Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Animated Reviews: Mamoru Hosoda's "Belle"

I need to qualify some things up front before I get into the review. 

For starters, music in film can be a difficult thing to get right, be it background music, a musical number inserted to denote the passage of time, or a full-blown musical. 

Personally, I don't like musicals. Never have. Not saying there aren't good musicals out there, like the Broadway performances of Cats or Chess. But in animated films, after thirty-plus years since Disney adopted the 'Rogers and Hammerstein' song-and-dance formula for the Little Mermaid (and every studio out there tried to attain success by copying Disney's model), it just feels so played out. More often than not, when I'm watching a movie and they break into song, my heart just sinks in my chest and I start counting the minutes until the sequence is over.

My opinions are based partially on the belief that I think music can often be used as a cheap tool to engender an emotional connection within your audience when you should've done it through careful character development within the script. Not saying that music cannot be skillfully used to enhance the experience (see Disney's Bolt or Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues), but would a film like Guardians of the Galaxy be as popular as it was without using music from the 1960's and 70's that was already heavily ingrained in the collective consciousness of an American audience? Not knocking the film, I loved it and its sequel, but the music had to have been carefully selected and weaved into the film causing it to become a character in and of itself. I suspect it was done so because the 'Guardians' weren't as well-known as characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man, so they needed that extra 'oomph' to build a connection with the audience and make people care about the characters.

In many cases though, especially in musicals, the music just falls flat and seems out of place. It reminds me of that comedy routine you see at Renaissance Festivals where the singers keep purposefully stepping in front of each other as they try to upstage each other's performances. It's a comedic bit and it's funny at Ren Fests. But in so many musicals, it's like the acting is competing with the story which is competing with the song-and-dance numbers and so on. It abruptly pulls you out of the experience. And consider cringeworthy sequences like the "No Fear" song in the Swan Princess--"No Fear" being a popular modern marketing catchphrase at the time which in the film was placed smack-dab in the middle of a medieval fairy-tale world. The sequence ended up marring an otherwise decent and enjoyable movie that had a great message for kids.

To be fair, there are some musicals where the song-and-dance number (or the musical sequence in films) doesn't seem out of place and is completely in tune with the emotional tone of the story and the characters. I offer as evidence: the 'Son of Man' sequence in Disney's Tarzan, 'Once Upon a December' from Anastasia, the 'Hellfire' sequence from Hunchback of Notre Dame, 'Deliver Us' from Prince of Egypt, or the entire film: Mary Poppins

Another example is Disney's Enchanted. It's a musical that parodies Disney musicals (both animated and live action), expertly directed by Kevin Lima. There are so many ways that movie could've gone wrong. Disney definitely chose the right director, the right songwriters & composers, and the right actors & actresses to bring the right script to life. The song-and-dance numbers make perfect sense both in the context of the film's internal world AND in the context of filmmaking overall. Honestly, it's a movie that I'm happy to see sitting on the shelf in my DVD collection.

Speaking of Enchanted, I have very fond memories of being in Toronto, sitting in a Schoolism.com presentation and watching Kevin Lima state that he loves musicals. Seated right next to him was his wife, director/scriptwriter Brenda Chapman who immediately rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated "Oi!". I knew right then and there that I had found a kindred spirit as it turned out that Brenda was very much not a fan of musicals. The irony of her working years later on the film Strange Magic is delightful. I know there's got to be a story behind it and I'd love to hear her tell it.

So. I'm not opposed to musicals, per se, or the skillful use of music in films, it's just that when they get it wrong, they pull me out of that delightful headspace, that flow state where nothing exists but the film you're watching. You're sitting there slowly getting drawn into a movie with beautiful cinematography, engaging characters, and an interesting story... then they break into a song-and-dance number for no apparent reason other than to have a song-and-dance number. It's honestly why I haven't had any desire to watch any of the recent Disney films. And there "is" obviously a market for such films, as evidenced by the varying degrees of success that Disney musicals continue to have in the box office, especially compared to far superior films like Atlantis: the Lost Empire

I guess I'm probably at that stage of life where I'm looking for something with more substance--like the Summit of the Gods or Arcane, both of which premiered on Netflix.

To summarize my rant and get to the review: when music is done poorly, or treated as an afterthought, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But when done skillfully, purposefully, it can elevate a film to an almost spiritual experience.

Belle was so much more the latter than the former. During the opening sequence where we see Belle singing the song 'U' while riding atop a skywhale loaded down with speakers, it gave me chills! And the 'Gales of Song' sequence was achingly beautiful as you realize what she's singing about. You can see parts of this in the Belle medley video that was released on the Official Belle Channel on YouTube. Go ahead and watch it now, I'll wait.

Mamoru Hosoda and Studio Chizu did a wonderful job filling this film with interesting characters that were easy to care about. And the backgrounds were as picture perfect as I've ever seen in an animated feature. The virtual world of U was a visual feast of characters and settings without ever making you feel overwhelmed or confused about what was happening on the screen. And Cartoon Saloon's background work is sublime (executed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart). In the end, my only real regrets were that a. I didn't have time that weekend to go back and watch the English dub version, and b. that I didn't watch the film in the large-scale IMAX format.

