Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

aka Ma vie de Courgette / My Life as a Zucchini

2018 #3
Claude Barras | 66 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Switzerland / English | PG / PG-13

My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (or, to use the American name for the vegetable, Zucchini) is the story of young lad Icare — who prefers to be called “Courgette”, his mother’s nickname for him — and his life after he is taken into an orphanage. If you’ve heard of it, it’s most likely because it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Oscars.

It’s adapted from the novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, which was apparently a realistic portrayal of the lives of orphans in France. As you can see, the film takes a more cartoonish style, at least on the surface. In fact, the whimsical production design belies the very serious nature of the story — it’s not as monumentally grim as it could be, given the subject matter, but it doesn’t shy away from some very dark areas. It handles these with an understated, calm maturity that is both befitting and refreshing. The animation itself is equally sophisticated, with innumerable little touches that add finesse and richness to the work.

Orphaned

I watched the English dubbed version, because Amazon Prime gave me no choice (the original French version is available on Amazon Video, but for some reason not also included with Prime). Fortunately, despite having a US voice cast, they stuck with “Courgette”, meaning there’s no constant annoyance of the main character being called the wrong thing. (I do wonder, though: did they have to record it all twice, or did the American release rename the film My Life as a Zucchini but then call the kid Courgette anyway?) Fortunately, the dubbing wasn’t at all bad. Of particular note is Nick Offerman, giving a remarkable restrained performance as the gentle and kindly cop Raymond. As for Courgette and his fellow orphans, I don’t know if they cast actual kids or used adult soundalikes, but they also provided uniformly strong voice work.

My Life as a Courgette is one of those “weird foreign animations” that often manages an Oscar nod but doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning thanks to the conservativeness of Oscar voters — there’s no way a mature, restrained animation with a quirky visual style is going to beat the latest shiny-CGI fun-time from Pixar or Disney. For those with broader tastes, however, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

aka The Pirates! Band of Misfits

2018 #8
Peter Lord | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

After a foray into CGI with the decent-but-not-exceptional Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, Aardman took this adaptation of Gideon Defoe’s comedic novels as a chance to return to what they know best: stop-motion animation.

It stars a ragtag band of misfits— ugh, don’t get me started on the title change… but if you did, I might say something like the opening few paragraphs of this review. Anyway, as I was saying, it stars a ragtag crew of pirates, who are led (appropriately enough) by the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). His greatest desire is to win the Pirate of the Year Award, an honour he’s never achieved because, frankly, he’s a bit of a rubbish pirate. When he bumps into Charles Darwin (David Tennant) he stumbles upon a possible route to victory, but first he’ll have to contend with pirate-hating monarch Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton).

Naturally it’s a tale not so much of derring-do as of humorous shenanigans, though in truth it’s not the studio’s most hysterical offering, ticking along with a level of gentle amusement rather than outright hilarity. That said, some parts do spark considerable mirth, like a trained monkey who ‘speaks’ through word cards, and there are background gags aplenty for the keen-eyed viewer. Plus it’s all carried off with the ineffable charm of Aardman’s hand-crafted puppetry, and that goes a long way (at least for this reviewer).

Band of misfits

I’ve always thought the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (especially the first one) more-or-less nailed the tone I would’ve wanted from an adaptation of the beloved Monkey Island games, but I read a commenter somewhere say The Pirates is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a Monkey Island film and, thinking about it, he’s probably right. The Monkey Island games are mostly cartoonish comedies, with a fair dose of irreverence and anachronism, and The Pirates offers up a similar brand of humour. (Maybe this is a niche comparison to make, given the height of Monkey Island’s popularity was over 25 years ago now, but, hey, these things are always ripe for rediscovery).

Despite being the fourth highest-grossing stop-motion film ever made, distributor Sony judged The Pirates to be a flop and the sequel Aardman were planning got canned. That’s a pity, because you feel this motley crew could’ve led us on another amusing adventure or two yet.

4 out of 5

Aardman’s new film, Early Man, is in UK cinemas now.

Anomalisa (2015)

2017 #2
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Anomalisa

Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on), Anomalisa tells the story of Michael (David Thewlis), a depressed customer service expert who perceives everyone else as looking and sounding the same — until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose uniqueness to him immediately attracts Michael.

If you hadn’t noticed, Anomalisa (a portmanteau of “anomaly” and “Lisa”, not “anonymous” and “Lisa” as I’d assumed) is an animated movie. Although an everyday kind of drama that would be largely achievable in live-action, it uses the form to its advantage when depicting the central conceit, giving every character who isn’t Michael and Lisa the same face and having them all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan). For me, this was the most effective part of the movie. It’s a really neat way of executing the concept of not being able to tell people apart. Noonan is the film’s real star, too, voicing “everyone else” in a way that makes them sound plausibly unique but also all the same, a tricky balancing act that he nails.

