Editor, animation critic and researcher (and prior gaming critic). I'm stingy with my stars, so don’t expect a lot of high scores from me, a profile has to really work to earn its balls of fire facsimiles.
Presently, I review animation based on how they bear up to the peers in their respective categories - features-to-features, DTVs-to-DTVs, etc - rather than try to unfairly compare a high budget feature film with a low budget direct-to-video. Call it a category concession if you will.
I hope to never let nostalgia affect my reviews, but then nobody’s perfect. My favourite animated cartoons tend to fall between the original "Golden Era" and the late 80s to early 90s. My interest in animation goes back years. I enjoy playing video games but tend to find their animated adaptations range from awful to okay - I could say a similar thing to game adaptations of many animation licences.
While I may prefer traditional animation to CGI, I can watch almost anything and think that the story and characters are more important to a film, etc, than the medium of animation used in it.
My Star to 10 scale ratio:
4.0 stars = 9-10 - Superb
3.5 stars = 8-9 - Great
3.0 stars = 7-8 - Good
2.5 stars = 5-6 - Mediocre
2.0 stars = 3-4 - Poor
1.5 stars = 2-3 - Terrible
1.0 stars = 1-2 - Abysmal
Animation, Drawing, writing, reading (animal novels, fantasy, sci-fi, animation history), videogames, and radio comedies. Not necessarily in that exact order.
Animation that I love:
Theatrical Shorts, Animaniacs, Astro Boy (all versions), Count Duckula, Lilo & Stitch, WALL•E...
Set a considerable time after the second film, 3 finally gets to the answer to the question that the first two films kept asking, what was going to happen when Andy grew up. Well here, Andy is grown, at least old enough to go to college, and it’s heavily implied that the toys that are left, and there aren’t many, haven't been played with for a long time. A series of events cause the majority of the toys to think they're being thrown away, the exception, of course, is Woody, who bears witness to the events from outside and tries to convict the others of the reality of the circumstances, to no avail (just how many times can the others disbelieve him after what they’ve all been through).
Buzz, Jessie and company find themselves in Sunny Day Care, and while things certainly look rosy, they soon discover how dangerous small kids can be and that the other toy inhabitants are not as benign as they first appear. To say any more would be to spoil the film, but expect plenty of twist and turns along the generous runtime.
Toy Story 3 is a mature film in the proper, literary sense of the word, rather than the general usage of the word Hollywood uses to evoke pictures of muscle bound action heroes, spilling blood all over; which is of course the least mature kind of filmic entertainment going. Indeed, Toy Story 3 is a sombre film, at times more funereal than fun, but immensely captivating nonetheless. That said, there’s also plenty of fun in abundance and while emotions run high, Pixar’s writers and directors are smart at the whole pacing thing, the film is impeccable with its flow, and allows knows when to give viewers respite in-between the more demanding scenes.
It even manages to throw a curve ball with what I thought was an actually well used Deus ex Machina† becoming one of the best in-jokes in the entire movie which also followed on one of the franchises longest running gags – not to mention debts.
And yes, there are the in-jokes aplenty, some for those who have seen the prior two films, which I’d imagine is most people, and there’s in-jokes for the more hardcore animation nut, like the appearances of A113, 95‡ and the Pizza Planet delivery van.
Talking about how good the animation and sound design is in a pixar film feels like a complete irrelevancy; Pixar hold the crown for brilliance in both fields and Toy Story 3 shows that that is unlikely to change. It is interesting to compare this film to the previous entries. Textures and subsequent details have improved since the second, and the toys now look better than ever, Lots-Hugging-Bear’s fur and deformation as he moves around is astounding and in general Toy Story 3 is crammed to the brim with excellence.
Pixar’s ideas on how to use 3D in film run parallel to my own; used to create an illusion of depth running away from the canvas/screen; Pixar are below the idiocy of using 3D as a cheap gimmick that insists on trying to poke things into viewer’s eyes - or at least the screen. The end result is a 3D effect that is both subtle and understated, which makes it all the more believable.
