Archive for the ‘Animated films’ Category

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FUTURAMA: THE BEAST WITH A BILLION BACKS (Futurama Movie 2) (2008)

June 28, 2008

Futurama Movie: The Beast with a Billion Backs Review


Matt:

Length: 89 min

Précis: Futurama movie number two of four is focused on the theme of love … examined through a plot about an inter-universe rift and a planet-sized tentacle monster.  Most importantly though, it’s funnier than the first Futurama film!

Review by Matt:

Good news everyone! Futurama, the animated sci-fi comedy show created by Matt Groening, continues its afterlife with the release of the second of four post-television movies: The Beast with a Billion Backs. The Futurama fan base is large and diverse, so some of you will inevitably dispute my assessment – but let me tell you: The Beast with a Billion Backs is much better than the first Futurama movie. To quote one high profile film scholar, Bender’s Big Score was a “weak, boring disappointment”. Inexplicably, Beast with a Billion Backs is just a whole lot cleverer and funnier. The difference between the two is like watching a bad Futurama episode (like, say, The Deep South or That’s Lobstertainment!) and watching a pretty good one (like, say, Godfellas or The Farnsworth Parabox). Who knows what changed in the well-populated Futurama team – but it was the right thing. Beast with a Billion Backs is like the good old days of Futurama again. The jokes come frequently, they’re a combo of slapstick, black, offbeat and witty, and it’s all couched in the kind of sci-fi action that tickles your nerd centre.

Hopefully viewers know the premise of this show already. The movie doesn’t take any time to bring outsiders up to speed. No help from me – read the premise of the show if you need some background. Beast isn’t as “fans only” as the first Futurama Movie though, and there are less in-jokes. You’re also fine to watch this movie without having seen Bender’s Big Score.  The Beast With a Billion Backs gets straight into it: within the first five seconds, space has ripped open leaving an inter-universal portal hovering above New New York (presumably this was caused by Bender’s careless time-hopping in the previous film). Terrified earthlings are beginning to grow exhausted from pointing at it and screaming. It’s the kind of parallel-universe premise that Futurama loves (I also love it). But, in case the title didn’t already alert you, you’ll soon realise that this second Futurama film is mainly a big riff on the topic of love and sex. Despite the hovering gash in their universe, our main characters are largely concerned with romance:  Fry is preoccupied with his new girlfriend’s fancy for polygamy and Kif and Amy are headed to Kif’s home world to take part in a swampy, otherworldly marriage ceremony.

Meanwhile, Professor Farnsworth – aided by arch-rival Professor Wernstrom and the super-powered head of Stephen Hawking – investigates the anomaly.  In a typical Futurama parody, scientific efforts are brushed aside by the brash American president (the delightfully cantankerous Nixon’s head) who launches an all out military assault on the parallel world.  “Hell of a thing to send a universe to certain doom… “, philosophises mission leader Zap Brannigan, “Fun though! Makes a man feel big!” Of course, incorrigible robot Bender also has a primary plot thread, as he plays with his fellow robots (including one of my favourites – the pompous soap-star, Calculon) searching for a mythical cult called “The League of Robots”. He’s in fairly good form in this film, irascible and amoral as ever.

That’s just the beginning really. Messing with the anomaly soon unleashes an almighty universe-altering adventure, featuring a tentacled Casanova, voiced by David Cross. I won’t go into detail, but it’s another one of those extravagant sci-fi ideas for which Futurama is well known. This one adds a little dash of philosophical weirdity too, which I quite enjoyed. Potentially it has a level of absurdity that might not gel with everyone. Me? I love the absurdity. It’s kind of a War of the Worlds meets Everybody Loves Raymond caper that allows the love/sex theme to take centre stage. As you’d expect, the background to the film is also bustling with neat, nerdish ideas and parodies of modern life.

