Lu Over the Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

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Things have been bleak on the family film front lately on Seattle Screens, at least as far as I have seen. The last movie I took my kids to was The Last Jedi, and there hasn’t been anything they or I have really been interested in since then. After seeing several toy tie-in cartoons over the last few years (really the only animated film we saw with any kind of heart to it was the ballet movie Leap!, which even then diminished itself with kid-movie cliché chase sequences), something like Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall is an absolute joy, worth taking the kids to even in its English-dubbed version (I assume: the version I watched was Japanese with English subtitles). The mash-up of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and Linda Linda Linda we don’t know we needed, Lu is the best variation on The Little Mermaid of 2017.

Lu is a ningyo, a creature from Japanese folklore roughly analogous to a mermaid. In a reversal of Greek myth, she’s drawn to the shore by music, specifically the pop-rock stylings of a middle school trio named “Seiren”. Moved by the tunes, Lu sings and then jumps onto the land (a protective bubble of water around her head), sprouts legs and dances wildly. The legs go away when the music stops, and after some initial confusion the band members, especially the shy Kai, befriend her. It seems the small fishing village in which the action takes place has a complicated history with the merfolk, with stories of them eating people circulating among the elderly (in particular Kai’s grandfather, who saw his mother get bitten and disappear under the sea). There’s a giant island in the town’s harbor, a Gibraltar casting a shadow over the sleepy village and separating it from the wider ocean and the island where the merfolk are said to dwell. It’s a literalization of the walls separating the village from the outside world, the people from the spirits and nature around them, and Kai from other people. Catchy music and simple messages (“Like everyone!”) are the medium through which Lu breaks down all these walls.

While much of the animation and plotline recalls Ponyo (with a little bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service thrown in), Lu Over the Wall isn’t nearly as derivative as the otherwise pleasant Mary and the Witch’s Flower from earlier this year. Yuasa has a goofier touch than Miyazaki, trading the mystical beauty of Ghibli’s nature for a more Looney Tunes aesthetic. In an interesting twist, Yuasa’s merfolk are vampiric: they are allergic to sun, they can transform creatures into the undead with a bite, and they appear to have to hypnotic power to make people dance in spite of themselves. This leads to some of the film’s most memorable images: denizens of a dog pound transformed into an army of merpups; undead fish dancing their way out of a sushi restaurant. The film’s crisp primary colors and cartoonish character movements are both flatter and more fun than what we’ve seen in recent Japanese animated films like Makoto Shinkai’s experiments in photo-realism (Your Name.) or the more traditional anime Napping Princess, and the look of the film is vastly more appealing than the CGI blandness of recent American efforts. I haven’t yet seen Yuasa’s Mind Game, which is reputed to be quite good. It’s playing this week at the Grand Illusion, and I’m guessing pairing it with this would make for an excellent double bill. Probably want to leave the kids behind for that one though.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

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With his third feature film as a director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has yet to develop an identity for himself outside of Studio Ghibli, where he began his career and made his debut, The Secret World of Arrietty, eight years ago. His films are technically impeccable, with the kind of detail and beauty that Hayao Miyazaki is known for, but something is missing. And it’s that something extra that marks Miyazaki as a great artist, while Yonebayashi is merely a skillful animator. Mary and the Witch’s Flower proves an excellent case-in-point. A young girl, bored while living with older relatives in the countryside, accidentally stumbles into a magical world above the clouds. Finding a flower that temporarily grants her magical powers, she’s mistaken for a new student and rushed into a wondrous school of wizardry by a magical broomstick. But it turns out the headmistress and the school’s resident scientist have been conducting mad experiments in interspecies hybrids, jeopardizing the girl and her friend Peter. Mary has to rescue the boy and defeat the evil sorcerers before it’s too late*.

The look owes everything to Miyazaki joints like Kiki’s Delivery ServiceCastle in the Sky (which you can catch this week at the Egyptian, kicking off the Northwest Film Forum’s annual Children’s Film Festival) and Howl’s Moving Castle. Mary is a headstrong girl with a mess of unruly red hair and a strong moral center. The magic school is made of gently steampunkish castles floating in seas of green, and the herds of experimented-upon animals recall the armies of forest creatures in Princess Mononoke. It’s all very beautiful, with some nice fantastical images and one quiet moment of repose. But where in Castle in the Sky the quiet moment is an oasis of beauty in an otherwise non-stop adventure, a pause to remind the heroes of what they’re fighting to defend and what the world has lost, and in Spirited Away the quiet moment leads to a soft deflation of all the expected action film anxiety right before it should have burst, in Mary it merely serves as a location for the delivery of flashbacked backstory before the final, rote, chase/battle sequences.

Yonebayashi’s last film, When Marnie Was There, was much more successful in breaking out of the Miyazaki template, bringing a ghostly Gothic romance edge to its story of a young girl coming of age. Mary, though, is a recapitulation, a kind of remix of Miyazaki without any of the idiosyncrasy. The scenario isn’t much more complex than that of Howl’s, or Ponyo, but Miyazaki is incapable of making an impersonal work and those films, targeted as they are (especially the later) toward the littlest kids, abound in the kind of small oddities and plot-free idylls that make a movie world come to life. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a beautiful movie, and God knows it’s better than at least 90% of what passes for children’s entertainment in American multiplexes, but it’s a ghost.

