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

Weathering With You (2020)

Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai earned so much international success with his supernatural teen romance Your Name. that he unintentionally sparked an entire subgenre of imitators. Watching blatant Your Name. knockoffs like Fireworks & I Want to Eat Your Pancreas in the few years since Shinkai’s breakout hit has been amusing, but also a threat to dilute & over-familiarize the director’s schtick before he could deliver a proper follow-up himself. The first hour or so of Shinkai’s Weathering With You seemed to confirm that fear – essentially landing like an amusing-but-weak echo of what Your Name. had already accomplished. However, with time it eventually gets somewhere truly incredible that Shinkai’s imitators have failed to replicate, pushing its plot further & further into the weirdest direction possible until it ends at a stunning Choice of a conclusion that fully won me over. It by no means bests Shinkai’s previous highs, but it does break far enough away from that precedent to justify its own existence as a bizarro YA romance tale.

In terms of plot & aesthetic, Weathering With You shares a lot of DNA with Your Name. Its tale of two star-crossed teens who yearn for each other so earnestly that their bond defies the limits of real-world physics is as shamelessly derivative of that predecessor as Fireworks or Pancreas. Shinkai seems to have a genuine weakness for that realm of teenage yearning as a storyteller, however, given how his debut feature 5 Centimeters per Second was already hinged on teenage runaways throwing caution to the wind for love. In this update, a small-town boy runs away to the big city with no money to his name and a vaguely abusive past homelife behind him. While working odd jobs as a “journalist” for a paranormal investigation rag (think Weekly World News), he falls in love with a similarly emancipated teen who happens to be a “Sunshine Girl.” Amidst record-setting, unrelenting rainfall that keeps Tokyo under a constant downpour, this “Sunshine Girl” has the ability to produce small patches of sunlight as a temporary, hyper-local relief. The pair form a small sunshine-for-hire business around this phenomenal ability, developing feelings for each other along the way, but alas her gift is gradually revealed to come with a price that could ruin their life together before it has a chance to blossom.

As fun as the heart-on-sleeve teenage romance & small-town angst can be in these supernatural heart-tuggers, that’s not really what stood out to me in Shinkai’s previous work. What I’ve been especially enamored with in his modernized anime aesthetic is the way he applies a Miyazaki-style reverence for Nature to Big City urban environments. With Your Name., I was struck by how Tokyo skyscrapers were flanked by birds & sunshine, reflecting the same sense of majesty a Miyazaki picture would typically reserve for an undisturbed forest or the miracle of flight. Weathering With You pushes that Natural wonder for Modernity even further in its third act as its rainstorms continue to flood the streets of Tokyo. This is a film where Nature reclaims the Big City as part of itself, a big-picture phenomenon that sneaks up on you as you get lost in the intimate, insular teen drama in the foreground. I don’t believe the soaring romance or the small-town angst gave me anything I didn’t already absorb from pop punk anthems in my own youth (dutifully replicated here by returning Shinkai collaborators Radwimps), but the way the film captures the Natural beauty of the Big City in traditional animation flourishes will likely stick with me for a long time. I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a downtown rainstorm the same again.

If you’re looking to shoot Shinkai down for the sin of repeating himself, he’s willing to supply more than enough ammo. Weathering With You even features the definitive calling card for the Your Name. knockoff: a CG fireworks display. It also indulges in shameless product placement (most egregiously in a scene where the main character declares that a Big Mac was “the best meal of his life”) & gun violence sensationalism that drags its teen drama down into a much trashier stratosphere than its predecessor occupied. Still, the intrinsic pleasures of the supernatural YA romance & Shinkai’s visual majesty remain intact enough here that repeating the exercise is a pure joy, despite your better judgement. Most importantly, the way Shinkai pushes his interest in the border between Nature & Cityscapes into new, grandly bizarre directions in the film’s third act feels like an entirely new growth sprouting from the foundation of his previous work. Thanks to its full-hearted commitment to its own outlandish premise, all that overlap feels less like a redundancy and more like an expression of auteurist preoccupation. I would pay to watch Shinkai warp the basic outline of Your Name. into new, weird shapes forever, whether or not I’ve already gotten a little exhausted with his paint-by-numbers imitators.

