Sunday, 17 February 2013

Stop! Motion Time!

As readers might know already, I'm a big animation buff. When the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature were announced, however, I realized that I had missed a lot of the year's crop, which is particularly a shame since the nominees include three stop motion pictures. That sort of animation is generally way more fun than CGI animation, since puppets tend to have more personality than ultra-slick computer models. Two of these stop-motioners have a spoooky horror theme, and one is just about your basic looting, plundering and causing a ruckus.

If you're curious about what I thought of Brave and Wreck-It-Ralph, you can read my reviews by clicking their titles in this sentence.

Director: Tim Burton

Tim Burton's latest film could be seen as an attempt to please his old fans, who have grown incresingly disappointed with his recent body of work. This attempt concerns updating his beloved short film he made in the 1980's to a feature film animation. The original Frankenweenie is pretty much perfect as such, and Burton tends to fall in the pitfalls of stretching the story in an artificial manner in this longer version. Still, at many points it does feel to have the creative energy and gentle satire on suburban America that Burton's good films in the 80's and 90's had. The heart of Frankenweenie, a story of love and friendship, has also remained intact.

Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a clear Mary Sue of Burton's youth, a creative boy that has few friends, and prefers staying indoors to film monster movies or do scientific experiments to going out to play. His best friend is the family dog Sparky, who is a curious mutt, and always ready for an adventure with his owner. Victor is eager to participate in the school's science fair, inspired by the new eccentric teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). Victor's dad (Martin Short) agrees, on the condition that Victor tries out sports, particularly baseball. On the day of Victor's game, Sparky escapes to follow his master to the field. When he runs out to catch the ball flying out to the street, the dog has a fatal run-in with a car.

The broken Victor finds a new chance to bring his friend back to life, when he learns that electricity has a way of making dead tissue twitch. But his successful experiment rises interest in his science fair rivals, all who want to try it out on their pets long gone. The climax has Burton gleefully ripping off various monster movie clich├ęs with glee, as the creatures wreck havok. The film turns from Edward Scissorhands -type outcast drama into more of a Mars Attacks! type of mischief-making comedy. Balancing these two approaches isn't always consistent.

Fortunately, Burton mellows out by the final scene, which is as charming as it was in the original film. The puppetry is magnificent, with the animals being super-cute and the humans emotive and like Burton's drawings having popped to life. As a contrast to Burton's previous animated features, there are no memorable, eye-popping song sequences, but the story wouldn't need any anyway. The old school -style slow, black-and-white storytelling works in this film's case, but it also drove audiences away from theatres. Kids these days. As it is, it's a nice little film reminding that Burton still carries some of that creative energy that raised him to the top of Hollywood in the first place. Let's hope he can still utilize it in his live action films as well.


Pirates! A Band of Misfits (a.k.a. The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists)
Director: Peter Lord

The latest feature from Aardman studios blends stop motion wax dolls and CGI backgrounds in a visual style that's epic and finely detailed and hand-crafted at the same time. It's got a silly sense of humor mixing non-sequiturs and the unexpected with good, tested british wit in the fashion of Monty Python. It's got chase scenes and exotic locales and The Clash and The Pogues on the soundtrack. Yet as a whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) has declared a war against piracy, with plenty of the most notorious outlaws having already been captured. But there are still eager sea-farers out there. One such a motley crew is the band of misfits led by The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant). They are a bit too nice to be plundering scallywags, but love the pirate lifestyle. With their antics, The Pirate Captain figures they could finally win the Pirate of the Year Award, given to the captain with the biggest booty. But seizing ships and stealing treasures doesn't seem to be his strongest skill.

Baby-talking to pets is.

When the crew runs into the young scientist Charles Darwin (David Tennant), they get informed that The Captain's parrot Polly is in fact the only remaining Dodo in the world. The prize for bringing such a zoological treasure to London would be huge. But the only problem is that London is Victoria's stronghold, and the pirates need to disguise themselves to not be caught.

While a lot of pieces in this one are at the right places, and it is funny and amusing enough, there's something vital missing in this film. As of now, it's amusing enough, if a fairly forgettable caper. It's a bit hard to grasp what's wrong with it. Perhaps the movie tries too hard to please all audiences. While the script is smart, it also lacks some sort of edginess all the best comedies have.

I also think that the personalities of the various pirates in the crew could have been played with a lot more. It's probably a joke stemming from the original children's book this is based on, to name all the characters in such a functionalist manner (i.e. "The Pirate with a Scarf", "The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate" or "The Pirate who likes Sunsets and Kittens"). But in the long run playing them all just for gags takes away from the audience's involvement in their escapades. It's a bad sign if no one gives a damn if they are going to cope or not. Also, the chase scenes aren't as elaborate as in, say, Wallace & Gromit, now just featuring too many characters screaming and spazzing out instead of rolling along, unexpectedly but with the determination of a speed train.


Directors: Chris Butler, Sam Fell

I was wary of this children's horror fable beforehand, simply because it features zombies as the central horrors. I used to love zombies until they became the most overplayed and tiresome thing in popular culture and having them featured in a kid's movie was just another low in their road to irrelevance. But gladly, the central zombies here weren't either Romero-like man eaters or even fast-running video game monsters. These are good old-fashioned magic zombies, undead pilgrims rising from their graves due to a curse.

So the film features the outcast 10-year-old Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can see the dead. His parents and older sister won't believe him and other kids at school make fun of him. One day, Norman meets Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), a hobo that claims he's his uncle, and that he has a ritual which protects the town of Blithe Hollow from an ancient curse. When the ritual fails and Prenderghast dies, it's up to Norman to save the village from an old evil going back to the times of the pilgrims. But Norman will learn that the best way to destroy wickedness is goodness and being nice.

The film has a nice array of characters, and the zombies in particular with their slacked jaws are suitably spooky-looking. The cast is filled with your basic small-town archetypes, with the more notable characters coming from the realm of the dead. However, the film somewhat lacks in suspense and athmosphere-creating. Anyone actually thinking this is better-crafted than Brave must be out of their mind. Even 10 seconds of a set up scene of that film's misty moors of Scotland is more exciting than this whole film.

This is by no means a bad movie, but it's Monster House meets The Frighteners stich is a bit worn-out. I do appreciate the early shout-out to Troll 2, though.


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