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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

Director: Eric Khoo
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The film ‘Tatsumi’ celebrates the work of Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015). Tatsumi is the inventor of the gegika manga style, a grittier, more alternative form of manga for adults. The film re-tells five of Tatsumi’s short stories in this this style, all from 1970-1972. These stories are bridged by excerpts from his drawn autobiography ‘A Drifting Life’ from 2008.

Thus, the film is completely drawn (only in the end we see the real Yoshihiro Tatsumi), but to keep the manga style intact the film was animated with Toon Boom Software, specialized in ‘animatics’, which brings story boards to life. Thus, full animation, although present, is rare, and most of the motion is rather basic, often lacking any realism of movement. The animation is enhanced by limited digital effects, and the first and last story are digitally manipulated to make the images look older.

The complete film thus is little more than slightly enhanced comic strips. One wonders if this is the best way to present Tatsumi’s work, as most probably his stories work better in their original manga form, but of course the movie is a great introduction to his work, which without doubt is fascinating and original.

Tatsumi’s manga style clearly deviates from his example, the great Osamu Tezaku. Tatsumi’s style is more raw, sketchier and knows nothing of the big eyes so common in manga. All but one story use a voice over narrator. And all but one are in the first person. The stories themselves are gritty, dark, depressing and bleak. The second story, ‘Beloved Monkey’, in which a factory worker falls in love with a girl at a zoo, is particularly bitter. The outer two take place just after the end of World War II and show the effects of Japan’s traumatic loss. All are about the losers in life, struggling at the bottom of society. As Tatsumi himself says near the end of the movie:

“The Japanese economy grew at a rapid pace. Part of the Japanese population enjoyed the new prosperity. The people had a great time. I couldn’t bear to watch it. I did not share in the wealth, and neither did the common people around me. My anger at this condition accumulated within me into a menacing black mass that I vomited into my stories.”

Surprisingly, the protagonists of all first-person stories, including the autobiography, all look more or less the same, as if Tatsumi couldn’t create more than one type of hero. Only the third story, ‘Just a Man’, the only one to use a third person narrator, stars a different and older man, while the last story, the utterly depressing ‘Good-bye’, is the only one to have a female protagonist. Tatsumi’s own life story is told in full color which contrasts with his short stories, which are mostly in black and white. Tatsumi’s autobiography is less compelling than his story work but adds to the understanding of the artist and his work.

Surprisingly, for such a Japanese film ‘Tatsumi’ was made in Singapore and animated in Indonesia.  According to Wikipedia Singaporean director Eric Khoo was first introduced to the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi during his military service, and immediately was stricken by his stories. When ‘A Drifting Life’ was published in Singapore in 2009, Khoo realized that Tatsumi still was alive and wanted to pay tribute to him. Tatsumi himself was greatly involved in the film and narrates his own life story. The movie is a great tribute to one of the more original voices in Japanese manga, and well worth watching, if you can tolerate a dose of sex and violence.

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

‘Tatsumi’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: July 16, 1994
Rating: ★★★

To start: this film is not about raccoons, but about raccoon dogs, which, despite their similarity, are only distantly related to raccoons, being more akin to foxes. The story tells about a population of raccoon dogs living on the Tama hills in Southwest Tokyo. The raccoon dogs see their own environment giving way rapidly to the ever growing metropolis, and decide to fight back in order to save their homes by reviving their old shape-shifting skills…

Apparently, the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) or Tanuki, as the Japanese call him, has been a subject of a long folkloristic tradition. In this folklore the Tanuki has magical powers, being able to shape-shift, but he’s often too lazy, and too distracted to use them. Another peculiarity of this folklore is the focus on the raccoon dog’s testicles, which have magical powers themselves.

These character traits are clearly visible in ‘Pom Poko’: the raccoon dogs are depicted as carefree, fun-loving characters, their testicles are clearly visible, and used in some shape-shift transformations. For example, in one scene an elderly raccoon dog transforms his testicles into a giant carpet, in another a group of raccoon dogs use their inflated testicles as parachutes.

The shape-shifting scenes lead to some remarkable sequences, some of which are very close to pure horror, like a scene in which a cop meets all kinds of people without faces. This would have been a very frightening scene, indeed, if it were not depicted rather playfully, focusing on the police officer’s rather silly-looking panic, instead of the horror of the visions.

Most impressive of the shape-shifting sequences, and the undisputed highlight of the film, is the goblin parade. Here, too, some of the images are genuinely scary, but again, the depiction remains on the light side. For example, there’s a long scene with two men discussing the supernatural at a bar, completely oblivious of the mayhem behind them.

It’s interesting to compare ‘Pom Poko’ to other environmentalist film of the era, like ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ (1992). Compared to the earlier film, ‘Pom Poko’ is remarkably mature. There’s nothing of FernGully’s magical ‘healing power’, nor does the film need a supervillain. In ‘Pom Poko’ ordinary men, none of them intrinsically mean, form a threat enough to the little forest creatures.

Soon it becomes clear that the raccoon dogs cannot win, and we have to witness several tragic deaths of these critters. Some die in one desperate last fight, others disappear on a mythical ship to the netherworld, some blend in into human society, and still others keep on living in an urban environment, scavenging the suburbs.

In the end, the raccoon dogs must admit that man’s ability to transform the environment is much greater than their own shape-shifting abilities. Yet, this conclusion comes with a feeling of sadness of what’s been lost. Like many other Studio Ghibli films, there’s a longing to earlier times in this film, and especially the raccoon dogs’ last trick, reviving the landscape of old, is one of pure nostalgia.

