April 22, 2008
Say "environmentally themed animation" to most people and they'll think of FernGully: The Last Rainforest or Captain Planet—both well-intentioned, but as subtle and as thrilling to experience as a boot to the head. Presented in alphabetical order, here are five titles that get it right; essential viewing not just on Earth Day, but every day.
When we talk about Warner alumna who worked with Dr. Seuss, we tend to mention Chuck Jones and, er, that's it. But it was Hawley Pratt who directed The Lorax, the 1972 adaptation of the good doctor's book from the year earlier. In it, the Lorax—a typically Seussian odd-looking, oddly coloured creature who says he "speaks for the trees," tries to convince an industrialist not to chop down the Truffula trees, which he uses to make a unique form of clothing called Thneeds.
The industrialist doesn't listen, and the Thneeds take off. His small shop becomes larger, which leads to the construction of larger factories and more roadwork, which leads to increasing destruction of the forest and the air—and eventually, the growth of a whole city, which just makes the problem worse. Futile though it is, the Lorax protests the whole time. Near the end of the story, the industrialist chops down the last tree and realizes he's not only ended his business, but destroyed the very reason he came to the forest in the first place—and the Lorax sadly picks himself up (literally) and flies away.
The Lorax is pads the original story with reasonably entertaining songs, gags and bits of business to bring it up to a half-hour special, and it captures the Seuss look pretty well. While it's comparatively strident—"greedy industrialist" is all you need to know about the antagonist—it's still a striking look at how we can carelessly consume and destroy resources when we're not careful.
The Man Who Planted Trees
Frédéric Back believes passionately in the need to protect and co-exist with the environment, and his most moving testament to that belief is his 1987 masterpiece The Man Who Planted Trees, an adaptation of a 1953 French short story. In the story, a man visits an abandoned valley in France three times. The first time is before World War I, when the valley is dry and desolate, and he meets a young shepherd who is planting acorns; the second time is between both world wars, when the young trees are starting to dot the landscape; and the third time is after World War II, when the valley is a green, lush paradise, and a small village has sprung up around it.
The story itself, in which one man selflessly and patiently turns emptiness into a thriving, living community, is inspiring, but what makes it work as a film is Back's method. Using coloured pencils and frosted cels (like traditional acetate cells, but with a tooth to them so that traditional but inkless drawing tools can be used on them), he made each frame a gorgeous illustration, with each one cross-dissolving into the next. When we return to the valley-as-Eden, that technique serves to make every leaf on every tree burst with life. When we hear that our actions have far-reaching implications, it's usually when we're being warned not to do something. When you see the forest in The Man Who Planted Trees flowing across the screen, you realize that there's a positive aspect to that as well.
See a clip and storyboard images from The Man Who Planted Trees
My Neighbor Totoro
In 1950s Japan, Mei and Satsuki move to the countryside with their father, as they wait for their hospitalized mother to recover from her illness. From the moment they set foot in the house, the girls discover (magic?) forest creatures large and small, who seem to be presided over by the largest of three creatures, that seem like a jovial cross between a cat and a bear; Mei calls them Totoro.
Not much more needs to be said, because if you haven't seen Totoro, you've probably heard of it (and, really, should make the time to go see it.) It's the 1988 film that made Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli icons in Japan (literally, as Totoro now graces the Ghibli logo on every movie opener), and, after some time, abroad as well. The three Totoro are probably the Ghibli characters you're most likely to see pop up in the background of comics and animation, as artists the world over pay homage.
The reason for all the love is simple: Totoro is a gentle film that is as much about the joys of childhood as it is about the beauty of nature. Linking expertly realized scenes—of napping in a forest, of skipping over a creek, or of savouring the night breeze through the trees—to our own memories makes a better case for preserving forests than any amount of brow-beating. The Japanese public apparently agreed, and Totoro has become a symbol, both official and unofficial, of its environmental movement.
Nine years after Totoro, Ghibli released its flip side: Miyazaki's look a fifteenth-century Japan where the powerful forest spirits still walk the Earth with both majesty and terror. The young prince Ashitaka is banished from his village when his arm is scarred in an encounter with a deranged boar god, and during his travels he encounters San—the demon princess of the title—and Lady Eboshi, who has founded and runs Iron Town on the edge of the forest. San has literally been raised by wolves (or, more accurately, wolf gods), and is constantly sabotaging Iron Town's operations, as their manufacturing facilities are encroaching further on the forest.
Ashitaka, and the audience, quickly learns that things aren't as black and white as they may seem. Lady Eboshi has taken in lepers, prostitutes, and other people cast off from society and given them a home; by mining and refining the iron she's been able to keep Iron Town self-sufficient. San and many of the forest creatures see humanity as a threat, an ever-reproducing virus that needs to be destroyed for their safety. The result is the beginning of a bloody war, with interested outside parties looking for opportunities and Ashitaka risking life and limb to keep things from escalating past the point of no return.
Princess Mononoke carries two messages within it, both rarely said in environmentally themed films. First is that if you push nature too hard, nature will push back harder. The second echoes a sentiment spoken by John Muir, godfather to the American environmental movement: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe." The fatal error that is often made in the movie, and in real life, is that humanity is somehow separated from nature.
French group Mickey 3D's 2003 CD Tu vas pas mourir de rire (You Won't Die Laughing) is full of politically conscious songs set to toe-tapping music. Its second track, Respire (Breathe) is the basis for a CGI music video that features, for the most part, nothing but a young girl running barefoot through an open field, skipping through creeks and climbing trees, all under a gorgeous blue sky. The laconically delivered lyrics speak of what man has done to his world, and how action needs to be taken by everyone, right now.
It's the end of the video that brings everything together as, with a Twilight-Zoneish twist, we discover that things aren't what they first seemed. Frankly, I find this scenario all too plausible. Consider Respire a warning you can dance to. Watch the video and decide for yourself.
