The Animatrix (2003)

Not rated, except for "Final Flight of the Osiris": Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, sensuality and language.

Produced by Larry and Andy Wachowski.

"Final Flight of the Osiris" directed by Andy Jones, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski.
"The Second Renaissance Part I" and "The Second Renaissance Part II" directed by Mahiro Maeda, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski.
"Kid's Story" directed by Shinichirô Watanabe, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski.
"Program" written and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
"World Record" directed by Takeshi Koike, written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
"Beyond" written and directed by Koji Morimoto.
"A Detective Story" written and directed by Shinichirô Watanabe.
"Matriculated" written and directed Peter Chung.

Distributed by Warner Home Video.
89 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 8/10

All photos ©Warner Home Video. All rights reserved.

The Matrix Re-believed

Watching The Animatrix after having seen The Matrix Reloaded reminded me of what was so appealing about The Matrix in the first place. The very idea of the existence of such a world -- where the majority of people unknowingly lived in a controlled reality, while a "lucky" few tried to take advantage of their knowledge to manipulate the physics within that reality -- was hypnotic, feeding our desires to believe in the unbelievable. How many of us would want to "wake up" from our world and realize everything is just a dream? How many of us would like to go back into that dream, aware of our state, and be able to bend the rules within it?

That The Animatrix can take us back to that surreal rush we felt when we watched the first Matrix shouldn't be a surprise. Several of the nine shorts that comprise the video were released both on the internet and in the theaters specifically to do just that -- return us to the mythology and hype us up for The Matrix Reloaded's upcoming release. Thankfully, the Wachowski Brothers, who directed the movies and produced these shorts, took advantage of the opportunity to pay homage to the medium that helped inspire them. It's a showcase for anime -- and fairly edgy anime at that. The Animatrix may be commercial in its purpose, but it's also rapturously artistic in its execution.

The Wachowskis should be commended for turning the mainstream public's eyes toward material that wouldn't normally see the light of day unless they were featured at an animation festival. Though, stylistically, all the shorts can be grouped under the term "anime," each one is about as different as can be from the others. Watching the shorts in succession is like taking a tour of art both experimental and traditional, risky yet familiar. Allowing the use of The Matrix as a theme makes the relatively esoteric works palpable, without forfeiting any of the mystery that surrounds both the medium and the subject. I could say one would be hard pressed to find a better marriage -- both anime and The Matrix lend themselves easily to broad philosophical ruminating. The weakness of The Matrix is that it isn't as high-minded as it claims to be, while the weakness of many anime movies/serials is that they sometimes get lost in their own introspective babble. Given the format of the distinctly separate Animatrix shorts, both weaknesses are reduced -- the Matrix philosophies are presented to viewers in short, chewable bursts, while the visuals are given just the right amount of time to maximize impact.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the two connected shorts, "The Second Renaissance Part I" and "Part II," in an example by contrast. These are the shorts that come closest to being boring, with documentary-like coverage of man's ultimate doom through the mistreatment of his own creations. Already an old sci-fi theme, this part of the Matrix mythology was probably its least interesting. Morpheus's original, efficient explanation of the machines' victory over mankind from the first movie left much to the imagination, and that sufficed. Here, in "The Second Renaissance," the history is told in detail, which leads one to question the logic behind the events (for instance, man's decision to "torch the sky" is much less believable when we can see the exact circumstances that surrounded the event). These two shorts wallow in The Matrix's technicalities and, although the animation is haunting, its overall effect feels more functional than artistically expressive.

The remaining seven shorts do a much better job of putting the given format to good use. Each one combines a distinct aspect of the Matrix mythology with a distinct style of animation. "Program" features a strong, dynamic presentation of anime for a story about the challenge of resisting the temptation to return to the ideal, yet shackled world of the Matrix. "World Record" is about equating a runner's transcendent drive to transcendence of the Matrix itself; its animation is highly exaggerated, painting the runner's bulging muscles as if they were all independently traveling globules. "A Detective Story" is a nod to classic detective film noir, animated in black-and-white with highly realistic environments, and featuring Trinity (voiced by Carrie-Anne Moss herself) as a new kind of femme fatale. "Beyond" is probably the most playful of the episodes -- using largely traditional anime, it presents a glitchy section of the Matrix as a haunted house, where its visitors find they can float, shatter bottles that quickly un-shatter, and discover birds that can turn into feathers and back -- thus linking the Matrix with the casual witnessing of the supernatural. "Matriculated" is the trippiest portrait of the real world outside the Matrix, and the most creative in terms of story; here, humans capture machines and plug them into a psychedelic virtual world where they convince (confuse?) the robots into believing they are allies, thus creating new comrades in their war against the other sentinels.

Both "Kid's Story" and "Final Flight of the Osiris" are written by the Wachowskis and have links to The Matrix Reloaded. Of these two, "Kid's Story" succeeds the most as the story most able to stand on its own. In it, a kid dreams of falling, but in his waking life he still feels he is dreaming. For help, he instinctively seeks contact with a certain someone named Neo. My use of the term "waking life" is intentional -- the section is illustrated with what I suspect is rotoscoping, that method of laying animation over live-action footage put to excellent use by the movie Waking Life (and if I'm wrong, kudos to director Shinichirô Watanabe for duplicating the effect). The look of "Kid's Story" is wobbly and unstable, quite effective in portraying the protagonist's state of mind.

Finally, "Final Flight of the Osiris" has the weakest story -- the human crew aboard the ship Osiris witness sentinels tunneling toward Zion from the surface and must send someone into the Matrix to drop off a warning. The story is, once again, only there for explanatory purposes -- it shows us where Niobe got her evidence at the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded (and it also sets up the plot to the tie-in video game, Enter the Matrix). However, it is impressively animated by the team that brought us Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The beginning of the short is distracted by its own rather shameless attempts to titillate with a silly striptease swordfight; it gains strength toward the end, when the heroine plugs into the Matrix and races to the drop-off point. Ironically, the ultra-realistic rendering of the character works the best here, when she is performing humanly impossible acrobatics during her journey. Her realism, enhanced by the perspectives employed by the animators, allows us to buy and be exhilarated by her stunts within the physics of the Matrix. Like the first movie did, these sequences briefly let us believe in the unbelievable.

And isn't that all we're really asking for?

©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 9, 2003

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