Summer Shorts: There She Is!!

16-Jul-10 11:00 AM by
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Today's summer short is another classic, this one from 2004. It's about finding love not only where it's least expected, but also when it's least desired. Please enjoy There She Is!!

This video by SamBakZa (English translation) is the first in a five-part series. I personally prefer the plot and soundtrack of the second video, "Cake Dance":

This continuation of the first episode shows how quickly a relationship can develop. When a romance is new, its participants feel like they're engaged in something that's never been experienced by anyone alive. They unabashedly dedicate themselves to celebrating this new experience, and "Cake Dance" demonstrates that level of devotion that trumps all societal pressures and norms, and that taboos often become less stigmatic as love becomes more prevalent — all while being a good music video, too.

In that this animated world is populated by bunnies and kitties, it reminds me of Bill Holbrook's Kevin & Kell, supposedly the first ever Web comic about a wolf and a rabbit who meet through an online dating service. I followed the dead tree edition of the strip for some years, and though it effectively focused its humor at Internet geeks, the characters' backstories and plots eventually grew too convoluted for me.

What short videos have you found that celebrate love?

Summer Shorts: Kiwi

25-Jun-10 11:00 AM by
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Many animated shorts are either funny (Pigeon: Impossible), dark (Sebastian's Voodoo), or both (The Passenger). Few are what I would describe as poignant, but Kiwi, a four-year-old favorite with currently over 26 million views on YouTube, packs a surprising amount of emotion and subtlety into what at first appears to be yet another cute short:

When I first showed this film to a friend, the meaning of it was completely lost on her — she saw a strange creature nailing trees to a cliff and then jumping. I was sad that she didn't recognize the genius and sadness of the bird's plight. Not everyone is born "normal" and with the full abilities of their peers; even those who do must sometimes come to grips with a sudden loss, as was the case of Daniela García, who Reader's Digest recently profiled. A healthy young woman, she lost all four limbs in a train accident … yet still went on to become a doctor.

Not everyone finds the courage and support they need to deal with such adversity, but they still want to make a difference. I suspect many death wishes arise from a desire to experience a death more meaningful than the preceding life. The titular kiwi knew what it meant to be a bird, but only conceptually; he needed to know it experientially. His dedication to that cause is required an incalculable commitment of time and energy, culminating in his wish at a price even he didn't find too high.

I know it's just an animated short, but I can't help but feel for the kiwi, who died as he didn't live: unconstrained.

Flying High with How to Train Your Dragon

16-Apr-10 2:48 PM by
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Currently playing in theaters is How to Train Your Dragon, a CGI film based on the first in Cressida Cowell's series of children's books. Set in a Nordic village, the story is that of Hiccup, the Viking chieftain's son who's more intellectual and sensitive than his brawny, boisterous brethren. Their island is constantly besieged by dragons, which come in dozens of breeds, the most terrifying of which is the mysterious Night Fury. When Hiccup secretly captures one of these creatures of myth, he must decide if his loyalty lies with his family or with his heart.

At its root, the tale is a familiar one, with aspects of everything from Old Yeller to Avatar. The main plot focuses on the developing relationship between a boy and an animal, the latter which behaves in ways very familiar to any dog owner. As each character has or is building a relationship to each other, there are no true villains in this story, which makes for some incredibly tense moments: everyone is simply trying to do what's right based on the information available to him or her, sometimes leading to decisions that hurt others. The audience can hope only that everything turns out for the best.

Any film with dragons perforce features plenty of flying sequences, and How to Train Your Dragon's are to die for. There's excitement as rider and beast learn to coordinate their movements, bliss as they experience sights never before seen by man, and tension as the duo act in harmony to save their loved ones. I dream, both asleep and awake, about being able to fly, and Hiccup's experience are some of the most enviable I've encountered — and that's based on a 2D showing of the film; it's also available (as most CGI films are nowadays) in 3D.

