Idiots and Angels

[Screenshot]This is a rather odd creature: a silent, honestly fairly technically crude little allegory about good and evil, and how gifts are used. Because the art’s not deeply expressive and the characters don’t speak, emotion and attitudes have to be pretty simple and simply presented, so at any given point, each character is basically an archetype, and these archetypical modules get plugged together to form a story, which actually mostly works. It’s simplistic, but somehow rather affecting in its simplicity. It feels perhaps a bit long for what it is (in spite of not being all that long by feature-film standards) simply due to a certain monotony of style and slightness of story, but in spite of its crudity, there’s a sense of effectiveness about it in delivering its little fable. The lack of details creates a certain ambiguity in characterization and motivation at times, which perhaps serves to create a certain amount of suspense early on: what’s wrong with these people, we might wonder, to make them act as they do? All in all, this was an absorbing and quite imaginative take on animation-craft, and worthwhile. Bill Plympton is apparently best known for his shorts, and it kind of shows here, in that it starts to drag slightly, but his art is fundamentally sound.

A side note: Netflix really wants movies to have a cast, and was kind of flummoxed by the lack of either voice actors or body actors, which may be why they decided that this movie starred Tom Waits and Pink Martini.

See also: IMDB.

Village au panique

[Screenshot]This was screened at UofL, but I missed it, so I went back and got it on Netflix. It is one weird film. It’s apparently based on a TV series with similar production values and logic. Although nobody comes out and says it outright, I kinda get the vague impression the core demographic for the TV series is stoners; it’s got that blend of low-budget quirk, lack of cohesion, and vague similarity to children’s programming that folks totally eat up when high. The film perhaps shows a greater cohesiveness: there’s a plot, although it’s totally absurd. Nonetheless, I am not entirely sure I ever really engaged this peculiar movie the way it ought to be enjoyed. The animation is very crude, almost certainly deliberately so and intrinsically unimmersive. Most of the characterizations and situations are fundamentally infantile: in fact, I had the impression while watching it that the plot might have come from the story-ramblings of a four-year-old. I always watch a film with an eye to what experience is being delivered, and here the experience honestly felt pretty patronizing and simplistic. Which may be my fault, really! It’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the artistic crudity was somewhat intriguing, but it didn’t seem to really serve too much purpose aside from establishing “indie-cred” bonafides (and being less expensive, I suppose). Other than the deliberately crude model posing and low frame rate, the technical aspects were pretty respectable: voice acting was one-note but servicable, and the sets and models were actually fairly detailed (but easy to underestimate since they were so stylized).

Maybe it would make more sense if I had some familiarity with the underlying TV show. I can well imagine this sort of disjointed, vignette-style animation working well in the 10-minute or 15-minute storylet format. Stretched out to almost 2 hours, the whimsy starts to run a bit thin.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

ゲド戦記/Tales from Earthsea

[Screenshot]I’ve been mourning the decreasing involvement of the elder Miyazaki in recent Ghibli productions since, well, at least when I reviewed Ponyo. This work is not actually a Hayao Miyazaki film; it’s made by his son Goro. I tried not to let that color my judgment too much, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn’t have a lot to set it above the crowd. On a technical level it’s quite good, particularly in backgrounds. The character-designs seem in some ways cruder than the Ghibli standard: maybe greater stylization and simplicity? They’re still quite good, mind. I listened to the Japanese dub enough to determine that it was passable, and then switched over to English, since Disney’s voicework for Ghibli localizations is usually excellent. They got good people doing good work this time too, but I think maybe someone told Timothy Dalton (who I honestly did not realize had done anything else after his stint as James Bond) “sound as much like Ian McKellan doing Gandalf as you can”.

So technically Earthsea is quite good, but realistically I expect nothing less. What brings me back to Miyazaki’s work is creativity and thematic strength, and on those fronts this story feels a little flat. I’ll admit the only book of the source material I’ve read is A Wizard of Earthsea, and except for a few side references to the larger world this story didn’t particularly resemble anything I read there, although I’m given to understand it bears a closer plot similarity to some of the later books in the series. In one particular, of course, it’s conspicuously different: I’m pretty sure Earthsea’s not supposed to have that many white people (where “that many” in this context happens to be “everybody”).

A lot of what I got from AWOE was about personal responsibility and the limits of personal power. Sparrowhawk fucks up horribly and then cleans up his mess, becoming a stronger person and gaining a greater appreciation for his own limitations in the course of his redemption. Power unchecked is somewhat a theme in this film, but without too much of a connection to personal limitations: there’s a great deal of nattering about The Balance of Nature and suchlike which all ends up mostly irrelevant to the actual confrontation and the villain’s plans. I’m not such a purist as to insist that an adaptation needs to be compatible in themes or plot or even characterization with its parent work, but where it cuts the original work out, it needs to put something else in its place, and even considered as a standalone work Tales is problematic. A lot of plot threads end up dropped abruptly: there’s no reason to suspect, for instance, that the blight on the land is connected to Cob’s machinations.

It’s a very pretty film, but left me with little to hang on to. Ponyo at least had charm, but this felt at least as unfocused and without cute fish. Of course, a girl does fly in it. Evidently producing films about flying girls is a genetically heritable trait.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, Nausicaa.net.

巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

スクールデイズ/School Days, full series

[Screenshot]There are three important things to know about School Days. First, it’s based on an eroge*. Second, the eroge it’s based on is infamous for having really bad endings. Third, the anime series is based on one of those bad endings.

I don’t play eroge, but I get the impression a bad ending is usually “you don’t get laid”, or perhaps “you get laid, but skeeve people out to the degree that the epilogue makes it clear you’re not getting laid again any time soon”. School Days has these, apparently, but it also has really, really bad ones. Think about the worst relationship you ever had. This is worse.

I forget who recommended School Days to me, but they clearly hate me and wanted me to suffer, because this is an an enticing horror, like a car wreck. It’s actually a fairly seductive work, particularly because for three episodes it really is kind of sweet, with a pleasant Cyrano de Bergerac-flavored love triangle shaping up. It has a low-level pervasive lechery in its dialogue, but watching teen anime one kind of tunes that part out. Somewhat more distressing is its awful male-gaze shot-framing, where I keep expecting the female characters to break their dialogue to inform the animators that, no, their faces are actually about 2 feet higher up.

And then at the end of Episode 4, it all starts to go downhill, and gets really skeevy really fast. But by then it’s drawn you in enough to want to see the fate of these people. In fairness, I went in mildly spoiled. I knew (or thought I knew) what happens, but didn’t know who did it, and as the series progressed, I got an idea for who it was (I was wrong, BTW). So I wondered at first, “how are things going to get that dysfunctional?” but around episode 7 was wondering, “how do they keep from getting that dysfunctional for a whole 5 more episodes?”. Around episode 9, however, the producers evidently realized that for a series based on an eroge, there hasn’t been a lot of sex, so over the course of the next two episodes, Makoto fucks all but two of the named characters, including a character whose entire plot up to that point has basically been about being into a guy who is not Makoto. By the time the big Game Over was rolling around, I was actually cheering for it to happen, because he’d gone from being a sweet naïf to a thoroughly unlikable character. It was very cathartic but there wasn’t much time to enjoy the catharsis, because fuck me there’s the second ending nobody warned me about and ow good God I think I didn’t need that.

This is a series which is bad for your soul. It will draw you in with its innocent charms and then blast your psyche at close range with vile characters doing awful things to each other. And you won’t even want to look away. I warn you for the sake of your own sanity.

Of course, with a warning like that, how can you resist the urge to watch? It’s insidious how it works. But if you must watch a series based on a dating sim, could I instead suggest the mostly inoffensive and pleasant Diamond Dust Drops?

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

* For those not acquainted with the many names for varieties of computer games in Japan: an “eroge” or “H-game” is a dating sim with explicit sexual content. A “dating sim” is a visual novel whose main plot involves finding romance. A “visual novel” is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure with pictures. [back]

ウィッチハンターロビン/Witch Hunter Robin, full series

[Screenshot]So when I saw the first five episodes of this on Netflix, I shrugged, gave it a lukewarm review, and figured that while it had promise, my queue was very deep and I didn’t really have the slots to spare to finish it out. But when a bunch of discs from it showed up in a $3 bin, I figured it was time to get and watch the damn things.

It is better than my initial impression. i wouldn’t rate it as a fabulous series, because structurally it falls into a kind of overdone territory where the good guys, doing their good work, turn out to be working for a shadowy conspiracy whose motives are much less pure. It’s a bit of an overdone plot, but it marks an encouraging shift in the series’ plot: at first it had seemed rather monster-of-the-week, and while the monsters of the week keep showing up, there’s also a plot running behind it, and some decent character development. What exactly Amon’s deal is never quite comes to light, despite mysterious portents suggesting there is a Big Story there which is to be revealed. A lot of the secondary characters (particularly Dojima and Karasuma) get fleshed out better, and all in all the series rises above both its seemingly repetitive beginning and its rather cliched twist on the virtue of doing moderately interesting things characterwise and with the underlying mythology (for instance, the complicated and somewhat conflicted role the Catholic Church has with STN-J as a whole, and Robin in particular, is a nice touch).

Artistically the foregrounds are often a bit stiff and character designs never seem quite naturalistic, but the backgrounds (and integration into same) are good, and they play nice games with tone set by coloration and incidental music. The series has generally an uneasy atmosphere of foreboding throughout, and it works, even if the art isn’t perfect.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

The Princess and the Frog

[Screenshot]I haven’t actually taken in a Disney original feature animated film in a while, and got the impression I wasn’t missing much, with increasing tokenization and worsening art and being pitched at Kids Today, from whom I am increasingly remote. But I got the impression this one was actually pretty good, so I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed! There’s actually some refreshing willingness to step outside of a lot of the boundaries which have bound Disney of late. It doesn’t have that trying-too-hard-to-be-hip vibe that characterizes far too much children’s entertainment today, and the animation is reminiscent of a less-stylized naturalistic design from Disney’s glory days. But it still seems to have basically modern sensibilities, and encompasses a number of good progressive ideals (strong women and large minority roles) without becoming oppressively tokenistic. The art is organic, the characters and voice-acting appealing, and the music pleasantly appropriate. It works quite well. I wasn’t blown away, but I was satisfied and entertained.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.