Wednesday, 28 November 2012

劇場版 NARUTOブラッド・プリズン/ Naruto Shippuuden movie 5: Blood Prison

During the climactic action scene that dominates the third act of this, the eighth film in the Naruto franchise, the cavalry arrives to help our loveable hero, evening what were until then impossible odds. Naruto is delighted and relieved, but takes a moment to reflect on the betrayal he felt. So wait, he ought to have said – you had me arrested, made to feel abandoned by those I loved, stripped naked and humiliated, beaten and put into the hands of those you knew were going to kill me, and who many, many times before you arrived could have done so if they got their act together instead of faffing about pretending to be a harsh prison regime, then allowed dozens and dozens of the prison’s inmates to die with no chance of miraculous resurrection – just so you could make a flashy entrance at this point? You had enough intel to send Naruto in blind and were mobilising a small army of ninja from two different villages, which meant any fears over a declaration of war were unavoidable once the invasion force landed anyway, yet you didn’t just dispense with the pointless deception and creeping around and just invade/send in a competent investigation force or inspector? Then stuck on a final scene just to highlight how this didn’t work?

Yes, I respect the Pierrot team for trying to make a Naruto film with a slightly different tone to it than usual, but this one was just poorly thought-through. On the surface it flows like a decent prison drama, but its twists are just poorly thought-through and full of holes. When a Naruto lookalike makes several assassination attempts, he becomes a wanted man – despite Naruto’s very first episode establishing that taking on the appearance of another is an incredibly basic skill. Naruto is locked up in a wooden box and carted off to a prison, where a fire jutsu seals his chakra and subjugates him. He is toldhis only hope of release is a request from his village, but none comes, and his spirit is broken with solitary confinement and strip-searches (not sure if that scene was supposed to be comic, with Japanese attitudes to nudity after all very different from Western ones, but personally I found it rather chilling). It soon becomes clear, however, that there is more to the prison, and a rumour of a box that grants any wish that the Raikage had been talking about in the opening scene just happens to tie in. A mysterious girl helps Naruto, with her flashback mentioning a jutsu that sacrifices her life marking her as deus ex machina material very early on, and he tries his best to escape the blood prison.

But then he is used as a sacrifice to awaken the (giant) box, which grants the bad guy’s wish – not for power, as his Ancient Spirits of Evil From Thundercats masters had expected, but for his dead son back. But the son has changed, and soon transforms into a huge ridiculous mind-reading monster, and it’s up to Naruto and co to stop its rampage.

There are very many questions – why did the actually-not-so-bad-guy wait so long before using Naruto for the purpose he was meant? Is the blame for the son’s new nature based on the evil of the box (in which case why is it shown as justified to kill him when he was finally depowered?), or his own grudges (in which case what was all that about him being corrupted, and why did Naruto’s speeches not fix him, as per usual?)? Were the rescue squad lurking there for days, or did they just happen to arrive when they did, and if so, what if Naruto was already dead, as he was very likely to be?

Of course, it doesn’t really benefit anyone to overthink a Naruto movie, which I have also said of previous films in the series. But I thought this might have been Naruto’s The Hell Verse, darker and more mature than the other films and much better for it – but of course The Hell Verse was made with the input of the mangaka, and that was not the case here (though on the strength of recent chapters that may not be such a bad thing). I think I’ll have to wait for the feature-length tie-in for HunterXHunter with input from Togashi himself for another Jump film that impresses me.

And the fact is that with the manga constantly drawing only cringes from me and the anime now dozens of episodes ahead of where I am, my enthusiasm for Naruto is all but gone. Much as it’s hated, I’m going to stick it out until the end, but it’s certainly a very long way from being a series I enjoy watching very week these days… 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Amazing World of Gumball (season 1)

Here’s quite an interesting one. And one of the things that’s interesting about it is how surprising it is that it’s interesting.

My first introduction to Gumball was in the cinema. I can’t remember which kids’ film it played before, but there was a promotion for Gumball that painted it as a zany kids’ show with only a scene with an electric wheelchair suggesting any vague semblance of oddness – other, of course, than its visual style, which was a vibrant mixture of different animation media.

