Saturday, 25 August 2012


Does Ted really belong on an animation blog? It’s a live-action film with its eponymous character animated. That means it actually contains a relatively small amount of animation. Why include this, but not the Star Wars prequels, which have CG-animated elements in almost every shot, or The Return of the King, with Gollum such a major part and plenty of other CG characters? Yet I have already included Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and plan to eventually include classic Tom & Jerry ‘animations’ like Anchors Aweigh. But those are presented as animated characters existing in a live-action world, as a story element or a gimmick, while Ted is more of an attempt to have its animated character appear as part of the live-action world, similar to the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars usages of CG. But the main difference I’ve fixed on is that this is contextually in the framework of a creator known for his animation – Seth MacFarlane. That’s why it’s on my animation blog.  

Not that you’ll find any other MacFarlane works here. I’ve seen a lot of Family Guy, a fair bit of American Dad and a few episodes of The Cleveland Show too. But I only like to blog things I’ve completed, and it’ll probably be a very long time before I watch an entire season of any of those shows, for despite the wild popularity of Family Guy amongst my friends while I was at uni, I’ve never liked it much. I don’t like MacFarlane’s humour or sense of timing. I find all of the shows somewhat like a bitchy, aloof Perez Hilton type looking at pop culture and American society and rolling their eyes, making little sniping comments, and it gets on my nerves. I don’t like the riffing-on-a-single-line-with-whole-scenes humour South Park picked up on. I don’t like the reliance on stereotypes and gross-out humour, which needs the cheeky Pythonesque modesty to work without coming over as vicious. And without characters I care about in the least, it all becomes dull.

So I expected to really dislike Ted, which seemed to be a surreal cartoon plot put on the big screen with Marky Mark playing the same role he always plays these days. So I was happily surprised to find I really enjoyed it. After an awkward start right out of Family Guy pastiching 80s movies, in which the punchline is that even the Jewish kid everyone beats up at Christmas bullies main character John – while getting beaten up – it all gets quite likeable. The outline is such a familiar rom-com storyline that it’s a little awkward – a beautiful, successful woman has a boyfriend wasting his life, clinging on to his childhood and continually messing up social occasions by slipping off to party, and needs to learn to grow up and stop being selfish while not losing the boyish charm that makes him so sweet in the first place – while the girl needs to learn not to force him to be a different person altogether.

The unique element, of course, is Ted himself, a magical bear brought to life in a Christmas story. This central idea is quite a funny one – what happens when the boy in the cheesy Christmas story grows up and needs to lead a real life with the magical bear who is his best friend forever and ever? Especially when the bear, who had a brush with celebrity, has grown up too, and is a disgusting sex-obsessed stoner?

The film succeeds on three counts: firstly, it doesn’t make its rom-com structure the figure of mockery. What would have killed this for me would be it to be wryly poking fun at the tropes it’s relying on – it takes its love story seriously and thus, while unoriginal, it works. Secondly, it’s genuinely funny – the jokes are hit-and-miss and sometimes go too far, but by and large it’s extremely funny, especially with its early-80s nostalgia, particularly where it comes to Flash Gordon. It also relies on its animation heritage in some silly little side-jokes that seem surprising stylistically outside of animation, like the final punchline about the fat kid growing up, or the only fart joke in the film that shouldn’t have been cut, where three diners have an extreme reaction to it. Sometimes there are awkward moments where a random side-reference is put in (like the one to The Wall) where if you get it, you have a little chuckle, but in the cinema at least become quite aware that a lot of people around you didn’t understand and are just a bit confused and uncomfortable, but at least MacFarlane doesn’t string out these asides into painful sketches, and they’re kept tastefully-timed. Finally, it succeeds in actually presenting an interesting dilemma by showing both sides of John’s life as appealing. The ‘grown-up’ side may have been a little dull and passionless in a social sense, but it involved a sweet love life, money and a future. The ‘kid’ side was self-destructive, idiotic and led to a miserable dead-end single life, but the parties were amazing and the seize-the-day mentality led to great experiences. The balance was surprisingly deftly-woven, and made John very sympathetic.

