REVIEW: Oscar nominated shorts-Animation

Don’t expect kids’ favorite stories when you think of Animation. One (Robin, Robin) of the five of this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts (Robin, Robin / Boxballet / Affairs of the Art / Bestia / The Windshield Wiper ) did fall into this category, but the others either hold confusion, bizarreness, obsessions, and horror of the world. Here I’ll focus mainly on ‘Affairs of the Art’, an animation in a pencil-drawn style that reflects on how modern society defines art and allow strange things to happen in its name while giving short comments on others.

Robin, Robin – very cute, fluffy animation with the ever-selling theme of finding your value despite the environment that says otherwise. Cliche told again but not boring.

Boxballet – Very interesting visual contrast of the characters, explaining very much through this visual information. Surprising and bitter point-back to the political reality at the very end.

Affairs of the Art – Strong, grotesque criticism on ‘Arts’. This features a story of a middle-aged woman who gloats that she is doing ‘Art’ while forcing a model to move for her even when it’s clear that the model is suffering from it. Her story expands over her family members, who each seem to have a weird obsession. The main character gives an example of art as her sister’s obsession with dead and rotting things which occasionally involving animal abuse points could refer to obsessions and grotesque, even immoral things being allowed as ‘Art’, and her sister’s success seems to refer to the society’s funding poured to that form of ‘Art’ when it catches people’s attention and is demanded by the market. The main character’s gloat of finally doing art also criticizes how Art is praised like something divine and desired the snobbism, or the neglecting of questions asking whether the deeds done in the name of art are acceptable or right. The story tells about how obsessions for such art could be bizarre and grotesque, and even expands it toward a more commercialized form of art, the art of ‘the body’, by the main character’s sister saying that her reformed body is like ‘an exhibition’. The sweet art style of pencil drawing did not prevent this animation from conveying disturbing emotions. This one is a strong one.

Bestia – Chilling cross-showing of reality and mental breakdown based on a horrible historical villain of Chile. Dolls made of Regin were a perfect choice to convey the character. Because of its storyline crossing over reality and imagination, sometimes it was hard to tell whether a scene was in reality or not without the historical background.

The Windshield Wiper – Visually very satisfying and colorful. In this collection of short scenes, the scenes of each very short that last less than a minute, even with chunks of dialogues or not at all, tell a strong story and conveys emotions, and for that, I praise this film. However, how the scenes will add up was not as clear.

PREVIEW: Oscar nominated shorts – Animation

2022 Oscar-nominated short films are playing at Michigan theater. It’s divided into three categories – live-action, Animation, or Documentary.

This year’s Animation nominations consists of five animations:

  1. Robin Robin (Dan Ojari and Mikey Please / UK) – A holiday movie featuring Robin
  2. Boxballet(Anton Dyakov / Russia) – a love story of a boxer and a ballerina, not just romantic
  3. Affairs of the Art (Joanna Quinn and Les Mills / UK/Canada) – This is about a factory worker who aspires to be an artist. It has unique drawing styles that has soft but vivid lines, like a pencil or conte
  4. Bestia (Hugo Covarrubias and Teo Diaz / Chile) – This will be a scary one, inspired by a violent secret police agent of Chile’s military dictator
  5. The Windshield Wiper (Alberto Mielgo and Ledo Sanchez / USA/Spain) – According to the director, the central question of this one is  “What is love?”

As can be guessed by the drawing style of each animation (please refer to the featured image if you want to check them out yourself), this combination seems to be different from the pleasant, heart-warming, and dreamy Disney fantasies. After all, this is an animated film rated R. Instead, they look a bit eerie and definitely unique; the LA Times described that they plumb the heart – and the heart of darkness“.

Passport to the Arts offers free student entry until March 22. For more information, please visit the Arts at Michigan Website. (Passport to the Arts – Arts at Michigan (umich.edu))

REVIEW: Belle

I REALLY wanted to like Belle.

