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Director: John Lasseter
Release date:
June 24, 2011
Rating:
 
★★½
Review:

During the 2000s the Pixar studio without doubt was the leading American animation studio, pushing the envelope with classics like ‘Monsters, Inc.’ (2001), ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003), ‘The Incredibles’ (2004) and ‘Wall-E’ (2008). The 2010s, however, were a different affair, with the studio releasing a few disappointing originals (‘Brave’ from 2012 and ‘The Good Dinosaur’ from 2015), while regressing to a depressingly large number of sequels (seven out of eleven releases). Now, if they were all as good as ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010), then this would be a rather minor problem, but this is not a case.

‘Cars 2’ is the sad herald of the new era. Sure, the film knows high production values, boasting overwhelming visuals, fast cutting, professional cinematography, and storytelling, capable character animation etc. etc., but for the Pixar studio the film feels disappointingly unambitious and empty. Now, ‘Cars’ (2006) itself was the weakest feature of the 2000s, but commercially it was highly successful, not in the least in the merchandize area. So, it was a likely candidate for a sequel.

In retrospect, ‘Cars’ was a modest affair, with its rural setting. ‘Cars 2’on the other hand takes place all over the globe, with alternate versions of Tokyo, Paris, Italy (the fictive ‘Porto Corsa’) and London. These settings are highly colorful, but feel rather plastic and never become entirely convincing (for example, what’s the function of a Notre Dame in the Cars world? Even if a Pope Cars does exist as we can see in one of the scenes in Italy). The plot, too, is outrageously outlandish, modeled on the James Bond films and starring a British spy car called Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), who accidentally recruits Mater, whom he thinks is an American spy.

Thus ‘Cars 2’ is Mater’s film. There’s a minor subplot featuring Mater’s and Lightning McQueen’s friendship being put to the test, and indeed, this forms the rather shallow ‘heart’ of the film, and provides the film’s moral messages (e.g., by McQueen himself in the 84th minute), but this weakly developed plot cannot compete against the spy plot extravaganza. Mater blunders through the spy plot like a rather lame car version of Inspector Clouseau, but his knowledge of old cars does come in handy, and in the end Mater turns out to be less dimwitted than everybody thought.

Now, Mater is little more than comic relief, and one hardly relates to him, even if he’s more sympathetic than Lightning McQueen ever was (and McQueen certainly isn’t in this film). Unfortunately, Mater’s antics are rather tiresome, not funny, and the film’s focus on this shallow character certainly contributes to its feeling of emptiness. In fact, the film is at its best when sticking to the spy plot itself, with the cool spy car Finn McMissile and his female help Holley Shiftwell trying to uncover an evil plot involving one Professor Zündapp (with Erich von Stroheim-like monocle). The plot, like in most James Bond films, is rather outlandish and over-the-top, not to say highly improbable, but the film makers clearly enjoy the spy spectacle, enhanced by Michael Giacchino’s excellent spy movie score.

These scenes are given much more love than the original Cars characters. In fact, apart from Mater and McQueen the rest of the gang is hardly seen and they only marginally contribute to the plot (Doc Hudson apparently has died, just like his voice actor Paul Newman, who passed away in 2008). Instead, we, like McQueen, must endure a boasting Italian race car called Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturo) and meet a grandfatherly old Fiat 500 called uncle Topolino, which is both the nickname of that car model and Mickey Mouse’s Italian name.

Being rich in spectacle, but disappointing in the humor department, and lacking great characters, and most of all heart, ‘Cars 2’ is as entertaining as it is empty and forgettable. Even the small background puns (Towkyo, a Ratatouillan Paris restaurant called ‘Gustow’, adverts for Lassetyre) cannot save the film. Even worse, ‘Cars 2’ also introduces boats and planes with faces. This development would lead to the abysmal spin-off ‘Planes’ (2013), not by Pixar but by the Disneytoon Studios, a film that is an embarrassment to both Disney and Pixar. With the equally unnecessary ‘Cars 3’ Pixar would luckily return to more rewarding waters, with its ‘A Star Is Born’-like plot.

Watch the trailer for ‘Cars 2’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Cars 2’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall
Release Date: April 15, 2011
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

In 1961 Walt Disney obtained the film rights to A.A. Milne’s famous books, and over the years made five short specials about the character (1966-1983), of which the second (Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, 1968) and third (Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, 1974) have become absolute classics. In 1977 the first three were stitched together into the feature film ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’, and its in this form they’re available on home media today.

Now, one can lament the fact that many children will know Winnie the Pooh better by its Disney version than by E.H. Shepard’s original irreplaceable illustrations, but within animation history these specials are highlights of inventive story-telling and wonderful character animation. A particular delight are the playful interactions of the characters with the pages of the book they appear in. Moreover, Disney retained the contrast between the naive stuffed animals and the pompous forest animals, Rabbit and Owl, who only think they’re wiser than their plush counterparts.

