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Posts Tagged ‘animation’

Here comes the first big catch-up release following the cessation of footballing hostilities for another couple of years – Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2. The first Incredibles came out in 2004, a geological age ago in cinematic terms. In that year, Marvel released Spider-Man 2, which was rather good, and also the Thomas Jane-starring version of The Punisher and the third Wesley Snipes Blade movie, which were not; meanwhile DC brought out the Halle Berry Catwoman, proving that they didn’t need Zach Snyder on the payroll to make terrible movies, and there was also Hellboy, possibly one of the best of the bunch but maybe a bit too quirky to really bust blocks. Along with The Incredibles, that makes six films in the genre in the year, only a couple less than in 2018. People complain nowadays about superhero fatigue but the fact is that these films have made up a big chunk of the landscape for a long time.

Fourteen years is a long gap between films (it would have been even longer, had the production period on Incredibles 2 not been unexpectedly cut by a year), and with it comes a significant level of expectation. In this case, the expectation seems to have been that it will contain some kind of commentary on either the superhero genre or our current fascination with it – it’s a Pixar movie, after all, and this studio does have a reputation for making very, very clever films.

The action picks up pretty much where the first film ended, with the Parr family of superheroes – consisting of mighty brick Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and speedster Dash (Huck Milner) – taking on the villainous Underminer, despite the fact that overtly superheroic activity has been banned for many years. That their encounter with the Underminer does not go entirely to plan, does not help the situation much, and leaves the family in somewhat dire straits financially.

However, it’s not all bad news, for the senior Parrs, along with their friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), are contacted by the Deavours, a wealthy brother and sister who are desirous of having the superhero ban lifted. The Deavours’ plan is to get superheroes some good press, for once, and their first step in doing so is to relaunch Elastigirl, mainly because she is likely to cause rather less property damage than her husband. But can the family cope with this change in their dynamic, as Elastigirl heads off to fight crime and Mr Incredible stays home to look after the kids, each one perhaps doubting the abilities of the other…

This is, as noted, a Pixar movie, so it almost goes without saying that it is almost supernaturally beautiful to look at and inspired in its design, retaining the retro sixties-style aesthetic of the first. It also handles the various tropes of superhero fiction with confident deftness, introducing a number of new characters and staging some brilliant set pieces and action sequences. From an aesthetic point of view, this film is another huge achievement for Pixar’s artists and animators.

However, that said – anyone looking for a subversive new take on the superhero formula (such as it is) will not find much meat to chew on. The film retains the same resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four that caused the makers of the 2005 FF movie so many headaches (the two families of superheroes have largely the same power set), while the idea of the superhero ban (surely derived from Watchmen) is also central to the tale. But it doesn’t really do anything new in this respect, perhaps because Pixar and Marvel Studios are both ultimately subsidiaries of Disney, who – one would guess – don’t want to risk appearing to diss a genre which has earned them billions of dollars just this year.

Instead, the film’s central idea is basically the one of gender role reversal – Elastigirl goes off to fight crime, and finds herself caught up in the machinations of a supervillain called the Screenslaver, while Mr Incredible has to contend with various domestic crises, including the baby of the family unexpectedly developing his own superpowers. And, you know, as concepts go it’s okay, although it’s a bit less radical than you might reasonably hope for – early on there’s an interesting scene touching on some quite topical issues, such as how much you should accept the various injustices of the world, and the correct response to unfair laws, but none of this is really developed. Instead we get the Elastigirl-as-a-solo-heroine storyline, which is quite engaging and contains some stunning sequences, and the sitcom stuff with the rest of the family, which is consistently fairly amusing.

The thing is that it never quite sings, with the two plotlines continuing in parallel and not really informing one another much; obviously the stuff about a working mum (and a superheroine to boot) chimes quite well with the Unique Moment, but one has to remember that the long lead times on films like this mean that this is most likely a piece of serendipity more than anything else. It certainly doesn’t feel like a film making a big statement about feminism, or indeed anything else.

As I say, the production process on Incredibles 2 was cut short by a whole year when the film’s release date was brought forward to allow more time for work on Toy Story 4 – I can’t help wondering how much it has suffered as a result. It is, as I say, an incredibly beautiful and well-made film, but it does feel very saggy around the middle, possibly overlong, and it never really engages the emotions in the way that Pixar’s best work does – the supporting film, another wonderful little short called Bao, is much more successful in this respect.

