Tag Archives: animation

Magic Hour

Swaying grass, rippling water, towering trees, cobblestone streets, and of course magic: from these elements Hayao Miyazaki and his animators crafted the world of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). They provide such a rich backdrop for the tale of teenage witch Kiki, a girl for whom witchcraft is both vocation and an emblem of outsider status. Just as in other Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Ponyo, magic functions here as metaphor, as the storytelling device that sets a young woman’s bildungsroman into motion. These movies may be enchanted fantasies on the surface, but at heart they’re all about a small set of real-world issues: family, responsibility, maturation. They’re driven not by supernatural contrivance, but by the simple fact that life is difficult.

Kiki can fly on a broomstick, an action the film exploits for maximum spectacle. And she can talk with her black cat Jiji, who (in the fine tradition of witches’ familiars) acts as her foil and confidante. But beyond these powers, she’s like any other 13-year-old girl thrust out to live on her own. She’s still a little childish, a little naïve, but also resourceful, hard-working, empathetic. When two old women need help baking a pie for her to deliver, she throws herself into the labor of stoking a fire—not because she has to, mind you, but because she enjoys putting her skills in the service of these newfound friends. She’s still anxious, still self-conscious and vulnerable, but over the course of the film she grows. She overcomes her fears and develops a series of new, supportive relationships.

It all makes for a ideal example of how to write a complex female protagonist. The film explains how to animate her, too: with four quiet colors and a round, expressive face. For a supposed “kids’ movie,” everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is executed with a startling amount of subtlety and restraint. I especially love the rhythm of the film’s editing. The pace is relaxed, just enough room to breathe, drawing the audience in with its graceful classicism. The same philosophy informs the sound design, which grows simpler as narrative tension mounts, even descending into total silence at the height of the film’s airborne climax. Miyazaki crams power into every detail and every elision.

One detail in particular walloped me with overwhelming emotional force. Late in the film, Kiki experiences some mild depression, losing her self-confidence and her magical abilities with it. She can’t fly and Jiji no longer speaks. It takes some soul-searching and a life-threatening crisis, but pretty soon she’s back on a broom and up in the air. Yet even after every loose end is tied up, Jiji doesn’t say another word. He’s a normal cat now, with a girlfriend and a litter of kittens. I know that this counts as a happy ending, I know that he’s still around and that Kiki has human friends now, but it still engenders a deep sense of loss in me. But then, that’s growing up. That’s magic used as a poignant metaphor. That’s the kind of unremarked-upon detail that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service truly special.

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The Pataki Files: The Beeper Queen

(I started this series over a year ago! It’s been a sluggish trek but I have not abandoned this series! For any newcomers, read the intro here!)

“The Beeper Queen” opens with Miriam reaching into a wine-stocked cabinet for her Tabasco sauce, the key ingredient of her obviously alcoholic smoothies. Helga sits at the kitchen table making herself a lunch for school the next day, frustration at her mother simmering just below an impassive surface. These first 30 seconds sets the stage for what is, in my opinion, the most tragic Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold!

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Helga mothers herself while Miriam’s priorities are elsewhere

After Miriam breaks a shelf, Bob steps up to do a “man’s job” and pulls out his back, laying him up for the next few weeks. Miriam volunteers to substitute for him at meetings and in the office, an offer that her husband and daughter originally meet with derision. It’s easy to feel bad for Miriam because her family thinks she’s incompetent, but in reality she’s never given them a reason to believe otherwise. Against his better judgment, Bob allows Miriam to go to an important meeting, and it turns out that she’s a powerhouse  of executive decision-making and wooing clients.

Suddenly Miriam is super-mom: working diligently, making Helga nutritious lunches, taking her to school, and spending the evenings with her while she does her homework. And therein lies the tragedy of “The Beeper Queen.” During this brief hope spot, we see the mother that Helga needs—and desperately wants—but just as quickly, through the power of montage, it all falls apart. Miriam’s newfound energy goes from being evenly distributed between daughter and job to one-track and work-centered. She essentially becomes a gender-reversed Big Bob Pataki: absorbed in work with little interest in her kid.  Once again, Helga is left with an emotionally unavailable parent who doesn’t see her sadness or her yearning for love and attention.

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam's maternal skills

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam’s maternal skills

As Miriam discovers that she thrives in a high-energy, high-responsibility executive position, we’re shown that she’s no better a mother than she was before. Eventually, Miriam sees the error of her ways and quits her job. This seems like a sweet, motherly gesture until you realize that it means that things will return to how they were at the beginning of the episode. It’s doubly troubling because, although throwing herself into work saves Miriam from depression and alcoholism, it’s more damaging for Helga—at least her depressed, alcoholic mother was there.

