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Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011 – 13)

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment

GLHeader

I suppose I should not be even faintly embarrassed to admit watching animated versions of the superhero stories. I read the comics decades ago when I was a child (and sometimes later). Seeing traditional characters in animated form is a pleasing way of updating and developing old ideas. For, yes, when you only have a few pages in illustrated form to play with, the ideas tend to be superficial when the edition is a stand-alone. Even when the narrative arcs stretch over multiple issues, there’s no real chance to go into the character development and plotting sophistication possible in novel form. This makes the “half-hour” animated format more appealing because seeing the characters interact offers more scope than a static drawing with speech bubbles.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series is a case in point. This comprises two narrative arcs of thirteen episodes which show Hal Jordan and a team come together to meet a variety of different challenges. The structure is a balance between the broader development of character and plot, and the immediate need for an “adventure” subplot for the individual episodes. I’m not going to go through the individual episodes but there are a number of elements that are worthy of comment.

Kilowog

Kilowog

When the first episode kicks off, we have Hal Jordan, Kilowog and an advanced AI to control the systems of the ship called the Interceptor as the core team members. The AI who’s addressed by the name Aya becomes pivotal to the major emotional narrative arc. Although this is a rerun of Pygmalion, it manages to set up and then develop the trope in a particularly pleasing way. The original myth was first committed to paper by Ovid in Metamorphoses. The point of the story is that the inanimate can become animate. In the first version, a statue comes to life. In this animated version, the onboard ship’s computer becomes self-aware and, later, creates a body for herself. Her “mistake” is to base her physical appearance on Razer’s dead wife Ilana. Aya believes this likeness will be more appealing to Razer, not understanding that successful long-term relationships are based on personalities, not on simulated external appearances. This departs from the traditional story in which artists create a representation and then animate it through their love. Obviously a team of individuals would have worked together to code the AI system, but this artifact is essentially intangible. The “person” is brought into being through interaction with the crew and the effect of exposure to the pure Green Lantern energy. Over time, the artificial “person” becomes increasingly “real”. This is drawing on the later idea found in Pinocchio where the wooden puppet becomes a real boy, except Aya retains an artificial body, later plugged into the remnants of the Anti-Monitor.

The second theme is the generality of human emotions, principally of rage, fear and love. It may be simplistic, but the culture of the Red Lanterns and Razer’s slow embrace of a more peaceful outlook on life represents the “teaching” element in the series. Insofar as any series of this type is able to influence the fanbase in its behaviour, the evolution of Razer into a potential Blue Lantern is making a peaceful worldview appear more cool. Similarly, although the imagery is annoyingly clichéd, the discovery of the yellow crystals in episode 8 offers the chance to consider whether fear is a positive or negative emotion. Some people are motivated to act because they are afraid of the consequences of inaction. This can lead to spectacular successes and we acknowledge those individuals as brave. Others are paralysed by fear and hide themselves away in the usually forlorn hope the threat will somehow overlook them. As we move into love, this dual nature of fear comes sharply into focus. People often fail to say what should be said if relationships are to be formed and maintained. Episode 9 therefore plays with the superficial world of sexual attraction, ignoring the reality of the emotions underpinning what happens in the long term when relationships mature.

Razer and Aya

Razer and Aya

It’s amusing to see Hal Jordan confront his replacement on Earth and his alternate when he travels into a steampunk dimension. Jealousy is just another way of addressing the fear that status or reputation has been damaged or lost. When you’re working your way into a role, you build up your self-confidence by telling yourself you’re the best. When you later come back and meet a young man doing exactly the same, it’s difficult not to feel threatened. That’s where humility comes in. The mature leader embraces the newcomers and helps them. Thematically, the steampunk version in Episode 16 plays this perfectly with Steam Lantern being almost excessively humble. It takes Hal Jordan to build up the man’s self-image so the alternate can accept himself a truly heroic. In a sense it also plays with the same idea at a societal level. The culture is doing its best to survive with only limited resources. The one scientific genius has saved the world by doing a deal with the Anti-Monitor, but then has problems in readjusting the scale of his thinking to meet the immediate needs of the people. With the fight appropriately led by a woman in an airship, democracy is restored and the world “saved”.

