Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Lion Guard

I’m happy the The Lion Guard is on our screens.

As a lifelong fan of The Lion King, I received the news of this series with mixed emotions. I was happy the property was getting more attention and that I would see a continuation of a favourite story, but of course the premise made me pause. So it’s a mid-quel during The Lion King 2 about Kiara’s little brother…who just never gets mentioned at all by his family or friends after that movie’s time skip? And plays a prominent role in Pride Lands politics with his group of friends, many of them belonging to species never seen in the movies, yet we have to accept all of them just vanish?

Well, to enjoy the show you simply have to accept that aspect of it. And I very quickly did, because I found myself liking the show in almost every way very quickly indeed.

A big part of that is that it’s very nostalgic. Not just because it’s obviously based on The Lion King and the animators have made great pains to emulate the style of the movie in modern vector animation – particularly successfully when it came to the lions’ facial animations, which are amazingly faithful to the cel-animated high-budget original movie. But more because of the premise and the writing, which evoke many other shows and properties of the past. With a fantastic voice cast where every actor not only evokes his or her animal but has a mellifluous voice that it’s a pleasure to listen to, I was reminded of Little Bear. The idea of young animals from different backgrounds coming together to solve the problems of nature reminded me of The Land Before Time and its sequels. The brisk writing, humour and musical numbers that were sometimes inspired and sometimes generic pap echoes the early My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. And while it’s not really a positive, the all-purpose overpowering deus ex machina of ‘The Roar’ put me in mind of the Sword of Omens in Thundercats and its ability to fix just about any problem at the end of the episode.

There were jarring elements here. Fuli the Cheetah somehow doesn’t fit the aesthetic, looking much more like vector animation than the rest of the cast. The show starts out obliquely mindful of the fact that while they prize the Circle of Life, these lions and cheetahs tear apart and eat the zebras and gazelles they live alongside, it soon descends into a herbivore-good, predator-bad pattern that conveniently leaves out how the lions actually eat. Despite this natural division, there’s obviously a bit of care taken about racial insensitivity here, too, for while the hyena bad guys still mostly sound like street gang members, there’s also some good hyenas (who sound different) to show it’s not because of their race that they’re evil – which is a pretty good message to include, but gets conveyed in a rather cumbersome way. And it was also strange and hilarious at first to hear Brick from The Middle as Ono.

Hyenas aside, I rather like the message of diversity that The Lion Guard brings, which is less simplistic than it may at first appear. The premise is very inclusive – young Kion, Simba and Nala’s cute mohawked son, is gifted with the supernatural Roar of the Elders, a roar which seems to channel the forces of nature and the magic of generations of ancestors and sends nasty hyenas flying off Team Rocket style. Scar once possessed this roar, but lost it because he misused its power – and for some reason never mentioned it in any of his appearances. It’s traditional for the lion who can use the roar to assemble the Lion Guard, the members of the pride who are the best there is at what they do – the Guard must comprise the fiercest, the strongest, the bravest, the fastest and the keenest of sight. 

Progressive Kion doesn’t stick only to lions, but assembles his Guard from throughout the pridelands – a keen-sighted egret, a swift cheetah, a bulky hippo, a fearless honey badger and then Kion at the centre of it all. Why I like this is that it celebrates diversity but also differences in cultures – each member has their own strength, their own way of living and their own knowledge, different from the others. They are diverse and fundamentally different from one another – they don’t have to mash together to all be the best at everything, or convince themselves they are all the same.

The Lion Guard become a kind of police force and community support. They keep the denizens of the Outlands at bay and help mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Some original cast members make their appearances, Ernie Sabella ever happy to reprise his Pumbaa role and James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa’s  readily-accessible ghost for the pilot double-episode (a sound-alike taking up the reins later on). Jason Marsden, Andy Dick and Lacey Chabert reprise their roles from The Lion King 2 in a highlight episode, and Cam Clarke returns not as Simba but as a background vulture.
Some of the episodes are inventive and original, like when Reirei the jackal teaches the Guard about manipulation and two-facedness, or when aardwolves are mistaken for hyenas and their absence ruins the local ecosystem. Others are a bit tired, like when a boastful celebrity eagle turns out not to be what his legend suggests he is, or when two annoying gorillas have to be escorted back to their homeland. A stronger season finale also would have been a good idea.

But I have to say, I think The Lion Guard is the best show for young kids currently airing that I know of. In terms of production quality, writing, world-building and acting, it’s ahead of the rest. Season two has just begun, and I hope the show can actually develop, as it could potentially stagnate quickly, but so far I rather like what I’ve seen!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

夏目友人帳 陸 / Natsume Yuujincho Roku / Natsume’s Book of Friends Six

Natsume Yuujinchou continues to be a slightly-under-the-radar success story in Japan. I see toy Nyanko-senseis all over the place, but I have to say even there, I’m not sure if they know the character or just bought what they thought was a cute generic cat. Certainly there are a lot of fans watching this anime, going to the themed cafes and buying the figurines, but it simply doesn’t feel like a big anime, in the way that Yuri on Ice or Attack on Titan do.

Yet it’s continued into a sixth season now, sadly only 11 episodes but going strong. No cute fox-boy episode this time, but a lot of new development for Natsume himself, then interesting twists at the end where Natsume finally shares the secret of his book of friends with another human, plus starts to think about his grandfather.

