Everything old is new again! I set out to review a couple of new movies I saw lately, and then I realized that I should dive back into my old Themestream files and re-post a review I did there, here, as background material against which to set those new reviews.

So now, I give you reviews of four different movies at once. The first two reviews have been edited only slightly from how they originally appeared on pay-writing site Themestream.


THEN…

Heavy Metal (1981)

Heavy Metal 2000 (2000)

A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path. And death will come from the skies.

I remember the first time I saw Heavy Metal, at a midnight movie showing over ten years ago, during my first college go-round. I had almost no idea what to expect; all I knew was that it was animated, science-fictiony, rated R, and had a cult following. So I went in to watch it, and I was utterly blown away. I wish I could remember now my exact feelings, my exact memories, so I could relive the thrill of that first time seeing this movie.

Try to imagine my perspective. Here I was, a barely-post-teenaged fan of animation, who thought the only mature stuff worth watching came from Japan. Suddenly, as I was seated in that theater late at night, that stentorian narration came through the speakers, a space shuttle hove into view, and an astronaut rode a classic Corvette down to earth from it. From that moment on, I was entranced.

Here was a definitely-adult animated film that combined comedy, drama, science-fiction, fantasy, and horror into one somewhat-cohesive whole. At times like watching an animated Boris Vallejo painting, at times something just this side of MAD Magazine, it had remarkably good animation for the time in which it was made, and gripping stories that resonated well enough with audiences that elements from them have shown up again and again in our popular culture. Co-produced by Hollywood comedy maven Ivan Reitman, it featured high-caliber voice-acting by professional actors and comedians, such as John Candy, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, John Vernon. It had a kick-butt rock-and-roll soundtrack by some major-name musicians of the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Journey, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, and Cheap Trick, backed with a very Wagnerian symphonic score by Elmer Bernstein.

It also had (and my apologies to any women reading this article) more female nudity than any other animated film I’ve ever seen, before or since—in fact, more nudity than even most R-rated live-action films. It had least one full-frontal nudity shot for almost every one of its usually-quite-busty female characters, and plenty of sex to match. My eyes were so glued to that screen . . .

Now, Heavy Metal was by no means a thought-provoking film like Princess Mononoke, or even great mass-market cinema in the way that Titanic or even Gladiator were. Some of its segments were better than others, and some ran a little too long as the animators got so bound up in showing pretty pictures that they forgot to focus on story. The connecting story, about the Loc-Nar, a mysterious artifact that is the sum of all evil in the universe, is a bit weak—in some segments, the Loc-Nar plays a very, very minor role, and in one it never even appears at all.

But nonetheless, Heavy Metal remains a very powerful experience, and even twenty years later is still a terrific example of how to construct a truly entertaining film. It strikes a perfect balance between lighter and darker elements, sandwiching dark horror between comedic pieces so that the audience can have some laughter to help them recover from the shock of seeing people’s bodies dissolve into goo. It integrates its music into the scenes, using long segments of the songs to set the tone for what is to follow. And the clever writing manages to interject engaging moments of surreality into even the most serious scenes. It is no wonder that elements of these stories have been recycled into movies (The Fifth Element), TV shows (Aeon Flux), and games (arguably Parasite Eve).

After nearly 20 years of unavailability due to rights issues with the music, Heavy Metal finally came to VHS a few years ago, and DVD more recently. Though I only rented the DVD, and did not have time to check out all of its cornucopia of features, it definitely rates as one of the most featureful DVDs I have ever seen of an animated film, and I will undoubtedly buy it before long. Even on a small screen, the movie still lived up to my memories.

Rating: 8 out of 10.


However, at the same time, I also rented Heavy Metal 2000, also known as Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2, and I have a much less optimistic review of it.

Heavy Metal 2000, hereafter referred to as HM2K, was conceived by Kevin Eastman, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, who had realized every young comic-book-fan’s dream by purchasing Heavy Metal Magazine, the adult-comic magazine on which the original Heavy Metal movie was based. He had also recognized every young adolescent male’s dream of marrying 6’1″ (“and worth the climb”) supermodel/B-movie-queen Julie Strain. Out of these two dreams was forged a new dream: an animated science-fiction movie, based on both Heavy Metal and Julie Strain.