Steampunk meets superhero

Steampunk meets superhero

The relationships between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris, and between Razer and Aya are developed in a particularly satisfying way. For the first couple, the problem is physical separation. While Hal was still based on Earth, they could see each other on a regular basis. Once Hal goes off to defend the galaxy, maintaining the relationship becomes more problematic. That makes the episodes featuring Zamaron, the Star Sapphire homeworld, fascinating. For the second couple, this is a “first love” situation for Aya. Neither of them come equipped with the usual emotional tools to make the relationship run smoothly. The tragedy of Aya’s overwriting her memory to erase painful emotions is therefore inevitable given both Razer’s inability to confront the loss of his first wife, and her literal mindedness. The moment in the fight against the Anti-Monitor when, in the heat of battle, Hal gives inadvertent relationship advice is a rerun of “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov. She loses herself for the greater good. The ultimate sacrifice in Episode 26 is the perfection of the cycle. It’s the only way to save the galaxy. For once, my literal mindedness sees this as amor vincit omnia except, this time around, love saves all except those personally involved.

I’m not going to say this series of twenty-six episodes is one of the best of its type. There are many problems with some of the individual episodes and times when I cringed. But this is a very good attempt at making a galaxy-wide threat scenario work at both a space opera and a personal level. Although the name on the shingle is Green Lantern, i.e. Hal Jordan, I prefer to see this as Aya’s story. She may start off as an AI system piloting a starship, but she ends up a very brave woman.

For a review of the film, see Green Lantern (2011).

The Croods (2013)

The Croods_poster

Now with me being what’s politely called a senior, many of you might say I’ve got no reason to go and see a film intended for children. The cultural gap between me as a reviewer and the intended audience is just too great. This will just be an excuse to beat an already dead horse to death. And to some extent, you’d be right. So let’s seize this opportunity and get on with the beating. The Croods (2013) is the latest animation out of DreamWorks and features some interesting voices set against one of these fantasy versions of the past. Superficially, it asks us a number of pertinent questions. In a world with so many perils, do we only survive because we fear injury and death? Take driving as an example. Every minute we’re on the road and in motion, there’s a serious risk of an accident if we fail to keep a proper lookout. Indeed, if a caveman was suddenly to be transported through time and deposited in the middle of our “safe” world, he would probably be dead in ten minutes because he would not understand enough about when he sees to avoid all the hazards we take for granted and avoid. It would be exactly the same if we were suddenly to be moved back to the time there was only the one continent. Yes that long ago. Before continental drift broke up Gondwana into the world mapmakers know and love so much today. Back then, even if we came equipped with supreme American football skills, going for breakfast would probably see us dead, if not from the little critters, then certainly from the big kitty who sees humans as like big mice. In that world, survival is not fun. In fact, nothing is fun in the sense we would understand the word. Hypervigilance is required at all times and curiosity is forbidden.

Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds as the hope for the future

Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds as the hope for the future

So now, following in the footsteps of The Flintstones, comes the Crood family. Papa Grug (Nicholas Cage) has all the right instincts for survival in an unchanging world even though the results are somewhat paranoid and dysfunctional (he’s a prehistoric Chicken Little with a constant fear the sky is falling). Through dumb luck, he’s come up with what seems to be the right formula because everyone else around him has died. This family is the only group of survivors in this area. But when I say “dumb” luck, the formula is really stupid and the film mocks his efforts as all the family go through the requisite contortions for survival. We are continually shown that there’s a vast gulf between not dying and living with an optimum quality of life given the environment. Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Gran (Cloris Leachman) go along with it because, so far, living in a cold dark cave has been safe even if they do have to huddle together to stay warn. That the Dad is later shown as dumber than monkeys is cruel. This does not deny some more politically correct humour. As we go on, there’s a wonderful Looney Tunes episode and one or two really nice sight gags.

In the midst of all this, the teenaged Eep (Emma Stone) is a problem. Not only does she insist on her own ledge in the cave but she’s also prone to wandering off and not paying proper attention. Then the Prometheus arrives with fire. He’s called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and he’s come with news of the end of the world, i.e. he’s the first with the theory that the tectonic plates are moving. And, as if our family needed evidence of the need to change, an earth tremor blocks the entrance to the cave. When the big kitty appears, they have no choice but to move into the jungle. Fortunately presenting them with fire accidentally provides them with popcorn which keeps them alive long enough to see the advantages of a cooked bird to snack on. That’s after they discover rubbing fire against dry grass does not extinguish it — an understandable mistake for the uninitiated.

