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Director: Tim Burton
Release Date:
September 20, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Frankenweenie’ was the third horror-themed animated feature of 2012, after ’ParaNorman’ and ’Hotel Transylvania’. Based on a short live action film director Tim Burton made way back in 1984 when still working at Disney, Again made at Disney, the new ‘Frankenweenie’ is obviously an ode to classic horror cinema, and to ‘Frankenstein’ from 1931 in particular.

Indeed, the references to other films are all over the place, and as horror is not my specialty, I’m sure I have not nearly caught half of them. It already starts with the town’s name, ‘New Holland’, which is a direct reference to the Dutch settlement in which Irving Washington’s tale of horror ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ (1820) takes place.

Main protagonist Victor’s surname is Frankenstein. His eccentric science teacher takes after horror actor Vincent Price, while Edgar, one of his school mates, looks like the hunchbacked Fritz in ‘Frankenstein’. Another school mate looks like a mix between Buster Keaton and the monster of Frankenstein, and so on and so forth. In the finale Burton even throws references to 1950s movie monsters into the mix, unfortunately diluting the theme on the way.

In any case ‘Frankenweenie’ suffers from a lack of focus. Not only can’t Burton stick to the Frankenstein theme, but his film is also stuffed with ideas that lead nowhere. For example, there’s an evil neighbor, whose role is hardly played out. He lives up to a festival day called ‘Dutch Day’, but again very little is done with the concept. This neighbor guards one Elsa van Helsing (yes, there’s another reference), a probable love interest to Victor, but this story idea isn’t developed beyond conception. Then there’s the father who worries Victor becomes too weird – and again, this story idea is only used to get the story at the point at which Victor can revive his deceased dog, after which this subplot never returns.

There’s a particularly large number of villains in this film: the neighbor is evil, Edgar is evil, Toshiaki (yet another of Victor’s schoolmates) is evil, but like the other story elements their particular stories are touched, not played out. We mostly learn that reviving animals apparently is deadly easy. Best of the oddball characters that fill the film is a wide-eyed girl with a cat that prophecies in its poo.

Tim Burton certainly has indulged in stuffing his film with references, but what he wanted to tell with his story is less clear. There’s even a completely idiotic message (voiced by Victor’s science teacher) that science can only succeed when you put your heart into it. Really?! If you’d believe this, you’d believe science is more like magic than a method.

Despite the weak story, the film’s finale consists of twenty minutes of pure action and excitement, ending in a burning windmill (yes, echoing ‘Frankenstein’). This sequence is full of stunning cinematography and complex sets. There’s even a moment of real horror, including a scare moment. Unfortunately, after the action sequence the films ends forced and cliché with e.g., an applauding crowd, missing an opportunity for a more intelligent and daring ending.

It’s a shame ‘Frankenweenie’ doesn’t deliver story-wise, for the film’s looks are a delight. In design ‘Frankenweenie’ is clearly the successor of Burton’s earlier and similarly horror-themed stop-motion films, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993) and, more obviously, ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005). Like in those earlier films, the puppets are top-heavy, with long slender limbs. But unlike these two earlier films, ‘Frankenweenie’ is no musical, and Burton made the bold move to film this movie in black and white, enhancing the classic feel. The cinematography is at times no less than marvelous, like in the reviving scene, or the scenes at the graveyard.

The animation is fine, but sometimes on the bland side, especially on Victor’s parents and secondary characters, whose expressions are too often rather empty gazes. Moreover, nowhere do the animators manage to blow genuine feelings into the puppets (most of the characters are just weird anyway), and the film lacks proper emotion, even in its most desperate scenes.

‘Frankenweenie’ is not a bad film, it’s too well crafted for that, but when compared to Burton’s earlier movie ‘Corpse Bride’ or to Laika’s contemporary and comparable ‘ParaNorman’ it just falls short on its potential. Especially ‘ParaNorman’ does well what ‘Frankenweenie’ does not: staying focused, spinning a tale with a clear message, building characters you care for, and giving the film a surprising twist. At least we should be thankful that 2012 brought us no less than two stop motion features, keeping the old technique alive and kicking in a sea of computer animation.

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

’Frankenweenie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Julia Gromskaya
Release Date:
2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Fiumana’ shows that Georges Schwizgebel’s particular way of animating has made school. Julia Gromskaya adapts Schwizgebel’s painting techniques and constantly shifting perspective to tell a tale of a woman waiting for her man, while drowning in her memories.

