December 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Point

Quick pop culture quiz. Name the first full length animated feature produced specifically for television. Need a hint? It was based on an album of pop songs and first aired in 1971. Unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised if you've never heard of either the movie or the man who wrote the music it was based on. The Point, based on the album of the same name by American song writer Harry Nilsson and directed and animated by Fred Wolf was first aired on ABC with a cast that included Dustin Hoffman in the lead role.

Like its creator the film has unfortunately almost been forgotten, existing only as a faint memory for those who remember one of the times it was broadcast. However, with the movie being given a new life on DVD by the MVD Entertainment Group hopefully both Nilsson and The Point will gain some of the recognition they richly deserve. After the initial broadcast Hoffman's voice had to be overdubbed out of the production due to contractual conflicts. So the voice you now hear in the key role of narrator/father is that of former Beatle Ringo Starr. Aside from that, you'll be seeing the movie just as it was originally broadcast.

To today's sophisticated audience I'm sure the animation will look excessively primitive. For everything was still drawn by hand in the early 1970s. So instead of the detailed and lifelike cartoons we have grown accustomed to thanks to computer generated animation, this has a very rough sketch like quality to it. Backgrounds are primarily washes of colour while foregrounds and characters will seem like crude drawings compared to today's offerings. However, once you allow yourself to become wrapped up in the story, you'll find the technical details won't matter. In fact, the rather sur-real quality they create actually helps create the fantastical atmosphere which is part of the movie's charm.
DVD Cover The Point.jpg
Told as a bed time story by a father (Starr) to his son, The Point recounts the adventures of Oblio and his dog Arrow. Oblio is born in the town of Point, which gets its name from the fact everybody and everything has a point. From the pyramid shaped buildings to the tops of each person's head there's not a round object in the place. That is until little Oblio is born without a point. Naturally his difference is quite the talking point (get used to it, there are any number of play on words around the word "point" employed in the movie) but things only come to a head when Oblio and Arrow show up The Count's son in a game of ring toss. The Count forces the King of Point to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forrest for being in contravention of the law stating everybody in Point must have a point.

So little Oblio and Arrow venture into the Pointless forrest where they meet with all kinds of strange and mysterious individuals. From the beatnik like "Rock Man" - a large creature made of stones who espouses a kind of hip philosophy of acceptance - to the triple headed pointed man, each help the young boy see that you don't need to be pointed to have a point. As Nilsson had originally told the story through song on his album The Point the action of the move is aided and accentuated by his music. Sometimes whimsical and often fantastic, when combined with the animator Wolf's visuals the songs are what give this movie its real magic.

Whether simply expounding on the relationship between a lonely boy and his pet with "Me And My Arrow", expanding on the themes of the story, "Think About Your Troubles", or exploring the differences between reality and fantasy in "Are You Sleeping", the songs both help tell the story and create an emotional bond between the viewer and Oblio. Like the movie itself the music never lectures or pontificates, instead it helps us see there is more than one way of looking at the world. In the town of Point Oblio was subject to the law that different is bad. However, out in the rest of the world he discovers there are all sorts of creatures without points but that doesn't prevent them from having a point.

What's nice about this movie is the time it takes allowing Oblio to make his discoveries. Over the course of the movie we watch as he comes to the realization that different is not bad and therefore he is of worth. Unlike a lot of stuff today where everything is about the quick fix, this movie understands we all need time to accept new things and to learn how to appreciate them. Especially when it comes to learning new things about ourselves that go against everything we've been told. If you've been made to feel different or odd all your life learning to like yourself and understand you have value is not easy. Watching Oblio take this journey will be edifying for anyone, young or old, who has ever felt out of place and different.
Harry Nilsson.jpg
Included along with the movie on the DVD are special features about both the movie and Nilsson. Hopefully the biographical details about Nilsson and the testimonials to his talent included in these features will encourage a new generation of people to explore his music. Unfortunately he pretty much stopped recording after the death of his great friend John Lennon in 1980 and instead worked on trying to get tougher gun laws passed. Still, when he died of heart failure in 1994 he left behind a legacy of 13 studio albums and four movie soundtracks - including the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye starring Robin Williams.

