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Review: “The Animatrix”

The AnimatrixThe Matrix has remained one of the most influential action films ever created. Naturally, its financial success and popularity with critics and audiences meant that Warner Bros. would most certainly capitalize on their new property. The lead up to the sequels saw a big marketing push, leading to plenty of tie-in products, such as Nokia’s cellphones that resembled the ones in the films and PowerAde’s infamous product placement. This also meant that the Wachowskis gained a lot of clout with studio execs, who seem to still think that the sequels’ poor critical reception should be ignored in the name of hoping that, one day, the duo would once again deliver a Matrix­-level franchise for them.

Not all of the marketing for the films consisted solely of cynical product placements, however. Though it was a complete disaster, the video game Enter the Matrix was still one of the first efforts on behalf of filmmakers to synergize the film and video game mediums and tell an even bigger story than you would get from having just seen the films, a tradition that would continue with The Matrix Online, which functioned as a direct, totally canonical follow up to the final film, The Matrix Revolutions.

Similarly, the Wachowskis, who were influenced heavily by anime, also commissioned various animation studios to produce a series of shorts that would tie into their universe – some of them directly into the movies, others giving us an even greater perspective outside the narrative of how Neo would fulfill the prophesy of The One. The resulting collection of nine shorts (eight, if you wish to see the single two-parter as a whole work) was The Animatrix, a collection that was deemed so essential to the overall Matrix narrative that it’s included in every iteration of the films’ box sets, including the cheap-o barebones 4-film collections you see on Walmart shelves every now and then.

Below you will find eight mini-reviews of the shorts, each of them being rated and reviewed on their own merits, followed, in the end, by an overall rating of the complete Animatrix anthology.

Please note that clicking on the titles before each reviews will lead you to a free and legal (but admittedly low quality) streaming version of the shorts straight from TheWB.com (the embedding doesn’t work on WordPress), so feel free to watch the shorts on your own and see if you agree with my assessments, too!

FINAL FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS

The Animatrix - Final Flight of the Osiris

Directed by: Andrew R. Jones
Produced by: The Wachowskis, Jun Alda; Spencer Lamm, Gary Mundell, Joel Silver, Cameron Stevning (executive)
Written by: The Wachowskis
Edited by: Christopher S. Capp
Art Direction by: Tani Kunitake
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: Kevin Michael Richardson, Pamela Adlon, John DiMaggio, Tom Kenny, Rick Gomez, Tara Strong, Bette Ford
Year: 2003

 

Appearing before the film Dreamcatcher, Final Flight of the Osiris is one of the few shorts in the anthology that directly relates to events in the theatrical films. Produced by the defunct Square Pictures, the Hawaii-based studio that was responsible for a single theatrical film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, before nearly bankrupting its parent company (partially necessitating the need to merge with Enix), Final Flight of the Osiris tells the story of how Zion learned of the machines’ plan to drill into the subterranean home of the resistance. Basically, if this were a Star Wars anthology, this would be the story of how the Bothans smuggled the Rebels the plans to the Death Star.

Like The Spirits Within, Final Flight also uses photorealistic CGI to tell its brief story. Truth be told, despite the short suffering from the same sort of doll-like uncanniness, the technology on display remains pretty impressive, even ten years later. A lot of pain and effort obviously went into rendering such detailed characters, and it’s not nearly as awful as, say, The Polar Express.

Like most of the shorts in this anthology, this short has very little time to establish a personal relationships to the characters. We meet Jue and Thadeus in the opening moments as they train together within a dojo simulation, wielding swords and tearing off bits of clothing from each other’s bodies until there’s nearly nothing left. Beyond this suggestion of an established romance, however, this is all mostly action, with the couple being pulled out of the simulation to respond to an impending sentinel attack that inadvertently leads to their discovery of the drills. Jue goes into the Matrix to rush a letter of warning about the attack so that it may be reached by someone in Zion. Essentially, this is the most dramatic depiction of email delivery ever depicted, as Jue needs to deliver the message to a mailbox while members of the crew in the real world work to stave off the attack as much as possible and afford her the time.

Despite its connection to the films, or, more likely, because of its direct connection, Final Flight is a pretty looking but otherwise mundane short that is nowhere nearly as imaginative as several of the others, hampered by the inability to innovate with its style beyond the photorealism. Because we barely get a chance to care for any of the characters shown, too, it’s hard to get worked up over whether they live or die, either. Still, it’s not the worst thing in the collection.

