In this month's column, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman ties up some summer loose ends concerning Transformers, Ratatouille, Nahoul the bee and the live-action Jonny Quest project.
Another summer comes to a close, and with it, my eighth year at AWN. Rather than expound at length on a single subject, I would like instead to share with you some of my observations during this long, very hot summer. In many ways, this was a notable time for animated movies, TV shows, and other cultural events related to animation. Some were good, some were bad, but all were of interest. Let's take a moment from those waning beach days, fantasy football drafts and end-of-summer hookups. Turn down the Modest Mouse and Amy Winehouse (or, if you are so inclined, Queens of the Stone Age), and share some perspective on animation-related events from the soon-to-be-late summer of 2007.
The Transformers Movie
I must admit, I never understood or liked this animated series. Not because it was aimed at young boys, because I've enjoyed some series that were. Not because the Transformers were a third-rate version of superior giant robot anime; some of our animated shows would be great if they were fourth-rate versions of anime. Not because they were based on toys; good writing and animation can, if inspired, supersede a cartoon's corporate origin. Thundercats very nearly pulled this off. No, it comes down to something far simpler, like the premise.
Here we have two camps of robots, one unmistakably good and one irredeemably evil. One must think that they were crafted somehow, by somebody. That somebody possessed awesome intellect and talent. That somebody perfected artificial intelligence and then topped it by creating machines that could reconfigure themselves into various combat systems without disturbing a central power core or breaking any vital components from the previous configuration. Finally, that somebody placed social instincts into these awesome constructs. Who knows what sort of civilization might have been possible, given the union between those mighty minds and their mechanized helpmates?
What do we get instead? An overblown tribal feud in which these magnificent marvels smack the carburetors out of each other until the screen flows black with 10W40. Yes, robots whose superior, independently functioning minds cannot produce dialogue above the level of a poorly written comic book. Eons of nonstop fighting. Cheesy names like Grapple, Red Alert, and Ironhide. That's what we got. How can we ever expect kids to grow up and appreciate great science fiction?
Well, after various permutations and spinoffs, including robot animals as feisty as any Transformers could be, we got the live-action CGI movie in which lots of things got blown up continuously while the rowdy robots showed their smackdown stuff, recorded at what seemed to be ten million decibels. Kids cheered. Critics...ah...didn't hate it...Most importantly, $300,000,000 rolled into Paramount and DreamWorks, and it's easy to see that II is in the works, oh yas. So...who needs the sort of civilization that might have been possible given the union, etc.? Hell, just let those 'bots jack each other up. Me, I think I'll give it a pass.
I loved the movie, yes I did. Many things impressed me, and although there were some narrative inconsistencies, Brad Bird comes out of this with head held high and reputation enhanced. What struck me the most, however, was the upward spiral of synergy between CGI animators and voice artists in this film. As animated characters become increasingly complex and expressive, they are capable of subtleties in their acting that older, 2D characters were rarely capable of. Although character acting goes back to the 1930s, many character designs were too limited to carry well-drawn emotions and facial expressions. Mouth movements had their limitations as well. In some studios, notably UPA, none of this even mattered much.
Now it seemingly matters more than ever. CGI characters must meet every demand that the voice artists throw at them, and throw back a few twists of their own. And when the characters are humanoid, the ante goes up even further. (This is one the factors, perhaps a subconscious one, that made The Incredibles such an outstanding film). Remy the rat shares extensive screen time with people, from his gastronomic alter ego Linguine to the jolly chef Gasteau, and with other human characters such as Collette, Skinner, and Anton Ego. Ratatouille, among other things, proves that in future CGI films acting will have to be more convincing than ever.
In this particular film, one can see the process being refined. There is, for example, wonderful coordination between Janeane Garafalo as Collette Tatou and the animators who put the character on screen in the scene where Collette disses her unwelcome "protege." Dialogue, emotion, and facial expression merge perfectly in this well-paced scene. This is as close to acting as CGI has come thus far. Yet, the characters still retain a sense of caricature, thus avoiding the eerie depictions seen in The Polar Express, or the unreal simulacrums of Final Fantasy.
On the other hand, there is a subtle disconnect between voice artist and animator in the scene where Linguni attempts to give an inspirational speech to his less-than-enthusiastic staff on the eve of Anton Ego's dreaded visit to Gasteau's. The acting does not quite seem to match the fumbling desperation expressed by Lou Romano. Romano's command of inflection here appears to overwhelm the actions and expressions of the animated character on screen. No doubt in my mind, however, that the synergy will continue to grow until Pixar, or another skilled production studio, is presenting acting, with humanoid characters, that is as convincing as any done in a live-action film. Stay tuned.
Oh, Bee Serious
A brief follow-up to last month's column: Farfour the mouse may be dead, but the jihad goes on. Replacing the martyred rodent is Nahoul the bee, aka some Hamas actor suspended from a wire in the Al-Asqa studio. This six-foot refugee from a Palestinian apiary claims to be Farfour's cousin (genetic engineering is apparently very advanced in Gaza) and vows to continue on "the path of heroism, the path of martyrdom, the path of jihad warriors." Nahoul is more than a host for cartoons or a pitchman for chocolate-flavored falafel; he swears "revenge on the enemies of Allah, the murderers of the prophets."
