Sunday, 21 September 2014

Top Ten: Disney Films

Oh boy it’s a top ten list!

Everyone likes making them, and everyone likes pouring scorn onto them.  I gotta get in on that action! ;-)

I didn’t think too hard about my list and my opinion isn’t complete as there are about 8 films I’ve yet to see (although if Oliver & Company is a major omission be sure to let me know!).  There are a couple of unofficial entries in there as well just to mix things up.  This is all just for a bit of fun – please don’t take it too seriously if I pass on your favourite.  I tried to have an even mix between older and more recent films.  Declaration of bias towards 2D works!

10- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The original and still one of the best.  Snow White was a game-changing film made in a world that didn’t think a feature length animation could hold anyone’s attention.  It’s an entertaining fairy tale for all ages, with a scary and melodramatic streak that’s starker than most of Disney’s modern efforts.  A classic in the truest sense.

9- The Nightmare Before Christmas
Originally a Touchstone film, but as of 2006 was absorbed and rebranded as a Disney film proper.  Nightmare Before Christmas is a wonderful stop-motion animated film.  The spooky settings and character designs are great but it is the songs which are the highlight here.  It’s a Christmas film that you’d happily watch in July.

8- Sleeping Beauty
For my money Sleeping Beauty was the last classic made during Disney’s lifetime.  It is a lesson in good storytelling where plot progression takes precedence over focusing on any individual character, and it absorbs you.  Also, bonus points for the amazing backgrounds.

7- The Little Mermaid
Chronologically The Little Mermaid finds itself sat between the tired-looking Oliver & Company and The Rescuers Down Under, and then you start to realise how ground-breaking this film was.  A fresher approach to its format and design that essentially laid the groundwork for a generation of quality features.  If you look up the ‘Disney Renaissance’, it starts with this one.

6- Tarzan
Any film that gets me to not rage at Phil Collins songs has to be doing something right.  Tarzan has some of the most kinetic action sequences you will see in a Disney film.  Brian Blessed’s voice work is the finishing touch.

5- Aladdin
An indulgence on my part.  Most Disney lists will have a favourite from the author’s childhood.  This one is mine.  Funny, exciting and has excellent songs.  You’ve probably all seen this one so I won’t bore you further.  Pure entertainment.

4- The Princess and the Frog
It’s a classic fairy tale scenario done with the usual twist, but this time without the expected modern sass or cringe-inducing knowing winks!  Preceded by a bunch of so-so films, this film had me thinking ‘oh yeah, Disney is back!’.  So of course soon after this Disney stopped making 2D features, so what do I know?

3- The Emperor’s New Groove
Proof that a good script can make use of a flimsy plot.  It has appealing and well-developed characters, and is extremely funny.  I’ve watched this film too many times that I’ve kind of ruined it for myself.  Still highly recommended as it seems to have passed by a lot of people.

2- Pinocchio
A wonderful film that wears its heart on its sleeve.  It’s also technically astounding.  Next time you watch pay close attention to as many details in the animation as you can.  It will feed your creative mind.

1- Fantasia
In terms of ambition and scope nothing else on this list comes close.  Yes there are lapses in certain segments (centaurs and ponies), but terms of its overall execution I don’t see what more Fantasia could have done.    Fantasia is serious work that is creatively and technically through the roof, with an attitude towards sound production that changed the history of cinema.  Don’t bore your kids with it, wait until they’re a bit older so they can fully enjoy it.

And that’s my list!  Please don’t hate me if I missed your favourite.  It’s a tricky list to make, and sacrifices had to be made (or I just forgot them).

Honourable mentions.(a.k.a. stuff that almost made it or would be on there any other day):
Victory Through Air Power – A curio from the Second World War that falls outside of Disney’s official numbered films.  An engaging insight into some contemporary thoughts from the time.
Wreck-it Ralph – The only Disney CG film I considered to any real extent.  It’s original and fun.  Why don’t we get more stuff like this?
Saludos Amigos – An animated jam session full of party energy.
Atlantis – It’s a quality adventure film.  A little different in tone and feel to other films on this list, and that’s why it’s a good one.
Winnie the Pooh – Currently stands as Disney’s final 2D feature, although Disney’s UK marketing team ignores its status as their 51st film.  Made with love, very funny and criminally overlooked.

