The world of animated cartoons has changed drastically since the days of Walt Disney and his first “live” action film, Steamboat Willie, featuring the character who would become Mickey Mouse. Instead of having to painstakingly draw each frame in a movie, animators now have computers, which not only “sculpt” images, but also bring them to life. The worlds that their creations move through are no longer hand-painted static backdrops, but three-dimensional backgrounds co-ordinated to move in conjunction with the action taking place in front of them. Although the ability to seamlessly integrate the animated characters’ activities with the world surrounding them has resulted in cartoons almost as realistic as live action movies, no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes it still can’t replace human artistry.
While there wasn’t anything artistic about the assembly line conditions under which many commercial cartoons were created in the past either, there’s something infinitely more impressive watching a feature drawn by hand than one done on a computer. To today’s sophisticated audience used to CGI special effects and 3D rendering, it might at first appear primitive and crude. However there is a certain magic to these efforts that will eventually win them over, especially if a film is as obvious a labour of love as Mia and the Migoo. The English language version of the film from French director Jaques-Remy Girerd’s Folimage animation studio was released on DVD on August 7, distributed by GKIDS Films throughout North America.
With every cell hand painted, the film took nearly six years to complete from conceptualization to final product. However, when you see the results of this painstaking attention to detail on your television screen, you’ll appreciate the care and effort that went into its creation. From the opening frames, this movie is a visual feast. The use of colour in the beautifully painted backdrops catches your eye right away. In an interview with Girerd included in the DVD’s special features he talks about how his studio works in the tradition of Impressionist painters like Cezanne and Van Gogh, and you can see their influence in every frame. Whether a busy street, the interior of a house, a lush jungle or a stark mountain top, each background is a celebration of the shades and hues of colour that go into creating everything around us.
Mia and the Migoo isn’t just beautiful to look at it, its an entertaining and thoughtful story. I hesitate in using the word, as people have the impression a movie can’t say anything of substance without being preachy, but the movie also contains some nice messages about respect: self-respect, respect for others, and respect for the world around you.
While some might bridle at the rather subversive idea that the environment and caring for those around you is more important than turning a profit, considering how so much popular entertainment aimed at children these days celebrates consumerism, it makes for a refreshing change. The only problem is the message, which is so subtle it is probably lost on most of its audience. While Girerd and company are to be commended for creating something that doesn’t assume its audience is stupid, when people are used to being bludgeoned over the head, they might not respond to a gentle tap on the shoulder.
The story is a combination of a classic road trip and adventure as young Mia leaves her village to look for her father, Pedro. He has taken a job far from home on a construction site building a resort in a remote wilderness area. Strange accidents have been happening on the site, cranes have fallen over and there have been landslides. When Pedro hears an odd noise in one of the tunnels they are building on the site he goes to investigate and is trapped by a cave in. Hundreds of miles away Mia wakes up from a dream of her father in trouble. With her mother already dead, she’s not prepared to lose her father and after visiting her mother’s grave heads out to find him.
Aldrin lives in a world so completely different from Mia it might as well be on another planet. His mother and father are divorced and his father, Jekhide, the businessman behind the development project Pedro was working at, is a workaholic who ignores him. His mother is a scientist studying the effects of global warming on the Antarctic ice-cap, so in some ways Aldrin spends the film in much the same way as Mia, looking for his father. For even though he ends up travelling with Jekhide to the construction site to investigate the mysterious accidents, they might as well be hundreds of miles apart even when they’re in the same room. In so many ways, Aldrin is the parent in their relationship as he’s always having to take his father to task for his self-centred and selfish behaviour. In the end it’s Jekhide’s acting like a spoilt child which brings about the movie’s crises.
As the movie progresses each child continues on their journey in search of their father. Mia’s search is the more adventurous as she must somehow cross great distances on her own. On the way she receives help from some unexpected sources, but it’s her own self reliance and bravery that serve her best. One of the secrets to this movies success is the fact that it’s through the example of its characters behaviour it gets its message across. While Jekhide’s behaviour is slightly over the top at times, it is a cartoon so you can forgive the film makers any excesses that might seem unrealistic. The character’s believability is aided by the fact the cast doing the English language dubbing are universally excellent. Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Modine (who also produced) Wallace Shawn and James Woods are given top billing, but all involved manage to make cartoon characters more believable then usual.
Speaking of cartoon characters slightly over the top, the Migoo (collectively given voice by Shawn) of the title are some of the best invented characters you’ll find in this type of film. Bumbling, affectionate and slightly silly, they’ve also grown dangerously complacent in their roles as nature spirits tasked with protecting the vital tree of life. The tree grows in the centre of the lake near where the new resort is being built; according to what the Migoo tell Mia, if anything happens to the tree, they will suffer and so will the world.
You can probably see where the plot is heading. Confrontation between Jekhide and the Migoo, as he believes they’re responsible for sabotaging his construction site, an attack on the tree followed by its saving and a happy ending with everybody finding what they were looking for. However, as the saying goes, it’s the journey that really matters, and in this case that’s actually true. For while the idea of a little girl Mia’s age travelling hundreds of mile on her own requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, the journey each character takes on the road to the happy ending is far more realistic than what one usually sees in cartoons.
The film makers make sure that Jekhide (and I don’t think the combining of Jekyl and Hyde, the most famous split personality in literary history, is an accident) is shown as being pushed over the edge by circumstances and isn’t really evil. His obsession with profit and success narrow his focus so much he loses sight of what was really important. When he thinks he has lost Aldrin, he realizes his mistake and while it isn’t easy, he does his best to make amends. So, even though his character has to undergo the biggest change, the progression he undergoes is actually quite believable. Naturally, as the film is meant for a younger audience, the messages are fairly obvious. However, unlike far too many movies made for this age range it doesn’t assume its audience are stupid just because they’re young. There is never the feeling the film makers are either lecturing, talking down to or manipulating their audience.
Mia and the Migoo is not only exceptional for the quality of the artisanship that has gone into into its physical creation, but because of the thoughtful and creative minds behind the story it tells. First and foremost its a delightful piece of entertainment with enough humour and adventure to hold he attention of most young audiences.
While it lacks the hight tech bells and whistles people reared on video games are used to, it has one element those types of entertainment are seriously deficient in – heart. You might not be able to see it, but you certainly can feel it in every frame on the screen in front of you. It may take a while, but I think this movie could eventually win over even the most cynical audiences. A thing of beauty and a joy forever, Mia and the Migoo is a wonderful movie for the whole family.