I’ve been quiet on this blog of late – that’s because I’ve been privileged enough to be writing for other people! For example, a Miyazaki Blu ray boxset came out recently, and I wrote about it for two different outlets. Below are a paragraph from each of those, and a link to the full article for those who are interested. Maybe 2015 will offer more opportunities for me to keep up with Animation Confabulation…
Miyazaki’s most distinctive quality, his vivid and unparalleled imagination, was present from his debut feature, The Castle of Cagliostro. Starting out in 1979 with this pacy adventure of dashing thieves and crumbling castles, the then young upstart established himself as a fiercely creative mind, injecting a formulaic princess-trapped-in-a-tower plot with as much visual verve as possible. Cars don’t turn, they careen (bad drivers are a recurring theme in his films), while the final action sequence takes place inside a clocktower, a scene so thrilling that Disney would homage it only a few years later in Basil: The Great Mouse Detective. His last film, 2013’s The Wind Rises, has invention spilling equally out of the frame, even though it is ostensibly his most realistic film. Whether in the gorgeous dreams of flight that punctuate the story, or in the way the earthquake is depicted as a series of waves swelling beneath the earth, the brightness of the man’s mind remains undimmed by non-fiction. And those are the only two films in his canon that couldn’t be classified as a fantasy – the rest of his work is even more dazzlingly inventive.
Equally remarkable is the way that Miyazaki can craft such compelling stories without resorting to clearly defined villains, and often removing conflict from his narratives altogether. Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises both clearly show a revulsion to war, although it is never quite as explicit as in the films of his colleague Isao Takahata, but this desire for peace and balance goes further than pacifism on a broad political scale; Miyazaki’s peace is ingrained in the very nature of his stories. In Laputa, Nausicaa, Mononoke and Ponyo, the conflict is with nature itself, but a peaceful resolution is achievable in every single one of them, often with nature triumphing. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro, and Spirited Away, there is no binary conflict at all, where the story lies in simply observing the characters, with a magical element thrown in to spice things up. This clash of the magical and the mundane is precisely the appeal of Miyazaki. His are films that champion the imagination of the everyday, revealing the mysterious beauty that hides beneath tree trunks and round street corners.
Unfortunately, looking at my upcoming timetable, the site and, consequently, the #Disney52 Project will have to be put on hold until my finals are finished.
Worry not, dedicated fans, as my exams finish on May 10th, so only two weeks delay. PLUS, this means that I will post three Disney articles in one week, just to spoil you and to get back on track. I think this means I’ll be able to make my articles on this a lot better, as I won’t be rushing for the sake of exams. So this is a good thing.
Right now, however, William Pitt and Charles James Fox take precedent over animated films. See you soon!
Makoto Shinkai is being hailed by people who know what they are talking about as the future of animé, and as his latest film Journey to Agartha has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, it’s important to take a look at why exactly people are so excited about this director. I’m going to look at three of his films briefly as an introduction to this great talent, in the hope that you will seek out some of his work. Thanks to @elab49 and @PatrickJGamble for introducing me to his work.
5 Centimetres Per Second
These three vignettes tell the story of the emotional, sensitive teenager Takaki, and his various romantic adventures during different stages of his life. It’s a perfect introduction to Shinkai, as it has a lot of recurring themes and images also seen in Voices of Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days. Most noticeable is the way he attributes adolescent relationships as life changing events, full of universal significance. Takaki narrates the opening vignette with a passion that most teenage boys seem incapable of; all he’s doing is catching a train to see his childhood sweetheart, but he observes how time seems to stand still in those moments of waiting and longing. It’s all incredibly sincere, but Shinkai directs with such conviction that the audience buys into that sincerity. The animation matches this emotionally expressive approach, the images of the film taking on a lyrical look as the snowfall fills the screen with a slow, ethereal beauty. It’s the kind of short where one kiss is a moment of personal epiphany.
The second story is even grander in the scope of Shinkai’s ideas, as a college romance takes place under a space shuttle launch. Shinkai plays with light to wondrous effect, as the stars and galaxies shadow a very personal tale of unrequited love, as if in the grand scheme of things this one story about a boy and a girl is as important as space in its entirety. Again, there is nothing more to the short than the aches and pains of being in love whilst at school, a subject many would dismiss as trivial. Shinkai doesn’t see it that way, and your enjoyment of the story may well depend on how much you are prepared to accept high school angst as heartfelt poetry. The final section is the most impressionistic of them all, as it becomes a dazzling montage and leaves you to work out what has actually happened. It’s intelligent, emotional film making, somehow utterly charming in its sincerity.
