Back Row Thoughts – Animation Nomination, Part 2

There are only a few days left in 2022, and I’m scrambling to see as much as possible before the year-end cutoff. It’s not that I’m going to stop watching stuff once the calendar turns over, just that there’s a bit of OCD in my head that I want to keep things as contained and organized as possible. As such, it’s time to continue our look into this year’s field for the Animated Feature Oscar. Up to this point, I’ve been able to tackle 18 of the 27 submitted films, including the last installment of this miniseries, where I began this quest with three previously unseen entries. As of right now, I still don’t have details for Run, Tiger Run!, and Lamya’s Poem is proving elusive thanks to faulty information I had before.

Still, I remain vigilant and committed to trying to complete this list of candidates for the first time ever. Today I offer three more mini-reviews of contenders, bringing us to 21 and counting. I know I’ll be able to get at least one more compilation out before the Academy reveals the five nominees in January, and with some luck, I’ll be able to finish the whole thing off in due course. For now, though, enjoy a glimpse at these hopefuls.

Little Nicholas: Happy As Can Be

A dual production of France and Luxembourg, Little Nicholas competed at Cannes and the Annecy Film Festival before finally getting a limited theatrical release stateside. Based on the series of popular comic strips and graphic novels from the 1950s to the 1970s, the movie serves as an origin story to the beloved character seen through the lens of his creators and the friendship they shared.

René Goscinny (Alain Chabat), who created the Astérix series among many others (I used to read those all the time in my high school French classes), teamed up with his friend and artist Jean-Jacques Sempé (Laurent Lafitte) to conceive the character as an idealized representation of childhood in the 50s, taking the rather unique (for the time) approach of framing the adventures from the point of view of the young Nicholas (Simon Faliu), opting for a more curious perspective and innocent humor. However, as the film demonstrates, Nicolas became something of a surrogate child for both men, helping them to process the more difficult emotions left over from their own adolescence.

With Goscinny writing the stories and Sempé illustrating, Nicholas quite literally leaps off the page, his zest and exuberance quickly winning over the audience, many of whom might have never been otherwise exposed to this European quasi-counterpart to Charlie Brown. He’s a near-perfect distillation of the common experiences of boyhood, from an initial disgust with girls that turns into romantic fascination, to sucking up to his grandmother for treats, to summer camp, to the way he and his friends can get into fights at the drop of a hat just to let off steam. It was almost a checklist for me to relive on the screen (I never went to camp, but pretty much everything else happened when I was Nicholas’ age), all filled to the brim with gentle, true comedy.

There are two things that stuck out to me more than anything else as far as the film’s quality goes. From a scripting standpoint, I absolutely adored the way Nicholas would basically hang out with Sempé and Goscinny during the creative process, asking them questions about life and genuinely getting to know them as people. This beautifully furthers the theme that art endures long after the artist, as both men have since passed away (Goscinny in the 70s, addressed as a plot point in the film and Sempé just this summer), and conveys a sense of affection that you don’t often see.

The other is in the art style of Nicholas’ escapades. When the film takes place in the “real” world, the entire frame is filled in with firm colors and borders. However, when we’re living out an actual comic, the frame is much looser, with the outer edges being completely white and then fading into the scene around a rough, ovular lens, almost as if it’s a thought cloud in an actual strip getting drawn in real time. As characters filter in and out of view, or the scene moves with Nicholas, everything on the periphery either gains or loses color relative to the center of the screen. That’s an amazing touch!

This film is an absolute delight, and I hope there’s an English dub of it coming soon, because it’s an ideal story for children. It’s funny, relatable, sincere and endlessly imaginative. It just isn’t quite accessible to them if they don’t understand French or can’t read subtitles.

Grade: A-

Luck

Premiering back in August on AppleTV, Luck did not win over very many critics. It currently sits at 47% on Rotten Tomatoes, and some of the reviews are quite scathing. Even the website’s consensus is that it’s merely passable as an “animated babysitter.” Ouch. Needless to say, I had some severe trepidations going into this, especially given the nature of its plot, about a girl who searches for good luck in a magical land despite being quite possibly the unluckiest human being in existence. After Bullet Train turned a great caper into a luck competition, you can understand my hesitation.

