A Tale of Three 'Toons 

Three animated features show what's best and worst about the medium

Three animated features show what's best and worst about the medium

This past weekend, sturdy animation fans had the opportunity to attempt a cartoon triple feature. Fox Animation released its science fiction feature Titan A.E., Walt Disney Studios countered with a theatrical release of its IMAX hit Fantasia 2000, and Dreamworks Studios scheduled a public sneak preview of its next animated feature, Chicken Run. I started my Saturday with an 11 a.m. screening of Fantasia 2000, picking a morning show partly because it fit best with a packed schedule, and partly because I wanted to watch with as few children as possible. Nothing against the wee ones, but I remembered how kids behaved at revivals of the original Fantasia—classical music and abstract animation are generally a recipe for disappointed and restless youngsters. Surprisingly, though, this new version of Fantasia is pretty kid-friendly, perhaps to a fault.

Walt Disney had always planned Fantasia to be a work in progress; every so often, he wanted his animators to create new segments of their wildest visions set to the classics. But Fantasia cost too much money and sold too few tickets to go into repertory. So for Fantasia 2000, Disney’s successors have hedged their bets by starting their run in the lucrative IMAX format, and by dropping everything from the first film except for the most crowd-pleasing segment, Mickey Mouse’s interpretation of ”The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.“ Apart from the opening segment of F2K—a simplistic clash of butterflies and bats set to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—the remaining pieces are decidedly plot-heavy.

In the best cases, this works to the filmmakers’ advantage. Their interpretation of Gershwin’s ”Rhapsody in Blue“—illustrated in the style of New York theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and built around an interwoven series of Thurber-esque vignettes—is both moving and evocative of its source material. There are also moments of clarity in a story about Donald Duck on Noah’s Ark set to ”Pomp and Circumstance,“ and in the final, Japanimation-style tale of nature spirits set to Stravinsky’s ”Firebird Suite.“

At other times, though, the story seems to have come first, then been yoked to the music almost as an afterthought. There’s nothing about Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, for example, that inherently suggests Hans Christian Andersen’s ”The Steadfast Tin Soldier,“ and indeed both the visual and the musical elements of that segment suffer from their awkward marriage. This happens at other times in the film as well, though usually only intermittently within segments. If nothing else, this film illustrates how important a soundtrack is to a movie—if the music isn’t thematically or rhythmically purposeful, the results can be destructive.

Mostly though, Fantasia 2000 gets the balance right, and even if it’s less purely fanciful than its predecessor, the care and love of the animators is still plainly evident. It’s a minor film, but a warm and enjoyable one.

Which is more than can be said for Titan A.E. Blow the dust off this premise: A young boy sees his father die and his world destroyed, and when he comes to adulthood, he learns that he holds the secrets to carry out his father’s legacy and defeat an evil, warlike race. Matt Damon voices the hero, and Drew Barrymore and Bill Pullman voice the other scattered humans who try to drag the reluctant savior into his role.

The voice talent is one of the major problems with Titan A.E. Barrymore and Damon sound especially monotone without their own facial expressions, and the snarky, bickering dialogue they have to voice doesn’t help matters any. There’s not really a likable character in the film—everyone is mired in attitude. Blame for that partly goes to veteran animation director Don Bluth, a hired gun on this project who has difficulty bringing cartoon humans to life. All of his characters have the same build, the same stance, and the same blank face. And though the animated format should be ideal for showing the audience new worlds and impossible situations, this story is locked down into the same grimy spaceships and dark locales that have been built cheaply on studio backlots for the past half-century. An inconsistent blend of computer and cel animation doesn’t help; the tired plot, the dull visuals, and the ear-splitting hard-rock score all are part and parcel of the film’s disappointingly limited scope.

There are moments of wonder in Titan A.E. A planet covered in glowing hydrogen bubbles is pretty cool-looking, and the hall-of-mirrors effect that takes place at an icy planet leads to a neatly realized game of cat-and-mouse between the heroes and villains. Although it’s not a bad impulse to want to make an animated film geared more to teenage boys and fantasy fans rather than kids in the single digits, this particular impulse seems to have been generated by businessmen, as opposed to the fevered imagination of an inspired creator. Fox apparently figured that it could cash in with an American version of cultish Asian Anime. Unfortunately (or appropriately), true fans of Anime and animation will see right through this wan poseur.

