Quite some years ago now in one of their many hilarious ad-campaigns Cravendale milk once and for all outdid themselves. A TV advert made entirely from animated plastic toys that can’t have lasted for more than 10 seconds blazed its way across our TV screens and then was gone. These were the highlights of many an ad-break. Sadly it was a short lived campaign with only one or two different adverts. Years later when I heard the creators of these adverts had made a feature length film I went out of my way to get hold of a copy.
When “A town called panic” was finally in my DVD player I fell in love. The film, although relatively brief, manages to maintain the same manic pace as the adverts without become dull or flat as I feared would be the case. Its a rip roaring ride that makes very little sense at all but therein lies the joy of the film. The plotting resembles the rambling stories told by a toddler, but with the entire film being animated toys what could be better? The story revolves around 3 friends, Horse, Cowboy and Indian. The three friends end up on an adventure that involves falling down a seemingly bottomless pit and being abducted by a giant robotic penguin that fires snowballs at unsuspecting wildlife. The chaotic plotting could get wearing but the humour of the film buoys it along. The viewer is constantly trying to guess what absurdity we will see next and it never fails to deliver. Although the film is in French that adds to the hilarity, particularly in the case of the neighbouring farmer who shouts all of his lines.
Whilst the use of plastic toys seems like a cop out from more painstaking traditional stop motion animation (like Wallace and Gromit) careful examination shows that the animators had many different plastic models for each character. They had to make these different models themselves, a painstaking process. There is something very pleasing about the titular village, a security and completeness of set design that Aardman seem to have to a tee. The childish nature of the animation and plotting generates a feeling of nostalgia for something never experienced.
Every element of this film that makes it so enjoyable and unique could be a detriment if it was present on its own, but the chaotic plot, childish animation, general absurdity and breakneck pace all combine perfectly to make one of the most unique film experiences you’re likely to find
James prefers Geography to films. In fact he prefers Geography to most things. He’s just my flatmate so I made him write this. He is the third best in the flat at Mario Kart Wii.
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It’s customary when reviewing the latest animated releases to comment on their stunning visuals and/or famous voice casts. Even upon its 1999 release, however, critics of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut would have been hard-pressed to find anything to say on the subject of either.
Inheriting both its characteristic cut-out stop-motion animation and in-house voice actors from the television series it was based on, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut had to find new ways of differentiating itself from the half-hour episodes aired on Comedy Central. Co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, convinced that the show had almost run its course, decided to make the film a musical.
Satirising everything from traditional Disney to the MPAA, the film draws on elements from the season one episode “Death” in a story that sees the parents of South Park, Colorado, attempting to ban an offensive movie from Canada — Terrance and Phillip’s Asses Of Fire — resulting in death, war and the end of the world. Having fought Paramount Pictures for the right to make an R-rated film, Stone and Parker pack in as much profanity, nudity and violence as the certificate (and their new medium) could ever possibly allow.
But while ridiculously crude songs might have helped it bag the world record for swear words in an animated film, they are also show-stopping musical numbers in their own right. Each song parodies a particular Broadway style, opening with the Oaklahoma-esque ‘Mountain Town’ before marrying each of the individual tracks in ‘La Resistance’, a medley straight out of Les Miserables. Co-written by Stone, Parker and Marc Shaiman, it is the Oscar-nominated Blame Canada that really steals the show, however, with each listen revealing new depths of meaning. It is little wonder that their most recent collaboration, The Book Of Mormon, has been so eagerly anticipated, and so well received.
Both an admirable animation and a masterful musical, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is also one of the funniest comedies that you are ever likely to see. While astute in its critique of censorship and backwater American ignorance, it’s the film’s larger-than-life characters and witty one-liners that make it so incredibly entertaining, with the film adding a whole host of new catchphrases to the show’s already considerable collection. Sheila Broflovski, Chef and Big Gay Al all get their moments to shine, while guest appearances from George Clooney, Brent Spinner and Minnie Driver (as Brooke Shields) are each a joy.
However, as is the case with the television show, it’s the core friendship between Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny that has made South Park so enduring, and unexpectedly endearing. Essentially an ensemble piece, Stone and Parker have done a great job of juggling each character’s individual arcs. The biggest laughs come from Stan’s pursuit to make Wendy like him and Cartman’s struggles with the profanity-inhibiting “V-Chip”, while Kyle carries the emotional brunt of the film as he tries to reconnect with his crusading mother, and Kenny goes to Hell to council Satan over his homosexual relationship with Saddam Hussein.