The imagery is accompanied by excellent voice acting. Those I recognized were Gerard Butler (300) as Chief Stoick, with bit parts played by David Tennant (Dr. Who) and Jonah Hill. Most notably, 28-year-old Jay Baruchel plays Hiccup with great zeal, imbuing the character with sarcasm, frustration, and wonder.

How to Train Your Dragon is rated PG and is an appropriate experience for parents to share with their children. Some of Hiccup's tactics defy logic, his flying companion ultimately conveys little of the fear found in Tolkien's dragons, and the final action sequence reminds me of Iron Man's. But the conclusion doesn't uniformly leave the village and its inhabitants better than before — an unexpected twist that can prove a valuable talking point for families.


You Say 'Cute,' I Say 'Special'

On his Facebook page, fantasy author R. A. Salvatore commented about this film, "I'm not a big fan of 3D … but this one gets a big thumbs' up from me. The graphics were simply amazing, and the story was charming." I'll add my own endorsement to that weightier one. Will the remaining seven books be translated to film? We can only hope!

DC Superheroes Duke It Out on DVD

06-Apr-10 1:03 PM by
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DC, the animation house responsible for Batman and Superman, have in the last few years brought their stable of superheroes to life in a series of direct-to-DVD feature films. From the aforementioned mainstays to less popular heroes Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, each has gotten a crack at the spotlight. But despite extended length compared with their television series and PG-13 ratings, I found that two recent installments don't always do their heroes justice.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is based on the first six issues of the Superman/Batman comic book that launched in 2003. When Lex Luthor is elected president, one of his first acts is to declare his two arch-nemeses enemies of the state. With villains out to collect the bounty and vigilantes-turned-soldiers determined to follow the letter of the law, Batman and Superman have few places left to turn.

The plot consists mostly of blows being traded among a cavalcade of DC superheroes. While this who's-who of the DCU can be fun for fans of the comics, it doesn't leave much room for character development. There are a few insightful moments, be it in dialogue or in cooperative battle tactics, that reveal Superman and Batman's relationship and ability to work as a team, but mostly it's just one action scene after another.

But the presentation of this film is fantastic, with a vaguely anime-like look. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly reprise the titular roles they've become famous for in the last two decades, while Clancy Brown and Allison Mack (the latter of Smallville) turn in admirable performances as Lex Luthor and Power Girl, respectively. Unfortunately, the script doesn't afford Power Girl much respect, leaving her a weak-willed woman. (Can you spot LeVar Burton's cameo?)

Batman and Owlman

Batman and Owlman face their counterparts.

Public Enemies was followed this February with DC's seventh and most recent video release, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, in which our heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter — travel to a mirror universe, where heroes are villains and vice versa. Such an encounter could be a fascinating opportunity to delve into what makes someone be good or evil, but the running time of just 75 minutes affords little opportunity for backstory or character development. The most screen time is given to the trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and their evil counterparts: Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman, but the only meaningful dialogue is given to Batman and Owlman. There is a superficial love interest for the Martian Manhunter, but it's not explored in any real depth.

Being such a short film, the plot has to move fast. The Justice League's first melee with the Crime Syndicate occurs just 12 minutes into the film, resulting in an exciting airborne battle. In this scene and throughout the film, the Justice League fight mostly random super-powered troops; the movie doesn't pit our heroes against their equivalents until about the one-hour mark.

Again, the animation is top-notch, though there remain instances where CGI is not as seamlessly integrated as they could be. It would've been clever had Batman, Owlman, or both been played by familiar voice actors, such as Kevin Conroy. But we do instead get excellent performances with James Wood as Owlman, Gina Torres (Firefly) as Superwoman, Bruce Davison (X-Men) as the POTUS, and Kari Wuhrer (Sliders) as Black Canary.

Both movies feature trailers and featurettes that we've seen on DC's other DVDs, which doesn't make for very "special" features. A notable exception is Crisis on Two Earths, which includes an original short film starring The Spectre, the DC universe's manifestation of God's spirit of vengeance.

