Saturday, September 13, 2014

No Thaw in Sight for the "Frozen" Ice Age

Photo by twoworldsonekingdom on deviantART

Because the Frozen train is still going full speed it seems, Disney World has announced that it will be building a Frozen attraction at Epcot in the Norway Pavilion. I've been mostly silent about the whole Frozen phenomenon, but I say to myself, "Hey, if everyone else is still milking this thing, why not me too!" 

I will qualify my following commentary with this: I do not think Frozen is a bad movie. It looks great, has some good music, and some of the characters that I thought would be incredibly annoying animated tropes and stereotypes were much more palatable. HOWEVER, it is also not as good as its rabid fan base may lead you to believe. At its core, Frozen is another paint-by-numbers Disney fairy-tale musical. It does plenty well enough, but besides some if its visuals it doesn't do anything remarkable. 

I could pontificate on this topic at some length, but instead I thought I would try something a little different. This will be short philosophical dialogue in the tradition of Plato that utilizes an adapted scene from Jurassic Park. For tonight's performance, John Hammond will be playing the role of Disney Animation CEO John Lasseter, and for the role of myself, his co-star Dr. Ian Malcolm. Enjoy...

Dr. Ian Malcolm: If I may... Um, I'll tell you the problem with the [animated] power that you're using here [in Frozen]: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now
[bangs on the table] 
Dr. Ian Malcolm: you're selling it, you wanna sell it. Well... 
John Hammond: I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our [artists] have done things which nobody's ever done before... 
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your [artists] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.
John Hammond: [Wreck-It Ralph]. [Wreck-It Ralph] is on the verge of extinction... 
Dr. Ian Malcolm: [shaking his head] No...
John Hammond: If I was to create a [Wreck-It Ralph sequel] on this island, you wouldn't have anything to say.
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No, hold on. This isn't some [film] that was obliterated by [bad marketing], or the building of a [franchise]. [Musical fairy tales] had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.

There you have it.  Let's hope that animation, uh, finds a way.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why a Looney Tunes Movie Can't Work

In further news of classic cartoon properties being developed into flashy motion pictures, film sites are reporting that there is another Looney Tunes movie in the works to be written by X-Men: First Class writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz with Steve Carell supposedly attached to star. Details about the film, ostensibly titled Acme, are sparse, but it is hinted that it will be a "spin-off" film and will not focus on the main roster of Warner Bros. cartoon characters. It is presumed however that they will make an appearance.

Acme is just the latest movie to feature Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes roster. Who can forget the stinking pile of nostalgia that is Space Jam and who can actually remember Looney Tunes: Back in Action? Neither of these movies succeeded in capturing the true essence and magic of these characters for various reasons.

Aside from perhaps the complete lobotomy that Disney gave to Mickey Mouse fifty years ago, no animated character has been as cruelly subjected to the world of pop marketing like Bugs and the gang. You couldn't walk ten feet in the '90s without seeing someone wearing a shirt with the Tasmanian Devil or a smug looking Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote.

Never forget.

What many people see as the Looney Tunes brand is just a derivation of the cartoon shorts directed by Chuck Jones and Isadore "Friz" Freling in the later (and frankly lackluster) period of the Warner Bros. studio in the late fifties and sixties. They hung on longer than the other unit directors, and as the last men standing, they got to literally write the book on Looney Tunes. Since then, that one vision has been watered down and distorted into one-dimensional versions of what were originally some of the most vibrant personalities ever animated.

Case in point:  when he was created by Tex Avery, Daffy Duck was the epitome of the screwball character. Under the direction of Bob Clampett in the '40s, the character reached his peak as an unrestrained id, causing chaos for its own sake and hooting maniacally the entire time. Under Chuck Jones however, the character was changed to be the greedy, jealous asshole that most people know today. It's a cheapening of the character and central to why Looney Tunes movies don't work.

The sad matter of fact is that the Looney Tunes have lost their looney-ness. Today we have The Looney Tunes Show on Cartoon Network that is essentially Seinfeld but with talking animals. And even though that particular program has been recently discontinued, CN is quick to come back with Wabbit, a series that sounds like it will focus primarily on Bugs Bunny and will feature some new original characters. While these shows pale in comparison to the original shorts, I do appreciate that they did not try to replicate them exactly.

The original theatrical shorts were lightning in a bottle. They were created by some of the finest animators to ever pick up a pencil, and given the freedom to express themselves in unprecedented ways. The screen was barely able to contain the sheer amount of energy that was in a scant seven minutes. This highlights the other problem with movies:  they're too long for that kind of sustained action. A feature-length Looney Tunes short would be exhausting to watch. It would be like trying to eat a bowl full of candy. Sure it sounds fun, but once you dive in you (and your pancreas) start to see the error of your ways.

