originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/707604...
Hi everyone! It’s another Thursday and thus another Animation Night. [for newcomers: Animation Night is a night where I stream animated films (short and long) on Twitch.]
It’s awards season right now, and while awards are mostly not all that important, awards shortlists tend to be a great way to find stuff you might have overlooked. For example, the shortlist for Best Animated Feature - Independent at the Annies brings us a couple of fascinating films.
First up we have Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It’s a stop motion/live action hybrid about, well, a shell with shoes on. A guy discovers a charming sapient seashell living in an AirBnB, and decides to make videos about him on the internet. This leads to a cascade of consequences as Marcel hopes to use this new platform to reconnect with his shell family, but the newfound fame bears a heavy toll on Marcel’s grandmother shell Connie.
Does something seem familiar about that animation style? Maybe this will help…
That’s right, this is the Kirsten Lepore movie - or to be precise, the Dean Fleischer Camp movie with Lepore serving as animation director. Lepore, if you’re not familiar, is a fascinating independent animator whose works include Story from North America, in which she provides the surreal imagery to a father giving a lesson in nonviolence…
You can see Lepore’s channel here on youtube. Definitely take a look at Move Mountain. She’s got a very disarming style which I’m excited to see at length.
Anyway, Dean Fleischer Camp. He’s been on the Marcel thing for like… 12 years at this point! The earliest iteration of the idea was a series of mockumentaries in 2010-14 - you can watch the first one here, second here and third here.
In the shorts, cowritten with actress Jenny Slate who plays Marcel, the childlike shell relates various aspects of his life in a high-pitched, anxious voice, while the interviewer responds in a strangely disinterested voice. These videos made enough of a splash to get featured in newspapers, there was even a line of children’s books, and in 2014, a project to make a Marcel film was announced by Camp and Slate… finally dropping a good seven years later, to near unanimous praise.
The film, then, seems to be aiming to flesh out the comedy characters into a more substantial story of Marcel encountering the wider world.
Alongside that, we have My Father’s Dragon, the latest from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio that’s the darling of the small-studio animation world - and naturally has featured on Animation Night on #14 and #49.
Incredibly exciting, right? Unfortunately, there is a wrinkle in that news for me. This film’s directed by Nora Twomey, whose previous work was the disappointing The Breadwinner, which presented quite a shallow and even imperialist narrative about a precocious girl too good for sinful Afghanistan. (Having American bombs appear as a liberating force is a choice, Nora!) Cartoon Saloon are untouchable when they stick to Irish history and mythology, but that was definitely their weaker entry, missing all the subtlety and grace of an earlier film like Persepolis ten years earlier that comes from actually living somewhere.
But Twomey also worked on all of Cartoon Saloon’s other wonderful films (she co-directed Secret of Kells) and this time, they’re adapting a children’s book from 1948 by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by her stepmother Ruth Chrisman Gannett. (Not the only adaptation, incidentally, there’s also an anime film from 1997.) The book tells the story of a young boy - referred to throughout as ‘my father’ - who travels to a place called Wild Island in search of a baby dragon. You can read the full text, with low res scans of the illustrations, right here.
Cartoon Saloon’s version goes for a styling not entirely the same as the original illustrations, but recognisably a ‘children’s book’ style, and as lush as all of their projects. The book’s story seems to just be the first act of a much longer story which sees Elmer and the Dragon attempting to find a way to save the island.
This is definitely pitched younger than Cartoon Saloon’s previous movies, but I’m hoping that the animation alone will be plenty of reason to watch this.
(If you’re wondering about the other films in the category, by the way - there’s Masaaki Yuasa’s god-tier film Inu-Oh, which I cannot wait to screen and will write about at enormous length when I do; there is Charlotte, a biopic about German painter Charlotte Salomon ‘coming of age on the eve of WWII’, which follows the European co-production model, bringing together studios in Canada, France and Belgium; and there is Little Nicholas, Happy As Can Be about a centimetres-tall boy growing up on a desktop world. Also French, of course. We may well get to the other two down the line. Big year for bildungsroman huh.)
If these movies sound fun, please make your way to twitch.tv/canmom where we will be starting in about 15 minutes at 8pm UK time! We’ll be watching Dragon first, then Marcel, since I think that will be the more impactful order. And at the end we might just tuck in the latest episode of Yao - Chinese Folktales. Hope to see ya there~
the later comments
good morning! here are some comments on films i watched last night.
of My Father’s Dragon - when I said that Twomey had fleshed out the original, I really didn’t anticipate the scope of that. in this version of the story, our action begins in the Great Depression, with a beleaguered mother trying to find work and stave off eviction, seen from the eyes of her son who just can’t understand why everything has changed and can’t help, by his playful and earnest nature, getting in the way.
this relationship structures the entire film. in the book, the dragon is enslaved simply as a beast of burden. the film adds a whole new apocalyptic angle, where the entirety of Wild Island is sinking into the sea, and the dragon is the only thing holding it up. the dragon is named Boris, and Elmer rescues him early on, but in the process witnesses the conflict of the primary antagonists in a classic Cartoon Saloon ‘bad dad’ figure. this time he’s an exhausted gorilla, Saiwa, who genuinely seems to care for the island’s inhabitants, but is willing to resort to ruthless measures like enslaving a dragon in his paternalistic need to keep order. there’s a small court of other apes who have some cute dynamics with the big guy.