But the only reason these traits actually shine is that they are housed in 90 minutes that mostly stays sharp and funny. For me, that’s where the previous movie lost it. Beast with a Billion Backs is not off-the-scale funny – not all the jokes hit home – but there are still enough winners to make it pretty enjoyable. My biggest struggle was with the film’s meandering plot. I think it might be hard to stretch the Futurama style over 90 minutes, and the plot sometimes clunks forward a bit awkwardly. After so many jokey sidetracks you might start to wish there was something sturdier at the core. But there’s the rub: which do you want? It’s difficult to pump out constant irreverent humour and still maintain intricate plotting and deep characters. So, hey, overall I’m satisfied.

I lamented in my last review that the Futurama movies could do better than Bender’s Big Score. Effort number two, The Beast with a Billion Backs is a decent step up. It’s at least made sure it’s delivered on its core promise: there are plenty of moments to make you laugh!

(Note: Add your favourite lines from Beast With a Billion Backs in the comments section)

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PERSEPOLIS (2007)

June 22, 2008

Persepolis Review


Matt:

Length: 95 min

Précis: Creative and likeable “coming of age” story set against Iran’s modern history.

Review by Matt:

Persepolis is an animated cartoon version of Marjane Satrapi’s popular autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in Iran.  You might already be dubious, especially if you prefer the cinema to be a place for an entertaining escape and have been burned before by contemporary Iranian films (many of which are fine films but, oh so painful!) Don’t worry, Persepolis filters this potentially depressing subject through Marjane’s idiosyncratic viewpoint and tells a story with a refreshing wit and whimsy. Iran’s modern history, dominated by the deposition of the Shah and the consequent rise of the current fundamentalist regime, becomes the backdrop to a personal tale about rebellion against repression and the search for identity. It’s a touching and funny story whose messages are universal.

The story begins when Marjane is a small girl living with her family during the last days of the Shah in the late 1970s. It’s evident from the start that she’s a feisty non-conformist, obviously influenced by her liberal family, some of whom are even imprisoned as dissidents. Part of the delight of these early scenes is the way events are filtered through Marjane’s childish viewpoint. A story about the Shah, for example, unfolds on the screen as an animated fable. As she becomes older and the regime more repressive, Marjane’s indomitable free spirit leads to trouble and a self-imposed exile to Europe. More animated adventures confront her there, but special prominence is given to her search for identity as an Iranian living in the west.

There is a lot of enjoyment to be found simply in the film’s style of storytelling. The animation is almost anti-Pixar in its grey, un-glossy, two-dimensionality. Yet it is used creatively and evocatively, sometimes reminiscent of German expressionism, and it is ideal for animating flourishes from Marjane’s active imagination. Marjane also has an uplifting joie-de-vivre that shines through the oppression; she’s the kid who would sneak into backstreets Tehran to buy contraband Iron Maiden tapes, or who just has to ask the fundamentalists insolent questions about God.

The film’s autobiographical frame means that personal experiences trump political comment, but a humorous personal account is quite an interesting way to look at a foreign history and culture, and of course it makes the politics easier to swallow. A lot is said about indoctrination and martyrdom, for example, simply by Marjane’s brief encounter with her young cousin, who has been promised a key to a Heaven full of women in exchange for military service. Some of Marjane’s other digressions seem a bit indulgent and the film meanders slowly for a while, but Persepolis maintains an entertaining ability to poke fun. The focus on everyday details of life also reminds us nicely that people everywhere are really the same – even if they hail from the ‘axis of evil’.

It’s not a surprise that Persepolis has become so popular. It scooped the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival in 2007,  was nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Oscars, and is still touring the world, having just played at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival. It’s a likeable, unexpected gem that celebrates strength and spirit and proudly represents everyday people faced with dark times. Marjane Satrapi produced Persepolis outside of repressive Iran – she now lives in France. We’re lucky that protestations from Iran have been ignored and that we get the chance to see this exile’s unique picture of life in her former home.

