The New, Improved Puppetoons
Like its predecessors from Pixar, the unquestioned leader in computer
Inc. is a charming, intelligent, and well-crafted film,
its virtues fully as apparent on the beautifully produced DVD as
in the theater. The multitudinous "extras" in the two-disc
DVD set are of varying worththe audio commentary is more illuminating
than usual, the studio tour on the second disc is a little too cutebut
since Disney Home Video priced the set as a normal release, rather
than putting out an overpriced deluxe edition like those for Tarzan
and The Emperor's New Groove, there's not much ground for
Monsters, Inc. is unmistakably a children's film, as the
earlier Pixar features were not. The central relationships in the
earlier films all involved adults, even when the adults were toys.
Despite the workplace setting, the central relationship in Monsters
involves an adult, the monster Sulley, and a child, the girl Boo,
who is even more pet than child (a resemblance pointed up through
a gag lifted from Chuck Jones's Feed the Kitty). The film's
reed-thin premise, that children's screams provide the energy for
the monsters' city, is all too easily imaginable as the premise
for a children's book aimed at the lower grades.
Monsters, Inc. is problematic in other ways. I've yet to
see a computer-animated film that didn't leave me aware that work
was being handed off from people to machines. That awareness becomes
stronger the more times I see a particular computer-animated film,
and ultimately it diminishes my pleasure in that film and makes
it harder for me to watch it. I've observed that pattern with each
of the Pixar films so far, even as they have become more technically
sophisticated. Monsters, Inc. is no exception. The characters'
movements simply have too much of a machine's regularity, without
the subtle variations that only a hand holding a pencil can provide.
Since the time of J. R. Bray, a lot of animation has always been
machinelike in spiritthat is, the characters on the screen
are clearly being manipulated from the outside, as opposed to encouraging
the illusion that their actions are self-generated. In the old stop-motion
George Pal Puppetoons, to which many computer-animated films bear
a striking resemblance, the dolls simply couldn't be manipulated
freely enough to suggest the elasticity of real creatures. The recent
Aardman films, like Chicken Run, improve on Pal in that regard,
but only enough to invite favorable comparisons with the stiffness
of the computer animation in films like Shrek and Ice
Most hand-drawn TV cartoons, even a sometimes wonderful show like
The Simpsons, have suffered from a similar mechanical quality.
The Simpsons conceals its clanking heart beneath inventive
writing, but there are limits to how successful such camouflage
can be. A great cartoon is as inexhaustible as a Rembrandt self-portrait
or a Beethoven string quartet; I never tire of watching Bob Clampett's
Book Revue or Great Piggy Bank Robbery. But watching
a Simpsons episode twice is about my limit.
There's nothing intrinsically mechanical about hand-drawn animation,
though. When a metallic pall settles over the medium, it's usually
because of decisions about moneyhow much will be available,
and how it will be spent. What's different about computer animation,
so far, is that it seems to be mechanical at its core. Its dominant
characteristics, revealed through its very complexity, are those
of a technological marvel, rather than an artistic tool.
Computer animation's technology has from all appearances advanced
at an even faster rate than the techniques of the Disney animators
in the thirties. It's becoming clear, though, that, in contrast
to what happened seventy years ago, there's no necessary connection
between mastering the technology and putting more convincing characters
on the screen. When a character is covered with millions of precisely
rendered hairs, and his on-screen environment is richly three-dimensional,
it's reasonable to expect him to move with a real creature's subtlety.
Sulley does not pass that test. He is less persuasive than many
drawn characters whose caricatured movements are simpler and more
direct. It is Sulley's voice (by John Goodman) that brings him to
life, far more than the animation; in that respect, the Pixar characters
are indistinguishable from Homer Simpson or, for that matter, Huckleberry
Pixar hasn't solved a problem that may be insoluble, given computer
animation's nature: What should its characters look like, if they
don't look like the characters in drawn animation? For reasons suggested
in my essay on Carl
Barks and his paintings of the Disney ducks, I think efforts
to translate traditional cartoon characters into computer animation's
three dimensions are doomed to grotesque failure. Perhaps the Pixar
people agree; the leading characters in their first four films have
been toys, insects, and monsters.
