Tag Archives: stop motion animation

Early Man

A tribe of bunny-hunting cavemen has a sudden clash with bronze-age humans a little further up the evolutionary ladder. This strikes me as very fertile ground for interesting and tragic stories despite the language difficulty, but Aardman Animations took it another way. The bronze boobs are all set to enslave the cavemen and steal their land when Dug, a plucky, dreamy caveman, proposes a deal: neanderthals vs homo sapiens in a football match for their lives.

Yeah, I mean obviously it makes no sense. But that’s it, that’s all you get in terms of story. This may be the early bronze age, but plot is in as short supply as dinosaurs in this film, who have just been demolished by a comet that seems to have spared the people, an opening sequence suggests. I love stop motion animation as a rule, and Aardman has had a string of successes, which have fooled me into thinking I might like Early Man. I didMV5BMWQ3MTVjZGItNGFhNC00NzllLWFmMjEtNjk0NjgyMWZhNTRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_ not. There is little room for imagination, and too little of the gentle humour I’ve come to expect. I suppose a lot is lost on myself, a North American dwelling in a country where soccer is the #1 sport played by children under the age of 8, and the #0 sport for all other humans and dogs. So you can imagine that a historically inaccurate (I’m guessing) origin story featuring a sport that already bores me out of my gourd is not exactly championing its cause. And I’ve actually got plenty of soccer in my life – played by a couple of 4 year olds. Their version of soccer is agonizingly slow, uncomplicated by rules, embellished with dandelion picking and popsicle breaks. And it’s still boring as shit. Thank goodness the players themselves are endearing as hell, in t-shirts down to their knees and wearing shin pads that just shout optimism, as if any of them are actually going to get near the ball, which spends most of its time looking forlorn.

And yet watching children’s soccer is still more entertaining than watching Early Man. Plus it tends to be mostly pun-free, which is something I only wish I could say about today’s movie, which was replete with the fuckers. Featuring voice talent such as Eddie Redmayne, Timothy Spall, and Tom Hiddleston, you’d think they would have spent at least as much time on character building as the average United player spends crying on the pitch, faking an injury. Early Man is another kind of painful, a kind that made me miss Volvo-driving soccer moms and orange slices. And you can guess how many times I’ve said that in my life.

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SXSW: Isle of Dogs

Read the title out loud and kind of quick, and it’s hardly distinguishable from “I love dogs” but the conflict in the film actually comes from not loving them enough. A city in Japan has a dog-hating mayor who selfishly spreads lies and rhetoric about the dog flu, and gets and\or manufactures enough support that he succeeds in banishing all dogs to Trash Island.

As most of you know (because my bursting heart can’t shut up about it), I’m lucky enough to share my life and home with four of the sweetest doggies in the world. I Isle of Dogs 1 via Fox Searchlight Headersometimes wonder if I prefer dogs to people, and I certainly do prefer my dogs to most people. I think dogs are so much better than we deserve. They are 100% heart. So it’s hard for me to imagine a bunch of dog owners so willing to sentence their dogs to a terrible, lonely, miserable life and death. Of the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of dogs sent to live and die on Trash Island, only one is lucky enough to have an owner come looking for him – a 12 year old boy named Atari. When Atari becomes stranded on the island, a scruffy pack of dogs generously decides to help him find his beloved Spots. Duke (Jeff Goldblum), King (Bob Balaban), Rex (Ed Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), and even the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston) band together to reunite boy and dog on a journey that you  might just say belongs in a Wes Anderson movie.

And it is a Wes Anderson movie, horray! So of course it’s got some truly absorbing attention to detail, a sweet soundtrack, and a poignancy verging on nostalgia. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is beautifully rendered in stop-motion animation. Each dog puppet is a thing of beauty, with fur (made of alpaca hair, apparently) so pettable and little noses that you’re sure are moist to the touch. Their expressive eyes bore into you, and as Bob Balaban so eloquently put it during the Q&A following the film, it could have been a silent film and still been just as affecting.

As saturated as they are aesthetically, some may argue that Wes Anderson movies are ultimately style over substance. Isle of Dogs has some pretty obvious themes about mass hysteria and maybe even fake news, but for me the takeaway is simply to love better – dare I say, more like a dog, fully, and with devotion.

Torrey Pines

So here’s a movie for all you people who like to take some risks with your cartoon watching!

