Most Anticipated Films of 2022

The presence of Omicron notwithstanding, the next twelve months are primed to be the era when cinemas return to their former glory, with plenty of new releases to anticipate. The team at Rating Frames are just as excited for the year ahead, and to prove such, our three resident critics have selected the films they are most keen on viewing over the coming months.

The Batman

DC’s nocturnal crusader is getting another reboot, this time with indie darling Robert Pattinson under the hero’s mask and the proficient Matt Reeves calling the shots behind the camera. From the numerous stills and trailers that have been doing the rounds, it appears that Reeves’ interpretation borrows heavily from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) but with just enough unique elements to set it apart. -Tom.

Australian release March 3rd nationwide.

The Northman

Easily my most anticipated film of 2022, Robert Eggars returns with a Viking epic with an extraordinary cast that boasts Alexander Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, and Björk. It feels like a miracle that a studio has given Eggars a $60m budget to bring a stacked cast to Iceland to recreate an adult drama centred on a 10th Century viking legend, something I hope we all don’t take for granted. -Darcy.

Australian release April 21st in select theatres.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

I’ve always been excited for any and all Nicolas Cage films that have been released over the years. Whether that be the mesmerising Mandy (2018) and Pig (2021) or even the more underwhelming Primal (2019) and Rage (2014), my excitement and enjoyment of these films has always been the same when I see the name Nicolas Cage associated with them. When news that Cage would play a fictionalised version of himself first surfaced earlier last year, I was instantly excited. It’s now early 2022 and my excitement has yet to dwindle; in fact, it’s just growing as each day passes. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is quite possibly my most anticipated film of the year, if not for the man at its helm, then definitely for that title alone. If you’re a Cage fan like me, this will be a film you can’t miss. -Arnel.

Australian release April 21st in select theatres.

Turning Red

Pixar’s 25th feature-length picture is a safe bet for being one of 2022’s best, owing to the animation firm’s past successes and the input of Academy Award-winner Domee Shi, who helmed the outstanding short film Bao (2018). Expect a humorous, tear-jerking tale about adolescence, family and acceptance, paired with a superb voice-cast and detailed visuals. -Tom.

Streaming March 11th worldwide on Disney+.

Petite Maman

Originally planned for MIFF ’21, Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to her masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) finally reaches Australian audiences. Petite Maman (2021) follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a child who has recently lost her grandmother and is helping clean out her mother’s childhood home. Sciamma earned herself a patron for life with her previous feature so you will no doubt see me at the first possible screening of this film. -Darcy.

Australian release May 5th in select theatres.

Jurassic World: Dominion

The latest Jurassic series of films have been…underwhelming to say the least. It’s both surprising and unsurprising given that any follow up to a Steven Spielberg film (let alone two Spielberg films) is bound to be a mammoth feat, but technology in cinema is at the point where a T-Rex on-screen looks like something found and shot in a David Attenborough documentary. That said, I grew up wanting to be a paleontologist and my love for Spielberg’s two Jurassic Park films (and even the less iconic third film in that trilogy) has carried over into the latest Jurassic World films, and that sentiment is at a high this time around. The reason for that is we’re getting the legendary trio of Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum all reprising their roles and sharing the screen together. If that doesn’t get your nostalgia going this year, I don’t know what will. -Arnel.

Australian release June 9th nationwide.

Top Gun: Maverick

Hoping to cash in on the recent trend of belated blockbuster sequels, Maverick will be arriving in theatres 36 years after its divisive originator – some love the kitschy Eighties attributes of Top Gun (1986), while others believe it borders on parody. The practical stunt-work and immersive visuals are being touted as the selling-point, and will undoubtedly look striking on a big-screen, even if the plot proves to be a dud element. Between this and the seventh Mission: Impossible instalment, audiences should get no shortage of Tom Cruise-infused thrills. -Tom.

Australian release May 26th nationwide.

Nope

Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele reunite for a new horror film in 2022, featuring Steven Yeun and Keke Palmer. We have no additional information about the film, and Peele’s more recent projects like The Candyman (2021) and The Twilight Zone (2019) haven’t been very successful, but Get Out (2017) was such a miracle of a film debut that every subsequent film of his remains a must-see. -Darcy.

Australian release TBC; U.S. release July 22nd.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One)

The first sequel to the Oscar winning animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Across the Spider-Verse (Part One) has climbed up the ranks of my most anticipated films list for multiple reasons. The first being that one of the films screenwriters, Chris Miller, shared news recently that due to the film having multiple dimensions, each dimension will have its own unique artstyle in a bid to provide even more ingenuity to an ingenious first entry. The second reason is that more stars will be joining in the Spidey fun with Hailee Steinfeld and Oscar Isaac both involved as well as a new trio of directors with Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin Thompson taking the reigns. What’s certain is that Across the Spider-Verse will no doubt push the animation medium to new heights and will be a must-see for fans of the original and of Spider-Man. -Arnel.

Australian release TBC; U.S. release October 7th.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

With a fervent, unabashed fanbase to satiate, the expectations placed on Loren Bouchard’s animated feature are greater than just about any other releasing in 2022, not least because it shares the same art-style, voice-cast and writing team as the situation-comedy on which it’s based. Those not familiar with the shenanigans of Bob and co. haven’t been forgotten, with Bouchard promising that the picture has been made with newcomers in mind, too. Either way, consider this author hyped! -Tom.

