The kids I took to see Big Hero 6 were convinced that the film was actually called Baymax. It’s easy to see the confusion: all the marketing has focussed on the big marshmallow-esque robot, and the film sort of does, too. The implied team of the film’s title feature, but at the end of the day, there is one thing that everyone, children and adults alike, will remember from Disney Animation’s latest, and that is the studio’s greatest animated character of their CG era.
The friendly healthcare robot was designed by Todashi, the brother of the prodigiously talented and subtly named Hiro. When Todashi dies in a tragic accident, and a villain starts to roam the streets of San Fransokyo, Hiro, Baymax and their science-genius friends form the titular group to defeat the mysterious masked man and find out what really happened to Todashi. As plots go, it’s fairly uninspiring, the central mystery having been likened by some critics – not unfairly – to an episode of Scooby Doo. The big finale, where the whole team work together and use their tech to intelligently battle a billion tiny bots, would not feel out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon, either; it’s a fairly disposable Disney denouement.
Except for when Baymax is involved.
There is much to admire about the film aside from Iron Man’s cuddly cousin. Where many superhero films are content to let thousands of civilians die and have whole cities erased for the sake of a BIG final act – ironically making them all uninteresting and indistinguishable from one another – Big Hero 6 is a superhero film with almost zero collateral damage. The team focus their skills and technology on protection, not violence, and this emphasis is crucial and refreshingly different. The animation is impressive, too, rendering the hybrid city of San Fransokyo in vivid colours that would make Christopher Nolan tut in disapproval. The whole film is just a lot of bright fun, and goes some way to restoring a light touch to the tired and serious superhero subgenre.
It is, however, all about Baymax. You are probably already familiar with his look: white airbags; a low centre of gravity; a face like an emoji. It’s a beautifully minimalistic piece of character design, making the most of Disney’s age old animation principle of Squash and Stretch (exactly what it sounds like), while maximising one of their other twelve principles, Appeal (the idea that every character should be animated in a way that appeals to an audience), simply through its movement. It’s textbook stuff – literally, in that the principles are laid out in The Illusion of Life, as close as Disney gets to a textbook – used since Snow White but here being applied with equally cutting edge technology. From the way that he waddles along, even when in a dramatic chase, to the way the tilt of his bulbous head can evoke emotions, Baymax shows that Disney are still masters of character animation, and that no matter how new and shiny your programmes are, you still have to use them well.
Baymax is more than just an object lesson in how to animate a character, he‘s also a perfect example of how to use character to explore themes in interesting and new ways. Grief and loss are weighty topics for a kids‘ film to tackle, but also important ones; kids all have to confront death for the first time at some point in their lives, so using cinema to explore that is a great idea. The first act gives Todashi enough screen time to really make his death felt by the audience, and the rest of the film is about coping with that loss. The directors use Baymax to explore this by the literal-thinking robot seeing Hiro’s sadness as something that can be cured and so the internal process of Hiro’s grief is externalised in a deft manner, managing to be light-hearted and funny without ever detracting from the seriousness of the topic. The themes are, therefore, inextricable from the two characters at the centre of the story.
The result is a character who, in a Disney film in the early ‘00s would have been a comedy sidekick, is now the emotional heart of the film. It’s a such a simple but effective concept it’s amazing it hasn’t been done that much before (something like Robot and Frank is the closest comparison). The finale only transcends its familiarity when it focuses on the relationship between Baymax and Hiro, and creates something special. Big Hero 6 as a whole, while a lot of fun, will not go down as one of the studio’s revered classics, but Baymax will be remembered as one of their greatest creations.
The Boxtrolls tells the story of a young boy who grows up with the titular cardboard-bound monsters, and how he has to save them from a band of troll-catchers who have convinced the town that the harmless creatures are, in fact, evil. But it’s also about a city obsessed with cheese, a class system based on hats and a girl who is obsessed with death and violence. It’s gross, silly, sharply satirical and is actually for children. It must be a Laika film.
