Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ponyo: the ocean feels very warm

Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers, one of my favorite artists, and a champion of originality. Although his movies are considered Japanese anime, viewers have a better chance of learning of Miyazaki through Disney than through more traditional anime.

Miyazaki has stressed many times his fascination with a child's point of view. Previously, he explored this idea in My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. Ponyo marks another journey into adolescence and childhood through the child's point of view. Everything seems very large, and not too complex. The world and the its ocean are big and mysterious to the two main characters, Ponyo and Sōsuke.

The story follows a humanoid fish (referred to as a "goldfish," but looking like a little human girl) named "Brünnhilde" by her father, but later named Ponyo. The goldfish swims away from her father, a caretaker of the sea, to view the world above, and soon possesses a desire to be human. She is found by a five year-old boy named Sōsuke, and they each take a quick liking to each other. Afterward, they are separated, explaining their friendship to their parents, and then brought back together again, only to truly prove their relationship in a test of love. In the midst of all this, Ponyo's parents (wizard and goddess) struggle to maintain balance in the sea as they realize their daughter's true (yet unnatural) passion to evolve from a mystical sea creature to human being in the world above.

Ponyo has a slightly different look for a Miyazaki film. The backgrounds are executed with a much softer tone, almost with pastels and water colors, as opposed to delicate realism. In keeping with the theme of water, everything visual is round and bulbous. There's hardly a straight line to be seen in the movie. The animation of the characters also seems to be a little looser than in Miyazaki's previous movies. The characters' outlines appear to be moving more than usual, giving their bodies more physical expression.

Some of the best parts of the movie, in my opinion, are those featuring ocean waves and the shapes coming from the sea. Rather than a realistic looking ocean and storm (already a complicated task), Miyazaki and his crew took what sounds like an easier and more experimental approach. This time, the exaggeration of the waves, looking like morphing bulbous blobs, is easier to understand. The waves are also a lot of fun to watch. This is the first time in a while where I was having fun watching the animation, rather than just admiring the technicality of it. The waves are dark and looming, but there's something funny and amiable about them.

A big part of the story deals with parental relationships. Sōsuke at first glance has an average relationship with his mother, but is later shown to care very deeply about her. He also shows concern for her, especially when his father (a ship captain) has a habit of working overtime. Ponyo's parents, by comparison, are more unique, as they have mystical elements. Ponyo's father, Fujimoto, is very layered: he is shown to be a stern wizard who despises humans (despite being one himself at one point) and is devoted to the well-being of the sea. Despite these traits, he truly loves and cares for his daughter and other children, and in the end, accepts Ponyo's decision. Ponyo's mother, Gran Mamare, is a looming sea goddess, with great beauty and gentle insight. The scenes with Gran Mamare are among my favorite scenes in the movie.

I can't say enough to praise the film score. Joe Hisaishi's music has been a crucial part of Miyzaki's movies since their first collaboration on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, close to 25 years ago. I found myself getting the chills at the sound of the primary theme of the score, which mostly played during scenes under the ocean and scenes involving Ponyo's mother, Gran Mamare. The music in these scenes is loud and operatic with an emphasizing choir, enough to make a full-grown adult feel small. There are also parts of the score that are reminiscent of Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," (Miyazaki has stated that part of the story and setting is inspired by Wagner's Die Walküre).

I am glad this got a theatrical release here in the U.S., thanks to Disney. I have to admit I had great concern over the English dub. What made me nervous right away was the casting of Frankie Jonas (youngest brother of the Jonas Brother) and Noah Cyrus (Miley's younger sister) and Sōsuke and Ponyo respectively. The Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus are big Disney stars, and here they casted their siblings, which strikes me as Hollywood nepotism. Surprisingly, these two kids do a great job: their voices are emotive and clear, and right to the heart of the young characters. Tina Fey (of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock) portrays Sōsuke's mother, Lisa, and also managed to bring heart and warmth to the character. The rest of the actors (Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Matt Damon) are all pretty good, even though a couple of them have only minimal dialog. I also have to admit, I feel a little uncertain about Liam Neeson's performance (and I say this as a Neeson admirer).

