24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Animation

'Chico & Rita': A sexy animated film for grown-ups

March 8, 2012 |  6:00 am

Chico & Rita

In one sultry scene in “Chico & Rita,” Rita, a zaftig Cuban singer, ambles nude across a modest Havana flat to join Chico, a talented young jazz player, at his piano. Soon professional opportunity and political circumstance will drive the lovers apart, but for the moment they enjoy a potent musical connection and a passionate tryst.

A mostly Spanish-language drama that opens in Los Angeles on Friday, “Chico & Rita” tackles mature subjects like sex, ambition and regret in a format Hollywood studios reserve for kid-friendly fare: animation.

“I always thought about it like a movie for grown-up people,” said Fernando Trueba, who co-directed “Chico & Rita” with the artist Javier Mariscal and Marsical’s brother, Tono Errando. “It’s a melodrama, it’s a movie about jazz, about Cuban music with some political reference even. It’s not for children.”

In a surprise, both to its filmmakers and to the animation industry, the $13-million, primarily hand-drawn “Chico & Rita” beat out big-budget films like Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and Pixar’s “Cars 2” to secure an Academy Award nomination for animated feature this year. “Chico & Rita” ultimately lost to Gore Verbinski’s talking lizard western, “Rango,” but thanks to the nomination, the unusual movie may have a better opportunity to find an audience.

“Many grown-ups go and see animation only when they have children, so that’s really a risk,” Trueba said in an interview last month at the Beverly Hills offices of Egeda, a nonprofit organization that facilitates relationships between the U.S. film industry and those of Spain and Latin America. “I like risk. I never run in my movies after the audience. You have to run after making the best movie you can and then the audience, they come sometimes, sometimes not.”

The Madrid-born director, whose bedroom farce “Belle Époque” won the foreign-language film Oscar in 1994, conceived of his first animated project as a way to join two of his passions: the colorful, expressive artwork of Mariscal, and the sensual rhythms of Latin jazz. Trueba had enlisted Mariscal to create posters for his 2000 documentary about Latin jazz, “Calle 54,” and was taken with the artist’s detailed, chromatic drawings of Havana.

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'Dr. Seuss' The Lorax:' Five lessons from its box-office success

March 5, 2012 |  7:21 am

Even for a season that has seen surprisingly strong box office, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" was an eyebrow-raiser this weekend. The $70.7 million that the movie took in domestically made it worthy of several superlatives -- among others, the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel animated film
Even for a season that has seen surprisingly strong box office, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" was an eyebrow-raiser this weekend. The $70.7 million that the movie took in domestically made it worthy of several superlatives -- among others, the biggest opening ever for a non-sequel animated film (a bit of a fudge given that the $70.47 million "The Incredibles" tallied was in 2004 dollars, but still impressive) as well as the biggest opening since July for any movie without the word "Twilight" in its title.

Among the lessons from this bounty are some obvious ones, like the fact that kids love cute, brightly colored animated creatures. 

Here, then, are five things we might not have expected coming into the weekend.

Animated blockbusters need a spring or holiday date. Big animation releases have been creeping up the calendar for a while now: "Monsters vs. Aliens," "How to Train Your Dragon" and several of the "Ice Age" movies all opened in mid- to late March. But none of those opened as strong as Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment's "Lorax." And "Rango," which a year ago went out on the same weekend as "Lorax," tallied barely half of the Seussian film's total. In fact, every other animated movie to open to at least $70 million did it in the far more fertile May-November period, per Box Office Mojo.

Picture books are a mixed bag. They've been bedtime favorites for generations. But movies based on picture books -- whether the films are animated, live-action or a combination thereof -- have made plenty of people turn off the lights. In the last few years, movies such as "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Mr. Popper's Penguins" "have been commercial disappointments, while even Seuss' own "The Cat in the Hat" flopped back in 2003. It's not easy for a 90-minute film to convince moviegoers it's filled in the gaps of such books -- at least, it wasn't easy before "Lorax."

Politics don't sell. Few animated movies take a hit from even one political flank. "Lorax" got it from both sides. Liberals said its many cross-promotions (Mazda SUVs, anyone?) betrayed Theodor Geisel's eco-friendly message, while Breitbartians said the movie was a Trojan horse for Hollywood-flavored liberalism. Either one might have been enough to keep sections of the moviegoing audience at home. It didn't -- proving that, perhaps, if you're going to annoy an ideological constituency, maybe it's best to annoy its opposite too.

