For Your Consideration: Sep. 26, 2014

The animation world is still suffering from its “Frozen” hangover, but this weekend “The Boxtrolls” is here to help. From the studio that created “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” this story of an orphan raised by trash-collecting trolls looks funny and sweet, a quirky spin on a familiar tale of outsiders and growing up. With its clunky, earthy look, the movie is the latest edition of stop-motion animation, the awkward stepsister of the hand-drawn or computer animation favored by Disney/Pixar. Stop motion animators have embraced their secondary role, content to explore off the beaten path and tell stories in unconventional ways. The results, like these three movies that paved the way for “The Boxtrolls,” are often just as brilliant, if not more so, as Disney’s princesses and Pixar’s adventures.

– Elaine

“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005)

Cast: Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Peter Kay

Available on YouTube, to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Wallace and Gromit might be the best pair in the history of animation. Mickey had Goofy, Bugs had Daffy, but there’s no team quite like Wallace and Gromit. An eccentric inventor and his dog, the two bring delight and good cheer wherever they go, getting into silly scrapes, solving problems with delightful machines, and eating far too much cheese.  First introduced in four short films starting in 1989, “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” is their only feature-length film to date.

From the moment Wallace and Gromit slide down a chute side by side, we know we’re in for a grand adventure. The town’s fast-approaching Giant Vegetable Competition is under siege from rabbits, and there’s no one better to save the day than the pair’s “Anti-Pesto” service. The problem is: they don’t believe in killing the big-eared pests, but are running out of space to keep them, so Wallace decides to solve the problem with “a bit of harmless brain alteration.” This goes wrong, of course, and the rest of the movie follows their whirlwind attempts to fix it, cheese tents, golden bullets, and giant rabbit marionettes galore.

– Elaine

“A Town Called Panic” (2009)

Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse, Stéphane Aubier, Véronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Vincent Patar

Streaming for free on Hulu (without commercials with Hulu Plus), to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Based on the Belgian children’s TV show of the same name, “A Town Called Panic” was the first stop-motion animated film ever to screen at the Cannes Film Festival – but don’t mistake that for a sign of pretentiousness or even any particular significance. “A Town Called Panic” is pure, simple, inspired silliness. Using plastic toys rather than the clay and puppet figurines more familiar to this style of animation, directors Aubier and Patar recreate the imagination and the lunacy of a five-year-old making up stories on their bedroom floor, rushing from an underwater kingdom, to the center of the earth, to a parallel universe, to the lair of a penguin-obsessed mad scientist. The central trio of Horse, Cowboy and Indian are endearing buffoons – Horse’s flirtation with a local piano teacher is particularly delightful. Not in the least bit logical, but frequently amusing and occasionally inspired.

– Ethan

“Mary and Max” (2009)

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore

Available streaming on Netflix, for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes

If ever there was a film to break the perception of animation as a slight, exclusively family-friendly medium, “Mary and Max” might be it. Adam Elliot won an Oscar for his stop-motion short “Harvey Krumpet,” about a man with Tourette syndrome; his feature-length follow-up pushes further into the black humor and drama of mental illness, tackling issues of anxiety, depression, autism, agoraphobia, alcoholism and obesity. Inspired by the Australian Elliot’s own real-life 20-year correspondence with a pen-pal in America, “Mary and Max” follows a young Australian girl (Whitmore, then Collette) who strikes up an unlikely long-distance friendship with a middle-aged Jewish New Yorker (Hoffman). While ultimately optimistic about the value of companionship, forgiveness and patience, “Mary and Max” is completely unafraid of sending its character to dark, desperate places, made all the more jarring by Elliot’s whimsical, if monochromatic, animation. Hoffman and Collette put in sterling voice performances.

– Ethan

Trailers of the Week: Turn, Turn, Turn

To everything there is a season. as awards season 2013 slowly (slowly, slowly) winds down with the BAFTAs tonight marking the last major precursor before the Oscars themselves in two weeks, it’s time to start looking ahead to the year in film that will be 2014.

