Anastasia and The Swan Princess: Two Decent Films Worth A Look

All I can say is that this was a damned tricky post to write!

I watched both Anastasia and The Swan Princess last week as I had never seen them before and while one left me pleasantly surprised, the other made me feel like I had watched an hour and a half of my life disappear without any chance of getting it back.

The Swan Princess is by far the more entertaining film. OK, it’s pure fantasy, but at least its enjoyable. The characters are relatively simple, yet fun. The main characters are your typical princess, prince/hero and villain. There is  a nice character development sequence at the beginning that follows the prince and princess as they grow up. There are some humourous moments and it provides a good background to the characters mutual hatred for one another all through their childhoods. While both characters are not near as rich and developed as I would have liked, my enjoyment of the film was not hampered by it.

The animation, with plenty of nice, hand-drawn goodness, is grand. The nice thing about this film is that it doesn’t pretend to be complicated film vaulting for the critical appraisal. It was created for the family-friendly market and that is squarely where it is strongest. Adults will have a tougher time enjoying this film for the simple reason that it came out before Toy Story, when animated films generally didn’t appeal to adults as well as kids.

Anastasia, in comparison, is the juggernaut from Don Bluth and FOX. It aims high with lush, fluid animation, a high concept storyline and plenty of top-notch animation filled with complimentary CGI. On paper, it should be by far the better film however in reality, it is anything but.

I found it an OK film in that there is nothing inherently wrong with it, just that I found it less enjoyable than I was expecting. Perhaps I was hoping that it would be up to par with the Disney films of the same time and unfortunately, myself and audiences of the time agree that it is not. The animation is superb, the plot is fine, the pace is a bit erratic and there is an anti-climax at the start of the final act. However, the biggest letdown are the characters.

The God-awful voice-acting of Meg Ryan and John Cusack doesn’t help either. These two are clearly not voice-actors. Their performances are about as flat as you can imagine. There is none of the energy that you normally see and expect from an animated film and it really does show during the dramatic scenes where I found it very hard to care for the characters for the simple reason that they seemed so fake. Even the great Christopher Lloyd as Rasputin is powerless to balance the monotony of these two, who, in all honesty, end up sapping so much life from the characters of Anastasia and Dimirti that they become almost unwatchable.

Overall, both films are fine. Neither advances the animation artform any more than what came before it but that should not detract you from searching them out and giving them a shot. I was surprised by both (for different reasons) but I am glad I watched them, despite what I said in the opening paragraph.

PS. Apologies for the insular nature of this post.

Anomaly Appraisal: Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest

Via: The Internet Movie Poster Awards

Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is one of those films that I must have seen when I was younger. I was smack in the middle of the target audience at the time and I definitely did see Aladdin when it came out mere months before/after.

Yet I had forgotten about it for years until last week when I was at Wal-Mart. Having picked up a bicycle seat (as you do), I strolled past the DVD section. Lo and behold! There was a $5 bin stuffed to the gills with DVDs.

Since I like animation in all shapes and forms, I have become accustomed to rummaging through such bins because you never know what you’ll find. Naturally I came across Fern Gully. For $5? How could I not! So I did, and the other night, I watched it.

What can I say? It’s a decent enough film that left me pleasantly surprised. The animation is superb with plenty of lovely traditional animation and hand-painted backgrounds. There’s also some 3-D CGI that is as good as anything Disney put out at the time. Hans Perk (of A. Film L.A.) did some animation, as did Ralph Eggleston. So it seems that at least a few famous folks were involved in making this film as beautiful as it is.

The plot is fine, if somewhat generic. Sure, it plays on the whole ‘environmentalism’ fad that was happening at the time (remember this was the early 90s) although it is quite believable in the context of the setting. The script itself is slow. A large portion of the movie is devoted to the main characters travelling around the world they live in. It may be a side effect of the short running time (80 mins) that leaves the actual plot to do with Hexus as something of an afterthought.

The music (as excellently composed by Alan Silvestri as it is) is now rather dated, as is the film itself. Besides the music, the big giveaway is the language. “Tubular” and “bodacious” are just two and are far from the only examples. Yes, this film is very much from the late 80s/early 90s.

Indeed, Fern Gully has company in this regard. Tangled walks the very same, fine line that divides a film between being timeless and being time-framed. I have no doubt that in ten years, Tangled will look much the same age as Fern Gully looks today, unfortunately.

As for the characters, they are certainly likeable. There’s nothing wrong with that except that their development is cut short by the running time. They are the usual motley crew that inhabited animated films before Pixar came along. I.e. the smart one, the good-looking dumb one. the hangers-on, the hero, the villain. Nothing makes most of them stand out from the crowd. Having said that, I did find two characters who did.

