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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

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: July 20, 2001
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Spirited Away © Studio GhibliAfter several very fine films, like ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988) and ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), Miyazaki tops himself with his masterpiece ‘Spirited Away’. This film single-handedly places him among the greatest masters of animation of all time.

The film depicts a strange and inexplicable, yet surprisingly complete fantasy world, with a conviction and originality that has rarely been seen since Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. At the same time, unlike several of Miyazaki’s earlier films, one feels that ‘Spirited away’ could only have been made in Japan. Its setting of a public bath, with its numerous gods and demi-gods, is totally Japanese.

Yet, its story about coming of age is universal as is its appeal. The little girl Chihiro (or Sen, as she’s called during most of the film) is the greatest of Miyazaki’s heroines. Like Kiki in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989), she matures during the film, but the fears and terrors she has to conquer are far more alarming than Kiki’s, and her growth is way more convincing. Not only has she to prove herself, she has to regain her name, and most importantly, she has to rescue her parents, who have been transformed into pigs in a particularly horrifying scene. At one scene we see her stricken with traumatic stress. In another we watch her breaking down. Despite some exaggerations (a flood of tears, for example), these scenes are so surprisingly real, they startle the viewer who’s used to the formalized emotions of many commercial animation films, whether Japanese or Western.

However, the character animation of Chihiro is outstanding throughout the film: she is a true girl and not an adult in disguise, and her emotions feel genuine and seem deeply rooted in observation of real human behavior. We identify immediately with her, and she’s strong enough a character to make her extraordinary journey in that strange, mysterious and dreamlike world believable.

Typical for Miyazaki, even in this hostile world our young heroine is not without friends, and even the most unpleasant characters (Yubaba and Without Face) are not without their weaknesses or positive character traits. On the other hand, even the good can look fearsome and unpleasant, as Yaku does in his dragon form. Also typical for Miyazaki is his depiction of children at work (see ‘Laputa – Castle in the Sky‘ (1986) and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’). On the other hand, his recurring theme of man versus nature is less apparent in this film, although it does appear in the form of a polluted river god.

In all, ‘Spirited Away’ is a rich film of pure delight and will enchant everyone everywhere in the world.

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

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

My Neighbor Totoro © Ghibli StudioSet in the early post-war period, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is the sister film to ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘, released on the same date as a double bill.

The film is a way more lighthearted affair than ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, however. With ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Miyazaki definitely entered the children’s world, which he had already explored a little in ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky‘ (1986). But where the latter film firmly puts the children into an adult world, in ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Miyazaki explores the children’s world itself.

The film focuses on two little girls: ca. eight year old Satsuki and her sister, four year old Mei. They move with their father to an old ramshackle house in the countryside to be near the hospital where their ill mother is staying. In a giant camphor tree next to this new home Mei and Satsuki meet the Totoros, three forest spirits: a tiny one, a small one and a huge one. When Mei gets lost, the giant Totoro and a cat bus help Satsuki to find her.

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a delightful film for children and their parents. There’s no conflict or villain whatsoever, and even when there seems to be drama, when the two children think their mother may be dying, there’s really little to worry about. But like in ‘E.T.’ (1982) we share the children’s point of view, in which there really is a problem. ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ draws us convincingly and irresistibly into this magical world of children. The film knows no dull moments, and is full of wonderful scenes, the best being Satsuki, Mei and the giant Totoro waiting for the bus in the pouring rain. Its strong focus and perfect execution makes ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ arguably the best of all Studio Ghibli films.

At any rate ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a gem even among Miyazaki’s films, which are of a constant high quality throughout. He must have felt so himself, for it’s the large Totoro which gave the Ghibli Studio their studio icon.

Watch the trailer for ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Grave of the Fireflies © Studio GhibliBased on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a strong, emotional and immensely sad film. It kicks in right away, when we hear Seita say “September 12, 1945. That was the night I died”.

What follows is Seita’s story: this boy, about fourteen, first loses his mother in the fire raid of Kobe, which destroys the wooden town completely. Then he and his little sister Setsuko try to live at their aunt’s place, but the initially kind woman grows increasingly hostile to them. So Seita decides to find his own living space for him and his sister in an abandoned shelter, first trying to get food by buying it, then by stealing. Unfortunately, Setsuko sickens from malnutrition, and while he finally has a real meal for her, she dies. Seita manages to build her funeral, but although not shown, the film suggests Setsuko’s death has broken his will, leading to his own death as depicted in the first scene.

The rather straightforward story is told with several flashbacks and flash-forwards and with a unique focus on details of everyday life, which really makes the two children come to life. The realism of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is unprecedented, the animation of Setsuko in particular being very lifelike, despite a less fluent animation technique. Never before has such a realistic and endearing child entered the animated screen.

