I am not sure what it is about animated films that gets me involved in the story so easily. Even corny sentiment easily chokes me up in this form. Maybe the suspension of disbelief makes it easier to get lost in the narrative or maybe it’s just the simple stories and often childlike cast with their usually big, teary eyes (as parodied by the cat in Shrek 2). But I do have to admit that I like the medium especially for the capacity for silliness. The Emperor’s New Groove with its many jokes that broke the third wall is one of my favourites and is still sometimes ripped off for a punchline in my daily conversation. (‘Noooo touchee!’) Recently I saw a couple of animated movies within a week, though apart from the drawn aspect, most had little to nothing in common.
Les Triplettes de Belleville is an odd, wildy charming French flick, that’s bursting with character. A grandmother raises her grandchild to be a cyclist in the Tour the France, and finds herself battling the French mob when they kidnap him for nefarious purposes. Luckily she runs into musical triplets, who help her kick their ass and perform some funky music as they do so. There is almost no dialogue, but what there is and the general mood is very French. The mob has giant bottles of wine on the building that is their headquarters, and their cars sport the phrase: In Vino Veritas.
The look is one of exaggeration and extremes: faces are distorted and distinctive – hooked noses, faces with wrinkles that swallow up everything else, huge teeth and ears and so on, boats tower ridiculously above waterlevel, seemingly about to keel over at any moment and buildings stand at dubious angles while trains pass by that could be touched from the windows. Logic is cheerfully thrown to the wind, which such charm and reckless abandon that you will happily go along with it: at one point grandma and her dog manage to wither storms while crossing the Atlantic – or so it appears – on a waterbike (!) in pursuit of one of those bizarre boats. You want this old lady to win and you don’t care that the universe has to be distorted in her favour to make it possible. The triplettes are slightly more dubious heroines, with a strange predilection for using explosives to blow up frogs – for food – and gangsters – for a quick getaway.
Princess Mononoke comes from the same director who would bring us Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle in later years and brought us some great movies before that too (like My Neighbour Totoro). Pretty much all of his movies are worth watching, even if Howl’s rambles on a bit and isn’t all that coherent. He has a way of setting the mood and taking the time to tell a story. His worlds are spooky and magical while somehow feeling real and lived-in. Usually there are some little creatures involved that ride the line between cute and creepy, like the little tree-spirits in this movie. And a recurring theme is that of the spirits of nature coming in conflict with the threat of pollution caused by man. In this movie especially that theme is very explicit. The Gods of the Forrest fight against humans who are trying to use the land for financial gain and don’t care about the damage they do to it. The Princess of the title has been raised by one of these gods (a big toothy Wolf) and comes into conflict with humankind and with Prince Ashitaka in particular.
I originally saw this with subtitles, which was good because the original voice performances are better than in the dub (by various big Hollywood names) and the mouths in the dub don’t even remotely line up with the words. But the bad thing was that some of the details were lost on me. It seemed a lot more coherent and involving second time around. There is plenty of action, and there are some gross-out scenes involving blood and goo, also a staple of director Hayao Miyazaki.
Steamboy too belongs in the Manga section, but though I really wanted to like it, it was a bit disappointing. The computer-aided animation is spectacular, as is the action, but the story did just not make any sense. It is set in an alternate reality past, seemingly inspired by Jules Verne, where amazing machines are running on steam. A globe capable of storing near infinite steam power gets chased after for most of the movie, which ends with a lot of random destruction, the no doubt many casualties of which are not at all addressed. One of those films that entertain while you watch, as pleasantly noisy nonsense, but doesn’t really stick in the mind.