Australian release TBC; U.S. release May 27th.

The Son

After the success of Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020), all eyes are on the playwright’s follow-up, an adaptation of his equally revered play The Son. Expect an equally compelling family drama here, with a knockout cast including Hugh Jackman, Vanessa Kirby, Laura Dern, and the returning legend Anthony Hopkins. -Darcy.

Australian release TBD; expected to arrive late 2022.

Avatar 2

It feels like it’s been an eternity since Avatar (2009) was released — the record-breaking blockbuster and highest-grossing movie of all time (in case you live under a rock). To be exact, it’s been almost 13 years since the blue folk of Pandora graced our screens and reignited people’s interest in the 3D format, with multiple films going on to to be shown in 3D in the years thereafter (the Transformers films, the Avengers films etc.). We’re now in 2022 and we’re finally getting the first of James Cameron’s many sequels to Avatar, with Avatar 2 hitting screens at the end of this year (if all goes to plan). For some reason, my curiosity for this film is at a high, if not for the fact that we haven’t had a James Cameron film for 13 years, then definitely for the fact that Cameron is a master at making tentpole blockbusters and getting audiences into cinemas. With a large ensemble comprised of Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver and more, expectations will no doubt be high for this long awaited sequel and I’m riding the wave of hype all the way through to December. -Arnel.

Australian release December 16th nationwide.

Celebrating The Adventures of Tintin, The Dream Collaboration

The adventure serial was once a staple of cinema, with theatregoers each and every week treated to fresh takes of heroes in exotic, faraway lands. After a decades-long period of dormancy, the genre saw a brief revival in the 1980s, only to fade into obscurity once again; but for a brief moment in the early 2010s, it looked as though adventure films were here to stay, all thanks to a pair of the medium’s modern-day pioneers.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a famed investigative reporter whose journeys and discoveries have enraptured millions across Europe, and whose latest mystery involves the model of a sailing ship – bought by him at a flea market for a minimal sum – which no less than two men are willing to pay a substantial amount of money for. As it happens, the seemingly innocuous model is of a naval vessel known as the Unicorn, fabled to have sunk with countless riches.

One of the men seeking to acquire the model from Tintin’s possession is Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who believes it holds the key to the real ship’s final resting place, and therefore the treasure sunken with it. So dogged is Sakharine in his pursuit of the plunder that he’s even kidnapped Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), a descendant of the Unicorn’s captain, to prevent him from laying claim to the ship’s fortune – by which he has rights to.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) was a long-gestating project for veteran director Steven Spielberg, who first took an interest in the character thirty years prior. Whilst promoting his film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in Europe, Spielberg noted that many French reviews repeated the phrase “Tintin”, unaware what was being referred to. He soon learned that critics were referencing the Tintin comics, written and drawn by Belgian artist Hergé, which they claimed bore a similarity to the escapades of Indiana Jones.

The antagonistic Sakharine, as he appear in The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg initially envisaged the film as a feature-length animation, then as a live-action production, procuring the services of Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, to create a computer-generated version of Tintin’s faithful dog, Snowy. Being a long-time fan of Hergé’s work, Jackson took a keen interest in the project, eventually convincing Spielberg to utilise motion-capture technology for the final product, resulting in visuals that fused photorealism with the “traditional” look of Tintin.

This imagery proved rather polarising upon the film’s release, with some viewers unsettled by the not-quite-human looks of the protagonists; yet for others, including this author, the 3D representations of Tintin and his associates are quite charming, striking a perfect balance between the cutesy drawings of Hergé’s work and the lifelike renderings of other motion-capture projects, such as The Polar Express (2004) – and just like said project, the faintest hint of an actor’s likeness can be seen in the characters they portray.

The character designs are certainly the most talked-about element of The Adventures of Tintin, but they are far from the most notable; in actuality, the most enthralling aspect is the animation, which is masterfully rendered and quite fluid. The high quality of the illustrations allows for some exciting sequences, including a flashback scene of a piratical raid on the Unicorn; a one-shot motorcycle chase through a Moroccan city; and a climactic battle in a dockyard featuring all manner of destruction.

Also appreciable is the orchestral score, composed by musical legend and Spielberg’s favoured collaborator, John Williams. Although not as perpetually hummable as his work for other franchises (think Star Wars, Harry Potter), Williams’ compositions here provide a sense of whimsy and grandeur that fits perfectly with the adventurous tone of the story. So impressive was The Adventures of Tintin’s soundtrackthat it earned John Williams his 46th nomination at the Academy Awards, breaking the record of fellow composer Alfred Newman.

A naval battle, one of the many astonishing scenes in The Adventures of Tintin

A less commendable element of The Adventures of Tintin is the screenplay – it’s certainly captivating enough, with a strong mystery element and decent gags, but is also blemished by the occasional cliché; and there’s further irritation to be had at the characterisation of Captain Haddock, who is way too buffoonish for him to be taken seriously. These faults aside though, The Secret of the Unicorn is a rousing adventure, and an ideal entry point for children too young to witness the exploits of Dr. Henry Jones Jr.

