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.]
Summary: Disney's Animated Collaborations with Pixar
In early 2006, the Walt Disney Co. bought longtime partner Pixar Animation Studios Inc. for $7.4 billion in stock, after a twelve year relationship in which Disney co-financed and distributed Pixar’s animated films and split the profits (their previous deal expired in June 2006 after Pixar's delivery of Cars (2006)). The 8th Pixar film - the first film after the purchase - was titled Ratatouille (2007) by writer/co-director Brad Bird. It was a fable about a rat named Rémy (voice of Patton Oswalt) who lived in a Paris bistro-restaurant and had aspirations to be a chef.

A significant development may have been signaled when Walt Disney Studios, after releasing the great-looking, feature-length theatrical film animation Brother Bear (2003) in November (also a nominee for Best Animated Feature Film), announced that this would be their last 2-D animated film for the foreseeable future, since it was switching to the 3-D, full-CGI style originally popularized by Pixar. [However, Disney's last release in the traditional 2-D animation style was Home on the Range (2004).] Would traditionally-animated, old school cel-animated films (like this one) be destined to become non-existent and outdated relics of the last century?
Animations at the Start of the New Century

Walt Disney Pictures was very busy in the year 2000, releasing the computer-animated Dinosaur (2000) about prehistoric life, and the hand-drawn animated comedy-adventure The Emperor's New Groove (2000). DreamWorks also released its second feature-length animated film The Road to El Dorado (2000) (loosely based on The Man Who Would Be King (1975)), and Fox produced the visually-striking science fiction epic Titan A.E. (2000) combining classic animation and CGI (before closing down its traditional animation division).
The second collaboration of DreamWorks and PDI was for the immensely successful (the box-office champ of 2001 and the first Best Animated Feature Film Oscar winner) and colorful fairy-tale farce Shrek (2001), a computer-animated film that added elements to CGI such as fire, liquids, digital humans, and clothing, and featured a green, swamp-living, misfit ogre (with voice of Mike Myers). The most talked-about (but commercially unsuccessful) computer-animated film of the early 21st century, however, was Sony's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), a photo-realistic (hyperReal), science-fiction tale by director Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of the interactive, role-playing, futuristic video game) that advertised itself as "Fantasy Becomes Reality." It simulated human actors with CG and was the first computer-generated feature film based entirely on original designs - no real locations, people, vehicles, or props were used.

Kaena: The Prophecy (2004), the first full-length 3D-generated animated film from France, with voices of Kirsten Dunst, Richard Harris, and Anjelica Huston, told a sci-fi fantasy tale about a free-spirited teenaged girl who must solve the mystery of a dying 100-mile tall tree. Writer/director Kerry Conran's feature film debut, the retro-futuristic sci-fi adventure film set in the late-1930s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) was the first live-action studio release in which every scene was at least partly computer-generated - supplemented with human actors (including Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow). The entire special-effects laden movie was shot against blue/green screens with human actors in front.
Similar in sheer creative inventiveness was the ground-breaking Waking Life (2001), an impressionistic and stylized R-rated film from director Richard Linklater - it was first digitally shot as a live-action film before 30 artists graphically 'painted' the characters via computer (with a process called "interpolated rotoscoping") to create the illusion of a cartoon in motion.
[Similarly, Sin City (2005) and Linklater's own A Scanner Darkly (2005) digitally rotoscoped live action.] Also, Paramount's Nickelodeon films introduced a totally-original computer-animated feature starring a whiz kid who saves his alien-kidnapped parents, titled Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001). And Warner Bros.' poorly-received summer release, Osmosis Jones (2001), with part live-action and part-animation, was about a white blood cell cop (voice of Chris Rock) who hunted down lethal germs in a zoo-worker's (Bill Murray) body.

Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), its first cartoon produced in 70 mm since The Black Cauldron (1985), blended CGI with traditional hand-drawn animation, and was based on the Jules Verne action epic, but it faced stiff competition from other animated features. Disney's hand-drawn, big-budget, sci-fi animation Treasure Planet (2002), an outer-space version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, flopped. Another Disney hand-drawn effort, Lilo & Stitch (2002), about a lonely Hawaiian girl and her blue extra-terrestrial friend, was the studio's sole box-office hit in recent memory.

The widely-anticipated Monsters, Inc. (2001), Disney's fourth computer-animated comedy with Pixar, featured a one-eyed, lime-colored ball named Mike Wazowski (with voice of Billy Crystal), and his scare-factory buddy James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman).

20th Century Fox's animation-adventure Ice Age (2002) starred creatures that are trying to reunite a human baby with its parents. The computer-generated characters include Manny - a woolly mammoth (voice of Ray Romano), Sid - a talkative sloth (voice of John Leguizamo), Diego - a saber-toothed tiger (voice of Denis Leary), along with Scrat - a prehistoric squirrel that desperately tries to stash an acorn. [It was followed by a sequel Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006).] The second film from the same team was Robots (2005), a slapstick, science-fiction animated film about clunky, nuts-and-bolts androids featuring Robin Williams (his first voice in an animated feature since 1992) as the voice of Fender.

Due to pressures brought to bear on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the reknowned organization finally acknowledged that full-length cartoons (animations!) deserve their own Oscar awards category, Best Animated Feature Film, beginning with films eligible in the year 2001. According to the Academy's rules, an 'animated film' must be at least 70 minutes in length, have a significant amount of major animated characters, and be at least 75% animated.
The wildly-successful Finding Nemo (2003) - the highest-grossing computer-animated film ever (to date), Pixar's and Disney's fifth collaboration, won the Best Animated Film Oscar! The undisputed box-office champ of the year, it was the tale of Marlin - a widowed clown fish's (voice by Albert Brooks) search in the Pacific Ocean, with a dopey and forgetful blue tang fish named Dory (voice by Ellen DeGeneres), for missing son Nemo with a withered fin. [It faced stiff competition from the wildly inventive and surreal French animated film The Triplets of Belleville (2003).] DreamWorks' version of Finding Nemo with an underwater gangster theme, the studio's first CGI-animated film, was the successful Shark Tale (2004), with voices provided by Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Jack Black, Robert DeNiro and Angelina Jolie.

Director/screenwriter Brad Bird's ingenious Oscar-winning Best Animated Feature, the action-adventure The Incredibles (2004), Disney's and Pixar's sixth collaboration, was Pixar's first PG-rated film and the longest CG animated film to date (at 115 minutes). It told the tale of paunchy Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr (voice of Craig T. Nelson), an ex-do-good Superhero suffering a mid-life crisis and living under-cover in suburbia, with his restless wife Helen (voice of Holly Hunter) - former rubber-limbed masked vigilante Elastigirl. Their children included long-haired daughter Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) - capable of being invisible, son Dash (voice of Spencer Fox) - who could travel at supersonic speed, and baby Jack-Jack. The entire family was lured back into super-herodom against the evil Syndrome (voice of Jason Lee). With its four Oscar nominations (including Best Animated Feature Film), it was the most-nominated animated film since Aladdin (1992) (with five nominations). Another Pixar CGI marvel, the adventure comedy Cars (2006), directed by John Lasseter, told an anthropomorphic story about a stock-car (Lightning McQueen, voice of Owen Wilson) on a journey to the races - including nostalgia for Route 66 in a forgotten town called Radiator Springs.