Thursday, January 19, 2017

ANIMATION FILMOGRAPHY: Classic Style and Characterizations Return in 2016 Features, Starring Pets, Storks and Singing Animals

It's typical to place Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks at the forefront of feature-film animation. Nevertheless, their influence is evident in other studios, just as others were on them. At the same time, most people probably don't know (nor have heard of) short-lived studios that have produced equally (though not always financially-popular) yarns for the big and small screens.

A lifelong animation fan, director Steven Spielberg created his own studio in the late Eighties, under the name of Amblimation (based on his company Amblin Entertainment, and distributed by Universal Pictures). The studio produced three feature films, including An American Tale: Fievel Goes West (1991), We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (1993), Balto (1995). These films may not be classics per se, but they do stand as underappreciated features from a distinct studio. (It's interesting that these films--save for one--primarily consist of animal characters.) Amblimation, unfortunately, closing down in mid Nineties due to poor box office reception (not to mention competition from rival animation studios), while many of the employees went on to work for the animation department at the newly-formed DreamWorks studio at the time. A similar (though rather much-shorter-lived) studio around the same period was Turner Feature Animation, which released their first and only film Cats Don't Dance (1997), a period musical featuring anthropomorphic animals in early-20th Century Hollywood.

A red-sweatered Steven Spielberg, with his T.V. stars of the Nineties
At the turn of the same decade, the animation department at Warner Bros. was developing ideas for T.V. shows, to which Spielberg came on board to support. Whatever he lacked in box-office reception with his Amblimation films, he more than made up for in these series, from Tiny Toon Adventures to Animaniacs to Pinky & the Brain to Freakazoid. That amazing track record continues once again today with the newly-established Warner Animation Group (read here), which debuted its first feature film, The Lego Movie, in 2014, followed by last fall's hysterical Storks (an Chuck Jones-inspired comedy about storks delivering babies, directed by Pixar veteran Doug Sweetland and R-rated comedy auteur Nicholas Stoller).

Storks (2016) 
And although Warner Animation is still up-and-coming, perhaps no animation studio better evokes the classic characterizations and slapstick antics of Bugs Bunny and company better than Illumination Entertainment.

Chris Meledandri (former President of 20th Century Fox Animation, and producer of such films as Ice Age, 2002, and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, 2008) founded the studiothe late 2000s, with the intention of creating feature films with low budgets but with great appeal and quality. Their first film, Despicable Me (2010), featured everyone's favorite bad-guy-turned-good-guy Gru, and well as his continued adventures (Despicable Me 2, 2013) and the origins of his Twinkie-shaped henchman (Minions, 2015). Their other lesser-known features, prior to 2016, include Hop (a 2011 poorly-received live-action/animated hybrid featuring Russell Brand as a rock star Easter bunny) and an adaptation of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012). The studio really began branching out in 2016 with the crowd-pleasing The Secret Life of Pets and the showstopping Sing.

Chris Meledandri, with Pharrell Williams 

Minions (2015), a Three Stooges/Looney Tunes-style slapstick comedy
The Secret Life of Pets (2016) emphasizes cute and distinct characterizations of animal pets
Sing (2016) contestants await their calls--or exclusions.
Like Pets, Sing is a character-driven piece, but more in the animation style of MGM/Warner (something that La La Land also did extremely well), with a little Happy Feet, American Idol, and the aforementioned aforementioned Cats Don't Dance thrown in. The film involves theater owner Buster Moon on a mission to bring his theater back to its former glory, by way of recruiting "real talent from real life." The conflict, though, is that Moon has not had one successful hit in his career, and everybody doubts him. All but the talented singers he brings in, who help him realize that he's helped them become more than they thought, by doing what they love. This reviving interest in theater and performance also mirrors the reviving of character animation and appeal that Warner Bros and MGM were once known for, in both live action and in animation.

These studios show no signs of slowing down, as an adaptation of Dr. Seuss' classic book How the Grinch Stole Christmas (featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is in the works at Illumination, following this summer's release of Despicable Me 3. Warner, on the other hand, has a few Lego spinoffs ahead, including The Lego Batman Movie next month and a Ninjago feature based on the popular toy brand. Actor/comedian Dax Shephard (Parenthood, Hit and Run) has recently been tapped to co-direct an animated film version of Scooby-Doo for the studio.

Walt Disney once said, Animation is different from other parts. Its language is the language of caricature. Our most difficult job was to develop the cartoon's unnatural but seemingly natural anatomy for humans and animals. Here's to Warner and Illumination for especially keeping the spirit of animal animation and caricature alive.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

$UCCESSFU! FILMS SERIES: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016)

The biggest problem with prequels, in my personal opinion, is they tell you what happens in their successors. In other words, franchises that release prequels to their successors years later give the latter a disadvantage when viewing said films chronologically.

