Saturday, October 29, 2005

Animation in its myriad forms

I love animation, and not just for the reasons that most geek-culture folks in their twenties and thirties do. Sure, the ability to create entire new worlds, to tell stories that can't be told in other media, and to use an unreal but beautiful and artistic aesthetic are part of it. But while I'll argue that animation isn't just kid stuff with the best of them, I must admit to liking that it is. Half of these movies are delightfully G-rated; and while that isn't a virtue in and of itself, I don't mind spending an hour and a half watching a funny movie without the use of swearwords, bathroom humor, and anything but the mildest of innuendos. I've taken issue with people describing something as lowest common denominator as a perjorative before, since it doesn't mean exactly what people think it means. But, then again, the people who use that phrase are focused on the "lowest" rather than the "common" (and the they probably couldn't tell you what a denominator is).

Wallace & Grommit is LCD; it's something that everyone should be able to enjoy because it doesn't exclude anybody. I'll probably recommend it to the Weatherbee girls next time I see them, for instance, even though they're 25 years my junior, they should enjoy it. I imagine my grandparents would too. That's common ground.

The lesson? English majors and other critical types shouldn't try to appropriate math terms, and us science/math nerds shouldn't try to write criticism. Especially not after midnight.

(Of course, if I adjust my clock now, before going to bed, it'll say 11:30, but it's still really after midnight, as the time doesn't change until 2am).

Porco Rosso

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2005 in Jay's Living Room (Unwatched DVDs)

Hayao Miyazaki is a giant. If most people with some knowledge of the medium had to write up a short list of the most important animators in the history of the field, he'd likely be on many, many lists (my top five would run Windsor McKay, Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka, Miyazaki, and John Lasseter, in chronological order). The trouble with such a reputation is that when one comes upon a movie that is merely very good, the temptation is to focus not on how fine a film it is when compared to its contemporaries, but how it falls short of the master's other works.

That's terribly unfair. I admit, I don't love this film the way I do Castle in the Sky or Howl's Moving Castle, but that's mainly due to the extended fistfight that serves as the climax. It's exhausting and punishing - I don't think I can remember another animated movie where the characters looked so painfully bruised by the end - and I wanted the final big set-piece to be something aerial. The tagline on the DVD was "Pigs Can Fly", after all. So, I wasn't terribly fond of one aspect of the film, but there were many others that I did rather like.

Start with the character designs. The title character's is striking, of course - a humanoid pig with fully articulated (though gloved) fingers and french mustaches peeking out from under his snout, dressed in a trenchcoat and snazzy aviator sunglasses. But the fully-human characters are nice as well - mechanic Fio is all soft curves that highlight her femininity and youth without over-sexualizing her, while old friend Gina is more angular, given a hint of femme fatale, but not too much, since her main characterization is that of someone who has taken wisdom from an adventurous youth but has mostly settled down. Meanwhile, the villains look suitably distorted; not quite monstrous, but wearing their badness on their sleeve.

Then there's the whole overall feel of the movie. Like many of Miyazaki's films, it takes place in a fantasy world, where not only are there air pirates, but a man can be cursed to look like a pig and not arouse too much notice, despite being the only anthropomorphic animal on the island, but is also grounded in a real time and place. It's clearly the 1930s Mediteranean, with the threat of the upcoming war hanging over everything, and flight about to move from being the domain of a few adventurers to being a major military and commercial concern. It's not completely melancholy, or even mostly so. There's plenty of exciting aerial action, including a wonderful sequence where a group of orphan girls prove not to be the sort of frightened hostages the pirates had expected. Porco Rosso is kind of slow-paced compared to many American adventure movies, in that it's not continuously trying to top the previous set-piece, but it makes its adventurous moments count.

I'd like more. But I'm greedy that way.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2005 at AMC Chestnut Hill #5 (first-run)

As an audience member, there are certain things I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to. John Cleese's voice, for instance. It's got a humorous sneering tone, and has been associated with so many funny things, that I start to laugh as soon as I hear it. This, apparently, holds true even if the lines he delivers as an English pigeon captured by Nazi falcons are nowhere near as funny as what he did in Monty Python.

There is, in fact, a ridiculous amount of great English voice talent on this movie - Cleese, of course, along with Ewan MacGregor, Ricky Gervais, Tim Curry, Rik Mayall, Jim Broadbent, John Hurt, and Hugh Laurie - whose actual accent already sounds strange after just a year of regular exposure to him playing an American on House. And why not? It's a slick-looking British production with a clever concept thats appealing in perhaps being something their kids would like and taking place against the backdrop of World War Two, justifiably a source of pride for the British people.

As such, Valiant has nothing to be ashamed of. For every awkward "Charles de Girl" groaner, the film offers up a bit of charm, or adventure, or understated bit of patriotism. A bit at the end where Hugh Laurie's pigeon treats his escape from certain death as no big deal seemed especially amusing. And it hits the right note for its young primary audience, with Ewan MacGregor's undersized, underestimated title pigeon succeeding against odds because of his small stature. The movie's alsoshort enough to not wear out its welcome.

One thing that did seem odd, though, was how empty the movie sometimes felt. It's not a film about anthropomorhic animals, but one set in our world with cartoonified creatuers who build their homes out of things discarded by humans. Valiant even makes a speech about how "they" built the great cities where the pigeons roost. But we almost never see any around, even when the camera pulls back for a shot of an eerily empty London. I don't know whether it was a creative choice or a decision not to spend processor power on things that ultimately don't effect the movie much, but it creates a strange effect - many of the environments well are out of proportion to the characters, but there's no frame of reference to what would fit. Strange-looking.

Corpse Bride

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

I like animated films to have a specific aesthetic, and use abstraction and worlds designed from scratch to make every frame an expression of some thought rather than just an attempt to replicate the real world. And there's no doubt Corpse Bride does that, with its big heads and tiny limbs, and different color schemes. If anything, it perhaps suffers from knowing this a little too well.

Corpse Bride is the story of Victor van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp), whose nouveau riche parents have arranged a marriage to the daughter of the local nobility. It's a sound transaction, one which will elevate the van Dorts' profile and the Everglots' liquidity, and that Victor and Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson) are actually as well-matched as their names is an unexpected bonus. However, when Victor drops the ring during a break from the wedding rehearsal, a peculiar series of events leaves him bound to Emily (voice of Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman murdered on her wedding night who pulls Victor over to the "other side".

Read the rest at HBS.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

How good is the Wallace & Gromit movie? It's so good that Ralph Fiennes is funny for perhaps the first time in his life. It's so good that what is basically the same joke is still funny the third time it is used. It is, in short, just as good as you would expect a Wallace & Gromit movie to be.

For those not familiar with the pair, Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis) is a cheese-loving inventor and Gromit is his dog. Gromit is, as animated canines are wont to be, the brains of the operation, though he doesn't speak. Their current project is a humane pest control service, helping their neighbors rid themselves of rabbit infestations in the weeks leading up to the village's annual giant vegetable competition. Trouble is, the bunnies are eating them out of house and home, so Wallace tries a new invention to try and curb their veg-destroying urges. Of course, these things never work right on the first try...

Read the rest at HBS.

Next up: The Lightning Round!

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