Friday, 30 December 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

There was quite a lot of marketing for The Secret Life of Pets in Japan, and I was tempted to go, but ultimately it wasn’t a must-see, so I let it pass me by. It wasn’t even a priority film to watch on the plane – it only made it to my return journey! Still, it was a fun, simple animated movie that followed a formula and had some entertaining moments.

The plot is more or less Toy Story with pets. When the owners are out, the pets will have fun gatherings and parties. Chubby-faced Jack Russell terrier Max loves his owner very much, though. When a big, tough, brash new dog arrives on the scene, he’s very jealous. That jealousy leads to the two getting lost together, having a lot of scrapes, meeting a lot of rejected pets and ultimately learning to love one another. Yes, the parallels to Toy Story are hard to miss.

Otherwise, it hangs on its characters. Silly fluffy pom Gidget comes close to carrying the movie, by turns adorable, insane and hilarious, but the central duo are mostly on the dull side, the comedy tough-guy rabbit is an overdone joke by this stage and the funny old Pops was an enjoyable character but very one-note.


The film stays entertaining but never tugs at the heartstrings or evokes more than a small chuckle. Bland, derivative and thoroughly mediocre, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a refreshing, inoffensive watch. 

Monday, 26 December 2016

バケモノの子 / Bakemono no Ko / The Monster’s Child / The Boy and the Beast

Kimi no Na Wa has changed a lot of things in the anime scene. Until it took Shinkai Makoto to his new elevated place as the perceived successor to Miyazaki Hayao, it was Mamoru Hosoda who looked to be able to take that title, and indeed remains in my view the more established and consistent of the two.

And while not the smash hit of Kimi no Na Wa, this movie made a big stir in Japan. It was well-marketed and well-received, with strong box office figures and positive critical response. It also seemed like my sort of movie, a coming-of-age tale about an acerbic young lad taken in by a monster to train in martial arts.

Yet it didn’t have the resonance that Kimi no Na Wa is enjoying, nor was it a breakthrough. Anime fans enjoyed it, but it didn’t go much beyond that. And having seen it now, I think that’s appropriate. There’s a lot here that works very well, a lot of heart and a lot of imagination, but it falls well short of Summer Wars and remains too distant and too by-the-numbers to inspire love from a wider audience.

The story is simple – little 9-year-old Ren runs away from home after his mother’s death. His father is missing and he dislikes his guardians, so becomes homeless. Fortunately for him, he’s spotted by Kumatetsu, a powerful but irresponsible beast creature, and taken in on a whim as a disciple. Taken in as a lonely human in a world of beasts, with a monkey and pig advising him and giving something of an echo of Journey to the West, Ren is given the new name Kyuuta and eventually becomes formidable. Unsurprisingly, he’s not the only one with a similar background, though, and might have to confront the darkness in the hearts of others.

The core of the movie, the squabbling, eventual respect and finally strong bond between Kumatetsu and Ren, works very well. They argue, come to understand one another, and finally rely on each other to be complete. Unfortunately, the rest of the story hung around this core doesn’t cohere nearly so well. The love story is tepid and slow, Kumatetsu’s rival doesn’t get the development he needs and the antagonist is much too remote and peripheral to carry a meaningful climax to the story. There’s also no big pay-off here: it essentially feels like Ren ends up turning his back on everything that makes him who he is, and there was way more scope for examining how he could find a unique place in the human world afterwards.

Ultimately, unlike Summer Wars or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and even more so than Wolf Children, the film doesn’t manage to clearly stamp its identity throughout its running time, and thus falls short of hitting hard and being truly memorable. If he wants his Studio Chizu to be a new powerhouse, Hosoda is going to have to up his game – especially with Shinkai now a few steps ahead.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

ハイキュー!! / Haikyuu!! Season 3

Given how much can be covered in an entire series of an anime, it feels almost redundant to write about 10 episodes of a sports anime covering just one volleyball game. The previous seasons have been 25 episodes, so this felt more like a series of specials than a full season. However, following the underdogs as they go up against the formidable Shiratorizawa was certainly fun.

Tragedy hit the series as Tanaka Kazunari, voice actor for coach Ukai, passed away during the production of this season. He delivered some fantastic final lines and his replacement of course doesn’t sound quite as he should, and it’s a poignant note to remember this production by.

This season is focused on the single game, but succeeds very nicely in the two core strengths of Haikyuu – bringing new light to the established cast, and introducing some highly compelling oddballs on the rival side. The intrigue of Shiratorizawa comes not through the powerhouse giant Ushijima, but the bizarre-looking jester-like Satori. Sports anime and manga have long thrived on being able to pitch the heroes against oddballs, be they the super-powered children of Inazuma 11 and Saki or the tactical mind-game masters of Hikaru no Go.

But this season is effectively Tsukishima’s time to shine, which is great to see. From detached, sarcastic cynic too afraid to commit his all, he’s become the team’s strategic cornerstone. It’s pretty great to see that change, while retaining his bluntness.

Hinata remains the reason I watch the show, though. With his boundless enthusiasm, determination, ability to shock and occasional blind luck, he’s what gets under the skins of the opposing team and what makes Karasuno an oddball team. He’s everything I want from a shounen protagonist and I have to say that I can’t get nearly as interested as the rest of the fandom in all these random captains and setters when they just don’t seem nearly as compelling as what’s at the centre of this story.

Catchy opening and ending songs, solid production, a pretty aesthetic and very strong vocal performances made for ten enjoyable episodes that are guaranteed not to be the last in this story. And I’m very pleased by that.

僕だけがいない街 / Boku Dake ga Inai Machi / A Town that Lacks Just Me / Erased

Anime by and large has been lacking ambition lately. Possibly it’s just that I’ve been watching less of it, but there are relatively few titles that people bring up as challenging or sophisticated these days, in a world of fanservice and idol anime. But there’s still noitaminA, the programming slot that usually at least attempts to do something a cut above the average.

And so it was with Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, which takes a more serious seinen tone with its murder-mystery storyline and brings together themes and modes of a variety of recent hits. Directed by Itou Tomohiko, buoyed up by his successes with Sword Art Online but having rather more in common with his breakthrough work with Hosoda Mamoru – in particular TheGirl Who Leapt Through Time, this series was also well-marketed. My own interest was piqued by a large and attractive poster for the show in Shinjuku station. It looked like a cute coming-of-age story and over this Christmas break, I binge-watched the 12 episodes very quickly.

To be honest, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It aims for the cleverness and paranoia of Monster with the mind games of Death Note and the cute, smart kids in peril of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and some of the glib, vaguely Murakami-esque detached observations of Bakemonogatari. While there are some superbly-done parts of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, ultimately I don’t think it hangs together nearly well enough, nor are all the extraneous parts necessary.

