Category Archives: animation

Videophiled: Oscar winners ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Big Hero 6’ on disc and VOD

Two freshly-anointed Oscar winners arrive on home video this week: Whiplash, which won awards for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons and for editing, and sound mixing, and Big Hero 6, this year’s Best Animated Feature, debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

Sony

In Whiplash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), music competition is a bloodsport and J.K. Simmons’ instructor is as feared as he is respected. His Fletcher is the drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket in a simple black t-shirt and slacks and head shaved to a hard sheen and his boot camp is the school’s competition stage band: the best of the best. He bullies his students into total obedience and fear and they are desperate to win his approval while he browbeats, humiliates, and even physically assaults them, none more so than the intense and driven Buddy Rich disciple Andrew (Miles Teller). Teller is as fearless as Simmons, giving us an obsessive who is intense, driven, and at times insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed. He’s not very likable, at least not when he puts his drumming ahead of everything else, but he is compelling, taking the sports ethos of pushing past the pain to reach perfection. He literally bleeds for his art. Fletcher demands more through his hyena smile. He may actually believe that such tactics make better musicians (that which doesn’t kill only makes you a stronger player?) but he clearly enjoys the mind-games and emotional warfare. Simmons gives him life by playing it with cagey calculation, as if the very act of teaching is a competitive event.

This is as much psychological thriller as musical drama and it turns on the increasingly toxic chemistry between two clearly damaged people, to the exclusion of pretty much anyone else in the film. The other members of the band fade away as bystanders, object lessons, or seat-fillers and Andrew’s fleeting attempts at romance are all about how Fletcher’s influence infects him with the same emotional brutality. We never really get to know girl left wounded by his insensitivity. Such oversights allow the film to slip out of the real world and into a stylized arena of musical warfare but it works in the scheme of things. Writer / director Damien Chazelle has basically created a two-hander and that collision of ruthless ambition and ferocious control is riveting. The jazz band pieces, especially the title song “Whiplash,” give the film a brittle edge; these tunes aren’t played to express musical joy, they are designed to showcase musical precision, and the percussion-heavy element puts the film on edge as successfully as the drum solos in Birdman define the nervous tension of that film.

Blu-ray and DVD both feature commentary by filmmaker Damien Chazelle and co-star J.K. Simmons and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening with Chazelle, Simmons, and Miles Teller. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original short film Chazelle shot with Simmons to help fund the film (Simmons’ son plays the role that Teller essays in the feature), the 40-minute drumming documentary “Timekeepers,” and a deleted scene, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and cable and web VOD.

Disney

Big Hero 6 (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an adaptation of a Marvel Comics title but the filmmakers thoroughly transform it into a Disney feature, complete with issues of loss and family at the center of the creation of a student superhero team, with the spark of Pixar in its visual invention and knowing wit. The comic book was set in Tokyo but this plays out in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, where adolescent robotics prodigy Hiro discovers that his science fair invention has been turned into a weapon and then transforms his engineer brother’s plush medical bot, Baymax, into the cuddliest, sweetest, most protective crimefighter the world has ever seen. Together with his brother’s best friends and fellow engineering students, they form a team of what you might call science heroes, turning their inventions into superhero accessories.

In a stronger year Big Hero 6 might not have won the Oscar—it doesn’t have the timelessness or universality of the best Pixar movies or the elemental fairy tale resonance of Disney’s best—but there is no denying the art and heart of the film. Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock) voices the robot Baymax as a gentle nanny turned inflatable transformer, like a giant plush doll with the instinct of a caregiver and the mind of an overprotective child, a little slow on the uptake but utterly benevolent. That level of compassion is comforting amidst the flashy chaos of a superhero spectacle.

