Kubo and the Two Strings

I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.

Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.

Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.

I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.

Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.

I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.

One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.

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I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.

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How to Frame a Cartoon Rabbit

We'll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

We’ll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Does anybody remember back to a time when Robert Zemeckis was making fun movies? Forget his most recent motion-capture fixation (Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol never happened). Now there is only the Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Feels better, don’t it?

Yes, I know. Back to the Future is amazing and Forrest Gump (1994), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Romancing the Stone (1984) were pretty fun, but Roger Rabbit always had a special place in my heart. It was a dark night in some distant relative’s house and I was maybe two or three years old. I was proffered two VHS tapes and was told I could pick the movie. I picked Roger Rabbit because of the funny cartoon on the cover. The other tape was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

The film gave me nightmares for years. Something about the dark and subtly subversive tone and the real life consequences for cartoon hijinks and the “dip” and then the dude getting run over by the steamroller and his eyes bugging out. It was a frightening experience, but I still loved it (much like my memories of The Neverending Story). Today I appreciate it for its clever mix of film noir, cartoon tempo, and snippets of Los Angeles history. Then there’s the special effects. It’s actually amazing how well this movie holds up after over two decades.

Brought to you by "Yummy Cigs." So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Brought to you by “Yummy Cigs.” So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is based on a novel by Gary K. Wolfe which was an innovative combo-tribute to Dashiell Hammett  and the funny pages. The book, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, is almost nothing like the film. The plot is barely comparable and most of the characters are either totally different or nonexistent. The book is a lot of fun though. It reads like a tough, gritty pulp novella with the added whimsy of some creative cartoon mayhem. It’s kind of like if Robert Clampbett rewrote Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (instead of a hard-boiled detective with a prejudice against robots and stuck with one for an important case, it is cartoon characters he holds in contempt). Read the book, but don’t expect to find the movie in it. The film does, however, keep the spirit and feel of the book.

"Work's been kinda slow since cartoons went to color." Saddest line of the movie.

“Work’s been kinda slow since cartoons went to color.” Saddest line of the movie.

The plot of the movie was fairly straightforward. A washed-up detective, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who used to specialize in ‘toon cases before his brother was killed by a ‘toon, scrounges for work in 1947 Hollywood as a private dick. He is hired by cartoon studio executive R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to spy on his star Roger Rabbit’s (voiced by Charles Fleischer) curvaceous wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner). Valiant catches Jessica Rabbit having an extramarital affair—in the form of a clandestine game of patty-cake, but this is serious business for ‘toons—with an eccentric human, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the Gag King. Right after Roger Rabbit is shown the patty-cake pictures he has a tantrum and bolts out of the room, leaving a cute little Roger Rabbit shaped hole in the window. The next morning Marvin Acme turns up murdered (a safe dropped on his head) and Roger is the prime suspect, but when the rabbit shows up at Valiant’s apartment he pleads with the prejudiced flatfoot to take his case and clear his name before the sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his weasel henchman put him to death with the dip (the only way to kill a ‘toon). The rest of the movie follows Valiant uncovering more clues and trying to keep Roger Rabbit out of trouble while also trying to get back with his former girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), and stay a step ahead of Judge Doom and the weasels.

Great Scott.

Great Scott.

The grisly plot of greed, sex, and murder—displayed in a fashion meant to evoke Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, I think—is interesting enough, but the film has more tricks plugged into it. The film’s plot interestingly involves the semi-fictional origins of the real Cloverleaf freeway systems and the death of Southern California’s Red Car trolley line. Another element is the idea of cartoon characters being struggling actors and an oppressed minority in old Hollywood. There’s some serious history and allegory floating in the ether.