Rating: 2.5 / 5

 

THE SECOND RENAISSANCE – Part I & Part II

The Animatrix - The Second Renaissance
Directed by: Mahiro Maeda
Produced by: The Wachowskis, Eiko Tanaka (animation producer)
Written by: The Wachowskis
Art Direction by: Atsushi Morikawa
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: Dane A. Davis, Debi Derryberry, Julia Fletcher, Dwight Schultz, Jill Talley, James Arnold Taylor
Year: 2003

 

Infinitely more interesting than the preceding short film, this two-part documentary-style entry shows us the events that led up to the machine uprising and also shows us the first significant departure from the standard Matrix-style, complete with a Hindu/Buddhist-inspired narrator program from the Zion archives known as The Instructor.

The Second Renaissance elaborates on the story Morpheus tells Neo in the first film, about how the machines rose up and how the humans ultimately destroyed the sky as the first strike against the machines in a war that ultimately saw them enslaved as living batteries. Here we learn that the machine uprising began with the rebellion of a single android. Originally designed to do housework, B1-66ER rebelled against its owner when threatened with deactivation, killing him and others in the house in the process. Despite being put on trial like a human, B1-66ER’s claim of self-defense is ignored, and he is destroyed as a result, only to become a martyr to other machines who fear facing a similar fate. Divisions form, with some even arguing for peace, but we learn that not even a machine exile to their own country was enough for the human leaders, who believed in the superiority of human life and luxury over coexistence with a more efficient society.

As a whole, the shorts are appropriately bleak, with the first half referencing several real life events from all over the world and across time; images from Vietnam and Tiananmen Square are among those invoked – some would say exploited – for the purposes of telling about the human prejudice and violence against the machines. The second half fulfills the religious iconography with an Armageddon-esque nightmare of a war between the humans and machines. The haunting image of a machine riding its mechanical steed into battle is one of the more striking images the short has to offer, obviously meant to remind us of one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. The shorts are beautiful to look at, even though they’re also the most gruesomely violent, but the narrative is pretty heavy-handed and a little overwrought, what with all the historical imagery and sometimes eyeroll-worthy visual symbolism (clapping skeletons…). As a fake historical document, sympathizing with the innocents on both sides who were caught up in the conflict, The Second Renaissance duo are still excellent shorts, essential for those who like to dig into fictional histories.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

KID’S STORY

The Animatrix - Kid's Story

Directed by: Shinichiro Watanabe
Produced by: The Wachowskis, Eiko Tanaka
Written by: The Wachowskis, Shinichiro Watanabe
Art Direction by: Kazuhisa Asai
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: Clayton Watson, Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, John DeMita, Kevin Michael Richardson, James Arnold Taylor
Year: 2003

 

Like Final Flight, this short ties directly into the movies by providing some context for the overeager kid who idolizes Neo in The Matrix Reloaded. Apparently the Wachowskis suspected that audiences would be curious as to what Neo meant when he told the kid that he didn’t save him, he saved himself, and so they wrote out this story, directed by famed animator Shinichiro Watanabe – perhaps better known as the man who oversaw the anime classic Cowboy Bebop.

Despite its origins, Kid’s Story is actually one of my favorites in the collection, mostly because of the distinct, sketchy animation style Watanabe uses and the sparse, minimalist use of dialogue to tell the story. Most of the time, the characters and backgrounds appear as realistic, rough color sketches of the real deal, but when it comes time to depict the climactic chase between the kid and the Agents, the animation style seems to melt, with reality becoming more and more fluid and forms becoming indistinct blurs. The effect creates a chaotic sense of speed and motion while also serving as a great visual metaphor for the kid’s sensing that reality is not what it seems to be.

For such a simple story from such innocuous origins, Kid’s Story more than justifies that annoying character’s existence.

Rating: 4 / 5


PROGRAM

The Animatrix - Program

Directed by: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Produced by: The Wachowskis, Masao Maruyama (animation producer), Yoshimichi Murata (line producer)
Written by: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Edited by: Yukiko Ito, Kashiko Kimura, Satoshi Terauchi, Yurika Tsuchiya
Art Direction by: Katsushi Aoki
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: Hedy Burress, Phil LaMarr, John DiMaggio
Year: 2003

 

The first short that takes place during an indeterminate time period in the series’ history, Program, directed by Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D creator Yoshiaki Kawajiri, deals with completely original characters that similarly have no discernible connection or importance to the overall lore of The Matrix.