Dishonourable mentions (a.k.a. stuff people would expect to see in a top ten and why they're not there):
Beauty and the Beast – It’s a very good film, cementing the work that The Little Mermaid started.  I chose Aladdin as my token nostalgia entry, and this may very well be the equivalent for many.  Omitted due to constraints more than anything else.
Lilo & Stitch – 75% of this film is quite possibly perfect.  However the final 20-odd minutes are super-generic and it’s painful and just ugh WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT!?
Lion King – I like a lot of this film.  However I find that a lot of the songs are way too happy-go-lucky for the otherwise dark revenge plot.  Imagine Macbeth played to ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ and maybe you’ll see the kind of thing I mean (I’d still keep Circle of life and Hakuna Matata however).

What would your top ten Disney films be?  It might be fun to do more top tens like this so any suggestions would be good.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Walt Disney Archive Series - Story

We’ve all heard of Disney and have our own opinions on its films, history and practises, but regardless of what we think of their output there’s little denying the quality work that goes into their films.  The Archive Series of books is made to highlight this fact, and present a visual overview of its entire catalogue.  It’s no small task.
‘Story’ is the first of the series and focuses on the storyboard process of depicting plotline ideas before starting work on the animation process.  Aside from a brief introduction by John Lasseter the book is presented entirely without commentary, allowing you to browse through at your own pace.  Works are presented chronologically starting out with Steamboat Willy in 1928, and picks its way through the Disney catalogue before ending with 2002’s Lilo and Stitch.
It would be impossible to have all titles represented and so is an incomplete survey.  There is, quite rightly in my opinion, an emphasis on early shorts.  About a quarter of the book is dedicated to pre-Snow White works.  Also the period between Jungle Book (Walt Disney’s last film) and The Little Mermaid (the start of what some people terms as the Disney Renaissance) is very under-represented, as over 20 years of output is surmised with only a brief entry by Fox and the Hound.  Maybe the material was simply unavailable, but it does unfortunately encourage the general belief that this was a bad era of Disney films.
This is a great book for anyone interested in Disney and their story-building processes, or just wanting to look at quality illustrations.  It’s a very large chunky hardback, and once you’ve made the space for it will sit proudly on your shelves.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

World Animation Roundup 2

Jez Jerzy (George the Hedgehog) (2011)

George is a skateboarding hedgehog with a human girlfriend who lives in a world of skinheads, sleazeballs and corrupt politicians.  If you’re not out partying and getting wasted every night, then you’re probably a bad guy.  There is a muddled plot in here including a conspiracy theory and George gets an evil clone at some point, but this film is more about the humour and not particularly subtle social comments.
Jez Jerzy is dark and destructive in its cynicism and audiences will be sent into a world where political correctness does not exist.  Escapee inflated sex dolls and mutant hedgehogs humping power sockets are fun enough, but many will find the racial jokes way more hit and miss.  Few films have the (smelly) balls to have this kind of trashy underground edge, but Jez Jerzy lets it all hang out.  It’s well made enough with 2D flash-style animation and is brave in the grotesqueness of its ugly, ugly character designs. Deliberately unappealing, but it’s still the best film of those in this blog entry.

Availability:  The native Polish DVD has good English (and seemingly UK-centric) subtitles.

The Thief and the Cobbler (1995)

This DVD is a sorry little release, but to deny its existence at all would be even more cold-hearted.

The Thief and the Cobbler’s rocky history is well-recorded.  Production began in the 1960s before going through multiple financial hiatuses where it finally breathed its last in the 90s.  With large chunks of the incomplete film being animated, and the director having long since abandoned the project, the pieces were stitched together and a hideous monster was born.

The animation in The Thief and the Cobbler is amazing and you really have to remind yourself that it’s all hand-drawn stuff.  The amazing artistry is sadly ruined by a naff reworked script that replaces the idea of near-mute protagonists with near-constant babble.  The abrupt shift from serene animation to condescension kills any kind of enjoyment which could have been made from this DVD.  Sad faces all round, but a historically interesting curio nonetheless.

It’s worth nothing that there is a fan-made ‘Recobbled Cut’ out there online which pieces together the film’s gaps as best it can.  Worth a peek for an idea on what might have been.

