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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Release date:
September 10, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★★
Review:

To me the Japanese Production I.G. studio is a company hard to grasp what it’s about. Since 1987 the studio produces television series, OVAs, feature films, video games and even music. With its vast production quantity seems more important than quality, and production more important than vision or style. For example, of its fifty plus feature films only a very few created a stir in the West, and these are as diverse as ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995), ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’ (2000), ‘Giovanni’s Island’ (2014) and ‘Miss Hokusai’ (2015).

Of all these ‘A Letter to Momo’ comes closest to an author film. The film was conceived, written and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, after he had directed the widely acclaimed ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’. The whole film took a staggering seven years to make, but the amount of work visibly pays off, because ‘A Letter to Momo’ can be placed among the best films ever to come out of Japan, being on the same level as the best from Ghibli, Momaru Hosoda or Makoto Shinkai. It’s therefore highly incomprehensible that the film remains Okiura’s only own creation.

‘A Letter to Momo’ takes place in one hot summer on the island, and tells about Momo, an eleven year old girl whose father has unexpectedly died, and who moves with her mother Ikuko from buzzling Tokyo to the place of her mother’s roots: a quiet rural town on the remote Osaki Shimojima island, somewhere Southeast of Hiroshima in the Seto inland sea. Both events are clearly traumatic experiences to the young teenager, who remains shy, stubborn, withdrawn, and taciturn, despite her mother’s efforts to befriend her with the local children, who surely are willing enough to let her join their group. These early scenes are shown on a leisurely speed, depicting Momo’s boredom, isolation, and loneliness very well.

But things get worse, Momo’s new home turns out to be haunted: there are voices in the attic, and some vague creature seems to follow her mom when she’s off to work. Soon, a trio of goblins manifest themselves to the young girl, and she has a hard time getting used to their presence. During the movie she must learn to live with them, and she finally figures out why they are there in the first place.

The fantasy sequences with the three dimwitted goblins are fun, but throughout the movie Momo’s emotions remain central to the story, especially the loss Momo experiences after her father’s death, her relationship with her mother, who’s also grief-stricken, and her slow opening to the island children. A recurring metaphor of Momo’s transition from being shy, miserable, and scared to a teenager capable of enjoying life once again is shown in a few swimming scenes, in which the island children jump from a high bridge into the sea.

The human drama and the fantasy finally come together in a breathtaking finale when a typhoon visits the island. This sequence is the most Ghibli-like of the whole film. This is the dramatic highlight of a film that otherwise remains modest in how it tells its sweet and moving tale.

The looks of ‘A Letter to Momo’ are no less than gorgeous. The film boasts a rather unique style, with a very high level of realism. The drawings are exceptional for their surprisingly attractive and very thin line work, and the animation, supervised by Masashi Ando, is no less than excellent. Especially, the command of the human form is breathtaking. It apparently took four years to animate the complete film, but every animation drawing of Momo and her mother is a beauty to look at, and absolutely conveys a wide range of emotions and expressions, rarely resorting to anime cliches, if ever. For example, it’s startling to watch someone cough as realistically as Ikuko does in this film. ‘A Letter to Momo’ is also one of those rare Japanese animation film in which the characters actually do look Japanese, with black hair, porcelain to yellow-brown skins and eyes of more realistic proportions than usually encountered in anime.

The background art, supervised by Hiroshi Ôno (who previously worked on ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’) is gorgeous, too. It does not deviate from artwork of other Japanese animation films, but again, its level of realism is staggering. The documentary on the Blu-Ray I have of this film shows pictures of the real thing, and the film makers have captured the island of Osaki Shimojima astonishingly well. Moreover, they’ve managed to do so, while keeping the background paintings very attractive and always in service of the animated action. There’s a small dose of computer animation, which always remains modest and functional (a boat, a fan, some moving background art), and which doesn’t disrupt the graphic quality of the film.

In all, ‘A Letter to Momo’ is a heart-warming tale on loss and grief, very well made and one of the most gorgeous animation films to come out of Japan to look at. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Letter to Momo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Letter to Momo’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Oh Sung-Yoon
Release date:
July 28, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

I once grabbed a copy of this film from a Tesco’s in Northern Ireland because it looked visually interesting. But I must be one of the very few people who have seen this movie: the film remains totally obscure: I’ve never encountered this feature on any animation festival, review site or such, and it’s not even getting 1000 viewers on the IMDb. This film certainly deserves better, as we shall see below.

‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ turns out to be a Korean film: it was made by Lotte Entertainment and Myung Films, both based in South Korea, and indeed the film’s visuals are a strange mix of Western and Eastern tropes. Especially the character designs are a mixed bag, with some animals looking very Disneyesque (e.g., the little Duckling), others genuinely Asian (e.g., the barnyard ducks and the otter mayor). Most ridiculous is the heroic gander Wilson, who’s a strange combination of a duck and a handsome anime hero, with a waving hairdo.

Nevertheless, ‘Daisy a Hen into the Wild’ is a very attractive film to look at. The coloring is bold and glowing, with bright oranges and greens popping from the screen. Moreover, all characters have an airbrushed coloring, rendering them soft and rich in color. Even better is the background art, which consist of soft, poetical story book-like painting, unlike anything you’ll encounter in either American or Japanese cinema. In fact, the background painting style reminded me most of Jimmy Murakami’s films based on Raymond Briggs’s stories. Some of this background art is extraordinarily beautiful and a real feast to the eye. The animation is of a high level, too, if not too outstanding, often strangely blending naturalism with both Disneyesque character animation and Japanese anime animation styles. There’s a splash of functional computer animation, most interesting when showing moving sceneries.

