The Animatrix film review

The ANIMATRIX is a series of animated short films, inspired by and linked to the MATRIX universe. They were created by some of the hottest Japanese animators working in the industry today. The following reviews are for each of the nine shorts.

The Final Flight Of The Osiris
The first short within the Animatrix disc is a collaboration between Square USA, the studio responsible for the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and the Wachowski brothers. Intended to be the most vital of the nine Animatrix shorts in regards to storyline of The Matrix Reloaded, the story follows the heroic and tragic fate of the crew of the Osiris as they race to warn Zion of impending attack by the machines. The fate of the Osiris and Captain Thaddeus are mentioned several times by Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character Niobe in The Matrix Reloaded and in the video game, Enter the Matrix. The short itself, being the centerpiece of the disc, is also the most representative of the collection’s quality; extremely mixed. The opening flirting! fighting! sequence is titilating, with the female character being the sexiest animated heroine I have ever seen on celluloid However the scene still plays out as though it were written by someone who has seen a lot of romantic comedies but has never been in love. The action picks up from there, playing out like a montage of cut scenes from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, complete with voiceover work from someone who either is, or sounds a lot like, Steve Buscemi. That’s not to say the short is bad, it’s just not the most stunning thing on the planet and pales in comparison, from a storytelling standpoint, to the next two shorts on the disc. The Final Flight of the Osiris is important if you want to be clued in to the rather nebulous references to it in The Matrix Reloaded, but as a standalone short, it’s still technique over substance.

The Second Renaissance, Parts I & II
The next two shorts, directed by Mahiro Maeda and written by the Wachowski brothers, are the shining gems of The Animatrix and should not be missed by anyone interested in science-fiction, anime, cyberpunk or merely decent storytelling. These two shorts tell the story about what happened to humanity before the events of the first Matrix film, detailing how we became a power source for our captors. The narrative is told by a soothing electronic female voice, and the visuals are lush and captivating. The writing is absolute genius, told with a chilling yet compassionate clarity, gifting the narrator with a kind of programmed sympathy. The images on screen are shocking at times, to say the least (like the scene where human heads are crushed underneath half track machines.) These are, far and away, the most violent and disturbing of the shorts on the disc. They will no doubt have an impact on the viewer. They are in many ways, more violent than the films themselves. But that seems to make sence, since you’re dealing with a genre known for its violence and gore. Here is where the Wachowski’s storyline is given a chance to shine. While the concept isn’t entirely original as much of their work isn’t, it’s presented in such a unique, beautiful, effective and captivating fashion that it’s impossible not to fall in love with it. The images contained herein are pure storytelling magic.

Kid’s Story
Another direct tie-in to The Matrix Reloaded, Kid’s Story concerns itself with the obnoxious teenager who kept following Neo around once the crew of the Nebbuchandezzer landed at Zion. This short details his life before Neo opened his eyes to the Matrix, and his thrilling escape from the land of the perpetually hypnotized. The animation is unique, to say the least. Visually, Kid’s Story is very dreamlike in appearance, realized as a moving sketch rather than a completed, solid animation. The narrative is fairly routine, but Kid’s Story is another ‘good’ moment in The Animatrix. Competent storytelling is bolstered by a mature, almost experimental aesthetic, and it seems to be one of the few on this disc that truly attempts to work outside the typical anime mold. Plus, it’s the only short Neo himself appears in, and the second for Carrie Ann-Moss’ latex-clad Trinity. Kid’s Story is, certainly, a highlight of the disc, whether or not you wanted Agent Smith to personally blow this obnoxious adolescent apart in the film.

Program
This one was written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Kawajiri is responsible for Ninja Scroll, one of the best period Animes of all time. Nobody ever accused Kawajiri of being a gifted storyteller, and his painfully routine entry in to The Animatrix seems labored. It’s as if Kawajiri knew that lots of non-anime fans would be watching this and thus, he should make it as stereotypical as possible. Ninjas, samurai, super-powered badass independent women, random Japanese imagery, lots of pointless fighting, and some of the most unrealistic, ridiculous dialogue ever. The characters talk too much, tell each other things they already know, and seem to have a discussion they’ve already had about a million times. The characters look like they were yanked straight out of Ninja Scroll. The animation is nice enough, provided you like Kawajiri’s bulky, inelegant design sensibility. His Ninja Scroll TV series is a few big steps ahead of this junk; perhaps he took a screenwriting class between this production and that one. Check out Ninja Scroll for great Anime.

