Monday, February 19, 2007

The Films I Return To...

In my entry called Criticism, I mentioned "the films I constantly return to." In the comments, Sean LeBlanc asked me what those films are. I've been thinking about it and I've come to a disturbing conclusion. Few of them are animated.

I mention this because over at John K's blog, there's a discussion going on about whether the only people who can write for animation are cartoonists. I'll let you read it and come to your own conclusions, but when I think about animation vs. live action in terms of their effect on me, my conclusion is that the content in animated films is rarely complex enough.

I know that theatrical shorts were handicapped by their length and by having to generate laughs. Certainly, there are several that manage to transcend these limitations. Bad Luck Blackie and Duck Amuck are two that succeed as entertainment while leaving you with something more to think about. Independent animation like Hubley's Moonbird and Ring's Anna and Bella evoke emotions that most other cartoons ignore. Mike Sporn has tackled themes that other animated film makers haven't touched.

And I know that the majority of animated features have been child-friendly, which limits the type of content that's acceptable. There are a handful that speak to larger concerns for me. Pinocchio and The Iron Giant are two that dwell on personal responsibility, a theme I respond to. Spirited Away deals with issues of maturity and opening yourself up to the world.

However, I can name a dozen films by John Ford that I'd rather watch than any of the above. And there are films by Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra, Frank Borzage, John Huston, etc. that are also more attractive to me.

I'm not implying that my taste is better than anyone else's. We all respond to different things. I certainly admire the craft of the best animated films. I enjoy studying the work of animators and animation directors. But from a content standpoint, the number of films that I would defend against live action is relatively (maybe pitifully) small.

I don't doubt that the writers John K. has been forced to work with have been less than the best. The economics of Hollywood being what they are, anybody capable of writing for movies or live TV does so because it pays better and carries more prestige than writing for animation. But maybe the problem with animation is that cartoonists write it. That's not to imply that bad writers are preferable, but what would animation look like if it was written by Samson Raphaelson, Robert Riskin, Dudley Nichols, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Frank Nugent, Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Towne, William Goldman, Francis Ford Coppola, or Charlie Kaufman? And what about TV writers like Steven Bochco, David E. Kelly, Aaron Sorkin, Phil Rosenthal, and Larry David? I can name works written by them that are at least as good as any animated film I'd champion.

Whoever ends up writing animated films, the bar has to be set higher.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I've always wondered what Charlie Kaufman would do with that strange mind of his if he was asked to write an animated film. Maybe someone should, and that credit immediatly would make animation more "adult accepted" too.

Michael Sporn said...

You've hit on the heart of the matter, and it's a touchy subject for animators to read. More important to me than any other aspect of filmmaking - even animation filmmaking - is the story. The drawing, animation, music, layouts and Bgs can't save a bad story. It'll still end up a bad movie.
Yet, I remember a very popular film during the 60's called "The Silverfish King." It had some not very good drawings which drew themselves to the sound of a very eerie, complex story. That was enough to make a successful short that compelled people to watch and festivals to prize.
However, what you're talking about goes even further. You're comparing really good animated films to really good live action films. There, I think it comes down to personal preference.
Two of my favorite films are Citizen kane and Dumbo. Given a choice, I'd probably pick Dumbo. Something about it touches the core of my soul, and it truly reaches me.
Fortunately, these days, we can have both films almost anytime we want. As for bad films, I don't even watch most of the animated features given to me on dvd for free. I don't have the heart; they don't have the soul.

Thad said...


Your writing is consistently a source of reason and a welcome change to the garbage being posted on other blogs.

Stephen Worth said...

I can name a few dozen cartoonists who are just as profound and adept in their own medium as the live action filmmakers you mention were in theirs... Gross, McCay, Herriman, Sterrett... There's four, and I haven't even gotten to the animators like Messmer, Avery, Jones and Disney yet! I post proof of animation's unique and precious value to humanity every day at the ASIFA Archive blog.