Gromskaya’s film is much more stream-of-consciouslike than Schwizgebel’s films, however, and has strong surrealist overtones, with some original metamorphosis going on while the images flow into each other. For example, at one point the woman’s eyes change into boats on a river, which in turn changes into the smoke of the man’s pipe.

Gromskaya’s painting style, too, differs from Schwizgebel’s, and is much more fauvist and naive. Her flow of images is supported by a gentle chamber music score by Francesca Badalini. The result is a puzzling yet beautiful film that is over before you know it.

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

‘Fiumana’ is available on the DVD-box ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 7’

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Release Date:
June 25, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

Director Mamoru Hosoda rose to prominence with the feature films ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ (2006) and ‘Summer Wars’ (2009), both made at the Madhouse studio.

To make his next film, ‘Wolf Children’ he created his own studio, Chizu, allowing him to make ‘author films’. And indeed, Hosoda has proven to be a strong voice in Japanese animated cinema, especially with ‘The Boy and the Beast’ (2015) and ‘Mirai’ (2018). Many place ‘Wolf Children’ in the same league, but I’d disagree, as I will explain below.

‘Wolf Children’ tells about Hana, a student who falls in love with an enigmatic boy, who turns out to be half man half wolf. She bears him two children, who have inherited her boyfriend’s dualistic nature, but then he dies, and she must raise the two on her own. But how will she manage as her children are both human and wolf?

The film encompasses a long time period, up to ca. twenty years, and from time to time a voice over (by Hana’s daughter Yuki) takes over. The film thus is very episodic, but also remarkably low key, poetic and tranquil. Several scenes are mood pieces, only carried by music, letting the images do the work. Moreover, most of the emotions are seen from a distance, and the most dramatic moment of the movie, Yuki’s rescue of her little brother Ame, isn’t even shown.

Unfortunately, the episodic nature also means that the film lacks focus. The story doesn’t stay with Hana but diverts to the experiences of Yuki and Ame and back, story lines are introduced and dropped as well as characters. For example, when Hana moves to the countryside, several scenes are devoted to her relationship with the villagers, most importantly one grumpy old Nirasaki. But later this theme is dropped, and the characters are not seen again.

Hosoda does succeed in showing how little events in children’s lives can change their character and outlook on life forever. Indeed, Yuki and Ame go different directions in life, proving that one upbringing can have very different outcomes.

Despite the film’s interesting message, the lack of focus, the episodic nature, the slow speed, and the sheer length (the film clocks almost two hours) all hamper the film. One wishes Hosoda dared to be more concise, killing more darlings.

Moreover, stylistically the film doesn’t deviate from the general anime style. As all other anime films of the era, the movie exploits very realistic and intricate background art, and the character design feels generic and uninspired, despite being designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of ‘Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water’ (1990) and ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ (1995) fame. In fact, with their rather ugly line work and flat colors, the characters contrast greatly with the often beautiful background art, and are simply subpar.

The animation and cinematography, on the other hand, are excellent, and there’s some clever use of computer animation, especially during the scene in which Yuki and Ame run through a snow-covered forest.

‘Wolf Children’ is certainly an interesting and by no means a bad movie, but for a director being able to do his own thing, Hosoda certainly could have been more daring artistically, and more focused storywise.

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

‘Wolf Children’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Natalia Chernysheva
Release Date:
September 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

In ‘Snowflake’ a little boy in Africa gets a paper-cut snowflake by mail. That night he dreams his surroundings are covered with snow, making all animals shiver.

This is a charming little film done in a quasi-naive style, and making good use of black and whites, with occasional flashes of color. Especially the scenes in which the boy explores the snow-covered world are beautiful, with his red coat, shawl, hood and mittens standing out against the blacks, whites and greys of the animals and their surroundings. Also noteworthy is Chernysheva’s excellent timing, and the sound design, which is spot on.

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

‘Snowflake’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Anna Kadykova
Release Date:
September 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

A little mole, living in a grey, polluted city discovers images of the sea in an abandoned magazine. He longs to go there, and travels, like moles do, underground to go there. Unfortunately, the beach is as crowded as the city was.

