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Director: Bibo Bergeron
Release date:
October 12, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★½
Review:

‘Un monstre à Paris’ is a charming and friendly French computer animation film by Bibo Bergeron who not only directed the film, but also wrote both the story and the screenplay.

The film is set in Paris in the winter of 1910 when the river Seine caused an enormous flood in the French capital. During this winter small and timid projectionist Émile and brassy, irresponsible delivery driver and inventor Raoul create a monster by accident. But cabaret singer Lucille discovers that this monster has surprising talents. Meanwhile, arrogant, and ambitious police commissioner Victor Maynott has his own plans with both Lucille, the monster, and the Great Flood. There’s also a proboscis monkey called Charles, who talks with reference cards, an idea that also occurs in Aardman’s ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ from a year later.

‘Un monstre à Paris’ knows quite a number of characters and has arguably three main protagonists. But Bergeron plays out his story surprisingly well, giving ample time and background stories to all three of them, even if the one of Raoul and Lucille only arrives during the end titles. The film is very talkative, but not too much so, and has its focus and heart firm in place. The action and drama are further ornamented with several little gags, which never ask too much attention. The best gag may be when Maynott’s balloon starts to lose helium.

In fact, Bergeron envisioned the city of Paris as the film’s main character, and indeed, the movie uses wonderful images of the great city, not only in computer animation, but also by classic matte paintings. Bergeron’s Paris, realized by Sébastian Piquet, is crooked, asymmetrical, and rather ramshackle character, which is always pleasant to look at. In addition, in several scenes the metropolis is clouded in mist, which give the backgrounds and settings an extra poetical atmosphere. Moreover, Bergeron’s Paris is a very, very familiar Paris, also to people who’ve never been there: the film takes mostly place in Montmartre, with the finale taking place on the Eiffel tower, both locations well-known to almost everyone.

Christophe Lourdelet’s character designs are a bit of a mixed bag: the male characters are all firmly rooted in the Franco-Belgian comic tradition, especially Raoul and inspector Pâté. The women Lucille and Maud (Émile’s love interest) on the other hand, have more generic 3D computer animation designs, with all too large eyes and all too slender bodies. The monster is well-designed, being both large and overpowering and delicate and friendly. He looks best when given an Aristide Bruant-like hat and shawl. In that respect the later zoot suit is way off for a film set in 1910.

The animation, directed by Fabrice Joubert, is fair, but not outstanding, and although the film makers are very proud of the dance scenes, the dance moves herein come over as stiff and unnatural. Worse are Lucille’s performances of the song ‘La Seine’. It seems the film makers didn’t know what to do with her long slender arms, which are all over the place. Compare the animation of Lucille with Preston Blair’s animation of Red in e.g., ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ (1943) and the difference between an approximation of natural movement and natural song and dance animation becomes clear. The effect animation, on the other hand is fine: the water, the clouds and the mist all look very fine.

The songs are quite out of tune with the otherwise faithful 1910 setting, being all too modern and typical products of 2011, not 1910. Composer M (Matthieu Chedid) also provides the monster’s voice, singing in a very high voice, apparently to accentuate the creature’s innocent, childish and fragile nature. Lucille is lovely voiced by Belgian singer Vanessa Paradis of Eurovision Song Contest fame, and her rendering of ‘La Seine’ is very pleasant, even if the song doesn’t sound like a French cabaret song of the 1910s, at all.

In all, ‘Un monstre à Paris’ is not perfect, but certainly well-told and entertaining. The film may be more conventional than contemporary French films like ‘Une vie de chat’ (2010), ‘Le tableau’ (2011) or ‘Ernest & Célestine’ (2012), it still shows the extraordinary rich breeding ground of animation that France has been in the 21st century thus far.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Monster in Paris’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Monster in Paris’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen & Philip Einstein Lipski
Release date:
September 29, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

Arguably the least serious animated feature to be released in 2011 is a surprising little entry from Denmark called ‘Ronal the Barbarian’. The film is set in a bare fantasy world called ‘Metallonia’, and makes fun of many sword and sorcery tropes, as well as ‘Lord of the Rings’ and several leather metal cliches from the early eighties. Especially fans of Judas Priest should be delighted. In this respect, the end song accompanying the end titles is one of the film’s highlights, spoofing e.g. Led Zeppelin and Queen.

With its men walking around in tiny strings, with its lusty amazonians, with an oracle on a toilet, and with its many references to sex this could be a film too immature for its own good, but actually, the film makers play their story surprisingly straight, and despite all the parody and nonsense the film does have heart. It does help that fun is made of both male and female characters, and neither the overblown machos nor the incapable amazonians can be taken too seriously.

‘Ronal the Barbarian’ tells about Ronal, the only barbarian of ‘the tribe of Kron’ to be feeble, cowardly, and weak. When on one day his whole tribe is kidnapped and taken away, he must go on a dreaded quest, helped by an oversexed teenager bard called Alibert, by a very strong and heroic “shield maiden” called Zandra, and by a rather silly hippie-like elf called Elric.