Spielberg and Jackson’s Tintin generated plenty of buzz upon its initial release in 2011, with foreign markets taking a particular interest. Even before earning decent reviews from critics and becoming a modest box-office success, discussion of a sequel was fervent, with both directors expressing their interest in a potential Tintin trilogy and Jackson even confirmed to helm the second instalment. And yet, despite the picture’s critical and financial triumphs, audiences are still waiting for a sequel.

It would seem that neither director is in a hurry to make the next Tintin film. On the verge of Unicorn’s tenth anniversary, Spielberg is currently directing an autobiographical film about his childhood, while Jackson is promoting his latest documentary project Get Back (2021); but beyond that, the former is consigned only to production duties, and the latter has no other projects planned, so there’s every possibility that a new movie from the pair is just around the corner – and we all sorely hope that’s the case.

In the meantime though, there’s immense pleasure to be had in rewatching the original collaboration. Lovingly woven together by two giants of cinema, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a picture that encapsulates the qualities of both Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, its enjoyment solidified by fantastic animation, unceasing thrills and a majestic soundtrack.

The Adventures of Tintin is currently streaming on Netflix, Prime Video, and Stan.

A Big Heart Defines the Colourful Musical Vivo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In 2021, seemingly everybody wants a piece of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Sony Pictures Animation is no exception. The studio looks to be pinning its hopes on the Puerto Rican’s ceaseless popularity with its newest release – support it may not have needed, given the production’s strengths lie elsewhere.

Andréas (Juan de Marcos González) is a musician and street entertainer living in Havana, Cuba, who for years has entertained locals with his dancing kinkajou – a tree-dwelling, monkey-like mammal with golden fur – which he calls Vivo (the abovementioned Miranda). The pair are most happy living and performing together, but their relationship is tested when Andréas is invited to play alongside his long-lost love, songstress Marta (Gloria Estefan) in Miami, the city she now calls home.

After some internal deliberation, Vivo decides to join Andréas on his trip Stateside, only for a twist of fate to quash their plans and leave the latter’s affections for Marta unaffirmed. It’s at this point that the kinkajou decides on journeying alone to Miami, eventually alighting at the port town of Key West, Florida, three hours’ drive from his intended destination. Luckily, Key West is also the home of Andréas’ great-niece, Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) who pledges to help Vivo in his quest to locate Marta.

Vivo (2021) is the latest project to bear the stamp of the multitalented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has been busier than ever this year – he’s already produced a widely-acclaimed film adaptation of his stage musical In the Heights, made an appearance in Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul, written songs for the upcoming Disney feature Encanto, and next month will be making his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom! On this occasion, Miranda’s song-writing abilities are utilised in addition to his vocal talents, undoubtedly pleasing fans of his work and riling those who find him less appealing.

In keeping with the film’s settings, there’s a clear Latin American and Afro-Caribbean influence to the tunes, which is unfortunately the only praise that can be afforded to the soundtrack. Miranda’s music is more grating than ever in Vivo, his hybridised rapping-singing making for an inelegant accompaniment to the visuals, and almost none of his numbers being memorable – the sole outlier is Gabi’s song “My Own Drum”, if only for how obnoxious and annoying it is. Indeed, so unremarkable are these compositions that they are enough to eradicate any tolerance for Lin-Manuel’s stylings.

The young Marta and Andréas in a dreamlike 2D dance sequence in Vivo

Another weak element of Vivo is the screenplay, being of a lesser standard than what other studios are producing. It’s storytelling at its most basic on display here, including a familiar narrative arc and tropes diligently adhered to, resulting in a plot that is quite bland and unimaginative. That stated, the story is a heartfelt one, with its resonant struggles and touching moments between characters ensuring an emotional wallop for viewers of all ages; and for younger demographics, the film offers considered, thoughtful messaging about dealing with grief.

More pleasing still are the visuals, with Vivo’s distinctive illustrations and unique designs echoing the quality of its Sony Pictures Animation stablemates, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (2018) and The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) – although neither are surpassed in this instance. Highly stylised versions of Havana and Miami have been rendered, featuring thick, blocky architecture shaded the brightest of colours, while the human characters are all round- or wide-shaped figures that differ from the artform’s norm. (There’s even some brief, yet nonetheless enjoyable 2D sequences, as evidenced above.)

Also worthy of compliment is the voice-cast, with every actor performing solidly. Ynairaly Simo leaves the greatest impression, being the perfect choice for the outgoing, rambunctious Gabi, even managing to outdo established celebrities like Zoe Saldana, who voices Gabi’s mother, Rosa. And on the subject of celebrities, there’s a fair number who lend their vocal talents to the movie, the most entertaining of which are Brian Tyree Henry as a lovesick spoonbill, and Michael Rooker as a sinister python, both of whom put all their effort into their performances despite being heard only briefly.

Save for a cliched plot and middling soundtrack, Vivo is a pleasurable distraction that benefits from great voice-work, vibrant imagery and, above all, scenes of tenderness that are bound to move even the most hardened of viewers. Consider the inclusion of Lin-Manuel Miranda as an added bonus – or minus, depending on preference.

Vivo is currently streaming globally on Netflix.

Trippy Visuals and Laughs Abound in The Mitchells vs. The Machines

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sony Pictures Animation was once a minnow of the medium, its prosaic releases barely a threat to the dominance of the industry’s heavyweights. That order is looking shakier nowadays, with the company doing everything and anything possible to distance itself from the competition, much to its benefit, with this feature being a recent example.

