Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cowboy Bebop (TV Series Review)

Director: Shinichiro Watanabe

Company: Sunrise

Year: 1998-1999

Country: Japan

The anime for people who think they hate anime.

How does one even begin to describe Cowboy Bebop? It's one of the most critically acclaimed television series ever created. It's the Firefly of anime. It's one of the few shows that actually lives up to all of its hype. Cowboy Bebop was conceived during the late 1990s, a time during which the space operas and sci-fi dramas where exceptionally popular thanks to manga/anime series such as Crest of the Stars, Trigun, Outlaw Star, and, of course, Neon Genesis Evangelion. The production company Sunrise thus employed a team of talented team of industry veterans to create a show in similar vein to the above. The team consisted of: director Shinichiro Watanabe (Marcos Plus, Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy), screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (Wolf's Rain, Tokyo Godfathers), character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane, and talented jazz composer Yoko Kanno. The primary goal of this team was to create a show that would defy genres and appeal to adult audiences.

Cowboy Bebop is set in the future year of 2071. The entire solar system is now traversable through hyperspace gates. Several decades earlier, in 2022, an experimental hyperspace gate exploded, damaging Earth, causing most of the survivors to abandon Earth and colonize other planets and astroids in the Solar System. Mars has become the primary hub of civilization. Due to the Solar System's enormous size, law and order has become hard to enforce. Crime abounds. Thus, a bounty hunter system is set up, creating a similar situation to the American Old West. (Bounty hunters are commonly called 'cowboys.')

Big Shot, a ridiculous TV bulletin show that informs prices on bounty heads.

The show centers around the various exploits and misadventures of a group of bounty hunters on board the spacecraft Bebop. Each of which have their own unique and contrasting personalities and (often tragic) backstories. Spike Spiegel is a former member of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. A skilled gunman and pilot with a biting sense of humor (Think of Lupin III, but as less of a woman chaser and less of a goof.), Spike is constantly haunted by his past, particularly by a beautiful woman named Julia and his rivalry with his former partner, Vicious. Jet Black is the team's engineer and cook. Although he doesn't like being called old, he commonly acts as supportive father figure to the rest of the crew. Jet is former cop with a strong sense of justice and is a jack of all trades. Faye Valentine is a femme fatale who uses her assets and skill with firearms to get what she wants. Faye is generally mistrusting towards others and frequently runs off to her own device. She is constantly on the run from the law due to the debts she inherited and is unable to pay off…which is certainly not helped by her gambling addiction. Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski (or Ed for short) is a thirteen year old hacking prodigy. She is a fairly strange, androgynous looking girl, who often speaks in rhyme, refers to herself in third person, and frequently drifts off from reality. Ed is the show's primary source of physical humor and comic relief. She is almost always seen with Ein, an intelligent Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

Who is the mysterious woman and what has she got to do with Spike's past?

The series is often billed as space adventure drama, but it is much more than that. While Cowboy Bebop is an anime program, its wide variety of influences and heavy references to Western culture make it very accessible to non-Japanese audiences. Cowboy Bebop certainly excelled at its goal of defying genres. It's a hodgepodge of Film Noir, Cyberpunk, intense drama and medium aware humor. Although set in space, many of the episodes take place in urban inner city areas. It avoids many of the cliches used in the sic-fi genre. There are no giant robots, space aliens, or laser guns. The environments in the film often look used or run down. The technology used in Cowboy Bebop is mixture of that advanced beyond our own and relics from the later half of the 20th century. The various colorful characters that appear throughout Cowboy Bebop's 26 episodes are ethically diverse. All of this gives the show a truly unique, somewhat strange, but truly inspired and relatable feel.

Welcome to the future, the used, gritty future.

Another  big draw of this anime is its diverse musical score composed by the eccentric and brilliant Yoko Kanno. Reflecting the diversity of its cast and Western influences on screen, Cowboy Bebop sports a soundtrack consisting primarily of jazz and blues (It's called Bebop after all!), along with rock, heavy metal, rap, and even gospel like music. (Much of the music on display also originates from the fringes of society, reflecting the series's realistic, gritty style.) 

Obligatory theme song post.

Shinichiro Watanabe certainly loves films and makes several parodies and homages throughout the series's run. Several of the less serious episodes focus on spoofing a specific genre or movie. For instance, the episode, "Toys in the Attic," involves Spike and his teammates being attacked by a unknown presence on their ship (which turns out to have originated from bad food kept in the fridge), which ends up incapacitating most of them before it is destroyed. The plot is quite similar to Ridley Scott's Alien and also references 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another episode, "Mushroom Samba," invokes the feel of 1970s Blaxploitation films. (It involves a starved Ed and Ein chasing down a hallucinogenic mushroom dealer. Yes, it's as crazy and hilarious as it sounds.)

Outside of all of these parodies and homages, much of the show's humor (and relatability) comes from its cast's conflicting interests and personalities and the situations they wind up in. Whereas Jet is ever calm and the most rational of the crew, his conservative views and dedication to truth and justice sometimes put him at odds with Spike and, especially, Faye. At first look, Spike and Faye seem to hate each other. (In one scene, an exasperated Spike asks Jet what the three things he particularly hates ['kids, dogs, and women with attitudes'] are doing on his ship.) Ironically though, both Spike and Faye have several similarities. They are both very stubborn and determined. They refuse to show each other's true feelings towards each other, unless in the most dire of situations. Little lifelike details appear in Cowboy Bebop that several other anime series either ignore or lack. Unlike many other 'animal mascots' / 'team pets' Ein is realistically drawn and behaves much like a real dog would. The crew constantly combats with hunger and starvation when they are out of work. Heck, we even get to see what the Bebop's bathroom stall looks like!

As a broke college student, I can relate.