The show remains episodic, of course, as it always has been. Natsume and his supernatural friends help out more interesting youkai, from a funny old fellow who leaves flower patterns on rocks and has lost his apprentice to an interesting crow-boy who fell in love with a human but left her without closure – only for her to trick him in a fun reversal of the usual folklore stories.

The art has settled now – it doesn’t have its own clear style, but it always looks pleasant. Something that wasn’t guaranteed in the first couple of seasons. Natsume is pretty and likeable and oddly touchy-feely with his friends and mentors in this season – perhaps aimed at the female fanbase.

There was very little real development except in the final double-episodes here, but Natsume is getting inexorably drawn into the world of the exorcists – and I want to know what happens when he can no longer escape their pull. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

After doing well with the playful moods of movies like Paranorman and The Boxtrolls, this time Laika have aimed for epic. Though they don't eschew humour, they aim for a serious fantasy tone by telling the story of one-eyed Kubo, child of a great samurai and a celestial spirit, but enemy to the rest of his family.

I really respect this change of direction and Laika in a serious mode has long been something I've wanted to see. I was a bit dubious about the fantasy-Japan setting, a little overdone just now, but it allowed for some beautiful locations and mythologically-inspired setpieces.

Kubo succeeds with its characterisation and its action sequences. The characters have multiple layers and often memories they themselves have forgotten, so their development is interesting. Plus this is Laika's foremost triumph, visually. Outsize monsters, magical effects, fights with swords, bows and sickles and amazingly fluid paper-folding effects add up to a feast for the eyes.

A couple of negative points for me would be in character design. I understand the link between kabuto beetles and samurai kabuto, but Beetle could have looked a fair bit less goofy. And Kubo himself had a design that looked nice as a concept drawing and in the traditional animation during the credits, but in the actual movie looked rather unattractive - I'm quite sure the movie would have had wider appeal with a better design for the protagonist. 

Plus, incredible though the achievement is here, the more polished and smooth stop-motion looks, the closer it gets to looking like CG. If they are indistinguishable, one starts to wonder what the point of stop-motion is. 

Not that we're at that point yet, and this movie pushed more boundaries than ever. But for all that it had the right ingredients and an intriguing cast of characters, I wanted to love them and there was just not enough humanity in them for that. Still, I am very eager indeed that Laika continue down this path and make more serious epic animations with their own unique tone to them.

Monday, 24 July 2017

この世界の片隅に / Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni / In This Corner of the World

This beautiful, reverent, affectionate and historically accurate Japanese movie almost slipped me by – not as connected as I once was to news from the world of anime, I heard about it only because it was on the plane during my trip back to England. And I’m very glad I caught it, because it was superb.

Crowdfunded, helmed by a director I’ve never heard of (though I’ve seen other works he’s been affiliated with) and produced by Studio Mappa who thus far are mostly known for the far less serious Yuri on Ice, this is perhaps an unlikely hit, but it hits all the right notes. It treads similar ground to Grave of the Fireflies and will of course be compared with it in just about every review, but has a far less focused and relentless tone, instead giving a far lighter touch and a whimsical method of building up its characters that actually reminded me of French filmmaking.

Based on a manga, this film tells the story of Suzu, a simple and rather childlike young woman who comes from a small community on the outskirts of Hiroshima. In the years before the war, she gets married to a young man she met only once before and doesn’t remember, then goes to live in nearby Kure, a naval port.

There, she contends with being a bit hapless in a new community away from her family. Her new husband has a sick mother, a big house and a domineering older sister to contend with, and her attempts to please them and do her best are very endearing – though she’s scatterbrained and has a habit of tilting her head when she forgets things.

Of course, eventually the war comes and brings with it at first inconvenience, and later tragedy. Naive Suzu retains her gentle nature through personal injury, large-scale tragedy and the unfamiliar aspects of life in a military town, like when she’s tempted by an extramarital affair or when she first encounters prostitutes.

The things she must endure are pretty horrific, but her reaction is believable – neither breakdown nor numbness, but a mixture of sorrow, guilt at not being able to do more to help others, and of course retaining her underlying personality really give this piece a believable and deeply likeable centre. The things she has to endure are terrible, as one would expect from a wartime drama, but there’s a rare subtlety in how they affect her, here.

The film is also beautiful. Suzu’s talent is for art – one of the funniest moments in the film comes when the military police suspect her of espionage and her feelings are hurt when everyone else finds the very idea hilarious – and sometimes that gets reflected by the artistic choices of the movie. The images of rabbits in the surf and the silly stories of childhood coming to life provide beauty or levity that enhance the artistry of this film.

Of course, it’s a heavy movie, but the point is to focus on war’s affect on ordinary people. Suzu knows nothing of Hitler or Manchukuo, is a product of her society with next to nothing to gain from Japan’s military role in the war, and is far more concerned with living as well as she possibly can. This isn’t a grand political statement, it’s an effort to capture the reality of a time and place that was to be shattered by the Bomb.

Delicate, nuanced and well-researched, it’s a must-see for anyone looking for art-house anime.  

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Adventure Time – season 8

After realising season 7 had ended some time ago, I binge-watched the rest of season 8. I have to say, it brought with it a lot of what I had hoped for in the last season. 