It's not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

It’s not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

One of the things that really helps the film’s reality is the inclusion of cartoon characters from several different studios. Disney, Warner Brothers (Mel Blanc reprising most of his roles), MGM, Max Fleischer, and other animation companies all get in on the act. Betty Boop recalls the glory days before cartoons went to color; Donald and Daffy Duck perform a vaudeville piano act together; Droopy Dog operates a Toon Town elevator; the penguins from Mary Poppins apparently are still waiting tables at the Ink and Paint Club; Dumbo and the brooms from Fantasia are on loan and wander around Maroon Cartoon studios backlot; Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny go parachuting together; Porky Pig and Tinkerbell playfully fight for the last word; the cast of 1932′s Flowers and Trees make appearances, and the cartoon cameos are stacked so high in some scenes its impossible to restrain a cartoon buff’s wide-eyed delight.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

The story has a pleasant film noir type arc. The more Eddie Valiant uncovers the darker the situation becomes. At one point Valiant has to chase a fleeing suspect deep into the chaotic bowels of Toon Town and conquer his fears and face truly hilarious and crazy obstacles. Most of the humor comes from comic irony and the unbalanced laws that govern the ‘toon world and how they conflict with the physics of the human world. It all culminates in a very satisfying conclusion with an ultimate showdown between Valiant and the forces of evil. Very dark, very suspenseful, very funny, very innovative, and very visually pleasing.

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Alan Sylvestri’s score combines zany animated antics with sexy 1940s noir bite. The animation is absolutely superb. Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa, Hook) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) are great to watch and necessarily play their parts totally straight—which is why the cartoon comedy works so well. The period setting not only gets to show off classic cars and old timey wardrobe, but it also casts a thick shadow of history over the fantasy. It feels almost like Middle-earth. This could have been a time that really existed. Maybe our grandparents remember cartoon character walking around the neighborhood. As a kid I believed it, which maybe made the film even darker. What happened to to all the cartoons today?

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Zemeckis’s Back to the Future gets a lot of credit for its fun use of comedy, suspense, and time-travel paradoxes (and it’s a great series, true enough), but with my cartoon bent and fondness for old Hollywood and detective stories I can’t help but be slightly biased toward Roger Rabbit. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is remembered as an enormous critical and box office success and for its incredible mixture of live-action and animated characters. Indeed, Roger Rabbit has never been equaled in this category. The integration is seamless and constantly surprising and impressive.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Anchors Aweigh (1945), Mary Poppins (1964), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Pete’s Dragon (1977), and other features made some great efforts at combining the real world with the cartoon world before Roger Rabbit. And Cool World (1992), Space Jam (1996), The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), etc. all attempted after it. None come close to the complexity behind Roger Rabbit. Real chairs move, real shirts are ruffled, real dust is displaced, real glasses are drunk from, real guns and props are carried and manipulated, and real floors feel the weight of cartoon characters. Real people drive animated automobiles, fire cartoon pistols, and are thrown around by cartoon foes. The combination is always pleasing (and a major part of where a lot of the humor comes from). The camera does things never before dreamed of in a film like this. The animation was supervised and directed by the great Richard Williams (of whom I have previously written about in Off The Cobbled Path).

I always really liked the weasel designs.

I always really liked the weasel designs.

The DVD extras feature documentaries on how many of the complex special effects were achieved, and all without the use of computers! Another nice feature on the DVD is the inclusion of all three Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman shorts, Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up (originally played before Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dick Tracy, and A Far Off Place respectively). Decades later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still holds up and stands out. It’s a pleasantly frenetic roller coaster ride through the wild life of cartoon characters and the classic era of Hollywood and it’s a fun detective thriller to boot. There is so much to love and admire about this film. I wish Robert Zemeckis would make another movie like Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Rumors of a Roger Rabbit sequel have been thrown around for the past several years. I honestly hope they leave it alone because I doubt they’d be able to capture the magic of the original.

Also, please don’t remake Back to the Future.

"I've sold meself for a couple of dykes." (Mona Lisa)

“I’ve sold meself for a couple of dykes.” (Mona Lisa)

That’s all, folks!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 29, 2010

More Animated Movies You Didn’t See

Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.

Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man”  (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.

The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).

The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.

The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.

Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.

It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.

Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.

*Check out my review for Song of the South.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011

The Rape of “Fantasia” — Italian Style!

