AN­I­MATED AR­GU­MENTS

Any­body who thinks qual­ity car­toons is an oxy­moron does not know what they are miss­ing. Ker­rie Mur­phy se­lects her favourite ex­am­ples of the art of an­i­ma­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

AN­I­MA­TION was in­vented when early hu­mans drew mul­ti­ple legs on an­i­mals in cave paint­ings, de­not­ing move­ment. Their fail­ure to de­velop the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ‘‘ whoo- wa­woo’’ sound ef­fects meant car­toons stalled un­til the Bronze Age and in­ven­tion of the anvil.

But dur­ing the 20th cen­tury car­toons came into their own. They were orig­i­nally in­tended as en­ter­tain­ment for all age groups, or specif­i­cally for adults, be­fore be­ing rel­e­gated to chil­dren’s view­ing, un­til the late 1980s when it be­came OK for grown- ups to watch again. It was then that crit­i­cal de­bates be­gan as to which an­i­mated shorts or movies were the best.

Even though it’s a genre that has made he­roes out of un­likely fig­ures such as an un­in­tel­li­gi­ble sailor with a spinach ob­ses­sion, there are cri­te­ria that make de­cid­ing great­ness easy: longevity, in­no­va­tive tech­niques, in­flu­ence or redefin­ing the genre, for in­stance.

But there is also some­thing in­ef­fa­ble that sep­a­rates a great car­toon from a good one, and so even though the an­i­ma­tion land­scape would be very dif­fer­ent with­out Fan­ta­sia , Snow White and Bambi , the Dis­ney stu­dio’s work rarely tops great car­toon lists in the same way that, say, Warner Bros car­toons do. Per­haps it’s a char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment thing: who would you rather have a beer with, Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse?

And if you’re writ­ing apoplec­tic emails that Akira or Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle are ex­cluded from the fol­low­ing lists, sorry, it’s a sub­jec­tive thing. I’ve tried, but I just don’t en­joy anime in the same way as the pieces be­low. But enough of what’s not here; the fol­low­ing, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, is Re­view ’ s idea of the best an­i­ma­tion has to of­fer.

MER­RIE MELODIES AND LOONEY TUNES ( 1930- 69/ 1931- 69)

WARNER Bros be­gan pro­duc­ing short car­toons to screen be­fore movies eight years be­fore Bugs Bunny ap­peared in 1938’ s Porky’s Hare Hunt . It was an­other two be­fore the ras­cally rab­bit took cen­tre stage and asked: What’s up, doc?’’ in A Wild Hare , but he has proven to be one of the most en­dear­ing and en­dur­ing car­toon char­ac­ters.

In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones, cre­ator of Road Run­ner, Pepe LePew and Marvin the Mar­tian, among oth­ers, wrote: I sup­pose it would be nice if I knew the age and so­cial struc­ture of my au­di­ence, but the truth is, I make car­toons for me.’’

It was Jones’s ex­per­i­ments with pieces that in­ter­ested him that led to the feud be­tween Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny be­ing thrown into the Ring cy­cle, re­sult­ing in the 1957 Wag­ner satire What’s Opera, Doc .

To fund such a lav­ishly il­lus­trated piece, Jones and crew si­phoned money from the cheaper Road Run­ner car­toons, and it was worth the ef­fort. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to hear Wag­ner’s Ride of the Valkyries with­out singing Kill the wab­bit’’ to the tune. There’s some­thing about jam­ming pop cul­ture into the high­brow arts that makes it time­lessly funny. It cap­tures the spirit of opera so well, it’s also a lit­tle mov­ing, as Elmer the Wag­ne­r­ian war­rior loses his love, Bugs in a dress.

An­other dar­ing ex­per­i­ment was 1953’ s Duck Amuck, in which an in­creas­ingly ex­as­per­ated Daffy Duck is erased and re- drawn in a se­ries of strange forms and en­vi­ron­ments by an un­seen an­i­ma­tor who ul­ti­mately is re­vealed to be Bugs. The piece is so — wait for it — daffy it’s hi­lar­i­ous, but it also ques­tions how far a car­toon char­ac­ter can be re­moved from its con­ven­tional form and re­main recog­nis­able. Daffy is still Daffy, even with a flower head and flag­pole tail.

