La Maison En Petits Cubes
An old man lives alone in a decrepit, partially submerged house that never seems to be quite safe from the rising levels of the ocean. One day, he drops his pipe into the flooded parts of his house while working on repairs, and he is forced to dive down to retrieve it. In the process, he finds himself recalling the parts of his life that he had forgotten about a long, long time ago.
Although many people think that the much-beloved Spirited Away is the only piece of Japanese animation to have ever won an Oscar, there is in fact one other. It is a sweet little film called La Maison En Petits Cubes, which won Best Animated Short Movie at the 81st Academy Awards. It's typically been overlooked, and I think that the main reason (aside from the American public's unfortunate apathy towards featurettes) is that the short itself hardly resembles anime in the usual sense of the term. While it's not my favorite short film, I think it's a warm and affectionate piece whose strengths eventually manage to make up for its weaknesses.
As said, although the film was entirely made in Japan, its art and design much more closely resemble that of French and Danish animation than anything in the usual anime canon, and I have a hunch that the distinctly un-Japanese title pays homage to that fact. The art won't appeal to people who strongly prefer anime to anything Western, and it isn't particularly flashy, either, but it suits the film's tone well. The paintings are all rendered in a grainy pastel style and colored in earthy tones, and the film itself seems to move as a watercolor painting would if it were animated. It feels like a children's book, a tastefully and lovingly drawn one at that, and this feeling gives La Maison an innocent and lifelike atmosphere that works very well for the story it tells.
The movie's main weakness is that it skimps a bit on establishing its main character, the old man, before it dives into his story. It's a silent film, and typically a silent film makes up for the lack of dialogue with pantomime or extended surrealist sequences. La Maison En Petits Cubes, however, has almost nothing in the way of distortion or exaggeration, and while the setting may be strange, the film presents it with so little drama that the first part feels very "normal", almost excessively so. We don't get much personality from the old man except a vague feeling of loneliness, and we don't learn that much about him or the flooded town he lives in for the first five minutes. Unfortunately, this part of the film feels wasted, and that's a pretty big strike against a piece that doesn't have that much running time as it is.
Once we get to the middle of the film, however, the atmosphere instantly becomes more effective, to the point where I found myself in tears. Here, the flashbacks start to roll by, and we finally begin to see the contrast between the man's present and past lives. We see him in his prime, living in a more vibrant version of the city he now dwells on top of, and we see simple, carefree, and charming scenes of his earliest childhood memories. The director complements these with solitary shots of him swimming through the various levels of his house and unearthing the places he had long forgotten about, and this juxtaposition creates a remarkably poignant sense of loss.
The film's setting, meanwhile, is what truly makes it a remarkable piece of work. While we never learn exactly how or why the ocean has risen, we don't need to for this kind of movie: we only need to see the tangible effects it has on the people who must deal with that rise. On a minute, daily level, we see people going to school on barges rather than buses in flashbacks, and on the deepest level, we see the water swallow up the world the old man was born in, gradually eroding everything he has ever known. This ocean is beautiful, and yet it is also not meant for the people who live near it, for we see houses that have been built so high and so narrow to escape the flood that they have become uninhabitable. The man's dwelling is on the verge of this, and we get a sense that he neither has long to live nor much more time to spend there, making the scenes in the second half all the more resonant. I think it's the strongest part of the film, and the symbolism strengthens its accompanying sentiment just as symbolism should do.
La Maison en Petits Cubes is a film that's very easy to pull out and enjoy if one has even a little time to spare. Placing huge expectations on it is a mistake, in my opinion, since there are other movies (namely Pixar's UP) that handle its basic story a bit better, but when it does pick up, it's a haunting piece of work. It is at its very best when it explores its own backstory, and I think that in the end, it spends enough time doing that to succeed.
It's a relatively weak four stars, but it accomplishes what it intended. Remove a star or two if you find quiet films inherently boring or if you absolutely despise the animation style. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Nothing objectionable.
Version(s) Viewed: Theatrical Release
Review Status: Full (1/1)
La Maison En Petits Cubes © 2008 ROBOT
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