The Animatrix Review
Over the past decade or so the animated spin-off has become fairly common, with readers of a certain age being able to recall, I’m sure, animated series’ of Back to the Future, Bill and Ted and Ghostbusters. The Animatrix however twists this slightly to provide us with a series of films rather than television episodes, and ones directed by some of anime’s leading directors at that.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that my “Japanimation” knowledge is sketchy at best. I’ve seen a number of the key works (Akira, Ghost in the Shell) but would never pretend to possess anything approaching an encyclopaedic knowledge. I get the impression however that The Matrix creators, the Wachowski brothers, intend to please both the newcomer and the connoisseur, and as self-confessed novice, The Animatrix proves to be a worthy starting point.
Owing to the number of shorts on offer, and therefore number of different artistic voices, this review will be separated into sections, each dealing with either a group of animes or an individual piece.
The Final Flight of the Osiris, The Second Renaissance Parts I and II and Kid’s Story
Each of these three shorts (or four as The Second Renaissance is offered in two parts) provides explicit reference to the two Matrix movies currently on release: Final Flight of Osiris and Kid’s Story fill in plot details which aid in the understanding of The Matrix Reloaded whereas The Second Renaissance serves as a prequel to the Keanu Reeves adventures. It should also be noted that the Wachowski brothers have written each of these shorts.
The centrepiece of the collection, Final Flight of the Osiris was the only Animatrix to gain a theatrical release (as supporting feature to Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher), and also has the honour of being the only piece to be entirely computer generated, created as it is by Andy Jones - animation director on computer game spin-off Final Fantasy : The Spirits Within.
Demonstrating an obvious step up in quality from Final Fantasy, it becomes quickly apparent why this was deemed important enough to warrant a showing on the big screen. Moreover, Final Flight also has the most explicit connection to the Matrix movies as it fills in blanks necessary for a full understanding of this summer’s The Matrix Reloaded.
Given the task of explaining exactly how the feature film’s protagonists discover that the machines are drilling towards Zion, this connection proves to be Final Flight’s biggest shortcoming. Essentially, a chapter in a story rather than a fully fledged narrative in its own right, once the CGI has impressed the film is left with little to stand on; repeated viewings showing it up to be rather superficial.
Of course anyone familiar with the experimental side of motion pictures in general, and short films in particular, will realise that cinema can be used as more than just a tool for storytelling and yet when a film such as this is placed within a collection, it can’t escape being compared to its associated parts - and a number of the other Animatrixes (Animatri?) prove themselves more adept at dealing with the limitations of the short film format.
Despite offering more traditional hand-drawn animation rather than the computer variety, the two Second Renaissance shorts manage to be no less visually stunning than Final Flight. As said, the two parts serve as a prequel, detailing the progress of the robots from initial servitude to eventual victory over human beings.
As narrated by the “Zion archive”, The Second Renaissance is presented in mock documentary form, allowing the animators to show off a whole range of styles - from faked television coverage to CCTV footage. The crisp, clear (and obviously computer aided) animation favoured by director Mahiro Maeda works wonders, presenting a reality as pertinent as that offered by any live action picture.
Moreover, this type of narrative structure allows the filmmakers to squeeze in as much information as possible without resorting to unnecessary digressions (following this line of thought, would it not have been better for George Lucas to try something similar instead of offering his lacklustre trilogy of Star Wars prequels). Of course, this also explains why there was the need to have two films rather than one, although it must be noted that not a single frame is wasted.
Kid’s Story once more differs in its style of animation, favouring a more sketchy quality and offering few straight lines. The technique works to enhance the films dreamlike quality, narrating as it does the eponymous kid’s realisation that the real world is not quite as it seems. (Frustrated Matrix Reloaded viewers will also be happy to hear that the kid portrayed here is the same one who hassles Neo in the feature film, despite no helpful reference being supplied.)
Met with disdain in some critical quarters for dealing with the post-Columbine problem with an optimistic edge (the “kid” has problems - but everything is going to okay because these problems only exist in the matrix). To my mind this is missing some of the point, and I believe the Wachowski brothers deserve a little credit for opening out their science fiction enclosure to more pertinent questions raised in the real world. Of course, it’s never going to make as valid a point as, say, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine documentary but it is nice to see mainstream filmmakers dealing with the issues of today (however evasive the end result may be).
