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Directors: Nathan Greno & Byron Howard
Release Date: November 24, 2010
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Tangled © Walt DisneyWith ‘Tangled’ the Walt Disney studio arguably released their first really successful computer animated feature.

Despite the modern techniques with which it has been made, ‘Entangled’ really looks back, even more than the hand-drawn ‘Princess and the Frog’ from one year earlier. First, it’s a musical in the vain of ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), and indeed the songs are by same composer, Alan Menken. Second, it’s based on a classic fairy-tale (Rapunzel), placing it in a tradition looking all the way back to ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and ‘Cinderella‘ (1950). And third, there’s even an animal sidekick, the chameleon Pascal, something we hadn’t seen since ‘Mulan’ (1998).

Like in all these films the main protagonist is a young female yearning for love. With Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’, Rapunzel is the most overtly adolescent of the lot. She displays many behaviors of teenagers: not only is she torn apart between loyalty to her ‘mother’ and the longing for freedom, she also displays the naive and intoxicating excitement typical of her age. It seems like ‘Tangled’ was clearly marketed for this age group.

However, the studio changed the film’s name from ‘Rapunzel’ to ‘Tangled’ to attract other people than teenage girls, and rightly so, for the film has more to offer. However, it’s not necessarily to be found in the male protagonist, Flynn Rider. Flynn is a somewhat cliche overconfident macho, who discovers his softer side, and he is more of interest to young girls than to young men, who may have difficulties relating to him. In fact, I dare say they will more relate to Rapunzel herself.

No, it’s found in a well-told story, in which both the evil witch and Rapunzel’s hair gain new dimensions. Apart from its magical power, it is amazing what Rapunzel can do with her hair. It clearly defines her as a strong, independent and creative character: not submissive and to be won, but active, and with a will of her own.

The story knows plenty of fun, action and romance, but also allows for some deep emotional moments. For example, there is a short scene in which we see Rapunzel’s grieving father, and his emotion is played so well, it breaks your heart. Alan Menken’s songs aren’t the greatest, and can sometimes be missed, but the ‘I have a dream’ sequence in the tavern is acted out with so much bravado, it’s a great fun to watch.

I doubt whether ‘Tangled’ will become a modern classic like e.g. Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’ (2008), ‘Up’ (2009) or Disney’s later ‘Frozen’ (2013), but it seriously showed that the Disney studio still was able to make good animated features, even computer animated ones. That alone was a relief after a series of seriously bad (‘Chicken Little’, 2005), forgettable (‘Meet the Robinsons’, 2007) and average (‘Bolt’, 2008)  films.

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

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: July 26, 1951
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Alice in Wonderland © Walt DisneyOf all the classic Walt Disney features, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ had the longest and most troublesome history.

Lewis Carroll’s book had intrigued Walt Disney for years. It had inspired the Alice cartoons, if only in name, and already in 1933 the first ideas appeared to turn the literary classic into an animated feature, starring Mary Pickford as Alice – being Disney’s first feature idea ever. Unfortunately, the idea was dropped because in 1933 Paramount released their version of the classic tale.

More serious work on Alice started in 1939/1940 when illustrator David Hall made numerous, exceptionally beautiful concept drawings. After the failures of ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) at the box office, these ideas were shelved, and virtually nothing of Hall’s ideas entered the final film. At one point even novelist Aldous Huxley cooperated, turning in a literary script in 1945, which the Disney studio found useless. Only in 1949 real work on the film began, resulting in Disney’s second feature of the 1950s, after the successful ‘Cinderella‘.

The final film unfortunately was poorly received when it was finally released in 1951. It performed rather badly at the box office, losing the studio almost a million dollars, practically evaporating the profits that ‘Cinderella’ had made the previous year. The film was critisized even by its own animators. Marc Davis said the film “gave us nothing to work it” and called it a “cold film”. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston hardly mention the film in their elaborate book ‘The Illusion of Life’. In ‘The Disney Villain’ they reveal why: they felt they “had failed to find the intriguing combination of fantasy, satire and whimsy that made the original book popular”. Even Walt Disney himself denounced the film, saying it lacked heart.

However, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has aged suprisingly well. In fact, it has turned out to be one of the best adaptations of the book to the screen, its only serious rivals being Jan Švankmajer’s disturbing stop motion film from 1987, and a NBC production from 1999. Certainly not Disney’s feature from 2010, which, although visually stunning, owes very little to the original story.

The film’s most overt weakness, its episodic character (which, of course, it shares with the original book), is also its strong point: none of the Disney story cliches are apparent, and there’s a welcome lack of sentimentality to the film. In fact, the film’s low point is reached when the studio does try to squeak sentimentality into the story: in the Tulgey Wood scene, an invention of the story department and not found in the original book, Alice has enough of nonsense, wants to go home and feels lost. She sings the feature’s weakest and most forgettable song with a sobbing voice, with some fantasy birds sympathizing with her in stereotypical Disney fashion. Despite the inventive bird designs, this scene is wide of the mark.

Luckily, it is one of only two weak scenes (the other one being the flower scene, squeaked in from ‘Through the Looking Glass’) amidst the wonderful series of utter nonsense, which evoke the zany spirit of the book very well. The film is literally stuffed with great characters, most of them voiced by well-known British and American actors: the white rabbit (Bill Thompson, the voice of Droopy), the dodo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Pat O’Malley), the caterpillar (Richard Haydn), The Cheshire Cat (Disney favorite Sterling Holloway), The Mad Hatter and the Marc Hare (Ed Wynn & Jerry Colonna), the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), and the little king. Eleven year old Kathryn Belmont is a perfect Alice: pleasantly normal, and a little pedantic, just like the one in the book.