Unfortunately, the characters are little more than vignettes. Ronal, to begin with, has little to counter his weakness. He seems to be a bit smarter than his fellow tribe members, but he’s far from cunning, and certainly not instantly likeable: during the first half of the film, he’s often whining and moaning, which makes the budding love story between him and Zandra hard to believe. Ronal’s transition to a more heroic character is more believable, especially because he remains clumsy and weak until the very end.

Alibert, too, is a character on the shallow side: his interest in dames is practically his only character trait, but he fails as comic relief, but not as a friend. In the end, he is as loyal to Ronal as Sam to Frodo. Elric isn’t a round character at all, but a pure caricature of everything elfish as depicted in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. Most interesting of the four is shield maiden Zandra, because she must deal with a tradition that is a curse to her. Zandra’s subplot is vital to the film and make it into a deeper product than could be expected.

Unfortunately, Zandra is not designed too well. Her eyes remind too often those of South Park characters, and as she’s depicted as being quite stout and clearly older than the puny Ronal, making their romance less likely, again.

The quest story ticks all the familiar boxes: there’s an evil and almost invincible opponent, there’s a heavily guarded hidden kingdom, there’s a legend important to the plot, and there’s even room for the all too obligate breakup scene so common in animation films these years. And, of course, Ronal does grow into the hero he has to be in the end. But I must say the film makers tell their tale well, and there are no dead points or superfluous scenes during the film whatsoever. The focus stays with Ronal most of the time, and even when it doesn’t, the scenes still serve the plot completely.

For a European film the 3D computer animation is fair, if not outstanding. The rendering is on the poor side, but it does its job, and the world building is convincing enough for the story. The animation, too, is most of the time okay if nothing to write home about. Especially the animation on lesser characters is visibly mediocre, and there’s little character animation, although the animators do their best in two scenes in which the thought processes of respectively Ronal and Zandra are depicted. But, as most of the action is far from serious, and even rather silly, most of the animation does its job quite nicely. Like the designs, the animation is often broad and jerky, enhancing the comic effect. The effect animation itself, too, is excellent, and helps the world building a lot, especially during the finale.

‘Ronal the Barbarian’ is no masterpiece, but as said, the film is told well, and accounts for 90 minutes of pure fine entertainment. It’s no more than that, but the film clearly doesn’t aspire to. So I’d say: quest fulfilled!

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

‘Ronal the Barbarian’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Enrico Casarosa
Release date:
June 6, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★½
Review:

In ‘La Luna’ a little boy accompanies his father and grandfather on a boat trip with an original and unexpected destination.

This cute little film features dialogue, but as this is quasi-Italian gibberish, the story is told through the expressions and body movements of the three characters. There’s a subtle undercurrent of passing on traditions and finding your own voice within tradition.

The film explores no new territories technically, but features a superb color design, rendered in beautiful blues and yellows. The sound design, too, is worth mentioning. Especially, the sound of the stars is very well done. Less successful is Michael Giacchino’s score, which sugarcoats the action too much.

‘La Luna’ was shown before ‘Brave‘. With this film director Enrico Casarosa clearly digs into his own Italian roots. The result is a modest homage to a child’s wonder and fantasy.

Watch ‘La Luna’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘La Luna’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Brave’, as well as on the ‘Pixar Short Films Collection, Vol. 2’

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Release date:
May 26, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★½
Review:

‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008) was a nice if not too outstanding film, so it came as a pleasant surprise that its successor was even a better film. In fact, I crown ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ one of the best animated sequels ever, on par with ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999) and ‘Shrek 2’ (2004).

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ te film immediately grabs attention with a Lord of the Rings-like introduction, rendered in gorgeous 2D animation, making clever use of cut-out techniques to simulate a shadow play. This sequence introduces the film’s villain, Lord Shen, a white peacock and one of the most layered villains one can find in animated film. Masterly voiced by Gary Oldman, in fact Lord Shen is comparable with other great villains like Saruman, with whom he shares a fortress full of furnaces, and Darth Vader, who also massacred the hero’s kin before the start of the film.

This background story also gives extra and necessary weight to the character of Po, who becomes more dimensional than in the first film, now having to battle the ghosts from the past inside his head, which clearly hinders him in finding the ‘inner peace’ Master Shifu tells him to seek. Moreover, we now have a background story for our hero. Indeed, the film end with a clear invitation to a sequel. Indeed, there would be a ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ in which Po’s story was round up, if rather disappointingly.

Because of this deepening of Po’s character, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, much more than its predecessor, is a delightful combination of adventure, action, comedy, and drama (Po’s reminiscence scene is actually moving). Moreover, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ shares a theme with the classic wuxia movie ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ (1991) exploring the tensions between kung fu and firearms. In this respect Po delivers the movie’s best line when addressing two demoralized kung fu masters: “you stay in your prison of fear with bars made of hopelessness and all you get are three square meals a day of shame!”. Not that ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ long dwells on Po’s inner turmoil, the film is very action-rich: the first great kung fu battle comes quickly, and is followed by several others, ending with a spectacular finale.

