Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Rise of the Guardians" Is A Holiday Treat

Last week, Dreamworks premiered its latest animated film, Rise of the Guardians, based on The Guardians of Childhood children's book series by William Joyce.  I've been excited since the studio first announced this one, and it really is a great movie to kick off the holidays.

The movie is clearly aimed at children, emotionally stunted millennials like myself, and the young at heart.  The plot can be boiled down to, "It's The Avengers, but with Santa Claus."  Anyone who is not tickled inside by that concept even just a little bit though either has no soul or did not grow up in the western world where these characters have a level of fame that any Hollywood star would do awful, awful things to attain.  I love superheroes, but I'm reasonably convinced that Santa could take Batman in a fight if he needed to throw down.

The film is a treat visually, and I love how each Guardian has unique look and feel.  My favorite was the mute Sandman, whose look, effects, and overall theme was absolutely breathtaking.  Santa (aka Nicolas St. North) is a close second, mostly because of his awesome gear and surprisingly funny Yeti workforce (the elves just think they do all the work).  The Tooth Fairy looks great and I love the hummingbird motif that they use for her and her adorable fairy helpers.  The Easter Bunny gets an honorable mention because Hugh Jackman gets to use his Australian accent and the artists manages to work in some Wolverine-like sideburns without looking overly ridiculous.  I was less impressed by the design of Pitch Black, the villain.  I get that fear is a simple concept, and therefore the Bogeyman should have a similarly spartan look, but he looks like he's wearing one of Voldemort's old robes from the ephemeral thrift store.  Similarly, Jack Frost has plenty of fun and style, but why does a 300-year old character wear a hoodie the whole time?

For a movie about defending the world, there is a surprisingly little amount of actual fighting, which is kind of a shame because watching St. Nick wield two huge sabers and slice at nightmares in the form of evil stallions made my inner child convulse with delight.  Most of the action seems to be reserved for each character's preferred means of travelling, whether it be flight, teleporting, or travelling through the Easter Bunny's rabbit holes.  The action comes so quickly and frantically that it is sometimes a little jarring, but not so much as to take you out of the moment.

There is a lot to focus on in this movie, and I think that is its biggest weak point.  Each Guardian could carry his or her own movie (much like the actual book series) so the audience just gets a little taste of each character's backstory, motivations, and personality.  With many of Dreamworks' other franchises coming to a close, it would seem that Guardians may be poised to start a new line of movies, hopefully with a bit more character exploration along the way.  I would especially like to see them in some shorts like the ones that usually roll out around the holidays, and this time it won't feel forced like Shrek the Halls because one of the characters this time is freakin' Santa Claus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy Early Turducken Day!

No major breaking news or reviews this week, folks.  Just follow the example set here by ol' Huck back in the 1600's and enjoy your Thanksgiving.  I'll be back next week, so be thankful for that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cartoon Shorts On The Rise (Hopefully)

Last week, the Motion Picture Academy announced its short list for the Best Animated Short category.  The news got me thinking: how often do people these days think about animated shorts?  If you showed a copy of the nominees list this year to the average person, I'd wager that most people would not recognize more than one or two of the entries.  

Even as an aspiring animation professional, I haven't had the opportunity to see most of the nominees since they usually only make the rounds on film festivals and art house theaters, and Orlando is seriously lacking in both when compared to New York, Los Angeles, or Toronto.  This troubles me because I love animated shorts.  They are my favorite form of animation and the fact they they no longer occupy the same level of notoriety in the popular consciousness that they once did bothers me.  Back in the Golden Age of Animation, shorts were a staple for the movie-going audience.  Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop, and Tom & Jerry, as well as many other classic cartoon characters, were born and reached their creative peak in theatrical shorts.

Disney and Pixar are perhaps the two best  places for quality shorts to be made and get a reasonable amount of exposure.  Both studios,  under the leadership of John Lasseter, have encouraged artists to come forward with their pet project ideas and to use studio resources to make them a reality.  Last year there was Enrico Casarosa's deeply personal La Luna from Pixar, and this year there is Disney's Paperman.  