While certainly funny in places, Cowboy Bebop is even more well known for its sophisticated storytelling and dark, intricate plots. Indeed, while Watanabe admits that about 20% of the show is dedicated to humor, he also states the other 80% is centered around serious drama. Several heavy handed or controversial subjects are dealt with throughout Cowboy Bebop's run including: drug dealing, homosexuality, organized crime, terrorism, and religious cults. While some episodes contain little to no violence, others are quite brutal and feuds are often realistically depicted on screen. At times the anime has an existentialist and philosophical tone. Between all of the action sequences, many of the characters have quiet moments of solitude, as they contemplate about their pasts and the current state of their lives.

Spike, in particular, takes everything with a grain of salt. As he pushes forward towards an uncertain future, he simply states, "Whatever happens, happens." Themes of betrayal and self redemption also come into play. The anime's ending is left open ended. We are left uncertain if Spike has survived or not or what happens to the rest of the Bebop's crew. However, Spike has managed to make amends with his past and settle his score with Vicious. His (debatable) death is his redemption. Vicious can be essentially seen as Spike's shadow. Whereas Spike is able to contain his anger and remain cool and level headed, Vicious is unable to control his tendencies. When threatened, he always acts out with violence. Vicious is unable to comprehend mercy.

Is it worth searching for meaning in the past, or should we simply move forward without looking back?

Faye, like most of the other characters in this show, faces crisis with her identity.

Really, I could go on talking even more about this show. However, several people already have and, like all good things, this review must eventually come to an end. For those who haven't seen Cowboy Bebop, GO WATCH IT NOW. Trust me, you have no idea what you're missing out on. Well, until then…

…See you Space Cowboy...

Rating: 5/5

About the Dub: Unlike many other anime of its day, Cowboy Bebop has a stellar dub (by company Animaze), rivaling that of the dubs Disney gives Studio Ghibli's films. Some even consider it to be superior to the original Japanese voiceover. (In the case of Wendee Lee as Faye Valentine, I would probably agree with them.) The script follows the original cut very loyally and each character feels very real and three dimensional. Steven Blume (who was rewarded a 2012 Genius World Record for his prolific voice acting career) does an excellent job as Spike, being both subtle and volatile when needed. All of the other voice actors do a fine job as well.

Seriously, this scene gives me chills every time I watch it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

11 Amazing Short Student Films from Gobelins Animation School

The French have always been heavily involved throughout the history of animation and hosts a variety of prestigious universities, the best known being Gobelins School of Image. Gobelins is a college located in the Latin Quartier dedicated to the visual arts. Since Gobelins began offering its animation program in 1975, several of its students have gone on to work for several companies not only within in France, but also at large studios including Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar, and Warner Brothers. The rising star in animated film companies, Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me, The Lorax), was founded by a Gobelins alumni Pierre Coffin. Each year, the Gobelins Youtube page posts their students' graduate films, most of which are nothing short of remarkable. Below I have listed eleven of my favorites in chronological order (with descriptions from the Gobelins website). Why eleven? …Making lists is hard.* 

1.) After the Rain - 2008

"A child fishing in a puddle using bananas as bait catches a bigger fish than he can handle and flees with the giant fish in pursuit."

2.) For Sock's Sake - 2008

"A sock escapes from the clothes line to go clubbing."

3.) Trois Petits Points - 2010

"A seamstress is waiting for her husband to come back from the war."

4.) Le Royaume - 2010

"Just arrived in a wood, a king wants a beaver to build him a castle."

5.) A Travers la Brume - 2011

"Two brothers are hunting a legendary creature. As they hunt, the fog separates them…"

6.)  Fur - 2011

"Banned from his town because of his animality, a wolf man decides to make this segregation come to an end."

7. ) Who's Afraid of Mr. Greedy - 2011

"A man comes to get back his identity, stolen by an ogre while he was a child."

8.) In Between - 2012

"A young woman is being followed by a crocodile who represents her shyness. As he makes her life a living hell, she tries by every means to get rid of him."

9.) Trouble on the Green - 2012

"In a little french town, a minigolf tournament is organized each year. But this year, the news have announced the end of the world."

10.) One Day - 2012

"One man always on the move will have an encounter that puts into question everything he knows."

11.) Eclipse  - 2012

"On a distant planet, two sientists analyzing the field for its magnetic properties are facing an extraordinary phenomena linked to the lunar eclipse."

* For those who enjoyed this list, I recommend checking out the 2013 graduate shorts,  Un Conte (not for the faint of heart) and Annie (which is reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim and Adventure Time). The Gobelins students also create television spots for the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Notable spots include Monstera Deliciosa (2009) and Beyond the Sea (2012).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Labyrinth (Review)

Director: Jim Henson

Company: Jim Henson Company, Lucasfilm, TriStar Pictures

Year: 1986

Country: United States, Britain

Should this film be remembered as a flawed box office flop or a beloved cult classic?

Often considered to be the spiritual successor of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth is a far more lighthearted (and often rather goofy take) on a young teenager's wild imagination and European fairytales. The script for the film was conceived by both Henson and George Lucas and was inspired by the children's book, Outside Over There, by Maurice Sendak (author of Where the Wild Things Are). It featured many great special effects with complex puppetry and animatronic characters brought to life from the drawings of Brian Froud, a renown fantasy artist. Labyrinth also had cutting edge CGI effects and featured David Bowie in a staring role.

Well, cutting edge for 1986 anyway.

Despite all of the talent involved, Labyrinth was initially a box office disaster, only earning back $12,729, 917 for its $25 million budget. The failure of the film to capture the favor of audiences or critics upon its release was so profound that Jim Henson did not direct any other feature films before his death in 1990. Despite this disappointment, however, the movie has gained a steady following over the years and has become a cult classic among fantasy fans and Bowie lovers. For some reason, a sequel in the form of a manga was even published by Tokoyopop between 2006 and 2010. In 2012, another graphic novel company, Archaia Studio Press announced that it is in the process of developing a comic book prequel for Labyrinth.

