Tag Archives: Children’s Film

CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)

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DIRECTED BY: Hollingsworth Morse

FEATURING: Jack Wild, Billie Hayes, , ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot,

PLOT: Stranded with his magic flute on Living Island, young Jimmy must team up with the isle’s magical minions to defeat a witch who will do anything to get the instrument.

Still from Pufnstuf (1970)

COMMENTS: Beloved and recognized by millions, the characters of ‘s signature TV series H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970) get their proper due in this feature film. Not only do we have many of the same core cast members from the series, but the TV series director helms the film; it was even shot on some of the same sets from the series. So we would expect this film to just be an extended episode, and it sort of is. It’s more of an encapsulation of the series, complete with beginning backstory and with several songs crammed in. This film’s release date (June 1969) is only a few months older than your humble author (September). It is therefore fitting that a Generation X native is here to guide you through the wild wacky Krofft universe, filled with sapient sea monsters, flying saucers, talking hats, mad scientists, and families lost in the Jurassic Era. In Pufnstuf‘s case, we get a whole magical island called “Living Island” populated by the titular Mayor dragon (voiced by Roberto Gamonet, a departure from series regular Lennie Weinrib) and besieged by a wicked witch named Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes). The primary departure from the series the introduction of members of Witchiepoo’s, ah, coven, the “Witch’s Council,” with the flabbergasting casting combo of Cass Elliot and Martha Raye. Apparently witches have an authoritarian political structure, which might well have been a nod to Samantha Stephens’ supernatural lodge in the TV series Bewitched.

But leaving aside the matter of occult sorority organization, the plot is still formulaic, within its universe. Jimmy (the late Jack Wild) is kicked out of his school band in the first few minutes of the movie, which is the only interaction we see him have with the normal world. Next thing you know, his flute talks, a boat talks, and Jimmy sails to Living Island where everything else talks too. Suddenly Witchiepoo, cruising on a curiously steampunk broom that is prone to run out of gas and stall in the sky, appears, wanting Jimmy’s magic flute in the worst way. She attacks, Mayor Pufnstuf valiantly comes to the rescue despite never having seen this kid before in his life, and the whole plot becomes talking-flute MacGuffin. The Boss Witch calls on the “hot line,” a phone stored within a pot-belly stove so that it fries the hands of whoever answers it, to announce that the annual witches’ convention is to be hosted by our gal. So Witchiepoo is under pressure to do her union proud.

Show-stopper moments include: Team Living Island raiding Team Witchiepoo’s castle dressed as sham firefighters on pretense of extinguishing a fire (because that’s the first idea that popped into Continue reading CAPSULE: PUFNSTUF (1970)

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action1 sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Sumi Shimamoto, Gorô Naya, Mahito Tsujimura, Hisako Kyôda (Japanese); , , Mark Silverman, James Taylor, (English dub)

PLOT: In a post-apocalyptic earth plagued by toxic jungles and giant bugs, opposing factions clash in a struggle to survive and eradicate the pestilence.

Still from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This beautiful dream of a movie is right on the borderline of true weirdness. On the one hand, it is glaringly original in its inventiveness, while on the other its universe is so meticulously constructed and populated that it seems more real than reality. In a league with The City of Lost Children or Fantastic Planet, Nausicaä earns its weird wings through the vividness of its vision.

COMMENTS: Imagine coming to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind cold, and all you know is that it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi where Earth has been taken over by giant bugs. The movie you just imagined, possibly inspired by Bert I. Gordon, is the exact opposite of what you actually get. Or how about being told that the true danger of this world is an invasive jungle that spews poisonous spores into the wind, and everyone has to wear masks? Evocative as this is of the current COVID-19 pandemic, that still doesn’t convey the story you’re about to see. The title character is both a kick-ass pilot and a friend to all beasts, but this only suggests an amalgam of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas. Nausicaä (Sumi Shimamoto) carries traits of both those legendary women, but there is much more to her character.