‘The Mole at the Sea’ (also known as ‘Moe Goes to the Beach’) is a charming little film, with lots of little jokes, many of which are slightly on the surreal side. Kadykova’s style is instantly likable, and her timing excellent. Especially the scenes of the over-crowded beach are nice to watch.

Watch ‘The Mole at the Sea’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Mole at the Sea’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Joel Simon
Release Date:
July 5, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

‘Macropolis’ was commissioned by the ‘Unlimited Programme’, part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and dedicated to deaf and disabled arts and culture.

The short stars a toy cat, who’s rejected from the factory because he’s only got one eye. He teams up with a little toy dog with only one leg. The cat gives the dog a leg prosthesis, the dog gives the cat an eye patch and together they try to catch the truck which delivers all the other toys to the toy store.

‘Macropolis’ is a gentle little film which succeeds in moving the audience without any dialogue. The stop motion is mixed with pixillation and live action, and filmed partly outdoors. A nice touch is that the film makers don’t hide the fact that stop motion takes a lot of time, and the background is buzzing with movement as the two little animals wander the streets.

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

‘Macropolis’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Pascale Hecquet
Release Date:
June 9, 2012
Rating:
 ★★
Review:

‘Duo de Volailles, Sauce Chasseur’ is a short comedy film in which a white and a black chicken are threatened by a fox in their own home.

The film is is black and white itself and tries to play with the idea that the white chicken is invisible in light and the black chicken invisible in the dark. Thus the film features a lot of on and off switching of lights.

Unfortunately, the film never succeeds in getting funny. Hecquet’s facial designs on the fox are more trite than funny, and his timing is sloppy. It certainly doesn’t help that at one point the two chickens start dancing a tango. How this deludes the fox is beyond me, because both thus remain visible to the fox throughout. Hecquet’s use of split screen is a rather petty try to make the action more exciting than it really is. The end result is a disappointingly tiresome film that never lives up to its clever premise.

Watch ‘Duo de Volailles, Sauce Chasseur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Duo de Volailles, Sauce Chasseur’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Director: Lena von Döhren
Release Date:
February 14, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Der kleine Vogel und das Blatt’ is a charming little film starring a small bird caring for a single leaf.

When the leaf falls off, the little bird tries to retrieve it, while being chased by a hungry fox. The film uses no dialogue, but simple, attractive designs, and excellent timing. Animated in 2D in the computer, the film makes great use of its winter setting.

Watch ‘Der kleine Vogel und das Blatt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Der kleine Vogel und das Blatt’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Haas & Hert en andere verhaaltjes’

Directors: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Release Date:
June 10, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

It’s hard to call ‘Brave’ the first Pixar letdown, that questionable honor goes to ‘Cars 2’ from the previous year, but the film certainly is a disappointment, not delivering upon its potential.

The film had a rather troubled production, with writer/director Brenda Chapman being replaced halfway by Mark Andrews, and somehow it shows. ‘Brave’ is arguably the first Pixar film that comes across as a half-baked product, with story ideas not worked out to the max.

The film’s premise is good: ‘Brave’ is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a princess even, surprisingly placing the film in a long Disney tradition. But Merida is not your average princess. The Scottish red-haired girl is a feisty character, a talented archer, a lover of action and adventure, and bound to step in her father’s footsteps, who’s a great warrior himself. Unfortunately, her mother stifles her into a more traditional role of womanhood, constantly telling her what a princess ought and not ought to do. Even worse, her mother prepares Merida for marriage, with several suitors coming over to compete for her. Unfortunately, not one of them is suiting marriage material (for example, one talks unintelligible, without any obvious reason), and Merida isn’t interested in this prospect, anyway, so she plans to compete herself, as she’s by far the best archer of the lot, repeating the arrow-splitting act of ‘Robin Hood’ (1973).

So far so good, but then the tale suddenly abandons the archery subplot completely. Instead, it dwindles away into a tale of magic, in which Merida deliberately poisons her mother, changing the poor woman into a bear. Unfortunately, at this point the story of independence is abandoned completely, as Merida now must bond with her bear-mother and to protect her against the men, who gladly would kill the beast. Sure, Merida’s mother now learns what Merida has learned outside the castle, but Merida’s insight in her mother’s ways is less worked out, and there’s a very unconvincing scene in which she steps in her mother’s footsteps, addressing the men, guided by her mother’s gestures. Anyhow, as soon Merida’s mother has turned into a bear, her problems are obviously bigger than Merida’s own, and thus the attention naturally shifts from the curly teenager to the poor woman, which contributes to a lack of focus, which permeates the film anyhow. I believe the very idea of turning Merida’s mother into a bear is a fundamental problematical one, a mistake central to the film’s story problems, especially when compared to the similar ‘Brother Bear’ (2003) and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000) in which the main protagonist himself turns into an animal.

