Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Swanpride Award: And the Winner is….

The Top Three:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

I think you could give each of those movies the award without any argument. But I do have to pick one, and this time, I’ll go mostly for personal taste in my decision. At this point the movies in questions are too close together quality-wise and too different in structure to do otherwise.

My least favourite of those three is easily Princess Mononoke. It is a movie I appreciate, but I don’t really connect to it on an emotional level. I also have some trouble with the way gore is portrayed in the movie. This might sound strange, but it is a little bit too artsy. How can you really get the point across if the violence shown looks that, well, good? It kind of undermines how dire those situations are.

Now, neither Beauty and the Beast nor Fantasia are perfect. I already mentioned the high number of animation snafus in Beauty and the Beast, but I didn’t mention the fluid timeline. The movie always leaves the impression that Belle and the Beast spend a lot of time with each other, a notion which is underlined by the fact that the movie goes from green pastures to winter in just a few frames. But the whole movie actually happens within a couple of days, maybe four or five tops. In a way, though, it is an impressive trick which makes the relationship between Belle and the Beast more believable. Even though they barely spend time with each other it feels as if they know each other for ages.

The big downside of Fantasia is the pacing. This sounds like a strange complain concerning a movie which consists of a number of segments which could be exchanged at will, but, well as much as I like Fantasia, I always had trouble to sit through the Rite of Spring segment, which is considerably longer than the others. And while I think that Fantasia is wonderful love letter to animation, it sometimes doesn’t go far enough for my taste. I once ranked all the Fantasia segments which Disney ever made and only one of the top three were from the original Fantasia. Even though the movie also provided half of the top ten segments, I can’t help but thinking that Fantasia while good could have been even better. Still, it is one of those “one of a kind movie” (despite its sequel) which will always stand out.

In the end, there is only one decision I can make. The winner of the Swanpride Award for the best movie of the 20th century is:

Swanpride-Award-Winner.jpg

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST!!!

 

Yes, I go with the obvious choice, the movie which was also picked by my readers. In multiple rounds of voting, Beauty and the Beast was the one movie which never got a single vote against it. And it is to this day the only traditional animated movie which ever got an academy award nomination for best picture and it will always the only animated movie which was honoured this way before the academy expanded the list from five to ten.

There were a lot of movies on my way to this final choice, which were endorsed more by me than anyone else. Sometimes because the movie in question wasn’t that well-known (honestly, how many people can claim that they actually saw “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” the way it should be seen, in an old-style movie theatre with a live-orchestra?), sometimes because I ignored the more popular movie in favour for a more challenging one. But Beauty and the Beast is one of the few movies which has everything. It is a movie which pleases the audience while still having a meaningful story to tell. It is a technical achievement which is not all about the new gimmick. It is the kind of movie which will withstand the test of time, because it will always be as meaningful as it was the day it was created.

And I guess it is time to explain why the movie works as well as it does – at least regarding the soundtrack. I am not sure how long I’ll need to finish writing it, but expect one long article about why Beauty and the Beast has maybe the best soundtrack of all musical-style animated movies, soon.


The Swanpride Award: The Forgotten Movie

I know I promised to decide on a winner for Christmas, but before I do this, I do have to give a movie its due which I somehow managed to overlook. I am actually not sure how this happened. Between all the nomination lists I (or one of my readers) should have noticed its absence sooner, but I guess even though this movie was a huge success when it hit the theatres, it doesn’t really play in the big league after all. The movie in question is….

 

A Land Before Time, 1988, Don Bluth, Traditional

 

Now, I don’t think that it would have made it in the final selection, because it was released in a very strong year for Japanese Animation. And honestly, the very fact that I forgot about this movie despite it being one of my childhood memories shows that it is lacking something. Even though you can’t do an animated movies with dinosaurs without someone saying “this is a little bit like A Land Before Time”. Even though (or perhaps because) it had a number of direct-to-video sequels. And a terrible animated series.

Let’s do this a little bit different this time around. Here is what I don’t like about the movie:

The plot is very simply and the protagonists are mostly defined over one character trait. I also think that the religious undertones are a little bit odd. Not bad, just odd. And then there is the T-Rex, who is oddly interested in what it is barely a mouthful. Wouldn’t it make more sense to follow the bigger group of dinosaurs?

And here is what I like:

While the plot is simple and the characters could use some additional layers,  both work really well as a backdrop to address the themes like faith and the value of diversity. Unlike other Don Bluth movies, which are full of random characters, this one focusses on the main group. The animation is gorgeous and the T-Rex is as a result properly terrifying. And then there is the soundtrack. The score is very atmospheric (hard to go wrong with James Horner) and “If We Hold on Together” is one of those songs which are not exactly unforgettable, but which pop immediately back into your mind once you hear the tune.

All in all this is certainly a movie which is worth the watch.

 

Now, even though I didn’t narrow it down further this time around, you can. Pick three, leave the one you think should win.


The Swanpride Award: Top Three

Here is the Top 5:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

This really isn’t getting any easier, especially since those are very different movies…with the exception of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which are kind of similar. Same song writers, a lot of the same animators and the same method to address a larger issue in the structure of a fairy tale. Looking at them side by side, though, I think the Beauty of the Beast does it a little bit better. It does have what I consider Alan Menken’s and Howard Ashman’s best soundtrack, perhaps the best soundtrack of all Disney movies, not just in terms of the music, but also in the terms of how the songs are used. It also doesn’t undermine the message of the movie at any point, and it doesn’t take the detours The Little Mermaid takes. I think only one those two should be in the top three, and while The Little Mermaid introduced a great concept for a Disney Princess movie, Beauty and the Beast improved on it on every turn and therefore deserves to be in the top three.

