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Animonday: The Jungle Book January 1, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Comedy, Musical , 2 comments

I’ve never been a big Disney fan, Mickey, Donald and Co do nothing for me and while I’ve enjoyed several of the animated films I wouldn’t call them favourites. Like everything though there is an exception and The Jungle Book’s it.

I first saw the film in the cinema, not on its original release (I’d have only been three at the time), but exactly when I couldn’t say. IMDb lists a UK rerelease in 1983 but it was definitely before that and probably around the min-seventies, so I was ten or so. Regardless of when I first watched it, it left a lasting impression, and the fact that my younger brother had the soundtrack album certainly helped to keep it fresh in my mind.

Over the years I’ve watched it several times (it’s playing again now as I write this) and I’d go so far as to say it’s my favourite animated film. That’s not to say it’s the best, just my personal favourite. So why do I love it so? Well I don’t think it’s ever been bettered for matching its voice cast to their characters, something listening to the soundtrack album just made even more obvious. Sebastian Cabot always seemed a bit dull as Bagheera, but that’s the point, it’s what makes the shiftless jungle bum Baloo so appealing, and Phil Harris’ Baloo is certainly that. But it’s not just the leads who fit, everyone from Sterling Holloway as the sneaky snake Kaa to the inspired casting of George Sanders as Shere Kha, the jungles deadliest inhabitant, are spot on.

Then there’s the songs. Most people’s favourite is probably “The Bare Necessities” but for me it’s always been “I Wan’na Be Like You” with Louis Prima stealing the film as the King Louie. While it’s the best scene it’s also the films biggest failing; it peaks too soon, with the high point coming before the film is even half over. It’s not like there’s nothing to enjoy in the second half though (Kaa singing “Trust in Me” for one) and at only 75 minutes it’ not what you’d call a long film either.

This is the last Animonday, at least for the foreseeable future, and what better way to finish than with a true animation classic. There’ll be something different next Monday and a few other changes to Mine Was Taller as well.

Animonday: A Scanner Darkly December 25, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Science Fiction , add a comment

I’ll keep this brief because it’s Christmas.

Philip K. Dick’s work is notoriously difficult to film, and while there have been some classic SF movies made from his stories (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report) none have really captured that essential Dickness.

Richard Linklater’s film puts an end to that. All the hallucinogenic paranoia of Dick’s book is translated to the screen, as are the weird and wonderful characters that people the Dickverse. The unique animation style, rotoscoping, adds to the surreal feel of the film. The scrambler suit’s that allow the undercover agents to keep their identity secret even from the people they work with are like nothing I’ve seen in an animated film before, or a live action one come to that.

Rather than distract from the actors performances the animation seems to enhance them. Keanu Reeves, as the undercover cop investigating himself, has never been better. Winona Ryder hasn’t been this good for a long time and Woody Harrelson adds a little humour as Reeves drug buddy. Best of all though is Robert Downey Jr. whose highly animated performance (pun intended) is a real treat.

A Scanner Darkly is a must see for Dick fans, particularly those disappointed with previous adaptations or for anyone who loves intelligent science fiction.

Next week: The last Animonday and my favourite animated film of all time.

Animonday: Ice Age 2 – The Meltdown December 11, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Comedy , 1 comment so far

Manny, Sid and Diego return but having made it through the big freeze can they survive the big melt? This time our intrepid trio are joined by two opossums Crash and Eddie plus Ellie, a mammoth who thinks she’s an opossum.

The presence of a female mammoth adds a touch of romance for Manny, while Sid the sloth becomes an object of worship as the fire-king by a pack of mini-sloths. Sadly Diego the sabre-toothed tiger, one of the highlights of the first film, is underused. In the original the character had a little bit of an edge, we weren’t sure if he was a good guy or a bad guy, but now he’s firmly in the hero camp. So in place of that slyness we have a cute cuddly cat who’s afraid of the water.

As with the first film it’s Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel who provides the film’s funniest moments. In fact there are probably more laughs in the six minute Scrat short No Time for Nuts than there are in the entire running time of Ice Age 2.

The films not without its fun moments though and we get at least one memorable new character in Fast Tony, a giant armadillo, voiced by Jay Leno. He’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer, always on the make, and he adds a touch of slightly more adult humour to proceedings.