Labyrinth opens with an barn owl spying on Sarah Williams, a teenage girl who is reciting lines from her favorite book (which is also called Labyrinth) in a park. After realizing she is running late, Sarah rushes home to babysit her younger brother, Toby. Sarah becomes increasingly upset when she is confronted by her impatient stepmother and discovers that her teddybear is missing from her room. She finds the toy in her Toby's room and angrily tells him that she wishes the goblins would take him away. Toby suddenly vanishes. The owl flies into Sarah's room and reveals himself to be Jareth, the king of goblins. He tells the alarmed Sarah that she must make her way through his labyrinth within thirteen hours if she wants her baby brother back. He then transports Sarah to the front gate of the labyrinth.

Sarah meets many strange creatures during her journey, three of which decide to travel with her. Hoggle is an obstinate old dwarf who is secretly a spy for Jareth. He is torn between his loyalty to his master and his friendship with Sarah. Ludo is a large and slowwitted but gentle yeti-like creature whom Sarah takes pity on after he is tormented by a gang of goblins. And finally, Sir Didymus is a small yet chivalrous (and often rather illogical) fox-like knight who rides an Old English Sheepdog. Despite receiving help from her new and rather unusual friends, Sarah must overcome several obstacles along the way, such as a Knights and Knaves logic puzzle and the notorious Eternal Bog of Stench. She must also beware of Jareth himself, who has taken a liking to Sarah and constantly tries to convince her to stay with him... 

…Apparently, its because no girl can resist 'the excitement of David Bowie'.

If Jareth's labyrinth has one thing going for it, it is a visual marvel. This is no surprise given the production studio and budget behind Labyrinth. While the sparse CGI that appears in this film is obviously dated, its practical effects have aged very nicely. Brian Froud's designs may not exactly be cute, but they have certain rough charm to them and transition well to the screen. The techniques used to bring the various inhabitants Labyrinth to life are technically a huge step up from those used in The Dark Crystal four years prior. The various sets and backdrops in this movie are also clearly a labor of love. (The art geek in me also loves all of the references to M.C. Escher.) Once Sarah is taken to the front of the labyrinth, it truly does feel as though she has stepped into another land.

It's easy to got lost in the scenery of this movie.

There are, however, several things that hamper this movie's entertainment value. For one, the various David Bowie songs that pop up through out the narrative simply don't suit the visuals at all. (And, for the record, I do enjoy most David Bowie songs.) Yes, it was the '80s. Flamboyancy and Glam Rock were in, but they don't have the timeless sort of quality that one would expect from a fairytale story. On a similar note, this film is rather, well, campy. Again, that may be part of the nostalgic appeal of Labyrinth for some, but it makes everything on screen seem faker than it should. Many of the goblins and other creatures in the film, for instance, are voiced with high pitched, grating cartoonish voices which disengage the viewer the moment he or she hears them. It also doesn't help that the sound effects in this film haven't aged very well either.

It may be cheesy as hell, but just try and get it out of your head.

David Bowie songs and goofy tone aside, many of the characters in Labyrinth are either flat or annoying. This is certainly the case for the film's protagonist. While Sarah's family is briefly introduced at the start of the film, the audience is not given enough time to know or fully understand them or the situation. Sarah's behavior towards her family thus comes off as very bratty. This would be more tolerable if Sarah's character were to develop more over the course of the film, but unfortunately, it doesn't, at least not by much.

Sarah, being the protagonist, does of course learn certain things on her quest. She makes amends with her brother and becomes more appreciative of her 'boring life at home'. However, she complains quite a lot through her journey and relies a bit too much on her companions, making decisions of her own only when the plot requires it. Sarah's portrayal by Jennifer Connelly leaves much to be desired. Perhaps if a more experienced actress took the part, the character would have faired better.  Like several other fantasies about young girls entering bizarre worlds (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland), Labyrinth is symbolic of the transition from childhood to adulthood. However, Sarah is a hard heroine to admire. Perhaps Labyrinth should have followed one of its side characters instead.

Somehow this is not as intimidating as when Gandalf says it...

While Labyrinth is aesthetically pleasing and sports many unique visuals, it won't be remembered as one of the greatest fantasy films ever created. The film's narrative is rather muddled in places, it is too campy for its own good, and its protagonist leaves much to be desired. Still, I cannot bring myself to hate this film. The concept of behind Labyrinth is rather unique and its distinctive visual style allows it to stick out from several other mediocre fantasy films released in the same decade. (Apparently, Labyrinth was initially pitched as The Wizard of Oz meets Where the Wild Things Are.) Maybe Labyrinth would be more enjoyable if it was watched muted and the viewer were to imagine what the characters were saying. While The Dark Crystal may not be as accessible to causal film viewers than Labyrinth, it is ultimately a more ambitious and, dare I say, better film.

I still wish they published this magazine though.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Oscar Nominated Shorts of 2014 (Who Will Probably Win & Who Should Win)

The Oscars are fast approaching with a live screening set for March 2nd. While the Oscars are and have always been biased towards certain films (specifically English speaking ones usually produced by major Hollywood studios or well known directors), they have become increasingly popular and prestigious. The movies nominated for best picture always get lots of fanfare, but films in other categories are sometimes overlooked.

The short film categories often suffer from this. This is shame because they are a great way to showcase talents from across the globe. Because they cost significantly less to produce they can vary greatly in their subject matter and style. While some of them are made by larger studios, many of them are not and are very personal films made by small independent creators/companies passionate about the medium.

The Oscar nominated animated shorts from last year.

For those of you who have yet to see them, the Oscar nominated animated shorts this year, are overall, a pretty solid bunch. The nominees include a Disney short, three entries from Europe, an anime, and an independently produced short. If you happen to attend the screening of the nominees at your local theater, you will probably notice that the program also includes three honorable mentions which were not nominated for the Oscars. Fortunately, they are also fairly enjoyable as well. (Unfortunately, the animated shorts are 'hosted' between each segment by two obnoxiously unfunny CGI animals. But, hey, at least the awards aren't being hosted by Seth MacFarlane again this year.) So without a further ado, here some brief reviews (and winner predictions) for the nominees and honorable mentions for the Best Animated Short of 2014.

The Nominees

Get a Horse!