– Brandon Ledet

I Lost My Body (2019)

The 2D-animiated French oddity I Lost My Body is an economic bargain, especially if you consider an audience’s time & attention to be the true currency of cinema. This is two films for the price of one. And it’s a very low price at that, considering its 80min runtime. As with all two-for-one bargains, however, one of the two complimentary films on this simultaneous double bill is far more satisfying & impressive than the other. To fully appreciate I Lost My Body, then, you have to appreciate its two dueling narratives as a package deal. The stronger movie in this combo pack carries the lesser, even if just by the virtue of their pairing.

One movie is a thrilling action adventure starring a sentient severed hand (think Thing from The Addams Family) who bravely travels across the city to find its former home — a still intact, living human body. The other is a wistful twee romance starring the awkward man who used to be attached to that hand. That melancholy romance angle is obviously the more familiar narrative track — especially considering the twee pedigree of the film’s co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, who also penned Amélie. An excruciatingly shy pizza delivery guy falls in love with a customer who is seemingly unaware that he even exists. Instead of simply introducing himself, he devises an elaborate scheme to insert himself into the woman’s life that he believes makes himself out to be a hearthrob romantic, but instead makes him out to be a total creep. As cosmic penance he loses his hand. Thankfully, that means we gain better cinema.

While our lovesick anti-hero is an overthinking, neurotic mess, his severed hand is a creature of pure action. From the moment it flops onto the hospital floor to teach itself to walk until when it attempts action hero stunts ziplining between buildings to reach its far-off destination, the hand is in constant motion. High-risk train rides, adopting a soup can as hermit crab armor, brawls with rats & pigeons: there’s no denying the hand’s adventures across the city are more exciting to watch (if not only for their novelty) than the frustrating, self-sabotaging inaction of its former human partner. Despite that glaring contrast, however, it gradually becomes clear that both of these protagonists are suffering from the same emotional ills: grief & purposelessness. As they both yearn for intimacy & a sense of purpose that’s been violently removed from their lives, the man and his hand become clearly linked thematically (as well as anatomically).

A bolder, more idiosyncratic film might have fully committed to the severed hand as the sole POV protagonist. In its most transcendent moments, I Lost My Body ponders what a hand’s fantasies & memories might look like. Through the hand’s “eyes,” we’re invited to ponder all the various tasks the tools at the ends of our arms are useful for: violence, art, tenderness, sex, labor, play, etc. It also never stops being wonderfully bizarre to see a world of infinite dangers animated from the hand’s low-to-the-ground POV. A melancholy twee romance & tale of ennui cannot compete with that kind of novelty. Still, the two contrast-and-compare narratives make for a delightfully strange combination, and their pairing makes for a remarkably efficient 80min stretch of traditional animation entertainment.

-Brandon Ledet

Violence Voyager (2019)

It’s becoming an annual routine for me to be captivated by some sexually menacing, cursed object that seemingly no one else in Film Nerd Land cares about. In the recent past, titles like The Wild Boys, Double Lover, and We Are the Flesh have triggered that ol’ Cronenberg feeling deep in my subconscious so that they’re all I want to talk about, despite being too alienating & gross to properly evangelize. Violence Voyager is my beloved Cronenbergian Nightmare of the Year in that respect, as it’s at once the most exciting and the most deeply uncomfortable film I’ve seen in ages, one I’m desperate to discuss with some like-minded freaks but feel hesitant to widely promote given its not-for-everyone discomforts. I won’t claim that it’s my favorite film of this cursed ilk, but it very well might be the most disturbing, as its peculiar brand of horror & sexuality involves the abuse of young children. More disturbing yet, the film feels as if it were made entirely by one loner-creep in some far-off basement, as if he were racing to publish his work before being raided by the authorities for crimes against society & good taste. It’s the rare work of modern outsider filmmaking that feels genuinely dangerous, with all the excitement & unease that descriptor implies.

