Movie review: Three animated films from 2017
This is a triple movie review! Three animated films for kids from 2017, all of them originally French, that have been dubbed into English (or soon will be): The Jungle Bunch, Sahara, and The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales. The last one is the best by far, but isn't available in English yet. Coming soon!
The Jungle Bunch
Original title: Les as de la jungle (literally "The Aces of the Jungle"; here's the trailer). When my nephew was little, I took him to see the Thomas and the Magic Railroad movie, because he loved the whole Thomas The Tank Engine thing. I knew it was a franchise with loads of characters, and the movie relied on familiarity. I know I watched it, but to this day, I have no memory of it.
Similarly, The Jungle Bunch is based on a lot of television episodes, plus an earlier movie or two. You don't need to have followed any of them to watch the 2017 movie, but it probably helps to connect with it more. Personally I didn't find the characters particularly deep, and they're not meant to be. I liked some of their designs more than others. It's a computer-animated film, and the animation and backgrounds came out well. Visually it looks very good!
The main character is Maurice, a heroic penguin who paints himself up as a tiger. Together with his animal friends (a gorilla, a fish, and some others), they protect the jungle from danger. The film's antagonist is an egomaniacal koala who wants revenge for not being allowed to join the previous generation of defenders (one of which is Maurice's adoptive mother, living in self-imposed exile). Even with their help, the heroes are up against the Koala's minions, his cunning and his exploding mushrooms; he's a challenging threat.
Still, like Thomas, personally I just wasn't engaged by The Jungle Bunch. I watched it months ago, and although I remembered the basic premise, I had forgotten most of the details and had to seriously refresh my memory before I started writing this review. In fact, when I first watched the film, my laptop battery ran out two-thirds of the way into it, and I felt no urge to watch the rest. (Though I did, three weeks later.) I think part of the problem was that the previous team of defenders was a lot cooler to watch than Maurice's rag-tag team, except they're not the main characters, which made me care less about Maurice's team.
And even with the good visuals, I don't think the writing is much of a draw. The gags are pretty standard, with butt and body odor jokes. The bit I enjoyed the most was the koala using his crab henchman as an alarm clock. For adults, there are a couple of references to other movies. And for a kids' movie, it's surprisingly high-action. Otherwise it's pretty forgettable.
This computer-animated film is so-so, but I've talked to several people who have a soft spot for it. You don't often get to see a snake as a protagonist! Oddly, I can't find an official English trailer, but there is a French one. Rest assured, this film is available in English.
Ajar is a blue cobra who lives in the desert next to an oasis, getting bullied by other snakes for not having shed his skin yet. He'd like to live in the oasis, but it's under the control of a family of green snakes.
Over in the oasis, a green snake named Eva wants to leave. She and Ajar accidentally get swept away in a river and, just as they're becoming friends, Eva gets captured by a snake charmer. Ajar spends the rest of the film trying to follow and rescue her. Eva, meanwhile, is being forced to dance with a group of other snakes, and is being pressured into a relationship. Ajar's desert journey is accompanied by two sidekicks: a neurotic scorpion (his best friend), and Eva's pollen-addicted brother.
Snakes with pollen addiction? One thing I'll grant this movie - the writing may not be anything special, but they put several unexpected things into their story universe. Like odd creatures in the desert. Or how the green snakes are in command of a group of secretary birds. Or how each mature snake has its own unique, artistic pattern of scales.
Otherwise the film kind of goes all over the place, like it has trouble finding its focus. Yet somehow, the story still propels itself forward... I don't quite know how to describe it. I'm not even sure what age range they were trying to target. Visually, it looks like it had a limited budget. Except for the oasis, most of the backgrounds are pretty simple, and the snakes' designs are a bit geometric. Still, Ajar has a kind face and a boopable snoot. All of the snakes have human-style eyes, except for two female snakes who have slitted reptilian eyes, probably to make them less sympathetic.
The bits of the film that appealed to me the most were two dances performed for the snake charmer. One of them shifts into a 2D-animated sequence, which I heard was outsourced. All the animators put a lot of effort into how the snakes move and express body language; they did a really good job.
And a lot of the time, as a viewer, you don't even consider how they're moving. Like... in Monsters Inc., there's a scene where Mike Wazowski is putting on odorant and gives his underarm a sniff - except think about it - he doesn't have a nose. All he has is a huge, single eyeball and eyebrow, and somehow, the animators make it work. But you don't think about it. Sahara has a lot of small, subtle touches like that. Which is what makes the dance sequences stand out; they really went overboard with animating the body motions, in a good way.
I'd definitely recommend Sahara more than The Jungle Bunch, though neither are must-see. It's hard to predict if people will like it - opinions seem to vary a lot. If you want to see animated snakes for a change and don't mind a wobbly story, then I'd say yes, check it out. It should be available on Netflix. And there may be a sequel!
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
Of the three films I'm reviewing here, this one is my favorite! Alas, it's not available in English yet, but you can watch the English trailer at the end of this article. For now, it's a matter of waiting until GKids, the North American distributor, makes it available. The original French title is Le grand méchant renard et autres contes.
It's by the same people who did Ernest and Celestine, and shares its watercolor style and 2D animation. The film is actually three short films, about 27 minutes each, all of which take place (at least briefly) at a country farm. There are recurring characters, but otherwise the stories are separate from each other. You could play them as individual half-hour TV specials, and yet there's a pleasant feeling of unity when they're viewed together.
All three of the stories have straightforward, cartoony humor. Some jokes are a little predictable, and I was happy to discover that there's no lowbrow stuff. You can tell the animators had a lot of fun drawing it! The comedic timing is just right, and they're not afraid to take a silly premise and go all the way with it.
Three premises! In the first story, a lazy stork convinces three animals to deliver a baby for him. If you're thinking, "Ugh, I hate babies," don't worry, the baby's role is quite passive and well-behaved. The humor comes from the frustrations of the farm's pig, a responsible fellow who's being "helped" by two well-meaning but largely incompetent companions, a duck and a rabbit.
The second story - from which most of the trailer's clips are taken - involves a fox who can't intimidate anyone when he goes hunting. A wolf advises him to steal chicken eggs, except when they hatch, instead of being scared, the chicks imprint on him.
The final part is a Christmas tale, and brings back the trio from the first story. This time, the duck and the rabbit mistakenly believe they've killed Santa Claus, and the pig decides to help them out in delivering presents. Naturally, things go wrong pretty quickly.
Basically, if life's got you down and you need a quick cheer-up - this is a perfect film for that. It's got light, silly fun, talking animals, and it's charming! I can't wait to get a legit copy so I can show it to my local furs.