Thursday, 28 August 2014


Much as I love Rio de Janeiro, I was averse to Rio. I didn’t like the trailer. I didn’t like the ugly design of the main birds, or the rather whitewashed, Hollywood vision of Brazil where everyone is a party animal and nobody is geeky or awkward.

Well, the birds are ugly and this Brazil can still be called somewhat whitewashed, there are geeky Brazilians here, and much to recommend the film. Yes, probably I would have preferred the Pixar project with the blue-footed newts that was cancelled when they realised their plot was too similar to this one – and didn’t want to be the Dreamworks of Antz, Shark Tale and the rest. But in its own right, Rio has much to recommend it – not least of which being the awesome soundtrack.

This is a classic fish-out-of-water romance, but with birds. Blue is a rare Blue Macaw – the last male of his species. As a chick, he was taken from the Brazilian forest by smugglers and was to be sold as a pet – but fell off the back of a truck and was taken in by a nice geeky girl who runs a bookshop. When a Brazilian scientist comes to whisk the two of them to Brazil to meet the last female of the species, but smugglers once again get in the way, and the birds end up not only chained together, but out in the wild with an evil cockatoo on their feathery tails.

Once again, though, just as with Bolt the film doesn’t feel like it really has the capacity to move the audience. Though the stakes are the future of a species, that never feels like it’s in question. There’s no real sense of danger, nor of triumph. And the way Blue having to learn to fly is signposted so heavily all through the film just feels incredibly clumsy.

But there are a few scenes that make the whole thing worthwhile – when the birds all burst into song and Jewel has a solo verse, the way Carnaval itself is rendered, and some of the shots of Rio.

But it certainly could have been better – and more satisfying. And there’s something deeply amusing about how they tried to render two birds with hooked beaks kissing.  

Bolt (2008)

Bolt appealed to me when it had its cinema run, but like so many animated films, sadly I didn’t actually get around to going to the cinema to see it. Signalling effectively the transition of Disney Animations from ailing production house playing second fiddle to Pixar to newly accomplished CGI studio in its own right with Pixar mastermind John Lasseter at the helm, Bolt had a lot to prove – but didn’t make anything like the impact of Wreck-it Ralph or Frozen...or, indeed, Tangled. But for all that it’s likely going to be consigned with Meet the Robinsons to ‘minor feature’ status for all time, it was a whole lot better than, say, Cars II. And I liked Cars II much more than most people did.

Something like Homeward Bound meets Finding Nemo with the delusional-ideas-of-own-abilities comedy from the first Toy Story, cute animal story Bolt has a bit of everything – comedy, action, sweetness, emotionally heavy notes, and quite a few sharp jibes at Hollywood, including an especially cutting and brilliant depiction of a manipulative agent. 

The story is that there is a successful TV show called Bolt, which is rather like Inspector Gadget but with Gadget and Brain merged. A little girl – who is even called Penny – gets into scrapes because a terrorist organisation is after her, but has her highly-intelligent dog for protection. Fortunately, Bolt has been enhanced to gain super speed, amazing strength, heat ray eyes and an incredibly destructive superbark. The real Bolt is the star of the show with his real owner, who wishes he could just be a normal dog – but that’s not possible because the director has mandated the dog truly believe what he’s doing is real. In other words, Bolt truly thinks he has amazing powers, and has an incredibly sheltered life – even for a dog.

The show isn’t doing so well, so a network executive demands darker stories – which include a cliffhanger. Leaving Bolt genuinely distressed for his owner leads to him escaping in a rescue attempt and, as seems usual practice in this sort of story, getting knocked out in the back of a delivery van and being taken right across the States.

Bolt at first believes himself depowered by the mysterious properties of styrofoam, but undeterred, goes to look for Penny. He asks some pigeons, who lead him to a cat that has been extorting them – cats being the underlings of the bad guy in the TV show. This alley cat – who turns out to have a genuinely very sweet yet understated backstory involving being left behind when her human family walks away, leaving her to fend for herself after having been declawed, is forced along for the ride, and after picking up a crazy fanboy hamster (who never seems to miss HIS old human for a second), they make their way to Hollywood. But will there still be a place for Bolt?

