Friday, 30 December 2011

アイドルマスター/ The iDOLM@STER

Honestly, I expected to hate The iDOLM@STER. I didn’t know much about it before I saw it – it was based on some fanservicey game full of cute girls that seemed to be part dress-up doll and part visual novel; it had catchy songs like the one that kicks off Kumikyoku Nico Nico Douga; Hatsune Miku was going to show up in the second game as DLC; and its characters had already been in a weird-looking mecha anime which hadn’t gone down well called Xenoglossia.

I thought it came too late. I thought it was very much part of the moéblob fad, which really came to an end with the backlash against K-On. The world, I thought, had moved on from anime about the ordinary daily lives of cute girls, and the likes of Nichijou and the anime of Shaft were pushing us back towards off-kilter surrealism. The Idolm@ster would be too late, too obviously fanservicey, too dumb and too ordinary, I decided. And then I started actually watching it.

I understood it was manipulating me very easily, chewing me up and spitting me out. I understood the characters are from stock and the storylines are very familiar. But oh lord, I adored it.

In the game, you play the role of the producer in an all-female idol talent agency, 765 Pro (765 pronounced ‘Namuko’). As the screen shows what the producer sees, he never appears, is never named and generally it’s all engineered so that the player imagines himself in the role. There are almost no other males in the story, certainly none threatening – a faceless older man as the company’s president, and vague shapeless people doing wota-gei with their glowsticks for audience members. These girls have very little contact with their fans, and don’t go off smoking, drinking and having casual sex. They’re perfect little angels with different personality quirks, and they only have eyes for the player. The anime can’t sustain this, so gives the producer a body – a nice inoffensive bespectacled design – but his name remains ‘Producer-san’. It actually works well, and he’s identifiable yet non-threatening as a proxy. And the girls are incredibly cute – they seem so obvious at first, from the athletic wildchild to the spoilt little madam, but through various episodes showing them interact or one at a time, they endeared themselves to me, and I found myself unable to stop myself loving them all. The writers know exactly what they’re doing, and each girl gets developed just enough for it to matter to the viewer if they’re happy.

It helps that the show is very visually appealing. It resembled the art style of aforementioned K-On, via the lovely fluid cuteness of A-1’s feature film Welcome to the Space Show, making this look somewhere between KyoAni and movie-Madhouse, no bad place to be and certainly better than Kuroshitsuji, the only other A-1 series I’ve seen thus far.

Predictably, it was the cute tomboy that I liked the most, especially as she only wanted to be a pretty girl who could pull off frilly dresses – Makoto was adorable. Then I loved stuck-up but sweet-natured Iori and the childish twins Ami and Mami. This was largely an episodic series, following the girls progressing from unknown to successful, occasionally coming into conflict with the evil president of 961 (‘Kuroi’) Pro who uses underhanded tactics to push his (also cute) boyband. Other plotlines involve things like a wedding shoot getting mixed up with a real wedding (and numerous other farcical things), the sad past of one of the more serious girls coming out and our main girl Haruka getting sad that the idols are drifting apart. There was also one particularly fun episode in which involves the girls putting on a variety show. This not only involved cute things like Makoto trying to put on girly dresses and being totally rejected, but an awesome little mecha pastiche for which they actually got Imaishi Hiroyuki (of Gurren Lagann) in to do the storyboards and do justice to the fandom favourite evil Haruka. Chuck in obscure references to silly things the voice actresses have done in their shows and you have an episode pandering to fans – yet still very funny, cute and still pretty witty.

After I finished the series I watched the little OVA that was included in the Live for You! game, animated by small studio Actas, responsible for Moetan. The art came over as pretty ugly, reminding me of a more frequently off-model Peto-Peto-san, but it was nice having the little extra vignette. It even made me realize that I’m now keen enough on these characters that I’ll enjoy watching Xenoglossia just imagining that they’re little actors. I’m so easily manipulated by cuteness…

There’s sure to be more – at the end we glimpsed new characters, including the only trap I ever took an instant dislike to.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

結界師/ Kekkaishi (Manga)

I’ve already written about the anime and how sad I was that it didn’t reach greater heights of popularity, especially in the West, so there’s really no need to restate that. But today, I got around to finishing the manga, and thought the series deserves a few more words, because though the last arc was rather problematic, the big payoff at the end touched me.

I’d love to see a Kekkaishi series 2 in anime form. I know it had its turn and it didn’t make a huge impact, but it seems to me there’s just the perfect amount of manga now to animate another full season and finish off the full story. I think that’s a pipe dream, though – Kekkaishi aired and though during its run, the manga really hit its stride and the arc immediately after the end of the anime was a great one, especially where it concerned Mudou-san, after the anime came to an end seeming distinctly unfinished, the manga seemed to lose steam as well.

No tie-in with a second anime and a great long final chapter for Yellow Tanabe, unlike what happened with that other notable monthy shounen series written by a woman, Fullmetal Alchemist. In fact, I get the impression that while it obviously didn’t get abruptly cancelled, either Tanabe was told she had to wrap things up soon or she decided to bring the title to an end herself, because the final arc was a bit confused. The various new characters introduced in the circle around the founder of the Urukai (and the two brothers’ different bodies) were somewhat undefined, all the Ougis got a bit muddled, and ultimately the final battle threw in all the unresolved elements – the rest of the council, the full Sumimura family including Yoshimori’s mother, the original Kekkaishi thought long-dead, the battle with the founder and the establishment of a new home for the god of Karasumori, who turned out to be an adorable small boy who gets named Chuushinmaru. So it was a little too much to squeeze in, and ultimately the end was a bit clumsy, relying on a mysterious ‘watcher’ who was a literal deus ex machina (the deus part at least), but never seemed all that necessary anyway.

But it was all worth it for the wonderful chapter in which Yoshimaru creates a whole world for Chuushinmaru from nothingness, especially when he peoples it and we get one last glimpse of an old friend, and a version of Yoshi given a happiness he himself will never have. The last couple of chapters don’t really feel necessary after that, but tie things up neatly as a kind of epilogue similar to the stinger in a film that plays after the credits have run – or those final episodes of anime that play their credits mid-episode over a poignant scene so that the aftermath comes later.

I’m sad that Kekkaishi has ended. I’m sad it wasn’t bigger, especially having an anime whose Japanese viewing figures, lest we forget, dwarfed those of Naruto and Bleach and every other fashionable anime of the moment. But I’m very glad I was along for the ride, and saw it through to the end. And though the last story wasn’t the best, the very end was brilliant, and I’ll always be a fan.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Snowman

I’ve written a few impressions of animated films aired over the Christmas period in the last few days, and it seems remiss to neglect this, perhaps the most iconic of animations centred on Christmas, The Snowman. While it lost out in the 1982 Oscars to a Rybczyński short, it cemented its theme song, ‘Walking in the Air’, in popular culture ever since, and gave animator Dianne Jackson a strong reputation that it’s tragic she never grew to truly fulfil before her death in 1992. That said, if she animated anything of note in the sixteen years between Yellow Submarine and this, it’s not known to me.

Based on a book by Raymond Briggs that is really more a comic than the storybook most seem to think it is, the 26-minute animation carefully replicates Brigg’s lovely soft style with pastels and chalk colouring for soft-edges and a noticeably hand-drawn look. In the simple storyline, an adorable little ginger boy called James (a name added by an animator, not in the original) makes a friendly-faced snowman. The snowman comes to life during the night and the two bond over the snowman’s wonder about the world. For whatever reason – all a bit magical realism – the snowman can not only drive a motorbike but has the ability to fly, so the two go walking in the air, over houses and oceans to visit Father Christmas. The ‘it’s all a dream’ angle is explored but rejected, meaning that when the story ends on a bittersweet note, James is very much left to grieve over the loss of a friend who literally melts away in the morning sunshine, which no doubt inspired existential maturity and a little angst in several generations of children.