The result is a slick-looking piece of definitely-adult science-fiction animation, with some similarities to “Taarna,” the final segment of the original Heavy Metal. But that is where the resemblance ends. None of the original movie’s staff had any part in making this one (with the possible exception of Carl Macek as a “special consultant”), and it shows.

Heavy Metal 2000 has plenty of violence, some nudity (though I can’t remember many full-frontal shots, which is probably not too surprising considering how sensibilities have changed over the years. Were the original Heavy Metal released now, it would probably be NC17), oddly very little sex, and a single, not terribly coherent storyline that involves a character named “Julie” taking revenge for the decimation of her planet, with the dubious help of a comedy sidekick who was left behind by the original raiders. It also has no connection to the original movie in any real sense whatsoever, other than sharing a name.

By itself, as an example of an adult animated film where the characters are not inclined to burst into song every five minutes, HM2K is not a bad movie. The animation is very good; the voice acting ranges from competent—such as Julie Strain, who as a voice actress makes a better live-action star—to great—especially Michael Ironside, who always plays a wonderful animated villain, and Billy Idol, whose growly, Brit-accented voice was just made for voice-acting.

However, neither is HM2K a particularly great movie, and by naming itself after one of the recognized greats of American animation, it invites an inevitable comparison by which it can only suffer. For a film whose name is also that of a musical genre, it uses its music very badly, sticking in a short snatch here or there of some blaring heavy metal song that is forgotten as soon as it ends. The musical acts lack any of the name recognition value that the original movie’s artists had, as well—except for Billy Idol, I had not heard of a single one of them. Whereas all the music from the original Heavy Metal was distinctive and memorable, any one of the songs in HM2K could be switched for any other song and I would never have noticed the difference. None of the characters is terribly sympathetic, either, save perhaps for Julie’s younger sister (who gets relatively little screen time).

By having a serious plot, Heavy Metal 2000 throws away the comedy part of the formula that made the original Heavy Metal such a treat. Instead, it becomes a continuous melodrama that continues on and on, long past the point where it should have ended. It does try for the little moments of surrealism that made the original so pleasing, but they usually come off as—no pun intended—strained. It is obvious they were tacked on, where in the original Heavy Metal, they were so naturally a part of the scenes they were in, it was as if they happened without anyone even thinking about them.

Heavy Metal 2000 still manages to be moderately enjoyable, especially in the scenes where it homages the original, but it is nowhere near as good as the first one. Though its DVD also has a remarkable number of special features, it is definitely on my “rent, do not buy” list.

Rating: 6 out of 10.


NOW…

I’ve seen a couple of animated movies recently—one of which I rented and watched for the first time, the other I bought and watched for the second time. As they’re both animated features and both targeted at an audience older than the traditional Disney/Pixar kiddievid, it seemed appropriate that I review them both together. However, they’re both very different films, so I’m not going to try to compare them to each other.

I’ll go ahead and review them in the order in which I’d watch them. I learned long ago when doing a movie double-feature (as I’d occasionally do at the buck-to-two-buck second-run cinemas), you should always watch the worse one first, so the second movie gains rather than suffers by the comparison. (The movie pair that provided this great cinematic insight, by the way, was watching Under Siege before Passenger 57. I should have watched them the other way around.) So, we’ll start with…

Titan A.E. (2000)

I found this DVD in the $5.50 bin at Walmart this weekend. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I’ve been seeing it in the $5.50 bin for months but never bothered to pick it up. I’d watched it before, borrowing it from a friend, and I wasn’t sure it was worth another $5.50 to me to own it. I finally went ahead, if for no other reason than to see how much it improved on watching it with 5.1 speakers instead of two.

American teens and young adults are exactly the target market for much of the animation that comes out of Japan these days, but they’re a target that American animators have a really hard time hitting. And the Disney/Pixar films don’t count, because all of them—yes, even Atlantis—were aimed primarily at a juvenile audience (with some jokes for older folks snuck in under kiddie radar). They’ve also tended to be comedies with a little drama thrown in, as opposed to dramas sprinkled with comedic elements such as one-liners. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s a fundamentally different type of filmmaking than aiming directly at an older audience.