Of all Nine Old Men, the Disney animators who worked on the film, Ward Kimball in particular seems in his element, as Lewis Carroll’s work has much in common with his own zany type of humor. Kimball supervised animation on Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Mad Tea Party and the Cheshire Cat, and all characters are delightfully loony.

However, the film’s strongest point may be in its design, which is nothing like Sir John Tenniel. In contrast to his gloomy black-and-white engravings, styling artists Mary Blair, John Hench, Claude Coats and Ken Anderson present a vibrant world of colors. The stylized backgrounds are superb with their angular designs and highly original color combinations, evoking a perfect dream world. It’s these designs that give the movie unity. They are matched by the looniest animation within any Disney feature, all bringing the zany Lewis Carroll perfectly to life. Both the animation and the countless visual gags complement the textual madness of the original book. Moreover, the film is surprisingly speedy, and still enjoyable for a 21st century audience.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ may not be Disney’s best or most successful feature, it’s a very pleasant ride through a colorful world, and more of a timeless classic than anyone would have imagined in 1951.

Watch ‘Alice in Wonderland’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: George Scribner
Release Date: November 13, 1988
Rating: ★★
Review:

Oliver and Company © Walt DisneyOliver and Company’ is the Walt Disney studio’s third film about dogs, after ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1955) and ‘One Hundred and One Dalmations’ (1961). Three of the first film’s characters, Peggy, Jock and Trusty, even have a cameo during Dodger’s song.

‘Oliver and Company’ contains some nice and easy looking dog animation, but it is hardly a worthy successor of the two classics. The opening scenes of ‘Oliver & Company’ introduces Oliver, a cute little orange cat to us, in a scene set to an ugly 1980s song. Oliver teams up with a cool dog called Dodger, who appears to be part of a dog gang. Only when the gang’s owner, the poor tramp Fagin (excellently voiced by Dom DeLuise) is visited by the film’s villain, Sykes, some kind of drama begins. By then the film already is 18 minutes underway.

During a totally incomprehensible framing act Oliver is taken sway by a little rich girl called Jenny, much to the dismay of her house’s star dog, poodle Georgette (voiced by Bette Midler). The gang ‘rescues’ Oliver, which leads to the only continuous and songless story part of the complete film. Surprisingly, the upper class world of Jenny and Georgette and the lower class world of Fagin and his dogs don’t seem to clash at all in this film. As soon Jenny is kidnapped, Georgette naturally teams up with the dog gang. The film ends with a wild and totally unbelievable chase, killing Sykes.

Although released five months after ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ it’s difficult to regard ‘Oliver & Co.’ as part of the Disney renaissance. It’s not as bleak as ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ or as misguided as ‘The Black Cauldron‘, but the film still feels as a continuation of the 1960s and 1970s, instead of something new, making it part of animation’s dark ages.

There are several reasons for this: first, the use of xerox, first used in ‘One Hundred and one Dalmations’ (1961), and defining Disney’s graphic style up to this film. Second, the equally graphic backgrounds, which are uninspired, dull and ugly, as are the all too angular and unappealing cars and machines. Third, the animation, which is erratic and at times downward poor, with the animation of the little girl Jenny, a far cry from the endearing Penny from ‘The Rescuers‘ (1977), being the low point. Fourth, the human designs, which apart from the main characters, look the same as in any generic animated television series from the 1980s. And fifth, the story, which, vaguely based on Charles Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’, is ramshackle and formulaic. Moreover, the attempt to ‘modernize’ Disney by moving the setting to contemporary New York is forced, and only a change of setting. There’s no new spirit to the film. And finally, the anonymous 1980s songs have aged the film very quickly.

There are some highlights: the dogs are all good, if not particularly inspired and owing much to ‘Lady and the Tramp’, Jenny’s butler Jenkins is well animated, as is Fagin when he struggles to give Oliver back to Jenny. But overall the film fails to entertain: Oliver himself is not particularly interesting, he is just the straight man, the little girl Jenny is too bland to gain sympathy, the songs are generic and the story (penned by no less than thirteen people) is too erratic to suck the viewer in.

Luckily, ‘Oliver and Company’ was not part of a new era, but the last convulsion of an old one. With its next film, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney would really enter its renaissance.

Watch Dodger’s song from ‘Oliver & Company’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Don Bluth
Release date: July 3, 1982
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Secret of NIMH © Don BluthDissatisfied with the studio’s policies, Don Bluth left the Walt Disney Studio in 1979, taking some fellow animators with him, thus severely delaying the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

Bluth set up his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, to make animated features in the spirit of the early Disney masterpieces he admired. In doing so, he became the first serious competitor of Disney in the animated feature field since Max Fleischer, who had made two animated features in 1939 and 1941.

‘The Secret of NIMH’ was the brand new studio’s first feature, and a testimony of Don Bluth’s high ambitions. Like ‘The Fox and the Hound’ it is set in more or less modern times, in a rural era, but here all similarities stop. ‘The Secret of NIMH’ is darker, and more mature than Disney’s film. It’s more akin to the earlier ‘The Rescuers‘ (it’s about mice and a rescue mission), to Disney’s next movie ‘The Black Cauldron‘ (grim atmosphere, swords and sorcery), and even to the non-Disney film ‘Watership Down’ (rodents grouped in all too familiar societies, a goofy bird helping the heroes). The rich and detailed backgrounds look all the way back to ‘Pinocchio‘ (1940) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Despite all its ambitions, the film therefore lacks a forward-looking vision. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful film, and both the voice cast and the Disney-school animation are top notch throughout.

The story is based on the children’s novel ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ by Robert C. O’Brien, and tells about the mouse Mrs. Brisby (a mother, a very rare type of hero in animation films), who tries to protect her sick son from the coming of the field-destroying tractor. In her quest she gets help from the goofy crow Jeremy and by a society of highly intelligent rats, living in a bush nearby.

