Welcome to Episode #158 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of classic anime films, starting with Satoshi Kon’s technophobic psych thriller Perfect Blue (1997).
There’s a character design in The Spine of Night that I swear was animated to look exactly like Sean Connery in Zardoz. That should be a strong indicator of the genre-nerd waters this film treads, whether or not the reference was intentional. A rotoscoped throwback to retro D&D fantasy epics like Wizards, Gandahar, and Heavy Metal, The Spine of Night is a for-its-own-sake aesthetic indulgence on the artistic level of a metal head doodling in the margins of their high school notebook. If you’re not the kind of audience who thinks giant tits & giant swords make a badass pairing—especially when airbrushed on the side of a van—the movie will not offer much to win you over. Its story is consistently thin & disposable, but it’s just as consistently good for flashes of metal-as-fuck imagery from scene to scene (“swamp magic,” beheadings, galloping horse skeletons, etc.).
The Spine of Night‘s voice cast is packed with always-welcome celebrity contributors: Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, Betty Gabriel, etc. I can only claim to have recognized a few of those voices without an IMDb cheat sheet, but the only contribution that really matters is the novelty of hearing Lucy Lawless voice a warrior princess in the 2020s. She’s a perpetually naked swamp witch, the spiritual leader of her people, and a fearless warrior who unites oppressed communities from many disparate lands & eras to stop a power-hungry sorcerer from using magic for his own selfish, world-conquering ends. At least, that’s the gist of what I picked up between all the beheadings & disembowelings that the movie’s actually interested in illustrating, with only the vaguest whisper of a plot reverberating onscreen amidst the gory mayhem.
I’m not entirely convinced by the visual majesty of the rotoscope animation showcased here, which I feel like is the entire point of the production. The crisp, flat line work makes the characters less visually interesting than the detailed backdrops they disrupt (Zardoz references notwithstanding), which feels like a major problem. There’s something clunky & leaden about the way they move too, as if the original footage they were traced over was accidentally slowed down a touch in the editing process. Still, I’m enough of a sucker for heavy metal badassery to give the film a pass for what it is: bong rip background fodder. There are plenty of “adult” animation curios from the 70s & 80s that enjoy ongoing cult-classic status for serving that same superficial function, so why not throw one more on the fire? The Spine of Night is not even the best nostalgic throwback to that era of fantasy animation from last year, though; that niche honor belongs to Cryptozoo. It’ll have to settle for just being the more gleefully violent of the pair.
Netflix has a habit of quietly dropping substantial, worthwhile art onto its streaming platform without any promotion or fanfare, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been as surprised by one of its dead quiet in-house releases as I was by The House. The only reason this stop-motion anthology caught my eye is that one of its three segments was directed by the animators of This Magnificent Cake! (Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels), and I recognized the visual trademarks of their work on the thumbnail poster. Otherwise, I haven’t seen much official promotion or social media hoopla signaling the film’s uneventful release this month, at least not without looking for it directly. And when I search for reviews & press releases covering The House, different sites appear to be in conflict about what it even is. Netflix lists it as a one-time “special”. IMDb & Rotten Tomatoes list it as a three-episode season of a supposedly ongoing “series” (likely because its three segments are credited to three different sets of animators). Meanwhile, review sites like AV Club & RogerEbert.com are treating it as a standalone feature film. That’s the category that registers as correct to me, given that it’s contained in one 97min presentation with no rigid episode breaks. Still, I do think the general confusion about its format is indicative of Netflix’s constant, apathetic flood of #content with no attention paid to the promotion or artistic value of anything that’s not going to earn the company Oscars or Emmys.
A large part of the reason The House holds together as a standalone feature film is that all three of its segments were penned by a single screenwriter, Enda Walsh. As the tones & visual styles shift between each segment’s separate animation teams (De Swaef & Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma Baeza), Walsh maintains a strong narrative core throughout as the central authorial voice. The House is a darkly funny stop-motion anthology about a cursed house’s journey through different eras of doomed owners. Divided between the past, the present, and the future of the ornate structure, each set of its owners are working class rubes who are mesmerized by its opulence & grandeur, convinced that it will bring wealth & social status into their lives with just a little hard work & determination. Each segment ends with the lesson-learned punchline of a centuries-old ghost story or fairy tale, with the owners’ obsession with the house inevitably absorbing them into its walls & bones. It all amounts to a pretty relatable horror story about how “owning” a house basically means a house owns you – something that debt-saddled Millennials should be able to recognize as a real-world truth, anyway.