The film’s subject matter, which confronts the Japanese viewer with the lowest point in their recent history, is daring and so is its execution, with its concise focus on human suffering, instead of heroism or action. The film makes the viewer really feel the impact of war on innocent civilians: the agony of shortages, hunger and despair, while the rest of the war remains at the background.  Takahata focuses on Seita’s love for his little sister, and his struggle to shield her from the effects of war. Seita is a sympathetic character, but not without flaws. His struggle to survive and to nurture his sister is heroic, but his decision to leave his aunt is also iinduced by pride, and it’s partly his own stubbornness that prevents him from reconciling with his aunt, which may have prevented Setsuko’s death. It’s hard to blame him, though, for he’s a child himself, after all.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the most serious animation features ever made, dealing with war and death. It’s also very sad, bringing tears to the eyes of almost every viewer. Like ‘Animal Farm‘ (1954), ‘Le planète sauvage‘ (1973) or ‘Watership Down’ (1978), ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the few truly serious animation features, expanding the medium’s subject matter, and it’s a cinematic masterpiece by any standard.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ was released as a double bill with ‘My Neighbour Totoro‘, which is equally classic, but very different in tone, indeed.

Watch the trailer for ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: July 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Akira © Katsuhiro OtomoIn 2019, 31 years after World War III, which destroyed the old town completely, Neo-Tokyo is even bigger and more urbanized than the old one. And more violent, too. The city is constantly on the brink of anarchy.

We follow Kaneda and Tetsuo, two members of a rough motorbike gang. When Tetsuo is hospitalized and taken away from his friend, Kaneda tries to retrieve him, while getting involved with a girl, who’s a revolutionary and whose troupe is after Tetsuo, too. Tetsuo, meanwhile, discovers he’s getting immense powers. Tetsuo suffers from an inferiority complex, and he realizes it’s payback time. He sets out to seek the mystical Akira, destroying most of Neo-Tokyo along the way. But in the end his powers take control of him, and while he and Akira merge to form a new universe in a very 2001 A Space Odyssey-like ending, Kaneda and his girlfriend Kei can look to a new future in a partly destroyed Neo-Tokyo.

If this plot line may sound a little hard to follow – it is, and I left quite some subplots out of it, too. ‘Akira’ is a violent and action-loaded science fiction film. Its plot may be vague and all too complex, the violent images never cease to impress. The film’s depiction of apocalyptic destruction, its speed, its wide range of characters, and its use of extreme camera angles are unprecedented in any animation film, and sometimes the grandness of the film’s scale is staggering. Some of the scenes are very complicated, with many people animated within one frame. And the story, too, seems to aim to encompass everything within the feature’s 124 minutes. Not surprising, considering that the film is based on a manga story six fat volumes thick.

Although Anime had known earlier masterpieces, it’s ‘Akira’, which set new standards in its home country. Moreover, it’s this film, which put the Japanese animation feature film industry firmly on the map in Western countries, which thus far practically had known the country’s television series, only. Thus, for most Westerners Japanese animation was synonymous to cheap animation, and the use of ridiculously large eyes. However, ‘Akira’ showed the Western world that Japan was perfectly capable of producing films of a high quality and stunning originality. Japanese animation has only grown in popularity since Akira’s release, and has become a major inspiration for many Western films and television series, animated or not.

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

‘Akira’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: August 2, 1986
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Laputa Castle in the Sky © Studio GhibliDrawing inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Laputa, Castle in the Sky’ takes Miyazaki’s love for flying machines to the max, introducing a humongous flying island.

Its story is set in a parallel world, which has a genuinely late 19th century European feel, but where flying machines are very common. The strange machines imagined for the film are both wonderful and convincing.

We follow the two orphan children Pazu, a poor mine worker, and Sheeta, who falls from the sky carrying a mysterious amulet, which reveals that she’s a Laputan princess. Followed by the Dola clan, a gang of pirates led by an old pink-haired woman, and by the military led by the enigmatic gentleman Muska, the children seek out to find the flying island.

Unlike other films by Miyazaki, ‘Laputa’ knows a real villain, the ruthless prince Muska. While the children admire Laputa for its nature, and while the pirates and the soldiers are only after its treasures, Muska seeks the island’s destructive possibilities to obtain world power. On the way, the film moves to a grander and grander scale, with a finale on the floating island that shows us dazzling heights, and which doesn’t eschew many killings, making ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ Miyazaki’s most violent movie.

‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ is Studio Ghibli’s very first feature film. It’s akin to the earlier ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind‘ (which predates the studio’s foundation) in its focus on the importance of love and nature and its aversion to short-minded people only interested in power and destruction. Despite its violent finale, ‘Laputa’ is more overtly a film for children than ‘Nausicaä’. Its focus stays with the rather naive children, and it contains more humor, especially in the depiction of the pirates, who are almost used as a comic relief only.

