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animated

The Red Turtle (2017)
Written Michaël Dudok de Wit & Pascale Ferran
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit

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An unnamed man is struggling to stay afloat during a violent storm on the ocean. He wakes up on the shores of a deserted island. After finding a source of fresh water and fruit, the man decides to use the bamboo that grows on the island to build a raft. His first attempt fails when an unseen force from beneath breaks the raft apart. After two more attempts, he finally spots the culprit, a giant red sea turtle. From there the relationship between the man and this turtle takes some unexpected turns and becomes a film about the stages of human life.

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The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Directed by Chris McKay

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Batman (Will Arnett) is living the life. He fights villains every night, drives and flies around in amazing machines, and hangs out in his comically huge mansion. Everything changes at Commissioner Gordon’s retirement party when the new police boss has plans to phase Batman out of the picture. Bats also meets orphan Richard Grayson (Michael Cera) who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. Alfred the butler (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned about his employer’s lack of personal relationships and hopes Grayson can remedy that. Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has big plans to solidify his reputation as Batman’s greatest enemy.

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Moana (2016, dir. Ron Clements, John Musker)

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Moana is captivated by the stories her grandmother tells about her people and their mythology. The story of the demigod Maui particularly inspires a sense of exploration in the young woman. However, she is the daughter of the village leaders and is expected to maintain life on the island as it is. The ocean begins to communicate with Moana, and she learns from her grandmother that their people used to sail across the ocean living on different islands. When Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, darkness began to spread across the world. That darkness has reached the shores of their island and Moana cannot stay put any longer. She sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, saving her people.

In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, a film that would serve as the template for princess movies to come for the next 25+ years. Moana very closely follows that formula: A young woman expected to follow the expectations of her parents, she feels a yearning to travel beyond the borders of the land she knows, an event occurs that pushes her beyond the boundaries, she has a weird/silly/funny pet, she conquers a great evil despite feeling apprehensions. It is the traditional hero’s journey story that has cleverly replaced the original Disney style of princess stories. If you haven’t seen movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty recently then you may have forgotten how annoying the characters are. Those earlier animations seem more like an exercise in animation technique more than a story about characters with arcs. So, while I greatly appreciate Disney presenting stories about more active rather than reactive princesses, I hope that we continue to see diversity in character but also in the way stories are told and the types of stories being told. Zootopia highly impressed me as a kind of story I haven’t seen from Disney before.

Moana is a lot of fun, but I know I am not the intended audience for this film. It’s a children’s film and thus the story arcs are very evident and classical. There’s not a lot of character complexity but that wouldn’t be appropriate for the intended audience. One element I greatly appreciated was that the film doesn’t have a villain that follows the characters through the whole movie. This lets the movie feel like an actual myth being retold and keeps the focus on Moana’s arc rather than subplots. There are some antagonists who show up, my personal favorite being the Kakamora, animated coconut pirates. The sequence where these monsters attack has been revealed to be a direct reference to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is just subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as a crass pop culture reference. The film’s final obstacle in the form of Te Ka the lava demon has a clever twist that shies away from the act of killing the “final boss”. Lately, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to films that don’t follow the traditional black/white good/evil dichotomy. And it is very refreshing to see this in a children’s film.

I was very impressed with the level of computer animation. It took me awhile to be sold on the aesthetic as a replacement to classic cel animation for Disney pictures, but at this point, they have really perfected it. I’m not one who expects CG to be “realistic,” I’d rather see the technology be used to create the fantastic and impossible. Why recreate something we can already see in the real world when you can make something look real that could never be. While watching Moana, I was captivated by the texture and weight of objects. The previously mentioned Kakamora looked more like stop motion animation than something that was flat and two dimensional. People still look flat to me, but the world around them (grass, trees, water, man-made objects) looked like you could lift and hold them.

With Moana and Zootopia up against each other at the Oscars, I would still have to give it to Zootopia. This is not a slight to Moana, but an acknowledgment that Zootopia was a kind of story we have never had in as much depth and relevance from Disney before. Moana, while an excellent example of Disney creating more diverse characters, follows a very traditional and unsurprising story arc. It’s a film I’m sure kids and parents will enjoy watching again. Zootopia is a larger statement that I suspect will be remembered and studied in a way Disney films don’t traditionally do.

