Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Boxtrolls

I could already tell from the way it was marketed, but it’s already obvious that The Boxtrolls, a likeable and funny film, will not do anywhere near as well as Laika’s previous films. While I can see there being life after Selick for the studio, what hooked people before was associations with Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. What The Boxtrolls needed was the kind of concept that immediately hooks people in, like Wall-E or Happy Feet. They needed something that kept the dark edge but still seemed accessible. A grimy film about ugly trolls who live underground with a hermit crab-like relationship with cardboard boxes may have a lot of gems in the actual execution – and indeed it does – but I am completely sure that fewer people will give it a chance than it deserves. If they had marketed it with the human characters more to the fore, as the main point of identification and even with some cute factor highlighted, it could have attracted more of a crowd. But the trolls themselves were very much where the campaign centred, and that felt to me like trying to sell Frozen on those funny little rock troll things. They may have an important place in the plot, but they’re not what an audience identifies with.

And that gets in the way of a cracking story full of very well-executed characters. It has a neat set-up that both gives us our hero and sets the antagonist’s actions into motion – though we have to assume the evil Mr Snatcher works extremely slowly for it to really work.

In the rather wonderful towering fantasy-English town of Cheesebridge, the curious little Boxtrolls live a nocturnal existence scavenging for bits of technology to put into their rather steampunk-ish lair. 

When a respected inventor vanishes and his son is taken by the Boxtrolls, the community begins to fear them – egged on by the nefarious Mr Snatcher, something of a tribute to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child catcher, and voiced with as much evil camp as Ben Kingsley can muster. Snatcher is the most dangerous kind of social climber, desperate to join the elite of Cheesebridge, who wear white hats and mingle to discuss governing the town over all the finest cheeses – and he will do anything for this goal. He is aided by three henchmen who are rather brilliantly rendered – one is utterly unhinged, but the other two, played by Nick Frost (for once having a larger role in a film than Simon Pegg) and Richard Ayoade (star of The IT Crowd), wrestle throughout the film with questions of morality and the ever-dwindling chance that they are in fact the good guys.

The child taken by the Boxtrolls, however, was not snatched away. He was given willingly by his father (Pegg), who was attacked by Snatcher, demanding he invent a killing machine. Adopted by the Boxtrolls, he grows up believing he is one of them, even getting a name like theirs, based on what is on his box – ‘Eggs’. Eggs is joined by the likes of ‘Fish’, ‘Shoe’ and, indeed, ‘Fragile’. When he is somewhat grown but Snatcher has succeeded in capturing almost all the Boxtrolls, he has a chance encounter with Winifred, daughter of the highest-ranking official in town. Winnie (Elle Fanning, spirited as ever) has something of a fixation on blood and gore, a character quirk that sits just on the right side of contrived, and resents how her father is much more interested in cheese than in her. Together, they put together a plan to rescue Eggs’ adoptive family – but ultimately it is Snatcher’s own plan reaching fruition and then finally him getting everything he ever wanted that proves his undoing.

Some of the scenes here are the funniest in any animated film I’ve seen in a very long while. Eggs trying to pass in high society is just the right balance of embarrassing, disgusting, adorable and humbling. I loved the henchmen’s banter, and while I don’t usually like that kind of humour, I enjoyed the closing stinger of Ayoade’s character musing about his existence. Snatcher was animated with such grotesque relish, and I very much enjoyed the steampunk elements. Laika also seem to be the only American animation studio alongside Dreamworks-in-serious-mode who seem to be able to get adolescent characters right these days: Eggs and Winnie are not only a very enjoyable odd couple, they are both very sympathetic in their own right, and Eggs in particular I found extremely cute – helped by a natural sort of performance with an estuary twang from Isaac Hempstead-Wright, better-known as Bran from Game of Thrones.

