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Director: Oh Sung-Yoon
Release date:
July 28, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

I once grabbed a copy of this film from a Tesco’s in Northern Ireland because it looked visually interesting. But I must be one of the very few people who have seen this movie: the film remains totally obscure: I’ve never encountered this feature on any animation festival, review site or such, and it’s not even getting 1000 viewers on the IMDb. This film certainly deserves better, as we shall see below.

‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ turns out to be a Korean film: it was made by Lotte Entertainment and Myung Films, both based in South Korea, and indeed the film’s visuals are a strange mix of Western and Eastern tropes. Especially the character designs are a mixed bag, with some animals looking very Disneyesque (e.g., the little Duckling), others genuinely Asian (e.g., the barnyard ducks and the otter mayor). Most ridiculous is the heroic gander Wilson, who’s a strange combination of a duck and a handsome anime hero, with a waving hairdo.

Nevertheless, ‘Daisy a Hen into the Wild’ is a very attractive film to look at. The coloring is bold and glowing, with bright oranges and greens popping from the screen. Moreover, all characters have an airbrushed coloring, rendering them soft and rich in color. Even better is the background art, which consist of soft, poetical story book-like painting, unlike anything you’ll encounter in either American or Japanese cinema. In fact, the background painting style reminded me most of Jimmy Murakami’s films based on Raymond Briggs’s stories. Some of this background art is extraordinarily beautiful and a real feast to the eye. The animation is of a high level, too, if not too outstanding, often strangely blending naturalism with both Disneyesque character animation and Japanese anime animation styles. There’s a splash of functional computer animation, most interesting when showing moving sceneries.

The story is very surprising, too, and unlike any American animation film. The story takes place within one year, and tells about Daisy, one of countless hens in a battery cage. Daisy’s clearly pining away in this depressing environment. At the start of the movie, she looks sickly and sad, and yearning for the outside world, especially that of some prime fowl that can walk the barnyard freely. At one point she plays dead to escape. The escape succeeds, but if you’d think this would be a film on freedom, you’re mistaken.

It soon becomes clear the loud and naïve Daisy is ill-suited for the outside world. The barnyard fowl expels her and there’s a one-eyed weasel roaming about. Luckily, the gander Wilson helps her, as does the otter, mayor of a large pond, even though the waterfowl despise the newcomer, too. Then things take an unexpected dramatic turn, and the Daisy’s tale becomes one of motherhood, selflessness and even sacrifice.

It’s best not to reveal too much, for this film’s story takes surprising directions up to a final twist unheard of in any animation film from the Western world. For example, Daisy faces some real limits to her possibilities in the outside world, so unlike the limitless American Dream so often depicted in American animated cinema. Even if she wanted to, she can’t be everything she wants to be, and part of the film is about making brave decisions, nonetheless. The only cliché part all too familiar to Western eyes is that of an outsider winning an important competition.

The story is surprisingly serious, and the film contains very little comic relief (only in the form of the otter and some of the barnyard fowl). The Korean makers don’t shun the cruelty of nature and show that every creature has its own very good reasons for what it does, even if it’s killing other species. And they’re able to do so in a moving tale with an attractive visual design.

In all, ‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ is an original and unconventional film that deserves to be seen more. The movie shows that South Korea can have a strong own voice in the animation world, independent of either Western or Japanese animation traditions, or least blending these to a unique style of its own.

Watch the trailer for ‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ is available on DVD

Director: Carlo Vogele
Release date:
June 4, 2012
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

A fish sings his last aria with the voice of Enrico Caruso, in a 1904 recording of the sad aria ‘una furtiva lagrima’ from Gaetano Donizetti’s opera ‘L’Elisir d’amore’. We see the fish at the fish market and on the way to his last destination: the frying pan, singing all the time.

The film is very well made and blends stop-motion with live action quite effortlessly (even though at one point some threads are visible). Unfortunately, this is a one idea film, with nothing surprising happening in the few minutes the short lasts.

Watch ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Una furtiva lagrima’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 7

Directors: Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby
Release date:
June 1, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

In this short Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby tell about a young Englishman migrating to Alberta, Canada in 1909, where he ends in a small hut on the countryside. The young man’s letters to his father and mother paint a rosier picture than his actual circumstances deserve.

For their short Forbis and Tilby use a very attractive form of painted animation, mixed with a little traditional animation. They tell their story using “interviews” with people who knew him and with intertitles, which often rather puzzling tell us about comets.

The film is told rather tongue-in-cheek, but the story is ultimately tragic, and the film could be seen as a meditation on loneliness and failure. But it’s to the viewer to connect the loose snippets of information together in his head, for Forbis and Tilby don’t tell their story straightforward, but associatively and free flowing. The soundtrack is great, using very fitting original songs, as well as old recordings and an instrumental rendering of Gilbert & Sullivan’s big hit ‘I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General’.