The Mitchell family – consisting of patriarch Rick (Danny McBride), his wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), teenage daughter Katie (Abbi Jacobson), youngest son Aaron (the film’s director, Mike Rianda) and their pet dog Monchi – is driving from their home in Michigan to California, where Katie will be attending Film School. For Rick, the road trip represents one last chance to connect with his daughter; for Katie, it’s just the latest instance of her father’s undermining ways.

As the Mitchells make their way across state lines in their weathered station wagon, an artificial intelligence system known as PAL (Olivia Colman) gains control of the world’s electronic devices to launch a machine-led, Terminator-style apocalypse, enslaving humanity in the process. The only people to escape PAL’s tyranny, funnily enough, are the Mitchells, who take full advantage of their freedom by tasking themselves with saving humanity through their own wacky, unconventional means.

The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021) was due for a cinematic release in 2020 under the moniker of Connected, delayed several times in the wake of the pandemic before its financier, Sony Pictures, eventually scuttled the film’s distribution plans altogether. Instead, the movie was tendered to various streaming websites and eventually purchased by Netflix, which secured global rights to the picture and a change in title – one preferred by the producers and initially rejected by Sony.

An immediately distinguishable feature of The Mitchells is the art-style, looking unique to any other Hollywood production. Although computer-generated like most animated pictures, the illustrations have been rendered and shaded in such a way that each frame better resembles an acrylic painting, lovingly hand-crafted on a patch of canvas. The character designs are equally distinctive, being adorned with flat faces, wide eyes, gangly bodies and brightly-coloured clothes to truly set the film apart from its brethren, from Sony or otherwise.

Rick Mitchell (left) with daughter Katie in The Mitchells vs the Machines

These beguiling images are energised by the exceptional animation, comparable in quality to another Sony feature, the much-loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)­. Throughout The Mitchells, people and objects are seen moving with a remarkable amount of freedom, apparently unhampered by technological limitations; in quieter, more emotional scenes, these movements are smooth and fluid, becoming quick and frenetic during scenes of action, and faster still in the comedic sequences to synchronise perfectly with the film’s zany tone.

Therein lies another forte of The Mitchells: its comic sensibilities. The movie is rife with humour, containing a plentiful number of visual gags, generous amounts of slapstick and a selection of decent one-liners – including some ironic, pointed statements about America’s technology giants that surely aren’t lost on Netflix. For cinephiles, there’s even more pleasure to be derived from the copious references to other works, including no less than two welcome homages to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003).

Disappointingly, there is an area where The Mitchells lags behind its contemporaries, and that’s in the screenplay department. The story is one that follows some very familiar beats, incorporating timeworn elements such as a young protagonist struggling to bond with their parent, and revelations of deceit that cause greater conflict between characters, neither of which are appreciated. Even so, the plot remains relatively compelling, courtesy of some clever turns thwarting the progress of the characters.

And anyhow, it’s the comedy and animation that are the picture’s greatest strengths, hallmarks shared with Into the Spider-Verse ­– and surely not by coincidence. With these two films, it appears that Sony is readying itself as a pioneer of the industry; a company that doesn’t compromise on the artists’ vision, encouraging innovation rather than adherence to a particular style or image. In an era where movies are increasingly subject to studio interference, it’s an approach that’s sorely needed.

Blessed with an abundance of creativity, colour and zaniness, The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the kind of picture that other studios could only dream of emulating. Its distinctive visuals, brilliant animation and hilarious antics are more than enough to overcome a cliched plot, all showing why Sony Pictures Animation has a bright future ahead.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is currently streaming on Netflix.

Thrice Upon a Time is a Deserving Farewell for Evangelion

To conclude a ground-breaking saga is an unenviable task, not least because the resulting product needs to honour its forebears whilst leaving a legacy of its own. It’s a position in which this animated feature finds itself, and deftly succeeds in doing so, being as close to flawless as a send-off can possibly be.

Hidden beneath the city of Paris, the paramilitary organisation known as NERV has stored weaponry created as part of the Evangelion project, heavily guarded by an autonomous defence system. An assault on the city is launched by rival outfit WILLE, which seeks to liberate Paris from its captive state, and retrieve said weaponry for its own means – namely, defeating NERV and preventing it from curating another cataclysmic event.

Meanwhile, in the ruins of Japan, Shinji Ikari is listless after failing to thwart the actions of NERV and, by extension, his own father. He and Rei Ayanami – or an entity that purports to be her – follow his fellow EVA pilot Asuka Langley Shikinami to a rural village, there meeting with survivors of the Third Impact. As their days in the village pass, Shinji’s depression only worsens, with his friends fearing he’ll never engage with the outside world again.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time marks the definitive conclusion to the multifaceted Evangelion saga that began a quarter of a century ago with Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode television series that challenged the medium’s conventions and revived Japan’s dormant animation industry. The series’ creator, Hideaki Anno, seemingly concluded the narrative with a feature-length, theatrically-released picture called The End of Evangelion, only to begin afresh with a new set of films that shared the show’s title, plot and themes.