I’ve loved many of Mamoru Hosoda’s other movies: Summer Wars, Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and of course the O.G.: Digimon Adventure 1999 (my childhood). My gut reaction after watching Belle was to go back and rewatch all of those instead.

Belle is an animated film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that follows a high school student named Suzu who escapes the insecurity and loneliness of her real life through ‘U’, a dazzling virtual alternate universe where she can be someone completely different. Her virtual persona quickly rises to extreme popularity and she has to navigate these dual versions of herself while going through the trials and triumphs of high school, love, friendship, and grief.

Let’s start with the Good:
[1] The animation was BEAUTIFUL. I mean OH MY GOODNESS can we sit and appreciate how far animation has come in the last decade? The depictions of the alternate Digiverse ‘U’ were so effective at showing how vast it was, how many detailed moving parts there were within it. The characters truly came alive on screen as people with blood, sweat, and tears.
[2] The sound design was also incredible. Suzu’s singing features prominently throughout as a metaphor for her confidence in herself and her love for her mother. The songs were all super catchy and well written and lingered in my mind long after the movie ended.

Alas, now we must go onto the reasons this movie was not my cup of tea, despite the great art and sound:
[1] The story was a big bowl of confusion soup. In a sci-fi movie about the metaverse, I expect the plot to be a little out there, but some things in this movie just go beyond logical human behavior. After the umpteenth weird sideball I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The story felt weak and underdeveloped.

[2] This movie wanted so bad to be a character-driven film, and it almost got there! At the beginning, the writing was strong – the main character Suzu had a powerful backstory that set the audience up to understand her struggles and root for her. And listen, I admire an aspirational storyteller. But if stories are onions, this one had about 10 too many layers. There’s a random scene that’s supposed to nod at Beauty and the Beast but it doesn’t make sense given the characters and doesn’t mesh with the rest of the story. Near the end of the movie the tone suddenly goes from adventurous to extremely serious and then back to playful so quickly I got whiplash. Not even the most masterful chef could fold that many plotlines into one and tie them up with a neat little bow. But that is what this movie tried to do and the result was a cliche ending that didn’t seem resonant with the important questions posed at the beginning of the movie: How do we continue living with joy when we’ve lost the irreplaceable? How do we learn to love ourselves? How do we rediscover our love for the things we loved as children? I’ve heard Hosoda described as a “maximalist” storyteller and here I’d have to agree — there was too much, and as a result there wasn’t enough.

All in all, if you’re an anime connoisseur then I would say give this a watch for the dazzling animation. But life is short, and in my humble opinion Hosoda’s Summer Wars is much, much better — spend your two hours in that world instead.

REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest film, and it has a lot of firsts for Disney: it is their first film to be inspired by Southeast Asian culture, it has a unique score, and it even looks and feels like a video game at times. But, despite these firsts, the film is quintessentially Disney. It features goofy side characters and has some corny dialogue, and its overall message makes it a Disney film at heart. The titular heroine, Raya, seeks the last dragon, who she hopes will vanquish the menacing Druun monsters that have been ravaging her home. Raya belongs to one of five tribes that had previously been united under the land of Kumandra, but were divided by the arrival of the Druun. Raya’s adventures take her through Kumandra, where she witnesses the widespread effects of the very monsters that have been devastating her own home.

The overall message of the film can probably be ascertained by this premise alone; audiences have a pretty good idea of what lesson the characters will learn early on in the film. As the runtime is just under two hours, the story and Raya’s development feel very simple. Perhaps the film could have focused exclusively on Raya and her foil introducing a kind of complexity and grey area Disney does not explore as often. That being said, the film is not overly predictable, nor does lack redeemable qualities.

Most of the film’s strengths are technical. The film features a beautiful soundtrack, with whimsical themes for the fantastical moments, and also lively themes to accompany the thrilling action sequences. It’s amazing to see how much Disney’s animation has evolved over the years as this film showcases some of Disney’s most exciting fight scenes to date. There is a battle near the end of the film that is flawless – Raya’s rage comes across so strongly just from the lead-up, locking audiences in for the actual fight.