The short, directed by John Kahrs and playing in theaters before Wreck-It Ralph, is a sweet little boy-meets-girl story, but where it really succeeds is the visuals.  A new blend of CG and traditional hand-drawn animation makes for a final product that has all of the expressiveness and artistry of traditional techniques, but also the depth and complexity of the new school.  Still images (like the one at the top of this post) do not do the film justice.  It must be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate its value.  It is truly remarkable to watch, and I sincerely hope that it breathes some new life into more classical ways of producing animation.

There has been a growing trend in playing animated shorts before films.  In the last year or so, it seems that most animated films have been preceded by some kind of short, be it Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare, I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat, or Paperman. Even TV seems to be gravitating towards shorter programming with many of Cartoon Network's shows now being broken up into 15-minute segments.  Maybe studios are starting to see the viability of making shorts, and while we will almost certainly not be able to get back to the state of cartoon shorts were in their heyday, it's at least nice to see that they are starting to come back.  Hopefully some of the wonderful shorts that were not released with major films will also one day find a way to reach a larger audience as well.  Now all we need to do is get out and watch them!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Wreck-It Ralph" Gets a High Score at the Box Office

As a modern twenty-something, naturally two of my loves are cartoons and video games.  While there has been the occasional Super Mario Brothers Super Show or Sonic the Hedgehog (SatAm version), those two things have generally remained separate but equal. Now Disney has smashed them together in Wreck-It Ralph, the studio's newest animated movie.  It's currently number one at the box office, so do yourself a favor and go see a fun cartoon of a movie.

The film is about Ralph, the Donkey Kong-like antagonist of the fictional arcade game, Felix Fix-It Jr.  Fed up with his lot in life, Ralph decides to leave his game to try and find recognition for something other than being a bad guy. The whole "villain proves himself to not be so bad," thing isn't new, but Ralph takes the idea and adds a level of freshness to it.  It does start to sag in the middle and the climax goes a little over the top, but the story as a whole works and manages to find a happy medium between "be your own person" and "accept your responsibilities."

My favorite part of this movie was the earnestness with which it approaches video games.  The movie goes to great lengths to maintain the feel of arcade games both old and new.  Characters move like they would in their respective games, various visual effects take on a pixelated quality, and there are cameos galore.  There are appearances from Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, and too many classic arcade games to mention here.  My personal favorite is a throwaway Metal Gear Solid gag that you might miss if you aren't paying attention.  The only truly notable absence is Mario, but even he gets a mention early on, even if he never actually shows up.  Even the fake first-person shooter Hero's Duty feels like an actual arcade shooter thanks to the way Jane Lynch narrates the play through as Calhoun, the tough-as-nails squad leader with, "the most tragic backstory ever."  It reminded me of the old days playing Area 51 and House of the Dead.

What true gamer doesn't get giddy from this scene alone?

Other characters that stand out for me are Ralph and the Candy King, ruler of the saccharine racing game, Sugar Rush.  John C. Reilly is one of those actors that I really love because of the diversity of his work.  He can go from a dramatic role in Gangs of New York to making stoners chuckle on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!  If Donkey Kong had been as relatable as Ralph, I would have felt much worse about hitting him with hammers and locking him up in a cage.  Inversely, Alan Tudyk plays the Candy King like someone straight out of a Disney movie during the studio's animated heyday.  The whole character felt like a more twisted version of the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, and I loved him for it.

Some viewers who are not as familiar with classic gaming may not be as engrossed as the younger crowd, but the movie is strong enough to stay enjoyable.  Plus, any movie that makes me like both Jane Lynch and Sarah Silverman has to be doing something right.  Between Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, I'm really excited to see if next year's Frozen will keep the momentum going.

As a final note:  if you go see Ralph (and you should), get there on time so you can catch John Kahrs' wonderful fabulous short, Paperman.  Full analysis on that short (and possibly others) next week.