The one thing that did disappoint me about it was this: the inability to distinguish people is a genuine medical condition, but the film tackles it only as a signifier of Michael’s depression rather than as an issue some people live with. Conversely, I presume that’s a pretty rare condition, whereas depression and isolated feelings are increasingly widespread, so the film perhaps has more to say in that regard. Ultimately, I shouldn’t be criticising a film for not being about something it’s not trying to be about (even when I thought that was what it was going to be about).

Even puppets get the blues

As for the rest of the movie… hm. It takes an age to get going, but once it does there are a few funny scenes (the “toy” shop; the hotel shower; Michael struggling with his room key), and who’d’ve thought a puppet movie would have one of the more realistic sex scenes in the movies? Especially as it pulls that off without becoming laughable thanks to Team America. More pertinently, it gradually unfurls a sometimes touching story about isolation and love. However, by the time it reaches the happy-sad ending (one person’s life seems to have been transformed; the other continues to be miserable), I wasn’t sure what it all signified. Maybe the line that “sometimes the lesson is there is no lesson” is very relevant.

So, some good stuff, but that long slow open takes getting over, and I’m not sure what it all meant.

4 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

2015 #183
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / silent (English) | U / PG

Shaun the Sheep started life in the 1995 Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. Eventually granted his own TV spin-off aimed at little kids, it’s become a global hit thanks to the decision to make it a silent comedy — no need to pay for pesky dubbing into other languages, while its sheer quality (it is Aardman, after all) helps it to transcend national boundaries. This year, Shaun and friends made the leap to the big screen, in what may be the year’s best animated movie.

The film begins with Shaun and the other ovine occupants of Mossy Bottom Farm getting fed up with the daily grind of being sheep, so they concoct a plan to distract sheepdog Bitzer so they can lure the Farmer into a slumber and take over the farmhouse for a well-earned break. Naturally things go awry, and the Farmer ends up whisked off to the Big City. With no one to feed or care for them, Shaun, Bitzer, and the rest hop on a bus and set off to retrieve their friend.

Expanding a series of five-minute-ish shorts to feature length is always a risky proposal, but fortunately we’re in the more than capable hands of Aardman Animation here, and they’ve come up with a plot big enough to fill a feature running time. In a style one might describe as ‘classical’, you can break the film down into individual segments and sequences, each one a crafted vignette of silent slapstick. That doesn’t make the story episodic, but rather serves to keep the humour focused — no gags are overused or outstay their welcome. Indeed, some fly so fast that they’re literally blink-and-you’ll-miss it. I suspect this means Shaun would reward repeat viewings, particularly to spot all the little background details.

It’s also in the details that Shaun proves itself to be a true family film. Like the TV show, it’s sweetly innocent and simple enough for little’uns (that US PG is thanks to a couple of oh-so-rude fart jokes), but there’s a sophistication to the way that simplicity is handled that adults can enjoy. There are also references and in-jokes for the grown-ups; not hidden dirty jokes that’ll put you in the awkward position of having to explain to the kids why you were laughing, but neat puns (note the towns that the Big City is twinned with) and references to other films (like Taxi Driver. Yes, really.)

Naturally, technical aspects are top-notch. Aardman are the kings of claymation, consistently delivering work in which the animation is polished, clever, and surprising, but which also retains the sense that it was achieved by hand (unlike some other films — Corpse Bride, say — which are so slick you begin to wonder if they’re actually CGI). I always marvel at stop-motion anyway — the persistence to animate something a frame at a time, taking days to create one shot and months to create one scene, is a dedication and skill I can barely fathom — but Aardman’s productions routinely push beyond your expectations of the form.

Aardman’s stop-motion silent comedy will certainly lose to Inside Out across the board come awards season (apart from at the BAFTAs, perhaps), but it’s the more inventive, amusing, innovative, accomplished, and impressive achievement. Delightful.

4 out of 5

Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, is on BBC One on Boxing Day at 6:10pm.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

2014 #95
Wes Anderson | 83 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Fantastic Mr. FoxQuirky cult-y director Wes Anderson tries his hand at stop motion animation with this Roald Dahl adaptation, in which an all-star cast voice the tribulations of a gaggle of talking animals — led by the eponymous vulpine — who come into conflict with three vicious farmers.

I’ve never seen a Wes Anderson film before, but his reputation is such that I don’t think you need to have to spot that Mr. Fox has been heavily Anderson-ised. It’s probably for the best I’ve not actually read Dahl for decades, because the purist in me would hate it for that. So it’s Quirky with a capital Q, and yet, miraculously, not irritatingly so — it feels like it should be considered self-consciously Quirky, but somehow isn’t. Instead, it’s almost (almost) charming. Whatever, it works.

