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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Mamoru Oshii
Release Date: November 18, 1995
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Ghost in the Shell’ was the best known anime film in the West between ‘Akira’ (1988) and ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). This was of course mainly because it was one of the very few Japanese features being released in the West in the first place. But what also helped was that the film merges science fiction, action thriller and philosophy into an entertaining melting pot, which a sexy cyborg as its main star.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is based on a manga by Masamune Shirow and tells about major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg, who has to track down a dangerous hacker called the ‘Puppet Master’. But when the true identity of the Puppet Master is revealed, things take a whole different turn…

The plot of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is complex and very hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the future world in which it takes place is introduced with a minimum of background story, thus the viewer has to grab the relevant information along the way. For example, only gradually it became clear to me that practically every citizen in this future world has augmented brains, and is therefore hackable. Or that Kusanagi wasn’t an android, as I thought, but a cyborg, although we don’t see any biological tissue on her. In fact, already within the first two minutes we see her naked, with clearly defined breasts, but no genitals whatsoever, looking strangely like a Barbie doll instead.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a true cyberpunk film, and revolves around the idea of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human or to be alive. Not only does the main plot focuses on those ideas, there are several, often rather pompous dialogues between Kusanagi and her partner, the muscular fellow cyborg Bateau, in which the two ponder the meaning of their own existence. A lot of attention goes to the mysterious ‘ghost’ within the wired neural networks, a word that the Japanese use untranslated, and which points directly to Arthur Koestler’s ‘the ghost in the machine’ (1967). The Japanese ‘Ghost’ is translated back into ‘soul’ in the subtitles, but its precise concept remains vague, and in the end both the story and these bits of dialogue are much too thin to call ‘Ghost in the Shell’ a philosophical masterpiece, for despite all the philosophical implications the film is an action thriller first and foremost.

Nevertheless, I suspect the feature was an influence on the makers of ‘The Matrix’, for it foreshadows some of the latter film’s themes, and ‘The Matrix’ quite clearly stole both the connection to the network by neck and the theme of green numbers filling the screen from ‘Ghost in the Shell’.

As a thriller the film delivers, featuring spectacular manhunts, several shootings and fights, a few bits of gross violence, and an exciting finale in an abandoned natural history museum, a setting deliberately chosen to enhance the movie’s theme of new developments within human and non-human evolution. The action is greatly helped by excellent staging and by solid background art, supervised by Takashi Watabe, evoking a partly drowned, and partly abandoned metropolis containing many different nationalities, not unlike the world of ‘Blade Runner’ (1982).

Also strong is Kenji Kawai’s musical soundtrack, which uses electronics, percussion and haunting choirs to a unique and unsettling effect. Around 35 minutes there’s even a more than a minute long gorgeous mood piece, consisting of townscapes and music only, which is pure atmosphere, and completely unnecessary to the plot.

Much less impressive is the animation, supervised by Hiroyuki Okiura. Compared to ‘Akira’ or contemporary output by the Ghibli studio, the animation in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ looks cheap and low-budget. There are many scenes in which there’s hardly to no animation at all, especially during the dialogue scenes, and talking is suggested by a bare minimum of means. For example, there’s a shot of Kusanagi talking that uses only two drawings in rapid succession. Even worse, the cyborgs can talk to each other without speaking, leaving several scenes totally unanimated. This is too bad, for when there’s more effort placed into the animation, it’s actually quite good. Especially a complex scene in a crowded market place stands out as a great piece of animated action, as does the final battle between the colonel and a robot tank. The 2d animation is often combined with rather primitive computer animation, which may have looked quite cool then, but which hasn’t aged very well. Most impressive is the use of CGI in the camouflage suits.

The character designs, too, also by Okiura, leave much to be desired. The characters are very generic, and rather angular, and lack the appeal of those in contemporary Ghibli or Otomo films. Kusanagi is hardly the sexy heroine she’s supposed to be, and often looks uncannily masculine. At least the Western characters are distinguishable from the Asian ones, a rather rare feat in anime.

Thus ‘Ghost in the Shell’ may disappoint the pure animation lovers, but will delight those interested in Japanese science fiction and cyborg themes. As such it’s a film that has aged surprisingly well. Even better, the feature’s relevance has only grown since then, as the real world has been rapidly moving towards the future depicted in the film.

In 2004 ‘Ghost in the Shell’ was followed by a sequel, ‘Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and in 2017 by a live action version, starring Scarlett Johansson as the major.

Watch the trailer for ‘Ghost in the Shell’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Release Date: July 15, 1995
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Surprisingly, ‘Whisper of the Heart’ opens with a rendition of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ by Olivia Newton-John, implying one of those Ghibli films with a longing for the old country side. Not so. Country Roads remains the theme song throughout the picture, but the story entirely takes place inside the city of Tokyo, and completely lacks the nostalgia of ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988), ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991) or ‘Pom Poko’ (1994).

‘Whisper of the Heart’ is one of the lesser known of the classic Ghibli films. Perhaps because it isn’t directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but instead by the much lesser known Yoshifumi Kondō, being the first theatrical Ghibli film not directed by either founder (although it must be emphasized that Miyazaki both wrote the screenplay and storyboarded the film). Or it’s perhaps because the feature’s story is surprisingly mundane when compared to contemporary Ghibli films like ‘Pom Poko’ or ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997). In fact, like the earlier TV-Feature ‘Ocean Waves’ the story of ‘Whisper of the Heart’ never really departs from reality, and has little need for animation. Only the scenes of Shizuku’s story, and perhaps the old clock and the journeys of the fat cat Muta may require the medium of animation.

The film is based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi and tells about ca. fourteen year old girl Shizuku, who is very fond of reading, but who, during one hot summer, is obliged to leave her fantasy world and enter a more mature one of love and responsibility. ‘Whisper of the Heart’ thus is a coming of age story, and we remain with Shizuku and her inner development all the time.

There are times in the film that we, Western viewers, being used to certain tropes, are misled on what’s coming. For example, at one point, the imagery certainly invokes death, but not so. Also, in a Western film we would expect to watch Shizuku and her friends performing the song they’re talking about during the whole film. Or we would expect a loyalty conflict between Shizuku and her best friend Yuko. Again, nothing of the sort. Nor do Shizuku’s parents thwart Shizuku’s ambitions.

In fact, there’s absolutely no conflict, at all during the entire movie: Shizuku can boast to have loving friends, understanding parents, and a supportive older sister. Moreover, all the strangers she meets are absolutely kind. All the conflict Shizuku faces, takes place entirely in her own head. Yet, the Ghibli studio manages to craft a surprisingly engaging and deep story out of such little material, focusing not only on the love theme, but also on how to find your own talents and what it takes and what it means to be an artist. Thus the geode allegory forms the central message of the film, a message directed to us all.

Another aspect of the film is the extraordinary attention to detail of every day life, so typical of the Ghibli studio. Thus we get glimpses of Shizuku’s family living, studying and working in their tiny apartment. We watch dogs bark from a garden as Shizuku walks by, we watch shadows of trees moving on the pavements, the sun breaking through the clouds, etc. etc. All these little details enhance the realism of the film, which only departs into the whimsical when going inside Shizuku’s story. The animation, too, is of a high realism, as exemplified by e.g. Seiji’s effort to climb a steep hill on his bicycle. Only at a few takes the animation turns comical, for example when Shizuku’s class mates spy on her and Seiji.

‘Whisper of the Heart’ may lack the extraordinary fantasy of ‘Pom Poko’ or ‘Spirited Away’, and it’s certainly not as epic as ‘Princess Mononoke’, but it’s a moving film with a lot of heart, and certainly belongs to Studio Ghibli’s best feature films. Tragically, in 1998, Yoshifumi Kondō, who was thought of as the successor to the aging Miyazaki and Takahata, died prematurely at the age of 47, and ‘Whisper of the Heart’ remains the only film he directed. In 2002 Ghibli released a spin-off film called ‘The Cat Returns’, which incidentally became only the second Ghibli film not to be directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata.

Watch the trailer for ‘Whisper of the Heart’ yourself and tell me what you think:


‘Whisper of the Heart’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen
Release Date: June 15, 2020
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Dutch online Kaboom Animation Festival was not only about shorts, it also presented thirteen feature films, of which I have seen five, the first being ‘My Favorite War’.

‘My Favorite War’ is an animated documentary and autobiography. In this feature film director Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen tells about her youth in Latvia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, “the self-proclaimed happiest country in the world” as she tells us at the beginning of the film. We follow little girl Ilze from 1974 until the singing revolution of the late 1980s, which resulted in Latvia’s independence of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Burkovska Jacobsen brings daily life in the communist, totalitarian regime back to life, which not only does look hopelessly old-fashioned when compared to contemporary Western Europe, but which also is strikingly preoccupied, even obsessed with its heroic past. Practically everything in Ilze’s life revolves somehow in defending the great Soviet Union against fascism, like the Soviets had successfully done during World War II (the favorite war of the title). In fact, much of Ilze’s life is devoted to a bleak and pointless preparation for a war that never comes.

