Director: Steve Martino
Release Date: November 1, 2015
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

‘The Peanuts Movie’ was a project initiated by Craig Schulz, son of Charles M. Schulz, creator of the famous comic strip, and his own son, Bryan Schulz. The two chose the Blue Skye studio for fulfilling their dream, as the studio had been faithful to Dr. Seuss before, in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ (2008). And indeed, this Blue Sky film is a much more satisfying product than the two later Dr. Seuss adaptations by Illumination.

Blue Skye, of course, is a 3D computer animation studio, but the studio has done a remarkable job in combining the 3D techniques with Schulz’s essentially flat drawings. This means that there are added textures and 3D settings in which the characters can move around and about.

But at no point the characters get distorted or become too realistic for their own good. Blue Sky doesn’t fall into the trap of Sony Animation’s ‘The Smurfs’ (2011), uglifying the original designs by trying to make them too realistic.

In fact, the studio does an amazing job in transferring Schulz’s drawings into a 3D world. It’s refreshing to see that the crew did no ill-conceived attempt to ‘update’ the characters and their setting. There are no new characters introduced, but also no computers or cellphones in sight, but old-fashioned rotary phones and typewriters.

And, true to the original comic, no adult can be seen, not even partly. Instead, we have the famous baseball mound, and even a scene featuring the stone wall present in so many comic strip panels. Even better, during the opening and in some thought scenes the film reverts back to Schulz’s original black and white 2D style, rendering the style of the original comic strip convincingly, indeed.

Moreover, the film is not only faithful to the original comic strip, but also to Bill Melendez’s animated interpretations of it (1965-2006). This means that all children are voiced by real children, all adults by a trombone sound (courtesy of Troy “Trombone” Shorty), and Snoopy’s and Woodstock’s incomprehensible jabberings by Bill Melendez himself (Melendez had died in 2008, so the vocalizations all come from archive material, but you’d never notice). The film clearly plays homage to Melendez’s vision, copying the dance moves of several characters from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ (1965). Moreover, the film starts with two of Vince Guaraldi’s tunes for that famed first Peanuts television special: the iconic and intoxicating ‘Linus and Lucy’ and ‘Skating’.

All familiar Peanuts characters are introduced in the intro, even older ones like Shermy, Patty, Violet, Frieda and Pig Pen. But as every Peanut fan would hope, the film concentrates firmly on Charlie Brown, leaving all the other characters, except Lucy, rather sketchy. Even Linus hardly gets screen presence. As I’m a lifelong Peanuts fan, it’s hard for me to guess what impression the gang makes on newbies. For example, there’s Marcie, calling Peppermint Patty sir, and Lucy having a psychiatrist’s booth in the street. Wouldn’t this strike odd to newcomers? I’ve no idea, for as a fan, these familiar tropes are most welcome.

As said, the film concentrates on Charlie Brown. The film essentially is his story. We watch him playing baseball and flying kites, and failing at both, but the crew chose the most moving of all of Charlie Brown’s subplots: his love for the little red-haired girl. In the movie, she moves in as Charlie Brown’s neighbor, and becomes his new classmate. Unlike the strip, in which Charlie Brown’s dream girl is never seen, the little red-haired girl gets screen presence. But the crew cleverly keeps her mysterious, offering us just glimpses of her during most of the movie. Thus we see her mostly with Charlie Brown’s eyes as a desirable but unreachable creature.

Surprisingly, the film is neither hasty nor all too straightforward in unfolding its story. At one point Lucy gives Charlie Brown a book titles ’10 Ways to Become a Winner’, and for a while it seems this book will be guiding line the story will adhere to. Charlie Brown even manages to read the whole of ‘Leo’s Toy Store’ by Warren Piece (as Peppermint Patty recalls the famous Russian novel), all to no avail. But then another story arc starts, in which Charlie Brown mistakenly is seen as a school genius, which also ends prematurely. Likewise, most of the film takes place during winter, but near the end we suddenly skip to summer, and even to the last day of school. Overall, the film’s speed is relaxed and unhurried, focusing on Charlie Brown’s emotions, as he blunders through everyday life.

Yet, there’s enough of excitement, because Charlie Brown’s mishaps are alternated with scenes starring Snoopy, who has his own subplot as, could it be otherwise?, a World War I flying ace pilot combating the Red Baron, and rescuing a female fellow pilot called Fifi. I wasn’t familiar with Fifi, and though of her as the only new character in the movie, but even she has appeared before, in ‘Life Is a Circus, Charlie Brown’ (1980). As a lot of Snoopy’s imagined action takes place in the air, these scenes make welcome use of all possibilities 3D animation offers, resulting in breathtaking air battle scenes, which of course become ridiculous as Snoopy flies his own dog house, instead of a proper World War I plane. Even better are the scenes in which Snoopy’s fantasy is altered with scenes from the real world, featuring Snoopy sneaking, running and diving into scenes to the bewilderment of the children.

In all, ‘The Peanuts Movie’ is a delightful film, refreshing with its focus on every day life, and rewarding in its faithfulness to the original comic strip. Only the end may be too cloying and too optimistic, out of tune with the persistent sense of failure so present in the original comic strip. Yet, Craig and Bryan Schulz can be proud of this product, for together with Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ this is the most rewarding American animated movie of 2015.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Peanuts Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Peanuts Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Director: Marlies van der Wel
Release Date: September 26, 2015
Rating: ★★★★ ½
Review:

‘Zeezucht’ (which can be translated as ‘a longing for the sea’) tells about a man desiring to be able to dive into the sea from a young age on.

Van der Wel tells her tale by alternating images of the present with those of the past. In the scenes set in the present we watch the old man, complete with Jacques Cousteau-style red bonnet, doing some impressive beach combing during a stormy night. In the scenes from the past we learn how he came to love the sea, and how he made several attempts to dive into the deep with various contraptions, all to no avail.

Meanwhile his home on the dunes expands and expands by the use of flotsam and jetsam washed up by the sea. Then, when a giant fish factory ship sinks, the old man finally sees his chance…

‘Zeezucht’ is made in a very charming cut-out animation style, combining painted material with cut-out photographic material. There’s no dialogue, but the experiences and emotions of the sea-lover are greatly enhanced by the romantic music by Dutch band Benny Sings, and by the excellent sound design by Shark @ Haaifaaideluxe.

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

‘Zeezucht’ has been issued on DVD by the director herself in a limited number

Directors: Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli
Release Date: December 20, 2015
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Un plan d’enfer’ is a comic short from the makers of ‘Une vie de chat’ (2010) and ‘Phantom Boy’ (2015).

