Portal Fantasy vs Immersive Fantasy

‘…there are essentially four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal. These categories are determined by the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world. In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic, in the intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the fictional world, in the liminal fantasy the magic hovers in the corner of our eye, while the immersive fantasy allows us no escape.’ – Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), introduction.

I haven’t read Rhetorics of Fantasy yet – but I’m very much in love with Mendlesohn’s classification system and I’ve been using it in my head for a while. It’s so neat and tidy.

My preference, both as a reader and a writer, is for full-blown fantasy worlds, not for our world with some fantasy elements. As far as I’m concerned, the most interesting – or at least the most fun – of Mendlesohn’s categories are portal and immersive fantasy. Or, to give some examples, respectively Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to choose between portal and immersive; not only which one I like better, but which one is (for want of a better term) ‘better’ at creating a fantasy world. My favourite book of all time is Northern Lights, and immersive fantasy – I’d argue one of the greatest works of immersive fantasy. But its sequel, The Subtle Knife, is portal fantasy, and beautifully executed portal fantasy. The scene where Will first finds the portal to Cittagazze? Goosebumps, every time.

Yet The Subtle Knife is generally considered a weaker book than its predecessor; The Amber Spyglass, also a portal fantasy, is extremely divisive. I’m not sure if there’s a connection to be made between the apparent decline in quality and the (sub)genre shift. After all, the portal fantasy in both books is excellent; it’s everything else that’s the problem.

Portal fantasy is extremely popular in the YA bracket, allowing as it does for the lead character to be a pleasingly accessible ordinary teenager. It’s hard not to see it as childish. I think for a long time I thought of it as the ‘lesser’ approach to fantasy world-building, the easy way out for writers.

Then I tried to write a portal fantasy. And it is hard. It’s not hard to get in exposition and world-building, but hell if it isn’t harder to make it feel natural. I tip my hat to you, J.K. Rowling. I don’t know how you do it. I’d have given up on my portal fantasy by now were it not so alluring.

Because portal fantasy has an endless allure to it. As stylish as immersive fantasy is, give me a well-executed fantasy world and a reader avatar to view it through and I’ll be happy. But it’s sure as hell not the easy way out – so why do so many people write it?

I think the answer is that portal fantasy is, in fact, easier to write than immersive fantasy. It’s just harder to write well. Good portal fantasy is very hard to come by.

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2013 Film Reviews: More Comedy

kinopoisk.ruThe Way Way Back

Here’s a rare thing: The Way Way Back is a film that can only be described as awkward – and that’s a compliment. Somehow.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a shy fourteen year old boy getting a job at a water park while on vacation with his mother and her boyfriend. And that’s really about it, in terms of plot. The dramatic climax is a ride on a water slide. But somehow it really does work.

The Way Way Back excels at evoking awkward social situations in a manner which is played primarily for awkwardness, not for comedy – though it often is funny. It’s something of a socially awkward fantasy. A recurring theme is apparently awkward situations the protagonist is forced into turning out to be entirely positive. Is that a thing that happens often? I don’t know, but it’s a nice idea, motivationally speaking.

All in all, it’s a really nicely written dramedy that I suspect will be overlooked somewhat – the premise is not an easy sell and its trailers misrepresented it as a rom-com – and very much worth seeing. Especially if you’re a community fan – Jim Rash a.k.a. Dean Pelton co-wrote and directed. If that’s not something to recommend it I don’t know what is.

MV5BMTU0NzE0Mzg3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY2MDY3OQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_In a World

Now here’s a thoroughly unusual comedy. Lake Bell’s directorial debut and (presumably) pet project, it’s a feminist comedy about trailer voice-overs.

Bell plays Carol, daughter of legendary trailer voice-over artist Sam Sotto. She works as a freelance vocal coach, but dreams of breaking into the male-dominated field of movie trailers. The film is firmly grounded in reality: the gender disparity in voice over work is very real, as is the domination of a tiny number of performers. It even opens with documentary footage introducing the late great Don LaFontaine before seguing into the fictional world. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line is at times: the film trailers Carol voices are entirely fictional, but at least some of the characters are real people.