Ilze lives near a site in which Nazi Germany managed to keep an isolated fastness until the general capitulation, called the Courland pocket, which Burkovska Jacobsen calls the Courland Cauldron, and near a Soviet army training site, and both localities make a marked impression on her daily education and social life. As if the Soviet Union wanted to make their inhabitants relive World War II constantly and persistently. Likewise, Burkovska Jacobsen’s tale often shifts back to the 1940s to tell what happened in the Courland pocket.

Even more tension comes from the contrast between Ilze’s father, a member of the communist party, and her grandfather, a so-called enemy of the state and a Siberia camp survivor. For example, to protect her grandfather and her mother, Ilze strives to become the best member of the communist party…

‘My Favorite War’ is a very sympathetic and welcome film, and tells very well how it is to live under an oppressive regime. Tales like this cannot be told enough, for they show us the values of freedom and democracy. But this does not mean that ‘My Favorite War’ is without its flaws: the film makes interesting use of collage techniques, but the designs are a little inconsistent, and could have done with bolder artistic choices. Worse, the cut-out animation is rather stiff, and at times downright amateurish, hampering the story. The dialogue, too, is dreadfully stiff, and too often fails to come to life, at all. Thus the characters on the screen remain wooden puppets, missing an opportunity to penetrate one’s heart. The best animation is when Ilze kicks the bucket of garbage she has to take outside. This is a rare moment of effective little realism in a tale of otherwise rather grand gestures.

In fact, the symbolic parts are the best. Especially entertaining is the sequence in which Ilze visualizes why her town is deprived from butter, supposedly because it’s saved for the Great War to come. And the film’s most harrowing tale, that of Ilze’s friend Ilga, is in fact told in live action, by the present Ilga herself. In the end one cannot escape the feeling that Burkovska Jacobsen has been relatively lucky to have lived in the twilight days of the Soviet Union, and to have experienced the thaw of Perestroika and the freedom following the singing revolution. But it comes to no surprise that the film ends as a pamphlet against all oppressors, for Burkovska Jacobsen knows well enough what she’s talking about.

Watch the trailer of ‘My Favorite War’ and tell me what you think:

‘My Favorite War’ is not yet released on home media

Directors: Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg
Release Date: June 23, 1995
Rating: ★★½
Review:

In the early nineties the Walt Disney studio was on a roll. Since 1989’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ all its features met with both critical acclaim and huge box office successes. Especially, the studio’s previous film, ‘The Lion King’ (1994) rather unexpectedly broke all box office records, being the highest-grossing motion picture of all time until ‘Finding Nemo’ came along in 2003.

Thus, not surprisingly, the expectations were high for Disney’s next feature, ‘Pocahontas’, only to be followed by a huge letdown, even though the feature did rather well at the box office. ‘Pocahontas’ fails in almost every aspect Disney’s previous features succeeded: the film lacks an engaging story, interesting protagonists, a threatening villain, appealing sidekicks, inspired humor or great songs. Of course, being a Disney film, the film’s animation is outstanding, and so is the film’s design, but that’s unfortunately not enough to rescue a film that collapses under its own pretentiousness.

The film is very, very loosely based on the historical John Smith’s accounts of Pocahontas (ca. 1596-1617), and is terribly unhistorical in almost every aspect. Worse, the film is saturated by political correctness to a fault, and can count as a document of historical revisionism. The film tries very, very hard to portray the native Americans as real people, but nevertheless falls into the trap of the ‘noble savage’, reinforcing the myth that native Americans were living in more harmony with nature than Europeans ever did. Of course, the coming of the Europeans was a tragedy to the native Americans, as it started their demise (only a mere handful of the Tsenacommacah, the tribe depicted, still survive today), and it is practically impossible to make a positive film, let alone an uplifting Disney musical, out of such subject matter. In that respect the film was doomed from the outset.

The film starts In London with governor Ratcliffe (1549-1609) wanting to explore the new world to regain status at the court of king James I. We watch Ratcliffe establish Jamestown , and in the finale of the film Ratcliffe is overthrown by his own men, a very unlikely event, by all means (in reality Ratcliffe was killed in an ambush by members of the Pamunkey tribe). While in Virginia Ratcliffe is obsessed with gold only, regarding the native inhabitants as mere pests.

The misunderstanding between the Tsenacommacah and the British almost leads to war, while the love between Pocahontas and John Smith shows that this does not need to be so. The film is one large advertisement for mutual understanding. A welcome message, for sure, but delivered with heavy-handedness and aplomb. In fact, the rather hippie-like message of love conquers all has been stale since 1970, and is in fact rather painful considering the real events following the establishment of the British colony in Virginia.

Additionally, the film suffers from dire dialogue, and an all too obvious emphasis on delivering its message. Most of the movie progresses slowly and sentimentally. What doesn’t help is the uneasy mix between the serious clashes between the human groups, and the fluffy child’s world of the animal sidekicks. Perhaps the film’s best scene is the final one, in which, against all rules of Disney logic, Pocahontas and John Smith part, never to be reunited again…

Part of the movie’s problems are the leads themselves. Admittedly, star animator Glen Keane has animated Pocahontas very well – especially the scenes just prior the first meeting between her and John Smith are outstanding. However, Pocahontas is presented as a brave, mature and independent woman, which contrasts highly with her childish animal friends, and, to be frank, with her rather irresponsible behavior. Moreover, she has very little to do with the historical Pocahontas, who converted to Christianity, while the movie Pocahontas practically converts John Smith to animalism, in a historically very, very unlikely sequence. Even worse, the real Pocahontas later married a planter, and died already at the tender age of 21. These facts are hard to bear when looking at the stout and proud woman Pocahontas is in the Disney film.

Yet, Pocahontas fares much better than her lover John Smith, Unlike Pocahontas, it’s pretty hard to love John Smith, who’s presented as a fearless and almost flawless hero from the outset. John Smith is surprisingly blasé, and pretty vain, too. In fact, in a way Smith has more in common with Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ than the animators would be willing to admit, and there’s nothing really interesting about him. In fact, Smith remains a remarkably blank character, having a bland design and a weak story arc, typified with the song ‘Savages’, in which Pocahontas teaches him a lesson on the subject of ‘savages’, the worst of the all too clear messages of political correctness in the film. Animator John Pomeroy must have had a hard time breathing some life into this dull character.

More interesting characters are Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma, who, to me, has actually a more appealing character design than Pocahontas herself has, and her father, Chief Powhatan, who arguably is the best designed character in the whole movie. These two Indians are more interesting than all Europeans. Best of these is Thomas, a youngster that is so clumsy he would have died within months in the real world. Governor Ratcliffe is a very unhistorical character, who looks more Spanish than British, and who is foolish enough to try to dig up gold at a random shore. In the 17th century they certainly knew better than that. Ratcliffe is a rather poor excuse for a villain: he’s more vain than scary, and at no point a real threat to anyone, as is proven by the film’s finale. He’s accompanied by a servant called Wiggins, who provides the only convincing comic relief in this all too serious film.

Wiggins certainly is more tolerable than the three animal characters, the overtly cute raccoon Meeko, ditto hummingbird Flit, and Ratcliffe’s pet pug Percy. The three steal considerable screen time, they have their own subplot of enemies befriending each other, and are completely out of tune with the serious subject of clash of civilizations, and threat of war. By the time ‘Pocahontas’ was released, one got the impression that ‘animal sidekicks’ were obligate additions to the rule book of Disney feature film making, a feeling that was corroborated by ‘Mulan’ (1998), in which the animal sidekicks (a dragon and a cricket for God’s sake!) were even more outlandish and superfluous.

Yet, the worst character in the whole movie is Grandmother Willow, a talking tree. Apart from the fact that she’s brought alive by dated computer animation, this is a concept that even in a world full of spirits I will not buy. Grandmother Willow is such an outlandish, unbelievable character, she hampers the whole movie, and makes it very, very difficult indeed, to take the more realistic events seriously. Someone should have vetoed her presence early in the conceptualization of the story.

The soundtrack isn’t of any help either. The songs are by composer Alan Menken, who provided the hit songs for ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992). Not one of the songs in ‘Pocahontas’, however, reaches these heights. Instead, we are treated by very generic and surprisingly forgettable nineties-musical songs. What certainly doesn’t help are the trite lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, which suffer from the same political correctness as the rest of the movie. The ‘Savages’ song forms the low point of the film in that respect.

No, the film’s unquestionably strongest point is its design, and it’s art director Michael Giaimo and artistic coordinator Don Hansen who should be praised most. More than any other Disney film of the Disney renaissance ‘Pocahontas’ looks back to the stylized designs of the late 1950s. For example, the film starts with a 1607 scene that is very reminiscent of the London scene in ‘The Truth About Mother Goose’ (1957), while in the rest of the film the background art, supervised by Cristy Maltese, is a straight echo of Eyvind Earle’s artwork for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), including square trees. The human designs, too, are more angular than ever, even to a fault, rendering some of the characters stiff and unappealing, especially some of the Indians, who at times look like technical art school drawings instead of living humans.

