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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/14/03

The Animatrix
2003 (2003) - Village Roadshow/Warner Bros.

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Animatrix Program Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/B-

Specs and Features
Approx. 101 mins (total), NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, snapper case packaging, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), audio commentary (with director Mahiro Maeda on The Second Renaissance Parts I and II, producer Hiroaki Takeuchi and director Yoshiaki Kawajiri on Program, and Takeuchi and director Takeshi Koike on World Record), Scrolls to Screen: The History and Culture of Anime featurette, Execution "making of" featurettes for each film, director and segment producer bios, Enter the Matrix game trailer, DVD-ROM features (weblinks), animated program-themed menu screens with sound effects and music, short access (9 shorts), languages: English and Japanese (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Having attended several comic book conventions in my lifetime, allow me to pass on some free advice. Always remember to bring your own water, unless you believe that $7.00 is a fair and reasonable price to pay for a bottle of the stuff. Don't go on a big buying frenzy in the first hour because you're going to be stuck carrying all this useless crap for the rest of the day. And whatever you do, never, ever say, "Yeah, I like anime and manga," unless you've got what it takes to back up that claim. If you can't tell your Spriggan from your Lensman or a Bubblegum Crisis from a Sailor Moon, then you're out of your league with the true anime fan.

While I have seen and read more than a few Japanese animated films and comic books (meaning it would take all of my fingers and most of my toes to count them), I would not consider myself to be a real anime connoisseur. The reason for this is simple and I suspect it's part of the reason a lot of people steer clear of the form. The anime section at your local video emporium can be extremely intimidating, with row after row of seemingly neverending series that range from the intriguing to the downright goofy.

Let's take a second to think about that last sentence. Just a few years ago, there was no anime section at your local video emporium. But all that started to change when the anime style began seeping into American pop culture, most obviously in the 1999 movie The Matrix. Larry and Andy Wachowski, the fraternal team behind the Matrix franchise, can come out and say they like anime and manga at any comic book convention in the country. The brothers made no secret of the important influence Japanese animation and comic books, both Japanese and American, had on their film.

So when Warner Bros. announced The Animatrix, a direct-to-video release of nine animated shorts inspired by The Matrix, it was certainly understandable for skeptics to smell a quick (albeit logical) cash-in. After all, video store shelves are crammed near to bursting with uninspired animated follow-ups. But The Animatrix is different. Instead of merely aping the style of traditional anime, the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver recruited some of the very Japanese filmmakers the brothers had admired in the first place. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino had written short films about each of the characters in Reservoir Dogs and enlisted the likes of Jack Hill and Monte Hellman to film them. The result, like any anthology film, is somewhat uneven. At its best, The Animatrix is an ideal introduction to Japanese animation for curious but uninitiated American audiences. But even when it falters, The Animatrix is ambitious and visually spectacular.

Leading off the program is Final Flight of the Osiris, a prologue of sorts to The Matrix Reloaded. This short was released to theaters earlier this year (conning millions of unlucky moviegoers like myself into suffering through Dreamcatcher) and is therefore probably in the running for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar next year. The piece delivers just what the title promises. The Osiris discovers thousands of Sentinels swarming dangerously close to Zion, so a desperate suicide run into the Matrix is undertaken to warn mankind. Osiris was directed by Andy Jones and produced by Square USA, the team responsible for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and at times looks like outtakes from that film. Character design is not Square's strong suit and the members of the Osiris crew look a whole lot like Aki's ragtag bunch from Final Fantasy. But the animation itself is often breathtaking. In close-ups, Square's ability to render skin and hair has become even more sophisticated than the amazing work they did in Final Fantasy. And the scenes of the Sentinels attacking the Osiris are simply amazing. They could be dropped into the live-action Matrix movies with barely a hiccup. Final Flight of the Osiris isn't exactly a think piece but it's fun to watch and a neat little bridge between the first and second Matrix movies.

Next up is The Second Renaissance, Parts I and II. These two shorts are the best of the bunch and if they were all this disc had going for it, I'd probably still recommend The Animatrix. The Second Renaissance delves into the back story of the films, going into detail on the war between humans and robots that resulted in a global apocalypse and the construction of the Matrix itself. Director Mahiro Maeda fills The Second Renaissance with allusions to Vietnam and Tiananmen Square, none of which are any too subtle but no less affecting for that. At times, The Second Renaissance reminded me of the best moments of Heavy Metal, both the 1982 movie and the comic magazine, in its adult treatment of science fiction. The Second Renaissance is provocative and exciting filmmaking that I would stack against most any full-length animated film.

