Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 4 of 5

When you mention feature-length animated films, most people immediately start talking about Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or Japanese animation. But many other countries have their own animation industries: France, Russia, and Canada, for example. And many others are trying to get into the game both domestically and world-wide. After years of domestic box-office failure, three-years ago South Korea released their most successful animated feature: Leafie, A Hen into the Wild. Based on a children's book, Leafie recouped it's production costs domestically within one month! But where do we see these films legally here in North America (read that: without bittorrenting bootleg copies on the internet)?

Now seems like a good time to talk about the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema. Located in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, the Waterloo Festival is the only animation festival in the world that showcases animated feature-length films exclusively. Every year, theatre owner and festival curator Joe Chen scours the world animation scene for the best features available including many that become North American premieres--like Redline or the Evangelion relaunch films. Joe also enhances the experience with guest lecturers and panel discussions that detail the history of specific animation topics: like the history of animation during the Soviet Union or the works of Mamoro Oshii. After discovering WFAC a few years back, the Waterloo Festival has become a yearly trip for me every November and the last animation festival I visit for the year. I'm continually thankful that the animation community has people like Joe who is willing not just to do the hard work in bringing in films from around the world (and deal with the headaches involved in doing so) but that his festival is within a four hour drive of Michigan. It's one more reason to stay in the Great Lakes region.

Now, in the words of the late Casey Kasem: on to the countdown.

16. Redline
Whenever anyone asks me 'what is anime' this is my go-to film. Completely hand-drawn in a time where most production is going digital (although they used computers for compositing and many of the special effects), Redline covers almost every trope that you're going to see in anime: aliens, magical girls, giant robots, buxom heroines, kaiju, and action that is out of this world. Redline is the story of "Sweet JP", a race car driver trying to find redemption, love, and victory in the universe's top racing circuit: the Redline! I made a seven hour round trip to the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema just to see this movie and it was worth every minute of the drive (and every dollar spent on gas).

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



17. Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury
In Rio 2096, Brazil's Lightstar Studios tackled the difficult subject of their country's history from Portuguese imperialism all the way to a possible future where the Amazon rainforest has been decimated and water is the most precious commodity of all. This film follows the story of an immortal native Brazilian warrior as he searches for his lost love throughout the ages. Submitted for an Academy Award, it was an utter travesty that Rio 2096 didn't get nominated. If it had, I would've been rooting for Lightstar Studios to win the award instead of Ernest & Celestine.

Availability: Not available in the States, but hopefully this will change soon.



18. Sita Sings the Blues
What do you do when you're an animator and your husband moves to India for a job and divorces you by e-mail? If you're animator Nina Paley, you make a feature-length animated film almost single-handedly! Borne out of the painful situation she found herself in, Nina found a parallel story in the ancient Indian text 'the Ramayana', only it was the story of Rama's jilted wife Sita. Thus, an independent animated feature was created and was animated almost entirely by Nina herself. After battling copyright issues on some songs used in the film that may or may not have been public domain, Nina took the step of releasing her film for free under the Creative Copyright banner and then became a proponent of the free content movement. So. If you want to see Sita Sings the Blues, you can watch it for free online.

Availability: Available in the States online. Click here to watch the 1080p version on YouTube.



19. Spirited Away
I've seen most of the animated features that Hayao Miyazaki directed at Studio Ghibli, and Spirited Away is easily the best film that he's created to date. Spirited Away follows the story of a little girl who finds herself in a bathhouse for the spirits--and at the whims of it's denizens as she tries to save the lives of her parents. This film is a visual feast filled with enough visual subtext to make Guillermo del Toro jealous. Throughout the film, we watch the heroine, Chihiro, grow from a whiny, selfish little girl into maturity as she faces one challenge after another in the spirit realm. But much of this internal character growth is shown visually (and very subtly) through camera angles, color palettes, forced perspective, and evolving body language. While more than one Miyazaki film has suffered from one-dimensional characters and deus ex machina events to resolve plot holes (see Howl's Moving Castle or Ponyo), Spirited Away suffers from none of those flaws and works on almost every level. If you only ever watch one Miyazaki film, make sure it's this one.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



