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Director: Peter Lord
Release Date:
March 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

Aardman’s fifth feature film was, after two computer animated films, a welcome return to the stop-motion the studio is most famous for. It had been seven years since their last stop-motion feature film, ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, and meanwhile the studio had exchanged partnership from Dreamworks to Sony Pictures Animation.

Not that that is visible in ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ (also known as The Pirates! Band of Misfits’), however, as the film is one hundred percent Aardman. More precisely, even though Nick Park was not involved in this project, his recognizable style now had become the trademark general Aardman style, thus ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ explores characters with the same googly eyes and large teeth, if slightly more ‘realistic’ than in the Wallace & Gromit universe.

Unlike Aardman’s earlier features, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is not an original story, but an adaptation of a children’s novel by British writer Gideon Defoe. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on any differences, but the film certainly is a pretty silly affair, and much of it must have been present in the original writing.

The film takes place in some fantasy take on the 19th century, and stars several historical figures, like Queen Victoria (here depicted as a furious pirate-hating monarch and the villain of the film), Charles Darwin (depicted as a whiny and cowardly character, longing for a girlfriend, and having an all too intelligent chimpanzee as a butler), and, in a small cameo, Jane Austen (the latter’s inclusion is particularly odd, as she died twenty years before Victoria became queen).

The pirates of the title have more in common with Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘Pirates of Penzance’ (1879)* than with the real thing and are depicted with all the present day cliches imaginable. They’re all dressed in 17th century fashion, belying the 19th century setting, there are wooden legs, flags with skulls, several ‘arrrr’s etc. The modern take on this time period in emphasized by a soundtrack of modern British pop music featuring songs by e.g. Tenpole Tudor, The Clash, The Beat and Supergrass. Thus historicity clearly isn’t the film’s main goal.

On the contrary, the film is self-consciously loony, and chock full of gags and pure nonsense. For example, there’s a pirate festival in which one pirate will be awarded ‘pirate of the year’; one of those pirates makes his entrance from the insides of a giant sperm whale landing on the small harbor; queen Victoria’s dress turns out to be a military killing machine, and so on and so forth.

The story tells about ‘The Pirate Captain’ (he nor his crew do carry names), who dreams of winning ‘the pirate of the year’ award, but who’s actually the laughing stock of the pirate community. In one of his puny attempts to loot a ship he meets Charles Darwin (on his voyage on ‘The Beagle’, which in reality also occurred before Queen Victoria was crowned). Darwin takes interest in the Pirate Captain’s parrot Polly, who’s actually a dodo, and persuades the captain to hand her over for science…

‘The Pirate Captain’, excellently voiced by Hugh Grant, is a round character, dim but enthusiastic, incapable but ambitious, and the story’s focus rests on the tension field between his own ambitions and the love for his crew, mostly personified by pirate ‘Number Two’, who acts as the conscience of the ship. The other six crew members are less well-developed, but allow for a lot of laughs, especially ‘Albino Pirate’ and ‘Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate’ (an obvious woman with a false orange beard).

In the end the story is less interesting than the general silly atmosphere and the multitude of gags. In fact, the plot is disappointingly generic, containing the obligate break-up scene in which the ambitions of the main protagonist lead to an alienation of his friends (also present in e.g. ‘Up’ from 2009 and ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ from 2013), and an equally generic gravity-defying finale, once again bringing back memories to ‘Up’.

The animation is outstanding throughout, and one quickly forgets it’s all done in laboring stop motion. There’s way too much action, and even a breathtaking chase scene (inside Darwin’s London home) to stand still and marvel at the animation itself – it’s simply too fluent, and seemingly effortless – a testimony of the enormous talent present at the British studio. There’s even some traditional animation, when the Pirates’ voyages are depicted on a map of the world. Likewise, there’s hardly time to gape at the sets, which are magnificent in their elaboration and made with so much love and care that one gets immediately submerged into the pirates’ world. I’ve seen the pirate ship at an Aardman exhibition in Groningen, The Netherlands, and that alone is a prop of 3 meters high(!). The captain’s room, too, was something to marvel at – containing a lot of subtle jokes you’ll hardly notice in the movie – if at all. Look for the captain’s log!

