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Director: Peter Peake
Release Date: January 7, 1995
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Pib and Pog’ starts off as a typical cartoon for preschoolers. It stars two clay characters wearing shoes with flowers on them in a white set with only two props.

The two only make unintelligible sounds, but interact with the voice over (Ionna Wake), who retains an upbeat preschool attitude until the very end of the cartoon. But her remarks get more and more at odds with the visuals. For when Pib craves a shell that Pog apparently has found on the beach, a startlingly violent struggle between the two characters evolves, including the use of a gun, chloric acid and a cannon.

Meanwhile the voice over keeps on blabbering in a childish manner, neglecting the violence on the screen for what it is. ‘Pib & Pog’ thus is disturbing, and it seems to say something about cartoon violence in general, but funny it is not, and the short is further hampered by its very trite ending. Nevertheless, in 2006 the film would sprout five sequels. Earlier, in 1998 director Peter Peake would make a much better and certainly hilarious little film called ‘Humdrum’, which is much more recommended.

Watch ‘Pib and Pog’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Pib and Pog’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Tyron Montgomery
Release Date: April 1996
Rating: ★★½
Review:

A sand man lies in the desert with his water bottle, empty. When he hears the sound of water he starts digging and before soon falls into another world…

Made by Tyron Montgomery (direction, photography & screenplay) and Thomas Stellmach (production, animation & story) at the University of Kassel, Germany, ‘Quest’ is a gloomy stop-motion film, depicting worlds of sand, paper, stone and metal. Especially the metal world is well-done, both frightening and fascinating.

There are some comic elements in the acting of the sand man, but the film is neither as funny nor as disturbing as it could be. Part of the problem is the mediocre acting: the sand man’s feelings and thoughts are acted out schematically, more like Fritz the Cat than like post-Disney character animation.

‘Quest’ certainly is interesting, and a very accomplished film for a student film, but in the end Montgomery’s and Stellmach’s tale is too shallow to become a real classic. But that’s only my opinion, because this German short won many prizes, including the Academy Award for best animated short in 1997.

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

‘Quest’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 5

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: 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: Julia Gromskaya
Release Date:
2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Fiumana’ shows that Georges Schwizgebel’s particular way of animating has made school. Julia Gromskaya adapts Schwizgebel’s painting techniques and constantly shifting perspective to tell a tale of a woman waiting for her man, while drowning in her memories.

Gromskaya’s film is much more stream-of-consciouslike than Schwizgebel’s films, however, and has strong surrealist overtones, with some original metamorphosis going on while the images flow into each other. For example, at one point the woman’s eyes change into boats on a river, which in turn changes into the smoke of the man’s pipe.

Gromskaya’s painting style, too, differs from Schwizgebel’s, and is much more fauvist and naive. Her flow of images is supported by a gentle chamber music score by Francesca Badalini. The result is a puzzling yet beautiful film that is over before you know it.

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

‘Fiumana’ is available on the DVD-box ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 7’

Director: Natalia Chernysheva
Release Date:
September 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

In ‘Snowflake’ a little boy in Africa gets a paper-cut snowflake by mail. That night he dreams his surroundings are covered with snow, making all animals shiver.

This is a charming little film done in a quasi-naive style, and making good use of black and whites, with occasional flashes of color. Especially the scenes in which the boy explores the snow-covered world are beautiful, with his red coat, shawl, hood and mittens standing out against the blacks, whites and greys of the animals and their surroundings. Also noteworthy is Chernysheva’s excellent timing, and the sound design, which is spot on.

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

‘Snowflake’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Anna Kadykova
Release Date:
September 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

A little mole, living in a grey, polluted city discovers images of the sea in an abandoned magazine. He longs to go there, and travels, like moles do, underground to go there. Unfortunately, the beach is as crowded as the city was.

‘The Mole at the Sea’ (also known as ‘Moe Goes to the Beach’) is a charming little film, with lots of little jokes, many of which are slightly on the surreal side. Kadykova’s style is instantly likable, and her timing excellent. Especially the scenes of the over-crowded beach are nice to watch.