The special features also include an interview with animator Fred Wolf who not only describes the process they went through to create the movie, but how Nilsson managed to convince ABC to make it. After many fruitless attempts to made an appointment with the head of the studio, he found out the man was taking a plane from Los Angeles to New York City. Nilsson proceeded to phone airline after airline until he found out which flight the man was on and then booked the seat next to him on the plane. By the end of the flight he had convinced the man that his station should produce and air a cartoon that hadn't even been filmed or scripted yet.

To eyes used to the high tech computerized animation of today The Point will look decidedly primitive. However the message of tolerance conveyed by the music and the movie are still as relevant today as they were in 1971. There's also a certain amount of charm and wonder to be found in watching something that was entirely drawn by hand and then filmed frame by frame as this was. Take the time and sit down with a child and watch The Point, you might be surprised to find out how much you both enjoy it.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Point on Blogcritics

August 15, 2012

DVD Review: Mia and the Migoo

The world of animated cartoons has changed drastically since the days of Walt Disney and his first "live" action film, Steamboat Willie, featuring the character who would become Mickey Mouse. Instead of having to painstakingly draw each frame in a movie, animators have computers which not only "sculpt" images, but also bring them to life. The worlds which their creations move through are no longer hand painted static backdrops, but are three dimensional backgrounds co-ordinated to move in conjunction with the action taking place in front of them. While the ability to seamlessly integrate the animated character's activities with the world surrounding them has resulted in cartoons almost as realistic as live action movies, no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes it still can't replace human artistry.

While there wasn't anything artistic about the assembly line conditions under which many commercial cartoons were created in the past either, there's something infinitely more impressive watching a feature drawn by hand than one done on a computer. To today's sophisticated audience used to CGI special effects and 3D rendering it might at first appear primitive and crude. However there is a certain magic to these efforts that will eventually win them over, especially if a film is as obvious a labour of love as Mia and the Migoo. The English language version of the film from French director Jaques-Remy Girerd's Folimage animation studio was released on DVD on August 7 2012 and is being distributed by GKIDS Films throughout North America.
Cover DVD Mia and the Migoo.jpg
With every cell hand painted the film took nearly six years to complete from conceptualization to final product. However, when you see the results of this painstaking attention to detail on your television screen, you'll appreciate the care and effort that went into its creation. From the opening frames this movie is a visual feast. The use of colour in the beautifully painted backdrops catches your eye right away. In an interview with Girerd included in the DVD's special features he talks about how his studio works in the tradition of Impressionist painters like Cezanne and Van Gogh, and you can see their influence in every frame. Whether a busy street, the interior of a house, a lush jungle or a stark mountain top, each background is a celebration of the shades and hues of colour that go into creating everything around us.

Mia and the Migoo isn't just beautiful to look at it, its an entertaining and thoughtful story. I hesitate in using the word, as people have the impression a movie can't say anything of substance without being preachy, but it also contains some nice messages about respect: self-respect, respect for others, and respect for the world around you. While some might bridle at the rather subversive idea that the environment and caring for those around you is more important than turning a profit, considering how so much popular entertainment aimed at children these days celebrates consumerism it makes for a refreshing change. The only problem is the message is so subtle it will probably be lost on most of its audience. While Girerd and company are to be commended for creating something which doesn't assume its audience is stupid, when people are used to being bludgeoned over the head they might not respond to a gentle tap on the shoulder.