In any sense, ‘Laputa’  is a powerful film: its depiction of an original made-up world is convincing, its animation is outstanding, and its message complex and far from black and white. It once again shows the mastery of Miyazaki and the Ghibli studio.

Watch the trailer for ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: March 11, 1984
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind © Ghibli StudiosAlthough the titles say ‘based on the graphic novel’, the manga of the same name was actually created to be able to make the picture.

Based on his own original story, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is Miyazaki’s first mature film. It’s already a typical Miyazaki film, with its strong environmental message, strong female characters, the absence of clear villains, and the setting of an alien, yet totally convincing world.

The film tells of Nausicaä, princess of a small medieval-like state in a green valley, which is threatened not only by the strange, hostile and poisonous insect world nearby, but also by other human states, especially the militaristic state of Tolmekia. The humans are more preoccupied with destruction than with comprehension. Because of this shortsighted and drastic behavior, the humans almost destroy their entire environment. It is Nausicaä, with her unique understanding of animals and her pacifistic nature, who saves the day.

‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is an epic science fiction film, made on a grand scale, with layered characters, beautiful designs, and excellent animation. Its production led to the foundation of the Ghibli studios, which high quality standards it already meets. In no sense it feels like a first-born or a dated film. Even though it’s from 1984, it is remarkably fresh and its message still viable. In other words, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is the first of a long series of Ghibli studio classics.

Miyazaki would revisit the theme of a sick and angered nature in the similar and equally impressive ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997). Once again it’s a princess who saves the day…

Watch the trailer for ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Alain Ughetto
Release Date: June 10, 2013
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Jasmine © Alain UghettoAfter ‘Persepolis’ (2007) ‘Jasmine’ is the second animation film about the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In his strongly autobiographical film Ughetto rediscovers his love relationship with Jasmine, a young woman from Iran, whom he visited during the turmoils of 1978/1979, and whom he left behind, to return to France, alone.

Ughetto doesn’t spare himself, and realizes leaving her was a big mistake on his part. To tell his story he uses love letters from the time, 8mm film images he shot during the Iran revolution and clay animation. He also shows the clay animation process, his elaborate sets made from styrofoam packaging material and collections of clay figures.

Unfortunately, Ughetto’s clay animation is very limited. His plasticine figures are devoid of any facial expression, and they all look the same. The only difference between the Alain and Jasmine puppets is their color (caramel vs. blue – reflecting the color of her eyes). There’s only a limited amount of animation, and little of it is expressive.

Because of this, the film relies heavily on the voice overs, Alain telling his story, a woman reading Jasmine’s love letters. Without the soundtrack the film becomes utterly incomprehensible. Only at one point in the film, the animation images leave a strong impression themselves: when the oppressive forces of the new Islamic regime strike down and kill the former revolutionaries. This is shown by giant floating turbans suddenly falling down and crushing discussing people.

‘Jasmine’ is an intimate, very personal and honest film, and the story of the Iranian revolution and its effects on the everyday lives of people remains moving. But ‘Jasmine’ is no ‘Persepolis’ and in the end falls short as an animation film. It could easily have been a live action film, a documentary, or even a novel, instead.

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

Director: Âle Abreu
Release Date: September 20, 2013
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

O menino e o mundo © Âle AbreuIt seems that with their growing economies the BRIC countries enter a new creative era, in which costly projects like animated features are now possible. Especially Brazil is a surprising new country from which unique and distinct animation films sprout.

In 2013 the Holland Animation Film Festival had shown the ambitious ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria‘, this year it’s the charming film ‘O menino e o mundo’ (The Boy and the World). Surprisingly, given the extremely different animation styles, the two features have more in common than one would expect.

According to its director Âle Abreu* the idea of ‘O menino e o mundo’ was conceived when the little boy character suddenly appeared in his notes when studying Latin American protest music of the last hundred years. The film tells about this little boy growing up in the countryside, near the jungle, who goes to seek his father, who has left for the city to work. On his trip he discovers the real world that is Brazil, far from his idyllic place in the hills. He meets cotton pickers, people in the cotton industry, and even discovers how cotton is shipped to some futuristic cities (vaguely resembling the US) to be made into clothes, which are shipped back to Brazil to be sold at ridiculous prices.

I say Brazil, but Abreu insists that this story is the story of practically every Latin American country, or even every third world country emerging from a dark dictatorial past and now getting caught up in the World Economy. Indeed, the film’s world may be one great fantasy,  with vehicles like animals, towns like mountains, and great futuristic cities in the sky. Yet, what happens in this world is instantly recognizable to people all over the world,

Meanwhile, the film clearly shows the grand effects of the global economy on the lives of ordinary and poor people. Without reservation Abreu shows us cotton pickers being fired because they are old and sick, workers working ridiculously long hours in hot industries to produce cotton, only to be replaced by a machine in the end. We watch poor people living in favelas (slums), while advertisements on the streets and on television produce images of a happy life they’ll never be able to reach. We watch people who demand more freedom being oppressed by military police, in a particular powerful sequence in which a colorful bird of freedom is crushed by a black bird of oppression, etc.

