Tag Archives: Disney

Nine Properties I would love to see as Animated Series

So, Disney has apparently decided that they should do animated TV-Shows based on their properties again. And why not? DreamWorks already does it, and it worked just fine back in the 1990s. And to be honest, the properties they picked this time around have a lot of more potential than the ones they did back then. I really look forward to the Tangled TV-Series because I really wanted to know how Rapunzel learns to adjust to the life out of the tower (though I do fear that Disney might end up going for something more shallow in an attempt to appeal to the perceived target demographic), and Big Hero 6 is practically made for being a TV -Series.

This got me thinking, though. Are there any other properties I would actually like to see as animated TV series? And what would they look like? So I considered and came up with a small list, not just of Disney movies which would work particularly well as a TV show, but also some untapped book properties as well as some franchises which I think could do really well with a shift to animated TV. I ended up with nine, because I didn’t feel the need to force this into being a proper top ten, especially since this isn’t a ranking at all, I sorted them based on the year of creation. After all, every adaptation can potentially be good – there are just some properties which are more suited for a TV shows than others.


The Letter for the King (1962)

What is it about?

It’s a book by Tonke Dragt, set in a kind of medieval setting. It tells the story about Tuiri, a young man who is about to become a knight. His last test is spending a night thinking about the path he is about to take in a chapel, when suddenly he is confronted with the decision to either fulfil this last test or listen to a request for help, thus abandoning his knighthood. He naturally does the latter (or it would be a really short book), and starts a very dangerous journey, trying to deliver an important letter to another kingdom, while being followed by a number of different enemies.

Why do I want it?

The book has been adapted into a movie once, but that went as well as you can expect when you cram a story about travelling to a number of different places into a relatively short running time. The character moments kind of got lot along the way, which was a shame, since the story is actually not that much to write home about unless you are really invested in the struggle of the character, and a number of different scenarios, which simply can’t be rushed but need room to breath. In addition, the story is a little bit episodic from the get go, meaning Tiuri reaches a place, deals with some sort of hurdle to overcome, and then goes to the next place. It could easily fill 20 to 30 episodes if handled right. And if the first season is successful, well, there is a second book about the adventures of Tiuri, which is just as good if not better.

How should the series look like?

I’ll be honest here: There is no particular reason for this to be an animated series, it could work in live action TV just as well – with a proper budget. And that is kind of the problem, because I doubt that any network would spend that much money on some strange European property, no matter how well-known it is in a number of countries. American networks and studios are a little bit snobby in this regard. But if they do an animated series, I would prefer classical animation in a style reminiscent of medieval art and paintings. It needs to look kind of romantic but also colourful.


Voyagers! (1982-1983)

What is it about?

It’s a mostly forgotten but still beloved by those who know it TV-series about time-travelling. You have a time-traveller, a child who accidentally becomes his partner and one of the greatest time travelling device ever created in the Omni. The episodes are about fixing history – meaning something went wrong at one point and the protagonists have to ensure that history goes the way it was supposed to.

Why do I want it?

While the show had a lot of flaws, mainly due to its very American perspective on history, it was also very educational. It is one of the main reasons I ever developed an interest in history and how it affects us today. I think we need another show like this, which teaches children something in a fun way. I am usually not into time travel at all, but the fact that the Voyagers worked outside of time sidestepped a number of possible paradoxes. I guess you could also simply reboot the show for Live-Action TV, but I am hopeful for it catching on better the second time around. If you go for multiple seasons, you have the problem that the child actor will age out of the role pretty fast (the original one had only three season which run in a less than two years, and the child-actor had already hit a grown spurt by the end of it, which put him pretty firmly in the teen category). So, animated it is.

How should the series look like?

The original show had a few steampunk elements to it, and I would like a remake doubling down on this, at least when it comes to the design of the Voyager Headquarter. I also think that it would be important to portray the historic figures in it as adequate as possible. I am not sure if CGI is able to do that, and Stop-Motion has always a weird feeling to it. So (surprise, surprise), traditional animation is it. I actually think I would like the Disney style, along the lines of what they did in the short “Ben and I”.


