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Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
Release Date: January 23, 2016
Rating: ★★★ ½
Review:

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ had suggested a background story for Po, an extermination of all Pandas by the evil peacock Lord Shen. So, it would have been logical to expand this story line in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’.

And indeed, this is the movie in which Po finally meets more pandas, not to say even his very own family. And yet, virtually nothing is done with the plot elements of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’. Po’s natural father pops up in Po’s village, virtually out of nothing – there’s no quest whatsoever.

Instead, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ introduces a completely new background story, involving the spirit realm, and introducing Po’s most powerful opponent thus far, master Oogway’s former friend, the bull Kai. Kai returns from the spirit world to the mortal world, creating havoc and changing all kung fu masters into his own mindless army of jade. And being immortal he’s a tough one to take. It’s up to Po to fight off this formidable foe.

Despite this splendid super villain, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is quite a disappointing sequel, stretching the all too American dream-like messages of ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘if you want to, you can achieve everything’ way beyond believability. Po’s transition of his lazy, food-loving parent village into a gang of fearless fighters, able to battle the greatest kung fu masters of China, in only a matter of days, is stretching the imagination, to say the least. Traditional wuxia cinema emphasizes that true mastery only comes with hard and long training, but in the American Kung Fu Panda universe, you get it for free if you only believe in yourself. If only. One wonders what entered the makers’ minds to send off a phony message like that.

Unfortunately, there are more story problems. There’s an all too obligate break up scene, when Po’s father appears to have lied to Po. Moreover, for a village that is supposed to be secretly hidden, the Panda settlement is found surprisingly easily by both Tigress and Kai. And the story line of the pandas having forgotten how to use Qi, only to remaster that in an instant, is, again, quite unconvincing. True, Po never was an entirely convincing character, but he certainly isn’t in this film.

Meanwhile, Po’s former co-stars are reduced to minor players, uttering only a few lines, if any, while none of the new players, save Kai, show the same charm. Only Po’s duck father, Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) thrives as the jealous father.

No, the main attraction of ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is not its story, or its characters, but its design. The film makes great use of wuxia imaging, including gravity defying runs and jumps. Even better, the feature at times becomes surprisingly graphical: for example, the film occasionally uses the split screen to a great effect, Oogway’s story is rendered in gorgeous 2D, and the learning sequence employs a bold and very beautiful color scheme.

In addition, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is noteworthy for introducing the utterly Chinese concept of Qi to Western audiences. Qi roughly translates as ‘life energy’ and forms the central theme of the film, making ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ an interesting blend of Western (the individualistic tropes stated above) and Eastern concepts. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feeling that there could have been more to ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, and that it in fact is more run-of-the-mill than the film could have been.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Peter Sohn
Release Date: November 10, 2015
Rating: ★★
Review:

During the 2010s Pixar lost quite some of its brilliance. Not only saw the decade a multitude of sequels (seven out of eleven), two of the remaining stand-alone films, ‘Brave’ and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ were in fact strikingly disappointing. Particularly ‘The Good Dinosaur’ feels rather lackluster for a Pixar film. The general public apparently thought so, too, causing ‘The Good Dinosaur’ to become Pixar’s first financial disappointment.

For once, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ feels as if it had hit the theaters before its story problems were entirely solved. The film’s story had a troubled history, with two of its original writers (Bob Peterson and John Walker) being removed from the project halfway, and a release date being postponed two years. And yet, the final product still feels half-baked, and badly thought through.

The film’s premise is an alternate history in which the asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago only passed by, sparing the dinosaurs, and allowing them to evolve to the present day.

If you realize that this allows for a staggering 66 million years of extra evolution, surprisingly little is done with the concept. First, we hardly see any dinosaurs, at all. Only four species are depicted: Arlo’s family of Sauropods, a single Styracosaurus, a few hideously ugly Dromaeosaurids (who look like plucked chickens which makes them the most revolting looking Dromaeosaurids ever put to the screen) and three Tyrannosauruses. We can add some grisly Pterosaurs to the mix (another example of appalling design), but that’s it.