The story is very surprising, too, and unlike any American animation film. The story takes place within one year, and tells about Daisy, one of countless hens in a battery cage. Daisy’s clearly pining away in this depressing environment. At the start of the movie, she looks sickly and sad, and yearning for the outside world, especially that of some prime fowl that can walk the barnyard freely. At one point she plays dead to escape. The escape succeeds, but if you’d think this would be a film on freedom, you’re mistaken.

It soon becomes clear the loud and naïve Daisy is ill-suited for the outside world. The barnyard fowl expels her and there’s a one-eyed weasel roaming about. Luckily, the gander Wilson helps her, as does the otter, mayor of a large pond, even though the waterfowl despise the newcomer, too. Then things take an unexpected dramatic turn, and the Daisy’s tale becomes one of motherhood, selflessness and even sacrifice.

It’s best not to reveal too much, for this film’s story takes surprising directions up to a final twist unheard of in any animation film from the Western world. For example, Daisy faces some real limits to her possibilities in the outside world, so unlike the limitless American Dream so often depicted in American animated cinema. Even if she wanted to, she can’t be everything she wants to be, and part of the film is about making brave decisions, nonetheless. The only cliché part all too familiar to Western eyes is that of an outsider winning an important competition.

The story is surprisingly serious, and the film contains very little comic relief (only in the form of the otter and some of the barnyard fowl). The Korean makers don’t shun the cruelty of nature and show that every creature has its own very good reasons for what it does, even if it’s killing other species. And they’re able to do so in a moving tale with an attractive visual design.

In all, ‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ is an original and unconventional film that deserves to be seen more. The movie shows that South Korea can have a strong own voice in the animation world, independent of either Western or Japanese animation traditions, or least blending these to a unique style of its own.

Watch the trailer for ‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ is available on DVD

Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Release date:
July 17, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★
Review:

Like ‘Ocean Waves’ (1993) and ‘Whisper of the Heart‘ (1995) ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is one of those Ghibli films that could do well without animation. There’s no fantasy or metamorphosis around. Instead, the film is a modest little human drama. In fact, the film has much in common with the two earlier Ghibli features. Like ‘Whisper of the Heart’ ‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ has a female teenager star, and like ‘Ocean Waves’ there’s a strong air of nostalgia pervading the movie, especially in the gorgeous and evocative background art.

‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ takes place in harbor town Yokohama, somewhere between 1961 and 1963, before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and after the release of the melancholic song ‘I Look Up as I Walk’ by Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, which is heard several times during the movie, and which even became famous in the West back then, with the silly and out-of-place title ‘the Sukiyaki song’.

‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ focuses on teenager Umi Matsuzaki who lives with her grandmother and little brother at a boarding house with five female boarders, for whom Umi cooks breakfast and dinner. Umi’s mother is a professor, who’s abroad most of the time, while her father, a seafarer, has died in the Korean war (1950-1953). Each day Umi raises some signal flags in remembrance of her father. These are seen by Shun Kazama, a schoolmate who works at a tugboat. Both Umi and Shun thus are hard working children, so typical for the Ghibli studio.

The story focuses on the love that grows between Umi and Shun, and some unforeseen complications it raises. But there’s also an important subplot in which Shun and his fellow students try to protect their old club house called ‘The Latin Quarter’ against demolishing. Only when Umi starts to help, leading an army of female students, the protest gains momentum. The clubhouse scenes provide some comic relief in an otherwise emotional deep and heart-breaking story of friendship, love, and loss.

It’s impressive how the film makers show the emotions in the subtlest of ways. For example, at one point Shun evades Umi’s presence, but we see her reaction to this neglect only sparingly on her face, and with the slightest of actions. Thus, when Umi finally lets her emotions flow, it hits the viewer all the harder.

Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki does an excellent job as a director, and the animation is top notch, especially on the main characters. There are a few flashback scenes and there’s a short dream sequence, but otherwise there’s a strong unity of time and place, with all the action taking place in only a few settings and in a limited time frame. The film thus stays focused all the time, even when showing minor deviations from the main plot, like one of the boarders leaving the house.

In all, ‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ may be a modest film, in its emotional depth it’s in no way less impressive than the studio’s more outlandish masterpieces like ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) or ‘Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea’ (2008). Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Joann Sfarr & Antoine Delesvaux
Release date: June 1, 2011
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is the film version of the comic strip series of the same name, which comprises eleven volumes thus far. At the time the film was made there were five albums, and the film retells the contents of volume one, two and five very faithfully, with a lot of panels and dialogue being transformed directly from comic strip drawings to film scenes.

Perhaps this is no wonder, as the comic’s author Joann Sfar co-directed the film. He must have had an important vote in the production, because the film flawlessly transcends Sfar’s idiosyncratic drawings to the animated screen

‘Le chat du rabbin’ is set in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, when it was still a French colony. It’s a little hard to date the time setting film, but because carbon dating is mentioned and because of the presence of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt this limits the time period between 1947 and 1953. In Algiers, the French, Jews, and Muslims all live together harmoniously, and we follow a rabbi of the Sephardic community, and his cat, who turns into a talking creature after swallowing a parrot.

It’s the cat who is the narrator of the film, and we see the events often through his eyes, although, unfortunately, this isn’t maintained consequently. The scenes with the talking cat, mostly recreating the first book, are the film’s best, for the cat turns out to be a skeptic and he asks his master philosophical and theological questions, which are all valid, but drive the poor rabbi mad.

Unfortunately, not only the cat, but the whole movie is rather talkative, and far too dialogue rich, a problem all too common in all French cinema. But this is not the movie’s main problem. No, regrettably, the film also shares the many story problems of the original comic books. Sfar seems to have started his comic book series without a plan, and the volumes are highly different in tone and content. Story ideas are introduced and dropped, and there’s a frustrating lack of focus.

