Isle of Dogs (2018)

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4 years after the sublime, (and one of my favourite movies) ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, director Wes Anderson returns with a wonderfully told stop-motion tale, centred around one boy and many dogs.

In a dystopian Japan, where all pooches have been exiled to an island away from Megasaki City, because of an outbreak of dog flu, is where we follow runaway boy and makeshift pilot Atari (Koyu Rankin). He crash lands on the Isle of Dogs, hoping to find his lost dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) and is helped by a pack of five, though one named Chief (Bryan Cranston) really doesn’t want to aid the quest.

Coming back to the amazing world of stop-motion, after his 2009 foray with ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ is the man who hands such detail and a clear stamp of identity to his work. Wes Anderson utilises the craftsmanship of this art form to great effect, in a way that never distracts from the wit and gorgeousness of the storytelling. Split up into numbered parts, this movie owes a lot to rich Japanese culture and director of ‘Seven Samurai’. The dystopian world and the adventure story of finding a dog is well realised and easy to follow for all.

There is so much incredible detail, even in the backgrounds, where so many must have tirelessly put great time and effort in ensuring all parts of the frame are filled with loving attention. Trash Island is literally littered with stunning scenery of coloured bottles, rubbish, an abandoned athletics centre and amusement park all gift the visuals, a grimy yet playful stroke. The dogs themselves shuffle along and move with the lovely manoeuvring as we see the stop-motion in effect. This feature film is further proof of my love for stop-motion as a beautiful means of telling stories, deserving of acclaim creating these textual landscapes and characters.

It can’t be a film solely judged on the means of how the visuals are presented though, story is of course a massive factor and though it’s fun, interesting in many points and screams Anderson, it isn’t an out and out success for me. There isn’t the same charm resonating in this, that can be found in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ or ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. The grounded, dirty look thanks to the Island is somewhat cold and therefore leaves the story feeling vaguely dark and cold, I’d expect it to be uninviting for young children hoping to watch something parading cutesy dogs but I’d be lying if I said this film wasn’t mostly delightful to watch.

I wouldn’t be as harsh to say it was boring, but I did become disinterested in the middle of the narrative, Part 3 – The Rendezvous felt like a weak point and was a blip in the movie where I slightly switched off; thinking the plot was dragging but aside from that, this is a fully realised, smart and witty story thanks to the quirky genius of Anderson and fellow story gurus; Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura.

Cranston is ruff, sorry roughly irritable and brilliant as the naysayer and distant mangy mutt, hoping to eat scraps and have nothing to do with the little boy pilot. Jeff Goldblum wonderfully spiels off rumours his dog persona of Duke has heard. Scarlett Johansson uses her distinctive voice to suitably play enigmatic and mysterious show-dog Nutmeg. Edward Norton, in fact gets a lot more say than the Chief of the pack and in his usual Norton way, delivers an Anderson script with perfect execution. Courtney B. Vance is a solid casting choice with a soothing narration that guides us in places.

This comedy stop-motion animation is no bad dog and sits close to being a perfect pup. I wasn’t fully engrossed constantly but my interest peaked enough to label this worthy pedigree chum; a movie with a talented cast and enjoyable quirkiness.

7.5/10

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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Stop-motion. I just adore it, the way it looks, moves and tells a story is fascinating and a story such as this rich and mythical tale is enhanced even further thanks to the brilliant Laika Studios.

With an eye for telling stories, Kubo (Art Parkinson) is sure to adhere to his mother’s guidance of being home before dark. This is because his mum’s sisters (Rooney Mara) are out to steal an organ from him and stop his quest for 3 important pieces of armour. Kubo must keep going with the protective Monkey (Charlize Theron) and the excitable warrior Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

Marc Haimes and Chris Butler have woven such a fantastic screenplay from the magical and Eastern flavoured story by Haimes himself with Shannon Tindle. Together, they ensure what we get is a brave and fully engaging adventure to follow. The narrative is driven beautifully and is heavily shaded with moments of sadness and a deepness into beliefs, memories and hope.

Laika, as they’ve proven with their other 3 releases, are leading the way for stop-motion features. This is no exception, the more papery filled imagery giving a great texture to the scenes as origami creations come to life, a fluffy monkey runs through the landscapes and twisted, evil witch-like sisters float like angelic harpies. Everything looks incredible and the little moments where items or faces flicker give it that truly lovely stop-motion effect that I marvel at.

