2004 TIFF Update #5: "Animated Entertainment"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Monday, September 13, 2004

Every year, I get a few e-mails from individuals attending the Toronto Film Festival asking about the best places to go star-gazing. Since the only stars I pay much attention to are those in sky above, I'm probably not the best person to ask, but I do have a few ideas. The most obvious choices are the ones everyone knows about: outside the Roy Thomspon Hall before Galas and outside the Elgin before Special Presentations. The downside to using these venues is that so does everyone else, which means big crowds. Plan to get there very early (at least 2-3 hours before showtime) if you want a good view. Of course, you can always hang out around the Four Seasons Hotel, which is where a lot of the big stars stay. Almost all of them come out at one time or another, if only for a breath of fresh air. In fact, most of Toronto's prestigious hotels have celebrity guests; I ran into Daryl Hannah in an elevator yesterday (she was on her way to the airport after being here for a few days to publicize Silver City). Finally, spend some time at area coffee shops. A lot of the small-to-mid-range actors like to stop in there to get an energy boost.

One of the most colorful and stylish films to hit the festival this year is unquestionably Zhang Yimou's The House of Flying Daggers, his wire-fu followup to Hero. This is an "animated" film in the most literal sense, because it's a high-energy production with only occasional lulls for exposition. This the kind of motion picture that causes audiences to salivate. It's thin when it comes to plot and character development, but Zhang finds numerous ways to compensate for those deficiencies.

If you think Hero is a stunningly beautiful film, prepare to be blown away by The House of Flying Daggers. From a purely stylistic vantage point, it's hard to believe that any other 2004 film will be its equal. The martial arts sequences are more exciting and elaborate than those in Hero, and, while this movie does not rely as heavily upon color schemes as its predecessor, it nevertheless contains some eye-poppingly beautiful sequences. Consider, for example, a battle that begins in the autumn, with all of the trees showing their glorious colors. It starts to snow and soon everything is covered in white. When people talk about the magic of cinema, they're referring to moments like this.

The bare bones narrative opens in the ninth century. A rebel group fighting to bring down China's Tang Dynasty goes by the name of "The House of Flying Daggers" and acts in a Robin Hood-like manner, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Two guard captains, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau), are sent on a mission to find the hidden rebel base. To do this, Jin courts the affections of Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind call-girl who may actually be a key member of the Flying Daggers group. After breaking Mei out of prison, Jin goes on the run with her, and discovers that his growing feelings for her could interfere with his mission.

The House of Flying Daggers features six amazing battle sequences, all of which have an epic aura. The first fight occurs in the Entertainment House, where Mei duels with an expert swordsman. This is followed by the Echo Game (essentially a pre-electronic version of SIMON). Later, there are conflicts in the forest, in the fields, and in the trees. Then there's the tragic, final struggle. Perhaps most notable is the conflict that is inexplicably missing. The movie leads viewers to believe that there will be a titanic clash between guards and rebels, but, despite the buildup being in place, the battle never happens. This curious omission causes The House of Flying Daggers to end on an anticlimactic note.

The actors and stunt doubles do their jobs well. Most impressive is Zhang's current leading lady, Zhang Ziyi, who has grown considerably as an actress in recent years. She's more than just a pretty face, and she captures the arrogance and vulnerability of Mei perfectly. She can be sexy and seductive one moment (such as when she's bathing) and deadly the next. Her male counterpart, Takeshi Kaneshiro, is equally effective, and the critical element of any romance - I'm referring to "chemistry" - is present. The House of Flying Daggers has a little something for everyone, and only the disappointing ending keeps it from being a truly memorable film on par with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Due to the unexpected success of Hero, anticipate that this movie will be rushed into theaters as soon as possible.

True animation is represented by Dreamworks' Shark Tale, the fourth digitally animated feature to come from the studio (following Antz, Shrek, and Shrek 2). Over the past few years, animation companies (Dreamworks and Pixar, in particular) have worked to refine a formula for digital animation. It's a lot like Disney's conventional one: make the story simple but add some adult shadings; use a talented voice cast; incorporate comedy, romance, and action; throw in a few songs and pop references; and make the protagonist an underdog. By following this formula, and doing so in an energetic and infectuous manner, Shark Tale has virtually assured itself a successful box office run.