Crysta, our protagonist, is by far the most interesting of all the characters. There is a lot on her shoulders (as we learn throughout the film) that weighs upon her mind. She is strong character that is determined in her ways while at the same time caring for the bewildered human (Zak) who has literally fallen into her life.

She has that happy-go-lucky charm that imbues all the virtues of a good female character while being assertive enough in her ways to avoid being labelled a pushover. Look at the screencap below.

Now there’s a great shot. The crossed arms, the lip-bite and the dozens of eyes staring out just scream the inquisitive nature of our heroine. How about another one:

I’ve seen that face literally dozens of times. She does exactly that with my face as well and every time it makes me wonder whether I’ve missed my calling as a clown.

Crysta is the most developed of all the characters, so much so, that without her, the film would be indubitably more boring.

The second characteris given some criminally short screen time. That would be Hexus, voiced by the one and only Tim Curry, who manages to bring out so much of the sleaze and evilness in the character, it makes you wonder how awesome the film would be if he’d been given more screen time.

Tim Curry provides a superb balance to Robin Williams who hams it up as Batty. Hexus is effortlessly sublime to Robbin’s lunacy, which is far more abrasive than his other performance of the year as the Genie in Aladdin. Of note is something Brad Bird posted over on Cartoon Brew a few years ago (how I manage to find these things I do not know):

Very few people remember that Williams was also the voice of a key character in FERNGULLY that same year and it didn’t help the film’s boxoffice.

Sadly it didn’t, although the film is no worse for it. Williams is given a wild script but it is clear that he was not given the same freedom that he was for Aladdin, where the character of the Genie was so dependent on him being who he is.

Interestingly enough, Fern Gully is set in Australia and was partially produced there. As such, I asked Australia’s favourite son and my good chum, Elliot Cowan what he thought of it:

Fern Gully is an enormous pile of shit that is about as Australian as Abraham Lincoln.

So The Secret of Kells it isn’t. That should not detract you from seeking Fern Gully out though. You will be rewarded by a lovely looking film with some very 90s songs that may provide a bit of a respite from all the CGI that is being thrown your way these days. Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest is available at Wal-Mart and Target for the low, low price of $5 (plus tax).

Why Your Bookshelf Was Made To Hold “Directing Animation” By David B. Levy

Bill Plympton's Cover giving Mona ideas.

They say God created the earth in seven days although I have a sneaking feeling that if he hired David Levy, he would have got the job done in five, and still found time to write a book about it.

Theological jokes aside, David really is that hard working. Besides being an animator, he’s also a teacher, President of ASIFA-East and if that wasn’t enough, he’s also managed to find the hours in the day to write three, count ’em, three books over the last couple of years. Suffice to say, he puts those of us who take a full 8 hours of sleep to shame!

Directing Animation the third part of the Holy Trinity installment of animation books written by him, the previous two being Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive and Animation Development: From Pitch to Production. If you haven’t already read those, they are an absolute must, even if, like me, you don’t work in animation on a day-to-day basis.

With those two successful and critically acclaimed books under his belt (and under my bed), David has unleashed his third masterpiece where he zeroes in on a very important position in the animation process.

As a seasoned director on [Adult Swim]’s Assy McGee and numerous shows before that, David is well placed to write this book. Sure there are the technical aspects to the job like laying out a scene, timing shots, etc. but there was definitely a gap on the bookshelf when it came to managing the human element of the process.

Thankfully, that gap has been filled thanks to Directing Animation. Chock full of sage, professional advice from the best in the industry and plenty of tales of both the good and not so good side of the job (but mostly the good side).

With a focus on what it takes to be a director, being dropped in at the deep and and devoting a chapter each to indie films, commercials, TV series, feature films and the internet, Directing Animation covers all the bases you could expect to meet as an animation director and then some!

With such a broad range of topics to cover, one might think the books skims over one or two of them. Not so! The utmost attention has been paid to every aspect of the book and with such a broad range of folks interviewed, there is no doubt that you will be thoroughly prepared to direct once you have finished reading it.

As I was reading the book, I realised that when it comes to animation, there is much more to it than just TV shows and films from the big boys. The prevalence of indie shorts and flash animation on the web has made it so that anyone can become a director, even if you’re only just out of school! Directing Animation is excellent in its coverage of these slightly less well known areas of the animation landscape.

David’s conversational writing style makes the 240 pages fly by with ease and yet everything he has to say is easily absorbed. Add in to the mix his impeccable sense of humour and wit and you have an altogether excellent read from start to finish.

