Animation: An Extraordinary Medium in All Its Forms
This past fall, Disney/Pixar released a special stereoscopic version of the groundbreaking computer-generated animated films Toy Story and Toy Story 2, taking us back in time to when CGI was in its infancy (see “Stereo Twice Over,” October 2009). We were re-introduced to Buzz, Woody, and the toy gang—the first characters to star in an all-CG feature. Despite being modeled and animated in 3D, the characters made their theater debut in 2D. Nevertheless, the event, just 14 short years ago, was a pinnacle in animation and moviemaking. Even when the sequel continued to break boundaries in animation four years later, this new medium never stopped intriguing moviegoers. They were drawn to CGI just like moths to the flame (though with a much happier ending). And what was initially unique turf for Pixar soon became the domain of other studios creating full-length CG movies. It may have taken others, including PDI/DreamWorks, a bit longer to establish themselves in this arena, but soon DreamWorks’ Shrek zipped to second place in the top-10 animated movies of all time, becoming the first to break into the Disney/Pixar stronghold. (Blue Sky/Fox would also do so with Ice Age.)
It hasn’t taken long for us to equate animated films with CGI. In the minds of many, the two are synonymous. In 2009, we were entertained by a number of colorful, slick, funny, and endearing computer-generated movies. Yet, this time, a new genre began to flex its box-office muscle: stereoscopic 3D, meant to enhance, not replace, CGI. In addition to enjoying the antics of Buzz and Woody in stereo (in anticipation of the 3D release of Toy Story 3), we were captivated by monsters and aliens, carried away by an older gentleman and an eager scout, warmed by the antics of a prehistoric lemur, saber-toothed tiger, neurotic squirrel, and woolly mammoth, and satisfied with the meal served up on a cloudy day—all in CGI, and all in three dimensions. While audiences could opt to watch these instant hits in 2D, the 3D versions brought them to life as never before. No gags, just better storytelling.
Without question, CGI—or better yet, CGI with stereo—is here to stay. Some, though, mourned the loss of traditional animation, which had waned as CGI’s star rose. So, what a treat it was when a handful of traditionally animated films not only arrived, but thrived, at the box office. Stop-motion Coraline (which, incidentally, is in stereo, with a sprinkling of CG effects) and the newly released Fantastic Mr. Fox illustrate that the painstaking work of moving beautifully crafted puppets and props frame by frame is still deeply appreciated. In December, Walt Disney Animation also gave us a tasty treat, releasing the hand-drawn animated film The Princess and the Frog, marking a return to this classic style made famous by Disney for decades. Ironically, the film is executive-produced by none other than John Lasseter, director of the Pixar CGI hits Cars, Toy Story, and others. But then, if you dig deep, there is less irony to this than first thought. Lasseter had not lost sight of the fact that “traditional handcrafted animation had not lost its value as either art or entertainment.”
As long as the essential ingredients are present in an animated film—compelling characters, rich scenery, and amazing storytelling—it will appeal to audiences, no matter the genre. There have been many successful CG films, and some that were hardly memorable. The same holds true for traditional 2D animated movies and those using stop motion. We were just lucky enough in the past 12 months to have been treated to the best that animation of all kinds have to offer.
Which animated feature film from 2009 is your favorite? Blog about it at cgw.com.