The Place Promised In Our Early Days
This feature film, unlike 5 Centimetres Per Second, is just one story, an emotionally charged romance set in a complex sci-fi world. Just as how 5 Centimetres used the image of a space shuttle to mix the cosmic with the mundane, so here a love triangle is framed by a larger narrative of two rival powers exploring the concept of alternate universes. The science fiction elements don’t entirely work, but again Shinkai manages to make a coming-of-age love story seem like the entire world as it stake. By the powerful, uplifting finale of the film, it actually is. He is similar to Summer Wars director Mamoru Hosoda in the way he seamlessly blends high concepts with apparently trivial school stories, but there is something even more beautiful about Shinkai’s images. The characters animation does not differ much from the majority of anime, but the scenes the characters occupy are gorgeous, the light causing the whole world to glow. He loves to linger on frames without any people in, such as the insides of empty rooms, or vast landscapes of green and blue. The beauty is in the details, and Shinkai can make even a chair or a car look beautiful.
Voices of a Distant Star
This early short by Shinkai manages to tell a perfectly self-contained story within the space of half an hour, building a world with space battling robots and distant planets where all that matters is the distance between two sweethearts. This showcases all of the themes that become so prevalent in his later films, and shows the promise of a director who can create unforgettable images and can make us care about romance, adolescence, long distant relationships and galactic robot wars. He proves himself, once more, to be a singular talent that can find beauty in the simplest of stories, even whilst dazzling us with big ideas and traversing worlds and lightyears.
Makoto Shinkai, then, is a director that seems like a cross between Ghibli director Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday) and thoughtful French auteur Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum), yet he still retains a unique voice, mixing the cosmic with the quiet and infusing everything with a heartfelt beauty. There’s a poetry to the aesthetics of his films, but what really marks him as a talent to watch is that his language is equally lyrical. He treats adolescent romance as the most important thing in the world and, astonishingly, he makes the audience believe it, too.
2012 has been a bit of a mixed bag for cinema. There have been many notable disappointments, and a fair few pleasant surprises to balance it out, too. Animation wise, I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve seen this year, but I still wish there would be far more done in my preferred medium, good old hand drawn and 2D. Thankfully, two of the best animations of the year, both from Japan, are still to be given a wide release in the UK, so you can look forward to that in 2013. Here are my thoughts on 2012 in cinema. It’s quite long, but you might enjoy reading it on the toilet on your smart phone.
Best Performance: Animation
Hugh Grant – The Pirate Captain, The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists
The latest offering from Aardman, a lovably daft stop-motion animation chock full of their trademark visual jokes, all revolved around the irrepressibly silly and rather useless Pirate Captain at the centre of it all. Hugh Grant, erstwhile boring English rom com star and the scourge of News International, finds incredible form here in the best overall voice cast of the year. He’s wonderfully British, and his bluster and pride only makes him all the more sympathetic when his plans don’t quite go according to plan. He may not hit the heights of Peter Sallis’ immortal voice work as Wallace, but he nevertheless makes The Pirate Captain one of the most lovable, memorable animated characters of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Jude Law, Pitch, Rise of the Guardians, Alec Baldwin, North, Rise of the Guardians, Kelly Macdonald, Merida, Brave
Best Performance: Live Action
Domnhall Gleeson – Levin, Anna Karenina
When I first saw it, my biggest problem with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina was that the central character, Anna, was so conceited and self centred that the whole film was left a little cold. Were we supposed to root for her or hate her? Both seemed quite unpalatable options. Upon second viewing, however, it was Domnhall Gleeson’s restrained, passionate performance as Levin that truly won me over to the film. It helps that Levin is a far more sympathetic character, but it is Gleeson’s portrayal of him, as a bashful, heartfelt outsider in the aristocratic world of the city, that really lifts the film. Some may find it cloying, but I was fully won over round about the point where he declares his love for Kitty (Alicia Vikander) using a child’s spelling blocks.
