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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli
Release Date: December 20, 2015
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Un plan d’enfer’ is a comic short from the makers of ‘Une vie de chat’ (2010) and ‘Phantom Boy’ (2015).

The cartoon is set on a hot night in town. Two burglars plan to steal gold from an old lady. In order to be able to make a lot of noise and keep unheard, they release a multitude of cats on to the streets. These attract numerous dogs (including the vicious mongrel from ‘Phantom Boy‘), creating a lot of noise, indeed. The plan all goes well, until the two spill some katnip on their own car…

‘Un plan d’enfer’ is an unassuming, unpretentious short, told with charming drawings in the great Franco-Belgian comic strip tradition, and with the typical crooked style of Gagnol and Felicioli. There’s nothing mind-blowing or life-changing about this short, but it provides five and half minutes of genuine fun.

Watch the trailer for ‘Un plan d’enfer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Un plan d’enfer’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Phantom Boy’

Director: Rémi Chayé
Release Date: June 16, 2015
Rating: ★★★★ ½
Review:

‘Tout en haut du monde’ was the third of four notable animated films coming from France in 2015. Rémi Chayé, who had previously worked as a storyboard artist for Cartoon Saloon’s ‘The Secret of Kells’ from 2009, directed this film, which is, surprisingly, set in Russia and knows only Russian characters.

The story, by female writers Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, is set in 1882, and tells of teenager Sasha, granddaughter of the great (fictional) Oloukine, who has disappeared somewhere in the Northern ice sea with his ship Davaï. The czar has desperately trying to find his favorite explorer and his ship, offering an enormous sum of money for those who succeed, but without any result.

Sasha discovers that the czar’s search parties have been looking in the wrong region, and against her father’s will she sets out to go on a mission of her own. Being an aristocrat who knows nothing of the real world, she soon gets stuck in a Northern harbor, where she gets help from a friendly innkeeper called Olga.

Sasha soon learns what real working is, and becomes quite good at it. Thus hardened, and still as determined as before, she indeed manages to get a ship to look for the Davaï, but she and her shipmates soon have every reason to want to find the ship.

‘Tout en haut du monde’ knows a wonderful young strong woman as its leading star, but Sasha never becomes superhuman – she remains a woman of flesh and blood. In fact, throughout the movie we can feel with her, with her frustration, her naivety, her determination, and her fear.

Interestingly, there’s absolutely no love story involved (although there is some flirtation between Sasha and the cabin Boy Katch). In the end it’s clear that Sasha is destined to become a great explorer herself, not the mere wife of some aristocrat husband.

Sasha’s co-stars, too, are round characters, and certainly not without their flaws. There’s an interesting subplot involving two brothers: one captain, and the other his mate. When Sasha does find her grandfather, this is a magical and moving moment, if a rather improbable one. This this the film’s only venture beyond realism. Otherwise, the movie maintains a very realistic tone, with the dangers and hardships of the North Pole shown in their full extent.

Nevertheless, the film never becomes dire or grizzly, and this is mainly because of the extraordinarily beautiful artwork, for which Chayé was responsible as well. The film’s visual style is clearly rooted in the franco-belgian comic tradition, but has discarded almost all line work. Instead, we are treated on bold color areas, both on the characters and the backgrounds, which are in perfect harmony with each other.

The coloring is clearly done entirely on the computer, but the result is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, the film boasts one of the best color schemes and richest color palettes ever put to the animated screen. Especially, the depiction of sunlit landscapes and rooms ensures some marvelous coloring. By all means, the scenes on the North Pole are of an astonishing beauty, with the ubiquitous ice never being just white. Thus as a result, every frame is a pretty painting.

If ‘Tout en haut du monde’ knows one flaw, it’s its rushed ending. The film ends before all story lines have been resolved, and the return scenes are shown in stills during the end titles. This is a little unsatisfactory. After Sasha’s grand Arctic journey, one wishes her adventure to end on an equally epic scale, not to fade out with a sizzle.

Nevertheless, this is a film to behold, and certainly one of the best animated features of 2015. With ‘tout en haut du monde’ Rémi Chayé became a strong new voice in the animation world, a reputation he consolidated with the even better ‘Calamity, une enfance de Martha Jane Cannary’ (2020).