Nicholas Cage as the Dad leading cautiously

Nicholas Cage as the Dad leading cautiously

Once we get into the jungle, we’re shown this is a world of beauty if only they have eyes to see it. Or to put it another way, it’s a bit like an animated version of the countryside in Avatar (unintentionally, of course). By the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ve acquired a “dog” called Douglas and are at one with nature. Particularly when they see the stars — per ardua ad astra — and decide to shoot for the sun and a bright new tomorrow.

Explicitly, the film asks what Dads are for? To keep the family safe, of course. Dads may not have an idea in their heads but they are strong. And if you want a message without sentimentality, don’t go to films like this. Family films with children in mind have to promote family values and that means, despite all appearance to the contrary, wayward teen daughters must finally be able to admit they still love their fathers even though, in real terms, the daughters are modern and their father are, well, like cavemen. More seriously, films like this are reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. Even though we have a Mom and a Mom-in-law, they are there merely as butts for jokes. For most of the film, they are shown as dependent followers. If a problem crops up they look to the man for its solution. If there’s a chasm to cross, they wait for him to throw them across, even though he gets left behind. Yes, noble self-sacrifice is alive for a brief moment in this prehistoric fantasy.

However, if we look beyond this appalling gender stereotyping, I suppose what the film typifies are the difficult choices the older generation has to take in a changing world. They’re supposed to be the ones with the accumulated wisdom and should be able to guide the young towards a better world. But even that’s a challenge. How do you decide whether to brainwash the children into being wholly dependent on their parents for all decisions or to train them to be independent and open to new things? There always comes a point when parents have to stop protecting their children and let them make their own mistakes. Personally, as a message, I think the result on screen is heavy-handed and uninspiring. Children will no doubt like the pretty colours and some of the jokes are quite amusing (although the mother-in-law is verbally beaten to death), but I can’t see the film as even remotely interesting. As an ironic aside to this review, I should mention The Croods has already taken more than $500 million worldwide which just goes to show that brainless and, at times, mildly offensive children’s films can make a lot of money.

The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)

September 12, 2012 4 comments

No matter what the medium, there are some themes that can be consistently satisfying in emotional terms when there’s a successful outcome. Perhaps the most enduring is the struggles of single mothers to bring up their children. Long before we moved into the modern era of dysfunctional families and the more obvious habit of fathers to reject any obligation in the task of helping to care for their children, a combination of accidents, diseases and wars whittled down the male population. For better or worse, men have been the hunter-gatherer figures, whether in the literal sense or as the primary wage earners. While the patriarchal assumption has seen the woman’s role as staying at home to care for the children. In The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012), a Japanese film probably closer to the conventions of anime rather than Western animation, the father dies in a hunting accident — drowned in a flash flood. Even under normal circumstances this would be a traumatic event and leave the mother of two very young children in a desperate situation. But this is not a normal family.

Mother and her children enjoy the moment

The theme of this story of hope is that people only achieve any peace in their lives when they are true to themselves. I suppose the real life issues coming closest to this are those individuals who have a nonstandard sexuality. This may be people unable to decide whether they are homosexual or those who have gender identity problems. Does that person risk everything from the outset and warn the prospective partner before the relationship is perfected? This may bring the romance to a shuddering halt or it can lead to a more complete acceptance of identity between the two parties. Their mutual honesty makes the bond stronger. In this fantasy, the man admits he’s what we Westerners would term a werewolf. In this case, he has the transformation under control, moving freely from human to wolf as he chooses. Since she loves the “person” no matter which body he happens to be wearing, their love is confirmed and, in due course, she gives birth to two children. Since they do not know whether the children will be born human or wolf, these are home births and no official notification is given to the usual children’s services. Paediatric and other facilities offering support to families would be alarmed if the babies randomly transformed from human to wolf (and back). So everything must be done in their small apartment. When he dies, she’s increasingly threatened, first by neighbours and then by child welfare officers who believe she must be abusing the children known to be there. In desperation, she moves out of the city into the mountains where she finds a run-down home in a remote village for a nominal rent. Now she must live a frugal life on her meagre savings, eking out the money until the crops she plants in the fallow fields around her can offer an independent source of food.