Yes, there were some strange throwaway episodes, like diving after a sea lard and finding a strange new world, or the return of James Baxter the horse (though I did like how he got his name). But most of the season was dominated by two much longer, more intriguing plotlines - the development of the elemental guardian plotline that reaches fruition in season 9, but more importantly, Susan Strong providing Finn with a link to find the rest of the humans - and his mother. 

This plotline leads to the final lengthy arc of this season, with its own unique introduction and a bleak portrayal of the future of humanity. Once again, we see the idea of humanity preferring life in virtual reality and getting trapped inside. But Finn's mother and the rest of the humans are part of a different society, perhaps one that works a little too well. 

Finn gets some fine emotional moments and development, and it had already been a strong season for him as we got more exploration of the idea of alternate Finns being trapped in his swords. Finding his mother and of course ending up confronting problems she'd caused before eventually having to return home provided some great emotional highs and lows. Plus Susan became a fully-fledged character too, with her own past to confront, and had a cathartic reunion in the end. 

Now that both Finn's parents are well-established and he's growing up, there aren't so many loose ends left to tie. I think the next season bring Princess Bubblegum's darkness and the loose ends that remain in Simon's stories to an end, and then I feel like we might finally come to the end of this brightly-coloured, often rather dark cartoon that from its beginning has been squarely targeted at stoners and adults. I hope it draws to a natural close before too much longer. There's no point stringing it out until it gets stale, and while this season has been very satisfying indeed, I don't think there's that much more remaining in plot terms to bring out these kind of heavy hits in future. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Adventure Time – season 7

The last few seasons of Adventure Time have seen very sporadic release schedules. Sometimes there’s a slew of episodes all coming out in a month and sometimes there’s nothing for weeks and weeks. It’s not clear where seasons begin and end most of the time, and I was under the impression that season 7 ended with the episodes ‘Preboot’ and ‘Reboot’, mostly because they took five months to come out after the previous episodes – but now I find out that’s midway through season 8 and I should have done my season 7 impressions in the March of 2016. Oh well.

Season 7 was actually the time that the show lost me somewhat, with season 8 episodes only recently having piqued my interest again. This season’s major events include Princess Bubblegum getting deposed by the cowardly King of Ooo, a lengthy exploration of Marceline’s past and where she got her different powers, and a real visit to the surreal parallel dimension Farmworld. There are also more hints to Simon’s past, with Betty at large in the present day.

But honestly, it’s partly the unpredictable release schedule, partly the feeling that the show’s major ideas are now played out and partly a few dud episodes like trying to figure out underwater political intrigues with blowfish and porpoises. There wasn’t much badly wrong here, but a lot of momentum felt sapped by the longer storylines, which unlike those of season 8 didn’t really feel like the advanced the plot of characters very much, especially Marceline. Princess Bubblegum got a little more depth, though.

In fact, the problem with this season was that unlike the seasons surrounding it, with major arcs largely focused on Finn, there’s not enough contrast between light and shade. Marceline is all darkness, Bubblegum only treading between bright pink and grey. What defines the current Adventure Time, a very long way out from its quirky initial pilot, is that it can contrast its silliness with surprising depth and ambition. I can see that this season brought to the fore some of the cleverer elements thought up for secondary characters, but they really pale beside Finn or the Ice King’s stories. And that leaves this season a little sub-par. But certainly, it remains fun to watch.  

Monday, 3 July 2017

King of the Hill: seasons 7&8

This show began to lose its way a little by taking a show with the central premise of being believable and down-to-earth and introducing whacky and far-fetched scenarios, and that really showed in season 7.

The season had too much that was too far-fetched. Bobby got fooled into making drugs. Dale leads the gang in hunting Chuck Mangione through a megastore at night. A pork magnate tries to transform Luanne into a woman from an advertising illustration, and himself into a pig. Instead of small-town foibles and recognisable characters, the show starts dealing with people who think they’re wizards, sexy female pest exterminators, stereotyped bikers and vision quests. I guess dancing with dogs just about passes as familiar ground for middle-class America, but it’s a weird story.

There’s one great episode, though, finally filling in a pretty big gap in a show about Texas, which sees Hank embarrassed when his dog Ladybird appears to be racist. It raises some pretty important questions about this setting, previously left at ‘Are you Chinese or are you Japanese?’, so it was good to see development at last.

That aside, Season 7 mostly left me with the feeling that the show was in decline, I have to say. However, King of the Hill got back on track somewhat in the eighth season. 

Yes, there are still some parts that go a little over-the-top, like Luanne protesting from the mouth of a giant mechanical mascot, a TV star coming to stay or Hank finding himself having to decide whether or not to let part of the town flood in a downpour of rain, but the vast majority of these episodes are believable scenarios about everyday problems – like Bobby wanting to get out of showering after sports or Hank getting a bad back.

The character of Peggy is going a little too strange at this point. She was originally a very subtle character, a little too full of herself yet very slow to read between the lines, but in episodes about her getting a chance to be an artist or taking pictures of a Flat Stanley doll, she crosses the line to being outright delusional and probably psychotic. She provided the highlights of several past seasons, but now she’s just a little too much. I suppose it’s an example of Flanderisation.