Though it’s almost common knowledge that famous choirboy Aled Jones sang ‘We’re Walking in the Air’, in fact the version most hear was not him at all, but the uncredited Peter Auty. Jones’ version was the single released in 1985, though few would be able to tell the difference without hearing the two consecutively. Seems a little sad that what propelled Jones to fame left Auty a footnote, but such is the fickle nature of fame.

Only by looking the film up on Youtube, to double-check that there’s a barn owl in the opening credits (there is) did I find out that there are three versions of the opening – the one familiar to me, in which Briggs himself introduces the film while the background fades into the animation; one with David Bowie looking very, very 80s in an attic; and one with an extra bit of animation made for the 20th anniversary, in which Father Christmas introduces the story. I’d say that the original is the one to opt for, but there’s certainly humour in the Bowie iteration.

This story is as ingrained in the children of the UK’s idea of Christmas as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is for those festivities in the States. Sweet, simple and visually highly distinctive, it’s a lovely piece of animation history.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Shrek 2

Another animated movie screened during the Christmas period, I thought it worthwhile to put down a few thoughts, since I neglected to do so when I saw it back in 2004. This seems a bit of an oversight, as it was my favourite for the four main Shrek films, and indeed had a soundtrack I loved – I got Frou Frou and Butterfly Boucher’s albums as a direct result of it, and it contains one of my favourite Tom Waits tracks, ‘A Little Drop of Poison’ – a new arrangement of a song he’d written for a different film. And, of course, a fantastic belter delivered at the film’s climax by Jennifer Saunders.

After Shrek rescues Fiona at the end of the first film, it is revealed that ‘love’s true form’ turns her into an ogre too. The obvious question at the end of that story is what will happen when the couple have to go back to the wider world – and here, we find out. Fiona’s parents are the king and queen of Far, Far Away, and quite brilliantly cast, being played by the unlikely but inspired coupling of John Cleese and Julie Andrews. However, the Fairy Godmother, a powerful figure in the city, has a plan to get her own son Prince Charming into the picture in place of Shrek. So not only must the new couple deal with the insecurities that come from not looking like the expected beautiful fairytale prince and princess, but they must contend with potions that can force a person to fall in love or change their appearance altogether, and a conniving woman who knows how to use – and misuse – them.

I didn’t particularly like the first Shrek film. I felt its humour was forced, its aesthetic underwhelming and its world somewhat dull. This film brought with it more inventive and clever performances, fantastic music and a neat plot that left enough loose ends for a further sequel – even if that one was something of a disappointment. The Shrek films may be Dreamworks’ flagship, but they’re certainly not my favourites. Of them, though, and not counting the excellent Puss in Boots, this one was the most worthy of praise. Even the annoying side characters like Pinocchio are genuinely funny here – and of course, it was where Puss had his debut; much of the humour of his subsequent appearances was simply repetition or slight variation of the funny moments he has here, one of the best gags in Shrek the 3rd being when he tries to look cute while in Donkey’s body. Certainly one of the better animated sequels out there.

Even if in the wake of Game of Thrones I can’t look at Prince Charming for a moment without seeing Jaime Lannister.

Monday, 26 December 2011

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

I’ve been meaning to write my thoughts on The Sword in the Stone for a little while, as – being one of the few Disney films we had on VHS – it was one of the animated films I watched the most as a young child. Since I had the happy experience of waking up on a Christmas morning and turning on the television to see it there, bringing back waves of nostalgia, I thought now was as good a time as any.

There are many ways in which this film has influenced my psyche. My love for all things strigine surely derives in part from the loveably grumpy Archimedes the Owl. Wart’s voice actor(s) inured me to the idea that if you are young, attractive and sympathetic in a world full of people with English accents, it makes perfect sense for you to sound American – long before I had any idea about accents at all. And though the film’s art perhaps had the opposite effect on some, I think it may on some level have been the film’s firm assertion that human-animal romance is weird, comic and doomed that steered me well away from furry propensities, whatever effect Thundercats may have had on my young mind.

The Sword in the Stone is an adaptation of one of the Once and Future King books, and takes a stab at Arthur’s youth, a subject that Malory doesn’t cover. In this version, Uther is dead and his bastard child (it can be inferred, though all we know from the film is that he is an orphan) Arthur has been fostered by a noble household, working for them as a lackey and hoping to one day become a squire. He is clumsy, scrawny and accident-prone, though, and is referred to by his surly foster brother Kay as ‘Wart’. Everything changes when Wart meets Merlin, who decides he will tutor the boy, moving into the castle and teaching him various things by turning him into different animals – which gets him into various scrapes, one leading Merlin to take part in a Wizards’ Duel with the barmy Madam Mim. When it becomes apparent that the boy’s ambition falls far short of his potential, Merlin loses his temper and gets ‘blown to Bermuda’, but quite on his own, Wart manages to find the Sword in the Stone in London and pull it out, securing his future as King of England.

Like many Arthurian stories, this one is set when many of the stories were written down – in Medieval England – and not when they were set, making Arthur English rather than a Breton. I’ve never worried about anachronisms in Arthurian stories, though, as they’re all based on very fanciful myths and legends and it isn’t as though what’s in Geoffrey of Monmouth is by any means a universal tradition. Besides, the film (and book) embraces anachronisms and makes a point of it – indeed, Merlin’s return from Bermuda is so jarring the style of humour preempts that of Aladdin by decades.

The plot is very thin, and arguably nothing in the story really affects the final climax, but this is really a series of setpieces and works very well for an animation: it’s great seeing (some of) the Nine Old Men really having fun with animation, from underwater scenes to birds in flight to magical transformations, giving a real exuberance to the story. It’s all helped along by the slapstick humour, much of which is based on the Tom & Jerry idea of predators deserving to be painfully foiled.

Sword in the Stone isn’t the best-known Disney film. Its songs are too character-based and situational to get onto the various Disney compilations. It doesn’t have great revelations of characters or tragedy to give its story weight. But as a light comedy, it’s almost peerless, and the animation was fine enough Disney recycled it several times in their usual way that generation after generation find shocking and scandalous, as though it was a great deception and Disney (or at least, director Wolfgang Reitherman) were horribly cheap. As Floyd Norman pointed out, he did it because he wanted to, not because he had to, or because it cut costs. He actually liked reusing favourite sequences in different films.

Disney has revived its tradition of fairytail princesses. I’d like to see them revive stories centred on preteen (human) boys like The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. That tradition died with The Black Cauldron, and it’s a shame. The Sword in the Stone is remembered primarily for Merlin (he alone shows up in the Kingdom Hearts games), but there’s much more to it than just him. Funny, sweet, witty and exuberantly animated, it’s a very fine piece of Disney animation.

Sunday, 25 December 2011


I’m not quite sure what I expected from Rango, but it wasn’t this.

The clues were there, really, in the posters and trailers. There was that Hawaiian shirt, and that crick in the neck recalling another famous poster. Then of course, there was Johnny Depp in a cartoon that sounded somewhat surreal. But I definitely didn’t expect another outing for his Hunter S. Thompson impression (ahead of The Rum Diary) and what can only be called Gonzo animation (not animation from Gonzo) – before it settles neatly into a straightforward tribute to Western films. It's one of those neat comedy films that starts out as a parody before settling into relying on the familiar tropes and clichés to evoke the sincere emotions that made the original genres work so well – Shaft do this well, as did Baka to Test.

