WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
So you've just seen Andy and Larry Wachowski's The Matrix Reloaded, the much-anticipated follow-up to the mind-bending 1999 smash The Matrix. If you're like me, you just can't get enough bleak cyber-philosophizing amidst wire-fu, not to mention the lovely and sleek Trinity, those wicked and writhing Sentinels, deadly Agents, and—of course—Zion, the last bastion of humankind. Well, feast your eyes on this generous second helping of sci-fi noir—The Animatrix, an anthology of nine Matrix-related anime short films.
The Wachowskis enlisted seven of the most brilliant animation artists from Japan, Korea, and the United States to helm the films, and the result is a cornucopia of styles and palettes, all with a firm foundation in the distinct world created by the talented brothers. In fact, many of the shorts have direct ties into the narrative of the live-action films, and they can illuminate your understanding of the Matrix films' sometimes-labyrinthine plot complexities. The Wachowskis wrote four of the tales and collaborated closely with the animators of the other five.
The nine shorts that make up this DVD are by turns thrilling, disturbingly violent, unrelentingly kick-ass, and—I'm afraid to say—a bit uneven. However, the fool's gold is far outweighed by the real stuff, and in the end, the disc offers an exciting and extremely rewatchable grab-bag of animated gems, comprised of widely varying styles that both enrich your appreciation for the animation medium and provide an eye-popping evening of entertainment.
You can choose to Play All, or you can watch the shorts individually. (Oddly, 7 minutes of credits, representing all nine films, play after each film if you choose to watch them individually.) The menus aren't as user-friendly as I would have liked, but they're not horrible. The disc contains the following nine short films:
1) Final Flight of the Osiris—From Andy Jones, one of the creators of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, comes the tale of the hovercraft Osiris, whose crew races to deliver a vital message to Zion, as hundreds of evil Sentinels blast toward them. This short premiered in front of the dreadful Dreamcatcher in the spring and is the only one of the nine to have enjoyed a theatrical release. If you've seen Final Fantasy, you'll recognize—and probably be blown away by—the ultra-real computer animation in this piece. B+
2) The Second Renaissance Part 1—Mahiro Maeda shows us the genesis of the Matrix, in the form of Zion newsreel archives. You see the meteoric evolution of artificial intelligence and the rise of the machines, and the style of the piece is that of news footage, lending the animation a strange realism, so that you're genuinely appalled by some of the horrific violence that ensues. A
3) The Second Renaissance Part 2—This short concludes Mahiro Maeda's contribution to The Animatrix. In the same style as the first part, Part 2 shows us the war with the machines and humanity's downfall, including the inevitable enslavement into pods and the creation of the Matrix. This little film packs a wallop with its stunning battle imagery. A
4) Kid's Story—This one, like Final Flight of the Osiris, is directly related to a certain aspect of The Matrix Reloaded. Shinchiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop), employing Waking Life-style rotoscoping animation, draws up a tale about a high-school student who is invited by Neo to escape the Matrix. In his frantic search for an exit, he skateboards through his school in a flurry of wild animation. The drawing has a hand-drawn Ralph Steadman hastiness to it that lends an odd depth and energy. B+
5) Program—In perhaps the weakest and most derivative of the nine films, Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll) shows us a Zion soldier taking part in a Samurai cyber-training program. In old-world Japanese anime style, the program involves a duel between Kabuki warriors, but this short doesn't tread any new ground, as it's simply a variation of the training that Neo undergoes in the original live-action film. It also liberally borrows elements of Blade and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. C
6) World Record—Takeshi Koike contributes a super-stylized piece that follows Dan, a world-record-holding sprinter who breaks out of the Matrix in an unusual way. The frequently slow-motion animation has a deformity that, even though it's intended, feels forced and awkward. C+
7) Beyond—Koji Morimoto (Robot Carnival) presents an excellent little mind-bender, in which a young woman named Yoko encounters a decidedly strange section of her town, where everything is just a little bit weird. The animation has a gorgeous shifting depth, with its 3D backgrounds and smoothly enmeshed 2D characters. A
8) A Detective Story—Shinichiro Watanabe, who also contributed Kid's Story, directed this stylish noir story about Ash, a hard-boiled private investigator who tracks Trinity "through the looking glass." Filled with Alice in Wonderland symbology, A Detective Story tries hard to be great—it has an impressively gritty, black-and-white look—but it just doesn't amount to much. B-
9) Matriculated—I had high hopes for this one, and though it's effective in parts, it doesn't quite slam a home run. In this Peter Chung (Aeon Flux) piece, a small group of rebels capture a robot with the intention of programming it to defend the human cause. A long section follows, in which the robot finds himself in the weird world of human dreams, but you'll feel disconnected from the story, too far away from the Wachowski universe and too close to the universe of a wacky Japanese animator. Still, the characters in the real world have a marvelous, gawky look. C+
HOW'S IT LOOK?