There are extremely big-name guest stars in this season. Brad Pitt has a lot of fun as Boomhauer’s brother in a performance that may as well have just been Mike Judge speaking in a slightly different register. Lindsey Lohan, early in her career, plays a love interest for Bobby. And then there’s Johnny Depp hamming it up as a conceited yoga instructor. None of them get in the way of the episode or draw undue attention, and it’s pretty likely only very big fans would recognise any of them before the credits. Ben Stiller also has a role as an annoying guy who thinks he’s far funnier than he is…meta humour, there, perhaps?

Some very memorable episodes worked out well here, like Hank hiring a big rig to play at being truckers for a while, or Bill managing to be popular by pretending to be gay – which sounds like it would be offensive but of course only highlights the ridiculousness of exaggerated perceptions of minorities.
At this stage there is a slight feeling of the show being played out. I’m not sure what the remaining 5 seasons will bring to the premise. But I’m still willing to find out, and the show remains a fun, now comfortingly familiar, piece of TV.  

Monday, 19 June 2017

進撃の巨人 2期/ Shingeki no Kyoujin season 2 / The Advancing Giants season 2 / Attack on Titan Season 2

Season 2 of Shingeki no Kyoujin was woefully short, especially as it didn’t feel like it was that far above the rest of the crowd in terms of production budget or ambitiousness. There were some nicely-animated sequences, many of them strange things like Christa deciding to do battle, but there were some decidedly clunky parts as well, especially when it came to CG.

But if it feels woefully short, that means it’s enjoyable, and this second season certainly was. Absolutely one of the most prominent anime around just now, its popularity is backed by an intriguing setting and several layers of mystery.

This season brought us a lot of revelations – why Ymir is dotes so much on Christa, the identity of the most iconic abnormal titans (revealed in a brilliantly anticlimactic way), how the mindless titans are made and the true extent of Eren’s powers. Interestingly most of the season revolved around a plotline where Eren is a particularly grumpy damsel in distress. There are also new mysteries, like how the wall was made and by whom now that new details have been revealed, the identity of the beast titan and perhaps more about the smiling titan too. Then there’s the long-standing mystery of what Eren’s father did, and why.

Of course I want more. Much more, and quickly. But I’ll also wait patiently. I read a few manga chapters in advance but spoiled only the cliffhangers from that point, not any of the larger mysteries, and I intend to enjoy them animated first. I can make a few predictions based on what we’ve learned so far, but I can stress that these are not spoilers, only my guesses. Still, if you don’t want to read my speculation or haven’t finished this season, please look away now!

-       I think the beast titan is either Eren’s father or someone else very close to him
-       Since we’ve seen people can turn into titans, I think that more of the main cast will get titan powers later, especially Mikasa, Armin and Levi
-       Everything has been engineered by people, who probably live in a separate society ruled by the beast titan, and there’s going to be a huge battle against them
-       This season’s antagonists are probably going to be fodder for the big bads of the next arcs

It will be interesting to see if any of these are true or if I’m way off. Either way, it will be fun!

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Land Before Time 2: The Great Valley Adventure

Less worthy than Fievel Goes West is this, the first of many, many sequels to The Land Before Time. It suffers many of the same problems - less sense of importance, less at stake and less sense of danger - but also has a much weaker central premise. 

That said, it establishes a fairly neat formula that would hold strong over many sequels and essentially does the same things that The Lion Guard would retread - rather more expertly - decades later. 

The plot follows the gang trying to be all grown up by foiling nasty egg thieves, for some reason given British accents by the actors behind Johnny Bravo and Pinky from Pinky and the Brain. They not only manage to foil these inept antagonists but end up hatching an egg. Not one of Ducky's siblings, as expected, but a Sharptooth! A baby tyrannosaurus. So begins a middle act about learning not to act with prejudice, even against a creature that will grow up to eat you without hesitation, and an inevitable third act about returning the baby to its vicious, voiceless parents. 

Almost none of the original cast sticks around, with only Cera of the main gang reprising her performance. I think this is before the tragic death of Judith Barsi, who played Ducky in the first movie, but her replacement does a decent job with the character's odd grammar. Littlefoot sounds older, but that works for a sequel and I didn't find fault with the main group. 

But the rest of the film is just too insubstantial. The egg thieves are bumbling idiots who pose little threat even to juvenile dinosaurs, and there's never any question of little Chomper’s fate, though I assume he'll be seen again in further sequels. In the original, poor Littlefoot is put through such a wide range of emotions it's very easy to empathise with him. In this sequel, there's just not enough to tug at the heart-strings or make us care about the current predicament. 

And that's what really gives the feel of a TV series as opposed to a movie. It's the sense of scale and significance. This movie would have been fine as three episodes of a TV show, but making a feature film demands rather more. At least Fievel Goes West tries to shake things up with a huge change of setting. This movie just continues from the first film with very little sense of peril or excitement, and the result, perhaps inevitably, is a film that just isn't very exciting. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West

An American Tail was one of Don Bluth's best, restrained by a simple but coherent narrative and centred on a very cute protagonist. So it makes sense that it got a sequel. 