The whole atmosphere is dark, and grim; the cat, the spider and the owl all look way scarier than anything in any Disney film since ‘Fantasia’ (1940), and there are no less than three deaths in the end. The rats also bring in some misplaced and hard-to-believe fantasy elements, including a magic mirror, an amulet with gravity-defying powers, and an epic sword-fight.

In spite of the great voice acting, the only characters really to come off are Mrs. Brisby (great acting by Elizabeth Hartman), Aunt Shrew (Hermione Baddely), and Jeremy the crow (voiced by comic actor Dom DeLuise). The rats come into the story rather late and one gets the feeling that Bluth wanted to tell too much in too little time, leaving the viewer puzzled after the film is over.

With all its flaws, ‘The Secret of NIMH’ remains Bluth’s most satisfying film, together with one of his last films, ‘Anastasia’ (1997). After ‘The Secret of NIMH’ Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make the more successful ‘An American Tail’ (1986) and ‘Land before Time’ (1988), but after those more commercial and less original films his productions became more uneven and forgettable, never fulfilling the promise he appeared to have made with his firstborn.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Secret of NIMH’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: René Laloux
Release date: March 24, 1981
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Les maîtres du temps © René LalouxIn the science fiction film ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Jaffar, the muscular pilot of a spaceship, tries to rescue the little orphan Piel, who is the sole survivor of a massacre on the dangerous planet Perdide.

Jaffar’s only means of contact with the little boy is through an egg-shaped microphone which Piel calls ‘Mike’. Jaffar is aided by a jolly old man called Silbad, and two little telepathic creatures Silbad rescued from a flower, called Jad and Yula. His only passenger, however, the evil prince Matton, on escape with a treasure, tries to kill Piel in order to get sooner to Aldebaran…

‘Les maîtres du temps’ was René Laloux’ second animated feature film and it shares many characteristics with his first, ‘Le planète sauvage‘: it’s a science fiction film based on a novel by Stefan Wul and using designs by a famous french illustrator, this time comic artist Moebius (Jean Giraud). ‘Les maîtres du temps’ nevertheless is less outlandish than ‘Le planète sauvage’: it’s an ‘ordinary’ cel animation film and Moebius’s drawings are less surreal than Topor’s. Yet, they still manage to give the film an otherworldly quality. Especially his designs of Perdide are disturbing, rendering it an uncanny, dangerous planet, indeed.

Moebius’s style is very visible throughout the picture, except for the humans, who are drawn pretty uglily and fail to live up to Moebius’s own high standards. Only the little orphan Piel and the jolly old man Silbad are true to Moebius’s designs. Consequently, they are both very believable and likeable characters, where the others remain flat cardboard examples of ‘the hero’, ‘the beautiful woman’ and ‘the villain’. Their animation, too, remains stiff and unconvincing  In contrast, the funny little gnomes Jad and Yula are rendered very flexible and are responsible for some of the most beautiful animation in the film, which was practically all done by the Hungarian Pannonia Film Studio.

‘Les maîtres du temps’ is far from perfect, but mainly thanks to Piel’s character, with whom we can identify immediately, it’s a film with a heart. This, combined with some impressive science fiction images, especially of Perdide and of the planet Gamma 10, make the film one to return to over and over again.

After ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Laloux would make yet another Science fiction feature, now based on drawings by French comic artist Caza: ‘Gandahar‘. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the weakest of the trio.

Watch the trailer for ‘Les maîtres du temps’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bill Meléndez
Release date: December 4, 1969
Stars: Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus van Pelt, Schroeder, e.o.
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

A Boy Named Charlie Brown © Lee Mendelson FilmsMade after six television specials, ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ is Meléndez’ first feature film about the Peanuts gang.

It is a film with a slow, but steady pace: unhurried, yet not too slow. Being totally relaxed, the film takes a long time to introduce the characters, citing a lot of Peanut comic strip gags, and showing Charlie Brown’s troubles in flying kites and playing baseball. Only after 30 minutes the head story kicks in, when Charlie Brown enters a spelling bee.

The laid-back feel of the film is further enhanced by two surprising musical numbers: Snoopy’s playing of the American National Anthem and Schroeder’s playing of the complete second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata pathétique, which is arguably the film’s highlight. Snoopy receives a fair deal of screen-time, and two of his fantasies are shown: him as a pilot in World War I and as a skater in Holland and in an ice-hockey game. Nevertheless, the story remains with Charlie Brown and his doomed attempt to gain respect. His frustrations and failure are funny, but remain genuine and heartfelt. This focus make the film a well-made tribute to Charles M. Schulz’s strip of the early 1960s, when Charlie Brown’s frustrations were the strip’s main focal point.

Overall, the designs are gorgeous, especially in the musical interludes, which feature bold, colorful images. The jazzy score, too, is a delight, and enhances the film’s unique atmosphere. In all, ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ is a great film which has a typical 1960s feel without ever getting cheap.

Watch ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 16, 1955
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Lady and the Tramp © Walt Disney‘Lady and the Tramp’ is a mild and friendly film based both on story ideas by Joe Grant that went as far back as 1939, and a short story by novelist Ward Greene. It tells the story of Lady, an upper class female Cocker Spaniel living around the turn of the century.

Lady’s life of luxury seems to be threatened by the coming of a baby, but it is the babysitter, aunt Sarah, who’s her real nemesis. The cat-loving old lady quickly has Lady muzzled, and it’s up to the tramp to rescue her. They spend a night out together, but in the morning, while they’re chasing chickens “together”, Lady gets caught and ends in the city dogpound. There she discovers that the tramp is quite a ladies’ man. It seems their short-lived relationship is over, but then the tramp helps her catching a rat that has sneaked into the house and into the baby’s room…

‘Lady and the Tramp’ was the first animated feature in Cinemascope. The film uses the new technique to great effects, with the action carefully laid out to the broad screen. Its backgrounds are very beautiful, and remarkably lush or, when necessary, highly dramatic. Only in the love scene they become somewhat stylized, showing a Mary Blair influence otherwise absent from the film.

