Friday, 30 December 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

There was quite a lot of marketing for The Secret Life of Pets in Japan, and I was tempted to go, but ultimately it wasn’t a must-see, so I let it pass me by. It wasn’t even a priority film to watch on the plane – it only made it to my return journey! Still, it was a fun, simple animated movie that followed a formula and had some entertaining moments.

The plot is more or less Toy Story with pets. When the owners are out, the pets will have fun gatherings and parties. Chubby-faced Jack Russell terrier Max loves his owner very much, though. When a big, tough, brash new dog arrives on the scene, he’s very jealous. That jealousy leads to the two getting lost together, having a lot of scrapes, meeting a lot of rejected pets and ultimately learning to love one another. Yes, the parallels to Toy Story are hard to miss.

Otherwise, it hangs on its characters. Silly fluffy pom Gidget comes close to carrying the movie, by turns adorable, insane and hilarious, but the central duo are mostly on the dull side, the comedy tough-guy rabbit is an overdone joke by this stage and the funny old Pops was an enjoyable character but very one-note.

The film stays entertaining but never tugs at the heartstrings or evokes more than a small chuckle. Bland, derivative and thoroughly mediocre, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a refreshing, inoffensive watch. 

Monday, 26 December 2016

バケモノの子 / Bakemono no Ko / The Monster’s Child / The Boy and the Beast

Kimi no Na Wa has changed a lot of things in the anime scene. Until it took Shinkai Makoto to his new elevated place as the perceived successor to Miyazaki Hayao, it was Mamoru Hosoda who looked to be able to take that title, and indeed remains in my view the more established and consistent of the two.

And while not the smash hit of Kimi no Na Wa, this movie made a big stir in Japan. It was well-marketed and well-received, with strong box office figures and positive critical response. It also seemed like my sort of movie, a coming-of-age tale about an acerbic young lad taken in by a monster to train in martial arts.

Yet it didn’t have the resonance that Kimi no Na Wa is enjoying, nor was it a breakthrough. Anime fans enjoyed it, but it didn’t go much beyond that. And having seen it now, I think that’s appropriate. There’s a lot here that works very well, a lot of heart and a lot of imagination, but it falls well short of Summer Wars and remains too distant and too by-the-numbers to inspire love from a wider audience.

The story is simple – little 9-year-old Ren runs away from home after his mother’s death. His father is missing and he dislikes his guardians, so becomes homeless. Fortunately for him, he’s spotted by Kumatetsu, a powerful but irresponsible beast creature, and taken in on a whim as a disciple. Taken in as a lonely human in a world of beasts, with a monkey and pig advising him and giving something of an echo of Journey to the West, Ren is given the new name Kyuuta and eventually becomes formidable. Unsurprisingly, he’s not the only one with a similar background, though, and might have to confront the darkness in the hearts of others.

The core of the movie, the squabbling, eventual respect and finally strong bond between Kumatetsu and Ren, works very well. They argue, come to understand one another, and finally rely on each other to be complete. Unfortunately, the rest of the story hung around this core doesn’t cohere nearly so well. The love story is tepid and slow, Kumatetsu’s rival doesn’t get the development he needs and the antagonist is much too remote and peripheral to carry a meaningful climax to the story. There’s also no big pay-off here: it essentially feels like Ren ends up turning his back on everything that makes him who he is, and there was way more scope for examining how he could find a unique place in the human world afterwards.

Ultimately, unlike Summer Wars or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and even more so than Wolf Children, the film doesn’t manage to clearly stamp its identity throughout its running time, and thus falls short of hitting hard and being truly memorable. If he wants his Studio Chizu to be a new powerhouse, Hosoda is going to have to up his game – especially with Shinkai now a few steps ahead.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

ハイキュー!! / Haikyuu!! Season 3

Given how much can be covered in an entire series of an anime, it feels almost redundant to write about 10 episodes of a sports anime covering just one volleyball game. The previous seasons have been 25 episodes, so this felt more like a series of specials than a full season. However, following the underdogs as they go up against the formidable Shiratorizawa was certainly fun.