Once again we find ourselves considering the extent to which a film studio can become a victim of its own success – Incredibles 2 is, by any objective standards, a very good film in many ways – often funny, well-played, with a brilliant aesthetic and strong opening and closing sequences. But as a Pixar movie, and especially as a sequel to The Incredibles, it’s just not quite up to the standard that I was expecting. A very good film, but not really a great one, and anything less than great coming out of Pixar really is slightly disappointing.

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A bit over ten years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a year or so living in Japan. Naturally, there are lots of unexpected things that arise out of this kind of experience, things you never would have expected: and one of the realisations which it brought to me was how rarely you hear the music of the Beatles in the course of everyday life in the UK. In Japan, if you sit down for a toasted sandwich in a cafe, there’s a very good chance you’ll be doing it to a soundtrack from Rubber Soul or The White Album – you hear their songs everywhere and anywhere. (John Lennon is virtually the only foreigner to be treated like an honorary Japanese person, for possibly-obvious reasons, while there is a chain of shops named Yellow Submarine.)

Over here, though, not so much, especially when you consider the extent to which the Beatles have written themselves into the fabric of our popular culture. Everyone knows a couple of dozen Beatles songs in some detail, but nobody under fifty can remember where that knowledge came from, I suspect: it’s a strange kind of cultural osmosis, to which each new generation is subjected. Judging from the number of parents bringing quite small kids to a 50th-anniversary revival of Yellow Submarine which I rolled up to the other day, I may have seen the process in action.

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Directed by George Dunning, Yellow Submarine, I probably don’t need to tell you, was the Fab Four’s third movie, and one with which they had fairly minimal involvement, not least because this is a full-length animation featuring a dozen or so songs from the lads. Things get underway with a vision of Pepperland, a paradise of freedom, enlightenment, and music, where all is peace and harmony – at least, until the place is heinously assaulted by the implacably negative Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys with a rather eccentric arsenal of apple-bonkers, anti-music missiles, snapping Turks and a terrible flying glove.

Pepperland seems certain to fall to the forces of glumness, and so the mayor packs off the crusty sailor Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to fetch help, putting him in command of, well, a yellow submarine, which can fly. Of course. Old Fred’s quest winds up leading him to late-sixties Liverpool, where he encounters first Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis), and then the other three Beatles – John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), and George (mostly an uncredited Peter Batten, who departed the production quite rapidly when it was discovered he was wanted for desertion from the British army). With the lads on board, the yellow submarine sets course back to Pepperland, but a strange voyage it will prove to be…

I’m really in two minds when it comes to the plot of Yellow Submarine – on the one hand, there is something absolutely sound and perhaps even mythic about the basic structure of the quest for help against invaders. But on the other, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t a musical film in the conventional sense – by which I mean, it’s not a narrative in which the songs serve to establish or develop character, and comment on the plot. Rather, it seems like a collection of songs around which a very loose storyline has been written, with animated sequences used to illustrate the tunes. Comparisons with Fantasia (another non-narrative musical anthology) seem to me to be quite apt.

It is customary to praise the film for the ceaseless psychedelic invention of its visuals, but if you think about it, what else were they supposed to do? Given the job of animating an accompaniment to the song Yellow Submarine, what would you do? You’d look at the lyrics and try to discern some underlying metaphor or subtext to the song. And I suspect you’d find that this really is just a piece of oompah-oompah silliness about some people living in an ochre-hued submersible. The same seems to be true of a lot of the other songs here – I’m reminded of a John Lennon quote, about Hey Bulldog in particular, suggesting it is ‘a good-sounding record that means nothing.’ In a similar way you could probably argue that Yellow Submarine is a visually-striking film that has no particular depth to it.

Then again, the late 60s were littered with good-looking cultural artefacts that are a bit cryptic, to say the least, at first glance – you could probably add The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same list. And the best sequences of animation in Yellow Submarine are certainly distinctive and reasonably inventive, even if the animators seem to be struggling with the fact that some of the songs don’t really have any particular meaning. (The film’s sequence accompanying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and I have to say that while I like the Beatles’ rendition, it’s William Shatner’s which is truly definitive for me – shies away from actual visions of newspaper taxis and marshmallow pies in favour of rotoscoped ballroom dancing.) By the far the most effective segment of the film, if you ask me, is that accompanying Eleanor Rigby, a song which genuinely seems to be about something, and I think this is not a coincidence.

That said, the film’s producer Al Brodax was quite cynical about the creative process involved: the Beatles were under contract to produce four brand new songs for the film, and ended up only giving Brodax ones which they didn’t think were particularly good, saving the better ones for other projects (or so he suggested). I have to say this does remind me of the apparent modus operandi of the Monty Python collective, who would sell any sketches that didn’t pass their own quality control process to The Two Ronnies – but then comparing the Pythons and the Beatles is something of a cliché, for all that some of the animation here looks decidedly Gilliamesque, and the surreal humour of the film also not a million miles away. (Much of the puns and wordplay in the script were apparently courtesy of an uncredited Roger McGough.)