However, as with other successful franchises he kicked off, the second theatrical American Tail movie - as with the TV series and direct-to-video follow-ups - had no involvement from Don Bluth. 
Fievel Goes West, while successful, has the feel of contemporary Disney sequels. Unlike Pixar's follow-ups, these tended to be rather cheaper and less impressive than their predecessors. So it is with Fievel Goes West - while it has elements on the premium side, like voice acting from John Cleese and the final performance from James Stewart, as well as some ambitious action sequences, overall everything is just shallower, less well-executed and less believable. 
The original has a simple set-up with plenty of grit and misery to balance the cuteness and light. The sequel is just a bit too silly to carry the torch. 

One significant positive is that Fievel's character developed in a believable way. He's grown up a little since the first movie, with more confidence and even headstrong selfishness. It works, and aligns well with his burgeoning interest in cowboys. 

Perhaps the most crucial problem is that the sequel lacks a sense of danger. A spider doesn't seem like it should be a threat to anyone, even a mouse. While Cleese's character is compelling and believable, his ultimate plan is too stupid for any situation beyond a Saturday morning cartoon. And in particular, Tiger's storyline is far-fetched, at times racially insensitive and ultimately doesn't bring enough gravitas to a final action scene - especially with little Fievel participating. 

Overall, Fievel Goes West is not a bad movie. It's perfectly watchable and better than other Bluth-movie sequels, especially the execrable Timmy to the Rescue. But it doesn't quite manage to escape that feeling that it's been thrown together by writers who don't care for the material and only want to retread familiar old story paths, takes the slapstick too far in a way the original didn't, and doesn't give enough reason to care about its characters. Not a worthy sequel, but not a dire one either. 

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

An American Tail

Don Bluth does well with mice. The Secret of NiMH was his breakthrough, and remains a very strong movie. But perhaps his biggest cultural hit was An American Tail – though I’d have to say there’s stiff competition from dinosaurs.

Another one I haven’t viewed for many years, as a child much of the significance of this movie went over my head. I didn’t have a clear idea of the imagery immigrants to the States expected in the late 19th century, let alone understand a thing about Russian Jews. To a child, those nuances probably don’t matter so much. But they’re very interesting as an adult.
An American Tail does absolutely everything better than All Dogs Go to Heaven. The animation is much better, with Fievel (or Feivel, sometimes) actually being very cute, and rotoscoped/xerographed elements looking impressive without getting too jarring. The story is compelling and each episode adds to the story. The music is fantastic, especially ‘Somewhere Out There’, and whereas All Dogs Go to Heaven tries to incorporate different musical elements through patronising stereotypes, An American Tail actually pays tribute to different immigrant cultures (though some Irish people might see cause for complaint) and spices up musical numbers with traditional musical styles. It even has a message of not judging based on race despite the mice-versus-cats set-up, with Tiger being quite unlike the rest.

Where An American Tail succeeds is in its multiple narratives. There’s Fievel looking for his parents, the secret plan he sets in motion, a very simple love story on the side, and the tragicomic conceit of the family always missing seeing their son while Fievel’s sister Tanya never gives up hope. Indeed, perhaps the film’s greatest appeal is its contrasts between sadness and hope.

Bluth is also allowed to be playful. Monstrous waves are very much in his style, and he adds in many fun touches like distorting glasses and an inventive sequence with the water sloshing about in a boat.
Maybe I could have done without the final Statue of Liberty sequence, but this is in every way a strong family film and deserves to be remembered every bit as fondly as Disney’s classics.

I very much enjoyed going back to this little story – and even if Bluth is not involved, I’ll be sure to watch Fievel Goes West at some point. 

All Dogs Go to Heaven

I had very few memories of All Dogs Go to Heaven, even though I do remember it being very popular upon release – on the same day as The Little Mermaid. I’d seen it once before, but my memories of it were mixed up with Lady and the Tramp, another dog-centric animation I’ve not rewatched since childhood.

Well, I’m going through Don Bluth movies at the moment – slowly – and next on the list was All Dogs Go to Heaven, his follow-up to the smash hit The Land Before Time. Don Bluth’s weakness tends to be story execution, which is why it works so well when he’s teamed up with another director – like Spielberg. But he famously disliked having to give up control, and was clearly enjoying his freedom with this movie, introducing themes of gambling, decadence and seedy underworld dealings to a family flick. Unfortunately, a lack of strong theming or likeable characters drag the whole thing down.

The film centres on Charlie, a rakish German Shepherd voiced with aplomb by Burt Reynolds who sadly fails horribly as a central character on account of being incredibly hard to like. He’s got the typical character arc of being selfish, irresponsible and manipulative, only to find his heart of gold when push comes to shove, but that happens only in the very final act, leaving way too much of the film centred on his being an unlikeable boor. Fun interactions with Dom Deluise’s Itchy character and even an amusing first trip to the Pearly Gates don’t save the character, his design is bizarrely ugly and unmemorable, and Reynolds’ singing voice is atrocious.

So it falls to the little girl who can talk to animals, Anne-Marie, to be the emotional centre of the film. Adorable as her voice actress Judith Barsi was as Ducky in The Land Before Time and deeply saddening though the poor little girl’s story was in real life, unfortunately Anne-Marie just isn’t interesting. She’s like a pint-sized Snow White, but with even less personality. Her characterisation is bland and her animation is that weird, creepy coquettish-baby thing Disney used to do a long time ago but thankfully gave up well before the 80s.

