Inner Dialogue: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Lefty: Happy Saturday to all you fine ladies and gentlemen! Today’s edition of Inner Dialogue is brought to you by our dear litigious friends at Walt Disney Studios. Not in terms of sponsorship, you understand…

Righty: Please understand that. We really don’t have the money for legal fees.

Lefty: …but rather inspiration. Our topic today, you see, is the state of animation in American film. The combination of some class discussions about the House of Mouse’s copyright policies (Editor’s note: more on that in tomorrow’s Trailers of the Week post) and the recent retirement announcement by internationally renowned Japanese animation icon Hayao Miyazaki has us thinking about where the medium has been in recent years and where it could go. First off, I want to emphasize my own choice of words just now – referring to animation as a “medium.” Because I think that’s something that’s often forgotten by American audiences, that animated film is a huge, broad term that should have zero – ZERO – connotations of genre or content. The general assumption that an animated film must be a heartwarming adventure for the whole family is like saying that every live-action film has to have Bruce Willis beating people up.

Righty: I mean, there are worse requirements.

Lefty: Well, yes, probably. But it’s still ludicrous, logically.

Righty: If you want to bother with things like logic, sure, it all goes back to Snow White.

Lefty: Ah ha, yes, Mr. Disney comes up for the first and certainly not the last time. I think you’re right, when Disney decided to make the first fully animated feature film in America, he chose “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and followed it up with “Cinderella” and any number of other child-oriented fantasy films. One of the greatest “What If?” scenarios in film history is this: what if MGM’s scrapped animated adaptation of “A Princess of Mars” – the first John Carter book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, finally made, ironically, by Walt Disney Studios last year as the disastrous “John Carter” – had made it to the screen before “Snow White,” as originally planned? Would that have opened the possibilities for animated filmmakers to cover new genres and more adult-oriented material?

Righty: New genres, perhaps, but adult-oriented material? Dream on.

Lefty: Why not? The John Carter books may not be Arthur C. Clarke, but they’re not quite Flash Gordon, either.

Righty: But you’re acting like an over-eager YouTube commenter: the entire history of a medium, dependent on simply whether Disney cried “FIRST” or not. Let’s switch things up – “A Princess of Mars” goes first, everyone loves it, woop de do, we get a bunch more space operas and Disney probably buys out Flash Gordon at some point. But by the late 30s, cartoon shorts had been the big attraction for kiddie matinees for decades already, and would continue to be so for decades more. And before you get all high and mighty over Disney, take a look at who was going to make that John Carter animated film – Bob Clampett, the “Looney Tunes” staple who designed Porky Pig and Tweety Bird. If there was a turning point for American animation, it was back in the 1920s, with Felix the Cat and Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop. Hollywood already had a pretty strong “cartoons are for kids” attitude by the time Disney rolled around.

Lefty: All right, fair enough. But wherever it came from, I think we can agree that the American studios have a pretty limited imagination when it comes to imagination nowadays, right? Even Pixar, which does what it does extremely well, is unwilling to stray from family entertainment – which , again, we can probably chalk up to Disney’s ownership, considering Pixar mainstays like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton have expressed interest in very different kinds of material elsewhere.

Righty: Can you blame them? They make buckets and buckets of money from family films. They’re almost the only sure bets left in the new era of do-or-die blockbusters.

Lefty: But they aren’t even necessarily that anymore! Blue Sky’s “Epic” only made back its budget thanks to international grosses. Dreamworks’ “Turbo” probably lost money with marketing factored in. Sure, there was “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University,” but overall the signs show that animated family films are just in the same boat as every other big-budget project: it’s possible to over-saturate the market with them.

Righty: The limited-imagination problem you’re talking about isn’t even just a studio problem, though. Look at some of the quirkier, more critically-acclaimed indie animated projects of the last few years – Nick’s “Rango,” Laika’s “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” – certainly those films had very unique sensibilities, ones that could appeal more to adults than the freaking Smurfs. But were they really “out there” in terms of subject matter? Talking animals and Roald Dahl and shy young protagonists finding their place in the world? There’s not a “Watership Down” in the bunch.