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HORTON HEARS A WHO! (2008)

April 17, 2008

Horton Hears a Who! Review


Matt:

Length: 88 min

Taglines:
One Elephant One World One Story.
Who-mongous!
The Next Big Comedy Event.
A person’s a person no matter how small!

Précis: Charming and clever adaptation of Dr Seuss’s story that is actually a great laugh for adults too.

Review by Matt:

Horton Hears a Who! is another big budget, star-ridden, animated kids’ blockbuster. As an embellished adaptation of Dr Seuss’s famous children’s rhyme of the same name, Horton Hears a Who! has really got it going on for the kids. It’s imaginative, colourful, funny and friendly. But whether a film like this is truly high quality or not, it sometimes seems its target age group will always scream with delight, do some cartwheels, eat the happy meal, and then fall asleep on the way home. The true contest is: can it also appeal to you, the more discerning adult viewer?

The answer is a joyous ‘yes’. And unexpectedly so. I saw Horton Hears a Who! with some trepidation. Firstly, I’m not a kid. But secondly, I’m also not really a fan of Twentieth Century Fox Animations’ previous efforts, Robots and the Ice Age films. They seemed to lack the clever sparkle that made some of the Pixar hits – such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille – a hoot for adults as well. But, with Horton Hears a Who!, Fox found the sparkle. It is a frenzied delight, both clever and slapstick-funny, resulting in one of the most entertaining movies around at the moment for viewers of all ages.

Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an affable jungle elephant who one day hears tiny voices emanating from a speck of dust. He’s not crazy – his elephant ears have detected the sounds of an infinitesimal, fun-loving civilization called “Whos”. The Whos, led by their loveable Mayor (voiced by Steve Carrell), are cheerful oddballs and they love “Whoville”, a place of curves and contraptions that is quintessentially Seussian (and that could lead to a whole new wave of ‘sea-monkey’ sales). But in the world outside their world, the Whos’ speck-sized planet has been dislodged. Lucky thing Horton has nestled it safely in a flower so that he can find a place for safe resettlement. Unfortunately, Horton’s mission is impeded by the Jungle’s waspish matriarch (voiced by Carol Burnett), a kangaroo who surely would be out of a job if her name didn’t rhyme with “who”. Unable to hear the tiny Whos, Kangaroo is incensed at Horton’s imagination, insisting (rather fanatically) that imagination leads to rebellion and rebellion to anarchy. Meanwhile down in Whoville, the poor Mayor is the only one who can hear Horton, and he struggles to convince the inhabitants of a world where nothing has ever gone wrong, that something is about to go spectacularly wrong.

Horton Hears a Who! is tightly packed with action and movement – there are things flying around all over the place. As you’d expect, the animation is top-quality, but it is also directed smartly and a couple of the elaborate action sequences are great. But best of all, the film has a sense of humour with a taste for the absurd (the sudden ridiculous pop-song tickled me just right) and it is often, surprisingly, uproarious. Like many modern animations, it is also self-aware, which allows for a few smart anti‑climax jokes and a great parody sequence of the animated style. Maybe kids these days are getting used to post-modern animations (is post-post-modern on the way?) but I still love it when cartoons make jokes by defying genre conventions.

Using quality comedic actors for the voices also pays off. Steve Carrell plays a combination of his other “loveable doofus” characters, giving the Mayor a klutzy charm. Jim Carey uses just about the right balance of comedic wackiness for Horton, keeping the volume well below his maximum setting of “Ace Ventura”. Will Arnett gives an amusing exaggerated evil to Vlad, a vampiric vulture who sounds exactly as you would expect an evil character called Vlad to sound. With two evil vulture roles in a row (he was also the evil vulture in Ice Age 2) Will Arnett also cements himself as the number one vulture-voice guy in town.