In fact, the film is most interesting for its outstanding color design, which with its grand greens, blues and purples is comparable to the best of ‘Fantasia’ (1940) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and one must admit that ‘Pocahontas’ certainly is a film worth looking at, if not necessarily one to watch. Indeed, I believe ‘Pocahontas’ will be remembered for its design elements, a clear product of the animation renaissance, especially as an early product of the school that looked back to the cartoon modern age (ca. 1948-1965), as exemplified by several television series from Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network from the second half of the nineties, which were, not surprisingly, often made by former CalArts students of Giaimo.

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

‘Pocahontas’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Kevin Lima
Release Date: April 7, 1995
Stars: Goofy, Max, Pete
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘A Goofy Movie’ arguably is the least known of Disney’s theatrical movies from the studio’s Renaissance period. The film is not even in its official canon of animated features. Maybe because it was Disney’s first animated theatrical feature based on a television series, in this case ‘Goof Troop’, which run from September to December 1992.

Now I’ve never seen an episode of this television series myself, but I comprehend that it does resolve around Goofy being a single father of his son, Maximilian (in short Max), and being neighbor to Pete, who is a single father of a son, too, Pete Junior or P.J. in short. ‘A Goofy Movie’ uses exactly this premise, focusing on the relationship between Goofy and his son, with Max being the undisputed main character of the movie.

Now, Goofy’s family life has always been odd, being the classic Disney character that changed the most during his career. And indeed, he has been seen having a son in a few of his classical cartoons, starting with ‘Fathers are People’ from 1951, but by that time Goofy had transformed into everyman George J. Geef, and this son clearly isn’t Max, as he’s called George Geef jr. In both ‘Goof Troop’ and ‘A Goofy Movie’ Goofy once again is his clumsy self, so he has evolved once more. Pete, too, has had a son in earlier entries, most notably in ‘Bellboy Donald’ from 1942. In ‘A Goofy Movie’ he’s not really the villain of the old days of old, but still a disruptive voice, not taking Goofy for full, and giving him ill advice.

Voice artist Bill Farmer reprises his role as Goofy from ‘Goof Troop’ and is an excellent successor to Pinto Colvig. Max is voiced by Jason Marsden, a different voice than in ‘Goof Troop’, in which he was voiced by a woman (Dana Hill). But this is understandable as the events in ‘A Goofy Movie’ take place several years after the ones in ‘Goof Troop’. Max’s singing voice is provided by Aaron Lohr.

Added to the mix, and apparently not present in ‘Goof Troop’, is Max’s love interest Roxanne, and the film starts with Max’s last day at school, on which he tries to impress Roxanne, in which he succeeds, and he manages to ask her on a date to a party. Unfortunately, his father, realizing he might be losing grip on his son, has planned a trip for two to some fishing lake, and Max invents a totally unconvincing lie of why he has to cancel the date, involving both Max’s and Roxanne’s pop idol Powerline (who, voiced by Tevin Campbell, sounds a little like Michael Jackson).

As said, the father-son relationship between Goofy and Max is the focal point of the cartoon, and as such the film is surprisingly realistic and down to earth, with Max being ashamed of his old-fashioned, awkward and clumsy father, and Goofy uncomprehending of Max’s interests as an independent teenager. However, the two learn to know and to respect each other on a rather forced road trip through America. In this respect, one can see ‘A Goofy Movie’ as a forerunner of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003), which explores a similar theme.

The road trip, which takes place on Route 66, and which takes the two Goofs all through America, forms the main part of the film, and it’s surprising to note that this piece of Americana was animated in studios in Paris, France and Sydney, Australia. Unfortunately, ‘A Goofy Movie’ defies all realism in several scenes, hampering the heartfelt story with outlandish scenes, like the two Goofs encountering Bigfoot, falling off a cliff with their car, and escaping a waterfall in an all too improbable and inconsistent series of events.

Moreover, for a film starring Goofy there’s surprisingly little humor – it’s all not that goofy. Yet, the team has managed to keep Goofy’s optimistic and naive character, while adding some depth to the former simpleton, mostly his struggle in being a father to Max. Indeed, the film is at its best when keeping focus on the relationship between Goofy and Max. This focal point remains interesting despite the deviations from reality.

As a film of the early nineties, ‘A Goofy Movie’ is an obligate musical, and the movie knows three nice if forgettable songs by Carter Burwell, sung by Max, with Goofy joining in in two of them. They at least succeed in not being obnoxious.

The animation is of a very high quality, with considerable attention detail. There are some nice touches, like Max’s reflection in a window, or colors turning blue when Goofy gets sad.

In all, ‘A Goofy Movie’ is a nice little movie with a surprisingly mature theme. The film may not be a masterpiece, it’s of enough quality to be worth a watch.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Goofy Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Goofy Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: September 10, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Lekce Faust’ (literally ‘Lesson Faust’) is Jan Švankmajer’s second feature film. It contains much less animation than his first feature film ‘Něco z Alenky’ (Alice) from 1988 and can be considered his first live action movie.

However, this film is still much connected to his earlier work, mostly through the use of life-sized puppets, which goes all the way back to ‘Don Šajn’ (Don Juan) from 1969, and of advanced clay animation, which Švankmajer first used in ‘Možnosti dialogu’ (Dimensions of Dialogue) in 1982. Moreover, there’s little dialogue in the film, with the first lines only appearing after 15 minutes. Instead, the film relies heavily on stark imagery and exquisite sound design (there’s no musical soundtrack), just like in animation film. The English dub, by the way, is excellent, and there’s no need to find the original Czech version.

Švankmajer retells the story of Faust in his own unique way, with an inner logic that is unique to his brand of surrealism. For this Švankmajer uses texts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two Faust plays (1808 & 1832), as well as Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus from 1592, enhanced with text traditions from Czech puppet theater productions based on the same legend. Even a part from Charles Gounod’s opera ‘Faust’ from 1859 is used in a scene that features four ballerinas and which is probably the least essential and least successful episode in the entire film.

Importantly, the film stars an unnamed everyman (played by the deadpan Petr Čepek in his last role before his death in 1994), who’s slowly lured into the devil’s clutches. By using the most common protagonist imaginable we’re given the opportunity to live the nightmare the man experiences ourselves. There’s a sense of ‘this could happen to anyone’, with which we enter the bizarre series of events.

The film starts with two characters handing out copies of a map with a red spot but no explanation to passers-by. Our man gets one, too, and has a short look at it, before he discards the piece of paper. Nevertheless, immediately strange omens pile up around him: he watches a doll’s head getting crushed between two doors, a black chicken flees his home apartment, and when he goes eating he finds an egg inside his bread. As soon as he opens the egg, the man seems to be lost, and the next day he goes exploring…

The film mostly takes place indoors, and like in ‘Alice’ there’s a genuinely claustrophobic feel to it, with a total lack of logic with which the different spaces are connected. This of course contributes to the nightmarish atmosphere that stays throughout the feature. Nevertheless, Švankmajer occasionally returns to outdoor scenes, sometimes very abruptly, with staged sets switching to scenes taking place in nature, parks or ruins, and vice versa. But sometimes more naturally, with the man reentering the streets of Prague a couple of times.

Yet our hero never stays out of the clutches of the devils for long, and all too soon his curiosity brings him back to the theater set where he more or less has to play his part. For a long while, the man takes the whole play for a joke. It certainly doesn’t help that the part of the good angel is played by a puppet as well, making the man’s only chance to repent by all means a rather silly occasion. Thus only too late the man realizes that the devil will indeed collect his soul.

As the film progresses, the man transforms more and more into the character of Faust, and he becomes more and more a puppet himself. Indeed, several important scenes, like the signing with the blood, take place in puppet form. While the man becomes a puppet more and more himself, the puppets around him seem to behave more and more freely. First they are only seen operated by anonymous stage hands. But later we watch a devil, who’s summoned by the Jester, walking in and out of the street by himself. Later still, we can clearly see a puppet of a queen breathing, making its stagy death all the more poignant.

Like the man himself, the viewer has a hard time following the surreal course of events, but the film nevertheless progresses slowly but steadily to its logical and macabre conclusion. The film ends with the cycle starting all over again: as the man flees the devil’s place in horror, another one enters. But the man cannot escape the devil’s clutches: if the devil may not be able to take him in his puppet form, he’ll do it in real life, on the streets of Prague…

Despite the dark subject matter, there’s room for some comedy. For example, when the burning wagon rides off stage, it’s followed by a fireman in a cartoon fashion. More comic relief comes from a Jester puppet, who speaks in rhyme, and whose lines clearly come from the puppet theater tradition. In a way the Jester is smarter than his master, being able to tame a devil without losing his soul to it. Scarier, but still amusing are a bum carrying a severed leg, and the two men from the first scene, who return several times, showing their playfully mischievous characters repeatedly, e.g. making the man pay for all their beers, and stealing snacks during intermission.

Animation reoccurs throughout the film, which nevertheless remains essentially a live action movie. For animation lovers highlight is a rather unsettling scene in which the man creates life, which quickly ages and transforms into a gruesome skull. This is done in Švankmajer’s characteristic virtuoso clay animation. A highlight of puppet animation is a short scene in which little devils molest and abuse little angels in order to make Faust sign his soul away.

