Tag Archives: Animation

Cursed in Arcadia Ego

[4 stars (Tales of Arcadia) or 2.25 stars (Cursed)]

Two very different Netflix shows currently tackle the Arthurian myth. And, surprisingly, the children’s show does it better and more interestingly. Arthur is rich in myth and history with enough room in it to allow for many types of retellings. And these two shows couldn’t have done it more differently nor with such different levels of success.

Tales of Aradia was created by Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), based on his co-written books. It’s an interconnected collection of series that began with Trollhunters. Then came 3Below, followed by the most recent: Wizards. But the threads that lead to Wizards begin in the first episode of Trollhunters. And, yes, these are really aimed at older kids and young teens, without question, particularly the first couple series. However, I jumped into Wizards without watching the others and it hooked me. It was inventive with the myth, stretching it like crazy, but not breaking it in a way that felt wrong. And while it was clear I didn’t know the backstories of a lot of characters, I was never entirely lost; a credit to the writing of the show.

When I went back to the beginning of the inter-connected series, I was surprised to find references to events I’d just witnessed, and which would have gone unanswered for viewers for three years. In other words, I don’t think it matters which end of the time stream you start, it all comes together in fun ways.

The show is loaded with voice talent, and won several Emmys as well. Most notably in the cast is Anton Yelchin (Thoroughbreds), who began as the lead, and stayed with it through his untimely death near the beginning of season 3. And then the series made some great choices to both continue, and to not dismiss his loss when they changed the character voice to Emile Hirsch (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood).

When you’re looking for some distraction, some fairly solid animation, and a clever tale, this set of shows will work for you. And, more importantly, they don’t insult your sense of the underlying material they plundered to create their world.

Now, on to Cursed

Where to start with where this series went wrong… How about the desire to rewrite the Arthurian tale rather than just do a true prequel? How about mucking up Roman/Britannia history so badly as to be embarrassing? How about having people make stupid choices and dialogue that was utterly painful at times? How about an unrelenting dirge of a tale with barely a respite? Well, it’s a start.

I will admit I soldiered on through to the end of this story, though I almost completely bailed about half-way through the second episode. It was close and I did turn it off at that point. But I came back to see if they could rescue it. They sort of did. Sort of. But I was still let cursing (appropriately) at my screen in the final 15 minutes of the series.

Aspects of the reimagining are clever…but they’re also contradictory in their set-up, implying it is way before Arthur’s time, when in fact is is contemporaneous with it. That just threw it all into disarray at the outset. And then there is the religious war aspect, which was half-true, though massively shifted time-wise to feed their hungry beast of a plot.

The cast does what it can with the painful scripts and choices, but they are left hanging on the screen, more often than not, looking less than comfortable with the results. Katherine Langford (Knives Out) and Devon Terrell (Ophelia) bumble around the countryside having to deliver mouthfuls of bad dialogue, and strained protestations of affection. And Gustaf Skarsgård (Vikings) has created an outrageous Merlin, that tries to resurrect Nicol Williamson’s unforgettable turn in Excalibur. And then there’s the sadly miscast Sebastian Armesto (Tulip Fever) as Uther Pendragon, whose been shrunk to a fool and wisp of a man. And that doesn’t even touch the psychotic nun, Emily Coates, who does OK, but who we never get enough about to understand what drives her. At least the young Billy Jenkins (Humans) gives us a full character, even without all the backstory.

Honestly, if we’re looking for strong, female-led tales of the time, and Arthur in particular, can’t we just finally adapt Mists of Avalon or Parke Godwin’s Firelord series? The characters are way more interesting, and the story much more credible and fascinating (and closer to true history and embraced myth).

The point is that if you’re going to do a re-imagining, do it with a purpose, not just changing things for shock value or convenience to muck with people’s expectations. Ultimately, that’s all Cursed does as it slogs through its torturous existence, and without even the courage to finish the story.

Farmaggedon

[3.5 stars]

Despite the foreboding title, this sequel to Shaun the Sheep is every bit as silly and sly as its predecessor, and with a bit more meat on its bones. It isn’t quite the depth of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit but it has more going for it than Aardman Studio’s recent Early Man.

Part of what makes this serving of stop-motion animation so wonderful is the complete lack of dialogue, outsides of grunts, sighs, and expressions of surprise and delight. Even without spoken words, we get an entire story of surprising breadth and depth.

Now it may be an absurdist tale of sheep and aliens galavanting about the countryside, but it holds together and manages to cater to both kids and adults in its references and actions. And for their first feature out of the art room to direct, Will Becher and Richard Phelan did Aardman Studios proud pulling it all together.

When you’ve some time to spare and just want to sit back and laugh, with or without young viewers by your side, this is a nice distraction. And, of course, the animation is a delight all on its own.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon Poster

Animal Crackers

[2.75 stars]

Calling this a fractured fairy tale is being kind and does a disservice to the reference. Despite how many fun moments it has (and it does) and how inventive it is at times (and it is), the story is a complete mess without a focus and with an unclear audience. But whatever that audience is, it isn’t really young kids. The story is too dark and mean for really young kids. At least to my mind.

