From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who-knows-how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/comic strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.
As a person who self-identifies as an animation connoisseur, I often find myself in the position of cartoon advocate. It can be a difficult job to convince those who don’t already love the art of moving drawings to sit down and watch an animated film. They deem it as kid stuff, befitting the mind of a child perhaps, but not catered to their demographic. To those people I say, the Oscars give animation the time of day, so why won’t you?
Among the contenders for Best Animated Short were a few stop-motion films (Fresh Guacamole, Head Over Heels), an allegorical short from an up-and-coming creator (Adam and Dog), a film featuring beloved characters (Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare) and a technologically innovative short from a company we know and love (Paperman). In some strange and magical twist of fate, the Oscar-nominated Best Animated Feature films manage to match much of those same descriptions. However, they have the added twist of being full-length, more culturally relevant and pigeonholed into being aimed towards children.
In the interest of introducing new minds to a film tradition that is not just for kids, take a look at the films up for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.
Like any Pixar film, the buzz surrounding Brave was inescapable back in June. Quite a stir was caused when director Brenda Chapman – the first female director at Pixar – was replaced by the more seasoned Pixar veteran director Mark Andrews. Though her name remained in a co-directorial spot on the film, audiences did not remain blind to Chapman’s dismissal. She was slated to be the first female director of a Pixar film. This milestone in Pixar’s history accompanied another big moment for the animation studio – their first female heroine, Merida.
Despite the controversy and some lukewarm reviews of Brave once it hit theaters, the film did relatively well at the box office. It has managed to build off of its success by placing Merida among her fellow Disney princesses, selling Brave-themed merchandise at the Disney theme parks and Disney Stores around the country. The film itself was a lovely feat of heartwarming storytelling – it takes us through the perilous adventures of Merida and her relationship with her mother, Queen Elinor, which is strained by the family’s push for Merida to find a husband. The red-headed princess takes on issues of feminism while introducing us to a beautiful Scottish landscape as she rides around the Highlands on her horse, Angus. The film utilized Pixar’s new animation program, Presto (replacing its long-lived predecessor, a program called Marionette), as well as new software to help develop the Scottish Highland scenery. Once in theaters, Brave also benefited as one of the first films to use Dolby Atmos, which immerses audiences in the intricacies of sound design. However smothered in controversy, Brave was a feat in technology and in emotion.
Tim Burton’s newest stop-motion feature animation venture Frankenweenie is a far cry from Pixar, but still under the Disney umbrella of animated entertainment. The film is based off of a 1984 live-action short film made by Burton during his original employment at Disney (where he worked as an animator after studying at the Disney feeder school, CalArts). However, the Walt Disney Company was not too keen on the original Frankenweenie and soon after its production, Burton was fired from the studio.
Frankenweenie in its new stop-motion incarnation is a far cry from its original version – at least in production and artistic value. Like the original, it takes its story from the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein and is also shot entirely in black and white, but unlike the original it utilizes one of Burton’s signature styles – macabre cartooning.
Burton has built an empire out of his animation technique. Among his idols, he cites Ray Harryhausen, a visual effects specialist and stop-motion guru famous for his work on Mighty Joe Young, The7th Voyage of Sinbad and other early monster and fantasy films. Harryhausen was a pioneer of stop-motion animation, a type of film-making that is near and dear to Burton’s heart and which he utilized most famously in The Nightmare Before Christmas (which he co-wrote and produced) and Corpse Bride (which he co-wrote, produced and directed), among many of his other films. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Burton described the filmic style as being “tactile.” “You can see the hands on it, you know?” he said. “You can feel the energy to it.”
Burton was not alone in feeling the energy of stop-motion animated feature film this year, and thus he is not the only filmmaker being recognized for such work. ParaNorman, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, brings audiences into the life of Norman, a boy who can see the spirits of the deceased and who, in a turn of events, must use his gift to save the world from a witch’s curse.
