It is clear that animation has undergone a great shift over the past 10-20 years. Before this animation was synonymous with one word – Disney. Now I would say it is synonymous with two words – Anime and Pixar. I decided to check out two films which represent these two periods.
Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967) is loosely based on the Rudyard Kipling novel of the same name. For a film which takes as its source a work by such a renowned novelist, it is quite slight on plot. Not a lot really happens in this movie. It is more a collection of set pieces with the slight linkage being the attempts to make the young boy Mowgli see sense and return to the man-village. As good as some of these set pieces are (and some of them are very good, the chase sequence between King Louee and Baloo & Bagheera springs to mind) the linking is so slight there is very little impetus to the story and at times it does stumble along a little without fully absorbing the viewer (or at least this viewer).
What it lacks in story, The Jungle Book compensates for in other areas. It features a succession of memorable characters including Mowgli’s guardian angel panther Bagheera, a troupe of military like elephants, the hypnotic snake Kaa and a ‘fab four’ of vultures. But the scene-stealer is Mowgli’s bear friend Baloo. Reminiscent of Timon and Pumbaa from the much later Disney feature The Lion King (1994) Baloo teaches Mowgli not to take life too seriously, after all you only need the “Bear Necessities” (as he outlines in the film’s standout song). Not just there for light relief, Baloo is also the compassionate heart of the film. For some reason the film’s villain Shere-Khan only appears with around 30 minutes left. He is so oft talked about by the film’s other characters that he is somewhat of a legendary character. And when he finally appears he does not disappoint. The tiger is not a stereotypical over the top violent and stupid villain. He is a cerebral, scheming figure who wants to kill Mowgli as he represents “man’s gun and man’s fire” which are the only things that our villain fears. As for the animation, The Jungle Book is somewhat of a mixed bag. Backgrounds are beautifully realised with lush jungles and ancient ruins a constant source of wonderment. On the other hand I found the characters to be a bit blandly animated. They were very plain and overshadowed visually by the landscapes they were placed in. The one exception to this for me was the villainous tiger Shere-Khan whose depiction really enhances the impact of the character.
This film does have things to say if you want to look for it. When Baloo hears that Mowgli is to be taken to the man-village he expresses his fear that “they’ll ruin him, they’ll make a man out of him.” Thematically there is a lot of compassion in this film. Baloo’s repeated attempts to enable Mowgli to stay in the jungle are touching, as is his dedication to the man-cub he has only just met. The stubborn Bagheera is also never able to leave Mowgli to his own devices as he threatens to on many occasions. And the final act of self-sacrifice by Baloo in single handedly taking on the vicious Shere-Khan shows that even this light relief character is prepared to do anything to save his young friend. There is also the question of where Mowgli belongs. This can be adapted universally to a range of real-world conundrums. He does not belong in the jungle – not with the bears, the monkeys or the vultures. But surely he will struggle to fit in at the man-village having grown up in the jungle. I also found his snap decision to go to the village, after resisting pretty much the entire movie unconvincing. I don’t think that a boy of 8 (approximately) would really be that easily swayed by the vision of a pretty young girl.
The positives and negatives of this film in the end pretty much even each other out. The average story is elevated by a number of great characters. Similarly some excellent songs (“Bear Necessities”) are cancelled out by some bad ones (Kaa’s creepy “Trust in Me”). This is not a bad film, but it is a much too short one that is maybe a little dated now.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
I have not seen a whole lot of anime, but after watching Akira (1988) I will be searching out a whole lot more. Obviously this film operates on a whole other plane to that of The Jungle Book which I looked at above. The film is set in a dystopic Neo Tokyo 31 years after WWIII in which Tokyo was destroyed. Initially a number of wonderful tracking shots take us through the spectacularly rendered cityscapes, depicting an urban jungle equal in beauty to the jungle brought to life in The Jungle Book. There is a noirish feel at street level enhanced by the flickering of the many broken streetlights, the dark alleyways that abound, graffiti and numerous broken down, burning cars. By the time this early setting had been established I was pretty much hooked, excited and unsure what the film was going to do with this world.
In this city, which is on edge due to the government’s attempt at tax reform, we are introduced to a teenage bike gang led by alpha male Kaneda. A series of wonderful bike chases ensue between our protagonists and the villainous clown gang. These scenes have a fantastic sense of speed and tension; and are topped with some brutal violence. I wanted to watch them over and over to re-experience the excitement. It is at the conclusion of one of these chases that the film changes completely. Tetsuo, a member of Kaneda’s gang crashes his motorbike into an apparition that appears to be an elderly man trapped in a perpetual childhood. The apparition is unharmed, but Tetsuo is and is taken away by the military. Here we see numerous experiments being performed on Tetsuo. It is clear that he has fantastic mental capabilities and these experiments unleash the power of his mind. The first moment when Tetsuo learns to harness his power is a shocking one, leaving a pile of guards quickly dead in his wake. Soon, Tetsuo escapes from the facility where the military is holding him but is haunted by visions featuring Akira, who is also spoken about by other characters. An air of mystery surrounds who or what Akira is. But Tetsuo wants to confront and challenge Akira because he feels no one is as strong as him and by taking down Akira he will prove it. This is the nuts and bolts of what is a fantastically complex (but generally easy to follow) plot.
Tetsuo is a wonderfully contradictory character. For much of the film it is unclear whether he is fundamentally good or evil and whether or not we should be sympathising with him. He does some horrible things such as his slaying of the bartender, but how much of this is him and how much of it is the experiments that were performed on him. It is clear that the angst he felt especially toward Kaneda for his occasionally being patronising has been multiplied. It is unnerving to see Tetsuo attack Kaneda, who just wants to help his friend. But the attempts of Kaneda to help Tetsuo just enrage him more. He feels the need to graphically illustrate that no longer is Kaneda the alpha-male and that he is now the strong one. It is during the scenes of him lashing out at those around him that I felt the least sympathy with Tetsuo. But as someone who has never had the power to fight back it is perhaps unsurprising that he channels this newfound superiority in such a manner. But this core relationship of the film is redeemed in its conclusion. When Tetsuo thinks he has been responsible for the death of Kaneda he is inconsolable, realising what he has done and that he has (he thinks) killed his greatest protector. Likewise when it comes to the crunch Kaneda realises he cannot kill Tetsuo, who he has essentially raised and protected since they were both very young. You know that what happened to Tetsuo will haunt Kaneda for the rest of his like (due to the emotional impact, not just cause its freaky as shit). There are very few films which have made me feel so much about a central pairing, let alone an animated one.
I thought that there was a chance that Akira would expand what I thought animation was possible of achieving. And in many ways it did. But the real shocker for me is that it actually expanded what I thought a soundtrack was possible of. I think it is probably the greatest soundtrack I have ever come across. The way it adds intensity to the early chase sequences or the silence as Akira ascends into space toward the films conclusion. But its greatest addition is the way it emphasises Tetsuo’s mental prowess. In these most shocking of moments throughout the film when Tetsuo unleashes his power, all of the impact comes from the soundtrack. If I were to watch these scenes on mute I seriously think they would be lucky to have 10% of the impact they do. I was really surprised that the soundtrack to an 80’s animation could astound me the way it did.
There is so much here to enjoy and explore in this film and I could bore you with thousands of more words on different aspects of it. It is hard for me to recommend this film enough. It succeeds as a spectacle, as a piece of sci-fi, as an exploration of a dystopia, as a relationship drama, as a love story. For me, this is simply the first truly unmissable film I have written about on this blog and an experience that has stayed with me since I saw it and that I think will continue to stay with me. Go watch it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter