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Directors: Max Lang & Jan Lachauer
Release Date:
December 25, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

One of the most interesting series to emerge in the 21st century were the BBC half hour specials based on children’s books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. This series was produced by Magic Light Pictures and mostly animated by Studio Soi in Germany.

Starting with the extraordinarily succesful ‘The Gruffalo’ (2009) these films prove not only to be very faithful to the source material, but to bring an unsurpassed plasticity to the computer animation, giving the characters the solidity of stop-motion. This is partly done by the animation itself, which practically never goes beyond what’s possible with stop motion puppets (for example there’s practically no squashing and stretching), and partly by giving them a clay-like texture.

But the makers’ secret ingredient is their use of real sets, thus placing the computer-created characters in fitting stop-motion worlds. This is so well-done you keep on wondering whether what you see is stop-motion or computer animated. This unique blend gives the film their specific and utterly charming character.

‘Room on the Broom’, the third entry in the series, is an excellent example. The story tells about a friendly witch who flies on a broom with her cat, but at times she drops something on the ground. This is then found by an animal who asks for a place on the broom. The repetition and rhyme no doubt work excellently for small children, but elder viewers will delight in the cat’s wordless reactions to his mistress’s enthusiastic invitations. His body language and facial expressions form the pinnacle of pantomime animation, but there are touches of wordless comedy on all the characters.In the end a ‘Town Musicians of Bremen’-like story twitch is introduced.

Even if ‘Room on the Broom’ isn’t the undisputed classic ‘The Gruffalo’ certainly is, it’s still a delightful film, able to enchant both the young and old alike.

Watch the trailer for ‘Room on the Broom’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Room on the Broom’ is avalaible on DVD

Director: Brian Larsen
Release Date:
November 13, 2012
Rating:
 ★★
Review:

In ‘The Legend of Mor’du’ the witch from ‘Brave‘ tells the viewer the background story of the feature film, and the origin of the bear Mor’du.

The witch is animated in 3D, just like the feature film, but her story is animated in 2D, featuring angular designs, strong color schemes, and very little animation. In fact, the story itself is little more than an animatic. Unfortunately, the story is of little interest, and the attempts of humor only disturb the narrative, instead of enhancing it. ‘Brave’ wasn’t a very strong film to begin with, and ‘The Legend of Mor’du’ only succeeds in proving that many of the feature’s story problems already start at its foundation.

Watch an excerpt from ‘The Legend of Mor’du’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Legend of Mor’du’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Brave’

Director: Rich Moore
Release Date:
October 29, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★★
Review:

2012 was the year in which Disney computer animation surpassed Pixar computer animation. Sure, Disney’s ‘Tangled’ from 2010 already was a good film, but Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 3’ from the same year happened to be outrageously good. Pixar’s 2012 film ‘Brave’ on the other hand was a disappointment, while Disney delivered the excellent ‘Wreck-It Ralph’. It seemed executive producer John Lasseter had transferred the magic from his former studio to Disney’s counterpart.

As it turns out ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a pretty un-Disney-like movie: it’s not a fairytale, it’s not a musical, there’s no talk of family values, and although there’s a sense of nostalgia, it’s one to the fairly recent dawn of computer games of the early 1980s. Because ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a delightful ode to the classic Arcade computer game, in the same way ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) an ode was to classic cartoons. Thus, Roger-Rabbit-style, there are many cameos from classic video games, like Pac-Man, Super Mario (the dragon Bowser), Frogger, Streetfighter, as well as Sonic the Hedgehog and his nemesis Doctor Eggman. I’ve never played many games myself, so have to admit I missed many of the cameos, and was actually surprised to learn that ‘Tapper’ had been a real game back in 1983.

None of these cameos contribute to the story, however, except for Q*Bert (1982), who directs Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun to Wreck-It Ralph’s whereabouts. For the main story the studio designed three totally believable new games: ‘Fix-it Felix jr.’, which is clearly modelled on Nintendo’s ‘Donkey Kong’ (1981), ‘Hero’s Duty’, a first-person shooter game reminiscent of ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty’, and ‘Sugar Rush’, a candy-themed racing game starring little girls. Especially the latter game is excellently designed, with marvelous world building and great characters and scenery based on sugars and sweets.

These arcade games, and others, are connected to each other by the electricity cables, which come together in a central power strip, which is shown as some sort of train terminal for the game characters. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ further borrows the concept of ‘Toy Story’ that the characters are alive and behaving independently when no humans are around. Thus, when the arcade closes, the game characters’ workday is over and they go and visit each other.

Star of the film is Wreck-It Ralph, the bad guy of the game ‘Fix-it Felix jr.’. He opens and closes the film with his voice over (which appears to be his monologue for ‘Bad-anon’, an ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’-like support group for bad guys in computer games. Ralph is fed-up being a bad guy, and when his fellow game-mates celebrate their game’s 30th anniversary without him, he sets out to become a hero, too, and win a medal, thus seriously jeopardizing his own and other games. He accidentally ends up in the game ‘Sugar Rush’ where he meets the bratty little girl, “glitch” and fellow outcast Vanellope von Schweetz. Despite Ralph’s initial dislike for this kid, the two must team up to get what they want, thus adding a surprising buddy element to the film.

‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a remarkably well-told film: the pacing is excellent, the story unpredictable, the characters must fight no less than two enemies, cleverly intertwining several story elements. Even the obligate break-up scene, which invades so many American feature animation films from this era, actually works for once, because the two don’t break up because Ralph is behaving selfishly, but because he actually tries to protect Vanellope. Indeed, when he does what he does this leads to a particularly heartbreaking scene, which forms the emotional highlight of the movie.