Shinji’s EVA Unit-01 brandishes a new Spear in Thrice Upon a Time

Belonging to this same set of films – collectively known as the Rebuild of Evangelion – is Thrice Upon a Time, accordingly sharing many a quality with the instalments that came before. One such trait is the impressive animation, which again combines traditional cel animation with computer-generated imagery, and is striking throughout. The environments are richly detailed, the designs slick, and the fight scenes bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours, all ensuring this is the best-looking entry in the entire Evangelion franchise.

Another strength carried over from Evangelion films past is the music, crafted once again by franchise stalwart and Anno’s favoured collaborator, Shiro Sagisu. Most of Sagisu’s compositions are drawn from his previous work on the television series, here being slowed down and re-arranged to better match with the imagery, providing a suspenseful, chilling or heroic atmosphere as the need arises. Bookending the excellent soundtrack is Hiraku Utada’s “One Last Kiss”, a hauntingly tender pop song that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination (or Grammy).

Being part of the Rebuild saga, Thrice Upon a Time consequently and unfortunately shares the drawbacks of its precursors, too. One is the infrequency of the action sequences, with most of the film’s time spent observing Shinji’s pensive state; another is the hyper-sexualisation of the young female protagonists, who are oftentimes dressed in fetish-gear or shown from a suggestive angle – both elements serve only to alienate the franchise’s newcomers, who will doubtless already be confused by proceedings.

Asuka looks into the distance in Thrice Upon a Time

Truthfully though, this isn’t a picture made to appease the uninitiated; rather, Thrice Upon a Time is for those already converted to the Church of Evangelion, whose devotion is constantly rewarded. The film contains plenty of throwbacks to the series and previous films, including surprise appearances from much-loved supporting characters, as well as fitting, poetic farewells for a select few. Furthermore, there’s an uplifting, life-affirming epilogue that perfectly concludes the years-long Evangelion narrative.

Finally, Thrice Upon a Time also deserves commendation for rectifying a sore point of the Rebuild films, that being Mari Illustrious Makinami. Upon her introduction in 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009), Mari was a character who appeared superfluous to the conflict, with no backstory nor function, a feeling that remained in 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012); but with the final chapter, Mari’s inclusion is finally justified, thanks to revelations about her past and her connection to Shinji – which deserve not to be spoilt.

Containing the franchise’s trademarks of spellbinding animation, splendid music and thoughtful storytelling, Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is a compelling finale and a highpoint for the most prestigious of anime sagas. Ultimately, it’s best viewed as the celebration of a venerable series, embodying all the tropes for which it will forever be renowned.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Wolfwalkers Exemplifies The Might of Irish Cinema

Animated films have long regaled viewers with their retellings of folk and fantasy legends, a tradition that extends back to the medium’s dawn, and continues here in this feature-length production from Ireland. But this film is not here merely to capitalise on a time-honoured trend – in fact, it’s more likely to establish a new standard for the artform.

In the mid-17th Century, a young girl named Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) moves from England to Kilkenny, Ireland, where her father Bill (Sean Bean) has been tasked with capturing the wolves that prey on the townsfolk. Robin is adventurous by nature, and longs to accompany her father on his wolf-hunting duties; but unfortunately, she is forbidden from venturing beyond Kilkenny’s walls, due to her age and gender.

Robin eventually sneaks through the town’s gates and into the nearby forest, hoping to find and kill a wolf herself. Instead, she encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), an unkempt girl of smaller stature who calls herself a Wolfwalker – the name given to a mystical human who lives among the wolves. After an acrimonious greeting, a friendship between the two girls soon develops, and Robin’s perception of wolves with it.

It’s no coincidence that Wolfwalkers is based in Ireland, since the feature is one produced by Cartoon Saloon, a studio based where the film is set: Kilkenny. Just like the studio’s previous releases, The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Song of the Sea (2014), there’s a strong Celtic influence to this production, as evidenced by the voice-cast, soundtrack and screenplay – the latter of which draws its inspiration from an Irish folk tale.

Despite its mythological origins and Cromwellian setting, Wolfwalkers contains a fresh, contemporary story that grows more compelling with each minute that passes. The writing is masterful, with the film seamlessly, gracefully morphing from one conflict to another, the stakes heightening as it does so. If there is one complaint with the screenplay, it’s that the conflict between Robin and her father does come across as hackneyed at times, though never to the extent of annoyance.

Robin (left) and Mebh, the central protagonists of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers

By far the most appealing element of Wolfwalkers is the distinctive art-style, ensuring it looks unlike any other animated feature – including those previously made by Cartoon Saloon. There’s a storybook-like simplicity to the hand-drawn illustrations, witnessed in both the characters and scenery, that charms profoundly, with the best images undoubtedly found in the forest scenes, their gorgeous watercolour backdrops contrasting heavily with the bleak, yet nonetheless striking, greyscale palette of Kilkenny.

Paired with the animation is an equally wonderful soundtrack, composed by Bruno Coulais with the assistance of Kíla, a traditional Irish folk band. The compositions of Coulais and Kíla make use of acoustic instruments such as fiddles, mandolas and tin whistles, sounding quite ethereal when listened to in isolation, yet suiting the tone and imagery of Wolfwalkers perfectly. There’s even the odd pop song to be heard, including a beautiful re-recording of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”.