Torrey Pines is stop-motion animated, but there’s no clay in sight, it’s all paper cut outs, which I kind of loved. I mean, I’m a sucker for stop-motion any day of the week, but this one looks like something your or I could do, if only we had tonnes of time and talent and patience and a kick-ass story to tell. Clyde Petersen has all of those things, and this is (sort of) his story.

It’s about Clyde when Clyde was still a 12 year old girl dealing with gender identity and the struggle of finding his way. The film is filled with wild hallucinations and MV5BMjEzNjMwMTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk4NDg4MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1763,1000_AL_psychological projections, so even though the movie is without dialogue, we still feel what Clyde is feeling. When in the car with his mother, we don’t hear them argue, but when a speech bubble features a bear biting off the head of a rabbit, we get the gist. Clyde’s mother is schizophrenic, and what she sees as a fun-filled family road trip from San Diego up to New York, the rest of the world views more as kidnapping. It’s a trip that will change Clyde and his family forever.

My love for stop-motion exists because there’s just no better way to visually represent the love and attention that goes into making a film. Stop-motion will often show us how something works close up, and we see beauty in this new perspective. Torrey Pines doesn’t disappoint; I particularly loved seeing the jointed fingers at work. But it’s also not traditionally beautiful animation. It reminded me of being in high school – my friend Kelly one day said to me that my shoes were so ugly they were cool. Up until that exact moment I’d only seen the cool in them, and forever afterward couldn’t stop seeing the ugly (she was right). The look of Torrey Pines is also ugly-cool (although legitimately both), and perhaps there is no better aesthetic to explore a coming of age story in the 1990s.

I mentioned earlier that there’s no dialogue to this movie, and that definitely proved challenging for Sean. Maybe it’s not for everyone but I liked that this film was a rule-breaker. Music and score play a much larger role in the film because of the lack of speaking roles, and it really moves us along through the stages of the film. There’s a lot to see and think about in this movie, heavy stuff, but really relatable and authentic  with a flavour all its own.

My Life As A Zucchini

Zucchini goes to live in an orphanage after his alcoholic mother dies. The orphanage is not a bad place. This is not a bad-orphanage movie. It’s about the broken children who live inside. The kids are there for many reasons (deportation, mental health, abuse, poverty, etc); some can dream of one day returning home, while others know they never will. For the most part the children band together and support one another as they cope with loss.

MV5BMGU1ZDI5Y2ItOTY2OS00ZjBiLThkYzEtZDIxOTA4NmVmMjE3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyOTI5MQ@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_My Life As A Zucchini is stop-motion animated in a very compelling way. It’s a simple story with colourful characters and a strange title but make no mistake, there’s little silliness awaiting you. It’s a pretty bleak story.

I watched the version dubbed in English, which features voice work by Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Ellen Page, and Amy Sedaris. But even with all this wonderful adult interference, director Claude Barras keeps the story firmly within Zucchini’s corner. The story is told through the eyes of children, almost without taint from the adult world. It is heartbreaking but also tender and compassionate. By focusing on the resilience of children and the difference even one caring person can make, hope shines its rays even on this dark little tale.

I enjoyed this very much. It’s not as heavy on the heart as it sounds, and Barras manages to wrap things up in under 70 minutes. I’m always a fan of the loving work that goes into stop-motion and this one is no exception – perhaps it is exceptional. The expressive characters and honest story give My Life As A Zucchini a sensitivity, like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. I’m very taken by this and am heartened to see animation tackling such complex characters so deftly. Definitely worth a watch, tissues at the ready.

Kubo And The Two Strings

A little dark, and a little melancholy for kids, but for me, near perfection.

Kubo is a little boy with a magical, ancient Japanese banjo. Well, technically the banjo wasn’t ancient at the time – he lives in ancient Japan. And the banjo isn’t actually a banjo, it’s a shamisen. When he plays his magical shamisen, his origami comes to life and helps him tell awesome stories about warriors and samurai. He’s busking, essentially, and the captivated crowd rewards him with a few coins – a good thing because he provides for his sick mother, who lives outside the village in a cave.  When she’s not in a trance, she’s adamant that Kubo always return before sundown. It was surprisingly sound advice from the mentally ill because THE ONE TIME he doesn’t, hell breaks loose. Ancient Japanese hell.

kubo-and-the-two-strings-530x298Turns out, Kubo’s grandfather is some sort of Moon God. Grandfather has already “stolen” one of Kubo’s eyes and wants to get his hands on the other – in blindness, his grandson can join him in immortality, ruling the sky. He sends his 2 creepy daughters to do the dirty work while his 3rd daughter, Kubo’s mom, struggles to protect him with what little magic she has left.

