Disney

Mouse Goes to War: Nimbus Libéré (1944(?))

Studio: Les Films Robert Macé

Country of Origin: Vichy France

First Screened: Unclear, sometime in 1943/1944

Since starting this blog I’ve reviewed just north of 150 animated films. I’ve been an avid fan of animation from literally before I could talk. I have watched thousands upon thousands of hours of animation in my lifetime.

Nimbus Libéré (“Nimbus Released”) is the worst cartoon I’ve ever seen and it’s not even close.  If Foodfight! was a perfect 0, Nimbus Libéré is a minus googol. In every technical area, animation, sound, writing, it’s abysmal. In style, it is repellent. In intent, it is pure evil.

English language sources on the cartoon’s origins are thin on the ground and to be honest, I can’t even say for certain whether it was first screened in 1943 or 1944 (going by the subject matter, I’d guess early to mid ’44). Although credited to “Cal”, it was the work of Raymond Jeannin, a young French animator in his twenties whose two surviving works are Libéré and La Nuit Enchanté (“The Enchanted Night”).

La Nuit Enchanté is a fairly terrible mish-mash of awful animation and swiped character designs (Jeannin’s moderate talent in aping other people’s designs were probably what got him roped into doing Nimbus).  But it’s not fascist. I mean, there are some deeply uncomfortable racist stereotypes but, if I’m honest, nothing noticeably worse than what Warners was doing at the time and we don’t go around calling Tex Avery and Chuck Jones Nazis.

But Nimbus…my God in heaven.

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Momotarō no Umiwashi (1943)

Studio: Geijutsu Eigasha 

Country of Origin: Empire of Japan

First Screened: March 25th 1943

Momotarō the Peach Boy is a popular Japanese folk character who’s been round since the Edo period. Story goes, childless couple see a peach floating down the river, they open it up and inside is a baby who’s been gifted to them by Heaven. The boy grows older, goes on a quest, meets a monkey, dog and pheasant and they all team up to kick the asses of some local demons. It’s a really cool little fable, equal parts Moses, Superman, Wizard of Oz, you can definitely see why it’s remained so popular down through the centuries. And then, World War 2 had to come along and ruin everything.

Figuratively and literally.

American cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were hugely popular in Japan in the years leading up to the war, so the Imperial Regime wanted their own cartoon mascot. Momotarō was an obvious choice what with his cute, boyish appearance and cast of animal sidekicks. This led to series of films starring the character directed by Mitsuyo Seo who would go on to be one of the guiding lights of the animé industry after the war. The first of these films was the short Momotarō no Umiwashi  (“Momotarō’s Sea Eagles.”) I say “short”, but at 38 minutes that’s really taking the piss. Oh well, at least they didn’t stick it in front of a Pixar movie and make everyone watch it all the way through.

Disney: Worse than the Empire of Japan.

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Avatar: Sozin’s Comet

Okay, before we even start the starting I need to talk about Azula.

Azula, for those of you who knoweth not, is Avatar’s secondary antagonist. She’s the daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, the main villain, and the brother of Zuko. She’s an incredibly skilled fire-bender, a brilliant tactician, and a straight up psychopath.

Now a good few years ago I remember I got talking to some dude at a party about Avatar, and we were just fanboying over it as you do, and he looks me straight in the eye and says three words: “Azula. Best villain.” And he didn’t mean “best villain in the show”, he meant “best villain in any piece of fiction, period.” And I nodded at that, and didn’t even really consider what it was that I was agreeing to.

And it’s ridiculous, when you think about it, right? How could the greatest villain of all time be from a frickin’ Nickleodeon show from the early 2000s? It’s stupid on the face of it.

And then I re-watched the series for these reviews and a slightly scary thought started to creep over me:

Azula. Best villain.

Actually…maybe?