The cartoon is set on a hot night in town. Two burglars plan to steal gold from an old lady. In order to be able to make a lot of noise and keep unheard, they release a multitude of cats on to the streets. These attract numerous dogs (including the vicious mongrel from ‘Phantom Boy‘), creating a lot of noise, indeed. The plan all goes well, until the two spill some katnip on their own car…

‘Un plan d’enfer’ is an unassuming, unpretentious short, told with charming drawings in the great Franco-Belgian comic strip tradition, and with the typical crooked style of Gagnol and Felicioli. There’s nothing mind-blowing or life-changing about this short, but it provides five and half minutes of genuine fun.

Watch the trailer for ‘Un plan d’enfer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Un plan d’enfer’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Phantom Boy’

Directors: Charlie Kaufman & Dick Johnson
Release Date: September 4, 2015
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

A welcome new phenomenon of the 21th century was the arrival of live action directors turning to animation, and to stop motion, in particular. Wes Anderson was the first, directing the gritty ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009), while maintaining his idiosyncratic style. Next was Gore Verbinski, with the peculiar ‘Rango’ (2011), and in 2015 Charlie Kaufman followed with ‘Anomalisa’, which fits very well in his oeuvre. ‘Anomalisa’ is extra welcome, because this is an adult film, not a family film, which normally appears to be the only type of animated films allowed in the U.S.

Main protagonist of this film is British customer service expert Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who is invited to give a speech on customer service in Cincinati, Ohio. Michael seems to suffer from a disease, which could almost only dreamed up by Kaufman: to him all people look and sound the same, making it impossible to distinguish between them. All the people Michael encounters have the same plain face, and the same voice (provided by Tom Noonan). Children, women, men, film stars and even opera singers – they’re all utterly indistinguishable to him.

But then he hears a voice, different from all the others, and desperately tries to contact her. This voice belongs to one Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a telephone sales employee from a food company based in Akron, Ohio. Lisa is homely and insecure, especially when accompanied by her much more beautiful friend Emily (we viewers cannot judge that, however, as we see Emily only through Michael’s eyes, which means she has the same bland face and voice as all other characters in the film). Lisa thinks she’s ugly and stupid, thus she’s utterly puzzled by Michael’s interest in her, and not very convinced, either. But Michael’s so glad he’s found someone different that he even dreams of leaving his wife and son, to spend the rest of his life Lisa, whom he calls Anomalisa, as she’s the only one different in a sea of sameness.

It’s important to note that Michael Stone is far from a sympathetic character: he’s self-absorbed, evidently hardly interested in other people, and clearly bored to death with his current life. Even though he has a wife and son at his home in California, he tries to have sex as soon as he has arrived in Cincinnati. So one could argue that his disease is only symbolic of his disinterest in others, but Kaufman does play it as a real disease. For example, when waiting for his old flame Bella, he only acknowledges her after she has recognized him.

Nevertheless, it’s clearly Michael’s own negative attitude which eventually spoils his idyll… Next morning Lisa quickly loses her special charm to him, fading into the sameness of others at a breathtaking speed. The scene in which this takes place, is the most horrifying of the entire movie, despite a nightmare scene preceding it. Especially because at this point our sympathy has long since shifted to Lisa, instead of Michael, who remains, in the end, a pedantic, egotistical prick.

Unfortunately, this great scene is followed by one in which Michael finally delivers his speech. This is a very unconvincing, disappointing scene, by all means. It’s not only rather superfluous, it also stretches the plausibility too much, and almost spoils the entire movie.

Apart from a short prelude in which Michael arrives by plane, a short scene at a “toy store”, and a short postlude, which takes place at his own home, the entire film is set in a very common and extremely bland hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Michael is invited to give a speech on customer service. The hotel setting and short time span (the whole film takes place in less than 24 hours) gives the movie a unity of time and space, rarely encountered in current films. Indeed, the hotel’s bland browns and beiges color the film, adding to its visual character. Incidentally, the hotel is called ‘Fregoli’, after a disorder called the Fregoli delusion, in which the patient thinks several people are, in fact, one and the same person. Note that this Fregoli delusion is markedly different from Michael’s disease – he perceives people as different beings, but cannot distinguish them from each other.

The claustrophobia of the film is greatly enhanced by the stop motion, which always provides a sense of surrealism. Indeed, stop motion is such a logical choice for such an outlandish concept that one almost cannot believe the film is based on a stage play.

The film makes use of very lifelike sets and puppets. Nevertheless the puppets have different proportions than real people (the heads, hands and feet being larger than in real life), and have clearly visible seams at the eyes and ears, as the puppets have replaceable mouth parts. These seams give the puppets a rather uncanny edge. Kaufman even plays with this concept. At one point, Michael seems to be able to cut his own facial part loose, and in a nightmare scene it just drops to the floor, exposing the inner workings of his puppet self.

The realism of the puppets thus is mostly achieved through animation. Indeed, the animation of the puppets, directed by Duke Johnson, is of an extraordinarily high level. Highlight of the film is the sex scene, which in all its awkwardness and clumsiness is one of the most real sex scenes ever put to film, despite being acted out by puppets. The animators used reference from real sex actors for this scene, which took several months to shoot, and the result is a stunning tour-de-force of stop motion.

In all, ‘Anomalisa’ is a unique stop motion film. It’s admittedly not without its flaws, but Kaufman can proudly add it to his oeuvre of weird tales, and the film certainly is a welcome departure from the family film tropes of standard American studio animation.

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

‘Anomalisa’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Release Date: July 11, 2015
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

For quite a time only three Japanese author directors of animated films were known in the West: Osamu Tezuka, Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki (well, and perhaps Miyazaki’s friend and Ghibli-associate Isao Takahata). But in the 2000s several others were added, most notably Satoshi Kon (who, unfortunately, died prematurely), Masaaki Yuasa, Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda. The latter impressed audiences with his films ‘The Girl Who Lept Through Time’ (2006), ‘Summer Wars’ (2009) and especially ‘Wolf Children’ (2012), for which he had erected his own studio, Studio Chizu.

‘The Boy and the Beast’, like ‘Wolf Children’, was made at Hosoda’s own Chizu studio. It’s a coming-of-age story, largely set in a parallel world of Bakemono, shapeshifting spirits that in Hosoda’s film have taken the shape of anthropomorphized animals. The whole concept of Bakemono is, of course, unknown to us Westerners (I, at least had no knowledge of this part of Japanese folklore), but luckily, Hosoda provides the film with an introduction, which sortly sets out this strange otherworld, and its major inhabitants: an aging Grandmaster (who turns out to be an old rabbit), and his rival successors, Iouzen (a hog) and Kumatetsu, a bear.

