Code Lyoko, random episodes from season 1

[Screenshot]I do get tired of Japanese animation occasionally and go looking for animation that’s not Japanese. The name of Code Lyoko pops up occasionally. I enjoyed what I thought was the first two episodes on TV (which were actually episodes from the prequel series written after the second season), and after viewing disc 1 of season 1 (which apparently contains episodes 21, 5, 3, 16, and 1 in that order), I’m somewhat underwhelmed. You’d think the episodes being out of order would make a difference, but they betray no evidence of an ongoing plot, or even much variation from episode to episode. The structure of each episode is extremely formulaic: Cici does something bitchy at the beginning of the episode, Jeremie babbles about devirtualizing Aelita, Ulrich and Yumi share sexual tension and angst, XANA does something nefarious in the real world trapping Cici with one or more of the Lyoko crew, the remainder of the crew blows their cover and goes into Lyoko to do the dreaded Escort Mission, last Lyoko crew mamber dies just as Aelita enters the tower and cancels the attack, Jeremie hits the reset button, and they go back in time and defuse the Cici-being-a-bitch scenario. This is an alarmingly specific template to use on a series where you have multiple episodes. As a layer over actual plot, it might not be bad, but the reset button guarantees lack of any developments with the cast at large, and even within the team, the two points of long-running interest (Jeremie and Aelita, Ulrich and Yumi) never show any signs of progress.

I’m given to understand the series improved somewhat in future seasons. I sure hope so. Certainly the prequel series was a lot more interesting, and as far as art goes the series shows promise, with a willingness to embrace a blend of CG and traditional animation that actually works.

Apropos of the DVD: besides being out of order, I’m surprised, as I was with The March of the Penguins, not to be offered an original language and subtitle option. I didn’t expect a profoundly different experience (unlike the situation with March), but fans of animation from foreign countries (read: usually Japan) seem to be very fussy on the dub/sub issue. Maybe that’s just an anime thing and doesn’t apply to animation of other origins.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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La Marche de l’empereur

[Screenshot]The March of the Penguins re-invigorated the fairly sleepy nature documentary market; Planet Earth solidified it. I can’t really evaluate a documentary on the same merits as I ordinarily do for feature films, but the shooting and editing were intelligently done, capturing representative elements of the penguin’s journey, and the video alone is excellent es both entertainment and education. The soundtrack, of course, is an interesting story, since it is in this regard that the Americna release differs rather extraordinarily from the French release, which apparently had a different score, and dialogue given to the penguins (no, really). Surprisingly, the French audio track wasn’t on the DVD, which might have been a rights issue. I wish I could have heard it (with subtitles, of course) to compare. As for the audio on the version I actually heard: the score was excellent, and Morgan Freeman has an excellent narrative voice. The script perhaps overanthropomorphized the penguin’s behavior, but that’s a common flaw in nature documentaries, since you want the behavior to actually have some significance to the viewers. I’m sure it committed a far less egregious version of this offense than the original with its penguin-dialogue.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Wonderfalls

[Screenshot]Wonderfalls was clever, funny, fresh, and imaginative. It was, therefore, doomed, doomed, doomed. But we got thirteen good episodes out of it, and, unlike Firefly, we got a story with a beginning, middle, and end (featuring evil Kayleea character played by Jewel Staite who is not, in fact, Kaywinnett Lee Frye). It managed a pretty impressive juggling act between the progressive plot and the episodic nature of the story, so that most episodes were pretty self-contained while still contributing to the overall plot arc. There’s a bit of a mixed-bag quality to the episodes, and I quite frankly preferred the episodes where the faces gave nonsensical but explicit instructions to the somewhat overplayed Field-of-Dreamsesque indeterminate referent game.

There is great onscreen chemistry with a splendid cast. Dhavernas reminds me irationally of Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks, but that may be just similarities of character. Either way, she (like most of the characters) balances a number of contrary aspects in a realistic way, making her simultaneously intelligent, directionless, brutal, and softhearted. All the major characters come out as multidimensional humans, and this works just about as well as I’ve seen acting work on TV. The technical aspects are good if not spectacular: the CG work is hardly mindblowing, but it’s not meant to be. It’s subtle and well-integrated into the live-action.

What didn’t I like about Wonderfalls? Mostly that we’re not going to see any more of it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

[Screenshot]Man, it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to really tear into something. And I get to be extra-vitreolic in this case, because Dragonlance was one of the things I was insanely into as a kid, and, even though it was surely not as good as nostalgia makes it seems, I know it was better than this mess.

Technical aspects first. There’s a blend of computer graphics and cel animation in this film. I personally dislike that, and have generally panned it whenever I see it (in particular, I disliked it in GiTS 2: Innocence, was annoyed by it in Metropolis, and gave it a marginal pass in Appleseed). However, personal preference aside, one thing stands: Dragonlance has bad cel animation, bad CG, and bad integration of the two. The CG’s on a par with last-generation console system graphics, only with less random motion (there’s one scene with the draconian army, standing on a perfect rectangular grid, beating their shields in perfect unison; I don’t expect The Two Towers, but, y’know, they could try). The cel stuff gives me odd Rankin-Bass flashbacks, and not in a good way. And integration of the two, ticklish at the best of times, is far from seamless here.

