Tag Archives: Animation

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.

Klaus

[4.5 stars]

Honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered with this if it weren’t for the fact that it won the Annies for best feature this year. I mean, seriously, a Christmas cartoon? As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m even thinking it has a good shot at the Oscar.

It has been years since anyone has produced a holiday-themed animation that has risen to an annual must-see the way some of the old stop-motion animations of the 60s/70s did. But Klaus may have just changed the tide on that. It isn’t a musical bit of treacle like Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And it is more Hogfather in its sensibility and view of life than you’d expect. But it also tackles the season of retail and human nature in a beautifully honest way and weaves it into the story you expect…in ways that you really wouldn’t have predicted even as you see them becoming inevitable. But for all the intelligence and themes, it remains a children’s tale in the best of ways: it doesn’t talk down to them.

Sergio Pablos (who has spent years in animation and who previously helped write Smallfoot and Despicable Me) chose this as his first project where he was both writing and directing, and I can see why. It is a delicate balance of satire and sweetness that would have been hard to trust to someone other than the person who conceived it. Given that it took the top prize at the Annies this year, and it’s up for an Oscar, I’d say he was spot on.

Jason Schwartzman (Golden Exits) leads the cast with just the right amount of sarcasm and genunie feeling. He’s backed up by Rashida Jones (Spies in Disguise) and JK Simmons (Veronica Mars) with Joan Cusack (Welcome to Me) in a nice bit role. While the story is certainly an overblown fable, they all keep it grounded nicely. Simmons, in particular, has a slow evolution through the art and voice that is great to watch.

Klaus isn’t perfect. It is a bit rushed and hand-wavy in some of the story details. It has some inconsistencies. And, ultimately, it wraps up in a way that is heart-warming but, I felt, a slight cheat given the rest of the story you traverse getting there; but the story is what it is, so I just had to shrug and accept it (though honestly, seeing Klaus as a mildly schizophrenic widower was really fun for a while). Those are the reasons for dinging it just a bit on the rating. However, I can see rewatching this annually (along with Hog Father and Rare Exports, which are more to my holiday sensibilities) because it has a lot of great humor and it reminds you (with a soft hammer) what friends, family, and society can be if we just let them.

Bottom line: If you’ve avoided this because you thought it was just empty kid’s fare and not worth your time…rethink that opinion sometime soon.

Klaus

5 Centimeters Per Second (Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru)

[3.5 stars]

Like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., this much earlier film of his is a simple story of love and growing up that taps into universal emotions. But unlike his later global hit, the structure of this film is a bit more straight-forward. This tale is told in tryptic: three segments from three perspectives…and it sneaks up on you. You don’t even realize how deeply it’s sunk in its hooks till it has you by the chest  and reminds you of your own moments of revelation about the world.

Each episode in the movie focuses on a different aspect of a relationship between two children as they grow into young adults…and grow slowly apart, as the title and opening scene suggest. It’s profoundly beautiful and spare in how it rolls out that tale. At only an hour it’s worth the time for anyone who enjoys solid anime, or who wants to see what came before Shinkai’s explosion on the scene in 2017/2018.

5 Centimeters per Second

 

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family

The Angry Birds Movie 2

[3 stars]

OK, let’s be honest, the first Angry Birds movie was awful. I only came back for the sequel because there was something about the trailer that gave me some hope. And it wasn’t unwarranted, though it wasn’t fully rewarded either.

The first movie tried to leverage the game that spawned the characters far too much. It was a confrontational movie between birds and pigs, and creepy and unsatisfying on many levels (not to mention a really bad script). But they learned from those errors.

This sequel is more about “pranks” between the birds and pigs (rather than omnivorous emnity). The plot requires them to work together. The humor has a lot of levels, from the slapstick to the more subtle. And the main characters have some arc to them.

Don’t misunderstand, this is still children’s fare to be ingested with lots of sweets or popcorn, but it isn’t a painful affair to spend time with. It’s simply a silly distraction stacked with an impressive voice cast list (though nothing worth calling out). Up to you if you want to spend time with it or simply need to distract some youngsters while you do something else. Either way, it was nice to see that they learned from their errors and put more creativity into this sequel.

I Lost My Body

[4 stars]

There’s nothing more romantic than a severed hand making its way back to its body, right? OK, the whole thing is meant as metaphor, but this film takes the idea of soulmates and makes it literal, not to mention loss. Through the travels and adventures of the hand as it wends its way through Paris, we learn about the life and relationships the young man at the center of it all has experienced.

And somehow it works beautifully. Creepy as some of it can get, particularly for those of us who grew up watching horror films like The Beast with Five Fingers (or any number of others over the years), Jérémy Clapin’s first full-length anime somehow stays sweet and hopeful. As far as movie magic goes, this is amazing (and forgive me) sleight of hand.

Clapin delivers the story in an understated way, forcing you to pay attention, to evaluate and think about what you’re seeing. The animation is wonderful and simply falls away, leaving you with its reality. Unlike its probably awards competitors, this is a wholly adult film, with themes and statements that will resonate for anyone who ever had a romantic bone in their body, hands included. But while focused on that aspect, there are also oblique reflections on society today that make it a richer tale. That Clapin co-wrote this with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oft-time partner and font of source material, Guillaume Laurant (The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children, Amélie, Micmacs), should give you a sense of the core and scope of the film.

There is a reason I Lost My Body has been sucking up awards, and will continue to into the Oscar race this year. It may not be your typical fare, but it’s a magical and unexpected journey that never quite goes where you expect it to. More importantly, it sticks with you as you internalize and digest it long after the viewing. And, if you’ll forgive me one last bad reference, it is the visual equivalent of one hand clapping: creating the beautiful from the impossible.