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Director: Sanjay Patel
Release Date: June 15, 2015
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sanjay’s Super Team’ is animator Sanjay Patel’s semi-autobiographical dive into his own childhood.

The film stars a small Indian boy who just loves superheroes, greatly disturbing his praying father. When he joins his father’s praying, he accidentally blows out the candle for the Hindu Gods. This prompts a dream sequence in which the smoke brings forth a large demon, battled by the three Gods in his father’s little shrine: Hanuman, Durga and Vishnu. These become Sanjay’s new superheroes.

This short is cute and clearly made with love. Moreover, the film is a welcome foray into the world of other cultures. But the cartoon is hampered by the extreme designs on little Sanjay and his father (both are extremely large headed and wide eyed), and the rather cheap-looking computer effects during the dream scene. Moreover, the battle scene in itself is typical for superhero films, and of no particular interest, and in the end the film is too short to engage with little Sanjay and his emotional bond to his father. Of course, this is hinted at during the final scene, but one whishes Patel had spent more time on father and son rather than on the generic superhero battle scene.

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ was played in theaters before ‘The Good Dinosaur’ and was nominated for the 2015 Academy Award, which eventually went to ‘Bear Story’ from Chili.

Watch ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ is available on the Blu-Ray’s and DVD’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ and ‘Pixar Short Films Collection 3’

Directors: Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
Release Date: June 11, 2015
Stars: The Minions
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Part of the success of ‘Despicable Me’ (2010), Illumination’s first animation film lie in the minions, Gru’s yellow little helpers. However, their existence was never explained in that film, nor in the sequel ‘Despicable Me 2’ (2013) in which they even played a more important part. Meanwhile, the little yellow buddies were obviously a merchandise hit, so it seemed only fitting that the minions got their own film.

The resulting picture, aptly titled ‘Minions’, is both a spin-off and a prequel of the Despicable me franchise, and finally deals with the origin of the Minions and how they came to know Gru. Surprisingly, however, both these subjects are dealt with in the shortest fashion: most of the minions’ origin is told during the title sequence, in elegant 2D animation, recalling the cartoon modern style of the 1950s. The meeting with Gru is presented as almost an afterthought at the end of the movie, and is partly told during the end titles.

In between we have the story. This starts with a ten minute long introduction, narrated by Geoffrey Rush, who tells us how the minions have always had one single goal in their lives: to serve the biggest villain around, but how lost many by their own stupidity. Finally they end up in a remote cave somewhere in the Himalayas, where they lose all sense of purpose, until one of them, a tall minion called Kevin, proposes to leave the cave and find a villain worthy to serve. Kevin sets out, accompanied by little Bob and one-eyed Stuart, and the rest of the film is devoted to this trio, their search, their coming to the Villain-Con convention in Orlando, FL, and their serving of the biggest villain of 1968, Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who wants to steal the British crown.

So the film takes part mostly in London during the swinging sixties, and thus features a lot of period music (e.g. ‘I’m a Man’ by The Spencer Davis Group, ‘Break on Through’ by The Doors, ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks, and ‘My Generation’ by The Who). In the end, even three Beatles songs are used, ‘Love Me Do’, and during the end titles ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’, followed by a minionese version of ‘Revolution’, which is accompanied by numerous 3D effects, typical of the early 2010s.

Surprisingly, queen Elizabeth II (voiced by British comedienne Jennifer Saunders) has an active part in the story. This is a surprising choice, as the British queen is not only a real person, she’s still alive. Refreshingly, both Scarlett Overkill and Elizabeth II are presented as strong, independent female characters. Otherwise, women are scarce during the movie, and of course, like the Smurfs, all Minions are male (the Smurfette was created by Gargamel).

Like ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ from earlier that year ‘Minions’ is clearly a film made only to entertain. Nothing in the entire film can be taken serious. In contrast, the comedy is broad, and both the human design and the animation are deliberately over-the-top and cartoony, a refreshing and welcome contrast to the more toned down Disney-Pixar-style.

However, Stuart, Kevin and Bob are pretty static characters and have no story arc. In fact, they hardly have a personality at all, and they are mostly distinguished by their looks, not by character animation. Here lies the main problem of ‘Minions’: one hardly cares for the three main protagonists, and this gives the film an empty feel.

Moreover, not all the humor works. The minions’ jabbering rather quickly wears out its welcome, and especially Herb Overkill, Scarlet’s husband (voiced by Jon Hamm) is painfully unfunny, and could certainly be missed. More successful are Jennifer Saunders as Queen Elizabeth, and a family of villains. However, my biggest laughs went to a throwaway gag during the Villain-Con convention: one professor Flux (voiced by Steve Coogan) has made a time machine to fetch future copies of himself to help him in the lab. I’ll not spoil the gag here, but within seconds things go terribly wrong.

