I remember when 2d cartoons and various sorts of stop-motion animation were considered niche or kiddie fare. Even the word cartoon suggests something frivolous and trivial. Not that I ever let that diminish my interest in ‘toons. But animation has become an integral and more respected part of the cultural landscape, with billion-dollar movie industry revenues and TV exposure that’s aimed at fans of all ages.
Anyone who saw and enjoyed the 2016 Oscar-winning feature Zootopia — the anthropomorphic-animal noir with its whimsically designed computer-generated characters, fluid action, glorious color palette, sharp gags, and message of inclusion — knows the level of quality being attained by a host of studios. There are more notable projects to come on the big and small screens.
This month will see the U.S. release of the biggest box office success in the history of Japanese animated movies, Your Name, which is probably the best of its kind from Japan since the enchanting, critically acclaimed Spirited Away. On the video front, we have the April 5 return of the scathingly funny FX channel spy-fi sitcom Archer, this time in faux film noir guise.
The 3-D cash-grab sequel Smurfs: The Lost Village also shows up at movie houses in April, with two other sequels, Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3, following in June, but none are expected to be groundbreakers, risk-takers, or masterpieces deserving gold statuettes. On the other hand, you can finally go to an American theater and catch My Life as a Zucchini — a 2016 Academy Award-nominee alongside Zootopia.
A Tasty and Pungent Zucchini
The Swiss-French stop-motion animated feature My Life as a Zucchini launched its official U.S. theatrical engagement a few weeks ago, delighting me, even as it targeted my tear ducts. For the record, the actual title in French is Ma Vie de Courgette. Courgette is the boy’s nickname which translates into English as Zucchini, the latter somehow sounding sillier. Vegetable designation aside, it’s the tender tale of a boy who is orphaned in tragic fashion and is brought to a foster home that’s run by a decent, caring crew of adults. Although he’s well treated, he struggles with loss and the need to fit in with the other kids in the home, all of whom are dreaming of adoption. Addressing real-world problems with honesty and wit, it is equal parts lovely and sad and hopeful. And yes, I wept a bit by the end of the movie. I give it three tears on the Snyder Cry-o-Meter. Despite looking like it was designed to be primarily viewed by children, it is much more.
The idea of juvenilia or bland, family-oriented diversion is sometimes implied when animated narratives are discussed in certain pretentious circles. Meanwhile, I grew up watching afternoon TV shows that featured classic Popeye and Warner Brothers ‘toons — the latter “starring” Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and their pals — which were all originally shorts made to run before whatever feature film was playing at the local theater. In the 1930s and ’40s, when the bulk of those vintage cartoons were created, they were considered cross-generational entertainment. But, by their television airings in the late ’50s and ’60s, they were branded kids’ stuff. That would fly in the face of the occasionally sophisticated jokes in play, especially in the made-for-TV material that was produced by the team of Jay Ward and Bill Scott in the ’60s. Ward and Scott’s smart, satirical and droll (but crudely rendered) Rocky and Bullwinkle adventures — rough, riotous, and always ready to puncture pomposity — tend to hold up today, and are considerably funnier and hipper than the lower-end product that gets green-lit, even in this golden age of animation.
Endorsing ‘Your Name’
Your Name — hitting various cities in the United States on April 7 — is an antidote to the market-driven Smurfs, Cars and Despicable Me sequels and the presumably crass, blatant hackwork of (brace yourself) The Emoji Movie, due in August. Although Your Name had a brief Oscar-qualifying run at the end of last year, I assume that no Academy voters saw it or it would have gotten a nomination. Directed by Makoto Shinkai in high-end 2-D animation with digital flourishes, it’s as moving in its way as My Life as a Zucchini, although it has much grander aspirations than simply depicting a slice of life.
From the get-go, Your Name mixes genres — science fiction, fantasy, adventure, comedy, drama, and coming-of-age — in fresh and unexpected ways. A wish by a teenage girl in a rural area triggers a body swap between her and a teenage boy who lives in a city many miles away. Initially puzzled, frightened and intrigued, they decide to find one another while they deal with intermittent swapping back and forth, unexpected time shifts, and a celestial event. So Your Name additionally involves a quest and the very timely topic of gender exploration. For all of the elements at play here, it fits together in beautiful, mesmerizing fashion. You’ll be able to see it in the original Japanese with English subtitles (recommended) or dubbed in English — and you should. If anything confirms the potency and relevance of contemporary animation, it’s Your Name.