I’ve always been a little frustrated by DreamWorks. Their success with cash-guzzling franchises like Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda has made them the most prolific animation studio in the world but they haven’t been able to marry quantity with quality with any consistency. It’s difficult to know, when attending one of their new films, whether to expect a How to Train Your Dragon or a Shark Tale. There’s no denying their ability to keep kids entertained but few, if any, of their films will ever be remembered in the same way as most of Pixar’s emotionally satisfying, story-led back catalogue. Continue reading »
adventure, animation, Calhoun, comedy, Disney, fantasy, Fix-It Felix Jr, Hero's Duty, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, John C Reilly, Mortal Kombat, Rich Moore, Sarah Silverman, Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, Sugar Rush, Vanellope von Schweets, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Wreck-it Ralph
My two favourite things together at last. Continue reading »
I’ve always identified the Madagascar series alongside the Ice Age films. The comparisons are very obvious but with the release of the third picture in Dreamworks’ franchise it seems that the successes of each series reflect one another. Both started out with a fun and quirky debut that led to a limp follow up and now, like Ice Age 3 which was better than its predecessor, the third Madagascar marks a clear improvement on the second. Not that this is necessarily the sign of a great movie. The Madagascar films have always felt like second tier fare next to Dreamworks’ best efforts and while Europe’s Most Wanted is an improvement it still can’t hold a candle to the likes of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Continue reading »
Hotel Transylvania plays as the distinct underdog in the horror-themed trilogy of animated films following ParaNorman and Frankenweenie in recent weeks. Sony Pictures Animation, relative new kids on the block can’t boast the pedigree of Laika or Tim Burton but their small back catalogue does include the brilliant Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Can this effort, which is playing squarely at the commercial audience, emulate any of that film’s inspired insanity? Continue reading »
This has been a golden year for stop-motion. First we had Aardman’s excellent The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and more recently Laika’s fantastic ParaNorman. Now it’s time for act three and the latest effort from a cinema legend. Frankenweenie began life as a live-action short film Tim Burton made in his twenties whilst working as an animator for Disney. The story was too macabre for the company and his efforts lost him his job. One iconic career later and how things have changed as Burton and Disney reteam to remake his original story in stop-motion. Continue reading »
animation, Anna Kendrick, Bernard Hill, Casey Affleck, Chris Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, comedy, fantasy, horror, Jeff Garlin, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Laika, Leslie Mann, Norman Babcock, ParaNorman, Sam Fell, Stop Motion, Tucker Albrizzi
The studio that has dominated CG animation for over fifteen years offers up their biggest challenge to Disney’s supremacy yet. Continue reading »
With their bonkers characters, vibrant colours and wry jokes the books of Dr Seuss seem like the perfect fodder for animation and with live action turkeys like The Cat in the Hat standing next to CG gems like Horton Hears a Who! The counter-arguments are very quiet indeed. Dr Suess reportedly singled out The Lorax as his personal favourite and the adaptation from Illumination Entertainment, which I saw as part of a double bill with Ice Age 4,has been making megabucks stateside. In spite of this the film has met with some fairly negative feedback so I went into this one intrigued but not quite knowing what to expect. Continue reading »
animation, Blue Sky Studios, comedy, Denis Leary, Diego, Ice Age, Ice Age 4 - Continental Drift, Jennifer Lopez, John Leguizamo, Manny, Mike Thurmeier, Nick Frost, Peter Dinklage, Queen Latifah, Ray Romano, Scrat, Sid, Steve Martino
There are two types of animated film, the artistic kind and the commercial kind although there is a fair amount of crossover between the two. The Ice Age franchise is a pretty clear example of the latter, a money-making behemoth and one of the most lucrative film franchises ever. It’s managed this despite never enjoying real critical acclaim. It’s a middle-of-the-road series of kids flick worth watching for the amusing banter between the central trio and Scrat the squirrel’s acorn-chasing misadventures but never likely to match the brilliance of the best of Pixar. It’s a big ask but can the fourth outing do more than just the same again? Continue reading »
Aardman, adventure, animation, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Blessed, comedy, David Tennant, Hugh Grant, Imelda Staunton, Jeff Newitt, Jeremy Piven, Lenny Henry, Martin Freeman, Peter Lord, Pirate Captain, Salma Hayek, Stop Motion, The Pirates!, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
It seems fitting that in a year that looks likely to prove a Renaissance for stop motion animation that one of the most prolific studios to practise the painstaking art should lead the charge. With Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Laika’s ParaNorman on the way Aardman are here with their first feature length stop motion effort since 2005’s Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Continue reading »
As I start building up my collection of Disney DVDs to a state more befitting of a self-confessed animation nut the reviews for Mouse House features are coming thick and fast. I’ve made no secret in the past of my opinion that the studio’s so-called ‘wilderness years’ following Walt’s death are unfairly named. The period yielded more than a few gems the best of which is this delightful retelling of the classic English legend which played on constant repeat in my VCR growing up. In fact it may well be the single film above all others I’ve seen the most number of times. I could probably quote the entire script.
It’s a very familiar tale. King Richard the Lionheart is off crusading with his tyrannical brother John ruling in absentis putting the squeeze on the poor inhabitants of Nottingham by hiking taxes. The hero of the downtrodden is Robin who ‘borrows a bit from those who can afford it’ to feed the poor when he isn’t lost in reveries about a ‘high-born lady of quality’ called Marian. The USP here is that all the classic characters are presented as anthropomorphic animals, a move that gives the characters just as much personality as the bouncy script and top-drawer voice cast.
