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Director: Andreas Hykade
Release Date: February 24, 2010
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

After a sublime narrative trilogy on the loss of innocence (consisting of ‘Wir lebten im Gras‘ from 1995, ‘Ring of Fire’ from 2002, and ‘The Runt‘ from 2006), Andreas Hykade made a surprising move to a non-narrative film with ‘Love & Theft’.

In this film Hykade uses many animation cycles and continuous metamorphosis, not to tell a story, but to bring a homage to the great characters of animation and comics in mesmerizing and hallucinating images that never fail to entertain.

Greatly helped by Heiko Maile’s score, ‘Love and Theft’ knows an almost perfect build-up, starting very modestly in black and white, and with the simplest drawings. The first recognizable characters morphing into each other are Charlie Brown and Hello Kitty, soon followed by Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Spiderman, and later e.g. Spongebob Squarepants, Bert from Sesame Street, Tweety, Blossom from the Powerpuff Girls, Betty Boop, Ryan Larkin (as depicted in Chris Landreth’s animated short ‘Ryan’ from 2004), Gromit, Droopy, Koko, Donald Duck, the penguin from ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, Barbapapa, and countless others, including even Karl Marx, Che Guevara and Adolf Hitler.

Once changed into color, the animation goes completely berzerk, as one long psychedelic kaleidoscope. This particular sequence seems to owe something to Jim Woodring’s Frank, and somehow Andreas Hykade manages to capture the comic’s surreal atmosphere very well in this otherwise semi-abstract film.

Rarely were animation cycles and metamorphosis employed so creatively and entertainingly. ‘Love & Theft’ is a film that can be watched over and over again, without losing its gripping power.

Watch ‘Love & Theft’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘Love & Theft’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

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 is the first of these, and the most obvious change is that Dial M for Monkey has been replaced by The Justice Friends, which are introduced in this episode.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: Peter Shin
Airing Date: May 11, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The opening credits of ‘The Road to Dendron’ make immediately clear that this episode at least partly is a parody of the ‘Road to…’ film series starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour from 1940 to1962.

This episode only stars Duckman, Cornfed and Ajax, who are on a bus trip to Dendron, Sudan. And indeed, they even burst into song in a tune that is surprisingly catchy. Once arrived the episode unashamedly delights in bringing up a cliché version of Arabia, as depicted in 1001 Arabian nights, and as seen on the animated screen since ‘Mickey in Arabia‘ (1932). Thus there are a snake charmer, a sultan, a veiled princess, as well as numerous baskets that seem to have come straight from ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. Moreover, some of the designs are clearly inspired by the Disney feature ‘Aladdin’.

The adventure plot makes very little sense, and the film makers know it, never trying to hide this fact. Highlights of this unpretentious episode are the ‘musical’ finale and the ridiculous acts that Duckman and Cornfed perform in order to try to prevent the Sultan and the Princess from drinking some poisoned wine.

Watch ‘The Road to Dendron’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 38
To the previous Duckman episode: They Craved Duckman’s Brain!
To the next Duckman episode: Exile in Guyville

‘The Road to Dendron’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Airing Date: April 27, 1996

On April 27, 1996 the series ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ started in earnest, creating quite a stir, and influencing many television animation film makers with its original blend of 1950s design and animation, and cinematic anime influences. The series lasted four seasons, spread over eight years, but alas, alas, only the first season has been released on DVD.

In the first season every episode consisted of two Dexter’s Laboratory parts, bridged by an episode of either ‘Dial M for Monkey’ or ‘The Justice Friends’. Neither bridging series amounted to much more than filler material, and they were almost completely dropped in the second series.

Dee Deemensional

Director: John McIntyre
Stars: Dexter, Dee Dee
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

‘Dee Deemensional’ opens spectacularly with Dexter trying to battle a giant monster in his lab to no avail. To save the day he sends his sister back into time to warn him. But as may be expected his past self takes little heed to all Dee Dee has to say to him, and even a humiliating surrender won’t help him in the end. ‘Dee Deemensional’ is a delightful play with the concept of time travel, even though Dexter’s attempt to alter the future appears to be doomed.