As you may have noticed, the species depicted are all recognizable as familiar species, as if nothing would have happened in 66 million years! Thus, the whole initial concept has been largely thrown away at the beginning. Instead, we are invited to believe Sauropods have invented agriculture, and Tyrannosaurids (who are very well-designed, but certainly not according to the latest scientific evidence of the time) have invented cattle breeding. Even worse, the film makers have allowed mammals to evolve beyond, as well, as if they wouldn’t have had competition from the well-established dinosaurs, depicting buffalo and, sadly, humans. How humans could ever have evolved in the shadow of dinosaurs baffles me, but here they are, and in the Americas, too. And yet, the story seems to take place during the Pleistocene, not extending the time period to the present, but why this may be so, will never be known. It unfortunately only adds to the age-old trope of co-existence of dinosaurs and early man, making ‘The Good Dinosaur’ strangely akin to the nonsense of e.g. The Flintstones.

The film focuses on Arlo, a small, weak and cowardly Sauropod, who loses his father and his home, but befriends a little human whom he calls Spot, and who overcomes his fears on his journey back home.

This story is already pretty uninteresting, but the execution is remarkably boring, and despite a modest length of 93 minutes, the film plods through its story following familiar tropes, and delivering no surprises. As too often in Disney movies there’s a strong focus on ‘family’ that feels tired and cliché. Moreover, Arlo’s development, given the traumatic loss of his father, feels obligate and is rather unconvincing, to say the least. Unlike Simba in ‘The Lion King’ (1994) there’s no sense of guilt or self-punishment, and Arlo’s dream encounter with his father is nothing like that of Simba in the former movie.

It doesn’t really help that for most of the time Arlo is a rather unpleasant character. His weakness and cowardice is not appealing, but annoying, and he behaves selfishly most of the time. To me it’s no less than a marvel that Arlo doesn’t die in the wild, so unbelievably unfit is our ‘hero’ for survival. I certainly believe the voice choice for Raymond Ochoa is part of the problem, for Arlo’s voice got on my nerves over time.

The other animals don’t help either. True, Spot is a well-established character, and surely forms the heart of the film, but Arlo’s family is quite bland, and almost all other creatures Arlo encounters seem rather lunatic, not to say insane. The only exceptions are the three Tyrannosaurs, and they form the highlight of the film. The animation of their walk, which looks like cowboys riding horses, belongs to the most original and best animation of movement ever put to the screen. Moreover, voice actor Sam Elliott is cast perfectly as the leader of the three. I don’t know why but somehow this Tyrannosaurus design is the perfect depiction of the mustached actor in Dinosaur form, as if Elliott had always been a Tyrannosaur deep inside, and the animators have brought his inner dinosaur to life.

Apart from story and personality issues, the film suffers from design flaws. The problems already start with the very first scene, which is a very, very unrealistic depiction of the asteroid belt. As said, the Dromaeosaurid and Pterosaur designs are atrocious, but also Arlo himself suffers. Compared to his co-stars he is way to cartoony, with oversized limbs, eyes and teeth, and essentially unappealing.

Spot is much, much better, but for some unknown reason Spot is shown as only partly bipedal and he’s given some dog-like behavior, while this is discarded in the depiction of other humans. One can argue that the orphan Spot is a feral child, like Mowgli, but as it’s never explained, I doubt whether this concept was even used in the background story.

No, the film’s real highlights are its landscapes. The film excels in impressive depictions of North American nature. The rivers, forests, mountains and plains depicted all look absolutely gorgeous, and are a giant move forward since ‘Cars’ (2005), which itself had been a milestone of landscape building in computer animation. The depiction of wet rocks and needle covered forest floors is no less than stunning and are still unparalleled in their realism and beauty. Indeed, it’s clear the film makers were most proud of their background art, for it’s the landscapes that ornament the end titles, not the characters. To me this says enough.

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

‘The Good Dinosaur’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Steve Martino
Release Date: November 1, 2015
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

‘The Peanuts Movie’ was a project initiated by Craig Schulz, son of Charles M. Schulz, creator of the famous comic strip, and his own son, Bryan Schulz. The two chose the Blue Skye studio for fulfilling their dream, as the studio had been faithful to Dr. Seuss before, in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ (2008). And indeed, this Blue Sky film is a much more satisfying product than the two later Dr. Seuss adaptations by Illumination.

Blue Skye, of course, is a 3D computer animation studio, but the studio has done a remarkable job in combining the 3D techniques with Schulz’s essentially flat drawings. This means that there are added textures and 3D settings in which the characters can move around and about.

But at no point the characters get distorted or become too realistic for their own good. Blue Sky doesn’t fall into the trap of Sony Animation’s ‘The Smurfs’ (2011), uglifying the original designs by trying to make them too realistic.