It’s this focus on social injustice that ‘O menino e o mundo’ shares with ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’. Unlike the latter film, however, Abreu’s film never becomes too heavy-handed, because we keep on seeing this world through the eyes of a child. To achieve this, Abreu uses a wonderfully naive style resembling children’s drawings and pastel crayons. All images are drenched in imagination and wonder, even those of the city and the oppressive forces, whose tanks look like large elephants. When the boy approaches the city, more and more magazine clippings are added to the colorful images. Abreu says he wanted to tell a tale about freedom, so he wanted to have freedom during the making of this film, too. He says: “A director should listen to the voice of his film, and listen to where the film wants to go“.

The result is an absolutely gorgeously looking film, simply bursting in color and fantasy. The animation, too, is superb, especially when considering that most of it was done in Photoshop. According to Abreu the drawings were then printed, filmed, and imported in After Effects for compositing. Moreover, the whole film was made with a very small crew. Nevertheless, the makers have reached a high quality by any standards.

To tell his story Abreu uses no dialogue. Yes, we hear people speak, but in a language that is constructed of Portuguese words spoken out backwards. Indeed, the voice actors had to act and sing in this backward language. However, in no way comprehensible dialogue is missed, for Abreu is perfectly capable of storytelling by images alone. Added to the mix is the cheerful score by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat, which is a perfect match to the colorful images. According to Abreu, even the sounds of nature are made by musical means, like hand claps for rain.

‘O menino e o mundo’ is a magical film of sheer delight, deserving to be shown everywhere in the world. And unlike American films, it doesn’t shun the big questions our world needs to answer. For this bravery alone, it deserves a large audience.

Watch the trailer for ‘O menino e o mundo’ and tell me what you think:

* Quotations from Abreu are taken from his introduction and Q&A at the screening of his film at the Holland Animation Film Festival, March 20, 2014.

Director: Sabrina Peña Young
Release Date: October 5, 2013
Rating: ★
Review:

Libertaria - The Virtual Opera © Sabrina Peña Young‘Libertaria: The Virtual Opera’ must be one of the most unwatchable animated features ever made.

This science fiction film is utterly pretentious, using heavy texts to tell a dystopian story about some post-apocalyptic America. The film makes use of some interesting split-screen techniques, but is hampered by erratic storytelling and the most primitive computer animation techniques. The animation of the characters is appallingly poor and amateurish, and the designs hideously ugly. The emotions of the songs are not mirrored in the images, at all. Even the cheapest video game looks better than this.

This combination of dead serious pretentiousness and extremely poor execution make the film a nightmare to watch. Its best aspect is its music, because that, at least, has some quality. Indeed, Sabrina Peña Young is a composer, not an animator, and it remains puzzling why she wanted to make this film in the first place.

Cobbler, stick to your last!

[UPDATE: Sabrina Peña Young reacted to this blog post to explain why she made this film. Please read her response below]

Watch ‘Libertaria: The Virtual Opera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Bill Plympton
Release Date: October 11, 2013
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Cheatin' © Bill Plympton‘Cheatin’ is Plympton’s sixth feature – no small achievement for an independent animator who insists on drawing everything on his own.

‘Cheatin’ is no exception to his rule. True, for this film Plympton had hired some staff to reproduce the looks of his watercolor illustration style, but he still drew every single frame himself. According to Plympton*, the costs of the extra staff broke him, and he had to go for a (luckily successful) Kickstarter campaign to be able to finish his film. Unfortunately, distribution in his homeland, the United States, will remain problematic, as, according to Plympton, ‘Cheatin’ is 1) no computer animation film, and 2) it’s not directed at children. Both ‘handicaps’ are enough to alienate the average American distributor. Add the absence of dialogue, and ‘Cheatin”s chances become mighty low, indeed…

This is a pity, for Plympton is in great shape in this film. His sketchy drawing style is as virtuoso as ever, and his human protagonists are drawn to the extreme – using weird camera angles and outrageous exaggeration. Practically every single frame is a beauty.

‘Cheatin’ is a surprisingly lighthearted love story. It tells about Ella and Jake, who meet each other at a bumper car stand – and it’s love at first sight. They marry shortly after, and nothing seems to stand in the way of their happiness. Unfortunately, more women take interest in the muscular Jake, and one of them frames Ella – making Jake belief she meets other men. Prostrated with grief, Jake decides to take revenge, and to pick up as many girls as possible himself…

At this point, the film starts to falter a little. Plympton steers away from reality to plunge into a weird plot using a strange machine to get to his happy end. This is a pity, for his outrageous portraits of the common aspects of love are perfect in itself. To me the film would have been better if he’d stuck to a more familiar pattern of love, rut, adultery, and revenge. For example, Plympton’s depiction of Ella opening her heart to let love in is the most endearing sequence in the whole film. And his depiction of the married couple’s happiness accounts for the film’s most stream-of-consciousness-like sequence, accompanied by the drinking song from Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’.

