Tag Archives: DreamWorks

The Swanpride Award: 1997-1998

Taken into consideration:

Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth/Fox, Traditional

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Antz (1998), DreamWorks, Traditional

A Bugs Live (1998), Pixar, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks

Well, thankfully I won’t have to answer the question if A Bugs Live or Antz is the better movie, because frankly, they are both among the weaker movies of this period. Anastasia I considered for a long time, but in the end, I decided on the four movies which stood out the most to me.

Nominees-1997-and-1998

Nominated:

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), DreamWorks

1997 is a really important year for animation, and not just because DreamWorks entered the fray. Now, DreamWorks is a studio which often gets a lot of flak. Deservedly so, imho. It spends too much time chasing after the latest trend. But, to its credit, it also has delivered some really remarkable movies, so I am glad that it is part of the competition, even though I wish its track record were better.
The other new player in the field of movie animation was Satoshi Kon, who was just incredible talented. Sadly we only had a very short period with him, but I hope that his movies will become better and better known in the western world with time. When people discuss adult animation, that is the kind of movies I have in mind and want to see. He was just an unique artist and storyteller. So excuse me when I am now starting to gush a little bit.

  • Story: Perfect Blue is a psycho drama and a disturbing examination of the way woman are objectified by society. The main character is an idol who is making the transition to being an actress. On the one hand she is struggling with her image change, with playing a new and yet not really different role. The movie poignantly demonstrates that the “innocent and clean” image of idols are in a lot of ways just another way of fetishism, while also pointing out that so called “dramatic scenes” in more series TV productions which involve putting female in questionable situations are less about the drama and more about showing off the “assets” of the actress in question. On top of the main character trying to find her own identity between the different roles she has to play, she also has to deal with a stalker. I won’t say more at this point, because this is the kind of the movie one should experience as unspoiled as possible. The way it is staged it is easy to loose yourself in it, developing an easy understanding for what the protagonist goes through.

    The odd thing about Princess Mononoke is that the movie is neither about a Princess, nor about a character named Mononoke. I guess the correct translation of the title would be “The Spirit Princess”. But the story is not really about San, who grew up with wolves, it is above all the story of Ashitaka, the cursed prince who encounters her. And he has more the role of an observer. The actual theme of the movie is the relationship between humans and nature. Now, I usually don’t like movies with an environmental message. Not because I have anything against the message, but because they tend to be incredible preachy and simplistic. Princess Mononoke is neither. I really appreciate the movie for portraying nature not like this poor fragile thing thoughtless humans want to destroy, but as a dangerous power humans have to deal with. Though I do have a problem with the way the movie handles violence. Unlike Perfect Blue, where the graphic aspects always serve the story, the violence in Princess Mononoke often feels unnecessary gracious.

    Mulan is one of those Disney movies which weren’t exactly a big success initially, but which are nevertheless beloved. Based on an old Chinese ballade, it tells the story of a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to take her father’s place in the Chinese army. It is an old concept, but it has been rarely pulled off as well as in this movie.

    The Prince of Egypt tells the story of Moses by concentrating on the relationship of two brothers which end up clashing due to both of them being set on a different path. And I would go so far to say that this is the best cinematic take on the story so far. If I have one point of criticism than the occasional lapses in tone. There is this big epic story and suddenly you end up in something which would fit well into a cartoon show, for example when the camel pulls Moses out of the sand.

 

  • Characters: The characters of Perfect Blue are kind of flat, deliberately so I think. The audience is supposed to focus on is the main character, Mima, the others are only important in the sense of how they impact her life. Or more, run her life, since she is initially portrayed as extremely passive. Especially in the beginning she seems to be more an overgrown child, sitting passively around while her managers quarrel over her career path. She participates in a traumatic scene because she feels that she can’t say “no” after getting the chance to even be in the drama series. She is also very naïve when it comes to dealing with the internet, from today’s perspective too much so, but, well, the movie was made during a different time. But the more the movie dives into her personality, in what is hidden under the different masks she is forced to wear, the more I like and feel for her. The real Mima is way superior to her public persona.

    I admit, I have a really hard time to connect to the characters in Princess Mononoke. Lady Eboshi is interesting because she isn’t portrayed as downright evil and I understand her motivations. But otherwise, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing something I would understand if I were Japanese. It feels like all the characters are a reference to something, but I don’t know what, which makes it difficult for me to truly gauge how well they are written.

