Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

Unless we’re discussing titans of the medium like Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon, I’m shamefully unfamiliar with most anime.  As the last thriving refuge for traditional hand drawn animation, I respect the artistry of anime greatly.  I’m just more of an admirer than I am a “fan,” since claiming that latter designation implies you’re extremely well versed and deeply opinionated about the medium in a way I’ll never be able to match.  Saying you’re an Anime Fan is like saying you’re a fan of superhero comics or Star Trek or any other extremely nerdy artform with a decades-spanning history; you better know your obscure, inconsequential trivia down to the last detail, or you’re in for a gatekeeping headache.  Case in point: I finally watched the landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop for the first time since it popped up on Hulu last year, over two decades after its initial run.  If I were an anime fan, that kind of blindspot would be a source of shame I’d have to hide from my cannibalistic anime nerd friends.  Since I’m a casual admirer, though, I get to walk away unscathed — the same as I did when Netflix started streaming Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple years back.

Unsurprisingly, the Cowboy Bebop series is pretty good.  A mash-up of neo-noir, neo-Western, and space travel sci-fi tropes, it’s fairly accessible to casual anime admirers with an appreciation for old-fashioned genre filmmaking.  I found it to be hit-or-miss by episode, but mostly as a matter of personal taste.  The standalone villain-of-the-week episodes were mostly fantastic—especially the ones that veered into my beloved subgenre of spaceship horror—but I was largely indifferent to the show’s overarching Spike vs. Vicious storyline: a prolonged, vague neo-noir plot with no sense of propulsion or purpose.  If I were recommending the show to a similarly anime-ignorant friend, I’d try my best to save their time with a Best Of list of standalone episodes to burn through: the ones with the killer fridge mold, the virtual reality cult, the mushroom trip, the annoying cowboy, and the deranged clown.  If you haven’t seen Cowboy Bebop by now you likely don’t need to watch all 11 hours of the series; you just need a taste, if not only for general pop culture familiarity.  I likely would’ve said the same thing about the monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files, though, and I watched that show religiously as it aired, so your mileage may vary.

Luckily, you don’t even have to watch those five Best Of episodes (“Toys in the Attic”, “Brain Scratch”, “Mushroom Samba”, “Cowboy Funk,” “Pierrot le Fou”) to get a proper taste of Cowboy Bebop.  The series conveniently concluded with a standalone villain-of-the-week movie that also sidesteps the energy-draining Spike vs. Vicious storyline entirely, allowing for one final ride with your new favorite spacetraveling bounty hunters.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie dials the clock back a few episodes into the series before the bounty hunter crew is disbanded (and partially killed) to offer a taste of the show at its prime.  In this extended, posthumous episode, the crew is attempting to capture bio-terrorists on Mars (styled to look suspiciously similar to 1990s NYC) before they release a deadly virus in a densely populated crowd.  The viral outbreak is planned to be staged at a jack-o-lantern-themed variation of the Macy’s Day Parade, making the film a low-key Halloween movie of sorts.  The crew selfishly bickers among themselves, tries to score the bounty on their own, falters, then reforms at the last minute to save the day.  It’s quintessential Cowboy Bebop in that way.

The problem with recommending Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (subtitled Knocking on Heaven’s Door) as a crash course overview of the show is that it’s way too goddamn long.  You could watch all five of the Best Of episodes I mentioned in less time than it would take you to watch this one feature film, and it never hits the same highs as the series proper at its best.  You’d have to trim 30-40 minutes off this thing to make it an enticing alternative for newcomers, and I imagine even long-time fans of the show had their own patience tested with this two-hour standalone.  Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn’t Cowboy Bebop at its most creative or most exciting.  However, it is Cowboy Bebop at its most functional.  The main draw of the film is seeing a somewhat scrappy, experimental series funded with proper time & budget to get its details in order.  The personal & professional dynamics among the space crew are never as clearly defined on the show as they are in the movie, where even lesser side characters like Ein & Edward are fully integrated into the daily business of intergalactic bountyhunting in a way that finally makes sense.  More importantly, the animation itself is afforded way more resources to flourish.  On the show, the intrusion of CG animation felt like a budget-cutting measure; here it looks purposefully surreal in a more thoughtfully mapped-out hand drawn backdrop.  Whereas most “The Movie” versions of TV shows go big with their plots, locations, and scope to justify the jump from the small screen, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only goes big on its look.