Director: Lauren Macmullan
Company: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Country: USA

Get a Horse is a throwback to Disney's original rubber-hose Mickey Mouse shorts from the early 1930s with a twist. When Peg Leg Pete attempts to run a hay wagon off the road, Mickey and Horace are forced out of the movie screen and into the theater, becoming CGI colored versions of themselves. Horace and Mickey then battle Pete, who has kidnapped Minnie, by finding ways to interfere with movie playing on screen. While the premise is a bit gimmicky and not entirely original, (Tex Avery loved inserting self aware sight gags into his cartoons, and Get a Horse bears some resemblance to Osamu Tezuka's 1985 short, Broken Down Film) the film has been made with so much love and passion it is hard not to smile at the character's antics.

Get a Horse is not necessarily the best nominee, but it has already become an audience favorite, having won the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject and being nominated for Best Animated Film at the San Diego Film Critics Society. More than likely it will probably win the Academy Award. Get a Horse also features original voice recordings from the 1930s, marks the first appearance of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in a Disney cartoon in over 84 years, and is the first Disney production to be directed solely by a female animator.

Rating: 3.5

Mr. Hublot

Directors: Laurent Witz & Alexandre Espigares
Company: ZEILT Productions, WATT Frame
Country: France

Mr. Hublot moves at a far more leisurely pace than Get a Horse and has no dialogue. However, this largely aids the film rather than hindering it. The short follows a little mechanical man who lives in a Victorian era steampunk-like society. But Mr. Hublot largely chooses to ignore the beautifully rendered CGI/ stop-motion animated landscapes around him. Instead, he focuses intently on his work, preferring the company of his typewriter indoors rather than socializing with others. One day, his work is disrupted after he discovers a small robotic puppy abandoned outside his apartment. Mr. Hublot takes pity on the creature and adopts it. Eventually the puppy grows into a huge dog, and Mr. Hublot is faced with a difficult decision: Should he keep his pet / only friend and allow it to disrupt his work? Or should he get rid off it?

Mr. Hublot is a charming short. Although the story is a bit familiar, the short's animation is very distinctive and Mr. Hublot's apparent OCD is very relatable in our day and age. While not as likely to win the AA as Get a Horse, this film has a bit more substance to it. I would love to see what the short's creators do next.

Rating: 4/5


Director: Daniel Sousa
Company: SousaAnimation
Country: USA

Feral greatly contrasts from the other contestants mentioned so far. It is not cute, funny, or heartfelt, but it is a rather mature, gloomy piece. The short tackles a difficult, yet intriguing subject with no clear answers: How would a feral child react if suddenly he or she were suddenly placed back into society? The huntsman who discovers the lost boy in the film certainly thinks that he is helping the child by reintroducing him to his 'proper place' in society. But the audience is left unsure, especially after they see the boy alienated by his strange new environment. The boy tries to adjust by using the same methods that kept him safe in the woods, but is teased by his peers and misunderstood by others. Feral ends openly with the boy running back towards the forest.

The short is quite ambitious and manages to tell its story with little to no dialogue, but, unfortunately, it can be difficult to understand at times due to its level of abstraction. Feral is indeed beautiful to look at, but feels a bit unevenly paced and may leave its audience cold. Still, one has to admire the efforts of Daniel Sousa's creation as he created almost entirely by himself.

Rating: 3/5


Director: Shuhei Morita
Company: Sunrise
Country: Japan

Possessions is perhaps the most unique of all of the nominees and bears a couple of distinctions. It is the first anime film to be nominated that has not been directed by Hayao Miyazaki and its animation is blend of both cel shaded characters and traditional background art. The film's director, Shuhei Morita, is perhaps best known for his half-an-hour ghost story film, Kakurenbo ['Hide and Seek']. (It should also be noted that Possessions was originally part of an anime anthology film, Short Peace, which contained three other shorts including the award winning Combustible.)

In Possessions, a traveler comes across a shrine when he tries to find shelter from pouring rain. He decides to spend the night there, but notices that the shrine is full of neglected items. According to Japanese legend, abandoned items will come to life after one hundred years have passed. The umbrellas, kimonos, and other objects attempt to scare off their unwanted guest. However, the man decides to mend all of the tarnished objects instead and is rewarded for his efforts. Possessions may be more unusual then some of the other candidates, but there is still a small chance it could win. After all, Miyazaki's Spirited Away won Best Animated feature back in 2002 (making it the only anime film to do so so far).

Rating: 4/5

Room on the Broom

Directors: Jan Lachauer & Max Lang
Company: Magic Light Pictures
Country: UK

Easily the cutest entry on the list, Room on the Broom is based on a picture book by Julia Donaldson. The short also sports a well known cast, featuring the voices of Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, and Martin Clunes among others. Like Mr. Hublot, Room on the Broom blends several animation mediums (specifically models for the sets, CGI for the characters, and traditional animation for fire and water effects). This gives the film its own unique look, which is refreshing in this age where everybody seems to try and copy Pixar's style.

The short itself, is of course, aimed primarily at children, but is actually the longest nominee running at about half an hour. It manages to keep audiences of all ages alike amused with its gentle humor and rhyme filled narration. Room on the Broom is about a kindly witch who flies around with her grumpy cat in tow. The witch keeps dropping things, but the objects are always found by a forest animal. The witch always invites them to ride on the broom with her, despite her cat's protests. However, the broom eventually becomes to heavy to float and the witch runs into trouble with a hungry dragon. While nothing complex is offered in this short, it is quite enjoyable and certainly will please young ones and their families.

Rating: 4/5

The Honorable Mentions

A La Francaise 

Directors: Morrigane Boyer, Julien Hazebroucq, Ren-Hsien Hsu, Emmanuelle Leleu, William Lorton
Company: Supinfocom Arles Animation Film School
Country: France

A la Francaise is sort of a one trick pony. The short is about a bunch of pompous 18th century aristocrats attending a party at Louis XIV's palace…except that they all happen to be chickens. That's about it. Most of the gags actually tend to be pretty funny though and occasionally even a little risqué. The plot becomes increasingly chaotic and disorganized after a hen writing down all of the details about the party loses her papers, which fly throughout the ballroom and start offending all of the guests.