The same accounts for the film. For example, halfway the cat loses his speech again, and with the film immediately loses its main attraction. Even worse, the most interesting character of both the comic books and the film is Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter, but she lacks a story arc, and is rarely seen, especially during the second half of the film, which focuses on the contents of volume five, in which the attention shifts to a far less interesting character of Russian origin in search of a mythical city of Jews somewhere in Ethiopia. With this part we also leave Algiers and all hope of a consistent story. I actually find the Russian’s quest utterly boring, and I wish the film makers dared to stay in Algiers and tell more about Zlabya. What certainly doesn’t help is an irritating and incomprehensible encounter with famous comic book character Tintin, who turns out to be a complete dork in this film.

The film’s designs are gorgeous, transferring Sfar’s sketchy comic book’s drawings very well, and applying very attractive color schemes, which evoke the subtropical, Mediterranean, and North African settings excellently. Especially the background art is gorgeous. Although heavily hatched, and thus very graphical, the animation reads very well against those background drawings, and it’s nice to see such a consistency of style from animated drawings to background art. There are even some very attractive Van Gogh influences visible in some of the night scenes.Olivier Davaud’s music, too, attributes to the Arabian atmosphere, with its quasi-Arabic style elements.

The animation, on the other hand, is not always that good. For example, when Zlabya plays the piano, the animation and the music aren’t in tune, at all. The animation is at its best when deviating from realism, as in the cat’s dream. In this dream sequence a bolder style is explored, with a lot of metamorphosis, absent from the rest of the film. The finale, too, explores a bolder style, just like the comic book does in these scenes, and I guess with this Sfar tries to tell us by then we’ve abandoned reality and entered the realm of tall tales. These scenes are certainly interesting to look at, but as said before, by then I at least had lost all interest already.

In all, ‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is a visually very attractive film, showing what traditional animation still can do in terms of original styling, but its rambling tale and its lack of focus make the film a frustrating watch. But to be honest, when reading the original comic strips one will experience the same frustration, thus the original source material is to blame. One wishes Sfar was as good a story teller as a visual artist, but let’s face it, he isn’t.

Watch the trailer for ‘Le chat du Rabbin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le chat du Rabbin’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Eric Khoo
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The film ‘Tatsumi’ celebrates the work of Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015). Tatsumi is the inventor of the gegika manga style, a grittier, more alternative form of manga for adults. The film re-tells five of Tatsumi’s short stories in this this style, all from 1970-1972. These stories are bridged by excerpts from his drawn autobiography ‘A Drifting Life’ from 2008.

Thus, the film is completely drawn (only in the end we see the real Yoshihiro Tatsumi), but to keep the manga style intact the film was animated with Toon Boom Software, specialized in ‘animatics’, which brings story boards to life. Thus, full animation, although present, is rare, and most of the motion is rather basic, often lacking any realism of movement. The animation is enhanced by limited digital effects, and the first and last story are digitally manipulated to make the images look older.

The complete film thus is little more than slightly enhanced comic strips. One wonders if this is the best way to present Tatsumi’s work, as most probably his stories work better in their original manga form, but of course the movie is a great introduction to his work, which without doubt is fascinating and original.

Tatsumi’s manga style clearly deviates from his example, the great Osamu Tezaku. Tatsumi’s style is more raw, sketchier and knows nothing of the big eyes so common in manga. All but one story use a voice over narrator. And all but one are in the first person. The stories themselves are gritty, dark, depressing and bleak. The second story, ‘Beloved Monkey’, in which a factory worker falls in love with a girl at a zoo, is particularly bitter. The outer two take place just after the end of World War II and show the effects of Japan’s traumatic loss. All are about the losers in life, struggling at the bottom of society. As Tatsumi himself says near the end of the movie:

“The Japanese economy grew at a rapid pace. Part of the Japanese population enjoyed the new prosperity. The people had a great time. I couldn’t bear to watch it. I did not share in the wealth, and neither did the common people around me. My anger at this condition accumulated within me into a menacing black mass that I vomited into my stories.”

Surprisingly, the protagonists of all first-person stories, including the autobiography, all look more or less the same, as if Tatsumi couldn’t create more than one type of hero. Only the third story, ‘Just a Man’, the only one to use a third person narrator, stars a different and older man, while the last story, the utterly depressing ‘Good-bye’, is the only one to have a female protagonist. Tatsumi’s own life story is told in full color which contrasts with his short stories, which are mostly in black and white. Tatsumi’s autobiography is less compelling than his story work but adds to the understanding of the artist and his work.

Surprisingly, for such a Japanese film ‘Tatsumi’ was made in Singapore and animated in Indonesia.  According to Wikipedia Singaporean director Eric Khoo was first introduced to the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi during his military service, and immediately was stricken by his stories. When ‘A Drifting Life’ was published in Singapore in 2009, Khoo realized that Tatsumi still was alive and wanted to pay tribute to him. Tatsumi himself was greatly involved in the film and narrates his own life story. The movie is a great tribute to one of the more original voices in Japanese manga, and well worth watching, if you can tolerate a dose of sex and violence.

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

‘Tatsumi’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release date: May 7, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

After the intimate and realistic ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ (2007) director Makoto Shinkai embarked on an ambitious, long and way more fantastical project, which is ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’. The film remains an oddball inside Shinkai’s oeuvre and shows a huge Ghibli-influence absent from his other films.

The film starts realistically enough, with little schoolgirl Asuna exploring some gorgeous nature at the other side of a railway bridge and visiting a secret hideout there. But the fantasy immediately kicks in when she brings forth a strange radio-like apparatus based on some sort of crystal. The use of this device triggers a series of events that eventually leads her to no less than the boundary between life and the afterlife.

