Tag Archives: Animation

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.

votron

The Boss Baby

The ideas behind this silly bit of fluff are wonderful: how does an older child deal with the arrival of new baby, particularly an older child with a rampant imagination. The execution, however, is mediocre. The issue is deep in the conceit of how the tale is told. What is fantasy and what is reality gets more than a little munged and, frankly, confusing.

The voice talent is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. It is a long comic stand-up routine that provides a lot of one-liners, but very little acting. For that purpose, they found the right talent. For emotion, it relies on cheap tricks, like singing Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird to pull the heart strings and giant anime eyes on everyone to pull out a physiological response.  If I sound a bit cranky on these subjects, I am. I prefer movies that earn their moments rather than manipulate their audience. And, honestly, a good part of the movie left me nonplussed as it focused on absurd aspects. And we shall not even discuss the climactic scene and results. It may well have been intended as all fantasy, but that isn’t how it was presented. We see the action from non-fantasy points of view at least a few times which means it has to be actual events, not just Tim’s imagination.

Writer Michael McCullers (Peabody & Sherman) had a clear blast slipping in all manner of old references, from music cues, to visuals, to puns. There is plenty of private joking going on for the adults, if they’re paying attention.  And, of course, there is a lot of cheap baby humor. Director Tom McGrath (Megamind, Madagascar 3) tackled this script relatively well on the voice side, but didn’t manage to overcome the oddities of the story telling. He should have committed to it being complete fabrication or complete reality. The in-between state appears to entertain, but also manages to confuse and leave it all incomplete. 

What you end up with is an entertaining mess, from a pure movie point of view. However from an entertainment perspective, it will connect with anyone who has had or taken care of a baby. I’m not entirely sure it connects on the sibling level the way it was intended, but perhaps that is because it took almost half the movie to focus on that in earnest. If you approach this as just a way to see a bunch of short, funny moments, with a thin thread of plot, you’ll have enough fun to make it through the 90+ minutes. But a classic this most definitely is not. 

The Boss Baby

The Lego Batman Movie

Yes, you probably saw this ages ago, but I wasn’t going to go pay for it in theaters. The Lego Movie was amusing, but not brilliant, at least for me. I am mainly writing this up as a measurement of my comedy preferences so you can judge my other recommendations.

My biggest question by the time I got to the end of this latest block adventure was: Why had they trusted such a lucrative franchise to the writer of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and first-time feature director Chris McKay? Perhaps they thought the series was bullet-proof? It isn’t.

While it has a solid overall structure and story ideas, the result is uneven, at best, when it comes to flow and dialogue. It also lacks the layers that the original Lego had, trying instead to riff off of the absurd Batman character and relying on shots at Marvel and, even more often, DC and the overall history of Batman since the 60s in media. Cause, let’s face it, it has had quite the meandering road starting with Adam West and ending, for now, with Ben Affleck.

But it wasn’t just the execution and editing of the tale that was off, it was also the voices. They just didn’t quite ever feel right. This was especially true for Zach Galifianakis’s (Birdman) Joker for me, though many others didn’t quite fit either. The movie is loaded with voice talent…some surprising, but none brilliant. This really felt like a money grab by the studio and supported by the late night party game of a lot of actors who just did it for a lark. To be fair, Will Arnett, Michael Cera (Sausage Party), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) all did fine in the main roles, but not memorably so.

Basically, if you need a distraction, you could do worse than this mostly empty confection. But, that also means you could do way better.

The LEGO Batman Movie

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)

Animation is so often seen as a children’s medium. Zucchini turns this on its head by making the kids the subject of the film. And not just any kids, this bit of stop-motion (an oddly poetic medium for this tale) focuses on the broken, abused, and ignored children of society. It isn’t a maudlin tale, it is, in fact, hopeful and sweet, but it doesn’t ignore the harder truths in life.

The voice work (French and English) is interesting and subtly effective. By design, it feels almost documentary-like in its delivery. The approach and sound quality, however, also leaves it oddly distancing. Perhaps that is a good thing given some of the emotions. We get to hover above it all and enjoy the successes rather than struggle with the realities.

As his first feature, director and co-writer Claude Barras adaptation of this challenging tale is impressive and even snagged an Oscar nomination as well as other nods. There is even a delightfully weird short animation on the disc to enjoy (The Genie in the Ravioli) that exposes his odd sense of wonder and design even more. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Barras and his crew in years to come.

Even if it isn’t overly brilliant animation (which isn’t to say it isn’t good), make time for this if you haven’t already. It is pretty unique in its tale and is definitely worth the 70 mins you’d need to invest.

