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Fun, but one for the fans
7 October 2003
This short "trailer" for the subsequent TV series is a rather odd introduction to the world of Azumanga Daioh, but worthy of note.

The original comic strip was something of a sensation in Japan, and the first Internet-exclusive animated short proved so popular that further episodes were dropped in favour of producing a full TV series. This short film was made to bridge the gap and to please the fans eager to see more of Kiyohiko Azuma's characters in action.

Because of its length, we don't get any kind of formal introduction to the characters, so it could prove rather dizzying for those unfamiliar with the original comics or TV show. With much of the latter half of the film taken up with the "Chiyo's pigtails" sequence, the writers crammed so many gags into the first half that the action actually overlaps at points, which is rather distracting.

However, the film does have its charms. The animation production values are commendably high, with a far greater level of fluidity and detail than the TV series. Osaka's aforementioned encounter with Chiyo's pigtails is a fine taste of this popular character's bizarre mindset. The Japanese voice cast proved themselves to be ideal choices for their roles (the previous Web-exclusive short had a different and less distinguished cast), and their excellent performances are carried over into the TV series. One can easily imagine that, at the time of its release, fans were overjoyed to see some of their favourite jokes from the comics committed to celluloid. Viewers coming to this after seeing the TV series might be disappointed, especially considering most of the material was reworked with greater success in the first few TV episodes, but it is worth seeing if only for the sake of completeness.
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Yu-Gi-Oh! (I) (2000–2006)
Dull, vapid toy commercial.
27 October 2001
With the current trend among US TV channels to acquire the latest Japanese animation fads, particularly in the wake of Pokémon et al, it is little wonder that Yu-Gi-Oh has been snapped up.

Telling the story of Yugi, a kid who strives to be the champion of the Duel Monsters trading card game, Yu-Gi-Oh is yet another of the ever-growing canon of shows designed specifically to shift toys, trading cards and computer games. This is not always necessarily a bad thing - previous efforts such as Pokémon, Digimon and Card Captor Sakura certainly have their entertainment value if one ignores the blatant commercialism. However, on this front Yu-Gi-Oh fails to deliver. Ugly, unimaginative character designs and juddering animation do little to distract from the derivative, paper-thin plot. Only its unusual Egyptian styling show a degree of imagination going into the show's production.

Frankly, one can only hope that Yu-Gi-Oh fails to spark in the US in the way previous imports have. I doubt if most parents' wallets could cope with another Pokémon-level influx of toys and card games!
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Titan A.E. (2000)
Flash without the bang
29 July 2000
There is little doubt that "Titan A.E". achieves what it set out to do in terms of visual impact. From stunt-flying through a nebula to a deadly game of cat-and-mouse amongst gargantuan ice crystals, viewers are taken on a roller-coaster ride through spectacular digital effects with scarcely the chance to draw breath. Unfortunately, the generally high quality of the scenery and effects animation sits at odds against the character animation that is only above average at best. I am willing to overlook the visual shortcomings of any movie if they are blessed with well-crafted characterisation and an intelligent plot. Alas, "Titan A.E." fails hopelessly on this count, feeling as though someone accidentally got hold of a first draft of the script, and made the movie out of that instead. The film lurches between plodding tedium and impatient haste, revelling in cruel and pointless dramatic or comedic devices, starting plot arcs that never see an adequate conclusion, and forcing characters to change their motivation halfway through just because they get a gun pointed at them. Even as a 'popcorn' movie, "Titan AE" is flawed to the point of distraction; we are teased with elements that, with work, could make this a genuinely mature and intelligent sci-fi movie, only to have our piqued interest rewarded by shoddy writing and hackneyed cartoon humour. And no one likes to be slapped in the face like that when they're trying to enjoy popcorn.
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The Big Knights (1999– )
Riotous, chivalrous, boisterous fun
24 June 2000
When I stumbled across the first episode of The Big Knights showing on BBC2 one Christmas, I knew I had discovered a real gem of British animation.