Like Tim Burton, lead animator and produer Travis Knight also calls himself a fan of Ray Harryhausen. Knight, who also served as CEO of Laika (the animation studio that produced the film), described his interest in ParaNorman and other films produced by Laika as a result of being “a little scared” when he read the scripts. “That’s when I know we are probably onto something,” he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “because someone else isn’t doing it.”
While Frankenweenie and ParaNorman may seem similar in taking influence from monster films, the paranormal and the work of Harryhausen, the films couldn’t be more dissimilar. While Frankenweenie teaches audiences about the significance of friendship (especially the kind between dog and owner), ParaNorman is more about internal struggle and the fight towards inner peace. By the end of the film, Norman must recognize his own worth despite being an outcast in society.
The film itself beautifully incorporates a large number of sets (over three dozen) – an unusual practice in stop-motion animation. It also utilized digital printing to create individual claymation pieces, including 9,121 parts just to constitute Norman’s facial expressions. In the end, ParaNorman is more an insight into the emotions of its characters than in the actual monster movie concept, and it succeeds as a result.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Last among the stop-motion animated feature films up for an Oscar is The Pirates! Band of Misfits, made by the British Aardman Animations studio. Aardman is famous for such successes as Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This film, though not inspired by monster films like two of the other Oscar nominees, delves into interesting and sordid territory as it enters the world of pirates who, with the aid of naturalist Charles Darwin, infiltrate Victorian London in the hopes of finding treasure and catapulting their Pirate Captain to the position of Pirate of the Year. Eventually the story gets them caught up in a bargain with Queen Victoria herself, who tries to convince the Pirate Captain to give up his precious pet dodo, Polly.
The film, originally titled The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! was first released in the United Kingdom in March 2012, then brought to the United States in April. Its title change has been attributed to several theories, one being that American audiences wouldn’t be aware of The Pirates! book series on which the film is based on and another being that Americans might be disenchanted by the evolution-accepting sentiments of the movie.
Director Peter Lord was not so worried about this. In an interview with Moviefone he said, “All the fundamentalists were delighted because we make [Darwin] look like a complete ass.” The film doesn’t take itself too seriously in general, and much like other Aardman Animations films, tries not to dumb itself down to appeal to a younger audience. “It can have all the madness and indignity and comedy that a child could wish for,” said Lord to Moviefone. “And the story is a simple moral tale at the heart of it, decorated with visual fun.”
Wreck-It Ralph functions in a similar way, not simply catering toward a younger audience by dumbing down, but instead incorporating new, sophisticated ideas into the animation industry. Director Rich Moore came to the film with past directing credits of The Simpsons and Futurama. According to Moore in his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he promised not to "try to develop and direct a quote-unquote Disney movie" as per Disney Animation Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter's request.
That he did not. Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s newest feature animation film, takes us into the world of video games, following the sad tales of video game villains, specifically Wreck-It Ralph of the fictional Fix-It Felix game. We watch him struggle with his identity, trying to gain acceptance among his “good guy” peers. But in the process, Ralph learns about what’s really important – being happy with who he is, “good guy” or “bad guy.”
Aside from having a director who works in adult-targeted animation series, Wreck-It Ralph also features the voice talents of John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, two comedic actors known for their adult-oriented comedic roles. It succeeds because of its self-reflexive tendencies, referencing actual video game characters and as a result drawing a comparison between itself and the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
A final verdict?
Each of these films accomplished its own set of goals and to each of their benefits, none of them catered exclusively to a “dumbed-down” younger audience. Without making any firm assessments as to a frontrunner or the best among the nominees, it is easy to say that each of them was a success in its own right. From the hilarious to the heartfelt to the spooky and dramatic, each of the Oscar-nominated Best Animated Feature films managed to set itself apart and play to an audience of kids and adults alike. Regardless of which movie wins, it is wonderful to learn that a technique like animation can still be appreciated within a film world that doesn’t always treat it with the respect it deserves. Each of the nominees accomplished just that.