‘Pom Poko’ is a mature film, but it’s not without its flaws. The film is told by using the weak voice over device, and it has a rather episodic nature, covering several years. Thus the story moves on a leisurely speed, not really building up to a grand finale. Moreover, there are a lot of characters in this film, and we don’t follow one in particular, thus scattering the viewer’s focus.

Another peculiarity is that the film uses three styles to depict the raccoon dogs: first, a very realistic one, which accounts for some very impressive naturalistic animation. Second, the most dominant one, in which the raccoon dogs are depicted as clothed anthropomorphic characters. And third, a highly simplified one, in which the raccoon dogs suddenly become flat comic book characters, especially when celebrating. To me, it’s completely unclear why this third style is even present, and during these scenes the animation is often crude and repetitive, relying on reused animation cycles.

What doesn’t help is that the film is very, very Japanese: the behavior and rites of the raccoon dogs are sometimes enigmatic, and there are a lot of Buddhist and Shintoist references that are completely lost on the Western viewer. In that respect it’s a surprise that foxes have the same character traits in Japanese folklore as in Western tradition: in ‘Pom Poko’ the foxes are sly tricksters, too.

‘Pom Poko’ may not be perfect, it still is a very interesting film on human-animal relationships, it provides a small window into Japanese folklore, and it certainly is a very humane and mature film, showing us that one doesn’t need villains for destruction, and that some very valuable things are getting lost in the march of progress.

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

‘Pom Poko’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Lew Keller
Release Date: October, 1958
Stars: Ham and Hattie
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Spring and Saganaki © UPA

‘Spring and Saganaki’ is the third cartoon within the short ‘Ham and Hattie’ series.

‘Spring’ is another gentle children’s song by Mel Leven, sung by him accompanied by his ukelele. This part is notable for its very beautiful background art. For the second song Ham changes into Japanese farmer Saganaki, who wants to join an army of Samurai. This part is in fact a story told in rhyme. Unfortunately, the episode is hampered by singer Hal Peary’s mock-Japanese and the more trite song by Mel Leven and Jim Murakami, which is reminiscent of similar pseudo-ethnic swing songs from the 1930s. The result is the weakest of the four Ham and Hattie cartoons. Yet, as the designs are still top notch, ‘Spring and Nagasaki’ remains a delight to watch, if not to listen to.

Watch ‘Spring and Saganaki’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Spring and Saganaki’ is available on the DVD box set ‘UPA – The Jolly Frolics Collection’

Director: Chuzo Aoji
Release Date:
 1931
Stars: Momotaro
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Momotaro's Sky Adventure © Chuzo AojiIn ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ (also known as ‘Aerial Momotaro’) Japanese animation pioneers Aoji and Yasuji Murata tell a tale about that great and friendly warrior from Japanese folklore, Momotaro, who had been brought to the animated screen by Takamasa Eigasha in ‘Momotaro the Undefeated’ (1928).

Surprisingly, Aoji and Murata move our hero into the present. Momotaro is visited by a couple of Antarctic island birds who call for help against an evil (American?) eagle. Together with his loyal friends, monkey, dog and pheasant, he flies to the remote island in a propeller plane, being fueled twice by birds on the way. When the quartet arrives, they battle the eagle in the air in an overlong fighting sequence, which at times is strangely reminiscent of a modern computer game. Momotaro finally decides to capture the fiend alive, and he’s celebrated as a hero by the grateful birds.

‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is Japan’s very first propaganda cartoon. It shows an early form of nationalism and anti-Americanism. Momotaro would grow very popular during World War II, representing Japan in many wartime films, and starring Japan’s very first animated feature, ‘Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors’ (1945), commissioned by the Japanese navy. This transformation of the folk hero into a nationalistic figure begins with this cartoon from 1931. Indeed, ultra-nationalism and militarism overtook Japan in the early 1930s, which e.g. resulted in the annexation of Manchuria in the summer of 1931.

Importantly, ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ shows Japan’s national hero as the military strong friend of its weaker neighbors. This portrait of Japan as a benevolent big brother to all other Asian nations was played out throughout Japan’s militaristic period, and this propaganda story indeed managed to delude people like for example those Malay who, when Japan invaded their country in 1941, at first welcomed the Japanese as liberators from colonial Britain, only to find them far worse oppressors than the British had ever been…

‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Director: Dan Gordon
Release Date: November 20, 1942
Stars: Superman
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

Eleventh Hour © Paramount‘Eleventh Hour’ is Superman’s second war cartoon, after ‘Japoteurs‘ from earlier that year. It’s one of the earliest World War II cartoons dealing with Japan.

In this short Superman himself is the saboteur, destroying ships, bridges, airports and tanks in Yokohama, Japan. The furious Japanese capture Lois, who stays with Clark Kent in Japan, and threaten Superman to execute her if he doesn’t stop his sabotage.

Superman reads this ultimatum all but too late and he’s only just in time to rescue Lois from the firing squad. Lois returns home, but Clark Kent stays behind, implying that Superman keeps on doing his sabotage work, a message that must have been comforting to the home-front.

The story of this cartoon is quite original, if not very well-constructed. Unfortunately, by now Superman has been reduced to an expressionless figure, making him a boring character to watch.

Watch ‘Eleventh Hour’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Superman film No. 12
To the previous Superman film: Showdown
To the next Superman film: Destruction, Inc.

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