Back Row Thoughts: Toontown, Part 2

Good news, everyone! I was planning on this column being the conclusion of my pre-nomination coverage of the Animated Feature category. I did four movies last time, and the plan was for five tonight. However, we ain’t done yet! Thanks to a surprise release and rentals on YouTube, I’ll be able to do a third installment with four more entries to go over! That means that, assuming I watch nothing else in any context (which is unlikely since Spies in Disguise comes out on Christmas), I’ll have been able to see 21 of the 32 submissions. I’ll be shocked if I don’t have the category covered when the nominations come out next month!

For those who didn’t read Part 1, here’s the basic skinny. Thirty-two films were submitted for this year’s prize. Some are commercial, standard Hollywood releases, but there are quite a few foreign and independent titles as well. Disney and Pixar typically dominate the proceedings, so I’m operating under the assumption that Toy Story 4 and Frozen II are locks for the final five. Similarly, while they have no wins, every Laika film has been nominated, so it’s fairly likely that Missing Link will also pick up a nod. That leaves 29 films competing for three spots. My goal is to see as many of them as possible, offer a brief review, and postulate on the possibility of each film getting one of those two coveted spots on Oscar Night.

So here’s a quick look at five more submitted films!

Pachamama

Available on Netflix, Pachamama is your basic coming-of-age travel story, with the added twist of being set in the ancient Andes. Tepulpai (Adam Moussamih) is about to achieve a rite of passage and become a “great one,” a major step on his path to becoming a shaman. However, when the moment arrives, he refuses to sacrifice his most beloved item – a feather from the Great Condor – to the titular Inca fertility goddess. When officials from the central Incan government take his village’s most prized possession as a tax, he and his friend Naira (Charli Bridgenaw) – who did pass her rite; she was willing to slaughter her pet alpaca, but it was ultimately spared – must journey to the heart of Incan civilization to retrieve it and restore their harvest, all while evading “metal-skinned gods,” i.e. conquistadors.

While fun at points, this movie is, on the whole, nothing special. There’s no real character development apart from perfunctory growth, and Tepulpai is your typical adolescent boy protagonist, in that he’s loud, whiny, and spoiled until he actually has to handle some responsibility, at which point he does a 180 into a complete hero turn. The major saving graces of the film are the mythology behind the story, which is certainly intriguing, and the animation style. Drawn in shapes and angles consistent with native Peruvian artwork, with bright vibrant colors, the style of the film far outweighs the substance. This is a perfectly harmless film that offers a decent moral for kids, and it’s always good to expose them to stories outside of traditional European folklore and/or Disney, but apart from that, there’s not much to recommend. I’d be shocked if it got a nod.

Grade: B-

Klaus

Another Netflix entry, this fun little holiday distraction has the heft behind it to make it seem like this was meant to be marketed as the next great family Christmas movie. The story is certainly very fun in parts, and funny. There are even some decent emotional moments. The problem is that it’s basically a copy of the Rankin-Bass special, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, only if you focused on the postman character as the lead, made him as much of an entitled jerk as Kuzco in The Emperor’s New Groove, and swapped out the stop-motion animation for something more akin to the 90s Anastasia movie.

Voiced by Jason Schwartzman, the lead character, Jesper, is a lazy and selfish member of a postal service run by his father. Fed up with his lackadaisical habits, Jesper’s dad reassigns him to a remote northern island that has no service, with the warning that if he doesn’t meet a quota of delivered letters, he’ll be financially cut off. After weeks of no progress and several brushes with death thanks to the perpetual Hatfield/McCoy-esque feud between the townspeople (led by Joan Cusack and Will Sasso), Jesper notices that children are desperate for something to do instead of hate each other.