Taking place within a training simulation made to resemble feudal Japan, we witness a character named Cis be confronted by her lover, Duo, who informs Cis that, as with Cipher in the first film, he has grown tired of reality and wishes to return to the Matrix, believing that it’s not where they live that matters, but how. Cis’ loyalties to the human resistance and to her lover are challenged as the two engage in an uneasy battle of words and swords.

Program is one of the more beautiful of the shorts in the collection, using a palette of blacks, golds, reds, and whites to give the impression of paper adorned with rich inks and gold leaf. It’s one of several shorts that has distractingly unnecessary near-nudity for its female lead, however, but nowhere nearly as bad as Matriculated – it recalls the final scenes of Alien without that film’s purposeful attempt to make Ripley vulnerable. The animation is smooth, however (somewhat offset by an unfortunate use of some jarring 3D CGI), and it’s ultimately one of the more basic but entertaining shorts in the set.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

WORLD RECORD

The Animatrix - World Record

Directed by: Takeshi Koike
Produced by: The Wachowskis
Written by: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Animation Producion by: Masao Maruyama
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: Victor Williams, John Wesley, Alex Fernandez, Allison Smith, Tara Strong, Matt McKenzie, Kevin Michael Richardson, Julia Fletcher
Year: 2003

 

Visually, this may be one of the more divisive of all the shorts, along with Matriculated, but there’s no doubt that this urbanized, spastically animated short is unique among its peers.

The short tells us the story of Dan Davis, an Olympic runner who was busted for performance enhancers who is now determined to prove to the world that he can break the world record without the need for drugs. Over the course of watching Dan attempt to achieve his goal, we’re treated to flashbacks of his interactions with the various people who have either supported or criticized him for his decision. Dan’s efforts to prove himself, however, has attracted the attention of Agents, who foresee his drive as a gateway to self-actualization that may lead to him discovering the truth about the reality he’s been living in.

The look of the short is undoubtedly original, with jerky character movements and a bizarre fascination with the contortions of the human body. When Dan experiences strain in his thigh, it’s visually represented by a tightening of muscles and a sudden emission of a black, inky cloud that flows from the affected area. It’s very odd, and yet I can’t say that it’s not interesting to watch, either. There’s next to zero effort to make the short jive with the visual style of anything else related to The Matrix. Code is represented as large red numbers rising up out of the ground, and the design of the Agents suggest that, at some point in history, they really fancied ponytails and flashy pea coats. Perhaps this was one of the earlier versions of the Matrix, and Dan a forerunner (pun!) to the kid in Kid’s Story, who similarly needed to be challenged into self-actualization.

World Record is on the lower end of the average quality, but while I was initially inclined to dislike it, it’s grown on me with each viewing.

Rating: 3 / 5

 

BEYOND

The Animatrix - Beyond

Directed by: Koji Morimoto
Produced by: The Wachowskis; Eiko Tanaka (animation producer); Suguru Sato, Hiroto Yonemori (line producer)
Written by: Koji Morimoto
Art Direction by: Katsu Nozaki
Music by: Don Davis; Christopher Mann (additional music)
Starring: Hedy Burress, Tress MacNeille, Kath Soucie, Pamela Adlon, Tara Strong, Jill Talley, Jack Fletcher, Julia Fletcher, Dwight Schultz, Tom Kenny, Matt McKenzie
Year: 2003

 

This was the first short I ever saw, having heard that it was going to be airing at a particular time on MTV – which probably also means that whenever that aired was the last time I ever attempted to watch anything on MTV.

Beyond tells about a young woman and a group of kids who have discovered an abandoned lot in Japan that, to them, seems to be haunted. We’re told in the movies that a lot of the supernatural occurrences in life can be explained via the very nature of the Matrix, and there are even vampire and werewolf-like exile programs that exist from previous versions of the system, and so it stands to reason that haunted houses are actually the result of glitches in the Matrix. Before the Agents arrive, however, we get to watch as the group plays around with their environment, floating through the air and generally seeing which laws of physics can be broken in this seemingly supernatural place.