If we’re talking about an impossibly plucky young female lead in a fantasy universe that is the equal of Oz or Middle Earth, then we must be talking about a  Hayao Miyazaki movie. This was the first of such films, the model on which Miyazaki soon founded the mighty Studio Ghibli anime empire. The world of this Earth, a thousand years in the future, is far from a grim Mad Max Thunderdome. It’s a lived-in world of new wonders and exotic peril, beset by an impending environmental crisis and a looming world war—because, of course, those rotten humans never change. As the princess of the valley, Nausicaä leaves no doubt that she is in charge, barking orders at the villagers as soon as any action starts. When war comes to the village’s doorstep, she greets it with a swinging sword. And when there’s an emergency, she’s the first to think of a solution.

Sadly, it turns out that Nausicaä is going to meet problems without easy solutions. The environmental dilemmas of Earth and of the people struggling to live on its last inhabitable bits come down to—big surprise—jingoistic nationalism vs. science and reason. Guess who has the floor? A complex plot of conflicting kingdoms and slippery alliances unfolds, far beyond Nausicaä’s immediate political power to fix. The salvation of this story is that each character has a “why,” and not even the heroes are right about everything. You’ve seen this story before, but never told with such clarity. At the same time, it’s a hardcore science fiction story with a larger-than-life world and flights of adventure, so you have mind-boggling scenery if the political allegory doesn’t hold your attention.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is such a seminal cultural artifact that declaring it the Citizen Kane of anime would not be far off the mark. It influenced movies that followed, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion; it’s legacy can also be seen in  the works of video game studio Square-Enix, evident in titles from the “Final Fantasy” franchise to “Secret of Mana” and “Illusion of Gaia.”

What can I add to this awe-inspiring classic whose reputation is cemented in anime culture? A couple of crumbs of fair criticism, as always. The Aesop-style morals are hammered in a bit too heavily. The pacing is at the same time too fast and too slow; it takes a while for the plot to get moving, while we would prefer learning more about the setting. Our title princess is a bit too stereotypical as a Big Damn Hero, complete with Messianic Prophecy. But these minor quirks are the inevitable baggage that comes with political stories and environmental themes. This masterpiece, with its fully realized fever dream of a world, has more than enough license to preach to us. It’s not like we’re going to learn something from it and improve or anything.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What a weird movie. Seriously, it’s just so strange. But that is definitely not a criticism!” — Jonathan North, Rotoscopers

THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

His name may not exactly be celebrated among cinephiles, but ‘s impact on the mid-20th century movie scene is undeniable. Growing up in an environment of circus performers and vaudevillians, Murray made a fortune in the 1950s and 1960s by importing low-budget family films (among other genres) from Mexico and Europe, dubbing them in English, and re-releasing them on the US market, showing them at cheap weekend screenings. Providing affordable afternoon film screenings aimed specifically at children (and at pre-digital age parents looking for a way to keep the kids occupied for a few hours) earned Murray the title “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”

Poster for K. Gordon Murray's Little Red Riding Hood and the MonstersBut besides revolutionizing the concept of the children’s matinee, Murray also inadvertently assisted in the creation of a certain subgenre of film that flourished in and around the 1960s —one which, though rarely discussed, is the source of some of cinema’s finest examples of unintentional weirdness.

This particular subgenre has never been given an official name, but the term “grindhouse children’s films”, coined by internet critic Brad “Cinema Snob” Jones, encompasses its nature quite well. With their grainy visuals and audio, hokey acting, and flimsy sets, these movies do indeed call to mind the grindhouse cinema aesthetic. The films’ content, meanwhile, are clearly crafted for a kid audience. This dissonance results in distinct examples of mid-century cinematic weirdness, some of which have made it into 366’s Canon.