Now the movie isn't without its flaws. I wouldn't say it's Mamoru Hosoda's best. I reserve that title for his film Wolf Children, but it was easily the second best Hosoda film I've seen--though tied for second place with Summer Wars. Full disclosure: I haven't seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Boy and the Beast... yet. So, I reserve the right to adjust my numbers. No, I had two problems with Belle. One was that they reused a number of character designs from earlier Hosoda films which pulled me out of the experience. The Dragon/Beast avatar? He looked like Ōkami Otoko's werewolf form from Wolf Children. The Dragon/Beast's human character? Ame from Wolf Children. Suzu Naitou (Bell's human character)? Hana from Wolf Children. This was a similar complaint that I had with Studio Trigger's film Promare--and what ruined that movie for me. I'm not opposed to reusing designs to a point--I assume it develops from a common visual style that identifies a particular studio or director's work (compare Mei Kusakabe from My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo from... well, Ponyo. Unquestionably Studio Ghibli). But it can still be jarring when you see characters from a previous film in a current film acting and speaking outside of the context that has already been set for them in the film where they first appeared.
And while they packed a lot of story into Belle's two hours, I felt that the whole Dragon/Beast subplot ended up being kind of unnecessary. Though it did introduce an interesting conflict and an element of mystery into the story. And the subject matter behind it was a difficult and challenging topic that was competently executed by Hosoda and Studio Chizu, however the time it took to play out the events related to the Dragon/Beast subplot took time away from the Bell main plot: namely that of a girl who loses her singing voice due to a childhood tragedy and finding it by experiencing the virtual world that her avatar (Bell) exists in. You could have made the entire film just about Suzu/Bell finding her voice and dealing with her emotional scars as she explores the world of U, completely without the Dragon/Beast subplot, and it would've worked perfectly. The main themes brought forth by Suzu/Bell in the virtual world of U were so interesting, so engaging in and of themselves that when the Dragon/Beast shows up, it's like... "Huh? Oh yeah, he's in this film too."

But in the end, I'd definitely put this film on the "must watch" list, especially in a large format theater if possible. I'm looking forward to watching this movie again and adding Belle to the Mamoru Hosoda section of my film collection once GKIDS releases it on DVD. And if you're on the fence, watch the first three minutes of Belle on YouTube that GKIDS released to promote the film. Or listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify (available in both Japanese and English). I'm pretty sure you'll come away with the same opinion that I did: Belle is two hours well spent.

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* All video/images used are © 2021 STUDIO CHIZU.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Animated Events: the 49th Annual Annie Awards

This year, the 49th Annual Annie Awards will be held on Saturday, February 26th, 2022 at 10 p.m. EST. 
Hosted by ASIFA Hollywood, the Annies celebrate the yearly achievements of the animation and VFX industry. 
My personal favorites are the best animated feature categories, for many reasons but not the least of which is how they bring up fond memories of driving to Ontario the weekend before Thanksgiving to attend the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema--the only animation festival in the world that was dedicated to showing animated feature films and the only place that I could see a lot of the indie features that would get nominated every year.

In the animated feature categories, the nominees are as follows.

Best Feature:
  • Encanto
  • Luca
  • Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Sing 2
  • The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Best Indie Feature:
  • Belle
  • Flee
  • Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko
  • Pompo the Cinephil
  • The Summit of the Gods
I used to make it a point to watch all the feature film nominees -- the Ottawa Festival and WFAC made it real easy -- however this year, other than 'Mitchells' none of the films in the Best Feature category interest me, so I'll probably watch 'Mitchells' on Netflix before the ceremony. Belle is playing here in Lansing over the next two weeks and I'm purchasing my ticket today. Not sure if I want to see it in IMAX format, but I do plan to watch the subtitled version so I can see the film in as close to the director's original intention as possible.
Had the opportunity to watch The Summit of the Gods this past weekend. It was good production with some really solid storytelling and beautiful visuals. I'd recommend it to anyone but be warned that it's a more mature story. Don't watch it expecting a Disney/Pixar musical.

So far though, there aren't any opportunities to see any of the other indie features around Michigan, but as GKIDS is distributing 'Lady Nikuko' and 'Pompo', I have high hopes that they'll be shown around here soon.
And I have to give a special shout out to three entries in other categories. These three animated series were some of the best I've seen in years and well deserving of their nominations. Arcane is in my list of the top five best animated series I've ever seen.

Arcane (Riot Games/Fortishe Productions/Netflix) was nominated in the following nine categories:
  • Best TV/Media - General Audience - Episode: When These Walls Come Tumbling Down
  • Best FX - TV/Media - Episode: Oil and Water
  • Best Character Animation - TV/Media - Episode: The Monster You Created
  • Best Character Design - TV/Media - Episode: Some Mysteries Better Left Unsolved
  • Best Direction - TV/Media - Episode: The Monster You Created
  • Best Production Design - TV/Media - Episode: Happy Progress Day!
  • Best Storyboarding - TV/Media - Episode: When These Walls Come Tumbling Down
  • Best Voice Acting - TV/Media - Episode: When These Walls Come Tumbling Down
  • Best Writing - TV/Media - Episode: The Monster You Created
Invincible (Amazon Studios) was nominated for 'Best Storyboarding - TV/Media' for the episode "Where I Really Come From"
And Love, Death + Robots (Blur Studio/Netflix) was nominated in the following five categories:
  • Best TV/Media - General Audience - Episode: Ice 
  • Best Character Animation - TV/Media - Episode: All Through the House
  • Best Production Design - TV/Media - Episode: Ice
  • Best Storyboarding - TV/Media - Episode: Pop Squad
  • Best Editorial - TV/Media - Episode: Pop Squad
Congratulations to all the nominees. I look forward to seeing who wins in February. You can see a full list of the nominees and watch the ceremony streamed online at: https://annieawards.org.

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