If I had only watched Cowboy Bebop: The Movie for an overview taste of the show, I might’ve assumed the series was a lot more creatively limited than what the best bounty-of-the-week episodes had to offer.  It’s a good episode of the series, but it’s too long and too tame to be a great one.  However, I did find it to be a great “What If” illustration of how much more visually spectacular the TV show might’ve been if it had the time & money to luxuriate in production the way the movie did.  It’s fun to look back on the production limitations of the five Best Of episodes I mentioned and imagine them even more visually extravagant in their animation, since I now know what that might look like.  Regardless of that hypothetical, I very much love them as-is.  You might even call me a fan.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3 to complain about the bland, unimaginative sheen of mainstream computer animation, as pioneered by Pixar.  No matter how much admiration I could muster for the daringly morbid themes Toy Story 3 injected into the mold of a modern children’s film, I couldn’t help but be distracted by its autopilot visual aesthetic.  In the wake of Pixar’s resounding success with the Toy Story franchise (the first entirely computer-animated feature films in wide release), we’ve traded in the tactile charm of stop-motion animation and the expressive zeal of hand-drawn 2D illustrations (outside the few anime blockbusters that sneak into American distribution every year) for the least imaginative form of animation possible.  There are scenes in that Toy Story sequel where two characters are talking in close-up that are literally just a loose collection of vague colorful orbs and googly eyes, arranged in a shot/reverse-shot configuration.  It’s depressing to watch as an animation fan, especially since there are so few alternatives to the 3D computer animation approach Pixar has solidified as an industry standard.

During that tangent of old-man grumblings, I forgot to mention that there was a recent computer animated film that I found encouragingly expressive, turning my stubborn mind around about the general uselessness of the medium:  Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  The offset screenprint aesthetic & psychedelic strobe light effects of Into the Spider-Verse were outright dazzling in the theater, whereas most modern children’s films just deploy their expressionless 3D orbs as vessels for hack jokes in celebrity voiceover.  I was reminded of my oversight in failing to single out Into the Spider-Verse as a sign of hope in an otherwise dire mainstream animation landscape while watching the newest release from the same animation wing at Sony, The Mitchells vs The Machines.  Also produced by beloved comedy nerds Phil Lord & Chris Miller (with major contributions from some of the folks behind Gravity Falls), The Mitchells vs The Machines repeats a lot of the same visual techniques that made Into the Spider-Verse such an industry standout in 2018.  It’s more heartwarming & cute than it is blindingly psychedelic, but it’s at least a promising sign that Into the Spider-Verse will not be left behind as a one-of-a-kind anomaly.  The current Pixar standard will not reign supreme forever.

It’s worth noting that The Mitchells vs The Machines meets me more than halfway in trying to work past my CG animation biases.  Not only is its teenage protagonist a nerdy cinephile (something I’m obviously guilty of), but her road trip adventure with her parents orbits around a technophobic distrust in modern, automated tech – falling within the confines of my love for Evil Technology movies that dutifully warn that the Internet is trying to kill us all.  On her way to freshmen orientation at film school, a movie-obsessed dork butts heads with her old-fashioned, tech-sceptical father, while her mother & brother struggle to keep the family’s final days as a unit as memorably pleasant as possible.  That central father-daughter rift is exponentially heightened by a sudden Robot Apocalypse, triggered by an over-ambitious Tech Bro (voiced by Eric Andre) whose willingness to give smartphones power over our daily lives gets way out of hand very quickly.  The movie does its best to temper this humans-vs-technology premise with some counterbalance positivity about the joys of the Internet (mostly in how it connects our cinephile hero to other likeminded weirdos across the country), but it mostly just chronicles a Bob’s Burgers style traditional family’s struggles to adjust to a rapidly automated, synthetic world ruled by laptops & smartphones.

