The Girl Without Hands (2017; Dir.: Sébastien Laudenbach)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, September 15, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
In this woozy adaptation of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, a young girl is sold to the devil by her poor father in exchange for a river of gold…with sexy results! She is protected by her cleanliness and leaves her family for the forest, where she meets a water goddess and marries a prince, but the devil’s persistent schemes eventually drive them apart. It always kills me when I have to lambaste a hand-animated passion project, but French director Laudenbach’s half-drawn watercolor images largely left me unmoved. Even at a mere 76 minutes, the muddy pacing, vague designs and muted emotions of The Girl Without Hands make it a bit of a chore. To its credit, the film feels like a more faithful version of the Grimm Brothers than we usually get from the edge-sanding Disney adaptations, but it ultimately cares more about splashing around in a pool of hippy-dippy aloofness than developing strong characters.
When Marnie Was There (2015; Dir.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the California Theatre in Berkeley.
Hand-drawn animation stalwarts Studio Ghibli shut down production late August following the retirement of guiding light Hiyao Miyazaki, so When Marnie Was There may be the last feature film we see from them in a while, possibly ever. A delicately personal and cozily mythic story of an asthmatic, self-loathing girl named Anna who gets shipped off to the country for her health, When Marnie… is less fantastical than Ghibli masterpieces like Spirited Away or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but the animation is just as gorgeous and the storytelling just as intricate. Anna imagines the world as an “invisible circle” with herself on the outside, observing that her relatives’ cottage “smells like a stranger’s house,” and yet the abandoned mansion across the lake “feels familiar.” She comes to befriend a lonely blonde girl that lives there named Marnie, who appears to Anna as equal parts ghost, imaginary friend, and memory. The most Ghibli-esque touch here is the way that the natural and spirit worlds easily commingle, like overlapping cels in the same frame. At one point, Anna is rescued from the rising tides by a burly, silent, white-haired boatman, and we get the brief impression that he is a supernatural apparition; a few scenes later, we see that he is just another social outcast bullied by schoolkids. It’s a really heartbreaking and beautiful touch in a film largely about acceptance and forgiveness.
Cheatin’ (2015; Dir.: Bill Plympton)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol.
In a genre overwhelmingly dominated by major studios, nine-digit budgets, digital animation, wisecracking animals, A-list voice casts, and costly pop song licensing rights, animator Bill Plympton remains an iconoclast. Cheatin’, which had its U.S. premiere at Slamdance in January 2014 but is only now trickling out to theaters, is Plympton’s seventh feature film. It has all of the Plympton hallmarks, most especially the hand-drawn animation (you can practically feel every stroke of his pencil), but also the lack of true dialogue, the grotesque character design, and the focus on body mutilation and transmogrification. The film is structured as a series of absurdist gags, many of them quite crude, but it coalesces into a more traditional narrative as it develops. After a “meet-cute” on the bumper cars that is more horrifying than endearing, a young man and woman find love and an intense physical chemistry together, but a scheming woman tears them apart. Plympton blends elements from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Being John Malkovich, and The Prestige into this story of sex, obsession, revenge, and magic, and there are a number of awe-inspiring visual sequences. You certainly can’t fault Plympton for ambition; if only the jokes were a little stronger!