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Posts Tagged ‘animated film’

9 (2009)


It is inevitable that humanity will eventually die out. Depending on your level of optimism, some theories of human extinction may be more inevitable than others. Relatively recently, scientists have started wondering about what legacy humans will leave behind on planet Earth when we, as a species, go to our final reward. What, if anything, will be left behind to carry on our work?

9 is a computer animated science fantasy film directed by Shane Acker, based on Acker’s short film of the same title. It stars the voices of Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau, and Christopher Plummer.

It is wartime. An unnamed Scientist is charged with building an artificially intelligent device called the Fabrication Machine, which will build other machines to wage war against a dictator’s enemies. Sometime later, we see that this was apparently a spectacularly bad idea, as humanity has subsequently been wiped out, their mighty civilization in ruins. However, life remains… sort of. Nine small homunculus-like ragdolls called Stitchpunks remain in this barren landscape, created for a purpose that they do not yet know. One of these, 9, was the last to be created before the Scientist died, and he finds himself in a terrifying world where remaining war machines hunt the Stitchpunks as the Stitchpunks try to find safety and a purpose. They are inquisitive and industrious, able to improvise any number of weapons and devices from the odds and ends they find around them, but this soon gets 9 in trouble when he accidentally reactivates the Fabrication Machine, which commences hunting the ‘punks in earnest. 9 believes their only hope is to fight back, but the spiritual leader 1 believes that survival will only come by running away and hiding… and 1 is willing to make sacrifices to ensue his ideal society. Before long, they ‘punks start running out of places to hide, and soon they must face this new horror, or risk their own annihilation.

This is a beautifully rendered movie. Due to the relative scale (the Stitchpunks are only about six inches tall), the debris left over by the apocalypse forms a new landscape for them to explore – a sandbox for the little MacGyvers to build what they need out of what is left behind. The nine main characters are surprisingly unique for burlap ragdolls, and I was amazed at how expressive and distinguishable their faces were, considering they were basically a couple of lenses (or, in the case of 5, a single lens) with a slit for a mouth. In addition to distinct appearances, each Stitchpunk also has a unique personality, easily avoiding the pitfall of making them little carbon copies of one another by making them embody aspects of the Scientist who made them. The war machines are also innovative and terrifying, from the Fabrication Machine (which reminded me vaguely of GlaDOS from Portal) to the Seamstress (who looked like Sid from Toy Story had allied with the Other Mother from Coraline to make a Stitchpunk hunting monster). The world inhabited by the stitchpunks is huge and beautiful and frightening, and a delight to watch.

Unfortunately, in actual substance the world of 9 falls short. It is light on explanations and thin on plot, and while an unexplained world like this can make the exploration of its mysteries a delight, here it was a bit frustrating. I didn’t get the feeling that the Stitchpunks learned anything about what happened to the world, and while they made progress against the War Machines and maybe helped nudge the world back to life (if inadvertantly), I had no real feeling of progress. Like little robots, the Stitchpunks are only following their programming, which appears to be compiling information and rebuilding the world any way they can. What plot there is doesn’t seem to quite stretch to cover the 79-minute running time, making the bulk of the film feel like mostly padding.

While 9 is beautifully detailed and demonstrates a Stitchpunk’s-eye view of a post-apocalyptic world, ultimately it falls short in terms of plot and feels like it could have been so much more. Worth a rent for the visuals alone, but other than that don’t look too hard for a complex story.

The Lion King (1994)


It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

The Lion King is a Disney animated feature film, the 32nd film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics. It features music by Elton John and Tim Rice, with an original score by Hans Zimmer. It stars the voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, a Whoopi Goldberg.

The birth of Simba, the son of King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, is a momentous occasion at Pride Rock. All the animals have gathered to ceberate the presentation of the newborn lion cub – all except one. Mufasa’s brother Scar knows that Simba’s birth means he will never be king of Pride Rock, a fact of royal succession that chafes at him. As Simba grows, Mufasa and his hornbill majordomo Zazu attempt to teach him what it is to be king, but Simba would rather play with his friend Nala than listen to his lessons. When Scar executes a plan to assassinate both Mufasa and young Simba by wildebeest stampede, he is nearly successful, but Mufasa sacrifices his life to save Simba. Scar convinces the distraught cub that Mufasa’s death was Simba’s fault, and Simba runs away from the Pridelands in shame, narrowly escaping the hyenas that Scar sent to finish him off. As Simba grows to adulthood in the care of a meerkat named Timon and a warthog named Pumbaa, he turns his back on what he sees as his own mistake, but his past will soon return to haunt him. Simba will be forced to make a decision once and for all: continue running and leave the ruined Pridelands under the rule of his cruel uncle, or return to claim his heritage as the Lion King.

The Lion King is a richly layered animated tale, with beautiful visuals from Simba’s birth and presentation to the animals of Pride Rock, through the terror of a meticulously rendered windebeest stampede, through the despair of Simba’s exile to his epiphany and triumphant return. The characters are distinctive, even the extras in crowd shots, and the animation is fluid and graceful, like a traditional Disney animated film should be. Even though the cast are all animals, you see elements of humanity in them: the rough-and-tumble exuberance of young Simba simultaneously reminds us of a kitten and a preadolescent human. The quiet strength of Mufasa instantly invokes the reaction, “This is a king.” It helps that the characters are designed to bear a passing resemblance to their voice actors, seen most vividly in Scar, who is basically Jeremy Irons in lion shape.

The story is also deep and engaging, reminding one of such stories as Hamlet or any number of biblical tales regarding future prophets abandoned and found in strange circumstances. It is a universal story, one of tragedy and redemption that cuts across all cultures and is helped, not hindered, by the comic relief antics of the happy-go-lucky Timon and Pumbaa. Every character fits a classic archetype: the exiled prince, the scheming uncle, the wise but quirky mentor, the well-meaning but initially annoying advisor, the childhood friend turned love interest. And far from being two-dimensional stereotypes, each character feels well-rounded, as though they have a lifetime of development behind them. Everyone has had a father figure like Mufasa, a teacher like Zazu, a best friend like Timon or Pumbaa. The hyenas (though ill-served here as a species) embody the sense of greed and consumption that fuels Scar’s plans, and even Pride Rock itself is a character, a Fisher Kingdom that reflects its ruler: lush and fertile under Mufasa, but desolate under Scar. Everything works together organically, providing stories wrapped in metaphors embodied in characters so that you feel like you are a part of the world that has been created here.

While Disney’s traditional animated features became a bit hot-or-miss towards the end, The Lion King remains as one of their best feature films. Produced during the height of the animation department’s operation, this film remains as a family classic that will endure for years to come.

Shrek (2001)


He is not your typical fairy tale hero. She is not your typical fairy tale princess. These are not your typical fairy tale characters. And this is not your typical fairy tale.

This is a fairy tale, tilted two degrees off-center.

Shrek is a computer animated fantasy-comedy directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, loosely based on William Steig’s picture book Shrek! and produced by Dreamworks Animation. It features the voices of Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and John Lithgow.

Shrek (Myers) is a grouchy ogre who wants nothing more than to live in peaceful solitude in his swamp. His secluded bacherhood is interrupted, however, by a sudden influx of exiled fairy tale characters, including Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, a Wolf in Granny’s nightdress, and a talking Donkey (Murphy), forced into the swamp by order of Lord Farquaad (Lithgow). Shrek travels to Disneyland Duloc to confront Farquaad and bargain for the return of his swamp, with the chatty Donkey tagging along. Farquaad offers him a deal: rescue the fair Princess Fiona (Diaz) from a tower guarded by a ferocious dragon, and Shrek’s swamp will be returned. Sounds simple, right? Of course it does. Will there be problems? Of course there will. Shrek and Fiona turn out to have a lot in common, and the crusty ogre finds himself falling for her. Second, Farquaad plans to marry Fiona in order to become king and rule over all of Duloc (this would be a bad thing). Third, Fiona seems to have a little bit of a curse…

I enjoyed the hell out of Shrek when I first saw it. I’d become bitter and jaded from Disney’s habit of churning out and retreading the same tired stories and running them into the ground with sequel after sequel (… after sequel!), but Dreamworks has managed to take the tired fairy tale conventions and give them a well-needed kick in the head. For starters, the hero is a smelly, ugly, grouchy ogre. For another, the fair princess to be rescued isn’t exactly made of rainbows and unicorn farts herself. Many side gags poke indirect fun at the usual fairy tale conventions, even as the main plot beats the Hero’s Journey over the head with a tire iron. The result is absolutely hilarious.