Watch ‘Wild Life’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Wild Life’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Director: Eric Khoo
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The film ‘Tatsumi’ celebrates the work of Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015). Tatsumi is the inventor of the gegika manga style, a grittier, more alternative form of manga for adults. The film re-tells five of Tatsumi’s short stories in this this style, all from 1970-1972. These stories are bridged by excerpts from his drawn autobiography ‘A Drifting Life’ from 2008.

Thus, the film is completely drawn (only in the end we see the real Yoshihiro Tatsumi), but to keep the manga style intact the film was animated with Toon Boom Software, specialized in ‘animatics’, which brings story boards to life. Thus, full animation, although present, is rare, and most of the motion is rather basic, often lacking any realism of movement. The animation is enhanced by limited digital effects, and the first and last story are digitally manipulated to make the images look older.

The complete film thus is little more than slightly enhanced comic strips. One wonders if this is the best way to present Tatsumi’s work, as most probably his stories work better in their original manga form, but of course the movie is a great introduction to his work, which without doubt is fascinating and original.

Tatsumi’s manga style clearly deviates from his example, the great Osamu Tezaku. Tatsumi’s style is more raw, sketchier and knows nothing of the big eyes so common in manga. All but one story use a voice over narrator. And all but one are in the first person. The stories themselves are gritty, dark, depressing and bleak. The second story, ‘Beloved Monkey’, in which a factory worker falls in love with a girl at a zoo, is particularly bitter. The outer two take place just after the end of World War II and show the effects of Japan’s traumatic loss. All are about the losers in life, struggling at the bottom of society. As Tatsumi himself says near the end of the movie:

“The Japanese economy grew at a rapid pace. Part of the Japanese population enjoyed the new prosperity. The people had a great time. I couldn’t bear to watch it. I did not share in the wealth, and neither did the common people around me. My anger at this condition accumulated within me into a menacing black mass that I vomited into my stories.”

Surprisingly, the protagonists of all first-person stories, including the autobiography, all look more or less the same, as if Tatsumi couldn’t create more than one type of hero. Only the third story, ‘Just a Man’, the only one to use a third person narrator, stars a different and older man, while the last story, the utterly depressing ‘Good-bye’, is the only one to have a female protagonist. Tatsumi’s own life story is told in full color which contrasts with his short stories, which are mostly in black and white. Tatsumi’s autobiography is less compelling than his story work but adds to the understanding of the artist and his work.

Surprisingly, for such a Japanese film ‘Tatsumi’ was made in Singapore and animated in Indonesia.  According to Wikipedia Singaporean director Eric Khoo was first introduced to the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi during his military service, and immediately was stricken by his stories. When ‘A Drifting Life’ was published in Singapore in 2009, Khoo realized that Tatsumi still was alive and wanted to pay tribute to him. Tatsumi himself was greatly involved in the film and narrates his own life story. The movie is a great tribute to one of the more original voices in Japanese manga, and well worth watching, if you can tolerate a dose of sex and violence.

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

‘Tatsumi’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release date: May 7, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

After the intimate and realistic ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ (2007) director Makoto Shinkai embarked on an ambitious, long and way more fantastical project, which is ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’. The film remains an oddball inside Shinkai’s oeuvre and shows a huge Ghibli-influence absent from his other films.

The film starts realistically enough, with little schoolgirl Asuna exploring some gorgeous nature at the other side of a railway bridge and visiting a secret hideout there. But the fantasy immediately kicks in when she brings forth a strange radio-like apparatus based on some sort of crystal. The use of this device triggers a series of events that eventually leads her to no less than the boundary between life and the afterlife.

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ knows high production values. Like ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ the background art is no less than stunning to begin with, especially the views of and from Asuna’s hill are gorgeous pieces of mood and light. Other scenes are perfect renderings of a hot summer. And like in the previous films, some of these intricate background paintings are only visible for a few frames. Typically for Japanese films some shots are just short mood pieces, in this film surprisingly often depicting insects, like dragonflies and cicadas.

The animation, too, is excellent, as is the shading on the characters themselves. The character design, on the other hand, is less original, and remarkably reminiscent of Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s work at the Toei Studios during the 1970s.

But this is only one of the obvious Ghibli-influences. Asuna herself is almost a typical Miyazaki-heroin: living without a father and a largely absent mother she’s depicted cooking and caring for herself and doing all the household work. She’s thus one of those working children that crowd the old master’s films. She’s joined by a cat called Mimi, which immediately brings Jiji to mind from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989). There’s a villain that echoes colonel Muska from ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986), and there are some God-animal hybrids seemingly coming straight out of ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

Shinkai absolutely succeeds in painting Asuna’s world. It’s a pity that most of the film takes place in Agartha, a mythical place underground the design of which is less compelling and even disappointing. When compared to the fantastical works of Ghibli’s ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) Shinkai’s worldbuilding clearly is subpar. For example, this subterranean world knows blue skies, sunlight, clouds, and rain, which all go unexplained. Apparently, there are no stars, but that’s about it. The underworld characters live in some quasi-medieval society, but this too, is hardly worked out or explained to the viewer. Shinkai’s erratic handling of the underworld seriously harms its believability. After all, it’s hardly different from ours, and both its reason of existence and its purpose remain vague and undecided.