There’s only one resident he hasn’t tried to get post to or from, so Jesper travels deep into the woods and meets a reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) who used to make toys in his spare time. In an attempt to solve both his problems, Jesper makes a deal with Klaus and the kids. Send a letter with postage asking for a toy, and he’ll deliver one. This gets him to his quota, gives Klaus a purpose in life again, and gets the kids to believe in good behavior and peace, as Jesper constantly adds rules to the process of getting toys, essentially providing a new basis for all the Santa Claus stories you know and love. Other supporting roles include Rashida Jones as a jaded schoolteacher who sells fish in hopes of making enough money to leave the island (but basically serves as little more than Jesper’s love interest), and Norm MacDonald as a sarcastic boatman who seemingly exists solely to break Jesper’s balls.

As I said, there’s a good deal of fun to be had here. There are a lot of great visual gags, the absurdity of the town’s civil war being especially hilarious. The voice work is also pretty solid, though throughout the film I kept thinking that Jesper was voiced by Edward Norton, and I had to keep checking that it was in fact Schwartzman. It’s almost enough to outweigh the wholesale ripoff of the animation style and story, but not quite. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if this got a nod, as it’s just different enough from the standard Hollywood animation powers while still being basically an American production (directed by Sergio Pablos, the Spanish animator who created the Despicable Me franchise). It’s also the first official Netflix original animated film, and while some members of the Academy are shying away from streaming services, others are embracing them, and this is the kind of noteworthy industry first that might put it over the top for a nomination.

Grade: B

Marona’s Fantastic Tale

This may be the oddest entry of the entire field, but it also may be the best. The basic plot is that of a dog who, after being hit by a car, narrates her life story flashing before her eyes as she dies. She recounts her conception, birth, and life with three different owners, her inner monologue never wavering above a monotone, but sill clearly conveying how she went from hopeful to jaded over the course of her days, while still loving her masters unconditionally.

The beauty is in how it’s all presented. The art style is absurd, surreal, and abstract. People and places stretch, compress, and flow all over the screen in a wondrous panoply of color and form. In fact, the best chance this film has at being nominated is if the Animation Branch of the Academy gets fondly reminded of the Brazilian film, Boy and the World, which was made the final cut a couple years ago. There are a lot of stylistic similarities between those two films, but the main differences are a more cohesive plot for Marona, and voice acting, as Boy was mostly silent.

Marona herself is very matter-of-fact in her telling, a perfect French New Wave protagonist. Everyone around her acts in ways as exaggerated as their character models. But Marona is the one constant. Her design never changes – small, mostly black fur with some white, a heart-shaped nose, and frilly fur on her ears that look like angel wings – and neither does the ennui in voice. In keeping her as straightforward as possible, actress Lizzie Brocheré keeps the film just grounded enough to be completely enjoyable and tragically emotional.

There’s a hint of wistfulness in her voice as she speaks for Marona, who can’t communicate with words to other people. When her first owner asks her what her name is, she answers, “I am Nine,” because she was the ninth pup of her litter, the runt. When he initially calls her, “My boy,” she counters, “I’m a girl.” When her final owner finds her in the park and asks where she lives, Marona responds, “I live here in the woods. Where do you live?” as if it’s the most mundane conversation imaginable. Because of that, we can project whatever emotional state we want onto the four-legged heroine. She’s a blank slate, which only serves to make her that much more lovable, and makes knowing her fate from the first scene all the more heartbreaking. The film concludes with a minimalist song called “Happiness,” sung by Isabel Sörling, who meekly muses that happiness is all about the small things, “a saucer of milk, a warm wet tongue, a nap.” It’s the perfect capper to a perfectly frenetic bit of cuteness.

Grade: A

White Snake

A co-production of Chinese studio Light Chaser Animation and the Far East division of Warner Bros., White Snake is one of the most solid, polished entries in the race. Based on the traditional Chinese folk tale, “Legend of the White Snake,” the film is visually stunning and tells an accessible, compelling story. The partnership alone might buy it points for a nomination, but honestly, the quality is so good that it could stand on its own merits and still be worthy.

In ancient China, a warlord who possesses great dark magic power seeks to destroy all snakes in the land, as they alone have the particular set of skills needed to defeat him. He forces local villages to conscript their people into becoming snake hunters. However, the snakes aren’t just alive, they are magical beings, the most powerful of which, Blanca (Zhang Zhe), can grow to the size of a dragon. After attempting to assassinate the general, Blanca loses her memory and wakes up in a snake hunter village, where she falls in love Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), a pacifist and intentionally bungling hunter. The two go on a quest to restore Blanca’s memories and learn the powers of demons, all while evading Blanca’s sister Verta (Tang Xiaoxi), the Green Snake, who hates humans.