Walt Disney produced one of the most daring animated feature achievements in history when his studio full of talented artists developed Fantasia (1940). From bow to stern Fantasia is a masterwork, a wondrous marriage of classical compositions and powerful animation. It’s beautiful, humorous, imaginative, and willing to surprise at every turn with each new animated technique used to interpret the gorgeous music. Several years after this celebrated film a little Italian movie was made, a sardonic response or riff on this immortal classic.

12More recently I had discovered that my local library carried an old, worn-out VHS of this strange foreign artifact and, as I’d been searching for it for quite some time, I made ready use of my library card. Sadly it is not available in the United States on DVD of Blu-ray yet. With the film in my bookbag, I traveled to yet another library (my old alma mater and then-current place of employment) to utilize their free VCRs. There I was, alone with my thoughts, a headset, a 9 inch TV screen, and a scratchy, used copy of Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976).

An over-confident narrator informs us that we will be witnessing an unprecedented event: brilliant, original animations set to legendary classical music compositions…until Hollywood calls him mid-speech and tells him that someone named Bizney or Frisney already did that in 1940. BUT THE FILM MUST GO ON! And go on it does.

13A group of embittered old ladies are harvested into a livestock truck to be escorted to the theater where their instruments await. With the geriatric band of curmudgeonly females in place, the pompous, bloated, cigar-chomping conductor enters (he reminded me of a svelter Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). The tacit animator is brought out of the dungeon to sketch the music live as it is played. The animator’s slanted desk provides much opportunity for slapstick gags and it proves to be a constant struggle for the mousey, mustachioed artist. With the warped live-action re-imagined elements of Fantasia set, the orchestra comes to life.

11Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is first on the program. A sad, dumpy satyr lopes along through a lush garden inhabited by sleek, sultry, and noticeably nude wood nymphs. The satyr, recognizing his lack of physical appeal, attempts to beautify himself, but nothing works and he gradually shrinks away into misfortune and comical melancholy. The piece presents very human insecurities regarding self-image and unfulfilled desires for sex and love. Like many a great comedy, this short has fun at the expense of its doomed protagonist. This piece has some wonderful sight gags and clever bits of surrealism (such as tempting trees made of legs and boobs, etc.).

You couldn’t have a film like this and not have the ornery conductor beat up on the old ladies. So he does. Don’t worry. But right after his assault on granny we get Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46. This cartoon features a man who will do anything to get away from his intolerable society. He leaves the rocks to build a hut, but everyone in the rocks copies him. He next builds a house and a tower, but the rest of the mindless population just follows suit. He can’t get away! It all culminates in a humorous game of Simon Says that doesn’t go exactly the way the little rebel hoped.

17There is a slop break for the orchestra and nasty tins full of gruel are ladled out to the old ladies and the animator (who fights to keep it on his slanted drawing desk) while the conductor and the narrator enjoy a decadent candlelit meal. When all the food is gone and the woeful animator, still not having ingested a morsel, reaches for a Coke that is snatched away and glugged down by the greedy conductor. He then tosses the bottle carelessly into the audience. Taking cues from both his own anger and the image of a flying bottle, the animator proceeds to sculpt another brilliant short to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.

6This is perhaps the best segment of the whole film. A nearly empty Coke bottle is tossed by a careless astronaut and left on some unknown planet. The remaining drops ooze out of its glass prison and develop eyes, then a nose, sentience, and finally locomotion. The amorphous blob evolves into more complex and surreal organisms and soon an entire food chain and ecosystem is formed and we are following a parade of boneless, squishy dinosaur-like creatures to Boléro‘s wonderful tempo. A mischievous and rather unscrupulous ape-like creature uses a club to kill random critters. As the tormented procession of evolutionary oddities marches on they are badgered by tornadoes, the cross, a spear, a tank, freeways, and are ultimately done in by a booming metropolis. An enormous statue of a man stands alone, but it too finally crumbles and the ape-like creature emerges from the wreckage and shrugs.

5Back in “reality” a gorilla attacks the animator, it snows in the theater, and there is an impromptu dance sequence. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste. This is the saddest piece on the program as it features the optimistic hallucinations of a starving-to-death stray cat (think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”). The cat lives in a ruin of an old house that sits like an island amidst a see of identical cubed buildings. The cat imagines what the house might have been like in its glory days and soon phantoms of past owners appear and fade away. Hungry and alone the cat fades along with the phantoms and what was once a glorious home full of stories, art, and character gets the wrecking ball.