Moreover, the comedy comes directly from the characters themselves, and doesn’t rely on cultural references or fart jokes. And what great characters! Ralph (aptly voiced by John C. Reilly) is a pretty straight guy, lovable as an outcast in search for recognition and acceptation, Vanellope von Schweetz (excellently voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman) is delightfully bratty, annoying and adorable. Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) only talks in heavy-handed, overblown sentences like “Doomsday and Armageddon just had a baby and it… is… ugly!”, in which she keeps true to the genre of her game. But my favorite character is Fix-it Felix jr. (Jack McBrayer), a character so goody-goody his speech is of the prissiest character. His interaction with the super-tough Calhoun is a delight to watch. The only letdown is King Candy (Alan Tudyk), whose voice and mannerisms are too obviously based on Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter in Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951). Why the character couldn’t get a voice or mannerisms of his own is a mystery to me.

The animation, too, is also excellent. The animators have managed to mix character animation with the typical jumpy animation of the earliest games, especially in animating the other characters within Ralph’s game, but at times also Ralph and Felix are animated this way. The story is so captivating, and the quality of the animation, design, background art and cinematography is so high, one all forgets about these technical aspects, allowing one to get totally submerged into the film. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ feels effortless, which is the highest degree an animated feature can obtain. Especially when considering this is a film with a surprisingly complex plot, set in several, mostly totally original worlds. The film is not the best animated feature of 2012, that distinction must go to Don Hertzfeld’s ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’, and it must allow Laika’s ‘ParaNorman‘ getting second place, but of all computer animated features premiered that year, it’s the absolute winner.

Watch the trailer for ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ yourself and tell me what you think:

’Wreck-It Ralph’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Michel Ocelot
Release Date:
October 3, 2012
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

‘Kirikou et les hommes et les femmes’ is the third movie about Kirikou, the brave little infant who lives in some West-African village and who battles the evil witch Karaba.

Like the second movie, ‘Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages’ (2005), but unlike the first movie, the feature consists of five stories, all lasting ca. a quarter of an hour. These stories clearly assume that one is already familiar with the main story, as told in the masterful ‘Kirikou et la Sorcière’ from 1998. They are told by Kirikou’s grandfather, and all take place in Kirikou’s little village or its direct surroundings.

The first story is mainly comical and tells about Kirikou’s mother taking in the stout woman, who’s rather ungrateful, and snores, too. In the second story the old man of the village has disappeared and Kirikou tricks Karaba’s all-seeing fetish on the roof to look for him. The third and fourth story make unwelcome and rather unconvincing leaves from the fairy tale setting of Kirikou’s first film, and suddenly place Kirikou’s village in the real world.

The third story is an all too obvious tale about racism and acceptance, while the fourth is a homage to the art of storytelling. The main problem with this episode is that storytelling itself is rather unfit for cinema, and thus this episode only makes the viewer long for an encounter with a real griot telling you the story of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire. The fifth and last story is one about the power of music, in which Kirikou and his friends learn to play some instruments. In this episode Kirikou’s mother turns out to be an excellent flute player meeting gender inequality, as she’s not allowed to play because she is a woman.

All these stories end with the village rejoicing and dancing to the same melody, celebrating Kirikou’s cleverness. Unfortunately, none of these stories is very engaging and certainly not one of these stories comes near the narrative power of ‘Kirikou et la Sorcière’. Much more, by placing Kirikou’s village into the real world, the setting loses a lot of its magic, and in fact it makes Karaba’s presence suddenly absurd. In the end, the film feels superfluous and unnecessary, even unwelcome, spoiling the enchantment of the first film.

What certainly doesn’t help is the switch from traditional animation to 3D computer animation. The film uses a quite unique way of placing 2D designs on 3D characters (a very similar method was developed independently for ‘Couleur de peau: miel’). And, indeed, the makers have succeeded in keeping the ligne claire of the original designs, but nevertheless the 3D animation feels rather poor and remarkably stiff, never coming near the charm of the original hand drawn animation.

Much better than either the animation or the stories themselves are Ocelot’s hand-painted backgrounds, which retain the strange atmosphere of ‘Kirikou et la Sorcière’. Thibault Agyeman’s score is also a delight and makes clever use of traditional African instruments like the kora and balafon.

‘Kirikou et les hommes et les femmes’ is not a bad film, the stories themselves are told well enough. But let’s face it: this is a sequel that adds nothing to the first film and doesn’t do it any service by its unnecessary expansion and unwelcome added realism.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kirikou et les hommes et les femmes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kirikou et les hommes et les femmes’ is available on DVD with English subtitles

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Release Date:
September 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

2012 was the year of animated horror. No less than three American animated feature films of that year were horror themed: Laika’s ‘Paranorman’, Disney’s ‘Frankenweenie’ and Sony’s ‘Hotel Transylvania’. Of these three ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is the least scary (it isn’t scary at all), the least original and the least impressive.

‘Hotel Transylvania’ marked the feature direction debut of Genndy Tartakovsky, the Russian-American genius behind Cartoon Network hits Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Both series were impressive efforts of style and animation, being conceived in a strong idiosyncratic and very attractive style, making full use of limited animation in the best UPA sense, instead of the dull cheapstake sense of Saturday morning television television of the 1970s and 1980s.

In that respect, ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is quite a letdown. Neither the design nor the 3D computer animation shows anything betraying Tartakovsky’s style, and are, in fact, pretty generic. True, the animation style is very cartoony, with wild takes and jerky movements, and this undoubtedly at least partly betrays his influence, but Sony Pictures Animation already had adopted this style in ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009). The most interesting piece of cartoony animation is the absurdly smooth way Count Dracula strides, which looks like a homage to Dora Standpipe’s moves in ‘The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall’ (1942), but may also have been inspired by the Martian woman in ‘Mars Attacks!’ (1996) .

‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009) also was a more stylized film than ‘Hotel Transylvania’, which struggles with the homogeneity of its design. Some characters retain some plastic cartoony appearance (Count Dracula, the Monster of Frankenstein), while others are over-textured, adding unnecessary realism to their appearance (Wayne the Werewolf, Murray the mummy).

There’s even an unsettling difference between the two love interests who form the heart of the film: the rather goofy youngster Johnny is designed and animated broadly, and hard to take seriously. During the first half of the film he comes across as incredibly stupid and empty, and his transition into a genuine love interest isn’t entirely convincing. Dracula’s daughter Mavis, on the other hand, shows some real depth, and she is the only character animated straight and sincerely between a multitude of cartoony monsters. In fact, Mavis is the only character one cares for, and it’s a shame we see so little of her.

This is because ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is not her story, but that of her father, count Dracula, and this tale of a single, overprotective father owes a little too much to ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003). Somehow this theme was in the air, because the next year Illumination would follow suit with ‘Despicable Me 2’. Count Dracula’s progress unfortunately is pretty formulaic, as are the themes of friendly monsters (done better by Dreamworks in ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ from 2009) and ‘the ‘enemy is not as bad as he seems’ (done more successfully in ‘Paranorman’). And by 2012 the happy musical finale, so fresh as it had been in ‘Shrek’ (2001) already was an all too tried way to end things. Also, the premise of the hotel isn’t entirely convincing. Count Dracula may be convinced the outer world is a threat, but his guest flock from all over the globe – they surely should know better?

Don’t get me wrong. ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is not a bad movie. It’s even quite enjoyable. On the up side the voice cast is quite good. Adam Sandler actually does a good job as Count Dracula, Selena Gomez is excellent as Mavis, and Kevin James, Steve Buscemi and Cee-Lo Green fit their characters Frankenstein, Wayne and Murray very well. There are some fine gags, the film moves at a lively pace, and the story at least moves forward without any sidetracks.

But all the tropes, the almost obligatory fart joke, all the formulaic plot twists, the uninspired designs and stock characters and the generic music make that the film doesn’t stand out from the crowd. This film is just mediocre. Surely, Genndy Tartakovsky should be able to do better. At least it didn’t help that he was only the sixth (!) director involved in this film. At least we can enjoy some of his appealing 2D artwork during the titles, but that’s of course cold comfort after the real thing. Nevertheless, ‘Hotel Transylvania’ would sprout two sequels, with a third coming this way this year.

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

‘Hotel Transylvania’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Pascale Hecquet
Release Date:
June 9, 2012
Rating:
 ★★
Review:

‘Duo de Volailles, Sauce Chasseur’ is a short comedy film in which a white and a black chicken are threatened by a fox in their own home.

The film is is black and white itself and tries to play with the idea that the white chicken is invisible in light and the black chicken invisible in the dark. Thus the film features a lot of on and off switching of lights.

Unfortunately, the film never succeeds in getting funny. Hecquet’s facial designs on the fox are more trite than funny, and his timing is sloppy. It certainly doesn’t help that at one point the two chickens start dancing a tango. How this deludes the fox is beyond me, because both thus remain visible to the fox throughout. Hecquet’s use of split screen is a rather petty try to make the action more exciting than it really is. The end result is a disappointingly tiresome film that never lives up to its clever premise.

Watch ‘Duo de Volailles, Sauce Chasseur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Duo de Volailles, Sauce Chasseur’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Lena von Döhren
Release Date:
February 14, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Der kleine Vogel und das Blatt’ is a charming little film starring a small bird caring for a single leaf.

When the leaf falls off, the little bird tries to retrieve it, while being chased by a hungry fox. The film uses no dialogue, but simple, attractive designs, and excellent timing. Animated in 2D in the computer, the film makes great use of its winter setting.

Watch ‘Der kleine Vogel und das Blatt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Der kleine Vogel und das Blatt’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Directors: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Release Date:
June 10, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

It’s hard to call ‘Brave’ the first Pixar letdown, that questionable honor goes to ‘Cars 2’ from the previous year, but the film certainly is a disappointment, not delivering upon its potential.

The film had a rather troubled production, with writer/director Brenda Chapman being replaced halfway by Mark Andrews, and somehow it shows. ‘Brave’ is arguably the first Pixar film that comes across as a half-baked product, with story ideas not worked out to the max.

The film’s premise is good: ‘Brave’ is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a princess even, surprisingly placing the film in a long Disney tradition. But Merida is not your average princess. The Scottish red-haired girl is a feisty character, a talented archer, a lover of action and adventure, and bound to step in her father’s footsteps, who’s a great warrior himself. Unfortunately, her mother stifles her into a more traditional role of womanhood, constantly telling her what a princess ought and not ought to do. Even worse, her mother prepares Merida for marriage, with several suitors coming over to compete for her. Unfortunately, not one of them is suiting marriage material (for example, one talks unintelligible, without any obvious reason), and Merida isn’t interested in this prospect, anyway, so she plans to compete herself, as she’s by far the best archer of the lot, repeating the arrow-splitting act of ‘Robin Hood’ (1973).

So far so good, but then the tale suddenly abandons the archery subplot completely. Instead, it dwindles away into a tale of magic, in which Merida deliberately poisons her mother, changing the poor woman into a bear. Unfortunately, at this point the story of independence is abandoned completely, as Merida now must bond with her bear-mother and to protect her against the men, who gladly would kill the beast. Sure, Merida’s mother now learns what Merida has learned outside the castle, but Merida’s insight in her mother’s ways is less worked out, and there’s a very unconvincing scene in which she steps in her mother’s footsteps, addressing the men, guided by her mother’s gestures. Anyhow, as soon Merida’s mother has turned into a bear, her problems are obviously bigger than Merida’s own, and thus the attention naturally shifts from the curly teenager to the poor woman, which contributes to a lack of focus, which permeates the film anyhow. I believe the very idea of turning Merida’s mother into a bear is a fundamental problematical one, a mistake central to the film’s story problems, especially when compared to the similar ‘Brother Bear’ (2003) and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000) in which the main protagonist himself turns into an animal.

