Friday, January 05, 2007

The Emergence of Pixar

Pixar Animation Studios, originally a division of Lucasfilm (and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)), was purchased by Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and made an independent company in 1986. [ILM had created the startling, first completely CGI-animated character - the 'stained-glass knight' in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), bringing the film a Best Visual Effects nomination.]

Pixar Studios (and director John Lasseter) and Disney (with their first collaboration), in a 1991 deal worth $26 million, created the first completely computer-generated animated feature film - the landmark Toy Story (1995) - Pixar's feature debut. The visuals were entirely generated from computers, creating a wonderfully-realistic 3-D world with lighting, shading, and textures, that included real toys in supporting roles (Etch-A-Sketch, Slinky Dog, the plastic toy soldiers, Mr. Potato Head, etc.). The story itself dealt with the anxiety experienced by a toy (cowboy Woody) upon the arrival of a rival plaything (spacetoy Buzz Lightyear)-- mirroring the tension felt by a child when a younger sibling is born. The tale also referenced the historical change in genre emphasis in the 50s when westerns were supplanted by science-fiction films.

DreamWorks and Pacific Data Images (PDI) released the second computer-animated feature film in history - the adult-oriented Antz (1998), with Woody Allen's voice for a misfit, individualist worker ant named Z. At about the same time, A Bug's Life (1998), a children's-oriented, computer animated tale based upon Aesop's fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, was released by Pixar and Disney (their second teaming).

Disney also released in 1995 the hand-drawn animation Pocahontas (1995), the studio's 33rd feature-length animated movie and the first to be based on actual events and people. The surprise hit of 1995, however, was Best Picture-nominated Babe (1995), the charming and highly entertaining story of the title character - a talking barnyard pig with a talent for sheep herding. Disney released two hand-drawn animations in the next two years, the dark and ambitious Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) based upon the Victor Hugo novel, and Hercules (1997) about the mythological strong man, and Fox released the disappointing Anastasia (1997).

The year 1998 also showcased other animated films, including the low-budget Rugrats Movie (1998) (based upon the characters on Nickelodeon's TV series), Disney's hand-drawn animated Chinese folk tale Mulan (1998) (Disney's 36th feature-length animated film), and DreamWorks' epic - the animated musical feature The Prince of Egypt (1998) about the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt.

Pixar's sequel to its successful 1995 computer-animated hit was released in 1999 with Disney (their third collaboration) - Toy Story 2 (1999), again with Woody the Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear. So were Disney's Tarzan (1999), the first full-length, hand-drawn animated feature about Edgar Rice Burrough's King of the Jungle, and two hand-drawn animations from Warner Bros: the critically-acclaimed animated adventure Iron Giant (1999) by director Brad Bird, about a fifty-foot robot befriended by a nine year-old boy, and the animated musical The King and I (1999). Sony Pictures brought to life E.B. White's classic children's story Stuart Little (1999) featuring a clothes-wearing and talking white mouse (voice of Michael J. Fox) - it was a hugely successful film, with a combination of computer animated characters and live action.
A Boom in CGI Animation in the 90s

Cutting edge, computer-graphics imaging (CGI) has recently taken over the cinematic industry. A dazzling collection of state-of-the art computer animation footage in "The Mind's Eye" video series (from Miramar Productions) highlighted, documented, and showcased the vast array of computer artistry, CGI and visual magic in the early to mid-90s from various sources, with accompanying original music.

The main videos in the showcase series included:

  • The Mind's Eye (1991)
  • Beyond the Mind's Eye (1992), including special effects clips from The Lawnmower Man (1992)
  • The Gate to the Mind's Eye (1994)
  • Odyssey into the Mind's Eye (1996)

Warner Bros' adult-oriented, dark animated adventure Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) - aka Batman: The Animated Movie, with an opening CGI sequence, was based on the '90s Saturday morning animated television series, and was the successor to the original comic-book hero and the two Tim Burton feature-film versions: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). [Mark Hamill provided the humorous voice of the Joker.] Burton has become better known for his two ghoulishly clever stop-motion animation films with puppetry - The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005) (with Johnny Depp as 19th century shy bridegroom Victor Van Dort who inadvertently marries a 'corpse bride' voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), as well as for his James and the Giant Peach (1996).

Japanimation or Anime

Excellent examples of feature length, science-fiction Japanese anime or "Japanimation" were directed by auteur animator and founder of the famed Ghibli Studios Hayao Miyazaki -- known as the "Japanese Walt Disney." His humanistic-oriented animations -- painstakingly detailed traditional cel animation during an era of CGI films -- were generally filled with magical and/or mythical settings, rich and fantastic characters (usually a young heroine), imaginative and visual renderings, fairy-tale motifs and plots with moral lessons, tales of the struggle between the strong and the weak, and environmental concerns. His films were actually bought for American distribution by Disney Studio, and include the following:
  • Miyazaki's second feature, the post-nuclear war tale Warriors of the Wind (1984) (aka Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), based on the comic book (manga) Miyazaki had created years earlier, about the struggle of a peace-seeking warrior princess to keep two opposing kingdoms from destroying the planet
  • later works included Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Porco Rosso (1992) (translated as The Crimson Pig), and Whisper of the Heart (1995)
  • the powerful and poignant Grave of the Fireflies (1988), a tearjerking tale based on Akiyuki Nosaka's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name about two orphaned Japanese children during the waning days of World War II: a teen-aged boy and his 4 year-old sister, and their slow and graphic deaths by starvation; it was the only Ghibli film not personally directed by Miyazaki - instead, it was written and directed by Isao Takahata for Studio Ghibli; animation historian Ernest Rister felt it was comparable to Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), and film critic Roger Ebert considered it one of the greatest (anti-) war films ever made
  • his $20 million animated adventure-fantasy epic Princess Mononoke (1997) opened in Japan and quickly became the highest grossing Japanese film in Japanese history to that time; it was a story set in the 14th century of a mythic battle between forest gods (led by the Wolf God named Moro) and humans who were destroying the Earth
  • the magical animated adventure Spirited Away (2002), one of the director's most revered and honored films, was the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature Film, and the second highest grossing Japanese film ever made; with its tale of a young 10 year-old girl (shojo) finding a mysterious spirit world amusement park where she must save her parents (who were transformed into pigs) by changing them back into humans
  • The Cat Returns (2002), and Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Others have created equally-inventive and beautiful animations, including:

  • director Yoshiaki Kawajiri's dark, excessively-violent and adult-oriented Wicked City (1987)
  • director Katsuhiro Otomo's cult favorite epic Akira (1989), based on the science-fiction comic book (manga) series - a post-apocalyptic tale set in Neo-Tokyo
  • director Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday (1991) and Pom Poko (1994)
  • anime auteur Mamoru Oshii's cyber-punk, apocalyptic animated thriller, Ghost in the Shell (1995) - one of the most expensive anime films ever made, and the first made specifically for the international market

Satoshi Kon's Millenium Actress (2001) and the Pokemon series of children's films (beginning in 1999) are also notable examples of anime.