Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive – Walt Disney

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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.

fievel1

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.

fievel2

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. 

If you want to write a guest post, I would LOVE to hear from you. Facebook, twitter, comments section, motorway banners… let me know somehow.


 

Disney Checklist Melody TimeThere are two possible approaches to Disney’s 10th animated feature film, Melody Time. One is that it is yet another lazy, poorly animated entry into the canon from the forties. The other is that it’s actually a clever satire on the role of myth in American history, and the concepts of masculinity that it contains. On the surface it may just appear to be a naff, forgettable compilation of musical shorts like Make Mine Music, but beneath that could be a subversive examination of American national identity. It’s difficult to tell so I’ll split the article exactly in two to try and decide which of these interpretations it is.

 

Melody Time is a lazy, dated, seen-it-all-before collection of shorts

Make Mine Music was a fun, if frivolous, compilation of musical shorts that used jazz and other contemporary music to tell stories of varying quality, and this is much the same but a lot less fun than its predecessor. The music isn’t as good, but there’s some interesting ideas here, such as a bumblebee trying to escape from a jazzed up version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ as the instruments come to life, attempting to chase and trap him. There’s a fluidity of animation and an inventiveness of ideas here that recalls the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence from Dumbo. It’s the stand-out scene, although you don’t find out what happens to the bumblebee, which is distressing.

More like this please, Disney

More like this please, Disney

Yet it also suffers from a case of over-narration, much like Fun and Fancy Free, only this time all the voice-over is sung. So every ballad has the story spelled out in very 1940s songs that quickly become repetitive. The story of a little tug-boat – ‘Little Toot’ – is the worst example of this, a short horribly reminiscent of the mail plane from Saludos Amigos. It’s so simplistic and childish that it holds no appeal for adults today. Even kids might find the constant singing a little tiresome. It’s also got a psychotic story line, as at one point the titular tug is responsible for the death of (presumably) thousands of people as he crashes a cruise liner into a city. Perhaps it’s meant to be a horror story, especially as Little Toot’s guilt is later expressed by some buoys howling “baaaaaad boooooooooy” at him.

Other things that don’t work well about Melody Time include the return of Donald Duck, that most irritating of characters, and José Carioca, as if people were crying out to revisit the glory days of Saludos Amigos. There’s also Disney’s curious insistence at this time to merge live action and animation, which makes the film irredeemably dated. One of the joys of animation is that it is timeless, because drawing and art can be from any time. As soon as you put in live action footage you immediately place it in a specific time and context, and when the costumes are as naff and clearly fake as they are here it guarantees that it won’t age well, whereas the Golden Age films are still watched today because although there are dated elements, there’s nothing as awkwardly of-its-time as the moment in this film where the creepy Aryan girl from Fun and Fancy Free is being sung to by a bunch of cowboys apparently fresh from a line dancing competition.

Heartless massacre in the story of Little Toot

Heartless massacre in the story of Little Toot

So there’s much about Melody Time that is uninspired and more than a little bit dull. But am I missing the point?

 

Melody Time is an intelligent examination of masculinity and the American myth

The overarching theme of Melody Time is clearly mythology, and its place in America. Two of the segments are very overt about this, namely ‘Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Pecos Bill’. The former is about a man who roams the American frontier planting apple trees and bringing the joy of apple pies and cider to settlers across the nation. It’s an epic tale of man vs. landscape, and how its only through embracing nature that you can succeed in the harsh world of the frontier. It’s the most simplistic version of the American dream, displaying success in the face of adversity. Yet there’s subversion here, as the eponymous hero displays none of the characteristic traits of American masculinity that you might expect. He’s weak, long haired and small; instead of hunting animals he pets them. Is it possible that Disney is changing concepts of the American man?