These two animated films feature top-notch production values and are true to their comic book origins without requiring viewers to be familiar with their other animated incarnations. But I couldn't help but feeling that the PG-13 rating was used not to explore mature themes and characters, but to show grittier slugfests. I don't need "mature" to mean "dark", but I do want to see characters embark on a journey, tackling issues with more than their fists.

Family Guy: Something Something Something Darkside

22-Dec-09 9:18 AM by
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Here's yet another TV preview, this time for Family Guy, which two years ago performed its own rendition of Star Wars: A New Hope with its animated spoof episode, "Blue Harvest". Faster than LucasArts can pump out sequels, you can already catch the Family Guy's Empire Strikes Back, "Something Something Something Darkside", released today on DVD. Here's the trailer:

The timing of this DVD release means it's already available as a stocking stuffer (and in Blu-Ray, too!).

A sequel parodying Return of the Jedi titled "We Have A Bad Feeling About This" is planned.

Star Trek: The Motion Comic

05-Sep-09 1:00 PM by
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Three years ago, I reported that a new Star Trek animated series was in the works. No news on the project has since crossed my radar, leading me to assume that JJ Abrams' reboot of the series led to a reprioritization of studio projects. Novelist Dayton Ward recently confirmed the cartoon's status and provided links not only to more details, but also to a sample script and an author's commentary podcast.

Though I wasn't eager to have the series leapfrog 150 years, I'm not sure I like the path the known Star Trek universe is taking, either. What I was looking forward to was a new animated series. I think the successes of Pixar and DreamWorks have done much to diminish the perception of animation as an immature medium, and I'd like to see how the changes in technology and culture in the thirty years since Trek's last animated outing would affect the series.

Once again, Dayton Ward to the rescue. A few years ago, I hired artist Tom Vilot to turn a photograph into a painting; I was very pleased with the results. Another artist has now taken the similar approach of starting with a live-action still and drawing over it to produce this fan creation — Star Trek: The Motion Comic:

Converting a popular franchise from live action to still life was also the unique approach that gave us Bored of the Rings, and crossovers such as implied by the above video's end are also nothing new: Predator, Batman, Robocop, and others have all crossed paths at one time or another. But sometimes, it's the original application of an existing idea that leads to success. Star Trek: The Motion Comic is a dramatic (if occasionally stilted) work that reminds me a bit of digital comic books that were available for PCs, back when the shiny CD-ROM was still new andswa attracting publishers with its multimedia potential. I'm almost hesitant to see the promised continuation to this crossover coalesce, as horror doesn't seem like a good fit for this crew or genre. Still, I hope the inspired artist does create more episodes — though given the four months he says it took him to create this eight-minute clip, I wouldn't blame him if he doesn't.

In what other crossovers or media would you like to see Star Trek appear?

Summer Shorts: Choices

05-Jun-09 12:00 PM by
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All the shorts posted thus far, even those inspired by existing properties, have been standalone films, requiring no background knowledge to appreciate. Choices deviates from that path, being based on one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons, Dungeons & Dragons, the complete series DVD box set of which included this short:

As you might imagine, I did not choose this film for its pedigree of actors. It's instead an example of a cartoon come to life, which is always a risky proposition (especially when the source material, a pencil-and-paper RPG, is yet another medium removed). In its limited television run, the D&D cartoon never saw a satisfying conclusion, opening the door for films such as Choices that posit the protagonists — kids from our own world trapped in a fantasy realm — never made it back home. What situations would they face, and what decisions would they make, in the face of such despair?

Unfortunately, this is a flawed premise for such a vignette, as the same topic was already addressed by the original cartoon. Episode 20 of 27, "The Dragon's Graveyard", had the heroes' salvation sabotaged once again by the evil Venger. After too many such defeats, the kids go on the offense and take the battle to the wicked warlord. The episode culminates in them capturing Venger, and as Hank pulls back his magical bow, the audience asks, will he really do it? Of course not — this is a Saturday morning cartoon! Hank instead shoots Venger's bindings and sets him free, but with a warning.

