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Directors: Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen & Philip Einstein Lipski
Release date:
September 29, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

Arguably the least serious animated feature to be released in 2011 is a surprising little entry from Denmark called ‘Ronal the Barbarian’. The film is set in a bare fantasy world called ‘Metallonia’, and makes fun of many sword and sorcery tropes, as well as ‘Lord of the Rings’ and several leather metal cliches from the early eighties. Especially fans of Judas Priest should be delighted. In this respect, the end song accompanying the end titles is one of the film’s highlights, spoofing e.g. Led Zeppelin and Queen.

With its men walking around in tiny strings, with its lusty amazonians, with an oracle on a toilet, and with its many references to sex this could be a film too immature for its own good, but actually, the film makers play their story surprisingly straight, and despite all the parody and nonsense the film does have heart. It does help that fun is made of both male and female characters, and neither the overblown machos nor the incapable amazonians can be taken too seriously.

‘Ronal the Barbarian’ tells about Ronal, the only barbarian of ‘the tribe of Kron’ to be feeble, cowardly, and weak. When on one day his whole tribe is kidnapped and taken away, he must go on a dreaded quest, helped by an oversexed teenager bard called Alibert, by a very strong and heroic “shield maiden” called Zandra, and by a rather silly hippie-like elf called Elric.

Unfortunately, the characters are little more than vignettes. Ronal, to begin with, has little to counter his weakness. He seems to be a bit smarter than his fellow tribe members, but he’s far from cunning, and certainly not instantly likeable: during the first half of the film, he’s often whining and moaning, which makes the budding love story between him and Zandra hard to believe. Ronal’s transition to a more heroic character is more believable, especially because he remains clumsy and weak until the very end.

Alibert, too, is a character on the shallow side: his interest in dames is practically his only character trait, but he fails as comic relief, but not as a friend. In the end, he is as loyal to Ronal as Sam to Frodo. Elric isn’t a round character at all, but a pure caricature of everything elfish as depicted in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Most interesting of the four is shield maiden Zandra, because she must deal with a tradition that is a curse to her. Zandra’s subplot is vital to the film and make it into a deeper product than could be expected.

Unfortunately, Zandra is not designed too well. Her eyes remind too often those of South Park characters, and as she’s depicted as being quite stout and clearly older than the puny Ronal, making their romance less likely, again.

The quest story ticks all the familiar boxes: there’s an evil and almost invincible opponent, there’s a heavily guarded hidden kingdom, there’s a legend important to the plot, and there’s even room for the all too obligate breakup scene so common in animation films these years. And, of course, Ronal does grow into the hero he has to be in the end. But I must say the film makers tell their tale well, and there are no dead points or superfluous scenes during the film whatsoever. The focus stays with Ronal most of the time, and even when it doesn’t, the scenes still serve the plot completely.

For a European film the 3D computer animation is fair, if not outstanding. The rendering is on the poor side, but it does its job, and the world building is convincing enough for the story. The animation, too, is most of the time okay if nothing to write home about. Especially the animation on lesser characters is visibly mediocre, and there’s little character animation, although the animators do their best in two scenes in which the thought processes of respectively Ronal and Zandra are depicted. But, as most of the action is far from serious, and even rather silly, most of the animation does its job quite nicely. Like the designs, the animation is often broad and jerky, enhancing the comic effect. The effect animation itself, too, is excellent, and helps the world building a lot, especially during the finale.

‘Ronal the Barbarian’ is no masterpiece, but as said, the film is told well, and accounts for 90 minutes of pure fine entertainment. It’s no more than that, but the film clearly doesn’t aspire to. So I’d say: quest fulfilled!

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

‘Ronal the Barbarian’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: John Lasseter
Release date:
June 24, 2011
Rating:
 
★★½
Review:

During the 2000s the Pixar studio without doubt was the leading American animation studio, pushing the envelope with classics like ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (2001), ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003), ‘The Incredibles’ (2004) and ‘Wall-E’ (2008). The 2010s, however, were a different affair, with the studio releasing a few disappointing originals (‘Brave’ from 2012 and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ from 2015), while regressing to a depressingly large number of sequels (seven out of eleven releases). Now, if they were all as good as ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010), then this would be a rather minor problem, but this is not a case.

‘Cars 2’ is the sad herald of the new era. Sure, the film knows high production values, boasting overwhelming visuals, fast cutting, professional cinematography, and storytelling, capable character animation etc. etc., but for the Pixar studio the film feels disappointingly unambitious and empty. Now, ‘Cars’ (2006) itself was the weakest feature of the 2000s, but commercially it was highly successful, not in the least in the merchandize area. So, it was a likely candidate for a sequel.

In retrospect, ‘Cars’ was a modest affair, with its rural setting. ‘Cars 2’on the other hand takes place all over the globe, with alternate versions of Tokyo, Paris, Italy (the fictive ‘Porto Corsa’) and London. These settings are highly colorful, but feel rather plastic and never become entirely convincing (for example, what’s the function of a Notre Dame in the Cars world? Even if a Pope Cars does exist as we can see in one of the scenes in Italy). The plot, too, is outrageously outlandish, modeled on the James Bond films and starring a British spy car called Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), who accidentally recruits Mater, whom he thinks is an American spy.