The animation is very strong. At times I felt like I was watching high quality cut scenes from a video game that never got back to the actual gameplay. There’s great commercial appeal as well, with epic visuals and vistas (Blanca remembering she can fly is a fantastic scene), well-choreographed fight sequences, and even a talking dog for the kids. More surprising is how far the film was willing to go sexually, and how permissive the Chinese government was about it, as they’re quick to censor just about anything remotely resembling pornography. Yet here we get PG-13-level nudity from Blanca and there’s a fox demon character who is clearly meant to be a seductress. I’m glad the risk paid off, because both elements do enhance the enjoyment and richness of the story. Between the quality of the animation and the mystical elements of the story, I look at this as what Upin & Ipin could have been if it was more focused on something other than screaming hyperactive children.

Grade: A-

Weathering With You

Three years ago, Japanese director Makoto Shinkai released what may one day be regarded as the greatest animated film of all time, Your Name. To this day, I’m flabbergasted that it didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar. The man is a true visual artist, blending traditional anime styles with sweeping camera work and deep, human stories that blur the line between personal truth and pure magic. For the last decade he’s been making his mark and drawing comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki, with many considering him the heir apparent to the Studio Ghibli founder.

His latest is Weathering With You, and this time I sincerely hope he gets past the Academy’s defenses, as Shinkai-san has delivered another magnum opus to follow-up his previous one. The film has already earned four Annie Award nominations (tying it with Spirited Away and Millennium Actress for the most nods for an anime) and is Japan’s entry for International Feature Film (that brings me up to four so far, and if I can get my hands on Ne Zha, it’ll be five, as that’s China’s submission). If that’s not enough to put it over the top, I don’t know what is.

The story follows Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), a high school student who runs away from home and moves to Tokyo, where there’s been an unseasonable amount of rain and cold during the summer. After living on the streets, he’s taken in by a man he met randomly on the boat ride over, Keisuke Suga (Shun Oguri), who runs a quasi-pulp and tabloid magazine. While researching a story about mythical “Sunshine Girls,” who can clear the skies simply by praying, he encounters a real one in Hina (Nana Mori), and falls in love with her. Sensing a business opportunity as well as a romantic one, Hodaka, Hina, and Hina’s brother Nagi (Sakura Kiryu) – a 10-year-old Casanova who Hodaka adopts as his sempai (respected upperclassman) – start a website where Hina will bring sunshine to those who need it. However, the work begins taking a toll on Hina, and as stories of Sunshine Girl curses come to light amidst heavier and heavier rain, Hodaka must choose between his head and his heart, and no matter what, his decision will have sweeping consequences for many people.

Part of Shinkai’s genius is his ability to show the fantastic while keeping the story grounded in our basic humanity. He did that superbly with Your Name, and he succeeds here as well. You could eliminate either main element of the story – the weather phenomena or the teenage romance – and you’d still be left with a compelling film with the remaining plot. That Shinkai can blend them so well is a testament to his abilities as a storyteller and an artist. Because while the actual story is beyond engaging, it’s his skill in grabbing you with stunning visuals (people falling from the clouds, translucent water spirits bursting and dousing unsuspecting bystanders, raindrops shaped like tiny fish swimming upwards) and never letting go that makes him a true visionary.

If you want more proof of this film’s quality, look no further than my girlfriend. She’s not a fan of animation, and she constantly rolls her eyes at my affinity of anime. Even she loved this film. She told me afterward, “I have never been so gripped by a cartoon in my life.” What more do you need?

Grade: A

* * *

That’s all for this edition. Stay tuned for what should be the final installment in this animation binge next week!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these films? Are there other animation submissions you want to see? Can an animated dog make you fall so head over heels that you go out and get a real one for yourself; asking for a friend? Let me know!

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