I dismissed it as not particularly interesting, but then saw threads for it on one of my few forays into 4chan’s /co/ when that was the best place to hear about Wakfu news (with plus4chan) and decided to check it out. And I’m glad I did. Despite some major flaws and annoying characters, it was a subversive, interesting and very funny show that would appeal to older stoners in much the same way Adventure Time does, even though it enjoys a fraction of its popularity.

Gumball is also interesting because after the rather ugly Hero: 108, it is the first series from the British-based Cartoon Network Development Studios Europe, though shows like The Cramp Twins have also been developed by Cartoon Network Europe, so unless Gumball kickstarts a wider process of creating hit shows, that will probably not amount to much.

Created by French-born, London-based writer Ben Bocquelet, the series does have a notable flavour of British surrealism despite its American setting and American cast. It likes pushing its boundaries, with gross-out humour a good deal more disgusting than expected, jokes hinting at race that get a little uncomfortable when you’re aware that Gumball’s voice actor is a little white boy and Darwin’s is a little black boy, and a whole lot of risqué asides. In fact, for a little blue 12-year-old cat with weird jutty hipbones, I have to say that the apparent sexualisation of Gumball gets a little weird. Every few episodes he’ll end up naked, dressed as a girl, or otherwise severely emasculated. He and Darwin are put in suggestive homoerotic situations every few minutes. I don’t get huffy about unintentional gayness as humour, but…put together holistically, it kinda borders on the creepy.

Part of why Gumball works is its simple premise and complex execution. Episodes are built around Gumball’s home life and school life. At home, he lives with his adoptive goldfish brother Darwin, who is largely his rather more intelligent lacky; his little pink rabbit sister Anaïs, who is precocious and slightly neurotic; his blue cat mother Nicole, who clearly wears the trousers in the relationship and works very hard to prove herself; and his pink rabbit father Richard, who is so look-at-me-I’m-so-random dumb that he is noticeably a prime reason people do not watch the show, sad to say. His voice actor just hams it up too much. Gumball’s chaotic home life provides the entertainment for a lot of episodes, but the best ones revolve around inadvertently torturing their neighbour Mr. Robinson. As with poor local store worker Larry, it’s amazing just how far the writers will push Mr. Robinson’s life getting ruined by the Wattersons for humour. They are second only to Gumball in how much they get tortured.

School is a more interesting climate. Gumball’s classmates include a banana, a piece of toast, a balloon (in love with a cactus), a T-Rex named Tina, a creature so huge only its feet are seen, a little robot and Gumball’s crush – a peanut, or perhaps a moose who hides inside a peanut shell. The staff include shrill and sadistic teacher Miss Simian –quite brilliant – and hippy cloud-man Mr. Small. Here it is that Gumball tends to be at his stupidest, and humiliation often follows.

Which all suggests that the humour of Gumball is mean-spirited, but it isn’t really. There’s a lot of exaggerated suffering, but somehow it all makes Gumball pathetic in an adorable sort of way. He’s constantly buffeted about by fate, but it goes from funny to bittersweet and makes me care about the crudely-drawn little blue kitten.

And Gumball really has its animation style going for it. Mixing traditional-style animation as done in flash, cel experiments, CG dinosaurs, CG robots, cel shading, touches of live action, cut-out animation and CG made to look like puppetry and stop-motion, it puts the episode of Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei that throws in as many animation styles as possible to shame. The result is a mess, but an intentional and brilliant one, making for a vibrant world that is very exciting for an animation buff.

It would have benefited from a good song (the Japanese dub got one!), but still, I unhesitatingly recommend it.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

日常 / Nichijou / Everyday Life

From episode one, Nichijou struck me as a cross between Azumanga Daioh and Pani Poni Dash. Just look at the design of the Professor/Hakase – if that doesn’t look like Becky from Pani Poni redrawn by Kiyohiko Azuma like one of the Yotsuba&! kids, I don’t know what does. And fittingly, that’s how the humour seems to sit, as well – not quite the bewildering flurry of weirdness that is Pani Poni Dash, but certainly a few steps more surreal than even the frenetic first episode of Azumanga.
And like both of those series, my first reaction to Nichijou was confusion, followed by a knee-jerk reaction of not wanting to like it very much, and then finally as the series settled down a little into character development and stopped trying harder than it needed to, loving it. Well, okay, that last part is mostly reflective of Azumanga Daioh – it was what, in the end, was missing from Pani Poni Dash and could have made it much better.

