Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Round and flat characters

Conventional wisdom has it that Toy Story 3 will win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards this weekend, and that seems probable. Nonetheless, the animation community saw fit to award its high honor, the "Annie" to How To Train Your Dragon (2010) in 15 of the 24 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Animated Feature. It's impossible to know why; one suspects that the fact that Dragon was not a sequel, that it had some new design and a host of attractive and well-animated characters contributed to the victory.

Dragon is also to be praised for eschewing the usual Dreamworks smart-aleck pop-culture-reference tone that disfigures Shrek and many other DWA projects. The film is based on a 9-book series, so it would not be unreasonable to expect some follow-ups. At the time, way back in the Spring of 2010 (remember then?), there was so much chatter about 3D release versus 2D, particularly in the wake of Alice In Wonderland, but I saw the film flat and it seemed just fine. And more recently, with the release of Tangled, 3D seems to be an afterthought in the marketing.

Essentially the film marries two old story tropes -- we don't have to fight our perennial enemy; we can befriend them/it; and A Boy And His Dog. That said, the characters are more rounded, literally and figuratively than usual and the film has some interesting creative quirks. I particularly like that once Hiccup begins learning how to train Toothless and discovers that he is missing a side fin on his tail that helps maintain balance, he creates a (presumably) leather adaptation device. This makes Hiccup and Toothless both mutually dependent and mutually reliant, literally symbiotic, at least while in flight. Hiccup must be on Toothless' back, manipulating the fins with his feet to maintain balance in order for Toothless to fly; and of course, Hiccup, being a mere human, couldn't even begin to fly without Toothless. And the film has the grace never to state this point explicitly -- one simply sees the principle in action.

And happily, the other characters come around to a new point of view in ways and at times consistent with their personalities, which makes them what English teachers like me call, "rounded" characters. Which contrasts them strongly with the animated figures of The Secret of the Kells (2009) which was a contender in last year's Oscars.

There is some internal logic in employing this kind of design; the film revolves around the creation and protection of illuminated manuscripts, and the characters and their setting reflect the style of those Celtic books. The final image in this clip is in direct imitation of the decoration of the first letters on a page.

This is one of those stories about the fetishization of and attribution of magic powers to books, independent of whether any one reads them, thinks about them, or communicates their ideas to others. The physical book objects are possessed of mystical supernatural power. This is especially perverse, since the book in question is the bible, which was supposed to supercede the magical thinking of the time before. No matter, everyone just transfers their irrational magic thinking to the new beliefs, without any fundamental change in their belief system. God doesn't even get a mention in this film, lest anyone be offended.

The result is that the whole thing becomes so abstracted, it is difficult to tell what is it at stake, why or what anyone could do about it. It's like those Star Trek in which everyone is in terrible danger until the science officer says, "Let me reroute the Power Postule through the Infidibulous Watanabe," then pretends to push some buttons on the flat piece of plastic and everything is OK. I mean, what is it? Were we in trouble or not? Didn't we always know we could push some buttons? See what I mean in this clip. Can you tell what it is our hero is battling? Have you any idea what might defeat it?

Help! Help! I'm being attacked by abstract art!!

Secret of Kells it is not helped by extreme stylization of the figures, especially the monks and the abbott, making it nearly impossible to identify with them or to relate to them as human characters. Yes, they are wonderful design, but they are terribly inexpressive. Even in this scene, which is meant to present terrible human loss, it is so abstracted it becomes merely an empty homage to Seven Samurai.

Although the animation is far from limited, the drastic simplification of people and objects is reminiscent of cheap television animation. It feels more like a budget than an aesthetic statement.

So despite the railing against 3D and CGI animation and general descrying of the death of cell animation, it is possible for a cartoon to be too flat and too cartoony, especially when it is as ambitious as Secret of Kells.

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