    Mulan has easily the strongest cast of all of them. Mulan is such a layered characters that she got one of my first articles on Honoring the Heroine. I especially love that she doesn’t have to shed her own personality in order to become a good soldier, but instead has to discover and use her own strength. Her best moments are when she takes advantage of her intelligence rather than her fighting abilities. Shang has his own small story-arc, too, since he has to deal with the expectations his father puts on him, and with the responsibilities of his new position. In the end, he is the one who has to make the most difficult decisions. Even Mushu has  his own arc, despite him mostly being in the story to provide funny one-liners.

    The characters in The Prince of Egypt is a mixed bag. There are a lot of characters which turn up shortly and then simply disappear from the story. There is a lot of time spend on introducing Tzipporah, but she has no role at all once she is married to Moses. Miriam has in a way a bigger role than her and she is basically only there to eventually tell Moses the truth about his heritage.  Though it does allow the movie to concentrate on the central conflict between Moses and Rameses. Rameses gets easily the best character moment of the movie, when he is all excited about seeing his brother again, only to discover that he isn’t back to stand by his side, but to make demands. It is heart-breaking, and I really feel for him, despite what he will do later on.

 

  • The Music: Perfect Blue offers mostly typical Japanese Pop of the more forgettable kind. Quite deliberately so. It is a reflection of the kind of music you usually get from those idol groups, meaningless but easy to listen to. The score reminds me a little bit of Ghost in the Shell, but not quite, since it doesn’t demand the attention of the audience in the same way. Slightly disturbing, it is mostly there to subtly set the mood for the scenes.

    The soundtrack of Princess Mononoke is as epic as the movie itself. It underlines perfectly the visuals and makes everything seem grander. It’s not an instant earworm, but exactly the kind of music this movie needs.
    I adore the score of Mulan, which was written by Jerry Goldsmith. And I like the songs, in fact, “Be a Man” is one of my favourite Disney songs. I also appreciate how “Reflexions” introduces a theme, which will be picked up multiple times later in the story. That is some really clever text-writing of Howard Ashman calibre.  But the songs and the score are not written by the same composer and it shows. They both fit the movie but somehow they don’t really fit each other that well. It is a small detail, but one I can’t overlook in my judgement. And then there is the pop song in the end. Which for some reason doesn’t start playing during the end credits, but right into the last scene.

    “Deliver us”, “When you believe”, The Prince of Egypt is full of memorable songs. The only one I really don’t like is “Through Heaven’s eyes”. That one is pointless, preachy, annoying and doesn’t really fit in the rest of the soundtrack at all. What I really appreciate is the use of Hebrew in the songs, reminding the audience that the origin of this particular story is most likely a piece of real Jewish history. And the score, well, it is Hans Zimmer. It is a perfect extension of the songs.

 

  • The Animation: There is no question that the movie out of the four which has the worst animation is Perfect Blue. This movie is the equivalent of binding an artist one arm on his back. A lot of the angles chosen are inspired, but there is no hiding that the budget for this movie wasn’t that high. Especially when it comes to the character animation. When the characters talk, they often move only their mouth, animation is reused in different scenes, this is barely better than TV-animation.

    Princess Mononoke on the other hand excels in this regard. The landscapes are incredible and while I don’t really like the level of violence in it, the way it is portrayed can be strangely compelling. The fight scenes are fluid and fast – there is really nothing to criticise about it and a lot to love.

    The style of Mulan is inspired by Chinese Watercolours. It makes a lot of use of the empty space in a way which reminds me of the large scales in Cinderella. China looks gigantic. But it often feels as if the animators could have gone the extra-mile but then didn’t. That is especially evident in the number of soldiers in Mulan’s troupe. There seem to be less and less of them in every scene until there are, what, barely ten men standing against a whole army of Huns.

    The Prince of Egypt is an interesting mix between Egyptian art and some really impressive animation. If there is one point of criticism, than that the animators are sometimes go a little bit overboard. For example in the end, when the Red Sea is parted. It is not enough to show a giant wall of water, no, they also had to add a whale swimming through it. It looks so ridiculous over the top, that it always destroys for me what should be a breath-taking moment.