Overall, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is an impressive piece of teamwork. Everything clicks in this film: the story is engaging and well-told, the animation is outstanding, especially the character animation on Po, Po’s dad, and Lord Shen. The cinematography is breathtaking, full of dynamic camera movements and fast cutting, the color schemes are daring and beautiful, and the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer & John Powell, with its mock-Chinese ingredients, very apt for both the action and the emotions involve. Their music during the paper dragon scene must get especially mention.

Not that ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is entirely without its flaws, however. By now Po has become nearly invincible, which renders him slightly flatter, despite the deepening of his emotional side. Moreover, the other characters are less prominent than in the first film (especially Master Shifu hardly gets any screen time), even if they still shine much more than in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, which reduces the five to mere background players. Then there’s an obligate ‘all is lost’ moment, so typical for modern Western computer animation films (see e.g., ‘Rango’ from the same year and ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ from a year later) and a scene in which the villain says ‘What?!’, replicated by the same studio in ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ (2014). But these are minor defects of an otherwise great piece of animated entertainment.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Michel Ocelot
Release Date: February 13, 2011
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

This is a review of the 2011 film, not to be confused with the television series from 1992, which explores a similar style.

After two Kirikou movies (1998, 2005) and the praised ‘Azur & Asmar’ (2006) French director Michel Ocelot returned to the silhouette style he had explored in ‘Les trois inventeurs’ (1979) and in ‘Les contes da la nuit’ (1992) in particular. The result was a series of ten episodes for Canal+ called ‘Dragons et princesses’. These were aired in 2010, and more or less compiled in the feature film ‘Les contes de la nuit’ from the next year. This film compiles five of the ten stories from ‘Dragons et princesses’ and adds an extra one, called ‘La Fille-biche et le fils de l’architecte’ (The Young Doe and the Architect’s Son).

All stories are original, conceived by Ocelot himself, including the dialogue. Yet, their style is firmly rooted in ancient storytelling and fairytales. Thus, the heroes are pretty emblematic, a given that is emphasized by the bridging ‘story’. In these bridging episodes an old man teams up with two children to invent the stories. The children then act them out, while the old man does some background research on architecture and clothing and such. The two youngsters are then dressed by robot arms, and the tale can begin.

And so, each tale stars the same two children, and almost of them are about love. To be fair, these bridging parts make very little sense, and after the sixth story we don’t even return to this setting.
Much more interesting are the stories themselves. Set in different times and places, they have a surprising universal character and really feel as a homage to classic storytelling, a form of narrative other modern animation film makers seem to have lost. In fact, Ocelot’s most obvious inspiration is Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981), who also told classic tales in silhouette animation. Ocelot truly is her artistic successor, even though he trades the scissors and cut-out animation for 2D computer graphics.

As all stories are told in silhouette, the story depends greatly on body language and dialogue. It’s a little unfortunate then that the 2D computer animation is often rather stiff and unconvincing. At times the heroes’ faces are seen from the front, showing their eyes, but not their mouths, which makes one depend on the dialogue even more.

The stories themselves nevertheless are entertaining. The first, ‘the night of the werewolf’ takes place at the Burgundian court of the 15th century and tells about two rival sisters. The third, ‘The Chosen One of the Golden City’ takes place in Mexico in the 16th century and tells about a conquistador visiting a city of gold. This story knows some very stylized background art. The fourth, ‘Tom-Tom Boy’ is set in West Africa and takes us back to the world of ‘Kirikou et la sorcière’ (1998), with its bare breasted women. The fifth, ‘The Boy Who Never Lied’ is set in medieval Tibet, and certainly the most tragic of the collection. The mountainous background art in this story has the most 3D-feel to it of the whole lot. The final story, ‘The Young Doe and the Architect’s Son’ returns to France. Set in the 13th century it features very detailed gothic background art and a short piece of 3D computer animation.

The best story, however, is the second, ‘TJ and the Beauty Unknowing’. This story starts in the Caribbean, but soon the hero enters the land of the death, in which he must fulfill three tasks to save his life. This story makes great use of the tropes of ancient fairy tales, without following the classic love story tropes of the other entries.

Watch the trailer for ‘Tales of the Night’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Les Contes de la nuit (Tales of the Night) is available on DVD

Director: Tatsuyuki Nagai
Airing of first episode: April 14, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

After ‘Erased‘ this is only the second Japanese anime series I’ve seen. The two series are from the same A-1 Pictures studio, and they are about of the same quality, so how they compare to others I wouldn’t know. Like ‘Erased’ ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ deals with friendship and loss, this time featuring on a group of six high school friends.

