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Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date: 1993
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Cloudland © Faith HubleyIn ‘Tall Time Tales’ Hubley had illustrated ‘dream time’, a concept from aboriginal mythology.

In ‘Cloudland’ she returns to the aboriginal mythology, illustrating three more concepts: 1. a creation myth, in which the sun woman wakes up the earth, 2. the story of hunger at the land of plenty, and 3. Gifts from the ancestors. Like in ‘Upside down‘ and ‘Tall Time Tales‘ the episodes are announced by a voice over (this time her daughter Emily’s) telling their titles.

Hubley’s style is particularly fit for mythology, and this film doesn’t disappoint. Especially, the creation myth is wonderfully done, yet the best part is the story of hunger, with its remarkably straightforward story. This part also features the most elaborate animation, on a bird, a kangaroo and a turtle. Most of the film, however, is filled with Faith Hubley’s characteristic primitive-looking things and beings, which vibrate, move, morph and dance in short and simple animation cycles.

Watch ‘Cloudland’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Cloudland’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 1’

Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tall Time Tales © Faith Hubley‘Tall Time Tales’ is a meditation on time.

Like ‘Upside Down‘ the film consists of several parts, divided by a voice over. ‘Tall Time Tales’ consists of five parts: 1. Time waits for no one, 2. Tick Tock Clock, in which Hubley illustrates the grind of daily work routines, 3. The twin paradox (a concept from the relativity theory), 4. Dreamtime (a concept from aboriginal mythology) and the vague ‘Arrows or circles’, probably musing whether time is linear or circular. The film ends with a great finale of beautiful, if utterly incomprehensible images moving to Don Christensen’s percussive dance music.

‘Tall Time Tales’ is one of Faith Hubley’s more successful films, blending inspired music with ditto images. Its philosophy me be light, this is still one of those films that make you stop and wonder.

Watch ‘Tall Time Tales’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Tall Time Tales’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 1’

Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date: 1991
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Upside Down © Faith HubleyAccording to the titles this film is inspired by ‘upside down poetry’ by 15th century Indian poet Kabir.

The film shows several ‘upside down’ situations, all introduced by a voice over, like ‘a sheep eats a wolf’, ‘a corpse eats death’, and ‘a fish jumps out of the ocean’. Most interesting is ‘an elephant is tied to an ant’s leg’, which features remarkably classic animation on the elephant, a standout between the circular and flat animation that dominates Hubley’s films.

As always, ‘Upside down’ features Hubley’s gorgeous Miró-like ritualistic designs, but the film is hampered by the trite voice over titles, and Don Christensen’s rather disjointed score. Moreover, the stream-of-consciousness-like scenes are little more than illustrations of the poet’s ideas, and there’s no story whatsoever.

‘Upside Down’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 1’

Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date: 1990
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Amazonia © Faith HubleyWith Amazonia Faith Hubley returns to her favorite subject, mythology, telling three myths from this area.

The first is a creation myth in which the moon goddess creates life, but is envied by two other god-like creatures. Unfortunately, it’s far from clear what’s happening during this part.

Much clearer is the second part, which tells about a clever and hungry tortoise, who defeats a jaguar, a fox and a deer by outsmarting them, and then devouring them… This is a surprisingly funny sequence for a Faith Hubley film, whose style normally is more poetic than anything else.

The last myth is the only one to use a piece of dialogue: we hear Dizzy Gillespie say “One day, when there are no trees left, the heavens will fall and the people will be destroyed.” This part is clearly against deforestation, but also shows that nature will doubtless survive mankind.

Hubley’s magical animation style enhances the mythical atmosphere, as does Don Christensen’s music. The complete film is very beautiful and poetic.

‘Amazonia’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 1’

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:

Director: Gitanjali Rao
Release Date: May 2006
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Printed Rainbow © Gitanjali RaoAn old woman lives in a little flat and uses her collection of matchboxes to dream away to more adventurous lives.

In this film Rao contrasts the dull and lonely reality (in grey tones) with the colorful matchbox-based fantasies. The mood is poetic, and the film progresses at a gentle speed. Rao’s designs are sometimes naive, but her animation skills are splendid. She’s absolutely one of the masters of painted animation. Especially noteworthy is her animation of the cat. Also important is Rajivan Ayyappan’s sound design, which is spot on.