Nichijou – a term that after learning it here I keep hearing in Japanese speech – means ‘everyday life’, ‘daily life’, ‘day-to-day life’ or any variation thereof you might like to choose. It means the ordinary and commonplace elements of one’s life, and thus the irony here is that the everyday lives of the schoolgirls here are extremely weird. At the centre of the piece sit the three friends, clutzy Yuuko, cheerful but hot-tempered Mio and quiet, mysterious Mai. They go to school and though other than Mai (who has a twisted sense of humour and odd fixation on religious carvings) they are fairly normal girls, very strange things happen around them – for example, Yuuko will happen to witness the school principal having an epic wrestling match with a deer, ultimately revealing that even the tiny bit of hair left on his balding head is a wig. Around them, things are weirder. A robotic girl’s everyday life features the sardonic talking cat Sakamoto-san and her eight-year-old creator, the selfish little girl they call Hakase (‘Professor’). One boy likes to ride a goat to school, accompanied by a butler, occasionally coming into contact with a girl from the kendo club whose tsundere character is so exaggerated that when she gets flustered she produces heavy weaponry and lays waste to all around her. Other segments involve the unfortunate boy whose hair only grows as a Mohawk, a teacher who wants to hunt and disassemble the robot girl, the various people who take a part time job selling little buns and have to wear a bun mask, the extended brilliant fantasy sequences set on a zeppelin Yuuko has about Mio’s hair and the misadventures of the ‘go-soccer club’. As you can likely tell, all very strange.
 There are also segments from the mangaka’s other manga, Helvetica Standard, which I must say doesn’t seem nearly as entertaining. The mangaka’s family name, Arawi, is also about the only place I’ve ever seen the rare ‘wi’ character, .
The series really comes into its own in the second half, when things become a bit more coherent and all the disparate parts come together – adorable robot Nano starts going to school, making friends with the main trio and uniting the two major worlds. The boy on the goat becomes the object of Mio’s affections, making for some of the cutest scenes, and her rival is in the kendo club with Mio’s big sister. Things start to make more sense in a larger context, and the humour is increasingly based on character quirks rather than random things happening, which works better, and the incredible overreactions become ever funnier, especially when Mio thinks her filthy yaoi drawings are about to be revealed.
Though seemingly nowhere near as big a hit as Lucky Star, I feel that this second attempt by KyoAni to make a simple-looking comedy series was by far the better, and when they segue into huge, absurd action sequences with sweeping cameras and explosive special effects, it works fantastically. I’m a little sad that the DVDs reportedly didn’t sell well at all, as that means we’re unlikely to see any more Nichijou, and it’s a much better property than Lucky Star overall. It probably just didn’t hook enough people in at the start, as after all I too took a long while to really get into it.
Well, KyoAni’s latest, Chuunibyou, is giving us the best of both worlds of KyoAni’s strengths – beautiful art/animation and humour – so I don’t think poor DVD sales will affect them overly. But Nichijou shouldn’t be seen as a flop. It just needs time.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Plague Dogs

This 1982 film was Michael Rosen’s follow-up to the popular but controversially visceral Watership Down, and in another world possibly could have established him as one of the world’s foremost animators, pushing animation about animals far, far away from cutesy American fairy stories. But no, The Plague Dogs was too bleak, much too bleak, and this was his last work as the director of an animation, with only a vague, name-for-credibility’s-sake connection with the Watership Down series.

