When a hundred million ton ocean liner changes heading, the movement is hardly noticeable to the passengers partying in the ship’s ballroom. The animation industry’s flagship turned 90 degrees when Rango won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, and many of those partying will not realize the implications until they wake up with the mother of all hangovers.
The U.S. based animation studios do not make films for adults, and Rango signals an evolutionary shift. I am not a big fan of the mega-budget, assembly-line movies designed “for the entire family”, but the Hollywood studios continue making these films because they have become victims of their own success. They are locked into spending way too much money on a single feature film, and they have painted themselves into a competitive corner by not making films specifically for adults while continuing to make films for kids. It is a strategy flaw that is now going to cost them dearly because there is a large audience for adult animation. Significantly, Chico and Rita, which was also nominated this year, is also for adults. Bottom line: DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar are not prepared to serve the adult market, a self-inflicted situation that creates immense opportunities for new film makers.
The reason the studios are in this bind is that the animation industry did not go through the same transitions as did the live action industry in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. That was when Method trained actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean arrived on the scene and movies began burrowing more deeply into the human psyche. Animated feature films even today stand on Walt Disney’s shoulders, and he created animation as a silent film thing. Mickey Mouse arrived as a silent film star. Turn off the sound on this YouTube excerpt from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the silent film acting style is inescapable.
Turn the sound off on this clip from Toy Story and the acting style is still like that in silent films.
Recent features such as How to Train Your Dragon display attempts to capture a more nuanced acting style, but the producers and directors do not really trust it, and so performances tend to be neither fish nor fowl. The Carl and Ellie montage in Up successfully uses a more naturalistic performance style:
But when the story moves to Paradise Valley, we are back with silent films again:
Now look at this clip from Rango. Even when the action gets physically zany, the acting style remains consistently realistic.
As widely reported in the press, director Gore Verbinski had zero experience in animation when he directed Rango. He would have been unable to make a Pixar kind of movie even if he had wanted to. And so he made his movie the way that made the most sense to him. His entire production model was based on live-action and, as we can see, it works just fine. Rango is not a classic movie for a lot of reasons – too long, unnecessary prologue, sluggish resolution – but make no mistake: It is an extremely important film for the industry. The big Hollywood animation studios have done what they are going to do, and they are ill prepared for what is to come. Rango points the way.