This is surprisingly difficult. After all,  Princess Mononoke is not just a Studio Ghibli movie, it is practically the Beauty and the Beast of studio Ghibli, a movie which won in categories no other animated movie ever had chance to break in. This makes it hard to even consider other movies for the win. And yet, I think that all four of them are something special in their own way. Thematically The Prince of Egypt might be the weakest, but I really appreciate the new angle it took on a story which isn’t that easy to tell. It just lacks the layers the other movies offer.
Mulan is in a way an underrated Disney movie, and a very clever commentary on gender roles. I have honestly no idea why it doesn’t stand side by side with movies like The Lion King. It is perhaps a little bit too understated to really catch the attention of the general audience. But the only thing I don’t like about it is the very ending. I mean, we just had the perfect scene in the reunion of Mulan and her father, but then we end with pop music and chickens? Why?
The movie which impressed me the most turned out to be Perfect Blue. It came really close to taking the top spot and it is only the subpar animation which made me stick with Princess Mononoke in the end. Not an easy decision, and on a more personal level I like the other three movies better, but Princess Mononoke is a movie which excels in story-telling and animation. It deserves to be part of the final selection.

 

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A not so small reminder…

My article series for the Swanpride Award starts soon. You have still time to put your own nominations forward. Until then, here a list of the 85 movies I took into consideration. That doesn’t mean that those movies ended up on the nomination list, it only means that those movies got my attention. Feel free to add to the list and/or nominate movies from the list to ensure that I’ll discuss them at least briefly.

Up for consideration (sorted by release date):

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

The Tale of the Fox (1930) by Ladislas Starevich, Stop-Motion

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney, Traditional

Gulliver’s Travels (1939) by Fleischer Studios, Traditional

Pinocchio (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Fantasia (1940), Walt Disney, Traditional

Dumbo (1941), Walt Disney, Traditional

Mr. Bug goes to Town (1941), Fleischer Studios, Traditional

Princess Iron Fan (1941), The Wan Brothers, Traditional

Bambi (1942), Walt Disney, Traditional

The Singing Princess/La Rosa Di Bagdad (1949), Anton Gino Domeghini, Traditional

Cinderella (1950), Walt Disney, Traditional

Alice in Wonderland (1952), Walt Disney, Traditional

Peter Pan (1953), Walt Disney, Traditional

Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy (1954), RKO Radio Pictures, Stop Motion

Animal Farm (1954), Halas and Batchelor, Traditional

Lady and the Tramp (1955), Walt Disney, Traditional

Sleeping Beauty (1959), Walt Disney, Traditional

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Walt Disney, Traditional

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), Harry Everett Smith, Cut-out

The Sword in the Stone (1963), Walt Disney Traditional

The Jungle Book (1967), Walt Disney, Traditional

Yellow Submarine (1968), Georg Dunning, Traditional

Fritz the Cat (1972), Ralph Bakshi, Traditional

Charlotte’s Web (1973), Hanna-Barbera, Traditional

Fantastic Planet (1973), René Laloux/ Jiří Trnka Studio, Cutout

Robin Hood (1973), Disney, Traditional

Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1974), Karel Zeman, Traditional

Mattie the Goose Boy (1976), Pannonia Film Studio, Traditional

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers (1977), Disney, Traditional

Watership Down (1978), Martine Rosen, Traditional

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Plague Dogs (1982), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Les Maîtres du temps (1982), René Laloux, Traditional

Barefoot Gen (1983), Madhouse, Traditional

Nausicaa (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

When the Wind Blows (1986), Jimmy Murakami, Traditional/Stop motion

Valhalla (1986), Peter Madson, Traditional

The Brave little Toaster (1987), Jerry Rees, Traditional

Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo, Traditional

Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Gandahar (1988), René Laloux, Traditional

All Dogs to Heaven (1989), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Little Mermaid (1989), Disney, Traditional

The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Disney, Traditional

The Nutcracker Prince (1990), Paul Schibli, Traditional

Peter in Magicland (1990), Wolfgang Urchs, Traditional

An American Tail: Feivel goes West (1991), Amblin, Traditional

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Disney, Traditional

Only Yesterday (1991), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Aladdin (1992), Disney, Traditional

Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Kroyer/Fox, Traditional

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Warner Bros, Traditional

The Nighmare before Christmas (1993), Skellington/Disney, Stop Motion

Once Upon a Forrest (1993), Hanna-Barbera, Traditional

The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), Richard Williams, Traditional

Felidae (1994), Michael Schaack, Traditional

The Swan Princess (1994), Richard Rich, Traditional

The Lion King (1994), Disney, Traditional

Balto (1995), Amblimation, Traditional

Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mamoro Oshii, Traditional

Toy Story (1995), Pixar, CGI

Pocahontas (1995), Disney, Traditional

Whisper of the Heart (1995), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Disney, Traditional