Voices need names. Animated movies never have been as star-studded as they are now -- Owen Wilson, Anne Hathaway and Johnny Depp have all toplined them, getting paid millions, as Chris Rock might say, for reading some lines in a booth. But though "Lorax" didn't exactly go for unknowns, it rummaged somewhere besides the movie-star closet: the inflections of Danny Devito, Taylor Swift, Zac Efron and Ed Helms brought the main characters to life. Of course, it helps that Devito brings this much effort to the role.

Animated movies don't have to be good to make money. And by good, of course, we mean well-reviewed. The modern notion that the two go hand-in-hand was introduced by Pixar and bolstered by DreamWorks Animation -- see: the phenomenal  94% "Up" scored on Movie Review Intelligence, the very good 77% of "How to Train Your Dragon," or even the solid 69% for Illumination's earlier "Despicable Me." Sometimes it's seemed that quality and dollars have been almost inextricable. That's now been disproved by "The Lorax." The movie garnered just 57.8% on Movie Review Intelligence and prompted New York Times critic A.O. Scott to offer, in a phrase that went viral practically the moment he came up with it, that the film was a "noisy, useless piece of junk."


"The Lorax" targeted for its green credentials

"The Lorax" not quite what the doctor ordered, critics say

Box office: "The Lorax" posts year's biggest opening with $70.7 million

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax." Credit: Universal Pictures / Illumination Entertainment

'The Lorax': not quite what the doctor ordered, critics say

March 2, 2012 |  4:52 pm

The 2008 animated film "Horton Hears a Who" fared somewhat better than the live-action versions of 2000's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (a box-office hit) and 2003's widely panned "The Cat in the Hat."

And reviews are mixed for "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," now playing in theaters. The animated feature tells the story of a boy searching for a real live tree in a deforested plastic land.

The Times'  Kenneth Turan (watch review below) finds that "The Lorax" strays too far from the source material. Although the film maintains the book's ecological message and offers "lively and colorful" visuals, Turan writes that "this movie version adds a whole lot of other stuff, most of it not very good and not in keeping with the spirit of the Seuss original."

PHOTOS: "The Lorax" premiere

"To expand Seuss' slim volume to theatrical feature length," Turan says, "a whole lot of plot and heaping handfuls of characters needed to be invented." Those plot elements and characters feel "forced" and "unpleasant," he concludes.

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Oscars 2012: 'Rango' wins for animated feature

February 26, 2012 |  6:49 pm

"Rango," starring Johnny Depp and directed by Gore Verbinski, took home the animated featured Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards.

"Rango," which follows the exploits of a city chameleon thrust into a life as a desert town's sheriff, also includes the voice talents of Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty and Alfred Molina.

The film beat out a diverse animated field that included "A Cat in Paris," "Chico & Rita," "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Puss in Boots."

Oscars: Red Carpet | Quotes | Key Scenes Ballot | Cheat Sheet | Winners

Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin," winner of this year's Golden Globe for animated feature, was not among the nominees for the Oscar.

The Academy Awards are taking place Sunday night in Hollywood and are being televised live on ABC. They are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose membership was recently examined in depth by the Los Angeles Times.

For more Oscar breaking news and analysis, check back on 24 Frames.


Oscars 2012: Full coverage

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Timeline: Eight decades of Oscar history

— Jevon Phillips

Photo: "Rango." Credit: Paramount.

Shorts Awards honors Oscar nominees, ‘Wallace & Gromit’ creator

February 25, 2012 |  5:09 pm

'Wallace & Gromit' creator Nick Park
The Film Independent Spirit Awards wasn't the only pre-Oscar ceremony happening this weekend: On Friday, the second annual Shorts Awards presented film slate-shaped plaques to the nominees competing in the short film categories at Sunday's 84th Academy Awards and honored "Wallace & Gromit" creator Nick Park with a lifetime achievement award.

Park was not at West Hollywood's Soho House to accept the prize, but in a video acceptance speech he said, “I’ve always loved making short films. It’s a good way to get ideas out quickly. Many see it as a stepping stone to features, but I will always go back to short films.”

An enthusiasm for shorts permeated the event, which was presented by ShortsHD, a cable network that exclusively airs short films.

“We are entering the golden age of short films,” said producer Marc Bertrand, on hand to support his Oscar-nominated animated short “Dimanche,” citing an increase in options for independent distribution, as well as the technology that makes it easy for anyone to make a film.

