Tag Archives: Animation

Inside-Out (2015)

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Pixar used to be the reliable go-to studio when it came to animation. For ten years they didn’t make a bad film. These days with their last great original film was Up back in 2010, which was followed by three sequels and the dubiously received Brave. With another three sequels scheduled for the years to come, things aren’t looking up. Pete Docter’s Inside-Out, even despite the fabulously uninteresting short that precedes it (Lava), shines out like a beacon in the wasteland of unsuccessful Pixar films. I want to make it clear that I, like everyone else, am human, and as such loved this film and cried from about the point that a certain pink fluffy character leaves the story to the end, however:

Inside-Out sees a union of the new capabilities of photo-realistic CGI with a more retro, colourful style thanks to its dual story structure. The action takes place simultaneously in a realist grey-toned San Francisco where 11-year old Riley suddenly finds herself after a house move and also in her head. Her mind is run by five emotions, personified into glowing fibrous beings. The film is essentially one short narrative about Riley accepting her new home accompanied by an incredibly intricate allegory of the same story. The allegory in fact is so powerful that you come to care about these figments of a fictional character even more than the fictional character herself. The journey of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) through the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind controls the “real-world” action but is more colourful, more poignant and more alive than the San-Francisco streets that Riley so hates.

The emotional punch of Inside-Out comes from its grace and delicacy. From being an over-bearing dictator in the film’s first act, rejecting anything that isn’t happy, Joy slowly learns to understand and appreciate the value of the other emotions, especially Sadness. It’s a sweet way to understand the loss of childish innocence and the emergence of a subtler, wider personality in the young girl. In one of the best scenes Joy reassures herself by playing an old memory of Riley skating and dances along. Quite apart from the beauty of the shot this scene demonstrates a real care and attention to detail as Riley practices genuine Ice-Skating moves in a very realistic way.

Yet there’s something unsettlingly familiar and safe about this fantastical world of the long-term memory. Who can forget the great chase sequence through airport conveyor belts in Toy Story 2, or for that matter the door warehouse in Monsters Inc.? Well, if you liked complex, illogically large, multi-coloured mechanisms you’re in for a treat because that’s exactly what the long-term memory looks like. Furthermore, while Bing-Bong is undoubtedly the unsung star of this film, his story arc of the loveable companion who accepts that he must leave for the heroine’s own good can’t help but remind us of Sulley and Boo and an altogether more creative and original time.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5
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The Lego Movie – 2014

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It’s hard not to feel encroached upon by the endless parade of branding and merchandise surrounding animated films. With Shrek turning out to be the multi-sequelled hydra it set out to mock and the announcement of a Frozen 2 and a Toy Story 4, a film whose name itself is a product would seem to be another manifestation of the problem. But this, thankfully, is not yet the fate of The Lego Movie even nearly a year after its release. But then again this is coming from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who brought us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and its sequel of equal quality so there was little to fear.

There’s something about Lego that has been begging to be made into a film for years. I personally have never come across someone with even the vaguest passing interest in cinema that never made a Lego stop motion. Not all of them matched up to the masterful creations that blow up youtube, but then most of them were made with cameraphones. The Lego Movie didn’t opt for stop motion, although technically speaking it could have been done, if you had more Lego than is possibly imaginable and several lifetimes to go with it. Instead this Lego is CGI, but still for the most part obeying the laws of movement within the Lego universe – ie: the bricks don’t change size. Ever. Everything is built entirely to scale in the computers out of Lego pieces that genuinely exist in the physical world. This makes the whole film seem more tactile, in places the Lego even has fingerprints and scuff-marks as if you’d brought your own plastic bricks to life. When the film does slip in a few moments of stop motion and even live action sequences they are so well matched to the CGI Lego world that it doesn’t even feel like a break. What’s even better is that the real world is slowly woven into the story and the fabric of the animation throughout the film so that when Emmett (our adorable everyman voiced by Chris Pratt) finally makes it into Live-Action-Land it doesn’t feel like a gimmick tacked onto the end of the movie just to show some cool Lego structures that actually got built.