Where to Get It
Buy The Lorax DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy The Man Who Planted Trees DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy My Neighbor Totoro DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy Princess Mononoke DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy Respire (part of the Imagina Trips Vol. 2 compilation; PAL, Region 2) on DVD from Amazon.fr
Buy Tu vas pas mourir de rire on CD from Amazon.com
Previously on Frames Per Second
Imagina Trips Vol. 2 review
October 31, 2007
In 1989, a Briton by the name of Neil Gaiman took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring series of comic books. In 1991, a Briton by the name of Paul Berry took the myth of the Sandman and spun it into an awe-inspiring and terrifying stop-motion short.
The mythical Sandman brings sleep and good dreams to children by sprinkling sand on their eyelids to weigh them down. But in 1817, German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Der Sandmann, in which the Sandman's origins and purposes are far more sinister. Berry and producer Ian Mackinnon crafted their story around Hoffmann's vision, rooting the look of the ten-minute film in German Expressionism. Any symmetry to be found in The Sandman is accidental, and the shadows and moonlight serve to delineate the aquiline features of the title character and the haunted looks of the unnamed young boy and his mother.
Those three characters make up most of the cast of The Sandman; as the clock strikes eight, the boy is sent off to bed with only a lamp to guide him through the seemingly endless stairs of their Gothic house to his room. Every creak and every shadow is a new source of terror for the boy, who finally dives under his covers for sweet relief. But as he sleeps, the Sandman appears in his room, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The Sandman is entirely in pantomime, with barely-there incidental music accenting the creaks, groans, winds and other incidental sound effects that permeate the film with dread. The Sandman himself is a beautiful study in animated acting, as he gracefully stalks about the room, eventually leaping and dancing like a crazed bird of prey. His performance—for that matter, the entire film—is a textbook example of a medium perfectly suiting a story. At one point the Sandman is climbing the stairs and discovers a loose floorboard, prompting him to repeatedly lean into it, taunting the boy with its creaking. That scene, and the flashback it invokes in anyone who ever laid in bed and thought someone was coming to get them as a child, would never have worked without that sense of weight and tactility. Every moment of The Sandman takes advantage of stop-motion's grounding in reality, and uses it to present a fantastic and frightening scenario that everyone can relate to.
One note: if you're watching The Sandman for the first time, make sure to watch it through past the end credits for the one shot that will likely give you nightmares for the next week.
Where to find it: On the British Animation Classics Vol. 2 DVD.
The best campfire stories are the ones that are meta—you know, the characters in the story talk about some folk legend and then end up living (but probably not living through) the tale themselves. So it is in Kakurenbo (2005), in which children play a late-night game of hide and seek in an old part of the city, specifically to test a legend about kids doing just that.
Wearing their fox masks—a requirement for the game—the kids quickly discover that the rumours of demons pursuing the players are true. Much like in Wicked City, the chase take place in an urban landscape, through buildings that appear to have all been abandoned. Unlike Wicked City, these demons don't wear suits. In fact, they're distinctly old-fashioned creatures out of Japanese folklore, some with accouterments straight out of previous centuries. As the children fall one by one, you get the feeling that this game has been played for a long, long time—so long that the children and the modern buildings they run through are the interlopers, not the monsters.
Kakurenbo is entirely 3D CGI, though all the characters are cel-shaded and the backgrounds are either painted or heavily textured. At the beginning of the movie, it's recommended that you watch it in the dark. This is true for the story's mood—all monster movies should be watched in the dark—but also aesthetically. Kakurenbo's colour palette is extremely dark, and its rich look only really becomes apparent when the lights are out.
As in many good ghost stories, the characters themselves are ciphers. We don't really know much about the eight kids—one is blustery, two are dangerous as hell, one is looking for his sister who disappeared during an earlier game—and we really don't need to. (The fox masks, which conveniently eliminate any need for facial animation, also help to keep us from getting to know the characters.) Even so, we're given just enough so that the end—which, like other meta ghost stories, serves to confirm the story the characters were relating—still sends a shiver down the spine.
Where to find it: On DVD at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, or Right Stuf
In the late 1980s, Yoshiaki Kawajiri directed four projects that would cement his distinctive style: the short film The Running Man, the 2-part OAV series Goku: Midnight Eye, and the features Yojutoshi (aka Wicked City, produced in 1987) and Demon City Shinjuku. All of them share Kawajiri's trademark slickness and his knack for moodiness, but only the last two feature supernatural horrors running around a nighttime urban landscape as if it were their natural habitat.
Of the two, Wicked City is the better movie overall. It posits the existence of the Black World, a world inhabited by demons that coexists with our own. Few know about the Black World, and fewer still know that every few hundred years, a peace treaty is signed between the Black World and ours, guaranteeing peaceful coexistence; a secret organization known as the Black Guard enforces the treaty. A splinter group of demons wants to sabotage the current peace treaty by killing the 200-year-old Giuseppe Mayart, a key figure in brokering the deal. Two Black World agents are assigned the task of protecting him: the human Taki Renzaburo, who carries a big gun and knows how to use it, and the beautiful, human-looking demon Makie, whose weapons of choice are her extendable, deadly-sharp fingernails.
The entire film takes place at night, of course, which allows not only for a reduced, somber colour palette and countless shadows, but an opportunity to explore the idea of an underworld in both common senses—the realm of the unnatural, and a criminal urban milieu that exists, much like the Black World, in parallel to our own. It's notable that many of the demons make their initial appearance not as ugly beasties, but as men and women in the dress we're accustomed to seeing in urban crime stories. The first female demon Taki encounters is in the form of a bar hostess; the first male demons are dressed in sharp black business suits. Confrontations take place in many of the same locations as in traditional noir films: foggy airport runways, hotel bars, back rooms, run-down buildings, brothels.
