The Animated Movies You Didn’t See

A few weeks ago I highlighted a few films that might have been hovering under some folks’ radar: Zazie dans le metro, Brewster McCloud, The Hour-Glass Sanitorium, and Skritek. These films all had a few things in common, one of them being that they were all live-action films. As a huge fan of animators and animation I felt it only necessary to highlight a few great animated films that also might not be as well-known. Today you shall be educated about Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008). Much like my article about obscure live action films where we hopped from France to America to Poland and onward to the Czech Republic, this week we shall also bounce around to different countries as we celebrate the animated movies you didn’t see.

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Rene Laloux is a French animator who started out working with mentally ill people, helping them make films as therapy. This feature-length movie, Fantastic Planet (1973), directed by Laloux was a French-Czechoslovakian production based on a novel by Stefan Wul. It is a science fiction film with a very unique style (designed by artist Roland Topor) and full of  bizarre sounds and music (composed by Alain Goraguer). The story follows a small human creature (called Oms in the film), named Terr. Terr’s mother is killed by one of the giant blue humanoid Draags who rule the planet and basically treat the Oms as pests. Terr is adopted and raised as a pet by the young Draag girl, Tiva. He is adorned in humiliating plumage (akin to putting a sweater on a dog) and given a doll’s house to live in and is alternately loved on and mildly abused by Tiva for much of his developing life. Since Oms develop several times faster than Draag’s, Terr soon grows enough to where he can learn from the Draags. Terr wanders the home and studies them and assimilates their knowledge via a headband that is used to teach young Draags. Terr eventually flees his captives and winds up amidst the civil wars of the wild Oms. With some struggle, Terr integrates into their society, but with his inside knowledge and understanding of the oppressive Draags coupled with his bravery, Terr teaches the wild Oms and unites them to revolt.

If the story sounds familiar it is because I suspect L. Ron Hubbard ripped it off when he wrote his acclaimed Battlefield Earth. As the story unfolds and Terr’s journey takes him to many unusual places, we learn more about the history and the cultures of both societies and how they came together. The story of Terr on the Fantastic Planet is really secondary to the style of this film for me though. The movie plays more like a psychedelic nature special or anthropology study. The style is so odd and wonderful and memorable that even if this wasn’t a great movie, I’d still have to recommend it. Some of the best sequences (in my humble opinion) are the moments without dialogue and the weird creatures and bizarre rituals simply carry on. First class animated science fiction fun. The DVD also comes with Laloux’s award winning short, Les scargots (1965).

tom thumbThe next film hails from Great Britain and it is easily the weirdest movie on the list. Dave Borthwick directed one of the most bent interpretations of a classic fairytale you are likely to ever stumble upon. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993) is a dark and twisted stop-motion animated feature that follows the life of the mute, fetus-like Tom Thumb who is kidnapped by scientists, meets mutated apparitions in a lab, escapes with the help of a cybernetic lizard-monster, meets a settlement of elf-like creatures led by Jack the Giant Killer and (like Terr in Fantastic Planet) uses his understanding of the giants and the elves to try and bring about peace and reunite with his Giant father.

The giants munch grotesque, slippery bugs and terrorize the elf people for sport. Tom Thumb, being the only innocent, might be the only one who can bring peace to the world. The film is much more of a riddle than I have explained, so please watch it. The real pleasure of Tom Thumb comes from the fantastic look of the film and the bizarre humor and fantastically dense and strange atmosphere. It is at times a comedy, a tragedy, an action movie, a spy flick, a film noir, etc. It is a stop-motion film, but only half of the cast are clay puppets, the rest are human performers and they are also manipulated via stop-motion in a slow-going process called pixelation. This process gives the film a very distinct flavor and also allows for the seamless integration and interaction of puppet characters with human actors. Even after seeing it five times the finale still baffles me a bit (see it for yourself). Overall the film is very perplexing and odd, but ultimately a lot of fun and comes recommended for those with a cock-eyed idea of how fairy tales should be told.

