25 April

In the field of cinema—or perhaps more accurately, in the field of high volume cinema watching (including primarily movie critics and the occasional fanatic like yours truly)—the word “innovative”, while always welcome, is not always a sign of success. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true: Innovation leads to failure most of the time, the degree of likelihood of failure mapping pretty well with the degree of innovation. And very often, even when innovation does succeed aesthetically, it does not succeed commercially. Citizen Kane, for example, has often ended up at the top of “greatest American movies ever list”, but it wasn’t a hit at the time.

I'm not making that up.
Apparently, “rosebud” is what he called his girlfriend’s genitalia.

Nonetheless, when you see a lot of movies, you welcome those who would be adventurous in the making thereof. So, while the “innovative” tag applied to 25 April, a documentary about the Gallipoli Campaign, made me a little nervous, the scope of the innovation seemed well within the standard documentary tropes. Here’s the premise:

Writer/director Leanne Pooley and co-writer Tim Woodhouse have taken the letters of six New Zealanders who were involved in the Gallipoli campaign and have animated the things described therein. In between these animated reenactments of the war, they “interview” the six people. That is, they interview the animated avatars of the six (long dead) people who “respond” (presumably) with the words written in their letters.

Real scarce.
Actual 100-year-old footage is scarce.

It’s not a bad idea, really. But, as noted in the opening paragraph, innovation usually fails and, by-and-large, this does not work. Or, at least it did not work for The Boy and I. (The Boy has recently listened to All Quiet on the Western Front and become a bit of a WWI aficionado.) Though we agreed that the movie, largely, failed to resonate, we each isolated different elements that didn’t work for us.

But before I go into those, I do want to emphasize that the innovation itself isn’t bad. There’s no reason animation couldn’t be used successfully in exactly this way, at least aesthetically, with one caveat: Bad animation will work against you, and that is part of the problem here. It seems to be—well, I thought that it was partly rotoscoped, which is a time-honored way of animating on a budget, but I think it’s just motion-capture and CGI. The problem with CGI, as we all know, is that it can be very alienating. So while the voice acting is fine, and the movement of the characters is…well, it’s often fine, especially when they’re sitting down for their interviews, but less fine when they’re moving around the battlefield, the facial expression is flat. The style used for the faces, giving them severe arbitrary-looking lines indicating, I don’t know, cheekbones or something, indicates to me that they knew they had a problem with the faces being too smooth.

This still isn't bad, though.
Botox gone impossibly wrong.

Anyway, I found it very hard to connect with. The Boy, interestingly, thought the format was too much like a reality show. A shot of action, a shot of people being interviewed after the fact. Documentaries are often like that, I pointed out, and he raised some good points about how the whole thing seemed to echo that style, which is not great for a serious documentary. (It reminded me a bit of “Archer”, which is also not great for a serious documentary.)

I felt, also, that there was a desire above all desires, to make this movie an anti-war film. Some of the imagery, was clearly added to make a statement of that nature. Not all of it was bad, but all of it was unnecessary. Gallipoli was one of the biggest military disasters in history (and the subject of a Golden Globe winning Peter Weir/Mel Gibson film back in 1981, come to think of it). The particular horrors of WWI have been documented over and over again, and Gallipoli (along with Verdun and some others) are textbook “horrors of war” stuff. My point is not that there’s no room for more anti-war films. It’s that there’s no reason to “dress up” Gallipoli to make its horrors apparent. (I mean, if you want to make a strong anti-war statement, tackle the “splendid little war”.) You’re already taking liberties, right? With the whole animation thing? There’s no need to gild that particular lily.

The dog? Really? You gotta bring the dog into this?
This is an actual picture of a dog they animated for this film.

One way in which this approach was very successful, on the other hand, was that by having the animated avatar, and convincing the audience that that was the actual person, you could do some things that are literally impossible with a live action interview. (I’m being cagey so as not to spoil.) This was effective here, and it could be used and varied effectively in other contexts.

So, three point scale:

  1. Interesting topic. A ground-eye view of the action at Gallipoli has a lot of merit.
  2. Interesting, but not wholly successful style. ’nuff said.
  3. Slant was anti-war, which would be fine, but I thought it interfered here.

It’s worth a look!

They did it. They were ordered to, and they did it.
Just don’t stick your head out of the trench to do so.

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