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You would have to have a heart made of solid bakelite, I suspect, not to be profoundly and repeatedly moved by Roger Ross Williams’ documentary Life, Animated. I must confess to having been a bit wary going in to this one, despite being aware of the glowing buzz surrounding it, as I do like to maintain a proper air of reserve and detachment (except when watching Jason Statham movies, obviously), and also because I suspected the subject matter might strike a bit too close to home for absolute comfort. But turn up I did and within the first few minutes found myself at severe risk of having an emotional episode.

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This is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, who as the film starts is on the verge of graduating, moving into his own place, and starting to look for a job. What makes this slightly unusual is the fact that at the age of three, Owen began to suffer a marked deterioration in his motor skills and speech, and was diagnosed with regressive autism. The doctors informed his parents (his father is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, which may have something to do with why this film got made) that some children with this condition never speak again.

And yet Owen has grown up to be an engaging, lively, outgoing young man, aware of the special challenges he faces, realistic, but also hopeful. How has this happened? The answer seems to lie with his love of Disney animations: he has a deep and abiding love for all things of the Mouse, and has apparently memorised the complete scripts of every single full-length cartoon. They are his means of rendering the world intelligible and forming a significant connection with it.

The film has the advantage of incorporating numerous clips from the various movies in question, which you might expect to have presented some interesting issues of licensing – apparent what happened was that they showed the movie to Disney’s terrifying legal team, who all promptly started weeping while watching the film, at which point the negotiations became considerably simpler. That said, it is not quite the exercise in grisly advertisement and promotion for the Disney machine that you might be expecting and/or dreading – the clips are there to service Owen’s story, not promote the brand.

And it is the story of how one lives with an autistic-spectrum disorder. I find myself a little hesitant at this point, mainly because I’m worried about crossing the line and starting to talk more about myself than the movie, but in the spirit of the courage shown by the Suskind family in this film, I will chance it. Possibly the most significant change in my own life in the past year has been my realisation that I am further along the autistic spectrum myself than I previously thought might be the case. I mean, as soon as I heard of Asperger’s syndrome and read a list of typical features of the condition, I was struck by a definite sense of personal recognition. I am strongly attracted to routine, habit, and continuity; I often have significant difficulty in processing change. When something interests me, it consumes my attention entirely and I find it difficult to devote any real time to anything else. Many social situations are challenging and uncomfortable for me – maintaining relationships can also be difficult. I find myself strangely drawn to Saga from The Bridge (although, to be honest, I suspect the same is equally true of many men with standard brain function). When it comes to Owen’s way of using reference points from Disney movies to connect with the people around him, the parallel that instantly leapt to my mind was an episode of Star Trek concerning an alien culture which functions in a roughly analogous fashion, and if I tell you that the episode in question is called Darmok, aired as part of (I think) the fifth season, guest stars Paul Winfield, that Russell T Davies has never seen it because he likes the purity of the concept too much, and that I can tell you all of this without recourse to the internet despite not really considering myself that big a fan of The Next Generation, you may perhaps begin to get a glimmering of just how oddly my own circuits are wired up.

In short, it’s a constant fact of life, and I must confess that I do feel rather more comfortable in my own skin now I’ve actually figured out what’s going on with me. I wonder whether it’s the sense of recognition I got from watching Owen deal with his own issues that made me respond so strongly to the film; I doubt it, though, for this is surely a captivating story no matter what your own background.

This is partly down to Owen and partly down to his family, who are often wrenchingly honest when it comes to talking about their own feelings. Do not make the assumption that this is a heavy or depressing film – it is always down to earth and often very funny – there’s a wonderful sequence where Owen’s elder brother Walt muses on the difficulty of teaching him about some of the elements of, erm, adult relationships, given that these same elements do not generally feature in Disney cartoons.