Watch ‘The Mole at the Sea’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Mole at the Sea’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Joel Simon
Release Date:
July 5, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

‘Macropolis’ was commissioned by the ‘Unlimited Programme’, part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and dedicated to deaf and disabled arts and culture.

The short stars a toy cat, who’s rejected from the factory because he’s only got one eye. He teams up with a little toy dog with only one leg. The cat gives the dog a leg prosthesis, the dog gives the cat an eye patch and together they try to catch the truck which delivers all the other toys to the toy store.

‘Macropolis’ is a gentle little film which succeeds in moving the audience without any dialogue. The stop motion is mixed with pixillation and live action, and filmed partly outdoors. A nice touch is that the film makers don’t hide the fact that stop motion takes a lot of time, and the background is buzzing with movement as the two little animals wander the streets.

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

‘Macropolis’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

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: Stephan Schesch & Sarah Clara Weber
Release Date:
June 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

Germany is the biggest economy of Europe, but as producer of animation it’s a surprisingly minor player, especially when compared to France. It certainly didn’t help that the Nazi regime virtually wiped out all art life, and that from 1949 until 1991 the country was split into two.

When I think of post-war German animation I immediately think of Die Maus (The Mouse), the silent host of the educational children program ‘Die Sendung mit der Maus’, and of die Mainzelmännchen, the six little guys who embellish advertising blocks on German television since 1963. Germany also boasts some major independent animation artists, like Raimond Krumme, Andreas Hykade and Gil Alkabetz, but otherwise the country produces mostly rather listless feature films which make no impression whatsoever.

So it came as a surprise to me to find in a department store in Berlin an animated film based on a children’s book by Tomi Ungerer, one of the greatest children’s book artists in the world. Even more surprisingly, this is not the first German feature film based on his work. In 2007 Animation X Gesellschaft zur Produktion von Animationsfilmen mbH released a film based on Ungerer’s classic ‘Die drei Räuber’ (The Three Robbers) from 1961. I certainly wish to see that film, too, because ‘Der Mondmann’ is a pleasant surprise.

This feature film is much more elaborate than Ungerer’s original children’s book from 1966 (which Gene Deitch already turned into an animated short in 1981), but the character designs of the moon man and the children are very faithful to Ungerer’s artwork. Even better, Ungerer himself appears as the narrator of the tale (although his voice over is hardly used in the film). The adult characters, however, are more removed from Ungerer’s style, as is the extraordinarily colorful background art, which has a trace of surrealism to it. The looks of the film are on the verge of independent animation, but remain friendly and inviting nonetheless.

The story tells about the moon man, who occupies the complete sphere of the moon, and who is bored to death inside this cramped space. One day he grabs the tail of a fiery comet and descends to earth, hoping for some excitement. The shots of the moon man discovering animals and plants are particularly delightful. Earth, meanwhile, has apparently been occupied by a rather fascist looking regime (a great take is that its flag features a flag). The world president mourns he has conquered the complete world, and has nothing left to conquer, until some lady suggests to conquer the moon. Apparently, in this parallel universe space travel has not been invented, yet, while for example cell phones have.

The world depicted thus is not entirely ours, and this adds to the atmosphere of surrealism, as do several odd side gags that enter the screen and which are completely unrelated to the story. This type of throwaway gags are reminiscent of ‘La planète sauvage’ (Fantastic Planet) from 1973, and indeed, ‘Der Mondmann’ has something in common with that strange film, even if it is much friendlier, and less bizarre. These gags keep the adult audience awake in a film that is otherwise clearly directed to children. There’s also a running gag of a military officer who keeps saying “höchst bedauerlich”(most regrettable) as answers to the president’s complaints.

Anyway, both the Moon Man and the president turn to an inventor called Bunsen van der Dunkel to bring them to the moon. The moon man all too quickly discovers that Earth is not an entirely welcome place, and he discovers his role in the lives of children, who cannot sleep without him watching over them. The central theme of the film is what it means to be friends, something both Bunsen van der Dunkel and the Moon Man discover during the film.