The Best scene of the whole film, however, features little animation. This is when the man summons Mephistopheles. This scene is full of compelling images, with brooms dusting as if they were alive, drums playing themselves, crossbows appearing from pillars, and a burning wagon circling the summoner. During this scene the scenery changes from indoor to outdoor repeatedly, with the man finding himself in the woods, on top of a mountain and on a snowy plain.

Švankmajer tests the general viewer with his typical way of filming, using extreme close-ups, virtually no dialogue, fair use of puppetry and stiff old fashioned language during the staged parts. But viewers who stay are rewarded with a deeply layered film that will cling into the back of the mind for quite a while after viewing. To me ‘Lekce Faust’ is the best of his feature films, and together with ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) and ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ it forms the pinnacle of the Czech master’s art.

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

‘Lekce Faust’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Chuck Russell
Release Date: July 29, 1994
Stars: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, Richard Jeni
Rating: ★★★★½

Based on the comic book series of the same name ‘The Mask’ was originally conceived as a horror film, but was redrawn as a comedy-fantasy, leaving the comic’s violence behind, but retaining some of its dark overtones. The resulting film turned out be a great example of the animation renaissance that were the late 1980s and early 1990s.

‘The Mask’, of course, is a live action movie, but like that other, very influential live action feature, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, ‘The Mask’ takes its inspiration from 1940s classic cartoons. The most obvious influence is Tex Avery: we can see the Avery wolf as a statue in Stanley’s apartment, where our hero Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) watches an excerpt from Avery’s ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ (1943). The Mask later mimics the wolf scene at the Coco Bongo Nightclub, when watching his love interest Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz) perform. Another Avery reference is the ridiculously long car in which the Mask arrives at the club.

Other influences come from Warner Bros. cartoons: during the transformation scene Stanley turns into a whirlwind, which is clearly inspired by the Tasmanian Devil. To make sure, the film makers show a pillow with Taz’s likeness on Stanley’s couch during this scene. In some scenes The Mask has some character traits in common with the early loony version of Daffy Duck, and in one scene, The Mask behaves and talks like Pepe le Pew, Chuck Jones’s lovesick skunk.

But The Mask has most in common with Bugs Bunny: both characters are very confident, always ready to turn threat into comedy, both kiss their enemies, both have an ability to produce props out of nowhere, and both put on highly dramatic fake death scenes. The Mask’s death scene is a particular highlight of the film, with references thrown in to Aunt Em, Old Yeller, Tiny Tim and Scarlet O’Hara. During this scene even a fake audience stands up – another nod to Tex Avery.

The Mask’s cartoony antics were realized by computer animation, then still in its early stages. The computer animation was in the good hands of Industrial Light & Magic, also responsible for some other early milestones like the CGI in ‘The Abyss’ (1989), ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991), ‘Death Becomes Her’ (1992), and of course, ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993). In those days CGI got visibly better with every film, thus back then the computer animation in ‘The Mask’ was spectacular in its novelty. In ‘The Mask ’the computer animation effects are all deliberately cartoony and unreal, and even if not all effects have aged very well, they’re still nice to watch.

Of course, Jim Carrey himself adds a great deal to the cartoony character of The Mask. At the time he was known by most as ‘that crazy white guy’ in the black comedy series ‘In Living Color’, and, indeed, in ‘The Mask’ he can be too much, but he shifts between his more timid Stanley Ipkiss character, and the wild Mask very well. The rest of the cast is in fine shape, too. Cameron Diaz makes her acting debut as the gorgeous Tina Carlyle, and although she’s introduced as a sex bomb in a classic scene, showing off her legs and boobs, Diaz gives her character a remarkable gentleness and depth, beyond the cliche ‘babe’ character. This is a remarkable feat giving the few scenes the character is given. No wonder ‘The Mask’ set her off on a great acting career.

Peter Greene plays a delightfully scary villain, and Peter Riegert has the unfortunate task to be the only actor to play it straight as Lieutenant Kellaway. But he’s better off than Amy Yasbeck, who is adorable as Peggy Brandt, but this journalist is the least convincing character of the whole movie. Special mention has to go to Max, the dog who plays Stanley’s dog Milo, and who manages to make this side character an entertaining addition to the cast. But even minor characters, like Dorian’s henchmen or the street gang are portrayed by fine actors.

Apart from the cartoon references the film breathes classic cinema, even though the story is set in a contemporary fictive metropolis called ‘Edge City’. First there are the cultural references. For example, the car Stanley Ipkiss loans, is an early 1950s Studebaker, at one point The Mask grasps a Tommy Gun popular with gangsters in the 1920s, he wears a zoot suit to the Coco Bongo Club, where Tina sings 1940s jazz hit ‘Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You’, and as Cuban Pete The Mask makes a complete police force doing the conga, an early 1940s dance craze. Second, the film noir atmosphere is highly enhanced by the lighting, as is the fantasy element with the film’s strong coloring.

Typically nineties are the environmental touches: the opening shot of ‘Edge City’ clearly shows a heavily polluted town, and when Stanley and Tina watch the sunset, this looks more like the Northern Lights, making Ipkiss remark “the methane emissions really pick up the colors”.

True to the source material, The Mask is not an entirely likeable character: he’s too grotesque, too creepy, and too maniacal for that. I don’t think anyone would have chosen a character wearing a bald green skull-like mask, if it had not already been in the original comics. In that respect it’s a puzzle to me that the film was followed by an animated series starring this character. In the film, Carrey mostly rescues the character from becoming appalling by using his comedy talents, but during the ‘love’ scene with Tina at the park he becomes genuinely frightening, despite the comic references, and one is relieved the cops rescue Tina from this all too insistent character.

Nevertheless, Carrey manages to make his nice, but all too timid pushover Stanley Ipkiss likable, and his transformation to a guy with guts believable. Apart from all the cartoon references, celebrating classic cartoon humor, ‘The Mask’ also manages to succeed in delivering its message: Be nice, but stand up for yourself, and don’t let people mess with you.

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

‘The Mask’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: July 16, 1994
Rating: ★★★

To start this film is not about raccoons, but about raccoon dogs, which, despite their similarity, are only distantly related to raccoon, being more akin to foxes. The story tells about a population of raccoon dogs living on the Tama hills in Southwest Tokyo. The raccoon dogs see their own environment giving way rapidly to the ever growing metropolis, and decide to fight back in order to save their homes, by reviving their old shape-shifting skills…

Apparently, the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) or Tanuki, as the Japanese call him, has been a subject of a long folkloristic tradition. In this folklore the Tanuki has magical powers, being able to shape-shift, but he’s often too lazy, and too distracted to use them. Another peculiarity of this folklore is the focus on the raccoon dog’s testicles, which have magical powers themselves.


These character traits are clearly visible in ‘Pom Poko’: the raccoon dogs are depicted as carefree, fun-loving characters, their testicles are clearly visible, and used in some shape-shift transformations. For example, in one scene an elderly raccoon dog transforms his testicles into a giant carpet, in another a group of raccoon dogs use their inflated testicles as parachutes.


The shape-shifting scenes lead to some remarkable sequences, some of which are very close to pure horror, like a scene in which a cop meets all kinds of people without faces. This would have been a very frightening scene, indeed, if it were not depicted rather playfully, focusing on the police officer’s rather silly-looking panic, instead of the horror of the visions.

Most impressive of the shape-shifting sequences, and the undisputed highlight of the film, is the goblin parade. Here, too, some of the images are genuinely scary, but again, the depiction remains on the light side. For example, there’s a long scene with two men discussing the supernatural at a bar, completely oblivious of the mayhem occurring behind them.


It’s interesting to compare ‘Pom Poko’ to other environmentalist film of the era, like ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ (1992). Compared to the earlier film, ‘Pom Poko’ is remarkably mature. There’s nothing of FernGully’s magical ‘healing power’, nor does the film need a supervillain. In ‘Pom Poko’ ordinary men, none of them intrinsically mean, form a threat enough to the little forest creatures.


Soon it becomes clear that the raccoon dogs cannot win, and we have to witness several tragic deaths of these critters. Some die in one desperate last fight, others disappear on a mythical ship to the netherworld, some blend in into human society, and still others keep on living in an urban environment, scavenging the suburbs. In the end, the raccoon dogs must admit that man’s ability to transform the environment is much greater than their own shape-shifting abilities. Yet, this conclusion comes with a feeling of sadness of what’s been lost. Like many other Studio Ghibli films, there’s a longing to earlier times in this film, and especially the raccoon dogs’ last trick, reviving the landscape of old, is one of pure nostalgia.


‘Pom Poko’ is a mature film, but it’s not without its flaws. The film is told by using the weak voice over device, and it has a rather episodic nature, covering several years. Thus the story moves on a leisurely speed, not really building up to a grand finale. Moreover, there are a lot of characters in this film, and we don’t follow one in particular, which scatters the viewer’s focus.