One is tempted to suggest the whole film could almost be seen as an exercise in the meeting of contractual obligations – the band themselves turning in some rather variable tunes (It’s Only A Northern Song is about as close to forgettable as the Beatles ever produced) and only turning up in person very briefly at the end. (It has to be said that the actors do a pretty decent job of presenting the Beatles as they are, or were, popularly received – John the sarky rebel, Ringo the clown, George the mystic, Paul the nice guy of ambiguous mortality.) For all of its inventiveness, there are still moments when the film is clearly being rather thrifty – seconds go by in front of static images, while the animation for the second half of the Nowhere Man sequence is plainly pretty much that of the first half, only run in reverse.

And yet, and yet, and yet. You sit there and think this film has not aged well, and its roots as a quaint piece of pop-art psychedelia are clearly showing, and the plot is not up to much – but then you listen to the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, or the guitar solo of Nowhere Man, or the piano part of Hey Bulldog, or the crescendo from A Day in the Life, and it lifts you up and makes you smile and reminds you of just why the music of the Beatles is woven into all of our lives so indelibly. No-one else in music has ever done so much, so quickly, so well. If ever a band was touched by genius, it was these boys, and for that I am more than happy to forgive them, and this movie, a lot.

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I am, as you might have guessed, very familiar with the pre-film rituals of a cinema trip – one buys one’s ticket, one visits the restroom, one takes one’s seat, if there is a substantial wait before the film one might look at an e-reader, one waits patiently through the adverts, one takes note of any forthcoming attractions which are, um, attractive, one greets the eventual arrival of the certification with a degree of relief, and so on. Sometimes, however, it just ain’t so, and one or more elements of this sanctified procession get omitted. This is usually a sign that you are in for a slightly different experience. (We shall not even touch on the phenomena of post-film special events, which in my personal experience have included discussions of the nature of extraterrestrial life, an impromptu gig by one of the world’s greatest ukulele players, and a few drinks with the director of The Wicker Man.)

Suffice to say that the most recent visit dispensed entirely with the adverts (hurrah!), but also the trailers (hurroo), and in their place featured speeches by representatives of the Oxford University Press and a local charity devoted to helping refugees. As you may have guessed, we were not here to see Deadpool 2, but an advance screening of The Breadwinner, directed by Nora Twomey, an animated film about life under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a cartoon about the Taliban, so Grave of the Fireflies-esque levels of bleakness and tragedy must surely await, mustn’t they? Well… look, this movie is based on a best-selling book of the same name by Deborah Ellis, and the movie (executive produced by the only Angelina most people can name) was Oscar-nominated earlier this year, so you would hope it to have a certain cachet of quality about it. I think it does; this film isn’t just worthy, it’s worthwhile.

Nevertheless, it does largely take place in Kabul under the Taliban regime, so there are inevitably going to be sad bits. Initially we meet Parvana (Saara Chaudry) and her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah). She is a girl just on the cusp of her teens, he is a former teacher who lost a leg fighting the Russian invasion of their country. (The unutterably sad history of Afghanistan is recapped with exemplary clarity early on in the film.) Under the ferociously chauvinist, anti-intellectual rule of the Taliban, life is hard for the family, who are reduced to selling their possessions in the market in order to get food to survive.

Things get even worse when Nurullah inadvertently offends a member of the Taliban and is dragged off to prison, with the rest of the family having no idea when or even if they will see him again. Parvana, her mother and sister are left without an adult male relative, which basically means they can’t leave the house even to go shopping without risking a punishment beating from the authorities. How are they expected to live?

Well, Parvana has an idea: she cuts her hair, dresses up in her dead brother’s old clothes, and goes out, pretending to be a boy, which allows her to buy supplies and make a little money doing odd jobs. It turns out she is not the only one to have hit upon this idea, and teams up with a friend, Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who is doing the same thing. Her ambition, though, remains the same – she wants to get her father out of prison, but how can it be done?

There is obviously a sense in which The Breadwinner is beyond reproach, dealing as it does with issues of women’s rights, literacy and education – films dealing with this sort of material are pretty much assured of a good response, as I discovered when I saw a slightly suspect documentary on the Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh at the same cinema a while back. And there is certainly a lot to praise about the film – the animation is appealing and capably done, especially in the fantasy sequences which punctuate the film. There are no big-name voices in the cast, but the acting is also well done.

Yet I feel I have to say that while The Breadwinner is obviously a good film, and commendable in terms of its message, I don’t think it is a great one – I can completely understand why Coco got the nod at Oscar time. Why is this? Well, first of all, although the story is engaging enough, it never completely grips or feels like it is driving forward in any particular direction. The film finishes around the time of (we are invited to infer) the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but while the conclusion is reasonably upbeat, there is no real sense of closure or finality to the events. In a similar vein, the film features a story-within-the-story device, as Parvana relates a fairytale to her baby brother and various other characters. It’s a highlight of the film, with a slightly different style of animation, but in the end exactly how this second story relates to the main one is unclear – if it is as laden with symbolism as it seems, it’s very hard to work out how the symbolism actually works.

And also – and I admit this is an odd thing, especially to say about an animation which has clearly been made with at least half an eye on a young audience – I just found that it wasn’t nearly as gruelling to watch as I expected it to be, and I was sort of disappointed by this. It’s a film about life under the Taliban, one of the most brutal and illiberal regimes the world has known in recent years, so I half-wanted the film to make me sad, and angry, and outraged, before leaving me feeling a bit uplifted and affirmed in my bien-pensant values. So, in a strange way, the fact that it ended up just being a very nice film was somehow disappointing.

So, anyway, there’s very little wrong with The Breadwinner, and I think it should provide an entertaining and improving experience for any young people (maybe even not so young) of your acquaintance. But I doubt it will really stir the emotions, one way or the other. There are probably very good reasons for this; it’s just a question of whether you feel some real-life horrors should be presented honestly, even to a younger audience. Nevertheless, a thoroughly commendable movie.

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Never mind your Schrodinger’s Cat, if you really want to talk about indeterminacy, we need to get onto the topic of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s retirement. As previously noted on this blog, the announcement, after the production of The Wind Rises, that Miyazaki was knocking film direction on the head due to his advanced years was met with a howl of anguish from world-cinema-friendly theatres which was matched only by that marking the release of – allegedly – the final Ghibli film of any kind, When Marnie Was There, in 2016.

And yet what gives? Not only did a Ghibli co-production sneak out last year (the bold human-chelonian romance The Red Turtle), but now Miyazaki has decided he hasn’t actually retired after all and is hoping to get a new movie, How Do You Live?, finished in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps most confuzzling of all is the appearance on the scene of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc, which appears to be largely staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ponoc’s first movie is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of When Marnie Was There and key contributor to a couple of other recent films), and I don’t think it’s overstating the case that the new movie is coat-tailing Ghibli in order to secure the kind of major international release not normally received by the debut movies of non-Anglophone animation houses. The Ghibli influence begins with the choice of source material: in this case, a 1971 novel by the noted English writer Mary Stewart, although the title has been changed from The Little Broomstick, possibly to make it just a little bit more reminiscent of another series of films and books (we will come to this).

We are in fairly classic territory here, anyway – one of the characters wears a hoodie, another is rocking a baseball cap, but there is virtually nothing in the story that would be out of place if the film was actually set fifty years ago. The Mary of the title is a lonely and restless young girl (voiced in the English dub by Ruby Barnhill) who has just been sent to the country to live with her great-aunt (a perhaps unexpected but by no means unwelcome appearance by Lynda Baron of Open All Hours fame). Left to her own devices, one day she wanders off into the woods and makes a couple of surprising discoveries: a mysterious glowing plant, and an old broomstick.

Yup, we are off into a child-friendly tale of rather traditionally-conceived magic and mysticism, for Mary finds that the plant charges her with supernatural power, and the broom whisks her off into another world and deposits her at the Endor School for witches and warlocks. Here she is greeted by the head teacher, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and her deputy Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who hail her as a prodigy amongst young witches, a shoo-in as a new student, a potential head girl, and so on. But do the duo have an ulterior motive for delivering such fulsome praise? And does Mary’s own family have a connection to the history of the witch school…?

I remember first seeing the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and the feeling of bafflement it immediately provoked: the look of the thing is, at first glance, so utterly indistinguishable from an actual Studio Ghibli movie that you wonder what the point of the rebranding is. Never mind Studio Ponoc, they might as well have called it Studio Jubbly or Studio Giblet. Of course, the upside of this is that Ghibli make the most beautiful traditionally-animated movies in the world, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also an exceptionally good-looking film. Perhaps it isn’t quite as exquisite as some of Ghibli’s films, and there are a couple of moments where I thought a little more fine detail wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this is still very much business as usual, in a good way.

