Category Archives: animation

Review: The Cat Returns


(Note: between job interviews and anthology submissions, no time to write a proper blog post this week. So, here’s one I made earlier –  ie, dug out of my drafts from 2013.)

Whisper of the Heart was a reasonably complex and original coming of age story with a perfect blend of fantasy and realism – but evidently the most popular part was the dapper talking cat, Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, for he got a kitty-themed film all to himself.

It’s a much shallower film than its predecessor, with less detailed animation and a straightforward fairytale plot. Schoolgirl Haru saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat transpires to be the Prince of Cats, and his father, the Cat King, is so grateful than he insists Haru take the prince’s paw in marriage. Not enthused at the prospect of marrying a cat, Haru seeks the help of the Cat Bureau. Therein enters the Baron, a living cat figurine who is determined to save Haru before she is transformed into a cat forever…

It’s pretty standard children’s fantasy far, with a lot of kitties – and I mean a lot. If you’re a cat person you will probably like this film. If you’re not a cat person you might come out of it hating them.

The ending is something of a disappointment, with Haru having grown as a person by virtue of… I don’t know, adventure? And cats? But it’s worth a watch, partly for the star-studded English dub (Anne Hathaway as Haru, Tim Curry as the Cat King, Cary Elwes as the Baron) and partly because it’s pure kitty-filled fun.

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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.


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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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 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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100 Animated Films V: Stop-Motion Wonders

piratesPirates! In An Adventure with Scientists

Pirates has a lot to recommend it. It was made by Aardman animation – their first stop-motion film since 2005, their first to be filmed in 3D and (I believe) their first to extensively blend stop-motion with computer generated animation. The voice cast includes Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Lenny Henry – all perfectly cast. Of the films on my list this was one of the ones I was most looking forward to.

I’m not sure how to verbalise what about this film I found lacking. The humour, animation and voice acting are all top-notch – it was something about the plot, which involves surprisingly little pirating and a lot of quite disparate elements drawn together. Aardman Animation excels at short films but their full-length films tend to be bitty – this, I think, is why their best films are Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas. Both could easily have been short films – but they’re better for the extra length and use it for character development rather than more plot and more gags.

On the subject of character development: Pirate Captain, our protagonist. Pirates! is a film which does something I hate: it attempts to create the illusion of character development through a montage of the main character being very sad. But has he actually changed in anyway, or learned anything? Do his crew forgive him for any reason other than ‘well, the script says so’? Not really, no. Sure, he’s trying to make things right, but more to get his crew to like him again than because he understands what he done wrong.

And also: dodos were large birds. They stood about a metre tall – ‘bigger than a swan’ was a common comparison. I keep my sanity by imagining that Polly the Dodo is a member of a previously unknown species of Dwarf Dodo from a smaller island – but perhaps I am giving the film-makers too much credit.

panicA Town Called Panic

I’m at a slight disadvantage here because I’ve never seen the TV series of the same name – and I get the impression A Town Called Panic is very much an extra-long episode. My only prior experience with A Town Called Panic  was the series of Cravendale Milk adverts made by the same people with more or less the same characters.

That said: I enjoyed A Town Called Panic very much. The animation, though simple, is distinctive and very clever; that the characters are all, essentially, toys, appeals to the child in me. The plot structure reminds me a little of an episode of The Simpsons: it begins with the other characters attempting to get a birthday present for Horse but then spins off into something completely different… and completely different again… and again.

The toy-like animation models plus the disjointed plot make for an experience something like watching a story made up by someone playing with toys – the village actually reminds me of the shoebox ‘towns’ I used to make for my dolls to live in. It costs along on its own odd internal logic, from the Arctic to the bottom of the ocean to the centre of the earth. I love that kind of story-telling.


I think the best summation of Frankenweenie I’ve seen so far is ‘more Tim Burton’. I think it might his most Tim Burton-y film to date. And I’m not actually dead keen on his style.

Still: Frankenweenie is a lot of fun, with some memorable characters and spot-on Hammer Horror pastiche. Victor’s relationship with the prophetically-named Sparky feels very real; it honestly hurts when the dog dies and Victor’s obsession with bringing him back to life is oddly touching.