In all, ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is great fun, brought to you with bravado and a virtuosity that will leave you breathless.

* the whole concept of Pirate King seems to come from this operetta.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Michèle Lemieux
Release Date:
February 15, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★½
Review:

One of the most original devices for animation is the pinscreen, deviced by Alexandre Alexeïeff and his wife Claire Parker in the 1930s. Already in 1933 Alexeïeff himself demonstrated the power of this instrument with ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘. However, it almost seemed that the use of machine would die with the great master.

Luckily, Canadian animator Jacques Drouin has continued this tradition, and passed it on to Michèle Lemieux. With its soft black and white images the pinscreen is especially fit for poetical images, and Lemieux’s film certainly is very lyrical. The film is subtitled ‘four meditations on space and time’, and consists of four parts, only bridged by the short’s protagonist, a piano playing man, living in a round chamber.

There’s no traditional story and no dialogue, and little music (which can only be heard during one episode and the finale). But the images are very absorbing, and the sound design is superb. The first episode, in which the man watches some strange phenomenons in the sky, is most intriguing, as is the second episode, which makes great use of metamorphosis. The third, however, is rather static, and relies a little too much on the music to evoke mood. Most disturbing is the fourth chapter, ‘The return of Nothingness’, in which a flying object sucks all objects in the man’s room away from him.

Lemieux ends her beautiful, if rather puzzling film with the pinscreen itself, and she cleverly uses the device to depict the man’s transfiguration. In all, Lemieux proves a very capable animator on this intriguing device, and one hopes she’ll make more animation films this way.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Here and the Great Elsewhere’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Here and the Great Elsewhere’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 8

Director: Till Nowak
Release Date:
January 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ is a mockumentary in which a professor (Leslie Barnaby) of “the institute for centrifugal research, Florida” tells us about his research.

It’s best to let the film surprise you, so I’m not going to tell you too much, but the film’s main attraction is that Nowak has tried to hide the fact that any animation has been involved in the footage. The film makes clever use of live action shots of rides on fairs, ingeniously manipulated with computer animation, sometimes with quite ridiculous results. But as all experiments shown are based on real rides, the images remain stunningly convincing, even an extended Ferris wheel that seems to fill the complete sky.

The result is a fun short, with understated humor, which is over before you know it.

Watch ‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Centrifuge Brain Project’ is available on The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 7

Director: Fernando Cortizo
Release Date: October 31, 2012
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

O Apostolo2012 was a good year for stop motion animation fans: no less than four stop motion features were released that year. In March we had Aardman’s ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’, followed by Laika’s ‘ParaNorman’ in August and Disney’s ‘Frankenweenie’ in September. Least known among these was the last release, from October: ‘O Apóstolo’ from Spain.

Somehow, stop motion feature film makers seem to favor horror-inspired plots, and ‘O Apóstolo’ is no exception. However, unlike ‘ParaNorman’ or ‘Frankenweenie’, ‘O Apóstolo’ is not a lighthearted family film. Instead, it’s a dark gothic thriller, and it succeeds surprisingly well in maintaining a high level of suspense throughout most of the picture.

Both the film’s theme and setting are typical Spanish: the film is drenched in a catholic atmosphere, and it’s set in a remote village on the road to Santiago de Compostela, famous for its numerous pilgrims. We follow the thief Ramon, who has escaped from prison to turn to this village to collect a treasure his cell mate has hidden there.

We soon discover that there is something terribly wrong with the little village. Its inhabitants seem to lure innocent pilgrims, and try to keep them there. It remains long unknown why, keeping the suspense at a high level. And even when the obligatory explanation of the events comes, the makers present it elegantly: the explanation, despite being long and quite absurd, is beautifully done in 2D animation with quasi-medieval designs, accompanied by a song.

Luckily, the film also has its lighter moments, mostly in a subplot, involving a particularly unsympathetic archbishop, who goes on his way to invest the loss of pilgrims. It’s soon clear that the film makers have plotted a punishment for this haughty, selfish character.