The delegation of species to characters gets it spot on practically every time, Little John is a bear, Friar Tuck a badger, the Sheriff of Nottingham a wolf and if you can’t guess what animal the Lionheart and his brother are translated to Lord help you. Best call is Robin as a fox, an animal that totally fits the hero role and if scavenging urban types are anything to go by works well as an outlaw too, and who can argue that Maid Marian is a foxy lady?
They’re all memorable characters too, Robin himself one of Disney’s best heroes, a dashing, flawed and happy-go-lucky fox of the people given life by Brian Bedford’s spirited vocal performance. He’s funnier than the average protagonist too. Phil Harris brings the right kind of resourceful confidence to Little John while Monica Evans delivers a likeable Maid Marian who can more than hold her own in a pie fight. The supporting characters also hit the spot, such as the hilarious Clucky and the pompous Sir Hiss, the list is almost endless. Prince John scores the lion’s share (sorry) of laughs courtesy of a quite wonderful Peter Ustinov who becomes the first Oscar-winning actor to voice a villainous Disney lion (see also Jeremy Irons as Scar) and walks away with the film in the process.
There’s a nice balance between comedy and adventure. a light-hearted and easy-going first half gives way to a much bleaker and desperate second culminating in one of the great Disney climaxes. The jailbreak final act deftly handles comedy and peril, adventure and action, with mounting tension and scene after scene of brilliance; Nutsy and his studious dedication to getting the time wrong, Robin’s determination to pinch every last bag of gold from under Prince John’s nose and of course our hero’s desperate and undyingly exciting escape from the castle, one of the best moments in any Disney film.
Sometimes the plot dawdles particularly in the first half but there’s always some great character comedy to keep things amusing. Some have commented that the Americanisation of this quintessentially English story is worthy of criticism. A fair observation, the archery tournament free-for-all manages to turn into a game of American Football but the spirit of fun in which it’s all done is what gives the film its vibrancy.
Most of the songs are also gold, the opening credits melody Whistle Stop inspiring football chants some decades on, if you don’t like Phony King of England you’re probably not very nice to know and Not in Nottingham is heart-breaking. Love gets some stick for being a bit mushy but I still like it. Most of the incidental music also hits the spot, guiding both comedy and excitement.
Disney’s Robin Hood represents everything that makes animation special, a fusion of joy, fantasy and colour with all the touching moments the medium is so good at producing. It gets overshadowed by more famous moments in the studio’s back catalogue but that can’t change the fact that this is one of its brightest creations.
Endlessly rewatchable, possessed of a unique and unconquerable spirit of pure fun without forgetting the important parts of the legend and the aura of heroism surrounding the famous character. Pure, unadulterated bliss.
adventure, Alan Menken, animation, Ariel, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Disney, Disney Renaissance, fantasy, Flounder, Jodi Benson, John Musker, Pat Carroll, Prince Eric, Romance, Ron Clements, Samuel E Wright, Sebastian, The Little Mermaid, Ursula
It might be a little too girly or sugar-sweet for some but that doesn’t change the fact that Disney’s 1989 adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is one of the most important animated films ever made. For twenty years following Walt Disney’s death the studio and the wider animated film medium had been enduring a period of creative stagnation, an era known as the Wilderness Years. Classic films were few and far between and, surrounded by less than inspired titles marred by lazy writing and underworked animation. While I firmly believe that Disney’s output in this period is actually rather underrated there’s no question that the early nineties saw a creative resurgence in the industry that has continued ever since. Disney produced hit after hit and in 1995 new kid on the block Pixar arrived announcing itself with the fantastic Toy Story. Disney started to lose the plot with the new millennium but Pixar was there to maintain the animation industry’s longest period of continued excellence, something the mouse house is getting back to doing themselves with their recent revival through films like Tangled. The years of success are commonly called the Disney Renaissance but it’s actually been a Renaissance for the entire animation industry, one that looks set never to end. All this can be traced back to The Little Mermaid, the picture that kick-started the revival.
The film is a fantasy romance, pure and simple. Sixteen-year-old mermaid Ariel has an angelic singing voice but she’s usually to busy exploring her fascination with the things that sink below the waves from the human world to remember to attend concerts. On an illicit trip to the surface she saves the life of dashing Prince Eric from a storm and promptly falls in love, etching her wondrous voice into his heart in the process. With her father forbidding her to return to the world above she pays a rebellious visit to the tentacled sea witch Ursula who agrees to turn her human for a price – her precious voice.
The film’s success are down to three key fronts, Disney’s smart return to the hits of their Golden Age by delving into romantic fairytale, an increase in the production values visible in the colourful animation and the best repertoire of songs the studio had produced in decades. The story evokes the fundamental appeal of escapism, the fantastical undersea setting, the young protagonist pining for something more, the fish-out-water comedy, literally. The tone is cheerful in extremis but the necessary tension and darkness is there provided par excellence by Ursula, one of the most deliciously fabulous baddies in Disney history.
As the light story unfolds every scene is given lift by the wonderful array of colours on show. The studio’s recent previous output like Oliver & Company and The Rescuers looks bland by comparison. The visual direction and exciting set pieces combine to give the film an epic feel that had been largely missing from the company’s films for some time. This was the way it continued in other fairytale films that followed including Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Alan Menken’s delightful music found an enthusiasm and sense of fun that was both fresh and mainstream, each crucial song from Part of Your World to Poor Unfortunate Souls memorable in its own right.
