The Labyrinth: absurd surrealist animated film portrays a bizarre totalitarian society

Jan Lenica, “The Labyrinth / Labirynt” (1963)

Superficially this looks like a Terry Gilliam / Monty Python animated cartoon and it is indeed very funny and quite surreal. A man with mechanical wings strapped to him visits a strange 19th-century European city whose streets and buildings are oddly empty. He has several weird adventures which culminate in his being captured by a mad scientist who early on has noted his presence and who probably rules the city. The scientist-ruler subjects the visitor to painful scientific examinations but he manages to escape and tries to leave the city. The ruler searches for him and sends out bat-winged scouts to find the visitor and bring him down.

The combination of stop-motion animation and collages of paper cut-out 19th-century figures and buildings gives the short a distinctive steam-punk look and provides opportunities for humorous sight gags. Insects with human heads and animated dinosaur skeletons don’t look at all out of place – we accept them as inventions of the mad scientist-ruler. Colour is an important feature and its use is very striking and beautiful. The musical soundtrack assumes a major role in enhancing the action and tension of the plot and of the 19th-century atmosphere as the film is completely silent.

There are passages where the action seems fussy and dragged out – the scientific examination of the visitor is probably overdone though the animation is fiendishly droll and the use of colour very original in parts – and the film could have been edited for a faster, tighter plot narrative.

Overall “The Labyrinth” presents a world at once absurd, bizarre and entertaining but which turns out to be nightmarish and deadly. The city is more Hotel-California than the visitor realises: you can visit and stay as long as you like but you can never leave. A parallel with the authoritarian state that existed in Poland in the early 1960s, and the absurdities associated with totalitarian rule that went on in that country, can be observed.

The Thomas Beale Cipher: good-looking collage / rotoscoped animation film let down by small scale of plot and concept

Andrew S Allen, “The Thomas Beale Cipher” (2010)

Unusual collage-type animated film that’s based on the legend about the three cypher-texts that supposedly reveal the location of a treasure chest of gold and silver worth millions of dollars, this is quite fiendish to watch and requires repeated viewings to understand and to find 14 supposed clues. Protagonist Professor White, a noted cryptographer on the run as a suspected Nazi spy, is on the trail of this chest and boards a train. Shadowy figures claiming to be FBI are hunting him and he must evade them. An ingenious sequence of overhead luggage improbably slamming into one another and then attacking the agents saves White’s hide and enables him to flee. That’s pretty much all there is to the plot.

The film has the look of an aged historical document and the animation technique used appears to be rotoscope with cut-outs of material and real human eyes to give the film a fresh, rough-hewn look. Bits of fabric like tweed or carpet cut out into shapes of people or objects recall textures of materials once used on clothes or objects and add particular historical flavour. Main and minor characters alike look real yet slightly eccentric and one train passenger looks downright steam-punk weird. A beautiful woman looking out the window may be a stereotypical film-noir mystery dame. Characters wear clothes of flat floral or herringbone pattern and Professor White’s glasses reproduce numbered code at various points in the short as his thoughts through his eyes lay out a hilarious plan of escape and deception.

The plot proceeds with the benefit of voice-over narration by White which allows the film to delve into a bit of flashback history about the treasure and Thomas Beale himself. The story is told with the use of first- and second-person points of view: White addresses the young woman (and the audience) and although the lady does nothing other than smoke and look out the window, she is in fact an active participant in White’s scheme.

Disappointingly the film ends with White rushing into the hills while senior agent Black glares at him from the departing train. One hopes a sequel might be made but the short is so self-contained that I doubt that possibility. There are several sight gags – one funny one being where White hides behind a newspaper whose back page is emblazoned with his portrait, in itself probably a familiar trick disguise from Hollywood films – and ingenious camera angles and points of view that take advantage of the train-carriage setting with the overhead luggage section.

For such a good-looking film, the plot is insubstantial and the whole work would benefit from an expansion into a 30-minute piece with a few more, less complicated clues as to the characters’ nature and motivations, and how White and Black are related to each other.

No I haven’t worked out what the clues are but interested readers can Google thomas + beale + cipher + Facebook to find the Facebook page where people discuss the clues and a solution by Czech computer student Miroslav Sustek has been posted.

