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Entries in Animation (4)

Thursday
Jun072018

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO

Featuring the voices of: Logan Lerman, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Nick Rulon, Jordan Beck, Brian Cook, Jim Pharr and Jason Ezzell.
Writers: Richard Lanni and Mike Stokey.
Director: Richard Lanni

Rating: 3.5/5

He was one of the finest American heroes of The War to End all Wars; a unwaveringly stoic soldier who served beside his countrymen, the troops of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, in the trenches of France against a determined German army. He saw 17 close-quarters combat situations, usually by the side of his best friend, Private Robert Conroy. Upon his return to the U.S., he was lauded as a national hero, met with The Commander in Chief and was rewarded for his bravery by being bestowed the rank of Sargeant, the first four-legged officer in American military history.

Yes, four-legged. This soldier was a Boston terrier, with a short stubby tail, an appendage that earned him the name ‘Stubby’. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of his nation’s entry into the European theatre of WWI, the spirited all-American mutt has been reborn as a bigscreen hero in director Richard Lanni’s computer-animated version of his dog’s life.

It is fair to say that Lanni’s film is one of the more unusual cartoon features in recent years. A co-production between Ireland, The U.K., France, Canada and The U.S.A., it lovingly renders the period, capturing with an artist’s eye Stubby’s early life in the picturesque Connecticut countryside, his voyage to Europe and, with a particularly evocative sense of location, the trenches of the Western Front. A more stark design palette, recalling classic war film imagery, is employed to convey troop movements and geographical data; in one instance, the menacing shadow of a German ‘bird of war’ descends upon the European front. (Ed: This is a kids film, right?)  

The director is an accomplished war documentarian and for his first animated feature he has drawn as much upon the realism of his factual films as he does the Disney/Pixar model. Parents won’t be expecting to field questions like, “What’s mustard gas, mommy?”, but Lanni’s storytelling doesn’t skimp on the realities of Stubby’s frontline tour. Like all good, similarly straightforward war yarns, there are rifles firing, grenades hitting their marks and shadowy figures lurking in smoky killing fields.

Yet in scene after scene is this buoyant, lovable lead character straight out of a Dreamworks-style romp. Stubby’s considerable screen presence and emotional centre comes entirely from his physicality; Lanni foregoes any vocal anthropomorphising, instead providing for his star the best animation his computer artists can offer to create dimensionality. Stubby is every bit the great animated hero, utterly lovable in the eyes of the tykes while also legitimately heroic for the war movie fans. And like many American G.I.’s on duty in Europe, he enjoys some R&R in Paris, a sequence that is as lovely as it sounds.

The human characters are not afforded the same level of artistry; Conroy is blandly drawn, Logan Lerman’s voicing thankfully providing character nuance. Gerard Depardieu does good work as burly French fighter Gaston Baptiste, staying on the right side of stereotype; in voice over, Helena Bonham Carter plays Conroy’s sister, whose recounting of her brother’s friendship with Stubby the basis for the film.

Sgt Stubby’s life was well documented (upon his passing, the New York Times ran a half-page obituary), so there is very little leeway for embellishment in telling his story. Which makes Richard Lanni’s family-themed wartime shaggy dog adventure all the more remarkable, both as a rousing account of one of the most unlikely heroes in combat history and, frankly, as a film that exists at all.

  

Sunday
Feb012015

ROCKS IN MY POCKETS

Voice Cast: Signe Baumane.
Writer/Director: Signe Baumane.

Rating: 4/5

Latvian-born, US-based filmmaker Signe Baumane draws upon a rich history of European animation to propel Rocks in My Pockets, her charming, incisive and very contemporary study of generational depression and suicidal tendencies.

The dreamlike work recounts the struggle with mental illness experienced by the women of Baumane’s family. Raising questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA, this landmark film engages with wit and empathy via visual metaphors, surreal images and a twisted sense of humour; it is an animated odyssey encompassing art, matriarchal angst, strange folkloric stories, Latvian nature, history, the natural world and the artist’s own sense of longing.

Utilising the structural and symbolic framework of a century of conflict in the Baltic region, Baumane undertakes the daunting artistic and intellectual task of presenting the crippling impact that the darkest of mindsets had upon her grandmother Anna, her cousins and ultimately, herself. Stop-motion techniques, papier mache landscapes, simple colour-pencil flourishes and traditional 2D cell animation combine to profound and blackly comic affect to convey themes which explore rarely spoken-of elements such as infanticide, the mechanics of hanging oneself and patriarchal tyranny.

Baumane served as assistant to the great animator Bill Plympton, the Oscar-nominated creator of such memorable works as Guard Dog (2004), Your Face (1987) and Idiots and Angels (2008). His influence is clear, predominantly in surreal sequences that defy real world physical properties. Other inspirations include the metaphorical embracing of the animal kingdom as used by Russian visionary Yuriy Norshteyn (The Fox and The Hare, 1973; Hedgehog in the Fog, 1975); the surreal oeuvre of Czech auteur Jan Svankmajer (Alice, 1988; Faust, 1994; Little Otik, 2000); and, Persepolis (2007), the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s female-centric graphic novel by director Vincent Paronnaud.

Yet Baumane has also crafted a unique and vivid animation landscape of her own. From her grandmother’s attempts at suicide on riverbank in a 1920’s Latvian forest to the claustrophobic shadows of modern New York City where the director mulls over self-harm, Rocks in My Pocket proves an insightful, cathartic experience in bonding for Baumane and her audience. Like all great art, her animation is borne of a need for truth and demands, and rewards, one’s intellectual and emotional engagement.