Despite its flaws, the film is well-told, and beautifully made. Between all the nonsense there’s actually not only excellent animation, but also superb rendering, lighting and effect animation, thrown in so seemingly effortlessly, one hardly notices. I especially like Kevin’s wanderings in the London streets, while being chased by a bunch of villains. The mist, the lighting, the rain, the reflections, the wet surfaces are all very well done during these scenes. Moreover, the camera often takes his point of view, watching the world in worm’s-eye view. Another animation highlight is Scarlett’s story to the minions, told in a naive style, imitating stop-motion techniques.

In all, ‘Minions’ may be a rather shallow and far from essential film, it’s well-made, and entertaining enough to watch at least once.

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

‘Minions’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mark Osborne
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Le petit prince’ (The Little Prince) is arguably France’s most beloved children’s book, so it’s no surprise that it would be made into a film someday. Surprisingly, it was the American filmmaker Mark Osborne (co-director of ‘Kung Fu Panda’) to take up the glove. His script, however, is entirely original, and builds around the classic booklet, and is not a direct interpretation of it.

Parts of the original story are still present in the final film, and these fragments without doubt form the visual highlights of the entire movie: these passages are done in a very charming stop-motion style, convincingly capturing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s illustration style. However, the story of the little prince is interwoven with Osborne’s framing story, and in itself quite hard to follow, especially if you have not read the book yourself. In fact, the surrounding story is more entertaining than these excerpts from the book. Even worse, it takes 17 minutes before this story starts, and half way the movie the contents of Saint-Exupéry’s book are finished, leaving a staggering 49 minutes of original material still to come.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little book deals with what it means to grow up, and with loss, and Osborne’s surrounding story tries to expand on that idea. This story arc is told in computer animation, and set in a caricature of our world, in which ca. everything is square, including the trees. The opening shots of this world, a bird-eyed view of the city, which looks like a print board in its extreme regularity, form a great introduction to the story. In this world every citizen thrives to be essential, including the nameless little girl, who stars this film, and her mother. For example, the Werth Academy, the school the little girl aspires to attend is covered with posters stating ‘What do you want to be when you grow up? Essential’.

As the girl’s first attempt to attend this school misfires, the mother conceives a new plan that includes moving into a proper neighborhood (one of those ultra-square blocks) and a whole vacation period of intense study for the little girl, laid out in a depressingly detailed planning board. But then it appears their house neighbor is the only oddball in this conformist world: an old man, who lives in an old, cranky house, and whose life is devoted to fantasy and child’s play.
It’s this old man who tells the little girl about the little prince (in fact he’s the pilot from the story, ignoring the fact that the real pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry himself, died prematurely in a plane crash). Thus the old man draws the little girl into his magical world, allowing her to be a child again, instead of a miniature version of an adult.

Now, this is all very well, and the film’s messages that it’s important to recognize what’s important in life (no, it’s not money), and to accept that to love means to lose, is sympathetic, but this, alas, does not make ‘The Little Prince’ a good movie.

As said, the storytelling is erratic, with the passages of ‘The Little Prince’ sensu stricto being dispersed too fragmentary to entertain themselves, and the film’s messages are stated way too clearly, making the film heavy-handed. Moreover, after the story is finished the film devotes much screen time to a very long dream sequence in which the little girl rediscovers the little prince in adult form on a bureaucratic little planet. At this point the film lost me completely, for nothing in this sequence has a grain of the little book’s original charm. Instead, it only seems to destroy it. This is not a very respectful way to treat the original material.

But even without the dream sequence the film is overlong. It plods on with a frustratingly relaxed speed, and knows no surprises. Even then, the final roundup feels rushed, too open, and unconvincing. After all, the little girl herself may have changed, but the rest of the world is the same dull square conformist place it had been before…

The computer animation, done in Canada, is fair to excellent, and the rendering is okay, if not living up to contemporary American standards. I particularly enjoyed the animation of the stuffed fox. As said, the world building is excellent in this film, with its over-the-top squareness. The human designs, on the other hand, are pretty generic, and betray little originality. In fact, the beautiful passages of stop-motion based on De Saint-Exupéry’s drawing style make one regret that the film makers didn’t dare to make the whole film in this much more daring and more interesting visual style. The soundtrack is notable for some period songs, like ‘Boum!’ (1938) by Charles Trenet, and a lovely new song by French singer Camille called ‘Suis-moi’ (Follow Me).

In all, ‘The Little Prince’ is a charming film with some sympathetic messages, but it’s also highly uneven and overlong and could have done with some severe editing and more daring choices. Moreover, one can ask whether this film does the original book the justice it deserves. I, at least, would have preferred a short based on the scenes from the book itself, and done solely in stop-motion, for, without doubt these images are the most gorgeous of the entire film.

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

‘The Little Prince’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Pete Docter
Release Date: May 18, 2015
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In the first decade of the new millennium the Pixar Studio had been the king of animation, virtually topping each film with a better and more original one. But the 2010s were a completely different matter: of the eleven feature films released by the studio in the 2010s only four were no sequels.

