dee/The Justice Friends: Say Uncle Sam/Tribe Called Girl’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

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