Anastasia (1997), Don Bluth/Fox, Traditional

Perfect Blue (1997), Satoshi Kon, Traditional

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

Antz (1998), DreamWorks, Traditional

A Bugs Live (1998), Pixar, Traditional

Mulan (1998), Disney, Traditional

The Prince of Egypt (1998), Dream Works

Toy Story 2 (1999), Pixar, CGI

Tarzan (1999), Disney, Traditional

Fantasia 2000 (1999), Disney, Traditional

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), Trey Parker, CGI/Cut-out

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), Studio Ghibli, Traditional

The Iron Giant (1999), Warner Bros, Traditional


The History of Western Animation in Film

I have decided to broaden the subject of this blog a little bit. Yes, I know, I have barely started with my lyrics analysis, but I already realized that I feel a little bit limited when it comes to talking about animation. So instead of starting yet another blog (I am barely able to do regular updates for the ones I already have), I have decided to use this one for some serious basic discussions about animated movies – and start with the basics.

When people talk about the History of Animation, most of the time they really talk about the History of American Animation. And if the topic is theatrical movies and not animation in general, that is for once fairly legitimate. Like it or not, but when it comes to animated movies, the US is dominating not only the home but also the European market.

I guess this is the moment I should talk about animes. They naturally have their own history and influences. Let’s concentrate on one side of the earth for now. I intend to illustrate something by doing a small overview over the most important development in animation.

The first theatrical animated movie in the world was – no, not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – an Argentinean movie with the title “El Apóstol”. Released in 1917 it utilized cutout animation (basically a special form of stop-motion). The movie is lost, but based on what I read about it, it was a satire which was certainly not geared towards a young audience.

The oldest still surviving animated movie is – no, still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventure of Prince Achmet”. Released in 1926 in Germany, it is the third animated movie ever made and the first which used the little bit more sophisticated silhouette animation. In fact, Lotte Reiniger was the one who invented this technic. It works similar to shadow puppets, but they are not moved and filmed live, but painstakingly arranged. And let me tell you, the level of detail Lotte Reiniger archived this way in breathtaking. A photo can’t really convey it, but the result looks like this:

31994

The feathers and leaves are already impressive, but it is even more impressive if you see it in motion. As you can see, the movie is tinted. It also has its own “soundtrack”, composed specifically for it. The movie has been restored in 1999. It is now available on DVD and has even shown with life-orchestra from time to time. If you get the chance to see it life – do! It’s a once in a lifetime experience, for multiple reasons.

The first stop-motion movie using puppets is either of Ladislas Starevich’s “The Tale of the Fox” or the Russian movie “The New Gulliver”, depending on if you base it on the end of the production or release date. “The Tale of the Fox” was finished in 1930 in France but released in April 1937. “The New Gulliver” was finished and released in 1935.

The first animated sound film was – nope! Still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – but another lost Argentinian movie, “Peludópolis”, released in 1931. The claim which “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” has to fame is that was it was the first full-length cell-animated feature filmed in three-strip Technicolor, and begin of the rise what we call nowadays traditional animation. Released in 1937, it was the seventh animated movie ever made.

From that point onwards, you can just as well call it the history of Disney. First stereophonic sound? Fantasia (1940). First widescreen format? Lady and the Tramp (1955). First movie using the xerography process? 101 Dalmatians (1961). From 1937 onwards Disney was dominating the market – and then became complacent. Between Walt Disney losing interest in the Animation Studios and the general lack of a proper rival, Disney stopped being the pioneer in animation.

I think Disney left gladly the crown for the first “adult animation” to Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” (1972), but the studio also got beat concerning the first animated feature in Dolby Sound by “Watership Down” in 1978, the honour of being the first animated feature using computer images went to “Rock and Rule” in 1983, and the first feature length clay animation movie was “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in 1985.

Then Disney woke up again, setting a new milestone with “Who framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and then proceeded to perfect the CAP system. “Rescuers Down Under” (1990) was the first movie produced without a camera and with only digital ink and paint. In 1995 Pixar happened. Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film and Toy Story 3 (2010) was the first feature film released theatrically in 7.1 surround sound. Meanwhile there was development in stop-motion, too. Coraline (2009) was the first stop-motion movie which used rapid prototyping.

There are two point I want to illustrate with this: Disney didn’t invent animation (not by far), but it was over long periods the forerunner in traditional animation. Also, the world of movie animation is all in all pretty small.