The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

What is it about?

Well, animation fans should know this hidden gem from the Disney canon. In short, it is the story about a Mouse-version of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Why do I want it?

It is kind of a no-brainer, really. During the 1990s, Disney made direct-to-video sequels and TV-shows about more or less everything, but somehow they mostly managed to miss out the properties, which were perfect for some kind of sequel. The Great Mouse Detective could be a wonderful detective series for children and young adults, and between the book series the movie was based on and the actual Sherlock Holmes stories, there is a lot of material to draw from. They could even introduce an early version of the Rescue Aid Society at one point, thus suggesting that Basil belongs in the same universe as The Rescuers, just in a different time period.

How should the series look like?

Like the movie, naturally. The style is perfect for TV anyway.


Harry Potter (1997-2007)

What is it about?

Do I really have to explain? It’s Harry Potter, you need to have lived under a rock to not at the very least know the basics.

Why do I want it?

Mostly because I always felt that the movies were really dissatisfying. I loved the sets, the costumes (mostly), and they were an okay watch overall, but there was so much lost in the adaptation that I really, really want a better one. But I don’t think that the audience would accept another one anytime soon, plus, even if you would redo the movies already knowing which details would become important later on and which not, it would still be nearly impossible to cram all the information into movie lengths. So why not a TV series? An animated one, to ensure that the actors don’t grow out of their roles, and to allow some creativity when it comes to spell-casting. Though it would be important that the creators take the book series serious and don’t dumb down the themes in it.

How should the series look like?

Ever seen Harry Potter Fanart? Yeah, something along the line of the most popular artists would be great. I also want to add that while I want a version which allows the different story-arcs some room to breath, it doesn’t have to be a slavish one-to-one adaptation of the books. There is certainly a little bit room for improvement, some details which could and should be added in order to avoid some of the plot holes.


Operation Nautilus (2001-2001)

What is it about?

It’s a book series by Wolfgang Hohlbein, also called Captain Nemo’s Children. It is set around the time of the first World War, and describes how a group of teens end up commandeering the Nautilus (yes, THAT Nautilus), finding traces of the Atlantian Civilisation at the bottom of the ocean while evading the war ships.

Why do I want it?

Well, for starters, the teens in the series all have different nationalities, meaning they are working together while their respective nations are at war with each other. I have the feeling that this is a message which will be desperately needed in the upcoming years. But it is also one of the book series which had a number of great ideas, but doesn’t really work that well as a whole. Really, don’t get me started on how much it went of the rails, and how terrible and contrived the finale was. I would love to see someone take another stab at the concept, using the best ideas of the book and building on them, step by step. Basically I want a more or less original series based on the concept and the characters of the book series.

How should the series look like?

In this case, I can see every form of animation working just fine, as long as the result doesn’t look too cartoony. The story might be fantasy, but it is set in a realistic setting, and the animation should reflect that.


Treasure Planet (2002)

What is it about?

Another of Disney’s overlooked gem. The movie is basically Treasure Island in Space steampunk style. Disney actually did plan a series based on the movie, but after it bombed spectacularly, the series was scrapped.

Why do I want it?

The world of Treasure Island just look infinitely interesting. I own the DVD, and it fascinating how much thought the animators put in the working of the ships. There are a number of details which never made it into the movie. I would love to see a series exploring more of this world. Jim could go on even more travels and crazy adventures.

How should the series look like?

Well, like the movie, naturally. (I have a deja vu….).


Firefly (2002)

What is it about?

Well, Firefly is the Whedon show which infamously run for only one season but still managed to spawn a cult following and eventually a movie. It was a quite interesting concept in that it took the concept of Wild West in space a little bit more literal than even Star Trek did (and that franchse has “Trek” in its name!) going for a very dusty look during a time, in which most Science Fiction shows created a very pristine future. It also frequently experiemented with story-telling, creating some very memorable episodes in its short run.