In a convoluted time-travelling plot, our hero Fujinuma Satoru has a magical power. When something terrible is going to happen, he inadvertently goes back in time a few minutes so that he can put it right, saving lives and avoiding disasters. This is presented in a very direct echo of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time using film effects. When a far more dramatic crime erupts, he is sent back much further, to his elementary school – where the events that led to the recent crime were set in motion. This is an interesting, if not particularly original, set-up – Satoru is a 29-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body and must investigate a set of child abductions to save himself and his loved ones in the future.  

However, this whole section didn’t ring true at all. Satoru doesn’t have much personality beyond an endearing tendency to speak his thoughts out loud and then get embarrassed, and there’s no exploration whatsoever of the strangeness and hilarity that must come from a 29-year-old, with the mind of a 29-year-old, going back into his 10/11-year-old body. Indeed, the kids around him, with only a couple of exceptions, all speak in the weirdest artificial diction, almost all of them preternaturally smart and basically miniature adults.

The pacing of the series is all off-kilter because the set-up is saving the first child who will be abducted. This not only rings false when the danger to one of Satoru’s closest friends who will be the second victim is barely even raised, but creates an awkward set of overlapping arcs where even if the problem is solved we then lose the sense of triumph and get an uncomfortable jolt of then moving to the next stage of the plan because the murderer hasn’t been dealt with. The romantic undertones are half-baked because the script calls for a cute budding love story but also occasional reminders that this is a 29-year-old mind starting a romance with a 10-year-old girl. And ultimately there’s only so much satisfaction that can be derived from a crime detective story where ‘How can you predict what’s going to happen?’ can only be answered with ‘Because of my magical time-travelling powers.’ The idea of eyes flashing red with fury or malevolence doesn’t work either, and there’s no attempt at sophistication when giving the bad guy motives.


There are things I certainly much admired here. The show does an amazing job of examining mother-child relationships, with some of the warmest moments are simple family affairs. There’s at least an original, if unlikely, ending arc to finish things off and further complicate the timeline. I enjoyed the dynamics of Satoru’s gang of schoolmates and wanted to see them developed more. And I did enjoy how the series was drawn and animated, which was very reminiscent of A1’s big-screen debut, Welcome to the Space Show. But I have to say, I hoped for much more, and feel that the same things have been done much better elsewhere. 

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Inside Out

I doubt Inside Out will be remembered as one of Pixar's best. Certainly I didn't see it in the cinema and unlike Wall-E or Up or Finding Dory, I barely saw it discussed on social media or amongst my friends. There was some merchandising about, but the colourful stylised designs of the film translated to some ugly toys.

Personally, I took a bit of a dislike to the concept, because it's so unoriginal. The idea of little people inside a person's head controlling them isn't new - for one example, I used to read The Numskulls first in The Beezer and later in The Beano.

But I watched this expecting Pixar to take the concept and make it into something really fantastic, and they certainly managed that. For this concept, there are some very beautiful sections of this film.
11-year-old Riley is a happy kid who loves her family and sports, until a move to the city uproots everything. Her inner life goes awry as Joy, hitherto the main driving force of her life, and Sadness, until now only seldom influential in a young life, end up on a quest through the often bizarre inner life of a young girl, finding both adventure and tragedy on the way as a difficult time threatens to change a little girl's personality forever.

While it's a staple of manga and a bit of a cliché, self-sacrifice always gets strong emotions from me, and a very fine example features here, a single moment with unlikely characters that significantly raised my impressions of this story. Joy, rather Tinkerbell-like by design and capable of a full range of emotions (who's controlling the controllers?) is a likeable central character, and especially the dream sequences have some funny moments.


The small stakes here and lack of epic scope limit the universal appeal, but like Cars and Ratatouille, this is another Pixar film that manages to be strong despite not having such a strong concept, manages to be highly entertaining.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

King of the Hill: season 3

Shows often hit their stride around season 3, and I’d say the same applies to King ofthe Hill, though it was extraordinarily well-shaped from the very first episodes. While a syndicated show, King of the Hill actually does interesting things with its continuity – Luanne in particular has a lot of interesting moments of development, with her boyfriend dying in the cliffhanger from the previous season and a subsequent period of soul-searching as her hair grows back. The season also introduces the potential for Hank to get a step-brother even in his middle age, the birth being part of the finale here.

Largely, though, where King of the Hill succeeds is in its complexity and dark undertones. Hank’s father Cotton is pretty central to this, being an abusive and misogynist embodiment of all the left hates about small-town right-wing America. He is central to several season highlights, including a moment of lightness when he takes the fall for Bobby in an embarrassing predicament and one good moment for Hank where he finally stands up to him to defend his mother – and his mower. The way others act around Cotton is often very funny, but for a comedy show there’s a lot that’s chilling and unpleasant about what he embodies.

This is a show with a fantastic ensemble cast, though. All Hank’s friends and family have their brilliant moments. The main gang are consistently amusing, Luanne has the show’s best one-liners, Peggy is by turns an unstoppable force of nature and incredibly naïve, especially when it comes to matters of adultery (her realisation of it making for one of the highlights of the show so far) and the way Bobby mystifies his family is by turns funny and affectionate.

Not every episode is a hit. Bill losing it and starting to impersonate his ex-wife is too far for what was previously a subtle character quirk. The dolphin episode stretches credulity and Hank’s character too far. The Rashomon episode (which I just noted was a family trope in my thoughts on My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic season 6) was a little slow and exaggerated.

But these were certainly the minority, and the vast majority of the episodes were very funny and often quite touching. It’s the episodes that are centred on small problems dealing with the modern world that shine, like Peggy playing in a softball team or the problems with taking Bobby hunting. I also liked episodes centred on Kahn, who is a remarkably subtle and multifaceted character for what would in many ways have been a token outsider role. Probably the best element on the show’s more complex side is Peggy’s deep-seated sadness about not being able to have another child. It becomes less and less subtle but was at its best with her reactions to Hank trying to get his dog to breed.

The show is certainly strong at this stage, and a pleasure to watch. But will it continue that way? I’m not sure just now, but I’m happy to keep watching.



Monday, 21 November 2016

The Land Before Time

During a difficult time for Disney, around the same time Oliver and Company was underwhelming audiences, yet before Pixar revolutionised the animated medium, it wasn’t as though animation ground to a halt. In fact, in some ways the pre-renaissance lull in Disney’s output was a golden era for rival studios like Fox and Warner Bros. And in particular, Don Bluth was the torch-bearer of high-quality animation. And one of the most well-remembered of his movies is this one, The Land Before Time.  

It’s The Secret of NiMH that really stamped Bluth’s presence on the mainstream, and it’s probably my favourite of his works. Steven Spielberg got involved for the remarkable success of An American Tail, and George Lucas got on-board too for this, a consciously ‘Bambi-with-dinosaurs’ project that hit the right buttons for mainstream success – kids love dinosaurs, animators can make spectacular volcanic landscapes and baby dinosaurs can even fill any movie’s cuteness quota within minutes.