The Bellies: delightful film about human greed and avarice, and how materialistic societies eat themselves

Philippe Grammaticopoulos, “The Bellies / Les Ventres” (2009)

Delightful short film inspired in part by Rene Laloux’s animated work, “The Bellies” features a simple story about human avarice and arrogance in controlling nature, and how eventually nature and unacknowledged guilt prevail over greed and materialism. An unnamed gentleman, gross and piggy-eyed, gorges on snails for lunch at a restaurant; his fellow diners, all much the same as he is, eat the same meal in a bizarre co-ordinated Mexican-wave mass action. After lunch he goes back to the company laboratory where visitors await him: he explains the process by which small snails are genetically engineered to grow into ginormous gastropods for human consumption and takes his admiring guests on a tour around the facility. After the tour ends and the gentlemen sign a deal, the self-satisfied owner walks around the facility grounds where giant empty snail shells abound. On a whim, he crawls inside one such shell to assure himself he’s not hearing strange ghostly noises …

The animated figures are CGI-created while the backgrounds look as though they’ve been done with pencil and paint. Special effects are computer-generated. The figures don’t appear at all realistic but they are meant to satirise self-satisfied bourgeois conformity. There’s no speech but sprightly and playful acoustic music accompanied by sound effects emphasise mood and create, sustain and build tension. The whole cartoon has a very clean, spare look in keeping with the sanitised and conformist future society portrayed.

The last third of the film is the most surreal and really fits in with a dream-like Laloux-inspired universe: our piggy-eyed company director is forced to suffer as his factory-farmed snails have suffered and must run for his life. The film makes a point about how pursuit of materialist pleasure ends up eating you, how ultimately a culture based on gluttony will cannibalise itself. The giant fork that pursues the man turns into a creepy spider predator with a life of its own.

It’s a little slow and drags out the story in parts, especially during the graveyard scene where the company director starts thinking he’s hearing distant voices … but overall “The Bellies” is an entertaining piece with a surprisingly deep message about a future, materialistic society and how it dooms itself into extinction.

Franz Kafka: lack of story and direction drag down an otherwise very fine brooding and melancholy film

Piotr Dumala, “Franz Kafka” (1992)

A 15-minute film of various episodes in the life of early 20th century Czech writer Franz Kafka, this is remarkable mainly for its style of animation rather than any plot. Dumala uses boards completely covered in black paint through which he scratches images and shadows in shades of white and dark grey and all hues in-between to achieve atmosphere, emotion and depth of perspective or viewpoint through texture and tone. Great delicacy and emotional expressiveness are achieved. It’s a pity in a way that the subject matter comes across as fragmented and disjointed with no obvious narrative beyond emphasis on Kafka’s sense of isolation and being an outsider because of his fragile physical health and his subdued nature, and how this isolation influenced his outlook, sense of being and his writing. The pace is slow and the film seems much longer than its 15-minute playing time. The music is plaintive and often very intrusive. Whatever sound is produced is very discreet; people’s voices usually aren’t much more than a series of murmurs.

The drawings and animation (stop-motion) are very detailed especially in close-ups of Kafka’s face yet are very flexible in scenes in which Kafka appears to change into an animal (and in the last scene does so definitively). Blurring of edges is used often to demonstrate a 3-D illusion and the perspective can change so that things close to us can switch from blurry to sharp while at the same time faraway objects go from sharp focus to blurry. The drawing and animation techniques allow for subtle and very delicate movement of facial expressions and hands. Shadows in most scenes heighten a sense of Kafka’s isolation from the world around him yet in other scenes encourage an intimacy between the main character and viewers. A sex scene early in the film is portrayed tastefully and voyeuristically.

Something of Kafka’s dreary everyday life, lived in shadows and the shadows (figurative as well as real) of people around him, can be discerned from the film’s details. Viewers get the feeling of being trapped with him in his existential prison. The lack of a story and direction can be off-putting for viewers but the animation is unusual and must have been very painstaking to do and is worth repeated viewing.