The thing is Scott Christian Sava adapted his own graphic novel for this movie and co-directed it as well. But he wasn’t urged to edit the story down. It’s a full 7 minutes before we’re even given the title of the film and another huge chunk of time before the main plot really gets going. In a movie for adults that’s sometimes OK, but for kids, it’s challenging. However, even once it gets going, it flounders amid several plot lines. They do all come together eventually, but not all were necessary.

I will admit they got a range of great voice talent to bring it all to life. With Ian McKellen (The Good Liar) and his cronies, including Gilbert Gottfried and some of Sava’s family, arrayed against our main characters, there is a lot of fun to be had. And power couple John Krasinski (A Quiet Place) and Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns) work great together, and can even boast the ubiquitous Tara Strong as their on-screen daughter.

But it doesn’t end there. Smaller roles abound. Danny Devito (Jumanji: The Next Chapter), Harvey Fierstein, Wallace Shawn (Admission), Patrick Warburton (Ted 2), Raven-Symoné, and even Sylvester Stallone (Creed II) all bring their talents to bear. Mind you, some are a little out of control, but that’s as much the story’s fault as it is the director’s and actor’s at times.

This isn’t a wasted part of your day or evening, but it isn’t what it could have been. Animal Crackers had a torturous path to screen…it sat in the can for ages, lost its distribution, and ultimately got rescued by Netflix. I had hoped for something a little more crafted, but it was entertaining enough as a distraction and clever enough to keep me intrigued. I just wish someone with more will had helped shape it and focus it to make it a better movie.

Animal Crackers Poster

Perfect Blue (Pâfekuto burû)

[3 stars]

OK, I know this is considered a classic, and I’m ashamed for not having seen it sooner. I’m even more disappointed because it is also so dated now that it diminished the experience. While it captured the early-mid 90s relatively well, particularly riffing on police procedurals of the time, other aspects now clash. For instance, the long explanations of how the internet works were probably necessary at the time fora portion of the audience, but ring hollow and annoying in 2020. That isn’t the fault of the movie, but certainly had impact.

What sets Perfect Blue apart from much of anime is the story. I think there are better reality-based anime out there, most by this same director, Satoshi Kon, who wrote and directed some of them: Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika. But this was his first attempt. And none of what followed quite dives into the darkness of the human psyche quite like this first movie does. Of course, sometime Kon collaborator Sadayuki Murai (Knights of Sidonia) adapted this story, not Kon himself. But it clearly opened a path for movies that followed.

That sets it in context, but is it really a good movie? Yes and no. It’s a challenge to watch at times, particularly for the first third. But as it comes together and it reveals itself, it becomes intriguing and then fascinating. The freedom of animation allowed Kon and Murai to explore the mental disconnection of a person in distress and make it as real for us as it is for them. It isn’t a perfect end result, but it is impressive as it whips through the final third of the story. As part of your anime education, this does have to be seen, but know it is fraying a bit around the edges thanks to time.

Perfect Blue Poster

Trolls World Tour

[3 stars]

Some silly escapist fun, with enough music and movie references to keep the adults mildly entertained. After an opening that rivals Moulin Rouge’s frenetic introduction, this settles back into a treacly distraction with a timely, if overly hammered, message. To its credit, it mostly manages to do so while also making fun of itself.

The story itself is a little more complex than the first installment. It also has a wider range of music, thanks to some serious retconning. And, of course, it picks up the fuzzy tension between Anna Kendrick (A Simple Favor) and Justin Timberlake’s (Wonder Wheel) characters. They’re joined by a host of recognizable singers and actors that fill out the story, most of which are best left to surprise you. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), however, leads that crowd and drives the new story. She’s amusing, but lacks the nuance to completely sell the transformation necessary.

I can’t say that either the story or the music were entirely engaging. The songs were all too short or medleys with small snippets of tunes that end up more of a tease than satisfying. But the animation was inventive and expanded the original design from the first movie.

All that aside, yeah, kids will love it and adults won’t feel twitchy every time their small charges turn it on. At least not quite as quickly as other children’s movies with longer musical sequences. For households without kids, it’s a very weak recommend.

Trolls World Tour Poster

Ne Zha (Ne Zha zhi mo tong jiang shi)

[3 stars]

This skews rather young, but with some good moments, some (though not all) incredible animation, and a truly not-American story. Which is part of both its interest and charm. It isn’t a simple tale nor one that follows the standard Hollywood tropes.  And, as a first feature by Yu Yang, it’s rather ambitious and delivers in a bit of an uneven way. But it kept me watching.

I also found little entertainment difference between the subtitled and dub versions. In fact, there is an interesting advantage to the dub. Even while watching the  dub version, I kept the English subtitles on as they were often quite different from the spoken dialogue. Not just subtle differences…plot differences. It all added a whole other layer of intrigue for me. The legends and culture upon which the story is based have no touchstone in Western myth. The conflict in translation is fascinating.

