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The New, Improved Puppetoons

Monsters Inc. DVD Cover

Like its predecessors from Pixar, the unquestioned leader in computer animation, Monsters, Inc. is a charming, intelligent, and well-crafted film, its virtues fully as apparent on the beautifully produced DVD as in the theater. The multitudinous "extras" in the two-disc DVD set are of varying worth—the audio commentary is more illuminating than usual, the studio tour on the second disc is a little too cute—but since Disney Home Video priced the set as a normal release, rather than putting out an overpriced deluxe edition like those for Tarzan and The Emperor's New Groove, there's not much ground for complaint.

Monsters, Inc. is unmistakably a children's film, as the earlier Pixar features were not. The central relationships in the earlier films all involved adults, even when the adults were toys. Despite the workplace setting, the central relationship in Monsters involves an adult, the monster Sulley, and a child, the girl Boo, who is even more pet than child (a resemblance pointed up through a gag lifted from Chuck Jones's Feed the Kitty). The film's reed-thin premise, that children's screams provide the energy for the monsters' city, is all too easily imaginable as the premise for a children's book aimed at the lower grades.

Monsters, Inc. is problematic in other ways. I've yet to see a computer-animated film that didn't leave me aware that work was being handed off from people to machines. That awareness becomes stronger the more times I see a particular computer-animated film, and ultimately it diminishes my pleasure in that film and makes it harder for me to watch it. I've observed that pattern with each of the Pixar films so far, even as they have become more technically sophisticated. Monsters, Inc. is no exception. The characters' movements simply have too much of a machine's regularity, without the subtle variations that only a hand holding a pencil can provide.

Since the time of J. R. Bray, a lot of animation has always been machinelike in spirit—that is, the characters on the screen are clearly being manipulated from the outside, as opposed to encouraging the illusion that their actions are self-generated. In the old stop-motion George Pal Puppetoons, to which many computer-animated films bear a striking resemblance, the dolls simply couldn't be manipulated freely enough to suggest the elasticity of real creatures. The recent Aardman films, like Chicken Run, improve on Pal in that regard, but only enough to invite favorable comparisons with the stiffness of the computer animation in films like Shrek and Ice Age.

Most hand-drawn TV cartoons, even a sometimes wonderful show like The Simpsons, have suffered from a similar mechanical quality. The Simpsons conceals its clanking heart beneath inventive writing, but there are limits to how successful such camouflage can be. A great cartoon is as inexhaustible as a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Beethoven string quartet; I never tire of watching Bob Clampett's Book Revue or Great Piggy Bank Robbery. But watching a Simpsons episode twice is about my limit.

There's nothing intrinsically mechanical about hand-drawn animation, though. When a metallic pall settles over the medium, it's usually because of decisions about money—how much will be available, and how it will be spent. What's different about computer animation, so far, is that it seems to be mechanical at its core. Its dominant characteristics, revealed through its very complexity, are those of a technological marvel, rather than an artistic tool.

Computer animation's technology has from all appearances advanced at an even faster rate than the techniques of the Disney animators in the thirties. It's becoming clear, though, that, in contrast to what happened seventy years ago, there's no necessary connection between mastering the technology and putting more convincing characters on the screen. When a character is covered with millions of precisely rendered hairs, and his on-screen environment is richly three-dimensional, it's reasonable to expect him to move with a real creature's subtlety. Sulley does not pass that test. He is less persuasive than many drawn characters whose caricatured movements are simpler and more direct. It is Sulley's voice (by John Goodman) that brings him to life, far more than the animation; in that respect, the Pixar characters are indistinguishable from Homer Simpson or, for that matter, Huckleberry Hound.

Pixar hasn't solved a problem that may be insoluble, given computer animation's nature: What should its characters look like, if they don't look like the characters in drawn animation? For reasons suggested in my essay on Carl Barks and his paintings of the Disney ducks, I think efforts to translate traditional cartoon characters into computer animation's three dimensions are doomed to grotesque failure. Perhaps the Pixar people agree; the leading characters in their first four films have been toys, insects, and monsters.