In essence, Violence Voyager is a Cronenbergian puppet show. Sidestepping the financial time constraints of traditional animation, Japanese filmmaker Ujicha hand-operates 2D cutouts of illustrated characters against hand-painted backdrops. Their vintage illustration designs and seemingly hundreds of alternate poses means the work is neither lazy nor simplistic, but they’re still crudely animated & vocally dubbed to approximate an amateur backyard puppet show instead of a professional production. It feels as if a Henry Darger type had cut out characters from ancient board game boxes and recorded their imaginary interactions on VHS tapes that somehow made it into wide circulation. The genius of this technique is that it allows Ujicha to experiment with a mixed media approach that incorporates liquids, fire, smoke, and shadows. Just when you think you’ve gotten a grasp on what the movie is up to visually, the surprise intrusion of a seminal goo or firecracker “explosion” will knock you on your ass again. No matter how much effort artists like Jim Henson & Jan Švankmajer put into ensuring puppetry is taken seriously as adult entertainment in the past, the medium still inherently feels like it’s designed to attract children – an effect that Ujicha leans into with diabolical intent. Violence Voyager sometimes looks & sounds like cheap-o Saturday Morning television aimed directly at kids, but just one viewing could scar a child for life.

Plot-wise, Violence Voyager plays like an adaptation of a vintage choose-your-own-adventure novel or first-wave video game. A blonde American boy named Bobby is ostracized as a foreigner in his mountainside Japanese community, but has managed to make a few friends among the local children (and with a cat tamed Dereck). While getting into some Summertime Mischief in an isolated pocket of the mountain forest, Bobby and his BFFs stumble across a rundown amusement park named Violence Voyager. Admitted free of charge and armed with Super Soakers, they’re instructed to fire their “weapons” at an invading force of alien robots, which pop out of bushes at random in a kind of in-the-flesh video game. This embarrassingly dorky activity turns sinister as the amusement park quickly transforms into an escape room. Bobby discovers that he & his besties aren’t the only children who’ve been lured to the amusement park prison. Dozens of local children are being held hostage and turned into mutant abominations that eerily resemble the alien invaders of Violence Voyager lore. Grotesquely disfigured and forever psychologically scarred by his captors, Bobby must become the futuristic adventurer he only pretended to be when the stakes were fictional. The results of his heroism are more revolting than awe-inspiring, but it’s a noble effort all the same.

The biggest price at the door for enjoying this diabolical work is that you must be okay with seeing violence against children & animals simulated for your entertainment. As nasty as Ujicha’s visual creations can be, it helps tremendously that the acts of fantastic, unreal violence are crudely animated instead of pantomimed in live action. It does not at all help that the children are often nude. As far as the audience can tell, the Cronenbergian mutation experiments that drive the film’s plot do not involve any outright sexual abuse. However, the film stubbornly lingers on the imagery of naked child bodies in an uncomfortable way that pairs horrifically with the cheerful optimism of its vintage kids’ games aesthetic. Even before the true horror starts, the kids look oddly deformed & scarred – as if they had been raised near an unmentioned industrial dump. Later, we’re confronted with illustrations of their genitalia in mad scientist laboratory environments; the abusive implications of that juxtaposition crawls right under your skin regardless of whether it’s directly mentioned. I mean it both as a compliment and a warning that this film is reminiscent of Henry Darger’s work; it’s both a beautiful art object and a traumatic guided tour of some far-off sicko’s subconscious.

I don’t know that I can outright recommend Violence Voyager without feeling like a total scumbag, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t report that it’s one of my personal favorite discoveries of the year. If you’re looking for one of the most bizarre, brutal, psychologically disturbing visions of Hell that 2019 has to offer, look no further. Just be prepared to walk away wondering if the weirdo who made it is a potential sex criminal, or if you wound up on a government watchlist merely by renting it. It is one especially queasy slice of sleaze, which is apparently something I regularly crave.

