Anastasia (1997)

Anastasia (1997)

Anastasia could be called an animated musical or an alternate history, a fantasy perhaps, and any of those labels seem pretty fitting to me, but I’d argue it’s a drama before the others – though there is somewhat Disney-like magic here as well.

And while I definitely don’t have much knowledge of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, I do know that back in the late nineties there was still a hypothetical chance that she had survived the revolution, though more bodies found in 2007 likely squashed the rumours once and for all. (I think in Russia actually, the movie was received as a fantasy in terms of its distance from true events.)

But again, at the time of Anastasia’s release there was perhaps still some lingering romance associated with the myth – secret royalty, mistaken identities, lost family deserving of reunion – and so perhaps some of that fuelled the success of the film? Either way, it is undeniably beautifully made and can certainly stand alone when you set all the historical aspects aside.

The movie is the one of the last (so far) to be released by veteran director and animator Don Bluth. He’s know for his long association with Disney and then a string of hit films in the 1980s (like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail or maybe Dragon’s Lair if you’re more into gaming) and I think by the late 1990s he must have had a great team, well-deserved confidence and also, a large budget to make a really impressive film – which he did.

Visually, it’s stunning, from background art to animation to the staging and the direction, to the use of lighting and highlights, it really makes for a fairy-tale like atmosphere at times. I especially like the snow scenes or Anya’s exploration of the abandoned palace and later, the nightlife in Paris. There, the animators step into a romanticised version of the city and create beautiful pointillism-style backdrops that I really enjoyed.

You can probably guess as to what’s coming next – the things that I didn’t enjoy as much; sometimes the character designs seemed a little ‘cheeky’ and by that I mean that I’m not used to see the shape of cheeks drawn in animated works, so that kinda threw me even though it shouldn’t have. And in terms of the magical element, I feel like the Rasputin storyline wasn’t precisely necessary for the film to be great. It would have been an engaging drama without that aspect, which distracted from the main conflict for me. Supposedly Bluth and team used that to sidestep the political nature of the source material but even the mistaken-identity-(kinda)-double-bluff love story would have been enough for me.

Elsewhere, the voice acting is great (though I don’t remember any of the songs precisely). Kelsey Grammar has a rich voice and Meg Ryan is as distinctive as ever too. And that might seem like a bit of a put down to the songs but it’s probably more that I was focused on the story and visuals, rather than the songs themselves.

So, while I think it’s a beautiful film I didn’t love it, but I reckon if you’re interested in American animation and work from one of the teams once able to go toe-to-toe with Disney in the (mostly) 2D world, then I think Anastasia is definitely worth a look.

3 Stars

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta) 1986

The first official Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a steampunk adventure that will feel similar in some ways to Miyazaki’s previous epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, though Castle in the Sky is overall, a lighter story due to the inclusion of more comedy.

It’s one of the first things I noticed when I originally saw the film actually – the slapstick and wacky characterisation even feels cartoonish this time, as if those aspects were pitched at a younger audience perhaps, but the themes and trials the characters go through are just as serious as in Miyazaki’s other works. There’s more than a few echoes of Future Boy Conan too (which shouldn’t be a surprise of course) but the steampunk elements are more grounded, if you can permit me a pun, featuring one key setting of a mining town and the underground.

Of course, the classic Miyazaki delight with the power and nature of flight still features heavily in Castle in the Sky too and the ‘older civilisation with greater tech’ trope is in full force, one I suspect I will never tire of! There’s plenty of action like chases and fights, along with top notch animation as to be expected, and I still get a bit of a chill when the Robot first comes to life and goes on its rampage.

In fact, I think the most memorable aspect might just be the Robots and the ruins of the flying city – I reckon I was almost transformed into a kid when I first saw those scenes; the sense of wonder is so strong and I suspect, even if people don’t know the film they know what the robots look like. It was also pretty cool to see what I still think of as the clear inspiration for both Pikachu and Eevee, in the form of the Fox Squirrels from Nausicaa making a cameo in the garden scene.

