Friday, 30 May 2014

獣兵衛忍風帖 / Juubee Ninpuuchou / The Ninja Scrolls of Jubei / Ninja Scroll

When I wrote my review of Basilisk, I had a lot to say about 80s-style anime marketed in the West as ‘adult’, and how juvenile it all was. While Ninja Scroll was released in 1993, on some level it was my point of reference. Basilisk is very much connected to Ninja Scroll – it was an adaptation of the source that seems to have inspired Ninja Scroll, a novel entitled Kouga Ninpuuchou or ‘The Kouga Ninja Scrolls’; the aesthetics are similar; and both concern a variety of fighting ninja with outlandish magical powers.

And Ninja Scroll contains much of what I decried there – that endlessly juvenile attempt to seem grown-up and serious by including lots of blood, unpleasant rape scenes that are clearly meant to titillate and objectify, rather ugly pointy-chinned designs even on the good-looking characters and macho themes of revenge-killing with hypermasculine baddies.

And yet, for all I thought it would be full of values and stylistic choices I can’t stand and often have to struggle against when I explain how rich and varied anime can be...I liked Ninja Scroll. More than I liked Basilisk. It even moved me more than Sword of the Stranger, while objectively not being as well-made or as thematically appealing.

A mercenary swordsman with a past as a respected ninja saves a girl from a thug trying to rape her. When the thug goes for revenge, the swordsman – Jubei – is drawn into a conspiracy to steal gold from a mine to fund shadowy organisations. It is an operation Jubei coincidentally was involved with some years ago, and which has led to the leader of the sinister ninja group charged with smuggling the gold having a grudge against him. With help from the rape victim – herself a kunoichi, a female ninja, who rather absurdly has a body so full of poison that a kiss or embrace will kill a man – and from a funny little man who works for the Bafuku, Jubei fights. He fends off a sequence of attacks from outlandish ninjas who can do things like literally sink into shadows and send massive amounts of electricity out of their body and down little wires. Finally, he goes up against the formidable Genma, leader of the Eight Devils of Kimon.

It’s all pretty absurd, and there’s something very painful about the character trope of pushing others away lest they get hurt made so literal with a woman who inadvertently kills people when she has sex with them. And yet...somehow, in the details and the character interactions, it works. The chemistry between Jubei and the kunoichi Kagerou is often absurdly overt yet sparks superbly and is believable throughout, even after awful objectifying rape sequences. The little Yoda-like government agent is actually funny, and endearing despite his acerbic nature and unsightly appearance. Jubei is the quiet type, but his cynicism, refusal to do as others want him to and his very shounen fighting style of largely taking a terrible beating but then winning in a flash are oddly fun. And while the ending is a bit unsatisfying – Viserys ain’t got nothing on this – the overall plot is quietly clever and paced right to sit between all-out action and mystery, and the minor character get fleshed out in remarkably little screentime.

Much about Ninja Scroll is deplorable and childishly gratuitous. Parts of it would be embarrassing to show to the uninitiated, and I would certainly be worried that it would confirm negative stereotypes of anime in the right – or wrong – context. But there’s a reason it was one of the big anime films of the nineties, not that far behind Akira and Ghost in the Shell in Western reception. And a large part of that is that the writing is genuinely good. It was to some extent despite myself – but I absolutely did enjoy Ninja Scroll, and appreciate its place in the history of anime’s Western popularity, even if, yes, I would be much more comfortable if the bare breasts and rape and splattering blood had been left out in development (not censored, the worst possible choice). Not because these things shock me, but the exact opposite – because they are banal and obvious: it is the ‘adult content’ that so often makes the property childish. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – season 4

Possibly because the third season was too short for the effect to happen, the fourth season of MLP:FiM feels like the point at which the fandom finally snaps out of its apparently-newsworthy fever and realised that this is, after all, just another cartoon. A nice, colourful, fun one – but still just a cartoon, with the same limitations as any other. It is not going to unveil some epic overarching storyline that Lauren Faust kicked off before she departed. It is not going to push the boundaries, deal with being disabled through a flightless young pegasus or tackle dead parents head-on. For all the lessons that the characters have learned, they are not going to stick, because this kind of sitcom set-up requires characters who don’t change. In short, season 4 makes it clear that the show is not that special. Which of course isn’t to say it is not good.

