Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wall-E: an inconvenient mirror everyone must look into

Wall-E is going to be one of the most important movies of this decade. That is my fearless prediction. It is not just a milestone in animation, nor is it just a milestone for Pixar's ability to tell engaging stories in surprising ways, but it's also likely to make a difference with regard to social attitudes in the United States.

In the book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Phil Dick paints a picture of a society that is not only one facing the aftermath of a regional thermonuclear war, but also that is drowning in its own detritus. The slang word for trash is "Kipple," and Kipple seems to its observers to spontaneously generate and also reduce useful items to more of itself. The humans who either will not or cannot leave a blighted Earth find themselves overwhelmed by Kipple. Although much of the book makes it onto screen in the classic movie Blade Runner, the whole subplot of how the remnant of humanity deals with Kipple didn't make it to the movie.

Like the Kipple-ized word of "Do Androids Dream...", the world that little Wall-E, a ruggedized trash compactor on tracks, inhabits is choked off by trash. He has worked non-stop for 700 years, and has made little dent in the great mounds of junk that has littered the industrial landscape. There were literally millions of his kind manufactured, but only he has survived. He's really, really good at what he does...the ziggurats of compacted trash that share the landscape with the abandoned skyscrapers of what is for all indications Manhattan are rapidly built by this little bot.

His only companion is a cockroach. However, this roach has evolved into an elegant sliver of insecthood, probably twice as big as the legendary Palmetto Bugs residents of the Southeastern US have to fight, and seemingly impervious to crushing blows that would have destroyed its ancestors. It communicates wordlessly, but eloquently. And this is the theme of the first half of the movie: wordless, eloquent communication. Pixar did not take the easy way out and have talking robots and talking bugs: all the emotion of the first half of the movie is communicated with little to no speech.

In his 700 years of existence, Wall-E has basically grown himself a personality. He collects cool items he finds amidst the trash, and one day he finds the coolest item of all: a little sprout of a plant. Coincidentally, a probe spacecraft has landed on earth, sending out probe droids, EVE units, looking for the same thing. Wall-E sees one, and gets a mad crush on her. She's strictly business, however, scanning the landscape for something she never seems to find.

Eventually Wall-E manages to persuade EVE to visit his little shelter, inside the guts of some sort of derelict construction droid. It is there EVE finds what she's been searching for, and goes into plant preservation hibernation mode. Wall-E is baffled by this turn of events, thinking she has malfunctioned somehow, and becomes her self-appointed protector. He follows her off planet, onto the Starship Axiom, where the social satire aspect of the movie is crystallized.

It seems the vast majority of critics, although almost universally captivated by the first half of the movie, are somewhat alienated by the second half on the starship. However, in a lot of respects, the Swiftian humor of the predicament of the Earthlings on their endless cruise is the point of the whole film. Unlike Kung Fu Panda, there is no lingering or lame jokes over the "fatty fat fat fat" issue. Humanity, after 700 years of very cushy living and micro-gravity, has indeed become soft and weak and flabby. But instead of beating us over the head with it, it is established as fact for purposes of the story and we move on.

No, the most important aspect of the humans and their lives is their constant consumerism, and how powerful it has made the last standing corporation. Buy n' Large Corporation has replaced everything in society: it has swallowed up all the other corporations and even the governments of the World. The little live-action clips of the CEO of this gargantuan operation are a clue to how dominant they are. And even aboard the Axiom the constant drumbeat to consume mass quantities is incessant. Of course, all this consumption leads to all kinds of waste, which is dealt with in the waste disposal hold by monstrous versions of Wall-E.

Wall-E is a call to re-examine the consumption-mad society we have had since the end of World War II. And coming from Disney/Pixar, it is a call far more likely to be heeded by families than the one given in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the much less artful Happy Feet. One suspects that there might actually be a lot of interesting conversations between parents and children after seeing the movie.

The movie ends on an ambiguous note, resolved only by the end-credits sequence where the traditional Disney "happily ever after" resolution takes place. I would have rather they kept the ambiguity, even if it meant losing the end-credits song co-written by Thomas Newman and Peter Gabriel. I've been a Gabe fan for literally decades, it's cool to see him get a crack at doing a song for Pixar. Maybe he'll 'play out' the next Macworld Jobs keynote? That would be cool. Do it live, Gabe.

As is typical of Pixar, there is no big musical number unless you count the ones on Wall-E's videotape of Hello, Dolly. And that's good. I've noticed this has also rubbed off on Disney and on their competitors. You don't see many animated features done in Musical Comedy style anymore. And that's a good thing. Even more crucially, it is an inspired move that a relatively obscure movie musical becomes little Wall-E's obsession: it could have been done with a more familiar one like Singin' In The Rain or Top Hat; or even Disney properties like Mary Poppins or Beauty and the Beast.