But the world of trailer voice-overs is largely a backdrop. Much of the film is concerned with Carl’s personal life, her budding romance with her sound-mixer, her sister’s struggling marriage, and her changing relationship with her father as the two of them come into competition for the same job.

In a World is ultimately a meditation on the important of the female voice, literally. Women’s voices are a recurring theme throughout the film and Carol’s voice is eventually heard by the whole world. It’s an important message and it’s delivered, though not perfectly, without being heavy handed.

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2013 Film Reviews: Animation

Despicable-me-2-many-minions-pp33148Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a sequel to Despicable Me. Which is to say: if you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too. It has the same tone, the same sense of humour, the same slightly surreal quality. But unfortunately it has many of the same problems.

The action-adventure side is just as good as the first film – possibly even better. It does a good job of fleshing out its world with the addition of an anti-villain league. How’s that for a rarity: an animated film sequel that actually advances the story rather than simply retreading.

Unfortunately, the emotional centre is less solid. The emotional centre Despicable Me was very much Gru bonding with his adoptive daughters. Here it’s the romance subplot. It’s a sweet enough romance subplot, if a little shallow in some places, but romance subplots are dime-a-dozen. The three daughters have less screentime; it would have been nice to see more development of their relationship with Gru, and to see any development at all of their relationship with Lucy (the woman who – spoilers – becomes their new Mom).

Really, though, most of the problems with Despicable Me 2 can be traced back to one thing: the Minions. Don’t get me wrong, the Minions are funny as hell, but they have far too much screentime here. The issue with the Minions is that as cute and funny as they are, they cannot sustain a narrative. They have no individuality. They’re just an endless mass of yellow blobs in dungarees. And yet for some reason they play a central role.

But if you’re willing to put that aside, Despicable Me 2 is a whole lot of fun.

Monsters_uni_post_2Monsters University

A whole lot of people seemed to be a whole lot more excited for this film than I was. I’ve never been that keen on Monsters Inc – I re-watched it lately and I like it just fine, but it’s one of Pixar’s more predictable films. And – though this seems to be a common sentiment – I’d rather have seen a sequel than a prequel. The ending of Monsters Inc was plenty open enough to warrant one.

So in a sense, I was pleasantly surprised by Monster’s University. It has the same flavour as its precursor, the same style of comedy and the same vibrant visuals – the monster designs are truly brilliant – but with a plot that’s actually kind of surprising. I confess I was spoiled for the ending, but I think had I not been it would genuinely have taken me offguard. The climax of Monsters University messes with your expectations in a big way, twisting conventional narrative tropes on their head and arriving at a really unusual Aesop: the ultimate message is that you sometimes have to accept that, no matter how hard you try, there are things you’re just no good at.

But on the flip side, predictable as it was Monsters Inc had a striking premise, some fascinating fantasy concepts, and enough attention to detail in the execution to pull it off. Monsters University has… college movie tropes. Subverted at times, sure, but they’re still standard fare. As much as I enjoyed it, I can’t help but think that there was some wasted potential here.

I’m also really not sure who the target audience is supposed to be. Monsters Inc is very much a family film, with themes tailored for children and their parents. Monsters University is a film that will only really speak to college students and graduates – possibly only graduates, since I have no idea how well it reflects the contemporary American university experience.

However, as is often the case, this is me nitpicking. Pixar is in the unfortunate position of having set the bar very high for themselves. Their filmography is so strong that it’s hard not to measure their recent films against it. On its own merits, Monsters University is a really fun film with a moral message that rings true without being overdone. Thoroughly recommended.

Epic-Movie-2013-HD-WallpaperEpic

I really wanted to like this film. The first trailers had me hooked with their whimsy and (literal) fairytale quality. It looked like it had the potential to be a really great animated fantasy film. But unfortunately, Epic belongs to a class of animated film that is intensely frustrating.

