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Lee Unkrich’s Coco is an animated film from Pixar which concerns itself with the travails of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a young Mexican lad. He is a member of a proud family of famous cobblers, who are notable for their hatred of all forms of music, due to Miguel’s great-great-grandfather having abandoned his wife and child for the life of an itinerant mariachi. The no-music ban is a source of some angst for Miguel, as all he wants to do is sing and play his guitar. This inevitably leads to some fretting (thanks everyone, I’m here all week).

Things come to a head when the family discover Miguel’s ambitions and react with predictable negativity. He runs away, and, through a series of plot developments just a little too involved to go into here, finds himself in the Land of the Dead where the spirits of his ancestors reside. (This is partly due to most of the film being set on the Day of the Dead, a celebrated Mexican festival.) They are all delighted to see him, but obviously he needs to get back to the living world before he gets permanently stuck in the afterlife. His family will only send him back if he promises never to play music again, which is obviously unacceptable to our lad, and so he sets out in search of the shade of his great-great-grandfather, whom he believes was a famous musician (Benjamin Bratt), who will impose no such unreasonable conditions. Recruiting the help of Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a ne’er-do-well in the afterlife, and all the time trying to evade his unsympathetic ancestors, Miguel begins his quest…

I have to confess, the first time I saw the trailer for Coco my reaction was ‘You what?!?’, as the premise of this film – a heartwarming musical family adventure about, effectively, a near-death experience, stuffed with more walking skeletons than a dozen Ray Harryhausen retrospectives – was almost too bizarre and macabre to be credible. I could easily imagine Studio Ghibli making a film like this – and you could argue they already have, for it does share some plot similarities with Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – but not Disney and Pixar. Yet here we are.

Never mind all that, I expect you are saying, exactly why is this film called Coco? A good question and I commend you for asking it. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, my understanding is that Disney’s original plan was to call the movie either Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead (probably the former, to avoid confusion with the 1985 George Romero zombie movie of the same name), but they ran into trouble when they attempted to trademark the name for merchandising purposes, many Mexicans taking exception to what they saw as cultural appropriation.

Well, there’s a thin line between cultural appropriation, cultural celebration, and just plain old national stereotypes, and you have say that Coco does not navigate its way through this somewhat tricky territory entirely gracefully. From the opening blast of mariachi music to an initial gag about luchadore wrestling, it does seem like no stereotype goes unexploited in the course of the movie. One running gag, likely to go well over the heads of the tiny audience, concerns the artist Frida Kahlo and her idiosyncratic creative sensibility (Kahlo is, rather surprisingly, not played by Salma Hayek, but by Yo-Yo from Agents of SHIELD). It’s engagingly bonkers stuff, but not completely respectful to Kahlo or her legacy, I would suggest.

Still, on the whole this is a film which presents a very positive view of all things Mexican. The film may be about the difficulties certain characters have in getting from one world to another, but the film-makers have opted to avoid making any substantial statement concerning US-Mexican relations nowadays (although you would have to say that the film’s sheer positivity towards the US’s southern neighbour puts it rather at odds with certain elements of current American policy).

It also, so far as I can see, plays it pretty safe when it comes to matters spiritual and theological, declining to make any particularly bold statements when it comes to what happens after death. The Land of the Dead is a sort of second-order afterlife, very much like existence as we know it, by no means a final destination: the spirits of the departed only survive as long as the memory of them is sustained by their mortal descendants – once they are forgotten, they wink out of existence (inevitably this forms a plot point), moving on to… well, wherever it is that dead dead people go. The metaphysics here are slightly skewiff, if you ask me, and I doubt it’ll be enough to reassure parents who suspect that Coco has just a bit too much of an occult whiff about it to be suitable as family viewing, but it just about hangs together and serves the story well.

And it is, as you would expect from a Pixar movie, it is a story which hits all its plot beats with laser-guided accuracy. I suppose you could argue that the film’s adherence to a certain model of Classic Plot Structure makes it a little predictable, but there is also pleasure to be drawn from seeing such immaculate craftsmanship, and I doubt most of the audience will care much either way. Regardless of what you think of the script, Coco also has the seemingly limitless visual imagination and gorgeous aesthetics that are also something of a Pixar trademark – this is a breathtakingly beautiful film, only enhanced by the fact that the art department seem to have been at the peyote, going by the surrealism of some of it.

I should probably say that, if you’re a certain sort of person, Coco will grab your emotions and give them a good wringing. For all the wit and jokes, the film is really about family, and loss, and love. Obviously I didn’t Go, but my viewing companion (come on, the two genres of film I never go to see unaccompanied are family-friendly CGI animations and soft-core porno) definitely did. It is undeniably quite moving stuff.

