How you respond to "The Animatrix" depends on how much you like the Wachowski brothers' vision as seen in "The Matrix" motion pictures. Aside from a few visual effects innovations, I thought that 1999's "The Matrix" was simply another competently-made action movie. I wasn't really astounded by what it did because I'd seen plenty of martial arts sequences and gunfights that were more exciting than what I saw in "The Matrix". However, I looked forward to seeing "The Matrix Reloaded" because Larry and Andy Wachowski have an eye for what looks cool on film. Unfortunately, "The Matrix Reloaded" was a turn in the wrong direction for the franchise as the sibling filmmakers decided to infuse the movie with half-baked ideas and dialogue that sounds cool but means nothing. I also tired of its interminable action set pieces and its waste of its two most intriguing characters/actors, The Merovingian and Persephone.
At any rate, after the financial success of "The Matrix", the Wachowski brothers decided to approach several production houses that specialize in making what is commonly known in the United States as anime--an incorrect term, really, because anime is the French word for animation, and the Japanese refer to animation as...well, ah-ni-may-shon. The result is "The Animatrix", a collection of nine animated short films that have something to do with "The Matrix" trilogy. Some of the short films are simple stories about random people and machines. One of them, "Final Flight of the Osiris", offers a story thread that is referenced in both "The Matrix Reloaded" and the "Enter the Matrix" videogame.
The "The Animatrix" DVD offers the following short films:
--"Final Flight of the Osiris" (Andy Jones, Square USA, Inc.)
--"The Second Renaissance Part I" and "The Second Renaissance Part II" (Mahiro Maeda, Studio4°C, Tokyo)
--"Kid's Story" (Shinichiro Watanabe, Studio4°C, Tokyo)
--"Program" (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Madhouse Studios, Tokyo)
--"World Record" (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Madhouse Studios, Tokyo(
--"Beyond" (Koji Morimoto, Studio4°C, Tokyo)
--"A Detective Story" Shinichiro Watanabe, Studio4°C, Tokyo)
--"Matriculated" (Peter Chung, DNA, Seoul).
The best one of the bunch is probably "Final Flight of the Osiris", in which the crew members of the Osiris have to deliver a package inside The Matrix in order to warn Zion of an impending invasion by the machines. "...Osiris" was made by the Square Pictures team that created "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", and it looks fabulous. The piece manages to squeeze a romance and some witty visuals into its brief running time.
The two "The Second Renaissance" shorts describe how humanity came to be enslaved by machines. Plot-wise, these two are probably the most important to the "The Matrix" universe, though artistically, everything is done in a straightforward, perfunctory manner. "Kid's Story" gives us a glimpse of a high school student's Neo-like awakening. "Program" takes us inside a test of a young girl's resolve to fight The Matrix. "World Record" focuses on a runner who nearly runs into an awareness of The Matrix. "Beyond" involves a couple of youths who stumble upon an area where faulty programming lets them play around like Neo does--they just haven't had their minds freed yet is all. "A Detective Story" follows a detective's search for Trinity. I was so bored by the time that I got to "Matriculated" that I didn't even bother watching more than a minute of it.
There are plenty of visual flashes in "The Animatrix", but some of the shorts are very, very slow. They're not slow in the methodical sense--they simply drag their feet. I didn't get any sense of enrichment from watching this DVD--not in terms of understanding the world of "The Matrix" and certainly not in terms of appreciating animation. As with the movies, I've seen better elsewhere when it comes to what "The Animatrix" offers.
I liked "The Matrix"--I really did. However, given what is being shown in "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Animatrix", I'm convinced that the Wachowski brothers bit off more than they could chew properly. There are some good things in "The Animatrix", but given that anything on the DVD has to be understood within the context of the motion picture series, this is a purchase for die-hard fans only.
The 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen video image is pretty impressive--if a tad dark. Some of the shorts were computer animated, and some of the shorts were drawn by hand. None of the films seems to suffer from any source print defects (such as scratches, dust particles, etc.), and there aren't any big-time compression artifacts, either. However, even with all the lights off in my home theatre room, I thought that the DVD could've been done with a tad more brightness than given. (Since everything is very stylized, some viewers may take issue with the "fuzziness" of the animation.)
Appropriately, given the Japanese roots of the animation seen on this DVD, there are two Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks--one in English and the other in Japanese. (I'm not sure which is the dub and which is the original language for each short film.) Aside from the spoken dialogue, the tracks are technically identical. Aside from "Final Flight of the Osiris" (which was shown in movie theatres), most of the audio was simply done. There are a couple of directionality effects, and the music sounds rich and detailed. However, talking about the "fullness" of the sound requires me to mention that the audio is mostly just loud without a hint of grace or subtlety. When the subwoofer is pounding, pounding, pounding with dull repetitiveness, you get tired of listening to what the DVD offers. Also, for the most part, the rear speakers don't have much to do.
Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.
There are four audio commentaries on the DVD. Mahiro Maeda talks during "The Second Renaissance Parts I & II". Yoshiaki Kawajiri muses during "Program". Takeshi Koike takes the mike for "World Record". Since the short films are all rather brief and entirely derivative (they depend on the ideas forwarded by "The Matrix" in order to make sense), the audio commentaries aren't among the most illuminating that one can find. Sure, we find out about certain artistic inspirations, but there's not much to be gained from listening to them. (Just to let you know, the commentaries are in Japanese, so some of you might need to rely on subtitles to understand them.)
"Scrolls to Screen: The History and Culture of Anime" is an introductory featurette to both the "The Animatrix" project and Japanese animation. There are interviews with people like producer Joel Silver, Japanese animators, academics, scholars, historians, etc. about the transition of Japanese art forms from wood block carvings to manga (graphic novels) to animation.
Next up are making-of featurettes about each of the short films on "The Animatrix" DVD. (Like the short films themselves, you can watch these featurettes separately or with a "Play All" function.) These featurettes offer interviews, too--mostly of the "The Wachowskis approached us about making something, and we did because we loved ‘The Matrix' so much" variety. The best of these making-of featurettes is probably the one for "...Osiris" because it shows Square's test footage involving Aki Ross from the "Final Fantasy" movie beating up a Sentinel. :-)
Finally, there are text profiles of the directors and producers of the shorts on the "The Animatrix" DVD as well as promos for the "Enter the Matrix" videogame.
The DVD tells you that there are more extras if you play the disc in a DVD-ROM drive, but I was able to get only a couple of weblinks.
Information about the short films as well as the extras appears on the inside flap of the Warner Bros. snapper case cover.
How does one judge "The Animatrix"? The short films on this DVD can't really exist on their own as self-contained pieces. They don't really function well as an anthology of "Matrix"-related short stories, either. Instead, the enterprise feels like an excuse for the Wachowski brothers to work with Japanese animators whom they admire. That's all fine and dandy for the Wachowskis and fans of "The Matrix" series, but there's precious little here that will impress anyone else.
One very good thing may result from the release of "The Animatrix"--if the DVD reaches big enough of an audience in the United States, Japanese animation may become accepted by mainstream America after all. Then again, if mainstream Americans see "The Animatrix" and think that this is the best of Japanese animation, they might end up shunning the medium forever...yikes!