Tragedy hit the series as Tanaka Kazunari, voice actor for coach Ukai, passed away during the production of this season. He delivered some fantastic final lines and his replacement of course doesn’t sound quite as he should, and it’s a poignant note to remember this production by.

This season is focused on the single game, but succeeds very nicely in the two core strengths of Haikyuu – bringing new light to the established cast, and introducing some highly compelling oddballs on the rival side. The intrigue of Shiratorizawa comes not through the powerhouse giant Ushijima, but the bizarre-looking jester-like Satori. Sports anime and manga have long thrived on being able to pitch the heroes against oddballs, be they the super-powered children of Inazuma 11 and Saki or the tactical mind-game masters of Hikaru no Go.

But this season is effectively Tsukishima’s time to shine, which is great to see. From detached, sarcastic cynic too afraid to commit his all, he’s become the team’s strategic cornerstone. It’s pretty great to see that change, while retaining his bluntness.

Hinata remains the reason I watch the show, though. With his boundless enthusiasm, determination, ability to shock and occasional blind luck, he’s what gets under the skins of the opposing team and what makes Karasuno an oddball team. He’s everything I want from a shounen protagonist and I have to say that I can’t get nearly as interested as the rest of the fandom in all these random captains and setters when they just don’t seem nearly as compelling as what’s at the centre of this story.

Catchy opening and ending songs, solid production, a pretty aesthetic and very strong vocal performances made for ten enjoyable episodes that are guaranteed not to be the last in this story. And I’m very pleased by that.

僕だけがいない街 / Boku Dake ga Inai Machi / A Town that Lacks Just Me / Erased

Anime by and large has been lacking ambition lately. Possibly it’s just that I’ve been watching less of it, but there are relatively few titles that people bring up as challenging or sophisticated these days, in a world of fanservice and idol anime. But there’s still noitaminA, the programming slot that usually at least attempts to do something a cut above the average.

And so it was with Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, which takes a more serious seinen tone with its murder-mystery storyline and brings together themes and modes of a variety of recent hits. Directed by Itou Tomohiko, buoyed up by his successes with Sword Art Online but having rather more in common with his breakthrough work with Hosoda Mamoru – in particular TheGirl Who Leapt Through Time, this series was also well-marketed. My own interest was piqued by a large and attractive poster for the show in Shinjuku station. It looked like a cute coming-of-age story and over this Christmas break, I binge-watched the 12 episodes very quickly.

To be honest, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It aims for the cleverness and paranoia of Monster with the mind games of Death Note and the cute, smart kids in peril of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and some of the glib, vaguely Murakami-esque detached observations of Bakemonogatari. While there are some superbly-done parts of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, ultimately I don’t think it hangs together nearly well enough, nor are all the extraneous parts necessary.

In a convoluted time-travelling plot, our hero Fujinuma Satoru has a magical power. When something terrible is going to happen, he inadvertently goes back in time a few minutes so that he can put it right, saving lives and avoiding disasters. This is presented in a very direct echo of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time using film effects. When a far more dramatic crime erupts, he is sent back much further, to his elementary school – where the events that led to the recent crime were set in motion. This is an interesting, if not particularly original, set-up – Satoru is a 29-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body and must investigate a set of child abductions to save himself and his loved ones in the future.  

However, this whole section didn’t ring true at all. Satoru doesn’t have much personality beyond an endearing tendency to speak his thoughts out loud and then get embarrassed, and there’s no exploration whatsoever of the strangeness and hilarity that must come from a 29-year-old, with the mind of a 29-year-old, going back into his 10/11-year-old body. Indeed, the kids around him, with only a couple of exceptions, all speak in the weirdest artificial diction, almost all of them preternaturally smart and basically miniature adults.

