I've been meaning to write about a couple of excellent and unusual animated films I've seen recently. The first was shown over Christmas, and was a BAFTA-nominated retelling of the story of Peter and the Wolf by a joint UK/Polish team. There's no dialogue, but it uses Prokofiev's score for the story, fitting the action in the visuals to the musical themes. It's hard to say what is so enchanting about it, but the characters are so engaging (Peter in particular) that you're genuinely upset when the duck gets eaten by the wolf (I know -- a spoiler -- but I'm assuming that most people already know the story). The film manages to have a dark, contemporary feeling, without losing the timelessness or charm of the original story.
The second animation -- The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello -- is much more unusual visually speaking, but also features fantastic story-telling. Jasper Morello is a navigator who has lost his professional reputation after a tiny mistake lead to the death of a man. He's been given another chance to prove himself on an airship voyage to unknown territory. The passenger -- a 'controversial scientist' -- is performing experiments to try to find a cure for the incurable plague which is killing much of the population.
The visual world that Jasper inhabits is a wildly imaginative riff on Victoriana, with gothic touches worthy of Mary Shelley, M. R. James or Conan Doyle. The world is rendered in rich, dark sepia, with etiolated, silhouetted Giacometti-like characters. This darkness makes the occasional splashes of red or orange, or changes of lighting, all the more striking. The technology is Victorian engineering gone mad: there are gears, cogs, steam engines, steel beams, rivets and wrought iron everywhere, and wonderfully excessive ornamentation on every structure. Jasper's narration sounds like a Victorian gentleman's journal, and fits well with the visual feel.
The animation is superb, but what holds your attention is the wonderful, old-fashioned story-telling. It feels like someone telling you a gothic horror story (the kind that is enjoyably creepy, rather than terrifying) around a cosy winter fire, and we were gripped by the tale. It was rightly nominated for an Oscar, and is well worth a watch if you can track it down.