Thursday, 29 December 2011

Year in Review 2011

Between the natural and economic disasters of the past year, it has not been a very good one for a very large number of people. It gives those of us who have had a productive year a moment to pause, take on our responsibility to do what we can to care for those who have not and to recount with gratitude our own blessings. For myself and for Voyages Extraordinaires, 2011 has been a very good year.

I won't get into advancements in my personal and professional life, but I can and will talk about this fair weblog. Our readership has steadily increased and we now enjoy 245 followers on Google and over 400 members of our Facebook group. Our giveaway contests continue unabated, with many more to come. I started working with Network Awesome to write articles, and I finally got around to updating the look of the site to better reflect the feel I've sought with its content, juxtaposing the wonder and beauty of nature with the aesthetics of the Victorian-Edwardian Era.

For the content, I feel that this weblog has been finally hitting its real stride. I was pleased to feature modern Canadian artist Jeff de Boer, early Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón, Mark Hodder's second book in the Burton and Swinburne series, and the marvellous Alien Voices (who have since brought their catalogue online). I was also able to revisit a pair of my favourite filmmakers: Karel Zeman's Baron Munchausen and the complete works of Georges Méliès, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

An additional favourite of mine is Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, to whom I devoted the whole month of March, including a review of both the anime and manga versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. April's Japan-themed month focused on railways, including a look at Japan's Vintage Railways and the most famous novel by one of my most loved authors, Kenji Miyazawa's A Night on the Galactic Railroad.

We went to the Weird West in May, with looks at a number of games and stories, including two classic short stories: The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies and The Monster of Lake LaMetrie. Edward Erdelac also sent along review copies of the delightful first two books in his Merkabah Rider series, Tales of a High Planes Drifter and The Mensch with No Name. Slightly north of the Old West, we visited my homeland of Canada. One of our most famous products is Anne of Green Gables, but even Jules Verne found enough romance in the Truth North Strong and Free to set a novel here. We do have our own, slight, tradition of novels, but an even grander one of lake monsters.

I wrapped up a tour of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attractions with a look at the extinct exhibition from Disneyland, and launched a foolhardy defense of Tomorrowland's 1998 refurbishment (along with some glorious photos). I also could not resist jumping on the bandwagon of hatred over Disney's deal with James Cameron to bring Avatar to Walt Disney World. Over the way at the other studio, returned to the crypts of the Universal Studios Monsters in October with a look at The Black Cat, The Raven and the effective end of the series, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

My annual anniversary pep-talk was on Religion and Romanticism, leading into a month of looking at more modern French Scientific Romances, including Dionysos' La Mécanique du Coeur in music and print and the cult-classic City of Lost Children. It also bled over into a December spent with the deity of French animation, Paul Grimault, from his short films up to one of my most favourite movies, The King and the Mockingbird.

I'm very excited about next year's line-up. 2012, besides being the supposed end of the world, is also a year of some substantive centennials to which we will be paying heed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World turns 100, as does Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars, which Disney will be adapting into a feature film. It will also be the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Supplementing that will be the championship bout: Jules Verne vs. H.G. Wells! There will be more giveaways, more Doctor Who, more Méliès, and I hope more and better of those things that have kept you all as supporters of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart and have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

National Geographic's Top Stories of 2011

The National Geographic Society is one of the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Founded in 1888 to "increase and diffuse geographic knowledge," the Society's mission is to inspire people to care about the planet.

Throughout its 120-year history, the Society has encouraged conservation of natural resources and raised public awareness of the importance of natural places, the plants and wildlife that inhabit them, and the environmental problems that threaten them. National Geographic's explorers, writers and photographers have traveled the Earth, sharing its amazing stories with each new generation. The Society has funded more than 9,000 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects around the globe, and grantees make exciting new discoveries every day in both traditional and emerging fields.

Once again, the globally renowned National Geographic Society has tabulated the top science and nature stories from 2011 based on those articles most viewed by readers. Click on the links below to catch up on what's new in the world!

Top Ten Discoveries
Top Ten Photos
Best Pictures: Photo Contest Winners, 2011
Best News Pictures of 2011
Photo of the Day: Best of 2011
Best Space Pictures of 2011
Ten Weirdest Life-forms of 2011

National Geographic's travel wing also created their own site for the Top Ten of everything, everywhere. Visit it here.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Le Petit Soldat (1937)

One of Paul Grimault's most successful short subjects, Le Petit Soldat adapts the famous winter fairy tale of the tin soldier. This particular version is haunting for the unmistakable dread of Europe's impending war.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Le Voleur de Paratonnerre (1944)

Paul Grimault's 1944 short Le Voleur de Paratonnerre tells a comic tale of an incredibly skilled thief. Anointed with incredible skill and clad in domino mask, the protagonist is very much in the tradition of Arsène Lupin, Fantômas and other French gentleman thieves. This is a lighthearted cartoon, however, and Grimault's version lacks the sadism of his more serious cousins.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Le Chien Mélomane (1973)

