Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Hamtaro: Adventures in Ham Ham Land

Back around 2002 a rather strange yet charming anime hit the UK TV screens, featuring the adventures of a hamster and his friends the "Ham Hams" and their human owners. "Hamtaro" was picked up by Viz Media and Fox Kids in the west and given a rather huge marketing campaign. However it ended up falling between the gaps of the kids demographic and the usual teen audience that tend to tune into anime. "Hamtaro" was by nature an anime aimed at a younger age group than the usual anime offerings and ended up paired with it's japanese stablemates or on channels that didn't normally do preschool offerings. So after a few seasons it was phased out (with "Ham Ham Games" officially finishing the dub series in 2006)

It's a shame because Hamtaro, despite it's lower age range. Was actually quite an inventive series considering hamsters are not normally considered the most exciting of critters. Hamtaro and his friends all have a delightfully innocent viewpoint of the world as they know it and tackle their own issues. Hamtaro himself is your typical young boy character, he's ambitious, adventureous and loyal. The ladies adore him for it, but sadly he's also as blissfully ignorant of any relationship beyond the realm of best friends, much to their dismay.

Introductions done with, we get into the film at hand. "Adventures in Ham Ham Land" is the first of 3 movies based on the series. The Ham-Ham's go to an alternate world called Ham Ham Land where hamsters all go to have fun. Hamtaro wants the enchanted seed hidden in Ham Ham Land so he can tell Laura his feelings and celebrate her birthday with her.

The movie opens on Bijou telling everyone the story of Ham Ham Land from a storybook. Everyone wishes they could go there but suddenly Hamtaro comes tunneling in quite literally, in rage and tears over his owner Laura (a rather strange characterization that I'll go into later) Hamtaro's rage digging hits upon an unknown door, which inexplicably turns out to be the entry point into Ham Ham Land. They are joined by a fairy hamster chaperone called Yosei who tells them to all go have fun, but remember to depart before 8:06pm that evening. The Ham Ham's all go have fun bar a morose Hamtaro, who instead is musing on the idea of never going back home, as well as his frustrations over trying to tell Laura his feelings. Yosei notes Hamtaro's frustrations and tries to get his friends to make him feel better, however nothing seems to shift his mood. Not even an interjected performance of Morning Matsume's "Ai no Uta". Performed in a 3D form that actually doesn't look as jarring as it sounds.

Meanwhile a wizard called Devil-Ham (subtle!) is curious about this large group of new arrivals and asks his Ninja Ham's to go take a look at why they are here exactly. Hamtaro figures the enchanted seed is the answer to his conundrum and goes looking for it by asking seemingly everyone where it is. Eventually it turns out the answer is at Ham Ham Land's school, which nobody up to that point attends. What follows is a bunch of Japanese speech based gags which ends with Hamtaro winning the seed. Sadly the Devil-Ham manages to get his mitts on it. It turns out the Devil-Ham can change himself into a Dragon and a rather large battle scene ensues, with Hamtaro and co. managing a peaceful resolution though reasoning (of course!). Turns out Devil-Ham simply wanted the seed for his sunflower seed collection and was suppressing feelings for his alter-ego Yosei (who can turn into a powerful fairy of sorts) . Hamtaro loses the seed anyway and decides he wants to stay in Ham Ham Land and not go home. However Yosei tells him if he decides to stay everyone will forget he ever existed and he will forget them, prompting Hamtaro to get the hamsters to help him get home. Laura faintly hears someones voice and discovers Hamtaro, with a happy ending for all.

Maybe it's something I missed from the Japanese series (though I had watched a few subbed episodes before), but Hamtaro is remarkably out of character during this film. In the series he's only interested in being best friends with everyone and doing his best, and brushes off even failed ventures or attempts. However on this occasion he wants to show his owner, Laura, that he cares for her, the way Hamtaro acts in the flashback and in response is rather strange in comparison. In the series Hamtaro clearly cares a lot for his owner, but never expresses envy, frustration or jealousy over any character in the series. So to see him suddenly aware of his feelings for another character in a selfish manner is strange, it makes even less sense as the series and subsequent movies ignore this character development (even though the second film directly references this one!). As such it just leaves me somewhat bemused, I thought this was going to be a light, fluffy film! (Sanrio did deceptively fluffy yet depressing much better with "Ringing Bell" and "Unico")

