Tuesday, 18 April 2017

An American Tail

Don Bluth does well with mice. The Secret of NiMH was his breakthrough, and remains a very strong movie. But perhaps his biggest cultural hit was An American Tail – though I’d have to say there’s stiff competition from dinosaurs.

Another one I haven’t viewed for many years, as a child much of the significance of this movie went over my head. I didn’t have a clear idea of the imagery immigrants to the States expected in the late 19th century, let alone understand a thing about Russian Jews. To a child, those nuances probably don’t matter so much. But they’re very interesting as an adult.
An American Tail does absolutely everything better than All Dogs Go to Heaven. The animation is much better, with Fievel (or Feivel, sometimes) actually being very cute, and rotoscoped/xerographed elements looking impressive without getting too jarring. The story is compelling and each episode adds to the story. The music is fantastic, especially ‘Somewhere Out There’, and whereas All Dogs Go to Heaven tries to incorporate different musical elements through patronising stereotypes, An American Tail actually pays tribute to different immigrant cultures (though some Irish people might see cause for complaint) and spices up musical numbers with traditional musical styles. It even has a message of not judging based on race despite the mice-versus-cats set-up, with Tiger being quite unlike the rest.

Where An American Tail succeeds is in its multiple narratives. There’s Fievel looking for his parents, the secret plan he sets in motion, a very simple love story on the side, and the tragicomic conceit of the family always missing seeing their son while Fievel’s sister Tanya never gives up hope. Indeed, perhaps the film’s greatest appeal is its contrasts between sadness and hope.

Bluth is also allowed to be playful. Monstrous waves are very much in his style, and he adds in many fun touches like distorting glasses and an inventive sequence with the water sloshing about in a boat.
Maybe I could have done without the final Statue of Liberty sequence, but this is in every way a strong family film and deserves to be remembered every bit as fondly as Disney’s classics.


I very much enjoyed going back to this little story – and even if Bluth is not involved, I’ll be sure to watch Fievel Goes West at some point. 

All Dogs Go to Heaven

I had very few memories of All Dogs Go to Heaven, even though I do remember it being very popular upon release – on the same day as The Little Mermaid. I’d seen it once before, but my memories of it were mixed up with Lady and the Tramp, another dog-centric animation I’ve not rewatched since childhood.

Well, I’m going through Don Bluth movies at the moment – slowly – and next on the list was All Dogs Go to Heaven, his follow-up to the smash hit The Land Before Time. Don Bluth’s weakness tends to be story execution, which is why it works so well when he’s teamed up with another director – like Spielberg. But he famously disliked having to give up control, and was clearly enjoying his freedom with this movie, introducing themes of gambling, decadence and seedy underworld dealings to a family flick. Unfortunately, a lack of strong theming or likeable characters drag the whole thing down.

The film centres on Charlie, a rakish German Shepherd voiced with aplomb by Burt Reynolds who sadly fails horribly as a central character on account of being incredibly hard to like. He’s got the typical character arc of being selfish, irresponsible and manipulative, only to find his heart of gold when push comes to shove, but that happens only in the very final act, leaving way too much of the film centred on his being an unlikeable boor. Fun interactions with Dom Deluise’s Itchy character and even an amusing first trip to the Pearly Gates don’t save the character, his design is bizarrely ugly and unmemorable, and Reynolds’ singing voice is atrocious.

So it falls to the little girl who can talk to animals, Anne-Marie, to be the emotional centre of the film. Adorable as her voice actress Judith Barsi was as Ducky in The Land Before Time and deeply saddening though the poor little girl’s story was in real life, unfortunately Anne-Marie just isn’t interesting. She’s like a pint-sized Snow White, but with even less personality. Her characterisation is bland and her animation is that weird, creepy coquettish-baby thing Disney used to do a long time ago but thankfully gave up well before the 80s.

On the other hand, the animation is the film’s saving grace. It’s often beautiful, inventive and much more experimental that what Disney were putting out at that point. There’s some very impressive work with cars, scenes of Hell and various races. It still looks impressive, though Bluth’s habit of rotoscoping humans often looks jarring here.

The story veers wildly here and there, and the performances, heavily ad-libbed, often confuse. Killer is particularly incomprehensible, and I’m fairly sure his laser gun was written as a regular gun but changed to appease censors.