 

A Quiet Week in the House: becoming a voyeur to view, record and pass on news of desperate attempts to be free

Jan Svankmajer, “A Quiet Week in the House / Tichy tyden v dome” (1969)

A strange little film even by my standards of strangeness, this combines live action with stop-motion animation that also features cross-fades which give the film a rough and crude look that befits the plot and its setting. An unknown man on the run takes refuge in a deserted and decaying house in the Czech countryside. Each day for six days he drills a hole in the wall and peeks through it to observe the activity in the house. After observing the activity, he scribbles off that day on a wall diary. On cue over six days, objects come alive: nails unwrap themselves from candy wrappers and arrange themselves like erect steel phalluses; a slug-like tongue minces itself into long screws; a mechanical toy chicken frees itself from its leash only to be buried under falling piles of mud; a feathered chair attempts to fly to freedom but smashes itself onto the ground; a jacket sucks up water from a vase of flowers and ends up urinating on the ground; and a pair of dentures binds pigs’ feet with wire. All of these scenes suggest hope that is dashed by an unfortunate accident.

On the seventh day the man plugs up the holes he has drilled with dynamite, wires it to a remote control and a timer, takes his equipment outside the house and is about to run away when he remembers he has forgotten one last thing. While the clock is counting down, he rushes back inside the house …

The sepia-toned look of most of the film when the man is active gives it a fresh and rough-hewn appearance; only the animated parts have some colour. These sections are also completely quiet so as to give the suggestion that they might be projections of the man’s imagination as he peers voyeuristically through the holes. He is rewarded with rare treasure indeed: small everyday objects yearn for freedom and to determine their own identities but end up being thwarted by their ambitions and their nature or by something beyond their control. A psychosexual message is hinted at when the man plugs up the holes with phallic dynamite, intending to blow everything up.

As with most Svankmajer films, “A Quiet Week in the House” can be creepy and puzzling, and the animations and the man’s actions at the end of the film can be interpreted in very different ways. The man may be a spy and the secret activities in the house, not the house itself, may be the target of his bombing attack. We ought to feel lucky then that we have seen what goes on in the house and are able to remember and pass on the knowledge to others. Having been made a year after the Prague Spring, this little film could be about as politically subversive and biting in its comment on then-current events in Czechoslovakia as the authorities allowed.

 

The Fall of the House of Usher / The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (dir. Jan Svankmajer): two film shorts of fear, terror and oppression

Jan Svankmajer, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1981), “The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope” (1983)

Both these live action / stop-motion animation films by Jan Svankmajer are quite faithful adaptations of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short stories of psychological fear and terror. In both stories, told from a first-person viewpoint, the terror exists in the minds of the main characters who attribute to their tormentors greater malevolence than these might deserve. The use of black-and-white film in both shorts focusses viewer attention on shadows and the textures of objects and structures around the protagonists, and conveys an atmosphere of decay and retrogression that may be man-made. The live-action film emphasises close-ups of objects and fragments of large structures such as underground tunnels; fear or alienation seems to fill up the available space behind the screen like invisible swirling smoke.

In “The Fall …”, a narrator visits his friend Roderick Usher’s home and both entomb Usher’s comatose sister Madeleine in the Usher family vault in the basement of the mansion. No actors are seen: the action occurs entirely with any figures and stop-motion animation is used to move Madeleine’s coffin as though it were being pushed by invisible hands. Fantasy imagery of clay and soil moving and forming themselves into rows of frills and ridges, or of mound-like cakes is a major highlight of the film as is also the climax in which chairs fling themselves out of windows (a reference to the famous defenestrations that have occurred in Prague throughout its history since 1419 when the first known major one occurred) and sink into a muddy quicksand moat, and other furniture flee a disintegrating building as the coffin bursts open. The unseen narrator speaks throughout the film in a measured, sober voice but the fact that viewers never see him means that the voice sounds very alienated from the events of the film. Unfortunately the version of the film I saw lacked English-language subtitles but in spite of having no actors and all the furniture and soil having to move themselves about, the film carries a strong sense of physical and psychological isolation and the associated strange and deranged mentality that leads Usher to kill his sister but which also maintains the sister’s life and desire for revenge. There is something of an incestuous relationship implied for Roderick and Madeleine: the two may have had the hots for each other in the past, and if both are mad, that in itself might suggest their parents were also close relatives and had unwittingly passed on a defective gene or two.