To honor that technology, ShortsHD this year created the Shorts Technology Awards, whose winners Friday night included the Apple iPhone 4S and the app Movie Slate by Pure Blend Software.

“I think audiences have now opened their eyes for short films,” said Norwegian director Hallvar Witzø. His 25-minute short “Tuba Atlantic” is nominated in the live action shorts category. He pointed to the success of ShortsHD’s limited theatrical run of the Oscar-nominated shorts, which had earned $1.196 million at the box office as of Friday, ShortsHD chief executive Carter Pilcher announced at the event.

“Nobody knows the directors. Nobody knows the actors. But people want to see them anyway,” Witzø said.

The event seemed to be a bit of a rally for the nominees. During a presentation of clips from the Oscar-nominated films, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” got the loudest cheers of the animated group, to which the film’s co-director Brandon Oldenburg said off-stage, “Wow, we have fans."

“I’m king here,” said Luke Matheny, attempting to describe the small celebrity status that has followed his 2011 Oscar win for a live action short. “There are a few communities where people know who I am, and the Oscar-related short film community is one of them.”

Matheny told 24 Frames that he’s “rooting for ‘Raju,’ ” a 24-minute German-Indian film, to win the Academy Award in the live action category. “I thought it had a real battleship of a plot ... and just kept making the right artistic decisions throughout the whole movie until it was over,” said Matheny, who is prepping his first feature, “Love Sick.”

The Shorts Awards also presented visionary awards to Joan Collins, Ray McKinnon, Marcy Page and Bill Plympton, as well as the International Award to Turkey, an honor earned largely because of the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival, which takes place each fall in Antalya, Turkey.


Movie review: Oscar-nominated short films

Oscar predictions: What's going to win the short film races

Oscars 2012: Shorts categories have multiple Irish, Canadian noms

–- Emily Rome


Photo: "Wallace & Gromit" creator Nick Park Credit: Carlo Allegri / Imagenet

Oscars 2012: Short 'Stroll' spans 100 years in seven minutes

February 23, 2012 |  3:30 pm

'A Morning Stroll'

The animators at Studio AKA mostly fill their days with working on commercials, but in the past six or so years, the British company has been delving into short filmmaking. Now their work has paid off with an Oscar nomination for “A Morning Stroll.” The talent behind the quirky seven-minute film, which is partially in 3-D, has found that a background in commercials is really helpful for transitioning to storytelling in short films.

“Working within 30 seconds teaches you to keep things concise and brief,” said director Grant Orchard.

He shares the Oscar nomination with Studio AKA head of production and “Morning Stroll” producer Sue Goffe, who added, “But it’s really nice to give yourself a little bit more time than 30 seconds to tell a story [with shorts].”

That story was originally going to last 20 minutes, as Orchard at first hoped to make a natural history film with watercolors for the studio’s fourth short. But as he was looking for a more affordable project, he came across  “The Chicken,” an entry in Paul Auster’s book “True Tales of American Life.” The story inspired Orchard to write a film about New Yorkers who encounter a chicken on a city street.

The film is structured as a triptych, as three people witness the chicken pecking on a door in three different years: 1959, 2009 and 2059. Each segment features a different style of animation: black-and-white 2-D line drawings, colorful and more detailed 2-D and concluding with 3-D animation for the apocalyptic future. Switching among the different animation styles was the obvious way to go once Orchard decided to set the film in three different years, and it was certainly nothing new for Studio AKA.

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Around Town: Oscar fever hits the Academy, American Cinematheque

February 23, 2012 |  6:00 am

"Puss in Boots"

With the Academy Awards on Sunday evening, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Cinematheque are presenting seminars and symposiums leading up to the big event.  

Patton Oswalt, who provided the voice of Remy in the Oscar-winning "Ratatouille" from 2007, is the host of the 2011 animated feature film nominees program at the academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Thursday evening. The nominees, schedule permitting, will be on hand to discuss their creative process and show clips from their films.

Saturday morning’s offering is the ever popular seminar featuring the foreign-language film nominees hosted by Mark Johnson, an Oscar-winning producer and the foreign-language film award committee chair. The event is sold out, but there will be a standby line. Later that afternoon is the sold-out program with the makeup nominees, hosted by Makeup Artists and Hairstylists branch governor Leonard Engelman. http://www.oscars.org

On Saturday morning, the Cinematheque’s Egyptian presents a free “Invisible Art, Visible Arts Oscar-nominated Editors Seminar.” The event is first come, first served. The Oscar-nominated art directors seminar follows in the afternoon. The nominees are all expected to attend both of these, schedule permitting.