Perhaps the simplest of all the shorts on offer, Program’s title pretty much gives away the crux of the plot. Set within a combat training program, this adds such incongruities as horses and a medieval Oriental setting to the mix, inviting comparisons with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of course, one of the great ideas presented by the concept of the matrix is that anything can be created within this fake reality and Program is to be commended for providing a change.
The animation here is in a more typical anime style; the large eyes and a look that is more blatantly “cartoony” than in previous efforts. This is not meant as a criticism, although the familiarity this installs leads one to pay more attention as to what was actually going on rather than how. As a result the superfluous qualities become readily apparent, with Program suffering from the same flaw as Final Flight: it feels more like a scene within a film rather than a film within its own right, and without the cutting edge animation of the former, it doesn’t reward repeat viewings.
World Record details the tale of 100m runner whom, in his determination to break his own world record, breaks through the matrix into the real world. Presenting the characters with oversized bodies serves to emphasise the physicality of its protagonist and others, meaning the film manages to be overtly stylised without ever seeming to compromise its narrative integrity; this is the only Animatrix to create a perfect symbiosis between style and content, and as such rewards repeat viewings. Moreover, the slightness of the story seems to serving the same purpose: utilising flashbacks and voice-over the filmmakers have stripped back the storytelling to make it the narrative equivalent of the race at the film’s centre.
It is also worth a mention of the playfully ambiguous ending (which I won’t spoil). Perhaps the Wachowski brothers intend to pick up the athlete’s tale in the third instalment of their franchise, though I rather hope not; whilst the film is short in length, the ending allows it play inside your mind for as long as you wish.
The first Matrix film touched upon the idea of a glitch in the imagined world (the scene where Neo gets deja vu), Beyond expands on this to present us with a haunted house story with a twist: rather than the usual ghosts and loud bangs, here the weather, gravity and even time are distorted to create an alternate child’s playground.
The only short to feature children at its centre, Beyond uses the naivety of its main characters not only to create a playful tone (all the more effective when providing a shocking entrance by adults in the final scenes), but also to allow a wonderfully basic animation technique. This overly simplistic style allows such images as a dove flying in slow motion or a floating tin can to conjure up an air of real beauty, something a live action film would struggle to realise.
If there is a flaw, it is that the framing narrative device is a little trite (young girl goes off to find her missing cat and stumbles upon the “haunted” house), and yet once the film gets to it true destination it never sets a foot wrong. Moreover, this is perhaps the only piece in the collection that doesn’t rely upon a little knowledge of the matrix world, working perfectly well as a stand-alone piece.
The second film in the collection from Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichirô Watanabe (the other being Kid’s Story), Detective Story proves a disappointment in spite of its credentials. Visually striking, the short is animated in black and white (and has the look of having been photocopied) to place it firmly in the film noir territory it intends to ape. However, apart from the first-rate photography, all the other elements it intends to replicate come across as hackneyed; the voice-over in particular is full of cliches (“I didn’t get a good feeling about this case” and “Did I mention he was crazy?” being only the two most obvious) and, most damagingly, reminiscent of the humourless pastiches offered by such television comedians as Russ Abbott and Bobby Davro.
Again, the story is slight and never given a chance to develop. Having no need to strip the piece down to its basics, the narrative simply concerns a detective hired to track down Trinity (voiced by Carrie-Anne Moss, whose tones also appears briefly in Kid’s Story alongside Keanu Reeves’). Almost immediately he does, and almost immediately the film ends.
You could question whether an audience well versed in the lore of the matrix needs another narrative playing out the same themes, and yet Detective Story seems so content to offer little more than a medley of half-baked borrowed ideas that you can’t help but feel short-changed.
Saving the most daring piece for last, Matriculated starts conventionally enough. Enticing an enemy robot into capture, the humans at the centre of the piece then set about entering it into a training program with the intent of making it switch sides.