Dial M for Monkey: Magmanamus

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

‘Dial M for Monkey: Magmanamus’ introduces an off-spin character from the Dexter’s Laboratory universe. It appears that Dexter’s unassuming test monkey secretly is a superhero. This episode is penned by Craig McCracken of later Powerpuff Girls-fame, and it already shows his passion for superheroes and monster movies. Monkey has to battle an annoyed lava monster called Magmanamus, who only tries to sleep, but who’s pretty annoyed by all human noises.

This episode is noteworthy for its very limited animation, with some shots being practically stills. Only Magmanamus himself is animated quite broadly, but his character unfortunately is all too talkative and rather tiresome.

Monkey never got the same status as the surrounding Dexter episodes, and was dropped halfway the first season, although the character remained in Dexter’s Laboratory, and got one episode in Season Two. Indeed, ‘Dial M for Monkey: Magmanamus’ hardly fulfils its premise, and is more entertaining as a spoof of cheap 1960s superhero shows than as entertainment in itself.

Maternal Combat

Directors: Rob Renzetti & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter, Dee Dee
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Dexter’s mother is ill, so Dexter builds a ‘momdroid’ to help to clean the house. All goes well, until Dee Dee grabs the remote. ‘Maternal combat’ is one of the less inspired Dexter’s Laboratory episodes: part of it is devoted to Dee Dee’s cooking, which is hardly related to the main story, and the episode fizzles out as if the studio was out of ideas. The best part is when Dexter’s Dad returns home, and greets his wife three times, unaware that two of them are, in fact, robots.

‘Deedeemensional/Dial M for Monkey: Magmanamus/Maternal Combat’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Director: Peter Avanzino
Airing Date: April 13, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

This episode starts with a simple promise by Duckman to attend the recital by the tuba-playing Mambo and Charles. But then Ajax accidentally creates a hole in the space-time continuum, which allows Duckman to gets a visit from his future self who tells him what will happen if he does go to the recital…

Before soon we’re right in the middle of a surprisingly sophisticated, even complicated episode on destiny and the consequences of one’s actions, involving multiple future selfs of Duckman, one even more outlandish than the other. At one point their appearances creates a scene of mayhem that’s got to be seen to be believed.

In short, ‘The Once and Future Duck’ is one of the best written and best directed of all Duckman episodes, relying less on wise-cracking asides, and more on the development of the inner logic of its own absurdist premises. The result is as profoundly philosophical as it is hilariously zany.

Watch ‘The Once and Future Duck’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 34
To the previous Duckman episode: Pig Amok
To the next Duckman episode: The One with Lisa Kudrow in a Small Role

‘The Once and Future Duck’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Directors: Sam Fell & Chris Butler
Release Date:
August 3, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★★
Review:

Laika’s ‘ParaNorman’ is the first of no less than three horror-themed American animated features released in 2012. It was followed in September by Disney’s ‘Frankenweenie’ and Sony’s ‘Hotel Transylvania’. For the Laika Studios this was familiar terrain, as both the earlier ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005) and ‘Coraline’ (2009) had been horror themed.

For a while the studio even seemed to be a sort of one-trick pony in that respect (but this notion was ultimately defied by the very different ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ from 2016 and especially the surprisingly colorful ‘Missing Link’ from 2019).

‘ParaNorman’ plays with horror tropes from the start, beginning with opening credits, rendered in a 1950s horror movie style. And in the first scene we see Norman watching a cheap horror movie on television. We soon learn that Norman shares an ability with Cole from ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999): he can see dead people. Perhaps this ability explains the boy’s preoccupation with horror and science fiction, which is exemplified by ca. all objects in his room.

But then we learn that the fictional Massachusetts town in which he lives, Blithe Hollow (a clear reference to ‘Sleepy Hollow’ of the early horror story by Washington Irving), has its own preoccupation with witchcraft. Its city slogan is ‘a great place to hang’ and features a stunningly morbid picture of a witch hanging from a gallows pole. It’s this hanging of a witch and the witch’s curse that becomes central to the film’s story.

The film is very well-told and pleasantly concise, taking place over a period of only two days. As soon as some zombies appear that everybody can see the film becomes a rollercoaster ride that remains exciting to the very end. A deadline (no pun intended) adds to the suspense. The only dud is a rather forced break-up scene around 55 minutes of a type that seemed to be almost obligatory in animated studio cinema of the time (see e.g., ‘Up’ from 2009, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ from 2012 or ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016).