On the other hand, the animation is the film’s saving grace. It’s often beautiful, inventive and much more experimental that what Disney were putting out at that point. There’s some very impressive work with cars, scenes of Hell and various races. It still looks impressive, though Bluth’s habit of rotoscoping humans often looks jarring here.

The story veers wildly here and there, and the performances, heavily ad-libbed, often confuse. Killer is particularly incomprehensible, and I’m fairly sure his laser gun was written as a regular gun but changed to appease censors.

The music is perhaps the worst of any animated movie I’ve seen, with most of the songs lacking any melody or hook and being delivered with way too many distractions from the on-screen action. ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down’ and ‘Let’s Make Music Together’ are the saving graces of the soundtrack, though the bubble effect put on Ken Page’s voice was a terrible addition, and his cameo role only made me want to go and watch The Nightmare Before Christmas instead.

Don Bluth was capable of great things, and this movie is well-remembered, but unfortunately it’s not even close to his best, and probably won’t hold up well in years to come. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017


Disney squeezed two films into 2016. Zootopia was a satisfying twisty mystery with a broad and often hilarious animal cast, while Moana offered a very focused ocean quest story with a far smaller roster.

While I certainly liked Moana, admired the decision to explore a culture Disney hasn’t touched before, and had much to celebrate technically, I can’t call it a classic – and nor do I think it will endure. In fact, having just read that directors Clements and Musker (helmsmen of Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules, amongst others) wanted to adapt Terry Pratchett’s Mort but came up against rights acquisition issues, I have to admit wishing they were able to do that instead.

The progressive nature of Moana has been trumpeted enough it almost feels like criticising the piece is tantamount to being racially insensitive, but in general it’s the Polynesian elements that really shine through here. Moana herself is a superb character, likeable, believable, shaped by her background but with plenty of her own personality, too – and not just because of her little pithy comments, either. I loved seeing the animated tattoos, the supernatural manifestations of natural forces and the mythological evils. The evocation of the wonders seen by seafaring tribes was great, and there was some superb music, too – even if my favourite was the rather Bowie-ish ‘Shiny’ number that was decidedly non-Polynesian.

For me, the problem was firmly with Maui, a figure central to Polynesian mythology and a secondary character with more screentime than many Disney protagonists. He absolutely needed to be strange, formidable, a little otherworldly but most importantly, extremely likeable. And for all The Rock’s best efforts and for all the tattoos helped, he just wasn’t likeable. He was slow-witted, self-absorbed, violent, reckless and didn’t really grow or learn even as he warmed to Moana. He was oafish and occasionally murderous, and for all the Moana herself was the real hero of the piece, he was the one with the superpowers, he was the one who drove the plot and he was the one who gained the most from the events of the story – if anything, he was a big patriarchal power symbol around which vaguely feminist themes had to twist themselves. And he was no Genie or even a Wreck-It Ralph, a character it’s fun to see through the whole movie even with their flaws. He was just not interesting or compelling at all.

So with only Moana herself and a very straightforward quest to carry the film, it felt very light in the plot department. Certainly not a bad film, but nowhere near the best of these directors’ output, or that of recent Disney releases. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

King of the Hill: season 6

While it continues to be strong, season 6 shows Kingof the Hill just starting to run out of ideas. Some held in reserve are at last dealt with, like a Boomhauer episode fleshing him out to finally give him another dimension, and Dale deciding Joseph isn’t his biological son – though of course assumes he’s half-alien.

Strong new characters include Dale’s father, who forces the gang to contemplate homosexuality – which they do in typically childish but thankfully non-vicious fashion – and a silly turn for Alan Rickman as a king at a renaissance faire. The Rickman episode is about as absurd as King of the Hill should ever get, still being in the realms of the feasible, where going to Japan to discover Hank has a half-brother, Luanne being suckered into joining a cult, Bill stealing an army tank for a drunken rampage and Hank being honoured as the token white guy in an Asian golfing country club all go a bit too far. Peggy, previously the believably self-centred yet insecure centre of the funniest episodes, has some episodes where her self-regard goes a bit ridiculous. I can accept her accidentally taking home a Mexican child, but pretending to be a nun or taking Hank to a nudist colony was just bizarre.

Some episodes stretched too far at the end, like Hank extinguishing the Olympic torch in front of news cameras but them accepting it being relit by a cigarette on Bobby’s testimony, or Peggy falling for a scam but putting together a double-bluff at the end that goes perfectly.

Bobby and Connie are probably the most believable and relatable part of the series at this stage. I still want to watch more, but the show is losing its natural edge. I hope the next season is a bit more down-to-earth, but it will need some fresh ideas. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

ユーリ!!! on ICE / Yuri!!! on Ice

Perhaps last year’s biggest anime, there was no getting away from Yuri!!! on Ice hype, especially if you have a predilection for this kind of homoerotic, overly passionate sports anime, as I do – for whatever reason. As moé fizzles out and straight male anime fans begin to tire of idol shows, this style of female-targeted anime only grows in prominence.

Certainly, homoerotic sports and games shows are nothing new. Prince of Tennis had many of the same tropes, and the underlying passionate rivalry is what made me love Hikaru no Go so much. Haikyuu!! is incredibly popular just now, and with a long list of basketball, soccer, cycling and imaginary card game-based manga and anime provide more and more fodder for the ladies of Ikebukuro Animate. Arguably, Free! brought the subgenre more to the fore, mixing atypically good art with homosexual overtones. So the path was clear for an anime like Yuri!!! on Ice.