‘Printed Rainbow’ is by all means a mature work. Rao’s work is even more impressive, when one considers that she wrote, animated, directed and produced the film on her own in India, a country with a rather short animation history. Although India has made some strides in commercial animation, independent animation is still very rare. Thus Rao’s work is all the more wonderful. Luckily, more people saw it that way and Rao’s film won no less than 22 awards.

Watch ‘Printed Rainbow’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Printed Rainbow’ is available on the DVD ‘International Animation: Modern Classics’

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: Ruth Lingford
Release Date: 1997
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Death and the Mother © Ruth LingfordWhen death takes away her child, a mother gives up everything to get her back.

‘Death and the Mother’ is Ruth Lingford’s re-telling of a classic fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s an animation masterpiece: its strong and gritty animation, the beautiful string quartet music by Nigel Broadbent, the subtle sound effects –  all add up to a very strong, dark and emotional film. Lingford makes clever use of the computer to create a very graphic film that looks like an animated woodcut. In an age in which computer animation almost equals 3D animation, this is a refreshing technique, with a stark impact and an imagery unparalleled in the animation field.

Moreover, Lingford captures Andersen’s tale of grief, love and sacrifice very well, without trying to update it. Just by staying true to the essence of the original story she has made a timeless classic. Her wordless film is as universal as it can get, and capable of communicating to audiences worldwide. It’s a welcome antidote to the Disney fairy tale retellings, which get more and more watered down, and which lose a lot of the originals’ charm with it.

Watch ‘Death and the mother’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Death and the Mother’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Animation Now!’

Director: Erica Russell
Release Date: 1989
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Feet of Song © Erica Russell‘Feet of song’ is a non-narrative film about dance and Russell’s solo debut film.

It uses semi-abstract human forms, akin to those by painter Kazimir Malevich. The human forms feel both futuristic and African at the same time, and have a timeless appeal. The images get more and more abstract as the film progresses, but the sense of dance is never lost.

‘Feet of Song’ features African-sounding world music by Charlie Hart, but the music is in service to the beautiful images, not the other way round. Made for Channel 4, ‘Feet of Song’ is a prime testimony of Erica Russel’s unique style, clearly influenced by Oskar Fischinger, but firmly rooted in her South African and dancer background.

Unfortunately, Russell made only two other independent films, ‘Triangle’ in 1994, and ‘Soma’ in 2001, devoting most of her time to commissioned work (her images for example appear in the Madonna video-clip ‘Dear Jessie’ from 1989).

Watch ‘Feet of Song’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Feet of Song’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Animation Now!’

Director: Inessa Kovalevskaya
Release Date: 1971
Rating: ★
Review:

Songs of the Years of Fire © SoyuzmultfilmOne could see ‘Songs of the Years of Fire’ as the Soviet answer to ‘Fantasia’.

This propaganda film features songs from the Russian civil war (1917-1922). These songs are accompanied by revolutionary and shamelessly patriotic images of the brave soviet army, to which the film is dedicated.

The resulting film is as graphically interesting as it is boring and sickening. It’s hard to believe such blatant propaganda could be made as late as 1971.

‘Songs of the Years of Fire’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

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:

Directors: John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Release Date: 1948
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Magic Canvas © Halas & Batchelor‘Magic Canvas’ is rather pretentiously introduced as “something different (….), new and exciting”.

Luckily, the film is rather original and exciting: using a rather abstract score by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, it consists of associative images with a strong sense of surrealism. It loosely tells the story of man struggling to be free. Even though it has to pay its debts to Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ (1940), ‘The Magic Canvas’ surely is one of the most avant-gardistic films of its time, and a testimony of Halas & Batchelor’s animation ambitions.