The story is a combination of a classic road trip and adventure as young Mia leaves her village to look for her father, Pedro. He has taken a job far from home on a construction site building a resort in a remote wilderness area. Strange accidents have been happening on the site, cranes have fallen over and there have been land slides. When Pedro hears an odd noise in one of the tunnels they are building on the site he goes to investigate and is trapped by a cave in. Hundreds of miles away Mia wakes up from a dream of her father in trouble. With her mother already dead, she's not prepared to lose her father and after visiting her mother's grave heads out to find him.

Aldrin lives in a world so completely different from Mia it might as well be on another planet. His mother and father are divorced and his father, Jekhide, the businessman behind the development project Pedro was working at, is a workaholic who ignores him. His mother is a scientist studying the effects of global warming on the Antarctic ice-cap, so in some ways Aldrin spends the film in much the same way as Mia, looking for his father. For even though he ends up travelling with Jekhide to the construction site to investigate the mysterious accidents, they might as well be hundreds of miles apart even when they're in the same room. In so many ways Aldrin is the parent in their relationship as he's always having to take his father to task for his self-centred and selfish behaviour. In the end it's Jekhide's acting like a spoilt child which brings about the movie's crises.
Tree of life - Mia and the Migoo.jpg
As the movie progresses each child continues on their journey in search of their father. Mia's search is the more adventurous as she must somehow cross great distances on her own. On the way she receives help from some unexpected sources, but it's her own self reliance and bravery that serve her best. One of the secrets to this movies success is the fact that it's through the example of its characters behaviour it gets its message across. While Jekhide's behaviour is slightly over the top at times, it is a cartoon so you can forgive the film makers any excesses that might seem unrealistic. The character's believability is aided by the fact the cast doing the English language dubbing are universally excellent. Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Modine (who also produced) Wallace Shawn and James Woods are given top billing, but all involved manage to make cartoon characters more believable then usual.

Speaking of cartoon characters slightly over the top, the Migoo (collectively given voice by Shawn) of the title are some of the best invented characters you'll find in this type of film. Bumbling, affectionate and slightly silly, they've also grown dangerously complacent in their role as nature spirits tasked with protecting the vital tree of life. The tree grows in the centre of the lake near where the new resort is being built. According to what the Migoo tell Mia, if anything happens to the tree, they will suffer and so will the world.

You can probably see where the plot is heading. Confrontation between Jekhide and the Migoo, as he believes they're responsible for sabotaging his construction site, an attack on the tree followed by its saving and a happy ending with everybody finding what they were looking for. However, as the saying goes, it's the journey that really matters, and in this case that's actually true. For while the idea of a little girl Mia's age travelling hundreds of mile on her own requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, the journey each character takes on the road to the happy ending is far more realistic than what one usually sees in cartoons.

The film makers make sure that Jekhide (and I don't think the combining of Jekyl and Hyde, the most famous split personality in literary history, in his last name is an accident) is shown as being pushed over the edge by circumstances and isn't really evil. His obsession with profit and success narrow his focus so much he loses sight of what was really important. When he thinks he has lost Aldrin he realizes his mistake and while it isn't easy, he does his best to make amends. So, even though his character has to undergo the biggest change, the progression he undergoes is actually quite believable. Naturally as the film is meant for a younger audience, the messages are fairly obvious. However, unlike far too many movies made for this age range it doesn't assume its audience are stupid just because they're young. There is never the feeling the film makers are either lecturing, talking down to or manipulating their audience.

Mia and the Migoo is not only exceptional for the quality of the artisanship that has gone into into its physical creation, but because of the thoughtful and creative minds behind the story it tells. First and foremost its a delightful piece of entertainment with enough humour and adventure to hold he attention of most young audiences. While it lacks the high tech bells and whistles people reared on video games are used to, it has one element those types of entertainment are seriously deficient in - heart. You might not be able to see it, but you certainly can feel it in every frame on the screen in front of you. It may take a while, but I think this movie could eventually win over even the most cynical audiences. A thing of beauty and a joy forever, Mia and the Migoo is a wonderful movie for the whole family.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Mia and the Migoo on Blogcritics.)