Tag Archives: Animation

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Isle of Dogs

[4 stars]

It’s hard to believe, but it has been four years since Wes Anderson brought us the near-perfect Grand Budapest Hotel.  Since then he has been working on this piece of stop-action magic, his second effort in the art after The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Isle of Dogs, by luck or incredible insight on the part of Anderson and his various co-writers, is a mirror of today’s politics and growing xenophobia, but in a fun way. It is, to say the least, quirky, but full of heart and humor. One thing it isn’t, it isn’t for kids. These characters lead rough lives and live in a corrupted and selfish world, but they remain driven and hopeful throughout. You could say they’re dogged, but that might get you slapped.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you may have noticed that the voice talent for this movie is extraordinary. In fact, it is far too long to even try and list. But Bryan Cranston (Why Him?) leads the story with Ed Norton (Collateral Beauty), Jeff Goldblum (Thor: Ragnarok), Bill Murray (The Jungle Book), and Bob Balaban (The Monuments Men) poking him from the sidelines. All, in Anderson’s style, just let the story unfold and show itself. Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell), Greta Gerwig (Maggie’s Plan), and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) balance them all out with quiet performances of their own. However, this is very much a male dominated story.

There is something magic about this movie. Like Budapest used music, Dogs uses Japanese stage-craft to pull you into its world and set up the approach. And it also plays with keeping you in the dog’s perspective. For instance, one of the main characters speaks only untranslated Japanese, but yet you understand him.

It is hard to explain why this film works, but it does. If you like Anderson’s work at all, this is a must-see. If you enjoy stop-action animation, it is also worth seeing, though it isn’t up to the standards of Laika studios (e.g., Kubo and the Two Strings). But it is delightful, adult, and emotionally satisfying which still providing a good story and a point. As it expands its number of screens, find a theater and go see it. If nothing else, it will be one of the  most unique films you see this year.

Isle of Dogs

The Breadwinner

[3.5 stars]

If you follow animation at all, you are probably aware of the beautifully fantastical Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, the first co-directed by Nora Twomey and the latter she contributed to from the art department. These fantasies have a distinctive look of layered, cut paper and illuminated manuscripts which move like ancient puppets through incredible worlds rich in imagination and color. Breadwinner incorporates these signatures into aspects of its tale, but this film, directed by Twomey, is much more grounded in the real world.

In fact, the core of the story is very contemporary and disturbing, while still being appropriate for most audiences. And, though it is a chronicle of Afghanistan in 2001, it is just as upsettingly applicable today. The resulting film is is something like a combination of Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir with a dash of The Patience Stone and Wadjda. All films worth seeing if you’ve missed any of them.

There is nothing brilliant about the voice talent in the film, but neither is there anything wanting. They all do quite well, but the star is the art and the tale itself. Shifting between the real world and the interstitial story-world that Parvana is telling to her brother and herself. Both stories serve to pull you along, however that split focus also has some issues. Primarily, Parvana’s bedtime story has an odd energy and flow. The fable is told episodically, but without a feeling of closure or chapter endings, though clearly that is the intent of each break in the tale. It makes every one of the transitions from fable to real world story less than smooth. Not bad, necessarily, but not as crafted as you’d expect given the previous two films. Each change leaves a residual, unresolved energy like an incomplete chord which follows you back into the next scene, keeping you from re-engaging quickly as the story shifts.

Any concerns around that aside, it is a movie you should make time for now that it is generally available. If it flowed better, I’d say it should also kick Coco’s butt out of the Oscar seat, but that isn’t going to happen. Despite its powerful message, insights, and wide-eyed hope for a broken world, The Breadwinner just isn’t quite good enough to pull off the win. But it is good enough to demand your time and adds to a catalog of work that is visually unique and wonderful.

The Breadwinner

Loving Vincent

[3 stars]

Have you ever wanted to fall into a painting and see what the world was like in there? Loving Vincent, whose title serves both as the core sense of the film and comes from the artist’s own epigram, does just that. Using van Gogh’s style, an army of artists hand painted each frame making it feel like you’re in his world. The result is somewhere between stop-action and traditional animation, evoking Aleksandr Petrov or even early Takahata and Miyazaki.