Rewatching The Land Before Time, it’s in many ways clumsier and less satisfying than the average Disney movie, but it does far more things right than it does wrong. The biggest success is making a core group of characters that are easily understood yet not completely flat, likeable but flawed, and easy to care about despite, well, being terrible thunder lizards. Littlefoot, Cera and the gang are still the benchmark for cute dinosaurs, far more so than those in Dinosaur or even The Good Dinosaur, even though those long eyelashes are just a little weird. The film succeeds when the kids are separated from adult influences, whereupon we largely get a series of character moments, which almost always hit the right notes. Cera being headstrong and clashing with Littlefoot while adorable little Ducky gets upset doesn’t break new ground but fleshes out its characters very neatly. Though Spike and Petrie are lesser characters than the others, Spike a mute, peaceful glutton and Petrie oddly adult in the group of small kids (a role probably meant for Bluth’s favourite Dom DeLuise, if he hadn’t been off voicing Fagin in Oliver and Company), but they fill out the group well. They also reinforce the central message of diversity – despite differences, but acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses, the little dinosaurs overcome the idea that ‘Three-horns don’t play with long-necks’ as they work together, something which I’m surprised wasn’t pushed home more at the film’s climax.
Indeed, perhaps the weakest point of the movie is its ending. Yes, a goal is reached, there are happy reunions and it comes after an exciting escape scene, but there’s no real feeling of closure. The movie poises itself well to wrap up neatly, but it just doesn’t satisfy with its abrupt ending. What do Littlefoot and Cera do after this? Does Cera’s father change? What is said of Littlefoot’s mother? How does Ducky continue her interactions with the rest?

It’s true that there are sequels to answer some of these questions – no less than 13 of the things – but I’m pretty certain their quality will not match up to the original’s, and little of the creative team’s original intentions will be apparent there. But certainly, this was a good piece of animation, and paved the way for All Dogs Go to Heaven and later Anastasia. What should be celebrated is the purity of vision of The Land Before Time, the innocence that just about avoid mawkishness and the lack of cynicism or self-conscious cleverness. It’s a simple message, delivered simply and with striking and often inventive visuals, and while there were parts that could certainly have been improved, particularly at the end, overall this was a very enjoyable, undeniably enduring piece of work. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - season 6


The show that so quickly spawned a subculture continues to prove itself just another show. And that’s fine. It’s not redefining kids’ shows, it’s not deviating from established formulae and it’s not broaching surprisingly tough topics for a colourful show for smaller kids as many hoped at the start – but it is still enjoyable, easy viewing.

There are a few signs of the malaise that affects so many shows towards the end of extended runs. One is that old cliché, a new main character. The ‘Mane 6’ still have their adventures and lessons to learn, but they’re starting to achieve their goals. Rainbow Dash is a Wonderbolts reservist, thus essentially has fulfilled her life’s goal. Twilight Sparkle is princess of friendship, wings and all. Rarity has her boutique, and the others are pretty well-established and content with their lots in life now. Even the Cutie Mark Crusaders have actually completed their mission and transcended the ‘blank flank’ subplot, which is the biggest flag for the show ending soon yet – though they continue to have little adventures helping others get cutie marks, which is just a little forced.

But yes, a large part of the focus now turns to Starlight Glimmer, once an antagonist whose episode was actually a very interesting analogy for libertarianism, as she ran a village where individuality and rising above the rest was forbidden, so no pony could feel inadequate or ashamed – only for the heroes to prove, of course, that being unique and special in your own distinct way is extremely important.

In this season, she is reformed, and Twilight takes her on as a student. The little pony taken under the wing of a princess now becomes a teacher in her own right, which is quite a nice progression but another end-of-character-arc flag. As for Sunset Glimmer herself, she’s really not a very interesting character. She’s given centre-stage in both the opening two-parter and the season closer and manages to just about be likeable without actually being interesting. Her angst about her past isn’t a good hook for her character and she just needs more personality quirks in a group that not only has had five seasons of development, but had most of their key moments in the first handful of episodes. It’s a little bizarre when a random juvenile from a previous season’s antagonist race is more interesting than your new major character – though Thorax’s story’s conclusion was a little too cheesy.

Otherwise, the show plumbs the depths of classic derivative cartoon plots. Rainbow Dash makes dumb mistakes in her new position, or helps out other trainees who are in a pickle. Rarity’s new boutique has problems with its opening day and difficult staff members. Delicious home-cooking eventually wins over the hearts and minds of a society that mindlessly follows critics. It’s nothing original, though sometimes it’s very well-done – I rather enjoyed the Rashomon episode.

In the end, I’m left feeling unmoved by this Pony season. It’s not exciting, new, fresh or different any more. If they had gone the Fawlty Towers route and ended this show in its prime, it would probably have endured, but this fading into mediocrity is painful – doubly so when the writers are so keenly aware of it they make an episode bitching about fans who only like the oldest instalments of a franchise. Really, they make a character – Quibble Pants – who has this as his defining characteristic…and then he sees the error of his ways not by being shown later instalments are just as high-quality as the rest, but only by finding out what he thinks is fiction is actually reality, with a tacked-on random speech later about how old and new episode have different focuses, thus different pros and cons. It was horribly transparent, insecure writing that really got on my nerves.
Yet still I will watch on, until the end. But I’m not sure how much steam is left in this one. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

King of the Hill: season 2

After a successful first season, King of the Hill continues with more of the same, but it’s the kind of development that really works for this kind of show. There are some episodes that take advantage of the animated medium, including the unlikely events of a huge twister and an unexpected explosion for a season cliffhanger, but generally this show’s strength is that it deals with the everyday clash between traditional conservative America and the modern world.

What I like about King of the Hill is that Hank and Peggy are no more angels than they are clowns. They are in many ways stereotypical and absurd, but they’re also good-hearted without being heroic. They do their best even if they have a lot of daft values and are prudish to the point of silliness, and equally they’re often in the right without being role models. Their small-minded conservative values are lampooned, but the left-wing hippies and bureaucrats they encounter are more ridiculous still.

There are interesting questions raised here about tolerance and progression, as when Connie wants to join the boys’ wrestling team and Peggy has to begin to question if girls and boys ought to be able to do the same things, when Hank has to accept his mother’s Jewish boyfriend and poor Bobby gets entirely the wrong idea about a black comedian’s race-based jokes.

While the more exaggerated episodes are interesting, like when Hank takes a video store to court, the Hills and Khans go to Mexico or Peggy finds out the truth about an old romantic story and hunts down a random woman who once kissed her husband, the best episodes revolve around small-scale family issues. The kids get lost in some local caves, an uppity academic organises a dig in the Hill’s back yard and Peggy’s loyalties are divided, and poor Luanne has to deal with her alcoholic, manipulative mother.

My favourite episode was a little on the exaggerated side, though. Hank has a mix-up over where to buy fish bait and gets in a whole lot of trouble. It’s just credulous enough to work while being a very silly, funny situation.