It wasn’t perfect, and its flaws were large and obvious, but Ted was at the very least much funnier and much more heartfelt than I had expected, so ranks as one of the better cinema surprises of the past few years. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Brave – plus La Luna

Brave doesn’t deserve the harsh appraisals I read before going to see it. It may not have the biggest emotional impacts of all Pixar’s films, but it tells its simple, old-fashioned story well, it looks striking and it does have a good pay-off. It’s not the best Pixar film ever, but it’s far from the worst – I’d rate it with The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo – better than Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life and the Cars films. Which is a long way from the suggestion that this is part of Pixar’s big downfall – and Cars 2 really wasn’t as bad as is being made out.

Before I say any more about the main feature, though, something must be said about the short film preceding it in the usual Pixar fashion – usually something entertaining but throwaway like the magic show of Presto (with Wall-E) or the silly but somewhat iconic For the Birds (with Monsters, Inc.). This time it was La Luna, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it is absolutely my favourite thing that Pixar have ever done. Yes, over and above all the Toy Story films, above the superb opening of Up, above anything in Brave. I really, really liked it. I liked the simple but highly inventive imagery, the funny characters with what I now realise is a real rarity in Pixar – an incredibly cute child character – and I loved the workers in their olden-days costumes with their generalised European-ish voices. It fully deserved its Oscar nomination last year, and I could have very happily watched a whole feature-length film version..or just the short over and over for the length of Brave. I quite earnestly liked it that much. Enrico Casarosa, you make me more optimistic about The Good Dinosaur.

Anyway, in the wake of Cars 2 has come Brave, one of the few Pixar films – alongside Brad Bird’s films and Up – to have a predominantly human cast. The next Pixar release was to be Newt, but it got scrapped for similarities to Rio. Pixar’s films have a history of coming out coincidentally very close to films that are similar – Antz and A Bug’s Life caused a lot of tension and Dreamworks rushed their film out first, Finding Nemo was quickly followed by Shark Tale and Flushed Away ended up changing its title from Ratopolis to avoid confusion with Ratatouille, despite coming out six months earlier. So it’s understandable that they’d want to avoid yet another clash – and Brave sounds better anyway.

The story of the strong-willed tomboy princess of a vaguely feudal Scottish clan refusing to conform to expectations, causing a rift with her family that reaches a peak with a magical spell, which happily hadn’t been spoiled for me going into the film, despite having at some point long ago heard its working title. It’s a great way of both having a typical Pixar emotional arc and also seeming like a classic story from the period. Though Princess Merida is a good, strong protagonist whose hair makes her instantly recognisable and whose laughter is infectious, probably the main problem with the film is that this just makes her a bit bland. She learns to value those around her, which we’ve seen as the lesson learned too many times before, and it just never feels like she will be in any real danger, or won’t get what she’s hoping for – until the magical contrivance, which really makes the film in every other way, there’s never any real crisis for her, so when it comes it feels just a little artificial – which is enough to tip the balance of the film away from perfection.

The film also just doesn’t look quite as nice as Pixar’s films can. This is not because the backgrounds and textures are anything less than the very cutting edge – but that’s the least we expect from Pixar. The trouble is the character designs just look a bit…well, Dreamworks. And I never really warmed to them, as I did the Incredibles. Pixar is so good at making you care for funny toys, insects, strange little robots…but don’t quite pull it off with stroppy teenagers.

There’s also a little too much plot contrivance. The will-o’-the-wisps weren’t really needed in their first and last appearances, but in the middle one pushed the plot on in a very artificial way. The rival clans are placated a little too easily. And ultimately, it seems like the whole thing could have been resolved with a good sit down and a talk – but then, that’s rather the lesson to be learned by the two stubborn main characters.

With great voice acting, a strong cultural idea of Scotland and lovely modern music with a thin flavouring of traditional Scottish instrumentation, there’s much to admire about this film. It has a brilliant study of animal movement, and a lot of big laughs. It lacks a little spark, true, but that doesn’t stop it being an outstanding film…

Brave post-Oscars note: I have to say I don’t think this deserved its win over any of its competitors – but arguably it is the most Academy-friendly of the films. Wreck-it Ralph is too lowbrow for their pretensions, Frankenweenie and Pirates! too quirky and knowing, and Paranorman too lacking in feel-good schmaltz. Not a deserving winner, but an unsurprising one. 