In fact, the studio does an amazing job in transferring Schulz’s drawings into a 3D world. It’s refreshing to see that the crew did no ill-conceived attempt to ‘update’ the characters and their setting. There are no new characters introduced, but also no computers or cellphones in sight, but old-fashioned rotary phones and typewriters.

And, true to the original comic, no adult can be seen, not even partly. Instead, we have the famous baseball mound, and even a scene featuring the stone wall present in so many comic strip panels. Even better, during the opening and in some thought scenes the film reverts back to Schulz’s original black and white 2D style, rendering the style of the original comic strip convincingly, indeed.

Moreover, the film is not only faithful to the original comic strip, but also to Bill Melendez’s animated interpretations of it (1965-2006). This means that all children are voiced by real children, all adults by a trombone sound (courtesy of Troy “Trombone” Shorty), and Snoopy’s and Woodstock’s incomprehensible jabberings by Bill Melendez himself (Melendez had died in 2008, so the vocalizations all come from archive material, but you’d never notice). The film clearly plays homage to Melendez’s vision, copying the dance moves of several characters from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965). Moreover, the film starts with two of Vince Guaraldi’s tunes for that famed first Peanuts television special: the iconic and intoxicating ‘Linus and Lucy’ and ‘Skating’.

All familiar Peanuts characters are introduced in the intro, even older ones like Shermy, Patty, Violet, Frieda and Pig Pen. But as every Peanut fan would hope, the film concentrates firmly on Charlie Brown, leaving all the other characters, except Lucy, rather sketchy. Even Linus hardly gets screen presence. As I’m a lifelong Peanuts fan, it’s hard for me to guess what impression the gang makes on newbies. For example, there’s Marcie, calling Peppermint Patty sir, and Lucy having a psychiatrist’s booth in the street. Wouldn’t this strike odd to newcomers? I’ve no idea, for as a fan, these familiar tropes are most welcome.

As said, the film concentrates on Charlie Brown. The film essentially is his story. We watch him playing baseball and flying kites, and failing at both, but the crew chose the most moving of all of Charlie Brown’s subplots: his love for the little red-haired girl. In the movie, she moves in as Charlie Brown’s neighbor, and becomes his new classmate. Unlike the strip, in which Charlie Brown’s dream girl is never seen, the little red-haired girl gets screen presence. But the crew cleverly keeps her mysterious, offering us just glimpses of her during most of the movie. Thus we see her mostly with Charlie Brown’s eyes as a desirable but unreachable creature.

Surprisingly, the film is neither hasty nor all too straightforward in unfolding its story. At one point Lucy gives Charlie Brown a book titles ’10 Ways to Become a Winner’, and for a while it seems this book will be guiding line the story will adhere to. Charlie Brown even manages to read the whole of ‘Leo’s Toy Store’ by Warren Piece (as Peppermint Patty recalls the famous Russian novel), all to no avail. But then another story arc starts, in which Charlie Brown mistakenly is seen as a school genius, which also ends prematurely. Likewise, most of the film takes place during winter, but near the end we suddenly skip to summer, and even to the last day of school. Overall, the film’s speed is relaxed and unhurried, focusing on Charlie Brown’s emotions, as he blunders through everyday life.

Yet, there’s enough of excitement, because Charlie Brown’s mishaps are alternated with scenes starring Snoopy, who has his own subplot as, could it be otherwise?, a World War I flying ace pilot combating the Red Baron, and rescuing a female fellow pilot called Fifi. I wasn’t familiar with Fifi, and though of her as the only new character in the movie, but even she has appeared before, in ‘Life Is a Circus, Charlie Brown’ (1980). As a lot of Snoopy’s imagined action takes place in the air, these scenes make welcome use of all possibilities 3D animation offers, resulting in breathtaking air battle scenes, which of course become ridiculous as Snoopy flies his own dog house, instead of a proper World War I plane. Even better are the scenes in which Snoopy’s fantasy is altered with scenes from the real world, featuring Snoopy sneaking, running and diving into scenes to the bewilderment of the children.

In all, ‘The Peanuts Movie’ is a delightful film, refreshing with its focus on every day life, and rewarding in its faithfulness to the original comic strip. Only the end may be too cloying and too optimistic, out of tune with the persistent sense of failure so present in the original comic strip. Yet, Craig and Bryan Schulz can be proud of this product, for together with Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ this is the most rewarding American animated movie of 2015.

