Film review – My Life as a Courgette (Claude Barras, 2017)

My Life as a Courgette is a stop-motion animated film directed by first-time feature director Claude Barras. Short in length but big in heart, it has a way of drawing the viewer in and delivering a weighty emotional drama, despite its saccharine veneer.

It tells the story of the titular Courgette, a boy who is forced into an orphanage at the age of nine. He has come from a lonely and unhappy background but quickly learns to adapt and find his path with the six other children he lives with, notably the over-confident Simon and new girl Camille, whom he takes an immediate liking to.

This shot is one of the most memorable lingering shots of the film

The narrative is carried out from the perspective of the children, which gives rise to some elements of humour whilst giving the situation a melancholic edge. These are children all going through the same issue, as one child puts it they’ve “ran out of people to love them”.

The animation is truly beautiful and endearing, with a unique character design coupled with an a seamless stop-motion animation style. It is simply a joy to watch.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more emotionally-involving story in cinemas right now. This is one that needs to be seen.

My Life as a Courgette is out in cinemas now. You can watch a free ten minute preview below.

Life after Ghibli?

Two new trailers have been released for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the debut film from Japanese animation company Studio Ponoc.

Watch them first, then read on to find out more.

Trailer #1

Trailer #2

Studio Ponoc is a new Japanese animation house based in Tokyo. The head of the company is Yoshiaki Nishimura, who was lead producer for two Studio Ghibli films: When Marnie Was There and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

It is clear to see the similarities with the best of Ghibli in the above clips, and it’s not just Nishimura who connects the two studios.

Hiromasa “Maro” Yonebayashi is directing the feature, having also directed Ghibli films The Secret World of Arriety and When Marnie Was There. He also worked as an animator on the likes of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Essentially, he was a key player at Ghibli. 

Maro pens the script alongside Riko Sakaguchi, the screenwriter of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, another excellent Ghibli film released in 2013 to critical acclaim.

Takatsugu Muramatsu returns as film composer, having provided the score for When Marnie Was There.

There is currently no official U.K. release date for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but it is scheduled to hit cinemas sometime in 2017. Traditionally Ghibli films took around a year to make the transition to English and finally get a release in the U.K., but who knows if the same rules will apply here.

Whatever happens, there will be a huge amount of interest in the film when it surfaces.

Kingdom of the Sun set for Blu-ray release

The moment has come for Disney fans! They will finally get a chance to see the lost animated film Kingdom of the Sun.

Originally set for release in 1999 and with a score of songs written by Sting, it was sadly axed after four years of production. It eventually was reworked and released in 2000 as The Emperor’s New Groove, which was well received on release and stood out as a highlight of a fairly mediocre period of the studio’s history. (My review can be found here).

The film has long been pined after by Disney fans and finally the studio has green lit a Blu-ray release date of 31st September for it.

Whilst the film isn’t a 100% finished production, it will be the entire film as far as it was completed. This means the full audio track is included, with the lead cast Eartha Kitt as the evil Yzma, Owen Wilson as the llama herder Pacha, Carla Gurgino as love interest Nina and David Spade as Emperor Manco. There’s no space for John Goldman and Kronk is also not featured. The lost songs by Sting are reinstated, including the tracks “Walk the Llama Llama”, “Snuff Out The Light” and the duet with Shawn Colvin “One Day She’ll Love Me”.

Excuse me? I can’t find my lines in this version.

Where animated sequences are incomplete, we will get either uncoloured hand-drawn sequences or storyboard images, although the latter of these will only account for “7% of why we’ll see”.

Even more interestingly, the double-disc release will features the infamous documentary titled The Sweatbox. Filmed by Sting’s wife Trudie Styler, the 95-minute film covers the entire production process, from initial concept to Sting writing and recording his music, and the infamous meeting where the Kingdom of the Sun is shut down and the reworking begins. This ha been available on various online platforms but never on home media and never in HD.

