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Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1996
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Based on the reminiscences of violinist and composer Alex Balanescu ‘The Wind of Changes’ is one of Phil Mulloy’s longest and most poetical films.

Balanescu’s portrait of communist Romania is a dark one, but his impressions of New York and London are hardly any better. Balanescu’s remarks are wry and depressing, and Mulloy illustrates these with associative and sombre pictures in his typical crude cut-out animation style.

The film jumps forward and back into time and has a stream-of-consciousness-like feel. Some of the images are very powerful, like a snowman being shot. But it’s Balanescu’s score that despite Mulloy’s powerful imagery, is the most beautiful aspect of the film. Unfortunately, Balanescu’s music almost drowns out the voice-over, making the narrative hard to follow.

Watch the first part of ‘The Wind of Changes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wind of Changes’ is available on the DVD ‘Phil Mulloy Extreme Animation’

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: April 12, 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl from 1961 ‘James and the Giant Peach’ is, in fact, a hybrid, starting and ending as a live action movie, with the middle forty minutes (ca. half the movie) being done entirely in stop-motion.

The opening scenes set ‘James and the Giant Peach’ as one of the great fantasy films of the nineties. The sets and atmosphere are magical and dreamlike, with no attempt at reality. James’s horrific aunts, too, are grotesque and deeply rooted in caricature. They are excellently played by British actresses Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley, who are allowed to play their personas as broadly as possible. Young James, in contrast, remains perfectly normal, and Paul Terry’s performance is on the brink of boring.

Despite the great opening scenes, the real fun starts when James descends into the giant peach. During this scene he transforms into his puppet self, and inside he meets a sextet of giant ‘insects’ (in fact, three of them are insects, the others being a myriapod, an arachnid and an annelid), with whom he decides to fly to New York, cleverly using sea gulls to propel the peach into the air.

Except for the all too bland glowworm, the arthropods are delightful characters: there is a very American sounding boastful and bragging centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a motherly ladybug (Jane Leeves), an aristocratic and knowledgeable grasshopper (Simon Callow), an anxious and gloomy earth worm (David Thewlis), and a femme fatale-like but friendly French female spider (Susan Sarandon). The design of these is less eccentric than that of the protagonists in ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, but still have some freaky touches, most notably Miss. Spider’s eyes, which each consist of two yellow eyeballs. Moreover, they all have the correct number of legs, with Miss Spider’s eight legs all ending in elegant boots. The animation, too, retains some creepy-crawly quality, and Miss Spider remains a little scary, despite her friendliness.

The voice cast is excellent, and most of the humor originates from the interplay between these characters, but there is plenty of action anyway, with the bugs having to battle a mechanical shark, defend themselves against a ghost ship, and fight starvation.

Unfortunately, after 59 minutes we return to live action, when James and his friends land in New York. True, this New York remains a fantasy-product, with very stagy and crooked sets, but lasting a staggering 30 minutes this finale turns out to be overlong and weak. It does not really help that the film makers decide to make the aunts survive the crushing of their car and to follow James into New York, an idea not in the book. Believability is certainly breached in these scenes, because of the fake character of the sets, some wooden action of the crowds, and the strange interplay between the grotesque aunts and the more down-played Americans. Moreover, the insects are mostly absent from these scenes, which only show that young actor Paul Terry cannot carry these scenes on his own, which seem to drag without inspiration.

Another letdown of this film are the four songs by Randy Newman. All four are weak and forgettable. Even worse, they are clearly superfluous, and they threaten to stall the action instead of helping the story forward. Luckily, there are only four of them, making ‘James and the Giant Peach’ much more tolerable as a film than ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was, but nevertheless I regard this film yet another victim of the unwritten rule that every animation film should be a musical, which was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

The overlong finale and unwelcome songs prevent ‘James and the Giant Peach’ to become an all-time classic, and certainly it was not well received back then, becoming a box office bomb. With this the short Disney adventure into stop motion ended. This is pity because the stop motion animation is excellent and delightful to watch throughout.

There is also a fair deal of computer animation, surprisingly executed by Sony Pictures Image works, who did an excellent job on the rhinoceros, some dancing clouds, and the mechanical shark. The latter, especially, is a great piece of computer animation, as it blends surprisingly well with the stop-motion and never loses its fantastical character.

Disney thus may have stopped making stop motion films, but both Tim Burton and Henry Selick continued to follow this path, with Tim Burton making ‘Corpse Bride’ in 2005 and ‘Frankenweenie’ (again for Disney) in 2012, while Henry Selick joined Will Vinton’s LAIKA studio in 2005 to make the widely acclaimed ‘Coraline’ (2009).