There's a tendency in animation to be ashamed of it... to think it's somehow less important and less profound than other art forms. "oh, it's just cartoons..." Even some great animators felt that way. But it isn't true. Just because a cartoon isn't serious or gritty or plotty or realistic, it doesn't mean that it isn't eloquent in its own way- it doesn't have a unique point of view and something important to say.

The kids get it. I talk to students and young animators every day who burn with the desire to do great things with the medium. But the way the animation business works, the cards are stacked against kids with big talent and big dreams. When John K points out naked emporers, he doesn't just put forward his own case, he provides a service to the whole animation community. If he makes a difference with his fight for the rights of cartoonists, we all benefit.

The medium isn't going to get stronger by comparing it like apples and oranges to different mediums. The way it will get stronger is to take the knowledge and experience of the people who pioneered and created the artform of animation and build on that.

Animation needs to go back to the days when it fired on all cylinders... when it wasn't just a puppet show for snappy dialogue. Every aspect of the medium... music, movement, design, color, plot, dialogue... all worked together to create a world that only exists in imagination. That isn't impossible. It used to exist. I for one, am not ashamed of that ideal at all.

See ya

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Though I can't speak for him, I don't think Mark is saying there's anything wrong with that. Animation has some great films, and there's nothing wrong with staying within that genre/ideal. The point is, why isn't there more? Why CAN'T animation be used for more serious, gritty, realistic,... filmmaking? Of course it can. And if it can, why isn't it happening? Why is the writing mostly simple and or humorous, if it could go more complex? There's just as many, if not more people in animation that want the medium to take chances in that direction (I think especially among CG animators), as there are that want to build further on the great cartoons of the past.

If live action filmmaking has evolved into more realistic and complex films (recent good example being Babel), and the audience is evolving with that (and I believe they are), why shouldn't a part of the animation industry try to go that way too?

Stephen Worth said...

Animation can depict anything that can be imagined and put on film. The reason that there aren't more serious animated features is the same reason why TV animation sucks so bad. The people deciding what to make and how to make it aren't animators.

Realistic, however, is another story. If you want realistic, you might as well shoot live actors with a camera. Drawing them is a waste of time.

See ya

Anonymous said...

Mark said: "but when I think about animation vs. live action in terms of their effect on me, my conclusion is that the content in animated films is rarely complex enough."

Admittedly I'm definitely of mixed feelings regarding this topic. If you're looking for "complex" content, perhaps something like "Watership Down" or Bakshi's "Coonskin" might fit the bill. However, neither of these films are the type of thing I'd personally go out of my way to seek out! I thought that "Kirikou and the Sorceress" was an interesting film, as was "Spirited Away", but these are not the films I would tend to "constantly return to" as you put it.

Frankly, my interests in animation are pretty much limited to films that have entertaining performances more than complex ideas. If someone were to ask me what I felt was the greatest animated film of all time: the "Citizen Kane" of animation as it were, I'd likely say "Pinocchio". But if pressed to name my favourite animated film of all time, I'd quickly respond with "The Jungle Book". While I admire "Pinocchio" for the technical skill and multi-layered storytelling, it's the good old-fashioned entertainment of fun characterization and musical numbers of "The Jungle Book" that I viscerally respond to. After all, being a huge Sinatra/Billy May fan, that likeminded, breezy, jazzy score of George Bruns, coupled with vocalists like Phil Harris and Louis Prima, makes it irresistable to me!

Likewise, my tastes in live-action films are along the same lines. In recent years, I've been rather disappointed that mostly very serious, high-minded films seem to get nominated for the top honours at The Academy Awards. When I look back at Best Film winners of decades past, it seems like movies that promised nothing more than great entertainment often walked away with their share of Oscars. Frankly, I'll take "An American in Paris" or "My Fair Lady" over something like "Crash" or "Million Dollar Baby" anyday.