And I guess it is time for The Secret of Nimh to go. All the other movies on the list are highly influential. The Secret of Nimh isn’t. It is mostly retreating the familiar Disney paths, not the ones Disney was walking on in the 1980s, but the ones Disney used to frequent when Walt Disney was still active in the Studio and kept pushing it to new highs. It is a really good movie, easily Don Bluth best, but it doesn’t have the overall impact the other movies (including The Little Mermaid) had. And while it is good, there are some points one has to overlook to enjoy the movie, like the presence of a magical stone in a story about science. So the top three is:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

That is actually kind of disappointing because those are mostly the expected choices. But I guess, quality always finds its audience eventually.

So, let’s take a look at the readers choice. Lady and the Tramp, the Great Mouse Detective and The Iron Giant fall out of the competition. This is the list of movies left:

 

By the time I am posting this, the main Christmas Celebration in Germany is already over. I hope you all have a Christmas which is at least as much fun as mine was.


The Swanpride Award: The Top Five

The Top Ten:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Kicking off five movies from this list will be really hard. So, what should the best movie of the century have? It should have great music. Well, all of those movies have great soundtrack, with the possible exception of Grave of the Fireflies, which only has a good one. It should have fluid, top notch animation. Which brings me back to Watership Down, which is easily the cheapest looking in this line-up (not in general, but compared to what the other movies have to offer). And it should have memorable characters in a meaningful story.

Mmm….I already wrote that Grave of the Fireflies is meaningful, but not really in the way it was intended to be. That is an aspect which can’t be overlooked during the judgement. The Adventures of Prince Achmed made it so far because it is a really impressive and in its own way influential movie, but its one big weakness are the characters and the story. This is a fairy tale full of very simple characters and the fact that it is a silent movie can no longer be an excuse for this.

The Nightmare before Christmas is another one which mainly made it that far due to its memorable soundtrack, weird designs and top-notch animation. The story is also quite good but where I kind of struggle is when I look at the characters. I still think that Jack is the only truly memorable one in the movie.

Okay, those are four movies….I still have to kick-off one.  And now I am REALLY in trouble. Because this will be the first time I will decide totally against my personal taste. I love Sleeping Beauty. I think it is a really underrated movie and deserves to be praised to the heavens because it is one of the most unusual pieces of animation out there. There simply is no other movie which has ever been animated like this. It is also a way more influential movie than most people realize (partly because it is always forgotten how old this movie is). More or less every fantasy movie which came after it copied some of the designs. The Swan Princess ripped off this movie left and right. Disney itself reused some of the best parts. The dance in the end turns up again at the end of Beauty and the Beast, Jafar in Aladdin is basically a less threatening copy of Maleficent, The Lion King reused the idea with the tree bridge (and made it more iconic in the process).

If this award session would be based only on personal taste, Sleeping Beauty would at the very least end up in the top three…it might even end up the overall winner. But I need to consider every angle and there is no denying that there are some pacing problems (mainly the scene with the kings being too long) and plot contrivances which I can’t overlook. It is a hard decision, but the top five animated movies of the 20th century are:

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Well, in the readers choice selection, Sleeping Beauty also was just voted out, alongside with Charlotte’s Web, The Nightmare before Christmas, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and The Prince of Egypt. Tomorrow I’ll add picks to the list one last time, since I don’t think that there will be much of a change in the voting of the past articles. So, last chance to put any movie from the late 1980s forward. And another chance to kick up to five movies off the list.

 

 


The Swanpride Award: Top Ten

Well, those are movies still in the competition:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Yellow Submarine (1968), Georg Dunning, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoro Oshii, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional

Time to narrow the list down to ten. Let’s start with the easy choices: I said that Yellow Submarine wouldn’t have won in any other decade and I stand to my opinion. No matter which movie I would have picked for the 1960s, it would have been fallen out of the competition at this stage for sure.

And speaking of Yellow Submarine, one of the main reasons I consider it inferior is the quality of the animation. I therefore decided to use this as my first criteria and scratch movies off the list which don’t manage to shine through animation. Those which are struggling in this regard, usually because of budget issues, are Watership Down, The Great Mouse Detective, Ghost in the Shell and The Iron Giant. Only one of those four can make it to the next round.   Now, they all have something good about their animation. In the case of Watership Down and Ghost in the Shell, it’s artistic elements, in the case of The Great Mouse Detective and The Iron Giant it’s technical achievements. Technical achievements are impressive, but artistic elements are time-less. So I have to make a decision between Watership Down and Ghost in the Shell.

Mmmm…..I go for Watership Down. Mostly because I think that the gory moments in Watership Down are actually making a point, while the gory ones in Ghost in the Shell often feel a little bit too indulgent. This leaves the following Top Ten:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

 

So, let’s take a look at the reader choice…at the moment I am writing this, Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin and The Jungle book have the most votes and fall out of the competition.

I added a few more to the list (strangle nobody voted for the year 1995, but there was a comment vote for Toy Story, so I added it). Same deal as before: Five possible choices and you have to pick the movies you don’t want to win.

 


The Swanpride Award: Final Selection

Time to see, which movies are still in the run:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

Yellow Submarine (1968), Georg Dunning, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Tradtional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoro Oshii, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional

14 Movies and to my big surprise, only six of them are Disney productions, one of them not even done by the animation studio. But that is mostly because Disney tends to release their best movies in a row, so often outstanding Disney movies knocked other really great ones out of the competition.

