Monday, January 08, 2007

The Present State of Animated Films

Disney released its first in-house computer-animated film, Chicken Little (2005), with a partial 3-D release, about a beleaguered young Chicken Little (voice by Zach Braff) who was humiliated by his claim that the sky was falling, and subjected to scorn by most of the town. The young cluck was estranged from his embarrassed single father Buck Cluck (voice of Gary Marshall) but vindicated when the "sky" actually falls, in a parody of a War of the Worlds-style invasion.

One of the few big-budget cel-animated films being released in the crowd of CGI films was the adaptation of Margret and H.A. Rey's classic children's book series titled Curious George (2006), starring the inquisitive monkey named George and Will Ferrell as the kind Man in the Yellow Hat who transported the orphaned George from Africa to America for a series of misadventures. George Miller (known for Babe (1995)) directed Happy Feet (2006) - the first true CGI-animated song-and-dance musical and a strong contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar of the year. It told about a group of Antarctic Emperor Penguins (created by CGI) who prided themselves on each having a "heartsong" to attract a mate. One young and unique penguin, named Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) - the son of Elvis-like Memphis (voice of Hugh Jackman) and breathy Norma Jean (voice of Nicole Kidman), was considered an outsider because he couldn't sing but his real talent was tap-dancing.

Sequels were inevitable for the most successful animations, so DreamWorks' Shrek 2 (2004) appeared, with its original character-voices including Mike Myers (as Shrek), Cameron Diaz (as Fiona), and Eddie Murphy. The fairy tale couple returned from their honeymoon to find the bride's family in the land of Far, Far Away - Shrek's in-laws King Harold (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews), who are unhappy with her decision to marry an ogre. Additional characters included talk-show host Larry King as the voice of Fiona's Ugly Stepsister, Rupert Everett as foppish Prince Charming, Antonio Banderas as Zorro-style assassin Puss-in-Boots, and Jennifer Saunders as a plotting fairy godmother. [The planned third installment was titled Shrek the Third (2007), which intended to bring back the entire cast from the second film, as well as add additional stars.]

Dreamworks/PDI would revisit the insect world, with Bee Movie (2007), about a bee named Barry B. Benson (voice of comedian Jerry Seinfeld) who had a forbidden friendship with a New York City florist named Vanessa (voice of Renée Zellweger), with an all-star cast including Alan Arkin, Kathy Bates, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, Larry King, William H. Macy, and Oprah Winfrey, among others.

With original storylines drying up, syndicated comic strip characters, such as the lazy, wise-cracking orange feline named Garfield (voice of Bill Murray), became an animated star in the live action/CGI hybrid film Garfield: The Movie (2004). The wacky and fast-paced, primitively-animated film The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004), with its main character -- a yellow man-made sea sponge with legs and a red tie -- was a spin-off from the long-running Nickelodeon TV cartoon show. Another effort from the DreamWorks animation team (and released by Paramount), PG-rated Over the Hedge (2006), was a loose adaptation of a popular newspaper comic strip of the same name. It told the story of a group of wildlife forest animals, led by a turtle named Verne (Garry Shandling) and mischievous raccoon RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis), who felt the effects of encroaching human beings. It became the second highest grossing animated film of 2006, and was a serious contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, with the possibility of a sequel.
The longest-running, prime-time television cartoon series was The Simpsons - it premiered in December 1989 on the FOX channel. The iconic, culturally-significant animated show was created by Life in Hell cartoonist Matt Groening. An offshoot was their first feature length film, The Simpsons Movie (2007), starring the yellow-skinned, irreverent and misfit family featuring oafish father and nuclear plant manager Homer (voice of Dan Castellaneta), worrywart gravel-voiced, blue-haired mother Marge (voice of Julie Kavner), 10-year-old mischievous, troublemaker son Bart (voice of Nancy Cartwright), 8-year-old ecologically-minded, overachieving vegetarian Buddhist sister Lisa (voice of Yeardley Smith), and pacifier-sucking toddler Maggie. [Groening was also responsible for Futurama that first aired in 1999 - a highly popular but less successful series set in the next millenium, starring "Generation-X" slacker Phillip J. Fry (voice of Billy West) - a NY pizza delivery boy who was cryogenically frozen by accident for 1,000 years.]

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