‘Der Mondmann’ is well-told, focusing on only a handful characters, but it is also one of those delightful non-American feature animation films completely throwing American story rules overboard. For example, the film stars a father and his daughter travelling inside an American 1950s cabriolet. The two return several times during the film, but are only marginally involved in the plot. Despite being a children’s film there’s also a clear suggestion of a sex scene. The music choice, too, is pretty idiosyncratic, with important roles for the songs ‘Moon River’ sung by Louis Armstrong and ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ by Iron Butterfly.

In all, ‘Der Mondmann’ is arguably the greatest animated feature film to come from Germany in the 2010s and well worth a watch, especially because it is available with English subtitles.

‘Der Mondmann’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Roman Klochkov
Release Date:
2012
Rating:
 ★
Review:

In ‘Natasha’ a huge Russian bear called Nicolaï lives in a fridge in a Zoo in Belgium as an illegal immigrant. One day another Russian bear called Gennady arrives, who turns out to be the new husband of Nicolaï’s former love, Natasha.

In ‘Natasha’ Klochkov apparently tries to say something about immigration, but his message is lost in a rambling story that leaves the viewer completely flat. In fact, there hardly is a story, but certainly a lot of dialogue. Klochkov’s cartoony style doesn’t help, either, although Nicolaï himself is wonderfully designed and animated, emphasizing his enormous size – Nicolaï literally doesn’t fit in. Also appealing are Klochkov’s bold ink strokes, which turn virtually abstract during the crowd scenes. But these don’t rescue a film, which is too unsure and too dialogue-rich to entertain, let alone move.

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

https://vimeo.com/108782575

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Emma de Swaef & Marc James Roels
Release Date:
January 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★½
Review:

One of the most striking animation films to come from Belgium in the 2010s was ‘Oh Willy…’ by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels. The film immediately catches attention with its soft puppets and sets – everything is fluffy and velvety, even a rotting carcass. But ‘Oh Willy’ also impresses with its poetic way of story telling.

‘Oh Willy…’ tells about a middle-aged man who returns to the naturalist colony of his youth to visit his dying mother. The man is lonely and withdrawn, and clearly unable to blend in with the naturalists, even if he wants to. One night he gets lost in the woods, which sets him to an all new adventure…

‘Oh Willy…’ uses no dialogue, but the soft puppets breath a lot of animation. Moreover, De Swaef and Roels know how to show, don’t tell, and they leave it to the viewer to connect the dots between the scenes. Interestingly, some of the scenes are pretty raw, even if they’re rendered in the fluffiest animation conceivable. From these scenes one can guess why the man feels so awkward and lost without his mother.

True, when summarized, the story of ‘Oh Willy…’ makes little sense, but as told by De Swaef amd Roels in their fluffy animation it absolutely accounts for a heart-warming experience. ‘Oh Willy…’ is one of those films showing the unique power of animation, and it certainly belongs to the best shorts of the 2010s. And yet, in 2018 the duo topped it with their 44 minute tour-de-force ‘Ce Magnifique Gâteau!’ (This Magnificent Cake!), employing the same soft visual style, combined with brutal scenes, and poetic story telling to dive into the dark corners of Belgium’s colonial past.

Watch ‘Oh Willy…’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Oh Willy…’ is available on the DVD ‘Framed – De beste Vlaamse korte animatiefilms 2010-2015’

Directors: Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar
Release Date:
May 23, 2012
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

In a time in which American studio animation has discarded traditional animation practically altogether, only to embrace a rather generic post-Disney 3D computer style (Laika being the notable exception), one must look elsewhere for animation films in a more unique visual style.

In the 21st century France, especially, has emerged as a producer of animation films with an interesting visual style, using traditional means, with films as different as ‘Les Triplettes de Belleville’ (2003), ‘Persepolis’ (2007), ‘Une vie de chat’ (2010) and ‘Le tableau’ (2011) emerging from that country.