The American Cinematheque’s “Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone” features his last and most underrated spaghetti western, 1971’s “Duck, You Sucker,” Thursday evening at the Egyptian Theatre. Also known as “A Fistful of Dynamite,” the film finds peasant Rod Steiger and Irishman James Coburn embroiled in the Mexican Revolution. Poorly received when released 41 years ago, the film has gained in respect and popularity over the decades.

Henry Fonda plays one of his most ruthless characters in Leone’s 1968 masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” which features an opening sequence that has influenced countless directors over the years, including Quentin Tarantino. Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Woody Strode and Charles Bronson also star.

Saturday’s offering at the Egyptian is Martin Scorsese’s landmark 1976 thriller, “Taxi Driver,” starring Robert DeNiro, as a loner Vietnam vet, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks.  “Taxi Driver,” penned by Paul Schrader, was nominated for a feature film Oscar but Scorsese surprisingly failed to earn a nomination.

 The Cinematheque’s “Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli’ concludes Wednesday at the Egyptian with Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 anime delight, “Castle in the Sky.”

The Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre kicks off the weekend Thursday evening with Woody Allen’s dark and often funny 1989 film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors," then the Coen brothers' first film, the 1984 film noir, “Blood Simple." Friday evening the Cinematheque looks at the filmmakers of tomorrow with the 5th annual Screen Student Film Festival, which features the best short films made by Southern California teenagers. The Aero celebrates the 110th anniversary of Georges Melies’ landmark “A Trip to the Moon” — the restored color version — Saturday evening. “Moon” is followed by the new documentary “The Extraordinary Voyage,” directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange. It's about the immense, painstaking restoration work on the Melies’ classic.

And on Wednesday, director Jim  Hemphill and actress Lea Thompson discuss their film, “The Trouble With Truth,” which also stars John Shea. http://www.americancinematheque.com

The New Beverly Cinema features two films from the eclectic Wes Anderson on Thursday evening: 2004’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and 2007’s “The Darjeeling Limited.” Friday's and Saturday’s offerings are Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific 1940 thriller, “Foreign Correspondent,” which earned a best film Oscar nomination, and the rarely seen 1943 “Journey Into Fear,” with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Dolores del Rio. Friday’s midnight movie offering is 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”; Saturday’s is 1985’s “Silver Bullet.” The Monday-to-Wednesday programming includes two documentaries: 2011’s “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” and 2010’s “!Women Art Revolution.”

UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “Nina Menkes: Cinema as Sorcery” series continues Friday evening at the Billy Wilder Theater with two shorts: 1986’s “Magdalena Virage” and 1981’s “A Soft Warrior.” Menkes is scheduled to appear in person. The archive’s “Kino-Eye: The Revolutionary Cinema of Dziga Vertov” also continues Saturday at the Wilder with the West Coast premiere of the new restoration of Vertov’s 1929 film, “Man With a Movie Camera.” Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the archive, will be on hand to discuss the film. Monday evening’s entry in UCLA’s lengthy Spencer Tracy retrospective is the 1939 Technicolor adventure “Northwest Passage,” directed by King Vidor and also starring Robert Young.

And UCLA’s Wednesday evening programming at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles features two from the Master Showman, William Castle: 1964’s “Strait-Jacket” with Joan Crawford and 1961’s “Homicidal.” http://www.cinema.ucla.edu

The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre presents the kitty circus: "The Acro-Cats,” which Cinefamily states are well treated and well-loved felines, and a screening of the 1965 Disney classic “That Darn Cat” with Hayley Mills on Monday evening, followed Wednesday by Harry Smith’s 1957 animated “Heaven and Earth Magic.”  http://www.cinefamily.org

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby star in the 1946 musical comedy “The Road to Utopia,” showing Tuesday afternoon at  the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Leo S. Bing Theater. http://www.lacma.org


"Movie Review: 'Puss in Boots'"

"'Rango': On the trail of animation's outlaw future?"

—Susan King

Photo: "Puss in Boots" is nominated for an Academy Award for best animated film. Credit: DreamWorks Animation.

With 'Day of the Dead,' Guillermo del Toro ramps up GDT Inc.

February 21, 2012 |  1:19 pm

Guillero del Toro has signed on to produce/lend his name to yet another film, a CG-animated horror pic titled “Day of the Dead.” 