I am not surprised, though, that most of the movies are traditionally animated. The 20th century was the century of traditional animation. I guess the 21th century will be the century of CGI.

Naturally my readers didn’t always agree with me. In some years, there simply were a number of good movies and sometimes I picked a fairly unknown movie over a very well-known one. I admit, though, that I am very happy that nobody so far has used the “other” option at my polls – well, someone did, but since he or she didn’t bother to comment what should have won instead, I guess at the very least I got the nomination lists right.

Now, tomorrow I will narrow down the list to ten, then to five, then to three and then I will decide on the final winner. I’ll deal with the movies my readers voted for a little bit different. Mostly because it would be premature to close the polls for the last movies I discussed. So here is what I’ll do: I’ll put every movie anyone has ever voted for on a list, but from those articles which have been up at least one week. Everyday you can vote out five which you don’t think deserve the overall win. And everyday I will add new movies which got votes later to the list. I guess this way we should be able to find a readers choice winner by new year.


The Swanpride Award: 1989 and 1990

Taken into consideration:

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

The Nutcracker Prince (1990), Paul Schibli, Traditional

Peter in Magicland (1990), Wolfgang Urchs, Traditional

I am actually not sure why I put The Nutcracker Prince and Peter in Magicland on the list in the first place. Perhaps because they are both Christmas movies, and I needed some cheering up after all the grimness I slogged through in the last week. I guess I have forgotten that I don’t like The Nutcracker Prince at all. Peter in Magicland is a surprisingly well-done German production based on a German children book (well, they did hire some Disney talent), and certainly a good watch the same way the Rankin/Bass holiday movies are a good watch. But let’s stick to the masters of the trade for now.

Nominees-1989-and-1990

Nominated:

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

All Dogs go to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

So, one last time a big break-down of the movies in question. And look, nothing depressing in sight this time around!

  • The Story: I love the premise of Kiki’s Delivery Service. I don’t like the execution of it. Let me explain: The story is basically about Kiki having to learn to stand on her own feet. And she has to do so in the worst way possible, not step by step but she is practically on her own from one day to another. And then the movie does something which really angered me: It starts removing obstacles. In a way, the bakers take the place of her parents, providing her with a place to stay, the basics to start her business, they even find Kiki her first customer. The whole thing is not just utterly dishonest, it creates a giant plot problem. Because the actual challenges were moved out of the way by the writers, they now have to make up problems for Kiki. Some of them work, like her struggling with delivering a package (though I would have thrown that in after she already had a good start). Others don’t work at all. Especially not the part when she suddenly has trouble to fly. And the solution for it is just utterly predictable. Most boring climax ever!

    There is nothing boring about All Dogs Go to Heaven though. Of all the Don Bluth’s movies, this is the bravest one, because it is so gritty. There are criminals which actually act like criminals, there is even a depiction of hell in it. Nothing I would necessarily show smaller children, but then the redemption story-arc isn’t suited for them either. Some of the themes and references in this movie would go over their head either way, you need to be at least old enough to have seen some gangster movies to see this movie as more as just the story of a dog and an orphan.

    I have talked a lot about The Little Mermaid the last two months. To summon it up, I don’t think that the movie is a good adaptation of the source text, but it is a great movie in its own right. It is a very layered story about the relationship between parents and teenagers, an allegorical tale about growing up.

    I consider The Rescuers Down Under as the first sequel to an animated movie which can be considered at least as good as the first one.  Nowadays we have gotten used to good sequels, but back then, not only were sequels to animated movies a rarity, the few which existed were frankly awful (and they only got worse in the 1990s). It does have one problem though that a lot of sequels have: It is the same basic story the first one had. The big difference is, though, that the first one was a detective story with adventure elements thrown in. This one is action adventure pure. It doesn’t have the layers something like The Little Mermaid has, but in terms of danger and suspense, it delivers in spades. My only real gripe with it is the ending. There are too many plot points left open (like the fact that Cody’s mother believes him dead and that a number of animals are still imprisoned in McLeach’s cave).

  • The Characters: Kiki is a very likable character. Even if she is sometimes foolish in her enthusiasm, her determination to do the right and not the easy thing but always the right thing is very endearing. Even if her morals are a little bit over the top at times. There is nothing wrong with allowing someone to pay for a delivery he ordered, even when he has to cancel it in the last minute. But she means well, and that she is a genuinely nice person makes it easy to forgive her when she is acting unfair for foolish reasons.
    Everyone else is just there. None of the characters left a lasting impact on me.

    Anne Marie could have used some of those flaws. She is a little bit too nice and naïve for an orphan. But her character nevertheless works well, because it contrasts with Charlie’s opportunism. Who in turn mostly comes off as likable, because Carface is so much worse. Charlie might be a scoundrel, but there are lines he would never cross. There really aren’t that many anti-heroes in animation, and Charlie is one of the most memorable.

    Well, as I said yesterday, Ariel is great. But what about the other characters? Triton and Sebastian have both their own little arc, which ties in perfectly with main story. They are both flawed, but their flaws are understandable and easily to relate to. Eric has just enough character to be not totally boring. Ursula is exactly the mix of flamboyance and sneakiness I want in a Disney Villain. All the other characters are okay. They work in the story but I can take or leave them.