The high quality animation is a delight to watch and stands out in an age of stylized and limited animation, something the 1950s more and more became to be. Like the animals in ‘Bambi‘ (1942), the dogs have a look and feel of real animals, while, at the same time, being full characters one can relate to, with a complete range of human expressions. Even the minor characters, like the dogs in the dogpound, are perfectly animated in that respect. The voices help in this dualism, often being a combination of human and dog-like sounds.

The humans, on the other hand, are hardly seen, and only the strongly caricatured ones, Aunt Sarah, Tony and Joe, have something of a character. It is telling that the most famous and probably most romantic kiss in animation history can be seen in this movie and is a kiss between two dogs. In this scene Lady and the tramp share a meal of spaghetti, accompanied by romantic music by the two Italian restaurant owners. This scene, animated by Frank Thomas, is the undisputed highlight of the film. Honorable mention goes to the very lifelike fight between the tramp and a large rat, a strongly dramatic scene animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, which can compete with the fighting scene in ‘Bambi’ in its impact.

Watch the dining scene from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens
Release Date: July 10, 1981
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Fox and the Hound © Walt Disney‘The Fox and the Hound’ tells about a young adopted fox called Tod and a young hound dog called Copper, who become friends, but later enemies, partly due to their nature.

‘The Fox and the Hound’ was the feature in which the last of the nine old men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, passed on their knowledge and their legacy to a younger generation of animators. In this respect it’s the most transitional film in Disney history. And unfortunately, it shows, because it’s neither an old classic, nor does it have the spirit of a film by young Turks, despite most of the animation being nothing less than great.

On the contrary, the end product is a tame, slow moving and rather tiresome movie more belonging to a time long past than to the 1980s, the decade in which it was made. Its main flaws are in storytelling: none of the actions of the protagonists are very well motivated, the villains are hardly threatening and a lot of screen time is spent on the totally non-related antics of a sparrow called Dinky and a loony, rather annoying woodpecker called Boomer trying to catch a caterpillar. These birds, like the friendly old female owl Big Mama (voiced by black jazz singer Pearl Bailey), do nothing more than watching the main action.

The songs do not propel the action forward, either, but tend to drag the film down. And in the scenes in which Tod tries to survive in the forest, it becomes very difficult to see him interact with birds and furry animals. How he’s going to survive in the forest without killing animals remains unexplained. Finally, at the end of the film, a bear appears out of nowhere, like a deus ex machina, to be the sole reuniter of the two friends.

In fact, the only appeal of ‘The Fox and the Hound’ lies in the quality of the animation itself, and in the film’s beautiful backgrounds. Because of its out-of-time setting the film can be regarded timeless, but a timeless classic it ain’t.

Watch the fight scene from ‘The Fox and the Hound’ and tell me what you think:

Directors: Jill Culton, Roger Allers & Anthony Stacchi
Release Date: September 29, 2006
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Open Season © Sony PicturesWith ‘Open Season’ Sony Pictures joined the American computer animated feature pool, being the fourth major company to do so. And because in this world American animation films from the same year share the same features, ‘Open Season’ is about forest animals living near the civilized world, just like Dreamworks’s ‘Over The Hedge‘.

The story of ‘Open Season’ (a domesticated bear called Boog is left in the wild and tries to find his way back home) is fairly original (although similar to ‘Cars’), but like its setting, its execution is not. Like ‘Shrek’ (2001) and ‘Ice Age‘ (2002) it’s a buddy film full of fast-talking, wisecracking animals, with the sap deer Elliott (voiced by Ashton Kutcher) being all too similar to Donkey in ‘Shrek’.

Moreover, some scenes are rather formulaic, like the break-up scene after the waterfall ride (see also ‘Shrek’, ‘Monsters, Inc.‘), the ‘we-can-do-this-together-scene’ (see ‘A Bug’s Life’, ‘Robots‘), and the almost obligate near-death of Elliott in the end, which goes all the way back to Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967).

The film’s designs are okay, and are more akin to Dreamworks and Blue Sky than to Pixar. The studio’s the animation is mostly of a high standard, if not inventive. The effect animation is adequate, with convincing lights, waters and smokes. Especially the furs look good, but the human hairs are very bad, and in one scene one can watch some very unrealistically animated bank notes flying around.

In the end, ‘Open Season’ is an entertaining film, but too standard to be a classic. Its foremost selling-point may be that it is one of those rare animated features in which the main protagonist (Boog) is voiced by an Afro-American (Martin Lawrence).

After this modest start Sony Animation would do better with its next feature, ‘Surf’s Up’ (2007), with its ‘documentary’ style. But the company really hit its stride with ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009) with its overtly cartoony animation approach.

Meanwhile the reuse of formulaic story building blocks like the ones in ‘Open Season’ came to hamper more and more American computer animated features, with Disney’s ‘Planes’ (2013) as the ultimate low-point, as it consists of nothing but cliches…

Watch the tailer for ‘Open Season’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick
Release Date: May 19, 2006
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Over The Hedge © DreamworksBased on a comic strip, ‘Over the Hedge’, Dreamworks’s sixth computer animated feature, is a charming, if unassuming film, which belongs to the better half of the Dreamworks features, if barely so.

Unlike the unappealing movie ‘Shark Tale’ (2004) for example, all the actions of the characters have their origin in real animal behavior: they hibernate, they forage and they’re threatened by a human environment to which they have to adapt.