Photo-realistic characters like those in the misbegotten computer-animated
feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are clearly no
answer. They can succeed only by becoming indistinguishable from
live action. Needed instead are characters at home in the new medium
but sharing the freedom of movement and expression that the best
cartoon characters of the traditional kind have brought to the screen.
The Pixar features have hinted at what such characters might possibly
be likethe grasshoppers in A Bug's Life, defined as
they are by texture, are far more successful than the toylike antsbut
the characters in two of the next three Pixar features are fish
and cars. That's evading the issue.
I've been intrigued by John Lasseter's enthusiasm for the Japanese
director Hayao Miyazaki's films, which are basically hand-drawn
although Miyazaki uses some skillfully integrated computer-animated
effects. "I love his films," Lasseter has said. "I
study his films. I watch his films when I'm looking for inspiration."
Mononoke (which I saw dubbed) and Spirited
Away (which I saw in Japanese, with subtitles) have left
me with two strong impressions. For one thing, the exotic settings
and creatures, as good as they are, would be much more effective
in computer animation of the Industrial Light and Magic kind, in
support of live actors, as in the George Lucas films. For another,
Miyazaki's human characters, typically for Japanese animation, are
little more than ciphers, their appearance and their actions almost
wholly dictated by formulas.
Stylization, the ready answer, or excuse, for Japanese animators'
cavalier handling of their characters, doesn't really serve in Miyazaki's
case, because he is so good at atmosphericshis settings seem
real even when the characters don't. To the extent that Chihiro,
Miyazaki's ten-year-old protagonist, wins our sympathy, it's not
because the animation brings her to life (except perhaps in fleeting
moments when she slips into the paralysis of fear), it's because
Miyazaki places her in an environment as persuasively weird as those
in the most obvious of his sources, Lewis Carroll's Alice in
Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. But how much
more powerful the film would behow much more involvingif
Chihiro had been animated so that she were wholly present on the
screen (or, for that matter, if she were a real actress in a computer-generated
Miyazaki may be a curious role model for an American filmmaker
like Lasseter, but he's not really a surprising one. Perhaps Lasseter
and his colleagues realize at some level that they will probably
never come up with characters that engage an audience's sympathies
as fully as the most successful hand-drawn characters do. Good character
animation is tough to do, and computers, on the evidence so far,
make it more difficult rather than easier.
How tempting, then, if you're a computer animator, to follow the
example of a Miyazaki, whose films rely so heavily on their exotic
atmospherethe sort of thing computer animation is very good
atat the expense of their characters. But there's a catch:
Such films surrender animation's single greatest advantage over
In Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age,
I quote what the great Russian director Stanislavski told stage
actors. "The more immediate, spontaneous, vivid, precise the
reflection you produce from inner to outer form," he said,
"the better, broader, fuller will be your public's sense of
the inner life of the character you are portraying on the stage."
Writing about Bill Tytla's animation in Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs, I said: "In Tytla's animation of Grumpy, that gap
between 'inner' and 'outer'the gap that Stanislavski called
upon the human actor to bridgesimply did not exist. Whatever
passed through Grumpy's mind, it seemed, was simultaneously visible
in his face and body, through acting of a kind that was possible
only with a cartoon character."
Animation can reveal its characters' minds and hearts with a clarity
and immediacy that makes most live action seem labored and opaque
by comparison; but animation almost never does that. From the time
of Fantasia onward, many of the best American animators and
filmmakers, starting with Walt Disney himself and continuing now
with John Lasseter, have shrunk from the most stringent demands
of character animation. The work, it seems, is just too damned hard.
The success, both critical and financial, of films like Monsters,
Inc. and Spirited Away can be taken as evidence that
character animation of the kind that Tytla did for Snow White
is not only hard to do well, it's not necessary to do at all. But
any medium whose leading practitioners shrink from its most pressing
demands, as is emphatically true of animation today, is doomed to
marginality if not to triviality.
[Posted May 2003]