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For Good Animation, It’s Always a Question of Character

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many recent animated features lack the well-told stories that have traditionally been one of the medium’s strengths. Live action no longer has a monopoly on superficial glitz: Disney’s computer-generated “Dinosaur” and DreamWorks’ traditionally animated “The Road to El Dorado” juxtapose technical flash with minimal, muddled plots.

“There are more A-level animators working today than at any time in the past, but we’re not making more A-level films,” noted Brad Bird, director of the critically acclaimed animated feature “The Iron Giant.”

The problem, Bird and others believe, isn’t the animation: Tarzan, Kala and Kerchak in “Tarzan,” Shan Yu in “Mulan,” and the Queen and Seti in “The Prince of Egypt” stand out as polished examples of traditional animation. John Lasseter and the artists at Pixar raised computer-generated personality animation to new heights in “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.”

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In “Dinosaur,” the well-meaning but awkward hero, the heroine who dismisses the hero only to discover how nice a guy he really is and the wiseacre best friend feel like they were hired from a cartoon stock company. In his Oscar-winning short, “Creature Comforts,” Nick Park gives zoo animals more vivid personalities than any of the major characters in “El Dorado” or “Dinosaur.”

In “El Dorado” Tulio and Miguel move nicely, but the animators don’t seem to have any more idea who they are than the audience does. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh supply their voices, but the characters say and do similar things in similar ways. Who can tell them apart?

Often, the problem lies in a story that may not be appropriate for the medium. Quasimodo’s gymnastics in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” were splendidly animated, but this Hunchback was cute, rather than hideous, which drained the story of its pathos. Warner Bros.’ ill-conceived “The King and I” and Don Bluth’s derivative “Anastasia” were live-action stories that failed to utilize the imaginative possibilities the medium offers.

Nor are the stories particularly well told. In “Dinosaur,” viewers never find out why the animals left the lush nesting valley, only to trek back to it through an endless desert. In “El Dorado” we never learn why the local beauty Chel (Rosie Perez) wants to leave the idyllic realm of El Dorado--or why she steals golden vessels when she has no knowledge of their value. And “Anastasia” doesn’t bother to explain what became of the title character’s family or how she survived the Russian Revolution.

A good story has never guaranteed the success of an animated feature, any more than it has for live-action films. “The Iron Giant” boasted one of the best scripts in recent years, but grossed only about one-fifth as much as the barely written “Pokemon: The First Movie.” “The Land Before Time,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and “The Swan Princess” have become direct-to-video franchises, despite their unimaginative plots.

The price of feature animation has risen dramatically in recent years: “Dinosaur” reportedly cost somewhere between $130 million and $200 million. Studio executives have understandably grown reluctant to risk $100 million or more on ideas that might be too personal or offbeat, opting instead for the tried and true, however tired. But historically the animated films that have broken records at the box office and in video sales have had the strongest stories and most memorable characters, from “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Toy Story.”

No one seems to remember that the Disney features now regarded as classics--"Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Bambi"--were groundbreaking films when they were first released, as were “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” But after “Lion King,” a sameness began to creep into American animation. With a few bright exceptions--"Mulan,” “The Iron Giant,” “Toy Story 2"--many recent features feel like the artists are just reworking pieces of other films.

“Dinosaur” recalls Bluth’s “The Land Before Time” (the search for the happy grazing ground) combined with elements from “Tarzan” (the outsider-hero raised by another species) and “The Lion King” (the showdown between the hero and the evil leader). Watching “Anastasia” was like flipping through an album of scenes from other films: Ariel and Eric waltzing from “Little Mermaid,” Fievel’s Papa from “An American Tail,” the Forest of Thorns from “Sleeping Beauty,” etc.

The mercurial Genie stole the show in “Aladdin,” and made the wisecracking, anthropomorphic best friend a requirement in animation: the Gargoyles in “Hunchback,” Mu Shu in “Mulan,” Terk and Tantor in “Tarzan,” Hotep and Hoy in “Prince of Egypt,” Bartok in “Anastasia” and Zini, the lemur who refers to himself as “the love monkey,” in “Dinosaur.” The artists are trying to tell a story at the same time these characters are elbowing the viewer in the ribs and making fun of it.

Jiminy Cricket comments on the action in “Pinocchio,” but his remarks reflect his perceptions, and are spoken in the context of the story. He clearly believes what’s happening in the film, just as the casts of “Toy Story” and “Iron Giant” do--and the oh-so-hip characters in “Hercules” don’t.

Character-Based Humor, Not Just Arbitrary Gags

Legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki demonstrates just how touching unaffected storytelling can be in “My Neighbor, Totoro.” Midway through the 1988 film, 10-year-old Satsuki waits in the rain for father’s bus with an umbrella. Her 4-year-old sister, Mei, hangs on her back, half asleep. Totoro, the enormous forest spirit Mei has befriended, appears next to the girls, watching over them in the lonely spot. Satsuki politely offers him an umbrella; a few heavy drops fall from the twigs of a pine tree, striking the umbrella.

Delighted by the sound, Totoro leaps into the air and lands with a tremendous thud that dislodges all the water from the surrounding trees, producing a brief, musical deluge. Totoro roars with laughter and presents the girls with a packet of magic seeds.

It’s a quiet, enchanting moment that uses only a few dozen words of dialogue. Yet in those few minutes, Miyazaki illustrates the bond between Satsuki and Mei, and their deepening friendship with Totoro. The audience laughs at Totoro bringing the water down on himself, just as earlier audiences laughed at Bambi struggling to gain his footing on the frozen pond. The humor flows from actions that reflect the characters’ personalities, rather than gags stuck in arbitrarily.

American animators praise the “Totoro” sequence--then sadly add they doubt they’ll ever get to work on a comparable moment. Recent features have been woefully lacking in such quiet, affecting scenes. This trend extends to musical numbers as well. The unassuming song “Something There” showed Belle and the Beast falling in love, and told the audience more about the characters than all the production numbers modeled on “Mine, Mine, Mine” in “Pocahontas,” “Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart” in “Anastasia,” “Zero to Hero” in “Hercules” and “It’s Tough to Be a God” in “El Dorado.”

The stories in many recent films feel like they were created by committees trying to second-guess the audience. What’s missing is a sense of vision, the feeling that filmmakers had a passion for this story. During the ‘30s and ‘40s, Walt Disney inspired his artists to raise animation and storytelling to undreamed-of heights; more recently, the films of Miyazaki, Lasseter, Park and Bird have communicated a similar sense of a storyteller leading a crew to realize a vision.

Maybe studio executives should trust their directors and story artists to follow their passions and tell new stories in new ways. It’s a risky philosophy, but the best animated films have always been risky prospects. Walt Disney, the greatest risk-taker in the history of filmmaking, summarized his approach to storytelling in an interview in Wisdom magazine in 1959:

“Strong combat and soft satire are in our story cores. Virtue triumphs over wickedness in our fables. Tyrannical bullies are routed or conquered by our good little people, human or animal. Basic morality is always deeply implicit in our screen legends. But they are never sappy or namby-pamby. And they never prate or preach. All are pitched toward the happy and satisfactory ending. There is no cynicism in me and there is none allowed in our work.”

Charles Solomon writes about animation for The Times and other publications.


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