Ostensibly a kids’ film, because it’s based on a children’s book and it’s animated, I don’t think it really is a film for kids. Not that it’s unsuitable for them, but only so in the literal sense that it’s an animated movie without extreme violence or swearing. A lot of the humour and the storytelling style, not to mention the slightly-creepy animation, are clearly aimed at a more mature viewer. The aforementioned animation was shot at the half-normal speed of 12 frames per second, to emphasis the nature of stop motion. That’s part of the creepiness, but it’s also the gangly designs, and that the animals look like they’ve been made out of real fur (because they have), which ruffles all of its own accord (accidentally moved by the animators’ hands, of course, but when seen in motion…) Honestly, I think it would give some kids nightmares more than joy.

Fox familyCompositionally, I thought I’d get sick of the squared-off 2D style, but Anderson’s cleverer than that. It might look flat and lacking in dimension at first, but that’s the starting point for variation, including some great bits of depth (farmer Bean trashing a caravan is a particular highlight of this), and when it breaks form (like a rabid dog chase) it’s all the more effective. There’s also a fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat. Not your usual plinky-plonky Quirky Kids’ Movie music (though there are instances of that), but something more raucous. Nice spaghetti Western riffs, too.

The main downside is the ending: it kind of reaches a conclusion, but also kind of just stops. It’s like Anderson doesn’t know how to end it… which, as it turns out, is almost exactly true. The ending isn’t the same as the book, because Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach weren’t happy with it, but they couldn’t think of anything else. The final moments they’ve ended up with are apparently based on alternative material found in Dahl’s original manuscript, making it faithful (in its own way) while also settling the writers’ desire for a new finale. As I said, I’m not convinced.

(While we’re on trivia, residents of or regular visitors to Bath may spot the recognisable red facade of the Little Theatre towards the end. Its appearance is indeed based on the real one, though goodness knows why.)

Fantasticer in the future?Fantastic Mr. Fox is the kind of film I feel I may enjoy more on a re-watch. Indeed, some comments on film social networking sites (e.g. Letterboxd) do suggest that it only improves the more you see it. Having parked any desire for faithfulness to the original at the door, then, I feel there’s a chance the film’s boundless originality and almost-incidental outside-the-norm creativity may potentially render it an all-time favourite. But that’s something future viewings (if or when ever they occur) will have to ascertain.

4 out of 5

The Crab with the Golden Claws (1947)

aka Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or

2015 #1
Claude Misonne | 58 mins | download | 1.37:1 | Belgium / French

Le Crabe aux Pinces d'Or DVDBy 1947, Hergé’s boy reporter/adventurer Tintin had already been around and increasingly popular for nearly two decades; had survived World War 2 and the controversy of being published in a Nazi-controlled newspaper; and the release of his adventures had recently been transferred to a dedicated magazine, Le Journal de Tintin. What better time to bring the character to the big screen?

Adapted from the ninth Tintin adventure, which is the one that introduces popular supporting character/co-lead Captain Haddock, the plot sees Tintin following clues left by a dead seaman to uncover an opium smuggling operation being run on Haddock’s boat without his knowledge. Animated via stop motion using doll-like puppets, the film was only ever screened twice before being seized when its producer declared bankruptcy and fled to Argentina. A print is stored at the Cinémathèque Royale in Belgium, where it seems it used to only be available to paying Tintin club members, but in 2008 it was released on DVD in France. English-friendly versions are available online, not least via YouTube. The picture quality is poor, but, having gone to the trouble of acquiring a higher-res copy, I can say it doesn’t get much better. It is in the wrong aspect ratio, though — approximately 1.69:1. It doesn’t look too distorted, but if you see a 4:3 version it suddenly looks right. (I presume the DVD was incorrect because I had to adjust the copy I downloaded.)

As for the film itself, it’s incredibly faithful to Hergé’s original tale — it may not be adapted frame-for-frame, but it’s incredibly close. A couple of action sequences have gone astray, presumably because that’s harder to achieve with puppets, but it also streamlines the story slightly. I can’t speak for the French dialogue, but the fan-made English subtitles are word-for-word with the book. Of course, that may be where they’re sourced from.

Haddock, Tintin, Snowy, 1947 styleIn my review of the Spielberg film, I remarked I hadn’t read the albums it was adapted from so couldn’t vouch for its fidelity. Watching this, it’s clear that a sizeable chunk of the storyline was actually adapted from The Crab with the Golden Claws, to the point where I was starting to wonder if Moffat & co had taken the entire plot from Crab but subbed in the MacGuffins from Secret of the Unicorn. In the end, about half of this made its way into the 2011 film, including everything aboard the Karaboudjan, the lifeboat and plane sequences, and some of the desert material, too.

