Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Animated Adaptations of One Thousand and One Nights

All of us are familiar with Disney's Aladdin, but there a are surprising number of other cartoons based on similar premises. 

Background on the Tales

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is one of the world's most famous collections of fairytales and folktales. It is also one of the oldest literary works. Although the story was originally published in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, many of the stories are far older and originate from not only Arabian countries but also Egyptian, Indian and Mesopotamian cultures. The stories first became popular in the Western world after their publication into French in the early 1700s by Antoine Galland. English translations soon followed, becoming increasingly common during the 1800s. Translations have continued to be made and revised up into recent years, as scholars endlessly debate about the accuracy of their sources and interpretations. (Earlier translations made during the Victorian era tended to cut out certain stories or aspects due to their depiction of violence and sex. Not all of these stories were originally intended for children. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Grimm's Fairytales.)

An illustration for Aladdin by Errol le Cain

For those unfamiliar with One Thousand and One Nights's basic premise, it is a frame story. Everyday the king Shahryar takes a new bride only to behead her by the next day, and then takes another. (Shahryar holds a grudge after finding out his first wife was unfaithful to him.) Eventually the vizier can no longer find any more virgin brides for the king. The vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, offers herself to be the next bride, and the vizier reluctantly agrees. Later that night after the marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell Shahryar a fantastical story. The story does not end and segues into another tale. The king becomes curious about how the tale concludes, so he postpones his bride's execution. This continues to be repeat until one thousand and one nights have passed and Scheherazade has run out of stories to tell. However, Shahryar has fallen in love with Scheherazade over the course of almost three years. So Scheherazade's life is spared and she becomes queen.

An illustration of Scheherazade and Shahryar by Edmund Dulac.

Most of the stories that Scheherazade tells are highly fantastical, involving various heroes journeying to far off lands in search of love or warriors fighting against fearsome monsters. Arguably, the most famous of these stories are Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Adaptations based upon these tales range from classical pieces to role playing games. (So many works have been influenced by these tales that they even have their own Wikipedia page!) Naturally, One Thousand and One Nights has been adapted numerous times into film as well, perhaps most famously by The Thief of Baghdad (both the 1924 and the 1940 versions) and the 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). The number of animated films adapted from One Thousand and One Nights is quite high as well. The stories provide a perfect vehicle for the medium given how imaginative and other worldly they are.

A brief synopsis and review for The Thief of Baghdad (1940).

Silent Cinema and Early Talkies

Not only is this film the oldest surviving animated feature, but it also the first to be directed by a woman.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is the third animated film ever made, beating out Disney's Snow White by over a decade. Prince Achmed is adapted from the story in One Thousand and One Nights of the same name. The story follows Achmed as his journeys across foreign lands astride a flying horse. He encounters many strange and wondrous sights, befriends a witch, battles monsters and demons, meets Aladdin and falls in love with a princess. The movie is a true labor of love. Director Lotte Reiniger spent a total of three years creating Achmed using stop-motion cutouts resembling Chinese shadow puppets. The result is a hauntingly beautiful silent film. Although the film does not offering the audience anything new storywise, Achmed is a great adaptation due to its inspired visuals, wonderful score and cinematography. The entire film (which unfortunately lacks English subtitles) can be watched on the Internet Archive here.

The next notable animated works based on Arabian Nights arrived about a decade later in Hollywood, utilizing the newer technologies of full color and sound. Sinbad the Sailor  (1935) is a theatrical short created by Ub Iwerks as part of his ComiColor cartoon series. As with many of the other shorts in the series, Sinbad is visually pleasing, but tends to drag narratively and tends to come off as a weaker Silly Symphony cartoon. The plot concerns a rather cute looking Sinbad and his sidekick parrot fending off some fearsome pirates. Far more notable than Ub Iwerk's Sinbad are the three films released as part of the Fleischer Bro.'s Popeye the Sailor series. These three films (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor [1936], Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves [1937] and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp [1939]) are significantly longer than the average Popeye cartoon, running between 16 to 22 minutes each. They were initially created as a way for the studio to transition into making feature length films in order to compete with Disney.

Popeye meets Bluto…I mean Sindbad.

Fine Features & Big Blockbusters

Surprisingly, the first color animated feature based on Arabian Nights did not originate from the United States. La Rosa di Bagdad (1949) hails from Italy. It does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to many American features, specifically Snow White. La Rosa di Bagdad is about a young snake charmer, Amin, who must rescue his sweetheart, Princess Zeila, from the wicked sheik, Jafar, with the aid of a genie. While the film sports beautifully rendered backgrounds and an inspired art style, its animation has aged poorly and was even choppy by 1949 standards. The film has largely fallen into obscurity and is rarely seen today. La Rosa di Bagdad's only claim to fame is that it was the first film to ever feature Julia Andrews in a starring role (for its 1952 English dub The Singing Princess.)

