It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Witch Seeking Craft

Earwig and the Witch

by Hope Madden

More than 30 years ago, the great Hayao Miyazaki released a charming animated adventure that shadowed a little witch-in-training and her talking cat. Kiki’s Delivery Service is more interested in children finding their way in an adult world than in magic. The film is magical nonetheless, thanks to Miyazaki’s gorgeous art.

This weekend, Studio Gibli—the house that Hayao built—releases Earwig and the Witch. It’s the same movie, really, just not nearly as good.

Earwig is left as an infant at a proud English orphanage, where she stays for years tucked in among friends who do whatever she wants and staff who do much the same. But she’s adopted one day by a witch and a demon and she’s quite harrumphy about it all.

Director Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, keeps his focus on this willful little girl who intends to be a witch-in-training no matter what her new guardians expect.

Fans of the genre will immediately take umbrage at the animation style. It’s definitely not his dad’s. Don’t expect the little (or sometimes enormous) creatures that populate the fringes of classics like Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro.

That’s hardly where the dissimilarities end. Earwig tosses aside the sublime 2D look of traditional Gibli for a CG animation more in keeping with Pixar’s output. But there’s no nuance, no beauty or humanity in the rendering.

Anime fans may balk, but will children care?

Probably not, which means the film would be fine if only the younger Miyazaki had his father’s (or Pixar’s) grasp on basic storytelling. While Earwig conjures specific story details from Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, it fails to deliver on any of its plot suggestions. There’s a dungeonlike workroom brimming in equal measure with magical potential and filth, a mysterious redhead, a rock band, a shrouded heritage…all of which amounts to absolutely nothing.

Nothing ties together, and by the final scene’s reveal you feel like you’re watching the cliffhanger for an episodic series that you probably won’t commit to.

Brick by Brick

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

by Hope Madden

Everything is not awesome.

Don’t tell Emmet (Chris Pratt), though. Try as he might (mainly to please the ever-brooding Lucy/Wildstyle {Elizabeth Banks}), he can’t seem to take on the bleak attitudes of those populating Apocalypseburg.

Wait, didn’t that used to be called Bricksburg? It did, but that was before Dad invited kid sister to share in the Lego fun. Since that day, Emmett and his buds live Fury Road-esque in a smoldering wasteland, forever on the lookout for cute but dangerous aliens from the Sistar System.

When said aliens abscond with all the Master Builders (Lucy, Batman {Will Arnett}, Unkitty {Alison Brie}, MetalBeard {Nick Offerman}, and Benny {Charlie Day}), Emmet will have to find some grit to save his friends.

Returning writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller update their 2014 tale, this time directed by Mike Mitchell (Trolls), with some pre-adolescent angst that surprisingly mirrors the post-Trump revelation that everything really isn’t awesome.

Out there in the Sistar System, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish, a hoot) sings in Disney Villain tones that she is definitely not at all evil. Definitely. Not at all. Meanwhile, she manipulates Batman’s inner narcissist to convince him to marry her in a ceremony Emmet is convinced will bring about Ourmomageddon.

Yes, much of the charm of the original has worn thin. To make up for it, the sequel relies too heavily on pop culture references (a good chunk of the film is about funny, chubby Chris Pratt versus chiseled, hot Chris Pratt and his spaceship full of velociraptors). An abundance of live action plus a clumsy Back to the Future gag fail to entertain as much as they do force the story forward.

Still, Lord and Miller nimbly use the “don’t lose your inner child” theme so popular in family films to cast a side glance at the current bleakening of society. Emmet tries harder and harder to lose his sweetness and optimism in favor of the more masculine stylings of his new friend Rex Dangervest (also Pratt, channeling his Guardians co-star Kurt Russell).

Of course, we all pull for the childlike Emmet to survive, just as the film seems to hope that our own positivity can survive our own Apocalypseville.





Family Matters

Mirai

by Brandon Thomas

Confession: I’ve never seen an entire Japanese animated film.

Spirited Away? Nope.

Howl’s Moving Castle? Sorry.

Akira? Not even a single frame.

I don’t have any kind of unreasonable hatred for this type of film, but I’ve never had much interest either. Thankfully, Mirai was a nice introduction for this anime novice.