The film’s story is original in that it’s not found in the comic strip on which the movie is based. However, at the same time the story is not too original as it contains some standard, almost obligatory scenes, a feature that hampered more and more American animated feature films from 2005 on.

Nevertheless, the film’s story is well executed: the storytelling is lean, the contrast between the two likable protagonists, the brazen raccoon RJ and the cautious turtle Verne, is well-played, as are the two villains: the mafia-like bear Vincent and the Verminator. Even the side-characters are developed enough to like and to care for them (unlike the many personas in Blue Sky’s ‘Robots‘ (2005), for example).

Even though it contains some very realistic effects, like the animation of fur, the animation generally is not very lifelike, and more akin to the jerky animation of Tex Avery films than to the flow of Disney. Especially, the animation of the ADHD-squirrel Hammy is frantic. This character is also responsible for the highlight of the film, in which Hammy, on caffeine, has sped so much that he sees the world practically motionless.

‘Over The Hedge’ is by no means a classic, but it’s entertaining and well-told. In the world of American computer animated features this is already a plus.

Watch the tailer for ‘Over the Hedge’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Tim Burton & Mike Johnson
Release Date: September 23, 2005
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride © Warner BrothersThe shy Victor and Victoria are forced by their unsympathetic parents to marry each other.

Luckily, they actually like each other, but then Victor accidentally marries the deceased Emily who takes him to a world underground, while Victoria is forced to marry the evil lord Barkis…

‘Corpse Bride’ is a typical Tim Burton film, especially in its art direction, in its 19th century, gothic setting, in its dark humor, and in its jolly portrait of death. Because the film is also a Danny Elfman-penned musical, it feels like a successor to ‘The Nightmare before Christmas‘ (1993). Nevertheless, it is far more enjoyable than that sometimes tiresome film: ‘Corpse Bride’ features only three songs, two of which help to tell the story. So, even though one could do without the musical element, it doesn’t dominate the complete film.

Also, the art of ‘Corpse Bride’ is a great improvement on ‘Nightmare before Christmas’. The dull greys and blues of the living world contrast greatly with the vivid colors of the underworld, which is clearly more fun to ‘live’ in. The designs of the puppets are extreme, and their almost flawless animation is jawdroppingly rich and expressive. The story is lean, and focuses on the three protagonists, Victor, Victoria and Emily, who all three are very likable characters. The voice cast is impressive, and includes Johnny Depp (Victor), Emily Watson (Victoria), Helena Bonham Carter (Emily) and Christopher Lee (Pastor Gallswells).

All this make ‘Corpse Bride’, together with that other stop-motion film ‘Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit‘, the best animated feature of 2005/2006, surpassing all computer animated films of those years. It proves that traditional animation is still viable and relevant in the computer age.

Watch the tailer for ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Nick Park & Steve Box
Release Date: September 4, 2005
Stars: Wallace & Gromit
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Wallace & Gromit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit © AardmanAfter three excellent two-reelers British animation heroes Wallace and Gromit were ready for their first feature film.

‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ elaborates primarily on the themes of ‘A Close Shave‘: love and horror. This time Wallace and Gromit are after a giant rabbit threatening the crops breeds for a vegetable contest in the village.

The stop motion animation in this film is practically flawless, elevating the century old technique to the highest standards possible. Indeed, both this film and ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride‘, another stop motion film, were far superior to any computer animated feature film released in 2005 or 2006.

‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ is not only a great animation film, it is great cinema, with excellent camera work, a flawless story, wonderful characterization and lean storytelling that builds to a spectacular climax. Especially the animation of Gromit is stunning, because his acting is completely silent throughout the picture and uses only the eyes to suggest emotion.

Watch ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Chris Wedge
Release Date: March 11, 2005
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Robots © Blue Sky2005 was to be the first weak year in the history of computer animated features. This was a year in which no films were made that felt as if they were better than the last ones.

In fact, both Blue Sky’s ‘Robots’ and Dreamworks’s ‘Madagascar’ are mediocre in the whole catalog of computer animation. Surprisingly, the two most interesting features of 2005 were stop motion films: Aardman’s ‘Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit‘ and Warner Brothers’ ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride‘. This age-old technique defeated the modernity of computer animation, as both films topped the computer animated features in originality and consistency of story and design.

‘Robots’ is unfortunately typical for the regression in the computer animated field. First the animation: the robots are a good excuse for rather jerky motions, and its colorful setting never feels real. This setting is similar to that of ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (2001): a totally different world, this time inhabited with robots, which at the same time is an exact copy of our own modern urban world. Also, main protagonist Rodney’s arrival in Robot City is very reminiscent of a similar scene in ‘A Bug’s Life’ (1998), and the all too obligatory ‘follow your dream’ story line had already become stale by 2005, too. In all, the film’s story is much more standard than its exotic setting would suggest.

Blue Sky’s storytelling is also very inconsistent and has many flaws in its timing. For example, the big finale never pays off and his topped by a very cloying ending. Worse, Rodney has no less than two love interests, one of which is suddenly dropped, while the love between him and Cappy, the other, is hardly shown. In effect it seems non-existent. Then there are way too many side characters, none of which is well-developed. Most of them are wise-crackers, who place their one-liners in a nasty, unpleasant way. Robin Williams’s character Fender is as tiresome as his genie was delightful in ‘Aladdin’ (1992). Even Rodney’s hero Bigwald is unappealing in his first scene. And it remains unclear why he has retreated in the first place.

All these flaws are such a pity, for one can feel the great joy in the making of ‘Robots’, especially in the transport sequence, where Rodney and Fender are travelling in a giant Rube Goldberg machine. This scene, although unimportant to the story, is the highlight of this otherwise very disappointing film.