The entire list of features across the two discs are:

– The Kingdom of the Sun (unfinished but restored film)
– The Sweatbox – a 2002 documentary by Trudie Styler covering the production period and cancellation of the original project.
– Isolated audio tracks for the soundtrack with lyric videos for “One Day She’ll Love Me” and “Snuff Out The Light”.
– Introduction from directors Mark Dindall and Roger Allers.
– Kronk’s Not Groove – a short film reimagining sequel Kronk’s New Groove without Kronk existing.
– Concept art gallery, including designs for unused McDonald’s toys and other unreleased merchandise.
– All bonus features currently included on the Emperor’s New Groove Blu-ray/DVD release.

——————

Don’t you just wish this was a true story? The unfortunate reality is that this is an April Fools joke article.

However, like my joke article from last year for the Ewok Adventure Blu-ray release, I’m sure this will garner a lot of interest from fans around the world and will serve as evidence that something along these lines would be a great profit turner for Disney.

Film review – Saludos Amigos (Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, 1942)

Saludos Amigos is a comporomise film. It’s a feature-length film, but only just; a mere 42 minutes and you’ll be done on this one. It’s a film that also only exists as a product of a good-will tour of Latin America, with Walt Disney acting as an ambassador for the USA to counter-act the popularity of the Nazi Party in certain countries when it was produced in the middle of World War Two. 

The film consists of four segments, all of which are a mixture between documentary films and short animated sequences. The animators, technicians and filmmakers were sent to countries such as Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil and observe what they saw, making sketches and jotting down any ideas they had. It is therefore a wonderful work that captures the beauty of the landscapes and cultures of 1940s Latin America, whilst also serving as a brilliant piece of political evidence when viewed some 75 years later.


Of the four segments, the standout is Aqualero  do Brasil, which introduces José Carioca – a well-dressed Brazilian green parrot who speaks fast and smokes a cigar. He befriends Donald Duck and shows him some cultural highlights of Rio de Janeiro, with a great sequence involving the samba.

José may have been a bit of a flash in the pan outside of Brazil but in his homeland he’s still as loved today as he ever has been, happily sitting alongside Donald and Mickey as the face of Disney.
It’s nothing that will wow modern audiences. It’s simply not as entertaining as the five animated features that proceeded it. It is, put simply, a quirk.

The Problem With Zavvi’s UK Disney Steelbooks

There is a huge problem brewing with Zavvi’s steelbook range in the UK.

When Zavvi initially launched them in 2014, there was much excitement from the steelbook community and Disney fans alike. Marrying two strong groups of collectors together was a financial goldmine for Zavvi and Disney. At £20 a pop and with each item having a limited run of around 4000, the revenue on the entire collection was considerable. £80,000 per release, over fifty releases… That’s potentially over £4m of revenue by the time the series was over.

Out rolled the big hitters. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King from their 1990s renaissance period. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella from their classic princesses era. New releases for Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Wreck It Ralph sold out quickly as pre-orders.

They’d suckered everyone in and could hope for a continued interest as more were released. Or could they?

Suddenly they were into the realms of the unknown. Sure, Tangled will sell well, but what about the less popular releases? The Sword in the Stone? Brother Bear? What about Oliver & Co or Saludos Amigos?

They started on this path, but clearly something in the numbers gave them cold feet and by the time Treasure Planet was launched in February 2016, they decided no further vault releases would see the light of day. Instead, all that has been issued since then is the new release item Zootopia and a pre-order for Moana, due for release in April 2017.

To make matters worse, Zavvi have now taken to reissuing all the Disney films already available as standard steelbooks, but this time as lenticular steelbooks, which indicates that they aren’t planning any further standard versions. For those collecting the set and with 35 Disney steelbooks in their possession, that’s something of a kick in the teeth.

WHAT’S LEFT TO RELEASE?

The following Disney vault films are yet to see the light of day as steelbooks, though some aren’t even available as Blu-rays yet.