But the story itself isn’t what you likely anticipate given that description. Unexpectedly, this Oscar contender kicks off a year after van Gogh’s death; an event most of us grew up thinking we understood. It was suicide, wasn’t it? Turns out there is a story there to be told. Douglas Booth (Limehouse Golem) is the man trying to ferret out the truth, at first reluctantly, and eventually with solid obsession and a large collection of characters to interview.

Among the notable supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The Cloverfield Paradox), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Helen McCrory (Their Finest),  Aidan Turner (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Being Human), John Sessions (The Loch), and Jerome Flynn (Ripper Street, Game of Thrones). Due to the techniques of the film, the actors are more than just voices in this story. All of the actors are recognizable, their images painted over to fit into the atmosphere.

This amazing cast, listed and unlisted, are also part of the issues with the film. Though each looks a lot like the real-world counterparts in Vincent’s world, the rotoscoping is a little distracting. The style of the film, which uses overlays and masks to create the style at times, can also be a bit hard to focus on as it flows across the screen. It brings to life van Gogh, making his static indication of vibrancy real, but what worked in static can feel over amplified in constant motion. Still, the overall effect and story are fascinating and clearly a true labor of love.

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed and co-wrote this odd historical along with Jacek Dehnel. For all involved this was an early contribution to feature film and a heck of a leap of art to try. While it deserves its place among the Oscar notables this year, it isn’t likely to win more than the honor of nomination. However, I am very curious to see what this trio (or individuals) attack next. It took a very creative brain to recognize there was a movie here, and to conceive of way to tell it that would capture audiences in a new way. Make time for Vincent…it is truly unexpected.

Loving Vincent

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

Despicable Me 3

[3 stars]

Remember that threequel conversation from a couple nights ago? Well, here we are again and the result is mostly meh. As much as I enjoyed the previous installments, the brother relationship that drives this entry in the franchise just doesn’t hold the emotional punch the young girls did. The movie really only exists as a bridge to a new direction…rather than actually taking a new direction…and it has all the impact that weakness implies.

The shift in focus even pulled away from the Minions, who are the real stars of this series. They, at least, got one truly brilliant sequence in stripes. There are moments for the other characters, but not enough to carry even this 90 minute trifle. This installment is probably good to distract your youngsters, but it really missed the mark for me as hybrid adult entertainment, even with all the nostalgia-themed material.

Despicable Me 3

Leap!

[2.5 stars]

If you’re between the ages of 5 and 9 you might find this very juvenile bit of animation fun. The ideas and messages are good, but the script, voice acting, animation, and sound engineering are all barely Saturday-morning level. It also gets a bunch of history wrong but, in the scope of things and the clear level of audience they were targeting, I was willing to let that go.

When you look at the cast, the lack of good voice acting is even more surprising. Elle Fanning (The Beguiled), Nat Wolff (Death Note), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), and Mel Brooks (Hotel Transylvania) aren’t small talent to snag. But whatever effort they put in was lost thanks to the sound levels, which were really just a sound “level,” without nuance or change.

Unless you are entertaining a bunch of youngsters who are dancers, don’t put yourself through the annoyance of watching this. Animation has improved over the last 20 years thanks to Pixar, Laika, and others. There is a place for less grandiose efforts, but good script and voice are no longer optional. And this mishmash of a plot and technology is, generally, best avoided.

Leap!

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Series 3)

[3 stars]

OK, I honestly didn’t see myself writing about this reboot again. The first series was wonderfully surprising, but still aimed a bit young for my taste. The second series was middling and felt like it was simply pushed out too quickly.

This third installment, however, has a bit more subtlety to it. Lotor, the new evil, is actually a bit more real, a bit smarter, and a lot more intriguing…especially given our world today. He conquers with kindness, stealth, and power. It is a great evolution in how cartoon enemies are drawn for this kind of story and this audience. Shades of grey are always more interesting than simple black & white.

Frustratingly, despite the interesting start, the end of this series was rushed. The final episode is just a huge flashback explanation on the origins of the war and, as it happens, Voltron. The explanations are clever and made me appreciate the writers. But then, well, let’s just say they fell back on what they knew rather than continuing to go someplace more interesting. I have a sense where series 4 will go, but I do hate missed chances.

At least we don’t have long to wait to see what happens next. Series 4 arrives in October.

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