Foreign animation fest and a guy named Dickens

By Tom Von Malder | Mar 11, 2018
Photo by: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment "The Breadwinner," which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Feature Film, is the story of Parvana, 11, who has to pretend to be male to support her family in Afghanistan.

Owls Head — The Breadwinner (Ireland/Canada/Luxembourg, Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 93 min.). An Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature Film,  this beautifully rendered film tells the tale of 11-year-old Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), who has grown up under the Taliban in Afghanistan, where religious-based restrictions on  females are harshly enforced. The year is 2001 and, when her father, who has lost a leg during the war, is unjustly imprisoned for teaching the women in his family with "forbidden" books, Parvana decides to cut her hair so she can pass as a boy and become the family's breadwinner. Pushing for the teacher's arrest was a former student, Idrees, who has attacked Parvana previously for drawing attention to herself, when she and her father (Nurullah, voiced by Ali Badshah) were trying to sell items at the market.

While the main story deals with Parvana's attempts to raise money -- some for bribes so she can see her father at the prison -- the film also has an imaginative story that Parvana tells to her father at the market, then continues to tell to her baby brother and finally to her friend Shauzia (voiced by Soma Bhatia), another female passing as a boy, with whom Parvana partners up to make money. The fantasy story evolves out of a brief history of Afghanistan and a young boy who undergoes a perilous journey to win back seeds that the Elephant King's jaguar underlings have stolen. In some ways it is similar to Parvana's quest to see her father in prison. The boy is told he will need to gather three things in order to confront the Elephant King. They are something that shines, something that ensnares and something that soothes.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Parvana's mother is beaten just for being on the streets without a man, as she tries to reach the prison with a letter begging for clemency for her husband. Towards the film's end, an arranged marriage for Parvana's older sister seems a way for the remaining family to escape the war that is coming to Kabul. The nicely-plotted film is dark at times and especially unsparing when it comes to the treatment of women in Afghanistan, but it also offers hope.

Extras include technical-oriented audio commentary by director Nora Twomey ("The Secret of Kells"), co-art director Ciaran Duffy, sequence director Jeremy Purcell and animation director Fabian Erlinghauser; an introduction by Twomey and executive producer Angelina Jolie; and a making-of featurette (28:28) that discusses the voice cast and characters, the animation process, the music and sound, and telling the story. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (GKIDS/Shout! Factory, Blu-ray + DVD, PG-13, 76 min.). Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and friend Asaaf (voiced by Reggie Watts) are starting their sophomore year in high school, again as a writing team for the school newspaper, which is edited by Verti (voiced by Maya Rudolph). Verti thinks Dash's prose is too florid, so she gives Asaaf a solo assignment. This leads to a rift between the two friends -- plus romantic sparks are surfacing between Asaaf and Verti.

Dash's response is to publish a scathing story about Asaaf, which leads Principal Grimm (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), who has an eye patch, to make a permanent mark in Dash's school record. Fearing that will damage his college admission hopes, Dash sneaks into the school archives, where he finds plans that show that the school's new auditorium, built on the roof and about to be dedicated, is structurally unsound and not up to earthquake codes. Oh yes, he also learns the school was built above a fault line. As Dash tries to warn everyone to leave the school, an earthquake strikes, dislodging the land upon which the school stands and it drifts off into the sea. Numerous fires and other calamities, including killer sharks swimming inside the school, break out as the school starts sinking with its approximately 900 students.

The film, written and directed by Dash Shaw, is a delightful, sometimes over-the-top mix of your average nerds versus the rest of the school, coming-of-age plotline with that of a disaster film, such as
"The Poseidon Adventure." In supporting voice roles are Lena Dunham as Mary, the stuck-up sophomore class president, and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine (sometimes spelled Lorainne), who proves to be one tough cookie.

The animation style looks like it was made with crayons and often there are strange colors on faces. In the extra, "The Art of" (13:08), Shaw explains how he uses Photoshop colors, air brushes and put color plates atop line art. His work would then be merged with the different drawing styles of guest artists, such as the long run down a corridor sequence. Both Shaw and lead animator Jane Samborski are interviewed. There also is an audio commentary by Dash and five of Dash's earlier short films, with the longest 1:14. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Spain, 2015, GKIDS/Shout! Factory, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 76 min.). In this animated film, directed by Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero, based on Vazquez's graphic novel, the characters are animals in a post-apocalyptic world, stranded on an island. There has been a factory accident that appears to have been nuclear. The story centers around Dinky, whose parents are awful, yet very religious (her father squeezes a Baby Jesus squeak toy that seems to ooze blood), and a couple of her friends, a rabbit and a fox, who are trying to escape the island. Dinky is a mouse, even though her younger brother is a dog. (Go figure.)

