One of the most enjoyable pieces of work within the entire anime canon, Robot Carnival is a joyous celebration of the power of animation. A modern take on Disney's Fantasia, this film is filled with beautiful images that rarely need words to convey their meanings. Even in its most basic moments, Robot Carnival is thoroughly entertaining, and is an easy way to explain to the cynic how anime transcends a variety of genres so easily.
Robot Carnival is a collection of several short films with only one connecting theme--each, in some way, involves an automaton of some kind. The directors were allowed to flow from there, and what they turned out is nothing short of astounding. All but two of the segments have no dialogue, letting the soundtrack and the visuals handle the storytelling. Going through an amazing range of styles, we get black comedy in the opening and closing segments from Akira's Katsuhiro Otomo. We get an action spectacular in "Deprive" and a romantic diversion in "Starlight Angel." We have an art piece in Mao Lamdo's "Clouds". We have a hysterical take on US/Japanese relations in a funny mecha story, "Tale of Two Robots". Finally, in its best moments, we get a wonderful chase through a mechanized Sleepy Hollow in "Nightmare" and a hauntingly beautiful love story in "Presence."
Despite a huge variety of artistic styles and techniques, Robot Carnival looks gorgeous throughout, even if it isn't quite at the level of some of the best new anime films. The soundtrack varies widely as well, but it's one of the few anime soundtracks I own due to its quality. The whole film benefits from having excellent direction throughout. Although it might be hard to call it innovative, seeing that Fantasia also told its tales without words, Robot Carnival is far more entertaining than that ultimately dull film, and I believe far more creative.
Does that mean you'll like every section of the film? Probably not. I love the whole thing, and I still sometimes skip over "Clouds", which is beautiful yet plotless. Others dislike "Deprive" and "Starlight Angel" for their simplistic views and similarities to each other. However, on the whole, it fits together wonderfully well, especially in its original order. (Streamline, in its infinite wisdom, changed the order of the segments when they released it stateside.) There is something for everybody in this film, and some segments are so good that it's even worth skipping around if you have to in order to get to them. Personally, even the lesser parts work for me.
In particular, "Presence" is excellent. The story of an inventor who creates a robot who turns out a little too real and the regrets that come to haunt him, "Presence" is easily Yasuomi Umetsu's finest work to date. If it were just brilliantly animated, which it is, it would be merely good. However, the whole story is sadly haunting, and it stayed with me for weeks the first time I saw it. "Nightmare" and "Tale of Two Robots" are also both fantastic and worth the price of admission.
I am excited to hear the whisperings that a DVD of this title is on the way. Along with Robotech and Macross '84, this was one of my first entry titles into Japanese animation, so perhaps I'm biased. Even then, though, Robot Carnival is a must-see film.
Robot Carnival -- mild violence, mild scares for young children -- A+