Then we cut to present Tokyo, where nine years old Ren wanders the streets. After the death of his mother he has run away from home and he has nowhere to go. By some strange events he enters the parallel Bakemono world called Juutengai, where he becomes Kumatetsu’s pupil.

Kumatetsu can be viewed as Ren’s counterpart: he’s alone and lonely, having grown up without parents. But the old bear is also immature, lazy, selfish, and extremely quick-tempered. In fact, he can learn something from his own young pupil, and although the two quarrel throughout the picture, it becomes clear the two recognize something in each other, and love each other for it.

On this premise Hosoda builds a surprisingly complex story about what it means to grow up without parents. In fact, despite the elaborate fantasy world and spectacular fight scenes this is a film about loss and of the empty feeling inside of having no father or mother or either. Indeed, halfway the film jumps several years forward and the now seventeen years old Ren (or Kyuta, as Kumatetsu calls him) has to deal with the emptiness inside him. He learns that this can be filled with love of others. Back in the real world, he meets a girl called Kaede who helps him to cope.

More than any of Hosoda’s previous films, this movie seems to owe quite a lot to the Ghibli studio influence: the coming-of-age story, the parallel world, children working and learning how to become disciplined, adult figures becoming quite fond of the human child in their world – it’s all very similar to particularly ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). But unlike Miyazaki’s masterpiece, ‘The Boy and the Beast’ does know a real villain, a boy called Ichirōhiko, even if his villainy is explained by loss. Ichirōhiko is similar to Ren, but he has never been able to fill the void inside him, and consequently, he’s filled with anger and hate.

Ichirōhiko provides the most surreal scene in the entire film: the shadow of a whale swimming through the streets of Tokyo. But throughout the background art and imagery is rich and colorful: Tokyo feels absolutely real, as does the fantasy world of Juutengai. As said, the story is rather complex, but it remains engaging throughout and never loses focus on its main message. The animation, too, is fine, if not exceptional, as is the drawing style, which is a little more generic than the average Ghibli product.

In all, ‘The Boy and the Beast’ corroborates Hosoda as a strong author-director. If only American animated cinema would allow strong individual voices like him!

Watch the trailer for ‘The Boy and the Beast’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Boy and the Beast’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Rémi Chayé
Release Date: June 16, 2015
Rating: ★★★★ ½
Review:

‘Tout en haut du monde’ was the third of four notable animated films coming from France in 2015. Rémi Chayé, who had previously worked as a storyboard artist for Cartoon Saloon’s ‘The Secret of Kells’ from 2009, directed this film, which is, surprisingly, set in Russia and knows only Russian characters.

The story, by female writers Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, is set in 1882, and tells of teenager Sasha, granddaughter of the great (fictional) Oloukine, who has disappeared somewhere in the Northern ice sea with his ship Davaï. The czar has desperately trying to find his favorite explorer and his ship, offering an enormous sum of money for those who succeed, but without any result.

Sasha discovers that the czar’s search parties have been looking in the wrong region, and against her father’s will she sets out to go on a mission of her own. Being an aristocrat who knows nothing of the real world, she soon gets stuck in a Northern harbor, where she gets help from a friendly innkeeper called Olga.

Sasha soon learns what real working is, and becomes quite good at it. Thus hardened, and still as determined as before, she indeed manages to get a ship to look for the Davaï, but she and her shipmates soon have every reason to want to find the ship.

‘Tout en haut du monde’ knows a wonderful young strong woman as its leading star, but Sasha never becomes superhuman – she remains a woman of flesh and blood. In fact, throughout the movie we can feel with her, with her frustration, her naivety, her determination, and her fear.

Interestingly, there’s absolutely no love story involved (although there is some flirtation between Sasha and the cabin Boy Katch). In the end it’s clear that Sasha is destined to become a great explorer herself, not the mere wife of some aristocrat husband.

Sasha’s co-stars, too, are round characters, and certainly not without their flaws. There’s an interesting subplot involving two brothers: one captain, and the other his mate. When Sasha does find her grandfather, this is a magical and moving moment, if a rather improbable one. This this the film’s only venture beyond realism. Otherwise, the movie maintains a very realistic tone, with the dangers and hardships of the North Pole shown in their full extent.

Nevertheless, the film never becomes dire or grizzly, and this is mainly because of the extraordinarily beautiful artwork, for which Chayé was responsible as well. The film’s visual style is clearly rooted in the franco-belgian comic tradition, but has discarded almost all line work. Instead, we are treated on bold color areas, both on the characters and the backgrounds, which are in perfect harmony with each other.

The coloring is clearly done entirely on the computer, but the result is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, the film boasts one of the best color schemes and richest color palettes ever put to the animated screen. Especially, the depiction of sunlit landscapes and rooms ensures some marvelous coloring. By all means, the scenes on the North Pole are of an astonishing beauty, with the ubiquitous ice never being just white. Thus as a result, every frame is a pretty painting.

If ‘Tout en haut du monde’ knows one flaw, it’s its rushed ending. The film ends before all story lines have been resolved, and the return scenes are shown in stills during the end titles. This is a little unsatisfactory. After Sasha’s grand Arctic journey, one wishes her adventure to end on an equally epic scale, not to fade out with a sizzle.

Nevertheless, this is a film to behold, and certainly one of the best animated features of 2015. With ‘tout en haut du monde’ Rémi Chayé became a strong new voice in the animation world, a reputation he consolidated with the even better ‘Calamity, une enfance de Martha Jane Cannary’ (2020).

Watch the trailer for ‘Tout en haut du monde (Long Way North)’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Tout en haut du monde (Long Way North) ‘ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Sanjay Patel
Release Date: June 15, 2015
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sanjay’s Super Team’ is animator Sanjay Patel’s semi-autobiographical dive into his own childhood.

The film stars a small Indian boy who just loves superheroes, greatly disturbing his praying father. When he joins his father’s praying, he accidentally blows out the candle for the Hindu Gods. This prompts a dream sequence in which the smoke brings forth a large demon, battled by the three Gods in his father’s little shrine: Hanuman, Durga and Vishnu. These become Sanjay’s new superheroes.