But even worse, suddenly the average quality of the films dropped from excellent to a mere okay, with ‘Cars 2’, ‘Brave’, ‘Monsters University’ and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ being particularly disappointing. The only three bright lights in this unsatisfying decade were ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010, arguably the best animated sequel ever made), ‘Inside Out’ (2015) and ‘Coco’ (2017).

Of these three films, ‘Inside Out’ is by far the most original. In fact, it’s one of the most original mainstream feature animation films ever. The whole premise of making someone’s emotions the stars of the film is as daring as possible. True, the idea of showing emotions itself as little persons was far from new, after all, Disney’s own ‘Reason and Emotion’ (1943) was an obvious forerunner, as were more or less the Christian angels and devils aiding Pluto and Donald in ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ (1933) and ‘Donald’s Better Self’ (1938), respectively. But as you may notice, there never were more than two, contrasting each other.

‘Inside Out’, on the other hand, features five, based on work by psychologist Paul Ekman, omitting his sixth primary emotion surprise. The five, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, are being shown to be in control in the brain. We watch the emotions of one eleven year old girl called Riley in particular, collecting memories, and coloring them with their particular flavor (bright yellow for joy, blue for sadness, and so on) – following scientific knowledge, in which is acknowledged that emotions affect and change memories. Now, the depiction of the inside of Riley’s brain is a wonderful piece of imaginative world-making, but still surprisingly well-rooted in science, although the idea of ‘core memories’ seems to be an invention of the film-makers alone. In the world of ‘Inside Out’ these core memories build islands of personality, in Riley’s case e.g. goofball island, hockey island, honesty island, and family island.

The film focuses on Joy, and her appreciation of her opposite, Sadness. Together with Joy we learn that sadness strengthens relationships (an idea based on the work of Dacher Keltner, another psychologist), and that sadness is a part of life. We also learn that it can be difficult to grow up, and that it’s okay to be sad about it. These are surprisingly mature messages to come from a mainstream animation film directed to the whole family, and because they’re brought so well, they make the film extra impressive.

The film starts with an introduction, narrated by Joy (Amy Poehler), in which Riley gets born and gets her first experiences, introducing the five emotions in succession. After the introduction, the main plot of the film is set in motion when eleven year old Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, changing her whole life.

Meanwhile, inside her head, Joy and Sadness get lost inside Riley’s head, and have to try to find their way back home. In this sequence the two cross several sections of the brain, like the memory, imagination land, the dream factory (with film posters like ‘‘I’m Falling for a very long time in a pit’, ‘I Can Fly’, and ‘Something’s Chasing Me!’), and Riley’s subconsciousness. Highlight of this road-trip inside Riley’s head must be abstract thought, in which the characters undergo the four stages of abstraction, rendering them abstract, deconstructed, two-dimensional, and finally non-figurative. During their journey they meet Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong from when she’s was only very little.
While Joy and Sadness are lost, the other three emotions try to direct Riley like Joy would do. Their funny antics correspond surprisingly well with Riley’s conflicting reactions to her new life, which leads to frustration and anger, and finally, depression.

Riley’s emotions are a mix of female (Joy, Sadness, Disgust) and male (Fear, Anger) characters, but when we take a look inside the heads of her mom, they are all female, while inside her father’s head there are only mustached male characters. Interesting is that while Riley is mainly steered by Joy, in her mother’s head Sadness is in full control, while Anger has taken the lead inside her father’s head, making one wonder what made these two adults so. At the end of the film and during the titles the emotions of several other people are shown, even including a dog and a cat.

All the settings inside Riley’s head are depicted in the most colorful and fantastic way. This is a very convincing fantasy world, indeed. The character designs, too, are inspired. The five emotions are depicted as little people, but also as bundles of energy: especially Joy’s edges are bubbly and undefined, and she has a permanent glow around her. This is an incredible tour de force of effect animation, but luckily never distracts from the well-defined characters the five emotions are. The depiction of the real world is also top notch, and seems effortless, convincingly bringing Riley’s new home of San Francisco to life, from her empty bedroom to her new ice hockey stadium. The soundtrack too, by Pixar regular Michael Gioacchino, is very inspired, and the composer gives Joy a theme song that almost matches the theme from ‘Up’ in evoking an emotional response from the audience.

The films has one major flaw, however. By focusing on Joy, this emotion must be a round character, capable of more than one emotion. Indeed, we watch Joy being fearful, and even sad. Joy being sad is such an absurd concept that at that point the suspension of disbelief is breached. Nevertheless, when Joy finally lets Sadness do her thing, this a beautiful moment in the film.

In all, ‘Inside Out’ is a very fine film, one of Pixar’s best, and certainly one of the most interesting animation films to come out of the United States in the 2010s, which can hardly be called the best decade for the medium.

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

‘Inside Out’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Release Date:
March 31, 2015
Rating:
★★★★★

In ‘World of Tomorrow’ independent film maker Don Hertzfeldt greatly expands his simple stick-man style with colorful computer graphics to tell a harrowing tale of the future.