    When I wrote my article about Miss Bianca, I went into great detail why she gets kind of short-shifted in Rescuers Down Under. But I like all the new characters. Jack might have the role to be Bernard’s rival, but Disney avoided making him a bad person. He is therefore still sympathetic and way less annoying than those kind of characters usually are. Percival C. McLeach is one of the most brutal Disney villains around, but some really good voice-acting turns him into a very personable character.  In the end, though, the movie hinges on the audience liking Cody. What can I say, somehow Disney has managed to make the notion of a heroic child who spends his time rescuing animals in the outback believable. But they also know when it is time for Cody to loose his defiance, at which point even a brave child would be terrified.

    Side note: I always wanted to read a crossover in which all those animated children who speak with animals in a world no-one else can (Penny, Anne-Marie, Cody) meet each other.

  • The Music: I would describe the Soundtrack of Kiki’s Delivery service as serviceable. It’s a nice tune which does exactly what it is supposed to do, but I won’t be humming it anytime soon.

    I love the jazzy tunes in All Dog’s Go to Heaven. But while I like the melody of the songs, I am sometimes not sure about the way they are sung. But they are well placed and usually have a point somewhere in the text. The exception are “What mine is yours” and “Let’s make music together”. Those are only there to fill some time.

    I already wrote a very detailed analysis of the music in The Little Mermaid last month. To summon it up, it can’t get better than Alan Menken and Howard Ashman working together. The songs are perfectly placed, the texts are clever, this is just a nearly perfect soundtrack.

    There is another aspect which is different about “The Rescuers Down Under” compared to the first movie: there are no songs. At all. Even Disney movies which aren’t musicals have usually at least one song in it. But nope, not this one. It is all score, and from the very first minute, it catches your attention. I can’t describe it, I have to show it off:

    That is the perfect combination of music and animation. Just breath-taking!

  • The Animation: As is the animation in itself! The Rescuers Down Under was the first movie for which Disney used CAPS and the result is gorgeous. It pains me that The Rescuers Down Under is one of the overlooked movies in the Disney line-up, because this is the kind animation you should have seen on the big screen at least once.

    Consequently The Little Mermaid is the last Disney movie which was done “old style”. Which is an achievement in itself. The character animation is spot on, the movements under water are convincing and I don’t even want to know how much time was spend on the big battle in the end.

    Not that All Dogs Go to Heaven has to hide. I especially dig the dark colour palette and the detailed backgrounds. That is Don Bluth in his most successful period, and it shows  in the quality of the animation.

    Compared to those three, Kiki’s Delivery Service is just okay. There is nothing wrong with its animation, but there is also nothing about it which impresses me.

Well, I guess it is clear that I consider Kiki’s Delivery Service as the weakest of those movies. The Rescuers Down Under might actually the best when it comes to music and animation, but as a whole, it sadly falls short due to some story-telling problems. All Dogs Go to Heaven is really good. The Little Mermaid is even better. Yeah, I go with the obvious choice this time around.

Since I already covered the 1990s, we are now through with the 20th century. Here is what I’ll do next: Tomorrow, I’ll post a list of the movies still in the competition and then I’ll start to narrow it down step by step by going really nit-picky on the movies, so that I’ll hopefully have an overall winner by Christmas. I will also constantly compare my choices with my readers choices (and comments), so don’t stop voting and commenting.

 

 


The Swanpride Award: 1987- 1988

 

Taken into Consideration:

The Brave little Toaster (1987), Jerry Rees, Traditional

Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Gandahar (1988), René Laloux, Traditional

No, I haven’t forgotten Oliver and Company. I wish I could, though.

I considered Gandahar for a long time. It is the third and last René Laloux movie, and I felt bad for kicking him off the list yet again. It is not that I think that his movies are bad. Those movies are cult classics for a reason and Gandahar might be my favourite of them. They are just not quite good enough to play in the top league. There are always two aspects which bother me about them: For one the quality of the animation. The actual designs are fascinating, but the animation in itself always looks a little bit cheap. And two the scripts. There is way too much exposition in all of them, too much “tell instead of show”. What the movies try to tell the audience is always interesting, but they have the tendency to spell out everything without really saying anything challenging from todays perspective. Either way, if you are interested in animation, you should give those movies a watch for the designs alone.

I also won’t discuss The Brave Little Toaster. I know that this is a beloved movie. I like it, too. It is surprisingly good for an independent production. But it is also a very simple story with some serious tonal issues. It’s a good watch and most likely the best animated movie of 1987, but there were a number of really important Japanese movies in the following year.

Nominees-1987-and-1988

Nominated:

Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Honestly, what is the deal with the animated movies of the 1980s? Why are there so many which are dark and/or depressing? It is not like I mind animated movies addressing serious topics, quite the opposite in fact, but it is really notable how many movies from this period are about nuclear bombs or war in general. Where is this sudden need to address those topics coming from? Was the situation in the cold war that threatening? Or was it Chernobyl? I have no idea. But leave it to the Japanese to address the subject in a meaningful manner.

  • The Story: I admit, I am not sure if I truly understand what the story of Akira is about. And after some research, I have started to doubt that anyone else does either. I did something I usually don’t do and spend some time looking through reviews of this movie. And I noticed that there is a lot of talk about the style of Akira, its role in making Anime better known in the west and the philosophical themes and political commentary in it. But for some reason nobody ever mentions what those themes exactly are and what kind of commentary it is. I don’t dispute that the movie is addressing something, but I have no idea what this something actually is. If someone can explain it to me, I would be really thankful.

