28th 09 - 2011 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2011: George the Hedgehog (Jeż Jerzy, 2011)

Directors: Tomasz Leśniak, Jakub Tarkowski, and Wojtek Wawszczyk

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Hollywood has been making comic book movies for a long time, and the pace has reached frenzied proportions in the last few years. Much of this product is watered down, mindless, and badly executed, a disappointment to fans of the comics and of films alike. Well, here’s one film made from a comic book I can unreservedly recommend, and it’s the very first animated feature of a comic book to come out of Poland. As a film, George the Hedgehog carries on in the raunchy, irreverent, edgy tradition of such classics as Fritz the Cat and television’s The PJs. Yet, the script is pure Hollywood comedy-action cinema at its best.

In a grungy underground lab, a mad scientist (Grzegorz Pawlak) is feeding American pop culture images and sounds into a computer. The scientist hopes to develop a clone that will be a surefire superstar, win him the respect of the scientific community that has scorned him, oh, and garner him fame and fortune, too. The computer runs like a slot machine through hundreds of possible models and stops on the image of a hedgehog. A hedgehog? Well, the computer can’t be wrong. The scientist sends his assistant (Jaroslaw Boberek) to find the animal and get some DNA.

As it happens, there is a hedgehog in town, a beer-guzzling, skateboarding, womanizing slacker named George (Borys Szyc). He is having an affair with the beautiful blonde Yola (Maria Peszek), who is bored with her nerdy husband but can’t divorce him because she’s Catholic. He is also set upon regularly by Stefan (Marcin Sosnowski) and Zenek (Michal Koterski), unemployed neo-Nazis who pick on him because they can’t get all the women he can.

The assistant notices Stefan and Zenek and offers them a substantial amount of money to grab some blood, saliva, and quills from the hedgehog. He also instructs them to kill George, something they are reluctant to do because he is the only target in the neighborhood they can stomp for being different. In a comic fight, George defends himself with his skateboard, but Zenek bites his ass to draw blood, and Stefan collects his drool and quills. Leaving George to lick his wounds, the pair takes their “harvest” to the scientist who drops it into a machine that whirls him out a clone of George—a vulgar moron who vomits and farts profusely and humps anything in sight. The scientist sets his scheme in motion by shooting a music video of clone George and turning his hedgehog into an Internet sensation and Polish pop hero. But the real George will have to be dealt with sooner or later.

Hypersexed animals and gross-out jokes aren’t my usual cup of tea, but when they are mixed with pointed satire and killer animation, I’m all about it. George the Hedgehog, stripped of the local and timely topical humor of the comic book, takes on bigger fish and fries them black in a way that a worldwide audience can understand. For instance, the idea that a hedgehog could be an international internet star makes perfect sense in the era of YouTube sensations Surprised Kitty (54.2 million views and counting) and Maru (11 million views for just one of his videos). In another example, a sleazy politician (Leszek Teleszynski), who on first glance reminded me very much of Mayor Richard J. Daley (with Chicago being the city with the second-largest Polish population in the world, I have to wonder if this was more than a coincidence), hitches his wagon to the hedgehog to court the youth vote and affects rapper gestures. Anyone who has watched the steady parade of politicians on Letterman, Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and similar shows will recognize the tactic and, if they haven’t given it much thought, become aware that they are being marketed to, not served.

The intelligentsia get a thorough drubbing as they pontificate on a talking-heads program about the bravery of clone George’s performance art—actually surveillance camera footage of him breaking into a sex shop, puncturing with his quills the blow-up doll he starts to screw, and burning the whole place down, thus releasing anatomically correct blow-up dolls to float like fantasy helium balloons over the city. While clone George’s performance had nothing to do with art, the flying dolls are really quite beautiful.

In an interview on Badass Digest, director Wawszczyk said the animators used a cut-out style of animation, or what was pioneered by UPA in the States as limited animation. Unlike the relatively simple cartoons I’ve seen using limited animation, the complexity of the background layering and detail work on the moving figures is very intricate in George the Hedgehog, both grotesque and beautiful.

The send-ups of Hollywood films are many. For example, the showdown between George and clone George at a stadium-style rock concert plays like a cross between the climaxes of Black Sunday and Valley Girl. George’s battles with Stefan and Zenek use the same type of slo-mo found in the Matrix movies. The filmmakers are also inordinately fond of car crashes, starting with a doozy when two policewomen who recur throughout the film see George drinking a beer on a public median strip and run across a busy street to ticket him, causing a major pile-up as drivers try to avoid hitting the women.

The focus on the inconsequential, on celebrity, that had Americans in a lotus eaters’ haze through the past two or three decades has infected Poland as well, only 20 years after throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression. A truly free and anarchic soul like George exemplifies the genuine pleasures and possibilities of that new sense of freedom, but the creators of George the Hedgehog suggest that Poles are more interested in off-the-truck knock-offs.

George the Hedgehog will screen Friday, October 14, 10:45 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 10:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


18th 11 - 2009 | 6 comments »

Fantastic Planet (La planète sauvage, 1973)/De Profundis (2007)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Réne Laloux
Director/Screenwriter: Miguelanxo Prado

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The realists and the impressionists are at it again. No, we’re not in 19th century France or Nazi Germany. Our battle is in the very commercial realm of animated film. Here’s part of a comment from a Serbian IMDb reader about the recent Spanish film De Profundis: “A pretentious must-not see. This is not an animated movie. Unless you think of animation as two similar but different shapes of a body joined together by a computer animation, and than (sic) put in a loop.” Putting aside the fact that there was no computer animation used in this film, this comment clearly shows the influence of Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks computer animation on the viewing tastes and expectations of moviegoers. Looking at the changes in animation between this film and 1973’s Fantastic Planet, and the maybe coincidental fact that I found the earlier film in a dumpster (!), will tell you a lot about how postmodern art is being eclipsed once again by the human inertia toward literalism.