New! Posts indexed. I have watched a lot of animation.

I don't often write editorial posts, or anything that isn't a review, but here's another one to announce the end of what turned out to be quite an effort - the creation of index pages.

The top bar now has links to all my animation impressions, listed in several different ways - alphabetically, by studio, by genre, by country (Japan excluded, as there were just too many) and by year. Hopefully you will now be able to find any review you like quickly and easily - though there are, I have to say, a lot of them.

Friday, 17 August 2012

ロザリオとバンパイア CAPU2 / Rosario+Vampire Capu2

Well then – Rosario+Vampire, by all accounts a throwaway piece of moé frivolity, managed to be a it of a smash hit and justify a second season, ‘Capu2’ – a bit of a pun, the Japanese pronunciation of ‘two’ sounding like ‘chuu’, the onomatopoeia for a kiss.

As I said in my Macademi Wasshoi! review, this second season of a fanservice-based series somewhat crippled itself with censorship on the TV broadcast, here the stupid bat mascot censoring the panty shots – and sad to say, this follow-up series took the usual tendency for a moé show to become much more perverted for its follow-up (looking at you, Dog Days Dash) and went to the absolute extreme. There are panty shots every few seconds. The episode preview is girls’ backsides shaking away until finally their panties are revealed, different every episode. The girls’ skirts are so short they reveal panties when they are simply standing, which actually becomes a plot point. And of course, the girls have decided that they will grope each others’ boobs at every opportunity.

But if any show couldn’t really get worse because of added crass fanservice, it’s Rosario+Vampire. It was about pervy fanservice from the beginning, and pushing it way past High School Girls level doesn’t detract much from an already stupid harem comedy. And what strengths the series has, it still has – a girl for every taste, some of Gonzo’s nicer and more consistent artwork, and a compulsively watchable quality derived from the light, simple tone and likeable stereotypes.

The set-up is much the same – Tsukune-kun the human attends a school for monsters, and has a disproportionate number of the female students lusting after him. Added to the mix is Moka’s little sister, a tsundere who only wants to see Moka’s dark side – and fleshes out the bat mascot into an actual character. She acts forceful and bratty enough that when she gets humiliated it’s both cute and satisfying (though spanking was a bit far). We also see the main girls’ parents, who are like exaggerated versions of them, and we get an answer to the first series’ mystery of whether the two Mokas are aspects of the same person or ought to be considered two distinct individuals – in fact, that becomes the centre of the dramatic part of the series…as in, the parts that aren’t about the Loli magically becoming an adult with big boobies, or the gang going to a bathhouse – which in the DVDs meant unappealing nipples everywhere. Even the loli looked absurd with small, stiff anime boobs.

Given that it was stupid, meant to be stupid, and happy being stupid, I didn’t mind Capu2 at all. It was dumb, unambitious fun, and while I’d never buy any merchandise based on it, it was a fun light distraction. The one problem I had was how they dealt with the typical irritating part of any harem series – the fact that the male protagonist sees the girls fighting over him, professing their love, indirectly imploring him to choose, make a decision, get them past their indecision – but he just says nothing. Laughs awkwardly and changes the subject, or gets interrupted. And the last episode has the true Moka making clear she fully understands what is going on – she beats Tsukune up for just wanting to string all the girls along and have them all, which is after all the fantasy. It’s not a fantasy I like – I’m all for the romance of one love. Tsukune clearly likes Moka the best – and he should make that clear, no matter what the audience likes. That said, that didn’t exactly work out so well for Midorino Hibi or Da Capo, so maybe I’m in the minority. And when each very different girl has rabid fans, it’s gonna be tricky to please everyone.

There probably won’t be any more Rosario+Vampire, and that suits me fine. But if there is, I’d watch it. It’s one of those shows – pleasant enough to watch without having to think at all…but not good enough that I’m sad it’s over. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

まかでみWAっしょい!Macademi Wasshoi!

