Friday, 28 December 2012

ソードアート・オンライン / Sword Art Online

The other 2012 series I’ve been watching as it aired other than Chuunibyou has been Sword Art Online – and in exactly the same way, I loved the first half and had mixed feelings about the rest. While the serious turn in Chuunibyou had me feeling it would have been better truncated or held off but worked, however, the far inferior second half of SAO made me quite fed up with the whole thing. Far better to have spun the first of the two plot arcs into the full 26 episodes than to have rushed to include both, and then end up with a series that was deeply disappointing.

SAO was by far the most hyped series of the year, and also the one I was most looking forward to. Unlike most series these days (sequels aside), I actually knew about this one months before it aired, and even recommended it to a lot of friends. I loved the pretty character designs – despite the main characters famously having just about the same features despite being different genders – and the fantasy/sci-fi elements, and really felt engaged by Kirito.

In the near future, gaming technology has developed to the extent that ‘nerve gear’ can completely immerse you in a fantasy world. The interface, placed on your head, makes you believe you are really in the world of the game, engaging all your senses and even your pain receptors, while allowing you to feel you are performing supernatural feats. 14-year-old Kirigaya Kazuto joins the game on day one having enjoyed the experience of being a beta tester. However, before a few hours have elapsed, he finds himself unable to log out. Soon the truth is revealed – the creator of the nerve gear has trapped all the players within the virtual world. He rips away their avatars to reveal their true faces – perhaps the funniest moment in the series, though of course most of the major characters are incredibly good-looking anyway – and tells them that they must beat the game to escape it. Oh, and if they die, there will be no respawning – they will die in real life, too.

The initial criticism of the series was that this had all been done before. .Hack/Sign in particular was cited: it, too, has a virtual MMORPG fantasy-themed world where a player cannot log out. I was also reminded of HunterXHunter’s Greed Island arc, in which the players of an MMORPG can die for real, the Taiwanese Manhua ½ Prince which also explores online fantasy-themed MMOs and the contrasts between real life and avatar characters, and Master of Epic, a gag comedy series about a similar world that in particular I think directly informed the appearance of the character Recon. But that never bothered me. This was clearly not telling the same story as any of those, and the idea was never meant to be all that unique. It was the particular characters and the world itself that hooked me. And so I happily watched.

Kirito initially has a tough time. He is ostracised for the unfair advantage of having played before, and he abandons others in order to play alone. He makes friends, but suffers the real tragedies of the risks of a genuinely deadly game. His emotional state became the target of mockery for many, who loved pairing him up with Linkin Park song clips/lyrics, but I still enjoyed this part. There was a hint of annoyance as the series briefly became episodic and started featuring a new girl every week, who rather annoyingly all fell instantly in love with pretty little Kirito, who used his overpowered avatar to save the day again and again in what may as well have been made-up magical spells. Basically, I could understand people starting to feel the same annoyance towards him as they feel towards Bella Swan in Twilight, who is similarly overly-perfect and has absolutely everyone fall in love with her. The ‘Gary Stu’ term becomes more and more appropriate, and rather than a horrible situation of life and death, of loss and broken dreams, it becomes clear SAO is wish fulfilment and Kirito is overly perfect.

For a while, he’s put in his place a little by the even more overpowered Heathcliff, though later we find out just why that is, and starts a proper romance with Asuna, which is actually very cute, a little boundary pushing (to say nothing of the light novel writer’s pornographic ‘glop’ chapter written later) and rather humanises the character, but just as it gets interesting, the writer seems to think there isn’t much more to explain, skips to the ending, finishes the story in a very unlikely and unsatisfying way, and suddenly a whole new plot arc begins. And a 25-episode series has jumped the shark at episode 15.