For a film animated in Portland, this was a remarkably British sort of a film, from its setting to its cast, and with that comes something of an appreciation for the dirty and grimy, as well as a celebration of quiet, unassuming hard work and a dislike of those who pull others down to advance themselves. That this also has a neat story with likeable characters attached to it, as well as some really stunning visuals and incredibly smooth stop-motion, and you have a highly enjoyable film. But I can’t help but feel it just wasn’t the film Laika needed just yet: they needed a couple more to really make themselves a household name with more obvious ideas first, and then this could be a follow-up. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

劇場版 HUNTER×HUNTER ザラストミッション/ HunterxHunter movie 2: The Last Mission

The first HunterxHunter movie from Madhouse, Phantom Rouge, was a slight mis-fire, but felt like an event. There was a Togashi-approved backstory for Kurapika, complete with original tie-in manga chapters in the midst of one of the longer recent hiatusxhiatuses. The Ryodan showed up and lots of them looked awesome, and we even got more from the deceased Uvogin. I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend the film, sloppy as it was, but it was enjoyable.

The second film feels far less exciting, far less of an event. It’s a very simple, rather dull story and there are no surprise cast members – though there is a funny little wordless cameo from a certain vice-chairman of the Hunter Association, messing with everyone as usual. The new characters introduced aren’t even as interesting as the last film’s uninteresting baddie, and there’s no cute cross-dressing Gothic Lolita girl to offset these ones either.

After Greed Island but before the Chimera Ant arc, Gon and Killua return to the Celestial Tower to see the show they’re putting on – a big tournament between all the floor masters. In a nice touch, it seems Zushi has risen up to become one of them, allowing for a reunion with Wing and Biscuit. Kurapika is still working for the Nostrades, and as Neon is watching the tournament, he is there too.

But the tournament never happens. An old adversary of Netero’s appears to interrupt proceedings, take control of the tower and kidnap Netero using a formidable power. Why they don’t just kill him and what they actually hope to do is a little unclear. But the interlopers are using an alternative to nen called ‘on’, which gives them great power but at the cost of their lives, like most dark powers in anime that are effectively doping analogies. Hisoka watches from the wings, as well as helping get Leorio involved, and things are neatly arranged so that there’s one strong opponent for Killua and Gon, one for Kurapika and Leorio, and then a final boss. Despite the moment where inexplicably everything changes because Killua pierces through the unbreakable barrier and touches the dead girl on the shoulder to free her from being dead, mostly the combat scenes are flashy and satisfying. There’s lots of fancy moves, explosions and heartfelt speeches as Gon once again prepares to sacrifice himself for those close to him. Very sweet.

But ultimately this comes over as a fight about nothing much, to prevent nothing much, which doesn’t improve the world or enrich the characters in any real way. It’s a fight in a big tower, and feels inconsequential. It’s very much standard shounen anime filler, and that’s a shame because HunterxHunter only really succeeds where it shows that it is atypical and idiosyncratic. This could easily have been a sub-par movie version from any of the Big Three.

The Madhouse anime is winding up soon, because Togashi hasn’t finished the next arc so they’re not confident in beginning it – I assume. That’s a real shame, because I love to watch it. Conceivably, I should have saved this for after the series ends, and I want something to fill the void. But I’m quite glad I didn’t leave this to be my final viewing experience of the Madhouse adaptation (bar future releases based on the current arc). Because ultimately the word I would use to describe the film as a whole would be ‘anticlimactic’. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014


Much as I love Rio de Janeiro, I was averse to Rio. I didn’t like the trailer. I didn’t like the ugly design of the main birds, or the rather whitewashed, Hollywood vision of Brazil where everyone is a party animal and nobody is geeky or awkward.

Well, the birds are ugly and this Brazil can still be called somewhat whitewashed, there are geeky Brazilians here, and much to recommend the film. Yes, probably I would have preferred the Pixar project with the blue-footed newts that was cancelled when they realised their plot was too similar to this one – and didn’t want to be the Dreamworks of Antz, Shark Tale and the rest. But in its own right, Rio has much to recommend it – not least of which being the awesome soundtrack.

