It’s probably a testament to just how jaded I am that my first thought when watching The Polar Express was “actually, this animation isn’t half bad”. The Polar Express is notorious for being the start of Robert Zemeckis’ turn to the dark side, where one of the most respected directors of genre cinema became a professional corporate necromancer.
And The Polar Express was his first attempt at making an all CGI mocapped film and is infamous for being utterly, skin-crawlingly unsettling in its depiction of human characters. And yet, maybe it’s because I‘ve seen the absolute depths to which this accursed path would lead Zemeckis I found myself not minding the animation too much, for the most part at least. It just looks like a computer game cutscene. And, if I’m being scrupulously fair, there are even shots that I think are honest to God beautiful.
My, this review is trending rather positive isn’t it? I wonder if that will last.
Heavy Metal began in 1977 as an American translation of Metal Hurlant, a French science fiction fantasy magazine that featured seminal work by such legendary creators as Moebius, Enki Bilal and Jean Claude Forest and had a massive influence on the entire comic book medium because TITS.
Was there some genuinely thought provoking and visually spectacular sci-fi in its pages? Absolutely! Playboy also published plenty of great articles, what’s your point?
Heavy Metal, the 1981 anthology animated film that adapts many of the magazine’s most iconic stories, has tits. It has many tits. It has big tits and small…actually no, it only has big tits. In the ancient swamp of the pre-internet age, that really was enough. The marketing campaign could literally have been the words “CARTOON BOOBS, YA DIG?” plastered on every available surface and this movie would have been a success.
But for a jaded, modern reviewer who sees boobs once (maybe even twice) a month, it’ll take more than that. So, is there more to Heavy Metal than awesome bewbage? Let’s take a look.
Imagine you go to a Burger King and the guy at the counter serves you with a smile, promptly brings the food to your table, thanks you kindly for your custom and wishes you a good day. Someone, in short, who doesn’t have to put nearly this much effort into their job but does it anyway because, gosh darn it, if you’re going to do a job you might as well do it well.
That’s Nelvana. Nelvana is an extremely prolific Canadian animation studio who produced basically any cartoon you saw in the eighties or nineties that wasn’t made by Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation or Warner Bros. They’re probably most famous (if you’re my age, at least) for their many, many licensed animations for properties like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Pet Monster. Nelvana were front and centre in the saccharine, corporatised swamp that was the American TV animation scene in the Reagan era. Like many of their peers, Nelvana had to make ends meet in the burger joint by cranking out barely concealed animated toy commercials. Unlike many of their peers, Nelvana actually seemed to give a damn. Their shows were, broadly speaking, better than they needed to be and demonstrated real skill and craftsmanship in their animation. There were always hints that, if given time and a budget and a premise slightly less anodyne than “Will Grumpy Bear ever get that stick out of his ass?”, Nelvana had the talent to make something truly special. And, if ever there was a time to do it, it was the early eighties.
The late seventies/early eighties were the “Warring States” period of American Feature Animation. The senile old king, Disney, had fallen from his throne and seemingly every animator who could hold a pencil was scrambling for the crown. This was the heady time when Rankin Bass, Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth battled for control of the artform, right up until 1989 when the old king came back and was like “I’m feeling a lot better now everyone, thank you for your concern“.
But all that was in the future. Nelvana was formed in 1971 by Patrick Loubert, Clive Smith and Michael Hirsh with the stated intent of creating a Canadian Disney.
After several well received Christmas specials and animating literally the only part of the Star Wars Holiday Special that deserved to be spared the flame (the cartoon that introduced Boba Fett), the studio began work on their first feature length animation; Rock and Rule. It’s an obvious passion project, clearly made by a young team just bursting with talent and ambition and love for what they were doing. It’s also something that was very obviously begun without a complete script or even a set plot. It’s weird. It’s uneven. It’s a wild, uncontrolled shambling mess of eighties animation that failed when it was dumped into theatres with no marketing by a distributor that neither loved nor understood it. Which obviously means that it was made for me, Mouse, personally.