Something happened here. Something happened in the planning, creation and execution of this character. Doubtful if any of the parties involved tried to replicate it again it would work but…goddamn they hit something when they created Azula. I’ve spent far too much time obsessing over this one character and why she work and far too little time thinking about Sozin’s comet (full disclosure, I was in hospital this week with yet another of my periodic bouts of intestinal insurrection so this review might be a little short) but I want to just set out why I think Azula works so well.

From the very beginning, I’ve always maintained that a good villain is an absolutely crucial element in whether a story works or not. Some movies don’t have antagonists, that’s true, but most do. And when they do, whether or not the villain works is a pretty reliable yardstick as to whether the movie works too. But what makes a “good” villain, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron? Well, there’s no one way to be a good villain but there are, broadly speaking, three.

  1. Be entertaining. These are the flamboyant moustache twirlers. Not particularly deep, but by God they have style. Think of Jafar, Maleficent, Hella from Thor: Ragnarok. You can practically hear little children hissing whenever they’re onscreen.
  2. Be believable. Here we have your down to earth villains. They’re real people, with understandable, compelling motivations. They’re evil, sure, but in a way that’s perfectly logical for a person in that situation. Usually found in gritty kitchen sink dramas. If a villain reminds you of someone you’ve encountered in real life, they probably belong here.
  3. Be absolutely fucking terrifying: Straight up monsters. The kind of characters that tap into deep, primal fears. Xenomorphs, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers.

No, not him.

There we go.

Thing is, most great villains manage one of the above. Some of the true titans manage two (Heath Ledger’s Joker is a solid 1 and 3). But it’s almost impossible to find a villain who fits into all three categories. In fact, it sounds almost impossible. How can a villain be entertaining and grittily realistic and absolutely terrifying? It would take an incredible feat of writing and performance to make a character like that seem anything other than poorly defined and schizophrenic.

There’s a scene in the first episode of Season 2 of Avatar that sums up how all three elements of great villainy combine in Azula.  She’s been sent by the Fire Lord to tell her brother Zuko and her Uncle Iroh that his banishment is over and that he’s to come home. But in reality, Zuko and Iroh are to be executed for treason. She tells Zuko that he can come home and Zuko says nothing, rendered speechless upon hearing that his banishment is over at last and his father wants him back.

“You should be happy.” Azula says coldly “Where’s my “thank you”? I want my thank you.”

It’s funny, in a dark way, that Azula is so psychotic that she wants gratitude from her brother for luring him to his unwitting death. But there’s nothing campy about it. There’s something just so chillingly believable about Grey De Lisle’s vocal performance. You know this girl. And if you don’t, you are damn lucky.

And lastly is the sheer menace that the character exudes, with more than a little assist from the excellent score.

Honestly, the only other villain I can think of who hits all three elements so perfectly is, well…

Yeah. High praise.

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The Last Unicorn (1982)

Animation history is full of odd twists and turns and weird connections but one of the weirdest is that you can trace a direct line between this:

And this:

Rankin Bass is most famous for its stop motion Christmas specials but from the late sixties onwards they dabbled in feature length traditional animation. The Rankin Bass filmography is like an unfinished rollercoaster, a madcap frenzy of highs and lows before it all ends in the bloody, limb mangling, fiery catastrophe of 1999’s The King and I.

Ugh. Yeah. Probably. Some day.

But they did produce what is, by fairly solid consensus, a true classic with 1982’s The Last Unicorn, based on Peter S. Beagle’s book of the same name. While Rankin/Bass produced the film, the grunt work was actually farmed out to a Japanese company called Topcraft who’d later be hired by Hayao Miyazaki to animate Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and the rest is history.

I get the feeling this movie was a much bigger deal in the States than it was in Ireland. I never saw it growing up, and I don’t remember anyone talking about it. But that pedigree alone was enough to make me curious.

Let’s take a look.

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Mouse goes to War!: Fascist Jackboots Shall not Trample Our Motherland (1941)

Studio: Soyuzmultfilm

Country of Origin: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

First Screened: 1941 (Exact date unclear)

All of the shorts we’ve looked at in this series thus far have been propaganda to a greater or lesser extent. But they weren’t just propaganda. American audiences liked their propaganda leavened with comedy or drama or catchy tunes about farting in Hitler’s face. The Russians though? They took their propaganda straight while growling at the bartender to leave the bottle.