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Fantastic Planet, a Palme d’Or nominee and winner of a special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, creates a Dali-esque planet to which human beings, called “oms” (hommes), have been introduced, like an invasive species of plant or animal. The film begins with a female om clutching a baby running feverishly to try to escape some menacing force. Her fear and concern for her child are palpable. In the end, however, she is raised in the air as her child watches her dropped over and over until she will never move again. Pan out to reveal several, blue-skinned, reptilian giants, children of the home race of Traags who were playing and accidentally broke the om. One of them, Tiwa (voice of Jennifer Drake), pities the baby and takes it home as a pet. Her parents disapprove of her plans to give him a Traag name, so she names him Terr, after his home planet of Terra. So now we know the name of the story’s narrator (Eric Baugin).

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Terr is Tiwa’s close companion, cradled by her everywhere and able to listen in on her school lessons through a set of headphones downloaded with all of the advanced knowledge of the Traags. But both are growing up. Tiwa no longer plays with her toys and pets. Terr decides to run away and drags Tiwa’s headphones with him. He falls in with a band of wild oms who live in a nearby park and shares the Traag knowledge with them. When a group of oms kills a Traag who was trying to step on them, the government decides to carry out a massive campaign to de-om the state. The oms, using the knowledge they gained from the headphones, decide to build a rocket and fly to the planet’s moon, called the Strange Planet, to be free. There, they learn a crucial secret of the Traags that they can use to attain recognition and equality on the home world.

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The highly imaginative renderings by the relatively modest (by today’s standards) design and animation department pay little heed to the physical laws of our real world, maintaining realism only for the oms and standard bilaterally symmetrical biology for the Traags. Other creatures, plants, and land formations show no such respect for realism, lending a weird otherness that the script furthers with a made-up vocabulary for Tiwa’s lessons on the complex history, science, and culture of the Traags. The animation is a little stiff, but not in a distracting way.

The film muses on how a highly intelligent race could literally sever mind and body by positing that the Traags spend most of their time in meditation. That meditation, in which the mind represented by a head floating in a bubble, is actually necessary for procreation shows that even in an animated fantasy, the French believe everyone has an obsessive preoccupation with sex. The bare-breasted and naked female oms and Traggs certainly show that tendency in the animators.

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The environmentalism of the time, particularly with regard for animal rights, is a major theme. Treating sentient creatures like pets, exterminating them like vermin, and doing the equivalent of pulling the wings off a fly as a form of recreation underlines the folly of human hubris over the natural world. Reverence for the mind over the body can lead to species suicide. The reasons for this divorce are clear from a very original scene of giant, but fragile statues in human form dancing as a prelude to sex and then falling to pieces. Ultimately, the fanciful Fantastic Planet says humility and frailty must be the price for life.

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De Profundis pretty much sums up my profound emotional experience of this sad fairytale told using the beautiful, haunting pastel paintings of its creator Miguelanxo Prado. This wordless feature, scored with an ethereal mix of music and sound effects by Portuguese composer Nani Garcia, tells the tale of a seascape artist living on an island with his cello-playing wife who accompanies a fishing boat one day to sketch their work and the creatures they draw from the ocean. In horror, the crew brings up an eel—a bad omen—which they toss back. Nonetheless, a storm builds, and an enormous wave scuttles the boat, sending all hands to the bottom of the ocean. The artist, however, is taken in hand by a mermaid, one he imagined in a painting, and shown many of the underwater treasures that have made their way into his art and the art of his country. Eventually, they come upon an underwater city, which the mermaid tries to dissuade the man from approaching. There, he remembers his life on land and can no longer remain underwater as a man.

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De Profundis harkens back to an approach called limited animation. The commenter from Serbia objected to, for example, the cellist moving her hands, bow, and head in a repetitive loop. But in one hauntingly beautiful scene, the camera moves us into an empty room in the artist’s house and toward an open window. The long, white curtains flutter so realistically (reminiscent of the blinking eyes in the otherwise still-photo film La Jetée), I wondered if they were live-action imposed into an animated frame. This short sequence shows clearly that limited animation was a choice Prado made to draw us into his paintings much as the artist was drawn into the fanciful underwater world of his mermaid.

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The images Prado shares are colorful and evocative, and he takes care to allow his images to shimmer in wavy underwater distortion. His creatures, like his deep-sea lantern fish, are accurately drawn, yet used in a very dynamic way as a menace to the artist as they circle him, their sharp teeth threatening from perpetually open jaws. Yet, Prado also creates his own kind of wonder. The fishermen bait their hooks with glowing balls of music a young boy sings for them—a true siren’s call for their quarry.

The direction is flawless, as Prado takes his camera through the artist’s studio, down stairs, outside with the kind of meticulousness of a master scene setter. He introduces whales as the cellist’s friends early in the film even as he sets the scene for the cruelty nature will inflict on her and her beloved husband. The whales return by film’s end, and with them, a new storm of tears fell from my eyes. This is simply one of the loveliest, most moving films I’ve ever seen.


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