There’s some pretty morbid humor involved (e.g., when Norman tries to retrieve a book from his dead uncle), but the film makers manage to keep the horror light to permeate every scary scene with some goofiness. But the witch is genuinely scary, with help of added computer animation. Despite the horror and the excitement, the film’s message is surprisingly profound and mature, and its finale very moving. It’s very refreshing to watch the whole distinction between good and bad, between heroes and villains, being quite blurred in this movie.

‘ParaNorman’ is by all means a film made at the highest artistic level. The art, the handicraft, the animation, the cinematography – they’re all extremely virtuoso, and awe-inspiring. Most importantly ‘ParaNorman’ can boast the most original art design we’ve seen in ages in an American animated studio feature. Especially Heidi Smith’s character design should be mentioned. The puppets have a very distinct and surprisingly asymmetrical design that is both daring and refreshing, but still communicating and appealing. Especially stunning are the lips, with have a certain watery gloss, and the ears, which are a little translucent, just like real lips and ears. The sets and props, too, are angular and crooked, and are the perfect backgrounds for the idiosyncratic dolls to move in. Especially the family’s car is a delight to watch in that respect. And I’d like to add that even the end credits are very appealing.

‘ParaNorman’ is not the best animated feature of 2012, that distinction must go to Don Hertzfeldt’s ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’, but of all American studio productions the film is certainly the most satisfying, and must be counted among Laika’s best works, together with ‘Coraline’ (2009) and ‘Missing Link’ (2019).

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

‘ParaNorman’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Rich Moore
Release Date:
October 29, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★★
Review:

2012 was the year in which Disney computer animation surpassed Pixar computer animation. Sure, Disney’s ‘Tangled’ from 2010 already was a good film, but Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 3’ from the same year happened to be outrageously good. Pixar’s 2012 film ‘Brave’ on the other hand was a disappointment, while Disney delivered the excellent ‘Wreck-It Ralph’. It seemed executive producer John Lasseter had transferred the magic from his former studio to Disney’s counterpart.

As it turns out ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a pretty un-Disney-like movie: it’s not a fairytale, it’s not a musical, there’s no talk of family values, and although there’s a sense of nostalgia, it’s one to the fairly recent dawn of computer games of the early 1980s. Because ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a delightful ode to the classic Arcade computer game, in the same way ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) an ode was to classic cartoons. Thus, Roger-Rabbit-style, there are many cameos from classic video games, like Pac-Man, Super Mario (the dragon Bowser), Frogger, Streetfighter, as well as Sonic the Hedgehog and his nemesis Doctor Eggman. I’ve never played many games myself, so have to admit I missed many of the cameos, and was actually surprised to learn that ‘Tapper’ had been a real game back in 1983.

None of these cameos contribute to the story, however, except for Q*Bert (1982), who directs Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun to Wreck-It Ralph’s whereabouts. For the main story the studio designed three totally believable new games: ‘Fix-it Felix jr.’, which is clearly modelled on Nintendo’s ‘Donkey Kong’ (1981), ‘Hero’s Duty’, a first-person shooter game reminiscent of ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty’, and ‘Sugar Rush’, a candy-themed racing game starring little girls. Especially the latter game is excellently designed, with marvelous world building and great characters and scenery based on sugars and sweets.

These arcade games, and others, are connected to each other by the electricity cables, which come together in a central power strip, which is shown as some sort of train terminal for the game characters. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ further borrows the concept of ‘Toy Story’ that the characters are alive and behaving independently when no humans are around. Thus, when the arcade closes, the game characters’ workday is over and they go and visit each other.

Star of the film is Wreck-It Ralph, the bad guy of the game ‘Fix-it Felix jr.’. He opens and closes the film with his voice over (which appears to be his monologue for ‘Bad-anon’, an ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’-like support group for bad guys in computer games. Ralph is fed-up being a bad guy, and when his fellow game-mates celebrate their game’s 30th anniversary without him, he sets out to become a hero, too, and win a medal, thus seriously jeopardizing his own and other games. He accidentally ends up in the game ‘Sugar Rush’ where he meets the bratty little girl, “glitch” and fellow outcast Vanellope von Schweetz. Despite Ralph’s initial dislike for this kid, the two must team up to get what they want, thus adding a surprising buddy element to the film.

‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is a remarkably well-told film: the pacing is excellent, the story unpredictable, the characters must fight no less than two enemies, cleverly intertwining several story elements. Even the obligate break-up scene, which invades so many American feature animation films from this era, actually works for once, because the two don’t break up because Ralph is behaving selfishly, but because he actually tries to protect Vanellope. Indeed, when he does what he does this leads to a particularly heartbreaking scene, which forms the emotional highlight of the movie.

Moreover, the comedy comes directly from the characters themselves, and doesn’t rely on cultural references or fart jokes. And what great characters! Ralph (aptly voiced by John C. Reilly) is a pretty straight guy, lovable as an outcast in search for recognition and acceptation, Vanellope von Schweetz (excellently voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman) is delightfully bratty, annoying and adorable. Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) only talks in heavy-handed, overblown sentences like “Doomsday and Armageddon just had a baby and it… is… ugly!”, in which she keeps true to the genre of her game. But my favorite character is Fix-it Felix jr. (Jack McBrayer), a character so goody-goody his speech is of the prissiest character. His interaction with the super-tough Calhoun is a delight to watch. The only letdown is King Candy (Alan Tudyk), whose voice and mannerisms are too obviously based on Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter in Disney’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951). Why the character couldn’t get a voice or mannerisms of his own is a mystery to me.

The animation, too, is also excellent. The animators have managed to mix character animation with the typical jumpy animation of the earliest games, especially in animating the other characters within Ralph’s game, but at times also Ralph and Felix are animated this way. The story is so captivating, and the quality of the animation, design, background art and cinematography is so high, one all forgets about these technical aspects, allowing one to get totally submerged into the film. ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ feels effortless, which is the highest degree an animated feature can obtain. Especially when considering this is a film with a surprisingly complex plot, set in several, mostly totally original worlds. The film is not the best animated feature of 2012, that distinction must go to Don Hertzfeld’s ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’, and it must allow Laika’s ‘ParaNorman‘ getting second place, but of all computer animated features premiered that year, it’s the absolute winner.

Watch the trailer for ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ yourself and tell me what you think:

’Wreck-It Ralph’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Release Date:
March 31, 2015
Rating:
★★★★★

In ‘World of Tomorrow’ independent film maker Don Hertzfeldt greatly expands his simple stick-man style with colorful computer graphics to tell a harrowing tale of the future.

The sixteen minute-short stars a ca. 3 year old girl called Emily, lovely voiced by real youngster Winona Mae. When the phone rings, this turns out to be a call from the future, from a third generation clone of herself, voiced by Julia Pott, who uses the same flat way of speaking as Hertzfeldt himself did in his masterpiece ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day‘. The clone sketches a rather bleak future, in which all the new and mind-blowing technology does nothing to exterminate man’s existential loneliness and anguish.

The film is part wonder part absurdist humor and part tragedy, and shares the important message with ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ to celebrate life. As the clone says: “Now is the envy of all the dead“. Among the highlights are a museum of memories, death-fearing robots writing poetry, and an alien talking gibberish. The film relies heavily on the dialogue, but never ceases to show amazing images, and the sound design is fantastic, with little Winona Mae probably ad-libbing part of the dialogue. As a distant cousin of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), ‘World of Tomorrow’ has a soundtrack that features two romantic pieces of classical music: a waltz from ‘Die Rosenkavalier’ by Richard Strauss, and a romance by Reinhold Glière.

‘World of Tomorrow’ may be less compelling than the incomparable ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day”, it’s absolutely a wonderful testimony of Don Hertzfeldt’s idiosyncratic art. Moreover, despite its short length the film is a great little piece of science fiction, comparable in scope and depth with much more well-known live action feature films like the aforementioned ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), ‘Moon’ (2009), ‘Interstellar'(2014), and ‘Arrival’ (2016).

The film was followed by two sequels in 2017 en 2020, which unfortunately I haven’t seen, yet.