In addition the large cast of Ham-Hams (that in-series have their own storylines and personalities) become little more than background characters. Even Bijou, despite her crush on Hamtaro in the series, does nothing of consequence, the cast is simply there to cheer Hamtaro on. The interjection of Morning Matsume as hamsters and the DJ Ham later on also serve little purpose other than to lend the feeling of atmosphere. As a result all the characters feel expendable or like cardboard cutouts. It's a shame because with such a vast cast this could of been so much more.Certainly it's interesting to see Hamtaro in a feature length form, it's just a shame they were not as bold with the film as they were with the original series.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

February Toon Overload!: The Princess and the Frog

Saved the best till last! I have a lot to say on The Princess and the Frog, its quite the curious film in some respects. In making their comeback Disney seems to be heading back to the mature family classic formulas that films like Beauty and the Beast, Treasure Planet and Mulan benefited so much from.

I should maybe stress that thar be spoilers beyond this point. If you havent seen the film yet you might want to skip to the end summary

The Princess and the Frog is based on the fairytale story but with a modern New Orleans twist. Its set in New Orleans at the turn of the century and our heroine, Tiana, is in fact not a princess to start out with. However she has a dream of opening a restaurant which she works tooth and nail for. Prince Naveen on the other hand is a bachelor living the high life, but forced to consider work or marriage in order to maintain that life. The Prince runs into local voodoo man Dr Facilier and finds himself as a frog, he mistakes Tiana for a princess and kisses her, only to find the curse also affects her and the two set off to fix things while the doctor pursues Naveen.

Now one of the things that surprised me, is how this film takes the traditional Disney fairytale and plays around with it a little, kinda like Beauty and the Beast did to such good effect. Disney is best when it tries not to fall back on the same old fairytale formulas and adds its own spin to things (providing its well thought through!)

First interesting note is the film starts in the past, something that hasnt been tried since Hercules and even then it was while Herc was a baby, same goes Princess Aurora of Sleeping Beauty whom we see as a baby. This is the first time we properly see a Disney character in their childhood and its a nice way to establish the world in this movie. It seems the 1912 New Orleans in this world has no problem with racism and a class based system as poor Tiana can be friends with the rich Charolette who is horribly pampered but friendly. Its a nice way to put to rest the fears that this film would play the racism card or something similar. Tiana is just another character and thankfully despite her place in the world is treated like any other character.

The entire prologue is a nice set up and its great see a happy family at the start of a Disney film that doesn't befall some horrible tragedy. Tiana's daddy does die between then and present day but its nice to see that both parents had something to give the character, rather than just one or the other. Her father provided the dream and her mother provided the fairy tales that gave Tiana hope to fulfill that dream. In present day Tiana is working to make that dream a reality In that respect close is quite close to Belle of Beauty and the Beast, but instead of her head being in the clouds shes mucking in to make that dream happen rather than sitting around hoping. Naveen was portrayed in a lot of trailers and previews of the film in a bit of a bad light, however its really hard to hate him in the actual film. When he first shows up he's taking in the surroundings and genuinely excited about being in New Orleans. . But it comes across as being somewhat natural considering his age and the life he's lead to that point. In that sense it makes the change of heart he has later believable as he seems a rather kind character at heart.

The sidekicks Louie and Ray are great characters in their own right. Louie got some of the best gags in the film, while the tenderhearted Ray surprised me. After initial trailers for the film it seemed Ray would play the hick comedy relief, and while he is quite funny, he actually comes across as quite intelligent and sweet. The film plays with the inital expectations of the character because even Tiana and Naveen think he is a couple of screws loose when his love "Evangeline" turns out in fact to be a bright star. But its a beautiful moment in the film regardless. Disney also take the brave step of letting Ray seriously help in the final skirmish, only to be squashed under the heel of Dr. Facilier and killed. Not only that but theres no magical cure, no "oop look I'm alive after all!" or the usual get-out clause Disney characters are normally subject to. He lives long enough to see Tiana and Naveen have finally revealed their feelings and dies happy. Theres even a funeral to boot and its a rather somber feeling...until the clouds part and everyone notices a new bright star twinkling beside Evangeline. Oh its horribly sappy and sweet but it feels right rather than simply saving the character last minute just to spare a few tears that were already shed. 

