Saturday, March 1, 2014

Animated Short and Feature Films

This is the last genre article and the last article at all before best picture talk! I'm excited. I also just have to finish Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom because - in the interest of full disclosure - no, I didn't actually watch it before writing about its original song (nor had I watched Despicable Me 2). After that, I may or may not watch Alone Yet Not Alone whose nomination was rescinded and The Missing Picture which won't be available for a couple weeks yet. The end is so close I can taste it! Wait, no, that's the lingering taste of candy and energy drinks I've been consuming in high quantities to get through Oscar Quest 2014.

Short Film, Animated:
  • Feral
  • Get a Horse!
  • Mr. Hublot
  • Tsukumo (Possessions)
  • Room on the Broom

Feral explores a small segment of a feral child's days being reared in human society. The world is full of rich contrasts and is appreciably desaturated. Faces and places are generally stripped of much feature or detail allowing them to be filled in as you wish or don't. We get to explore man's attempt for control, the inherent wildness of things, and what happens when those two natures clash. It's swift and touching, though I'm afraid the creators weren't ever quite able to tame the story.

Get a Horse! I spoke very briefly of before, and my feelings still stand. For someone who grew up watching animation much older than themselves for hours on end, it was a real treat to see old steamboat Mickey and company explore their slapstick antics in very honest black and white. This is a short that's meant for theater as it starts in traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and as the characters break out of the 2D black and white celluloid into full color CGI, the theater curtains pull back* to reveal a broader widescreen format over the theater stage. Get a Horse! is clever, inventive, and, above all, funny. It may not be the best thing since sliced bread, but it's easily the best Mickey since Croissant de Triomphe and arguably surpasses even that.

Mr. Hublot explores the world of a mechanical worker in a mechanical world who adopts a dog and how that changes his OCD oriented life. You can call it steampunk, but it's not steampunk; not every parachronism involving gears is steampunk. The film and its characters are cute and endearing, the world engaging and has a design vaguely reminiscent of 9's amalgamation of familiar objects into believable automatons. Like 9, it has "such potential, such promise" but never quite realizes them.

Tsukumo is a real treat of animation and leaves me eager to find the rest of the Short Peace collection it was part of. Good luck finding it**. The premise here is a weary traveller stopping off in a shrine inhabited by common items discarded for being broken. The items, however, have gained souls in accordance with legend. The traveller falls asleep and wakes to a surreal nightmare of decrepit, living objects. Instead of being haunted, though, he unpacks his traveller's pack and mends item after item, creature after creature. There's a lot to be said about the themes of waste and repair as well as maintenance of souls. The animation is lush, the colors vibrant, the textures and patterns mesmerizing. There is a gripe to be made of the 2D backgrounds and the CGI characters never quite meshing. Though it's distracting, it is never truly detrimental. Tsukumo is striking visually, creatively, and metaphorically.

Capitalizing on the success of transforming Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo, Max Lang makes another go of it this time reimagining Room on the Broom. It's a visually compelling animation, but it runs long at twenty-five minutes (eleven longer than the second-longest Tsukumo). That length is magnified by a repetitive, predictable script. The storytelling never justifies the running time, and that's an indictment on them both regardless of how charming the rest is. Room on the Broom simply never gets off the ground.

Apparently some venues didn't show the animated shorts in conjunction with the live action shorts as the Detroit Film Theater did. Instead, the animated shorts presentation was padded by three other films there were all supposed also-rans. One of which has apparently stuck out to people. I do hope I can find a copy of The Missing Scarf soon as I've heard it's the best of the bunch.

There are a couple standouts for storytelling and a couple for animation, but the only one that masters the combination is Tsukumo with it's rich imagery and thoughtful premise. It's an energetic and haunting film that plays on the mischief of things as spirits in charming and memorable ways.

Animated Feature Film:
  • The Croods
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Ernest et Célestine (Ernest and Celestine)
  • Frozen
  • Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)

Have you seen Ice Age: The Meltdown or possibly Ice Age: Continental Drift and want to see a less endearing version starring cavepeople? Then watch The Croods. I have a personal rule to like Nicholas Cage just to make people mad, and fortunately he's one of the few highlights here. One of my other personal rules is to like everything Catherine Keener is attached to. After a year seeing her in this, Captain Phillips, and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, I'm beginning to seriously reconsider that rule.

Despicable Me 2 is as endearing as The Croods is not. I had been warned that it doesn't match up to the original, and it doesn't, but it's still a joy to see. It takes turns being adorable, amusing, and clever, but for all it's high points, the plot just doesn't match the first. The characters never have the real peril or heartbreak of Despicable Me, and that lack of danger serves to leave the rest of the film as less engaging. That lack of contrast severely diminishes the impact of the high points. The end sees it following a dangerous path of children's movies of increasing the cast with every film. Like Ice Age before it, we'll get to see the Despicable Me franchise devolve as screentime is divided between more and more characters. That's a shame because the first was so precious.