The second half is deeply inferior. Without giving too much away, to rescue Asuna, Kirito enters a world of elf ears and fairy wings in what seems despite its flight simulation a terrible game. The aim is apparently for all races to work together, yet none of them do. Of course, perfect perfect Kirito changes all that, and enters the game levelled absurdly high because a lot transferred to his character. A horribly shallow incest story gets thrown in, and the antagonist is a cackling madman rapist looking to take over the world through the nerve gear, and it all goes far too far and becomes incredibly stupid. The resolution is even more unsatisfying than the first arc’s ending and by the end I’d completely gone off Kirito.

So much was done right. The series looks gorgeous, with A-1 now ensconced as one of the studios that can produce very pretty character designs, after The iDOLM@STER and Welcome to the Space Show, and I hope this hit will buoy them to more action series. I’d even watch another series of this. But I have to say, for what I expected to be one of the best series in years, it certainly fell well short. A pity!

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

中二病でも恋がしたい! / Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! / Second-year Illness aside, I want Love!

Chuu-ni-byou, ‘the illness of the second year of junior high school’, is a very funny condition. It’s the mental delusion in young teens where their adolescent angst makes them create a fantasy world filled with ridiculous attempts to be cool. In the case of main character Yuuta, that meant calling himself the ‘Dark Flame Master’ and donning a big trenchcoat, trying to imbue fancy swords with supernatural powers. When the story starts, he is deeply embarrassed by that past, blushing and cringing right down to the floor when he thinks of it, which is a very endearing trait. When he goes to his high school, he gets it out of his system with one last display on a balcony – but the one person who sees it is of course the girl who is still mired in the worst delusions of chuunibyou, cute little Takanashi Rikka. With his secret revealed, he is drawn into the strange plans of this girl, joining an odd club with another more energetic chuunibyou called Dekomori, a sleepy girl called Kumin, a clownish boy called Makoto and a popular cheerleader called Nibutani who is initially an antagonist of sorts, but becomes an ally largely because she, too, has a past as a chuunibyou and the others have blackmail material on her.

From the offset, the odd couple comedy is rather like ToraDora clashing with Black Rock Shooter – an unlikely match of a misunderstood guy and a girl with a damaged history who acts out, overlaid with another world that allows for bravura animation with huge, silly weapons. It also struck me as rather like Shakugan no Shana if the supernatural action had all been imagined. But the hook of this embarrassing past is a wonderful one, and I had some of the biggest, most affectionate laughs I have had in any anime since…probably Ika Musume, which had a similar direct and ingenuous way of presenting humour.
Part of the initial hook of Chuunibyou is attached to how that sort of escapism is likely to resonate with the target audience. 
The greater part of anime fans must either have done embarrassing things in their youth or know people who come over as delusional, which adds to the humour. I found it all immediately appealing, and thought this perhaps the ideal mixture of Kyoto Animation’s previous styles – the romantic big-eyed Keyadaptations, the wacky anything-goes humour and the gentle but dull cute-girls-doing-cute-things with adorable art. It had humour, spectacle and romance, and for the first time a male lead who was not sarcastic and handsome and standoffish but as cute and goofy as the girls – though the harem he assembles here is particularly childlike and adorable and in design terms owes a lot to K-On. It didn’t hurt that occasionally the show would present delusions as if real, especially when the ice-cool, detached big sister character would come to knock some sense into Rikka with a ladle, and that as well as Rikka’s umbrella would be transformed into huge sci-fi anime weapons.

Of course, after about half its short 12-episode run (plus six cute little internet shorts), Chuu-2 did what almost all anime in its style inevitably do, and swung towards drama rather than comedy. I must say, I wish the comic element had lasted longer, even if that meant a longer series or the dramatic parts more truncated – as it was, they were paced fairly slow, anyway. Ultimately, it becomes apparent that Rikka’s illness is a result of repressed feelings of grief – of course, for it can’t just be a nice, light story – and by living in her silly dream-world, she is hurting her family and putting off truly being able to mourn.