20. the Secret of Kells (Brendan and the Secret of Kells)
Secret of Kells tells the story of a young monk and Ireland's greatest national treasure--a lavishly illustrated copy of the four gospels. Throughout the story, Brendan is torn between helping his uncle prepare their monastery for an invasion by the Vikings and helping an old monk finish illustrating the Book of Kells. Drawing parallels with the illuminated text, the visual style looks like a stained-glass window come to life with flowing animation that is reminiscent of UPN or many of Chuck Jones' more avant-garde shorts. A co-production between Belgium, France, and Ireland, Secret of Kells won multiple awards during it's festival run and even saw a limited theatre run here in the United States.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



Honorable Mention: Animal Farm
You can't have a countdown of the top twenty-five animated films without touching upon the works of John Halas and Joy Batchelor: the husband and wife team who created Great Britain's largest animation studio--and Great Britain's first theatrically released feature-length animated film. Halas and Batchelor had created an earlier feature-length animated film, however it was a training film for the Royal Navy. Incidentally, Animal Farm was also paid for by the Central Intelligence Agency which reportedly influenced the translation of George Orwell's story from book to film as part of the propaganda initiative during the Cold War.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



We're almost there. In two weeks, numbers twenty through twenty-five of the animated feature films everyone should watch at least once! And as an added bonus, you'll find out what movie inspired me to become an animator.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Animated Thoughts: The Top 25 Animated Features, pt. 3 of 5

Feature-length animated films are becoming more and more prevalent as the cost of the tools and equipment needed to produce them come down in price and increase in availability. One of the most exciting things to see in the past fifteen to twenty years is the increasing number of independent animators who are making their own animated features outside of the mainline established studio system. The 'godfather of American independent animation', Bill Plympton, hand-draws an animated feature every couple of years (his sixth feature Cheatin' is currently making the rounds in the festival circuit). Independent animator Signe Baumane just released her first animated feature this year, titled Rocks In My Pockets. In 2008, Nina Paley animated her first feature: Sita Sings the Blues. Director/Animator M dot Strange has three features to his credit: We Are the Strange, Heart String Marionette, and I Am Nightmare. Don Hertzfeldt released Everything Will Be OK back in 2007. And after being out of the game for years, Ralph Bakshi is currently working on his latest animated feature The Last Days of Coney Island. And this is just a small snapshot of the American animation scene. The beauty here is that increased access to affordable technology is enabling independent animators to tell the stories that they want to tell without outside interference from studio management. To be sure, the financial rewards and audience exposure are probably far less that what they could have had if they were backed by a large production or distribution company, but I'm sure that all of the aforementioned filmmakers would agree that it is a price they willingly pay for complete artistic and creative freedom. My meandering point is that there has never been a better time in the history of filmmaking for independent animators to toss their hats in to the ring and tell the stories that they want to tell.

But enough of my rambling, on to the countdown!

11. King Kong (1933)
While technically not an animated film, respect still needs to be paid to Willis O'Brian for his brilliant use of stop motion animation. Released in 1933, King Kong is the story of a giant gorilla who is captured and brought back to America for display to the masses. Pretty straightforward. Over the years, King Kong has spawned it's imitators (Mighty Joe Young), been integrated into Japanese Kaiju films (King Kong verses Godzilla & King Kong Escapes), been updated for modern audiences (1976's King Kong and Peter Jackson's King Kong in 2005) and even spawned sequels (Son of Kong & King Kong Lives) and two cartoon series (The King Kong Show & Kong: The Animated Series). The legal wranglings over who owns King Kong and what is and isn't in public domain is enough to make your head swim. Fortunately, you can forgo all the controversy and simply enjoy the original 1933 film.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



12. Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda is fun on so many levels with a heartwarming message at it's core. In today's day and age, how many times do you actually get to see an animated film where the father-figure is not only physically there for his family but is: a) not played as an utter buffoon, and b) actively involved in being the father who guides his son into manhood (and in the case of Kung Fu Panda, he's even the father that he didn't have to be)? Finding Nemo? Maaaaybe the Incredibles? Well in KFP, even though Po's father (Mr. Ping) is a minor character, James Hong does a masterful job voicing this restaurateur who loves his adoptive son whether he succeeds or fails to attain his dreams. Easily one of the best films that Dreamworks Animation has produced. In my mind, Kung Fu Panda is less a story about the lovable misfit trying to live out his dreams and more about a father (and a mentor) guiding a boy into manhood with all it's responsibilities and consequences.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