Watch ‘Magic Canvas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Magic Canvas’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Halas & Batchelor Cartoons’

Director: Olga Khodatayeva
Release Date: 1950
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Magic Windmill © Soyuzmultfilm‘The Magic Windmill’ is one of the classic fairy-tale films produced by the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

In this short an old man, a cat and a cock are having trouble to feed all the animals who seek shelter at their place. Therefore they ask the mountain god for help, who gives them a magical little windmill, which produces endless amounts of breads out of of a few grains of corn. Unfortunately, rumor spreads, and soon the little windmill is stolen by a greedy king. But the cock flies to his palace and brings back the magical object, despite several attempts on his life.

‘The Magic Windmill’ is a gentle, if what overlong little film based on a Russian fairy-tale. It uses a naturalistic style, clearly influenced by Disney, with watercolor backgrounds, and a multiplane camera effect in its opening scene . The animal designs are an interesting mix of the Disney style and Russian illustration art. The animation, however, leaves a lot to desire. The animation of movement is awkward, with most characters moving in a slow, all too constant speed. The film uses dialogue in rhyme, but the lip synchronization with the characters is poor.

Despite these flaws, ‘The Magic Windmill’ is a film of great poetry, and one of the best of the Russian fairy tale films of the fifties. Indeed, director Khodatayeva was a veteran of soviet animation, having made films since the 1920s.

Watch ‘The Magic Windmill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

Director: Leonid Amalrik & Olga Khodataeva
Release Date: 1942
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Kino-Circus © Soyuzmultfilm‘Kino-Circus’ (also called Cinema Circus) is the most inspired of the anti-fascist war propaganda cartoons made in the Soviet Union.

The short is called ‘a cartoon satire in three acts’ and features a Charlie Chaplin-like character, who introduces us to three staged satires, all featuring Adolf Hitler:

In the first, ‘Adolf the dog trainer and his pooches’, Hitler throws a bone at his three dogs, Benito Mussolini, Miklós Horthy and Ion Antonescu, the leaders of his allies Italy, Hungary and Romania, respectively.

In the second, ‘Hitler visits Napoleon’, Hitler asks Napoleon’s tomb for advice, but the deceased drags him into the tomb. It’s the most prophetic of the three, for indeed both Napoleon and Hitler were defeated in Russia.

In the third, ‘Adolf the juggler on powder kegs’, Hitler juggles with several burning torches on a pile of powder-barrels, representing the countries he has occupied. When he accidentally drops one of the torches, the barrels explode. The animation is particularly silly in this sequence and a delight to watch.

After the grim political posters from 1941, ‘Kino-Circus’ is more lighthearted. The film ridicules Hitler more than it makes him threatening. Quite surprising since in1942 Nazi Germany was still a serious threat to the Soviet Union: Leningrad suffered under a long siege, and the Soviet Union had only just begun its counter-attack.

Interestingly, both directors of ‘Kino-Circus’ later became famous for their sweet fairy tale films.

Watch ‘Kino-Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kino-Circus’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

Directors: Valentina Brumberg, Zinaida Brumberg, Aleksandr Ivanov, Olga Khodataeva and Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1941
Rating: ★★★
Review:

4 Newsreels © SoyuzmultfilmThe Soviet propaganda film ‘4 Newsreels’ consists of four so-called ‘political posters’, which are as blatant as propaganda can get.

The first, ‘What Hitler wants’, shows us an extremely ugly and vicious caricature of Hitler marching towards the Soviet Union until he is pierced by the Soviet bayonet.

In the second, ‘Beat the fascist pirates’, sea serpent-like German submarines are defeated by the Soviet fleet.

The third, ‘Strike the Enemy on the front and at home’, is typical for the paranoid society Stalinist Russia was, warning against treacherous fascist spies, foreign agents and saboteurs: “Be vigilant! Remember, our enemy is cunning!”.

The fourth, ‘A mighty handshake’, tells us about the union between England and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, showing two mighty giant soldiers shaking hands and crushing a tiny rat-like Hitler in doing so.

Obviously, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union left no room for subtleties.

‘4 Newsreels’ was directed by five veterans of animated Soviet propaganda. All had made animated films since the 1920s. Of the five, Ivan Ivanov-Vano (1900-1987) would become the most successful, directing animated films up to the 1970s. Luckily, he and Olga Khodataeva would be able to show a gentler side in numerous animated fairy tale films for children.

Watch ‘4 Newsreels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘4 Newsreels’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

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