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Director: Gore Verbsinki
Release Date: April 3, 2011
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

One of the most original mainstream feature films to come out of the United States in the 2010s was ‘Rango’, a Western with desert animals.

‘Rango’ was the brainchild of director and co-producer Gore Verbinski, a live action director of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fame. The film was made at Paramount, which hadn’t had an animation studio of its own since the closure of the Paramount Cartoon Studio in 1967. In fact, the animation was essentially done at Industrial Light & Magic, supervised by Hal Hickel. Apparently, Paramount gave Verbinski a lot of freedom, because ‘Rango’ is a pretty quirky movie, boasting an original visual style and none too serious storytelling.

Star of this original Western is a pet Chameleon (Johnny Depp) with a lot of fantasy, who accidentally ends up in the Mojave Desert, where he poses as some kind of Western hero called Rango, prompting the villagers to appoint him as a much-needed sheriff. Rango then has to solve an aquatic crime, which he does cluelessly, but with much bravado.

The first thing that strikes ‘Rango’ as different from all other American computer animated films, is its surprisingly gritty visual style. Rango himself, for example, has a crooked neck and an asymmetrical head, while his love interest Beans is a lizard, whose curls do not hide the fact that she’s clearly a reptile. One of the villains, Gila monster Bad Bill looks particularly rough, while the mayor, a tortoise, looks uncannily like actor Fred MacMurray. Another curious addition is ‘the spirit of the West’, who looks like an aged version of Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ persona. The whole film breaths spaghetti western, especially in its cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s musical score.

‘Rango’ doesn’t really deviate from the familiar story lines of current American animated features, however. For example, there’s an ‘all hope is lost’ moment, a familiar trope in the 2000s and 2010s, but the story is unpredictable enough to entertain throughout. Moreover, apart from a unique visual style, the film boasts some off-the-wall story devices, like a band of mariachi owls, who bridge several scenes, frequently predicting the chameleon is going to die.

Although the crime plot is played with seriousness, the film never loses sight of its own silliness. There are some peculiar touches, like Rango talking to a halved armadillo, or Beans suddenly freezing mid-sentence. Much of the dialogue is delightfully funny, and there are plenty of references to Western cinema, as well as one to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1998), which also starred Johnny Depp.

Despite the silliness, the film boasts surprisingly high production values. The animation, the cinematography, the rendering and the soundtrack are all of a fine quality. The film’s scruffy look may not appeal to everyone, but is a welcome diversion from the mainstream.

‘Rango’ was such a commercial and critical success, even winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that Paramount was confident to create its own animation studio, releasing its first feature, ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water’. Nevertheless, until now the studio has failed to carve out a unique spot in the crowded feature animation field. It at least never again released such a quirky movie like ‘Rango’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Rango’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘Rango’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Jeff McGrath
Airing Date: April 3, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Inherit the Judgement: The Dope’s Trial’ starts with Duckman and the family driving through the desert in a hot car in search of some idiotic bargain.

They crash into some hick town, which happens to be the home town of Ducman’s rival King Chicken (see ‘Ride the High School‘ and ‘Joking the Chicken‘ from the first season). By exclaiming that the egg came before the chicken Duckman gets imprisoned and is about to be hanged, but he manages to save himself on trial by making King Chicken revealing his own vile scheme.

The episode ends with Cornfed parodying Porky Pig, but the episode’s highlight is King Chicken’s ‘Down with Duckman Carnival’, which is full of crazy rides based on killing Duckman.

Watch ‘Inherit the Judgement: The Dope’s Trial’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 17
To the previous Duckman episode: Days of Whining and Neurosis
To the next Duckman episode: America the Beautiful

‘Inherit the Judgement: The Dope’s Trial’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Břetislav Pojar
Release Date: 1959
Rating: ★★½

Lev a písnicka (The Lion and the Music) © Břetislav Pojar‘Lev a písnicka’ is a Czech puppet film in the tradition of Jiří Trnka.

