Film reviews

I wrote the following reviews for the Lipstick Girls, but I’ll post them here too, anyway; it’s the two films I’ve already mentioned this week, but explored in somewhat more detail. Anyway, enjoy 🙂

This week I’ve been to see not one, but two excellent animated films, neither of which originated in the UK or US.

First up, Belleville Rendezvous. This is a highly stylised French/Belgian/Canadian animation; it centres on the adventures of a little old French lady as she relentlessly persues her son’s kidnappers. Along the way, she runs across Les Triplettes de Bellevue – an aging modern jazz showtunes triplet, who help Granny on her quest.

This is an incredible piece of work. The whole film has a look somewhat similar to that of a French newspaper cartoon, and is presented from a deliberately distorted, elongated perspective, to enhance the idea that we’re viewing the world from Granny’s viewpoint.

The quality of the animation is also second to none – there is virtually no dialogue in the entire film (a deliberate trick to enhance the impression of determination that Granny exudes throughout the entire film). As a result, all development of character and personality has to communicated by their behaviour, rather than their speech, and in this the animators have done an incredible job. Even though the characters never speak, we are never for one moment unsure of what they are thinking or what is driving them in a particular direction. The animation work on Granny’s pet dog alone is worthy of an Oscar nomination.

This film won’t be to everyone’s tastes – a virtually dialogue free French animation set to a modern jazz/showtunes soundtrack with a bizarre story told through highly stylised animation is not exactly a recipe for a summer blockbuster, and if your entire experience of animation consists of the output of Messrs Disney, Warner and Hannah-Barbera, you will almost certainly be in completely foreign territory here. But if you’re willing to expand your horizons, and take a bit of a risk, there’s a real gem of a film here waiting to be uncovered.

Secondly, we have Spirited Away. This has received somewhat more publicity than our first film, mainly through the involvement of a studio more famous for a certain animated mouse. Make no mistake, though – this is emphatically not a Disney film – they simply helped to fund the project to completion in exchange for western distribution rights. Director Hayao Miyazaki’s last feature, Princess Mononoke, was highly praised in the west as well as in his native Japan, and attracted many ‘name’ voice talents for the English dub, including Gillian Anderson and Claire Danes. There were naturally fears, then, that he may have sold out to the mouse in an effort to produce a more west-friendly film, and lost some of his characteristic fairytale, folkloreish style as a result.

Well, we needn’t have worried. Whilst the film opens innocently enough – with the main character, a ten year old girl called Chihiro, and her parents in a car driving to their new house – we are soon catapulted into a rich, magical world thick with imagery and characters from medieval Japanese folklore. Chihiro and her parents mistakenly stumble across a hidden tunnel which leads to the ‘spirit world’ – and there they find what seems to be a traditional Japanese bath-house – but one which turns out to have a somewhat unusual clientele. The story focuses on Chihiro’s attempts to escape from this world, and to save her parents, who have been turned into pigs by the witch who runs the bath-house. Along the way, she meets and is helped by a boy called Haku – who, we discover, is also not all he seems.

As is the way with much Japanese storytelling, there is no clear distinction between good and evil here – whilst certain characters fulfil the western roles of “good guy” and “bad guy” to some extent, everyone (and everything) is painted in shades of grey. Chihiro is not the portait of goodness, light and innocence we would expect from a western film – when we first meet her, she is petulant and moody; her parents are turned into pigs as a result of their greed. Likewise, the many workers in the bath house – the servants of the witch – are neither overtly evil, nor resentful of their role; they simply get on with their allotted task.

A number of themes are explored in the film, the principal one being that of identity – Chihiro escapes from the world because she remembers who she is. The theme repeats through the film – the witch is able to control other people as she steals their names, and freedom comes through remembering who you really are and taking control of your own destiny. Other lesser themes of love and greed are explored and weave in and out of the main storyline as we follow Chihiro on her adventure.

The style of the film is pure anime – no real surprises or departures here, although this time almost the entire film was created using CG – whilst scenes were hand-drawn initially, the colouring and animation was done almost entirely digitally. Thankfully, though, the computer here was used only as a tool to aid the artist, not as a substitute for pure artistic talent – use of computers has not led to artistic compromise, thankfully. The general quality of the animation and artwork is of the usual outstanding level we have come to expect from Miyazaki-san’s earlier works – the amount of detail and imagination imbued into every single scene is breathtaking, and every single one of the countless weird and wonderful creatures, spirits, landscapes, buildings and backdrops is beautifully conceived and rendered.

Soundtrack-wise, we are treated to a gorgeous orchestral score courtesy of the Japan Concert Orchestra, which blends traditional Japanese style modes and percussion with more Western influences, such as the sweeping strings and melodic piano parts. It provides a perfect accompaniment to the gorgeous visuals, never intruding and always complementing.

Spirited Away (or Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, to give its original title) has been marketed to the UK as something of a children’s film – indeed, the showing I went to was preceded by a multitude of trailers for the coming season of braindead Hollywood kiddy-fodder, despite the total lack of anyone under 18 in the audience. Whilst Miyazaki-san has said in interviews that he wanted to create a film for 10-year old girls, what he has actually succeeded in creating is far, far more than that. Whilst children can explore the rich, imaginative world he has created, adult audiences can equally well enjoy the film on a number of other levels. Naturally, with its extensive use of imagery from Japanese folklore and fairytales, this will not be as immediately accessible to western audiences as the latest Disney work; but equally, a detailed knowledge of ancient Japanese history is not necessary to enjoy this magical and enthralling piece of film-making.

I can’t recommend Spirited Away highly enough. Expectations from the west have never been higher for a Japanese film, and Miyazaki-san has delivered in spectacular style. Wonderful.

The only problem we have now is, with these two outstanding films released in the same fortnight, we’ve been spoiled – we’ve got Finding Nemo to look forward to later in the year, which we can rely on being up to Pixar’s usual high (if now slightly derivative) standards, but other than that, we’re back to the usual dearth of quality, imaginative animation that pervades the English-speaking cinema world. Maybe, if these two become a big enough success, we can persuade the big studio execs that we’re not just happy with the latest moralistic Disney fairytale adaptation every couple of years; and maybe then they’ll comission something with a little more imagination and style. I can only live in hope.

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