Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

They Watch: a dystopian sci-fi film of the oppressed being used to oppress others

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

In the near future, a mother and her teenage son living in small-town America are under siege from an oppressive police-state bureaucracy using an ingenious surveillance system that exploits prison labour as disembodied spies and snitches. The teenage son has been secretly working to expose the corruption of the system by helping to edit and distribute copies of a samizdat-style newspaper called The Truth; this act of defiance has brought him and his mother to the attention of the authorities who use the astral bodies of prisoners to invisibly infiltrate the homes of people suspected of dissident activity and to passively report back to their controllers via technology that sees what the prisoners see and broadcast it back to the controllers. One of the two prisoners sent to spy on the boy and his mum turns out to have a connection with the boy, and this poses a moral dilemma for the prisoner. Whatever decision he takes will lead either to his own death or to the capture and certain torture and imprisonment of the teenage boy and his mother, with death in custody or capital punishment a very likely fate for either or both of them.

The film does have a slick Hollywood-style about it: it runs smoothly with quite good credible special effects; but at the same time, it does have sloppy presentation and editing. The logic of the narrative does have holes: it seems unbelievable that a hi-tech surveillance system would make such a blunder as to assign the astral body of a prisoner who once taught the teenage boy debating in high school to spying on the boy. (Though of course the databases we have that collect vast amounts of information about people for future blackmailing purposes would not be 100% infallible and there is the possibility that such databases would assign stalkers to observe people they know and care for.) Setting alight a pile of papers in a closed room seems to be asking for trouble; viewers might find themselves rooting for the secret police to bust down the doors before the kid and his mum suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The plot idea is of the sort that the 1990s television series “The X Files” might well turn its nose up at: it’s a hokey mishmash of hard science fiction and ghost thriller fantasy. The idea that has been done to death in some form or another: the state co-opting prisoners into snitching on other, perhaps innocent people for very little reward. Surely the use of astral bodies to do things that ordinary people and even AI technology can’t do seems far-fetched, especially if the astral bodies turn out to have minds of their own. Nevertheless the idea of an oppressive system using those it oppresses as slaves to enforce extreme conformity and cut off dissidence is one that will continue to disturb audiences long after they have seen this film.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.

Dogs: a metaphor for the psychological and other effects of global war and violence

Mohammad Babakoohi, Jakob Bednarz, Benjamin Berrebi, Diego Cristofano, Théo Noble, Karlo Pavicic-Ravlic, Marthinus van Rooyen, “Dogs” (2019)

One of the longer films in the Gobelins 2019 graduation students’ batch of animated shorts eagerly awaited by the French animation school’s fans around the world, “Dogs” is a metaphor for the chaos and psychological effects of war and brutal violence on humans. The action takes place during World War II, about the period of the Warsaw Uprising. A Polish resistance fighter with a rifle (but no taste for killing) escapes a burning city and travels through open countryside in search of a new home. He sees a huge tree with a generous canopy in the middle of an endless meadow and walks towards it but is attacked by a huge savage dog chained to the tree. The man manages to climb into its branches but is stuck while the canine sentry patrols the area around the tree. Day passes into night and while the man is dozing, another dog sneaks into the area and is promptly set upon by the guard dog. During the fight between the two animals, the man is able to sneak down the tree and retrieve his rifle. The guard dog, having killed the other dog, menaces the man who must now decide whether to defend himself by killing the guard dog or be killed …

The beauty of the rural scenes and the cloudy skies, looking rather like oil paintings, belie the chaotic and violent conditions of the world in which this animation is set. The large tree in particular is portrayed as gorgeous and lush, and the guardian dog is vicious, even cannibalistic. Generally the live characters are drawn a bit more crudely than the background scenery but this may be deliberate: war may have dragged living things back to the edge of savagery, though so far it has spared some scenes of natural forest and grasslands. The scenes of burning cities at the beginning and the ending of the film suggest an unending cycle of war, brutality and violence as each new generation entering the world is dragged into this cycle.

