animation
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A Bug's Life

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OK, yes, I know ants are not pastel and they have six legs, not four. In Antz you could tell all the ants apart facially and here you can’t. Except for that, this movie ROCKS. Stay through the credits, seriously, they are the best part, a fat, sweet maraschino cherry on a delicious sundae.

Geri’s Game, the Oscar-winning short animated film Pixar produced last year, is finally getting wide play outside Spike and Mike’s festival. Wow oh wow. Wonderful again! Since I had seen it, I could watch for details, like the sunlight shining through his eyebrows, the bend of images in his glasses. Oh! very very awesome.

I wish I had the foresight to write down all the names of the creative team but to isolate so few would be unfair to the 2,000,000,000 people that worked on this movie. Disney, long the leading studio in terms of animation quality, has the squash-stretch animation down to a science. Everything in a hand-drawn Disney cartoon has weight and mass, a sense of space and full-body movement. Computer animation (even the stunning Toy Story) has traditionally abandoned that sense of mass in favor of implying it through superior rendering of three visual dimensions. Why make a 2D cel squash like it’s round when we can just show that it’s round by panning around? The result has always been to have a ball suspended above its background, with no interaction of the elements, creating a different kind of static image.

Pixar (aka sister company to Apple) defeats that trend and adds that house’s own specialty, the management of light. You may have noticed in Antz, for example, that the lovely, textured rust colored bodies pretty much looked the same all over, unless the character was In Shadow or In The Sun. Here, very facet of the ants pastel bodies is glimmering iridescently, and generating shadows consistent with the light source. Leaves are faintly translucent. Shadows of leaves glimmer with the leaves’ translucence. A million tiny hairs on a dandelion seed each carry or deflect the light. As characters walk, the ground reflects up onto their skin and the sun moves as they move away from it. It’s just absolutely lovely. I can’t even isolate any real examples, it just looks natural. It’s computer generated, yes, it’s cartoony in appearance, hell, it’s anthropomorphic insects, for goodness’ sake, but you never doubt that everyone is There in space in front of you. It’s stunning.

Let me take this moment to remind everyone that I am a staunch supporter of the hand-drawn animated arts, and that I can appreciate Scooby-Doo animation just as much as I can Mulan’s. I consider computer animation by and large as a field to be devoid of craft, devoid of the digital version of what used to be painstaking rococo and multi-plane cel movement. I also believe Pixar to be an exception to that rule, always stressing the maintenance of craft and beauty while improving the technical aspects of the trade.

Oh and did I mention that A Bug’s Life is freaking HILARIOUS? I had seen the toy designs in the stores and already had decided who would annoy me based on the previews. I was so wrong! Dave Foley is the best! The script is feel-good and clever, the story is fun and engaging, and everything is so dang entertaining you almost forget to be blown away by the animation. And also stay through the credits – I was howling! Added bonus: largely, the entomological (bug-ology) aspects are right on the money. Yeah yeah, four legged ants. OK, she’s no gypsy moth, she’s no real single moth either. Sure, the flea is huge. OK, fine, the ants are pastel. But the name Princess Atta refers to the genus of leaf-cutter ants! Ha ha ha! And you know how the queen has a pet aphid? Some species of ant keep aphids. “They guard them from predators so they can eat the honeydew they secrete (like in Antz). It’s kinda like herding cattle for milk.” So says the bug lady! Most of the other bug jokes are easier to get and just as true! If my entomologist friend endorses it, well, hey! Gee whiz, I can allow some artistic license after the great time these folks just gave me! Go see it, by all means!

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/1/98
Time in minutes 95
Director john Lasseter & Andrew Stanton
Studio Walt Disney / Pixar

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Antz

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The best thing about Antz, I’ll say it right away, is Gene Hackman. His General Mandible, the facial acting, the vocal acting, the character, everything. Just for him, it’s worth seeing Antz. Additionally, Dreamworks’ debut animated feature is kick ass gorgeously beautiful. And it’s pretty good. It’s not brilliant, OK, but it’s definitely worth seeing. Woody Allen is sooooo very Allen in this movie you have to think, my god, can’t Edward Norton finally take up the neurotic genius torch already? And Sharon Stone? She is visually an extremely glamorous woman, but her voice might as well been cast out of CAA’s “will call” pile. Christopher Walken, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Danny Glover, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez – it’s a weird mix of power players and also-rans, all in the name of stunt casting. Fortunately, unlike the embarrassing stunt casting spectacle of Batman and Robin (the worst movie of the decade until John Carpenter’s Vampires), it does not detract from the movie, it only adds to the budget.