If you’ve spent any time reading about animé you will have come across the name “Osamu Tezuka”, almost certainly accompanied by the phrase “Godfather of animé/manga”. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Tezuka absolutely kickstarted post-war animé as a genre. But…it kinda feels like we’re missing something, doesn’t it? How exactly did we get from this:
Well to understand that we need to talk about the other godfather of manga and animé. For Osamu Tezuka created animé as a beautiful, innocent garden. But into that garden, there came a serpent. There came Go Nagai.
Hired as a writer and illustrator for Weekly Shonen Jump in 1968, Nagai became an instant cultural lightning rod and enfant terrible of manga with his series Harenchi Gakuen. An erotic comedy set in a school, the series attracted massive controversy in Japan (damn prudes!) with its boundary smashing depictions of nudity and sexuality in a comic ostensibly aimed at children (sometimes have a point!). Nagai’s entire career has been one long game of seeing what he can get away with. His work is categorised by coarse humour, extreme violence, body horror and a pessimism often bordering on nihilism.
Also, Nagai is notorious for a, shall we say, somewhat cavalier attitude to the ethics of depicting sexual assault against women. To put it another way, much of his work is rapier than a full orchestral production of Blurred Lines at the Global Fencing Championships. Shit. Gets. Messed. Up. And his influence cannot be overstated. If you’ve ever watched some disreputable animé late at night and found yourself wondering…why?
Go Nagai. Go Nagai is why.
Go Nagai is why so much of animé is so violent, so weirdly horny and frequently so goddamned awesome. It’s a…complex legacy, to be sure. And much of Nagai’s work is definitely not for me. But he also blazed a trail that was followed by many of the most important and respected creators in the medium, like Katsuhiro Otome and even (I would argue) Miyazaki.
Now, the most important part of Nagai’s oeuvre is the massive Devilman franchise, a constellation of manga, animé adaptations, remakes and spin-offs. There’s a lot of overlap and differences between the various iterations but it usually goes like this; Akira Fudo is an ordinary Japanese schoolkid who gets recruited (or sometimes just duped) by his childhood friend Ryo Asuka into a war to protect humankind from demons. In order to do this, Ryo has Akira become possessed by an ancient warrior demon named Amon to fight other demons. Akira then becomes a superhero named “Devilman” (pronounced “DEEEEEEVILMAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNN!!!!”). From there, the story usually proceeds through a few monster of the week episodes with certain series-standard demons appearing to get the ever-loving demonic shit kicked out of them before taking a sharp left turn with humanity becoming aware of the existence of demons whereupon things get fucking dark.
Very violent. Very horny. Not for everyone. Go Nagai.
Now, there have been several animé adaptations of the original 1972 manga. There was the ridiculously toned down seventies Toei series which was kinda like if The Human Centipede was remade as a Saturday Morning Cartoon about a bunch of people who change into a giant centipede to fight baddies through the power of friendship. Then there was the far more faithful (and pretty damn kickass) OVA in the eighties, a couple of other OVAs in the nineties and early aughts and finally the subject of today’s review Devilman Crybaby, a mini series created by Science SARU for Netflix. Now, one of the reasons I pushed this review back to Halloween (other than just to have a horror themed review for Halloween) was that I knew nothing about this franchise and had a suspicion I would need the extra prep time. And I’m glad I did. Devilman Crybaby was an absolute juggernaut when it was released, becoming one of the most watched and successful animé series in years with a rabid fanbase. The kind of thing you really need to research and read up on before you come out with something like “I watched it and I didn’t really care for it”.
This is one of those reviews where I feel like literally every single person interested enough to read it already knows far, far more about the topic than I do and is just waiting for me to make a massive ass of myself. I never watched Sailor Moon growing up and was only vaguely aware of it as the animé that most people think of when they hear the word “animé”. So I went on a rather fascinating tvtropes binge (did you know that the entire Japanese magical girl genre was inspired by the American sitcom Bewitched?) and I’m proud to report that I’ve gone from being absolutely clueless to loveably befuddled in record time.