The music is perhaps the worst of any animated movie I’ve seen, with most of the songs lacking any melody or hook and being delivered with way too many distractions from the on-screen action. ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Dog Down’ and ‘Let’s Make Music Together’ are the saving graces of the soundtrack, though the bubble effect put on Ken Page’s voice was a terrible addition, and his cameo role only made me want to go and watch The Nightmare Before Christmas instead.


Don Bluth was capable of great things, and this movie is well-remembered, but unfortunately it’s not even close to his best, and probably won’t hold up well in years to come. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Moana

Disney squeezed two films into 2016. Zootopia was a satisfying twisty mystery with a broad and often hilarious animal cast, while Moana offered a very focused ocean quest story with a far smaller roster.

While I certainly liked Moana, admired the decision to explore a culture Disney hasn’t touched before, and had much to celebrate technically, I can’t call it a classic – and nor do I think it will endure. In fact, having just read that directors Clements and Musker (helmsmen of Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules, amongst others) wanted to adapt Terry Pratchett’s Mort but came up against rights acquisition issues, I have to admit wishing they were able to do that instead.

The progressive nature of Moana has been trumpeted enough it almost feels like criticising the piece is tantamount to being racially insensitive, but in general it’s the Polynesian elements that really shine through here. Moana herself is a superb character, likeable, believable, shaped by her background but with plenty of her own personality, too – and not just because of her little pithy comments, either. I loved seeing the animated tattoos, the supernatural manifestations of natural forces and the mythological evils. The evocation of the wonders seen by seafaring tribes was great, and there was some superb music, too – even if my favourite was the rather Bowie-ish ‘Shiny’ number that was decidedly non-Polynesian.

For me, the problem was firmly with Maui, a figure central to Polynesian mythology and a secondary character with more screentime than many Disney protagonists. He absolutely needed to be strange, formidable, a little otherworldly but most importantly, extremely likeable. And for all The Rock’s best efforts and for all the tattoos helped, he just wasn’t likeable. He was slow-witted, self-absorbed, violent, reckless and didn’t really grow or learn even as he warmed to Moana. He was oafish and occasionally murderous, and for all the Moana herself was the real hero of the piece, he was the one with the superpowers, he was the one who drove the plot and he was the one who gained the most from the events of the story – if anything, he was a big patriarchal power symbol around which vaguely feminist themes had to twist themselves. And he was no Genie or even a Wreck-It Ralph, a character it’s fun to see through the whole movie even with their flaws. He was just not interesting or compelling at all.

So with only Moana herself and a very straightforward quest to carry the film, it felt very light in the plot department. Certainly not a bad film, but nowhere near the best of these directors’ output, or that of recent Disney releases. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

King of the Hill: season 6

While it continues to be strong, season 6 shows Kingof the Hill just starting to run out of ideas. Some held in reserve are at last dealt with, like a Boomhauer episode fleshing him out to finally give him another dimension, and Dale deciding Joseph isn’t his biological son – though of course assumes he’s half-alien.

Strong new characters include Dale’s father, who forces the gang to contemplate homosexuality – which they do in typically childish but thankfully non-vicious fashion – and a silly turn for Alan Rickman as a king at a renaissance faire. The Rickman episode is about as absurd as King of the Hill should ever get, still being in the realms of the feasible, where going to Japan to discover Hank has a half-brother, Luanne being suckered into joining a cult, Bill stealing an army tank for a drunken rampage and Hank being honoured as the token white guy in an Asian golfing country club all go a bit too far. Peggy, previously the believably self-centred yet insecure centre of the funniest episodes, has some episodes where her self-regard goes a bit ridiculous. I can accept her accidentally taking home a Mexican child, but pretending to be a nun or taking Hank to a nudist colony was just bizarre.

Some episodes stretched too far at the end, like Hank extinguishing the Olympic torch in front of news cameras but them accepting it being relit by a cigarette on Bobby’s testimony, or Peggy falling for a scam but putting together a double-bluff at the end that goes perfectly.

Bobby and Connie are probably the most believable and relatable part of the series at this stage. I still want to watch more, but the show is losing its natural edge. I hope the next season is a bit more down-to-earth, but it will need some fresh ideas. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

ユーリ!!! on ICE / Yuri!!! on Ice


Perhaps last year’s biggest anime, there was no getting away from Yuri!!! on Ice hype, especially if you have a predilection for this kind of homoerotic, overly passionate sports anime, as I do – for whatever reason. As moé fizzles out and straight male anime fans begin to tire of idol shows, this style of female-targeted anime only grows in prominence.