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Zootopia is the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny who travels from the farm to the big city with one dream: to become a police officer and make the world a better place. The force is made up of much larger beasts (lions, tigers, bears, etc.) and Judy is put on meter maid duty. This innocuous job leads her into the path of con-fox Nick Wilde and on the trail of a missing otter. The duo explore the various boroughs of Zootopia and travel deeper and deeper down a winding trail of mystery and political intrigue. Along the way, they discover the harmful power of stereotypes and work to recognize each other as unique animals.

The world of Zootopia, a place where predators and prey live in harmony, is well built. A lot of time was spent on worldbuilding and it shows. Much like Pixar films where every frame is filled with details, Zootopia gives us a city that is populated to the gills. I started to think about how much fun it would be to explore this world in a well made video game and see all the corners the film didn’t have the time to reveal to us. We spend most of our time in Savanna Central, the most diverse borough. However, we also visit Tundratown (hope to an homage to the Godfather), the Rainforest District (which features one of the most thrilling action sequences of the film), and Little Rodentia (a miniaturized version of Greenwich Village, home to mice, shrews, and voles).

About halfway through the film, I immediately began to think about Black Lives Matters. The main plot of the film is touching upon current events: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, the continuing violence and racial profiling of police against black people. The film does this in an unexpected way. Traditionally, predators have been presented, not just in Disney productions but all media,  as bloodthirsty villains (Shere Khan, Scar, The Big Bad Wolf, the list goes on). Zootopia clearly wants to challenge that assumption as a way to talk to adults and kids about the destructive effects they have on individuals. All Foxes are crafty and liars, right? Lions just want to tear apart the closest gazelle. It would have been so easy for the film to become heavy handed and obvious with its themes, but the screenplay handles them masterfully. You’re not being preached at, you’re being told a well developed story about two individuals whose perspectives are changing.

Disney Animation doesn’t seem to have the prolific output of Pixar, but when they do release a film it’s of the highest quality (Tangled, Frozen). Zootopia is definitely one of the best and fully realized films that have released to to date. The film never panders to its audience and adheres to presenting a well developed narrative with a rich cast of characters. While the film isn’t art house animation, it never backs down from dealing with difficult and complex ideas.

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I have a complicated history with anime. First off, I am not an anime fan. There are specific works that I have enjoyed, but as a genre I rarely seek it out. In childhood, I got caught up in the super sentai (think Power Rangers) cartoon serial Ronin Warriors when it aired in syndication one summer. In college I saw the standards (Akira, Vampire Hunter D, lots of Miyazaki). It was in college that one of my roommates rented Ghost in the Shell, but decided to watch it at 3am in the morning and I only remembered faint images. With the upcoming Scarlett Johanssen adaptation I thought it would be good to sit down and watch this now classic anime film.

Motoko Kusanagi is a team leader in Section 9, a paramilitary police organization in an unnamed urban sprawl of the future. Kusanagi is a full body cybernetic being, meaning she was once a human with an organic body who went through a process to transfer her consciousness into a Shell, a la she is the Ghost in the Shell (words are fun). The main case that our protagonist is pursuing is to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious terrorist hacker who has caused deadly trouble across the globe. This leads her into an exploration of her understanding of what makes her human and in turn what she will become.

There’s no argument that Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning. There is minimal computer generated animation, used in the internet and map visualizations. For the most part this is gorgeous hand drawn cel animation and reminds us what a glorious craft and art that style of animation still is. At the halfway mark, there is a famous break in the action for a tour of this future cityscape. This sequence could be cut and out and used as complete short film. As a piece of animation the film stands as a work that transcends the idea of animation as a exclusively children’s genre or something that is schlock.

When we get the themes of the film I start to get less enthusiastic. There is no way you can miss the themes of the film because they are wielded like a sledgehammer. Characters regularly talk in a hyper-philosophical manner, not as terrible as The Architect monologue from Matrix Reloaded, but in the same vein. The film was based on a manga so I suspect, as I found when I read Akira after seeing the film, volumes of content had to be cut to make the run-time. The brevity of the film also left me feeling little connection to the characters. I understood who the Puppet Master was and what happens to Kusanagi but it felt like it all happened so fast I had little time to connect with them.