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ knows high production values. Like ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ the background art is no less than stunning to begin with, especially the views of and from Asuna’s hill are gorgeous pieces of mood and light. Other scenes are perfect renderings of a hot summer. And like in the previous films, some of these intricate background paintings are only visible for a few frames. Typically for Japanese films some shots are just short mood pieces, in this film surprisingly often depicting insects, like dragonflies and cicadas.

The animation, too, is excellent, as is the shading on the characters themselves. The character design, on the other hand, is less original, and remarkably reminiscent of Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s work at the Toei Studios during the 1970s.

But this is only one of the obvious Ghibli-influences. Asuna herself is almost a typical Miyazaki-heroin: living without a father and a largely absent mother she’s depicted cooking and caring for herself and doing all the household work. She’s thus one of those working children that crowd the old master’s films. She’s joined by a cat called Mimi, which immediately brings Jiji to mind from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989). There’s a villain that echoes colonel Muska from ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986), and there are some God-animal hybrids seemingly coming straight out of ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

Shinkai absolutely succeeds in painting Asuna’s world. It’s a pity that most of the film takes place in Agartha, a mythical place underground the design of which is less compelling and even disappointing. When compared to the fantastical works of Ghibli’s ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) Shinkai’s worldbuilding clearly is subpar. For example, this subterranean world knows blue skies, sunlight, clouds, and rain, which all go unexplained. Apparently, there are no stars, but that’s about it. The underworld characters live in some quasi-medieval society, but this too, is hardly worked out or explained to the viewer. Shinkai’s erratic handling of the underworld seriously harms its believability. After all, it’s hardly different from ours, and both its reason of existence and its purpose remain vague and undecided.

It doesn’t help that Asuna explores this world with one Mr. Morisaki, who is a member of some secret society, but who descends into the earth to retrieve his deceased wife. Both Morisaki’s background story and introduction make frustratingly little sense. For example, there’s a flashback which seems to indicate he was alive during world war I, and for no apparent reason and with little likelihood he poses as Asuna’s substitute teacher. The secret society is utterly unnecessary to the plot, which is too complex for its own good. Moreover, Morisaki remains a vague and unconvincing character getting much too much screen time, and he never turns into either the scary villain Muska was in ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’ or one of those cleverly ambivalent antagonists of Miyazaki’s other films.

In fact, the scenes in Agartha start to drag, and the film loses focus, when leaving Asuna to concentrate on one of the underworld’s inmates, a boy called Shin. In the end Asuna is an all too will-less pawn in Morisaki’s scheme and she lacks her own clear story arc. This is in fact the film’s core problem: this should be Asuna’s story, but the film loses her halfway. It doesn’t help that Asuna’s own relationship to her deceased father is hardly developed, if at all. Particularly puzzling is a scene in which Asuna suddenly utters that Morisaki is like her father. Now where did that come from?!

The roles of Shin and the mute Manna remain vague, too, and feel half-baked. For example, Manna is abandoned halfway the film not to return. Instead, they add to the complexity of the story, further obscuring Asuna’s story arc. During the finale, in which Morisaki finally meets God (!) and Asuna is even depicted in the afterlife (!!) the last traces of believability go out of the window. Compare this rather blunt and all too direct storytelling with the Orpheus myth itself, which is clearly one of its inspirational sources, and one regrets Shinkai didn’t go for much more mystery.

The aftermath, in which our protagonists wander all the way back home is even worse, done in a short montage the story deflates over the end titles, accompanied by a cheesy song. This is a disappointing ending of an overlong and poorly timed film, indeed. Add some unnecessary gore, a plethora of unresolved story lines, three all too forced explanation scenes, and one can only conclude that Shinkai utterly fails where Miyazaki succeeds.

Luckily, ‘Childern Who Chase Lost Voices’ remained a one-time experiment. With his next film, ‘The Garden of Words’ Shinkai returned to much more familiar terrain, with far better results.

Watch the trailer for ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall
Release Date: April 15, 2011
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In 1961 Walt Disney obtained the film rights to A.A. Milne’s famous books, and over the years made five short specials about the character (1966-1983), of which the second (Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, 1968) and third (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, 1974) have become absolute classics. In 1977 the first three were stitched together into the feature film ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’, and its in this form they’re available on home media today.

Now, one can lament the fact that many children will know Winnie the Pooh better by its Disney version than by E.H. Shepard’s original irreplaceable illustrations, but within animation history these specials are highlights of inventive story-telling and wonderful character animation. A particular delight are the playful interactions of the characters with the pages of the book they appear in. Moreover, Disney retained the contrast between the naive stuffed animals and the pompous forest animals, Rabbit and Owl, who only think they’re wiser than their plush counterparts.

Unfortunately, following these classic specials, Disney took more and more liberties with the Pooh franchise, resulting in television series, direct to video movies, and even video games. Also, the three feature films made by the Disneytoon Studio division, ‘The Tigger Movie’ (2000), ‘Piglet’s Big Movie’ (2003) and ‘Pooh’s Heffalump Movie’ (2005) seemed to drift away more and more from the source material than either desired or necessary.

In this light one cannot but be weary before approaching the 2011 film, called ‘Winnie the Pooh’ in surprisingly plain fashion. However, the film deviates significantly from the trends set in the previous decade: first, it was made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios itself, being Disney’s last hand drawn animated feature to date, and the quality of animation simply is undeniable. Especially Andreas Deja’s animation of Tigger is fantastic. Moreover, there’s only a little computer animation, most notably the swarm of bees and some flowing honey. Second, the film returns to the original source material, mixing two original chapters together: ‘Eeyore loses a Tail’ from Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and ‘The Search for Small’ from ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ (1928).