In this version, there’s quite a good bit where Tintin and Haddock escape from the Karaboudjan but we don’t see any of it, instead following the traitorous Mr Mate as he discovers all the crewmembers our heroes have tricked and tied up. As with everything else, this is book-faithful, but works even better on screen. Plus, Captain Haddock has a musical number, about his love for “the bottle and the sea”; and later he has another with Tintin, too. The main lyric is, “tra la la la lai doo”.

Technically, it’s not the most sophisticated stop motion you’ll see, but it’s not bad considering its age. The models are of their era too, but pretty good on the whole. The two exceptions are, firstly, the black characters — a weakness of Hergé’s book, they were replaced with white characters in later years, but this is faithful to the original version. The dolls aren’t any better than Hergé’s drawings. Secondly, the facial design of Tintin’s doll Le Crabe aux Pinces d'Or original advertmakes it look as if he’s permanently shocked by everything.

The Crab with the Golden Claws must be the most adapted Tintin adventure now (it was also animated in both the ’50s and ’90s series), which isn’t necessarily warranted: it was a tale compromised by the circumstances surrounding its publication, and apparently is largely a rehash of an earlier story. It’s not without merit, though — all of the good stuff was filched for the Spielberg film, funnily enough. This version isn’t bad, but is really no more than a funny little curio. One for the hardcore fan, be that of Tintin or the history of stop motion animation, or the insatiably curious.

3 out of 5

Frankenweenie (2012)

2014 #91
Tim Burton | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

FrankenweenieInspired by two of Burton’s early-’80s shorts (which are most commonly found on Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs), Frankenweenie takes the black-and-white stop-motion visual style from Vincent and the storyline from the live-action Frankenweenie, and expands them out into a feature-length offering.

The story is as simple as one you’d expect from a short: young Victor Frankenstein’s dog dies; for a school science project, he resurrects him. It works surprisingly well stretched to a feature running time, although it goes a little haywire at the climax (what’s the point of all the monsters, really?)

Even if the narrative is no great shakes, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way. The dog, Sparky (ho ho), is very well observed; indeed, all of the animation is naturally top-notch. It retains an indefinable but desirable stop-motion-ness, something I felt Burton’s previous animation, Corpse Bride, lacked — it was so smooth that while watching I began to wonder if I’d misremembered and it was actually CGI. Frankenweenie is attractively shot on the whole, with gorgeous lighting and classy black-and-white designs. Although US funded, I believe it was actually created in the UK, so hurrah us.

There’s lots of fun references for classic horror aficionados… though, actually, they’re not that obscure: they’ll fly past inexperienced youngsters, but be identifiable to anyone who has a passing familiarity with Universal’s classic horror output. For the kiddies, there’s some good moral messages tossed in the mix, though the best — a brief subplot lambasting America’s attitude to science — should be heeded by all.

Boy's best friendSome say it doesn’t have enough of an edge. Well, maybe; but I thought it was surprisingly dark in places. Not so considering it’s a Tim Burton film based on resurrecting the dead, but for a Disney-branded animation, yes. Those edgier bits are here and there rather than consistent, but still, I’m not sure what those critics were expecting from a PG-rated Disney animation. I guess there’s an argument that Burton should have pushed it further and aimed for an adult audience, but can you imagine an American studio agreeing to finance an animation primarily targeted at anyone who’s entered their teens? Because I can’t.

Even if you have to make some allowances for the kid-friendly necessity of Disney animation, I think Burton and co have taken an idea which showed little promise to sustain a full-length feature, and produced a film that’s beautifully made and a lot of fun.

4 out of 5

The Wraith of Cobble Hill (2005)

2009 #4a
Adam Parrish King | 15 mins | DVD

Animation isn’t a genre, it’s a medium, as Brad Bird would be so keen to tell you. As such, there’s no reason that any story shouldn’t be told in animated form… but sometimes, you have to wonder if it’s the best choice for the job.

The Wraith of Cobble HillThe Wraith of Cobble Hill is a perfect example for this debate as its modern, urban story seems to clash with the cartoonish style employed to bring it to the screen. There are no flights of fantasy, few implausible shots, nothing that couldn’t be achieved in live action even on a low budget. Ultimately the only reason for it being animated is, why shouldn’t it be? Personally, I’m not convinced it works; at the very least, it distracted me enough to consider it.

Otherwise, the story is a bit slow paced and perhaps uncertain of what it wants to say. By the end, ignoring the question of if the right form was chosen, I was unsure what it did say — what had actually happened, what had changed. Without giving away the ending, obviously rather a lot changes for one peripheral character, but for the central character it seems to have minimal impact. Well, he acquires a dog…

In short (sorry), The Wraith of Cobble Hill is nicely animated, though you might wonder why. More importantly, you might wonder what it was trying to say.

2 out of 5

This short is available on the Cinema16: American Short Films DVD.