Daily Film Thoughts: Lets Get Animated

These are going to be s’more short reviews because each of three are fairly popular, have been out for awhile and I’ve a lot on my plate. One I’m watching out of sheer curiosity as it got a sole nomination at the Annie Awards (the animated film guild) for Best Picture. (note: I started writing this post a few months ago and the last film, The Secret of Kells (the one that got the Annie Award nomination), has since been nominated for Best Animated Feature)

First up is Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – a film that was written off as merely a 3D gimmick before it was released and then found said statements to be retracted after people actually watched it; becoming one of the most surprising films of the year in the process. I mean, with the guys that co-wrote Clone High at the helm and a cast containing some of the best current comedians and names we love from Bill Hader, Anna Faris and Andy Samberg to Mr. T, Bruce Campbell and Neil Patrick Harris, what could go wrong?

The answer: Very little. In fact, in terms of films that cater solely to their youthful audience this film does a excellent job at changing up the style of humor to keep it as refreshing as possible. I, personally, found myself literally rolling on the floor with laughter. Moments such as “Snowball” and “The Jello Date” found a sense of sincerity in exaggeration; accomplishing the hilarious dotage that being a genius without maturity can behold. Still, even without the excessive funny the story resonates emotionally with its saccharine center. It’s played out, but a film about a lovable goof that tries his hardest to impress his father and a girl he has a lot in common with will always do abundantly more good than bad in my eyes. Add a delightful little twist on the subject (ie. zany slapstick humor a la Fairly Odd Parents) and you’ve got me hook, line and sinker.

What is most surprising about this feature is how well it sustains a viewer’s interest despite playing out a routine scenario as plainly as it could. There’s a softly spoken sentimentality amongst the swift pacing and hurried character development that maintains a tune all can sing to. In fact, for the first sixty minutes this is up there with Up for best animated film of the year.

Then the final act happens. Suffice to say it’s lackluster, without much tension because it is so evident how everything will play out and seemingly saving the wit for a rainy day. Antagonistic characters fall into their own with the blink of an eye and inane coincidence drowns ironic intent amongst other aspects of this vapid finale. So much so that I felt entirely disconnected from the film; the frames seemed to just roll across my eyes without penetrating into my brain. “Pretty colors”, I thought as I sat in a garish-induced daze.

Although the way the film concludes does redeem some of the sensibility from the first two acts – being poignant with its emotional purpose and such – it certainly doesn’t do enough to restore that oh so good feeling found earlier on. If not for the clustered climax that muted the emotional and comical resonance that preceded it, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs would’ve been a piece comparable to Pixar’s best.

Claymation: a divided animation. It’s always a rigorous shoot when you decide to opt into this style of filmmaking and honestly, I find it seldom benefits a feature in its storytelling. Actually until this, Australia’s latest attempt at an animated feature, every film made with clay seemed to blot out any joy it attempted to evoke with the gloomy looking style. Well, for once it finally works in benefit with the feature in Mary and Max – a tragicomedy about two loners on opposite ends of the world (and age spectrum) finding solace in knowing somewhere someone out there knows the malady of loneliness, as well as genuinely enjoying the company of the others letter and stories to write of.

A simple concept with a depressing core, Adam Elliot’s first and only feature (he won Best Short Film, Animated earlier on this decade for Harvie Krumpet) is as emotionally draining as anything you’ll see all year. While there is plenty of intelligent humor coming way of Max (voiced expertly by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and cute curiosity being emitted by young Mary (a darling job by Bethany Whitmore) that keeps the story from being eclipsed in misery, it is Elliot’s plucking at his audience’s heartstrings (and tear ducts) that gives this feature its taste, albeit piquant.

What will be found most uncertain to most people is the use of coincidence to push forth a theme about fate. There are scenes that renounce religion with condemnation, but these key scenes that equate to the soul of the feature whiz by, unintentionally questioning its audience’s ability to think. It seems all too pompous when someone gives little explanation to what they find to be most important — especially after putting in the effort to deny God.