From a technical standpoint the film is a definite improvement over its predecessor. In the four years between the two, computer animation has come a long way, most notably in the rendering of fur, with Scrat’s tail looking far more hairy.

As always Hollywood feels the need to push a franchise until it bursts and there’s an Ice Age 3 in the works but the writers need to come up with something a little more interesting than just another journey story to keep these animals from becoming extinct.

Animonday: Ice Age December 3, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Comedy , add a comment

This heart-warming story of a mammoth, a sloth and a sabertooth tiger trying to return a lost human baby to his father may come from Fox but it pushes all the Disney buttons.

Our steadfast hero, Manfred the mammoth, and his annoying but endearing sidekick, Sid the sloth, along with the sly sabertooth Diego, journey through the frozen wastes, and along the way learn the true meaning of friendship.

The voice cast are well suited to their characters. Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond plays Manfred, whose gruff manner hides a heart of gold but it’s John Leguizamo as Sid and Dennis Leary as Diego who capture their characters best. Leguizamo manages to stay just the right side of annoying (most of the time anyway) while Leary has fun as the devious Diego and the pair are responsible for some of the films funniest moments.

The character designs could best be described as quirky and it’s nice to see a computer animated film that really embraces its cartoonish elements. In fact, while the main thrust of the film is very Disneyesque, complete with suitably saccharine ending, the real star of the film owes far more to a different animation style altogether.

The character I’m referring to is Scrat the squirrel whose relentless quest for a nut breaks up the cuteness with some Looney Tunes style madness. In fact the films biggest failing is that there isn’t enough Scrat.

Next week: Ice Age 2 and hopefully more Scrat.

Animonday: Steamboy November 27, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Science Fiction , 3 comments

Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s steampunk epic shows us a past where steam technology…well lets just say it goes way beyond powering ships and trains.

One family, appropriately named Steam, have made a breakthrough in steam power, a breakthrough that has divided father and son and that rift threatens to start a war between two nations. James Ray Steam, the youngest scientific mind in the Steam clan, finds himself caught between his father and his grandfather over how the power should be used. Can the young “Steamboy” stop a war starting between Britain and American?

Packed with great characters and huge action sequences (you’ll see the Crystal Palace destroyed!), Ôtomo’s film is a true anime epic. A visual feast that still finds time to ask moralistic questions such as: what responsibility does a scientist have in how his invention is used? It’s impossible not to see the massive steam tower at the films climax as anything but an allegory for the atomic bomb.

The film isn’t bogged down by such weighty issues though; it’s a fun ride that never lets up, with even the few quieter moments full of such delicious eye candy that you’re never bored. It’s also pretty darn unique; I mean what other anime can you think of where the hero comes from Manchester and rubs shoulders with the likes of Robert Stephenson and Scarlet Ohara? Not to mention referencing Coronation Street.

Steamboy is a masterpiece and deserves a place in any anime fans collection, but it will also appeal to those whose taste doesn’t normally stretch to Japanese animation.

Animonday: Final Fantasy VII – Advent Children November 19, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Fantasy , add a comment

This movie spin off from the long running Final Fantasy game series is doubtless essential viewing for fans of the games but for everyone else it’s almost completely incomprehensible. Characters pop up without explanation and the film assumes the viewer will already have knowledge of the protagonist’s relationships and motivations. It’s a bit like watching Return of the Jedi having never seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back.

Visually though the film is a treat with some of the best computer generated animation I’ve ever seen. The design work is unique and the battle scenes spectacular, although there are only so many sword fights you can watch before it gets repetitive, and without the grounding in the mythology and characters it’s hard to really care about anyone.

In fact the final half hour feels like you’re watching someone else play a visually impressive video game. It’s “big fight, followed by motor cycle chase, followed by big fight” structure is like the levels in a game, it feels like you should be hitting “save” at the end of every big action sequence.

Interesting more than enjoyable, the film does show what’s now possible with computer animation and during one big action sequence featuring a very big beastie I was struck by how good a Godzilla film would be if animated in this style. Now that’s a film I’d really like to see…

Animonday: Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence November 13, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Science Fiction , add a comment

The original Ghost in the Shell is one of the films that helped anime reach a wider audience, showing that it could produce intelligent science fiction as good as, and often better than, live action movies. Almost ten years after the original came Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and while it’s not as groundbreaking as its forbear it’s still an intelligent, action packed, visual feast.

