November 27, 2011

Pooh Review and Muppet Musings

Recently I've seen two attempts to bring beloved franchises back to their former glories. (Three if you include Sonic Generations, but I'm sure none of my readers want to hear about video games so I'll just say I loved it and leave it at that.)

Winnie the Pooh was designed as a throwback to the original Pooh shorts from the late 60s. I think in attempting to be faithful to the quiet, low-key charm of the classic shorts, they went too far and just made a movie where nothing really happens. The familiar wordplay arguments are taken to extremes here-- the characters spend the whole movie arguing about what they should do, and never get around to doing it. The songs were also completely tuneless. Still, it was definitely the best Pooh movie in quite a while. It did have its moments, and the animation and voices were as good as one would expect from Disney.

On the other hand, I flat-out loved The Muppets. I haven't paid much attention to the Muppets' output over the past decade but the last I saw, it seemed like they were still struggling to get over the various deaths (Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Jerry Juhl) and retirements (Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson) that had shaken up the franchise. I'm happy to say that this issue has now been sorted out.

Steve Whitmire's Kermit still doesn't sound 100% like Henson's did, but he's close enough. Frank Oz's characters are now played almost perfectly by Eric Jacobson. I say "almost" because most of them are dead-on, but Fozzie Bear's voice alternates between sounding indistinguishable from the original, and being barely recognizable. He definitely has Fozzie's speech pattern right, which is no easy feat, but the timbre of the voice wavers a lot during the quieter moments. His Piggy, Animal and Sam the Eagle are consistently good though. The replacements for Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt are also fantastic. Dave Goelz is still playing Gonzo, 35 years on, and seems to be in good health, so I assume he'll continue for a while.

The movie was directed by James Bobin and the new songs were written by Bret McKenzie. They were two-thirds of the main creative force behind the Flight of the Conchords TV series. I loved that show, so I enjoyed their contributions. You can definitely hear the Conchords touch in the lyrics, which were full of puns and sly phrasing. Also, this movie has one of the best versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ever recorded.

This was clearly a movie made by Muppet fans. It was almost surreal seeing so many cameos by obscure characters and nods to past films, in a theater full of fellow fans reacting with cheers and laughter. The Muppets have been out of the public eye for so long, it started to feel like nobody else remembered them, let alone still liked them. Which of course is exactly what the movie is about.

I was worried it might feel too self-glorifying--"Jason Segel and his fellow Muppet-lovers convince the Muppets to mount a comeback" just as easily describes the behind-the-scenes events that led to the movie. But the human leads and the new Muppet character are likeable, and they stay out of the spotlight for most of the movie. Segel's enthusiasm was obvious whenever he was onscreen, and Amy Adams was adorable as always. The only time I actually thought about the real-life parallels was the ending, in which (spoilers? ...no, not really) everything works out and the Muppets are beloved once again. If the movie had failed at the box office, then that ending scene would've been uncomfortable to watch, but so far it seems to have done good business, which is a relief. I want this movie to do well. It deserves to.

I'm curious what the Muppets will do next. This movie was great, but they can't keep playing the nostalgia card. The team has shown that they can faithfully recapture the original magic, but now they have to show us some new tricks.

November 18, 2011

Robotnik Skipping



This is a pencil test I shot about a year ago for school. It's not the best one I did, but it's my favourite. We had to animate a character jumping, and then skipping (I think the original idea was to have the character jumping rope, but there was a miscommunication and our class ended up doing this instead). Anyway, we had the option of either designing a character or using a pre-existing model sheet to work from, so naturally I picked Milton Knight's Robotnik design from Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog.

At one point the teacher commented that it was too rubbery and stretch-and-squashy. He questioned whether it was "on-model," so I showed him the hilarious model sheet, which includes the legendary direction "Keep it loose and distorted. Draw EXPRESSIVELY, not WELL." This clearly bothered him, but he allowed me to continue with the animation. He eventually had me correct a few things and tone some of the stretch and squash down, but this is an earlier version that I like better. The biggest mistake that sticks out to me now is the popping of the stripe on his back during the skip. I should've just left that off.

November 14, 2011

Yuzo Aoki's Crazy Lupin Movie

I've finally found another animator I like as much as Rod Scribner and Jim Tyer, thanks to Ben Ettinger's Anipages blog (which has really been on fire lately with some amazing posts).

A while ago I did some posts about a weird Lupin III episode. Ben not only told me who was responsible for the wacky drawings in it, he also told me what else they worked on in the franchise. If you're interested, just read his recent posts on Lupin III, specifically this one and this one.