Ponyo is one of the warmest movies I have seen in a theater in quite a while (not since the Wallace and Gromit movie four years ago). The movie ends with a sense that anything can happen, but happiness and balance are now full circle. Miyazaki hasn't lost his touch, all of his movies are timeless, and Ponyo is no different. I will be remembering Ponyo for a long time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs...not there yet

Being a part of the New York animation scene, I am biased to be pleased that there is a place like Blue Sky Studios nearby (previously located in White Plains, NY; now relocated to Greenwich, CT). But being pleased with a studio that makes animated feature films doesn't count for how I feel about their output. So far, I find each of Blue Sky's movies to be mindfully flawed in some way (or ways). Ice Age: The Dawn of the Dinosaurs, the third installment of Blue Sky's Ice Age movies, is just as flawed, but not enough to keep me from enjoying the movie.

The story of Ice Age 3 is probably my favorite so far in the Ice Age films. The "herd" is still together, and true to form, they can't live with each other or without each other. Wooly mammoth partners Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting their first child, yet Ellie seems to be suffering the least of her extended family. After discovering three lone eggs in an underground cavern, Sid, the unhealthy yet optimistic sloth (John Leguizamo) decides to care for them. When they hatch into baby tyrannosaurus, their mother attacks above ground looking for them, and takes them (and unintentionally) Sid back into the cavern. The rest of herd rush into the cabin to find him, and happen upon an underground jungle populated by (thought to be) extinct creatures.

The story is pretty decent. The herd is portrayed from the start to be something of an extended family (something I enjoy seeing in stories). I love the action element to the story, but there are great moments of comedy interspersed throughout. My favorite scene has to be when the herd is trying to cross through a toxic cave, and when they breath in, the toxic gas causes them to go uncharacteristically happy and hysterical. The stories of the previous Ice Age films were okay, although I like the first one the least (the human characters were boring and unnecessary), and the second was only a mild improvement.

The best part of the movie is the overall look. Recently, I became a fan of illustrator and character-designer Peter De Sève, probably best known for his New Yorker magazine illustrations. The designs of the characters are wonderfully balanced between needing to be 3-dimensional, looking unique and distinctive, and wordlessly expressive. In fact, Mr. De Sève recently started up a blog, which includes some of his pre-production drawings for the movie. His designs of Manny, Diego, and Sid are very distinctive of one another, and all have traits that define their personalities (like Diego being very sharp looking with a few rounded edges, Manny all hidden away by tusks and fur, and Sid with tiny eyes and a carelessly round belly).

The designs of the rest of the "herd" are cute as well: Ellie is a lot softer looking than Manny, and I love the manic appearances of twin possums Crash and Eddie. The new character, Buck is my favorite new design, for the biased reason that I love weasel characters.

The wooly mammoth characters, Manny and Ellie, are impressively animated. Not only are they shown to be large and rotund, but their tusks and wool cover most of their faces. This leaves their eyes as the primary source of facial expression, which the animators do a fantastic job of accomplishing.

The biggest flaw of Ice Age 3 is the dialogue. I find most of the dialogue (if not all) to be predictable, which drives me crazy. I like being surprised by what a character says (especially in humorous situations). This is a flaw evident in all the Ice Age movies. I constantly find myself cringing at some of the dialogue, and I just want to pause the movie so I can correct the dialogue to myself. I was especially displeased with the character of Buck having an Australian accent, thus making the dialogue one big cliché after another. Maybe it would have helped if the accent didn't have so many references to Australian dialect (i.e. "You'll never find your mate,...MATE").

None of the voice acting helps the dialogue out. I personally don't like the celebrity casting Blue Sky places in its movies, although I can appreciate what it does for the reputation of the movies themselves. Ray Romano's portrayal of Manny in the first movie seemed a little too close to his comedy persona, but in Ice Age 2 and 3, his performance is much smoother and not as forced. John Leguizamo, of course, always impresses by keeping himself masked with a happy lisp when playing Sid the Sloth. The rest of the cast (Queen Latifah, Denis Leary, Simon Pegg, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck) isn't too impressive, and don't give the characters as much depth as their appearances offer.