Looking back it seems rather like I’ve devoted more words to talking about myself than the actual film, which was the last thing that I wanted to do: this is supposed to be a review, not a plea for attention, and it doesn’t do justice to a film which is in many ways one of the most exceptional of the year – it has a warmth and emotional charge to it which very few dramatic films I’ve seen can match. You feel a real connection to the people in the film, and yet it never feels intrusive or exploitative, which can often be a problem with this kind of documentary. The documentary footage is accompanied both by the Disney clips already mentioned and by some new animation, which is actually quite lovely in its own right and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Documentaries about autistic-spectrum disorders do not tend to be major box office hits, especially at a time when the latest stellar conflict brand extension exercise is due to swamp cinemas everywhere (ironically, itself another Disney subsidiary). I can’t really be completely objective about Life, Animated, but it did seem to me to be a great documentary telling a very accessible and uplifting story. Recommended.

 

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You may well have been expecting a review of Terminator: Genisys (sorry, spellchecker) to appear here or hereabouts at around this point. Well, quite frankly, so did I, but I’m afraid we will both have to wait a bit longer for that. Instead, for reasons which need not really concern us, we will have to content ourselves with a review of Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda’s Minions.

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This movie has been virtually inescapable for some time: trailers and merchandising spin-offs reached the point of total saturation a while ago, and why shouldn’t they, given that it’s hard to shake the feeling that here we are in the business of brand extension and the induced lactation of a monetary bovine (or, to put it another way, the milking of a cash cow): the first two Despicable Me films, to which this is a spin-off/prequel, made something like $1.4 billion between them, making the series what the Muppets would doubtless call ‘a viable franchise’.

I haven’t seen either of the previous films, but even so I know enough to understand what’s going on here: a popular set of supporting characters being elevated to the point where they carry (or not) their own vehicle. The characters in this case being the Minions, a swarm of small yellow morons who – it is revealed – evolved to fill the peculiarly specific niche of being sidekicks/henchbeings to the world’s greatest monsters, villains, and other ne’er-do-wells.

Being morons, they find steady employment to be difficult to come by, and eventually the whole tribe relocates to a remote icy fastness in despair. But Minions need a boss and it falls to a trio of the little yellow idiots to go forth in search of a new master. Their names are Stuart, Kevin, and Bob, and they find themselves in New York, 1968. From here they attend the world’s biggest Super-Villain convention and end up in the service of the dangerously glamorous Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandy Bullock) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm). Scarlet has a plan requiring the Crown Jewels of England, and packs the Minions off to get it for her – will they succeed and thus secure a future for their kind? Or is that whole ‘moron’ thing just a bit too hard to shake?

Hum. Now, as regular readers will know, animated films are not something I go to see terribly often, but I like to think that when I do I give them a fair crack of the whip – I’m usually pretty positive about Studio Ghibli productions, and I seem to recall saying nice things about Big Hero Six and Shaun the Sheep earlier this year too. So I hope you will understand it’s not just bias or sour grapes if I say that Minions just struck me as being an extremely average film.

This is mainly because the folks at Pixar, amongst others, have managed to raise the bar for CGI family films to an almost uncannily high level in the course of the last two decades: these films are almost unfailingly astonishingly beautiful to look at, with jaw-dropping levels of detail and visual invention, something that is matched by the wit and sophistication of the scripts, which generally include surprisingly rounded characterisations and an unexpected level of emotional content.

Minions has that level of visual polish and design, naturally, and there’s not much you can fault about the look of the thing – indeed, the film’s big set pieces are pretty much flawlessly executed, from an aesthetic point of view of nothing else. It’s just that there’s really very little going on beyond the most superficial level of being good to look at.

The film seems predicated on the notion that the little yellow idiots are inherently lovable and hilarious: scene after scene ambles by with the three main characters wandering about doing stuff, with the directors clearly convinced this is utterly enchanting to watch. I did not find it so. This is not to say that the film does not have any decent gags in it – it does, but most of them are in the trailer. The rest of it is either just somewhat amusing, or actively baffling – the actual plot feels rather like an afterthought, contrapted just to propel the main characters from one quickfire gag-montage to another.