An Italian feature that tired to emulate the films of Walt Disney…

…complete with three seven dwarf wannabes.

Of course, hardly anyone needs an introduction to Disney's Aladdin (1992). Although Aladdin is loosely based upon the fairytale of the same name and visually inspired by the 1940 film, The Thief of Baghdad, it is a far more carefree and goofy take on One Thousand and One Nights than most adaptations. Aladdin's love interest, Jasmine, is also portrayed as a stronger, more independent character than the female leads in the sources that Aladdin was derived from. Aladdin was not only one of the most successful movies of Disney's Renaissance Era, but continues to generate sequels and spinoffs to this day. The most recent being a Broadway adaptation which debuted earlier this year.

While some attribute a large part of the Aladdin's success to its star studded cast (and is often credited with starting the dubious trend of 'celebrity voice actors' in animated movies), much of it also owes to musical composer Alan Menken and the directing duo Ron Clements and John Musker (The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog). It should also be noted that Pixar provided computer animation for the Cave of Wonders and that Aladdin was the third Disney film to utilize the CAPS coloring system developed by Pixar, hinting at the company's future prominence in the animation industry.

"Pssst, Robin Williams will bring your movie great success."

Although released a year after Aladdin (and sometimes accused by some of cashing in on the Disney film), The Thief and the Cobbler was actually in development hiatus for over 25 years, due to director Richard Williams running into funding problems and eventually having his work taken away from him when he could not finish The Thief by its deadline. The result is a horribly butchered film that bares only a passing resemblance to William's original vision. Fortunately, however, an excellent fan restoration of the film entitled The Recobbled Cut is readily available for viewing on Youtube. The plot of the film involves a silent cobbler, Tack, who becomes involved with the saving his kingdom after he accidentally insults the king's grand vizier, Zigzag (voiced by Vincent Price). Tack and his allies must try to find a way to defeat a hostile army and the traitorous Zigzag. At the same time, he must also beware of the thief's constant bumbling actions and falls in love with the king's daughter, Princess Yumyum. The film itself is largely visual experience and sports some of the most gorgeous and complex animation ever created (which makes sense given the amount of time the film was in production). While The Thief and the Cobbler is not the strongest movie ever made when it comes to its narrative structure, it is a unique work of art that any film or art enthusiast should see.

Trailer for The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Dreamworks, 2003) is somewhat infamous due to the marketing hype that surrounded its release and its failure to deliver sufficient box office returns. It was not the mega-hit that Dreamworks hoped for only earning back $80 million for its $60 million budget. In the end the film cost the studio to suffer a $125 million lose which caused CEO Jeffery Katzenberg to state,  "I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past." Indeed, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was the last traditional animated film to be released by Dreamworks, all of their subsequent films have been entirely done in CGI. But Katzenberg's reasoning for Sinbad's failure is faulty. The film did not fail due to its medium, but rather due to its overly familiar storyline, reliance on cliches and toilet humor, and unimpressive CGI effects. Its all star cast featuring Brad Pitt and Michelle Pfeiffer could not save it. Sinbad offered its audience nothing new and thus stood no chance against Pixar's Finding Nemo which premiered a month earlier and went on to be one of the highest grossing animated films ever released.

Dreamwork's Sinbad is a rather lackluster adaptation that suffers from plot cliches and poorly integrated CGI effects.

Franchise Films

Although movie franchises have become increasing common since the late 1990s, animated adaptations based upon One Thousand and One Nights utilizing popular characters date back to 1959 with the release of the UPA film, 1001 Arabian Nights. The film is a retelling of Aladdin and his Magic Lamp and casts Mr. Magoo's ancestor, 'Azzie' Magoo, as Aladdin's bumbling uncle. 1001 Arabian Nights is largely forgotten by the general public, and while and it is aesthetically pleasing with its minimalist animation style, it does tend to drag at times. 1001 Arabian Nights would have probably faired better if it focused solely on Aladdin and his love interest and did away with its Mr. Magoo character.  Azzie Magoo isn't really that central to the plot of the film and his comic asides often disrupt its narrative flow. Still, Magoo's film is not a bad one. It is also important to note that 1001 Arabian Nights was the first major animated film to be released in the USA outside of Disney since the fall of the Fleischer Brothers' studio.

A poster for UPA's first animated feature.

 Bugs Bunny's 1001 Rabbit Tales (WB, 1982) is a compilation movie which strings together various Looney Tunes featuring Bugs Bunny and other well known characters. Bugs Bunny plays the part of Scheherazade as he tells the sultan's (Yosemite Sam's) spoiled son various stories (each story being a different cartoon short). At the same time, Bugs must also outwit his rival, Daffy Duck. While Rabbit Tales manages to entertain well enough despite its limited budget and recycled animation, Hannah Barbara's Scooby Doo in 1001 Arabian Nights (1994) is another story. Despite being the titular character, Scooby Doo (and Shaggy) hardly appear in the TV movie and are frequently drawn off model. The movie instead chooses to focus on the two stories Shaggy tells to a caliph. The first being a thinly veiled gender swap of Disney's Aladdin (with Yogi Bear and Boo Boo playing the part of the genies) and the second featuring Magilla Gorilla as Sinbad. One of Japan's most popular franchises, Doramon, also received a film adaptation based upon Arabic folklore, Dorabian Nights (Asatsu, 1991), which brings us to our text topic: anime films based upon Arabian Nights.