This short is cute and clearly made with love. Moreover, the film is a welcome foray into the world of other cultures. But the cartoon is hampered by the extreme designs on little Sanjay and his father (both are extremely large headed and wide eyed), and the rather cheap-looking computer effects during the dream scene. Moreover, the battle scene in itself is typical for superhero films, and of no particular interest, and in the end the film is too short to engage with little Sanjay and his emotional bond to his father. Of course, this is hinted at during the final scene, but one whishes Patel had spent more time on father and son rather than on the generic superhero battle scene.

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ was played in theaters before ‘The Good Dinosaur‘ and was nominated for the 2015 Academy Award, which eventually went to ‘Bear Story’ from Chili.

Watch ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ is available on the Blu-Ray’s and DVD’s ‘The Good Dinosaur’ and ‘Pixar Short Films Collection 3’

Directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
Release Date: June 15, 2015
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

2015 was an excellent year for French animation. In May ‘The Little Prince’ came out (though largely animated in Canada, its French ties remain very clear), followed by the fresh ‘Tout en haut du monde’ (Long Way North) in June, and the lovely ‘Phantom Boy’ in September. That year I saw the last two on the Dutch Holland Animation Film Festival, and I knew of the existence of the first, but there was another great French animation film, which I had completely missed back then: ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ (April and the Extraordinary World) , also released in June. This is quite incomprehensible, for it’s a fine film, as well.

This film was entirely made to showcase the illustration style of French comic artist Jacques Tardi (born in 1946), one of the most idiosyncratic and most respected of all French comic authors. Now, Tardi’s classic comic ‘Adèle Blanc-sec’ had been made into a feature film before (2010), but that was a live action film, in which, of course, Tardi’s graphic style was lost. In ‘Avril et le monde truqué’, on the other hand, his hand is recognizable in every scene.

Tardi favors to set his stories in France during the belle époque period, roughly 1870 to 1918, but ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ takes place in 1941. Nevertheless, the complete film breathes Tardi’s favorite époque, because the story, conceived by director Franck Ekinci and screenplay writer Benjamin Legrand, is set in an alternate history in which science more or less stopped in 1870, thus before the taming of electricity.

The story starts in 1870, with a scientist looking for a serum to make soldiers immortal, but only succeeding in making two mysterious lizardly creatures talk. Then the film jumps to the background story of the alternate history, in which the steam age is extended enormously. Then one picks up the story-line with the scientist’s son, grandson and the latter’s wife trying to make the serum, as well. Young April also helps a little, and there’s also a talking cat present, called Darwin. Unfortunately, no scientist is allowed to work if not for the government, and the police is after the gang. During the chase scene, April’s parents and grandfather disappear, and she’s left alone with Darwin the cat.
Jump to 1941, in which April has become a young woman herself – also looking for the mysterious serum, while her aged cat lies in bed, coughing (there’s a lot of coughing in this film, subtly illustrating the enormous air pollution that comes with the burn of coal and charcoal).

I’ll not reveal the rest of the story, but be assured it’s pretty ludicrous. Nevertheless, it’s told very well, and never becomes dull or too unbelievable to buy, until the very last scenes, which are absolutely outrageous. Moreover, despite all the action, and a few deaths, the tone remains light and humorous, and the film never ceases to be one for the whole family.

Most interesting is the depiction of Avril herself: like Tardi’s comic star Adèle Blanc-Sec she’s a resourceful, strong and brave woman, who, in this case, also happens to be an intelligent scientist. She’s clearly way ahead of most of the (male) scientific community, and smarter than her male love interest. Between these two lovers things turn out fine in the end, but there are also two other couples depicted, which during the film are getting alienated from each other, with no chance of repair. This is a refreshing story twist, simply inconceivable in an American animated family film. Even more interesting is the film’s attitude to man and nature. The film asks some important questions, without falling into the trap of answering them, as well.

Of course, the major highlight of the film is its looks, especially for fans of Tardi’s work. Tardi’s style is a very idiosyncratic version of Hergé’s ligne clair, with much looser lines, and the use of strong blacks (most of his work is in black and white). The film transfers this style excellently to the animated screen. Both his character designs and world-making remain immediately recognizable. For example, April herself is clearly your typical Tardian heroine, her facial features resembling those of e.g. Adèle Blanc-sec, or Lili from ‘La débauche’ (2000). The other characters, too, look as if they’ve walked away from one of his books, and are a delight to watch. Special mention goes to inspector Gaspard Pizoni, one of the blundering policemen crowding Tardi’s oeuvre, and together with Darwin the comic relief of the film.

Even better, is the alternate world Tardi and the other film makers have created. Of course, their world is a version of steampunk, and their alternate version of Paris is certainly a well-conceived and magical place, with two Eiffel towers accompanying a hanging cable train to Berlin, the Opéra changed into a factory, and a towering statue of Napoleon III topping Montmartre, instead of the 1914 Sacré Coeur basilica. Steam-propelled cars fill the streets, and people stroll wearing gas masks, because of the heavy pollution, which renders most of the city in grey tones, fitting Tardi’s style perfectly. Tardi’s style is less fitting for the jungle scenes, however, and during these scenes, some of the magic of his style is lost.

The film makers cite Hayao Miyazaki as a major influence on their alternate history world, and indeed, there’s a certain kinship to Miyazaki’s ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986) and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004), which must have been the inspiration for the walking house featured in ‘Avril’. Curiously, they don’t mention Otomo’s ‘Cannonfodder’ (1994) or ‘Steamboy’ (2004), despite the obvious connections of these films to the world of ‘Avril’.

The animation, too, is very fine. The film may have been created entirely in the computer, the animation is clearly hand-drawn, with a little help of effective and certainly not too obtrusive computer animation, much in the vain of the use of computer animation in early Disney renaissance features, like ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ (1986) or ‘Aladdin’ (1992). The animation style has little of the squash and stretch principles of Disney animation, and is more akin to the Japanese animation tradition, which suits Tardi’s drawing style very well. Darwin the cat is a great example of fine animation: the character remains both a very convincing cat and a fussy character.

In all, ‘Avril et le Monde truqué’ is a surprise film, an absolute must-see for all Tardi-fans, but also recommended to all lovers of animated feature films and/or steampunk. Even if you don’t dig the zany story, there’s enough to enjoy to have a good time throughout the movie.

Watch the trailer for ‘April and the Extraordinary World’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘April and the Extraordinary World’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
Release Date: June 11, 2015
Stars: The Minions
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Part of the success of ‘Despicable Me’ (2010), Illumination’s first animation film lie in the minions, Gru’s yellow little helpers. However, their existence was never explained in that film, nor in the sequel ‘Despicable Me 2’ (2013) in which they even played a more important part. Meanwhile, the little yellow buddies were obviously a merchandise hit, so it seemed only fitting that the minions got their own film.