While South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut may not hold a torch to most of the other animations featured on this blog, then, Stone and Parker’s masterpiece has never been about stunning CG vistas and memorable vocal performances, using the genre instead to tell a story that would have been impossible using live action. The animation is merely a means to an end, allowing the filmmakers to unleash a scathingly satirical, toe-tappingly tunesome and endlessly re-watchable piece of contemporary commentary, and one that is still relevant today. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
Steven Neish is perhaps one of the few people that loves animation quite as much as I do, but he likes entirely different animated films to me. I don’t even know if he has ever seen a Ghibli film. Fun Steven fact: he once sold his soul to Jeffrey Katzenberg.
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There are some 2D animations that are literally just that. Bright, frothy, pretty, but ultimately flat. They’re okay, but a third dimension is sorely lacking. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West isn’t one of them.
Then there are 2D animations that plumb deeper realms, embracing themes or abstraction that flow in a way many live-action films just can’t match (Toy Story, Fantasia). This isn’t one of them either.
No, Fievel Goes West is a film that embraces its utter glee, although still not afraid to discuss generational legacy and importance of family, but all the while maintaining a firm grip on its purpose: entertaining them kiddos. Yes, Toy Story does exactly that too (in spades), but it also KNOWS it’s clever. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, conversely, is just having too much fun to care.
Following 1986’s An American Tail, this 1991 Spielberg/Kennedy/Marshall/Bluth-produced sequel is just as touching and far more adventurous. In the late 19th century, little mouse Fievel Mousekewitz and his Russian emigrant family are duped by the devious Cat R.Waul into believing their American dream lies out on the frontier and in his hands. It’s up to Fievel, his friend Tiger and retired dog sheriff Wylie Burp to let the cat out of the bag and save the mice from becoming dinner. Films are referenced, songs are launched, the Hollywood Wild West is homaged in music and vista, and everybody has fun. Even when they’re being chased by snarling dogs and pummelled by trains (I’m looking at you, Tiger).
Back to behind the scenes: I only mentioned that barrage of big producers’ names to prove one point… this film’s biggest weapon is the names. That powerhouse team managed to put together one of the best voice-cast ensembles in animation, and I don’t say that lightly. John Cleese, Amy Irving, Dom DeLuise, Jon Lovitz… and Jimmy Stewart. Yes, George Bailey’s final bow on the big screen was this bundle of unadulterated fun, and boy does he do it in style. Just because Stewart’s last film was a kids’ animation doesn’t mean his last feature performance is worth ignoring. Wylie Burp is a beautiful rendition of an old-timer who has no need to revel in his past glories, just be content in himself and sleep the afternoon sun off every day, yet (true) grit his teeth and do the right thing when a youngster’s family are in peril. His voice is melancholic with that familiar lacing of gentle steel. It’s sublime.
The film’s director Simon Wells has clearly drawn on his grandfather H.G.Wells‘ creative juices to create a world of invention (the use of household objects, although seen before elsewhere many times, is still boldly prolific), and he sweeps his virtual camera around like it’s a real thing. His eye is unchained by the seeming limitations of the medium, and the visual depths he’s wrought via inspired or unusual angles, not to mention his circular dolly moments, swirling round our protagonists with a definite smirk, breathe further life into what is painstakingly drawn. His scene transitions are often worth a rewind and his willingness to trim every ounce of fat from this tail (sic) means its 70-minute running time is unashamedly perfect. The humour is inspired – especially Tiger’s transformation from cat to demi-god to pseudo-dog, moulding scenes that are both delightful and very very funny. And the musical interludes drive the story, not detract from it – especially note the travelling montage as the mice make their “Way Out West”, ending on a map of the United States where each state is denoted by a different cheese. It’s brilliant.
But back to Jimmy Stewart to end. So much of the dialogue is fun and easily missed, but Stewart’s final line demonstrates the film’s heart for honouring legacy and integrity, not to mention sweetly poignant: “One man’s sunset is another man’s dawn.”
Bye bye, Jimmy. Thank you.
Steve Dunn is a novelist with books that can be found on amazon, but when he’s not doing that he can be found tweeting, driving ambulances, leading churches and being a Dad. So he’s a bit lazy, really.
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This week, Tim Popple looks at Studio Ghibli’s classic eco-anime Princess Mononoke with a new perspective, meaning I absolutely have to dig out my copy of the film and revisit this epic adventure. If you want to contribute a Guest Favourite post, put your review in a bottle and cast it into the sea.