14Next it’s Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major. A fastidious cartoon bee meticulously sets her table (a daffodil full of pollen). Her silverware, napkins, and television all in place and the sun just right she prepares to dine, but is disturbed by a necking couple out for an amorous tumble in the field. This delightfully amusing piece is punctuated by a very funny escalating altercation between the conductor and the animator. Will the arts never see eye to eye?

The last musical piece is Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (which was featured in Fantasia 2000). The music ever so cleverly reinterprets the saga of Adam and Eve. The twist in this version is that the people won’t take the fruit and so the snake eats it himself…and gets thrust into a hellish world of consumerism and pornography (perhaps the same thing?). The snake is tormented by giant demons and exposed to all manner of diabolical and sexually-charged advertisements and other harvests of materialism.

15When the cartoon concludes the animator runs off with the cleaning woman and the orchestra folds, leaving the narrator with no other choice but to ask the dimwitted “Frankenstini” to find a finale. The finale is a grotesque amalgam of images, violence, and what-have-you set to a disruptive cacophony of musical pieces overlapping each other until finally reaching its delirious apex in a violent explosion.

I’ve heard differing arguments for this film; some praising it, others seeing it as a trivial parody of a classic. I admire this film. It is not Fantasia nor does it wish to be. Fantasia was a beautifully imagined experiment executed with precise artistic flourishes and a languid pace. It is an undisputed classic. Allegro Non Troppo might not be as artistically complex, but it is every bit as cunning and all the more biting with its sharp, sardonic wit. Fantasia dealt with what music makes us feel and imagine and did an astounding job. Allegro Non Troppo uses music to conjure cynical but humorous ideas of society and humanity. It deals with adult themes such as urban development, isolation, modernization, death, pain, frustration, sexual longing, and societal disenfranchisement and it does so all with a wry sense of whimsy. Nothing is ever on so grand a scale as it was in Disney’s classic, but this humble film’s intimacy places it in a unique position for a more subtle social satire without distracting presumptuousness. Only a comedy could muse so sharply and eloquently about such human topics. And some segments beautifully parody Fantasia, such as the satyr bit when compared to the centaur scene or their own distinct takes on the march of evolutionary progress.

9I think the films compliment each other nicely and the music is just as lovely and well utilized to convey an idea or story, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The idea of setting clever toons to classic tunes is a fun one. Heck, even Tiny Toon Adventures did an episode like that. I recommend this film (if you can find a copy of this elusive specimen) for anyone who loved Fantasia…or hated it.

Top 1o Reasons to See Allegro Non Troppo

1. Old ladies get beat up and mistreated. Comedy gold!

2. Although the animation might not be as colorful or grandiose as Fantasia, it has a great style all it’s own that Disney could never have pulled off.

3. One thing Allegro Non Troppo does that might suit today’s ADHD audiences is keep all of its musical segments very short. I love Fantasia, but as a kid I always felt like some of those things went on forever.

4. It’s not the artistic slap in Disney’s face you might be expecting, but it’s probably close.

5. The Boléro sequence is a great bit of animation that definitely rivals Disney’s portrayal of the dinosaurs. The difference being that the Fantasia sequence you might show to a biology class, the Allegro Non Troppo sequence you might show to a biology, history, philosophy, or theology class. Think the intro to the animated Dilbert TV show, but much more sly and smarmy.

26. I won’t tell you it’s more sophisticated than Monty Python’s stuff, but some of it definitely reminded me of their style of humor.

7. The animated interaction with the music is subtle but very effective.

8. You might actually laugh and cry. Maybe you won’t. Shut up and watch it.

9. How often do you get to see this much artistic talent coupled with great classical music AND a snarky sense of humor?

10. It’s cleverness and irreverence is overshadowed only by its humorousness.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 2, 2011

That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.

