Friday, 30 September 2011

デジモンアドベンチャー / Digimon Adventure (Digimon movie 1)

I watched the first Digimon movie in June 2007, and even then I’d had it sitting about for about three years before I got around to it, thinking I’d see the series first. No need, though – it was, after all, only twenty minutes long. Besides, it was the first Digimon anime to get released, on March 6, 1999 - one day before the series began.

I was very surprised by it, in fact. I had expected a silly, cheap, babyish piece of animation much like the first episodes of the series. Instead, I found that it was much closer in mood to Tonari no Totoro than to the series, and nicely animated too. It would be something you could show to non-anime fans with little embarrassment, I wrote – unlike the first episodes of the main Digimon series.

And besides, it was the directorial debut of Mamoru Hosoda, acclaimed director of Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – not that I knew this at the time. And while the Digimon series is ultimately about crudely-drawn juveniles who get cutesy little monsters that eventually evolve – or, rather, digivolve – to fearsome fighting machines in a fantasy world, this is about two very little kids who find and care for a mysterious creature that eventually helps them avert a disaster in their own city. It’s got the kind of charm and humanity it took the series itself many months to find, and all in a very short running-time. Oh, and let us not forget the superb use of Ravel to accompany the action.

It’s a little unfair to treat the first Digimon movie as a pilot for the series, because in all honesty, it’s better than Digimon generation 1 ever managed to be again. If the entire series had been like this, we would have had a very, very different series overall.

(Expanded from original impressions written 8.6.07)

Thursday, 29 September 2011


I started watching .hack//Sign back in 2005, and it was very nearly one of the very first anime I abandoned. I didn’t write out my impressions of it back then, but I finished it months later in 2006, and the few mentions I gave it in my journal were unimpressed: ‘It just doesn’t interest me.’ ‘Maybe it’ll get better towards the end.’ ‘Just not cutting it’.

But finish it I did, and the OVA episodes – eventually. Always hoping that the series would become one I loved at the end. Sadly, it never did. There were some superb ideas here, some very memorable concepts and strong images, but ultimately it’s undermined by weak storytelling and horribly slow pacing.

I genuinely expected to love .hack//Sign. It really seemed like my sort of thing, visually, conceptually and in terms of its ambition. In an online MMORPG called The World, a young ‘wavemaster’ called Tsukasa cannot log out of the game. Despite his extreme shyness and unwillingness to form any sort of human connection, other players gravitate towards him, both those seeking to help find out why the player cannot log out and those who feel he is linked with a mysterious game-changing ‘Key of the Twilight’, which for whatever reason Tsukasa’s friends decide will allow him to log out. It soon transpires that Tsukasa’s player in the real world is comatose, and is very possibly forced into unconsciousness by the game itself – but just possibly, it is Tsukasa’s own frame of mind and not an outside influence that keeps him there.

There is much to like here. The MMORPG setting may be very familiar now, and ideas from .hack recur in, for example, ½ Prince and the comedy Master of Epic, but with its 2002 release, .hack//Sign was doing it much earlier and with admirable seriousness. The look of the piece is very nice, with character designs by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, who had also produced the iconic designs for Evangelion, and went on to create the characters for Hosoda Mamoru’s films. There was a lot to like about Tsukasa, with Saiga Mitsuki doing her definitive softly-spoken boy voice (see also: Junior in R.O.D. the TV, Souji in Peacemaker Kurogane) and a great outfit, so that even if it seems that having a protagonist whose character is defined by negativity and an unwillingness to trust others is a bad idea, he’s both sympathetic and relatable. Those who surround him, from the cheerful but vulnerable leader Subaru to the strong and dependable Bear, have their own interesting stories, and the relationship between real person and online persona is very interesting. It’s nice seeing characters with ambiguous motives, like BT and Crim, and while frankly, we all know that if this game were real, there would be a whole lot of ‘pwnd lol’ and ‘buy gold from VVVVVV.skamz.C0M!!!!!!!!!’, the appeal of an MMORPG setting is really that you can play it as a straight fantasy with a twist.

