The 2023 Animated Cartoon Oscar contenders include a beautifully framed, important lesson for kids (and adults); the return of Henry Selick in collaboration with Jordan Peele; and a surprisingly good entry into the Puss in Boots/Shrek franchise.
“The Sea Creature”
Chris Williams always wanted to make the kind of “big action-adventure movie” he grew up watching – King Kong, Raiders of the Lost Ark. His beautifully animated The Sea Beast, he says, is partially mixed with Master and Commander, Jaws and Treasure Island kaiju (Japanese giant monster) cinema.
“I had this idea of sea monster hunters inspired by these old unfinished maps that would populate them with these really imaginative monsters,” says Williams. “I would just stare at those things. I thought, ‘Somebody has to make a film that takes advantage of that kind of world and that sensibility.’”
In The Sea Beast, wooden ships battle sea monsters and keep the coastal kingdom safe in deadly battles for generations to come. These creatures are impeccably designed in the film, whether they’re meant to scare or make the viewer want to cuddle them.
“We tried not to humanize the creatures too much,” Williams says of limiting the faces to animal expressions. “We wanted to make the spectacle more observed and more faithful to animal behavior. ‘Black Stallion’ is a great example: we really get to know and love this horse, but obviously the horse is… a horse.”
The filmmakers paid close attention to detail: the grain of the wood, the roughness of the fabric (“There were salt stains on the sailors’ pants,” says Williams), the layers of visibility in the water. The cinematography – the use of light and shadow, the movement of the camera – is more like a live-action feature than regular animated fare.
“We would talk about our cameramen,” says Williams. “Is that a hand shot? A crane shot? We checked out Master and Commander and Jaws. ”
But what sets The Sea Beast apart the most are the questions viewers ask – including of themselves. What is the root of this old hatred? Are they inevitable? Who benefits?
“This cycle of violence continues; it’s hard to break away from it. Sometimes there are powerful entities that create narratives to continue this. It’s important that everyone really thinks about it and questions everything they’re told.”
“Wendell & Wild”
After his critically acclaimed 2009 Coraline, stop-motion master Henry Selick fell into cinematic limbo. He came to Pixar and a number of projects emerged, none of which came to fruition. Then, during the run of “Key & Peele,” he remembered something that would save him.
“About 20 years ago I made a sketch of my sons – they were little kids then, [and] they behaved particularly badly – as demons. I found it again and wrote a little seven-page story — maybe I’d have it published in the New Yorker or something,” Selick said. “It has almost all the same characters as the feature – [demon brothers] Wendell and Wild escape the underworld to become rich in the land of the living by raising the dead.”
And that’s where his fandom from “Key & Peele” comes in.
“I was so inspired by the show that I thought Key and Peele would be perfect to play these demon brothers. I turned to her; They were interested, very friendly, and Jordan wanted to meet in person,” he says.
Peele wanted to be more than just a voice. He had big dreams – he started a company, Monkey Paw Productions. He wanted to make an animated film that he would have loved as a kid, with people who looked like him. To convince the veteran filmmaker to let him on the ground floor of a later Netflix production, he showed Selick a script he was working on. It was called “Get out”.
After reading that, the director said, “I felt like I was crazy not to welcome him as an equal collaborator.”
Selick, of course, had a lot from “Wendell”—the themes of for-profit incarceration, the juvenile court system, and the school-to-prison pipeline; Humans would be the villains despite the presence of the titular demons.
But co-writer Peele’s influence is felt throughout the film, starting with the ethnic diversity baked into it. Selick called this wide-open rewrite of the characters something that “unlocked it – like a key to reinventing the whole movie. Who are these characters? In which city do you live? What was a deal that supported the city, who are the villains? I could go on forever but this is the beginning of the best collaboration I have ever had.”
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”
At the beginning of Puss Boots: The Last Wish, the titular character (voiced by Antonio Banderas like he has to be) “lives a rock star life,” says director Joel Crawford. He’s celebrated as everyone (led by him) sings a song about what a unique hero he is – and an “incredibly humble” one at that. But he soon learns that he has burned eight of his nine lives, forcing a re-evaluation of his way of life and his identity.
You know how people do it from time to time.
Crawford says: “Antonio was very excited to say, ‘Let’s show the world what’s under the mask. Let’s uncover his weaknesses.’ You see the struggle to do the right thing. It means more and he really becomes a hero that we can all relate to.”
The result is a more honest exploration of a protagonist’s mortality than one would expect in a children’s studio animated film.
Visually, the filmmakers aimed for the look of a fairytale painting. There’s plenty of humor – it’s one of the funniest entries in the franchise – largely due to a new, unnamed dog voiced by Harvey Guillén in What We Do in the Shadows. And the creators had fun obscuring references and inspirations throughout — spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood, Akira Kurosawa.
“We had so much fun drawing from it. Even the dog with no name is a nod to the Clint Eastwood Man With No Name. In “Seven Samurai” Toshiro Mifune plays this renegade samurai who becomes the heart of the team. He was one of our inspirations for the character of the dog,” says Crawford.
“I hope audiences really embrace it and enjoy it.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-11-16/animated-features-sea-beast-wendell-and-wild-puss-in-boots Jordan Peele, Antonio Banderas lift animated films