War and animation have a very rocky, uncomfortable history. Figures like Walt Disney and Leon Schlesinger always understood the impact of the medium, but unearthed a whole new level of influence by using their cartoons for the war effort. Just to name a few, you can find tons of short cartoons about saving scrap metal, purchasing war bonds, and insulting Nazis. Nevertheless, the change in focus to a real life issue showed the impact and influence that cartoons and animation can have.
Even to this day, the way cartoonists use their artistry to make political commentary is still very striking. That’s why Maciek’s review about a WWI campaign that might be unknown by most Western audiences may stir up very conscious feelings.
’25 April’ is a New Zealand animated documentary by Leanne Pooley that centers on the Battle of Gallipoli, a historic World War I event that ended in mass causalities for New Zealand troops. Rather than have old soldiers talk about the event, the movie takes it from the point of view of five soldiers at the event and one of the nurses. Using testimonies taken from letters, interviews and memoirs, the movie takes form by animating soldiers giving interviews and reconstructing key event.
Some might be skeptical about this approach, but the technique works surprisingly well. All human characters are done through roto-scoped CGI, while backgrounds are painted resembling Belgian graphic novels. Only animals are traditionally animated. The collage-look is beautiful, through it does become a bit distracting at times.
The story also never breaks from the documentary format, keeping the interviewers from breaking the flow of conversation. There is so much focus on the war events themselves, but we also get to see soldiers doing their daily duties. Between the battles, we get to know five individual characters as well some fascinating insight into their mindset, including dealing with the horrors of war and sometimes trying to take break from it to just enjoy their lives.
Leanne Pooley is a documentary filmmaker, and despite never working in animation before, you can tell she knows her stuff through her rich imagination. Not only does she use the animated medium to recreate events that would typically be impossible or extremely difficult to capture via ordinary documentary filmmaking techniques, but she also provides wonderful transitions through visual symbolism to represent the physical and mental states of the soldiers. For example, in one scene, a nurse takes a bandana from a wounded soldier and puts it in bowl of water, diluting it red which then turns into smoke from a cigarette in the next scene. These transitions are scattered throughout the entire film, and range from being beautiful to disturbing.
Despite the number of impressive transitions, the animation is at its weakest during the interview sequences. It’s hard to escape the uncanny valley feel of the characters, who are not as expressive as they should be, and they often look very silly. I almost wish that the soldiers were traditionally animated like the animals. However, even with this annoying flaw, the subject matter remains interesting.
Though I am a pacifist, I have always had respect for the willingess of soldiers who put their lives on line for what they belive is right. I also appreciated how the film even goes out of its way to not demonize the enemy combatants, and it’s particularly powerful when the movie briefly highlights the soldiers on both sides coming together after the battle to bury their dead. One character even remarks how he had nothing but respect for his foes, only considering them coincidental enemies and wishes them no malice.
’25 April’s’ greatest successes is what it set out to be – a documentary and a history lesson come to life. The animation is just another bonus, and is a unique and compelling tool in which we learn about the soldiers who participated in the conflict.
What Flux Animation Studios is doing with this archival information is quite astonishing. Rather than take the route of Grave of the Fireflies as commentary on post-war culture or Waltz With Bashir, that focuses on an individual’s tale during a war. I’ve seen some documentaries use animation to showcase a battle or setting, but never for the entire film. The trailer does give a sense of sincerity to discuss this major battle that some people are very unfamiliar with. Especially since WWI has so many pockets of unique battles and strategies. I do have to be honest here be harder on the animation than Maciek. Pooley does a great job using provoking imagery to showcase the brutality and the impact of war, but the animation is paced at a very distracting speed. The footage moves at a sluggish, rickety pace like video game cutscenes from nearly a decade ago. I don’t know what the budget was, but you can really notice how the CGI-rotoscoped characters have to move as if they are guided by a rigging tool. If you rewatch the trailer, you can notice it clearly in the swimming scenes. There is a sense of realism, but not enough polish to make them 100 percent human.
Nevertheless, I have the commend the studio whenever they show backgrounds or the flickering fires from explosions. (“In the darkness, it was a wonderful show”) The use of color and shadow brings the movie to life as we watch time slowly elapse and crawl forward. You have the lovely shots of poppies and the diverse ecosystems of the war from the canyons, to the waterfront, and even forests. The narration is very upfront yet warmly compassionate. I really do want to hear the tales of these six soldiers, even if I wonder about tropey-ish details like the bride or dog. I predict 25 April will be a movie to watch for this film year. It practically has the same mirrored existence of the video game Valiant Hearts in 2014; epic, incredibly real stories told from a WWI backdrop following six soldiers. I’m hoping it crosses to the United States soon, as I feel that out of all these movies, this may be an Oscar contender for a few categories.