Kun is a typical toddler. He enjoys playing with his toys, looking at books, and being the center of attention to his mom and dad. That changes when his baby sister, Mirai, is brought home. Confused by the changes happening around him, Kun retreats to a world where he is able to meet family members at different periods of their lives.

What struck me first about Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai is how the film doesn’t shy away from letting Kun behave like a real kid. He’s selfish, loud and cannot control his emotions. He’s not the easiest protagonist to like at first. The delightful part is seeing Kun grow, and learn to put these bad behaviors to bed.

Mirai is interested in looking at how difficult it is to be a family. It’s tough for parents to bring home another baby when they already have one at home. Cleaning still needs to be done, dinner still needs cooking, life still happens… and that can cause friction. Likewise, it’s hard to be a kid in this kind of dynamic. One minute, you’re the center of mom and dad’s universe, and the next – you’re not.

Kun’s travels through time via the garden never feel like cutesy spectacle, as each of his meetings is rooted in character. Kun learns about empathy, and that his own parents struggled with things when they were younger. By becoming more in touch with previous generations, Kun is able to fully realize his place in his own family.

Emotional yes, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with Mirai. Kun finds himself turned into a half-boy half-dog at one point, and takes an exciting motorcycle ride with his great-grandfather at another. There’s a joyfulness to Kun’s interactions with this fantastical world that’s perfectly childlike.

Mirai might lack the belly laughs that accompany a Pixar movie, but the message is just as potent. Once the credits start to roll, that message is what sticks with us.





Sharing the Pen

Liyana

by Rachel Willis

“Once upon a time, there was a girl….”

That girl is Liyana, a fictional character brought to life by the children living at Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha, a home for orphans in Swaziland.

During a storytelling workshop at the children’s home, author Gcina Mhlophe guides the boys and girls through exercises that allow them to imagine a collective story. Together, they weave a tale of a young girl facing enormous challenges.

Directors Amanda Kopp and Aaron Kopp focus primarily on five children, Phumlani, Nomcebo, Sibusiso, Mkhuleko and Zweli; their voices are the ones we hear throughout the film. By keeping these five at the center, we’re given a chance to get to know their personalities. Each tells the story in their own way. While the plot is the same, the details are unique to each child.

As the creative narrative unfolds, the audience is given glimpses into the lives of the children at Likhaya Lemphilop Lensha. We learn that many of the details of Liyana’s life reflect the children’s realities. HIV takes both of Liyana’s parents; her twin brothers are kidnapped in the dead of night by three vicious men. But Liyana faces each tragedy with determination; her hope and her fearlessness reflect the inner feeling of the children telling her story.

Liyana’s story is brought to life through a combination of the children’s words and gorgeous illustrations that animate the narrative. The film’s strengths lie in this weaving of the day to day realities of life with the vibrant story the children narrate.

The film’s most moving moments are when we’re allowed to spend time with the children. Watching them work in the garden, herd cattle, dance and play games is when the documentary shines. Though the children’s story is wonderful, it might have been a more powerful film if the directors had struck a better balance between fantasy and reality.

However, the indomitable spirit of children is the heart of the film. All of them have faced adversity, sadness and despair, but each has hope and it shines throughout the documentary. Liyana celebrates that wondrous courage.





Holding Out for a Hero

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

by Hope Madden

Teen Titans was a beloved, fairly-serious, sometimes thematically challenging Cartoon Network program based on Glen Murakami’s comics.

Teen Titans Go! was Cartoon Network’s sillier spinoff show. Think Muppet Babies versus The Muppets: smaller, cuter, sillier and basically inferior in every way.

No, that’s too harsh. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies—the diminutive superheroes’ cinematic leap—is not without its share of charm. Directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail (both from the TV series) bring the same zany, juvenile, self-aware sensibilities to the big screen that burst for years from the small one.

Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Beast Boy and Starfire aren’t being taken seriously by the superhero community. What they need is their own superhero movie! Everybody else has one! That’s how you know you’re really a hero, and not just a sidekick with a bunch of costumed goofball buddies.

What follows is a comment on the oversaturation of the superhero film punctuated by a lot of poop jokes.

The voice talent from the TV show (Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Greg Cipes and Tara Strong) is joined by big names (Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Will Arnett, Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmell) in fun cameos.