The rest of it feels a bit chucked together too. The 1968 setting simply seems to be an excuse to fill the soundtrack with comfortably familiar classic pop songs (while the film’s grasp of British constitutional law also strikes me as being somewhat suspect too). There are various visual shout-outs to things like classic Bond, and Marvel Comics, and an inevitable reference to Comic-Con, but they don’t hang together coherently – there’s no sense of a world with a deeper reality beyond whatever gag is currently on the screen.

The cast list is filled with the names of more-than-competent performers – as well as Bullock and Hamm, Michael Keaton, Alison Janney, Jennifer Saunders and Steve Coogan all appear – but hardly any of them make much impression, simply because the script isn’t nearly tight or sharp or funny enough to work as a piece of entertainment for anyone other than fairly undemanding children. Minions will probably make a great big pile of money, and further instalments are apparently already in the works, but that doesn’t make it anything approaching the standards of the best films in this genre.

 

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It goes without saying that the new Thunderbirds (aka Thunderbirds Are Go) has been made for a fresh, young audience, unencumbered by nostalgia for the original series – but should it, though? (Go without saying, I mean.) After all, when I went to a revival of the classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows last year, I was one of the younger people there, and who exactly was it who funded a new attempt at the ‘lost’ Anderson show Firestorm on Kickstarter in record time? I doubt it was the very young audience ITV appears to be gunning for.

Nevertheless, the kids are whom ITV clearly have in their sights as far as the new show is concerned, this even extending to putting first-run episodes on at 8am rather than at a more family-friendly time. Well, we’ll see: fan outcry wasn’t enough to make them give New Captain Scarlet a proper timeslot ten years ago, and I doubt it will here, either. I see they have ordered another run of episodes already (and did so well before the series even debuted). Can’t argue with confident people.

Anyway, what are we to make of the new show? Having been a fan of the original series for nigh-on 35 years it is obviously difficult for me to be properly objective about it (especially when Gerry Anderson himself gets only a very cursory credit in the end titles). I suppose the best thing to do is to look at the changes which have been made and see what they in turn tell us about how the world has moved on in the last 50 years.

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The most obvious difference, perhaps, is simply in the medium of the thing: original Thunderbirds was a mixture of (super)marionettes and physical modelwork, while new Thunderbirds has dumped the puppets in favour of CGI animation. The least one can say is that this results in a show with a very distinct (less charitable people might say ‘odd’) aesthetic, especially when CGI elements are inserted into scenes with physical models.

One might wonder why they didn’t just switch to full CGI (as New Captain Scarlet did), but I suppose the half-and-half decision is justified by the modelwork of the Thunderbirds themselves, which is frequently stunningly beautiful (and, to be honest, the thing which really kept me watching the first episode). The subtly-modified industrial aesthetic of the machines is, I suppose, the best compromise possible between the original designs and what’s credible nowadays. Set against this, I feel moved to comment on just how dreadful some of the special effects were, particularly any scene featuring FAB1 and the ‘English countryside’, which strongly brought to mind episodes of Postman Pat.

Of course, the main reason why the classic Anderson shows were so hardware-intensive was because of the limitations inherent in the use of puppets as characters: the response was to stick the puppets in rockets or subs or tanks and let the machinery carry the plot. New Thunderbirds‘ CGI characters are more flexible, and as a result it seemed to me that the Tracy boys were taking a more athletic approach to rescuing in the opening installment.

The big deal about Thunderbirds, not to mention the other shows from the same stable, was that it was the result of steely determination on the part of a film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but doing his damnedest to compromise as little as possible. As a result, old Thunderbirds looked like nothing else on TV in terms of its production values, and some of the scripts were not without elements aimed squarely over the kids’ heads. I didn’t see much sign of that in the new show – then again, kids TV is more sophisticated now anyway – and that garish, cartoony aesthetic didn’t really win me over, either.

I’m afraid the same goes for Ring of Fire‘s plot. It obviously remains to be seen how representative this episode is of the series as a whole, but it was a bit frantic. Will they feel obliged to use all five (sorry, six) Thunderbirds in every episode? That could result in some fairly tortuous plotting. And – this will sound strange – I was sort of disappointed that the plot actually hung together and made sense, more or less, being completely bereft of the more lunatic elements that were such an integral part of the products of the Anderson script system.