The most notable Animation companies (read: companies which produced more than two or three animated movies and left their mark on the industry) and figures are:

  1. The Disney Animation Studios – naturally. Forerunner in traditional animation and currently on the top of their game in CGI, too. Also the first animation studio which started making animated movies on this list active since 1937.
  2. Pixar – Forerunner in CGI animation, now naturally part of the Disney Company, but still an independent subsidiary. Active since 1995.
  3. DreamWorks – mostly notable in being currently the biggest rival of the two studios above.
  4. Don Bluth – His movies are a little bit hard to pin down to one studio, because he went bankrupt multiple times. At one point he was working with Steven Spielberg, later Fox Animation (which is nowadays Blue Skies). So, technically not a studio, but a notable body of work, and a player on the field from 1982 to 2000.
  5. Jiří Trnka – A pioneer in stop motion animation. Between 1947 and 1959 he made six critical highly acclaimed movies. The Czechoslovakian was considered by many the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” even though his style was very different.
  6. Aardman Animations – specialised on stop-motion and therefore in a niche market the US companies mostly ignored for a long time, this British Studio has been around since the 1970s. Its activity in movie making started in 2000.
  7. Blue Sky Studios – owned by 20th Century Fox this studio pushed into the market in 2002 with Ice Age.
  8. Robert L. Zemeckis – he worked on different projects on different companies, but is mostly notable for being the expert in motion capture, especially since the release of “The Polar Express” in 2004. If this is proper animation or not is disputable, but it certainly goes hand in hand with animation.
  9. Laika Entertainment – founded in 2005 this studio has still a fairly small line-up, but with releases like “Coraline” and “Paranormal”, as well contract work for “Corpse Bride” under its belt, it certainly left its mark already.
  10. Steven Spielberg – It is easy to overlook since he is not an animator, but he has been involved as executive producer to some of the most noteworthy animated movies made since the 1980s (and one or two really forgettable ones). This list includes “An American Tail”, “The Land before time” and “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, though he is currently mostly dabbling in motion capture.
  11. Warner Brothers Animation – despite the “big name” overall fairly unimportant in terms of movie making, since the company mostly concentrates on shorts and Television Series. But it is the only animation studio which has been around just as long as the Disney studios. Since 1993 the studio has been dabbling in movie making, too, and while the Lego Movie is the first one, which has been a true box office success, it does have a few other critical acclaimed pieces in its line-up, including “The Iron Giant”.
  12. Ralph Bakshi – His movies are a little bit out of the realm of the other studios, since he has a different target group at all. Since 1972 he is creating movies with the intent to address the adult audience – with varying success. To be honest, I think if any of the other studios had a true interest to outshine him, they would do so quite easily, there is just nobody else truly interested in doing animation which is exclusively geared towards adults if they can do a way bigger cash grab with movies made for all age groups.

 

 

Roughly, I would sort the phases of Movie Animation in the following eras:

1917 – 1930 : The Silent Age

The early beginning of movie animation. At this point the movie makers from all over the world experimented with different variants of stop-motion. But with only three animated theatrical features overall, animation didn’t really take off in movies – yet.

1931 – 1959: The Golden Age

Even before the rise of Disney, the concept of animated movies notably took off. Aside from the ones I already mentioned above, there were additional movie projects which never got finished and are considered lost. The Golden Age also saw not only the rise of Disney, but above all the rise of traditional animation. Stop motion still continued to thrive in Europe and especially Czechoslovakia, but in the US it was mostly used for shorts, TV shows and above all, special effects in live in live action movies.

1960 – 1981: The Dark Age

A dark time indeed. Disney is more or less the only company out there which is still regularly producing animated movies. There are some smaller projects, some of them certainly remarkable, but overall, the animation landscape has become empty, and Disney is doing just enough to not totally embarrass the studio. This only changes in the 1980s, when Don Bluth starts to challenge the status quo. But not only this. Computer technology changes animation forever.

1982 – current: The Multi Age

Multi, because this is the most diverse era for in animated movies so far. Traditional Animation raised to new heights, stop-motion managed to push its way back on the map, CGI movies stormed the market and motion capture became a thing. And if you look at the list above, most animation companies listed there are active in movie making since the 1990th or 2000th. For the first time ever there is proper competition for Disney.

At this point the Multi Age might have been over already, since CGI keeps pushing other methods, especially traditional animation, out of the picture. We’ll see in a couple of years.

And this concludes my first overview. The history of the most important animation studios is another theme though, which I will discuss separately.