Kirikou-and-the-SorceressThe next film is for anyone whose most vivid idea of Africa comes from The Lion King. Although it is set Africa, Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), is actually a French and Belgian production, but the dialogue was recorded in South Africa. The story is based on a West African folktale and follows the saga of a small boy named Kirikou (again, like Tom Thumb in the last movie, the main character is extremely tiny and slightly fetal). Kirikou is born a precocious, curious lad with boundless energy. The tribal village Kirikou is born into is comprised only of women and children because the evil sorceress has allegedly devoured all of the men (who have each attempted to vanquish her and obviously failed). The sorceress has also dried up all of the water in the spring. Since Kirikou is pure-hearted and innocent he seeks to solve all of his tribe’s problems, but they all think he is too young to understand and too small to be able to help. Kirikou decides to do what is right even if no one will believe in him except his mother. Whenever he does something great the tribe praises him, but they soon forget. He saves his uncle the warrior, and he rescues the children from evil enchantment, and he slays the gluttonous creature who drinks all the water, and then he journeys under the ground (to avoid the gaze of the sorceress’s minions) to get advice from his grandfather. His grandfather, who is full of wisdom, gives Kirikou the inside scoop on the sorceress: she’s actually a victim of sorcery herself. With his newfound knowledge of the tribe’s foe, Kirikou again goes underground with the intent to save the sorceress and his village.

Without giving the ending away I’ll assure you it all ends okay, but perhaps not the way you might have expected. The cel-animation is beautiful and stylized and the average movie-goer will probably notice that this particular cartoon has a lot more nudity than your normal children’s movie (nearly all of the characters are naked). The film features many fun, kid-size adventures and acts of bravery and endearing characters full of spirit. It’s a beautifully drawn little film that avoids any pop-culture references or bombastic, hyper-kinetic plot or action that plague so many forgettable American family films. Kirikou and the Sorceress comes highly recommended for anyone willing to give the little guy a chance to prove his mettle.

sitaSo ends our theme of diminutive protagonists on treks through lands of giants. The final film I would like to shine the spotlight on is Sita Sings the Blues (2009) directed by American artist, Nina Paley. The film is a mostly flash animated retelling of the famous Indian epic, “The Ramayana” (told from Sita’s perspective rather than Rama’s). The film really follows multiple stories or rather multiple versions of the same story. The first story is (I think) an autobiographical account of Nina herself as she is pushed away by her aloof boyfriend after he leaves for India. The second story follows the tragic, but ultimately empowering tale of Sita, the wife of Prince Rama. Sita’s story can really be broken up into three stories: first there is a trio of bickering Indian shadow puppet narrators (reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger’s work in The Adventures of Prince Achmed) who are trying to get the story right; then there are the “Ramayana” characters bound by the words of the narrators and who act out the tale; and finally there are parts of the narrators’ story that stop abruptly and transform into blues songs featuring the voice of Annette Hanshaw emerging from the mouth of Sita. All of the Hanshaw recordings are from the 1920s, giving a very unique flavor to an already unique movie.

Nina’s story (animated in a more contemporary sketchy style) parallels the saga and plight of Sita (whose story is animated like classic Indian art) and the songs of Annette Hanshaw (which are animated in an ultra-smooth, cartoony flash style) provide excellent musical summaries of the emotional state of both Nina and Sita. The style of animation changes for each plotline (Nina, Sita, Henshaw, and the narrators) and although it’s all told rather loosely and bouncily, we are always invested in their struggles. Paralleling a contemporary woman’s struggle with a classic Indian epic and interpreting both through the dulcet tones of Hanshaw’s voice from old ’20s recordings is sheer brilliance. . . in my humble opinion. The animation is clever and colorful, the story keeps moving and is always surprising, and the blues songs are especially enjoyable and experiencing them in this innovative fashion breathes new life into them. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a vibrant tale told with passion and skill and is available almost anywhere online. Another amazing aspect to this already enchanting film is that Nina did it all by herself. Check it out.

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All of these films are wonderful in their own unique ways. I loved every one of them. Whether it’s the strange, Seussian science fiction of Fantastic Planet you crave or the peculiarly dark fairy tales of The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb that tickles your fancy, I hope you check them out. Or for those of you fascinated by the cultural fables and folktales of Kirikou and the Sorceress or the vibrant, creative re-imaginings of classic cultural sagas found in Sita Sings the Blues, I strongly encourage you find these films and watch them. If it’s gotta be animation and it’s gotta be something new then please do yourself a favor and treat yourself to some truly original works of art. And don’t forget to also check out The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Brenden and the Secret of the Kells, Robot Carnival, Angel’s Egg, Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs for more brilliant animated films. And keep a lookout for my upcoming articles on George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler and more.

picture references:

galwayafricanfilmfestival.com

insidecatholic.com

senseofcinema.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 12, 2010

You’re an Odd Man, Charlie Bronson

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One of my favorite films of 2009 seems to have been missed by many mainstream audiences at the time. Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) directs and Tom Hardy (Dark Knight Rises) stars in the British prison film and quasi-biopic based on the life of Charlie Bronson, Bronson (2009).