Saludos Amigos
Disney Classic #6
Originally released on August 24, 1942
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Three Caballeros
Disney Classic #7
Originally released on December 21, 1944
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Make Mine Music
Disney Classic #8
Originally released on April 20, 1946
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Fun and Fancy Free
Disney Classic #9
Originally released on September 27, 1947
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Melody Time
Disney Classic #10
Originally released on May 27, 1948
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Disney Classic #11
Originally released on October 5, 1949
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #22
Originally released on March 11, 1977
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Black Cauldron
Disney Classic #25
Originally released on July 24, 1985
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Great Mouse Detective
Disney Classic #26
Originally release on July 2, 1986
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Oliver & Company
Disney Classic #27
Originally released on November 18, 1988
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Rescuers Down Under
Disney Classic #29
Originally released on November 16, 1990
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Dinosaur
Disney Classic #38
Originally relased on May 19, 2000
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Disney Classic #41
June 15, 2001
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Lilo & Stitch
Disney Classic #42
Originally relased on June 21, 2002
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Home on the Range
Disney Classic #45
Originally relased on April 2, 2004
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Chicken Little
Disney Classic #46
Originally relased on November 4, 2005
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Meet the Robinsons
Disney Classic #47
Originally relased on March 30, 2007
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Bolt
Disney Classic #48
Originally relased on November 28, 2008
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #51
Originally released on July 15, 2011
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK, but is available in the US

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

Well, without the numbers to help guide us, it’s difficult to speculate on making a business decision that should be focused on a financial gain. No business runs for long on a loss, so we can’t expect them to issue something that loses money.

However, there should be a compromise. Those invested in the majority of the items so far are more than likely to want to complete their collection, so they’d need to estimate how many people make up that pot.

There are groups of films there that can be treated slightly differently. Classics #6-#11 (Saludos Amigos, The Three Cabaleros, Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) are obviously niche items, but someone interested in one of them would surely want to pick all of them up. One solution on that front is to group them all together as one or two boxsets, which helps people complete the series whilst reducing their risk on people buying just one or two of them and leaving the rest. Indeed, the total running time of the six films is around 6.5 hours, so they could be done over two discs.

Some of them are popular enough for a standalone release. Bolt, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Oliver & Co. and The Rescuers would fall into that category.  Limiting the releases to 1,000 copies and making that explicit on the item description would tempt in some sales to collectors – anything extremely limited with a Disney logo on it is bound to ignite interest.

It doesn’t help matters when the faithful shoppers are getting bombarded with pre-order emails for steelbooks of the likes of Street Fighter, Flight of the Navigator and Short Circuit.

Perhaps the best solution is to launch the remainder as a subscription service, with one released every month over a two-year period.  This could be modelled on their ZBOX series, and they could throw in other items to sweeten the deal. It may not be perfect but how else will they ensure people stick around for the release of Dinosaur?

Short film review – The Ugly Duckling (Jack Cutting and Clyde Geronimo, 1939)

This Walt Disney Productions short animation fell under the Silly Symphony banner when it was released in 1939. It went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short, the eighth in a run of eight Walt Disney films to do so.

It’s a fine little episode that tells the tale of a swanling that somehow ends up in a nest of ducklings, and is immediately shunned and ridiculed for being different to his surrogate brothers and sisters. 

A duck? Nah you must be quackers.

It curtails the original Hans Christian Andersen story by removing the whole extended pain of being without a family for around a year, skipping straight to the point where he is found by a swan family, presumably his own. In doing so, they miss out the point where he turns into an adult swan and the ducks are in awe of his beauty.
In its short sub-nine minute running time, it manages to fit in a surprising amount of substance. This is, for the whole part, a tale about an orphan who is unwanted by his new family. This would surely resonate with anyone in any element of this situation, and there is no holding back when the mother and father have a full-blown argument in front of the innocent swanling. Indeed, there’s a suggestion from the drake that since he looks nothing like the swan then perhaps his duck wife has been sleeping around. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

The animation is, inevitably, a thing of beauty. Two of Disney’s Nine Old Men were on animation duty (Milt Kahl and Eric Larson) and it certainly has the feel of one of their classic films (it was released between Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio). There’s a certain amount of warmth you find in these old animations that has never been replicated.

It’s probably not the best short releases around this time from Walt Disney Studios, but it is deserving of all the praise it has received over the years. Why not revisit it? You’re only 78 years late to the party!