Yuri delighting in her love of the natural world

Except, of course, she has no idea how to be a subsistence farmer and reading books is of little help in developing the necessary practical skills. Fortunately, her determination wins over the locals and they rally round to help. Lurking in the undergrowth, the daughter Yuki is fearless, shifting rapidly between human and wolf as she makes the area her home. This has the inadvertent advantage of frightening the wild boar away. They routinely damage the crops in the adjacent fields but are deterred by the territorial markings left by Yuki’s urine. The younger son Ame is desperately introverted and initially resists the “call of the wild”. Although he too transforms, he never seems comfortable in either role. But when Yuki goes to school, she discovers the human world and decides she’d like to fit in. This works very well at first but, as is always the case when she grows a little older, her self-control is shattered by the arrival of a new boy in the school. Pubertal stirrings in a moment of early sexual tension lead to an involuntary revelation. Fortunately, the boy’s first accusations are ridiculed and the incident passes. Ame is bullied in school and increasingly opts out. This leads to the first and only fight between the children as wolves. She wants him to commit to school and the human world. He refuses.

Ame is more hesitant in his different roles

This is another film by Mamoru Hosoda who directed the wonderful The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006). It’s produced by Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV) and Madhouse Studios. In terms of the characters, the style is very much anime but many of the detailed shots of flowers and landscapes are quite remarkably realistic and, to that extent, equal some of the work from Western animators. The initially idyllic mountain scenery matches the bright optimism of the family. Only later does the forested landscape take on a more threatening quality. In animation terms, there are some moments of quite stunning beauty and emotional intensity. As an example, watch for the moment when the wind blows the gauze curtaining around Yuri near the end.

Yet for all this implicit praise, there’s a problem. The first half of the film is clearly the mother’s story as we watch her struggle. It also ends with the mother as she finally comes to terms with the practical reality — the recognition that, at some point, a mother can no longer protect her children. They will grow into their new identities and her role as a mother necessitates acceptance. Nurture can only go so far. In the end, nature prevails. This focus is reinforced by the voiceover which is provided by an older Yuri looking back at her childhood. So when the central section of the film pivots to follow the children as they go to school, the story arc involving the supportive local community disappears. The mother finds herself a job and her character is marginalised until the inevitable climax at the end. Although this shift in point of view is to some extent inevitable, it dilutes the emotional impact of the mother’s story and fails to allocate enough time to the film as a coming-of-age story that can really engage our emotions. That said, this is one of the best anime or animated films I’ve seen for a long time. It makes the best of the West seem facile and trivial. You should go out of your way to see this rather than queue up at the local cinema to watch something like Brave.

The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009)

ParaNorman (2012)

August 31, 2012 2 comments

I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.

Three generations of the Babcock family

 

So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.

Norman and Neil pledge mutual support

 

The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.

Uncle not yet dead

 

The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.

 

So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.

 

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Brave (2012)

Some years ago, I recall emerging from a fog of social irresponsibility into awareness that the Tories had yoked their oxen to the cart of family values. It seemed an appeal to traditional institutions was going to take our then sick society and, by returning to the past, recreate all the circumstances that had made our kingdom great. I confess to being somewhat bemused since marriage had only been invented to give the children of the wealthy the better right in law to inherit the property of their parents. Not having property of value, the poor ignored marriage until the late Victorian era when the tide turned against what had been dignified as common law marriage, i.e. a couple shacking up together and brazening it out. Lust was finally restrained by Puritan morality and all accepted the need to get a priest to wave his arms over the couple before they could have sex. Anyway, then Prime Minister John Major thought it a great wheeze to make an appeal to support the family while quietly sleeping with Edwina Currie. Except when his affair was laid bare, the Tories backed away and kept quiet about their family values since, like the rest of us, they had a flexible view of who they should sleep with. This left it to the religious right in America to reinvent the notion as a way of resisting appeals to legalise same sex marriage and to fight feminism by keeping women in the home where they belonged.