MAN they have got that computer animation thing mostly down. Faces still just don’t move like faces, but compared to Toy Story (and this is not a denigration of that fine film, just a praise of the advancing technology), this movie is Living. The multiplane 3D landscape of zillions of ants, wow cool cool. The character design allows for a lot more different physiognomies than one would expect, and the interior design of the Colony is really spectacular. The other, non-ant insects are all lovely, the backgrounds are gorgeous….one advantage of computer animation is that the moving characters and the background are one seamless canvas, rather than moving cels in front of a generally more detailed and unmoving background. My friends who are animators are going to kill me for saying that, and I don’t want anyone to think I am not *wetting my pants* waiting for the Prince of Egypt to come out – I am also a purist and I think that computers take out a lot of the craft and acting of hand-drawn stuff. My elusive point is that this computer animation looks almost as good as the real thing. John Bell, production designer – kick ass!

The story is surprisingly sinister, and the songs (it’s not a musical but there is music) are surprisingly intrusive and obnoxious. The sinister part I was digging, as many of you know I have a fondness for dark movies that still come out OK. (I am like, sooo Gen X. How passé!) Never you mind the horribly blatant and painful moments of product placement in the middle of the film. It can all be explained away by “well, it has to be *something,* it might as well be someone who can pay for it.

This is the first movie I saw alone since Thelma and Louise, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if someone had been there with me. It has some very good dialogue and some thinly veiled social commentary, as well as the value of an individual *within* a society. It’s pretty funny and sometimes Allen is even funny in his stammering, insecure, neurotic irritating way. Hans Zimmer’s score kept reminding me of Titanic and Danny Elfman kind of mixed together, cultural homogenousness and uniqueness

My final impression in my notes was Bad Ass. Viscerally I really enjoyed it, even though I found a lot to pick on it about here. So go see it, if you haven’t already.

*Note: Obviously, such praise could only come from the pre-Bug’s Life perspective.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 10/2/98
Time in minutes 83
Director Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson
Studio Dreamworks

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Mulan

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I realize a lot of people out there don’t go see “cartoons” thinking they’re for kids, but anyone reading this who still thinks that in the New Disney Renaissance has obviously not been keeping up. (Side note: All those Bugs Bunny cartoons are for adults too) After The Lion King, Disney pumped out the embarrassingly vapid and honkified Pocahontas, and then the unfairly lambasted Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules gave all the appearances that Disney was losing its touch. Without going into a diatribe about the virtues of Hercules and Hunchback (see old reviews), I want to say to you now – Mulan is really excellent.

My only gripe is the obnoxious perma-bend to commercialism that Disney feels it needs in order to keep its world-famous animation department going – the hideous pop-radio-ready song. Mulan’s greatest crime is attempting – at the VERY end – to insert this into an otherwise beautiful, elegant classic. It’s only a couple of minutes, though, and by then Mulan has won you over.

Ming-Na Wen (of ER and The Single Guy, oh and the Joy Luck Club) voices Mulan, a legendary Chinese character who saves China to defend her family’s honor. In this era of Riot Grrrls and Girl Power, she’s timely, but she also still believably exists in the strict patriarchal society of ancient China. She doesn’t do her own singing, but Lea Salonga vocally matches her nicely. The vocal cast is kind of bizarre – B.D. Wong and Harvey Fierstein and Eddie Murphy, Miguel Ferrer (as chilling Shan-Yu, leader of the Huns), Pat Morita, and George Takei, among others. B.D. Wong’s singing is taken care of by Donny Osmond. Yes, that Donny Osmond. But he’s not a little bit country or a little bit rock and roll – he sounds great – all that Technicolor Dreamcoat stuff, you know.

The songs are by Matthew “Breaka My Stride” Wilder, (who sings Ling) and score by Jerry Goldsmith, and it’s nice, pleasant, exciting when it needs to be, but not remarkable. Alan Menken is still the reigning king of toe-tapping Disney musicals. I was pleased that there was a minimum of precious sidekick character comedy relief moments – most of the comedy is handled by the human characters. Mushu the little dragon guardian (Eddie Murphy), whose exaggerated ethnicity is jarringly out of place in Hun-plagued China, but he is not as abrasive as one would expect.