Rango is a pet chameleon with only the toys and ornaments of his glass cage to serve as his connection to the world – he believes himself an actor and director, and while pondering what he ought to be, an accident in the car results in him losing his family and being left alone by the roadside. After a rather hallucinogenic meeting with an armadillo that couple with Rango’s eccentric, Thompson-derived personality at once makes the film look incredibly drug-addled and creeps out any small kids who’ve been brought to see this ‘cartoon’, he ends up in the Californian/Nevadan desert, notorious for containing Death Valley. After his death is prophesised by some cute, grumpy mariachi owls, he is chased by a huge hawk and meets Beans, who at first seems like a typical southern-belle/redneck caricature with the odd tick of freezing as a ‘survival instinct’. Rango stumbles into the Wild West town of Dirt, and manages to avoid being mocked and possibly murdered by ‘blending in’, acting the part of a rough-talking cowboy and, thanks to some dumb luck typical of the character type and the return of the hawk, not only being believed but becoming the town’s sheriff. But the town is running out of water, and someone’s tampering with the supply, and it’s up to Rango to sort things out. But with the hawk gone, a notorious outlaw might come back to town, one who might be able to see right through Rango’s camouflage.

As I said, the film starts out surreal, bewildering and influenced by Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling narrative style, a likeable, intelligent but very clumsy and physically inept character just managing to get out of scrapes through luck or saying the right thing at the right time. But then it bends at just the right angle – through action scenes and clever visual parodies of other well-known action films – to heartfelt cowboy story (nodding back towards the strange with a cameo from a very recognisable figure), ending up with a story arc that has comedic characters you actually come to like and a situation you genuinely want to end well. There wasn’t quite enough closure at the end – I wanted to know what was going to stop the humans simply coming and messing it up for the animals very quickly – but this was a deft move to make and it worked better than I had expected it to. It may not pluck at the heartstring and move you like a direct, sincere story, but it bridges comedy and drama much better than many other animated films that try the same – like most of Dreamworks’ output.

Industrial Light and Magic also lent their CG to this film, and it looks absolutely incredible. This is one of the best CG films I’ve ever seen – and it’s not the characters and their movements and the textures of their faces that is the most stunning, impressive though they are. It’s how perfect water looks, poured into a glass. It’s the way the lens that doesn’t exist is affected by the refraction of light that doesn’t exist when pointed towards a sun that doesn’t exist. It’s glass breaking and the machine gun in a rattlesnake’s tail winding down. It’s the small details. Look for them and you’ll be consistently impressed.

This could have been a near-miss. Happily, it’s a substantial success.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Naruto movie 3: 大興奮!みかづき島のアニマル騒動だってばよ! / Dai Kōfun! Mikazuki-jima no Animaru Panikku Dattebayo!/ Great Excitement!Animal Panic of Crescent Moon Island

English title: Guardians of the Crescent Moon Kingdom

Much like the previous two films in the Naruto series, this one sets up a promising premise, adds very nice animation and well-integrated CG to what is already one of Naruto’s greatest strengths - character design – and then soon grinds down into very formulaic, cheesy silliness. The spoilt-younger-kid-gets-taught-valuable-life-lessons-by-the-protagonist basis so popular in Naruto and One Piece is not a bad template, but it needs a strong overall plot to compliment it.

Team 7 (with Rock Lee replacing Sasuke) are on a mission to escort a fat prince reminiscent of Kurata from Hikaru no Go back to his hometown – though not before stopping to buy an entire circus. The prince’s son Hikaru is also in the retinue, his design (as well as that of a very senbon-zakura-like attack later) lifted more or less directly from Bleach – he could easily be a younger Quincy. Naruto clashes with the boy, of course, until our young protagonist finally loses his tempter, hits the boy and gives him a lecture – actually getting surprisingly abusive. Young Hikaru is stung enough that he is moved to prove his mettle during a storm – he goes to rescue his favourite animals. Of course, most people would consider an 8-year-old (or thereabouts) going out onto the deck of a boat is listing so badly that he could be thrown overboard at any moment and letting tigers out of cages incredibly stupid, but it wins the respect of Naruto and co. Far worse, it also makes Chamu the Siberian Tiger (in a world with no Siberia – or indeed Amur) and Kiki the monkey become friendly and seemingly fluent in human speech. The prince gets home to find there has been a coup, so of course lots of one-on-one ninja battles ensue, accompanied by long speeches and kids proving themselves both brave and capable in the usual manner.

Not as good as either of the last movies, thanks to the added cringe-factor of circuses and animals, but with some nice scenes early on and some great bits of animation, it was worth seeing, and certainly much better than the filler in the series. You didn’t really need any knowledge of the Naruto universe to understand what was going on, so it stood alone well. It just seems a shame that it’s been a while since I’ve expected anything Naruto-related to do anything but play it very safe, in terms of plot, obvious distinction between good guys and bad guys and acceptable modes of minor-character deaths.

There’s something interesting, though, about how compelling it is for young fans of the show to see their hero, though his self-cloning techniques, get killed again and again and again before he finally prevails…

(expanded from impressions, 3.5.07)

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

おジャ魔女どれみ# / Ojamajo Doremi #/ Ojamajo Doremi Sharp

The different series of Ojamajo Doremi almost don’t count as such, seeing how after the season finale, invariably a cliffhanger about the girls no longer getting to be witches, the first episode of the next season airs the very next week. So it was with the beginning of this season, and so it was again at its end.

However, the seasons seem very much to have been conceived as separate, whole storylines with a good sense of progression and strong themes to define them. The first season revolved around Doremi and co learning to be witches, then taking part in a collection quest while having to face opposition from the mysterious Onpu. By the end of that season, Onpu was more ally than antagonist, but still had the wrong attitude to magic, and it was that which provided the climactic action.

We join Doremi and co given a new chance to be witch apprentices. Through coincidence – or fate – Doremi and co go to the magical world and happen to witness the birth of a new witch from a flower in the Queen’s garden. Naming her Hana-chan, they are now responsible for raising the baby. The first half of the series is more or less concerned with raising Hana, who is adorable but whose strong magical abilities cause problems. The second revolves around Oyajide, the collection quest summarily dispensed with, returning to the Wizard World and then conspiring to kidnap Hana to ransom her for more territory. He is aided by four young wizards, who are more or less counterparts to Doremi and co, though most of the time they manage to get hold of Hana, they just hand her to Oyajide at the wrong time, and he ends up on the receiving end of a spell from the Ojamajos and goes spinning off, Team Rocket-style.

These larger storylines are peppered with one-offs, both character-developing and throwaway. Most revolve around the theme of family – we have Aiko (the tomboy and thus inevitably my favourite) trying to reconcile her family, Doremi and Pop learning the value of their sisterly bond in the short movie (aired between two Digimon movies) and even see Majo Rika’s mother, a lovely but clumsy old dear who has the same habit of saying ‘Ara ara, maa maa’ as Alicia from Aria. Then there are numerous little stories, such as trying to help the fat girl diet before finally just accepting her as she is, and then in the last few episodes the tone swings to that pleasantly non-serious atmosphere of a cute anime going for melancholy as it looks like only a great sacrifice can save Hana-chan from her sudden fever.

It’s almost as if to offer proof that this is an anime for young girls and not for Nanoha fans, the priority being a mother and looking after a baby gets. Hana is more than a doll, and sometimes it’s hard for the girls to care for her in the right away, after all only being children themselves, but they love her very much and regard themselves as Hana’s ‘Mama’. For her part, she’s very cute, always causing problems, and the contrast between the hapless baby and her huge magical power is one of the charming points of the series. Doremi and the others are on occasion tested by the witches to ensure they are raising Hana right in a series of tests, and the writers prove themselves equal to Peach-Pit in taking characters formerly hard to like but then very loveable with an examiner who starts out prickly but eventually softens – as if Onpu were not evidence enough. Recurring comic characters from the first season who take the exam alongside the girls are hilarious, with the examiners Mota and Motamota both raising babies who they brilliantly call Teki and Tekipaki, and if the octopus/squid love story from the first season seemed ill-judged, their hilarious baby Atarimeko-chan more than makes up for it.

