Tuesday, January 13, 2015

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

Before I begin this post, I must acknowledge that I could have seen nearly all of the 20 contenders but...life is too damn short for me to put myself through "The Hero of Color City" or "Planes: Fire and Rescue". With that out of the way, I think I've covered all the major films in this category. I recently tweeted that this was a stronger year for animation overall than 2013 and I stand by that opinion. The quality of the animation across the board was impressive and the stories were varied and interesting. I strongly suggest you seek out some of these films if you've resisted them before (I know I'm often guilty of that). Here are my thoughts and predictions on this year's crop of animated films:

The animated film roster scored an early hit in 2014 with the imaginative "The Lego Movie". In this adaptation, the Lego toys have their own world, which is highly regimented by President Business. When his powers become dangerous, an average construction worker is tasked with saving the world as "the chosen one". So begins an exciting adventure with lots of familiar characters (Batman, Superman etc.). It takes a while to get used to the manic pacing and busy visuals but once you do, its energy is infectious. In particular, the voice acting is superb (especially Morgan Freeman and Will Arnett). This film should appeal to all ages with clever jokes, constant thrills and a heartwarming message. Rating: ★★★★

History was a major theme in Dreamworks Animation's time travel adventure "Mr. Peabody & Sherman". Reviving characters from the 1960s TV series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, it follows a genius dog and his adopted son as they go on daring excursions to famous periods in history, all while learning the true value of family. Along the way the film manages to be quite educational without losing its elements of fun. With the excitement of Indiana Jones and the wit of Sherlock, this film provides a rollicking good time. Rating: ★★★★

One of the more highly anticipated films is Laika's "The Boxtrolls", about a boy who is raised by the title's mysterious underground creatures. Coming from the masters of stop motion animation, it's no surprise that this is another beautifully rendered production from the studio. It has rich character designs and detailed environments with a compelling touch of grotesquerie. Storywise it's quite enjoyable too, however I felt it lacked sufficient emotional conviction to really sell the identity crisis at the heart of the film. It's perhaps the weakest of the studio's output so far but it's an admirable effort nonetheless. Rating: ★★★1/2

Animated films aimed at adults are rare in contemporary cinema, especially in Hollywood. We’re used to light-hearted fare that appeals to families in order to get the big bucks at the box office. It’s what makes Signe Baumane’s "Rocks in My Pockets" so unique. It’s a deeply personal, mature film that she describes as “a crazy quest for sanity”. Rating: ★★★ Full Review

"Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart" is another one of the international films in the race. It tells the story of a man whose heart was replaced with a cuckoo clock when he was born, requiring him to avoid strong emotions, especially love. Yep, you know where this is going. As soon as he makes his first departure from his home, he falls in love. The ensuing plot hinges on this bizarre premise and though it's somewhat unique, it ends up being just as unoriginal as the typical Hollywood product. It's not for lack of trying, but its few strong aspects (original songs, good sound editing) can't overcome the film's poor construction. Rating: ★★★

Dreamworks Animation may have a winner on its hands with the action-packed adventure that is "How To Train Your Dragon 2". This is a sequel to the acclaimed 2010 film and in my mind, it improves upon its predecessor. Though it has a rather rudimentary plot, I was very impressed with its scale and scope. It's not often that a family film shows this level of artistry. In fact, it has some of the most stunning shot compositions I've seen all year. Warm, awe-inspiring and exciting, this isn't just a great animated film. It's one of the most gratifying action films of the year. Rating: ★★★★1/2

While some of these other films will cater to the whole family, Disney's "The Pirate Fairy" is one that targets a specific audience - little girls. This is a cute film, telling the story of a fairy named Zarina, who steals her fairy community's pixie dust and runs away to live a life as a pirate. Her actions set off an adventure for some other fairy friends who are determined to get back the dust and return Zarina to her rightful home. As a kiddies film, there's nothing too complex about the plot but it does relay a nice message for girls about challenging the status quo. That message does get lost in the usual entertainment antics but it's a film that succeeds at what it's trying to do. Pretty and fun, it's a film that little girls will love. Heck, even I found it enjoyable. Rating: ★★★1/2

