Let me start by saying put me down for a double decker couch. Maybe not exactly like Emmet Brickowoski’s, maybe with an L shaped bottom and a two seater top, but I’m definitely down.
Last week I decided I was due for an animation binge as I hadn’t seen any of the 2015 Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature Film. I think it’s mostly because of the hype and hysteria that goes along with getting the most money out of good animated films today that causes me to put them off for a while. Until last week I still hadn’t seen The Lego Movie (2014) – it grossed $468,760,000 worldwide on a $60MM budget sparking a sequel and Lego Batman spin off – and it was snubbed in the Oscar Best Animated Feature category just days after an upset loss at the Golden Globes to How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) – and its $618,909,000 worldwide gross, dragons can’t lose these days.
People were mad when The Lego Movie didn’t win the Golden Globe, but people freaked out when it wasn’t among the nominees for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Losing at the Globes is one thing, getting snubbed by the Academy makes top news the next day. In light of the snub I had to know exactly how severe a crime the Academy had just committed because either The Lego Movie was not that great or the Academy’s Animated Feature voters are a bunch of soulless haters. Having righted my own wrong, the latter of the two must be true because to deny The Lego Movie at least a nomination is to not recognize a number of welcome innovations in the genre.
Here’s a good time to mention that I never really got into Legos as a kid. That didn’t stop me from wholly enjoying the journey Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and friends go on trying to stop Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from taking over the world. But if Legos were a big part of your childhood then I can see this being the perfect manifestation of many of dreams of building spaceships and saving the day.
One of the cool things about The Lego Movie was the directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s smart use of computer animation to create smooth highly detailed faces and features (Wyldstyle especially), but they also create expansive universes while never forgetting that their world is made of Legos. To accomplish that rigid feel of Lego movement in the otherwise high definition environments Lord and Miller used stop motion techniques in their computer simulation, backed by the specific brick dimensions of actual Legos from the LEGO Digital Designer database.
The best example of this is in the ocean scenes where they solved the problem of Lego water the the only way possible – a virtually endless and awe inspiring amount of blue Legos. The directors were challenged on this but believed in their vision and it worked out for the best.
I also really appreciated the pace of The Lego Movie. Jokes aimed at kids and adults, subtle or obvious, referencing legos or superheroes, all seem to register on some level. There are so many liners that running gags have enough space in between to not be annoying, everything’s just awesome, even if you say you don’t like it at first.
Aside from the animation, the movie is able to continually break walls and subvert expectations, even after you’ve gotten used to the Lego world they live in. Today’s animated films require that sort of sleight of hand in an emotional sense, but The Lego Movie is never too heavy handed and still delivers on a few unexpected turns beyond the twist.
2014 was a good year for nerds in film, huh? Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing were given the high end biopic treatment. And in animation, between The Lego Movie and Big Hero 6 (2014), engineering got a ton of love.
Before I get into Big Hero 6 I have to ask: does Disney not know how to make movies without killing parents anymore? In this one they hardly get a shout out. It’s almost as if there’s a rule that the kid has to deal with the loss of a loved one or the emotional stakes simply won’t be high enough. Or maybe they just have a mandate to feature more nontraditional families. At the very least the next generation should be better at coping with loss, right?
Family units aside, modern animation has also blown way past the sci-fi deep future plots that make up the animated films of my childhood – which is none. But I think exposure to complicated families as well as concepts of time travel, wormholes, and multiple dimensions in accessible forms is a good thing for kids. Even in The Lego Movie the characters spend a little time in Emmet’s mind to teach the value of creativity and originality.
Big Hero 6 is built on the relationship of 14 year old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his big brother Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney) who live with their aunt (Maya Rudolph). Hiro is interested in robotics just like his brother Tadashi, only Hiro spends his time building fighting robots to win bets. Tadashi, on the other hand, spends his time at a local robotics university where he’s been working on Baymax: a robot whose sole purpose is its owner’s healthcare and wellbeing.
Tadashi shows Hiro his potential and in doing so Hiro develops a legion of microbots: tiny robots capable of linking up and building on each other to create anything you put your mind to (literally). They didn’t bother to mention (or consider) what would happen if that technology got into the wrong hands (which it does) and things develop from there. It’s immediately evident that no one man should have all that power.
Big Hero 6 relies in traditional American cultural gags like puberty as a solution for Hero’s mood swings and Betamax acting drunk when its battery is low (same). Though there are occasional obvious jokes that land solidly.
As I’ve touched on, modern animation has been marked by an ability to push past both visual expectations and/or a willingness to push past emotional expectations. Big Hero 6 is more the latter, an animated movie daring enough to explore emotional depths and with a well enough designed plot that continually delivers emotional surprises throughout. Very Disney.
Considering Wall-E (2008) as well, modern animation has used robots to show the value in unconditional humanity. Sure robots usually only serve a single purpose, but the future doesn’t have to be so grim a la I, Robot (2004). Wall-E and Big Hero 6 show they can be oriented towards compassion or noble deeds. In fact, Hiro builds on his brother’s original design and manipulates Baymax into being the lead protector/avenger on his superhero team in his quest to destroy the very technology he created.