The season finale heralds a bit of a shake-up, and I think that’s needed. While I really enjoy King of the Hill, already at season 2 it runs the risk of getting stale, so the key now is a bit of variety. We’ll see in season 3!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Anastasia


Don Bluth’s career reached its apex here. He’d left Disney after The Fox and the Hound, and scored a hit with my personal favourite of his movies, The Secret of NiMH. He’d also teamed up with Spielberg for the highly successful The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail. Then came Anastasia, which was a big hit and is fondly remembered by numerous people only casually interested in animation as one of their favourite Disney films. While this could have been Fox’s big entry into the world of serious, epic animation, however, Bluth blew it with bloated follow-up Titan AE. It wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely a flop and Fox didn’t make another animated feature film until sure-fire cash-in The Simpsons Movie.

So in many ways Anastasia is Bluth’s masterpiece – though we shouldn’t write him off yet, as the crowd-funded Dragon’s Lair animation may yet be a big hit. It’s certainly a good animated film – grand in scale, beautiful to look at with strong narrative-driven music. It has its faults but it’s definitely up there with the best and may have the most beautiful backgrounds of any animation I’ve ever seen.

Anastasia deals with a familiar story, a kind of modern fairy tale. After the Russian revolution, Grand Duchess Anastasia is still alive, living with amnesia in a Russian orphanage. She is taken to her grandmother by men who want to defraud her, though eventually the truth shines through. Made in 1997, this film came before the remains of Alexei and either Anastasia or Maria (the other having been in the main grave) were discovered – though in no way claimed to be historically accurate, or demanded to be taken seriously. The plot is lifted in simplified form from an earlier live-action movie, so the film is not the source for the fanciful interpretation of history.

In visual terms, the film has much to recommend it, but is in places uneven. Bluth’s debt to Disney has never been so apparent, especially with squirrels that look straight out of Sword in the Stone and the cute little dog Pooka who looks a lot like Gurgi in true dog form. The facial designs are very Disney and Rasputin here owes a lot to Jafar (who of course owes a lot to Zigzag), unfortunately being just a little too comedic rather than formidable for my liking. He is a little too distant, sending minions to sabotage trains or putting visions into Anastasia’s head when she’s asleep, only appearing for a showdown at the very end and then being rather ineffectual. There’s an echo of Scar in his musical number, too, which is particularly appropriate given JimCummings provides the singing performance.

But the speaking voice comes from Christopher Lloyd, one of several actors clearly having a wonderful time here. Meg Ryan and John Cusack turn in uninteresting leading character performances, but there’s far more fun to be had with Angela Lansbury putting in a bit of class, Hank Azaria mixing a cod-Russian accent with his Chief Wiggum voice for adorable comedy sidekick Bartok the Bat, and Kelsey Grammar hamming it up as affable fat man Vlad.


The romance doesn’t sizzle, the bad guy doesn’t give any shivers down the spine and the songs don’t worm their way into the brain quite enough. The visuals are also undercut a bit by rather strange facial designs (especially Dimitri’s nose) and an overreliance on rotoscoping every time there’s a full-body shot, but these don’t drag the film down far. It’s satisfying, grandiose and rather beautiful, even if it’s not perfect and doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance to make me want to re-watch. After all, last night was the first time I sat through it again since first watching in 1998!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Oliver & Company

Oliver & Company gets a bad rap. Released in 1988, it comes at the end of Disney’s slump, following the difficult The Black Cauldron and the forgettable The Great Mouse Detective, and just before The Little Mermaid – the recognised start of the Disney renaissance. But the problem isn’t that it’s a substandard film or an embarrassment to Disney, nor a huge departure from the established filmmaking process. It’s that Oliver and Company is just decent, which for a major studio like Disney is just adequate. There’s a lot to like here and a lot that is strong and well-constructed, but the problem is that the scale is too small and it pales beside other Disney stories that are epic in their scope and the original.

Oliver & Company is Oliver Twist with animals – and in New York. Oliver is a cute kitten while the Dodger and the rest of Fagin’s gang are dogs. Fagin himself is human, and perhaps the ugliest of all Disney’s major characters, while Bill Sykes here becomes a merciless extortionist. Instead of Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is taken in by a very cute little girl named Jenny Foxworth, who made me realise that most of Disney’s supposedly cute little girls are actually rather fussy and annoying. Jenny may be the cutest of Disney’s young girl characters.

What Oliver & Company does well is its characters. Oliver is very cute and Dodger, while he could have been developed more, was convincingly compassionate. The rest of the gang is made up of tokens from stock, but they’re above average stock characters. There’s a British bulldog who loves Shakespeare, a big but dim-witted Great Dane, and a random female dog sadly given very little personality. Cheech Marin steals the show as hyperactive Chihuahua Tito, before his more threatening role in The Lion King a few years later. Then there’s Bette Midler giving an absolutely pitch-perfect performance as a spoilt, self-centred poodle who alone makes the film worth watching. I’ll never forget the way she ‘barks’. Fagin himself is a bumbling Dom DeLuise character very like the various crows and cats he plays in Don Bluth animated features, and while his final shows of compassion are nice, more could have been made of him.

The problem here is that in making it the story of one cat who gets mixed up with a petty criminal, one rich girl and one nasty criminal, the scale stays very small. Other Disney movies are about the fate of kingdoms or preventing the wholesale slaughter of puppies. Here, well, there’s a lot of peril for our little gang and surprisingly there is also some pretty violent death, but it feels like the worst that would have happened otherwise would be a little girl got ransomed.

Thus, Oliver & Company just falls short. Even in the Dickens story the stakes are much higher, be it inheritance theft, boys being shot, likeable criminals getting hung, prostitutes wanting to escape abusive relationships or serious comments on social inequality. This adaptation keeps things very light, and the price paid is becoming forgettable. But it is a bit sad the film is virtually erased from Disney’s merchandising or theming efforts. The songs are also dated and would have done better with jazzy instrumentation, the synthesised drums anything but timeless.

But this is not to say the movie is bad at all. It’s well worth seeing and the animals are cute. There are some very funny character moments and the animation, while never stunning, is nice and smooth with some interesting and well-integrated early use of CG. But the fact is that some kind of fantasy setting or a feeling of much higher stakes would have made the film much more engaging and memorable.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

D.Gray-Man: Hallow

I have to admit, I did not expect the D.Gray-Man anime to continue. Ten years after the original began, and with the manga first going from weekly to monthly with the switch from Jump to Jump SQ, then going on a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, I just never thought we’d see an animated continuation. Which was a shame, because I’ve always had a real soft spot for Allen Walker and his motley crew of exorcists.

This short, 13-episode season continues where the last season left off, and unfortunately the chapters it covers are a bit haphazard and uneven. It’s good that the show gets to ease in again with the introduction of Timothy, whose blue mullet and cute shorts and amusing powers I’ve always enjoyed, but the problem is that no sooner is he introduced than he becomes an extremely minor background character, where he remains to the current manga chapter.