The trouble is that the attempt to make the series high-minded and deep made it extremely dully. Only when the series lowered itself to conventional episodic plots, like when Tsukasa has to look after a baby cow, can it be called entertaining. There are good concepts here, but let’s face it, they’re not exactly revelatory: it’s no surprise to learn Tsukasa’s real-life identity, or the reasons for her negativity. It’s predictable and certainly doesn’t fill up the minutes with compelling dialogue. Too much time is devoted to character debating morality and existentialism using their Heavy Axe Warriors in an online game, and while the scenes with Tsukasa, a strange bed and a flying clown-cat are supposed to be intriguing and symbolic, they far outstay their welcome and the result is boredom.

.hack//Sign had great ideas and a memorable concept. It just needed to be written less like it was patting its own back for being oh-so-smart and more like it had something interesting to show its audience. There is a middle-ground.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

天体戦士サンレッド/ Tentai Senshi Sanreddo / Astro Fighter Sunred

It took a long while to finish watching Sunred, because I waited months for the original subtitling group to release the final two episodes of the second season. Eventually, I decided to just track down the alternatives for my last two morsels of pleasure. Because short though its episodes were, Tentai Senshi Sunred has been one of the funniest and most likeable series I’ve ever seen, and a great companion piece to Detroit Metal City, as both began airing in 2008 and packaged themselves in short, snappy 10-minute episodes. Both were rather successful, although DMC seems to have struck much more of a chord in English-speaking fandom, perhaps being rather more immediate. Sunred is smarter, though, and has the honour of having its brilliant pastiche of an opening immortalised in my favourite Nico Douga medley.

Indeed, everything that Sunred is comes from pastiche, and a brilliant reversal. The starting point is the world of sentai TV shows, the best-known in the West being the heavily-adapted Power Rangers – heroes in colourful suits and masks battle against superpowered monsters sent by an evil organisation seeking to take over the world. But the twist in Sunred is that the cartoony premise is then overlaid by a heavy dose of real life: what does the evil organisation do when not in battle? How do they make a living and what happens to monsters outside the battles? What if they all live together in a big house, trying to get ordinary jobs? What if they live near one of the heroes and treat him as a neighbour and work colleague? What if he has a troubled relationship with his girlfriend, while the head of the evil organisation is actually a lovely guy who seems to be much better at understanding her than the hero is?

Sunred is often portrayed as a sentai story in which the good guy is a bullying oaf and the bad guys are all good people who happen to look like monsters, but that would be greatly oversimplifying. They’re all just ordinary people, with their faults and their virtues, and their mistakes cause them problems, whoever they are. And the result is utterly hilarious.

Many of the jokes revolve around the nature of the monsters. There are the ones who just look absurd or have very one-note powers for a quick gag or two. There are the ones who are completely useless, like the guy who is just a piece of prawn for sushi, or the ones who get laughs from trying to act tough when they are totally adorable and impossible to take seriously. But the real reason Sunred works so well is that most of the humour works regardless of the setting. With the relationship between Red and the main antagonist Vamp-sama, for example, the absurdity of the fact that these two archetypes are squabbling over cooking or how to go about doing chores is only an additional layer on what is already genuinely funny dialogue. That’s why Sunred is so good – it is simply good writing.

I will always remember Sunred with fondness. I’m even tempted to one day go to see Kawasaki, the city in which the story is set. It’s not hard to reach from Tokyo, after all, the two cities barely being separate entities – if you’re in Shibuya, for example, you’re about the same distance from the series’ beloved Mizonokuchi as from, say, Akihabara or Ueno.

Monday, 26 September 2011

デッドマンワンダーランド/ Deadman Wonderland

Deadman Wonderland is one of my favourite manga of the past few years, although admittedly I haven’t picked up all that many lately. There was an interesting link here with the anime Eureka Seven, which was adapted during production by the mangaka duo Kataoka Jinsei (story) and Kondou Kazuma (art) for Shounen Ace. When that series came to an end, Kataoka and Kondou were given a chance to make their own story, and the result was Deadman Wonderland. I like that - two artists given a chance to develop from adapting another’s work to flourishing on their own, and Deadman Wonderland is an excellent story in its own right. And while the character designs and something of the main relationship between a young, naïve boy and a girl with hidden powers hark back to Eureka Seven, the series itself feels very different from something the latter’s chief writer Satou Dai would write. There’s something of a juvenile immaturity about the first few chapters, but the title settles into something clever, dark and full of interesting characters.