The sixteen minute-short stars a ca. 3 year old girl called Emily, lovely voiced by real youngster Winona Mae. When the phone rings, this turns out to be a call from the future, from a third generation clone of herself, voiced by Julia Pott, who uses the same flat way of speaking as Hertzfeldt himself did in his masterpiece ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘. The clone sketches a rather bleak future, in which all the new and mind-blowing technology does nothing to exterminate man’s existential loneliness and anguish.

The film is part wonder part absurdist humor and part tragedy, and shares the important message with ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ to celebrate life. As the clone says: “Now is the envy of all the dead“. Among the highlights are a museum of memories, death-fearing robots writing poetry, and an alien talking gibberish. The film relies heavily on the dialogue, but never ceases to show amazing images, and the sound design is fantastic, with little Winona Mae probably ad-libbing part of the dialogue. As a distant cousin of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), ‘World of Tomorrow’ has a soundtrack that features two romantic pieces of classical music: a waltz from ‘Die Rosenkavalier’ by Richard Strauss, and a romance by Reinhold Glière.

‘World of Tomorrow’ may be less compelling than the incomparable ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day”, it’s absolutely a wonderful testimony of Don Hertzfeldt’s idiosyncratic art. Moreover, despite its short length the film is a great little piece of science fiction, comparable in scope and depth with much more well-known live action feature films like the aforementioned ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), ‘Moon’ (2009), ‘Interstellar'(2014), and ‘Arrival’ (2016).

The film was followed by two sequels in 2017 en 2020, which unfortunately I haven’t seen, yet.

Watch the trailer for ‘World of Tomorrow’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘World of Tomorrow’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’

Director: Paul Tibbett
Release Date: January 28, 2015
Stars: SpongeBob Squarepants
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

There are animation feature films that contain some humor, and then there are those completely devoted to it. ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ belongs to the latter category.

This is the second feature film based on Nickelodeon’s top animation series, after ‘The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie’ from 2004, and the first by the Paramount Animation Studio, which was founded in 2011 after the success of Paramount’s feature film ‘Rango’. True to the original series, absolutely nothing that hits the screen can be taken seriously. Even Spongebob’s mutterings about teamwork sound more like a parody on such moralizing in other contemporary animation films than as a genuine message.

‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ starts with a live action pirate (Antonio Banderas in arguably the silliest role of his career) seeking a treasure on a remote island. The treasure turns out to be a book, in which the Spongebob story is told. The pirate reads the book aloud to a bunch of CGI seagulls, which cuts us to the traditional 2D-animation of Spongebob’s world. The story builds completely on the ingredients already present: Plankton trying to steal the secret formula of The Krabby Patty burger. I won’t spoil the events here, but there are some surprising meta-story developments, reminiscent of ‘The Lego Movie’ from the previous year.

At one point our heroes have to leave the water, and at this point they turn into 3D-versions of themselves interacting with the real world (these scenes were apparently partly filmed in and around Savannah, Georgia, although clearly a lot of CGI is involved). Luckily, the 3D-versions of Spongebob and his friends remain faithful to the original designs and do not try to be more realistic than necessary. Done by the Rough Draft Studios in South Korea, both the CGI parts as the traditional 2D animation are excellent and rather outrageous, with some characters displaying insane facial expressions, reminiscent of Ren & Stimpy. Especially Sandy gets some outrageous takes when she turns into a mad prophet. There’s also a bit of stop-motion, done by Screen Novelties, that adds to the film’s absurdism.

The whole film is a delightful pile of complete nonsense, but highlights may be Plankton’s travels inside Spongebob’s mind and the time travel scenes, which are accompanied by complete visual extravaganza and N.E.R.D.’s catchy ‘Squeeze Me’ song, which sounds like a silly variation on Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ (both songs are co-authored by Pharrell Williams, so maybe this is a self-parody). Also noteworthy is the teamwork song, in which the visuals hark back to the cartoon modern era of the 1950s, especially in the background art.

‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ is not flawless, however. Banderas is a little too over the top in his depiction of the pirate, and his acting is more irksome than genuinely funny. Moreover, several of the gags fall flat, especially those devoted to the bunch of seagulls. And after a while the scenes ashore become quite tiresome, partly because of some bad acting by the numerous extras, who have to pretend to interact with CGI phenomena. Especially, the finale, a long chase between the pirate and our heroes, now transformed into rather bizarre superheroes, is too long. During these events, John Debney’s score is that of an action movie, and his serious up tempo music often contrasts with the silliness depicted. This scene does feature an ‘all hope is lost moment’, a trope often found in animation films, but luckily this one is too unconvincing and too brief to be taken seriously, and can stand as another parody of such all too familiar tropes.

The flaws aside, ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ is a film of pure fun, and despite its 92 minutes, the movie is over before you know it.

Watch the trailer for ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: November 22, 1995
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Toy Story’ is one of the milestones of cinema, a triumph of technique, born out of a vision that originated when computer animation itself was in its infancy, and made by a studio that had taken the lead in advancement of character driven computer animation throughout the 1980s.