The film is surprisingly concise, only lasting 51 minutes, and not dragging one second of it. On the contrary, I rank ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as one of the best told and most entertaining of all 2010s animation films. The film successfully revives the playful spirit of the original specials, greatly helped by using John Cleese as its narrator. There’s plenty of humor, mostly deeply rooted in the interplay between the contrasting characters. For example, at one point Owl boasts he has “achieved completion of [his] autobiographical treatise”, prompting Winnie the Pooh to reply “Oh. Was it painful?”. In another sequence there’s a great confusion when the words ‘not’ and ‘knot’ are mixed together.

Two of the original songs are reused, the ones introducing Winnie the Pooh himself, and Tigger’s song. Five original songs are added, penned by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. These are functional, pleasant and short enough to please even a musical aversion-bearer like me. Even better, the Backson song is accompanied by a wonderful fantasy sequence emulating the 1950s cartoon modern style. The ‘Everything is Honey’ song is illustrated with surreal images of honey pots in the forms of e.g. crabs, jellyfish and whales.

The voice cast, too, is excellent. As the voice of Pooh Jim Cummings does an excellent Sterling Holloway imitation, Bud Luckey sounds delightfully gloomy as Eeyore, while Craig Ferguson and Tom Kenny make their characters Owl and Rabbit perfectly pompous and self-important.

Even the end titles are a delight. First, the film’s adventures are retold using stills of the live action puppets in Christopher Robin’s room, then the rest of the titles are accompanied by several antics of the characters, much in the vein of the titles of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003). And there’s a surprise at the very end of them, so keep watching!

In all, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is a wonderful surprise, a true gem of a film, no doubt delighting children and adults alike. Unfortunately, it was to be the Disney studio’s last traditionally animated feature. It’s unbelievably sad that the high art of drawn animation was abandoned even by the studio that had elevated the technique to inconceivable heights in the first place. I surely hope Disney will return to this art form one day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rio’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Rango’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

After feature adaptations of several fairy tales and children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on aerial warfare (‘Victory through Air Power’ from 1943), ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ marks the studio’s very first animated adaptation of classic literature, in this case the historical novel of the same name from 1831 by French author Victor Hugo.

Of course, Disney’s version is not the first movie adaptation of Hugo’s hefty book. The most famous predecessors are a silent version from 1923 starring Lon Chaney as the title character, and one from 1939 starring Charles Laughton. The latter adaptation changed Hugo’s bleak and depressive ending into a more uplifting one. Disney gladfully follows suit, ending its own film remarkably upbeat, which is something the more avid Victor Hugo fan will hardly get used to. But more about that later.

The film starts with a ‘Pinocchio’-like opening shot with the camera zooming into the streets of Paris. Immediately it becomes clear that this new adaptation of ‘The Hunchback’ will be a musical, because the first song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ kicks in right away. It is sung by puppet player Clopin (Paul Kandel), whom we zoom into shortly, and who is the initial narrator of the tale, telling about events occurring twenty years before. This is the first of nine songs in 81 minutes, making ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ one of the most song-rich of the Disney musicals.

After the six-minute intro the film’s title appears, and we immediately cut to young adult Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), who remains misshapen as in the original novel, having both an asymmetrical body and face, with one bad eye, a hump, and a limping walk. But the animators also immediately make clear that this is a friendly, kind-hearted, and harmless person. Disney’s Quasimodo is kind and gentle and has a nice voice (by Tom Hulce), so we as an audience hardly must overcome any prejudice.

Moreover, within the limitations of the character’s literally description, the character designers really tried to make Quasimodo as appealing as possible. For example, compare his appearance to that of either Chaney or Laughton, who both look much uglier, and must overcome initial repulsion by the audience by great acting. Disney’s Quasimodo, on the other hand, is instantly likeable, and the viewer even struggles to comprehend why he isn’t loved more by the citizens of Paris.

Quasimodo’s first scene also shows the weird dualism of this movie: at one hand the studio really wants to tell a serious story, with heavy-handed themes, and dramatic music. On the other hand, the film makers apparently don’t dare to leave the cuddly-wuddly world of earlier Disney children’s films, and this leads to a schizophrenic end product, failing to be either entirely for children or the dark tale it could have been.

For example, the studio gives Quasimodo three humanized gargoyles to talk to (perhaps another idea taken from the 1939 film version, which ends with Quasimodo talking to a gargoyle). The appearance of the three gargoyles feels disappointingly formulaic and out-of-tune after the dramatic introduction. The childish half of the movie is further enhanced by the present of an intelligent pet goat and an equally humanized horse called Achilles. These two animal characters don’t speak, but clearly belong to the world of obligate animal sidekicks, which permeate the Disney films since ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).

True, the gargoyles appear only to be real to Quasimodo, turning to stone as soon as any other character is in the same room, but as we often watch them move without Quasimodo being aware of them, we’re led into believing these stone characters are real, and only pretending to be lifeless when other people are around.

Despite the presence of these cute characters, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is arguably Disney’s darkest movie since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), addressing issues like prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hypocrisy.

Most striking in this respect is the character of the villain judge Frollo, voiced forcefully by Tony Jay. His lust for Esmeralda is clearly an adult theme. This becomes most apparent in the character’s own song of desire, with its erotic fantasy depictions of Esmeralda depicted in the flames he watches. Masterly animated by Kathy Zielinski, this is arguably the movie’s best song, highlighting the complexity of the character. Frollo isn’t just bad, he’s torn inside. Frollo all too willingly marries his lust to his sense of justice and sees no problem in purging the town’s gypsies only to find his object of desire. In fact, Frollo is the most interesting character of the whole film, and certainly one of the most interesting of all Disney villains, for his evilness comes from partly from fanatism and bigotry, and is not purely selfish, even though that’s an important component of his character, too.

Another adult theme is the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and captain Phoebus. Esmeralda is the focal point of the movie, being the object of desire of the three male leads, if in different ways for each of them. Phoebus is a bland hero character, and the only one who doesn’t sing. At one point Quasimodo actually believes Esmeralda loves him, and he has to overcome his jealousy of his more handsome rival to help Phoebus finding Esmeralda.

