ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.8 - NOVEMBER 1999
Cartoon Movies: Acting Their Age?
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At extremis, subversion means doing to the animated film what Scream did to genre horror: pop-deconstruction. For a paradigm case, one need go no further (and it's hard to see how one could) than South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. From its opening parody of Beauty and the Beast's 'Little Town' number (the first in a series of merciless spoofs, reaching near-genius heights with Satan's soulful 'Up There'), the film recursively mocks the conventions and rules of animation through sick'n'twisted humour, wildly improvised situations and a conviction that anything indeed goes. Such naughtiness is familiar enough from festivals -- one need only mention Spike and Mike's programmes -- but South Park was the first mainstream feature to sustain material at such a pitch. (While critics were unsure whether the joke ran thin over 80 minutes, legions of South Park addicts had no such doubts.)
By the time Toy Story's CGI successor A Bug's Life was released, it seemed comparatively straight against DreamWork's mischievous Antz. Antz: Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures. TM & © 1998 DreamWorks LLC. A Bug's Life: © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.
At a more moderate level, the 'subversive' trend has produced the two-level joke film, laden with puns and in-jokes for older viewers. Roger Rabbit, Aladdin, Toy Story and Hercules are the obvious Disney-connected cases, though by the time Toy Story's CGI successor A Bug's Life was released, it seemed comparatively straight against DreamWork's mischievous Antz. Most of these films have been successful; the question is whether they represent any substantial advance in content, or just a cynical way to widen the demographics. There are fears the gags preclude real story-telling; is 'Z' a well-sketched character, or just Woody Allen with a mask? Similarly, while it may be cool to apply Marxist and Kafka-esque references to a film about an anthill, they seem rather a cheat given the standard 'geek gets the princess' happy ending.
Are the genie's impersonations in Aladdin and the King of Thieves a case of animation leeching off live-action in the worst way?
© Disney Enterprises.
Even a confirmed Disneyphile like John Grant, author of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters, seemed concerned where the trend could lead. Reviewing the direct-to-vid Aladdin and the King of Thieves, he wrote: "Less attractive, among the Genie's many acts of shapeshifting, are his performances as Woody Allen, Mrs. Doubtfire, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Albert Einstein and Elvis Presley; it is tiresome of the moviemakers to have thought such stale tricks would automatically make us laugh. Most kids watching the movie wouldn't know who was being parodied; most adults probably feel patronised. This is cheap humour." [The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters (3rd edition), John Grant, 1998, Hyperion, p380.] It could also be seen as animation leeching off live-action in the worst way, using flesh-and-blood stars' personae to give animation films a semblance of live-action cool.
Subversion, then, is a possible way forward for animation features, but as with the 'pseudo-live-action' option, its long-term prospects are dubious. It's especially disheartening when one considers that spoofery and subversion have spelled the death-knell for many popular storytelling modes in the past, from Gothic through to Western. Isn't there any better option for the maturing animation film?
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