Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

The big news with The Princess and the Frog is Disney Animation's return to hand-drawn animation. That detail might have been a bit over-hyped. But its an exciting return, as it is an art form that hasn't been subconsciously abandoned. I got to see the movie twice already, and there is a lot to praise about it. I just hope Disney improves upon this in the new decade.

The first thing I must praise is the screenplay. The dialog is the most un-clichéd I've heard from Disney in a long time! Rather than using worn-out movie lines, the writers find new ways to say the same things. And they go easy on the puns. The dialog was more dignified, and the movie ran smoothly all the way through.

For once, both the (supposed) princess and prince are not innocent, but flawed characters. Prince Naveen is spoiled and penniless. He is philandering and cut off from his rich family for being irresponsible. His self-absorption gets him into trouble, but give him a slight fearlessness of the outside world (although its just as naive). A slight flaw in the film, however, is the story establishes this too quickly.

Tiana is a career-driven, type-A persona. She is a very skilled chef, and she dreams of owning a restaurant in New Orleans. However, she has been so determined to succeed, she unknowingly abandons freedoms she already has. She chooses to work instead of having fun (even for just a few moments).

Dr. Facilier (played brilliantly by Keith David) is a very unique Disney villain. He is a voodoo master ("Shadow Man" in the movie), which is just the same as an evil sorcerer. However, this time its not just greed that drives him, but also fear for his own soul. Part of his plan is intended to help him repay a debt to his friends on the "other side." I've almost likened Facilier to a corrupt business man needing to repay loan-sharks.

All characters are put to good use in the story, and there's no wonder as to why they are there. Louis, the jazz-loving alligator may be comical, but he relates to Naveen and Tiana's plight, and is as much an outcast as they see themselves.

Raymond, the cajun firefly, initially struck me as a throwaway character, but soon becomes the movie's unlikely tragic hero. Tiana's debutante friend, "Lottie," becomes the frogs' destination as she is a temporary princess needed to break their spell. And Mama Odie, the blind voodoo lady, is presented as the wise fairy godmother. But to keep it fresh, the writers have her lessons temporarily fall on deaf ears. And Naveen's bumbling valet becomes the movie's secondary villain (Nice!).

The animation is beautiful and nicely balanced. Now that CG animation is in full swing, Disney's hand-drawn animation doesn't have to worry about trying to be as realistic as possible. Now the animators can go back to capturing what only 2D animation can capture: an immediate essence balanced with style, art and acting. The character animation is right to the point.

This "money shot" here reminds me of something Hayao Miyazaki would have done. The coins are all hand-drawn, so their lines are constantly moving.

An unsung star in this movie is animator Eric Goldberg. Goldberg's primary character is Louis the Alligator (who I think has the best animation in the movie). Goldberg is also responsible for the miscellaneous characters in the background. All these characters bear Goldberg's influence of Chuck Jones. Goldberg's animation captures something extreme and abstract, while also maintaining a soft flow and irresistible charm. Bravo Mr. Goldberg.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of Disney clichés here. And a few of those clichés contribute flaws. The final wedding scene is by far the most clichéd scene in the film, complete with a cute animal audience and over-the-top water effects.

The Broadway style also feels like a cliché long overused. But at least here, John Musker and Ron Clements do it right. Rather than just throwing a few songs into the film, the music takes up at least 1/3 of the film's length, making it seem like a complete musical. One of my complaints with movies like Aladdin and The Lion King is that there wasn't enough music in the movies to make the musical aspect complete. With The Princess and the Frog, the other 2/3 of the film don't seem out of place with the rest of the music.

Randy Newman's jazz inspired score is a new achievement in his animation repertoire. I have to admit, I have never been a huge fan of Randy Newman's scores. I find them too happy-go-lucky sounding. I like it when music can change its tone and ambience according to the scenes. In Princess and the Frog, Newman's score seems a little more experimental, and he incorporates jazz and swing music into the mix, and he does a nice job balancing it with some Gershwin inspired orchestrations.

The Princess and the Frog works very well on its own. Compared to other Disney movies, its definitaly one of the best, but it still feels like another Disney movie. There's nothing about it that makes it significant compared to other movies. But on its own feet, it works tremendously well. Disney's animated films still have much to improve upon, and they have just started again here.

We are approaching the next decade of the 21st century. And that really shouldn't mean anything. Its just another year.

Happy Holidays anyway!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An Evening with John R. Dilworth

On this blog, I haven't expressed enough of my admiration for John R. Dilworth. I still think Courage the Cowardly Dog is one of the best shows on Cartoon Network (even long after its run) and his independent work is ingenious. A couple nights ago, John was the subject of an ASIFA-East retrospective, and as an ASIFA-East board member, I took the opportunity to write about the event. The article has been published over at The Exposure sheet. Check it out. It was a tremendously enjoyable evening. You couldn't predict anything! Much love goes to John, and plenty comes back to you!