The movie is a grand adventure with more beauty in any random 30 seconds than The Secret Life of Pets has in its entire running time. As usual with Laika productions (they brought you Coraline), there are darker feelings at play, a sometimes ominous and foreboding tone unusual in a children’s movie, and yet the kids in the audience seemed to tolerate it better than they did Pete’s Dragon. It’s a glorious act of story-telling that feels like something genuinely passed down for generations. Every time Kubo picks up his shamisen, be prepared for some of the loveliest music you’ll hear at the movies. It sweeps you up into the magic of his origami, and the whole thing feels alive and vibrant, steeped in a culture filled with divine tradition.

Kubo And The Two Strings is surprisingly well-balanced tonally, able to incorporate gags meant Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-just for kids between bouts of horror, humour, and yes, tragedy. It’s quite brave, when you think of it. Suicide Squad pulled back on the Joker’s villainy, and Ben-Hur rewrote some of its savagery. This, a meticulously animated piece of art, has the backbone to trust children with some rather heavy themes. And it does it while also being the most visually arresting thing I’ve seen at the movies this year. It’s a spectacle, and a technical triumph. Having no wordly idea how they pulled some scenes off just adds to the magic. Laika is no stranger to Oscar nominations for animation, and is sure to earn another, but this movie demolishes even their own high bar. Laika doesn’t have the cachet of Pixar so politically, beating Finding Dory will be difficult. But the proof is on the big screen: it is undoubtedly the better film.

The Little Prince

A little girl has a bright future ahead of her. How do I know? She and her mother (Rachel McAdams) have her whole life planned out. A life plan so intense she’s more like her mother’s Senior VP than her daughter. Her mother’s best compliment: “You are going to make a wonderful grownup.”

But the crazy old man (Jeff Bridges) next door draws her out of her mature little shell with his fanciful inventions and his beautiful story-telling. His stories and drawings come to life in animation within the animation: the story of The Little Prince.

Growing up it was always Le Petit Prince to me, but even en anglais, the timeless story warms the heart. The main story, starring the little girl, and the crazy man’s story, starring the little prince, are distinguished with different styles of animation. The little girl is done in familiar CG style; the little prince is stop-motion, done not in clay but in paper. Both are lovely, 210b0b20-a7ab-11e5-88e2-828a3e695a05_1280x720but I confess a fondness for the nostalgia and simple loveliness of the latter.

The voice cast is incredible: Jeff Bridges, Paul Rudd, Albert Brooks, Marion Cotillard, Benicio Del Toro, and more. It’s a real testament to just how cherished the book is, around the world. The Little Prince is a sweet children’s book but it can be read and enjoyed by adults, with many layers of themes to interpret. The same goes for the movie, faithfully and lovingly adapted from its source.

The little girl, too grown up for her own good, rediscovers childhood lp-garden-rgb-5kthrough friendship with the batty old guy next door. But anyone who knows the story knows that along with sweetness, there is also sorrow. The first half of the movie is all poetry and imagination. The second half falters a bit when it gets further away from Saint-Exupéry’s ideas and ideals. The movie is a little less fanciful than the novella, a little more down to earth. But The Little Prince has always been the stuff of dreams, too good, too ethereal for Earth. It’s still lovely though. It’s still one of the loveliest things I’ve seen all summer.

 

Frankenweenie

frank3There once was a dog named Sparky. He was smart, athletic, and a talented film star, at least in his best pal Victor’s homemade creations. Victor is a little boy with no friends other than his beloved dog Sparky, so when Sparky meets his untimely demise, the waterworks commence. And Victor’s not too happy about it either.

We already know that I should never watch movies the feature dead dogs, but did you know that policy should even apply to movies where the dead dog is reanimated?

Yup, still pulls on the old heartstrings. Sparky, meanwhile, has all kinds of strings holding him together, but no amount of stitches prevent his ears and tail from occasionally falling off, which seems rather macabre for a children’s movie.

