You Need to Watch 'Ice'

Plus: Czech classics, retro ads and global animation news.

Welcome back to the Animation Obsessive newsletter! We’re glad to have you. Here’s the rundown of this week’s installment:

  • One — is Ice the must-see animation of the year?

  • Two — the major animation news, worldwide.

  • Three — a free trove of classic Czech cartoons, remastered.

  • Four — the retro ad of the week.

  • Five — the last word.

If you’re new around here, we do this every Sunday. You can sign up for free to receive new issues as they drop — right in your inbox:

With that said, here we go!

1. Ice is Robert Valley’s victory lap

It’s been more than two years since we last saw Love, Death & Robots. The first anthology was a hit — but many of its shorts veered into exploitative subjects that left us cold. All except for Zima Blue, director Robert Valley’s moving tale of art and longing. Our very first tweet was about that film for a reason.

Two years later, another Love, Death & Robots season is here — and Valley has done it again with Ice.

Ice is the tale of two brothers, Sedgewick and Fletcher, and a death-defying race on a frozen planet. Fletcher is younger and “modded,” giving him strength and agility far beyond a normal human’s. He fits in with the local kids. Sedge, who lags behind his brother in everything, doesn’t. These tensions form the story’s heart, and they play well with the colorful cast of antisocial characters Sedge and Fletcher fall in with.

Ice adapts a 2015 Clarkesworld piece by Rich Larson. Short stories often inform LDR films, but the results can vary — the recent Drowned Giant interprets a darkly ironic, clinical J. G. Ballard story in a bizarrely wistful way. We’re glad to report that Ice takes liberties for the better. It’s no spoiler to say that Valley wins out with warmer characters and an ending much more satisfying, subtle and evocative than Larson’s.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room, though: Ice looks good. Valley turned heads with Zima Blue’s look, and he’s famous for styling shows like Motorcity and Tron: Uprising. But this is Valley unleashed. It’s a sea of mesmerizing effects and layers, with the most intricate character animation he’s had yet. Valley’s depiction of running, an image he often returns to, is more fully realized here than in any of his past projects.

All told, this is a very different film than Zima Blue. Where that project was grand and sweeping, Ice is small-scale, even intimate. Despite the sci-fi trappings, it’s more like Valley’s animated memoir Pear Cider and Cigarettes — a story about society’s outcasts and a young man struggling to find himself in a world of thrill-seeking and drug-taking. Valley has lived up to the Zima Blue hype by dodging around it entirely.

2. Headlines around the world

Annecy announces feature film lineup

There’s no better place to find world animation than film festivals — and there’s no film festival more packed with world animation than Annecy in France. On Thursday, the event underlined that fact with its 19 selections in the feature film category. Only one was produced in the United States without an international partner.

This year’s contenders are a diverse group. Among them is the international co-production Flee, the animated documentary that blew up Sundance in January. Meanwhile, Brazil has two films in the running. One of them is My Uncle José (trailer) — a children’s film based on the true story of the political assassination of the director’s uncle, according to Sopa Cultural.

Taiwan brings the trippy-looking City of Lost Things (trailer), set in a world of living junk. Per the China Times, this one took 10 years to make. Among Japan’s entries are The Deer King and the much-hyped Josee, the Tiger and the Fish. Another, Poupelle of Chimney Town (trailer), adapts a hit picture book and netted 2.4 billion yen when it premiered in Japanese theaters last year.

For the full list and a more in-depth breakdown of the features at Annecy 2021, check out Alex Dudok de Wit’s write-up for Cartoon Brew.

My Adventures with Superman unveiled

It’s not unusual to see Superman media with a bright, anime-inspired look and a preference for the mundane over the interstellar — at least if you browse social media. The style pops up in certain official comics, too, like Superman Smashes the Klan. But a drearier take on Superman tends to rule film and TV. That may be set to change.

On Wednesday, Deadline showed off My Adventures with Superman, a new series from Warner Bros. Animation that already boasts a two-season order. It sees Clark, Lois and Jimmy Olsen as twentysomethings in the process of discovering themselves. Per Deadline, it’s overseen by Sam Register, Brendan Clogher and Peni Parker co-creator Jake Wyatt. We’ll have to see where it all leads.

BUSINESS: AT&T to spin off WarnerMedia

One business story dominated this week, and that was AT&T’s complex effort to merge WarnerMedia with Discovery. It’s not quite a sell-off, and it’s not quite a merger. But it is the newest incident in AT&T’s so-far disastrous foray into media.

AT&T bought WarnerMedia for more than $85 billion back in 2018, as part of a wider effort to forge a media empire. Another piece of this strategy was DirecTV, which it bought for over $67 billion in 2015. None of it has panned out. When AT&T revealed plans to spin off its TV division earlier this year, The Verge had this to say:

Six years, 54,858 layoffs, two mergers, and nearly $175 billion later, AT&T is only marginally closer to streaming TV dominance. Instead, customers and employees are footing the bill for their bad decisions in the form of TV rate hikes and layoffs that show no sign of slowing down.

The WarnerMedia venture hasn’t been quite that unsuccessful. Despite selling off Warner assets like Crunchyroll in recent times, AT&T isn’t jettisoning the whole division quite yet. As Variety explains, it’s using “the complicated structure known as a Reverse Morris Trust” to fuse WarnerMedia with Discovery tax-free. AT&T will retain a dominant stake in the new company.

Because WarnerMedia includes Cartoon Network, HBO Max, Adult Swim and more, this shakeup has the potential to ripple across the animation industry. How this plays out remains to be seen. We’ll also have to wait to see exactly how HBO Max and Discovery+ coexist, if at all.

Best of the rest

3. Treasure trove — Little Mole

In the United States, restored classic cartoons can be spendy and rare at the best of times. It isn’t always like that elsewhere. In Europe, some distributors drop retro animation straight onto YouTube — in high definition. The key is knowing where to look.

Little Mole is among these buried treasures. This is a quiet, colorful series about a mole’s misadventures in the forest and nearby human world. It’s one of the canonical Czech cartoons, running from mid-century Czechoslovakia through the modern Czech Republic. And a few dozen episodes are currently on YouTube in good quality, through an official channel.

Beyond the first installment, How the Little Mole Got His Trousers (1957), the series has very little dialogue. Czech cultural references are scant, too. Little Mole is accessible to anyone. In fact, it’s aired around the world under different names — and been seen by millions of viewers clueless about its origin. If you haven’t watched an episode before, there are worse ways to spend five or ten minutes.

4. Retro ad of the week

This is the first entry in a series about classic commercials, focused especially on John Hubley’s work at Storyboard Inc. during the 1950s. We’ve been sitting on the idea for a while, but we needed a way to share some of the stunning TV spots we found while researching last week’s feature. So, here we are.

Our pick this week is from 1955 — a Storyboard ad for Faygo Black Cherry. It won a major prize from New York’s Art Directors Club that year. The animation is Art Babbitt’s work, but UPA alumnus Paul Julian helped with the visuals as well. Hubley’s signature use of jazz is ear-grabbing, and Babbitt’s in peak form. He moves these graphic characters almost like dancers, with a real sense of weight and naturalism.

We haven’t found any great copies of the ad online, so the one below will have to do. (Check out the high-quality still in the Annual of Advertising Art to see how it’s meant to look.) Either way, the video gives you an idea of what Hubley and his team achieved:

5. Last word

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve enjoyed.

This week, we’ve changed up our format a bit. We want to make the newsletter both more flexible and more digestible. Less of a time commitment, but packed with more varied and intriguing tidbits than ever. Stick with us as we work through the bugs!

One last thing. We’re always on the lookout for new animation to feature — especially stuff that’s never appeared in another English outlet. If you have a tip about global animation that you think we need to watch, please let us know:

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