Certainly, homoerotic sports and games shows are nothing new. Prince of Tennis had many of the same tropes, and the underlying passionate rivalry is what made me love Hikaru no Go so much. Haikyuu!! is incredibly popular just now, and with a long list of basketball, soccer, cycling and imaginary card game-based manga and anime provide more and more fodder for the ladies of Ikebukuro Animate. Arguably, Free! brought the subgenre more to the fore, mixing atypically good art with homosexual overtones. So the path was clear for an anime like Yuri!!! on Ice.

The choice of figure skating was no surprise. Japan has for a few years now been giving a lot of attention to Hanyuu Yuzuru, a slim, pretty-faced young figure skater who won gold in Sochi. He won hearts with his optimistic attitude and love of Winnie the Pooh, and has since gone down the usual ‘talent’ road with photo books and acting appearances. While it would be a bit much to say he’s single-handedly responsible for the current prominence of figure skating over here, he’s certainly a central figure. Thus the choice of skating for last season’s homoerotic sports anime came as no surprise.

Indeed, the main problem here is that nothing was a surprise. There was a sense that this was a groundbreaking show in some way – for example, there was some fuss over a moment that was maybe-or-maybe-not a kiss. And then the main pairing exchanged rings that could have been a platonic symbol or could echo engagement. They bathed together, lived together and often drove one another to tears. And I guess there were a lot of people in the audience thinking boundaries were being pushed for a mainstream anime. After all, Free! never went this far. But for me, I kept thinking of No.6 and how much more realistically and respectfully it portrayed a gay relationship in an relatively mainstream Noitamina anime.

Not that the anime needed to be groundbreaking to be enjoyable. With good characters, compelling pacing and interesting relationships, it could have been great fun. The problem was that for me, I didn’t connect with any of the characters, find them realistic or likeable. The main character, Yuri, struck me as self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and ungrateful, which was bad since he was meant to be the heart and soul of the piece. His enigmatic mentor and love interest, Victor, did what he was meant to do, being an impetuous, compelling, often bizarre selfish genius type – he was what he was meant to be, but that doesn’t mean I like that kind of character type. Then there was the other Yuri, young Russian Yuri Plisetsky, who is a skinny, feminine, totally beautiful 15-year-old Russian boy. His appearance is cute but his personality is harsh and cruel, and though his tsundere side occasionally makes him more sympathetic, he was still a totally unlikeable brat. Most of the other characters are the kind of total oddballs that often populate sports anime, though mostly a little too exaggerated for the overall tone.

The only characters I actually liked were Phichit from Thailand, who strove to please others and whose main fault was just being dull, and Kenjirou, a chirpy younger skater who idolises Yuri, does the cutest skate of the series and then gets relegated to the cheering division for the remaining episodes.

In technical terms, the anime had some nice fluid skating animation, but often looked scrappy or made bizarre decisions in terms of camera distortion, especially when it came to Swiss Christophe’s ‘sex appeal’ skates. I can’t say I felt strongly impressed by the skating animation, and it often looked awkwardly rotoscoped.


Certainly the show was light and often funny, and some of the cross-cultural observation was insightful, and I’ll probably watch a continuation if and when it appears, but overall I have to say I felt Yuri!!! on Ice was mediocre even in the fujoshi-bait world of homoerotic sports anime. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

夏目友人帳 伍 / Natsume Yuujincho Go

Quietly, without causing many ripples and certainly without grabbing the attention of the Western anime scene, Natsume Yuujincho has become one of the most important and successful animes of the decade. Last time I was in Animate, Ikebukuro, the café was themed for the show. I probably see Nyanko-sensei charms hanging from young people’s bags more than the mascots of any other show – though it’s possible some were bought without actually knowing the character, just as a cute cat. But the anime keeps getting renewed, almost to the point of being a long-runner. The fifth season ended a few weeks back, and the sixth is already announced for April. It’s also one of the very few shouji titles where there are plenty of figurines available – usually it’s only the extremely homoerotic shows like Free! and Kuroshitsuji that get figures.

I have no complaints. I really enjoy this show. It was more of the same, with a few more kernels of information about the wider society of exorcists and a bit of backstory for Natsume’s adoptive parents, and some kind of season finale rather than a slow ‘Natsume gets sick and the ayakashi contemplate how ephemeral human life is’ episode would have been nice. I was also a little sad the whole season went by without an episode with the Little Fox, the show’s most adorable character, but Natsume himself had plenty of adorable moments.