Meridia (Kelly Macdonald) proving she’s the best shot in the kingdom

 

So now along comes Pixar with its slightly subversive take on family values and, to give themselves an additional challenge, it decided to climb the Everest of problems: the relationship between the rebellious teen daughter and her status-conscious mother. So here comes the set-up. In this version of Scotland, there are four clans vaguely bonded together. They have a tradition that the first-born children of the four leaders should marry each other, assuming the genders balance. In this instance, however, we have one daughter and three sons. Because these are primitive times, this is an arranged marriage system. The daughter’s only choice is as to which skill she will choose as the test of ability. Whichever son prevails in competition, then marries her. Needless to say this is worthy only of barbarians, so Pixar has to invent a morality story to show us why marrying for love is the desirable choice for a society aspiring to American values. The fact that other civilisations have run successfully on arranged marriages for centuries is neither here nor there. There has to be a social revolution which teaches all the members of the clans the rightness of families based on mutual love and affection, but still reaffirms the traditional values that brought them all together as allies in the first place and keeps them great.

Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Meridia (Kelly Macdonald) not seeing eye to eye

 

This is actually a tricky assignment. The reason for the alliance was pure self-interest. When enemies attacked from outside, the clans were stronger in defence when they put aside the long-running jealousies and feuds. Remarkably, even though the external enemies have not returned, the clans have maintained this alliance through the arranged marriages. Think of this political use of marriage as the first step towards statehood based on mutual shared interests. The other revolutionary factor is the reactionary attitude of the women. They have accepted the benefits of having warriors to defend them. Now they want to civilise these lummoxes and teach them table manners. When we start Brave (2012), Meridia (Kelly Macdonald) straddles both camps. She can shoot better than most men and can fight when threatened. Yet Elinor (Emma Thompson), her mother, is intent on moving this ragged bunch into the tenth century and teaching them how to behave properly. Naturally, this does not go down well with Meridia who wants to be a warrior like her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly). However, after the transformation by magic, the most important piece of symbolism comes when Elinor takes off her crown and walks away. She has just remembered how much fun it is to eat fish without worrying about table manners. We never see the crown again as she reinvents herself as a mother from the inside out. Meridia has to make a journey in the opposite direction. She has to accept there are times when it’s not appropriate to be a warrior on her own. Sometimes, she has to be a team player and take responsibility not only for herself, but also for others.

Fergus (Billy Connolly) showing off his wooden leg

 

This is a Pixar film so there has to be a crisis. In this case, it’s the return of the past. In days gone by, there were four brothers who ruled a strong kingdom but one wanted to be bigger and stronger than the others. Although he got the strength of ten men, it broke the family and their kingdom fell. Now the same thing has happened to the queen, it’s for the family to fight together if the new kingdom is to survive. Only when father, mother and daughter combine can the shadow of the past be beaten and a new unity forged within the clans. This may sound overly sentimental and, to some extent it is. Frankly, we have to accept the likely impossibility of a film celebrating the love of a daughter for her mother and father without there being tears. However, three factors prevent this particular film from descending into mawkishness. First, it’s a beautifully constructed story. Unlike the majority of recent films, this has a coherent narrative in which every plot element is a cause to an effect. Words spoken early on return later. Apparently minor facts assume major importance as we proceed. Its a delight to watch it all unfold. Second, it’s actually very amusing. From nicely observed protocols used on telephone answering services to slapstick routines, this had the cinema laughing out loud on several occasions which is no mean achievement in these rather precious and sophisticated times. Finally, it’s beautifully “drawn” with many of the landscapes looking confusingly real. The characterisations of all the humans are convincing and, although the three baby bears are more of a caricature (particularly when one goes diving for the key), the adult bears are wonderful.

 

Taken overall, Brave (2012) is great fun and no matter what your political persuasion, not without an important social message about the need for one generation to listen to the other if all humanity is to advance to the next level.

 

Rango (2011)

Sometimes a film comes along and, in a sudden moment of crisis, you recognise a greater than usual challenge. Gore Verbinski, the director, has unleashed a monster. You search your memories for whatever is left of your understanding of existentialism and other matters philosophical. You pull dusty tomes from shelves so you can research all the references to films. For, yes, this director is a subtle fellow. He has liberally infected this film with allusions to, and quotes from, a hundred-and-one other films. Like Tarantino, there’s a deep game being played. At one level it’s self-indulgent because only the team that put this mosaic together can know all the sources. But, like waking up and suddenly finding it’s the day of a test, now is the chance for all good reviewers to stand-up, be counted, and show off how many of those references they caught. Or, if you’re like me, turn over and go back to sleep.