“The Pit …” is more conventional in its story-telling approach: a silent, trapped prisoner is condemned to death by being cut in two by an overhanging pendulum suspended from a portrait of a leering God skull on the ceiing above; the pendulum sweeps ever lower to the prisoner, to cut him in two eventually. The man, noticing rats about, grabs meat from bowls with bound hands and smears them over his body’s bonds. The rats grab the food and take the pendulum’s sharp ends, the man is soon able to escape the ropes. Next, moving walls of metal demon puppets that thrust knives and belch fire through eye and mouth apertures menace the prisoner and force him to fall into a pit. He manages to escape and at this point the Poe story ends and another short story “A Torture of Hope” by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam takes over: the man runs through labyrinths of tunnels, panting and panicking as he spies the prison wardens in their hooded cloaks walking from one tunnel to another. He finds a way out of prison but is met by an unpleasant surprise.

Those not familiar with Svankmajer’s way of telling a story might find “The Pit …” easier to follow though no less frightening and filled with dread; if anything, it is highly claustrophobic, panicky and paranoid. The fear is of a dread theocratic regime as suggested by the appearance of the sinister hooded monks who run the prison. The prisoner’s bid for freedom and the fate that awaits him suggest that no matter how far and how long you run, the system will always find you and imprison you again.

The suggestion that machinery and simple household objects, even small items like nails, and natural objects and phenomena like soil and stormy weather might have a life of their own is played for sinister and terrifying effect. There are messages about how people can be manipulated by others through suggestion and religious belief into torturing others or being forced to undergo torture. Svankmajer creates a unique world in which natural or man-made objects can be made supernatural and humans quickly become slaves of their technology and the systems that help produce this technology.

 

A is for Atom (dir. Carl Urbano): educational propaganda film presents a mildly benevolent view of nuclear energy

Carl Urbano, “A is for Atom” (1952)

Created and produced by John Sutherland and sponsored by General Electric, this promotional / education film is aimed at junior high school students, perhaps to inspire them to consider taking up science and mathematics subjects at senior levels of high school as preparation for the appropriate university studies. The entire film is delivered as an animated piece in the style common to many cartoons of the 1950s with sharp-edged animated figures and a colourful, 1950s-“modern” look. An off-screen narrator delivers the involved science lesson in mildly bright and carefully neutral tones so as to suggest the neutral nature of atomic energy in itself.

The film begins by carefully and clearly explaining what atoms are, what they are made up of and how atoms can be used to create energy. The narrator goes into some detail about what atomic weight is (it’s determined by the total number of protons and neutrons in the atom’s nucleus) and how isotopes of an element may differ by the number of neutrons in the atom’s nucleus. Sprightly animation likens stable elements to ordinary middle-class denizens minding their own business and going to bed early in their own tidily numbered houses while radioactive elements are restless beatnik types dancing wildly to jazz! The narrator then continues onto the history of how atomic energy was discovered by scientists in 1939 and the process of transmutation that they used to split uranium atoms and obtain massive amounts of energy. With the discovery of nuclear fission and chain reactions within nuclear fission, physicists could go on to create and design atomic bombs, learn to use neptunium and plutonium in the process of nuclear fission, and discover uses for atomic energy in agriculture, industry, other areas of science such as biology, and medicine. The film concludes by speculating on further uses of nuclear energy in transport technologies and in society generally, and emphasises that human wisdom and control of nuclear energy will open up a new world of discovery and material comfort for future generations of people.

The bright clarity of the narration and the stylish yet funny cartoons in explaining what an atom is, what elements and isotopes are and how artificial transmutation of uranium-235 created atomic energy make this film highly relevant still to current generations of young school students. Visual explanations and metaphors are straightforward and moderately paced if at times a little bizarre and are sometimes an unintentionally funny commentary on social classes and life-styles of the 1950s! The science presented in the film appears to be fairly accurate although the strong and weak nuclear forces are presented as semi-transparent liquid glue. There is a lot of information given and a couple of viewings might be needed but the imaginative animation is great to watch and even the backgrounds and settings are smart and bright. Atomic energy is presented as a strong, silent, stern but benevolent muscular giant standing over cities, hospitals and farms: a little bit like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or Zac Snyder’s reverent film of the same name but without that character’s dangly bits or moral hollowness. Of course this film having GE as its sponsor, the tone of the film is positive about atomic energy and completely ignores its potential for destructive annihilation and crippling long-term health effects on individuals, their families and communities.