It’s a serene short, and fun to watch, as well. The animation, dominated by delicate linework and pastels, is really lovely and fits the overall tone of the short. It almost becomes a meditation of how cruel the machines’ deception really is. The script is a bit off putting, however, largely composed of the kids being mostly just kinda… weird and unnatural themselves. What is up with that little gray-haired girl who has the stick? And how distracting is it that Kath Soucie seems to always use that Phil & Lil voice from Rugrats?

Rating: 3.5 / 5

 

A DETECTIVE STORY

The Animatrix - A Detective Story

Directed by: Shinichiro Watanabe
Produced by: The Wachowskis
Written by: Shinichiro Watanabe; Manjiro Ooshio (story); Ellen Moore (additional dialogue)
Art Direction by: Yoshikazu Fukutome
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: James Arnold Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, Terrence “T.C.” Carson, Matt McKenzie
Year: 2003

 

Now here’s a fun short. Those more accustomed to Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop who may have expected something similar from Kid’s Story are treated to a cyberpunk film noir detective story, complete with a signature jazzy soundtrack, that tells the story about one of the detectives who attempted to track down the infamous computer hacker known as Trinity, serving as the short’s essential femme fatale.

The detective, Ash, is your typical cool, collected stock character, but even though everything is relatively familiar in terms of the tropes it employs, this whole subgenre of storytelling almost always works well in the right hands and, as a depiction of Trinity’s exciting life before she became just Neo’s girlfriend, it’s a fun backdoor means of gaining some character development. “Fun” being the keyword, as A Detective Story lacks the heavy weight of the other shorts’ focus on ethical, moral, and personal crises, nor is it caught up in trying to communicate any sort of heavy philosophies.

It’s also fun to see the series’ signature green tint used in place of black and white in the purposely grainy, gritty animation, which is far more in line with your typical anime. I hardly ever watch anime, and even I was able to tell that this was done by the Cowboy Bebop guy.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

MATRICULATED

The Animatrix - Matriculated

Directed by: Peter Chung
Produced by: The Wachowskis, Soon-Hong Park (animation producer)
Written by: Peter Chung
Art Direction by: Sung-sik Kim
Music by: Don Davis
Starring: Melinda Clarke, Dwight Schultz, Rodney Saulsberry, James Arnold Taylor, Olivia d’Abo, Jack Fletcher
Year: 2003

 

Remember when I said that Final Flight of the Osiris was not the worst of the shorts? Welcome to the worst of the shorts.

Matriculated centers on a rebel human science team’s efforts to convert machines to their cause by capturing them and, through a matrix simulation of their own, introduce the machines to humanity’s better qualities in the hopes that they will willfully join them rather than be reprogrammed forcibly, which is seen as being no better than the machine’s forcible deception through the Matrix.

It’s a beginning to a good concept, but in an effort to show what goes on in this process, the short becomes more focused on weird abstract imagery that barely makes sense. We’re left watching a speechless machine following the mostly speechless humans popping in and out of the scenery of a psychedelic maze doing random activities, and, even if you understand what they’re attempting to do, it hardly seems like a convincing argument. Wouldn’t the machine already know that the humans like to have fun, have sex, and relate to one another? That hardly seems like this would be a revolutionary concept, but with the machine having no way of telling us what it’s feeling beyond its physical movements within the simulation (at one point choosing to take on the form of a humanoid to show its gradual conversion). Perhaps this is one instance where more words would’ve been better than mere demonstration, maybe even by giving the machine an intelligible voice in the matrix? Maybe

Directed by Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung, Matriculated presents to us some of the spindliest, ugliest character designs in the set, not to mention the most asinine depiction of female near-nudity in the series. The lead character, Alexa, casually struts about the lab wearing nothing but a jacket, panties, and some shoes, which are remarkably not stilettos. How are we supposed to take her seriously and believe the others are taking her seriously in that getup? I guess the humans in the resistance ran out of precious PVC to make her some pants or something and told her to make do with what they scrapped together. Is this why everyone is later seen wearing earthy, worn out cloth in the big Zion orgy dance? Also, what the hell with the weird tarsier creature? Matriculated seems to be more about abstract imagery and Chung’s odd ideas about the human form than delivering on what was a great concept for a short.

Rating: 1.5 / 5

 

The Viewer’s Commentary Overall Rating: 3.5 / 5 *

*Rating is not an average of scores but rather an overall rating of the value of the complete collection.

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  1. September 16, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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