In animation terms, it’s just a little dated and clunky now, especially the human characters, but the animal designs are very strong and the acting matches well. I had no idea that the actors were John Travolta and Miley Cyrus until the film ended, but both suited their roles extremely well. Also fun to see Malcolm McDowell voicing yet another crazy English bad guy.

I don’t know why Bolt wasn’t more of a success. I guess that it needed a bit more scale to really draw in the crowds, but it benefited from keeping things small and simple – in contrast to its show-within-a-show. The humour was good, the music was good, the emotional parts were good and the payoff was good. I guess it was just that little bit too straightforward to stand out in the crowded market of kids’ American CG animated feature films. 

Mr Peabody & Sherman

Despite quite a prominent advertising campaign – including dominating the Regent Street lights – nobody I know went to see Mr Peabody & Sherman. Honestly, I’m not surprised – if the characters are popularly known in the States from their old cartoon appearance (I think in Rocky and Bullwinkle?), they never made it over to the UK, and honestly they’re very hard to like. A know-it-all dog with incredible physical dexterity and a seven-year-old who is a long way from cute. There’s nothing about their adventures travelling through time that comes over as appealing or likely to strike a personal chord, and other than a few rather excellent moments near the end when different versions of the main characters end up in the same place at the same time, the film bears that out. It’s not very interesting, has very few laughs, doesn’t have appealing characters or designs, and overall is certainly one of the least impressive of Dreamworks’ films.

The story follows a dog who just happens to be a super-genius named Mr Peabody. Despite having invented a great many things – including some very silly ones – what he wants most is a family, and a home. So he adopts a young boy. Seeking to educate young Sherman, he begins to take him to different periods in a ‘wayback machine’ to show him first-hand some of the most significant events in history. Of course, this is all loose and slapdash for the sake of comedy – Sherman points out that the George Washington story with the cherry tree is apocryphal, yet we have the French Revolution depicted as having started as a direct result of Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake’.

On his first day of school – wow, American kids start their education late – Sherman’s grounding in history is evident as he can answer all the questions, upsetting a girl called Penny by correcting her. She is a really nasty piece of work – something the film’s redemption arc for her never comes close to satisfactorily undoing, even if she’s seven – and bullies Sherman in a more literal ‘racism’ than that of real life. He was adopted by a dog, so he must be a dog too, she reasons.

The two of them end up fighting and Sherman bites Penny. This leads to trouble – because a large bullish woman who is a pleasing mix of Miss Trunchbull and the Queen of Hearts who works for child services wants to take Sherman away. Now, since when we meet them, Mr Peabody is putting Sherman in mortal danger during the Bloody Revolution and escapes only by igniting a sewer full of methane which really should have killed the people pursuing them, she may have a point. Nonetheless, Mr Peabody arranges for Penny’s family to be there on the night of the inspection of his suitability as a parent, so that the kids can make up. And of course, the kids end up getting into the time machine.

The adventure takes them to Ancient Egypt, where Penny almost marries Tutankhamen, then to Renaissance Italy for frivolities with Da Vinci to recharge, and then after a mishap with a wormhole back to Ancient Greece and into the Trojan Horse. Of course all of these time periods are replete with stereotypes, though not all of them national: witness Agamemnon as a big beefy jock. There’s not much that is very funny or engaging here – through mortal peril and too many poop jokes, Sherman and Penny get closer and puppy love is soon very evident.

Things get better once an emergency leads the kids to go back to shortly before they left, resulting in the classic two-in-the-same-timeline matter-antimatter paradox and the best joke in the film being a decidedly non-kid-friendly one about what Mr Peabody must stop Sherman doing in this situation. Soon the film’s big climax explodes into silliness with space-time collapsing and going very fast somehow providing an equal and opposite gravitational reaction to a tear in the continuum, and Agamemnon saying ‘Don’t taze me bro’, which I can’t see anyone getting in twenty years’ time.

This film just doesn’t have the heart it needs. It’s fundamentally a story about a father who loves his son, but it never really realises that, or makes it touching. It quite often comes close but it doesn’t quite get there. So all the snappy dialogue and impressive action sequences and silly minor characters can’t come together in something that can move the audience. So that is why it falls short – and why I’m convinced that Dreamworks are much better-off doing films with a serious fantasy premise and inserting humour than silly films and trying to insert sentiment.  