Short film review -Steamboat Willie (Walt Disney, 1928)

If you’ve seen a Disney Animation Studios film recently, then you’ll have noticed a short clip of the beloved Mickey Mouse captaining a boat, whilstling a little tune and looking like the happiest little mouse you’ve ever seen. It’s quintessential Mickey, summing up everything about what we know and love about him, in what were the first moments the world ever shared with him.

The year was 1928 and Walt Disney was reeling from a fall out with his business partners that had left him without his prize asset – the increasingly-popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Walt Disney was determined that his comeback would be the first cartoon to synchronise pictures and sound, and this determination was rewarded with unprecedented popularity. The rest, for want of a better phrase, is history.

The film itself is a sweet little vignette that sees Mickey get musical on a group of farmyard animals, and is mostly harmless, slapstick fun. Aside from the opening scene, this isn’t really a Mickey we’re used to in the 21st Century, though it is a much more savoury offering than what was just around the corner with the follow up films (the most shocking of which is the smoking and drinking version of Mickey portrayed in The Gallopin’ Gaucho, released later in 1928.

It’s hard to believe that from this point onwards it was built into one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century, but seeing is essential viewing for anyone who sees themself as a fan of Disney.

Film review – Sing (Garth Jennings, 2017)

Good, harmless fun is how I’d describe the latest release from Illumination Entertainment. We don’t learn much about ourselves and we don’t get any kind of social commentary. The characters don’t stand out in terms of being inspirational, nor do they have the look of characters that will become favourites in years to come. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film and it doesn’t mean that the children it is aimed at won’t have a great couple of hours at the cinema if they see it.

The story follows Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala who owns a theatre that is running out of money. As a last ditch effort, he plots to hold a singing competition, but his assistant accidentally advertises a $100,000 prize fund instead of $1,000. This sparks the interest of a range of hopefuls that make up our lead cast: shady mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane) who specialises in Sinatra-style crooning; shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) who suffers from stage-fright and nerves; porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a goth-teen who is hampered by the fact she is performing in the shadow of her self-centred boyfriend and needs to shine herself; cockney gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), stuck in a family of mobster gorillas but wanting to follow his own dreams; and pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a housewife who is so busy looking after 25 children and a hardworking husband that she has no time to pursue her dream of singing on stage. There’s also a group of cute, small Japanese dogs who evoke the worst of J-Pop culture to hilarious effect.

 

The universe these characters live in is a world of animals that looks like Zootropolis’s lazy and less charismatic younger brother. It’s a shame because if this had been released three years ago, the plethora of ideas would have brought the opening scenes to life, but in the wake of Disney’s triumphant film that is now almost a year old, it just doesn’t quite feel like it’s hitting the mark. It begs the question of which was storyboarded first and was there anyone involved in both projects that might have leaked information one way or the other.

One of the biggest flaws is the casting of McConaughey in the lead role. The character calls for a certain tone of charisma that simply isn’t delivered. This is surprising, because he has developed into a fantastic actor over the last decade, but it does highlight that voice-over acting isn’t something you can simply turn up and expect to be good at.

 

There are some hilarious moments in the film, which is what we’re looking for. One highlight comes from mouse Mike, who at one point sings Sinatra’s My Way – brilliantly – whilst a helicopter circles above, causing him to lift off the ground and then circle over the audience in a supremely stylish landing. It’s great setpiece, even if the build up is a tad protracted.

But that is what the film is about – big set pieces that will be fondly remembered, even if the overarching plot doesn’t deliver any great payoffs. A solid and enjoyable effort that is quickly slipping from my memory.

Short film review – Donald in Mathmagic Land (Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, Joshua Meador)

As educational short films go, Disney’s animation about their ever-stressed duck taking a trip through a land filled with mathematical tales, quips and facts is pretty darn entertaining.

Released in 1959 alongside a poorly-remembered live action film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the film went on to receive a nomination in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category at the Academy Awards. [1] [2]

It charts Donald’s journey through Mathmagic Land, as guided by the voice of a spirit (Paul Frees). He learns about the origins of maths, starting with Pythagoras in Greece, then the pentogram and the golden section, the appearances of the golden section in nature, architecture and art, the application of maths in music and its relevance to games (especially chess, which features a nice reference to Alice Through The Looking Glass).