Also, this film shows how to do a pointless moment right. The film has a moment where a trio of Frog Hunters attempt to capture Tiana and Naveen. They don't really have anything to do with events other than to add some extra peril but the way the frogs turn it around and use their newfound natural abilities to make the three whack each other senseless is hilarious and lightens things up. Compared to Astro Boy's attempt at this type of situation, which stopped the film in its tracks and provided little to the central plot. These characters present a reason for Naveen and Tiana to work together in something , a good laugh and a reason for the characters to appreciate their current states. 

Getting onto the actual animation and music. The animation is Disney standard stuff, the only criticism is that is that imposing an image onto moving papers and the like doesn't really work as an effect as it kind of jitters, But thats more an issue with Toon Boom rather than Disney. The music makes a welcome comeback too, the songs don't beat some of the more classic Disney films but its a very respectable attempt and the songs certainly grow on repeat listens. Dig a little Deeper and Almost There in particular are the shining rules of the musical crown here. In addition the jazzy New Orleans soundtrack fits the film perfectly.

In summary Princess and the Frog certainly is the return to form Disney fans have been waiting for, it's understandably a little rough around the edges but it does very well and even attempts to buck a few old Disney trends. If your hankering for a comeback to the 90's musical films, you'll love this. The charaterisation is good, the music is great and it feels over-all like a step in the right direction

Sunday, 14 February 2010

February Toon Overload!: Ponyo

Studio Ghibli films don't really get the love they quite deserve here. But anime films seem to suffer more here generally than they do over there. Ponyo managed a rather large cinema engagement in the US, with 300+ cinemas showing the film. Here too Ponyo seems to be enjoying a slightly better engagement than other Ghibli films but still not enough to cover all corners of England. Certainly where I live the usual Arts Picturehouse is showing the film, but Cineworld and Vue are only bothering in so many places. Maybe its something to do with the fact Ghibli is distributed by Optimum Releasing here rather than Disney?

In any case, regardless of how available it is Ponyo is a charming adaption of the Little Mermaid with quite the twist given to it in usual Ghibli fashion. The story is about a fish born to a sea wizard and a sea giantess with a curious nature whom ventures to the surface and is caught in a bucket by a little boy named Sousuke. In the process he cuts himself and Ponyo licks his wound clean, giving her the ability to change partially human, she's caught by her father and repremanded, only for her to further defy him and use his magic to become fully human in the process. Eventually after consulting her mother, her father relents to testing the bond of Ponyo and Sosuke.

Ponyo feels quite fresh yet familiar, its a bit of a throwback to Totoro with its somewhat preschool aim, though theres a bit more conflict in Sosuke's world compared to Mei and Satsuki. Along with a father thats often out at sea, he has to deal with cranky old ladies and a large flood as an after-effect of Ponyo's assisted transformation, not to mention the little tests put their way. But Sosuke is quite the resourceful lad and easily accepts the transformed Ponyo and the things happening around him even when he fears for his mothers safety. Yet somehow the whole thing feels as "safe" as Totoro does bar a few moments but maintains the warm fuzzy feeling throughout.

Perticularly breathtaking, specially on the big screen, is that of Ponyo's transformation and emergance. Ponyo's siblings help pitch in by transforming into huge watery fish type waves that the newly transformed girl dashes upon the rests of, jumping from wave to wave, all in the hopes of getting Sosuke's attention. It's just a fantastic and breathtaking moment. The subsequent scenes of Ponyo getting used to human life and the calm acceptance of not only Sosuke, but his mother are surreal yet heartwarming and somehow it becomes easy to accept a fish can become a girl and that toy boats can suddenly become huge. Post flood everything becomes a little crazy but somehow it doesnt feel a jot out of place. The only thing that feels a bit weird is how everyone expects Sosuke to commit to Ponyo. But considering everything going on, maybe its not that far-fetched after all?

