In my first year of film school, now an uncomprehendable 17 years ago, I went with some friends to see Toy Story on its first weekend of release. As a bunch of cocky late-teenage wannabe auteurs, kids films were perhaps the only the genre of movie we weren't consuming rabidly. We went purely because of the evolutionary step the film represented. The first full CGI feature film.
We thought it was great. We all had fun, were impressed enough by the technology but far more by the strength of story and character. It was one of those rare things, a commercial kids film that had genuine heart and something to say. I think all of us ended up with some kind of Buzz Lightyear sat on our work desks. Although I was impressed by the writing, I found that I didn't like the aesthetic of CG. There was something about the simulated reality, the density of the animated objects, the approximation of depth and gravity. Hard to explain but it's been an enduring issue I've had with this form of animation. 2D animation, by its very nature, is forced to be representative, stylised, something else. There are no photorealistic hand-drawn animation films, as far as I know. You're never fooled into thinking you're seeing reality. Whereas, since CG has the ability to almost perfectly simulate reality, I've always detected a slight unease within the medium. How far do we go? Real environments and stylised characters? Realistic characters? One Christmas I caught some of The Polar Express on TV and found it horribly disturbing - It had attempted to render its human characters as realistically as possible and had ended up presenting something every bit as offensive to life as could be imagined by Mary Shelley. An affront to humanity. They looked like children, sounded like children, yet were dead behind the eyes and moved with the cold preciseness of a superior alien species trying to blend in to our simple earth ways.
This need to make animation suddenly look realistic confused me. The very point of animation, and art in general, is to be expressive and representational, heightened, exaggerated. Artistic. The emergence of motion capture in animation continues to make no sense to me. The skill of the animator is to create life where there is none. To imbue a drawing or piece of plasticine with life by choosing its movements and posture one frame at a time. That's where the magic and the artistry are. I was excited to see the Tintin movie last year but it left me cold and confused. Two of the most powerful directors in the world - Spielberg and Jackson had opted to make an animated epic which chose a visual style as close to reality as possible and achieved all of the human performances not through animation but motion-capture. At that point, why not just go live-action? It expends all of its energy trying to look like a real film. Why not just make a live-action film. It's not as if either man separately was unable to raise a budget for any project they might choose and it seemed like that was what they were trying to achieve.
My conspiracy theory mind has always had a suspicion that Hollywood's real agenda for this technology is to be able to achieve a result indistinguishable from reality which would render the chaotic and expensive filming process obsolete. No more crew, no more locations, no more cameras or technical equipment, no more famous actors with their huge fees and selfish likeness rights. Once technology nailed it, you could even ditch the skilled computer developers, animators and directors and merely ship the work out to some wretched third-world hellhole animation sweatshop and produce endless films which cost mere thousands to make and would generate billions. I can see no other reason to push so hard to approximate reality in animation.
Despite my misgivings of the genre, I've always closely followed the work of Pixar for the exact reason I overcame my aesthetic issues with the first Toy Story film and embraced it. They have an amazing team of writers. Whereas Hollywood studios have long done away with the concept of writing departments, Pixar have an entire story development team. These people care. In a world where screenwriters like M. Night Shyamalan and Damon Lindelhof are paid millions to defecate screenplays into existence and dull, derivative hacks like JJ Abrams and David Goyer are perceived visionary, Pixar stand head and shoulders above their peers in terms of quality and integrity. I've found their films like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc to be really smart, sweet and beautifully nuanced but have never shaken the wish that they'd been rendered in traditional hand drawn animation where time would preserve, rather than dampen their appeal. I've always wished the Pixar story team might join forces with Aardman's incredible stop-motion magicians and create the ultimate kids film.