Yet, as the film makers don’t really choose between a light-hearted and a serious narrative, the film remains an odd blend. For example, Quasimodo’s rescue scene is played out very dramatically and seriously. But this scene is followed by a rather frivolous storming of the cathedral, full of silly gags and broad, cartoony animation. One can even hear the Goofy yell when the soldiers fall from great heights to a – I’d say – certain death. This lack of choice troubles and harms the film big time. A Disney cliché scene in which a character seems dead but turns out not to be (see ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Jungle Book’) doesn’t help either.

But what really becomes hard to swallow is the film’s ending, which is all too happy, defying every believability. In Disney’s version Quasimodo seemingly starts a revolution, and the film makers want us to believe that following the film’s events the Middle Ages stopped right there and propelled all citizens of Paris into a post-modern world of tolerance and rainbow harmony, free from despotism, prejudice, and discrimination. If only. For example, ninety years after the events depicted here Paris would witness the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. I’m afraid that although Victor Hugo’s original ending may the more gruesome, it’s also the more realistic one.

The film is more successful as a musical than as a retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel. Alan Menken’s music is in the same modern musical vein as earlier Disney musicals, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992), but the tone is much more dramatic, verging on the edge of bombast.  Unique for this movie is that the score remains its musical character even when there’s no singing. An unexpected element of his score is Menken’s use of leitmotivs. Especially Frollo is identified by a particularly well-composed melody, which recurs throughout the movie. Menken may count this melody as one of his very best ever. Frollo’s song is the film’s dramatic highlight, and as said the best song of the whole film, but Menken’s score reaches epic heights during the rescue scene, when a choir singing in Latin adds to the musical suspense.

The only real mistake in the score is the Gargoyle’s song, the film’s only light-hearted tune. In this tune we’re suddenly confronted with many anachronisms and French cliches completely out of tune with the rest of the movie, like images of a casino, a barber, and a grand piano. What worked in ‘Aladdin’ falls completely flat in ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’. These anachronisms come across as a lack of ideas, instead of original twists, and pull the viewer out of the story, instead of taking him further in. Yet, it must be said that even this song shows the grim image of three people being hanged, even if it’s in puppet form. In the same way, a later song by a bunch of scoundrels remains very merry, even though it’s about killing.

The film’s design is noteworthy for its moody color palette, with blues, purple and orange as its principal colors, which permeate almost all scenes. The human designs are more elaborate, yet less artful than before, with Esmeralda and Phoebus being particularly bland. Unfortunately, somehow, it’s this more generic design that would become standard in the final traditionally American animated films of the late nineties and early 2000s.

The human designs may lack character, their animation is by all means outstanding, and shows that the Disney studio was at the very top of its craft. An example is the Topsy-Turvy song. Set at the Feast of Fools (which was actually forbidden by 1431, while the action takes place in 1482, but this is Victor Hugo’s error), this song features elaborate movement, fast cutting, all kinds of camera angles, and many different characters, both traditionally animated and computer animated. But all the movement and the characters’ emotions remain readable all the time. In fact, one can watch this sequence in silence and still know what’s going on.

Other pieces of animation I particularly like is when Frollo wriggles his sword out of a piece of wood while entering the cathedral, and the one in which Esmeralda asks Quasimodo to come outside, shot from Quasimodo’s perspective, thus making Esmeralda reaching out to us. But these are just examples in a film overflowing with excellent character animation.

Computer animation is limited to special effects, especially for creating crowd scenes. With help of computers, the studio could generate crowds of hundreds of people, without having to animate each person individually. When one looks closer, the animation looks terribly stiff and lifeless, but as the eye normally follows the fully animated leads, the result is convincing enough, and luckily not out of tune with the fully animated lead characters.

In all, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is a well-made film with a very interesting musical score, and great animation. It’s a daring piece into more serious territory, something the studio would never repeat. And I understand why, because as long as the Disney studio doesn’t dare to leave its compulsory family character, it will never succeed in retelling dramatic stories like Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ convincingly. This film certainly fails to do so, despite all the effort, and remains a schizophrenic product that leaves the viewer wondering what it could have been if the studio would have made more daring choices.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ and tell me what you think:

‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Although the move from animation to live action clearly was a gradual one (after all, ‘Alice‘ contained quite a bit of live action, while ‘Faust‘ was a live action film augmented with puppetry and animation), ‘Spiklenci slasti’ (Conspirators of Pleasure) can be regarded Jan Švankmajer’s first non-animated film, even if it stills contains a few bits of stop-motion and pixilation.

The change of technique doesn’t mean a change of style, however. The film is 100% Švankmajer throughout, with its complete lack of dialogue, its sound design (which is very reminiscent of that of animated films, indeed, with its emphatic sounds – we even hear the nonexistent sound of blinking of eyes), its idiosyncratic use of music (each individual has his/her own accompanying piece of music), its extreme close-ups, its sets of old buildings in a state of decay, and of course, a high dose of surrealism.

‘Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure)’ is an erotic film without sex. The titles are shown on a background of 18th century pornography, but the movie itself contains very little nudity, which is male only.

Main protagonist of the film is an unnamed bearded bachelor (played by Petr Meissel and identified as Mr. Pivoňka by Švankmajer). The film starts with him buying a sex magazine, but soon the magazine makes way for far more disturbing and puzzling acts of pleasure, involving a cupboard and a chicken. Mr. Pivoňka’s antics are interlaced with that of a postwoman, a mustached man, his lonely and abandoned wife, who’s a newsreader (Anna Wetlinská, who really was a newsreader), and the shop owner from the first scene, who’s secretly in love with Anna Wetlinská, and who builds an elaborate contraption around the television set she appears on.