Lefty: True. Even the more adventurous American animated movies that have gotten made tend to play with conventions rather than defy them. I guess it’s just difficult to look around at the more varied work being done abroad and not wonder why it can’t be done in the U.S. Even Miyazaki, who had in some ways fallen into his own creative rut, defied expectations by making his last film a biopic of a famed Japanese WWII aircraft engineer. The works of Sylvain Chomet, Ari Folman and Adam Elliot, “Chico and Rita,” “The King of Pigs,” “Paprika;” these are films dedicated to exploring the potential of the medium, not just giving parents a two-hour break.

Righty: They don’t make money though.

Lefty: I mean if we’re going to get into that argument again –

Righty: – then it’s going to be a problem for this feature, because isn’t that what it always comes down to? Studios aren’t willing to bet on daring artistic experiments – they want to make what they know will make money, and lest we get all snooty about THAT, don’t forget that more of the same is what audiences overwhelmingly ask for.

Lefty: What about Miyazaki? His films are instant box office smashes in his own country, and his brand has even built a significant American following – witness how Disney distributes basically everything Studio Ghibli makes, even sub-par efforts like “The Secret World of Arietty” and “From Up on Poppy Hill,” just because they’ve got the Miyazaki name attached to them as producer.

Righty: Great for him, but that’s just not a realistic dream for most artists, nor should it be. Let’s go back to Disney again. Remember “Fantasia?” It may have Mickey Mouse in it, but everyone can pretty much agree that it’s actually one of the most experimental, ambitious animated films to ever be released in the U.S. And it wasn’t popular with audiences OR critics at the time, despite the Disney machine behind it! What a shocker.

Lefty: Now surely you’re not so cynical as to suggest we just only make what will make money.

Righty: No, absolutely not – the point is animation artists, like any of their peers in other mediums, need to be free to make what they want free of audience expectations. Do you think Ari Folman made “Waltz with Bashir” because he wanted it to be popular? I mean, imagine for whatever, bizarre reason his pseudo-documentary captured the zeitgeist and made $50 million at the arthouse. What would he do saddled with new expectations? Would he still completely shift gears and make something like “The Congress,” a clearly wacked-out Asimov adaptation? Or would he just return to his pseudo-documentary comfort zone? Those are questions you don’t even really want answered. Artistic exploration isn’t good business, and it’s really tough to say if it should be.

Lefty: All right, all right. But what you can’t deny is that, in America at least, we don’t even have these stalwart animation artists, doing their work outside the system.

Righty: Sure we do. You just never have a chance to see them. The Brothers Quay? They’re not actually Martians, you know, they’re American. There are plenty of avant-garde artists who just haven’t managed to get even an indie release yet. It’s only a matter of time, though.

Lefty: What makes you say that?

Righty: Have you noticed how freaking GOOD animation technology has gotten these days? The narratives in animated films might be stagnant, but the visuals have taken a giant, giant leap forward, and just keep getting better. CGI is incredible and it can only help those who still want to work in traditional hand-drawn and stop-motion mediums. The technology is getting better and cheaper, and it’s going to work its way to the undiscovered animation artists that you’re pining for. And thanks to YouTube and other online distributors, we’ve got a medium to actually find them. Have you, for instance, watched “Red vs. Blue” lately? They morphed from a couple of guys doing a “Halo” parody in their spare time to one of the most engaging comedy/drama series available on the Internet, and they employ a full-time team of talented animators.

Lefty: Nice way to implicitly justify the amount of time we waste on their site.

Righty: I try. The point is, the platform is there. It’s just a matter of time before one of these people break out into the mainstream and becomes America’s version of Folman or Chomet.

Lefty: “Red vs. Blue” is NOT on par with “The Triplets of Belleville.”


Lefty: No, no, I got you. We’re about out of time for today, though. So what do you think of the state of American animation, dear readers? Would you pay to see an American version of Miyazaki? Would you Kickstart such a person? Watch their YouTube channel? Have you already seen someone fitting the description out there? If so, how can we get them noticed? Let us know, and tune in next time for another edition of Inner Dialogue.

One thought on “Inner Dialogue: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

  1. Inner Dialogue: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back | The Best Films
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