Watch the trailer for ‘Tout en haut du monde (Long Way North)’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Tout en haut du monde (Long Way North) ‘ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
Release Date: June 15, 2015
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

2015 was an excellent year for French animation. In May ‘The Little Prince’ came out (though largely animated in Canada, its French ties remain very clear), followed by the fresh ‘Tout en haut du monde’ (Long Way North) in June, and the lovely ‘Phantom Boy’ in September. That year I saw the last two on the Dutch Holland Animation Film Festival, and I knew of the existence of the first, but there was another great French animation film, which I had completely missed back then: ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ (April and the Extraordinary World) , also released in June. This is quite incomprehensible, for it’s a fine film, as well.

This film was entirely made to showcase the illustration style of French comic artist Jacques Tardi (born in 1946), one of the most idiosyncratic and most respected of all French comic authors. Now, Tardi’s classic comic ‘Adèle Blanc-sec’ had been made into a feature film before (2010), but that was a live action film, in which, of course, Tardi’s graphic style was lost. In ‘Avril et le monde truqué’, on the other hand, his hand is recognizable in every scene.

Tardi favors to set his stories in France during the belle époque period, roughly 1870 to 1918, but ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ takes place in 1941. Nevertheless, the complete film breathes Tardi’s favorite époque, because the story, conceived by director Franck Ekinci and screenplay writer Benjamin Legrand, is set in an alternate history in which science more or less stopped in 1870, thus before the taming of electricity.

The story starts in 1870, with a scientist looking for a serum to make soldiers immortal, but only succeeding in making two mysterious lizardly creatures talk. Then the film jumps to the background story of the alternate history, in which the steam age is extended enormously. Then one picks up the story-line with the scientist’s son, grandson and the latter’s wife trying to make the serum, as well. Young April also helps a little, and there’s also a talking cat present, called Darwin. Unfortunately, no scientist is allowed to work if not for the government, and the police is after the gang. During the chase scene, April’s parents and grandfather disappear, and she’s left alone with Darwin the cat.
Jump to 1941, in which April has become a young woman herself – also looking for the mysterious serum, while her aged cat lies in bed, coughing (there’s a lot of coughing in this film, subtly illustrating the enormous air pollution that comes with the burn of coal and charcoal).

I’ll not reveal the rest of the story, but be assured it’s pretty ludicrous. Nevertheless, it’s told very well, and never becomes dull or too unbelievable to buy, until the very last scenes, which are absolutely outrageous. Moreover, despite all the action, and a few deaths, the tone remains light and humorous, and the film never ceases to be one for the whole family.

Most interesting is the depiction of Avril herself: like Tardi’s comic star Adèle Blanc-Sec she’s a resourceful, strong and brave woman, who, in this case, also happens to be an intelligent scientist. She’s clearly way ahead of most of the (male) scientific community, and smarter than her male love interest. Between these two lovers things turn out fine in the end, but there are also two other couples depicted, which during the film are getting alienated from each other, with no chance of repair. This is a refreshing story twist, simply inconceivable in an American animated family film. Even more interesting is the film’s attitude to man and nature. The film asks some important questions, without falling into the trap of answering them, as well.

Of course, the major highlight of the film is its looks, especially for fans of Tardi’s work. Tardi’s style is a very idiosyncratic version of Hergé’s ligne clair, with much looser lines, and the use of strong blacks (most of his work is in black and white). The film transfers this style excellently to the animated screen. Both his character designs and world-making remain immediately recognizable. For example, April herself is clearly your typical Tardian heroine, her facial features resembling those of e.g. Adèle Blanc-sec, or Lili from ‘La débauche’ (2000). The other characters, too, look as if they’ve walked away from one of his books, and are a delight to watch. Special mention goes to inspector Gaspard Pizoni, one of the blundering policemen crowding Tardi’s oeuvre, and together with Darwin the comic relief of the film.