Creepy Aryan child makes a return

Creepy Aryan child makes a return

 

You also see this idea in opening story about two ice skaters, which is drawn, like ‘Johnny Appleseed’, in a simplistic, story book style that roots it in an American context. A young man and a boy rabbit simultaneously try to impress their sweethearts with ice skating tricks, but eventually end up almost killing them. Their frustration ends up with them in the snow and it is down to horses (a symbolic choice, I feel) to save their lady-loves whilst the men lie buried, both frigid and impotent. The Donald Duck segment sees him, once again, trying to impress a real life woman, but it just ends up with another bird setting fire to the piano and Donald’s romantic intentions are thwarted once more. Everywhere you look in Melody Time you see masculine endeavour frustrated by barriers of powerlessness and stupidity. Not for Disney, the successful, virile man of popular 50c pulp fiction.

The most telling story is that of Pecos Bill. It’s told to creepy Aryan child and a boy who we presume to be her brother. The young boy expresses his distaste at hearing stories about women; “ah, shucks, a woman in the story.” He is a man not interested in women, showing further subversion of gender tropes within Melody Time. The story of Bill himself is a tragic tale of your typical alpha male American hero. He grows up with coyotes (even suckling a mother coyote in one weird moment), and learns to survive in the Texan desert by outperforming all the animals of the wilderness. He and his horse, the Widowmaker, become famous in the land, constantly firing off his guns – read into his trigger happy nature any symbolism you wish. He does everything you can wish of a man, shaping the American landscape by creating the Rio Grande and giving the Lone Star State its nickname. Eventually the legends precede and exceed the man himself. Yet Pecos Bill becomes a tale of masculine hubris, the myths about his origins only serving to build up the pride before the fall.

Visual symbolism ahoy!

Visual symbolism ahoy!

 

He meets a cowgirl who he falls in love with, much to the jealousy of his horse. Suddenly the greatest cowboy in the west, the man of all men, is undone simply by a buxomly, Stetson wearing cowgirl. When it gets to the wedding day, Sweet Sue wants to ‘ride his horse’. She manages to stay on for a long time, but eventually the horse gets too violent and Sue bounces into the air. Pecos Bill tries to save her, but his lassoo ends up being a bit too short in a moment of symbolic fallibility. The beacon of masculinity that is Bill is found wanting at the most crucial moment, and eventually Sue lands on the moon, never to be seen again. On his wedding day Bill fails, his guns and lassoo – emblems of his masculinity – are no use to him. He is undone.

These tales of the frontier are rooted in American mythology, yet show the impotence of the American man to achieve their dreams and desires. Melody Time, therefore, could be the most cynical and satirical of all of Disney’s films.

 

On second thoughts, it’s probably just a bit rubbish.

Graph Disney8


The best cinema extends beyond mere entertainment and engages the audience with big ideas and provokes them with a thoughtful message. Then occasionally you see a film that transcends even that, by making the viewer to contemplate their place in the universe. Films can be a potent force for shaping ideas about our role in the grand scheme of things; recently Life of Pi examined man’s relationship with God through suffering, whilst one of the choicest quotes from Beasts of the Southern Wild had the 6 year old lead observing “that I am a little piece of a big, big universe…” Cinema can be a mirror making us look at ourselves and ask what it is we put our faith in. Undoubtedly not all films will make you ask questions like this, but it’s always rewarding when they do. Two films in February question what it is we live for, grappling with big, metaphysical concepts and confronting the audience with intimidating words like ‘purpose’ and ‘eternity’.

To The Wonder, the latest by director and genius Terrence Malick seems to be a film about frustration, populated by people who are stretching for something that is just out of reach. It opens with a couple who visit a church in Mont St. Michel, the eponymous wonder, and then spend the rest of the film striving for some of the bliss and joy they found there. Yet their ambitions are thwarted by the male lead Neil (played poorly by Ben Affleck) and his inability to commit. Neil’s struggle to dedicate himself to the relationship suggests that he lives first and foremost for himself, thus blocking any chances of a happy marriage with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Marina seeks solace in the church, but the priest seems to have lost faith in his own teachings. The central couple’s wedding does not take place in a church, but in a courthouse where criminals are the witnesses. It’s as though everyone is reluctant to throw themselves wholly into anything, due to fear and lack of trust; a sentiment reflected by the restless camera cutting away quickly from each shot.