Actually, I shouldn’t forget Dola and her pirate gang, she’s one of the best Miyazaki characters around – she tends to steal pretty much all the scenes she’s in 🙂

Anyway, on the off chance that you’ve never seen this adventure there’s lots of other aspects to enjoy – for instance, if you’re watching the dub, Mark Hammil is a great villain and whichever audio track you choose you can enjoy more stirring music from Joe Hisaishi – my favourite is the theme:

(It’s actually the second song here – sorry :D)

5 Stars

Hellsing

Hellsing 2001

Hellsing is something of a classic anime series and it definitely has some really killer elements… but as a whole it doesn’t quite live up to its reputation for me.

That’s not to say that I didn’t really enjoy some episodes or that I think it’s bad series, but the show strays between genuinely atmospheric, creepy and exciting to kinda trashy and even a little shaky re: its animation. And yeah, trashy isn’t always bad and I know the production team were soon working ahead of the manga on a smaller budget (and that’s always fraught with risk) but I think I agree with the general consensus out there, which suggests that the anime didn’t live up to the source material and later, suffered in some ways compared to the remake in Hellsing Ultimate.

But back to the 2001 series – it’s got blood and tension, some interesting music, great voice acting and at times distinctive direction (especially in the opening episode) along with a memorable cast of characters in its favour. The gothic elements were really welcome too and I liked Seras’s storyline – her struggles definitely deserved a little more screen time. Alucard himself is of course a great menace and fits the ‘monster hunting other monsters’ role quite well but the pacing of the series felt off to me and I grew weary of the recapping. And a small thing that also bugged me – the endless repetition of ‘amen’ quickly became odd rather than fitting for the characters.

Still, what this series definitely did was make me curious about a more complete adaptation of the source material and so on that level at least, it really works. And that first episode is pretty stunning, really – it’s just a shame that the quality for me fell away not too long after.

3 Stars

Modest Heroes (Chīsana Eiyū: Kani to Tamago to Tōmei Ningen)

Modest Heroes (Chīsana Eiyū: Kani to Tamago to Tōmei Ningen) 2018

I hope interest in Studio Ponoc stays high as we’re now nearly three years out from their first feature and a year on from Modest Heroes, the first in a series of shorts. And while I’m personally a bit wary of commissions from giant corporations, I’m kinda excited about the IOC asking Ponoc to work on a short for the 2020 Olympics.

Part of that excitement does come from how much I enjoyed Modest Heroes – three shorts unified by the theme of smaller, perhaps more intimate victories. And aside from what seem like small stakes compared to say, an epic, there’s still plenty of drama and tension in Modest Heroes.

Since each story is quite brief I won’t ruin the plots, other than to say another common link appears to be family, though the final story Invisible focuses more on missing connections – and I thought it was really bittersweet, actually. It used a soft, even sombre look to the backgrounds really well and animating an invisible character must have been tough – it was handled so nicely I thought – like the striking of the keyboard in one scene. None of the shorts are dialogue-heavy either, which becomes a feature, though the second story has more than the others.

While Invisible is probably my favourite of the three I also really enjoyed the first, Kanini & Kanino, the underwater story with the amazing trout sequence and the fantastic use of purple light (that’s actually echoed in Invisible). And while Life Ain’t Gonna Lose is just as good I think what I enjoyed most about that one was the simple fact that it was essentially about Anaphylaxis – as a teacher I see a lot of students struggle with that really unfair set of circumstances.

If you like Ponoc’s work or the Ghiblies then you’ll doubtless enjoy Modest Heroes.

4 Stars

Not the Top Reviews from the First 6 Months

Following on from the previous post I’ve not been able to come up with a proper heading for this one but basically – these weren’t the top posts re: reader interest but I want to revisit them anyway, because I either hope I did a good job or wrote about texts that were memorable or maybe new to me in some way.

Okay, let’s go:

June – Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

July – Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise

August – Vampire Hunter D

September – Made in Abyss

October – B The Beginning

November – Miss Hokusai

Done! So they were some of the other reviews where I maybe added some different things in compared to a ‘regular’ review or learnt something new about a classic or even just finally caught up to everyone else on a popular show 🙂

Thanks for reading!

Ashley

Popular Reviews from the First 6 Months

I think I might do one of these twice a year if I remember – a post where I highlight reviews that ended up being the most popular across a certain span of time, today it’ll be one that covers the first 6 months of The Review Heap in action.

Below I’ve got a few links to the reviews that got the most attention – maybe they’re not always the best ones in terms of me being especially fluent or insightful 😀 but some do at least reflect what a lot of viewers were watching in that month, I suspect.