This does not mean all hope is lost.  In the past few years, there have been some incredible shorts that combine old sound recordings of Mel Blanc's voice and Carl Stalling's music with modern CGI tools, and the results are astounding.  Here's one from 2013 that does Sylvester and Tweety more justice than Friz Freling ever did:

The resources are out there, it's just a matter of harnessing them properly.  We shouldn't take Bugs, Daffy and the rest and put them on the shelf to gather dust and enjoy as museum pieces. These characters by their very nature are meant to be enjoyed.  Reinvention is all part of the game, but not at the expense of what made them appealing in the first place.  In short, keep the shorts short.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why A "Dumbo" Remake Reveals Everything Wrong With Animation Today

I've been gone for more than a year now, but I'm finally back to bring you more from around the world of cartoons and animation.  First up, the thing that finally got me off of my lazy ass and into writing again.

Earlier this week, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Disney is planning a live-action/CGI version of its 1941 classic, Dumbo. The film is to be written by Transformers franchise writer Ehren Kruger, but no projected release date has been announced.  

I can only hope that this turns out to be a hoax, but given the current direction that Disney is taking regarding its movies, I feel like I am only going to be disappointed. The studio has already cranked out Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, both of which have been well-received at the box-office. In addition, there are live-action adaptations of Cinderella, Beauty and the BeastThe Jungle Book, and (a rumored) The Little Mermaid in the pipeline.

This crap needs to stop. Remaking these already classic films robs the originals of their legitimacy as honest works of cinematic art. Dumbo is one of the tightest and most emotional entries of the Disney canon, Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the most sophisticated, and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were instrumental in kicking off the Animation Renaissance of the '90s. Hell, the latter of those two was the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  

So what is the problem here? Lots of things to be sure. Perhaps the first major issue was the ghettoizing of animation to children's television. With the film industry's deconstruction in the '50s, TV started to become the only marketable home for animation. In order to easily create weekly programming, many TV studios would create half-hour shows out of old theatrical cartoons shorts and play them for kids on Saturday mornings. This is the hurdle that we as a culture have been unable to overcome and it has resulted in the stigmatization that all animations are simply, "kid stuff."

This leads to my next point on why these live-action adaptations exist. I place much of the blame on the shoulders of Generation Y. Ours is a generation that is obsessed with nostalgia. Facebook news feeds and other social media sites are flooded daily with reminders of our childhood, from the foods we used to eat, the clothes we used to wear, and especially the movies we used to watch. As a side effect of the cornucopia of information on the internet, many of these movies, shows, and other material are readily available to watch and relive. In addition to leading many young people to strive and capture their lost youth, it also causes older generations to perceive us as the generation that can't let go of our childhoods, furthering the kiddy stigma of cartoons.

Enter the corporate suits. They know what is trending on Twitter and Facebook. Marketing firms collect data to show that these older animated films are still popular today, so the CEOs ask themselves, "How can I make money off of this without taking a huge financial risk?" The answer: remake an already established brand, but alter it slightly to make it fit with contemporary tastes and to give it the illusion of being a more mature story (just for fun, let's say it's a dark fantasy setting). Next, you find bankable names to write, direct, and star in them. After all, who doesn't love Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie?  The end result is the cinematic equivalent of a hot dog; manufactured and only slightly reminiscent of the steak of burger that once was. Certainly in Hollywood money needs to be made, but if you're in animation to get rich, you're in it for the wrong reasons. Walt Disney took every dollar he made off of his movies and cranked them back into the company to do even better next time. Recent investigations into the tech and computer animation industries have proven just how far we have fallen.

The bottom line is this: animation does not get the respect that it deserves as an art form. When it was first being pioneered in the early decades of the twentieth century, it was regarded as the top tier of movie magic. When Walt Disney stepped onto the scene, he blew everyone away with his passion, work ethic, and willingness to go beyond what was considered possible and brought the medium to an entirely new level. Mickey Mouse was a bigger star than many of the real-world figures of the silver screen. Critics were astounded that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was able to engage the emotions of an entire theater audience for a feature-length animated film.  People are still moved today by the honesty and emotion of a movie that was made in 1937. How many other films can truly claim to have that kind of lasting power?

Animation is not simply the dominion of princesses and talking animals with attitude. It is a medium in which the only limitations are the imaginations if the people who create it. It can be so much better than it is if people would stop worrying about only finding something for your kids or making money on an investment. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Let go of any preconceived notions about Pollyanna endings and stupid sing-alongs. Animation is a medium as old as film itself.  Many of our most cherished films are animated. Don't let the cynics and bean counters take those memories away from you and twist them to suit their own desires.  If we allow these films to be lost, we lose a part of who we are.