Inside its zany shell, Horton Hears a Who! tells a pretty simple moral tale, championing Dr Seuss’s worthy maxim of universal humanity: “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The characters do seem a bit representational; Kangaroo is especially extreme – and kind of irritating – in all her imagination-crushing authority. The willingness of the jungle folk to be moulded into a lynch mob is also a bit disheartening. The film’s decrying of the “it doesn’t exist if you can’t see it” attitude could easily be interpreted as a religious comment, but thankfully it doesn’t really push this at us. In fact, the only pushing is saved for better messages: that we should stand up to the dream-crushers and that we should care for everyone, even the little folks. It’s a nice message to teach the little folks watching Horton Hears a Who. Of course, it doesn’t go astray on the big folks either (Dr Seuss’s original story was apparently a parable about the US occupation of Japan). But, the best bit of all is that it comes in a consistently hilarious and fun package.

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FUTURAMA: BENDER’S BIG SCORE (Futurama Movie) (2007)

December 16, 2007

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score review
Futurama bender’s big score

Matt: Two and a half stars
Tracy: Two stars

Length: 88min

Précis: You need to be a fan; but sadly even the fans will think this is like an over-long, low-quality Futurama episode.

Review by Matt:

I’m genuinely unhappy to be writing a review about the Futurama Movie: Bender’s Big Score. Because ever since it first aired in 1999, I’ve been a fan of Futurama, the animated sci-fi comedy show created by Matt Groening. And now I’m going to have to tell you that even though Bender’s Big Score is the first exciting glimpse of Futurama since its axing from the Fox network in 2003, and it’s the first ever feature-length Futurama film, the movie is a weak, boring disappointment. Sigh, I’m sorry. I really wanted it to be great as well.

The plot of Bender’s Big Score is an ok idea, reminiscent of the kind of time-travelling paradoxes that often formed the spine of the old Futurama episodes. Extra‑terrestrial email scammers (yep, like cockroaches they’ll still be around 1000 years in the future) trick their way into ownership of the Planet Express Delivery Service and then discover that delivery boy Phillip J Fry is unknowingly holding the secret to time travel on his person (guess where – on his butt – snigger). The scammers exploit it to quickly conquer the world. And then, as anyone who has seen the Back to the Future series should know, the overuse of the time travel secret begins to endanger the fabric of the space/time continuum. It’s left to parallel versions of Fry and the reprobate robot Bender to make things right again.

All of the main characters from the television show play some kind of role along the way – Zoidberg, Professor Farnsworth, Hermes, Amy, Leela, Zap Brannigan, even Scruffy the Janitor – though it’s obviously difficult to let them all shine properly in just 90 minutes. Unlike The Simpsons Movie, which made a successful transition to the big screen and brought with it quite a coherent movie-length plot, Bender’s Big Score feels uneven and piecemeal, as if a few short episodes were roughly cobbled together. The Simpsons Movie also brought the show’s charisma with it. Bender’s Big Score somehow leaves that behind, which is a real shame because the television Futurama was really packed with charm.

The major problem though, is that the jokes are lacking! In some old episodes of the series it felt like the writers were in a golden mood and every moment had a clever zing. In Bender’s Big Score, like in some of the worst episodes, it seems they’ve just stacked together a bunch of forced, half-baked gags. There are a few crackling moments – such as the two excellent musical numbers – but mostly the wit and ebullient mischievousness that featured in the best episodes of the show seems muted.

And fear ye who comes to this movie with no knowledge of Futurama the show! Characters and ideas from the series appear with no context. I just know there will be viewers out there looking at Ethan ‘Bubblegum’ Tate the interstellar Harlem Globetrotting space physicist, or at the rampaging robotic Santa from Neptune, or Leela’s sewer mutant parents, and just holding their heads in utter confusion. In fact there are many references in the film that are exclusively for the loving fans (such as an explanation for the fossilization of Fry’s dog Seymour, and even an explanation for the buildings that are lasered to the ground outside the cryogenic chamber in the very first episode) so die-hards should at least appreciate that.