Generic Belgian Boy Sleuth and the Quest for the Implausible Rube-Goldbergian Action Set Pieces

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)When I was a kid I loved The Adventures of Tintin. Hergé’s colorful, mystery-filled world was the perfect amalgam of The Hardy Boys, Johnny Quest, and Emil and the Detectives. I always preferred the boy reporter, Tintin, to Johnny Quest because of the cool time periods and atmosphere. The jury’s still out on whether Snowy is better than Bandit. It was everything a young boy loves: action, adventure, danger, mystery, and rapidly shifting exotic backdrops. Both the comics (published between 1929 and 1976) and the animated series from the early nineties are excellent fun.

Indiana Jones director, Steven Spielberg, it would seem should be the most logical choice to bring the beloved character to the big screen (with aid of one Peter Jackson). Sitting in the theater I can see where people might have some quibbles with the film adaptation. It is jam-packed with wild action sequences and gun play and explosions and very little character development and some of the old-timey flavor and sensibilities might not be what modern audiences are craving. Like most things, there are positive things about Tintin and then there are negative things.

For those uninitiated into the world of Belgian artist Hergé’s Tintin they might not experience that same surge of nostalgia. A film should not be dependent on that surge, especially for a character that might not be as familiar in the United States. Tintin is a flat character. He always was. Even in the comics. One is meant to be experiencing the adventures through Tintin’s eyes. He is a blank cypher so we can more readily assign our own personalities to him. It works in the comics when you’re a kid. This idea may not work so well on the big screen. Despite Tintin’s apparent innocuousness and infernal purity he still looks good on screen. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Munich) plays the evil Professor Sakharine but his motivations are silly and he’s not a particularly memorable screen villain. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) are the bumbling identical detective set of Thomson and Thompson and they play the parts very true to the source material but they do not add much new. Fortunately not all of the characters are so bland. Andy Serkis (The Two Towers, Topsy-Turvy) gives an extremely enjoyable and kooky performance as Capt. Archibald Haddock.

The animation is incredible. I don’t generally like motion-capture films (with the exception of Gil Kenan’s Monster House) and I am not a fan of the current 3D trend, but most of my misgivings regarding motion-capture are gone for Tintin. The photo-realistic textures donned upon Hergé-inspired cartoon features actually work well and gone are the glassy-eyed stares that gave everyone the willies in Robert Zemekis’s Polar Express. The colors pop and the world looks sharp and clear. There is a healthy balance between characters who look real and characters who look like cartoons. Visually it all works. With animation the camera is able to go places and do things that would never be achievable in a live-action film. This glorious freedom of the camera unencumbered by logistics of any kind enables the filmmakers to film the action in incredibly new and exciting ways.One big complaint is that there is too much action. It is a smoke screen to disguise the thinness of plot and absence of engaging personalities. The action does become rather exhausting after awhile and towards the end of the movie I was wanting it to wrap up so I could go home. Instead of mood and solid atmosphere we get action. Instead of a clear objective and understandable character motivations we get action. It’s pretty much wall to wall action once it gets going. It reminded me of the first and last 20 minutes or so of Temple of Doom in that regard. I generally see 3D as a gimmick for rides and shows at Universal Studios or Busch Gardens so I treat The Adventures of Tintin as a big, long, exciting ride that features some of my favorite characters from my childhood. I do feel that although they really wanted this ride to be worth the cost of admission the spectacle does go on about ten minutes too long. I wanted a more satisfying and final conclusion.

So what do I really think about The Adventures of Tintin? I liked it. Thank God it’s not a pop-culture onslaught reboot like The Smurfs and such. It stays extremely true to its source material and would be a good escape for children young and old. Although it’s not nearly as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in many ways it is everything Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was supposed to be but just outright refused to deliver. Perhaps Tintin is Spielberg’s apology and way of saying the whole Crystal Skull business was all George Lucas. For all its faults and limitations The Adventures of Tintin is a fun adventure that hearkens back to classic action-mystery stories of childhood yore. I don’t think Hergé would have had many objections to the film. I hope kids will like it. It’s about time American kids got a little bit more exposure to culture.