Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Animation Roundup

Filmmaking stripped down to its essentials, animation is the art of transforming a blank piece of celluloid or a blank computer screen into a moving picture. Animation directors build their films from the ground up, limited only by their own imaginations, while live-action directors have to work with concrete materials, like locations, lights, props, cameras, and costumes, that can be manipulated only up to a point (though CGI is starting to blur that once-bright line).

Animation also frees directors from the tyranny of the star. By using just the voices of their actor, filmmakers sidestep the gravitational force that draws us toward real people onscreen, often making us remember a movie’s stars long after our other memories of it have fallen away.

But if there’s freedom for the right artists in the blank canvas of animation, there’s peril for cultural magpies who steal other people’s ideas rather than developing their own. The best animated films either distill something essential about the human condition or transcend it completely, creating a kinetic new way of seeing or being. The worst just recycle our pop-culture detritus and try to make it look new.

The main gimmick in Mars Needs Moms is motion capture technology, that thicket of sensors and wires that lets computers capture the expressions and movements of actors and transfer them to animated characters, which have a vaguely creepy, plastic-doll look. I liked this effect when it was used on Angelina Jolie in Beowulf, exaggerating her already superhuman qualities in a creepily compelling way, but it has never done much for mere mortals like Joan Cusack (the main Mom in Mars Needs Moms) and Seth Green (her son Milo). The behind-the-scenes shots over Mars Needs Moms’ end credits show us the actors at work in a cacophonous symphony of overacting. The combination of those exaggerated expressions and the characters' Botoxed-looking features that wound up onscreen falls just short of lifelike, and so does everything else in this manufactured-feeling movie.

There are some mildly funny interactions between Mom and Milo in the set-up, and there's one genuinely touching moment near the end, when Cusack’s awesome thespian powers prove strong enough to break through even the barriers of motion-capture animation and by-the-numbers scriptwriting. But Mars is mostly just frantic, often repetitive chase scenes and literal cliffhangers — so many that the sight of someone hanging onto the edge of something soon had me yawning as widely as the chasms below. There’s nothing innovative or beautiful about the look of the film either, so filmmakers resort to 3-D to try to generate some gasps, a ploy that seems particularly cynical in these tenuous economic times when the only thing it adds to the movie-going experience is another 5 bucks or so to the ticket price.

Gnomeo & Juliet is also filmed in unnecessary 3-D, but it has enough humor and energy to take some of the sting out of the price. Making garden gnomes and their stone, plaster, and plastic lawn-ornament buddies the protagonists was a smart move on the filmmakers’ part since — like the toys in the Toy Story franchise — the gnomes don’t need to look alive to seem lifelike. Those bunnies and pink flamingos and big-hatted gnomes look so animated in action that it’s fun to see them use the Toy Story trick of freezing into position whenever humans heave into view. And though I could have done without the cheap shots at the Bard, an impish adapter of other people’s stories who is portrayed as a stiff-necked snob who disapproves of this variation on his play, the writers did a nice job of making the revamped story feel fresh without losing its central thread.

Rango looks amazing, its beautifully rendered landscape and lighting just exaggerated enough to feel almost real while registering as a pungent distillation of nearly every Western scene you’ve ever seen onscreen. Its chameleon star looks great too, his versatile array of expressions and movements, convincingly textured scales and limpid eyes making him look fully alive (and it doesn’t hurt to have Johnny Depp doing his voice either). Too bad the story he’s stuck in is so lame and derivative.

Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) says Rango isn’t intended just for kids, which would explain all the jokes that sailed over the heads of the kids in the audience I saw it with, not to mention the fact that nearly every character and setup references some classic movie, or that the central mystery and villain come straight out of Chinatown. But the story is clearly aimed at the pre-school crowd, with its generously underlined and foreshadowed mystery, oft-repeated aspirational phrases, and one-note characters, so we’re left with a Frankenstein monster of a movie, a mish-mosh of references and homages that’s too simplistic for grown-ups and too obscure for kids.

But there is plenty of first-class animation being done these days too, both for kids and for grown-ups. To see some, track down last year’s The Illusionist, a delicate hand-drawn fairy tale that dances across a deep vein of sentiment without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality. Or watch Toy Story 3 (again?) for a master class in tapping the power of computers and corporations to serve a visually innovative, deeply humanistic vision.

Written for TimeOFF

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