Back Row Thoughts: Toontown, Part 3

At last we come to the end of our animated adventure. In this column I’ll break down four more entries for next year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature. A grand total of 32 films were submitted, and I tracked down as many as I could, to the point that I’ve now seen 20 of the potential nominees. I can’t remember off the top of my head if this category gets a shortlist. If it does, it’ll be revealed on Monday. With any luck, I’ll have already seen all the nominees long before they’re announced in January.

This has been a fun little excursion, as I love the possibilities for storytelling and visual marvel that animation can bring, and it’s a shame that these films don’t get more recognition. Only three animated films have ever been nominated for Best Picture, and it’s telling that this year there are actually two films submitted both in this category and as their nation’s official entry for Best International Feature. One of the rules changes made by the Academy this year was to dispense with the required minimum of eight entries to have the category presented, which basically makes it a permanent fixture after nearly 20 years of existence. I hope this bodes well for the future of the medium. You rarely see more imagination and potential in film than you do with animation.

So here we go! Four more films to look over! Enjoy the end of our visit to Toontown!


A testament to the resolve of a committed artist, Away is the work of a singular Latvian artist name Gints Zilbalodis. The art style is minimalist, the soundtrack free of dialogue, and the story a fairly straightforward bit of wonder.

A young man, seemingly the sole survivor of a plane crash, wakes up in the middle of a strange desert, hanging from a tree by the straps of his parachute. In his groggy state, he is approached by a large, spectral, black giant that immediately tries to eat him. The man escapes and runs through an archway leading to an oasis where the giant can’t enter. There, he finds a map with a path of arches pointing the way back to his home, along with supplies and a motorcycle. He also befriends a small yellow bird who is too weak to fly. Steeling himself for the journey, the man rides out of the oasis, allowing the giant to pursue again. Now it’s a race to salvation.

The best way to describe the animation style is that of an indie video game. The colors and character designs are minimal in nature, to the point where they look almost unrendered. Each “chapter” of the film feels like its own level, where the objective is to either escape or defeat the boss, in this case the giant, which clearly represents death itself, as it kills anything it touches for a long enough period. Every stage of the man’s journey is also symbolic of the seasons, both of the year and of life itself. He’s birthed from the womb of the Eden-like oasis, then races through a hot desert, a temperate lake, a pleasant wood, and an unforgiving cold mountain before he must make a literal leap of faith for his own survival.

There’s a lot to like in the film, particularly the visual of him riding across “Mirror Lake,” but for the most part, the story is too simple, the metaphor of death too forced, and the animation a bit too rudimentary to really compete in this field. This is not to diminish what Zilbalodis has achieved here. He’s done a lot with clearly very limited resources. But he’s up against so many heavyweights and spectacular independent entries that I just don’t see how he gets a nod.

Grade: B-

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

Considered for Spain’s entry for International Feature (but losing out to Pain and Glory), this awkwardly titled animated biopic chronicles surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and the making of his pseudo-documentary, Land Without Bread, about an area of Spain where the people are so poor and isolated that they’ve never even heard of bread, to say nothing of being able to afford it. While the movie drags in parts, what it does best is exemplify Buñuel’s style and idiosyncrasies in a way that can still get across to a young audience, as the film is somewhat surprisingly being distributed by GKIDS.

After the controversy surrounding his film, The Golden Age, Buñuel has a falling out with his friend and collaborator, Salvador Dali, and cannot get funding for another project. Another friend, anarchist sculptor Ramon Acin, wins a lottery drawing and pledges the funds to help Buñuel make his next film, a documentary about the Las Hurdes region of Spain (the title refers to his immediate reaction to the roofs of local houses and streets in the region). Buñuel is filled with vigor, but is also quick to spend money and antagonize the locals for the sake of his vision, which leads to controversial moments where he personally kills animals to simulate customs he can’t naturally film (those actual scenes from the film are spliced in to this one).

The film is at times fascinating, mostly because it’s able to convey to its young target audience what it’s like trying to separate art from the artist. Buñuel is one of the most brilliant filmmakers of all time, but as this movie demonstrates, he was notoriously hard to work with, and often sacrificed verisimilitude for surrealist spectacle. He also didn’t care who he offended when he did it, as one of his preferred pranks in the film is to gallivant around the village dressed as a nun, angering everyone he comes in contact with. Friendships get strained just as they did with Dali, but there are redemptive moments where it becomes clear that Buñuel’s heart is in the right place.