To be honest, I got an ominous whiff of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek from the series opener: permit me to explain why. This isn’t a completely from-scratch relaunch of the series, as the script takes it for granted that the audience already knows who everybody was, not to mention the nature of International Rescue and its mission statement. (The glorious pre-credits hero shot of Thunderbird 2 would probably have a lot less impact on a complete newby.) The outfit has clearly been operating for some time before the series begins, and the characters have already acquired a bit of new backstory, which is not the same as that in the original show (that was set in 2065, five years after the date given here). In short, the series is trading heavily on audience knowledge of and affection for Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but using this to tell its own rather different set of stories. The makers eat their cake – but, as if by magic, they still seem to have it.

One of the incidental pleasures of hanging around certain SF-themed websites with a particular kind of militant agenda is the comments you often see. Someone actually grumbled that the Tracy brothers (that’s ‘brothers’ as in ‘male relatives sharing the same parents’) were not more diverse when it came to their gender or ethnicity. I hope the decision to give Tin Tin – sorry, Kayo – a more engaged, (sigh) kick-ass role, not to mention her own Thunderbird, will keep the Diversity Police happy. I don’t really have a problem with it. Making Brains Asian, on the other hand troubles me a little: not because I have a problem with a non-white character being a technical genius, but because I think it almost turns him into the dubious stereotype of the effete, wobble-headed Asian wimp. Naturally – I say ‘naturally’ – one of the original show’s more prominently non-white characters, the Hood, has become rather more ethnically anonymous in the new series. Diversity is a good thing, of course, but not to the point that you can have non-white villains any more. Hmmm.

All of this is fairly small potatoes compared to my biggest grumble with the series, namely: where the hell is Jeff? Without the Tracy patriarch, International Rescue just feels like a ship without a captain. Who’s in charge, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be Scott. Is it actually John? (Gerry Anderson will be spinning in his grave like a lathe.) Is the organisation some kind of free-form collective nowadays? Hmmph. Clearly, parental authority is not where the kids are at these days, and if that doesn’t tell you a lot about cultural differences between 1965 and 2015, nothing will.

Despite all this, the new show was clearing working quite hard to keep the long-term fanbase on board, with little references like Dr Meddings’ name, a casual mention of Thunderbird 1’s MIDAS system, the use of actual footage from Stingray, and – perhaps a bit tenuous, this – one model design seemingly being influenced by the iconic Eagle transporter from Space: 1999. The quality of some of the modelwork, along with the pleasure of spotting these little references, is just about enough to make me tune in again for the second episode, but I strongly doubt this is a series anyone will have very strong memories of even in ten years time, let alone fifty.

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The announcement that the beloved (for once the word is entirely apposite) Japanese production house Studio Ghibli would be taking a short break from producing movies was, predictably, greeted with yelps of concern from Ghibli’s legions of fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some yelping from the proprietors of art-house cinemas and dedicated movie-only TV channels, too, for there seem to be few more reliable propositions than a Ghibli revival or a season.

Nevertheless, with the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the brief (or not so brief, who can say?) hiatus is almost upon us, with the studio’s last couple of full-length releases reaching the UK. The tendency is to treat Ghibli as something of a one-man – or one-family – operation, but other directors have always worked for the company, most prominently Isao Takahata, and it’s Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya which is currently on release.

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Takahata’s most famous film is probably the extraordinary full-throttle gloom-fest Grave of the Fireflies, and anyone familiar with that might be forgiven for approaching his other work with a degree of trepidation. However, Princess Kaguya is a rather more traditional piece of story-telling, based on a Japanese folktale.

It concerns an elderly bamboo-cutter who one day comes across a strange light emerging from a bamboo shoot. Investigating, he finds within a tiny girl in the robes of a princess, whom he naturally takes home to show his wife. The girl transforms into a rather more conventional infant, whom the couple decide to raise as their own, believing the strange circumstances of her discovery are a sign of the fate which the powers of heaven intend her to have.