The episode seems to end on a happy note, but due to the power of status quo we know that Miriam’s behavior won’t change for good. She’s incapable of being a good mother regardless of her personal circumstances—unreliable alcoholic or responsible businesswoman—and ultimately Helga is the one who suffers.

Previous editions of The Pataki Files:

Olga Comes Home

Helga and the Nanny

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Spooky Specials: “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

Good evening. Tonight’s selection is a chilling tale of mayhem, shrubbery, and a wallaby who knew too much.” —Heffer introducing “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!”

My previous foray into childhood Halloweeny goodness was pretty gentle; Rugrats wasn’t really one to push the boundaries of children’s television. Rocko’s Modern Life, the subject of this week’s Spooky Specials, did nothing but push those boundaries. Along with the equally disgusting, adult-pitched Ren and Stimpy, Rocko was a media watchdog’s worst nightmare: brimming with crude toilet and nudity humor, thinly veiled sex jokes (the damn restaurant was named the Chokey Chicken for nearly four whole seasons before someone figured out that it was a masturbation joke), and absurdly adult themes and situations. (Does anyone else remember when Rocko was a phone sex operator? ‘Cause I sure do.) So, it follows suit that the Rocko’s Modern Life Halloween special is strange, disturbing, and very obviously not for kids (but fuck if we didn’t watch the hell out of it anyway).

The first segment really typifies the average Rocko episode. It starts off with a normal premise (Rocko and Heffer are going trick-or-treating!) before rapidly spiraling into a cacophony of screaming and toned down expletives. Then begin the non sequitur plot points, the plethora of adult jokes and references, all concluding with an out-of-nowhere or unsatisfying (or both) ending. Since the first segment sticks very closely to this kind of unstructured style I find it the weaker of the two. The plot (and I use that term loosely) has Rocko, Heffer and the ever-petrified Filbert going trick-or-treating and crossing paths with a Headless Horseman-esque ghoul (The Hopping Hessian). There’s a strange sub-plot about Filbert’s childhood Halloween trauma and him cracking out on candy, followed by a completely incomprehensible ending. “Sugar Frosted Frights” works for sheer manic spooky fun, but when it comes to constructing  an actual scary story “Ed is Dead: A Thriller!” just gives me goosebumps.

“Ed is Dead” is one of those great over-kids’-heads episodes that I’m sure many parents got a kick out of. For starters, the segment’s plot is an homage to Rear Window and the whole thing is a Hitchcock pastiche, which I’m pretty sure most kids in my age bracket didn’t catch. Also, the segment centers around Ed and Bev Bighead, two of the least child-friendly characters on the show: middle-aged toads whose embittered bickering and simmering-just-below-the-surface contempt for one another is only outweighed by the amount of disturbingly passionate sex they have. Ed is curmudgeonly and insensitive to his always horny, often frustrated wife, which brings us to the comedy of errors in “Ed is Dead.” A cursory familiarity with Rear Window (or any of its many parodies) is all you need to know the plot of this segment, as Rocko thinks he sees Bev brutally stab Ed to death from his window and begins searching for answers. The truth, of course, is that Ed was fine all along, merely away to get a bothersome wart removed from his ass.

For a child unaware that it’s just a wacky Rear Window parody, however, this shit was actually pretty horrifying. The disturbing sounds of the Bev “stabbing” Ed, the lightning and darkness that surround the Bigheads’ house, the tense moments where Rocko is in the house and Bev arrives home… it was all very scary but when coupled with exaggerated cartoon elements it was also silly and funny. I believed that Ed was actually dead but was still laughing all the while. And therein lies the twisted joy of Halloween specials and the holiday itself. They expose children to terrors that are normally hidden—and they make it fun. “Ed is Dead” makes marital murder into a game, tightly packed in a bright, frenetic bundle, and ready for juvenile consumption.

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Spooky Specials: “Candy Bar Creep Show”

I was an absolute Rugrats junkie from around ages 3-8. It was my all-time favorite cartoon on Nickelodeon or any other channel. Unlike so many of the other Animation Renaissance cartoons I grew up watching, Rugrats wasn’t riddled with adult themes and double entendres. It had a pureness that other shows lacked. It was just babies misinterpreting the world around them, as babies do. With Mark Mothersbaugh’s tinkering, tumbling soundtrack and the soft-colored environments and characters, it captured an essence of early childhood that I’ve rarely seen outside of a Miyazaki film.