There is almost nothing in this series that isn’t cute, but it is also smart, likeable and can be quite moving when it likes. The only thing I could do without is sucking at a baby’s nose to clear its sinuses, but that may just be culture shock…

Series three: here

Monday, 19 December 2011

One Piece Movie 8: エピソードオブアラバスタ 砂漠の王女と海賊たち/ Episode of Alabasta: the Desert Princess and the Pirates

The real question for this film is…why?

I thought it would make for quite a good idea. Going back to one of the more memorable One Piece arcs and giving it the big-screen, big-budget, bravura animation treatment. After all, Studio Pierrot’s films for their Jump properties often look far, far better than the weekly television show – the most recent Bleach film in particular – and as for just going over the material of the series but making it look nicer, well, that just about worked for Evangelion and Gurren Lagann.

But the trouble is…other than the very last scene – the highlight of the arc – in which Luffy and co hold up their arms to show the sign that links them to Vivi, it really doesn’t look very much better than the weekly series, and at some points far worse. Sure, there are some shots where whole armies are clashing, far beyond what got shown on the series, but mostly it’s jarring CG that doesn’t look right at all and is obviously the same thing copied over and over. There are some lovely fluid moments in the fights, but there were some impressive moments in the series, too, especially in the Sanji/Bon Kurei fight. Here, far too often characters go off-model. So if it doesn’t look much better than the weekly show, that just leaves the retelling of the story.

It doesn’t work. People who don’t know the story aren’t going to know what’s going on at all. It’s an attempt to cram a whole arc into a single film, which means not only do a lot of nice details get left out (Mr Prince, Usopp’s hilarious hammer bluff), but the fights get truncated into nonsensical little snippets that would be better left out or incidental. And the only thing really added is a tiny flash-back for Robin that we wouldn’t see in the series until a fair bit later.

Plus this has always been an arc I’ve found problematic. When I read the manga version back in January 2007 (which was a while after I’d seen the animated version), I wrote, ‘It’s often cited as the highlight of One Piece so far, and while I prefer it to Skypiea or Arlong Park, I really don’t think it’s a great arc. It’s just too sloppy, and I don’t buy that Crocodile’s big plan was to frame the king of a country, start a civil war, make sure a big fight happened in the square in front of the palace, reveal all his plans to the King, kill him and steal his secret weapon then blow up everyone in the square with a bomb, blame the King, seize power and go after the world. I mean, what? I think it’s mostly the bomb part that seems tacked-on. However, One Piece revels in using every cliché in the book to tug at the heartstrings, especially brave sacrifices, and I can’t deny that there’re some really great moments of sheer uplifting cheesiness.’

That still holds. Crocodile had all the cards, had the king captive and the whole kingdom fighting, and still decided he needed a big bomb and that the time to interrogate the king to find the hidden weapon was in the middle of the war, knowing his minions were fighting against powerful opponents. Especially when truncated to its bare bones, I don’t think that the overarching plot works that well – the only time I’ve ever had such a complaint when it comes to One Piece.

This probably ranks as the most pointless animated companion piece to a series I’ve seen yet. At least the next one, another retelling of an existing arc, adds a different flavour by reimagining it with characters who weren’t yet in the series.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Secret of NIMH

NIMH, as with An American Tail and very possibly All Dogs Go To Heaven, sits uneasily between being recognised as a classic of animation and falling into obscurity. When Don Bluth directed the successful Anastasia for Fox Animation, it looked like he would be established as the personality in Western cel-based animation, but Titan A.E. was so critically panned Fox Animation shut up shop until The Simpsons Movie, and Bluth has barely been heard of since. Meanwhile, the Disney he abandoned not only maintained their credibility by aligning themselves closely to Pixar but have started to enjoy another return to form with The Princess and the Frog and especially Tangled.

While a generation or two will think back to Anastasia or The Land Before Time and express their admiration, it’s not often you’ll see Bluth celebrated in the media these days, or retrospectives of his films run by the networks. He currently seems to be working on a game for Apple’s iOS, which doesn’t fill me with hope for his return to relevance. His association with computer games is of course rich – his Dragon’s Lair is a quirky but extremely memorable classic, even if a stronger plot and characterisation would have helped – but that was in another time altogether. I truly hope he will get a new film soon, because he ought to be a giant of animation with a few more masterworks in him yet.

The Secret of NIMH was Bluth’s first job as a director, and his first project after leaving Disney, where he had started as an animator on Sleeping Beauty before serving as an assistant director on Sword in the Stone and growing disillusioned around the time of The Fox and the Hound. After animating a short sequence for the film Xanadu, Bluth’s new studio secured funding for this film, which took Disney stylings but with a dark palate and a pleasantly melancholy approach and did fairly good business at the box office – albeit slightly disappointing, directly competing with E.T. It would be Spielberg who later collaborated with Bluth to make some of his best films, but Bluth’s various animation studios would be in and out of bankruptcy negotiations, and while celebrated, he would gain a reputation for missing deadlines and breaking budgets.

The Secret of NIMH was based on the charming book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, with a few extra touches such as the use of a magic necklace and the name change from ‘Frisby’ to ‘Brisby’ to avoid copyright claims – despite ‘Frisbee’ being based on a real name filched from a different company in the first place. It tells the story of a lovely warm-hearted mother mouse trying to get her home moved out of the path of the farmer’s plough to save her sick son, with the help of a clownish but fiercely loyal crow (the first of many performances by Dom DeLuise for Bluth). Her quest takes her to the rats of NIMH, whose intelligence has been boosted by scientific experiments and who steal electricity from the humans, and who agree to help her – but the plan is one she will have to help with, and many things can go wrong…

The film certainly looks of its time, but it is also beautiful, and while at first it seems that the magical elements don’t fit well and have been introduced to make the plot work more easily, reading the book you find out that they were really not necessary and have been added mostly for a bit more visual spectacle - though personally I feel this could have been better-accomplished with more naturalism. Still, there are high emotional points, the ending works and the characters are great.

The first step in an interesting sideline of American animation and a sweet, satisfying film, I feel that The Secret of NIMH should get the attention it always deserved, and one day will be regarded as a flawed but very likeable classic.

Awful sequel impressions here.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

痴漢物語/ Chikan Monogatari / Public Harassment Story / Legend of the Pervert (hentai)

Another hentai review from me! I’ve never found animated porn much beyond ridiculous and ugly, but this one from 2007 at least manages to be attractively-drawn, decently-acted and with good character designs. It’s also interesting in that it got distribution for the US, so this particular slab of filth can be bought Stateside with mosaic censoring removed – which in all honesty is never much of a positive in hentai, because what you don’t see tends to be much more appealing than what gets revealed. While hentai doujins have in recent years featured smaller and smaller censor bars and better-drawn naughty bits, anime has yet to try its luck in that regard and perhaps because they know nobody in Japan will see the actual drawings, they tend to be…less than impressive.

Plus Legend of the Pervert had an interesting footnote (no pun intended) in that it had an extended scene cut from international distribution because it depicted underage sex. Thus, only a censored version of this part exists; I can’t see it being anything other than funny either way, revolving as it does around an adorable little boy with enormous equipment.

There are two episodes here, and the theme – obvious from the Japanese title but not the English – is sex in public places. The first episode, which contains the cut side-story, is the otherwise conventional story of an office worker who is bullied by his domineering female boss. She is just letting out pent-up sexual frustration, though, and masturbates when she thinks she is alone. Of course, Hakushiki sees her and one thing leads to another. Meanwhile, his little brother is coerced into showing a girl his ‘dekachin’ late at night in school. To avoid discovery, they hide in a toilet cubicle before having their first real sexual experience…which may possibly have been cute if not for all the OH GOD BLOOD EVERYWHERE and screams of ‘itai!’ and ‘muri, muri, zettai muri!’, going way beyond my squick limits.