Another peculiarity is that the film uses three styles to depict the raccoon dogs: first, a very realistic one, which accounts for some very impressive naturalistic animation. Second, the most dominant one, in which the raccoon dogs are depicted as clothed anthropomorphic characters. And third, a highly simplified one, in which the raccoon dogs suddenly become flat comic book characters, especially when celebrating. To me, it’s completely unclear why this third style is even present, and during these scenes the animation is often crude and repetitive, relying on reused animation cycles.


What doesn’t help is that the film is very, very Japanese: the behavior and rites of the raccoon dogs are sometimes enigmatic, and there are a lot of Buddhist and Shintoist references that are completely lost on the Western viewer. In that respect it’s a surprise that foxes have the same character traits in Japanese folklore as in Western tradition: in ‘Pom Poko’ the foxes are sly tricksters, too.


‘Pom Poko’ may not be perfect, it still is a very interesting film on human-animal relationships, it provides a small window into Japanese folklore, and it certainly is a very humane and mature film, showing us that one doesn’t need villains for destruction, and that some very valuable things are getting lost in the march of progress.

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

‘Pom Poko’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: October 29, 1993
Rating: ★★★

Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is an impressive film. Combining replacement techniques with puppets with complex armatures, computer-controlled camera movements, and a bit of drawn animation, Burton’s team takes the art of stop-motion to new heights.

Moreover, the film is surprisingly elaborate, and uses nineteen stages, 230 sets, sixty characters, and hundreds of puppets to tell its story. The opening scene alone is a tour-de-force of mind-blowing images, with too much happening to register it all.

The result is a stop motion film with the highest production values thus far, and simply bursting with stunning visuals. Together with Aardman’s ‘The Wrong Trousers’ from the same year the feature easily sets new standards for stop-motion.

So why don’t I give this film a five-star rating? The main reason is the songs. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was made at a time when American animation film practically equaled musical, but even so in this film soundtrack composer Elfman takes the musical idea to the max. There are no less than eleven songs within the 68 minutes the feature lasts, taking a staggering 43% of the screen time.

But Elfman is no Alan Menken, and all his songs are terribly meandering and forgettable, slowing down the action, with characters halting to express their emotions, like in a Baroque opera.

Low point arguably is Sally’s song, which could have been a moving expression of feelings, but turns out to be an all too short and completely aimless bit of music, lasting only 96 seconds. If one compares Elfman’s absent song-craft to the strong melodies of Menken’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) or ‘Aladdin’ (1992), it becomes clear that Elfman’s efforts don’t add to the story, but drag it down, to a point that one screams to be freed from the omnipresent singing.

The film is typical Burton with its friendly take on horror, and Burton’s head animator Henry Selick rightly calls the film’s overall style a mix of “German expressionism and Dr. Seuss”. Selick and his team manage to make Burton’s pen and ink drawings come to life in believable puppets, despite the often very long limbs and unsteady balance of some of the characters.

With this animation effort Selick turned out to be a strong new voice in the animation field, and after ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ he continued to impress, first with ‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996), then with ‘Coraline’ (2009), although his feature ‘Monkeybone’ (2001) was much less of a success.

Burton’s story is based on an original idea, but is not worked out too well. The idea of Holiday lands is a good one, but how does one return from Christmas land to Halloween land? And there is a focus problem: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ follows two main characters, Jack Skellington and Sally, without choosing one as its principal character.

Jack is a bit of a problematical character anyhow: he’s king of his land, but remarkably bored, and he’s willing to take a huge risk to fill his own feelings of emptiness. Moreover, his selfish plans means a year without Halloween, not to mention the disastrous Christmas he makes. Jack does develop during the film, but his remorse and recovery come too quickly to be entirely convincing.

In the end, it’s Sally who turns out to be the most interesting character of the two: when we first watch her, she literally falls apart. She’s controlled and hold back by her maker, the possessive Dr. Finkelstein, and naturally very shy, but during the movie she becomes bolder and more venturous.

The film’s villain, The Bogeyman, is scary, but his role in Burton’s universe is obscure: why is he the only nightmarish character that is genuinely scary and unfriendly? I have no idea. A nice touch are the Cab Calloway influences on this character. He even literally quotes Calloway when saying “I’m doing the best I can” like Calloway did in the Betty Boop cartoon ‘The Old Man from the Mountain’ (1933).

The film’s story flaws would certainly be forgivable, given the film’s stunning visuals, if it were not for the songs. The biggest problem of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ remains its unappealing soundtrack, reducing an otherwise fantastic film into a hardly tolerable one. An immense pity, for one remains wondering what the film could have been if it had not been the obligate and ugly musical it turned out to be.

Watch an excerpt from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Directors: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Release Date: June 15, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

When ‘The Lion King’ was released I went to see the film three times in a row. At the time I lived on the tiny Caribbean isle of Tobago, and I went three times, partly because there was little else to do, partly because the film would disappear from the screen in ca. five days, anyway, but most importantly because the film made a deep impression on me. Strangely enough, I hadn’t seen the movie since, so after 25 years it has become high time.


Luckily, the film holds up very well after all these years. Indeed, not only was ‘The Lion King’ the highest grossing animation film thus far on its release, the movie still is one of the most popular animation films of all time. For example, it takes place 34 at IMDb’s top rated movie, as the second animated movie, after ‘Spirited Away’ on place 27, checked on November 21, 2020).

In that regard ‘The Lion King’ can be seen as the pinnacle of the Disney renaissance, because it tops an excellent row of Disney features (‘The Little Mermaid’ from 1988), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from 1990, and ‘Aladdin’ from 1992), while the subsequent Disney movies of the nineties, while still good, would not reach the same heights again, nor stir the same sensation as these first four features did.

According to Mark Mayerson in ‘Animation Art’ this was partly because Disney’s success “caused other companies to start producing animated features. This diluted the talent pool and forced up wages and budgets” prompting management to interfere more in the film making process. Mayerson also detects pretentiousness and a lack of warmth in these later pictures (Animation Art, p. 305).

What certainly didn’t help was Toy Story’s big hit in 1995, suddenly shifting the future of animation from traditional to computer generated animation, a process that more or less was completed ten years later, after which traditionally animated features would become extremely rare, at least in the United States.

Indeed, even in ‘The Lion King’ one of the biggest stirs among audiences (including me) was the computer generated stampede of wildebeests. This tour-de-force of computer animation was an impressive feat on the big screen, and though computer animation has been pushing the envelope ever forward since, the scene still holds up today, interestingly partly because the wildebeests are based on hand drawn designs.

There are more technical stunts to be found in ‘The Lion King’, both aided by the computer and not. Especially the opening scenes are literally stuffed with them, showing a sequence of mind-blowing images of African nature to the song ‘The Circle of Life’.

But much more impressive in the end is the character animation, which is top notch throughout, and which has an apparent effortlessness to it that never ceases to amaze. Especially the work by Andreas Deja and his team on Scar is impressive, making him a worthy successor of that other outstanding feline villain of the silver screen, Shere Khan (Jungle Book, 1967), greatly helped by his voice artist Jeremy Irons, who gives the character the perfect mix of self-pithy, sarcasm and sinister slyness.

Another stand out in the voices are Mufasa’s voice, which is deep and commanding, yet fatherly and compassionate, and which is provided by James Earl Jones of Darth Vader fame. Yet another is Whoopi Goldberg as the leader of a villain trio of hyenas.

Being a nineties Disney film, ‘The Lion King’ of course is a musical, a genre that certainly is not my favorite, but I must admit that Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s songs hold up very well, greatly aided by the imagery. ‘The Circle of Life’, as said, makes an impressive opener; ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ is spiced by very bold colors, and stylized background art (as well as anteaters, which do not occur in Africa – a strange and unnecessary error); Scar’s song ‘Be prepared’ is accompanied by evil greens and purples in a clear echo of Maleficent in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), and the love ballad ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ is rescued from sappiness by the inclusion of Timon and Pumbaa mourning the loss of their friend. All these songs propel the story forward, none more so than the best song of all, ‘Hakuna Matata’, which neatly changes the infant Simba into the adult one.

Which brings me to the main reason the film still is a great classic: it’s told so well. The pace of the film is almost flawless, with exciting and more relaxing scenes distributed in perfect fashion. The only implausible scenes come at the end of the film: first there is Rafik’s all too simple cure of Simba’s guilt complex. I bet many psychiatric patients would die for such a quick resolution of their youth inflicted mental problems. Moreover, this scene includes a very unconvincing mystical dialogue between Simba and his deceased father. The finale uses two little too evident symbols of change and renewal (fire and rain), and how Simba manages to turn the wasteland of his kingdom into a prosperous country again remains an utter mystery.

Nevertheless, the guilt that haunts Simba makes him an interesting and relatable lead character – like Aladdin he isn’t a flawless hero. And while it’s understandable he embraces Pumbaa’s and Timon’s relaxed lifestyle, it clearly cannot cure him from the haunts of his past, which he just has to face in the end, which means he has to overcome his biggest fears and insecurities.