The setting is perfect for Kawajiri's style, which favours gorgeous establishing shots, backgrounds dense with details and scenes with one or two dominant colours. Particularly distinctive are the many ways that light spills into scenes: airplane lights on a foggy runway, street lights as a car speeds toward the city, moonlight filtering into a church. All of his movies play with these elements, but only Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku make use of them all.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Wicked City is the large part that women's sexuality plays in it. Anyone with a double major in women's studies and film studies needs to watch this film, for the many ways in which it plays with the many images of women and men's fears. You've got vagina dentata, a spider-woman, a prostitute who literally absorbs her victims—the list goes on. The things that women do and the things that are done to women in this film could fill a few thesis papers, I'm sure. Either way—as a study in gender relations or just an exceedingly stylish film with nasty beasties and awesomely choreographed action—Wicked City is a must-see.
Where to find it: On DVD at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, or Right Stuf
October 28, 2007
While Claws for Alarm plays dread and stark design for laughs, The Tell-Tale Heart, produced just a year earlier by the United Productions of America (UPA) studio, goes straight for disquiet, suspense and insanity. I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to sit in a movie theatre in 1953 and read the title card: "This story is told through the eyes of a madman ......... who, like all of us, believed that he was sane."
It's not that American audiences hadn't experienced dramatic theatrical animated shorts before. It's just that, prior to The Tell-Tale Heart, they were typically leavened by comedy. This faithful adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's short story grabs you by the throat, and doesn't let go for its entire eight-minute span.
The Tell-Tale Heart is a story about psychosis. The unseen and unnamed narrator (voiced with by James Mason) relates how he took care of an unnamed old man, who was pleasant enough but had one bad eye, turned milky white. The narrator sees the eye, as he says, his voice suddenly rising, "everywhere and in everything!" He abruptly catches himself, and speaks with icy calm: "Of course, I had to get rid of the eye." What follows is murder and concealment, but it soon becomes apparent that this was merely the beginning of the narrator's descent into madness. When constables come around to investigate the noise, they never discover the body in the floorboards—but then the narrator imagines he hears the old man's heart beating...
The pleasure of The Tell-Tale Heart is its trifecta of story, narration and visuals. While UPA had been pushing the modern style for a decade, they had never cut loose and applied it to outright drama. Here, the angular, asymmetrical designs, sharply delineated shadows, textured backgrounds and stylized movement reinforced the perspective of the narrator's unhinged mind. There's little in the way of animated flourishes; except for the sudden brutality of the old man's murder, everything moves at a pace as measured as Mason's narration. Like Hitchcock, director Ted Parmelee knew that creeping dread and suspense, punctuated by moments of violence and surprise, were the best heart-stoppers.
Where to find it: As an extra on the Hellboy DVD.
October 27, 2007
Long before Space Jam, Warner Bros. characters were gleefully put together in seemingly incongruous pairings. Few directors pulled these off as well as Chuck Jones, as in his Bugs-Daffy team-ups. Over a seven-year period, Jones directed three cartoons that put Porky Pig and Sylvester together, with the second, Claws for Alarm, unspooling in 1954. (The other two were 1948's Scaredy Cat and 1955's Jumpin' Jupiter.)
All three cartoons follow the same basic premise: the mute Sylvester is Porky's housecat, and the two stop for a break in their travels after nightfall. Porky is so sleepy he doesn't notice the menaces (here and in Scaredy Cat, mice; in Jumpin' Jupiter, aliens) surrounding him, and poor Sylvester not only has to defend him, he has to bear the brunt of Porky's ire, as the pig keeps waking up at just in time to misinterpret Sylvester's actions.
Claws for Alarm makes the cut for Hallowe'en because, unlike in the other two cartoons, the sense of fear and dread comes in from the very first frame. When Porky drives into the deserted town (with its stark Maurice Noble-designed lines and shadows), Sylvester is already quaking—and from the moment they enter the hotel and the mice try to slip a noose around the oblivious Porky's neck, it's apparent that his misgivings are justified. Better still, he never
sees his tormentors: the mice always stay hidden in the shadows, so that all Sylvester sees are re-animated mooseheads, guns and nooses that mysteriously appear from cracks in the building, and what appears to be a ghost gliding up the stairway. By morning, Sylvester is reduced to a bleary-eyed nervous wreck.
It so happens that Claws for Alarm is one of the handful of Jones cartoons to have a perfect ending: in true horror-movie fashion, Sylvester relaxes as he and Porky speed away from the town—totally unaware that the murderous mice are stowing away in the car.
Where to find it: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three
Discussions about cartoons' content are usually limited to a few basic emotions. Do they make us laugh? Do they make us cry? Do they arouse us, make us think, make us want to take action?
No one ever seems to ask: What about the scariness?
With Hallowe'en around the corner, I present to you five animated works that, from start to finish, evoke fear and dread. So close the curtains, dim the lights, and pop these into your DVD players for a fright night.
#5: Claws for Alarm
#4: The Tell-Tale Heart
#3: Wicked City
#1: The Sandman
Labels: top 5
April 8, 2007
It's Easter, and by one of those coincidences we've got a rabbit kicking (sometimes literally) over here at fps HQ. So in the spirit of this lagomorphic-themed holiday, here are five rabbit-themed animated productions you can watch during your day off.
The Jack Rabbit Story (aka Easter Fever)
One of the TV specials that Nelvana made prior to Rock & Rule, Easter Fever starred Garrett Morris as the smooth-talking, laid-back Jack, the Easter Rabbit who has decided to retire. The half-hour is presented as a celebrity roast, with assorted friends and nemeses reminiscing on his life. Offbeat and irreverent animated holiday specials were somewhat rarer in 1980 than they are now, and this is still fun to watch. Quick way to flush out a fan: utter the words "Hupcha, hupcha, quick like a bunny" and see who chuckles.
Easter Fever hasn't been released on DVD, so you're dependent on friends' worn-out tapes or second-hand copies of the Nelvanamation 2 cassette.