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

‘The Peanuts Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Directors: Charlie Kaufman & Dick Johnson
Release Date: September 4, 2015
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

A welcome new phenomenon of the 21th century was the arrival of live action directors turning to animation, and to stop motion, in particular. Wes Anderson was the first, directing the gritty ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009), while maintaining his idiosyncratic style. Next was Gore Verbinski, with the peculiar ‘Rango’ (2011), and in 2015 Charlie Kaufman followed with ‘Anomalisa’, which fits very well in his oeuvre. ‘Anomalisa’ is extra welcome, because this is an adult film, not a family film, which normally appears to be the only type of animated films allowed in the U.S.

Main protagonist of this film is British customer service expert Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who is invited to give a speech on customer service in Cincinati, Ohio. Michael seems to suffer from a disease, which could almost only dreamed up by Kaufman: to him all people look and sound the same, making it impossible to distinguish between them. All the people Michael encounters have the same plain face, and the same voice (provided by Tom Noonan). Children, women, men, film stars and even opera singers – they’re all utterly indistinguishable to him.

But then he hears a voice, different from all the others, and desperately tries to contact her. This voice belongs to one Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a telephone sales employee from a food company based in Akron, Ohio. Lisa is homely and insecure, especially when accompanied by her much more beautiful friend Emily (we viewers cannot judge that, however, as we see Emily only through Michael’s eyes, which means she has the same bland face and voice as all other characters in the film). Lisa thinks she’s ugly and stupid, thus she’s utterly puzzled by Michael’s interest in her, and not very convinced, either. But Michael’s so glad he’s found someone different that he even dreams of leaving his wife and son, to spend the rest of his life Lisa, whom he calls Anomalisa, as she’s the only one different in a sea of sameness.

It’s important to note that Michael Stone is far from a sympathetic character: he’s self-absorbed, evidently hardly interested in other people, and clearly bored to death with his current life. Even though he has a wife and son at his home in California, he tries to have sex as soon as he has arrived in Cincinnati. So one could argue that his disease is only symbolic of his disinterest in others, but Kaufman does play it as a real disease. For example, when waiting for his old flame Bella, he only acknowledges her after she has recognized him.

Nevertheless, it’s clearly Michael’s own negative attitude which eventually spoils his idyll… Next morning Lisa quickly loses her special charm to him, fading into the sameness of others at a breathtaking speed. The scene in which this takes place, is the most horrifying of the entire movie, despite a nightmare scene preceding it. Especially because at this point our sympathy has long since shifted to Lisa, instead of Michael, who remains, in the end, a pedantic, egotistical prick.

Unfortunately, this great scene is followed by one in which Michael finally delivers his speech. This is a very unconvincing, disappointing scene, by all means. It’s not only rather superfluous, it also stretches the plausibility too much, and almost spoils the entire movie.

Apart from a short prelude in which Michael arrives by plane, a short scene at a “toy store”, and a short postlude, which takes place at his own home, the entire film is set in a very common and extremely bland hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Michael is invited to give a speech on customer service. The hotel setting and short time span (the whole film takes place in less than 24 hours) gives the movie a unity of time and space, rarely encountered in current films. Indeed, the hotel’s bland browns and beiges color the film, adding to its visual character. Incidentally, the hotel is called ‘Fregoli’, after a disorder called the Fregoli delusion, in which the patient thinks several people are, in fact, one and the same person. Note that this Fregoli delusion is markedly different from Michael’s disease – he perceives people as different beings, but cannot distinguish them from each other.

The claustrophobia of the film is greatly enhanced by the stop motion, which always provides a sense of surrealism. Indeed, stop motion is such a logical choice for such an outlandish concept that one almost cannot believe the film is based on a stage play.

The film makes use of very lifelike sets and puppets. Nevertheless the puppets have different proportions than real people (the heads, hands and feet being larger than in real life), and have clearly visible seams at the eyes and ears, as the puppets have replaceable mouth parts. These seams give the puppets a rather uncanny edge. Kaufman even plays with this concept. At one point, Michael seems to be able to cut his own facial part loose, and in a nightmare scene it just drops to the floor, exposing the inner workings of his puppet self.