Yet while you’re watching this film you don’t really take notice of the painstaking attention to detail and the incredible technological feat and scale of imagination that went into this film. You are most likely too busy laughing. The jokes come thick and fast and are so dead-pan that many of them can be missed on the first viewing. It’s an ebullient, joyful humour that’s never laughing too much at anyone in particular. There’s a genuine heart to the film that doesn’t fall into cynicism, not even towards Lego Batman, the most reproachable minifigure you’ll ever see. The characters fall somewhere between stereotype and archetype as well as mixing in some well-known faces from popular culture so the experience is more like hanging out with an old group of friends than watching a brand new set of characters. It’s comforting and relaxing without being predictable.

What’s more is that this film belongs to the perpetually diminishing number of films that can genuinely be called “family films” in that every member of a family can enjoy them. It’s a kids’ film, yes. But some of those jokes will be flying over their heads and I doubt they’ll be appreciating the ironic deconstruction of mass-produced uniformity that lingers over the film as an ever-present fate worse than death. At its core it wants to say something about being creative and allowing your imagination to run free. This is, as the film aptly shows, most often something adults need to be told more than kids. The child, every child is the hero here and it appeals to nostalgia and hope for the future at the same time. It’s hard not to be uplifted by this film, even if in a few places the plot almost meanders off and the message feels a little as if it’s being delivered with a hammer it’s well-meaning, it’s fun and it captures some childish joy that everyone wants to hold on to.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            3/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

The Wind Rises – 2014

TheWindRises_UKTrailerThe Wind Rises was blown in from Japan with cries of the sad end of an era, this being Hayao Miyazaki’s last film. I myself was not a fan of the Studio Ghibli films and while this may seem both unlikely and shockingly close to heresy for someone who loves animation as a genre I stand by my opinion. In fact what interested me most about this film was the disappointment I heard from long-time Ghibli fans about the lack of whimsy and magic – precisely something that had always bothered me about Ghibli.

It’s true, The Wind Rises is an historical drama and not at all the cutesy fairytale fare the studio has been peddling recently. It’s as if Miyazaki finally had the freedom to make a true, serious film after a life confined to the kids’ table. Elements of this fantasy style remain in dream sequences but the pastel-coloured madness is confined and contrasted to a much bleaker story of Japan in crisis. There’s a subtlety in this film that has seemed absent from some of the more recent Ghibli films like Ponyo and Arrietty. Even the skill of the animation to portray shortsightedness onscreen is laudable.

Miyazaki does well to distance himself from the politics of the situation, after all this could be seen as a war film, with the majority of the action taking place around the design of the Japanese fighter planes. Furthermore he places his protagonists in the Great Kanto Earthquake and the tuberculosis epidemic. It’s hard to imagine how a film can remain neutral and universally acceptable with these reference points. However Miyazaki’s angle is far more from the aesthetic and technical perspective. Better yet he stays in an individual and human experience, a human who has a higher purpose than to involve himself in such issues too deeply. Through Jiro Miyazaki explores the difficulty of genius, the art of mathematics and the eternal obsession that ambition creates. After all, if, as the film proclaims, you only have ten years of creativity, what is the sense in spending it doing anything but creating? There are moments where the film gets bogged down in a little too much technical detail for those of us who are unfamiliar and indifferent to riveting techniques but these are few and far between. The rest of the film leaves no room for boredom with its swells of music and elegant animation.

The title is taken from a poem by Paul Valery, a call to arms to live, to create in the face of death. The film also delivers just that with great aplomb. It’s a love story, but in the end the love of earthly things, even his wife is not enough for Jiro, an aeronautical engineer. His calling is creation and the immortality that comes with creating beauty. He neglects his sister throughout his whole life and, despite being a kind and generous man, never ceases to spend more time with his aeroplanes than with his dying wife. For Jiro everything in life fades, the cities can be destroyed, peace and war circle on and those you love die. The only constant is the dream that he tries to live, since the only time when the dreams can fade away is when the dreamer is no longer around to dream them.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

Frozen – 2013

Frozen-image-frozen-36270007-1920-800You may remember that some time ago I was definitively outraged at the announcement of Frozen. I won’t go into detail here but if you want to know my reasons they can be found HERE.

However, given the Frozen frenzy that has taken over the world recently and the announcement that Frozen is now the highest grossing animated film of all time I figured I should give it a watch.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by Frozen. I remember watching Princess and the Frog and Tangled through half covered eyes at the cringingly awful, dumbed-down dialogue and animation. They were both so inherently unenjoyable and disappointing. Frozen, on the other hand was genuinely fun to watch. The story is interesting and the songs really carry it, the film even have the old-style musical motif that accompanies each character and here it’s used to great effect. The duets where Elsa and Anna’s melodies merge are truly beautiful moments with great writing. What’s more, the opening seems to be returning to the format of the Disney Renaissance films (Everything between The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Tarzan in 1999) which included a musical prologue of sorts, outlining the themes of the film. It’s a hopeful direction and I’m glad to see a little of the old Disney sparkle.