For the amount of love and effort and attention to detail poured into the animation is just breath-taking. It’s so fluid and so colourful and so creative that really it’s worth watching the film just to get a look at it. The water! The motion! The colours!

But the writers… did not follow suit. Epic is hopelessly generic. You can predict the plot almost blow for blow. The only real surprise for me was (spoilers!) relationship between the lead antagonist and his son – which is, despite initial appearances, loving and mutually supportive. I’d actually liked to have seen it developed more. For the most part, though, Epic is a film with generic, bland leads and all the interesting characters shoved to the sidelines.

What I really wanted from Epic was Ferngully done right. I’ve heard that the director does not like people comparing the two – to which I would tell him that if he didn’t want comparisons to be drawn he should not have used almost exactly the same plot (human teenager gets magically shrunk down, befriends pretty fairies, wacky animal sidekick, almost gets eaten by giant version of small animal, helps save the forest from decay-monsters, learns valuable lesson – c’mon). In some respects it’s what I wanted, but bizarrely Ferngully actually has a stronger moral message.

The villain of Ferngully is pollution, and hence a very real threat to the ecosystem. The villain in Epic is… rot. This is played as the antithesis of life. I don’t quite understand the logic here; yes, decay can kill, but it is itself driven by living things. The weapons wielded by the Boggans mostly seem to be fungal life. Then there’s the use of ‘evil’ animals like bats and crows to characterise the villains – it’s clumsy.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it. It’s generic in a reasonably appealing way – plus there is a lot of creativity and there are some interesting characters (see: Colin Farrell as the steely-jawed leader of the Leafmen). It’s not a masterpiece (dare I say it’s not the masterpiece it could have been), but it’s decent enough.

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Only Lovers Left Alive

only-lovers-left-aliveAs much as I enjoyed Only Lovers Left Alive – and I really did enjoy it – I was surprised to realise that it just barely tops two hours. It feels longer. It feels like at least two and a half hours; and I’d swear half the run-time was composed entirely of Tilda Swinton’s character dancing while the camera spins around her and Tom Hiddleston’s character moodily playing the guitar and the drums…

This is not a fast-paced film. I’ve seen it described as ‘languid’, which seems like the right word. It’s rarely dull, but it’s slow and meandering and for the first hour almost entirely plotless. Actually, it’s a pretty effective demonstration of how you don’t actually need a plot to tell a story. There’s no exposition; we never learn how Tilda Swinton’s Eve and Tom Hiddleston’s Adam became vampires, or how old they are; or how they’re related to Mia Wasikowska’s Ava or John Hurt’s Christopher Marlow; and their fates after the film are equally ambiguous. It’s implied at times that they might be the real Adam and Eve (and Ava Lilith) but this isn’t dwelt on.

It’s a meandering slice out of a much longer and more sprawling story that we only need to see one slice of, because it repeats itself constantly. Adam and Eve have parted ways and come back together before. Adam has been through depressive periods before, and been pulled out of them. Encounters with Ava always end in a bloody death. The recurring spinning imagery (spinning records, Eve dancing, the rotation of the earth) implies the cyclical nature of the story, and of both human and vampire life more generally. Things are bad at the moment; they’ll get worse; they’ll be good again in the future. ‘This place will rise again,’ Eve says of Detroit.

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are both fantastic; they were made to play vampires. They have the perfect faces for it, equal parts beautiful and creepy, when they want to be. These are vampires that feel truly old and inhuman while also being warm and relatable. Adam broods and isolates himself, but Eve has a constant zest for (eternal) life; if his character is perhaps a cliché, hers is endlessly refreshing. And when did you last watch a film about a vampire who was passionate about science?

But I hesitate to call Only Lovers Left Alive too refreshing, because it does fall into some of the usual traps of vampire fiction. These are the all-to-common vampires with the mysterious ability to befriend only people who will be famous in the future – although Adam does also name-drop a few old friends who aren’t household names any more, which is a nice touch. And these vampires don’t drink their blood out of bags because it’s more ethnical; they do it because killing humans is ‘so fifteenth century’.

