Archive for the Animation Category

Supinfocom

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on August 13, 2011 by brunswick

Supinfocom (2011)
NZ International Film Festival

A compilation of graduation films from the Arles campus of the increasingly-famous French animation school. The course is five years long, and graduating students work on these short films for an entire year in groups of about five or six. They’re obviously not there to mess around – there’s a very high level of craft here, and the best of the films haven’t had their sense of spontaneity crushed by the long production process.

The most calculated of the films are obvious Pixar clones, which is disappointing if you’re looking for stylistic originality, but makes perfect sense for a showreel (if you want to work at D.C. or Marvel, you put together a portfolio of superhero comics, and I’m assuming this course wasn’t cheap). Amusingly, despite the sophistication of the hardware, the usual obsessions of people in their early twenties (who may not have had the widest of life experiences yet) keep bubbling up – lots of video game influences and almost no roles for women, for a start.

Slimtime -a lengthy “homage to Jacques Tati” (tenuously) which looks like The Incredibles and seems to have lost something in translation despite having no dialogue. A slight one to start off with, and proof that these things need to be formed around a bloody good concept.

Split -fantastic, kinetic and original, shows what you can do with a great soundtrack and a straightforward concept (something to do with angry self-replicating dominoes).

Meet Buck -A hipster deer meets his girlfriend’s hunter father. This one’s funny and it looks great, proving you can still have engaging character designs while looking unlike Pixar.

Hambuster -The French don’t really like some things about American culture, do they? A horror short with some amusing film poster pastiches at the end.

Aleksandr -A Russian fairy tale which should-have-been, not as clearly-constructed plotwise as some of the others but with some engaging childlike imagery.

8BITS -For fans of Scott Pilgrim and oppressively loud video games everywhere.

D’une rare crudité -Plant life isn’t much fun… original, stylish and frequently creepy.

Hezarfen -A fairly conventional but fun romp (based on the story of the Turkish aviator) which tries a bit too hard to look like a Pixar short… I wonder if those are the ones who get the jobs? What a gamble.

Chernokids -Tasteless and repellant, as you can tell from the title. Thousands of people still suffer from the effects of Chernobyl, it’s callow to satirise them for a graduation film.

Botanica Liberta -Um… the only film where the animation actually looked cheap. Our heroes, a group of rampaging plants, look fine, but the clunky humans unlucky enough to cross their path demonstrate how hard it is to get this sort of thing right.

Telegraphics -Probably the most original work here, an old-fashioned informational video about a new scientific technique which allows matter to be transformed in startling ways. Not funny or conventionally entertaining, but not trying to be anything except a showcase for visual work.

Matataro -A striking and surreal bullfight. You can sense the accomplished animators’ delight at showing off their skills.

Animation Now 2011

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on July 30, 2011 by brunswick

Animation Now 2011
NZ International Film Festival

Wow, animators aren’t a happy bunch, are they? This compilation is made up of twelve shorts from around the world, two with a NZ connection, and few of them are particularly uplifting, except for the finale Fiesta Brava, a kinetic Len Lye-like short from Canada (!) drawn directly onto film stock and featuring a joyous song about bullfighting and cuckoldry.

There’s an enigmatic Japanese short called In a Pig’s Eye featuring a household in thrall to a giant pig, hilarious but with many moments which left me wondering if it was a metaphor, or they were just doing it for the hell of it. I enjoyed Love & Theft most, an exhilarating acid trip where famous cartoon icons endlessly morph into each other, and Paths of Hate, a WWII dogfight taken to its ultimate conclusion in the bowels of Hell with a percussive soundtrack, looking a bit like a sequence from a modern remake of Pink Floyd’s The Wall – juvenile in a Tarantino way, but an impressive ten minutes of zero-gravity blood spillage and spent bullet casings.

The title of Das Tub unfortunately gives away the central joke of the film, half of which is produced by three 3D animators, the other half filmed in an impressively grotty NZ bathroom with a huge crew of film students. The other NZ short, Preferably Blue, had funding from the NZ Film Commission but was obviously made for overseas markets, even enlisting UK comedian Harry Enfield for the sub-Seuss narration.

