I have been whinging about it pretty endlessly, but in case you managed to avoid all of that, I have had a busted back for much of the past couple of weeks. I returned to work a few days ago, but before that I was relegated to the lounge room floor, unable to sit up to write or go to the cinema. As much as I love lazing around watching movies, being able to nothing else for that extended a period of time is enough to test anyone’s resolve. Luckily though, I stumbled upon the first season of Rick and Morty (2013) which has been a total highlight and allowed me to well and truly keep my sanity.
Somehow this show managed to pass me by until now. It’s created by Dan Harmon, the somewhat controversial genius behind Community and is essentially a reimagining of the Back to the Future trilogy, which is my favourite film series of all time. For all that though, the show is better than I could have imagined and one of the most hilarious pieces of television I have ever seen. It is so smart, the vulgarity (which general comes from Grandad Rick, a terrible influence) is actually funny and it brings high concept sci-fi ideas to each episode. The odd(ish) couple at the centre of the show really provides everything it needs. Rick is one of those classic animated characters of the past couple of decades who brings the huge laughs with his zaniness, crudeness and substance abuse programs – think some form of variance on Bender, Homer Simpson and Cartman and you are on the right track. But in young Morty, the show has a straight man who is also hilarious as well as providing the real heart of the show. He is a somewhat awkward teen, going along with his grandad’s incredibly dangerous space-based adventures to win his favour. But as the season progresses, the character really grows into a keen offsider and at times potential leader himself. You never feel like he is just there for the character of Rick to bounce off, Morty is an equal partner and elevates the show a lot. Hopefully that continues, because often the shows featuring some of those characters I mentioned above, fall back on the cheap knowledge that the audience will crack up at whatever one character says and does, instead of building up a satisfying cast.
We are in something of an extended golden age for TV cartoons. Obviously kicking off with The Simpsons, but also featuring so many others such as Futurama, Bravest Warriors and heaps more. Rick and Morty holds its own with any of those. And for a film or sci-fi buff it may even surpass them, nailing clever references throughout. There is one episode that functions as an extended parody of an Elm Street, and there was something I found totally side-splitting about the way that the Freddy Krueger character called everyone “bitch”, just as he does in the actual films. There are also extended references to Jurassic Park (1993), Inception (2010) and basically every other big sci-fi property of moderately recent times. I only rarely watch commentaries on TV shows and films. But I can’t wait to revisit these episodes with the commentaries from Dan Harmon and occasional special guests such as Matt Groening, that are on the Aussie blu-ray release.
Verdict: Rick and Morty plays like the love-child of Futurama, Back to the Future and the best bits of South Park that you never realised was missing from your life. If you have the slightest interest in any of those things, the work of Dan Harmon or just truly hilarious sharp comedy, then give this show a shot. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
What’s a good film festival without at least one obscure animation film? Especially as, unlike many of the other films that play at MIFF and similar festivals, non-mainstream animation rarely receives a cinematic release.
Bill Plympton’s Cheatin’ (2013) was my MIFF obscure animation of choice. The first half or so is a really simple love story but told in a complex, bordering on avant-garde way. This part of the film is really engaging and retains a sense of fun, which so many avant-garde filmmakers refuse to allow in their pursuit of artistic seriousness. But then the film just turns on a plot point that is overwhelmingly silly. A doctored photo, that would absolutely never look real at all, convinces the happily married new groom (if the main characters had names, I missed them) that his wife has been cheating on him. Instead of asking his beloved what the deal is, he just turns around and starts sleeping with the multitude of women who are constantly throwing themselves at him. Obviously this is not a film that is aiming for realism. These turns in plot however just don’t work within the rules and logical expectations that have already been established in the world of the film. Another issue with all of this is that the film is really unfocused as to exactly what it is trying to say about adultery. At some points it feels like it is suggesting that as the audience we should be empathising with the groom and cheering his shagfest. In the end though, it is just befuddling the way the twists and turns are set up because he never discusses the photo with her. Then it gets even stranger when his wife gets a machine that allows her to teleport into the motel room each time he cheats on her and replace his current partner of choice. Maybe it was just me, but I had no idea what the message was there.