It’s also got some cracking characters. Ariel just about transcends the blandness that sometimes holds back protagonists with her wide-eyed exuberance and rebellious streak while Prince Eric is handsome and gallant but has enough personality to distinguish himself from previous Disney Princes. The aforementioned villain gets full marks as does rasta-crab Sebastian who goes down as one of the most entertaining comedy sidekicks around.
There’s no denying that the film is more for girls than boys but it’s not like there’s nothing for we of the less fair sex to enjoy, namely the cute redhead in the lead and while the cutesiness is enough to put many off I’ve lost count of the number of times my buddy Ryan and I have spontaneously broken into renditions of Under the Sea. Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin probably have the edge over the earlier picture but The Little Mermaid is still among the best Disney films and the question we connoisseurs of animation must ask is where would the industry be now without it?
The film that started the animation Renaissance remains superb value as a fairy story, a romance and an adventure. Iconic songs, great character comedy and pretty pictures combine with timeless results.
2009 might very well have been the best ever year for animated films. Pixar produced the Oscar winner with the beautifully told and very emotional Up, Disney started to rediscover their old magic with The Princess and the Frog and elsewhere we were treated to Fantastic Mr Fox, Coraline and The Secret of Kells. One that went under the radar for a lot of people including me was a crazy little CG animated movie called Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
Adapted from a 1978 book by Judi Barrett the story surrounds Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) a young scientist with a mad imagination for invention (spray-on shoes, monkey thought translator, ratbirds). His latest crackpot contraption is a machine that turns water into food which he accidentally launches into the stratosphere where it draws in cloud matter and produces gastronomic rain. With chirpy weather girl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) reporting these extraordinary events to the world it starts to look like Flint’s invention could end up rejuvenating the failing economy of his island home town Swallow Falls with tourism but with meal requests flooding in from the townsfolk there’s a danger that he might lose control of the machine.
The amount of fun that’s had with the concept is an absolute joy from the superbly realised first dramatic food storm onwards. Expect nacho cheese hot springs, an open-air steakhouse where meat lands on people’s plates and in one standout scene a snow day of ice cream. But the bonkers doesn’t end with the only-possible-in-animation concept. Where some toons are nutty Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is absolutely out of its mind, the insane story enhanced by a bat-shit crazy script and colourful cast of cooks and the results are hilarious. Every joke is expertly prepared, timed and executed and if you’ve even a shred of humour you’ll be laughing out loud all the way through.
Much of it is achieved by the excellent voice cast who bring perky life to the characters, among them Mr T as an athletic cop and doting father. Anna Faris brings the right kind of cute to the smarter-than-she-seems weather reporter while Bill Hader makes Flint Lockwood into one of the great cartoon heroes, a genius whose overenthusiasm is his undoing, hiding a naiveté brought out in little moments. His struggle to win his dad’s approval is formulaic but played well but it’s his sheer breathless determination that makes him shine.
It’s a real surprise of a film, bursting with colour, loaded with visual gags and digs at movie clichés and full of completely crackers ideas, pun intended. One minute you’ll see a giant jelly castle, the next there’ll be a man wearing an oversized cooked chicken but it’s paced sensibly and never overwhelms offering little character-driven sub-plots to allow it some quieter moments of conflict. A good thing too because if the film was nothing but shots of foodstuff falling from the sky into eager children’s open mouths it might have got a bit much building up to the cataclysmic ending. So much effort and love has clearly gone into every aspect of the film’s creation that it deserves a lot more attention than it ever received.
Possibly the most brilliantly bonkers animated fun-fest of the last ten years but if subtlety’s your thing you might want to look elsewhere. Your loss.
adventure, Amy Adams, animation, Bill Murray, Carnage, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Waltz, Fantastic Mr Fox, George Clooney, Hayao Miyazaki, Jason Segel, Jodie Foster, John C Reilly, Kate Winslet, Kermit the Frog, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Meryl Streep, Miss Piggy, Owen Wilson, Ponyo, Roald Dahl, Roman Polanski, Studio Ghibli, The Muppets, Tina Fey, Wes Anderson, Willem Defoe
I originally intended this to be a video game review blog with added film and book reviews but thanks to my dedication to review every film I see in the cinema and buy on DVD it’s the film reviews that have taken over. I’d love to give full reviews to every film I see but the workload has been building up and I’ve taken the executive decision to start relying more on roundups like this. I’ll still be doing proper film reviews but only for titles I really want to dedicate the time to.
Jason Segel, a person not known for his family friendly movies was the man trusted with bringing the wonderful Muppets back to our screens after a long hiatus. The fact that Kermit, Miss Piggy and co have been languishing in obscurity for the last several years is actually rather cannily used as a plot point for this new movie in which Segel stars as Gary whose felt-faced brother Walter is obsessed with the Muppets and campaigns for them to reform. Cue a rich tycoon’s plan to destroy the Muppets’ studios to drill for oil and we have a race against time for Kermit, Walter, Gary and Gary’s fiancée Mary (Amy Adams in full Enchanted mode) to track down the old gang. It’s a real delight to see these great characters back on the big screen and many of the fourth-wall breaking gags and general silliness really hits the spot but the story doesn’t have the high entertainment value of Muppet Treasure Island or The Muppet Christmas Carol. The delegation of screen time for the characters doesn’t quite achieve the right balance (there’s not nearly enough of Gonzo and Rizzo is missing altogether) and some of the songs are overwhelmingly saccharine but that doesn’t matter in this case as much as it otherwise might. After all is there anyone who doesn’t love the Muppets?