I am able to see why Ghost in the Shell is such an important work, it builds upon groundwork laid by Philip K Dick and William Gibson in positing not just the technical conceits of our future, but in the philosophical and psychological future of humanity. It also has obviously inspired directors like the Wachowskis and James Cameron in the way they explore notions of human consciousness and altering our forms. I can see revisiting this film in the future to glean more and I am even inclined to delve into the manga to see this world fleshed out further.

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My first encounter with Charlie Kaufman, like most who know his work, came in the film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and it was a truly off kilter, intriguing film. It seemed that more of his work came in quick succession via Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After a brief lull he released his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. And now is his strangest visual work, Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the story of Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), the author of books on effective customer service. He’s come to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at some sort of convention (the film keeps those details vague). Michael has a problem when it comes to other people, something I won’t spoil here, that causes him to never fully connect or interact in a meaningful way. He eventually meets Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he begins to think things are turning around for him.

Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems drive Michael deeper into need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.

The choice to make Anomalisa a stop motion animated film might seem like a bit of visual vanity if you’ve just seen the trailers. The filmmakers strive for realism out of the characters, which they truly achieve. It is the context of Michael’s disorder when he views others that makes the animated elements essential. There is no way the film could have been done in live action and get across the alienation that the animation choices provide. A crucial scene between Michael and Lisa in the film’s third act is the ultimate realization of why stop motion was essential to the film.

This is not a “fun” movie to watch, much of Kaufman’s work is not. There was a backlash as the film made its way through the film festival circuit about the unsavory aspects of the Michael character and speculation as to what moral judgments Kaufman was attempting to convey. In my own viewing, I never felt that it was communicated to the audience that Michael was a positive character and I do not believe Kaufman was attempting to make him sympathetic. The director simply wanted to make him a “true” character. What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At it’s core, this is anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle aged men pass to rediscover themselves.

If you allow yourself to view Anomalisa on Kaufman’s terms you will end up with a film experience that will not leave you easily. If you are uncomfortable, then that is good because that was the intent of the film. Anomalisa is about the narcissistic malaise most privileged people find themselves in after achieving a certain level of success. It is about the struggle humanity continually has in forging real connections with others that don’t focus on what emotional energy you can take from them.



A Town Called Panic (2009, dir. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar)

This is a singularly unique French language animated feature that highlights something I have always loved in French animated movies. They are able to construct an elaborate and rich universe in a little over an hour. A Town Called Panic is a surreal and bizarre picture that is using a style of stop motion animation that is hard to describe. The characters are designed to look like toy figurines of cowboys, Indians, farmers, and other people. There are no moving mouths and no facial animations, simply very frenetic body movement and voice acting that nails the weirdness of this world.

The appropriately named Town Called Panic is a place where crisis is an everyday occurrence. In one large house lives Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. Horse is the level headed of the trio and in love with a fellow equine who teaches music as the conservatory in town. Its Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian order 500 bricks to build a barbecue, however, a typing error makes that 5 million. The result is that their house is crushed by bricks. Every day they rebuild, but every night the entire house disappears. They stakeout one night and discover the weird truth behind things.

These are all hyperactive and manic characters, save Horse who keeps a level head. Part of the humor are Cowboy and Indian’s sudden leaps from passivity to complete and utter chaos. They scramble about trying to cover their errors but inevitably make things worse. There’s also a lot of humor from moments where you would expect characters to panic, that Cowboy and Indian are surprisingly unphased. Its comedy that doesn’t have any profound message or point, its akin to early Looney Toons where stories were given over to chaos and insanity.

The jokes never become vulgar or profane, so its a suitable substitute for typical maudlin family fare. In many ways I saw similarities to The Triplets of Belleville, both films created very specific characters that are richly detailed while using broad strokes. It’s also a statement against the current domination of CG animated features. At the end of the day, its not the bells and whistles an animated film can lay claim too but the creativity and inventiveness working behind the scenes.