The biggest joy of Mulan is the animation. A picky anime fan friend of mine appreciated the smoothness and the flow, which I deemed a great compliment coming from a Disney detractor. I loved the graceful lines, the amazing vistas and the judicious use of airbrushing. The computer generated stuff is obvious just in that there is no way it was done by hand, but it blends elegantly. Elegant is the word I would use for the whole movie – woo, and I did a few paragraphs ago – how sloppy of me! You may have seen a shot from the preview where her face is reflected in a sword and the sword is moving – you can see tiny details like a reflection dancing over moving metal, wispy cherry blossoms and cloud-covered mountains – oooh it’s very pretty! The last 3rd of the movie is all huge Ben-Hur scale visuals – wow!!!

It’s sweeping and epic and entertaining and it’s actually a full 90 minutes, packed with plot and action. Sheng, the captain of her soldiers, is WOOF hunky while Mulan is slim, androgynous, but never unfeminine inside.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 6/29/98
Time in minutes 87
Director Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
Studio Walt Disney

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Anastasia

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I know, I should have known I would hate a Don Bluth movie, but it looked so promising. After some industry input from my animator friends, I can express my feelings more accurately, but please know that all the emotions were already there.

This movie is boring, horribly animated, and the villain could have been cut from the movie and nothing would change, plot wise. Meg Ryan should never ever be allowed to do voice over work again. The songs were short, weird and unhummable, expect the December song from the music box. The mix of computer animation and hand drawn was jarring. One would think that animation technology outside Orlando would be relatively even planed but the faces looked like they were underwater, the movements were clearly based on live action reference models (who I thought acted very well, actually – more natural movements than the similarly modeled Snow White), and did I mention how much I hated the way they overused computer pieces – in Aladdin, I had to look to see computer versus hand drawn, they fused so naturally – here the jerky hands hold the smoothly, eerily floating objects that didn’t need to be CGI in the first place!

Hank Azaria’s Bartok, John Cusack’s Dimitri (I could guest host the Rosie O’Donnell show and just gush about both those guys!), Kelsey Grammer’s Vladimir, Angela Lansbury’s Dowager Duchess, and Christopher Lloyd’s Random Rasputin were well voiced, acted to the limits of the script, and those who sang, did well. The singing voice for Anya (I apologize, miss, for not getting your name – Bluth only features the talking voices in the picture gallery) was quite lovely.

I couldn’t help but wish the movie had been live action all the way through. I did very much enjoy the fact that while they are in Paris, all the backgrounds are done in Impressionist style.

PS The Romanovs were all shot to death in a field, not escaping, waving from a train. Don’t tell the kiddies!

Now my soapbox. I am all too cognizant of the state of live action musicals and animated movies as an art form and as a lucrative film investment. Animators are dying for work and all they have is claptrap like this and Quest for Camelot if they are lucky. Too many suits out there think all the world wants is an inane plot to justify the drawing of it, and that is enough. Kids have never been that stupid and they will never be. Disney is getting the short end with movies like Hercules and the Hunchback of Notre Dame – they modify the original story, I concede, but taken as individual pieces, both movies are very strong for adults and children. Most studios out there don’t realize the cash cow for animation that is good. Has anyone noticed the ratings the Simpsons, King of the Hill, Nickelodeon cartoons, and South Park get? MAKE GOOD CARTOONS.

As for movie musicals, executives are constantly shocked when they change or take out the songs, alter the story, and pack it with dubbed over faces and why we think movie musicals don’t work. People, they can work if the filmmaker understands the difference between stage and screen and the executives leave the masterwork alone. Despite the regrettable cuts made for the movie, rent The Wiz and see what I am talking about.
OK. GO see Anastasia to support to creation of animated movies, but better yet, write your local congressperson and demand that Hollywood (especially Don Bluth) be forbidden to screw the medium up any more.
For all you Bartok fans out there, “Hey Fred, I need a tequila!”

MPAA Rating G
Release date 11/14/97
Time in minutes 94
Director Gary Goldman, Don Bluth
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Hercules (1997)

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For you fuddy duddies out there who dismiss animated features as “kid’s stuff,” you must have been living under a rock these last 8 years or so – Disney, Nickelodeon, Fox, HBO, all these studios have been producing cartoons that appeal to adults. Hercules is a perfect example – it has all the fun mythological stuff to hook the kids, cute baby Pegasus, familar myths and legends stories, and Disney’s prerequisite BEAUTIFUL animation.