In fact, there have only been either two or three mass-market attempts at a more mature, serious animated film by American studios in the last few years (depending on whether you class Final Fantasy by the American or the Japanese half of Square Studios), and they have all been dismal box office flops. This is at least partly because, while even though they have been animated, and usually animated quite well, they just haven’t been what American teens want to see.

Final Fantasy, while a technical masterpiece, suffered from a variety of little problems (slight spookiness/plasticity of its characters, slow pacing, non-Hollywood ending) that conspired to bring it down. Heavy Metal 2000…well, Heavy Metal 2000 was just baaaaad. It tried hard, and had a stand-out performance by Billy Idol (who really should be given more voice-acting work), but suffered from the idea that all that is needed to make a film “mature” is naked body parts. (Yes, I know, in the above review I’m kinder to it. That was then, this is now.) Of the three, Titan A.E. came the closest to hitting the mark. In fact, to extend the analogy, it’s the only one of the movies that even managed to hit the paper target. That wasn’t enough to save it, though—or to save the studio.

Titan A.E.was the last gasp of 20th Century Fox’s traditional animation studio division. The movie flopped theatrically, spelling the end of cel animation at Fox. It’s a pity, really—not so much that I have any particular attachment to Fox’s animation studio, but because it adds to the growing perception of cel-based animation as being outdated and “superseded” by CGI. (Even Disney is buying into this idea: if Lilo and Stitch had flopped, it would have been the end for Disney’s own cel-animation division. Thankfully, it didn’t.)

As far as reviewing the DVD itself, I’m going to “cheat” a little and point you at the DigitalBits review of the disc. They say pretty much everything I would, and this saves me some time and effort which I can use in talking about the movie itself instead.

To summarize, Titan A.E. has good to great CGI and cel animation, excellent 5.1 digital sound in both Dolby and DTS flavors, and decent music. The film’s lesser flaw is that sometimes the CGI animation and cel animation clash stylistically, jarring the viewer out of his suspension of disbelief. But then, this has been a problem to some extent for at least as long as animators have been trying to combine CGI and cel. (See the Lensman anime movie for an early example.)

Even with the clash, Titan is a truly impressive film visually and aurally. The use of CGI enables some fancy cinemagraphic techniques and tracking shots of the sort that give cel animation trouble. The 5.1 soundtrack is filled with loud explosions, crunching noises, energy blasts, and music. The voice acting is excellent, with standout performances from Nathan Lane, Bill Pullman, and a host of others. If you’re looking for a home theater demonstrator disc with lots of eye and ear candy, you could do a lot worse than Titan A.E. (In fact, Fox put a scene from Titan in the “hear how impressive DVD audio can be” section of its own DVD demo for just that reason.) The greatest area where Titan falls short is in the plot.

Without giving too much away, Titan A.E. opens 15 years after the earth has been blown up. It centers around a young man named Cale (voice of Matt Damon), whose father built a giant starship whose existence caused an alien race called the Drej to blow up the planet. Now, a roguish human starship captain named Korso (voice of Bill Pullman) has tracked Cale down, because a ring on Cale’s finger holds a map to the location of that starship, and he wants to find it (and help create a New Future for Humanity) before the Drej can destroy it.

There’s nothing particularly science-fictiony about this plot; replace Cale’s ring with a treasure map, the Titan with treasure, the starships with sailing ships, the planets with islands and the aliens with native tribes and you could tell almost exactly the same story. There is only one single nod to hard science anywhere within the movie that I could find (one character telling another to “exhale” before a brief excursion through hard vacuum); the special ability of the mysterious Titan starship is nothing short of a magical deus ex machina. (In fact, in terms of what happens in the story, it’s a deus ex machina in two separate and distinct ways!) In short, the story is pure Star Warsian science-fantasy space opera.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. (Hey, it worked for Star Wars after all.) There’s not even necessarily anything wrong with the story being one long cliche from start to finish. Cliches only become cliches because they’re used a lot, and they’re only used a lot because they almost always work. Every one of Shakespeare’s plots can be considered a cliche by now, but that doesn’t make them any less classic.