While a many entries in this genre were the work of Murray himself, many more were made in his wake, churned out at minimal cost to take advantage of the easy profits of the matinees Murray had helped invent. Perhaps one of the most bizarre (and egregious) was 1965’s Fun In Balloon Land. Produced by Giant Balloon Parades Inc., and the sole directorial credit of Joseph M. Sonneborn Jr., this little absurdity pushes itself to 52 minutes by poorly slapping together two unrelated segments. One consists of a young boy wandering around a cavernous warehouse filled with assorted parade balloons (which, with their vast sizes, bulbous shapes, and poorly-painted features, are frankly the stuff of children’s nightmares) and holding awkward conversations with them; the other is a recording of a Thanksgiving-themed balloon parade with a narrator gushing over the (equally ugly) floats Continue reading THE WEIRD WORLD OF CHILDREN’S GRINDHOUSE

CAPSULE: THE POINT (1971)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of Ringo Starr, Mike Lookinland, Lennie Weinrib,

PLOT: The Pointed Village is going about its business, as it has for as long as anyone can remember, with pointed people making pointed buildings and pointed goods, until Oblio, a round-headed boy, is born.

Still from The Point (1971)

COMMENTS: I can tell you from experience that The Point is a good way to get on the path toward discovering, discussing, and dissecting weird movies. During my formative years, I watched it again and again (though at the time, I must admit that I was frightened by one of the sequences, therefore using the fast forward button regularly). As with so much of what 366 reviews, in my less aware moments I’d regard this Nilssonian flight of fancy as “normal,” but it is in actuality a strange combination of children’s cartoon and beatnik daydream.

In fine musical style, we are introduced to the “Land of Point”: more specifically, the Pointed Village, the town where everbody’s got ’em (and couldn’t do without ’em). Couched in the framing story of a father (voiced by Ringo Starr at his most paternal) reading to his son (Mike Lookinland), The Point concerns Oblio (also Lookinland), a boy born without a pointed head. Oblio makes the mistake of making a fool of the Count’s bully son in a game of Triangle Toss. When the defeated youth complains to his powerful father, a sham trial results in Oblio’s banishment to the “Pointless Forest.” Oblio’s adventures (with his trusty dog Arrow by his side) bring him in contact with a magical assortment of guides—beatnik Rock Man, capitalist-extraordinaire Leaf Man, the bouncing Jelly Women, among others—and he learns that nothing is without a point.

Nilsson’s concept album is primarily a vehicle for his catchy and charming songs concerning love, life, and death. Fred Wolf’s movie alternates between straight-up story (marked by Starr’s narration) and song animations. This coexistence is impressively seamless, as the tunes bring Oblio’s contemplations to life. Some of them are heady things for a small boy—one of the things that kept me coming to this, aside from my limited video menu at the time, was that it didn’t speak down to me—and in its post-psychedelic way, everything has a fresh, oddball feel to it. Watching it again for the first time in decades, I also noticed the many odd things the filmmakers got up to: drug culture (the Rock Man character, both as a whole, and particularly with the line, “us stone[d] folks are everywhere”), anti-capitalism (the ridiculousness of the “leaf manufacturing” Leaf Man), right down to the strangely vulvic foliage where the fat, naked, jolly Jelly Women cavort mischievously.

With its minimalist-but-quirky animation (and gloriously pointo-gothic-brutalist architecture), mental digressions (contemplating a tear’s life cycle through an ancient whale), and moments of Shakespearean grandeur (the villainous Count could be Iago’s closest friend), The Point hits a lot of great notes, particularly for a primetime-broadcast, made-for-TV cartoon. That such a quirky little movie like this slipped past the watchful eye of the normality police makes it all the more laudable.

Previously available on DVD, MVD Rewind released The Point on Blu-ray in 2020. Although full of extra features and billed as “The Ultimate Edition,” many hardcore fans were disappointed that it lacks the original Dustin Hoffman broadcast narration (Hoffman’s contract was for a one-time performance, and subsequent broadcasts and home video releases used different narrators).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whether Wolf, best known for his work on The Flintstones, took inspiration from Dr. Seuss, I couldn’t say, but there’s a similar sensibility at work in terms of the quasi-surrealistic look of the thing… It’s that unique combination of the expectedly childlike, the surprisingly adult, and the just-plain weird that makes The Point! work as well for me now as it did in grade school when I’d play the album over and over again, flipping the pages of the illustrated booklet all the while.” -Kathy Fennessy, Seattle Film Blog

(This movie was nominated for review by Jeffery, who commented “My favorite scene in it is the one with the fat ladies.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara

FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul

PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.

COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.

These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.

All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.

Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.

You can also read our interview with director Takahiro Umehara.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson, Fred Wolf

FEATURING: Voices of , Joan Gerber, , Andy Devine, Frank Nelson

PLOT: A young clockwork mouse and his father find themselves lost in the world, encountering a host of eccentric characters.

Still from The Mouse and His Child (1977)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Taking on the appearance of a standard-issue children’s animation, The Mouse and His Child casually delves into such topics as philosophy, destiny, and the search for infinity, all represented through a world absurd even by the standards of cartoon logic.

COMMENTS: The 1970s were a tumultuous time for animated cinema in the west. was making his scandalous debut, and films like Coonskin and Fritz the Cat were introducing the once-unthinkable notion that animated films clearly crafted for adults could, in fact, not only exist, but have a genuine market. Animated movies aimed at children remained dominated by Disney, who didn’t exactly release their most iconic features in this particular decade. Younger upstarts like Pixar and (ugh) Dreamworks hadn’t yet emerged to contest Disney’s place as the prime source of children’s animation.

That’s one of the reasons why The Mouse and His Child is so noteworthy. Not only did it have the audacity to enter into the heavily monopolized animation market, but it did so with a movie that took a vastly different approach to children’s entertainment.

It ought to be said that kids, especially ones raised on today’s media, probably won’t enjoy The Mouse and His Child all that much. But as a curiosity piece—an example of just how remarkably eccentric children’s animation can be while still technically fitting into that category—it’s really quite priceless.

I’ve not read the book that this movie was based on, nor have I read any of Russell Hoban’s other works; but if this adaptation is a faithful reflection of the source material, it’s hardly surprising that it was penned by an author who also dabbled in magical realism and had extensive experience writing for adults. Themes well outside the interests of any child dominate the narrative, and the film’s approach to the nature and structure of reality is one that, while not exactly elaborate, has more depth to it than is normal for a children’s film.

The story opens in a toy shop, where the titular mouse and his child—a pair of clockwork toys—have newly arrived. Here, all the clockwork mechanisms live under the strict leadership of a ghostly grandfather clock, who robotically instructs them that they are to do only what they are “wound to do” and that love, family, and free thought are not accommodated for under “clockwork rules.” It isn’t long, however, before an accidental spill off the table and into a bin sends the mice accidentally carted off out into the world, where they head off on a clearly allegorical quest to become “self-winding.”

On their journey, the Mouse and his Child encounter the various oddities of this world, which might be best described as akin to The Animals of Farthing Wood if Farthing Wood happened to be the campus of a liberal arts university. A crooked rat cons and swindles his way through the movie (like any good cartoon rodent) while delivering every line with a thespian trill. A would-be clairvoyant frog struggles to reconcile his sincere belief in the concept of destiny with his fraudulent fortune-telling racket. A shrew resides in a hole by a pond, obsessing over abstract mechanical theories whilst shrugging off the plight of the forlorn clockwork creatures whom his talents could aid. And in a lake, an aged turtle ponders furiously over the Droste image on the label of a discarded dog food tin, convinced that some great universal truth lies beyond “the last visible dog”.

What really sets The Mouse and His Child apart is not the barriers it breaks, but rather the absurd middle ground that it occupies, one so difficult to precisely pin down that it could be considered the sole example of its own sub-genre. Far too introspective and philosophical for children’s entertainment, yet never approaching the edginess and vulgarity typical of “adult” animation, it resembles, more than anything else, an absurd experiment: a bold attempt to marry philosophy and animation. Mixing these two was unheard of at the time, and even in our more explorative day and age, there are few folks out there who flirt with the notion of exploring infinity and universal truth within the format of children’s animation. How well it works is a matter of debate better left to those better versed in philosophical matters than I; but there is little denying that, even now, over four decades later, with the boundaries of animation pushed much farther than once they were, there are still very few—if any—films quite like this one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a curious mishmash overall, well animated yet not entirely satisfying, whether you have read the book or not. The sense that there’s a lot going on underneath the surface lingers, however, a need to find meaning in it all.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image