Watch the trailer for ‘World of Tomorrow’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘World of Tomorrow’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’

Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak
Release Date:
January 24, 2015
Stars: Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★★★

Thank God for the LAIKA and Aardman Studios, which, in a time of cliché-ridden computer animated films, devote their time to the ancient art of stop-motion, and who dare to tell stories that are less trope-rich than most contemporary mainstream animation films. Of this the ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is an excellent example.

Shaun the Sheep made his debut in the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’ from 1995. From 2007 on the little sheep stars his own television series. In this series Shaun gets his own world: he’s part of a flock, owned by a nameless farmer and guarded by a partly anthropomorphized sheepdog called Bitzer. The series is rather unique in the present television animation world for both being completely animated in stop-motion, and being completely devoid of dialogue.

The first feature length movie about Shaun the Sheep features all the main protagonists from the series, and retains the lack of dialogue, a tour de force in a feature length film, rarely done before (an obvious example is ‘Les triplettes de Belleville’ from 2002). When taking Shaun the Sheep from the small television screen to the big screen of movie theaters, the studio also took the little sheep and his co-stars out of their comfortable little barnyard world and into the big city (consequently called ‘Big City’). This not only meant completely new plot possibilities, but also a multitude of very elaborate sets, full of props, which never seize to amaze in their grand scale, and richness of detail.

The plot starts when Shaun decides to have a day off. He manages to lull the farmer into sleep inside a caravan, and takes over possession of the farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the caravan plunges downhill, out of the farmer’s terrain, and into the big city. Bitzer immediately recognizes the danger, but Shaun, free at last, is a slower learner. Only when he realizes the sheep will soon run out of food, he comes into action, and follows both the farmer and Bitzer into town.

Matters get extra complicated when his flock follows him, when they encounter an animal catcher called A. Trumper, and when the farmer gets hit by a traffic light bulb, making him losing his memory. Luckily, the gang meets an ugly, but very friendly orphan mongrel called Slip (although her name is never revealed during the film), which helps them throughout the movie.

The film is full of delightful scenes, and despite Shaun’s slightly moralistic story arc (which can be summarized as ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘appreciate what you’ve got’), it’s clear that humor has a number one seat. Especially delightful are Bitzer’s scene at an operation room, the flock of sheep, poorly disguised as humans, dining in a fancy restaurant, and the animal prison scenes, complete with references to ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1953) and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991, especially cleared for the occasion by Warner Bros.).

The movie isn’t entirely devoid of tropes, however. There’s the typical ‘all hope is lost’ scene, but even in this scene the gang stays together. There’s no conflict between the main protagonist and his friends, unlike many contemporary films (e.g. ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016), a welcome diversion to this almost obligatory scene.

Another trope is that of the almost invincible villain (see also e.g. ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted‘ from 2012), played out by Trumper, who even follows the gang home in order to destroy them. Nevertheless, the story is original enough to surprise and to entertain throughout. It’s also admirable how the makers managed to even give the hapless farmer his own subplot.

The lack of dialogue means that all emotions have to be acted out solely with gestures and facial expressions. In this respect, the animators do an excellent job. There’s especially a lot of subtle emotion in the eyes, and there’s plenty of animation depicting the characters’ inner thinking. This is animation art at its peak. This, in combination with the stunning handicraft depicted in every scene, makes ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ a stand-out in the present animation film era. The film may be targeted to children, it’s absolutely a delight for the whole family, with something entertaining for everyone. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Release Date: July 15, 1995
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Surprisingly, ‘Whisper of the Heart’ opens with a rendition of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ by Olivia Newton-John, implying one of those Ghibli films with a longing for the old country side. Not so. Country Roads remains the theme song throughout the picture, but the story entirely takes place inside the city of Tokyo, and completely lacks the nostalgia of ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988), ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991) or ‘Pom Poko’ (1994).

‘Whisper of the Heart’ is one of the lesser known of the classic Ghibli films. Perhaps because it isn’t directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but instead by the much lesser known Yoshifumi Kondō, being the first theatrical Ghibli film not directed by either founder (although it must be emphasized that Miyazaki both wrote the screenplay and storyboarded the film). Or it’s perhaps because the feature’s story is surprisingly mundane when compared to contemporary Ghibli films like ‘Pom Poko’ or ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997). In fact, like the earlier TV-Feature ‘Ocean Waves’ the story of ‘Whisper of the Heart’ never really departs from reality, and has little need for animation. Only the scenes of Shizuku’s story, and perhaps the old clock and the journeys of the fat cat Muta may require the medium of animation.