Perhaps the cutest episode centred on a little girl youkai searching for a man who was kind to her fifty years earlier, another iteration of the show’s recurring theme of time seeming different for beings who exist for millennia. There are also several funny and memorable youkai this time, from a funny babyish giant bird to little rabbit-type spirits and a funny stubborn mushroom with big dreams. One nice episode focuses on a youkai trying to blend into normal human society, though of course it’s never quite possible.

The pace remains slow and the show always subtly celebrates a traditional, unhurried, community-based Japanese lifestyle, which really helps give a feeling of softness and warmth to everything. Natsume himself is certainly a feeble and unthreatening protagonist, but it’s hard to dislike him. If anything, he makes people want to look after him.


Slow, soft, enjoyable but sometimes hilarious, Natsume Yuujincho is a show I’ll watch as long as they keep making it. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

星を追う子ども/ Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo / Children who Chase Stars / Journey to Agartha

I mentioned in my thoughts about Bakemono no Ko that Shinkai Makoto has seemingly become the ‘New Miyazaki’ with his smash hit, Kimi no Na Wa. It also came as a surprise to me, given that his other films have been rather oblique, artsy and inaccessible. I didn’t get on with Beyond the Clouds, the Promised Place, and Voices of Stars was more of a technical achievement than a truly impressive piece of filmmaking. I’ve still yet to watch 5cm Per Second, but given it’s a short film in three distinct parts, it’s hardly a mainstream movie, and nor is the 46-minute Garden of Words.

So really, it’s this film, Hoshi-o Ou Kodomo, which bridges the peculiar gap between Shinkai being a quirky outsider auteur in the same vein as Yuasa Masaaki and all of a sudden being the new mainstream darling after Kimi no Na Wa. And I have to say, it makes perfect sense. I don’t think this is a particularly good movie, nor is it essential anime viewing, but as a milestone in a director’s career it is highly significant. Essentially, this is Shinkai’s devotional tribute to Ghibli, especially classic Ghibli. It’s almost a flat derivation of the studio’s art style, tropes, callsigns and character types.
Like most imitative works, it’s a little soulless and insubstantial. I really doubt it will go down in history as well-loved. The characters never really fully develop and the world is not clearly-defined. But it certainly has its moments of beauty.

Young Asuna uses a crystal radio given to her by her late father to listen to strange music. Little does she know the crystal inside will link her to a new world. A boy from the mysterious land of Agartha saves her one day from a strange monster, and soon she is drawn into a hidden world of magic, otherworldly creatures and rumours of the resurrection of the dead.

The echoes of Ghibli movies are very clear and direct. The Quetzalcoatls are halfway between the robots of Laputa and the night walker of Mononoke-Hime. Shin slashes his hair like Ashitaka and clings to Asuna as they fall like Pazu. Morisaki-sensei has a good deal of Muska about him, while Shun smiles a lot like Howl. The Izoku share qualities with various creatures from Mononoke-Hime, while Mimi the cat-creature and Nausicaa’s Teto are far from dissimilar.

Shinkai aims for an epic feeling, and with Asuna seems to be going for the cute, spunky female lead of classic Ghibli. The problem is a lack of human feeling. We see Asuna is plucky, vulnerable and good-hearted, but very little unique or really identifiable about her. Shin is introduced late and has some heroic moments as well as looking cool, and has one brief but sweet moment of vulnerability, but we learn very little about him. Shun’s motives are a mystery right to the end. And Morisaki-sensei is basically two-dimensional. I’ll always remember how the climactic sword-fight Shin has to really get centre-stage is to some random goon who still manages to put the poor kid down completely.

There’s very little driving the quest beyond Morisaki’s determination, but the dilemma at the end happens without enough build-up and seems like a problem tacked on at the end to give a strong climax. Too much of the invented world is murky pools and sheer cliffs, so the movie rather lacks in wonder. And the tugging-at-the-heartstrings moment mostly feel too manufactured and obvious to actually affect the viewer.


Certainly, this is a beautiful, well-made and polished movie, but it’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of ideas derived directly from the Ghibli storybook. But I earnestly think that Shinkai had to try his hand at this style of movie before turning to the more everyday and relatable – paving the way for Kimi no Na Wa. Undeniably, Shinkai has come a long way from She and Her Cat.