The Matrix is such a cinematic landmark that it is hard to imagine anyone not having the background to enjoy The Animatrix. The plot of someone learning that the whole world is a delusion created by mega-powerful beings to lull him (and usually all humanity) goes back to the 1940s with such surrealistic sci-fi thrillers as Robert Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and Fritz Leiber's You're All Alone. Movies on this theme have been rarer, but the Wachowskis may have been aware of the 1980s anime Megazone 23. In any case, the public should be familiar enough with the basic concept of The Matrix that The Animatrix will stand on its own, even if some specific references such as blue pills and red pills may be missed.
The "making of" documentaries among the DVD's special extras describe how the Wachowskis used a 1997 trip to set up the Japanese theatrical release of The Matrix to meet some of their favorite anime creators. Then, after the movie's release in Japan, they asked those creators to participate in an animated version which would showcase their distinct styles.
Their point man was Michael Arias, an American CGI animation consultant who had been working with Japan's animation studios for several years; including both the Madhouse studio and Studio 4°C, which became their two principal production studios. Arias sent out the Wachowski Brothers' invitations, and served as the communication channel between the individual directors and the Wachowskis, who were in Sydney filming the two Matrix sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
The notes say that the Wachowskis wrote four of the nine stories in The Animatrix and approved five stories by the anime creators. The Final Flight of the Osiris, which opens The Animatrix (and was the segment shown by Warner Bros. as a theatrical short starting two months before the release of The Matrix Reloaded), was apparently the story that the Wachowskis concerned themselves with the most, since it sets up the plot for Reloaded: the human rebels' scoutship Osiris sacrifices itself to warn the last human city, Zion, that the Machines have discovered it and are planning to overwhelm it. This was CG-animated by Square USA, the Honolulu studio created to produce the all-CGI feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. In general Osiris looks even better than Final Fantasy; possibly because the animators were more experienced in using their CG techniques by the time they got to The Animatrix. Director Andy Jones describes how he took the Wachowskis' story and expanded or tweaked some of its aspects to increase its dramatic impact.
Kid's Story, again written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, also ties into Reloaded by "introducing" a new character in the live-action feature. The plot is basically a reprise of the original Matrix story, with a high-school computer hacker playing Neo's role and Neo matured into the Morpheus role of his mysterious mentor. Director Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop) deliberately chose a "rough line" art style closer to that of many independent short films than the usual polished style of "professional" animation.
Program, by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is one of the director-created stories accepted by the Wachowskis. If they started out wanting to make a movie with their favorite anime directors, Kawajiri of Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust must have been one of their first choices and they probably wanted to give him as much creative freedom as possible. The dialogue of Program fits right into the Matrix world, but the visual sequence would fit right in with the samurai-ninja fantasy Japan of Ninja Scroll—although looking ten times better because of the much higher animation budget.
Beyond is by Koji Morimoto, best known to American anime fans for the Franken's Gears sequence in the 1987 film Robot Carnival (which might be considered the predecessor of The Animatrix since it was the first anthology feature consisting of nine short films by different directors on the theme of intelligent machines and humans). This is the lightest tale in the movie, about a group of children who have found a glitch in the "reality" created by the Machines, and who use it for fantastic fun and games until a work force of Agents chase them off and repair it.
A Detective Story was written as well as directed by Shinichiro Watanabe. It looks totally different from Kid's Story and is his tribute to the black & white film noir detective movies of the 1940s and '50s. Watanabe says the Wachowskis liked his idea of a noir-type downbeat story about a private eye who tries to escape the Matrix but fails.
Matriculated, by Peter Chung, ends The Animatrix on what is both a depressing and encouraging theme. A group of human rebels try to separate one of the Machine's killer units from its group mind, give it free will, and persuade it to join the humans as an equal. Chung's visuals of the mind-alteration of the machine are reminiscent of the early CG psychedelia of such 1980s shorts as Scuilli's Quest: A Long Ray's Journey into Light, but with the benefit of twenty years' worth of technical improvements and a more dramatic plot. This particular effort fails, as it must since The Animatrix is set prior to the continued dominance of the Machines in Reloaded and Revolutions. It is too soon for a happy ending, but it does hint at how a happy ending might be possible. The Animatrix is impressively successful, both as a single feature encompassing many different styles of animation, and as a sci-fi feature.