In the first of eleven episodes we learn that Teenager boy Jintan, who has dropped out of school, is troubled by a childish blonde girl called Menma, but it turns out he’s the only one seeing her. Soon we learn that Menma is dead, and that she was part of a group of friends led by Jintan when they were kids. After her death the group fell apart, but Menma is back to fulfill her wish. Unfortunately, she herself doesn’t know anymore what her wish was…

Menma’s unknown wish is the motor of the series, as the friends slowly and partly reluctantly regroup as they are all needed to fullfil Menma’s wish. On the way we learn that each of them had a particular relationship to either Jintan or Menma, and they all have their own view on the day of Menma’s fatal death. And what’s more, there are more traumas to overcome.

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is surprisingly similar to the later ‘Erased’: there’s a jumping from the now to the past (although in Anohana these are flashbacks, not real jumps through time), there’s a supernatural element, there’s a group of friends, and one important mysterious girl who’s dead.

The first episode contains enough mystery to set the series in motion, but the show progresses painfully slowly, and at times I got the feeling Mari Okada’s screenplay was stretched over too many episodes. Especially episode five and six are of a frustratingly static character. In these episodes Jintan, the main character, is particularly and annoyingly passive, hardly taking any action to help Menma or himself, while Menma’s continuous cooing sounds get on the nerve.

The mystery surely unravels stunningly slowly in this series, and only episode seven ends with a real cliffhanger. Even worse, there are some serious plot holes, hampering the suspension of disbelief. Most satisfying are episode eight and ten, which are both emotional, painful, and moving. In contrast, the final episode is rather overblowing, with tears flowing like waterfalls. In fact, the episode barely balances on the verge of pathos. To be sure, such pathos occurs regularly throughout the series. In addition, there are a lot of unfinished sentences, startled faces, strange expressions, often unexplained, and all these become some sort of mannerisms.

The show is animated quite well, with intricate, if unassuming background art. Masayoshi Tanaka’s character designs, however, are very generic, with Menma being a walking wide-eyed, long-haired anime cliché. Weirdly, one of Anaru’s friends looks genuinely Asian, with small black eyes, while all main protagonists, with the possible exception for Tsuruko are depicted with different eye and hair colors, making them strangely European despite the obvious Japanese setting. For example, Menma has blue eyes and white hair, while Anaru has hazel eyes and red hair.

In all, if you like an emotional ride, and you have patience enough to watch a stretched story, ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ may be something for you. The series certainly has its merits, but an undisputed classic it is not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ and tell me what you think:

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is available on DVD

Director: William Joyce
Release Date: January 30, 2011
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ a young man is swept away by a storm to an unknown land where he come to live in a mansion full of living books.

‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ is a gentle, wordless film that seems to want to say something about the magic of books, and that reading good books will lead to more reading, and a lifetime of adventure.

The short is full of references. The young man himself looks a little like Buster Keaton, while the storm scene is a direct visual quote from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939). Like that film ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ plays with color and black and white, this time to illustrate how books can color your life.

‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ is well made, and makes good use of the animated medium to tell a fantastic story, but the art design is, to be frank, very conventional and unadventurous, and the story rather puzzling, which actually hampers the message. Moreover, John Hunton’s music, with its ‘pop goes the weasel’ theme is a bit obnoxious and very in your face. Many critics clearly think otherwise, as ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ won the Academy Award for best animated short of 2011.

Watch ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’ is available on the DVD box set ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 7’

Airing Date: December 18, 1996

Spacecase

Directors: Paul Rudish & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

This episode starts with Dexter activating an alien communicator.

Almost immediately he gets a visit of three aliens in a flying saucer. Unfortunately, they’re mostly interested in taking Dexter with them for further examination, but Dexter manages to send Dee Dee with them, instead. First he enjoys the bliss of her absence, but before soon remorse kicks in.

The scenes in which Dexter is taking in by guilt are a great echo of other guilt-cartoons like ‘Pudgy Picks a Fight‘ (1937) or ‘Donald’s Crime’ (1945). Also very entertaining is the heroic sequence in which Dexter ascends his space ship, which borrows elements from both Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars.

The Justice Friends: Ratman

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: The Justice Friends
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In this episode Krunk and Valhallen clog the toilet, so they have to go down in the basement to fix things. But something is lurking there.

‘The Justice Friends: Ratman’ is pretty silly, and overtly tongue-in-cheek, but also all too talkative. I’m not sure about the addition of the laughing track, which does add to the corniness, but which is also pretty annoying itself. Best is Tartakovsky’s staging, with the Justice Friends frequently taking dramatic poses.

Dexter’s Debt

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘Dexter’s Debt’ Dexter gets confronted by a bill from NASA of 200 million dollars.

Dexter’s attempts to raise the money are feeble, indeed, and what’s worse, Dee Dee outdoes him every time. ‘Dexter’s Debt’ greatly plays on the relationship between brother and sister, while both Dexter’s mom and dad get more screenplay than usual. Highlight, however, is the entrance of the two NASA men.