Conversely, animation fanatics will be in heaven watching Chicken Run, the first feature film from Nick Park and Peter Lord, whose Aardman Animations have given us several classic shorts, including Park’s much-loved Wallace and Gromit series. This new film is a riff on The Great Escape, with chickens plotting a breakout from a ruthless egg farmer who plans to turn the whole brood into pies. Just when things can’t get any worse, a cocky American rooster (well-voiced by Mel Gibson) lands in the yard and promises to teach the rebellious hens how to fly—a dubious claim that calls his ultimate motive into question.

Chicken Run follows the Aardman formula—fill the screen with charming detail while carefully laying out all the elements of a good story; then, when everything is in place, kick into high gear with breathlessly funny action sequences. At 80 minutes, Chicken Run actually indulges two such set pieces, and they lose a little impact by being divided up; also, the setup seems a little protracted. But the effort put into making each of the chickens into a distinct character is impressive, and it pays off in fervid audience interest as the climax approaches. The film is light and fun, and lingers fondly in the memory long after the final cluck.

More than anything, though, what’s distinct about Chicken Run is its look. Aardman is rooted in the art of claymation, and both Lord and Park shy away from using computers to cut corners. As a result, their film has the feel of a painstakingly hand-crafted little world, and even the occasionally jerky movements of their figures add to the personal charm. Similarly, in Fantasia 2000, as dazzling as much of the new animation is, there’s still something striking about ”The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,“ with its meticulously hand-painted style and unflinchingly gnarled images. It shows once again what a good animator can do, and what Bluth and the Titan A.E. gang fail to do: to take something with a mundane aspect and give it a life of its own.

—Noel Murray

Crash and burn

One reason film critics are derided as useless anachronisms is their carping reactions to the modern summer action blockbuster. A Jerry Bruckheimer-produced explosion-fest is met with universal scorn in the pages of America’s newspapers and magazines, then goes on to make a zillion dollars at the box office. The obvious conclusion is that the critics are hopelessly out of touch with the modern consumer, reduced to futile, doddering rants from their front porches (”In my day, we had real action movies!“) while the rest of the world proceeds to enjoy itself at the local multiplex.

So what’s a critic to do when faced with Gone in 60 Seconds, the latest Jerry Bruckheimer-produced explosion-fest about a group of car thieves charged with stealing 50 sweet rides in 24 hours? It’s obviously a dog. The dialogue is patently stupid, packed with clichéd repetition (”How deep in is he?“ ”Deep“) and overwritten Big Speeches to be made by heroes and villains. The action is—well, active, certainly, but impossible to understand because of the Bruckheimer house style of putting the camera 2 inches from the speeding car and shaking it around a lot. And the story itself is curiously humorless, despite the presence of several characters designed specifically for comic relief. But American moviegoers flocked to the box office anyway, heedless of the critics’ unanimous disdain, and propelled Gone in 60 Seconds to No. 1.

The disparity between critical opinion and public opinion is exemplified by the honesty of one radio critic, who began his review by describing the movie he constructed in his head when he first heard about the premise of Gone in 60 Seconds. What he pictured was a cool, geek-oriented deconstruction of grand theft auto, in which thieves challenge themselves to pull off the big score for the sheer thrill of it. What he got was Nicholas Cage agonizing about the impending death of his brother (Giovanni Ribisi) who idiotically got on the wrong side of a mobster-slash-amateur carpenter. Compared with the giddy fun of car chases lacking this morbid subtext, Gone in 60 Seconds is even more of a stiff than it is on its own terms.

Is it fair for critics to trash real movies because they don’t live up to the movies in our heads? One thinks back to the memorable exchanges between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the subject. Siskel would often describe where he wanted a particular movie to go, in order to disparage where it had actually gone, while Ebert would accuse him of not reviewing the film that got made. Ebert’s streak of populism often allied him with the ”ordinary filmgoer,“ who (he presumes) doesn’t go into movies hoping the experience will approach Le Samourai or even The French Connection.