At any rate, after the archery scene the story begins to falter, leaving an awful lot of plot holes open. For example, there’s an ancient legend on four clans, but this idea is worked out badly, and hardly connected to the main story. The function of the killing of the giant bear Mor’du is puzzling – wouldn’t it have been better to show that only united the clans could be able to defeat the bear?

‘Brave’ also wastes an opportunity to become a real feminist film. First, in spite of it all, Merida still is a princess, and thus far from an ordinary woman – and her plight is slight when compared to that of her (invisible) less high-born sisterhood. If one compares her burden to that of Robyn in Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) the difference becomes clear. Robyn is depicted working all day, shut off from the real world, while Merida at least can practice archery and such. Second, the role pressure solely comes from her mother, not society – and it’s even implied her father couldn’t care less whether Merida behaves like a princess or not. I think it would have served the film better if Merida’s plight were compared to that of a brother, but the film makers gave the princess a triplet as siblings, which are too young for comparison, and whose only function in the story is as comic relief. At one point they too turn into bears, but nobody seems to care…

No, it’s not the story, nor a feminist message that defines ‘Brave’, it’s texture. The Pixar studio made tremendous progress in depicting cloth and hair in this film, advancing computer animation once again. Merida’s extremely curly hair stands out as particularly well done, but so do the tartans of the tribes, which for the first time look like real fabric. Strangely, the building and rendering of the nature settings has aged less well – the light often is too sharp, leading to overexposed settings, especially on the sunlit grass and leaves. Moreover, the trees are too obviously generated, and look pretty fake. Luckily, the story is entertaining enough that this is soon forgotten.

Another design choice that I like less is the magnification of human sexual dimorphism: Merida’s father is almost three times the size of her slender mother or herself. Unfortunately, this depiction of men and women only diminishes the possible message of equality. Even worse, all the men are depicted as dim-witted and fight-ready, leaving the queen as seemingly the only sane person in this world.

‘Brave’ may be a disappointment, the film still is very well animated. The voice acting is superb, too, starring several Scottish and English actors, so no fake accent can be heard. The soundtrack is fair, with its quasi-Celtic themes, and the cinematography is excellent, but all this cannot rescue a rambling story, leaving ‘Brave’ a film as excellent as it is unsatisfying. A studio like Pixar certainly could and should have done a better job.

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

‘Brave’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon & Tom McGrath
Release Date:
June 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

I’ve never really cared for the Madagascar series. I was pretty unimpressed by the characters, the rather forced angular character designs and the odd unconvincing story lines. In that respect, ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ arguably is the best of the three films.

Not only does it round up nicely the story lines of the first two films, but it does also so in a pleasantly unpredictable way, with its free-flowing story making surprising turns here and there. Thus, I’ll try to reveal as little as possible about the film’s story below. Apart from that, there’s plenty of action, with the first chase scene already appearing at the 13th minute.

It surely does help that the film introduces some new stars besides the regular heroes Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe, and Gloria the hippopotamus. The new characters somehow are far more interesting than the four main characters, let alone the lemurs, chimps, and penguins, who never transcend comic relief. The Italian sea lion Stefano (superbly voiced by Martin Short) is a delight, combining naive optimism with a scent of sadness and insecurity. Even better still is the Russian tiger Vitaly. He gets a surprisingly tragic background story, which makes him far more interesting than the usual antagonist. In fact, Vitaly and Stefano completely outplay the four principal characters, whose character traits aren’t deepened, at all. Their best moment comes – spoiler! – at the end of the film – when they discover how much they’ve outgrown their former home.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the film’s main villain, Captain Chantel DuBois, leader of French animal control. She’s depicted as a supernatural, unhuman woman, willing to go far outside her country and duty to get her prey. As she is a French officer this is pushing the edges of believability way too far. Moreover, her antics hinder the more interesting plot parts which focus on the characters’ emotions. I dare to say that Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ could have been a really good film instead of an average one if the film makers would have focused on the emotional story more, and not on the mostly nonsensical antics of chimps, penguins and lemurs. Especially because the character animation at those more emotional moments is in fact very good.

The pushing of believability is a problem of ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ anyway. The film completely throws the laws of physics out of the window, with characters jumping, flying, riding, and falling in complete disregard of plausibility (this is a waxing problem in American animation film, anyhow – for example, it’s also my main problem with the complete Kung Fu Panda franchise and with e.g. ‘Missing Link’ from 2019).

But worse, the film also pushes the boundaries of plausibility story-wise. We must accept that the four animals and their three lemur friends traveled Africa and the Mediterranean unhindered and that their problems only start in Europe. As said, we must accept that DuBois acts way out of her administration. We must accept that Marty and co. can acquire circus skills in no time solely because they follow their passion. Even worse, we are to believe that they can set up a complete circus show in seemingly one day (there’s not even a montage scene to suggest passing of more time). We must accept that one motivational speech by Alex can clear a lifetime of trauma in Vitaly, and we have to accept that Vitaly, after years and years without training can perform his prize act again at the highest level, without any rehearsal.

These story elements are all preposterous, and they are an abomination and an insult to all real artists. I wonder what got into the film makers to install messages like these into the minds of their audience. By all means, these elements push the all too American “you can do everything you want if you devote yourself to it” message way beyond its limits, and turn it into a downright lie (which, sadly enough, Dreamworks repeated without blinking in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3‘ from 2016).