Why do I want it?

It only run one season. Do I really have to say more? It deserves to get a proper continuation, but with the various actors having aged out of their roles by now, an animated series is the only way to make it possible without it being too grating. It could pick up where the original show left off (ignoring Serenity) and just continue the story.

How should the series look like?

I lean towards traditional animation in this case, because I think it would be easier to capture the feel of the original show in this style. Not that CGI can’t do dusty and dirty – see Rango – it’s the character animation which worries me. That can end up fast in uncanny valley territory.


Supernatural (2005-now)

What is it about?

Supernatural is the longest running Sci-Fi Series in the USA, which is frankly downright impressive. Impressive enough that I recently decided to figure out what the big deal is, proceeding to binge watch the whole show. And I actually liked it quite a lot after I discovered that it is about so much more than just two to three attractive leads experiencing a lot of man-pain (what? We all have our prejudices). There are actually a number of really creative ideas in the show which I adore. I would recommend the first five season of it to everyone – what follows is a little bit more wonky, but still has its moments.

And yes, I am aware that there is already an anime based on the show…I’ll address it later.

Why do I want it?

Unlike Firefly Supernatural is an ongoing show which still utilized the same actors. But I nevertheless would love to see a complete reboot of it. While I do like a number of ideas in the show (careful, I will now go full-on spoiler) especially the concept of not so fluffy angels or a Supernatural series becoming the Winchester Gospel and their take on the apocalypse, there are also a lot of elements which I feel prevent the show from reaching its full potential. Partly it is the format. The writers have to fill a lot of episodes, so they often drag plot-lines out or throw in detours, and since the writers change, there are sometimes elements which are just left hanging in the air, contradictions in the lore and quality shifts. Partly it is the budget. They did a fairly good job with depicting angles (love the shadow wings) and heaven, but hell has been an ongoing disappointment so far. Partly it is simply the writing. I can’t be the only one who actually wanted to see at least half a season with Godstiel being the big problem Dean and Sam have to deal with it, instead of getting one episode and then having to deal the whole season with boring black goo.

I just feel that it would be great to rewrite the whole thing, using the best story-arcs, streamlining some aspects (like the whole “the police looks for the Winchesters” thing), making some elements bigger and dropping a few more questionable decisions. I want the best of the world of Supernatural combined with visuals which aren’t possible to do on a TV budget. I want a more careful world-building, with clearer rules. And doing this in an animated show would allow for doing it without it feeling like a cheap knock-off from the get go.

To achieve that, it would be necessary that it becomes more than just a retelling. It should have its own set of twists.Which is what the Anime kind of tried to do, but more in the single episodes than in the actual myth arc. But that is exactly the place where they should start. Why not actually go for the notion of Sam being part of an army of people with tainted blood this time around instead of doing the whole “one surviver” solution, which, imho, was mostly picked because of budgets restrains? Why not changing around some stuff? Like, the whole idea of Castiel being under mind control from heaven would have actually fit was better into season 6, when there was still one archangel left. This storyline can lead into Castiel being freed of said mind control which would then make his pact with Crowley way more understandable.

Then there is Adam, who is still one big black mark on the series because he is apparently still in the cage and nobody seems to care. His character could be handled better from the get go. For example instead of repeating the whole “Adam is already death” shock (which lead to some problems down the line – death really hasn’t much meaning in the show when characters are constantly brought back as soon as it is convenient), it would be interesting of Adam is actually younger when Dean and Sam meet him, and they make the decision to leave him with a relative of his mother, hiding the Supernatural from him, because they want him to have a normal live. That would naturally cause resentment in Adam, which would be hashed out further down the line when the angels start to use him. Similar elements, different story, and the opportunity to explore some ideas which never got the attention they deserved, that’s what I want to see. In case someone is curious: I also would love to see the fight for the seals in greater detail, a more creative take on the cage, the pagan gods as a third party and more of the fight between the various angels. I also felt that the show really should have explored the relationship between Castiel and Jimmy Novak instead of forgetting about the latter for multiple season just to explain then that he has been in heaven for quite a while. And without the budget restrains, it could create a more complete world, in which the Winchester adventures actually have a large impact. What happens when there is suddenly an increase of paranormal activities which can’t be ignored, when there are people declaring themselves to be god and others who leave their families because they agreed to be a vessel or have been hijacked by a demon? There are numerous options for a rewrite, which honours the original while still being its own thing.