I don’t think we’ll be seeing another Bronies documentary. This was a fandom that peaked and is now on its way down. The fan works will also dwindle, I feel sure. Which actually suits me rather well, because I stopped being fascinated by the rabid, often twisted fandom and watch this like any other cartoon. It’s a little bizarre, too, to have any attempt to say that I like My Little Pony because I like animation in general, and watch literally hundreds and hundreds of animated shows/films, yet to get the response that no, liking My Little Pony means that fandom must outstrip all others and I must be a brony.

Accordingly, this season has some episodes that feel like the barrel of ideas is running a bit low. The transformation of Twilight into a princess changed very little except for a few episodes exploring the tension between ‘I have a public role and want to feel adequate’ and ‘I am still a normal person (pony) and don’t want people treating me differently’, though these are usually only sideline – for example, Twilight might find it awkward to be presiding over a glorified car boot sale.

There are some episodes that I’m sure had some of the fandom screaming about the worst episode ever. In one, the ponies are sucked into Spike’s comic book and take on the identities of the superheroes there, which is as cheesy as it gets. In another, Rarity has to compete for a stallion’s affections when he falls for Applejack, and ends up imitating her in the most cringe-inducing ways. Then there are the times Fluttershy becomes a vampire fruit-bat, and the unlikely concept that Rainbow Dash has an incredible memory for things she perceives peripherally while flying. 

All the characters can be positively nor negatively exaggerated to fit plot moments or jokes – Twilight can be smart and responsible or an obsessive bore; Rainbow Dash can be a leader figure who cares deeply for her friends or an insensitive, brash halfwit, though remains the one I find the most likeable no matter how unfashionable that opinion; Rarity can be a thoughtful, elegant beauty or a superficial drama queen; Applejack can be the voice of reason or a stubborn, short-sighted idiot; Fluttershy can be a caring, loving sweetheart or a doormat; and Pinkie can be hilarious or incredibly annoying, and is often downright creepy. Rarely do they sit comfortably between the two poles. Yet that is how stories are written, and I don’t mind it at all – even if the perception of mistakes leading to growth never really leads to any lasting changes. That’s how cartoon sitcoms work.

The series introduces some new ideas, including funny little pixie things called ‘Breezies’, the Olympics-derived ‘Equestria Games’, and the evil centaur-minotaur thing Tirek, who is the bad guy in an amusingly Dragonball-ish season finale, involving much flying about and shooting of giant laser beams. But more than that, it seems to seek to repeat the (apparent) success of last season’s returning to old character Trixie, bringing back The Flim Flam Brothers, ‘Flutterguy’, as much Discord as possible and an unashamedly foregrounded Derpy – no longer deemed offensive, it seems. Thankfully.

This season very much felt ordinary. Some episodes I didn’t care for, mostly the ones where Rarity or Pinkie became neurotic, as they are the most annoying in this state – even when Weird Al is making a cameo – and the Cutie Mark Crusaders episodes were all a little more superficial and unlikely than they have been in prior seasons, especially when it came to Scootaloo, in spite of one episode where she desperately tries to prove she’s a worthy pegasus by flying.

Perhaps oddly, given the old impression that the series would get epic and episodic, it was the more low-key episodes I tended to enjoy. Fluttershy dealing with stagefright but yearning to perform, the kids’ ‘Twilight Time’ getting out of control, Sweetie Belle getting jealous of her sister getting all the attention – though the latter was much less affecting than Scootaloo’s dream episode last time. Rainbow Dash preferring to compete with friends on her team rather than abandoning them to win more easily. Simple, cute stories about characters, with a touch of magic. I usually applaud attempts to experiment, but the more this season tried to branch out to comic books and Indiana Jones-style adventures, the weaker it seemed. The season opener, involving flashbacks to the past, had some much-needed fleshing-out of authority figures, but it also lacked anything much to drive the plot along, whereas the finale, while brainless, was at least high-energy.