The band await Rango's death

 

So, starting off as we mean to go on, Rango can boast a Greek chorus with four owls in a Mariachi band — classical guitar, violin, trumpet and an accordion. They signal the transition between one scene and the next while commenting on the action. On occasion, they interact directly with the “actors”. What makes this convention interesting is that they are both inside and outside the action, and their presence immediately signals a metafictional approach rather than using a linear narrative structure that conveniently starts at the beginning and moves smoothly through to the end.

 

More importantly, it immediately undermines the spirit and style of the trailer which had suggested this was a Chuck Jones style of action cartoon with hawks and other predators chasing our desperate hero across the landscape. There were a significant number of children at the showing. Not one laughed. A few were scared by the snake. This is not a laugh-a-minute Looney Tune. Essentially, the humour, such as it is, is verbal and conceptual, i.e. instead of visual prat falls, we have the animators playing with the conventions of different film genres, shifting the “rules” of the game to produce amusing effects. How else can you explain the delivery of the final bullet to its target by the Heinlich Manoeuvre? Finally, had it not been featured heavily in the marketing hype, I would not have recognised Johnny Depp’s voice. It could have been anyone.

 

So, in the opening frames, we meet an intensely lonely Chameleon. He’s being transported along a desert highway in a vivarium. To pass the time, he role-plays with the few physical props he has for company. In what is almost a multi-vehicle crash caused by an armadillo crossing the road, our hero is thrown from the station wagon. More by luck than good judgement, he avoids becoming roadkill and meets the armadillo who is Roadkill and has probably crossed over. So begins the game. The probably-dead armadillo becomes a kind of spirit guide, directing our hero to walk into the desert to find a town named Dirt. With no name, our hero must become someone so he can interact with the townsfolk. Inspired, he shortens the name of the local brand of tequila from Durango and spins a mythic story of his prowess as a gunman. Dirt is experiencing a Chinatown moment with an acute water shortage. Needless to say, the Mayor is looking to buy up all the land to build a new Las Vegas. This is a delightful confusion of fantasy and reality. We are presented with imagery consistent with as many Spaghetti and other Westerns as you can remember, yet we are actually playing out a contemporary real estate scam so the Mayor can have his own golf course and a life of luxury.

Rango finally amounts to a hill of Beans

 

Well, here comes Verbinski with a sackful of metaphors as our method-acting chameleon magically blends into the role of sheriff and seems to be making something of himself. Except, when the enforcer snake shows up, fantasy and reality collide again, and our hero walks away despondent. Finding himself back at the side of the highway, he crosses over. It’s an act of faith that sees him walking across without caring whether he survives. On the other side, he meets up with the armadillo and, then, in the ultimate tribute to Clint Eastwood, is inspired to live up to the image he has created for himself. Effectively, he’s told he has trapped himself as the hero in a story that must play out to the end. In such a case, there’s no sense in cursing fate. Destiny awaits! Moments later, he finds the high ground and gets a proper view of the “real” human city. With a new understanding of how water may be redirected, he returns to Dirt where he conquers his own fears, wins the respect of the snake, and gets the girl, Beans, played by Isla Fisher.

Jake comes to steal Rango's soul

 

Here’s a redundant fact for you. Did you know that the music of Wagner appears in 120 Warner Brothers cartoons? So, in the best Apocalypse Now style, the power of Ride of the Valkyries is added to the aerial attack of the burrowing rodents. It’s pleasing Hans Zimmer has abandoned his trademark rhythmic power to produce a rather more subdued score that quotes and parodies an infectious range of musical styles, particularly in the Ennio Morricone mode. On the animation front, the hawk and the snake are wonderful. In the pecking order of local predators, the hawk is supreme until he runs out of luck. The snake can then move more openly and, as voiced by Bill Nighy, is genuinely impressive. All the younger children around me grew very still when he appeared. One or two hid in their mother’s arms.