How should the series look like?

I discovered that I actually don’t like the Anime style at all, though my issues are more with the Anime style of storytelling than the actual drawings. See, Anime storytelling is extremely melodramatic, with a lot of telling instead of showing. But that is more or less the opposide of what makes the show work. Yeah, it is sometimes corny, but what makes it so great is the underlying realism, the constant demystificing of our beliefs. Angels are just dicks. Demons exist, but they can be defeated. Yes, it has its dramatic moments, but it can also be funny or just really horrofying. So what the show would need is a drawing style, which allows it a lot of freedom to design certain elements of it really freaky and go all creative with it. Supernatural is also a series which likes to play around a little bit on a meta-level. Therefore I like the idea of mixing different kind of animation. Normally stop motion would clash horrible with traditional animation, but it could be used here for a deliberate “off-feel”. The important part is that they pick a style which allows the characters to show a lot of emotions in their faces, as well as some really creepy imagenary. So perhaps traditional animation with a realistic touch to it is in order, but with an emphasis on the character animation.


Inside Out (2015)

What is it about?

It’s a view into the mind a girl, showing how her emotions struggle with some big changes in her life.

Why do I want it?

Of all the properties I put on this list, this is actually the one I want the least. Inside Out works just fine as stand-alone movie. But Pixar currently has a bad case of sequilities, so they will revisit one of their most successful properties sooner or later. And if they do, I just can’t see them figuring out a story which doesn’t feel like a repetition of the first movie. So, why not go smaller? Focus on small events in Riley’s everyday life, and let the emotions comment on it. And yes, that is more or less like Herman’s Head, but doing the same concept with the perspective of a teen as centre could yield a nice little show for this demographic. Just keep it small, and simple.

How should the series look like?

CGI. That’s the style of the movie and they should stick to it. I can actually see the emotions working if they based them on the concept drawings, but I somehow can’t see Riley in this style, so it would be better to stick to what works.


So, that is my list. There are other adaptations and/or sequels I would like to see at one point, but those are the ones I would love to see specifically as animated TV show. What do you think? Do you agree with my picks? Or do you have some ideas on your own? I would love to hear about them.

 

 

 


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: 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: 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: 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.


The Swanpride Award 1999

 

Taken into consideration:

Toy Story 2 (1999), Pixar, CGI

Tarzan (1999), Disney, Traditional

Fantasia 2000 (1999), Disney, Traditional

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), Trey Parker, CGI/Cut-out

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional

It was a long and stony way, but the 20th century actually ended at a very good place. We now get every single year a number of animated movies worth discussing. May this never change.

Now, Out of this batch, I decided to remove Fantasia 2000, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and My Neighbours the Yamadas. Fantasia 2000 mostly because I think that the guest stars thoroughly ruin the mood of the movie (plus, I already wrote an article about all the Fantasia segments, I don’t think there is a need to discuss them further at this point). South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is a clever movie (and I say that as someone who usually doesn’t watch South Park), but it is also a movie a little bit too referential to a very specific time and place. I honestly doubt that anyone will truly get why Saddam Husain is in it in a few years. And the story just isn’t good enough to overlook the quality of the animation. Yes, I know, it’s intentional cheap, but still.

I considered My Neighbours the Yamadas a long time, since I am always a sucker for movies with unusual animation, but overall it didn’t really work for me. It is basically a collection of occurrences in the daily live of a family. Each segment has some sort of punch-line, but very few of them worked for me, and I got tired really, really fast of this particular family. So I ended up with three movies this time around.