-Brandon Ledet

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)

If you’ve been watching the Cartoon Network fantasy series Steven Universe since its 2013 debut, it’s difficult to think back to when the show was a collection of one-off adventures instead of a complex intergalactic epic with five seasons of mythology guiding its every move. Insular adventures like Steven begging for French-fry bits at the wharf or raising an island of adorable Watermelon Stevens have gradually given way to emotionally tough, intellectually challenging tales of queer love & war across the endless canvas of Space & Time. It would be a total shame to roll back all that careful incremental progress from the canon adventures of Steven & The Crystal Gems at this point in their saga, which is entirely the point of Steven Universe: The Movie. Most “The Movie” addendums to television shows dial the clock back to their respective mythologies’ starting point to welcome in new audiences at a late stage in their run, once they’ve earned that larger platform. Steven Universe: The Movie isn’t screening in cinemas across America or anything, but it does mark the occasion of having gradually earned a sizeable audience by reaching for the grandiose spectacle of a feature-length musical. It also leans into its “The Movie” designation by resetting all character development & plot complications back to a square-one factory default setting. What’s most impressive about the movie is that this reset is treated as a devastating tragedy for longtime fans, not an ingratiating plea for a new audience.

As accustomed as we’ve become to our favorite pop culture institutions extending themselves into perpetuity through reboots, network jumps, and crowd-funded movie sequels, the harsh truth is that Steven Universe pretty much wrapped up the story it needed to tell by the end of its fifth season. This feature-length follow-up to that arc about says as much. All the work of dismantling an intergalactic empire is through; all the characters have reached a personal & communal place of self-acceptance; there’s nowhere left for the show to go. All that can be done at this point is to tread water solely so that we can spend more time with the Crystal Gems whom we love so much, or to dial the clock back and ruin all their progress for the sake of establishing a worthwhile conflict. Steven Universe: The Movie expertly demonstrates the folly of both approaches. It opens with the Crystal Gems on Earth in peaceful communal health and the empirical Gems in space no longer searching to destroy deviants outside their colonial rule. Steven announces that he hopes things never change, aligning himself with the satiated fandom. Then, a Fleicsher cartoon-style villain, Spinel, arrives on Earth to cause havoc by erasing all the memories & personal progress the Gems have earned over the course of the show as vengeance for a past wrong. It’s heartbreaking to lose all that progress at an instant, but at least the challenge of rebuilding the Gems’ memories & personae gives Steven something to do besides reveling in how perfect his life is now and how he never wants anything to change. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Steven saves the day by empathizing with & healing Spinel (as is his usual M.O.), once again resetting the scenario back to normal with characters settled exactly where you’d want them to be. It’s an incredibly smart, concise demonstration of why the show needs to end as soon as it will (after its sixth, final season), as it looks back at all the work it’s already accomplished – work we don’t want or need to see cyclically destroyed & restored.

Unlike most “The Movie” mutations of ongoing television shows, I don’t think this will necessarily win over anyone who hasn’t already converted to the cult of the Crystal Gems. The show has gotten so detailed & insular in its own mythology that even slight changes in costume & character design have massive implications for fans of the show (especially regarding Steven’s physical maturity in this instance), whereas a casual viewer or newcomer would likely shrug those details off or fail to notice them at all. Because this movie resets its characters to their factory-default settings, it does somewhat work as an introduction to its featured players, but the recaps are so compressed that they mean more as a reminder to fans of how far we’ve come than they’d signify to the uninitiated. The best chance a Steven Universe newbie would have of being reeled in by the movie is in director (and series mastermind) Rebecca Sugar’s songwriting. The film’s structure as an Old Hollywood musical (or a Golden Era Disney throwback, depending on its whims) allows for plenty of space to feature Sugar’s emotionally potent songs, which have always been a vital cornerstone for the show. In particular, the fictional band Sadie Killer and The Suspects’ number “Disobedient” is legitimately the best song I’ve heard all year—in a movie or otherwise—and should work just as well for someone who doesn’t know how much personal progress Sadie had to achieve in order to perform it (a lot!). Otherwise, the movie is clearly aimed at an already converted audience. It reminds us of how far the story has progressed, allows us to briefly celebrate that victory, and then demonstrates why continuing the show past this point could only lead to stagnation or heartbreak. It’s apparently possible to love Steven Universe and still be happy that it’s coming to an end.

