French animation isn’t something that’s on a lot of radars in the US. With major houses like Disney, Pixar, Illumination, and Dreamworks (and even Ghibli for a bit) taking up the major real estate in theaters and awards shows, it can often seem surprising when a quiet French animated film starts to get even a little recognition. And when it gets nominated for an Oscar, chances are quite good that the film is going to be worth your time.
When I saw that the English dub of Ernest and Celestine was available on Netflix, it was a no-brainer. The only choice I needed to make was what type of tea to drink while watching.
Based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent and made on a shoestring budget, Ernest and Celestine tells the familiar story of two unlikely friends who manage to create a home and family together. It’s familiar, yes, but it’s also warm, sweet, and perfectly crafted.
Celestine is a young mouse living beneath the streets of a city inhabited by bears. Each night she sneaks into town to steal the teeth that young bears leave under their pillows for the Mouse Fairy. These teeth are then used by other mice to repair their own damaged and missing teeth. Sadly, she’s not great at her job and the dentist she works for threatens to fire her if she doesn’t improve. Desperate to make her quota, Celestine gets caught in the city above and finds herself in the paws of Ernest the bear.
First things first, the animation is gorgeous. With hand painted watercolor backgrounds and matching Flash animation, the soft tones result in a visual style that is extremely enjoyable to look at. Everything feels soft, cozy, and dreamy. It’s a children’s book come to life with mice scurrying across pages and bears quite literally lumbering around. Yes, it’s very cute, but it’s never cutesy or sickeningly sweet. The tone and the stylistic animation complement each other, and it works just as well during the darker moments as it does during the lighter ones.
Additionally, this movie is funny. It’s hard to explain why, but there is something about the slapstick and physicality of the characters that made me smile a lot. The timing and pace never feel heavy, so when a character trips or runs into a wall, the audience is given just enough time chuckle without feeling as though the movie is waiting for you to congratulate it on how clever and funny it is.
Lastly, the voice acting in this film is great. The cast is filled with distinguished, talented, and familiar names like Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, and Paul Giamatti. Celestine herself is voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who does a charming job of making Celestine both empathetic and brave.
So, go ahead and add Ernest and Celestine to your Netflix queue and maybe someone other than me will start gushing over it to her friends and online. Hey, it could happen!
Already seen Ernest and Celestine and looking to expand your horizons when it comes to animation? Specifically French films? Here are a few recommendations (many of which can be found on Netflix):
Modern pop culture is filled with terms that try to describe the media we consume. With new phrases and new definitions emerging all the time, it can be difficult to know what the new terminology actually means, even when you hear it frequently. We Ladies like to provide some clarity by defining some of these commonly heard terms that people may not fully understand. We did it with “Mary Sue” and now we’re tackling the “uncanny valley.”
Much in the vein of our Netflix Hidden Gem series, this week I’m branching out to include Amazon Prime. Why you may ask? Simple. I want to talk about Studio Ghibli!
Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter (Netflix Original, Studio Ghibli)
Based on Astrid Lindgren’s novel, this series tells the coming of age of Ronja, the only daughter of a robber chief growing up in medieval Scandinavia. When Ronja becomes old enough to explore the forest on her own, she discovers that a rival robber clan and their young son are living quite close by. The two strike up a friendship, regardless of their parents’ wishes.
Photo: Amazon, Studio Ghibli
I was very excited when I heard that Ghibli was going to be releasing this series on Amazon and I started watching it not long after it was available. But here it is almost 2 months later and I’m only just getting around to talking about it. This is because it took me a long time to both finish watching it and even longer to decide how I felt about it. So, for the sake of this review, I’m going to simplify things. For better or worse, here’s what I thought. Spoiler alert: it’s kinda a mixed bag.
This is probably the last post I’ll write before I go to see Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast, which comes out on March 17th. As a huge fan of the original film, I look forward to the remake with a mix of excitement (Emma Watson is perfect casting), worry (still not loving the computer animated enchanted objects), and the knowledge that the quality of the new film does nothing to change the first one and the way I feel about it. The impending premiere also has me revisiting some of the interesting details I’ve learned about the original movie and its creation. This includes a few answers (or near answers) to some of the Internet’s burning questions, which is what I’m going to share with you today.