Then we have fan favourite Kanda getting his emotional backstory, as the mysterious Third Exorcist Project is undermined by the Millennium Earl by revealing Kanda and the mysterious Alma were created in the Second Exorcist Project, and using this knowledge to cause chaos. Allen gets to witness an extended memory sequence of adorable shota versions of Kanda and Alma, blessed with great strength and a healing factor, but doomed to be torn apart by the truth. It’s a nice, self-contained background story, but eats up almost the whole of this season, completely ruining its pacing.

This leaves only the final episodes to tease the story to come – which is extremely convoluted and confusing. The Millennium Earl’s true face is revealed as various new Noah make their appearance, a few of them looking way too similar to one another, and the relationship between Nea and Mana is teased. It’s a very unsatisfying cliffhanger to leave the season on, especially with so little build-up, and if this season could be kicked off by the quick and easy Timothy / Phantom Thief G story, next season would begin with – without spoiling the manga – several episodes of slow, dull, rather confusing chapters from probably the worst period of serialisation. This makes me worry we won’t see any more of the show, but where Hallow left off was a very poor end point, so I hope that’s not the case and they find a way to have the next season start in an interesting fashion, even if it means original material.

For all the small qualms I had, though, the central point is that it was a delight to see the show on the screen again. I didn’t mind all the changes in voice actors at all, though Lavi sounded a bit strange. Allen Walker remains a favourite character and with Timothy and the flashback to Alma and young Kanda, this section of the manga had a huge focus on cute adolescent boy characters. It’s nice to start seeing more depth to the Millennium Earl, and Road gets some good moments, too.


I’m still a manga reader, and that’s not going to change, but the more the manga gets adapted to an anime, the happier I’ll be, and if we get an adaptation right up until the manga’s eventual conclusion, I’ll be very happy indeed.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Mob Psycho 100

Well, I totally fell for the silly, simple charm of One Punch Man, so was keen to watch the other series from creator One, and ended up catching up with all the available manga too.

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100. If you dislike one, I’m sure you’d dislike the other. Both centre on unassuming, rather goofy and socially awkward guys who just happen to be incredibly powerful, with the comedy usually turning on them being underestimated and then showing their strength – and then things can be serious when a genuinely strong opponent appears. Which, let’s face it, is basically the same schtick as the first year or two of Dragonball. And numerous other Jump series, too.

Fortunately, though, I loved One Punch Man (and early Dragonball), so more of the same is good for me. Where One Punch Man focuses on superhero stories and builds upon that, for Mob Psycho 100, it’s ESPers, people with psychic power. Again, there’s a goofy main character who nobody thinks will be powerful, this time a young boy rather than a young adult, though they’re drawn extremely similarly. In rather a genius touch, the incredibly powerful young psychic works for a con-man, who until he met young Kageyama Shigeo (also known as Mob, the Japanese term for ‘background extra’) thought that psychic powers weren’t real and has been exploiting the gullible.

There are a number of concurrent themes running through Mob Psycho 100. Shigeo wants to become popular, but is very easy to ignore. His brother is very outgoing and likeable but hasn’t been able to show any psychic ability. Shigeo comes up against evil spirits (one of whom becomes a comedic ally) and a rival psychic who follows a classic story path of being too proud, getting humiliated and then becoming an ally. The series, sadly only 12 episodes long, concludes with a satisfying battle against a shady hidden organisation, with plenty of bathos but also impressive action scenes.

Like One Punch Man, this series doesn’t work purely on its premise, but by having very likable characters and actually being funny. The moment where Shigeo makes his decision on which school club to join will endure as one of the funniest moments in an anime I’ve seen for quite a while.

Because I’ve now read the manga, I have to say that there’s a whole lot more material still to come that I’m looking forward to rather more than anything in this season. There are good emotional moments and some great action scenes. But certainly there is room in the world for both Mob Psycho 100 and One Punch Man, and I want more of both, much more, and soon. Alternating series of the two shows with all iterations of the manga and webcomic versions being sporadically released suits me just fine.


Monday, 12 September 2016

The Simpsons season 11

‘Behind the Laughter’ sums up the state of The Simpsons by season 11. It was a pretty poor episode, lacking in laughs but with the occasional bright moment, and at least not just a clip show. But by this stage the jokes were about terrible episodes like ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ and some of the more stupid celebrity cameos.

There are still some good episodes, of course. This isn’t quite the nadir yet. Episodes where Bart is put on Focusyn and where the family have to live in Mr. Burns’ mansion and Homer gets carried away are good ones. But there’s just too much nonsense and the grip on reality is long gone. In this season alone, Bart becomes a faith healer, has a mystical vision of his future and adopts another horse. Homer, meanwhile, becomes a Hell’s Angel, a professional duellist, a food critic, a Hollywood writer, a missionary and almost entirely responsible for Maud Flanders’ death in what would otherwise have been a clever and interesting piece of continuity development and was otherwise a strong episode.

Oh, and for some reason Maggie is a bowling savant.

Some parts just about work, like when Lisa gets Bart and Homer sent to a leper colony, or evil corporate sponsors turn Apu’s kids into a zoo exhibit. Other ideas are fairly normal but ruined by bizarre twists, like when Lisa takes up tap dancing and ends up assisted by science-magic dancing shoes.


But by far the worst part of this season is that it’s now very clear Homer has made the change from likeable idiot who loves his family to outright psychopath. Say what you will about Flanderisation, the devolution of Homer’s character is by far the worst thing to happen to the Simpsons. But at least at this stage, the show is generally enjoyable. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

King of the Hill – season 1

It’s one of those shows everybody watched but few call a big hit. It’s not as iconic or easy to merchandise as The Simpsons, South Park or even the show that (sadly) replaced it, Family Guy. It didn’t have the same mass appeal as its creator Mike Judge’s previous hit, Beavis and Butthead. Some might say it may as well have been live-action. But in many ways, King of the Hill is the best of the bunch.

Traditional right-wing American values are under fire just now, especially if you spend a lot of time on the Internet. Many observers, including centrists like me, are concerned by the growing authoritarianism, bullying tactics and outright cruelty on display from the far left, who at some point have to realise they’re not the good guys when they behave just like those they detest. I can’t imagine how that kind of person would perceive King of the Hill. But the whole point of the show is that it’s not a celebration of conservative small-town America. It’s an affectionate lampooning of it. It portrays a traditional Texan community full of xenophobes, homophobes and extremely fragile masculinity, but rather than eviscerating them, it gently exposes the follies and foibles of ignorance while accepting that these kind of people can also be likeable, good-hearted and ready to learn. In a world of safe spaces, echo chambers and thought policing, a show like King of the Hill would be extremely healthy viewing, poking fun at the right and left of the American political spectrum without viciousness.