The film is based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi and tells about ca. fourteen year old girl Shizuku, who is very fond of reading, but who, during one hot summer, is obliged to leave her fantasy world and enter a more mature one of love and responsibility. ‘Whisper of the Heart’ thus is a coming of age story, and we remain with Shizuku and her inner development all the time.

There are times in the film that we, Western viewers, being used to certain tropes, are misled on what’s coming. For example, at one point, the imagery certainly invokes death, but not so. Also, in a Western film we would expect to watch Shizuku and her friends performing the song they’re talking about during the whole film. Or we would expect a loyalty conflict between Shizuku and her best friend Yuko. Again, nothing of the sort. Nor do Shizuku’s parents thwart Shizuku’s ambitions.

In fact, there’s absolutely no conflict, at all during the entire movie: Shizuku can boast to have loving friends, understanding parents, and a supportive older sister. Moreover, all the strangers she meets are absolutely kind. All the conflict Shizuku faces, takes place entirely in her own head. Yet, the Ghibli studio manages to craft a surprisingly engaging and deep story out of such little material, focusing not only on the love theme, but also on how to find your own talents and what it takes and what it means to be an artist. Thus the geode allegory forms the central message of the film, a message directed to us all.

Another aspect of the film is the extraordinary attention to detail of every day life, so typical of the Ghibli studio. Thus we get glimpses of Shizuku’s family living, studying and working in their tiny apartment. We watch dogs bark from a garden as Shizuku walks by, we watch shadows of trees moving on the pavements, the sun breaking through the clouds, etc. etc. All these little details enhance the realism of the film, which only departs into the whimsical when going inside Shizuku’s story. The animation, too, is of a high realism, as exemplified by e.g. Seiji’s effort to climb a steep hill on his bicycle. Only at a few takes the animation turns comical, for example when Shizuku’s class mates spy on her and Seiji.

‘Whisper of the Heart’ may lack the extraordinary fantasy of ‘Pom Poko’ or ‘Spirited Away’, and it’s certainly not as epic as ‘Princess Mononoke’, but it’s a moving film with a lot of heart, and certainly belongs to Studio Ghibli’s best feature films. Tragically, in 1998, Yoshifumi Kondō, who was thought of as the successor to the aging Miyazaki and Takahata, died prematurely at the age of 47, and ‘Whisper of the Heart’ remains the only film he directed. In 2002 Ghibli released a spin-off film called ‘The Cat Returns’, which incidentally became only the second Ghibli film not to be directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata.

Watch the trailer for ‘Whisper of the Heart’ yourself and tell me what you think:


‘Whisper of the Heart’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Erica Russell
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Six years after ‘Feet of Song‘ Erica Russell returned with another extraordinarily beautiful dance film, this time using three dancers in a triangular relationship.

During most of the dance two women compete for a man, and the film features several dances between the man and either one of the women, the two women together, and, in the end, all three together.

The fluency of the movement combined with the elegance of Russell’s paintwork make the film a delight to watch. During most of the film the three dancers remain recognizable as human forms, but at times they change into almost abstract forms, with a strong Bauhaus influence.

Despite the high level of abstraction ‘Triangle’ is a very sensual film, and one never loses the idea that the film is about three characters with solid bodies, no matter how sketchily drawn. Charlie Hart’s score fits the images very well with its quasi-African touch to it.

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

‘Triangle’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: Jonathan Hodgson
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

This hilarious little film features the most outlandish bedtime story ever put to screen.

A father starts to tell this story when his disobedient son starts hitting him with a mallet. Unusually for an animation film, the spoken tale is by far the main attraction of the film, as it winds in unpredictable directions, far from the realms of the ordinary fairy tale. But Jonathan Hodgson keeps the images interesting, as they illustrate the story, sometimes vaguely, sometimes very directly. Thus we watch the father and his son wandering on Mars, driving, in a forest and on a stage.

The film’s atmosphere is wonderfully surreal, greatly enhanced by dreamlike lighting and great timing on the otherwise rather simple, but definitely effective puppet animation. ‘Hilary’ may not have gained the fame of a ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ or ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, it still is one of the most enjoyable stop-motion films of the nineties.