And, as it turns out, this is the first part of a longer story…the next piece gets laid out during the credits. I actually hope the other parts are forthcoming. I’m curious to see how they can keep it all going now that they’ve laid out their origin story.

Nezha Poster

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

[3 stars]

While this Studio Ghibli film has echos of Spirited Away, it has neither the richness of animation nor the depth of story to compare. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does shift the audience to be decidedly younger. And, for a younger audience, it is likely quite magical and engaging; especially for girls since the main character is a young girl who gets to save the day.

Director and co-writer Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) knows the language of children, their sense of wonder, and their unrelenting drive. He captures that aspect well. But without more meat, like his previous When Marnie Was There, it is really just a pleasant distraction and long-form cartoon rather than a movie.

If you like Ghibli’s catalog, particularly the stories intended for their newest enthusiasts in your household, this is a great choice. It has just enough adventure and danger to keep it feeling exciting for them, but nothing permanently bad happens, making it safe. For adults, it will depend on your tolerance for the sillier aspects and overly-simplified plot in exchange for some of the more creative efforts.

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Fantastic Planet

[3 stars]

Despite being 47 years old, and highly stylized, this ground-breaking anime is still effective and, sadly, still relevant today. As René Laloux’s first feature, and one of his few releases, it is a hypnotic tale of humanity from the point of view of aliens. The look is a bit like Monty Python meets Yellow Submarine, but it manages to make you care and pay attention despite the rough edges of the art and movement.

The story is based on on a book by French science fiction author Stephan Wul and is presented as a surviving diary of the main character. Admittedly, it is a bit rushed and more than a little too on-the-nose at times. However, when you’re stuck at home due to a pandemic with fools running the response and idiots screaming that they should be allowed to go about their lives regardless of who it puts at risk, you can’t just ignore the lack of progress in humanity and the human condition.

At about 70 minutes, it is on the short side of feature, but it won notice at Cannes and from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) for a reason, and is still worth your time today if you enjoy anime on any level.

Tokyo Godfathers (Tôkyô goddofâzâzu)

[3.5 stars]

This is an earlier anime by Satoshi Kon, who brought us the mind-bending  Paprika a few years later. Godfathers is less fantastical and more a delightfully bizarre tale of Christmas from the gutters. It isn’t all Kon, so it has some modifying influences. He had some help from Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop) on the script and Shôgo Furuya behind the lens. But Kon’s sensibilities predominate.

What you get is a down-to-earth story of three homeless people who find an infant and spend the holiday trying to find its home. Each are doing it for different reasons, which are revealed over time. Their time on the streets isn’t pleasant, though their bonds as a found-family pull them through. Add to all of that some holiday magic, and, despite all the strife, the story manages to be heart-warming and uplifting.

And, let’s be clear, the animation is wonderful. So there are plenty of reasons to spend 90 minutes with these damaged folk and learn about their lives, and perhaps, become a bit more mindful of those around us at any time of year.

Onward

[3 stars]

I was both touched and frustrated with this latest fantasy from animation powerhouse Pixar. At its core there is a wonderful tale of a young man trying to resolve the loss of a parent that he never met, not to mention trying to navigate becoming an adult. Tom Holland (Spies in Disguise) is suitably naive and intelligent for the role. And Chris Pratt (Avengers: Endgame, Passengers) as his older brother is well paired. Even Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said) makes a wonderful mom to the two, with her own minor plot running in parallel, with Octavia Spencer (Luce) at her side.

The story is, mostly, predictable and full of the Pixar-ish moments you expect. You’ll be charmed, laugh, and yes, weep. Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) knew how to use the templates and talent to get where he wanted.

So why, you may ask, am I not rating it higher? Well, frankly, it met the bare minimum on all those counts above, it didn’t exceed them. And while the animation is, as you’d expect, well done, the design was mediocre at best. Unlike, say, Zootopia, there was no thought put into how a world that had these kinds of creatures in them would actually look and work. The fact that cars don’t fit centaurs may be amusing to watch, doesn’t mean it makes any sense in a world where centaurs are common, if you follow. The concept behind a world that lost magic because it got lazy is just fine…that that world has to utterly mirror ours to make a point is just lacking in creativity. Also, how certain things worked (like when and how their father was aware and could function) was less than consistent. And, finally, that it was so lacking in female leads was a bit disappointing. Not that Dreyfus and Spencer weren’t tough characters in their way, but they were only bit players.

What I will grant Scanlon, and his fellow writers, is that they didn’t go for the easy ending. They, instead, took the more interesting route and in the process also utilized all the bits and pieces they had set up during the quest.

While Onward isn’t Pixar’s best creatively, it is effective and poignant. It may never live among its more successful cousins (and COVID-19 certainly didn’t help on that point) but it’s not a waste of light and magic. It’s just not what it could have been with a bit more critical thinking going on in the writer’s room.