Shadow Thief: a critique of social and cultural pressure on individuals to conform to other standards

Kim Heeyae, “Shadow Thief” (2018)

Done entirely in black and white and shades of grey with no dialogue, this animated short is a brilliant critique of the pressure on individuals to conform to dominant social standards and values even if these turn people into mindless clones tied to (and to be eventually crushed by) the corporate state capitalist machine. An unnamed man observes the shadows of other apparent physical clones of himself as very similar while his own shadow resembles a Henry Moore sculpture. After being rejected by one set of prospective employers after another and another because his shadow just doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s shadows, our man tries to mould his shadow (and thus himself) into what he believes is required of him. The jobs still evade him so in desperation he attempts to steal a perfect shadow to wear. This requires him to murder someone …

With no monologue or dialogue to speak of, the film must rely on its anti-hero’s facial expressions and body language to convey his disappointment, anguish and panic at being rejected for not being a square peg to fit into a round hole, and on the body language of other people and their shadows to show rejection and mocking. The irony in the film comes when our anti-hero, in doing what he does to steal a shadow, expresses his individuality in full (because what other person would do what he does, in that clone society?) and on doing so, runs away from the consequences and the ownership of his action. He becomes a true individual but cannot cope with that reality.

The animation may be simple and the backgrounds a little cartoonish in appearance but its story is powerful. The ambiguous ending is appropriate for the plot: we are left wondering whether the anti-hero will ever own up to his crime willingly or by force.

Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers: sugar and spice that are not too nice in a rich and lavish film

Bill Tytla, “Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers” (1950)

Part of a series of cartoons about a cute kindergarten-aged girl called … well, what else? … Little Audrey, this little short film packs in puns and jokes a-plenty amid some sumptuous artwork and (of course) visual gags. Our heroine takes instructions on baking gingerbread cookies from a radio cooking program: the interplay between the instructor (who can’t possibly see what the child is doing) and Little Audrey as she throws a hundred million ingredients into a mixing bowl and beats the mixture faster than Superman can punch up Darkseid with Krypton speed has its amusing moments. Once Little Audrey has her dough sitting in the oven, the cooking program ends and she drifts off to sleep with the timer set to go off in half an hour …

… and when it does, Little Audrey is astonished to see a live gingerbread man jump out and announce he’s off to a place called Cakeland to see his date. Little Audrey follows him all the way where he introduces her to his fiancee Miss Angel Cake and announces their marriage. Little Audrey assists Miss Angel Cake with her wedding preparations and follows the two into the chapel where the priest will marry Gingerbread Man and Miss Angel Cake. Next thing you know, the villainous Devil’s Food Cake fellow, complete with forehead horns, twirly moustache and goatee beard, turns up and kidnaps Miss Angel Cake. Gingerbread Man and Little Audrey (the latter calling on the cop cakes) must try to rescue Miss Angel Cake before she is whisked off to Devil’s Food Cake Island through Strawberry Short Cut. Well, that’s the kind of cheesecake punning we must put up with in this cartoon.

The short treads a good balance between an excess of cream and cake on the screen and actual saccharine sweetness: there’s very little on the screen that makes viewers feel nauseous, the jokes can be clever and the film rockets along at a cracking pace so there’s no time to linger on anything. Cakeland and its dancing citizens, along with the fantastic cake, cream and pastry architecture, have a dream-like quality and the colours used in the film are lush and vibrant. An interesting twist comes at the end of the cartoon when Little Audrey realises she has been dreaming and takes the dough mixture out of the oven; the reaction she has when she sees what’s in the pan is priceless. Did she really dream or was her little adventure for real?

While the animation of the characters isn’t very good and the plot is basic (the cartoon is aimed at a very young audience), the overall look of the cartoon is rich, even lavish. Pastries dance the can-can and perform Hollywood-style musical numbers to celebrate the wedding. Young viewers will learn something about being helpful to others without expecting any rewards, and being grateful for help offered selflessly.

The Mad Hatter: an insubstantial story in a detailed cartoon universe

Sid Marcus, “The Mad Hatter” (1940)

Mocking the faddish nature of women’s fashions, this animated short can be surprisingly critical of the nature of everyday work in capitalist society, the slave routine it forces on people, and how some people can end up quite deranged as a result. A secretary called Maisie jumps out of bed when her alarm clock rings and races through her morning routine of shower, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and made-up for work, and gobbling her breakfast literally on the fly. She runs after the bus so hard, she actually manages to catch up with it; the catch though is that as soon as she reaches it, she and the bus have both arrived at the bus stop where she would normally get off! Hitting her desk in reception at the precise time of 8:30 am when work starts, she immediately does start to work: she hauls out a box of candy to chomp on and a soapy novel to read while waiting for customers!

Nine hours later, having been finally released from work, Maisie goes to a hat shop to try on various hats: she likes one particular piece and the shop assistant places an order for it. The order goes to the hat factory where various milliner employees, straitjacketed and caged, loll about waiting for their orders! One fellow, eyes rolling about and tongue drooling, is given Maisie’s order and he turns out a veritable mountain of fruit that would have done the then popular Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda proud. The order is delivered to the shop and Maisie promptly buys the hat.

There are many gags poking fun at Maisie and women’s fashion choices generally, and at a particular fashion-related industry that exploits human whim by hiring mentally deranged people to come up with original ideas for making hats. Such gags hark back to times when milliners and their employees really did suffer mental derangement from having to breathe mercury fumes from the solution used to turn animal fur into felt, used as the raw material for hats.

