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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

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: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: October 28, 1938
Rating:  ★
Review:

The Playful Polar Bears © Max Fleischer‘The Playful Polar Bears’ starts with just that: playful Polar Bears.

Soon, we follow a disobedient little bear, who wants to catch a fish without entering the ice cold water. When a bunch of hunters arrive, all bears flee into an ice cave, except for the little one. When his mother finds him, she thinks he has been shot, which leads to an overlong mourning and funeral scene. Of course, the little one is unharmed, and in the end shot we watch the polar bears being playful again.

With ‘The Playful Polar Bears’ the Fleischer brothers hark all the way back to early Silly Symphonies like ‘Arctic Antics‘ (1930) and ‘Birds in the Spring‘ (1933), without adding anything new. It’s a great example of their misguided plagiarism of Disney’s Silly Symphonies series: there’s a protagonist, but nothing to let him gain the audience’s sympathy. There’s emotion, but it’s played out in the most standardized way. Thus in no frame we’re able to feel with the mother polar bear, whose emotions remain abstract and generic. Besides, the story lacks inner logic. In the opening shots it’s clearly established that the little polar bear hates the ice cold water, but nothing is done with this information. Moreover, the hunters are finally defeated by the deus ex machina of a snow storm, which sends their ship home.

So, in ‘The Playful Polar Bears’, there’s a lot happening on the screen, but nothing that’s remotely interesting. Films like these painfully showed what Disney had and what the Fleischers lacked. Luckily, they also made Popeye cartoons, which showed that the Fleischers really could make enjoyable cartoons, because in the Popeye series they could play their own game, instead of trying to imitate somebody else’s.

Watch ‘The Playful Polar Bears’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Playful Polar Bears’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Somewhere in Dreamland – Max Fleischer’s Color Classics: The Definitive Collection’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: January 28, 1939
Stars: The Captain and the Kids
Rating:
Review:

Seal Skinners © MGMIn ‘Seal Skinners’ a million dollar seal has escaped and a ten thousand dollar reward has been promised to anyone who can bring him back.

Somehow, both the captain and the kids, his arch rival Long John Silver and an unknown Eskimo are at the North Pole, waiting for the escaped animal. At one point Long John Silver dresses as a seal himself. When the captain and the kids discover the scam, they roll him into a barrel and shake him like a cocktail. This is arguably the best gag in an otherwise remarkably unfunny cartoon, which ends with no conclusion.

‘Seal Skinners’ features some excellent animation, and Scott Bradley’s score is pretty inspired, but these aspects cannot save the cartoon, which suffers from lack of inner logic, and an absence of appealing characters.

Watch ‘Seal Skinners’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Seal Skinners’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Release Date:
 September 5, 1931
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★
Review:

Polar Pals © Van BeurenIn the opening scene of ‘Polar Pals’, Tom & Jerry’s second cartoon, the duo is apparently shipwrecked at sea.

Fortunately they land at a Pole (which one never becomes clear), where they encounter a walrus and a penguin. Then four creatures order Tom to play some music on a piano, which he does in jazzy fashion, making all animals dance.

But somehow they provoke the animals’ anger, and in the end we watch them fleeing on a polar bear’s belly. This final scene sets the tone for several Tom & Jerry cartoons to come: ‘Jungle Jam’ and ‘A Swiss Trick’ end with them fleeing, too.

Apart from the jazz-scene ‘Polar Pals’ is far from interesting. The cartoon is less elaborate than ‘Wot a Night‘, its designs are poor and the animation is often terrible. The Van Beuren studio clearly hadn’t hit its stride, yet…

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

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 2
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Wot a Night
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Trouble

‘Polar Pals’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date: August 31, 1930
Stars: Waffles and Don
Rating:
Review:

Frozen Frolics © Van Beuren‘Frozen Frolics’ is the third of four cartoons featuring the obscure duo Waffles & Don. In this short they are on their way to the North Pole to steal the pole, which looks like a barber’s pole.

After they lose their sled due to an obstinate rabbit, we suddenly cut to arctic animals dancing, much like Walt Disney’s ‘Arctic Antics‘ from two months earlier. Only after a while we return to the duo, whom we watch being exhausted, and trudging through a snow storm. When Don seems to be dead, Waffles steals his money, and eats his shoe. Luckily, Don is alive after all. But later Waffles doesn’t hesitate to throw his little friend to an angry bear. Don beats him up for that, with which the cartoons ends.

The animation in ‘Frozen Frolics’ is wildly uneven, and more often than not rather out of sync with the music.

Watch ‘Frozen Frolics’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Frozen Frolics’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

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