However quarrel such as these – even though essential to the meaning of it all and therefore undeniably most essential – find themselves light on their feet in comparison to how ablating the dramatic component is to one’s emotional core. It’s staggering that this wistful story in concept could be flipped into one so miserable and affectionate that the mere mentions of being a child leave its viewer destitute. Generally, if you have two people forming a relationship over an adorable animated show like Mary and Max do with “The Nobbies”, you’d think of an overly sweet story, but this scene – the inception of their friendship – is merely one of the scarce jovial moments the film has to offer. It’s as if Adam Elliot dissected the innocence found in a concept such as this and replaced it with unique methods to choke his viewers up.

Apart from the moments in which these two introverts communicate with chocolate or ask each other the most inane of questions, Mary and Max is not for the delicate of heart. While its conclusion will leave for plenty to be desired and you may feel cheated at the lack of climax imbued at such a pinnacle moment, there is plenty of variety to fortify this feature as something great and surprisingly original.

Next is Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Along with fellow happiness skeptic Noah Baumbach, this likely duo brings you one of the most unlikely tales for these depressive filmmakers to produce: an adaptation from a children novel. I guess this is the year hipsters take back their childhood (see: Spike Jonze).

So as I’m sure you’ve gathered – either from the trailers or your upbringing – this film is about a family of foxes. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is sick of living a banal existence; he needs exhilaration. His wife, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) does not. Their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) feels neglected and perpetuates a neediness found within most children at his face; his out of town cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) only creates more of an emotional frantic child in Ash, as he’s “perfect”.

Of course the characterizations will be simplistic as they’re taken from a children’s book, but it’s Anderson’s pertinence in creating more intriguing characters that keeps the whole feature aligned. His trademark awkward humor is still present, as are his unique musical choices which begin and end with Alexandre Desplat’s best work of the year. However, Fantastic Mr. Fox is missing key elements that have made Anderson’s past work (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou/The Royal Tenenbaums) masterpieces.

First, the emotional hurt is palpable within every character (especially Ash), except Mr. Fox. Perhaps it’s Clooney’s vocal placate that keeps Mr. Fox from being penetrable whereas Streep’s fragility finds a human resonance with ease. In general, Wes Anderson films have a somewhat demure representation of his leading man which evokes unusual sentimentality, but Clooney doesn’t succumb to such dire straits and is left as a pompous man without faults… in voice. Of course Anderson writes him as a man weakening, but Clooney’s voice distracts from this. A foremost component that just isn’t what it should be.

Another issue the film faces is its comedy. There is one thing that makes a Wes Anderson movie a Wes Anderson movie; incompetence found in two gestures. Number one: awkward facial expressions; they augment the dialogue that has just passed and give more insight into the character you’re viewing, as Anderson often focuses greatly on his performer with these shots. Number two: awkward pauses which do the same thing as above, just without the visual element. Being a stop motion animated feature clocking in at 88 minutes, not only can you not behold quiet indications of shame, aggravation, et cetera, but there isn’t time to do so anyways, which also effects Anderson’s maladroit style. These obstacles aren’t conquered, nor do they conquer him – a slight dissipation in technique.

What the film does work best as is a drama. The writing makes it a snap for you to find yourself caring for an assortment of the characters, which isn’t exactly what you’d hope a film advertised as a comedy would be best at, but it’s nice to behold anyways. And sure, there is humor that works very well, but most of it isn’t relatable to the feature in any purposeful connotation – Petey’s Song and Weasel’s crazy eyes, in particular. Its heartfelt and a noble effort to bring a beloved tale that his audience most likely grew up hearing countless times, but Anderson’s latest is far from fantastic. However, take this review with a grain of salt because Wes Anderson films have a habit of being better when I rewatch them.

