Usually the animation that I write about in my columns is by well-known studios. Sometimes it’s by a brand-new studio, or a foreign studio that I’ve never heard of; though in the latter case, when I investigate, I usually find that there is a lot of information about it online. Who in America had heard of Prana Studios in Mumbai, India before it started to subcontract the CGI production for Disney’s Tinker Bell and Planes movies? But there is information about Prana online, once you’re prompted to look for it.
But sometimes a new movie or trailer or press release appears from a studio that you never heard of, for a feature or TV series that you never heard of. And when you ask other notable animation-industry experts, none of them heard of the studio or feature, either. Sometimes the entire nation that the studio is in, or the theatrical feature was produced in, is one that’s not known for its animation. Here are several recent examples.
First, here is an outstanding example, from the Simpals Animation Studio of Chișinău, Moldova. Who knew that there were any animation studios at all in Moldova, more generally known as the poorest and most backward country in Europe!? (Unless you recognize the independence of Pridnestria, which seceded from Moldova in 1990 and has been pretty much internationally ignored ever since, certainly by the U.S. Department of State. But that’s another story…)
If you watch On Demand TV, you may have recently seen the 88-minute CGI Ribbit, produced as a work-for-hire by KRU Studios, a movie company in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the national capital). It turns out that KRU has existed since 1992, though mostly as a Malay live-action movie producer. KRU produced Ribbit for an English audio track for America (with Sean Astin and Tim Curry among the voices), with an American, Chuck Powers as the director. But as long as it was available, it was also given a Malay audio track and released theatrically there on September 4, 2014. And as long as KRU had the computer algorithms, it used the Ribbit characters in original animation for Destiny, an American music video. I’ve written a separate killer review of Ribbit; see it for trailers and posters. The movie has such things as a little Amazon native Indian village with a huge Mayan temple; but that’s the fault of the American story writers, not KRU. The Malayan CGI animation is actually pretty good, as long as it sticks to talking animals and avoids humans.
A friend recently sent me these links to New Machine Studios’ website, and to its trailer for its feature Raven Tales: The Movie, based on its award-winning CGI TV series; and asked me if I had ever heard of either? No, I hadn’t. Neither had Jerry Beck when I asked him. Nor has anyone else. According to New Machine’s website, it’s located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and has produced at least three features besides its award-winning TV series. What award? Look at the Raven Tales: The Movie trailer and ask yourself how this could ever get theatrical distribution? Canada certainly has better animation studios!
When the Russian Wings feature appeared as an American direct-to-video release, it was universally condemned as an obvious mockbuster ripoff of Disney’s Planes. Except that Wings was released theatrically in Russia (as Ot Vinta! 3D) exactly a year before Disney released Planes (August 9, 2012 vs. August 9, 2013). Also, it may have been distributed in Russia in Russian, but it was produced by the Touch FX Animation Studio in Yerevan, Armenia. As with Simpals in Moldova, who knew that there were any animation studios in Armenia? (Commercial animation studios, at least. There has been some American awareness of the fine-art animation of Robert Sahakyants.)
In 1989, just before the Soviet Union fell apart, the Second Los Angeles International Animation Celebration was held that August. Among the visiting international animators, the famous Soviet animator Fyodor Khitruk stood out because of a large entourage that followed him everywhere. He explained that he had brought the leading animators from each of the fifteen Soviet republics. They were not introduced, and tended to huddle together muttering something like, “What are we all doing in America?” “I don’t know, but Fyodor said that we had to come.” At that time the personal animation of Armenia’s Sahakyants or Estonia’s Priit Pärn was not well known in America, so the general reaction was, “Does the Soviet Union really have any animation studios besides Soyuzmultfilm in Moscow?” Today the animation produced in such former Soviet republics as Latvia and Ukraine is, if not well-known, at least known to exist. But it’s still almost impossible to believe that there are, or ever were, any animation studios in such places as Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan.
If you speak Hazaragi, you may have seen Buz e Chini, the 20-minute first animated film (CGI) produced in Afghanistan, in 2012. Produced mostly in Afghanistan, that is. The director, Abbas Ali, was born in Afghanistan but fled the country to Pakistan when the Taliban took over. He began production on Buz e Chini, based on a Hazara folk tale, while he was still living in Pakistan, and finished when he returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban was defeated. The film is dedicated to Hussain Ali Yousafi, the Hazara activist who played the voice of the wolf, who was assassinated in 2009. Wikipedia says, “His assassination was considered one of the greatest losses to the Hazara community since the 1995 killing of Abdul Ali Mazari by the Taliban in Afghanistan.” Any filmmaking of any kind in Afghanistan is likely to offend someone.