But if that’s true—if the ”ordinary filmgoer“ is more willing to accept action films on their own terms rather than comparing them to ideal models—then surely it’s the critic’s job to point out how much better the film could have been by referring to successful precursors. If nothing else, that means saying: ”If you liked Gone in 60 Seconds, you’ve gotta rent Bullitt within the next hour.“ Critics may have high standards even for light entertainment, but two facts get in the way of those who would dismiss them as out of touch. First, there’s no reason why light entertainment can’t rock. It doesn’t cost the filmmakers squat to demand a good script rather than a crappy one, and it doesn’t cost the production company any more to do it right, especially when the movie’s budget approaches seven zeroes. And second, most critics love to be entertained and therefore can’t stand it when an opportunity for entertainment is lost. We don’t want you to settle for less and mistake it for contentment.

An ”ordinary filmgoer“ had this to say about Gone in 60 Seconds on the Internet: ”If this remake of the movie lives up to the original [1974, H.B. Halicki], it will be an excellent movie to see again and again.“ It doesn’t. Go rent the original. Your inner critic will thank you.

—Donna Bowman

Talkin' 'bout Shaft

Pauline Kael once pegged The Big Sleep as the first movie that took the incidental pleasures of detective movies and made them the main focus. The new Shaft does the same thing: It fetishizes everything that was memorable about the 1971 original, almost none of which had to do with the central plot. Nobody recalls the main story about the search for a Harlem gangster’s kidnapped daughter; all anyone remembers is the tough talk, the slamming score, and Richard Roundtree owning the streets in his sharp leather coat. Thus the new movie kicks off with a credit sequence that’s a blizzard of Shaft iconography: guns, leather, strobe-lit sex. The audience is on the movie’s side even before then, from the pre-credit wacketa-wacketa of Isaac Hayes’ immortal theme.

With this fanfare preceding his entrance, all Samuel L. Jackson has to do is show up in the Shaft jacket and the role is his. Fortunately, the jacket fits. As an actor, Jackson can do a lot more than talk trash and kick ass, but the movie is tailored to those specialities—maybe even too much so. With his suave cool and laser-sight stare, he’s never less than compulsively watchable, but he fills the contours of the role so perfectly that he never gets to surprise us. That leaves Jeffrey Wright to walk off with the movie as his flashy nemesis Peoples Hernandez, a Dominican drug dealer with a banana-rum accent and an operatic temper.

That said, it’s tough for an actor to fill a role that’s been inflated by memory and legend into a pop-culture signifier. In 1971, the character of John Shaft was more than just a black James Bond figure; he was maybe the first black hero of a mainstream studio movie who didn’t give a damn what white folks thought about him. The movie had a similar attitude toward white audiences, but that didn’t stop every white kid on my fourth-grade playground from wanting to be John Shaft when the movie played on TV.

The new Shaft is much more calculated to please a ”crossover“ audience, meaning that the lead character is everything and its opposite. Instead of a private dick on the law’s outer fringes, he’s now a cop fed up with the system, and the heavily doctored script (credited to Richard Price, Shane Salerno, and director John Singleton) has to go through some pretty tortuous convolutions to make him an outsider.

As much as action movies have changed in the past 30 years, the poky, plot-heavy 1971 Shaft wouldn’t have a prayer in today’s marketplace. Yet what’s striking about it today is its period flavor and its strong sense of locale—exactly what’s missing from souped-up contemporary clunkers like Gone in 60 Seconds. Luckily, Singleton has more in common with the original’s Gordon Parks than with the Bruckheimer acolytes running (ruining) current action cinema. Singleton plays up the gritty ’70s cop-show look and the realistic locations, and he keeps the pace relaxed enough to savor the pungent dialogue, the fine performances, and the sense of community. His characters all seem to have lives.

The movie does bog down toward the end in dumb shoot-outs, and the last scene peters out drably, as if the actors were waiting for a freeze-frame to put them out of their misery. Despite its flaws, though, the new Shaft is the movie that plays in viewers’ minds when they fondly recall the original. On to Shaft’s Big Score.

—Jim Ridley

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