Rarely do I catch films after their first week in the cinema, but two things made this a must see for me. First, if I didn’t catch it soon, I knew it would be gone from the theater and as per usual, the DVD for this film wouldn’t come out for a year (and I wouldn’t feel inclined to check it out). Second, the little Christmas spirit I had made this a must see – if only because of the cast of Carrey, Oldman and Firth.

Far from humorous, this animated spin on the age old tale about the spiteful old Scrooge is the opposite of what you’d want to take your kids to over the holiday season. Dark, verbose, adult situated and at times scary, Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Tale does well in displaying the story very honestly and in doing so seldom wastes a second on ostentation. Sure, there are 3D gimmicks added for children to be entertained in certain areas, but this is far from a fun ride.

To me, films like these are the most difficult to mold in a fascinating way. Because the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is practically memorized by the age of 5, for people to behold new adaptations tends to be a redundancy. This applies for all classic tales. However, Zemeckis not only brings a visual mind as festive as the season in which it was released, but he also ascertains further truth in creating this feature. He doesn’t hold back — there is no room to mistake Scrooge as misunderstood for the most part as he is quite a vile man. Through somber flashbacks that are as sincere and simple as a young man having his heartbroken, this feature digs itself deep into your heart. So deep you may find yourself reliving your own early years out of sentimentality.

On top of this, the feature is far from dumbed-down. Scrooge elicits poor themes through wise words; the ghost from Christmas’ Past is dilapidated to such a horrific extremity that anything he preaches one instantaneously hems into their mind; when it is story that originates from an earlier century, the language isn’t retrofitted for the sake of appeasing children. All in all, this is one of the more esoteric features of the year in that it’s designed for adults craving remnants of their youthful years and not for youngsters wanting to be entertained — like Where the Wild Things Are.

This is not a children’s film. This is not a children’s film. This is not a children’s film. And that’s what so good about it because it could just as easily been fluffy and overly sentimental with an annoying and not nearly as bitter or anemic a lead character. Zemeckis is bring the adult back to animation and I applaud him for this. If he didn’t have immature moments where he used CGI frivolously, this could have been the best animated film of the year. As is, it’s still worthy of laudation for sustaining an arduous atmosphere until its ardent conclusion. A daunting path taken with a ray of light at the end, what more could you ask for this Christmas?

So while away from my computer, I decided to watch a light film that I’d been putting off. It was Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, a film assembled in the vain of classic hand drawn animation with original songs and a fresh spin on an old fable. While the tale is cute and enjoyable, the writing of the story doesn’t differentiate in anyway and will ultimately leave you bored in stretches. It isn’t nearly a waste of time or bad, but Disney could have done more in preserving the remnant that is classic animation. Maybe they’ll do one more.

If you’ve never heard the tale about the princess and the frog, well… I don’t know what to say. Move out from beneath your rock? It’s about Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a woman who was brought up in a racially unjust world and therefore has had to work extra hard to accomplish what she desires. Her only goal in life is to preserve the memory of her father, his ideology and what he strove to achieve: humble success as a restaurant owner. After he died during the war, Tiana is told to have buckled down fervently and do everything this side of martyrdom to obtain this establishment. Right before she buys the beaten down building, someone swoops in and takes it on her. With very little faith and everything going wrong (I mean, her clothes do get ruined!) her strong beliefs begin to dissipate. That is until she’s transformed into a frog and has to hop along to redefine her purpose in life.

Formula: The frog prince and Tiana hate each other at first, warm up to one and other because their assortment of new pals along the way guide them both literally and figuratively, fall in love — you know the drill. It’s a saccharine story from top to bottom. My only issue is that while it has plentiful focus, it lacks a narrative that is compelling. I’m sure this applies to all ages because there’s only so many times one can bare witness to such a formula, such hand-me-down humor and everyone but one person being wealthy in spirit and optimism. Here the characterizations are asserted and sustained, but the changes are barely minimal: it’s more as if the two titular characters compromise rather than change in their romantic endeavor. It’s a little frustrating and the single reason why this film isn’t up to par with most of Pixar’s work (just tossing a name into the ring for comparison).

