I've always thought that the best part of any cartoon was the part where the coyote would fall off the cliff and that little cloud of dust would rise up to indicate his horrible, brutal death. And then that funny, sadistic, homicidal roadrunner would make that "beep beep" noise. What a laugh riot!
It's because of things like the obsessive-compulsive coyote and his attempts to eat the flesh of the mentally diminished but bloodthirsty roadrunner that we refer to certain films as "cartoony." Painted in broad strokes, with little subtlety, most American action movies and Valerie Bertinelli made-for-TV dramas tend to be a bit "cartoony."
On the other hand, a lot of Japanese feature-length cartoons tend not to be terribly "cartoony." They often have plots and characters that are more complicated than the last U.S. presidential election and, while violent, generally don't equate killing someone with the kind of humor that usually begins with "knock knock."
What really makes Japanese cartoons, or "anime," is they're known to devotees, interesting to non-Japanese audiences, though, is the amazing animation. With transformations that would make Ovid jealous and highly rendered backgrounds, they're so visually appealing it often doesn't matter that their stories are too convoluted for the average gastroenterologist to follow. American animation, for all its success in recent years, is still light years away from the Japanese product in the creativity and force of its imagery.
Metropolis has most of the standard anime elements, and is perhaps the most visually appealing cartoon to hit American screens since Fantasia, but it's much simpler than a lot of anime, and this is probably its biggest flaw.
While the backgrounds have the hyper-detailed style that fans of Ghost in the Shell and Akira look for, the characters are drawn in the cuter style of the more youth-oriented Japanese cartoons like Sailor Moon and Pokemon. The story, too, is considerably simpler than most of the adult sci-fi anime, though it's at least as detailed as the average American thriller.
It begins with a press conference in the city-state of Metropolis, where President Boon and Duke Red are lauding the newest building in their city, an enormous tower called The Ziggurat.
Meanwhile, The Marduks, a gang of paramilitary thugs, roam the city killing any robots that wander outside of their assigned zones.
As Duke Red presides over the Marduks and the opening of Ziggurat, he also is preparing a secret weapon with the help of the renegade scientist Dr. Laughton. Laughton has created a biomechanical reproduction of Duke Red's deceased daughter, only it's a superhuman robot that has vast powers.
Now, when I say that Metropolis is simpler than, say, Akira, I should also point out that all of this is revealed in the first 10 minutes, and that's about standard for how much plot is packed into each 10 minutes of this film. There's also a subplot involving a weapon that can cause sunspots, a bungling and yet effective detective who's searching out the truth about Dr. Laughton's plans, a romance between the detective's assistant and Laughton's super-robot and the constant reappearance of the vicious leader of the Marduks, who fancies himself Duke Red's son.
And, you know, a bunch of other stuff. But the real star is the titular city. Metropolis is drawn in excruciating detail, and the camera is constantly flying high above its towers, or swooping through its canyon-like streets, to give the viewer a sense of the awesome, art-deco landscape. This makes the contrast with the big-eyed, bubble-bodies characters even more extreme. It's kind of like watching Mickey Mouse drop a snow globe and mutter "rosebud."
Which is only disturbing if you know what "rosebud" really means. On the other hand, some of the odd juxtapositions in Metropolis really work. The soundtrack, for example, is a mélange of new and standard jazz tunes, and this is a much better move than the techno and breakbeat sound that's become so popular in soundtracks of late.
Not that that stuff's inherently bad, but the more spacious sound of the jazz pieces complements the starkness of Metropolis' cityscapes without the forced implication of a threat that a faster, more modern soundtrack would effect.
The music and imagery come together most effectively in the climactic sequence, which is one of the best pieces of eye-candy ever filmed. Even if you only watched the final 10 minutes of this movie, you'd get your money's worth. While certainly not the best anime to ever hit the U.S., Metropolis is certainly amongst the prettiest, and in these troubled times, who doesn't want to look at something pretty?