Two sets of well-to-do New York parents meet to amicably discuss a violent incident involving their eleven-year-old sons but civility gradually descends into childish bickering in Roman Polanski’s often hilarious adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play Le Dieu de Carnage. The impressive ensemble cast (Kate Winslet, Jodi Foster, Christopher Waltz, John C. Reilly) have a ball with the script, revelling in the vitriol they get to spout at each other and the characters are all perfectly observed. The film’s downfall is its self-imposed limitations brought on by its genesis as a stage play. The single, cramped setting lends a not inappropriate sense of claustrophobia but the single continuous scene inevitably lacks any kind of variety. It’s a fine adap but it couldn’t be more obviously an adap if it tried.
Fantastic Mr Fox
Wes Anderson’s stop-motion adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s best loved stories (and my personal favourite of his) really stands out from the crowd. The idiosyncratically crude animation brings to mind those annoying Compare the Market adverts and the direction and script are wry, whimsical and offbeat. The story of a cocky and anthropomorphic fox (voiced by George Clooney) busting one last heist against the three fattest, shortest and leanest farmers capitalism has ever imagined manages to be both hilarious and touching with rounded character tension and depth. The star-studded cast that includes Bill Murray and Michael Gambon deliver brilliantly confident performances, making the grown-up script sparkle. It’s a cult film and that’s mainly because the script is very mature, loaded with swearing cynically masked by the word ‘cuss’ and a consistently bonkers mood. That this film in which the hero talks about existentialism could be taken on its merits and regarded as an adult’s animation doesn’t really hold water given that it’s adapted from the writings of one of the most important kids’ writers in history and many critics have not wrongly marked it down for this. In the film’s defence I’m sure that the odd tone and general sense of fun will not be lost on young ‘uns and as such it will still find its audience. Purist’s complaints at the story’s Americanisation and relative lack of fidelity is predictable. Maybe someday people will figure out the definition of the word ‘adaptation’ and that’s coming from someone who loved the book. Whatever complaints might be levelled there’s no denying that Fantastic Mr Fox is innovative and memorable
I’m reviewing Disney’s important take on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid soon but first is the matter of this bolder reimagining, Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent directorial feature with Studio Ghibli. Set in a modern day version of Japan that seems unperturbed by giant sea gods Ponyo is the fishy daughter of a powerful oceanic sorcerer who escapes from his supervision to explore the human world where she meets five-year-old Sosuke with whom she forms a strong bond. It’s a more creative vision of the story that paints a vivid and slightly perilous impression of the ocean complete with tsunami made of giant fish. As bold as many of the more exciting scenes are the film is equally strong in quitter moments such as the scene in which the tots enjoy their dinner which is laced with beautifully observed cuteness. The film is primarily aimed at younger kids, but, like with My Neighbour Totoro before it, Ghibli have created a film that should maintain strong appeal for children and adults of every age. The strong English language voice cast includes the likes of Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, with the younger siblings of teen stars playing the nippers (Miley Cyrus’ sister, the Jonas brothers’ baby bro) but Tina Fey gets the best results as Sosuke’s hilariously tenacious mum. This is Ghibli very nearly at their best.
Abbot Cellach, adventure, Aisling, animation, Book of Kells, Brendan, Brendan Gleeson, Brother Aidan, Cartoon Saloon, Christen Mooney, Crom Cruach, Evan McGuire, Ireland, Kells, Mick Lally, Nora Twomey, Pangur Ban, The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore
This is my 100th post for this blog and I’m not the kind of person who lets meaningless milestones go by without celebrating them which is why I’ve chosen some very special subject matter to mark the occasion. The Secret of Kells is a film that I will always associate with the focus of my last review, Coraline for a number of reasons. I saw both for the first time on the same day. I bought both films on DVD at the same time from the same place. Both were released in the same year, 2009, the best year ever for animation. Both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Both lost out to Pixar’s Up, a film that would have been a deserving winner in any other year, but not ahead of those two. Both films were made by animation studios that are not household names. Both films have a young protagonist who ventures into a magical world. Both get pretty dark in the third act. Both feature a cat. And most importantly they are both astounding achievements. My DVD copies of the two films sit side by side on my animation shelf.
Most reviewers aren’t disposed towards grandiose statements about the films (or whatever) they love the most, instead offering measured praise in line with what their editors and readerships would expect. I’ve always written more personally for this blog sticking my neck out in elaborate commendation of creations I think don’t get the glory they deserve (such as Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn). For years I’ve had no doubts about what my favourite game (The Legend of Zelda – Ocarina of Time) and favourite book (Redwall) are but I’ve never had a really firm idea of what my favourite film is. Contenders have come and gone, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade played on constant repeat in my VCR growing up, all three The Lord of the Rings films have enjoyed periodic status as my favourite film, while animations like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story 3 have also laid a claim but nothing has ever really stuck.
