Until recently, if a critic described a live-action film as cartoonish, it was an insult to the filmmakers. Today, it's an insult to animators.
Traditionally, animated films have depicted simple, straightforward characters, while live-action movies offered nuanced performances by actors that revealed complex, subtle emotions. But the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast," the title characters in "Mulan" and "Tarzan," and Moses in "The Prince of Egypt" undergo deep emotional transformations, while the live-action heroes of "The Matrix," "Starship Troopers," "Small Soldiers," "The Mummy," "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Wild Wild West" display an emotional and intellectual development that is rudimentary at best.
"In the era of 'Con Air' and 'Armageddon' and the big, stupid action movies, and in which we're now being subjected to live-action versions of 'George of the Jungle' and 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' and 'Mr. Magoo' and goodness knows what else, cartoons are much smarter than live action," film critic Leonard Maltin says. "If you include television, the sharpest comedy writing in the medium is done for animation--'The Simpsons,' 'Dr. Katz,' 'Bob and Margaret.' Minnie Driver's Jane [as voiced in "Tarzan"] is a richer comedic characterization and performance than anything I've seen in a so-called comedy this year. These deeper, richer characterizations go back to what Walt [Disney] himself was always striving for, to let the audience see what the character is thinking. It's rarely achieved in the medium, but it's certainly true for the character of Tarzan."
Because animation is a medium of caricature, the artists exaggerate their characters' expressions, movements and poses for clarity, but that clarity has often come at the expense of emotional depth: Snow White and Cinderella didn't hide seething emotions beneath their gentle exteriors. But a new generation of animation artists is working to expand the medium by telling stories about more complex and compelling characters. When Tarzan watches magic lantern slides in Jane's camp, his expressions, poses and body language reveal the curiosity of an intelligent but uneducated man discovering new worlds. Moses' horrified realization that his life as an Egyptian prince has been a lie and Mulan's resolve to take her father's place in the army have an emotional believability few recent live-action films can match.
"When I'm animating, I relate to these characters in a very deep way: There's something that's inside of me that I'm trying to put onto the screen," says Glen Keane, who supervised the animation of Tarzan. "When Tarzan sees Jane for the first time, it's a 'flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone moment.' When I was working on that scene, I remember thinking, 'When have I really felt this in my own life?' I met my wife, Linda, in a line at a movie, and it wasn't that kind of a moment, with that element of self-discovery. Then I remembered holding my daughter Claire when she was just 30 seconds old. This tiny little baby was so soft, I felt like she could melt off either side of my hand. I was just awe-struck, looking at her face and seeing the reflection of myself in her. When I animated Tarzan's eyes in that scene, it wasn't Tarzan looking at Jane, it was me looking at my newborn daughter."
Emotionally intense moments can be difficult to put across in animation because they seldom involve much action. The artists may have only a few lines around a character's eyes and mouth to express inner turmoil.
James Baxter, who animated the scenes of Moses discovering his true identity and meeting God at the Burning Bush in "Prince of Egypt," adds: "There were long scenes where Moses didn't talk; another character or God would talk and Moses would listen, which is very, very challenging. It's really difficult to suggest what Moses is feeling and thinking when all you've got to work with are the lines surrounding the eyeball. You want to make it as true, as believable and real as possible, so you can't rely on formulaic head accents and hand gestures, as you could in a more cartoony film."
There's not a hint of chemistry between Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon, the eccentric inventor with a penchant for dress-up, and Will Smith as trigger-happy federal agent James West, who often ends up on the wrong end of those inventions, in Barry Sonnenfeld's misbegotten "Wild Wild West." They take cheap shots at each other but never interact believably, let alone establish the bond the story requires. Nick Park created a far more credible relationship between a somewhat addled inventor and his down-to-earth partner--and set a new standard for nuanced acting of stop-motion figures--in the Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit" shorts, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave."
When Wallace and Gromit defeat the sinister penguin Feathers McGraw in "Wrong Trousers," it's clear that teamwork born of mutual respect and affection has triumphed. If Sonnenfeld had created a similar bond between Kline and Smith, "Wild Wild West" would be a lot more fun to watch.
