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Director: Peter Sohn
Release Date: November 10, 2015
Rating: ★★
Review:

During the 2010s Pixar lost quite some of its brilliance. Not only saw the decade a multitude of sequels (seven out of eleven), two of the remaining stand-alone films, ‘Brave’ and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ were in fact strikingly disappointing. Particularly ‘The Good Dinosaur’ feels rather lackluster for a Pixar film. The general public apparently thought so, too, causing ‘The Good Dinosaur’ to become Pixar’s first financial disappointment.

For once, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ feels as if it had hit the theaters before its story problems were entirely solved. The film’s story had a troubled history, with two of its original writers (Bob Peterson and John Walker) being removed from the project halfway, and a release date being postponed two years. And yet, the final product still feels half-baked, and badly thought through.

The film’s premise is an alternate history in which the asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago only passed by, sparing the dinosaurs, and allowing them to evolve to the present day.

If you realize that this allows for a staggering 66 million years of extra evolution, surprisingly little is done with the concept. First, we hardly see any dinosaurs, at all. Only four species are depicted: Arlo’s family of Sauropods, a single Styracosaurus, a few hideously ugly Dromaeosaurids (who look like plucked chickens which makes them the most revolting looking Dromaeosaurids ever put to the screen) and three Tyrannosauruses. We can add some grisly Pterosaurs to the mix (another example of appalling design), but that’s it.

As you may have noticed, the species depicted are all recognizable as familiar species, as if nothing would have happened in 66 million years! Thus, the whole initial concept has been largely thrown away at the beginning. Instead, we are invited to believe Sauropods have invented agriculture, and Tyrannosaurids (who are very well-designed, but certainly not according to the latest scientific evidence of the time) have invented cattle breeding. Even worse, the film makers have allowed mammals to evolve beyond, as well, as if they wouldn’t have had competition from the well-established dinosaurs, depicting buffalo and, sadly, humans. How humans could ever have evolved in the shadow of dinosaurs baffles me, but here they are, and in the Americas, too. And yet, the story seems to take place during the Pleistocene, not extending the time period to the present, but why this may be so, will never be known. It unfortunately only adds to the age-old trope of co-existence of dinosaurs and early man, making ‘The Good Dinosaur’ strangely akin to the nonsense of e.g. The Flintstones.

The film focuses on Arlo, a small, weak and cowardly Sauropod, who loses his father and his home, but befriends a little human whom he calls Spot, and who overcomes his fears on his journey back home.

This story is already pretty uninteresting, but the execution is remarkably boring, and despite a modest length of 93 minutes, the film plods through its story following familiar tropes, and delivering no surprises. As too often in Disney movies there’s a strong focus on ‘family’ that feels tired and cliché. Moreover, Arlo’s development, given the traumatic loss of his father, feels obligate and is rather unconvincing, to say the least. Unlike Simba in ‘The Lion King’ (1994) there’s no sense of guilt or self-punishment, and Arlo’s dream encounter with his father is nothing like that of Simba in the former movie.

It doesn’t really help that for most of the time Arlo is a rather unpleasant character. His weakness and cowardice is not appealing, but annoying, and he behaves selfishly most of the time. To me it’s no less than a marvel that Arlo doesn’t die in the wild, so unbelievably unfit is our ‘hero’ for survival. I certainly believe the voice choice for Raymond Ochoa is part of the problem, for Arlo’s voice got on my nerves over time.

The other animals don’t help either. True, Spot is a well-established character, and surely forms the heart of the film, but Arlo’s family is quite bland, and almost all other creatures Arlo encounters seem rather lunatic, not to say insane. The only exceptions are the three Tyrannosaurs, and they form the highlight of the film. The animation of their walk, which looks like cowboys riding horses, belongs to the most original and best animation of movement ever put to the screen. Moreover, voice actor Sam Elliott is cast perfectly as the leader of the three. I don’t know why but somehow this Tyrannosaurus design is the perfect depiction of the mustached actor in Dinosaur form, as if Elliott had always been a Tyrannosaur deep inside, and the animators have brought his inner dinosaur to life.

Apart from story and personality issues, the film suffers from design flaws. The problems already start with the very first scene, which is a very, very unrealistic depiction of the asteroid belt. As said, the Dromaeosaurid and Pterosaur designs are atrocious, but also Arlo himself suffers. Compared to his co-stars he is way to cartoony, with oversized limbs, eyes and teeth, and essentially unappealing.

Spot is much, much better, but for some unknown reason Spot is shown as only partly bipedal and he’s given some dog-like behavior, while this is discarded in the depiction of other humans. One can argue that the orphan Spot is a feral child, like Mowgli, but as it’s never explained, I doubt whether this concept was even used in the background story.

No, the film’s real highlights are its landscapes. The film excels in impressive depictions of North American nature. The rivers, forests, mountains and plains depicted all look absolutely gorgeous, and are a giant move forward since ‘Cars’ (2005), which itself had been a milestone of landscape building in computer animation. The depiction of wet rocks and needle covered forest floors is no less than stunning and are still unparalleled in their realism and beauty. Indeed, it’s clear the film makers were most proud of their background art, for it’s the landscapes that ornament the end titles, not the characters. To me this says enough.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Good Dinosaur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Good Dinosaur’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli
Release Date: September 12, 2015
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

2015 was a good year for French animation. June already saw the release of the great movies ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ (April and the Extraordinary World) and ‘Tout en haut du monde’ (Long Way North), but these were topped in September by the Franco-Belgian production ‘Phantom Boy’.

‘Phantom Boy’ was created by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, who have been working together at the French Folimage studio since the mid-nineties, and who brought us the entertaining feature film ‘Une vie de chat’ (A Cat in Paris) in 2010. But compared to the earlier feature scenarist Gagnol adds an extra layer of depth to ‘Phantom Boy’, because this is not only an adventure film, but it also tells about a boy suffering from a deadly disease.