Unfortunately, 2006 would be hardly better, with Blue Sky’s weak  ‘Ice Age 2: The Meltdown’, and the entertaining, but a little too routine films ‘Over The Hedge‘, ‘Flushed Away’ (Dreamworks) and ‘Open Season‘ (Sony’s debut in the field). Even Pixar would release its then weakest picture with ‘Cars’…

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

Director: Ralph Bakshi
Release Date: November 15, 1978
Rating: ★
Review:

The Lord of the Rings © Ralph BakshiI’m going to spend only a few words on this film: it is not an animation film. It may be drawn, animated it is not. Practically every movement is rotoscoped, with some scenes containing little more than colored live action footage.

The result is a surplus of movement, a severe inconsistency of style, a general feel of cheapness, and, animationwise, absolutely nothing to enjoy. On the contrary: the result is appalling.

Furthermore, the acting is tiresome, the pace painstakingly slow, the characters more often than not rather unsympathetic, the story incomplete, and the settings often in lack of dramatic effect, though I must admit that the film shares some strikingly similar scenes with the Peter Jackson’s later live action version (which incidentally contains much, much more animation than Bakshi’s film).

In short, Bakshi’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is by all means a failure, and one of the most hideously ugly films I’ve ever seen in any genre.

Watch the Balrog scene from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Juan Antin
Release Date: October 3, 2002
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Mercano el marciano © Juan Antin‘Mercano el Marciano’ is a curious feature film from Argentine about an ugly little Martian who gets stranded in the evil city of Buenos Aires, where he ends up living in the sewer.

Here he builds a virtual Mars to play in for himself on the internet, but soon it is discovered and exploited by businessmen. Together with a nerdy boy and a trio of alternatives Mercano takes revenge. This leads to a silly musical finale.

The film uses original designs and is nicely animated. Unfortunately, it is also hampered by slow timing, poor gags, graphic violence, ugly colors and bad sound design. The result is an original, yet mediocre film, which is not too surprising, when one considers the film was made with a budget of only $250,000 (for comparison: a contemporary Hollywood production like ‘Monsters, Inc’ cost $115 million).

‘Mercano el Marciano’ seems to be an early example of an international movement in animation film, which favors urban settings, violence and rather adult material (e.g. ‘The District!’ (2004)  from Hungary, and ‘George the Hedgehog’ (2011) from Poland).

Watch ‘Mercano el Marciano’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

 

Directors: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
Release Date: June 21, 2002
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Lilo & Stitch © Walt DisneyStitch is a genetic experiment (called ‘experiment 6-2-6’) designed to destroy, but sentenced into exile by an intergalactic councel.

All too soon our fluffy little mutant escapes and he ends at the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he befriends lonely little Lilo, who lives a difficult life with her older sister Nani after the death of their parents. Here Stitch learns to tone down his inclination to destruction and how to love and care.

‘Lilo & Stitch’ is a very appealing film. Its designs, based on Chris Sanders’ idiosyncratic story drawings, are round, cuddly and original. Adding to the friendly atmosphere are the lush watercolor backgrounds, the first in a Disney feature since ‘Bambi‘ (1942). The animation is superb throughout, and Lilo, Stitch and Nani are round and instantly likable characters, who have nothing of the wisecracking arrogance of many other animated characters from the era. The film’s familiar family theme never gets cloying and is countered by a lot of humor. The result is a film full of love and joy.

Probably, because it was made in Orlando, Florida, far from the main company, the film also eschews the rather tiresome Disney musical convention, and features an original soundtrack featuring Elvis Presley songs and Hawaiian chants, instead. True, the plot borrows freely from ‘Men in Black’ (1997), and the science fiction setting feels a little awkward in a Disney film, but the story of loneliness, love and acceptance is well-told, and equally appealing to the young and old.

Moreover, the film proves that one can perfectly well make a good movie out of original and typical elements. A film maker like Hayao Miyazaki knows this, off course. But unfortunately, this message has been lost on the American animation studios, as very few of the subsequent American feature films succeeded in displaying this level of originality in characterization, soundtrack and design. Thus ‘Lilo & Stitch’ remains as Disney’s best attempt at an ‘author film’ (not counting the almost forgotten ‘Teacher’s Pet’ from 2004).

Unfortunately, ‘Lilo & Stitch’ seemed to be Disney’s last masterpiece of traditional animation. Even though it was followed by yet two other 2D animation features, it marked an end of an era lasting 65 years. Disney soon jumped the computer animation band wagon with rather mediocre results, arguably only hitting their stride in 2010 with ‘Tangled‘. Luckily, in 2009 the studio made a surprising, but unfortunately isolated return to the traditional medium with the excellent ‘The Princess and the Frog’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Lilo & Stitch’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Chris Wedge
Release Date: March 15, 2002
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Ice Age © Blue SkySet in the last ice age (ca. 20,000 years ago), a mammoth and a ground sloth try to return a human baby to its tribe, helped by a saber-toothed tiger with a hidden agenda.

The Ice Age itself is depicted well, with lots of crispy ice and snow, and fauna that matches the period. We watch various North-American ice age mammals, like mammoths, ground sloths, saber-toothed tigers, Glyptodonts, and even the South American species Macrauchenia (which looks like a llama with a trunk). The only mishaps are the two Brontotheres, mistakenly referred to as “rhinos”, a group of species that had died out 34 million years earlier. Fortunately, the makers didn’t fall for the trap of making dinosaurs co-exist with early humans (although we see one trapped in the ice, in a scene that is nonsensical anyhow).

‘Ice Age’ was Blue Sky’s first feature film. It was made for 20th Century Fox, who had just dumped Don Bluth’s Phoenix Studio. With this film Blue Sky/20th Century Fox posed serious competition to Dreamworks and Pixar with a different, yet equally interesting style of computer animation, which was more based on caricature, exaggerated animation and angular designs. The latter unfortunately lead to rather ugly designed humans.

