Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Resisting the Urge to Compare Walt Disney to the Ayatollah

One reviewer said of the recent French film, "Persepolis" that it was sad it took an animated film to honestly convey Iran's recent history. This statement left me wondering if any other artistic medium is treated with such condescension these days, much less one that was so undeserving of it. Then again, that question seems silly when one skims the glowing reviews for Pixar's latest film, "Wall-E." That film has plenty to say, even if it does so within the bounds of the G rating. So where does animation stand in this country? In short, at the head of the kids' table.

Obviously, that one aforementioned review is not necessarily indicative of our culture's views on animation as whole. (The review is from highdefdigest.com, an obscure source, to say the least.) The indicators, however, of our low opinion of animation are everywhere. All you have to do is look at the dearth of primetime animated television, or the Oscars' relegation of animation to its own category -- a move that simultaneously ensured that animated films would be recognized each year, and that they would never again get a shot at other, more prestigious awards like Best Picture. Animation is clearly second-class filmmaking in the general public's opinion. So, why is it that, looking back on the first half of this year, two of the best new films I've seen are animated?

Well, there isn't one, single answer to that question. Pixar's "Wall-E," however, is a good case study in the American school of animation. When I walked out of the film, I was struggling not to grin, feeling quite moved, and thinking that it was the best film I've seen in a while -- three rare occurrences for me, to be sure. On the ride home, that feeling faded, and by the time I had reached my destination, I realized that I had little else to say about it. "Wall-E" starts out sporting a shocking attribute: silence. There is very little dialogue in the first third of director, Andrew Stanton's the film. This is the sign of a filmmaker that is confident in both his material and his vision. His confidence is not misplaced, either. I defy you not to fall in love with the eponymous character and his touching story.

Thing is, you've probably heard similar praise given to any number of Disney movies (apart from the use of silence). In the quality of its direction and the sharpness of its satire, "Wall-E" easily outclasses anything Disney proper has done in decades. But, that's not saying much. Once the film's ideas on our mistreatment of our planet, as well as our own bodies, solidify, there's very little to parse here. There is something to be said about the fact that a robot is the only truly human character in the film, but this is merely an undertone -- something on which a more ambitious film would have followed through. (Perhaps by way of an ending that isn't so neat as this one's.) Ultimately, "Wall-E" is still clean, family-oriented entertainment that puts accessibility before ambition.

Before I move on, I have to reiterate that "Wall-E" is one of the best movies made so far this year. There is absolutely NO reason to pass up an opportunity to see this film. Let me explain, however, why France's "Persepolis" is even more deserving of your attention.

When I walked out of "Persepolis," I wasn't quite so sure what to feel. Graphic novelist, Marjane Satrapi's story about her growth from a troublemaking Iranian girl to a, well, troublemaking Iranian woman is long, winding and, overall, exhausting. It isn't the kind of film that you walk out of feeling fulfilled -- not on the first viewing, at least. The complexity and sensitivity of its subject matter is self-evident, but nevertheless could have been made easier to swallow. Thankfully, Satrapi and co-writer/director, Vincent Paronnaud understood that doing so would have made the film utterly pointless. Iran has not changed a great deal in the years since Satrapi's youth, and time has not made this any easier for her to grapple with.

While all of this means that the screenplay gives its audience much more credit than the majority of American animation, I must not ignore the animation itself. The film stays very faithful to the visual style of her graphic novels, and is all the more breathtaking for it. The lack of color and extensive use of clean lines creates a bold look that never lets you forget you're watching animation, but only in the best way possible. Pixar's artistic prowess is not to be understated, but their films' technical mastery has always served create to create something ostensibly realistic. (There is even fleeting use of live action actors in "Wall-E.") "Persepolis" uses its inescapable unreality to convey the emotional truths behind the facts. In a sense, this is what all art is meant to do. Who, after all, walks away from "Casablanca" or "The Godfather" saying, "That was so realistic!"?

I was saddened to watch Pixar's previous film, "Ratatouille" beat "Persepolis" for last year's Best Animated Feature award. ("Persepolis" was entered into last year's Oscars, but widely released months later.) "Ratatouille" was, again, by no stretch of the imagination a bad film, but shared many of the flaws "Wall-E" suffers from (and more). This shows that Americans are still not quite ready to embrace animation as the boundless, unexplored creative palate that it is. The major studios continue to crank out computer animated pictures aimed at preschoolers and their overworked parents -- most paling in comparison to even Pixar's work. The burgeoning popularity of "Persepolis" in the States, however, provides hope for the future. Maybe, one day, we'll look back and see that little Marjane wasn't only calling for a political revolution, but a creative one, as well.


Matthew said...

Disney used to make such good films, and then they went to Hell. Thank God for the Japanese animators.

Have you seen Voices from a Distant Star? That's supposed to be one of the best pieces of animation of the past 20 years.

In other animation news, iTunes now has Batman: The Animated Series available for download? Ever watched that show? There are some REALLY good episodes, and even the weaker ones have their virtues.


Matthew Hollis-Lima said...

Yeah, I resisted the urge to get on my anime soapbox here. I really do have to check out "Voices," though.

As for the 90's Batman animation, it really has gone unopposed as the best film/TV incarnation of a major comic book... until Chris Nolan stepped up to the plate, that is. My views on the new film are forthcoming, obviously.