Nothing about season 4 of My Little Pony went drastically wrong. Nothing was a big risk. And sure, this may be upsetting for those militant fans who want this cartoon to be more than it is. For me, it’s actually refreshing. Because it fits with my view of MLP – something nice, pleasant to watch, but far from life-changing, or a particular stand-out in the animation world.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

おジャ魔女どれみドッカ〜ン! / Ojamajo Doremi Dokka~n!

Though of course it can’t compare with how the kids who grew up watching this series felt, I was sorry to see Ojamajo Doremi end. It couldn’t have lasted as long as fellow Toei animation One Piece of course, and nor should it have, but I actually hold it in higher esteem than predecessors like Sailor Moon and Digimon. Ojamajo Doremi had so much heart it was deeply touching, and if ever there’s a revival, possibly adapting the still-ongoing light novels, I will certainly be there for it.

Unlike Mo~tto, I didn’t rush through Dokka~n, partly because the translators were still working on it (and their work is much appreciated!), but also because I was a little resistant to finishing the show and knowing there was no more of this sweet, relaxing series for little girls.

Previous series have in large part relied on the introduction of new witch apprentices to mark the start of new eras. Dokka~n does this too – sort of. In the beginning of the series, little baby Hana, heir to the throne of the witching world, decides she is fed up of being a baby and uses magic to make herself an eleven-year-old. A stubborn baby, she thus must learn to fit in with the structures of Japanese elementary school society alongside the other girls while of course still having the mind of a toddler – and some formidable magic powers. Doremi and the gang must care for her – and at the same time continue to work to free the former queen’s predecessor from her enchanted sleep by delving into her past.

The series is paced very slow, but that is no negative point. After all, this series is at its best when it is focusing not on progressing the main plot – though there are very lovely moments in it, not least the point where the curse on magical frogs is lifted – but on peripheral stories. Aiko and her parents’ broken relationship continues to have the series’ heaviest punches, but begins finally to shift towards a happy ending now. New focus falls on classmates like the one with social anxiety and the one who loves to write books about the people she knows, which make for very sweet asides. Cuter still are the little episodes of puppy love, and the not-quite-confession in the last episode is one of the cutest I’ve ever seen. Perhaps I’d like more of Akatsuki and the FLAT 4, who are barely seen this time, but they are perhaps distracting from the more interesting real-world stories the girls face. Onpu has to face failure for the first time. Hazuki knows that going to a specialist school is the best for her, but has promised Doremi she’ll go to middle school with her and is now in a difficult situation. Momoko is faced with the prospect of going back to America, and even if things go Aiko’s way, that may mean returning to Osaka. There are a lot of goodbyes to be said – and if they all decide to become witches after all, the girls must leave behind the human world altogether.

Of course, all this builds up to that staple of Japanese series about friendship between students – the tearjerker graduation episode. Doubled, because there’s also the ‘graduation’ of witch apprentices to full-blown witches to consider. As graduation episodes go, this is one of the best ones, a superb mix of melancholy, dramatic gestures and humour. It makes for a very powerful episode, and one that made me smile throughout.

Weaker parts of the season include the need to have another ‘shop’ gimmick, and having run out of things like flowers and cakes, the girls decide to try making tapestries, which is not the most dynamic or identifiable of activities. Then there is Hana’s pet baby elephant Pao, which is occasionally cute but mostly annoying, and solves the pecuniary problems of the Maho-Dou by...well, upon vacuuming up dark energy released by the former queen’s predecessor through its trunk, pooping out little golden pellets. That’s...that’s charming, that is.

