Sunday, May 4, 2008

Animation Lamentation

This IMDB-referred blog entry by thecynicalgamer laments the state of American animation. It's actually a common lamentation, though sort of unfocused. It begins with praise of Persepolis, a film I also enjoyed. Apparently, a big part of what the blog author liked was its "intelligence" and "social commentary". This is the launch point for--well, for some meandering. It's unclear whether the problem is that American animated features are visually uninspired or socially ignorant or both. One thinks both.

The idea that they're visually uninspired--at least if you're including Pixar, which he makes a point of doing--is hard for me to understand. In the early Pixar films, there's incredible artistry in where the animation is scaled down due to the limits of the technology of the time, while in their recent stuff, the artistry is in the degree they scale back to avoid complete photorealism. Every movie has a few breathtaking scenes but they don't try to beat you over the head with it.

But I'm admittedly geeky, and spend the first few minutes of every Pixar film looking at the way they render the hair and the water, until I'm swept up in the story.

And Pixar is all about the story. They use their artistry in service to the story, and it's quite a balancing act. Too cartoony and you can't take it seriously; too realistic and you find yourself in the uncanny valley, or distracted by swooping cameras and panoramic views, rather than paying attention to the characters.

Here's another great thing about Pixar: Until Finding Nemo, all of their movies were about the individual's responsibilities in with the group, which--to that point--was not a message we got in animated features. To wit:

  • In Toy Story, Woody must redeem himself with the group by saving Buzz.
  • In Bug's Life, Flick must redeem himself with the group by fighting off grasshoppers.
  • In Toy Story 2, Woody must choose between groups.
  • In Monsters, Inc., Sulley violates the group's greatest taboo to do the right thing.
  • Finding Nemo breaks the mold by only peripherally having a group theme.
  • The Incredibles deals with the responsibility that the exceptional have to society.
  • Cars was really about choosing which group you want to be responsible to and for.
  • Which brings us to Ratatouille which, while it explores interacting group dynamics (rats and chefs, heh), is in some ways the more thematically traditional movie.

What am I getting at? Well, look at the themes of Disney's movies from the '90s.

  • In Little Mermaid, Ariel gives up her group for (romantic) love.
  • In Beauty and the Beast, Belle gives up her group for love.
  • In Aladdin, Aladdin doesn't even have a group, but the love story is the main thing.
  • Love conquers all and overcomes group differences in Pocahontas.

Mulan, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan all pit romantic love and the struggle of the individual against his or her group. (I can't watch the Lion King, but I think it may be an exception.) Disney sells love stories, "be yourself," and--whether meaning to or not--that the group is a drag.

Pixar gives the group a lot more respect: Sometimes they may seem like a drag or be embarrassing, but they come through. As the toys did for Woody and Buzz, and the ants did for Flick, and so on. Pixar promotes the idea, not all that common these days, that the greatest fulfillment we have is in service to others.

I suppose that message is trite, but they've explored it in increasingly complex and subtle ways.

So, in that respect, I can't see the lack of intelligence there. The movies are all family friendly, sure. Nobody gets raped, and there's no graphic violence, but they don't pussy-foot around, either. The danger is very real and primal.

Then thecynicalgamer goes on to say Pixar lacks originality. He points to anthropomorphizing animals as an example of that. Chuck Jones once said something to the effect that it was easier to make animals human than it was to make humans human. That is, we're sympathetic to the anthropomorphic animals with the human flaws in a way that we're not to cartoon humans.

The other issue is that darned uncanny valley. The blogger praises Monster House (and I would, too) but there are moments--for example, the opening scene--when the human-esque characters that populate it are creepy. Brad Bird has demonstrated a real talent for making humans out of humans, whether it's The Simpsons, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles or the humans in Ratatouille. But it's not all that easy. I think even Shrek often fails--Fiona is a lot less creepy as an ogre than a human, and most of the humans in that series don't really work.

In short, I think the critique is weak not because there aren't a lot of subpar movies that use humanized animals (I'm tired of typing "anthropomorphic"), but because it's a little like arguing that there are too many movies where people drive in cars to get from place to place. You know? What ratio of animated films with talking animals is the right ratio? A Bug's Life is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven, would it be better if it used humans instead of ants? And speaking of the underrated A Bug's Life, compare and contrast with the ants of Antz, who are just awful to look at. Pixar's problem may be that they make it look easy. But people will still be watching their movies decades from now, while even Shrek, that most successful non-Pixar animation, with its temporal reference humor, is likely to fade.

Next, the author complains that Pixar should try being something other than Pixar and casually suggests that there must be plenty of money around for Lasseter and Bird to do something experimental. ("Stop making all that money, boys, in the name of art!") I suspect Lasseter's too busy trying to salvage Disney and Bird's doing exactly what he wants. (If he's not, by this time, he should be. Actually, if you check out The Incredibles extras, you can see how a great manager handles a great creative talent.)

He closes by suggesting that Hayao Miyazaki films (which Lasseter aggressively promotes) and Persepolis show that animation ain't just for kids anymore. But I suspect the least successful and most banal of the movies he derides is more commercially successful than Persepolis, and Miyazaki (whom I also love) doesn't exactly set the box office afire in the US.

The author reveals that he was eight when Toy Story came out, and he loved it. If memory serves, that would make him about 21 now, so it's probably not surprising that he's tired of it all. (Some of us grew up at a time when there were virtually no watchable kids movies and damn little animation whatsoever, so perhaps we're more generous.) But part of me can't help but wonder if he's expecting the world to change because he's changed.

If so, he could be in for some disappointments.

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