Watch the trailer for ‘James and the Giant Peach’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘James and the Giant Peach’ 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

Director: Paul Terry
Release Date: October 18, 1916
Stars: Farmer Al Falfa
Rating: ★★

Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York © Paul TerryIn 1915 Paul Terry joined the Bray studio and introduced a character of his own called farmer Al Falfa.

Farmer Al Falfa never amounted to something of an interesting character, like for example a Bobby Bumps or Felix the Cat, and I doubt whether he ever had many fans. Yet, the animated farmer lasted until 1937, and even didn’t completely disappear after that.

‘Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York’ is Farmer Al Falfa’s ninth film, and has the farmer visiting the big city, where he’s seduced by a remarkably realistically drawn woman. Later he plays cards with some cheating criminals, only to win after all.

Unlike J.R. Bray, Paul Terry was a rather poor draftsman, as this film clearly shows. The animation is weak and formulaic, and the farmer and the woman don’t inhabit the same cartoon universe. The result is a rather inferior cartoon that nevertheless foreshadows the quality of most animation of the silent era, unlike Bray’s own early high quality films.

Indeed, most of the secret of Terry’s success did not lie in the quality of his work, but in his working speed. Yet, his stay at Bray’s studio was not a happy one, and at the end of 1916 he left, only to get inducted in the army. A few years after World War I, in 1921, Terry would return to the animation business, co-founding a studio with Amedee J. van Beuren, reviving his character Al Falfa, and becoming one of the biggest players in the field.

Watch ‘Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York’ is available on the DVD & Blu-Ray-set ‘Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios Animation Pioneers’

Director: George Scribner
Release Date: November 13, 1988
Rating: ★★
Review:

Oliver and Company © Walt DisneyOliver and Company’ is the Walt Disney studio’s third film about dogs, after ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1955) and ‘One Hundred and One Dalmations’ (1961). Three of the first film’s characters, Peggy, Jock and Trusty, even have a cameo during Dodger’s song.

‘Oliver and Company’ contains some nice and easy looking dog animation, but it is hardly a worthy successor of the two classics. The opening scenes of ‘Oliver & Company’ introduces Oliver, a cute little orange cat to us, in a scene set to an ugly 1980s song. Oliver teams up with a cool dog called Dodger, who appears to be part of a dog gang. Only when the gang’s owner, the poor tramp Fagin (excellently voiced by Dom DeLuise) is visited by the film’s villain, Sykes, some kind of drama begins. By then the film already is 18 minutes underway.

During a totally incomprehensible framing act Oliver is taken sway by a little rich girl called Jenny, much to the dismay of her house’s star dog, poodle Georgette (voiced by Bette Midler). The gang ‘rescues’ Oliver, which leads to the only continuous and songless story part of the complete film. Surprisingly, the upper class world of Jenny and Georgette and the lower class world of Fagin and his dogs don’t seem to clash at all in this film. As soon Jenny is kidnapped, Georgette naturally teams up with the dog gang. The film ends with a wild and totally unbelievable chase, killing Sykes.

Although released five months after ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ it’s difficult to regard ‘Oliver & Co.’ as part of the Disney renaissance. It’s not as bleak as ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ or as misguided as ‘The Black Cauldron‘, but the film still feels as a continuation of the 1960s and 1970s, instead of something new, making it part of animation’s dark ages.

There are several reasons for this: first, the use of xerox, first used in ‘One Hundred and one Dalmations’ (1961), and defining Disney’s graphic style up to this film. Second, the equally graphic backgrounds, which are uninspired, dull and ugly, as are the all too angular and unappealing cars and machines. Third, the animation, which is erratic and at times downward poor, with the animation of the little girl Jenny, a far cry from the endearing Penny from ‘The Rescuers‘ (1977), being the low point. Fourth, the human designs, which apart from the main characters, look the same as in any generic animated television series from the 1980s. And fifth, the story, which, vaguely based on Charles Dickens’s ‘Oliver Twist’, is ramshackle and formulaic. Moreover, the attempt to ‘modernize’ Disney by moving the setting to contemporary New York is forced, and only a change of setting. There’s no new spirit to the film. And finally, the anonymous 1980s songs have aged the film very quickly.

There are some highlights: the dogs are all good, if not particularly inspired and owing much to ‘Lady and the Tramp’, Jenny’s butler Jenkins is well animated, as is Fagin when he struggles to give Oliver back to Jenny. But overall the film fails to entertain: Oliver himself is not particularly interesting, he is just the straight man, the little girl Jenny is too bland to gain sympathy, the songs are generic and the story (penned by no less than thirteen people) is too erratic to suck the viewer in.