The way this issue is ultimately dealt with – an irritating half-measure where the status quo can be restored and Rikka finds catharsis and a way to confront what she has repressed while within her fantasy world, rather validating it and removing the interesting angle of ‘If she doesn’t grow up and leave this behind, she can never truly mourn for her loss,’ which was kinda the whole point of the serious turn. Add in the unfortunate turn of a funny sleepy character behaving very oddly – apparently a character original to the anime – and a very unlikely moment in the classic anime tradition of ‘We’ll hold them off here – you go on ahead!’ and it all struck me as very hollow and artificial.
Which is a shame, because until the very last three or four episodes I really enjoyed Chuunibyou. It was a neat little set-up with great potential for humour, utterly adorable girls and a couple of adorable boys as well – all doing cute things – and some very memorable images. It was on course for being one of my favourites in years, winning big points from me especially because of the way Yuuta and Nibutani would get so embarrassed when they remembered their past silliness, and how even as one who disliked Geass I can find it funny when Fukuyama Jun put on his Lelouche voice for his daft past self, usually much more in his adorable Riku-from-Onmyou Taisenki / Aruberu from Gankutsuou / oh god that hideous creature from Okane ga Nai mode. But just like Sword Art Online, when it changed tack and took some risks, it went too far, and ended up rather spoiling what went before it. What a pity, for I had hoped for a bit of a classic here.
Still, I’ll definitely want to catch the OVA next year, and any future animation. Hopefully they’ll have a less seizure-inducing opening animation, too. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Snowman and the Snowdog

Thirty years after the original The Snowman became a major cultural artefact of the United Kingdom and its Christmas period, there has been an attempt at a sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog. Much-hyped and aired with a careful avoidance of advert breaks, it was unveiled to a curious public today to a mixture of optimism and cynicism. Of course, in an age of godawful ‘sequels’ to canonical novels and dire remakes of classic films, it’s only expected that a new team taking on a well-loved Oscar-nominated animation and producing a sequel are going to be a bit leery.

Original director and arguably heart and soul of the first short Dianne Jackson of course passed away twenty years ago, so could have no say here, but original author Raymond Briggs gave his blessing and eight of the original animators returned, giving a certain authenticity to the piece. Despite my scepticism it was going to be a poor imitation of the original’s style done in Flash, the film was made with determinedly traditional techniques, including the uneven pencil colouring that gives that wonderfully otherworldly shimmering between frames that is the most immediate of the links between past and modern incarnations. There was CG in evidence, most notably when a plane was involved, but generally everything had a nice, hand-drawn look, the flight sequences showed a great deal of work went into the backgrounds and at the same time things looked a little more modern and crisp with some ambitious angles and shot composition. I approved of the aesthetic.

I also approved of the mixture between up-to-the-minute references and nostalgia for a simpler time. Our main boy has a more up-to-date but still classic hairstyle, lives a very pre-internet life of making snowmen and playing with toy trains with not an Xbox in sight, and yet flies with his snowman past The Shard and the London Eye, as well as, um, the transmitter at Crystal Palace, and later meets snowmen who snowboard down the hills rather than just ski. It’s clearly 2012, but it’s also clearly yearning for the nicely old-fashioned and middle-class. The start of the journey on the South Coast also had a touch of resonance for me, an echo of the Sussex sights from Brighton in the original. Apparently the IOs game centres on Hastings.

The film establishes itself as a sequel almost right away. Just as the old version had a bittersweet ending, so does this one start on a bittersweet note. Conveying in a neatly wordless fashion that the boy’s dog is very old, it quickly shows just why he would want to make not only a snowman but a snowdog. He is spurred into this by finding hidden under the floorboards the original ginger kid’s snowman-making items – hat, scarf, coal and an old shrivelled orange for the nose – as well as a photograph of him with his snowman pal. Just as the edge was taken off the snowman’s classic disappearance by the Father Christmas short implying he was remade every year – until, presumably, such childhish things were put away – here we see he gets a new lease of life every year as the boy remakes him with the photograph as reference, with a fresh new orange, then gives him a canine companion complete with socks for ears, gloves for spots and the old orange for a nose.

