Closing the Mill Valley Film Festival with 3D and Disney Animation

Yes, I know. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival closes with several screenings of Loving. But I’m not able to attend any of them. So I finished my Mill Valley Film Festival with two special presentations at the Rafael.

Both events were family friendly, and had quite a few children present.

The 3D Sideshow

As he did two years ago, Robert Bloomberg presented a collection of 3D shorts and (and a couple of trailers) from the early days of steroscopic movies to the present.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • The documentary Hidden Worlds starts with a history of recording and presenting images stereoscopically. Then it went on to show us some very beautiful images.
  • Hidden Stereo Treasures claims to be an old, educational film about rare 3D cameras. But you soon realize that its intentions are comical.
  • One short film, whose name I didn’t get (probably because it was in Russian), showed a remarkable juggling act. Juggling works really well in 3D. I saw this same film five years ago when Serge Bromberg received his Mel Novikoff Award.
  • If you’ve seen Finding Dory, you’ve seen Piper, the Pixar short that preceded it. It’s funny and adorable.


After the screenings, Pixar’s Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer came on stage to answer questions. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • Does 3D make animation more difficult? It’s a two-step process. You create it in 2D, then do it again in 3D. There are slight differences.
  • A film is never finished. It’s done when a producer tells you it’s done.
  • Short films are meant to test the technology.
  • Animators are actors who don’t want to go on stage.

PANEL: Disney Animation Technistas

What does it take to create the fantasy worlds of computer animation? And are women welcome on the technical side of the equation? This panel discussion was meant to answer those questions.

Five women, all doing technical work at Disney Animation, discussed how they created ways to animate fur, clothing, and water for Zootropia and the upcoming Moana. The women were Sara Drakeley (general technical director), Heather Pritchett (also general technical director), Erin Ramos (effects animator), Michelle Robinson (character look supervisor), and Maryann Simmons (senior software engineer).

Variety’s Steven Gaydos moderated the talk.

I wasn’t allowed to take notes for this discussion, so there’s not much more I can say about it. But I can say one thing: The women talked about their work, and not about being women in a male-oriented business.

Near the end, Gaydos brought up the subject. He asked if the number of women in animation are growing. Pritchett said they very much are. She had always seen other women working in animation. But now, she sees teams that are about half and half.

Good to know there’s progress.

The Phantom Boy doesn’t quite come together

C+ Animated family-oriented fantasy crime thriller

Written by Alain Gagnol

Directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

Eleven-year-old Leo is very sick. He’s in the hospital, will be for months, and he may not survive. But he has a superpower. His spirit can leave his body, fly through walls, and see and hear everything around him.

Meanwhile, an evil villain demands a billion dollars or else he will destroy New York City’s power and data networks. Need I mention that he has two bumbling assistants?

Then there’s the often brilliant and athletic, but occasionally clumsy police detective. He’s got a sidekick of sorts–a pretty newspaper reporter who’s obviously in love with him.

All of these parts don’t quite come together in this moderately entertaining movie. Yes, it has thrills and laughs, but neither the suspense nor the humor ratchet up enough to make The Phantom Boy really worth seeing.

The detective breaks a leg early on, and is confined to the same hospital as Leo. Once the cop recognizes Leo’s powers, they become a team to protect the journalist (AKA, the damsel in distress) and save the city. Leo can follow the reporter, flying all over the place, sticking his head through walls, all without being seen. When he talks, the sound doesn’t come out of his disembodied spirit, but from his physical body back in the detective’s room in the hospital. Then the detective can give the reporter instructions via cellphone.

Another thing we learn early about Leo’s powers: If he stays out of his body long enough, his disembodied hands and then feet begin to fade away. If he stays out too long, he will never be able to return to his body. Nothing like a painfully obvious plot point.

Leo’s mortality is the movie’s biggest problem. When the hero is a dying kid, there are only two possible endings. Either Leo dies, which is way too sad for such a light piece of entertainment. Or he recovers, which is predictable and mawkish.

Despite the New York setting, The Phantom Boy is a French film, and in the subtitled version that I reviewed, everyone speaks French. That’s kind of funny at first, but I got used to it. Theaters will be screening both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Newspapers and signage are all in English.

As old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation goes, The Phantom Boy isn’t particularly original, clever, or beautiful. It can’t hold a candle to another recent, feature-length French cartoon, April and the Extraordinary World.

There is one curious bit of design. The main villain has what is repeatedly described as a horribly disfigured face. A running gag keeps him from explaining the disaster that ruined his face. But judging from how he looks in the movie, he was apparently attacked by Pablo Picasso.

Steampunk at its best: April and the Extraordinary World

A- Animated fantasy

Written by Franck Ekinci    and Benjamin Legrand, from the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi

Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci

This charming, French, animated alternative history takes place in Europe, 1941. But it’s not the 1941 we know. If you look quickly, you’ll get a glimpse of Adolf Hitler, drawing caricatures of passers-by on the streets of Berlin.