"The Big Knights" introduces us to Sir Morris, and his brother Sir Boris, two well-meaning but dim-witted knights, who live in Castle Big with pets Sir Horace, their faithful dog, and Sir Doris, their gluttonous hamster. Each 10-minute episode follows the heroes as they deal with everything from dragons and vampires to who is going to make breakfast. Boris and Morris tackle every problem they meet with gusto, shouting, sword fighting and food aplenty, oblivious to the trail of destruction they inevitably leave in their wake. Set in the kingdom of Borovia, an out-of-time country where castles and villages sit amongst electricity pylons and television sets, the Big Knights do their best to serve the pompous King Otto.

What makes "The Big Knights" really stand out is its wonderful writing. In each episode we are presented with classic fairy tales, fables and Middle ages stereotypes turned on their heads to place the knights in any number of hilarious situations. One episode places the knights in a vampire's castle with only garlic-breath between themselves and peril, while another follows the heroes as they try to rescue two princesses from a tower by catapulting themselves to the top (without considering how they are to get down again). The bold, simplistic computer animation, styled after traditional paper cut-out animation, befits the series perfectly. This is supported by a superbly-selected voice talent, featuring well-known British comedians, actors and media figures.

"The Big Knights" is a treasure, a series that sparkles with wry humour and boisterous slapstick, and yet it remains relatively unknown, a great tragedy for a work that has been put together so well.
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Anastasia (1997)
Bland, insipid animation-by-numbers
21 June 2000
If there is one medium that is so frequently guilty of mangling a perfectly good story, it is animation. This is not the prerogative of all animation, but "Anastasia" is, if anything, guilty to the last.

Foregoing the film's decision to eschew historical accuracy (already well covered by other comments here), we are left with a movie that is practically barren of redeeming features. Though lushly designed, the animation throughout falls flat. The character animation is, for the most part, stilted and inexpressive, and sits awkwardly alongside the 3D computer animation. The all-star voice cast and often quite adept dialogue does little to rescue the faltering script, nor do the obligatory songs, which although can be fairly enjoyable, are eminently forgettable. Dredging further from the barrel of animation staple we are presented with cute animal mascots, and the ludicrous, utterly repellent villain figure of Rasputin, who is practically superfluous to the story's requirements.

It is astounding that a film with so few redeeming qualities could have come from Don Bluth, the same stable that produced the darkly fantastical "Secret of NIMH" and the endearing "An American Take" films (arguably amongst Bluth's best work), but it just goes to show what can go wrong when someone tires of making films about talking mice.
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Feeble Facsimile
4 May 2000
Tsk, tsk, tsk. If there were ever a more shameful display of bandwagon-jumping, I have yet to see it. From the start, certain rather obvious comparisons to the Pokémon fad (and a fad it is) were inevitable, and this has set Digimon up for a fair degree of hostility.

For the record, the Digimon electronic game, a spin-off from the earlier success of Tamagotchi, succeeded Pokémon by two years (Pokémon game, 1995, Digimon game, 1997). The animated Digimon series is something of a non-sequitur; unlike Pokémon's unanimous tieing-in with game, series, film and lunchbox, the Digimon series has little to do with its virtual pet namesake. The "mon" suffix is merely a result of the Japanese abbreviation of "Monster", so the similar names can be considered more of a semi-coincidence than direct plagiarism (bearing in mind that in Japan, they are known respectively as "Digimon" and "Pocket Monsters").

To be fair to the Digimon show, the computer-generated animation is crisper than that of its rival, but consequently seems to lack the hand-crafted charm that Pokémon and many other anime series exhibit. The low-budget adaptation of the series shows through in the reams of Japanese text that remain where Pokémon would have replaced them. The characterisation in either of these shows is hardly the stuff of Shakespeare, but Digimon fails utterly to present likeable characteristics in either the humans or the monsters. It's hard to love a show like this when placed up against the camp wackiness of Pokémon's Team Rocket, the nonsense-speak of the Pocket Monsters, and the sheer, kid-friendly charm of Japan's premiere export. Digimon fails to excite, amuse, entertain or educate, and rarely rises above the soulless production-line ilk that Saturday-morning cartoons consist exclusively of.
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The finest of '99
6 November 1999
After the hopeless farce that was the Blair Witch Project (which I viewed the previous week), I was hoping for a movie with a bit of style, substance and storyline. In those respects, The Sixth Sense did not disappoint.