So I was pleased when I heard that an anime adaptation was being made. It seemed to me a great time to release something like this, violent and grim but with more relatable characters and genuinely smart plot elements than the likes of Higurashi or High School of the Dead. And so Deadman Wonderland was released with slick animation from Manglobe – albeit not so impressive as on their previous series like Ergo Proxy or Samurai Champloo (both, incidentally, Satou Dai-linked projects) – and a great opening song only slightly marred by the singer getting a bit over-excited at the end. It seemed well-received, OVA releases were announced before the series even began to air, and word-of-mouth was very positive. Personally, I objected only to the casting of Paku Romi as Ganta – her well-known voice (for roles such as Edward Elric, Hitsugaya, Ueki etc) is a little rougher than I ever imagined Ganta’s - but I soon grew to accept her acting without finding it inappropriate, and she delivered a good performance particularly at Ganta’s most vulnerable moments.

But the problem was that Deadman Wonderland needed a nice, extended adaptation. It needed a good long run – 52 episodes would be about right. What we got was 12 too-short episodes, covering about the amount of manga I felt the creators had needed to find their voice and start making the story really strong. The story covers the exposition and the first major conflict: young Igurashi Ganta’s entire class is butchered by a mysterious ‘red man’, leaving only him alive. Trusting in a lawyer Enzai-style, he is framed for the killings and incarcerated in the bizarre Deadman Wonderland – a prison modelled on a theme park, where convicts are forced to partake in deadly games for the entertainment of the public, an endeavour so successful the institution can fund itself. There, he not only discovers his own mysterious power, but is befriended by a very strange girl who he half-remembers from his early childhood, and may or may not be a regular inmate. His abilities soon lead him to discover a hidden underworld in this prison, where those with odd powers are forced to fight one another – sometimes to the death. Will he be forced to submit, or will he be accepted by the resistance movement?

Quite a lot for twelve episodes, I grant you – but it’s really only after the attempted uprising that the manga gets really gripping. I remember reading the chapters surrounding Owl and thinking they were a bit rushed, but that things improved drastically just afterwards. On one hand, the chapters focusing on him becoming the final climax of the anime gave those events the gravitas they needed to work even better than in the manga. On the other, though, this is a series that ends just as it is really beginning.

I know there is more, but I am worried we will see only the OVAs and no more. The problem with OVAs is that oftentimes they signal the end of an anime’s televised presence – although that’s certainly not always the case (witness Maria-sama ga Miteru, for example). If Deadman Wonderland is allowed to continue and flourish, it could be one of the best dark shounen stories to have aired in years. If it remains as it is, however, I fear it will end up like Claymore or Narutaru’s anime adaptations: interesting companion pieces to a much wider and more compelling story that considered alone, are a mere shadow of what their potential could have made them.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

タイガー&バニー / Tiger & Bunny

I was a bit cautious about Tiger & Bunny. When everybody tells me this is the next big thing, I tend to get sceptical, especially as there have been a lot of very popular anime in the last few years I’ve not liked one bit.

But Tiger & Bunny was not only superb in concept and execution, but the perfect series for Sunrise to make. It fit their style perfectly, and the hilariously understated ‘Sunrise ending’ was both poking fun at expectations and fulfilling them.

In a future metropolis in what is pretty clearly the United States (Sternbild’s money still has the motto ‘In God we trust’), superheroes are celebrated as reality TV stars. A whole industry has grown around the core superstars – the ice-powered Blue Rose, who wants to be a singing idol; big powerhouse lummox Rock Bison; lightning-slinging Dragon Kid with her adorable Mickey Mouse ears; flamboyantly gay businessman Fire Emblem; the unintentionally goofy but very successful Sky High; the silly inexperienced Origami Cyclone, who mostly wants to be in the background of important scenes to please his sponsors – and the stalwart veteran a little past his prime, Wild Tiger, who can greatly boost his strength, speed and agility for five minutes. Into the fray comes Barnaby Brooks, Jr, with no secret identity or sponsorship – but the same powers as Wild Tiger.