It’s a great feat that the film makers have managed to weave such a deep theme into the more classic usurper tale, which is notably dark: we watch both a murder and a dead body on the screen, in what must be the most harrowing scene in a Disney animation film since the death of Bambi’s mother in ‘Bambi’ (1942), the film with which ‘The Lion King’ has most in common: both follow the main protagonist in his youth and in his adult life, both depict a very romantic concept of nature, and both have ‘the circle of life’ as their main theme, with ‘The Lion King’’s opening and closing scenes being undisputed echoes of the closing scene of the classic from the 1940s.

Because ‘The Lion King’ is a rather serious tale, it’s a little low on comedy. Indeed, there are very few real gags in this film, one of them unusually self-parodying: at one point a caged Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) starts singing ‘it’s a small world after all’, which immediately prompts Scar in an anxious ‘No, no, anything but that!’. The other great gag of the movie is when Timon refers to the sad Simba as ‘He looks blue’, on which Pumbaa replies ‘I’d say brownish gold’. That said, the film is absolutely balanced in its mix of humor and drama, and never becomes heavy-handed.

In all, ‘The Lion King’ has hold up after these 25 years, and has his rightful place as one of the greatest films of all time, animated or not. And I seriously wonder why a remake was at all necessary or welcome, for in my opinion the original cannot be topped.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Lion King’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Lion King’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Dave Borthwick
Release Date: December 10, 1993
Rating: ★★★

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb © Bolexbrothers1993 was a great year for stop-motion animation: it saw the screening of the groundbreaking feature film ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘, as well as the Wallace & Gromit short ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, which also covered new grounds.

Much less well known is the stop-motion feature film ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’, also released that year. Made by Dave Borthwick at the British Bolexbrothers studio the film is a much rougher affair than the smooth stop-motion efforts of Disney and Aardman. In fact, it stands firmly in a tradition of gritty and disturbing stop-motion films that via Jan Švankmajer harks all the way back to Władysław Starewicz.

To begin with the film takes place in a dark and disturbing world, where large insects crawl and violence roams. In this gloomy world a poor couple gives birth to a child the size of a small fetus, whom they call Tom Thumb (in one of ca. three lines of dialogue in the entire film).

But Tom soon is kidnapped and taken to a sinister laboratory populated by several chimeral creatures tortured by insane experiments. A two-legged lizard-like creature helps Tom escape. Outside Tom meets a human tribe his own size, who unfortunately kill his chimeral companion. Jack, the leader of the tribe and a master of weapons, takes Tom back to the laboratory, where they eventually apparently destroy the laboratory’s power…

Much of what’s happening in this film is rather incomprehensible, and the plot could do with some cleaning. For example, it remains utterly unclear why Tom is kidnapped, and what the origin of the little people is. Throughout Tom remains a silent and innocent character, not unlike Pinocchio or Dumbo, and he hardly acts.

In the end the film is more interesting because of its disturbing images and for its unique artwork than for its story. The creators made especially well use of pixillation (the animation of people), giving all actors a grotesque appearance and ditto movement.

The best scenes remain the ones inside the laboratory, where Tom sees some pathetic creatures. Especially the one in which one of the creatures asks Tom to shut down the power that sustains them, is a moving piece of animation.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ may never get the classic status of a ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ or a ‘The Wrong Trousers’, it still is a film that shows the limitless power of animation in the hands of creators with a lot of imagination.

Watch ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ is available on DVD

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

One Hundred and One Dalmatians © Walt Disney

Among the classic Disney films ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a rather underrated little gem. Pretty modest in its story and ambitions, the film nevertheless is a milestone in Disney animation, introducing a completely new style to Disney feature animation.

After the costly debacle of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) it was clearly time for a change, and in many respects, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. The new feature is no fairy tale, but set in contemporary times, it has an unprecedented crime plot, and it has a modern design which was a complete departure from earlier efforts, and which was fit for a more modern age.

Modern design had invaded Disney feature animation as far back as ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1945), but ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to have a modern outlook from start to end. The film is also the first Disney feature to be set in contemporary times, even if this is a little confusing: the English setting gives most of the film a vintage look, Roger Radcliffe is a jazz composer in the style of the 1930s, and Cruella drives a Mercedes Benz 500 K from the mid-1930’s. Moreover, Roger and his wife Anita may be depicted as being rather poor, at least in the eyes of Cruella de Vil, they nonetheless manage to have a maid, an anachronistic anomaly in the post-war age of television.

No, the modernity of the film is more present in it looks: ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to make use of Xeroxed cells, preserving the black outlines, which give the film a more graphic look. Initiated by art director Ken Anderson, and developed by Walt Disney old partner Ub Iwerks, the process was first tried out in the short special ‘Goliath II’ (1960), and deemed successful enough for further use. No doubt the xerox process was conceived to save money, and the process is particularly helpful in this particular film, which its 101 duplicate puppies, which are essentially black and white characters, anyway. Yet, the method preserved the rough animation outlines, which were more vivid than the cleaned up cells, and the xeroxed cells give the animation an extra swinging touch. Indeed, the new process was a hit with the animators themselves, who, for the first time, saw their own drawings directly on the animated screen.

Iwerks even managed to xerox a cardboard model of Cruella’s car with marked black outlines. Thus, in the film Cruella’s car is essentially rotoscoped. This experimental method also accounts for the only unconvincing special effect in the film: during the finale Cruella’s car gets stuck in the snow. This scene was filmed using the cardboard model and real sand, and unfortunately the photographed sand is clearly visible, as its roughness deviates from the otherwise very clean artwork. Moreover, one can see this piece of xeroxed live action move on top of the background art.

Never mind the cost reduction of the xerox process, the depiction of 101 dalmatians could only be done at Disney’s at the time: as all the dogs’ spots had to be animated independently. The studio set up a sole unit for this task alone. No wonder, as Pongo alone has no less than 76 spots!

In ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, the xerox cells are matched by xeroxed background art lines by e.g. Ernie Nordli, which make an ideal match with the background paintings by Walt Peregoy, with its bold coloring: the results are very intricate, very graphical, yet stylized, decorative and very appealing backgrounds, which belong to the most artful ever produced, and which give the film its unique look. The new style, with its original mix of depth and flatness, works best in the urban setting, with all its straight lines. The scenes in the countryside have a more traditional feel, and are more akin to earlier artwork by e.g. Mary Blair.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney himself disliked this background art, most probably because they are devoid of any romanticism. The xeroxed animation works particularly well with these graphic backgrounds. Yet the latter were not repeated, while xeroxed animation lasted until the mid-1980’s. By that time the style had become jaded, and gotten a cheap feel and outdated feel. No wonder, Don Bluth chose to go back to painted cells in his nostalgic feature ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982). Nonetheless, in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ the xeroxed cells look fresh and modern, and they certainly contribute to the film’s timeless appeal.

That ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a new, less pretentious and more fun film than ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had been, becomes immediately clear in the startlingly modern opening credits, with its visual puns on spots. This sole sequence itself is a sheer delight, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The introduction uses a voice over by Pongo (Rod Taylor), Roger’s Dalmatian dog, and tells how he managed to get Roger and Anita meet each other, acting like a canine matchmaker. As Anita has a female Dalmatian dog, Perdita, this event also marks the welcome end to Pongo’s bachelor life.

Soon, Perdita is pregnant, and gives birth to no less than fifteen puppies. This event introduces the arch villain of the movie: Cruella de Vil, apparently an old schoolmate of Anita. Cruella must be the all time best of Disney villains: she’s both ridiculously outlandish and genuinely menacing. Her voice by Betty Lou Gerson is spot on, giving her the perfect mix of class, disdain, selfishness and temper. The voice is matched by Marc Davis’s design and animation, which give the character an unprecedented screen presence: Cruella has the energy of a Stromboli, the deftness of a captain Hook, and the icy coldness of a Malificent all rolled in one, and then some. She’s the undisputed star of the film: a villain one loves to hate, from her first entry until her last lunatic car ride.

This was the last animation Marc Davis did before he moved over to designing for Disney parks. Cruella de Vil can be seen as his masterpiece, and is his impressive farewell to animation. She undoubtedly inspired several subsequent Disney villains, like Medusa in ‘The Recuers’ (1978), Jafar in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and Yzma in ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000).

Cruella de Vil may be an animation highlight, all of the animation in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is excellent. Led by six of Disney’s nine old men, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ shows that these veteran animators were on top of their game. Roger and Anita (animated by Milt Kahl) have the perfect mix of caricature and realism, and make a believable real couple, if not a too memorable one. Likewise, Horace and Jasper, the pair of crooks that function as Cruella’s henchmen, have that great combination of silliness and threat, which make them so lovely to watch. The dogs are all good, and it’s clear that the animators could rely on years of experience on this particular mix of naturalism and anthropomorphism, dating back to ‘Bambi’ (1942), but of course most notably to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1956), which also features numerous dogs. Indeed, Jock, Peg, Bull and Lady herself can all be seen during the ‘twilight bark’ scene, one of the highlights of the film.

As if to illustrate how for the animators had come, Disney shows a short excerpt from the Silly Symphony ‘Springtime’ (1929) on television in a scene in the old De Vil mansion. The old short provides the score for a large part of this scene.