To The Wonder screencap 2

The ecstasy of love and the joy of knowing God are never fully realised in To The Wonder, either in the lives of the characters or in the very make up of the film. It’s shooting for the sublime, but falling short. Tellingly, the names of the characters are only revealed in the credits, as if the film is deliberately detached from their story. Although the camera shows the intimate moments of their lives, it’s difficult for the audience to truly invest in them. Just as Neil is reluctant to open himself up to someone else’s life, it feels as though the film is reluctant to truly open to the audience; it never quite takes us to the wonder. It is a remarkably straightforward film compared to the cosmic ponderings of Tree of Life, but it’s emptier, too, simply a story about people with too much faith in themselves, who hurt others because of it. For all the aspirations to divine significance, God feels as distant as the rest of the characters.

Straightforward is probably the last word you would use to describe the multi-narrative, time and space spanning epic Cloud Atlas. There’s too much plot to describe here in one go, just go and watch the film whilst it is still in cinemas (which won’t be for long). Across the six plots that form all three hours of this ambitious epic there are linking images and motifs that make the theme explicit: everything is connected. From a personal perspective, I believe in one life here on earth and one eternal life after that, but Cloud Atlas presents something far closer to reincarnation, suggesting that souls can be trapped on earth for eternity, reliving moments both good and bad. Each strand is told with a different style, from pulpy 70s thriller to Ealing comedy, but they are all inextricably linked by theme and recurring actors. One character’s journey – a slave-clone forced to work in a fast food outlet who rebels against the government – ends with her declaring that “our lives are not our own,” and the message is clear; there is more to our lives than the present moment, or what we see and feel and earth.

Whilst I don’t buy into ideas about reincarnation myself, Cloud Atlas provokes questions about eternity, and the significance of our actions. A composer writes a piece of music, the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ that has recurring importance in the other stories. His creation, and his story, affect the lives of others for future centuries. Although many of the stories end bleakly, it’s a far more positive outlook than something like To The Wonder. Cloud Atlas has a perspective that is a lot less self-centred than To The Wonder, which is an almost purely sensual experience. In To The Wonder, all that seems to matter is the moment, how you feel then and there and what relationships with other people can do for you, personally. But relying on feelings will betray you, especially as, if Cloud Atlas is to be believed, this life is just a small part of something a whole lot bigger.

Cloud Atlas screencap

There’s still that element of frustration, though, as one character writes “I believe there is a better world waiting for us…” but he doesn’t quite know what that looks like. Yet in another story, set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, one character resolves to help someone else, defying the devil (‘old Georgie’) to display courage in the hope of something beyond his island, even though he can’t see or understand it. That sounds a lot like faith, to me.

Yet society today seems to promote the importance of how you feel here and now ahead of anything beyond our own personal experience. Ultimately in a secular culture that is quick to reject God (and thus, the concept of eternity), there isn’t any need to live beyond the immediate present. Something about that refrain from Cloud Atlas seems pertinent, though: our lives are not our own. It’s worth considering Cate Shortland’s harrowing film Lore as a conclusion. This reduces the big, metaphysical ideas of Malick and Mitchell to one intensely personal story of a girl whose parents were high ranking Nazis, and how she copes when the war ends. She spends most of the film convinced that the ideology she received from her parents is irrefutable, and that conflict makes up the core of the film. With hindsight, however, we as the audience can see that the belief system passed on to her is abhorrent. Whilst it’s ridiculous to compare you, the reader, to Nazi sympathisers, what a film like Lore should do is provoke you to think about your own ideology, to question your belief (or lack, thereof).

Perhaps the cumulative experience of these films would be that you start to think about the longer term significance of your actions and long term doesn’t mean next week or next year, either. The pursuit of happiness is a misleading one because ultimately it won’t lead to anything eternal. It’s also a pursuit that places your faith entirely in yourself, another empty experience as you are more likely to let yourself down than anyone else is. Cinema is here to suggest that you can start looking beyond your own experience and wonder, even if you only wonder it for three hours of running time, whether your life is not your own, whether there’s something more than your life than the seventy three or so years your heart will be beating.


