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"What's New" Archives: November 2004

November 28, 2004:

THE "SPONGEBOB" BANDWAGON ROLLS ON: Not only are Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi saying nice things about The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie at their indispensable Cartoon Brew site, but I also received this note from Fred Seibert, a TV-animation veteran perhaps best known from his tenure as president of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. He's now president of Frederator Studios and closely associated with the Nickelodeon cable channels. He wrote in response to Aaron Hazouri's praise for SpongeBob in my November 22 posting:

"Thank you for publishing the letter from the SpongeBob Movie fan. As a TV cartoon producer I'm personally pretty sick of the attention given to feature animation solely because it's big. Most of it's pretty bad, pretty boring, and, often, not even pretty.

"I'm a competitor to SpongeBob, so I can't really give you an objective opinion. But it's loved, it's funny. As time passes, I'm positive SpongBob SquarePants will be seen for what it is, the Bugs Bunny of the new generation (and please, no comments about how every generation gets what it deserves).

"TV in general gets a bad rap, TVanimation most of all. [But] there's more good writing, acting, and filmmaking on TV every week than there is in a year's worth of feature films."

Yes—to eat my words of a few weeks ago—I will be seeing The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie soon.

November 24, 2004:

MORE ON "THE INCREDIBLES": I saw the film again this week, and I've added some second thoughts to the Commentary page where I review it. Not to be coy, I still like it.

THE "SPONGEBOB" BANDWAGON: Maybe it's gathering steam; after all, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie did beat out The Incredibles at the box office last weekend.

Bradley Bethel has written to add his voice to those praising the film: "If you've seen the TV show, you might assume that the movie is merely a ninety-minute episode. Actually, the movie is a little more than that. It's a brilliant adventure that registers as a true feature film story, while at the same time, it doesn't stray too far from the series. It has sing-a-longs, but it's not trying to be 'Disney' in any way.

"The movie is also a great display of character emotions and colors. In the movie as in the TV show, SpongeBob and Patrick have a wide range of expressions that were clearly influenced by Ren & Stimpy. Throughout the film, the backgrounds' palette reflects the emotional atmosphere; the typical underwater setting will be sunny and blue, a dreary setting will be dark and green, and a playful scene will be a mixture of pink and purple."

Maybe I'll have to see SpongeBob after all.

MEA CULPA: Alas, there's no getting around it. Thanks to a transcript provided by Ryan Mead, I can't deny that it was me, rather than the sound editors, who mixed up the Crosby-Cantor children in my audio commentary for Baby Bottleneck in the new Looney Tunes DVD set, incorrectly assigning the boys to Eddie and the girls to Bing. What the heck, buy the set anyway.

November 22, 2004:

A VOTE FOR "SPONGEBOB": Within the last few days, I've spoken dismissively about The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (which I haven't seen) and posted a review of The Incredibles (which I most definitely have seen). Aaron Hazouri, who has seen both films, has written to me about them:

"I'm a 25-year-old college student currently working towards a degree in animation. I am a devoted fan and student of cartoon animation, especially the classic Warner Bros. style, but of course also the Disney style. I catch every animated feature released, on the big screen if I'm able. I never have been a fan of the John K. school of 'I am the greatest animator of all times and if you don't laugh at this piss gag then you don't get it,' and I couldn't stand to watch much Ren & Stimpy, then or now.

"Why am I telling you all this? Well, I agree with 95 percent of the critiques and analyses on your site. However, I feel compelled to confess that I endured The Incredibles (and I loved Brad Bird's The Iron Giant). While the story is solid, the film on the whole is very dry. Although it's full of 'personality' animation that the aspiring scholar in me enjoys picking apart (much has been made of the quasi-improvisational movements sprinkled throughout the film), it's pretentious and seriously overdoes the attempts to yank my heartstrings. But after being dragged to The SpongeBob SquarePants movie (I've never seen more than three or four minutes of the TV cartoon)...

"Well—I liked it!

"The film totally lacks any kind of pretension and is crammed full of funny drawings; no animation is wasted, as it all goes into the next ridiculous, absurd gag. You see the obvious Ren & Stimpy influence, but with none of the John K. underpinnings (the weird poses being held several beats too long, the strange streak of adolescent fascination with bodily functions), you hear fantastic, over-the-top cartoon voices, and your intelligence is not insulted by having some computerized stock poses masquerading as characters emoting as hard as they can to squeeze a 'wow' out of you. And the undersea monsters! The Monsters, Inc. crew could have learned a thing from these guys!

"I somehow doubt you'll ever throw away an hour and a half of your life watching this ridiculous, hilarious little film. I just wanted to make my voice—probably in the distinct minority—heard. This movie was fantastic, and I wish I'd saved the cash I spent on The Incredibles so I could splurge and see SpongeBob again."