The question is to what extent this is also true in the story department, for once again you could be forgiven for finding a fair bit of the story to be, well, not exactly burningly innovative. A school for witches and warlocks? With a menagerie of magical beasts? And a lovably Scottish-sounding member of the support staff? To which a lonely child finds themselves transported? Fair enough, they’ve covered themselves by basing the movie on a book which was published when JK Rowling was still quite tiny herself, but it still seems very much like they’re gunning for that lucrative audience hungry for all things which are just a little bit Potter.

I’m not familiar with the Mary Stewart novel, but the script of this movie at least is not really in the same league as those in the other franchise to which I have been alluding. This feels like a movie specifically aimed at quite a young audience, with thin characterisation and a very straightforward story, and in the early stages in particular it ambles along at an amiable pace without a great deal of incident. I found myself in genuine danger of actually falling asleep during the film at one point in the middle; I did go to see an afternoon showing towards the end of a fairly long week, but even so, I don’t think this is a good sign.

I am glad to be able to report that the story does pick up a bit as the film builds towards its climax, with some very engaging sequences: visually it gets very interesting, with a definite steampunk feel to some of fantastical alchemical equipment on display, and also a lot of the… do you know, I very nearly wrote ‘trademark Ghibli surreal grotesqueness on display’. Well, it’s true, this movie does make use of the Ghibli house style – it’s just not a Ghibli movie, officially at least. But the thing is that I don’t believe the change of marque is really going to fool anyone. This is a nice, well-made, inoffensive kid’s animation – I’m not sure it really holds as much for the discerning adult filmgoer as the average Miyazaki movie. What makes it distinctive are its attempts to not be distinctive at all: to emulate pretty much every detail of the Studio Ghibli style of film-making, along with a fair few elements of JK Rowling’s famous stories too. Not a bad film at all, but essentially the cinematic equivalent of high-class karaoke.

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A couple of weeks in and Ready Player One seems to be doing okay, although I suspect not quite as well as its producers might have hoped, all things considered. (Just to digress a little, the list of the best-performing films of the year so far is fascinating reading, with Chinese blockbusters unheard of in the west doing massive business, and the appalling you-know-what having made a soul-bleaching $275 million so far.) Maybe this is because wider audiences are indeed struggling a bit with the non-stop in-jokes and pop-culture references which are such an integral part of the film. You could probably get a good sense of a person’s age and background based on how many of Ready Player One‘s Easter Eggs they recognise; most people will get the Back to the Future DeLorean and the chestburster from Alien, probably rather fewer the glaive from Krull.

One of the things that is likely to separate the adults from the younglings (oh yeah, post-Weinstein my idioms are all going to be gender-neutral) is their response to Olivia Cooke’s ride during the race sequence: once again, the majority will, I suspect, limit themselves to something along the lines of ‘Cool motorcycle’ – for the rest of us, of course, it is instantly and obviously recognisable as The Bike From Akira.

It is a little strange and perhaps even unique that a single element of design should become quite as emblematic of the film it appears in as The Bike From Akira. If you google for Akira-related images then six of the first ten results are pictures of The Bike. This is despite the fact that The Bike has relatively limited screen-time and is really only tangentially significant to the plot of the film. Just goes to show the power of a really great piece of design, I suppose.

Hard to believe though it is, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is thirty years old this year, and its futuristic setting should be our here-and-now – thankfully, most of its predictions have turned out to be incorrect, with the amusing exception of the fact that Tokyo is indeed hosting the Olympics in 2020. I first saw it as a teenager, and hadn’t seen it again until very recently; it was a bit of shock to realise that if I leave it as long again before watching it for a third time, I’ll be in my seventies. However, time has not diminished the exceptional qualities of this film, while a little bit of distance has allowed the film’s cultural significance to become clearer.

There’s a fair of backstory to Akira, most of which the film quite sensibly parcels out in the course of the story. The essentials are as follows: in 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by a devastating, unexplained explosion, triggering a third world war. By 2019, it seems that civilisation has recovered, up to a point – the movie takes place entirely within the sprawling megacity of Neo-Tokyo. The city is beset by political tensions and random violent crime, with rival biker gangs battling for control of the streets.

Members of one such gang are Kaneda and Tetsuo – Kaneda is the owner of The Bike. (A number of versions of this film exist, with different actors voicing the characters.) They are both orphans and have been friends since childhood, although the more insecure Tetsuo is wont to chafe a bit in the face of Kaneda’s swaggering cockiness.

Things change for the duo one night, when a run-in with another gang takes an unexpected turn. Tetsuo encounters a very peculiar child who has recently been abducted from a government installation; when the forces of Colonel Shikishima take the child back into custody, Tetsuo is taken too.

