Tag Archives: Animation

What If…?

[4 stars]

There is no doubt this show was highly anticipated by fans of the MCU, and generally worth the wait. Mind you, if you haven’t watched the whole phase 1-3 sequence you would be completely lost on the references and import of what you’re watching. This is a gift to fans from fans. Period. And that’s a truly rare thing at this level of quality and production. A fully non-canon set of stories that tackle those powerful thoughts of “What if…” that allow for stories that never happened but might have been fun to see.

But how much fun comes down to this: why do you want to watch What If…? There are different answers to the question, and the reactions I’ve seen to the show tend to be fed by which of the two main camps that question creates. Either you’re just interested in being entertained and seeing what fun and silly stuff might come out of mashing up the characters and events, or you want to see something a bit more interesting in terms of how a story really might unspool in a meaningful way thanks to a single change. Up front, I’m in the latter camp. I’m all about the power of “what if” in stories, but I want it to have a purpose and satisfying result. It can get silly, but it still has to satisfy my main criteria: purpose. And after a wandering path, they got there. But that meant seeing it all chronologically and experiencing the stories individually first.

Launching with a riff on the Captain America origin story was a brilliant stroke. It sets up the tone and possibilities. More importantly, it was a story with a change that had impact in its difference. But then it quickly stumbled for me in its second outing as it took on Guardians of the Galaxy, almost instantly breaking the reality by having events out of order in a way that could not work, even in the universe they created. Any fan would have spotted it immediately. The gaff set off alarm bells for me as it meant no one was watching carefully enough to keep it above the realm of bad fan fiction. Because, let’s face it, this series is fan fiction…that is its only purpose to exist.

I had fewer issues with the Avengers Assemble riff. Though, other than shock value, it didn’t manage to really grab me. Part of that may have been the voices; several main characters didn’t voice their avatars.

But Doctor Strange was clever and cut to the bone in a way that most of the episodes don’t. Though I fully admit the run at Infinity War (which sadly spoils the opening surprise with its title) was a riot. And while Iron Man’s alternate journey was interestingly thought through, Thor’s only-child tale lost it’s credibility early on for me. It could have been fun, but it tried too hard and, like the Guardian’s episode, included too many characters that shouldn’t have been mixing.

And then there was the Ultron finale…well, dang. I have to hand it to the series for that storyline along with its repercussions and impact. But it was a long slog to relevance in some ways. Without that finale, I’d have a had a much lower opinion of the series.

Overall, the clever reuse of movie audio, which helped to bring back in original voices in many places that might not have otherwise been possible, and the sense of fun and whimsey amid the dark really pulled it all together nicely.  And now I’m actually looking forward to the next season.

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Q-Force

[4 stars]

Yes, it’s outrageous. Yes, it’s absurd. Yes, it crosses the borders of cliché and travels well into country that could be taken as insulting. But it is all done as matter-of-fact and with an embracing sense of love. It turns everything up to 11 (or maybe 1100) and lets the freak flags fly. And, to top it off (no pun intended), it develops a solid arc pulling the first series together.

The voice cast lean into every aspect of the story and situations. There are no hesitations or apologies as they solve outrageous, Bond-like crimes and neutralize the bad folks, foreign and domestic. And there is a long list of recognizable names giving those stories life, but you can discover them easily enough. We aren’t talking Oscar level work, just solid delivery and respect for the scripts and story which is where the series thrives.

Because you’ll see, there is a sort of quiet genius to the show. Even with the painful acknowledgment of prejudice that launches the show, it offers up the reverse mirror of what the LGTBQ+ community has to deal with all the time in entertainment: worlds full of non-gay people acting like that’s all there is in the world. It is a reaction and a statement. It’s also hilariously funny at times.