Until recently that is. After being completely bowled over by both Coraline and The Secret of Kells I knew they had instantly become my two favourite films. The only question was which of them was better. For a long time I leaned more towards Coraline because of the enormous impact it had on the first watch but repeat viewings have caused some of that power to diminish slightly. The wonder of The Secret of Kells has not suffered any such effect. That being so I can finally confirm it to be my all-time favourite film.
We’re in seventh century Ireland and the Abbey of Kells (that’s two of my favourites set in an abbey, the other being Redwall). Brendan is a young novice who is always getting in trouble with his uncle, Abbot Cellach who is obsessed with building the Abbey walls as high and strong as possible to protect the inhabitants from Viking invaders. When Brother Aidan a famous inscriber comes to Kells with his white cat Pangur Ban seeking sanctuary he brings with him the Book of Iona, later known as the Book of Kells, a real religious artefact filled with the most incredible Christian iconography that is now on permanent display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin. The two form a strong friendship and Aidan encourages Brendan to contribute to the completion of the book so the boy sets out into the forest in search of berries to make ink. There he meets a playful forest fairy named Aisling.
What strikes you most about the film is its incredible stylised animation which is the most beautiful and inventive I have ever seen. The use of colour brings a mythic, fantastical Ireland to vivid life. The extraordinary backgrounds are sometimes minimalistic, sometimes loaded with minute detail, often created from patterns, impressionistic and pastel-shaded and ridiculously pretty. The direction of the animation is imaginative and playful. There are fun moments of split-screen in which we see Brendan running through different locations. Bees fly around in swirling formations. Wolves move in perfect unison. The unique shape of every falling snowflake is clearly visible. Every minute of the running time conjures some new delightful visual gimmick never allowing the look of the film to stray one iota below dazzling. If you have even the slightest appreciation for creative animation you should be absolutely stunned by literally every second of The Secret of Kells. That’s not an exaggeration. Even the prettiest animated films usually have moments or scenes that aren’t quite as eye-catching as others. Not so here, every frame looks amazing.
All the same the film would be nothing without a good story and while some people have remarked that a plot about the creation of a book is not the most exciting I beg to differ. Yes, the protagonist’s motivation is to help complete the book but there’s something very powerful about the faith he and Aidan put in the book’s significance. There’s a profound reverence that is actually quite stirring and the story of the book is a framing device that binds some wonderful scenes. There’s adventure when Brendan sets out into the forest. There’s peril when he is attacked by wolves. There’s comedy in the early goose-chasing scene. There’s tension in the impending Viking attack. There’s dispute in the Abbot’s resistance to Brendan and Aidan’s friendship. There’s haunting beauty in Aisling’s song to Pangur Ban. There are chills, there is horror, there is sadness and there is joy. And in the encounter with the monstrous Crom Cruach the film presents us with one of the outstanding moments in the history of animation, an inventive, scary and brilliant battle in which the hero fights with a stick of chalk, a scene that should never be forgotten.
Every aspect of the sound is also top-notch. The soundtrack is a mixture of uplifting Irish folk music, haunting melodies and powerful choirs. This is married to excellent vocal performances from the whole cast. Brendan Gleeson is the biggest name giving authority and sternness to Abbot Cellach in a nuanced performance that highlights the complex character’s depth in his obsession for security. Mick Lally makes brother Aidan into the most amiable old mentor you could hope for, frequently comical but providing notes of regret and sorrow when necessary. Evan McGuire absolutely shines as Brendan, filling his performance with boyish enthusiasm and wonder. However I’m giving top honours to Christen Mooney who weaves a whole mythology into Aisling in turns quirky, cross, playful, haughty, fearful and mysterious. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve all got awesome Irish accents too.
The Irish setting is the heart and soul of the film, the country’s rich mythology and history providing an ample backdrop for the story. It’s difficult to think of another country in which Christian and pagan themes can so naturally mix, the visuals are dominated by the greens of the Emerald Isle and the story hints at both the vibrancy of the people and the sorrow they have endured through history.
I’ve been waxing lyrical for over a thousand words now but you needn’t take my word for it. I showed this film to my good friend and discerning film critic Ryan and he absolutely loved it too, saying that it wasn’t just one of the best animated films but one of the best films he’d ever seen and he can be quite a harsh critic sometimes (he hated Hugo). He rightly pointed out that any single still from the film could be framed (I use the image of Brendan and Aisling looking at beetles for my desktop background) and the film inspired him to wrap all his Christmas presents in film stills. He also bought a copy on DVD and sent it as a Christmas present to his Irish family.
Whether you like animation or not this is a film that deserves to be seen and cherished by everybody. It’s educational about Irish history without ever forgetting to be fun. There’s a strong religious theme but it isn’t the least bit preachy. It is a film that celebrates the joy of art in every aspect of its creation, one that has the power to enrapture children and adults with its amusing slapstick, gorgeous colours, memorable characters and perfectly paced story. It is a remarkable creation that can be considered an ambassador for what can be achieved through the animation medium and an utterly wonderful film.
The Secret of Kells is one of those films that not everybody has seen but those that have seen it adore it. I’ve yet to come across a negative opinion of the film and I never expect to. If you don’t like The Secret of Kells it’s hard to believe you like films at all, or that you have a soul. It is, in my humble opinion, the best motion picture ever made.