It doesn’t help that Asuna explores this world with one Mr. Morisaki, who is a member of some secret society, but who descends into the earth to retrieve his deceased wife. Both Morisaki’s background story and introduction make frustratingly little sense. For example, there’s a flashback which seems to indicate he was alive during world war I, and for no apparent reason and with little likelihood he poses as Asuna’s substitute teacher. The secret society is utterly unnecessary to the plot, which is too complex for its own good. Moreover, Morisaki remains a vague and unconvincing character getting much too much screen time, and he never turns into either the scary villain Muska was in ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’ or one of those cleverly ambivalent antagonists of Miyazaki’s other films.

In fact, the scenes in Agartha start to drag, and the film loses focus, when leaving Asuna to concentrate on one of the underworld’s inmates, a boy called Shin. In the end Asuna is an all too will-less pawn in Morisaki’s scheme and she lacks her own clear story arc. This is in fact the film’s core problem: this should be Asuna’s story, but the film loses her halfway. It doesn’t help that Asuna’s own relationship to her deceased father is hardly developed, if at all. Particularly puzzling is a scene in which Asuna suddenly utters that Morisaki is like her father. Now where did that come from?!

The roles of Shin and the mute Manna remain vague, too, and feel half-baked. For example, Manna is abandoned halfway the film not to return. Instead, they add to the complexity of the story, further obscuring Asuna’s story arc. During the finale, in which Morisaki finally meets God (!) and Asuna is even depicted in the afterlife (!!) the last traces of believability go out of the window. Compare this rather blunt and all too direct storytelling with the Orpheus myth itself, which is clearly one of its inspirational sources, and one regrets Shinkai didn’t go for much more mystery.

The aftermath, in which our protagonists wander all the way back home is even worse, done in a short montage the story deflates over the end titles, accompanied by a cheesy song. This is a disappointing ending of an overlong and poorly timed film, indeed. Add some unnecessary gore, a plethora of unresolved story lines, three all too forced explanation scenes, and one can only conclude that Shinkai utterly fails where Miyazaki succeeds.

Luckily, ‘Childern Who Chase Lost Voices’ remained a one-time experiment. With his next film, ‘The Garden of Words’ Shinkai returned to much more familiar terrain, with far better results.

Watch the trailer for ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Martin Georgiev
Release Date: October 17, 2012
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘7596 Frames’ is a computer animated film taking place in an endless black and white landscape, in which countless abstract black shapes fly by due to an extraordinarily strong current.

One of the abstract shapes crashes amidst the debris already present, and starts to wander against the never changing wind, gaining material as it walks along, as objects keep on flying into him. When the semi-abstract figure has grown too heavy for its legs to carry it collapses, but manages to become a more dragon-like shape. At this point it comes under attack, and in the end its struggle is in vain.

At points Martin Georgiev manages to give his semi-abstract forms real character, allowing the viewer to sympathize with the creature’s helpless struggle and its suffering before its final defeat. The camera is never still, and takes some striking positions to show the creature’s efforts, e.g. taking a worm’s-eye view to show the thing towering above. Less successful is the industrial music, which unfortunately adds nothing to the animation.

Watch a preview of ‘7596 Frames’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘7596 Frames’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

After feature adaptations of several fairy tales and children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on aerial warfare (‘Victory through Air Power’ from 1943), ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ marks the studio’s very first animated adaptation of classic literature, in this case the historical novel of the same name from 1831 by French author Victor Hugo.

Of course, Disney’s version is not the first movie adaptation of Hugo’s hefty book. The most famous predecessors are a silent version from 1923 starring Lon Chaney as the title character, and one from 1939 starring Charles Laughton. The latter adaptation changed Hugo’s bleak and depressive ending into a more uplifting one. Disney gladfully follows suit, ending its own film remarkably upbeat, which is something the more avid Victor Hugo fan will hardly get used to. But more about that later.

The film starts with a ‘Pinocchio’-like opening shot with the camera zooming into the streets of Paris. Immediately it becomes clear that this new adaptation of ‘The Hunchback’ will be a musical, because the first song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ kicks in right away. It is sung by puppet player Clopin (Paul Kandel), whom we zoom into shortly, and who is the initial narrator of the tale, telling about events occurring twenty years before. This is the first of nine songs in 81 minutes, making ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ one of the most song-rich of the Disney musicals.