Thus ‘Cars 2’ is Mater’s film. There’s a minor subplot featuring Mater’s and Lightning McQueen’s friendship being put to the test, and indeed, this forms the rather shallow ‘heart’ of the film, and provides the film’s moral messages (e.g., by McQueen himself in the 84th minute), but this weakly developed plot cannot compete against the spy plot extravaganza. Mater blunders through the spy plot like a rather lame car version of Inspector Clouseau, but his knowledge of old cars does come in handy, and in the end Mater turns out to be less dimwitted than everybody thought.

Now, Mater is little more than comic relief, and one hardly relates to him, even if he’s more sympathetic than Lightning McQueen ever was (and McQueen certainly isn’t in this film). Unfortunately, Mater’s antics are rather tiresome, not funny, and the film’s focus on this shallow character certainly contributes to its feeling of emptiness. In fact, the film is at its best when sticking to the spy plot itself, with the cool spy car Finn McMissile and his female help Holley Shiftwell trying to uncover an evil plot involving one Professor Zündapp (with Erich von Stroheim-like monocle). The plot, like in most James Bond films, is rather outlandish and over-the-top, not to say highly improbable, but the film makers clearly enjoy the spy spectacle, enhanced by Michael Giacchino’s excellent spy movie score.

These scenes are given much more love than the original Cars characters. In fact, apart from Mater and McQueen the rest of the gang is hardly seen and they only marginally contribute to the plot (Doc Hudson apparently has died, just like his voice actor Paul Newman, who passed away in 2008). Instead, we, like McQueen, must endure a boasting Italian race car called Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturo) and meet a grandfatherly old Fiat 500 called uncle Topolino, which is both the nickname of that car model and Mickey Mouse’s Italian name.

Being rich in spectacle, but disappointing in the humor department, and lacking great characters, and most of all heart, ‘Cars 2’ is as entertaining as it is empty and forgettable. Even the small background puns (Towkyo, a Ratatouillan Paris restaurant called ‘Gustow’, adverts for Lassetyre) cannot save the film. Even worse, ‘Cars 2’ also introduces boats and planes with faces. This development would lead to the abysmal spin-off ‘Planes’ (2013), not by Pixar but by the Disneytoon Studios, a film that is an embarrassment to both Disney and Pixar. With the equally unnecessary ‘Cars 3’ Pixar would luckily return to more rewarding waters, with its ‘A Star Is Born’-like plot.

Watch the trailer for ‘Cars 2’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Cars 2’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Tomer Eshed
Release date:
June 23, 2011
Rating:
 
★★
Review:

‘Flamingo Pride’ tells about a flamingo who’s apparently the only straight guy at an enormous gay dance festival. Then he falls in love with a female stork flying by…

‘Flamingo Pride’ turns the tables around, making being straight the minority. That is, in the flamingo community, because outside their own festival all birds seem to be straight and having classic role patterns.

It’s not very clear what the film tries to tell us. For starters it is a bit confusing that apparently all flamingos are gay, and none of the other birds is. Moreover, the gay flamingos pretty much look like gay stereotypes. None of them, not even ‘our hero’ has a grain of personality.

At least the film isn’t as funny as it was meant to be. The short is hampered by some ugly designs (the flamingos have teeth, for example), and odd camera movements, which distract from instead of enhance the main protagonist’s emotions. More problematical was that I couldn’t quite follow its story: the role of the two tigers is puzzling, as is the flamingo’s subsequent move.

I’m afraid I find ‘Flamingo Pride’ to be a rather immature and mediocre animation film about sex with some unwelcome gay stereotyping.

Watch ‘Flamingo Pride’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Flamingo Pride’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 8

Director: Rosto A.D.
Release date:
June 10, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★
Review:

One of the most virtuoso and most idiosyncratic animated film makers ever to emerge from The Netherlands was Rosto (real name Robert Stoces). His films ‘(the rise and fall of the legendary) Anglobilly Feverson’ (2002) and ‘Jona/Tomberry’ created quite a stir, the latter winning the Grand Prix Canal+ prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In these fantastic films Rosto mixed live action, puppetry, and computer animation into a seamless mix. Moreover, they showed a unique if erratic voice that was completely its own.

‘The Monster of Nix’, Rosto’s most ambitious project, is no different. The film lasts half an hour and took six years to make. The short is essentially a musical with a rather post-modern tale-biting story, vaguely reminiscent of ‘The Neverending Story’. The film stars a boy called Willy (based on Rosto’s own son Max and aptly voiced by Joe Eshuis), who lives with his grandmother in a small village, surrounded by woods. Short after the film starts, Willy can’t find his grandmother. Even worse, many villagers have lost people and things, so Willy goes on a quest to seek his grandma and to find the evil monster behind this, finding strange creatures like Virgil, a giant swallow with human hands for claws and the woody “langemen” on his way.

‘The Monster of Nix’ boasts collaborators like Terry Gilliam (voicing a wood ranger), Tom Waits (voicing Virgil) and The Residents (performing two songs), as well as high production values. As expected from a Rosto film, the visuals are very strange, but compelling and overwhelming, seamlessly merging live action and animation to a unique mix. There are several rock music references, which are also typical of Rosto’s style, and there’s a spooky atmosphere akin to Tim Burton.

Rosto even composed the songs himself. Unfortunately, his score is more weird than attractive, and his story isn’t entirely convincing, either, reaching a rather dead point half way, never to recover entirely. But because of its unique atmosphere the film is well worth a watch.

Sadly, Rosto died in 2019, only fifty years old. His death is a grave loss to the Dutch animation world.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Monster of Nix’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Monster of Nix’ is available on DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rio’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rango’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: 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

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