April and the Extraordinary World assumes that the history we know changed radically in 1870. One result of that change: Someone keeps kidnapping scientists. Therefore, the human race hasn’t harnessed electricity or oil. Civilization still runs on steam produced by burning coal.

That setting is an animator’s dream, and a 106-minute wallow into some of the best steampunk imagery I’ve seen in a long time. There’s a huge, hanging trolley that takes people in style from Paris to Berlin in “only 83 hours.” There’s a house that walks and swims. Public phones are big and bulky and you speak into a horn. There’s even a talking cat.

The talking cat isn’t steampunk, but he’s a big part of the story. Named Darwin, he’s the pet and only friend of the title character, April. She’s the daughter of a family of scientists, working in secret to help humanity. They have to work in secret because the government rounds up scientists and forces them to work for empire. But a mysterious force with technology way beyond steam keeps nabbing them first.

Darwin can talk because April’s mother gave him a serum that gave him that capability (and apparently human-level intelligence). As one would expect in an animated movie, the talking animal is the funniest and most loveable character.

April and the Extraordinary World is a family-friendly movie. The story moves along at a fast pace, with chases, simple suspense, conventional but fun characters, and some good sight gags. As is common with child-friendly foreign-language movies, it’s screening with and without English dubbing. (I saw the subtitled version.)

American youngsters will have to be old enough to read subtitles. The limited, 2D animation may turn off some kids who grew up only on Pixar. I hope not. Although the movements are limited, the actual design and drawing is complex and evocative. Older children should enjoy it.

April and the Extraordinary World places us in a world that didn’t happen (and realistically, could not have happened). The story may be commonplace, but the fantasy world it’s set in is exceptional.

Note: I altered this article a few hours after posting it to correct an error. In the early version, I had assumed that there would be no English dubbing.

Quick thoughts: Anomalisa & Hail, Caesar!

I’ve been busy and sick lately, and therefore haven’t caught many new movies. But this past weekend, my wife and I managed to get to Berkeley’s California Theater twice, where we saw Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa and the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! Both are worth catching, although for very different reasons.


Early on, I wondered why writer/co-director Charlie Kaufman chose to animate this simple story of a successful but emotionally troubled writer, falling in love the night before a speaking engagement. This could have been made much more cheaply in live action. What’s more, even the best animation can’t compete with the flowing emotions on a real human face. Anomalisa‘s stiff puppets, with their annoyingly-visible lines separating foreheads and cheeks, were far from the best animation.

But I soon realized that this movie had to be animated. We’re experiencing the world as the main character experiences it, and that’s pretty strange. Almost everyone he meets has vaguely the same face, and clearly the same voice (Tom Noonan’s, to be specific). Even his wife, young son, and former flame sound like the same full-grown man.

Here’s a hint: Most of the film is set in the Fregoli Hotel. Wikipedia describes the Fregoli delusion as “a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise.”

No wonder our protagonist, Michael (David Thewlis) falls so heavily for Lisa. Awkward and almost entirely lacking in self-confidence, she isn’t like everyone else. Literally. She has a unique face and the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh. What a relief after countless Tom Noonans!

By the way, Anomalisa has a fairly explicit sex scene. In a live action film, we’d be aware that we were watching two actors taking off their clothes and faking the act. Animation allowed us to see the characters and not the performance. It also helped create one of only a handful of successfully funny sex scenes in movie history.

I give Anomalisa an A. in fact, this might topple Tangerine as my favorite movie of 2015.

Hail, Caesar!

Ever noticed that George Clooney only does broad comedy for the Coen brothers? He’s at it again in this very funny farce about Hollywood in the early 1950s–when the studio system was verging on collapse.

Josh Brolin is the film’s real star as Eddie Mannix, the top executive running Capital Pictures’ studio. The Coens clearly want you to hear “Capital Pictures” (a fictitious company created for this movie) and think “Metro Goldwyn Mayer. There really was a top MGM executive named Eddie Mannix who–like the character in the film–answered to a New York-based Mr. Schenck. Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum play movie stars clearly modeled after top MGM stars of the time, Esther William and Gene Kelly (and yes, Tatum can dance like Kelly).

And Clooney? He plays a movie star shooting a toga movie. He’s so dumb one wonders how he memorizes his lines. He gets kidnapped by…well, best to let you discover this for yourself.

Don’t look for accurate movie history here. Even the aspect ratios from the early 1950s aren’t accurate. But you can expect a lot of laughs. I give Hail, Caesar a B+.

Sundance Film Festival 2015 Award-Winning Shorts

A- Selection of shorts

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all turn up in this selection of six short subjects that won awards at the 2015 Sundance film festival. I loved five out of the six.

World of Tomorrow, Short Film Jury Award

a little girl, scarcely more than a toddler, receives a visit from a full-grown, multi-generational clone of herself living centuries in the future. In the clone’s monologue, we learn of a world of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. The animation is extremely simplistic, as befits such a morality tale.