After the six-minute intro the film’s title appears, and we immediately cut to young adult Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), who remains misshapen as in the original novel, having both an asymmetrical body and face, with one bad eye, a hump, and a limping walk. But the animators also immediately make clear that this is a friendly, kind-hearted, and harmless person. Disney’s Quasimodo is kind and gentle and has a nice voice (by Tom Hulce), so we as an audience hardly must overcome any prejudice.

Moreover, within the limitations of the character’s literally description, the character designers really tried to make Quasimodo as appealing as possible. For example, compare his appearance to that of either Chaney or Laughton, who both look much uglier, and must overcome initial repulsion by the audience by great acting. Disney’s Quasimodo, on the other hand, is instantly likeable, and the viewer even struggles to comprehend why he isn’t loved more by the citizens of Paris.

Quasimodo’s first scene also shows the weird dualism of this movie: at one hand the studio really wants to tell a serious story, with heavy-handed themes, and dramatic music. On the other hand, the film makers apparently don’t dare to leave the cuddly-wuddly world of earlier Disney children’s films, and this leads to a schizophrenic end product, failing to be either entirely for children or the dark tale it could have been.

For example, the studio gives Quasimodo three humanized gargoyles to talk to (perhaps another idea taken from the 1939 film version, which ends with Quasimodo talking to a gargoyle). The appearance of the three gargoyles feels disappointingly formulaic and out-of-tune after the dramatic introduction. The childish half of the movie is further enhanced by the present of an intelligent pet goat and an equally humanized horse called Achilles. These two animal characters don’t speak, but clearly belong to the world of obligate animal sidekicks, which permeate the Disney films since ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).

True, the gargoyles appear only to be real to Quasimodo, turning to stone as soon as any other character is in the same room, but as we often watch them move without Quasimodo being aware of them, we’re led into believing these stone characters are real, and only pretending to be lifeless when other people are around.

Despite the presence of these cute characters, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is arguably Disney’s darkest movie since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), addressing issues like prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hypocrisy.

Most striking in this respect is the character of the villain judge Frollo, voiced forcefully by Tony Jay. His lust for Esmeralda is clearly an adult theme. This becomes most apparent in the character’s own song of desire, with its erotic fantasy depictions of Esmeralda depicted in the flames he watches. Masterly animated by Kathy Zielinski, this is arguably the movie’s best song, highlighting the complexity of the character. Frollo isn’t just bad, he’s torn inside. Frollo all too willingly marries his lust to his sense of justice and sees no problem in purging the town’s gypsies only to find his object of desire. In fact, Frollo is the most interesting character of the whole film, and certainly one of the most interesting of all Disney villains, for his evilness comes from partly from fanatism and bigotry, and is not purely selfish, even though that’s an important component of his character, too.

Another adult theme is the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and captain Phoebus. Esmeralda is the focal point of the movie, being the object of desire of the three male leads, if in different ways for each of them. Phoebus is a bland hero character, and the only one who doesn’t sing. At one point Quasimodo actually believes Esmeralda loves him, and he has to overcome his jealousy of his more handsome rival to help Phoebus finding Esmeralda.

Yet, as the film makers don’t really choose between a light-hearted and a serious narrative, the film remains an odd blend. For example, Quasimodo’s rescue scene is played out very dramatically and seriously. But this scene is followed by a rather frivolous storming of the cathedral, full of silly gags and broad, cartoony animation. One can even hear the Goofy yell when the soldiers fall from great heights to a – I’d say – certain death. This lack of choice troubles and harms the film big time. A Disney cliché scene in which a character seems dead but turns out not to be (see ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Jungle Book’) doesn’t help either.

But what really becomes hard to swallow is the film’s ending, which is all too happy, defying every believability. In Disney’s version Quasimodo seemingly starts a revolution, and the film makers want us to believe that following the film’s events the Middle Ages stopped right there and propelled all citizens of Paris into a post-modern world of tolerance and rainbow harmony, free from despotism, prejudice, and discrimination. If only. For example, ninety years after the events depicted here Paris would witness the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. I’m afraid that although Victor Hugo’s original ending may the more gruesome, it’s also the more realistic one.

The film is more successful as a musical than as a retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel. Alan Menken’s music is in the same modern musical vein as earlier Disney musicals, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992), but the tone is much more dramatic, verging on the edge of bombast.  Unique for this movie is that the score remains its musical character even when there’s no singing. An unexpected element of his score is Menken’s use of leitmotivs. Especially Frollo is identified by a particularly well-composed melody, which recurs throughout the movie. Menken may count this melody as one of his very best ever. Frollo’s song is the film’s dramatic highlight, and as said the best song of the whole film, but Menken’s score reaches epic heights during the rescue scene, when a choir singing in Latin adds to the musical suspense.

