Directors: Bruno Chauffard & Glenn McCoy
Release date:
December 5, 2017
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘The Secret Life of Kyle’ stars Gru’s monstrous dog from the ‘Despicable Me’ films.

In this short Gru’s dog, Kyle, has fallen in love with a neighboring poodle. When he discovers a rival Alsatian Kyle obtains a fancy collar for his love interest, but in the end he wins her over with the squeeky toy he carries around.

‘The Secret Life of Kyle’ is a nice, if forgettable short offering some swell silent comedy in the best cartoon tradition, but without adding anything to it.

Watch ‘The Secret Life of Kyle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Secret Life of Kyle’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Despicable Me 3’

Director: Joel Crawford
Airing date:
November 24, 2017
Rating: 
★★★
Review:

I bought this DVD by mistake, mistaking it for ‘Trolls World Tour’. Oh, well, I might as well watch and review it. ‘Trolls Holiday’ is a television special that features the characters from ‘Trolls’ (2016). The 30 minute short is a holiday special that, refreshingly, is not about Christmas.

The story is extraordinarily simple and straightforward: when Poppy discovers that the Bergens have no holiday left since the abolition of Trollstice, she decides to give them one of the trolls’ own numerous holidays. Unfortunately she gets so carried away she doesn’t realize she distresses her Bergen best friend Bridget during the show. Bridget asks Poppy to leave. Luckily soon Poppy realizes what she has done, while Bridget realizes what Poppy was trying to do. So in the end she invents a holiday of her own, ‘Troll-A-Bration’, celebrating their friendship.

‘Trolls Holiday’ is a nice if unnecessary addendum to the Trolls movie. Both Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake reprise their roles, and there’s a lot of singing, especially during Poppy’s presentation. The special ends with both Bergens and Trolls singing Madonna’s ‘Holiday’.

However, the most entertaining parts are the digital cut-out animation sequences telling the background story and Poppy’s plan. During the caterpillar bus ride the trolls shortly change into their real life versions, which is pretty distressing, as this only shows how infinitely more ugly the original toys were when compared to the fluffy versions of the film.

Watch the first four minutes of ‘Trolls Holiday’ and tell me what you think:

‘Trolls Holiday’ is available on DVD

Director: James Ford Murphy
Release date:
October 24, 2017
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool’ is short spin off short from ‘Cars 3‘ and present on the Blu-Ray/DVD of the movie.

The film is a short commercial by Miss Fritter, the modified school bus from ‘Cars 3’, featuring four cars stating how her school changed their lives, and with cars impersonating Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramirez, with whom we are watching the add.

This short is nothing special, but it does entertain for its three minutes, although it is quickly forgotten afterwards.

Watch ‘Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Cars 3’ and of the ‘Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 3’

Director: Lee Unkrich
Release date:
October 20, 2017
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The 2010s were a disappointing decade for the Pixar studio: the studio largely lost its role as game changer, spitting out a lot of sequels and meagre films that couldn’t stand the comparison with their great movies of the 2000s. Yet, three of their films shone far brighter than the others and showed that the studio still had it: Toy Story 3 from 2010, ‘Inside Out’ from 2015, and ‘Coco’ from 2017.

With ‘Coco’ the studio followed a recent Disney trend to give American minorities their own animated movie. After Afro-Americans (‘The Princess and the Frog’, 2009) and Polynesians (‘Moana’, 2016), ‘Coco’ stars Mexicans only, taking place in Mexico, and focusing on the typically Mexican holiday ‘Día de muertos’, the Mexican variant on All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day (1 and 2 November).

Now ‘Coco’ wasn’t the first animated feature film around Día de Muertos, which was 20th Century Fox’s ‘The Book of Life’ (2014), and like the former film ‘Coco’ takes partly place in the land of the dead. But there the comparison stops, and while ‘The Book of Life’ boasts more daring design choices, ‘Coco’ is by far the better film in terms of animation, art direction, background art and storytelling.

Moreover, the animated depiction of the dead as vivid skeletons is even older, as they also appear in ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005) and in the charming stop motion shorts ‘Hasta los huesos’ (René Castillo, 2001) and ‘Día de los muertos’ (Kirk Kelley, 2002). One can safely say, both Mexico’s idiosyncratic holiday and the depiction of the afterlife are of a particular interest to film makers. Let’s not venture into earlier depictions of the afterlife, in cinema or otherwise, although I have to say the concept of the afterlife in Coco has much in common with that of Kevin Brockmeier’s novel ‘The Brief History of the Dead’ from 2006: in both afterworlds one only really dies when he’s not remembered.

‘Coco’ tells about young boy Miguel, who aspires to be a musician, but who grows up in a family of shoemakers in which music is banned. When on ‘Día de muertos’ Miguel steals a guitar from the grave of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz he gets into much more trouble than he had bargained for…

Why the film is called ‘Coco’ instead of ‘Miguel’ only becomes clear at the very end of the film, in a scene that forms the emotional highlight of the movie, and is one of the most moving scenes in animation, overall.

