Back Row Thoughts: Toontown, Part 1

Ever since the submissions for the Oscar for Animated Feature were announced last month, the scramble has been on to see as many of these films as possible. The more commercial fare is easy, but there are a good deal of independent and foreign films in the mix as well, very few of which will get a wide release ahead of their potential nomination. Despite that fact, all submissions still have to abide by the general rules for Academy eligibility, which requires a solid week of publicly available screenings in Los Angeles before the end of the calendar year.

Because of that, while some of the smaller films have been staggered out over the course of the year, the bulk of them have shoehorned themselves into an independent theatre (typically the Laemmle chain) to get that one week in ever since the announcement. This is somewhat serendipitous for me, as I’m within easy driving distance of all the Lammles, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve had a ton of free time on my hands, which has allowed me to see a few of them, and report back for you here.

It appears that in addition to the normal, commercial films, I will be able to see a total of nine smaller films before the nominations come out in January. And while five total films will be nominated, really, all these movies are fighting for, at most, two slots.

As has been typical of the Animated Feature category over the years, Disney and Pixar tend to take up at least one to three of the spots every year. This year, I think we can safely assume that they’ve already clinched two with Toy Story 4 and Frozen II, which will be released this week. Similarly, while it has never won the award, every stop-motion film from Laika studios has been nominated, so we should at least pencil in a nomination for Missing Link. That leaves two spots available for 29 other entries. In almost every year, a foreign film is nominated. In the 18 years of the category thus far, foreign films have only been left out five times, and only once this decade, so I’d say it’s fairly likely one of the spots will go to a film produced entirely outside the U.S. and in a language other than English. The fifth spot is a complete wild card. DreamWorks has had a few nominees over the years, and the other major studios (Warner Bros., Fox, MGM, etc.) also have a contender or two in the field this go round. We could also see an English-language indie like The Breadwinner, or another foreign entry.

So, for this column, and the next “BRT,” I’ll break down the nine entries I’m able to add, four now, and five next time. I’ll grade them as normal, and even provide a slight handicapping prediction on whether the movie in question might get one of those two coveted spots on Oscar Night.

The Tower

Norwegian animator Mats Grorud makes his feature debut (after two successful shorts) with a combination of 3D stop-motion and 2D cell-shaded styles in this tale about life for Palestinian refugees living in a permanent settlement outside Beirut. The titular “tower” refers to the multiple layers of ascending rooms that have been added to the main family’s domicile over the course of three generations since “Al-Nakba,” known to Palestinians as “The Catastrophe,” when the state of Israel was established in 1948, and millions of native Palestinians were forced off their lands.

The story focuses on Wardi (Lina Soualem), a young girl who does very well in school. Coming home one day, she encounters her great-grandfather, Sidi (Saïd Amadis), who is in failing health. He gives her a key that he’s always worn around his neck, that once worked on the door of his old home in Palestine. Wardi believes Sidi has lost all hope, and through generational anecdotes of her relatives, learns how they and many others survived for so long, gaining a deep appreciation for love and family.

The animation is superb, from the expressive 3D stop motion of the film’s present day, to the minimalist traditional animation of Wardi’s family’s stories. As for a nomination, it’s hard to say. This is the type of film that Academy voters love, except for the fact that it is very pro-Palestine. I’m not one of those bigoted cynics who believes in the old stereotype of Hollywood being run by Jews. That said, this film is at least indirectly anti-Israel, which won’t do itself any favors. As for quality, it certainly could get a nod. Politically, it’s touchy.

Grade: A-

The Swallows of Kabul

If there’s a film about the Islamic world that might get serious consideration, it’s more likely to be The Swallows of Kabul, based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra. It’s a French film distributed by Les Armateurs, who previously earned nominations in this category for Ernest & Celestine and The Triplets of Belleville, so there’s some friendly history here.

Set in Afghanistan during Taliban control, the movie is a morose look at the oppressiveness of the regime, told through the eyes of a worldly woman and a jaded traditionalist man. Atiq (Simon Abkarian) is a guard at a jail for condemned women, and the film opens with a disturbing scene of him leading an inmate to her own public execution by stoning. His wife Mussarat (Haim Abbas), is dying of cancer, adding to his misery. Meanwhile, Zunaira (Zita Hanrot), an idealistic and academic woman, is celebrating a happy marriage with her husband Mohsen (Swann Arlaud), preparing for a free life as a teacher once they leave the country.

Hope turns to tragedy, however, as Zunaira is detained and publicly shamed by Taliban enforcers for wearing white shoes in public. Already humiliated and dehydrated by having to wear a burqa (the French government drew controversy by banning burqas a few years ago), she lashes out at Mohsen, killing him by accident. When she meets Atiq in prison, he is forced to consider the virtues of mercy for the first time, and she must decide whether or not to accept her fate.