Studio Ghibli continues to show that they are masters of the genre with the stunning film "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya". It tells the story of a girl who is found in a stalk of bamboo by a bamboo cutter, who eventually blossoms into a beautiful princess and subsequently struggles to reconcile her celestial origin with her new world. This smart screenplay plays like a fable, steeped in Japanese culture and its associated customs relating to class and gender expectations. At 137 minutes the narrative is unusually robust and the exquisite watercolor animation is stunningly cinematic. While watching, I couldn't help but envision a live action adaptation. It's truly outstanding. Rating: ★★★★1/2

After much anticipation, "Big Hero 6" - the first Marvel Comics adaptation by Disney Animation Studios - has finally arrived and it's pretty much everything we expected it to be. This story is about a intelligent young boy who copes with the tragic loss of his brother by forming a team of superheroes with his friends and a special robot named Baymax. As with most Marvel products, several aspects of the film are somewhat generic but it's genuinely exciting and heartwarming. I particularly loved the polished animation and the pacifist, nurturing character of Baymax. It sends a positive message about compassion and forgiveness, while still maintaining its action-packed thrills. Rating: ★★★★

"Henry & Me" was produced by Reveal Animation Studios, but one could easily assume that it was also co-sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the New York Yankees. This exceedingly sentimental film is about a young boy with cancer who is taken on a magical journey with legendary Yankees players while undergoing a major medical operation. Along the way he learns valuable life lessons about courage and hope, courtesy of a long stream of inspirational quotes. It's all very emotional stuff and I applaud its motivational intentions (the film is clearly aimed at younger audiences). However, it barely distinguishes itself from your typical PBS cartoon. Rating: ★★★

One of the newer kids on the block is Reel FX Creative Studios, who have brought their most ambitious film yet to compete in this Oscar race. "The Book of Life" is about a man named Manolo and his quest for love and acceptance. His adventure takes him to the mythical worlds of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, where he must prove himself worthy of his one true love Maria, as well as learning to face his greatest fears. This zany take on Mexican folklore is a brightly animated (almost gaudy) film that will surely enthrall the kids. Unfortunately it loses some of its creativity when Manolo enters the underworld, as it tries too hard to grab those with short attention spans. For the most part however, it's a pleasant diversion with an especially fun voice cast. Rating: ★★★1/2

The age old story of Dorothy and the Land of Oz is told once again in "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return". As the title indicates, this version sees Dorothy returning to Oz after her famous excursion, to save her friends (the Scarecrow, the Lion, the Tin Man et al) from an evil court jester. What follows is a typical flashy kids' adventure story that suffers from an inelegant screenplay. The seemingly modern sensibilities are are strange fit, while there are some strangely dark elements in the plot (a death sentence for eating candy?!). It's a shame that this musical is so middle of the road, since it actually has a talented cast of voices (Bernadette Peters and Lea Michele to name a few). Sadly, the throwaway songs add little to a narrative that seems to have lost the essence of what made the Oz universe so compelling. Rating: ★★★

There's another film with Latin flavor in the Oscar race, with the Brazil-set "Rio 2" from Blue Sky Studios. This sequel follows Blu and his family as they go on an adventure into the Amazon to find other blue macaws like them. While there, they encounter the dangers of illegal human loggers, among other obstacles. As expected, the film has gorgeous animation with near-photorealistic environments and the voice acting is delight. Like the first film however, the uninspired writing fails to excite on the same level as its infectious musical numbers. This franchise is always enjoyable but it plays it way too safe. Rating: ★★★1/2

Here's how I'd rank these films (in order of preference):
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Big Hero 6
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
The Lego Movie
The Book of Life
Rio 2
The Boxtrolls
The Pirate Fairy
Rocks in My Pockets
Henry & Me
Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart

My prediction:

Best Animated Feature
How To Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
The Book of Life

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