That the film covers a relatively thorough history of one of the most important and fundamental basic principals of life and remains interesting is somewhat of a miracle, so much so that the film went on to be used as an educational tool in schools across America. It’s easy to see why. Its relevance endures and it would still be useful in the modern education system.

Admittedly, the style is now somewhat dated but it has a classic feel of 1950s era Disney about it. This is hardly surprising. Two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” worked as directors on the film. [3]

It is a great shame that so many of these old Disney shorts are hard to locate in a good quality transfer and few are held in high regard, largely due to the lack of knowledge of their existence. Anyone who enjoys watching the early Disney animation films is doing themselves a disservice if they are yet to discover the shorts being released around the same time. These are the same animators, story writers and directors, throwing together ideas and experimenting with animation, perhaps to try something out for a future release, or maybe just finishing ideas that were started with a plan for a full release before ending up as a short instead.

There are so many to choose from, many of which were released in the UK on the Disney Fables series of DVDs. Owning all six of them is a great start – you will have in your possession six hours of short animated films, covering 25 animated films, several of which were Academy Awards nominees and winners. It’s about time that Disney worked out a way to get these out there again so yet another generation can enjoy them.

[1] I can’t imagine people were overly-fond of the film at the cinema.Having paid to see a film that’s 93 minutes long, imagine the dismay when you sat down and realised it had a 26-minute short film about maths tagged at the beginning of it.

[2] Quite why this wasn’t nominated as an animated short is beyond me. I incorrectly assumed that the category didn’t exist at the time but this proved to be an incorrect assumption, having been around for over 25 years in 1959.

[3] Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark were two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a group of nine original animators that worked at the Disney company. Many of them went on to direct feature films themselves and every Walt Disney Animation film featured at least one of the nine until 1985’s The Black Cauldron.

Film Review – Vaiana (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2016)

Walt Disney Animation Studios have released their 56th animated film, the musical Moana. I’m going to whisper this quietly, but it might actually be better than Frozen.

The story follows 16-year-old girl Vaiana as she defies her passage to become the leader of the tribe on the fictional island Motunui. Her father Chief Tui, leader of her island tribe, and her mother Sina are fearful of the water and want her to remain on the island, but her outgoing grandma Tala encourages her to leave and hunt down the demigod Maui to solve a mysterious curse that she believes has led to a poor harvest.

Vaiana and Maui


The basics of the story are, on the face of it, quite by-the-numbers. There’s a teenage protagonist, which makes it relatable for the younger viewers. She goes on a quest that has a practical purpose but also helps her develop as a person. She teams up with an unlikely buddy to help her in her journey. We’ve seen it many times before but the familiarity doesn’t hamper its success.

Where the story excels is threefold. Firstly, it has a brilliantly sharp and humorous script, which the actors are clearly having a lot of fun with. Secondly, the animation of both the characters and the surroundings is absolutely stunning. Finally, the music, which was written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i, is outrageously good, and goes much further than simply one great flagship song (in this case “How Far I’ll Go”, sung by the lead and effectively Vaiana’s answer to “Let It Go”).

Indeed, it is unfortunate that the film has been unleashed in the same year as La La Land, which is destined to sweep up at most of the award ceremonies, at least in the Best Song categories. Miranda may have to have another attempt in a less competitive year.

There are a couple of nice smaller roles that are grasped by those involved. Alan Tudyk may be more famed for his turn as K-2SO in Rogue One this year, but he’s equally hilarious as Hei Hei the Rooster here, constantly stealing scenes with sound effects that match the ridiculousness of the island’s most endearingly stupid bird. Elsewhere, there’s a hilarious scene featuring Tamatoa, a giant kleptomaniacal crab who has a penchant for all things shiny.

Vaiana is a must see this holiday season and should be top of your list if you need to entertain any younger relatives over the coming weeks.

Check out the reviews of other Disney animated features and shorts here:

Zootropolis
Kronk’s New Groove
The Emperor’s New Groove
Destino
Melody Time
Big Hero 6
Frozen

Note: This article was originally published for the English-language version of the film and has since been adapted. You can find the original version here.