The Scrat and Scratte subplot is at times very sweet, very funny, and a little creepy. As in the previous movies, Scrat, a "saber-toothed squirrel," is still obsessed with gathering acorns, except this time he meets his match in a female counterpart, Scratte. Throughout this story, Scratte managed to outsmart Scrat in getting a particular acorn, most of which end in pain for Scrat (the weirdest part being a scene that evokes the chest-waxing scene in The 40 Year-Old Virgin). Eventually the two fall in love, only for Scrat to be torn by between his love for her and his absurd acorn obsession.

Eventually her nit-picky attitude opens the door for him to pursue his acorn, which leads the two prehistoric squirrels back to their previous conflict. Long story short, he ends up losing both his precious acorn, and (quite possibly) his one true soul mate. Aside from the aforementioned chest-waxing, I quite enjoyed this little subplot. Not everyone wants to admit it, but the reason Scrat's little adventures are so enjoyable is the lack of dialogue, and total reliance on physical comedy, something harking back to the early days (or prehistoric in this case) of cinema.

What more can I say (if I haven't said enough). This is my favorite of the Ice Age films, but its not the best movie ever. I still mind the dialogue flaw very much. However, its still nice to see computer animation that's not overdone, and still has a simplified, yet stylized look. Still, my thoughts on Blue Sky movies remains unchanged.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Secret of Kells

Here is a film with which I had no expectations whatsoever. I don't know the filmmaker (Tomm Moore), the studio (Gébéka Films), or the story. But in the end, all I can say is The Secret of Kells is a fantastic movie. Great animation, great story, great acting, and it is short yet complete.

I thought the film would seem a little strange to someone with no prior knowledge of Celtic mythology. But that proved not to be the case.

The film takes place in Ireland in the 9th century and follows twelve year-old Brendan. An adventurous boy by nature, Brendan is in the care and shadow of his strict uncle Abbot, whose sole concern is the safety of the Kells Village from the oncoming Viking attacks (in Irish terminology, the Vikings are referred to as "Norsemen"). One day, the village receives an elderly visitor, Brother Aidan, who introduces Brendan to the valuable and fantastical Book of Kells. As the film continues, Aidan inspires Brendan to develop his imagination and complete the book, all the while narrowly avoiding the severe disapproval of his uncle.

The art direction, from a first glance, is reminiscent of the shows currently on Cartoon Network. This, surprisingly, helps to move the story along. The combination of simplicity with fantasy setting keeps the story from getting caught up in technological detail. But that's not to say the art direction is terrible. Quite the opposite: it has one of the best art directions I have seen in any animated feature of the last decade.

The color scheme of the movie is very distinctive. The film's primary colors are, unsurprisingly, green (an Irish tradition) and white (which gives the sense of the world surrounding the Irish). The most drastic change in the color scheme comes at two points: when Brendan is learning and working on the Book of Kells, the palette is made up of various warm colors, giving a feeling of comfort while Brendan becomes engaged in his new found interest; the other points are the scenes involving the Vikings (aka the Norsemen) where the dominating color is red, signaling danger and anger.

The music is an impressive component of the film. Some of the score is provided by French composer Bruno Coulais, who provided a haunting ambient score woven with Celtic melodies. The score goes beautifully with the fantasy-related sequences. Elsewhere, music is provided by Kíla, a Celtic folk group, whose sound adds a feeling of authenticity to the scenes within the Kells village. The psychological aspects of Coulais's score with Kíla's Ireland meets the World sound makes for one impressive soundtrack.

It is exciting to see a country's unknown animation talent getting unleashed. I have never known of any Irish animation, not even indie (I've probably missed something, feel free to correct me). But The Secret of Kells has given me hope for hand-drawn animation. I don't know what's next for Ireland. Technically, the film is one third Irish, one third Belgian, and one third French. Still, for me, the film is all Irish. The Irish have always had a film scene, and this may be just a new addition to their country's film culture. Or it could be the start of something interesting....