The blunt, hammer-blow-to-the-noggin nature of Soviet propaganda is right there in the name of today’s short Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland.

“Good title.”

So a little background. Jackboots is one the earliest productions of Soyuzmultfilm, the pre-eminent home of Russian animation and screen puppeteering. The studio is still going to this day but its heyday was during the Soviet era where they produced beautiful and beloved animated classics like the Winnie-the Pooh trilogy and Hedgehog in the Fog.

What’s the Russian for “smurges”?

Now keep in mind, I don’t read Russian, so all my information is coming second hand from places like Wikipedia which claims, for instance, that after the fall of the Soviet Union Soyuzmultfilm’s facilities were sold to the Russian Orthodox Church and then promptly burned to the ground by Cossacks who believed that their puppets were animated with the blood of Christian children. And, while anything on the internet originating from Russia should normally be treated as purest truth from the beardy lips of God Himself, I find that a bit hard to swallow.

I mean c’mon, the blood of Christian children hasn’t been used to animate puppets since the late forties.

Anyway, that was all in the future. Although originally based in Moscow, Soyuzmultfilm was evacuated to Samarkand when the Germans invaded and were put to work creating propaganda for the war effort. And one of those films was Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland.

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The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya: The Endless Eight

“Hello, Mr Mouse. I’d like to make a donation to your blog.”

“MOUSE LIKE MONEY.”

“Would you be willing to do a blog post setting out your thoughts on the latest developments in the field of Quantum Chemistry?”

“Well I don’t know anything about Quantum Chemistry and in fact had never even heard of it before but I’m sure an hour or so of research on the internet should be all I need to get up to speed.”

“I’ve made a HUGE mistake.”

Replace “Quantum Chemistry” with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and that’s pretty much where we’re at, folks. I…I misjudged this one, not gonna lie. I thought “Sure, I’ve never heard of it, but it’s a cartoon! I can review cartoons, I do it all the time!”. But The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a cartoon show in the same way the Bible is a novel. I didn’t know what it was before, and after many hours of research I still feel like I’m missing pretty vital information. This is a show with no clearly defined genre packed with references to advanced scientific and mathematical concepts. This is the kind of stuff I was coming across when researching these episodes:

Ah. Of course.

Okay, let’s start with the facts. The Melancholy of Haruhi Susumiya is the animé adaptation of Naguro Tanigawa’s series of light novels featuring the eponymous schoolgirl. Haruhi is really bored with her everyday life and the boring people around her and founds a school club with her friend, Kyon, to find aliens and other supernatural creatures and…just…hang out with them. Oh, and Haruhi is actually an all-powerful reality warper  who has to be kept in the dark about her abilities in case she does untold damage to the world around her.

Ah, that old saw.

The TV adaptation was first broadcast in 2006 and became one of the biggest hits in the history of animé, achieving worldwide success and becoming an unstoppable cultural behemoth. Apparently. Because, as I hinted before, I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF THIS THING AND NOW I THINK I’M GOING CRAZY. DID I SLIP INTO AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE?

“WHY DOES NO ONE REMEMBER THAT NELSON MANDELA DIED IN PRISON AND WHY CAN’T I FIND SHAZAAM ON NETFLIX?!”

But apparently yes, this show was huge. So after the first season was released the show seemed unstoppable. The second season was announced in 2007 and the fandom was whipped into a frothing lathery frenzy. And then…

Hooooo boy.

What followed was one of the most spectacularly misjudged testings of fan loyalty that I have ever heard of. Within a single story arc, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya managed to piss away every last drop of audience goodwill it had accrued over the years. The franchise carried on after this for a while but it was a dead toon walking. No third season has been announced, and the franchise is now effectively dead. The arc in question was called The Endless Eight. So, what did this animé about a Japanese schoolgirl do to honk off its fanbase to the point that they abandoned it en masse? Did it involve tentacles? Surprisingly, it did not.