Unfortunately, following these classic specials, Disney took more and more liberties with the Pooh franchise, resulting in television series, direct to video movies, and even video games. Also, the three feature films made by the Disneytoon Studio division, ‘The Tigger Movie’ (2000), ‘Piglet’s Big Movie’ (2003) and ‘Pooh’s Heffalump Movie’ (2005) seemed to drift away more and more from the source material than either desired or necessary.

In this light one cannot but be weary before approaching the 2011 film, called ‘Winnie the Pooh’ in surprisingly plain fashion. However, the film deviates significantly from the trends set in the previous decade: first, it was made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios itself, being Disney’s last hand drawn animated feature to date, and the quality of animation simply is undeniable. Especially Andreas Deja’s animation of Tigger is fantastic. Moreover, there’s only a little computer animation, most notably the swarm of bees and some flowing honey. Second, the film returns to the original source material, mixing two original chapters together: ‘Eeyore loses a Tail’ from Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and ‘The Search for Small’ from ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ (1928).

The film is surprisingly concise, only lasting 51 minutes, and not dragging one second of it. On the contrary, I rank ‘Winnie the Pooh’ as one of the best told and most entertaining of all 2010s animation films. The film successfully revives the playful spirit of the original specials, greatly helped by using John Cleese as its narrator. There’s plenty of humor, mostly deeply rooted in the interplay between the contrasting characters. For example, at one point Owl boasts he has “achieved completion of [his] autobiographical treatise”, prompting Winnie the Pooh to reply “Oh. Was it painful?”. In another sequence there’s a great confusion when the words ‘not’ and ‘knot’ are mixed together.

Two of the original songs are reused, the ones introducing Winnie the Pooh himself, and Tigger’s song. Five original songs are added, penned by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. These are functional, pleasant and short enough to please even a musical aversion-bearer like me. Even better, the Backson song is accompanied by a wonderful fantasy sequence emulating the 1950s cartoon modern style. The ‘Everything is Honey’ song is illustrated with surreal images of honey pots in the forms of e.g. crabs, jellyfish and whales.

The voice cast, too, is excellent. As the voice of Pooh Jim Cummings does an excellent Sterling Holloway imitation, Bud Luckey sounds delightfully gloomy as Eeyore, while Craig Ferguson and Tom Kenny make their characters Owl and Rabbit perfectly pompous and self-important.

Even the end titles are a delight. First, the film’s adventures are retold using stills of the live action puppets in Christopher Robin’s room, then the rest of the titles are accompanied by several antics of the characters, much in the vein of the titles of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003). And there’s a surprise at the very end of them, so keep watching!

In all, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is a wonderful surprise, a true gem of a film, no doubt delighting children and adults alike. Unfortunately, it was to be the Disney studio’s last traditionally animated feature. It’s unbelievably sad that the high art of drawn animation was abandoned even by the studio that had elevated the technique to inconceivable heights in the first place. I surely hope Disney will return to this art form one day.

Director: Tatsuyuki Nagai
Airing of first episode: April 14, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

After ‘Erased‘ this is only the second Japanese anime series I’ve seen. The two series are from the same A-1 Pictures studio, and they are about of the same quality, so how they compare to others I wouldn’t know. Like ‘Erased’ ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ deals with friendship and loss, this time featuring on a group of six high school friends.

In the first of eleven episodes we learn that Teenager boy Jintan, who has dropped out of school, is troubled by a childish blonde girl called Menma, but it turns out he’s the only one seeing her. Soon we learn that Menma is dead, and that she was part of a group of friends led by Jintan when they were kids. After her death the group fell apart, but Menma is back to fulfill her wish. Unfortunately, she herself doesn’t know anymore what her wish was…

Menma’s unknown wish is the motor of the series, as the friends slowly and partly reluctantly regroup as they are all needed to fullfil Menma’s wish. On the way we learn that each of them had a particular relationship to either Jintan or Menma, and they all have their own view on the day of Menma’s fatal death. And what’s more, there are more traumas to overcome.

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is surprisingly similar to the later ‘Erased’: there’s a jumping from the now to the past (although in Anohana these are flashbacks, not real jumps through time), there’s a supernatural element, there’s a group of friends, and one important mysterious girl who’s dead.

The first episode contains enough mystery to set the series in motion, but the show progresses painfully slowly, and at times I got the feeling Mari Okada’s screenplay was stretched over too many episodes. Especially episode five and six are of a frustratingly static character. In these episodes Jintan, the main character, is particularly and annoyingly passive, hardly taking any action to help Menma or himself, while Menma’s continuous cooing sounds get on the nerve.