A great Thank You to Pilar Newton for taking these pictures!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson's animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a great movie. It is also an anomaly amongst other films of recent years.

Anderson's films have a questionable charm to them. We see characters we want to like, but then all these little negative nuances pop up, and the characters become more and more flawed. In saying that, Mr. Fox may very well be Anderson's most charming movie since Rushmore in 1998.

Although this is Anderson's first adapted screenplay, the characters still maintain traits that make this a familiar Anderson territory. For example, the dialog is mostly expository, and characters are portrayed as being brutally honest, and willing to point out things that nobody else needs to hear. And when a character is in need of sympathy, that same character offers some hostile anecdotes.

Mr. Fox (or "Foxy"), the primary character, is the only one who makes himself out to be "fantastic." Immediately, there is a cunningness to the character that the audience can appreciate, but in several scenes, we are ultimately reminded that he is very selfish, and even admits to having feelings of narcissism. George Clooney's performance seems to enhance the leading-man image that Foxy has of himself.

Every other character in the movie lives in their own world, until theirs' falls victim to Foxy's world. Roald Dahl's original story doesn't begin until about a third into the movie. Anderson might have done this in order to set up each character and their motivations.

There is something of a war objective going on. The second half of the movie involves a war between animals living in refuge and humans interested in petty revenge and carnage. It feels like a Holocaust of sorts (and I mean that very lightly). Foxy is targeted for behaving like a wild animal, and the other animals have to suffer for it, even though they all behave like good all around (human) citizens. The three farmers ("Boggis", "Bunce" and "Bean") are the oppressors. Bean acts as the dictator, and the others coming off like passive-aggressive Nazis.

I have mixed feelings about the voice acting. I was concerned about George Clooney playing the lead at firsy, but now I feel that his vocal performance is the strongest. His voice is the most identifiable, and suits the character of Foxy very nicely. The rest of the actors were alright, but not all felt right. Jason Schwartzman, Wallace Wolodarsky, and Eric Chase Anderson all sounded too similar to one another, and Bill Murray sounded too much like Bill Murray. Meryl Streep did a nice acting job, but it wasn't used enough, and Owen Wilson was promoted for a performance that only lasts about 3 minutes.

Visually, the style is classic stop-motion, but in a way that tells a children's tale. In other words, it is technically advanced, but attempts to look simple and aligned. Anderson is known for setting up very crisp looking shots, which is optional for live-action, but a definite for animation. That right there gives some comfort in Anderson taking over an animated venture. The best animation directors need to be able to design their movies, and Anderson is no stranger to this task.
And no Wes Anderson movie is complete without a unique soundtrack of old 1960's rock tunes. When watching Mr. Fox, I had to resist singing along to the songs in the movie, which include stuff from the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Burt Ives, and the Bobby Fuller Four.

Jarvis Cocker's appearance (as a human character, "Petey") is a welcome surprise. Cocker is one of my favorite songwriters, if not one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years.
I was not alone in laughing at the irony of Petey being called a weak songwriter.

I have to say the stop-motion style works remarkably well. The characters are only slightly stylized, but are not painfully realistic. The look is carefully balanced between cute, believability, and realism. And the mechanics of the puppets are one of many, many testaments to the puppet work of McKinnon and Saunders. Its good to see puppets with moving jaws, as opposed to stuck on mouths. And the storybook design works pretty well, although it would have been nice to see the sky looking something else other than sunset orange.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox really is a film that both adults and children can enjoy. No more of the parents saying they like the film, because it teaches their children good morales. Here, children audiences can enjoy the look and actions of the characters, while adults can pick out intellectual stimulations that are equally humorous.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Henry Selick in New York

With awards season in full swing, some films from earlier in the year need some reassurance. Coraline doesn't need any in my opinion, but Focus Features probably wants to be safe. Henry Selick is currently doing a small promotional tour of Coraline, and stopped by New York for a few appearances.

Coraline screened in 3D in Union Square Tuesday night. Mr. Selick appeared after the screening for a Q&A. Afterward, I grabbed the last spot on line to grab an audience with the director of not only this film, but The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. I got my audience with him, and got to converse with him. Major

I had to cover this event for ASIFA-East's blog. For more detail, you can read it here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mary and Max

I went to see Mary and Max at the SVA theater for International Animation Day. And what a treat. This year has seen a wide variety of animated releases, and there are still a few more to come before the year is out. Mary and Max is one of those few, and one that stands out on its very own.