Toy Story 3 is the best film of the trilogy, both in terms of it technical prowess and its deep, engaging story. It is an immense achievement considering the competition and although it benefits greatly from you having prior knowledge of the events of the first two films; Toy Story 3 also stands up happily on its own terms.
*How videogame series’ that a different kettle of fish.
† Generally one of my least favourite get-out-of-jail-free-cards in writing that writers try to get away with.
‡ The year the first Toy Story was released; also seen as Lightning’s race number in Cars, for the same reason.
WALL•E is one of those rarities…
I must admit that I was sceptical of the film by what little I saw of it before I brought the DVD, a matter not helped with WALL•E reminding me a little too much of Johnny-5 from eighties film Short Circuit, still with Pixar’s heritage of film-making behind it, I grabbed the DVD as and when it was released, put the disc in my computer tray, turned the lights out and pressed “start movie” and waited for the obligatory company logos to play their course.
The first thing you hear is Michael Crawford’s wonderful voice singing “Out There”* from the sixties film Hello Dolly, it a heck of a way to start an animated sci-fi movie, a song about how there is always somewhere you can go in our beautiful world. It also fits in with the atmosphere of WALL•E, the juxtaposition between it and the world we see here works.
Taking about the music brings me to the rest of WALL•E’s sound, or at least one facet of it. While the film does have dialogue, for the first half-hour it might as well be a silent movie, WALL•E and E.V.E. speak their names and a few other words like “directive”, other than that the two make ‘robot’ sounds.
As such these two robots have to emote in the most primal way possible, through actual character animation, a rarity in today’s market of talky films; I was almost starting to think that it was a lost art. Body language is the order of the day here, and as someone who can animate as well as an animation fan, it’s welcomed with opened arms. And so well done is the character animation, that mere minutes into the movie I felt more for WALL•E than I have for any fictional character in a long while.
WALL•E himself is voiced, if that’s the right word, by Ben Burtt, who originally worked for LucasFilm’s sound effects department, starting off creating the effects for Star Wars, including the legendary noise of the Lightsaber; as well as providing the voices of some of the droids (like the one that gets tortured in Jabba’s palace). As a sound engineer, rather than a more traditional actor, he is perfect in the roll of, well a robot.
These two robots have managed to do what most robots tend to do in sci-fi, break their programming, or enough of it to develop quirks and personalities. WALL•E has taken up a hobby in the form of collecting any interesting knickknacks he finds, and it is charming to view his childlike fascination with what to us would be boring everyday items; it is also easy to emote with the care he treats his collection with. Even when we first meet E.V.E. we find that she isn’t fully committed to her job (or directive), having a jolly little joyride around the local area, providing us with the notion that she could see things WALL•E's way, given the chance.
WALL•E was one of a number of WALL•E class robots meant to clean up the Earth, only something drastically wrong has happened and WALL•E is the only one who still functions, cannibalising other defunct WALL•E robots to survive. The opening is like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, it gives us a sense of the sheer isolation the robot has faced for the last few centuries.
And from the get-go it is obvious that he’s been doing this a very, very long time, as some trash is piled as high as the skyscrapers they stand next to. As the camera follows WALL•E we pass hypermarkets, banks, fast-food joints, all owned by a company called BnL, who apparently also managed to own the world’s government and set up the plans for the evacuation of the planet.
The opening also has the worse line in the movie, when the president of BnL – played by a live-action actor thanks to ILM – states that “…space is the final FUN-tier”, although it’s intentionally bad like a shamelessly bad catchphrase of an advertisement, so it couldn’t really be said to not serve its purpose.
Of course there’s the obvious parallel between WALL•E and the story of Noah’s Ark, with E.V.E. being the dove and all, but it’s the barebones of the story rather than the film having an overt agenda; besides its just kind of read that humanity would send out probe droids to find out if life had returned to their home-world in the far future.