Of course the reality in the 1950s was much more complicated: not all physicists and other scientists in the United States and other countries agreed with the use of nuclear energy for industrial, agricultural, scientific and military purposes. The adoption of nuclear energy for such uses in many countries was driven more by political and ideological motives than by economic need and was often against public opinion (Japan being a notable example where politicians like Matsutaro Shoriki and Yasuhiro Nakasone pushed for investment in nuclear power). In 1957, a nuclear accident involving plutonium waste stored underground in Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union rendered a large area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres highly radioactive (it still remains dangerous to this day) and resulted in the evacuation of 22 villages with a combined population of 10,000 people; the Soviet Union suppressed reports of the accident for a long time but it has been suggested that the CIA in the US had known about the accident almost as soon as it occurred and also hushed up publicity about it to avoid loss of public confidence in the US nuclear industry. Doubtless the sponsors of “A is for Atom” would have approved.

 

Arrietty: disheartening social conservatism and narrow prospects for a plucky heroine mar a charming film

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty / Karu-gurashi no Arrietti” (2010)

A charming offering from Studio Ghibli, based loosely on Mary Norton’s novel “The Borrowers”, this film is beautiful yet melancholy with themes of children on the verge of adolescence and a promise of love dashed, and a reconciliation between humans and nature, with all that that might promise, thwarted by ties of family and tradition. Sho is a young boy sent to live in the countryside with his grandmother to rest before major heart surgery, his parents having divorced long ago and with very little time for their son for reasons particular to them. During his stay he learns of a family secret: that the mansion his grandmother inherited from her parents has been host to a family or families of little people no bigger than the proverbial grasshopper’s knee. As it turns out, a tiny family does live below the house: Arrietty and her parents have made a comfortable home and eke out a living taking bits and pieces from the family mansion at night when everyone is asleep. However during her first night foray with her dad Pod, Arrietty is accidentally seen by Sho. Over the next several days, Arrietty and Sho form a friendship but inquisitive housekeeper Haru, spying on Sho, discovers the little people’s home and devises her own scheme to flush them out. Fearful of the human “beans” and their possible intentions towards them, Pod and Arrietty’s mother Homily make arrangements to leave their home and migrate to a new territory where they hope to meet others of their kind.

Let’s get the best and the worst bits out first: The film’s main joys are to be found in the detailed visual backgrounds of lush green nature and an ambient soundtrack of chirping crickets suggesting a late summer atmosphere in which days are hot, humid and often rainy. On the other hand, the musical soundtrack by Breton singer / harpist Cecile Corbel, whose style initially seems appropriate to the film’s whimsical subject and lightly serious scope, is instead loud, intrusive and saccharine. The animation hasn’t significantly advanced since the early days of “Nausicaa and the Valley of Winds” – Arrietty’s dress even flips up a bit to show off her pants – and a brief appearance is made by sinister rats, drawn to evoke the malevolence of the black monsters encountered in the likes of “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”, which turn out to be the film’s red(-eyed) herring. Apart from these self-references, Studio Ghibli thankfully makes no other attempts to butcher motifs from previous works to insert into “Arrietty”.

That said, we can go on with the plot and narrative which skilfully combine beneficent and sinister aspects of both human and Borrower nature: both Sho and the housekeeper Haru are curious about the Borrowers and wish them no harm but whereas Sho desires to help them in their precarious existence on the margins of human activity, Haru wants to keep them as pets and curiosities, perhaps to show off to friends or to treat as a little circus. Sho’s grandmother exemplifies a different attitude: she has long had a doll’s house ready for the Borrowers to accept and we must accept her generosity at face value; but it is possible that she also views the Borrowers as a secret family curiosity, something to pass down to younger people as a weird heirloom. The Borrowers for their part shun contact with humans to the extent that when an opportunity for reconciliation and a better, more mutual understanding is offered to them, they reject it and force Arrietty to bow to family ties and the need to be with others of their kind.

Character development is weak and one-dimensional and the friendship between Arrietty and Sho appears not so deep that Arrietty will necessarily remember the boy. He may well remember her as giving him hope and courage for the future. Arrietty is a typical plucky Miyazaki heroine but the film doesn’t give her much to play on her strengths and parents Pod and Homily play family man and woman stereotypes: the patriarch as physically strong, stoic and whose decision is final, the mother as kitchen-bound, fearful and hysterical. Sho is a quiet, sensitive boy who meekly accepts what Fate dishes out to him and Arrietty, and the elderly, child-like Haru is played for slapstick laughs.