The plot is otherwise insubstantial and the main value of this short is to demonstrate the astonishing details in the animated backgrounds and the gags packed into seven minutes. While characters themselves are not drawn very well, the objects and furnishings in Maisie’s house look surprisingly three-dimensional and accurate. Joke after joke rolls out continuously; even the neighbour’s cat is drawn into a joke that sends up human vanity and intelligence. Animators who only know how to use digital animation databases in creating characters and backgrounds should watch short animated films like “The Mad Hatter” to see how a cartoon can compensate for shallow characters and an equally shallow story by creating a detailed and layered world where the action takes place.

The Last Knit: dealing with a personal inner hell of addiction and compulsion

Laura Neuvonen, “The Last Knit” (2005)

Technically this digital animated short is well done but the very simple plot of a woman addicted to knitting a long, long scarf that ends up pulling her over a cliff doesn’t really justify the effort put into the cartoon. The short’s theme on addiction and on how individuals risk their lives and health to satisfy that hunger or need that can never be satisfied become obvious early on. The problem though is that once the theme and the sole character are established, the plot seems at a loss as to what to do with the woman so it keeps digging around in its own groove, the woman knitting and knitting and knitting until the wool runs out so she has to use her hair … all while the scarf grows longer and longer, runs over the cliff’s edge and threatens to pull her into a literal as well as existential void. Come to think of it, all this repetition might be part of the theme of addiction as well … the film is just as addicted to keeping the woman on a one-track journey to her own hell.

Just when you think all is lost for the character, she manages to break her addiction to knitting, only to fall for another … Unfortunately the film does not supply any more information about how the woman came to be addicted to knitting in the first place and whether that addiction replaced still another compulsion. Viewers aren’t likely to feel much connection with or sympathy for the character. The cliff-side setting is attractive and important for the plot but again we learn nothing about why the woman must be there in the first place. The whole scene looks set up for a suicide and perhaps as the short comes to a close and the woman shows signs of developing another uncontrollable obsession, the prospect of suicide as a release from a personal inner hell becomes a possibility.

At the time of its release, the film was popular in film festivals around the world but its theme and the implications of that theme, along with the shortcomings of the plot and the character design, seem to have made sure that the film would be forgotten.

All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.

The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career. The plot intentionally resembles a fairy-tale in its setting and in the way it develops, yet in its climax and resolution it becomes a modern, even prophetic warning of the dangers of human, all-too-human rivalries and jealousies.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / Fétiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is likely to upset children and those who have already warmed to Duffy’s bravery and persistence.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.

Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Over Your Dead Body: an extreme, almost cartoon-ish horror ghost film homage where life imitates art

Takashi Miike, “Over Your Dead  Body” (2014)

From the incredibly prolific director Takashi Miike, who never met a film genre he couldn’t make an insanely extreme film for (and with the body count to prove its perversity), comes this homage of sorts to the famous Japanese ghost story “Yotsuya Kaidan”, horror films featuring vengeful or hateful female ghosts generally and the theatre. Toss in a love triangle involving three actors appearing in a drama production and we have a recipe for an almost Shakespearean work in which vengeance, the quest for happiness in a sterile world and life that imitates art revolve around each other as surely as the circular stage set on which the theatre troupe presents its interpretation of “Yotsuya Kaidan” rotates to emphasise the dark, disturbing atmosphere and the intensity of the emotions and actions of the characters in the play.

Star Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) is cast as the tragic heroine Oiwa in a new production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” and schemes to get her lover Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa XI) cast as Iemon, the unfaithful ronin husband of Oiwa. Other actors in the cast soon lust after Miyuki and Iemon, who themselves are having difficulties in their relationship, both of them emotionally remote from one another in spite of their love-making. The actors’ obsessions with one another and the love affairs that develop and which are conducted secretly lead to a situation in which the murder and mayhem rehearsed continuously on the stage spill over into the cast’s lives offstage.

The film begins ordinarily enough and the first half-hour is a character study in which we come to see how distant Miyuki and Iemon are, and how their emotional remoteness is reflected in the elegantly and minimally furnished modern apartment where Miyuki lives. Much attention is given over to the elaborate stage set-ups, the care with which the cast of actors act out their roles in the play, the costumes and hair fashions of mediaeval Japan, and their rather stylised actions. Curiously the director of the play is a very minor character indeed and one gets no sense of when rehearsals for the play started, when they will finish and when the play itself will have its opening night. Once there is a hint that a doll used as a prop is possessed by a demon, the pace quickens, the action becomes brisk and the film detours from delineating ordinary everyday scenes (albeit with some eccentricities on the part of Miyuki: she boils several saucepans of pasta all at once in one scene, for example) into a wacky direction in which nightmare dreams that afflict people spill out into their waking lives, a woman mutilates herself to find her unborn child and actors start disappearing from the production as they fall victim to the ghosts of the play.

The extreme and intense violence contrasts strongly with the minimal style of various background sets, with the suggestion that beneath the po-faced facades that people present to the outside world lurks roiling emotions that they have difficulty accepting and which they cannot name, yet which eventually must have their outlet. Shibasaki, Ichikawa and the rest of the film’s cast perform their roles capably as people more or less divorced from their emotions and feelings which erupt through the medium of the ghost play and play havoc with their lives, to say nothing of the play itself as the most significant cast member disappears. Audiences may breathe a huge sigh of relief when Kosuke gets his just desserts both in the play and outside the play but horror fans might feel a little cheated at what “horror” has actually emerged and that Kosuke’s executioner literally gets away with murder.

The film closes off in its own hermetic world and seems much smaller than it ought to have been.