The Matrix, while a great film, wasn't an entirely original one. The film had a decidedly Eastern flair, combining the rapid fire ballistics of Hong Kong action cinema with the zero gravity fighting style and apocalyptic sci-fi themes of Japanese animation. With The Animatrix, a collection of nine animated shorts set within the Matrix universe, the latter influence comes to the fore and the result is a must-have for Matrix and anime fans alike.
The set opens up with the CGI Final Flight of the Osiris, the only segment in the set that actually recieved a theatrical release. Directed by Andy Jones, who also worked on Final Fantasy; The Spirits Within, Final Flight serves as a prequel to Reloaded, and chronicles the last adventure of the crew of the Osiris as they discover that the Matrix is launching a full-on offensive against Zion. The CGI work looks fantastic and it's almost difficult to distinguish the CGI "actors" from their real world counterparts (they act as well as Keanu Reeves).
The set follows up with the two part The Second Renaissance, scripted by the Wachowski bros. and directed by Mahiro Maeda. These segments set the groundwork for the Matrix universe, documenting the gradual dependence of man on machine and it's cataclysmic outcome. The Wachowski's script packs in a lot of history into the segments (each run ten minutes) and Maeda's animators do a fantastic job of keeping the action rolling along at a brisk pace. The story of how the machines simply wanted to co-exist with man, but were denied this to the point of their persecution and destruction, is actually quite disturbing at times, and serves as a great primer for the original film.
The fourth chapter, Kid's Story, is hands down the best looking piece of animation I have ever seen. Cowboy Bebop director Shinchiro Watanabe chose a "hand drawn" approach that resembles rotoscoping and it's gorgeous and organic. The short centers around a young man (who actually turns up in Reloaded and is said to play a larger role in the upcoming Revolutions, so this is his introduction) as he becomes aware of the Matrix. The script by the Wachowski's is a simplistic one, but Watanabe's team's efforts make it seem positively epic in their execution. This is the highlight of the set.
Chapter five's Program, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is the most traditional anime of the lot. A young woman trains in a program in which she's a warrior fighting samurai. When her prey turns out to be one of her commrades asking her to return to the Matrix with him, she is put to the ultimate test. While it's a decent entry, it's one of the weaker installments.
The weakest installment is Takeshi Koike's World Record which focuses on a runner's attempts to break his own speed trial record. During the race, he pushes himself so far that he "awakens" to the Matrix. I didn't particularly care for the animation style, nor did I see much of a point to the story other than serving as filler.
Koji Morimoto's beautifully realised Beyond is another diversion, similiar to Program. It's pretty to look at, but doesn't offer much insight into the Matrix universe. It's simply a tale of a girl who's search for her cat leads her to a "haunted house" that is actually a drop point for the agents of Zion. It's a touch better than Program, but still pales in comparison to the best of the series.
Watanabe returns for A Detective Story. Animated in a black and white noir style, this is the story of...well...a DETECTIVE, hired to track down Trinity. Watanabe's animation style from his Cowboy Bebop series shows up here, and it looks as good as always. The script, by Watanabe, is also a refreshing change of pace, with it's pulpy take on the Matrix universe.
Finally, we have Aeon Flux-creator Peter Chung's Matriculated which tells the tale of a group of humans in the wastelands who trap and "teach" machines in hopes that the machines will join their cause. I've never been a big fan of Chung's animation style, but it seems he's reigned in his trademark exagerrated expressions and body types for this one, and his script is actually quite cool.
The DVD from Warner Brothers features all nine shorts in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, with ball busting Dolby 5.1 audio, and your choice of languages (English/Japanese) and subtitles (English/French/Spanish) as well as a load of awesome extras. Scrolls to Screen is a very in-depth look at the history of anime, featuring interviews with several creators, critics, and filmmakers. It's one of the best pieces on the subject I've seen, and they pack a lot of history (including loads of clips from some of the genre's classics) into just under 25 minutes. There are also commentary tracks for four of the shorts (Renaissance 1&2, Program, and World Record) and extensive making of documentaries for all of them. Throw in some bios for the creators, and it's one of the more feature-packed discs on the market today.
Of the nine shorts here, there's not a total dog amongst them, but I'd have to single out World Record as my least favourite. Other than that, there's a solid 80 minutes of entertainment between the rest, and even more great stuff in the extras department. While I wasn't a big fan of Reloaded, I didn't really pick up this set for it's ties to that film. I've been jazzed about the compilation since it was announced, simply because it serves as a showcase for some of the finest animators in the business and let's them pay "tribute" to a film they themselves inspired. Matrix fans shouldn't think twice before picking this up, but anime fans? You NEED this.