Photo-realistic characters like those in the misbegotten computer-animated feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are clearly no answer. They can succeed only by becoming indistinguishable from live action. Needed instead are characters at home in the new medium but sharing the freedom of movement and expression that the best cartoon characters of the traditional kind have brought to the screen.

The Pixar features have hinted at what such characters might possibly be like—the grasshoppers in A Bug's Life, defined as they are by texture, are far more successful than the toylike ants—but the characters in two of the next three Pixar features are fish and cars. That's evading the issue.

I've been intrigued by John Lasseter's enthusiasm for the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's films, which are basically hand-drawn although Miyazaki uses some skillfully integrated computer-animated effects. "I love his films," Lasseter has said. "I study his films. I watch his films when I'm looking for inspiration."

Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (which I saw dubbed) and Spirited Away (which I saw in Japanese, with subtitles) have left me with two strong impressions. For one thing, the exotic settings and creatures, as good as they are, would be much more effective in computer animation of the Industrial Light and Magic kind, in support of live actors, as in the George Lucas films. For another, Miyazaki's human characters, typically for Japanese animation, are little more than ciphers, their appearance and their actions almost wholly dictated by formulas.

Stylization, the ready answer, or excuse, for Japanese animators' cavalier handling of their characters, doesn't really serve in Miyazaki's case, because he is so good at atmospherics—his settings seem real even when the characters don't. To the extent that Chihiro, Miyazaki's ten-year-old protagonist, wins our sympathy, it's not because the animation brings her to life (except perhaps in fleeting moments when she slips into the paralysis of fear), it's because Miyazaki places her in an environment as persuasively weird as those in the most obvious of his sources, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. But how much more powerful the film would be—how much more involving—if Chihiro had been animated so that she were wholly present on the screen (or, for that matter, if she were a real actress in a computer-generated environment).

Miyazaki may be a curious role model for an American filmmaker like Lasseter, but he's not really a surprising one. Perhaps Lasseter and his colleagues realize at some level that they will probably never come up with characters that engage an audience's sympathies as fully as the most successful hand-drawn characters do. Good character animation is tough to do, and computers, on the evidence so far, make it more difficult rather than easier.

How tempting, then, if you're a computer animator, to follow the example of a Miyazaki, whose films rely so heavily on their exotic atmosphere—the sort of thing computer animation is very good at—at the expense of their characters. But there's a catch: Such films surrender animation's single greatest advantage over live action.

In Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, I quote what the great Russian director Stanislavski told stage actors. "The more immediate, spontaneous, vivid, precise the reflection you produce from inner to outer form," he said, "the better, broader, fuller will be your public's sense of the inner life of the character you are portraying on the stage."

Writing about Bill Tytla's animation in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I said: "In Tytla's animation of Grumpy, that gap between 'inner' and 'outer'—the gap that Stanislavski called upon the human actor to bridge—simply did not exist. Whatever passed through Grumpy's mind, it seemed, was simultaneously visible in his face and body, through acting of a kind that was possible only with a cartoon character."

Animation can reveal its characters' minds and hearts with a clarity and immediacy that makes most live action seem labored and opaque by comparison; but animation almost never does that. From the time of Fantasia onward, many of the best American animators and filmmakers, starting with Walt Disney himself and continuing now with John Lasseter, have shrunk from the most stringent demands of character animation. The work, it seems, is just too damned hard.

The success, both critical and financial, of films like Monsters, Inc. and Spirited Away can be taken as evidence that character animation of the kind that Tytla did for Snow White is not only hard to do well, it's not necessary to do at all. But any medium whose leading practitioners shrink from its most pressing demands, as is emphatically true of animation today, is doomed to marginality if not to triviality.

[Posted May 2003]