One aspect of the film that I could definitely not fault is the visuals. Plympton’s very hand-drawn style is a world away from most feature animation with a definite artistic rough finish. The colouring is a little uneven with lines left in there and the effect is that even though the result is less realistic than other approaches, the imperfections in a way make it easier to relate to and feel deeply engrossed in the story. A long way from the uncanny valley basically. The exaggerated character design is another joy, with both male and female bodies, having delightfully absurdist bodies. The groom’s abs look as tiny as a toothpick, dominated by his hugely muscular upper body. Aside from the confusion, at least from my perspective, of what the film is trying to say about adultery another issue for me was that there were no interesting ideas presented by the film. Obviously not every animation, or any film for that matter, needs to tackle weighty subject matter. But on a couple of occasions Cheatin’ hints that it is going to do so, but then either stops rather abruptly or chooses to focus on superficial concerns. In fact the very opening of the film seems to suggest that an exploration of the male gaze is in the works, as the exaggerated body of the main female character leaves a barrage of men agog as she walks by. This continues for a short while and then is just abandoned. Later, she can’t help but dance and leap for joy at the site of clothes on sale whilst her poor husband is forced to wait around bored as she giggles giddily and tries on outfit after outfit. So much for any subversiveness or incisiveness basically.
When it was telling a simple love story in a really out there way, I was totally invested in Cheatin’. The shift into a bizarre, unfocused look at adultery though was unwelcome and unsatisfying, which is a bummer because the film is so original to look at and sit down to watch.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
Twitter was abuzz over the weekend at (mainly erroneous) reports that the iconic Studio Ghibli was ceasing production. Whilst the outlook for the studio remains pretty grim, it is also clear that at this stage the studio is not pulling out of making animated films. My heart was even more particularly warmed by this news than it would have normally been because the night before I had watched what is my new favourite Studio Ghibli film – The Cat Returns (2002).
Blu-ray is a bit of a forgotten medium I think, with many assuming it is just the last dead duck physical format before everyone moves to some sort of cloud based subscription service (nooooooo!). Personally, I love blu-ray and this film is a perfect example of why. It is remarkable just how much the colour and animation pops when this film is viewed on blu-ray and it enhances the look of a film which is rendered in an even finer and more painting like style than is the norm for the studio. The story begins with a remarkable act of kindness as a young girl Haru bravely saves a rather remarkable cat. It turns out that this cat is a prince from the Cat Kingdom, and as such the young girl is showered with attempted acts of kindness and repayment from the kingdom. It starts out innocent, though misguided enough, with Haru being followed everywhere by cats and receiving far too many gift boxed mice. However the stakes of the film are escalated when it is demanded that Haru wed the cat prince, something she is rather keen to avoid. Ghibli films always intrigue and The Cat Returns, with the whimsy of cat’s wandering about on hind legs engaging with each other and humans, definitely intrigues a lot. Not to mention the fact that all of the cats have such different personalities, a stark difference from the standard Disney animal sidekick. There is also a sense of more pure adventure in this film than most of the studio’s output that I have viewed. There are thrills and tension galore and if that’s not enough, there’s a freakin maze!
I am not sure if The Cat Returns is an adaptation of a single fairytale, but at the very least there are a lot of classical influences on the story. It feels like it an amalgam of a bunchy of delightful moments from classic tales. And as the tweet above from Dave Crewe of http://www.ccpopculture.com pointed out when we were discussing the film, there is a subtle inversion of fairy tale tropes going on in the film as well. Both visually and narratively, the film recalls Alice in Wonderland, with a young girl adrift in a strange fantastical land slowly gathering a cohort of colleagues to hopefully help her navigate it. In a similar way to Wonderland, the Cat Kingdom is an incredibly built place, one where there is an underlying sense of threat and malice, continually bubbling under the somewhat bright and cheerful surface. In fact that is a hallmark of classical fairy tales, as brightness is always accompanied by darkness or even evil. The tone of the film is whimsical, breezy and light occasionally going as far as bordering on the absurdist. Having said that though, the narrative is essentially linear, so there is no narrative confusion posing as absurdism lurking in the film. Which is great and different to both the more serious environmental old school fantasy novel vibe of Princess Mononoke (1997) or the vibrant assaulting of the senses weirdness and danger of Spirited Away (2001). In fact coming out of the same studio, those two films are an interesting counterpoint to this film, even though broadly speaking all three films reside in the same genre.
The Cat Returns is chiefly an exercise in tone. It is a film that is whimsical and playful, especially when interacting with and subverting fairy tale norms. Funny, adventurous and thrilling, this is definitely one to add to your Ghibli ‘to watch’ list if you have never managed to catch it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Here is a trailer that has me really excited. Monsters University is a prequel to my absolute favourite Pixar film Monsters Inc. The film is not due out til next year, so it really is just a teaser. But this has whetted my appetite for the film even more. You guys looking forward to Monsters University?