The realism of the puppets thus is mostly achieved through animation. Indeed, the animation of the puppets, directed by Duke Johnson, is of an extraordinarily high level. Highlight of the film is the sex scene, which in all its awkwardness and clumsiness is one of the most real sex scenes ever put to film, despite being acted out by puppets. The animators used reference from real sex actors for this scene, which took several months to shoot, and the result is a stunning tour-de-force of stop motion.

In all, ‘Anomalisa’ is a unique stop motion film. It’s admittedly not without its flaws, but Kaufman can proudly add it to his oeuvre of weird tales, and the film certainly is a welcome departure from the family film tropes of standard American studio animation.

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

‘Anomalisa’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Release Date: July 11, 2015
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

For quite a time only three Japanese author directors of animated films were known in the West: Osamu Tezuka, Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki (well, and perhaps Miyazaki’s friend and Ghibli-associate Isao Takahata). But in the 2000s several others were added, most notably Satoshi Kon (who, unfortunately, died prematurely), Masaaki Yuasa, Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda. The latter impressed audiences with his films ‘The Girl Who Lept Through Time’ (2006), ‘Summer Wars’ (2009) and especially ‘Wolf Children’ (2012), for which he had erected his own studio, Studio Chizu.

‘The Boy and the Beast’, like ‘Wolf Children’, was made at Hosoda’s own Chizu studio. It’s a coming-of-age story, largely set in a parallel world of Bakemono, shapeshifting spirits that in Hosoda’s film have taken the shape of anthropomorphized animals. The whole concept of Bakemono is, of course, unknown to us Westerners (I, at least had no knowledge of this part of Japanese folklore), but luckily, Hosoda provides the film with an introduction, which sortly sets out this strange otherworld, and its major inhabitants: an aging Grandmaster (who turns out to be an old rabbit), and his rival successors, Iouzen (a hog) and Kumatetsu, a bear.

Then we cut to present Tokyo, where nine years old Ren wanders the streets. After the death of his mother he has run away from home and he has nowhere to go. By some strange events he enters the parallel Bakemono world called Juutengai, where he becomes Kumatetsu’s pupil.

Kumatetsu can be viewed as Ren’s counterpart: he’s alone and lonely, having grown up without parents. But the old bear is also immature, lazy, selfish, and extremely quick-tempered. In fact, he can learn something from his own young pupil, and although the two quarrel throughout the picture, it becomes clear the two recognize something in each other, and love each other for it.

On this premise Hosoda builds a surprisingly complex story about what it means to grow up without parents. In fact, despite the elaborate fantasy world and spectacular fight scenes this is a film about loss and of the empty feeling inside of having no father or mother or either. Indeed, halfway the film jumps several years forward and the now seventeen years old Ren (or Kyuta, as Kumatetsu calls him) has to deal with the emptiness inside him. He learns that this can be filled with love of others. Back in the real world, he meets a girl called Kaede who helps him to cope.

More than any of Hosoda’s previous films, this movie seems to owe quite a lot to the Ghibli studio influence: the coming-of-age story, the parallel world, children working and learning how to become disciplined, adult figures becoming quite fond of the human child in their world – it’s all very similar to particularly ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). But unlike Miyazaki’s masterpiece, ‘The Boy and the Beast’ does know a real villain, a boy called Ichirōhiko, even if his villainy is explained by loss. Ichirōhiko is similar to Ren, but he has never been able to fill the void inside him, and consequently, he’s filled with anger and hate.

Ichirōhiko provides the most surreal scene in the entire film: the shadow of a whale swimming through the streets of Tokyo. But throughout the background art and imagery is rich and colorful: Tokyo feels absolutely real, as does the fantasy world of Juutengai. As said, the story is rather complex, but it remains engaging throughout and never loses focus on its main message. The animation, too, is fine, if not exceptional, as is the drawing style, which is a little more generic than the average Ghibli product.

In all, ‘The Boy and the Beast’ corroborates Hosoda as a strong author-director. If only American animated cinema would allow strong individual voices like him!

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

‘The Boy and the Beast’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
Release Date: June 11, 2015
Stars: The Minions
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Part of the success of ‘Despicable Me’ (2010), Illumination’s first animation film lie in the minions, Gru’s yellow little helpers. However, their existence was never explained in that film, nor in the sequel ‘Despicable Me 2’ (2013) in which they even played a more important part. Meanwhile, the little yellow buddies were obviously a merchandise hit, so it seemed only fitting that the minions got their own film.