In a word: these are hipster vampires. Classy hipster vampires who have absolutely earned the right to their intense pretentiousness, but hipsters nonetheless. That’s not a complaint; Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as hipster vampires. What’s not to love about that?

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2013 Film Reviews: More Summer Sci-Fi

prPacific Rim

I’m just going to get this out of the way first: I am honestly shocked that so many people thought ‘G*psy Danger’ would be a good name for a giant robot. I can see something like that making it into early drafts of a script, but all the way to the cinematic cut? Truly baffled. Had I known G*psy Danger was the lead robot rather than just a throwaway detail I’d have been much more reluctant to go see Pacific Rim at all.

But that nasty little detail aside, Pacific Rim is a really excellent sci-fi film. Giant monsters begin crawling out of a dimensional rift beneath the Pacific. The governments of the world come together and decide that the best way to deal with the situation is to build giant robots and punch the problem till it goes away.

If you want to see a giant robot beat up a sea monster with an ocean liner, Pacific Rim might just be the film for you.

It’s not the most imaginative premise, but it’s lavishly detailed, from the workings of the Jaeger technology to the dog-sized mites that live on the monsters. It’s big, it’s visually stunning and all-round awesome. Probably my favourite film of the summer.

weThe World’s End

The World’s End, the final installment in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s ‘blood and ice cream trilogy’, is really two films. There’s the sci-fi bro-comedy it was marketed as – and a much darker, much bleaker science fiction film. Though really, one could say it’s three films: a bro-comedy, a sci-fi comedy, and a science fiction film. But I doubt many people watched it without knowing the reveal. (Spoilers: there’s alien robots.)

Five schoolfriends get together to complete ‘the Golden Mile’ a legendary pub crawl in their home town – only to discover that the town has been taken over by sinister alien robots. It’s a very funny film, but likes its predecessors – in particular Shaun of the Dead – it’s not without its darker and more poignant moments.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost change roles here, with Pegg playing the slacker manchild and Frost playing his straightlaced friend. Pegg’s character was played very much as a comic figure in the film’s trailers; in the film itself he is from the beginning as pathetic as he is funny and as events play out his behaviour becomes genuinely disturbing. There’s a truly shocking reveal late in the film, carefully hidden behind all the robots. It may take you by surprise.

Then there is the ending. To avoid spoilers as much as possible: there is an abrupt, bleak and shocking swerve in the final minutes of the film that will almost certainly take you offguard. It comes out of nowhere, is completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, and to be honest I wish it had been cut. The World’s End might have been a stronger film had it ended one scene earlier. So it goes.

 

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Recently Released Films: Comedy

heatThe Heat

I went to see The Heat partly because my friends wanted to see it, partly because I really enjoyed Bridesmaids and partly because it was a film I kind of wanted to support – it’s a buddy cop movie with female cops. You don’t see that very often

And I can say that, if you liked BridesmaidsThe Heat will not disappoint. It has the same brand of comedy, but here with a more dramatic flare and sans the gross-out humour – though there’s one scene that seems calculated to make up for the lack of grossness by packing as much as it can into a few short minutes. (Word of advice: if you’re squeamish about blood, don’t see The Heat.)

That one scene aside, the comedy is all top-notch – the Boston accent confusion (knock/narc?) is funnier than it has any right to be – and the dramatic scenes have a real emotional resonance. The happy ending and its partnership between the two leads really does feel earned.

So my only real complaint about The Heat is about that rocket launcher. You know, the one on the poster and in the trailer – that does not get fired even once in the whole film. For shame.

We’re the Millers

millersWe’re the Millers is a film with a really good concept. After being robbed, a low-level drug dealer is forced to become a drug mule to get back in his boss’s good books – and gets the idea to fool the U.S. border guards by putting together a fake family and playing tourist. There’s a whole lot of potential there, the trailer was reasonably funny – and hey, that’s Jennifer Aniston and Will Poulter (of Son of Rambow and Voyage of the Dawn Treader)!