Run Wrake's deliciously disturbing short film uses 1950s children's illustrations to present a tale of mysterious idols, greed and horror. A must-see that you can catch on the BBC's Film Network website or buy, along with plenty of other great shorts, as part of the sixth disc in the Best of British Animation Awards series. Note that while I vaguely recall reading that the discs were also available in NTSC, the BAA website isn't clear on this matter.
How could I choose from all the Warner shorts starring Bugs Bunny? Easy. This is one of the three Chuck Jones shorts (the other two are Duck! Rabbit! Duck! and Rabbit Fire) that partly hinges on the question of identity. Is Bugs a rabbit, or is Daffy? And is it rabbit season or duck season? These questions are vital because Elmer's got some buckshot with a critter's name on it, and he's just slow-witted enough that the wily hare and not-as-crafty-as-he-thinks duck can easily manipulate him to point it at each other.
Anyway, the decisive factor was that of the three shorts, Rabbit Seasoning has the best ending. Catch it on the first Looney Tunes Golden Collection.
This movie is the reason I accidentally call all pet rabbits "Fiver," including our houseguest. Based on the Richard Adams novel of the same name, Watership Down concerns a group of rabbits who leave their warren in search of a safer home, and encounter all kinds of dangers in the form of humans, dogs and, sometimes most frighteningly, other rabbits. This allegorical film is intense enough that you'd want to watch it before showing it to kids. I saw it when I was 9 or 10, but for all the violence and terror it was the end of this movie that made me realize for the first time that death wasn't necessarily something to be feared.
Max and Ruby
A Flash-animated kids' cartoon based on the books by Rosemary Wells, in which the rambunctious three-year-old Max and his proper seven-year-old sister Ruby gently butt heads over, well, everything. Although it's aimed at the under-five set, anyone with a sibling will appreciate the dynamic between the two kids. I particularly appreciate the layer of sarcasm that permeates the show; as Wells herself puts it, "what makes the relationship in the series compelling is that I've added salt and pepper to it, instead of sugar." The show appears on YTV's Treehouse and Nick Jr., and of course there are tons of DVDs.
Labels: top 5
June 25, 2006
In my last entry, I somewhat derisively referred to most modern movie car chases as the "extended urban crashfests we're handed every summer at the multiplex." As it happens, my #1 car chase pick is, um, an extended urban crashfest. However, 1989's Riding Bean OAV outdoes all of the usual summer fare due to three simple facts: (a) it's actually quite funny and sometimes a little perplexing, (b) creator Kenichi Sonoda's love for cars is evident throughout, and (c) it's a really extended car chase.
Riding Bean stars the Bean Bandit and his partner Rally, two couriers who guarantee that they'll transport anything or anyone anywhere, no matter what the job. That means that some of their gigs put them on the wrong side of the law—like at the beginning of the story, when Bean is hired to be the getaway driver for a bank heist. Bean's consummate driving skill, plus the Roadbuster, his souped-up custom car, gets them out of there safely, but the audience learns early on that the bank job is the precursor to something bigger.
Chelsea, the eleven-year-old daughter of the wealthy George Grimwood, has been kidnapped. Bean finds himself embroiled in the case when a Grimwood employee named Morris shows up at his door with her, having rescued her from the kidnappers but fearing that their organization has infiltrated the police. Bean agrees to deliver Morris and Chelsea to the Grimwood mansion.
It's never that easy, of course. Morris is caught in a hail of bullets, and when Bean and Rally try to return Chelsea to the mansion, the guards have never heard of anyone named Morris. Bean immediately realizes that he's been set up, but has to figure out how to safely drop Chelsea off, get away from the police (including his nemesis, an obsessed detective named Percy), and find the people who set him up so he can get his revenge and his money.
The result? A half-hour car chase through the streets of Chicago involving the Roadbuster, Percy's souped-up Cobra GT-500, an eighteen-wheeler truck, a BMW sedan, a hell of a lot of police cars, a variety of guns and an incredible disregard for personal safety. There are more than a few nods to The Blues Brothers, of course, but Riding Bean has an energy and a style all its own.
If there are four things Riding Bean creator Kenichi Sonoda loves, they're girls, cars, guns and Chicago. Many of his earlier creations, like Bubblegum Crisis and Gall Force, featured the girls and the guns. For Sonoda, Riding Bean was near-perfect: It had the last three in spades, though only a couple of girls. (His later Gunsmith Cats, which co-starred Rally, had all four.)
Sonoda's passion for cars shines throughout Riding Bean, with characters lovingly talking about their cars' specs, often as they roar through (and, sometimes, over) the streets. The constant depiction of characters' hands shifting gears is almost fetishistic. And I'm sure the sound department worked overtime getting every last engine roar, screeching tire, and bit of twisting metal to sound just right. But for all that, Riding Bean gets the #1 spot because it channels the Looney Tunes sensibility of a constantly shifting predator/prey dynamic and manages to sustain that energy for 30 minutes. I'm sure that someday, someone will try to top Riding Bean for action, humour and automotive obsession, but they'll have to work pretty hard to do it.
Buy Riding Bean from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
June 22, 2006
In a perfect world, the instant you say "car chase" to a film fan, they think of 1968's Bullitt. In that same perfect world, the instant you say those words to an anime fan, they think of 1979's Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. On the surface, the protagonists and their rides couldn't be more different. Steve McQueen's Lt. Frank Bullitt is honourable, the cop kids want to be when they grow up. Lupin is the trickiest thief you'll ever meet; he does good not out of a sense of honour, but because it serves his purpose—or, more likely, entirely by accident.
Castle of Cagliostro was Hayao Miyazaki's first feature, though he had previously directed episodes from the Lupin III television series. It's a bit of an anomaly for his films, in that all of his later works feel like an extension of his personality; you see his touches (like his love for European cars), but you don't feel him. It's also an anomaly for Lupin; although the anime Lupin wasn't as sexy or violent as the manga, Miyazaki sands the edges down a little more, making him more of a nice guy. But the one thing that works well for both Miyazaki and Lupin is the director's ability to depict a thrilling chase.