One of such films is ‘Ernest & Célestine’, which immediately draws attention with its gentle, children book-like watercolor style. Produced not only in France, but also in Belgium and Luxembourg, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ is based on a children book series by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent (1928-2000). Vincent’s Ernest & Célestine stories were modest affairs, with the bear and mouse duo singing, picnicking, going to the circus, or celebrating Christmas. But ‘Ernest & Célestine’ the movie is a very different affair, telling a rather Romeo and Juliet-like story of the two heroes bridging two worlds that live in fear of each other. It remains a bit mystifying why producer Didier Brunner didn’t opt for an intimate story, fitting the source material. As such ‘Ernest & Célestine’ could have been a delightfully little film like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988).

Instead, Brunner asked French writer Daniel Pennac for a scenario. Now, Pennac is best known for his social satire. I’ve read his novel ‘The Scapegoat’ from 1985 and his graphic novel ‘La débauche’ (with Jacques Tardi, 2000) and both combine sharp social criticism with great humor. Yet, Pennac’s urban settings seem miles away from Vincent’s nostalgic worlds, and, indeed, the film doesn’t really bridge those.

In fact, the film’s story is its weakest link, as the film doesn’t entirely succeed in both setting this world and introducing both characters before the main story starts. Pennac makes it over-complicated with little mice gathering the teeth from the bear children, an invention completely superfluous to the main plot. Moreover, as soon as Ernest and Célestine meet each other, the latter suddenly turns into a brave, smart-alecky, rather dominating, and talkative character, something we would never have guessed from the earlier scenes.

It doesn’t help that initially neither she nor Ernest come off as very likable. Ernest, for example is introduced as lazy and well-known to the police, and he absolutely sees no problem in breaking in into somebody else’s cellar. Also, his treatment of Célestine is rude, while Célestine comes over as pushy, popping up rather uninvited in Ernest’s home. Only when the two rescue each other from nightmares, they grow towards each other. But this occurs apparently overnight, and the change isn’t entirely convincing.

Worse, when the story finally comes to the subject of Vincent’s books, with scenes of Ernest & Célestine living together, and having fun together, the film enters still water. Likewise, the finale feels forced and fails to convince. Directors Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar (the latter two of ‘A Town Called Panic’ fame) should have known better.

Nevertheless, the film’s message that friendship and understanding can bridge two very different worlds and cultures, is a welcome one, and as said in the intro, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ employs a very pleasant visual style. All background art is painted in watercolors, and the digital coloring of the characters successfully mimics the watercolor style. Moreover, the linework is open, and the edges of the backgrounds dissolve into nothingness, emphasizing the story book feel.

Strikingly, the animation, supervised by Patrick Lambert and done by Les Armateurs and Blue Spirit in France and Studio 352 in Luxembourg, comes across as rather Japanese. Several moves and facial expressions are copied directly from Japanese tropes and are at odds with the European visual style. Indeed, the film makers admit being highly influenced by Ghibli, but unfortunately, story-wise, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ doesn’t reach the Japanese studio’s great heights. This is a pity, for now ‘Ernest & Célestine’ remains a film which is extremely pleasant to look at, but which is also highly frustrating to watch, with its rambling plot, and plodding pace.

Watch the US trailer for ‘Ernest & Célestine’ and tell me what you think:

‘Ernest & Célestine’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Peter Lord
Release Date:
March 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

Aardman’s fifth feature film was, after two computer animated films, a welcome return to the stop-motion the studio is most famous for. It had been seven years since their last stop-motion feature film, ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, and meanwhile the studio had exchanged partnership from Dreamworks to Sony Pictures Animation.

Not that that is visible in ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ (also known as The Pirates! Band of Misfits’), however, as the film is one hundred percent Aardman. More precisely, even though Nick Park was not involved in this project, his recognizable style now had become the trademark general Aardman style, thus ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ explores characters with the same googly eyes and large teeth, if slightly more ‘realistic’ than in the Wallace & Gromit universe.