As far as compilation films go, Bugs Bunny's film is not bad.

The less said about this, on the other hand, the better.

Arabian Anime?

Toei Doga released several anime films based on foreign fairytales throughout the 1960s-80s.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s Toei Doga released many anime features aimed at a general audiences, initially in hopes of becoming the 'Disney of the East', before the company ultimately decided to focus on the cheaper option of TV animation. In order to appeal to wider audiences (specifically the Western market), Toei began making several of their movies based upon non-Japanese stories and folktales, including One Thousand and One Nights. Their 5th animated feature was Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad (1962).

While Sinbad was released around the height of Toei's theatrical output, it is generally regarded as one of their weaker pictures and seldom seen outside of Japan today. As with most other Toei features released at the time, Sinbad's production values were fairly high and its artwork was lush compared to what other studios were producing. However, its formula feels rather stale and forced compared to Toei's more personal features. It should also be noted that this was the second and last anime film that manga artist Osamu Tezuka worked on with Toei Doga before coming fed up with the lack of his creative control and establishing his own studio, Mushi Production. (Toei Doga later released two other Arabian themed films: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves [1971], a slapstick comedy that owes much of its quirky style to the works of Dr. Seuss, and Sekai Meisaku Douwa: Aladdin to Mahou no Lamp [1982], a subpar feature that, while easily bested by Disney's Aladdin, is a more loyal retelling of the tale.)

FUN FACT: A young Hayao Miyazaki was an animator on the 1971 version of Ali Baba.

Interestingly enough Tezuka's studio, Mushi, released its own adaptation of Arabian Nights in 1969 entitled A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The feature was unlike any of Mushi's former output, which largely consisted of family friendly television anime. A Thousand and One Nights was made strictly for the adult crowd. (In fact, today it is often considered the first animated film to made for mature audiences, beating out Ralph Bakshi's infamous Fritz the Cat by three years.) Tezuka Osamu and the film's director, Eiichi Yamamoto, were getting tired and of being labeled solely as children's entertainers and by the late 1960s manga and anime was beginning to evolve and cater towards older consumers. Thus, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights was created as part of the studio's Animerama series, a trilogy of art house features utilizing a mixture of experimental techniques and more traditional animation (as well as several violent and sexual scenes). All of these films were also far longer than any other animated film previously created.

A Thousand and One Nights itself runs at a whopping two hours and ten minutes. The film fudges together many of the storylines from its source material (such as making Aladdin the same character as Sinbad) and even takes influence from Biblical sources (i.e. The Tower of Babel). In order to appeal to modern audiences, the story was 'updated' by giving it a rock soundtrack and a somewhat psychedelic feel. While A Thousand and One Nights is a very strange film and is quite muddled at times, it was very ambitious for its time and managed to be very successful in its home country. However, Tezuka's hopes to make it an international success were unfounded. Perhaps the film was too strange for foreign audiences or perhaps all of the sexuality was a turn-off for Westerners more accustomed to Disney-style cartoons. Despite this there was an English dub produced for A Thousand and One Nights, which is now seemingly lost. (Although a trailer for it does exist.)

Mushi Pro's adaptation was one of first animated features to be aimed at an adult audience.

Two major anime television series are also based upon One Thousand and One Nights, Arabian Nights: Sinbad's Adventures (Nippon, 1975) and Magi: The Labyrith of Magic (A-1 Pictures, 2012-2014). Sinbad's Adventures's is a children's anime which portrays Sinbad as a young boy longing to travel with his merchant uncle, Ali. When Sinbad and his bird, Yasmina, are separated from Ali after a whale attacks their boat, he sets off to find his uncle and missing parents. Along the way he encounters many of the creatures found in Arab folklore and becomes friends with Ali Baba and Aladdin. Magi: The Adventure of Magic is aimed at a slightly older audience and is based on the manga of the same name. Here, Arabian Nights is remained as a shonen (boy's) series, complete with magical transformations, battling monsters (or in this case, djinns) and stylized fight scenes. The series stars Aladdin and Alibaba as a pair of traveling treasure hunters and magi. Both series were successful, with Sinbad becoming a hit overseas (particularly, surprise, in the Middle East) and Magi receiving an OVA sequel, Magi: Adventure of Sinbad, earlier this year.

Arabian Nights as a shonen series. Hey, it was bound to happen sometime.

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