World Record
Animated by the uber animation kingdom, Studio Madhouse, responsible for such fan favorites as Card Captor Sakura, X and the animated segment in Kill Bill, World Record is probably the least visually appealing short on the disc. Again written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, it’s also the short with the least tie-in to the whole Matrix concept. The story concerns a runner trying to break a world record; he runs so fast that eventually he awakens outside the Matrix, in his pod. He’s being followed by agents the entire time. Everyone has gigantic flapping lips that never really come close to matching their speech; I understand anime has difficulty with lip-synch but this short gets ridiculous. The awkward, ugly character designs, constant use of the fisheye lens, and hideous color palette make World Record possibly one of the most aesthetically disgusting anime productions ever made. The storyline is interesting enough, but seems out of place here. It’s about The Matrix, but doesn’t seem to have any real connection to the films or explain anything but to suggest that it’s possible to exit the Matrix via means other than a computer. An interesting concept, but not fleshed out well at all.

Beyond
This one and World Record attempt to explore the concepts and boundaries of the Matrix, rather than attempt to directly tie-in with the films. Utilizing the visual style found predominantly in Gainax’s beloved oddity FLCL, Beyond is yet another high point of this series of shorts. The story is about a haunted house, which is essentially a run-down tenement where a few lines of Matrix code have gone screwy and caused a number of spatial anomalies, Beyond is playful and entertaining, unlike many of the other shorts. The main character, who shares many of the same design sensibilities as FLCL’s chaotic mistress Haruko, shines on screen as a sympathetic,yet undeveloped (length of film), heroine. Her quest to retrieve her cat leads her to the aforementioned house, which is also populated by a pack of mischievous kids who play around with the abilities granted to them by the Matrix. A few agents show up, there’s a couple of nifty animation tricks, and in the end, Beyond is an entertaining and solid addition to the lineup.

A Detective Story
Clocking in right behind The Second Renaissance is A Detective Story, a short by Shinichiro Wantanabe, the man behind Sunrise’s beloved anime classic Cowboy Bebop. Told in grainy black and white to invoke a noir-ish feel, the short tells the story of a PI on the trail of Trinity, the girl we all know is destined to fall in love with Neo. This exciting, atmospheric, beautifully designed and directed short is the second best thing on the disc, and is worth a look by anyone who loves noir film. There’s a thrilling train sequence with some agents and a lovely twist ending that wraps up very nicely. As an added bonus, the storyline directly relates to one of the film’s most important characters, and thus from a tie-in perspective boosts itself to the ranks of okay. Wantanabe is a gifted director and his talents shine here. Don’t miss A Detective Story, under any circumstances.

Matriculated
Like him or hate him, enough production companies seem to love Aeon Flux auteur Peter Chung enough to give him work until the end of time. Thus, we sit through Matriculated, Chung’s hat in the Animatrix ring. Most people claim to absolutely despise Chung’s character designs; Reign: The Obsession of Alexander was not and will never be a fan favorite. A group of rogue humans seem to have devised a way to send a robot into its own Matrix, creating a virtual world for the robot to exist in. Why did they do this? What’s the purpose? It’s never explained. We simply watch Chung’s hideous new character designs writhe around and eventually get killed, their disgusting sinewy limbs ripped apart. Eventually the short turns into a kind of bad CG funhouse, with psychedelic colors and crazy characters coming in left and right. This one you could easily skip, and not miss much.

The DVD also includes a wonderful documentary on anime and attempts to actually educate the public about the art form of Anime. Every anime fan in the world should write the Wachowskis and Warner Home Video and thank them for taking the time to make people actually UNDERSTAND what anime is about. They are trying. This is the first attempt, and it is a huge milestone, something everyone needs to be thankful for. They explain the history and culture of anime in a concise and understandable fashion. If you want your friends and family to understand your hobby, make them watch the first two Matrix films and then get this DVD and watch this documentary together.

In all, The Animatrix is a landmark event for anime fans, one that should be remembered for a long time, not for its relative quality, but for what the release means to anime fandom. This is, perhaps, the most significant anime event since Spirited Away won the Oscar; 2003 is turning out to be a banner year for anime fans.

A film review by Robert Strohmeyer © 2003 filmcritic.com

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