Even better, is the alternate world Tardi and the other film makers have created. Of course, their world is a version of steampunk, and their alternate version of Paris is certainly a well-conceived and magical place, with two Eiffel towers accompanying a hanging cable train to Berlin, the Opéra changed into a factory, and a towering statue of Napoleon III topping Montmartre, instead of the 1914 Sacré Coeur basilica. Steam-propelled cars fill the streets, and people stroll wearing gas masks, because of the heavy pollution, which renders most of the city in grey tones, fitting Tardi’s style perfectly. Tardi’s style is less fitting for the jungle scenes, however, and during these scenes, some of the magic of his style is lost.

The film makers cite Hayao Miyazaki as a major influence on their alternate history world, and indeed, there’s a certain kinship to Miyazaki’s ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986) and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004), which must have been the inspiration for the walking house featured in ‘Avril’. Curiously, they don’t mention Otomo’s ‘Cannonfodder’ (1994) or ‘Steamboy’ (2004), despite the obvious connections of these films to the world of ‘Avril’.

The animation, too, is very fine. The film may have been created entirely in the computer, the animation is clearly hand-drawn, with a little help of effective and certainly not too obtrusive computer animation, much in the vain of the use of computer animation in early Disney renaissance features, like ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ (1986) or ‘Aladdin’ (1992). The animation style has little of the squash and stretch principles of Disney animation, and is more akin to the Japanese animation tradition, which suits Tardi’s drawing style very well. Darwin the cat is a great example of fine animation: the character remains both a very convincing cat and a fussy character.

In all, ‘Avril et le Monde truqué’ is a surprise film, an absolute must-see for all Tardi-fans, but also recommended to all lovers of animated feature films and/or steampunk. Even if you don’t dig the zany story, there’s enough to enjoy to have a good time throughout the movie.

Watch the trailer for ‘April and the Extraordinary World’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘April and the Extraordinary World’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak
Release Date:
January 24, 2015
Stars: Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★★★

Thank God for the LAIKA and Aardman Studios, which, in a time of cliché-ridden computer animated films, devote their time to the ancient art of stop-motion, and who dare to tell stories that are less trope-rich than most contemporary mainstream animation films. Of this the ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is an excellent example.

Shaun the Sheep made his debut in the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’ from 1995. From 2007 on the little sheep stars his own television series. In this series Shaun gets his own world: he’s part of a flock, owned by a nameless farmer and guarded by a partly anthropomorphized sheepdog called Bitzer. The series is rather unique in the present television animation world for both being completely animated in stop-motion, and being completely devoid of dialogue.

The first feature length movie about Shaun the Sheep features all the main protagonists from the series, and retains the lack of dialogue, a tour de force in a feature length film, rarely done before (an obvious example is ‘Les triplettes de Belleville’ from 2002). When taking Shaun the Sheep from the small television screen to the big screen of movie theaters, the studio also took the little sheep and his co-stars out of their comfortable little barnyard world and into the big city (consequently called ‘Big City’). This not only meant completely new plot possibilities, but also a multitude of very elaborate sets, full of props, which never seize to amaze in their grand scale, and richness of detail.

The plot starts when Shaun decides to have a day off. He manages to lull the farmer into sleep inside a caravan, and takes over possession of the farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the caravan plunges downhill, out of the farmer’s terrain, and into the big city. Bitzer immediately recognizes the danger, but Shaun, free at last, is a slower learner. Only when he realizes the sheep will soon run out of food, he comes into action, and follows both the farmer and Bitzer into town.

Matters get extra complicated when his flock follows him, when they encounter an animal catcher called A. Trumper, and when the farmer gets hit by a traffic light bulb, making him losing his memory. Luckily, the gang meets an ugly, but very friendly orphan mongrel called Slip (although her name is never revealed during the film), which helps them throughout the movie.

The film is full of delightful scenes, and despite Shaun’s slightly moralistic story arc (which can be summarized as ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘appreciate what you’ve got’), it’s clear that humor has a number one seat. Especially delightful are Bitzer’s scene at an operation room, the flock of sheep, poorly disguised as humans, dining in a fancy restaurant, and the animal prison scenes, complete with references to ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1953) and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991, especially cleared for the occasion by Warner Bros.).