I seriously doubt Rob Minkoff will ever do anything again that comes even close to what he accomplished with The Lion King. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

続夏目友人帳 / Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou / Natsume's Book of Friends Continued (Season 2)

Perhaps appropriately, given that it is the only season to be titled as a continuation rather than being given a number like a sequel, Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou is the only time a season starts without an opening episode that repeats the exposition to explain the premise...which is why I didn’t notice when I started watching season 4 that it wasn’t the beginning.

The second season is really more of the same. It kicks off with an imitator of Nyanko-sensei, who turns out to be a powerful youkai, and generally the series goes on exploring Natsume’s situation and developing his relationships extremely slowly. We also begin to have the theme of everyone else but Natsume wanting to choose a side – abandoning humanity to spend time with the youkai like his grandmother Reiko, or treating them like tools or animals like the exorcists. 

There are even humans who will use a youkai as bait to catch another. Natsume spends more time with the famous actor Natori – including a hot springs trip with him, a new level of homoeroticism. Otherwise, things are generally episodic again – Natsume might buy a painting that turns out to be the object of obsession of a kind-hearted spirit, or meet an old lady who met a mermaid in her youth and fears she cursed another with immortality.

Though the cute fox boy is not back in this season, he will return in the next. Instead, there’s a little dragon-boy who hatches from an egg who is quite absurdly cute – especially as powerful demons want to eat him – and another somewhat emo young spirit whose name was taken by Reiko and tied to a tree. 

There’s also a very interesting young boy called Kai who is prickly but of course warms to Natsume – and in the two-part season finale turns out to be more than he initially appears. His design seems almost a nod to Mushishi, but grey/white hair and a fringe that covers one eye isn’t exactly unique. It’s a little unconvincing how he departs to neatly round off the story, but it was interesting to watch nonetheless.

As the series gets closer to the present day, the animation marginally improves, but it’s never really what one would call stunning. Still, Brain’s Base get the art style nicely, and a slightly less bombastic style suits it.
The only thing I’m starting to find unconvincing is that Natsume’s supposed spiritual power manifests generally in one punch to the face whenever he’s in trouble, and that always seems to sort out even the most terrifying threat – before, of course, Nyanko-sensei intervenes.

I suspect that looking back, I’ll consider season 2 the most underwhelming of the Natsume Yuujinchou seasons, but I thoroughly enjoyed it nonetheless, and will happily continue with season 3.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Pudgy & Grunge, from Mrs. Doubtfire

Even for my blog, this is a slightly odd thing to talk about. But it is an interesting little nugget of animation that, with Robin Williams’ recent passing, I have been thinking about. I wanted to write something as a bit of a tribute to Williams, and since I don’t think thoughts on Robots would be that, I’ve opted for this.

I loved this opening. My brother and I would watch the film a lot when I was a child, and I would happily sing along to the snippets of ‘Large al Factotum’ that open the short. Though I knew that legendary Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones made the animation seen, only today did I find out a full five minutes of animation were made. True, the sequence ends when the Doubtfire script demands it, but this is still a very interesting little nugget.

Clearly a parody of Sylvester & Tweetie, the short’s slapstick has more in common with Jones’ run on Tom & Jerry. It’s gleefully classic – the cat wants to eat the bird, so chases him, but ends up injuring himself or letting himself get distracted.

But of course overlaid on this is the fun of Robin Williams taking on the roles of both cat and mouse. The cat’s smooth voice has something of the voice Jeremy Irons would later give Scar, especially saying ‘I think not’ – a line I’d like to believe was a reference to the sinister cat in Watership Down, unlikely as I know that to be. His Pudgy is irritating, but hey – is that not perfect given Mel Blanc’s delivery of Tweetie’s lines?

It may seem odd now, but in 1993 Williams’ stature as a voice actor was freshly-established after his bravura performance in Aladdin and his contribution to FernGully. I feel that in a small way, this film made the image of him as a vocal performer even more solid in the public’s mind. He was incredibly skilled and if you pretend hard enough, this short can almost make you feel he was there in the golden age...

