Archive for the Animation Category

Simpsons Confidential by John Ortved

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on March 25, 2010 by brunswick

Simpsons Confidential
by John Ortved
Ebury Press 2009

If you were a writer or executive or animator involved with the initial creation of The Simpsons, it’s likely that you’ve been involved in litigation at some point. The brand new Fox network was quite relaxed about delegating merchandising rights and points when the show was being developed, and it was only when the sky was darkened by an approaching tsunami wave of cash that things began to get extremely nasty.

This entertaining book is mainly composed of interviews with participants from the early years, with relatively little editorialising. It rather tartly points out how little Matt Groening had to do with developing the defining characteristics of what we recognise as The Simpsons, apart from inventing and drawing the characters (even the iconic yellow skin and Marge’s blue hair was devised by Klasky-Csupo colour designer Gyorgi Peluce), and there are several hilarious accounts of his unwelcome presence in the writers’ room and the wide resentment at Groening’s resulting fame and incredible wealth. It’s not mentioned in the book, but it’s significant that when the US Postal Service issued Simpson stamps last year, they were crudely drawn by Groening himself instead of by the artists who usually produce slick still images for the show.

There’s a brief analysis of how the quality of the programme has changed over the years – obviously there’s website after website devoted to this subjective issue. As each DVD boxset comes out (they’re up to the 12th season at the moment*) the seasons are re-evaluated: the general consensus used to be that the show hit a creative peak in the seventh or eight season and has been slowly declining ever since. Ortved argues that Season 3-5 was the real peak, although 6-9 were still extremely good, and the real decline hits from Season 10 onwards.

Basically this is the tale of what happens when a large group of intense and creative people get together and work extremely hard to come up with something excellent, and are then ripped apart by money and greed. Recommended for anyone interested in the dynamics of TV comedy writing, or how even US$3 billion can tear apart best friends.

*Season 20 was release in January without any of the usual excellent extras (ka-ching!), but I don’t know any fans who bothered buying that one.

The Lion King

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on March 24, 2010 by brunswick

The high point of the Disney Renaissance, and still the most commercially successful 2D animated film ever made. “Commercially successful” does not necessarily translate as “best”, although this is a very, very solid film, Sergeant Pepper to Beauty and the Beast’s Revolver (if you’ll forgive the pseudish comparison). I believe this is the first animated Disney film to have no humans OR animals wearing little trousers.

In retrospect, after the impressive ‘Circle of Life’ opening sequence and the classic death-of-the-father scene at the hooves of a thousand CG wildebeest, there’s a certain inevitability to the plot – what, Simba wasn’t going to return to Pride Rock to confront his evil uncle? Everyone made the Hamlet comparison when it first came out, and outraged anime fans have well documented the debt it owes to Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, despite Disney’s official protestations of ignorance of the work of Tezuka. Tezuka’s people pointed out that this is like a Japanese animator claiming to have never heard of Walt Disney.

Everything about this film works, from the all-star voices (Disney soon worked out you could get similar results without paying for quite so many celebrities) to the gorgeous character animation and intricate backgrounds. Watching it for the first time since 1994 I still cringed at Jeremy Iron’s Kenneth Williams impression (yet another camp villain with hooded eyes, a little beard and a look of disdain!) and that fucking awful ‘Hakuna Matata’ song. Still, the songs are better integrated into the plot than Aladdin.


Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on March 21, 2010 by brunswick

Unfairly, 1992’s Aladdin had to live up to the new standards set by Beauty and the Beast, and although it’s a lesser film artistically it was sufficiently entertaining and colourful enough to be considered an instant classic. It’s the first Disney film to mine a non-Western public domain mythology, and with terrific elements like genies and magic lamps and flying carpets, it’s surprising it took them this long to get around to it.

Is it racist? Obviously it couldn’t be made today without being a lot more loaded. Disney always attracts criticism when it attempts to do something non-Caucasian (just look at The Princess and the Frog), and while Aladdin portrays the citizens of ‘Agrabah’ as grotesque and bumbling, it’s not malicious, it’s just kind of a dumb film. Lazily, it conflates Arabia, India, China and Egypt together, and gives some One Thousand and One Nights stereotypes a good workout. The hero and heroine are the least Arabic-looking of the characters, but at least they’re brown! Browner than the usual depiction of that famous Galilee citizen, Jesus.

The villain Jafar is a hypnotist like Kaa from The Jungle Book and Sir Hiss from Robin Hood, and resembles in silhouette the splendid Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Another saturnine, slightly effeminate schemer with a little beard. Just to spell it out, his parrot sidekick is named Iago, one of several apparently random Shakespearian references and quotations. Aladdin and Princess Jasmine also each get an animal sidekick. In fact, if you added an anti-religion subtext you’d get Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

The character design is supposedly based on the curvy lines of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld*, but this is really only apparent in the contortions of Robin Williams’s Genie. The Genie steals every scene (not always in a good way) with exuberant but anachronistic impersonations. Ironically, after 18 years some of these anachronisms are pretty dated. The exuberance of the Genie, and the increased scope for action afforded by the character of the flying carpet, helps detract from the lack of character development, one of the strengths of Beast. Building on the technical innovations of that film, Aladdin has further integration of traditionally-animated characters into computer-animated environments. There’s also subtle use of CG in the digital mapping of the flying carpet’s pattern, something which would’ve been a lot harder to do in ink and paint.

