Four Animated Films Off The Beaten Path Worth Your While (with lotsa clips!)

Funny how we usually still think of animation as a cinematic art form delegated mostly to children’s entertainment. All of the animated features coming from Disney/Pixar or Dreamworks or Ghibli are aimed at kids primarily, with material for adults put in around it all to keep parents interested and build cult following appeal. And usually the best of those films are much, much more for adults in the end – the nostalgia for childhood running through all the Toy Story movies, for example, elevates those films beyond the light-hearted kiddie adventure of talking toys questing after some small thing. Up can’t really be appreciated until you actually develop enough of a sense of your own mortality to relate to the characters. Miyazaki’s films are so multilayered with folk tales, mythology and magic that their complexity outdoes that of mainstream grownup entertainment by a bunch.

The films I watched (one of ’em re-watched after many years) over the last few days fall into the same category – two of them seem to be for kids on the surface but once you start watching, you realize they’re not. And the other two are clearly made for a grownup audience, utilizing forms of animation to accentuate the themes of the story.

Ruben Brandt, Collector (2018) comes from Hungarian artist and (impressively) first-time film maker Milorad Krstic. It’s about a psychologist having nightmares of figures from great works of art trying to kill him – so he recruits some of his criminal patients to steal the actual works for him, figuring that the control of ownership will free him from his dreams. Beyond the interesting ideas on why people enjoy art, or need art, the film follows a lot of the conventions of the modern heist film, with action set pieces, car chases, a nicely woven complex plot with some nice surprises (especially a very ambiguous ending, although the doppelganger-from-my-dream-world theory seems to work here), and interesting characters. Each of the thieves has some sort of psychological problem that turns up in their manner of thievery. Brandt exploits this, but also provides them with artistic paths towards their control over their issues, just like the possession of the art will give him control over his own. The visual style adds a lot to it – the character design mixes elements of Cubism (especially Picasso) and Surrealism, with backgrounds and action mixing both 3D and 2D rendering for an effect of giving us an experience much like one of Ruben’s art dreams.

Check out the trailer!

Even if the trailer, I bet you caught little references to all sorts of stuff beyond the art works too… a little homage to Tarantino here, a little bit of Mission: Impossible there… and there are famous works of art everywhere in the background, either in museum scenes or on t-shirts, posters, ice cubes that look like Hitchcock, you name it… the whole thing feels amazingly original. I can’t really say I’ve seen anything quite like the totality of it, and I liked it a lot.

Loving Vincent (2017) achieves absolutely amazing visuals. Filmed in live action first, every single frame of the film was then hand-painted in Van Gogh’s brush style and rotoscoped. So we get Van Gogh’s colorful thick brushstroked world all brought to life, featuring many of his most recognizable works as backgrounds, and many of his portrait subjects as the characters in what turns out to be a pretty good story and script.

In the story, Armand Roulin (that bright yellow jacket portrait dude) takes a last letter from Vincent to deliver to Theo, but Theo also turns out to be dead. Armand goes to Auvers-Sur-Oise and conducts a sort-of investigation of the circumstances around Van Gogh’s death while waiting to discuss things with Dr. Gachet. We meet all the various people Van Gogh painted in these locations, with flashbacks done in black and white. While much of the film focuses on the suicide or not suicide aspects of his death (playing upon the theory that some local kids had shot him accidentally and Van Gogh basically used the incident to let himself die), the overall effect of the film is an astonishing celebration of his art and what he thought his life and his art meant to him and everyone around him. Beyond the amazing technical achievement in visuals, Loving Vincent is a deeply moving film about the most famous suffering-for-his-art artist in history, making his story more human than ever, really, in the end.

Check out the trailer!

Amazing looking stuff… it’s especially cool to watch the brush strokes change in the background, making everything vibrant and alive… it really gives you the impression of how the world may have looked in Van Gogh’s mind.

What makes Loving Vincent a truly great film is how it uses animation to accentuate Van Gogh’s biography, and I think it becomes the catalyst to elevate this film to the level of the best biopic of Van Gogh period (sorry Kirk Douglas, you’ve been topped).

The other two films I watched had originally been promoted and advertised as kid films, but I gotta say… not really for kids!

One was a film I’d seen long ago and thought “Jeez, this thing would give kids nightmares!” and watching it again, I think I’m still right. Watership Down (1978) follows the rabbit adventure novel pretty well, cutting things down to the main plot and leaving out some of the rabbit folklore (although it captures the driving force of the rabbit creation myth and their view of their own fragile mortality quite well).