This is a classic fish-out-of-water romance, but with birds. Blue is a rare Blue Macaw – the last male of his species. As a chick, he was taken from the Brazilian forest by smugglers and was to be sold as a pet – but fell off the back of a truck and was taken in by a nice geeky girl who runs a bookshop. When a Brazilian scientist comes to whisk the two of them to Brazil to meet the last female of the species, but smugglers once again get in the way, and the birds end up not only chained together, but out in the wild with an evil cockatoo on their feathery tails.

Once again, though, just as with Bolt the film doesn’t feel like it really has the capacity to move the audience. Though the stakes are the future of a species, that never feels like it’s in question. There’s no real sense of danger, nor of triumph. And the way Blue having to learn to fly is signposted so heavily all through the film just feels incredibly clumsy.

But there are a few scenes that make the whole thing worthwhile – when the birds all burst into song and Jewel has a solo verse, the way Carnaval itself is rendered, and some of the shots of Rio.

But it certainly could have been better – and more satisfying. And there’s something deeply amusing about how they tried to render two birds with hooked beaks kissing.  

Bolt (2008)

Bolt appealed to me when it had its cinema run, but like so many animated films, sadly I didn’t actually get around to going to the cinema to see it. Signalling effectively the transition of Disney Animations from ailing production house playing second fiddle to Pixar to newly accomplished CGI studio in its own right with Pixar mastermind John Lasseter at the helm, Bolt had a lot to prove – but didn’t make anything like the impact of Wreck-it Ralph or Frozen...or, indeed, Tangled. But for all that it’s likely going to be consigned with Meet the Robinsons to ‘minor feature’ status for all time, it was a whole lot better than, say, Cars II. And I liked Cars II much more than most people did.

Something like Homeward Bound meets Finding Nemo with the delusional-ideas-of-own-abilities comedy from the first Toy Story, cute animal story Bolt has a bit of everything – comedy, action, sweetness, emotionally heavy notes, and quite a few sharp jibes at Hollywood, including an especially cutting and brilliant depiction of a manipulative agent. 

The story is that there is a successful TV show called Bolt, which is rather like Inspector Gadget but with Gadget and Brain merged. A little girl – who is even called Penny – gets into scrapes because a terrorist organisation is after her, but has her highly-intelligent dog for protection. Fortunately, Bolt has been enhanced to gain super speed, amazing strength, heat ray eyes and an incredibly destructive superbark. The real Bolt is the star of the show with his real owner, who wishes he could just be a normal dog – but that’s not possible because the director has mandated the dog truly believe what he’s doing is real. In other words, Bolt truly thinks he has amazing powers, and has an incredibly sheltered life – even for a dog.

The show isn’t doing so well, so a network executive demands darker stories – which include a cliffhanger. Leaving Bolt genuinely distressed for his owner leads to him escaping in a rescue attempt and, as seems usual practice in this sort of story, getting knocked out in the back of a delivery van and being taken right across the States.

Bolt at first believes himself depowered by the mysterious properties of styrofoam, but undeterred, goes to look for Penny. He asks some pigeons, who lead him to a cat that has been extorting them – cats being the underlings of the bad guy in the TV show. This alley cat – who turns out to have a genuinely very sweet yet understated backstory involving being left behind when her human family walks away, leaving her to fend for herself after having been declawed, is forced along for the ride, and after picking up a crazy fanboy hamster (who never seems to miss HIS old human for a second), they make their way to Hollywood. But will there still be a place for Bolt?

In animation terms, it’s just a little dated and clunky now, especially the human characters, but the animal designs are very strong and the acting matches well. I had no idea that the actors were John Travolta and Miley Cyrus until the film ended, but both suited their roles extremely well. Also fun to see Malcolm McDowell voicing yet another crazy English bad guy.