Okay. So. Let’s start at the end and work our way backwards.
What is Sailor Moon R: The Movie?
Sailor Moon R is a movie based on Sailor Moon R.
What is Sailor Moon R?
Sailor Moon R is the second season of the Sailor Moon animé.
What is the Sailor Moon animé?
The animé adaptation of Naoko Takeuchi’s manga about schoolgirl Usagi Tsukino who discovers that she is the reincarnation of an ancient warrior princess from a kingdom on the Moon. As Sailor Moon she battles evil monsters with the help of other girls/reincarnated warriors such as Sailor Mars, Sailor Venus, Sailor Mercury and Sailor Jupiter. It’s a fusion of the magical girl genre with the sentai superhero genre.
What is best in life?
To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of the women.
Why don’t girls like me?
Because you’re not actually a person, you’re just a rhetorical device I’m using for this review.
Nope. Not gonna do it. Not gonna watch it. Not gonna blog about it. Not gonna contribute to THE DISCOURSE. Not, in short, gonna give the bastards the satisfaction.
Here is what I am going to do. I am going to talk about my new boo.
Redline, a 2009 animé movie released by Madhouse, instantly became one of my all time favourite animations and it didn’t even break a sweat doing it. Which is not to say that it’s one of my favourite movies, necessarily, but as a perfect sugar rush high of the purest joy animation can deliver I struggle to think of its equal. This thing took 7 years to make, comprising 100,000 cels of some of the most gorgeously detailed hand-drawn animation I’ve ever seen.
The movie is the debut feature of animator Takeshi Koike, whose Animatrix short World Record I reviewed a few weeks ago (all part of my cunning plan). But what is this “Red Line”, you ask. What’s it all about, eh?
Okay, so take 2000 AD comics, the works of Jack Kirby and Moebius, Mad Max and pretty much every Franco-Japanese Saturday Morning cartoon from the eighties and put them in a blender. Take enough LSD to turn into a pineapple and serve. That’s Redline. It is AWESOME. If I had seen this when I was ten years old I might have actually died from excitement.
In a sparring programme, Captain Thadeus of the Zion hovercraft Osiris and his first mate (in more ways than one) Juen swordfight while blindfolded. This doesn’t, as you might expect, result in horrific injuries but instead with them just getting progressively more naked.
They’re interrupted when the Osiris comes across an army of half a million machine sentinels and a big fuck-off drill, burrowing into the Earth’s crust right over Zion, the last human city. Rushing to warn Zion, the Osiris flees the pursuing sentinels. Juen volunteers to enter the Matrix leave a message in a dropbox. The sentinels overpower the Osiris but Juen manages to relay the message before the ship is destroyed and she drops dead.
How was it?
Probaby the least “animé” of all the shorts, this one feels most of a piece with the original trilogy. Everything from the score to the colour scheme to the dialogue feels like it could just slot very neatly into the films. One thing I really admired about the Wachowskis was their commitment that everything mattered. There was no “expanded universe”, every part (whether film, short film or computer game) was equally canon. Sure, you don’t have to see Osiris to make sense of Matrix Reloaded but if you have seen it you’re never in any doubt that it happened in this universe. The events here are referenced and are always consistent with the rest of the franchise. I like that. The animation was some of the most jaw dropping CGI I had ever seen in 2003 and in 2022 it holds up amazingly well. Sure, the sword striptease might seem like shameless pandering (and it is) but it’s also a demonstration of technical power. The flesh of these characters moves realistically and organically, these bodies tense and flex and sweat organically. It’s mighty impressive today. Twenty years ago it was bloody witchcraft.
It’s light on story, lighter on dialogue and pretty insubstantial. But as a visually stunning, slick little thriller it gets the job done.
