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Flatland and Beyond -- a Longish Post About Animation

Terry Teachout’s blog About Last Night has become a daily stop for me during its brief existence. It should be a regular read for you, too. And I’m not saying that just because he was the first blogger to link to this Fool (though I remain duly appreciative of the gesture).

Last weekend, we watched the DVD of Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful Spirited Away, and I had been wanting to write something about it. I didn’t really have a mental hook on which to hang it, though, until Terry’s Friday blog entry on computer vs. hand-drawn animation. In a nutshell, he genuinely likes Pixar’s computer generated Finding Nemo, but finds that it, as with other digital productions, leaves him at something of a distance.

What bothers me are the three-dimensional backgrounds, which are both fantastically elaborate and hyper-realistic. It’s an impressive achievement, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling an incongruity between the characters, which are obviously animated (meaning unreal), and their environment, which just as obviously aspires to a different set of visual objectives.


I know there’s more to animation than animation, so to speak. Pixar’s features are good not just because of the way they look but also because of the way they’re written and voiced and scored. In those departments, Pixar stands head and shoulders over just about everybody else’s stuff. But the best animated feature of the past decade, Lilo and Stitch, is just as imaginatively written and voiced and scored -- but also makes generous use of hand-drawn characters and hand-painted backgrounds that don’t aspire to Pixar-like hyper-realism. I can’t help but think that this is part of the reason why Lilo and Stitch touched me, whereas Finding Nemo mostly only charmed me.
I concur in the Teachout ranking of those two films, though I am more enthusiastic for Nemo than he is. The resort to watercolor backgrounds for the first time in decades in Lilo and Stitch -- seemingly driven as much by budget issues as by conscious choice -- is a big part of that film’s success. Similarly, the very unreality and “artistic” quality of hand animation is a central part of Miyazaki’s appeal to me. He has a particular passion for nature, and in several of his films there are shots of wind moving over fields or flower beds under glorious cumulus-studded skies that capture light, and the pure gorgeousness of light, with an enthusiasm to rival Monet.

Miyazaki does not, I think, compete with Pixar or the very best of Disney in terms of story or plotting, but I confess that may be an erroneous impression based on my not being able to understand his films in their original Japanese. I can say that even in translation his films linger and resonate long after they end, and that this is true even of the films -- such as Kiki's Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro , to name two others I particularly admire -- in which, looking back, it seems that very little actually happens. Unlike most American filmmakers, Miyazaki is content to reach viewers as much with what is absent or implied as with what is set directly before them. While both Kiki and Chihiro (in Spirited Away) go through a growing-up process by their respective films’ end, their growth seems to come from actual self-examination and to be more organic and believable than the pop-psych quick fix young-outsider-finds-his/her-place-in -the-world that is the pattern for so many recent Disney films (such as Aladdin or Mulan or even The Lion King). (One of the charms of Lilo and Stitch is that the characters still are out of step with the world at large at the end of the film, but have each found a niche within their “little and broken, but still good” extended family.)

To return to Pixar, while the films as a whole may charm rather than touch, I find that there are individual scenes and sequences in all of the studio’s films that ring true emotionally and, for as long as they last, make the issue of analog v. digital irrelevant. I think of scenes such as Buzz Lightyear’s discovery of his true nature (he’s a toy, and not a flying toy at that) in the original Toy Story or the argument in the Abominable Snowman’s cave in Monsters, Inc. And many would argue, though I’ve never quite been one of them, that Woody’s confrontation of the Faustian bargain by which he might attain a sort of immortality in Toy Story 2 is a pinnacle of the genre. In Finding Nemo, the emotionally dead-on scene comes when the memory-impaired Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, whose acting I would not previously have ever expected to praise) pleads with Albert Brooks’ Marlin not to leave her behind, because she can only think clearly when he’s around and is desperately afraid of slipping back into her fog. (My wife disagrees with me on this one, having found the character of Dory just a bit too dim, repetitious and annoying to engage her sympathy. But that’s about the only thing she didn’t much like in the film.) Pixar’s John Lasseter is a huge admirer of Miyazaki, and the emotional effectiveness of the best Pixar sequences suggests that he has drawn many of the right lessons from Miyazaki’s films.

The animators who have best managed the trick of placing clearly artificial or “cartoony” characters in a “realistic” setting may be the talented clay-animation folk at Aardman Animations, particularly in Chicken Run . Even though (as that trusty steed Patsy would say) "it's only a model," the prison camp settings are lovingly detailed and are shot with the same attention to light, shadow and color that a good cinematographer would bring to bear on a “real” setting. Because the chickens and other characters actually are three dimensional, they fit into their filmic world with a consistency that Pixar characters don’t always possess. Aardman films combine the dimensionality of computer animation with the handcrafted quality that distinguishes traditional hand-drawn animation. They do not attempt the emotional reach of some of the other films mentioned here, but they successfully finesse the blending of character and setting that seems to be the obstacle to Terry Teachout’s full engagement with the Pixar films.

When I saw Toy Story in its original release, I distinctly recall thinking “Wow, this looks as real as Wallace and Gromit!” I meant that, and still do, as high praise. Aardmanesque aspects abound in Pixar’s films. With all those extra joints to articulate, for instance, the insects in A Bug's Life could easily be imagined as stop motion models. And particularly around the eyes, the seagulls in Finding Nemo -- whose single minded “Mine! Mine! Mine!” is one of the best jokes in the movie -- bear a troubling resemblance to the Professor Moriarty of the marine bird world, Aardman’s "Feathers" McGraw.

In the end, the choice of animation medium -- pen and paper, bits and bytes or clay models -- probably matters less than the thought, and heart, that is put into it. Computers make it unfortunately easy to create a character or effect without fully thinking or feeling it through -- as witness the catcalls and dissatisfaction that have greeted sophisticated computer-generated characters such as The Hulk. That’s a subject worth another post at some point. For the moment, I think the extent to which Pixar’s films avoid that trap is impressive, and the moments that work as well as more traditional animation outnumber those that don’t.

POSTSCRIPT 1: Information on all things Miyazaki can be found at the extremely thorough fan site,

POSTSCRIPT 2: A Terry Teachout bonus: He gets interesting letters from his readers. I especially like the one urging reappraisal of the great Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain . [The author of that letter also appears to have reappraised the uses of capitalization, but that's just a pet peeve of mine, fogey of a Fool that I am. He/she is right about the need to reconsider O'Connor, although too harsh on Gene Kelly.]


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