But from the beginning ‘Coco’ evokes wonder. Even the background story is told superbly, with the help of garlands depicting the life of Miguel’s ancestors in attractive 2D animation. Miguel’s own world, too, is of unsurpassed richness. His family house, his village, the graveyard – all are complex and elaborate sets, depicted in the richest detail, which render them instantly believable. But nothing prepares the viewer for the jaw dropping depiction of the netherworld – which is more colorful and more fantastic than anything depicted on the animated screen before. The color designs are superb throughout anyway, with a strong focus on orange. The lighting, too, never ceases to amaze – there’s a beautiful golden glaze in the evening scenes. And yet, the graveyard scenes are even more awe inspiring, with their complex lighting by numerous flickering candles.

But all this would be in vain if the film’s story wasn’t good, as well. But ‘Coco’ can boast a story that is as entertaining as it is emotional. The story is rich and surprising and knows no dead moment at all. Sure, there are a few obligate scenes (like the breakup scene – omnipresent in American feature animation), but for once they do work. For example, the tiring family message, an obligatory Disney feature, is more interesting than usual, because Miguel’s family is actually hindering him in his dreams, and he can only reconcile with them after his family members have changed, too. The only complaints I have is that Miguel runs all too easily into his former ancestor, not only once, but twice. This is a coincidence too good to be true, and one hard to swallow. Moreover, it’s a quite unclear how the gentle romantic Hector changed into the opportunistic bum he apparently became in the afterworld.

The film boasts some great humor, too, for example Miguel runs into a skeleton nude, and there’s a great scene involving the deceased Frida Kahlo. Much of the humor comes from Hector’s antics, and of a street dog called Dante, which mysteriously follows Miguel into the afterlife (the Blu-Ray reveals that Dante is a so-called Xoloitzcuintle, a dog race traditionally guiding the dead to the Aztec underworld – when one sees the real thing one is amazed how well Dante resembles his real-life counterparts).
Less successful, especially in a film about the power of music, are the songs, with Miguel’s finale song being particularly annoying. But even the song ‘Remember me’, which takes a very important place in the story, is not half the classic song it supposed to be. That it’s sung in English instead of Spanish is a missed opportunity and contributes to the feeling of a deluded version of the real Ranchera thing.

Nevertheless, this is nit-picking, and these minor flaws hardly hamper a film, which is of a most magical nature. ‘Coco’ takes full advantage of the power of animation, and never ceases to amaze. The film is not only one of Pixar’s best films of the 2010s, but it should also be included into the studio’s all-time best list, as well as being one of the best films of the 2010s by any studio.

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

‘Coco’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher & Bob Logan
Release date:
September 22, 2017
Rating: ★★
Review:

One of the biggest feature animation surprises of 2014 was ‘The Lego Movie’. On paper this joint venture between Warner Animation and the famous toy company from Denmark should have been something terrible. After all, it was based on an existing toy line, a recipe for disaster. But the opposite happened and ‘The Lego Movie’ turned out to be one of the funniest, most sophisticated, and deepest animation film of the 21st century. The film was followed in 2017 by the equally funny ‘The Lego Batman Movie’, deepening the title character as he appeared in ‘The Lego Movie’. Warner Animation and Lego were clearly on a roll.

Or were they? Appearing in the very same year as ‘The Lego Batman Movie’, ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ uses several of the ingredients of the previous films, but with a remarkably disappointing result. True, there are some good gags, especially those referring to the characters being made of Lego, but more often such gags feel like they have been done before, and better. Even worse, compared to the two earlier films, both the story, the world and the characters are very weakly developed. Apparently, the film was based on a long-lasting television series, but the film hardly betrays that fact. Instead, the movie feels as only half-baked, and assembled too quickly for its own good.

The problems of ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ are legion. The film uses elements of both wuxia and mecha films, but can’t satisfy lovers of either genre, as the film makers do very little with these elements. The whole setting of Lloyd being both the leader of the Ninjago squad and the son of Garmadon, the very nemesis they continually combat, is preposterous to start with. That these Ninjago warriors are also some teenager friends at a high school (even though one is a robot) only adds to the implausibility. So does the fact that Garmadon has four hands. The plot gets particularly silly when ‘the monster’ arrives, but when the Ninjago squad goes on a quest in a forest, the film seriously starts to drag. The son-dad relationship becomes a tried and tiresome cliché, and halfway one realizes he doesn’t care for these characters, at all. And then the overlong finale must start, yet…

On the top side the film starts with Jackie Chan, who is always pleasant to watch, even though he’s completely wasted in this film. And the textures of the Lego elements are surprisingly good, rendering them very tactile, indeed. Moreover, the film makes some surprising and rather silly choices in its use of pop music. But it should be clear that none of this can rescue a sloppy, lazy film that seriously lacks the heart and attention given to the first two Lego movies.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Lego Ninjago Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Shinichirō Watanabe
Release date:
September 27, 2017
Rating: 
Review:

Just before ‘Blade Runner 2049’ came out, three short films were released to tell of some of the events that happened between the original ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) and the new feature.