Yesterday, with a couple of hours to kill in central London and keen to escape the heat and marauding tourists, I made the bold decision to eschew the air-conditioned allure of The Expendables 2 for the admittedly-also-air conditioned allure of Pixar's latest CGI offering - Brave. It was the first CG film that I've ever fallen in love with. What we fall in love with is a highly personal thing and already several of my friends who have also seen the film have responded with a hearty 'meh'. The things that I love about it might not translate into the viewing experience for everyone, and that's fine, but I felt they were worth writing about.
Firstly, in a market which is endlessly consuming and regurgitating pop culture, it's really refreshing to see an intelligent and warm historical story. It teaches a young audience about the fabric and origins of societal construction. The notion of tradition, family, leadership, order and the benefits of such construction. Although we live in an age of great suspicion rightly surrounding the notion of monarchy and government, this tells the story of an individual's responsibility to family and the wider community whilst also espousing the importance of retaining one's individualism and the notion that if you don't like something you should change it but consider and take responsibility for the outcome of such an action. It preaches not just the following of one's heart but the taking of responsibility of one's actions and the duty one has to their community. These are all great things to be filling children's minds with.
Secondly, it relishes in history and mythology. Whereas most modern offerings to kids seem relentlessly current and commercial, this proudly shows the beauty, excitement and mysticism of the ancient world and might get the occasional kid excited about playing with bows and arrows in some ancient ruins alongside laser guns and theme parks. Traditionally, kids literature has been big on understanding where we come from as a species and the important lessons that are to be learned from history. These days, the emphasis seems much more on 'be who you want to be!' which, inevitably seems to suggest a pop star or athlete.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, its the first film I'm aware of which treats little girls with complete respect and intelligence. It has no interest in fairy wings, pink, fluffy kittens and domestic godessery, yet it also refuses to subjugate or mock men. It uses equality as a baseline and tells the story of mother-daughter difference and understanding that is usually reserved for live-action dramas aimed at a far more mature market.
The hero, Merida, although often reprimanded for her inability to live up to the role of princess, is never once rebuked for behaviour considered inappropriate to her gender. Her father, the king, takes delight in her weaponry skills, independence and defiant spirit. A lesser film would have had the male characters offended or humiliated by her abilities and pushing maybe an angrier feminist perspective. Equality is always employed here yet never made an issue of. It's very subtly and deftly done as at no time does this ever feel like a 'girls' film. In fact, it's rather heartbreaking to see that the Disney merchandising behemoth has immediately added Merida to their stable of princess characters and produced only rather glamorous girly dolls rather than a range of less gender-specific action figures which might have helped break down an age-old barrier which saw boys of my generation faced with only the odd Princess Leia or middle-aged diplomat Mon Mothma figure to balance out our Star Wars collections. And nobody had Mon Mothma.
I also felt that Brave, for me, finally nailed an aesthetic. It created a stylised but realistic world akin to the incredible forest in Bambi and landscapes of Pinocchio and gave us character which, whilst human enough to convey real emotion were stylised enough to be representational, satirical and artistic. It's the first CGI film I've loved in its totality.
Actually, that's a lie. Because Brave is preceded in the cinema by a short CGI animation called La Luna. This short is worth the admission price alone (and I saw it in Leicester Square, so the admission price was the best part of twenty bloody quid). It was probably the subject matter of this short - a highly whimsical tale of blue collar workers on the moon - which struck a chord in my cinematic soul. I suddenly realised in this dialogue-free story of a little boy helping his father and grandfather sweep up stars that it was an echo in sentiment and visual poetry to the short films of Georges Melies over a century earlier. It didn't feel like a homage, it didn't feel like a rip-off. It felt like a passionate storyteller using the very latest technology to invoke a representation of the sense of wonder that he himself found in one of nature's most beautiful offerings.
So, yesterday's couple of hours in the cinema really changed my view of the potential and implementation of CG technology. I felt like in one session I had seen it employed to both masterfully and progressively break down a gender barrier whilst also honour the most basic, ancient impulse to use art to honour nature and the human spirit.
I'm not entirely sure I'd have got so much from The Expendables 2.
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