I watched King of the Hill as a child and teenager, but didn’t really get it. I wasn’t familiar with the American small-town mentality, conservative values or particularly Texan idiosyncrasies. A lot went over my head, like that Dale was a conspiracy theorist wholly unaware that he’s being very obviously cuckolded and is raising another man’s son – which should resonate with the so-called ‘alt-right’ just now, with their obsession with ‘cucks’ and tin-foil-hat theories.

Rewatching the show now, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The first season was a short 13 episodes, but it’s quite astonishing how quickly the show not only introduces its core cast, but makes every single one of them both buffoonish and likeable. Hank Hill is such a wonderful character because there’s far more nuance to him than Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin. He’s big and tough but deeply insecure because of his overbearing father. He’s lost in a modern world and terrified of liberal values as well as comically prudish. But he loves his family, wants to help others and wants to protect a way of life he adores. Yet he is constantly challenged, looks like an idiot at first (‘So are you Chinese or Japanese?’) but later actually learns and develops. Peggy is hilarious, sometimes a voice of reason and sometimes dangerously competitive or self-centred with a wonderfully gung-ho attitude to Spanish. Bobby pre-empts the popular character type later seen in the youngest boys of Malcolm in the Middle and The Middle but manages to always seem reasonable in his bizarre behaviour. Luanne is more than token overemotional trailer trash, and has some of the season’s best one-liners, with Brittany Murphy’s subsequent stardom an amusing footnote.

Hank’s friends Dale and Bill are classic loser characters, yet each gets moments to shine to lift them from being one-note joke characters. Boomhauer is more one-note but he’s so funny I don’t mind, and mysteriously he also gets the additional character quality of being a womaniser. The Laotian family next door are in many ways stereotypes but are actually very nuanced, fiery characters, each with a lot of distinct personality.


The humour largely comes from small-town characters having to deal with a developing modern world and confronting their prejudices, usually highlighting the arbitrary nature of some signifiers of what is masculine or what is American. It’s a healthy examination of a section of society that is as gentle and subtle as it is cutting. King of the Hill is smart and insightful, and right now, it’s more fun to watch its early seasons than The Simpsons past its glory days. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Simpsons: Season 10

I’m not adding anything new to the world of Simpsons criticism – from people far more informed than I am – when I say that where season 9 was the turning point, season 10 is where it’s clear this show isn’t what it used to be. There’s a tendency to claim that while the glory days are now behind The Simpsons, weak Simpsons is still better than most TV. But compared to most other animated sitcoms, whether Futurama or King of the Hill or South Park or even Beavis and Butthead, from here on in The Simpsons is sorely lacking. It’s right on the brink of not-worth-watching at this point, and I found some episodes decidedly tedious.

And yes, the main problem here is Homer. He’s now absolutely the show’s main character, but he’s also a self-centred, borderline psychopathic, narcissistic weirdo. He was once so relatable, and now he’s a proud criminal and unbelievable moron who I find it hard to believe anyone would like if they started watching the show from this point. No longer Fred Flintstone, he’s become more Felix the Cat, and that’s hard to stomach.

There are some decent episodes here, especially toward the beginning of the season, like ‘The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace’, where Homer actually shows some conscience after coming up with a scheme to destroy a piece of American heritage. Bart shows a bit of depth in ‘Bart the Mother’ and the moment where a whole awards ceremony is faked for Lisa is probably the funniest moment of the season, alongside Homer surveying his newly-built barbeque. Homer’s stint as a bodyguard also has its moments.

This is also one of the few example of an episode where there are two plotlines where both are good (Homer gets a pet lobster concurrently with Lisa’s cheating dilemma, and both are amusing stories). Too often, there is a strong strand and a weak one, and sadly it usually falls to Marge and Lisa to pad episodes with some dull time-wasting, like trying to find a missing jigsaw piece or getting a new doorbell.

Some ideas are good and badly-executed, like the kids setting up a pirate radio show, ending with a terrible musical number, or Homer and Ned’s trip to Vegas which jettisons all its interesting moral questions very quickly. Other ideas are just terrible, like Homer becoming friends with a Hollywood couple in a bizarre self-congratulatory celebrity episode. More could have been done with Homer looking into his roots than him being a horrible person to hippies, and the Treehouse of Horror episodes are wearing thin, especially as they are no longer the containment episodes for surrealist sequences. Trips abroad are terrible, the Scotland jaunt being weirdly tacked-on and the journey to Japan being embarrassingly less amusing and insightful than one phone call to Japanese people about Mr. Sparkle. The Steven Hawking cameo also isn’t nearly as funny as I remember it being.

This is a disappointing series where the saving graces are few and far between, and I don’t predict any improvement from here. It’s also a little sad to note this is the end of Phil Hartman’s characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz after his murder. He would have made a great Zapp Brannigan. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Finding Dory (with Piper)

Finding Dory was preceded by the short film Piper, which was a characteristically cute little story of a little sandpiper who at first is traumatised by water, but then learns to innovate by following some little hermit crabs and becomes the best little hunter around. It’s a very Pixar story, extremely cute and full of heart (though of course requires us to be highly selective with what life forms we anthropomorphise), with plenty going for it technically – not just the water effects, but the clever way the simulated depth of field imitated cameras focusing on very small things. For me, though, the strangest surprise was seeing King Crimson stalwart (and recent NyX collaborator) Adrian Belew provided the music.

The movie itself was a triumph. When the sequel to Finding Nemo was announced, people were sceptical. Finding Nemo again? But the shift of the story from Marlin to Dory was a very clever one. Dory as a character centred on the quirk of her memory loss. That made her a character who was extremely amusing but shallow – what would she forget next? Her friends? Her companions? Where did she come from? What was she doing before she met Marlin?

So here we get a quest for self-discovery from a fish with short-term memory loss. And, indeed, long-term memory loss. Dory doesn’t remember her parents, until small things begin to remind her of where she grew up. Not in the ocean, but in captivity.

Like the first film, Finding Dory is primarily a journey – or two journeys, since Marlin and Dory are separated through much of the story. On this journey, numerous characters are introduced very quickly – burly, protective but fun-loving sea-lions; insecure but loveable whales; a self-centred but good-hearted octopus; a typical small role for John Ratzenburger as a little crab quietly trimming the lawn. Sigourney Weaver steals the show without actually having a character, and there’s a very satisfying mini-cameo right at the end to tie up some loose threads from the first film.

Of course, the film relies heavily on coincidence, highly unlikely feats of action and an octopus able to thrive seemingly indefinitely out of water. But those don’t impede a simple, direct and at times very moving plot. There’s a little plot device involving shells that is particularly sweet. Having this kind of ensemble cast works well in an animation, when characters can be so distinct without having to play a very large role in the story, and the humour is always gentle, affectionate and celebrates pushing yourself a little further before and thinking outside the box.