Bender’s Big Score is still Futurama at heart. There is still lots of nerdy sci-fi joy, cool ideas, lovely animation and some decent chuckles. But it’s not enough to just service the fans with in-references and a pretty sci-fi setting. I wanted a film that shone like the cleverest and most innovative episodes of Futurama (and there was much clever writing over the five years of the show). The good news is that three more Futurama movies are on the way. They can really be better than this.

I can hardly bring myself to do this to a show I’ve loved, but, Bender’s Big Score: two and a half stars.

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BEOWULF 3D (2007)

December 7, 2007

Beowulf review
Beowulf

Matt: Two stars
Tracy: Two and a half stars

Length: 113min

Taglines:

Pride is the curse.
Survival is ruthless.
Evil breeds pain.

Précis: Rare chance to see something sucking in spectacular 3D!

Review by Matt:

Originally a pre-10th century poem on a parchment, the classic tale of ‘Beowulf’ has been transported into the 21st century as a spectacular 3D film. Spectacular looking only though. Sadly, Beowulf the film is just gloss, gore and paper-thin drama, inflated into a cinematic spectacle. If this film was retranslated back into poetry, it would be doggerel for some student revue rather than an epic worthy of its home in the London museum.

Cinematically at least though, Beowulf is a rare experience. The use of ‘performance capture’ technology means a cast of famous and recognisable actors appear on screen as their digitised doppelgangers. Unfortunately the zombifying effect of this process sucks some of the emotion out of their faces, which could have been useful for, say, emoting. Ray Winstone supplies the frame and voice for Beowulf the great Danish warrior. The computers have shaved him down, sucked his fat and beefed him up, but they don’t hide his rough cockney voice – “cor blimey, I’ll have that bleedin’ monster’s loaf, eh guvners?” (those might not have been the exact words he used). Angelina Jolie appears as a seductive water demon. She didn’t require quite the extreme CGI makeover that Winstone needed, but it’s still been used to sexualise her – Jolie’s demon gets around in a naked, neutered body with built-in high-heeled feet (how inconvenient – she can never stop and kick them off to run like most Hollywood heroines would). She ices it with an out-of-place Russian accent and a lot of pouting. Anthony Hopkins is a tired-looking King Hrothgar and Jon Malkovich is instantly recognisable as a pathetic courtier, whose voice somehow seems even more Malkovichy than ever.

Don your 3D glasses and these characters are suddenly thrusting all kinds of phallic objects out of the screen and into the theatre. Yet, despite our hero’s novel decision to battle monsters in the nude (please see Eastern Promises for what really happens when you fight in the nude), none of these items is an actual phallus (leading to Tracy’s disdainful summary of the film: “Bah, my $17.50 might have been worth it if they’d shown a giant 3D penis!”). In fact the film is weirdly timid. It goes to lengths to conceal Beowulf’s bits – so much so that it looks like a Simpsons-style visual joke. As is often the case in these Hollywood movies, this coyness is ironic considering there are no qualms about splashing blood and gore all about the screen. These blood splattered action sequences are pretty stunning though. Flying dragons crash along cliff faces, the enormous, gruesome Grendl throws body parts around and roars in the flickering darkness – it’s all absorbing stuff.

But, ultimately we have to put the visuals aside and say: what the hell was going on in this film? I don’t mean the plot; there’s no mystery there. No, I mean the utterly wayward tone. In one sense Beowulf is a film that moralises about lust and greed. On the other hand it is obviously making the audience into voyeurs and trying to titillate. One minute it presents dialogue that needs a serious atmosphere otherwise it will appear risible; yet the next minute a naked man is literally bursting his body out of the eye of a giant monster and bellowing “I am ripper, tearer, slasher, gouger… I AM BEOWULF!”