The mystery surely unravels stunningly slowly in this series, and only episode seven ends with a real cliffhanger. Even worse, there are some serious plot holes, hampering the suspension of disbelief. Most satisfying are episode eight and ten, which are both emotional, painful, and moving. In contrast, the final episode is rather overblowing, with tears flowing like waterfalls. In fact, the episode barely balances on the verge of pathos. To be sure, such pathos occurs regularly throughout the series. In addition, there are a lot of unfinished sentences, startled faces, strange expressions, often unexplained, and all these become some sort of mannerisms.

The show is animated quite well, with intricate, if unassuming background art. Masayoshi Tanaka’s character designs, however, are very generic, with Menma being a walking wide-eyed, long-haired anime cliché. Weirdly, one of Anaru’s friends looks genuinely Asian, with small black eyes, while all main protagonists, with the possible exception for Tsuruko are depicted with different eye and hair colors, making them strangely European despite the obvious Japanese setting. For example, Menma has blue eyes and white hair, while Anaru has hazel eyes and red hair.

In all, if you like an emotional ride, and you have patience enough to watch a stretched story, ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ may be something for you. The series certainly has its merits, but an undisputed classic it is not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ and tell me what you think:

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is available on DVD

Directors: Donovan Cook & Bob Hatchcock
Airing Date: July 6, 1996
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The final episode of season three sees the return of Duckman’s arch nemesis King Chicken, not seen since ‘Color of Naught‘, episode four from the same season.

This time King Chicken is not behind some evil scheme, but simply turns out to be the father of Tammy, Ajax’s new girlfriend, whom Duckman, Aunt Bernice and Ajax are visiting one night. During the episode we never see Tammy, but the visit turns out to be surprisingly interesting.

For this finale episode the creative team once again returned to comedy based on the personas and their mutual relationships, and the result is rewarding. The awkward visit proves to be much more interesting than mindless absurdism of the previous two episodes. The team even manages to make the ending a particularly poignant one, ending the series on a surprisingly emotional tone, at a time I thought they were forgotten how to do that.

Watch ‘Cock Tales for Four’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 42
To the previous Duckman episode: The Amazing Colossal Duckman
To the next Duckman episode: Dammit, Hollywood

‘Cock Tales for Four’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director Tomohiko Itō
Airing of first episode: January 8, 2016
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Erased’ (the Japanese title translates as “The Town Where Only I Am Missing”) is an anime miniseries consisting of a mere twelve episodes and telling about young adult Satoru, who’s apparently often transported a few moments back in time to prevent some horrible disaster.

This is a weird concept to start with, especially because it’s never explained nor used consistently during the series. But this is the starting point of the complete series. Anyhow, when a mysterious killer goes rampant, threatening Satoru’s own very existence, he’s suddenly sent back not a few moments back into time, but way back to February 1988, when Satoru was eleven years old. Moreover, Satoru’s transferred to a different place, as well, his childhood hometown of Chiba, near Tokyo.

Satoru, who keeps his adult mind, knows he must do something about his classmate Kayo, a girl who has visible bruises because she’s molested by her mother, but who also is the first victim of a child-abducting serial killer that terrorizes the neighborhood, something Satoru knows beforehand, because he relives the past. He has only a few days to set things right. Will he be able to rescue Kayo and the other children from the clutches of the murderer, this time?

The series thus plays with the wish to go back in time to do things differently than you have had before. Satoru certainly changes the behavior of his eleven-years old self, changing from a rather distant, lonesome child into one who becomes a responsible and valuable friend, discovering the power of friendship along the way.

Now this is the first anime series I’ve seen in its entirety, so to me it’s difficult to assess the series’ value compared to others. In the distant past I’ve seen episodes from ‘Heidi’ (1974), ‘Angie Girl’ (1977-1978), and ‘Candy Candy’ (1975-1979), as well as ‘Battle of the Planet’s (1978-1980), the Americanized version of ‘Gatchaman’, but that’s about it – the only other more recent series I’ve seen is ‘FLCL’ (2000-2001), but I’ve only seen the first couple of episodes, so I cannot judge that series in its entirety.

Nevertheless, ‘Erased’ receives a high rating on IMDb, thus is clearly valued as one of the better series. And I can see why. The series is very good with cliffhangers, and there’s enough suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat most of the time. Moreover, apart from the time travelling and killer plot, there’s a sincere attention to the horrid effects of child abuse. Even better still, the series shows how being open and friendly towards others can make a significant positive change to their lives, as well as to your own. This is a rare and very welcome message, which the series never enforces on the viewer, but shows ‘by example’.

I particularly liked the fact that each episode starts with an intro, which is not an exact recapture of events in the previous episode, but which contains new footage, subtly shedding new light on the events. Nevertheless, ultimately, the thriller plot, which its red herrings, false alarms, and rather unconvincing villain, is less impressive than the subplots on child abuse and friendship.