The verdict? It’s not all that bad. Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a great movie, or even really a good one. But I’ve seen far worse. I think its heart is in the right place, and there is some creativity in its world-building. It’s just that the execution and story leave a lot to be desired, and the animation itself is pretty subpar.

Tony nominee Eva Noblezada (Miss Saigon) makes a tremendous case for going back to using competent voice actors in animation over A-list celebrities. She does an admirable job as Sam, a young orphan circulating into a larger world after turning 18 and aging out of her group home. She acts as big sister to everyone there, especially Hazel (Adelynn Spoon), who is nervous about an upcoming visitation with some prospective adoptive parents. Through voice alone, Noblezada convincingly conveys a difficult balance of hopefulness and malaise, always regretting her situation but still committed to putting her best foot forward. Despite everything she’s been through, she always sees the positive, but not in a cloying Pollyanna way that simply ignores reality. The script does her no favors, but for what she’s expected to do, Noblezada gets the job done quite well. Her fantastic singing voice even comes close to justifying the use of Madonna’s “Lucky Star” in a painfully on-the-nose cover.

Still, no matter how good of a performance she gives, the material is severely lacking. Sam feels she has the worst luck in the world thanks to a string of misfortunes that really only succeed in showing her to be a klutz, which literally has nothing to do with random chance. Every instance of her so-called “bad luck” is a physical mishap, rather than the litany of other examples the film could have come up with. Anyway, while sitting on a street curb and moaning to herself, she shares half her sandwich with a black cat named Bob (Simon Pegg doing his best Craig Ferguson impression for most of the film), who leaves behind a penny with a four-leaf clover on it. Deciding that this could lift Hazel’s spirits, Sam decides to give it to her young friend until she discovers that it might actually be a true “lucky penny,” as she’s basically a superhero gymnast when it’s in her possession. Before she can give it away, however, she accidentally drops it down the toilet and flushes it.

Finding Bob in the street and asking for another penny, a chase ensues where Sam follows him through a dimensional portal to the Land of Luck, a two-tiered reverse gravitational place where all the world’s luck – good and bad – is created and distributed to us. The penny, which Bob was supposed to keep on him at all times, is his passport between worlds, and if he doesn’t return it, he’ll be banished to the Bad Luck side by his captain, a leprechaun voiced by Whoopi Goldberg who already hates his guts. Forging a temporary alliance, Bob and Sam must traverse this world and its obstacles to recover the lost penny, get it to Hazel so that she can be “lucky” during her visitation, and keep Bob out of trouble.

Yeah, this is more convoluted than I can put into words in such a short space, and the script almost mechanically adds new obstacles as each current one gets resolved, as if the plot is being written live, with most of the set pieces playing out like cutscenes in a video game. There are also a ton of things that make absolutely no sense on this adventure, like the fact that Sam is able to borrow clothes from a different leprechaun named Gerry (Colin O’Donoghue from Once Upon a Time, also turning in an able performance rather than just being a name) that somehow fit her well enough to “pass” as a tall, Latvian leprechaun, or that a literal luck dragon (Jane Fonda) had a lengthy romantic affair with a unicorn (Flula Borg), or that John Ratzenberger seemingly left Pixar with John Lasseter and this is the best they could do for themselves afterwards.

With a little more savvy, this could have really worked. While the character designs are definitely not up to standard (Sam herself looks like an extra in a straight-to-DVD Tinker Bell or Barbie movie), the Rube Goldbergian environments of the Land of Luck are truly inspired. I think there could have been a lot more things done with these sets to really make things come alive. Similarly, there are a couple of really strong ideas about the concept of bad luck. First the film establishes that it is distributed randomly (along with good luck), which opens up a ton of possibilities to link this back to Sam’s situation. Maybe she’s a mathematical anomaly who improbably – but not impossibly – only gets the bad. Maybe it grants her perspective on how these worlds work, and that there is no unseen hand of fate making things happen. Maybe she accidentally swallowed some bad luck dust as a kid. You could go anywhere with this. Second, as Sam and Bob explore the Bad Luck side of the land, they find that those who live in this world constantly have learned to adapt to disappointment and negative outcomes. The film does delve into this a little bit, but I think if more time was spent on learning how to cope rather than a paint-by-numbers fetch quest, it could have been profound.