The voice acting was also excellent, with Mike Myer’s vaguely Scottish accent inspired by the voice that his mother had used when reading him bedtime stories, and Cameron Diaz is spot on as Not Your Mother’s Damsel in Distress. Eddie Murphy was delightfully obnoxious as the talking Donkey, and John Lithgow was enjoyably evil in a role that might or might not have been a direct jab at the CEO of Disney at the time. The only real snag came in character design. This was one of Dreamworks’ early films, created before they’d settled on the cartoonier character designs that would mark later films. While the characters here were wonderfully detailed, with subtle colors and shading, this attention also made Fiona’s animators feel like they were animating a corpse. Whoops.

If you like your fairy tales fractured, your heroes unconventional, and your princesses spirited, check out Shrek. It will satisfy adults and kids alike.

The Incredibles (2004)


“WHERE. IS. MY. SUPER. SUIT?”

Being a superhero is tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a civilian identity in order to protect yourself and your loved ones. Sometimes you make mistakes – unforgiveable ones.

Being a retired ex-superhero can also be tough. You need to be everywhere, to do everything for everybody, and you need to maintain a full-time civilian job to keep a roof over your head and to support your wife and 2.3 kids. And sometimes mistakes come back to haunt you…

The Incredibles is a computer-animated superhero comedy produced by Pixar and directed by Brad Bird. It features the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Peña, and Samuel L. Jackson.

In a world where people called “supers” possess metahuman abilities, Mr. Incredible (Nelson) used to have a good thing going. Using his super-strength, he would save lives in his old stomping grounds of Municiberg, with enough time left over afterwards to court and eventually wed a fellow super named Elastigirl (Hunter), who can stretch her body into any shape. (I think there’s a fetish for that in Japan.) Mr. Incredible also has fans, among them a high-Intelligence low-Wisdom fanboy calling himself Incrediboy (Lee), who has no innate superpowers but builds James-Bond-like gadgets in the hopes of becoming Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. Mr. Incredible rejects his attempts, however, stating that he works alone. Eventually, though, frivolous lawsuits from injured bystanders make the world hostile for superheroes, forcing all of them to retire and take up civilian lives.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl live unhappily in suburbia as Bob and Helen Parr. Of their children, Violet (Vowell) can produce forcefields and turn herself invisible, and Dash (Fox) can run faster than the eye can see, but the newest addition, baby Jack-Jack, appears to be an average child. They are all forced to hide their abilities and masquerade as normal humans, a restriction that is starting to chafe on all of them, particularly Bob, who rankles at his desk job at an insurance company, has gained weight, and must sneak out with his best friend Frozone (Jackson, as himself), likewise forcibly retired and married to a woman only identified as “Honey”, to fight crime on the sly. When Bob’s boss refuses to let him aid a pedestrian getting mugged right outside their building, Bob loses his temper, causing him to get fired from what appears to be only the latest in a long series of civilian jobs. Before he can tell his wife that they will have to move again, he is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage (Peña), who offers him a chance to return to his old life as a superhero. He jumps at the chance, never suspecting that this decision will send him hurtling into a collision course with the fallen Incrediboy…

This affectionate deconstruction/reconstruction of the superhero movie was quite enjoyable, exploring the difficulties of being a superhuman in a mundane world, trying to live a normal family-oriented life when forced to turn your back on something you enjoyed. The respective powers of the Parr family make sense for their family roles: Bob is superstrong, allowing him to protect his family; Helen’s elasticity allows herself to stretch across the respective roles of homemaker, wife, and mom, as well as keeping up with her kids; superspeedy Dash is your typical hyperactive kid turned up to eleven, and the initially shy and insecure Violet uses her invisibility powers to hide from a male classmate on whom she has a massive crush. And Jack-Jack… boy howdy. When his powers finally manifest every mom watching the movie will be smiling and nodding.