-Brandon Ledet

Lily C.A.T. (1987)

There were countless Alien knockoffs that followed in the wake of Ridley Scott’s genre-shifting 1979 classic. Roger Corman alone produced three I can name offhand (Galaxy of Terror, Humanoids from the Deep, and Battle Beyond the Stars) and even that notorious schlockteur’s takes on the Alien template weren’t the cheapest or most derivative of the bunch. Within that crowded field, the straight-to-video cheapie Lily C.A.T. had very little chance of standing out as something especially unique or worthwhile. Yet, as it escalated to its own grotesque, cosmically horrific creature-feature crescendo, I found myself gradually convinced that I was watching something truly special, something that reaches beyond the confined-space creature feature dread of its obvious inspiration source to achieve its own rewarding, unnerving effect. If you’re going to be an Alien knockoff, you might as well strive to be the best Alien knockoff, or at least the most distinct.

Part of what saves Lily C.A.T. from devolving into sub-Alien tedium is that it’s more of a mutation of that seminal work than it is a Xerox copy. The film is immediately distinct from its fellow Alien riffs in its distinction as a mid-80s anime, converting the cheap sets & limited practical effects resources of this genre template into a freeing, visually impressive handdrawn animation style. It’s also, smartly, only an hour-long – firing off its checklist of genre requirements with rapid-fire efficiency where most cheap-o Alien riffs risk drifting into boredom in their half-hearted attempts to stir up atmospheric dread. Early in the film a character even asks aloud, “Hey captain, when are we getting to work? This is getting boring,” as if to signal to the audience that no time will be wasted in getting to the goods. Lily C.A.T. also mutates the Alien template by crossbreeding it with other creature feature influences: Cronenberg, The Thing, and any number of post-Lovecraft cosmic horrors you can conjure. It’s a quick, nasty little monster movie rendered in intricately handdrawn animation – the perfect genre nerd cocktail.

The story told here is so familiar it almost doesn’t require repeating for anyone who’s ever seen a spaceship-bound horror film. A motley crew of wisecracking Corporate employees are distracted from their stated mission by a distress call & a subsequent onboard alien invasion. They’re only broadly defined as “time-jumper” types: mercenaries who use the decades of hibernated sleep associated with deep-space travel to avoid personal troubles left back on Earth. Their individual archetypes are only developed from there in the way they’re drawn (uncomfortably so in the only black character’s exaggerated facial features) and their motivations for jumping time on their home planet (uncomfortably so in the main woman’s petty revenge on a romantic rival by returning twenty years younger than her). Their personalities matter less & less as they’re picked off by the invading alien creature, of course, although the film does generate suspense in an early reveal that there are dangerous intruders hiding among them under false credentials.

The threat of an intruder lurking among the crew is only an introduction to a larger theme of imposterism, which plays out in a much more grandiose fashion with a non-human member of the crew: the titular cat. Lily C.A.T. seems to be fascinated with the implications of traveling through the far reaches of outer space with a common housecat, and expands that detail from the original Alien film to generate the majority of its creature feature chills & thrills. While the crew assumes that it only has one cat onboard, that feline is actually copied by two of its own uncanny imposters. One cat is a robotic spy that secretly answers to Corporate back home behind their backs. In fact, it’s not a cat at all, but rather a C.A.T. (a Computerized Animal-shamed Technological Robot). The other imposter cat is a shapeshifting alien creature that fills its victims’ lungs with deadly body-morphing bacteria and gradually transforms into a grotesque Lovecraftian tentacle monster that absorbs the features of its growing list of victims in an exponential creepout. The original cat, unfortunately, does not make it too long into the film’s runtime, and we’re treated to a grisly confirmation of its . . . organic nature when its time onboard is up.