The movie isn’t entirely devoid of tropes, however. There’s the typical ‘all hope is lost’ scene, but even in this scene the gang stays together. There’s no conflict between the main protagonist and his friends, unlike many contemporary films (e.g. ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016), a welcome diversion to this almost obligatory scene.

Another trope is that of the almost invincible villain (see also e.g. ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ from 2012), played out by Trumper, who even follows the gang home in order to destroy them. Nevertheless, the story is original enough to surprise and to entertain throughout. It’s also admirable how the makers managed to even give the hapless farmer his own subplot.

The lack of dialogue means that all emotions have to be acted out solely with gestures and facial expressions. In this respect, the animators do an excellent job. There’s especially a lot of subtle emotion in the eyes, and there’s plenty of animation depicting the characters’ inner thinking. This is animation art at its peak. This, in combination with the stunning handicraft depicted in every scene, makes ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ a stand-out in the present animation film era. The film may be targeted to children, it’s absolutely a delight for the whole family, with something entertaining for everyone. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Nick Park
Release Date:
December 24, 1995
Stars: Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★½

Like the ground-breaking ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, ‘A Close Shave’ has a mystery plot featuring an evil genius framing Gromit. This time the premise is a wool shortage.

Wallace and Gromit are window cleaners, accidentally harboring an escaped sheep, and later meeting the villain, a bulldog called Preston, themselves. Things get complicated when Wallace gets romantically involved with Preston’s owner, wool shop owner Wendolene Ramsbottom, and Preston turns Wallace’s knit-o-matic into a killer machine, turning sheep into dog food.

As with ‘The Wrong Trousers’ the film knows a spectacular finale, first with an exciting car chase (also involving a little plane), and then in Preston’s dog food factory. As with the earlier film the suggestion of speed is flawless, and one forgets immediately that the original clay puppets didn’t move at all. The animation and the elaborate sets are even more spectacular than in the earlier film.

And yet, ‘A Close Shave’ is less gripping than ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was. The plot is more predictable, the car chase more conventional, and Preston less creepy than the penguin was in the earlier film, despite being indestructible in a rather Terminator-like manner. It’s a pity Nick Park and his team didn’t come with a more different plot, because now ‘A Close Shave’ demands too much comparison to the earlier film.

Nevertheless, the film is very important in Aardman history, for it introduces Shaun the Sheep, since 2007 hero of his own series, and star of no less than two feature length films. Already in his first short the little sheep shows to be a brave and inventive little fellow, and he literally has the last laugh.

Watch the opening of ‘A Close Shave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Close Shave’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★

‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’ tells about farmer Nathan and his wife Emmylou, who have been married since they were eighteen, but who are secretly dreaming of another life.

It’s a bit unclear what the subject of ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’ has to do with this particular commandment, and the film feels rather pointless, resulting in possible the weakest of Mulloy’s The Ten Commandment films.

Like most of the other Ten Commandments episodes the short is narrated by Joel Cutrara and takes place in Joesville.

‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★

‘Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother’ is the fourth entry in Phil Mulloy’s puzzling Ten Commandments series.

This short tells the story of Little Tucker, who is forced by his parents to run a county race, only to arrive last. This film takes place full of oil fields, and Mulloy not only uses his characteristic stark black and whites, but also some bright reds and yellows for a fire.

The short, narrated by Joel Cutrara, is rather simple and straightforward, and doesn’t really deliver its promise. Nevertheless, it contains a nice jazzy score by Dave King.

‘Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★★

‘Remember to Keep the Holy Sabbath Day’ is the most absurd and arguably the funniest of Phil Mulloy’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ films.

The short tells the strange (and rather silly) tale of Ezechiel Mittenbender, a citizen of Joesville, Mulloys mythical town, which he had introduced in ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal‘. When Ezechiel witnesses the landing of a flying teacup, he gets abducted by evil aliens called Zogs. The Zogs want to destroy the earth, but Ezechiel saves the day by reminding the Zogs that it’s Sunday…

The Zogs have genitalia where our heads would have been and vice versa. Mulloy clearly delighted in these creatures, because they would return in his ‘Intolerance’ double bill of 2000/2001.

‘Remember to Keep the Holy Sabbath Day’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

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