Highly unusually, the film’s story was storyboarded by one man only: Bill Peet, and his story is a prime example of lean storytelling: there’s absolutely no unnecessary fat on this film, which moves to the grand finale on an excellent speed, with an increasing sense of danger. Thus, the film is over before you know it. Even better, Peet manages to tell the story without relying on too obvious story tropes – for example, in a modern version Pongo doubtless would estrange his friends, or break down in doubt just before the start of the finale. None of that in this movie! Even Dodie Smith, who had written the original book in 1956, thought Peet had improved on her story.

Apart from the Twilight Bark scenes, other highlights are the soot scenes in the mythical village of Dinsford, and the preceding scenes at Suffolk, featuring ‘The Colonel’, a very British and rather deaf sheepdog (voiced by Pat O’Malley), and his brave tabby cat Sergeant Tibbs. These scenes made me laugh out loud.

Apart from its modern looks and setting ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is remarkable for its surprisingly lack of songs. With ‘Bambi’ this feature is the only classic Disney feature not to be a musical. In fact, there are only two (not counting a silly song accompanying a commercial for dog food on television), which is the more remarkable, as Roger Radcliffe is supposed to be a songwriter. Indeed, Roger sings both songs: first one about Cruella de Vil, just before she enters herself, and the second one at the film’s Christmas finale. This second song, ‘Dalmatian plantation’ lasts only 25 seconds, before dissolving back into the background score. This score, by George Bruns, is another departure from earlier Disney features: Bruns’s score is less lush, more brassy and more jazzy than previous scores, and matches the scenes very well.

In all, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is an undisputed highlight within the Disney canon: the film is forward looking and unpretentious, modern and timeless, exciting and funny, all at the same time. Indeed, the feature did well at the box office, evaporating the studio’s deficit of 1960. With ‘Jungle Book’ the film certainly is the best of Disney’s feature output from the 1960s and 1970s, and even if the feature heralded a less classy era, the film itself is one of sheer delight that can withstand the wear of ages.

Watch the trailer for ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: January 28, 1959
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sleeping Beauty © Walt Disney

Taking six years to make and costing about six million dollars ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was destined to be Walt Disney’s grandest animated feature film ever. Unfortunately, the result never reaches the heights aimed at, and at times the film feels as trying to be too smart for its own good.

It certainly didn’t help that Walt himself was hardly involved in the film’s production process, as by this time he had become more interested in live action movies and his pet project, Disneyland.

The first of the film’s problems is the extraordinarily detailed background art. Art director Eyvind Earle clearly put his stamp on the artwork, which he based on Gothic art, especially late medieval tapestries. The result is a strange mixture of stylized forms and extremely dense textures. This artwork without doubt is very beautiful, so much so that the backgrounds steal the attention in almost every scene. But unlike Mary Blair’s artwork Earle’s style is devoid of charm and warmth, and the much less detailed animated characters don’t read well against the intricate backgrounds.

The characters were designed by modernist Tom Oreb, who gave them a rather angular outlook, which diminishes their attractiveness. Especially the goons and the drunk minstrel look rather poor, and their designs look forward to the leaner designs of the 1960s and 1970s.

The film’s second problem is its story, which takes a long time to even start. Sleeping Beauty’ was Disney’s third fairy tale princess film, after ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Cinderella‘, and like the earlier films the feature starts with a fairy tale book. But after that the story moves slowly, and up to seventeen minutes it still requires a voice over for the narration. Only after 30 minutes something happens (the Sleeping Beauty meets a stranger). The film is three quarters away before conflict sets in (she is lured away by Maleficent). Moreover, the central theme of the original fairy tale is thrown out of the window: after all, in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty sleeps for a hundred years. The studio plays that time span down to a mere day, and the sleeping doesn’t occur before two-thirds of the film.

The third issue is with the characters themselves. The Disney studio christened the Sleeping Beauty Aurora, but she doesn’t really gain a character of her own, and she remains less appealing than Cinderella had been. Worse, nowhere is she is in control of her own destiny.

Her love interest, prince Phillip, fares hardly better. There are only two scenes in which he goes his own way: first when he hears Aurora’s voice, and second when he rushes off to meet her again, despite his father’s objections. True, he is less bland than the prince in ‘Snow White’, but nonetheless he never becomes a full or engaging character, and it’s a pity that he has to guide the audience through the film’s last fifteen minutes.

No, the real main protagonists of the film are the three fairies, who in the original fairy tale only appear at the beginning, but whom the Disney studio has made instrumental to the plot throughout the movie. The studio has made the three (called Flora, Fauna and Merryweather) into three gentle, but fussy old aunts, and especially Merryweather is very well done. In fact, she’s arguably the most interesting character of the whole movie, a striking notion, given the fact that actually the love between Princess Aurora and Prince Philip should stand central.

The villain, Maleficent, is good, too. She’s certainly the most powerful Disney villain since Chernobogh from Fantasia. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by a highly incompetent army of ‘goons’, whose inability contrasts too much with Maleficent’s own frightening powers. The goons provide a ghoulish dancing scene, reminiscent of the Night on the Bare Mountain sequence of Fantasia, but which in fact harks all the way back to the dance of the devils in the Silly Symphony ‘The Goddess of Spring’ from 1935. Earle and his team gave Maleficent and her scenes a striking and rather eerie color mix of green, purple and black. The eerie green was influential enough to return in the depiction of Minas Morgul in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Maleficent also provides the film’s most moving scene, in which she sketches her release of prince Philip, then an old and frail man, to awake his love, eternally young in her sleep. Of course, nothing of that image comes true, and prince Philip defeats the evil sorceress in the film’s deservedly most famous scene: the battle with the dragon. The animation of the dragon is one of sheer power, and the towering figure is impressive even on a small screen. However, this iconic scene not even lasts ninety seconds, and in fact the dragon is slain surprisingly easily, and not by Phillip, but by Fauna – Thus even the final victory is denied to the hero…

The other characters are even more forgettable. The two kings have a rather superfluous scene together, hampered by the antics of the drunken minstrel, and Aurora’s mother is actually nothing more than a moving picture. None of the characters mentioned are funny, and the movie is painfully devoid of humor, love and empathy.

The fourth issue is the soundtrack: composer George Bruns was largely based on Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for the fairy tale. This accounts for a sophisticated score, but not for any memorable songs.

Certainly no issue is the animation. Done by eight of the Nine Old Men (by this time Ward Kimball was pursuing other interests), the animation is, of course, top notch. But this cannot save a film that crushes under its own pretentiousness, and that is in fact remarkably unsubstantial and boring. Indeed, the film grossed $5.3 million at the box office, which didn’t even meet the production costs. Thus, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ stands as Disney’s last lavish production, a sad and questionable end of an era.

Watch the trailer of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sleeping Beauty’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Taji Yabushita
Release Date: September 3, 1958
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The White Serpent © Toei Animation‘The White Serpent’ (also known as ‘Madame White Snake’ or as ‘Panda and the Magic Serpent’) is a feature of firsts: it was the first feature made by the Tōei Studio, Japan’s first post-war feature, the first one in color, and the first to be released in the United States.

The film somewhat forms the herald of a new era within Japanese animation, and is sometimes regarded as the starting point of the Japanese animation industry. The Tōei studio at least had the intention to become the Oriental Disney. Indeed, the foundation of the Tōei Dōga studio two years earlier was partly inspired by the Japanese release of Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), which made an enormous impression on Japanese animators. Another catalyst was the coming of television, for which the studio could make numerous commercials.

For its feature film studio boss Hiroshi Okawa firmly preferred universal tales. As Disney already had mined the European legacy, the Tōei studio turned his attention to Asia. Thus, the film tells an ancient Chinese legendary love story, more or less immediately familiar to Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other East Asian audiences, greatly enhancing the film’s export possibilities.

The film starts with a prologue to a song, in which we watch a boy befriend a snake. Unfortunately the adults don’t approve, and he has to set the snake free. This part uses shadow-like cutout figures with little to no animation, and has a certain elegant cartoon modern feel to it. This is replaced by classic full animation as soon as the real story starts. For the abandoned snake turns out to be an immortal spirit, who now takes the shape of a beautiful girl, Pai Nang, and who revisits her former owner, the now adult Hin Hsien.

Unfortunately, their love is disrupted by a bonze called Hokai, who fights evil spirits and who takes Pai Nang for one. Typically for a Japanese film, Hokai is no real villain, but a man who tries to save Hin Hsien on incorrect assumptions. Also starring are a fish spirit who turns into a little girl called Hsiang Ching, and two animal sidekicks called Panda and Mimi (a fox), who seem to have walked straight from a Disney movie, although they are clearly nipponified on the way. When Hin Hsien is banished, the two go looking for him, and on the way they beat and befriend an animal gang of robbers and thieves.

The fight between Panda and the gang leader, a large pig, is one of the highlights of the movie. Another is the celestial combat between Pai Nang and Hokai, an extraordinary scene by all means, as is Pai Nang’s journey through heaven in search for the dragon ruler of all spirits.

