Friday, June 27, 2008

WALL-E



I hate it—I mean, really hate it—that whenever an animated feature is reviewed, writers feel compelled to mention whether or not kids would like it. It's a testament to the fact that, regardless of what the individual writers, editors or publishers feel, the public at large still can't process the idea that adults might want to watch animated features for themselves.

Past responses to this prejudice have included making films that are most definitely not for children, making films that are mainly for kids but include nod-and-wink throwaway gags for adults, and making films that kids and adults can enjoy equally. These have worked to varying degrees, but they all carry with them a fairly standard idea of what children will watch and enjoy.

WALL-E is a bit different in this regard, because it expands the idea of what kids will find entertaining. When Cast Away was released eight years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that there was no dialogue for almost half the movie (in the literal sense; Tom Hanks's character did speak, but no one answered). A similar fuss is being made over the lack of dialogue in WALL-E, but the unspoken question is, will kids be able to sit still for a 103-minute film where the main characters rarely speak?

From the reactions of the kids in the audience (especially the ones in the row right behind me) on Wednesday night, the answer is yes. And in the same way that Tom Hanks's acting was credited for making the dialogue-free parts of Cast Away so compelling, the Pixar animators must be given props for the remarkable acting in WALL-E.

With one exception, none of the many robot characters in the movie can truly speak, and the two that do (WALL-E and EVE) pretty much only say their names, each other's names, and the word "directive." That means that every robot character has to rely on rigid bodies and eyes (or eye surrogates) to communicate and express emotion. Interestingly, WALL-E himself is among the least flexible of the movie's robots; he has treads instead of feet, a pair of rigid mechanical viewfinders instead of an eye-mimicking LED display, and unbendable arms with three flat "fingers" at the end.

In sum, the movie has to be carried by characters that can't speak and are all limited compared to human bodies, and the main character is in some ways the most limited. And it works, thanks to Pixar's careful application of animation's twin traditions of pantomime and bringing inanimate objects to life. There are several references in WALL-E to A113, an in-joke that refers to CalArts's old character animation classroom. In few other films is that gag as relevant as it is in WALL-E; the movie is such an accomplished expression of the pre-digital yet universal art of conveying emotion and story purely through movement that when human characters show up and start talking, they seem clumsy and inelegant in comparison.

So, yes, kids will like WALL-E, as will adults. And we have the art of animation to thank for that.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Animation Show, Vol. 3



It's a given that even with such a wealth of animated shorts on the Internet, there's nothing like rubbing shoulders with like-minded people at a film festival. But when it comes to festival compilations on DVD, things get a little trickier. After all, if you're going to watch a bunch of shorts on the small screen, why buy them on DVD when you can probably find many of them, legally or otherwise, online?

That question plagues the third iteration of the annual Animation Show DVD release; a quick glance at its contents revealed three shorts that I'd seen online already, and I'm sure most, if not all, of the rest are lurking around somewhere.

Ah, but then you wouldn't have the distinct pleasure of watching 103 minutes of some of the best shorts of the past three years by pressing just one button from the comfort of your couch. Really, there isn't a false note here. I've seen Rabbit, City Paradise, Tyger and Learn Self Defense a gazillion times, and cheerfully sat through them from start to finish again. The kaleidoscopic Collision was serviceable and short enough not to be too taxing, and One D entertained me despite its one-note gag, unsurprising animation in-joke and glaring technical inaccuracy. (Hello, these characters are two-dimensional, not one-dimensional. Watch Ladd Ehlinger, Jr.'s interpretation of Flatland to see it done right.) Overall, a nice variety of films in a nice variety of styles.

Also, you wouldn't get great extras like an animatic and three video interviews, along with text interviews you can read by putting the DVD into a computer. That's some good bang for the bucks.

For all that, though, there are a few things that bother me here. I'm still not sure if I'm keen on the DVDs including a bunch of shorts that weren't screened during the theatrical run. I expect to see shorts on the big screen that I won't see on DVD due to rights issues, but it feels kind of odd that neither medium, by itself, is the complete experience.

Most glaring, however, is the inclusion of an eight-minute trailer for MTV's The Maxx, which is stuck in the middle of the festival extras instead of with the MTV trailers. (The Animation Show DVD is distributed by MTV Home Entertainment.) It's strange, because it's not part of the festival content, but its placement implies inclusion in the festival. Er, um, why exactly? It feels like a bit of corporate pimping, which doesn't reflect well on anyone involved.

Where to Get It
Buy
The Animation Show, Vol. 3 on DVD from Amazon.com

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954

Countless column inches, magazine pages and pixels have been devoted to the question/problem of racist black stereotypes in animation, and at some point someone says these cartoons need to be framed or presented in their historical context. It's unstated, but that phrase often means "Let's acknowledge that these cartoons were produced in a less enlightened time, and that the images are offensive. But man, are they funny. Can we go back to watching them, please?"

Not that the first sentence is untrue, but it's a simplistic reading at best. If you really want context, then start with Henry T. Sampson's That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960, which catalogues the many American cartoons that used these images, along with plot descriptions, production credits, and industry publication reviews—necessary and welcome, but maybe a little too clinical. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, in contrast, takes the same kind of data as That's Enough Folks and shapes it into a decades-long narrative.

Lehman recounts a chronological history of film animation from its beginnings at the hands of J. Stuart Blackton through most of the Golden Age of animation, weaving in descriptions and explanations of the types of racist images used. This really does put things in context, as for the first time we get to see how the evolution of these images and the gags behind them corresponds to the evolution of animation, movies, pop culture and society at large.

After I finished the book—at 137 pages it's a quick read—it occurred to me that The Colored Cartoon is, in itself, an answer to many of the questions and misconceptions that have swirled around this debate for at least as long as I've observed it. Why is it okay to make fun of Elmer Fudd, who is white, but not black characters who chase Bugs Bunny? The seemingly obvious answer is that Elmer Fudd's skin colour isn't the source of the humour, his ineptitude is. For those that argue that a black character's ineptitude isn't necessarily racist, Lehman's long-range view breaks down the different types of stereotypes and why even the most innocuous-looking depictions were part of a larger trend. Is the call to stop broadcasting cartoons with these images a recent example of political correctness run amok? Hardly. The NAACP—you know, black people—have been protesting these cartoons since World War II. (If you'd read Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, you'd know that. But if your reading list is restricted to animation books, The Colored Cartoon will fill you in.)

The Colored Cartoon isn't perfect. Far from it, in fact. While I liked how Lehman sometimes talked about simple economic or technological issues (like the trouble early animators had with lip sync) and how they affected what was seen and heard onscreen, I was less enthused by some of his conjectures that were presented as fact. Was Bugs Bunny a descendant of African-American mythical trickster figures like Br'er Rabbit? Sure, I can get behind that interpretation. Does that make him, and his trademark cool, an example of black culture being mined and transformed for cartoons? Maybe, but that leads to the thorny question of intent. While animation artists like Bill Littlejohn and Martha Sigall weigh in throughout the book, they don't offer any insights here, which leaves Lehman's assertion as an untestable theory.

I'd have preferred if the book was longer (but then, with good books I usually do), held back on the theorizing and gave us more animator interviews, more in-depth stories of activism (I like Lehman's frank description of the NAACP's missteps, and I'd like to see more interviews in that area) and more industry insights—for starters. Still, imperfect doesn't mean bad. At the very least, The Colored Cartoon is a start—a start at providing the often-cited context for this debate that will allow it to move on to a different level. That alone makes it a worthy entry in this still-nascent field.

Where to Get It
Buy
The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954 from Amazon.com

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

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