Friday, 31 May 2013

Shrek 4-D

If I’m going to write reports on whatever short I see at the Ghibli museum – and I fully intend to – it only makes sense to write about the Shrek short seen as part of the ‘Far Far Away’ world at Universal Studios, Singapore (also screened in every other Universal park. After cute theming based on the puns and deadpan delivery of silly fairytail ideas that characterise the Shrek films and go entirely over the heads of most of the audience at Singapore, the audience is shown into a pre-show featuring the set-up of several minor characters having been captured by the ghost of Lord Farquaad – which largely involved people who don’t speak English, or don’t speak English well enough to understand the exaggerated accents of Shrek, to shuffle, walk out, or in the case of large groups of mainland Chinese, elbow their way forward when they realised they would be going through some doors to the movie theatre proper. There, a surprisingly long, rollicking tale of Shrek and Donkey once again rescuing Fiona from Farquaad (whose voice made me crave Third Rock from the Sun episodes), and somehow ghosts being susceptible to a puff of dragonfire (eh, with fantasy you can make up the rules), it is inelegant but likeable enough. An update with Puss in Boots and other characters from the sequels might be welcome.

Being ‘4-D’, the film came with the usual gimmicks that justify claiming that step above 3D – sneezes and droplets of a waterfall being rendered by little sprays of water, chairs clunkily thundering along in a way that made me miss the comforts of D-Box technology, ghosts causing a little chill of cold air about the nape…and rather better than those, a silly little prop fairy crash-landed into a speaker and thick air about the ankles for creepy spiders. Having been released back in 2003, before the 3-D gimmick went into full swing, this seems to have been a little ahead of its time in terms of polarizing for each eye and avoiding too much ghosting, but now suffers from the oversaturation of the effects and the obvious use of its gimmicks – no longer special enough to warrant having attention drawn to them in such a way.

The film has apparently been released on DVD, both in 3-D and 2-D, but both would seem to me likely to suffer from how blatantly several moments exist purely to make use of the gimmicks of the 4-D theatre. It unashamedly exaggerates these moments, and without the accompanying effect, I can see them coming over as pointless or even bewildering.

There have now been numerous Shrek shorts and if I ever write impressions of them, it’ll probably be all together. But purely for being in the context of the park, I felt this one should have an entry. 

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Escape from Planet Earth

Along with A Monster in Paris, this film was one I wanted to watch on the plane mostly as it came from an underdog studio: a CGI feature film that wasn’t from Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks or Fox. This film comes from Rainmaker, who I actually really wanted to succeed – back in the 90s they were called Mainframe Entertainment and made the superb and groundbreaking ReBoot. Well, I say superb – that comes with a little rose-tinted-spectacles outlook. But it was still a good show.

This film marked the point where they went from making execrable direct-to-video toy films (mostly Barbie) and attempted to join the big boys. Unfortunately, they don’t find a unique voice, stick much too closely to a box-ticking Hollywood formula for the story and basically come over like low-tier Fox releases. It’s not a thousand miles from fellow underdog studio Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me, but without the anarchic quality or appealing comedy minions. And that makes sense, as the director comes from a background of storyboarding that very film, as well as some minor Fox hits.

The film had a rocky production history, with a lawsuit revolving around the amount of time it took to develop, apparently revolving around numerous script rewrites – possibly explaining why the result is so soulless. It comes over from the trailer as dull-witted and ignorable, and that’s why it was the kind of film I skipped at the cinema and watched on a long-haul flight. Critical consensus seems to be that small kids will likely enjoy the action and bright colours, but unlike the Toy Storys of the world, it won’t have anything to keep the adults engaged too – and that’s about right.

