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I recently watched "Grave of the Fireflies," an animated film by Isao Takahata. Although the animated format suggests children's fare, this is a film for adults about children. It is the story of two orphaned siblings trying to survive in Japan during the fire-bombings and privations of World War II.

"Grave of the Fireflies" presents a gripping story, made more so by the fact that it is drawn from a semi-autobiographical novel and the tragedies it depicts are real. The film does an incredible job of conveying the emotions of the older brother, Seita, as he struggles to protect his young sister, Setsuko. It is the most subtle emotional portrayal I've seen in an animated film, and made me marvel at what can be accomplished by animation. Today's CGI animation often presents technical wonders, but this movie is a marvel of storytelling.

Brother and sister examine a fireflyI have an interest in the subject of siblings, particularly sisters. There are many books dealing with the competitive relationship between siblings; there is less available on the positive aspects of the sibling bond. This quieter relationship that exists between siblings is what "Grave of the Fireflies" excels at showing.

Seita is 10 years older than Setsuko, so he falls easily into a parental role with his much younger sister. The love that that the two siblings have for each other is so sweetly evident betwen them, even when the strains of everyday life--lack of food, lack of shelter--threaten to overwhelm the characters. "Grave of the Fireflies" is simply a beautiful film and I highly recommend watching it.

2D Robot Art

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A cleaning robot follows Wall-EThe Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I went to see Wall-E over the July 4th weekend. I recommend staying for the closing credits, which shows the history of Western art in 2D animation, with robots. Beginning with cave paintings of robots, the history passes through ancient forms such as mosaics to wall frescos to impressionist works and right down to present day pixel art. Wall-E is a demonstration of the state of the art of CGI animation, but the ending is a sweet reminder of the pleasures of 2D. After you've seen the credits, stay for the movie's final frame for an extra joke right at the very end.

Dali and Disney

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Metamorphosis in Dali's paintingI've developed a bad habit of going to the Los Angeles County Museum's exhibits at the end of their run, and as a result, I haven't bothered to blog about the last few I've seen. However, there's still time for Angelenos to see Dali: Painting & Film, especially with the holidays coming up.

I'm not a big fan of LACMA's blockbuster exhibits when they are organized around a single artist or movement. I much prefer their major exhibits when they present a definite slant or perspective, even if the result is a partial rather than a comprehensive view of the subject.

Dali: Painting & Film focuses on an aspect of Salvador Dali's work, the connection between his paintings and various film endeavors. This framework offers more experienced viewers with a new way to look at familiar Dali pieces as well as previously unseen material. For those who might be seeing Dali in depth for the first time, the exhibit sketched in enough of Dali's biography and other important works to give a sense of his overall development and contribution as an artist.

I knew of some of the connections between Dali and film on entering the exhibit, but hadn't realized Dali was so influenced by film comedy. The exhibit traces Dali's famous melting watch image back to the silent film Safety Last! and documents Dali's attempt to work on a project with the Marx Brothers, who he thought of as surrealists.

The dour side of Dali is present in his more autobiographical paintings, which often revolved around his troubled relationship with his father. The dreamlike imagery of these paintings shows up in Hitchcock's Spellbound, for which Dali designed a dream sequence. You can watch the scene on YouTube here.

For me, the highlight of the exhibit was being able to finally see Destino, the animated short created by Disney based on ideas and storyboards provided by Salvador Dali. Although Dali worked with the Disney Studios on plans for the film during the 1940s, the short did not actually get made until 2003. There have been a few showings of the film in Los Angeles, but Destino has never been widely released and is not available on video or DVD.

The action reminded me of a ballet in the way the main characters' movements expressed emotion and narrative. As we sat together watching the film, it became clear to me and the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend why it was not made earlier: there is a sensuous and even erotic quality to the female lead. It's not titillating so much as it is bold.

As the female character explores her dreamlike surroundings, there is a playful metamorphosis of objects as she interacts with her environment. A bell becomes a ballerina, insects turn into bicyclists. Emotions transform, too, as grotesque imagery suddenly gives way to a sorrowful tableau. The emphasis on transformations surprised me, since so much Disney animation is based on a quasi-realism.

Dali, however, embraced the theme of metamorphosis in his non-moving work, as shown in the painting I've included above. This was one of my favorite works from the exhibit, using sequential doubles to indicate transformation.

There are some segments of Destino on YouTube but they don't give a very good impression of the whole. There are also very few still shots from the film available on the web, due to obviously well-policed copyright restrictions. I hope the short will be released on DVD at some point; in the meantime, grab the chance to see Destino if you have the chance.

Dine After the Movie

Food critic Anton Ego I feel sorry for the children who go see the new animated film Ratatouille, for they will not have the pleasure of doing as I did immediately after watching this film--uncorking a bottle of red wine and drinking it with a good meal. As the Cute-Little-Red-Headed-Girlfriend said to me right after the movie, "Who knew an animated film about a rat could make you want to drink so much wine?" But that is the exact effect the movie has, so my advice to you is: see it first, then go eat.

Ratatouille uses the familiar fish-out-of-water formula for its plot, but the example is so extreme--a rat who wants to be a chef--that it avoids seeming overly cute. The rat lead character is mostly Disney adorable, but not completely so. At times, the realism behind the action animation overshadowed the rat's characterization, and all I could see was the image of a lifelike rat scrambling inside a working kitchen. Those moments made my stomach lurch, but they also made the rat's story more poignant, because I had to overcome some of my own repulsion in order to root for him.