The independent animation studio Reel FX is behind the Mexico-set feature, which is centered on the Mexican remembrance day and will be directed by television veteran Jorge R. Gutierrez. The idea, Reel FX said,  is to have the movie (language(s) as-yet-unrevealed) ready for release in the fall of 2014, though no distribution deal has been announced.

A release from Reel FX called the film “an action-packed, fully CG-animated picture, with a ‘Romeo and Juliet'-style love story set against a Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ backdrop.” It may well wind up being just that, but the announcement can’t completely disguise the fact that Del Toro’s been offering both his advice and name to a lot of movies lately in a producerial capacity. Apart from “Puss in Boots,” they haven’t exactly been grand slams — “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” the little-known “Julia’s Eyes.”

The upcoming horror title "Mama" and animation feature "Rise of the Guardians" also bear the Del Toro imprimatur.

As for his own films, Del Toro hasn’t actually directed a movie since “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” nearly four years ago. Some of that is of course not his fault, what with the Peter Jackson squabbles on “The Hobbit” and all. But the stakes will be raised when Del Toro finally brings out his new movie, the alien-attack monster picture “Pacific Rim,” in May, if he doesn’t put his stamp on three others movies before then.


Guillermo del Toro will travel to the 'Pacific Rim'

Guillermo del Toro resurrects 'Dark' from development hell

After 'Puss in Boots,' momentum for another Guillermo del Toro project

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Guillermo del Toro at Comic-Con. Credit: Getty Images

'The Secret World of Arrietty' is another Ghibli gem, critics say

February 18, 2012 |  6:00 am

The Secret World of Arrietty

Legendary Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Kiki's Delivery Service") and his animation house Studio Ghibli rarely miss the mark, and their latest effort, "The Secret World of Arrietty," appears to be no exception. Based on Mary Norton's beloved 1952 novel "The Borrowers," about a family of miniature people who live in a world hidden from ordinary humans, "Arrietty" has garnered excellent reviews.

The Times' Kenneth Turan calls "Arrietty" "impeccable," a film that "will make believers out of adults and children alike." Turan notes that although Miyazaki did not direct the film, he did conceive it, write the screenplay and hand-pick director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who makes his feature debut. The film, Turan writes, features many Ghibli trademarks, "including a reverence for the natural world and the ability to reproduce it in ravishing, hand-drawn animation detail," as well as "an intrepid female hero" (the eponymous Arrietty, voiced by Bridgit Mendler in the U.S. version). Turan commends Yonebayashi for injecting peril and depth into its charming story, and most of all for creating "a special and marvelous world for audiences to enter."

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'Rango' wins the Annie Award for animated feature

February 4, 2012 | 10:48 pm

Rango wins the Annie Award

"Rango," the Oscar-nominated box-office hit about a pet chameleon who becomes sheriff of a small western town, won the Annie Award for animated feature from the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood, on Saturday.

The film, directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Johnny Depp as the voice of Rango, also won Annie Awards for character design for Mark "Crash" McCreery, writing for John Logan, Verbinski and James Byrkit, and editing for Craig Wood.

"Rango," which is nominated for the Academy Award for animated feature, topped a field that included "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Puss in Boots," "Cars 2," "Rio" and "The Adventures of Tintin."

The 39th annual Annie Awards were handed out at a ceremony at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Patton Oswalt, who most recently appeared in "Young Adult" and was the voice of Remy in the Oscar-winning 2007 animated movie "Ratatouille," was the host of the event.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson won for directing in a feature production for "Kung Fu Panda 2," which also earned an Annie for production design for Raymond Zilbach. Steven Spielberg’s "Tintin" won Annies for music for veteran composer John Williams and animated effects for Kevin Romond.

Jeremy Spears won an Annie for feature storyboarding for "Winnie the Pooh," while Jeff Gabor took home the Annie for feature character animation for "Rio." Bill Nighy won for voice acting for his role as Grandsanta in "Arthur Christmas." Animated short honors went to Minkyu Lee for "Adam and Dog."

The group also honored animation work in live-action productions. Eric Reynolds received the award for character animation in a live-action production for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and Florent Andorra earned an Annie for animated effects in a live-action production for "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Besides feature films, Annies are also presented for TV, video games and commercials.

On the TV front, "Kung Fu Panda -- Secrets of the Masters" won the Annie for animated special production, while "The Simpsons" won the award for general audience animated TV production, as well as writing for the "Treehouse of Horror XXII" episode for Caroline Omine.

Following is a list of the rest of the winners.

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