SMILF, Short Film Jury Prize: US Fiction

Few things are as funny as extremely awkward sex–as long as it’s only a movie. A single mother who hasn’t had any since her son was born (I’d guess two years) invites an old boyfriend over for a quick bonk while the toddler naps. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Beyond the laughs, it offers a real taste of one of the major frustrations of young parenthood.

Oh Lucy, Short Film Jury Prize: International Fiction

Touching, funny, sad, and totally unpredictable, this Japanese comic drama starts out almost as an anti-smoking commercial. An unhappy, chain-smoking middle-aged women coughs a lot. Then her niece talks her into taking English lessons. It’s best if you don’t know what happens after that, but it swings from hilarious absurdity to quiet sadness.

The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, Short Film Jury Prize: Non-Fiction

Basically a collection of screen tests, where several young girls–all in identical outfits and makeup–audition for the part of a famous Ukrainian ice skater. For much of the film’s seven minutes, it’s little more than kids being cute. But every so often, the tragedy of today’s Ukraine breaks through, and you see the horrors of war on the young faces.

Storm Hits Jacket, Short Film Jury Prize: Animation

The weakest in the batch. This badly animated fable from France seems to be about something, but I’m not sure what. Two inept guys with some sort of invention get caught in a storm. A woman comes into the picture. There’s a bad guy, and some sexual innuendo. I think it was supposed to be funny.

Object, Short Film Special Jury Prize for Poetic Vision

In this wordless Polish short, a group of men walk to a spot on a frozen lake, and cut a hole in the ice. Then one man in scuba gear goes through the hole to look for something while his friends make sure he’s safe. We never find out who these men are or what “Object” they’re looking for. But it doesn’t really matter. Beautiful images, strong atmosphere, and a sense of dread (this work looks real dangerous) are enough to make this a powerful short.

Bill Plympton’s absurd love story: Cheatin’ (my review)

A Adult animation

  • Written and directed by Bill Plympton

If Bill Plympton isn’t the strangest, most iconoclastic, bizarre, and brilliant animator of all time, we live in a very weird world. His instantly recognizable style takes caricature—the heart of all animation—to an extreme beyond anyone else working in features.

Consider Jake—the irresistible hunk in Cheatin’. He appears to have a 60-inch chest and a six-inch waist. He looks as if the upper and lower parts of his body are connected by a thick rope. The love of his life, Ella, has lips so swollen you can’t imagine how she can talk.


Not that we ever hear either of them talk. As with Plympton’s last feature, the brilliant Idiots and Angels, this is basically a silent film, told entirely in visuals, music, and occasional sound effects and grunts.

The story is simple. Jake and Ella meet when he saves her life in a carnival bumper car ride. They fall in love, get married, and are so deeply in love that they can barely keep their clothes on. Other women throw themselves at Jake, but he’s not interested. Then one of these would-be seductresses tricks him into believing that Ella is cheating on him. He starts sleeping around, so Ella…at this point I should stop.

But with Plympton, story is secondary. The real joy is in the surreal wit of his hand-drawn animation—drawn, I might add, with Plympton’s own hands. In the Plympton universe, everyone is ugly and misshapen–even characters whom the story paints as attractive. And Plympton shows his work, with visible pencil lines everywhere.

The visuals reflect emotional states, not real ones. When Ella wonders why Jake seems angry and remote–they’re as far apart as they can be in the same bed–she reaches her hand out to him. And it keeps extending, many feet, as she tries to bridge the widening gap in the widening bed. Before the scene is over, the bed splits apart and his half floats away. It’s absurd, but it’s sad and touching.


Often Plympton uses absurdity simply to get laughs, and he gets them. A hired assassin loads himself up with so many weapons that he can’t get through the door. A cop with both hands and both feet cuffed together, so that he can’t move any of them, still manages to chase his prey by hopping.

The music, much of it familiar classical pieces, adds to the frivolity. When the soundtrack breaks into Verdi’s Libiamo Ne’lieti Calici aria (from La Traviata), Jake and Ella dance and move their lips to the Italian lyrics.

An all-around wonderful film.

SFIFF: Animated Shorts

This afternoon, I dropped in at the New People Cinema for a show of animated shorts. This series will not screen again at the festival.

You'll inevitably find wonderful and disappointing works in any such collections. I'll just tell you about my favorites.

Tram: A commuter tram filled with businessmen heads off into the world of the woman driver's sexual fantasies. The story and imagery gets more obscene, and funnier, every minute.

Bite of the Tail: This moody mini-drama explores a married couple in crisis. She's having health problems. He appears to be shirking his work. Snakes are involved.

Eyes on the Stars: The true story (or anecdotes from the true story) of Ronald McNair, an African-American astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion.

Lumerence: I'm not sure what this one was about, but it sure was beautiful to look at.