The symbolism of the characters can be rather dense and multi-layered. Wooden as it is, the tree is a significant character perhaps representing a bridge between the hellish landscapes of the world and a better world where violence and war are unknown. The savage dog chained to the tree and apparently guarding it may be doing so on behalf of divine masters, so as to prevent ordinary human beings from climbing it and reaching out to the heavens. Significantly the man’s destination turns out to be a burning city – is it the burning city he left at the beginning or is it another city? – to which the entry is a gate over which a three-headed dog (in Greek mythology, this would be Cerberus guarding the entry to the kingdom of the dead) stands as if in triumph. Would the city have been on fire if the tree had not been on fire because of what happens between the man and the guardian dog? Does the city represent the Hell of war, of chaos, of mass prison / concentration camps, and of genocides?

For a film of its length, “Dogs” makes quite deep demands of its audience to ponder how war and brutality ultimately brutalise living beings such as the man and the guardian dog, and whether the man ultimately accepts his destiny to be a killer of humans (at the cost of losing his humanity) if only to defend and save himself.

Out of Range: a study of character transformation through personal crisis and breakdown

Cécile Guillard, Lana Choukroune, Yijia Cao, “Out of Range” (2019)

In the Gobelins animated universe, the most mundane incidents can give rise to major transformations in a person’s life, so much so that we can almost say that person has experienced a kind of death and been born anew. So it is with the sole character in this 4-minute short: Sue, a busy and harassed lawyer, is on her way to meet with a client on a rainy day. The expected meeting forces her to drive on a highway through unfamiliar countryside. The car breaks down and Sue has to pound her way through a forest with only her mobile phone to light her way during the encroaching twilight darkness and a steady rain. Along the way she loses some important papers, the phone falls into a puddle and goes flat, and she is bothered and hampered by annoying insects and a low-lying branch. She falls over and sees her reflection in a puddle – a reflection of her harried workaholic self – and ends up collapsing into an ocean that engulfs and deposits her into a sunny open-meadow paradise of rippling long grass under pale blue skies, the whole scene bearing an uncanny resemblance to country backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies.

The film’s use of colour emphasises the different worlds Sue crosses through in her mental collapse: reality is portrayed in various harsh textures of grey and dark colours; the post-breakdown world is made up of soft pastel colours. Before her collapse, Sue is ill at ease with the flora and fauna of the forest: she trips over tree roots and mosquitoes and dragonflies bother her to no end. Post-collapse, Sue begins to wonder and marvel at the natural world around her and attempts to hold butterflies in her hands. The most astonishing work in the film though is in the flood that engulfs Sue and sweeps her away into a new world with harsh use of black and white imagery while she fights the rising waters but is later forced to succumb.

While the story is quite simple and is open to many interpretations, it never feels stale due to the strong character creation and build-up with an excellent voice-acting performance from Isabelle Guiard as Sue. You can really feel Sue’s frustration and slight sense of panic as she goes deeper into the forest and gets lost. Sue’s character is well-defined enough and at the same time generic enough – we don’t know her history and background but we can guess at parts of it – for viewers to readily identify with her. This film certainly repays watching.

The Lost Breakfast: amusing animation on how chaos invades and disrupts order and control through daily rituals

Q-rais, “The Lost Breakfast” (2015)

Where some cartoonists treat the weekday early morning ritual of getting up and getting ready to go to work, including the full ritual of cooking and eating breakfast, as a dreary dull and robotic exercise that robs people of their will and humanity, Japanese cartoonist Q-rais sees in it an opportunity to have fun and explore what happens when that ritual and the autopilot mind it requires are disrupted. A man rises at 7 am when his alarm clock rings; throwing open the bed covers, he examines his foot and finds a mysterious puncture wound in the sole with blood on it. He looks outside his bedroom window and sees a black crow perched on a tree branch, looking as if it might know who made that wound but pretending innocence. The man goes off, shaves and deposits his shavings into a tissue which he then neatly folds, does his ablutions and takes his tissue into the kitchen. There, he cooks himself sausages and an egg omelette, makes his toast and tea, and deposits the tea-bag onto the folded tissue. He eats his breakfast while watching the morning weather forecast and news on TV. Having done all that, he gets dressed for work and leaves his home. So far, so good.