Overall the film has a poetic and magical atmosphere, greatly enhanced by Chui Kinoshita’s evocative music, and the narrative moves at a leisurely speed, sometimes aided by a voice over. The animation varies from fair to excellent. Especially the animals are very well done. There’s no attempt at lip synch, however, and at times the voices seem detached from their animated bodies. On the other hand, this feat would have made overdubbing rather easy, and as the film was designed to be distributed all over Asia, this must have been a conscious choice.

Overall, the animation style has more in common with contemporary European products than with Disney animation. There’s a poetic elegance and naivety to it that certainly adds to the movie’s charm. Indeed, the film was a success in Japan, and attracted all kinds of animators to the Tōei studio, including a young Hayao Miyazaki, who joined Tōei in 1963.

In all, ‘The White Serpent’ is by all means a successful start of a new era, and a film that still entertains today.

Watch the 1958 trailer for ‘The White Serpent’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The White Serpent’ is available as a French DVD-release called ‘le serpent blanc’

Director: Ralph Bakshi
Release Date:  July 10, 1992
Rating: ★★
Review:

Cool World © Paramount‘Cool World’ looks like a poor man’s version of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘.

Sure, the film boasts Brad Pitt and Kim Basinger as leading actors, and it even features a title song by David Bowie, but Ralph Bakshi’s product feels half-baked and derivative compared to Touchstone’s milestone film from 1988.

The film’s main problem is its story: it features a weird and obligate prologue to explain (unconvincingly) why Frank Harris (Brad Pitt) even wanders in the ‘doodle world’. Only half way we can extract this world’s core problem: ‘doodles’ and ‘noids’ (real people) cannot have sex together, because this will distort the universe. But sexy doodle ‘Holli Would’ (yes, that’s her name) would. And she does, with her own creator Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne).

This idea is preposterous to start with, but the execution is worse. Frank Harris, who apparently has become a cop, wanders through cardboard sets most of the time, aimless and clueless. All dialogues feel wooden and disjointed, and in several key dialogue scenes the actors clearly aren’t even together in the same room (!) with Bakshi falling back to a very unconvincing technique of suggestion of continuity of space that goes all the way back to the Keystone Comedy films of the early 1910s.

Kim Basinger acts more like a caricature of a sexy woman than being one, and the role of Jack Deebs remains vague and unclear to the very end: if he’s the creator, why did Cool World already exist in 1945, if he’s not, why is he the only one depicting it? Frank Harris somewhere suggests that more visitors are coming to this world, why then is Harris the only one allowed to stay? It just makes no sense.

The film’s main attraction, of course, is the animation. Supervised by Bruce Woodside, most of the animation is in fact is quite good (the crew even boosts a veteran animator like Bill Melendez), if completely arbitrary most of the time. Many scenes are filled with random animated scenes, mostly rather violent, sometimes grotesque, sometimes harking back to Max Fleischer, Warner Bros. or Tex Avery, at other times spoofing Disney (a cute rabbit, a hippo from Fantasia emerging from cigarette smoke, Gepetto and Pinocchio depicted in the inside of one of Holli’s ‘goons’). Being a Bakshi film, ‘Cool World’ also features a fair deal of rotoscope, most clearly so on Holli Would and Brad Pitt’s flat doodle girl friend Lorette.

Despite the high quality of the full animation, the animated scenes are mostly insane, not funny. The best attempt at humor is the finale, in which Deebs inexplicably changes into a rather pompous superhero, completely losing his former character.

Unfortunately, the scenes in which animated characters interact with humans have nothing of the sophistication of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’. Instead, Bakshi only deploys static scenes, a technique in existence since ‘The Three Caballeros‘, and in no scene in which ‘doodles’ and humans touch each other, one has the feeling that this is really happening.

Sadly, we must conclude that a lot of animation talent has been wasted on a meandering, clueless, badly written and badly directed film, with an immature focus on sex. The film did bad at the box office, and I’m afraid I must judge rightly so.

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

‘Cool World’ is available on DVD

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date:  July 1, 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Porco Rosso © Studio Ghibli‘Porco Rosso’ is the strangest movie in Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography. The film eschews most laws of animated film story telling, seemingly just starting and ending in the middle of a bigger story.

Like ‘Laputa: island in the sky’ (1986) and the later ‘The Wind Rises’ (2013) the film is clearly born out of Miyazaki’s love for planes. Like ‘Laputa’ ‘Porco Rosso’ is set in an alternative history Europe (this time the Adriatic sea ca. 1930), and features flying pirates.

The title character is an ex-war pilot with the face of a pig (why this is so is never really revealed). Porco Rosso now is a bounty hunter, battling a federation of air pirates, and their leader, the American Curtis in particular, and secretly loving Gina, the owner of a hotel on an island.

Halfway the movie Porco has to take his injured plane to Milano to get it fixed. There he meets Fio, the young granddaughter of his old mecanic. There’s a vague sense of a Nazi threat, but this is hardly played out. The story evolves around Porco’s return to the Adriatic and final battle with Curtis.

The overal atmosphere is light and comical, but there are a few touching moments, especially between Porco and Fio. Typically for Miyazaki, the film features strong women, and women and children working (Porco’s plane is set together by a crew of women, only).

The animation is outstanding throughout, although it seems the animators didn’t do their best to lip-synch. Most interesting are the scenes of Porco’s take off and flight back to the Adriatic, which feature some spectacular animated backgrounds.

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

‘Porco Rosso’ is available on DVD

Director: Bill Kroyer
Release Date:  April 10, 1992
Rating: ★★
Review:

FernGully - The Last Rainforest © 20th Century FoxUp until the rise of computer animation in the late 1990s, with powerful players entering the field (first Pixar, then Dreamworks, followed by BlueSky, Sony Animation and Illumination) the Walt Disney studio was the virtual monopolist of the animated feature.

In the 1980s their only challenge had come from former Disney-animator Don Bluth, who made three successful animated features during that decade, before going downhill with ‘All Dogs Go to Heaven’ (1989) and ‘Rock-a-Doodle’ (1991).

All the more surprising to find the young animation studio Kroyer Films (only founded in 1986) to make a brave attempt to beat Disney at its own game with ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’. The film is extraordinarily Disney-like, starring a heroin, with a rather bland male love interest, Disney-like designs and animation, and a plethora of songs, changing the film into one of the obligate musicals, which animated features up to 1996 were expected to be.

What makes the film unique is its Australian setting and its ecological message, which quite fits the time, but which falls into the trap of over-romanticizing nature severely: why did the animators consider it necessary to add elves and an evil spirit? Why couldn’t the forest animals themselves be the heroes, and the humans the only villains? Why showing surprising healing powers at the end of the movie, while its scientifically known that it takes several centuries for primary forest to recover, if ever? If one compares this film to Ghibli’s ‘Pom Poko‘ (1994), one must conclude that Ghibli succeeds in bringing the subtle environmental message across, where Ferngully essentially fails.

Despite its Australian setting, the film is very American (using voice artists like Robin Williams, Tone Lōc, and Cheech and Chong, and film music by Alan Silvestri for example), and as said, very Disney-like. Unfortunately, the film hardly lives up to its high ambition: the animation never reaches Disney’s height – there’s in fact quite some superfluous movement, revealing the use of rotoscope. Moreover, the designs remain generic to downright ugly. For example, the film’s heroin, Crysta, is not half as appealing as Disney’s Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) or Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast (1991). Worse, Crysta and and her love interest Zak are surprisingly devoid of character, and the comedy duo Cheech and Chong is wasted on side characters of no interest.

The music is by Alan Silvestri, of ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ fame, but his romantic themes get on  the nerves. Besides, there are way too many songs, most of which stop the action, instead of pushing it forward. The best song, sung by rapper Tone Lōc, is also the most superfluous. The character who sings it, a goanna (or monitor lizard, as it is known outside Australia) enters the film to sing this song, only to disappear again.

On the positive side: the opening sequence, done in aboriginal style, is beautiful; Robin Williams does his best as the comic relief Batty Koda, a laboratory bat; the animation on the amorphous villain Hexxus is quite impressive, making him into a remarkably scary character; and the healing sequence is simply beautiful, with its bold Fantasia-like colors and abstract designs.

‘FernGully’ did moderately well at the box office, but remains Kroyer Films’ only feature. Later in the nineties, distributor 20th Century Fox teamed up with Don Bluth to make two more animated features, the successful, and again very Disney-like ‘Anastasia’ (1997), and the flopped science-fiction feature ‘Titan A.E.’ (2000). It was only after 20th Century Fox purchased the animation studio ‘Blue Sky’ (1997) and released ‘Ice Age’ (2002) that the company became a major player in the animation feature field.

In hindsight, ‘FernGully’ is most interesting for being a forerunner of ‘Avatar’ (2009), which features a surprisingly similar tale. Like most of the Don Bluth films, the movie mostly manages to demonstrate how Disney’s ideas on animated features had become the gospel on how to make one. And even though some of these dogmas were to be seriously challenged from 1996 on (the idea that all animated features have to be musicals, for example), most of these unwritten rules remain to this day, making most American animated features, and many of their European imitations, awfully generic.

Watch the trailer for ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ is available on DVD

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