Until just recently, there were three must-see anime anthology films: the delectable treatise on all things android Robot Carnival, the bizarrely futuristic Manie Manie, and the brilliant Memories from the mind of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo.
Now there are four.
With the release of The Matrix Reloaded, audiences have gotten a second helping of the landscape that won over critics and moviegoers alike back in 1999. The first film was loaded with possibilities, and Reloaded took them to the next level. However, there were still plenty of plotlines left untouched. That's where The Animatrix comes in. A series of nine short films, this groundbreaking feature takes the vision of the Wachowski Brothers and moves it into a realm of storytelling where the Matrix can come alive without a $200 million budget. Five of the nine shorts actually tie into the second movie in some fashion; the other four give us new possibilities into just what the Matrix can hold in store.
Four of the stories here--"Final Flight of the Osiris", "The Second Renaissance Parts I & II", and "Kid's Story"--are written by the Wachowskis, and they are easily the best in terms of plot. It's clear that these two know exactly where they're going, and these shorts help define the world of the Matrix in ways that make a lot of the second movie easier to handle. There are also two minor disappointments. "Program", written by Ninja Scroll director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, has no real plot, just an excuse for a longwinded fight sequence. (Kawajiri also wrote a second segment in the film, "World Record", and he redeems himself there.) The final clip, "Maltriculated", is by Peter Chung of Aeon Flux, and though its concept of creating a secondary Matrix to fool captured machines into fighting for the humans is challenging, it winds up making little sense. But it's saying something that the worst shorts are actually quite good. It's the previous stunners that left me wanting a better finale.
Meanwhile, the animation is a blend of a variety of styles that, though not typical of anime in nature, make for an exciting ride. It's especially fun to see Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop fame do one film, "A Detective Story", in a noir-like mode that reminds us of his popular franchise, but also hitting us with "Kid's Story" in a sketchy, dreamlike fashion that stretches boundaries. Kawajiri's previously mentioned "World Record" looks downright weird, but through it I saw all sorts of possibilities for other comic book creations to be animated effectively. (Frankly, if Matt Wagner ever wanted to bring the Pander Bros. section of Grendel to life, it should look exactly like this short.) Even the lesser "Maltriculated" has an awesome visual flair. It is so nice, for once, to see what can be done on a decent budget--if all anime had this kind of money backing it, we would all be in awe. All the shorts are also presented in 2.35:1 ratio, making it one of the only animated features ever in that format.
My main disappointment is that a feature this great should have been shown in theatres. There was certainly enough money spent to do so. However, my guess is that two major hurdles stopped them from showing it in multiplexes around the country. The first is the content itself. Unlike the recently mis-rated Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, had The Animatrix been screened as a whole for the MPAA, it would have justifiably received an R rating. With some disturbing imagery and graphic violence, there's no doubt this isn't for kids. If it had gotten a wide release, some parents certain that anything animated is for children would have gotten a rude awakening. Second, and possibly more important, is the box office potential. It isn't hard to find pundits calling Reloaded a disappointment, having made at this point "only" $262 million dollars. It's ridiculous to a fault, but in the current negative climate, if a movie isn't stratospheric for its entire run, critics can jump on the negative dollar bandwagon. The Animatrix itself has limited built-in appeal, and so it couldn't be expected to make huge amounts of money. Although it would no doubt have been wildly successful for an anime feature in America, a Matrix product making only $25 million in box office receipts could have spelled catastrophe.
But enough of that rant: hopefully, somebody someday will put this on a screen worthy of its presence. Meanwhile, if you've seen the original Matrix and even remotely liked it, The Animatrix is a keeper. In terms of sheer delight, it reaches the excitement of Spirited Away and Metropolis for me. This is a joy for the animation fan to watch.
The Animatrix -- violence (some graphic), disturbing imagery -- A+