The only real mistake in the score is the Gargoyle’s song, the film’s only light-hearted tune. In this tune we’re suddenly confronted with many anachronisms and French cliches completely out of tune with the rest of the movie, like images of a casino, a barber, and a grand piano. What worked in ‘Aladdin’ falls completely flat in ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’. These anachronisms come across as a lack of ideas, instead of original twists, and pull the viewer out of the story, instead of taking him further in. Yet, it must be said that even this song shows the grim image of three people being hanged, even if it’s in puppet form. In the same way, a later song by a bunch of scoundrels remains very merry, even though it’s about killing.

The film’s design is noteworthy for its moody color palette, with blues, purple and orange as its principal colors, which permeate almost all scenes. The human designs are more elaborate, yet less artful than before, with Esmeralda and Phoebus being particularly bland. Unfortunately, somehow, it’s this more generic design that would become standard in the final traditionally American animated films of the late nineties and early 2000s.

The human designs may lack character, their animation is by all means outstanding, and shows that the Disney studio was at the very top of its craft. An example is the Topsy-Turvy song. Set at the Feast of Fools (which was actually forbidden by 1431, while the action takes place in 1482, but this is Victor Hugo’s error), this song features elaborate movement, fast cutting, all kinds of camera angles, and many different characters, both traditionally animated and computer animated. But all the movement and the characters’ emotions remain readable all the time. In fact, one can watch this sequence in silence and still know what’s going on.

Other pieces of animation I particularly like is when Frollo wriggles his sword out of a piece of wood while entering the cathedral, and the one in which Esmeralda asks Quasimodo to come outside, shot from Quasimodo’s perspective, thus making Esmeralda reaching out to us. But these are just examples in a film overflowing with excellent character animation.

Computer animation is limited to special effects, especially for creating crowd scenes. With help of computers, the studio could generate crowds of hundreds of people, without having to animate each person individually. When one looks closer, the animation looks terribly stiff and lifeless, but as the eye normally follows the fully animated leads, the result is convincing enough, and luckily not out of tune with the fully animated lead characters.

In all, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is a well-made film with a very interesting musical score, and great animation. It’s a daring piece into more serious territory, something the studio would never repeat. And I understand why, because as long as the Disney studio doesn’t dare to leave its compulsory family character, it will never succeed in retelling dramatic stories like Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ convincingly. This film certainly fails to do so, despite all the effort, and remains a schizophrenic product that leaves the viewer wondering what it could have been if the studio would have made more daring choices.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ and tell me what you think:

‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Airing Date: 25-12-1996

Dexter’s Rival (a rerun of episode 4)

The Justice Friends: Bee Where

Directors: Paul Rudish & Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: The Justice Friends
Rating: ★
Review:

In ‘Bee Where?’ a bee visits the home of the three justice friends, scaring Major Glory to death.

This must be one of the most tiresome of all Justice Friends episodes. It just drags and drags on, without getting funny. Even the antics with the open or closed windows fails to become funny, lacking proper timing.

Mandarker

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

‘Mandarker’ sees the return of Mandark, whose laboratory is still destroyed.

This time the two combat to win first prize at the science fair, a prize normally going to Dexter. It becomes clear Mandark goes to great lengths to achieve his goal, while Dexter has become arrogant enough to assume he will win anyway. Nevertheless, once Mandark enters the fair, events get a different turn.

It’s always nice to see the two rivals, but the best part of this episode is the finale in which the dialogue consists of the words Dexter and Mandark, only.

‘Dexter’s Rival/The Justice Friends: Bee Where/Mandarker’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Airing Date: December 11, 1996

Way of the Dee Dee

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

In ‘The Way of the Dee Dee’ Dee Dee shows Dexter that he has become out of touch with nature, so Dexter begs her to show him ‘the way of the Dee Dee’.

With Dee Dee as his guru Dexter steps leaves not only his lab, but dares to go outside. What follows are some antics in the backyard, but for the final challenge Dee Dee takes Dexter back to the lab for some self expression…

‘The Way of the Dee Dee’ plays with the themes of gurus and enlightenment. The scene in which Dexter steps into the light, accompanied by sitar music is the episode’s highlight in that respect.

The Justice Friends: Say Uncle Sam

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

Major Glory’s Uncle Sam will come to visit, so Major Glory teaches his friends how to behave, much to the latter’s distress.

Highlight of this otherwise dragging episode is the scene in which Major Glory calls his justice friends to assemble, accompanied by some particularly heroic music.

Tribe Called Girl

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

‘Tribe Called Girl’ is an episode like ‘Dee Dee’s Room‘ and ‘Dollhouse Drama‘, without adding much.

Once again, Dexter goes to Dee Dee’s room, this time to observe the behavior of girls. But then he’s discovered by Dee Dee and her friends Lee Lee and Mee Mee…

Dexter is presented as being completely unable to communicate with the girls, who, in one scene, treat him like a shy animal.