And this is definitely not Disney. You might say forcing audiences to face death in Bambi or The Lion King reflects a certain darkness and maturity. Well, The Plague Dogs opens in a vivisection lab, where the poor dog Rowf is forced to swim in a tank until he drowns, getting revived to do it again another day, and again and again for the test results. In the next scene we see the dogs kept in their pens – and the dead ones picked up by a shovel to be dumped. I wrote of the colourful adventure story with chickens and ducks that gained some critical acclaim from Korea, Leafie: A Hen Into the Wild, that the bleak beginning on the battery farm showed that the film wasn’t going to pull punches, but after that it’s a colourful and enjoyable – if mature – adventure story and family drama. Well, The Plague Dogs starts bleaker than that – two dogs manage to escape their pen and get outside only through the incinerator, moments before the dead dog dropped in there with them is destroyed – and despite moments of hope and brightness, gets bleaker. Rowf is one of the dogs, the other being Snitter from the pen next door, who has had his brain experimented on and suffers seizures, but is convinced that there are good, benevolent ‘masters’ who will help them and give them a good life. They do not get a good life. Out on the Yorkshire Fells with no idea how to live, they first try to find a new master – not understanding how things work – and then try to go wild, which leads to their meeting a canny fox who calls himself The Tod, who teaches them better ways to kill sheep to that he can take his piece. His thick Lancashire accent is another reason the film hasn’t travelled well – although he sounds perfectly intelligible to me, speaking in a way not a million miles from my grandpa, a nice contrast with John Hurt’s neat enunciation. (Patrick Stewart also cameos!)

Arguably the film is less bloody and violent than Watership Down, but it’s so, so much bleaker. The Plague Dogs is mostly characterized by its unending, affecting bleakness. It’s probably more punishing and miserable than even Grave of the Fireflies, and while there is beauty in that – and great beauty in this film – it is not exactly the beauty one is desperate to revisit. Rewatching it today was my first repeat viewing in a good decade (the VHS, with various cuts). The film is so good at setting up and then dashing false hopes – in a few seconds, we see Snitter finally getting some affection and seconds later a gun has gone off and a man is clutching his face with blood running down from between his fingers.

The Plague Dogs has a unique aesthetic – or at least, shared with Watership Down alone – and some beautiful imagery and direction, with lots of close cutting. There are some impressive and haunting images, even if so simple as the rubber gloves for reaching inside the rat cages being left inside-out. Snitter’s hallucinations are probably more believable and unsettling than Fiver’s, though the transformed stones are a very misleading image to publicize the film with (as they did).

But I don’t mind the film being obscure. I don’t mind it not having the legacy it might have. I have enjoyed it, and I have to say that for all it’s punishing and even upsetting, it’s also quite beautiful, and haunting, and certainly unique. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

バイオハザード ダムネーション / Biohazard: Damnation / Resident Evil: Damnation

Not much need to write a whole lot about Damnation, Capcom and Sony Pictures’ second computer-generated animation in the Resident Evil franchise. I’ll say this: it was more fun than Degeneration. At least it was full of action and didn’t drag on, which despite not having a bad script that film did. It was thin on plot and high on rocket launchers making tyrants explode, and already puts it above Degeneration in terms of action, but it had a terrible script and very unlikeable characters, so it ended up pretty dreadful and too often unintentionally hilarious.

Leon – here horrible characterized as a highly irritating wise-cracker who fits in quips before taking action – is dropped into Russia to investigate biological weapons. He finds them, of course, and some Russian mercenaries (or similar) who he befriends. Meanwhile, Ada Wong is doing her usual infiltration business to find out who sanctioned getting in dangerous viruses. Most of the film is just Leon and co fighting their way from one place to another.

It still looks clunky. Despite some beautiful renderings of a church – internal and external – and clear effort put into making it look good, it moves in an awkward motion-captured way, the lip-synch is all still iffy and the zombies look more comical than anything else. Only the tyrants look good, huge and lumbering – though the lickers aren’t bad.

Ultimately, the film is basically a tie-in to Resident Evil 6, and if you’re not interested in that – as I’m not – then it’s unlikely to have much for you. 

The Black Cauldron (1985)

It’s been a long time since I saw The Black Cauldron, probably the most neglected and sorely-criticized of Disney’s films. Aimed at older kids but marketed at younger ones, it flopped – though not horrifically, not quite making back its high budget at the box office. I’m sure it eventually recouped its losses once the home versions came out, though confidence was so low that it took quite a while for the first video release and a decent version didn’t come out until 2010. I’ve had it as a VHS for many years, but barely watched it – I found Gurgi and Fflam annoying, cared little for the main characters and thought the plot functional and insipid, though I did go and read the Chronicles of Prydain books to see if they were better.