‘Spacecase/The Justice Friends: Ratman/Dexter’s Debt’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Airing Date: November 20, 1996

The first season of Dexter’s Laboratory took a five month hiatus, only to reappear on the screen in November for another seven episodes. ‘Star Spangled Sidekicks etc.’ is the first of these, and the most obvious change is that Dial M for Monkey has been replaced by The Justice Friends, which are introduced in this episode.

Star Spangled Sidekicks

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter, Major Glory
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

‘Star Spangled Sidekicks’ opens with an episode of Major Glory beating the evil Doctor Diablos. When Major Glory wins the day we cut to Dexter and Dee Dee watching the show on television dressed in Major Glory fanwear.

When Major Glory announces he will recruit a new sidekick at the local mall, both sister and brother apply. Dexter, of course, has the most advanced suit, but it’s Dee Dee who wins the superhero’s heart.

‘Star Spangled Sidekicks’ treats Dee Dee and Dexter as real children and greatly blends fantasy and reality. Highlight is Dexter’s pompous speech in which he declares his aim to become Major Glory’s sidekick.

The Justice Friends: TV Super Pals

Directors: Craig McCracken & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Justice Friends
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘The Justice Friends’ were the successors to ‘Dial M for Monkey’ as the bridging episode of the ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ series. The Justice Friends were first introduced in the Dial M for Monkey episode ‘Huntor‘ and consist of the Captain America-like Major Glory, the purple Incredible Hulk-like the Infraggable Krunk and the Thor-like Valhallen, who looks like a longhaired metalhead. The premise of these bridging sequences is that the three superheroes have to “face the challenges of every day life”.

Their first episode opens with Major Glory defeating a Joker-like “disgruntled postman’, while Valhallen confronts a Minotaur villain, and Krunk tries to rescue a kitten from a tree. But they all have to go home to watch their favorite program on tv by half past five. Unfortunately, they all want to watch a different program.

Highlight of the show is ‘Puppet Pals’, the incredibly lame show Krunk wants to watch. ‘Puppet Pals’ stars two muppets that tell corny jokes, which all end in the two clobbering each other.

Game Over

Directors: Craig McCracken & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

‘Game Over’ opens with Dexter and Dee Dee playing a computer game called ‘primal fighter’, which Dee Dee wins. But then Dexter gets an old computer game called ‘Master Computer’ from his dad…

‘Game Over’ is one of the most inspired of all Dexter’s Laboratory episodes. It’s chock full references to computer games and films, including Pac Man, Tron and Star Wars, while showing the development computer games had made in the past fifteen years. At the same time it plays nicely on the competitive brother-and-sister relationship between Dexter and Dee Dee. Rarely the genre of cyperpunk was such much fun.

‘Star Spangled Sidekicks/The Justice Friends: TV Super Pals/Game Over’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Although the move from animation to live action clearly was a gradual one (after all, ‘Alice‘ contained quite a bit of live action, while ‘Faust‘ was a live action film augmented with puppetry and animation), ‘Spiklenci slasti’ (Conspirators of Pleasure) can be regarded Jan Švankmajer’s first non-animated film, even if it stills contains a few bits of stop-motion and pixilation.

The change of technique doesn’t mean a change of style, however. The film is 100% Švankmajer throughout, with its complete lack of dialogue, its sound design (which is very reminiscent of that of animated films, indeed, with its emphatic sounds – we even hear the nonexistent sound of blinking of eyes), its idiosyncratic use of music (each individual has his/her own accompanying piece of music), its extreme close-ups, its sets of old buildings in a state of decay, and of course, a high dose of surrealism.

‘Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure)’ is an erotic film without sex. The titles are shown on a background of 18th century pornography, but the movie itself contains very little nudity, which is male only.

Main protagonist of the film is an unnamed bearded bachelor (played by Petr Meissel and identified as Mr. Pivoňka by Švankmajer). The film starts with him buying a sex magazine, but soon the magazine makes way for far more disturbing and puzzling acts of pleasure, involving a cupboard and a chicken. Mr. Pivoňka’s antics are interlaced with that of a postwoman, a mustached man, his lonely and abandoned wife, who’s a newsreader (Anna Wetlinská, who really was a newsreader), and the shop owner from the first scene, who’s secretly in love with Anna Wetlinská, and who builds an elaborate contraption around the television set she appears on.

The first 45 minutes are one big build-up to the pleasure acts themselves, and this is the most satisfying part of the film, because Švankmajer keeps the viewer puzzled where all the efforts of these people go to. Unfortunately, the acts of pleasure themselves are less compelling, as they’re not necessarily perverse as well as weird, and maybe this section is a bit overlong.

The shopkeeper’s machine is the absolute highlight, but the postwoman’s actions are absolutely grotesque, and that of Mr. Pivoňka and his neighbor, Mrs. Loubalová, sadomachistic, very violent and even morbid. Their acts involve the most animation, as their acts involve animated stuff dolls coming to life. But by now one could argue that the animation is more of a special effect than an element of style, although the pixilation still is used as a mean of surrealist story telling.

