Although I will be nominating the three films reviewed in this article for NYFCO’s best animated features of 2014, they could easily be considered the three best—period. I only regret not having nominated “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010, a film that far surpassed NYFCO’s choice, “The Social Network”. What, you haven’t seen “How to Train Your Dragon”? What’s wrong with you?
Even though I am approaching my seventieth birthday, I still get the same pleasure watching “cartoons” that I got when I was ten years old. Back then, this meant Warner Brothers—the gold standard for kiddie fare that adults could love as well. Back in the 1950s, there was always a cartoon before the main feature—as well as a newsreel and a travelogue. Along with Mad Magazine, Borscht Belt standup comedians, and comic books, the Warner Brothers cartoons that were produced by men such as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones shaped my worldview. They never talked down to the juvenile audience but assumed that what made them laugh would also make a 10 year old laugh.
Clampett, in particular, was willing to push the envelope as Wikipedia reports: “Clampett was heavily influenced by the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, as is most visible in Porky in Wackyland (1938), wherein the entire short takes place within a Dalí-esque landscape complete with melting objects and abstracted forms. Clampett and his work can even be considered part of the surreal movement, as it incorporated film as well as static media.”
I could never get enough of “Porky in Wackyland”. Here’s a clip:
Brilliant, simply brilliant. You can watch the whole thing here.
Not long after “The Lego Movie” came out, I remembered reviewers describing it as subversive. For example, Jeff Myers of the Detroit Metro Times wrote:
The Lego Movie’s desire to inveigh against social conformity turns into a plea for collectivism. It’s a message that will inevitably send the blood pressures of FOX News pundits through the roof.
You might ask yourself what a movie about a kid’s toy could possibly piss off FOX News. To start with, this is hardly a commercial for Lego, a case of product placement gone wild. In essence, it is a film that uses a toy as a metaphor for the lives we lead today, just as was the case with the Toy Story franchise that—in case you didn’t know it—is some of the most brilliant filmmaking in recent years. The characters are toys but they are also recognizable stand-ins for recognizable types in capitalist society.
The hero of the Lego film is a construction worker named Emmet Brickowoski who builds hi-rises in Lego City. Emmet is the ideal member of a consumer-oriented mass society indoctrinated to love his job, the music he listens to on his car radio, and the TV shows he watches when he gets home—all the products of a conglomerate run by President Business (Will Ferrell). Lego City might be described as a kindler and gentler version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a place where workers are not beaten into submission but instead obey willingly. The closest analogy might be Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.
President Business is not satisfied with the warm and fuzzy totalitarian society he presides over. He is determined to destroy the initiatives being taken in other cities where freedom and creativity are treasured as reflected in the novel use of Lego blocks. Think real estate developers in New York City replacing 19th century architecture and gardens with high-rises and CVS pharmacies.
As happens in so many animated features, our hero is unprepossessing. Like the hero of “How to Train Your Dragon” who has an aversion to using violence, Emmet has neither the brains nor the strength to take on President Business. Of course, he rises to the occasion just as one might expect given the hoary tradition of children’s fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, as well as cartoons, their modern counterpart.
If “The Lego Film” were just another underdog defeating an evil demon story, there wouldn’t be that much to recommend it but the big story is how much the film recreates the surrealist imagination and sheer lunatic comedy of Warner Brothers in its heyday. Of more recent vintage, its closest relative was the “Yellow Submarine”, another animated feature that was filled with visual puns and madcap logic.
“The Lego Film” proceeds at a lightning pace and might leave a 10 year old asking you every five minutes what something meant. I only regret not having a child who could have watched the film with me and whose questions I could have answered. The film is a virtual banquet of irreverent pop culture references that only a grownup child like co-director/co-writers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord could have come up with.
“The Lego Film” is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming from Amazon. If you have HBO, you can watch it there on demand. It is simply not to be missed.
“The King and the Mockingbird” opened last Friday night at the Francesca Beale Theater in Lincoln Center. In some ways, it might simply suffice to say that the film was co-written by director Paul Grimault and his long-time associate Jacques Prevert, the man who wrote “Children of Paradise”, voted “Best Film Ever” in a poll of 600 French critics and professionals in 1995.
Based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, the film pits a chimney sweep and a shepherdess who have sprung to life from paintings on the wall of King Charles who is always referred to as Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI. Like President Business, the King is a control freak. Having decided that the shepherdess must become his bride, he sends out his cops to root out the rebels in the same fashion as “The Lego Movie”. Most of the two films involves Keystone Cops chases involving leaps of the imagination as well as leaps off of castle ledges.