Accordingly, Rugrats’ Halloween special isn’t bizarre or full of disturbing imagery. Instead, it shows how very small children might interpret spooky happenings. The special follows the traditional Rugrats format—two 11-minute segments—but only the first,”Candy Bar Creep Show,” is specifically about Halloween. We start with a classic Rugrats close-up that turns out to be an internal view of a pumpkin being carved up. It’s Halloween night and the adults are preparing the house for trick-or-treaters. Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil all watch curiously as the grown-ups don costumes and construct a strange tent in the backyard. Once Angelica comes to tease them about how they won’t get any Reptar bars, they become even more curious about what the adults are up to (Angelica mentions that it’s Halloween and that she gets to go trick-or-treating, but when they ask her what that means, she says she doesn’t know other than she gets candy out of it).

This childhood naïveté and the curiosity that results fuel most of the Rugrats’ best episodes. The babies have no real concept of fabricated fears like ghosts and zombies and haunted houses; babies don’t understand what Halloween is. That’s why you can wheel a 6-month-old around on Halloween night and they’ll be unfazed but some 5-year-olds get paralyzed with fear when they see scary costumes. And the segment plays upon this beautifully. Once the babies see kids screaming and running out of the haunted house holding Reptar bars, they deduce that screaming in there will get them Reptar bars too. (Occam’s razor, ya know?)

So they go on a mission to obtain their own Reptar bars, unknowingly setting Angelica and her friends and even Grandpa up for the scare of their lives. They don’t have the learned fear of fake eyeballs, worms, or skeletons, so to them the haunted house is just another playhouse. But when Angelica sees the twins’ distorted, spaghetti covered hair and Tommy covered in a ghostly sheet, she runs screaming into the night. Grandpa comes to investigate and gets the same treatment while yelling the most hilarious old-man lines ever. (“LEAPIN’ LIBRARIANS!”) At the end of the night, the babies come out on top, lugging huge bags of candy into their playpen while everyone else warily eyes the haunted house, wondering what specters might lie within.

Rugrats may not hold up to repeat adult viewing as well as some of its contemporaries, but certain episodes manage to strike just the right sweet, nostalgic nerve for me. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with things that were considered over my head. Rugrats gives me that feeling of childlike sweetness in my belly and this Halloween episode in particular reminds me of all the innocent curiosity I had in toddlerhood.

Next week, however, things get a bit (read: much) darker with Rocko’s Modern Life’s “Sugar Frosted Frights/Ed is Dead! A Thriller.” Stayed tuned, boos and ghouls!

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Spooky Specials: An Introduction

When I was very young and the leaves would fade from vibrant green to burnt orange, excitement would stir in my little gut. The air, heavy with the smells of cider and pumpkin, would become chillier, crisper. It was October. You learn pretty early on that everything suddenly becomes spooky in October: themed cereals pop up everywhere; ghost-shaped chocolates are being sold in bulk; aisle after aisle of costumes and decorations pop up overnight in local stores. And it all culminates in that one blissful night of decadence, running door to door in disguise to get tons of candy. It’s enough to send any little kid into paroxysms of joy.

One of my favorite parts of the Halloween season was how almost every single cartoon I loved suddenly had a scary special to serve up. Otherwise normal cartoons had stories about ghosts, monsters, vampires and often the very holiday itself. And I don’t just mean The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror.” I vividly recall Halloween specials for shows on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and other kids’ channels. I’m especially fascinated by how these cartoons, and really the whole holiday, teach young children to be okay with scary ideas and images.

Often tame by adult standards, these specials were still sometimes a little too disturbing for kids. They often made references that I didn’t understand until adulthood. I think these special episodes deserve a little loving recognition, so throughout this most sacred of months, I’m going to write about some of my favorite spooky specials!

First up: Rugrats’ “Candy Bar Creepshow/Monster in the Garage”!

Stay tuned!

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Short Animation Blogathon: Day 1

The Short Animation Blogathon is here!

Two weeks ago, we announced it; now it’s time to follow through. All this week, we’ll be accepting submissions at p.g.grrr@gmail.com and posting links to your lists of favorite animated shorts. And what better way to start out the blogathon than with a live demonstration?