The premise is the obvious one – the film seeks to reverse the sci-fi cliché of human space invaders landing on an alien planet and being terrorised by the creatures there by having alien space invaders landing on Earth and being terrorised by humans. Unfortunately, while the original concept probably would have revolved around a charming and funny interpretation of everyday human life being terrifying for an outsider, instead the film takes the easy route – when brash alien Scorch Supernova ignores his clever but overcautious brother’s advice and lands on the ‘dark planet’, he is quickly captured by government agents in Area 51, and used as bait to bring in his brother – whose genius holds the key to building (what else?) a huge death ray. Of course, everything has been a set-up, and with kooky new alien allies with hilarious ethnic accents, the brothers can overcome their differences and (along with older brother Gary’s wife and small, cute, somewhat annoying son) bust their way out to freedom and foil the plans of the evil General Shanker.

There are big problems with the set-up. Having the conflict between the brothers that can later be resolved makes them both quite hard to like, especially with their rather ugly noseless designs and the way neither really seem very vulnerable at any point. The quick capture by government agents means that for a film spreading galaxies, it feels very small-scale – there’s a mission on a strange planet as a prologue, but after that the settings are basically alien mission control, a 7-11 and inside a secret bunker. That makes everything feel so limited and the personal journeys so lacking in epic scale.

The voice cast is impressive, but wasted. There are big names here, beyond the main character Gary, who is voiced by someone from The Daily Show I don’t think I’ve seen as anyone except the silly best friend zombie in Warm Bodies on the very same air journey. Brendan Fraser is brought in to be Scorch, but could have been any generic hero-sounding performer.  Sarah Jessica Parker sounds like she could be anybody too, as Gary’s wife, and Jessica Alba is the mission controller – making her sound more like bratty teen than kingpin. William Shatner has fun hamming it up as the bad guy, and ham is welcome for his part, but more of his insecure, fake-hair and silly background side would have been a good idea. And then they get Ricky Gervais in to be the talking computer, and if Gervais is ever funny, it’s because of very clever writing – but they give him nothing to do at all and he fails entirely to make humourless dialogue amusing, because that’s not one of his talents, making it very unfortunate that he’s one of the most recognisable voices here, as he simply isn’t funny.

There’s lots of bangs and flashes and even spaceship chases at the end, but I have to agree with the reviews – ultimately, there is little more here than in a very low-quality weekly CGI sci-fi cartoon, and it completely lacked the necessary emotional resonance to make something like this work. 

Un monstre à Paris / A Monster in Paris

I somewhat regret now not going to see A Monster in Paris in the cinemas. I put it off despite liking the look of the quirky trailer because it would have been in English rather than the original French, and I would much rather see the original with subtitles. As it turns out, that was a bad idea, for within a few minutes of watching in French and then switching to English to make a comparison, it became very obvious that the animation was matched to the English performances. A bit of a pity, that, especially as the main characters in particular sounded better in French, meaning that neither option was very satisfactory.

I suppose for that reason being able to watch on an aeroplane where switching language options was very simple was an advantage, but in the end I ended up giving precedent to the English version. Maybe the French version came out first and was what the creators were envisioning at conception, but the animators were clearly working with the English performances, and with something as precise as CG, that was what ended up taking precedence for me.

Anyway, this is the first solo feature from Bibo Films, the animation company of Road to El Dorado director Bibo Bergeron. In a very French sort of a story, two rather quirky friends doing a simple delivery decide to play with the mysterious chemicals made by a botanical professor and end up using a miracle growth formula and a potion for giving a beautiful voice on a tiny flea. It grows to seven feet tall and escapes onto the streets of Paris, causing panic at first but finding a place to belong when celebrated local singer Lucille (Vanessa Paradis in both French and English version) – coincidentally in a will-they-won’t-they childhood-friends relationship with one of the delivery drivers – hears his strange, pure, high-pitched voice (from M, who sang ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ in LesTriplettes de Belleville in French and Sean Lennon in English) and takes him in. In disguise, he brings a brilliant new angle to the show. But the flea, given the name Francœur by Lucille, is a wanted creature, not least by slimy mayoral candidate Maynott – who is also after Lucille’s favours. The ensuing romp will incorporate dirigible rides, a flooded and deserted Eiffel Tower and the funicular at Montmartre.