Kaneda and the others are worried about their friend, and possibly with good reason: he is having visions of a mysterious boy calling himself Akira, and rapidly developing extremely potent psychic powers. The authorities already have a trio of psychics, trapped in a state of arrested development by the drugs they take to control their powers, and are using them to investigate the forces that Akira represents. They want to add Tetsuo to their programme, but have they underestimated his raw power?

Meanwhile, Kaneda has fallen in with an anti-government group (suffice to say there is a girl involved) determined to free Tetsuo. However, they too don’t quite appreciate just what they are up against, as events spiral out of control and Tetsuo attempts to waken the dormant power of Akira…

Animated Japanese cinema is experiencing a bit of a spike in its profile at the moment, following the recent passing of Isao Takahata and with the imminent release of the not-Studio Ghibli movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In the UK, of course, animated Japanese cinema is essentially synonymous with Studio Ghibli and those associated with it. Akira is the great exception to this, being the product of a bespoke coalition of companies, such as Toho, who came together specifically to make the film.

Nevertheless, the much-commented upon beauty and technical virtuosity of any Studio Ghibli film you care to mention is absolutely matched by Akira, which is a visually stunning film from start to finish. Every frame is filled with colour, energy and movement; the detail of every piece of design is breathtaking. I imagine one could watch the original Japanese version of Akira, not actually comprehending a single word of the dialogue, and still have a pretty good time with the movie.

Of course, even being able to speak Japanese, or have access to the English dub, doesn’t necessarily mean you will completely understand the movie the first time you encounter it; I know I struggled a bit, certainly. The fact that it’s called Akira and yet there isn’t really a character called Akira in it can be a bit wrong-footing; the sheer density of the film’s plot and ideas, which are concerned with themes of transhumanism, can also take the unwary by surprise. As well as being several flavours of SF film, there is a sense in which Akira is also a superhero movie and a political thriller, to name but two.

I don’t think anyone would honestly watch Akira and believe it was a Ghibli movie, of course, for – other than a few sequences of surreal grotesquery – it is clear that Otomo’s movie has an entirely different sensibility. Ghibli movies are, with the occasional famous exception, fairly soft-centred and ultimately quite gentle; there’s a sense in which Akira revels in its scenes of carnage and devastation. It is absolutely of a piece with a whole movement of dark SF from the 1980s, embodying a kind of dystopian urban alienation. You can draw lines between Akira and Robocop, Akira and Blade Runner, Akira and The Dark Knight Returns.

It’s not simply that Akira has clearly been influenced by these other things; it may in fact be the case that it influenced some of them. It’s that it is every bit as sophisticated and challenging as any of them. It may conclude on a guardedly hopeful note, perhaps somewhat inspired by 2001, but on the whole it is asking harder questions about the dehumanising effects of urban life, the real nature of progress, and – perhaps the quintessential SF theme – our ability to responsibly use our own potential. A great animation and a great SF movie, too.

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‘Are you a really big Wes Anderson fan?’ asked the ticketeer at the sweetshop, perkily. All at once I was gripped with shame, the same kind of senseless panic which grips me when everyone else starts talking about how great Blade Runner is and I have to admit I don’t rate it that much, or I have to confess I’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film. Earlier that very day, I was pondering that very question. I was sure I must have seen a Wes Anderson film at some point, so I checked out his filmography on Wikipedia. Nope. We have managed to avoid each other entirely, with the exception of about ten minutes of Fantastic Mr Fox which came on TV while Film 4 was playing in the background. I know this sort of thing is unacceptable in polite society, but it is the truth: I had never seen a Wes Anderson movie in my life.

I mumbled words to this effect, casting my eyes floorward, trying to hide my burning cheeks, but rather to my surprise the ticketeer declared she was determined to give me an experience I would never forget. I was a bit worried about missing the movie for a moment, but it turned out this was what she was referring to, as she sorted me out with a free upgrade to one of the comfy seats in the imminent screening of Anderson’s new movie Isle of Dogs. So I suppose the message we can take away from this is not that ignorance is necessarily bliss, but that sometimes it can pay off in unexpected ways. It is a funny old world, after all.

 

An ignorant person would assume that any movie entitled Isle of Dogs must perforce be set on, or at least connected with, an alluvial peninsula in the east end of London. But apparently this is not the quirky way that legendary auteur Wes Anderson rolls: his movie is set in a somewhat dystopian near-future Japan, in and around the sprawling city of Megasaki (another fake Japanese city to go on the list with San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 – does Neo-Tokyo from Akira also count, I wonder?). The evil mayor of Megasaki has a problem with man’s best friend, for (it is implied) long-standing ancestral reasons, and has hit upon a machiavellian plot to have all dogs deported from the city to Trash Island, a polluted wasteland just across the bay.