At any rate, after the archery scene the story begins to falter, leaving an awful lot of plot holes open. For example, there’s an ancient legend on four clans, but this idea is worked out badly, and hardly connected to the main story. The function of the killing of the giant bear Mor’du is puzzling – wouldn’t it have been better to show that only united the clans could be able to defeat the bear?

‘Brave’ also wastes an opportunity to become a real feminist film. First, in spite of it all, Merida still is a princess, and thus far from an ordinary woman – and her plight is slight when compared to that of her (invisible) less high-born sisterhood. If one compares her burden to that of Robyn in Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) the difference becomes clear. Robyn is depicted working all day, shut off from the real world, while Merida at least can practice archery and such. Second, the role pressure solely comes from her mother, not society – and it’s even implied her father couldn’t care less whether Merida behaves like a princess or not. I think it would have served the film better if Merida’s plight were compared to that of a brother, but the film makers gave the princess a triplet as siblings, which are too young for comparison, and whose only function in the story is as comic relief. At one point they too turn into bears, but nobody seems to care…

No, it’s not the story, nor a feminist message that defines ‘Brave’, it’s texture. The Pixar studio made tremendous progress in depicting cloth and hair in this film, advancing computer animation once again. Merida’s extremely curly hair stands out as particularly well done, but so do the tartans of the tribes, which for the first time look like real fabric. Strangely, the building and rendering of the nature settings has aged less well – the light often is too sharp, leading to overexposed settings, especially on the sunlit grass and leaves. Moreover, the trees are too obviously generated, and look pretty fake. Luckily, the story is entertaining enough that this is soon forgotten.

Another design choice that I like less is the magnification of human sexual dimorphism: Merida’s father is almost three times the size of her slender mother or herself. Unfortunately, this depiction of men and women only diminishes the possible message of equality. Even worse, all the men are depicted as dim-witted and fight-ready, leaving the queen as seemingly the only sane person in this world.

‘Brave’ may be a disappointment, the film still is very well animated. The voice acting is superb, too, starring several Scottish and English actors, so no fake accent can be heard. The soundtrack is fair, with its quasi-Celtic themes, and the cinematography is excellent, but all this cannot rescue a rambling story, leaving ‘Brave’ a film as excellent as it is unsatisfying. A studio like Pixar certainly could and should have done a better job.

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

‘Brave’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Eric Darnell, Conrad Vernon & Tom McGrath
Release Date:
June 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

I’ve never really cared for the Madagascar series. I was pretty unimpressed by the characters, the rather forced angular character designs and the odd unconvincing story lines. In that respect, ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ arguably is the best of the three films.

Not only does it round up nicely the story lines of the first two films, but it does also so in a pleasantly unpredictable way, with its free-flowing story making surprising turns here and there. Thus, I’ll try to reveal as little as possible about the film’s story below. Apart from that, there’s plenty of action, with the first chase scene already appearing at the 13th minute.

It surely does help that the film introduces some new stars besides the regular heroes Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe, and Gloria the hippopotamus. The new characters somehow are far more interesting than the four main characters, let alone the lemurs, chimps, and penguins, who never transcend comic relief. The Italian sea lion Stefano (superbly voiced by Martin Short) is a delight, combining naive optimism with a scent of sadness and insecurity. Even better still is the Russian tiger Vitaly. He gets a surprisingly tragic background story, which makes him far more interesting than the usual antagonist. In fact, Vitaly and Stefano completely outplay the four principal characters, whose character traits aren’t deepened, at all. Their best moment comes – spoiler! – at the end of the film – when they discover how much they’ve outgrown their former home.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the film’s main villain, Captain Chantel DuBois, leader of French animal control. She’s depicted as a supernatural, unhuman woman, willing to go far outside her country and duty to get her prey. As she is a French officer this is pushing the edges of believability way too far. Moreover, her antics hinder the more interesting plot parts which focus on the characters’ emotions. I dare to say that Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ could have been a really good film instead of an average one if the film makers would have focused on the emotional story more, and not on the mostly nonsensical antics of chimps, penguins and lemurs. Especially because the character animation at those more emotional moments is in fact very good.