Nominees-1999

Nominated:

Toy Story 2 (1999), Pixar, CGI

Tarzan (1999), Disney, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional

Three of the biggest Animation Studios in direct competition? That should be fun (I hope). And difficult (I fear).

 

  • The Story: Last time I talked about the Toy story franchise, I used the word “nostalgia”. But I didn’t really explain what I meant by this. There are a few movies which mostly work because they tap in our feelings for what we tend to perceive was a better time of our life. The Toy story franchise certainly belongs into this category. The studio even went as far as letting the toys age with the audience in the third part. Those are feel-good movies. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but I usually prefer movies which challenge my feelings and/or thoughts at least a little bit. Which is exactly why I like Toy Story 2 better than Toy Story.
    I do believe that Toy Story is way better plotted than Toy Story 2, but I nevertheless connect more with the latter one, even though it basically consists of two movies. One which is really, really silly and one I consider outstanding. The silly movie is the part with Buzz. The outstanding one is about Woody confronting the fact that Andi will grow up one day, and what that will mean for his future. It is a harsh reminder that childhood will end and nothing will stay the same forever. It’s like the movie is punching the audience right in the gut. And I love it.

    Disney’s version of Tarzan might be the best adaptation of the source material which was ever done. I nevertheless have some grievances concerning this movie. It is juggling too many plot points at once, and some of them fall short as a result. For example, I never really understood how Tarzan becomes the leaders of the Gorilla’s immediately after his actions put them all in danger.

    The Iron Giant has the most balanced plotting of all of them. There are moments in which it seems like the movie might get off the tangent, but it always ties everything back to the main plot and the overreaching themes, which are mostly centred around criticism of paranoia, just in time.  The message is a little bit in the face, but the movie makes up for it with a lot of adorably strange moments.

 

  • The Characters: The characters in Toy Story were great, the ones in Toy Story 2 are even better, due to the addition of Jessie. Her story is what makes the movie as good as it is. It also has the best “villains” (as much as Pixar has villains) of the entire franchise, since their motivations are entirely tied to the theme of the movie, instead of them just being there to provide some sort of temporary obstacle for the heroes.

    The biggest strength in Tarzan is the romance. Jane is a wonderful female character and it is entirely understandable why she would fall for Tarzan. The biggest weakness is the villain. Well, him and Terk and Tanto, but they are at least somewhat amusing and mostly serve the plot well. But Clayton? He is so obviously evil, why would anyone hire him in the first place? Plus, greed is the most boring of all motivations.

    Thus said, the villain of The Iron Giant isn’t that impressive either. But I don’t think that he is meant to be. In general, the movie offers a great cast of characters, who are all a little bit corky but still on a believable level. Bonus points for portraying the plight of a single mother, who has to deal with everything live throws at her on her own. That nearly never happens in animated movies. Even Mrs Brisby had the nosy neighbour to help her out whenever she needed a babysitter.

  • The Music: Well, Pixar used Randy Newman again. But: “When she loved me” is not just my favourite Randy Newman song by far, the scene in which it is used is also my favourite scene in the whole franchise.

    Apparently there are some people who hate Phil Collins. I don’t get it. I wouldn’t say that Phil Collins is my favourite musician in the world, but when he is good, he is really good. And for this movie, he created some really great songs (and went out of his way to sing them personally in as many languages as possible, as a thank you to his fans). “You’ll Be in my heart” is the best of them, but I also like “Two Worlds, One Family” and “Strangers like me”. I am not too keen on “Trashing the Camp”, mostly because the whole scene feels like a filler to me. I also agree with the decision to sing most of the songs from the off, mostly because I can’t really imagine Tarzan prancing around and singing about his feelings. Not because he is a hunky guy, but because he is simply not the kind of character who would wear his heart on his sleeve. And the score is a good fit to the songs. I especially love the idea to use obscure instruments in order to create the right feeling.