The story of ‘Ice Age’ has uncanny similarities to the computer animation successes of 2001, ‘Shrek’ (a moody giant and an annoying chatterbox travel together), and ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (strange creatures trying to get a little human kid home). So in this respect, the film tells us nothing new. Its extras can be found in the cartoony character Scrat, whose antics bridges the main action, and in the numerous gags on evolution.

The highlight of the film, however, is the 2D animation of mural paintings depicting Mannie the mammoth’s painful memory of the loss of his wife and son. This is a stunning tour-de-force of both daring and emotional animation, still a rare feat in computer animated feature films.

‘Ice Age’ was a huge success, and has spawned a number of sequels, none of witch mastered to keep the lean storytelling of the first film. Moreover, the stories had less and less to do with the ice age setting. Even worse, in ‘Ice Age 3’ dinosaurs had to come along, after all…

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

Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: October 31, 1968
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Vip mio fratello superuomo © Bruno Bozzetto

‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’* is Bozzetto’s second feature, and it a great improvement on his first (‘West and Soda‘ from 1965).

The designs are bolder, the pace is higher, the timing sharper, and the story more original. The film starts rightaway with a hilarious history of the VIP superheroes through time. It then introduces our heroes, the superhero SuperVIP and his weak little bespectacled brother, MiniVIP. They end upon an island where a super-villain plans to turn mankind into brainless consumers.

The result is a very nonsensical superhero story, told to a great effect, with the minimum of means and very limited animation.  It also shows Bozzetto’s aversion against consumerism, a theme he would expand upon in his masterpiece ‘Allegro non troppo’ (1976). Unlike that latter feature, ‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’ remains virtually unknown. This is a pity, for this funny film deserves a wider audience.

Watch and excerpt from ‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

* also known as ‘My Brother Superman’

Directors: various
Release Date: June 3, 2003
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The enormous success of ‘The Matrix’ (1999) not only spawned two sequels, but also a direct-to-video release with several animation films, expanding the film’s theme and providing some background history.

‘The Animatrix’ is an American/Japanese/South Korean co-production and consists of nine parts, produced by four different animation film studios (Square, Studio 4°C, Madhouse Studios and DNA). The nine parts differ a lot in style, content and quality, and the end result is pretty uneven to say the least. However, for fans of ‘The Matrix’ it contains very welcome background material to The Matrix universe.

The Animatrix - The Final Flight of the Osiris1. Final Flight of the Osiris
Director: Andy Jones
Rating★★★½

The first of the nine segments of The Animatrix is the most straightforward. It’s a dark action episode that tells what happened to the Osiris, a human vessel that shortly appears in ‘The Matrix’. The Square Studio, then already famous for the groundbreaking animation in ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ (2001), tops itself with for 2003 ultra-realistic computer animation, with human characters of a then unsurpassed realism. Especially its opening sequence, an erotic martial arts fight, is impressive and made many viewers doubt whether it was real or not they were looking at.

The Animatrix - The Second Renaissance2. & 3. The second Renaissance
Director: Mahiro Maeda
★★★½

Made by Studio 4°C and brought in two episodes, The Second Renaissance tells us what happened before the Matrix in an American anime-style. It uses a robotic female voice-over to tell us about a robotic revolution and a human-robot-war which ends in defeat for the human population, which is then used as an energy source for the robots. These episodes are the most satisfying as an addition to The Matrix trilogy.

The Animatrix - Kid's Story4. Kid’s Story
Director: 
Shinichirô Watanabe
Rating

‘Kid’s Story’ is the first of four episodes dealing with people who discover the matrix. This episode is about a teenager who doubts reality and who wakes up in the real world. The episode uses a very realistic, yet graphic style that is very American and rather ugly. Especially the animation (by Studio 4°C) is slow, unsightly and unsteady, making it one of the most unappealing parts of ‘The Animatrix’ to watch.

The Animatrix - Program5. Program
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Rating: ★★

‘Program’ is another weak entry in ‘The Animatrix’. Animated by Madhouse Studios and drawn in a rather American comics/anime-style and using sharp shades, it tells about a treacherous character trying to persuade a girl to join him in a Japanese samurai setting (the program the two are in). The whole episode is rather melodramatic and forgettable.

The Animatrix - World Record6. World Record
Director: Takeshi Koike
Rating: ★

By far the most unappealing of all episodes of ‘The Animatrix’, ‘World Record’, by Madhouse studios, is drawn in a a gruesomely ugly comics design to tell the story of an athlete who discovers the matrix and who has to pay for it.

The Animatrix - Beyond7. Beyond
Director: Kôji Morimoto
Rating:★★★★

Studio 4°C’s ‘Beyond’ is the third of four Animatrix episodes about people who discover the matrix, and it is easily the best of the lot. Set in Japan, it tells about a young woman, who is looking for her cat Yuki, and who’s led by some kids to a house where the ‘program’ has gone haywire, resulting in some wonderful surreal effects (like objects defying gravity). Unlike the rest, the episode has a lighthearted feel to it, which is enhanced by its appealing graphic anime design and its excellent animation, which makes clever use of 3D-effects. More than in any other part of the Animatrix one has the feeling that this episode is about real people in a real environment. The short is another showcase for Morimoto’s great direction skills, which he had already shown with the ‘Magnetic Rose’ sequence in the compilation feature ‘Memories‘ (1995).

