Sunday, November 16, 2014

Big Hero 6 (Review)

Director(s): Don Hall & Chris Williams

Company: Disney

Year: 2014

Country: USA

We introduce to you, the most huggable robot ever!

Normally, this blog does not cover Disney films due to its primary focus being on obscure and foreign titles, but I decided to make an exception for Big Hero 6. It's not because the film is outside of Disney's comfort zone or that it offers anything out of the ordinary. It's simply a really fun and entertaining superhero flick with a lot of heart. Big Hero 6 is based upon the Marvel series of the same name, but it has far more in common with a typical Disney production than it does with the comics it is based upon.

In some ways, however, this seems to have worked in the film's favor. The comic's narrative has been streamlined to allow it to work within a 105 minute run time and much more emphasis is put on the relationship between the protagonist, Hiro Hamada, and his late bother's robot, Baymax. (There has been some debate over the film's whitewashing of two of its cast members, although Big Hero 6 remains a multi-ethnic team. It is also important to note that the comic is not without fault: having plenty of cultural stereotypes and sexualized depictions of its female characters. Both of which the film thankfully avoids.)

The Disney film is vastly different from the comic version (and that's not necessarily a bad thing). 

The movie's plot is nothing new, but it is enjoyable. Big Hero 6 is set in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, a fusion of modern-day Tokyo and San Francisco. 14 year old wiz-kid, Hiro Hamada, and his older brother, Tadashi, live at a coffee shop with their eccentric Aunt Cass. Tadashi urges Hiro to attend college. However, Hiro is more interested in participating in illegal bot fights than going to a 'nerd school' that will teach him things that he apparently already knows. All of this changes once Tadashi shows Hiro his university's lab. At the lab Hiro meets his brother's friends: GoGo Tomago, a no-nonsense, adrenaline-driven, developer of electromagnetics; Fred, the school mascot and resident comic-book expert/hippie otaku; Honey Lemon, a quirky chemistry expert; and Wasabi a heavily-built, slightly neurotic lasers expert.

Hiro is also impressed by the esteemed Professor Callaghan, and Tadahsi's invention, the robotic nurse, Baymax. Hiro manages to get accepted into the college after winning a robotics competition with his microbots, but his victory is tragically interrupted when a fire occurs at the university hall. Tadashi rushes in to save Callaghan, and is killed when the building explodes. Hiro withdraws from college and his friends, until one day he accidentally reactivates Baymax. Hiro and Baymax eventually discover that a mysterious masked man has stolen Hiro's microbots …which were supposed to have perished in the fire. Hiro is joined by his concerned friends. He then proceeds to upgrade Baymax and provides his newly formed team super-suits. But will apprehending the man in the mask really make Hiro feel better? Just who is the masked man anyway? And what would have Tadashi wanted?

Our protagonist 'nerds' before and after suiting up.

As mentioned before, the film's focus wisely sticks to the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. At the start of the film, Baymax is very naive about the world around him and tends to take things quite literally (which is frequently a source of the film's humor outside of Fred's geeky antics). For instance when Baymax accidentally scares Hiro, Hiro yells "You nearly gave me a heart attack!" Baymax then prepares his built-in defibrillators. Over the course of the movie, Baymax matures and begins to question Hiro about his quest for vengeance. The two form a relationship similar to the one Hiro had with his brother and Baymax frequently acts as Hiro's moral compass.

The supporting team characters do feel a bit shorthanded at times. It is refreshing to see that neither GoGo or Honey are pushed as Hiro's romantic interests, however. Fred actually seems to get the most screen time outside of Hiro and Baymax. This is probably to keep Big Hero 6's tone upbeat and detract from some of the heavier topics the story deals with. (Death and dealing with feelings of revenge are surprisingly common topic in family films. However, they are often presented in a way that kids can more easily swallow or are de-emphasized to avoid upsetting certain parents.) Fred even gets a bumper at the end of the film which heavily implies the possibility of a sequel.