The biggest letdown of this short, however, is its very unsatisfying ending. The audience doesn't even get to see Louis XIV's full reaction to the disasters occurring around him. Still, there is much to be admired about this short on a technical level, given that it is CGI student film that was worked on by only handful of people over the course of three years. It's apparent why A la Francaise wasn't nominated, but it was rightfully given an honorable mention.

Rating: 3/5

The Missing Scarf

Director: Eoin Duffy
Company: Belly Creative Inc.
Country: Ireland

The Missing Scarf is one of those films that takes all of your expectations then completely subverts them in the best possible way. The short begins like a typical children's story. Narrated calmly by George Takei, it tells the tale of Albert, an optimistic squirrel, who has lost his scarf. Albert goes to the woods to search for it, but meets several other animals who have problems of their own (such as an owl who is afraid of the dark and a fox who fears being disliked by others). Albert gives each of them advice about how to deal with their problems, however the short becomes subtly darker as time goes on. So much so that even the bear's troubling existentialist question may not seem as impractical as it sounds.

The Missing Scarf's animation, done in a combination of Adobe Flash and Blender, suits the style of the film well. It is simple and to the point. The cute character designs also greatly contrast with the black humor at The Missing Scarf's ending. Personally, I think this short should have also been nominated, but The Missing Scarf was probably too unorthodox for the Academy's tastes. Their loss.

Rating: 4/5

The Blue Umbrella 

Director: Saschka Unsled
Company: Pixar
Country: USA

Many people where surprised when they discovered that Pixar received no nominations this year, not just for their main feature, Monsters University, but also for for their short, The Blue Umbrella. In the case of The Blue Umbrella, however, it is pretty apparent to see why it wasn't nominated. There is nothing wrong with the film, in fact it contains some beautiful CGI effects and utilizes some really creative animation on various inanimate street objects. However, The Blue Umbrella fails to offer its audience anything that they haven't already seen before.

The story is cute (involving a male blue umbrella who gets separated from his love interest, a red female umbrella), but it bares an uncanny resemblance to the 1954 Disney short, Jonny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet, and is rather predictable. The animation on the umbrellas is also somewhat disappointing. The drawn on cartoon faces simply don't blend very well with the short's otherwise photorealistic style.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Happy Holidays to all of my readers! I hope you have a great one! I had an excellent Christmas with my family, and got some pretty nice (and nerdy gifts) including: a hand stitched Totoro doll from my step-sister, an Art of Spirited Away book, and some slippers. It was also our first Christmas with our new kittens that we got about a month earlier. (I apologize for the crappy pictures taken from my iPhone.)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

What Were LaserDisc Games?

The short lived craze that helped reignite interest in video games and animation.

For those who didn't grow up during the 1980s or early '90s the word 'LaserDisc' may not exactly be familiar. Think of LaserDiscs as the record size prototype of the DVD. LaserDiscs were first manufactured in 1978, arriving shortly after the VHS beat out Betamax. Unlike the DVD or the Betamax, LaserDiscs utilized disc based technology, resulting in higher quality image and audio quality. LaserDiscs were also the first format to include extra discs filled with extra features. Despite these advantages of the LaserDisc, it wan't until the DVD arrived that optical discs became the preferred video format. LaserDiscs were considerably more expensive than VHS tapes in most regions, very large/awkward to hold, could not record shows on TV, and could not store as much length as the VHS. Thus LaserDiscs were not popular with most of the American public, save for movie buffs or the dedicated otaku.

Laserdiscs: the record sized forerunner of the DVD.

However, LaserDiscs did manage to make a significant (if short-lived) impact on the animation and video game industries. While the idea of the interactive movie was not new at the time (The short film Kinoautomat [1967] is largely considered to be the first.), LaserDiscs made the use of interactive movies more widespread due to their ability to skip back and forth between segments of film and nonlinear play devices. For those unfamiliar with them, interactive movies can be best be described as the video game equivalent of  'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, where the player's actions dictate the result of the film depending on which choices they make. Many LaserDisc games required 'quick time events' where the player has to press the correct sequence of buttons within a short given amount of time, or else they will die. This happens very frequently in LD games, because in order to progress, you must memorize the button sequence. (Thus many quarters are quickly lost if you play them in arcades.)

Enter the Dragon's Lair

Although the first LaserDisc game, Astron Belt (Sega, 1983), was actually a rail shooter that used some footage from Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, the first widely successful game was Dragon's Lair.  Released later the same year by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, Dragon's Lair proved to be so popular that several machines were reportedly broken by children playing on them too frequently. Dragon's Lair is widely credited for saving the sagging arcade industry and renewing public interest in video games after the fall of Atari. It also gave Bluth the much needed money to fund his additional feature films and thus encouraged him and others animators to make material beyond cheap Saturday morning cartoons.

The reason for the game's appeal was simple. Unlike other popular games of the time which utilized simple, pixelated sprites, Dragon's Lair featured high quality hand-drawn animation, which gave the game a greater sense of 'realism'. (Well, realistic enough for a fantasy story about a dim-witted and cowardly knight ['Dirk the Daring'] determined to save a scantly clad princess from a fearsome dragon.) Dragon's Lair was even successful enough to have a sequel released in 1991, which is fondly (or not so fondly remembered) for its rather bizarre time-traveling plot. Dragon's Lair also received several ports to other systems (including the infamous NES version) and had a short-lived cartoon series with noticeably bad animation provided by Ruby-Spears.

Gameplay of Dragon's Lair making it look extremely easy.

In reality, you die a lot. Say goodbye to your quarters!