The rapidly-growing girl makes friends among the local children, but soon enough she and her parents must move to the capital, where her education as a lady of substance begins. Her remarkable beauty and rumours of her other qualities soon leads to interest from the highest echelons of society, but – regardless of what heaven wants for Princess Kaguya – is it what she really wants for herself?

‘Distinctive’ is usually an understatement when it comes to a Ghibli movie: I always find it hard to review any of them without near-automatic recourse to words like ‘charming’, ‘meticulous’ and ‘breathtakingly beautiful’. Even within the canon, however, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is something a bit different – simply in terms of its sheer look. The whole film has a soft, almost hand-drawn look to it, as though it’s been made with either water-colours or pastels rather than more traditional methods of animation. I’ve never seen this approach used before on a long-form project, and it perhaps results in a slightly more stylised film, but it’s also one which is gorgeous to look at and very memorable.

Based as it is on a traditional story, the script for this movie doesn’t have the feel of having been written using a spreadsheet, as is sometimes the case with modern American animations. There is the usual Ghibli quirkiness, not to mention a few charmingly grotesque character designs, built into the film, and the whole thing has a flavour – and a few plot developments – that I can’t imagine any other production company having the confidence to take on.

The story has a somewhat episodic feel, opening with numerous sequences concerning Kaguya’s idyllic rural childhood, before covering her education in the big city and the antics of various suitors, before finally reaching a somewhat unexpected, but nevertheless deeply moving climax. I should mention that the overall tone is gently comic and perhaps a little sentimental, but – spoiler alert – no-one protractedly starves to death, and the guiding imperative of the film seems to be to entertain the audience rather than plunge them into a slough of despair.

Instead, the film deals subtly and gracefully with a number of classic themes, many of them the stuff of numerous folk tales, others more universal. Partly it is about the contrast between the carefree pleasures of childhood and the greater responsibilities of adult life, partly it is about regret and nostalgia, but it is also about what it means to live a good life – is it social and financial success, as Kaguya’s father seems to think? Or is it more about self-expression and emotional fulfilment? Running throughout all of this is a profound interest in the relationship between human society and the natural world, and the importance of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. There is, as you can perhaps see, a lot going on here, but the film never feels overly busy or pretentious.

It is, in short, an extremely distinctive and accomplished film even by the soaringly high standards of the Ghibli marque, although it is such a departure from the style of the various Miyazaki films that I can’t imagine it instantly being universally adopted by every single devotee of the studio. It is the result of a singular artistic vision, with no sign of any compromise being made, and one executed to the highest of levels. Even if the film’s somewhat reserved and distinctive style makes it a little difficult to fully embrace, it is impossible not to admire and be impressed by it on almost every level.

 

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We are rapidly approaching that point in the year when the summit of film excellence meets the focus of the world’s media. The great and the good of the industry descend upon Los Angeles and many questions of great import are answered, even if only temporarily. What are the major films of recent months? What great insights have we gained, what ground-breaking new art has been made? How, in short, has cinema helped to elevate the human condition and teach us more about ourselves in the space of the last year?

Bearing all this in mind, it seems an appropriate moment to discuss a film which surely qualifies as a profound work of art. Richard Starzak and Mark Burton’s Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is technically a spin-off from the justly acclaimed and deservedly popular Wallace and Gromit series, but this feature-length adaptation of the TV series moves on to pastures new.

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All is well on Mossybottom Farm as the story opens, with Shaun the Sheep and the rest of his flock enjoying a structured, if somewhat predictable life, under the benevolent tutelage of their Farmer. However, Shaun finds himself chafing somewhat under the Farmer’s regime and hatches a plan to gain everyone a little extra leisure time.

However, things go horribly awry and result in the Farmer ending up in the nearby Big City, amnesiac, and intent on carving out a new career as a celebrity hairdresser. Meanwhile chaos reigns on the farm, and a remorse-stricken Shaun resolves to go to the Big City himself and rescue his owner – not without the help (or hindrance) of all the other sheep, not to mention Bitzer the Dog. But have the ovine collective bitten off more than they can chew?

