The Animation World Cup: Round Two

The Animation World Cup: Losers’ Semi-Finals

Welcome back to The Animation World Cup! And it’s time to determine which two films will take on each other for the prize of winning the losers’ bracket. Check out last week to see why all these films lost their individual matches, but here’s how it goes: we’re going to have a three-way fight between 3 films that lost their first matches for them to get their second chance. Remember, one of these films could win the entire thing, so this is not a time to count them out. Without further ado, let’s go through my deliberation. I’ll kick off the first match.

Match 1 Arjun: The Warrior Prince vs Chico & Rita vs Happy Feet

It’s Indian vs Spain vs Australia, and immediately I’m going to have to follow another Madness tradition and stretcher one of these films out of the fight. Sorry, Arjun: The Warrior Prince; you’re a decent film but you’re outclassed here and you’re definitely not winning this fight. Arjun: The Warrior Prince is commendable in what it wants to do. It’s a very interesting story within its own culture, brought to life through animation by people of that culture to tell their story. But it’s clearly not been made with as much of an international audience in mind, which was a criticism I made the last time around, and its animation is also the weakest of these three films. I know one of these is done by Dreamworks so they obviously had a lot more money to work with, but if there’s one thing we’ve seen from Indian films in previous memory it’s that many of them can do a very good job with a minimal budget. Sadly, Arjun doesn’t quite manage that – the frame rate on the animation is definitely an issue in this film and the textures just don’t look that great. Sorry, Arjun; you’re out now.

That leaves us down to Chico & Rita and Happy Feet. It’s a very similar scenario as Chico & Rita’s first challenge: it’s taking on a very happy, family-friendly film made by a very well-established Western studio. However, I don’t think Happy Feet ever comes up when people talk about their favourite Dreamworks Animation pictures. It doesn’t even enter my top list, which includes films like the Kung Fu Panda movies and, of course, the first two Shrek films. But here’s the thing, I somewhat enjoy Happy Feet. It does suffer much of a curse that many Western animated films now seem to have, that being that they’ll put a celebrity in the voice cast just for the sake of their being a celebrity there, without consideration for whether the actor suits the role. Most of the actors do a decent job – I mean, Robin Williams was born to be in animation. And it’s very hard to chock these two films up. Happy Feet at the end of the day is essentially about embracing what you’re good at and embracing what makes you unique. It’s a good message born out of a nice, charming little story about a penguin who can’t sing but learns to dance to find true love. And yes, it’s kind of an inconsequential film but it’s also kind of sweet at the same time. A lot of people think I hate Happy Feet because I don’t really rave about it. I don’t hate it; I just think it’s an alright film. I think it actually does succeed in quite a few areas: Elijiah Wood gives a decent performance in it, it’s probably one of Robin Williams’s best voice acting performances outside the Genie, and I’m still amazed George Miller directed this one. He really proved with this film that he’s a much more versatile director than people given him credit for.

But then you’ve got a film like Chico & Rita, another film about love but this time a more mature take on it, documenting the jazz scene in Cuba and a love story between a singer and a pianist. But, of course, this one is way more mature. And I mean, really mature. This is an animation film with full-on frontal nudity, and I mean in some cases quite explicit frontal nudity. I remember watching it thinking, ‘If this was a live-action film you’d never get away with this!’ And that’s the interesting thing about Chico & Rita for me: there is no reason for this film to be an animation production in a traditional sense, but by using animation they managed to blend in the beauty of the music and give a level of emotion to the characters through pure expressiveness that animation allows you to achieve. In that sense, it is a really beautiful film.

Now, comparing these two films back-to-back is quite hard in that sense. If you go by animation, they’re both doing very different things – one is a computer-animated film, the other one’s a hand-drawn animated film; one uses 3D, the other uses 2D, and they also have very different styles. Chico & Rita definitely goes for a similar art style that many cartoonists that drew the jazz scene were aiming for; it reminds me a lot of the art of Al Hirschfeld whose art was used primarily for a lot of the inspiration for the way the Genie was drawn in Aladdin. But you can really tell that a lot of detail has been used to make the characters move fluidly, especially with the music-oriented scenes. If there’s one complaint I kind of have against Chico & Rita it’s that it’s not a long film but it feels like one; the film is only actually 1 hour 35 minutes including credits but its pacing is off a little bit. Some scenes feel like they go on a little too long and it does risk that whole aspect of a film caving under its own pretence, though it luckily pulls back before it can manage that. But one of the things I do appreciate about it is it feels like it tells a complete story. Happy Feet is a film of similar length and is very much a traditional, standard family film; it doesn’t really try to break the mould all that much.

Honestly, it’s a hard call in some senses because I think Happy Feet is a much better film than people give it credit for, but Chico & Rita feels like a once-in-a-lifetime film. Just from the start alone, you’re not going to mistake it for any movie; there is really no other animated film that looks like it. But then I also don’t think it’s as accessible to a large audience, and I could definitely see someone’s thoughts drifting off whilst watching it because it does ask a lot of its audience. But, at the end of the day, there aren’t many films like Chico & Rita, and I’ve got to give it the win on that basis.