While I’m not as breathlessly enthusiastic about The Mitchells vs The Machines as I was for Into the Spider-Verse, I am tickled that I have an example of a modern computer-animated film that both summates & subverts my skepticism over the technology of the artform.  The Luddite father character isn’t exactly a satirical punching bag in his stubbornness to adapt to modernity, but I did feel as if my unease with an increasingly computerized world (as opposed to the “authentic” world it has replaced) was being openly mocked through that surrogate.  I enjoyed being ribbed like that.  I could go on to complain about how the film’s most expressive, most exciting variations on the CG animation format were the traditional 2D illustrations doodled in its margins, if not only because we used to live in a world where we could have movies entirely animated in that style.  My nostalgia for older formats shouldn’t supersede what’s accomplished here as a shake-up in the medium, though.  This is an energetic, visually imaginative kids’ movie that pushes past the usual limitations of what most CG animated movies of its ilk attempt.  Not for nothing, it also gets online meme humor in a way most mainstream movies would fall on their face trying to emulate.  It’s a film firmly rooted in the language and the humor of a technological world it also thumbs its nose at.

My only real complaint, then, is that it’s a (mildly) technophobic comedy with a Le Tigre song on the soundtrack that’s somehow not “Get Off The Internet”???  Seems like an oversight.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the animated fantasy film The Secret of NIMH (1982), the directorial debut of Disney defector Don Bluth.

00:00 Welcome

01:56 Big (1988)
04:40 Avengers Grimm (2015)
06:52 247°F (2011)
07:41 Jacob’s Ladder (2019)
08:30 Fracture (2007)
09:45 The Net (1995)
11:26 The 6th Day (2000)
12:25 The Block Island Sound (2021)
13:50 The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
18:29 Love & Monsters (2020)
23:15 Pinocchio (2020)

25:45 The Secret of NIMH (1982)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

The Humanoid (1986)

I really do try my best to not be a snob.  I pride myself in being able to evaluate films on their own terms, careful not to dismiss a work outright because of its genre or budget or level of prestige.  Still, I obviously have personal hang-ups & biases I’ll never be able to look past, and they do make me helplessly snobbish about certain movies from time to time.  One of these major hang-ups is my general distaste for computer-animated children’s films, including from widely beloved institutions like Pixar.  Outside of more adventurous experiments in form like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, the majority of CG animation looks like dogshit to me.  Even films that’re praised by industry experts for their exquisite, time-consuming animation of ocean waves or animal fur look lazy & uninspired to my biased eye, so I know this is a personal hang-up and not some objective truth.  Meanwhile, I’m easily wowed by traditional 2D animation even if the movie is objectively lazy & uninspired, as is the case with the straight-to-video sci-fi anime The Humanoid.

The Humanoid is a 45min relic I found collecting dust on YouTube, where all forgotten media goes to effectively disappear.  At first glance, it appears to be a backdoor pilot for a retro Saturday morning cartoon show, introducing the audience to a Alien-knockoff spaceship crew who travel from job to job, planet to planet, collecting paychecks by doing Good.  This particular mission feels fairly self-contained, as the crew meets the titular humanoid—an android named Antoinette—who’s learning to become more human while also protecting her home planet from colonizer corporate villains.  There are a couple stray laser fights & chase scenes peppered throughout the film, but most of the story concerns Antoinette’s struggles with human emotions & desires, as well as her ultimate decision to sacrifice herself to save the spaceship crew, so they can putter onto their next adventure.  The result is that the only compelling character in this would-be series pilot dies at the end of the “episode,” making it difficult to imagine the adventure continuing in future installments.  There’s also a decisive finality to this hilariously overwritten epilogue addressed to Antoinette, which also suggests this was always meant to be a standalone piece:

“Who can say a machine has no soul?  Aren’t humans machines too? Mechanisms of flesh and blood.  Across the endless light-years . . . life, mind, and spirit must flourish in a variety of forms.  And as long as there is life, there will be love.  Antoinette — I’m sure we’ll meet again, somewhere in the vastness of time.  Until then, I send my blessing.  Wherever you may be.”