As the film comes to a finale, the boundary between reality and fantasy gets crossed. Anna Wetlinská seemingly takes over the shopkeeper’s machine, and comes to a climax herself. In the end the people’s fetishes get mixed, while Mr. Pivoňka’s mysterious ritual appears to have severe real life consequences indeed…

Nevertheless, one would like to know more about the postwoman and her incomprehensible rituals, as she seems to be some kind of facilitator of the desires of others. Also Anna Wetlinská’s bad marriage deserved a little bit more attention.

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ is a very original and entertaining movie, but the film remains on the shallow side and lacks the layered surrealism of ‘Alice’ or ‘Faust’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Craig Welch
Release Date: 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels’ Craig Welch combines traditional animation, cut-out animation and pixilation to tell a puzzling but ominous tale about a man obsessed with contraptions and redesigning humans into angels. In one of his contraptions he attaches wing bones to a skeleton, but then a real woman (the pixilated actress Louise Leroux) appears…

Most disturbing is the scene in which the man caresses the woman’s shoulder blades, imaging their inner workings. The discomfort is enhanced by the use of a real woman. Welch’s cinematic style seems to be influenced by that of Raoul Servais and Terry Gilliam, and shares a high level of surrealism with these celebrated film makers. The animator certainly knows how to show and don’t tell; his film retains a morbid atmosphere throughout, all by suggestion and by clever cutting.

Watch ‘How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels’ is available on the DVD ‘Desire & Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious Vol.2’

Directors: Donovan Cook & Bob Hatchcock
Airing Date: July 6, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The final episode of season three sees the return of Duckman’s arch nemesis King Chicken, not seen since ‘Color of Naught‘, episode four from the same season.

This time King Chicken is not behind some evil scheme, but simply turns out to be the father of Tammy, Ajax’s new girlfriend, whom Duckman, Aunt Bernice and Ajax are visiting one night. During the episode we never see Tammy, but the visit turns out to be surprisingly interesting.

For this finale episode the creative team once again returned to comedy based on the personas and their mutual relationships, and the result is rewarding. The awkward visit proves to be much more interesting than mindless absurdism of the previous two episodes. The team even manages to make the ending a particularly poignant one, ending the series on a surprisingly emotional tone, at a time I thought they were forgotten how to do that.

Watch ‘Cock Tales for Four’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 42
To the previous Duckman episode: The Amazing Colossal Duckman
To the next Duckman episode: Dammit, Hollywood

‘Cock Tales for Four’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: April 12, 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl from 1961 ‘James and the Giant Peach’ is, in fact, a hybrid, starting and ending as a live action movie, with the middle forty minutes (ca. half the movie) being done entirely in stop-motion.

The opening scenes set ‘James and the Giant Peach’ as one of the great fantasy films of the nineties. The sets and atmosphere are magical and dreamlike, with no attempt at reality. James’s horrific aunts, too, are grotesque and deeply rooted in caricature. They are excellently played by British actresses Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley, who are allowed to play their personas as broadly as possible. Young James, in contrast, remains perfectly normal, and Paul Terry’s performance is on the brink of boring.

Despite the great opening scenes, the real fun starts when James descends into the giant peach. During this scene he transforms into his puppet self, and inside he meets a sextet of giant ‘insects’ (in fact, three of them are insects, the others being a myriapod, an arachnid and an annelid), with whom he decides to fly to New York, cleverly using sea gulls to propel the peach into the air.

Except for the all too bland glowworm, the arthropods are delightful characters: there is a very American sounding boastful and bragging centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a motherly ladybug (Jane Leeves), an aristocratic and knowledgeable grasshopper (Simon Callow), an anxious and gloomy earth worm (David Thewlis), and a femme fatale-like but friendly French female spider (Susan Sarandon). The design of these is less eccentric than that of the protagonists in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, but still have some freaky touches, most notably Miss. Spider’s eyes, which each consist of two yellow eyeballs. Moreover, they all have the correct number of legs, with Miss Spider’s eight legs all ending in elegant boots. The animation, too, retains some creepy-crawly quality, and Miss Spider remains a little scary, despite her friendliness.

The voice cast is excellent, and most of the humor originates from the interplay between these characters, but there is plenty of action anyway, with the bugs having to battle a mechanical shark, defend themselves against a ghost ship, and fight starvation.

Unfortunately, after 59 minutes we return to live action, when James and his friends land in New York. True, this New York remains a fantasy-product, with very stagy and crooked sets, but lasting a staggering 30 minutes this finale turns out to be overlong and weak. It does not really help that the film makers decide to make the aunts survive the crushing of their car and to follow James into New York, an idea not in the book. Believability is certainly breached in these scenes, because of the fake character of the sets, some wooden action of the crowds, and the strange interplay between the grotesque aunts and the more down-played Americans. Moreover, the insects are mostly absent from these scenes, which only show that young actor Paul Terry cannot carry these scenes on his own, which seem to drag without inspiration.