The resulting picture, aptly titled ‘Minions’, is both a spin-off and a prequel of the Despicable me franchise, and finally deals with the origin of the Minions and how they came to know Gru. Surprisingly, however, both these subjects are dealt with in the shortest fashion: most of the minions’ origin is told during the title sequence, in elegant 2D animation, recalling the cartoon modern style of the 1950s. The meeting with Gru is presented as almost an afterthought at the end of the movie, and is partly told during the end titles.

In between we have the story. This starts with a ten minute long introduction, narrated by Geoffrey Rush, who tells us how the minions have always had one single goal in their lives: to serve the biggest villain around, but how lost many by their own stupidity. Finally they end up in a remote cave somewhere in the Himalayas, where they lose all sense of purpose, until one of them, a tall minion called Kevin, proposes to leave the cave and find a villain worthy to serve. Kevin sets out, accompanied by little Bob and one-eyed Stuart, and the rest of the film is devoted to this trio, their search, their coming to the Villain-Con convention in Orlando, FL, and their serving of the biggest villain of 1968, Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who wants to steal the British crown.

So the film takes part mostly in London during the swinging sixties, and thus features a lot of period music (e.g. ‘I’m a Man’ by The Spencer Davis Group, ‘Break on Through’ by The Doors, ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks, and ‘My Generation’ by The Who). In the end, even three Beatles songs are used, ‘Love Me Do’, and during the end titles ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’, followed by a minionese version of ‘Revolution’, which is accompanied by numerous 3D effects, typical of the early 2010s.

Surprisingly, queen Elizabeth II (voiced by British comedienne Jennifer Saunders) has an active part in the story. This is a surprising choice, as the British queen is not only a real person, she’s still alive. Refreshingly, both Scarlett Overkill and Elizabeth II are presented as strong, independent female characters. Otherwise, women are scarce during the movie, and of course, like the Smurfs, all Minions are male (the Smurfette was created by Gargamel).

Like ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ from earlier that year ‘Minions’ is clearly a film made only to entertain. Nothing in the entire film can be taken serious. In contrast, the comedy is broad, and both the human design and the animation are deliberately over-the-top and cartoony, a refreshing and welcome contrast to the more toned down Disney-Pixar-style.

However, Stuart, Kevin and Bob are pretty static characters and have no story arc. In fact, they hardly have a personality at all, and they are mostly distinguished by their looks, not by character animation. Here lies the main problem of ‘Minions’: one hardly cares for the three main protagonists, and this gives the film an empty feel.

Moreover, not all the humor works. The minions’ jabbering rather quickly wears out its welcome, and especially Herb Overkill, Scarlet’s husband (voiced by Jon Hamm) is painfully unfunny, and could certainly be missed. More successful are Jennifer Saunders as Queen Elizabeth, and a family of villains. However, my biggest laughs went to a throwaway gag during the Villain-Con convention: one professor Flux (voiced by Steve Coogan) has made a time machine to fetch future copies of himself to help him in the lab. I’ll not spoil the gag here, but within seconds things go terribly wrong.

Despite its flaws, the film is well-told, and beautifully made. Between all the nonsense there’s actually not only excellent animation, but also superb rendering, lighting and effect animation, thrown in so seemingly effortlessly, one hardly notices. I especially like Kevin’s wanderings in the London streets, while being chased by a bunch of villains. The mist, the lighting, the rain, the reflections, the wet surfaces are all very well done during these scenes. Moreover, the camera often takes his point of view, watching the world in worm’s-eye view. Another animation highlight is Scarlett’s story to the minions, told in a naive style, imitating stop-motion techniques.

In all, ‘Minions’ may be a rather shallow and far from essential film, it’s well-made, and entertaining enough to watch at least once.

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

‘Minions’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Pete Docter
Release Date: May 18, 2015
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In the first decade of the new millennium the Pixar Studio had been the king of animation, virtually topping each film with a better and more original one. But the 2010s were a completely different matter: of the eleven feature films released by the studio in the 2010s only four were no sequels.

But even worse, suddenly the average quality of the films dropped from excellent to a mere okay, with ‘Cars 2’, ‘Brave’, ‘Monsters University’ and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ being particularly disappointing. The only three bright lights in this unsatisfying decade were ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010, arguably the best animated sequel ever made), ‘Inside Out’ (2015) and ‘Coco’ (2017).