As you would expect of a film from Aardman, Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is an amazingly good-looking film, made with the most meticulous attention to detail. The technical virtuosity on display puts most other films to shame, while for the attentive cineaste there are references to films like The Terminator and The Silence of the Lambs. The film is both consistently inventive and funny, and also poignant at key moments. All the essentials are breezily covered and easily exceeded.

However, it goes on to have a significant degree of depth to it. The film takes place in a strange, allegorical world, where the boundary between human and animal has become blurred. Certainly the beginning of the film, where the farm animals conspire to wrest control from the Farmer, inevitably has Orwellian overtones, and later elements of the film have equally bleak undertones. The Farmer applies his shearing skills to the great and good of the city with notable success: the message, surely, is that urban life reduces one to being not much better than a sheep. Even more striking is the sequence in which Bitzer the Dog finds himself performing intestinal surgery on an unsuspecting hospital patient. The equivalency of human and animal is implicit, but it seems to me that there is a serious political message here about NHS priorities and the strain placed upon the system.

But it would be unfair to suggest that Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is so grim and pessimistic throughout, for it ultimately has a message of hope to offer. The film opens and concludes with a vision of a rural idyll, of man and animals living happily and peacefully together. The theme of the film is of the value of harmony and the struggle to re-attain it once it is lost. The concept recurs again and again throughout the piece – it is there in the close-harmony singing of the flock as they comfort a distraught Timmy the Lamb, in one of the film’s most uplifting sequences, it is there in the selfless co-operation of the sheep as they go about their quest, it is there in the successful co-operation between Shaun the Sheep and Bitzer the Dog. By the end of the film, Shaun has grown as an individual and come to a better understanding of the natural order and his own place in it: rather than try to sustain the egalitarian structure glimpsed near the start, the hierarchy has been reasserted, with everyone knowing their place within it. To this extent I suppose Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is an ultimately traditionalist and possibly even reactionary text, but it is at least consistent in its advocacy of this position. (Proponents of diversity should also be aware: all of the sheep are white.)

Of course, the film also offers a stern warning against slavish, hidebound obedience, or too strict an adherence to an ideal: Bitzer the Dog’s obsession with regulations and inability to refuse a bone are both in part responsible for the crisis at the heart of the film, while the antagonist-figure of the story, Mr Trumper the Animal Control Officer, is a baleful, almost inhumanised figure. Mr Trumper has become cut off from nature and as a result he has come to hate it, to the benefit of no-one, including himself.

As I say, Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is an endearing, superbly-made, extremely funny piece of entertainment, which I suspect even quite young people might benefit from being taken to see. But it is so much more than that. There are deep truths about life on display here, if we have but the wisdom to recognise them: it is not so much a film as a suggestion of a new pattern for life, and a better world for man and sheep alike. I can only hope it receives its due recognition in the fullness of time.

 

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It occasionally occurs to me that not having small people in my life means I am effectively cutting myself off from great swathes of popular culture and entertainment (in much the same way that it’s only when visiting my parents that I get properly exposed to antiques-based game shows and non-threatening police procedural dramas). I am aware that wanting more of a pretext to watch kids’ films would be a dubious pretext for embarking on the exploit of parenthood, but, hey, at least I’m aware of that, and the prospect seems reassuringly remote anyway.

All this flickered through my head during the trailers preceding Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6, which were themselves preceded by the not-entirely-family-friendly soundtrack to Halloween, played into the auditorium. No juvenile sensibilities were in danger, however, as it looked very much like I was the only person present in this great cathedral of cinema, almost undoubtedly the classiest movie theatre in Oxford (my solitude being something we may well return to later).

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It was in this magnificent isolation that I settled back to enjoy a superior bit of entertainment. The tale unfolds in the quasi-futuristic city of San Fransokyo (torii motifs adorn the Golden Gate Bridge, in the first of many neat visual puns), and concerns the Harada brothers: Hiro (Ryan Potter), a prodigiously talented teenage technician and robotics engineer, and his less talented but more responsible elder, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Seeking to wean Hiro away from the local Robot Wars scene which is absorbing all his attention, Tadashi introduces him to his techie friends from university, and his own pet project, Baymax (Scott Adsit). Baymax is a somewhat zeppelin-like robo-nurse, whom Hiro is less than impressed by, but the lad still becomes determined to get into the university.