If The Humanoid isn’t a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon show, what is it exactly?  My best guess is that it’s a coffee commercial — not for any particular brand of coffee, mind you, just for the general, basic concept of Coffee.  There’s very little in the way of thrilling robo action in this film, but there are plenty of hilariously inane conversations about how great the coffee is on the planet-of-the-week.  Seriously, there are at least five lengthy discussions of its robust flavor & aroma.  The film’s opening narration includes the line “It’s only memories of Earth and the rich smell of this coffee that keeps my spirits up.”  It’s closing scene muses “Coffee? my salvation from my day-to-day drudgery”.  In-between, characters occasionally interject “This coffee tastes great!” just to keep the product at the top of the viewer’s mind.  It’s maddeningly inane, making you question whether the generic villains’ quest for a MacGuffin “energy source” on the planet will ultimately result in the discovery that there is no power source greater than the rich, bold pick-me-up you can find in a hot cup of joe.  And, as an advertisement, it totally works!  I desperately want a cup of coffee right now.

So, here we have an action-light sci-fi cheapie that’s supposed to be about an android’s quest for human emotion, but it is actually about how great coffee tastes.  The thing is, though, that it still looks great.  This might be straight-to-VHS fluff with a retro Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but its animation is intricately detailed & vibrantly imaginative, especially as it builds to its explosive, overwrought climax.  It’s hard to imagine any modern-day, computer-animated children’s media putting this much effort into its visual aesthetics, and this really is the bottom of the barrel in terms of passionate anime artistry.  I try my best not to be a grump about how modern media doesn’t stack up to my nostalgia-tinged memories of the types of media I happened to grow up with.  Comparing the look of low-effort 80s schlock like The Humanoid to today’s $200mil CG animation monstrosities is too depressing to ignore, though.  I genuinely feel like we’ve lost a basic attention to visual craft (or at least a collective sense of good taste) in animated media over the decades.  At this point, it’s only the memories of vintage cartoons and the rich smell of coffee that keep my spirits up.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: The Cat Returns (2002)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the Studio Ghibli novelty The Cat Returns (2002), an anime fantasy film about a kingdom of anthropomorphic cats.

00:00 Welcome

02:40 My Winnipeg (2007)
03:40 The Twentieth Century (2020)
05:40 The Snyder Cut (2021)
11:30 Hannibal (2001)
13:15 Red Dragon (2002)
14:30 Hannibal Rising (2007)
15:40 The Boy Next Door (2015)
18:20 What Lies Below (2020)
25:00 Godzilla vs Kong (2021)
28:00 Mothra vs Godzilla (1964)
30:15 Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)

32:17 The Cat Returns (2002)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Wizards (1977)

As a lifelong fan of both hand-drawn animation & flippant transgression, I’ve long been curious about Ralph Bakshi’s art. However, there’s a strong whiff of edgelordism wafting from his work that’s becoming less & less enticing as a I grow older, making me wonder if I could have only ever become a true Bakshi devotee if I had caught his films on late-night cable when I was still a teenage shithead. Maybe that’s why I thought the fantasy film Wizards would be the best introduction to Bakshi in his prime, as it’s the most mainstream he was willing to go as an artist (at least before his professional nadir with the notorious flop Cool World, which I have seen before, unfortunately). Even Bakshi himself pitches Wizards as a “family picture” meant to prove that he can make good art without stirring up moral outrage as a crass provocateur. Judging only by that metric, the film is a failure. It’s just absolutely swarmed with buxom nudists, battlefield gore, and Nazi iconography, making its PG rating an absolute joke even by 1970s standards. It’s at least a gorgeously animated provocation, though, surely inspiring many margin doodles in metalhead stoners’ notebooks to come.