Directing Animation is not a book to be glossed over, even if you don’t think of yourself as a director, you will realise you are taking away much more than you expect. It is thoroughly recommended for anyone even remotely involved in the animation scene.

Directing Animation can be purchased over on Amazon.com.

 

A Review of 2010 And My Favourite Film of The Year

Via: Cartoon Brew

With an upcoming hiatus over Christmas (because there’s not internet where I’m heading for the week), this may well be the last post of 2010, so it seems appropriate to have a glance over the past year and to list some of the best films that were released.

I’m pleased to say that 2010 was a great year for animated films in general. There were some rock-solid performers from the big guns, but also plenty of excitement to be had from the indie releases too. There are some who say that this year will be the year of the animated film gaining widespread acceptance among adults and Hollywood, but that’s a bit like the “year of the Linux desktop”. It’ll happen but not in a big bang kind of way.

The good news is that we are well on the way to achieving that goal. This past year saw a great release from DreamWorks that was highly regarded as a great film for both kids and adults, and there wasn’t a fart joke in sight! Toy Story 3 made it socially acceptable for adults to cry openly at the cinema in droves and Despicable Me (once considered an outsider) brought new life the market with an almost sleeper-like performance with lots of word of mouth helping it to become the success that it is.

Besides those high points of the year, there was much excitement in the indie sector. Bill Plympton released his much-awaited feature film, Idiots and Angels and is currently in the race for an Oscar with both it and the accompanying short, The Cow Who Wanted to Be A Hamburger.

Other indie films that got a lot of attention include My Dog Tulip and The Illusionist. Unfortunately I have yet to see either, but from what I have read, they are both extremely good films that just happen to be animated.

Naturally there were some stinkers in 2010 that shall go unnamed out of kindness, but you may well be able to guess which ones they are. It is heartening to know, however, that people are much more aware of the differences between what is a good film and what is not. The quality of the animation is not something that people/parents may have considered in years past, but with the bar set so high by the likes of Pixar, people/parents are much more aware that they too can enjoy a good, animated film. So while we may be seeing horrible movies for years to come, we can at least look forward to many more great ones.

So after that super quick review of the year, what is my favourite film of 2010. Well, that would happen to be the one I wrote about way back in April and what also happened to be my first daily post on the blog. It is of course, How To Train Your Dragon, which I will admit left me pretty gobsmacked in the cinema. It was such a breakthrough from DreamWorks to see that they could pull off a serious film in the Pixar vein and succeed. The film’s fantastic success was almost certainly due to the people spreading the word of mouth, which is proof that if you make a great film, you don’t necessarily need all the advertising you think you do.

As for the rest, there is not much point to making a list as there are so few, suffice to say that I enjoyed every (animated) film I saw this year. Here’s to next year and the hope that the best is yet to come.

Anomaly Appraisal: Hercules Part II

This is a continuation of yesterday’s Part I, where I covered the plot and music.

Today I’m going to cover the animation, the characters and the character’s designs. First off, the animation is the same fine quality that we have come to expect from Disney. Everything is polished to perfection and leaves no stone unturned. The film itself is an artful blend of traditional and CGI although for the most part, the two remain in the areas where they excel most.

For the most part, the character animation is the preserve of the traditionalist. Characters are hand-drawn and move with grace around the screen. Special mention should be given to the Muses who are almost constantly dancing around the screen. Their movements are fluid and completely suit their stylized design (more on that later).

There are a number of sequences in the film where the camera flies about huge sets, that for the most part, are hand-painted backgrounds draped over a 3-D model. These shots work well and add plenty of depth to the film. CGI is also used for the first creature that Hercules fights in the gorge, where it’s use is pretty obvious mainly because after over a decade, technology tends to improve rather visibly. CGI was also used in a few less obvious areas, like carts or the platform that Hercules must pose on for his portrait. These subtle uses blend in perfectly with the hand-drawn surroundings and serve to improve the appearance of the film. The old adage that less is more certainly holds true here.

Character movement within the film is generally excellent. It was nice to see some cartoony elements such as rubberband legs and some squash and stretch popping up here and there. Their limited use was wise as unlike the Genie in Aladdin, there was no character (aside from Hades) that was in need of it.

As you’ve probably noticed, I am not all that great at analysing the technical parts of the film. That’s the result of not being an animator. If I was, I could sit and yap on and on about how God is in the details of a film like this. Where simple character actions such as which way the characters are looking can make all the difference in the world. Hercules is full of such things, especially in the garden scene, but I am not one to be able to comment on their use. Let’s just say I like that they exist.

Moving right along, we come to an area that I do feel I have considerable ability to comment on: character along with character design, starting with Hercules.