Well, okay, it’s not. But it used to be. In those weird few years surrounding the turn of the millennium the Matrix was an absolute phenomenon, genuinely one of the most influential movie franchises of all time. In fact, I’d argue that it was a victim of its own success. Its aesthetic was so instantly iconic and easily replicable that it quickly became cliché. Movies don’t look like the Matrix anymore because so many movies released around that time aped its look and suddenly it wasn’t cool anymore. And make no mistake, the Matrix was all about being cool. Less a story than a vibe.
No, that’s not fair. The Matrix’s intellectual depth may have been exaggerated but if you’d never heard of Descartes it could and did give an entry point into various philosophical ideas. Its language and concepts have filtered into our discourse (red pills, bread pills) and has gone on to inspire many a modern science fiction writer (DID I MENTION RECENTLY I WROTE A BOOK?). It’s a damn impressive legacy for a series that, if we’re brutally honest, consisted of one good (if by no means flawless) film, two mediocre sequels and a filmed cry for help.
Oh, and it also gave us the subject of this years Shortstember, the Animatrix. This is an anthology series that came about when the Wachowskis visited Japan to promote the first Matrix and visited some of the animé studios that had been such a huge influence on their work. They then commissioned those studios to create nine short films set in the world they had created, which were then released on DVD and on online to promote the second film, Matrix Reloaded. For something basically created as an advertisement for another movie, The Animatrix went on to become the most critically acclaimed part of this entire franchise with the exception of the original film.
So join me this Shortstember as we review the Animatrix. Which ones are good, which ones are bad, and which ones are like wiping your arse with silk.
Milligan: Ohhh yes! If we build this mountain on England, England would sink under the weight.
Seagoon: Sink? In that case, this mountain would be invaluable, people could climb up the side and save themselves from drowning!
Milligan: Mercy, you’re right. Hurry and build it, before we all drown!
The Goon Show: “The Greatest Mountain in the World” (1954)
Alright, let’s just dispense with the usual dancing around.
Encanto is great. It’s a great piece of animation. It’s an excellent musical and it’s without a doubt my favourite canon movie in a long-ass time. It’s walking out of here with a good grade, don’t nobody worry ’bout that.
I have to confess that what really fascinates me about Encanto is how it keeps making the most basic, obvious mistakes in screen-writing you can imagine (trying to build a mountain that will cause the country to sink), and instead of just fixing them in a sensible way (just not building the mountain) by doubling down and solving those problems in the most ridiculously over the top way possible (actually building the mountain). And it works.
The best example of this is the first song Welcome to the Family Madrigal.
There are twelve named speaking Madrigal characters, all with unique personalities, powers and familial relationships to keep track of. That is, quite frankly, bananas and any sensible screenwriter would have gone through the cast with a machete looking for who could be cut.
Way I see it, for this story you need Mirabelle, two older siblings to establish the pattern that Mirabelle broke by not getting a gift, and then a younger sibling to get a gift to show that Mirabelle really was a fluke. You need Abuela, obviously, Bruno and Julietta. Augustine doesn’t need to be there and Pepa’s entire family is extraneous. And yes, obviously, that would really suck to lose those characters but that would be the sensible choice. The sane choice. But that would not be the Encanto choice.
Encanto instead decides that it’s going to have an opening song flat out admitting “yes, our cast is far too big and complicated and our premise is weird and clunky so here is a song to help you remember”. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t work. But simply by dint that it is a phenomenal song it does. They built the goddamn mountain.
Going in, there were more red flags than a China versus Vietnam World Cup Final. A straight-to-DVD CGI movie I’d never heard of from a studio I’d never heard of helmed by one of the directors of Shark Tale? Yeah, let’s just say I went into this in full Anton Ego mode.
But I dug a little deeper and I started seeing a few green shoots of hope. For you see, director Bibo Bergeron (of, I believe, the Sackville Bergerons) is not just the co-director of Shark’s Tale. As an animator he worked on Fievel Goes West, A Goofy Movie and The Iron Giantwhich is a pretty damned impressive filmography before you even factor in that he co-directed The Road to El Dorado!