The pacing of the series is all off-kilter because the set-up is saving the first child who will be abducted. This not only rings false when the danger to one of Satoru’s closest friends who will be the second victim is barely even raised, but creates an awkward set of overlapping arcs where even if the problem is solved we then lose the sense of triumph and get an uncomfortable jolt of then moving to the next stage of the plan because the murderer hasn’t been dealt with. The romantic undertones are half-baked because the script calls for a cute budding love story but also occasional reminders that this is a 29-year-old mind starting a romance with a 10-year-old girl. And ultimately there’s only so much satisfaction that can be derived from a crime detective story where ‘How can you predict what’s going to happen?’ can only be answered with ‘Because of my magical time-travelling powers.’ The idea of eyes flashing red with fury or malevolence doesn’t work either, and there’s no attempt at sophistication when giving the bad guy motives.

There are things I certainly much admired here. The show does an amazing job of examining mother-child relationships, with some of the warmest moments are simple family affairs. There’s at least an original, if unlikely, ending arc to finish things off and further complicate the timeline. I enjoyed the dynamics of Satoru’s gang of schoolmates and wanted to see them developed more. And I did enjoy how the series was drawn and animated, which was very reminiscent of A1’s big-screen debut, Welcome to the Space Show. But I have to say, I hoped for much more, and feel that the same things have been done much better elsewhere. 

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Inside Out

I doubt Inside Out will be remembered as one of Pixar's best. Certainly I didn't see it in the cinema and unlike Wall-E or Up or Finding Dory, I barely saw it discussed on social media or amongst my friends. There was some merchandising about, but the colourful stylised designs of the film translated to some ugly toys.

Personally, I took a bit of a dislike to the concept, because it's so unoriginal. The idea of little people inside a person's head controlling them isn't new - for one example, I used to read The Numskulls first in The Beezer and later in The Beano.

But I watched this expecting Pixar to take the concept and make it into something really fantastic, and they certainly managed that. For this concept, there are some very beautiful sections of this film.
11-year-old Riley is a happy kid who loves her family and sports, until a move to the city uproots everything. Her inner life goes awry as Joy, hitherto the main driving force of her life, and Sadness, until now only seldom influential in a young life, end up on a quest through the often bizarre inner life of a young girl, finding both adventure and tragedy on the way as a difficult time threatens to change a little girl's personality forever.

While it's a staple of manga and a bit of a cliché, self-sacrifice always gets strong emotions from me, and a very fine example features here, a single moment with unlikely characters that significantly raised my impressions of this story. Joy, rather Tinkerbell-like by design and capable of a full range of emotions (who's controlling the controllers?) is a likeable central character, and especially the dream sequences have some funny moments.

The small stakes here and lack of epic scope limit the universal appeal, but like Cars and Ratatouille, this is another Pixar film that manages to be strong despite not having such a strong concept, manages to be highly entertaining.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

King of the Hill: season 3

Shows often hit their stride around season 3, and I’d say the same applies to King ofthe Hill, though it was extraordinarily well-shaped from the very first episodes. While a syndicated show, King of the Hill actually does interesting things with its continuity – Luanne in particular has a lot of interesting moments of development, with her boyfriend dying in the cliffhanger from the previous season and a subsequent period of soul-searching as her hair grows back. The season also introduces the potential for Hank to get a step-brother even in his middle age, the birth being part of the finale here.

Largely, though, where King of the Hill succeeds is in its complexity and dark undertones. Hank’s father Cotton is pretty central to this, being an abusive and misogynist embodiment of all the left hates about small-town right-wing America. He is central to several season highlights, including a moment of lightness when he takes the fall for Bobby in an embarrassing predicament and one good moment for Hank where he finally stands up to him to defend his mother – and his mower. The way others act around Cotton is often very funny, but for a comedy show there’s a lot that’s chilling and unpleasant about what he embodies.

This is a show with a fantastic ensemble cast, though. All Hank’s friends and family have their brilliant moments. The main gang are consistently amusing, Luanne has the show’s best one-liners, Peggy is by turns an unstoppable force of nature and incredibly naïve, especially when it comes to matters of adultery (her realisation of it making for one of the highlights of the show so far) and the way Bobby mystifies his family is by turns funny and affectionate.