First off, the guy comes off as more of a jerk than is perhaps wise for a film where he’s supposed to earn our sympathy. Sure he has it at the start, when he falls from Mount Olympus. he even has it when he detroys the marketplace in the village. When does he lose it? After his training of course. This is where he begins to become a tad pretentious, which by the end of the Zero to Hero montage, is pretty much full-blown. He’s full of himself at this point. He may still pine to join his father, but after the scene in the temple I thought he pulled of the trick of being the world’s biggest crybaby.

He is brash, he believes that he will earn something just because. While he is equal parts confident and cowardly, his successes imbue him with a sense of entitlement. His arrogance towards Phil is exemplary of the kind of character that I personally hate. OK, its understandable that he is angry in that scene, but he is rather self-centred and willing to act without thinking of others. This changes once he falls in love with Meg and is willing to risk life and limb to save her. Alas, this arrives very late in the film with the damage almost already done. Having said all that, Hercules is the hero and the audience does connect with him at the end. He is a strong protagonist but he is upstaged by the more complex people around him.

Hercules is supposed to be the Alpha male albeit a flawed one. His pride is all too obvious and it saps out sympathy for him. After he becomes famous, he’s not unhappy, he loves it, he just hasn’t gotten what he wants and feels he should get it without having to truly earn it. He believes that he is perfect. Hercules is not fatally flawed as he redeems himself by the end of the film, it’s just that it takes until the end of the film for use to accept that he has changed. Creating a flawed character that an audience like means walking a very fine line. For the most part, Hercules stays on the right side, but only just.

With our hero protagonist being so rough around the edges, it is a relief to say that the other main characters are not nearly so unfortunate. Phil is the trainer who just seems to have a string of bad luck with his students. Voiced by Danny DeVito who adds a grough, world-weary tone to the charcter, Phil is the foil to Hercules for much of the film. Phil is definitely the good-guy, even more so than Hercules. He drives Hercules to succeed and shows true compassion when he learns the pain that Meg has gone through. He is rewarded at the end when his dream comes true.

Megara is our damsel in distress, although her distress is much more complex than at first sight. She is the romantic interest of Hercules although it takes a while for her to return the favour. Her relationship with Hades is revealed (too late in the film in my opinion) as one that she deeply regrets and results in her desire to help Hercules clashing spectacularly with her obligations to Hades. She is a character constantly in crisis and swings wildly between the Rock that is Hercules and the hard places that is Hades. She is a girl who was placed all her trust in two men (her former boyfriend and Hades) and ends up being betrayed bitterly by both. All of these aspects combine to make Meg the most interesting character in the film. Even though she is infinitely more flawed than the hero, it is she who we sympathize with the most.

Hades is the bad guy. Given a fantastic lease of life thanks to James Woods who is let free and loose and makes the character very much the fun-loving diabolical villain that he is. His temper is explosive which is emphasised with the fire that is his hair. He is not one to manipulate people, but he no problem using them for his own devices, such as Meg. Pain and Panic are his two assistants. Now these are two characters that for want of a better word, are superfluous. Watching this film 10 years after the fact, they come across as two, very stock, very mid-1990s Disney characters in that they are nervous, clumsy and serves as no more than a plot device in abducting Hercules. Compared to the likes of Iago in Aladdin or Cruella DeVil’s henchmen, they are too comical to take seriously.

The various minor characters in the film are wholesome, although many are not on screen long enough to display any significant personality traits, save perhaps for the Muses. Here are five women who, despite doing little more than linking the various parts of the film together, nonetheless display some strong characteristics. They are straight-talking and make it known. Personally, I like the Muses. They might be mostly narrat
ors but they have a certain amount of [ahem] appeal and play it off on the audience, which is no bad things as far as I’m concerned.

The character designs are a sight to behold. Some are fairly normal in appearance (such a Phil and Pegasus, no big surprises there) and some are extraordinary. There is one average looking bloke who I’ll get to in a minute.

Starting with Hades, here’s a guy with a fiery temperament and what better way to display that than with some fire! Hades’ hair matches his many moods from normal (blue and short) to angry (blue, longer flames) to steaming mad (red, roaring flames shooting straight up). In contrast, when he is happy, his hair turns bright blue and cozily swirls in the air. Hades’ grey appearance matches his home in the underworld and his presence on Mount Olympus could not be more noticeable, with dark clouds persistently hovering over him. His large stature stands in stark contrast the the many skeletal spirits that live in the underworld which helps set him apart in his role as their caretaker.

As interesting a design as Hades is, it is the females in this film where the character design excels. Staring with Meg, who is an interesting mix of sharp edges and curves. Not being the typical Disney image of womanhood works in Meg’s favour. her clothes are plain, she is bereft of jewellery and her face is rather small.