Being the first completely computer animated feature film, ‘Toy Story’ heralds a new era, even if the age of computer animation would only start in earnest after the turn of the century. Ironically, it’s the technique itself that has become the most dated. The whole film has a rather plastic look, and it’s no wonder the film makers chose plastic toys as their story subject. Some of the rendering is downright poor; for example the shot of the lawn between the grass (on which Andy’s guests walk towards the house) looks terribly unreal.

On the other hand, some of the rare outdoor shots, like the bird shot of the Dinoco gas station, Sid’s sandbox, or the shot of the street during the final chase scene still look like convincing background scenery. The lighting in general is very convincing. For example, in the opening shot, the light reflects in the polished wooden floor, but not on the cardboard boxes. And some of the textures are excellent. For example, we believe that Bo is made from porcelain, Slinky’s ears really appear to be leathery, and the wooden door of Andy’s room shows visible dents and scratches. I remember in 1995 I found the structure of Sid’s workbench and the crate in which Woody is imprisoned most impressive in that respect. These still hold very well, despite all the advancements in computer animation.

Of course, in terms of design the non-toy protagonists fare worst of all: the humans are all ugly, and slightly uncanny. Both Andy’s and Sid’s little sisters, Molly and Hannah, even look a little frightening. Also very unconvincing is Scud, Sid’s dog. He has an all too plastic body, with only the vaguest suggestion of hair, and his eyes are placed badly into his face, never really gaining any sense of reality.

Nevertheless, because the Pixar studio has taken heed of all rules of character animation that Disney had laid out ages ago, even more poorly designed characters like Andy, Sid or Scud absolutely feel as real characters. And this is part of Toy Story’s real triumph: the film is not only a technical tour-de-force, it’s also a very well told film, featuring great characters and a highly entertaining story, which make one quickly forget any defect in rendering, as one is engrossed in the events on the screen.

It’s important to note that ‘Toy Story’ was a game changer in animated feature film storytelling as well. ‘Toy Story’ is a buddy film, the first of its kind in the animated world, and essentially stars two adults, no children or teens. Of course, the film is still interesting to children, but the story is much more clearly directed at adults, as well. Moreover, ‘Toy Story’ marks a very welcome break with the number one rule of the animated feature film world of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s: that an animated feature film should be a musical. In contrast, ‘Toy Story’ features only two songs, which are sung by an off screen Randy Newman, and not by any of the characters. Moreover, these two songs are mood pieces, not stopping the action to break out into song. Both the more adult approach and the discarding of the obligate musical formula were as refreshing in 1995 as the computer animation itself. When the computer animation revolution really took off around 2000, other studios took heed. The best examples are arguably Dreamworks’s first two computer-animated features, ‘Antz’ (1998) and ‘Shrek’ (2001).

The idea of ‘Toy Story’ is actually an expansion of Pixar’s earlier short ‘Tin Toy’ (1988): toys are alive, and their sole purpose in life is to serve the little kids that own them and play with them. Throughout the film we watch the events from the toys’ perspective: we share their fears, their needs, and their wishes. The film starts with Andy’s birthday: an important day for the toys, because it heralds the possible arrival of newcomers. Another story idea that sets things in motion is the upcoming move of Andy’s family. And finally, there’s a neighbor kid called Sid who tortures toys. These three ideas mark the unfolding of the events.

To make the toy world more believable, the studio included some recognizable trademark toys, like a Troll Doll, Etch A Sketch, and of course, Mr. Potato Head. The film also starts a long tradition of self-reference, starting with the ball from ‘Luxo, Jr.’ (1986) returning in Andy’s house. Later in the movie a television ad shows ‘Al’s toy barn’, which would make an important location for ‘Toy Story 2’.

But it’s of course, the leading characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear who steal the show. Voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively, the dialogues between the two forced pals is delightful throughout the picture. Both characters have their own interesting story arcs: Woody has to deal with an intruder who replaces him as Andy’s favorite toy, making him jealous of the intruder, and Buzz Lightyear has to face the fact he is not the space ranger he imagines to be, but ‘just’ an action figure. Buzz Lightyear not only provides the film’s timeless quote ‘to infinity and beyond’, his delusional acting is a great source of comedy in the first half of the film. The best line may be Buzz’s reaction to Sid’s surgery scene: “I don’t believe this man has ever been to medical school”. Woody, meanwhile, verges on the brink of being a jerk, and it takes quite some time before he redeems himself. All this leads to an excellent finale, a speedy chase, with all the excitement of an action film (the only unconvincing part of this finale is when Buzz Lightyear is suddenly able to free himself from the rocket tied to him).

The most impressive shot is that of Buzz Lightyear listening to Woody’s monologue, on Sid’s workbench. The inner thinking suggested by the animation is of the highest level possible, and should be an example to all students of character animation. Tim Allen ranked it as his finest acting for the film before realizing that his character wasn’t speaking, so he had no involvement in this scene, at all.