This film is one of the most visually interesting movies Disney has put out in recent years. It definitely looks like a Disney film. However, it is also a love letter to super hero comics and Japanese culture. In many ways, it is similar to Wreck it Ralph. Just as Wreck it Ralph is a tribute to retro video games and arcades, Big Hero 6 is a homage to mecha and super sentai shows. The scenery of this film is quite gorgeous, with its mash up of San Franciscan details (such as trollies and the Painted Ladies) and a futuristic, fantasized Japan. The animation in the film features some of the slickest looking CGI animation to come out of Disney yet. The character designs, outside of Baymax, are familiar and derivative of earlier Disney films. (Let the comparisons of Honey Lemon to Rapunzel commence!) However, the costumes they wear have far more in common with anime from the 1970s-80s.

San Fransokyo. Just attempt to say it fast five times.

I'm pretty sure most of the animators on this film got at least some visual inspiration from the likes of this.

Overall, Big Hero 6 is a solid, if slightly generic, family film. It is a bit derivative of films like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and How to Train Your Dragon. And its story is instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with superhero franchises. So is Big Hero 6 a complex, life-changing movie? No. Is it fun? Hell yeah. Even if certain aspects of the film seem a bit too familiar at times, Big Hero 6 is well-paced and so lovingly put together that its impossible not to smile while watching it. Still, one hardly needs to promote this movie. It's Disney after all. (The Youtube trailer already somehow has over 7 million views somehow!) Now if only more people would be willing watch the likes of Princess Kaguya and The Song of the Sea. Oh well, at least they aren't spending their money on the likes of  "Ice Age meets Alvin and the Chipmunks 5" this year.

It wouldn't be a tribute to super sentai shows without a cool Japanese poster.

Rating: 4/5

About the Short: Feast (director: Patrick Osborne) is a lot like Disney's 2012 short, Paperman. It blends the aesthetic look of hand-drawn animation with CGI. Feast is about the life of a Boston Terrier, Winston, who sees his life through the meals he shares with his master. Winston's way of life is later disrupted by his owner's love interest, a waitress with a knack for healthy cooking. It's a simple story, but like the feature it is attached to, Feast is well executed (and absolutely adorable).

Moral: Boston Terriers are the cutest things in existence. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Final Part

The Confusing Conclusion (Final Thoughts)

Is this show's idea of 'the circle of life' too hardcore?

There is a lot death and self-sacrifice in this version of Kimba. In a sense, it explores the concept of 'the circle of life' in more depth than most versions. But it eventually becomes bogged down by being overly serious and depressing. So who is to blame about the series's inconsistent quality? Osamu Tezuka possibly did contribute to a few of the problems (The original manga is somewhat sporadic and had a few bizarre plot twists), but he can't really be blamed considering that he died after the sixth episode aired. It is possible that he had some say on the direction of the later episodes, but chances are we will never know.

Rintaro was in charge of directing the remaining episodes. It's just strange that the quality of Jungle Emperor suddenly declines half way through, when Rintaro's earlier episodes seem consistent with Tezuka's vision. In fact, Rintaro had worked for years with Tezuka before directing the show and was personal friends with Tezuka. Perhaps Rintaro attempted to make the show distinctive or else 'update it' for modern audiences. (But, apparently he forgot that this the show is supposed to be Kimba the White Lion not Ginga Nagareboshi Gin!)

So is this a series that should be recommended to Kimba/Tezuka fans or even anime fans as a whole? Simply put, the show runs for too long and eventually loses steam. It tries to keep its audience emotionally engaged by raising the stakes of danger. But, over time, it just becomes taxing to watch so many animals get shot, poisoned or electrocuted. It's frustrating because Jungle Emperor 1989 has such a prestige behind it and the early episodes (especially the first six) are great. The series is not the most terrible remake ever created, but it does become terribly misguided over time. If you want to watch a modern recreation of Jungle Emperor Leo, I would recommend watching the theatrical 1997 film instead of watching this show all the way through.

"Remember Leo, a leader is neither a boss or a king."