He is quickly picked up and given a deal, but their similar powers mean that Wild Tiger and Barnaby are put into a double-team, paving the way for an odd-couple set up that works brilliantly. The first major arc of the story revolves around the two gradually coming to accept and respect one another and to work as a team, while helping the various other heroes with their various problems. Tiger gives Barnaby the nickname ‘Bunny’, as especially in Japanese they sound similar, and soon finds out that his new partner’s purpose in life is to track down the murderers of his parents, who apparently work for a criminal organisation called Ouroboros. Inexplicably, almost nobody seems to have heard of the symbol.

More about this organisation comes to light, but in the wake of a confrontation with the man Barnaby believes killed his parents, it becomes apparent that his memories may have been tampered with. With Wild Tiger facing his own problems – waning powers – the series reaches its final climax…albeit leaving plenty for a follow-up.

This is a classic example of what anime does best – takes a rather daft concept and comedic characters, but develops them to be taken very seriously, so that you care about them by the time they are in real danger. It’s the little touches in the characters that make everything work so well, when they get some depth. It’s when Blue Rose realises she has a crush, and when we see Dragon Kid’s thoughts about her parents. It’s the shocked reaction Sky High gives when he realises people think he’s goofy and when Fire Emblem drops the ridiculous pouting to become serious. It’s the funny scientist man whose voice is so quiet he needs to amplify it to be heard, and the way Kotetsu always gets it wrong with his daughter.

And the look of the thing is great throughout. The mixture of CG and cel animation is obvious, but hangs together better than in any other series I’ve seen use CG so extensively, and allows for some impressive fluidity. I like how the character designs have the usual signifiers for black and white people from anime, yet without them looking too absurd to be major characters. I like the music and the crazy design of the city and, in fact, the whole world of Tiger & Bunny.

Neither what I expected nor something startlingly new for Sunrise, Tiger & Bunny did a superb job with a good, solid idea. There’s plenty to expand on yet – Ouroboros, Lunatic, young Kaede’s developing power – so I both expect and hope for more!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No. 6

A few things held No. 6 back from becoming the classic series it could have been. But chief amongst them was the thing I thought would be its greatest boon: being part of the increasingly famous noitaminA time slot on Fuji TV at quarter to one in the morning on Thursdays. (‘noitaminA’ is ‘Animation’ backwards, and sadly pronounced as one word – I had hoped it would be like ‘Vitimin A’!) A series of extremely popular anime have been aired in the slot, including Honey and Clover and Eden of the East, and when Black Rock Shooter takes over in 2012 I expect it to go stellar.

The problem is that it has become traditional for noitaminA anime to have just 11 episodes in a half-season, as opposed to the more usual 13. And 11 episodes quite simply was not enough for No. 6 to breathe. They had two options, with the source novels as they are: to rush the character building to get a convincing overarching storyline, or to flesh the characters out well and have a quick, unsatisfying ending. Neither choice is great, and they plumped for option 2.

Shion was a nice, normal kid in the near-future city No. 6 until a chance encounter with a wild fugitive boy who called himself ‘Nezumi’, which means ‘mouse’ or ‘rat’, changed everything. For giving the suspicious boy shelter and food, Shion and his mother are penalised by the Orwellian authorities in the city and Shion loses his right to a privileged education. Four years later, Shion is working a low-wage job hoping to fund himself into a comfortable middle-class life when he sees a coworker mysteriously die. It is Nezumi who comes to save him from the corrupt investigation, but the only place to run is out of the city, where there is a whole different world for him to discover, and it soon becomes apparent his utopian city is not so perfect after all.

At the heart of No. 6 is the relationship between Shion and Nezumi. The first episode, when they are children, is sweet to the point it is almost romantic. A few episodes later, even before Shion’s hair colour is changed when he almost dies just as his coworker did, it is clear there is going to be a homoerotic theme to this story, and that Shion and Nezumi are going to get very close. Of course, this lost No. 6 some insecure male audience members, but I can’t help thinking that’s not much of a loss. Nor, obviousness aside, is it a first for noitaminA (see Jyu-Oh-Sei). Then again, it took me a while to shake the annoying impression that because Shion and Nezumi were drawn so absurdly like Allen and Kanda, the whole thing was a strange alternate universe D.Gray-Man fanfiction. Still, the romance is quite subtle, very sweet and makes both characters much more sympathetic, so was well-judged, and the image of a kiss meaning farewell becomes perhaps the most powerful of the whole concept.