That being said, the way Meg displays her emotions through her movements is unique in the film. She walks with a certain amount of contempt, perhaps because of the former rejection. There is no suggestion of promiscuousness, but rather that everyone except herself can see her beauty. Her eyes play a critical role in this as she often narrows them when talking to someone but opens them wide to show astonishment or happiness.

Meg holds herself in a way that suits her status as a betrayed person. Her arms are often folded and she tends to keep them to herself, with the exception of the garden scene and accompanying song where she lets herself feel much freer as she experiences the closest thing to happiness for the first time in a long time. Ultimately, Meg is the plain Jane girl that manages to capture the heart of the hero through a winning combination of both beauty and her character. Her design is a similar winning combination that emphasis that beauty is more than skin deep.

Our hero Hercules is a curious case. As a baby, he displays all the associated cuteness and playful movements. As a teenager, he has grown taller, is leaner and has the usual teenage issues with clumsiness. By the time he is an adult, he has become a strapping young lad with muscles large enough to match his strength.

Overall, his design is OK. Where Hercules does fall flat is his face. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it would appear to be a combination of his nose and chin. Both are way to large. The chin in particular sticks out like a sore thumb but does not define a strong jaw in the same way that Gaston does in Beauty and the Beast. Combined with a very prominent nose, Hercules come off not so much ugly, as, well, not quite as universally appealing as perhaps he should be.

The most stylized designs of the entire film belong to the Muses and the gods and make both clearly distinct from the humans. The gods are brightly coloured and appear to radiate with light. Their features are more exaggerated either being more delicate (in the case of the goddesses) or pronounced (in the case of the gods).

The Muses take their design from ancient Greek pottery that they interact with throughout the film. They are suitably curvy and move in a similar fashion, which is not surprising seeing as they dance as well as sing. The five of them have their own appearance and character too although this is not developed much in the film. They are full of life and are constantly dancing in ways that suggest they have a real passion for performing. It would seem (from the end credits) that professional dancers were used as reference for the Muses. I’d like to think that while this may be the case, the animators were given enough room to express their skills. The Muses remain the most entertaining aspect of the film, so much so, that I would gladly watch an entire film with just them in it!

Overall, Hercules is not perfect, although in fairness, no film ever is. It is a solid Disney product that was perhaps treated a bit harshly by US audiences on its theatrical release. Personally, I think it is well worth taking the time to watch it again and viewed for its animation and characters if not for its plot.

I must give a shout out to Disney Dreams for all the wonderful screencaps. Much more than a repository, the site is very much a superb source for Disney fans with everything they could possibly need.

Animaly Appraisal: Hercules Part I

Sooooo, having just finished watching Disney’s Hercules, here are some initial thoughts that will be concluded tomorrow. Released in 1997, Hercules continues the Disney tradition of releasing a “classic” film every year/couple of years which in the preceding years had borne witness to Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pochahontas. Many people will agree that things began sliding downhill with the departure of Jeffrey Katzenburg for greener pastures prior to Pochahontas. I tend to agree but I would say that the slide was more the result of weak leadership rather than problems in the creative department. That debate is for another time. Today, I’m focusing on the plot, the songs and the background design. Tomorrow it’ll be animation, characters and character design.

Starting with the plot, the basic set-up is that Hades, the brother of Zeus hatches a plan to take over the world but first he must eliminate Zeus’ son Hercules. Through his incompetent minions who fail to finish the task, Hercules doesn’t die but instead turns mortal. We then get a short scene where we discover how he does not fit in with those around him. Once Hercules meets his father Zeus, he goes to find Phil, his trainer. After some training, Hercules is not a striking young lad with enormous strength.

Before he can become a true hero ad return to Mount Olympus, he must first prove himself. Enter Meg, whom he saves from a monster. As it turns out, she’s in the pocket of Hades because of some deal she did with him back in the day and must obey his every whim if she’s ever going to get her soul back. So, to wrap up the entire thing, the planets align and Hades begins his assault on Mounts Olympus. Hercules fights him and saves the day, only for Meg to die along the way and descend into Hell (or whatever the Greeks called it). Hercules offers to swap himself for Meg and in the process regains his immortality and becomes a god. In the end, he decides to stay on earth with Meg after falling in love with her. The End.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward. There are no intricate twists save for Meg’s relationship with Hades. As far as being accurate goes, you’d bet better off watching that Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry cartoon. Of course there is no need for it to be accurate, it’s just a story. If we are willing to believe that a guy can lift a house, we can surely believe that Zeus put Hades down below instead of them casting lots for it.