Andreas’s Hour of Short Animation

Let’s watch some cartoons! This is my attempt to mix a variety of styles, moods, and time periods into an hour-long mini-festival of beloved animation. Let’s see how well I fare…

  • The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park, 1993, 30 minutes). All three of Park’s Wallace and Gromit shorts are absolute delights; they’re charming, ultra-British, and visually witty. But The Wrong Trousers is in a category of its own. It’s a master class in short-form screenwriting, it features the most heartbreaking dog/human relationship this side of Umberto D., and its meticulous chains of cause and effect capitalize so well on the unique powers of animation. I could seriously watch it day in, day out, on a loop.
  • Frank Film (Frank and Caroline Mouris, 1973, 9 minutes). This Oscar winner compensates for its brevity with sheer density as it pours out a deluge of audovisual information about Frank Mouris’s life. It races from facet to facet, from childhood to maturity, through cars, food, sex, and socializing. Its breakneck visuals are complemented by Mouris’s deadpan narration, resulting in a painfully honest mini-macro-memoir.
  • Feline Fantasies (Bruno Bozzetto, 1976, ~6 minutes). This one’s a chapter from Bozzetto’s Fantasia spoof Allegro Non Troppo. Set to Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” it’s a dagger to the heart of every cat lover in the audience. It can be colorful and frisky, sure, but it’s also brutally tearjerking. In fact, I don’t know if I can keep writing about it without splashing tears all over my keyboard…
  • Betty Boop’s May Party (Dave Fleischer, 1933, 7 minutes). After that emotional ordeal, you’ll want to watch something peppy. Thankfully, May Party is a dose of raw pep. It’s nearly plotless and has little to do with Betty Boop; instead, it’s a catalog of abuses, mutilations, and natural disasters turned into one big, frenetic, ritualized dance. And it’s hilarious.
  • Quasi at the Quackadero (Sally Cruikshank, 1975, 10 minutes). Sporting a heavy Fleischer Bros. influence, Cruikshank’s cult cartoon is as compulsively rewatchable as it is incomprehensible. It’s a tour through a series of impossible fair attractions—a thought illustrator, dream reader, past life viewer, time machine, etc.—courtesy of man-child/duck Quasi, his wife, and her robot paramour. Between this fundamental weirdness, the idiosyncratic line readings, and the hyperactive animation, Quasi is a sort of wacky, acid-drenched Double Indemnity that doubles as a tribute to animated shorts past and future.

I’ll wrap up with the first of our submissions. It’s “5 Best Lego Stop Motion Horror Films” by Bodhi of Old Horror Movies. I was only vaguely aware of the “brickfilm” genre before this, and Bodhi’s list is a great introduction. These block-by-block, shot-by-shot recreations are a testament to the low-budget imagination of some dedicated horror fans. So check out those videos, and stay tuned for updates throughout the week!

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That Old Black Magic

When I wrote about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) last September, I described its lush landscapes as “iconography right out of a stained glass window.” This is one hell of a beautiful movie. Its images have a mythic thrust to them, yet they’re still crisp and vital. In their first feature-length venture, Disney and his animators composed a still-unmatched argument for the necessity and power of animation. Lucky for me, that fairest film of them all is the subject of this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” over at The Film Experience.

For a first taste of Snow White’s immaculate beauty, just gaze at the layered forest, penetrated by sunbeams and dotted with animal eyes, in my second-favorite shot. It’s a rich illustration of the film’s tonal turning point, when Snow White’s huntsman-inspired terror gives way to renewed joy with her woodland friends. The shadows and gnarled trees that flank the frame are counterbalanced by the friendly yellows and greens cushioning poor Snow White. Even in this snapshot, you can see the mood begin to lift. It contains both the traces of terror and the glimmers of hope. My favorite shot is similarly dense, but expresses a very different range of emotions.

As much as I love the film’s storybook vistas, I just can’t get into Snow White herself. She’s peppy, yeah, but also boring—a blank slate of a princess who’ll give herself over to the first prince or apple-selling hag who comes along. The Evil Queen, however, is fascinating: obsessed with the girl she hates, steeped in arcane knowledge, willing to hex away her own precious beauty just for the chance to poison her rival. She ruins her looks in a painful transformation sequence, just to validate her vanity! Her eyes are radiant with homicidal envy. You do not fuck with this woman.

This shot transpires right before the Queen swigs her potion. Here, the chalice functions as another “magic mirror,” another medium to reflect her authority and control. She has sacrificed everything for total power; now, in that reflection, she and her magic are one. The gray clouds, green bubbles, and sharp red nails add to the sense of mounting danger. This is horror movie territory, as dark and macabre as anything out of Universal. And through that darkness, it’s my most beloved shot in Snow White.

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