So, on to the characters, plot, and voice acting. On plot elements, one might want to be charitable, because I’d forgotten how much stuff happens in Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and it turns out to encompass a hell of a lot of story. The cuts were made in dubious places, though: basically, the frame for a situation would be knocked down, and the situation left on its own wiuldn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, the whole aid-from-the-gully-dwarves plot was knocked down to the point that there’s a single inexplicably stupid character offering the party aid. At that point it raises more qurestions than it answers, so it’s best to just cut that totally. It’s like that with everything: they knock out just enough of every particular plot element (Tas’s light-fingered proclivities, human-elf tensions, Tanis’s conflicts) to not make it make a hell of a lot of sense. So every single thing is in there, but not with enough context to make sense.

To complete a trifecta of failure, the voice actors are phoning it in. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly they’re doing wrong, but mostly it’s that they’re not doing anything in particular right. Deliveries are flat: admittedly, one can understand the actress playing Goldmoon getting bored at the 25th exhortation to Tanis to have faith (she isn’t nearly as tedious in the book, although most of her dialogue in the book was transferred to the equally moralistic “true love waits” discourse directed at Tika), but Kiefer Sutherland had a great chance to make Raistlin simultaneously sinister and pitiable, and, needless-to-say, doesn’t.

Random other gripes: we get a lot of unnecessary fanservice in the first 15 minutes, and scene framing frequently seems syndication-oriented. Y’know how in a lot of television you watch on DVD you can tell by the way scenes end where the original commercial breaks are? This has that in spades. So I guess they’re hoping for syndication. And also, based on the colon-enabled title and twist/character introduction at the end, they intend a sequel (which, seriously, would be problematic to run along the lines of the original books, since they made some fairly profound plot divergences here).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Revolver

[Screenshot]Perhaps Guy Ritchie ought to stick to comedies. His attempts to be serious are pretty mediocre, and his comedies were actually enjoyable (even if they did follow rather similar plotlines). Thus Revolver, a psychologocal thriller which comes out seeming a bit pretentious and limp. There’s all this ostensibly symbolic and psychological baggege which ultimately goes nowhere, and a Big Reveal which was telegraphed to me about half an hour into the story. So, eh, doesn’t really work on most levels for me. The actors do a pretty good job with what they’re given, but the script pushes them into cartoonish exaggration sometimes: I’m thinking particularly of Jason Statham (who, like Guy Ritchie, is very difficult to take seriously) having an unnecessarily long mental breakdown in an elevator.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Tuvalu

[Screenshot]It’s always fun to see a film I’m pretty sure most other folks haven’t seen, because then I feel like by writing them up I’m maybe telling people something they haven’t heard a million times already. I suspect Tuvalu is one of those cases. It’s a very peculiar film and a highly stylized one. It’s almost entirely free of dialogue (one of the longest, and most comprehensible speeches in the movie is Gregor saying “Technology, System, Profit!”) and filmed in monotint, so the overall feel is of a silent movie. And it works, and doesn’t feel gimmicky. The actors have gotten very much into the parts, emoting in the grand, sweeping way one expects from a silent film (especially a German silent film: Doktor Caligari has a long shadow). The only influence of modernity on this odd period piece is focus on technology and different characters’ perspectives thereon and uses therefor. The technology in question has a certain Victorian charm, which puts this into something of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet headspace, in my mind at least, what with the decaying technostructure. And yet, it has a distinct sense of place, despite the variety of French and German and probably other influences: there is a very strong visual feeling is of a dying port city in central Europe, presented through the tenements, the docks, and the crumbling bathhouse.

Anyways, it’s a quirktastic fun ride, and undeservedly obscure.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Avatar: the Last Airbender, episodes 1–4

[Screenshot]Ah, the great hope of American animation! That’s the impression I got of Avatar, anyways, and it lives up, at least in part, to the hype.

I’ve long lamented the state of American animation, that it gets pigeionholed as either frequently-didactic pablum for kids or raunchy humor for adults, and never achieves the diversity of live-action television. Movies escape this pigeonholing to some extent, but, still, there’s no really respectable American serial animation for a broad audience.

Enter Avatar onto the scene. It’s not exactly the genre-buster I wish for, but it’s progress. On the surface it’s another children’s fantasy series, but it’s got a fair bit up on the usual fare. It has a long-running plot and developing characters. It’s reasonably clever and has characters with complex motivations. It has a few cheap laughs but doesn’t allow them to swamp what they’re trying to do. It is, essentially, a mature series for young people, which is a nice thing to see because, hey, I like that sort of thing almost as much as the kids do.

So, anyways, I’ll definitely be watching more. As for the technical aspects of this series, it’s nice to see they’re not falling down on the job there. The animation style has a vaguely animesque feel, but honestly that suffuses modern animation and it’s not terribly overbearing here. The Eastern influence far more present in its worldbuilding is actually Chinese mythos, which works well and is different enough that it doesn’t seem like another anime knockoff. The voice-acting is good, although Aang’s jars a little — somehow, American voice acting for children’s roles always seems just a little ear-grating. But, all in all, very few complaints, and a hope that this can do good things for animation over here.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.