The resulting picture, aptly titled ‘Minions’, is both a spin-off and a prequel of the Despicable me franchise, and finally deals with the origin of the Minions and how they came to know Gru. Surprisingly, however, both these subjects are dealt with in the shortest fashion: most of the minions’ origin is told during the title sequence, in elegant 2D animation, recalling the cartoon modern style of the 1950s. The meeting with Gru is presented as almost an afterthought at the end of the movie, and is partly told during the end titles.

In between we have the story. This starts with a ten minute long introduction, narrated by Geoffrey Rush, who tells us how the minions have always had one single goal in their lives: to serve the biggest villain around, but how lost many by their own stupidity. Finally they end up in a remote cave somewhere in the Himalayas, where they lose all sense of purpose, until one of them, a tall minion called Kevin, proposes to leave the cave and find a villain worthy to serve. Kevin sets out, accompanied by little Bob and one-eyed Stuart, and the rest of the film is devoted to this trio, their search, their coming to the Villain-Con convention in Orlando, FL, and their serving of the biggest villain of 1968, Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who wants to steal the British crown.

So the film takes part mostly in London during the swinging sixties, and thus features a lot of period music (e.g. ‘I’m a Man’ by The Spencer Davis Group, ‘Break on Through’ by The Doors, ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks, and ‘My Generation’ by The Who). In the end, even three Beatles songs are used, ‘Love Me Do’, and during the end titles ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’, followed by a minionese version of ‘Revolution’, which is accompanied by numerous 3D effects, typical of the early 2010s.

Surprisingly, queen Elizabeth II (voiced by British comedienne Jennifer Saunders) has an active part in the story. This is a surprising choice, as the British queen is not only a real person, she’s still alive. Refreshingly, both Scarlett Overkill and Elizabeth II are presented as strong, independent female characters. Otherwise, women are scarce during the movie, and of course, like the Smurfs, all Minions are male (the Smurfette was created by Gargamel).

Like ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ from earlier that year ‘Minions’ is clearly a film made only to entertain. Nothing in the entire film can be taken serious. In contrast, the comedy is broad, and both the human design and the animation are deliberately over-the-top and cartoony, a refreshing and welcome contrast to the more toned down Disney-Pixar-style.

However, Stuart, Kevin and Bob are pretty static characters and have no story arc. In fact, they hardly have a personality at all, and they are mostly distinguished by their looks, not by character animation. Here lies the main problem of ‘Minions’: one hardly cares for the three main protagonists, and this gives the film an empty feel.

Moreover, not all the humor works. The minions’ jabbering rather quickly wears out its welcome, and especially Herb Overkill, Scarlet’s husband (voiced by Jon Hamm) is painfully unfunny, and could certainly be missed. More successful are Jennifer Saunders as Queen Elizabeth, and a family of villains. However, my biggest laughs went to a throwaway gag during the Villain-Con convention: one professor Flux (voiced by Steve Coogan) has made a time machine to fetch future copies of himself to help him in the lab. I’ll not spoil the gag here, but within seconds things go terribly wrong.

Despite its flaws, the film is well-told, and beautifully made. Between all the nonsense there’s actually not only excellent animation, but also superb rendering, lighting and effect animation, thrown in so seemingly effortlessly, one hardly notices. I especially like Kevin’s wanderings in the London streets, while being chased by a bunch of villains. The mist, the lighting, the rain, the reflections, the wet surfaces are all very well done during these scenes. Moreover, the camera often takes his point of view, watching the world in worm’s-eye view. Another animation highlight is Scarlett’s story to the minions, told in a naive style, imitating stop-motion techniques.

In all, ‘Minions’ may be a rather shallow and far from essential film, it’s well-made, and entertaining enough to watch at least once.

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

‘Minions’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mark Osborne
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Le petit prince’ (The Little Prince) is arguably France’s most beloved children’s book, so it’s no surprise that it would be made into a film someday. Surprisingly, it was the American filmmaker Mark Osborne (co-director of ‘Kung Fu Panda’) to take up the glove. His script, however, is entirely original, and builds around the classic booklet, and is not a direct interpretation of it.

Parts of the original story are still present in the final film, and these fragments without doubt form the visual highlights of the entire movie: these passages are done in a very charming stop-motion style, convincingly capturing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s illustration style. However, the story of the little prince is interwoven with Osborne’s framing story, and in itself quite hard to follow, especially if you have not read the book yourself. In fact, the surrounding story is more entertaining than these excerpts from the book. Even worse, it takes 17 minutes before this story starts, and half way the movie the contents of Saint-Exupéry’s book are finished, leaving a staggering 49 minutes of original material still to come.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little book deals with what it means to grow up, and with loss, and Osborne’s surrounding story tries to expand on that idea. This story arc is told in computer animation, and set in a caricature of our world, in which ca. everything is square, including the trees. The opening shots of this world, a bird-eyed view of the city, which looks like a print board in its extreme regularity, form a great introduction to the story. In this world every citizen thrives to be essential, including the nameless little girl, who stars this film, and her mother. For example, the Werth Academy, the school the little girl aspires to attend is covered with posters stating ‘What do you want to be when you grow up? Essential’.

As the girl’s first attempt to attend this school misfires, the mother conceives a new plan that includes moving into a proper neighborhood (one of those ultra-square blocks) and a whole vacation period of intense study for the little girl, laid out in a depressingly detailed planning board. But then it appears their house neighbor is the only oddball in this conformist world: an old man, who lives in an old, cranky house, and whose life is devoted to fantasy and child’s play.
It’s this old man who tells the little girl about the little prince (in fact he’s the pilot from the story, ignoring the fact that the real pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry himself, died prematurely in a plane crash). Thus the old man draws the little girl into his magical world, allowing her to be a child again, instead of a miniature version of an adult.

Now, this is all very well, and the film’s messages that it’s important to recognize what’s important in life (no, it’s not money), and to accept that to love means to lose, is sympathetic, but this, alas, does not make ‘The Little Prince’ a good movie.

As said, the storytelling is erratic, with the passages of ‘The Little Prince’ sensu stricto being dispersed too fragmentary to entertain themselves, and the film’s messages are stated way too clearly, making the film heavy-handed. Moreover, after the story is finished the film devotes much screen time to a very long dream sequence in which the little girl rediscovers the little prince in adult form on a bureaucratic little planet. At this point the film lost me completely, for nothing in this sequence has a grain of the little book’s original charm. Instead, it only seems to destroy it. This is not a very respectful way to treat the original material.