True to form, the pair comes to life and takes the boy for a flying adventure, sadly to a song not even a fraction as memorable as ‘Walking in the Air’, some turgid and instantly forgettable pop-rock apparently from the drummer from Razorlight, featuring a horrible chorusy reverb effect on his voice that really grated on me. Next they hop in a plane, evoking airfix fantasies that would make James May gibber, and join a snowman exodus to the North Pole. It’s a slightly more aggressive and hip place than last time, with frenetic races against penguins and a lively market, slightly awkwardly including a lot of racial and national caricatures in snowperson form – the Scotsman in his kilt is to be expected, the Frenchman with garlic around his neck and the geisha in kimono just about pass, but the Chinese snowmen in peasant hats with slitty coal eyes were pushing things a bit far for my taste, and will probably draw some criticism from viewers and even make the film date faster.

Again, the film ends with a return, a night’s sleep and then a bittersweet farewell, this time perhaps for the last time, but the edge is taken away when a Christmas miracle gives the boy a new companion. That said, it made me feel for the many kids who no doubt will watch it and feel hopeful for a similar miracle to happen to them, only to be disappointed.

Lovingly-done and sweet at its core, the abiding question that will arise from it will nonetheless surely be – why? Was this necessary? Did a dog really add anything? But then, why not? It didn’t damage a legacy, and was indeed quite a pleasure. It’s also made me interesting in its studio, Lupus Films, and made me want to see their version of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’.

Though a Christmas miracle for me would be for no reviewers to make the mistake of thinking the original had singing from Aled Jones. Oops! Too late. 

手塚治虫のブッダ 赤い砂漠よ!美しく/ Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: The Red Desert! Beautiful / Buddha: The Great Departure

Tekuka, so often called the ‘God of Manga’, never really paid much attention to the original stories he was adapting. When it came to Metropolis, for example, he simply riffed off the impression he got when seeing the poster for the film. When it comes to the life story of the key figure of one of the most significant religions that make up the melting pot of Japanese syncretic faith, one might expect a little more reverence. And reverence there is, even though this account is highly fictionalised – what Tezuka opted to do was to create an original story about the Indian caste system and run it in parallel to the early life of Siddhartha Gautama, providing action and drama to complement the biographical story and bringing the main characters of each strand together as prominent figures in a key battle. Unlike most accounts of the life of Buddha, Tezuka opts to not to take an abstract, historically isolated view of the young prince, in which he is kept in his palace and sheltered until as a young adult he goes out into the world and sees the hardships there, leading to his becoming a mendicant, here he is shown training in martial arts, participating in battle and being exposed at an early age to death, poverty and, as a result, compassion – but being too young to do anything about it. This nuanced version could be argued as bringing a sense of realism and thus maturity, or as being more juvenile because it allows for typical shounen elements like battles, swordplay training, melodrama and cackling battle-freak antagonists, which is an interesting microcosm of the general reputation Tezuka maintains.

The manga ran from 1972 to 1983, and this adaptation contained perhaps the first third of the story, which tallies with reports that there will be a further two parts of this 2011 animation, though it having cost a billion yen to make this one and the result being…not exactly spectacular may throw a wrench into those plans. There is a lot of appeal to the production here, and it’s clear a lot has been spent, but, well, even for a Toei movie it doesn’t exactly look superb. The aesthetic finds an uneasy medium between slick new-millennium character design and Tezuka’s charming caricature style – though it seems the Buddha manga was even more restrained than Black Jack in terms of characters with exaggerated features, reflecting the historical background and reverence due – ultimately ending up with a style that looks slightly retro but mostly a bit generic. The major characters also stick out from the background cast as over-attractive and pale in a rather jarring way – and not just the sheltered prince. There’s a notable lack of that charming, somewhat babyish Tezuka humour I’m certain was in the manga.