Laika, the animation studio behind under-appreciated marvels Coraline and ParaNorman, are exceptionally hard workers. Animation is a time consuming process that requires a near miraculous attention to detail, but stop motion animation, the process of taking 24 photos of precisely positioned models for every second of film, is a doubly difficult discipline. Every minute of footage you see contains 1,440 photos, so The Boxtrolls, their latest film which runs at 100 minutes, is 144,000 photos long, each one moved ever so slightly to create the illusion of life. Any stop motion film even existing is reason, therefore, for celebration. Laika go the extra mile by making each of their films immensely imaginative and distinctively theirs, making each new release something to be greatly anticipated. Yet there is a sense with The Boxtrolls that the animators are fed up of going unnoticed – some early promotional material focussed on how much work they put in, while a hilarious mid-credits sting shows the animators at work. They want people to see what they do, that they are hard workers.
The animators have nothing to fear; as long as there are critics with an eye for good animation out there, the skill and ingenuity of The Boxtrolls will be championed in every column inch around the country. Once again, Laika impresses on two levels with their standard of animation. Firstly, on a technical level, they achieve a fluidity of motion that leaves behind the juddery days of something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Characters slide, fly and run around the screen and it is impossible to see the process behind it – perhaps another reason for the animators wanting to make themselves noticed. The trolls themselves are the best thing about the film, all green and grey and warty but instantly loveable thanks to superb character design and the neat trick of naming them after what their box previously contained. Without speaking any English, the trolls become immediately recognisable and sort of iconic thanks to the skill of the people making them move.
Yet The Boxtrolls is also remarkable for the fact that the film has a distinctive, grotesque aesthetic that sets it apart from the rest of American animation that can, occasionally, veer towards the visually homogeneous. If the big new studios of the US are schoolkids, Pixar is the handsome, loved-by-all prom king, Dreamworks is the class clown who tries a little too hard to be as loved as the prom king, Blue Sky is the tag-along in the jock crowd and Laika is the weird kid in the corner whose notebook is covered with macabre doodles, who wears black even in summer and who won’t even go to prom because he’d rather stay home and watch horror films. The Boxtrolls is an ugly, different film, but brilliantly so. Nothing is quite the shape it should be, with roads twisting and turning round architecturally dubious houses populated by bulbous and bony people. Laika’s films have more in common with Jan Svankmajer and Jiri Trnka than any of its American contemporaries. They are gradually carving out their own gnarled niche in the market, and it’s constantly refreshing to see.
Another apparent influence is Charles Dickens, both in the visuals but also in the astute social satire. The great Victorian novelist, who was obviously writing before cinema existed, had a flair for using the imagery of architecture and people to reflect something of their personality. Coketown, a fictional Manchester-alike city in Hard Times, has “chimneys that were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it,” a description that could equally apply to the thoroughly Dickensian Cheesebridge of The Boxtrolls. Its people, too, are straight out of one of his satires, with inhuman shapes used as shorthand for class status or narrative role, and names such as Archibald Snatcher and Lord Portley-Rind are not a far cry from Josiah Bounderby. All of this serves a purpose for the film, in that (as with ParaNorman), the writers and directors are interested in making a point as well as telling a story. This is a society where the elites are demarcated by the colour of their hat and the quality of their cheese, and where the city’s rulers will spend money on a giant wheel of brie instead of a children’s hospital. It’s exaggerated and absurd, but surprisingly pointed in its absurdity. Dickens would certainly approve.
What The Boxtrolls has also inherited from the writer of Hard Times, however, is a broadness that comes at the cost of pace and purpose. Just as Dickens had multiple targets that he skewered over hundreds of pages, so too do directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi attempt to cover a lot of issues over a much shorter running time. Class systems, self-actualisation, persecution of difference, good and evil, fatherhood and learning to stand up for yourself are all themes that are covered by the plot, and some of them land with more impact than others. A subplot involving the villain – voiced by Ben Kingsley in a manner so over the top and hammy that it ultimately lessens his impact – and his allergy to cheese but his insistence on eating it, just doesn’t work and slows the film down to a halt. Although it does culminate in a surprising and hilarious climax, it also drags out the finale for a scene too long. By trying to cram in so many ideas, The Boxtrolls misses out on the emotional power of ParaNorman, which conveyed its message far more efficiently.
