Tag Archive: Animation


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If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.

My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.

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Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.

The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.

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If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.

But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.

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And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.

Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. It’s been a relatively busy weekend for me. After having essentially all of last week off, I actually worked Friday and Sunday, more or less the whole day. And on Saturday, I went to the movies with my little sister and her roommate [there will be two movie reviews in quick succession since I allowed myself to get backed up like  a dumbass]. We went to go see the new Evil Dead movie. More on that in it’s review. Anyways, I watched 2012’s Best Animated Feature Oscar winner, Brave, in the wee hours of Friday morning so forgive me if this review is shorter/hazier than what you usually expect from me).

When Don Bluth’s films disappeared from the public eye by the end of the 90s, Pixar was there to pick up the slack with increasingly thematically complex and mature children’s entertainment. If films like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail were the definitive children’s movies of the 1980s, Disney had a brief resurgence in the 1990s with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King before Pixar arose from their umbrella to define modern American animation. Toy Story 3, Up, and The Incredibles aren’t just the best children movies of the last decade; they’re some of the best movies period of the last ten years. The first 15 minutes of Up is arguably the most emotionally powerful sequence in the last five years of cinema. One almost has to pity Pixar at this point because they have set the bar so impossibly high for themselves. Any thing short of making me curl up in a ball and making me sob uncontrollably becomes a disappointment. 2012’s Brave is a good film, but it’s high on the adventure and low on the emotional impact that has grown to define the best of the Pixar experience.

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Following the well-trod path of rebellious princesses unhappy with the arranged marriages set up by their parents, Brave forges its own identity with a cast over-flowing with memorable characters and a stunning visual sensibility. Merida (Choke‘s Kelly MacDonald) is the bushy-haired tomboy daughter of the boisterous Scottish King Fergus and the strict but loving Queen Elinor (Stranger than Fiction‘s Emma Thompson). Merida would rather be in the woods with her horse Angus shooting her bow and arrow and exploring the wilderness than learning how to be a proper princess. And when she learns that her mother and father have arranged suitors from the three most powerful clans in the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage, she quickly runs away where she encounters a witch in the forest which grants her a wish to change her fate. And clearly, that wish comes with a price.

Let me get my biggest compliment towards the film out of the way because it is a massive reason why this score isn’t lower (that and Kelly MacDonald’s performance and the movie’s consistent sense of humor but I’m getting ahead of myself). Brave is one of the most beautifully animated films that I’ve ever watched. Apparently, Pixar had to completely remake their animation software (which they had never done before; it had simply been upgrades not a complete overhaul) for Brave and it shows. While the character animations are par for the course for Pixar (though the hair, obviously, is exceptional in this film), the consistent scenic panoramas of the Scottish countryside are just stunning. I could watch this movie with the sound off at times because it was just that gorgeous. The film never stopped stunning me with its sheer beauty.

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And Kelly MacDonald remains a criminally under-appreciated talent (though her recent turn on Boardwalk Empire seems to be raising her level of American pop culture infiltration). Still, for anyone who’s seen Trainspotting, Choke, or The Girl in the Cafe (an indie film that my dad weirdly really enjoys), you know she’s a supremely talented actress. You only hear her voice in this film, but she does a wonderful job of bringing Merida to life (although she sounds very grown-up in her opening narration though I forgot about that as the film progressed). Emma Thompson is just one of the greatest actresses of her peer group, and she brought a wonderfully subtle interpretation to Queen Elinor. And there was a whole host of great performances although another shout out would be for Harry Potter‘s Julie Walters as the Witch whose powers have a higher price than Merida could have expected.

The film could also be very funny. Merida has triplet little brothers, and they are perpetual comic motion machines. There was barely a second where they were on screen where they didn’t have me laughing my ass off (and the film used them for some surprisingly dirty jokes for a kids’ movie). There’s a brilliant set piece halfway through the film where Merida has to sneak something out of the castle (I can’t say what for fear of spoiling some of the major twists in the film) and the triplets serve as the distraction. It could have came out of a classic Benny Hill routine for sheer slapstick value. And it’s a shame that the Witch had such small time on screen because she was without question the liveliest and most hysterical part of the whole film.

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Sadly, the the film’s plot has been done to death. How many Disney princesses (of which Merida is certainly one although she may be the first Disney/Pixar princess) have been upset about being forced to marry someone they don’t want to? Way too god damn many is the correct answer, and there’s not much that Brave does differently (well, there’s one big thing at the end but I can’t say for fear of spoilers, yet again). Merida just seems like the cliche tomboy fantasy princess, and it’s only her mother, Elinor, that seems to break the major genre conventions. Up until the film’s final climactic encounters, Brave failed to elicit even the most remote emotional reaction/sympathy, although the final moments did wind up bringing a tear to my eye. Ultimately, Brave is a film about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and perhaps that is why I failed to connect to it. That would be a fair argument.