The follow-up to The Fox and the Hound, it was one of the few films unambiguously in the age of Disney feature films that come after the end of the ‘Golden Age’ and before the Disney renaissance, and also the key moment in the final transition from the Nine Old Men to the new Disney age, and if The Fox and the Hound was the moment the coin flipped, this is the first film the new crew were making their mark with. That said, it was also the victim of hierarchies not being established, with the new chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg stepping in to neuter some of the film’s attempts to come over as more adult, with the cut scenes being some of the very things that could have made the film appear to make progress, and the resultant slight mess making the film seem less focused.

But rewatching it today, it struck me that it was markedly better than I had remembered it being. The story is simple but coherent. Gurgi – though he will now eternally suffer comparisons with Gollum because of similar vocal performances – was actually kinda cute, and orders of magnitude less irritating than the comedy characters in The Fox and the Hound. The Horned King was awesome to look at and refreshingly simple. The animation looked gorgeous and crucially, I found that this time I cared about Taran and Eilonwy, the former being endearingly insecure and determined, and the latter being remarkably forceful and self-confident for a pre-90s Disney princess. Their designs were cute and where I found their performances stiff and unlikeable before, this time they struck me as sweetly prim and awkward.

And that seems to be crucial – if you take a liking to Taran at least, the film is quite tolerable, because it’s really the story of him, his pig, his sword and his cauldron. If you find him dull and inept, then the rest of the cast will probably not redeem him and it’s unlikely that the adventure will resonate. He’s really the heart of the piece, so finding I liked him changed my experience – because my problems had never been with the film’s aesthetics, technical accomplishments, lack of songs (no negative in my book), low level of humour or overall story, all of which are at least functional.

The problem is really that even liking the characters, the film doesn’t get the viewer in the heart. It doesn’t have a large scope, either in established locations or a character’s age – even if Taran goes from pigkeeper to young hero – and the only tragedy is right at the end and while well-done, gets undermined at the end anyway. It has little to really get a heightened emotional response, and the result is that even liking it as I did this time, I was still left cold and thinking that it wouldn’t be one I’m likely to rewatch for many a year. That said, I’d rather sit through it again than Pocahontas or The Fox and the Hound...and would come second only to The Little Mermaid in my pick of 80s Disney. 

Monday, 12 November 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

I hadn’t actually seen any of the other Madagascar films before seeing this. They never had any particular appeal – the art style struck me as a very expensive and laborious way of making creatures look ugly and plastic, and it all seemed a bit of an Ice Age mark 2, without any unique Dreamworks spin. Not that I have ever been particularly interested in Ice Age.

But I had a bit of interest in Madagascar 3. Perhaps it was in part thanks to the viral power of the silly ‘Afro Circus’ song – especially mashed up with things like Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ – which was probably all a forced marketing campaign but still worked neatly. It looked entertaining, if mindless and stereotype-driven.

And it was mindless and stereotype-driven, but that was no big issue. It was fun, and the ending was both more spectacular and cleverer than I had ever expected. I loved the overblown circus spectaculars and I loved the way once the main characters got what they wanted, they realized it really wasn’t what they imagined, or worth leaving behind what they had. The new characters got the bare minimum of development – except maybe the brilliant sea lion Stefano – but it was expertly done so that they were likeable and I cared about them, while the rapport between the central characters – well, I don’t know if it was that way from the start or something that developed, but the rapport between them was great. It’s an unlikely collection of voice actors – is it the only thing David Schwimmer is doing these days? – but sometimes throwing a group of unlikely companions together is exactly what works best.

As for what I said about the aesthetic being a very expensive way to look ugly, that’s really limited to character designs, and though they’re generic and not especially appealing, they do also manage the feat of imprinting themselves incredibly quickly and indelibly on the consciousness, and once there are unforgettable.