Frankenweenie leaps from the mind of mad genius Tim Burton – and it’s based on a short film

FRANKENWEENIE - (Pictured) Tim Burton holding Sparky. ©2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by: Leah Gallo

FRANKENWEENIE – (Pictured) Tim Burton holding Sparky. ©2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by: Leah Gallo

he made back in the 80s. Victor, like everyone else in his world, is a sort of monster, but in his heart he’s just a boy inspired by his science teacher to put the screws to the laws of nature. As soon as he successfully jolts the carcass of his deceased friend to mostly-positive, mostly-alive results, his classmates are blackmailing to do them same for theirs. And not all pets are created equal. If the story sounds a little familiar, it should. It’s a tongue-in cheek homage to the classic 1931 film Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s book of the same name.

This is a beautiful stop-motion feature that used over 200 separate puppets, with roughly 18 different versions of Victor alone. The puppets have human hair and 40–45 joints. Sparky was constructed as rather “dog-sized” and is comprised of about 300 parts, some of them made by watch makers, to bring his mechanical skeleton to life.

It was the first black-and-white feature film and the first stop-motion film to be released in IMAX 3D, and went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for best animated film (it lost to Brave, frank1though it should have lost to Wreck-It-Ralph). It’s got loads of great voice talent from Tim Burton favourites like Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands), Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice), Martin Short (Mars Attacks!), and Martin Landau (Ed Wood).

For those of us who like our Halloween fun with a little less blood and a little more guts, I’d say this one is a definite holiday staple. What’s your favourite  Halloween thing to watch? Do you have a pet you wish you could bring back? Check out the comments for my own Frankenweenie!

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Capital Pop Up Cinema Presents…

We are very fortunate to live in the beautiful capital city of our country, and to have constant opportunity to do fun and exciting things. The good folks at Capital Pop Up Cinema have brought us a whole season of random, outdoor movie screenings, but this summer being packed full of travel and adventure, we only caught the last couple of offerings.

Last week, in the heart of the bustling Byward Market, hundreds of people brought lawn chairs, cozy blankets and hot chocolate to brave the cool temps for a viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas. There were more than a few Jack Skellingtons in attendance, and the audience was in a festive and excitable mood as the sun set and the Capital Pop Up’s inflatable screen came to life. The market is the heart of our fair city, choc-full of restaurants, retailers, art galleries, night clubs, and stands selling beaver tails. Not to mention the extra-wide, pedestrian-friendly streets to accomodate the fabulous, year-round outdoor farmer’s markets that sell seasonal produce, everything from cranberries and parsnips to eggs and goat’s milk ice cream – not forgetting our world-maple syrup, of course! So imagine, if you will, this vivacious part of town, the constant stream of happy and satiated people, the occasional tour bus, the frenquent brides posing for photos, the sidewalk chalk artists, the parents pushing ginormous strollers, vendors with their gerbera daisies, and in the middle of it all, an impromptu outdoor cinema! I thought it might be distracting but actually it was good fun, and there were plenty of passerby (and maybe a homeless guy or two) who stopped to appreciate the movie and the intoxicating scent of popcorn in the air.

The Nightmare Before Christmas: a visually arresting work of stop-motion animation that blew everyone’s socks off in 1993, and legions of fans still know every musical number by heart (I can attest to that, having unintentionally sat beside some die-hards). Henry Selick directed but the film is popularly known to be Tim Burton’s, who wrote and produced the film but was simply too busy to direct. The film is about Jack Skellington, a denizen of Halloweentown who accidentally follows a portal to Christmastown, and decides that others back home should be able to celebrate this new and wonderful holiday as well – to darkly comic results. Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, and PeeWee Herman all contribute voice work.

The week before, Capital Pop Up Cinema screened The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a 1920 German silent horror film that was brought to life with live musicians. It played to a smaller but enthusiastic crowd in the parking lot of Das Lokal, a kitchen and bar at 190 Dalhousie where chef Robert Fuchs serves up delicious European fare with a German twist. The charcuterie and das schnitzel are particularly recommended, and the cocktailed called Zugspitze (vodka, elderflower liqueur, cranberry juice) is an inspired choice from the bar.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janotwitz and Carl Mayer, it’s considered to be not only the quintessential work of German expressionist film, but also among the first true horror films. It tells the tale of an insane hypnotist (wide-eyed Werner Krauss) who uses a sleepwalker (Conrad Viedt) to commit murder. The screen writers, both pacificts, wrote the story in the wake of WW1, showing a people’s need for brutal and irrational authority; Dr. Caligari represents the German war government, and Cesare is symbolic of the common man conditioned, like soldiers, to kill. Some say the movie reflects Germany’s particular need of a tyrant, but that seems facile in the shadow of Hitler. The film’s visual style is graphic and jarring, with deliberate distortion to give the impression of insanity and instability. Honestly, the art work is to die for and you could honestly treat this film as a trip to a museum and that alone will ensure your rapt entertainment. This film has a huge legacy that I am ill-equipped to discuss at length, but lucky for me I’ve come across a really great post by fellow blogger David at Movie Morlocks that will do the dirty work for me.