Getting back to your topic on animation with more complex content, would you agree that there are several segments of Bozzetto's "Allegro Non Troppo" that explore previously uncharted territory? I would point to "Valse Triste", with the melancholy cat as being absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. Both the "Bolero" and "The Firebird" segments seem to be highly critical of mankind and his civilization for many evils and exploitation of lesser creatures. For me, this is probably as heavy as I would venture with animation. I sort of have my doubts about animation as a medium to tackle the same serious issues as live-action does. I think maybe the protagonist of Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" came to the same conclusion.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

"Realistic, however, is another story. If you want realistic, you might as well shoot live actors with a camera. Drawing them is a waste of time." Well, of course not visually realistic. I'm sure there must be a way to use animation to emphasize certain elements of a very realistic story and way of storytelling.

I think Ghibli's already proved more serious and adult themes can work. Whisper of the Heart, Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday especially. The other japanese film Mind Game also shows a brilliant way of using animation to tell a very different type of story.

Stephen Worth said...

All good animation caricatures and highlights some real aspect of people's personalities. Personally, I think that the depiction of a fully rounded personality like Bugs Bunny is a pretty complex achievement in itself. Comedy and Drama are equally complex... examples of this go all the way back to the plays of Aristophanes and Sophocles.

See ya

Anonymous said...

Content and form are separate. People who don't understand form are missing that integral first step before they add their own content. If Chekov writes an episode of The Simpsons, you HEAR the difference, you don't SEE it. He wouldn't be capable of bringing anything to the actual animation process. The story serves the animation - except on shows The Simpsons, and movies like Shrek, and all other mainstream animation, where the animation is beside the point of the "witty dialouge" and celebrity voice stars.

Thad said...

Not to veer off-topic, but I agree with Pete.

If you asked me what Disney's best film is, I'd be hardpressed not to answer "Pinocchio" or "Dumbo"... But if you asked me what my favorite Disney film is I'd have to answer "Alice in Wonderland"! (Yeah, yeah I hear the groanin'...) Maybe I'll write why someday...

Anonymous said...

Serious question: not intended to be flippant. If animation is capable of dealing with richer, more complex stories, why is that most people, and I have to include most of the animation fans online, seem to have little use for animation that is anything other comic in tone? What initiative is there to create animation that tells a more complex story is most of your audience doesn't appear to want to accept animation that is too far outside of the slapstick in tone?

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Because the animation community/regular animation fans aren't the only audience?

@stephen: Yes, comedy and drama can be equally complex, but I think it's safe to assume that you know what we (or at least I) mean with "complexer" films.

@anonymous: form and story shouldn't be seperate. Form should serve what you're trying to tell. Animation is perfect to take that aspect even farther than live action can, or at the very least in a different direction.

Thad said...

Maybe because most of the 'serious cartoons' (oxymoron?) are usually moving graphic pictures, ugly-looking, and pretentious...?

I disagree with the story overcoming the animation. Miyazaki's films have great stories but they look like Hell and I can't get past the drawing style to enjoy it (apply this to anything coming out of Japan).

And I agree with the argument that not every idea is suitable for animation. If I want to watch a film about a woman grieving over her sweetie (which is, albeit, never), I'll put on Lifetime, not a cartoon.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I have no problem whatsoever watching a Ghibli film. Nor do millions of people out there. It's obvious from your blog (which I enjoy, btw) that you prefer cartoons, but to me, "cartoon" is still a genre, not a medium. A serious animated film isn't an oxymoron. There's plenty of talent around (or at least I hope so) to make a well-animated, non-ugly, non-pretentious serious film.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the long-winded rant, but...

When most people look at a real life vista, they see the individual elements (mountain, trees, river). When you ask them what colour things were, they'll inevitably say, the mountain was white, trees green, river blue etc. But show them a good painting of the same scene and through the artist's vision they'll realise the complexity of colours within. Because the artist has essentially exagerated or isolated each element.

Animation does the same not just with colour, but also emotions, physicality, action, everything. Perhaps that lends the medium more towards comedic use simply because comedy is more often than not an exageration of reality.

I guess the same justification can be made for why violence and rage are overused characteristics of most "adult" animation. Anger is already an exagerated emotion, therefore it's easy to caricature. Sadness, insipid romance, cutesiness... they're all easy prey to exageration.

But to the original point of the post. A live action film only has to be good for me to enjoy it, whereas I expect an animated film to be great, and anything less is simply tedious.