It's no secret that The Matrix was, at least in part, influenced by Japanese animation. In that sense it wasn't a complete surprise that a heavily anime-inspired anthology was conceived, delving deeper into the Matrix universe. The Animatrix isn't limited to Japanese animation, but the largest chunk of the shorts are directed by established anime legends. If you look at it like that, it could just as well be considered a Japanese anthology, even though it was funded by American dollars. I held good memories of the film, but it's been ages since I last watched it, and so I felt the moment was there to give it another go.
The first time I watched The Animatrix, I wasn't entirely convinced by its overall quality, but throughout the years the project has grown on me. I will admit that switching from English to Japanese dub has had a real impact there. Since this is an American-funded project, the first few tries I stubbornly stuck with the English dub, but because I grew tired of my own fundamentalist ideas (and because the English dub is absolutely grating), I finally caved and went with the Japanese dub instead. I've been doing this with other US-funded anime films too (Vampire Hunter D - Bloodlust comes to mind), with very positive effects.
The idea behind this anthology was to explore the Matrix universe in more detail, without being restricted by the feature film format. Each short takes a different angle on the impact the Matrix had on our world, though it must be said that very few actually manage to add something substantial. That's a bummer if you're really invested in this franchise, personally I couldn't care less. I actually liked how most shorts only graced the surface of the Matrix universe, each one taking it in a very different direction. It adds to the versatility, which is always a plus for an anthology in my book. That means I'm going to go through the shorts separately, as each one is very much its own thing (mind that the sequence of the shorts isn't the same for every release, I'm sticking with the one I watched last).
The anthology opens with renowned SFX guy Andrew R. Jones' Final Flight of the Osiris, a realistic-looking all-CG short. It's normal that the CG looks a bit dated nowadays, even so the opening fight/dance sequence remains beautifully orchestrated. The second half of the short is less interesting and more in line with the live action films (which are also very reliant on CG). It's the only short where the Japanese dub may feel a little off, then again it's also the only short realized by an American director, so there's that. 3.0*/5.0*
Next up is a Maeda's The Second Renaissance (Part I & II). Originally both parts were separated, but the version I watched had them back to back. Maeda's short is probably the most content-heavy of the bunch, detailing the entire history of the Matrix universe. It's interesting in the sense that it puts equal blame on humans and robots, bypassing the classic "evil robot uprising" plot. The animation here is solid, sporting a fine cell-shaded look, but not quite capable of competing with the better-looking shorts of this anthology. 3.5*/5.0*
Things start to get really interesting with Kid's Story, Shin'ichirô Watanabe's submission to The Animatrix. The plot itself is rather bare bones, but the animation itself is rad. The sketchy art style, the insanely dynamic camera work and the level of detail are just stupendous, to the point where it still stands out as a technical masterpiece today. I wish there was a tiny bit more meat here, but at least you get something visually striking. 4.0*/5.0*
The anthology keeps the momentum going with Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Program. Kawajiri keeps it a little "cleaner" here (none of his trademark perverse/demonic stuff), but his art style is instantly recognizable and greatly elevated by a little aid from the computer. Once again the plot is a little simplistic, but the action (and it's really just one big action sequence) is impressive and the direction very much on point. Not quite stand-out territory yet, but well worth watching. 4.0*/5.0*
The anthology takes another leap forward with Takeshi Koike's World Record. Koike is a superb animator who has earned director credits just for his defining art style, so it's nice to see him given full control over one of his projects. The art style is no doubt an acquired taste (thick, bold lines, and warped angles), but the animation is insane, as is the tension and vitality of this short. Again, a little light on content, but when the direction is this tight it hardly matters anymore. 4.5*/5.0*
That brings us to the best of the bunch. It's really no surprise that it comes from Kôji Morimoto, legendary Japanese short film director. His short is easily the least edgy one, it's even quite dreamy and ethereal in places, which is exactly what makes it so special. Beautifully animated, superbly colored and sporting the best score of the entire anthology. It's not quite up there with Morimoto's own best, then again that's such an outlandish level that it's of no consequence. 4.5*/5.0*
Morimoto is a tough act to follow, but Shin'ichirô Watanabe makes a solid attempt with Detective Story. Presented in grainy black and white and successfully chasing a brooding film noir vibe, this short manages to be both intriguing and unique. The level of detail is magnificent, the animation is superb and the limited running time is put to very good use. Watanabe proves he's capable of a lot more than his TV work hints at, sadly he's never been able to consolidate that with a feature film on this level. 4.0*/5.0*
The only bummer is that The Animatrix ends on a false note. Peter Chung's Matriculated is by far the worst short of the bunch and the only one I wouldn't mind skipping altogether. It's definitely true that Chung's style is an acquired taste, even then he seems incapable of elevating it with the lavish budget at hand. The story is basic, the CG and colors look ugly and even the voice acting falls flat. It's a poor way to end the anthology (they probably should've programmed it somewhere halfway through), but since it's the only ugly duckling here it's a little easier to be forgiving. 2.0*/5.0*
The Animatrix may lack the truly boundary pushing shorts a studio like 4°C is known for, but there is more than enough quality here to make this worth your while. Eight very distinct and unique shorts offer plenty of stand-out material, more than enough wow moments and plenty of variety to breeze through this anthology and leave you wanting more. The anthology film is an underappreciated format, but it's a blessing for animation and directors that want to go beyond familiar territory. The Animatrix made some very smart choices there, which has paid off in the end. Well recommended for fans of animation, even those who care little for the Matrix universe.