No. 6 would have been vastly improved were its plot simply that Shion and Nezumi have to rescue Shion’s friend Safu (also his female love interest, rather mistreated by events here and gotten out of the way of the central relationship in an artificial way, but with arguably a fate better than anyone else’s), with Nezumi going ahead with his ulterior agenda when they infiltrate the Correctional Facility. It could have kept the best of the plot and those great character moments in the last episode where Nezumi decides he’ll protect Shion by playing the bad guy and pushing him away, but would have removed the things that didn’t work, which were the bits of supernatural nonsense. We didn’t need daft killer bees to give the message scientists playing god is wrong. We could have seen huge walls torn down without stupid yellow cyclones. We most definitely didn’t need death reversed by a literal deus ex machina, tacked on for an emotional suckerpunch but far more a swing and a miss.

No. 6 was an excellent 9, even 10 episodes of build-up. Interacting with the fun tsundere wildgirl Inukashi; struggling to prove his independence to Nezumi and finding out his side-job; getting messages back to his mother and learning the truth of the city he was raised in – those were the things that made No. 6 great, and Bones did a very nice job with the design and world-building, especially in that everyone’s lives were believably normal and repetitive beyond the action of the series.

This is just an example of supernatural concepts introduced to try and make a series more high-minded. If anything, though, they made it seem lazy and made emotions more hollow. But that doesn’t stop No. 6 being very, very close to greatness.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Shrek IV: Shrek Forever After

Going to see the fourth Shrek film, three years after seeing what I had thought would be the final part of a trilogy, I expected a limp and inconsequential milking of the cash-cow, but in fact it was actually an affectionate and entertaining final adventure for what have become well-loved characters. Indeed, they were well-loved even for one such as me, who disliked the first film. It was a neatly-crafted concept for getting another story out of a franchise that, really, had ended – spinoff prequels aside – and a satisfying mixture of action, comedy and sentiment peppered with great visual gags.

Now enjoying marital stability and a certain celebrity, part of Shrek will always yearn for the old days, when he was an ogre to be feared and respected, with independence and no responsibilities. But nasty little Rumpelstiltskin, who has a grudge against Shrek, is in a position to take advantage of this midlife crisis, and soon Shrek finds himself in an alternate world where nobody knows him, and none of the people whose lives he affected have lived quite the same lives. In true fairy tale fashion, the solution is true love’s kiss – but that’s not so easy to get from someone who never met you because you were never born.

Not a film I’d feel the need to buy and rewatch, nor, in truth, what you would call necessary, but enjoyable nonetheless.

(expanded from impressions, September 2010)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

One Piece Movie 6: オマツリ男爵と秘密の島 / Omatsuri-danshaku to Himitsu no Shima / Baron Festival and the Secret Island

The sixth One Piece movie was rather different from what I had been expecting. It had a weird, weird art style, which put me in mind of the episodes of Naruto where the art gets really sloppy so that the animation can be exceptionally fluid. Despite the parallel, though, and despite the movie budget here, the visual effect actually wasn’t so impressive and Oda’s exaggerated expressions really didn’t look right in the style – a problem compounded by them being held far too long. While it’s respectable to try something different, I was not very keen on the aesthetic, and ended up suspecting too much of the budget went on the impressive CG – because most of the One Piece movies have superior animation and art.

On the other hand, the plot grew from something really unimaginative (The Davy Back Fight – the movie!) into something very dark, with some genuinely nightmarish visuals. Some of the decisions made towards the end were quite brave…but it’s still probably been the One Piece movie I’ve enjoyed least.

Only later did I discover that this was the first feature film directed by Hosoda Mamoru, who only a year later would make the beautifully-told and very nice-looking Toki-o Kakeru Shoujo and then the stunning Summer Wars. He had previously only worked on episodes of Ojamajo Doremi and Digimon, as well as the first two half-hour Digimon films. Despite the latter two plus a third from another director being truncated into ‘Digimon The Movie’ for the West, this was his first feature-length work as a director.

Well, I can’t say I’m not pleased he got the chance. He’s a big star now. I just wish I’d liked his One Piece film more.