I’ll draw this to a close since I have to review Evil Dead tonight (it’s now one of a handful of remakes I’ve reviewed where I’ve also reviewed the original but I’ll talk about that in my Evil Dead review). Let me simply say that it isn’t that I didn’t enjoy Brave. It is a passable and highly enjoyable kid’s movie. However, Pixar has trained me to expect more from their movies. They have trained me to expect films that are as enjoyable for the kids in the audience as they are for the grown-ups. Brave fails to meet that standard. However, as far as children’s adventure movies go, Brave is an exciting and often frighteningly dark tale. One only wishes that the emotional stakes had been higher.

Final Score: B

 

We have a (necessary) habit of looking past many of the traumatic moments of our childhood. We learn our lessons but our mind has the common sense to not let us dwell on the things we found most terrifying or emotionally scarring. My mind must have been especially scarred by 1987’s children cult classic, The Brave Little Toaster, because when I popped it in my DVD player today, I remembered very little of the film (which I hadn’t seen since the early years of elementary school) other than thinking that I thought it was a good movie. It is… but it’s also one of the darkest and most terrifying children’s movies this side of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. With an on-screen suicide, evil demon firefighter clowns, and countless deaths of ancillary characters, The Brave Little Toaster was a quick reminder that many of my favorite older children’s movies used to downright horrifying.

On its surface, Brave Little Toaster is just another children’s fantasy involving talking and adventurous inanimate objects, and in fact, it is now painfully obvious that a significant portion of Toy Story 3‘s plot was “borrowed” from Brave Little Toaster. However, beneath the shallow observations of a film about common household appliances going on a grand adventure to find their master is a surprisingly prescient meditation on loneliness, abandonment, and becoming obsolete. Since several future members of Pixar were involved in the film’s creation, it’s thematic maturity shouldn’t be all that shocking. I lost track of the number of times in the film that my sister and I broke out in uncontrollable “awwws” because something especially heartbreaking had just happened, and that’s not even getting into all of the pure nightmare fuel that The Brave Little Toaster is built on.

After being abandoned for ten years by their former master (who is now about to leave for college), five talking appliances in an abandoned cottage pass the day away desperately hoping for the return of their Master. Led by the moral leader of Toaster (Deanna Oliver), the group of the childlike Blanky (Timothy Day), Kirby the vacuum (Thurl Ravenscroft), Lampy (Tim Stack), and Radio (Jon Lovitz) wile away a meaningless existence in isolation, all knowing that their Master will never return but praying that he will. After discovering that the cabin is for sale and witnessing their air conditioner (Phil Hartman) intentionally kill himself, the group goes on a quest to find the Master, but crossing a dangerous forest and run-ins with a maniacal appliance shop means that their grand journey will be more dangerous than they anticipated.

I can’t emphasize enough just how scarring this film is. It’s the only children’s film I can think of where a character commits suicide (it wasn’t just the air conditioner either. One of the cars in the infamous junkyard scene intentionally drives on to the conveyor belt where he’s crushed into a cube). There’s a scene (with Phil Hartman playing another character with a spot on Peter Lorre impersonation) in an appliance shop from Hell where appliances who have been driven mad by witnessing their peers turned into scraps sing a macabre musical number full of terrifying imagery. Toaster has a nightmare with the above demon clown firefighter that morphs into a smoke monster that whisks his Master away. The junkyard scene has cars who are being compacted sing about how pathetic and worthless their lives have become. The Brave Little Toaster is probably much more emotional and disturbing for the adults who actually grasp what is happening. The children will most likely just be scared by the more frightening images.

There were two (semi) big names in the voice cast, and unsurprisingly, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman stole the show. Jon Lovitz’s Radio provided the film with many of its best comic moments, and his rendition of old 50s/60s style radio broadcasters was great (and the writing peppered his rapid yammering with enough pop-culture in-jokes to please the grown-ups in the audience including an especially clever North by Norhtwest reference). However, it was Phil Hartman in his two roles that was the most impressive. Who knew that Phil Hartman was such a great impressionist (well I’m guessing anyone who watched Saturday Night Live in the late 80s and early 90s). The air conditioner was an obvious Jack Nicholson impersonation and the hanging crazy lamp was an obvious Peter Lorre (Casablanca). For the older people watching the film, it was a good nod to the adults watching it with their kids (or grown-up now and watching it for nostalgia’s sake).

I’m always shocked to find just how well many of the children’s films from my youth have aged or at least the animated films. I don’t know what happened at Disney after the mid-90s but their game really went downhill (though Disney only produced this film. They didn’t actually make it) over the last 15 years or so. If you’re thinking about showing The Brave Little Toaster to your kids, they’ll survive it. All of us who grew up in the 80s and early 90s did. Just be prepared that they may not be able to sleep for the next couple of days afterwards. Although don’t be surprised if you find yourself to be more affected by the movie than your children. Much like Toy Story 3 which was all about growing up and moving past the so-called golden years of your youth, the themes of abandonment and loneliness will be much more important to the grown-ups watching the film.

Final Score: B+