Unfortunately – and unsurprisingly – it falls apart on the execution. It’s not that it isn’t funny; it’s very funny, though most of the best laughs are in the trailer. It’s that We’re the Millers doesn’t seem to know what kind of comedy it is. Is it the heartwarming kind of comedy where its characters learn the value of family? The darkest kind of comedy with jokes about incest? Or the kind of comedy that’s all dick jokes?

It succeeds only at the latter. We’re the Millers never goes beyond the fringes of truly dark comedy and it’s happy families message is confused. The ending – which has the ‘Millers’ staying together as a family through the witness protection program – falls flat because you just don’t buy that these people have really become a family, nor that all of them want to. (With the exception of Kenny. Kenny is truly lonely.)

It’s not a bad comedy. The funny moments are (for the most part) funny, the touching moments (for the most part) touching – it’s just confused and unbalanced.

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Top 10 Animated Films

Or, rather: my top ten favourite animated films… at the moment. Unlike my favourite live-action films list, there’s only one childhood favourite here. These are all films I either watched for the first time in the last four years or have recently revisited. Many of the films on this list are relatively recent releases.

What does that say about my tastes? I really don’t know. But I really love animation.

10. Ocean Waves

This is a list I’ve been planning to make for a while – and for a time I was bothered by the lack of Asian entries. Sticking Spirited Away on here would have felt more tokenistic than anything else – especially since as much as I like and admire Spirited Away, I don’t love it.

Then a while ago Channel 4 did a marathon of Studio Ghibli’s films in the week before Christmas. I managed to tune in only once, on Christmas Eve, when – probably intentionally – the scheduled film was the somewhat obscure Ocean Waves. The plot summary they gave didn’t grab me, but I stuck with it when the Studio Ghibli logo came up. I stuck with it through the immensely awkward subtitles. I stuck with it when the rest of my family sat down for pre-dinner drinks. Thankfully I have an understanding family.

For all Ocean Waves is completely different from your average Ghibli film, it’s the one that made me want to watch more. It was something about the incredible level of detail in the animation – and just how evocative it is. Ocean Waves is a TV-movie romance, but it’s more than that. It’s a film about being on the cusp of adulthood – about being asked to bear responsibilities you don’t feel ready for, but simultaneously feeling fenced in by your youth. It’s about nostalgia. It’s about issues and arguments and emotions that seemed world-shaking turning out to actually be… not that big a deal.

It’s a film with a very clear age-bracket when it comes to appeal. The Christmas I watched Ocean Waves was only a year or two after I started university. For me it was beautifully evocative.

9. Belleville Rendez-Vous/The Illusionist

I can’t choose between these two films. They’re both so good, but in very different ways – and since they were made by the same director, I can’t really give them two slots on this list.

Both films are near-silent – Belleville Rendez-Vous has two lines of dialogue, one at the beginning and one at the end; The Illusionist has dialogue scattered throughout in three different languages and only one line which must be understood to follow the plot. But that’s really all they have in common.

Belleville Rendez-Vouse is a cynical, surreal satire of – well, basically everything. French people. Americans. Cyclists. Gangsters. Dogs. You name it. It’s about a grandmother raising her recently orphaned grandson. The only thing she can find that cheers him up is cycling – and this comes to define their relationship as she becomes his cycling trainer.

But when he finally enters the Tour de France, he is kidnapped by the sinister bicyle Mafia, who spirit him away to Belleville (New York). His Grandmother follows him across the atlantic in a pedalo and, with the help of the Triplets of Belleville, a group of aging Vaudeville performers, searches him out.

It’s a strange and at times nightmarish film (some people I’ve shown it to found it intensely creepy rather than enjoyable) – but also weird and wonderful. It’s an exercise in visual storytelling, in making the grotesque endearing – and in making an adventure story about a group of old ladies.