    With Grave of the Fireflies, the big question always seem to be if it is a war movie or not. I think that it wasn’t intended to be one. The main theme of the movie definitely is the relationship between society and the individual. Thus said though, due to the war being more a backdrop, the movie makes a way better point concerning its impact than actual war movies. In fact, I think it does a way better job as a war movie, than it does addressing the actual intended theme. I think the main point is that humans can’t survive if they isolate themselves off society. My problem is that I wouldn’t even want to be part of the society which is portrayed in the movie. Why? Well, that’s something I’ll discuss in the character section.

    Compared to the other two movies, My Neighbour Totoro is like a giant bag of cotton candy. It reminds me a lot of Astrid Lindgreen’s “The Six Bullerby Children” in the way it describes the adventures of childhood. Though it does add a healthy dose of mythology into the mix. All in all it is a wonderful plate cleanser after a movie like Grave of the Firefly. It speaks to children because it shows their world, and it speaks to adults by reminding them that the fears and worries of children are just as serious as what adults feel.

  • The Characters:  There is another thing I noticed reading up about Akira: There are often very detailed descriptions of the convoluted story. But in none of them is ever written anything about the motivations of the characters. Because they have none. They have goals, which are randomly assigned to them based on what the story needs. But I never really understood why anyone does anything in this movie. Only at the very end the audience gets at least some background on the relationship between Kaneda and Tetsuo, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter anymore.

    Well, I still owe you an explanation what exactly my issue with Grave of the Fireflies is. Here it goes: I hate the characters. All of them. I hate the mother, who carelessly doesn’t stay with her children but goes ahead to the bomb shelter. I hate Seita for being too proud to accept that he can’t take care of his sister. I hate the aunt for not taking proper care for them, especially not on an emotional level. I hate the cousin and the tenant for ignoring what is going in the household. I hate every single person who sells Seita stuff instead of talking to him and explain the realities of life to him before it is too late (honestly, the great speech about being a part of society is really undermined when it comes from someone who took Seita’s money in the past). I hate the doctor who does nothing to rescue a starving child. I even hate Setsuko for being so unrealistically cute and agreeable. The movie wants to tell the audience that what happens is Seita’s fault, and yes, it is to a large part. But it is also the fault of a society which didn’t reach out to him in time even though it could have, which allowed him to take Setsuko from relative safety and is talking about the “war efforts” as if the war has nothing to do with the decisions their own government made. The society which constantly tells Seita that “he is lucky” when it actually should apologize that they stood by and allowed this war to happen. That is not the kind of society I would want to be part of.

    At least My Neighbour Totoro has well-written characters. Just normal people, easily to relate to, with understandable motivations and some decency in their heart.  And some very cute monsters.

 

  • The Soundtrack: The truly remarkable thing about Akira is not really the score, even though its often dissonant tunes are very unusual. No, what really impressed me is the way the movie uses silence. It has become quite common in anime by now to go silent in the middle of an action sequence in order to get the attention of the audience, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Akira was the movie which started the trend.

    The main theme of Grave of the Fireflies reminds me of a musical box. Every time it is used, it creates a bittersweet mood, partly because of the tune, but partly because the audience knows that no matter how happy the characters are for a short moment, this story won’t end well.

    Happy. That is the first word which comes in my mind when I listen to the soundtrack of My Neighbour Totoro. The tune reminds me of children songs I learned in kindergarten, occasionally  interlaced with some slightly melancholic bits.

 

  • The Animation: The first thing which is usually mentioned about Akira is its graphic depiction of violence. To be honest, I think that this is the least endearing feature of the movie, because the violence often feels pointless and overly gory. It is everything else which makes its animation great. The designs (especially everything involving Kaneda’s motor bike), the colours, the incredible layers of details. Sometimes you watch a scene and suddenly you notice really impressive artwork tucked somewhere in the background. I have one issue with the character designs, though. I think that Kaneda and Kei look too similar. The first time I watched the movie I was incredible confused in the very beginning, because I first didn’t realize that they were two different characters.

    If there is one thing I like about Grave of the Firefly than the way it manages to be realistic without being too gory. There are a lot of bandages, but rarely any visible wounds. Which in a way makes it worse, because you constantly imagine how horrible they are. The whole movie works this way, a lot is just suggested instead of shown, but that makes the impact of it even stronger.

    What really stands out to me in My Neighbour Totoro are the character designs, especially of Totoro. None of the monsters are speaking, and yet it is so easy to understand them.

Of the three movies, My Neighbour Totoro is the only one which works for me the way it was intended to. It is a very quaint movie. The trouble is: while I like watching those movies, they usually don’t end up on my best lists. I always want a little bit more than a pleasing story, some layers which are worth discussing.
I am not sure if Akira does have those layers or just pretends to have them, but it certainly is an artistic statement which I can’t dismiss easily.
And yet I decided to give the win to Grave of the Firefly. Intended or not, this is one of the best anti-war movies out there. None of the others has ever made me that angry and so determined to ensure, that the 70 year long period of peace Germany has enjoyed will never end. And if it does, I want to be able to say that I didn’t raise my flag claiming that throwing bombs was a solution to anything.

Tomorrow I’ll take a break from posting, instead you can head over to Honoring the Heroine for my article about Ariel. If The Little Mermaid makes it into the final cut, well, we’ll see Sunday. Until then, don’t forget to vote. Otherwise you favourite movie might not end up in the second round of the reader’s choice selection.


