Tag Archives: animation

Review: The Cat Returns

220px-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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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.

FrankenweenieFrankenweenie

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.

CoralineCoraline

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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Super Best Friends Forever

Because such dishonour is not befitting an Amazon Princess! I promised my mother that I would serve as a symbol of integrity and strength so that the world of man would know what it means to be an Amazon… plus my sister would kill me!

Super Best Friends Forever is a series of DC Nation shorts produced by Laren Faust (of Powerpuff Girls and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) fame starring Tara Strong, Grey deLisle and Nicole Sullivan as Batgirl, Wondergirl, and Supergirl. They fight crime. It’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s funny – and it’s all about an all-female superhero team. What’s not to love?

The only downsides are that it has now been cancelled and the series totals at around five minutes. Not per episode, for the whole series. Bummer.

But fret not! All five of those minutes are available on the DC website here. The three superheroines have an episode each to showcase their abilities and their home lives – followed by two episodes of the team getting their name and establishing themselves as ‘equal opportunity butt-kickers!’.

It’s a great blend of teenage girls doing superhero things and superheroes doing teenage girl things. And for just a handful of episodes, it has a whole lot of character – Wondergirl as the honourable but naive fish-out-of-water, hyperactive, ditzy, but focused and determined Batgirl, and boisterous Supergirl who doesn’t always quite know her own strength…

I really can’t recommend SBFFs enough. Check it out – after all, it only takes five minutes.

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100 Animated Films IV: Computer Generated Assortment

Chicken Little

I hated this film. Honestly, truly hated it.

Chicken Little came out shortly after Home on the Range and in some respects they’re not dissimilar. Home on the Range is the story of the Pied Piper – in the Old West with cows! Chicken Little is, well, Chicken Little – with aliens! To the film’s credit, the aliens are actually the film’s strongpoint. The designs of both aliens and alien technology are inventive; the alien invasion scenes are nothing new but tensely enjoyable.

My problem with this film is more or less everything else. The original Chicken Little was a female character. Here he (!) is voiced by Zach Braff. I gather a female voice actor had not only been cast but had recorded all of her dialogue before the decision was made to genderswap the lead character – because a female lead would alienate little boys. Because it’s not as if a male lead could potentially alienate little girls, or as if many of Disney’s most popular and successful animated films have had female leads.

If that weren’t enough, I found it very difficult to sympathise with the townspeople, even as they were, to all intents and purposes, being massacred by aliens. (They’re fine – that was a transporter ray, not a death ray.) The entire town seems to honestly believe that Chicken Little is delusional – and their response is to simultaneously alienate and abuse him and capitalise on the story for tourist revenue. Let them have it, aliens. They are not nice people.

 

Meet the Robinsons

I’m very glad I watched Meet the Robinsons after Chicken Little rather than before – it meant ending the official Disney canon on a high note! While it’s not exactly one of Disney’s greats, Meet the Robinsons is a whole lot of fun – and as befits a film about an inventor, brilliantly inventive. It has an oddball sense of humour that I really like; it’s colourful and all-round pretty looking; the use of time travel is interesting; and the ultimate message is good and positive and one that should see more mileage in children’s films.

Meet the Robinsons is very much about family – as it turns out, adoptive family. Wilbur, our protagonist, comes to realise that he will never be able to meet his birth mother – and that’s okay! It’s rare – and gratifying – to see a film be this positive above adoption.

It’s chaotic and a tad confused in places, but overall Meet the Robinsons is probably one of the stronger films Disney’s made recently – certainly one of the most interesting!

 

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

I wanted to run away that day, but you can’t run away from your own feet.’

I’d say the above line was the point I realised I was really going to enjoy this film. I did not go into Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs  with high expectations – I dismissed it as pure silliness when it came out and was very surprised when it popped up on a list of ‘best animated films of the year’ when I was putting together my 100 films line-up.

As it turns out, the science is, well, unscientific, few of the characters are particularly likeable – but this film is funny. Properly laugh-out-loud funny. The cast is full of SNL and ex-SNL performers, the animation is very much old-school designs in 3D… and there’s a monkey voiced by Neil Patrick Haris.

It’s not Pixar – I’d put it more on a level with Dreamworks’ better films – and it may be lacking in some areas but Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a really good comedy and worth checking out.

 

 

Flushed Away

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a pleasant surprise; Flushed Away was a disappointment. It’s not a bad film – overall it’s actually pretty decent – it’s just not what I’d expect from Aardman Animation. The people who’ve made some of my favourite animated films of all time made Flushed Away, which might as well be one long potty-joke.

Many aspects of the film are good. The voice acting is excellent. I like the visuals, which owe a lot to Aardman’s traditional claymation – not just in the character designs (which you can see on the poster), but also in the scenery, which is not dissimilar to Chicken Run. It’s just sorely predictable.

The romance subplot, the damselisation of the female lead in the third act, the evil plan, the male lead with his boring arc and lessons to be learned – it’s an awfully generic film from an animation company that has always been the opposite of generic.

 

Arthur Christmas

Now this is the computer-generated Aardman film I wanted. It has all their characteristic humour and flair and attention to detail – but on a much larger scale than you could do in stop motion. The opening scenes of the S-1 in action are funny and epic all at once. Like Flushed Away, the conclusion is a little predictable – but unlike Flushed Away, the journey there isn’t.

It lacks a true villain; all the characters have understandable and sympathetic motivations even as they do not-terribly-nice things. It’s very much a family drama (there’s something very depressing about the notion that not even the Clauses can manage to get through Christmas without arguing) – with space-ships and magic flying reindeer!

Bryony the Wrapping Elf makes for a strong and unconventional female lead – and a female lead who is not anyone’s love interest, I should add. Add in the hyper-competent Mrs Claus and you have two interesting and funny female characters, even if it doesn’t quite manage to pass the Bechdel Test.

And what can I say? I have a weakness for Father Christmas films, and Arthur Christmas – with it’s multi-generational succession of Santas and sleigh-shaped space-ship full of elves – is one of the most developed ones I’ve seen to date.

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