Availability: As the film was unfinished, you could say it’s unavailable indefinitely.  This version is widely available.

Rejsen Til Saturn / Journey to Saturn (2008)

Per is an astronaut who capitalises on his fame by selling autographs at sci-fi conventions, even though he suffered terrible grades in his qualifications and has the contempt of all his peers.  He falls victim to his reputation when an emergency vacancy appears on a mission to gather natural resources from Saturn.  He is recruited into a crew consisting of a militarist, a perverted drunk and an Afghan asylum seeker.

Coming from the same makers of Terkel in Trouble and Ronal the Barbarian, I was expecting a mix of gross-out comedy and hard cynicism, but Journey to Saturn combines these same elements and plonks them in the middle of a truly average story.  The inevitable alien invasion is an uninspired turn of events and only act to dilute the fun.  Don’t be expecting a UK or US re-release any time soon either.  Jokes about anal probes suit most South Park-watching audiences, but comments on major figures of Danish society won’t translate as well.  Not a bad film by any means, just average.  See Ronal first.

Availability:  The Danish DVD has English subtitles, but not for the extras.  A shame as they look way more funny and risqué than the main feature.

Tintin L’affaire Tournesol (1964)

This hour-long special is a bunch of television episodes cut together… and it shows.
Following the outline of the plot from The Calculus Affair, the feature starts on the full assumption that the audience is already familiar with the cast and just runs full steam ahead.  There is little in way of pacing as the story moves from point to point without really bothering with ideas of dramatic tension or filling plot holes.  The art reflects the style of the comic quite well, but the animation itself is crude and cheap.  Most action involves heads revolving on static bodies and scrolling movement sticking strictly to directions of left or right.  A hilarious/awful example of this occurs when a car needs to turn around, and does so simply by driving off screen and re-enter with the drawing flipped over.  If classic Scooby chase sequences are your thing you might find enjoyment here, otherwise you’re much better served by The Adventures of Tintin series from the 90s.

Availability: The copy I have was from a Tintin Movie Collection set.  It’s dub only, and it’s a pretty awful one.  As Tintin exclamations go, ‘By Jove!’ is not what I expect or want to hear.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Case Closed

The anime dominates Japanese airwaves, while the manga has happily chugged along for 20 years.  For whatever reason the series has never caught on quite as strongly in English-speaking territories, and even though we’re still currently still over 30 volumes behind, any series that hits its 50th volume over here has done a damn good job.

Detective Conan/Case Closed is a whodunnit series following Jimmy Kudo as he solves murder cases with style and finesse.  His fame gets the better of him one day as he falls foul to a crime syndicate who poisons him with an untested drug.  The result is a physical change where he reverts back to having the body of a child.  Taking on a false identity to protect his loved, he continues to solve crimes while protecting his true identity.
 Case Closed is far too long to have a singular story with a solid beginning, middle and end, and as such it is also not the kind of series you can read in large chunks over extended sittings.  The writing is densely packed onto the pages and the segmented procession of murder cases takes precedence over Jimmy getting his old body back.  There is no hurry in solving the bigger mysteries as we get to know the wide recurring cast.  This laid back approach may bother some readers, but if you’re happy watching something like Poirot which by and large exists as individual stories, there will be little to object to here.

Buy a couple volumes and take your time, Case Closed isn’t going anywhere.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

World Animation Roundup 1

Normally I only do blog entries on titles which are particularly good or worthy of note in some other way, but this little round up of animated films could perhaps be considered to be at the opposite end of this ideal.  As I went out of my way to track them down however it’d be a shame not to mention them at all.  Also, it’s fun to let rip on a film every now and then.

I’ve optimistically numbered this entry, so we shall see if there are future roundups as time goes on. :-)

Free Jimmy (2006)

Jimmy is a performing elephant in a travelling circus whose highs and lows are controlled with a steady mix of hard drugs.  His handlers are a bunch of stoners who need money to avoid getting their legs broken by the local loan shark while self-absorbed animal activists try to counter our ‘heroes’.  Oh and spoiler: Jimmy is also being used as a mule to transport heroin.