    The soundtrack of The Iron Giant is a little bit forgettable. I actually listened to it again for this review because I couldn’t remember it. And after I listened to it I tried to find words for it and discovered that I still could barely remember it. Thus said, a soundtrack doesn’t have to be the most memorable thing about a movie. When I watched The Iron Giant, I never noticed the score in a negative manner, and I was moved at the right places, so they must have done something right.

 

  • The Animation: The clear winner in this category is Tarzan. Disney took full advantage of the medium and gave Tarzan the kind of agility a real person would never be able to display. He is practically surfing through the trees. I could also mention the use of colour. Or the spot on gestures and expressive body language in all the silent scenes. Ups, I just did. Bottom line, when it comes to animation, this is an all around stunning movie.

    The Iron Giant looks a little bit quaint, but there is a lot to love about the animation. It is inspired by American artists and 1950s style drawings. And this is a case of CGI used right! Yes, even though it is a traditional animated movie, there are a number of different technologies used, and the Iron Giant itself is fully computer animated. It’s a masterful blend of the different methods.

    Toy Story 2 looks way better than Toy Story. It is frankly impressive how fast Pixar improved in their early years. But at this point, the technology just couldn’t quite compete with a traditional animated movie – yet.

Of those three movies, Tarzan is the only one I saw in theatres. I watched Toy Story 2 later on, without really knowing how popular the Toy Story franchise was (well, this was before the internet became a thing). The Iron Giant was actually a movie I first missed out on and then avoided for ages. This might sound strange, but I am always a little bit afraid to watch a movie when everyone tells me how good it is. The expectations are just too high. I tend to wait until I feel that I am in the right mind set, meaning in the mood for just enjoying a random movie. But now that I have finally watched The Iron Giant, I have to agree with its fans. This is a truly great movie and underrated gem. It doesn’t have the tear-jerker moment Toy Story 2 has (at least not quite), nor does it have the stunning animation and catchy music of Tarzan. But it does well across the board and has above all a solid story from start to finish.
*sigh* This is another one of those cases where I might make a different decision on a different day. I don’t think that any of those movies have the chance to be the overall winner, but they all deserve to be called the best of the year. Today my vote goes to The Iron Giant, though. And yes, I am well aware that this will mean no pure CGI movie will be in the final selection. But perhaps it is better that way. The 20th century was after all pretty much the century of traditional animation with some stop motion thrown in from time to time.


The Swanpride Award: 1997-1998

Taken into consideration:

Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth/Fox, Traditional

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Antz (1998), DreamWorks, Traditional

A Bugs Live (1998), Pixar, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks

Well, thankfully I won’t have to answer the question if A Bugs Live or Antz is the better movie, because frankly, they are both among the weaker movies of this period. Anastasia I considered for a long time, but in the end, I decided on the four movies which stood out the most to me.

Nominees-1997-and-1998

Nominated:

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks

1997 is a really important year for animation, and not just because DreamWorks entered the fray. Now, DreamWorks is a studio which often gets a lot of flak. Deservedly so, imho. It spends too much time chasing after the latest trend. But, to its credit, it also has delivered some really remarkable movies, so I am glad that it is part of the competition, even though I wish its track record were better.
The other new player in the field of movie animation was Satoshi Kon, who was just incredible talented. Sadly we only had a very short period with him, but I hope that his movies will become better and better known in the western world with time. When people discuss adult animation, that is the kind of movies I have in mind and want to see. He was just an unique artist and storyteller. So excuse me when I am now starting to gush a little bit.

  • Story: Perfect Blue is a psycho drama and a disturbing examination of the way woman are objectified by society. The main character is an idol who is making the transition to being an actress. On the one hand she is struggling with her image change, with playing a new and yet not really different role. The movie poignantly demonstrates that the “innocent and clean” image of idols are in a lot of ways just another way of fetishism, while also pointing out that so called “dramatic scenes” in more series TV productions which involve putting female in questionable situations are less about the drama and more about showing off the “assets” of the actress in question. On top of the main character trying to find her own identity between the different roles she has to play, she also has to deal with a stalker. I won’t say more at this point, because this is the kind of the movie one should experience as unspoiled as possible. The way it is staged it is easy to loose yourself in it, developing an easy understanding for what the protagonist goes through.