Shortly before Siddhartha is born, a lower-caste urchin called Chapra transcends his station in life by aborting an assassination plot at the last moment and instead saving its target’s life, for which he is adopted and raised as noble. Meanwhile, the young Buddha is born and raised in a martial tradition. Sneaking out of the palace, he falls in love with a girl named Migaila, but when the possibility of a relationship reaches his father, she is flogged and has her eyes put out, while he is given an appropriate bride. At first a rather wet child, not apparently divine other than the Lion King-esque gathering of animals for his birth, Siddhartha becomes a warrior, and when his father’s army must clash with that of the rival kingdom of Kosala, headed by Chapra, the two meet – if only for a fraction of a second, where Chapra, poisoned by an arrow, falls just short of killing the prince. Chapra survives thanks the intervention of his magical friend – a small, seemingly eternally young boy named Tatta who can possess animals in the strangest supernatural element of the film – but ultimately the caste system will once again prove its inequalities cannot be held at bay forever.

Though I enjoyed this, liked the unique spin on the traditional story and found the art appealing overall, it fell well short of really wowing me, and structurally was a mess. It may have worked in an ongoing manga paced this way, but in a feature film it was confusing and uneven, resulting in batches of boredom. The voice cast was also odd, for while I’m sure no expense was spared, Toei seem to have decided to bring in a large chunk of the cast of Naruto, including many of the most distinctive seiyuu: Takeuchi Junko (Naruto himself) is the young Capra, while Tatte is Konohamaru (also Pikachu and Chopper). Temari (Paku Romi, in female mode) plays Tatta’s sister, while the slug Katsuya shows up as Siddhartha’s child bride and Hinata goes a little against type as Migaila. Hinata’s seiyuu, Mizuki Nana, was also Collette in Tales of Symphonia, and is joined by Orikasa Ai as the young Siddhartha, who played Genis – as well as the boy in the third One Piece movie and Quatre in Gundam Wing. While there’s much to say for an all-star cast, this one was just too full of distinctive shounen voices – which got distracting.

Overall, well worth seeing, and I want to see more, but this could and should have been a whole lot better. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

ドラゴンボール 魔神城のねむり姫 / Dragonball Movie 2: Majin-jou no Nemuri Hime / Sleeping Princess in Devil’s Castle

The second Dragonball theatrical release was, like its predecessor Curse of the Blood Rubies, released with other Toei movie versions at their little festival and thus ran to only 45 minutes or so. Also like Blood Rubies, it starts with a scene from the original series and gives it a new twist. Whereas that first film was a retelling of a plot arc with its antagonist changed to an original one, here we get the very basic outline – Krillin arrives at the Kame house and Muten Roshi sends him and Goku off to find him a woman as an expedient sort of a test, and they come back with Lunch (or ‘Launch’) – but spins that into a new plot involving a vampire-themed mystery riffing on Sleeping Beauty.

Muten Roshi has heard of a sleeping princess far to the West, so sends the boys off to rescue her as their test. Off the go in an amusing condensed race against one another, while the rest of the original gang – Bulma, Yamcha, Oolong and Puerh, bearing in mind that when this film was released in 1987 Tenshinhan and Chaozu had not yet appeared in the anime – arrive at the Kame House and, believing Roshi’s embarrassed lies, set off after the boys thinking they’ve gone to a theme park.

The sleeping princess is kept by a handsome vampire called, in that very Japanese Shounen way, Lucifer, who amusingly quite obviously has the same voice actor as Vexen in Kingdom Hearts. His minions take down Bulma’s ship and manage to subdue Goku when a cute pink demon thing latches onto his tail, and while Bulma is flattered at first and won over by Lucifer’s good looks, he soon restrains her and reveals he’s going to suck her blood, mwahahaha. Of course, the good guys interrupt and that all goes awry.