Final Rating: 3/5

About the Dub:
Part of the reason why this show remains so obscure outside of Japan is due to its dubber's infamous hack job. Unlike the dub of the original show (which is a bit hokey but decent by '60s standards), the 1989 series's dub by Pioneer completely changes its narrative flow. Episodes two and three were completely omitted, and only episodes one through fifteen were released on tape. Pioneer apparently tired to edit 'The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion' into something more upbeat, and just gave up after they realized the show would continue to get darker. In the process they rid the show of its charm, only to replace with it bad jokes or annoying dialogue. (In other words, the characters never shut up.) And the voice acting itself is just as awful, if not worse than the edits.

Thankfully, these terrible VHSs are long out print. Avoid them like the plague.

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 3

 The Bad & the Confusing

The Pessimistic Second Half of the Series

Unfortunately for all of the praise I give this show, it is far from being perfect. From about episode 35 onwards, the series becomes obsessed with being as dark and edgy as possible which undermines much of its core meanings and values. Threats begin to show up more and more frequently and death becomes common place. This wouldn't be too big of an issue if Jungle Emperor 1989 balanced out some of its darker elements with more comic relief or signs of progression/hope, but the later episodes rarely do so. (This is something that almost all of Tezuka's manga always managed to do, despite that he had a fondness for semi-tragic and bittersweet endings.)

Jungle Emperor Leo is supposed to represent the complex relationship between humans and animals and how they must put aside their differences in order to understand each other. This is the 1989 version's main flaw. The early episodes do a decent job showing that 'not all humans are bad' and a certain number of them even featured the protagonists being saved by humans that they saw as potentially threatening. But then the humans start to become villainized a bit too much. For instance, in Episode 40, Leona's hunters return to the jungle to search for precious metals in Marody's mountain. This sets the series's final arc into motion, in which the animals proceed to battle the invaders, many of them fighting to the death...Episode 48 is not much better. Leo is tranquilized and is nearly captured by hunters, after wandering around for hours on end in a confused daze. (This could be used as a minor plot element, but stretching it out for a whole episode seems a bit excessive.)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 2

What's Good About It?

A poster depicting much of the series's cast.

The First Half of the Series

This series is very difficult to properly rate due to its varying degree of quality. Despite Jungle Emperor 1989's reputation, it is initially quite enjoyable. Indeed, the first six episodes are very accessible to Tezuka fans and classic anime fans (which makes sense as they were actually the last productions to be overseen by Osamu Tezuka before he passed away at age sixty on February 9, 1989). These early episodes are very concise, closely following the manga's narrative. The next 30 or so episodes are also quite good even if they are a bit less cheery. The series deals with many dense subtexts despite its deceptively cute looking exterior.

As Leo attempts to succeed his father, he is confronted with many challenges. Not all of the animals believe that he has the capacity to rule as his father did, and they often argue amongst themselves. Panja's (Leo's father's) jungle is a refuge for disenfranchised animals who have been been driven out of their homelands due to famine, feuds or human activities. The law of Panja's jungle decrees that no animal can kill or harm one another, so Leo must remain vigilant of law breakers. While humans are a concern, they only appear occasionally. The series's primary antagonist is Bubu (Claw), a scheming, dark-maned lion who holds a grudge against Panja after losing one of his eyes in battle.

Don't let his ridiculous sounding name fool you. In this version, Bubu means serious business. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 1

Director(s): Rintaro, Osamu Tezuka (original concept, oversaw direction of first six episodes)

Company: Tezuka Productions

Year: 1989-1990

Country: Japan

Although it may look cute, this is one of the most polarizing remakes in cartoon history.

The Controversy about the Series*

In the past couple of years, Hollywood has gotten a lot of flack for its recent fixation with creating 'grittier' and 'more realistic' revisions of popular franchises ranging from the likes of the misguided Man of Steel to this year's summer blockbuster, Godzilla. Of course this is nothing new, back in the 1960s-70s the James Bond and Planet of the Apes film franchises were exceptionally popular and continue to be made today, and other countries spout out remakes frequently as well. The problem with many these reboots/remakes is that tend to focus too much on superficial aesthetics and end up ignoring the core values of the original property that they were supposed to represent.