Visually, this is also triumphant, a notable improvement from the first film, and the huge central tank of the aquarium is particularly beautiful – though of course animating something designed to be beautiful is going to result in beauty, so that helps the visual impact of the film. In some ways the ending is a little messy and one wonders if there wasn’t some huge impact on how humans view marine life, but it was also a satisfying large-scale moment in a relatively small-scale film.


Sequels are often seen as a lazy cash-in, and very often detract from the original. But this kind of sequel, made 13 years later from a place of real affection for the original, filling a gap that persists from the original storyline, is exactly how a sequel should be done. And it didn’t hurt that baby Dory was just so damn cute!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Dofus Livre 1: Julith / Dofus Book 1: Julith

Finally watching the Wakfu OVAs put me very much in the mood for more Wakfu. There’s no more Wakfu to watch until Season 3 begins next month, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t more from the universe I could see. I still had this to watch, the first in the Dofus films, released theatrically in France earlier this year.

France has been producing some impressive animated movies in recent years, Le Jour des corneilles being a particular favourite, and it seems fitting that Ankama got something up on the big screen. And to mark the occasion, they’ve upped their game, creating something beautifully fluid and ambitious, yet again pushing the boundaries of Flash further than anyone else. I couldn’t say this movie quite stood alone, requiring a fair bit of knowledge of Joris’ background, but parents accompanying their kids or random cinemagoers probably would have enjoyed this as a standalone piece.

The story picks up three years after the end of AuxTrésors de Kerubim. Little Joris is still little, but a slightly more rebellious 10-year-old, rather than the adoring 7-year-old of the series. He still adores his papycha Kerubim, but rebels against him a little, too, especially when it comes to seeing the Boufbowl games.

However, life around Kerubim is never simple, and when the formidable Huppermage named Julith comes for the dofus Kerubim is protecting, there’s little our heroes can do to oppose her. Joris and little Lilotte, now much closer to Joris than she was in the season, have to join forces with a young rival Huppermage named Bakara and a swaggering Boufbowl player named Khan Karkass to secure an opposing Dofus and use it against Julith before she can put her wicked and very Fullmetal Alchemist-esque plan into action. And Joris might just discover a thing or two about his real parents along the way.

Where Julith really succeeds is in not taking itself too seriously. The characters have the typical Ankama eccentricity to their designs, with Julith having a very distinctive nose, Khan Karkass being the silliest Iop design yet and Bakara looking somewhat like she belongs in The Dark Crystal. There’s some wonderful bathos to some of the rather serious moments, and the fact that underpants are instrumental to the antagonist’s plan just undercuts everything nicely. Like many French animations, it also covers territory that American family fare tends to shy away from – getting drunk, flamboyant homosexuality and explicit heterosexual desire, too. It’s also both silly and rather joyful that defeating the antagonist essentially turns into a game of Boufbowl at the end.
 
But the heart of the piece is of course Joris and he retains his extremely likeable personality from the series. He’s still a very long way from the Master Joris we saw in Wakfu, but he’s also growing and changing. And yes, as expected, we had an explanation for why Kerubim calls him ‘Father’ in the OVAs – if not yet a similar one for Atcham.


I’m excited for more Wakfu, but I have to say far more than the peaceful, fun little series that was Aux Trésors de Kerubim, this movie made me excited for more Dofus. I’m very keen to see where things will go with Livre 2. 

Saturday, 23 July 2016

The Simpsons: Season 9

If problems had begun to appear in the last couple of seasons, this season is the one where it no longer felt like the next episode was likely to be good, with a small chance of being a stinker. This is where the Simpson family stops being relatable and start being outright scary. It’s also where the show completely disconnects from reality, where things that were previously Treehouse of Horror material enter regular episodes. Witness, for example, Kirk Van Houten’s arm being sliced off, never to be mentioned again. Or the launching of a submarine captain as a torpedo when Homer randomly gets put in charge. It just doesn’t seem like The Simpsons in its prime any more. Family histories can be altered whenever it’s convenient to the plot, like when Grandpa shows Lisa that Homer and Bart were very smart as young children, and perhaps most irritatingly and controversially, Principal Skinner’s character is totally assassinated when he is revealed to be an imposter, which for many – such as Chris Turner in Planet Simpson – is the show’s ‘Jumping the shark’ moment. It’s not just the abrupt change in continuity that sits uneasily – it’s the sheer implausibility of the town’s reaction. That said, it’s not up there in implausibility with things like moving the whole town five miles on wheels.

None of these are the nadir of the season, however. That honour goes to ‘All Singing, All Dancing’, which may be my least favourite episode of The Simpsons ever. I’m just glad these episodes weren’t among the first I saw.

But there are certainly strong episodes here, too. Nelson as a star peewee footballer, Lisa falling victim to an elaborate advertising gimmick, and Bart actually facing some consequences when he gets caught in a string of lies all work well for the show. Moe finds love and actually gets some proper character development, and Mr. Burns – despite it coming over as a bit strange so soon after an episode where he was broke – has one of the season’s funniest episodes in possession of a trillion-dollar bill. The season finale, with Homer and Marge trying to reignite their sex lives, is also full of strong moments and still manages to feel like envelope-pushing, almost two decades later.

But the real problem with this show at this stage is how quickly the characters can be remoulded to fit an idea or concept. We’re already getting to the stage where Homer is a psychopath who doesn’t care if he kills. It’s a struggle for Marge to be interesting. Bart is badly in need of more depth and Lisa seems to be losing her strength of character and cleverness.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

少年メイド / Shounen Maid / Boy Maid

Trash. No denying it.

But I enjoyed every episode. And it’s no more egregious than the OreImos and Love Lives of the world.

The female demographic is clearly becoming more and more lucrative in the anime world. It’s female buying power that is the engine behind the success of the likes of Osomatsu-san, Kuroshitsuji and the various hot-blooded sports series like Kuroke no Basuke, Haikyuu!, Free! and Yowamushi Pedal. And just as the male demographic gets feel-good pandering trash, so too do female audiences get their own flavours. Which are perhaps a little more…surprising to Western tastes?

Before it becomes an elephant in the room, yes, a lot of Japanese women like to watch homoerotic stories involving a little boy and an older man. The older man is usually on the feminine side, but the kind of pretty that makes women around him blush and giggle. The boy is usually innocent and often feminised. Kuroshitsuji is perhaps the most prominent example of this set-up, but by no means the only one. And the idea of putting a young boy in a rich man’s house as a maid has been done before in the explicitly pornographic Shounen Maid Kuro-kun.

So this series already begins in a very, very weird place. Little Chihiro-kun in just an elementary school student, 11 or 12 at most, when his mother dies and he goes to live with his extremely wealthy uncle Madoka. Madoka is a clothing designer who loves frills and when he finds out his nephew loves to clean, he promptly puts him in a frilly apron over his shorts and long socks. Though the writer is careful not to make anything overtly sexual about this relationship, Madoka is a rather infantile man who often decides to come and sleep in the same bed as Chihiro.