The choice of figure skating was no surprise. Japan has for a few years now been giving a lot of attention to Hanyuu Yuzuru, a slim, pretty-faced young figure skater who won gold in Sochi. He won hearts with his optimistic attitude and love of Winnie the Pooh, and has since gone down the usual ‘talent’ road with photo books and acting appearances. While it would be a bit much to say he’s single-handedly responsible for the current prominence of figure skating over here, he’s certainly a central figure. Thus the choice of skating for last season’s homoerotic sports anime came as no surprise.

Indeed, the main problem here is that nothing was a surprise. There was a sense that this was a groundbreaking show in some way – for example, there was some fuss over a moment that was maybe-or-maybe-not a kiss. And then the main pairing exchanged rings that could have been a platonic symbol or could echo engagement. They bathed together, lived together and often drove one another to tears. And I guess there were a lot of people in the audience thinking boundaries were being pushed for a mainstream anime. After all, Free! never went this far. But for me, I kept thinking of No.6 and how much more realistically and respectfully it portrayed a gay relationship in an relatively mainstream Noitamina anime.

Not that the anime needed to be groundbreaking to be enjoyable. With good characters, compelling pacing and interesting relationships, it could have been great fun. The problem was that for me, I didn’t connect with any of the characters, find them realistic or likeable. The main character, Yuri, struck me as self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and ungrateful, which was bad since he was meant to be the heart and soul of the piece. His enigmatic mentor and love interest, Victor, did what he was meant to do, being an impetuous, compelling, often bizarre selfish genius type – he was what he was meant to be, but that doesn’t mean I like that kind of character type. Then there was the other Yuri, young Russian Yuri Plisetsky, who is a skinny, feminine, totally beautiful 15-year-old Russian boy. His appearance is cute but his personality is harsh and cruel, and though his tsundere side occasionally makes him more sympathetic, he was still a totally unlikeable brat. Most of the other characters are the kind of total oddballs that often populate sports anime, though mostly a little too exaggerated for the overall tone.

The only characters I actually liked were Phichit from Thailand, who strove to please others and whose main fault was just being dull, and Kenjirou, a chirpy younger skater who idolises Yuri, does the cutest skate of the series and then gets relegated to the cheering division for the remaining episodes.

In technical terms, the anime had some nice fluid skating animation, but often looked scrappy or made bizarre decisions in terms of camera distortion, especially when it came to Swiss Christophe’s ‘sex appeal’ skates. I can’t say I felt strongly impressed by the skating animation, and it often looked awkwardly rotoscoped.

Certainly the show was light and often funny, and some of the cross-cultural observation was insightful, and I’ll probably watch a continuation if and when it appears, but overall I have to say I felt Yuri!!! on Ice was mediocre even in the fujoshi-bait world of homoerotic sports anime. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

夏目友人帳 伍 / Natsume Yuujincho Go

Quietly, without causing many ripples and certainly without grabbing the attention of the Western anime scene, Natsume Yuujincho has become one of the most important and successful animes of the decade. Last time I was in Animate, Ikebukuro, the café was themed for the show. I probably see Nyanko-sensei charms hanging from young people’s bags more than the mascots of any other show – though it’s possible some were bought without actually knowing the character, just as a cute cat. But the anime keeps getting renewed, almost to the point of being a long-runner. The fifth season ended a few weeks back, and the sixth is already announced for April. It’s also one of the very few shouji titles where there are plenty of figurines available – usually it’s only the extremely homoerotic shows like Free! and Kuroshitsuji that get figures.

I have no complaints. I really enjoy this show. It was more of the same, with a few more kernels of information about the wider society of exorcists and a bit of backstory for Natsume’s adoptive parents, and some kind of season finale rather than a slow ‘Natsume gets sick and the ayakashi contemplate how ephemeral human life is’ episode would have been nice. I was also a little sad the whole season went by without an episode with the Little Fox, the show’s most adorable character, but Natsume himself had plenty of adorable moments.

Perhaps the cutest episode centred on a little girl youkai searching for a man who was kind to her fifty years earlier, another iteration of the show’s recurring theme of time seeming different for beings who exist for millennia. There are also several funny and memorable youkai this time, from a funny babyish giant bird to little rabbit-type spirits and a funny stubborn mushroom with big dreams. One nice episode focuses on a youkai trying to blend into normal human society, though of course it’s never quite possible.

The pace remains slow and the show always subtly celebrates a traditional, unhurried, community-based Japanese lifestyle, which really helps give a feeling of softness and warmth to everything. Natsume himself is certainly a feeble and unthreatening protagonist, but it’s hard to dislike him. If anything, he makes people want to look after him.

Slow, soft, enjoyable but sometimes hilarious, Natsume Yuujincho is a show I’ll watch as long as they keep making it. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

星を追う子ども/ Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo / Children who Chase Stars / Journey to Agartha

I mentioned in my thoughts about Bakemono no Ko that Shinkai Makoto has seemingly become the ‘New Miyazaki’ with his smash hit, Kimi no Na Wa. It also came as a surprise to me, given that his other films have been rather oblique, artsy and inaccessible. I didn’t get on with Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place, and Voices of Stars was more of a technical achievement than a truly impressive piece of filmmaking. I’ve still yet to watch 5cm Per Second, but given it’s a short film in three distinct parts, it’s hardly a mainstream movie, and nor is the 46-minute Garden of Words.