Aaron has since written to say, "In the interests of fairness I plan to watch The Incredibles again with open mind and cheerful heart. Perhaps I was in a lousy mood on the first viewing." I plan to see it again myself, soon, and I'm likewise curious if I'll have second thoughts.

BARRIER ON SALE: If you've held off buying my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, your patience has been rewarded. Oxford University Press is offering the book for just eleven dollars (plus s&h) at its holiday sale site. A great Christmas gift, no?

ANOTHER SITE TO SEE: I'm astonished sometimes when I survey my "bookmarks" and realize how many worthwhile animation sites there are now. What a contrast with my Funnyworld days, long before the Internet, when it was hard to find any substantial writing about the medium. An interesting site that has just come to my attention, thanks to Chris Padilla, its co-proprietor with Steven Churchill, is AnimationTrip.com, which focuses on computer animation. Padilla and Churchill's firm, Animation Entertainment, has been involved with computer animation, through festivals, the sale of DVDs, and otherwise, since 1986. Particularly worth reading at their site is an interview with Brad Bird about The Incredibles.

November 20, 2004:

FINALLY: At long last, I got around to seeing both Shark Tale and The Incredibles—in the same afternoon, as a matter of fact. You can read my thoughts on those two films by clicking here.

AUDIO ERRORS: I still haven't received my contributor's copy of the new Looney Tunes DVDs, but several correspondents have alerted me to an error in my commentary for Baby Bottleneck, in which I evidently refer to Eddie Cantor's "sons." As I've always known, it was Bing Crosby who had the sons and Eddie who had the daughters. Maybe my mind and tongue slipped out of synchronization for a moment; or maybe there was an error in the sound editing, since I'm sure my commentary for that very rich cartoon ran way long. I'm anxious to find out what happened (but not anxious enough, at least not yet, to buy a copy of the set).

(I placed the error in Book Revue in this item as originally posted; thanks to Joshua Wilson for pointing out my mistake.)

November 14, 2004:

ON SPONTANEITY: My November 9 posting, which questioned whether it was possible to achieve the illusion of spontaneity in computer animation, induced comments from two animation directors—Mark Mayerson, who works in CGI, and Michael Sporn, whose films are hand-drawn.

This from Mark Mayerson: "I have to admit that I'm a bit mystified by your attitude towards computer animation. Perhaps I'm just not understanding you.

"I don't recall that you've written about stop motion animation, but I wonder if you feel that it's inherently inferior to drawn animation. If you do, then at least you're consistent in your opinions of stop motion and computer animation, but if you do then I have to say that I disagree with you.

"While I've never worked in stop motion, I know enough about it to know what the limitations are. I never expect that stop motion will be as supple as the best drawn animation. I judge it by different standards. In terms of animated performance, I've seen great work by O'Brien, Harryhausen, Trnka, Purves, and Park and I would never think to compare it to Scribner or Moore.

"I've been working in computer animation for almost twenty years now (after nine years in drawn animation), and I'm painfully aware of the limitations, especially when you don't have Hollywood budgets to support a technical staff. Here, too, you probably won't see animation as supple as drawings, but is this graphic flexibility the only standard worth applying?

"You talk about a lack of spontaneity in computer animation, and I have to admit that I don't see what you're talking about. There is a scene in The Incredibles where Bob Parr comes home and grabs a piece of cake. The cake has no value to the film's story and could easily have been cut. However, the character takes a bite and then pushes crumbs on his chin into his mouth with the side of his thumb. It feels totally natural and is based on observation of life, not other animation. It made me smile and for all the ambitiousness of the film, it strikes me as one of the nicest moments in the movie. That level of observation has value in any animated film, regardless of the technique. It's a tiny moment of truthful behavior.

"I really do want to understand your objections. I would be the first to admit that stop motion and computer animation will not provide you with all the pleasures associated with drawn animation, but these other media have pleasures of their own. I don't think they're second class and while they're as vulnerable to criticism as any other kind of film, I think that they need to be judged by an appropriate standard. I may not understand your position fully, but I don't think your standard is fair."

And this from Michael Sporn: "The New Yorker quote you posted was one I caught last week and have been thinking about since seeing the film. The idea of spontaneity in animation is everything to me (not that I'm a good enough animator to be able to capture it).

"There is a scene in The Incredibles which caught me off guard, and I suggest you look for it. Toward the film's end, the villain, Buddy, is walking away from the camera to board a plane/helicopter (I can't remember). He's totally pulled into himself—as much as that character can be. There's a small gesture done with his left hand, a throwaway gesture of whisking something away. It was so unusual, yet so human. That, to me, was the key to a lot of the film's animation.