The best, most on-the-nose cameo belongs to Stan Lee, who sends up his own omnipresence as well as the Marvel/DC conflict and general nerdom with a spry little number.

There are laughs—some of them tossed with a surprisingly flippant sense of the morbid—and energy galore, but it’s all a kind of sugar rush. It’s fun for about 22 minutes, but by minute 23, you’ll be checking your watch.

By minute 50, you will be squirming restlessly in your seat.

By minute 80 you may have that fidgety kid next to you in a headlock, but who’s to blame him for kicking and wriggling and causing a ruckus? He’s as bored as you are!

By the 93-minute mark, you may be rushing for the door, and that’s too bad, in a way, because the bittersweet stinger you’ll miss with your hasty exit only brings home how slight and silly a spinoff Teen Titans Go! really is.

 





Splash

Lu Over the Wall

by Rachel Willis

To give away too much of the plot of Lu Over the Wall would be to steal the joy of experiencing this unique, quirky film. Director Masaaki Yuasa has crafted a sweet fantasy that explores the moving friendship between a boy and a mermaid.

The first half of the film offers an unpredictable journey that follows Kai as he gets to know the buoyant Lu. Along for the ride are Kai’s friends, Yuho and Kunio.

Before Lu, Kai is sullen and morose, having recently moved from Tokyo to a small fishing village with his dad following his parents’ divorce. Yuho and Kunio try their best to engage Kai, even talking him into joining their band. But it isn’t until Lu appears, drawn by Kai’s music, that he begins to open up to the world around him.

Though the first half of the film is unusual, and, at times, downright weird, the second half falls into a more predictable pattern. However, the shift into a more traditional story doesn’t detract from the film. And though the second section is more certain, the quirks and oddities of the story are maintained through the animation. Lu and Kai, along with Yuho and Kunio, face challenges as old prejudices and new curiosities are aroused by the arrival of Lu.

At times, the animation is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but it also occasionally has the slapstick style of Tex Avery’s old Bugs Bunny cartoons. The blending of styles, along with the film’s own specific elements, merge together to serve the unconventional story well. From the monstrous creatures to the everyday people to the village’s shops and streets, the visuals are the most memorable part of the film.

Music also plays an important role, but the soundtrack is a little stale when paired with the rich animation. Too often, the score and soundtrack fade forgettably into the background when the movie would be better served by sound that enhanced the animation onscreen.

Though often strange and unusual, Lu Over the Wall is a touching tale.

 

 





I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of April 30

Great animation, very good foreign drama, better-than-expected war drama and one seriously disappointing ghost story—these are the choices. Let us help you with that.

Click the film title for the full review.

Peter Rabbit

In the Fade

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

12 Strong

Winchester





Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.





Like to Do Drawings

19th Annual Animation Show of Shows

by Hope Madden

Whimsy, melancholy, existential dread—the absurdity of human existence. What can tackle it all?

Cartoons can.

The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows returns, jam-packed with tales both celebratory and cautionary. Human interconnectedness becomes a theme that runs throughout the program, one that feels simultaneously contemporary and retro.

From the brief, flippant Unsatisfying—a quick montage of irritating moments—to the lengthy morality tale Hangman, the film finds a wonderful balance in tone and mood, shifts mirrored in the ever-changing and always wonderful artistic styles of the shorts.

Traditional hand-animation, chalk and pencil, computer-generated art and even animation drawn directly on film stock, the choices made by the animators create unique atmospheres where each story can breathe and show off.

Kobe Bryant’s Oscar-winning Dear Basketball figures into the film, but its real highlights include Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s odd and amazing My Burden, Max Mortl and Robert Lobel’s bright Island, Tom Eshed’s charming Our Wonderful Nature: The Common Chameleon and David O’Reilly’s philosophical mind-bender, Everything.

There’s not a weak moment, truth be told, as headier fare is punctuated with musical flourishes or a quick laugh. The variety within the program and the sequencing of the shorts strengthens not only the overall experience but the human-ness that underlies the program’s unifying themes.

It’s lovely—sometimes funny, often sad, genuinely nutty and forever charming. If you’ve seen these celebrations of the art and glory of animation in previous years, you know the treat being offered. If you have not, this is your year.