The Illusionist is squarely in the real world. It’s set in late fifties (or possibly earlier sixties) France and Scotland: the story of an old-fashioned stage magician trying to sustain a career in a world that no longer has space for him. He travels to the Hebrides to perform at a party celebrating the island’s brand new electricity connection, where he befriends a young girl who takes him for a real wizard.

And I shall stop there, because I don’t want to spoil the rest of the film. I went into The Illusionist almost completely blind: I’d watched the trailer, which consists largely of the magician’s rabbit misbehaving intercut with Scottish scenery, but I deliberately hadn’t looked up the plot.

I got the DVD for my birthday and since I was spending the day alone – largely by choice – I sat down to watch it in the evening with pizza. This was probably a mistake. For you see The Illusionist is one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen. It is soul-crushingly sad, to the point that I’ve not yet been able to rewatch it. The cake afterwards didn’t help much with the misery.

I think Belleville Rendez-Vous is in many respects a more interesting film – The Illusionist, though it has some fascinating themes, dips into emotional manipulation at times. But The Illusionist excels at visual storytelling where Belleville Rendez-Vous sometimes flags and I probably enjoy watching it more – when I can stomach the bleakness.

8. Pinocchio 

I sometimes think that, even after seventy plus years, Pinocchio might be the best film Disney ever made. If nothing else, together with Fantasia it’s the pinnacle of pre-WWII Disney.

As best I can tell, it was after the Second World War that Disney animation – and possibly Western animation in general – really became a children’s medium. With the exception of Dumbo, Disney’s very early films are all highly artistic, surreal, often frightening and occasionally sexy.

Pinocchio is a strange and unsettling film from start to finish. It’s full of absolutely stunning hand-drawn animation that in places easily tops a lot of more reason computer-supplemented animation.

All of Disney’s early films have an amazing ability to provoke truly intense emotional responses in people. Dumbo and Bambi are known for their tearjerks; Snow White is known for its horrifying transformation scene. Pinocchio manages the full spectrum of emotional responses, from comedy to fear to tears, making the ending incredibly cathartic. And few films capture as well as Pinocchio the experience of being a child.

7. Prince of Egypt

As much as I love The Prince of Egypt, it makes me a little sad. It’s Dreamworks Animation’s best film – and also their first. In a sense it was all downhill from here. But that’s not fair – I love many of Dreamworks’ more recent films, but none have the pure, breathtaking epic quality of The Prince of Egypt.

Though slightly hampered by its short run-time, Prince of Egypt is a true Biblical epic in the vein of The Ten Commandments. But it’s also a very human drama, and in some respects it is all about the importance of human relationships and interactions. An interesting little detail: in The Ten Commandments, Moses is given the robe and staff that mark him as a prophet on his exile from Egypt. In The Prince of Egypt, he gains both during his time living among the desert tribe – they initially mark him as a shepherd, not an exile, and signify his inclusion into his new community. Given the clear influence of The Ten Commandments on Prince of Egypt, this is quite probably deliberate.

Prince of Egypt places its primary focus on the relationship between Moses and Rameses, here imagined as brothers. The break-down of their relationship is the heart of the film – and it really does hurt. Upon the death of Rameses’ son in the final plague, upon finally being released from Egypt, there’s a moment of awful realism: as soon as he is alone, Moses breaks down in tears, grieving for his brother.

And visually, this film is stunning. It takes advantage of its medium so well, with its vast, otherworldly images, that it might just be the best-looking Biblical epic ever made.

6. The Secret of Kells

I talked in a previous post about the frequent disparity between animation quality and writing quality. The Secret of Kells is a prime example. Visually it is beautiful, with a distinctive style and some wonderfully creative images – watch Brendan’s battle with Crom Cruach on youtube and you’ll see what I mean. The animation style is illuminated manuscript meets Butch Hartman (The Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom).