One things that I absolutely loved about the story was the use of the Muses as sometime narrators and, well, muses! Although they make the film seem more like a play (which really changes the pitch of the film) they add some spice to what could have been just another movie.

Interestingly enough, this was the first Disney movie to be based on mythology rather than the usual fairytale. This choice of source material makes a great change from the many films that went before. No princesses in this movie! it is a shame that they haven’t really returned to it since as Greek plays have been a source of entertainment and creativity for millennia.

With that, onto the songs! I’ll just say it straight out, Aladdin is my all-time favourite when it comes to songs. With that in mind, I rate every film against it and while I try to remember that different films require different musical styles, I have yet to fins one that comes close. The songs in Hercules try to convey the many conflicting emotions being felt by the characters. Be it Hercules wanting to fit in, Phil debating whether to train another hero, the Muses montage in the middle, or Meg’s song where it becomes clear she’s fallen in love.

The key thing to all these songs is the singalongability, which I would rate as OK. Granted the songs match the overall serious tone of the film, but you don’t hear people singing those songs for a reason.

Which lead me on to the score itself. Leaving aside the usual orchestral score that does its job in the dramatic parts, it was great to hear some stuff that could have come straight out of the 1950s. If you know your Ren & Stimpy, you’ll know that John K. resurrected a lot of similar music for his show. Which makes it all the more surprising to hear similar music in a film like this. Be it the clarinet solos, the blares of trumpets or the quick tap of a xylophone. They add enormous emphasis to the lighter parts of the film that could otherwise have been so easily accomplished with an orchestra the same as the rest of the film. This music serves to divide the film into two parts: the fun part and the serious part and makes an excellent, if somewhat sub-conscious contrast between the two.

Personally, I think we need to see much more of this type of music in animated films. The Incredibles score makes some fantastic use of 60s brass and percussion that equals the best that James Bond put out.

Tomorrow, the more interesting stuff. Like backgrounds! Characters! Character designs! (try and guess my favourite).

Anomaly Appraisal: Tales from Earthsea

I read the announcement a few days ago over on Cartoon Brew but having bought the DVD back in 2008, it doesn’t matter that much to me. Having said that, I’d thought I’d post my thoughts on a movie that while from the venerable Studio Ghibli, is not by it’s most famous director but rather his son, Goro.

The movie is based on the series of books by Ursula K. LeGuin but differs substantially from the original material. The protagonist is Arren, a young lad who has run away from home after murdering his father, who just happens to be the king. He meets a wizard by the name of Sparrowhawk who saves him from a pack of wolves. Arren follows Sparrowhawk into a bustling city, where he rescues a young girl named Tehru from a bunch of tough guys rounding up people and forcing them into slavery.

The story takes an interesting turn with the entrance of Lord Cob, an apparently powerful wizard who is in search of the source of eternal life. Strange things begin to happen to Arren and eventually, it is up to Sparrowhawk to help rescue him, along with Tehru.

The film is vastly different from those we have come to know and love from Hayao. The plot is more complex and at times bizarre. There are many subplots presented that the viewer must contemplate while watching the film. Not that any of this detracts from it, not in the least. If anything it rewards the viewer in a different way than Hayao’s works. The plot does tend to wander though, and I suspect that about 15 minutes could have easily been removed from the film in numerous places to stop it feeling as long as it does.

The characters are not as easy to sympathize with as you would expect, Arren is, after all, a murderer. He is somewhat flat, as are the rest of the cast, but that is a minor quibble. The voice-acting talents of Timothy Dalton and Willem DaFoe (in a very quirky role, even for him) help make up the difference.

The animation is superb, with detailed backgrounds, dramatic cities and foreboding castles. The character design is recognizably Ghibli but perhaps on a slightly more muted level. The use of digital enhancements does not hinder the enjoyment of the film.

Is it a film worth seeing? Well, that really does depend. If you go into this film expecting a carbon copy of Hayao you will be bitterly disappointed. It is not near the same. Instead, embrace it as the different movie that it is. If you can get past the hurdles of a twisty plot and pedestrian pacing, you will be rewarded by a surprising ending. Personally, it took me two viewings before I could say I enjoyed it.

Below is the trailor for your viewing pleasure:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05sCTxnEs9Y&feature=player_embedded]

Animation Art: A Review Of The Book That Changed My Life

OK, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It didn’t so much change my life as pop up in a pretty unusual place (a Borders in Bowie, Maryland). I like to think that a certain amount of fate was involved with that occasion.

I’m not a writer. In fact if you’ve read anything at all on this blog, it should be fairly obvious that my writing skills are, I suppose, not very good. I was a perennial ‘C’ student in English throughout school, except that one essay I wrote on Sylvia Plath. Where my vitriol managed to impress the teacher enough to earn me a very rare ‘B’.