Birdboy, a tie-wearing bird who has trouble flying, is involved with the drug underworld -- his main supplier is fisherman Zacharais -- as a means of keeping his literal inner demon at bay. Birdboy's father used to run the island's lighthouse. Birdboy is unable to join Dinky in her quest, and the trio end up in a trash dump site, ruled by a rat king and his Forgotten Children cult. This non-children's tale is very dark at times, and many scenes are Kafkaesque.

The film won the Goya Award for Best Animated Feature. Extras include an interview with the directors (12:42) about the eight years it took to make the film, which serves as a metaphor for adolescence and addresses the destruction of the environment; the original short film (13:08), which includes a couple of the same scenes; and Vazquez's short film, "Decorado" ("A Set") (11:13), which is black-and-white, sometimes ribald and entertaining. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars

The Girl Without Hands (France, GKIDS/Shout! Factory, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 75 min.). This beautiful animated film is based on the story by the Brothers Grimm. A miller accidentally sells his daughter to the Devil, thinking he had merely sold his apple tree, being unaware his daughter was up in the tree at the time. Gold, instead of water, flows over the mill wheel, making him rich. The Devil commands the daughter not clean herself, but when he comes back to collect her, she tricks him, cleaning with her tears. In anger, the Devil lets her go, but not before ordering her father to chop off both her hands.

The daughter runs away, only to fall in a river, where she is saved by the river spirit. It turns out the river is owned by a prince, who eventually marries her and gifts her two golden hands. While the prince is away at war, their son is born, but the Devil substitutes for the letters sent between the spouses and produces one that orders the prince's gardener to kill his wife and child. The gardener disobeys and helps them escape, and the woman eventually finds shelter in a cabin at the source of the river. When the prince returns, he is aghast at what happened and spends years searching for his wife and son.

The film was written, directed and drawn by Sebastien Laudenbach, who discusses the film's journey from its 2001 conception to his year-long drawing project in 2012 in a making-of featurette (13:37). Because he was doing the project by himself -- normally it would take a team of 50 or so animators -- he decided to work with a style that had incomplete drawings, letting the audience's perception fill in the missing lines. The result are line drawings that are very impressionistic. There also is an interview with Laudenbach (19:12), recorded when the film was up for a Cesar as Best Animated Film, as well as five short films by Laudenbach (35:42). Grade: 3.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Napping Princess (Japan, GKIDS/Shout! Factory, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 111 min.). This is another animated film that deals with two stories at the same time, with one of them fictional. That is the world of Heartland, which comes to life when high school senior Kokone Morikawa is dreaming and, yes, she falls asleep a lot, even in class at school. In her dreams, Kokone is Princess Ancien, the king's daughter and a sorceress. In her non-dreaming life, Kokone lives with her father, Momotaro, who runs a fix-it shop and is known as "The Jacket" to the neighbor children due to his usual attire. The viewer sees Momo install a self-driving system in one customer's vehicle.

Apparently the plans for that system were developed by Kokone's deceased mother, who was the daughter of the chairman of the Shijima Motor Corp. Momo has perfected the system, the specs of which are kept on an electronic tablet. Hoping for a power grab at Shijima, Watanabe and his goons come to Momo's house, looking for the tablet. While Watanabe has the police detain Momo -- yet they never take away his cell phone so he can communicate with Kokone -- Kokone takes off with the tablet, hidden in Joy, her stuffed toy, hoping to reach the Shijima chairman. Along the way, she meets friend Mario, who helps her in her quest.

Meanwhile, in the dream world, a fiery Colossus demon is attacking Heartland and the king's Engine Heads -- giant robots controlled by humans inside; the Japanese love giant robots -- have almost all been destroyed. Morio eventually gets drawn into the dream world as well, while Kokone's father is motorcycle-riding hero there. And toy animal Joy has come to life. Heartland also has interesting magic-driven machines that can change their shape.

Writer/director Kenji Kamiyama helped create "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" and "Eden of the East." Extras include an interview with Kamiyama (15:02); the three main voice cast members speaking at the Japanese premiere (20:17), speaking at the greeting for the Japanese release (17:51), an interview with those three (7:19) and a special TV program with the three (22:04); and a comparison of the film's Okayama scenery with the real-life scenery (3:23). The film also is known as "Ancien and the Magic Tablet." Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Ai no Kusabi: The Space Between: Unchained Edition (Japan, 2012, Anime Works DVD, 16 and older, 101 min.). This reissue of the four-part yaoi-themed anime comes as the first version dubbed in English, although, as usual, I prefer the original language with English subtitles. Both are included. The series, based on books first published in 1992, is set in a dystopian future on the planet Amoi, where there is a strict caste system controlled by the super-computer Jupiter. Social class is determined by the color of one's hair. Iason is a "Blondie," the top class and he has taken a "mongrel" gang leader, Riki, a dark hair, as a "pet," part servant and part sex slave, which is unusual.