My Life as a Zucchini

Samurai Jack (series 5)

After a 13 year hiatus, there was definite trepidation around how this magnificent series would revive; the dead so often don’t return with their souls intact. I needn’t have worried. Despite the gap in time (appropriate in some ways) and the move to computer graphics, Samurai lost little, if any, of its original sense and sensibility. Its minimal graphics were very much in its favor, and the return of Genndy Tartakovsky to oversee and run the result kept it on track. Even the loss of Mako as the voice of the great evil Aku didn’t slow it down.

In some ways, this is the best of the series. Before it was very episodic without much of a trajectory other than the increasingly scaling fights with Aku. The universe always expanded with new characters and ongoing interactions, but seasons never felt like they had a shape. This final series has a very definite shape and a eye to its ultimate ending.

If you like Samurai Jack, you have to see the end of the saga. If you somehow missed it before, discover it now and not have to wait over a decade to have your hunger sated for an ending. Samurai remains as good as ever and as beautiful and as poetic as it began.

Samurai Jack

The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Red Turtle is beautifully animated and sweetly written. Told almost entirely without dialogue, there is never a question about the interactions of the characters. That result is even more impressive when you realize how simply and minimally drawn everything is.

The core of the story, however, is a rather odd bit of fantasy/myth that wraps it all up. How you parse the meaning, well, that will be up to you. There are sweet ways to interpret the overall tale and more cynical versions as well. I tend to be a romantic, but honestly leaned toward the cynical at the end of this one. Perhaps it was simply a matter of timing for me.

Regardless of how you parse it, the story is an effective tale of frustration and love. As his first full-length feature, Michael Dudok de Wit’s results are pretty amazing. The lack of a clear choice probably hurt it the most during the Oscars, though it certainly did well enough everywhere else. Much like Takahata’s (Only Yesterday) work, who served as artistic producer, the tale is allowed to speak for itself and is approached with the lightest of hands artistically. It is a beautiful screen meditation, and worth seeing, but not one that I will be coming back to again and again. At least, I don’t think I will.

The Red Turtle

Miss Hokusai (Sarusuberi: Miss Hokusai)

Animation, these days, is used almost exclusively for the fantastical, the unfilmable, the outlandish. Miss Hokusai is more of the return to naturalism, like Only Yesterday.  There are moments of imagination; it is about a family of artists after all, but it is mostly about the people and the art.

There are some oddities about the film as well. It is set in the early 1800s in Edo (about 70 years before it was renamed Tokyo), but, strangely, the music is from the 1970s. The characters have no complete arc at all. The story is more episodic over a period of several years, each section focused on a particular piece of art as the focus or end result.

I’d like to tell you I loved it. The art is wonderful; the discussions and inferences about art as well. But it isn’t a very satisfying story, it simply is. But I want more than a piece of art to admire when I watch a film, I want a story, a journey.

I often will give non-anime a break on that point. Live action, due to the costs and vagaries of the medium sometimes go off track, or can become something else. Anime is planned to the last detail usually. Miyasaki-san can get away with figuring it out as he goes, but few others would dare to try.  So when a story feels untethered or incomplete with anime, either I’m missing something or it just isn’t that great a script. In this case, I think it is the latter. Despite landing some good ideas and thoughts, it leaves some ends untied (an idea that is part of this movie and which is considered a bad thing). Perhaps it was purposeful, but that doesn’t make it exactly good.

This is an interesting peek into  a pair of famous artists, but I have to leave this an ‘up to you’ recommendation. Either it will resonate for you or you’ll feel somewhat cheated. I enjoyed it, but I did feel a bit hungry at the end for more completion. Perhaps it was the result of the more untried directors and writers on this Studio Ghibli piece. The art is every bit as good as that masterful shop manages, but the direction is more raw than usual and script is very much from Miho Maruo’s TV background. However, I will say it is an interesting adjunct to The Handmaiden, which added to my personal interest, if not complete satisfaction.

Miss Hokusai

Evangelion: 3.3 You Can (Not) Redo

OK, yeah, I’m done.

After 2.22 I was gritting my teeth, but wanted to finally, maybe, understand the story as it got beyond the original, epic and classic series. But while there is a bit of information and explanation, and it is just as pretty as ever, it has just gotten boring and repetitive. On top of the issues of plot, Shinji even beats out Harry Potter for whiny-ness and lack of ability to act. Sadly, unlike Potter, he doesn’t have any positive qualities that make me want to back him.

But this installment isn’t even the last… there is another (at least) to come. But, given who is left, I’ve frankly stopped caring if humanity survives… I’m not sure they should.

There are plenty of great, new anime to fill your time with; don’t waste it on this series retread. It isn’t visually enhanced so much nor that much more story that it is worth your time investment. If you haven’t seen Evangelion…then the choice is yours, but I think the original series, for all its flaws and incomplete ending, was more satisfying.

Evangelion: 3.3 You Can (Not) Redo