Honourable Mentions: Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Elle Fanning, Ginger, Ginger and Rosa, Suraj Sharma, Pi, Life of Pi
Best Visuals: Animation
Traditional animation styles are always going to win out in this category for me, but ParaNorman truly blew me away with the sheer energy they manage to achieve with stop motion models. Not only is the jerky movement usually associated with the medium is totally absent, but they are astoundingly ambitious with the action sequences. Car chases, giant storms and violent trees all make this the most astonishing piece of stop motion animation ever. When you consider the craft that goes into this, it makes it all the more impressive.
Honourable Mentions: Brave, The Pirates: In An Adventure with Scientists, A Cat in Paris, Rise of the Guardians
Best Visuals: Live Action
Vivan Las Antipodas!
It’s unlikely that you’ve seen Vivan Las Antipodas as it is hardly likely to be hitting a multiplex near you, or any cinema for that matter, in the immediate future. I was lucky enough to catch this conceptual documentary at Edinburgh Film Festival, and I was astonished by what I saw. The idea is that documentarian Victor Kossakovsky looks at Antipodean points – that is, two places that are diametrically opposed in the world – and sees how life is different (or similar) in these worlds apart. It’s an abstract, absorbing film with very little content but somehow ends up being both moving and inspiring, and Kossakovsky captures our planet in a way unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know when you’ll be able to see this, but make sure you do, as soon as you can.
Honourable Mentions: Life of Pi, The Mirror Never Lies
Best Score: Animation
Takagi Masakatsu, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki
Takagi Masakatsu does what the best film composers do – he captures the feelings of the characters on screen and expresses them through music. And as much of the film is concerned with the joys of childhood, and follows two children as they grow up, this makes for an uplifting, energetic musical accompaniment to the film. Certain scenes, when Masakatsu’s score plays a prominent role, really make Wolf Children quite an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Honourable Mentions: Patrick Doyle, Brave, Satoshi Takebe, From Up on Poppy Hill
Best Score: Live Action
Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
This isn’t just my favourite score of the year, it’s my favourite album of the year, too. A vibrant mixture of Cajun folk music and soaring trumpet motifs, complimented by singers from Louisiana, this feels as authentic and magical as the film itself. The music that plays over the credits (you can find it on youtube, it’s called Once There Was A Hushpuppy) is one of the most powerful pieces of music I’ve heard all year.
Honourable Mention: Johnny Greenwood, The Master
Biggest Disappointment: Animation
A great idea, a brilliant director (The Clone Wars’ Genndy Tartakovsky) and some really funny jokes all come to nothing when part of a bland plot with uninspired visuals and some really weak voice acting. I wanted to like this, and I stayed that way through most of the film, and then they had a singalong at the end and it lost me.
Biggest Disappointment: Live Action
The Dark Knight Rises
It’s not really a bad film. I don’t think Christopher Nolan is capable of making a bad film. In fact, the first time I saw this I thought it was amazing – big on spectacle and ideas and with a great finale. And then I saw it again. Oh dear. The first act is just dull. Anne Hathaway prances around spouting some truly awful dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place in something like The Green Lantern, whilst Bruce Wayne mopes a lot then suddenly gets better because of some miracle leg brace. We never hear about any problems with his body again, for the whole film. Then the plot holes begin piling up, no one stops to question how stupid Bane’s plan is, we are treated to approximately 20 hours of back story that we don’t really care about, Robin turns up and just guesses Batman’s secret identity because of some miracle orphan connection and then Batman climbs out of a pit in Jodphur, India before making it back to Gotham in time to paint a bat signal on the side of the building and save the day. And what does he have to do to save the day? Stop the bad guy from setting off a bomb. What a wonderfully original idea. Presumably the studio then forced Christopher Nolan to have that ridiculous ending with the café in Florence. Really, this is one of the most dizzyingly stupid films of the year, but it masks it all by posing as an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s also kind of boring.
Honourable Mentions: Almost all the blockbusters this year. The Hobbit and Prometheus were two that disappointed me on different levels. The Master was also a bit of a let down.