By the 1960s, the golden era was over at Warner Bros, but the stu­dio con­tin­ued to re­cy­cle its clas­sic car­toons by bridg­ing the shorts into fea­ture- length sto­ries and mak­ing ill- ad­vised movie up­dates, such as 1996’ s Space Jam and 2003’ s slightly bet­ter Looney Tunes: Back in Ac­tion . There was also a cheesy Mup­pet Ba­bies - style por­trayal of the clas­sic char­ac­ters as chil­dren, Baby Looney Tunes , in 2002.

The best of Warner Bros’ re­cent ef­forts have steered clear of Bugs and co, such as 1992’ s darkly stylish Bat­man: The An­i­mated Se­ries . But the stand­out was 1993’ s An­i­ma­ni­acs , which cap­tured the manic en­ergy of the clas­sic Looney Tunes with­out aping them mind­lessly.

THE SIMP­SONS ( 1989 - PRESENT)

THE Simp­sons isn’t the first prime- time car­toon television se­ries; that was Jay Ward’s Cru­sader Rab­bit in 1949. Nor was it the first car­toon sit­com, fol­low­ing The Flint­stones ( 1960) and 1972’ s Wait Till Your Fa­ther Gets Home ( a car­toon All in the Fam­ily ). But The Simp­sons is the most suc­cess­ful, fun­ni­est and one of the long­est run­ning TV shows, an­i­mated or not.

The story of a fat dumb man, his long- suf­fer­ing wife and pre­co­cious chil­dren has been told many times in sit­coms, but no one does it as well.

Back in 1989 it was con­demned for cel­e­brat­ing dys­func­tion, stu­pid­ity and brat­ti­ness, with then pres­i­dent Ge­orge H. W. Bush say­ing: The na­tion needs to be closer to The Wal­tons than The Simp­sons .’’ But such crit­i­cism mel­lowed as the show’s clev­er­ness and heart emerged, such as in the episode Marge Be Not Proud where Bart is caught shoplift­ing and the pain he feels from dis­ap­point­ing his mother is al­most pal­pa­ble.

The Simp­sons may not be the sort of show that you as­so­ci­ate with the phrase fam­ily

TOY STORY ( 1995)

en­ter­tain­ment but, given that chil­dren watch for the slap­stick and mis­ad­ven­ture while adults chor­tle at the clever satire, the show fits the bill.

Its mul­ti­ple lay­ers also en­sure it stands up to re­peated view­ing. The Simp­sons is a show that re­wards you for pay­ing at­ten­tion,’’ cre­ator Matt Groen­ing said in The Simp­sons: A Com­plete Guide to Our Favourite Fam­ily . This is just as well since ev­ery day Ten screens the show at least once, while pay TV chan­nel Fox 8 of­fers three or more episodes.

Cal­cu­lat­ing the ex­tent of The Simp­sons in­flu­ence is al­most im­pos­si­ble; even the English lan­guage (‘‘ D’oh’’) bor­rows from the show. But it’s in an­i­ma­tion where its fin­ger­prints are most ob­vi­ous. Shows such as Fu­tu­rama , Fam­ily Guy, King of the Hill and South Park owe a debt to the show, even if only be­cause its suc­cess gave TV net­works faith in prime- time car­toons. The down­side is that it casts a long shadow. It’s hard to think of a topic The Simp­sons hasn’t suc­cess­fully skew­ered in 19 sea­sons. As the al­most as ge­nius South Park af­fec­tion­ately be­moaned in the name of a 2002 episode, The Simp­sons Al­ready Did It . WHEN one of the ear­li­est an­i­mated shorts, 1914’ s Ger­tie the Di­nosaur , was made, the cell ( the trans­par­ent cel­lu­loid al­low­ing an­i­ma­tors to re­draw only the parts that changed in a frame) had not been de­vel­oped, so ev­ery frame was la­bo­ri­ously hand- drawn. To­day, al­most all an­i­ma­tion is com­put­erised. Even in tra­di­tional 2- D car­toons, com­put­ers han­dle the colour­ing and an­i­ma­tion of hand- drawn images, giv­ing rise to the term tradig­i­tal an­i­ma­tion.

As well as speed­ing up the process, com­puter tech­nol­ogy has spawned a new an­i­ma­tion genre, the 3- D com­puter- gen­er­ated im­agery film, all but re­plac­ing the 2- D used to make fea­ture films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King .