The pushing of believability is a problem of ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ anyway. The film completely throws the laws of physics out of the window, with characters jumping, flying, riding, and falling in complete disregard of plausibility (this is a waxing problem in American animation film, anyhow – for example, it’s also my main problem with the complete Kung Fu Panda franchise and with e.g. ‘Missing Link’ from 2019).

But worse, the film also pushes the boundaries of plausibility story-wise. We must accept that the four animals and their three lemur friends traveled Africa and the Mediterranean unhindered and that their problems only start in Europe. As said, we must accept that DuBois acts way out of her administration. We must accept that Marty and co. can acquire circus skills in no time solely because they follow their passion. Even worse, we are to believe that they can set up a complete circus show in seemingly one day (there’s not even a montage scene to suggest passing of more time). We must accept that one motivational speech by Alex can clear a lifetime of trauma in Vitaly, and we have to accept that Vitaly, after years and years without training can perform his prize act again at the highest level, without any rehearsal.

These story elements are all preposterous, and they are an abomination and an insult to all real artists. I wonder what got into the film makers to install messages like these into the minds of their audience. By all means, these elements push the all too American “you can do everything you want if you devote yourself to it” message way beyond its limits, and turn it into a downright lie (which, sadly enough, Dreamworks repeated without blinking in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3‘ from 2016).

The film also features an obligate break-up scene, one of the more irritating tropes in American computer-animated cinema, troubling a wide range of films from different studios, like ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ (2016) and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ (2016).

Story problems are not the only problems troubling ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’. The design, too, is unconvincing. The character designs are a mixed bag. For example, the bear Sonya occupies a completely different design space than the angular Alex. The rendering is often pretty ugly, with a high level of unreality. Again, the angular character designs of the characters are at odds with their decors, a problem that persists throughout the Madagascar series. Highlight, design-wise, is the first performance by Alex’s new Cirque du Soleil-inspired circus. This is a series of very colorful images, hardly rooted in reality, and looking more like coming from a dream. I wouldn’t be surprised if these images are a conscious attempt to emulate the same trippy feeling as the pink elephant scene, the most wonderful piece of that most famous animated circus film, ‘Dumbo’ (1941). The end titles, too, seem to be a homage to the classic Disney movie.

It may be clear that Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ never reaches the height of that classic film – it’s simply too flawed and too nonsensical for that. But the film certainly is entertaining, and a surprisingly pleasant finale to the Madagascar series.

Watch the trailer for ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Stephan Schesch & Sarah Clara Weber
Release Date:
June 8, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

Germany is the biggest economy of Europe, but as producer of animation it’s a surprisingly minor player, especially when compared to France. It certainly didn’t help that the Nazi regime virtually wiped out all art life, and that from 1949 until 1991 the country was split into two.

When I think of post-war German animation I immediately think of Die Maus (The Mouse), the silent host of the educational children program ‘Die Sendung mit der Maus’, and of die Mainzelmännchen, the six little guys who embellish advertising blocks on German television since 1963. Germany also boasts some major independent animation artists, like Raimond Krumme, Andreas Hykade and Gil Alkabetz, but otherwise the country produces mostly rather listless feature films which make no impression whatsoever.

So it came as a surprise to me to find in a department store in Berlin an animated film based on a children’s book by Tomi Ungerer, one of the greatest children’s book artists in the world. Even more surprisingly, this is not the first German feature film based on his work. In 2007 Animation X Gesellschaft zur Produktion von Animationsfilmen mbH released a film based on Ungerer’s classic ‘Die drei Räuber’ (The Three Robbers) from 1961. I certainly wish to see that film, too, because ‘Der Mondmann’ is a pleasant surprise.

This feature film is much more elaborate than Ungerer’s original children’s book from 1966 (which Gene Deitch already turned into an animated short in 1981), but the character designs of the moon man and the children are very faithful to Ungerer’s artwork. Even better, Ungerer himself appears as the narrator of the tale (although his voice over is hardly used in the film). The adult characters, however, are more removed from Ungerer’s style, as is the extraordinarily colorful background art, which has a trace of surrealism to it. The looks of the film are on the verge of independent animation, but remain friendly and inviting nonetheless.