Castle of Cagliostro starts with Lupin and his literal partner in crime Jigen fleeing a casino with bags of loot, the tireless inspector Zenigata chasing after them. Naturally, the pair leave the inspector far behind, and soon discover that their loot is entirely made up of forged notes. By the end of the opening credits, they've been aimlessly cruising through the mountain roads, and find themselves fixing a flat tire. Suddenly, a woman wearing a bride's gown roars past them in a red Citroën; before that can even register on the two thieves, another car with shady-looking men in black suits and sunglasses speeds by in hot pursuit.
Lupin hustles Jigen in the car and they take off, Lupin's 1960s-jazz theme music also kicking into gear. Of course, the pair have no idea what's going on, prompting Jigen to ask whose side they're taking. "The girl!" shouts Lupin, as he pits his driving skills and Jigen's deadshot aim against the mysterious men in black. Jigen discovers their tires are bulletproof, and they get a nasty surprise when the men in black start throwing grenades at them. Lupin's solution defies all sense: he drives almost sideways up the sheer side of the cliff, careens madly through the forest (blink and you'll miss the wallop he receives from a low-hanging branch) and comes down again in front of the car, giving Jigen the chance to put an armor-piercing bullet through the bad guys' front tire.
Like Bullitt's car chase, the one in Castle of Cagliostro is a product of its time and its director. To modern audiences, these are brief affairs; Cagliostro's chase lasts just two minutes, which is nothing compared to the extended urban crashfests we're handed every summer at the multiplex. Modern filmmakers should take note: it's the compactness of the chases and the lack of distraction that city streets provide that make these work so well. In these two minutes we have explosions, near misses, shattered windshields, ridiculously unsafe speeds on curving, narrow roads, and our two heroes grinning maniacally, clearly having the time of their lives.
Castle of Cagliostro was the first anime film to screen at Cannes, though it was outside of competition (the first to screen in competition was Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence), and longstanding (though unconfirmed) fan lore says that Steven Spielberg saw the film and declared that it had the best car chase ever committed to film. I have my doubts that he said it, but the sentiment expressed is pretty darn close to the truth.
Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro
Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Buy Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
June 21, 2006
In 1987, two movies happened to come out with the same title: The Running Man. One was a masterfully directed, stylish vision of the future that presented entertainment we currently know, only with the stakes raised in order to satisfy the audience's bloodlust. The other was a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A fifteen-minute short, The Running Man was part of an anime anthology titled Labyrinth Tales, aka Manie Manie (released in North America as Neo-Tokyo). The director was Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who had worked on such significant anime titles as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, Future Boy Conan, Barefoot Gen and Dagger of Kamui. His directorial debut was 1984's Lensman, a (very) loose adaptation of E.E. "Doc" Smith's classic space opera stories, and incidentally the first anime to make extensive use of CGI. Lensman was sort of a transitional moment for Kawajiri, with some characters designed atypically for anime: Particular attention was paid to details like facial wrinkles and hair, more intricate costume detailing for some characters, and sharper shading delineations.
Kawajiri fully embraced this style in his next two films, combining the look with moody backgrounds and lighting effects, more stylized animation, selective colour palettes and dramatic staging. These two films both came out in 1987: the feature-length supernatural noir thriller Wicked City and the future-noir racing spectacle The Running Man.
In true noir fashion, The Running Man's story is told in voiceovers by a reporter covering the story of Zack Hugh, a race car driver who has survived the Death Race for an unprecedented ten years. The Death Race is aptly named: racers tear around a track in high-tech hover cars, linked psychically to their vehicles. Spectacular flaming crashes are not only a regular occurrence, they're highly anticipated.
The first half of The Running Man jumps between a race and Zack in his home, demonstrating to the flabbergasted reporter how he's managed to survive for so long. He's been telekinetically sabotaging the other cars during races, killing the drivers so grotesquely that the ones that crash and burn can be considered lucky. But using this ability is hardship for Zack: his face contorts in agony, and his muscles become unnaturally tense.
The rest of the film is Zack's final race. As he pushes himself harder and harder, eliminating opponents all around him one at a time, the strain to his body begins to take its toll. His death is as spectacular as the race that immediately precedes it; in fact, it's only when he continues driving after crossing the finish line that we realize he's already dead, his sheer malevolence keeping him going. It's only when the car, under as much strain as his body, begins to come apart and eventually consume itself and Zack in a slow-motion fireball that the race finally ends.
Like Wicked City and the next few films Kawajiri went on to make over the years (including Ninja Scroll and the the Program segment of The Animatrix) The Running Man amplifies anime's use of limited animation, by making creative use of cycles and held images panned across the frame. Everything is given extra detail; enough to give the scenes a certain richness, but not so much that it becomes impossible for the animator to draw or the viewer to take in. What this means is that there's less actual animation, but what's there looks so spectacular—though sometimes mathematically precise to an unnerving degree—you don't mind. Couple that with careful use of audio (including silence) and a soundtrack that only steps in when it needs to, and The Running Man is as captivating as anything Kawajiri has ever made.
Haruki Kadokawa Films
Buy Neo-Tokyo from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
June 20, 2006
During the run-up to the Iraq war in early 2003, the right half of American popular culture was having a field day with a simple premise: the French aren't like Americans. Curiously, the best proof of that theory actually came from France (with a little help from Canada and Belgium)—Sylvain Chomet's animated feature, The Triplets of Belleville.
Triplets was the very opposite of the American animated feature: it had almost no dialogue; it was content to move at a languid pace; its nods to celebrities were to Josephine Baker and her 1920s contemporaries. Near the end, it parodies that most American of movie tropes, the car chase.
Champion, as well as a few other Tour de France cyclists, have been kidnapped and put to work on a strange contraption for a Belleville mob boss; they pedal on stationary bicycles while staring at a projection of the open road before them, each driving tiny metal cyclist avatars. Champion's grandmother Madame Souza, their dog Bruno and the titular triplets manage to free the machine from its moors, sending it crashing through the wall and slowly, grindingly, driving through the streets. The mob boss's enforcers—stone-faced, slab-like hulks of men—give chase in their cars.