Wizards is set on a distant-future Earth after we’ve all nuked each other to near extinction, then mutated into grotesque beasts in the radioactive remains of our former world. The movie ascribes to a very simplistic Cute = Good, Ugly = Evil philosophy, contrasting the grotesque humanoid leftovers of humanity with adorable elves & fairies who return to our realm as an sign of Nature reclaiming the planet. This contrast is extended to a clash between magic (Good) & technology (Evil), with both sides represented by respective twin wizards who are destined to battle in the post-Apocalyptic wasteland. The Good Wizard loves Peace and is frustratingly reluctant to fight his wicked brother despite the ongoing destruction of their shared planet (and the promise of “a second Holocaust”). The Evil Wizard loves War and hypes up his mutant humanoid frog army with vintage Nazi propaganda, wielding a “dream machine” film projector as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. The resulting D&D campaign illustration is neither as obnoxiously crass as Heavy Metal nor as deliriously fun as Gandahar, falling somewhere between the two as a wonderfully animated mediocrity (although it was likely a direct influence on both).

There’s something adorable about Bakshi believing this is a family-friendly variation on his work, the same way it’s adorable that Richard Kelly believed he made a toned-down mainstream thriller in The Box. The gleeful gun violence, slack-jawed ogling at erect fairy nipples, and edgelord deployment of Nazi propaganda is all exceedingly queasy, stubbornly faithful to the confrontationally grotesque vision of Bakshi’s earlier films like Coonskin & Fritz the Cat. You could never shrug his work off as lazy provocations, though, at least not in terms of their technical artistry. Every hideous mutant, bodacious fairy babe, and Nazi war crime is wonderfully detailed in their illustration, often paired with gorgeous greenscreen backdrops of smoke & rolling clouds. Even when the budget wears thin and devolves into narrated slideshows & rotoscoped battlefield extras, Bakshi makes it appear as if it were all an intentional inclusion in his multimedia psychedelic tapestry. I didn’t fall in love with this animated prog rock album cover the way I did with René Laloux’s Gandahar, but it also didn’t quash my curiosity over Bakshi’s pricklier cult classics. He obviously deserves a closer look, even if only for the form and not the content.

-Brandon Ledet

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2020)

And, thus, we’ve reached the time of year when I’m worst at self-selecting movies to watch, both in terms of picking out stuff I’ll like and at giving the movies themselves a fair chance on their own merits. It’s the mad rush before list-making season, where I make risky VOD rentals on movies that look like they might be “Best of Year Material” based on a few still images & scattered online reviews. That’s an unfair amount of pressure for any movie to sustain, since I tend to ask myself dumbass questions like “Was this worth paying money to rent this when it’ll likely be streaming free in a couple months?” or “This is good, but is it Best of the Year good?” In particular, it’s difficult to say if I would’ve enjoyed the French animated feature Marona’s Fantastic Tale more if I hadn’t watched it under such asinine circumstances. I’m at my most judgmental & least forgiving at this time of year, so I spent most of the film second-guessing whether I should have diverted my time & money to a more worthy list-contender. Again, real dumbass behavior.

I picked out Marona’s Fantastic Tale based solely on the promise of its cute, psychedelic animation style featured on the poster and Google image results. It did not disappoint there. The film’s colorful, free-flowing animation is consistently wonderful throughout, clashing crudely juvenile Crayola drawings with complex digital layering techniques to achieve a singularly dreamlike effect. The film is gorgeous as a visual showcase, playfully experimenting with the iconography of cultural touchstones as disparate as video games, circus posters, Impressionist painters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only animated film I’ve seen this year that could claim to best in terms of innovation in craft is The Wolf House, and even that’s a tough call since this aims for imaginative beauty where The Wolf House conjures up something purely ugly & raw. It’s a total shame, then, that Marona doesn’t really amount to anything spectacular outside its visual feast. As much as I want to gush about its merits as a pure animation showcase, I can’t pretend those highs weren’t consistently undercut by its oppressively omnipresent narration & score.