Winner: Chico & Rita

Match 2 Loving Vincent vs Big Fish & Begonia vs Long Way North

Poland vs China vs France; let’s see how this one turns out. Now, initially I didn’t think of stretchering any of these films to the side since all of them have some merits in their regard, and there is a lot to say about all these films. Big Fish & Begonia is probably one of the best animation projects to come out of China. I’ve certainly not felt that level of passion I had compared to, say, what Japanese and Korean productions have been bringing out. But Begonia definitely is a closer one, and it certainly is an interesting project to say the least. Loving Vincent is a beautiful film which took years to make, with some of the most experimental animation known to man. And then you have Long Way North – it has a beautiful, unique animation style to it, it does a brilliant job portraying the harshness of the Artic Circle, and tells a really cool story about perseverance.

The question then becomes: should I eliminate any of these films? Well, I didn’t want to eliminate any of them off the bat, however there is one thing that changed my mind. See, with Big Fish & Begonia, I didn’t really remember that story until a re-watch; it had really blanked from my mind quite a bit, and that’s saying a lot considering that it was one of the films I reviewed during my long-extended London Film Festival stay, and I remember a lot about most of those films. But even then, it doesn’t really do much for me. I mentioned last time that Big Fish & Begonia, while it is an interesting story that centres around an interesting environmental message and does some cool ideas with classic mythology around reincarnation, it still to me just feels like a discount Studio Ghibli film, and I don’t know why I would choose it over one of those films. I can’t say there’s much more to it beyond that, so I’m going to stretcher it out.

Now, between Loving Vincent and Long Way North, they’re once again very different films, though not to the extent that Happy Feet and Chico & Rita were. Loving Vincent is really an interesting film about curiosity of an authorial figure as well as kind of being about grief. The film’s title is not entirely accurate; it would make more sense for it to be called ‘Understanding Vincent’ because, at the end of the day, that’s what it is: it’s about people trying to understand the man through trying to deliver a letter to his family after his death. What I love about it is that we actually don’t see Vincent all that much, and when we do, it’s not in the best light. Literally – the scenes involving the past where we see flashbacks to Vincent’s life are all done in very dark colours and very greyed out, whereas the modern scenes reflect his art and the beauty of his art very well; they’re very bright and vibrant. Some of the paintings are recreated almost verbatim, and the amount of effort that was put into this film is astounding on that basis. Not only does it tell this great story about trying to understand a person’s life after they’re gone but it also is the first ever entirely painted animated film. Several artists were brought in to recreate Van Gogh’s art style, with his ever so slight attention to detail. It really feels like you’re being transported into the man’s vision, both the dark and the light.

Long Way North, on the other hand, well, it’s probably one of the most French films I’ve ever seen just going by its animation style alone. You ever pick up a menu or a leaflet or any sort of little book in France and it has that interesting, half-done but also half-abstract drawing style? It’s very similar to that. It’s almost Picasso-like in how its drawn, though it doesn’t go full-on Cubism. This style is actually really good considering that this film is about getting to the Arctic Circle, and it does a brilliant job portraying the harshness of that environment. It also has a brilliant main character in Sasha. Sasha’s character arc is great, even if it isn’t breaking too many new grounds. But she does get some decent character moments, and her quest to find out what happened to her grandfather and to save the reputation of her family is an amazing arc. Both of these films I would say you need to see on the best screen possible; you’re going to get the most out of the sheer amount of effort that was put into the animation, and I did see both of these films in cinema.

But it then comes down to which film I feel more passionately about, and that’s very hard to say. On the one hand, Loving Vincent is everything I want out of an animation. It tells a mature story everyone can get around, it’s ground-breaking in its work, and it didn’t need to be an animated film but was anyway, to its benefit. But you could say the same about Long Way North; the only difference is that I feel the animation helps it greater. However, I decided on this that I’m going to go a bit more objective. Loving Vincent is going to take the win here because, although Long Way North is probably the film where I connected with the story and the characters a little bit more, Loving Vincent is a film that breaks way more new ground, and I think on that basis I have to give it the win.

Winner: Loving Vincent

Well, that’s another week down from this competition and we have our Losers’ Final. In two weeks, we will see Chico & Rita face Loving Vincent, but next week we’re going to have our Winners’ Semi Finals: My Life As A Courgette vs Chicken Run vs Song Of The Sea and Your Name vs The Lion King vs The Breadwinner. And remember, if you want to dictate how these go you should comment your thoughts. I might even do a look at how the competition could have gone based on user comments, and I will also take that into account for any matches going forwards. And I should also mention, you should absolutely see all twelve films that were in this competition.
Calvin – Nerd Consultant

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