Another letdown of this film are the four songs by Randy Newman. All four are weak and forgettable. Even worse, they are clearly superfluous, and they threaten to stall the action instead of helping the story forward. Luckily, there are only four of them, making ‘James and the Giant Peach’ much more tolerable as a film than ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was, but nevertheless I regard this film yet another victim of the unwritten rule that every animation film should be a musical, which was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

The overlong finale and unwelcome songs prevent ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to become an all-time classic, and certainly it was not well received back then, becoming a box office bomb. With this the short Disney adventure into stop motion ended. This is pity because the stop motion animation is excellent and delightful to watch throughout.

There is also a fair deal of computer animation, surprisingly executed by Sony Pictures Image works, who did an excellent job on the rhinoceros, some dancing clouds, and the mechanical shark. The latter, especially, is a great piece of computer animation, as it blends surprisingly well with the stop-motion and never loses its fantastical character.

Disney thus may have stopped making stop motion films, but both Tim Burton and Henry Selick continued to follow this path, with Tim Burton making ‘Corpse Bride’ in 2005 and ‘Frankenweenie’ (again for Disney) in 2012, while Henry Selick joined Will Vinton’s LAIKA studio in 2005 to make the widely acclaimed ‘Coraline’ (2009).

Watch the trailer for ‘James and the Giant Peach’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘James and the Giant Peach’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Airing Date: May 4, 1996

Dexter Dodgeball

Directors: Craig McCracken & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter, Dee Dee
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘Dexter Dodgeball’ Dexter gets a substitute coach at school, who doesn’t care for the boy’s excuse note to excuse him from gym class. Instead, Dexter is forced to ‘play’ dodgeball every day of the week, which means he’s bombarded by bullies every day of the week. But then next week Dexter takes revenge…

The substitute coach is a direct echo from similar personas in Ren & Stimpy, while the scenes of Dexter’s Revenge have clear mecha anime influences. Like many other episodes of Dexter’s Laboratory the episode ends rather abruptly and a bit cornily.

Dial M for Monkey: Rasslor

Directors: Paul Rudish & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dial M for Monkey
Rating: ★★★
Review:

In ‘Dial M for Monkey: Rasslor’ an alien wrestler called Rasslor challenges all earth’s superheroes to combat him. If they lose, he will destroy the Earth.

Rasslor is voiced by real wrestler Randy Savage (1952-2011), but more interestingly, this episode introduces the Justice Friends, which eventually would replace Dial M for Monkey as bridging parts of Dexter’s Laboratory episodes. Thus we can already see the Captain American-like Major Glory, the Thor-like Valhallen and, yet unnamed, the Hulk-like Krunk, as well as numerous other superheroes. None of these manages to beat Rasslor, and the alien wrestler refuses to combat Monkey…

The result is one of the more enjoyable Dial M for Monkey episodes, even if the speed drops as soon Monkey enters the stage.

Dexter’s Assistant

Directors: John McIntyre & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter, Dee Dee
Rating: ★★★
Review:

In ‘Dexter’s Assistant’ Dexter conducts an experiment in which he needs somebody to press a button at the bottom, while he is on top of a giant machine. Because Dee Dee clearly isn’t able to do the job, he makes an assistant out of his sister by replacing her tiny brain for a giant one…

This is a fun episode, but it unfortunately has a rather predictable story line, and as often in this series, it ends rather inconclusively. The best scene may be that of Dexter with long hair, courtesy of Dee Dee’s hair lotion invention.

‘Dexter Dodgeball/Dial M for Monkey: Rasslor/Dexter’s Assistant’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Airing Date: March 10, 1996 & June 2, 1996
Stars: Dexter, Dee Dee
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Big Sister’ is the second of four pilot episodes of ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ that appeared on Cartoon Network before the official series was launched. ‘The Big Sister’ then would reappear as the third part of the sixth episode.

This sequence starts with the zoom into Dexter’s lab that was later reused to start the end titles. In these we follow a smell that turns out to be from chocolate chip cookies made by Dexter for his laboratory rats. Of course, Dee Dee wants one, too, but the cookies contain secret formula X27, which turns Dee Dee into a giantess, rampaging the city. It’s up to Dexter to save the world!

This episode contains nice references to both King Kong and Japanese mecha films. The episode clearly borrows from the mecha anime visual style, something that would permeate the complete Dexter’s Laboratory series, blending surprisingly well with the 1950s cartoon modern style to create something new and fresh. Nevertheless, highlight of this episode is when Dexter’s fantasy runs away with him.

Watch ‘The Big Sister’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Big Sister’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Director: Jeff McGrath
Airing Date: April 6, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Pig Amok’ starts at a funeral, where Duckman gives a highly inappropriate speech. But this is topped by the late-arriving Cornfed, whose behavior is puzzling, to say the least. More or less forced by his family Duckman sets out to help his friend…

For animation lovers ‘Pig Amok’ has much to offer: this episode contains some wild takes on Cornfed when he bursts into wild convulsions, as well as a beautiful piece of surprisingly independent looking metamorphosis animation when Cornfed swoons. Also entertaining is ‘Cornfed’s Problem’, the documentary Cornfed shows on VHS, which shows his ancestors inserted in black and white photographs.