Elmer and Boris’s relationship recapitulates Elmer’s relationship with his mother, with Elmer being the one to play ‘responsible, decision making adult’. their mission across the island brings them into contact with various echoes on the same idea: families in a desperate situation, with a fearful adult and kids who don’t understand the danger.
eventually - after the tortoise whose advice they seek turns out to be dead - Elmer comes up with a plan to try to save the island by severing its roots. Boris, whose dragon powers are starting to reawaken thanks to his positive relationship with Elmer, realises this is not the solution and he must actually dive into the fire pit to save the island, but Elmer doesn’t listen, believing he knows best. he abandons Boris. a confrontation with Saiwa leads to Elmer realising his error and he returns to give Boris the necessary self-esteem boost just in time to save the island. lessons learned, he returns to his mother, and is rewarded by hugging it out; even the cruel landlady turns a new leaf.
so the structure of the film is similar to Spirited Away: a distressed child is put in a fantastical environment and goes through a series of challenging experiences that mirror those real-world conflicts, they mature, and ultimately return to the ‘real’ world.
in deploying its super blatant metaphors the film could be accused of being a little heavy handed (though, kids’ movie!), but it works thanks to the lush imagery provided by Cartoon Saloon. I can only imagine the drawing count this took, with every scene full of motion, not to mention spectacular effects work. although it doesn’t follow the ‘illuminated manuscript’ compositions that Cartoon Saloon is best known for, it still makes fantastic use of texture and flattened geometric backgrounds. Cartoon Saloon are a pretty big studio by now huh, like at what point do they stop being ‘independent’? in any case, this was a very solid kids’ movie, and even if the ending seems rather pat, I like it a great deal more than The Breadwinner.
as for Marcel…
this was also a very endearing movie, and also a bildungsroman lol. the conflict in this movie comes primarily from Dean the documentarian - most scenes are implied to have been filmed by Dean (or occasionally, Marcel using Dean’s camera), a man who will not stop filming and broadcasting Marcel but blandly shrinks away from appearing in the spotlight himself. (there are some flashback scenes that he couldn’t possibly have seen, though they’re filmed in the same handheld-like style as the rest of the film - which must have been an enormous challenge to shoot in stop motion!).
it reminds me of the game The Beginner’s Guide in having a self-insert character with the same name as the director presented in a very negative light; Marcel and Connie both totally have Dean’s number (at one point outright telling him to stay out of an emotional conversation), and he seems unable to perceive what an ass he’s being in treating Marcel as essentially a toy he can use to escape from his own relationship problems. despite claiming to want to stay out of the film and shoot what Marcel would ‘naturally’ do, he applies pressure throughout the narrative.
but of course it’s not about Dean so much as Marcel. it’s an interesting beast, very carefully walking the line between sincere character drama and self-aware comedy. it makes extensive use of the naturalistic style with characters stumbling over their lines or getting interrupted by neighbours, expanding on the devices of the original shorts. poor Marcel tries really hard…
the figure of Nana Connie is interesting. she plays very much into her role of ‘everything you’d want a grandmother to be’, even to the point of hiding her own declining health from Marcel so that he might fulfil his dream of appearing on Sixty Minutes and reconnecting with the other shells. the whole arc makes you hyper-aware of Dean and his camera framing this story of sacrifice - Dean is the one editing in shots of Connie’s discarded food or the makeup she’s using, but he’s the one to suggest to Connie that Marcel might change is mind if her health recovers, and he never tells Marcel. the truth comes out, and Connie and Marcel have a row - both of them essentially wanting to sacrifice something for the other and frustrated not to get to make their own decisions.
ultimately Marcel gets his TV spot and is in fact rewarded with encountering the other shells, though the film ends on a note of mourning. it’s a strong dramatic arc! but the more so for how much it draws attention to being orchestrated within the narrative, with the Sixty Minutes voiceover in particular.
overall, it was a really charming film. I’m glad to have seen it. definitely the style reminds me a little of Daniels, and maybe not coincidentally! since Jenny Slate had a role in Everything, Everywhere. might be less style i’m picking up on than like… accents, class signifiers etc. lol.
anyway that is my thoughts thank you for reading (maybe)!