The third of these prequel shorts is an anime directed by Shinichirō Watanabe, of Cowboy Bebop fame. The short telles about the great blackout of 2022, which is mentioned in the new feature film. This is by far the weakest of the trio: Watanabe’s way of directing is hilariously heavy-handed, the dialogue frustratingly boring, and the anime designs are ugly, akin to appalling American comic art. What’s worse, we don’t care a bit about the two main replicant protagonists, due to confusing editing, which moves forward and backward in time, and due to the lack of background stories on the characters.

What Luke Scott, director of the other two (live action) shorts, did well: setting a scene in a few seconds and sticking to it, is lost on Watanabe: his tale is overtly complex and meandering within its fifteen minutes. Even the music by Flying Lotus doesn’t amount to anything and is quickly forgotten.

Watch ‘Blade Runner Black Out 2022’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Blade Runner Black Out 2022’ is available on the DVD and Blu-Ray of ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Director: Nora Twomey
Release date:
September 8, 2017
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

2017 was a good year for the animated feature film: Warner Bros., Dreamworks and the French Polivari and Panique studios gave us great laughs with ‘The Lego Batman Movie’, ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’, and ‘ Le grand méchant renard et autres contes…’ (The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales), respectively; Pixar amazed us with the magnificent ‘Coco’, and the Japanese Science Saru studio made quite an impression with the mind-blowing film‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’.

However, the most important and most moving animated feature film was the Irish-Canadian-Luxembourgian co-production ‘The Breadwinner’. This was the third feature by the Irish Cartoon Saloon studio, which can be regarded as the most welcome and most original studio additions to the animated feature field of the 21st century, thus far. The Breadwinner’ shares with their previous two films, ‘The Secret of Kells’ (2009) and ‘The ‘Song of the Sea’ (2014) a very charming traditional animation style, and a surprisingly graphic overall design, although the latter is rather toned down in ‘The Breadwinner‘ when compared to the earlier two movies. But unlike the other two, ‘The Breadwinner’ completely lacks the Irish flavor, being set in, of all places, Afghanistan.

Based on the book by Deborah Ellis from 2000 ‘The Breadwinner’ is set in Kabul, the unfortunate country’s capital during the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (better known as the Taliban regime, 1996-2001). By the time the film was made, this extremely oppressive regime was a ghost of the past, at least in Kabul (the Taliban never fully disappeared from the country), but sadly, since August 2021 this misogynist, backward movement is in full charge of the country, once again.

‘The Breadwinner’ makes no mistake how hard it is to live in such a violent, insecure country, where arbitrariness prevails, and where women have no rights, at all, whatsoever. The film follows the eleven-year-old Afghan girl Parvana, who lives with her disabled father, her mother, elder sister Soraya, and a baby brother called Zaki in a tiny house in Kabul. When the father gets arrested and thrown into a prison far outside town, the family quickly get into way more problems than they already had: as women cannot do anything outside without a man, their means to even obtain food completely come to a standstill. At this point Parvana takes an important decision to save her family’s life…

‘The Breadwinner’ is a very believable story, much more subtle than almost anything coming out of the United States. For example, the Afghan people are portrayed as real people, with a rich an ancient culture. Added to the sense of authenticity is the use of Afghan voices (except for the brabbling Zaki), while Mychael and Jeff Danna’s score clearly borrows from the Afghan musical tradition. Thus, the film’s Afghanistan is a convincing one, not a caricature seen through Western eyes. Moreover, although the film makes no mistake about the oppressive and misogynist nature of the Taliban regime, there are many shades of gray between the heroes and villains. Even the villain that causes Parvana’s family’s demise is shown in one last shot as not only evil, but insecure and afraid, too. Moreover, Parvana remains a relatable character, throughout. Despite her courage and adult responsibility, she remains a child, and is shown delighting in childish behavior, especially with her friend Shauzia.

Contrasted with Parvana’s dire circumstances are the images of a story she tells her beloved (her first audience is her baby brother, but she also tells the tale to others, and others even blend in, altering the direction of the story while doing so. These images are rendered in the most colorful, storybook illustration-like, faux cut-out animation, and tell about a boy who goes on a quest to retrieve his village’s seeds from an evil elephant king. This fantastical tale is picked up several times during the movie, and often reflects the events depicted in real life. Especially in the finale, in which the two seem to come together, this dual story telling comes to a harrowing conclusion.

As said, the film’s design is less graphic than that of Cartoon Saloon’s Celtic features. The background art is semi-realistic, with depressing greys, browns and yellows depicting the seemingly treeless town of Kabul. The character design is more graphic, with especially Zaki being an echo of the character designs from the earlier films. Noteworthy is the background art of a rather surreal scene in which Parvana and Shauzia are seen in a field full of abandoned tanks. The traditional animation is a delight, not only the very moving animation of the main characters, but also the cartoony quasi-cut-out animation of Parvana’s story. There’s only a little computer animation present, mostly for crowd scenes.