Speaking of Pakistan, last December Jerry’s Animation Scoop announced Pakistan’s forthcoming (May 22, 2015) first animated feature, the Urdu-language 3 Bahadur, about three Pakistani youths who become superheroes. “The three ‘braves’ are 11-year-old Amna and her best friends, Saadi and Kamil, on the cusp of adolescence where, in Pakistan, cultural expectations mean the pathways of girls and boys must separate. […] ‘We have taken special care to ensure that the story remains very local,’ says director Chinoy, ‘from the way we have designed our characters, to our dialogue and our script. We want children to see Pakistani characters who look like them and talk like them on the big screen for the first time.’”
There is nothing new about British animation. But British animation has traditionally meant English and Welsh animation, according to Glasgow-based directors Sascha and Tessa Hartmann. Their Billi Productions produced the 80-minute CGI Sir Billi feature, starring Sir Sean Connery as the lookalike animated hero and as his own voice actor, released on September 13, 2013; promoting it as the first theatrical feature of Scotland’s animation industry. The feature was premiered a year earlier at the Sonoma [California] International Film Festival on April 13, 2012, where it was accused of falsely claiming that it was a big hit when it actually was widely criticized. Reviews cited by Wikipedia included “woefully anemic”, “mirthless”, and “the ugliest [CG] that I have ever seen”.
Wikipedia reported that its 2013 theatrical release was in only three theaters throughout Great Britain; it went directly to DVD immediately after. “There were complaints from the Hartmanns when the pro-Scottish independence Scottish National Party government chose to promote the Disney-Pixar’s film Brave, made in the USA, rather than the UK-made Sir Billi. (The film Brave went on to receive an audience score of 76% on the website Rotten Tomatoes, Sir Billi received 0%).” In April 2014 Sir Billi was renamed Guardian of the Highlands for its American direct-to-DVD release. It didn’t help any. The Dissolve (June 5, 2014) devoted a feature review to it by Nathan Rabin, typified by such comments as: “Yet it would be hard to imagine a final film for a cinematic titan as jaw-droppingly awful, cheap, and misconceived as that of Sean Connery: 2012’s Guardian Of The Highlands (a.k.a. Sir Billi). “
I dislike to repeat material from previous columns, but this is too natural to pass up. It’s from my column of March 2, 2014. “I was recently asked what I knew about Blue Sky Studios’ Robots 2? I answered that no sequels were ever made to Blue Sky’s 2005 animated movie, and as far as I knew, none were planned. In reply, I was sent this trailer on YouTube:
Duh! Well, from the credits it appears to be an unauthorized sequel made in Thailand for release in India during 2012, with an obviously American voice cast. […] Judging by this trailer, it has absolutely nothing to do with Blue Sky’s Robots, or the Ramayana. In fact, considering the title of Yak, the Giant King buried in this trailer, I suspected that the Thai studio never made it as a sequel to Robots, and the tie-in was created by the Indian distributor.
“Apparently so. Wikipedia says that Yak, the Giant King was an October 2012 release by Workpoint Pictures, a studio in a city near Bangkok, for distribution in Thailand, India and Malaysia. I can believe that the Thai animators may have been inspired by the robot character design in Blue Sky’s feature. Yak, the Giant King is technically a version of the Ramayana set in the future with a cast of robots. Yak is a renamed Tosakan, an enemy of Hanuman, the Monkey God. The CGI does look very professional, and the American-voiced trailer implies that someone tried to sell it to an American distributer. I would like to see it. Thanks, Wikipedia, for clarifying this for me.” Thai animation is still unknown in America.
All this makes you wonder how much animation is being produced in countries that you wouldn’t expect it from. There is an ASIFA-Mongolia, after all.
I can’t say that Jungle Shuffle is from a country unknown for animation; it’s a South Korean-Mexican co-production. But both South Korea’s WonderWorld Studios and Mexico’s Avikoo Studios are new to me – somewhat embarrassingly, since WonderWorld has an office in Studio City, California, and it has apparently been a subcontractor on American Garfield and Scooby-Doo TV specials. But when I was recently asked about the Jungle Shuffle theatrical feature, I had never heard of it or its studios. I looked at the trailer (below) and said, “It’s obviously about neon-colored red pandas. I’ll look into it.”
Nope. They aren’t Asiatic red pandas; they’re Southern Mexican/Central American coatimundis. Here’s the trailer for Jungle Shuffle so you can see for yourselves. YouTube has the entire movie in English at the moment, although I imagine that it’ll be taken down as soon as a U.S. sale is made. I am also including live-action footage of red pandas and coatimundis; you decide which the animation most resembles.
Next week: Animated Westerns.