Normally at this time I would write an extensive review of my favourite Live Action Film of January, as an addition to all the animated discussion on here. But two big issues arise this month. Firstly, there are three superb, Oscar nominated films all worthy of release: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables. To choose just one of them felt slightly arbitrary. Secondly, if I were to choose one of those as my favourites, it would be the flawed but emotionally explosive musical Les Miserables, but I’ve written about that three or four times already. So instead I decided to look at a theme in cinema at the moment: forgiveness and revenge. This article contains discusses the endings of Les Mis, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained in a slightly spoilery way, but I doubt reading the article will ruin your enjoyment of either.

Jean Valjean

Love is a word that is thrown around a lot, especially in cinema. Rom-coms proliferate the mainstream market; films full of people declaring or realising their love for someone else when it appears as though they are mostly in love with themselves. Outside of this genre, western cinema is more concerned with the breakdown of love rather than the restorative or redemptive power it can bring. Films that purport to be about love are sometimes not sure whether they are about the love between a man and a woman, or the love of a man for a fine cigar. So when one of the last lines of Les Miserables is “to love another person is to see the face of God,” it could mean just about anything. What makes that film so powerful, however, and causes audiences round the country to burst into tears, is that it is a film that really understands love, or at the very least one kind of it.

Jean Valjean, the hero of the film played by Hugh Jackman, is a criminal, although his crime was merely to steal a loaf of bread. However, this apparently minor transgression is enough to get him convicted by the law, forced to pay the wages of his sin and he is haunted by it even once he has done his time. He cannot escape his past, a slip of yellow paper forever marking him as a criminal. He is persecuted, mocked and left in the cold until he is taken in by a bishop and shown love and forgiveness. This act of mercy transforms his life, as he learns to love and serve others, to be generous and caring and to look out for the downtrodden. He is still pursued by the law, in the guise of policeman Javert, but he has been saved from hatred, and his death at the end of the film leads him to heaven – forgiveness has changed his life, and now he is free from the law forever. The name of the film, Les Miserables, can be translated as ‘The Wretched,’ an initially downbeat title that is given a new meaning in the final song: “For the wretched of the earth / There is a flame that never dies. / Even the darkest night will end / And the sun will rise.” The love that makes you see the face of God is the kind that can give hope to the wretched and can change the life of someone who has been rejected. Forgiveness, it is clear, is the ultimate expression of love.

It is a shame, therefore, that revenge still plays such a huge role in Western cinema today, as film seems to be the place where people can live out revenge fantasies, using the distance between reality and fiction as an excuse for catharsis through violence. You see it in mindless action blockbusters all the time, as some burly gun nut loses one of his team so resolves to complete a mission. But it’s also in far more intelligent cinema, and critically adored director Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with it. Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were wildly over the top, violent revenge fantasies, and deliberately so. Tarantino loves exploitation films, and his films are snappy, modern homages to their blood splattered history. His latest, Django Unchained, tells exactly the same story, apart from the revenge is by a slave, not a jilted bride or Nazi-hunting Jews. There’s more to the film than revenge, such as Django’s emergence as a hero or the love story where he just wants his wife back. Yet the bloody finale, like Inglourious’ conclusion, is simple wish fulfilment violence that ends with a triumphant Django performing dressage on his horse, a cocky hero with a big grin on his face. It’s the same old story, and doesn’t offer anything to say about revenge, it just enjoys it. It’s ultimately a rather hollow ending, which is fitting for a film about revenge, the most hollow of all pursuits.

Django

Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is prepared to ask far more questions about the nature of revenge. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing film to watch, as it documents a number of different elements in the CIA’s quest to capture the terrorist. Countries are illegally invaded, men and women get shot and, most disturbingly of all, prisoners are tortured and humiliated. In the wake of 9/11, the USA were quick to launch a ‘War on Terror’ – whatever that means – and invaded more than one country to do so. Since then, the public have learned a lot about what happened in this war; we’ve seen photos of inhumane treatment of prisoners, we’ve learnt that at least one of these invasions broke international law. Yet at the same time, the number one target of this war, Osama Bin Laden, has been killed. Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching, unjudgemental film holds a mirror up to this process and asks whether, in the end, it was all worth it.