Yet another aural delight is the cast of voice-actors, most of whom are of Irish nationality or descent. The most famous name, and recognisable voice, to the layperson will be Sean Bean, whose mellow, fatherly tone is perfectly suited to Bill Goodfellowe; Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey are good also as the two girls, but to this author’s ear, the finest vocal performer is Simon McBurney, who provides an understated, menacing turn as Kilkenny’s Lord Protector.

Wolfwalkers is simply exquisite, with great voice-acting, stirring music, magnificent artwork and an elegant narrative combining to form a wondrous experience. Very few feature-length animations come close to this level of quality, making this not only a great film but also, quite possible, the best ever to emerge from Ireland.

Wolfwalkers will be screening online as part of the Irish Film Festival from September 3rd to 12th. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

The film is also available for streaming now on Apple TV+.

Revisiting Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Blessing for a Disaffected World

Every so often, there comes a film that transcends boundaries to find mainstream success. Such an example is this feature-length animation from 2016, a narrative that spans multiple genres and subverts expectations to be one of the artform’s most beautiful, original and compelling offerings, leagues above anything else from that same period.

Teenagers Mitsuha and Taki lead very different lives – the former is an introverted girl who resides in the Japanese countryside with her grandmother and younger sister; the latter has no siblings and shares an apartment with his father in Tokyo. Over the course of several months, these two strangers will awake in each other’s bodies, altering and manipulating their usual routines to the point where they become different people entirely.

As its manga-style designs make obvious, Your Name (or Kimi no Na Wa) is a feature-length anime, being one of several released in its home country of Japan every year; yet despite their ubiquity, very few of these pictures make their way into the Western hemisphere, and fewer still attain any semblance of popularity – arguably, only the releases of Studio Ghibli have managed to do so. This fact alone is enough to make the prominence of Your Name noteworthy, but what makes it all the more extraordinary is knowing who directed the feature-length production.

Responsible for helming Your Name is Makoto Shinkai, who had developed a modest following with his oeuvre in the years prior. Many of the themes in Shinkai’s previous films are rekindled in his 2016 effort, including adolescence, time and companionship, as are the fantasy elements that he so often incorporates. Think of it less as somebody lazily applying the same old tropes, and more an auteur utilising his motifs, like Hayao Miyazaki and his recurring morals of environmentalism and pacifism.

One of the greatest strengths of Your Name is how fluidly it morphs between genres, dabbling in fantasy, science-fiction, romance and drama without tying itself to any one in particular. Just when the picture looks to have settled on a tone – just when the viewer thinks they’ve worked out where the screenplay is heading – along comes an unexpected turn that sees it transform, almost into an entirely different narrative. Impressively, these transitions are never jarring or bewildering, but rather a smooth, natural progression of the story.

Mitsuha scribbles on her face in Your Name

Just as investing is the development of the protagonists, who become more likeable as the movie progresses. From the outset, audiences will find themselves relating to the struggles of Mitsuha and Taki, but their naivety and timidness are evident; as the plot continues, both characters mature and gain confidence through their body-swapping experiences, changing from archetypal youths to well-rounded adults. As a result, the viewer grows so attached to Mitsuha and Taki that the film’s emotional moments are made absolutely heart-wrenching.

Another reason to love Your Name is the animation, which is of a quality seldom witnessed in a Japanese production. All of the illustrations, be they the character designs, landscapes, vehicles or otherwise, are superbly detailed and splashed with colour, with the highlight being an ethereal, dreamlike sequence that sees Taki transported through time. This is Ghibli-levels of artistry on display here, with images so gorgeous that they deserve to be placed on the walls of a museum.

Although there’s plenty to distinguish this picture from its anime brethren, Your Name still ties itself firmly to the medium. Frequent references are made to Japanese culture and tradition, tropes of the artform appear every so often, and there’s an upbeat J-pop soundtrack provided by Radwimps that’s surprisingly pleasant to the ear. That’s the beauty of Your Name – clichés that would detract from the experience in another feature prove nothing but endearing here.

Unfortunately, there is one drawback to Your Name, and that’s the epilogue. While touching and by no means bad, these last few minutes feel like an eternity, needlessly delaying the inevitable outcome to the point where the film overstays its welcome. In fairness though, this is only a minor criticism that in no way frustrates, nor does it sour the rest of Your Name, which is as close to faultless as any feature-length anime has come in the past decade.

Taki (centre) with friends Miki and Tsukasa in Your Name

That consensus is one that’s widely shared by critics and cinemagoers – Your Name earned rave reviews in Japan upon its theatrical release and shattered records at the domestic box-office, being the highest-earning film of 2016 by a considerable margin and becoming the second highest-grossing anime film of all-time, behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. (It’s now in third position, with Demon Slayer: Mugen Train having usurped the top spot.) Those accomplishments were later mirrored in the West, where the movie generated far more interest than usual for a Japanese release.

Your Name’s unexpected success in the Anglosphere can be attributed to two factors. One is the releases it performed against: a myriad of ordinary blockbusters that did squat to innovate the medium, and just as little to appease cinephiles. The second factor is the downbeat period in which the picture was released – remember, 2016 was a particularly miserable time for many people, owing to Trump, Brexit, and a swathe of beloved celebrities passing away, among other things. What this movie provided wasn’t just an alternative to its lacklustre contemporaries, but an escape from the glum realities of life.