 

 

Shaun the Sheep

If you like stop-motion animation, Shaun the Sheep is worth checking out.  If you happen to like stop-motion animation and fart jokes, well, this movie’s going to make you feel like a pig in mud.  And if you don’t like stop-motion animation, ask yourself why, and see if Shaun the Sheep makes you squeal with delight.   Because this movie is simply beautiful to watch.

Having tried to make a stop-motion re-enactment of the war of 1812 for history class one year, using GI Joes, I have an appreciation for how difficult it is to pull off something passable.  Getting to a flawless finished product like Shaun the Sheep must be insanely difficult.  The effort is all on the screen and it’s marvelous.  This clearly was a labour of love for all involved at Aardman Animations.

As for the story, it’s strictly for kids, but the target audience is going to be as happy as a dog with two tails (as they were at our packed Saturday morning screening).  The interesting thing is there are no actual words being used by any of these characters, it’s all just noise.  Minions did a similar thing and did it well, and I’d say Shaun the Sheep one ups Minions because not even the humans speak English (which is ironic for a movie coming out of the UK) yet the story still seemed clear and easy to follow even for the younger audience members.

There are lots of laughs for kids here but fewer for adults.  A few gags are universal (counting sheep in particular) but it seemed that the writers were just throwing the occasional bone to the expected parental crowd rather than trying to make this movie appeal directly to all ages.  As Jay has mentioned in the past, that across-the-board accessibility expectation for animation is a product of Pixar’s excellence that didn’t traditionally exist.  I won’t hold the lack of adult focus against Shaun the Sheep, because it’s a throwback by nature and as a kids movie it hits the bullseye.

I give Shaun the Sheep nine farm animal references out of ten.

Mary and Max

I hardly have words for how much this movie charmed and delighted me.

It premiered on the opening night of the Sundance festival in 2009, the very first animated film to do so, but it’s taken me all this time to learn of it and watch it.

mary-and-max_154214It’s beautifully animated in very nearly black and white stop-motion, rich in details. Truly, I could have watched this movie in slow motion just to appreciate all of the work that went into each and every piece. You can see the love and attention that went into this; artists laboured for over a year, building 133 separate sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a tiny but fully-functional Underwood typewriter that took 9 weeks to design and build.

Mary (Toni Colette) and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are unlikely pen pals – one, a young and ostracized young girl from Australia who believes babies come from beer steins, and the other, a morbidly obese New Yorker who is autistic in a time before that diagnosis is really made or understood. They are each in desperate need of a friend, and somehow manage to find one in each other.

This movie very deftly and sensitively tackles all kinds of issues, from Max’s fragile mental maxhealth, to atheism, childhood neglect, even to Mary’s war vet neighbour who is agoraphobic (“He’s scared of going outside which is a disease called homophobia.”)

The film is tragic at times, but has this pervasive sweetness to it that makes everything bearable. The story is often told via letters exchanged between the two, which some may find a little quiet, but I’m a sucker for animated films made for adults, and this one I’m all over. The characters have this bold honesty that I couldn’t get enough of (In her first letter, Mary encloses a drawing of herself  with the caveat “I can’t draw ears properly but I’m great at teeth”; in one of his responses, Max asks, in typical random fashion, “Have you ever been a communist? Have you ever been attacked by a crow or a similar large bird?”) Honestly, I watched this movie like it was my favourite book, or the greatest dessert – savouring it, delighting in it, racing toward the culmination but dreading the end.

Lots of the visuals are their own little jokes, but blink and you’ll miss them (keep your eyes peeled for clever epitaphs on the graves). One of my personal favourites was that some of the mary and maxstamps used by Mary featured Dame Edna, whom I love, have loved since childhood, while it was Barry Humphries himself who narrates the film. So delicious.

Director Adam Elliot is also behind the Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet – worth a viewing all on its own, but also a good barometer for the tone of Mary and Max. It never got a theatrical release in North America but it’s available on Netflix right this minute, and if you check it out now, I guarantee it’s not a minute too soon.