(Expanded from impressions, 29.5.07)

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Simpsons movie

The timing of The Simpsons’ movie adaptation was a little bizarre. Though the story goes that Matt Groening had been eager to make a film since the series’ early days, it certainly seemed to me that the right time had long come and gone without one, so there was real desire to get the hugely successful animated family up on the big screen, where other adult-oriented animated franchises like South Park and Beavis and Butthead got their shot. By 2007, when this film finally found release, The Simpsons was beloved more for what it was than what it had become: generally even its fans believed it had jumped the shark and its glory days were long past.

But perhaps holding out was a shrewd decision. Releasing the film at the height of its initial popularity in the early nineties or in the glory days in the run-up to the Millennium. Supposedly there was a very long production time, from signing on the actors in 2001, through development from 2003 and over a hundred different script drafts before the final version. Releasing in 2007 probably still got as many ticket sales as opening in 2000 would have, with so much of the English-speaking world still loyal in some way to the production, but also had the effect of reviving interest in a flagging series and reminding a younger generation that the franchise was still relevant.

I had low expectations. I went in expecting something atrocious, but I could not call the Simpsons movie that when I left the cinema. With animation coming from the usual US-Korean studios behind the TV show – Rough Draft, AKOM and Film Roman - it broke almost no new ground visually other than having some nice CG shots, and really was just an extra-long episode of the TV show with more high-budget sequences than could usually be justified.

But it was entertaining, that’s undeniable. A lot of it relied on familiarity built up by the show – unlike what happened with the South Park movie, I couldn’t imagine many who were unconvinced would change their opinion of the show after seeing this – but there was some funny writing, interesting action setpieces and some good character moments, especially from Marge, though anyone who’s seen the series has seen her be the affecting voice of reason dozens of times already. Bart and Lisa’s little plotlines were totally undeveloped and the satirical bite that the series often utilised was absent, even with sequences based on government decision-making. Some of the jokes fall flat, especially the ones that are overly surreal yet too obvious, like the people Bart draws or Homer’s commentary on moviegoers, and there was really too much reliance on slapstick (that wrecking ball wasn’t funny in the trailer, so it definitely wasn’t gonna be funny in the movie). But hey, at least a good portion of it was amusing, and the moments of pathos work fine. Not life-shattering, not especially impressive, but no disaster. Still, it cannot hold a candle to South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

(expanded from impressions, 5.8.07)

Saturday, 3 September 2011

パパとKISS IN THE DARK / Papa to Kiss in the Dark / Kiss in the Dark with Papa

These pervy shotacon anime are not for me, I fear. The closest one has come to working was Boku no Pico, and that was more hilarious than anything else. Actually, Enzai probably worked best, but would have been vastly improved if the shotacon part that was its whole reason for being had been taken out. I can understand the appeal of the concepts behind these, but in execution they’re mostly terrible. I realise I am not the target audience – these are (Pico excepted) written by Japanese women for Japanese women, the so-called fujoshi who cross the cultural divide in the form of yaoi fangirls in the Occident. But at the same time, I’ve found lots of manga on these subject I really enjoy, from short doujin to full anthologies by the likes of CJ Michalski, which take the time to set up a good scenario and care about character development. More mature takes on the general themes, like the current divisive success No. 6, also work far better.

But Papa to Kiss in the Dark is a two-part OVA all about a 15-year-old boy’s love affair with his father. It was rubbish. I really disliked all the characters except the childhood friend. And it wasn't the least bit sexy, or naughty, or in any way enhanced by the element of incest – which was very unpleasant anyway. I also dislike how the weaker of these stories all have a central boy who everyone in the vicinity seems to love and adore for the most superficial reasons – I’m looking at you, Loveless – and the most artificial drama gets injected through cheap storytelling methods revolving around jealousy – bow your head in shame, Gravitation.

Papa to Kiss is just one in a sequence of samey shotacon teasers, only with an additional layer of unpleasant incest overlaid on it – or two layers, really, when you find out more about the actress. It’s only 50 minutes of fluff, so hardly too much to bear, but there’s little to recommend it. Like other Boys’ Love anime, though, it will have its vociferous young female fans who have very little to compare it with, so will find it both fulfilling as a story and erotically satisfying. It is, I suppose, good they can enjoy it and need nothing better-written to please them, but I can’t count myself amongst them.