*Note that I watched the English dub of this Japanese film. It’s what was available on the press screener and, as far as I can tell, the English version is the only one that will be playing during the film’s run at the Meridian. But Regal is haphazard in noting dubbing or subtitling on their animated films. The English dub is quite good though, with Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent adding some degree of star power. The film’s source and setting, it’s based on a novel by British writer Mary Stewart, are perfectly consistent with English accented voices, with none of the discordances caused by the dubbing of Isao Takahata’s very Japanese Only Yesterday a few years ago.

Leap! (Eric Summer & Éric Warin, 2016)

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The movie Ballerina, cruelly renamed Leap! for American audiences, which goes to show that the Weinsteins’ desire to give distinctive non-American movies the most generic titles possible has not diminished since their heyday of butchering Hong Kong releases, is easily the best animated film I’ve seen in the theatre with my daughter since Shaun the Sheep two years ago. That’s not saying a whole lot considering the competition (Sing, Despicable Me 3, The Peanuts Movie, LEGO Batman), and Ballerina has many of the same faults: generic plotting and a reliance on the chase sequence as a substitute for real drama or suspense. But these flaws are balanced by a commitment to art and the work necessary to become good at it, and its rendering of both its Paris locations and the movements of dance is thrilling, relatively (compare for example the first time we see the grand school of the Paris Opera Ballet, the sense of wonder as we linger of its elaborate details, to the blurry, partial and indistinct images we get of the library in the remake of Beauty and the Beast).

For the American release, several voice actors were replaced (bringing in Mel Brooks, Kate McKinnon and Nat Wolfe) but I don’t know if any of the plotting has been altered, scenes reshot or not. Elle Fanning plays an orphan named Félicie who wants to become a dancer. She and her best friend Victor escape their orphanage (in the film’s most egregiously silly chase) and head to Paris, where she quickly cons her way into a dance class. Victor meanwhile gets a job working for Gustave Eiffel, who is simultaneously working on both the tower that bears his name and the Statue of Liberty, just one of the many historical errors in the film (the Statue is already green, for example, when its copper wouldn’t become so oxidized until it had been in New York for some time). Félicie’s story follows the traditional training arc: given the illogical demands of a plot-structuring contest (one dancer will be eliminated every class until the final one wins a part in the Nutcracker), she works hard doing a variety of non-dance things to build strength and skills. In the meantime, she’s wooed by a handsome, wealthy, blond Russian dancer, setting up a love triangle with Victor, which has largely-ignored class overtones (your classic Ducky/Blaine scenario). The real conflict of interest though is in the repeated question: “Why do you want to dance?” Her opponent, a petite combination of Ivan Drago and Todd Marinovich has one answer, and Félicie has another, but its a knee-jerk response, one produced without ay real thought: it’s her dream. That’s not enough though: until she learns a depth of self-understanding largely absent from kid movies (a shamefully phony world where even Charlie Brown is revealed as a winner), she’ll never be a great dancer. It’s not quite the psycho-sexual conflict between art and romance at the heart of The Red Shoes, but for a soon to be six year old who just signed up for her third year of ballet class, it’ll work.

SIFF 2017: Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The second feature from director Liu Jian is an animated network-noir that in its amoral glee at the interconnected machinations of crooks and losers recalls early Tarantino, or at least his Korean imitators. A bag of money is stolen and passes through many vicious hands in dingy, bleak sections of a city at night (the pale, grimy animation recalls a hungover Duckman), a world away from the glitzy capitalist paradises of recent Chinese urban rom-coms.

SIFF 2016: Long Way North (Rémi Chayé, 2015)

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In his feature debut, artist and director Rémi Chayé, with screenwriters  Claire Paoletti and Patricia Valeix, brings us the animated story of a 19th century Russian girl, the 14 year-old Sacha, whose aristocratic parents’ hopes for her are that she live up to her status as a “real young lady” and appease the political status quo with a suitable marriage. Sacha, however, her childhood imagination set fire by  the stories from her seafaring, explorer grandfather, hasn’t much use for the balls and gowns of fine ladies. Her heart is set on seeking out this same grandfather, declared to be lost at sea in an expedition to the North Pole, but who, she believes, is still waiting for rescue. The story follows her path after she runs away from parents and her St. Petersburg home, and, applying her wits, her navigational knowledge, and her courage in a societal context that doesn’t expect much self-sufficiency from any girl, much less an aristocratic one, she eventually finds a passage on a northbound ship, where Sacha and the crew face the dangerous cold, crushing ice floes, and their own fears and conflicts.