To this end he creates micro-bots, a swarm of telepathically-controlled mini-modules with a plethora of uses, but they are stolen by a mysterious figure during a lethal fire. Hiro manages to track the miscreant down, but soon realises that even teaching Baymax karate will not give him the power he needs to stop the villain’s scheme. And so he sets about helping convert his friends’ own techie projects into the basis for more useful applications. And so a set of cheerily coloured costumed identities with rather variable codenames is born – Hiro, Baymax, GoGo, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred! Or, to put it another way – Big Hero 6!

I must confess to being rather intrigued by the origins of this movie, which is the result of Disney’s acquisition of the Marvel group a few years back: Disney’s animation arm were encouraged to rifle through Marvel’s back catalogue in search of promising ideas for new movies, and this is the result. Big Hero 6 started off as a superhero team with fairly strong connections to the X-Men – a version of the original team leader appeared in The Wolverine – but this film does not appear under the Marvel marque, nor is the company credited especially prominently.

As you might therefore expect, the characters and premise of the comic have been radically reconceived and the result is a much more child-friendly standalone film – that said, there is still a droll Stan Lee cameo and the convention of the post-credits scene continues unabated. (Apparently there are also numerous easter egg references to incredibly obscure Marvel characters, but even I didn’t spot these.) But this film, for all its Manga-inflected visuals and designs, is still very much its own thing.

Perhaps this is why the adult audiences which usually attend non-animated Marvel projects were notably not in attendance at this one, but I doubt it. All right, so I went to see a weekday matinee of Big Hero 6, so all the target-audience kids were in school: but I bet that if go to a weekday matinee of Age of Ultron or Ant-Man in the week of their UK release, I won’t be alone there. It can’t be the subject matter but the animated form itself which makes people dismiss this kind of film as kid’s stuff. Frankly, I’m dubious: superhero stories are all, ultimately, cut from the same substance, and it seems spurious to me to claim that Big Hero 6 is a children’s film while the latest outing for Captain America or Spider-Man is mature, serious entertainment.

Anyway, ‘being its own thing’ basically means the movie is, from a certain point of view, pretty similar to every other film from Pixar-now-Disney in recent years. That sounds like an implied criticism, but it only really qualifies as such if you consider gorgeous animation, stunning attention to detail, strong characterisation, a solid narrative structure, many decent jokes and a nice sensible moral underpinning for the kids to be bad things. If you consider this to be an SF movie, then it’s not nearly as unutterably lovely as Wall-E, and if you think of it as a superhero film, it’s not quite as inventive and loving a pastiche as The Incredibles, but there’s still very little wrong with it as a piece of family entertainment.

Personally I’m inclined to go with the latter, mainly on the strength of the Marvel origins, and Big Hero 6‘s action sequences do capture the excitement and inventiveness of the best superhero conflicts admirably. It’s a bit of a shame that the story is structured so heavily around Hiro and Baymax, and indeed that most of the team have had their powers radically reconceived, because everyone else does end up feeling a little bit secondary: but Baymax himself, never quite forgetting that he is, after all, supposed to be a nurse, is a cherishable creation and a very funny character: meticulously brought to life, as you’d expect.

The plot of the movie is inventive enough, even if some of the twists along the way are rather easy to predict well in advance: I suppose it’s just possible that under-10s may not see them coming. I also thought the sensible moral underpinning – this film is fundamentally about coming to terms with grief – was to some extent weakened by a couple of aspects of the conclusion. But these, apart from my very non-specific disappointment that this wasn’t more explicitly or faithfully a Marvel-based movie, were the only grounds I could find for criticising it. You could do very much worse than take your kids to see this; if they made a sequel I would certainly give it time of day. This may not be the biggest superhero movie of the year – there’s very little doubt as to what that’s going to be, I think – but this could very well turn out to be the most colourful and fun.