You'll be forgiven if you look at these film stills and are confused into thinking you picked up something your grandmother gave you when you were five years old. Ernest et Célestine is adapted from a series of children's books by the same name. It's rich and endearing. The use of watercolor backgrounds throughout meshes seamlessly with characters that are hand drawn yet computer animated. Watching Célestine devote herself to her art, dipping into watercolors throughout the film gives the film a mild, self-referential feel that really feeds into director Benjamen Renner's desire for the viewer to "feel like they could just pick up a piece of paper and do the same...just draw." The watercolors fading to the edge of the screen acts like beautiful vignetting that I see in much of my favorite watercolor painting (especially as it lies unmatted). The music is a mesmerizing pleasure fitting the imagery fantastically. The story is rich dealing at its forefront with intense and deep held prejudices between the bears and mice, something Renner likens to a Romeo and Juliet of friendship. It's a special pleasure with some important if obvious lessons on tolerance and pursuance of dreams. Those morals are never bludgeoned into the viewer but made just obvious enough for children. It's a bonus to me as well that it's seemingly one of the few children's films - and certainly the only animated feature nominated this year - to be devoid of a love story or even a stereotypically "sexy" character. It's a beautiful tale perfect for daydreamers of every age.

From the very first scene of Frozen, it's clear you'll be in for a visual treat. The lighting effects on display are simply astounding, featured best, perhaps, during the sequence for "Let It Go." It's a beautiful and compelling film dealing admirably with the othering Elsa faces. I suppose it's for the best that the rest of us shunned by polite society can't run to the mountains and build our own castles, because gravy knows I would have ages ago. Screw you all. I can watch movies and post on the internet about them from there. I don't though, because what I can't do is sing like Idina Menzel. She is a force in Frozen and lends a lot of power to the film. The songs are enchanting and the performances all around are sound***. Despite Anna's boy-crazy nature, it's a pleasure to see a Disney film give screentime to a true love that is not romantic in nature. While the bug-eyed and wasp-waisted lead women are a boon to DeviantArt pornographers everywhere (link is not explicit), it does feel like a bit too much. Disney's princesses have been moving more and more in that direction, but Merida seemed to have taken a small step in a different direction. All told, it's a really solid film with some really touching moments, stunning visuals, and memorable music.

Kaze Tachinu is the only movie here that doesn't feel like a children's movie. Miyazaki's work, while often whimsical, has some very adult themes, and of all his films, Kaze Tachinu is the least given to whimsy. The film is rooted in the reality of Jiro Hirokoshi's work for the Japanese military, though much of the rest of the story is fictional. The most fantastical the film gets is in Jiro's seamless dream sequences, but even then there's nothing more unrealistic than tri-planes carrying dozens of passengers. His work with light, transparency, and reflection is nothing short of remarkable. His backgrounds are amazingly detailed as well as mesmerizingly animated. Static is a concept Miyazaki is loathe to employ. Here we see Miyazaki put artistic pursuit at the forefront of the film with a main character who struggles between artistic integrity and the reality of working on war machines to pay the bills. Too does he have to wonder if all his work was worth it as his devotion took valuable time from the woman he loved as well as killed countless others. While Kaze Tachinu is skewed to a more mature audience than is the norm for Miyazaki, it's still a magical flight of fancy.

I essentially already told you I prefer foreign film to American, so it should come as no surprise that this comes down to Ernest et Célestine and Kaze Tachinu for me. I don't doubt Frozen will win. It's a very good film and deserves recognition as such. It just doesn't stand up against either of the foreign nominations. Where Kaze Tachinu is film about the past that should live long into the future, Ernest et Célestine is a film that should be passed from parent to child like a favorite Little Golden book. They couldn't be more divergent in their most appropriate audiences, but they both hold a phenomenally wide breadth of overlap.

Don't make me choose. Please.

Hirokoshi once said, "All I wanted to do was make something beautiful." And he did. His A5M and A6M Zeroes**** were the most beautiful birds over the Pacific for a time. Miyazaki, too, has managed to make something that should be talked about for ages. The only thing I can hold against it is an uninspired voice-over cast. No, I couldn't see the subtitled version which I'm sure is far better. I can't directly compare the version of Ernest et Célestine I saw, though, as that was subtitled and fantastically done. The English version anchored by Forest Whitaker and Mackenzie Foy looks quite delightful. I am loathe to split hairs in this way, especially with such limited information. I hate judging a film for it's dubbed version and not in its original format, but that's what this has come down to. Ernest et Célestine finishes with Célestine asking, "Are we going to tell other stories?" and Ernest answering, "A lot of them, Celestine. A lot of them."

I do so hope.

*You can watch the full short at this link, but I really don't recommend watching it in this low quality, sidelong filming.
**The current going rate for a copy of the DVD on Amazon is over $50, and there seems to be no online release of either Short Peace or Tsukumo.
***Hah, two unintentional puns in one sentence!
****Most people think this film is about the A6M Zero, which, if I saw correctly, is featured at the very end of the film. The inverted gull-wing shape Hirokoshi works on throughout, though, is undeniably the A5M. To note, when Hirokoshi laments that none of them landed, he's referencing the regular use of A5Ms as kamikaze planes at the end of the war.

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