Many have claimed this is the case with the 1989 version of Jungle Emperor Leo (aka The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion). The series has been accused of lacking the charm of the original 1960s show, and being devoid of any value beyond its much improved animation. It is often written off as a footnote in animation history compared to the '80s remake of Osamu Tezuka's other famous series, Astro Boy; and information about the series in English is surprisingly scarce (more on part of the reason as to why later). Yet, the remake has also been defended by members of its small community of fans. They claim that the series is a misjudged re-imagining that explores many dense topics that were skimmed over in the '60s version. The 1989 version of Kimba must have also been met with some success in its home country because it did receive several tie-ins and merchandise during its run in Japan (including a canceled video game).  

This is the one thing fandoms can agree on apparently.

Like the original 1965 TV series, the basic plot follows the exploits of Leo (Kimba) a young, white lion cub raised by humans who eventually returns to his homeland in order to follow his father's footsteps as ruler of the jungle. (Leo is an orphan. His father was shot by a hunter before he was born and his mother perished in a shipwreck after being captured by humans.) Both series also choose to focus on Leo's youth (with the later focusing on a 'teenage' Leo) rather than portraying him growing into an adult lion, as he does in the manga. Unlike the first series, the 80's show draws more influence from some of the manga's darker themes which were absent in the '60s show in order to appease the network standards. (This is even more apparent in the English dub). For this reason, the mood of Jungle Emperor 1989 bears more resemblance to the series, Onward Leo! (Onward Leo! was produced by Tezuka without his American partner NBC. It is a sequel to Kimba the White Lion, focusing on the titular lion's adulthood.)

Shift in tone aside, the other most obvious difference between the two TV series has to due with budget. The 1965 version looks very dated by today's standards and its animation is very limited/static, which makes sense given that it was the first color anime to be ever produced for TV. Kimba the White Lion's art style is very 'cartoony' compared to its newer incarnation. The remake's animation, on the other hand while somewhat dated, holds up quite well as its art style is more 'realistic' and modern looking.

For comparison's sake, here is the first episode of the 1965 show (of the English dub; sorry purists!).

…and the 1989 version (in Japanese).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) Review

Director: Ladislas & Irene Starevich

Company: UFA

Year: 1937

Country: France, Germany

Obscure but historically important, this movie is like no other.

Although Disney's Snow White is often misidentified as the first full length animated film, there were actually eight other movies released before it. The Tale of the Fox was the sixth animated feature to be released. It was also the second to utilize stop-motion after the 1935 Soviet film, The New Gulliver. (Le Roman de Renard's animation was actually completed by 1930.) and the third to utilize sound. (However, the film did obtain a soundtrack until several years later due to funding issues.) The film was originally released in German (as funding was given by the National Socialist Regime) and later in French in 1941, which is the version currently available for home viewing. The movie is rather obscure outside of France today, likely because distribution was cut off due to WWII. This is truly a shame as director Ladislas Starevich was a true pioneer in his field, and Le Roman de Renard was his only full length feature.

Le Roman de Renard is based upon the medieval beast fable, Reynard the Fox. The story has been adapted into animated form several times. It was written as a political satire of aristocratic society which made the Reynard character popular among European peasants. Unlike many other 'modern' adaptations of the tale, Le Roman de Reynard remains very loyal to the original story and is aimed more at older audiences then at young children.

The original theatrical poster for the film.