When Goku crashes into the large four-poster bed at the centre of the stage Lucifer has set up for Bulma’s execution, it is revealed that the sleeping princess is not a Pichi Pichi Girl after all, but a large diamond. Lunch makes her entrance, in her badass form, stealing it and making her escape, but of course she sneezes before she gets too far and is captured along with the rest. As it turns out, the huge diamond can be powered up by the full moon to fuel a big weapon, but for whatever reason, Lucifer has only now decided to use that to destroy the sun and bring about eternal darkness. The full moon has another effect, though, and Goku sees it and turns into his giant werewolf-ape form, going on a rampage but setting everyone free until Puerh cuts off his tail. They are then able to confront Lucifer at last, and contend with the terrible new weapon.

Apart from the huge question of why Lucifer has never used this huge laser gun before, when meddlesome warriors weren’t running amok in his castle, the plot is simple and workable enough and it’s a nice alternate introduction to Lunch. There are the usual laughs based on stupidity and perversion, and some big silly monsters to have exaggerated fights with. The standard of art and animation are really no better than an average episode of the series, but it was still a worthwhile addition to the anime and had rather more substance than the first short movie adaptation.

One more Dragonball film to come, then one made much more recently, then I’ll move on to DBZ at last!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

蒼穹のファフナー Dead Aggressor HEAVEN AND EARTH / Soukyuu no Fafner Dead Aggressor: Heaven and Earth

Of all the anime from 2004 I’ve seen, Fafner would be low on a list of series I’d want to be revived with a feature-length cinema continuation. I’d love to see more from the Gakuen Alice manga, or the strange world of Fantastic Children. More Onmyou Taisenki would be a great guilty pleasure, and what happened to that Hollywood adaptation of Monster?

But this 2010 big-screen release was for forgettable mecha cliché-bag Soukyuu no Fafner, the anime I called the most forgettable I had ever seen. Watching this did bring back various memories, but I’m damned if I remember who most of the secondary pilot characters are, or care about them in the least.
We continue shortly after the bittersweet ending of the series. The island is temporarily safe, but the Festum are still out there. Soshi has given away his existence and Kazuki is not only angsting over the loss of his homoerotic love interest, but losing his eyesight too. Meanwhile, various people who have been assimilated by the Festum are suspended bodily in tubes or wandering the island in ghostly form as some sort of protectors, which if it was contextualised and made meaningful in the series I have entirely forgotten about, with them never managing to be anything but jarring here.

Of course, the Festum come back, mostly still back to their old tricks of trying to turn everybody into crystals because it will in some way help with their infertility problems. This time, though, they send a humanoid Festum to live amongst the humans, using Soshi’s memories to aid it, as well as using its unique personal impressions of the beauty of the sky as a starting point to empathise with the humans. As a kind of surrogate Soshi, he begins bonding in a rather homoerotic way with Kazuki, though he is much more boyish and naïve. The humans don’t accept his proposition of siding with them and wiping out the rest of humanity and all the other festum, so a new battle ensues. Only this time, the Festum have learned human tactics and can use their weapons against them – and there’s a humanoid version to yell at in order to convey true feelings and talk their way out of war by convincing a hostile alien race that nobody wants to fight and everyone should live in harmony. This, of course, involves much tearful yelling and giant robots hugging. At one point, a huge mecha punches through the giant sword of his opponent using its giant fist, rending the weapon in two, because it is so powered up by righteous emotions. Fafner tries hard to be very serious and artsy and elegant, but when it comes down to it, it’s as silly as anything in Gurren Lagann.

And I think I’d forgotten just how homoerotic the series was, a bit of a fixture of mecha since…well, at least Gundam Wing. The pretty boys fighting for their lives are always having meaningful bonds that go deeper than friendship, which I’m sure feeds right into many a yaoi doujinshi. Perhaps this is what Fafner had that Fantastic Children didn’t – angst-ridden, lanky, wide-eyed and vulnerable teen characters that are oh so easy to ship. I’d like to think there was more to it, but… 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Corpse Bride / Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

After the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas and before his remake of Frankenweenie, Tim Burton had another tale to tell as a feature-length stop-motion animation. Corpse Bride was his first attempt at directing a stop-motion feature, Nightmare having been helmed by James and the Giant Peach and later Coraline director Henry Selick - though Peach stalwart Mike Johnson took a co-director’s credit here and presumably showed Burton the ropes ahead of his solo Frankenweenie.