In short—exquisite. Warner presents The Animatrix in an absolutely fine anamorphic-widescreen transfer of a 2.35:1 presentation. Across the board, the short films boast a level of fine detail and gorgeous depth that will bring a grin on your lips. In Final Flight of the Osiris, for example, you can study the fine pores of the characters' faces in minute detail. Throughout, colors pop, and black levels are richly deep. All the distinct color palettes are rendered dramatically. I noticed no aliasing along hard lines, and only occasional artifacting.
I do have very small complaints. First, I noticed the presence of minor edge enhancement in scenes of high contrast. Second, I witnessed a few moments in which mosquito noise reared its head on bright whites. Third, in an isolated case, Final Flight of the Isiris seemed a bit darker than I remember it being in the theater—but still eminently watchable.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
Again—exquisite. The disc includes both an English and a Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track (with appropriate subtitles). Each is full and rich, offering clear and distinct dialog with no brittleness, a punchy and full music presence, and immersive surround effects that are at once entertainingly directional and enveloping.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
You'll find several enticing features under a section labeled Bonus_Data.
First up is Voices, which you might assume is a flimsy featurette about the various voice actors used in the short films. In actuality, Voices is much more: It comprises four subtitled director commentaries over The Second Renaissance Parts 1 and 2, Program, and World Record. Mahiro Maeda talks at length about the meaning of his two films, but falls into the trap of narrating the action. Still, he has much to say about his inspirations and his interpretation of the Wachowskis' universe. He also points out how events of the film chillingly echo modern-day news items. For Program, director Kawajiri is joined by producer Takeuchi, and two talk about their intention to use two-dimensional "orthodox Japanese animation." Their discussion focuses more on craft and design than on story. Finally, for World Record, Koike and his producer also concentrate on design, for both characters and backgrounds, at one point acknowledging the design influence of Brad Pitt.
Next is a 22-minute full-frame featurette called Scrolls to Screen: The History and Culture of Anime. In its introduction, much attention is paid to the large debt The Matrix owes to anime, and at the same time, through interviews with the animators involved in The Animatrix, we learn of the great respect that the animators have for the Wachowskis. Then, the featurette gets busy with its history lesson, talking about manga's origins in ancient scrolls and wood block illustrations, then shooting forward to the effect of 20th century American comics pages on today's manga. We then learn of anime's real surge as reflections of historical events such as World War 2 (Grave of the Fireflies is used as an example). The featurette also breaks down and analyzes the style differences between Japanese-style animation (large eyes, static frames, etc.) and American animation.
Creators is a series of bio sheets on the film's directors and producers.
Execution is an excellent 55-minute full-frame documentary that's broken into segments focusing on the making of each short film. In fact, you can watch each segment individually from a submenu. The filmmakers talk about their unique approaches to the subject matter, and about their experiences working with the Wachowskis. We also get the reverse perspective, focusing on the backgrounds and personalities of the animators themselves. And we get peeks into the making of the episodes, including tantalizing looks at groundbreaking techniques and processes.
Finally, Enter the Matrix: In the Making is a 3-minute preview of the Enter the Matrix videogame. Sneakily, it combines game imagery with live-action film imagery, seemingly in an attempt to boost the supposed effectiveness of the game's visuals.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A fascinating look at the Matrix universe through the eyes of those who inspired it, The Animatrix provides thrills as it provokes laughs and wonder—even if it stumbles in places. Overall, this disc is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of anime, with supplements that enrich your appreciation of the form. I highly recommend it as a companion-piece to your growing Matrix DVD library.