Indeed, the series’ best parts all play in February-March 1988, not in the present, with the gentle eight episode, ‘Spiral’ forming the series emotional highlight. The creators succeed in giving these school parts an air of nostalgia, as exemplified by the leader of the series, which is intentionally nostalgic, focusing on Satoru’s childhood, before becoming more confused, indicating a lot, without revealing anything. Oddly, the intro is accompanied by neo-alternative guitar rock, suggesting more the early nineties than late 1980s.

Anyhow, when focusing on the relationships between the children the series is at its very best. In fact, I wonder why the creators didn’t make this series without the rather enforced killer plot. In my opinion the series needn’t any, although it certainly accounts for some chilling moments, like when Satoru becomes a victim of child abduction himself…

Unfortunately, the creators of ‘Erased’ are better in building its subplots than ending them. The last three episodes become increasingly unconvincing. They quickly lost me, making me leave the series with a rather sour taste in my mouth. The finale certainly stains the whole series and diminishes its power.

I have difficulties to say something about the design and animation. The animation, typically for television anime, is rather limited, but still looks fine, as does the staging. The character designs and background painting, however, don’t transcend the usual Japanese conventions, and are indeed pretty generic. In that respect, ‘FLCL’, the only other anime series I can say something about, is much more cutting edge.

In all, ‘Erased’ is a gripping series with a very welcome attention to the horrors of child abuse and the benefits of friendship. I’d certainly say it deserves a watch, even if it can turn out a little disappointing one, given the series’ potential.

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

‘Erased’ 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

Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Release Date: December 25, 1993
Rating: ★★★★½

Ocean Waves © Ghibli‘Ocean Waves’ was an animated feature the Studio Ghibli made for television. It’s also one of those Japanese animation films that could pretty well be made in live action.

According to Wikipedia the film was an attempt by Studio Ghibli to allow their younger staff members to make a film reasonably cheaply. So, it may not come to a surprise that the film is a little underwhelming when compared to contemporary Ghibli films like ‘Porco Rosso‘ (1992) or ‘Pom Poko‘ (1994), let alone later masterpieces like ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997) or ‘Spirited Away‘ (2001).

But taken on its own, ‘Ocean Waves’ is a very nicely told tale of high school romance, full of nostalgia, especially in its depiction of hot summers. The film takes place in Kōchi, on the Southern island of Shikoku. The film is told by Taku, now a student at a University in Tokyo. He reminisces about his high school friendship with bespectacled Matsuno Yutaka, and how he met the erratic girl Muto Rikako.

Rikako clearly is a troubled girl: she has moved to Kōchi from Tokyo, only with her mother and brother, and she hardly makes friends. Yutaka is clearly interested in her, raising jealousy in Taku, but it’s Taku who ends up in an all too improvised trip to Tokyo with Rikako, who wants to see her father again. The trip turns into a disaster, and Rikako even unwillingly manages to separate the two friends, but the film ends on a high note, even if years later.

The film’s style is very understated: only little is spoken out, and most of the feelings transgress through body gestures. Rikako remains enigmatic to the very end, and Taku blunders through his meetings with her. The film remains highly realistic, and the characters believable throughout.

‘Ocean Waves’ may not be a Ghibli masterpiece, it’s still a gentle animation film, well worth seeing.

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

‘Ocean Waves’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: July 12, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Bluto
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Fightin Pals © Max Fleischer‘Fightin Pals’ is a cartoon devoted to the love-hate relationship between Popeye and Bluto. 

The short opens with Dr. Bluto boarding a ship for an African Expedition. Popeye and Bluto show their own tough way of saying goodbye, but as soon as Bluto has left, Popeye starts pining for his rival. Thus, when he hears on the radio Bluto has been lost, he himself sails straight into dark Africa to look for his lost pal. Soon, Popeye is in a bad state himself, and when he finally discovers Bluto, who is pampered by some beautiful natives, it’s Bluto who has to revive him by giving the poor sailor spinach. As soon as Popeye is on his feet, the two immediately resume their happy quarrel again.

‘Fightin Pals’ is a beautiful cartoon on friendship. Jack Mercer’s mumbling is particularly inspired in this cartoon. The short also shows a brief World War II reference: when Popeye sails passes Europe he encounters some violent fighting there.

After ‘Fightin Pals’ it looks as if Bluto stayed in Africa, for he was not seen in any Popeye cartoon for almost two years. He returned to the screen in ‘Olive Oyl and Water Don’t Mix’ (1942), this time to stay.

Watch ‘Fightin Pals’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 83
To the previous Popeye film: Nurse-Mates
To the next Popeye film: Doing Impossikible Stunts

‘Fightin Pals’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

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