There’s not a lot at stake here, and the storyline written on paper is pretty dull, relying on the bouncing between two plots – the animals try to pass as circus performers while a crazy animal control officer hunts them – but the two are juggled deftly and the combination of acrobatics, bright colours and attractive locales including Monaco and London keep the piece engaging until the end. In short, nothing that will change lives or stun audiences by being wildly different from expectations, but well-written, funny and pleasant to look at. I would not be averse to checking out the previous films now, nor to spin-offs…though this would be a very neat way to end the main series, with the zoo animals finding their way back home and realizing that everything they’ve experienced on their journey means they no longer need it. 

Thursday, 8 November 2012

コクリコ坂から / Kokuriko-zaka-kara / From Up on Poppy Hill

Miyazaki Junior got what most Ghibli directors – even ones who make successful films like The Cat Returns – do not. He got a second chance. And since trying to be like otou-san with Earthsea didn’t work, it seems he’s now trying to be like Takahata: this is a whole lot less Kurosawa and vastly more Ozu.

From Up on Poppy Hill is the sober, realistically-told story of some Japanese students in the 1960s renovating and saving their outsized school clubhouse, which they call the Quartier Latin. Two key students involved in this, the someone taciturn daredevil Shun and the mature and headstrong Umi have something of a romantic spark, but things are complicated when it turns out that they might actually be half-siblings.
It’s all a slow and mature sort of a story, and viewers hoping to see another Mononoke-Hime or even Totoro are likely to be disappointed, and to be honest, most people who aren’t keen on arthouse in general will very possibly find this dull. Its closest matches in the Ghibli canon are Whisper of the Heart and Only Yesterday – and possibly the far-more-dull Ocean Waves. To be certain, there’s a precedent.
Given a chance, any viewer can find things to enjoy – the sweet melodramatic love story, the silly humour of the big chap who runs the Philosophy Club, the uplifting spectacle of the moment the clubhouse’s fate is decided…and the sweetness of raising the flags every day is iconic.

I don’t for a moment think that this is for everyone, especially not the easily-bored, but for those who enjoy simpler, smaller-scale animations, this is a little gem. Arguably there wasn’t much need to make it animated, but it did a great job of recreating a time and place, and I’m not sure live-action would have captured the clubhouse in the same way, nor been able to express Umi’s sudden realization of what the revelation about Shun’s father means for her with such brevity.

Recommended for fans of slow but heartfelt stories. Also, I just have to mention that because of her hair, every time I look at Sora, all I can see is Francine from Arthur

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Adventure Time season 4

 Adventure Time’s third season reached a difficult, slightly awkward period most comedy shows get to – the premise was wearing thin and too many episodes seemed to be going through the motions. There was the interesting development of bringing romance to the fore, but it was often a little jarring and despite some excellent episodes – especially ‘Holly Jolly Secrets’, plus the introductions of Lemongrab and the ‘Fionna and Cake’ genderswapped cast - the season just wasn’t up there with the previous ones.

Season IV has dealt with this quite well. It started with a new development in the romantic sphere, with Finn starting an awkward relationship with the Flame Princess, which largely allows for amusing moments with Princess Bubblegum, who may or may not be jealous. Largely, though, it means the relationship drama gets the impression of being dealt with and can be left to one side, with just a handful of half-episodes devoted to this new love story.

Otherwise, season IV has been remarkable for going back to revisit elements of the series I didn’t expect to see again. I loved the sheer randomness of the King Worm’s appearance in season 1, and never expected to get a whole episode devoted to him, and though it just about worked, I think I would rather have left it as a bizarre season 1 nugget. Not so the revisiting of Abraham Lincoln as the King of Mars, an element from the original Penn and Jake pilot. I even wrote that that sort of randomness was the kind of thing that separated the pilot from the main series, so this came as a surprise – but worked well, especially since he was made real rather than an apparent figment of the imagination.

In some ways these detract from the originally Pythonesque surrealism, taking originally inexplicable things and giving them explanations, but Adventure Time is now a long-running show, and fleshing out the world properly works.