Weirdly, I’m not sure if Alien superfans would be the first audience I would recommend Lily C.A.T. to, unless their favorite detail from the original film happens to be Ripley’s relationship with her cat. This cheap DTV animation never had a chance to stack up to the original in a direct comparison, nor does it really attempt to. This film’s built-in audience is more likely nerds who salivate at the idea of any horror-themed anime or, more to my own alignment, weirdo genre enthusiasts who salivate over ludicrous killer-cat creature features like Cat People ’82, Sleepwalkers, and Night of a Thousand Cats. Surely, there’s some significant overlap between those two camps who will find Lily CA.T.’s shapeshifting-feline-tentacle-monster genre thrills exactly to their tastes. If nothing else, it’s a very specific niche that strikes a tone no other Alien knockoff ever could—animated or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling (2019)

You hardly have any time to adjust to the updated look & feel of the 2019 reboot of Rocko’s Modern Life before the movie makes fun of you for struggling to adapt to the change. In the new series timeline, the titular cartoon wallaby has been floating in outer space with his three animal besties (a cow named Heffer, a turtle named Filbert, and his pet dog Spunky) while watching the same rerun of their favorite cartoon, The Fatheads, over and over and over again. This absurd state of preserved, perpetual stasis is clearly coded as a comment on the real-life audience’s nostalgia for an ancient, deeply silly cartoon show from the 1990s – right down to its vintage orange VHS cassette packaging that all Nickelodeon shows were immortalized on in their home video form. Rocko is perfectly happy in his rut of watching the same show on loop for decades, asking “Isn’t it great how some things never change?” Obviously, a lot has changed in the 23 years since Rocko’s Modern Life has been on the air, which is immediately apparent in the crisp digital look of its updated 2010s animation style. Acknowledging & confronting those changes head-on quickly becomes the entire point of this straight-to-Netflix sequel to the show, which smartly interrogates the necessity of its own existence in a way that justifies the entire exercise beyond its value as a nostalgia stoker.

Once their outer space hiatus inevitably ends, Rocko & crew rejoin the citizens of Earth to find that a lot of change has transpired here in their absence. While Rocko can overlook his buddies’ fascination with the food trucks, smartphones, and 3D printers that define this new normal of the 2010s, he struggles with the revelation that his favorite cartoon show has been cancelled while they were gone. Most of Static Cling concerns Rocko’s campaign to Bring Back The Fatheads as a 2010s reboot, a Sisyphean effort to preserve just one thing as it was 20 years ago instead of accepting that everything changes with time. Mishaps in bringing back the series’ original creator, fighting off corporate directives to cut corners by having it computer-animated, and preventing the original show’s central dynamic between its main characters from shifting at all drive Rocko mad as he attempts to control just one aspect of his life in a constantly changing world. Those struggles also directly reflect the effort to bring back Rocko’s Modern Life in a meaningful way, of course, so it’s for the best that the movie eventually settles on an “Embracing change is the key to happiness” message, even if it pauses to make fun of 2010s concepts like “going viral” and to adjust to modern concerns like the evolution of modern transgender identity politics before it can get there. It’s wonderful that the return of the show found a way to be about something instead of merely skating by as an empty nostalgia exercise, even if that Something was empty nostalgia exercises.

It’s worth noting that Rocko’s Modern Life hasn’t changed so drastically in this modern iteration that it’s no longer recognizable. Its proto-SpongeBob hyperactivity and grotesque dedication to gross-out details like booger jars & prehensile nipples remain intact, as do the basic character traits & vocal performances of its main cast. The movie just doesn’t pretend that the world is exactly the same as it was when we last visited the show, instead adjusting its purpose for existing to address that exact cultural shift. It works both as a 90s nostalgia generator and as a meaningful work of modern animation in its own right, which is more than anyone should have reasonably expected from this straight-to-streaming novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Millennium Actress (2001)