For a non-major CGI studio, the film looks rather lovely, especially in the sweeping background shots and the musical sequences, which are rendered lovingly. There are some things that really don’t work, especially the slapstick humour and a few reaction shots of the main characters that just don’t feel correct in terms of timing, but visually it’s up there with the best and a little more irreverent with it – witness the caricatures of Steve Jobs, ‘Those Google Guys’ and John Lasseter.

On the other hand, it’s no wonder that it was a bit of a cult success while making little impact for a wider public. There are people to whom a giant singing flea is a wonderfully silly and compelling idea, and there are people who want things much more ordinary and straightforward in their animated films.

For me, it had more appeal because it was so odd. Because it had that classic nonsense of magic potions and giant sunflowers and sapient monkeys. It used chemistry onstage to make a giant insect likeable and had at its heart the importance of music. That won it major points for me.

On the other hand, the main problem was that the two central characters, Raoul and Emile, are just not very interesting or well-developed. They get progression in their romances, but that doesn’t seem to develop anything about their characters, and neither is very likeable from the start. They have their eccentricities, but that doesn’t make them charming, and ultimately they left me cold – and since they are the emotional heart of the story, that was a big problem.

Still, while it was imperfect, the film had its hooks and was well worth seeing. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

まりあ†ほりっくあらいぶ/ Maria†Holic: Alive (season 2)

The second season of Maria†Holic was largely more of the same, but it was worthwhile watching and thoroughly enjoyable. A lot of the characters who had a limited role in the first season have an expanded part to play – Mariya’s sister Shizu is seen in her own school, with her own butler as a counterpart to Matsurika, creepy teacher Kanae becomes a comic staple and Kanako’s little sister appears towards the end to provide an adorable sincerity that serves as a great counterpoint to Kanako’s constant hysterics and histrionics.

Ultimately, the show once again boils down largely to Kanako suffering, usually through her own fault, and things are if anything a little more surreal than before. Kanako and the others brave the silly traps and games of a ‘forbidden’ old dorm, Kanako is put on trial, a 10-year-old boy arrives announcing he’s engaged to marry one of the girls (though let us not forget arranged marriages still exist), and in the last episode, Mariya and Matsurika show a softer side – after they are flushed into a strange underground passage from the school baths with Kanako and chased by expanding seaweed. Yup.

For all that it’s stranger than before, though, stylistically it’s a bit less playful – we get the same shoujo pastiche style far too many times – and I’m not a fan of all the fourth-wall breaking references. I never like jokes where characters show knowledge of being fictional, or that they’re in episodes, unless it’s a really obvious childish comedy like Rock Lee’s Springtime ofYouth. At the same time, though, the characters are in general treated a little more sympathetically and…well, fleshed out, which is welcome. Mariya shows a softer side, Kanako reflects on her selfishness, and…well, it’s amazing how much of a different person Matsurika seems without her maid headband. I also quite liked seeing Shizu as a boy, especially as her hidden side is much more pleasant than her brother’s.

At only 12 episodes, once again not a whole lot is going to happen, but I’m glad there was more Maria†Holic to enjoy and if a third season comes along, I shall be keen to watch that too. Also, I should make mention of the brilliant in-character intro song, which is the first OP in several years that I’ve actually enjoyed watching each and every time – not counting the little variations!

Friday, 10 May 2013

リトルウィッチアカデミア/ Little Witch Academia

A lot of attention has been paid to the 26-minute theatrical short Little Witch Academia, which in some quarters is being reported as it being part of Anime Mirai 2013 and the Young Animator Training Project. That, however, seems to be neglecting the fact that the YATP is now in its third (non-consecutive) year and this kind of response was not matched by the shorts for Anime Mirai 2012 or 2010’s Project A. The truth is, the government-funded project to give young animators experience isn’t at the centre of this anime’s popularity. The attention comes from the fact that this is – not counting that one mecha-tastic episode of The IDOLM@STER – the first anime of a decent length to come from Trigger, the studio set up by Gurren Lagann and Dead Leaves director Imaishi Hiroyuki upon his leaving Gainax.