In all, ‘The Breadwinner’ is one of the best, most adult and most moving animation films to come out of any animation studio, and should be considered a modern classic.

According to director Nora Twomey ‘The Breadwinner’ may be set in Afghanistan but tells a universal story of all children growing up in oppressive countries, everywhere. Yet, we are still waiting for the animated depictions of their stories, while Afghanistan has been the subject of no less than three other animated feature films since then: ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ from 2019 and ‘My Sunny Maad’ and ‘Flee’ from 2021. Surely, the people of say North Korea, Syria, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, or Yemen deserve better.

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

‘The Breadwinner’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Release date:
July 8, 2017
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ is the first film by Studio Ponoc, founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura, who was a producer for Studio Ghibli before. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, too, is a Studio Ghibli alumnus, being an animator for the famed studio since 1997, and directing the studio’s 21st feature film ‘When Marnie Was There’ (2014).

It comes to no surprise then that ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ is very, very Ghibli-like. Already the packaging of the DVD would fool anyone. But the similarity doesn’t stop there: even the opening titles emulate Ghibli; the character designs, too, are very Ghibli-like; the film is based on a British children’s book, just like Ghibli’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004), ‘Arrietty’ (2010) and ‘When Marnie Was There’; the film stars a young female protagonist (Mary) who has to survive without her parents, just like ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1997), ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) and ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ (2010); Mary is a witch like Kiki; she’s accompanied by a cat who plays an important part just like Kiki and like Shizuku in ‘Whisper of the Heart’ (1995), and the film is partly set in a fantasy world, just like ‘Spirited Away’.

Now, this is immediately the film’s main flaw: studio Ponoc imitates Ghibli very well but doesn’t bring anything original of its own. The final product is practically indistinguishable from the source of inspiration. That doesn’t mean, however, that ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ is a bad movie. The story is told well enough, the animation is top notch, and the fantasy world looks great. I certainly had a good time watching it, and would recommend the movie to all lovers of the Studio Ghibli product. But Studio Ponoc’s debut could and should have been something much more of their own. If you compare, for example, ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ to the idiosyncratic ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ from the same year, it becomes clear which studio brings something original to the world, and which one does not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Patrick Imbert & Benjamin Renner
Release date:
June 15, 2017
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

One of the more pleasant developments of the 21st century was the coming of animated feature films, the whole purpose of which was to make people laugh. One could say this trend started off with the successful ‘South Park, Bigger, Longer & Uncut’ (1999), and like that film these films were mostly off-shoots from series (‘The Simpsons Movie’ and the Spongebob Squarepants movies from 2004, 2015 and 2021) or offshoots from other films (‘Minions’ from 2015, ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ from 2017).

But occasionally, a film comes to you, which is both very funny, and totally original, even if it’s based on an earlier comic strip, like the Franco-Belgian feature ‘Le grand méchant renard et autres contes…’. The film is co-directed by Benjamin Renner, one of the producers of the attractive, if flawed ‘Ernest et Célèstine’ from 2012, and the original author of the comic strip, ‘Le grand méchant renard et autres contes…’. . Both comic strip and movie aim for the laughs, and are highly successful at it, too.

The film is advertised as a children’s film, and it certainly is fit for all ages, but don’t let this fool you. There’s nothing childish about this film. Instead, we get high quality cartoon comedy, perfectly animated and perfectly timed.

Based on three separate stories, ‘Le grand méchant renard et autres contes…’ is an anthology film, bridged by the idea of a play performed by the main characters. As soon as the first tale starts, the backdrop changes into the scenery in which all three stories take place: a farm in the countryside.

In the first film a stork talks a pig, a duck, and a rabbit into delivering a baby for him to his parents. Unfortunately, the baby must be delivered in faraway Avignon, and sadly for the pig both the duck and the rabbit are as incapable as they are optimistic. This tale is chockfull of cartoon slapstick, as the duck and the rabbit keep on thinking more and more outlandish schemes to deliver the baby, while the pig desperately tries to keep the little one safe.

The next story is a little cuter and involves a totally inept fox who teams up with a lazy and selfish wolf. The wolf talks the fox into stealing some eggs to raise them into fat chickens, but of course the fox grows attached to the little ones. Nevertheless, this tale, too, moves and shifts into surprising directions, and is less straightforward than this summary.

The third and final story is a genuine Christmas story, which sees the happy return of the pig, duck, and rabbit trio of the first part. This time, duck and rabbit think they’ve killed Father Christmas, and make resolutions to deliver the presents themselves… General mayhem is ensured.

The film uses a very charming drawing style, which like the earlier ‘Ernest et Célèstine’ consists of watercolor backgrounds and fake watercolor-coloring of characters, open lines and appealing character designs, which more or less fit in a long and diverse Franco-Belgian cartoon style tradition. The film is continuously pleasant to look at, and the attractive score, by Robert Marcel Lepage, adds to the film’s charm, as well. Scored for a small ensemble, Lepage makes excellent use of some familiar themes, like the morning theme from Giachino Rossini’s Overture ‘William Tell’, the wolf theme from Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, and in the last story, ‘Jingle Bells’.