The plot itself is straightforward and to the point, rather than overtly convoluted and needlessly twisty, not that it doesn’t have twists of its own, rather it works them into the narrative in a way that makes you believe that it couldn’t have happened any other way, it all makes logical sense. The simplicity of the film’s story aids it in another way, it is more or less impossible not to follow what is going on even though the pace of the film is for the most part extremely quick. Actually the pace is fine, really fine, the fast bits move fast and the more relaxed parts move at a more leisurely pace; but the pacing itself is so well thought out that I couldn’t believe that ninety minutes had past the first viewing. Sometimes I have complained about regular-length films that seem to go on forever, here the film just doesn’t feel long enough… it’s remarkable.
The usual problem with a straightforward plot which speeds along at a fair pace is that plot holes can start to develop, and yes there are a few. One minor one is how the Axiom has survived and fed its populace over the centuries, although a throwaway line during a scene tells us that there is a food regeneration programme installed. However that is a minor issue when compared to the following, what happened to the rest of the BnL fleet; in the adverts we see at the beginning multiple ships are seen leaving the Earth along with the Axiom, and are never heard from or mentioned again. Just what happened to them (possible sequel-fodder maybe).
Then of course there’s the usual issue with Pixar’s – and most CGI film’s – “humans”, whose appearance I have a tendency to simply ignore because it’s a heck of a lot better than the film – and the studios – going down the treacherous road of uncanny valley.
However, when a film is as much fun and as heart-warming as WALL•E is, it is hard-to-impossible to let such issues bug you; and they don’t, it's like riding a rollercoaster and noticing that one or two of the ride’s animatronics are broken, it doesn’t detract from the actual ride. Calling WALL•E out on its flaws is almost nitpicking; the film enjoyment factor just transcends it.
*The actual title of the song is “Put on your Sunday Clothes”, the words “out there” are just the first two words in it and thus the first words you hear.
Jay Sherman, the main character of The Critic series, is one critic to whom being critical of the work of others comes oh so naturally, and to whom these seemingly never ending blockbusters are detestable wastes of film. And he’s quite happy to tell the audience that these films stink. That is what audience he has, as Jay’s program, Coming Attractions (methinks a homage on Siskel and Ebert’s old show: Sneak Previews), isn’t a great ratings winning and - as one episode shows - screen test audiences rate him below Hitler in lovability.
And so his boss, Duke Phillips, a blowhard Southerner who built his media empire up from its humble beginnings of a chicken fast food takeaway, comes up with numerous ways to get Jay’s ratings up. None of these particularly come close to Jay liking them and often add to his frustration and annoyance. Not that they are many that are sympathetic with Jay’s plight, his divorced wife resolutely hates his guts and his adoptive mother, as well as his make-up lady generally show indifference. He does find some support in his son Marty and Aussie actor friend Jeremy Hawke, the later of which stars in a series of films that are a mixture of the Crocodile Dundee movies and James Bond. His father behaves a little bit, shall we say eccentrically, apparently due to a stroke, though this is denied by Jay’s mother and in flashbacks we see that he has somewhat always had this tendency, on and off.
For the record, Jay definitely doesn’t hate films, on one episode he goes on a tirade about the changes that his boss has done to several classic movies (Casablanca being the most predominate), when he gives them happier endings. In another he writes down a list of his favourite films to pitch for a positive segment for his show. After Duke asks that it “…ain’t full of foreign films…” that no-one’s heard off Jay cuts the shortlist down to one: Citizen Kane, which his boss has never heard off.
The series is a little slower paced than The Simpsons at its peak; but it is a more thoughtful and cerebral affair with its foot a bit more inside reality than Matt Groening’s little world. Comedy is provided with some of the sharpest satire and parodies of Hollywood’s 'finest', in particular Arnold Schwarzenegger and a stuck in advertising Orson Welles. The rest is in the sharp writing, strong characters who are either interesting or likeable, sometimes both, fantastic voice acting, interesting character designs that are as well animated as anything else in the animated sitcom genre.