Okay, here we go:

June – Whisper of the Heart

July – Sirius the Jaeger

August – Iria

September – Granblue Fantasy

October – Demon Slayer

November – Expelled from Paradise

And there it is! I might do an ‘answer’ to this post with 6 reviews that I thought I did a good job re: the writing of them and post it next, just to offer some contrast. Not sure if a following up style post will become a regular like this one but who knows? 🙂

Thanks for reading!

Ashley

Tintin in Tibet (Tintin au Tibet)

Perhaps the most emotional volume in Herge’s Tintin series, Tintin in Tibet (1960) is certainly the one I’ve read the most times.

Perhaps there isn’t as much action as usual, but with its mystery woven around a heartfelt storyline that sees Tintin and Haddock searching the snowy mountains of Tibet for Tintin’s friend Chang, it’s a fantastic piece of storytelling that, despite the darker subject matter, is still graced with Herge’s usual fine sense of humour.

While it can be difficult to separate pleasant memories of reading this one as a child from the review, I can safely say that Tintin in Tibet remains distinctive not just for the personal nature of the story, but for the powerful use of white space in the panels – Herge’s famous ‘clear line’ style is so direct in conveying a sense of space that I always find myself drawn in to the setting as much as the story. This is partly what makes the moments of colour, such as the visit to the monastery, so vivid.

If your only experience of Tintin is the more explosive CGI outing from Jackson and Spielberg, and you’re not sure about the comics, perhaps start with some of the faster-paced volumes such as the Calculus-themed releases – but if you’re already a fan and you don’t actually have this one for any reason, then don’t deny yourself Tintin in Tibet.

Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko)

Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko) 1994

I guess you could say Pom Poko appeared right in the middle of a golden period for Ghibli, and from a production standpoint it’s just as wonderfully animated as any others from the time. I also think it’s probably just as (or more) imaginative to my eye, in part due to the wealth of mythological creatures featured within.

But even though I still enjoy the movie I don’t think it’s my favourite by Isao Takahata and I wonder if that was due to my expectations upon first viewing, rather than any real deficiency in the film. For instance, I think I unfairly expected more whimsy from Pom Poko upon first glance, both due to Ghibli’s general history and the animal cast.

Of course – that was always my error, since everyone who has seen Pom Poko is well aware that it’s very much a David vs Goliath story, with the animals fighting against humanity’s quest to conquer wild spaces, and without spoiling the ending, I guess I’ll have to just say the words ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ to offer a general clue.

And so my misconceptions were all my fault and truly, there is whimsy. The tanuki can be just as playful as the kitsune are sly, and there is comedy too but I think of the movie as more of a drama, and one which wears its environmentalism very much upon its sleeve – even including a fourth wall break.

Again, it probably sounds like I don’t enjoy Pom Poko but that’s not true – I wonder if maybe I’m just comparing it unfairly to other works from the studio? Or maybe I wanted a different ending for an underdog story, even if I knew it wasn’t possible all along.

3 Stars

Expelled from Paradise (Rakuen Tsuihō)

Expelled from Paradise (Rakuen Tsuihō) 2014

More science-fiction!

So, if you haven’t seen Expelled from Paradise I’d say this film strikes a balance between overpowered robots, cyber investigation, fan-service and good old fashioned post-apocalyptic stuff – yet it’s not precisely part of the mecha-sub genre. It also spends a bit of time exploring personhood, which is always welcome in my books.

There are some pretty fun battles throughout – I’d watch it again for those sequences and the sleek designs of the ships and robots too, but I reckon studio pressure shoe-horned fan-service into the film.

Now, I don’t have a handle on the production context or reception it got at the time of release, but it’s probable that main character Angela’s g-string costume (and the action) was meant to sell the audience on the film so the writers could later sneak in some philosophical aspects as the movie progressed? I mean, she’s not a one-dimension character but she is clearly typical in that she’s been costumed to be eye-candy for the male gaze.

In other aspects, Expelled from Paradise treats her as an actual character. She realistically struggles with having to use a body once again (after essentially living as a virtual presence for part of the story) and she does become less conceited, so there’s some character development. And look, it’s not all bad and I’d say the film is probably still worth watching for the animation alone.