The War on Terror is real life evidence that revenge does not get rid of grief, it does not solve problems and it ultimately doesn’t satisfy. Terrorism still exists, and thousands of people – soldiers and civilians alike – have died in this revenge mission. Zero Dark Thirty beautifully captures this problem in its final shot, as Maya, a woman who has dedicated her entire professional life to finding Bin Laden, is asked where she wants to go now. She sits, crying silently, and is unable to answer. It almost seems OK to allow the revenge fantasies in Django Unchained because this story never actually happened, so it’s just a piece of fictional entertainment. Yet that dismissal is almost as glib as the violence in the film. It’s important to question western cinema’s fixation with revenge as a form of fulfilment when the real world proves that, more often than not, it’s just not true. Les Miserables – regardless of how much you enjoyed the film – offers another option, one which is freeing and causes us to do good. It’s about time that we saw more films about forgiveness and less about revenge.


As a writer, I enjoy discussing all sorts of films beyond those of the animated variety, and whilst this blog will remain primarily about the drawn, the digitised and the dolls, each month I’ll write up my thoughts on my favourite live action film of the month. Well, that was the plan until September turned out to be an absolutely stellar month. Even some of the weaker entries such as Now Is Good packed a powerful, if clichéd punch. As it is, it came down to three choices to write about, all bona fide five star films that deserve lots of attention. The first was Berberian Sound Studio by Peter Strickland, a mind bending psycho-thriller that uses sound editing to incredible effect. However, I’ve already written a review of that elsewhere online, narrowing it down to two more choices. Rian Johnson’s Looper may well turn out to be an enduring sci-fi masterpiece, and really, I could have written pages and pages about it. Yet the clincher was that I happen to have seen Anna Karenina twice, so it wins out for proving that it stands up to repeat viewing. I’m sure Looper does, too, and I can’t wait to find out.

Joe Wright’s unexpectedly great action film/fairytale Hanna was an absolute belter, utilising snappy camerawork and a killer soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers to create one of the most interesting hitman films of the last few years. Wright seemed to just get the language of the action thriller, and his famed long shots found a home in a fight scene with Eric Bana and a bunch of goons getting beaten to a pulp. So when it was announced that he was going back to Keira Knightley starring period dramas, there was some understandable trepidation. Sure, the pairing could produce handsomely shot and designed films, and Knightley’s growth as an actress seems to be down to her work with this director, but it seemed as though Wright was going back to safe territory; in Hanna he has proved that he could make something fresh and exciting, this choice just seemed to be a case of same old, same old.

What a wonderful surprise, then, that Anna Karenina turned out to be the most interesting and beautiful cinematic period drama of the last decade. It’s more Alexandr Sokurov than Merchant Ivory, a bold, constantly inventive version of the classic novel that hardly anyone has read (I certainly haven’t). It’s perhaps too soon to say that he’s revitalised the period drama, and maybe it will prove to be a singular, unique blip in the long run for the genre, but what can be said is that Joe Wright has produced something completely refreshing and new, that hits all the beats of a standard historical drama but does them with such verve and intelligence it feels like watching something wholly different. And it all revolves around an idea that started with the age old conundrum of film makers of not having enough money.

The director-actor combo, who had wowed many critics (although not this one) with Atonement and Pride and Prejudice looked to see which literary heroine they could tackle next, and Tolstoy’s doomed unfaithful heroine was the one that stuck out to them. This in itself is a bold choice, as Anna is immensely frustrating and irritating as a protagonist towards the end of her story. Yet a larger issue remained: recreating aristocratic Russia (an opulent, ostentatious society) and to take in the several locations and sets required, would be far too expensive for any studio to bankroll. So driven by budgeting issues, Wright devised the concept of setting all the city-based scenes within a theatre. So all the garish ballrooms, snow bound train stations and poverty-ridden back streets become confined within one theatre, whether it is the main auditorium or the backstage areas.