Of course, being part of the Young Animator Training Project, it only makes sense that the animators are not the most immediately recognisable names. But if you imagine that the project would be made and helmed by unknowns, that’s not really how it works – the young animators are trained and funded, but the resultant shorts are not made solely by them. The director here was Yoshinari You, who is in his 40s, like Imaishi worked on Evangelion and did the distinctive character design for Gurren Lagann. This is very obviously his baby – the character designs are reminiscent of the peripheral characters in the Gurren-dan, and like Panty and Stocking skirt the line between current-norm anime prettiness and Western comics, to the point that to the uninitiated this looks ‘not Japanese’. Movements are exaggeratedly cartoonish and physiognomies are malleable, but the animation is lush and fluid and the whole thing brings with it an air of exuberance.
Akko is a bit of a misfit in her witching school. The others come from magical families and have strong magical powers, while Akko entered because she was inspired by Shiny Chariot – a famous entertainer the rest of the witches regard as a cheap illusionist, but who may have a secret or two and be closer to hand than any of them suspect – and can barely do a spell or fly a broom. The go-to comparison in most of the Western blogs I’ve read has been to Harry Potter, because after all it’s a school for magic, but rather closer comparisons would be to The Worst Witch or, looking no further than other anime, to MahouShoujoutai Arusu.

Indeed, this reminded me of Arusu in a lot of ways. The experimental, loose animation. The three central young witches who are not quite like their peers but end up centre of attention. The odd creatures and the huge, impressive dragons. But Arusu had a little more seriousness to it, and Academia is more overtly cutesy and light-hearted.

Academia has proven quite a hit. Certainly it has eclipsed any of its fellow YATP shorts (thus far). And if it establishes a house style for Trigger, the variety will be very welcome. But I’m not going to join the voices crying for a full season. If one comes, I shall likely watch, but it really doesn’t strike me as new ground or something I desperately must see more of. Aside from Arusu, I feel like I can see very similar ground trodden by reading Soul Eater Not! or even Puchimon

Bleach: Post-Timeskip

Well, this is slightly awkward. When I wrote my impressions of Bleach up to its small-scale and, let’s be frank, completely unnecessary time-skip, I had no inkling that the anime version would last only another single season before being replaced by – rather embarrassingly – a spinoff of Naruto, so thought this second set of impressions would have rather more weight. I’ve even put off watching the last episodes because it felt too soon to write this. But now I’ve seen Episode 366 – the last one, for now – and once again the third of the current Big Three is dwindling away.

The manga continues, for sure – by all accounts full of the deaths of major characters but very little that appeals to the core fanbase. I don’t know, because I’ve never really liked Bleach enough to read the manga, especially finding the first 40-odd episodes of the anime tough going. More will quite possibly be adapted, perhaps in movies, but let’s be honest – Bleach’s day is done and if HunterxHunter retakes its place as the third of the Big Three, I will be nothing but pleased.

The last arc sums up what Bleach has become for me – some interesting ideas that don’t feel developed, so many strong and well-loved characters that you know the villains of the week won’t be able to do much against them, and when it boils down to it, Ichigo being able to solve everything by (figuratively) punching a little bit harder than his opponent. Preferably after a speech about trust, friendship and loyalty. The premise – Ichigo is displaced as a mysterious ability alters the memory of his loved ones and makes them feel he is betraying a long-term friend rather than fighting an enemy – is interesting, but by the end Kubo just takes all the easiest ways out he can. Which has rather been the problem with Bleach all along – including its filler arcs, which started so promising (for what they are) and fizzled out into tedium.