The Critic was, and still is, a wonderful show that sadly got cancelled by virtually every network that aired it. Maybe it was perhaps too smart to survive the market, or maybe too cynical. In one way, it did return, as a miniseries of web shorts, which are themselves great pieces of entertainment, but this having to downsize when it could have been so much more is a forlorn end to what was otherwise one of the true greats of television.
Back then of course, the Disney animators were the ones nobody could touch let alone beat: as they were highly trained in their techniques and with larger budgets than any other studio. Walt had set up art classes to train his boys since the days before Snow White. Live models (human, plant and animal) to scan and sketch, lessons designed to teach the artists about reality and to draw out that reality of motion onto the drawing board. These life drawing and motion studying classes are in effect the life-blood of this level of quality animation. No amount of polygons or high definition special effects can match the simplicity of an artist with a pencil; especially a Disney one in the height of what is referred to as the corporations Golden Age.
The Silly Symphonies also provided a immensely important training ground for this film, which is essentially the final product of that entire body of work; At times watching Bambi is like watching a moving painting, a true piece of art. The Silly Symphonies like The Old Mill where the dress rehearsal to this: the main act. Kept back over the years to allow for it’s blossoming while the simpler Dumbo and brasher Pinocchio sped past it in the production line.
Bambi was one of the first (not the first) of the major Disney films to put it supervising animators in charge of entire scenes rather than individual characters; the result is a cohesiveness of motion that is unlike almost anything that ever came before or arguably since. As such everything is scene becomes a logical progression to what has occurred before, any problems that may have become raised using this method are evaporated by the film’s length and the aging of the characters.
I spent a good part of my childhood going to a place called Knole Park, a beautiful part of South East England that has wild deer running freely, so use to the human visitors that they where quite content with us alien interlopers being amongst them; in spite of the fact that the park was once a deer hunting reserve (actually anyone bringing a picnic would find these wonderful creatures more were determined than Yogi Bear to get their share). Their graceful movements and sheer muscular power are hard to ignore when they are two feet away, with nothing between you and them.
I don’t think this film was as appreciated as much as it is today back that day when it was released; it certainly didn’t make much money on its initial release. mind you with the world going on a vital part of the market cut of (i.e. the whole of Europe), there was very little a film of this costly nature could.
Lupercal mentions the fact that it would take eight years for Disney to make another one story film. Yet this was really a result of the war and the effects it had on the available markets more than any creative leanings. Disney decided to postpone ‘true’ features for fiscal reasons, he was running a business after all. The films made from multiple shorts piled together were cheaper to make compared to a straight feature; since they didn’t required anywhere near as much pre-production.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Bambi is a work of art, from the lust backgrounds, gently airbrushed to perfection; to the little details of the motion of animal movement. Yet that is only part of the picture the ‘Slice of Life’ story it tells has plenty of merit in itself. From Bambi’s first days in the forest, learning the difference between bird and butterflies, though not between flowers and skunk (For the record the skunk adopts the name after Bambi mistakenly calls him one). The glories of the open meadow that hides nothing, a beautiful place that can be deadly; and the death of Bambi mum there marks the first real tear-jerker in Disney’s run; something that would become a tradition.
Disney knew how to mix music and animation together seamlessly, April Showers is one of the most iconic songs to come out the Disney cannon. There is little dialogue in the film, but that is something that Bambi has in common with the two films that preceded it. Apart for that similarity the first films that Walt made until the war are very different from each other, yet this one has stood the test of time and will probably do so indefinitely.
In a very true sense this is one Classic animated film that has held up to time; one which others and I hold up to judge other films by…
Additional: I recently watched the latest release of this on my DVD copy (for the purpose of this review of course), the difference is that I watched the film with the cutlets of the meetings Disney had when planning the film out on. How many other classic Disney films would, or will get this treatment? In a roundabout way it’s as if the film has been given a DVD commentary by Disney himself, insightful and fascinating to listen to; a marvellous part of a great edition.