This disc actually offers two Oscar winners: Best Animated Short Feast, which played in front of the film in theaters, is included as a supplement. It also offers two featurettes—”The Origin Story of Big Hero 6: Hiro’s Journey,” which follows the process of adaptation process from comic book to animate feature, and “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters,” with the animators discussing the evolution of the characters on the screen—deleted scenes (in rough form, as they were removed in early stages of production; you can see one of them at the end of the post), and Easter Eggs for the kids to hunt for. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘The Tale of The Princess Kaguya’

Universal

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), nominated in the Animated Feature Film category, is probably not considered a “major” nominee by the mainstream press but this production by Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave of the Fireflies” filmmaker Isao Takahata takes an artisanal approach to animation. It’s a 10th-century fairy tale of a magical princess who is born of a bamboo stalk and, raised by a modest old woodcutter and his wife, sprouts to adulthood just as fast as one. As the bamboo grove gives forth with fine clothes and the riches of a royal, her adoptive father takes her from her natural paradise to a palace in the city where she grudgingly masters the arts and social graces of titled society.

Takahata embraces the sketchy, impressionistic, painterly qualities of animation being displaced by CGI. His hand-drawn imagery evokes both the watercolor and ink artworks of ancient Japanese parchment and the charcoal and pastel quality of storybook illustrations and Joe Hisashi’s score has a lyrical simplicity to match. Takahata takes time to play out his ancient fairy tale, getting sidetracked in entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential tales of royal suitors attempting to win the princess. It’s strongest when he celebrates the simple pleasures of her life, working in a modest garden set off from the palace, running through the forest, entranced by the cherry blossoms of the young spring. And the final act is heartbreakingly lovely, a magical spectacle that whisks us through the air with a thrilling rush. With Studio Ghibli ceasing operations as an active producer of animated features (it will continue to license properties and handle the catalog), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is their final gift, a handmade storybook of a film from a filmmaker who is as entranced with the texture of a brushstroke as with character and story.

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A princess is born

 

Blu-ray and DVD, with original Japanese language and English dub versions (Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Lucy Liu are among the voice performers of the English language cast) and the feature-length documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya, plus a news clip of the announcement of the completion of the film and Japanese and U.S. trailers. Also available via cable VOD.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘Porco Rosso’ and more from Studio Ghibli

The films of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio created by Hayao Miyazaki, continue their Blu-ray rollout in the U.S. with three more debuts. Only one of this set, however, is directed by the animation legend himself. All three discs feature both English language and original Japanese soundtracks (with optional English subtitles), the complete film in storyboard form set to the soundtrack, and Japanese trailer, plus a bonus DVD copy of the film.

PorcoRosso

Disney

Porco Rosso (Disney, Blu-ray) is Miyazaki’s fantasy of a loner flying ace, a World War I hero who lives in isolation on an island in the Adriatic Sea and patrols the skies on a personal mission to keep them safe from high-flying sky pirates in an imaginary post-World War I Italy. There’s something else about this aerial knight: he has the face of pig, the result of a magical spell that is referenced but never fully explained. It simply is, and it marks this chivalrous romantic as a tortured hero cursed to be alone (even though there are two women in love him). The title is Italian for “red pig,” perhaps Miyazaki’s fanciful answer to the Red Baron.

The 1992 feature was a huge hit in Japan and a personal project for Miyazaki, whose love of aviation and Italy can also be seen in his more serious final feature The Wind Rises. He fills the film with beautifully-executed aerial dogfights set against the blue Mediterranean skies and seas and constructs a sentimental vision of Italy between the wars as lovingly detailed as his European village in Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are flamboyantly caricatured figures and slapstick sequences to this lighthearted comic swashbuckler but also a wistful sense of loss for the honor and chivalry for the past. Michael Keaton voices Porco for the English language version and Cary Elwes is his nemesis, an American pilot hired by the sky pirates to shoot him down. Also features the voices of Susan Egan, Kimberly Williams, and David Ogden Stiers.