The great MGM and Warner Bros. cartoon director Tex Avery maintained that animation is most effective when it's used for things that are impossible in live action. Tarzan surfing through the trees in the new Disney feature stands out as an example of animation at its best: It's a fantasy in motion, based on the careful observation of real movements, but extended beyond human capabilities. It feels believable because it's anchored in reality, yet it takes the viewer into another realm, where the limitations of flesh and bone and gravity don't apply.
But even when he's just observing what's going on around him, Tarzan remains a brooding presence on the screen who holds the viewer's attention more securely than the heroes of any of the recent big action-adventure movies. His almost physical presence is the result of intense study and planning.
"Tarzan is not an animated character to me--he's a real person. When I was animating him . . . I knew exactly what he would do in any situation--how he would move and what he would be thinking," says Keane.
"Tarzan was raised with gorillas, so there's got to be some of their instinct or spirit in whatever he does. . . . We'd work with those elements, so that even if Tarzan isn't doing anything in a scene, he remains himself; he may not be the focus of the scene, but he stays a real person."
While live-action directors have been making movies based on cartoons and comic books ("101 Dalmatians," "George of the Jungle," "Mr. Magoo" and the upcoming "Inspector Gadget," "Mystery Men" and "Dudley Do-Right") and films that are little more than live-action cartoons or comic books ("The Mask," "Home Alone," "Mouse Hunt," the "Batman" films), animation directors have been emulating the fluid camera work and editing that distinguishes the best live-action films. The traveling shot around the ballroom in "Beauty and the Beast" elicited the same gasps of admiration from audiences as the hand-held camera pan through the restaurant in "GoodFellas." Tarzan's dynamic movements through jungles created with Deep Canvas, a new technique that brings depth to the digitally painted backgrounds, elicited equally enthusiastic responses.
The emulation of live action can also be taken too far. The constantly shifting camera angles and MTV-style editing made Disney's "Hercules" wearying to watch. Nor is there any reason to animate a story that involves human characters in realistic situations: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" failed to match the dramatic impact of the live-action versions of Victor Hugo's novel, despite some splendid images of the cathedral. . . . Hugo's brooding depiction of social and clerical corruption got lost amid the songs and jolly gargoyles.
Virtually every scene in Don Bluth's "Anastasia" could have been shot more effectively in live action, although it's unlikely audiences would accept real people presenting such a muddled, sanitized picture of Russian history.
Live-action films begin with a script, and filmmakers often benefit from happy accidents that occur on the set when the light shifts unexpectedly or an actor finds a new way of delivering a line. There are no accidents in animation: Every element in each frame has been analyzed for months. The script serves as the jumping-off point for the storyboards, and each scene is reworked and re-boarded from eight to 10 times.
"The written script is only a means to the storyboards; the storyboards are where the rewriting and revising happen," explains "Prince of Egypt" story supervisor Kelly Asbury. "For all the planning that goes into a live-action film, you always have the option of trying something a different way on the set."
With 2,000-plus effects shots, "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" might be considered an animated feature, but the computer-generated characters never come alive on the screen, as the best drawn ones do. Although he often looks like a man in a rubber suit, Jar Jar Binks ranks as a triumph of special effects technology. But his movements fail to support the comedy he's supposed to provide, the way Timon's and Pumbaa's do in "Lion King."
In "Pinocchio," the villainous puppeteer Stromboli goes from Old World charm to volcanic fury in the blink of an eye; Watto, the sleazy slave owner in "Menace," looks and acts like an awkward refugee from "The Muppet Show." Although "Jar Jar must die!" has become a rallying cry on many Web sites, neither Jar Jar nor Watto ever really seems alive, the way Tarzan, Mulan and Gromit do.
Instead of meeting in the middle, as some observers have predicted, animation and live action seem to have moved onto each other's home turf. Perhaps it's time for filmmakers to reconsider the strengths and weaknesses of both genres--and tell stories that play to those strengths.