This was the biggest disadvantage George Lucas had with his Star Wars prequels (Episode I--The Phantom Menace, 1999; Episode II--Attack of the Clones, 2002; Episode III--Revenge of the Sith, 2005), because, when viewing all six cumulative films chronologically, they ruin the experience of the original trilogy (particularly that of The Empire Strikes Back, 1980). The same goes for Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy (based on J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to The Lord of the Rings), what with its overuse of extended action sequences and inclusion of later characters like Sauron and Legalos. The key is not to put emphasis (at least, too much of it) on these details so that they don't draw attention to themselves.

Band of rebels (l-r): Wen Jiang, Alan Tudyk, Diego Luna,
Felicity Jones, Donnie Yen, and Riz Ahmed
This is what makes Rogue One a worthy improvement, as well as a respective addition to the Star Wars canon and a solo film in its own right. Considered to be the first standalone movie in the franchise (a Han Solo film is currently in the works), Rogue One centers on a group of Rebel fighters, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), on a mission to steal the plans for what would become the Death Star, thereby setting up the events of the 1977 original, A New Hope.

A Star Wars film for those who don't love Star Wars films, the story gets right into action (and without title cards!), briefly showing Jyn as a child whose conflicted and checkered, yet loving, father sends her on her own, Years later, she becomes involved with a band of rebel fighters (under the name "Rogue One") in a pursuit to steal the plans for what will become known as the Death Star, and of which Jyn's father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) may be involved. Other new characters that fit into the Star Wars canon nicely including the scene-stealing "reprogrammed rebel droid" K2S0 (Alan Tudyk), extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), the determined yet conflicted Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the cold and menacing Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

What makes this entry unique is its gritty tone and action. The aforementioned characters strike a thin line between good and evil at times, yet they (for all their flaws) illustrate what is/was lost and what's worth fighting for. The series' motif of the Force gets more in-depth here, particularly with blind Jedi fighter Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), who thoroughly exemplifies this belief system ("I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me").

As The Force Awakens did last year, the terrific action sequences and effects (in large part) hearken back to the practical effects of yesteryear while married to today's CGI effects when necessary. There's even the (now-controversial) CGI inclusion of character General Tarkin (played in the 1977 original by the late Peter Cushing, and whose estate was contacted and asked by the filmmakers for permission to use his image) and another famous character (no spoilers!), as well as subtle references to other iconic images and themes.

Unlike the aforementioned seventh episode, however, Rogue One is very much a gritty war story. Yet, both films carry a sense of nostalgia and excitement. Not to mention strong female leads. Even the score by Michael Giacchino (who also composed the John Williams-like score for Super 8, 2011) makes this story a different episode in the franchise. And while it ends unexpectedly, it illustrates hope for the future. The film's final images mirror real-life unexpected tragedy around the time of the its release, yet they illustrate hope for the world--and not just the future of movies.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

REVIEW: "Lion" (2016)

The structure of film, particularly those based on true stories, can go one of two ways. The first way would be an obvious route, where the main character (in the present) shares his story in flashback. The second way would be to tell the characters story from past to present. The film Lion (based on the book "A Long Way Back" by Saroo Brierley) falls into this latter category.

It's an extraordinary true story of an Indian boy who goes missing, is adopted into an Australian family, and, as a young adult, searches for his family via Google Earth. Sounds like a ridiculous premise. (Well, so did the premise for Slumdog Millionaire initially.)

Abhishek Bharate (Guddu) and Sunny Pawar (young Saroo)
The first half of the film focuses on young Saroo as a child, in a slum in India with his brother Guddu and mother Kamla. Waiting for his brother at a train station one night, Saroo gets lost and soon winds up on another train and falls asleep, only to wake up the next morning miles and miles from home. This segment of the film chronicles Saroo as he goes from city to city (including Calcutta), from one shelter to the next, on the streets, to an orphanage, and finally to a new home in Tasmania with adoptive parents (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman).

The second half shows Saroo as an adult (Dev Patel), going to school for hotel management. He starts to remember things from his past, and learns from friends and colleagues about a new online service called "Google Earth," which allows anyone to track various locations on earth using a "search radius," including previous railway stations and villages. With on-and-off support from his worried girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), Saroo gets to the point of obsession over looking for his biological family, and even, at times, grows apart from the family that took him in, as well as the rebellious adopted brother he'd grown angst-ridden towards ("Where are you," they ask. "What home are you talking about? Where you're in one room and I'm in another?").

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara
Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar
This choice of the aforementioned structure works because it eliminates any conventions or cliches that are often associated with films that are "based on true stories" and it allows the audience to grow with the main character(s) rather than meet him later on and learn about his (their) past. The film also features two of the year's best performances. Patel transforms himself physically and emotionally as the adult Saroo, and as a lost and determined individual. Kidman adds great depth and raw emotion as Saroo's adoptive mother Sue, as a woman who has chosen to help those who are suffering.

The film is heartbreaking and hard to watch at times, considering the real Saroo Brierley was away from home for twenty-five years. "What if you do find home and they're never there," asks Lucy at a crucial moment. "I don't have a choice," Saroo responds, with determination. "They need to know I'm okay." Even Sue agrees, "I really hope your mother's there. She needs to see how beautiful you are." And with that determination, the film does have hope and inspiration in its message of family and caring for those that are lost or broken.

Dev Patel and Saroo Brierley