‘Way of the Dee Dee/The Justice Friends: Say Uncle Sam/Tribe Called Girl’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Airing Date: November 27, 1996

Babysitter Blues

Directors: Craig McCracken & Rob Renzetti
Stars: Dexter
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Babysitter Blues’ immediately makes clear that Dexter is in love with his babysitter. The scene in which he prepares the room for her arrival is priceless, with its strong posings on the little boy.

But when Lisa, the babysitter, arrives, it quickly turns out she has a boy friend, prompting Dexter to think out a devilish scheme.

Dexter is far from sympathetic in this cartoon, and the love theme with ca. ten years age difference between Dexter and Lisa is a little bit uncomfortable, but the episode still is great fun. Apart from the opening scene highlight of this episode is Dee Dee looking for something without knowing for what.

The Justice Friends: Valhallen’s Room

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

‘The Justice Friends: Valhallen’s Room’ starts with Major Glory calling the others for breakfast. When Valhallen doesn’t show up, he and Krunk enter his room…

This episode contains some nice references to Norse mythology, but otherwise is very tiresome and not even remotely funny. Most enjoyable of this otherwise forgettable short are the dramatic poses of Major Glory and his American themed breakfast.

Dream Machine

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

This episode starts with Dexter having a nightmare. Apparently he has had many lately, so Dexter builds himself a dream machine, which requires Dee Dee as its operator.

The premise of this scheme is all too predictable, and after Dexter’s initial dream there’s little to enjoy. Even Dexter’s second dream doesn’t really deliver, and most frustratingly, the episode ends abruptly and inconclusively.

‘Babysitter Blues/The Justice Friends: Valhallen’s Room/Dream Machine’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Thou Shalt Not Covet thy Neighbours Goods’ is the ninth installment of Phil Mulloy’s The Ten Commandments series.

Once again the short is told by Joel Cutrara and this time he tells about Cisco, who builds a commercial success out of electronic torture devices. Cisco is presented as the hero of the movie, but his story is a cynical one, involving exploitation of workers and suppression of the masses.

Despite the bleak images, Cutrara’s voice over remains joyful, and the happy atmosphere is enhanced by some particularly cartoony vocalisations.

‘Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbours Goods’ is available on the DVD ‘Phil Mulloy Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Based on the reminiscences of violinist and composer Alex Balanescu ‘The Wind of Changes’ is one of Phil Mulloy’s longest and most poetical films.

Balanescu’s portrait of communist Romania is a dark one, but his impressions of New York and London are hardly any better. Balanescu’s remarks are wry and depressing, and Mulloy illustrates these with associative and sombre pictures in his typical crude cut-out animation style.

The film jumps forward and back into time and has a stream-of-consciousness-like feel. Some of the images are very powerful, like a snowman being shot. But it’s Balanescu’s score that despite Mulloy’s powerful imagery, is the most beautiful aspect of the film. Unfortunately, Balanescu’s music almost drowns out the voice-over, making the narrative hard to follow.

Watch the first part of ‘The Wind of Changes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wind of Changes’ is available on the DVD ‘Phil Mulloy Extreme Animation’

Director: Igor Kovalyov
Release Date: 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Made during his stay at the Klasky Csupo studio ‘Bird in the Window’ is Igor Kovalyov’s first film made in the US.

Despite his contemporary commercial work on e.g. Rugrats and Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man, Kovalyov’s independent style has lost nothing of its enigma. ‘Bird in the Window’ is a film in several very short scenes with mutual relationships that are hard to decipher.

A man returns home to his house in the countryside, but his wife clearly hides something for him. Why can’t he see the child that’s running around? What’s with the two Chinese characters playing chess? And what’s the role of the gardener? ‘Bird in the Window’ certainly suggests a lot without clarifying a thing. Even the opening scene in which a bird violently chases a winged bug is as disturbing as it is puzzling. ‘Bird in the Window’ may be less obviously surreal than his celebrated ‘Hen His Wife’ (1989), Kovalyov’s way of story telling still is one of suggestion, not explanation.

Note how Kovalyov uses seemingly trivial images to tell his tale: the man throwing an apple at the gardener, the man eating all the grapes, the woman lying in a bath, a cockroach creeping – all these short scenes contribute to the ominous feeling, full of suppressed eroticism.

The tense atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the great sound design, which offers us many noises not seen on the screen: cows mooing, a plane flying by, a clock chiming, the woman running down the stairs and slamming doors, a dog barking etc.

Watch ‘Bird in the Window’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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

Airing Date: May 11, 1996

Dexter’s Rival

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Stars: Dexter, Dee Dee, Mandark
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

‘Dexter’s Rival’ introduces Dexter’s arch nemesis, Mandark (who apparently is called Astronominoff in real life).