Includes a “Behind the Microphone” featurette with the English language voice cast and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki (in Japanese with simultaneous English audio translation).

talesEarthsea

Disney

Tales from Earthsea (Disney, Blu-ray), a 2006 production based on the “Earthsea” novels by Ursula Le Guin and a concept developed by Hayao Miyazaki, marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. Miyazaki Pere’s influence is apparent in the themes of nature in balance and the greed of mankind tipping the scales, and the character designs and types are also familiar, with dragons out of Asian culture dropped into a medieval European world of castles and towers. Yet Goro lacks his father’s storytelling richness and narrative sweep, and for all the gorgeous detail of the animation he fails to create much tension or energy.

Fans of Ursula Le Guin will have their own problems with the way the film boils down her mythology to a generic fantasy odyssey tale. But there is a visual grace unique to the Studio Ghibli brand, and the dark powers manifest themselves in a weirdness that bends the natural world in unnatural ways. The American voice cast includes Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay and Willem Dafoe.

Features the hour-long documentary “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack,” which is in Japanese with English subtitles, and the brief featurette “Behind the Studio: Origins Of The Earthsea.”

PomPoko

Disney

Pom Poko (Disney, Blu-ray), directed by Isao Takahata, is an environmental drama about a small community of magical shape-shifting raccoons trying to hold off a development encroaching on their habitat. This is right out of the traditional Studio Ghibli style, complete with lovingly detailed characters and environmental message. The scenes of the raccoons attempting to replicating human form and behavior is often hilarious, but the undercurrent of the comedy is serious, a plea to save the vanishing wilderness of Japan. The voice cast of the English language version includes Jonathan Taylor Thomas, J.K. Simmons, Olivia d’Abo, Clancy Brown, and Maurice LaMarche.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Videophiled: ‘The Wind Rises’ for Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song

Disney Home Video

The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.

The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.

Is Jiro complicit in the war because he designed one of Japan’s most effective war machines? Is he so driven to become part of the evolution of aviation that he ignores the use to which his designs will be used? Does the beauty of his creation (and Miyazaki does indeed express the beauty of flight that Jiro feels in his imagery) justify the compromises he has made? And are they indeed compromises in a time of war, or are they duty, regardless of one’s personal feelings? These questions hang in the air, suggested but never actually stated or answered. Perhaps he leaves that us to imagine as Jiro surveys the destruction in the aftermath of the war.

‘The Wind Rises’

There’s a love story here too and it is beautiful and tragic. The beauty who will become his wife is already ill with tuberculosis as they court and their romance is almost disconnected from the world around Jiro, taking him (and us) out of the city to the bucolic, sunny countryside, removed from the politics driving Japan to the destruction of war. The entire film is beautiful—could this be the last masterpiece of old-school hand-drawn animation? I sure hope not—and Miyazake applies his visual imagination to a realistic drama, giving it the romanticized imagery of Jiro’s hopeful perspective with the shadows of war and death around the edges. It has the feeling of remembrance, of memory elevating the experience to romantic ideal and shuttling the rest aside. And when we take flight the experience is exhilarating. Miyazaki is a master of both the delicate and the awesome and applies both to this lovely work.

Features the original Japanese soundtrack and a well-produced English language version featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and William H. Macy, plus the short featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), press conference footage of the announcement of the completed film, and Japanese trailers and TV spots.

Disney Home Video

Along with the American debut of The Wind Rises, Disney releases two of Miyazaki’s best on Blu-ray for the first time. Princess Mononoke (Disney, Blu-ray) was the film that introduced most American viewers to Miyazaki when Disney (prompted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a devoted Miyazaki fan) struck a deal to distribute Studio Ghibli films in the U.S. and create new English language versions to widen the audience. Mononoke was the first film to receive wide distribution and in retrospect it may have been the perfect introduction, at least for the adult audience: an environmentalist epic as and blood and thunder fantasy adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them and the weapons they produce—from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns—give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world. Grounded in a rich and complex animist mythology, it is painted not as absolutes of good and evil but in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original eco-warrior leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing.

Features original Japanese and the excellent American dub soundtracks (featuring Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton, and translated script penned by Neil Gaiman), plus storyboards, two featurettes, and original Japanese trailers.