Every once in a while a film comes along that you realise is something special. There’s a moment, a point, a glance, a word, something which causes a primal YES! in your heart. A film which works on more levels than Miss Kubelik. Princess Mononoke is such a film. It’s not just a great animation. It’s not just a great Japanese film. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.
Ashitaka is a young prince living in a village in Japan. When a boar god, tragically turned into a demon, attacks, he defends and, in the process, is wounded. The wound is proclaimed evil, infected by the same demon which infected the boar god. Regrettably he is banished, despite his bravery, and he sets off to search for what caused their boar god to be so slain, clutching just a small globule of iron as a clue. He finds Iron Town, led by Lady Eboshi, and there discovers the truth behind the corruption of the boar god.
Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and Studio Ghibli’s output in general, almost exclusively carry with them environmental concerns. It is Ghibli’s equivalent to Disney’s prevalent “be true to yourself” message. “Be true to your planet”, if you will. Some are more explicit than others – Pom Poko, while only written by Miyazaki, is nevertheless perhaps the most on-the-nose environmentally-centric of Ghibli’s films. Mononoke, then, is perhaps next. Humanity’s technological developments – iron smelting, rifle refinery, forest destruction – are directly impacting the natural world and, by extension, the spiritual world which inhabits nature. By manifesting nature in corporeal godly forms,Mononoke personifies the issue at the heart. Ashitaka meets San, a girl raised by wolves and, in particular wolf god Moro. Her wild ecological bent is entirely natural – nature is her world. She is its princess, named Mononoke by Moro. Initially distrustful of humans, this extends to Ashitaka’s appearance. His demonic affliction in his arm convinces her that there is more to him and, slowly, trust grows. Ashitaka is a conduit between the nature gods and the humans in a way that San could never have been.
What is particularly pleasing is that the humans are not depicted one dimensionally as “evil”. Eboshi is keen to evolve, to develop, to grow. She does this in the interests of humanity, even while she does this at the expense of the gods. She does not revere them; it is not an act of evil, but of dispassion. Humanity, rather than being opposed to gods merely see them as an inconvenience, something to be overcome. Humanity is ignorant, not evil.
Ignorance leads to poor action. Poor action leads to conflict. Conflict leads to tragedy. Only through the rebirth of the forest god can everything be saved. As one awed townsman says, “I didn’t realise the forest god made the flowers grow”. Now, I’m going to make a leap of equivalencies and draw parallels unintended by the filmmakers. This film is replete with Japanese legend, but it tells a universal story. That exclamation, that realisation by a bystander, to me, reeked of the lone Centurion stating, “truly he was the son of God”. A god is killed, darkness covers the forest, and only when the god is reborn does the earth rejuvenate. Death, rebirth, resurrection. It’s a familiar story. In Jiko-bo there is even a Judas figure, betraying Ashitaka after an initial association, to kill the forest god. It’s an imperfect analogy, but there are sufficient parallels to give another layer to this complex, rich, and fulfilling film.
Princess Mononoke is an adventure. It is the story of one man’s journey to save himself and, in the process, saving the world entire. His curse is the world’s curse. His salvation is found in embracing nature, saved by a god, and finding a path that is beneficial to all. There is no Disney happy ending. There’s no big song to rouse us out of our seats. There is a real world ending to a film which tells a remarkably mature story. This is not My Neighbour Totoro. This is not a children’s tale. This is a story for adolescents and up; which is not to belittle it, because its layers will reward all except the very young. There is humour, there is excitement, there is danger and love and fighting and beauty. So much beauty. Joe Hisaishi’s score is remarkable, punctuated by moments of silence which echo in your heart. It is inventive and wild, philosophical and calm. It is one of those rare films that has a bit of everything. It’s not pure adventure; it’s not pure message. It’s a perfect mixing of the two which never forgets to be both.
Tim is a sci-fi, animation and silent film loving geek with a twitter account and a blog which cover a vast array of topics. When not watching and writing about films, he sings, looks after his film buff kids and makes terrible, terrible puns. He thinks the Twilight films are ‘ok’.
This week’s Guest Favourite Post – brought to you by @ejrdavies is a film I’m yet to see, and that’s what is so great about guest posts – a bigger variety of films and voices. If you want to contribute a piece to the site (about a non-Disney film) let me know via the usual ways.
Growing up, there were three VHS tapes which were on almost constant rotation in my house. The first, was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which I watched with my dad and my sister once a night, every night for four months. The second was a tape on which I had recorded five or six episodes of The Simpsons, back in the days when six episodes represented a pretty healthy chunk of the entirety of the show, and which I watched so often that I have probably seen the episode “Principal Charming” more times than any other human being. For a child growing up in the early ’90s, neither of these tapes would be out of the ordinary, even if the latter would give that child an unusually early, largely subconscious knowledge of key shots from The Terminator, Gone With The Wind and Vertigo, amongst others.