The bombastic Miss Daisy Cutter (also available in 3D, which would be a most unsavoury experience) was like a large-budget design school film, the excellent Get Real! is what happens when a fan of both Lady Gaga and Mark Beyer gets their hands on a powerful 3D computer, the thoughtful stop-motion animation of Danny Boy was marred for me by a peculiar 9/11 reference at the end, Amar was plain depressing, Videogioco (Loop Experiment) was clever yet grim, and although Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog Global Jam was hilarious, I wish I’d seen the original first.

So much for that, then.

Despicable Me

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on January 26, 2011 by brunswick

This French-animated film is extremely entertaining and has the best non-Pixar human-being 3D animation I’ve ever seen. It’s a bit lightweight, but with some very good jokes. The best thing about it are Gru’s minions, little yellow capsules in overalls, but it’s never explained why the film’s universe unquestioningly tolerates the neighbourhood presence of super villains, or what happened to Jemaine Clement. His name appeared prominently in the initial trailer, but it’s impossible to tell which of the minions he voices. Maybe he was supposed to have a larger part*.

It’s not as sentimental as a Disney film, but it’s not cynical enough to not try, and without proper character development there’s ultimately no substance. It looks great (the physics, how the objects and characters move about, are particularly good), but if it was a Pixar film we’d all be terribly disappointed. There’s no proper adult female characters (Julie Andrews is wasted) and it could’ve done with more Addams Family-type darkness… but ultimately how can you not like a film where the antagonist steals one of the Giza pyramids, and hides it in his backyard by painting it blue?

* After looking up the script online: he plays Jerry the Minion, who (ironically) gets shrunk down to the size of a bean.

9 (not to be confused with the Felliniesque ‘Nine’)

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on January 14, 2011 by brunswick

Expanded from an imaginative UCLA animation short, this film suffers from the same problem as several other Tim Burton-related projects like Corpse Bride: way too scary and nihilistic for kids, but also too childish for adults to appreciate.

The protagonists are little canvas-covered robot-dolls roaming through a ruined 1940s city, who accidentally re-awaken a huge spider-like machine which has wiped out all organic life on Earth with chemical warfare and an army of Dalek/Tripod/AT-ST battle units. It’s as though Stalin got hold of Terminator’s Skynet.

It’s not strictly steampunk (everything is based on WWII technology and there are many visual references to the Blitz), but the glimpses of backstory discovered along the way are intriguing without being too obviously spelt out.

Unfortunately this backstory is rather more interesting (and has had more effort devoted to it) than the actual plot, and ultimately this and the thin characterisation lets down the extraordinarily detailed production design. To its credit, it’s unusual to sit down and watch a kid’s film like this, and after the first twenty minutes to have no idea how it’s going to end.

The Princess and the Frog

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on January 7, 2011 by brunswick

A quite charming amalgamation of Disney’s trope characters and situations which adds nothing new to their canon, but showcases classic 2D animation which has had a lot of effort put into it.

I spent the first five minutes cringing because… well, it’s New Orleans in the mid-1920s, but there’s no room for any unpleasant historical realities. For example, the heroine’s best friend*, a blonde socialite, would never be able to marry the black(ish) prince due to miscegenation laws still in effect in Louisiana at the time. There’s also no mention of, oh, segregation? Jim Crow laws? A US military which didn’t award black soldiers medals until WWII? Little things like that. It’s basically as dishonest as bowlderizing Huckleberry Finn to make it more palatable to a modern audience.

Anyway!

The Randy Newman songs are inoffensive cod-dixieland, if a bit relentless. The plot has to stop while the characters sing gooey songs of self-affirmation, and they subsequently spend a lot of time in the middle of the bayou while various species form chorus lines behind them. The prince (now turned into a frog) reflectively plucks away at a twig strung with a spiderweb, which would be within acceptable limits of twee – except three minutes later, during a musical number, he reaches up and plucks down another one! I can accept the concept of talking frogs, but I have to draw the line at multiple on-demand pre-tuned stringed instruments in the middle of a bloody swamp.