Whenever Disney is praised for their diversity, it can always be called into question. The film’s creators took great care to travel to Southeast Asia as well as hire cultural consultants, however the majority of the principal voice cast is East Asian. East Asian roles in film are already minimal, but there are even fewer opportunities for Southeast Asian actors. Though the film celebrates Southeast Asian culture, the casting can come across as a misstep. The film is streaming on Disney+, which is not currently available in Southeast Asia. However, the voice of Raya, Kelly Marie Tran, is the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to voice a lead role in an animated Disney movie. Tran was harassed online by Star Wars fans following her breakthrough role in The Last Jedi, only to be written to the side in the trilogy’s conclusion. Despite this, Tran has persevered, and her determination makes her the perfect fit for the role of Raya.

Raya and the Last Dragon is imperfect, but it is a worthy film that teaches trust and forgiveness to kids in the most Disney way possible.

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

There is a certain kind of beauty to animated films, especially hand-drawn ones. The world-building is always extremely extensive, as they are not restricted to practical effects and sets, and whatever the latest advancement in CGI may be. One animation studio that has excelled in the hand-drawn art department – both in terms of backgrounds and character designs – is Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. They are responsible for films such as The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner. All of these films are illustrated in a unique, very 2D and flat style, which makes up for its lack of dimension with detail and color palettes. The studio’s art style is reminiscent of what you would find in a children’s book. The studio never fails to create beautifully animated fantasy worlds with fun characters, and their newest film showcases how much the studio’s art style has advanced since 2009.

 

Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s newest film, which follows a young girl named Robyn, who has recently moved to Ireland with her father, who has been tasked with wiping out the last pack of wolves. Robyn believes she is capable of helping her father and she feels restricted by the town’s rules and Lord Protector. After sneaking outside of the town walls, she meets Mebh, whose mother is the leader of the pack of wolves. She soon discovers that Mebh is a Wolfwalker, a human who turns into a wolf when she sleeps. The film is directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Steward, and the duo has drawn inspiration from Irish folklore in most of their feature films. Additionally, Wolfwalkers touches on the environment and extinction, and the history of the English invasion of Ireland in the 1600s. The film is set during this time, and addresses the divide between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the history behind how the English worked to rid Ireland of its wolves.

These themes are expressed not only through the story itself and the characters’ motivations – there’s Robyn who is forced to be a scullery maid by her protective father who fears the Lord Protector, all contrasted by the wild and carefree Mebh – but also through the animation. As Robyn’s world becomes more intertwined with Mebh’s, her character design evolves to resemble that of Mebh and the wolves. The character design of the townspeople is very clean and precise. On the other hand, Mebh and the wolves are designed to be more sketch-like, as the initial sketches are visible underneath outlines. The film represents magic as it has in the studio’s past films, with beautiful sequences illuminated by more abstract figures.

I would say more about the story, but due to the nature of a film that geared towards kids, I would cross into spoiler territory very quickly. However, I will say that although this is a film for kids, it’s still a beautifully animated movie that addresses themes of family that can be appreciated by audiences of all ages. The film has been well-received by critics, and I’m excited to see how it will perform during awards season.

 

Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV+.

PREVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers is a new animated film by the studio that produced The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner. The recent release follows a young hunter who comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last pack of demonic and evil wolves. However, the young girl saves a wild native girl who introduces her to the world of the Wolfwalkers, the very thing she and her father are sworn to destroy.

I have seen both Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner, and I love the studio’s art style. It’s been a while since I watched The Breadwinner, but I recently saw Song of the Sea and I loved the attention to the backgrounds in addition to the character designs in the film. The art is reminiscent of what you would find in a children’s picture book. From just the trailer, I’m glad to see the art in Wolfwalkers is in the same style and as beautiful as always, and I’m really looking forward to watching the film!

Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV.