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I saw "The Green Hornet" over the weekend, but that's not the reboot I want to talk about today. Instead, I have a slightly older title in mind, one that I had written off sight unseen a few years ago - the feature film reboot of the "Neon Genesis Evangelion" anime series, titled "Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone." For the record, I saw "1.11," the DVD release with a few extra minutes of footage, not the "1.01" theatrical release.

"Evangelion" was one of the major anime titles of the 90s, a massively popular, influential, and controversial story of giant robots, teen angst, and sinister Christian theology. It was produced by Studio GAINAX, famous for being founded by a pack of dedicated anime fanboys aiming to revolutionize the industry. And to an extent, they did. "Evangelion" was considered a watershed title that defined an era and introduced anime to many Western viewers. Anime fans of a certain age all know the characters on sight, even if they never watched a frame of the twenty-six episode television series or the two follow-up films.

When I heard that GAINAX, was planning to remake the series, I wasn't expecting much. At the time the "Rebuild of Evangelion" project was announced in 2002, GAINAX hadn't had a hit in a while. The studio had always leaned heavily on "Evangelion" merchandise, and there were other "Evangelion" projects like video games and manga trotted out every few years, aimed at milking the franchise for all it was worth. In the interim, I'm happy to report that "Tengan Toppa Gurren Lagaan," a thoroughly enjoyable new giant robot show, became a smash in 2007, giving the studio something else to fiddle with.

But on to the reboot. "You Are (Not) Alone" is the first of four planned "Rebuild" films and covers the material found in the first six episodes of "Neon Genesis Evangelion." What surprised me about the new feature was not the changes from the original, but the relative lack of changes. The series is essentially recreated, practically scene for scene, and largely using repurposed or painstakingly copied character animation from the original show. I knew "Evangelion" well enough to spot new animation and any deviations from the original script, but there weren't many instances of either.

This is not to say that the new "Evangelion" was a simple re-edit of the existing material. Nearly every frame had been heavily retouched or enhanced. Backgrounds were replaced, details were added, and CGI was used to add more interesting dimensions to the fight scenes. All the enemy "Angels" had been redesigned for greatly pumped-up battle scenes. What was really impressive was how seamlessly the old and new elements had been combined. If this was the first time I'd seen "Evangelion," I wouldn't have been able to tell which bits were from the original and which were not.

After sitting through "You Are (Not) Alone," I'm not sure the film can really be called a reboot since so much of it really is taken directly from the original source. Yet at the same time so much has also been changed, it felt like I was seeing certain familiar events for the first time. The film's climactic battle with the Sixth Angel had the most new material and was a huge improvement on the original. The closest thing I can think to compare the effect to is the "Special Edition" versions of the "Star Wars" trilogy, if George Lucas had added twice as many new scenes, ten times as many new effects to existing scenes, and then re-edited half the film.

Using a new term, "rebuild," feels appropriate for "You Are (Not) Alone," and I can't help wondering if this approach could work for other films. Since "Evangelion" is purely animation and so much of it centers around these big, wild fight sequences, obviously the techniques it employs wouldn't be as effective for something like "Star Wars" or even "Beauty and the Beast." Still, this could be a good example for filmmakers currently trying to revamp classic films by converting them for 3D or enhancing them with new CGI effects. I don't think the the "Evangelion" rebuilds or any of these other reboots and reissues are necessary, but if the studios demand them, something like "You Are (Not) Alone" seems to do the least amount of damage by preserving the old while indulging the new.

Is the new "Evangelion" better than the original? It's a different beast, with a narrative that emphasizes different things but doesn't shed as much of its episodic nature as it probably should have for a feature. I certainly liked the new film and I'm anticipating the future ones, though I have to wonder how much of this is due to my nostalgia for the series. On the other hand, no reboot ever managed to evoke so much nostalgia from me for its original source material - because so much of the rebuild IS the original source material!

We've certainly entered an interesting new age in cinema. If this catches on, I wonder what they'll rebuild next?
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There's something that's been bothering me about an argument I've spotted in the discussions of recent Disney films. Over the weekend, as I was chewing over which winter movies I wanted to see with some friends, "Tangled" and "Tron Legacy" came up. Gossip was, and this is totally hearsay, that both films are visually gorgeous but weak on story. Someone opined that since Disney gained chief creative officer John Lasseter, PIXAR's fabled story team offered their services to several Disney projects, including "Tron." Surely that meant the film was in good hands in the story department. I remember reading a movie blog a few months ago that used similar justification for why we shouldn't write off "Tangled" just yet. Lasseter and PIXAR were on the case, so we could expect them to iron out the story problems that had plagued the notorious "Rapunzel" project for untold years in development hell.

I don't find this argument very convincing. For the last several PIXAR films, story and writing has been their Achilles heel. "Up" had ten great minutes followed by eighty-odd mediocre ones. "WALL-E" totally fell apart in the second half. "Ratatouille" had a messy plot that felt like cobbled-together leftovers. And then there was "Cars," which I'm not alone in liking least of all the PIXAR films. This summer's "Toy Story 3" was an exception, honestly, and there were still moments like the one where Andy introduces the toys to Bonnie that fell pretty flat. PIXAR's execution has always been flawless, which covers a lot of the bumps and weak spots, but on the whole I've never all that impressed with their stories as just plain stories. I think PIXAR's biggest strength is their ability to come up with memorable characters and their visual storytelling abilities are far beyond what any of the other CGI animation studios have achieved. That's why I enjoyed most of the films I listed.

The myth of PIXAR's storytelling prowess is the result of a few different forces. The most obvious of course is that PIXAR actually emphasizes their care and attention to story when talking about their filmmaking process and uses it as a selling point. They spotlight their story teams and story artists where the other studios don't. The height of this approach was the first trailer for "WALL-E," which included a dramatization of an early PIXAR story meeting that generated the ideas for most of their earlier films. It's very shrewd brand boosting, and hammers home the message that PIXAR sets a higher standard to meet and they pay attention to their fundamentals. And all cynicism aside, PIXAR deserves plenty of kudos for staking their reputation on the quality of their films, and giving credit to artists that make vital contributions.

Another factor is the other major animation studios like Dreamworks/PDI and Blue Sky, that have churned out some downright terrible animated films in the past. Next to the minimal, clothesline plots found in the "Madagascar" and "Ice Age" films, "Cars" plays like Moliere. At least PIXAR was coming up with original, developed stories instead of relying on pop-culture references, scatological humor, and celebrity voices. At least they were making an effort, instead of churning out ill-considered "Shrek" sequels, one after another. However, lately it feels like the balance is shifting. Dreamworks is still putting out an awful lot of dreck, but their execution keeps getting better. "Kung Fu Panda" had a simple plot, but it was told very, very well. Ditto "How to Train Your Dragon." PIXAR, meanwhile, has an awful lot of sequels on its slate that are not inspiring my confidence.

Ironically the last PIXAR film I really enjoyed for its story before "Toy Story 3" was "The Incredibles," though director Brad Bird proved terribly inept at talking about the process by which he developed the film and its concepts - his director's commentary is a woeful litany of animator shout-outs, occasionally punctuated by him pointing out instances where they juxtaposed "the fantastic and the mundane," a phrase he awkwardly repeats about a dozen times. Bird is off making a "Mission: Impossible" film with Tom Cruise, but I hope he comes back to PIXAR soon. I thought his presence at the studio really shook the place up in a good way, and his influence led to riskier projects being put in the pipeline. Right now I'm rooting for "Brave," formerly known as "The Bear and the Bow," to deliver on PIXAR's promised commitment to good, solid, well-developed stories.

As for "Tron" and "Tangled," both films remain on my to-see list. But I'm going for the shiny visuals and Disney nostalgia. I'm not expecting much as far as their stories. I hope they surprise me though. I really do.


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May 2014

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