However, Frozen is narratively weak. Anna is our main character, she’s mildly clumsy and giggles a lot but is otherwise a totally bland female whose goal in life is to find a man. Literally. Disney tried to poke fun at the whole Disney Princess trope but absolutely, utterly failed. The assumption is that us, the audience, will cry out with joy every time someone repeats, “You can’t marry someone you just met.”, which they do repeat, many times. No one told the writers that self-referential humour doesn’t work when it’s delivered with a sledgehammer. In Addition, Anna is significantly more weak and anti-feminist than any of the princesses who “married a man they just met”. Even Snow White and Cinderella had to endure parental abuse before breaking away, defying standards, so they could live their life and eventually getting a Prince Charming as well. Anna wakes up one day and decides she wants a man, sings about it and gets one. That is the conclusion of Frozen and I fail to see how that is progressive in any way. Besides, the two men that she ends up falling for both bring along a debatably credible side plot. The merchant rivalry and magical trolls don’t really add much to the story and serve to confuse the message and narrative more than anything else. Kristoff, particularly seems to have been shoved in because they wanted Anna to get a guy, rather than actually learn that maybe there is something more valuable than marriage. She could have trekked off alone into the wilderness to fix her relationship with her sister and save Arandelle but instead she runs crying to the nearest burly male to help her. No hope of a positive message there.

The story structure of Frozen just doesn’t work. The driving force of the plot is Elsa, not Anna. Elsa is making changes and dealing with a personal struggle, Anna is just reacting to these things as she bobs along. There’s really no journey for her. At the beginning of the film she loves her sister, despite Elsa’s behaviour, and she wants a husband. By the end of the film she has not changed either of these views or learnt anything new. The character who grows in the film is Elsa. She discovers how to deal with her problems, how to let love rule her life, instead of fear, and becomes the ruler she was born to be. I think the fact that Elsa’s song ‘Let it Go’ is considered the definitive song of the film is proof that something is wrong. If the audience is in complete agreement that the best moment of the film is the song that doesn’t even include the main character there is a problem.  Elsa is strong, independent and feminist. She is a queen, a fighter but still a young girl dealing with growing up through the metaphor of her powers. Surely that is the story young girls want to hear? Not the story of being ditsy and idiotic until eventually someone much stronger and more interesting than you gets to take over?

I stand by many of the things I said in my original post. Idina Menzel does play basically the exact same character as she did in Wicked. Yet, unlike Wicked, Frozen refuses to actually focus on this clearly interesting and relatable character: The type of character that made a Broadway musical a cool thing for teenage girls to watch. It’s not an adaptation of The Snow Queen, it’s a vague allusion with some bastardisation thrown in. This is epitomised in the fact that the character they named after Hans Christian Anderson actually turns out to be pure evil. Way to respect the original work, Disney. The animation is better than I expected but there are moments where it is impossible to tell which female character is which when you can’t see their costumes. The character design is deeply flawed. The comedy aspects take the form of not one, but two anthropomorphic sidekicks, both of which are relatively unnecessary alone but certainly don’t need to both be around.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              2/5
  • Intellectual:       0/5

Waking Life – 2001

Waking.Life.2001.720p.BluRay.X264-AMIABLE-005Back in 2001 Richard Linklater, sometime between Before Sunrise and School of Rock (must say, I did not expect that on his filmography) made an animated essay about dreaming. There is really no succinct way to speak about this film.

The animation is entirely digital, overlaid onto the previously existing live action. At times it is so accurate as to be uncanny, at others it’s a blur shape and colour. Throughout the film sections of the screen move independently of each other despite logically being fixed spaces. The dreamscape is very powerful but after a while you accept it as real, it stops looking odd for things to be permanently moving. The film moves from person to person: characters, celebrities, characters in other films and even Linklater himself. In turn they share their philosophical perspectives. It’s easy to discount many of these speeches; an angry prisoner, a couple engaging in pillow talk or a group of angry teenagers seem irrelevant and stupid compared to professional philosophers and scientists. As the film wears on it becomes more apparent that every opinion is valid, the absence of jargon doesn’t make the child’s origami fortune teller or the angry rambling less significant. Every one of these people is discussing freedom, dreams and destiny in their own terms. They say very different things between them.