Satoshi Kon may be the first of the major anime cinema legends whose filmography I’ve seen in its entirety, despite my being an eternal n00b in the genre. This is more of a deeply sad circumstance than a personal accomplishment, as the innovative director died young of pancreatic cancer in his mid-40s, just four feature films into his career (not counting his unfinished project, Dreaming Machine). Watching Millennium Actress on the big screen (via Fathom Events, in anticipation of its new digital restoration for Blu-ray) was the perfect way to wrap up this bittersweet relationship with an artist who’d left us before I fully became aware of his legacy. Although the film arrived midway through his career, it almost feels like an old, retiring auteur looking back on their own work (and the art of cinema at large) with a retrospective eye. I wouldn’t say it’s my personal favorite film of his, nor the objective pinnacle of his artistry, but Millennium Actress does feel like an amalgamation of everything Satoshi Kon accomplished in his other three features – combining the fluid cinematic dream logic of Perfect Blue & Paprika with the tender warmth of Tokyo Godfathers in one succinct, convenient package. It was wonderful to experience that full Satoshi Kon spectrum for the first time in a proper theatrical environment, watching with the same perplexed amusement I found when Paprika premiered on American big screens back in 2007 and I had no idea what I was getting into.

A linear plot synopsis of this surreally animated mind trip would almost seem disrespectful, as the film generally uses its narrative conceit only as a means of exploring a poetic crossroads between memory, fantasy, and cinema. It begins simply enough, with a movie studio executive and a young documentarian interviewing an elderly, retired actress about her life and career. As she recounts her story of growing up onscreen, however, the boundaries between memory & fiction erode beyond recognition, making the distinction pointless. The interviewer & cameraman follow the actress through the physical & temporal locations of her memory, filming the events of her past in a way that is only possible through the fluid, unrestrained logic of movie magic. All the movies the actress has starred in over her long career (whether they be samurai epics, wartime romances, kaiju action spectacles, or sci-fi space operas) blend into a single continuity as she and her two modern-day admirers run through a blur of fantasies & timelines in pursuit of an all-powerful MacGuffin: a literal key to “the most important thing in life.” Whether the most important thing in life is Memory, Passion, Art, or Love remains open for subjective interpretation. Mostly, Millennium Actress is a beautifully surreal melting pot of details from every movie genre through out the history of the artform – swordfights, monsters, ghosts, war, romance spaceships, betrayals – all propulsively animated to an early 00s techno beat.

I don’t think this film requires a familiarity with Satoshi Kon’s general filmography to be appreciated. If anything, expectations for the cruelty & despair of Paprika & Perfect Blue might be prohibitive to meeting this work on its own quietly sweet, melancholy terms. Millennium Actress should be enjoyable to anyone with an active interest in its artform – both as an exquisitely crafted anime from the dying days of hand-drawn animation and as a guided tour throughout the history of Japanese film genres. We’re treated to the full spectrum of what Movies can accomplish as we travel time throughout the most distinct eras of the artform in a lyrical, transportive version of movie-magic dream logic that’s impossible to pull off in any other medium. Similar to other movies-about-movies masterworks like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso, and Hail, Caesar!, Millennium Actress is readily accessible to anyone who can gush emphatically about the history & artistry of cinema as an artform. Still, it does hold a special reverence for Satoshi Kon fans in that it feels like a Greatest Hits collection of his best big-screen accomplishments. It’s absolutely tragic that we couldn’t experience even more grand visions from this late animation wizard, but this film alone is an excellent encapsulation of what made the work he was able to leave behind in his short life so special. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up my precious little time with the enigmatic auteur, even if this film’s sentimentality wasn’t as geared specifically to my interests as harder-edged works like Perfect Blue

-Brandon Ledet

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2019)

Although it’s at best a cult favorite in America, the animated supernatural teen romance Your Name. was a massive success in its native Japan. Likely fueled by repeat viewings from droves of lovelorn teens, the film broke all kinds of box office records – spawning official merchandize jewelry, planned live action remakes and, unavoidably, knockoffs. The teen anime romance is nothing new as a genre (if nothing else, Your Name. director Makoto Shinkai also made a film titled 5 Centimeters Per Second in a very similar vein as his smash hit an entire decade earlier), but there are some basic elements of Your Name. that have been echoed & rearranged enough times in the couple years since its massive success to establish an entire subgenre of knockoffs. Lightly proggy emo soundtracks, heart-swelling fireworks displays, supernatural shenanigans, and overreaching romantic narration have become almost standard in the post-Your Name. teen anime, as if films were attempting to reverse-engineer its success using the exact same building blocks. Last year’s goofily haphazard Fireworks is a clear example of how the cynical Your Name. riff can fall flat on its face – the butt of some cosmic, absurdist joke. Although it’s more humorously titled, this year’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas swings in the exact opposite direction – suggesting that the sub-Your Name. genre is worthy of being continued & explored, that there’s plenty of room to keep the formula flesh & emotionally effective.

