This afternoon, on January 1st, 2010, i was staring at the fire in our fireplace, and started thinking about the movies i’d seen this year. I realized what an incredible year 2009 has been for animation features. When I think of all the artistic expression and talent poured onto the screen, i feel very proud to be a part of that world, and it fills me with excitement for the future of animation. From Pixar’s poignant “UP”, to the gorgeous yet thoroughly creepy movies “Coraline” and “9”, the beautifully executed and charming “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and reinvigorations and reinventions of 2D classic animation of Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”, this year in animation has been absolutely amazing. Such talent and beauty should be lauded, rewarded, and thoroughly appreciated, and the aforementioned movies were just the major releases. Imagine what they were doing at the universities and in studios across the world…
I started selling animation art in 1988, right before the “new golden age” at Disney, with “The Little Mermaid”, “The Lion King”, and the other new classics. Of course, i’ve been a fan of cartoons my whole life, starting all the way back to when i lived in Positano, Italy and Paris, France. All the Disney movies and many of the cartoon shorts showed there, teaching me early that animation was universal. At my gallery ArtInsights I get daily affirmation of the universality of animation with the visitors we get from places like China, Finland, Scotland, and Indonesia, who know the characters Cinderella, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny, among others… In the time i’ve been selling and promoting the art of the animated film, the industry has changed significantly. I have watched the Pixar revolution alter the way computer animated cartoons are seen and appreciated, Stop motion animation has gained respectability through the genius of Henry Selick and Tim Burton. More and more traditional film directors are embracing animation films as part of their filmography, attempting to articulate their aesthetic through the medium, as Wes Anderson did to great success this year with The Fabulous Mr. Fox. The same is true for actors and actresses now actively choosing to voice characters in animated films. Of course the financial proposition of creating a successful feature length animation film means getting the biggest names involved as possible, but clearly enthusiasm by these big names to be considered or thought of first for starring roles has increased as the artistry of these films has become more universally accepted.
As to the movies themselves, they are as real and deep, as or perhaps more filled with meaning as their live action counterparts. I’d love to see at least one of these movies listed in the best film oscar category. I have my own favorites….I have a lot of loyalty to “The Princess and the Frog”, having interviewed several of the lead animators and loving New Orleans as I do. The backgrounds and visual effects in this movie were more beautiful than even i was expecting. Every song was great, and the leads were wonderful, especially Anika Noni Rose. I can’t believe the box office totals haven’t been higher, as witness the great disparity between it and the new chipmunks “Squeakwal”, although i’ll have to say i haven’t seen it and probably won’t see it…call me a cartoon snob, i admit it. I’m hopeful the international sales will be much higher and will lead to its ultimate success, because a lot is riding on it, no less than the future of 2D animation at Disney. Coraline is spectacular in every way, and although it creeped the hell out of me, I think i could watch that movie 100 times. The colors were vibrant, the story flowed easily, and there were layers of meaning that allow both children and adults to walk away in contemplation, and the movie stays with you. I think Coraline will be much like Nightmare Before Christmas in it’s longevity and cult to mainstream following. This places Henry Selick even higher in my esteem as a director. “UP” was interesting in that I went to see it more because I had to than any genuine enthusiasm for the storyline or visual appeal, but walked out shocked at how wonderful and deep it was. Visually stunning, yes, even more so than Wall-E, and more colorful, although that was in part the difference in story. The fact that Ed Asner, an actor i respect and love, was one of the leads also got me to the movie theatre, and as usual, he was not a disappointment. There was a poignancy to his story, and such growth in his character. I loved that, because he was older, so that was a great lesson to older viewers, as well as a goal to stay open for younger ones.
“9”, “Ponyo”, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” point to the power of auteur directors and their skill of storytelling. FIrst time feature director Shane Acker, Japanese national treasure Hayao Miyazaki, and independent darling Wes Anderson are the artists responsible these three films, and they definitely brand these releases with their unique aesthetics. Miyazaki is responsible for some of the best animated films to come out of Japan. Although his movies have never been seen as “just animation” in his home country, his studio has a huge share in the responsibility for expanding the acceptance and love of the animated feature film worldwide. Not all his cartoons have been revoiced for english audiences, but more and more of them have plans in that direction as they are released. (his two most recent movies are Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke) Having the long standing personal label as “the Japanese Walt Disney”, it makes sense that Disney has been collaborating for some time now with his Ghibli Studio. Wes Anderson is known for his independent live action films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. One of my favorite directors Martin Scorsese is a big fan of his movies, and he is in crowded company, so the fact that he has added a stop motion animated movie to his filmography is exciting. It means he thought it was an important addition, a way to expand his knowledge of filmmaking, and he’d be right. I think his love of the craft, the fun he has creating all his movies, shows on the screen for the entirety of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Shane Acker is a first time feature animation direction with 9. Time will tell if he will be the hot director many believe he’s destined to become, but he sites influences German animator Christoph Lauenstein and the Czech artist Jan Svankmajer, who also inspired Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, so that’s a good sign for his future, and a sign of his dedication to learning and expanding his artistic perspective. He was involved in all aspects of the feature, very auteur, but supposedly very collaborative as well. I forgive the confusing ending for the gorgeousness of the movie as a whole.
Also in 2009, animation made two big splashes in the art world. The one man retrospective show at MOMA, “Tim Burton”, is the largest show ever to feature a filmmaker’s art (http://www.moma.org/
interactives/exhibitions/2009/ timburton/ ). The largest collection of original animation art ever featured in a museum show is at the New Orleans Museum of Art, in “Dreams Come True: Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studios” (http://www.noma.org/dreams. html).
My experience of and desire for animation being seen as real art stems from the many times people new to ArtInsights in the years we’ve been open and after 30 seconds in the gallery, do a 360 degree twirl and ask, “are there any galleries with FINE ART in the center?”. I’ve also been shuffled from department to department when sending press releases to the Washington Post: from the arts section to the movie section to the children’s and back again…We once had Marc Davis and Mary Costa, one of the most famous animators in the history of Disney, a Disney “Legend”, and animator of Maleficent, and the voice of Sleeping Beauty herself, and we didn’t even get listed in the arts calendar. That was about 10 years ago. This last year has given me more expectation of the art form being accepted as a whole. I am a little surprised, however, at how little press the show in New Orleans got. When John Lasseter said he wanted the next big show featuring art from the animation research library inside Disney, where more than 60 million pieces of original animation from the history of Disney are stored and catalogued, to be held at MOMA, he knew what he was talking about. The amount of press the Tim Burton show got surpassed the NOMA show by about a factor of 100!
Now would be the time to say that, as Oscars go, i’m rooting for UP and Coraline. I loved The Princess and the Frog, and urge you to see and support it, even though Disney is big business, not independent. Supporting 2D going forward is supporting the melding of the old and the new, the hands on artistry with the innovative. UP, though not as much my long term personal favorite as Wall-E or Monsters Inc, featured a story that fearlessly showed loss, grief and neglect, as well as families made, not born. It was flawlessly acted and visually stunning. and funny. I want it to get at least nominated for the Oscar. Coraline is so quirky and yet so beautiful. I absolutely predict it will be a longterm favorite and its fans will grow steadily over the years. If it gets nominated or wins best movie, i’d be beyond pleased. I’m so excited about what the release of these movies in 2009 means for the industry.
Note to directors, both new and established: Animation can be part of your the future in the movie industry. You can bring whatever you want to it.
It can be creative….artistic…fearless…
But i’ve been saying that for years.