Animation of all kinds has always been essential in helping to bring dinosaurs back to life on screens big and small. In the month where we celebrate everyone’s favorite prehistoric creatures, let’s take a look at a small sample of the wide world of animated dinos.
The end of last month brought news of the coming end of an era. Cartoon Network’s critically acclaimed and much loved series Adventure Time with Finn and Jake will be ending in 2018. I’ve seen a lot of the early stages of mourning for the show around the Internet and I certainly sympathize as a longtime viewer myself. But even though I will miss having new episodes of the groundbreaking show to look forward to, I’m ready to see it reach its conclusion. Because endings aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Continue reading
This is part 2 of my review of the new DC animated film of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. If you are looking for part one, you can find it here.
Part 2: Mark Hamill is a National Treasure
If you read the first half of my Killing Joke review, you will have learned that I am not a huge fan of the original comic. I am, however, an INSANE fan of Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker. No seriously, if I had the means, I would hire him to sit at my desk and read selected emails from my work clients aloud. I just know that those automatic system reminders and employment verification requests could be so much more nuanced with the right delivery and some maniacal laughter thrown in. But I digress. Back to the film.
We last left off with Barbara hanging up her cowl and the movie has now switched its focus to the actual source material for which it is named. Or at least it will once it pushes through a rather clunky transition where Batman is brought in to investigate some bodies that turned out to be victims of the Joker a couple years earlier. For some strange reason, these few bodies drives Batman to ask Gordon for access to visit Arkham and confront Joker face to face. Now this might sound nit-picky, but I always believed that the comic took place later in Batman’s career. And that he is tired, worn, and that this was a long time coming. However, in the film it doesn’t feel that way at all. We were so focused on Barbara that this sudden need for Batman to have a heart to heart with the Joker kinda comes out of left field. Why now? I mean sure, we get a lot of “this can only end in us killing each other” and all that stuff, but without a prior knowledge of Batman in general, it feels forced and almost jarring. For a guy who had little to say to Barbara after sleeping with her, he sure is chatty now.
From this point forward, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to hash through the plot. Most of us are pretty familiar with it anyway. The screenplay doesn’t add much additional filler from this point on. In fact, it is one of the most faithful adaptations of a graphic novel I have seen perhaps since the original Sin City film. I do have to give credit where credit is due because this is where the film truly delivers.
Take a look for yourself:
It is also in the second half of the film that we finally hit some emotional notes. Aside from the fact that no one (and I mean no one) can Joker monologue like he does, Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker’s life before he hit that tank of acid is compelling to watch. The characterization Hamill gives us is a complicated one. While we feel for this unnamed struggling comedian, you can’t help but see moments that make us a little uneasy. His voice is softer and almost meek at times but builds and becomes more familiar as he struggles with his own feelings of failure. Is this guy all there? Does he really have his family’s best interest at heart? Or is there something darker lurking under the surface? And just what needs to happen to finally push a person over the edge of reason and humanity? Here in the film is where we really start to see the examination of what madness is. And that is what The Killing Joke is famous for. This is worth a watch, if nothing else.
As I try to sum up this review, I really find myself torn. The easy answer for me would be to suggest that everyone skip the first half and just watch the second, but that feels unfair and frustrating. I wanted Barbara to have her chance to be more than a object to drive the story line, more than a woman whose fate it determined by the men around her. I didn’t get that at all. But the second half of the film still managed to pull me in. The animation and the performances are just that solid. And you can’t deny that no matter how you feel about this story, it is iconic and will continue to be included in conversations about Batman’s mythos for years to come.
So I guess this is when I turn things over to you guys. Did you see it? If so, what did you think? Not going to see it, why not?
Due to the length of this review and how the film is so clearly broken into two parts, I will be posting part 1 today, with part 2 to follow up in a few days.