In 1984, Don Bluth released Space Ace, which is essentially Dragon's Lair in Space. The game had a higher budget with smoother animation, more sound effects better voice acting, and of course, a good dose of strangeness. Thayer's Quest also hit arcades the same year. Although the game was developed by RDI Video Systems (the studio that released Dragon's Lair and Space Ace), Thayer's Quest was made without any involvement from Bluth and has rather shoddy production values in comparison to Bluth's work. Thayer's Quest was initially created for the doomed Halcyon console (which had many advanced capabilities including voice recognition). It ultimately failed due to its extremely steep price of $2,500. In fact, the Halcyon is often cited as the most expensive video game system ever created!

Poster for Space Ace.

Cliff Hanger or Lupin III?

Not all companies could afford to hire American animators like Don Bluth, several of them opted to use footage from anime unreleased in the US at the time and cut it to fit into the storyline they desired. The most famous of these games is Cliff Hanger (1983) which made a cameo appearance in the movie The Goonies. Cliff Hanger was created using footage from two Lupin III games, primarily from The Castle of Cagliostro. As with many anime games released overseas, Cliffhanger had hilarious bad dubbing done directly over the original Japanese and many of the characters in the films either had their names changed or were cut out completely.

Bega's Battle (Sega, 1983) was a rail shooter with footage taken from the anime Harmagedon. Like many popular games of the time, it was featured on Starcade. It had a notoriously violent opening sequence, where a man's face is shown mutating and melting off. (And, yes, this game was marketed towards children.) The anime itself is pretty awful and forgettable despite being directed by Rintaro and produced by Madhouse. Curiously enough, two other of Rintaro's movies,  Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999, were adapted into a 1987 LaserDisc game called Freedom Fighter. Freedom Fighter was the only game before developer Millennium Games shut down. It is thus very rare and highly sought out by collectors.

Cliff Hanger! The game that keeps you on your toes!

Genki Girls & Ninjas: Japanese LaserDisc Games

Several game developers in Japan also made LD games. Super Don Quix-ote (Universal, 1984) which is only notable for being very loosely inspired by Don Quixote and for having low budget animation on par of Thayer.Badlands (Konami, 1984) was a far more interesting game. It plays out as a Western style shooter starring Buck, a cowboy on a quest to avenge the deaths of his wife and children who were murdered by a band of outlaws. Despite, its solemn sounding setup, Badlands is actually quite humorous and silly at times due to its particularly bizarre and nonsensical death animations and random mix of American and Japanese cultural references. On a similar note, Sega also released a vengeance game in 1985. Road Blaster is a racing/shooter game where you play a man tracking down a gang of bikers who killed his wife. Unlike Badlands, the game maintains a fairly serious tone throughout. 

Outside of Don Bluth and Cliff Hanger, perhaps the best remembered LaserDisc games were made by Taito. In 1984, the company released Ninja Hayate, a game suspiciously similar to Dragon's Lair. It is about a Dirk-like ninja who attempts to rescue a princess from a feudal Japanese castle. (Ninja Hayate also bears more than a passing resemblance to another Taito game, The Legend of Kage.) Time Gal (1985) is commonly bundled with the above and is the more famous of the two. The game is set in the year 3001. You play as a skimpily dressed girl named Reika who must travel between different time periods in search of the criminal Luda in order to prevent him from altering the past. Time Gal was one of Japan's more popular LaserDisc titles, receiving numerous ports to different systems over the years. This is no doubt due to the main character being a typical excitable, ditzy 'cute' anime girl (who looks a lot like Lum from Urusei Yatsura). She laughs, spews random English and makes various pop cultural references while being chased. Half of her 'death' animations just involve her being shamed in some way or nearly losing an article of clothing. (This is actually quite creepy once you realize that several of these death sequences cut to clip of Luda laughing.)

I'm not sure if these death sequences are annoying or hilarious. 

The Decline & Legacy of LaserDisc Games

By the late 1980s, the number of notable LaserDisc games being made began to decline rapidly as the popularity of the format waned. This is because once someone figures out the pattern of buttons needed to be pressed and sequences to choose in these games, the games have practically no replay value beyond showing off your skills to your friends. LD games thus get very repetitive over time and are often quite similar to one another in gameplay and in structure. The only major producer of LD games in the late 1980s and the early '90s was American Laser Games, which made a total of ten games up until 1994. Unlike most developers, American Laser Games used cheaply shot live-action footage which has little enjoyment beyond its camp value. All of their titles were light rail shooters which had lousy green screen effects. Most of their games were either Westerns, space dramas, or crime narratives. In 1991, Dragon's Lair's co-creator, Rick Dyer, released Time Traveler through Sega. The LD game was the first video game to utilize holographic imagery, however its standard plot about traveling through time in order to rescue to the protagonist's girlfriend may have weakened its appeal. Ultimately, Time Traveler's gimmick could not save LaserDisc games. Within four years, the DVD was introduced and the LaserDisc quickly faded into obscurity.

Although LD games were short-lived, they managed to greatly influence the future of gaming. Dragon's Lair helped re-spark public interest in the medium after the Video Game Crash of 1983. LD games pioneered the notion that games could use branching paths based upon the player's choice, introduced the notion of cutscenes to gaming, and introduced full animation to gaming. While interactive movies remain a niche market, several notable ones have been made in recent years, including Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Although these games are far more sophisticated, they owe a lot to their LaserDisc heritage.

What's the point of a low budget game if it's not animated?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Best Environmental Epic: The Case for Princess Mononoke

Can a film be both entertaining and enlightening at once?

The film Princess Mononoke, has many similarities to other environmental fantasies. As in Avatar, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Pocahontas, the protagonist, Ashitaka, is a young man who becomes drawn into a conflict between the forces of nature and humans who are clear-cutting a large forest. The protagonist also meets a woman of another culture (in this case, San, a girl raised by wolves) whom he falls in love with. This plot structure is by no means a new one, as several people have noted that Avatar, might as well have been titled 'Dances with Smurfs' or 'Blue Pocahontas.' Due to their heavy reliance on this formula, films of this kind are often criticized for their reduction of environmental themes and failure to look at tangible solutions. However, Princess Mononoke differs from the three other mentioned films in the way it represents humanity’s relationship with nature, and the protagonist’s relationship with other cultures and minorities. 