The Endless Eight is a story that sees Haruhi, Kyon and their friends trapped in a time loop in the last week of summer. The first episode ends with them still in the timeloop. The second episode is the first episode repeated. Because they’re still in the time loop, y’see. And each week, increasingly bewildered and enraged fans would tune in, only to be forced to watch the same episode again and again and again and again and again and again and that is not hyperbole because no lie they did this EIGHT GOD DAMNED TIMES. For real. Eight weeks of the same episode. And here’s the thing, it’s not like they just re-screened the same episode. Each episode was re-animated from scratch, each line of dialogue recorded eight times but the script remained the same with a few changes here and there. Every time.

I…just…that’s brilliant? Is it? No? I…no. It’s stupid, isn’t it? It’s real stupid. But at the same time…the balls that takes, right? But still, no. That’s just…no. But, isn’t it brilliant? But…GAWD. That’s the kind of reckless, devil-may-care creative choice that I can’t help but admire.

So here’s the thing, I know nothing about this franchise. I do not have the time to devote to exploring its mysteries and subtleties and its place in animé history. So I’m just gonna throw myself into this headfirst and review all four hours of the The Endless Eight because, fuck it. You only live once. Or eight times. Whatever.

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Mouse Goes to War!: Reason and Emotion (1943)

Studio: Walt Disney Productions

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: August 27, 1943

After the ugliness and race-baiting of the Ducktatorswhat say we finish our look at American propaganda shorts with something with a little bit of class, by God! Reason and Emotion is a personal favourite of mine, not just because it’s a gorgeous cartoon (although it is) but because it’s that rarest of things, a piece of propaganda that actually appeals to your better nature. Propaganda shorts of this era came in many flavours. Some just plonked existing characters into war-specific settings with little commentary and had them do their thing. Some mocked and belittled the Axis powers to boost morale. And some were designed with an educational thrust to inform the public about a specific topic. In fact, even after the war had ended Disney continued making educational shorts on all kinds of subjects.

Oh yes. This is a real goddamn thing.

Reason and Emotion is, ironically enough, a propaganda short warning of the dangers of propaganda. It effectively and engagingly illustrates how propaganda works on the mind and how demagogues use emotion to suppress reason. For this reason, I almost hesitate to call it propaganda. “Anti-propaganda” might be a better term. The short was released in 1943 to great acclaim and was even nominated for an Academy Award, although it lost to the Tom and Jerry short Yankee Doodle Mouse, the first and last time the Academy ever got something wrong.

I hate to say “They Wuz Robbed” but they totally wuz.

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Disney (Re)Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse#1: Snow White

I know, I know.

“What’s the point of this Mouse?” I hear you cry. Your feelings about this are probably the same as mine towards the Beauty and the Beast reboot; All questions of quality aside, who asked for this and why does it need to exist? Why do another review of Snow White when there are so many fantastic/terrible movies I haven’t had a chance to savour/suffer for your amusement/amusement? Well, a couple of reasons. Firstly, a confession.

When I initially reviewed Snow White back in 2012, I hadn’t seen it in literally years and I based my review on memories as faded and unreliable as an old VHS tape. I’m sorry, I was young, I was reckless. Mea Culpa. Second, oh my God, FUCK 2012 Mouse.

“Hey, listen man…”

“FUCK YOU!”

That guy was an asshole. So I thought that the fifth anniversary of the blog was a good opportunity to go back and revisit my first review and show that hack who’s boss. And lastly, because when I finally got Snow White  on DVD I noticed something really enticing.

Oh yes. Oh yessssssss…

Yeah. You all thought that when I talked about Walt Disney being an immortal warlock it was just a bit. So how come there’s a DVD commentary by him when he SUPPOSEDLY DIED BEFORE DVDS WERE INVENTED?! HMM? HMMMMMMM??