Part 1: Batgirl and her Insufferable Feelings!
I was never a huge fan of The Killing Joke. It was sold to me as “the ultimate Joker story” back when I was only just starting to read mainstream comics. I found it disturbing, and confusing. Fans of the book might argue that I wasn’t ready to read it, that I wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the DC universe to “get” it. Well, I simply decided that I liked my Joker animated and went back in search of other stories that I would find were more to my taste.
Fast forward several years. I discovered that not only would DC Animation be releasing a film version of The Killing Joke, but they would also casting Mark Hamill as the Joker. This is my Achilles heel. I made it a point to watch it and see how I would feel about it so many years after reading the original story.
I’ve read that there are people out there who have found the film to be a complete failure. And while I will agree that there are some very serious problems with the narrative, characterizations, and even style choices, I am reluctant to throw it out the window. I think that there is a lesson to be learned here and if we take the time to talk (rather than yell) about what those issues are, perhaps this can be seen as more of a teaching moment about what happens when intentions are good, but understanding of the real issues is flawed.
Before I go any further, I am going to put a spoiler alert right here. Not only am I going to talk about the part of the film that is directly lifted from the comic book, but I am also going to talk about the prologue featuring Batgirl. Strap yourselves in my friends, this is going to take a while.
When producer Bruce Timm had his often quoted interview with Empire , he stated that expanding Barbara Gordon’s story in this film adaptation would add to the emotional hit of her arc. We would like her, and then when she is shot, we would feel more deeply for her because they were going to flesh her out as a character. Here is my main gripe about this idea: when we are talking about a story that is so clearly focused on Batman and Joker, how does making us like Barbara add more to the story? How can or would this prevent her from simply being a tool or catalyst to drive Batman to his confrontation with Joker?
Simple answer: it doesn’t. Oh, and to make matters worse, it makes for poor narrative.
Barbara’s story feels like we have seen it before. She is working with Batman and in his typical MO, Batman/Bruce is overprotective, tells her what her own limits are, and is about emotionally available as a cheese sandwich. This feels familiar because Batman has this dynamic with pretty much everyone. The story hits on new territory when bad guy Paris Franz takes a particular interest in Batgirl. This interest quickly reveals itself to be a dark obsession as we see Paris hire a red-haired prostitute he asks to dress as Batgirl. He then leads Batgirl on a potentially life threatening scavenger hunt when he tells her that he has a special “gift” for her. Not only does Barbara mention that this is flattering, she knowingly walks right into Paris’s trap…thus proving Bruce’s earlier man-splaining about how Paris is objectifying Barbara to be woefully accurate. *audible sigh*
Barbara’s frustration with Bruce continues. Using an odd yoga teacher and student analogy, she complains to her friends that she is the best student Batman/Yoga teacher has ever had and yet he still pushes her away. When she finally confronts Bruce about his behavior and her feelings about her role as Batgirl, rather than reaching any resolution, the two of them have sex on a rooftop. That ends about as well as we can expect. So rather than taking this as an opportunity to explore both Barbara’s and Bruces’s feelings about what happened, and I dunno…develop them both as characters, they continue to focus on Paris instead.
Finally in a scene that could have redeemed Barbara and shown her as a woman driven by something other than her emotions, Batgirl helps Batman confront Paris. Sadly, she is too overpowered by Feelings. Rather than proving to the men around her that female empowerment is more than yelling and making demands, she instead pounds Paris’s face into ground hamburg before walking away from her role as Batgirl.
A few days later, Joker shows up at her place and shoots her in the abdomen. Fade to black on Barbara’s story and the film abruptly switches over to the main action in the Killing Joke. Batgirl is back on the sidelines and we have nothing to show for her having been around at all. Except now (maybe?) Batman is extra angry at Joker for shooting the woman that he turned away.
