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The Frog and the Goldfish: A Tale of Two Princesses

It's been an interesting time for animation this spring in cinemas. Two new features are competing for audience attention, Ponyo from Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation Studio's latest The Princess and the Frog. Their parallel release is further energised by the way they promote traditional drawn animation.

Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo

It's been an interesting time for feature animation this spring. Two new features are competing for audience attention, Ponyo from Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation Studio's latest The Princess and the Frog. Their parallel release is further energised by the way they promote traditional drawn animation. This emphasis is particularly felt in the wake of Avatar, James Cameron's computer animated epic. In our first feature article, Parallax compares the Goldfish and the Frog, and asks, what makes a good drawn feature in 2010?

New Directions

Hayao Miyazaki's latest movie Ponyo was released just recently here in the UK, at the very end of a year long programme of staggered launches. For those of us that have been patiently waiting, it's been an infuriating few months. Resisting the temptation to import the blu ray, we've held out. As a consequence, Ponyo's release here coincides with Disney's latest feature, The Princess and the Frog. Advertised as a return to hand-drawn animated filmmaking, under the auspices of Executive Producer John Lasseter, Princess has had a relatively sedate promotional campaign here in the UK dominated by cinema commercials. Naturally, the same is true of Ponyo, since the Disney/Studio Ghibli collaboration hasn't yet cracked the promotional nut here in Europe. In both cases, it's the pedigree of the studio that draws audiences.

In many of the interviews surrounding Princess, directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements met a barrage of questions about the recently revived 2D production processes behind the feature. This hasnt necessarily been a problem, since their responses have naturally focussed on Princess as a come-back movie for Disney Animation Studios as a traditional drawn animation outfit. This ambition echoes another heard 20 years ago, when the Musker and Clements team helmed Disney's The Little Mermaid, the film to resurrect the animated feature film -- which drew a line under the trouble productions of the 1980s.

With Ponyo, director Hayao Miyazaki has similiarly reinstated a focus on traditional animation, choosing to explicitly handle all effects animation, background components and vehicles in the manner he used some 20 years ago, prior to the incorporation of CG elements into their workflow during the production of Princess Mononoke (1997). Miyazaki had been dissatisfied by the impact of computer animation of the look and feel of his work, and also on the production pipeline of his studio. With typical intensity, Hayao Miyazaki also personally took charge of the script and storyboard for the entire feature. 

For animation lovers, this winter has really been about one cinematic event, Avatar. In many ways the far-reaching ambition of James Cameron's computer-animated fairy tale sets the context for our two 2D princesses. One gets the feeling that audiences consider traditional drawn animation, and actively debate it, with greater enthusiasm when it sits discreetly among the successive waves of 'CG-3D' feature production. We will never see numerous traditional drawn animated features jostling for audiences; but perhaps what we have right now -- a majority of computer animated features, a minority of drawn animated features -- is a win both for drawn animation, and for the medium as a whole. What we've seen in recent years is remarkable in many ways, the dominance of the box office calendar by animated features and effects-led action films that are wholesale indebted to the discipline of animation.      

Rethinking Tradition

Last August Scott Thill over at WIRED proclaimed that 'Simple Artistry Trumps CGI in Miyazaki's Ponyo'. It's a well worn notion, of drawn animation as traditional and simple, and computer animation as contemporary and complex. And yet the idea of drawn animation as 'simple' will no doubt raise a smile among those who have actively attempted to master drawing for animation. Indeed, the difficulty of achieving technical skill, and the expense of hand-drawn animation contribute to its precarious position as a viable production method. One of the dilemmas that comes from seeing drawn animation only as the 'other' of computer animation is that is succumbs to being positioned as old, a historic medium only suitable for the retelling of familiar stories, characterised by a simplicity and predictability.

Here in the UK, Miyazaki's features were screened in the 1980s on BBC2, and many in the animation community recall a distant memory of seeing Castle in the Sky (broadcast as 'The Floating Island of Laputa'), late at night. Since that time, his works were actively sought after on the import and pirate market, until relatively recently, when the Disney rereleases of his early work, alongside the global cinema release of his most recent features, have established his films in the Western imagination. The work of Hayao Miyazaki engages us precisely because it resists the pigeon-holing of drawn animation as the 'other' of computer animation -- not least because many of his best known works precede the arrival of computer animated features.

The Disney Company has been the progenitor of much of the computer animation talent we see today, from personnel at Pixar and Dreamworks to the development of cutting edge technology and processes. The Pixar Animation Studios embody computer animated feature production at its most refined, and are subsidiary of Disney. And yet Disney Animation Studios own efforts at computer animated feature making, such as Dinosaur (2000) were ham-strung at the box-office by competition with Pixar's brand and the expectations of 'tradition' that surround Disney badged production. And so the relationship between drawn and computer animation works in the opposite direction, impeding computer animation when it comes from a studio whose legacy centres on drawn animation output. For these reasons, The Princess and the Frog has to work overtime to distinguish itself, as a drawn animated feature, and as a Disney Animation Studios production. It pushes a progressive cultural move (Tanisha the african-american) and the politics of New Orleans the city, while attempting to build a bridge to the past and rekindle Disney animation, characterisation and storytelling. No mean feat for any studio, and ultimately the film struggles. 