Three years after Your Name, Shinkai would attempt to capitalise on his global triumph with the release of Weathering With You, a film that shares many of the same attributes. In addition to utilising the plot mechanics from his prior works, Shinkai’s follow-up boasts beautiful illustrations, charming protagonists and an accompanying Radwimps-penned soundtrack; yet it also suffers from the identical problem of a prolonged third act. One thing Weathering fails to capture though is the magic of its predecessor, lacking that sense of wonder – but then again, there a few other films that do possess such wonder.

Placing in the top tier of animation and eclipsing most live-action productions, Your Name is a disarming, spellbinding feature with beautiful illustrations, loveable characters and a fresh screenplay that is unpredictable in the best possible way. It’s essential viewing for anybody who calls themselves an anime fan, and an ideal entry-point for those wanting to immerse themselves in the artform.

Your Name is currently streaming on Netflix.

A Beginner’s Guide to Evangelion, The Monolithic Anime Franchise

This week heralds a momentous event: the worldwide debut of Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, the definitive conclusion to Hideaki Anno’s anime franchise, on Prime Video. Why is it momentous? Well, because the Evangelion series is widely celebrated for reinvigorating and redefining the Japanese animation industry, with its production values, narratives, religious allegories, and musings on humanity all being of exceptional quality. These attributes have resulted in Evangelion amassing a legion of fans across the globe, and hence, a great deal of anticipation for the feature-length finale.

For those who are unfamiliar with Evangelion, and wanting to see the new film without being mystified, Rating Frames has provided this handy recap of the entire series, from its televisual origins right up until the third instalment of the cinematic reboot. This article will contain spoilers, so those wanting their viewing experience of the other Evangelion media to be unsullied are best advised to look away now.

The TV Series

In the beginning, there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode series that debuted on October 4th, 1995 in its native Japan. Its story takes place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that is under attack from large, omnipotent monsters referred to as “Angels” throughout the series. Defending against these threats is a well-financed, transnational militant outfit known as NERV, which has developed giant mechanical weapons capable of defeating the Angels. There’s a catch though – the machines can only be operated by a teenage pilot who is linked to the interface.

The programme largely centres around Shinji Ikari, the pilot of EVA Unit-01, whose father Gendo is the director of NERV’s operations. Shinji fights the Angels alongside the “First Pilot”, Rei Ayanami, and the two are later joined by the feisty Asuka Langley Soryu, who pilots EVA Unit-02. When not defending the world against an Angel attack, Shinji lives in Tokyo-3 under the guardianship of Misato Katsuragi – who is also his superior at NERV – and attends school, there struggling to connect with his fellow students.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was created and overseen by Hideaki Anno, who drew inspiration from the mecha anime of his youth, as well as his own experiences with depression. The latter is what better informs the narrative, being an examination of loneliness, mortality, purpose, and the burden of expectation. Though fleeting in comparison to these philosophical discussions, the giant robot fights are quite exhilarating too, being among the best that the industry has ever produced.

There are some inherent weaknesses with the series, including the concealed motivations of the characters, slow pacing, and the sexualisation of the female characters; yet the harshest judgements are often reserved for the final two episodes, which some viewers deemed too vague and allegorical for their tastes. Nevertheless, the programme remains a standard-bearer for the medium and, alongside Pokémon and Cowboy Bebop, is broadly regarded for popularising anime in the West.

Death, Rebirth & The End

After the mixed reception to the final episodes of Neon Genesis, Anno set to work on a feature-length production that would serve as a comparatively straightforward conclusion. The narrative would eventually be released in two parts, the first of which, Evangelion: Death & Rebirth premiered in March 1997. Much of the film was little more than a clip-show summarising the key moments of the TV series, with the exciting, all-new material saved for the last half-hour – which itself was essentially an extended teaser for the second movie.

Said movie was ultimately released three months later as The End of Evangelion, a retelling of Episodes 25 and 26 of the show. This picture serves as a grand culmination of everything hinted at in the TV series, directly and explicitly revealing what happens to the characters through the most haunting, harrowing and enduring imagery ever witnessed. What’s more, in a continuation of the series’ tone, the film also offers complex, existential discussions about what it means to live meaningfully.

Quite ironically, Evangelion fans who loathed the series finale found themselves even more displeased by End of Evangelion, taking aim at the depressing plot and ambiguous epilogue. Some circles have gone further in their criticisms to suggest that the movie is Anno’s way of trolling his audience, pointing to not only the screenplay, but also the credits rolling mid-film, and an extended live-action sequence that includes a crane shot of a bored crowd in a cinema.

Yet for every detractor, there is just as much fervent support for End of Evangelion – it’s often cited as one of the best anime films of all-time and one of the greatest animated films generally, thus cementing the franchise’s legacy. Its creator was lauded too as a visionary and innovator of the artform; but Anno, ever the perfectionist, was unsatisfied with his work and soon began development on another feature-length instalment.