"Having a 2D animator as the director of the cgi film, I think affected it deeply. I suspect he was able to ask animators to put some of these gestures in—probably on a second go round. Pixar doesn't usually have these gestures there; the animation is more pat. The only influence I can imagine had to be Brad Bird.

"I wasn't crazy about the film; action/adventure films don't mean much to me with their blow 'em up attitude toward everything. But there was really something good there in the first half of the film—before we go to the island. Perhaps too many Shreks and Polar Expresses have jaded my tastes, but I think something is there. If only we can get 2D animators to direct all of the CGI films, the medium might develop."

I'll address the points that Mark and Michael have raised when I finally get around to reviewing The Incredibles (any day now), but let me say here that what's usually critical as far as I'm concerned is not so much that animation have the suppleness that Mark mentions as that it lack any sense that it has been constructed—assembled brick by brick. To me, stop-motion animation always and inevitably has that sweated-over quality, even in the hands of so gifted a director as Nick Park. As to whether computer animation is similarly burdened—I'll try to pull my thoughts on that together in time for my review.

CAUSE FOR THANKS: Most new animated films fall in two categories: films I want to see (anything by Pixar) and films I think I should see (anything by DreamWorks or Disney). And then there are those films that I deliberately avoid seeing (for example, anything by Bluth or Bakshi). If I wake up feeling a bit gloomy, all I have to do is think, "I'll never have to devote two hours of my life to watching The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie!" and I'm instantly cheerful.

Michael Sporn has pointed me toward a New York Times review of another such specimen. Read it and you'll wake up feeling more cheerful, too—unless, that is, you've had the misfortune to see the silly thing already.

THE GREAT DEBATE: I'm still waiting to hear more from John Kricfalusi, but, in the meantime, his supporters and detractors are continuing to have at it on my Feedback page devoted to their comments on the debate. Mike Fontanelli is the most recent contributor.

November 9, 2004:

THE INCREDIBLES: I haven't seen it yet—later this week, I hope—but I've just read the first interesting review of the film I've run across, by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. It's on the Web, at this link. The money paragraph:

Not that we should jack the film up to a plane where it doesn’t belong; there is no moral sophistication here that can keep pace with the technical variety, largely because that technique itself—at Pixar, at DreamWorks animation, and in the hands of every director who is tempted to tamper digitally with live actors—is, by definition, unable to cope with spontaneity. The camera no longer catches a gesture, or a play of expression, on the wing; someone has to create a program for it and patch it into place. That is why Brad Bird and his team were wise not to attempt physically authentic humans. From “Toy Story” onward, it was evident that computer animation was itself a shiny new toy, perfect for plastic cowboys and space rangers but hopeless at Homo sapiens. When I first heard about “The Incredibles,” I dreaded the prospect of a hero who would, like every other digital man so far, resemble one of Barbie’s boyfriends. Imagine my relief when Bob, Helen, and the kids, for all the nicety of their emotions, turned out to be—if I can risk a word that may be taboo in Pixar land—cartoons. Long may it stay that way.

What Lane is really talking about here is not so much spontaneity as the illusion of spontaneity, which good actors generate as a matter of course. (If you want to see a particularly astounding example, watch Hayley Mills in Pollyanna.) Hand-drawn animation is capable of that illusion—let me refer you, as I so often do, to Bob Clampett's best Warner cartoons—but computer animation, on the evidence so far, is not. To ask a CGI cartoon to appear spontaneous is like asking the same thing of a building or an ocean liner.

TOMMY, NOT GLENN: Mark Mayerson has pointed out an error in my audio commentary for Clampett's Book Revue on the new Looney Tunes DVD set. The trombonist caricatured is not Glenn Miller, but Tommy Dorsey.

November 2, 2004:

TODAY'S THE DAY: When I saw hundreds of people lined up patiently around town this morning, I assumed, naturally, that they were waiting for stores to open so that they could buy copies of the new four-DVD set Looney Tunes Golden Collection No. 2—but then I noticed that they were waiting at churches and schools and fire stations. Poor deluded masses! You'll find no Looney Tunes there! Why are you not gathered outside Wal-mart and Target?

I hope that you will not follow the example of your befuddled fellow citizens but will instead order your copy from amazon.com by clicking here (giving this site some welcome support in the bargain).

A little more seriously, the new Looney Tunes DVDs have already gotten a rave review in the New York Times, and I suspect that many more such reviews are soon to come. (Alas, I'm misidentified in the Times as an an "academic"—a fightin' word, given the subterranean quality of most animation "scholarship.")