Unfortunately, the nuanced plot Big Hero 6 develops on moves its focus from the characters trying to live normal lives in this interesting not too distant future world and becomes a full blown modern superhero movie. It gives way to over the top sensational action and emotion at its climax and features next level dystopian destruction Man of Steel (2013) style… and it’s distracting Man of Steel style. Big Hero 6 didn’t need to have the kind of collateral damage clusterfuck required to make live action superhero movies entertaining, though I’m sure no kids complained.
I liked The Boxtrolls (2014), but it doesn’t move as fast as The Lego Movie and doesn’t have the emotional stakes up front like Big Hero 6. However, in a nice contrast, the plot builds more deliberately. With no exposition or much explanation the movie takes time to introduce the Boxtrolls and establish the world they live in. Thus, the emotional stakes build over time and the plot eventually gets more complicated, ending in a much more compelling and original way.
Stylistically The Boxtrolls has a nice slightly darker James and the Giant Peach (1996) vibe in that it’s similarly filled with hope for acceptance and freedom. The film brightens over time but the villains and alleyways are plenty grim though no one is dead (or undead), just dead inside. Anthony Stacchi previously did visual effects on James and the Giant Peach and he his co-director Graham Annable was the storyboard artist and story artist on Coraline (2009) and Paranorman (2012) respectively. Coraline was written and directed by Henry Selick who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach. The Boxtrolls is all of those in a more visually impressive 3D animated package.
Laika, the animation studio and production company for Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, is 3 for 3 out of the gate for Academy Award Nominations for Best Animated Feature Film (no wins though). More fun facts: Laika is currently owned by Nike co-founder and Chairman Phil Knight and his son Travis Knight, credited Producer on The Boxtrolls, serves as CEO.
Ben Kingsley plays the main villain Archibald Snatcher who uses a Dr. Loveless-eqsue spider machine to terrorize everyone, including the kids Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Winnie (Elle Fanning) who are trying to help get The Boxtrolls a little respect. It’s a classic case of parents just don’t understand. Just because The Boxtrolls look different doesn’t make them monsters, and just because children are, well, children, doesn’t mean they can’t drop knowledge.
Also, are kids so done with biting that it’s cool to make jokes about it? Cause I don’t want some kids to watch this and think biting won’t get them flipped out on. Classism and cheese snobbery are real though and they need to know about those so bravo.
Class and social structure play a central role in the Japanese animated film The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013) from Studio Ghibli as well. That the film is a Japanese production means the dynamics of the class issues at play are inherently much more engaging because of its specific cultural relevance.
I found each of the other three animated films enjoyable at one time or another. But The Tale of The Princess Kaguya may be my favorite of the four because there’s more to the art than just the animation. In other words, if this movie weren’t animated it would still be a great film. In other, other words, the animation wasn’t the most enjoyable aspect of Princess Kaguya, though it is important. That it stays true to traditional hand drawn animation and features some anime themes only adds to its specialness.
Also, concerning the film’s plot and character development, it carries an air of spiritual mysticism that steadily grows then truly dives into supernatural fantasy in a unique way that Studio Ghibli has mastered. If you’ve seen the classic Princess Mononoke (1995), Spirited Away (2001), or their more recently acclaimed The Wind Rises (2013) – each directed by the studio’s founder Hayao Miyazaki – then you know what I mean by spiritual mysticism. If you haven’t seen those but like animation at all then do yourself a favor and seek them out.
However, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is directed by Isao Takahata, the studio’s co-founder and director of several other Studio Ghibli productions. My mind is fuzzy on some of the repeated stylistic choices of Miyazaki, if any, but I especially liked Takahata’s use of grey in moments of despair. Even though some of the most emotional scenes are cast in grayscale, they’re some of the most vivid and passionate parts of the film. This is juxtaposed with Kaguya’s ability to bring a white brightness to a room through song, or warmth to a loved one, basically when she wants to.
Unlike The Boxtrolls, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya is less parents just don’t understand, and more a case of father thinks he knows best when he absolutely doesn’t. Based on a Japanese folk tale, an old bamboo cutter (dubbed by James Cann in the English version) happens upon a glowing bamboo stalk. Inside he finds a tiny fairy like child who fits in the palm of his hand, and as he walks back to show his wife (Mary Steenburgen) the child grows to the size of two hands, and then the size of a toddler, and then learns to crawl and walk and talk in just minutes. The old bamboo cutter sees this as a gift from God, and is determined to raise the little bamboo girl as a princess in the capitol instead of letting her be just another forest kid and fall in love with young Sutemaru (Darren Criss).
At the capitol and against her will, the young Princess Kaguya (Chloë Grace Moretz) toils away in her palace and resists instruction in the ways of traditional Japanese royal life from her coach (Lucy Liu), but plays along anyway trying to have as much fun as she can.
Themes of class, status, and social structure as well as concepts of youth and beauty, courtship and marriage, even the environment and forests all play a factor without pulling punches and with the utmost reverence for cultural history. Despite being a traditional story with traditional animation techniques, it’s as effective as any of the modern animated films I’ve discussed here because it’s emotionally honest instead of trying to be emotionally manipulative.
The amazing Spirited Away won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (over Ice Age and Lilo & Stitch), and Studio Gibili has continued to show a rare touch for the magical. Of course Princess Kaguya is magic from the moment she’s found, but like all good animation, just as you let your guard down it hits you with the heavy. Its supernatural nature, kind of like a Murakami story, means it stays with you a little longer, and I hope it takes the Oscar on February 22nd to add to the Studio’s legacy.