I can’t see much really to recommend “Arrietty” to a family audience: the social conservatism is disheartening and it seems Studio Ghibli has all but given up on hope for young people to question and change their society, be it human or Borrower, in a way that accepts other cultures and points of view as equal and valid as their own. The message seems to be that the Borrowers as a metaphor for First Nations are doomed to die out anyway due to the sheer size of human populations compared to the number of Borrowers left: what a despairing message to leave with young viewers. The future for Arrietty herself looks dismal: settlement in an unknown territory might sound good in the short term but there’s the possibility that her family will find it necessary to uproot itself again and any new friends the girl makes will have to be abandoned and forgotten like Sho. Rootlessness will always be this family’s lot. Marriage to Spiller, a Borrower befriended by Pod, beckons and Arrietty will be expected to settle down to Homily’s level. The treatment of adult women like Homily, Haru, the grandmother and Sho’s unseen mother, however much played for laughs, is cruel to them and to Arrietty’s prospects.

Howl’s Moving Castle: cut-and-paste job of previous Studio Ghibli films masks a conservative message for women and girls

Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005)

Up to and including “Spirited Away”, the animated films by Studio Ghibli are of a high standard both technically and in spirit. With “Howl’s Moving Castle”, the soulful quality of the earlier films that peaked with “Princess Mononoke” disappears and what we get is an empty shell of a story that exploits typical Studio Ghibli motifs and themes and the studio’s technical virtuosity. All the familiar devices of earlier films – a young female protagonist on the verge of adulthood, elderly women, a flawed hero with shamanic characteristics, heroes and villains manipulated by more powerful characters of uncertain quality, sophisticated flying technology in an alternative 19th-century steampunk world – are worked over in a fantasy aimed (cynically it seems to me) at a mainstream Western audience and the result looks very cheesy and manipulative with an ulterior message that superficially celebrates female bravery but channels it into socially restrictive roles.

The story’s heroine is a plain-jane working-class hat-maker called Sophie who accidentally meets a young wizard Howl and so arouses the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste who turns her into an old woman. Sophie runs away and meets a scarecrow called Turnip who takes her to Howl’s over-sized trailer-park home. Here she meets a fire demon called Calcifer and Howl’s child assistant Markl. Sophie insinuates herself into Calcifer, Markl and Howl’s lives by claiming to be a cleaning-woman and through her association with the unlikely trio, is drawn into a war between Howl’s country and an enemy realm missing its Crown Prince; during the film’s course the war also moves into Sophie’s country. Howl is forced to participate in this war at the cost of eventually losing his humanity through repeated transformations into a bird creature. Sophie comes to realise that Howl and the Witch of the Waste are pawns of more powerful forces, represented in part by Madame Suliman, the former mentor of Howl, and Sophie’s work for the rest of the film is cut out trying to locate Howl’s missing heart, the mysterious connection between Howl and Calcifer, ending the war and locating the missing Crown Prince.

Working out all the different strands of the film and connecting them together might take viewers 2 – 3 viewings which would expose them to an excess of saccharine musical schmaltz and a deadly “love conquers all” radiation cloud in the tradition of Beauty-and-the-Beast stories. I think if I had to sit through this film again, my hair and teeth will start falling out, my skin will break out into ulcers and bruises will mysteriously appear and spread. Characters are poorly developed and the love Sophie feels for the feckless Howl is so unbelievable as to be laughable; she would have been better off taking her chances with Turnip who performs a noble act of voluntary self-sacrifice in comparison with Howl who fights because he is compelled to, not out of free will.