Paul Grimault's rapacious alien from La Diamant returns as a duplicitous arms dealer in Le Chien Mélomane. In this extract from the Grimault retrospective La Table Tournante, our alien has weaponized music and sold it to both sides of a violent conflict. Things are going well until his puggly puppy gets ahold of the lethal violin.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Le Diamant (1970)

The ins and outs of colonial exploitation are explored by Paul Grimault in La Diamant, courtesy of his top-hatted alien Snidely Whiplash. The audio is a bit off on this online video, but it is a testament to Grimault's skill at pantomime that the audio isn't even necessary. There is no dialogue through the whole short, nor is any required.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Le Messager de la Lumière (1938)

Despite being a commercial for Mazda lightbulbs (hey, a man has to eat), Le Messager de la Lumière is still a wonderful example of Paul Grimault's animation artistry. The name "Lumière" is one of the most famous French titles in the world, spread by the pioneering brothers who practically invented cinema. In this short, Grimault recalls celestial imagery given prior celluloid life by another French film pioneer, Georges Méliès.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The King and the Mockingbird (1980)

Perhaps one of the longest-held torches in animation history, Paul Grimault's Le Roi et l'Oiseau took nearly 30 years to complete amidst setbacks and legal wranglings that occupied the life of France's preeminent animator. The final result was worth the wait, a lavish artistic spectacle in the fine European tradition.

Conceived in 1948 but not released in its truest form until 1980, The King and the Mockingbird purports to adapt the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. The story is altered substantially to concentrate on the ill-fated, melancholic king, his painted doppelganger, and a fantastic climax involving a giant robot. The titular Mockingbird introduces us to the unloved and unlovable king Charles the 5 and 3 make 8 and 8 make 16th, who rules over the massive, unhappy kingdom-castle of Tachycardia, named for a condition of faster than normal heartrate. Described as having loneliness and hunting as his favorite pastimes, he is unmistakably an echo of the 19th century King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Himself unloved, Ludwig retreated into the construction of fairy tale castles like the famous Neuschwanstein, inspiration to Le Roi et l'Oiseau. His cousin Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, once said of Ludwig that “He lived only for his dreams, and his sadness was dearer to him than all life itself.” Presented for the most part as gratuitously cruel and aloof - such as having hunted the Mockingbird's wife - a lovely scene in Charles' private apartment becomes a study in how to describe a character sympathetically through pure character animation.

Charles the 5 and 3 make 8 and 8 make 16th is cross-eyed, which seems to be responsible for much of his isolation. A new court-painter is hired to render a portrait of his majesty and inadvertently gets it right down to the last detail. He ends up literally going down the same hatch as all those before him and the king retires to his secret apartment with the painting. There he muses on it, repaints the eyes so they are no longer crossed, jacks the painting up a few extra feet, and examines himself in a soon-to-be smashed mirror. Tormenting him is another painting of a shepherdess on a wall-panel. She is lovely, and her gaze is cast on the adjacent painting of a chimney sweep. It is a moving scene of great pathos and perhaps one of the most moving in the whole canon of animated film.

The shepherdess and the chimney sweep escape their confines only to be pursued by the painted version of the king. If character is how one behaves when there are no more excuses, then this new king's assumption to the throne is very telling of the original Charles. The pursuit winds its way down the castle and into the very bowels of the structure built upon a ruined city reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Here the giant robot comes into play as the ultimate in Grimault's playful use of Fin de siècle fantastic fiction, from elevators resembling Jules Verne's rockets to watercraft patrolling Venetian-style waterways to bat-winged policemen from French dime novels.

In 1939, Grimault formed the studio Les Gémeaux with André Sarrut, which ended up being the only functioning animation studio in occupied Europe. Despite living under Nazi oppression, it was relatively profitable given that cartoons from Allied countries were verbotten. They weathered the war but finally closed doors in 1948 after Sarrut debuted La Bergère et le Ramoneur, which was for all intents and purposes the working draft of Le Roi et l'Oiseau. The film was expensive to produce, as was “Disney's Folly” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to which it bears comparison, without half the success. Furthermore, Sarrut's premature release caused a rift with Grimault that broke the venture completely. Though it was prefigured in 1947 by the successful and acclaimed Le Petit Soldat, Grimault was forced to spend the next 30 years scraping together enough money and talent to finish the film the way he wanted. In the mean time, the vast majority of his work was in advertising.

Yet on its final release it was immediately recognized as a work of genius. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were inspired by its demonstration of everything that animation could be. Studying it assiduously, the lessons learned fueled the creation of their own studio, Ghibli. He is the direct ancestor to celebrated animators like Sylvain "Triplets of Belleville" Chomet. His work is lovely and lyrical, elegant and subtle, aesthetically powerful and powerfully acted.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Le Passagers de "La Grande Ourse" (1941)

Though created well-within the global conflagration of World War Two, Paul Grimault's Le Passagers de "La Grande Ourse" reflects some of the technological optimism that was held shortly before it broke out. The story, such as it is, revolves around a boy and his dog who stow away on "The Big Dipper", a grand airliner in the best traditions of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Though primarily slapstick, the designs and fanciful idea of the future compare favourably to contemporaneous American shorts like the Fleischer Bros. All's Fair at the Fair and Superman series or Disney's Modern Inventions.