The film begins with a narrator monkey operating a film camera. He tells the audience that he has a tale to share with them that is "the oldest and most beautiful story known to us animals." He opens a book introducing some of the film's main characters: the vain Monsieur Raven, Sir Cock and his wife Lady Hen, the fearful Hare, the king's guard dogs, Isengrim the Wolf, and finally Reynard himself. Reynard is very smart. Within the first five minutes of the film, he manages to steal a piece of cheese from Raven by flattering him. Isengrim is introduced as Reynard's rival. The wolf is larger and stronger than the fox, but not nearly as bright. One night, Isengrim plans to steal some fish off of Reynard for his family's dinner. Reynard then tricks the wolf into 'fishing' by claiming that by sticking his tail into a hole in the ice he can catch a large amount of fish to eat. In the end, Isengrim returns home with no dinner (and no tail) only to discover Reynard has stolen his food instead! (It should be noted that both of these episodes are also featured in Aesop's Fables.)

Reynard's pranks on Raven, Isengrim and several other animals eventually result in several complaints to the King Lion and his wife. Reynard's cousin, Badger, defends him in court, stating that the fox is not guilty. He weaves tales of Reynard's 'good deeds' and frames Isengrim and the other animals as being lazy, dishonest, cowardly or greedy (which aside from the 'good deeds' part is, ironically, true to some extent). The King is unable to prove Reynard's crimes, so he decrees that no animal can no longer eat one another so that 'love can reign the land.'

The movie is unusual because its protagonist is not the kind of ideal hero that we are commonly accustomed to seeing in animated films. As with many of the other characters in this film, Reynard is a self-centered survivalist. Not all of Reynard's actions are entirely harmless. The fox is far from being enthusiastic about the King's new law. (In fact, he refuses to go vegetarian despite the risk of being hung because he finds the taste of flowers disgusting.) Badger is unable to defend his cousin when Reynard kills and eats Lady Hen. The rooster calls for revenge and the king sends several of his members of court to capture Reynard and his family. In the end, however, the cunning fox manages to outwit everyone including the King himself. Because the King's army is unable to successfully siege Reynard's home, the fox is selected as the king's new minister. Such is politics.

While it's easy to admire Reynard's quick wits, he's also somewhat of a selfish jerk.

Narrative structure aside, The Tale of the Fox is probably most noted for being a technical marvel. Despite that the movie is almost eighty years old the stop-motion holds up remarkably well, even rivaling what is put out by today's studios. This is especially notable because Le Roman de Renard premiered only three years after King Kong, which special effects look very dated by comparison. The film features many cutting techniques and a use of motion blur largely unseen at the time. Below, is a clip from the film involving the Queen being wooed by Tybalt, the minstrel cat. (Their doomed relationship is an interesting subplot present throughout most of the movie.) It demonstrates this movie's mastery of its medium.

The iconic scene where the peasant cat woes the queen.

This movie is one of the most unique and unusual films I have ever seen. It is an absolute must watch for not only lovers of animation, but for any film enthusiast period. Reynard and the other animals in this movie are not always the most admirable characters, but they are relatable due to their remarkably human flaws and impulses. Although this film is old and is different from much of what is produced today, it is very memorable for exactly that reason. If you are feeling adventurous, Le Roman de Reynard is more than worth your time. (The entire film is currently available on Youtube with English subtitles and can be watched here.)

Ladilas and his wife, Irene, posing with large scale versions of the puppets used in this film.

Rating: 4.5

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drop Dead Fred (Review)

Director: Ate de Jong

Company: Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Working Title Films, New Line Cinema

Year: 1991

Country: United States, United Kingdom

Today, I review another cult film…uh-oh.

If Drop Dead Fred succeeds at anything exceptionally well, it's being exceptionally annoying. Despite having garnered a small fan base over the years due to how bizarre and irreverent it is, this film is a chore to watch due to its unlikable characters and scattered plot. Drop Dead Fred was met with mixed to negative reviews upon its release. The movie earned back only $14 million at box office. Its current critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes is at an 'impressive' nine percent. And Gene Siskel stated that it was, "Easily one of the worst films I've ever seen," and was, "made in shockingly bad taste." So with that stated, let's take a dive into this slapstick nightmare.