    The odd thing about Princess Mononoke is that the movie is neither about a Princess, nor about a character named Mononoke. I guess the correct translation of the title would be “The Spirit Princess”. But the story is not really about San, who grew up with wolves, it is above all the story of Ashitaka, the cursed prince who encounters her. And he has more the role of an observer. The actual theme of the movie is the relationship between humans and nature. Now, I usually don’t like movies with an environmental message. Not because I have anything against the message, but because they tend to be incredible preachy and simplistic. Princess Mononoke is neither. I really appreciate the movie for portraying nature not like this poor fragile thing thoughtless humans want to destroy, but as a dangerous power humans have to deal with. Though I do have a problem with the way the movie handles violence. Unlike Perfect Blue, where the graphic aspects always serve the story, the violence in Princess Mononoke often feels unnecessary gracious.

    Mulan is one of those Disney movies which weren’t exactly a big success initially, but which are nevertheless beloved. Based on an old Chinese ballade, it tells the story of a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the Chinese army. It is an old concept, but it has been rarely pulled off as well as in this movie.

    The Prince of Egypt tells the story of Moses by concentrating on the relationship of two brothers which end up clashing due to both of them being set on a different path. And I would go so far to say that this is the best cinematic take on the story so far. If I have one point of criticism than the occasional lapses in tone. There is this big epic story and suddenly you end up in something which would fit well into a cartoon show, for example when the camel pulls Moses out of the sand.

 

  • Characters: The characters of Perfect Blue are kind of flat, deliberately so I think. The audience is supposed to focus on is the main character, Mima, the others are only important in the sense of how they impact her life. Or more, run her life, since she is initially portrayed as extremely passive. Especially in the beginning she seems to be more an overgrown child, sitting passively around while her managers quarrel over her career path. She participates in a traumatic scene because she feels that she can’t say “no” after getting the chance to even be in the drama series. She is also very naïve when it comes to dealing with the internet, from today’s perspective too much so, but, well, the movie was made during a different time. But the more the movie dives into her personality, in what is hidden under the different masks she is forced to wear, the more I like and feel for her. The real Mima is way superior to her public persona.

    I admit, I have a really hard time to connect to the characters in Princess Mononoke. Lady Eboshi is interesting because she isn’t portrayed as downright evil and I understand her motivations. But otherwise, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing something I would understand if I were Japanese. It feels like all the characters are a reference to something, but I don’t know what, which makes it difficult for me to truly gauge how well they are written.

    Mulan has easily the strongest cast of all of them. Mulan is such a layered characters that she got one of my first articles on Honoring the Heroine. I especially love that she doesn’t have to shed her own personality in order to become a good soldier, but instead has to discover and use her own strength. Her best moments are when she takes advantage of her intelligence rather than her fighting abilities. Shang has his own small story-arc, too, since he has to deal with the expectations his father puts on him, and with the responsibilities of his new position. In the end, he is the one who has to make the most difficult decisions. Even Mushu has  his own arc, despite him mostly being in the story to provide funny one-liners.

    The characters in The Prince of Egypt is a mixed bag. There are a lot of characters which turn up shortly and then simply disappear from the story. There is a lot of time spend on introducing Tzipporah, but she has no role at all once she is married to Moses. Miriam has in a way a bigger role than her and she is basically only there to eventually tell Moses the truth about his heritage.  Though it does allow the movie to concentrate on the central conflict between Moses and Rameses. Rameses gets easily the best character moment of the movie, when he is all excited about seeing his brother again, only to discover that he isn’t back to stand by his side, but to make demands. It is heart-breaking, and I really feel for him, despite what he will do later on.