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

‘Hilary’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’ and on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set I

Director: Jeff McGrath
Airing Date: May 8, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Season Two of Duckman lasted only nine episodes, much shorter than the other three (13, 20 and 28 episodes respectively).

The season ends with a “cheater”, a cartoon consisting substantially of existing material. But this is done in a surprisingly sophisticated way, resulting in one of the most “meta” of all Duckman episodes. In fact, even the first scene is a cheater, showing the same footage no less than three times, as Duckman, tied to a hospital bed, tries to remember what happened.

It turns out he’s kidnapped by one Harry Medfly, “currently unemployed TV-critic”, who reveals to Duckman that he’s in fact star of a TV-show, which Medfly finds repulsive. Medfly proves his point by showing short clips from previous episodes, showing Duckman at his most sexist, at his most politically incorrect, at his most inapt as a detective, as most cruel to his employees Cornfed, Fluffy and Uranus, and at his most insensitive to his family. These five series of snippets are very entertaining in themselves, but the framing story is interesting, as well.

Highlight, however, is Medfly’s attempt to kill Duckman by signalling a huge mass of television history through his head. At this stage Duckman changes into several very different television personalities in a very rapid succession of metamorphoses. This is by all means great television animation, topped only by the self-aware dialogue at the finale.

Watch ‘Clip Job’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 22
To the previous Duckman episode: Research and Destroy
To the next Duckman episode: Noir Gang

‘Clip Job’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Michaela Pavlátová
Release Date: 1991
Rating: ★★★★★

‘Words Words Words’ is set in a cafe, and explores different types of dialogue, like gossip, seduction, quarrel, pep talk, and talk of love.

The different ways of talking are depicted by colorful balloons that, contrary to the familiar text balloons in comic strips, are devoid of text. This leads to humorous and inventive images in the best surrealist tradition. The best sequence involves a couple falling in love, but then falling into discord. Luckily, the humble waiter saves the day. Running gag of the film is a little yellow dog, who secretly drinks from the visitors’ cups and glasses.

‘Words Words Words’ is a highly entertaining film, and was rightly nominated for an Academy Award.

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

‘Words Words Words’ is available on the DVD ‘Desire & Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious Vol.2’

Director: Raymie Muzquiz
Stars: Duckman
Airing Date: June 4, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★

‘About Face’ is one of the deepest of the Duckman episodes, and together with ‘Psyche‘ and ‘American Dicks’ forms the highlight of the first season.

Despite the usual dose of absurd humor and fast verbal wisecracking, the episode is actually moving, and knows an unexpectedly touching and somber ending, a very rare feat in both animated series and television comedy, indeed.

In this episode Mambo accidentally swallows a model of the titanic, which prompts Duckman to call 911. He immediately falls in love with the sweet voice on the other side of the line, and when she calls back, he immediately sets out to date her. Her name turns out to be Angela, and she is the sole person with whom Duckman not only feels like a good person, but also behaves like one.

Problem is, she’s “facially challenged” as Cornfed puts it, not to say hideously ugly (this trait is played out grotesquely, with people becoming terrified, fainting and fleeing when she walks by, echoing the skunk gags in Tex Avery’s ‘Little ‘Tinker’ from 1948). But then she decides to change all this…

This is one of the Duckman episodes deepening the character of the series’ protagonist, and actually make the audience feel for him. Notwithstanding, the episode contains plenty of comedy, with as highlights the scene in which Duckman is holding a telephone conversation with his beloved while his house burns down, and the scene in which Cornfed and his own date are mime dancing to no music.

Watch ‘About Face’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 12
To the previous Duckman episode: American Dicks
To the next Duckman episode: Joking the Chicken

‘About Face’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: John Eng
Stars: Duckman
Airing Date: May 28, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★

In what is arguably one of the most inspired Duckman episodes of all, Duckman is the unlikely star of a reality television show called ‘American Dicks’, a spoof on the television series Cops, which first appeared on television in 1989, and still runs.

In this episode Duckman suppossedly is followed by a cameraman with a hand-held camera, which leads to scenes with odd staging, distorted body parts, as Duckman and the others repeatedly talk into the camera, and even animated backgrounds, a rare feat since the early 1930s.