The third tape was the most watched, and it contained the 1970 adaptation of the TV series The Magic Roundabout, Dougal and the Blue Cat. As with the series, the film version was directed by Serge Danot, then completely re-written and dubbed over by Eric Thompson, who basically made up the story and the characters because he had no access to either the original French scripts or translations. As such, whilst the film version has a much bigger scope than its television counterpart – being an epic 85 minutes long rather than five – it still maintained the same dry, faintly world-weary tone of the series, even as it told a story about deceit, intolerance and world domination.
The story begins with the arrival of Buxton (who has a Derbyshire accent, appropriately enough), a blue cat who arrives in the realm of the magic garden and is soon the talk of the town. Everyone is fascinated by him, with the exception of Dougal, the shaggy dog who thinks there is something very suspicious about the interest Buxton displays towards the old abandoned treacle factory nearby. His concerns prove well-founded: Buxton plans to take over the world and turn everything blue since, in the words of the disembodied Madame Blue (voiced by Fenella Fielding), “blue is beautiful, blue is best.”
Dougal and the Blue Cat was and remains one of my favourite animated films, though looking back on it it’s hard to determine just what it was that made it so fascinating to me as a child. Not because the film’s bad, it’s actually really terrific, but because it has such a thoroughly odd sensibility. Visually, the film is very sparse, jagged and pointedly unnatural, whilst the creatures that populate it look ever so slightly off-kilter, both in their appearance and the jerky movements necessitated by the stop-motion. The sense of humour, meanwhile, is incredibly dry and clearly geared towards an older audience (upon waking, Dougal shouts “Vote Conservative!” to illustrate his sense of disorientation) familiar with some of the touchstones for Dougal’s slightly tired and browbeaten character, which is very reminiscent of the put-upon, caustic wit of Tony Hancock. Throw in a plot that veers from knockabout silliness to real nightmare fuel and you’ve got a film that seems less for kids than adults with a very skewed sensibility.
This is the key to why the film left such an indelible impression upon my young, malleable mind as well as why it remains such a charming film. It’s the eerie disconnect between the gentle, wry and whimsical tone of Thompson’s narration and the creepy, at times nightmarish quality of the film’s visuals and atmosphere. The spare, empty landscapes and slightly awkward movements produced by the stop-motion animation are somewhat alienating since they draw attention to the process by which it was made, but they also give it a faintly dreamlike feel. This is heightened by Thompson’s voice, which has an archness to it which creates a further distance, ultimately making the film feel like a dream one of its characters might be experiencing.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sequence in which Buxton the Blue Cat passes a series of trials in order to become an all-powerful king. Buxton’s a curious villain since he’s depicted as being more pathetic than sinister; he spends much of the film complaining, and even when he isn’t he affects a whining tone that doesn’t quite fit with the idea of him being a mastermind of a plot to take over the world. Much of his quest to become king sees him getting increasingly scared and frantic as he stares down a couple of deadly traps, most notably an autonomous crossbow which follows him around as he tries to come up with crucial passwords, as well as a succession of ghoulish, twisted masks which fly at the camera in a manner that would not have been out of place during the hypnosis/torture scenes at the end of The Ipcress File.
It’s an incredibly weird sequence that actually makes Buxton out to be pretty sympathetic, if only because there’s a sense – reinforced by the end of the film – that he doesn’t really understand the forces that he is dealing with, even as he uses them to advance his own interests. It also contains most of the elements that make the film so special: it’s scary, tense, wryly funny and hints at a thematic subtext about both the danger of hubris and the myopic nature of intolerance. It’s that strange fusion of one man’s visuals and another man’s voice which blend together to create something utterly unique. It’s a truly bizarre film, and I love it as much now at 26 as I did at 6.
Edwin Davies is a blogger, podcaster and all round gent. He has a blog that can be found here, and it’s well worth checking out. As his his twitter account. So basically, just a get a bit of Edwin in your life. His favourite film is not Spiceworld.
Kicking off Animation Confabulation’s series of guest favourites is my friend @Fiercy_27, or Fiona as she’s known outside of twitter, writing about why Anastasia is her favourite animated film. It’s an unexpected choice – I don’t remember anything about this film from primary school days, and haven’t seen it since – but that’s what makes a good Guest Favourite post. It’s a film that I’m unlikely to write about, it’s clearly something she loves, and it brings a different voice to the blog so you aren’t always reading my annoying voice. If you have a favourite animated film (outside of Disney or Ghibli), and would like to write about it, I’d like to make Guest Favourites a regular thing, so let me know on Twitter, Facebook or in the comments. No previous experience necessary.