There’s nothing wrong with the pacing, either: at 94 quick minutes, the movie never seems to drag. The pendulum swings from action sequence to dialogue scene and back at a decent pace, and some of the sequences are quite spectacular. In particular, the game of “hide and seek” in a field of ice-asteroids is almost worth the cost of admission all by itself.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back is that the story flies along a bit too fast and doesn’t explain enough. We never really learn who the Drej are, except that they’re composed of “pure energy” (thank you, Mr. Spock) and they hated and feared (and destroyed) the Earth because of what the Titan project was supposed to be able to do. (It is never even clarified, once we do find out what the Titan actually does, why the Drej are so scared of that to begin with. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless it’s some kind of a “humans are evolving faster than we did, so we must kill them before they overtake us!” thing.) How did the Drej even find out about the Titan project to begin with? How do they and Korso both manage to find Cale at exactly the same time after almost 15 years? And that’s not all—in some cases, characters exhibit peculiar abilities that are never adequately explained. At one point, Cale is able to operate Drej technology (much as Flynn operates a Recognizer in Tron) even though it is made out of glowing blue energy with no controls evident anywhere. It would have been nice to find out why.

Motivations of particular characters such as Korso or Tek (the Alf-like alien who raises Cale after his father goes away, voiced by Tone-Loc) are never explored beyond surface level. The movie falls into the Disneyesque trap of making its characters familiar stereotypes as a substitute for spending time characterizing them individually. Because of all these gaps, the film has “plot holes big enough to fly a starship through” that might not have been there if things had simply been better explained.

As I was watching Titan A.E., I was often reminded of an earlier teencentric animated movie, 1981’s Heavy Metal. The original Heavy Metal wasn’t a great film. It may not even have been a particularly good one. Yet it had a sort of infectious spirit that drew its viewers in, and that is probably what caused it to become a cult classic. In its best moments, Titan A.E. sometimes manages to capture that same spirit—which brings it closer to being a worthy successor than Heavy Metal 2000, which never does. For this reason, if no other, I say it’s well worth that $5.50 Walmart bin expenditure.

Rating: 8 out of 10.


The Triplets of Belleville (2003)



The other animated movie I saw recently was aimed at a primarily adult audience (in the sense of maturity, not nudity) but was as different from Titan A.E. as chalk from cheese. The Triplets of Belleville was a French animated art film that was twice nominated for the 2004 Oscars (Best Animated Feature and Best Song (“Belleville Rendezvous”)). I rented it not having any idea what to expect, as I had intentionally made every effort to avoid being spoiled by the movie beforehand.

This led to a few moments of surprise when the movie first started and my parents and I were treated to the opening moments of a Fleischman-like cartoon in which enormous women and itty-bitty men attended an event played by the musical group the Triplets of Belleville (as well as caricatures of musician Django Reinhardt and dancers Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire). However, after the cartoon, we met the movie’s actual main characters, who are done in a somewhat more realistic style.

I say somewhat because this is a very stylized movie. In fact, it’s so stylized it is difficult to find anything to compare it to. All the characters are exaggerated caricatures of stereotypes—usually exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness. People are either extremely short or outrageously tall, beanpole-thin or mountainously obese. This goes for buildings, vehicles, animals, and just about every other object in the movie

Without giving away more than the blurb on the video cover, the story centers around an old lady named Madame Souza; her grandson, Champion; and their dog, Bruno. Sometime in the late 1940s, a very young Champion has apparently just come to live with Mme. Souza after the death of his parents. Trying her best to make him happy, Mme. Souza becomes his trainer over the years that follow so that he can, in 1963, enter the Tour de France and follow in the footsteps (or tire tracks) of those he idolizes. But Champion is mysteriously kidnapped, and Mme. Souza follows his abductors across the ocean to the very peculiar metropolis of Belleville. Here, she must enlist the aid of some most unlikely allies to rescue him.