Despite having much less screen time, other characters come off as rounded as well: insecure Rex, loving Bo, loyal dog Slinky, more cynical Ham, and assertive Mr. Potato Head. Their characters are quickly established during the opening scenes, so they can be played out during the rest of the film. Sid is an interesting villain: despite being cruel, he’s also a kid with a remarkably fantasy, and like Andy, places his toys in stories of his own creation. Even Sid’s toys gain some character, despite being unable to speak (why this is so is never revealed).

The excellent story, the great characters, and superb animation are also helped by Pixar’s pleasant color design, a quality the studio has retained throughout their existence. The colors are rooted in realism, but clearly reflect the mood of the story, with the bright browns, yellows and blues of Andy’s room contrasting highly with the sickly greens, purples and blacks of Sid’s room.

In all, ‘Toy Story’ is not only a technical milestone, with its lean storytelling and great characters, it’s an excellent film by any standard, and it’s the story and the characters that secure the film’s place in cinema canon. Even if all subsequent progress in computer animation will eventually make the film look primitive and dated, the story and its characters will remain a delight to watch. The film heralded the Pixar studio as a major force in the animation world, comparable to that of Disney in the 1930s. Indeed, during the coming years, the studio was to be on the very front of animation film development, creating feature films of a surprising quality and diversity, a position that only started to waver at the dawn of the 2010s.

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

‘Toy Story’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Steven Weston
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★
Review:

‘The Wrong Brothers’ features two brothers who attempt to fly all their lives. In fact, we watch four attempts at different ages.

Now, this may sound like a good and fun idea, but the execution is terrible. The whole film has a very ugly design, very dated computer animation, very bad timing, a very unappealing sound design. Add and an all too predictable ending, and the result is a film that unfortunately can best be forgotten.

‘The Wrong Brothers’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Ian Sachs
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★
Review:

‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ is a short children’s film clearly inspired by Osvaldo Cavandoli’s great La Linea series.

Like La Linea ‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ takes place on a single line in a monochrome background (this time blue). However, unlike La Linea, Scat consists partly of body parts not belonging to the line. Scat has visible eyes, red nose and whiskers that are completely his own.

In this film Scat goes fishing, but he only manages to catch boots.

The 2D computer animation is mediocre, and Sachs’s timing is terrible, with as a result that all his attempts at gags fall flat. What certainly doesn’t help is the ugly electronic soundtrack. In short, ‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ fails completely, where La Linea succeeds: in making us laugh.

‘Scat, the Stringalong Cat’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Philip Hunt
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★
Review:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is a short but rather pretentious film using texts by avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs on the atomic bomb.

Read by William S. Burroughs himself from the book of the same name, the film mixes computer animation and stop motion to vaguely illustrate Burrough’s texts. The film is set on a small black planet, enircled by Gods, who look like satellites and bombs. Ah Pook is the destroyer, a.k.a. the atomic bomb. On the planet lives a red-headed alien who asks another flying alien about the nature of man, the nature of death and of democracy.

Unfortunately, the images are pretty irrelevant to the text: they neither illustrate nor counter it. Moreover, Burroughs’s text is pretty disjointed itself, making this short animation film remarkably aimless. For this reason ‘Ah Pook is Here’ must be regarded a cinematic failure, despite the virtuoso mix of computer animation and stop motion.

Watch ‘Ah Pook is Here’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Gosce Vaskov
Release Date: 1996
Rating:
Review:

Misa u A-Molu (Mass in A Minor) © Zagreb Film‘Mass in A minor’ is the first computer animated film made in Croatia.

This single fact must be the sole reason to watch the film. Otherwise, ‘Mass in A minor’ is utterly forgettable. The short is an unremarkable mood piece with flames as its main theme. The motion is perfectly set to Marijan Brkić’s new age music, but this cannot save the film, which has a cheap, ugly and utterly primitive look.

 

‘Mass in A Minor is available on the DVD ‘The Best of Zagreb Film: Be Careful What You Wish For and The Classic Collection’

Director: Cody Cameron
Release Date: August 8, 2007
Rating: ★★
Review:

The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas © Sony‘The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas’ sees the return of the ChubbChubbs, the title heroes of Sony’s Academy Award winning short ‘The ChubbChubbs!‘ from 2002, and their alien keeper Meeper.

After five years these personas are still as annoying as they had been in 2002, but surprisingly, ‘The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas’ is a better movie than the original short had been. Things at Sony animation clearly had improved in the five years that separate the two films, and both character design, color schemes and overall design are much more consistent in the new film than in the original. Consequence is that Meeper and his friends are rather out of tune with their more modern and slicker surroundings, which makes them even more obnoxious.

The short’s story is utterly forgettable, but there are some good gags, even if some are pretty violent for a Christmas film. Nevertheless, ‘The ChubbChubbs Save Christmas’ is only one notch up from the earlier film, and remains mediocre, if only because Meeper and the ChubbChubbs themselves are such ugly-voiced and annoying characters.