But even without the dream sequence the film is overlong. It plods on with a frustratingly relaxed speed, and knows no surprises. Even then, the final roundup feels rushed, too open, and unconvincing. After all, the little girl herself may have changed, but the rest of the world is the same dull square conformist place it had been before…

The computer animation, done in Canada, is fair to excellent, and the rendering is okay, if not living up to contemporary American standards. I particularly enjoyed the animation of the stuffed fox. As said, the world building is excellent in this film, with its over-the-top squareness. The human designs, on the other hand, are pretty generic, and betray little originality. In fact, the beautiful passages of stop-motion based on De Saint-Exupéry’s drawing style make one regret that the film makers didn’t dare to make the whole film in this much more daring and more interesting visual style. The soundtrack is notable for some period songs, like ‘Boum!’ (1938) by Charles Trenet, and a lovely new song by French singer Camille called ‘Suis-moi’ (Follow Me).

In all, ‘The Little Prince’ is a charming film with some sympathetic messages, but it’s also highly uneven and overlong and could have done with some severe editing and more daring choices. Moreover, one can ask whether this film does the original book the justice it deserves. I, at least, would have preferred a short based on the scenes from the book itself, and done solely in stop-motion, for, without doubt these images are the most gorgeous of the entire film.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Little Prince’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Little Prince’ 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’

Director: Paul Tibbett
Release Date: January 28, 2015
Stars: SpongeBob Squarepants
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

There are animation feature films that contain some humor, and then there are those completely devoted to it. ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ belongs to the latter category.

This is the second feature film based on Nickelodeon’s top animation series, after ‘The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie’ from 2004, and the first by the Paramount Animation Studio, which was founded in 2011 after the success of Paramount’s feature film ‘Rango’. True to the original series, absolutely nothing that hits the screen can be taken seriously. Even Spongebob’s mutterings about teamwork sound more like a parody on such moralizing in other contemporary animation films than as a genuine message.

‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ starts with a live action pirate (Antonio Banderas in arguably the silliest role of his career) seeking a treasure on a remote island. The treasure turns out to be a book, in which the Spongebob story is told. The pirate reads the book aloud to a bunch of CGI seagulls, which cuts us to the traditional 2D-animation of Spongebob’s world. The story builds completely on the ingredients already present: Plankton trying to steal the secret formula of The Krabby Patty burger. I won’t spoil the events here, but there are some surprising meta-story developments, reminiscent of ‘The Lego Movie’ from the previous year.

At one point our heroes have to leave the water, and at this point they turn into 3D-versions of themselves interacting with the real world (these scenes were apparently partly filmed in and around Savannah, Georgia, although clearly a lot of CGI is involved). Luckily, the 3D-versions of Spongebob and his friends remain faithful to the original designs and do not try to be more realistic than necessary. Done by the Rough Draft Studios in South Korea, both the CGI parts as the traditional 2D animation are excellent and rather outrageous, with some characters displaying insane facial expressions, reminiscent of Ren & Stimpy. Especially Sandy gets some outrageous takes when she turns into a mad prophet. There’s also a bit of stop-motion, done by Screen Novelties, that adds to the film’s absurdism.

The whole film is a delightful pile of complete nonsense, but highlights may be Plankton’s travels inside Spongebob’s mind and the time travel scenes, which are accompanied by complete visual extravaganza and N.E.R.D.’s catchy ‘Squeeze Me’ song, which sounds like a silly variation on Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ (both songs are co-authored by Pharrell Williams, so maybe this is a self-parody). Also noteworthy is the teamwork song, in which the visuals hark back to the cartoon modern era of the 1950s, especially in the background art.

‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ is not flawless, however. Banderas is a little too over the top in his depiction of the pirate, and his acting is more irksome than genuinely funny. Moreover, several of the gags fall flat, especially those devoted to the bunch of seagulls. And after a while the scenes ashore become quite tiresome, partly because of some bad acting by the numerous extras, who have to pretend to interact with CGI phenomena. Especially, the finale, a long chase between the pirate and our heroes, now transformed into rather bizarre superheroes, is too long. During these events, John Debney’s score is that of an action movie, and his serious up tempo music often contrasts with the silliness depicted. This scene does feature an ‘all hope is lost moment’, a trope often found in animation films, but luckily this one is too unconvincing and too brief to be taken seriously, and can stand as another parody of such all too familiar tropes.

The flaws aside, ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ is a film of pure fun, and despite its 92 minutes, the movie is over before you know it.

Watch the trailer for ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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: Nick Park
Release Date:
December 24, 1995
Stars: Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★½

Like the ground-breaking ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, ‘A Close Shave’ has a mystery plot featuring an evil genius framing Gromit. This time the premise is a wool shortage.

Wallace and Gromit are window cleaners, accidentally harboring an escaped sheep, and later meeting the villain, a bulldog called Preston, themselves. Things get complicated when Wallace gets romantically involved with Preston’s owner, wool shop owner Wendolene Ramsbottom, and Preston turns Wallace’s knit-o-matic into a killer machine, turning sheep into dog food.

As with ‘The Wrong Trousers’ the film knows a spectacular finale, first with an exciting car chase (also involving a little plane), and then in Preston’s dog food factory. As with the earlier film the suggestion of speed is flawless, and one forgets immediately that the original clay puppets didn’t move at all. The animation and the elaborate sets are even more spectacular than in the earlier film.

And yet, ‘A Close Shave’ is less gripping than ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was. The plot is more predictable, the car chase more conventional, and Preston less creepy than the penguin was in the earlier film, despite being indestructible in a rather Terminator-like manner. It’s a pity Nick Park and his team didn’t come with a more different plot, because now ‘A Close Shave’ demands too much comparison to the earlier film.

Nevertheless, the film is very important in Aardman history, for it introduces Shaun the Sheep, since 2007 hero of his own series, and star of no less than two feature length films. Already in his first short the little sheep shows to be a brave and inventive little fellow, and he literally has the last laugh.

Watch the opening of ‘A Close Shave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Close Shave’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: November 22, 1995
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Toy Story’ is one of the milestones of cinema, a triumph of technique, born out of a vision that originated when computer animation itself was in its infancy, and made by a studio that had taken the lead in advancement of character driven computer animation throughout the 1980s.