The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of 1985 and 1986

Taken into consideration:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

When the Wind Blows (1986), Jimmy Murakami, Traditional/Stop motion

Valhalla (1986), Peter Madson, Traditional

Honestly, what is the deal with animated movies during that period? Why are so many of them designed to depress the audience? Especially the English ones. I thought that Plague Dogs is bleak, but that is nothing against When the Wind Blows. Which I mostly put on the consideration list because it mixes different animation techniques, and I am always interested in movies which do that. This one doesn’t do it well at all, btw. I like neither the animation nor the voice acting nor the pacing. The story…well, if you ever really wanted to watch the consequences a Third World War would have, here is your chance. But I certainly won’t discuss this one in detail.

Valhalla is a Danish movie about Norse Mythology. It is one of those middling productions. There is nothing really bad about it, but also nothing really good either. It made me hope, though, that someone else will decide to tackle Norse Mythology at one point. Perhaps now might be the right time for it. Everyone is watching the comic book version of it, Vikings is a reasonable successful show, I think an animated movies based on some of the better myths might resonate with the audience.

In any case, I ended up with four movies.

Nominees-1985-and-1986

 

Nominated:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

The Adventures of Mark Twain is kind of the wild card in this line-up. The movie isn’t that well known, but it was for a long time (until Laika entered the frame) considered the best claymation movie. The other three, well, they are from three masters of animation. But I will discuss The Great Mouse Detective only very briefly. Mostly because I already did. If you want a detailed analysis of every aspect of the movie, you can read that article. Here I will only mention it briefly in relation to the other movies.

  • The Story: I would describe most of those movies as an adventure, with the exception of the one which has actually the word in its title. The Adventures of Mark Twain is more an experience. It’s a homage to the famous author. And as such, it only works if you already know about him and his works. Otherwise you will feel totally lost in the countless references. Actually, even if you do know it is better to not try to think too much about it. It’s the kind of story-telling you either get immersed in or you wonder why you are wasting time with this nonsense.

    Laputa on the other hand is adventure pure. The movie starts in medias res and moves from one action scene to the next. Perhaps it is a little bit too much adventure. There is a point at which the constant pattern of Sheeta escapes/is nearly captured/ escapes/ is captured by Musca/ escapes again/ is captured again/ escapes again becomes a little bit too repetitive. But otherwise it is a fun watch.

    Speaking of repetitiveness, ever noticed how often Feivel just misses encountering his family? An American Tail really goes out of its way to play with the emotion of the audience. When Feivel finally finds his family, it is really difficult not to bawl with them. But the emotional aspect  is just one side of the movie. You can watch it like a child and just enjoy the journey. But once you have acquired some knowledge about the history of America, you develop a new understanding for the movie. It shows a glimpse of the process of immigration without being too into the face about it. The reasons why a family might risk it, the hopes which get dashed by reality, how the plight of the needy is used by scrupulous people and the struggle to find a place in the new society. If I have one point of criticism, it is the way characters phase in and out of the movie. Take Tony. He encounters Feivel in one scene, turns totally randomly up again a few scenes later for a short romantic subplot and then more or less phases into the background.

    I think I like the story of The Great Mouse Detective the best, even though it does require to ignore some oddities.  But it has the most variety, offering a number of different settings and scenarios. And the best climax.

 

  • The Characters: Mark Twain is a fascinating personality, even when he is made out of clay. All the other characters in this movie are just there. They are just references to Mark Twain stories, otherwise they are as interesting as, well, a clump of clay. Whatever potential those characters have, it was never formed.

    Sheeta is a surprisingly engaging main character, considering that she mainly gets kidnapped. As is Pazu. But my favourite is Captain Dora. I just love the idea to turn a pirate captain into an old woman. Though she might be the nicest pirate ever put on screen. Honestly, she doesn’t even care that all her efforts are nearly for nothing in the end because she likes Sheeta and Pazu so much. This alliance is kind of odd, but since I enjoy every moment the movie spends on Captain Dora, and don’t mind too much.

    As much as I complained about the mass of characters in Feivel, none of them are forgettable. Even Bridget is kind of interesting in her engagement against the cats. But the heart of the movie is the relationship between Feivel and his father. If those character don’t work, the whole movie fails. Spoiler alert: they do. Feivel is exactly the right mixture of the wide-eyed innocence you would expect in a child, cleverness and determination. It is mostly the optimism which makes his father likable in the beginning. Seeing him sad and broken when he believes that Feivel died, breaks my heart every time.

    The Great Mouse Detective has it really easy in this regard. You really have to try to make Sherlock Holmes a boring character. But Basil is one of the most entertaining depiction of him and Rattigan is one of the best versions of Moriarty.

 

  • The Music: Usually I am listening to the soundtrack of the various movies while I write this segment. This proofed to be difficult for The Adventures of Mark Twain, though. Apparently the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack? Well, it naturally has a score, but it was never released independent form the movie. And trying to remember the score, I can neither say that I particularly liked or disliked it.

    The score of Laputa makes me want to fly, though. And I have a slight fear out of highs. But just listening to it I feel the wind on my face and a sense of freedom.

    But the true earworm in this selection is “Somewhere out there”. While I hate the was it is sung in the movie itself, it is a wonderful tune in general. So wonderful that I tend to forget that there are actually a number of other songs, too. Or maybe I don’t want to remember. There was a time when I could hum them all, but this is a rare case of me falling out of love with a soundtrack with each passing year. Not the score though, just the majority of the songs.

    The Great Mouse Detective on the other hand shows that Disney has recovered from its lapse in judgement in the previous movies. This is an expertly scored movie, which uses the few songs in it very deliberately.