Disney Home Video

Kiki’s Delivery Service (Disney, Blu-ray), which takes place in a magical variation of our own world, is aimed at a younger audience. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self-confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self-esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. It is a wonder to look at and a joy to experience and it doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults.

Features original Japanese and American dub soundtracks (with Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, and Phil Hartman), an introduction by Pixar director and English language producer John Lasseter, a short “Behind the Microphone” featurette on the voice cast, Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), and original Japanese trailers.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: ‘The Long Day Closes’

LongDayCloses

The Long Day Closes (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Dual Format) brings Terence Davies autobiographical films to close with the glow of the happiest days of his life. Set in mid-fifties Liverpool, this film covers a year or so in the life of Davies stand-in Bud (Leigh McCormack) a gentle, quiet schoolboy and the youngest in a loving family looked over by an affectionate widowed mother. There’s no traditional story to speak of. Rather, Davies offers snapshots of moments in his life at home, at school (where he is increasingly teased and bullied by bigger boys), at holiday celebrations (with neighbors singing and joking), and at the movies, where the camera lingers on his face, captivated by the screen, and we hear the soundtracks of such films as “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Great Expectations.” Though they clearly have little money, it’s a happy time of life for them and Davies presents it through the glow of warm memory, as if reliving it in his mind. This is a film of exacting textures and delicate moods, sustained in heavenly beams of light and the reflection of warm memories, and this edition, mastered from a restored 2K film transfer supervised by Davies and director of photography Michael Coulter, is astoundingly beautiful.

Features commentary by Davies and Coulter recorded in 2007, a 1992 episode of The South Bank Show profiling Davies and The Long Day Closes, and new interviews with executive producer Colin MacCabe and production designer Christopher Hobbs, plus a booklet with an essay by Criterion’s house writer Michael Koresky (who is also finishing a book on Terence Davies).

Also from Criterion is their Blu-ray upgrade of Jules and Jim (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Dual-Format), François Truffaut’s tale of friendship and love with and intense and reckless Jeanne Moreau between best friends Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, arriving the week that Truffaut would have turned 78. Criterion adds some new supplements to this newly-remastered release.

MillionDollar10An

Million Dollar Baby: 10th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray) earned Clint Eastwood his second round of Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture (his first was for Unforgiven, of course), as well as Oscars for Best Actress Hilary Swank and Best Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman. Eastwood stars as Frankie, a craggy old boxing trainer and gym owner who lost his family years ago and now loses his best fighter out of paternal caution. Swank is 31-year-old boxing hopeful Maggie, a dreamer who was lost by her sorry family a long ago. He reluctantly takes her on as a pupil and they slowly become one another’s family, creating a father-daughter bond far stronger than any blood ties. Freeman, who also narrates, is the gym’s caretaker Scrap, a retired boxer who has no regrets. This understated, unpretentious, powerfully told drama is compassionate and affecting but it became the center of a controversy which distracted from the film’s real message: the power of the families we create when blood abandons us, and the sacrifices we make for that love.

The anniversary edition features the same HD video master but upgrades the soundtrack to DTS-HD MA 5.1 and adds two new supplements to the package: commentary by producer Albert Ruddy and “Million Dollar Baby: On the Ropes,” a 26-minute featurette with cast and filmmaker interviews (including Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and screenwriter Paul Haggis). Three featurettes from the previous release (including “James Lipton Takes on Three” with Eastwood, Swank and Freeman, interviewed the day after the 2004 Academy Awards) are carried over.