It’s a genius conceit, and elevates a rather simple tale to something far more dramatic and intense, giving us a much more layered look at society and the psychology of Anna herself. The two cities here – Moscow and St. Petersburg – are, through the theatre, presented as artificial and shallow, where everyone in it is subject to being watched, all the time, by everyone. The clean, Days of Heaven like visuals of Levin’s countryside retreat reinforce what could be considered quite an obvious look at the urban/rural dichotomy. But the city-as-a-theatre approach does far more than this: it gives us a glimpse into the mind of Anna and the way she feels the whole world is watching her. As such, in certain moments, it seems as though everything stops for her, revealing her self centredness, yet also highlighting crucial, game changing moments in the story. It gives each of these moments a sense of heightened reality, where every breath, every look and every smile carries deep significance.

It creates a world where everything is stylised, each person feels like they are performing a part they were born into where the audience is the people that make up their society. By drawing attention to the artifice of the world he has created, Wright risks alienating some of the audience, and indeed many may find the approach off putting, as if they can never be fully involved in a story that seems, so often, to be fake. Yet cinema is, in essence, a web of elaborate, beautiful lies hiding nuggets of truth that resonate with us regardless of their genre or medium. We love to be deceived by the silver screen, to escape for a time, so long as something in the story being told rings true outside of the 120 minutes we watch. This film’s bold move of pointing this out, however, means that whilst it is clearly a work of art and fiction, the messages and truths that these stories conceal are all the more potent for it.

So when Levin (Domnhall Gleeson) watches his newly wed wife tend to his dying brother, the look in his eyes as he sees the display of compassion he had not thought previously possible is full of humility and joy, and it seems so true and real. Similarly, as Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) declares his forgiveness for Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the man who ruined his marriage, the grace on display is truly powerful. It’s notes such as these that add up to form the song of the film; one that resonates with themes of love, loyalty and kindness. It’s proof that the film rises far above it’s theatre gimmick to create something that is unforgettable, moving and somehow relevant to our 21st Century British lives (or, indeed, anyone reading this from outside the UK). The most artificial film of the year may yet prove to be the most real, as well.

The best ensemble cast of the year lends weight and credibility to the film, and the themes that run through it. Knightley continues to mature as an actress, and after the promise of Never Let Me Go she emerges fully here from the petulant pouter role that many associate with her. The major criticism that could be levelled at the film – and the problem here is with Tolstoy, not any actor or director involved – is that Anna is a cold, frustrating presence, consistently making stupid decisions and being so self centred that it is difficult to care about her fate. Yet Knightley makes her feel a little more human, and her decisions don’t seem that far fetched or unbelievable. Anna is a difficult character to play, and many a weaker actress would have failed where Knightley excels.

Surrounding her are a clutch of supremely talented performers, many of them giving career best performances. Matthew Macfadyen adds a much needed lightness to proceedings, yet his final look in the film betrays his regrets and sorrow at the choices he has made, whilst his long suffering wife is brought to life by the luminous Kelly Macdonald. There are, however, two performances that deserve particular mention. Domnhall Gleeson, an actor who continues to grow in stature, and who consistently chooses good roles (most famous as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films, but also has memorable parts in Shadow Dancer, True Grit and Never Let Me Go), is absolutely superb as Levin, the devoted, loyal opposite to Anna. Hidden beneath a truly impressive ginger beard, he gives the film its heart, and does so with a warmth and tenderness that should earn him awards and much, much bigger roles. Jude Law, meanwhile, is nearly unrecognisable as Anna’s husband Karenin, with thinning hair and softly spoken commitment to the country. He appears, at first, to be stuffy and a harsh disciplinarian, but as Anna continues to betray his trust he reveals a side of the character that is heartbreakingly dedicated. As he sits on a chair, the lights dimming on his figure, and he asks ‘what have I done to deserve this?’, Law delivers one of the biggest, most upsetting emotional gut punches of the year.

