Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

21 05 2010

Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was not afraid of including social commentary in his children’s books. Besides being a children’s author, he was also a political cartoonist and writer for the military during World War II, with his Private Snafu shorts being particularly illuminating.

So it’s refreshing to (finally) see a modern Seuss adaptation that at least tries to adhere to the spirit of his work. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (2008) is the fourth feature from Blue Sky Studios, who also produced Robots (2005) and the three Ice Age movies (2002, 2006 and 2009). Blue Sky are like the Chuck Jones to Pixar’s Walt Disney, and so while they don’t produce serious, studied entertainment in the Pixar vein, they also don’t resort to the mindless hipster grab-bag approach of DreamWorks Animation; instead, Blue Sky offer a manic charm all their own.

It’s only fitting, then, that Blue Sky Studios adapt one of Seuss’ more memorable children’s books, following in the footsteps of Chuck Jones’ own successful adaptations. This is not a nightmare-fuelled acid trip a la Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) (and the less said about Mike Myers as The Cat in the Hat (2003) the better); rather, Blue Sky’s Horton is colourful and whimsical, giving spectators an amazing 3D realisation of Seuss’ illustrations that is as faithful as can be. And while pop-culture elements are a little overdone at times, this is still miles ahead of the horrors that DreamWorks might have visited upon the source.
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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

17 05 2010

Few people today fully appreciate the ground-breaking work apparent in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Now over 70 years old, this film is where animation grew up and matured into a complete art-form in its own right.

Never before had cel animation been used to tell a story in feature-length. Could animated characters display real emotional depth in a performance—enough to sustain an 80+ minute running time? Would audiences buy into the drama?

Three key scenes display the success of Disney’s gamble. The first involves the huntsman preparing to slay Snow White in the woods: the suspense builds as the spectator anticipates the blow, and yet as Snow White cowers, the huntsman finally relents and confesses. The second is where the witch offers Snow White the poisoned apple: again, the suspense builds, this time with the witch playing on Snow White’s innocence and naivety in order to trick her into taking a bite. Finally, the scene where the dwarves gather around Snow White’s bed to mourn her loss is heartfelt and genuine: the dwarves are real characters beyond their cartoonish, comedic function.

In all three scenes, characters other than Snow White carry the drama. Despite being the title character, Snow White is a foil, with her innocence and purity giving the surrounding characters something to react to. The Queen reacts to Snow White with contempt, the dwarves react to her with warmth and the woodland creatures react to her with curiosity and good cheer, but all find her archetypal nature captivating and powerful.
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Monsters vs Aliens

13 05 2010

Do you like a good story? Then Monsters vs Aliens (2009) is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer rapid-fire gags and references mixed with some very nice animation but without any concern for heart or intellect, then this may be your film.

Monsters vs Aliens, coming between Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010), is DreamWorks Animation’s 11th 3D computer-animated film, and it shows. The formula—support a barrage of one-liners and throwaway references with imaginative design and a paper-thin plot—has been fine-tuned by this point, and its calculating cynicism and constant winks to the audience are now more mechanical than ever.

The plot has the necessary moral included, of course, taking Shrek‘s “Accept who you are” fortune-cookie wisdom and giving it a feminist twist. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is all set to marry self-absorbed local weatherman Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd) when she is suddenly hit by a meteorite, causing her to grow to a height of 49 feet 11.5 inches. Captured by the military, she is then sent to a kind of “monster prison” where she meets fellow inmates B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, a parody of the Blob), Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, a parody of the Fly), the Missing Link (Will Arnett, a parody of the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Insectosaurus (a parody of Godzilla). In charge of the facility is General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland), a no-nonsense military man who is tough but fair.
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Up

12 05 2010

Pixar stand as the spiritual torchbearers of the Walt Disney’s philosophy: just as Disney pushed the limits of traditional 2D hand-drawn animation in the 1930s and 1940s, Pixar has done the same for 3D computer animation in the 1990s and early 2000s. But both Disney and Pixar were also determined to demonstrate that animation could be used to tell dramatic stories with genuine pathos and emotions. In this way, Pixar are the polar opposite of the 3D animation wing of Dreamworks, who seem more interested in letting story serve the gags than having it be the other way around.

2008’s WALL-E was an artistic triumph, playing more as a return to silent-era comedy-drama than as a tentpole family film, and while its follow-up, 2009’s Up, doesn’t attempt anything so daring stylistically, it does test the limits of what sort of stories are commercially viable in the modern family film market.

The premise of the story concerns Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), an elderly widower determined to fulfil his late wife’s childhood dream of having a house on Paradise Falls, an exotic locale in South America. His solution? Fly the house there using helium-filled balloons.
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Pink Floyd The Wall

4 12 2007

Pink Floyd The WallIn late 1979, Pink Floyd released their double-LP concept-album The Wall, a satire and diatribe that savaged the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle while including pot-shots aimed at a sadistic education system and the personal effects of war. This was bassist Roger Waters’ baby, being as he conceived of the project in isolation and wrote the bulk of the material on the album.

In tandem with the recording of The Wall were plans to create an elaborate stage show and concert film, and while the stage show went ahead, the film began to take on a different role. No longer would it be a concert film supplemented with additional dramatic footage starring Waters; instead, Bob Geldof was cast as the lead and the film would feature no actual footage of the band. Gerald Scarfe (who had illustrated the album and provided animations for the stage show) would remain the animation director, however.

The film itself, directed by Alan Parker (Fame, Midnight Express), is a pretty sombre affair. Geldof plays Pink, a rock star burnt out by excess and facing a gradual psychological meltdown, obviously still traumatised by the death of his father in World War II as well as possessing various other gripes. Pink eventually turns completely inwards, building a metaphorical wall as a defence mechanism and developing an utter contempt for the adulation of his fans.
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Beowulf

30 11 2007

BeowulfNote: Beowulf is being screened in select venues in 3D; this review is of the regular theatrical presentation.

Ever since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis has increasingly relied on CGI technology in making films such as Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and Contact. But it was his animated adaptation of The Polar Express in 2004 where he pushed so-called “motion-capture” technology to its limits, and now, three years later, he revisits it with Beowulf.

The film is, of course, based on the epic poem of the same name, but screenwriters Neil Gaiman (MirrorMask) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) have crafted a modernised, coherent narrative out of the ancient source text. Here they assume an unreliable narrator in the source, and so Beowulf, originally a singularly heroic character, becomes a flawed man instead. Whether this works for or against the film is open to debate, but it’s hard not to admire the attempt to craft a thematically-unified three-act screenplay out of a poem that was never designed for such.

What deserves greater discussion, however, is the motion-capture technology itself. In The Polar Express, we had a situation that seemed like the worst of both worlds: too artificial to be fully convincing yet too lifelike to think of it as pure animation — it was as if Tom Hanks’ zombie twin had started dancing in Toontown. In Beowulf, things are greatly improved, but it often looks like a videogame cutscene rather than a bona fide film. (This technique would be perfect for a Warcraft film, perhaps.)
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