A few months ago I decided to take a day off from the soul-crushing monotony of job hunting to indulge in a day of animated feature films I had yet to see. The titles I got through that day include The Secret of NIMH, The Secret of Kells, Fantastic Mr Fox, Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs and Coraline. Having since bought all but the first of these films on DVD full reviews for The Secret of Kells and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are the way as is my verdict on Fantastic Mr Fox as part of an upcoming roundup. First though is my review for this astonishing film from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
And I don’t mean Tim Burton. Henry Selick was the brilliant helmsman of the stop-motion classic, Burton assuming producer duties but not without creative input. With Coraline, another film released in the watershed year for animation that was 2009, Selick has surpassed even his most famous work by delivering a story at once whimsical and terrifying. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novella of the same name the film makes incredible use of tangible puppet-based stop-motion presented in a visual style of bold contrasts to tell its creepy tale.
Coraline Jones is a bratty but misunderstood girl perturbed by a recent house move who finds wonder in a fantastical other world. So far so Spirited Away but there the similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s much-loved classic end. Coraline is as horrific as children’s films ever get combining its unsettling story with some seriously creepy visual design, not to mention spine-chilling use of sound, music and voice work. It might be the scariest and most brilliant children’s horror film ever made and one of the very best animated feature films period.
The key to its success is the slow build-up of tension. In the real world Coraline is a bored kid ignored by her workaholic parents trying to find something fun to do in the somewhat colourless, dormant world she lives in. An alluring splash of colour and warmth lights up her world and the film after she enters through a little door in her new house where she discovers a better version of her life on the other side. Her parents are attentive and fun, her other mother makes all her favourite food and her other father breaks into song in praise of her spontaneously. Even the neighbours are more entertaining but there’s one rather disturbing catch, everyone in this wonderful world has buttons for eyes.
As Coraline’s experiences of her new world go on the appeal of remaining there permanently builds but eventually the horrifying designs of her ghastly other mother become clear and that’s when the reasons for the PG rating start to show. Whether it’s the ghost children delivering the most chilling exposition scene in history, the sight of the other father becoming an unwilling puppet or the way the other world freezes over with death one bit at a time the final third is filled with unforgettable and sometimes disturbing (but still PG friendly) images. But at the heart of the horror is something far more frightening than anything visual can ever be. What is the most horrible thought a child could ever face? Losing their parents must be pretty high, but consider the prospect of one’s parents being translated into something altered, familiar yet different, something unsettled, something monstrous. Take it from me, this is the ultimate nightmare of childhood and the film exploits it with merciless intensity.
If that all sounds rather heavy fear not there are more than enough much lighter scenes to cut through the terror, among them a hilarious sequence in which a pair of old burlesque dancers put on a show practically in the nude for our heroine and an army of Scottie dogs. Or there’s the magical moment when she sees what the other world’s garden looks like from above. The film juggles light and shade very nicely but in doing so it toys with you in much the same way the other mother subdues Coraline, convincing us it’s all okay before unleashing the nightmare.
Enormous credit must go to the animators and design team for bringing this tactile, solid and fantastical world to vivid life. The attention to detail in the puppets, especially their clothes and hair is mind-blowing and the dynamic camerawork in some scenes is tremendous. All sorts of practical effects such as fog lend a brilliant sense of reality and detail while many of the more imaginative character and set designs will haunt you in all the right ways. The men and women working for Laika are a seriously talented bunch.
The voice talent does a magnificent job throughout. Dakota Fanning was a spot-on choice for the title role, breathing effortless sympathy into a complex and obnoxious character. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French who served Henry Selick well for James and the Giant Peach are suitably eccentric as Miss Spink and Miss Forcible respectively while Ian McShane does his best Russian accent as bonkers circus master the Amazing Bobinski, but top marks must go to Teri Hatcher who pours enormous menace into the other mother.
Coraline is a singularly and unforgettably exhilarating film, one that surprises in every minute of its running time. Some parents would no doubt have been concerned that it was too scary as they left movie theatres with shell-shocked sprogs but they needn’t have worried. There’s nothing kids love more than having the bejeezus scared out of them and when it’s done this well it should be required viewing. Selick created in instant classic in A Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the best animated musicals and, until 2009, the best stop-motion film in existence. As great as it was and despite its clear horror-story theme it wasn’t scary, nor was it really trying to be. With Coraline he one-upped himself and made a film too terrifying to enjoy the same kind of mainstream success. So be it, cult status fits it much better anyway. Either way it’s absolutely peerless.
Playing on the most basic fears of childhood is a seriously potent approach when mixed with absolutely glorious animation design. Henry Selick may not have directed a whole lot of animated features but between this, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the also excellent James and the Giant Peach he should be considered one of the greats and Coraline is his masterpiece.
A Monster in Paris, animation, Coriolanus, Daft Punk, Interstella 5555 - The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, Jude Law, Leiji Matsumoto, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Downey Jr, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Vanessa Paradis, Vanessa Redgrave
I’d like to be able to give full reviews to every film possible but the backlog has really been building up lately which can only mean one thing, roundup time and four mini-reviews for the price of one.
I saw this one with Ryan and Tom’s sister Harri, or rather most of it as I confess we were rather late to the cinema, our bus having not stopped where it was supposed to. Ralph Fiennes, who I’ve always greatly admired for his performance as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List stars and for the first time directs a lesser-known Shakespearean tale about a Roman war hero who struggles with the position of power he is given. Removed to the modern day and a vaguely eastern European setting that fits the story well the film’s triumph is in making one of the Bard’s obscurer plays extremely easy to follow, understand and appreciate. Fiennes is as intense in the title role as you’d expect from him, Vanessa Redgrave soars as his fierce and loyal mother and the supporting cast are all on fine form. Gerard Butler’s never been better.
