Thursday, January 7, 2010

More 'toon talk: three fine animated features you might have missed

In my last blog I praised the art of animation in the abstract; now it's time to get particular, and speak a word or two about a trio of features that don't get the attention (I feel) they deserve.

1. "The Iron Giant." I have to start with this one, because I still find myself getting irritated when I recall how badly this lovely film bombed at the box office, largely because Warner Bros., once King of the Animated Short Subject, couldn't think how to market it. Some viewers with a lamentable tendency to see everything in a political light might dismiss this movie as an anti-firearms tirade. Admittedly, if you want to see it in that light, you certainly can. But as a coming-of-age story, it's involving and touching. It echoes "E.T." yet goes that famous film one better by including sharp satire on the 1950s Cold War climate; its villainous McCarthyite government agent is a figure of fun rather than fear (larger forces supply the fear). Now, the film does have one weakness, for me -- the same one, in fact, that I found in "E.T." -- in that the young hero's mother, the only significant femal character, is a bland, passive nonentity, kept out of the action for 90% of the film, completely susceptible to Mr. McCarthyite's lines (no brain trust, she), and incapable of making any meaningful contribution. It doesn't help that she's voiced by Jennifer Aniston, whom I dislike. But in the end, this weakness pales into insignificance beside the intriguing figure of the title character. Vin Diesel does his best work here.

2. "Whisper of the Heart." This one comes from Studio Ghibli, Japan's equivalent of the Walt Disney Studio (back when said studio knew what it was doing, at least), and is written, though not directed, by the masterful Hayao Miyazaki. That alone should be enough to persuade anime fans to check out this thoughtful love story, surprisingly mature, especially considering that its two central characters are middle-schoolers. All of us who can remember our first loves can identify with them. This film offers an antidote to the drivel of "Twilight," in which a distressingly bland "heroine" allows her bloodsucker stalker to subsume her will in his and do all her thinking for her: the two sweethearts in this film don't lose themselves in each other, but rather find themselves. Admiring the talent of the boy she's come to love, the heroine, Shizuku, decides that she too should find something extraordinary in herself. Rather than setting aside her ambitions, she lays claim to them. She's the anti-Bella Swan, and female animation fans should get to know her. (Warning: please watch this film in its original Japanese! The subtitles are worth it, trust me. I've seen both dubbed and subtitled versions, and the dialogue in the latter is much more meaningful and beautiful.)

3. "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut." Both my previous recommendations are good entertainment for families as well as adult animation fans, but here's one that was never, never, NEVER intended for children. What's it about? Well, a group of crusading soccer moms get the idea that a pair of foul-mouthed Canadian comedians are responsible for all of America's ills, and push the U.S. to the brink of war with its northern neighbor. Who can stop them? "La Resistance," of course, led by a pack of elementary-schoolers! This film leaves no sacred cow unslaughtered; viewers who can accept this, and can learn to revel in the slaughter, should find it hilarious from start to finish. "SP: BL&U" also has a bonus my two previous recommendations lack: it's a musical, and I love musicals. But this musical, as it happens, satirizes musicals. The opening number, "Mountain Town," lampoons the standard-issue (for the '90s) Disney musical opening number; later, we get a sugary ballad in which the Prince of Darkness sings of his longing to leave his hellish home and see the world above. (I warned you: no sacred cow unslaughtered.) Other musical highlights include "It's Easy, M'Kay," "I'm Super," and a number with a title too profane for me to mention here. (You'll know it when you see it.)

If you're an animation lover and you haven't seen these, check them out, in no particular order.

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