The film also features an obligate break-up scene, one of the more irritating tropes in American computer-animated cinema, troubling a wide range of films from different studios, like ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ (2016) and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ (2016).

Story problems are not the only problems troubling ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’. The design, too, is unconvincing. The character designs are a mixed bag. For example, the bear Sonya occupies a completely different design space than the angular Alex. The rendering is often pretty ugly, with a high level of unreality. Again, the angular character designs of the characters are at odds with their decors, a problem that persists throughout the Madagascar series. Highlight, design-wise, is the first performance by Alex’s new Cirque du Soleil-inspired circus. This is a series of very colorful images, hardly rooted in reality, and looking more like coming from a dream. I wouldn’t be surprised if these images are a conscious attempt to emulate the same trippy feeling as the pink elephant scene, the most wonderful piece of that most famous animated circus film, ‘Dumbo’ (1941). The end titles, too, seem to be a homage to the classic Disney movie.

It may be clear that Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ never reaches the height of that classic film – it’s simply too flawed and too nonsensical for that. But the film certainly is entertaining, and a surprisingly pleasant finale to the Madagascar series.

Watch the trailer for ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Laurent Boileau & Jung
Release Date:
June 4, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

One of the striking developments of the 21st century was the advent of the animated documentary. Of course, the genre is much, much older, arguably going back to Winsor McCay’s ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania“’ (1918), but the animated documentary film remained a scarcity throughout the 20th century, and never went beyond the length of shorts.

All that changed with the highly influential Israeli film ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008), arguably the very first feature length animated documentary. Subsequent films of this type often told personal stories, if not only told with, then at least augmented with animation, e.g. ‘Tatsumi’ (2011), ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015, with added animation by Hisko Hulsing) or ‘Tower’ (2016).

‘Couleur de peau: miel’ is such a personal story. The film is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Belgian author Jung, who is of Korean descent, and who was adopted at a young age. His story is told with an all too prominent voice over, and in live action, depicting the present Jung, now 44 years old, visiting Korea, with the use of 8mm films shot by his father in the 1970s, and with computer animation, depicting several of Jung’s childhood memories.

The film succeeds in showing the troubled existence of adopted children, and their struggling with their identity. Jung, for example, doesn’t feel entirely part of the family, and indeed, his parents sometimes snap that they see him differently from their own natural children. Worse, he feels uprooted, feeling neither completely Belgian nor Korean, and feeling alienated from both. This leads to a troubled youth, with Jung being far from a good boy. This unfortunately makes it rather more difficult to identify with him, for he often acts as a real jerk, being full of mischief, for example falsifying his school report.

The French title literally translates as ‘Skin Color: Honey’, and the animated sequences certainly use yellows, together with browns and grays as their principal coloring. Jung also has some dire memories of his early Korean days, which are rendered in more depressing grays than the Belgian sequences. These colors dominate the beautiful, two-dimensional background art.

For the animation the film makers have resorted to 3D computer animation, because it was cheaper. Unfortunately, it also looks cheaper, hampering an otherwise fine film. The characters are a strange hybrid of drawn images projected on three-dimensional models, and never become convincing characters. Instead, they look like wandering marionettes, uncannily devoid of life. In fact, the character animation is so ugly to look at that the emotions of Jung’s memories never really come off. I certainly wonder what a better film ‘Couleur de peau: miel’ could have been, if the film makers had made in traditional 2D animation… Now, we’re stuck with a film that certainly is interesting, but falls short in moving its audience.

Watch the trailer for ‘Couleur de peau: miel (Approved for Adoption)’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Couleur de peau: miel'(Approved for Adoption) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Gert Driessen
Release Date:
October 3, 2012
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

In this short animation film a man who has recently lost his wife, draws her with chalk on the wall. The chalk wife takes him into her chalk world full of memories.

‘Crayon d’amour’ is a gentle film, but hampered by rather ugly computer animation. The simple, cartoony character design doesn’t really match the 3D animation, nor the far more realistic settings. In fact, the traditional animation of the chalk scenes, not by director Gert Driessen himself, but by Florian de Hoes, Cederic Neven and Olivier vanden Busche, is far more impressive. One certainly wonders why not the whole film was made that way. Nevertheless, the 3D scenes have an attractive color design, consisting mostly of cardboard browns.

Watch ‘Crayon d’amour’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Crayon d’amour’ is available on the DVD ‘Framed – De beste Vlaamse korte animatiefilms 2010-2015’

Director: Till Nowak
Release Date:
January 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ is a mockumentary in which a professor (Leslie Barnaby) of “the institute for centrifugal research, Florida” tells us about his research.

It’s best to let the film surprise you, so I’m not going to tell you too much, but the film’s main attraction is that Nowak has tried to hide the fact that any animation has been involved in the footage. The film makes clever use of live action shots of rides on fairs, ingeniously manipulated with computer animation, sometimes with quite ridiculous results. But as all experiments shown are based on real rides, the images remain stunningly convincing, even an extended Ferris wheel that seems to fill the complete sky.

The result is a fun short, with understated humor, which is over before you know it.

Watch ‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 7

Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
Release Date: January 23, 2016
Rating: ★★★ ½
Review:

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ had suggested a background story for Po, an extermination of all Pandas by the evil peacock Lord Shen. So, it would have been logical to expand this story line in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’.

And indeed, this is the movie in which Po finally meets more pandas, not to say even his very own family. And yet, virtually nothing is done with the plot elements of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’. Po’s natural father pops up in Po’s village, virtually out of nothing – there’s no quest whatsoever.