The next day, bang on 7 am, the alarm clock rings again, and our man prepares for the day. Again, he finds the mysterious puncture wound on the sole of his foot; again he looks outside his bedroom window but the crow is not waiting on the tree branch. No matter, the man goes about his routine as usual; but once he puts the tea bag on the tissue, suddenly the crow flies through the bedroom window and attacks him on the neck with its beak. The man drops his cup of tea, forcing him to get another cup with another tea bag; but on seeing the first tea bag sitting on the tissue, the man goes into a frenzy repeating parts of his morning ritual over and over, and out of order, until (in a surreal burst of animation) reality fragments and rearranges itself, and the man goes cataleptic.

The animation may be rather crude and simple, and figures and objects are more fluid than they perhaps ought to be, but a playful energy is at work and the very nature of the morning ritual down to its details seems to invite questioning of what it’s all for and why. It appears to be an attack on complacency and on society’s insistence on shutting down people’s individuality and creativity, and on controlling people through their daily rituals. The crow may represent an intrusion of Nature, of the chaos and the freedom (and maybe the fear of the unknown that freedom brings) within that chaos that threaten orderly but mechanised lives. Q-rais obviously had a lot of fun creating this short cartoon and while it might not stand repeated viewings, it certainly is fun to watch the first time round.

Blind Eye: a satirical poke in the eye at religious fanaticism, blind faith and priestly control

Bruno Cohen, Germaine Colajanni, Rohan Deshchougule, Ronit Kelkar, Isabella Littger de Pinho, Diego Porral, Yujia Wang, “Blind Eye” (2019)

After seeing Muhammad Houhou’s 2018-released short”Ostrich Politic”, I wasn’t expecting to see another animated short illustrating the famous Plato’s Cave allegory from students of the renowned Gobelins School of animation in Paris but a group of animators has done just that in the second year running in the school’s new 2019-released batch of shorts. “Blind Eye” tells the story of a community of worshippers sacrificing to their god The Almighty Eye in a complex ritual conducted by their priests. A small toddler starts munching on one of the sacrificial offerings and the offended community and priests yield him up to the giant birds to take him to the god. Just as one of the birds snatches up the child, the little boy’s sister races to the altar and tries to save him but both children are borne away by the bird … to an upper paradise world where the birds turn out to be part of the local wildlife and previous sacrificial victims, one of whom was known to the children in the past, lounge about on the grass and worship the sun.

The film is open-ended so it can be the subject of various interpretations: the children are stunned to learn the true nature of The Almighty Eye; the people in the upper world might be preparing the siblings for another sacrifice, one they won’t so easily escape; or they really have died after all and their spirits have gone to a completely different dimension. The film is also a satirical commentary on how blind faith and religious dogma jealously controlled by a priestly elite combine to keep a community ignorant of the truth.

The animation style is cartoony but zippy enough to keep a surprisingly complex plot going at a brisk pace and packing in enough story and one surprise after another in the space of just over six minutes. We actually don’t learn all that much about the siblings’ original community and yet there seems to be a lot of depth in it – certainly we get some sense of the priests’ hypocrisy and panic when the fanatical community threatens to get out of hand and tear the toddler from limb to limb for desecrating a sacrificial offering.

Viewers will either laugh along with the jokey poke in the eye at religious fanaticism and blind faith or be just as stunned as the children when the scales literally fall from their eyes at where they are delivered.

Oasis: eco-SF fantasy on societies’ responses to new ideas and ideologies

Florencia Atra, Leonard Hicks, Man Luo, Claire Matz, Luana Nguyen, Marine Petri, “Oasis” (2019)

Compared to other Gobelins animated shorts I have seen so far, the symbolism behind “Oasis” is a little more complicated to follow. The film revolves around two characters, the child Edwin and his agronomist mother Amaranthe, who live in a desert oasis paradise growing plants for scientific study. Edwin recovers a tiny plant from the sand which, when doused with special liquid nutrient that Amaranthe has developed, disrupts the precious ecosystem that Amaranthe has so carefully nurtured over the years. The plants die off, Amaranthe is devastated that her life’s work now lies in ruins, and a looming desert storm threatens to bury the entire oasis. Amaranthe allows Edwin to put his troublemaker plant into the central reliquary where her precious plant once stood, and Edwin’s plant promptly revives the entire ecosystem and wards off the dust storm.