I have to say, it doesn’t seem like seven years since The Corpse Bride came out, though thinking back I remember seeing cosplay of it at a convention in 2006. I missed it when it was in cinemas and always intended to catch it at some point, but the opportunity didn’t come until today.

And I have to say, it rather deserves the plaudits and minor cult status it has earned. It’s no Nightmare Before Christmas, and doesn’t really tug at the heartstrings enough to really stand out even in the stop-motion animation world, but it was an excellent watch because it does everything right. The songs are done right. The animation is done right. The designs, done right. The script and the pacing – right. And yet it still has that odd B-movie quirkiness Tim Burton does best to give it an edge.

A sheltered young woman of noble stock and a rather wet young man from a nouveau riche family of considerable wealth are betrothed, though they have never met. On the eve of their marriage, young Victor and Victoria finally meet and hit it off, Victoria finding Victor’s piano-playing and diffident nature quite charming. However, an overbearing pastor makes him lose his nerve at a rehearsal for the wedding and he goes into the forest to practice. However, putting his ring onto what he thinks is a branch as he speaks his vows is a ‘grave mistake’ – as the poster jokes – for in a shallow grave is a pretty recently-deceased corpse, and the misunderstanding fuels the rest of the drama. The only slightly dodgy point is the baddie, Lord Bittern, who not only is coincidentally (and very obviously) linked to the Corpse Bride, but for a clearly intelligent conman misses the very transparent reason the aristocratic child of very snobby parents is marrying into a wealthy but middle-class trading family.

It’s a small-scale story that intentionally or not has a nice contrast between the limited cast of the living world – essentially the betrothed, their amusing grotesque parents, their staff, a love rival, the pastor and a town crier – and the exuberant and populous purgatory, where most scenes are crowd scenes and every little creature seems to talk except for the ghost dog right out of Funnybones. The characters in the living world are hilarious caricatures while those in the land of the dead are very quickly-defined bit parts where just about anything is possible. It makes for a grimly comic mood that keeps the pace brisk.

The vocal performances here are excellent – while Tim Burton’s usual stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter provide mostly functional performances that nonetheless are immediately sympathetic, as does Emily Watson, a cast of British comic and horror talents are clearly having an excellent time here. Christopher Lee’s gruff pastor has all the expected gravitas, and Albert Finny tries hard to out-gruff him. Harry Enfield and Fast Show fixture Paul Whitehouse (who Depp has expressed great admiration for) plays multiple roles, and Jane Horrocks crops up as a spider. The late Michael Gough, another Hammer actor and the Alfred in Burton’s Batman films, has a charming wise man role, and Richard E. Grant is his usual wonderful snarling posh bad guy. But stealing the show every time she speaks is Joanna Lumley, with a rich voice like no other. 

Then there’s Danny Elfman singing, and sounding like he’s having more fun than anyone else.  

I have to say, I was also probably more impressed by the stop-motion animation here than in any other Burton film. It wasn’t the spectacle – it was the small details. If that fabric rippling in the wind was done frame-by-frame, it was done by consummate masters of their craft. It looks fantastic. Spiders’ legs can’t be easy to do in this sort of medium, but they look great. And that pleasant creepy-but-still-soft aesthetic that persists in Frankenweenie looks rather nice here.

In some ways I feel like this is the purest form of Tim Burton’s style – everything is his vision, and hung on a good, classic, B-movie premise without the need to make it in some way metatextual or ironic. And it’s entertaining to boot. Great stuff.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians – not to be confused with the strigine Legend of the Guardians – had an awkward marketing campaign that I have to say had an adverse effect on me. Someone, somewhere, decided it was a good idea to preface most of the season’s animated films with an extended preview for this feature, prefaced by an extremely awkward introduction by Hugh Jackman, looking uncomfortable as he talked about his role as the Easter Bunny for an audience of kids who couldn’t be expected to understand the irony. This gave way to an overlong sequence taken from the film’s first act, which despite good humour, lovely visuals and a very strong premise had little going for it in terms of originality.