The plot is also darker than Pixar’s previous films, coming right out and telling the viewer that being a superhero can really, really suck. It doesn’t shy away from the possibility of death; rather, Helen Parr comes right out and tells her kids that Syndrome’s minions will not hesitate to kill them, even though they’re just kids. Add to this the number of supers either killed on-screen or whose deaths are mentioned, and you’ve got what amounts to Watchmen, with a brighter palette. Syndrome is utterly psychotic, better filed with villains like the Joker than, say, Megavolt from Darkwing Duck, and his plan to make the supers obsolete, while smacking of disproportionate restribution, does have a genuine foundation in his past rather than being, “Hey, I’m a villain – I’m supposed to act like this!” Fans of DC and Marvel comics will find a lot of oblique references sprinkled throughout this movie as well, not least of which is a correlation between the Parr family and the Fantastic Four.

If you like self-referential, deconstructive superhero movies but don’t have enough anti-depressants for Watchmen (or if you have kids), try The Incredibles. It’s fun and serious in turns, but ultimately satisfies any superhero fan.

Despicable Me (2010)


Meet Gru.  Gru is a brilliant supervillain bent on world conquest.  Gru has hundreds of minions eager to carry out his every request.  Gru has dozens of nefarious inventions to facilitate his ultimate domination of the world and crush its entire population mercilessly under his thumb.  Gru is about to become a dad to three young orphans, whether he likes it or not.

Despicable Me is a computer-animated 3D comedy from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, featuring the voices of Steve “The 40-Year Old-Virgin” Carrell, Jason “How I Met Your Mother” Segel, and Russell “Get Him to the Greek” Brand.  So far it has received generally positive reviews, and with a heartwarming story that doesn’t try too hard, it is easy to see why.

Gru (Carrell) is a middle-aged supervillain who, hearing that another super villain has stolen the Pyramids of Giza, decides to repair his wounded pride by pulling off an even bigger heist: stealing the moon.  However, the loan he requests from the Bank of Evil to fund this caper is denied pending Gru’s acquisition of the shrink ray he needs.  Mr. Perkins, the bank president, tells Gru that he needs to step aside to make room for younger, hipper villains like that charming young man Vector who (incidentally) was behind the theft of the pyramids.

Oh, it’s on

With the assistance of dozens of his gibberish-speaking, pill-shaped minions, Gru steals the shrink ray from a lab… only to have it stolen in turn from him by Vector.  When Gru’s repeated attempts to break into Vector’s lab to steal it back end in hilarious failure, Gru is on the verge of giving up when he sees three little girls from a local orphanage approach with cookies to sell, and are allowed in.  Light bulb…

Gru adopts the three girls from Miss Hattie’s orphanage and has them sell Vector small robots disguised as cookies to help him break into Vector’s lab and acquire the shrink ray.  The plan is a success, but on the way home the girls shangai Gru into taking them to an amusement park, where against his best-laid plans and every effort to ditch them, he has a fantastic time.  It is not long before Gru realizes that the innocent, unconditional love the girls offer him is changing him, and before long he is forced to make a choice: world conquest or his adopted daughters.

Gru’s characterization as a washed-up supervillain is spot-on, and his gradual surrender to the affections of Edith, Margo, and Agnes never feels forced.  While he has many “being an asshole for its own sake” moments in the beginning, he never dips into actual evil, making his eventual redemption feel believable and natural.  There were several moments where I just wanted to give him a hug, particularly during the scene where he is giving his minions (for whom he clearly has a lot of affection) a pep talk regarding the complete lack of funds to pull off this plan and the likelihood that they might have to find work elsewhere.  While Gru is a nominal villain in this piece, you will love to hate his rival Vector and the Dolores-Umbridge-esque Miss Hattie.

The character design and animation was smooth and entertaining, apparently taking a page from Pixar on designing human characters without falling headlong into the uncanny valley, and the minions were hilariously adorable alongside their birdlike boss.  Likewise, the girls were appealing in their collective role as the innocence that Gru has apparently lost and needs to rediscover.  The credits gag of Gru’s minions playing with the 3D effects by trying to reach as far as they can “out of the screen” was likewise entertaining, though the effect may have been spoiled slightly by watching the movie at home on DVD on a non-HD TV.

Even if you are the type that doesn’t often go see animated films, I highly recommend Despicable Me as a worthy follower in the footsteps of such family fare as The Incredibles and Shrek, with elements that will appeal to both children and adults.

Incidentally, Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri has stated that a sequel is in the works.  I for one am looking forward to it.