That said, I feel like the film missed his own message. At the end of the film (spoilers!) Sparky dies again… but rather than just acknowledging that hey, dogs die sometimes, and moving on is important, Victor brings him back again – with the help of the townspeople, no less – and the film ends.

It’s not a very healthy message. How long does Victor intend to keep raising his dog from the dead when it dies? And given that he has now proven that it’s possible to raise the dead with sufficient electricity – how long is it before someone tries his trick on a dead family member? Sooner or later this world is going to have a Pet Semetary situation on its hands – or worse, a full-blown zombie apocalypse. Sure, the fact that most of the raised pets were monstrous should put most people off – but Sparky was just fine. For a desperate, grieving person with access to frequent lightning storms those would look like some pretty good odds.

Lots of ethical and metaphysical questions; not many answers. It’s a fun family film, but only if you don’t think too hard.


Based purely on the animation, Coraline is a masterpiece. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: this film is entirely stop-motion animated. There are no green-screen shots. The more you know about stop-motion, the more impressive it becomes – I’m still trying to wrap my head around just how you could create the climax in stop-motion. There’s effects that would likely be tricky to accomplish in CG. It holds a record for longest stop-motion film. Let’s all agree now: Laika are the masters.

Unfortunately, it has the same slight issue as Paranorman: the stop-motion is so good that if you didn’t know better you’d assume it was generic-looking CG. Aardman animation has always managed to avoid this by having such a distinctive stop-motion style that you couldn’t mistake it for anything else; Laika lacks this quality.

So what about the rest of the film? I’d say Coraline falls victim to what I’m going to dub the Thief and the Cobble dilemma. The Thief and the Cobbler is a tragically unfinished animated film made by Richard Williams. It was intended to be the greatest animated film of all time, and in some respects it would have been – check out this scene. But the plot and characters are uninspired and the Arabian Nights setting is about as heavily stereotyped as Disney’s Aladdin. How do you judge an animated film? By the animation or the content?

Not that Coraline is a bad film. It’s full of inventive and interesting plots and characters, but much of that it owes to its source material. If it had been made in CG animation I’d call it so-so: it’s enjoyable, creepy, Coraline is a strong and realistically child-like lead. It’s a great fairy tale – but again, it owes that to Neil Gaiman’s novella. I found the overall quality a little patchy; the last third or so devolves into a kind of video-game plot.

But it’s sure as hell not a bad film, even leaving aside the animation. It’s a rare female-led animated film children’s film that is not a romance (the only other such film released the same year was Dreamworks’ Monsters vs Aliens). It may be lacking in some areas – but it is definitely worth checking out.

Fantastic_mr_foxFantastic Mr. Fox

Oh, Roald Dahl. When will there be an adaptation of your work I actually like?

Fantastic Mr. Fox isn’t a bad film. Critically it was quite acclaimed. I enjoyed some of the deadpan humour and the music and it does get some parts of its source material down – Boggis, Bunce and Bean are done beautifully.

But Mr. Fox himself is not Fantastic. Not even a little. Some kind of vital essence or spirit of the character is missing. I’m not sure what it is – but he lacks the brilliance and dashing charm of his book counterpart. The constant deadpanning doesn’t help – it’s irritating and not very suitable for animation. This is a medium that needs more energy.

The animation itself doesn’t help either. The models have an eerie realism to them, disjointed movements, and creepy dead eyes. It’s not nice to look at, except in stills, and it’s not nicely shot – for some reason the film keeps cutting to close-ups. Close-ups of jerky, dead-eyed model faces. I don’t know who thought that would be a good idea – and it’s not that Wes Anderson isn’t used to working with animation, because he didn’t direct the stop-motion, just the voice actors.

Ultimately, my problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox is the same as my problem with many adaptions of children’s books: if there’s not enough source material to comfortably fill out a feature-length film, don’t make a feature length film. It’s really not that complicated. Some books are just better suited to short form – or to not being adapted at all.

Next: Studio Ghibli.

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