Unlike Aardman’s earlier features, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is not an original story, but an adaptation of a children’s novel by British writer Gideon Defoe. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on any differences, but the film certainly is a pretty silly affair, and much of it must have been present in the original writing.

The film takes place in some fantasy take on the 19th century, and stars several historical figures, like Queen Victoria (here depicted as a furious pirate-hating monarch and the villain of the film), Charles Darwin (depicted as a whiny and cowardly character, longing for a girlfriend, and having an all too intelligent chimpanzee as a butler), and, in a small cameo, Jane Austen (the latter’s inclusion is particularly odd, as she died twenty years before Victoria became queen).

The pirates of the title have more in common with Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘Pirates of Penzance’ (1879)* than with the real thing and are depicted with all the present day cliches imaginable. They’re all dressed in 17th century fashion, belying the 19th century setting, there are wooden legs, flags with skulls, several ‘arrrr’s etc. The modern take on this time period in emphasized by a soundtrack of modern British pop music featuring songs by e.g. Tenpole Tudor, The Clash, The Beat and Supergrass. Thus historicity clearly isn’t the film’s main goal.

On the contrary, the film is self-consciously loony, and chock full of gags and pure nonsense. For example, there’s a pirate festival in which one pirate will be awarded ‘pirate of the year’; one of those pirates makes his entrance from the insides of a giant sperm whale landing on the small harbor; queen Victoria’s dress turns out to be a military killing machine, and so on and so forth.

The story tells about ‘The Pirate Captain’ (he nor his crew do carry names), who dreams of winning ‘the pirate of the year’ award, but who’s actually the laughing stock of the pirate community. In one of his puny attempts to loot a ship he meets Charles Darwin (on his voyage on ‘The Beagle’, which in reality also occurred before Queen Victoria was crowned). Darwin takes interest in the Pirate Captain’s parrot Polly, who’s actually a dodo, and persuades the captain to hand her over for science…

‘The Pirate Captain’, excellently voiced by Hugh Grant, is a round character, dim but enthusiastic, incapable but ambitious, and the story’s focus rests on the tension field between his own ambitions and the love for his crew, mostly personified by pirate ‘Number Two’, who acts as the conscience of the ship. The other six crew members are less well-developed, but allow for a lot of laughs, especially ‘Albino Pirate’ and ‘Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’ (an obvious woman with a false orange beard).

In the end the story is less interesting than the general silly atmosphere and the multitude of gags. In fact, the plot is disappointingly generic, containing the obligate break-up scene in which the ambitions of the main protagonist lead to an alienation of his friends (also present in e.g. ‘Up’ from 2009 and ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ from 2013), and an equally generic gravity-defying finale, once again bringing back memories to ‘Up’.

The animation is outstanding throughout, and one quickly forgets it’s all done in laboring stop motion. There’s way too much action, and even a breathtaking chase scene (inside Darwin’s London home) to stand still and marvel at the animation itself – it’s simply too fluent, and seemingly effortless – a testimony of the enormous talent present at the British studio. There’s even some traditional animation, when the Pirates’ voyages are depicted on a map of the world. Likewise, there’s hardly time to gape at the sets, which are magnificent in their elaboration and made with so much love and care that one gets immediately submerged into the pirates’ world. I’ve seen the pirate ship at an Aardman exhibition in Groningen, The Netherlands, and that alone is a prop of 3 meters high(!). The captain’s room, too, was something to marvel at – containing a lot of subtle jokes you’ll hardly notice in the movie – if at all. Look for the captain’s log!

In all, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is great fun, brought to you with bravado and a virtuosity that will leave you breathless.

* the whole concept of Pirate King seems to come from this operetta.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Władysław Starewicz
Release Date: 1920
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

In ‘Dans les griffes de l’araignée’ Starewicz tells his own, quite elaborated version of the classic ‘Spider and the Fly’ tale.

