Animated

Robots

dir: Chris Wedge & Carlos Saldanha
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For every great idea, person, creation, there is not just its probable opposite, but also its poor cousin. The lame pretender to the throne, the wannabe, the also-ran. It incorporates enough elements of the quality version to be recognisable, but leaves out the essentials that make the great one great.

For every Kubrik there is a Spielberg. For every Tilda Swinton there is a Cate Blanchett. Each Russell Crowe spawns multiple Colin Farrells. And, in the animated feature stakes, Pixar has its pretenders in the form of the companies that make their magic for the likes of Fox and Dreamworks SKG.

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Howl's Moving Castle - (Hauru no ugoku shiro)

dir: Hayao Miyazaki
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Miyazaki is a hallowed name to those of us who’ve seen and loved his animated movies. He is often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, but I think that short changes his talent and what he’s accomplished over the span of his career.

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Incredibles, The

dir: Brad Bird
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I don’t think Pixar know how to make a bad movie. Really, even if they’d wanted to, I don’t think they could manage it. They just wouldn’t know how to be mediocre. Perhaps they need to take notes from Disney. Now there’s a creatively and intellectually bankrupt company still churning out sub-standard product at a rapid rate. There’s your business model worthy of emulation.

Calling Brad Bird the director of something that would have required the supervision and input of countless bazillions of people seems somehow deceptive, but he must know what he’s doing and not just be Steve Job’s footstool. Whilst watching The Simpsons the other night (one of those rare times when I only get to watch one Simpsons episodes in a day as opposed to three) I noticed his name in the credits, and then again after watching King of the Hill last weekend. So he knows about conventional animation as well, not just this fancy-shmancy stuff.

Now that computer animated movies rule at the box office, every studio is trying to pump them out quicker than you can say ‘Bandwagonesque’. And of course as you’re saying it remember and cherish the Teenage Fanclub album from the early 90s that shares its name. Ah, the early 90s. When flannel and dewberry bodywash reigned supreme, but not usually on the same people.

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Steamboy (Suchimoboi)

dir: Katsuhiro Otomo
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This is a highly anticipated animated film for many people, and not just for dope smokers either. See, it’s been so long since Akira first came out that the stoners that predominantly constitute its fanbase have worn out their VHS copies and are in desperate need of something else to tickle the fancy of their THC-addled cells.

Taking over a decade to create another full length feature which is thus far the most expensive in anime history, you’d be entitled to think that Otomo would have had the requisite time and money to craft a story entirely to his liking, something else with the potential to infect pop culture consciousness and monopolise the television at parties like Akira did.

To the credit of the people involved, they’ve started with an insane bunch of ideas and produced an impressively incredible-looking animated feature. Unfortunately, the whole production is deeply flawed by having an absolutely terrible story.

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Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikushi)

dir: Hayao Miyazaki
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The great difficulty in reviewing one of Miyazaki’s animated movies, compared to just watching them, is that the temptation to reel off superlative after superlative usually proves too great for the humble reviewer. Also, Miyazaki is revered to such a degree as the reincarnated Japanese alternate reality Walt Disney that everything he touches is tainted with greatness in the eyes of reviewers, humble or not.

The high praise makes latecomers come to his films with an insane level of expectation, which usually results in bewilderment when they see something like this, Princess Mononoke or My Neighbour Totoro which are different but simpler stories than what they could have expected.

Well, I’m neither a worshipper nor much of a reviewer, so it’s as easy for me to reel off expletives and superlatives as it is to watch one of his flicks and to sit there, thrilled out of my goddamn mind.

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Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime)

Princess Mononoke

It's not every day you get to see someone kill a god

dir: Hayao Miyazaki

1997

In an ideal world, people would be watching the animated films produced by Studio Ghibli, especially ones produced by Hayao Miyazaki, every day of their lives. Most of the channels on TV would play the films one after the other. Other channels not playing films like Spirited Away, this one, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro, Porco Rosso, or Laputa: Castle in the Sky would be running documentaries about the films, or about Miyazaki, or just a parade of interviews with people, Nihonjin or otherwise, saying how great he is.

Sure, most of the interviews would amount to giggly people saying “Um, oh gosh, he’s like, so great, he’s like the total best, um, like, I totally love him,” except it’d be in their chosen language. Swahilis chanting his name, Laplanders and the headhunting tribes of the Papua New Guinea highlands: all united in their adoration of the master of animation.

I know how ridiculous it is to speak about how great Miyazaki’s flicks are. To people who can’t stand animated flicks (like a good friend of mine: the Courageous Canuck Big C), all this blathering is meaningless. If you can’t get into animation, then you’re not going to get why he’s so good at what he does.

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Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

Just looking at this image makes me tear up

dir: Isao Takahata

1988

For all the pop culture popularity of Japanese animation, it still has a pervasively negative reputation. The main reason for this being, of course, the relatively small percentage-wise amount of anime that seems to be exclusively created for the purpose of creating violent stroke material. Anyone confused as to what I mean by ‘stroke material’ should know that I’m not referring to people having aneurysms or lapsing into comas.

In the same way that it would be inaccurate to say that all French cinema is basically films like Irreversible or Baise Moi, it’s unfair to tar Japanese animation with the hentai / giant robots / tentacle / schoolgirls brush. Sure they play a part, but much of it is just about telling a story.

Grave of the Fireflies is a heartbreaking entry in the genre, which has nothing to do with science fiction or girls having their underwear stolen by demons. It is a simple story (on the surface) about a brother and sister trying to survive in Japan during World War II. It has recently been given the royal treatment on DVD (Madman), which is why I felt inspired to write about it now, having just purchased it. The two disk set certainly is worth the purchase price for the film alone, but contains a plethora of worthwhile extras that sweeten the deal even more.

For a film of such beauty in which nothing much happens apart from the long, idyllic march to the grave, the makers have transcended the basic elements that constitute our expectations (at least mine as a non-Japanese viewer) of animation and crafted a story no less poignant or evocative than any live action film. Constructed with an incredible amount of craft, each panel seems to have been lovingly painted by people who had an infinite amount of time on their hands, which is obviously not the case.

Put together by the famous Studio Ghibli (directed by Isao Takahata, and not the ‘master’ Hayao Miyazaki) it exemplifies all the trademarks of that studio’s work which, bizarrely enough achieves everything Disney wishes it still could but never will again: great looking animated features that tell great stories and are massively, commercially successful. The irony of course being that Miyazaki created the studio having been inspired by the earlier works of the Mouse House in no small part.

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