After its initial set-up, the film jumps headlong into the program, offering a mixture of avant-garde styles and frankly confusing conceits. Whether intentional or not, I picked up elements from such diverse sources as Oskar Fischinger’s Komposition im Blau, the Beatles’ flick Yellow Submarine and certain Norman McLaren “boogie doodles”, as well as more well-known sci-fi efforts as camp classic Barbarella and any other over-designed sixties oddity. Most adeptly, Matriculated retains a cartoony quality despite these experimental edges, not unlike that found in Program.
More prominently, despite the occasional beguiling goings-on, the short also builds an oddly moving conclusion. Whilst not the best piece in the anthology, Matriculated is perhaps the only short which invites regular re-acquaintance.
Picture and Sound
Flawless in both categories, the anamorphic presentation handles the various forms of animation with ease and the 5.1 set-up finds no fault with the intricate sound designs.
Each short is backed up by a “making of” featurette (the option is given to either view these individually or as a whole totalling 55 minutes), with information supplied by not only the filmmakers but also their peers (Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, for example) and various experts and historians in the field of anime. What this creates is not only a rounded knowledge of how the pieces were created, but also of how they fit within the history of their genre. Moreover, as each featurette is only given a limited amount of time, the interviewees are allowed to provide only essential commentary, with the usual “making of” sycophancy kept to a bare minimum.
Thankfully, the disc’s makers seem readily aware that the bulk of their viewers will have only a limited knowledge of “Japanimation”. Utilising this well, the “making ofs” include various clips from their creators’ previous work (Ninja Scroll, Aeon Flux, etc.), an idea extended upon in the special features’ standout piece: a brief featurette entitled ‘Scrolls to Screen’. Despite its length, this offers a detailed resume of the anime genre so far, covering both television and cinema pieces and their distribution in both East and West. Once more, historians and such are asked to provide commentary, and do so to just the right degree, managing to neither alienate the beginner nor the expert. Excerpts are again used liberally, making this a perfect introduction to an area of cinema still lingering just outside the mainstream. (If there is a complaint it is that the length is a little too concise; is it not about time that someone produced a full-length documentary on the subject, a kind of Personal Journey Through Anime Movies With Mamori Oshii, for example?)
Despite the short running times, four of the shorts are accompanied with director's commentaries. Second Renaissance director Mahiro Maeda attempts to overcome this short-coming by simply describing what is occuring on-screen. Annoyingly, he also falls into the trap of making what was once implicit (references to Vietnam, Tiananmen Square) explicit. Moreover, when he does attempt to reference his influneces and such he touches on ground already covered in the "making of" featurette.
Program and World Record offer a different approach with segment producer Hiroaki Takeuchi assisting Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Takeshi Koike respectively. Serving as a surrogate audience member, he asks the important questions of the directors whilst also offering his own perspectives. Fully aware of the brief time his companions have to speak in, Takeuchi manages to cover the necessary ground in a concise, but fruitful fashion. Most noticeably, the conversational tone of the two commentaries eases the filmmakers into discussion (especially prominent in the youthful and enthusiastic Koike) and makes them a highly listenable prospect.
Rounding things of, there is a trailer for the ‘Enter the Matrix’ PC Game, which cleverly utilises clips from The Matrix Reloaded to emphasise its crossover appeal, a list of crew members and DVD-ROM features allowing access to various Warner Bros. trailers and such.
Subtitles on offer are the same as those for each of the shorts (see top right), although the featurettes do suffer from not having English subtitles during Japanese speech. Instead, they must be manually switched on, though they also cover any English speech as well. (Considering there is a considerable mix of the two, this proves to be frustrating.) [Thanks to my colleague Dave Foster for pointing out that the R1 disc does not suffer from this problem.]
Whilst not a wholly perfect package, The Animatrix offers enough delights to spark interest in even the most anti-anime viewer. The blend of styles and techniques should cover a huge fan-base, and the special features offer able support to assist any further investigation.
Indeed, my own purchase of this collection was intended to provide myself with a starting point to my eventual immersion in the genre. With a little knowledge (and, of course, a touch of research for the purposes of this review) I feel confident of where to move onto next. Moreover, the Matrix connection allows the novice to still feel rooted in this unfamiliar terrain.