Now's the time for me to make the obligatory comment about how this movie will appeal equally to viewers of all ages. Adults will see Shark Tale on a different level than their offspring (and will get a lot more of the throw-away gags and visual jokes), but both will enjoy it. The quality of the animation is something everyone will agree is top-notch, which is unsurprising considering the other animated projects Dreamworks has been associated with. The undersea world is rendered differently here than in Finding Nemo, but is no less impressive. Shark Tale views Neptune's Kingdom as an aquatic New York City, and this leads to a lot of fun references - you can pass a "Prawn Shop" on your way to watching news reports by "Katie Current" on the equivalent of the Times Square giant video screen. (The voice of Katie Current, by the way, is provided by Katie Couric.)

The mafia shark family consists of Don Lino (voice of Robert De Niro) and his sons, Frankie (Michael Imperioli), and Lenny (Jack Black). Frankie has inherited his father's love of violence, but Lenny is a sweetheart - and a vegitarian to boot. Enter Oscar the wrasse (Will Smith), a worker at the Whale Wash, which is owned by the puffer fish Sykes (Martin Scorsese). After wandering into shark territory, Oscar has to flee from an enraged Frankie. An accident results in Frankie's death, but Oscar takes credit, and is re-dubbed by the fish community as the "Shark Slayer." As Oscar's popularity skyrockets, two female fish vie for his affections: the sexy Lola (Angelina Jolie) and the steady Angie (Renee Zellweger), who has stood by his side for years.

The best material in Shark Tale involves Don Lino and Sykes. The De Niro/Scorsese dialogue will be most amsuing to adults, since they'll get all the sly references. They'll also recognize the significance of the mole on Don Lino's face and Sykes' bushy eyebrows. Will Smith is perhaps a little too high energy as Oscar. Listening to him do his schitck is a little exhausting. I kept reflecting about how much better Eddie Murphy was in Shrek precisely because he was in a secondary part. Had Lenny been evelated to the main character with Oscar playing the wise-cracking sidekick, things might have worked better.

When it comes to the new genre of digitally animated films, Shark Tale falls around the middle (still an enviable place to be, considering the high quality of most of the entrees). It's not as good as Shrek, the Toy Story movies, or Finding Nemo, but it's better than Ice Age and Shrek 2. I would place it on about the same level as Monsters Inc.. The key thing to note is that Shark Tale represents solid family entertainment, and will find a special place in the hearts of those who adore the Godfather movies and the TV series "The Sopranos."

If David Lynch and David Mamet can do it, why not Danny Boyle? I'm talking about hard-R directors suddenly producing a film that is suitable for family viewing. Lynch and Mamet both went G several years ago (Lynch with The Straight Story and Mamet with The Winslow Boy); now it's the Trainspotting director's turn. (Actually, the MPAA has given the movie a PG-13, but the content is appropriate for young teens and pre-teens, and this is likely the closest Boyle will ever come to crafting a kid-friendly motion picture.) Millions is a different sort of endeavor for the British filmmaker, but his fans will not be disappointed by some of the places where it goes.

Millions illustrates that it's not always easy to dispose of large sums of money, especially when you're a kid. A contemporary story suffused with magic realism and peppered with offbeat comedy, Millions transforms drama into fantasy. More mature than most fables yet less adult than the average Boyle feature, Millions offers a tale of great heart that can be enjoyed by all but the youngest of children (who may become frightened during certain scenes).

Damian (Alex Etel) and his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), have moved with their father (James Nesbitt) into a new house. One day, while playing near the railroad tracks, Damian discovers a bag full of money - 229,000 pounds, to be exact. He tells his brother about it, and they decide that no adults can be informed. Damian and Alex disagree on how the money should be used. The older brother sees it as passport to material possessions and school status. Damian, however, wants to give the notes to the poor. Complicating matters is the fast approach of Euro day, after which all British pounds will be as worthless as fly paper. Whether or not the money is a gift from God (as Damian believes), there are Earth-bound criminals in search of it.

One of the great strengths of this movie is its perspective. Although there are adults in Millions, the story unfolds as seen through the eyes of a child. And Damian, as portrayed without a hint of guile by Alex Etel, isn't a typical seven-year old. He sees dead people - in particular, saints. Some of these are represented with typical Boyle irreverence. Clare of Assissi, for example, shows up smoking a cigarette and declaring herself to be the patron saint of television. And Saint Nicholas appears to help Damian deliver cash gifts to a group of "poor" Mormons (who then spend the money on "needs" like a widescreen digital TV and a foot massager).

Millions contains some of the same ingredients that made Amelie popular with audiences (in fact, Boyle has described the film as "Trainspotting meets Amelie"). Instead of romance, this movie substitutes the love for a recently departed loved one (Damian and Anthony's mother has died shortly before the movie starts). It's an uplifting motion picture that will bring smiles to faces, and Boyle's trademark irreverence keeps the feel-good experience from becoming too saccharine.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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