Of these three films, ‘Inside Out’ is by far the most original. In fact, it’s one of the most original mainstream feature animation films ever. The whole premise of making someone’s emotions the stars of the film is as daring as possible. True, the idea of showing emotions itself as little persons was far from new, after all, Disney’s own ‘Reason and Emotion’ (1943) was an obvious forerunner, as were more or less the Christian angels and devils aiding Pluto and Donald in ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto’ (1933) and ‘Donald’s Better Self’ (1938), respectively. But as you may notice, there never were more than two, contrasting each other.

‘Inside Out’, on the other hand, features five, based on work by psychologist Paul Ekman, omitting his sixth primary emotion surprise. The five, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, are being shown to be in control in the brain. We watch the emotions of one eleven year old girl called Riley in particular, collecting memories, and coloring them with their particular flavor (bright yellow for joy, blue for sadness, and so on) – following scientific knowledge, in which is acknowledged that emotions affect and change memories. Now, the depiction of the inside of Riley’s brain is a wonderful piece of imaginative world-making, but still surprisingly well-rooted in science, although the idea of ‘core memories’ seems to be an invention of the film-makers alone. In the world of ‘Inside Out’ these core memories build islands of personality, in Riley’s case e.g. goofball island, hockey island, honesty island, and family island.

The film focuses on Joy, and her appreciation of her opposite, Sadness. Together with Joy we learn that sadness strengthens relationships (an idea based on the work of Dacher Keltner, another psychologist), and that sadness is a part of life. We also learn that it can be difficult to grow up, and that it’s okay to be sad about it. These are surprisingly mature messages to come from a mainstream animation film directed to the whole family, and because they’re brought so well, they make the film extra impressive.

The film starts with an introduction, narrated by Joy (Amy Poehler), in which Riley gets born and gets her first experiences, introducing the five emotions in succession. After the introduction, the main plot of the film is set in motion when eleven year old Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, changing her whole life.

Meanwhile, inside her head, Joy and Sadness get lost inside Riley’s head, and have to try to find their way back home. In this sequence the two cross several sections of the brain, like the memory, imagination land, the dream factory (with film posters like ‘‘I’m Falling for a very long time in a pit’, ‘I Can Fly’, and ‘Something’s Chasing Me!’), and Riley’s subconsciousness. Highlight of this road-trip inside Riley’s head must be abstract thought, in which the characters undergo the four stages of abstraction, rendering them abstract, deconstructed, two-dimensional, and finally non-figurative. During their journey they meet Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong from when she’s was only very little.
While Joy and Sadness are lost, the other three emotions try to direct Riley like Joy would do. Their funny antics correspond surprisingly well with Riley’s conflicting reactions to her new life, which leads to frustration and anger, and finally, depression.

Riley’s emotions are a mix of female (Joy, Sadness, Disgust) and male (Fear, Anger) characters, but when we take a look inside the heads of her mom, they are all female, while inside her father’s head there are only mustached male characters. Interesting is that while Riley is mainly steered by Joy, in her mother’s head Sadness is in full control, while Anger has taken the lead inside her father’s head, making one wonder what made these two adults so. At the end of the film and during the titles the emotions of several other people are shown, even including a dog and a cat.

All the settings inside Riley’s head are depicted in the most colorful and fantastic way. This is a very convincing fantasy world, indeed. The character designs, too, are inspired. The five emotions are depicted as little people, but also as bundles of energy: especially Joy’s edges are bubbly and undefined, and she has a permanent glow around her. This is an incredible tour de force of effect animation, but luckily never distracts from the well-defined characters the five emotions are. The depiction of the real world is also top notch, and seems effortless, convincingly bringing Riley’s new home of San Francisco to life, from her empty bedroom to her new ice hockey stadium. The soundtrack too, by Pixar regular Michael Gioacchino, is very inspired, and the composer gives Joy a theme song that almost matches the theme from ‘Up’ in evoking an emotional response from the audience.

The films has one major flaw, however. By focusing on Joy, this emotion must be a round character, capable of more than one emotion. Indeed, we watch Joy being fearful, and even sad. Joy being sad is such an absurd concept that at that point the suspension of disbelief is breached. Nevertheless, when Joy finally lets Sadness do her thing, this a beautiful moment in the film.

In all, ‘Inside Out’ is a very fine film, one of Pixar’s best, and certainly one of the most interesting animation films to come out of the United States in the 2010s, which can hardly be called the best decade for the medium.

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

‘Inside Out’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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