In all, ‘Le grand méchant renard et autres contes…’ once again shows that France is one of the most interesting animation film-producing countries around. Recommended to all.

Watch the trailer for Le grand méchant renard et autres contes… (The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales) yourself and tell me what you think:

Le grand méchant renard et autres contes… (The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
Release date:
June 14, 2017
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The third installment of the Despicable Me franchise (not counting the spin-off ‘Minions‘ from 2015) is also the weakest of the trio. Like the other two the film is a fun ride, full of humor and action, but this time the film makers simply wanted to tell too much in one film. There are no less than six plot lines in this film divided over different main characters.

The first, and most enjoyable one considers Gru and his apparent arch nemesis Evil Bratt, a former child-actor from the 1980s gone bad. Evil Bratt, excellently voiced by Trey Parker of South Park fame, is a delightful villain, and the film makers indulge in 1980s tropes to make this character. For example, Evil Bratt sports a mustache and a mullet, and his weapons are based e.g., on bubblegum, Rubik’s cube, and a keytar. Moreover, whenever he appears, he’s accompanied by a 1980s hit, e.g., ‘Jump’ by Van Halen, ‘Take on Me’ by A-Ha, ‘Into the Groove’ by Madonna, and even ’99 Luftballons’ by German star Nena. The film immediately starts with this character, and it’s thanks to this wonderful villain that ‘Despicable me 3’ keeps on the right side between failure and entertainment, if barely so.

Much less interesting are the other story lines: Gru and Lucy are fired, and Gru desperately tries to get his former job back. In a third and totally unexpected twist Gru suddenly discovers he has a twin brother (also voiced by Steve Carrell, voice of Gru), who wants to be a villain, like Gru used to be, but who clearly lacks the skills. The fourth story line involves the minions, who walk out of Gru, a fifth involves Agnes (the youngest of Gru’s three adopted children) and her wish to see a unicorn. And the sixth is about Lucy, and how she tries to be a substitute mom for the girls, especially to Margo, the eldest of the three.

Now, the first three plot lines, all involving Gru, at least intertwine into one, albeit rather loose narrative, but the other three feel forced and superfluous: they’re only there to give the other characters something to do. And even then, Judith, the middle one, is lost in the plot.

Much of the action takes place in ‘Freedonia’ (a clear nod to the Marx Brothers), while the finale takes place in Hollywood. Freedonia clearly is modelled as some French Mediterranean island, and betrays the Illumination studio’s French origin.

The character animation, like in the other installments, is delightfully cartoony and over the top, and better suited for the broad comedy than for the more subtle moments, and only Margo is animated straight, acting like a normal girl, and not like a cartoon character. By now, the effect animation is so good that one hardly notices. For example, the water and smoke animation is excellent and feels so natural, one easily forgets it’s animated, too. I also liked how the film makers made the 1980s Evil Bratt episodes look like old video recordings. The cinematography, too, is top notch, throughout.

But all the quality cannot rescue an overcrowded film that scores high on action, but very low on originality and heart. There’s even an obligatory breakup scene, which feels extra unnecessary, because it lasts so shortly. ‘Despicable Me 3’ is well made, but also mediocre, and with the exception of Evil Bratt, forgettable.

Watch the trailer for ‘Despicable Me 3’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Despicable Me 3’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Brian Fee
Release date:
March 28, 2017
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Cars’ was the first Pixar film after Toy Story to get a sequel in 2011. Unfortunately, ‘Cars 2’ was as much as a digression from the original narrative as it was disappointing. With ‘Cars 3’ the studio returned to the original source material, once again focusing on Lightning McQueen.

The film takes a brave step in showing the effects of getting older and realizing that you’re not young anymore, and thus is a film more appealing to parents than to youngsters. The whole idea of characters getting older is a bold one in animation land, and the film does a good job in the depiction of passing the torch from one generation to a new one.

Unfortunately, Lightning McQueen never was a wholly sympathetic character, and he certainly isn’t in this film. When his reign on the racetrack is threatened by a new generation of rookies, he desperately tries to stay in place. But his reckless and selfish behavior leads to disaster, and when he’s offered a training program, he’s too impatient and too self-centered to follow the rules, wrecking some expensive equipment and putting his younger trainer into danger.

In fact, this trainer, the female car Cruz Ramirez (wonderfully voiced by Cristela Alonzo), by far is the most interesting character of the movie. She’s apparently from a humbler background and shows McQueen that some people must struggle hard to achieve the confidence and success he took for granted. But the film is not her story, and this important message is pushed aside by McQueen’s struggle with his own ageing and mortality.

In this, the film relies heavily on McQueen’s relation to his own mentor, Doc Hudson. This character was voiced by Paul Newman, who passed away in 2008, so his dialogue comes from unused recordings for the first film. This mentor-theme is pushed rather forcefully and heavy-handedly into the story, with a series of flashbacks in which McQueen realizes how he has mistreated Cruz as a low point of stating the obvious.