In this episode Mandark outwits Dexter in every single task at school, being genuinely smarter than Dexter is. Even Mandark’s lab is much bigger than Dexter’s (and even contains a death star lurking outside). This of course, greatly upsets Dexter, but then he discovers that Mandark has one weak spot…

Mandark immediately is a priceless character – his arrogance, his typical way of talking and his trademark offbeat laughter make him a perfect foe. The way he perceives Dee Dee is a particular highlight of this episode, turning Dexter’s big sister in a piece of pure romantic beauty.

Dial M for Monkey: Simion

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

In ‘Dial M for Monkey: Simion’ monkey does not only have superpowers, he also lives in a futuristic science fiction world, even though this episode has the same introduction as the previous two Monkey episodes.

In this episode we see a little more of agent Honeydew, but most of the time is devoted to a very long speech by the villain, Simion. This tale of revenge simply bursts with familiar superhero tropes, but that doesn’t necessarily make it very funny. Like the other ‘Dial M for Monkey’ episodes ‘Simion’ remains mediocre at best, and the episode pales when compared to the bridging Dexter’s Laboratory episodes, ‘Dexter’s Rival’ and ‘Old Man Dexter’.

Old Man Dexter

See the post devoted to this episode

‘Dexter’s Rival/Dial M for Monkey: Simion/Old Man Dexter’ is available on the DVD ‘Dexter’s Laboratory Season One: All 13 Episodes’

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’

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: Genndy Tartakovsky
Release Date:
October 26, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

This short is set in Hotel Transylvania from the film of the same name and features Bigfoot trying to sleep, while being hindered by a green witch, who in fact tries to keep him sleeping.

Surprisingly, Tartakovsky’s crew animated this cartoon in 2D, not 3D, and the short features Tartakovsky’s comedy style as we know it from his television series ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’. Thus we watch strong poses, outrageous takes and jumpy animation.

Unfortunately, the film is too short to build up some great comedy. The witch essentially wakes Bigfoot only twice. If you compare this to say Tex Avery’s ‘The Legend of Rockabye Point’ it’s easy to see where this film remains stuck in being a nice attempt, while Tex Avery’s is the pinnacle of comedy. Funny animation alone isn’t enough, a film needs gags, too.

Watch ‘Goodnight Mr. Foot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Goodnight Mr. Foot is available on Blu-Ray and DVD ‘Hotel Transylvania’

Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Release Date:
September 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

2012 was the year of animated horror. No less than three American animated feature films of that year were horror themed: Laika’s ‘Paranorman’, Disney’s ‘Frankenweenie’ and Sony’s ‘Hotel Transylvania’. Of these three ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is the least scary (it isn’t scary at all), the least original and the least impressive.

‘Hotel Transylvania’ marked the feature direction debut of Genndy Tartakovsky, the Russian-American genius behind Cartoon Network hits Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Both series were impressive efforts of style and animation, being conceived in a strong idiosyncratic and very attractive style, making full use of limited animation in the best UPA sense, instead of the dull cheapstake sense of Saturday morning television television of the 1970s and 1980s.

In that respect, ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is quite a letdown. Neither the design nor the 3D computer animation shows anything betraying Tartakovsky’s style, and are, in fact, pretty generic. True, the animation style is very cartoony, with wild takes and jerky movements, and this undoubtedly at least partly betrays his influence, but Sony Pictures Animation already had adopted this style in ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009). The most interesting piece of cartoony animation is the absurdly smooth way Count Dracula strides, which looks like a homage to Dora Standpipe’s moves in ‘The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall’ (1942), but may also have been inspired by the Martian woman in ‘Mars Attacks!’ (1996) .

‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009) also was a more stylized film than ‘Hotel Transylvania’, which struggles with the homogeneity of its design. Some characters retain some plastic cartoony appearance (Count Dracula, the Monster of Frankenstein), while others are over-textured, adding unnecessary realism to their appearance (Wayne the Werewolf, Murray the mummy).

There’s even an unsettling difference between the two love interests who form the heart of the film: the rather goofy youngster Johnny is designed and animated broadly, and hard to take seriously. During the first half of the film he comes across as incredibly stupid and empty, and his transition into a genuine love interest isn’t entirely convincing. Dracula’s daughter Mavis, on the other hand, shows some real depth, and she is the only character animated straight and sincerely between a multitude of cartoony monsters. In fact, Mavis is the only character one cares for, and it’s a shame we see so little of her.

This is because ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is not her story, but that of her father, count Dracula, and this tale of a single, overprotective father owes a little too much to ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003). Somehow this theme was in the air, because the next year Illumination would follow suit with ‘Despicable Me 2’. Count Dracula’s progress unfortunately is pretty formulaic, as are the themes of friendly monsters (done better by Dreamworks in ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ from 2009) and ‘the ‘enemy is not as bad as he seems’ (done more successfully in ‘Paranorman’). And by 2012 the happy musical finale, so fresh as it had been in ‘Shrek’ (2001) already was an all too tried way to end things. Also, the premise of the hotel isn’t entirely convincing. Count Dracula may be convinced the outer world is a threat, but his guest flock from all over the globe – they surely should know better?