Monday
Oct272014

BIG HERO 6

Voice Cast: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr, Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph and Stan Lee.
Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Jordan Roberts; based n the Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Steven T Seagle.
Directors: Don Hall and Chris Williams.

Rating: 3/5

Wondrous feats of new generation effects technology service some old school tropes in Big Hero 6, the latest exercise in brand expansion from the Disney/Marvel monolith. An all-but-forgotten property from the comic giant’s distant past is resuscitated by Mouse House magicians, who apply dazzling digital wizardry to bolster a narrative that borrows from just about every family hit of the last half decade.

Co-directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh, 2011) and Chris Williams (Bolt, 2008) are tasked with creating an Avengers-style super-hero pic within the thematic parameters of the Disney canon. In their favour is raffish boy-whiz protagonist, Hiro (Ryan Potter), a spunky, spiky-haired tween with a head for state-of-the-art robotics and a rebellious attitude that threatens to derail his future. Raised without parents, it becomes the role of his big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to guide his sibling’s future, introducing him to ‘The Nerd Room’ – a free-thinking, high-tech workspace where Tadashi creates mechanical wonders alongside lab buddies Go-Go (Jamie Chung), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr) and Fred (the ubiquitous T.J. Miller).

Tadashi’s special project is a medical droid named Baymax (Scott Adsit), a based-in-fact ‘bot whose joints and limbs are protected by soft-to-the-touch inflatable nylon. Soon, Baymax is in the sole care of Hiro and both are hurtled into a mystery that involves corporate espionage, a hurriedly constructed revenge plot and the mass destruction of a shimmering cityscape (again). Littlies may find a confrontation set in the baddies lair a tad confronting, although parents will appreciate the dexterity and craftsmanship as all creative elements meld into the film’s best sequence.

The action takes place in San Fransokyo, a richly textured, beautifully rendered world that melds the architecture and ambience of the northern Californian city with the neon aesthetic and ancient Asian influence of Japan’s capital (it is never clear whether this is a future world or an alternate reality). Disney Animation, applying in-house technology developed for the project, have created a truly artistic palette of detail and colour that is at times breathtaking to behold.

And yet Big Hero 6 manages to dull its impact by overplaying the influence of superior works. Both visually and narratively, The Incredibles, How To Train Your Dragon, ET The Extra-terrestrial, Iron Man and ParaNorman are invoked; surging microbot weaponry looks to have been derived from the same software used for The Green Lantern or Spiderman 3; as stated, the broad daylight demolition of a metropolis recalls Marvel tentpoles The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy (and seems like overkill in a kids flick). Big Hero 6 has dreams beyond the corporate landscape from which it has emerged, yet remains bound to the template set by its creators.

The ace in the hole is Baymax, who scores big laughs and generates warmth and good will that ultimately proves more crucial to the film than it should have to be. The core relationship between Hiro and his synthetic surrogate guardian pans out warmly and should play well with all audience quadrants, as it was clearly intended. Suffice to say, toy sales will soar over Christmas.

Thursday
May082014

MINUSCULE: VALLEY OF THE ANTS

Writers/Directors: Helene Giraud and Thomas Szabo.

Rating: 3.5/5

The bigscreen adaptation of co-directors Helene Giraud and Thomas Szabo’s French TV hit is a charming adventure that only stumbles when it favours an increasingly expansive plot over its delightful six-legged stars. Which won’t matter one bit to the under 10s, for whom this unlikely, sweetly-told tale of friendship in the insect world will prove irresistible.

Giraud and Szabo stumbled upon a cottage industry when they launched the first series of six-minute shorts in 2006 chronicling anthropomorphised insect life in the French countryside (the film’s backdrop is the woods of Provence). To date, the pair has produced 78 mini-episodes; all are sans dialogue (as is the film version), ensuring easy transition into a global marketplace that now numbers over 70 territories. The step-up to cinema-sized coin was inevitable and has proven audience-friendly; Minuscule is already one of 2014’s top-earners, with Eu14million banked domestically.

The theme of family is established early, when a pregnant woman enjoying a picnic with her beau abandons her blanket of food to dash to the hospital. Jump cut to a birth, but not the one expected; instead, we are under a vast leafy frond and witnessing three ladybug eggs pop open. The new winged family set out on an exploratory adventure, only to have one little one become separated. All alone, his misadventures in survival lead him to the blanket, where he inadvertently befriends the leader of a black ant food-scouting regiment.

With the ants balancing a tin of sugar cubes and the wee ladybug along for the ride (a damaged wing renders the poor critter flightless), a cross-paddock odyssey is undertaken to return the bounty to the ant’s home. Dangers abound (including one very scary lizard, when viewed from the ant’s perspective), not least of which is a determinedly evil red ant platoon led by the film’s villain. The red ants are continuously denied some sugar (both good guys and bad almost falling victim to an ant life’s many dangers, including fish and motorcars) until they can take it no more; the reds launch an all out assault on the black ant hill.

It is this third-act/ninety-degree turn into a Lord of the Rings-style ‘castle siege’ that betrays the elegant, character-driven warmth of Minuscule; the wonderfully expressive eyes of the key protagonists and the major threats posed by minor obstacles are all the narrative needed. By the time the warring ant armies drag slingshots, fireworks and a bug-spray can into battle, audience empathy and interest has waned. One senses Giraud and Szabo were unsure of how to upscale the story as convincingly as the visuals; the narrative hiccups when our ladybug hero/heroine must travel back to the rug, becoming side-tracked into an unnecessary encounter with a spider and frog.

In every other respect, Minuscule is an enormously entertaining adventure. It effortlessly finds more engaging interplay and laughs amongst its handful of tiny, wordless characters than the entire cast of most recent smart-mouthed US animation efforts.