When Jake starts cheating, Plympton focuses on his behavior at the EZ motel. However, it remains a rather unclear how Jake behaves at home. He has clearly become cold and distant, and denies Ella the love and sex she desires. But at no point in the film there’s any trace of irritations, rows or fights between the two lovers.

Plympton says the film is based on a experience of his own, in which he discovered he wanted to strangle and to make love to his girl at the same time. There’s indeed a scene depicting this feeling. However, it gets a little lost in the strange plot twist. What it does show is that Ella’s desire to hurt Jake is weaker than her desire to be loved by him. Although both characters look rather cliche, in the end Ella is a far more interesting character than Jake, who remains a rather simple strong man loaded with testosteron. Plympton doesn’t show much of Ella’s character, but her more complex inner feelings can be distilled from several scenes.

Despite the plot flaws, ‘Cheatin’ remains a well-told film throughout, making clever use of Nicole Renaud’s gorgeous score, and of some classical pieces –  apart from Verdi, e.g. Leoncavallo’s ‘Ridi Pagliaccio’ sung by Caruso, and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The absence of dialogue never becomes a handicap –  on the contrary. And the emotions of the characters are played out well – sometimes grotesquely cliche, like Jake’s ride of grief; sometimes subtle and sincere, like Ella’s suffering from Jake’s rejection.

Plympton calls his film ‘anti-Disney’, but ‘Cheatin” is in no way a reaction to Disney’s world. One can say it’s decidedly non-Disney: the film stands on its own and shows us an animation world totally different from Disney’s, one in which American animated features are not synonymous to family films, but can be as wildly diverse as live action features.

I certainly hope Plympton’s world will once come true.

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

* quotations from Bill Plympton are taken from his introduction to the film at the screening at the Holland Animation Film Festival, March 19, 2014.

Directors: John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Release Date: January 31, 1954
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Animal Farm © Halas & BatchelorBased on George Orwell’s famous fable (published only nine years before), Animal Farm is the first animated feature made in England, it’s one of Europe’s first feature films, and it’s undoubtedly among the masterpieces of feature animation.

The film falls into the tradition of Disney-style semi-realistic cel animation. However, it sets itself apart from the Disney tradition in its grim and political story, its lack of sentimentality and its open depiction of cruelty and violence. Moreover, the backgrounds are bold oil paintings, with visible brush strokes and darker colors than any Disney film had ever shown.

Nevertheless, the realistic and wonderful animation of the animals pays some depths to the Disney tradition (watch the Silly Symphony ‘Farmyard Symphony‘ for example), greatly helped by the presence of ex-Disney animator John Reed. The film even contains one sweet character for comical relief in a little duckling who tries to keep up with the other animals, echoing the turtle in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). However, when the story turns particularly grim, with the killing of the Trotsky-like pig Snowball by Napoleon’s dog henchmen, we do not see this cute character again.

The assassination of Snowball is the first of several alarming events in which the animals’ revolution is betrayed. The most disturbing of these is Boxer’s ride to a certain death. This scene is the emotional highlight of the film, and it creates strong feelings of outrage and alarm, still. The horror on the face of his friend Benjamin is very well captured, and moves to this day.

Using a voice over and evocative music by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, the film retells Orwell’s story effectively, using only Orwell’s own words. Its only strong deviation from the book is its ending. Where Orwell’s novel ends with the Stalin-like pig Napoleon’s regime installed, the film ends with yet another revolution – some wishful thinking that in the real world never quite came true until the late 1980s, when encouraged by Gorbachev’s perestroika, the people all over Eastern Europe revolted against their communist oppressors.

‘Animal Farm’, which was released within a year after Stalin’s death, is still a moving portrait of the corrupting force of power. Even though its subject, the Soviet Union, has long been a state of the past, the forces depicted in this movie are still active. The world is not free of its Napoleons, yet…

Watch ‘Animal Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jiří Trnka
Release Date: April 15, 1949
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Emperor's Nightingale © Jiri Trnka‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’ is Jiří Trnka’s second feature film (he made no less than six in total).

It tells the familiar story by Hans Christian Andersen from an original perspective: he frames the fairy tale by a live-action story about a lonely rich boy, who lives in a restricted environment. When the boy goes to bed, he dreams the fairy-tale, which stars some of his toys. Thus, after more than seven minutes, the animation kicks in.

In the boy’s dream, the Chinese emperor is a lonely little rich boy, restricted by rules, too, and the whole film seems a plea for freedom and against rules and restrictions, quite some message in communist Czechoslovakia. This theme is enhanced by the English narration, wonderfully voiced by Boris Karloff, which is a welcome addition to Trnka’s silent comedy. The whole film breathes a kind of surrealistic atmosphere and Trnka’s use of camera angles is astonishing, as is his sometimes very avant-garde montage.