It seems as if every single viewer would get a different message from this film, like some kind of confirmation bias. The views you agree with stick around and further your thoughts. The questions raised vary widely: Is there life after death? Is life all a dream? Does society hold us back? Does time even exist? What is the purpose of cinema? Like all good works of art these questions don’t get answered, at least, not definitively. Most of the characters offer at least one answer or opinion but in the end it’s up to the viewer and the protagonist to think these thing on their own.

All together it feels like falling into someone’s collection of newspaper clips and meaningful quotes and trying pull the common strands of thought out of the pattern that emerges. There’s no traditional narrative, the narrative comes from you as you link the characters and their words with your thoughts and with other films and culture. The whole thing is packed full of references, many of them to other Linklater films but many more that just show glimpses of a moment that reminds you of something else. The experience will build with each new viewing and it feels as if this is a piece to be re-worked and responded to, not to be holed up and revered as a complete work.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic: 4/5
  • Intellectual: 5/5

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 – 2013

Cloudy-with-a-Chance-of-Meatballs-2-Image-2Today, in honour of International Animation Day I review Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. I saw the 2009 Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs quite a while ago and vaguely remembered enjoying it, I was surprised to find that they were making a sequel, worried that this may be the beginning of the road to another disaster along the lines of Shrek 4.

While Cloudy 2 doesn’t yet descend to the levels of the true Dreamworks sellout the plot is somewhat shoehorned into place by force. The film begins by recapping the first film but with the addition of Flint’s (Bill Hader) childhood hero, which the film asks us to accept as having always existed. This is really very jarring, the backstory which sets up the emotional thrust of the film is entirely forced in the first fifteen minutes. It’s clumsy, lazy and outright bad filmmaking.

However, once the film hits its stride and the exposition is out of the way it drastically improves. The cast is pared down to the truly comical characters with the genius addition of Steve Jobs Chester V as antagonist. The world that is built for this film includes living food animals and an island entirely taken over by food landscapes. It’s a bizarre technicolour dreamland that’s utterly engrossing.

From this point onwards the film is a rapid-fire string of jokes. Switching between wry, satirical criticisms of rich entrepreneurs and as many food related puns as can physically be said in 90 minutes. It’s not an awful lot of substance for a film to live off of, but it’s a short film and the jokes really don’t let up for a minute. So you can forgive the dull, contrived plot because above all else this film will make you laugh, pretty consistently, for about an hour. That’s worth my time.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       1/5

The Prince of Egypt – 1998

prince of egyptToday I had the rare luxury of re-watching a childhood favourite due to an unindentified malaise which has left me sofa-bound – Dreamworks classic “The Prince of Egypt.” I want to explain why I find this film to be such an achievement of cinema. I suppose, by this point, even a casual observer of this blog will have come across my passion for animation. Surprisingly, however, I find this film equally interesting for the fact that it is animated as for the fact that it is viewed as a “children’s film”. I say this advisedly since I do not believe there should be such a strong division between entertainment for children and adults. But that’s a whole other topic.

What is fascinating about children’s cinema, when done well, is that it can communicate difficult ideas to a child, while still having the emotional impact for an adult audience. As an example let’s take Mufasa’s death in “The Lion King”. Death is undeniably traumatic and not, by modern standards, “child friendly” viewing. Yet “The Lion King” effectively communicates this difficult concept. In fact, the sequence shows us the cub Simba understanding and processing his father’s death before Scar confirms it in words. In other words, a Disney film can communicate the shock and sadness of death to anyone, of any age or nationality, since the sequence is almost wordless. This is an art lost to modern conventional filmmaking, which often relies too heavily on a script and fears silence. It has reason to fear; when no one is speaking the visuals must stand alone and all too often they are not strong enough to do so. Silent cinema never had this problem. Buster Keaton’s films are still funny whatever language you are in. You can appreciate the bumbling inefficacy of the keystone cops even without intertitles. Without a script films had to be demonstrably funny or tragic on visuals alone. This is why these days, it is far more common to find true, global cinema in animated films. Films where, by their very nature, the visuals are strong because every single frame has been hand crafted to perfection over a period of weeks.