The first 45 minutes are one big build-up to the pleasure acts themselves, and this is the most satisfying part of the film, because Švankmajer keeps the viewer puzzled where all the efforts of these people go to. Unfortunately, the acts of pleasure themselves are less compelling, as they’re not necessarily perverse as well as weird, and maybe this section is a bit overlong.

The shopkeeper’s machine is the absolute highlight, but the postwoman’s actions are absolutely grotesque, and that of Mr. Pivoňka and his neighbor, Mrs. Loubalová, sadomachistic, very violent and even morbid. Their acts involve the most animation, as their acts involve animated stuff dolls coming to life. But by now one could argue that the animation is more of a special effect than an element of style, although the pixilation still is used as a mean of surrealist story telling.

As the film comes to a finale, the boundary between reality and fantasy gets crossed. Anna Wetlinská seemingly takes over the shopkeeper’s machine, and comes to a climax herself. In the end the people’s fetishes get mixed, while Mr. Pivoňka’s mysterious ritual appears to have severe real life consequences indeed…

Nevertheless, one would like to know more about the postwoman and her incomprehensible rituals, as she seems to be some kind of facilitator of the desires of others. Also Anna Wetlinská’s bad marriage deserved a little bit more attention.

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ is a very original and entertaining movie, but the film remains on the shallow side and lacks the layered surrealism of ‘Alice’ or ‘Faust’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: April 12, 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl from 1961 ‘James and the Giant Peach’ is, in fact, a hybrid, starting and ending as a live action movie, with the middle forty minutes (ca. half the movie) being done entirely in stop-motion.

The opening scenes set ‘James and the Giant Peach’ as one of the great fantasy films of the nineties. The sets and atmosphere are magical and dreamlike, with no attempt at reality. James’s horrific aunts, too, are grotesque and deeply rooted in caricature. They are excellently played by British actresses Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley, who are allowed to play their personas as broadly as possible. Young James, in contrast, remains perfectly normal, and Paul Terry’s performance is on the brink of boring.

Despite the great opening scenes, the real fun starts when James descends into the giant peach. During this scene he transforms into his puppet self, and inside he meets a sextet of giant ‘insects’ (in fact, three of them are insects, the others being a myriapod, an arachnid and an annelid), with whom he decides to fly to New York, cleverly using sea gulls to propel the peach into the air.

Except for the all too bland glowworm, the arthropods are delightful characters: there is a very American sounding boastful and bragging centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a motherly ladybug (Jane Leeves), an aristocratic and knowledgeable grasshopper (Simon Callow), an anxious and gloomy earth worm (David Thewlis), and a femme fatale-like but friendly French female spider (Susan Sarandon). The design of these is less eccentric than that of the protagonists in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, but still have some freaky touches, most notably Miss. Spider’s eyes, which each consist of two yellow eyeballs. Moreover, they all have the correct number of legs, with Miss Spider’s eight legs all ending in elegant boots. The animation, too, retains some creepy-crawly quality, and Miss Spider remains a little scary, despite her friendliness.

The voice cast is excellent, and most of the humor originates from the interplay between these characters, but there is plenty of action anyway, with the bugs having to battle a mechanical shark, defend themselves against a ghost ship, and fight starvation.

Unfortunately, after 59 minutes we return to live action, when James and his friends land in New York. True, this New York remains a fantasy-product, with very stagy and crooked sets, but lasting a staggering 30 minutes this finale turns out to be overlong and weak. It does not really help that the film makers decide to make the aunts survive the crushing of their car and to follow James into New York, an idea not in the book. Believability is certainly breached in these scenes, because of the fake character of the sets, some wooden action of the crowds, and the strange interplay between the grotesque aunts and the more down-played Americans. Moreover, the insects are mostly absent from these scenes, which only show that young actor Paul Terry cannot carry these scenes on his own, which seem to drag without inspiration.

Another letdown of this film are the four songs by Randy Newman. All four are weak and forgettable. Even worse, they are clearly superfluous, and they threaten to stall the action instead of helping the story forward. Luckily, there are only four of them, making ‘James and the Giant Peach’ much more tolerable as a film than ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was, but nevertheless I regard this film yet another victim of the unwritten rule that every animation film should be a musical, which was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

The overlong finale and unwelcome songs prevent ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to become an all-time classic, and certainly it was not well received back then, becoming a box office bomb. With this the short Disney adventure into stop motion ended. This is pity because the stop motion animation is excellent and delightful to watch throughout.

There is also a fair deal of computer animation, surprisingly executed by Sony Pictures Image works, who did an excellent job on the rhinoceros, some dancing clouds, and the mechanical shark. The latter, especially, is a great piece of computer animation, as it blends surprisingly well with the stop-motion and never loses its fantastical character.

Disney thus may have stopped making stop motion films, but both Tim Burton and Henry Selick continued to follow this path, with Tim Burton making ‘Corpse Bride’ in 2005 and ‘Frankenweenie’ (again for Disney) in 2012, while Henry Selick joined Will Vinton’s LAIKA studio in 2005 to make the widely acclaimed ‘Coraline’ (2009).

Watch the trailer for ‘James and the Giant Peach’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘James and the Giant Peach’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Sam Fell & Chris Butler
Release Date:
August 3, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★★
Review:

Laika’s ‘ParaNorman’ is the first of no less than three horror-themed American animated features released in 2012. It was followed in September by Disney’s ‘Frankenweenie’ and Sony’s ‘Hotel Transylvania’. For the Laika Studios this was familiar terrain, as both the earlier ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005) and ‘Coraline’ (2009) had been horror themed.

For a while the studio even seemed to be a sort of one-trick pony in that respect (but this notion was ultimately defied by the very different ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ from 2016 and especially the surprisingly colorful ‘Missing Link’ from 2019).