Don’t get me wrong. ‘Hotel Transylvania’ is not a bad movie. It’s even quite enjoyable. On the up side the voice cast is quite good. Adam Sandler actually does a good job as Count Dracula, Selena Gomez is excellent as Mavis, and Kevin James, Steve Buscemi and Cee-Lo Green fit their characters Frankenstein, Wayne and Murray very well. There are some fine gags, the film moves at a lively pace, and the story at least moves forward without any sidetracks.

But all the tropes, the almost obligatory fart joke, all the formulaic plot twists, the uninspired designs and stock characters and the generic music make that the film doesn’t stand out from the crowd. This film is just mediocre. Surely, Genndy Tartakovsky should be able to do better. At least it didn’t help that he was only the sixth (!) director involved in this film. At least we can enjoy some of his appealing 2D artwork during the titles, but that’s of course cold comfort after the real thing. Nevertheless, ‘Hotel Transylvania’ would sprout two sequels, with a third coming this way this year.

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

‘Hotel Transylvania’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Laurent Boileau & Jung
Release Date:
June 4, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

One of the striking developments of the 21st century was the advent of the animated documentary. Of course, the genre is much, much older, arguably going back to Winsor McCay’s ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania“’ (1918), but the animated documentary film remained a scarcity throughout the 20th century, and never went beyond the length of shorts.

All that changed with the highly influential Israeli film ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008), arguably the very first feature length animated documentary. Subsequent films of this type often told personal stories, if not only told with, then at least augmented with animation, e.g. ‘Tatsumi’ (2011), ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ (2015, with added animation by Hisko Hulsing) or ‘Tower’ (2016).

‘Couleur de peau: miel’ is such a personal story. The film is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Belgian author Jung, who is of Korean descent, and who was adopted at a young age. His story is told with an all too prominent voice over, and in live action, depicting the present Jung, now 44 years old, visiting Korea, with the use of 8mm films shot by his father in the 1970s, and with computer animation, depicting several of Jung’s childhood memories.

The film succeeds in showing the troubled existence of adopted children, and their struggling with their identity. Jung, for example, doesn’t feel entirely part of the family, and indeed, his parents sometimes snap that they see him differently from their own natural children. Worse, he feels uprooted, feeling neither completely Belgian nor Korean, and feeling alienated from both. This leads to a troubled youth, with Jung being far from a good boy. This unfortunately makes it rather more difficult to identify with him, for he often acts as a real jerk, being full of mischief, for example falsifying his school report.

The French title literally translates as ‘Skin Color: Honey’, and the animated sequences certainly use yellows, together with browns and grays as their principal coloring. Jung also has some dire memories of his early Korean days, which are rendered in more depressing grays than the Belgian sequences. These colors dominate the beautiful, two-dimensional background art.

For the animation the film makers have resorted to 3D computer animation, because it was cheaper. Unfortunately, it also looks cheaper, hampering an otherwise fine film. The characters are a strange hybrid of drawn images projected on three-dimensional models, and never become convincing characters. Instead, they look like wandering marionettes, uncannily devoid of life. In fact, the character animation is so ugly to look at that the emotions of Jung’s memories never really come off. I certainly wonder what a better film ‘Couleur de peau: miel’ could have been, if the film makers had made in traditional 2D animation… Now, we’re stuck with a film that certainly is interesting, but falls short in moving its audience.

Watch the trailer for ‘Couleur de peau: miel (Approved for Adoption)’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Couleur de peau: miel'(Approved for Adoption) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Earl Hurd
Release Date:
August 21, 1921
Stars: Bobby Bumps & Fido
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

In ‘Hunting an’ Fishing’ Bobby Bumps does exactly that, and in an area where it’s prohibited, too. But how he’s supposed to know? He has blasted off the ‘no’ from a ‘no hunting allowed’ sign while trying to hit a rabbit. In any case, soon the gamekeeper is on his tail…

‘Hunting an’ Fishing’ looks uncommonly cheap for a Bobby Bumps cartoon: the background art is extremely limited, and Hurd uses quite some animation cycles. More interesting is the fact that this short seems like a very early ancestor of the chase cartoon. A great deal of the cartoon features the gamekeeper chasing Bobby, and Bobby and Fido trying to get rid of the fellow in various ways.

Yet, the best gag is reserved for a completely different set of characters: a bird and a frog using a sleeping rabbit’s stomach to rock themselves to sleep as well. This is an inventive, unique and surprisingly well staged gag.

‘Hunting an’ Fishing’ is available on the Blu-Ray/DVD-combo ‘Cartoon Roots: Bobby Bumps and Fido’

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