“YOU FOOLS! YOU CALLED ME MAD!”

Alright let’s do this. Snow White versus Mouse 2. Place your bets.

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Mouse Goes To War!: The Ducktators (1942)

Hey guys, sorry for the missed update. Still up to my furry little armpits in other writing at the moment so I’m afraid the Snow White review is gonna have to be pushed back until next Thursday. By recompense, here is the next of the WW2 propaganda short reviews. Enjoy!

***

Studio: Warner Bros

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: August 1, 1942

As I mentioned in my last series of short reviews, you can break down the history of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies shorts into four eras roughly corresponding to the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. Call them the Poor Man’s Disney, Wiseass Disney, Apex and Nadir eras, respectively. WW2 broke out in the middle of the Wiseass Disney era, where the studio had successfully reinvented itself as the sarcastic, irreverent joker to those squares in Burbank with their high falutin’ ideals of animation being art. While Disney were getting Deems Taylor to introduce abstract animation to the strains of Bach, Warner Bros were slouched in the corner smokin’ ceegars and yellin’ “Ah, yer muddah wears lederhosen!”. The Warner Bros shorts of this era are acclaimed by many fans as the greatest of the series but, with respect, those fans are liars and fools and once grown, their children shall change their names out of shame.

“Mouse, what did we agree?”

“Sigh. No telling people that their children will change their names out of shame just because they disagree with me on the respective merits of different eras of animated shorts in the Warner Bros filmography.”

“You lasted ONE DAY.”

Okay, that’s harsh. There are many fantastic cartoons from this era but, honestly, the shorts from the fifties (including but not limited to What’s Opera Doc, One Froggy Evening and the Hunter Trilogy) leave them in the dirt.

The shorts of the forties had a lot going for them, namely some of the finest animators, directors and voice talent to ever work in the medium, but compared to the later fifties shorts they’re sorely lacking in one thing.

Class.

To be blunt, there’s a nastiness to a lot of the Warner Bros shorts of this era, and not just because of the racism (although, jeez louise, it’s like they thought there was an Olympics for racism and they had their heart set on winning gold for their country). Propaganda is dirty business, but some cartoon studios came out a lot cleaner than others, if you catch my drift.

Of all the major American cartoon studios, Warners seemed to succumb to their worst instincts the easiest. Disney, Fleischer et al certainly produced cartoons in this era that make for uncomfortable viewing but Warner’s took it to another level.  For a good example, let’s take a look at the Ducktators.

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Disney(ish) Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse: The Hunchback of Notre Dame II

It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Execution is more important than concept.

Consider Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Doing Victor Hugo’s classic melodrama as an animated Disney musical is an objectively terrible idea. Awful. Comedically bad. You would have to really sit down and think to come up with a classic novel less suited to the genre. Dracula has more potential as a Renaissance Disney movie than Hunchback (Magical villain with a cape and animal sidekicks, heroine who yearns for more than her safe, stale existence, funny comedy relief foreigner and a happy ending, what more do you want?).

But the thing about Hunchback is that, despite the inherent cruddiness of the core concept, everything else is JUST SO GOOD. That animation! The character designs! The backgrounds! The acting! The direction! The singing! The music! YE GODS THE MUSIC!

So what if the final product resembles Hugo’s work so loosely that Disney might as well have claimed it was original IP and called it the “The Adventures of Maurice the Not-So-Pretty Bell Man”? Gorgeous movie is gorgeous.

But what if…what if all that was taken away?

What if you took away the animation, the character designs, the backgrounds, the acting, the direction, the singing, the music ye gods the music?

What if all you had left was that initial terrible, terrible idea?

Probably something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2, produced in 2000 but only released in 2002, presumably out of shame. This movie is why we have words like “nadir”.

Let me be clear. It’s not simply terrible compared to the original. It’s not simply terrible as a movie in its own right. It is terrible compared to other Disney Sequels.

Scared?

By God, you should be.

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