In Starewicz’s version the fly is called Dame Aurélie, a simple fly living at the countryside with her uncle, Beetle Anatole, and being in love with a longhorn beetle. One day a famous Paris star, a butterfly called Phalène, crashes in the fly’s village, and stays at her home. Phalène paints an all too rosy picture of Parisian life, and soon after her departure, Aurélie goes to the capital, as well.

First all goes well, as Aurélie works as Phalène’s house maid. But when she’s fired because of seeing a secret lover, things go downhill, indeed. The tale ends rather gruesomely with quite a spectacular finale, and in the epilogue we watch Aurélie returning to the village…

‘Dans les griffes de l’araignée’ is quite a tragic tale, but it’s hard to call it very engaging. Starewicz’s puppets are quite sophisticated, e.g. capable of rolling their eyes, but they don’t transgress the emotions very well, which remains emblematic. The emotional scenes are augmented by close-ups of the insect characters, in which live action puppets are used. Most spectacular is the finale, in which the title cards make place for a long action scene. The surviving print is gorgeous with its hand-painted colors, which certainly add to the film’s unique atmosphere.

‘Dans les griffes de l’araignée’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Starewitch 1882-1965 DVD Cinquantième anniversaire’

Directors: Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli
Release Date: September 12, 2015
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

2015 was a good year for French animation. June already saw the release of the great movies ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ (April and the Extraordinary World) and ‘Tout en haut du monde’ (Long Way North), but these were topped in September by the Franco-Belgian production ‘Phantom Boy’.

‘Phantom Boy’ was created by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, who have been working together at the French Folimage studio since the mid-nineties, and who brought us the entertaining feature film ‘Une vie de chat’ (A Cat in Paris) in 2010. But compared to the earlier feature scenarist Gagnol adds an extra layer of depth to ‘Phantom Boy’, because this is not only an adventure film, but it also tells about a boy suffering from a deadly disease.

‘Phantom Boy’ is a children’s film set in New York, and tells about Léo, an eleven years old boy, who’s seriously ill (he’s probably suffering from cancer, but the exact illness is never revealed) and hospitalized. In the hospital Léo discovers that his spirit can leave his body and look around, encountering other spirits while doing so.

During one of these wanderings, he encounters the spirit of Alex Tanguy, an injured policeman. Tanguy is after a master villain, the “man with the deformed face”, who threatens to shut down the whole of New York with a computer virus if not delivered a huge sum of money. Unfortunately, Tanguy is stuck at the hospital, but he discovers Léo’s spirit can snoop around for him. Thus, Léo can help miss Delauney, a feisty journalist, who’s also on the villain’s trail. There’s a catch, however, Léo’s spirit must return to Léo’s body in time, or Léo will certainly die…

The film is thus a very nice mix of adventure, in which Léo’s superpower is used to a great effect, and drama, because the film makers never lose sight of Léo’s illness, and show the ails, fears, and sorrows of Léo and his family, as well. Thus, the film is not only exciting, but knows some really moving scenes, too.

Nevertheless, the film never becomes heavy- handed, and in fact is often very funny. Especially the master villain’s two helpers are great comic relief, but the best gag goes to the master villain himself, who several times tries to tell the story behind is deformation, only to get cut short all the time.

The film has a very pleasant visual style, courtesy of Jean-Loup Felicioli, who has given the film a very idiosyncratic take on the Franco-Belgian comic strip tradition. Typical for Felicioli is a strongly graphical and very angular style – not a thing is straight in this film, and the slant eyes of most characters. The man with the deformed face is practically cubist, with his multi-colored and checkered face. The color palette is warm and appealing, and the animation uses the jittery style often encountered in independent shorts.

Films like this prove that traditional animation is far from dead (‘Phantom Boy’ was even drawn on paper, and hand colored, even though the final composition was done on the computer), and in fact allows for a less generic and more adventurous style than contemporary computer animation. I’ll even go that far to name ‘Phantom Boy’ the best animated feature of 2015, despite serious competition from both ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ and ‘Inside Out’.

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

‘Phantom Boy’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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