I suppose there are people who instinctively take against Pixar films and avoid them on principle, although quite what that reason is I can’t quite imagine. For everyone else, Coco is another funny, moving, wildly inventive and extremely well-scripted film which I fully expect will delight the vast majority of viewers. Viva Pixar!

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The half-term school holiday is upon us once more, here in the UK, with the attendant jostling for space by films eager to snap up all that extra potential trade. Pole position is naturally held by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I note that Warner Brothers are wheeling out Wonder Woman this coming Thursday in order to take advantage of the last few days of the week. And, of course, there is the potential for counter-programming, which as far as family films go means smaller, quieter, more reserved fare, not backed by major corporations or fast-food tie-ins, films which the most bien-pensant sandal-wearing parents can take their tinies to see, even if those tinies are as yet too young to even understand a phrase as simple as ‘Stop kicking the back of my seat,’ even when it is said to them many, many times.

Doing quite well in my neck of the woods with this cute-but-exasperating crowd is Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, which is an animated Belgian-Japanese co-production (yes, I know what you’re thinking: oh no, not another one). The size and prominence of The Red Turtle‘s release is almost certainly due to the fact that the Japanese end of the deal is being handled by the legendary Studio Ghibli, beloved by art-house cinema proprietors up and down the country.

I have to say that for an organisation which announced it was ceasing operations nearly three years ago, Studio Ghibli is still cranking out movies with impressive frequency (although I understand this may be due to reports of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement proving to be exaggerated). Apparently, in this case, it was the Ghibli team who sought out Dudok de Wit with a view to collaborating, Miyazaki himself being impressed by one of his short films. Now that’s what I call getting the nod.

The Red Turtle is another one of those films seeking to get round the obstacle of not being made in English by not bothering to include any dialogue whatsoever – also known in these parts as the ‘boom-bang-a-bang’ theory of international cinema. The story, naturally enough, is a relatively simple one: the movie opens with a spectacular storm out at sea, at the heart of which a castaway is struggling to survive. Survive he does, and pitches up on a reasonably well-appointed desert island.

Having explored his new home and collected himself, the man decides to take his chances on a bid to return to civilisation, and builds himself a raft. However, shortly after leaving the island, he finds his fragile vessel deliberately smashed to pieces by an unseen force. This happens repeatedly, and our hero eventually discovers that the culprit is a large turtle of an unusual crimson hue. Angry and frustrated, the man returns to the island, and when one day he happens upon the turtle making its laborious way up the beach, he decides to eliminate the vindictive beast and the menace it poses to his liberty…

Now, here the story takes a rather startling and unpredictable left turn – unpredictable to anyone who isn’t a dyed in the wool fan of Ghibli movies, anyway. A lot of Ghibli movies look a bit trippy, in their own gorgeous way, but what it’s easy to forget is just how weird the stories virtually always are. Never mind being forced to work in a sauna for ghosts, there are films about juvenile starvation, aviation design, odd things you find in the bamboo, possible cases of sibling attraction syndrome, family ghost stories: the list goes on and on. Despite the fact it’s a co-production, the story of The Red Turtle stays proudly true to its Ghibli heritage by suddenly becoming exceedingly odd: the man and the turtle fall in love with each other.

This is not a euphemism or a metaphor or anything like that: the man and the turtle end up having a baby together (this sequence is quite delicately handled by the animators, thank God) – suffice to say the manly charms of our hero are sufficient to bring the turtle out of her shell (thanks everybody, I’m here all week). What can I say? I thought Gamera: Incomplete Struggle was the weirdest Japanese movie about a turtle with unusual faculties that I was ever likely to see, but of course I had reckoned without the supreme eccentricity of the Studio Ghibli script department.

Well, the story may be rather bizarre (and then some), but this is still a stunningly beautiful piece of animation. Quite what the Belgian creators are bringing to the mix is a little unclear – although I have to say all the human characters do look rather like Tintin the boy reporter – as this looks very much like any other Ghibli production you care to mention, incredibly naturalistic but also extremely beautiful and effortlessly charming (there are some very endearing crabs in this movie).

This is not some anthropomorphic fantasy, but a more measured piece about – I expect – the circle of life and the place of humanity in the world. There’s also a bit where someone nearly throws up while skinning a seal, which you don’t get in your typical Pixar movie. Does the story seem deceptively simple or is this just one of those movies which is operating on a number of levels? I’m not completely sure, but while I did find the story perhaps just a touch underpowered and by no means under-length at only 81 minutes, I found it very pleasant to watch throughout (once I’d recovered from how barking mad the central conceit is).