Paris serves as the main setting for Ratatouille. Having seen Sicko last week, with its enthusiastic depiction of French life, I wondered if there wasn't some sort of mini-backlash at work here--a swipe at the anti-French sentiment of the Bush administration. My favorite moment in the film was a cartoony nod to Proust's madeleine involving the movie's antagonist, the food critic Anton Ego, shown here. I don't know if a swipe at Republicans was intended, but the many swipes at critics were too heavy-handed to miss.

I enjoyed the film enough that I sat through the credits all the way to the very end, where I saw a peculiar message about the type of animation ("No motion capture") used to make the film. I looked for information on the web and found an interesting write-up and discussion about it on the the Onion's A.V. Club Blog. If you're interested in animation technique, it's well worth reading.

Grimm Scenario

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I watched Monster House on DVD with the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend awhile ago, having missed it in the theater. It's up for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year, which is interesting, because I looked up some of the film's reviews before writing this entry and noticed many critics found the quality of the animation lacking.

Some reviewers felt there was an unfinished quality to the animation overall, while others felt uncomfortable with the human characters in particular. One critic felt the human figures fell into the "uncanny valley" of simulation, being neither lifelike enough to seem realistic, nor stylized enough to seem artistic.

I found the animation style distinctive rather than rough. I also thought the 3D techniques were well suited to experiencing an architectural monster; the CGI animation made me feel like I was moving inside the house. It felt like being on a virtual ride inside a video game, and maybe that was the problem for some film reviewers--not everyone appreciates game aesthetics. Of course, I saw the movie on the small screen, so it's possible some flaws in the animation were not as apparent to me.

I was not expecting the movie to be as scary as it turned out to be. Perhaps scary isn't the right word; it was more like a feeling of unease. As the film progressed, I noticed my unease seemed to stem as much from the depiction of femaleness on screen as from the storyline.

I don't want say too much about the female form in this film, because I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone who wishes to see it, and almost anything I divulge on this topic might do that. Nonetheless, what I will say is that this movie reminded me of some of the original Grimm's fairy tales that I have read.

Disney's animated films have often been criticized for sanitizing the folk tales they draw from as source material. Monster House channels some of the gothic brutality found in Grimm's tales; it also dips into the ancient folklore that cautions against the horrors of the female body and the female condition. These qualities make it a powerful--and in an uncanny way--a familiar film. But in the end, uneasy is exactly the way I feel about it.

Still Drawn In

I'm still watching Drawn Together and enjoying it. I really like its time slot on Comedy Central, right after South Park. That way, if South Park hasn't blown my mind sufficiently (or if the episode has been censored), then I can always depend on Drawn Together to shred whatever is left of my sensibilities.

Somewhere over the course of season two, the Cute Little Red-Haired Girlfriend and I became big fans of the character Wooldoor Sockbat. We were very excited when we found video interviews with the voice talent behind all of the Drawn Together characters online, including the actor who voices our beloved Wooldoor. If you're a fan of the show, these interviews are great fun to watch. I wasn't aware that a single actor provided a voice for two of the main characters.

I know that Disney likes to call animation "the illusion of life," because in their aesthetic the job of the animator is to represent in a series of drawings the sense of liveliness or motion of a living character. But seeing these actors work really made me appreciate more the job of the voice actor in bringing animated drawings to life.

Lettuce Entertain You

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Belgian endive with a Princess Leia wigA co-worker sent me a link to this well-done animated short, Store Wars. It's an educational/activist piece about organic foods and it's also very entertaining. You'll meet all your favorite Star Wars characters in the form of fruits and vegetables, like Princess Lettuce, pictured here. The redo of the bar scene from the first movie (and fourth episode) is especially energetic.

The technique of the Were-rabbit

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This morning I was reading the feed for Tom's Hardware Guide and ran across a link to an interesting article about the making of the Wallace & Gromit film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The article has a number of photos that show real people interacting with the scale model set, which helps one understand the painstaking artistry involved in stop-motion animation.

I initially clicked on the link to the article because I was intrigued to see that Aardman was making use of CGI techniques in their film. Rather than use models exclusively, they chose CGI animation for special effects, especially atmospheric effects and some large-scale motion effects. I saw the movie this past weekend and I did wonder at whether they had blended animation types or if special camera techniques had been developed to produce certain scenes.

I like the gentle humor of Wallace & Gromit, though I understand that it leaves some people bored. As an example of the movie's low-key humor, I noticed the article mentions the film's creators were proud to have made the first vegetarian horror film. It made me chuckle.

Lesbian Comics and Manga

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The June issue of Curve Magazine included a really large feature story called "Dykes in Comicland" by Lori Selke with illustration by Colleen Coover. There were also several sidebars on web comics, superhero comics, and manga, with contributions by Jocelyn Voo and Diane Anderson-Minshall. Unfortunately, the article is not available online, and although it's possible to order the back issue it appears in, there's an order minimum of two issues.

The artists discussed include Elizabeth Watasin, Roberta Gregory, Dianne DiMassa, Alison Bechdel, Colleen Coover, Paige Braddock, Gina Kamentsky and many others. It really is a generous overview, and comes at the question of women in comics from an angle outside of the usual industry-centric focus.

I've also noticed that After Ellen has been giving more feature space to comics recently. Their most recent feature is An Introduction to Yuri and Manga.

Origins of Cute

While perusing the most recent issue of Wired, I came across a reference to an interesting exhibit on display at the Japan Society Gallery in New York. The exhibit is called Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture, and it explores the roots of the kawaii or cute aesthetic in Japanese art and culture.

According to the gallery site, the name "Little Boy" refers to a nickname given to the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima as well as to the innocence of a traumatized child, an emblem of post-war Japan typified in the oversized eyes of manga and anime characters. I noticed this show is a follow-up to the Superflat exhibit, also curated by Takashi Murakami, that I saw here in Los Angeles several years ago.

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