JLW

Justice League: War (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), based on “Justice League: Origins” by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee (which helped kick off the “New 52″ reboot of the DC comic book heroes), reimagines the first meeting of the DC superhero stars: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and less obviously Shazam (aka Captain Marvel) and Cyborg. They fight the nihilistic Darkseid here, the most powerful of DC’s villains, but otherwise it follows the familiar “making of the super band” formula: a bunch of solo heroes have to get over themselves and their suspicions of those other guys and work like a team to save the world (and, in the process, their own public image). Quips are crammed in between the spats and battles (voice cast includes Alan Tudyk, Jason O’Mara, Michelle Monaghan, and Justin Kirk), but there’s not much resonance this time around, not after such superior, darker productions as “Batman: Year One,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” or the silver age rethink “Justice League: The New Frontier.” It works better as a prologue than an opening act. It’s the first of the DC Animated Universe originals to come from the reboot but likely not the last. In fact, this looks like the launch of a new, integrated DC Universe, just like in the Marvel live action series.

More reviews and releases at Cinephiled

New Release: Disney’s ‘Brave’ new heroine

The pleasures of Pixar films are both big and small.

The big picture of “Brave” (Disney) is centered on the generationally-charg​ed relationship between a headstrong young woman and her protective but loving mother. Queen Elinor (voiced with great dignity by Emma Thompson) is a monarch with traditional values trying tame tomboy princess Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald, with stubborn streak in her lilting accent) with lessons in royal responsibility and roles. It’s a story long overdue from the Disney/Pixar animation giant, and its beautifully done, even as it detours into a bizarre fantasy of magic gone wrong and the Queen transformed into a mama bear.

The small pleasures are myriad, from the playfulness of the storytelling and characters to the imaginative details that fill every scene to the wild, curly tangle of red hair that explodes from the head of young Merida, as unruly and untamable as Merida herself.

The character creations are as marvelous as anything Pixar has done, with special kudos to mama bear: the body of a burly, lumbering woodland giant inhabited by the struggling spirit of an elegant queen determined to force grace and regal bearing into the brawny body and meaty paws of this giant beast. At least until her human cub is threatened by the real beast of the forest and she turns fierce den mother to protect her own.

The film was developed, written, and initially directed by Brenda Chapman, the first female director of a Pixar feature, but she was removed and replaced by Pixar with Mark Andrews. (The two share director credit on the film.) Despite the change in vision, the storytelling is fine and the sensibility consistent. It is surely Chapman’s heart that drives the poignant struggle between mother and daughter and the devotion that anchors even their most fraught moments.

Continue reading at Videodrone

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ on TCM

teaser Max Fleischer was the only real challenger to Walt Disney’s supremacy in the field of animation in the 1930s. As the head of Fleischer Studios, Max had (with his brother Dave, the director) created Ko-Ko the Clown and Betty Boop, incorporated the music and personalities of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong into their cartoons, and brought Popeye to life in some of the most popular animated shorts of the era (vying with Mickey as the most popular animated character of the day). With an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, one of the powerhouse studios in Hollywood, to distribute their shorts, they were seen everywhere.

Max Fleischer had long wanted to make an animated feature — he was already making extended animated shorts with Popeye and Betty Boop and saw great potential in a Popeye feature — but Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, didn’t see any future in feature-length cartoons. The remarkable success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 changed his mind and he gave the green light to Fleischer to begin developing a feature for Paramount. He also gave him a deadline: Christmas 1939. A mere year and a half to develop, write, animate, and finish his first ever feature (Disney worked for over three years on Snow White).

Fleischer turned to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Lilliputian section in particular, for his story. “I knew it was my father’s favorite book since he used to read it to me as a bedtime story when I was a child,” remembers Richard Fleischer, Max’s son, in his 2005 book Out of the Inkwell. He even briefly considered using Popeye as his Gulliver before rejecting the idea in pre-production.

Continue  reading at Turner Classic Movies

Plays on TCM on Sunday, October 21

Blu-ray: More ‘Looney Tunes’ with Bugs, Daffy, and friends

“Be vewy, vewy quiet… I’m hunting wabbits!”

Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume Two (Warner) follows up Volume One with the HD debut some of the best Warner Bros. cartoons in a creatively curated set.