But Ojamajo Doremi does one of the things that is a staple of why I love anime: it starts with the big premise, the girl who stumbles upon a witch and ends up having to become a witch apprentice, and then after being given plenty of time to breathe and develop, becomes about having to separate from your friends, learning parental responsibility, coping with your parents’ divorce and early romances. That’s not something you see in many cartoons, and it’s to be treasured.  

Saturday, 17 May 2014

フラクタル/ Fractale

I start watching Fractale. It looks like a pretty normal anime. Nice characters. Looks like a Germanic world. Very classic. And then Clain’s parents appear. One of them seems to have a bowl of water for a head. The other is defined by giant lips protruding from either side of her robotic head. What is this?!

An anime like Fractale occasionally comes along and reminds me why I love anime so much. The kind of anime I instantly fall in love with and must watch through as soon as possible, and will stay with me forever. They’re usually accessible but with an element of high-concept, often with sci-fi elements. I think the last I had such a strong reaction to was Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, but Fractale very directly follows on from two recent anime I’ve adored and aired at more or less the same time: Dennou Coil and Kaiba.

Like Dennou Coil, Fractale explores the interesting concepts that arise from being able to project digital data into the real world, and create avatars as well as whole new landscapes. Like Kaiba, it raises the philosophical question of what humanity will do if given the chance to wholly choose their outward appearance – albeit to much less depth and without nearly so much darkness as that anime, which remains an all-time favourite. Fractale is slightly less ambitious than these, wrapping its ideas in a fairly conventional young-boy-meets-strange-young-girl-who-is-centre-of-a-world-changing-conspiracy-and-joins-a-rebellious-airship-crew-to-protect-her plot exemplified by Eureka 7 but also seen in the likes of Xam’d. At only eleven episodes, that noitaminA hallmark, it perhaps could have been given slightly more room to breathe, but in the time it has, takes us to a whole lot of interesting, thought-provoking places.

Clain is a pretty young adolescent boy who despite living in a world of great technological advancement, loves old-fashioned relics – mostly from our own era, which is cute. Unlike most in the world, he stays in one place – not even his parents live with him, as the possibility of digital avatars (‘Doppels’) means that it’s the norm for people to drift around the world wherever they please and interact with their loved ones only remotely. One day, he rescues a strange girl from some daft Team-Rocket-Meets-The-Blues-Brothers pursuers, falls for her, but wakes up to find her gone, leaving behind only a locket – which contains a very unique doppel, advanced enough to give tactile feedback and look like a real human.

While the world is pretty utopian – under the ‘Fractale’ system, nobody has to work or runs short of food – the fractale system is starting to go wrong and displace large numbers of people, and ‘terrorist’ groups try to espouse the virtues of living free of the system. Those behind Fractale are also pretty sinister, a group of priestesses who demand daily ‘prayers’ and are after our heroine. Clutzy, thoroughly adorable Clain thus ends up on a quest not only to find out the truth behind the young doppel Nessa, but to reunite with the girl Phyrne – and the only way to do that is to join up with the terrorists.

With A-1’s usual high standard of good design  and cuteness (in conjunction with the fledgling Ordet), doing what has rapidly become their hallmark of filling a cast with very cute teenage girls and at least one very cute teenage boy, it succeeds in making its lowbrow elements the comic relief and foregrounding the epic adventure, working rather better than, say, No. 6, which attempted something similar. It was certainly more consistent than Sword Art Online, if not such a big hit. Clain is also probably the most sexualised shota since Ciel Phantomhive, with a girly look reminiscent of Joey Jones.

For an eleven-episode series, Fractale was paced well. The expository episodes did a superb job making us like Clain and Nessa, though they’re both character types I love – well-meaning but goofy, pretty-faced young boy and naive, innocent, energetic, wholly good-natured little girl. When joining up with the airship crew and being made dogsbody, apparently a signature of these series, things did not drag and the simmering rivalry with the captain Sunda actually worked, as well as the comedy and cuteness from tsundere Enri. When there are losses in the ranks, they are actually deeply sad. And the ending, while it was never going to be that profound, is nicely open-ended while giving a sense of bittersweet closure.