Part two starts with a very cute boy and girl in a restaurant where the waitress uniform is, of course, a maid outfit. The boy, Akao, embarrasses the girl when she’s trying to order, and then in not-entirely-clear ways, they manage to have public sex there in the booth, without everyone seeing but with the risk still there. Akao goes home but his sisters have heard about him teasing his girlfriend, so teach him some humility by playing with his genitals with their feet, tying him up naked outdoors and having sex. The final scene is back with the girlfriend, largely a fantasy scene where Akao imagines more sex.

For all hentai tends to be incredibly silly and non-sexy, and for all I’ve always found the preference for drawing bodily fluids like cake mixture to be nauseating rather than attractive, this at least looks good. Only one character in Wordsworth looked anything other than terrible, it’s dodgy art as much as nasty non-con that kills Enzai and even the Boku no Pico OVAs, for all their slick production have a tendency to make the faces look stupid once sex scenes start. Legend of the Pervert at least has its art going for it, and to be honest, it’s all the plot and characterisation porn needs.

But I also don’t hesitate to say that, as with Countdown to Delight, the strange thing here – in episode 2 – is how hentai for guys centres on a pretty, girly, very young-looking boy who reminded me of Joey from Heroman. Again, it seems as though the idea is to play into fantasies about being dominated and humiliated, but it all ends up coming over like the one who’s centre of sexual attention is the boy, not the women. Suits me okay, and it’s actually quite nice to see both the boy and the girl being very cute. I actually probably only watched it because of this novelty.

I don’t write many impressions about hentai, partly because there’s not much to say but mostly because I just don’t watch much of it. Legend of the Pervert is probably on the better end of what’s on offer, though – especially as it caters for all sorts, quite possibly more than it actually intended to. That, coupled with the interesting point of what goes too far for a Western audience but is permissible in Japan, make this something quite interesting to watch.

Friday, 16 December 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Along with Watership Down and The Sword in the Stone, this was the animated film of my early childhood. My mother has always loved Tolkien, and after all, the Peter Jackson films were still a long way off – so short of reading the books to me (which she did as well, instilling me with a lifelong love of the oft-neglected Tom Bombadil), this was the best way to enjoy the world of hobbits and dragons and elves and wizards together.

It’s also the film Ralph Bakshi is remembered for – Fritz the Cat may be famous amongst animation fans, but it’s remarkable how few people have seen it. There is much to decry about this film, and it’s most often criticised for use of rotoscoping and for only being half of the overall story – though also has a very uneven approach to character models, some very stiff acting and pacing that suggests nobody gave any thought to pacing. But for all that, it has a lot of charm, it’s incredibly distinctive and it was such a big success – making back its budget more than seven times over – that it actually seems quite a surprise United Artists refused to fund Bakshi for a sequel. In the end, a limp sequel was made by Topcraft in association with Rankin/Bass, considered cheeky opportunism by some, though it’s worth remembering that they had released their animated version of The Hobbit in 1977, a year before Bakshi’s film came out. The Topcraft-Rankin/Bass collaboration is an interesting one, especially in relation to the history of Ghibli: see my The Last Unicorn impressions.

For all it has been eclipsed by the wildly successful Jackson films, this interpretation still has elements that made a great impact on me. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is superb, but his appearance, voice and especially ability to use magic in this version always seemed much more formidable and like the figure in the book to me. The animated Sam will always be the Sam I imagine, and in the few moments the characters are perfectly on-model they look beautiful. There’s a real fearsome claustrophobia to the scene where the hobbits hide from the black riders, and the scene where they take their swords to the empty beds thinking they are slaughtering the hobbits in their sleep is one of the most dramatic scenes in animation.

The rotoscoping, especially towards the end where the orcs are involved, is certainly a low point, and was never a good decision. But for all its shortcomings, there’s more to praise about this film than to criticise, and it stands apart as a strange but essential part of the animated canon. It’s just one that could have been far better – indeed, deserved to be better.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Thundercats (2011) - season 1 part 1

I was actually very excited about the Thundercats revival, despite the He-Man reboot and the Michael Bay Transformers films being properties I’d really rather not talk about. Thundercats was a good candidate for an update, having iconic characters and a strong world but a lot of bad writing and cheesy acting. There had been rumours about feature films and live-action versions for as long as there was an internet fandom – indeed, rather longer than that.

And then suddenly it was happening. And it got better - just as the original was made by ex-Topcraft staff in Japan, the new version would be made by Studio 4°C, who were behind a favourite series of mine – Mahou Shoujotai Arusu – and had cut their teeth on animations for a Western audience with Transformers Animated. The first designs released showed a boldly different aesthetic that appealed to me, and when the first previews brought with them glimpses of my favourites Wilykit and Wilykat, looking younger than their original incarnations but so, so cute, I was sold.

Today I watched the first season’s finale, after just 13 episodes, and was left feeling what I had felt since the end of episode 3 – was that it?

Like many reviewers, I was impressed by the first double-episode and the promise that came with it. The Thundercats world had been completely reset (though some fans liked to speculate this was a far-future version of the original series, Mai-Otome style, but that neglected the events of the last season of the original series). In this version, the Thundercats rule over Third Earth largely by suppressing the other races. However, Grune teams up with the mutant Lizardmen to embrace technology and overthrow the Thundercats. Lion-O escapes with the Sword of Omens, but his only allies are his adoptive brother Tygra, with whom he has a rivalry that is not always friendly; the headstrong cleric Cheetara; General Panthro, once Grune’s close friend and presumed dead; the street urchins and thieves Wilykit and Wilykat, their tails marking either youth or low status – it’s not yet revealed; and Snarf, now a cute mascot rather than a whiny comic nursemaid. The gang set off to find the Book of Thundera, hoping to regain what they lost, but another force has been awakened, a dark wizard known as Mumm-ra.

It’s a good set-up, but what is frustrating is that it leads nowhere. The pacing of the series couldn’t be more wrong – after the first episode we should have had a few to firmly establish the lead characters and why we should like them, but we get their adventures meeting a series of one-off supporting characters, awkward character development that often internally contradicts itself – Tygra in particular has motives and loyalties that go all over the place, while Lion-O gets lessons about humility and lateral thinking that are almost immediately contradicted – and forgettable plots that lead nowhere, while major developments happen with nonsensical brevity. For example, the gang just stumble randomly across the Tower of Omens, which Panthro had been searching for over years without success. We never really get to know any of the main characters until the very final episodes, and even then it’s all too brief and sketchy. The quest is too loose and the antagonists never seem actually threatening or to have a true goal the heroes have to prevent them achieving.

And I had hoped a 2011 version from 4°C would look nicer. It has moments of great beauty and I like the character designs, but too much just seems lazy, especially contrasted with the fluidity of Arusu. There’s one SPARTAAA moment in the final episode that is truly one of the worst pieces of animation since the 80s, which just isn’t on. The inbetweening is lazy, the editing doesn’t seem right in pacing terms and the characters frequently go off-model.

It could all be forgiven with strong plotting. Indeed, I was desperate to love it, especially with the kittens (and young versions of the main characters) so very adorable. But this was a disappointment.

There had better be a season 2. And it had better be much, much better than this.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

劇場版 天元突破グレンラガン 紅蓮篇 & 螺巌篇 / Gekijouban Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (movies)

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Gurren-Hen
Kanji: Crimson Lotus Chapter
English: Childhood's End

Impressions written: 19.5.09

Watched the first Gurren Lagann movie, which honestly I found very redundant. I enjoyed it very much, because it was manly manly Gurren Lagann, and the altered climax, now having the attacks from divine generals happening simultaneously, made for at least some new experience, but generally it was a rehash of the first half of the series with next to nothing added…and the best gag (wonky first combination) done much less amusingly. Non-fans would’ve been bewildered by major characters getting introduced in a brief montage, so I really don’t see much use in this film version other than (a) big-screen experience in Japan, (b) recap and (c) money.