 

 

 

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As one legend of Japanese cinema makes a long-awaited return to UK screens, another bids farewell: at least that’s what the publicity for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises indicates, for this film is described as his ‘farewell masterpiece’. Even if we can’t be 100% sure about the ‘farewell’ part, the ‘masterpiece’ thing seems pretty much on the money. But then this is Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and masterpieces are virtually their stock in trade. Beauty and charm, along with dazzling technical expertise, are what you expect from a Ghibli movie, even the ones dealing with somewhat off-the-wall subject matter (demon bathhouses, child starvation, and possible cases of genetic sexual attraction).

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It says something about how peculiar some of the Ghibli back catalogue is that a romantic social history of Japan between the two World Wars, focussing on the life story of the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero (the all-metal fighter plane used by the Japanese navy to devastating effect in the early stages of the Pacific war), is a relatively straightforward choice of story by comparison. This is a heavily-fictionalised biography of the engineer in question, Jiro Horikoshi.

As a young boy in 1918, Jiro dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight makes that impossible. Inspired by a dream in which he meets the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, he decides to become an aeronautical designer instead. The film follows him through university and his career with Mitsubishi, taking in major historical events like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the great depression, as well as his relationship and ultimate marriage to his long-term sweetheart. The film also covers the rise of totalitarianism throughout the 1930s, both in Japan and Germany – the relationship between the two countries is, to some extent, dealt with in the film.

And, as usual, the artistic virtuosity on display throughout is simply jaw-dropping, including virtually photo-realistic backdrops and astonishingly intricate designs for characters and planes. Much of the time every inch of the screen is filled with colour and movement, and it is immaculately done – I’ve said this before, but I don’t think even the Disney company in the golden age of hand-drawn animation had the sheer level of expertise and attention to detail that the Ghibli animators routinely deploy. Nobody has ever made traditional animation better than this.

On paper the story does not sound especially engaging, but the actual film is very absorbing: quite apart from the sheer look of the film (which, as I believe I said, is gorgeous), the characters are appealing and the story is not without a certain fascination. Rather as in From Up On Poppy Hill, nostalgia for an older, unspoilt Japan is evident throughout The Wind Rises – there are numerous lovely landscapes, and everyone lives in beautiful traditional houses – but given that this is a film set in the 1920s and 1930s there is always a slightly ominous tone to the story. Every time Jiro or one of his colleagues vows to help Japan become a modern, technological country, a rival to Germany or America, you can’t help but be reminded that this is really not going to end well for the Japanese people.

It’s a mark of the film’s enormous subtlety that this point, though clearly intended, is never laboured or dwelt upon: in short, it treats the audience with intelligence (and, by the way, it’s clearly intended for a mature audience: probably not a movie to take your four-year-old to see). There’s also something very Japanese about the delicacy of the way in which it deals obliquely with some elements both of history and its own story. The climax is oddly obscure and understated, with a considerable amount left for the audience to surmise for themselves, while a post-War coda alludes to the terrible events which have occurred without addressing any of them in detail.

There is perhaps an issue with this, in that Jiro’s own responsibility as the designer of a warplane is never really addressed by the film. He is clearly a patriot, and a man interested in technical achievement for its own sake – ‘All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,’ is Jiro’s own comment – but to what extent does that excuse him from culpability, given his involvement with the Japanese war machine? Is there a greater responsibility than to nation and beauty? Again, it’s left for the audience to decide, but the difference here is that it’s a question that the film almost feels keen to evade.

Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the achievement of the rest of the film on virtually every level. I saw the American dub, featuring the vocal talents of (amongst others) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, William H Macy and Werner Herzog, and all of them are fine, but the real strengths of this film are in the script and the realisation. This is a thought-provoking and beautiful film – and, yes, a masterpiece. I am actually rather astonished this film did not win the Best Animated Feature Oscar – perhaps it is just a little too mature and thoughtful for comfort. Either way, The Wind Rises is a superb film and a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s career.

 

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