The songs are witty, if inconsequential, with Howard Ashman’s last work for Disney (before his death) augmented by Tim Rice, who would feature in The Lion King. It’s still Broadway, but that template starts to look a little strained when imposed on an atmospheric Arabian Nights setting. The days of that specific style were numbered.

*The excellent Rhapsody in Blue sequence of Fantasia 2000 is also an extended homage to Hirschfeld.

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on March 12, 2010 by brunswick

Disney’s last European fairy tale until The Princess and the Frog came out last year, and something of an apex for their traditionally animated features. Despite the typically straightforward plot (prince loses temper, gains hair, meets girl, epilates), 1991’s Beast is less childish than The Little Mermaid, assisted again by the wry lyrics of Howard Ashman and a more interesting variety of supporting characters, several of them famous Broadway performers like Angela Lansbury, here giving her Sweeney Todd pipes a workout. The early use of computer animation is more obvious here, but well-judged.

In a concession to the recent rise of feminist awareness over the last three centuries, heroine Belle is inquisitive and literate, which positively distinguishes her as an intellectual. Her relatively developed character is matched by some excellent animated “acting”, the sort of thing that Disney did better than anyone else. The Beast is unusually tormented for a Disney character, brooding and gnashing his way through the film. The real villain, hunter Gaston, pales by comparison. To compensate, he’s been given the most French name, and is narcissistic but butch*.

Beast was designed with an eye for lucrative adaptation to the Broadway stage, and the score is somewhat relentless, but the songs are better than usual, fulfilling the classic purpose in musicals of expounding character and advancing the plot. There’s another surly French chef stereotype, but luckily the entire film is set in France. It must be galling, if you’ll pardon the pun, how Disney films have shaped the public perception of Ye Olde Europe, just like how the Victorians got their hands on Camelot and sanitised the whole affair, something medieval historian Terry Jones gleefully demolished in Monty Python & the Holy Grail.

* In the manner of Tom of Finland.

The Little Mermaid

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on March 10, 2010 by brunswick

This was an important film for Disney, commercially and artistically, and yet watching it for the first time* it looks like a conscious attempt to do a good old fashioned 1950s Disney animation, after a dire streak that lasted for the entire ’80s, just like the Rolling Stones. It’s too sincere to be a mere pastiche, but 1989’s Mermaid is a curious mixture of innocence (it’s very much a film for little kids, specifically girls) and high camp – the villain Ursula is broadly (and disconcertingly) based on Divine, the star of many John Waters films. The songs are by Waters cohort Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who also wrote Little Shop of Horrors (one of my favourite musicals), but this is the first of the Broadway-ish Disney films, and must therefore bear the blame for the horrors that were to follow.

Cod-calypso ode to inertia, ‘Under the Sea’, makes me want to gnaw off my own arm. Just putting it out there.

Heroine Ariel is engaging, with a clever colour scheme of green and scarlet – put those two colours together and many people will still associate it with this character. The Prince is cardboard, but who cares about the freakin’ Prince? The character design is excellent, as usual, despite the old fashioned look of the animation. Disney were early adopters of computer colouring and animation techniques, but at this stage the results were indistinguishable from their traditional style.

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale has been scrubbed even cleaner (no cutting out tongues and bleeding feet for this mermaid!) and there’s absolutely no black people, and the villain is a fat deep-voiced drag queen of a certain age, and there’s even a direly Closeauesque French chef, but if we weren’t meant to make fun of the French they wouldn’t have such hilarious accents, would they? The Disney animated feature was back, and from this point on there was nothing but progress.

* I was sixteen when it came out. This sort of thing apparently wasn’t my bag at the time.

Disney and all that entails

Posted in Animation, Cartoon stuff, Unwarranted criticism on February 26, 2010 by brunswick

I’ve almost run out of computer animated kids’ films to watch, and after watching Chicken Little and Bolt, I’ve decided to watch all the animated Disney movies I’ve never seen before.

Disney, Disney, Disney. Is there a more loaded word in family entertainment? On the positive side: animation would be a much sorrier art without their decades of technical innovation. To a certain extent, through form and content they have also defined what a kids’ film should be. Their films are international, that poor benighted cipher Mickey Mouse has been recognised all around the world for more than eighty years, no mean feat pre-internet.

Of course, the negative side of Disney is an extension of all those positive points. Disney films appropriated the great fairy tales of Europe, scrubbed them even cleaner than the Grimm Brothers did, and sold them back. They effectively own a large chunk of the literary imagination of the Western World, those classic cautionary stories of magic and good and evil, and woe betide you if you step on their copyright. Disney helped sell the idea of post-war America by being clean and bright and blindingly white. They’re almost a byword for sentimentality, and Mickey is an avatar of American imperialism, although Euro Disney rocked when I went there in 1992. Their broadway tunes are fucking terrible. They did awful, awful things to Winnie-the-Pooh, who is still one of their biggest merchandising earners. They nearly squeezed all of the juice out of Pixar in their greed.