Ultimately while the pacing and lack of focus of The Boxtrolls stop it just short of greatness, it is, still, a Laika film and it contains all the hallmarks of what makes that such a special thing. The animation is incredible, the humour hits the mark and it is full of ideas and invention. Not everything works, but this is still an impressive, ambitious and unique film and, as such, it deserves to be cherished.
The first How To Train Your Dragon film ended on a surprising note for a big studio animation in that the main character lost one of his legs. Contrary to just about every other animation out there, the action sequences in the spectacular finale had actual consequences. It’s a bold move, and was one of the many elements that made it stand head and shoulders above everything else Dreamworks animation – and most other CG studios – has released. There is a scene in the middle of that film’s stunning sequel that takes such consequences to a new level that is, again, completely surprising for studio animations of the CG era. This is just one aspect of the first film that has been carried over into the second film, not in a lazy, same-but-bigger approach, but in a way that it keeps everything that made the first so good, all while telling a different story. In that sense, it’s up there with Toy Story 2 & 3 as one of the best animated sequels ever.
Moving five years on from the events of the first film – itself a move that feels remarkably fresh – the protagonists of the first have grown up and Berk is now well established as a dragon riding village. Astrid and Hiccup are still a couple and nothing threatens that throughout the film, they just work consistently well together. Hiccup and his father, Stoick, are no longer just an awkward father and son but friends who have disagreements; their relationship has moved on so that the conflicts are different – now it’s about how to lead and who should lead. In short, there is real progress from the first film. Where the Shrek films repeated the same story four times in a row, what makes the world of Dragons so absorbing is that even though it is clearly fantastical, it’s a world where people grow up, where relationships develop and people are put in actual, real danger. In that sense, it’s more mature than most live action blockbusters where characters are stuck in a stasis of immortal, bland superheroics.
Thrown into the mix of these developing relationships to shake things up is a mysterious dragon rider wearing a spiked mask and formidable armour, whose identity was sadly given away in the trailer. If you don’t want to read about this early plot development and missed the trailers, skip to the next paragraph. She is Valka, the original dragon rider and, of course, Hiccup’s mother. The big family reunion is marked not by histrionics but by tender moments, for instance a wonderfully unprofessional duet is how a husband and wife rediscover their love for each other. This family unit is one of two relationships that form the core to a film that is regularly surprising in its emotional impact. Considering, again, where other Dreamworks films may have taken this subplot, the maturity of Dragons 2 is evident. There is no forced conflict, no big fall out to be followed by an equally trite resolution, but curiosity and happiness instead. It’s romantic in a restrained way, both heartfelt and believable.
The other key relationship is, of course, Hiccup and Toothless. Easily the highlight of the first film, here their bond is expanded and challenged in fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking ways. Toothless, now rendered with astonishing detail, is one of the greatest animated characters ever, every expression, every movement conveying a wealth of character without ever fully anthropomorphising him – he remains a dragon throughout. He’s a fully rounded creature, with a personality and tics that utterly sells him as real and tangible. It’s therefore immensely distressing when his relationship with Hiccup is tested to its extremes in the third act. This is a double act you are rooting for from the first scene they are in together, thanks in part to the work of the first film but also to the work done by the animators and Jay Baruchel as Hiccup to convince us of their bond as best friends.
It’s not just the animation on Toothless that is impressive, but the whole world is created with the kind of detail and flair that causes jaws to involuntarily drop and animation geeks to drool uncontrollably. Technologically there have been huge leaps, with Dreamworks pioneering new lighting and movement software that shows in the texture of a dragon’s skin or in the thickness of a fur coat. Yet technologically impressive animation does not make it necessarily visually interesting. Dean De Blois’ direction, however, assures this film’s place as one of the best looking CG animations of all time. As Hiccup narrates, ‘with Vikings on the backs of dragons, the world just got a whole lot bigger,’ and both the world and dragons are, indeed, a whole lot bigger; exploring this world is where Dragons 2 really takes off, as Hiccup discovers more about dragons, sees more types and tries to map the world. Some of the images that De Blois and his team creates are utterly breathtaking, from a montage of feeding and soaring on thermals, to a widescreen shot of solo flying that looks astonishing in IMAX.