I therefore have a lot of respect for people who write books. Not necessarily fiction mind you, that’s a skill in and of itself. I’m talking about non-fiction, in particular the type of book that covers a wide range of topics and time periods but depends on a bit of commentary to keep everything flowing along.

It should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoy the book pictured above. Edited by the supremely capable Jerry Beck and with a variety of contributors ranging from Chris Robinson to Mark Mayerson, Animation Art is a fantastic tome on the artform that is animation.

The book itself is filled with plenty of pictures, but of course, that is only part of the story. The text itself is a joy to read. It never preaches and is organized on a two-page spread layout, i.e. every two pages is a different topic, and there are a lot of topics.

As explained on the cover, the book covers “From Pencil to Pixel, the World of Cartoon, Anime, and CGI”. With animation having been around for almost a century, that’s a pretty tall order, which I am pleased to say the book delivers on. Literally everything is covered at some point, from George Pal’s Puppetoons, to the first animation made in Japan, to the wobbles Disney went through in the 1970s, from Hanna-Barbera to The Powerpuff Girls and so on.

Amazon is listing a delivery date of about several months down the line. In my opinion, this is a book that is well worth the wait, especially if you are not as well versed in the background of animation as you would like. Even now, five years later, I continue to thumb through it fairly regularly.

Now I enjoy a lot of things in life, like Gaelic football, In The Mood: The Best of the Big Bands with Ken Jackson and of course, that feeling at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening. This book, in a way, confirmed for me that animation really is a passion of mine and after reading it, I felt renewed enthusiasm for the artform. Since then, I’ve joined ASIFA-East and have met many, many fine animators in addition to the usual famous faces.

After all that, I can safely say that the 1 to 3 month wait for shipping on Amazon.com is well worth it. No other book is put together as beautifully or with the passion that the writers and editor have for the artform.

Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Via Cinemablend.com

First of all, I like Wes Anderson; the Royal Tenenbaums being perhaps my favourite of all his work. He certainly is a unique fimmaker who makes makes movies that, at lest in this day and age, could be regarded as a bit off-beat.

Not that there is anything wrong with that of course. Variety is the spice of life and with all the usual bland fare and/or sequels that Hollywood is churning out these days, it is refreshing to know that there are still directors out there who believe in making great films.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of those rare films. In any given year, a stop-motion feature film would garner a lot of attention, mainly because there was a good chance it would be the only one! Not so for Fantastic Mr. Fox, who had to contend with the also excellent Coraline at the box office and the Academy Awards. Side note: Henry Sellick was attached to Fantastic Mr. Fox at the beginning but left to direct Coraline instead.

For starters, the animation is superb. Relying heavily on a colour palette of reds, yellows and browns, the landscape looks positively agricultural. An important aspect of a film set in the countryside. The use of stop motion was a risk that paid off handsomely. The style suits very well, much the same as it did in another Roald Dahl book, James and the Giant Peach.

In typical Wes Anderson style, the music isn’t quite what you would expect and although he does not have Quentin Tarantino levels of sound selection, it was nonetheless welcome to hear the Beach Boys pop up in the middle of the film.

As for the plot, having read the book and being very familiar with it as a result, my greatest fear was that Anderson would mess with the plot and turn it into something that is wasn’t. However, I made my mind up beforehand that I would forget about the book and concentrate on the plot as it was presented to me on screen.

Thankfully, things were not near as bad as I had anticipated. The extra bits that were added at the beginning and end of the movie tie in very well with the bit in the middle that comprises the actual book.

All is not perfect unfortunately. I cam away from Fantastic Mr. Fox feeling disappointed. It wasn’t the animation, or the plot or the music or even Wes Anderson’s unique directing style. Nope all of those were great. For me, it was the characters.

I identify very strongly with characters. I like to see characters that, while flawed in one way or another, are complete on the whole. Although I say above that I tried my best to forget the book in the course of watching the movie, it was hoe Wes Anderson interpreted the fox family and their cohort that did it for me.

Mr Fox is no longer the devoted husband and father, instead we see and egotistical, bitter middle-aged guy who goes back to steeling stuff for the sheer thrill and escape it brings him from his supposedly pathetic life. I find it very difficult to like a guy like that, even if he is voiced by George Clooney.

As for Mrs. Fox, she apparently regrets the whole ordeal! I mean c’mon, now she’s not likeable either. And don’t get me started on the kid, Ash. I know the kids don’t play much of a role in the book, but man, did I want to give that kid the spanking he deserved.