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graeme Chapman

This was such a beautiful idea, and could have been something wonderful. And while I suspect I liked it rather more than the critics who eviscerated it, and it had flashes of something brilliant, mostly it simply wasn’t a good animation at all.

The strong idea: to take the audiobook version of Graeme Chapman’s 1980 ‘autobiography’ – with four listed authors other than Chapman and the typically glib appended joke ‘Volume VI’ – and make an animation using Chapman’s voice. What we know now about his hedonism, his alcoholism and of course his death from cancer will surely lend extra poignancy, and getting the surviving pythons involved for new voiceovers can only help, right? What’s more, to reflect the many and varied elements of Chapman’s life, how about commissioning a number of British animation studios to provide different segments for a compilation animation like Fuyu no Hi or Genius Party? Sounds great, right?

Well, there are two massive failings here – one is that the animations dictate the pacing, and the pacing is entirely wrong; the other is that without fail, the animations are ugly. There is no cuteness here, not even the quirky cuteness of Aardman or Peppa Pig. There is no stop-motion or classic animation in the Superted/Count Duckula tradition. There is certainly no Watership Down realism, storybook winsomeness of The Snowman or any of the clever mixing of styles of Gumball. I’m sure it’s because of a low budget, but we get almost nothing but bad CG best-suited to early 2000s European music videos (yes, I’m talking Jamba!-level), unimpressive Flash and some clumsy hand-drawn animation in the style of unimpressive adverts. And not Kellogg’s smoothness or Compare the Meerkat decent CG. The film fails to represent either the history of British animation or how good it can be. Some sequences are done very well, mind you, but others are awful and there is a constant need for the experimental parts to be tempered by some sincere, straightforward, solid animation.

The film starts very clunkily. After an awkwardly-timed rendition of Chapman choking during the Oscar Wilde sketch done in cut-out animation, we go back to his childhood, and things get awkward. A story about body parts during World War II isn’t really one that benefits from visuals, even crude cartoon ones, and Chapman’s ideas on class get muddled. Asides with awfully-rendered monkeys as the Pythons long overstay their welcome after the well-known story of coming up with the Python name. And then while the scene of miserable British holidays in the rain worked, stiff video-game CG for a quite clever passage about Freud (bafflingly played by Cameron Diaz here) analyzing an obviously homoerotic dream about Biggles and pointing out only signs of feelings of navigational inadequacy completely ruined it. It not only made the dream itself hideously unfunny, it was far too slow to unfold and all the humour dried up.

Bland animations covered Chapman going to Cambridge and meeting Cleese, who did an unkind impersonation of David Frost. The most obvious and puerile animations were used for Chapman discovering his sexuality (which came over far more as bisexual than homosexual) and sadly, later, his penchant for promiscuity. Things got better as he realised his alcoholism and he went cold turkey – the sort of event that requires odd, experimental animation, which is what we got, and the animation towards the end where he grows very tired of Hollywood parties yet incessantly namedrops is superb, like a smoother Superjail, especially when Wilde himself appears – voiced, of course, by Stephen Fry.  

Chapman was a funny man – ignoring the awful and butchered Yellowbeard – and I sense the autobiography reflected that. But coupling his writing with badly-paced, ugly animation kills it. And having all the Pythons bar Idle (whose singing voice features) provide new voice-overs makes me think that the project deserved to be better-realised than, sadly, it was. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

ねこぢる草 / Nekojiru-So / Catsoup Grass / Cat Soup

Nekojiru-So is a very weird short animation. In weirdness, it’s right up there with Mind Game and even A Country Doctor. The 2001 animation is an adaptation of the drug-influenced manga of the artist Nekojiru – which means catsoup – who sadly committed suicide three years earlier. I must confess, I do not know how much of the trippiness derives from the original work, as I have never read it, nor seen the prior collection of 2-minute shorts Nekojiru Gekijou. But I get the impression her vision is maintained in the out-and-out weirdness here. No surprise, Yuasa Masaaki was a screenwriter here. 