Part of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s saving grace as a deliberate Your Name. riff (besides its attention-grabbing title) is that it’s adapted from well-established source material entirely separate from its newfound anime subgenre. A YA teen romance novel that has already been adapted into a manga series and a live-action film titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, this is a property that’s already popular & familiar enough to Japanese audiences to stand on its own legs as an individual work. It even comes from a different angle than Your Name. in that its premise isn’t at all supernatural, but instead is a romantic terminal illness teen weepie along the lines of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and the upcoming Cole Sprouse vehicle Five Feet Apart. A high school student who’s eternally cheerful despite slowly dying of “a pancreatic disease” becomes unlikely friends with (and the unlikely love interest of) a stubbornly antisocial boy who’s defiantly boring & needs help breaking out of his shell, but reluctantly gets roped into helping the dying girl complete her bucket list anyway. The quiet, conversational drama that unfolds from that premise doesn’t sound at all similar to the raucous body-swapping, physics-defying romance of Your Name., which helps the film distinguish itself from that apparently seminal work. However, as the checkboxes of the purple narration, power pop soundtrack, and CG fireworks display are each ticked off the entire exercise starts to feel strikingly familiar. Then, it all ends in a climactic supernatural fantasy that transcends reality in a sequence inspired by The Little Prince on a planet populated by cherry blossom trees – far away from the grounded, conversational tone of its source material – solidifying it as a fully committed Your Name. disciple.

To be honest, distinguishing itself from Your Name. was far from I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s greatest hurdle to clear. There’s a reason that formula has been echoed in so many recent teen anime titles: it works. If anything, it’s the terminal illness weepie premise of its source material that threatens to sink its enjoyability, especially in regard to its choice of POV. This is the story of a chipper, terminally ill child who seemingly lives without fear; she misshelves library books, kicks bullies in the nuts, runs from cops, experiments with alcohol & sex, gorges on rich foods, and does basically everything else a rebellious suburban teen wishes they could get away with. So why, then, do we instead see the world through the POV of her polar opposite, a killjoy boy who literally feels sorry for himself because he’s boring? It initially seems as if this choice were a textbook repetition of the Manic Pixie Dying Girl trope, where a tragic girl with a rambunctious spirit exists only to improve the life & disposition of a milquetoast male protagonist with a much less interesting POV. If you afford I Want to Eat Your Pancreas a little patience, that dynamic is beautifully subverted in its emotionally cathartic climax, which saves the entire film in one paradigm-shifting information dump. In reading the Manic Pixie Dying Girl’s private diary (morbidly titled Living with Dying), we’re suddenly flooded with her perspective & story of personal growth, something that had been missing for the entire film before it. Not only is there a huge emotional payoff in that reveal, it’s also where the film justifies its animation format by reaching for some Little Prince by way of Sailor Moon surrealism to match the soaring emotional stakes of that catharsis. The trick is trusting the film long enough to get there.

The flashier, attention-grabbing details of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas are likely to draw in most of the audience, but also promise a much wilder, louder movie than what’s ultimately delivered. Once you look past its weirdly cannibalistic title, its Your Name.-riffing aesthetic, and the severity of tis terminal illness romance premise, however, you will find an intimate, minor teen drama that (outside the visualization of its climax) makes total sense as a work that was previously translated into live action. There are slideshow sequences & CG animation shortcuts that call into question the film’s need to be animated at all, outside the opportunity to ride the wave of Your Name.’s success, but it’s a decision that’s eventually justified, even if at the last minute. More importantly, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas eventually finds distinct, emotionally satisfying things to say about how teens establish their sense of identity & self-worth that feel entirely separate from its value as a post-Your Name. anime or a post-John Green teen weepie. It takes a lot of work for the film to stand on its own beyond those comparison points and the novelty it its title, but it does get there with time & patience.

-Brandon Ledet