Instead, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ introduces a completely new background story, involving the spirit realm, and introducing Po’s most powerful opponent thus far, master Oogway’s former friend, the bull Kai. Kai returns from the spirit world to the mortal world, creating havoc and changing all kung fu masters into his own mindless army of jade. And being immortal he’s a tough one to take. It’s up to Po to fight off this formidable foe.

Despite this splendid super villain, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is quite a disappointing sequel, stretching the all too American dream-like messages of ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘if you want to, you can achieve everything’ way beyond believability. Po’s transition of his lazy, food-loving parent village into a gang of fearless fighters, able to battle the greatest kung fu masters of China, in only a matter of days, is stretching the imagination, to say the least. Traditional wuxia cinema emphasizes that true mastery only comes with hard and long training, but in the American Kung Fu Panda universe, you get it for free if you only believe in yourself. If only. One wonders what entered the makers’ minds to send off a phony message like that.

Unfortunately, there are more story problems. There’s an all too obligate break up scene, when Po’s father appears to have lied to Po. Moreover, for a village that is supposed to be secretly hidden, the Panda settlement is found surprisingly easily by both Tigress and Kai. And the story line of the pandas having forgotten how to use Qi, only to remaster that in an instant, is, again, quite unconvincing. True, Po never was an entirely convincing character, but he certainly isn’t in this film.

Meanwhile, Po’s former co-stars are reduced to minor players, uttering only a few lines, if any, while none of the new players, save Kai, show the same charm. Only Po’s duck father, Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) thrives as the jealous father.

No, the main attraction of ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is not its story, or its characters, but its design. The film makes great use of wuxia imaging, including gravity defying runs and jumps. Even better, the feature at times becomes surprisingly graphical: for example, the film occasionally uses the split screen to a great effect, Oogway’s story is rendered in gorgeous 2D, and the learning sequence employs a bold and very beautiful color scheme.

In addition, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is noteworthy for introducing the utterly Chinese concept of Qi to Western audiences. Qi roughly translates as ‘life energy’ and forms the central theme of the film, making ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ an interesting blend of Western (the individualistic tropes stated above) and Eastern concepts. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feeling that there could have been more to ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, and that it in fact is more run-of-the-mill than the film could have been.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Peter Sohn
Release Date: November 10, 2015
Rating: ★★
Review:

During the 2010s Pixar lost quite some of its brilliance. Not only saw the decade a multitude of sequels (seven out of eleven), two of the remaining stand-alone films, ‘Brave’ and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ were in fact strikingly disappointing. Particularly ‘The Good Dinosaur’ feels rather lackluster for a Pixar film. The general public apparently thought so, too, causing ‘The Good Dinosaur’ to become Pixar’s first financial disappointment.

For once, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ feels as if it had hit the theaters before its story problems were entirely solved. The film’s story had a troubled history, with two of its original writers (Bob Peterson and John Walker) being removed from the project halfway, and a release date being postponed two years. And yet, the final product still feels half-baked, and badly thought through.

The film’s premise is an alternate history in which the asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago only passed by, sparing the dinosaurs, and allowing them to evolve to the present day.

If you realize that this allows for a staggering 66 million years of extra evolution, surprisingly little is done with the concept. First, we hardly see any dinosaurs, at all. Only four species are depicted: Arlo’s family of Sauropods, a single Styracosaurus, a few hideously ugly Dromaeosaurids (who look like plucked chickens which makes them the most revolting looking Dromaeosaurids ever put to the screen) and three Tyrannosauruses. We can add some grisly Pterosaurs to the mix (another example of appalling design), but that’s it.

As you may have noticed, the species depicted are all recognizable as familiar species, as if nothing would have happened in 66 million years! Thus, the whole initial concept has been largely thrown away at the beginning. Instead, we are invited to believe Sauropods have invented agriculture, and Tyrannosaurids (who are very well-designed, but certainly not according to the latest scientific evidence of the time) have invented cattle breeding. Even worse, the film makers have allowed mammals to evolve beyond, as well, as if they wouldn’t have had competition from the well-established dinosaurs, depicting buffalo and, sadly, humans. How humans could ever have evolved in the shadow of dinosaurs baffles me, but here they are, and in the Americas, too. And yet, the story seems to take place during the Pleistocene, not extending the time period to the present, but why this may be so, will never be known. It unfortunately only adds to the age-old trope of co-existence of dinosaurs and early man, making ‘The Good Dinosaur’ strangely akin to the nonsense of e.g. The Flintstones.

The film focuses on Arlo, a small, weak and cowardly Sauropod, who loses his father and his home, but befriends a little human whom he calls Spot, and who overcomes his fears on his journey back home.

This story is already pretty uninteresting, but the execution is remarkably boring, and despite a modest length of 93 minutes, the film plods through its story following familiar tropes, and delivering no surprises. As too often in Disney movies there’s a strong focus on ‘family’ that feels tired and cliché. Moreover, Arlo’s development, given the traumatic loss of his father, feels obligate and is rather unconvincing, to say the least. Unlike Simba in ‘The Lion King’ (1994) there’s no sense of guilt or self-punishment, and Arlo’s dream encounter with his father is nothing like that of Simba in the former movie.

It doesn’t really help that for most of the time Arlo is a rather unpleasant character. His weakness and cowardice is not appealing, but annoying, and he behaves selfishly most of the time. To me it’s no less than a marvel that Arlo doesn’t die in the wild, so unbelievably unfit is our ‘hero’ for survival. I certainly believe the voice choice for Raymond Ochoa is part of the problem, for Arlo’s voice got on my nerves over time.