Otherwise, season IV managed to be a good one largely by just sticking to the Adventure Time formula and doing it well. Gunter the penguin rising up as an unstoppable force, Treetrunks having a rather disturbing romantic liaison, Princess Bubblegum creating a terrifying sphinx creature that has to be countered in an epic battle, BMO getting a detective pulp parody episode and Lemongrab returning in truly creepy and socially awkward style all make for great little twists on an established tone, and the occasional moments of great poignancy – like when The Ice King assembling a princess out of stolen body parts gives way to an existential crisis, or when Marceline remembers her childhood in a brilliant and unexpected little twist (that apparently never came up in the Christmas video viewings, presumably because Marceline liked to lurk outside the window) – really raise the series up and make me wonder about the Land of Ooo’s apocalyptic origins. There’s an episode in season V entitled ‘Simon and Marcy’ – I’m very much looking forward to that one.

The series has again ended on a cliffhanger, involving the Lich – brilliantly creepy flickering for a frame or two over Billy, and perfectly voiced by Ron Perlman in Teen Titans mode – and we have only a couple of weeks to wait for new episodes, so I’m very much on board, probably for the rest of the show’s run. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hotel Transylvania

Despite the impression that this is just one in a long line of forgettable CG comedy films, it was actually one of the best little Hallowe’en treats in a while. Sony is still getting on its feet as an Animation department, with The Smurfs not exactly well-received and Arthur Christmas (as well as The Pirates!) probably more closely associated with Aardman than with Sony, but this was a big step in the right direction. They took the wise decision of getting in someone with TV animation pedigree – Genndy Tartakovsky of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack fame – and though his pedigree with CG feature-length films isn’t exactly glowing (The Clone Wars film), this is more in-keeping with the tone of his prior work.

And it was good. There were a few misfires – bad fart jokes, a rather underdeveloped scene where the main characters end up in a monster festival and a male romantic lead who it took a very long time for me to find likeable, but that’s far outweighed by what the film got right.

Icons of horror have long been prominent in comedic animation. From Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies through Count Duckula and Doctor Zitbag’s Transylvanian Petshop to last week’s Frankenweenie, the icons of gothic literature and Hammer Horror films are the right mixture of strong characterisation and silliness and basically write their own stories. And here’s one that’s a classic storyline but neatly 21st-century.

In the world of Hotel Transylvania, the monsters are terrified of the humans. Angry mobs and pitchforks have taken their toll, and Dracula himself lost someone very close to him. Retreating to an extremely well-hidden hotel, he raises his little daughter Mavis and keeps her so close she’s stifled. Though he promises her freedom on her 118th birthday, he keeps tight control even then, going so far as to have his zombie minions pretend to be pitchfork-wielding humans in a nearby village to give her the impression that they’re all out to kill monsters. However, when a happy-go-lucky young human called Jonathan finds his way to the hotel during a big birthday get-together, Dracula finds himself struggling to keep control.

Monsters bring with them lots of obvious humour – The Invisible Man is sensitive about things people can’t see, the Wolfman has doggy habits and a whole brood of uncontrollable welps, and Frankenstein’s monster for whatever reason has a very Jewish bride. Dracula here is a very entertaining character, immense power hidden behind a very daft, insecure and controlling personality, non-violent and only vaguely threatening and very likeable, which is not only a credit to his design and writing but to Adam Sandler’s performance. His daughter Mavis, voiced by Selena Gomez (who I’m not sure I’ve seen in any of her Disney-related things or heard singing in any conscious way), was adorable in design, in character and in bat form, and it was cute that Sandler’s wife and daughter voiced the family in flashbacks.

The film’s mixture of humour and sentiment is a bit oddly-paced and free-wheeling, but that keeps things rolling along at an even keel and is in the spirit of the film’s message that controlling too much is bad and sometimes you should just enjoy yourself going with the flow. There were some random things, but most of them were also funny, like Dracula randomly throwing out a rap involving just about every possible rhyme for ‘Zing’, including ‘The Lion King’. That was one of the pop culture references thrown in there that might date the film very quickly, as well as a dig at Twilight – and I’m sure more than one viewer will make the comment that this was ‘still a better love story than Twilight’, which was certainly true.

Unlikely to go down in history as epoch-changing or essential viewing, this was still a very good example of a fun, family-friendly CG film with a few images that ought to endure.