I get that writers Neil Gaiman (who wrote one my favourite series of graphic novels – Sandman) and Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction) have tried to modernise the story. They’ve made Beowulf a fallible anti-hero. They’ve made Grendl a pitiable monster who’s only disembowelling the Kingdom’s revellers so they’ll stop inflaming his nasty headache (if only he’d thought of earplugs). They’ve twisted the plot to squeeze out some themes about human weaknesses. But could these themes have been more sophisticated than “moral men are corrupted by women’s sexuality”? The women’s roles are terrible! Perhaps the Queen’s most of all, who is ‘inherited’ into a servile marriage and proves her worth by dutiful acceptance. That’s regression, not modernisation. Beowulf 2007 has just ended up as a post-modern melange that is all froth. You’re not going to be deeply touched. It’s like medieval MTV.

If they were going to ‘modernise’ Beowulf by making it a show about buff and semi‑nude dimwits strutting along the coast in ancient Denmark, maybe they could have called it Beowatch.  It is not quite as empty as Baywatch. but Beowulf does seem to have taken large dollops of Baywatch’s macho posturing and exploitive perving, transported them to ancient Denmark, and transformed them into amazing 3D.  Maybe we should at least be grateful it doesn’t feature a big 3D David Hasselhoff as well.

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RATATOUILLE (2007)

November 14, 2007

Ratatouille review
Ratatouille

Matt: Four Stars
Tracy:Three and a half Stars

Length: 110min

Taglines:

Dinner is served… Summer 2007.
A comedy with great taste.
He’s dying to become a chef.
Everyone can cook!

Review by Matt:

The Pixar studio has a great record of producing delightful animated family films such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story and The Incredibles. The latter won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2005 (which is no surprise – it was a truly gratifying romp) and its writer Brad Bird also wrote and directed Ratatouille. So expectations were pretty high for this film and, although Ratatouille isn’t my favourite Pixar creation, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

In Ratatouille, Remy is a rat with a special talent. Unlike his garbage-hungry family, Remy is a gourmand and a genius chef. He has been spying through windows at cooking shows and he’s learned to cook like a pro. When Remy and his family are chased from their idyllic country lodgings, Remy is miraculously washed up at the restaurant belonging to his lifelong idol, the late chef Gusteau. Before long Remy is embroiled in the action of the kitchen, secretly creating delights to impress the customers by hiding under the hat of the bumbling and talentless Linguini and manipulating him like a marionette. With Linguini’s body and Remy’s talents the pair are a winning team, and soon they’re adventuring to keep Linguini in employment, win the heart of the restaurant’s female chef, and impress the trenchant Anton Ego, a humorless and death-like food critic (voiced by Peter O’Toole).

Ratatouille is exquisitely made. The quality of feature animations these days has reached dizzying heights, and the Pixar studio is well in the lead (I don’t even want to think about Dreamworks’ recent effort, Shrek 3). Ratatouille is like the modern version of a perfect classical Hollywood-era film, constructed by a studio at the top of its game. The production is lavish and frankly incredible. The plot is the classic three act script – balance, calamity, restorative denouement – and it’s one that is sure to satisfy a wide range of viewers of all ages; although younger kids could possibly struggle with the near two-hour length.

Much of the film’s appeal rests in its captivating atmosphere. As a background, Paris is a living, breathing character, and the scenes where Remy programs Linguini to respond to his commands like a Pavolvian dog are goofily enchanting. There are also scenes of breath-taking animated action which, in my opinion, even top the thrills and possibilities of live action cinema. Nothing can control our gaze with the same flexibility as realistic animation. To top it off, the film is sweet. I found its key message – don’t discount anyone – rather uplifting. Rats have never looked better than in Ratatouille – both in appearance and personality. Even if you’re rat-a-phobic, there’s a good chance you can warm to little Remy.

I was thinking that I must be in a good mood recently. My usual cinema-cynicism seems to have dissolved, and I just had a lovely warm feeling while watching Ratatouille. That’s despite the fact that it is essentially a kids’ film with all the concepts, characters and colour that you find in scores of kids’ films. But it wasn’t just that I was in an accidentally sanguine mood. Ratatouille put me there because it is a smartly written, brilliantly animated, and charming film.