I can honestly say that this was the best film I have seen this year, at once exhilarating and eerie. This is the only film I've been to recently where the audience has actually applauded at the end - and that's pretty unusual for us "reserved Brits"!
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Tarzan (1999)
Tree-swinging entertainment in the best Disney mould.
6 November 1999
Well done Disney for coming up with another hit. Although Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were superior in terms of story and general presentation, Tarzan was a vast improvement over the likes of The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas, both of which lacked the charm that we've come to expect from Disney. Vocal performances by Minnie Driver and Glenn Close were well up to standard. Nevertheless, the film is far from mould-breaking, though this seems to be a minor concern.

Overall, Tarzan is an entertaining retelling of Burroughs' story.
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A warm, charming and thoroughly enjoyable film.
24 November 1998
"Kiki's Delivery Service", the first of the Disney releases of Hayao Miyazaki's films, is a choice well made; if there were one film that typifies Miyazaki's unique style of storytelling, then this is it. It is not the most complicated, nor the most technically impressive of his works, but it possesses a charm and warmth that can be found in all of the director's films, before and since.

In recent years, viewers of Disney's home-produced films have come to know what to expect of their films. In the eyes of anyone older than about 14, a Disney film (and indeed, the majority of western animated features) consists of a formula-driven story falling into the familiar hero-versus-villain pattern. Viewers expecting the same fare from "Kiki's Delivery Service" will be either disappointed, or pleasantly surprised.

"Kiki's Delivery Service" is the tale of a young apprentice witch, who, along with all witches when they turn 13, must leave home for 1 year to train alone. Kiki, whose best and only skill is flying, ups broomstick and leaves for a coastal town, where she befriends a bakery owner who suggests she uses her talent to set up a delivery service for the townsfolk.

In comparison to the 'blockbuster' animated films, "Kiki"'s pace is sedate, and for this reason younger viewers with a taste for frenetic action scenes and characters bursting spontaneously into song may well lose interest. Instead of the paint-by-numbers heroes and villains of usual animation stock, the characters of "Kiki's Delivery Service", like all of Miyazaki's films, have a depth and realism rarely found elsewhere - they could, by all rights, be real people with genuine thoughts and feelings, dreams and fears. What this film delivers, by way of its fresh outlook and thoughtful screenplay, is a warmth and delight that leaves you feeling uplifted by the end of the movie. For anyone looking for a light, charming and inoffensive piece of escapism, this is second to none.

Whilst "Kiki's Delivery Service" cannot match the big-budget animated features for in-your-face visual impact, the film carries its own style; every scene bears intricately-rendered backgrounds bursting with colour and detail. The character animation is, however, unremarkable, and anyone au-fait with other Miyazaki films will find the styling of the characters very familiar - something which can be attributed to the fact that Miyazaki not only writes and directs, but also designs the characters. That said, Miyazaki's films strive to avoid the shortcuts often found in eastern animation, and the city streets bustle with activity in even the simplest of scenes.

As to be expected from a Disney release, the voices of the characters are near spot-on; no easy task when considering that the English dialogue is dubbed onto an existing picture. Kirsten Dunst (of "Jumanji" and "Small Soldiers") lends Kiki a delightful innocence which befits the character perfectly, and the late Phil Hartman (who "Simpsons" fans will recognise as the voices of Troy McLure and Lionel Hutz) provides a witty and sarcastic turn as her black cat, Jiji. Likewise, the voices of the other characters feel and sound 'natural' - you would be hard pressed to tell that the film had been over-dubbed.

"Kiki's Delivery Service" is not a film that will ever be as recognised, as publicly lauded or as widely merchandised as the latest cinematic feature animation, but its quiet charm and genuine inspiration lend it a presence and credibility as a work of art as well as entertainment.
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