Fun for me as a fan, especially since it’s been a while now since I watched the series, but really kinda pointless.

Gekijouban Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Lagann-Hen
Kanji: Spiral Stone Chapter
English: The Lights in the Sky are Stars

Impressions written 11.12.11

Having been a bit underwhelmed by the first Gurren Lagann movie adaptation, I left it two and a half years before finally getting around to watching the second one. If the second film was, like its predecessor, to be more or less a recap of what I had already seen, it was better to give it some time so that I would have half-forgotten the things I was seeing. Besides, Gurren Lagann didn’t quite change the anime landscape like I had expected it to. Imaishi Hiroyuki’s successor to Gurren Lagann turned out to be Panty and Stocking, which despite its exuberance I didn’t like at all…and now he’s off to form his own studio, Trigger – so we will have to wait and see if that is a success. To see more in the Gurren Lagann vein, one has to go back to the lacklustre Dead Leaves, or possibly be content with that one episode of The Idolm@ster.

So it was with slightly odd expectations I watched Lagann-Hen. Neither the first film nor the Parallel Works had scratched an itch for more from the excellent series, and I actually expected a tiresome rehash. Luckily, I had rather a similar experience to when I saw You Can (Not) Advance after the expectations established by You Are (Not) Alone, and there was really rather more new and awesome stuff to see in this version than anticipated – though not a whole new storyline. While the second half of Gurren Lagann – after its timeskip – is certainly the weaker part, it’s also where proceedings get truly ridiculous, with universes and big bangs being thrown about and characters slipping into fantasy worlds in their own minds. It means a slow start soon gives way to the most absurdly grandiose setpieces in any anime, with lots of shouting about the strength of manly feelings and ‘Who the Hell do you think we are?!’-ing, which is always a good thing.

While the framework is the same, obviously much-truncated, there are little changes – mostly added details to please fans, from the Spiral King getting a funny little CG sequence for when he hacks a system to individual Gurren made for characters like Nia and Yoko – as well as a fun combined Tengen Toppa for Gimmy and Darry, appropriately split left and right. For this fanservice, the early world-building for the timeskip and the interesting internal worlds of the fantasy sequences are skipped over – and, sad to say, we get no adorable humanoid Boota – but that was no loss. This is after all not a film capable of replacing the half-series it retells whatsoever, and thus is only a companion piece – so the more original content we get, and the less reuse of animation from the TV series, the better.

Essentially, this isn’t a film for people who haven’t seen the Gurren Lagann series. It’s no good just watching the two films either. But this one succeeds where the first one stumbled – it offers enough new material to work well as fanservice, and I don’t mean the Gainax Bounce kind, though there’s plenty of that too. It worked especially well for a fan watching it after a few years away from the property, and I don’t regret getting around to watching it at last one bit.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Puss in Boots

The second animated film with this title I’ve reviewed, and rather different from the lovely classic Toei film with Miyazaki on key animation, though that one is more properly called Nagagutsu-o Haita Neko. This one, of course, is not a take on the original Perrault tale but a spin-off of Dreamworks’ successful Shrek franchise. While I was quite happy to see Shrek come to a moderately dignified end, this spin-off never struck me as a bad idea – Puss was a likeable and funny character, less annoying than Shrek or Donkey, and just peripheral enough to make his own side-story seem like something wholly new.

And, honestly, this turned out to be better than any of the Shrek films. It’s far less irreverent, less knowing and less self-consciously zany, which actually makes it far more likeable. Rather than going for subversion by putting the ugly ogre centre-stage, now they have the cat, and what is lost in everyman qualities is more than made up for by cuteness.

Conceived as a prequel so that it could be developed in tandem with Shrek films without contradicting any continuity, it is refreshingly free of cast members from the original franchise. Indeed, supposedly it was originally to be direct-to-video, and I’m glad it not only got upgraded to theatrical feature but was converted to 3D – some of the best I’ve seen during the whole fad. It played things safe plot-wise, but the little details were often inspired and the humour was superb. It was also refreshing that the pop culture references were mostly limited to general pastiches of westerns and one reference to Fight Club – too many of those outstay their welcome. Even hints at the controversy around declawing (barely heard of in this country) seemed a bit heavy-handed!

Back before he met Shrek and Donkey in Shrek 2, Puss in Boots was a wanted cat. In a seedy saloon he learns that the burly outlaws Jack and Jill have come into possession of three magic beans. That strikes a chord with Puss, and he resolves to steal them. Unfortunately, the attempt is foiled because another feline has eyes on the prize – notorious cat burglar Kitty Softpaws. After a brilliantly funny confrontation, it turns out that Kitty is in league with Humpty Dumpty, a figure from Puss’s past and linked to some painful memories. Humpty grew up with Puss, until the two of them grew apart because Humpty was too drawn to a life of crime – climaxing in a bank heist that went wrong and disgrace for them both. Eventually, Puss is convinced, the new team manages to steal the beans from the grotesque redneck-Bavarian hybrids Jack and Jill, go up the beanstalk and bring back the gosling that lays the golden eggs. But all is not as it seems, and at the very least getting the gosling down from the giant’s castle doesn’t mean you’re home safe.

It’s a neat and well worked-out plot, helped by a strong backstory, and if the twist makes you doubt it could quite work when at so many points the quest could have failed and everybody could have ended up dead, you allow it because it’s far from the silliest thing that happens. But what really makes the film work is the little touches and the clever witty jokes. Most of the humour is very much character-based, and there’s much to be drawn from the fact that two main characters are cats – adorable, proud and prone to chase after spots of light – and one is an egg. Add to that jokes based on Spanish and Mexican culture, inherently silly birds and some simple classic comedy of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or trying to show off and it going wrong, and you get by far the funniest of the series, especially because it mostly doesn’t seem to be trying too hard – and, crucially, has warmth, with much of the comedy about Latin culture more affectionate homage than caricature. They even get Guillermo del Toro, executive producer, to voice the comandate.

Funny, clever, cute and giving the impression that all involved genuinely likes the film they’re making, it is by far the best thing to come out of the Shrek franchise and my second-favourite Dreamworks film, after How to Train your Dragon.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Death Note (manga)

It was through Hikaru no Go, still my favourite manga of all time and unlikely ever to be toppled from that spot, that I first encountered Death Note. Back when the translation group hadn’t finished with Hikaru’s adventures in board games and subtextual homosexuality yet (indeed, they never would finish it), they scanslated and released the one-shot pilot of Death Note, which was the first work Hikago's artist Obata Takeshi had done after the series finished. It was a good idea: a schoolboy finds a mysterious notebook, and after using it as a diary, discovers that it kills anyone whose name is written therein. A Shinigami (God of death in Japanese mythology – very much a vogue subject in manga and anime at the moment…see Bleach, Shinigami no Ballad etc) appears, explaining that it is his notebook, and the boy has to explore the moral ramifications of his actions.

It was a good enough one-shot, though in a very poor twist, the moral core was ruined by the inclusion of an eraser that could bring people back to life, which ensured that it had little scope for a series proper. Therefore, when the main series began, big changes were made. I read the first chapter and (simply because of convenience) didn’t go back to the series for many months, but I’m glad I did. I found the eraser gone and the central character now an older teenager (raising the target audience) who became intoxicated with his power and aimed to become a god. Pitted against him was L, a mysterious figure who solves mysteries and captures elusive criminals when international police forces fail. All very over-the-top, but all very cool. L of course turns out to be another teenager (with a great character design), and the main plot becomes a battle of wits between the boy with the ‘death note’, Light, and super-detective L.