There are many things I could say about this movie…but almost all of them would spoil it in some way. I had several belly-laughs over the course of the film just from incidents that were entirely unexpected and yet so much in character that they still made perfect sense. To say anything at all about what they are, or why they’re so funny, would take away from the wonder you would get from seeing them for the first time.

Knowing nothing about the movie when I rented it, I experienced moments of trepidation as I started the DVD. First of all, the audio selections were English and Spanish only. No French. As one used to subtitled foreign films (particularly anime), and aware of American importers who leave off the original language tracks of foreign films and just dub them into English (particularly Jackie Chan movies), this immediately made me nervous. Then, when I started the movie, I saw the warning “This movie has been formatted to fit your screen” usually reserved for pan-and-scan butcheries of widescreen movies, and that made me really nervous.

But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried on either count. First of all, since there are only about three important spoken lines of dialogue in the entire movie, the fact that those lines were dubbed into English was rather unimportant. All the rest of the dialogue in the movie, including French announcers heard speaking over the radio and Charles DeGaulle seen speaking on TV, is left alone. Second, Triplets of Belleville is one of those odd movies that is actually made in a narrower (1.66:1, or 15:9) aspect ratio than anamorphic (1.78:1, or 16:9). In order to keep from having to “windowbox” the film and show black bars to the left and right when they put it into the anamorphic format, they shaved a few pixels off the top and bottom, so the movie ended up losing perhaps 7% of its overall picture—a regrettable but acceptable loss, all things considered. Thus, Triplets joins The Substitute 2 in the unusual subclass of movies that were altered for DVD from their original version but formatted to fit a wide screen.

I find that I particularly enjoy movies such as this, which are told with almost no dialogue whatsoever. It’s a challenge to a storyteller to present a tale like that, and sometimes a challenge to the viewer to puzzle out how to interpret things he is shown. And if nothing else, a dialogueless film is not ever going to suffer from an excess of exposition.

Dialogue or no, Triplets is presented in 5.1 digital sound, and though I’ve only had the chance to watch a little of it on a 5.1 system (as opposed to my parents’ stereo set), it seems to have a decent digital mix with good directionality. The musical numbers and soundtrack to the film come through quite well. The DVD’s picture is crisp and clear, and the disc itself also includes a number of extras which I have not yet had a chance to peruse.

Much like Titan A.E., Triplets is a mixture of computer animation and traditional cel animation (though Triplets also has a sprinkling of black-and-white live-action photography). Unlike Titan, however, Triplets blends the two almost flawlessly; some reviewers don’t even notice the CGI and laud the film as a triumph of “traditional” cel animation. It’s hard to blame them. The only way to tell that a particular shot is CGI is that it moves in a way cel animation couldn’t, or allows a pan or tracking shot that cel animation would not—but there are many, many shots throughout the course of the film that are inobviously CGI, as I only found out when I watched the making-of documentary on the DVD—and that’s exactly as it should be. This marriage of cel and CGI allows for some very creative shots and camera effects, especially in dream sequences.

Grotesqueness of character and architectural design aside, Triplets is a very well-animated and detail-oriented movie. The vistas are cluttered with interesting little signs and handbills and miscellaneous objects and random clutter. It reminds me of some of the illustrations of Mercer Mayer, which also include a lot of trifling little details. There’s way too much to take in with just one viewing—I’ve started watching it a second time, and though I’m only about twenty minutes into it, I’m already seeing dozens of things I missed the first time around. This is a disc that will certainly reward repeat viewing.

The Triplets of Belleville is not a movie for children—but unlike the other movies I’ve reviewed in this entry, it isn’t due to sex or violence. Save for some brief nudity near the beginning (the parody of Josephine Baker, a 1920s dancer who often danced half-nude), there’s very little objectionable material in the entire film. Triplets isn’t a children’s movie because it simply doesn’t have much to keep them interested. The pacing is slow and leisurely, the humor is often subdued, and most children would probably get bored after the first few minutes.

If you’re interested in art films or good animation and have a fairly long attention span, check this one out.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

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