 

  • The Animation: Claymation isn’t exactly my favourite method of animation, especially not when it is still very visible what material was used. And frankly, some of the designs in The Adventures of Mark Twain are really disturbing, and not always intentionally so. The level of skill displayed here is impressive, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a pleasing to watch.

    I guess you know what will come now: I have to discuss a Studio Ghibli movie, so it is time to praise the creativity and the quality of the world-building. Consider it done. Great animations, great designs, nothing to complain about and a lot to love.

    An American Tail is Don Bluth at his finest. I especially like it whenever the movie allows us a glimpse of the human world showing the mouse equivalent. That is really cleverly done.

    The animation of the Great Mouse Detective on the other hand is good, but it is not the best Disney can do.

 

I admit freely: Whenever I make one of those consideration list, there is usually one movie which is the “expected winner” in the back of my mind. A movie which is so well known and so beloved, that it is hard to imagine that it will be knocked from the top spot, unless it encounters another movie which is just as beloved. But I also always try to keep an open mind when I examine the strength and weaknesses of said movies, and sometimes the result surprises myself. For example, I did expect The Lion King to make it to the final round.

In this case, An American Tail seemed to be the obvious pick for the win, unless there was a surprise gem between the movies I hadn’t watched before. It was, after all, the highest grossing animated movie not made by Disney during the time of its release – and one of those movies I obsessed over after I saw it. I must have watched it dozens of times in the first year I owned it. And yet, it wasn’t my choice in the end. First Laputa turned out to be a very positive surprise. And then I re-examine The Great Mouse Detective and realized how strong this movie truly is. So I ended up with another of those “I might pick something else on another day” situations. The deciding factor was the script of The Great Mouse Detective. This is a really well-written movie with equally well-written characters which never moves in circles like the other two movie do. Therefore it is my pick for today.

 


The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of the early 1980s

 

Okay, time to cover the period I initially skipped, starting with the first half of the 1980s (meaning 1980 to 1984). All in all a quite exciting period. Not only was Don Bluth challenging Disney, Mayazaki was also involved in his first movie production. It is the start of what I dubbed the Multi-Age. And it did start with a bang.

Up for Consideration:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Plague Dogs (1982), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Les Maîtres du temps (1982), René Laloux, Traditional

Barefoot Gen (1983), Madhouse, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Yep, that is quite an impressive list, which I have to shorten a little bit. Let’s stat with Les Maîtres du temps. Remember what I said about the last Laloux movie? That it had an interesting concept but a wonky execution? Well, I need to repeat the assessment. I love the idea of a science fiction movie about a crew trying to reach a little boy who is alone on a foreign planet, trying to keep him from danger by communicating with him. But the movie isn’t focussed, the characters change constantly based on what is needed for the story and a very stupid twist is thrown into the mix at the very end.

The second is The Plague Dogs. I have a lot of respect for this movie, especially since it is one of the few cases in which the movie version actually has the more challenging ending compared to the book version. But it lacks the more poetic aspects Watership Down had, the animation as well as the voice acting are worse and the story as a whole is so relentlessly bleak that it kills every bit of investment I might have had in the characters. I don’t mind depressing when it is done well, but an overload it only causes a feeling of numbness in me. I would say that it is even more bleak than Barefoot Gen, and that movie is about the nuclear attack on Hiroshima!

Though I scratched Barefoot Gen off the list, too, not because of its subject matter. I actually think that the movie tells a great story. But I like neither the animation nor the character designs. It is just so odd to see a story like this told with characters in it which might come from a random sport anime. Both aspects really drag this movie down. In another playing field it as well as The Plague Dogs would have made the list, but in thise one, there are four movies which are definitely stronger.Nominees-1980th-early

Nominated:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Disney and Miyazaki made the list mostly based on their animation, Don Bluth and Rankin/Bass mostly based on offering strong characters. But what about the stories of those movies?

  • The Story:  So, we have three movies based on books and one based on a Manga – though as far as I understand the Manga was mostly written to make the movie a possibility. The funny thing is that I have read neither of those books, though I do know that The Last Unicorn is the only adaptation which bothers to stick somewhat close to the source text. As far as I know, it basically only cuts out some subplots and leaves out some (arguably important) explanations. But let’s forget the books as well as the Manga and focus on the question if those movies work.The Fox and the Hound is problematic. It starts well and it has a great finale, but some of the steps taken to reach this finale are a little bit wonky. The main problem is that Copper’s turn to suddenly hating Tod doesn’t really make that much sense, especially if you consider that Chief survives. Even if he had died it would have been a hard sell, since Tod isn’t directly responsible for his injury in the first place. Copper swearing to kill him is a really extreme reaction. Also, there is a whole subplot which has nothing to do with anything. As much fun as hunt for caterpillar is occasionally, it is just a giant filler.

    The Secret of Nimh shows Don Bluth’s tendency to episodic storytelling, but in this movie, it works, since everything ties back to the one big goal, rescuing Timothy’s life. It also never looses sight of the main theme of the movie which is not, as one might suspect, questions of humanity or the moral behind experiences on animals but the true nature of bravery. This in mind it is even forgivable that the movie throws in magic into the mix out of nowhere. It doesn’t really fit the story of rats which obtained human intelligence, but it does provide the key (see what I did there?) to the true centre of the story.