From the moment the miscreants peel out of the building, we're treated to unmistakeable Car Chase Music. This shouldn't be any kind of contest, but the narrowness of the streets and the absurd length of the villains' cars keep them from driving too quickly. They, and the contraption, only seem to pick up speed when they catch a nice downhill slope. For the most part, this is a low-speed chase.
Still, the bad guys have guns (and, at one point, a rocket launcher) and the good guys don't. But during the chase half of the baddies are taken out or thwarted by various car-chase clichés. Trucks, trains, difficult corners and obscured windshields lead to amusing crashes and explosions, though the best is the takeoff on the old woman-pushing-the-baby-carriage bit: after one car narrowly misses the pram, the second one slams right into it—jostling the baby and totalling the car.
That gag is the link to what defeats the rest of the bad guys: their very cartooniness. Like the rest of the movie, the car chase is a love letter to animation. The cars are drawn with absurdly long front ends, with the driver and passengers way in the back, often with gunmen sticking out of the sun roof. The cars are drawn to look like the center of gravity is way in the back (especially with the monolithic enforcers), and so it is. In several instances, the wrong curve or the wrong incline sends a car over a bridge, a stairway, or tumbling end over end down a hill. And when Madame Souza takes out the last car by tripping it with her heavy shoe, we know it's impossible—but the drawings and the believable depiction of weight completely convince the audience.
The Triplets of Belleville
Les Armateurs/Production Champion
Buy The Triplets of Belleville from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
Labels: top 5
June 19, 2006
For a while, Bubblegum Crisis was the definitive OAV series for anime fans. Combining action, drama, girls, guns, mecha, motorcycles, cyberpunk and the MTV aesthetic, the wait between one adrenaline-rush episode and the next was almost unbearable.
The basic premise of the series was that four women—Priss Asagiri, Sylia Stingray, Linna Yamazaki and Nene Romanova—have banded together as the Knight Sabers to fight the corrupt Genom megacorporation in MegaTokyo of 2032. As it turned out, the eight-part series had an unusual story structure: there were two three-part story arcs, each capped with an epilogue that was completely different from previous episodes. Revenge Road (1988) was different for a few reasons, but the most noticeable was that it was the only episode to focus on a car, rather than motorcycles.
In Revenge Road, it's a year after the series has begun, and a mysterious car has been attacking biker gangs on the streets and highways of MegaTokyo. The driver is a man named Gibson, and he's built the Griffon in an effort to keep the streets safe after he and his girlfriend were attacked by a biker gang. As the episode progresses, Gibson continues to upgrade the Griffon, until he's eventually created a monster of a car driven by thought control. But when he takes the new, frightfully improved Griffon out—with a terrified Naomi inside—he discovers that maybe a mental link was a bad idea. On its own, the Griffon goes on a rampage, with Naomi and an injured Gibson trapped inside and the AD Police in hot pursuit, with only one goal in mind: destroy the car and anyone in it.
Like the rest of Bubblegum Crisis, Revenge Road's car chase is pure 1980s MTV: dynamic camera angles, quick edits, music, and plenty of noise and action. As the out-of-control Griffon roars down the highway, it shrugs off the efforts of the AD Police's cars, helicopters and battle suits, as well as newly upgraded Knight Sabers, who are ultimately reduced to rescuing Gibson and Naomi. In the end, it's the AD Police—normally just so much hapless cannon fodder—who take down the Griffon when Leon puts a high-caliber bullet into its brain (sorry, engine) and makes sure he looks cool doing it.
Bubblegum Crisis 4: Revenge Road
Buy Bubblegum Crisis from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca
When I watched Cars a few weeks ago I naturally thought of Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch (pictured at left), its conceptual precursor. I also wondered, what were some of the best car race/car chase scenes I'd ever seen in animation?
The answer to that question surprised me. For one thing, it took me almost two weeks to come up with a decent list—unlike our first top five list, where most of the effort was in paring the list down. Second, none of the entries on the list is American. So much for the great car culture.
#5: Bubblegum Crisis episode 4: Revenge Road
#4: The Triplets of Belleville
#3: The Running Man
#2: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro
#1: Riding Bean
Labels: top 5
May 9, 2006
Japan's market for anime OAVs (Original Animation Videos, or direct-to-video productions) was kicked off mostly by accident. While Dallos was the first OAV, it wasn't until an aborted television project by the name of Megazone 23 was patched up and released straight to video that the category caught fire. Without broadcast TV restrictions, the creators were able to put in sex and gore, much to the delight of the teen and college crowd, who ate it up. With that beachhead established, OAVs opened up to a variety of styles and titles, including series made for video (Bubblegum Crisis, Giant Robo) and extensions of TV shows (Ranma 1/2, Tenchi Muyo). The other beautiful thing about the OAV format is the lack of time constraints. Rather than being shackled to the half-hour or hour format and having to pace a show to accommodate advertising, episode lengths or movies could vary as needed.
OAVs have been woefully underused here. When Steven Spielberg announced a Tiny Toon Adventures direct-to-video project in the early 1990s, I hoped that it might be our Megazone. It was, sort of—Warner Bros. would go on to release such titles as Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman as tie-ins to the animated Batman series; more recently, Universal released Van Helsing: The London Assignment and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury as movie tie-ins, and of course there was Warner's The Animatrix. The most recent was Marvel Comics' Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, and there are the various Disney sequels.
In fourteen years, is that all we have to show? Well, no. Kids' animation has actually done fairly well in the OAV space, including breakout productions like VeggieTales. But where are the OAVs for the rest of us? Warner and Universal have shown that they have the resources to make high-quality, less kid-centric OAV animation, and they have the marketing muscle to make the category a reality. So where is it? DVDs are so cheap and there are so many outlets for them—particularly the Internet—that they would also have the option to use the OAV market to release smaller, less expensive and more targeted works, as in Japan.