Before I talk about how the Joker/Batman dynamic was handled in the second half of the film, there is a lot that I want to talk about with Barbara still. Barbara’s story-line is not new, and while I honestly think that the writer might have thought that he was writing a strong woman character, I am flummoxed over how we are going to get people to understand that creating a well-rounded and strong female character is not simply checking off boxes for things like – enjoys sex, talks about what she wants, punches guys in the face, and has awesome fighting skills. None of these things work without proper context. And they certainly won’t work if the character is inconsistent. It would have been possible for Barbara to show her worth through her actions. For her to outsmart Paris and use his obsession against him. For her to match or even surpass Batman in certain skill sets. Heck, they could have just made her try to pull Bruce out of his shell more gradually, because you don’t get much of a sense that they had any relationship to begin with anyway. So where does her attraction to him come from? I mean, remember that cheese sandwich I mentioned earlier? Is it because he opened her eyes to the thrills and the action of crime fighting? Seriously writers, pick one. I could keep throwing out ideas. All I ask is for the follow through.
Whenever I write these pieces, I worry that my arguments come off as too fragmented and too ranty. I think that might be a sign that while I insist on writing about these things and talking about how women are written, I’m also tired of having to do so. This is especially true when the solution is such a simple one. Companies need to hire better writers and those who are doing the hiring need to be able to identify the good portrayals from the bad ones. I am not demanding that every female character be perfect, nor am I saying that only females can write well-rounded female characters. What I am asking is that companies, publishers, and writers need to start a dialogue. Read what the fans are writing about your work, listen to what they are saying, and maybe start a discussion rather than a confrontation (see Comicon panel). Believe me, I get it. You want my money, and I would be happy to give it to you. All I ask is that you provide me with a quality product…and maybe something a bit more substance than a stale cheese sandwich.
Next Time: Part 2, the Actual Killing Joke
The Internet age is a wonderful time to be an animation fan. All manner of behind the scenes material, industry insider news, and the personal musings of some of the greatest artists working in the medium are available to anyone who cares to see it. As it does with almost any subject, the Internet has a lot to see for the animation enthusiast, which can make finding a good place to get started tough. These are three of my favorite animation blogs that offer just a taste of what’s out there.
Andreas Deja is one of those aforementioned greatest artists working in the medium. A former Disney animator who helped give life to characters ranging from King Triton to Scar to Hercules to Lilo, Deja is currently working on an independent animated film. His blog offers a few glimpses of that and some insights into his own time and work at Disney. But the majority of the posts are appreciations of the work of other artists – past animation masters or great illustrators whose work has inspired Deja. Just seeing some of this artwork is amazing and getting to read thoughts from one of the top modern animators about what makes them so special is a true treat.
A pencil test is a stage in hand-drawn animation where the animator’s rough drawings are filmed in sequence to make sure the animation is working before the drawings are cleaned up. I’ve always loved the feel of these looser drawings with their strong sense of the artist’s hand. Pencil Test Depot collects these early stage of animation from a wide variety of sources – well known features to more obscure gems and demo reels. Unfortunately, the site is no longer being updated and some of the videos have since vanished from YouTube. But it’s still a great way to enjoy tons of beautiful pencil tests.
Story artist Mark Kennedy’s blog is chiefly about storyboarding for animation. It’s also an absolute must-read for anyone with even the slightest interest in narrative in film. While some posts are focused on the specifics of animation, many can be applied to live-action or any kind of visual storytelling and cite examples from all different kinds of media. The most current post as of now is about a scene from The Big Lebowski. This isn’t a blog I visit often, only because I can easily lose hours learning about more and more nuances of how to tell a story with moving images. Like so many sites devoted to the craft of animation and filmmaking, it helps you to gain a new appreciation for elements of movies you love.
Share your own favorite blogs about animation or any of your passions in the comments.
2016 has already had more than its fair share of notable deaths, from legends of the music world to beloved actors to genius comics artists who left us far too soon. But there’s one passing I’d like to recognize here. On May 19 at the impressive age of 96, actor Alan Young died of natural causes. Most of the obituaries I’ve seen focus on his time playing the straight man to a certain talking horse. But to Disney fans, he was and ever shall be the voice of Scrooge McDuck.