Will there ever be a straight Disney villain? The Shadow Man is a combination of Aladdin’s Jafar, Freddie Mercury and Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die. The usual voodoo cliches are trotted out, which allows for some interesting animation, but overall the most impressive feat of this film (apart from extending Disney’s Princess franchise) is to shoehorn its typical European fairytale wedding aesthetic into a rich but racially-tense and often shameful period of Southern American history. It only works if you’re completely ignorant of this, like most five-year old girls.

*The character animation for this particular character (Charlotte) is astonishingly good, like that of Ponyo, and demonstrates one of the totally positive things that Disney brings to the art of animation.

Planet 51

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on January 5, 2011 by brunswick

Uh… well, it looks great, but if you’re going to do an elaborate animated parody of 1950s movies, might it help to aim it at an audience who has actually heard of the ’50s?

The basic idea is sound – a human astronaut lands on a planet and is mistaken for an alien menace by the BEMs who live there in a kind of Happy Days-American Graffiti pre-civil rights paradise, but all the cutting-edge subsurface scattering and production design can’t disguise the fact that the protagonists are indistinguishable, the female characters lousy, and John Cleese probably did it for the money.

Oh, and annoyingly the cast perform a cover of ‘Greased Lightnin’, a 2009 performance of a song popularised in the 1978 film of a 1971 musical set in 1959. Which (to me, at least… maybe it’s just me) makes little sense. And there’s an egregious R2-D2-WALL·E ripoff.

At least the Giger-inspired little doggies who piddle acid are amusing.

Toy Story 3

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on January 2, 2011 by brunswick

Eventually, inevitably, Pixar will make a bad movie. Just not yet.

Judging from its trailer, Cars 2 might turn out to be that movie. The original was okay, but seemed to exist primarily for the sake of its merchandise. The sequel could be awful, but like Toy Story 2 it might turn out to be better than the original. We can only hope.

Toy Story 3 is one of the best third-parts of a film trilogy ever, and although it comes out eleven years after the previous instalment, by its animated nature we are spared an ageing cast trying to recapture past glories. Advances in animation technology have resulted in richer and more detailed environments, so when combined with the relatively simple toy characters it gives the film a weird anime-feeling of immersion*. To acknowledge how things have changed, Studio Ghibli’s mascot Totoro appears as one of the new toys.

Human characters have always been hard to animate. A bendy Tex Avery-style human (like in The Incredibles) can seem much more lifelike than a “realistic” animated human (like in Beowulf) thanks to the Uncanny Valley, but in Toy Story 3 the stiff humans from the first two films have been allowed to relax a bit, although you can tell the animators were probably dying to let them go B-DOIIING!! and WOOPWOOPWOOP! once in a while.

The quality of lighting has also advanced noticeably, with a strong colour scheme for many scenes, the golden glow of a flashback contrasted with the harsh blues and greens of the toy’s incarceration in a daycare centre, and the apocalyptic glare of the incinerator finale. More happens in the first twenty minutes of this movie than in many features, and the nifty Great Escape feel of the second act slides uncomfortably into Holocaust territory, proof that a film with strong visuals is just so much eye-candy without a great script and characters you can actually care about.

The only thing I didn’t like about this film is that the toys become impressively begrimed during their ordeals, yet they’re able to restore themselves to a pristine state after a quick squirt under a garden hose. After five seconds they aren’t even wet. How’s that for nitpicking?

* Scott McCloud calls this technique “masking”, and notes its use in Tintin.

The Secret of Kells

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision on December 3, 2010 by brunswick

A slight but magnificently-designed independent animated film which was up for an Oscar last year, but lost to… Up. Refreshingly, Kells looks nothing like a Disney, Ghibli or Pixar film. The style of this rare 2D film seems influenced both by the famous Book of Kells and the post-UPA Productions limited animation style repopularised by Samurai Jack and The Powerpuff Girls. There’s no attempt at realistic perspective, background elements are heavily stylised and the characters are only minimally shaded, but it looks great because it draws upon a rich Celtic tradition of ornamentation and symbolism. It makes that ankle tattoo you got in the ’90s look like a load of old rubbish.