Sacha’s sturdy character is a delight in a film landscape where female characters rarely take center stage, and she recalls the vibrant characters my daughters and I love so much in the Ghibli studio oeuvre: Chihuro of Spirited Away; Satsuki of My Neighbor Totoro; Sheeta of Castle in the Sky; Kiki; Arrietty; Nausicaä. While there is a slight nod to a possible love interest in Sacha’s story, the primary focus has very little to do with her male peers and much more to do with the adventures her deep convictions and life passions bring her. Sacha grows up on her journey north, her understanding of the world, of herself and her capabilities deepening through what she encounters and through those she meets, boys, men, and women alike. In fact, Olga, a gruff and kindly innkeeper, is perhaps the character with whom Sacha has the deepest connection and from whom she learns the most.

Continue reading “SIFF 2016: Long Way North (Rémi Chayé, 2015)”

Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)

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Forty years after its original release in Asia and Europe, four decades after this initial commercial failure bankrupted its production studio, the psycho-sexual phantasmagoria, Belladonna of Sadness, finally arrives on American movie screens. The sexually explicit animated film charts one woman’s erotic journey from hamlet to Hell, as she is abused by her village’s male-dominated power structure until she finds some semblance of solace in the arms of Satan himself. Continue reading Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)”

2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

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We are living in a glorious age of animation. Some of the best programs on television are animated. From the great Gravity Falls to the always awesome Adventure Time and on to the fractured genius of Rick and Morty, animation has been fertile ground for visionary storytellers as of late. Cinema has not been ignored either. Heralded auteurs Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman have both made the move to stop-motion features. Kaufman’s Anomalisa is one of five films duking it out in this year’s Best Animated Feature race. For all of the flack the Academy has received for its homogenized choices this year, the Oscars should be commended for their Animated Feature field which sports five idiosyncratic films, only one with talking animals. Three of the five nominees come from foreign countries, two are stop motion and only one is completely computer generated. One! The days of dominance from the big studios like Dreamworks and Disney are over, at least temporarily.

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Then why are most of this year’s five nominees for Best Animated Short so pedestrian? It’s odd that the features are more adventurous in their narratives and visual style than the shorts. There are certainly novel elements to the short films, whether it is the fluid “one-shot” look of the hand-drawn Prologue or the eye-popping color of Sanjay’s Super Team from Pixar. But some of these films feel like half an idea or their mission statement overwhelms the narrative itself. Both are the case with Bear Story from Chilean director Gabriel Osoro. The film is about a toy-making bear who builds a box that cranks out a mechanical version of his imprisonment in the circus and eventual escape back to his family. The animation is solid for the toy sequences but a little too flashy at other spots (Osoro really likes showing off the computer’s ability to generate dust floating in sunbeams) and the whole thing doesn’t quite gel.

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While Osoro’s well-placed abhorrence of the circus can be seen as heavy-handed in Bear Story it’s got nothing on Prologue‘s clunky treatise on the inhumanity of war. Director Richard Williams tells a silent tale with just pencil and paper that begins with a leaf before flying across the page to a centuries-old battle with shields and swords. Naked men thrust at one another, slicing arteries and severing genitalia, all gruesome images seen by a young child who runs back to the safe confines of their mother’s dress. The end. There isn’t anything more to it than that. And while the hand-drawn style is sweeping in its motion, freezing any frame in the battle would just look like something out of that stoner kid in high school’s notebook.

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More effective and affecting is the Russian curio We Can’t Live Without Cosmos from Konstantin Bronzit. The film is about two cosmonauts who are inseparable. They share a deep love of space and one another. The film begins with some goofy humor as the duo work their way through their rigorous training regimen before the film turns into an exploration of loss. There are some indelible images contained within, if not any impressive animation. The turn of events from the thrill of exploration to the dull of devastation is interesting but not necessarily better than the deadpan antics that came before it.

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Longtime Pixar animator Sanjay Patel gets his first directing credit on the personal Sanjay’s Super Team. The title character is a restless boy who daydreams that he teams up with Hindu gods to defeat a villain demolishing a temple. It’s no surprise coming from Pixar that the short looks fantastic. The sound design is equally stunning with a great blending of the musical score with the action onscreen. If anything Sanjay’s Super Team should have been longer than its seven minutes, as the film brings up some great possibilities that are left mostly unexplored. If you’re searching for an animated look at the complexity of Hindu culture, stick with Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.

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Which leaves us with Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow. Hertzfeldt’s film, about a young girl being visited by a clone of herself from the future, is the only nominee that can hold its own with the aforementioned animated features. In a mere 16 minutes World of Tomorrow manages to cram in meditations on love, identity, and loss across a distinctively designed digital landscape. There is enough narrative here for a feature. Hertzfeldt’s decision to keep it confined to a short means that it’s bursting at the seams with ideas. The film is heartrendingly sad yet it brims with a resounding sense of wonder. It’s a film of bleak humor that doesn’t much care if we laugh at it, at ourselves, or at the world. World of Tomorrow is not just the best animated short of the year, it’s one of the very best films–animated, short, or otherwise.

(The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films play exclusively at Landmark’s Guild 45th for two weeks beginning January 29. Note that the program includes an additional four shorts non-nominated that were not available for review.)