The war merely forms a backdrop to the events and all the various characters can do is try to stop it without understanding anything about the lead-up to it and why Suliman forces Howl to do her dirty work; or participate in it. Even the animation of the war and its participants looks like a cut-and-paste job of previous Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films like “Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds”, “Porcorosso”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” and “Princess Mononoke”: several flying machines look like those giant bug monsters of “Nausicaa …” with wing-flaps added as an afterthought. Backgrounds are visually gorgeous at first but turn out to be generic according to the role they have to play so, for example, town scenes have a dreamy alternative-universe quality similar to scenes in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” which takes place in a similar alternative 1950s universe that might well follow on in the future from “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

The film is too long and its story is too intricate to work as a family film, the characters are shallow and implausible, the animation is cynically overwhelming and unoriginal. Worst of all is the film’s message about what happens to girls eventually: they get to play brave heroines for a brief while and once they are adults, they can be either beautiful scheming bitches like Suliman or domestic-goddess workaholics like the geriatric Sophie slaving away for love. Issues like the nature of war – Miyazaki made the movie partly in protest at the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are sidelined so much that all the eye-blinking in the world couldn’t make them more missed. No way in the world would I recommend this film for families with young daughters. I feel so cheated having seen it.

 

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: beautiful layered Gothic steampunk film steers viewers into a heart of darkness

Anthony Lucas, “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” (2004)

A nominee for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2006, this is a visually beautiful and richly layered Gothic steampunk adventure story that is equal parts Lovecraftian and Conradesque horror. Young navigator Morello (voiced by Joel Edgerton) in the industrial city of Gothia accepts a commission to help fly a dirigible to parts unknown. He does this partly to atone for a previous voyage in which, due to a mistake he made, a crewman fell to his death. Morello leaves his wife Emilia at home as she is needed at a hospital to nurse patients dying from a mysterious plague.

An eccentric scientist Claude Belgon joins the crew and the ship chugs away; it crashes into an abandoned vessel and the crew quickly transfer to that vehicle. In his regular radio correspondence with his wife, Morello hears her hacking coughs and realises she has contracted plague. Nevertheless the men continue their journey despite one man also sickening from plague and they soon come across several sky islands. By accident, they discover that the boiled blood of a strange creature on one island cures the sick crew-member so they collect cocoons and take them back on board the ship. While on the journey home, Morello realises that crew-members are mysteriously vanishing and stumbles across the awful truth about the hatched larvae from the cocoons and their link to the disappearances.

The story is very focussed, not too complicated, and the pace moderately fast. The animation is a mix of layered 2D pictures and cut-outs made to resemble 3D objects and the characters themselves appear as silhouette cut-outs reminiscent of an Indonesian wayang shadow-puppet play. The use of first-person narrative makes the film resemble a Joseph Conrad novel and Joel Edgerton’s measured and refined tones make his young navigator a sensitive character. Morello does tend to be passive and easily influenced by the sinister Dr Belgon and the blustery Captain Griswald, and this passivity brings a touch of J G Ballard to the proceedings. The mix of Australian and near-English accents brings a salty nineteenth-century flavour to much of the film. The story gradually transforms from the thrill of adventure in its first half to quietly macabre and devastating in its second half, topped by an open-ended conclusion in which Morello, in the manner of a Ballardian hero, submits to the advice of the malevolent Belgon in the near-hopeless belief that by so doing he will save his wife’s life if not his own.

Themes of sacrificing one’s own life for the greater good of society and the advancement of scientific knowledge, and of the moral dilemma that faces Morello when he discovers what the last larva from the cocoons needs to survive – yes, if he kills it, he’ll save his own life but not his wife’s life; if he allows it to live, then he must offer himself to it – give “… Jasper Morello” a deep, dark intensity befitting its Victorian Goth look of sepia, blue and grey tones. Belgon is a typical mad-scientist type who embodies Conrad’s Kurtzian hero: his thirst for knowledge and fame drives him to commit heinous acts of murder. Interestingly the film has as its climax a conflict between Belgon and Morello that forces Morello into choosing whether or not he should repeat a past mistake, and it is this choice that determines whether Morello becomes his own man, albeit with horrifying consequences.

Morello’s passive nature, the switch from Jules Verne adventure to macabre horror and the anti-climactic cliffhanger ending probably counted against the film in competition for the Best Animated Short Oscar but I find this is a very immersive short piece of great intensity, technical detail, bittersweet tragedy and many allusions to great horror and science fiction writing: depending on where viewers are coming from, they can probably find hints of Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Bruce Sterling. The film is aimed at a general audience though it is very creepy and chilling for young children, and it’s well worth watching a few times to appreciate its distinctive animation.