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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: It's Animating Season

9 Nov, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

In lockstep with apparently millions of others last weekend, my family spent about three hours enjoying the handiwork of remarkably skilled artists and craftsmen in the service of Disney and DreamWorks.

The animation accomplishments of The Mouse House’s Monsters, Inc. (courtesy of Pixar) and The Katz House’s Shrek inspired me to play homage to their ancestry. I put on a DVD and heard a narrator intone, “It is a cinematic masterpiece and an animation milestone. The film advanced the art of animation to new levels of visual and storytelling sophistication. [It] proved that a fantasy with adult appeal could be successful.”

Those words certainly are appropriate to describe Pixar’s groundbreaking animated feature film Toy Story. But they are, in fact, the words used by animation expert John Canemaker on the Disney DVD of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Just one of the delightful discoveries on that virtual museum exhibit of a recording is the film’s running audio commentary (cobbled together by the ever-resourceful Imagineers) spoken by the mouse king himself, Walt.

It is quite a lineage of talent meeting technology that traces from the seminal Snow White to Toy Story and now Shrek and Monsters, Inc. (I must acknowledge that “talent meeting technology” is a phrase I am borrowing from the tagline of the monthly here at Advanstar I have been priveleged to inherit, Post Magazine. It chronicles the post production and digital production of movies, TV, DVDs, Internet and other entertainment media.)

The education I am getting at Post Magazine affords a growing appreciation of the painstaking and minutely detailed process so-called “digital artists” must master to render the increasingly lifelike characters and objects we see on screen. The finely detailed fur coat of Monster Sully represents a triumph of graphics rendering, pioneered by Pixar. The fur’s versimilitude doesn’t even easily translate to the realistic rendering of longer hair follicles in animation.

Every once in a while, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences does something genuinely smart and valuable for the creative arts. The inauguration, for its 2002 Oscar presentation, of a new major category, Best Animated Feature Film, is just such a move. Movies nominated in this category still are eligible for nomination as Best Picture. I’d love to see Shrek set that milestone.

The timing is just right to add this category to Oscar’s portfolio. Echoing Snow White’s historic contribution to feature animation, the storylines in the new 3D animations are maturing, epitomized by the parable structure at the heart of Shrek, which is being hailed as an “instant classic” (a rare logical oxymoron) for good reasons. All I know is it’s the first supposedly children’s animation feature in a while that my 14-year-old son deigned to watch, and he connected immediately with its sardonic sense of humor.

The efficiently-scripted and literately witty dialogue in these transgenerational films is superior to most live-action Hollywood fare.

The voice characterizations in the new breed of animation features are especially impressive. Billy Crystal’s an obviously talented fellow but when it comes to film acting, virtually every role he inhabits plays like a stretch for the diminutive performer. As with Robin Williams, he's a natural comic but far from a natural actor. Their comfort levels in front of the camera somehow never quite match those of real thespians. That said, I’d call his incarnation of one-eyed Mike in Monsters, Inc. the most effective filmed performance of his career.

And with the exponential progress that will continue to be made by digital animation tools and techniques, it’s not much of a stretch to envision a day when Oscars will be awarded as well for best voice performance by an actor.

The byplay between Crystal’s Mike and his overgrown sidekick Sully, voiced by John Goodman, is what drives Monsters, Inc. The same Frick-and-Frack comic duo formula -- Mike Myers’ phlegmatic Ogre and Eddie Murphy’s motormouth Donkey -- anchors Shrek. If you close your eyes and just listen to their intonations and readings, it becomes more evident how complex their effort is to make it sound so simple and natural and fun for the audience to absorb. (You can even try your own hand at it with the Shrek DVD, which contains a DVD-ROM feature that lets those who view the disc on computer do voiceovers for the characters.)

With the 3D animation, storytelling and characterizations in sophisticated synchronicity, the next watershed challenge for this new form of filmed entertainment is truly adult material. Given the technological and artistic capabilities, imagine a martial arts movie or Star Wars-caliber sci-fi feature made with digital media.

If live-action movies can be considered imagination visualized figuratively, working within the constraints of the three-dimensional real world, then the new animation is imagination visualized literally, since the compromises required when filming within real world coordinates are virtually eliminated.

When two studios as competitive and talent-rich as Disney and DreamWorks go at it like teams in a World Series or Super Bowl to outdo each other on the big screen and on DVD, the viewing and consuming public only stands to benefit, receiving gifts like Shrek and Monsters, Inc.

These exceptional family entertainments could not have come at a better time.

Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:BApar@advanstar.com

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