Watch ‘Pig Amok’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 33
To the previous Duckman episode: The Mallardian Candidate
To the next Duckman episode: The Once and Future Duck

‘Pig Amok’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Peter Avanzino
Airing Date: February 17, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

In ‘A Room with a Bellevue’ Duckman suffers from the daily annoyances, like traffic jams and unhelpful services, making this episode akin to the live action feature ‘Falling Down’ from 1993. But instead of going rampant, Duckman ends up in an asylum, which turns out to be an oasis of peace and relaxation for him.

‘A Room with a Bellevue’ is a particularly talkative Duckman episode, containing two very long rants by Duckman himself. However, there’s also a rare occasion of an animated background when Duckman wanders through the asylum. Highlight, however, are Cornfed’s bizarre escape plan and Duckman’s transformation after electroshock treatment.

Watch ‘A Room with a Bellevue’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 28
To the previous Duckman episode: Sperms of Endearment
To the next Duckman episode: Apocalypse Not

‘Sperms of Endearment’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Jeff McGrath
Airing Date: February 10, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Sperms of Endearment’ is one of the deeper Duckman episodes, this time revolving around Aunt Bernice, instead of Duckman. Cornfed’s presence is even reduced to just a short cameo, and only because, as he tells us, it says in his contract he should appear in every episode.

In ‘Sperms of Endearment’ a little girl triggers Aunt Bernice’s child wish, and after some bad dating experiences, she turns to a sperm bank, run by Terry Duke Tetzloff, the sleezy salesman from ‘Cellar Beware‘ and ‘Grandma-ma’s Flatulent Adventure‘. But with whose sperm will she be inseminated?

Highlights of this episode include little Suzie, Tezloff’s supposed daughter, and Aunt Bernice’s romantic daydreams of her with the insemination tube.

Watch ‘Sperms of Endearment’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 27
To the previous Duckman episode: Color of Naught
To the next Duckman episode: A Room with a Bellevue

‘Sperms of Endearment’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Raymie Muzquiz
Airing Date: January 6, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The third season of Duckman opens with an obvious film noir parody filmed in black and white.

It starts with a shot of a drunken Cornfed walking the rainy streets followed by Cornfed’s voice over in a confession to a priest. Cornfed’s voice over alone is full of film noir tropes.

Cornfed’s story involves a Veronica Lake-like “dame” called Tamara La Boinque, who turns the two partners Duckman and Cornfed into rivals. Duckman and Cornfed (in trenchcoats) visit the Casablanca-like nightclub in which she works, where they encounter caricatures of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart in their roles in that particular film. When Cornfed unmasks Tamara he throws in references to several other film noir titles.

This episode only features regular stars Duckman and Cornfed. Unfortunately, the comedy relies too heavily on parody, and the episode’s story in itself is hardly interesting. One even gets the feeling the studio could have done more with the film noir theme.

Watch ‘Noir Gang’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 23
To the previous Duckman episode: Clip Job
To the next Duckman episode: Forbidden Fruit

‘Noir Gang’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Directors: Max Lang & Jan Lachauer
Release Date:
December 25, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

One of the most interesting series to emerge in the 21st century were the BBC half hour specials based on children’s books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. This series was produced by Magic Light Pictures and mostly animated by Studio Soi in Germany.

Starting with the extraordinarily succesful ‘The Gruffalo’ (2009) these films prove not only to be very faithful to the source material, but to bring an unsurpassed plasticity to the computer animation, giving the characters the solidity of stop-motion. This is partly done by the animation itself, which practically never goes beyond what’s possible with stop motion puppets (for example there’s practically no squashing and stretching), and partly by giving them a clay-like texture.

But the makers’ secret ingredient is their use of real sets, thus placing the computer-created characters in fitting stop-motion worlds. This is so well-done you keep on wondering whether what you see is stop-motion or computer animated. This unique blend gives the film their specific and utterly charming character.

‘Room on the Broom’, the third entry in the series, is an excellent example. The story tells about a friendly witch who flies on a broom with her cat, but at times she drops something on the ground. This is then found by an animal who asks for a place on the broom. The repetition and rhyme no doubt work excellently for small children, but elder viewers will delight in the cat’s wordless reactions to his mistress’s enthusiastic invitations. His body language and facial expressions form the pinnacle of pantomime animation, but there are touches of wordless comedy on all the characters.In the end a ‘Town Musicians of Bremen’-like story twitch is introduced.

Even if ‘Room on the Broom’ isn’t the undisputed classic ‘The Gruffalo’ certainly is, it’s still a delightful film, able to enchant both the young and old alike.

Watch the trailer for ‘Room on the Broom’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Room on the Broom’ is avalaible on DVD

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