 

  • The Music: Perfect Blue offers mostly typical Japanese Pop of the more forgettable kind. Quite deliberately so. It is a reflection of the kind of music you usually get from those idol groups, meaningless but easy to listen to. The score reminds me a little bit of Ghost in the Shell, but not quite, since it doesn’t demand the attention of the audience in the same way. Slightly disturbing, it is mostly there to subtly set the mood for the scenes.

    The soundtrack of Princess Mononoke is as epic as the movie itself. It underlines perfectly the visuals and makes everything seem grander. It’s not an instant earworm, but exactly the kind of music this movie needs.
    I adore the score of Mulan, which was written by Jerry Goldsmith. And I like the songs, in fact, “Be a Man” is one of my favourite Disney songs. I also appreciate how “Reflexions” introduces a theme, which will be picked up multiple times later in the story. That is some really clever text-writing of Howard Ashman calibre.  But the songs and the score are not written by the same composer and it shows. They both fit the movie but somehow they don’t really fit each other that well. It is a small detail, but one I can’t overlook in my judgement. And then there is the pop song in the end. Which for some reason doesn’t start playing during the end credits, but right into the last scene.

    “Deliver us”, “When you believe”, The Prince of Egypt is full of memorable songs. The only one I really don’t like is “Through Heaven’s eyes”. That one is pointless, preachy, annoying and doesn’t really fit in the rest of the soundtrack at all. What I really appreciate is the use of Hebrew in the songs, reminding the audience that the origin of this particular story is most likely a piece of real Jewish history. And the score, well, it is Hans Zimmer. It is a perfect extension of the songs.

 

  • The Animation: There is no question that the movie out of the four which has the worst animation is Perfect Blue. This movie is the equivalent of binding an artist one arm on his back. A lot of the angles chosen are inspired, but there is no hiding that the budget for this movie wasn’t that high. Especially when it comes to the character animation. When the characters talk, they often move only their mouth, animation is reused in different scenes, this is barely better than TV-animation.

    Princess Mononoke on the other hand excels in this regard. The landscapes are incredible and while I don’t really like the level of violence in it, the way it is portrayed can be strangely compelling. The fight scenes are fluid and fast – there is really nothing to criticise about it and a lot to love.

    The style of Mulan is inspired by Chinese Watercolours. It makes a lot of use of the empty space in a way which reminds me of the large scales in Cinderella. China looks gigantic. But it often feels as if the animators could have gone the extra-mile but then didn’t. That is especially evident in the number of soldiers in Mulan’s troupe. There seem to be less and less of them in every scene until there are, what, barely ten men standing against a whole army of Huns.

    The Prince of Egypt is an interesting mix between Egyptian art and some really impressive animation. If there is one point of criticism, than that the animators are sometimes go a little bit overboard. For example in the end, when the Red Sea is parted. It is not enough to show a giant wall of water, no, they also had to add a whale swimming through it. It looks so ridiculous over the top, that it always destroys for me what should be a breath-taking moment.

This is surprisingly difficult. After all,  Princess Mononoke is not just a Studio Ghibli movie, it is practically the Beauty and the Beast of studio Ghibli, a movie which won in categories no other animated movie ever had chance to break in. This makes it hard to even consider other movies for the win. And yet, I think that all four of them are something special in their own way. Thematically The Prince of Egypt might be the weakest, but I really appreciate the new angle it took on a story which isn’t that easy to tell. It just lacks the layers the other movies offer.
Mulan is in a way an underrated Disney movie, and a very clever commentary on gender roles. I have honestly no idea why it doesn’t stand side by side with movies like The Lion King. It is perhaps a little bit too understated to really catch the attention of the general audience. But the only thing I don’t like about it is the very ending. I mean, we just had the perfect scene in the reunion of Mulan and her father, but then we end with pop music and chickens? Why?
The movie which impressed me the most turned out to be Perfect Blue. It came really close to taking the top spot and it is only the subpar animation which made me stick with Princess Mononoke in the end. Not an easy decision, and on a more personal level I like the other three movies better, but Princess Mononoke is a movie which excels in story-telling and animation. It deserves to be part of the final selection.