A Monster in Paris
This fairly unambitious French CG toon makes good use of clean animation and some catchy musical numbers to elevate the 1910-set story about a cocky delivery driver and his timid cinema projectionist buddy’s accidental creation of a giant singing flea. Vanessa Paradis voices glamorous nightclub singer Lucille (who goes straight into the cute animated ladies hall of fame) and literally takes centre stage casting the flea in her musical show. A likeable bunch of characters and decent script give this one some credit and there are some great sequences to accompany the tunes but it’s not ultimately that memorable. Nice though and one animation connoisseurs like me should definitely give a look.
Interstella 5555 – The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem
My surprise Christmas present from my cool flatmates turned out to be a DVD copy of this unusual film that combines two of my favourite things, anime and Daft Punk. The French house band approached their favourite Japanese animator Leiji Matsumoto to create a sci-fi silent film for their album Discovery. The story follows an alien music band who are kidnapped and brought to Earth to be a maniacal record producer’s next big thing while loveable spaceman Shep sets out to rescue them. Some of the story sequences fit the thumping tracks better than others, the standout would be Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger but there are plenty of other highlights. As a film it’s an interesting curiosity that works reasonably well but is unlikely to demand any repeat viewings among casual audiences. If that’s you subtract a star. For anyone like me, who loves both animation and Daft Punk it’s a tremendous treat.
Having reviewed this film’s sequel A Game of Shadows HYPERLINK #1 not took long ago it seemed a bit redundant to give a full review to the original too so here it is in the roundup instead. Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson successfully apprehend Mark Strong’s satanic Lord Blackwood who is hanged for his heinous crimes. But when he seems to rise again from his tomb London is gripped by paranoia and history’s most famous consulting detective must put an end to his chaotic plans. The character chemistry and CG recreation of Victorian London charmed audiences and the film remains better than the recent follow-up.
The spin-off is not a tradition that can boast an illustrious history, existing for the sole purpose of making heaps of easy money off the back of established and popular property with little by way of genuine creative merit to support it. There are exceptions of course, Frasier springs to mind and serves as an excellent example of a spin-off that was worth making. The Shrek series is already one of the five highest grossing movie franchises in history and while the main run of films has drawn sensibly to its close, DreamWorks, reluctant to put their cash cow to sleep have decided to milk it one last time through a different character. There’s a danger that a film about the obvious choice, Donkey, could have got pretty annoying pretty quickly so we can count ourselves lucky that they instead chose Puss, a character in whom we all knew there was a film worth exploring.
Mind you, it can be argued we’ve already had that film in The Mask of Zorro, which, lest we forget served as the inspiration for the character and his casting in the first place. That’s why it was also important that we didn’t get a furry reissue of that film but that’s where the fairytale element comes in. The film draws upon well-worn childhood tales and nursery rhymes for inspiration and weaves a prequel that fills in the back story for Puss without so much as a cameo from anyone else associated with grumpy green ogres.
And it’s only in the frequent sideways references to classic fairytale that Puss in Boots resembles its movie source material, the story unfolds in a more muted, even leisurely fashion with themes of betrayal to get through. But if the film feels just slightly detached from the original animated tetralogy (yeah, quadrilogy is just a word they made up to flog Alien DVDs), it pretty much ignores the 17th century French literary work in which the character’s goal is pretty much just to get his master laid. Instead Puss is on the hunt for some magic beans, a quest which leads him face to face with another athletic feline outlaw in the shape of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) as well as a familiar egg from his past.
Yes, Humpty Dumpty as played by Zach Galifianakis is involved and after a very long flashback telling of his and Puss’ childhood together in an orphanage they launch into a daring adventure with Kitty to fulfil their childhood dreams of riches. The journey is peppered with the appropriate amounts of swashbuckling, cat jokes, set pieces and character comedy and it’s decent value for that.
But there’s not an awful lot else to distinguish this spin-off as anything more than an unremarkably amusing romp. The narrative is focused rather narrowly on the two main characters and feels quite claustrophobic as a result and it takes time to get where it’s going, dropping apt action and comedy along the way. The result is a story that is never less than entertaining but can’t draw you in emotionally. The one consistent joy is Antonio Banderas’ central vocal performance which is as funny, sexy and charismatic as ever, and gives Puss the vitality that got the film commissioned in the first place.
Crisp animation and fine feline vocals aren’t enough to elevate this caper to the upper-echelons of animation but it’s still a worthwhile spin-off fans will enjoy.
Back in the halcyon days of 2006 when penguins were in vogue Warner Bros. landed a surprise hit with their kooky animated film Happy Feet. It even scored the Best Animated Feature Oscar in a slow year for animation, even Pixar couldn’t manage anything better than Cars but Monster House should have won it. If not for that success this unlikely sequel might never have happened.
Mumble (Elijah Wood) is now a father and his chip-off-the-old-block son Eric has trouble fitting in with the all-singing all-dancing denizens of Emperor Land. When Eric and a pair of pals follow overconfident Latin Adélie Penguin Ramon (Robin Williams) to his tribe’s stomping grounds, Mumble sets out to bring them home but finds his son enamoured by a charismatic flying penguin called Sven (Hank Azaria). Meanwhile two tiny krill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) debate their place in the universe.