Issues Common to Environmental Epics

Is it man vs nature or nature versus man? 

The main problem with many of these ‘ecologically aware’ films is that they tend to over simplify the complex relationship between man and the environment. They seem to state that nature is inherently good and superior to humanity, and that the means used to aid development are inherently bad. These movies often fail to take into account that humans, like other species, are motivated by their own survival. Although clearing land certainly has negative effects on trees and displaces other populations, it is often done to avoid issues such as human overcrowding and to feed growing settlements. Since the environment is rarely altered by a sole force, people are not often displaced by a single aggressor’s selfish actions. Realistically, people won’t suddenly stop all actives that harm the environment, because we depend on its resources. However, we can try to use technology in ways that are less detrimental to our surrounding environment.

Another issue common to environmental epics that portray native peoples are the archetypes of the white savior and the noble savage. The white savior is commonly defined as a white man who learns the ways of a primitive, nature-oriented tribe and decides to help them fight off his own people's colonialism, recognizing that the cause of the natives is just and the conquerors are the villains. This implies that, despite the hero’s apparently good intentions, people of Anglo-Saxon decent are superior to ingenious peoples. Without the help of the white man the minorities remain disempowered. The noble savage is a stock character who serves as an idealized individual who symbolizes the innate goodness of one unexposed to civilization and its corrupting influences. Noble savages are heavily romanticized and are often depicted as being more ‘pure’ and in tune with the natural world. This thinking is problematic, because it does not portray tribal peoples in contemporary reality. Instead, they are viewed as being trapped in a uncontaminated realm of nature which likely never existed.

The Environment in James Cameron’s Avatar

Avatar is largely a visual experience and relies on many plot cliches.

In James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, The Resources Development Administration (RDA) is mining on the planet of Pandora to search for a rare fuel substance. RDA’s private security force is led by Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch has absolutely no regard for any of the lifeforms on Pandora. He is given no backstory, save for mentioning that he received the large scars on his face on the first day he arrived on Pandora. The movie’s message is profoundly simplified by Quaritch’s unrealistic dialogue, which includes lines such as, “I can do it with minimal casualties to the indigenous,” and “We'll clear them out with gas first. It'll be humane. More or less.” The movie opts for peaceful solutions in order to find a way in which humankind and the Na’vi people of Pandora can coexist. However, Avatar quickly dissolves into a number of flashy battle sequences and explosions to show off the film’s special effects. 

Guess which one is the bad guy.

Avatar’s protagonist, Jack Sully, arrives on Pandora as an ungainly military recruit. However, over the course of the film, Jack gains the trust of the Na’vi and becomes mates with chieftain’s the daughter, Neytiri. Jack tames a Toruk, a large dragon-like creature, then leads the Na’vi into battle, thus fulfilling his role as the white savior. Likewise, the computer generated Na’vi are idealized portrayals of native peoples. They are depicted with lean, muscular bodies that are largely unclothed, and can communicate directly with nature via their braid-like sensory organs.

The Environment in Fox’s Ferngully

Hot male lead? Check. Exotic Chick? Check. Native Aborigines? Screw that, we've got fairies!

Like Avatar, Ferngully’s antagonists are similarly unrealistic. In 20th Century Fox’s 1992 film, the malefactor is Hexxus. Hexxus is an ancient being that was sealed away in a tree by the fairies of the rainforest. After being accidentally released when some loggers cut down the tree, Hexxus proceeds to take revenge for his imprisonment by manipulating two of the loggers controlling a bulldozer. Portraying deforestation and pollution in this manner is problematic because it takes the blame of environmental issues off of humanity and places it on a nonexistent deity. By the end of the movie, the hero, Zak, returns to the human world and leaves the fairies alone. However, in a real world situation, the humans would undoubtedly return to the rainforest in order to harvest its scarce resources.

Additionally, Zak Young is introduced as a fit, smooth-talking character. He is shown to be superior to the other lower-class workers, who are depicted as greedy and lazy by visual references to over-consumption of junk food and their littering of their work areas, as well as the fairies who live in the Ferngully Rainforest. The fairies are impressed by Zac’s mastery of technology, as demonstrated when Zac brings the fairies together with music generated from his giant cassette player. The fairies conveniently replace the Aboriginal Australians as ‘noble savages’, perhaps in an attempt to be more politically correct. Although neither the humans and fairies initially believe that the other exists, the truly mythologized beings in Ferngully are indigenous people who are fantasized as extinct and indicated only by the remnant rock paintings. Like the Na’vi, the fairies are depicted as an ideal ‘other’, living in complete harmony with nature via extraordinary, magical means. For instance, Crysta (the fairy female lead and romantic interest to Zac) is is able to make a seed grow into a towering tree by pressing a seed in her hand and the fairies can fly trough the rainforest at impossibly fast speeds.

Still this movie manages to be pretty entertaining due to its hilariously outdated dialogue and bad '90s pop music.

The Environment in Disney’s Pocahontas

"Let's keep quiet about this film's less glamorous, real life basis."

In Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), the story takes place in a fictionalized timeline during 1607 where the British settlers of the Virginia Company arrive in the New World. They are led by Governor John Ratcliffe, who desires to obtain one thing beyond anything else: gold. Unlike the other antagonists from Avatar and Ferngully, Ratcliffe is based on a real person, as Pocahontas is loosely adapted from a historic event. This is where the film’s problems arise. The movie attempts to promote understanding between the colonists and the Native Americans. However, it also makes history easier for American audiences to swallow by glossing over the less attractive aspects of European settlement of Native American lands. 

