Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fantastic Mr Fox

I very much wanted to see Fantastic Mr Fox when it was in cinemas, but somehow it slipped by without my managing to get my bum in a seat. And then it wasn't until five years later, after having seen director Wes Anderson's latest - The Grand Budapest Hotel - that I remembered I wanted to watch it and finally got hold of a copy. 

And this is exactly the sort of film I'd expect the maker of that film to make for children. Highly idiosyncratic, understated, oddly-paced and thoroughly modern, it may be irreverent to Roald Dahl but it is also a wonderful tangent for an auteur to go off on given a strong starting point. And if, somehow, you didn't notice the fixation with the centre line and how symmetry can draw attention to it in The Grand Budapest Hotel, I'd certainly hope you'd see it here. 

I mentioned Dahl, and indeed, this was one of the books I read in my childhood. I can't say that I ranked it as one of my favourites, though - it was no BFG, or Matilda, or either of the Charlie books. There's not much of an emotional arc to the book, though it had Dahl's trademark nasty streak, which is largely replaced here with the theme of how awkward communication can be that Anderson seems to very much enjoy. Other than that, really, what Anderson takes from Dahl is the setting - fox vs three nasty farmers - the symbol of contrition that is a tail being cut off and, in a way, the ending. What comes in the middle is all Anderson, and even more than a highly disciplined mise-en-scene, what seems to be his calling card is glib, naturalistic dialogue in which people often don't really listen to each other and often want to talk about their problems in a way that makes other uncomfortable. Very distinctive - and very bizarre to see in an animated film, which is partly what makes this so enjoyable. 

Somehow, there's just a slight edge of absurdity added to an awkward young boy who thinks he can't live up to his father's expectations feeling upstaged by the taller, more athletic cousin who has come to live with them being foxes rather than humans. There's a really amusing surrealist spark to the inclusion of mundane family issues into this film, only for the foxes to wildly attack their food and remind you of what they are. On the other hand, the dryness of the dialogue and the somewhat drab aesthetic probably make this an animation that adults will enjoy more than kids do. 

The film is somewhat unique and stands alone. I find myself wondering what would have been different had Henry Selick stayed on this project rather than going to work on Coraline, but equally I'm glad both exist and have the fingerprints of their makers all over them. Fantastic Mr Fox is an oddity, and isn't necessarily one for the Dahl aficionados, but I find it rather an enjoyable companion piece.  

Thursday, 10 April 2014

イナズマイレブン / Inazuma Eleven: season 2

As season 2 of Inazuma Eleven kicks off, they fully embrace that charming incredibly-stupid-and-over-the-top-idea-done-very-sincerely style of storytelling that nothing at the moment does as well as anime and its related media - like the Inazuma Eleven games. 

If the first series' story of a ragtag group of football-playing boys with pure hearts and lots of shounen-tastic FEELINGS going undefeated from incomplete and unpracticed school team to national champions who can beat others with powers that are literally godly sounded daft, just wait for this. Is the next level competing with adult teams? Foreign children from nations like Brazil? Oh no. No, what happens in season 2 is that aliens show up and begin destroying cities with their cannonball-like footballs. Who is assembled to fight them off with football? World cup teams? The Japanese national players? No no - the schoolchildren of Raimon Junior High. Of course! 

Not without some roster changes, however. When Aliea Academy first appear, they injure many of the team and render them out of commission for the entire season - including my favourite Handa and his close friend Max, as well as the funny little dot-eyed kid. 

Other players depart on journeys of self-discovery, including star striker Hitsugaya...wait, sorry, Gouenji. Speedy girly-boy Kazemaru and funny little buck-toothed midfielder Kurimatsu last a while but eventually feel they have to leave the team, though may well return. 

To fill these gaps, a whole lot of colourful characters are needed. Strange, quiet boy with an uncanny knack for befriending the ladies Fubuki becomes a star player for a while, but has issues up the whazoo and essentially serves as a benchmark for the others to catch up to. Two girls join the team - the prime minister's tomboyish daughter after Aliea Academy go so far as to kidnap him, and an outspoken gyaru-type. Then there is the little prankster Kogure-kun and brash surfing savant Tsunami. 

Most uselessly, but most adorably, is the Endou fanboy Tachimukai, who they put on the team despite the fact he's really a goalkeeper, and soon becomes the weak link, which is strangely adorable because he tries so hard. The series ends with the dramatic appearance of an old ally and an old foe, who work together to defeat one of Aliea Academy's three top teams. Then comes a curious cliffhanger ahead of the short third season. 

