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My, My, My!
Asian Animation is Diverse,
Surprising and Rewarding

by Robert S. Jersak

Recently I got acquainted with three remarkable animated films (on Region-Free DVDs) -- one from South Korea, one from Japan, one from China - that have yet to make it to the American multiplex. Too bad, because each of these films could set the current Disney and Dreamworks dynasties on their ears, and give American audiences a chance to expand their definitions of "family" entertainment.

My Beautiful Girl, Mari opens with a sweeping, languid view of downtown Seoul, following a lone seagull swooping through the valleys of a high-tech skyline. As the gull settles in a park tree branch, the film settles on Namoo, a corporate employee who appears distracted and despondent. Later that night he is reunited with his childhood chum, Jun-ho, who begins to stir the memories of their youth on an unnamed Korean shore - memories, according to Namoo's reflections, marked by an otherworldly lost land, and a lost love as well.

Telling any more is telling too much. This is a beautiful film, with a hauntingly mellow score, and a dreamy set of visuals. Director Seong-kang Lee appears to have animated the film using computer-generated rotoscoping, a process which paints over pre-filmed actors, and places them in computer-generated matte backgrounds. The resulting animation isn't particularly smooth, but it is engaging and whimsical -- I'm always more interested in a film's overall emotional effect rather than it's "special" effects.

When Namoo is transported into his exotic dreamland, climbing on cotton clouds and chasing a gigantic pooch, we are transported with him - invited to share in that most private of playgrounds: the adolescent imagination. And, towards the conclusion, when the adult Namoo is forced to question his memory and reality on a city bus, we do the same, hoping we might be carried away again to far-off lands, and leave an oversized work-a-day world below the clouds for good.

A few online reviewers - the few that have seen it -- have nicked Mari for its similarities to the work of Japan's anime master Hayao Miyazaki. Is Lee's work similar in tone and tale and scope? Absolutely, in the same wonderful way that films like Wolfgang Petersen's The Neverending Story and Frank Oz's Labyrinth are connected. Neither of the films are diminished in the comparison, and both should be sought out.

Speaking of Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro is certainly one of his triumphs -- a hand-drawn cell-animated masterwork, with detailed backdrops and multi-planar depth that are the hallmarks of Studio Ghibli's work. (The disc I purchased was a widescreen, Japanese-language copy with English subtitles - a far cry from the butchered "official" North American 20th Century Fox release.)

My Neighbor Totoro follows the story of two little girls, Satsuki and Mei, as they are introduced to their new home in the country. Something about the house doesn't seem natural, and the girls begin to explore every inch, trying to uncover a mythical, mystical spirit. To their own surprise, they do exactly that, stumbling upon the giant, fuzzy protector spirit of the forest - their next-door neighbor, Totoro.

There is a moment in Totoro that bristles with such beauty and peaceful wonder, it should be required viewing for every child. The night after Mei and Satsuki have planted seeds given to them by a grateful Totoro (they had offered him an umbrella during a thunderstorm the evening before), Totoro magically raises the sapling sprouts from the earth, higher and higher, bigger and bigger, growing until they have merged and formed a massive overspreading canopy into the sky. It's a clear and striking allegorical visual - a mushroom cloud made of leaves, sown from thoughtful sharing and mutual love.

The story continues towards the resolution of a plot element concerning the girls' mother, who finds herself seriously ill for undisclosed reasons. I won't divulge any more, but I will say that by the time then end arrives, you're ready for a second viewing and a need to gather more kids (and kids-at-heart) around as well. This should be the definition, the benchmark, of a "family film."

Toe Yuen's My Life as McDull has the look of children's film, and the music, but the tone and the scope constantly resist objectification. An unnervingly cute cast of pre-school Pampers-pattern-like characters (walking, talking pigs, cows, turtles, cats) are at the center of the show, led by the porker McDull. While giving birth, McDull's mother wishes for her son to be endowed with great looks, tremendous intellect, and financial success. She names him McNificent, but realizing that he must be humble above all, she renames him McDull - and thus a life of great mediocrity is born, and the film begins.

The setting, present-day Hong Kong, is digitally recreated using wide CG sweeps of a non-descript, dirty, traffic-packed city. The cell-animated characters are set into this backdrop, as the camera zooms through bedrooms, office buildings, classroom windows. It's a remarkable effect, and it heightens the conflict between the adorable, soft McDull and the unyielding, mundane world that surrounds him. And this becomes McDull's tale, as he, through narration, recounts the days of his youth - searching for some personal talent that would raise him above the rest, and make his single working mother proud.

If Mari is about the majesty of the imagination, and Totoro about the majesty of nature, then McDull is about the majesty of the ordinary. Even though McDull never quite succeeds in any of his attempts at glory, he comes to some understanding of his place in life, and at the very end, finds some special meaning in it all. Remarkable adult introspection and dry, reflective humor throughout, coming from a movie that visually resembles a Hello Kitty lunchbox - a gutsy film, well worth several viewings.

As with most good things in life, you'll have to do a little digging to find these three Asian animated films. They won't be waiting at Blockbuster (Totoro might, actually, but not the way it was meant to be seen); they won't be coming around to the multiplex, but if you know where to look, they'll find you, and you and your children and the child within you - the one searching for wonder who knows there's better animated films than Treasure Planet out there -- will be amply rewarded for your trouble. Enjoy.

©2003 Robert S. Jersak