Moreover, for a large part the film blindly follows the rules of the sports film, with an unlikely outsider winning from the established and unsympathetic competitor thanks to an unconventional training scheme. This training part, under the auspices of Smokey, Doc Hudson’s former partner, is by far the weakest part of the film. This cliché path fills most of the second part of the film, hampering a story that could have been more daring and more original.

The characters from the first film are hardly present in ‘Cars 3’. Even Mater’s role is surprisingly modest, considering he was the leading character of ‘Cars 2’. Especially disappointing is the role of Sally, McQueen’s girlfriend. In fact, McQueen hardly behaves as if he were in a relationship, at all. There’s no conflict at all between him and Sally when he goes training at the other side of the continent, nor when he sees the younger woman Cruz more than he sees her. This somehow feels like a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, the effect animation, the background art, the scene setting, and lighting are all of the highest quality. The world building of ‘Cars 3’ feels so effortlessly, one can focus on the characters and forget how well it is done. In fact, the character animation of the cars themselves remain the weakest element of the animation, as the car-living-being-combination remains a bit uncanny and unconvincing, with those large continuous eyes filling the front window, and those odd mouths in the bumper regions.

‘Cars 3’ pleasantly rounds up McQueen’s story, from an all too hasty rookie in ‘Cars’ to a veteran who realizes his days are over, but who manages to pass his knowledge to a new generation. I certainly hope Pixar does not make the same mistake as with ‘Toy Story’ and leaves the franchise with a perfect ending after three films.

Watch the trailer for ‘Cars 3’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Cars 3’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Dave Mullins
Release date:
March 12, 2017
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

When, after recess, the playground of a school is empty, a mysterious being creeps out of the lost and found box to collect all lost toys from the site. He brings all these toys back to his lost and found box so children can find them there. But when he watches a bully taking toys from other children, he comes into action…

‘Lou’ is a short that is well-made but in an uninteresting generic Disney-Pixar style. Nevertheless, the story is well-told. There’s no dialogue, but the film manages to move the audience through clever timing and a well-placed flashback, showing the origin of the bully’s behavior. This part may be over-simplistic, but does give some depth to the bully character.

Moreover, the mysterious lost and found thing is a wonderful invention: it is essentially shapeless and only exists through the lost items. During the chase scene the thing thus changes its form repeatedly, in a wonderful sequence of variations on the same set of items. The origin of the title of the film is only revealed in the end.

Watch ‘Lou’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Lou’ is available on the Blu-Ray & DVD of ‘Cars 3‘ and on those of ‘Pixar Short Film Collection 3’


Director: David Soren
Release date:
May 21, 2017
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In Captain Underpants two boys, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, write and draw comic book stories together. Unfortunately, their elementary school is the dullest, most depressing place on earth, thanks to the mean principal, Mr. Krupp. But then one day, somehow their comic book hero, Captain Underpants, comes alive, and he is even dumber than George and Harold had imagined…

This movie was one of the surprises of 2017. I saw this movie in a plane, not expecting much from a film with such a childish title, but boy, was I pleasantly surprised! Compared to this film most of the American computer-animated output of the 2010s feels pretty generic. Dreamworks’ ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’, on the other hand, boasts visuals that are incomparable to any other animated feature.

Moreover, the film’s story is delightfully unpredictable, and knows neither dull moment nor any of the cliches invading almost every American animated feature of the era. Even the moral, the value of laughter and that of friendship, is played rather casually, and never takes over from the sheer mayhem put on the screen. On the contrary, a lot of what’s happening on the screen is pleasantly over the top. I liked the use of Yello’s song ‘Oh Yeah’ when the two children make a particularly cool entrance, and when later an Einstein-like villain from ‘New Switzerland’ joins in, mayhem is ensured.

Most of the film is genuinely silly, and even though its target audience obviously is about as old as George and Harold, the film is enjoyable to everyone. What certainly helps is the great voice cast. Both George and Harold are voiced by adults (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch), and Ed Helms does a great job as both Mr. Krupp and Captain Underpants. It’s also interesting to note that Mr. Krupp isn’t only bad, he’s depicted as a shy and lonesome human, too.

Of course, much of the charm of ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ comes from the original source material, the illustrated children’s book series by American author and illustrator Dav Pilkey, which already counted twelve volumes by the time this movie was made. The film is apparently based on the first and fourth volume first four volumes [thanks Jonathan Wilson for the correction]. During production Pilkey worked closely together with director David Soren, and that certainly has paid off.

The film has translated Pilkey’s charming drawing style into 3D computer animation surprisingly well. What’s better, several parts are animated in 2D, in the children’s comic book style, there’s even a sequence in cut-out animation. Even the animation during the end titles is nice to watch. But the most outlandish sequence comes when Harold’s imagination of the future runs away with him. This scene was done by Screen Novelties in live action, with sock puppets, with hilarious results.