 

All of which leads me to a very positive view of this film. Rango is not trying to be cute or nice. There are no sing-along Disney moments. There are no concessions made in dumbing down the plot or its execution. Apart from one of two nice visual touches that will make you smile, this is a thoughtful film. Just as it would not have occurred to cinema audiences to laugh at a Spaghetti Western or some of Hitchcock’s films, this is a beautifully made thriller with surreal moments when we are invited to reconsider our view of the story being told. The scene that best captures this is set in the town’s saloon where the lighting and our first view of the local folk is magnificent. Later, the appearance of the posse with its avian mascot having an arrow through his eye confirms the adult sensibilities of the film. Overall, this is well worth seeing if you enjoy a blend of intelligent wit and metafictional style.

 

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

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Since this is a film brought to fruition by the partnership between Elton John and David Furnish, and they have also just announced a new addition to their family, I suppose I should start this review with the shout, “It’s a gnome!”

Gnomeo and Juliet has been eleven years in the making with still some bad feeling between Elton John and Disney which was originally slated to animate the script. As I sit down to write this review, it has already taken $120 million at the world’s box offices which, by any standards, is a reasonable amount since its release on the 11th February. All of which begs the question: is it any good?

David Furnish, Emily Blunt, Elton John and James McAvoy at the premier

There’s always a risk when a project has been so long in the pipeline that it loses something vital. People have too much time. They overthink. The developing work ends up lacking spontaneity. . . Not, of course, that an animated film is ever really spontaneous given the amount of effort that has to go into physically making it and then getting the voices synched in. But. . .

Early action from Gnomeo and Juliet

I’m put in mind of an old joke. Lost in the Irish countryside, the English driver asks a local, “If you were going to Dublin from here, which way would you go?” The local thinks for a moment and relies,”Well, if I was going to Dublin, I certainly wouldn’t start from here.” There comes a moment with a concept when the author has a decision to make. He’s planning a parody of a Shakespeare classic and he’s asking himself, “Can I get to Romeo and Juliet if I start with garden gnomes?” At this point, he should have remembered the joke. There have been some, and probably will be more, brilliant re-imaginings of Shakespearean plays. There have been some remarkably inventive animated films staring all manner of animals, creatures and “beings”. There even was a BBC TV show called the Gnomes of Dulwich in which Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd played out a conflict between their own garden paradise populated by original stone gnomes, and the new plastic gnomes next door. Since Elton John is old enough to remember this short series, it may have influenced his choice. Except the Dulwich gnomes were intended as a comedic exploration of more serious issues like race relations, whereas this is apparently worth nothing more than cheap shots at Shakespeare. There’s always scope for using rats or pandas to say something interesting about the human condition. . .

Tybalt hanging tough

So the first sign of impending disaster is the metafictional opening. We have the camera in a theatre awaiting the curtain rising on a production of Romeo and Juliet as played by gnomes. We have a gnome begin the Prologue dodging the hook to pull him into the wings. My heart sinks. We can have great fun with Shakespeare, or we can have an original story with gnomes, but not both together. So here’s the set-up. In semi-detached gardens, we have Blue and Red hatted gnomes. They come to life when no humans are watching and freeze if they are about to be noticed — if this sounds like Toy Story. . . The metafiction continues with Shakespeare putting in an appearance and the entire cast (including a partly reconstituted Tybalt), taking a curtain call at the end.

There are some good things to say. The quality of the animation is good and I always enjoy listening to Elton John’s music. Indeed, on one or two occasions, the use of the music is very clever to those of us who remember the lyrics. It was fun to hear some of the voices with Jason Statham and Hulk Hogan typecast as the violent bad guys. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt are adequate as our star-crossed lovers. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear Michael Caine back in action. While the rest of the top-class professionals are all pitch perfect with whatever thankless words they’re given. But the sad reality is that the first half drags. There’s no emotional set up. We get pitched into set-pieces like the lawnmower race before we’ve been given a chance to identify with the various characters and understand their relationships. Although it does improve slightly towards the end as we move away from the strict line of Shakespeare and get into the acquisition of the Terrafirmator, it remains strangely uninvolving. I really didn’t care that much who survived with merely a chip and who got pulverised.

It’s all a bit of a shame. I wanted it to be better than it is. So, if you have children, it’s easy on the eye and will probably hold their attention. But for parents, I’m afraid there’s little for you other than the thought that it’s relatively short, being a mere 84 minutes long. Then, there’s just the post-film ritual of a burger or whatever else your children demand, and a stiff drink waiting for you when you get home.

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)
Safe (2012)

 

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