I suppose that in the end The Red Turtle is indeed a film which is a metaphor about life. You try to find your way through the turbulence of the world, perhaps a little haphazardly, and then you meet someone. You may not initially appreciate the connection you have with them. You may indeed find yourself moved to try and brain them with a chunk of wood and turn them into soup. But then the realisation dawns that you share a special bond, and one day the two of you slope off to some sleepy lagoon somewhere to fertilise some eggs together.  It’s the story H.P. Lovecraft would have written had he ever tried his hand at romantic fiction. Or maybe it’s just a metaphor suggesting that age-gap relationships can work out after all (turtles can live for over a century, after all). I’m not completely sure. This is an odd little film, but a superbly made and very relaxing one to watch.

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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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Hard to believe though it may seem, I am not globally respected and adored, and so my ability to put myself in the place of anyone who is is therefore somewhat compromised. However, it’s impossible not to imagine that being so loved has some effect on you – whether that effect is simple complacency or something rather more eccentric.

Everyone loves Studio Ghibli, and with good reason: with Disney and the other American studios long since having abandoned traditional hand-drawn animation, the Japanese production house is fighting a spectacular rearguard on behalf of the form. They make the best hand-drawn animated features in the world. (They make virtually the only hand-drawn features in the world that anyone pays any attention to, but even so.)

And yet I wonder whether Studio Ghibli’s unquestioned mastery of the form, the sheer brilliance of their work, and the deserved acclamation that has resulted, haven’t combined to create an enterprise which is slightly… well… oddball in some of its ideas. Long-term readers may recall my last encounter with a Ghibli movie, the re-released Grave of the Fireflies: an exquisitely assembled full-length cartoon about the collapse of society during wartime and infantile death by starvation. To say I found this a difficult film to come to grips with is a bit of an understatement.

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Never mind. The latest Studio Ghibli production, From Up On Poppy Hill, got its UK release the other weekend, and on the surface looked to be a much more conventional affair. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, this is a nostalgic romance set in Yokohama in 1963. The Olympics are coming, symbolising a new dawn in Japanese society after the privations of the post-war period, but the young people of the town find themselves caught between the promise of the future and the demands of unresolved history.

Central to the story is Umi, a thoroughly decent, slightly lonely girl who looks after her grandmother’s boarding house. As the film opens she seems to have lost herself in the rituals of domestic life – but also maintains her tradition of raising signal flags outside the house, an attempt to contact her father who was lost at sea during the Korean War.

But time marches on and Umi finds herself involved in a heated controversy at her school: should the old clubhouse, embodying so much tradition and so many memories as it does, be torn down to make way for a new building? Many of the male students think not and are agitating to save it. She finds herself drawn into their efforts, mainly thanks to the persuasive talents of Shun, one of the boys.

This is an extremely sweet, almost totally innocuous film, and so the chemistry that sparks into existence between Umi and Shun is extremely understated: almost to the point of the viewers being invited to imagine it for themselves. Nevertheless, U-certificate romance does seem to be on the cards until the youngsters make the unsettling discovery that Shun’s father was lost at sea during the Korean War, too, and the family photo Shun has of him is identical to that of… now wait just a cotton-picking minute here!!!

Yes, it’s another jaw-droppy-open moment in the annals of Asian cinema: this is a sweetly romantic, U-certificate melodrama about the perils of falling in love with your own long-lost sibling. Death from malnutrition… Genetic Sexual Attraction… is it me or does the subject matter of these naturalistic Ghibli productions suggest people somewhere at the top of the studio are making bets with each other? ‘Okay, Toshiro, I managed to make a cartoon about senile dementia, now pay up.’

Having said that, the sibling-romance element of the story really did grab my attention – the rest of the story, though executed with Ghibli’s customarily gorgeous virtuosity, is a little bit too nice and lacking in incident. Everyone is a charming, decent person, Yokohama is a lovely place to live (it still was when I last went there, by the way: like Blackpool but with more skyscrapers), big businesses are run by kindly patriarchs who listen to reason, and so on.

You’re never really in much doubt as to how the save-the-clubhouse plotline is going to work out, but I really couldn’t be sure which way the sibling-romance story was going to go: surely they weren’t going to…? But then again, this is a Japanese movie, and they do things magnificently differently over there.

Now, obviously, I can’t tell you exactly how the story works out, but I will say I found the manner of its resolution to be the most disappointing part of the film. The climax is very abrupt and almost unforgivably oblique – there’s a big scene where the plot is resolved, but not the following scene where the characters react to this and express their emotional response, as you’d expect in a normal romantic drama. I’m not sure it’s even 100% clear quite what the conclusion is.

Studio Ghibli’s grasp of the narrative virtues is usually so rock-solid that this kind of climactic fumble came as a real surprise. As a result, I can’t imagine anyone would claim this is one of their best films. Nevertheless, it does look as absolutely beautiful as you would expect, there’s surely nothing in the story that could give offence to anyone sensible, and it at least has a certain sort of peculiar novelty value. The results are strangely charming (and perhaps a little charmingly strange), and I suspect this, in addition to the Ghibli cachet, will be enough to find the film a responsive audience.

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