Not every episode is a hit. Bill losing it and starting to impersonate his ex-wife is too far for what was previously a subtle character quirk. The dolphin episode stretches credulity and Hank’s character too far. The Rashomon episode (which I just noted was a family trope in my thoughts on My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic season 6) was a little slow and exaggerated.

But these were certainly the minority, and the vast majority of the episodes were very funny and often quite touching. It’s the episodes that are centred on small problems dealing with the modern world that shine, like Peggy playing in a softball team or the problems with taking Bobby hunting. I also liked episodes centred on Kahn, who is a remarkably subtle and multifaceted character for what would in many ways have been a token outsider role. Probably the best element on the show’s more complex side is Peggy’s deep-seated sadness about not being able to have another child. It becomes less and less subtle but was at its best with her reactions to Hank trying to get his dog to breed.

The show is certainly strong at this stage, and a pleasure to watch. But will it continue that way? I’m not sure just now, but I’m happy to keep watching.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Land Before Time

During a difficult time for Disney, around the same time Oliver and Company was underwhelming audiences, yet before Pixar revolutionised the animated medium, it wasn’t as though animation ground to a halt. In fact, in some ways the pre-renaissance lull in Disney’s output was a golden era for rival studios like Fox and Warner Bros. And in particular, Don Bluth was the torch-bearer of high-quality animation. And one of the most well-remembered of his movies is this one, The Land Before Time.  

It’s The Secret of NiMH that really stamped Bluth’s presence on the mainstream, and it’s probably my favourite of his works. Steven Spielberg got involved for the remarkable success of An American Tail, and George Lucas got on-board too for this, a consciously ‘Bambi-with-dinosaurs’ project that hit the right buttons for mainstream success – kids love dinosaurs, animators can make spectacular volcanic landscapes and baby dinosaurs can even fill any movie’s cuteness quota within minutes.

Rewatching The Land Before Time, it’s in many ways clumsier and less satisfying than the average Disney movie, but it does far more things right than it does wrong. The biggest success is making a core group of characters that are easily understood yet not completely flat, likeable but flawed, and easy to care about despite, well, being terrible thunder lizards. Littlefoot, Cera and the gang are still the benchmark for cute dinosaurs, far more so than those in Dinosaur or even The Good Dinosaur, even though those long eyelashes are just a little weird. The film succeeds when the kids are separated from adult influences, whereupon we largely get a series of character moments, which almost always hit the right notes. Cera being headstrong and clashing with Littlefoot while adorable little Ducky gets upset doesn’t break new ground but fleshes out its characters very neatly. Though Spike and Petrie are lesser characters than the others, Spike a mute, peaceful glutton and Petrie oddly adult in the group of small kids (a role probably meant for Bluth’s favourite Dom DeLuise, if he hadn’t been off voicing Fagin in Oliver and Company), but they fill out the group well. They also reinforce the central message of diversity – despite differences, but acknowledging different strengths and weaknesses, the little dinosaurs overcome the idea that ‘Three-horns don’t play with long-necks’ as they work together, something which I’m surprised wasn’t pushed home more at the film’s climax.
Indeed, perhaps the weakest point of the movie is its ending. Yes, a goal is reached, there are happy reunions and it comes after an exciting escape scene, but there’s no real feeling of closure. The movie poises itself well to wrap up neatly, but it just doesn’t satisfy with its abrupt ending. What do Littlefoot and Cera do after this? Does Cera’s father change? What is said of Littlefoot’s mother? How does Ducky continue her interactions with the rest?

It’s true that there are sequels to answer some of these questions – no less than 13 of the things – but I’m pretty certain their quality will not match up to the original’s, and little of the creative team’s original intentions will be apparent there. But certainly, this was a good piece of animation, and paved the way for All Dogs Go to Heaven and later Anastasia. What should be celebrated is the purity of vision of The Land Before Time, the innocence that just about avoid mawkishness and the lack of cynicism or self-conscious cleverness. It’s a simple message, delivered simply and with striking and often inventive visuals, and while there were parts that could certainly have been improved, particularly at the end, overall this was a very enjoyable, undeniably enduring piece of work.