The message of this little eco-SF fantasy seems to be that Edwin and his little plant represent a new paradigm of ideas that threaten societies long accustomed to a particular order and way of viewing the world that may no longer have any relevance or basis in a changed reality. Such societies will reject and suppress these ideas until an existential crisis threatens the survival of these societies; only then are the new ideas and new models accepted as the new mainstream paradigm.

The animation in “Oasis” is well done though not very remarkable. Background animation can be very lush and gorgeous as would be expected of a sudden explosion of green exotic flora. The characters communicate by looks and facial expressions. The music soundtrack is forgettable. “Oasis” is noteworthy mainly for its plot and the parable-like message behind it.

Ne Zha: noisy overblown blockbuster film with a message about changing one’s destiny

Jiaozi, “Ne Zha” (2019)

A loud, noisy and overblown blockbuster animation fantasy made to please most people, this film is loosely based on a legend about the birth of a divine hero in Chinese folk religion. Essentially the film portrays the origin story of Ne Zha, the son of Li Jing, a military commander in charge of a fortress at Chentang Pass, and Lady Yin. Before his birth, Ne Zha was supposed to receive the essence of the Spirit Pearl, created as one half of a Heavenly Pearl given by the Lord of Heaven; the other half, known as the Demon Pearl, would be used to create elsewhere a demon whose life-span will be only three years, during which period the demon brings havoc and destruction to humanity, and after which the evil being is destroyed by lightning. (Talk about having your life already mapped out for you before you’re born!) Evil forces however conspire to dupe the Taoist immortal Taiyi Zhenren, portrayed in the film as a drunken fatso with little self-control, in order to steal the Spirit Pearl from him and infuse the Demon Pearl into Lady Yin’s unborn child. The result is that Ne Zha is born with the spirit and hot-headed temperament of a demon and ends up being hated and persecuted by the village folk living around the fortress. Li Jing, Lady Yin and Taiyi Zhenren, grieving that the boy will only live three years, resolve to train him so that he may be able to control his demonic nature and powers (which keep the village’s construction and waste recycling industries extremely busy) and perhaps use them for good.

In the meantime, the Spirit Pearl is used by Taiyi Zhenren’s rival Shen Gongbao to infuse its essence into the son of the Dragon King, imprisoned along with his fellow dragons deep in the ocean and yearning to escape and reimpose their rule on Earth. The son, Ao Bing, later meets Ne Zha during a tussle with a sea demon who nearly kills Ao Bing. Ne Zha saves Ao Bing’s life and the two boys, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, become friends.

The film plays very hard and fast with the characters and plot of the original legend, setting the cast and the story in a template of goodies-versus-baddies and the story itself being fairly simple and easy to follow so it has to be padded out with a nearly endless series of fights involving as many explosions, impossible feats of magic that break the laws of physics, and martial arts derring-do, all performed at insane ear-shattering levels of noise. The characters look as if they’re straight out of a Disney or Pixar film and are for the most part very one-dimensional. There is little to indicate that both Ne Zha and Ao Bing experience much inner conflict wrestling with their essential natures and vowing to overcome or change what Fate decreed for them. Li Jing and Lady Yin are little more than father and mother stereotypes and Taiyi Zhenren plays his buffoon role for cheap laughs.

The film’s message that one does not need to accept one’s destiny and nature as given and can change for the better is strong throughout the film. There are also other messages about how discrimination and prejudice can persuade victims to be resentful and vengeful, and how simple acts of kindness can help people change for the better. Above all, viewers not familiar with traditional Chinese culture can see an emphasis on balance and harmony: the water nature of Ao Bing (dragons being essentially water creatures in Chinese mythology) balances the fiery nature of Ne Zha in their encounters; and this emphasis is also at the heart of Ne Zha’s training to be a well-rounded human, Ne Zha having to learn to balance his demon nature with self-control, awareness of his powers, and using knowledge and thinking to deploy his powers to protect, defend and save others less powerful than he.

The best part of the film is its backgrounds and special effects. What a pity though that the cast of characters, the story-line and the pyrotechnics fail to do the technical design justice.