It’s as though the creators of How to Train Your Dragon 2 set out to show us things we’ve never seen in the cinema before, such is the ambition and scale of some of the shots. Take, for instance, the introduction of Valka. Hiccup is having a small tantrum while flying high on the back of Toothless. Unknown to him in the background, a masked figure pierces the tops of the clouds and drifts by, standing proud and upright and seemingly floating, unassisted, through the pearlescent sky. It’s a powerful, strange image that’s almost scary it’s so compelling. When Valka introduces herself later on in a cave full of dragons, it happens to the burning light of a dozen dragons using their mouths as torches and once again the film makes you gasp at the beauty and invention of the image. Accompanied by John Powell’s score that sets hearts racing and lifts spirits, Dragons 2 is full of unforgettable moments like this that inspire awe and wonder, which is exactly what animation, and cinema in general, should be doing.
Michel Gondry, even at his worst, is a visually inventive film maker who can create memorable images from something as middle of the road as The Green Hornet. Animation plays a big part in The Science of Sleep and Mood Indigo, so for him to do a fully animated film was an enticing prospect. His choice of subject, however, is a strange one. Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a serie
s of interviews with Noam Chomsky by the distinctive French director, animated, apparently, using felt pens and acetate.
Chomsky is a popular liberal thinker and linguist whose work, for some reason, I hadn’t really encountered before, so I was approaching this as a Gondry and animation fan, rather than a Chomsky acolyte. Thankfully, the polymath is an engaging, worryingly intelligent subject, here discussing the development of language in childhood and how we come to understand signs and signifiers. More charming than the interviewee, however, is the interviewer; Gondry is marvellously self-deprecating, openly confessing when he doesn’t understand what is happening, or when he got tired of animating a particularly long sequence. His questions are thoughtful, his responses funny and he makes an excellent foil to the rather serious Chomsky. Together the two of them make an electric double act as ideas are thrown around and the audience are left feeling a little bit stupid.
At the beginning of the film, Gondry explains why he is animating it. All film – documentary included – is a form of manipulation where the director or editor controls how the audience receives the information. Gondry’s conclusion, therefore, is that animation is a permanent reminder that you are watching artifice, that the version of Chomsky we are seeing is one that is undoubtedly being presented to us via someone else (something that is reinforced by the repeated whirring of an old camera). Gondry then releases the viewer to engage with all the ideas without restraint. The animation is lo-fi but captures the energy of the discussion perfectly, often repeating movements and images to suggest the circularity of the language, and using crude drawings of the two talkers to depict the mood of the conversation; it’s not always gentle discourse. What really works is that the often difficult intellectual ideas to get your head around are given perfect clarity by Gondry’s perfectly judged visualisations of these big themes. The director’s humour seeps into his drawings, too, making this a surprisingly light and accessible film that can be enjoyed even by those who dread discussions about knowledge endowment and its expression through language.
Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy is playing at Edinburgh International Film Festival on the 20th and 27th June
With the Disney 52 reaching a conclusion that will inevitably be rushed, the powerhouse studio scupper my plans by releasing their 53rd animated feature film, Frozen. So in the middle of reviewing the latter films, I’m jumping ahead a few years to look at this immensely popular new film from the studio. It feels a bit defunct to try and assess its place within the canon as there are still a few I’m left to see. As such you won’t find any ‘the best Disney film since The Lion King/Snow White/Tangled style comments here – besides, I’ve enjoyed all of Disney’s most recent films so it wouldn’t go back far. I’m just pleased not that Disney are returning to form, but maintaining it.