Let me try to recount the plot, as I recall it. The young humanised cat Nyatta almost dies trying to fish his toy truck out of the bath. This near-death experience, apart from letting him pass a group of women gossiping in squeaky voices like Sweep from Sooty and Sweep, also allows him to see his sick sister Nyaa-ko’s soul being taken away. Apparently the one taking her soul is meant to be the bodhisattva Jizou – patron deity of dead children – he looks a hell of a lot more like a cutesy Shiva. Anyway, Nyatta pulls his big sister’s soul back with him, but succeeds only in splitting it in two. When Nyatta recovers from drowning and the dead Nyaa-ko is revived using this half-soul, she is more or less vegetative.

On a quest to buy some tofu, the siblings stop at a circus where the Abrahamic god seems to be performing, sawing up a woman and reassembling her, giving form to his words and presumably being behind the circus’ main attraction, a giant bird full of his cloud-breath that makes pretty colours when it squawks. Inciting these squawks, however, foolish men go too far, the bird fills up with rainclouds and then water, and finally bursts, flooding the whole world.

Nyatta and Nyaa-ko end up on a wooden arc with a pig they treat very cruelly. He offers them tasty fish that gathered to eat the boat occupant’s poop under their toilet, but the cats prefer to unzip the pig’s outer skin and remove the tasty butchered pork cuts from inside him, which they fry up and eat - including the pig autocannibalising himself. Out on the sea, a creature is pregnant with kittens, but eaten by baby pterodactyls, whose poop puts the baby kitten into the flowers the grow beneath them. One fish, meanwhile, has a small adventure trying to make a break for it, but some samurai chop him up into sushi. Undeterred, the fish bone swims on, seeing a giant muck-lump above the surface and then washing up on the shore, where a random child cat eats its eyeball and gets reprimanded.

The beach brings in sand imagery, and God empties the world’s excess waters, so that the world becomes desert. The poor pig is abused by the cats, who use him as a slave, riding in his skin and ultimately killing him. Nyatto loses an arm in the scuffle, but gets it reattached. In the house of some weird degenerate, who feeds them delicious food before putting them in a cauldron with vegetables, donning his bondage gear and trying to cut their heads off with scissors. He gets overexcited and falls in the cauldron himself, and the cats escape, first pulling off his scalp to reveal the robot parts underneath, then chopping off his limbs and shutting the lid on him. These are some violent kitties.

Back in the desert, they dig under a mushroom-y thing to find water, but uncover a water-elephant, which is pretty awesome. It has plenty for them to drink and they can even swim in it, but it finally evaporates in the blistering heat – moments before reaching a shoreline where giant Dalí-influenced mosquitoes stalk along. Cutting a cabbage-thing full of blood, God stops time, and for some reason the cats fall down into giant still scenes mostly of the ocean. In a rather lovely, extremely bleak sequence that follows after one cat finds a woman about to step in front of a subway train and cuts away her teardrop like a jewel, in the attempt by celestial beings to set time right again, everything is sped up, slowed down and reversed. The cats age in moments, car crash victims are restored, and bullets are sucked right out of the heads of the victims of a gangland or terrorist execution – the likes of which I’ve sadly seen from ISIS lately.

Time is turned back far enough that the cats are back on the arc. Jizou had hinted they need to find a flower, and they come across it past some weird steam-powered cat. This restores Nyaa-ko’s soul, so the two can return home – suggesting it may all have been a trip into the world of the dead. Except that back home, when Nyatto goes to the toilet, his family members all get switched off just like the picture on a CRT television. As does Nyatto. And then the screen itself.

Okay, I’ve taken about all the space I have just to summarise the bizarre plot, but that should convey just how weird this was. Like most super-weird anime, though, it is justified by its striking visuals, brief moments of heavy emotional significance and frequently unsettling atmosphere. J.C. Staff are at the most experimental I’ve ever seen them – though I guess if you condensed all Di Gi Charat’s weirdest moments you might come close – but also ambitious. Some of the sweeping shot compositions and the methods of realising vast scales are beautiful.

I can’t help but think I’d have loved this if the cats were a little more sympathetic, though. Cruel little buggers!