But that premise, those interesting characters, the cute design of Jack Frost and the promise of spectacular action held quite some appeal, plus I heard crew from the brilliant How to Train Your Dragon were involved, so I was keen to go see it. 

Arguably a follow-up to that previous Dreamworks film and bringing with it the same treatment of a comedic premise with a serious, epic sort of a narrative and a protagonist a couple of years into adolescence rather than a little child. In short, going for the young adult crowd rather than the littluns or the knowing adults who like Shrek.

The idea of an ass-whupping, fighting Santa Claus is hardly original – it’s where South Park began, after all – but the hook here is that the happy optimism of the children around the world is maintained by four guardians. Santa has his spring counterpart in The Easter Bunny, while the Tooth Fairy takes care of not only milk teeth but the happy memories of childhood. Then there is The Sandman, whose happy dreams are key to contented nights worldwide. But the Boogieman, the sinister Pitch Black, has made a move to tip the balance towards fear, and the guardians are no enough to stop him, so the God-like Man in the Moon appoints a new guardian, the fun-loving but deeply lonely Jack Frost, who remembers nothing of the time back when he was human, before he was chosen.

The designs of the small but iconic cast are great, as are the performances that give them life. Santa is portrayed as a patriarchal but merry Russian in a performance Alec Baldwin clearly enjoyed very much. Jack Frost, who after seeing Star Trek I never would have expected Chris Pine to voice with such vulnerability – only for him to be perfect – has an inspired design, simple and yet complex, with skinny jeans and a hoodie to put him bang up-to-date with the modern crowd and a strangely compelling face that isn’t what you would call handsome or pretty or idealised yet makes him very cute and expressive. Jackman going against type makes for some of the bigger laughs in the show, especially when he goes through a transformation towards the end of the film, and the mute Sandman is a classic cartoon character. There’s a touch of tokenism about the Tooth Fairy as the only female guardian, so that she’s soon awkwardly flirting and her little fairies become a mass of damsels in distress, and Isla Fisher phones in the same likeable but forgettable performance from Rango, but it works and she’s got a pretty scaled design. Then there’s Jude Law as the Boogieman, something that sounds slightly odd in a British accent (where the term is ‘bogeyman’). He’s simplistic and slightly too often made a buffoon, but when he’s manipulating or in command, he’s quite brilliant – and I suspect many a teen girl will be producing fanart and fanfic of him with Jack. There’s a touch of Scar about his mixture of malevolence, gloating and cowardice, though he’s not quite on that level of charisma. There are also a gang of credulous little kids who are written with the tough roles of being fickle enough to believe and stop believing in the guardians over the course of just an hour or two, but especially with the addition of the expectation-inverting Cupcake, a memorable, briefly-sketched little gang.

The plot is simple but neatly-done. Jack is only given his motivation – finding his memories – because he is brought into contact with the guardians, which is neat, and also sets him up for his downfall and guilt later on. Pitch’s downfall comes because he throws balance out, and one neat thing about having a story about Jack Frost and Santa in a story based around Easter time is that it will be appropriate for airing on TV networks at multiple times during the year.

It won’t go down as one of the great classics of animation, of that I’m sure – there’s too much of an emotional barrier between supernatural beings and the audience. It needed to be heartfelt through some great emotional moment, and never quite gets there – it’s more a superhero film without having the coolness to appeal to adult superhero fans. But just because it’s not destined to be a classic, doesn’t mean it wasn’t excellently-done – it was, and now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a Rise of the Guardians Happy Meal. Did I mention that the marketing wasn’t exactly subtle?