 

One of the most famous Shakespeare quotes seems to apply to Joe Wright’s epic, beautiful take on Anna Karenina: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” (As You Like It). By taking this in a quite literal sense, Wright has shown that whilst this may yet be true, there are still, within this great play of life, opportunities for compassion, forgiveness and true, loyal love that should not be ignored. Wright took a heavy, serious book and, with the help of a stellar cast giving it their all, created a unique and brave work of art that is one of the most moving, visually spectacular films of the year. Whatever he does next, we should start getting excited already.

 


 

This review contains details that, whilst not really spoilers, have so far not been advertised in the promotional material for ParaNorman. As such, you may prefer to read this after you have seen it. The short story is: I liked it.

 

The Salem witch trials were part of a moment in history that have been overstudied and exaggerated. The killings of several women and children, under the accusations of witchcraft, were undoubtedly terrible, but they have somehow entered the public conscious in a way that belies their impact (which, in the long run, was negligible). There seems to be a morbid fascination with the way a society can turn against itself and commit acts of violence even to the people within it; the result is that ‘Witch hunt’ has been popularised as a term and the town of Salem now has a tourism industry based on these killings. This macabre interest in the witch trials has now somehow worked its way into children’s cinema, as ParaNorman displays when it takes a turn towards darkness as it emerges that the witch who is responsible for the roaming undead was a little girl who got killed by her townspeople.

There’s nothing wrong with a kid’s film being scary. This writer has strong memories of being scared witless by Pinocchio as a child, but without any lasting detrimental effect on his life (that he’s aware of). So a zombie film aimed at a young audience is not, essentially, a bad thing. But  ParaNorman has an uncomfortable fixation on death, both in the film as whole and with the lead character, that means the film really should be approached with caution if you plan on taking you children, or someone else’s. The Salem-esque (the town isn’t actually Salem, but the brilliantly named Blithe Hollow) plot device mentioned above adds an especially grim tone, and culminates with a conversation full of dangerous mixed messages about death and the afterlife. The film is funny and surreal enough that it may not be an issue at all – many children seemed to be enjoying it during the screening, and perhaps this is just the worries of an over-thinking (sort of) adult. The other good news is that, even if you aren’t taking kids, ParaNorman is a superb bit of horror-comedy, full of stuff for adults to enjoy, too.

The film opens with an homage to classic zombie movies, and there’s a nice joke as a screaming girl is set upon by a zombie so slow she pauses mid scream, confused. It’s the first in many a long line of nods and winks to genre tropes, keeping one foot firmly planted in comedy even when things get seriously scary. There’s some surprisingly gross body humour, and the decomposing state of the walking dead is used to excellent effect. For those who are bigger fans of zombie films than my rather uneducated self, there are doubtlessly tons more in jokes and references that will go over everyone else’s heads. It’s clearly an affectionately made film and, regardless of it being an animation, is successful as both a solid horror film and a comedy.

But the real appeal of ParaNorman lies in the stunning animation. In the review of Aardman’s Pirates! earlier in the week, the rather foolhardy comment was made that it will probably be the most visually impressive animation of the year. A few days later Laika’s stop motion wizardry made that comment seem rather ridiculous. The fluidity of the animation here – done through a medium well known for it’s jerky movements – is nothing short of astonishing. The characters, although they look highly stylised and caricatured, move realistically and it beggars belief that this was not done on computers. Even beyond the more banal motions like walking and sitting down, the animation retains a smoothness that means the action sequences are properly gripping. Spikes erupt from the ground, cars career round corners and buildings fall apart with great flair and energy. The action sequences here are as exciting, if not more so, than many a live action film; the directors making perfect use of the medium to capture scenes that would be almost unfeasible otherwise. It’s no exaggeration to say that ParaNorman sets a new standard of excellence in stop motion.

So it’s a fantastic slice of horror cinema, a superlative work of animation, and is really funny to boot. It’s just a shame that it leans too heavily towards darkness, creating a tonal ambiguity that means ParaNorman stops just a little short of brilliance.