So really, it’s this film, Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo, which bridges the peculiar gap between Shinkai being a quirky outsider auteur in the same vein as Yuasa Masaaki and all of a sudden being the new mainstream darling after Kimi no Na Wa. And I have to say, it makes perfect sense. I don’t think this is a particularly good movie, nor is it essential anime viewing, but as a milestone in a director’s career it is highly significant. Essentially, this is Shinkai’s devotional tribute to Ghibli, especially classic Ghibli. It’s almost a flat derivation of the studio’s art style, tropes, callsigns and character types.
Like most imitative works, it’s a little soulless and insubstantial. I really doubt it will go down in history as well-loved. The characters never really fully develop and the world is not clearly-defined. But it certainly has its moments of beauty.

Young Asuna uses a crystal radio given to her by her late father to listen to strange music. Little does she know the crystal inside will link her to a new world. A boy from the mysterious land of Agartha saves her one day from a strange monster, and soon she is drawn into a hidden world of magic, otherworldly creatures and rumours of the resurrection of the dead.

The echoes of Ghibli movies are very clear and direct. The Quetzalcoatls are halfway between the robots of Laputa and the night walker of Mononoke-Hime. Shin slashes his hair like Ashitaka and clings to Asuna as they fall like Pazu. Morisaki-sensei has a good deal of Muska about him, while Shun smiles a lot like Howl. The Izoku share qualities with various creatures from Mononoke-Hime, while Mimi the cat-creature and Nausicaa’s Teto are far from dissimilar.

Shinkai aims for an epic feeling, and with Asuna seems to be going for the cute, spunky female lead of classic Ghibli. The problem is a lack of human feeling. We see Asuna is plucky, vulnerable and good-hearted, but very little unique or really identifiable about her. Shin is introduced late and has some heroic moments as well as looking cool, and has one brief but sweet moment of vulnerability, but we learn very little about him. Shun’s motives are a mystery right to the end. And Morisaki-sensei is basically two-dimensional. I’ll always remember how the climactic sword-fight Shin has to really get centre-stage is to some random goon who still manages to put the poor kid down completely.

There’s very little driving the quest beyond Morisaki’s determination, but the dilemma at the end happens without enough build-up and seems like a problem tacked on at the end to give a strong climax. Too much of the invented world is murky pools and sheer cliffs, so the movie rather lacks in wonder. And the tugging-at-the-heartstrings moment mostly feel too manufactured and obvious to actually affect the viewer.

Certainly, this is a beautiful, well-made and polished movie, but it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas derived directly from the Ghibli storybook. But I earnestly think that Shinkai had to try his hand at this style of movie before turning to the more everyday and relatable – paving the way for Kimi no Na Wa. Undeniably, Shinkai has come a long way from She and Her Cat.

King of the Hill season 5

Most of my reviews of King of the Hill seasons point out that while the show was designed to be played in any order, there were a lot of continuous storylines and character arcs that transcend the purely episodic.

Season 5 seems to cement that, with lasting developments in the subplot of Nancy Gribble’s affair with John Redcorn, and their son very abruptly and very noticeably growing up and hitting the awkward stage of puberty – while quirky Bobby Hill is left behind.

While this season has some of the highlights of the run, with great episodes centred on Hank’s feelings for his dog (and his truck), interesting examinations of attitudes to sexuality in conservative America and Cotton actually showing some humanity by working demeaning jobs to support his new child, there are also some of the biggest misses so far. Cotton’s scheme to assassinate Castro reminded me of when The Simpsons changed Mr. Burns from a cruel, rich boss to a monster who would gleefully murder a child, and was a step or two beyond what King of the Hill ought to be. An episode centred on a prostitute had some very fun moments but was a bit too far-fetched for the tone of the show. The same could be said of when Bobby becomes a ventriloquist. There’s also a bit too much foregrounding of guest voice actors, which gets jarring.

But the show remains consistently funny, clever and smart, with Peggy and Luanne increasingly becoming the funniest characters. Dale and Bill get some highlight episodes and the show continues to have fun skewering both leftist and rightist thought.

Well worth continuing with. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

King of the Hill season 4

Though there are episodic elements to King of the Hill and just about any episode can be watched in any order (though even in order, Luanne’s hair regrowth was a bit random), this season made it clear that there are larger, overarching story arcs to be followed. In particular, the final episodes set up a change in the relationship between the Gribbles and John Redcorn. Dale will probably always be oblivious to the affair going on, but it’s taking its toll on Nancy and John. John Redcorn. They never just say ‘John’, haha.

There are also big development moments for Bobby in his relationship with Connie from next door. Watching the show in any order would see some strange jumps in their feelings for one another, and it’s a well-judged puppy love relationship.

But the most interesting thing about this season is that it seems like there’s a shift similar to The Simpsons' change in focus from Bart to Homer. They play out most of their good ideas for their main character early, and some secondary characters seem to take over for the best episodes. In this case, it’s Peggy, whose self-regard, low abilities and perfectionism make for a very amusing character to deflate.

All in all, King of the Hill remains a very clever and enjoyable show at this stage, and well worth continuing with.