Disc One is dedicated to the Looney Tunes stars — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales — with some of their earliest and most memorable appearances, including the 1940 Tex Avery-directed “A Wild Hare” (the film that really established the personality of Bugs Bunny), the 1938 Fleischer-esque “Porky in Wackyland” from Bob Clampett, and the Chuck Jones classics “Long-Haired Hare” (going to war with opera tenor Giovanni Jones). “Ali Baba Bunny,” and “Show Biz Bugs” (with Daffy).

Disc Two features fan favorites, off-beat co-stars, and one-shots. “Wabbit Twouble” (1941) was voted the favorite cartoon in an online poll, but my personal favorites are also included as “The Hunting Trilogy” – three cartoons with Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, verbal gymnastics, and surreal zigzags, all written by Michael Maltese (the wordplay champ of the Looney Tunes staff) and directed by Chuck Jones. The verbal byplay of these three films, combined with Jones’ facility for whiplash turns and quick-change role-playing gags, make them among my all-time favorite cartoons. Also includes every appearance of western bad guy Nasty Canasta, sleepy Beaky Buzzard, and hillbilly hobo A. Flea, the complete “Bug Bunny vs. Cecil Turtle” trilogy, and five stand-out one-shots, including the celebrity caricature-stuffed “Hollywood Steps Out” and Chukc Jones’ sweetly surreal “Rocket-Bye Baby” with human parents raising a miss-delivered Martian Baby.

The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature 25 cartoons per disc. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the collection of commentary tracks on many of the animated shorts and featurettes on the creators, characters, and genres represented in the collection, plus a third disc devoted to special content and rarities from the vault, including 11 of the best cartoons Tex Avery made for MGM after leaving Warner Bros. This collection includes the Oscar-winning “Blitz Wolf” (a wartime reworking of “The Three Little Pigs”), “Red Hot Riding Hood,” “Swing Shift Cinderella” (all with Avery’s magnificent, eyes-a-popping, woman-hungry Wolf), “Screwball Squirrel” and “King-Size Canary” (two of his most wild and crazy cartoons).

Continue reading at Videodrone

Cool and Classic: ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’

Batman: The Dark Night Returns, Part 1 (Warner), the latest DC Universe animated original movie, tackles Frank Miller’s landmark Batman graphic novel. It’s their most ambitious project to date and if you accept the fact that no conventional animated film could ever really capture the graphic edge of Frank Miller’s dystopian vision or the psychotic intensity of his vigilante fantasy, then you can appreciate how much this direct-to-disc animated feature got right in its translation to a more mainstream audience.

Peter Weller voices old man Bat as an angry, bitter, seventy-something resurrection of the once-retired hero who comes back by sheer force of will in a Gotham City spiraling into chaos, and Ariel Winter (of “Modern Family) is Carrie, the girl who becomes his Robin. Streamlined to a more conventional narrative, the animated film loses the power of Miller’s defining graphic design but is accurate to the story, which becomes more of cartoon of weak-willed liberals in a savage world right out of an Ayn Rand fantasy. But the blocky, square-jawed Batman has the same hard, etched lines and graphic presence of the comic book page and the fight scenes deliver a different kind of action:  the sheer force of will and physical endurance of the old man Bats pushing his body past its limits. The deliberate pacing and pounding action is more about the force of the blows than the grace and spectacle of the choreography. It would take a far more daring approach to really do justice to Miller’s groundbreaking work, which is defined as much by his graphic design as by his writing, but this is at the very least interesting and at best unexpected. The second part of the story is set for release in 2013.

Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story,” previews of upcoming DC Universe animated original movies, and two bonus “Batman” cartoons from the animated series. Exclusive  to the Blu-ray is the featurette “Her Name is Carrie… Her Role is Robin” and a digital comic.

More cult and classic releases at Videodrone

Animation Original: ‘Superman vs. The Elite’

Superman vs. The Elite (Warner), the latest DC Universe Animated Original Movie, opens with a lively op-art credits sequence that tosses nostalgia and modernity together. It’s a nice introduction to the collision of Superman’s old-school idealism with the ferocious approach by a new group of powerful heroes called The Elite, who take it upon themselves to execute the supervillains and criminals and terrorists they defeat.