The other animals don’t help either. True, Spot is a well-established character, and surely forms the heart of the film, but Arlo’s family is quite bland, and almost all other creatures Arlo encounters seem rather lunatic, not to say insane. The only exceptions are the three Tyrannosaurs, and they form the highlight of the film. The animation of their walk, which looks like cowboys riding horses, belongs to the most original and best animation of movement ever put to the screen. Moreover, voice actor Sam Elliott is cast perfectly as the leader of the three. I don’t know why but somehow this Tyrannosaurus design is the perfect depiction of the mustached actor in Dinosaur form, as if Elliott had always been a Tyrannosaur deep inside, and the animators have brought his inner dinosaur to life.

Apart from story and personality issues, the film suffers from design flaws. The problems already start with the very first scene, which is a very, very unrealistic depiction of the asteroid belt. As said, the Dromaeosaurid and Pterosaur designs are atrocious, but also Arlo himself suffers. Compared to his co-stars he is way to cartoony, with oversized limbs, eyes and teeth, and essentially unappealing.

Spot is much, much better, but for some unknown reason Spot is shown as only partly bipedal and he’s given some dog-like behavior, while this is discarded in the depiction of other humans. One can argue that the orphan Spot is a feral child, like Mowgli, but as it’s never explained, I doubt whether this concept was even used in the background story.

No, the film’s real highlights are its landscapes. The film excels in impressive depictions of North American nature. The rivers, forests, mountains and plains depicted all look absolutely gorgeous, and are a giant move forward since ‘Cars’ (2005), which itself had been a milestone of landscape building in computer animation. The depiction of wet rocks and needle covered forest floors is no less than stunning and are still unparalleled in their realism and beauty. Indeed, it’s clear the film makers were most proud of their background art, for it’s the landscapes that ornament the end titles, not the characters. To me this says enough.

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

‘The Good Dinosaur’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Fabrice Joubert & Brian Lynch
Release Date: December 8, 2015
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ is the third of three shorts accompanying the Minions feature on its DVD release. Unlike the other two, this short doesn’t star any Minion at all, but focuses instead on the criminal Nelson family the Minions encounter in their feature film.

The short starts with the Nelson just having robbed a museum and returning home. Unfortunately, they’ve left baby Binky’s pacifier at the museum, and the parents tell Binky he has to live with it. But that night, Binky returns to the museum to look for the pacifier, after all.

The best scenes of this comedy short stem from baby Binky’s Mission Impossible-like heist, all done with baby stuff, like diapers, talk powder, and a mobile. Unfortunately, ‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ is also the most talkative of the three, and Binky’s co-star is a remarkably unfunny night guard with a cowboy hat. Binky quickly gets rid of this night guard, and the film could very well without him.

Watch ‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Minions’

Directors: Kyle Balda & Julien Soret
Release Date: December 8, 2015
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Competition’, the second of three bonus shorts on the Minions DVDs, is probably the best of the three.

The short takes place in a secret subterranean nuclear lab full of Minions. Two of them suddenly get involved in a series of competitions, resulting in some nuclear blasts (which the two survive).

The film is pretty nonsensical, but fast, with the competition between the two Minions escalating quickly. The short also has the best visual punchline of the three.

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

‘Competition’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Minions’

Directors: Didier Ah-Koon & Régis Schuller
Release Date: December 8, 2015
Rating: ★
Review:

‘Cro Minion’ is the first of three bonus shorts available on the Minions DVD. From their own feature length film we had learned that Minions always have been around, thus ‘Cro Minion’ is set in prehistorical times.

Two minions have eaten the last bananas, so a prehistoric man has to go hunting a large bull he sees in the distance, while the minions have to watch his baby. The baby has a strong will of his own, however, giving the two minions a hard time.

The short is full of wordless slapstick that never becomes really funny, despite all the antics. Also featured is a totally out of place Pterosaur, whose inclusion makes the short a completely backward affair. Not only are the Pterosaur and early man 66 million years apart in time, the Pterosaur looks like a 1950s horror monster, instead of the real thing. The Illumination animators should update their prehistorical knowledge. ‘Cro Minion’ of course is an unpretentious comedy short, but still.

Watch ‘Cro Minion’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Cro Minion’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Minions’

Director: Josh Cooley
Release Date: November 3, 2015
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Riley’s First Date?’ is an unnecessary, but fun spin off short from ‘Inside Out‘. During this short a boy comes to visit Riley, an event freaking out her parents, until Riley’s father and the boy suddenly find something they have in common.

As in ‘Inside Out’ we take a look inside the four protagonist’s heads, this time focusing on dad’s inside. Nevertheless, Mom and dad are less round characters than they had been in ‘Inside Out’, being little more than cliches. The boy, too, is more a caricature than a real person, sitting lethargically and mindlessly in his chair most of the time. The only real person in this short is Riley herself, but she hardly takes part.

Let’s face it, ‘Riley’s First Date?’ doesn’t come near the sophistication of ‘Inside Out’, but it doesn’t aspire to, and can be safely regarded as ‘just a bit of fun’.

Watch ‘Riley’s First Date?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Riley’s First Date?’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Pixar Short Films Collection 3’

Director: Steve Martino
Release Date: November 1, 2015
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

‘The Peanuts Movie’ was a project initiated by Craig Schulz, son of Charles M. Schulz, creator of the famous comic strip, and his own son, Bryan Schulz. The two chose the Blue Skye studio for fulfilling their dream, as the studio had been faithful to Dr. Seuss before, in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ (2008). And indeed, this Blue Sky film is a much more satisfying product than the two later Dr. Seuss adaptations by Illumination.

Blue Skye, of course, is a 3D computer animation studio, but the studio has done a remarkable job in combining the 3D techniques with Schulz’s essentially flat drawings. This means that there are added textures and 3D settings in which the characters can move around and about.