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Godzilla: Singular Point

[3 stars]

Who would have thought they could find a new Godzilla tale to tell rather than remake after remake (however clever)? Singular Point is an amusingly complex tale of hyperspace, quantum physics, cryptology…and Kaiju. What more can you want in an entertaining anime? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it does have fun getting there and trying to explain it. And it has the one of the best weapon names every put forth in this genre.

I will admit that I watched the first episode and walked away for several weeks. There was something intriguing there, but I was worried it was going to just devolve into silly, overdone tropes. After I came back, they proved those assumptions very wrong. This is a very different tale of Godzilla, and a very different sort of battle for the planet.

This first series is fairly self-contained. If you watch through the final credits, there is a coda that opens it up for a follow-on story. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but given this last round, I’d give them a chance to pull me back in again.

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Night is Short, Walk on Girl (Yoru wa mijikashi aruke yo otome)

[3 stars]

A slightly surreal walk through an evening of learning about love, life, and alcohol. I say “slightly” surreal because unlike other animes that delve into the unreal, this watches it mostly from the outside rather than the inner experience for the characters. It’s sort of like watching your friends get drunk, but with peeks inside their heads and listening to their internal narration.

This is an earlier film by director Masaaki Yuasa (Japan Sinks 2020). Mind you, it isn’t all that old, only 4 years, but it is an earlier example of his efforts and a very different sort of perspective on the world than his most recent. The animation is also a lot simpler, even cruder at times. Simple line drawings and blocky representations rather than the rich worlds he’s been producing of late. And the story is hopelessly, though in a twisted way, romantic.

I can’t say I loved the tale, but it dragged me along and made me laugh, even between the cringes. I’m sure there is something to be gleaned about the segments of society he’s poking fun of even as he embraces them, but I’m equally sure a lot of that went way over my head. Still, I can make educated guesses, even if the nuances were lost on me. It helps that the main character, Naoko, is tirelessly optimistic and attempting to bring good into the world around her.

For a trippy sort of escape without a lot of weight to it, I was glad I went back to pick up this earlier film of Yuasa’s. It indicates a breadth of interests and possibilities for his talents that will keep me seeking him out for a while to come.

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The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf

[3 stars]

It’s been a while since Witcher came on the scene. And we’re still awaiting December’s launch of the next season. In the meantime, we’ve got this surprisingly entertaining animated movie to provide some background and to give us a new story. And while the script attempts to make this work as a standalone story, it is probably best viewed after seeing the first season of the show rather than as an entry point.

There is some nice voice talent carrying along the tale and filling out the complicated world. Theo James (Divergent Series: Allegiant), Mary McDonnell (The Closer), and Lara Pulver (Legacy: Black Ops) are the ones that rise to the top. Each of them has some wonderfully subtle moments to navigate and depths to expose.

Nightmare of the Wolf is definitely not aimed at kids. For all intents, and even in structure, it’s very much of the Witcher brand and approach. Expect blood, betrayal, sex, and innuendo. And, of course, a lot of fighting, death, and violence. But the chaos and story builds to a final point and, sadly, much of it feels disturbingly relevant to the real world and its current state. Yet it remains entertaining and intriguing…and definitely whets the appetite for the upcoming continuation of the live action show.

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Vivo

[3.5 stars]

I love that animation, particularly animation aimed at younger viewers, is starting to tackle deeper subjects. Look at Coco or Soul for examples of this shift. It speaks to bravery on the part of the studios and an emotional awareness on part of the writers and directors. The trick is to balance those more adult aspects with a younger person’s point of view and perspective of the world; you can’t share a message if you don’t have enough common ground.

And this is where Vivo, for all its wonderfulness around Cuba, music, love, and loss, stumbles. It really isn’t balanced for the widest audience. I suspect it will resonate much more for adults than kids, despite some fun and funny moments.

The main culprit is the script by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights) which hides Ynairaly Simo’s reasons for engaging on the adventure until it’s too late for audiences to latch into it. Adults may see what’s going on, but many kids just won’t and, for all her wonderful and brave acting, she just comes off as being silly rather than purposeful and with something invested until near the end.