‘Phantom Boy’ is a children’s film set in New York, and tells about Léo, an eleven years old boy, who’s seriously ill (he’s probably suffering from cancer, but the exact illness is never revealed) and hospitalized. In the hospital Léo discovers that his spirit can leave his body and look around, encountering other spirits while doing so.

During one of these wanderings, he encounters the spirit of Alex Tanguy, an injured policeman. Tanguy is after a master villain, the “man with the deformed face”, who threatens to shut down the whole of New York with a computer virus if not delivered a huge sum of money. Unfortunately, Tanguy is stuck at the hospital, but he discovers Léo’s spirit can snoop around for him. Thus, Léo can help miss Delauney, a feisty journalist, who’s also on the villain’s trail. There’s a catch, however, Léo’s spirit must return to Léo’s body in time, or Léo will certainly die…

The film is thus a very nice mix of adventure, in which Léo’s superpower is used to a great effect, and drama, because the film makers never lose sight of Léo’s illness, and show the ails, fears, and sorrows of Léo and his family, as well. Thus, the film is not only exciting, but knows some really moving scenes, too.

Nevertheless, the film never becomes heavy- handed, and in fact is often very funny. Especially the master villain’s two helpers are great comic relief, but the best gag goes to the master villain himself, who several times tries to tell the story behind is deformation, only to get cut short all the time.

The film has a very pleasant visual style, courtesy of Jean-Loup Felicioli, who has given the film a very idiosyncratic take on the Franco-Belgian comic strip tradition. Typical for Felicioli is a strongly graphical and very angular style – not a thing is straight in this film, and the slant eyes of most characters. The man with the deformed face is practically cubist, with his multi-colored and checkered face. The color palette is warm and appealing, and the animation uses the jittery style often encountered in independent shorts.

Films like this prove that traditional animation is far from dead (‘Phantom Boy’ was even drawn on paper, and hand colored, even though the final composition was done on the computer), and in fact allows for a less generic and more adventurous style than contemporary computer animation. I’ll even go that far to name ‘Phantom Boy’ the best animated feature of 2015, despite serious competition from both ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ and ‘Inside Out’.

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

‘Phantom Boy’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Fabrice Joubert & Brian Lynch
Release Date: December 8, 2015
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ is the third of three shorts accompanying the Minions feature on its DVD release. Unlike the other two, this short doesn’t star any Minion at all, but focuses instead on the criminal Nelson family the Minions encounter in their feature film.

The short starts with the Nelson just having robbed a museum and returning home. Unfortunately, they’ve left baby Binky’s pacifier at the museum, and the parents tell Binky he has to live with it. But that night, Binky returns to the museum to look for the pacifier, after all.

The best scenes of this comedy short stem from baby Binky’s Mission Impossible-like heist, all done with baby stuff, like diapers, talk powder, and a mobile. Unfortunately, ‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ is also the most talkative of the three, and Binky’s co-star is a remarkably unfunny night guard with a cowboy hat. Binky quickly gets rid of this night guard, and the film could very well without him.

Watch ‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Binky Nelson Unpacified’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Minions’

Directors: Kyle Balda & Julien Soret
Release Date: December 8, 2015
Rating: ★★½
Review:

‘Competition’, the second of three bonus shorts on the Minions DVDs, is probably the best of the three.

The short takes place in a secret subterranean nuclear lab full of Minions. Two of them suddenly get involved in a series of competitions, resulting in some nuclear blasts (which the two survive).

The film is pretty nonsensical, but fast, with the competition between the two Minions escalating quickly. The short also has the best visual punchline of the three.

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

‘Competition’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Minions’

Directors: Didier Ah-Koon & Régis Schuller
Release Date: December 8, 2015
Rating: ★
Review:

‘Cro Minion’ is the first of three bonus shorts available on the Minions DVD. From their own feature length film we had learned that Minions always have been around, thus ‘Cro Minion’ is set in prehistorical times.

Two minions have eaten the last bananas, so a prehistoric man has to go hunting a large bull he sees in the distance, while the minions have to watch his baby. The baby has a strong will of his own, however, giving the two minions a hard time.

The short is full of wordless slapstick that never becomes really funny, despite all the antics. Also featured is a totally out of place Pterosaur, whose inclusion makes the short a completely backward affair. Not only are the Pterosaur and early man 66 million years apart in time, the Pterosaur looks like a 1950s horror monster, instead of the real thing. The Illumination animators should update their prehistorical knowledge. ‘Cro Minion’ of course is an unpretentious comedy short, but still.

Watch ‘Cro Minion’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Cro Minion’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Minions’

Director: Josh Cooley
Release Date: November 3, 2015
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Riley’s First Date?’ is an unnecessary, but fun spin off short from ‘Inside Out‘. During this short a boy comes to visit Riley, an event freaking out her parents, until Riley’s father and the boy suddenly find something they have in common.

As in ‘Inside Out’ we take a look inside the four protagonist’s heads, this time focusing on dad’s inside. Nevertheless, Mom and dad are less round characters than they had been in ‘Inside Out’, being little more than cliches. The boy, too, is more a caricature than a real person, sitting lethargically and mindlessly in his chair most of the time. The only real person in this short is Riley herself, but she hardly takes part.

Let’s face it, ‘Riley’s First Date?’ doesn’t come near the sophistication of ‘Inside Out’, but it doesn’t aspire to, and can be safely regarded as ‘just a bit of fun’.

Watch ‘Riley’s First Date?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Riley’s First Date?’ is available on the Blu-Ray and DVD of ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Pixar Short Films Collection 3’

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: 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

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