Happy Feet Two maintains the slightly off-kilter style and song and dance numbers that made the original such an oddity, an appreciable philosophy to do things differently that its reflected by the title spelling its numeric in letters. The choice of songs, most of which hail from the 80s, have clearly been chosen to give adults something to enjoy in the middle of the strangely presented story which doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a cute animal movie or something more artistic and environmentally conscious. Same as the first film then.
The story works a lot better this time but takes an age to go anywhere, the early linear scenes passing at a leisurely pace before the chief plot point finally arrives to give proceedings some much needed tension essentially making it into a rescue mission. The quality of the animation can’t really be disputed, approaching a level of photorealism that is unprecedented, particularly in scenes involving actual humans. The level of detail in crowd scenes, particularly those of the krill swarm is mind-boggling with no detectable aliasing. It’s a technical marvel but it lacks some soul.
The film has been largely panned by critics, easy to see why given the decidedly offbeat style and poorly paced plot but I actually enjoyed it more than the Oscar-winning original. The voice cast do a largely decent job and it’s a treat to hear Matt Damon singing like he’s in the shower but it’s still mostly forgetable stuff.
Inoffensive and fun but hardly an animation classic. If you can put up with a cast of bizarre and oddly-accented Antarctic creatures and like your remixed dance music, or better still, have kids, give it a look.
To cheer me up after my food poisoning I trundled along to the cinema with Ryan to watch some good-natured British animated fun from Aardman. Is there anyone who doesn’t love Aardman? With their trademarked brand of silly British humour and masterful way with plasticine stop motion the Bristol based studio’s films have proved perennially popular. But this latest effort, their second foray into the world of digital animation has had to do without the easy likeability of the hand-made medium. The earlier film, Flushed Away, struggled to find the kind of commercial and critical success enjoyed by Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit although I rather liked it. Can some festive cheer light up this second attempt?
Arthur Christmas tries to address that age-old question that has baffled everyone from small children to NASA scientists forever. Just how does Santa deliver presents to millions of children round the world in one night on Christmas Eve? The intriguing theory the film suggests is that in this modern age is that he uses not a reindeer driven sleigh but a massive spaceship called the S-1 and an army of elves all organised from a Lapland-based mission control. The whole thing is treated like a military operation complete with hi-tech gadgets, contingency plans in the event of ‘wakers’ and a cloaking device for the S-1.
Even more interestingly the film offers the concept that Santas retire and bequeath their duties to their sons and as such Christmas is a family business. Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) is the current Santa, nearing retirement, his heroically efficient heir apparent Steve (Hugh Laurie) is the cool-headed general in charge of marshalling the missions, Mrs Santa (Imelda Staunton) looks after the home front whilst the geriatric Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), long since retired from his post remembers the good old days. And on the edge of everything is Malcolm’s younger son Arthur (James McAvoy) a gangly bad jumper-wearing fellow full of enthusiasm for festivity who works in the letter-answering department.
After what seems like another successful mission delivering presents the family are getting ready to enjoy Christmas themselves the same way everyone else does by eating turkey and playing board games when it is discovered that one little girl from Cornwall was missed. Malcolm and Steve are reluctant to go back, pointing out that the margin of error was considerably less than one per cent so Arthur, distraught that one child will think Santa doesn’t care about her, takes it upon himself to deliver the gift and sets out with Grandsanta and an elf with ninja-like wrapping skills in the old reindeer-powered sleigh to rescue the little lady’s Christmas.
What follows is essentially a road movie with an airborne twist as the characters blunder their way around the world trying and largely failing to navigate the way to the girl’s house before daylight and for the most part it’s an immensely likeable delight. The script doesn’t zing like Aardman’s best there are moments in the family dynamic that ring true. This family bickers and gets on each other’s nerves as much as most do at Christmas and the story raises some surprising questions about our expectations of each other and there are even a few bits that might prompt nippers to come up with some other tricky questions about Santa, not whether or not he exists (the film knows as we all do that of course he does) but how much he cares and it’s a puzzle that Arthur has to grapple with too.
It seems the studio hasn’t quite figured out how to get the best out of the digital medium because the colour in certain scenes does look a bit drab but this was always going to be about character and comedy over dazzle, not that the film is devoid of the latter as it presents plenty of frenetic sleigh-riding sequences to get the excitement going. But it’s the cast of funnies you’ll remember and they’re all spot on. Nighy’s Grandsanta is probably the highlight, a colourful, decrepit complainer not too old for a spot of mischief while Laurie’s exasperated Steve provides most of the dramatic tension. Many of the best gags go to the scene-stealing Bryony and her mad gift-wrapping skills. Some have commented that the title character is a little bland but I found Arthur one of the more interesting characters, a wide-eyed, cheery youth all innocence and flailing limbs with some tough truths to face nicely understated by McAvoy.
But it’s the laughs that are the most important here and the film scores decently with a few notable duds. Strangely there aren’t as many background gags as usual and although the animation lacks the creators’ literal thumbprints, the style we all know is plain to see in every scene. The story itself is satisfying without offering any revelations or surprises and zips along nicely with just a middle act slump to weigh it down. Overall Arthur Christmas is an immensely good-natured and charming film that it’s difficult not to like.
Not Aardman’s best but the memorable characters and funny script has the power to make this an annual Christmas favourite.