Moreover, the images are more often than not in constant motion, suggesting camera movements and even walking. This is done with such skill that the ‘documentary camera style’ is evoked very convincingly, despite the looney images within them.

This episode is one of the very few episodes in which Duckman veritably is a private detective, even if he turns out to be the worst and most oblivious one around, leaving it to Cornfed to solve the case.

What doesn’t help is that Aunt Bernice interferes with the program when she learns that the audience is predominantly male between the age of 20 and 55. Promptly, she advertises herself as wedding material. During the finale there are even severe closeups of her breasts and buttocks.

Even the kids get their moments in this episode, which is full of great gags, both in visually as in the soundtrack. A true classic.

Watch ‘American Dicks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 11
To the previous Duckman episode: Cellar Beware
To the next Duckman episode: About Face

‘American Dicks’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

This episode is all about Duckman’s sexual fantasies.

Director: Paul Demeyer
Stars: Duckman
Airing Date: March 26, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★

After the death of his wife Beatrice, one and a half year ago, Duckman’s sexual live has come to a standstill, while Cornfed even admits he’s still a virgin.

Matters get worse when Duckman and Cornfed are visited by a blonde twin, who look like the epitome of male fantasies, with their huge boobs and seductive voices. But Duckman is so insecure he goes through plastic surgery, enlarging his bill, to dare to confront the twin.

Yet he really gets cured by a weird dominatrix-psychiatrist. This part contains a great journey inside Duckman’s inner soul, and we learn how his former wife Beatrice died.

This highly entertaining episode knows some great reuse of Avery’s classic wolf takes, and features excerpts from two Frank Zappa songs.

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

This is Duckman episode no. 4
To the previous Duckman episode: Gripes of Wrath
To the next Duckman episode: Gland of Opportinity

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

Director: Mark Baker
Release Date: May 1993
Rating: ★★★★★

The Village © Mark BakerAfter ‘The Hill Farm‘ (1989) Mark Baker returns with another strong parable on the human condition. If ‘The Hill Farm’ explored man’s relation to nature, ‘The Village’ is concerned with man’s internal relationships.

The village of the title is a circular isolated village with all houses facing the same square. The neighbors seem godly souls, but they are all hypocrites spying on each other. Everything has to be done in secret: a cleaning lady secretly steals apples, the vicar secretly sips wine, and a stingy, bearded guy secretly plays with his money.

In this narrow-minded and stifling community a married woman falls in love with a bachelor with glasses, but they have to flee into the surrounding woods to escape the eternal gaze of their neighbors. Meanwhile the woman’s husband kills the miser, and steals his money, but it’s the bespectacled lover who gets the blame.

The village gladly builds a gallows out of the unjustly accused’s very own trees, but the lover manages to escape, accidentally killing the vile husband in the process. In the morning the omnipresent ants, which form a rather morbid running gag during the whole film, have eaten the corpse dry, and the villagers think it’s the body of the escaped convict. They break down the gallows in deep disappointment, while the two lovers flee from the village into the world.

‘The Village’ is told without words, only using unintelligible dialogue. Baker’s simple and quasi-naive style is used to a great effect, and adds to the story’s timeless value. Moreover, Baker’s timing is excellent, mixing the painful with comedy, especially when using the ants, injecting some black humor into the disturbing tale.

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

‘The Village’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 7

Director: Władysław Nehrebecki
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Myszka i kotek © Studio Filmów Rysunkowych‘Myszka i kotek’ is a very beautiful example of the cartoon modern style of the 1950s.

The film is a very playful tale of a real mouse chased by a line drawing kitten, which has jumped from a postcard. During the chase the cat repeatedly dissolves into a line only, and the animators play with the fact that the animal is outline only.

Both cat and mouse are pleasantly designed and very well animated, but it’s the gorgeous background art that draws the main attention. Every single panel is a beauty, depicting a nightly room in bold designs, verging on the abstract. The main background color is black, and the light blue outline of the kitten reads very well against the background art.

In short, ‘Myszka i kotek’ is a Polish little gem that deserves to be better known.

Watch ‘Myszka i kotek’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Myszka i kotek’ is available on the DVD set ‘Anthology of Polish Children’s Animation’

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