Fortunately, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (In the Heights) energy, and his ability to connect with the other characters, does help pull it all along. And his songs don’t suck either. Michael Rooker (Fantasy Island) gets a prime bit of screen time…and is every bit as memorable as Sterling Holloway’s (or even Scarlett Johansen’s) turn as Kaa in Jungle Book. (Rooker also had a double opening weekend with The Suicide Squad.) And Gloria Estefan as the lost love and famous singer was an inspired choice, though I wish she’d have gotten to let loose her chops some more. The rest of the voice cast is generally serviceable.

Vivo is really a sweet film to share. The story may be, well, incredulous, but the message and emotions are real. And the animation has moments of true beauty, though it is generally just your typical 3D CGI that we’ve grown used to accepting. It works, but I’m still finding the clash between landscape photo-realism and weird balloon people a struggle at times mentally. All that said, it certainly entertains. And, depending on where you are in life and mood, it may just grab you by the shoulders and shake you (in a good way) a little.

Vivo Poster

Japan Sinks 2020

[3.5 stars]

Stories about cataclysmic events are usually just action/thrillers, even when focused on a few individuals. See the recent Greenland for a good attempt at trying to balance the big and small, but still filling the screen with massive effects. But Japan Sinks is something a bit different. More in the The Road meets Mars category: lots of challenges on the very personal scale as a family tries to survive a massive earthquake.

The result is something probably best termed as a beautiful tragedy. With Masaaki Yuasa (Devilman: Crybaby) at the helm, that kind of dark observance shouldn’t be a surprise. But the heart of it all truly was. Perhaps his co-creator/director Pyeon-Gang Ho kept it all in check? There is a relentless positivity in the face of ongoing loss that keeps the story intriguing. But it will keep dropping your jaw for it’s plot choices and imagery.

And, even more interestingly, the situations and depictions of the issues feels very real. Dark at times. Sad at others. And even happy at times. But it all feels close to what might really happen to a society in the grips of total disaster…at least within the culture it is happening. The science of it all is probably quite debatable, but they make it sound good as they speed through occasional expositions. The English dub is actually on par with the original language, which is to say neither is stellar, but both are sufficient. It was nice to be able to focus on the images and action rather than try to read rapid exchanges.

Japan Sinks isn’t a series you can binge easily. I found myself only able to handle a single 23 min. episode at a time for for a good part of the story. As I got deeper in, my emotional callouses built-up and I could watch a couple at a time. It is wonderful animation, if a little uneven at times. And the story will keep you committed, though it is often unclear what is driving the direction of the character choices. And I will say you will never hear the phrase, “Let’s take a picture,” again without flinching. But if you are seeking out a new, solid anime to feed the beast, this should be on your list.

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Tig Notaro: Drawn

[3 stars]

Stand-up comedy is a thing unto itself. There is a format: a person and a mic. It’s that high-wire aspect to it all, that dangerous exposure for the talent, that makes it so much fun to watch; especially when done well. Though every comic has their style, few challenge that format in any meaningful way. Hannah Gadsby is the only one in recent memory to really turn it all on its head, and even then she worked within certain familiar parameters.

With Drawn, Notaro has tried a brave experiment, but I can’t say it worked as she or director Greg Franklin probably hoped.  They are challenging the very meaning and structure of stand-up. But there’s a reason some folks prefer to read a book over seeing a movie. Or, more precisely, to read the book rather than to see the movie of the book. Comedy is partly material, but it’s entirely delivery. And Notaro has a particularly quiet and blank delivery. All the comedy is in how she can hold a silence, how she looks at the audience, and how your mind fills in the blanks.