Grade: B

Dilili in Paris

Remember Midnight in Paris? Woody Allen’s wondrous bit of fantasy where true romantics could get transported back in time to the various golden ages of French culture to socialize with the artists of their favorite era? Well, take that premise, remove every ounce of charm, and render it as a second-rate episode of Blue’s Clues and you’ve got Dilili in Paris.

Originally released in French, I watched the English dubbed version, and immediately regretted it. The dialogue is so incredibly stilted, and the line readings are terrible. It’s as if the localization team took literal translations of every line and had the actors read them as rigidly as possible, which is even more jarring when you consider the lip sync is nowhere near competent even with all the pregnant pauses thrown in. When the title character, a young Kanak girl (native New Caledonian) introduces herself to every person she meets, she curtsies and says, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance” in a manner so robotic that it made my Roomba seem human by comparison.

Combining an entry-level introduction to the artists and other influential figures of the Belle Époque with an utterly dull mystery about the abduction and subjugation of young girls by old men called “Male Masters” who want to dominate all women, the plot is so tone deaf as to stick your head inside a giant bell and hit it with a mallet. This could have been captivating. There could have been intrigue in the kidnapping plots, plus the idea of a Kanak girl – who herself notes that her skin is too light for her own people, but too dark for Parisians – getting access to a cultural world she’d otherwise never see could have opened up some interesting dialogues on race. Instead, we get women used as footstools and exactly two minor scenes of confronting bigotry. Everything else is like a bad French Sesame Street.

Even the animation style is second-rate, with poorly drawn, almost paper doll-like character models moving in rudimentary fashion over photographs of Paris landmarks. Director Michel Ocelot is a celebrated animator in France, with plenty of international festival hardware to his name, but he’s never been nominated by the Academy. I’m guessing that streak will continue.

Grade: C-

Okko’s Inn

Our final entry is Okko’s Inn, an anime based on a popular children’s book and manga series. Directed by Kitaro Kosaka, who’s worked on several Studio Ghibli projects like Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises, the film is a sweet and mildly supernatural tale of family and loneliness that doesn’t quite reach the storytelling levels of Hayao Miyazaki’s classics, but is still very pleasant.

After the death of her parents in a car crash, young Oriko, called “Okko,” goes to live at the spa hotel run by her grandmother, where their motto is that no one is turned away, because the healing waters of their spa are a gift from the gods. Somewhat in denial and trying to convince herself that her parents are still alive, Okko becomes a junior innkeeper, learning the ins and outs of the hospitality industry. All the while, she is assisted by three spirits. The first, Uribo, is the ghost of a friend of Okko’s grandmother, who died as a child after she moved away, never learning his fate. The second, Miyo, is the older sister of Okko’s rival, Matsuki, who dresses in frilly Lolita fare and trains at a competitor inn run by her family. The third is a demon called Suzuki, who is mischievous and has quite the sweet tooth.

With the assistance of the ghosts, along with a genuine can-do attitude, Okko bonds with all who cross her path and enter the inn, from a father in mourning over his wife, accompanied by his ill son, to an attractive young fortune teller getting over a broken heart. The real test for Okko, however, comes during a chance encounter with the man responsible for her parents’ deaths, forcing her to finally come to terms with her trauma, but also challenging her forgiving and loving nature at the highest level.

Stylistically, this is basically a traditional anime. There aren’t too many sweeping shots or CGI elements meant to dazzle the senses. Kosaka clearly put the emphasis on the story here, which is damn near saccharine. You’re drawn into Okko’s excitable face from the first instant, and feel her trials as she does. It may not have the dazzle of Miyazaki’s work, but Kosaka definitely nailed the emotional resonance aspect of his master’s best films.

Grade: B

* * *

That’s all I’ve got for now. Obviously, I’ll keep an eye out for more opportunities to screen these films, and if I can track some more down, maybe there’ll be a Part 4 to this little series. Either way, thanks for taking the journey with me.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which of these entries is your favorite? Have you seen any that I missed? Who wants rice balls? Let me know!

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