Luckily, ‘Oliver and Company’ was not part of a new era, but the last convulsion of an old one. With its next film, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney would really enter its renaissance.

Watch Dodger’s song from ‘Oliver & Company’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jack Kinney
Release date: October 15, 1954
Rating: ★★
Review:

Social Lion © Walt DisneyIn this narrated short a lion deliberately gets himself caught to scare the people in New York. Unfortunately, he’s all but unnoticed there.

‘Social Lion’ was the last of three ‘special cartoons’ Jack Kinney directed in 1954, after his own Goofy series had stopped. It is, unfortunately, not a very successful cartoon. Its narration is trite, its timing poor and its animation, by veteran Norm Ferguson, heterogeneous: the full animation of the lion is awkwardly out of contact with the highly stylized animation of the humans.

Unfortunately, ‘Social Lion’ would be the great animator’s last statement. the Disney studio fired Ferguson in July 1953. He died four years later of a heart-attack, at the premature age of 45.

The cartoon reuses the weird safari song from Kinney’s earlier, way more successful short ‘African Diary’ (1945).

Watch ‘Social Lion’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Social Lion’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: July 7, 1945
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Mouse in Manhattan © MGMTired of the country life, Jerry heads for Broadway, where he admires the big city.

Jerry’s luck is short-lived however, and after some bad experiences in the New York dumps (which involves hundreds of alley cats and scary subways), Jerry flees home, kissing a puzzled Tom in his joy.

‘Mouse in Manhattan’ is an outsider within the Tom & Jerry series, as it lacks the typical cat and mouse chase. Instead it focuses on Jerry’s journey, only. Nevertheless, it must be one of the most beautiful Tom and Jerry cartoons ever made. Jerry’s adventures in New York are accompanied by gorgeous and stunning backgrounds (most using a mouse perspective), and Scott Bradley’s particularly lush music. Bradley based his score on Louis Alter’s ‘Manhattan Serenade’ from 1928, which was also used in the MGM 1944 musical ‘Broadway Rhythm’, accompanying acrobatic stunts by the Ross Sisters. The music is so essential to the film, it almost seems the film was made for the score.

The cartoon is a sheer delight from the beginning to the end, but the highlight is Jerry’s dance with the female table figures on the roof of a very high hotel. This scene has the same class as its source of inspiration, the MGM musical.

Watch ‘Mouse in Manhattan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://vimeo.com/90733822

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No.19

To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Mouse Comes to Dinner
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Tee for Two

Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date:
 January 21, 1950
Stars:
 Bugs Bunny
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

Hurdy-Gurdy Hare © Warner BrothersIn this cartoon Bugs Bunny apparently lives in Central Park, New York.

He buys a hurdy-gurdy with a monkey in order to become rich. But when the monkey betrays Bugs, Bugs fires him and goes fetching the money at the apartment block himself. The monkey then fetches his big brother (a gorilla) to fix Bugs. But in the end it’s the gorilla who collects money for Bugs.

‘Hurdy-gurdy Hare’ is an inconsistent and rather weak cartoon, which nevertheless contains a great ladder gag, in which Bugs quotes Groucho Marx. At the end, Bugs makes a reference to James Petrillo, leader of the American Federation of Musicians at the time.

Watch ‘Hurdy-gurdy Hare’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.ulozto.net/live/xPiUKTr/bugs-bunny-hurdy-gurdy-hare-1950-avi

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 68
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Rabbit Hood
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Mutiny on the Bunny

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: 
May 22, 1947
Stars:
 Bugs Bunny
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

A Hare Grows in Manhattan © Warner Brothers‘A Hare Grows in Manhattan’ starts with a great premise: Bugs is a Hollywood star who has it made.

He is visited by one “Lola Beverley” (only a voice over) who asks him to tell of his humble origin. Next we watch a youthful Bugs in East-side, New York encountering a group of tough street dogs led by a rather dumb bulldog wearing a bowler hat.

Unfortunately, this section remains an ordinary chase sequence, which does not differ from an ordinary Bugs Bunny cartoon. Three years later, McKimson would reuse the idea of Bugs reminiscing his origins in ‘What’s Up Doc?‘, with much better results.

‘A Hare Grows in Manhattan’ contains a ‘little piggy’ gag which was to be repeated by Tweety in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ (1988).

Watch ‘A Hare Grows in Manhattan’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 43
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon:  Rabbit Transit
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Easter Yeggs

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