Monday, March 29, 2010

Auteur vs. studio animation

The animated films 9 (2009) and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009) seem to represent a yin and yang of animation in America today. The former is clearly an example of what Frank Capra called, "one man one movie" or what the French called the auteur theory. Cloudy is just as clearly a studio creation, but in no way inferior because of that. The two films were created by two different processes (human, not technological) and those differences are reflected in each product.

9 is a very personal vision, based on a student film made by director Shane Acker. As is the modus for the UCLA animation program, the original short was pretty much a one-man show. It was a dialogue-free fable of mechanical rag dolls surviving apocalypse and making the first tentative steps toward carrying on civilization. The film energized a lot of people, including Tim Burton and an expansion to feature length was created, with experienced animation and kiddy-show writer Pamela Pettler supporting Acker and dozens if not hundreds of artists and animators bringing the piece up to feature length. The result has dialogue and more incidents, and more fleshed-out characters--albeit all of them types--the plucky, brave one, the ingenious nervous one, etc., but doesn't say much more than the nearly silent short. At the end, it's just, "the indomitable human spirit will continue" even if that human spirit is represented by inexplicable mechanical rag dolls. (And by the way, what is the motive power for these things? Springs? Batteries? The director's desire to keep the movie going?)

It is marvelous to look at and listen to, with European-style ruins and a serviceable score by Deborah Lurie. But the question arises, who is the audience for this film? It is too dark and ambiguous for young children, but lack the irony or complexity of a Triplets of Belleville or Persepolis, animated films for adults. It seems to be all about design and mood, and the target audience would seem to be adult animation geeks. (There is no way I can imagine taking a date to this movie.) I applaud Tim Burton and others for supporting this fine effort from a talented filmmaker and Focus Features for taking on the distribution, but I think they could have reached their entire audience with a screening at Comic-Con. (Side note--Christopher Plummer played the hero's nemesis in both Up and 9 this year. Time for voice casting people to work their rolodexes harder, as the fine Mr. Plummer is in danger of becoming an aural cliche.)

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is, as its opening credit slyly acknowledges, "A Film By...A Lot of People." In that one moment it establishes both a charming self-deprecating tone and a satirical jab at standard Hollywood practice. This studio product (credited to Sony Pictures Imageworks) has its eye firmly on the audience in the best sense of the word; much the way Rocky and Bullwinkle entertained children and adults at once. Unlike 9, it is based on a pre-existing property, albeit one the merely offers a strong visual idea with only a hint of story structure--the hard work had to be done by the filmmakers.

It reaches the adults, not as Dreamworks films do with smarmy double-entendre, contemporary pop-culture references and endless self-reference, but by being smart, fast-moving and character-grounded all the time. The animation bespeaks a knowledge of, and affection for the work of Tex Avery, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett (especially the style of movement), and, of course (especially in matters of timing), Chuck Jones.

Here is a moment that made me laugh aloud; our hero has triggered a huge slapstick catastrophe (details not necessary here) which, among many other things, causes a fish to be sailing through the air. At first the fish is not happy with this form of locomotion, until it realizes that it is now free of its fishbowl and about to land in the ocean; just as the fish's face lights up, it is snatched up by a bird--not just a bird, but a ratbird, a feckless creation of the hero some time before--and Life has delivered one of its inevitable boomerangs. Maybe I am a cruel or cynical person, but I thought that was really funny.

And the film has real, warm and believable sentiment between the gags, especially as represented by the character of Flint's father, voiced by James Caan. The design of the character (see illustration) is original, yet behind the stylization we recognize a reality, which is also true for the writing of the character, a man who loves his son just as he is bewildered by him. (And isn't that true of most of us parents?) The design is far simpler and sunnier than that of 9, yet it isn't insulting. I was struck with the contrast in the palette between the grayness of the town when it was engaged in sardine fishery and its transformation when the food-weather begins.

One film driven by a vision, one driven by its own awareness of its audience; both worthy, but, paradoxically in this case, the crowd-pleaser really does please.

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