Watch ‘The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas’ is available as a bonus on the DVD ‘Surfs Up’

Directors: The Blackheart Gang
Release Date: March 2006
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Tale of How © The Blackheart Gang‘The Tale of How’ is a tale about birds trapped on an island by a large sea monster, but rescued by a mouse.

In this short the Blackheart Gang has used a mix of 2D and 3D computer techniques to make a film that is baroque in its complexity of images and intricate designs. The combination of weird surrealism and quasi-medieval ornamentation give the film its unique atmosphere. Unfortunately, the film’s story is less compelling than the images: the tale is sung in an all too uninteresting quasi-operatic style and very hard to follow, indeed.

Watch ‘The Tale of How’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Tale of How’ is available on the French DVD box set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e anniversaire’

Director: Eric Armstrong
Release Date: July 3, 2002
Rating:
Review:

The ChubbChubbs! © Sony PicturesThe star of ‘The ChubbChubbs!’ is a humble alien who swipes the floor of a nightclub on some planet.

When the nightclub is threatened by some monsters, the alien repeatedly tries to warn its clientele, but only manages to ruin the singer’s act three times. In the end the alien disposes of the approaching army of monsters with help of some yellow animals, the ChubbChubbs of the title. These turn out to have rotating razor-blade mouths, belying their cute appearance.

‘The ChubbChubbs!’ was a sort of test film for Sony Pictures Imageworks, and thus it’s not a very deep film. In fact, the film feels rather childish and immature, and the only source of humor stems from the cameos of familiar science fiction movie characters, like Darth Vader, Yoda, Alien and E.T.. The rest of the cartoon humor feels forced and overtly cliche.

The film isn’t helped by a trite story, a too talkative soundtrack, ugly voice designs (especially of the alien itself), ugly color designs, mediocre animation, and very inconsistent computer art, blending an array of styles from cartoony to realistic into a far from convincing world. That this utterly forgettable film managed to win an Academy Award is beyond me, especially when considering that one of the other nominees was Kōji Yamamura’s classic short ‘Mt. Head’.

Watch ‘The ChubbChubbs!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://vimeo.com/5603230

‘The ChubbChubbs!’ is available as a bonus on the DVD ‘Surfs Up’

Director: Milen Vitanov
Release Date: April, 2007
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

My Happy End © Milen Vitanov‘My Happy End’ is an enjoyable little children’s film about a dog being in love with its own tail, which in Vitanov’s film also has a mouth.

The most remarkable aspect of Vitanov’s film is its technique: Vitanov blends traditional pencil animation with 3D computer effects, making the dog look like a single piece op paper moving around in a paper world. This illusion is enhanced by using only grey-tones, giving ‘My Happy End’ a sketchy look.

Unfortunately, Vitanov’s cartoon style is less original, and his story rather stretches the imagination (I could hardly swallow the concept of both the humanized tail and the regeneration which takes place in the end). The result is an amiable, if unassuming little film.

Watch ‘My Happy End’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘My Happy End’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Kleine helden & rare kwasten – 14 animatiefilms voor kinderen’

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: March 17, 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Knick Knack © PixarAfter three impressive short films, the fledgling Pixar company decided to relax a little bit.

The result is ‘Knick Knack’, in which boundaries are pushed much less clearly, but which demonstrates like no other short that Pixar animation is rooted deeply in an animation tradition.

‘Knick Knack’ features toy souvenirs, focusing on a snowman trying to escape the prison of his snow globe to join some sunny souvenirs. Harking back to the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s, ‘Knick Knack’ is self-consciously cartoony. For example, the snowman is able to produce various tools out of nowhere. Moreover, his actions are driven by a sexual desire, induced by the rather grotesque female souvenir from Miami*. These traits are typical of classic cartoon characters, like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.

Unlike these, however, the snowman is a silent character, and his fanatism is more reminiscent of the equally silent Coyote in Chuck Jones’s Roadrunner cartoons. Like the Coyote, the snowman is conscious of the camera, and shares his emotions directly with us, the audience.

‘Knick Knack’ only clocks 3 minutes, but its gag story is perfectly executed in this short time to a wonderful finale. The result is a very entertaining and funny cartoon, with an excellently matching soundtrack by Bobby McFerrin.

However, it was to be the last short Pixar would make in eight years. After its release, the company suffered some changes: it ditched its hardware department, making the studio department suddenly the core of the business. Now the studio could focus on its first feature length film, ‘Toy Story‘…

Watch ‘Knick Knack’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* Upon the film’s rerelease as a short for ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003) the Miami souvenir and the mermaid were redesigned, losing their bulbous boobs. With this step they became less obviously stereotyped objects of male desire, making the snowman’s actions less overtly sex-driven. Unfortunately, with this removal the film lost a little of its bite.

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: August 1988
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Tin Toy © PixarAfter ‘Luxo Jr.‘ ‘Tin Toy’ is the most important of the early Pixar shorts.