Hank's decision was as much about a moral lesson for the show's youthful audience as it was about complying with television standards. Whereas Japanese anime has generally been more realistic in showing the consequences of violence, animation intended for an American audience has historically been limited to a safer setting. The ABC cartoon ReBoot often made the most of the situation by parodying its censors, BSnP. In one scene, the hero was to make a hasty entrance by crashing through a window, but instead deployed a protective bubble called a "BSnP" that safely transported him through the barrier with no damage to either.

As an online production, Choices is not restricted by these censors. But without that boundary to work within, it doesn't demonstrate the creativity of either Dungeons & Dragons or ReBoot. Though it's entertaining to see one director's vision of popular series come to life, this adaptation doesn't offer much beyond that.

Utterly Enchanted

24-Aug-08 11:59 AM by
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On a recent first date, I offered a typical probing question: what's your favorite movie? Acceptable answers include TRON, Star Wars (episodes IV – VI only, of course!), Wit, and the like. So I didn't know what to make of someone who responded with Enchanted. A Disney movie? I don't know why I was so taken aback; I count Aladdin and The Incredibles among my DVD collection. I proved more curious in the film than in its admirer, and after renting said movie, I'm happy to report something positive came of the evening.

Enchanted soundtrack coverEnchanted is a 2007 film that draws on the House of Mouse's extensive library to create an original yet familiar tale. It opens with an animated musical sequence that introduces us to a wicked stepmother, her royal son, and an innocent beauty whose friends are the woodland creatures. Desperate to keep the blissful couple apart, the stepmother casts the girl into a foreign land "where there are no happy endings" — New York City. The film then transitions into a live-action story with occasional glimpses back into the cartoon world.

From here, the story is somewhat predictable: Giselle (Amy Adams) wanders around the Big Apple until native New Yorker and divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) takes her under his wing until her Prince Edward (James Marsden) can come to the rescue. In the meantime, both Giselle and Robert have the values of their worlds to teach each other, producing some comical pairings. Yet the predictability does nothing to deter the joy of the experience.

The star of the film is without a doubt Amy Adams, whose wide-eyed naivet&#233 is captured in her every nuanced movement. Her poise, carriage, and inflections make it believable that she really is a Disney princess stuck in a real person's body. When other characters from the magical land of Andalasia arrive in New York, their performances are amusing, but nowhere near as detailed as Ms. Adams'.

James Marsden is almost unrecognizable as the over-the-top, single-minded, valiant prince. I'm familiar with the actor's work only as brooding characters, such as Lois Lane's husband in Superman Returns and the mutant Cyclops in the X-Men trilogy. To see him acting so goofily was a welcome contrast. Susan Sarandon gets little screen time but is a wickedly wicked witch.

It's not just the transplants who are bewildered by their surroundings, as their behavior befuddles their New York friends in many amusing scenes. Giselle's animated proclivity to randomly burst into song embarrasses Robert, who doesn't want people to stare — and when the song explodes into a full dance number, he's astonished to see Central Park overtaken with choreography as he finds himself in one impossible scene after another.

Disney's heritage is evident in more than just the 13 minutes of cel-animated, non-CGI animation, or in the catchy, upbeat soundtrack and colorful musical numbers. We have clich&#233 and tropes from every past film, including talking animals, poisoned apples, and bumbling henchmen, but updated and even lampooned enough to make them enjoyable. Not all the allusions are so obvious; multiple shots and scenes are set up exactly like their cartoon ancestors, as shown in this side-by-side image gallery. Even just a simple but effective twist freshens what otherwise would've been a hackneyed climax.

Enchanted is both classic and modern Disney. It's a traditional tale that young audiences will enjoy, but pays homage to the predecessors that adults grew up with. Like any excellent family film, Enchanted has something for everyone.