In all, ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ is a pleasant and very welcome diversion from Dreamworks, and one of the best animated movies of 2017, which with e.g., ‘Coco’ and ‘The Breadwinner’ was a strong animated feature year, anyway.

Watch the trailer for the ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Release date:
April 7, 2017
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Japan knows several distinguished animation directors, from Hayao Miyazaki to Mamoru Hosoda, but perhaps no feature director* is so original as Masaaki Yuasa. He created quite a stir with ‘Mind Game’ (2004) and kept on pouring out original work since then.

What’s striking about Yuasa’s films is that they don’t follow the general anime aesthetic, at all, on the contrary. ‘Night Is Short, Walk on’ is an excellent example in that respect. This mind-blowing feature film boasts human designs that are very different from your typical anime, highly original color schemes, more offbeat background art, interludes in a line-less style with vibrant digital coloring, wild, even grotesque animation (for example, watch people swallow in the first scene), and a highly original, almost stream-of-consciousness-like way of storytelling, using unpredictable editing techniques, and an occasional split screen, surprising camera angles, extreme perspectives, and moving background art, when necessary (there’s a very impressive example when Senpai runs up an exterior staircase).

Apart from Yuasa’s way of storytelling the plot of ‘Night Is Short, Walk on’ is highly original in its own right. The two main protagonists don’t even have names but are referred to as Otome (maiden) and Senpa (senior). We follow the two for one night, a night in which apparently anything can happen. Otome, a young woman, is ready to discover the adult world, while Senpa, who’s madly in love with her, has decided to finally express his feelings to her. Meanwhile, during this one night, both people meet a plethora of strange people, bizarre situations, and odd gatherings in a free-flowing narrative that nevertheless can be cut into four parts, which naturally flow into each other. Nevertheless, it’s best not to know anything about the plot, and just let it come to you. You’ll be in for quite a ride. What’s more, despite all its weirdness, ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ is essentially a film about love, and unexpectedly gentle despite all the mayhem surrounding the main story.

Surprisingly for such a visually stunning film, ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ is based on a novel, by Tomihiko Morimi. His novel was divided into four seasons, which explains the high number of events in the film version. Morimi was also responsible for the novel on which Yuasa’s earlier series ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ (2010) was based, and the series and ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ are very similar in visual style and general atmosphere.

In all ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ is hardly like anything you’ve seen before, and a great testimony of what can be done in animation. In my opinion this is one of the most important animation films of the decade. Highly recommended.

* There are also several highly original independent Japanese directors of shorts, e.g. Kōji Yamamura, Atsushi Wara & Mirai Mizue. Check them out!

Watch the trailer for ‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Chris McKay
Release date:
January 29, 2017
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

After the successful and surprisingly intelligent ‘The Lego Movie’ it was only natural for Warner Bros. to make another Lego themed movie. This time they took the character of Batman, who also co-stars ‘The Lego Movie’ and made the dark knight the star of a very funny sequel.

Compared to ‘The Lego Movie’, ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ is less deep and less layered, and the film wears its family theme on its sleeve, but like ‘The Lego Movie’ this sequel is really, really funny. The film makers play with all the batman tropes, and never take the superhero too seriously. In that respect, the film immediately starts off greatly, with Batman himself commenting on the opening titles. Another hilarious scene arrives a little bit later when we watch Batman waiting for the microwave.

Batman is a superhero, but pretty much a loser, as well. In fact, during most of the film, Batman is an ass, more of a self-centered, egotistic obligate loner than the usual tormented superhero. The Joker, too, is not just a supervillain, but one who longs for a special love-hate relationship with his foe. The film also introduces Robin and kickass female character Barbara Gordon (who’ll later turn into Batgirl). Part of the success of all these characters and how they are presented lies in the great voice acting. Especially, Will Arnett is a treat as the over-serious, pompous, self-important gravelling voice of Batman himself. Zach Galifianakis is a surprisingly emotional Joker, while Michael Cera shines as the overenthusiastic, geeky Robin. Rosario Dawson gives us a strong Barbara Gordon, and Ralph Fiennes a worthy Alfred, Batman’s butler.

Apart from the family theme, the plot revolves around the Joker letting all supervillains free from the Phantom Zone (a prison inside another dimension, borrowed from the Superman world). Because the film makers could browse the complete Warner Bros. catalogue, the villains include King Kong, the Wicked Witch from the West, Sauron, Voldemort, the Gremlins, the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, Agent Smith from ‘The Matrix’, and the Dalek from Dr. Who. Like Batman none of these villains are treated with respect. For example, the Dalek are introduced as “British Robots! (ask your nerd friends)”.

Being a Lego movie, the character animation is pretty jumpy, while some of the special effects are done in Lego, too (flames, lava). But both the world building, the textures, the lighting and camera movements are top notch, and together with Lorne Balfe’s epic score contribute to the action part of the movie. The result is a deft combination of exciting adrenaline-rich action and plain silliness. In any case, the film moves at a reckless speed, pouring gags over the audience almost non-stop, while retaining the family theme at heart. Even if it’s not as good as ‘The Lego Movie’ was, this is a fun film all the way. In fact, I prefer ‘The Lego Batman’ over the all too dark and serious recent Batman movies any time.