There was clearly no plan for the series to come to such an abrupt end, and as such the episode wraps up essentially like any other, with no closure and an impression that if you want to see more, you’d better go to the manga. Maybe one day I will – but then, I said that about Claymore and only read a handful of chapters. And I thought Claymore had a lot more promise in its scant few episodes than Bleach ever managed.

Bleach had one arc that apart from random power boosts did just about everything right, introduced what tends to make Shounen Jump series really shine – a varied, badass and likeable group of adversaries (see the Akatsuki in Naruto and the Ryodan in HunterXHunter) – and then later managed to make them firm friends of the protagonist. It also had the slow-burning mysteries of Ichigo’s father and Urahara. But it really suffered from a dull protagonist, nothing every really feeling truly at stake once Rukia was saved, and a time skip that seemed to do absolutely nothing but make Ichigo’s sisters a little taller. I stuck with it for all 366 episodes, and will watch any further feature films, but at the end of it all, the fact is that Bleach left me cold and if I never find out how the story truly ends, it won’t be overly upsetting. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

みなみけ おまたせ/ Minami-ke: Tadaima

Minami-ke is probably my favourite of the slice-of-life cute-girls-doing-cute-things comedy shows, despite my initial dislike of it, at least in the moé-dominated period that came after Azumanga Daioh and Ichigo Mashimaro, which I probably put top of my list. Minami-ke has an edge over the likes of K-On! and Manabi Straight because it doesn’t need a gimmick or strange setting. 

It doesn’t need to be frantic like Lucky Star or out-and-out weirdness like Nichijou (though all of these shows I enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent). It really is just a group of sisters and their schoolmates and the silly things they do, with nothing more surreal than a weird sweaty guy who likes to do dramatic monologues and unbutton his own shirt, and a boy who likes to dress as a girl. And after all, boys dressed as girls aren’t exactly unusual in anime – see MariaHolic, Hourou Musuko et al.

And I have to say, boys who pass as girls are something I always enjoy in anime, especially if there’s cute but awkward comedy, and this also has the reverse I enjoy just as much – a young girl who is often mistaken for a boy. Both in the same anime, supplying some of the big laughs – that has definite appeal!

And the anime has soldiered on and on. It’s changed studios several times now – the first series was from Daume/Doumo, then Asread took over for the next two seasons and first OVA, but now the continuation comes from Da Capo II animators Studio Feel. 

The funny tear-shaped mouths are still there, and the overall character design, but it does look subtly different – a little clunkier in movements, but a little more consistent in staying on-model, which might be ironic if we judge Feel for being made up of ex-Pierrot staff (various videos exist of the laziest slapdash art from Naruto and Bleach) but for a slow-paced and pretty show like this the art looks nice.

There’s no structure to this 13-episode season apart from the loose changing of seasons, which was also the theme of the Omatase, the OVA Feel put out prior to this season. It feels mostly like checking in with a familiar old group of friends. We get an April Fools episode, which includes a funny moment where Fujioka very nearly finds out Touma’s gender. We see that Touma’s big brother is excellent at barbeques and that Touma has some impressive skills with needlework. Makoto gets into a girls’ swimming costume and helps Chiaki learn to swim, while the girls are put in yukata, maid outfits and wind up without towels after the bath – all of which somehow manages to avoid coming over as blatant, annoying fanservice because it genuinely seems like the comedy comes first and the camera doesn’t do the horrible blatant things that made Kyou no Go no Ni (from the same mangaka) so sleazy. 

Fujioka and Hosaka continue to dwell on their crushes on Minami sisters in their very different ways, and somehow Chiaki comes to regard Hosaka as her ‘curry fairy’ from the supermarket. The only episode segment that’s a bit of a mis-step is the one about a television show that hypnotises people, which breaks too much from the realism of most of the comedy, even if it comes with a cute dance and a brilliant fantasy sequence with Chiaki and Hosaka. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版:Q / Evangerion Shin Gekijōban: Q / Rebuild of Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo

Well, they can say what they like about being (not) able to redo, with this the third of the four Rebuild films, a whole lot has been redone. We’re a long way from the first in the series’ repetition of crucial scenes from the original here, and in a whole new and interesting continuity.