Being the first completely computer animated feature film, ‘Toy Story’ heralds a new era, even if the age of computer animation would only start in earnest after the turn of the century. Ironically, it’s the technique itself that has become the most dated. The whole film has a rather plastic look, and it’s no wonder the film makers chose plastic toys as their story subject. Some of the rendering is downright poor; for example the shot of the lawn between the grass (on which Andy’s guests walk towards the house) looks terribly unreal.

On the other hand, some of the rare outdoor shots, like the bird shot of the Dinoco gas station, Sid’s sandbox, or the shot of the street during the final chase scene still look like convincing background scenery. The lighting in general is very convincing. For example, in the opening shot, the light reflects in the polished wooden floor, but not on the cardboard boxes. And some of the textures are excellent. For example, we believe that Bo is made from porcelain, Slinky’s ears really appear to be leathery, and the wooden door of Andy’s room shows visible dents and scratches. I remember in 1995 I found the structure of Sid’s workbench and the crate in which Woody is imprisoned most impressive in that respect. These still hold very well, despite all the advancements in computer animation.

Of course, in terms of design the non-toy protagonists fare worst of all: the humans are all ugly, and slightly uncanny. Both Andy’s and Sid’s little sisters, Molly and Hannah, even look a little frightening. Also very unconvincing is Scud, Sid’s dog. He has an all too plastic body, with only the vaguest suggestion of hair, and his eyes are placed badly into his face, never really gaining any sense of reality.

Nevertheless, because the Pixar studio has taken heed of all rules of character animation that Disney had laid out ages ago, even more poorly designed characters like Andy, Sid or Scud absolutely feel as real characters. And this is part of Toy Story’s real triumph: the film is not only a technical tour-de-force, it’s also a very well told film, featuring great characters and a highly entertaining story, which make one quickly forget any defect in rendering, as one is engrossed in the events on the screen.

It’s important to note that ‘Toy Story’ was a game changer in animated feature film storytelling as well. ‘Toy Story’ is a buddy film, the first of its kind in the animated world, and essentially stars two adults, no children or teens. Of course, the film is still interesting to children, but the story is much more clearly directed at adults, as well. Moreover, ‘Toy Story’ marks a very welcome break with the number one rule of the animated feature film world of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s: that an animated feature film should be a musical. In contrast, ‘Toy Story’ features only two songs, which are sung by an off screen Randy Newman, and not by any of the characters. Moreover, these two songs are mood pieces, not stopping the action to break out into song. Both the more adult approach and the discarding of the obligate musical formula were as refreshing in 1995 as the computer animation itself. When the computer animation revolution really took off around 2000, other studios took heed. The best examples are arguably Dreamworks’s first two computer-animated features, ‘Antz’ (1998) and ‘Shrek’ (2001).

The idea of ‘Toy Story’ is actually an expansion of Pixar’s earlier short ‘Tin Toy’ (1988): toys are alive, and their sole purpose in life is to serve the little kids that own them and play with them. Throughout the film we watch the events from the toys’ perspective: we share their fears, their needs, and their wishes. The film starts with Andy’s birthday: an important day for the toys, because it heralds the possible arrival of newcomers. Another story idea that sets things in motion is the upcoming move of Andy’s family. And finally, there’s a neighbor kid called Sid who tortures toys. These three ideas mark the unfolding of the events.

To make the toy world more believable, the studio included some recognizable trademark toys, like a Troll Doll, Etch A Sketch, and of course, Mr. Potato Head. The film also starts a long tradition of self-reference, starting with the ball from ‘Luxo, Jr.’ (1986) returning in Andy’s house. Later in the movie a television ad shows ‘Al’s toy barn’, which would make an important location for ‘Toy Story 2’.

But it’s of course, the leading characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear who steal the show. Voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively, the dialogues between the two forced pals is delightful throughout the picture. Both characters have their own interesting story arcs: Woody has to deal with an intruder who replaces him as Andy’s favorite toy, making him jealous of the intruder, and Buzz Lightyear has to face the fact he is not the space ranger he imagines to be, but ‘just’ an action figure. Buzz Lightyear not only provides the film’s timeless quote ‘to infinity and beyond’, his delusional acting is a great source of comedy in the first half of the film. The best line may be Buzz’s reaction to Sid’s surgery scene: “I don’t believe this man has ever been to medical school”. Woody, meanwhile, verges on the brink of being a jerk, and it takes quite some time before he redeems himself. All this leads to an excellent finale, a speedy chase, with all the excitement of an action film (the only unconvincing part of this finale is when Buzz Lightyear is suddenly able to free himself from the rocket tied to him).

The most impressive shot is that of Buzz Lightyear listening to Woody’s monologue, on Sid’s workbench. The inner thinking suggested by the animation is of the highest level possible, and should be an example to all students of character animation. Tim Allen ranked it as his finest acting for the film before realizing that his character wasn’t speaking, so he had no involvement in this scene, at all.

Despite having much less screen time, other characters come off as rounded as well: insecure Rex, loving Bo, loyal dog Slinky, more cynical Ham, and assertive Mr. Potato Head. Their characters are quickly established during the opening scenes, so they can be played out during the rest of the film. Sid is an interesting villain: despite being cruel, he’s also a kid with a remarkably fantasy, and like Andy, places his toys in stories of his own creation. Even Sid’s toys gain some character, despite being unable to speak (why this is so is never revealed).

The excellent story, the great characters, and superb animation are also helped by Pixar’s pleasant color design, a quality the studio has retained throughout their existence. The colors are rooted in realism, but clearly reflect the mood of the story, with the bright browns, yellows and blues of Andy’s room contrasting highly with the sickly greens, purples and blacks of Sid’s room.

In all, ‘Toy Story’ is not only a technical milestone, with its lean storytelling and great characters, it’s an excellent film by any standard, and it’s the story and the characters that secure the film’s place in cinema canon. Even if all subsequent progress in computer animation will eventually make the film look primitive and dated, the story and its characters will remain a delight to watch. The film heralded the Pixar studio as a major force in the animation world, comparable to that of Disney in the 1930s. Indeed, during the coming years, the studio was to be on the very front of animation film development, creating feature films of a surprising quality and diversity, a position that only started to waver at the dawn of the 2010s.

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

‘Toy Story’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Emily Hubley
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★★

‘Her Grandmother’s Gift’ is directed and animated by Emily Hubley, and narrated by her mother, Faith Hubley.

Faith Hubley recalls her own first period, and the unhealthy attitude her own mother had towards this natural phenomenon. Emily Hubley illustrates this remarkably frank and autobiographical tale with images that are related to but different from her own mother’s art. The younger Hubley relies much less on animation cycles than her mother, and pimps her images with collage art, photographs and the use of bits of cut-out animation. Her style is less poetic than her mother’s, but her images support her mother’s narrative very well.