Adapted by Joe Kelly from the comic book he created in 2001 and directed by Michael Chang, it’s a morality take for the post-September 11, 2001 world, with The Elite declaring war on bad guys. Sounds good, until they choose to play executioner without trial, and come close to genocide when they wipe out the military of a terrorist country with a fair amount of collateral damage.

So yes, there’s plenty of debate about justice and moral responsibility. These new heroes, led by the flamboyant Manchester Black (who can control matter with his mind on molecular level), are cheered by a fearful population that wants retribution as much as it wants protection. Superman sounds increasingly like a boy scout as he debates the new superstars of the superhero constellation, but he refuses to shirk his responsibility to the adopted planet. And the epic displays of animated action spectacle culminate in a very effective object lesson in power and restraint from the Man of Steel. It’s actually pretty scary (in a fun way) to see him off the leash, and the PG-13 in part comes from the finale.

Continue reading at Videodrone

DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Secret World of Arrietty” and other Hayao Miyazaki wonders

The Secret World of Arrietty (Disney), the latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, adapts Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers” in the old school art of hand-drawn animation. Hiromasa Yonebayashi is the director but the sensibility is very much Miyazaki, who produced, co-scripted, and planned the production.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Miyazaki is a living treasure in Japan, a revered storyteller and beloved filmmaker whose work is treated with the same respect as Disney classics in the U.S., and he has long offered strong, brave girls as the protagonists of his stories. Arrietty is yet another dynamic heroine, a teenage girl only a few inches tall who lives hidden in the floorboards of a human home with her father and mother.

She knows of no other Borrowers (as these little people are called, because they “borrow” things the humans won’t notice missing in their nighttime forages) so, despite her own instincts, she befriends the sickly boy who has moved into the house and quietly observed her presence.

The images are marvelous, a lovely example of Ghibli hand-drawn animation and a reminder of the kind of personality that comes through this kind of art, but it is the compassion and depth of character that makes it such a moving film. So rarely do films for kids explore themes of mortality and isolation with such delicacy and depth.

Also new this week is the Blu-ray debut of two classic animated features from Studio Ghibli. Castle in the Sky (Disney) and Whisper of the Heart (Disney), written and produced by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo.

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The Best of ‘Looney Tunes’ on Blu-ray

Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 1 (Warner) promises “50 of the greatest shorts the studio has ever made” and I while I may quibble over specific choices, I can’t fault the overall curation of the collection, which leans toward the diversity of artists, characters and styles through the golden age of the Warner animation unit.

Disc One features the best of the defining characters: Bug Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, plus Sylvester and Tweety, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepe le Pew and Speedy Gonzales. Among the 25 cartoons collected here are Chuck Jones’ two brilliant opera spoofs “Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera, Doc,” Daffy in “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” and “Robin Hood Daffy,” the Oscar-winning “Tweetie Pie” (the debut of Tweety Bird), two definitive Road Runner classics and one of the greatest cartoons every made: “Duck Amuck,” where Daffy goes to war against a prankster animator.

Disc Two is a treasure trove of the studio’s greatest one-shots and minor creations. Along with such one-offs as “One Froggy Evening” (the wordless masterpiece with the all-singing, all dancing frog) “The Three Little Bops” (a jazzbo rendition of The Three Little Pigs with Stan Freberg doing voice duty) and “The Dover Boys at Pimento University” (Chuck Jones’ wonderfully surreal parody of 19th century dime novels with Tom, Dick and Larry and not-so-helpless damsel Dora) are the complete golden age appearance of Marvin the Martian (five cartoons, including “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century”), the Tasmanian Devil (five cartoons), Witch Hazel (four), kitten-loving canine Marc Antony (three) and Ralph Richards, the boy daydreamer whose flights of fantasy take him through the most delightful of boy’s own adventures (two cartoons, both directed by Chuck Jones).

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