Not only did it win an Academy Award, being the first computer animated film to do so, it was also the source of inspiration to the first computer animated feature length film, ‘Toy Story‘ (1995). Like ‘Toy Story’ it explores the idea of toys being alive.

The short focuses on a little tin one man band toy, who encounters a monstrous baby, much to its dismay. The baby, indeed, looks terribly ugly. It’s an early attempt at the human form, and although it’s animated surprisingly well, it’s not really a success. Being a giant monster in the eyes of the toy, however, the ugly design does succeed. So, although ‘Tin Toy’ demonstrates it was maybe a little too early for the human form, its brave attempt showed the way for much more to come.

Apart from that, it’s a splendid little story, much more elaborate than Pixar’s earlier two films, and perfect in its execution. An excellent example is the scene in which the tin toy flees under the couch, only to discover numerous other toys hiding in fear. This scene is a masterstroke, as it perfectly explains how toys get hidden away far under couches and beds, like they somehow do in real life.

In the short time span the tin toy goes from emotions of hopeful anticipation to dismay and fear, turning into surprise, pity and finally proud stubborness. These emotions are completely convincing and prove that computer animation was perfectly able to tell a moving story. Now the company’s fulfilling of their dream of an animated feature would not be far away anymore.

Watch ‘Tin Toy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: November 30, 1987
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Red's Dream © PixarWith ‘Red’s Dream’, made for computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, Pixar pushed the envelope once more, after its success with ‘Luxo jr.‘ the year before.

‘Red’s Dream’ is very impressive in its moody and rainy night time setting. But once again, it is able to tell an emotional story about a lonely and forgotten unicycle, which stands forgotten in the corner of a bike shop, where he dreams of performing in the circus.

The dream sequence, featuring a vaguely realistic clown, is the weakest part of the film. The clown is well animated, but looks terribly unreal and is a little scary in its ugliness. The unicycle Red, on the other hand, is a character one can identify with.

Unlike ‘Luxo Jr.’ from one year earlier, animator John Lasseter allows some unrealistic distortions on the unicycle in order to make its emotions work. However, he keeps those to a minimum, keeping Red a believable unicycle. The film’s power lies in the effect that in the last scene one is so involved with Red’s emotions, one tends to forget the stunning computer graphics that are at play to show us the shop at night.

Watch ‘Red’s Dream’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: August 17, 1986
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Luxo jr. © PixarOf all classics of animation, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is certainly the shortest. This little gem only lasts ninety seconds, and can feel more like a study than as a mature cartoon. That said, the short is brilliant in its concept and execution.

Being the fledgling company Pixar’s very first film, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is the first of a series of shorts, in which the ambitious team explored the boundaries of computer animation, ever pushing them further away. ‘Luxo Jr.’ is a first example. It was made in a time in which computer animation was mainly used for special effects. Of course in ‘Luxo Jr.’ there’s special attention to lighting and texture, too, but most importantly: it shows that computer animation can also be used to tell an engaging story with characters.

Even in their simplicity, the two table lamps are recognizable characters, one old and parental, the other young and enthusiastic. The effect is the more extraordinary, as animator John Lasseter didn’t use eyes or squash-and-stretch techniques: the lamps remain lamps.

Thus, the cute Luxo jr. showed the world that in principle computer animation was as much able to tell a moving story with emotional characters as any other medium. Unlike the earlier ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B‘ (1984), which remains too primitive and too uneven to be of lasting charm, ‘Luxo jr.’ is as engaging today as it was at its first screening.

After ‘Luxo, jr.’ Pixar would keep on demonstrating the story powers of computer animation with three other brilliant cartoons: ‘Red’s Dream‘ (1987), ‘Tin Toy‘ (1988) and ‘Knick Knack‘ (1989), culminating nine years later in the first computer animated feature film ‘Toy Story‘ (1995).

However, it’s Luxo jr. that showed the way way back in 1986. No wonder the studio keeps the feisty little lamp still in their logo.

Watch ‘Luxo jr’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: July 25, 1984
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Adventures of André and Wally B © Pixar‘The Adventures of André and Wally B.’ is a rather pompous title for this very short film, which only lasts eighty seconds, and features ca. one gag.

Made for ‘The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project’, two years before the birth of Pixar, it is clearly made to showcase two computer animation techniques above anything else. Most impressive is the quasi-realistic, almost pointillist forest background. Much more primitive, but ultimately much more important is the animation of the two characters, for which young animator John Lasseter was brought in from the Walt Disney studios. Lasseter animates André and the bee Wally B self-consciously cartoony, as if they had walked in straight from the 1930s. They don’t blend at all with the quasi-realistic backgrounds, and they look appallingly primitive to modern eyes, but they’re the very first computer graphics to show character animation, even at its most rudimentary.

‘The Adventures of André and Wally B.’ will never become a classic, for it’s too uneven and too shallow for that, but it is one of animation’s milestone films.

Watch ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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