Friday, March 26, 2010

Converging on Alice

So here I am, brand new blog all about animation, and the first thing I want to talk about isn’t even animated. Take that as you may.

Seriously, though, there is a purpose, because something very interesting has been going on in the last few years, as both special effects and computer animation have made leaps and bounds: the convergence of live action and animation. Two recent films (both, coincidentally, in 3D) showcase the growing convergence: James Cameron’s Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I haven’t actually seen Avatar, so I can’t speak too much about it, but I do have to say it does an excellent job of looking not animated at all, at least in trailers. Which would be why I didn’t bother to see it – what’s the point of animation if it isn’t any different from live action? One of the great joys of animation is that, better than any other medium, it can play with our conception of reality: animation is more direct and visceral than a book, more mobile and, well, animated than a painting, and able to depict images that would be impossible for live action. Even comic books, animation’s closest cousin, are a series of static vignettes arranged in sequence, unable to incorporate tone of voice, music, and motion into the stories they tell and the images they create. Avatar, as near as I can tell, does none of this. The Na’vi are less alien than Marvin the Martian, let alone Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Angels. The images in the trailer are not particularly different from any other sci-fi* action blockbuster of the last few years, a sadly missed opportunity to do something genuinely different.

Alice takes the opposite side: a live-action film that incorporates animation to do impossible things. (Six of them before breakfast, of course – a line sadly butchered into feel-good mantra pap in the film.) The Red Queen is the best example in the film: Helena Bonham Carter’s face on a bulbously overgrown head, attached to a tiny, childlike body. Clearly, a great deal of computer animation had to be used to create the character; nonetheless, every time she speaks, every time she emotes, it is clearly the expressions, the gesture, the face of a real actress.

The film takes several opportunities to do what, until a few years ago, was the sole province of a fully animated work. Perhaps the best example is Johnny Depp’s dance near the end, which involves his body contorting in strange ways and his head spinning like a top. The routine resembles nothing so much as a Tex Avery character after eating spicy food – all it’s missing is the steam erupting from Depp’s ears. Much of Burton’s live action filmography has been cartoon-like – the titular Beetlejuice and the Penguin in Batman Returns come immediately to mind – but it is only now, with the technology of the 2000s, that he can completely fuse live action and animation, fulfilling his penchant for dark, yet joyful, grotesqueries. In doing so, he gives us what may one day be remembered as the first true live-action cartoon.

Of course, between the trailer and the source material, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World seems set to take the live-action cartoon even further. We'll revisit this topic when it comes out in a few months.

*This term sometimes arouses some rancor, so let me explain my use of it: Science fiction is a genre of literature. If it must be abbreviated, the correct term is “SF.” Very, very rarely some other medium will actually attempt true science fiction. Most works in other media, however, simply take some of the superficial elements of science fiction (spaceships, aliens, explosions) while ignoring its stylistic and thematic tropes; for these I reserve the term sci-fi. Most sci-fi films are actually fantasies, and of course they vary wildly in quality, from the execrable Plan 9 from Outer Space to the excellent Star Trek (the 2009 film).


  1. Congratulations on the birth your brand new baby blog.

    You raise an interesting point, but I'd appreciate more elaboration. For example, you've noted a trend: what do you think it implies?

    As an animation lover, I look at this trend with some dismay. Animation is already looked down upon by some segments; now that it's losing its one trump card, I expect that traditional 100% animated features will go down the wayside, and we'll likely never see something like "The Secret of NIMH", "The Last Unicorn" or "The Great Mouse Detective" again.

    Which isn't to say that this hybrid of animation and live-action doesn't have its place. It did wonders for "Speed Racer", and given the right material--i.e.: "not 'Avatar'"--it could make for a smashing film or series. But I want my traditional-animation "Avatar: The Last Airbender" movie as well.

  2. Thanks, Ian. As I said, I plan to revisit this trend with Scott Pilgrim.

    My thoughts on the rest of your comments are too long for a comment; I'm going to make a post about it.