As it is, it’s fine. I didn’t hate it. I cringed a couple of times, but believe me when I say that there are much worse things a kid could watch. Like the gemstones that guide the machines that process luck to Earth (there’s a fragment I never thought I’d write), the movie is shiny, but unrefined. A little more careful thought and development of the story would have improved things exponentially, and might have done justice to the lesser-known performers who act circles around their more famous counterparts.

Grade: C+

Drifting Home

Netflix has been making envoys to the world of anime for several years now, and has finally dipped a toe into direct distribution. Co-produced with Studio Colorido, Drifting Home was a simultaneous release on the platform along with Japanese theatres, complete with local and English voice casts. Like many great films before it, the story is wonderfully imaginative and expertly rendered in a way that can blow your mind even on your TV screen. It’s not the best anime of the year, but it’s a solid entry that should leave a smile on your face.

Entering the final summer vacation of elementary school, 11-year-old Natsume (Asami Seto in Japanese, Cassandra Lee Morris in English) has been keeping to herself, spending an inordinate amount of time at her former apartment building, which has been vacated and condemned. Her former best friend Kosuke (Mutsumi Tamura/Bryce Papenbrook) is no longer on speaking terms with her, still blaming her for making him miss his grandfather’s final moments (Bin Shimada/John DiMaggio). He barely spends any time with his prankster friends Taishi (Yumiko Kobayashi/Alex Cazares) and Yuzuru (Daiki Yamashita/Benjamin Diskin) and constantly avoids the advances of the popular rich girl Reina (Inori Minase/Abby Trott), who always has her Marcie-esque friend Juri (Kana Hanazawa/Cherami Leigh) in tow.

One day, while Kosuke, Taichi, and Yuzuru go to the old building to look for ghosts (there are several rumors that the place is haunted), they come across Natsume camping out on the roof. She says she comes around to keep her friend Noppo (Ayumu Murase/Elliot Fletcher) company because he still lives there. The boys think this Noppo might be the alleged ghost and want to investigate, but not before they’re interrupted by Reina and Juri, having noticed them while walking by. A fight ensues, leaving Natsume stressed and looking for an escape. It is at this point that the building breaks free from its foundations and everyone is somehow transported to a vast sea, the building itself floating like a ship.

Now, apart from the insane visual of an apartment building doubling as a giant boat, which is just amazing, the film really succeeds because it uses this conceit as a means for all of the characters to come to terms with the next phase of their lives. Natsume and Kosuke lived here, and they have to learn to let go of their attachments, regrets, and pain, while still cherishing the memories they made there. Taishi and Yuzuru have to experience what it really means to be brave, to prepare themselves for the responsibilities that adolescence will bring. Reina needs to step outside of herself and learn to empathize rather than demand to be the center of attention, and that starts with treating Juri as an equal rather than a lackey. Throughout all of this, they are guided by Noppo, who is not human, and is spiritually tied to the building in ways he can’t explain, but he feels an obligation to look out for all of them.

The plot does drag in a few places, particularly when it feels like Natsume and Kosuke are making a breakthrough with one another (both Morris and Papenbrook do stellar work, and if you’re a regular fan of anime, you know Bryce can do wonders with angsty teens and tweens), only for another obstacle or action scene to get in the way. To an extent it makes sense, as kids that age are often stubborn and don’t know how to articulate their feelings the way they might want, so the occasional stymie is okay, but after the third or fourth time, it starts to weigh things down. The same goes for Reina, who spends half the movie trying to pin all the blame for their situation on someone, be it Natsume or Noppo (though she won’t hear a word against her crush Kosuke). For a movie that runs two hours, you could reasonably cut 20 minutes without losing any impact, and it would make the ending feel a little less rushed.

Still, this is a sneakily affecting film that knows how to convey some heavy themes to a young audience without condescension. It sets up an eye-popping visual setting of a dead building and makes it come alive just enough to get some fairly insightful messages across on the target audience’s level. It asks the key questions about what makes a place feel like home in a very creative way that engages with children without patronizing them.

Grade: B+

***

Two groups down, two more (hopefully) to go! By the time this is posted, I’ll have already seen two of the next three to cover, so keep an eye out for Part 3 in just a few days. And as before, if you have release information for Run, Tiger Run! or Lamya’s Poem, send it to me ASAP!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which is your favorite? In your experience, is there any such thing as luck? Let me know!

2 thoughts on “Back Row Thoughts – Animation Nomination, Part 2

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