Biggest Surprise: Animation
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
No one really wanted another Madagascar sequel. Well, no one but critic and fellow animation fan @popcornaddict. Everyone else was kind of tired of this franchise, and far more interested in everything else that Dreamworks were up to. Then along came Madagascar 3 and suddenly it turned out to be a really funny, crazy adventure with a loose commitment to plot and a dedication to over the top slapstick. It’s not going to win any awards for script writing, but this is a bright, colourful film that just about everyone can enjoy. It almost, almost makes me want to see a Madagascar 4.
Biggest Surprise: Live Action
Ginger and Rosa
I’d never seen a Sally Potter film, I was under the impression that she was just a slightly experimental, weird film maker that was perhaps just a little too out there for my tastes. But I fancied a trip to one of my favourite cinemas, @Filmhouse, and the trailer kind of looked interesting. What I encountered was a gripping, emotionally charged drama about two teenagers and best friends who go their separate ways as one pursues politics where the other pursues men. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is fantastic, Elle Fanning gives one of the best performances of the year, and the period detail is superb. Unforgettable.
Honourable Mentions: Cabin in the Woods, Berberian Sound Studio, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Skyfall
What you may have missed: Animation
A Cat in Paris
One of the token non-studio nominations for the Best Animated Feature Film, this slipped under the radars of most cinemas. It’s not an incredible animation, and is painfully hampered by one of the worst English dubs I’ve ever come across in an animation. But this has a jazzy, carefree style and some gorgeous picture book animation that makes this well worth checking out for any fans of the medium.
What you may have missed: Live Action
You may have missed Grabbers because the studio distributing it did that silly thing of an almost simultaneous cinema/DVD release. So it only came out on the big screen this boxing day, and on New Year’s Eve you should be able to purchase it on DVD and Blu-Ray. I heartily recommend you do so. It’s an alien invasion film set on a island off the coast of Ireland, with budget-defyingly brilliant CGI and a ballsy central conceit that makes the final act one of the most fun, outrageous pieces of cinema this year. Think The Guard meets Shaun of the Dead, although that comparison doesn’t really do this gem of a film justice. Essentially, it’s the best genre film of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Shadow Dancer and Elena are two criminally underseen films released this year. Both very thrilling, well worth your time.
Worst Film of the Year:
This Means War
Two spies fall in love with the same woman! They compete with each other to win her affections! This should be light hearted fun, right? WRONG. This Means War is the most vacuous, offensively stupid film of the year. I don’t know what I hated most: Tom Hardy’s smug, phoned in performance; the scene where the two men effectively stalk a woman with sophisticated technology so they can find out her secrets; the conversation two characters have about Hitchcock films; the fact that some people actually gave this positive reviews. Everything about this film is utterly abysmal, and what the portrayal of relationships in it is downright offensive. Awful, awful film making.
Honourable Mention: Dark Shadows
Best Film of the Year: Animation
I’ve explained my love of Brave on the site before so I won’t go into it here. Needless to say, I don’t buy in to the argument that this is a simple story that doesn’t dare to do anything different. It’s a moving, gorgeously animated film that has a beautiful relationship between a mother and daughter at its centre. The argument about which Pixar film is the best is slightly arbitrary, but I’ll say this much: I think this is the Pixar film with the biggest heart, and it is certainly my favourite.
Honourable Mentions: From Up on Poppy Hill, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, Rise of the Guardians
Best Film of the Year: Live Action
Moonrise Kingdom/Beasts of the Southern Wild
Having two films as my favourite is something of a cop out, but I think, in some way, these two films are linked. They are both about America, they are both about childhood, they both celebrate imagination, they both have a big storm as a crucial plot point. These two visions of American childhood, however, take rather different approaches as one is an idealised, warm and symmetrical New England where children act like adults and vice versa. The other is a messy, poor and grainy Louisiana where children just want them and their parents to survive. Both are magnificent pieces of cinema.
Honourable Mentions: Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Grabbers, Shadow Dancer, Elena, The Mirror Never Lies, Life of Pi, The Muppets
This is going to be a blog all about animation. You can read about the site on the page that says ‘About the Site’, and you can read a small bit about me on the bit where it says ‘About the Writer’. That’s just for now. Soon I’ll have the blog up and running, with reviews, news articles and all sorts.
Until then, you could always comment on this article and tell me what your favourite animated film is.
You could also follow me on Twitter, @NathanaelSmith, as I’ll be sure to be posting on there even if this site is empty.
Thanks for reading.