Anyway, first up, The Little Mermaid. Never did see that one.

Chicken Little

Posted in Animation, Sound & Vision, Unwarranted criticism on February 4, 2010 by brunswick

This 2005 film was produced by Disney when Pixar was trying to renegotiate its distribution contract. Disney had to prove that it didn’t need Pixar to produce successful computer-animated movies, but with this film it was only partially successful. It was originally in 3D, a few years early for the trend. Like so many of these films I’ve watched recently, the character design and voice acting is a joy, but the story is decidedly underbaked. Chicken Little wants to be hip but it’s still grounded in the 1950s, morally and conceptually, and cynically it tries to cover all audience bases. A shame, because some of the jokes are rather good.

The classic fable is bolted to an ETWar of the Worlds pastiche, and as a result we have no idea why an advanced alien race is in the same movie as a town full of anthropomorphic furry animals. There’s some heavy-handed moralizing about how fathers should be supportive, and, yes, at the end of the film the entire cast dances to a ’70s chestnut which has fuck-all to do with the previous 80 minutes  – in this case, Elton John’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. Shiny, colourful, gleefully animated, but with an overwhelming air of “Will this do?”

Hoodwinked! is not that bad

Posted in Animation, Unwarranted criticism on December 30, 2009 by brunswick

A satirical retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with lashings of Rashomon, Hoodwinked! almost begged to be compared with Shrek when it came out in early 2006. It was widely criticized for the ugliness of its character design and clunkiness of its animation, but it’s quite a charming film with some good songs. It was the first full-length animated movie to be produced independently, which had good and bad results:

PLUS: It was made for US$15,000,000, a tenth of what Shrek 2 cost. The creators of the film had a lot of control, so the script obviously wasn’t put through rounds of studio rewrites to remove anything controversial or difficult. The result is refreshingly bonkers. Especially the songs, which are a lot of fun. Especially the Schnitzel Song.

MINUS: Primitive-looking animation, especially compared to its contemporaries, Finding Nemo and Shrek 2. They didn’t bother much with complicated textures, the stuff like fur and hair that Pixar does so well, so the characters look as though they’re made of modelling clay, and when they move they kind of float, like animation in the mid-’90s. You wouldn’t think this would matter – it’s not like we judge older films for being technically clunky, but I suppose when we think of computer animation we think of Pixar and Dreamworks levels of quality. Basically anything else looks cheap.

So, all in all it’s still a kids’ film, but I liked it because it isn’t trying to be all things to all people like the later Shrek films, and it’s another film that was made with Maya. (Spoiler: it also stars an evil bunny.)

That’s a piece of luck

Posted in Animation, Shameless Namedropping on July 20, 2009 by brunswick

I’m animating a music video for a certain Wellington supergroup (no, not that one) so I’ve been listening to a web-quality version of their new album without knowing which song was the single. There was one song I really liked, and aha! Turns out it’s the single.

Ruski & Cherry’s Gemstones

Posted in Animation, Shameless Namedropping, Unwarranted criticism on May 7, 2009 by brunswick

I went to a Women’s Fest gig at the appalling Mount St Bar tonight. Vaguely Christian pop band Ruski performed. They had a kind of Placebo-Evanescence vibe and distinguished themselves by being able to actually play their instruments. Like many bands from the Manawatu, a lot is obviously at stake. Their frontwoman has that “it” factor and as long as they steer away from the Britney Spears covers they might make it extremely big. Many less deserving people have, so why not them?

Ruski were followed by a two-piece Cherry’s Gemstones – I’ve watched various incarnations of this band for about six years, and Hannah is a true original. It was a treat to see her win over an initially reluctant audience by a wall of sound and sheer personality. She’s one of the most creative people I know, and she deserves a much wider audience. I’m finally going to make that music video I promised them two years ago – luckily their new material won’t come out until the end of the year,  so hopefully Handle the Jandal here we come. The first time I entered (in 2001) I was up against the fucking Black Seeds, but how likely is that to happen again?

Earlier, after a tip-off from Helen, I was one of the multitude of cheapskate cost-conscious Wellington residents who poured into the Monet exhibition for free. I could prove I was a resident because I had my flat’s latest massive power bill with me. Heidi was less lucky, being from that lucky ol’ town Chicago, but fortunately has a Wellington library card. See, reading is good for you.

Bizarrely, I saw Dai Henwood’s protégé walking through the museum.

Oh, and when I walked Heidi back into town after the gig we saw the police kicking the shit out of a busker outside the Burger King in Manners Mall… we missed whatever it was that he’d done to piss them off so badly, but judging by the amount of effort they were putting into his arrest, it must’ve been a doozy.