If there were things I didn’t like, they would be Phryne’s ‘father’ figure, Barrot, who in his slimy, groping ugliness is a bit too exaggerated for the sake of trying to make Phryne more complex, and the fact that the ‘doppel’ system feels like it needed more exploration. I was also no fan of the opening – indifferent song over kaleidoscope images – or the ending – one shot, still until the end, with an awkward rendition of a Yeats poem. But these were far outweighed by how much I enjoyed Fractale, the world we glimpsed and especially the delightful characters we got to know. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

咲- / Saki- (season 1)

I haven’t the faintest idea how to play Mahjong. You sit around a table, taking it in turns to draw tiles and trying to make hands that you have to memorize. You set these up by putting tiles on one side of the table, and there are advantages and disadvantages to being the dealer. Throwing in sticks ups the stakes. And there are also some dice in the middle, but I have no idea what for. Even after watching Saki, I would still call myself almost entirely unaware of how Mahjong works.

But I am aware of how sports anime work – encompassing competitive board games – and after all I knew nothing about go when I started Hikaru no Go, and that became my favourite manga of all time. Knowing that I would probably enjoy the way the anime worked, I got hold of Saki, though soon forgot that I had it, so that when I started to watch I had entirely forgotten that it was a mahjong anime – for all I remembered, it was going to be about H.H. Munro.

But no. Based on a Young Gangan manga, it is a typical but nonetheless highly enjoyable sports anime. It follows a tried-and-tested formula: a rather ordinary young person reveals an uncanny talent for a competitive game in front of an established top youth player. The youth player becomes a bit obsessive – with a hint of romantic attraction – and manages to coax the peculiarly talented one into playing competitively. Though there is a hint of rivalry, the series settles into a series of matches in a competition format, with the sympathetic team encountering opponents with unusual approaches to the game, and after reaching some inner revelation, overcoming the challenge. Meanwhile, the simple actions of the game become highly dramatised, so that the power of moves may be represented by strikes of lightning, visions of mighty creatures or sudden changes in air pressure. This is almost exactly the formula Hikaru no Go had.

But for all the similarity in outline, Saki is very different in feel from HikaGo. With its predominantly female cast, cutesy art style and readiness to have really bizarre character types – including a girl so hard to notice that even her tiles begin to disappear, and a tiny loli who is effectively kept chained up for her immense mahjong prowess – it is rather more like Bamboo Blade. There’s also a propensity to put all the characters into romantic pairs – all but the goofy main guy and the childish teammate being lesbian pairings – that owes something to Maria-sama Ga Miteru, though with about a fiftieth of the subtlety and gentleness. This is a series happy to send its almost all-female cast off to bathhouses and hot springs so that they all get naked together, and does not hesitate to use the old trip-over-and-fall-on-top-of-the-one-you-like conceit.

But that Saki doesn’t mind being a bit lowbrow about its presentation is part of why it’s so much fun. It’s bold and obvious and very obviously geared towards otaku tastes – but that’s why it has an infectious exuberance. It’s just enjoyable to watch, enjoyable to rush through and enjoyable to laugh along with. It’s not trying to change the world or to offer something new and daring, but wants its audience to enjoy – and I certainly did.

It’s no Hikaru no Go – it doesn’t have the sincerity that allows for much more heightened emotion, but then again anyone who might find HikaGo tedious would be better-served here. I think mahjong is fundamentally less-suited to this sort of presentation anyway, being much more luck-based, whereas go has no random factor. Mahjong is evidently about trending towards winning rather than winning every time, but that’s not what this anime shows, and even with my lack of knowledge I know that a lot of the amazing winning hands shown are amazing because they involve ridiculous luck, not just in arranging your hand but in picking a random tile to complete it.

Since I know nothing about mahjong, though, it doesn’t really matter to me how realistic the presentation is. What I enjoy is the absurdity, and the sense of triumph when a character wins. The anime is also very, very good at making the audience root for every character it gives a background to, when of course only one player can win.