‘ParaNorman’ plays with horror tropes from the start, beginning with opening credits, rendered in a 1950s horror movie style. And in the first scene we see Norman watching a cheap horror movie on television. We soon learn that Norman shares an ability with Cole from ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999): he can see dead people. Perhaps this ability explains the boy’s preoccupation with horror and science fiction, which is exemplified by ca. all objects in his room.

But then we learn that the fictional Massachusetts town in which he lives, Blithe Hollow (a clear reference to ‘Sleepy Hollow’ of the early horror story by Washington Irving), has its own preoccupation with witchcraft. Its city slogan is ‘a great place to hang’ and features a stunningly morbid picture of a witch hanging from a gallows pole. It’s this hanging of a witch and the witch’s curse that becomes central to the film’s story.

The film is very well-told and pleasantly concise, taking place over a period of only two days. As soon as some zombies appear that everybody can see the film becomes a rollercoaster ride that remains exciting to the very end. A deadline (no pun intended) adds to the suspense. The only dud is a rather forced break-up scene around 55 minutes of a type that seemed to be almost obligatory in animated studio cinema of the time (see e.g., ‘Up’ from 2009, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ from 2012 or ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016).

There’s some pretty morbid humor involved (e.g., when Norman tries to retrieve a book from his dead uncle), but the film makers manage to keep the horror light to permeate every scary scene with some goofiness. But the witch is genuinely scary, with help of added computer animation. Despite the horror and the excitement, the film’s message is surprisingly profound and mature, and its finale very moving. It’s very refreshing to watch the whole distinction between good and bad, between heroes and villains, being quite blurred in this movie.

‘ParaNorman’ is by all means a film made at the highest artistic level. The art, the handicraft, the animation, the cinematography – they’re all extremely virtuoso, and awe-inspiring. Most importantly ‘ParaNorman’ can boast the most original art design we’ve seen in ages in an American animated studio feature. Especially Heidi Smith’s character design should be mentioned. The puppets have a very distinct and surprisingly asymmetrical design that is both daring and refreshing, but still communicating and appealing. Especially stunning are the lips, with have a certain watery gloss, and the ears, which are a little translucent, just like real lips and ears. The sets and props, too, are angular and crooked, and are the perfect backgrounds for the idiosyncratic dolls to move in. Especially the family’s car is a delight to watch in that respect. And I’d like to add that even the end credits are very appealing.

‘ParaNorman’ is not the best animated feature of 2012, that distinction must go to Don Hertzfeldt’s ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’, but of all American studio productions the film is certainly the most satisfying, and must be counted among Laika’s best works, together with ‘Coraline’ (2009) and ‘Missing Link’ (2019).

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

‘ParaNorman’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Gisaburō Sugii
Release Date:
July 7, 2012
Rating:
 ★
Review:

‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ is a film adaption of the novel of the same name by Kenji Miyazawa from 1932. Earlier director Gisaburō Sugii had filmed ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’ (1985) by the same writer. Strangely, in both films, the characters are inexplicably depicted as cats. The reason of this goes completely beyond me, as Sugii does nothing with the idea of the characters being cats. They’re just humans in a cat shape.

I haven’t seen ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’, yet, but I understand this film is some kind of classic. I wish I could say the same of ‘The life of Budori Gusuko’, but not so. This film is very disappointing in almost every aspect.

The story tells about Budori Gusuko, a blue cat, and the son of a lumberjack somewhere in the mountains. One year summer never comes, and famine comes to the land. Gusuko’s family disappears, and during the film he keeps on looking for his lost younger sister Neri. Starvation and loss presses Gusuko to leave the mountains…

The story takes place in some parallel world, but Sugii’s world building is annoyingly sloppy. The mountains in which Gusuko grows up are unmistakably European in character, but when Gusuko descends into the valley, we suddenly see very Asian rice paddies. Once we’re in the city, the setting becomes some sort of steampunk, with fantastical flying machines, while Gusuko’s second and third dream take place in some undeniably Japanese fantasy world. The volcano team, too, is typically Japanese.

But worse than that is the story itself. The film is frustratingly episodic, with things just happening on the screen, with little mutual relationship or any detectable story arc. A voice over is used much too much, and there are three very long dream sequences that add very little to the story, and the inclusion of which is more irksome than welcome.

The main problem is that Gusuko’s life story is not particularly interesting. The character himself is frustratingly passive and devoid of character. And worse, after the dire straits in the mountains, he hardly suffers any setbacks. Down in the valley he gets help and work immediately from a friendly but rather reckless farmer called Red Beard. Only when bad harvests hit the valley, too, Gusuko is forced to leave him, too, to descend once more to the city.

Likewise, in the city, Gusuko immediately reaches his goal. There’s some vague climate theme, but Gusuko’s proposed solution is questionable to say the least. Because we learn so little about Gusuko’s motives and inner world (the three dream sequences don’t help a bit) Gusuko’s last act comes out of nowhere. Nor do we care, because Gusuko never gained our sympathy in the first place. The resulting film is appallingly boring.

It must be said that ‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ can boast some lush and outlandish background art, qualitative if unremarkable animation, adequate effect animation, and a modest dose of apt computer animation when depicting moving doors, lamps, factory parts, flying machines and of Gusuko ascending the stairs. There’s even some puppet animation during the second dream scene. Moreover, the sparse chamber music score is pleasant and effective. Composer Ryōta Komatsu makes clever use of strings, harpsichord, accordion, and percussion. But all these positive aspects cannot rescue a film whose central story is a bad choice to start with.

Surprisingly, this was not the first animated adaptation of the novel. In 1994 the Japanese Animal-ya studio had made another adaptation. It puzzles me what the Japanese see in this terribly boring tale with its questionable message.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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