Apart from the gripping plot, ‘O Apóstolo’ excels in gorgeous production values. The little village and its sinister forest surroundings are conceived with stunning detail. They are as rich as any life action background, and contribute highly to the dark and creepy atmosphere. The puppets are designed less originally than the other features mentioned above, but retain a certain realism, which makes it possible to relate to them, especially with the main protagonist, Ramon the thief. The sole exception is the priest, whose appearance is too absurd and too sinister to blend in. It’s a pity, because his dominant presence casts a shadow on the more underplayed (and underdesigned) other village characters, whose threat is much more subtle, and therefore more disturbing.

In all, ‘O Apóstolo’ easily draws you in. It is without doubt one of the most original and best animated films of 2012. It definitely deserves to be more well-known.

Watch the official trailer of ‘O Apóstolo’ and tell me what you think:

Directors: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett
Release Date: November 2, 2012
Stars: Graham Chapman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

A Liar's Autobiography‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’ is a film adaptation of Graham Chapman’s own nonsensical autobiography.

At first the film appears to follow Chapman’s book closely, using his own voice over from a audiobook recording. In fact, apart from one song all of Chapman’s vocalizations are by Graham Chapman himself, using various sources. Other former Monty Python members provide some voices, too.

The film adaptation of Chapman’s book is excellent, perfectly blending his dry humor with tongue-in-cheek images. However, the film makers want to make the film a biopic, leaving the book half way and adding some chapters of their own. At this point the film starts to drag. It becomes less humorous and more wandering, with lots of images drenched in sex and alcohol. And so, the film fades out ingloriously, leaving less an impression than it did when it started.

‘A Liar’s Autobiography’ was made by no less than fourteen different animation studios, and the overall array of styles is refreshing and at times mesmerizing. At the same time it can become a bit tiring to watch a changing of style at every scene, and sometimes the design is subpar, or downright ugly. The result is a moderately entertaining film that remains shallow and unmoving, nonetheless.

Watch the trailer of  ‘A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Release Date: August 24, 2012
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

t's Such a Beautiful Day © Don Hertzfeldt‘It’s such a Beautiful Day’ tells about Bill, a man with some kind of terminal disease, which affects his memory. The film uses an episodic, non-linear narrative, and at times feels as confused as the protagonist’s mind.

Hertzfeldt uses some unconventional ways to tell his story. He himself tells us the story in a dry, matter-of-factly, slightly worrying voice over, which makes the sometimes poignant episodes even more gripping. The images themselves are very simple: the people in the film are no more than stick figures. But because of Hertzfeldt’s perfect sense of timing, these simple images are richer than many more elaborately drawn animation films. The stick figure images are interchanged with 8mm-film-like live action fragments of details in streets, trees, the sea etc. Hertzfeldt’s basic screen is black, in which often more than one of his images is projected. This technique harks back to the silent era, and gives his film a timeless look.

Hertzfeldt uses all these techniques to tell a fragmented, associative narrative, which is rich in detailed observations on daily life. The scenes motivate the viewer to try to connect the presented information into an overall story. The scenes are often comical, even hilarious, with Bill watching a man with a leaf blower as a particular highlight. As often, however, the scenes are moving and very emotional. Throughout the feature the deterioration of Bill’s mind becomes clearly visible, and when he decides to take a walk around the block, the result is as funny as it is painful. The most beautiful part, however, is when Bill celebrates life, paying attention to details that normally go unnoticed. The film’s finale, too, is no less than glorious.

‘It’s such a Beautiful Day’ is a compilation of three short films released earlier: ‘Everything will be OK’ (2006), ‘I Am So Proud of You’ (2008), and ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ (2012). To compile these into one feature is a very logical step. In fact, watching them together as one continuous story actually makes much more sense. The result is one of the most original feature films ever made, and also one of the most moving. An impressive effort by any standard, and especially when considering that this is a one-man-project.

Watch the trailer of ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day’ and tell me what you think:

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