And speaking of targeted works and the Internet, there’s no reason those same companies can’t release some of the quirkier animated series and features lurking in their vaults. While it can be argued that, say, Twice Upon a Time has more limited appeal than the latest Pixar movie and therefore it's harder to justify the cost of mastering a DVD, the truth is that smaller companies like Unearthed Films (who released Rock & Rule) and anime company AnimEigo have been doing exactly that for some time, with far fewer resources. AnimEigo even has a great strategy: they get preorders for certain fan-favourite titles, and base the volume of the run and the cost of each disc on the amount of preorders received. By reducing the risk, they maximize profitability. And by showing they actually listen to consumers, they gain customer loyalty. Best of all, self-interest works in their favour: when I preordered the Macross boxed set, I told as many people as I could about it, because the more people preordered, the lower the cost of the set would be. Companies love it when they can get their customers to do advertising for them, so it works out for everyone.
So, again, where's our OAV market?
Labels: top 5
May 8, 2006
Super Dimension Fortress Macross is inarguably one of the signature anime titles of the 1980s, and the source material for the first part of Harmony Gold's Robotech. There have many spinoffs over the years of varying quality and popularity, but the ones that everyone can agree were the best have all been given a decent English-language release since the advent of DVD—except for the first, best spinoff of them all.
Macross: Ai Oboete Imasuka (Do You Remember Love) was released in Japan in the summer of 1984, a year and a half after the TV series' debut, compressing the series' 36-episode narrative into just under two hours with a lush score and gorgeous visuals that took advantage of the larger and wider scope of the movie screen.
Macross: Do You Remember Love movie is also a textbook example of how to adapt a popular TV series to create an equally popular movie without alienating the people who made the series popular in the first place. It's different enough that it's fresh, but similar enough that the familiar touchstones are comforting. And consider this: the movie's a third longer than a typical Disney animated feature, took half the time to make and no doubt cost a lot less as well. And yet it’s captivating enough that the lack of Disney-quality character animation is entirely beside the point.
Throw in Macross Flashback 2012 (a direct-to-video showcase for Mari Iijima's vocals as idol-singer character Lynn Minmei, mostly made up of recycled TV and movie footage, plus a what-happened next coda to the story) as a featurette and everybody’s happy. And while we’re at it, release the movie on the big screen a few months before the DVD release, like the Cowboy Bebop movie.
May 7, 2006
In the fall of 1992, two new television series came out that were unlike anything else on the air. Both, remarkably, were from Hanna-Barbera, who until then seemed resigned to endless regurgitations of their old characters.
Set in a world of anthropomorphic cats, SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron was loud, fast and full of intense action, which was something of a shock at a time when people were fretting about violence and cartoons' general lack of educational merit.
But the real surprise was a little something called 2 Stupid Dogs, featuring the nameless big dog and little dog who, as the title suggested, weren't particularly bright. Each seven-minute short featured simple situations—the little dog falls in love with a wind-up poodle, the big dog gets his head stuck in a hole in a fence—that were played for maximum laughs. There was also a minor cast of characters like Hollywood, the big, loud, generally kind-hearted man prone to bellowing; Kenny, the lovelorn and generally anxious schoolboy; a tiny kitten who, like all felines, the little dog was terrified of; and Red, aka Little Red Riding Hood, an obnoxious nearsighted child who starred in a trio of cartoons produced with a little help from John Kricfalusi.
The beauty of 2 Stupid Dogs was that it echoed the classic Looney Tunes shorts much better than other cartoons before or since that claimed they were doing the same thing. Each episode was personality-driven; the various players were placed in certain situations (Hollywood even showed up as a grieving woman, five-o'clock shadow and all), and their particular personalities guided the action. Also like the Looney Tunes, each episode was a stand-alone, but you could quickly figure out the basic relationships and traits of the characters even if you had never seen the show before. And since it rarely depended on pop-culture gags (the exception being an extended Partridge Family takeoff, which works even if you don't know who they are), the gags really are timeless.
Appearing as the middle segment in the show's first season was Super Secret Secret Squirrel, an updated version of the 1965 Hanna-Barbera cartoon that, in true retro style, was sometimes more 1960s in aesthetic than the original. Sending up spy shows in general with only the mildest of 1990s self-consciousness, the new Secret Squirrel, like 2 Stupid Dogs, was just plain funny. There were only thirteen Secret Squirrels made (the second season of 2 Stupid Dogs was Squirrel-free), but they were all dead-on.
Both 2 Stupid Dogs and Super Secret Secret Squirrel each used limited animation techniques but did so differently, resulting in different aesthetics, cleverly reminding viewers that "simple" and "limited" animation, used effectively, could produce amazing results. Many of the people behind these shows, like Larry Huber, Craig McCracken, Rob Renzetti, Paul Rudish and Genndy Tartakovsky, would go on to extend those principles in their own shows, like Dexter's Laboratory, My Life As a Teenage Robot, Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack—to name but a few—when Hanna-Barbera became Cartoon Network Studios. It's no exaggeration to say that 2 Stupid Dogs and Super Secret Secret Squirrel heralded the birth of an era.
Labels: top 5
May 6, 2006
Partisans may believe that the Disney and anime styles are incompatible, but 1988's Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland would prove them wrong. Based on Winsor McCay's luscious and inventive Sunday comic strip from a century ago, Nemo, like Mighty Orbots, combined American storytelling with Japanese animation. (Coincidentally, Tokyo Movie Shinsha was the production studio involved with both projects.)
Nemo, however, took it further, combining Disney-style character designs and full character animation with Japanese backgrounds, visual effects and staging. It was a true best-of-both-worlds approach that worked like a charm, though there was no real attempt to mimic McCay's particular brand of meticulous draftsmanship. (Whether that's good or bad is up to you.)