The story tells about the moon man, who occupies the complete sphere of the moon, and who is bored to death inside this cramped space. One day he grabs the tail of a fiery comet and descends to earth, hoping for some excitement. The shots of the moon man discovering animals and plants are particularly delightful. Earth, meanwhile, has apparently been occupied by a rather fascist looking regime (a great take is that its flag features a flag). The world president mourns he has conquered the complete world, and has nothing left to conquer, until some lady suggests to conquer the moon. Apparently, in this parallel universe space travel has not been invented, yet, while for example cell phones have.

The world depicted thus is not entirely ours, and this adds to the atmosphere of surrealism, as do several odd side gags that enter the screen and which are completely unrelated to the story. This type of throwaway gags are reminiscent of ‘La planète sauvage’ (Fantastic Planet) from 1973, and indeed, ‘Der Mondmann’ has something in common with that strange film, even if it is much friendlier, and less bizarre. These gags keep the adult audience awake in a film that is otherwise clearly directed to children. There’s also a running gag of a military officer who keeps saying “höchst bedauerlich”(most regrettable) as answers to the president’s complaints.

Anyway, both the Moon Man and the president turn to an inventor called Bunsen van der Dunkel to bring them to the moon. The moon man all too quickly discovers that Earth is not an entirely welcome place, and he discovers his role in the lives of children, who cannot sleep without him watching over them. The central theme of the film is what it means to be friends, something both Bunsen van der Dunkel and the Moon Man discover during the film.

‘Der Mondmann’ is well-told, focusing on only a handful characters, but it is also one of those delightful non-American feature animation films completely throwing American story rules overboard. For example, the film stars a father and his daughter travelling inside an American 1950s cabriolet. The two return several times during the film, but are only marginally involved in the plot. Despite being a children’s film there’s also a clear suggestion of a sex scene. The music choice, too, is pretty idiosyncratic, with important roles for the songs ‘Moon River’ sung by Louis Armstrong and ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ by Iron Butterfly.

In all, ‘Der Mondmann’ is arguably the greatest animated feature film to come from Germany in the 2010s and well worth a watch, especially because it is available with English subtitles.

‘Der Mondmann’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Gert Driessen
Release Date:
October 3, 2012
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

In this short animation film a man who has recently lost his wife, draws her with chalk on the wall. The chalk wife takes him into her chalk world full of memories.

‘Crayon d’amour’ is a gentle film, but hampered by rather ugly computer animation. The simple, cartoony character design doesn’t really match the 3D animation, nor the far more realistic settings. In fact, the traditional animation of the chalk scenes, not by director Gert Driessen himself, but by Florian de Hoes, Cederic Neven and Olivier vanden Busche, is far more impressive. One certainly wonders why not the whole film was made that way. Nevertheless, the 3D scenes have an attractive color design, consisting mostly of cardboard browns.

Watch ‘Crayon d’amour’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Crayon d’amour’ is available on the DVD ‘Framed – De beste Vlaamse korte animatiefilms 2010-2015’

Directors: Emma de Swaef & Marc James Roels
Release Date:
January 28, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★★½
Review:

One of the most striking animation films to come from Belgium in the 2010s was ‘Oh Willy…’ by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels. The film immediately catches attention with its soft puppets and sets – everything is fluffy and velvety, even a rotting carcass. But ‘Oh Willy’ also impresses with its poetic way of story telling.

‘Oh Willy…’ tells about a middle-aged man who returns to the naturalist colony of his youth to visit his dying mother. The man is lonely and withdrawn, and clearly unable to blend in with the naturalists, even if he wants to. One night he gets lost in the woods, which sets him to an all new adventure…

‘Oh Willy…’ uses no dialogue, but the soft puppets breath a lot of animation. Moreover, De Swaef and Roels know how to show, don’t tell, and they leave it to the viewer to connect the dots between the scenes. Interestingly, some of the scenes are pretty raw, even if they’re rendered in the fluffiest animation conceivable. From these scenes one can guess why the man feels so awkward and lost without his mother.

True, when summarized, the story of ‘Oh Willy…’ makes little sense, but as told by De Swaef amd Roels in their fluffy animation it absolutely accounts for a heart-warming experience. ‘Oh Willy…’ is one of those films showing the unique power of animation, and it certainly belongs to the best shorts of the 2010s. And yet, in 2018 the duo topped it with their 44 minute tour-de-force ‘Ce Magnifique Gâteau!’ (This Magnificent Cake!), employing the same soft visual style, combined with brutal scenes, and poetic story telling to dive into the dark corners of Belgium’s colonial past.