You Can (Not) Advance finished with a big deviation from the plot of the original – it seemed instrumentality was imminent, until Kaworu showed up with the Lance of Longinus and put a stop to that. ‘I anticipate a good half of 3.0’s length to be given to trauma and suffering and weirdness’, I wrote at the time, and I wasn’t exactly wrong – though what I got was nothing like what I expected.

Fourteen years have passed since then. Shinji, who was about to trigger the Third Impact from inside Eva Unit 1, was extracted, but remained asleep for that long. Asuka and Mari are still piloting Eva, but the three of them seem not to have aged at all as a side-effect of piloting. It is hinted that in the interim Touji joined the other ‘children’, but it is only a hint – though his little sister is now involved in the running of the Evangelion. She does not work for NERV, however. There the most dramatic changes have happened.

Misato and Ritsuko are no longer juniors at Nerv. Instead, they are part of WILLE, set up to oppose NERV and the machinations of Gendou. When Shinji began Human Instrumentality in his attempts to save Rei, many of the horrors seen in the original End of Evangelion’s version of the cataclysm seemingly came to pass, including immense crosses sprouting in a red wasteland and, implicitly, a giant Rei rearing up and having its head fall off. The simple act of trying to save a girl he cared about brought about the deaths of millions and only Kaworu’s intervention with the Lance of Longinus stopped it. Of course, Shinji is ignorant to this at first, to why Misato and the rest treat him like a criminal and fit him with an explosive collar, why they have taken his Unit 01 and converted it into the power source for a huge airship called the Wunder. He is still confused when Rei – some version of Rei – attacks in a new Eva and wanting answers, Shinji goes with her.

He is taken to NERV, now with the sky visible above it. Distant as ever, Gendou tells him he can pilot a new Eva alongside mysterious white-haired boy Kaworu. Kaworu is once again mysterious, gentle, deeply insightful and preternaturally knowledgeable, and takes Shinji under his wing to treat him respectfully in a masterful display of manipulation. They begin to play piano duets in some of the film’s stillest and most beautiful scenes, but part of their bond involves Kaworu revealing the truth – that what has happened to the world is Shinji’s fault. Shinji begins his descent into despair again, and if anybody wants to complain about his whining and angst, I think being responsible for the deaths of almost all mankind justifies it.

Kaworu convinces Shinji that recovering the Lance of Longinus – and also the Lance of Cassius, added for whatever reason and the iffiest bit of Christian mythological esoteria added here – the near-Third Impact will be undone and everything will be happy again. Now, for the plot to work, it must be that Kaworu truly believes this, and is not simply being manipulative, because otherwise his actions stopping the Third Impact in the first place, as well as his heroic, horrific actions once he realises that this ‘Lance of Cassius’ is not there, only another part of the Lance of Longinus, make no sense. He is still everything he was in the original and perhaps more, still oddly homoerotic with his affections, and still acts based on a piece of information that turns out to be critically wrong, but it seems that to make sense of the plot of 3.33 we must accept that he was misled and did not want the ‘doors of Guf’ (slightly iffy but acceptable Judeo-Christian mythology reference) to open or the Fourth Impact to take place. He has essentially become another of Gendou’s pawns.

As ever, the plot is complex and full of bizarre lofty ideas, but everything is presented in an exciting and fast-paced manner, and leads to an interesting cliffhanger with Asuka, Shinji and Rei together again, this time with no Eva units left. The fight scenes, explosions and huge flying battleships are a marvel, and the CG-heavy imagery is stunningly good throughout, even if it’s the human parts that are most interesting. The scale is a little overblown now, post-apocalyptic with advanced technology, and the human heart of this film is kept at a distance knowing Kaworu is not all he says he is. I hope that the next film has a little more humanity, but at the same time I will not be surprised if it is still more harsh and clinical – yet beautiful.