The film is animated with muted charcoal colors and thicker than normal, dulled outlines, meant to symbolize the blurring of the rigid system under the Taliban, and thankfully the geopolitical context is kept very narrow. The film is not a criticism of Islam in general (apart from the French stance on the burqa), but on the oppressive and extreme regime that was ruling Afghanistan at the time. The film is very careful to keep its focus squarely on the characters rather than commenting on the institutions themselves, which may also help it to secure a nomination, as voters won’t dismiss it as anti-Islam.

Grade: B

Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris

This is the third film to feature the titular twins Upin & Ipin, along with their wide cast of friends, since the pair were introduced well over a decade ago, though this is their first adventure submitted for the Oscars. They are the stars of the most popular children’s show in Malaysia, and as such, the characters are well established in their homeland. Sadly, that means precious little in the way of exposition for the uninitiated.

To be honest, though, it doesn’t really matter, because even if I knew everything there is to know about Upin & Ipin going in, this would still be a smoldering piece of crap. The actual story concerns the twins and their friends being sucked into a magical alternate universe, where a dark wizard has usurped the throne. Through friendly encounters, they help the rightful heir reclaim his kingdom, thanks to the mystical MacGuffin of the film, the Lone Gibbon Kris. When I first saw the title, I thought this was about a solitary monkey named Kris, but no. A kris is a type of dagger with an ornately jagged edge, and the Lone Gibbon is the monkey deity that resides in the blade, activated by reciting an incantation on the hilt as well as by the empathetic nature of tears.

That might work as a compelling kids movie. Unfortunately, there’s never really a chance to get absorbed, because the half-pint characters just scream, cry, and generally run amok through most of the film. Imagine if Rugrats did a movie where all they did was cry, and there were twice as many babies as in the actual show. That’s what you’d have with these characters, even though they’re all ostensibly 10 years old. It’s all but impossible to invest in the story because you’re constantly distracted by the hyperactive chaos. There’s also one companion who speaks in a dopey, deep voice and wears what I can only assume is a condom on his head. I think he’s meant to be a depiction of the mentally handicapped, and if so… oof.

There are a couple of interesting creature designs that sadly get tossed aside before you can notice them, and there is one fun musical number about midway through that serves as the only redeeming moment in the entire picture. Apart from that, I got nothing.

As for the quality of the actual animation, it definitely leaves you wanting. It’s basically at Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius levels of 3D CGI, which would be impressive, if that exact movie wasn’t nominated for this award way back in 2001, the first year for the category. I understand that Malaysia might not be at the forefront of animation technology, but when you’re off by about two decades, you shouldn’t even bother submitting. For me, this is one of the worst movies of the year.

Grade: D-

I Lost My Body

Part of the reason I’m doing this column and others like it in the lead-up to shortlists and nominations is because this film is the second case in the last month where I rushed to a theatre to pay to see a movie that was being pushed for the Oscars, only to find out while watching that it’s being distributed by Netflix, and would be available with my subscription a mere two weeks later. That seems to be the model for Netflix’s campaigning this year. The version I saw in theatres is in the original French, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival (as was The Swallows of Kabul), though it will also be available in English on Netflix. It won the Nespresso Prize during International Critics’ Week, the first animated film to do so.

Despite my frustration in paying for a movie I’m already paying for via my streaming service, this is a surreal work of art. Told half in flashback and half in real time, the story follows, get this, a severed hand trying to make its way back to its owner. Think if Thing from The Addams Family had an It’s a Wonderful Life-style back story. It’s freaky, but also dazzling.

The film opens with main character Naofel (Dev Patel in the English dub), an Algerian immigrant to France, lying beside his recently detached appendage, when his body is discovered by his crush, a girl named Gabrielle (Alia Shawkat). Now separated, the hand becomes sentient and wakes up in a storage refrigerator, escaping the hospital and attempting to survive cars and rats while making its way back home. As the hand travels, the story flashes back to Naofel’s idealistic childhood, his fostering in France after the loss of his parents, and his eventual friendship and attempted courtship with Gabrielle, after he takes an apprenticeship in a woodworking shop run by her uncle Gigi (George Wendt). Story-wise, the only disappointment is the ambiguous ending, which goes more for emotional resonance than resolution. But it’s France, what do you expect?

The surrealist nature of the hand’s adventure, coupled with a fantastic synth score by French-Finnish composer Dan Levy (not to be confused the the American or Canadian actors of the same name), make for an utterly fantastic visual spectacle, filled with hope, despair, violence, and love. It’s one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen, alternating between nightmare fuel and naked optimism with ease. Of the four films I’ve broken down here today, I’d say it has the best chance at a nomination in a few weeks.

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What do you think of these movies? Have you seen any of the other submitted films? Do you think there should be a shortlist for this category to narrow the field a bit? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts: Toontown, Part 1

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