You Can (Not) Rebuild

A decade after The End of Evangelion came the first in a series of films known as the Rebuild of Evangelion, ostensibly starting the franchise afresh and introducing it to a new generation. Titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, the picture is a virtual rehash of the TV series’ first six episodes, with only the slightest of changes to the music and plot. The visuals are the most noticeable difference, with large objects such as the EVA Units and Angels being computer-generated animations, while the hand-drawn characters, surroundings and backgrounds are all richer in colour.

Next came 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, going in the opposite direction and deviating wildly from the source material by gifting fan-favourite Asuka with a new introduction, different surname and fresh character arc. The ending of the film is a wilder change still, retconning the series’ timeline by seeing Shinji inadvertently trigger a second apocalypse in a desperate attempt to save Rei’s life – a conclusion that is heart-wrenching on multiple levels. Less appealing is the character of Mari, a newly-introduced, hyper-sexualised EVA pilot whose sole function is Fan Service.

Following the highs of the second Rebuild film was the relatively sedate 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, taking place 14 years after the prior movie’s events. Shinji awakes – having been placed in a coma since the “Third Impact” – to find himself in the custody of WILLE, a ragtag command of defectors from NERV and other freedom-fighters. It’s a slow and rather obscure narrative, one that will surely test the patience of even the most ardent Evangelion devotee; in all other respects though, the picture is satisfying, containing the same exquisite illustrations and music as its predecessors.

And now comes the fourth and final instalment of the Rebuild saga after quite a lengthy delay, arriving five months after its Japanese premiere and eight years after the previous movie’s theatrical run. The response in Evangelion’s homeland has been largely positive, with Thrice Upon a Time breaking box-office records – despite the pandemic’s ongoing presence in the country – and critics lavishing praise upon the film, but whether that success will be repeated internationally remains to be seen.

In any case, all of this will hopefully provide some context as to why a film about giant fighting robots is one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of 2021.

Availability

A freshly-dubbed version of the original television series is available for streaming globally via Netflix, which also has the rights to The End of Evangelion and an abbreviated version of Death & Rebirth, titled Death(True)2.

All of the Rebuild films, including Thrice Upon a Time, will be available worldwide on Prime Video from this Friday, August 13th.

Pixar’s Luca is The Beachside Getaway We All Need

The medium of animation has advanced greatly in the past few years, having gifted audiences with mature, compelling stories that put their live-action counterparts to shame. Pixar Animation Studios has long been at the forefront of this movement; here though, they’ve reneged on their recent form and produced a picture that’s decidedly lowkey, yet palatable all the same. 

On the sea floor, not far from the coast of Italy lives a family of amphibious monsters, among them the bright, curious Luca (Jacob Tremblay) who longs to know what lies above. Luca’s inquisitive nature eventually gets the better of him, as he joins a fellow creature of the marine, Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) in venturing to the surface, there discovering that his colourful, scaly body can morph into that of a human being.

Luca and Alberto make the most of their land-based forms, journeying to the coastal village of Portorosso where they befriend Giulia (Emma Berman), the daughter of a local fisherman, Massimo (Marco Barricelli). With Giulia’s guidance, the two ocean-farers interact with the town’s residents, sample Italian delicacies, and learn about the world beyond; yet they also face many perils, including teenage bullies, a cantankerous feline, and the populace’s unyielding prejudice against aquatic lifeforms.

As with Soul, Pixar’s previous feature-length film, Luca has shunned a “traditional” cinema-first release to appear exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service. Some have viewed this move as a devaluing of the Pixar brand; others still consider it to be undermining the theatrical experience. Whatever the case, it’s a decision that showed great foresight on Disney’s part, since a surge of coronavirus cases and lockdowns here in Australia means that theatrical releases are now untenable, leaving streaming as the only viable option.

Protagonists Luca (left) and Alberto in the town of Portorosso

Just as well too, because Luca is ideally suited for the kind of escapism that everybody so desperately craves right now. Like every Pixar release, the animation and rendering are flawless, with a quaintness to the designs of Portorosso, and its surrounds looking particularly beautiful. More mesmerising still are the scenes of Alberto and Luca enjoying typical seaside activities, with their cliff-jumping and swims in the ocean being fun and surprisingly cathartic – it’s almost like being on holiday.

That easy-going nature is present throughout, for Luca is unusually succinct, breezy and straightforward for a Pixar film; the screenplay lacks complexity, the conflict between the protagonists is rather trite, the main antagonist is little more than a cliché, and the stakes are quite low for all involved. Mundane though this approach is, it does allow Luca to be a sweet, gentle alternative to the rest of Emeryville’s output, offering a respite from the existential discussions that viewers may well be fatigued by.

The atypical nature of Luca extends to the designs and illustrations, which again are unlike any other Pixar production – note the characters with their bulbous heads, and round eyes with wide irises. According to director Enrico Casarosa, the visuals are wholly inspired by the works of Hayao Miyazaki, a fact which is most evident when seeing Giulia’s cat Machiavelli, who certainly wouldn’t look out-of-place in a Studio Ghibli film. It’s a welcome change from the norm, and one that hopefully finds its way into future releases from Pixar.

Although light on story and innovation, Luca is a warm, joyous excursion that refreshingly breaks free of the Pixar mould. Enrico Casarosa’s feature endears through its distinctive visuals, mellow tone and sense of adventure, proving an ideal escape for viewers of all ages – and the perfect film for pandemic viewing.

Luca is streaming worldwide now on Disney+.