Shockingly, we already have the year’s first cinematic phenomenon, with “The Lego Movie” absolutely crushing the box office two weeks in a row and picking up scores of positive reviews from critics as well. I’ll try to get a full review in soon, but it’s a blast. After the surprise success of the “21 Jump Street” reboot and now this, writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are sure to be hot tickets in the industry. In that spirit, we’ll start off with our little 2014 trailer preview with a few more films that could contribute to this being another banner year for animation.

Ernest & Celestine

Indie distributor powerhouse GKIDS did it again this year, already guiding this charming-looking French film to an Oscar nomination. An English dub and slightly expanded release look to capitalize on that recognition. I wish I had caught it in the original French, but the animation looks suitably gorgeous enough, and the story charming, in any case. Plus, Lauren Bacall now voices the matron mouse, so not all dubbing is questionable.

The Boxtrolls

We don’t get anything of the story of “The Boxtrolls” from this teaser, but I love that Laika, the studio behind “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” decided to put the behind-the-scenes work front and center. The craft and artistry of Laika’s work has been astounding, and it’s entrancing to see these stop-motion figures come alive in front of our eyes. Anyway, the story apparently tells of a boy raised by the eponymous trash-dwelling creatures, who are endangered by an evil exterminator. Sounds suitably Roald Dahl-ish to me; since “ParaNorman” was a particular favorite, I’m very much looking forward to whatever Laika has cooked up next.

A Long Way Down

I was already scared that someone was attempting to film probably one of Nick Hornby’s trickiest novels, tonally. There’s something about an impromptu suicide pact support group that works in Hornby’s nimble prose, but runs a risk of being insufferably maudlin when literally visualized. And, well, this trailer certainly doesn’t dispel that fear. A critical drubbing at the film’s premiere in Berlin pretty much confirmed the worst. It’s a shame, as the casting is reasonably spot-on, and I pretty much desperately want to love anything with Toni Collette. But this looks like a total misfire that misreads Hornby’s black comedy for inspiration.

Joe

What’s up with Tye Sheridan and gruff, inappropriate mentors with mysterious pasts? In any case, it’s nice that David Gordon Green, an indie darling who seemed peculiarly sidetracked by big-budget stoner films like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” has returned to the taut, primal kind of filmmaking that made his name. “Prince Avalanche” was a pleasant, unexpectedly meditative little piece last year that made excellent use of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, and now “Joe” looks to resurrect the one and only Nicolas Cage. I’m not entirely sold on his performance just from this trailer, but at least it does look like he’s giving a damn again. “Joe” premiered last year at Venice and got generally favorable reviews both there and at Toronto, so it could be worth a watch even if the narrative looks like a fairly standard genre rehash.

Transcendence

Wally Pfister, Chistopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer, strikes out on his own in a big-budget directorial debut that sure looks to have a huge debt to his friend and collaborator. Set aside that he’s even stolen a couple of Nolan repertoire members (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Rebecca Hall), the combination of high-concept sci-fi with eye-popping set pieces sure has that “Inception” stamp on it. How will Pfister fare, especially considering Nolan’s got his own enigmatic sci-fi project coming up later in the year with “Interstellar?”

The first couple looks at “Transcendence” certainly have been intriguing. The cast is fantastic (Paul Bettany is always welcome), especially with Johnny Depp, also, actually looking like he gives a damn; and I’m excited that he’s decided to take on a more villainous/menacing role, a route he hasn’t gone down for a while now. The ideas swirling around artificial intelligence are also quite challenging – can Pfister and company follow through on them rather than devolving into explosions? The writer, Jack Paglen, is a newcomer, so we have no clues there.

I can’t help but think they’ve already shot their wad a bit here with money shots, though; unless there’s something even more spectacular they’re not showing, the question now isn’t what we will see but why it’s happening. That’s never quite as satisfying as encountering such imagery firsthand in the theater.