By animating all the stuff that would normally just be part of what you’d imagine, she and Franklin made the decisions for you, just as the movie of a book does. And, more oddly, by animating some of the audience interaction, it felt like a violation of trust. Notaro always has a bit of a challenging relationship with her audience who she often treats as friendly hecklers, the way you would a good friend. The animation of some of the audience members wasn’t at all kind and even came across as mean, which is out of tune with her normal approach.

I’m sure someone thought this whole presentation would be a great way to fill in Notaro’s signature silences with even more humor. Or, sadly, perhaps they hoped to bring in a wider audience who didn’t care for those silences and strange stories.

Either way the result is a lot of animation that steals that joy you get, that humor of the absurd, that you imagine as she tells her side of the tales. I can’t say I cared much for the approach. In many ways, it weakened the comedy that was there…and with Notaro it’s always a knife-edge as to whether it is comedy or not. As an experiment, I applaud her and her crew, but as an audience member, I would much rather just be watching and listening to her and letting my brain do the rest of the work.

Tig Notaro: Drawn Poster

Masters of the Universe: Revelation

[3 stars]

Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that I was just curious to see why and what Kevin Smith (Tusk) would guide the classic cartoon into I would never have turned it on. The fact is that Masters of the Universe is one of the most unapologetically chauvinist and absurd stories out there…and like many kids, I loved it growing up. But watching it now is just painful in so many ways; the character names alone! What was there to save here? Why bother?

And through most of the first episode, none of those opinions changed or were challenged. And then Smith turns the whole thing on its head in an instant. I don’t always like Smith’s work, but I trusted him enough to get through the setup to the meat of what he wanted to do, and then explore the remaining episodes of the very short first season (or part 1 of the first season).

He also, as exec producer, lined up some fairly recognizable voice talents. In primary roles, Sarah Michelle Geller (Veronika Decides to Die), Lena Headey (Gunpowder Milkshake), Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard), Stephen Root (Uncle Frank), Liam Cunningham, and Mark Hamill (Brigsby Bear) make regular appearances. And there are more. It isn’t so much that these actors give brilliant performances so much as a testament to the scripts that they wanted to do them.

By the end of the 5 episode run, Eternia, her politics, and her secrets have all been remade. And, yes, it’s worth it. Can they pay it off going forward? I don’t honestly know. But I am looking forward to seeing if they can.

Masters of the Universe: Revelation Poster

TrollHunters: Rise of the Titans

[3 stars]

When last we saw our intrepid heroes, they were….well, don’t worry about it, there is a significant recap to remind you and get you current from the final moments of Wizards. Which, to be honest, left us hanging a bit and with a need to wrap it all up.

And, yeah, that’s not entirely going to happen, but that isn’t a surprise either. Rise of the Titans breaks into new ground for the franchise, having done fantasy and science fiction and myth, we’re now into Kaiju, with obvious nods to Godzilla vs Kong and Pacific Rim. The story is big in more ways than one. It is also a bit more rushed than the series since they’ve only allowed themselves a bit less than 2 hours to cover all the ground they wanted. And it is a LOT of ground. It also means there isn’t any of the really quality voice acting and character building we’ve seen in the past…because this is a wrap up. There are revelations and epiphanies (and some logic leaps for that matter) but none of the big arcs we’ve seen in the past, unless you count this as the end of an uber-long arc for all the shows, which would be fair.

The story was written and directed by several people, which shows in the breakdown of this event movie. For all intents it’s about 4 episodes in length, and the flick is divided into some natural breaks, though completely one story. This also isn’t a segment of the franchise that you can watch out of order, as you could the many series. Without the grounding of the previous stories, it will make absolutely no sense. It’s a gift to its audience, and has a wonderful ending that I’m desperately hoping they just leave as is. Not because it isn’t good, but because it is and doesn’t require anything more.

Either way, if you loved the foundation series, as I did, then you will enjoy and must see this conclusion. If you haven’t found the shows yet, give them a shot. Yes, they’re for younger people, but there is so much in there that adults will be well hooked and entertained as well. At least some of us will be.

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