13. The Little Mermaid
If you say that Disney (and Jeffrey Katzenberg) singlehandedly launched the second golden age of animation with this film, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who could provide evidence to contradict that statement. Applying a 'Rodgers and Hammerstein' formula to the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Little Mermaid breathed new life into the Disney Animation Studio during a period of time where WDAS had been on the decline ever since the death of Walt Disney (and was suffering through the steady stream of retirements by Walt's Nine Old Men who were taking their decades of experience with them). A fun, heartwarming film with songs that stuck in your head, The Little Mermaid was just what Disney needed exactly when it was needed (and by extension, what the American animation scene needed).



As a side-note: the answer is "no". Despite what the conspiracy theorists want you to believe, during the wedding scene, the old priest is not 'becoming aroused'. I met Tom Sito at the Ottawa International Animation Festival last year and he confirmed during his lecture that not only was he the person who animated that particular scene, he stated unequivocally that the priest was shifting his weight from one foot to the other. So that bulge under his robe was indeed his knee.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Look for the "Platinum Edition" if you want to see the short: the Little Matchgirl. Video-to-go has a copy.

14. Millennium Actress
Millennium Actress is the story of a reclusive former film star told almost entirely in flashbacks during an interview with a documentary filmmaker. At this point in her life, the abrupt end of her career is long past and she spends the interview reflecting upon her personal and professional history. I would love to say more about the story and the characters, however, it's difficult to describe this film without spoiling some of the important elements that drive this film. Directed by the late, great Satoshi Kon, this film contains some of the most masterful uses of transitions I have ever witnessed as the actress's present life and past memories blend seamlessly from scene to scene. There is little doubt in my mind that had Kon's life not tragically ended back in 2010 at the age of 46, his past and future films would have been placed at the same level of respect as Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



15. Patlabor, the movie
The first Mobile Police Patlabor movie is a detective story, plain and simple. While Patlabor was originally a seven episode OVA, and this movie is set shortly after the end of that series, you don't need to have watched the OVA in order to enjoy this film--or the 63 episode television series apparently set in an alternate timeline. Throughout the film, Kazunori Itō and Mamoru Oshii never let the story get sidetracked or overshadowed by the fact that the main conflict has giant robots, called "Labors", at its center. This is a movie that puts the characters right at the forefront of the story, and rightfully so. Now you can't swap out the giant robotic labor units with say tanks or modern construction equipment--the computerized operating system is integral to the plot--but the point is, the robots never overshadow the human drama as the story unfolds, which leads to an inventive and engaging story.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



Honorable Mention: Akira

Back in 1988 when Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira hit the States, it immediately became the darling of the anime fandom, and rightfully so. Akira skillfully juggles concepts like societal revolution and forced evolution all against the backdrop of a bombed out Tokyo and through the story of a gang of teenage bikers. Released on VHS by Streamline Video in 1988 with an English voice cast, this version has the best English dub performance in my opinion. If you can find a copy (and still have a functioning VCR) it's the best version to watch. While the subsequent DVD releases don't seem to have tampered with the score or sound effects, I've personally found that the new English dub is lacking both in emotive quality with the voice actors as well as has some shots where the mouth positions aren't timed correctly with the dialogue leading to a jarring disconnect reminiscent of badly dubbed kung-fu movies. But, all-in-all, I wouldn't let those issues stop you from watching this film. Akira will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. As an additional note: Akira is not for children under the age of sixteen due to violence, language, and a brief scene of nudity.

Availability: Available in the States on DVD. Video-to-go has a copy.



Well, we're halfway there. In two weeks, I'll delve a little deeper into the world animation scene with only one film listed from numbers 16 to 20 having been produced in America--but what a film it was! Come back in two weeks to find the answer to the question: "what do you do when your husband takes a job in India and divorces you by e-mail?"

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Animated Quotes: Nelson Mandela

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
~ Nelson Mandela