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December 19, 2014

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Scene Selection — Geoff Carter: ‘Animatrix’ more fun than ‘Reloaded’

Geoff Carter is a Seattle based free-lance film critic and entertainment writer. Reach him at [email protected]

I have yet to see "The Matrix Reloaded" a second time, and I think I need to do that before I deliver a complete judgment of it. For the moment, I'm stuck between "silly" and "profoundly silly," and a second viewing could help me get straight on the matter.

Then again, after watching "The Animatrix" DVD (Warner Home Video, $24.98), a splendid collection of animated shorts based on (and in) Larry and Andy Wachowski's screwy alternate universe, I might not be able to sit through the "real" sequel again. It's nearly as fun, audacious and flat-out mind-blowing as the original "Matrix," and lacks the "insert Schopenhauer here" moments of "Reloaded" -- to at least one critic's profound relief.

The Wachowskis, proud pop- culture geeks of the first order, rifled through years of Japanese anime tradition to appropriate the thematic and stylistic elements that made "The Matrix" a landmark film. "The Animatrix" tries to repay the debt: The Wachowskis have commissioned nine animated shorts from an all-star team of Japanese animators. Some of them are fiercely inventive while others are merely serviceable, but every one of them looks great -- better than their feature-film counterparts.

"Kid's Story" and "Beyond" are the standouts. The former, written and directed by "Cowboy Bebop" mastermind Shinichiro Watanabe, is animated in a scratchy, loose-handed style that's exciting to watch; look for it to be appropriated for use in commercials, much as "Bullet Time" was several years back. I don't think I've ever seen a better-animated chase scene -- the characters actually stretch as they turn corners.

Kouji Morimoto's "Beyond," according to the documentary extras that accompany the films, took the longest amount of time to plan and animate. Morimoto worked at his own speed, which probably explains why "Beyond" is as beautiful and poetic as it is. I wouldn't use those words to describe "The Matrix," but everything about this "haunted house" tale is graceful -- worthy of a Haruki Murakami novel.

Other segments tread more familiar ground, but with sure footing. "The Second Renaissance, Parts 1 and 2," directed by Mahiro Maeda ("Blue Submarine No. 6"), covers thousands of years of "Matrix" pre-story with a breathless, exhilarating rush of images.

Watanabe's second contribution, "A Detective Story," brings the grit of Mickey Spillane to the Wachowskis' nerdy comic-book universe.

And "Matriculated," from "Aeon Flux" creator Peter Chung, is the "Heavy Metal" of now; I can just imagine scores of college kids watching it late into the night, under the influence of microbrewery beer and lava lamps. I tell you, the kids today just don't know how good they've got it.

One last thing: The Wachowskis were thoughtful enough to provide a history of Japanese animation on the DVD, narrated by expert witnesses the likes of animation historian Charles Soloman and "Spawn" creator Todd McFarlane.

It's a wonderful and welcome gesture, even if these Americanized anime shorts are unlikely to convert fans in the numbers the Wachowskis would like. Freeing minds just isn't as easy as it used to be.

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