This was only the first of three seasons. There is very little sense of closure here – it’s made clear the national tournament is the real goal of these characters, and this entire 25-episode series, after the exposition, is about the qualifying tournament to get to the nationals rather than the tournament itself. It also seems that when Studio Gokumi split off from Gonzo, they took Saki with them, so after this there comes a change in studio – if not staff. I may not swallow it up quite so ravenously, but I will certainly be watching the rest of Saki 

Friday, 9 May 2014

風立ちぬ / Kaze Tachinu / The Wind Rises

I have mixed feelings about how the film is so heavily emphasised as Miyazaki’s swansong. Not because I think he’ll return to the helm, as he did after Mononoke-hime, but because he’ll still be a dominant force in the studio and even if he only writes rather than directs, the likes of Porco Rosso 2 are going to be very close to being ‘Miyazaki films’.

But aside from that, I am very happy that Miyazaki got to make this film. It’s the love story to flight that he’s hinted at his whole career, and it’s clearly in many ways autobiographical despite being ostensibly about historical figure Horikoshi Jiro. It’s also easily his most sophisticated and straightforward film as a director, the one time that he has been more Takahata than Miyazaki, more Ozu than Kurosawa, and that is something that I’m very pleased he proved he could do before the end of his career. Thus, the fantasy here is limited, more along the lines of magical realism than in the rest of his oeuvre, and the historical setting is key rather than something distant and whimsical. For the first time, he writes about the second world war, and how disastrous it was for Japan – even hinting at the taboo subject of Japan’s conduct in China. The Bomb looms just off the page, and it is very interesting to remember that at one point not so long ago Japan wasn’t leading the world in technology, but scrambling to catch up. Accordingly, the film has been Miyazaki’s most controversial, politically.

It’s only right that the war enters this picture, though. At the heart of Miyazaki’s evaluation of Horikoshi is that the weaponization of planes, while what provided his funding, stunted his creativity and stood in the way of his genius. Of course, this is a nice, idealised angle – as critics have pointed out, leaving out much of the darker side of Mitsubishi’s wartime production – but then, this is like so many of Miyazaki’s films centred on the changing world and nostalgia for what is lost. The things that he portrays of his engineering hero make sense, and the film makes no claims of historical accuracy.

Hiroshiki from early childhood has a series of visionary, consistent, often prophetic visions, many of them involving his hero, Giovanni Caproni – who apparently believes the Japanese boy is appearing in his dreams. Inspired to become a flight engineer, he studies at Tokyo University and meets a lovely young rich girl by chance during an earthquake. Though I thought there would be a touch of genius about having a story of Horikoshi narrowly missing out on love all through the narrative, but the fairytale romance Miyazaki gives us is also fascinating, gives some of his most beautiful imagery in the wedding scenes, and gives a bit more narrative structure to what is after all a film that lacks drive. The subtle meditation on the divided loyalties of a man devoted to both his work and his wife, as well as the sacrifices a woman can make, clearly have a lot to do with Miyazaki’s own thoughts on his home life, and make for some very interesting ambiguity.

Though the idea is taken from the novel on which the film is loosely based, the film also has scenes in a sanatorium based on the one in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and its protagonist appears as an eccentric but loveable foreigner with a huge nose and very broken Japanese – performed by former Ghibli board of directors member Steve Alpert. There’s similar casting dynamics at play in the casting of Horikoshi himself – he is played by Evangelion mastermind and Nausicäa wunderkind Anno Hideaki. This is quite a strange choice – the things Jiro is most recognisable for here are his glasses and his odd nasal voice. While Anno’s performance was jarring at first, something about his unpolished performance actually worked very nicely – it seemed natural and awkward in an appropriate way.