Actually, maybe for the mysterious (and cute) Frontier Setter too, along with the other lead character who remains my fav, Dingo. He’s probably my favourite because he has the whole ‘Spike’ bounty-hunter thing going on, though Dingo is more open – and interestingly enough, in the English dub he’s actually voiced by Steve Blum (and Wendee Lee voices Angela :D).

This movie had a big budget and some big names behind it – Seiji Mizushima (FMA) Gen Urobuchi (Pyscho Pass) as director and writer, but Expelled from Paradise didn’t end up being brilliant or un-missable for me and I don’t see it listed as a classic on anyone’s list… but once more, having said that, it was still pretty good in spite of the things I felt were shortcomings.

3 Stars

I felt like there was also a little nod to Ergo Proxy here when we meet Angela’s masters, though of course, not everything is a reference to something else – but I like to seek out the possibilities anyway 😀

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu)

Psycho-Pass (Saiko Pasu) 2012

I thought I’d try to avoid a long, rambling preamble for a change and instead take a shot at summing up my response to the show in a few words – disturbing, fascinating and mostly compelling.

While it actually took me months to finish Psycho-Pass (usually watching one or a few episodes at a time only) that’s not an indictment on my enjoyment of the series and I think it’s easily one of the best cyberpunk/futuristic dystopian shows around.

Obviously on several levels it’s a procedural/mystery/thriller with all the conventions that go with them but the setting really elevates Psycho-Pass beyond and it was probably the most engrossing aspect to me as a viewer. The characters ranged from utterly engaging to tedious and even criminally under-used I feel – but I want to stay with the setting a touch longer before I get back to the characters 🙂

To understand the Japan featured in the series, which falls into the ‘dystopia masquerading as utopia category’, I want to quote from the wiki entry:

Psycho-Pass is set in a futuristic era in Japan where the Sibyl System (シビュラシステム Shibyura Shisutemu), a powerful network of psychometric scanners, actively measures the minds and mentalities of civilised populations using a “cymatic scan” of the brain. When the calculated likelihood of an individual committing a crime exceeds an accepted threshold, he or she is pursued, apprehended, and killed if necessary by police forces.

A consequence of this system that I didn’t quote above is that while people generally tend to lead safe and calm lives, it is at the cost of much autonomy in terms of deciding the path of those lives. The tension there tends to be the cause of most crimes the characters must solve in the series, and it’s probably the main theme for both the heroes and the villain – so, classic stuff, which I was really happy about.

Psycho-Pass also definitely kept me guessing at times and while it is equal parts thrilling and interesting, I’d like to warn folks that some episodes can be seriously disturbing. And it’s not just the violence, but the way society reacts to violence – and without spoilers, I’ll just say that part of what makes it chilling is the seemingly very real possibility of a similar society rising in the future.

Now, finally to the characters – for me, a few pawns used by the key antagonist were a bit dull but leads Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami more than made up for it, with the tension between idealistic and cynical playing out in an interesting way by the end. The supporting cast were great too, but now I want to circle back to my ‘mostly-compelling’ comment and pair it with my ‘criminally under-used’ comment.

Yayoi Kunizuka.

For whatever reason, she was hardly used despite being one of the more interesting supporting members of the team – and yet, the series took time to devote an entire flashback episode to her punk rock past… but then just never came back to it. Even by the end of the first season there’s no sense that she’ll be given a chance to get the closure other characters were afforded. It thus became a kind of odd detour that interrupted the pacing and dissolved perhaps too much of the building tension.

Of course, there’s two more seasons of the show but here’s where I finally get around to ‘mostly-compelling’. I kinda have no desire to keep watching – which sounds odd, because I enjoyed Psycho-Pass. BUT enough of the main plot threads were resolved so that for me, there’s not enough to keep going. Well, that and the fact I want more from another certain other character not featured in the next seasons!

Still, season one had a really satisfying finish on many levels – but I want to quickly mention how much I appreciated the colour and light in the wheat fields; it really stood out compared to the night and neon that dominates the rest of Psycho-Pass, so I thought that was a great contrast.

Brilliant science fiction but probably not for everyone, I reckon.

5 Stars

As a tiny postscript, at times I felt like a few action sequences were a little less fluid than I was expecting and I’m not sure if that was due to the temporary studio switch or a desire for more realism in combat.

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