Prisoner.

Prisoner.

Actor

Actor

Now if you are like me (a.k.a. American), you are probably thinking of Death Wish (1974) star Charles Bronson (also in The Great Escape and Once Upon a Time in the West). I made the same mistake when I first heard the title.

The British Charles Bronson is infamous for being one of the most violent and most expensive prisoners in Great Britain. Born Michael Peterson, this flamboyant, mustachioed figure has become something of a celebrity from his jail cell. He was arrested in 1974 for robbing a post office and, although his original sentence was very short, he has built up his sentence through his violent, troublesome behavior in prison. He has been released a few times, but always has managed to wind up back on the inside. He is in prison today. He has spent the past 30 years in solitary confinement. He has written books about his experiences in prison and about how to keep in shape on a prison diet. Charlie Bronson, despite his propensity for violence, is a truly intriguing personality and the film, Bronson, is an immensely pleasurable romp through his brain.

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I first saw Bronson at a special screening at the wonderful Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood. I had no preconceptions going in. I didn’t know much about the film before I saw it. It was a fantastic surprise. Director, Refn, and star, Hardy, answered some questions about the film following the screening. Refn wanted the film to be more of a comment or treatise on art and the artist’s struggle. Refn saw the film more as a metaphorical biopic of himself. Tom Hardy, genuinely fascinated by the real man, said he was just a very weird person, but he has his principles. It was Hardy’s goal to show the real Bronson. Refn’s skill and attention to the craft and Hardy’s fascination with Bronson was channeled into a phenomenal performance inside of a highly energetic and stylistic movie.  Refn did not set out to make a straight biopic about the famous prisoner, or even make your ordinary prison movie. And he succeeds on both counts. Bronson is a lush, kinetic descent into the odd mind of one man who is searching for something elusive and in his search sort of discovers a piece of himself.

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The character of Charlie Bronson becomes a symbol for the artist’s journey. Dissatisfied and unwelcome in this confusing, ever-changing world, the extremely ambitious Bronson seeks to create his own reality within the system.

Violence is just another means of self-expression in this case. The movie takes place almost entirely inside the mind of Bronson. He stands alone on a stage in his head and recounts his story to the attentive and empathetic theater patrons of his imagination. He tells of his boyhood and the fights he would get into. He tells of his first incarceration and the wondrous freedom he discovered inside. He tells of his bare-knuckle boxing career and of the women he may have loved. He tells of his commitment—by the authorities who were confused with what to do with him—to a mental institution he did not particularly care for. He tells of the havoc he vengefully and desperately wreaked on his doctors and wardens. He pridefully tells of the mayhem and chaos he spread throughout the several prisons he was transferred to. He tells of his time in solitary confinement. And he tells of his foray into the world of art.

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Bronson flows like a series of alternatively violent and humorous montages set to some of the best compilation of tunes you are likely to find in a single movie. A heavily drugged Bronson struggling to leave a sea of dancing loonies to the Petshop Boys “It’s a Sin” is one of the most hilarious scenes ever (and slightly reminiscent of Twelve Monkeys). The whole movie is a show and it is centered around Charlie Bronson’s (Tom Hardy’s) dynamic performance. In one minute Bronson will be bone-crunching action and in the next minute, cutting comedy…but most of the time it’s a bit of both.

There is no place in the world for a troubled artist or for Charlie Bronson because the people in  charge see the world differently and relate to it differently. What is it that either entity truly desires? Who can put words to it? Bronson is never sure what he is looking for, but he keeps looking anyway. An artist or Charlie Bronson may never hammer out the specifics of their goals, but they will constantly try to change it all and make the world make sense to them by applying their own rules to it.

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Why see it? The music is great and imaginatively employed. The direction and pace are dynamic and beautifully stylized. The tempo and comedy are odd and disturbing (in a very good way). And Tom Hardy’s performance is one of the zaniest and most enjoyable performances I’ve seen in years. The film is an absolute delight. At the end of the day you don’t have to know what the film was really trying to say beneath its tough, rough and tumble exterior because it’s just a really fun movie. Refn has ironically called this “man movie” a rather “feminine film” because of the themes and the way the story is told. You will simply have to watch it and see for yourself.

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After the screening at the theater I had to shake Mr. Hardy’s hand and thank him for such a wonderful show. It was a privilege I have never had before (thanking the actors of the film following the movie) and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do so with Bronson. Go watch it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 29, 2010.