Made in Norway in 2006 (although there was apparently some British input in here as well), Free Jimmy has its moments, but we’re not really given enough reason to care about most of the cast.  They’re an unpleasant lot, and frankly not enough of them get what they deserve.  If you have the mindset that being on drugs is by default hilarious you’ll probably do fine, but seeing an elephant go suffering withdrawal symptoms didn’t strike me as a laugh out loud moment.  It’s a curio certainly, but there’s sadly not much else to report on this one.  Disappointing.

Availability: English dubbed edition is widely available on DVD.

The Wild (2006)

The story:  Animals live happily in zoo. Poppa lion has argument with son.  Son gets dragged off to parts unknown before they can reconcile.  Poppa and posse of animal friends go off on a journey to rescue son and be heart-warming or something.  Hilarity ensues.

Let it be known that I am a big fan and follower of Disney animated features.  There are many genuine classics in the Disney vault and even their less entertaining output has creatively interesting points of interest.  The Wild’s point of interest however is just how crap it is.  I can’t kid on this point.  I mean, it’s awful.  The character designs are unremarkable and are presented in subpar CGI (as a comparison Monsters Inc. came out 5 years earlier and still looks fine).  The plot is a non-event excuse to bludgeon its audience with ‘LOOK KIDZ THIS IS A JOKE!’ kind of humour.  Ultimately the whole film is a boring, broken, painful mess and if I hadn’t checked the back of the box would’ve sworn it was about 5 hours long.  Disney needs to bury this one as much as humanly possible.

I’d upload some images from it, but my DVD has gone missing. I wouldn’t be surprised if a family member had smuggled it out into a dustbin at some point when I wasn’t looking.

Availability: Easy to find, but don’t.

Delhi Safari (2012)

I watched this the day after The Wild, and comparisons were hard to not make.  It’s another tale that starts by describing the feline relationship of a father and son.  Unfortunately daddy gets shot by land developers and the son escapes with his mother to embark on with a dire mission to plead with the humans to not destroy their home.  Doesn’t this already sound more interesting than The Wild?

Delhi Safari is an Indian animation from 2012, an unfair advantage perhaps to compare a film made in 2006 perhaps, but this is not the point.  This film too suffers from unremarkable CGI and uneven character designs, but the film’s premise and subsequent character interaction make this film feel way more justified in its existence.  The inevitable moralising about conservation and typical cheesy humour are a small price to pay for an otherwise painless hour and a half.  It’s no masterpiece but different enough to be worth a watch, with occasional Bollywood music thrown in as a bonus.

Availability:  There is an English dubbed version out in America which has the unenviable task of translating the Hindi songs.  The inexpensive Indian DVD has good subtitles and is the better option.

Treasure Planet (1982)

You know the one.  No, not the Disney version, but the totally famous Bulgarian one from the 1980s of course!

It’s… different.  And by ‘different’ I mean an abomination.

Apparently based on Treasure Island, this sci-fi themed cartoon uses some of the same names and has some pirates, but otherwise this is an insane dead-end of a feature.  I’ll give it a chance before I tear into it, so first the good points: The treasure the pirates are fighting over turns out to be the concept of Earth as an entirety.  Its history, people, nature, culture, environment, the whole shebang.  It’s a cool idea and in keeping with the futuristic setting, and when you see the treasure finally opened it’s certainly something to remember (though not necessarily for the right reasons).  And here my praise ends.

Let it be known that this is the bizarrest, awfulest and most fundamentally inept head-trip of a film I think I’ve ever seen.  To be sure the character designs are unappealing and the story is bad, but that’s just the start.  It deliberately tries to pad out its meagre 60 minutes running time with scenes of appalling at non-humour and frequent recycling of animation cycles but the animation OH THE ANIMATION.  In the land that anatomy forgot characters either convulse across the screen or stand around like propped up roadkill.  Whoever was involved in the animation were really on the bad drugs, and how they managed to squeeze a Mickey Mouse cameo in here without being sued into oblivion I have no idea.  I could end on a more positive note remarking on how some of background art is quite cool, but the musical interlude where people start singing Verdi prevents me.

The director went on to work on the likes of Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Lab, but for this example of his work only watch under threat of violence.

Availability: The Bulgarian DVD has the local version on a remastered video track, while the English dub floats in sub-VHS murk.  I have no idea why they are separated in the this fashion, or why it was even allowed to resurface on DVD.