The dub once again is commendable for a Disney dub, Noah Cyrus gives an adorable and suitably energetic performance as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas is a good straight man for Sosuke. It stays true to the script and generally the dub acting fits. This is also the first time since Kiki's Delivery Service that Disney have dubbed the credits song, going with a translated pop version of the ending track, theres also a more techno remix that sees the credits out which sticks out like a horrible sore thumb in comparison to the rest of the film. Other than that one faux pas the rest of the dubbed film is flawless.

It wont win over everyone, particularly those not used to anime (though this is a somewhat more "normal" film as Ghibli titles go). But the dub isnt all that bad if your willing to try, certainly the PR strategy used for the lead voices doesnt do it any harm in the slightest. Certainly those that are kids at heart or fancy some magical whimsy will find a lot to love in Ponyo.

February Toon Overload!: Astro Boy

The UK cinema industry is a bit weird, at least with kids titles. In the past 3 weeks we've had a whopping 4 animated titles in Cinemas, mind about 3 of them have been held over from last year and one of them is apparently regarded as a "live action film".

Anyways, having a little looksie at the 3 films held over: Astro Boy, Princess and the Frog and Ponyo. Split into 3 posts to try and minimise the text walls.

Astro Boy

First and foremost we have Imagi's second and seemingly last film. The title played out in the US and most international markets back in October and it suffered from a slightly troubled production, some poor marketing and maybe the fact that Imagi didn't really have much of a reputation from audiences outside its first film TMNT. It's done a bit better in the UK, holding 3rd in its opening week behind Princess and the Frog and the juggernaut that is Avatar.

The film is a retelling of the origin story of Astro, how he was built initially by head of Ministry of Science, Dr Tenma, to replace the void left by the death of his son. After activating the robot and giving it his sons memories, it becomes clear the robot isn't his son and has its own personality, in his grief he abandons Astro and Astro is pursued by the Metro City government, whom want the blue core that powers him to be destroyed

I'm a big fan of Tezuka's stuff and knowing his estate is normally quite hot on how his characters are handled, there had to be a reason this film managed to make it to release. So I gave it a go and I have to be honest, it was pretty decent! 

I mean, sure, the film doesn't beat the long running narrative of the manga or the epic storyline of the 2003 series. But considering the time the film had (and the odds of a sequel) they had to pick a storyline and the origin makes the most sense considering Astro, despite being a well loved character, hasn't got much of a mainstream popularity in the west. Considering the original manga deals a lot with racism and generally has some darker storylines (when the BBC ran the 2003 anime, the presenters of the kids block even noted it was quite a dark show for kids TV, and that was the edited Sony dub! )

It's a little American-ised, the back story to Metro-City almost screams Wall-E but once past that the rest of the film is fine. Astro is portrayed pretty good as a character, and it's actually nice to have a slightly more sympathetic look at Dr Tenma as a grieving father after the 2003 series and Hamegg in a similar sort of role (but I wish he wasn't instantly "bad" for hating robots, looking after those orphans was still a good deed!). On top of this is the fact Astro is actually played as a kid realizing he's now a robot and dealing with the subsequent consequences, rather than just "oh wow I'm a robot woo!" (something Sony were oddly keen to cut out the dub of the 2003 anime somehow

The things that did let down the film were mostly in the second half, the kids were okay characters but their designs were clearly not anywhere near the Tezuka design, which makes it a bit hard to accept them as characters. In addition the overly-political aspirations of the President stops seeming so much of a threat after the billionth utterance of "This surely will get me re-elected!" and variations thereof.

Theres also a 3 stooges act of robots that turn up in the middle of the film and their only real contribution is to give Astro his name. Even at the films end they note that their contribution to the whole thing was essentially nothing. While its fine to have characters that don't advance the story, the fact their inclusion actually stops the plot for their antics for a whole 10 minutes just makes them irritating, specially as their gags are not really all that funny.

All in all a decent re-telling of the story with a bit of an American twist, but its still pretty true to the source material despite the changes. The script lets itself down when it tries to sugar the storyline a bit too much but it deserved to do better than maybe it has. Its a shame this was Imagi's last film as the ending preps itself for a sequel and I do think had Imagi had time and less hassle they could of easily carried into a second film. But Astro's had many storylines so I'm sure we'll see him again in some form or another.