The film begins with a young girl, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Cronin, being read a fairytale by her mother, Polly, while in bed. When Polly tells her daughter that the story ended happily ever after with the girl marrying the prince, Elizabeth enquires, "How do you know?" Polly says it was because the girl was well behaved, which causes Elizabeth to state, "What a pile of shit!" Charming. I'm sure this movie's opening lines went over well with all the parents and children in the crowd.

After some opening credits, the movie abruptly cuts to 21 years later.  Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates of Gremlins fame) has grown up to be an unhappy adult. She is unsatisfied with her current state in life and strained relationship with her domineering mother. Lizzie has also recently divorced her husband, Charles, who is in love with another woman named Annabella. Shortly after trying to talk with Charles, Lizzie's wallet and car are stolen. On top of it all, Lizzie arrives late for work and loses her job, which causes her to be chewed out by Polly again. Back at her childhood home, Lizzie becomes desperate. She decides to seek help from her childhood imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred, as a last ditch effort.

Because everyone knows that struggling with depression and having a mental illness is hilarious. 

The titular character reappears when Elizabeth foolishly decides to release him from the jack-in-the-box her mother sealed him away in many years ago. After opening this Pandora's box, Fred proceeds to wreck havoc and crack unfunny jokes. He is an obnoxious hybrid of Beatle Juice/Peewee Herman portrayed by the late British actor, Rik Mayall. However, Lizzie tolerates Fred's potty humor, immature antics, and lewd behavior because he gives her a release from her oppressive mother. Frankly, I'm not seeing how this movie is supposed be funny yet. It's just making me feel kind of sad.

Thanks movie, I don't think I'll be able to sleep for a week now.

Soon after, Fred decides to start accompanying Elizabeth so that they can pull pranks on unaware bystanders and people they dislike, just like old times. The only catch is nobody can see Drop Dead Fred except for Elizabeth. Polly becomes concerned with her daughter's increasingly strange behavior (which includes talking incoherently, sinking her friend's house boat, and pouring wine on herself) and takes her to see a psychiatrist. Lizzie is given a pill prescription to rid herself of thoughts about Fred. But, of course, this doesn't work. As Fred becomes increasingly more crazy and out of control, Lizzie finds him harder and harder to deal with. Too make matters worse, Fred's behavior has began to sabotage the relationship Lizzie is trying to rebuild with Charles.

While Drop Dead Fred desperately tries to be funny and unconventional, the 'humor' in this film either falls flat or, more often than not, either annoys or offends the audience. Without the right balance of lightheartedness and genuinity, a comedy movie about a depressed protagonist is simply not funny. It's mean spirited...That is unless you actually happen to find jokes such as picking boogers, throwing poop at people, and staring up women's skirts funny.

And to think this film is sometimes marketed as a 'family movie.'

The characters are also woefully lacking in development. Polly is either too over the top to be a believable personality or else she is underplayed. Her actions sometimes don't even seem that mean or spiteful. Sure, Polly acts over protectively, but the way Lizzie responds to her mother's concern often just makes her end up looking really immature. (And, yes, I am aware that is probably part of the movie's intent. However, the audience is supposed to sympathize the most with Lizzie.) Phoebe Cates does an ok job considering what she's been given to work with, but Elizabeth spends most of her time moping (which makes the audience feel uncomfortable) or else awkwardly interacting Fred (which also makes the audience squirm in discomfort). As for Drop Dead Fred himself, well…this article has already talked enough about what's wrong with him.

The relationship between Elizabeth and her mother feels flat despite its large role in the story.

Watching his movie was one of the most miserable experiences I've had in a while. Drop Dead Fred is an uneven sloppy mess of a film. The fact that the titular character is introduced as both the film's center of conflict and as Lizzie's savior is an ill advised plot twist. This may have worked in the hands of a more skilled director, but considering Ate de Jong's track record their was no chance of that. Drop Dead Fred is a film at war with itself. It can't decide wether it wants to appeal to children or adults. In the end, it hardly appeals to anyone.

Sometimes it just sucks to be you.

Rating: 1.5