Sadly, the writing doesn’t quite match up. Or in a sense it does – the narrative of Secret of Kells is distinctive and creative and highly original. It’s not by any means bland or uninteresting – it’s just poorly structured. It took me two watches and some research into the historical Book of Kells to work out why it ends as it does.

The Book of Kells, by the by, is an illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels and one of Ireland’s foremost national treasures. I recommend reading up on it before watching the film as it’ll make the experience immensely richer. The Secret of Kells is a (very heavily) fictionalised account of its creation, drawing together various different theories and traditions – and throwing fairies and Pagan gods into the mix.

The fantasy elements tend to raise a few eyebrows – but it really is seamless. Aisling, the forest spirit, is not mere fancy; she symbolises Pagan Ireland, nature, and chaos. She’s a foil for the Abbot of Kells. The interplay between the sets of opposing forces is interesting – though somewhat confused.

5. Under the Red Hood

It’s a direct-to-video animated Batman movie. Hear me out. Under the Red Hood currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s higher than The Dark Knight and higher than Batman and Batman Returns. It’s a really good Batman film – unfortunately one that requires a higher degree of familiarity with comics canon than most. But reading the relevant Wikipedia pages is probably enough to see you through.

Under the Red Hood is adapted from two Batman storylines, Death in the Family and Under the Hood. It’s the story of Jason Todd, Batman’s second – and least successful – Robin. Jason Todd is mostly known for (stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers) having been killed off following a telephone poll in 1988… and then coming back from the dead.

Like many of DC’s animated films, Red Hood exists in its own little bubble of canon, allowing it to throw out and streamline plot elements as it pleases. The narrative is split between achronological flashbacks showing Jason Todd’s time as Robin and unfolding events in present-day Gotham as a mysterious figure called the Red Hood cuts a bloody swathe through Gotham’s criminal population.

More than anything else, it’s an action-packed psychological study. Under the Red Hood is dedicated to the question of what drove Jason Todd to become the Red Hood. Was it his death at the hands of Joker? His unnatural resurrection thanks to Ra’s al Ghul? Was he just born that way? Or was it Batman’s influence? Or all of the above?

Under the Red Hood mostly leaves the answer ambiguous – but if anything is certain in the final scenes, it’s that Batman will always blame himself. And he is probably right to do so.

4. Ratatouille

For whatever reason, I tend to prefer Pixar’s less popular films. I absolutely love A Bug’s Life. I thought Cars was pretty good. And Ratatouille is probably my favourite and I don’t know why.

Even for Pixar, this is a weird concept. It’s about a rat who wants to be a professional chef – because rats are actually sapient and capable of communicating with humans, they just pretend not to be. He has visions of the ghost of the dead chef who is his hero, then befriends a man working in the kitchen of the chef’s old restaurant. They’re able to form a partnership because the rat can control the human by… pulling on his hair? Not direct him – actually control him, like a puppet. It doesn’t make a lick of sense.

But other than some logical hiccups, it’s such a fun film. It’s full of beautifully animated food, frankly adorable character designs, and a message that, though not novel, is sweet and sincere: ‘true greatness can come from anywhere‘.

It’s a film about striving to succeed in a creative field that traditionally locks you out. You could probably replace the rat/human divide with a class, gender or racial divide and the plot would work – but Pixar, being Pixar, went with rats and did not go for any allegory in particular. The rats are rats. The problems they face interacting with the human world are rat problems. It’s a story that is applicable and identifiable, not allegorical.

There are better Pixar films that Ratatouille, but for me this one is the prettiest, the sweetest, and the most fun.

3. Fantasia

I loved Fantasia when I was a child to a degree that was probably unnatural. Fantasia isn’t really a children’s film. It doesn’t have a plot or any real characters – and I think that’s why I loved it so much. Fantasia was a blank canvas for my imagination. As far as I was concerned, Fantasia was one long story – just not a linear one.