Ironically enough, the three farmers are as mean and nasty as you would expect from three men infatuated with killing a fox. It’s just that with a protagonist that is so close in character to them, it is hard to know who to root for.

So there you have it, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film that was lauded by the critics (who I also don’t particularly like) and while technically brilliant in all respects, falls on the critical component that ties it all together.

Review – Serious Business: The Art And Commerce Of Animation In America

I got this book for Christmas and although I read Googled first, I was excited to get into this immediately after. Covering the US animation scene from its beginnings to sometime in the late 1990s, I found Serious Business to be an interesting and enjoyable read.

Author Stefan Kanfer focuses more so on the Golden Age of animation than any other time. Perhaps because that was when animation was big business in Hollywood, when numerous major studios and Disney ran full-scale animation departments. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how the Fleischer Brothers got up and running in New York, or how Walt Disney spent his last few dollars on a 1st class train ticket to Los Angeles.

The book tends to read rather quickly after around 1950 or so. Although this in understandable given the downturn in the industry at the time. It was nice to see attention paid to studios such as UPA and the Hubleys as well as the various independent animators who sprouted up throughout the 60s and beyond.

Once we reach the 90s, things pick up again with the advent of the Simpsons and the creation of the three original Nicktoons. The book then somewhat bumbles along to the end in 1998 or so. Not that this detracts from the book, indeed, I am far more familiar with recent developments than those in the 30s, so unless you’re Jerry Beck and have a thorough knowledge of old cartoons, you are unlikely to be worried either.

Kanfer writes with a writing style that can be at times a little long-winded, but the book is never boring and with so much material to cover, the book is indeed dancing the line between covering to much yet covering too little.  At 264 pages, it could easily have been a bit longer, although Kanfer may have intended it to be this way, so as not to descend into the kind of tome one would expect a serious historian to have.

Serious Business is well worth a read, especially if, like myself, you were not as familiar with the beginnings of the animation industry as you would like. In conjunction with the Giant 600 Cartoon DVD boxset I also received, it is fair to say that the book indeed sparked my interest in old, cartoons long forgotten by the general public.

You can buy Serious Business: The Art And Commerce Of Animation In America From Betty Boop To Toy Story on Amazon.com

How to Train Your Dragon, in 3-D!!!!

Having read Gilligan’s advice over on the Retrospace blog yesterday, I’m going to try and up the ante over here, seeing as so far Fantazmigoriuh has been limping along. I update my tumblelog almost every day without fail but it’s more of an eclectic collection of stuff I come across as I “surf the net”…does that phrase seem stuck in 1995 or what, eh? So from now on, I will update this thing daily (except maybe Sundays, I do need a rest you know). Basically I’ll probably just grab one piece of animation news from the day before and comment on it, or indeed comment or review on movies that I have seen recently. Nothing to heavy of course, just a quick blurb with some nice photos. And should I ever score the winning goal, I will be sure to brag about it here!

So, last night we went to see Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon. I chose the 3-D version because I hadn’t gone to one before and I figured I’d give it a shot just for shits and giggles. Long story short, it ain’t worth it. And here’s why:

  • You have to buy the glasses. As for recycling them at the end, heck no. I paid $2 for these glasses, I’ll keep them thankyouverymuch.
  • They make the movie darker, well, darker and slightly yellower by my reckoning. Thumb down.
  • I counted a total of 2 (maybe 3) scenes where it was worth it. In other words, the rest of the movie it was barely noticeable.

At $13 a ticket, rest assured that was the last time I go to see a 3-D movie. There was a family of 8 in front of us. They must’ve been out nigh on $100 before snacks. If you have the choice, plump for the 2-D option and you’ll be much happier.

As for the movie itself, I was gobsmackingly shocked. For a Dreamwork’s picture, Dragon sets the gold standard. While it’s not PIXAR standard, it’s fairly darn close. The plot was certainly better than most DW picture’s have been (possibly because it is based on a book). So juts when I thought things were becoming predictable, the become unpredictable. I like  that.

Visuals were great, lovely design, plenty of colour. I love the character design. The Vikings have their charm while the kids look unique in the their own individual way. Notable is Asterid who dances the fine line between being a hard fighting tomboy and a girl with all the usual traits. On a related note, I’m glad they gave all the dragons a dose of intelligence. It really added to the movie and made me fall in love with them.

The only downside was the voice-acting, and when I say that, I mean Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel. He came off as a bit whiney and rather unsuited for the part. It didn’t ruin the film for me, but he did take some getting used to.

Overall, a fantastic movie that I would heartily recommend. I am sure they’re working on a  sequel already which will only cheapen this gem of an original, so enjoy it while you can!

PS: The music was fantastic as well and added to the experience a lot more than I had anticipated.