As with all horror anthologies, The House varies in quality from segment to segment. De Swaef & Roels open the film on its strongest, eeriest footing, while the hopeful note Baeza concludes with feels like its weakest step. Between those bookends, there’s a great wealth of gorgeous animation, dark humor, and melancholy. De Swaef & Roels have the most distinct visual style of the batch (working with the same textured felts & beading that distinguished This Magnificent Cake!), while von Bahr & Baeza both play with the taxidermy-in-motion style of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Overall, it’s Walsh’s consistency in theme & tone that holds the film’s structure together as a convincing, satisfying whole. I found this film just as visually & narratively impressive as any animation project I’ve seen in the past couple years, and yet its release has been so barebones that professional media critics can’t even decide whether it’s a Film at all. Maybe I’ll be embarrassed next year when a Season 2 of The House is released on Netflix and my miscategorization is confirmed, but in all likelihood I wouldn’t even be aware a follow-up exists at all.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the psychedelic sci-fi anime Paprika (2006), an explosively imaginative movie about shared dreams from the genius Satoshi Kon.
I struggle with parsing out how sincerely to take Dash Shaw’s movies. Both his debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, and its follow-up, Cryptozoo, present a bizarre clash of far-out psychedelia in their animation & laidback aloofness in their storytelling. His hand drawn 2D characters casually stroll through apocalyptic crises rendered in expressive, kaleidoscopic multimedia meltdowns. Meanwhile, their personalities are decidedly inexpressive, mumbling about their often-inane internal conflicts in apparent obliviousness to the chaos around them. Cryptozoo at least pushes that internal fretting into bigger questions about the ethical & political conflicts of its psychedelic fantasy world. It’s just difficult to determine how much those conflicts are intended to be taken seriously vs how much are an ironic joke about the film’s own sprawling, convoluted mythology. Shaw’s films are never boring to look at, though, even if his characters appear to be bored within them. His visual playfulness is a quality that’s increasingly difficult to find in modern animation, questions of sincerity be damned.
As the title alludes, Cryptozoo is an animated fantasy film about a futuristic zoo for cryptids: dragons, unicorns, sasquatches, gorgons, etc. The battlefield for its central conflict is a world where cryptids are suddenly plentiful but violently distrusted by the general human public – X-Men style. The warring factions in discerning how humans should relate to these mythical creatures are “conservationists” who want to centrally locate the cyptids in a Disney World-like “zoo” and militarists who want to deploy them as biological weapons. It’s a distinctly capitalist paradigm, where every single resource—including living creatures—must serve one of two purposes: money or military. The warmongers are obviously the “bad guys” in that debate, but the supposed “sanctuary” alternative of the cryptozoo must earn enough money to stay afloat, which leads to the cryptids’ captivity & exploitation in an amusement park setting by the supposed “good guys”. This convoluted mythology is debated in solemn, conversational tones while extravagant, badass illustrations of the cryptids themselves roar in the background. How seriously you’re supposed to take those debates and how meaningful their themes are outside the confines of the film are a matter of personal interpretation, something I’ve yet to settle on myself.
Part of my struggle with how sincerely relate to Cryptozoo might be a result of viewing it through a modern-animation context, where I’m comparing it against other recent psychedelic oddities like The Wolf House, Violence Voyager, and Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Despite its crudely layered multimedia approach to animation, the film is more likely spiritually aligned with fantasy films of the 1970s & 80s – titles like Heavy Metal, Wizards, and Gandahar. In that era, animated fantasy epics were all intensely sincere allegories about pollution, prejudice, and ethnic genocide. Cryptozoo‘s messaging is a little more resistant to 1:1 metaphor, but I’ll at least assume that its musings on the corrupting force of capitalism is politically sincere. It’s a little hard to immediately latch onto that sincerity when your film opens with a nudist stoner voiced by Michael Cera being gored by a unicorn, but that doesn’t mean the entire resulting conflict is meant to be taken as a joke. Realistically, the only reason I’m putting this much consideration into its dramatic sincerity at all is because the imaginative color-pencil drawings that illustrate its conflicts are objectively badass, making the rest of the film worth contending with instead of outright dismissing as stoner nonsense. I’m buying what Dash Shaw is selling, though I’m still not sure why.
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.
On a recent episode of the podcast, I found myself derailing a discussion of Toy Story 3to 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.
For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss the animated fantasy film The Secret of NIMH (1982), the directorial debut of Disney defector Don Bluth.
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)
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.