Even though I’ve just got the recent DVD release (which is of high quality, with none of those DVNR problems that can plague animation), I also still have stacks of episodes on VHS, some of which won’t get replaced until vol.4 eventually comes out (after all this was my favourite show); looking through them I can’t find much I don’t enjoy immensely. Maybe some segments like Chicken Boo and Katie Ka-Boom could have been better off being axed or not created at all; fortunate, then that they never got full episodes.
I think I’ve learnt more actual facts with the help of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister naturally) than with any other number of edutainment shows, especially WB’s Hysterica. Truth is, what other cartoon has attempted to render in song all the nations of the world, or all the US states and capitals; not forgetting the US Presidents. Of course the first and later may have changed since then (especially the World), but its right for the time it was made. The wow factor for me is how could someone (or a team of someones) be able to write a fun little song about the world nations, let alone have someone sing it?
In some cases, watching the two giants of golden age animation return to the forefront of what was a terrible time in animation history (i.e. the eighties) was a reflection of what they did before. Disney went with the pure artistry, with quality shows with excellent craftsmanship. Warner Bros, with Amblin, went back toward the brasher, comedic element that helped the WB dominate short subject animation in the forties and fifties (along with MGM).
Effectively the Warner’s themselves bear more than a close resemblance to that of the Marx brothers, at least in some of their mannerisms. Yakko has some quite strong similarities to Groucho, with his fast-talking and walking style; watch the episode “A Christmas Plotz” and tell me that he’s not pretending to be Groucho, he’s even got his fingers on an imaginary cigar.
Wakko is kind of like Harpo Marx, their prankster, with the ability to talk thrown in. Where does that leave Dot? Although one might say Chico, if you go one step further and imagine the Marx Brothers having a sister (who appeared alongside them in the act) then I would imagine they would have had someone like Dot.
Watching the “Newsreel of the Stars” at the start of the first episode I realised something that had eluded me before; the identity of their supposed creator, at the animation desk is sat Tex Avery; creator of much of the cartoon lure that this show used in its running. This ties in nicely with the style of everything, which is definitely Avery in flavour.
The Goodfeathers were a set of parodies of gangster and masculine movies like Godfather, the Rocky films, etc. Rita and Runt ditto with epics crossing the world, from ancient Egypt to high end musicals. Films I hadn’t seen at the first airing, I since have seen them and can appreciate the parody aspects more. Course the Warner’s themselves also did parodies, slightly less seriously, toward things like Disney epics (think the opening of the Lion King/Tiger Prince sequence) and historical/authority figures.
Though brash, anarchic comedy was the mainstay of the show, it did have its poignant moments; the most memorable for me being when Slappy is taken into care and Skippy was thrown into an orphanage in the “One Flew over the Cuckoo Clock” episode. Their relationship is based on their generation gap, with the cute, naïve Skippy nicely levelling out Slappy’s cynicism; a love of explosives bridging them together, while never feeling forced. Then of course there is Bumbi, a nice little knock and commentary at Disney’s expense as their deer film temporarily traumatizes poor Skippy.
Pinky and the Brain were such a strong duo that Speigberg saw fit to give them their own series, did they deserve it, well yes, they worked extremely well as a segment and proved that they could have whole episodes of Animaniacs to themselves from time to time. It isn’t a great stretch of imagination to see that they would’ve worked purely on their own.
There is very little to fault in Animaniacs, the animation was better than most other series at the time and stands to close inspection today, in fact the animation is better than some shows that call themselves modern. The voice artist all sound like they’re having a great time, as does everyone who made this; it was loved by its crew, that always rubs of on a show. I can forgive the weaker segments because there was always a great piece awaiting round the corner; thankfully they never gave either Boo or Mindy a full session.
This and Tiny Toons are as close to a modern day Looney Tunes as Warner Bros has ever got in recent years, certainly in the last decade (give or take a few years) and that is a real shame. The question is, where has that talent gone, the answer may be the kiddification of animation in general?