Not nearly as exciting is Kid's Story. Introducing one of the most annoying new characters from The Matrix Reloaded, Kid's Story shows how the Kid (voiced here and played in the film by Clayton Watson) becomes aware of the Matrix and finds his way into the real world. There isn't much to Kid's Story but it's elevated by its rough hand-drawn style of animation. We may have heard Kid's Story before but the piece is fairly short and lovely to look at. The same can't be said of Program, the least of the eight films (nine if you consider the two parts of The Second Renaissance separately). Almost all of Program takes place in a Samurai style training simulation. The animation is fine and the most traditionally Japanese of the pieces here but the story is practically non-existent. You'll see the payoff coming long before it actually arrives. Likewise, World Record is hampered by a weak story (both shorts were written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, director of such anime classics as Wicked City. Kawajiri directed Program while World Record is helmed by his protégé, Takeshi Koike). World Record depicts an athlete who becomes aware of the Matrix and almost, but doesn't quite, break free of it. What distinguishes World Record is its love-it-or-hate-it design, with characters stylized to the extreme. I actually enjoyed the look of World Record and only disliked the moments in which characters opened their mouths and spoke.

My second favorite short in The Animatrix is Beyond, a nifty Twilight Zone-ish tale about some kids who discover a "haunted house", a place where the laws of time and space seemingly don't apply. Of course, these anomalies are the result of a flaw in the Matrix and it isn't long before Agents come in to wipe the place out. Beyond, directed by Koji Morimoto, also has a more traditional anime look and feel to it. But what I liked best about the piece is that it could exist on its own merits without any connection to The Matrix. This is the same quality that distinguished the best of the often brilliant on-line comics offered free at The Matrix website.

Finally, The Animatrix offers up A Detective Story and Matriculated. A Detective Story, animated and narrated in film noir style, follows a private dick hired by Agents to track down Trinity (a vocal cameo by Carrie-Anne Moss). Like Kid's Story (also directed by Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe), A Detective Story is lovely to look at but something of a letdown in its story. The hard-boiled narration doesn't quite fit with the rest of The Animatrix and the story itself doesn't really make sense. The grand finale, Matriculated, is from Peter Chung of Aeon Flux fame. Some humans capture a machine and attempt to "brainwash" it into fighting on their side. I pretty much hated everything about Matriculated up until we enter the robot's mind. At that point, we're treated to some trippy stream of consciousness animation that's like one of those Mind's Eye computer animation compilations on acid (and those things are already pretty psychedelic on their own, thank you very much).

Visually, The Animatrix is gorgeous, with only minor noise and edge enhancement making it less than perfect. There are a lot of different styles of animation on display here and all are presented beautifully, from the stark computer animation of Osiris to the kaleidoscopic swirl of colors in Matriculated. Sound quality is also outstanding, presented in either English or, appropriately enough, Japanese. Both are in Dolby Digital 5.1 and create a wide and enveloping soundscape.

As for extras, Warner has given The Animatrix as bountiful a supply as I've seen on a single-disc direct-to-video release. Starting with the best, each film is given its own making-of piece, which you can either play individually or as one long featurette. Directors and producers are interviewed, character design and rough animation is displayed, and glimpses of recording sessions and live-action character references are shown. In fact, the making-of pieces are so good that they render the other major bonus, the selected audio commentaries, somewhat superfluous. Directors Maeda, Kawajiri, and Koike discuss The Second Renaissance, Program, and World Record, respectively. Of course, each speaks Japanese, so the commentaries are subtitled. It's an odd selection of films to provide commentaries for (I'd rather have heard tracks on Osiris and Beyond in addition to Second Renaissance) and nothing's revealed in them that isn't also discussed in the making-ofs.

The only other major extra is a featurette called Scrolls to Screen: The History and Culture of Anime. You may be tempted to switch it off after the first five minutes, as all we hear about is how much the Japanese filmmakers admired by the Wachowskis loved The Matrix. But after the mutual admiration society disbands, Scrolls to Screen gives a pretty good overview of both anime and manga, from Astroboy to Vampire Hunter D. Most of the major anime landmarks are touched on and, perhaps surprisingly, we even see clips from such films as Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, and Cowboy Bebop. Surprisingly because none of them are distributed by Warner Bros. Perhaps the only major omission is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, director of such classics as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. But since he's really working in a different idiom than the kinds of movies cited by the Wachowskis, it isn't as glaring a loss as you might think. Rounding out the package are some slight text bios of the directors and segment producers, a "trailer" for the Enter the Matrix game, and some DVD-ROM features, none of which are likely to make or break your purchase of this disc.

As ambitious a movie tie-in I've seen, The Animatrix is in many ways a superior follow-up than the seriously flawed Matrix Reloaded. Certainly the work on display here is of a high enough caliber that Warner could have given the movie a theatrical release if they'd wanted to. If you're already a fan of anime, you'll of course want to pick this up to see what your favorite filmmakers are up to. But if you don't know anything about anime, The Animatrix is a good way to ease into the real thing. If nothing else, The Animatrix proves that the concepts and ideas created by the Wachowski brothers are worth exploring and that you don't need Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus to go further down the rabbit hole.

Adam Jahnke

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