The short tells about a bandoneon-playing actor who travels through the desert, but who finds a resting place at an abandoned ruin. There he performs before a small crowd of animals (two lizards, a fennec, and an antelope). But then a ferocious lion enters the scene…

In ‘Lev a písnicka’ Pojar tells a surprising story. Moreover, he uses a small but effective decor, and some spectacular cinematography. He shows he’s a clear master of animation, making the inner feelings of expressionless puppets come to life by movement only. Especially the animation of the lizards is well done. But the film’s animation highlight goes to the scene that shows the lion’s despair after he has swallowed the bandoneon, which keeps on playing in his stomach, robbing him from his stealth, and thus of a welcome meal.

Nevertheless, the film is hampered by a slow speed, and several scenes are unessential to the story. In the end Pojar’s film is too long and too unfocused to become a real classic.

Watch ‘Lev a písnicka’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Lev a písnicka’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: November 5, 1938
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Porky in Egypt © Warner Bros.This cartoon starts with the call for morning prayer in a dream Egypt, which has more in common with 1001 Arabian nights than with the real state during the 1930’s.

We watch three Arabs rolling dice, a sexy veiled woman, who turns out to be hideously ugly, and the antics a fakir. Then we cut to some tourists taking a tour on a multi-bumped camel into a desert.

Porky Pig is a little too late to join them, and follows the group on his own camel, called Humpty Dumpty. Unfortunately, once they’re in the desert, the burning sun hits the camel with desert madness. In a wonderful scene, the camel loses grip and starts to hallucinate. The hallucinating effect is greatly added by twirling background images. In this scene the acting of the camel is no less than superb. The sheer manic power of this acting is unprecedented in any animated cartoon, and a subtle milestone of animation.

Unfortunately, the complete cartoon is more strange than funny. Notice the multi-door gag, which is halfway between the ones in ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1932) and ‘The Northwest Hounded Police‘ (1946).

Watch ‘Porky in Egypt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 48
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Naughty Nephew
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: The Daffy Doc

‘Porky in Egypt’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’, and on the DVD-sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

Director: Svend Noldan
Release Date:
 1930
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Hein Priembacke in Afrika © Svend NoldanHein Priembacke was a cartoon character conceived and animated by Svend Noldan. Noldan had his origins in the German dadaist avant-garde scene, something that is not visible in this cartoon.

‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ is a silent film and uses German title cards in rhyme. Hein Priembacke is a sailor who’s washed ashore an African desert. Being hungry he first tries to retrieve a coconut, which turns out to be a wallaby. Later he goes to a settlement (which was visible in the background all the time), where he pulls two turnips, which turn out to be Negroes (forgive me the word – it’s used as such in the film itself). The angered cannibals soon chase our hero (“Jetzt wird’s bedenklich, lieber Christ. Der Neger ist kein Pazifist” reads the title card, which translates as “Now it becomes questionable, dear Christ, for the negro is no pacifist“), but he manages to escape to his homeland, hanging on the legs of a stork.

The animation is surprisingly well done, although the action is at times ridiculously slow. The film’s highlight are the animation of the waves and of the landscape on Priembacke’s flight back home. Done with cut outs, the landscape moves stunningly realistically under our hero, creating a great sense of depth, predating Disney’s multi-plane camera by seven years.

Indeed, special effects turned out to be Noldan’s expertise. His star rose when the National Socialists came to power in 1933, and many film makers left Germany. He later provided special effects for German propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumf des Willens’ (1935), and ‘Der ewige Jude’ (1939). During World War II he worked for the German war industry. Although his role in Nazi Germany is dubious to say the least, he survived the war unscathed, and returned to making films, which he kept on doing until the end of the 1960s.

Watch ‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hein Priembacke in Afrika’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation 2: Cannibals!’

Director: Sam Stephens & Christopher Mauch
Release Date: May 2013
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Tumbleweed Tango © Sam Stephens & Christopher Mauch‘Tumbleweed Tango’ is a charming little film about two balloon dogs falling in love in a menacing desert full of prickly cacti. The two dance a romantic tango, and together transform into a large bird, escaping the threatening cacti world. 

‘Tumbleweed Tango’ is a virtuoso computer animation film, full of swooping camera takes, elaborate landscapes, and convincing animation on the two balloon dogs. Even their metamorphosis into the balloon bird is believable.

Watch ‘Tumbleweed Tango’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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