(expanded from impressions, 6.12.07)

FernGully: The Last Rainforest

I have very little love for FernGully, an early 90s animation from Fox, with the likes of Rough Draft providing the actual animation, before Fox realised they really ought to go to Don Bluth if they wanted something good-looking. I didn’t see the film at the time, so the nostalgia goggles were off, and besides, Disney’s contemporary films had far, far better writing.

Without the least compunction I can say that this film was terrible. Ugly character designs poorly copied from 50s Disney, a preachy, banal and hypocritical environmentalist message, the most anticlimactic defeat of a villain ever, underdeveloped personalities and character relationships, really irritating protagonists, and the false impression of a happy and hopeful ending when what we were actually given was anything but.

The animation was poor, the inbetweening making everything wobble. Rough Draft was still a young studio, probably chosen because they offered their services extremely cheaply. The voice acting was passable, but Robin Williams – giving a remarkably similar performance to his much-lauded one as The Genie in Aladdin (released later the same year, which surprised me, as I had assumed this had been on the coattails of that performance) – was really on autopilot. Only nostalgia could make me like such a horribly manipulative and badly-thrown-together bit of claptrap. But I’d like to think even as a small child I would have found this film lazy, exploitative and dull.

At least Zak doesn’t learn in a few days to be the most skilful fairy who ever lived. That would be the last straw.

(Expanded from impressions, 7.1.09 – after I’d probably have had more to say about Cameron’s Avatar stealing the plot)

Thursday, 1 September 2011


Ratatouille was a lot of fun. Mark Kermode was on The Culture Show last night saying he didn’t like the film because it was too polished, too perfect, but I disagree. Pixar are still taking risks, still pushing to get a different flavour from the last film, and the one before. Ratatouille was a familiar Pixar premise – underdog fights against adversity, with a little help from friends and family along the way – but taken to extremes. A rat wanting to be a Parisian chef? That’s as underdog as you get.

It bumbled along, checking boxes, having tensions and resolutions just where you expected, although the pacing got a bit wobbly towards the end where what seemed to be the main conflict was cleared up just in time for a new one to take over, but thanks to just the right amount of warmth and humour, it pulled through. Brad Bird’s storytelling voice is also a little different from other Pixar directors’, a little more glib and quirky, which makes for films that on the plus side are less obvious and predictable, but also seem to have a slightly greater distance between audience and storyteller, a small wall to overcome.

I didn’t like everything here – the puppeteering aspect was a bit hard to believe, and the laziest storytelling possible occasionally came out (opening voiceovers, a way to make the main character talk to himself to simplify exposition, institutions represented by individuals etc). Perhaps it’s having seen too many anime like Hikaru no Go and La Corda D’Oro in which a protagonist is given an artificial way to become a great success, only to soon realise how shallow and meaningless that is, leading to a yearning to excel with their own talent – but here we didn’t get that, and Linguini, while soon realising Rémy needed credit where it was due, never showed a desire to learned from his extremely gifted little friend. Quite strange, to see a big Hollywood film saying not, ‘With enough hard work, anyone can succeed,’ but rather, ‘Some have great innate talent, and allowances should be made for them.’

Visually, Pixar are still at the top of their game. It is the duty of animation to put in front of our eyes stories that no other visual medium can express so well, and Ratatouille is full of instances that fulfil this stipulation. Chase scenes between a diminutive man on a moped and a rat, a camera that sweeps through tiny cracks in walls and soars like a bird, a drawing in a book coming to life while always remaining that same illustration even in motion, a room shaped exactly like a coffin – moments of sheer visual excellence. And on smaller scales, too: it is well worth noticing that the depth of field is extremely shallow when the shot is of a rat’s face, as it would be were there truly a camera on something very small. Such a subtle, clever way of replicating a real lens. The Pixar animators are to be applauded.

I found it interesting to see how the writers set the film in France, yet relied so much on English-language puns and wordplay that will be hard to translate. I wonder how these elements were rendered in other regions.

On the whole, then, a clever and enjoyable film, visually stunning, but with some storytelling issues that prevent it from being quite up there with Pixar’s – and Bird’s – best. Oh, and I must say one more thing: Peter O’Toole is awesome.

(expanded from impressions, 15.10.07)