Nevertheless, the pacing of the film is slow, its humor sparse and only mildly amusing, and the puppet animation still too stiff to allow elaborate character animation. Therefore, the film hasn’t aged very well, and although a tour-de- force, ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’ falls short as a timeless masterpiece.

Watch ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Pete Doctor
Release Date: November 2, 2001
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Monsters, Inc. © PixarPixar’s fourth film can be considered the studio’s best up to that point.

The very idea of monsters needing to scare children to fuel their city is a masterstroke. As is their mutual fright for children. The idea of closet doors leading to a parallel world is used to the max, especially in the breathtaking finale, whose premise is both logical to the plot as strikingly original and totally unexpected. Nothing to the story is predictable, and its lead characters Sully, Mike and Boo and their nemesis, the slithery Randall, are very well developed.

The only two lesser points may be Monstropolis itself, which is a surprisingly unimaginative copy of an average American town, and the film’s humor. Compared to Dreamworks’s ‘Shrek’, released earlier that year, Monsters, Inc.’s humor is rather mild. It heads for steady smiles, not for loud guffaws. Moreover, the loudmouth comic sidekick, the green eyeball Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal), never really gets convincingly funny or very sympathetic, and he pales compared to Eddie Murphy’s Donkey in ‘Shrek’.

No, the main selling point of Monsters Inc. is heart: the endearing ‘love story’ between top scare Sully and the little child Boo is completely convincing. This makes ‘Monsters, Inc.’, apart from being startlingly original, a sweet film. One that is able to move you time and time again.

Besides, ‘Monsters, Inc.’ displays some spectacular effect animation, the highlight being Sully laying in the snow, with his hair blowing in the blizzard, something unseen up to that point.

In 2013 ‘Monsters, Inc.’ fell prey to Hollywood’s sequel mania ,spawning the prequel ‘Monster University’.

Director: John Lounsberry, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens
Release Date:
 June 22, 1977
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Rescuers © Walt Disney‘The Rescuers’ was a joint venture of an old and a new generation of animators at the Disney studio. It is without doubt the best of the three features the studio made in the seventies.

It was Disney’s first feature film since ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians‘ (1961) in which Wolfgang Reitherman shared the direction duties, and this fact alone arguably improves the end product.

Unlike the earlier features ‘The Aristocats’ (1970) and ‘Robin Hood‘ (1973) it doesn’t contain any reused animation (with a possible exception of animation from ‘Bambi‘ in a minor mood scene). And while ‘The Aristocats’ and ‘Robin Hood’ relied on proven formulas, both being very reminiscent of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967), ‘The Rescuers’ has a fresh story (based on a children’s book by Margery Sharp), and a unique, surprisingly gloomy atmosphere. In Sharp’s book the mice rescue a prisoner, but for the film the Disney story men chose an orphan girl named Penny to be rescued. A masterstroke, for the lovable little girl easily becomes the center of the story, which contains a lot of heart.

However, all the film’s main characters are adorable: the lovely Hungarian mouse Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her companion, the superstitious yet valiant janitor Bernard are such great characters that they were able to spawn Disney’s first sequel, ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ in 1990. Medusa is a real and wonderful villain. She hasn’t got any special powers and at times she’s portrayed as preposterous, but mostly she’s sly, mean and genuinely scary: a worthy adversary for our heroes to deal with. She was animated by Milt Kahl, the last and arguably best piece of animation he ever did for the studio.

Medusa may steal the show, but even the minor characters like Orville the Albatross, Rufus the cat, Evenrude the damselfly, Snoops and the two Alligators are delightful. They all contribute to a story, which is concise and well-told. It evolves without delays or side-ways, and leads to a great finale in Devil’s Bayou.

‘The Rescuers’ is also the first Disney feature since ‘Bambi’ (1942) not to be a musical, but to use songs to evoke moods only. All these elements contribute to a story which is both thrilling and moving. The film’s opening credits use a song and beautiful oil paintings by Mel Shaw to start the story. Unfortunately, the background paintings in the rest of the movie are more prosaic, mixing moody oil paintings with more graphic backgrounds to an uneven effect. The animation on the other hand is superb throughout.

Unfortunately, ‘The Rescuers’ proved more of a swansong of the old generation of nine old men than the beginning of a new era. The following features were much weaker, and only with ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney found a genuinely new and strong voice. Thus stands ‘The Rescuers’ as a beacon of light in the dark ages of animation that were the 1970s and 1980s.

Watch the trailer of’The Rescuers’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date:
 November 8, 1973
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Robin Hood © Walt Disney‘Robin Hood’ was Walt Disney studio’s 21st feature. The film’s story and designs lean heavily on the 1938 feature ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, starring Errol Flynn.