I don’t know why Bolt wasn’t more of a success. I guess that it needed a bit more scale to really draw in the crowds, but it benefited from keeping things small and simple – in contrast to its show-within-a-show. The humour was good, the music was good, the emotional parts were good and the payoff was good. I guess it was just that little bit too straightforward to stand out in the crowded market of kids’ American CG animated feature films. 

Mr Peabody & Sherman

Despite quite a prominent advertising campaign – including dominating the Regent Street lights – nobody I know went to see Mr Peabody & Sherman. Honestly, I’m not surprised – if the characters are popularly known in the States from their old cartoon appearance (I think in Rocky and Bullwinkle?), they never made it over to the UK, and honestly they’re very hard to like. A know-it-all dog with incredible physical dexterity and a seven-year-old who is a long way from cute. There’s nothing about their adventures travelling through time that comes over as appealing or likely to strike a personal chord, and other than a few rather excellent moments near the end when different versions of the main characters end up in the same place at the same time, the film bears that out. It’s not very interesting, has very few laughs, doesn’t have appealing characters or designs, and overall is certainly one of the least impressive of Dreamworks’ films.

The story follows a dog who just happens to be a super-genius named Mr Peabody. Despite having invented a great many things – including some very silly ones – what he wants most is a family, and a home. So he adopts a young boy. Seeking to educate young Sherman, he begins to take him to different periods in a ‘wayback machine’ to show him first-hand some of the most significant events in history. Of course, this is all loose and slapdash for the sake of comedy – Sherman points out that the George Washington story with the cherry tree is apocryphal, yet we have the French Revolution depicted as having started as a direct result of Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake’.

On his first day of school – wow, American kids start their education late – Sherman’s grounding in history is evident as he can answer all the questions, upsetting a girl called Penny by correcting her. She is a really nasty piece of work – something the film’s redemption arc for her never comes close to satisfactorily undoing, even if she’s seven – and bullies Sherman in a more literal ‘racism’ than that of real life. He was adopted by a dog, so he must be a dog too, she reasons.

The two of them end up fighting and Sherman bites Penny. This leads to trouble – because a large bullish woman who is a pleasing mix of Miss Trunchbull and the Queen of Hearts who works for child services wants to take Sherman away. Now, since when we meet them, Mr Peabody is putting Sherman in mortal danger during the Bloody Revolution and escapes only by igniting a sewer full of methane which really should have killed the people pursuing them, she may have a point. Nonetheless, Mr Peabody arranges for Penny’s family to be there on the night of the inspection of his suitability as a parent, so that the kids can make up. And of course, the kids end up getting into the time machine.

The adventure takes them to Ancient Egypt, where Penny almost marries Tutankhamen, then to Renaissance Italy for frivolities with Da Vinci to recharge, and then after a mishap with a wormhole back to Ancient Greece and into the Trojan Horse. Of course all of these time periods are replete with stereotypes, though not all of them national: witness Agamemnon as a big beefy jock. There’s not much that is very funny or engaging here – through mortal peril and too many poop jokes, Sherman and Penny get closer and puppy love is soon very evident.

Things get better once an emergency leads the kids to go back to shortly before they left, resulting in the classic two-in-the-same-timeline matter-antimatter paradox and the best joke in the film being a decidedly non-kid-friendly one about what Mr Peabody must stop Sherman doing in this situation. Soon the film’s big climax explodes into silliness with space-time collapsing and going very fast somehow providing an equal and opposite gravitational reaction to a tear in the continuum, and Agamemnon saying ‘Don’t taze me bro’, which I can’t see anyone getting in twenty years’ time.

This film just doesn’t have the heart it needs. It’s fundamentally a story about a father who loves his son, but it never really realises that, or makes it touching. It quite often comes close but it doesn’t quite get there. So all the snappy dialogue and impressive action sequences and silly minor characters can’t come together in something that can move the audience. So that is why it falls short – and why I’m convinced that Dreamworks are much better-off doing films with a serious fantasy premise and inserting humour than silly films and trying to insert sentiment.  