Watch ‘Oh Willy…’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Oh Willy…’ is available on the DVD ‘Framed – De beste Vlaamse korte animatiefilms 2010-2015’

Directors: Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar
Release Date:
May 23, 2012
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

In a time in which American studio animation has discarded traditional animation practically altogether, only to embrace a rather generic post-Disney 3D computer style (Laika being the notable exception), one must look elsewhere for animation films in a more unique visual style.

In the 21st century France, especially, has emerged as a producer of animation films with an interesting visual style, using traditional means, with films as different as ‘Les Triplettes de Belleville’ (2003), ‘Persepolis’ (2007), ‘Une vie de chat’ (2010) and ‘Le tableau’ (2011) emerging from that country.

One of such films is ‘Ernest & Célestine’, which immediately draws attention with its gentle, children book-like watercolor style. Produced not only in France, but also in Belgium and Luxembourg, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ is based on a children book series by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent (1928-2000). Vincent’s Ernest & Célestine stories were modest affairs, with the bear and mouse duo singing, picnicking, going to the circus, or celebrating Christmas. But ‘Ernest & Célestine’ the movie is a very different affair, telling a rather Romeo and Juliet-like story of the two heroes bridging two worlds that live in fear of each other. It remains a bit mystifying why producer Didier Brunner didn’t opt for an intimate story, fitting the source material. As such ‘Ernest & Célestine’ could have been a delightfully little film like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988).

Instead, Brunner asked French writer Daniel Pennac for a scenario. Now, Pennac is best known for his social satire. I’ve read his novel ‘The Scapegoat’ from 1985 and his graphic novel ‘La débauche’ (with Jacques Tardi, 2000) and both combine sharp social criticism with great humor. Yet, Pennac’s urban settings seem miles away from Vincent’s nostalgic worlds, and, indeed, the film doesn’t really bridge those.

In fact, the film’s story is its weakest link, as the film doesn’t entirely succeed in both setting this world and introducing both characters before the main story starts. Pennac makes it over-complicated with little mice gathering the teeth from the bear children, an invention completely superfluous to the main plot. Moreover, as soon as Ernest and Célestine meet each other, the latter suddenly turns into a brave, smart-alecky, rather dominating, and talkative character, something we would never have guessed from the earlier scenes.

It doesn’t help that initially neither she nor Ernest come off as very likable. Ernest, for example is introduced as lazy and well-known to the police, and he absolutely sees no problem in breaking in into somebody else’s cellar. Also, his treatment of Célestine is rude, while Célestine comes over as pushy, popping up rather uninvited in Ernest’s home. Only when the two rescue each other from nightmares, they grow towards each other. But this occurs apparently overnight, and the change isn’t entirely convincing.

Worse, when the story finally comes to the subject of Vincent’s books, with scenes of Ernest & Célestine living together, and having fun together, the film enters still water. Likewise, the finale feels forced and fails to convince. Directors Benjamin Renner, Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar (the latter two of ‘A Town Called Panic’ fame) should have known better.

Nevertheless, the film’s message that friendship and understanding can bridge two very different worlds and cultures, is a welcome one, and as said in the intro, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ employs a very pleasant visual style. All background art is painted in watercolors, and the digital coloring of the characters successfully mimics the watercolor style. Moreover, the linework is open, and the edges of the backgrounds dissolve into nothingness, emphasizing the story book feel.

Strikingly, the animation, supervised by Patrick Lambert and done by Les Armateurs and Blue Spirit in France and Studio 352 in Luxembourg, comes across as rather Japanese. Several moves and facial expressions are copied directly from Japanese tropes and are at odds with the European visual style. Indeed, the film makers admit being highly influenced by Ghibli, but unfortunately, story-wise, ‘Ernest & Célestine’ doesn’t reach the Japanese studio’s great heights. This is a pity, for now ‘Ernest & Célestine’ remains a film which is extremely pleasant to look at, but which is also highly frustrating to watch, with its rambling plot, and plodding pace.

Watch the US trailer for ‘Ernest & Célestine’ and tell me what you think:

‘Ernest & Célestine’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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:

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