But at no point the characters get distorted or become too realistic for their own good. Blue Sky doesn’t fall into the trap of Sony Animation’s ‘The Smurfs’ (2011), uglifying the original designs by trying to make them too realistic.

In fact, the studio does an amazing job in transferring Schulz’s drawings into a 3D world. It’s refreshing to see that the crew did no ill-conceived attempt to ‘update’ the characters and their setting. There are no new characters introduced, but also no computers or cellphones in sight, but old-fashioned rotary phones and typewriters.

And, true to the original comic, no adult can be seen, not even partly. Instead, we have the famous baseball mound, and even a scene featuring the stone wall present in so many comic strip panels. Even better, during the opening and in some thought scenes the film reverts back to Schulz’s original black and white 2D style, rendering the style of the original comic strip convincingly, indeed.

Moreover, the film is not only faithful to the original comic strip, but also to Bill Melendez’s animated interpretations of it (1965-2006). This means that all children are voiced by real children, all adults by a trombone sound (courtesy of Troy “Trombone” Shorty), and Snoopy’s and Woodstock’s incomprehensible jabberings by Bill Melendez himself (Melendez had died in 2008, so the vocalizations all come from archive material, but you’d never notice). The film clearly plays homage to Melendez’s vision, copying the dance moves of several characters from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965). Moreover, the film starts with two of Vince Guaraldi’s tunes for that famed first Peanuts television special: the iconic and intoxicating ‘Linus and Lucy’ and ‘Skating’.

All familiar Peanuts characters are introduced in the intro, even older ones like Shermy, Patty, Violet, Frieda and Pig Pen. But as every Peanut fan would hope, the film concentrates firmly on Charlie Brown, leaving all the other characters, except Lucy, rather sketchy. Even Linus hardly gets screen presence. As I’m a lifelong Peanuts fan, it’s hard for me to guess what impression the gang makes on newbies. For example, there’s Marcie, calling Peppermint Patty sir, and Lucy having a psychiatrist’s booth in the street. Wouldn’t this strike odd to newcomers? I’ve no idea, for as a fan, these familiar tropes are most welcome.

As said, the film concentrates on Charlie Brown. The film essentially is his story. We watch him playing baseball and flying kites, and failing at both, but the crew chose the most moving of all of Charlie Brown’s subplots: his love for the little red-haired girl. In the movie, she moves in as Charlie Brown’s neighbor, and becomes his new classmate. Unlike the strip, in which Charlie Brown’s dream girl is never seen, the little red-haired girl gets screen presence. But the crew cleverly keeps her mysterious, offering us just glimpses of her during most of the movie. Thus we see her mostly with Charlie Brown’s eyes as a desirable but unreachable creature.

Surprisingly, the film is neither hasty nor all too straightforward in unfolding its story. At one point Lucy gives Charlie Brown a book titles ’10 Ways to Become a Winner’, and for a while it seems this book will be guiding line the story will adhere to. Charlie Brown even manages to read the whole of ‘Leo’s Toy Store’ by Warren Piece (as Peppermint Patty recalls the famous Russian novel), all to no avail. But then another story arc starts, in which Charlie Brown mistakenly is seen as a school genius, which also ends prematurely. Likewise, most of the film takes place during winter, but near the end we suddenly skip to summer, and even to the last day of school. Overall, the film’s speed is relaxed and unhurried, focusing on Charlie Brown’s emotions, as he blunders through everyday life.

Yet, there’s enough of excitement, because Charlie Brown’s mishaps are alternated with scenes starring Snoopy, who has his own subplot as, could it be otherwise?, a World War I flying ace pilot combating the Red Baron, and rescuing a female fellow pilot called Fifi. I wasn’t familiar with Fifi, and though of her as the only new character in the movie, but even she has appeared before, in ‘Life Is a Circus, Charlie Brown’ (1980). As a lot of Snoopy’s imagined action takes place in the air, these scenes make welcome use of all possibilities 3D animation offers, resulting in breathtaking air battle scenes, which of course become ridiculous as Snoopy flies his own dog house, instead of a proper World War I plane. Even better are the scenes in which Snoopy’s fantasy is altered with scenes from the real world, featuring Snoopy sneaking, running and diving into scenes to the bewilderment of the children.

In all, ‘The Peanuts Movie’ is a delightful film, refreshing with its focus on every day life, and rewarding in its faithfulness to the original comic strip. Only the end may be too cloying and too optimistic, out of tune with the persistent sense of failure so present in the original comic strip. Yet, Craig and Bryan Schulz can be proud of this product, for together with Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ this is the most rewarding American animated movie of 2015.

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

‘The Peanuts Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Director: Marlies van der Wel
Release Date: September 26, 2015
Rating: ★★★★ ½
Review:

‘Zeezucht’ (which can be translated as ‘a longing for the sea’) tells about a man desiring to be able to dive into the sea from a young age on.

Van der Wel tells her tale by alternating images of the present with those of the past. In the scenes set in the present we watch the old man, complete with Jacques Cousteau-style red bonnet, doing some impressive beach combing during a stormy night. In the scenes from the past we learn how he came to love the sea, and how he made several attempts to dive into the deep with various contraptions, all to no avail.

Meanwhile his home on the dunes expands and expands by the use of flotsam and jetsam washed up by the sea. Then, when a giant fish factory ship sinks, the old man finally sees his chance…

‘Zeezucht’ is made in a very charming cut-out animation style, combining painted material with cut-out photographic material. There’s no dialogue, but the experiences and emotions of the sea-lover are greatly enhanced by the romantic music by Dutch band Benny Sings, and by the excellent sound design by Shark @ Haaifaaideluxe.

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

‘Zeezucht’ has been issued on DVD by the director herself in a limited number

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