The film is a murder mystery, with robots killing people and then commenting suicide. Cyborg detective Batou returns from the original film and, along with new partner Togusa, is tasked with getting to the bottom of the mystery. Along the way he’ll encounter robots with souls, Yakuza killers and his own “guardian angel.”

The film is chock full of big ideas but what makes it so effective is Batou. It would be so easy for him to be just your standard action hero, blowing away bad guys left and right (and he does plenty of that) but thanks to great writing, exceptional animation and the vocal talents of Akio Ôtsuka he becomes so much more. There are some great action scenes in the film, the Yakuza sequence being an obvious stand out but for me the films finest moment is a much quieter affair. Batou returns home after work, feeds his dog, cracks open a bear and stretches out in his chair, it’s the sort of thing anyone would do and it helps to humanise this gruff, tough and violent man. If the viewer wasn’t routing for Batou before, they will be after that scene. Either that or they don’t have a soul.

Batou’s dog, a Basset hound, is a character in his own right, with an expressive face brilliantly rendered by the animators. Director Mamoru Oshii has a Basset and obviously has an affinity for the breed as it features in his other films as well.

Never becoming overwhelmed by the action the film lets its story unfold steadily, with the “déjà vu” section messing with both the protagonist’s and the viewer’s sense of reality. Even the resolution satisfies, with the answer to the mystery both surprising and fitting.

Ghost in the Shell 2 may not be as original as the first film, and won’t convert as many new fans, but it’s one of the finest examples of Japanese animation, both from a technical and storytelling perspective, we’ve seen so far this century.

Animonday: Metropolis November 6, 2007

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What rights do robots have? At what point does something become alive? These are some of the questions this anime film asks, but it wraps these philosophical conundrums up in an exciting adventure/love story. At its heart this is a simple tale of boy meets robot, boy falls in love with robot, robot tries to destroy the world, though some political wrangling and a psychotic assassin give the film a little more depth.

But while the story is an engaging one, there are elements that didn’t seem to fit together as they should; at least they didn’t for me. The computer animated backgrounds and sometimes violent nature of the story seemed at odds with the cutsie character designs, although this may be in keeping with the source material, not having read the original manga I can’t say (if anyone reading this has, please let me know). The jazz soundtrack also didn’t feel quite right but that may have more to do with my musical taste than any fault of the film.

It was fun looking out for references to science fiction classics (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Blade Runner being the most obvious) but the film never feels like just a rehash of old ideas. It’s an intelligent film spoilt (for me) by some of the director’s choices, that give the film a unique feel but also a slightly disjointed one.

Animonday: Ninja Scroll October 30, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Fantasy , add a comment

I’m sure had I seen Ninja Scroll for the first time fifteen years ago when it was made that I’d have thought it incredibly cool, just as I did with Akira when that was released. The film’s blend of sex, violence and gore is aimed at a young male audience and back then I’d have just about qualified (I was 28). But sadly I didn’t see it then and watching it for the first time as a 42 year old it doesn’t really impress.

The sex is lurid and a little juvenile, the violence incredibly stylised but excessively graphic. Only the plot’s machinations hold up for this somewhat jaded viewer, with characters displaying hidden depths and motivations and even the love story angle works.

The animation wasn’t state of the art when it was made and now looks incredibly dated. While I can see why some would rate this as one of the best anime films ever made it wouldn’t make my top ten but then, as the director says in an interview on the DVD, “teenagers are my target audience” and I haven’t been one of them for quite awhile.

Animonday: Spriggan October 23, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Science Fiction , add a comment

This is epic anime – big SF ideas and big action sequences. The film deals with alien technology hidden on Earth and a secret organisation designed to keep mankind safe from it, there’s also a healthy dose of James Bond and Indiana Jones in the mix.

The film has a high WOW factor but falls down when it comes to character. Only Yu Ominae, the lead Spriggan agent, gets any real depth but when you have a film this action packed something has to give and in this case it’s character. While it may lack real emotional depth it does have an overtly political subtext, with the American villains’ codenamed Fatman and Little Boy (for those who don’t know they were the codenames of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

The ending sets the film up for a sequel but almost 10 years on there’s no sign of one. Perhaps the lack of an emotional connection to the characters in favour of none stop action ultimately backfired, with the film worth seeing for the spectacle but ultimately vacuous.

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