The story of a young monk who defies his abbot uncle’s wishes to help craft the Book of Kells (despite the imminent risk of Viking invasion) has an odd and unsatisfactory structure, which I thought was because it was based on a specific Irish legend, but apparently not – they just spent a lot more time on the excellent animation than getting the story perfect. Once the only female character (an engaging forest spirit called Aisling) turns into a white wolf, that’s the last we hear from her! Still, there’s only one musical number, and that’s mostly in Gaelic, so it could’ve been much worse.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on April 7, 2010 by brunswick

An odd choice for a Disney film, to put it mildly. With most of their stories you can see what the motivating factor was behind their production – they’d been trying to get The Little Mermaid right since the 1930s, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast was an animation challenge, Aladdin was going to be a lot of fun and The Lion King was going to look fantastic. Why Hunchback, especially when you consider how much the source material had to be changed to make it G-rated? Why not Dickens or Don Quixote? Why not a seven-part adaptation of In Search of Lost Time, with Mickey Mouse as Marcel Proust and Donald Duck as Swann? I’d pay to see that.

Every character nuance of Victor Hugo’s novel is flattened to make it suitable for kids. This is an instance where Disney is actually held back by audience expectations – any other talented animation company could have make a fantastic adult version of this. One where, say, Quasimodo is deaf, Esmerelda dies, Claude Frollo is an Archdeacon and not a judge, and Captain Phoebus is an utter bastard, instead of the hero (well-voiced, as you’d expect, by Kevin Kline). Oh, and one which retains the goat bestiality. Disney, never one to shy away from cute animals, have at least kept the goat.

The songs are relentless, despite some brave vocal performances, with lyrics by Godspell’s Stephen Schwartz which have none of Howard Ashman’s wordplay. Somehow they still seem frivolous when superimposed on the serious background. This, thank god, was the last Broadway Disney film (though not the last to have lots and lots of incongruous songs). The technological development this time is the computer-generated crowd scenes, which work well except for a few scenes, where the figures are running through a fight cycle which obviously isn’t meant to be seen close up – uncomfortably reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, where only the main characters are animated and the rest badly rotoscoped.

The villain this time doesn’t have big hooded eyes, but he does possess a pretty little mouth. “Judge” Frollo also openly lusts after the gypsy Esmerelda, which makes him the butchest Disney villain for a good while. There’s a really creepy moment when he smells her hair. Why, Disney, why?

Pocahontas

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on March 30, 2010 by brunswick

You know what you’re getting within a few minutes of the start of Pocahontas, when an Indian warrior raises a mighty conch to his lips and produces… an Enya-esque pan pipe lilt. So, this is history with the rough edges scrubbed off, and eco-awareness and spiritual sensitivity slathered over everything like lanolin.

Disney was still on a high in 1995 after the success of The Lion King, but Pocahontas is curiously old-fashioned, with no obvious technical innovations apart from the endless blizzard of swirling CGI leaves which accompany every spiritual moment and movement, like a mulchy halo. The story is bloodless, literally. Gunshots kill without leaving a mark. The musical numbers are terrible. There’s not one, but three, cute animal sidekicks, who make squeaky noises and detract from the utter dullness of the human characters.

The fluid character animation is one of the high points, closely based on filmed actors, but just ‘cos they move nicely don’t make them fun to watch. Pocahontas’s swirling hair does more acting than her stylised doll-like face, and within minutes of meeting Aryan John Smith (voiced, improbably, by Mel Gibson), she’s speaking perfect English and singing him an Oscar-winning song about how to be nice to nature.

The Indians are just so fucking connected to nature, you know? There’s even a wise talking tree called Grandmother Willow, while the English are just there to pillage and process, led by the porcine, effete John Ratcliffe, who has ribboned pigtails and an insatiable lust for gold. Yet again the message is that fat gay Englishmen are evil, which contradicts everything we know about Stephen Fry.

The colour palette of royal blue and crimson is beautiful, but the design far outshines the story. Pocahontas is pretty to look at, but po-faced, patronising and PC.

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