This odd couple relationship is fleshed out as Chihiro finds out more about his family, various friends and relatives are introduced and Madoka’s personal life gets whipped into shape just as his professional life is kept in check by his personal assistant Keiichirou. A cute member of an idol group called Ryuuji also befriends the motley crew, and I have to say I’d probably rather watch the spin-off about the group that’s airing on Nico Nico Douga (and thus not getting translated by anybody), which at least is sexualising a 16-year-old rather than a 12-year-old – while pretending to be innocent.

But for all the bad taste in the mouth this series might leave, the fact is that it’s cute and fun, just like shows for men about adorable lolis tend to be cute and fun. That Chihiro is only a kid but far more responsible than the adults around him is cute, the occasional embarrassment of being seen in his apron (and his friends ending up with the same fate) is cute. The dynamic between the Uchouten Boys – the idol group – is clichéd and drawn briefly, but also cute. And yes, Chihiro himself, with his serious exterior but obvious vulnerability, is extremely cute.


There’s no denying that the premise is creepy, there’s glamorised paedophilia running under the surface throughout, the characterisation is lazy and the show doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s no more creepy than numerous little sister or loli comedy shows, and is still very enjoyable for those of us who like cuteness, whether aimed at guys or girls. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Zootopia

Disney is in another extremely strong age, following the Fairy Tale double-whammy of Tangled and Frozen with the wonderfully big-hearted Wreck-it Ralph and Big Hero 6. Now comes Zootopia, an animal allegory that holds a mirror up to human society in the time-honoured way, but with a clever and timely message that crucially seems to please everyone.

Zootopia follows Judy Hopps the adorable anthropomorphic bunny as she follows her dream to become the first-ever rabbit police officer in the multicultural urban utopia that is Zootopia. Even though she manages to surprise everyone and make it through Police Academy as valedictorian, she is constantly underestimated until she manages to wrangle a simple investigation that soon unfurls into a conspiracy that will rock Hopps’ society to the core. But with her new odd-couple friend Nick Wilde the sly fox – and a coincidental powerful little ally – perhaps she has a shot at solving the mystery.

This is of course a look at the current fixations the world has – diversity, integration, celebrating differences or fearing them, and comes with the refreshingly stark opening message that even if you’re told platitudes about following your dreams, it’s seldom that simple. Perhaps the cleverest part is that the messages offered by the film please opposite ends of the political spectrum. For the left, there’s the central message that if you have a dream you can follow it and defy the odds to buck the trend and win over all the doubters. For the right, there’s the concurrent message that there are fundamental differences between various groups, which come with innate limitations and strengths, and draw people into different roles based on averages – even if outliers can be encouraged. Everybody is happy.

And using animals means that time-honoured jokes based on stereotypes can be gleefully employed – only about animals, so no human groups will be offended. The film is replete with sight gags based on appearance, comments about traits associated with different creatures and even jokes revolving around slurs. It’s quite nice that using animals circumvents the current problems about being ‘problematic’, or seeking to be entirely PC.

Pace-wise this is a classic smooth committee-approved script, ticking off exposition, mystery, investigation, development, disillusion, revelation and final confrontation. It’s neither hard to predict nor new, but it works very nicely and hits all the right emotional notes. I wouldn’t say it has heart to the same degree as Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6, but it absolutely gives the audience engaging characters, a fascinating and amusing world, a believable story, some hard-hitting moments and material for social debate, which is pretty good going for a children’s film.

The ensemble cast is also very strong, with the likes of Idris Elba and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons having fun with broad roles, Maurice LeMarche doing a classic impersonation, Tommy Chong being Tommy Chong and Shakira rather bizarrely providing the emotional heart of the movie as well as a rather catchy Sia-penned closing number.

I watched this movie late – I don’t think it will be showing in Japan much longer, and it’s months since its American release – but I’m glad I managed to catch it on the big screen. The way Zootopia is set up for creatures of all sizes and various climates is rather charming and the level of detail in every frame is astonishing. Another hit for Disney, and another set of characters I hope will soon be regarded as beloved characters from a classic film. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Wakfu OVAs

As a proud Kickstarter contributor, I got these OVAs from Ankama months ago in my nice big pack of goodies. But I put off watching them until I could find a way to watch them in French with English subtitles, because the English voices don’t sit well with me after so long watching the originals – which is also why I STILL haven’t got around to finishing the new season of Mysterious Cities of Gold.

But a few days ago Ankama E-mailed mentioning their trailer for season 3, and wanting to watch it but not wanting these three specials spoiled – which I now know they would have been had I watched – I decided it was time to figure it out. I was able to do so, and once again had the pleasure of dipping into le Monde des Douze.

And what a pleasure it was. The specials were more than I had anticipated, continuing the adventures but building on them in dramatic form. We got to see a lot more familiar faces than I had expected, which was great for fanservice but also for the expansion of the world – not only Joris helped this time, but Kerubim and Atcham too (though I’m not sure when they took to calling Joris their father – maybe something the Dofus films will explain? I should probably watch Julith sometime soon!). Goultard appears too. More interesting still are the foes we see – most brilliantly, this OVA focuses on Ogrest and all the problems he causes the world. Great to see that story concluded after all this time. There is also Remington, Ush, the intriguing future threat Lady Echo, and intriguing mind-controlled cameos for comic characters Maskemane and Percimol. Nox is of course gone for good, but it was nice to see the references to him. These appearances were a lot of fun for a fan, but mostly it was just good to see the Brotherhood back in action, especially Yugo.

The story continues with Tristepin and Evangeline’s peaceful life with their cute twin girls interrupted by the call of Otomai summoning them to the Sadida kingdom. The kingdom is in trouble, inundated by Ogrest’s tears. The time has come to deal with the absurdly powerful Ogrest, but to do that, they need the Eliotrope Dofus to counter Ogrest’s Dofus. And the Dofus have gone missing...

What follows is an enjoyable quest with lots of scraps and two mightly power-ups for our main two heroes, but more crucially contains a whole lot of very sweet and engaging interactions between beloved characters. Whether Pinpin gets the power of a god matters to me far less than whether he is a good father, or if Adamai will come to understand his brother’s rash actions or the huge efforts he went to in order to preserve the World of Twelve. 
Personally, I loved this and regret that I didn’t watch it sooner. I’m a little sad it’s still so hard to get hold of and consume Wakfu materials, because it remains a firm favourite. What I’ll make of season 3 I’m not yet sure, but I’m confident I’ll enjoy it – and whatever else Ankama put out. It’s not that they can do no wrong, and I am a little worried that after Nox, the Shushus, the Eliotropes and Ogrest himself, the Siblings and perhaps the Gods themselves are going to seem a tad underwhelming. 

But I certainly haven’t had enough of Yugo, Pinpin, Amalia, Evangeline, Ruel and the rest...so I’m certainly on board for more and willing to see just how good Ankama’s follow-ups will be!