The story begins with a dog, our narrator, dying in the street after being hit by car. The pup politely asks the audience to indulge her as she “rewinds the film of [her] life” in those final moments, which cues up a 90min birth-to-death flashback of her adventures in being a house pet. Marona’s Fantastic Tale is mostly a diary of the titular pupper being passed around the homes of various shitty owners while she endlessly muses about their strange human ways. It’s like a slightly more wholesome version of the feel-bad French dramedy Baxter, except that Baxter was at least aware of the social & political discomforts provoked by its constant, overbearing narration track. Marona’s tale is sometimes a little boring in its owner-to-owner sameness, but more importantly it’s often shockingly retrograde in its politics. It starts off on an awkward paw by equating societal racism to turf conflicts between different dog breeds (yikes), then gets even more uncomfortable in its weirdly backwards, rigid takes on the divisions of gender. Not only are the women depicted here vapid shopaholic bullies who only keep pets as fashion accessories (a stark contrast to the kind-hearted men in Marona’s life), but the dog itself is insistent on being gendered correctly when strangers call her “Boy” – a line of humor that’s not nearly as cute nor as insightful as the movie seems to think. The animation may be a forward-thinking glimpse into the future of the medium, but the screenplay feels like a dusty relic of a bygone era, as if it were an abandoned sequel to a Look Who’s Talking-type 80s comedy.

It’s possible that I might not have been as bothered by Marona’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-level social observations had I not been scrutinizing it so closely as one of the year’s potential Important Works. Looking around on review aggregator sites like Metacritic & Letterboxd, it looks like I’m in the minority on being bothered by the film’s (likely unintentional) socio-political messaging. All I can report is that I found that ugly undertone to be insufferable when paired with its constant Inspo Music soundtrack that was violently fighting to pluck at my most sentimental heartstrings, as well as the narration’s cutesy observations like “Humans are strange creatures; it doesn’t take much to make them happy, and sometimes they realize that.” Considered in isolation, the animation style was just as wonderfully imaginative as I had hoped, and I’d even still recommend giving the film a look for that indulgence in pure visual artistry. The writing that provides the underlying structure for that indulgence is hugely disappointing, though, and I regret not waiting until it was streaming for free to relieve some of the pressure on it to be overwhelmingly Great.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wolf House (2020)

My single-favorite film discovery so far this year is James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. porno reverie Pink Narcissus, a transcendent fantasy piece filmed almost entirely inside the beefcake photographer’s own NYC apartment. I like to think I’d have fallen in love with the gorgeous, hand-built artifice of that film in any context, but it struck a particular chord in the earliest months of the COVID pandemic when most of us were still adhering to strict social-distancing measures. The idea that you could construct your own beautiful dreamworld inside your cramped living space with just the right amount of artistic (and prurient) self-motivation was genuinely inspiring to me back in April, when the reality of how confined the next year of my life was going to be just started to sink in. And now, a few hellish months later, I’ve been confronted with Pink Narcissus‘s spiritual opposite in The Wolf House: a relentlessly grim, ugly film made under similarly confined domestic circumstances. Instead of reaching for artistic transcendence or beauty, it’s a D.I.Y. fantasy experiment that pummels you into the dirt with the communal cruelty, betrayal, oppression of the world as it really is: a confusing, alienating nightmare that only worsens the longer you survive it.

An experiment in stop-motion animation, The Wolf House filters historic atrocities committed by exiled-Nazi communes in Chile through a loose, haunting fairy tale narrative. It’s traumatizingly bleak, often difficult to comprehend, and I think I loved it. Contextualized as a “lost” classroom propaganda film warning locals against stepping on the commune’s toes (and commune members from attempting to escape its bounds), its paper-thin story is a simple tongue-in-cheek allegory about acceptable behavior in & around an exiled-Nazi stronghold. The Colony proudly reports itself to be an “isolated and pure” oasis in an otherwise menacing South American locale, and disparages a fictional young girl who dared to dream & play for her own amusement instead of working tirelessly to maintain The Colony’s glory. Thinking herself above subservience to The Colony, she runs away to play house with her disgusting pig children in a nearby shack, gradually starving to death without the sweet subsistence provided by the commune’s main export: honey. Meanwhile, wolves lurk outside the family’s door, waiting to devour them as soon as they step outside. This allegory is rooted in specific, real-life atrocities committed by German-Chilean communes like Colonia Dignidad, which can be difficult to fully digest without a post-film Wikipedia deep dive. However, it’s all anchored to two universally familiar cultural touchstones that cut through the confusion: Brothers Grimm fairy tales and the fact that Nazis are subhuman scum.