The scale has become even more ridiculous than ever before - and characters in the previous series were stopping time and summoning vast stone walls. Here there are wormholes and great demons - but there's a sort of dispensation for madness when it comes to sports special moves, and it's more of a surprise that you get aliens and explosions and huge submarine training facilities (for school football teams) and presidential kidnappings. It's that silly a series. 

And yet at the heart of it is the relationships between the various young boys, their fiery rivalries and strong bonds. That's really the point of this anime, probably of all sports and indeed school anime - and it does it far too well to ignore. I didn't know when I set out that I'd want to finish this story, that I would end up starting to associate Takeuchi Junko's voice with Endou more than with Naruto, and be very happy to enjoy more and more series. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

マギ/ Magi season 2: The Kingdom of Magic

With its opening episode containing a play about the adventures of the main characters with some exotic casting, the similarities between this series and Avatar came to an end...with it instead becoming Harry Potter with Dragonball Z-style flying battles and power-ups. 

If that sounds disparaging, it isn't: I continue to love Magi and its cast of daft characters, its colourful world and its occasional very affecting tragedies. This second series opens with an awesome flash-forward, a cold opening with Aladdin showing his real powers, and possibly going rogue - and then the action returns to the point we left off at. 

The four main heroes each go their own way, seeking to improve their powers. Alibaba joins some formidable gladiators; Morgianna manages to meet a wandering Magi; Hakuryu seems to have fallen in with Judar; and little Aladdin? Well, he goes off to wizard school, hiding his true powers to infiltrate a country where he feels something mysterious and sinister is happening. 

This starts sweetly enough, with his suppressed power meaning he ends up put in the lowest class and has to work his way up, gaining allies and rivals on the way, of course, eventually finding what he is looking for in wizened old Mogamett, who has lived a long time - and developed a philosophy of wizards being an oppressed people who need to be raised to dominance. 

Unfortunately, Mogamett's extreme measure of having an underclass providing 'Ryuk' for a wizarding society while trapped underground sets him against Aladdin, but things really develop when the Leam empire - led by Scheherazade in the last of the Arabian Nights references - launches an invasion against the small wizarding kingdom. The Kou Empire is also on the move, and it seems very likely that Sinbad will want a piece of the action as well. 

The real antagonist, however, is none of these powerful nations, but the hidden society manipulating Mogamett from behind the scenes, giving him power that might just bring their dark god into this world. 
The story is a little convoluted, but comes together well - even if poor Alibaba, even vastly improving his powers, gets totally overshadowed. 

The series remains one of the prettiest on television just now, and shows its shounen colours rather more clearly this season. It's another one where the power creep with the characters has now reached a point that it's a little absurd, and I do wonder where the series will go from now, but I must say...providing they may more, and I sincerely hope they do, I will certainly be on board. 

And if they don't, well, I will just have to become a manga reader. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Adventure Time - Season V

The fifth series of Adventure Time was long - 52 of its half-episodes, spread out over more than a year, sometimes with only one or two episodes in a month. 

Thus, it seems like a long while since the cliffhanger of season IV, in which we were introduced to the mysterious Farm World, created when Finn wishes that the Lich had never existed. This of course goes awry, but Jake isn't too bothered because he has met a very chilled-out omnipotent being and is able to put things right. 

The numerous episodes since tend to fall into three brackets - straightforward, simple little stories, which are where the show mostly feels a bit tired - though Finn does get a flashy new sword; episodes referring back to previous bits of continuity and bringing them forward, such as where the Ice King regains his sanity and brings someone from his past back; and the out-and-out weird and experimental, like when everything is done in glitchy CG or when an episode is dominated by James Baxter the Horse on his unicycle. 

Really, though a few of the episodes could have been dispensed with and I wasn't a personal fan of the Lemon Hope saga, it was the interplay between these three that keep me watching and make me feel like there's more for the show to say - at a time when plenty of shows have outstayed their welcome. 

I am still interested in Simon's backstory. I am still interested in Finn's inept stabs at relationships. 

I am still interested in Treetrunks and her shady past, Bubblegum and her far shadier one, and even the Earl of Lemongrab with his numerous clones. 

The show can still shock me, like when Lumpy Space Princess misunderstands a device for sending things back in time and blatantly kills someone - only to be made to forget all about it. And I am interested in this newest cliffhanger, and where Season VI will take it. 

From its humble beginnings with the web pilot, I really thought that Adventure Time would either burn very brightly and briefly before ending or that it would get very tired and end up a bad parody of itself. 

There's something in its formula - including occasionally churning out a brainless, uninteresting episode - that makes it stay interesting and relevant, though. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm glad it's there.