It must be mentioned also, that the fight sequences in this movie are spectacular and knowing that it’s done in stop-motion is just a feat to behold. The effortless movements and the quickness involved between characters as the battles take place easily rivals and overtakes live action fight scenes. In contrast to the snappier points, the softer scenes have a melancholic aspect about them as we feel the weight of Kubo’s quest on his shoulders.

What I enjoyed most was the clever story-telling, it’d be easy to call them twists because things come to light but in a way they’re not exactly shocking. I’d use the word revelations instead, because as the plot progresses we learn more, whether it’s about characters or the object of Kubo’s adventure being the armour he needs to find. Everything all neatly fits together to make a smart and well thought through film about big topics like kindness, family and humanity.

Art Parkinson gives Kubo a bouncing enthusiasm, no more felt than we he delivers his stories to the villagers, but he makes sure that his protagonist is three dimensional and makes Kubo brave, vulnerable and believable. Charlize Theron is great as the guardian monkey, getting time to shine as she delivers truths and guides our hero along the way. Matthew McConaughey sort of sounds like George Clooney but with his recognisable drawl that is lifted with excitable glee as he brings life to a strange human/beetle hybrid.

With the way that Laika are going, they are giving Pixar and Disney a run for their money with inventive stories and stunning animation. ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is a huge delight with a dazzling rich tapestry of narrative and visuals.

8/10

The Little Prince (2016)

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Thank goodness for Netflix, because otherwise I doubt I and many other people would have seen this glorious and gorgeous animation. Mixing computer animated scenes with the true art of stop-motion sequences, this French-Canadian movie is colourful, stirring and magical.

Single Mother (Rachel McAdams) is a busy worker and wants her daughter to follow suit by attending the prestigious Werth Academy. However The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) befriends the much talked about nutty man next door leading her down a more adventurous fun path. The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) has stories to tell and interests the girl with a tale about a Little Prince (Riley Osborne) who he met in the Sahara Desert.

In a way, the 3D graphics of the animated world featuring the girl and her older neighbour reminded me of the look ‘The Incredibles’ provided. The shape of people and their faces harking to that sort of visual. The way this grey and busy landscape is seen is brilliant, just the times we zoom out to see ant sized cars all leaving on the dot for work shows how professional and disengaged to a more fun life these adults are.

The special moments are in the papery looking but also wooden style design of the stop-motion characters. I’ve always said that the whole process of stop-motion animation is something admirable and rewarding and I stick by it ever more so due to this beautiful exploration of the medium. There’s a great charm in seeing The Little Prince stories come into the fold during this film and it gives the story an extra fancy touch.

Having never read the source material myself, I couldn’t comment on what the treatment of the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is like. They me quite faithful or changed a lot but I enjoyed the story presented here a lot. His tale is moulded nicely and Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti create a lovely screenplay that fits for all ages, centred around the idea of growing up and forgetting childhood. At times, this theme gets dealt an emotional hand and I felt a little tingly at the ideas being put across.

Only one portion of this movie kind of felt off and that’s annoyingly the third act as the Little Girl decides to take action and flies off in the hope of seeing the much talked about prince. It could be viewed as an act that loses people because it gets off track from the better grounded narrative scenes that come before, which is exactly how I see it. I guess you could say that at the time the girl falls, what comes after can be interpreted how you like which makes more sense but still doesn’t stop the last act being slightly iffy.

The music gives you chills, with a wonderful score from Hans Zimmer accompanying the on screen action with suitable bounce and heart. Camille provides lush vocals during the film, in a way that echoes of the enchanting yet haunting sounds from ‘Coraline’. Another positive is the light comedy that hits well, the sad notes of loss and looking to the stars for laughter provides a lovely notion and the pairing of the girl and aviator are fun to watch.

All I can really say is, it’s a massive shame this won’t be up for an Academy Best Animated Feature award due to it not being theatrically released. If it was it’d certainly give Disney and Pixar a severe run for their money because it’s stunning, emotional and special.

8.5/10

Anomalisa (2015)

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Entrancingly sombre and creative; Charlie Kaufman is back but with stop-motion to add to his unique repertoire. It’s a wonderful new layer on top of a beautifully thoughtful story, which even though it isn’t his strongest, it becomes more engaging because of the way everything looks. As if an anomaly itself, this is a movie that deserves the praise and award nominations because it is such a distinct animated sensation.