The Wolf House is much more immediately impressive in its visual craft than it is in its narrative. It recalls a cruder, less dignified version of Jann Švankmajer’s work, as if he were a reclusive serial killer rather than an erudite who went to art school for puppetry. Most of the film is quarantined in the pig-family’s dingy shack, with characters represented both as two-dimensional figures painted onto the walls & furniture (think Adventure Time‘s Prismo) and as barely-functional paper mâché grotesqueries. The entire three-dimensional space of their decrepit home is treated as a canvas, with objects being destroyed, painted over, reconfigured, and mutated in an ever-shifting, impossibly ugly nightmare. Every crudely animated movement within that hellish space is matched to an even more hideous sound cue: pig snorts, wolf breaths, wet smacks of paper mâché bodies breaking down & reforming, etc. It’s a relentlessly grotesque display, one that fully conveys the hideous evils of its fairy tale allegory’s real-life parallels even if you aren’t familiar with that particular pocket of fascism history. The Wolf House is one of those D.I.Y. art objects that feels more haunted than inspired, which is understandable considering the cultural history it’s attempting to process. It’s the ugly mirrorworld reflection of Pink Narcissus: a contained, domestic fantasy realm driven by pain instead of pleasure, grief instead of sensual exuberance. Its vision of domestic isolation is completely fucked, something that resonates deeply right now despite the film’s more alienating allegorical details.

-Brandon Ledet

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)

I remember being thoroughly charmed by Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep movie five years ago, but I don’t remember much of anything about the movie or what happens in it. I suspect that’s because not much of anything happens in it at all. Adapting the Wallace & Gromit spin-off series for the big screen meant having to upscale the adorable sheep’s stop-motion farmland hijinks with a trip to The Big City to mark the occasion. Aardman did a great job of downplaying that necessity, though, keeping Shaun’s fish-out-of-water antics amongst urban chaos as low-key & pleasantly charming as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that the sequel had to go even bigger in scale to justify its own existence and lost some of that low-key charm in the process. You can even feel the sequel’s mood-deflating excess in its Michael Bay flavored title, Farmageddon, which is maybe the exact opposite of what you’d want from a low-stakes animated comedy about a cute sheep.

In theory, I’m all for a War of the Worlds inspired sci-fi throwback within the Shaun the Sheep universe. The eerie theremin soundtrack cues, spooky green lights, and 1950s throwback UFOs that differentiate Farmageddon from the first Shaun the Sheep movie land it squarely in my aesthetic wheelhouse. It’s the cutesy, impish alien creature that toddles out of those UFOs that killed the mood for me. In a slightly altered repeat of the first film, Shaun has to travel into town to help an alien creature that crash landed near his farm find her spaceship so she can travel home. This prompts a very familiar series of gags where Shaun has to hide the fact that he’s a sheep operating undercover in People Places, except this time he’s also covering for a purple, childlike space alien who’s constantly hyperactive from guzzling too much candy & soda. I know I shouldn’t fault a kids’ movie for featuring an obnoxious, brightly colored alien mascot character with magical powers and a bottomless love for sugar; she’s not designed for my entertainment. Still, it’s an impossible fault to ignore, considering that all of the funniest gags in the film involve the sheep on the farm and not the sci-fi add-ons referenced in the title.