Frozen tells the story of two sisters, Elsa and Ana, who are separated as children after Elsa accidentally injures her sister with her magic, ice creating powers, so she is sectioned off until she can control them. After their parents’ tragic death Elsa becomes Queen, but after Ana falls in love with the dashing Hans of the Southern Isles quite hastily, Elsa reveals her powers and casts the nation into deep winter. Ana must then go and persuade her sister to bring summer back. It’s (extremely) loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s the Snow Queen, but Disney have bigger fish to freeze than faithfully adapting the writer of The Little Mermaid once more.
Immediately Frozen establishes the central dynamic of the film as between the two sisters as opposed to between a man and woman. After an eerie, largely pointless opening about how great and dangerous ice is it cuts to Elsa and Ana as children, seeing their friendship play out before they are separated. The second song in a Disney film is often the one that reveals the central desire of the hero – think ‘Part of Your World,’ ‘Go The Distance,’ or ‘Reflections’. At first glance it may seem like that role is given to the third song in Frozen – ‘For The First Time In Forever’ is about how lonely Ana is and wants to meet people and, specifically, a man. It’s the kind of Disney song that would normally be the ‘hero’s desire’ song. The second song, however, is actually more fitting: ‘Do You Wanna Build A Snowman’ is about how Ana longs for a relationship with her sister. From the off, other relationships are secondary and so it is in the rest of the film where Ana’s romantic confusion is superseded by her love of her sister. It builds to a fascinating, dramatic finale that marks a noteworthy change of direction for a studio usually obsessed with romantic love, particularly in fairy tale settings.
With the focus on the siblings, the role of villain becomes less clear as well – is it Elsa? The Duke of Weseltown? The ice itself? Elsa battles with her dark side and – in the musical highlight of the film – almost succumbs to it, which is a refreshingly mature exploration of character for Disney. Obviously it is done in a way in which everything is spelt out for the young audience, but the tension between good and evil has become significantly more nuanced since the days of the Golden Age, as has the approach to romance, which similarly undergoes a knowing face-lift. On most narrative fronts, Frozen take significant steps forward for the studio.
It’s a shame, therefore, that it falls into some age old traps that have plagued the House of Mouse since day one. The female characters, whilst interestingly written, are still waistless waifs with big eyes, so generically fake that one wonders if they have used the exact same model for both sisters that was previously employed for Tangled. If Disney really want sassy, revisionist Princesses their next step is surely to animate some that look like humans. Then there is the Duke of Weseltown who is utterly extraneous to plot or theme, harking back to Disney’s occasional need to overfill a film with characters. Sven the reindeer, meanwhile, is just Maximus with antlers, leading some to say that Disney are resting on their Tangled laurels and that this film is simply par for the course.
Such accusers must be ignoring not only the steps forward with storytelling that Frozen takes, but also the artistry with which the story is told. Musically, Frozen is Disney’s most Broadway film yet thanks to songs by the people behind Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Vocals cross over each other, high notes are hit and there is even a comic song that doesn’t add anything to the plot. The cast, too, are veterans of the proscenium arch, featuring actors from Wicked, Spring Awakening and The Book of Mormon, belting the songs out with remarkable conviction. Even the way the shots are framed and the characters move feels ready-made to be put on the stage. It wouldn’t be surprising if a big budget production makes its way to New York in the near future.
Then there is the animation, which I’ve left until last because it’s probably the thing that most people care least about in terms of what makes it good, but I geeked out about in a big way. The texture of the snow itself is ludicrously detailed to the extent that you can see individual grains as the characters plough through it. Compare the fineness of detail here to the blockiness of landscapes in something like Ice Age and the difference in quality is immediately evident. It’s so good it will make animation nerds cry a little. If you didn’t notice how good the animation was that’s because they made it all seem so effortless.
Frozen is the real deal, featuring progress in storytelling, astonishing animation and great songs. It’s the best Disney film since…
This review is only turning up online after the film in question has left cinemas, but I thought I would very quickly share my two cents on it as that was the original purpose of the blog – to review animations that make it into cinemas. This isn’t really a review, just a jumbled collection of thoughts as I focus on finishing a certain project before January 1st.