Narratively, it also worked out pretty well. If I had to guess, I'd say it was Ray Bradbury's story that provided the fanciful and fantastic underpinnings, Chris Columbus's screenplay that provided the rhythm, and TMS's designs, storyboarding and animation that provided the convincing moments of unreality, fear and menace.
Like the comics, the action takes place in Slumberland, which the young, hyper-imaginative Nemo visits in his dreams. Nemo is fêted by Slumberland monarch King Morpheus and promptly gets himself into trouble, egged on by the rascally Flip. Since McCay's strip didn't really have an ongoing narrative, it's entirely understandable that the movie had to be fleshed out with Nemo's accidental unleashing of the Nightmare King and subsequent quest to set things right. And there isn't anything wrong with the story per se. But Nemo gets a little shaky in the details, as some of the strip's rougher edges are sanded down for the modern kid audience. Flip, originally a shabby-looking, cigar-chomping, ne'er do well clown is somewhat rehabilitated from someone you'd yank your kids away from to a well-meaning guy who just makes bad choices. The stereotypical nappy-headed jungle native Impy had to go, of course (though in McCay's strip he's more benign than most such depictions), but his absence is balanced by the introduction of a goggle-wearing flying squirrel named Icarus. (Yes, a goggle-wearing flying squirrel. Hokey smokes, how shameless can you get?) Overall, though, the movie holds together, on par with other low-key but solidly constructed and enjoyable features like Cats Don't Dance.
Nemo's real tragedy is in the history of its production and release. Delays kept pushing the release date back (the project had started in 1981), and then the movie seemed to disappear entirely. It came out in Japan in 1988, and was released in a gorgeous laserdisc set in 1989. (The textured black box had the single word "Nemo" in McCay-era typography, with a single shaft of light illuminating Nemo clambering onto his bed, which is barely restrained by gravity—a reminder of how uninspired most DVD box design is these days.) In 1992 Nemo finally appeared with little fanfare in North American cinemas, less ten minutes of its running time, and disappeared just as quietly, despite decent reviews.
About a year and a half ago, Funimation released Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland on DVD, restoring it to its original running time. But that's only part of the story. They didn't include the laserdisc's extras, like a featurette on Winsor McCay's pioneering animation work (including the Little Nemo short film from 1911), and a now-commonplace featurette showing how voices and songs were recorded and dance routines were used for reference. They also didn't include the two short pilot films—consider them animated proofs of concept—directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and Osamu Dezaki. (You can see the Kondo-directed pilot film on Google Video.) Nor did they include the reproduced storyboards, model sheets and concept drawings. If you could see all these things, you would feel the same sense of loss I've felt for the last fourteen years, wondering what it would be like to see more collaborations like these.
May 5, 2006
Many people think that the 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon landscape was a wasteland, remarkable only for the sheer amount of badly animated and badly written shows that made it to air. I happen to be one of those people, but I admit there were a few gems out there, and none had quite the delightful playfulness and visual flair of 1984's Mighty Orbots.
Long before the "American anime" of Invasion: America and Gargoyles, Mighty Orbots was the real deal: conceived and written in the US, directed and animated in Japan, and with a production crew from both sides of the Pacific.
The Orbots were five robots built by young scientist Rob Simmons in the service of his boss Rondu of the Galactic Patrol, who also happens to be the father of Dia, the object of Rob's affection. (Rob's got a Superman/Clark Kent thing going; aside from Rondu, no one knows he's Mighty Orbots' commander.) When the five robots join together, they form the giant Mighty Orbots, who can lay the rock-'em, sock-'em hurt on big baddies—like the biggest, baddest of them all, the evil Umbra.
In some ways, Mighty Orbots offered little that was new. The plots were instantly recognizable to veterans of 1980s animated adventure shows: bad guy poses threat, team tries (and fails) to eliminate threat separately, and in the final minutes they come together as Mighty Orbots and, by dint of superhuman effort, save the day. Cue final joke and end credits. Most of the characters themselves were also archetypical: Bort is the gangly nervous wreck, the short and tubby Crunch eats everything in sight, and so on.
What Orbots lacked in originality, it made up in craft. The character designs, layouts and colour design were tighter, and the animation more dynamic and crisper, than just about anything else on TV, and there were plenty of the lighting effects and insanely dynamic camera moves that distinguished the anime of the time. Storywise, the show constantly walked a tightrope between straight-up action-adventure and a certain goofiness, embodied by Gary Owens's earnest voiceovers. The classic example comes from "Devil's Asteroid," when Mighty Orbots' escape route is suddenly cut off by a blast door. "Uh oh!" exclaims Owens. "Not even Mighty Orbots can break through the prison space-lock!" Two seconds and one thundering crash later, he sheepishly recants: "I guess I was wrong."
Silly? Sure. But it only works because the voice and the image combined totally sell the idea that Mighty Orbots can't break that door. In its own tongue-in-cheek way, Mighty Orbots was always that convincing. The show lasted only one season on ABC, but its look and attitude were a breath of fresh air.
I usually like reading top-100 lists, because they're huge amounts of fun. On some rare occasions they're definitive, but that's not really the point; they're almost always incredibly subjective. What makes them interesting is the thought processes they set in motion, and the debates they spark.
Of course, I like reading top-100 lists, but I'm not that keen on writing them. Same for top-50, or even top-10 lists. But a top-5 list? That, I should be able to manage.
I was recently thinking about what titles would have to come out before I finally broke down and bought a high-definition DVD player, when it occurred to me that there were a number of significant titles that haven't even been released on plain old DVD as yet. So over the next few days, I'll present to you my personal list of DVDs that someone, somewhere really ought to get cracking on releasing.
And by all means, let me know what you think.
#5: Mighty Orbots
#4: Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
#3: 2 Stupid Dogs/Super Secret Secret Squirrel
#2: Macross: Do You Remember Love
#1: Something New, Something Old
Labels: top 5