There’s no reason to be too harsh here. Although Farmageddon is nowhere near as successful as the first Shaun the Sheep movie, it’s still cute & charming enough to be worthy of a lazy-afternoon watch. Its space alien Poochie character and godawful Top 40s pop music soundtrack threaten to tank the entire enterprise, but the Aardman brand is too strong to allow that to happen. This is still an adorably animated stop-motion love letter to silent comedy greats of the past like Chaplin, Keaton, and Tati – one with winking Film Geek references to movies like Modern Times & 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it can use the brightly colored sugar rush of its alien mascot to hook younger children into that Antique Cinema nerdom (and sci-fi genre nerdom to boot), who am I to complain? I missed the low-key charms of the first film while tagging along behind that purple, sugar-addled beast, but Farmageddon still occasionally gave me something to smile about elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing Link (2019)

Laika has already earned a lifetime pass with their spooky stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s not going to be much of a lifetime if the animation studio doesn’t start pulling in more money. As beloved as those titles are among movie nerds and very specific budding-horror-fan children, none have really broken through to genuine box office success. The studio has essentially depended on the money its CEO Travis Knight has inherited from his Nike co-founder father Phil Knight, who is technically Laika’s owner. That sneaker money won’t keep them afloat forever, and Laika is desperate for a hit to become a self-sustaining enterprise. That might explain why they stepped slightly outside their usual spooky, Halloween-flavored children’s media realm to produce a cutesy comedy about a goofball yeti. The gamble did not work in a financial sense, but the resulting movie was still about as solid as you’d expect from the studio – who are maybe too high-brow & visually polished for their own good.

I’m not sure what movie greenlighting algorithm has prompted animation studios to believe that yetis are what children are salivating to see on the big screen at the moment, but it was a decision that paid off nicely for DreamWorks & Universal – who recently had sizeable hits with the CG-animated shrugs Smallfoot & Abominable, respectively. Laika, of course, was the only studio of the trio to outright flop in this endeavor, doubling their usual production budget on what appeared to be a surefire hit and only earning 1/5th of it back at the box office. Their mistake was being the one studio who actually gave a shit about animation as an artform – pushing their usual combination of tactile stop-motion wizardry & CGI-smoothed touchups to create a one-of-a-kind globetrotting adventure. Casting overgrown man-child Zach Galifianakis as a buffoonish sasquatch who takes figures of speech as literally as Amelia Bedelia was their only attempt to bridge the gap to what most modern animation studios do in their globally-exported box office hits – a real “Zendaya is Meechee” kind of decision. It wasn’t enough.

Thematically, Missing Link makes for a lighthearted companion piece to the recent stop-motion arthouse bummer This Magnificent Cake!. Both films use traditional slapstick humor to satirize the absurdity of historical colonialism, although Missing Link’s approach to the material is much sillier than it is traumatizing. Hugh Jackman voices a self-proclaimed “famous” monster hunter (the one nod to the studio’s typical horror bent) who attempts to earn the respect of legitimate big-game hunters by capturing creatures like The Loch Ness Monster and, yes, Bigfoot. Galifianakis voices that living Bigfoot specimen, a sweetly non-confrontational beast who longs to find more creatures of his own kind so he can stop living as an ostracized misfit. The pair team up to help each other’s causes. The yeti is a crude New World goofball searching for purpose & a sense of Home in his Old World ancestry, while the monster hunter learns just how harmful his self-serving, globetrotting colonialism is to everyone he touches. The mistake the movie made was in having themes or a point of view at all. It probably would have made much more money if they had just animated Galifianakis singing Meghan Trainor karaoke or some other such horseshit.

Missing Link is very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema. It sucks to have to focus so much on the film’s financial failure in appraising its worth as art, but that failure is very much a part of its story. This is Laika reaching out as far as possible from their niche spooky-stop-motion corner of children’s media to welcome in a wide audience, and the most they got for the effort was a token Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (which I fear will just automatically defer to whatever microwaved Disney or Pixar sequel it’s up against this Sunday). It’s not their strongest work, but it manages to be their most accessible while still maintaining a unique, technically marvelous visual style and an admirably pointed worldview. I wish it had been enough of a smash success to fund more weirdo, spooky outliers like Coraline or Kubo, but instead I’m left worrying that their sneaker money is going to dry up any day now.

-Brandon Ledet