 John Smith is the film’s white savior. Pocahontas risks her life to save Smith because she essentially falls in love with the first white man she sees.The movie’s underlying message, which extolls cultural understanding and the respect for others and the environment, is downplayed by the film’s focus on romantic fantasy. The Native Americans in Pocahontas are similarly fantasized, even though they are an actual group of people, not a fictional race. Along with demonstrating her care for the natural world by singing songs and having adorable animal sidekicks, Pocahontas is shown to be very attractive and voluptuous, with tan long legs, silky black hair, and almond shaped eyes. By focusing on such superficial details, however, Pocahontas, as with Avatar and Ferngully, skips over the uglier aspects of human nature and history. The plot is altered, avoiding Pocahontas’s passage to England, her separation from her people, conversion to Christianity, marriage to John Rolfe, and her death at age 21 from tuberculosis in England.

The Environment in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke

Nature is beautiful and terrifying. 

Even though Princess Mononoke is set between the 14th and 16th century in Japan, it addresses several of the issues that are simplified or ignored in the previously mentioned films. There are no stereotypical ‘villains’ in Princess Mononoke as each side is shown to have their own needs and justifications. Lady Eboshi of Irontown is seemingly cold-hearted when she is introduced. After all, she drove the boars out of the forest to mine for iron-sand. She shot the boar god, Nago, causing him to become a demon and later pass his curse onto the protagonist, Ashitaka. However, Eboshi is shown to be compassionate. She offers prostitutes employment as bellows workers, and she secretly hires lepers to manufacture firearms. Despite that many of Eboshi’s actions are questionable it is easy to sympathize with her, especially when one considers that she is part of a traditionally marginalized group herself because she is a woman.  

Lady Eboshi: Both ruthless and kind.

Nature is shown to be divine and otherworldly in places, demanding one’s respect. The forest of the Shishigami is considered to be a scared place and the Emishi are one of the few people left who respect nature and worship animistic gods. Although it is easy to be impressed at the beautifully rendered landscapes in Princess Mononoke and feel sympathy for the animals who are being driven from their homes, it is also easy to be frightened or disgusted by them. The animals are not hapless victims of cruel humans, they fight back viciously to the death. They are large and imposing, and not as cute or as marketable as the fairies in Ferngully or Pocahontas’s pet raccoon, Meeko. The deer god, the Shishigami, is also portrayed as being a rather ambiguous figure. He gives and takes away life, acting primarily as the caretaker of natural causes. The Shishigami does not become actively involved in the struggle between human development and the nature, until he is beheaded by Lady Eboshi. He then threatens to wipe out both humanity and the entire forest, as he becomes lost in madness searching for his head. 

The Shishigami, giver of life and death. 

Symbolically, this could represent the destructive nature of war, and the consequences it has for both sides of the battle. Ultimately, this is what Princess Mononoke is about and what Avatar, Ferngully and Pocahontas fail to address. If Eboshi and Irontown win the battle, then the forest and its gods and animals disappear. However, if nature wins, Irontown and its inhabitants will cease to exist. There are no simple answers, and the differing factions of humanity and nature can only hope to come to a solution by attempting to understand one another. The only true villain in Princess Mononoke is hate. Ashitaka combats with it throughout the film, between others and within himself, as represented by the curse which will kill him if he cannot find a cure. It is not until the end of Princess Mononoke that the curse is finally lifted, after both nature and the warring sides of humanity come to realize that they have nearly destroyed each other.

Although Princess Mononoke has an attractive male lead, he is not the typical Hollywood hero nor is he a typical Japanese hero. As opposed to being a white, or in this case a Yamato Japanese, man, Ashitaka is a member of a traditionally marginalized (and now extinct) cultural group, the Emishi. Ashitaka is initially a reluctant hero. He does not want to leave his homeland but is forced to do so after he becomes cursed by Nago. Unlike many of the samurai protagonists seen in Japanese period dramas, Ashitaka is a pacifist who struggles with his own anger. When his cursed right hand nearly strikes Eboshi, Ashitaka remarks, “If it would lift the curse, I'd let it tear you apart. But even that wouldn't end the killing now, would it?” He is torn between siding with the outcast people in Irontown and San and the animals who are being driven out of the forest, as he can relate to both groups.

Ashitaka, the cursed, othered protagonist.

San, the Princess Mononoke, is the closet thing the film offers us to a ‘noble savage’ or an ‘Indian princess.’ But like nature, San is not overly idealized in Princes Mononoke. San is a young woman, but does not wear a revealing dress. She is depicted with blood smeared across her face the first time Ashitaka sees her, after sucking at a bullet wound in Moro’s chest. She is kind to most animals of the forest, her adoptive mother, Moro, and her wolf brothers. On the other hand, her hatred towards Lady Eboshi and humans is so pronounced that she is willing to throw away her life in order to defend the forest and avenge the death of its animals. Unlike a conventional Disney princess, San does not ‘fall for the first man she sees.’ At first, she hates Ashitaka because he is human and simply tells him to, “Go away.” When Ashitaka saves San from harm in Irontown and returns her to the woods, San is furious with him because Ashitaka has ruined her opportunity to kill Eboshi. In a sense, the gender roles are somewhat reversed as Ashitaka (the man) pleads for both women, San and Eboshi, to put down their knives and talk. 

As with Eboshi, San is another complex female character.

It is only when Ashitaka’s gun wound is healed by the Shishigami, that San ponders over Ashitaka’s behavior, and develops feelings for him. This causes her to go through denial at several points in the film. Moro tells Ashitaka that his desire to live with San is futile because, “My poor, ugly, beautiful daughter is neither wolf nor human. She lives with the forest, and so she too will die with the forest.” True to her mother’s words, San does not return back to the human world with Ashitaka at the end of the movie. Even though she loves Ashitaka and helps him return the Shishigami’s head, her mistrust toward humans never fully disappears. If San had gone with Ashitaka, she would have being denying an important part of her own nature. 

Because of Princess Mononoke’s complex themes and refusal to rely on conventional clichés and stock characters, the relationship between man and nature are more throughly explored than in most environmental epics, even if it does not offer a definitive answer to society’s problems. Princess Mononoke does, however, suggest that the first step in solving such problems is to build understanding between people with differing opinions. 

"Life is suffering. Life is hard. The world is cursed. But still you find reasons to keep living."