But by now the characters are portrayed as animals, a relic of an abandoned feature film project about Reynard the fox called ‘Chanticleer’. This great idea doesn’t lead to a great film, however. Despite the fine character designs, the strong voice cast and the often superb animation, Robin Hood must be placed among the weaker Disney features.

Many of the character designs are so reminiscent of those in ‘Jungle Book’, the film almost feels like a rip-off. There’s a bear, voiced by Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, there’s a snake with the power of hypnosis and there are some funny vultures. The story evolves at a remarkably slow pace, with some sort of plot only setting in after 29 minutes. More than any earlier Disney feature ‘Robin Hood’ seems particularly aimed at children: both great drama and great comedy are absent and danger is never really felt. The great finale is anything but that, and King Richard serves as an off-stage Deus ex machina, putting an equally welcomed as unsatisfying end to the film.

In a 1973 letter to animator Larry Ruppel, cited in John Canemaker’s book ‘Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation’, animator Frank Thomas expressed the film’s shortcomings:

“We obviously decided to keep it on the ‘fun’ side, but I have worried that the audiences would feel it was too flimsy – that we were not being quite serious enough with our characters. For instance, does anyone really fear Prince John? Is Robin ever worried about his ability to achieve something or even how it should be done? Did winning Maid Marian make any difference in Robin’s behavior. In real life it would have.”

The rather tinned music doesn’t help, either. Even worse, the film’s three forgettable songs are all presented within a twelve minutes period of the film (0’46-0’58), and the dance scene blatantly reuses complete dance animation sequences from ‘Snow White and the seven dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Jungle Book’ (1967) and ‘Aristocats’ (1970). All these aspects give the film a cheap feel. It frustrated younger animators like Don Bluth, who thought the film lacked both quality and soul, and it indirectly led to Bluth’s departure in 1979, during the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

The film’s only real treat is King John. This is by all means a marvelous character, perfectly voiced by Peter Ustinov. Because of the film’s strong visuals (after all, it’s the only Robin Hood film starring foxes), the film fares better in memory than by actually watching it.

In all, Robin Hood is a sad feature, which makes painfully clear that in the seventies Disney’s glory days lay years behind. Indeed, it would take the studio another fifteen years to crawl out of the uncertain times the studio went through after Walt Disney’s death.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Robin Hood’ and tell me what you think:

Director: René Laloux
Release Date: May 11, 1973
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

La planète Sauvage © René Laloux
‘La planète sauvage’ is an old love of mine. I first watched it when I was ca. six or seven. It took me fifteen years before I learned which film I had actually watched, and it would take me another ten years before I could watch it again. However, all the time the film’s powerful images never left me.

‘La planète sauvage’ is a science-fiction feature, which tells about the life of humans (‘Oms’, which sounds like the french word for humans, ‘hommes’) on a strange planet occupied by story-block-high humanoid giants, called Draags. To them humans are no more than pets and pests. By accident, a pet Om, Terr (symbolically named after the French word for Earth, terre), learns the Draags’ knowledge and he leads his fellow humans into an uprising.

However, ‘La planète sauvage’ is not particularly famous for its straightforward and rather cliche plot. Its strength lies in its effective use of Roland Topor’s very surrealistic designs, which makes the depicted planet incomprehensible, foreign and scary. For example, the Draag’s behavior is so strange, that despite their humanoid form they feel very alien, indeed. The film’s original technique of combining drawn animation with cut-out adds to the surreal atmosphere. Even the space funk music accompanying the action sounds outlandish.

Even though the animation sometimes is rather stiff and at times even ridiculously poor, the graphic imaginary is so strong that these shortcomings never spoil the enjoyment of the film. On the contrary, the film’s totally unique and disturbing atmosphere and its philosophical questions about what makes man human make watching ‘La planète sauvage’ a very rewarding experience.

Together with Bruno Bozzetto’s ‘Allegro non troppo’ (1976) and Martin Rosen’s ‘Watership Down’ (1978) Laloux’s film must be counted among the most outstanding features of the seventies. René Laloux would make two other science fiction features, ‘Les maîtres du temps‘ (1981) and ‘Gandahar‘ (1988), but these do not reach the stunning originality of the visuals in this film.

Watch the trailer for ‘La Planète sauvage’:

Director: Fernando Cortizo
Release Date: October 31, 2012
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

O Apostolo2012 was a good year for stop motion animation fans: no less than four stop motion features were released that year. In March we had Aardman’s ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’, followed by Laika’s ‘ParaNorman’ in August and Disney’s ‘Frankenweenie’ in September. Least known among these was the last release, from October: ‘O Apóstolo’ from Spain.