Self help customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is staying over at a Cincinnati hotel for one night before the next day’s book reading. However everyone sounds and appears the same to him, that is until he encounters Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he falls for and wants to run away with.

I have been aching to see this film for ages, from the first time I saw the trailer and got captivated by how Kaufman it looked. As an added bonus it was stop-motion which is an art form I love and admire for the patience people have to make it happen. Thankfully I have now seen it and can say it was worth the wait. It’s a surreal watch at times with a squinted comic edge that works so well, as things fail around Michael you can’t help but laugh at the awkwardness or typical human elements of what’s happening.

One of the best qualities of this movie lies with the dialogue, for where the plot doesn’t go places the conversations and detail in Kaufman’s writing is smart and personal. There’s an assured vulnerability to both the main characters as they tangle into each other’s lives over one night. The way they talk to each other is full of insight and you end up looking past the puppetry animation and buy into Michael and Lisa as real and lonely people.

Duke Johnson who co-directed this film must be commended for his astonishing and somewhat eerie puppet designs that fill this feature. It’s even more fascinating to realise that these characters were 3D printed, which does give them this special look, with slitted marks defining their faces and making them identifiable to this film. On top of this, the puppet idea is taken a step further than ‘Team America: World Police’ as we see fellatio and sex happen between stop-motion figures in what could be the funniest yet sweetest scene this year.

Musically, this film is handed a lyrical and soft finesse by Carter Burwell who helps the movie sound effortless and hypnotizing, as if we too get lost among the hotel corridors and taken aback by the similar sounding civilians surrounding Michael. The nightmare sequence is both scored greatly and is a fantastic idea to play around with, though from Kaufman I wished it had have been real, manifesting the story a little more as Michael questions his own identity but that’s not his story! Also Leigh performing two versions of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is hilarious but poetic.

I can only say that the big fault for me was the plot, story-wise I was a bit saddened to not have something more unique. The visuals and dialogue were incredible but the narrative was a little ‘Lost in Translation’ and nothing else. It’s only one negative I could find because Kaufman usually comes up with something inventive whereas this was a more conventional love story, at least for Kaufman it’s more normal than you’d expect. That being said, the story of two people lost and finding hope to be short-lived is such a tragic and subtly dark tale which I like a lot.

David Thewlis voices Michael in such a British way, being klutzy yet smart in what he knows and how he approaches the vastly different Lisa. It’s pretty much the perfect voice for this puppet. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings innocent comic timing to her worrisome role as Lisa, which bounces off Michael Stone greatly. She’s shy, naive, goofy and comes alive thanks to Leigh’s magical vocals. Tom Noonan who voices everyone else, male or female brings a great one-tone level to his performance that makes all other characters spookily bland and unremarkable in the eyes of Michael.

It’s a very original animation that is crafted masterfully from the puppetry to the written word. Kaufman strikes again, making love a haunting special backdrop to despair into.

8.5/10

 

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

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Another instant Aardman Animation classic with painstaking dedication to their claymation appearance. There is use of CG for backgrounds and the sea but it does enhance the vision of the film and it doesn’t detract from their unique stop motion style. The characters all feel and look right, there is something just charming about doing cartoons in this manner. Wallace and Gromit were the two clay characters that captured imaginations and set Aardman Animations up into being what it is today. There is so much awe to look at the film and realise how much time went into it, sure hand drawn and CGI animations take time, but to mould and then move plasticine models one tiny inch at a time to get just a few seconds of film is a huge feat that should be applauded.

The story is pretty basic and based on a book, the characters each with their own quirks are what make the film. The Pirate Captain voiced by Hugh Grant is just so bad at being a pirate that you join his cause even if he is foolish and greedy. It being a kids film you know morals will be highlighted and he will turn it around to save the day, but along the way you meet more characters and see crafted set pieces that sweep you along making you feel like a child again. The bathtub scene in Charles Dickens house is amazing and you forget it was done through clay work…incredible.

Another part of the film that makes it great are the jokes and visual gags scattered about in the background on either signs or posters, even the Elephant Man turns up so there are things in there to keep adults interested. It’s a barmy British creation with a quintessentially British line up of voice actors, Brian Blessed is a boomy Pirate King and that’s British enough without including names like Brendan Gleeson, David Tennant, Hugh Grant and Imelda Staunton among others.

The story may not be one that gets you excited to see the film over and over but for the clay style and the work put into it there is at least an excuse to watch it a few more times to look at the effort involved.

7/10