The 1970s era 2D animation is realistically done – no Disney-esque big-eyed smileyfaced character design here. An opening segment showing us the rabbit creation myth is done in a more abstract folklorish-style, before we get the more realistic backgrounds of the rolling English countryside where the story is set.

The animation is wonderful and the story a good one (briefly, our protagonist group of rabbits sense doom coming to their warren, which turns out to be real estate developers, so they decide to make the journey to new land. But along the way, we see over and over again how tough it is to be a rabbit – predators everywhere, and a lot of other rabbits are dominating alpha-rabbit I’ll-rip-yer-ears-off pricks.

Ah, but some of that wonderful animation gives us some absolutely horrific images of bunnies getting bloodied up or killed en masse. Here’s a wonderfully executed (so to speak) totally unnerving scene where a survivor of the real estate bulldozers, Captain Holly, tells the story of the warren’s destruction to his friends who had left beforehand:

Not for little kids, is it?? Gray ghostly bunnies buried alive, suffocated, with blood drawing heavy equipment ripping up the land…

We also get one of our heroes caught and nearly strangled to death in a snare, another one shot, another one carried off by a hawk… and of course, the big battle finale versus rabbit villain General Woundwort and his capo regime, where we get to see rabbits rip at each other before a dog shows up to REALLY show ’em how it’s done…

Scary for kids… but a great movie for older kids and adults who could handle the idea of cute little bunny-wunnies turned into mincemeat within a story depicting their fragile place in the world.

It got remade by the BBC recently with 3D CGI… and in most ways, was inferior to the 1978 version. The character animation is clunky, and there are some subtle but key changes in some of the story & characters that take away a lot of what makes the 1978 version so good. This guy sums it up better than I can, and his other reviews are good too.

Finally, I got to see the rare and formerly VERY tough to find (before a nice DVD release a few years ago) Twice Upon A Time from 1983. This was a George Lucas exec-produced film from longtime filmmaker/animator John Korty and his cohorts that suffered distribution problems in its initial release because (a) it’s parent producer, the Ladd Company, was about to go bankrupt and (b) Korty and his fellow producers disagreed on whether or not the film’s dialogue should be family-friendly or aimed more at college kids.

The voice actors were all improv comedians, so re-recording the entire movie for adults was easy. Sticking the adult soundtrack onto screenings piggybacked onto kiddie animation features turned out not to be such a good idea.

Both versions are on the DVD release, however, and the adult version was the one shown by TCM recently that I caught.

A silly fairy tale about a master of nightmares who kidnaps the creator of happy dreams in order to steal the mainspring of the universe-running clock, and then fill the world with nightmares. Ah! That is until a band of unlikely heroes manage to stop him and return the spring to its rightful place.

The dialogue and jokes are hip/contemporary – the script feels like a successor to material like Yellow Submarine or The Point more than a traditional kids movie, especially with many of the characters doing schtick that’s more appealing to adults – the Rhoda Morgenstern-like fairy godmother, the trash-talking villain, the parody of a traditional superhero, and our two main heroes: Mumford, a Chaplin-esque mime and Ralph, the all purpose animal (which means he can shape-shift into any animal he wants).

It’s a little slowly paced and not all of the jokes work… but the story is overall good and entertaining. A liability, however: the pop music soundtrack is SOOOO 80s pop sounding that it dates the film to that period and robs it of its otherwise timelessness…. but the look of this one, the art direction, and the animation technique make it a must-see item.

Korty used cut-outs to animate the characters, who are abstractly-cartoonishly designed – only he used a light table for the impressive background art. So the effect are characters who move much the way the cut-out characters of South Park do, but with a glowing background revealing a glowing light. It brings out the colors and contrasts, and evokes much of the black line art/color juxtapositions used in the best UPA cartoons from the early 1950s. Combine that with actual black and white photography of the people getting the dreams/nightmares in the “real” world and you get a very interesting overall visual universe.

No surprise, really – it’s the first film to give major work to designer Harley Jessup, as well as future directors Henry Selick and David Fincher.

Here’s a wonderful interview/mini-bio of the award-winning Jessup, complete with a TON of images of the amazing background art and design of Twice Upon A Time. Check out the art, it’s really something.

Selick, of Coraline, James & The Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas fame, directed this nightmare sequence, demonstrating his great skills with stop motion:

Yup, that’s Lorenzo Music as Ralph. No wonder I thought of Rhoda Morgenstern for the Fairy Godmother. Carlton, your doorman is here!

Fincher designed an early panning sequence through the villain’s nightmare factory/studio (a nice satire of Hollywood, actually).

So there ya go, 4 movies WAY better than most of the crap filling the multiple for $15 a pop, eh?

You’re welcome.

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