Somehow, stop motion feature film makers seem to favor horror-inspired plots, and ‘O Apóstolo’ is no exception. However, unlike ‘ParaNorman’ or ‘Frankenweenie’, ‘O Apóstolo’ is not a lighthearted family film. Instead, it’s a dark gothic thriller, and it succeeds surprisingly well in maintaining a high level of suspense throughout most of the picture.

Both the film’s theme and setting are typical Spanish: the film is drenched in a catholic atmosphere, and it’s set in a remote village on the road to Santiago de Compostela, famous for its numerous pilgrims. We follow the thief Ramon, who has escaped from prison to turn to this village to collect a treasure his cell mate has hidden there.

We soon discover that there is something terribly wrong with the little village. Its inhabitants seem to lure innocent pilgrims, and try to keep them there. It remains long unknown why, keeping the suspense at a high level. And even when the obligatory explanation of the events comes, the makers present it elegantly: the explanation, despite being long and quite absurd, is beautifully done in 2D animation with quasi-medieval designs, accompanied by a song.

Luckily, the film also has its lighter moments, mostly in a subplot, involving a particularly unsympathetic archbishop, who goes on his way to invest the loss of pilgrims. It’s soon clear that the film makers have plotted a punishment for this haughty, selfish character.

Apart from the gripping plot, ‘O Apóstolo’ excels in gorgeous production values. The little village and its sinister forest surroundings are conceived with stunning detail. They are as rich as any life action background, and contribute highly to the dark and creepy atmosphere. The puppets are designed less originally than the other features mentioned above, but retain a certain realism, which makes it possible to relate to them, especially with the main protagonist, Ramon the thief. The sole exception is the priest, whose appearance is too absurd and too sinister to blend in. It’s a pity, because his dominant presence casts a shadow on the more underplayed (and underdesigned) other village characters, whose threat is much more subtle, and therefore more disturbing.

In all, ‘O Apóstolo’ easily draws you in. It is without doubt one of the most original and best animated films of 2012. It definitely deserves to be more well-known.

Watch the official trailer of ‘O Apóstolo’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Luiz Bolognesi
Release Date: April 5, 2013
Rating: ★★
Review:

Uma História de Amor e Fúria © Buriti Films‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’ (Rio 2096: a Story of Love and Fury) is a a rather depressing film from Brazil, showing three violent episodes in Brazilian history, plus one in the future.

Main protagonist is the Tupinambá Indian Abeguar, who is granted the possibility of flight and immortality, reincarnating as a bird. Through his eternal love interest Janaína he can reincarnate back into a human form, which he does three times during the film.

This framing story binds the four separate episodes, which take place in 1556, the 1820s, 1968-1980 and 2096. The first episode shows us his Tupinambá self, and how his tribe gets slaughtered and enslaved by Portuguese colonists. In the second episode Abeguar reincarnates as a poor farmer joining a troop of enraged farmers and escaped slaves during Brazil’s war of independence. In the third episode he’s a teacher fighting the military dictatorship, and in the last episode, taking place in the future, he fights in a war over scarce water.

‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’ shows Brazil’s troubled history. Throughout the picture life is showed through the eyes of the underdog. Abeguar sarcastically observes that his oppressors get statues, while the oppressed remain anonymous.

‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’  is an accomplished work: the animation is fairly good, if a little mechanical, the backgrounds are gorgeous, and the production values pretty high. The film clearly aims at a more adult audience, not eschewing nudity or graphic violence.

The film is hampered, however, by rather ugly designs: the humans look like those from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), but with even more angular designs. The animation of emotions is crude and stereotypical. But more important: the film is totally devoid of humor. It is dark and heavy throughout, without any light moments. This gives the film a propagandistic gravity, which becomes tiresome in the end.

Watch the official trailer of ‘Uma História de Amor e Fúria’ and tell me what you think:

Directors: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett
Release Date: November 2, 2012
Stars: Graham Chapman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

A Liar's Autobiography‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’ is a film adaptation of Graham Chapman’s own nonsensical autobiography.

At first the film appears to follow Chapman’s book closely, using his own voice over from a audiobook recording. In fact, apart from one song all of Chapman’s vocalizations are by Graham Chapman himself, using various sources. Other former Monty Python members provide some voices, too.

The film adaptation of Chapman’s book is excellent, perfectly blending his dry humor with tongue-in-cheek images. However, the film makers want to make the film a biopic, leaving the book half way and adding some chapters of their own. At this point the film starts to drag. It becomes less humorous and more wandering, with lots of images drenched in sex and alcohol. And so, the film fades out ingloriously, leaving less an impression than it did when it started.

‘A Liar’s Autobiography’ was made by no less than fourteen different animation studios, and the overall array of styles is refreshing and at times mesmerizing. At the same time it can become a bit tiring to watch a changing of style at every scene, and sometimes the design is subpar, or downright ugly. The result is a moderately entertaining film that remains shallow and unmoving, nonetheless.

Watch the trailer of  ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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