With films like Antz, A Bug's Life, Epic and Arthur around, who needs another miniature slash animated woodlife film? I was pretty skeptical when I sat down to watch Thomas Szabo and Hélène Giraud's Minuscule: La Vallée des Fourmis Perdues (Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants), but as it turns out those fears were entirely unwarranted. Minuscule easily trumps all its competitors and charms from start to finish.
Based on the poster art I was expecting a run of the mill American animation. A technical feat bogged down by cringe-worthy jokes, boring aesthetics and flat dubbing. You can imagine how the French intro credits overlaid on live action footage caught me completely off guard. The obvious next step was to expect a film like Luc Besson's Arthur, but even that comparison fell flat pretty quickly. Minuscule is a film like no other out there.
Unless of course you are familiar with the Minuscule shorts. I watched a couple of them after watching La Vallée des Fourmis Perdues and I got a strong feeling this film plays more like a highlight reel. The same charming bits and gags that work so well here are copied almost directly from the shorts, though the film is clearly benefiting from a bigger budget. Newcomers to the world of Minuscule won't mind, but die-hard fans of the shorts might find the film a bit too recognizable at times.
Minuscule tells the tale of a small lady bug who, right after birth, gets separated from her family. She joins a group of friendly ants making their way back to the ant hill with the catch of their lives: a box full of sugar cubes. Along the way they bump into a gang of evil red ants, after which a small but intense siege on the ant hill ensues. It's not exactly what you call a multi-layered masterpiece, but in the end it gets the job done.
The selling point of Minuscule are its visuals. A sweet and balanced blend of live action and CG work make for a magical experience. The setting is shot entirely in live action, all the props and animals are done in CG. The live action footage has been slightly tampered with, removing the sharpness of the footage, while the CG remains simple and abstract rather than detailed and life-like. What does get a lot of attention is the way live footage and CG interact with each other, making it look natural and comfortable even when both art styles are pretty different from each other. Quite unique and difficult to compare to more traditional CG features.
The animation itself is flirting with stop-motion, constantly swaying between stills and frantic motion. While it no doubt helped to keep the cost down, it has a tremendous impact on the entire atmosphere of the film, giving it slapstick-like qualities (compared to the continuously hyperactive comedy of American CG features). It's a breath of fresh air.
As for the quality of the dub: there's nothing to talk about. There is no dialogue, at least not in any known to man language. The animals hoot, buzz and trumpet, but it's all done with sound effects (with great comic effect). Still, the animation itself is vocal enough to make sure there is never any question about what is happening on-screen. The soundtrack is nice too. Warm, gentle and uplifting music that gives off a pleasant summer vibe and supplements the visuals well.
Minuscule is one of those rare films that work for younger as well as older audiences. There is no dialogue and it's filled with simple, visual jokes. At the same time it's incredibly charming and it radiates a love for the medium that's quite rare. It's sad to realize that a film like this is ill-equipped to find a big(ger) audience, then again I'm sure there's a niche of animation-loving fans that will give it the welcome it deserves.
If you're a fan of the source material I'm not sure how much value this film adds, but if you're new to the world of Minuscule and you have a soft spot for animation, this is a wonderful film to discover. It's cute, charming, funny and perfect for a warm summer evening. Don't expect anything deep or challenging, just let the film's charm sweep you away. I'm already looking forward to Szabo and Giraud's next project.