Tech­nol­ogy has im­proved con­sid­er­ably in the 12 years since Toy Story broke new ground. In­deed, as well as toys, early CGI films starred in­sects ( A Bug’s Life , Antz ) and fish ( Find­ing Nemo) be­cause an­i­ma­tors couldn’t ren­der con­vinc­ing hair, hu­man skin or move­ment. But Pixar’s Toy Story doesn’t make this list be­cause it was first; it’s a great story. The idea of toys liv­ing a rich life while their owner is asleep is an al­most uni­ver­sal fan­tasy and the story of Woody the cow­boy who feels his sta­tus as his young owner’s favourite toy is threat­ened by the ar­rival of Buzz Lightyear, a flash but dim fel­low who doesn’t know he’s a toy, is as touch­ing as it is funny. Let’s hope the mak­ers re­mem­ber this when Toy Story 3 ap­pears in 2010.

GER­ALD McBO­ING BO­ING ( 1951)

ON the sur­face, this al­most forgotten gem, an adap­ta­tion of a Dr Seuss story, is just a sweet tale of a young boy who speaks only in sound ef­fects. But its an­i­ma­tion tech­niques were as revo­lu­tion­ary in its era as Toy Story s were more than 40 years later.

This academy award- win­ning car­toon came from United Pro­duc­tions of Amer­ica, which was an in­no­va­tor in what’s called lim­ited an­i­ma­tion. Tex Avery at Warner Bros had al­ready bro­ken away from Dis­ney’s rigid ad­her­ence to the phys­i­cal laws of the real world but Ger­ald McBo­ing Bo­ing took it a step fur­ther by us­ing stylised back­grounds. In­stead of a lounge room there’s a roughly sketched arm­chair, pic­ture frame and win­dow. Lim­ited an­i­ma­tion also re­duced the num­ber of frames a sec­ond, mak­ing for less fluid move­ment and car­toons that were faster and there­fore cheaper to pro­duce.

Here, lim­ited an­i­ma­tion was an artis­tic, not a fi­nan­cial, choice but it led to the more work­man­like TV car­toons from the 60s on­wards, such as Hanna- Barbera’s Scooby- Doo, Where Are You! UPA pro­duced three more Ger­ald shorts and a half- hour TV se­ries.

Two years ago, Cana­dian pro­duc­tion house Cookie Jar En­ter­tain­ment gave Ger­ald two talk­ing chums and rein­vented him for preschool­ers. It’s cute but hardly in­no­va­tive.

RU­DOLPH THE RED- NOSED REIN­DEER ( 1964)

BE­FORE CGI, 3- D an­i­ma­tion was cre­ated with stop mo­tion, in which a 3- D ob­ject is moved slightly for each frame. This tech­nique was used for an­i­mated pieces and movie spe­cial ef­fects, most no­tably by Ray Har­ry­hausen in movies such as Mighty Joe Young ( 1949) and 1963’ s Ja­son and the Arg­onauts .

Rankin- Bass also made 2- D car­toons, but the stop- mo­tion Christ­mas specials were its finest achieve­ment. If you’re talk­ing most mem­o­rable scene, it would be the Miser Brothers rou­tine in 1974’ s The Year With­out a Santa Claus , but Ru­dolph the Red- Nosed Rein­deer boasts a stronger story.

Based on Johnny Marks’s jaunty Christ­mas song, it has added trade­mark Rankin- Bass

flour­ishes of weird­ness, such as an elf called Her­mey who wants to give up mak­ing toys to be­come a den­tist and the Is­land of Mis­fit Toys, the sad rest­ing place for toys with im­per­fec­tions. So pop­u­lar was this lat­ter story- line that in 1965 a new end­ing was added to show that Santa did ful­fil his prom­ise to find the toys homes.

Ru­dolph the Red- Nosed Rein­deer is not nec­es­sar­ily an in­no­va­tive work but it is an en­dear­ing and funny one, and en­dur­ing. In the US, where it has played in prime time ev­ery Christ­mas since 1964, it’s the long­est run­ning hol­i­day ti­tle. It’s not quite so cher­ished in Aus­tralia but is be­ing re­dis­cov­ered on DVD.

And what of the show’s stars, the mod­els used to cre­ate the piece? As­ton­ish­ingly, they were given to an em­ployee’s nephew and all but Ru­dolph and Santa were de­stroyed.

The sur­vivors ap­peared on the Amer­i­can An­tiques Road­show in 2006 and were val­ued at $ US8000 to $ US10,000. They’ve since been sold to the head of an on­line toy com­pany and re­stored.