Technically, the film was a triumph. Those flight sequences he does so well are of course to the fore here, and the technical elements are beautifully-done. The characters look great – and some of the more comic seem more like something out of Ghiblies than the usual films, though never so much so that they seem out-of-place. The sound effects are often done by voices, like a more refined version of Yadosagashi, which felt nicely like it had almost been a personal preparation for me. It’s strange and otherworldly, being a little odd when it comes outside of fantasy sequences, but I think it works well. The choice of music is also a good touch.

This isn’t a film for everyone – the audience will likely be a lot smaller than that for Spirited Away or even Howl’s Moving Castle. Not everyone will want to sit through it, and it’s much more arthouse. But it is also assured, moving and quite brilliant. A real gem in an already world-class career. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

As Mulan and Tarzan are still relatively well-regarded, Fantasia 2000 and Dinosaur were set apart by being strange experiments and The Emperor’s New Groove is one people tend to be on the fence over, Atlantis tends to have the unenviable place in the Disney canon of the one people can point at and go, There! That’s where Disney’s ‘difficult’ period started! Usually then looking at Lilo & Stitich the year after and adding, Yeah, well, Lilo & Stitch is a weird anomaly.

It’s true that Atlantis is probably the point that Disney was most visibly slipping out of its ‘renaissance’ return to glory. Ironically Disney’s most dry film, it has no songs, very few bright colours and comic relief only in an incredibly sarcastic switchboard operator, a deadpan demolitions expert and a dirty, perverted and creepy Frenchman. It aims for childlike wonder in the Jules Verne mould but by only packing the well-trodden story of a single half-hour cartoon – young dreamer is taken to magical city by mercenaries only for them to turn out to want to plunder the place – it ends up rather dull. Very unusually, I didn’t even want to finish it in a single sitting.

I didn’t catch Atlantis at the time, and really felt very little attraction to it. In the years since it came out, I’ve mostly heard about in the context of ‘You know how The Lion King ripped off Kimba? Yeah, well, Atlantis ripped off Nadia! And Laputa too!’ Honestly, I don’t see it – the ideas that are in both are pretty ubiquitous adventure story elements and staples of adaptations of Verne works, so I can let Disney off the hook on this charge...not that I’ve seen more than two episodes of Nadia, mind you. Yet!

There’s a lot about Atlantis that appeals. Getting a left-field artist like Gerald Scarfe in to design characters had worked nicely on Hercules, so having Hellboy creator Mike Mignola work on this film seemed like a good bet – and there are some great designs here. The cast is strong, with big names experienced in animation putting in good work – Michael J. Fox is very much at home, and Leonard Nimoy’s rumbling patriarch plays to his strengths rather more than Galvatron did. Cree Summer also appears as the poster girl, the veteran putting in an excellent performance – and though she’s one of the very first voice actresses I ever took an interest in (through her work in Inspector Gadget and Rugrats), she certainly isn’t always spot-on...I’ll never forget how irritating she was in the dub of Final Fantasy X.

For all that these elements appealed, however, the film falls down in far more respects. The animation is functional but the heavy use of CG is badly dated now in a way that the wildebeests in The Lion King never will be, having been too foregrounded. The design is too haphazard, feeling at times like the researchers just threw everything that suggested ‘ancient culture’ at the board to see what stuck. The animation is bizarrely careless for Disney – just look how the chalk that rubs off on Milo isn’t reversed as it should be. That story just has far too little brain to move anyone, and we’ve certainly seen the concept too many times already. The large cast don’t have time to be adequately developed or distinguished. Whoever thought of the Ireland/Iceland mistake doesn’t quite understand translation. And then there’s the fact that Milo, for all Michael J Fox tries hard, is deeply unlikeable. He’s too cocksure for an underdog, his clutziness seems affected mostly thanks to his animation, and there is zero chemistry between him and Kida.

The best Disney films have a lot of heart, emotional turmoil that isn’t scared of crossing into cheesy territory, believable romance and some point of identification for the kids. The problem with Atlantis isn’t that anything is done drastically wrong, just that...well, nothing manages to stand out as superb either.