The Frog and the Goldfish

From the outset, Princess is going for the jugular, pushing complex animated movement to the forefront of the scene. Tanisha, our eponymous frog princess, is seen juggling falling crockery, arms and legs flailing. This sort of complex action is a staple of the Disney feature film, and while it communicates 'animatedness' to an audience, one is often left wondering when the scenes will drive the story forward and deepen our appreciation of the character. Louis the alligator, who drives the core comedy of the story, is likewise animated with intense flair. The character deliberately goes off-model to explore dynamic stretches and poses, and to enhance our appreciation of the giant goon as a loveable cuddly oaf.

Nonetheless these sequences seem to operate as soliloquies intended to elicit laughs from a young audience, rather than bringing together characters or driving forward the plot. The superfluous nature of these hand-animated showpieces is epitomised in the sequence involving three dim-witted hunters as they attempt to catch the frog. While this slapstick sequence showcases the precision and fluidity of Disney animation, it fails to integrate with the rest of the story, and falls short of the functional power of the shark chase in The Little Mermaid or the wilderbeest charge in The Lion King, which are marvels of animation innovation, but also fundamentally story devices, productively displacing the hero and adding momentum to the action.

Louis the screwball alligator from The Princess and the Frog

Given that both Disney and Ghibli have gone on record as saying these two films are to a greater or lesser extent 'about' traditional drawn animation, one cannot help but compare the approach of Princess with that of Ponyo. From the outset there is a palpable difference between what Ponyo is trying to achieve through animation. First and foremost, before we consider animation technique, we should talk about shot construction. Having watched Miyazaki's features many times over the years, one becomes accustomed to the richness with which the story is driven forward on a number of levels. However, watching Ponyo immediately after Princess, the power of composition in Miyazaki's work is driven home.

At regular intervals, the camera assumes a distance from the action, and incorporates a large amount of contextual background. After a few minutes, this strategy gives us a strong sense of the geography of Sosuke and Ponyo's world. Sosuke's house, the beach, the sea, the town, the coast road -- our imagination is furnished with a strong sense of place. Much of the first half of the film is dedicated to having us watch with curiosity the routine of this family and community. The animation centres on observation and communication rather than performance. As Sosuke delicately paces across the rocks carrying his pail full of water, we feel every step, because the animator's priority has been to communicate this truth. Emotional communication through observation comes first because ultimately those timid steps deepen our appreciation of the character and plot. The small observation of gestures add a low level tempo to the storytelling.

Ponyo runs along the crest of a magical tsunami

In this way, contrasting large animated effects sequences -- such as the magical tsunami -- have a real impact, because they add scale and impact not only for us the audience, but the characters within the film are plausibly caught in the action. We feel Lisa's concern at the growing waves, and the urgency with which she drives. If all the animation throughout the film had a 'show off' performance quality aimed solely at entertaining us, those psychological bonds that form the Ponyo world wouldn't exist, and we wouldn't feel our way through the plot in quite the same way.  

Sadly The Princess and the Frog succumbs to this pantomime treatment, where animation constantly performs a matinee of tricks and illusions, aimed at wowing the audience and underscoring its production values. The animation spends so much time oriented outward toward the viewer, that the scenes feel under constructed. The film has a wide variety of locations -- the city, the restaurant, the docklands, the bijou, the swamp, the shadow man's lair -- and yet their relative position is never communicated in a satisfying way. We have no mental map outside of what is shown there and then. As a viewer I had no sense of time taken between spaces. At the peak of the story, when one of the characters passes away, the sudden shift into seriousness causes the tone of the film to jack-knife back on itself, colliding sentimentality with screwball comedy.

The Shadow Man does his thing in The Princess and the Frog

The greatest casualty (of the prevailing need for characters to put forward their 'spectacular animation' ahead of storytelling) is the Shadow Man, the creepy villain of The Princess and the Frog. Rather than being a major bad guy, Shadow Man feels like a guest at his own party, never truly present within the course of events. All his scenes are dedicated to animation that misappropriates Aladdin's Genie character, showing Shadow Man as a metamorphosing trickster figure, but little else. Whereas Genie has warmth and depth and a story to tell, Shadow Man ironically feels like a shadow without a body. Watching the film, this lack of depth hurts, because Shadow Man actually feels fresh in design terms. His silhouette is strong, and one can imagine a multitude of opportunities where one might explore his deceptive nature, and again we can think of Jafar from Aladdin, whose cruelty is underscored more by his everyday interactions than by his sorcery.

The Princess and the Frog is enjoyed by audiences, and has performed well both critically and financially. Ponyo has done the same, managing to build a sizeable following during its slow release around the globe. In 2010 however, when the Ghibli tradition and the Disney tradition of drawn animation sit side-by-side in our screening halls, the future of drawn animation is laid bare. In a computer animated mainstream, drawn animation that sells itself on spectacle is missing an opportunity.

In one respect, the current trend in animation reminds us of the changes photography brought to painting in the nineteenth century. Liberated from the need to depict reality with striking visual realism, painting could enjoy the space around and beyond the ambition to 'recreate reality'. Making visible the psychological and emotional aspects of life became of paramount importance, and observation translated not into fidelity but visual poetry. Animation belongs to this tradition in many ways. As computer animation resolves to reproduce digital worlds with ever increasing fidelity, as seen in Avatar, then drawn animation is presented with an opportunity, to rethink its offering, its techniques, and its fundamental principles. While Princess and the Frog languishes between rekindling Disney traditions and staking a claim for the future, it's Ponyo which points to the long term value of observation, storytelling, and fantasy in moderation, as a recipe for success. In its carefully choreographed naiveté, Ponyo shows that the principles of observation and transformation are more important than showcasing a technique or tradition.