The first Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs film was an unexpected delight, blending puns, surrealism, slapstick and farce into one memorable comedy, throwing every joke possible at the screen and most of it stuck like well cooked spaghetti. Even the title was a great joke. This was combined with a father-son story that was more effective than most, and a nicely offbeat, colourful aesthetic. I’d personally rank it as one of my favourite CG animations. The news of a sequel was initially ominous as the title – simply sticking a ‘2’ at the end – seemed to display a lack of thought behind it. When plot details were revealed it became clear that the title didn’t even make sense in a new context. Add to that the fact that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were no longer directing and the signs were bad.
Thankfully, however, Cloudy 2 manages to be one of the best American animations of the year that, while immensely derivative of the first film, still succeeds at being one of the most consistently hilarious things to hit cinemas 2013. It loses some of the layers of humour from the first – it’s less farcical and surreal – but ups the ante in terms of puns and visual humour to compensate. The father-son subplot feels like a rehash of the first, but the visuals are once again good enough to make you immensely hungry. It also aims for a whole new level of cuteness, clearly skewing at a younger audience than the first with its smiling strawberries and baby marshmallows. So it’s not quite as good as the first, as suggested by the title, but it is hilarious.
The chief joy of Cloudy 2 is the way it turns punning into an art form. Any combination of food/animal names possible turns up over the course of the film, some spoken out loud, others left for the audience to guess. There’s one sublime moment, however, that builds up these expectations of intelligent(ish) puns before letting you down with a sad looking vegetable – it’s the kind of joke that I’ve left deliberately vague in the explanation as it requires the visuals to make you snort out your soft drink. The funniest moment in the film, however, is a glorious visual gag that involves a wide shot as Sam Sparks leaves Flint behind in a swamp of syrup. It’s daft but inspired, like the film as a whole. With all of these jokes, explaining it is pointless (making comedy really hard to write about), just go in expecting to have your gut busted. It really is funny, even if I’m not selling it as such.
One final thought – Cloudy 2 features a clear villainous Steve Jobs type figure and a giant, invention-crushing corporation not too dissimilar to Apple. It feels, at times, like Cloudy 2 is trying to fit in a bit of satire and critique of globalism and capitalism in amongst the feast of jokes. When you come for tasty humour, such moralising is bitter to swallow.
The two biggest problems with Turbo, the latest animation from Dreamworks, both revolve around a word that is fatal to the success of a film: boring. The first is a surface problem, in that snails are boring. They are boring creatures, regardless of whether you pimp their shells or inject them with nitroglycerine. So a film in which the main character is a snail is onto a loser already. They are especially boring to look at, amorphous blobs of flesh with shells plonked on top that have to be jazzed up by the animators by making them all different colours. Only, the animators didn’t go that far in that each of the snails are just one colour, not dappled and slimy like the invertebrates in Epic. No, these are just smooth splodges of purple and orange with googly eyes tacked on. One of them has a moustache made of moss. This painful want of inventiveness becomes particularly problematic when the design of the humans is similarly uninspired, resulting in a film where not one single character holds your attention visually. In spite of using the latest animation technology, it’s an aesthetically dull film and far less interesting to the eye than A Bug’s Life or Antz, which work at a similar scale but were released well over a decade ago. This boringness suggests laziness, which is disheartening to see in animation.
The second boring aspect of Turbo, a thoroughly soporific film, is the story, which involves a plucky outsider wanting to compete above his league in a racing tournament. This is the same plot as Planes. He does this in order to save a run down area of shops run by some stereotypes by bringing business back. This is the same plot as Cars. When you mix the plots of Planes and Cars, two of the most snooze-inducing animations of the 21st Century, the result is a dull, thudding familiarity lacking any conviction. There are a few good jokes, mostly involving crows, but at the end of the day it’s difficult to enjoy a film that is about a snail saving a taco stand. Once again I return to this one word that summarises the film best: boring. Boring, boring, boring.