At first I really did not know what to make of Macademi Wasshoi! – a pretty, fast-paced and pervy comedy series from Zexcs, the studio responsible for the rather ugly first season of Da Capo and the anime of boys-love game Sukisyo, one of very few series I have on long-term hiatus and only vaguely intend to one day finish. For a somewhat minor studio, they made Macademi Wasshoi! – based on light novel and manga series Magician’s Academy – look great, there’s no doubt about that. But watching the first episode, the uninitiated viewer is bombarded by crazy images and there’s a feeling of having everything the writer can think of thrown at you all at once. We see a magical school full of elves and witches and robots, we see the summoning of a mysterious naked cat-girl, we see a crazy teacher who looks like a young boy but whose head is detachable, we see a whole range of mecha filling skies with rockets, we see packs of dwarfs and we see one girl with a split personality who has a sharp tongue and drains others’ magic when her hairband is off, but is so shy when it is on that she has to write her thoughts down like Shion in Shion no Ou rather than speak them. And that is only about half of the most memorable characters from Macademi Wasshoi!

Being thrown into the deep end sometimes works brilliantly, though – I had that same impression when I started to watch Azumanga Daioh, after all – and looking back, the set-up isn’t so complicated. It’s essentially like MahouSensei Negima (young magic-using boy gathers a harem of moé clichés and they compete for his attention while magical crises are averted) with a touch of Baka to Test, plus the anarchic humour, style changes and direct parodies of Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei and heaps of fanservice. Still, after a few episodes I was thinking there just wasn’t much to Wasshoi! – I’d seen it all before. I didn’t like the intro song – an attempt at the rapid-fire style of Damekko Doubutsu or Lucky Star with a festival dance feel that just meanders and sounds half-finished – and it felt like Tanarotte was painfully underdeveloped for a central character, like she was just Mikoto from the first episodes of Mai-HiME, never to develop beyond that.

Episode five changed everything with the introduction of Hapsiel, the masochistic, bisexual beefcake of an angel with a mission to spread love and peace by kissing everyone into submission – which was one of the most disturbingly hilarious episodes of an anime I’ve ever seen. He is so completely foul and the humour so gross that it’s brilliant – not even mentioning the Evangelion parody it builds from. There’s something homophobic about the humour of Hapsiel, how repulsive it is to have a big, muscled man acting so suggestively, but main character Takuto is just about as sexualised as the girls in his harem, and as the moé-loving teacher points out, he and his kind have no problems with cute love stories between younger boys (and the tragic one-sided love story of two minor male characters is more affectionate mocking than contemptuous), but Hapsiel’s sweaty, forceful, ultra-masculine love has long been a source of gross-out humour in Japan (Chou Aniki being a well-known example), with Hapsiel probably its brilliantly horrific apogee.

Moé sensibilities turn out to dominate the whole series, and it soon becomes the wider cast who steal the show – one brilliant episode plays straight the love story between a personified computer and a rocket about to be sent to space. The older male characters tend to be very into their moé and it’s very obvious that the otaku crowd is being pandered to, teased and complimented – which makes for some feel-good viewing and big laughs. Of course, the series tries to end on a serious note, with tragedy coming very close and the ending being uplifting, with a final Christmas episode doing such a good job of making the central three girls endearing that it really should have been episode 4 or 5, because their being underdeveloped and not actually very interesting was probably the show’s biggest problem.

It was also remarkable in being one of two shows from late 2008 that were purposefully highly censored to boost DVD sales – the other being Rosario+VampireCapu2, which went too far in every way and ended up with a ruined TV show and a vastly overdone DVD. Here, all the risqué scenes and nude scenes were replaced with clay figures. This showed a lot more effort and ingenuity than Rosario+Vampire managed, and other than shots of faces, I have to say that I rather preferred the clay versions, not because they looked good but because the uncensored version was just really awkward to watch. Tanarotte looks like a preteen but with oddly large boobs, and seeing them bare just…seems incongruous and isn’t at all a pleasant sight. It just looks tacked on and doesn’t suit her as a loli type. Macademi Wasshoi! is a fun, zany comedy with lots of explosions and random Kaiji parodies – it shouldn’t need nipples to shift DVDs, and feels cheapened by them. But perhaps that is just where I’m out-of-sync with the moé ideal…