I don't want to re-iterate too much of what he's written, but to make a long story short, it turns out there were two artists whose work I was noticing in that episode: Yoshio Kabashima and Yuzo Aoki. As I suspected, they co-directed the animation for the 1978 Lupin movie Lupin vs Clone, or The Secret of Mamo as it was called in the US. That movie has tons of really funny drawings too, but like the episode I posted the images from, the animation is often pretty limited, so the drawings don't really shine like they should.

After reading Ben's posts, I decided to look into the "pink jacket" Lupin III cartoons from the 1980s, since Yuzo Aoki had a much bigger part in them. This third era of Lupin was generally disliked by the Lupin fan base, for a few reasons. The music, colour and overall style are pure 80s cheese. (On a side note, Yuji Ohno, the long-time music composer for the series, renamed his band "the Super Sexual Transport" during this period. I just thought that was funny.) The stories became even sillier and more far-fetched than either of the previous Lupin TV series. Take a look at these demented episode titles:

"Good Afternoon, Hell's Angel"
"Lupin has Come with a Tank""The Man Is Called the Death Garb"
"Virgin Mary's Getaway Strategy""The Copy-Man Comes Expensive"
"Code Name Is Alaska Star"
"The Alaska Star Is a Ticket to Hell"
"Pops Boils over with Rage"
"Plunder the Pyramid of Insurance"


I know you can make anything sound stupid by translating it literally, but I just needed to share those gems... Anyway, another reason people didn't like the 80s Lupin was because anime fans often have a very narrow definition of what constitutes good animation. Sometimes they're right -- the art was inconsistent, and occasionally just plain bad. But Yuzo Aoki's work on the pink jacket series and the accompanying 1985 movie was fantastic. Not much of his work on the TV series is available for immediate viewing online, but here's an opening sequence he did.



The Lupin III anime has never looked this much like the original manga by Monkey Punch. Apart from Aoki's weird design of Fujiko, you'd swear Monkey Punch just learned to animate and did this himself. The posing is so inspired and demented. And the stylization of details like the wrinkles on the clothing is really well-done. This is what I love about the Lupin comics, and Aoki's animation of the characters is just like watching the comic in motion. Even the well-animated 1969 Lupin pilot film looks watered-down to me now, compared to this animated distillation of the Monkey Punch style.

I have the 1985 movie on VHS, but I hadn't watched it recently until Ben's posts on Aoki, who was the character designer, animation director and layout supervisor for this movie. So he was almost completely responsible for its visual style.





The film is pretty much 100 minutes of the kind of hilariously drawn slapstick comedy in the original Monkey Punch comics, and sadly that's probably why it turns off fans of the other Lupin anime. This is Lupin III at its absolute craziest. It's a far cry from the stiff, formulaic tedium of the franchise today. It actually feels like this movie was written with the intention of giving the animators interesting things to animate, sometimes to the detriment of the plot or any kind of structure. I'm not surprised that this movie is so rarely talked about. It's kind of an anomaly -- too wacky (and in some sections, simply incoherent) for anime fans, and it's an obscure part of an overwhelmingly long-running franchise, so there's almost no way a Western viewer would see it unless they're specifically looking for it. Of course, it doesn't help that it's been out of print in North America for years.



This is a movie where Lupin and Zenigata ride motorcycles in and out of the various orifices on a giant face for no reason. The face changes its expression several times, and sneezes.






It's the kind of movie where Zenigata sends dynamite on a zipline attached to handcuffs he throws around Lupin's neck... And Lupin can make the dynamite turn around by holding up the appropriate sign. And of course when it does explode, the characters are just charred for a second before healing completely.



There's also a robot with a hat. It eats money.


This is not a botched translation.

The story is confusing at times, but certain scenes in this movie are among my favourites in the entire Lupin III canon. Screenshots will not do them justice, so here are some videos. (In case you're wondering, Lupin's name is written as Rupan in the subtitles because for a while, no US anime distributors were allowed to use the name Lupin. It's a long story.)


Watch Lpn Bbln Train in Anime | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

This is part of a scene in which Lupin and his pals are on a train being chased by Inspector Zenigata, and a bunch of gangsters. There are so many insane poses in this sequence, and it's great to see them fully-animated instead of just one or two per shot. It's still not quite "full animation" in the traditional Western sense, but that seems to be mainly on purpose; Aoki has a idiosyncratic sense of timing that involves a lot of short holds. I wish I could upload these clips in a format that allowed frame-by-frame viewing. (Don't you love all the weird little noises Yasuo Yamada does as the voice of Lupin? They really add a lot of energy and humour to the character.)


Watch Lpn Bbln Rucksack in Anime | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com


Watch Lpn Bbln Crt in Anime | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

More funny animation and funny Yasuo Yamada noises.


Watch Lpn Bbln River in Anime | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

If you can find this movie, I'd recommend taking a look. It's very uneven, but you won't see animation quite like this anywhere else.