What surprised me most is that — while I’m generally annoyed by animated musicals (especially of this variety) — I found myself immersed in the tune of it all. It has a mixture of wistfulness, contemporaneity and the classic Disney charm we all grew up admiring. This is not to say the music couldn’t have been improved or the score more inspired, but the primary tracks in “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans” have a mixture of smooth vocals (provided by Ms. Rose who proved her vocal worth in 2006’s Dreamgirls), simple, but effective composition and delightful tempos. On top of this, the goofier little tracks like “Gonna Take You There” apply a different southern style to the soundtrack with its bluegrass roots. So while the music is consistent with the times and the location, it is also varied and refreshing with the introduction of each new track. And if you’re feeling a little nostalgic, check out Dr. Faciller’s “Friends On the Other Side” which is as brooding as any diabolical track Disney has provided in the past.

As enjoyable as it is accessible, The Princess and the Frog‘s only issue is that no one bothered to refine their work. It feels rather slapped together and done in one shot with one draft and one attempt at a score. The only element that appears to have been thought out and revised are the original songs, which are greatly done and sprinkle the magic the film needs in the sporadic moments where they are unveiled. If only the entire product was composed with such dexterity, this would be as much a winner as people had hoped during its entire production. A good movie that deserved more respect by those making it.

“The biggest surprise of the Oscar nominees” is what many are considering this feature and while it may be somewhat of a surprise (it did get the biggest precursor for animated films after all), it isn’t exactly a good one.

An interesting story dictated as only a child could, The Secret of Kells does well in being the most gentle feature you’ve seen all year. Running at 75 minutes with about 10-15 dedicated to violence/tense situations is a fine formula; that’s more than enough time to assert scares and worriment into your audience. However, Tomm Moore (co-writer/director) mitigates any truculent force that is horror by inserting a ridiculous amount of wist and child-like wonder into these scenes. This direction is fine when the protagonist, Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is jaunt and bopping about his imagination, but when it comes to palpable fear it weakens the story significantly. A great example would be how the ominous foreshadowing in a key aspect of the story cultivates to nothing more than a soothing and overly stylish game of Snake. There is no actual tension and for a feature to work there has to be something keeping your interest or else it winds up being as abysmal as Heidi Montag’s solo album.

Fortunately there is something to care about amidst this elementary affair; the visual design. Even though there was certainly some budgetary concerns given the poor voice work that could’ve used extra takes, the way Mr. Moore constructs the animation here is rather wonderful, if misleading. A lot of it represents what Brendan visualizes as the world, but some of it gets a bit too ostentatious; a bit too garish; a bit too carried away. In the segments that thrive on nothing more than fancy artistic designs, you’ll notice that some of it lacks sense — it feels more like an acid trip than a child’s film. At 75 minutes, these segments only prolong the inevitable and do nothing to the feature if make you feel like it should’ve been even shorter.

A brief summary: Brendan is forced to choose between obeying his Uncle Abbott’s wishes and the mysterious words of a somewhat prophetic man/old friend of his uncle’s. The mysterious man suggests the safest way of protecting the small community is to complete the book of Kells while Abbott states that it’s wisest to build a strong wall. Of course Brendan gives heed to the new man that he relates to with most while attempting to abscond his deceit from his uncle. Nice enough story, easy to like, well represented for the most part = an easy feature to watch, but as aforementioned, this isn’t a movie to take seriously at all.

While it dabbles about and finds solace in its adorable nature, The Secret of Kells is more frustrating to behold and revise than it is relaxing, as it clearly hoped to achieve. No amount of charm can deflect the lack of accountability and maturity that a feature such as this need possess for it to be successful. As it closes, this feature lapses the most interesting tale incorporated in the story with a halfhearted montage and even worse, the movie ends without a theme. Well apart from the theme that films this lofty should never be made as they’re a waste of time and effort for the creators and viewers alike.

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