The film states at the beginning that it is based on a true story. Director Adam Elliot confirms this in interviews. An Australian filmmaker, Adam Elliot's previous short films (the Uncle, Brother, Cousin trilogy and Harvie Krumpet) are all desaturated stop-motion pieces, primarily dealing with characters with certain disorders (mostly neurological). His films are quite dark, but at the same time, written with funny and sympathetic humor.
This movie follows the pen-pal friendship, beginning in 1976, between Mary, a little Australian girl with blossoming insecurties, and Max, a 44-year old New Yorker with issues of his own.

When I heard about Mary and Max, I was first excited by the general idea of illustrating a pen-pal relationship. But then I became even more intrigued when I learned that one of the main characters has Asperger Syndrome, a form of mild autism.

I write this review as an Aspie myself. Actually, I have to admit I never knew of the word "Aspie" until I saw this movie, and I've been diagnosed since age 9. The character of "Max" is a middle-aged, Jewish New Yorker, whose issues are diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome halfway through the movie. I have to say that the issues portrayed, while exaggerated, are very accurate. Max has difficulty reading other people, making or keeping friends, suffers from acute anxiety, and pays particular attention to certain things (in this case, the amount of cigarette butts on the streets, and chocolate). Something else I connected with was how Max found his favorite cartoon heartwarming, because the characters had everything he didn't.

The character of "Mary" is very sympathetic. She has issues that anybody can have, only her's are exasperated by the people around her. This included her critical, alcoholic mother and distant father, as well as a lack of human friends. However, her friendship with Max remains a pivotal source of inspiration for the rest of her life. So much so, that when she upsets him from afar, she almost considers giving up the rest of her life.

A trademark of Elliot's films is the use of narration. These narrations are distinguished by the timing and pace the speakers usually provide. And of course, Elliot's talent for stringing words together when certain effects are described. The next time I see this movie, I should take note of my favorite quotes.
On that note, I have to praise the voice over work.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors. His repertoire is all about characters, and keeping the audience believing them. His voice-over for Max is nothing like Hoffman's normal voice, but is a very realistic sound for this sort of character. Max sounds real, and his emotion is played out nicely through a deep, slightly congested, slightly Yiddish accented voice. All the praise in the world for Mr. Hoffman.
But with that, I also have to praise Toni Collette's portrayal of Mary, and Barry Humphries' narration.

The movie is stop-motion, although not as complex as Coraline or Wallace and Gromit. But that's not a bad thing at all. The stop-motion gives the movie is own universe. The characters are designed in Elliot's usual fashion, in which nothing is straight or perfectly sculpted. The design of the movie follows this very deliberately. It gives the impression of a flawed world. And this impression fits in well with how the main characters view the rest of the world outside their shells.
One of the film's executive producers introduced the film. He specifically stressed that everything on screen was real and tactile. This not only included puppets and sets, but also effects animation, such as rain and urination. This maintains a tradition with Adam Elliot's previous films, all of which were not only stop-motion, but had limited movement, and relied mostly quick little actions and the character's expressions, and very little concern for effects.

After the screening, I met with some friends and a couple of them asked me how I felt about the way Max was portrayed. I told them it was great, and totally understandable. Mr. Elliot certainly did his homework on the subject, and knew just how to express it. Everything about this film was well balanced. The visual style and the writing style, all worked hand in hand to bring these peculiar subjects to light in a way that is funny and appreciable.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Analo6ue, "I'm Not A Mover"

I am pleased (and relieved) to announce that I have finished my first ever "music film." The usual term is "music video," but since those don't get much airtime on television anymore, and I see more videos at film festivals, it just seems pointless to use that term anymore.

We present "I'm Not A Mover"
by Analo6ue (pronounced "analog")

The short combines live-action (directed by Taylor Clark) with 30's style rubber hose animation; the plot reaches a point where the two interact. I story boarded the whole film, and seeing Taylor recreate my drawings through live-action was quite a sensation.

I need to extend a hand to lead compositor Jaime Ekkens, for the wonderful job she did on the effects.

Like many others, I haven't been very well off financially. For four months, working on this short has kept me sane. Still, the video had to meet its completion at some point, which took two months longer than we had initially intended. Still I am excited about having completed it, and we hope it has a good festival life.

Analo6ue is the first musical group I have ever actually worked "with." The group is a three-piece: Brian (guitar, vocals), an old friend of mine from Ohio; Owen (lead vocals); and Evan (drums). There is no bass player. When people ask me about Analo6ue, I refer to them as an alternative-blues band. The band have a sound which doesn't get much usage in animation. But we all went for the same thing, so there wasn't much conflict.
You can check out more of Analo6ue on their MySpace page.

At the moment, we are trying to get the video exported into HD (High Definition) format. After that, its off to the festivals. I will also announce when it is viewable on the internet.

I hope to move onto another music film soon. It is a point where two of my greatest passions meet.