The plan goes like clockwork and soon enough packs of starving and disease-ridden dogs are roaming Trash Island, struggling to stay alive. One such pack consists of Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston respectively) but the dogs find themselves with a new problem when a twelve-year-old boy crash-lands his stolen plane on the island. It turns out he is the mayor’s ward and nephew Atari, and he has come in search of his dog/bodyguard, who has been exiled to Trash Island along with all the others.

Chief is apparently unmoved by the boy’s story, once the dogs figure it out (being dogs, they don’t speak Japanese and can’t actually understand what Atari is saying), but the others reason that the job of a dog is to take care of twelve-year-old boys and decide to help him with his quest.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the principled members of the Science Party are doing their best to have the machinations of the mayor overturned, while an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is also trying to save the canine population. Could it be that the dogs’ lives are about to take a turn for the better?

There is, obviously, something deeply sentimental about Isle of Dogs, mainly in the way it depicts the dogs themselves. This is clear even to someone like me – I am hardly a dog person (not a cat person, either, come to that). And yet this element of the film is deeply buried under so many layers of mannered artifice and ironic detachment that it is far from obvious. Despite the sentimentality of the film’s message, and its frequently fantastical story, I can’t really imagine anyone mistaking this film for a more mainstream animation. There is all that artifice and irony, for one thing; the subject matter of the story, and occasional elements of its tone, for another – I wouldn’t call this a particularly violent movie, by any means, but it is still oddly graphic in places. If there is a thin line between wit and outright pretentiousness, then I suspect this film skates close to it at times – lending her vocal talents to a brief cameo is Yoko Ono, playing a character named – wait for it – Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono. (Not all the humour is quite so rarefied; there are some moments in this film which even made me laugh.)

Even at the moments when the film seems to be in danger of becoming just a bit too smug, it remains quite captivating to watch, simply because of the enormous skill and attention to detail with which it has been made. The puppets and scenery don’t have the warmth of Aardman-style clay figurines, but they are still very engaging and characterful, and the nature of the production – the dogs constantly seem to be twitching and bristling as a result of the animators’ fingers moving their fur – means they have a real sense of life and energy about them. And this film you get to see things like stop-motion taiko-drumming, and stop-motion sumo-wrestling, which doesn’t turn up on the big screen all that often.

This is all to do with the film’s Japanese setting, naturally. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the film to be set in Japan, particularly, and it is a very emblematic kind of representation of the country; one assumes it is simply because Anderson is a fan of Japanese culture and movies (and why not). This becomes explicit at a couple of points, with one character looking rather like the iconic Japanese movie legend Toshiro Mifune, and the soundtrack featuring excerpts from Fumio Hayasaka’s magnificent score from Seven Samurai (in which Mifune of course starred). There are other Kurosawa references in the movie, too.

On the other hand, and I’m tempted to say ‘wouldn’t you just know it’, all this means that the film has come in for stick from some quarters for its supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ and unflattering depiction of many of its Japanese characters. Well, I suppose there may be grounds for criticism on the latter point, but for me the film’s sincere and encompassing affection for Japan and its culture was almost palpable, and adds enormously to the charm and atmosphere of the film. And it’s not as if this is the only movie borrowing from Japanese culture at the moment: if it weren’t for Godzilla, Ultraman, and the tokusatsu genre in general, there’d be no Pacific Rim, and Ready Player One would likely be unrecognisable with all the references to Japanese elements extracted. There’s also a criticism that the character voiced by Greta Gerwig is in some way an expression of the ‘white saviour’ trope – although as I have seen the label of ‘white saviour’ movie slapped on everything from The Matrix to La La Land, I’m honestly moved to wonder if this isn’t a concept which has been stripped of meaning through overuse (angry mobs with burning torches, please form a queue at the usual place).

I can’t honestly say that I’ll be rushing to catch up with the rest of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, but Isle of Dogs certainly hasn’t put me off checking out more of his work. If nothing else, the obvious skill, intelligence, and talent which has gone into this film is impressive, and the results are always engaging and frequently very amusing. It’s good to see a film which is so obviously the product of a singular creative vision (because this movie certainly doesn’t scream crossover mainstream hit) getting such a wide release and attracting a significant audience. Dog lovers and Japanophiles will almost certainly have a good time with this movie, probably other people too.

(* To be clear – get on the c2c train in Barking, stay aboard for two stops until it reaches Limehouse, then switch to the Docklands Light Railway. The seventh stop from here is Crossharbour, from where it is a two minute walk to the Isle of Dogs. Simples.)

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Normally, I would suggest that all that one really needs to say about Early Man is that it is the new movie from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, the award-laden creators of the Wallace and Gromit series, the Pirates! movie, the Shaun the Sheep movie, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Aardman are, I suppose, the closest thing to a British version of Pixar, routinely producing films which are, if nothing else, a showcase for the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship, and Nick Park is their highest-profile creator (he has a habit of turning up to the Oscars in all-advised home-made bow ties).

Given it routinely takes years of work, comprising thousands of person-hours, to complete a movie, one wonders just how Park settles on one of his feature-length projects: I’d be terrified of getting bored halfway through or realising the idea just wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. No matter how his process works, the end result this time sees Park and his team venturing into new territory.

As the title suggests, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, and concerns Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of easy-going and generally inept cavemen (we should probably call them cavepeople, come to think of it). Catching even a rabbit is a push for this lot, and Dug’s ideas that they should branch out into mammoth hunting seem wildly optimistic.

Soon, however, they have bigger problems, for their verdant and peaceful valley is annexed by the forces of a much more advanced Bronze Age civilisation, overseen by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, not that you can tell). Most of the tribe is driven into the hostile badlands where they are easy prey for predatory geese, but Dug finds his way to Lord Nooth’s city where he discovers the invaders have an unexpected Achilles’ heel – they are all mad about football (or soccer, depending on which variety of English you speak).

Dug hits upon a cunning plan – he challenges Lord Nooth’s team, Real Bronzino, to a match to determine the fate of the valley. Win, and the cave people get their home back and can live there peacefully. Lose, and they all go down the mine together. The gamble seems worthwhile, except for the fact that none of them have ever played football before…

Early Man opens with a tip of the hat from one master animator to another, as Nick Park lovingly spoofs one of Ray Harryhausen’s more famous films, the Hammer caveman picture One Million Years BC. Indeed, it initially looks like the whole thing is going to be a send-up of that kind of thing, with a few slightly Flintstones-esque jokes stirred into the mix. But then there are suddenly some jokes about football, and then the bad guys turn up, doing an array of outrageous European accents, and suddenly, it’s clear that… well, it’s clear that it’s very unclear what this film thinks it is, except on the most basic level.

Let us get the slightly problematic aspect of this film out of the way. Just as virtually every major American release these days is deconstructed to determine just what its attitude is to the Trumpclasm and the Unique Moment (etc, etc), so every significant British film is equally analysed to see if it is saying something about the probable British departure from the European project. Early Man is about a plucky bunch of cave people with British accents who come together to save their homeland from the depredations of a bunch of exploitative outsiders with French, German, and Italian accents. Togetherness and old-fashioned pluck is all it takes for them to win the day and reclaim their independence (if you doubt that this metaphor about the cave people representing the UK is intentional, the script is explicit about the fact that it was Dug’s lot who initially invented football and exported it to the rest of the world, who then learned to play it better than they did).

It’s not exactly scintillating stuff (unless you’re an op-ed chimp for the Daily Express or Daily Mail, anyway), but it least it suggests a level of depth to the film which just isn’t there most of the rest of the time: I suppose you could say Early Man is a kind of parody of sports movies (I found myself thinking particularly of Escape to Victory, but probably only because the two films are equally implausible), but a lot of the time it’s just a sports movie sprinkled with some rather variable gags, and hardly any of the little in-jokes and cinematic allusions one has come to expect from Aardman films. Quite apart from the sledgehammer satire, there are probably just a few too many gags about bodily functions for this to really qualify as a children’s film, strictly speaking, but on the other hand there’s not a great deal here for adults to enjoy on their level, either.

If you compare it to a film like Coco, which was at least as inventive and visually impressive, but also managed to be genuinely moving and included some lovely, resonant metaphors and a universal message, Early Man just comes across as rather shallow, knockabout stuff – unsophisticated slapstick backed up by a load of really bad puns. I’m not going to suggest that this isn’t a funny film, because I did laugh quite a lot, but it’s not exactly side-splitting, either, and some of the jokes earn their laughs solely because of their sheer perseverance.

There is the usual voice cast of distinguished actors, including Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and so on, and the film’s technical achievements are genuinely impressive, as usual. The problem is that the script just isn’t up to the same level, and isn’t really built around a sufficiently strong central idea. This isn’t actually a bad film, and if it had been made by anyone else I expect it would be greeted as an impressive piece of work. But judged by the standards of other Aardman movies, Early Man can’t help but feel a little underpowered.

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