Given the time- con­sum­ing process, ex­am­ples of stop- mo­tion an­i­ma­tion are few and far be­tween th­ese days, but the tech­nique does have two high- profile prac­ti­tion­ers, no­tably Aard­man an­i­ma­tion, mak­ers of the Wal­lace & Gromit sto­ries, Crea­ture Com­forts , and the films Chicken Run and Flushed Away. Di­rec­tor Tim Bur­ton also flies the flag with gothic ef­forts such as 2005’ s Corpse Bride and 1993’ s The Night­mare Be­fore Christ­mas . THE 1980s were a bar­ren time for an­i­mated fea­ture films. Dis­ney still pumped them out but un­til 1989’ s The Lit­tle Mer­maid , they weren’t re­ally the award- win­ning box- of­fice smashes ( and mer­chan­dis­ing ma­chines) they would be­come in sub­se­quent years.

Iron­i­cally, it was Touch­stone Pic­tures, a di­vi­sion of Dis­ney es­tab­lished to al­low the com­pany to re­lease non- G- rated live- ac­tion films with­out tar­nish­ing its child- friendly rep­u­ta­tion, that ush­ered in the mod­ern an­i­mated block­bus-

WHO FRAMED ROGER RAB­BIT? ( 1988)

ter with Roger Rab­bit . Di­rected by Robert Ze­meckis, the satire cen­tres on a Looney Tune­sesque an­i­mated star who hires a hu­man de­tec­tive ( played by Bob Hoskins) to find out whether his wife Jes­sica has been play­ing pat­ty­cake with an­other man. This em­broils the gumshoe in a com­plex con­spir­acy with a heavy nod to Ro­man Polan­ski’s Chi­na­town . As ev­i­denced by the ex­ceed­ingly sul­try Jes­sica, it was one of the first mod­ern car­toons to tar­get adults and chil­dren.

A mix of an­i­ma­tion and live ac­tion, Who Framed Roger Rab­bit? fea­tures hu­mans and

toons’’ in­ter­act­ing. It wasn’t the first time this had hap­pened — think Gene Kelly danc­ing with Jerry the mouse from Tom and Jerry in An­chors Aweigh — but it was the most sus­tained and con­vinc­ing at­tempt.

Im­pres­sively, all 85,000 cells were com­pletely hand- an­i­mated, even though Dis­ney had al­ready started to use ex­ten­sive com­puter an­i­ma­tion on its 2- D car­toons. Of course, paint doesn’t come cheap and, at a cost of $ US70 mil­lion, at the time Roger qual­i­fied as one of the most ex­pen­sive films made.

But what re­ally makes it unique is that as it poked fun at the con­ven­tions of car­toons from the 40s, the mak­ers thought it fit­ting to fea­ture the car­toon char­ac­ters from the pe­riod. It’s the first time Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, and also Daffy and Don­ald Duck, share a scene. How­ever, just as when the megas­tars Paul New­man and Steve McQueen worked to­gether on The Tow­er­ing In­ferno and in­sisted on equal lines, lawyers en­sured that Mickey and Bugs had the same num­ber of words.

While the ad­vent of com­puter an­i­ma­tion has led to in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated fea­ture films, mar­ry­ing them to the real world has rarely been at­tempted since Roger Rab­bit . A mooted pre­quel never made it out of de­vel­op­ment; sur­pris­ing when you con­sider how much eas­ier it would be to make to­day.

Still, the mod­ern era of car­toons Roger her­alded con­tin­ues. In re­cent years, cult shows such as Fu­tu­rama and Fam­ily Guy were so pop­u­lar when re­leased on DVD that new episodes were com­mis­sioned years af­ter the net­works axed the se­ries. Com­bine that with the con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­ity of CGI films at the box of­fice and the longevity of The Simp­sons , and the fu­ture of an­i­ma­tion looks very healthy. And with com­puter tech­nol­ogy im­prov­ing by leaps and bounds, the realm of what will be pos­si­ble seems lim­it­less. Let’s just hope the strive for re­al­ism doesn’t go too far.

It will be a sad day when an­i­ma­tion is so true to life that a toon walks over the edge of cliff and falls be­fore they’ve even had a chance to no­tice.

Homer not alone: Cre­ator Matt Groen­ing says Simp­sons re­wards those who pay at­ten­tion

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