If I’m remembering right, this was my reading: Fantasia is the name of the world where the film is set. The various shorts show different parts of this singularly awesome fantasy world where wizards and centaurs and hippos in tutus reside. The opening short, Tocata and Fugue in B Minor, was not so much a part of this world as a gateway to it. Its imagery was what you would see as you passed through the wormhole and its various gateways – then some of the features of the world itself. Or, alternatively, Tocata is the creation of the world of Fantasia out of chaos.

I’m not really sure how I arrived at this conclusion, and even at a young age I knew it wasn’t really how the film was meant to be read – the narrator practically says as much – but I still loved watching the film and trying to work out how the various shorts could be slotted together.

But despite my love for it, I almost never watched Fantasia to the end. Night on Bald Mountain terrified me beyond belief. I always had this sense that it was something I should not be watching – that it was full of strange, grown-up things that I didn’t fully understand. Watching it back now, I’m not sure why I thought that, because it really is just a bunch of scary images put to music. Maybe it was the clearly visible nipples on the harpies.

Even if I got through Night on Bald Mountain, Ave Maria just bored me to tears. A while back Sporcle.com did a quiz asking you to identify the final shots of Disney films. I didn’t get them all – because Fantasia stumped me. Seriously.

2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

As much as I try to avoid admitting it, Hunchback is my favourite Disney film. Not because it’s very good – quite the opposite.

Hunchback is a mess. I do not understand what possessed Disney to adapt the book; of all their adaption choices, this is the one that makes the least sense. It was never a children’s story, there’s no cute animals – why, Disney?

The result of that thoroughly weird decision was a film that is an absurdly light and fluffy adaption of the novel – but a weirdly dark Disney film. It’s a thoroughly flawed film – but flawed in a way that is quite fascinating.

At times, Hunchback is very true to its source material – Hellfire, for instance, which is one of the darkest sequences Disney has ever put to film. But then there’s the singing gargoyles, and the slapstick, and A Guy Like You – it’s unbalanced, mismatched, and downright weird. I find it fascinating that Disney decided to make this film, and fascinating that they then insisted on so much comic relief.

It also has a fantastic soundtrack. I could listen to it over and over, songs and instrumentals both – I have listened to it over and over. With a few exceptions the songs are both brilliant and quite un-Disney, and I love each and every one of them.

1. How to Train Your Dragon

This is not the best film on the list in terms of animation or narrative, neither is it the one I enjoyed the most on first viewing – but How To Train Your Dragon is the one I could watch over and over and get the same emotional notes every single time.

It’s a pretty straightforward coming-of-age nerd fantasy film: awkward teenage boy earns respect of his father and his peers and gets a hot girlfriend. Instant plot, just add dragons!

But it’s all done so well. Hiccup’s relationship with his father has so much realism to it; Stoick is, from the start, just a decent guy trying to raise a son he doesn’t understand, not a bad father. Hiccup’s conflict between his own culture, the dragons, and his conscience is beautifully realised.

Then there’s the dragons and the dragon-riding. Dragon-riding is not by any means a new trope – The Dragon-Riders of Pern is probably the ur-example – but How To Train Your Dragon is, I think, the best depiction of dragon-riders on film (though given that its main competition is Eragon, that may not be saying much).

The dragon-riding scenes are beautifully animated, creating a strong sense both of motion and of mechanics: we see Hiccup design the system that will let him ride Toothless, and so come to understand exactly how and why it works.

Plus the dragon-designs are so inventive – not so much the dragons themselves as the fire. On the DVD commentary the creators talk about animating dragonfire and point out – this I hadn’t noticed – that dragonfire on film is traditionally based around what can be created easily on a film set: i.e. fire that burns very intensely, but very quickly, without damaging anything.

But How To Train Your Dragon is an animated film, and the creators realised they didn’t have to follow convention. The result is a dragon that spits Napalm, intensely destructive fire, and a real sense of danger.

That, I think, is what is so good about How To Train Your Dragon: everything about the world it creates feels real and solid. You fully believe in the viking village and its culture, in the dragons, and particularly in Toothless and his relationship with Hiccup. It’s so sincere and so very touching, from start to finish.

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