These tiresome, blood-soaked tirades, designed to turn children into vessels of living hate, are not worthy even of Hamas. Kids should hate innocuous things, like broccoli, boy bands, and lousy Wii games, not other human beings. To paraphrase Pink Floyd: "Hey! Mullah! Leave those kids alone!" As nasty as Internet bullying and sniping on MySpace can get, at least kids aren't turned into living minesweepers (as in the Iran-Iraq war), and they don't self-detonate in a crowded marketplace full of innocents.
Enough is enough. Jihadists, go to the negotiating table. Work through diplomats. Teach, and strive towards, peace with the other five billion inhabitants of the planet, and hope that they are willing to do the same, for once in our bloody mutual histories. Forget these stupid children's mascots and their onerous, deadly exhortations. A world full of martyred corpses is a sadder world, not a better world. No mouse, bee, camel, or aardvark will ever make a dead child -- or nation -- look more appealing.
Quest for Failure
My mother didn't name me Cassandra, and I'm rather glad for it. However, I have been acting much like her over the past decade. Cassandra, it will be recalled, was an unfortunate lass of ancient myth who was blessed with the power of prophecy, but was also cursed, since it was fated that no one would ever believe her. Cassandra was thus doomed to stand by and watch a number of train wrecks happen despite her dire warnings.
Well, for the better part of a decade I have been cautioning studios to stop accepting scripts that turn animated series into live-action films. Despite their woeful track records and the deadly reviews that these films draw, they make them again and again. True, there were one or two that made at least their costs back with a few shekels to spare, but on the whole there have been more Fat Alberts than George of the Jungles.
There are always the same problems: scripts done by inexperienced writers that have barely worked in animation (if at all), directors who don't know the difference between live-action and animated filmic conventions (and don't much care), and a cartoon subject that may be the fave of the fanboy writer, but would struggle mightily to relate to general audiences as a live-action feature. Then, there's the problem of making the actors look and behave like their animated counterparts, but I've covered this ground before.
Nobody learns from Josie and the Pussycats or The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, do they? Nobody gets the lessons of Thunderbirds are Go! or Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. These movies are putrid. They don't work. They don't have an audience. They...oh, never mind, it's Jonny Quest's turn. Earlier this month Warner Bros. announced production of a Jonny Quest live-action film. Let's go through the drill again, shall we?
The script is being written by Dan Mazeau, who has sold exactly one (spec) script to Nickelodeon. Producing are Adrian Askarieh and Dan Alter. They have an upcoming movie, Hitman, based on a video game. In 2008, they have a feature lined up based on a comic book (Hack/Slash). In 2009, they have a deal for another movie based on both (Spy Hunter). Not a single animation credit in the bunch. I realize that everyone has to start somewhere, but does this really surprise you?
Not that Jonny Quest is really feature material anyway. Despite an infusion of high comic-book style by Doug Wildey, the show had difficulty drawing an audience. The original series, although one of the best of its kind, ran for only 26 episodes from 1964 to 1965. Much of the content was exciting and action-packed, but it would not pass muster with today's multicultural, anti-imperialist sensibilities.
The series did not show up for another 21 years, when a syndicated version was featured under the title of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. This updated telling lasted for half as long as the original. Finally, in 1996, Cartoon Network aired The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, which lasted until, oh, 1997 (although, technically, there was two seasons' worth of material). Lest we forget, Richard and Laura Schuler Donner were signed up to make a Jonny Quest movie for Tribeca Prods. in 1994. It didn't happen. Whatever this show's strengths and weaknesses may have been, it was never as popular as we seem to remember it was.
That's what the producers don't get: Jonny Quest is an icon, an idealized memory of golden childhood, a name to be invoked in those long discussions about cartoons in the halcyon days of youth. "Jonny Quest" (the ideal, rather than the show), is a cherished symbol of cartoons when they were good, clean fun, and Jonny Quest was a corker of an adventure show besides.
The reality is, the show was never a ratings hit and had a spotty track record in several different incarnations. Jonny Quest was certainly Hanna-Barbera's best effort in the action-adventure genre, and was a very good cartoon in its day. That doesn't mean the material would make a great movie. Askarieh, on the other hand, envisions an entire film franchise.
Why? Because the series spawned a number of direct-to-video and made-for-TV movies (that were, incidentally, greatly inconsistent with the source material)? Here's my tip: Forget about it. I doubt this will work. Take your experience and design an action-packed Jonny Quest video game. That's what you do best, and that would most likely sell better.
I'd rather see a feature film showcasing that side-splitting homage to the Quest legacy, The Venture Brothers. That show's creator, Chris McCullock, at least worked as a head writer on another great series, The Tick, and thus has more animation experience than the Jonny Quest movie team combined. He could give us a feature film worth the money, and it would be animated, too.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.