Like “The Lego Movie”, “The King and the Mockingbird” is a film that can be enjoyed by kids from six to sixty as the cliché would have it. Despite being a French film, it is distinctly American in many ways, with a Mockingbird who will remind you of the crows in “Dumbo”. Yes, I know, Disney used racial stereotypes but as comic figures they were done brilliantly.
Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the mockingbird is a perfect symbol of rebellion. He refuses to kowtow to the King and does everything in his power to aid the young couple trying to escape from his grip.
Grimault and Prevert were ideally suited for this material. They began work on the film in 1947, the first full-length animated feature in French history, and only completed it in 1980. This is an exceptional opportunity for New Yorkers to take in a film with great historical significance in newly restored version.
Grimault and Prevert first met each other in the October Group, artists committed to agitprop in the early 30s about which Claire Blakeway wrote in “Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema”:
Of all the groups which proliferated in France, the Groupe Octobre was perhaps the most successful example of political theatre to emerge during the 1930s. Performing in factories, parks, at open-air fétes and political rallies (organised by the Federation of Workers’ Theatres of France) and in the working-class banlieues, of Paris (including Asnières, Sesnes, Noisy-le-Grand, and Villejuif) it attracted large proletarian audiences. Bussières recalls that at one performance which took place at Avenue Wagram, the Groupe October played to an audience of some twenty thousand people.
‘The Groupe Octobre (. . .) snow-balled, people who had attended a performance were very impressed, they spread the word, and in this way the audience grew bigger and bigger. I never saw a Groupe Octobre performance take place in front of an empty auditorium, never! It was free, admittedly, but this was not the only reason that people came.’
So, as you can see the same spirit of subversion found to a lesser degree in “The Lego City” (how could it have been otherwise in a Hollywood film?) finds full expression in a French film. As has always been the case, the French workers and artists are in the vanguard.
I received “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” from GKIDS, a distribution company promoting it for awards consideration. Unfortunately, the film, which appeared in theaters last month, it is not available yet as a DVD rental or streaming. But keep your eye out for it since it is simply the most beautiful animated film I have ever seen and beyond that an exploration of deeply spiritual questions that touched even me, a man who tends to sneer at anything remotely “spiritual”.
What the film reminded me of was the importance of such questions before I took a detour on the Marxist road away from the concerns of my late teens, when Alan Watts and Kenneth Rexroth meant much more to me than Karl Marx. If Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” touched you, as it did me in late adolescence or any time in your life for that matter, then it will speak to you. It deals with some of the most basic questions of mortality and its transcendence, giving questions of the meaning of life a palpable reality that they will never get in the standard religious or philosophical tract.
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is adapted from a tenth century Japanese folk tale called “The Tale of a Bamboo Cutter”, the nation’s earliest extant literary narrative. One day an elderly bamboo cutter comes across an incandescent bamboo shoot that contains a tiny likeness of a princess. When he brings it home, it comes to life in the form of an infant that he and his wife raise as if it were their own. Unlike other children, the girl other kids call “Little Bamboo” grows by leaps and bounds. As another sign of her powers, the cutter discovers another incandescent bamboo shoot that is filled with precious jewels–riches that will help him raise his daughter in the capital city, where she will marry into aristocracy.
“Little Bamboo” has no interest in wealth or status. She is happier in the countryside playing in the forest or running around with her friends. Her father, however, is intent on her becoming an aristocrat since that will give him entrée into a world he covets. He hires a tutor who instructs “Little Bamboo” on the finer points of becoming a member of high society, which means doing everything she loves to do, including running and laughing.
This is a film that some children might find too slowly paced or dealing with questions remote from their own experience. My recommendation is to get your hands on it when it comes out and let them watch it as an experiment. If they love it, it will show that you have been a good influence on them since it is a work of transcendent beauty.
Isao Takahata, a 79-year-old who decided to become an animator after seeing “The King and the Mockingbird”, directed “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. In 1971, he made an animated version of “Pippi Longstocking”, another tale of a plucky teenager that was the primary inspiration for Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Takahata has collaborated with Hayao Miyazaki, another legendary anime director, on several projects.
The highly informative Wikipedia article on Takahata states: “Takahata has been influenced by Italian neorealism, Jacques Prévert, and French New Wave films during the 1960s. Bicycle Thieves has been cited as specifically influencing 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. These influences make Takahata’s work different from most animation, which focus on fantasy. His films, by contrast, are realistic with expressionistic overtones.”
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is his first film in 14 years and likely one that will define anime as a major art form for the foreseeable future. Although I am generally averse to using superlatives, this film is of profound beauty and significance and I urge my readers to keep your eye out for it in the coming months. I will be sure to give you a head’s up when it becomes available.