Iason's possession of Riki takes place after Riki is caught in a forbidden affair with Mimea, a female already promised to wed another Blondie. The film jumps forward two years, when Riki escapes, after the security system is hacked by Furniture, another of Iason's slaves. While Riki is recaptured, Iason decides to allow Riki to go back to the slums, hoping Riki's will realize he misses his servitude within a year. In episode two, Riki reconnects with some of his old crew, from when he was leader of the Bisons. Kirie, an annoying would-be gang mascot, talks several gang members into attending a slave auction, where Riki spies Iason. This brings flashbacks to Riki's life between leaving the Bisons, working for the Blondies and becoming Iason's pet.

There were eight original novels, so the story is not completely told in the anime, which is appealingly drawn. Extras include textless opening and closing and promotional videos. Grade: miniseries 3 stars; extras 1/2 star

Steven Universe: The Complete First Season (Cartoon Network/Warner Bros.,3 DVDs, TV PG, 572 min.). The Emmy-nominated, critically-acclaimed animated series  is set in Beach City on the American East Coast, where the four Crystal Gems live in an ancient beachside temple, protecting the world from evil. As immortal alien warriors, they project female humanoid forms from magical gems, namely Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and Steven, a young half-human, half-Gem boy. As Steven tries to figure out his powers, he spends his days with his human father, Greg, his friend Connie or the other Gems. One of his abilities is fusion, the ability of two Gems to temporarily merge their identities and bodies to form a new personality.

The set includes all 52 episodes, as well as a conversation with series creator, Emmy- and Annie Award-nominated writer and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Sugar, discussing the show's celebrated music, chart-topping soundtracks, performance videos and footage from a soundtrack listening party. There also are animatics, song demos, commentaries and a live performance.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 104 min.). While I disagree with the film's view that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, his "A Christmas Carol" certainly has become a large part of the holiday. The film, directed by Bharat Nalluri ("Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"), has a Susan Coyne screenplay that adapts a nonfiction book by Les Standiford. However, this tale of how Dickens wrote his acclaimed novel is quite fanciful, bringing the book's imaginary characters to life to interact with the author.

Dickens is played by Dan Stevens, the very likable actor from the "Legion" TV series and "Downton Abbey." His Dickens is coming off of three books that flopped and thus he is constantly worried about money, while still gives generously to the poor. Justin Edwards plays Dickens' book agent, John Forster (as well as the Ghost of Christmas Present). Because of the flops, Dickens' publishers are not too keen on the new proposed work, so Dickens decides to write the book, self publish, find an illustrator and have the book printed and in the shops by Christmas, less than two months away. First, though, he has to borrow more money at 25 percent interest.

A household of four children, with a fifth on the way, and the unexpected invasion of his parents (Jonathan Pryce plays his constantly-broke father, who was hauled away to debtors' prison when Dickens was a child) create constant interruptions in his writing, but the story starts to come together when he envisions Ebenezer Scrooge (a wonderful, strong portrayal by Christopher Plummer). Scrooge interacts with Dickens and actually helps him to finish the book. The film also shows has Dickens borrowing from his surroundings -- especially picking up names he liked, such as Marley and Copperfield -- and his own hard-scrabble childhood. Also, his nephew Henry, who has a crutch and a bad cough, visits during the writing. That probably cheapens the creative process, however, as Dickens was one of the greatest English writers.

The only extra is a behind-the-story promo (2:46). Grade: film 2.75 stars

Gintama (Japan, Well Go USA, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 131 min.). The film is based on the best-selling manga and is set 20 years after an alien invasion of an alternate Edo-period Japan. These "Sky People" have the form of human-sized cats. They have banned all swords, after an uprising, making samurai useless. Former samurai Gintoki Sakata, aka the "White Demon," now works as an everyday handyman under the company name, Odd Jobs-R-Us. The films' over-the-top humor and style-switching is annoying. While the humor is bad, the fights are OK.

After a very campy opening in a restaurant, three anime-style characters interrupt the proceedings , which they criticize. Then the film restarts at the 7:20 mark with Sakata and his two friends going beetle hunting, only to encounter a police chief covered in honey, an assistant chief lathering mayonnaise on trees  and a third man in a giant beetle suit, all trying to catch the shogun's pet beetle, which has escaped. By now, I was ready to jump ship on the film. Later, they have to deal with an assassin who is killing former samurai with an accursed sword that has snake-like tendrils. There are no bonus features. Grade: film  1.5 stars

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