Monday, 4 August 2014

夏目友人帳 / Natsume Yuujinchou / Natsume's Book of Friends: Season 1

As I said in my thoughts of Genius Party, I had a weird start to my experience of Natsume Yuujinchou. I started watching season 4 without any idea it wasn’t the beginning. And the odd thing was that it took until episode 6 for me to realise that I wasn’t watching from the beginning – because there was clearly a backstory to the relationship between Natsume and a celebrity with a moving birthmark/tattoo that I hadn’t seen. Every other relationship – from the cat to the more minor friendly spirits to the schoolfriends – I could take as natural elements of a story starting in medias res. Which, I suppose, is a sign of some very good writing. Or even if it was just me being dumb – by the time I got that far I was hooked.

Natsume Yuujinchou is the story of a boy with the power to see spirits. One day, one of the more powerful of them becomes Natsume’s ally and Natsume is drawn to their society while at the same time having to be aware that nobody else around him can see what he can. So far, very Bleach. But the execution is very different, in part because this is a shoujo series, not a shounen one – though it blurs the lines. If I were to compare it to any other series, it would probably be Kekkaishi, with a similar relationship with a protective spirit, family tradition and much emphasis on a rather goofy teenage male protagonist and how he interacts with his peers – rather than how much butt he kicks.

Though he has had a difficult time as a child, passed between family members and foster homes as his ability to see things creeps people out – a bit of a Sixth Sense backstory – Natsume has mellowed into a pleasant boy who doesn’t want to cause problems for others. But from his grandmother, who had the same ability but spent her life challenging spirits, he has inherited the ‘book of friends’ – a list of the names of spirits. These names allow the owner to summon and command the powerful beings, and though it doesn’t seem Natsume’s grandmother ever used the book for that purpose, it is a valuable relic and in the wrong hands it could be a terrible thing.

Into Natsume’s life comes a mischievous spirit who is arguably the series’ main draw, the childish, vulgar, impetuous and selfish spirit Madara, who takes the form of a fat cat and so gets the nickname of Nyanko-sensei. This cute, beckoning cat-style guardian spirit offers protection to Natsume in exchange for getting the Book of Friends upon his death, in a somewhat less creepy echo of the central relationship in Kuroshitsuji. His cat form is a kind of brilliant ugly-cute and his grumpy old man personality hiding a formidable power is a classic of Japanese storytelling, as seen everywhere from Toshiro Mifune characters to Muten Roshi in Dragonball. And, of course, Yoda. He’s hilarious and a key part of the series’ appeal.

Once the set-up is dealt with, the series becomes largely episodic, not too far from Mushishi in terms of Natsume encountering new spirits and hearing their stories, then sorting them out. He doesn’t travel much, but sometimes he’ll go to, for example, an old abandoned train station his grandmother went to once, and there discover a spirit that needs to be reconciled with his friend but has been waiting for decades for Natsume’s grandmother to return. In a way rather reminiscent of Western cartoon writing, these little stories will also be framed by something to parallel them in Natsume’s life – like friends in his school needing to reconcile. It’s neat, it’s simple and it’s very, very cute.

Not everything is episodic. Many characters recur, especially significant humans – we’ll see more of the exorcist, as I mentioned. Natsume’s schoolfriends stay in his life, especially one who has some small power to see spiritual elements: the season finale centres on Natsume’s developing kinship with him, which borders on the homoerotic. Significant spirits also come back, from comedy mid-level, rather bureaucratic spirits to a huge horse-like spirit who becomes a strong ally. There’s also the heartbreakingly cute story of a lonely little fox spirit, who is saved from bullies by Natsume and begins to hero-worship him. It’s absurdly cute and made my man-ovaries squeal. Dammit, I’m still too young to want kids, especially fox-spirit kids. But oh lawd, that kid was too goddamn cute.

I wouldn’t have been satisfied with just these 13 episodes. The story barely seems to have gotten going, there was no overarching plot to this particular season (ie not the same one that runs through the entire story) – but of course there are three more seasons to watch, so that doesn’t trouble me. And I think that if the story isn’t satisfactorily wrapped up, I’m going to have to read the manga. Because though I can’t say the series stands out in terms of animation, character, concept or performance, I became really emotionally attached – and that’s the most important thing.