Watch ‘Her Grandmother’s Gift’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://vimeo.com/89536021

‘Her Grandmother’s Gift’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 2’

Directors: Faith Hubley & Emily Hubley
Release Date:
1995
Rating:
★★★½

In ‘Rainbows of Hawai’i’ director Faith Hubley, ever thirsty for mythology, turns her attention to the isles of Hawaii. She retells four Hawaiian stories, in her own idiosyncratic way, using a lot of repetitive animation cycles, dancing figures, and semi-abstract, yet vibrant images.

In terms of animation most interesting is the first story, ‘Hisaka Asks the Dragon’s Permission to Enter the Forest – They Do Battle’, in which the animation of the dragon is surprisingly traditional. Most intriguing is the second story, in which a woman gives birth to a friendly green shark. The four stories are followed by a last section, titled ‘All Children Are Sacred and the Dance of Life and Death Goes on and on’, which reshuffles images from all four previous stories with images of dancing figures.

According to the titles, Hubley took inspiration from Oceanic art, but frankly, this is not really visible, as the images in ‘Rainbows of Hawai’i’ aren’t very different from those in her earlier films.

‘Rainbows of Hawai’i’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 2’

Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date:
1994
Rating:
★★★★½

‘Seers and Clowns’ is one of Faith Hubley’s less comprehensible films. Like many of her other works, the short is drenched in mythology.

The film consists of five very short chapters, and uses citations from Chief Seattle, Lao Tse and Kabir. Throughout the film Hubley’s Joan Miró-like imagery remains beautiful, poetic and intriguing, but as most images consist of short animation cycles of semi-abstract figures dancing with joy, any story is hard to follow.

Most interesting is when Hubley’s enriches her style with Eastern influences (in ‘A Chinese Seer Divines Change’) or from Ancient Greece (in ‘Cybele’s Dream’). The mythological atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Don Christensen’s quasi-ethnic music.

Watch ‘Seers and Clowns’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Seers and Clowns’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 2’

Director: Mamoru Oshii
Release Date: November 18, 1995
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Ghost in the Shell’ was the best known anime film in the West between ‘Akira’ (1988) and ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). This was of course mainly because it was one of the very few Japanese features being released in the West in the first place. But what also helped was that the film merges science fiction, action thriller and philosophy into an entertaining melting pot, which a sexy cyborg as its main star.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is based on a manga by Masamune Shirow and tells about major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg, who has to track down a dangerous hacker called the ‘Puppet Master’. But when the true identity of the Puppet Master is revealed, things take a whole different turn…

The plot of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is complex and very hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the future world in which it takes place is introduced with a minimum of background story, thus the viewer has to grab the relevant information along the way. For example, only gradually it became clear to me that practically every citizen in this future world has augmented brains, and is therefore hackable. Or that Kusanagi wasn’t an android, as I thought, but a cyborg, although we don’t see any biological tissue on her. In fact, already within the first two minutes we see her naked, with clearly defined breasts, but no genitals whatsoever, looking strangely like a Barbie doll instead.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a true cyberpunk film, and revolves around the idea of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human or to be alive. Not only does the main plot focuses on those ideas, there are several, often rather pompous dialogues between Kusanagi and her partner, the muscular fellow cyborg Bateau, in which the two ponder the meaning of their own existence. A lot of attention goes to the mysterious ‘ghost’ within the wired neural networks, a word that the Japanese use untranslated, and which points directly to Arthur Koestler’s ‘the ghost in the machine’ (1967). The Japanese ‘Ghost’ is translated back into ‘soul’ in the subtitles, but its precise concept remains vague, and in the end both the story and these bits of dialogue are much too thin to call ‘Ghost in the Shell’ a philosophical masterpiece, for despite all the philosophical implications the film is an action thriller first and foremost.

Nevertheless, I suspect the feature was an influence on the makers of ‘The Matrix’, for it foreshadows some of the latter film’s themes, and ‘The Matrix’ quite clearly stole both the connection to the network by neck and the theme of green numbers filling the screen from ‘Ghost in the Shell’.

As a thriller the film delivers, featuring spectacular manhunts, several shootings and fights, a few bits of gross violence, and an exciting finale in an abandoned natural history museum, a setting deliberately chosen to enhance the movie’s theme of new developments within human and non-human evolution. The action is greatly helped by excellent staging and by solid background art, supervised by Takashi Watabe, evoking a partly drowned, and partly abandoned metropolis containing many different nationalities, not unlike the world of ‘Blade Runner’ (1982).

Also strong is Kenji Kawai’s musical soundtrack, which uses electronics, percussion and haunting choirs to a unique and unsettling effect. Around 35 minutes there’s even a more than a minute long gorgeous mood piece, consisting of townscapes and music only, which is pure atmosphere, and completely unnecessary to the plot.

Much less impressive is the animation, supervised by Hiroyuki Okiura. Compared to ‘Akira’ or contemporary output by the Ghibli studio, the animation in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ looks cheap and low-budget. There are many scenes in which there’s hardly to no animation at all, especially during the dialogue scenes, and talking is suggested by a bare minimum of means. For example, there’s a shot of Kusanagi talking that uses only two drawings in rapid succession. Even worse, the cyborgs can talk to each other without speaking, leaving several scenes totally unanimated. This is too bad, for when there’s more effort placed into the animation, it’s actually quite good. Especially a complex scene in a crowded market place stands out as a great piece of animated action, as does the final battle between the colonel and a robot tank. The 2d animation is often combined with rather primitive computer animation, which may have looked quite cool then, but which hasn’t aged very well. Most impressive is the use of CGI in the camouflage suits.

The character designs, too, also by Okiura, leave much to be desired. The characters are very generic, and rather angular, and lack the appeal of those in contemporary Ghibli or Otomo films. Kusanagi is hardly the sexy heroine she’s supposed to be, and often looks uncannily masculine. At least the Western characters are distinguishable from the Asian ones, a rather rare feat in anime.

Thus ‘Ghost in the Shell’ may disappoint the pure animation lovers, but will delight those interested in Japanese science fiction and cyborg themes. As such it’s a film that has aged surprisingly well. Even better, the feature’s relevance has only grown since then, as the real world has been rapidly moving towards the future depicted in the film.

In 2004 ‘Ghost in the Shell’ was followed by a sequel, ‘Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and in 2017 by a live action version, starring Scarlett Johansson as the major.

Watch the trailer for ‘Ghost in the Shell’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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