The Animatrix - A Detective Story8. A Detective Story
Director: Shinichirô Watanabe
Rating: ★

‘A Detective Story’ is the fourth and last episode about people who discover the matrix. This episode is about a private detective and it uses all film noir cliches, including a very trite voice over. The nice black and white backgrounds evoke a forties atmosphere, even though the story is about hackers and chat rooms. But they cannot hide Studio 4°C’s very limited animation or the corny story, making ‘A Detective Story’ one of the weakest episodes of this package film.

The Animatrix - Matriculated9. Matriculated
Director:
Peter Chung
Rating: ★★★★

Penned and directed by Æon Flux-director Peter Chung and produced by the Korean DNA studio, ‘Matriculated’ is the most philosophical of the nine episodes of ‘The animatrix’. The story is set in the ‘real’ world. It deals with humans who try to make robots defending them by making them dream. Although its angular human designs are once again quite unattractive, this episode’s clever story makes it one of the highlights of ‘The Animatrix’.

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

Director: Kōji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura & Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: December 23, 1995
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Seven years after ‘Akira‘, Katsuhiro Otomo returned to the animated screen with ‘Memories’, a package film, which impresses, but fails to reach the heights of ‘Akira’. Indeed, the film is much, much less well known than either Otomo’s previous film, or ‘Ghost in the Shell‘, which was the anime hit of 1995.

Based on his own short stories, ‘Memories’ consists of three unrelated parts: ‘Magnetic Rose’, ‘Stink Bomb’ and ‘Cannon Fodder’, which are discussed separately below.

Memories - Magnetic Rose © Katsuhiro OtomoMagnetic Rose
Director:
Kōji Morimoto
Rating★★★★★

‘Magnetic Rose’ starts the Memories trilogy, and it’s arguably the feature’s most satisfying episode. Animated by Morimoto’s own Studio 4°C, it is the only part that clearly deals with memories.

In this episode a rescuing squad of space garbage collectors is ensnared in the memories of a long deceased opera singer, who still seems alive in her remote satellite home in space, blurring the boundaries of reality. This accounts for an exciting story, greatly enhanced by Yoko Kanno’s superb soundtrack, in which she mixes an eerie choir, ambient guitar work and dark electronic with bites of Giacomo Puccini (the famous aria ‘un bel di vedremo’ and the finale from ‘Madame Butterfly’, an opera set in Japan, and a small soundbite from ‘Turandot’, which is set in China). Also featured is a stage set from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’, in which the opera singer, as Tosca, stabs Heinz, one of the rescuers.

Even though the science fiction setting with its touches of horror is typical anime, the underlying drama is very mature and quite unique. This episode’s screenplay was penned by future director Satoshi Kon. Kon certainly established himself with this screenplay, and he would further explore the theme of memory and loss in ‘Millennium Actress’ (2001), and the blurring of reality and fantasy in both that film and ‘Paprika’ (2006) with even more spectacular results. Director Kōji Morimoto, meanwhile, would prove his worth as a director in ‘Beyond’, the best episode of ‘The Animatrix‘ (2003).

In ‘Magnetic Rose’ the characters are from all over the world, and this is one of the few anime, in which the Japanese character looks distinctively Asian compared to the European characters.

Memories - Stink Bomb © Katsuhiro OtomoStink Bomb
Director:
Tensai Okamura
Rating★★★

Penned by Katsuhiro Otomo, but directed by Tensai Okamura, and animated by the Madhouse animation studio, ‘Stink Bomb’ feels like a comical interlude between the two more serious outer episodes. The story is set in present day Japan and features a very stupid, but surprisingly indestructible protagonist who turns into a nonsensical weapon of mass destruction. The story is simple: Nobue Tanake, our ‘hero’, works in a biochemical laboratory. To cure his cold one of his colleagues suggests he takes a sample of the new medicine they’ve developed at the lab. But Tanake accidentally swallows the wrong pills, which turn him into a lethal weapon, sweating poisonous gasses that kill everything in sight. Although he remains unaware of this, he becomes the cause of the annihilation of Japan.

This story is rather silly – there’s a lot of broad comic acting, and it even ends with a kind of punch-line. And yet, the episode manages to be unnerving at the same time; the short has some disturbing undertones, with the fear of mass destruction weapons and corrupt governments played out well. The unsettling atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Jun Miayke’s score, in which he uses nervous free jazz saxophones to a great effect.

Memories - Cannon Fodder © Katsuhiro OtomoCannon Fodder
Director:
Katsuhiro Otomo
Rating: ★★★★½

Otomo himself directed the last and most beautiful sequence of Memories. This episode once again is animated by Studio 4°C, but has a distinctive graphic style that doesn’t resemble any other anime. Especially the background art and character design are highly original. But even more startling is the fact that the film is ‘shot’ in one long camera take (with a little bit of smuggling, but very impressive nonetheless). The cinematography is outstanding, and uses a little bit of computer animation. One moving shot of a colonel ascending on a platform is a great piece of character animation. Nevertheless, the boys’ own dream of becoming a colonel himself, done in charming children’s drawings, may be the highlight of the entire film.

‘Cannon Fodder’ deals with an alternative, distinctively European world, where a totalitarian military regime enters every aspect of life. It’s a kind of steam punk, vaguely based on images of the first world war, with its giant cannons, gas masks, and pompous generals. We’re following one day in the life of a single family. They live in a city were all work and school is directed to a war with a mysterious city, which remains unseen throughout the movie. This war is fought entirely by using cannons, fired at the distant enemy.

Despite the caricatured humans, the atmosphere is hardly comical, but dark and disturbing. The unseen foe reminds one of ‘1984’, and one wonders whether the enemy is real – but then, in the end, the air alarm kicks in. ‘Cannon Fodder’ is more a film of concept than of drama, and thus less engaging than ‘Magnetic Rose’. Still, because of its unique style, and strict control of cinematography, ‘Cannon Fodder’ is a small masterpiece.

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

‘Memories’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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