Alan Menken, shaking off the extremely wrongful snub for Best Score at the Oscars last year, composes a fun bopping score much more along the lines of his Little Shop of Horrors than Hunchback of Notre Dame or Beauty and the Beast. The Greek chorus is a girl group style chorus who are worked into the action in truly clever ways only possible with animation, and of course anachronisms abound (as in Aladdin). Best of all is all the clever, knowing, yet squeaky-clean humor that will FLY over the kids’ heads.

James Woods voices a smarmy Hollywood agent/used car salesman version of Hades, Lord of the Underworld, so he’s no nightmare-inducing Queen from Snow White, but he is definitely bad – but very very funny. Herc himself is sympathetic and developed in a way that a comparable live action hero just isn’t these days. The jokes are actually so fast and furious I am going to have to see it again to catch them all! And yes, I will pay full price again! The soundtrack is not as strongly standalone as Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, but it fits perfectly within proper Greek theatre parameters – only adults would appreciate that.

Michael Bolton is the only blemish on this shiny urn. But hey, it’s only during the credits!

It’s fast and fun, it’s a short movie with lots packed into it (voice talents include Matt Frewer aka Max Headroom, Bobcat Goldthwait, Charlton Heston, Rip Torn, Tate Donovan, and Danny DeVito, among others of course). Amusing stabs at Space Jam (shudder) and the present day iconization of the strangest things, not to mention self-mocking Disney merchanidising mania, will keep the grownups interested, and may even help them save some money at the Disney store.

It’s a cool movie and really very satisfying. Full Price Feature with a drink (it’s short, you won’t need to go to the bathroom) and popcorn.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 7/9/1997
Time in minutes 86
Director Ron Clements, John Musker
Studio Walt Disney

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Cats Don't Dance

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To head off any commentary:

I like animated movies, and I am 27 years old. I too thought this was some stupid-looking knockoff when I first became aware of it.

On with the review. My friend Tom, who is an animator by trade, recommended this movie to me, and I generally trust his movie-going instincts. Now, it’s no Toy Story, nor is it Meet The Feebles, but it is actually quite entertaining, very well executed, and interesting.

On some scenes I thought, “There is no way a kid could catch all these jokes” – there are scads of adult jokes and plenty of kid friendly ones too, but nothing so lame as anything in the ABC prime time lineup. The music (by Randy Newman, the man who ruined Toy Story for me) was nice and toe-tapping, the artwork was really very interesting – if you suffered through Space Jam, you HAVE to see this movie just to restore your faith in animated physical comedy. What Warner Brothers *used* to be, in their finest moments, Cats Don’t Dance comes close enough.

It’s about a tabby named Danny (voiced by Scott Bakula – oh boy. But he can sing!) who comes to Hollywood in the 40’s with a dream to be in the movies – only Hollywood would never let an animal perform song and dance. He meets up with a bunch of other animals who tell him to give up, and basically talks them out of their bad attitude and everybody’s happy.

One of the best parts of the film is the villain, a Shirley Temple-meets-Joan Crawford child star with a giant ape of a manservant, Max – who is really really really funny. She is everything bad about Hollywood and she’s great.

It’s really very true to the old school of Warner Toons (it’s a Warner Picture, as well!) and for all you out there in the dark who are still mad at how Bugs Bunny has ruined his formerly cool image, I think you will appreciate it. I did. The kids in the audience really liked it too – they were quiet, but I heard one say, “Can we see it again!!!!!” and another clapped and clapped. For you fuddy duddies out there who think cartoons are for kids, I don’t know when the last time you saw a cartoon was, but movie cartoons have never been for kids. Classic Bugs Bunny shorts were made for adults and the 90’s wave of Disney treasures, while marketed for kids, are definitely adult-savvy. Drop your “I’m too old for this nonsense” façade and go enjoy yourself. Movie musicals are practically dead except in animated form, and really, after all the live-action dreck that passes for cinema these days, you will appreciate the thought, planning and care that goes into these films. Animation is not just Scooby Doo! Space Jam is a painful exception, made by fuddy duddies who think animation is for kids. Do NOT see Space Jam. I would be overjoyed to make you a list of the good ones.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 5/19/1997
Time in minutes 76
Director Warner Bros.
Studio Mark Dindal