Anastasia, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s (of Land Before Time fame) 1997 animation is a simple story at its heart: orphan girl longs to find family, meets boy who helps her on her way, finds long lost grandmother, falls in love with boy, defeats arch-nemesis in the process and lives happily ever after. However when we add in that said girl is actually the mythic last surviving Russian Romanov Princess, the eponymous Anastasia, the story becomes a little more nuanced. This complexity is perhaps the reason the film is, in my opinion, such a success. Bluth and Goldman both learned their trade working on animations from Disney’s golden age and this really shows in the subtle layers of the movie; how its success is due to composite parts, not just one key thing and how there is, if you look deep enough, something everyone can enjoy. Praising aside, Anastasia has long been one of my favourite films, ever since I was first enthralled by its magical story as a child, and so here dear blog reader (sorry it all went a bit Jane Austen there) are my four reasons why I think (and hopefully you will too) Anastasia is an animation worth watching:
- The Music: With two Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score respectively some would argue that the music is the best part of Anastasia, and well I’m not going to argue with them. Songs such as ‘Once upon a December’ have become recognisable in their own right and the music stays with you long after the credits have rolled. What’s best about the film’s music though is the way that it interplays with the stunning visuals. The moment when Anastasia sneaks into the abandoned Winter Palace at the beginning of the film becomes a backdrop for spectacular colourful visions from her memories that float and dance around the screen as a waltz plays. This music/visual interplay also works spectacularly in the number ‘Paris Holds the Key (to your heart)’ in which the Parisian skyline is transformed into an impressionist painting, akin to Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. This song also allows a whole host of famous Parisians to make cameos, such as Rodin and Chanel; basically it’s a mini animated Midnight in Paris.
- The Heroine: Rarely in boy meets Princess animation do we see the Princess defeat the bad guy and rarely do we see it done with as sheer, well, awesomeness as in Anastasia. Meg Ryan, who voices the Princess, seemingly has everything working against her: cheerfully American accent in a movie where everyone is bringing out their best Doctor Zhivago (here’s looking at you, Angela Lansbury), stereotypical, simpering orphan hopefulness, and naïve optimism to the point where you’re ready to write her off as a character. That is until about forty minutes into the action where she suddenly finds her movie star/Romanov Princess gumption, saves Dmitri’s (the boy of the story) life and plays out the rest of the movie with ass kicking aplomb.
- Bartok (the Magnificent): Stop what you’re doing. Stop reading this blog. [no wait, don’t! – Ed.] Stop drinking your cup of tea and go off and find yourself a copy of Bartok the Magnificent, also known as the best straight to DVD sequel ever made. Fantastic songs and glittering animation aside if Anastasia has given us one thing it’s Bartok. Rasputin’s talking bat sidekick is responsible for most of the film’s humour and his witticisms are allowed to continue in this much forgotten sequel, which for anyone who even mildly enjoyed the movie is well worth a watch.
- The Villain: I most definitely can’t be called an expert in Russian history but it’s pretty obvious that Anastasia is definitely more fairy-tale than fact with regards to the real life characters that it employs, but that’s what makes the villain of the story so effective. Rasputin: Russian Holy Man, advisor to the last Tsarina of Russia and subject of a wonderfully cheesy Boney M song, is repainted as a demonic figure, hell-bent on destroying the Romanov’s with his curse. That’s right, those pesky Communists were just puppets in ol’ Rasputin’s master plan to wipe out the royalty. Joking aside, when you’re 8 years old, and have just seen the movie for the first time and then discover that Rasputin was a real person, it gets a lot, lot scarier. That’s where Rasputin finds his success in the world of cartoon villains; part macabre half living demon intent on killing Anastasia to complete his plan, part over the top participant in gleeful song and dance numbers, he comes to embody the spirit of the whole movie. He is from the in-between world where reality is made fantastical, where imagination lets reality take a back seat, and the place where a story becomes truly great.
Fiona is a fellow English Lit student at my Uni here in cold, cold Scotland, and a fellow animation fan. She spends most of her time pondering which colour nail polish to wear when she should be reading classic literature. She doesn’t [yet] have her own blog, but if you enjoyed this article you can follow her on twitter. Her dream is to become the youngest person to win an EGOT, and she is only waiting for an Oscar, now.