Returning to “The Prince of Egypt”. My admiration for this film results largely from the animating style. The film bridges a gap in the animation timeline and represents a merging of hand painted backgrounds, hand drawn line animation and computer generated special effects. The result is, that despite the huge number of special effects shots, the film retains the organic feel of earlier, line drawn, hand-painted animated features. This visual depth is positively enthralling. All that can be done by hand has been done, and so the computer images do not invade upon the visuals, but are more like the icing on the cake than anything else. The artistic style is shockingly different from that of, for example, contemporaneous Disney films. While Disney was relying on cultural stereotypes and caricatures to make Mulan (made in the same year), The Prince of Egypt portrays accurately and sensitively three different ethnic groups. While a lot of this is represented through location and costume design choices it is undeniable that all three of Egyptians, Hebrews and the Midian people are shown fairly and without generalization. These cultural details leak into the narrative, the Egyptian handmaidens trying to take the baby moses as their own, the traditional Midian dress style, even Moses’ hair colour. Moses is the only one among the Egyptians shown to have brown eyebrows, displaying his identity as an outsider, even as he is revered as their Prince. Also, I would like to call attention to the masterly use of traditional Egyptian art as a dream sequence.

Traditional art and culture played a huge part in the production of this film. Biblical and historical scholars were called in to ensure the film was accurate to all narrations of the Moses story. That is not to say that the director (Brenda Chapman) strayed away from any bold decisions. Quite the opposite, the voice of God in The Prince of Egypt is provided by Val Kilmer, the same voice as Moses. The subtle implication being that every man would hear God’s voice as their own. In some interpretations of the Bible that decision alone marks this film as heresy. This opens the film out to not just being a religious film. The Prince of Egypt adapts a Biblical story and, while it pays its dues to the version held dear by each Abrahamic religion, it does not alienate an audience who believes in one or none of these religions. Despite the religious themes even the most famous song “When you Believe” (Schwartz’s great Oscar winner) is at best an ambiguous exhortation of confidence and perseverance.

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Another brave decision is to present Rameses sympathetically. While he is clearly the antagonist, the film clearly steers away from making him the villain. This is of course this is helped enormously by Ralph Fiennes vocal performance. He is hot-tempered, yes, blinded by his hoodwinking priests, yes, but he is not evil as so many people are in children’s films. In fact, he is shown to truly care about Moses. It is only when he is totally rejected by his long-lost brother that he turns against Moses and his mission. The sorrow in Rameses voice even until the very end, shows us the pain of a man rejected by his father, then abandoned by his brother, who finally forms a family only to have his son stolen from him. Visually he is even assigned the colour blue, his headdress, horses bridle’s and jewellery are consistently sapphire, a colour with connotations of weakness and fragility as opposed to Moses’ robust red.

Returning to my earlier point about communication, this is one of the ways in which The Prince of Egypt transcends the barriers of comprehension. By showing Rameses in blue, and portraying him in despair as often as in anger it is impossible to come away from the narrative with an impression of evil or villainy. Both Rameses and Moses are true Aristotelian tragic heroes. Neither is guilteless in their fight, Moses even stoops so low as to send the plague upon the first borns – the very act which so disgusted him earlier in the film. It is a fantastic vote of confidence in the audience for the director to allow such contradictory portrayals to exist within a “children’s film”. Chapman does not simplify or remove the difficult aspects of the story for the sake of the childish audience but guides them to make their own conclusions from the subtle characterization. This trust in the audience is so strong that years of character development and a death can be explained in a single shot of Rameses standing where his father stood, dwarfed by the twin statues of himself and his father. The musical score adds to this communication more than words could in places, Schwartz gives us a score coloured by traditional instruments, gospel style musical patterning, and an emotional thrust unlike any other. The Hebrew interlude in “When you Believe” is almost a direct quote from the Hebrew bible and the framing of the film in the same musical motif in both “When you Believe” and “Deliver Us” lends weight to the narrative conclusion and makes the story a more coherent whole.

There are few films which achieve brilliance in visuals, soundtrack or storytelling. When I come across one which delivers on all three, I cannot write it off because it’s an animated children’s film. Any piece of filmmaking which can communicate in such a concise way on such a fundamental level is a film which brings humanity out of the gutter. . It is our ability to create art, and with it define emotion, which sets us apart from animals.