I seriously doubt Rob Minkoff will ever do anything again that comes even close to what he accomplished with The Lion King. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

続夏目友人帳 / Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou / Natsume's Book of Friends Continued (Season 2)

Perhaps appropriately, given that it is the only season to be titled as a continuation rather than being given a number like a sequel, Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou is the only time a season starts without an opening episode that repeats the exposition to explain the premise...which is why I didn’t notice when I started watching season 4 that it wasn’t the beginning.

The second season is really more of the same. It kicks off with an imitator of Nyanko-sensei, who turns out to be a powerful youkai, and generally the series goes on exploring Natsume’s situation and developing his relationships extremely slowly. We also begin to have the theme of everyone else but Natsume wanting to choose a side – abandoning humanity to spend time with the youkai like his grandmother Reiko, or treating them like tools or animals like the exorcists. 

There are even humans who will use a youkai as bait to catch another. Natsume spends more time with the famous actor Natori – including a hot springs trip with him, a new level of homoeroticism. Otherwise, things are generally episodic again – Natsume might buy a painting that turns out to be the object of obsession of a kind-hearted spirit, or meet an old lady who met a mermaid in her youth and fears she cursed another with immortality.

Though the cute fox boy is not back in this season, he will return in the next. Instead, there’s a little dragon-boy who hatches from an egg who is quite absurdly cute – especially as powerful demons want to eat him – and another somewhat emo young spirit whose name was taken by Reiko and tied to a tree. 

There’s also a very interesting young boy called Kai who is prickly but of course warms to Natsume – and in the two-part season finale turns out to be more than he initially appears. His design seems almost a nod to Mushishi, but grey/white hair and a fringe that covers one eye isn’t exactly unique. It’s a little unconvincing how he departs to neatly round off the story, but it was interesting to watch nonetheless.

As the series gets closer to the present day, the animation marginally improves, but it’s never really what one would call stunning. Still, Brain’s Base get the art style nicely, and a slightly less bombastic style suits it.
The only thing I’m starting to find unconvincing is that Natsume’s supposed spiritual power manifests generally in one punch to the face whenever he’s in trouble, and that always seems to sort out even the most terrifying threat – before, of course, Nyanko-sensei intervenes.

I suspect that looking back, I’ll consider season 2 the most underwhelming of the Natsume Yuujinchou seasons, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless, and will happily continue with season 3.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Pudgy & Grunge, from Mrs. Doubtfire

Even for my blog, this is a slightly odd thing to talk about. But it is an interesting little nugget of animation that, with Robin Williams’ recent passing, I have been thinking about. I wanted to write something as a bit of a tribute to Williams, and since I don’t think thoughts on Robots would be that, I’ve opted for this.

I loved this opening. My brother and I would watch the film a lot when I was a child, and I would happily sing along to the snippets of ‘Large al Factotum’ that open the short. Though I knew that legendary Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones made the animation seen, only today did I find out a full five minutes of animation were made. True, the sequence ends when the Doubtfire script demands it, but this is still a very interesting little nugget.

Clearly a parody of Sylvester & Tweetie, the short’s slapstick has more in common with Jones’ run on Tom & Jerry. It’s gleefully classic – the cat wants to eat the bird, so chases him, but ends up injuring himself or letting himself get distracted.

But of course overlaid on this is the fun of Robin Williams taking on the roles of both cat and mouse. The cat’s smooth voice has something of the voice Jeremy Irons would later give Scar, especially saying ‘I think not’ – a line I’d like to believe was a reference to the sinister cat in Watership Down, unlikely as I know that to be. His Pudgy is irritating, but hey – is that not perfect given Mel Blanc’s delivery of Tweetie’s lines?

It may seem odd now, but in 1993 Williams’ stature as a voice actor was freshly-established after his bravura performance in Aladdin and his contribution to FernGully. I feel that in a small way, this film made the image of him as a vocal performer even more solid in the public’s mind. He was incredibly skilled and if you pretend hard enough, this short can almost make you feel he was there in the golden age...