This format gives a very interesting dynamic to the story: we see things through the perspective of the ‘bad guy’, who has very good reasons to believe he’s in the right. The detective story happens with us already knowing everything Light knows, so other characters struggling to figure things out are seen from a very different perspective than in most crime fiction. With cliffhanger after cliffhanger, the story is a compulsive page-turner, not always well-told (lots of plots get abandoned, lots of deductions are very far-fetched), but always readable, and impressive given that chapters have to be turned out weekly. However, it was always in my mind that it’s very easy to string together a supernatural mystery when you are making up the rules that have to be figured out for no other reason than because that fits your purpose as a storyteller.

The major flaw of the series is how talky it gets. Characters expound, speculate, pontificate, preach and explicate at great length, often with huge leaps of logic and rather unlikely trains of thought, but this does help give the impression of great intelligence, and the backbone of the plot is the clash of superior minds. Halfway through there comes a major twist, which upends the whole story, and to be honest, it would have been better if it ended there, for everything that happened subsequently trivialised, recycled or failed to live up to what went before it, though some interesting new character designs appeared.

I’m excited by the prospect of a movie, and not just because Ryuk (the shinigami) looks so damn cool. Condensing the plot (of the first half, undoubtedly) into a single movie will keep things brisk and action-packed enough that it will likely be a ‘greatest hits’ of the manga. And that suits me fine, because the action scenes, moments of high tension and revelations are what made me keep coming back to this manga. Not on a par with 20th Century Boys, which uses similar tricks to stay addictive, mostly because the characters were all quite one-note (ha! Pun! Light, after all, has two notes!), but the novel concept of watching a villain side-by-side with a man who wants nothing more than to figure out a way to expose him is what will always endure in my mind. Impressively different.

(originally written 15.6.06)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

一撃殺虫!!ホイホイさん/ Ichigeki Sacchu!! Hoi-Hoi-san / One-shot Insect Killer!! Hoi-Hoi-san

In the near future, insects have grown resistant to pesticides. What will mankind do? Well, the answer is simple – they must turn to moé-moé little palm-sized robots to destroy them with guns.

This is a ten-minute animation that is something of an orphan of a franchise I’m never going to explore. It would seem that the franchise started life as a Dengeki Daioh manga halfway between a parody of the girls-with-guns subgenre that includes the likes of Gunslinger Girl and Saikano, and a sincere attempt to be an ultra-adorable part of it. A PS2 game seems to be the main iteration, but I’m quite happy for it to be an amusing and silly little curio I watched for ten minutes and laughed through most of, featuring tiny dolls with lots of firepower and adorable squeaky booties on their feet.

There’s plenty introduced in the 10 minutes of screen-time. Not only do we have the blank-faced and utterly serious little robot, but she has a rival, Combat-san, who seems determined to hunt Hoi-Hoi-san down, but always ends up getting in scrapes herself – more often than not courtesy of Hoi-Hoi-san. Then there is the unfortunate Kimi, who wanted two cute little dolls to dress up but woke up to a pile of dead, steaming cockroaches and never got over the trauma. And poor Aburatsubo-kun, who loves the little dolls he keeps on breaking. For ten minutes, there’s a lot crammed in, and the overall impression was more memorable than many a 26-episode series.

The OVA is also fan-pleasing in that it brings together two very well-known seiyuu to voice the dolls, Kugimiya Rie and Tanaka Rie, who despite being both popular and prolific rarely work together (I can only think of it happening before in Toradora), and I get a small thrill from the idea of a chibi-Suigintou hunting rather uselessly after weaponised Shana-tan.

It’s probably good to keep Hoi-Hoi-san a little rarity and obscurity. Spinning it out into a series Di Gi Charat-style would probably make the little gunslinger-bots outstay their welcome. As it is, I find them adorable!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Arthur Christmas

With Chicken Run, Aardman unexpectedly brought their claymation style to a much wider audience. They had been charming British audiences for years, of course, from the Creature Comforts shorts to their celebrated Wallace and Gromit films. Despite my initial fears, this film also does not signal the end of their relationship with the medium – the claymation The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists comes out within a few weeks. So what is Arthur Christmas? An experiment? A side-project? A Sony animation with the Aardman name added to give it a sense of familiar, homespun eccentricity?

Ultimately, it looks like Aardman writing and humour packaged up by Sony’s slick CG animation put through the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs character design filter. A union that works well, impressive but remaining silly-looking and with some good humour – though perhaps some more cuteness in the design side would have helped.

The story is a slightly cheeky take on Christmas traditions. Santa isn’t a being who lives forever – ‘Santa’ is more a title, handed down from father to son. The current Santa is getting on a bit, though his eccentric and ancient father is still alive. His successor is likely to be his eldest son Steve, who has come up with an incredibly efficient system to deliver presents to every child on Earth, involving a vastly supersonic spaceship with an underbelly that mimics the night sky, numerous video streams and specialists for every situation. Steve’s younger brother Arthur is clumsy and useless, but works hard in the letters department, writing back to children to instil them with a sense of wonder. However, when one child is missed and the current and incumbent Santas will not deal with it, it falls to Arthur, his mad old grandfather and the elf from the wrapping department who discovered the missed present to solve the problem – the old-fashioned way.

It’s unwise to attribute too much of an agenda to the film. It’s less about putting technology and heart in opposition than in contrasting ruthless corporate efficiency with caring about the individuals – without suggesting for a moment that life could go on without those who run complex operations with precision and tight controls. The ending may give priority to those who care about the children rather than the well-oiled machine, but the machine still has to be there.

Arthur Christmas won’t be for everyone – it is twee and full of cartoony designs but never quite gets to loveable, which it possibly could have done by making Arthur younger and less comical. It is not highly original, nor ever all that emotional. And it suffers from having its goal achievable in half an hour, then having to be stalled by things like misreading of maps and having to make the right first impression, which all gets a bit artificial – though missiles flying gave the climax oomph.

Aardman give the film the slight edge it needs to stand out – a very British setting and British humour. The most obvious place this happens is in the Christmas meal. While everyone knows the jokes about families getting together at Christmas only to squabble and fight, it’s actually very rare to see this in a Christmas film, and having it in one about Santa's family strikes me as amusingly subversive. There are also a lot of great little visual gags, like the poor seal that happens to be where the spacecraft is rising up out of the icy water, or a model elf appearing where you expect poor Bryony to end up. There are some nice little moments with random elf extras in mission control, and the grandpa character gets great lines.

It also helps that the cast is great. Jim Broadbent is peerless in the ‘wet and hapless but instantly likeable old man’ role, and Hugh Laurie steals the show in a return to characterisation many miles from House that ought to amuse and bemuse American audiences unfamiliar with his comedy work. Bill Nighy has a lot of fun, and James McAvoy pitches Arthur nicely between sensitive and daft. Michael Palin has a superb little cameo as a daft old communications elf, with some of the funniest moments in the film, and Ashley Jensen pitches Bryony just right (as long as Americans can understand the accent). Everything was just right – though perhaps Justin Bieber’s ending song could have been something more…timeless.

This feels neither like the start of a great renaissance for Sony Pictures Animation nor like a reinvention of Aardman, but if they collaborate a few more times, I feel like they might just make a real classic.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Watership Down

Was Watership Down for kids or adults? On one hand, it has some terrifying and bloody scenes of hallucinogenic death, some grimly realistic scenes of violence and voice acting from respected thesps. On the other, it’s about the adventures of a group of talking rabbits trying to establish a new warren after theirs is destroyed. The decision in the end rests with parents, but Watership Down will always be contentious – it is bloody, it has both supernatural scares and realistic ones (from the Black Rabbit of Inlé to Bigwig trapped in a snare) and much of the plot is given over to the need to reproduce.

But one thing is for sure – it was a staple of my childhood, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Richard Adams’ novel became one of my favourites of all time, and my brother and I would delight in reciting Kehaar’s lines (‘Vings good! Feathers clean!’, ‘Perfect landing!’), even if my five-year-old self would get a few things mixed up (‘You stoopid bunnies! You got no mates! Vere are mates? Vere are chips?’, ‘I soar! I glide! I settle…’). A few things made me feel nervous, but that only added layers to the intrigue, and I’m convinced that my childhood would be a worse place without this film.