Watch the trailer for the ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Lego Batman Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Ivan Ivanov-Vano & Yuri Norstein
Release date:
1971
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Veteran director Ivan Ivanov-Vano and young and up-and-coming talent Yuri Norstein co-direct the rather enigmatic ‘The Battle of Kerzhenets’.

Set to music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (excerpts from his opera ‘the Invisible City of Kitezh’), the film tells of a legendary epic battle of a Russian army against an invading army of Mongols, and of its aftermath. The film consists of three parts: in the first we watch the soldiers saying goodbye to their wives and children, the second depicts the battle itself, and the third part shows how life continues, with images of farmers sowing and harvesting and of children playing.

The short stops quite abruptly, and it’s quite unclear what the duo wanted to tell with their film. Nevertheless, the film is a marvel to watch. As the directors state themselves in the opening of the film, the visuals are based on Russian icons and frescos of the 14th to 16th century, and these give the short its unique style.

The cut-out animation is fair, and more emblematic than realistic, but the real treat lies in the way the two directors filmed their short. For a film about a battle, the filming is remarkably poetic: the images often flow into each other by the use of dissolves into black and back, and there’s a lot of soft focus on the images, creating a magical distance. In fact, the images are mesmerizing throughout the picture, and clearly look forward to Norstein’s individual poetic style.

Watch ‘The Battle of Kerzhenets’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Battle of Kerzhenets’ is available on the DVD ‘Masters of Russian Animation Volume 2’

Director: Andrei Khrjanovsky
Release date:
1970
Rating: ★★
Review:

‘Armoire’ is an enigmatic cut-out animation film about a man in an apartment who puts an enormous cupboard into his room. Once inside, he starts to put all his belongings into the cupboard, until he can live inside it. In the end it’s revealed that even his tiny room is inside another cupboard.

Several shots of depressing apartment blocks suggest that this is a critical satire on the living conditions inside the Soviet Union, but I’m not sure. ‘Armoire’ is as avant-garde as was possible in the Soviet-Union, especially Alfred Schnittke’s score is very modernistic. But because the film is just the illustration of one puzzling idea, and because the one protagonist is as phlegmatic as Buster Keaton, the film fails to make a lasting impression.

Watch ‘Armoire’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Armoire’ is available on the DVD ‘Masters of Russian Animation Volume 2’

Director: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release date:
1969
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Seasons’ is a very poetic stop-motion film set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The film tells about two lovers through the seasons, although we see mostly images of autumn (the two riding together through a forest) and winter (a lengthy sleigh ride), with summer being reduced to a reminiscence of happier times, and spring hardly identifiable, at all.

The film is directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, but co-directed by Yuri Norstein, and already contains several elements of the later director’s mature style: the stop-motion is close to cut-out animation, there are plenty multi-plane effects, and the filming of the images has a soft, poetic edge to it. The designs are extraordinary beautiful, especially that of the crystalline forest, but as practically nothing happens during the entire film, the result is as enchanting as it is boring.

Watch ‘Seasons’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Seasons’ is available on the DVD ‘Masters of Russian Animation Volume 2’

Director: Lev Atamanov
Release date:
1969
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

In ‘Ballerina on the Boat’ a ballerina boards a ship. When she practices her moves, several sailors try to copy her, but only succeed in falling overboard. In the end they all get so angry, the gentle ballerina retreats into her cabin. But that night she rescues the ship from a terrible storm.

‘Ballerina on the Boat’ is a very charming film using stark cartoon modern designs and watercolor backgrounds reminiscent of Raoul Dufy. Even the storm consists of beautifully colored paint strokes. The film thus has a strong 1950s feel, enhanced by the peppered modern music by star composer Alfred Schnittke.

The film uses no dialogue and has a very poetic feel, as the ballerina defies gravity more than once. The ballerina herself is animated beautifully and very convincingly, and indeed, two people are credited for choreography. If the film has one drawback, it’s its length. For, after all, not too much is happening throughout the 17 minute long short.

Watch part 1 of ‘Ballerina on the Boat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ballerina on the Boat’ is available on the DVD ‘Masters of Russian Animation Volume 2’

Director: Witold Giersz
Release date:
1970
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘The Wonderful March’ is a traditional animation film, which retells the story ‘The Marvelous March of Jean François’ (1965) by John Raymond.

Jean François is a drummer boy in Napoleon’s army, who’s told to march ever onward. Following this direction rather obsessively, Jean François travels the world, using his drum e.g. as a boat and as a basket for a balloon, only to return to Napoleon in the end, right in the battle of Waterloo.

The film’s conclusion is a bit puzzling and rather disappointing. Nevertheless, ‘The Wonderful March’ can boast very pleasant images, full of painted animation, and charming music by Polish composer Kazimierz Serocki.

Watch ‘The Wonderful March’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wonderful March’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Anthology of Polish Children’s Animation’

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