    The Last Unicorn is telling a very traditional story while cleverly subverting a lot of fantasy tropes. Here the wizard is not all-powerful, one of the main heroes is a middle-aged woman and the heroic knight doesn’t impress anyone with the killing of a dragon. It is an interesting discussion of myths and the roles they play in our lives.

    Nausicaä (no, I don’t intend to write the whole title every time) feels a little bit overwrought. There are so many characters and storylines compressed in that movie, it feels overly long and rushed at the same time. Granted, the running time of 117 minutes is longer than usual. Most animated movies keep it somewhere around the 90 minutes mark. But this one either needed around 20 minutes more or one turn in the story less. Thematically it is about the relationship between humans and nature. Miyazaki is a little bit obsessed with the theme. Sometimes he handles it exceptionally well, but in this case he falls more on the preachy side of things. Not annoyingly so, but the moral is a little bit too much in your face for my taste.

 

  • The Characters: Well, I already mentioned that the strength of The Secret of Nimh and The Last Unicorn lies in the characters. In fact, Mrs Brisby was the first female character I ever discussed in my other blog, Honoring the Heroine. But I appreciate the other characters, too. Well, with the possible exception of Jeremy. He doesn’t annoy me, but other than bringing Mrs. Brisby to the owl, he is a really useless and distracting character. Also, I think the voice acting in the English version could be better. But the writing for those characters, especially Mrs Brisby, is so strong, that it is only a minor point.I haven’t gotten around yet to write an article about Molly Grue, but she is certainly on the list. I just love the scene in which she asks the Unicorn why she didn’t appear when Molly was still young and innocent. Schmendrick is a  very sympathetic character in his eagerness to please. Everyone else works just fine. Mama Fortuna stands out, I think mostly because she is voiced by Angela Lansbury. But what I like the most is that the movie manages to portray the Unicorn as compassionate but foreign.

    Nausicaä is a little bit of a controversial character. Since she is practically portrayed as the messiah of her people (and the movie is really not subtle in this regard), she is sometimes seen as a Mary Sue. I disagree with the notion. Now, I do think that she would be a little bit more interesting if she were a little bit more flawed. The one scene in which she does something questionable is when she kills the soldiers who murdered her father in a fit of rage. It is a little bit odd how she suddenly feels guilty and after that the moment is never mentioned again. The other characters, well, let’s put it this way: I think I would really like all of them if the movie would spend more time on them. It feels like they all are getting established and then immediately showed aside until the final confrontation.

    The Fox and the Hound has two strong protagonists in Tod and Copper, two equally strong antagonists in Slade and Chief (plus a terrifying bear) and a lot of characters which only seem to be there to fill time. But then, the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tod and Copper, so the focus is exactly where it should be.

 

  • The Soundtrack: Excuse me while I gush a little bit. I love, love, love the Soundtrack form The Secret of Nimh. That is Jerry Goldsmith at his finest (even though it was the first time he scored an animated feature). It’s magical, scary, oppressive, heart-wrenching, whatever is needed in any given scene. And the main theme (and song) is one of those relentless earworms which I will most likely hum the rest of the week now that I listened to it again.Speaking of earworms: I never really thought about it beforehand, but the soundtrack of Nausicaä might be my favourite of all the Studio Ghibli ones. It is as if it is drawing the world of Nausicaä in music. And the vocal theme song is yet another of  those hard to forget tunes.

    As is the main theme of The Last Unicorn. “I’m alive…I’m aliiiiiiiiive!”  The style might be an strange choice for a fantasy movie, but for this more oddball approach to the genre it is a good fit. Mostly. Here is a fun fact: For the German version of the movie, “Now that I am a woman” was kept in the original language, but it was played more as a background music with a voice-over added which translated the lyrics of the song. The result sounds like a poem, which fits the melancholic mood of the scene perfectly. But in the English version, sung like a pop song, it is a little bit grating.

    The worst one out in this selection is clearly The Fox and the Hound. The only song which really works is “Goodbye  may seem forever”. Otherwise the soundtrack falls somewhere between okay and cringeworthy.  Normally you can trust that even in the worst Disney movies, at least the soundtrack is good. I am not sure what went wrong here. Perhaps Buddy Baker had trouble with the medium?

 

  • The Animation: I feel like a kid in a candy shop! The Fox and the Hound can be considered the first movie in which Disney struggled out of their slump and started to put some real effort (and money) into the animation. The landscapes are beautiful and then there is the bear. Pixar really should take notes. That’s how a truly terrifying bear looks like.The Secret of Nimh is Don Bluth showing off what he can do, and the result is gorgeous, especially when Mrs. Brisby visits the rats. But in a way, I like the dark scenes even better than the colourful and flashy ones. The use of colour to set a certain mood is just spot on in this movie.

    Nausicaä is creativity pure. I guess one of the reasons I wanted this movie to be longer is that I would have loved to just watch this incredible world a little bit more. The character animations are sometimes a little bit too cartoony, but that is really the only (nit-picky) criticism I have.

    I guess The Last Unicorn is the weakest in this category. The smaller budget shows. But I like the basic art and the animation does have its stand-out moments. Especially whenever the Red Bull turns up.

Well, Disney had easily the weakest offering of those four. The Last Unicorn cold have been an impressive movie, if there had been a bigger budget and perhaps one last rewrite of the script to smooth out some minor points. Nausicäa is a very strong movie, especially when it comes to its animation. But in the end, I think The Secret of Nimh beats them all. It has a strong story, an outstanding well-written main character, an unbelievable moving soundtrack and impressive animation. It certainly deserves the title as the best animated movie made in the early 1980s.