The scrawny young rabbit Fiver has visions. He sees the future, though nobody but his brother Hazel believes him. Hazel is a natural leader, though, and when the chief rabbit refuses to abandon the warren, he takes a small faction to find somewhere new to live. After an abortive attempt to live with rabbits who live peaceful lives – as long as they don’t mind some of their number occasionally getting snared by the farmer – they find a great spot at the top of a hill. However, they have to find some does – and with help from a gull they nursed back to help, they find that there are some at a nearby farm. Hazel gets shot and seriously injured in the attempt to free them, though, and even then they need more to survive – so turn their eyes to another warren nearby, Efrafa, ruled with an iron fist by the formidable General Woundwort. The toughest of the rabbits, Bigwig, infiltrates the warren, but this only earns the wrath of Woundwort. So the rabbits prepare to defend themselves - with a trick or two, and a dog loose in the woods.

The film is incredibly quotable, and brings from the book an incredible mythology, one of the best in fiction. The rabbits have their own belief system, their own gods and superstitions, and their vocabulary is peppered with idiosyncratic words. They even suffix names with honorifics. Adams pitched these just right, so that they are believable as an alternate vocabulary without being cheesy, and it creates a brilliant exotic world within the familiar.

While it shows its age, being animated in 1978 by a team assembled for the project by director Michael Rosen rather than an established studio, it has an aesthetic that is almost inimitable. The animals are largely drawn with as much realism as possible, and it is great to see how the characteristic movements of rabbits and birds are captured in simple animation. While it will be nice to see Watership Down animated anew (not cheaply, like the TV series), I doubt it will be as visually iconic, even if Animal Logic really do go ahead with the project, instead of mucking about with projects centred on Walking with Dinosaurs and Lego…Another crack at the story will be great, but this is a visual statement that will endure forever.

The acting is also excellent, a snapshot of 1970s Britain, with the twilight of very posh Englishmen having great respect as serious actors and yet with diversity and strong female roles also represented. I might not like prophecies as plot devices, but having a mystic makes for great creepy lines. The music, of course, is iconic, with ‘Bright Eyes’ an enduring classic. Indeed, Watership Down has been influential on music ever since, and pops up in all sorts of places – from Paul McCartney to …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, musicians have enjoyed making references to Adams’ work; Slipknot referred to the film on ‘Killers are Quiet’ and Skrillex named his label after the Owsla. And it’s not just musicians: Stephen King has characters reading the book, and references have even popped up in materials in the extended Gundam universe.

An enduring classic, I will not hear anything against it. It takes its concept seriously and transcends ideas of cute bunnies, demanding to be taken seriously even if it means traumatising a few kids. Beautiful and strange, it is very likely the best piece of British animation ever made and essential viewing for any animation fan. Shame Plague Dogs didn’t live up to it - at least commercially.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Happy Feet 2

There is a tendency to remember the original Happy Feet in a…selective way. It gets looked back upon very favourably, as people remember the singing penguins, great mash-ups in the Moulin Rouge tradition and spectacular dances. But I also remember weird scenes in zoos, preachy messages and a slightly awkward ending where we saw something of an alternate world, in which the whole world goes to see the dancing penguins and as a result does not over-fish the waters of the Antarctic.

It was always, I felt, going to be a hard film for which to make a sequel. And I wasn’t filled with optimism when I saw it announced. Aside from thinking the plot could be problematic, I thought Animal Logic should be concentrating on that Watership Down update. Well, as it turns out, Animal Logic weren’t involved here – director George Miller founded his own animation studio, Dr D, as part of his Kennedy-Miller-Mitchell Films company. Whether he took key personnel with him from Animal Logic I couldn’t say, though this film very capably recaptures the look and movement style of the original. But if he did, I’m sure they’re regretting it – the poor box office performance of Happy Feet 2 has reportedly led to 600 of the studio’s 700 personnel being laid off, with only vague hints at being re-employed in a new KMM studio next year as a silver lining.

Oh, and two of the voice actors from the original film had passed away – one of them a central role.

In spite all of my misgivings, the underperformance and mixed reviews, though, I was quite looking forward to this bit of animation. The musical style was always an attraction, penguins are always going to be cute and it looked like adorable fluffy ones would be put centre-stage. After having seen it, I felt it was uneven, too small-scale and musically lacking, but a sequel that worked and deserves to make a modest profit during its run. Whether or not it really needed to be made I cannot say, but I’m actually rather glad a film with such a totally bizarre final act got a largely conventional sequel.

The film is prefaced by a Warner Bros CGI Looney Tunes cartoon (not the first one either – a Road Runner short played before Legend of the Guardians), setting the old ‘I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat’ song – with the original vocals set to a new score – to modern animation. Cute, but the old Looney Tunes style of violence seems anachronistic and backward now.

The main film was structurally neat: Mumble and Gloria (now played by Pink after Brittany Murphy’s passing) have a little chick called Erik. Erik doesn’t seem to fit into penguin society, comfortable neither singing like Momma nor dancing like Pop, and the first time he tries he embarrasses himself badly. (It’s pretty nasty.) When flamboyant Adélie Ramone sets off for his hometown, Erik, along with two chick friends – a stereotypical English girl and a stereotypical fat African-American boy – tags along. Ramone finds a new chica – and a new face in town, centre of attention: Sven, the penguin who can fly, heads a cult of personality. Mumble goes to fetch the chicks, but Erik is now enamoured of Sven and believes if he can try hard enough, he can do anything, even fly. On the way back, after an encounter with an elephant seal where Mumble proves he’s not useless – but which Erik sees as proof of his faith in Sven – an earthquake traps the emperor penguins. The humans try to help, but a snowstorm and frozen sea prevent them doing too much, and when called on to deliver on his promises Sven is eventually revealed as a fraud – not a penguin but a puffin. Now Mumble must bring everyone together to save his people.

Meanwhile, two tiny krill set off to defy the herd mentality and move up the food chain. They may be confronted with the hopelessness of their cause, but they may also learn a thing or two during the course of their bromance-tinged adventure. The message there seems to be that we should celebrate individuals, and anyone can make a difference – within the system.

The overall structure works well, gives time for nice things like speeches about self-belief and cooperation, spectacular shifts of ice and underwater adventures – and of course musical numbers. The trouble is that there are too many things that seem undeveloped. We have lots of strands set up that don’t really get anywhere – Erik not liking to dance, the krill interacting with the wider world, Sven getting redeemed, Erik learning that while he can have big dreams he is still bound by nature (and cannot fly), Gloria being a loyal mate. Some are just dropped, others seem like they should never have been raised if they’re just dealt with in a cursory way. And we never do see why humans lost interest in dancing penguins.

And the music, despite a superb original belter by Pink that makes her not just a replacement but a real star, is lacking. The opening number is strong, but we saw it in the trailer. The rest doesn’t live up to it, and there’s not much mashup stuff going on. There’s a nice Queen number, but it’s straightforward, and a bizarre moment where Erik, with voice provided by baby Mumble’s original actress with chipmunk effect added, sings a piece from Tosca about her dad being awesome, which is pretty ill-judged. It all lacks the awesome stylistic freedom Mumble’s parents brought to the original.

Voice acting is strong, with Wood still personable and Weaving still hilariously hammy. The kids are all adorable and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon have a lot of fun as the two krill, making a difficult side-story work. Plus even if it feels like someday soon we’ll all turn on Robin Williams for his numerous horrible stereotypical characters, that day isn’t here yet. He’s great.

Visuals are still spectacular and the 3D worked well. Just a shame story and character weren’t quite there.