It seems much more random, and hence more believable, that a movie musical made in the space after the decline and fall of the big movie musical in the late '50s and the Disney revival of the genre in animated form in the '90s would be Wall-E's tutor about things romantic. It took guts to ask Disney to get rights from News Corp. for this chestnut, when they could have succumbed to "corporate synergy" instead.

Oh yeah: as a votary of the Cult of Mac, it was amusing that this was the first Pixar movie with a lot of Mac references. It's nowhere near the reigning champion for these sort of references, the anime TV series Serial Experiments: Lain, but it was amusing to this Mac geek that when Wall-E gets his solar charge for the day he reboots with not just the familiar Mac "P-RAM is OK" chord, but the original version of the chord heard on the Quadra 700 and its contemporaries. EVE was actually designed by Jonathan Ive, designer of the iMac series, the iPod and other Apple products, complete with shiny white plastic surfaces and sleek styling. Playing with my copy of Mactracker just now, I just realized that EVE's reboot sound is quite reminiscent of one used in only one Mac: the fabled 20th Anniversary Edition. These are references none but dedicated Mac geeks will get. And look for the appearance of an iPod Video in Wall-E's hovel. I suppose this all qualifies as the "corporate synergy" I decried in the last paragraph. But somehow it doesn't seem as repugnant as if they had dumped songs from a Disney musical in the movie. Yeah, I'm a fangirl. Sue me.

This is going to own both the Animated Feature Oscar and the Annies. But then again, everyone knows that.


Friday, June 27, 2008

My take on Kung Fu Panda...

Saw Kung Fu Panda yesterday. To that end, I will first drop a little something for my homey Tom Reed...

That's how you do "Kung Fu Fighting." Fully embrace the cheese. EMBRACE THE CHEESE. The rewrite on the lyrics was totally lame...made me scan the credits afterward for a child psychologist on the payroll. It's a cheesy song, from the 1970s, the cheesiest decade ever. (The '50s might have eclipsed the '70s, but I personally experienced the '70s.) Also Jack Black should not try to sing R&B. Heavy metal? Sure. But not R&B.

Getting back to Kung Fu Panda the was good, alright, but not great. It could have been so much better. The trademark Dreamworks SKG Animation bogus physics totally made what could have been bitchen fight sequences look...well...not so bitchen. When people (and funny animals) already defy gravity and the laws of physics, wirework-style choreography doesn't look so impressive. To have gravity-defying stunts, you have to have gravity in operation. Sony Imageworks licked their physics problem with Surf's Up. Which is good, because surfing in zero-g wouldn't look nearly as impressive as the surfing sequences in that underrated gem. If Sony can do it, and they haven't produced a hit movie yet, why can't Dreamworks, which had a whole string of them?

Also, why hire on superstar voice actors when you aren't going to do anything with them? How many lines did they give Jackie Chan as Monkey? How many lines did Angelina Jolie get as Tigress? (BTW Tigress is going to get Furry obsession not seen since Minerva Mink...just watch. Or don't. I won't.) And why are most of these obviously Chinese animals not voiced by Asian actors? Where was George Takei? I'm sure that Shifu could have used a little bit of his trademark sarcatic delivery, particularly when dealing with Jack Black as Panda Po. James Hong was good as the Stork who delivers the noodles...I was hoping there would be a blooper at the end where he says, "You know what the secret ingredient is in the secret ingredient soup? Eyes. Just eyes." Of course, that might go way over the heads of all except film geeks like me, particularly film geeks with a Blade Runner obsession. Another "blooper" that would have been cool would have been to have Monkey have a stunt accident. In the classic Jackie Chan Kung Fu movies, there would always be a stunt accident during the credits. After he stopped doing stunt-heavy movies, the bloopers during the credits would inevitably revolve around flubbed lines, usually due to the difference between phonemes in Chinese and phonemes in English.

However, I was not bugged by Jack Black in the title role. This really was a Jack Black movie, when you get right down to it. Jack Black in School of Rock, not Jack Black in The Pick of Destiny...this is Jack Black being family friendly, not raunchy. Much as I like the occasional artful booger and/or fart joke, there were none here. And there was only a little bit of referential humor, mostly geared around Po's fanboyness and quotes from the canon of great chop-socky cinema.

However: there is a great deal of dubious humor surrounding big folks in this one. Great Pandas in nature are big and rounded and spend most of their time grazing on bamboo leaves and shoots. Eats, shoots, and leaves...remember? Red Pandas are not as rotund, and a bit more graceful. (And Shifu is one, BTW. He's neither a Raccoon nor a Tanuki. Thought I'd clear that up because I was confuzzled about his species.) I don't mind where Po literally throws his weight around...actually I think they should have watched some Sumo to get some ideas what his natural fighting style would be like. But the scenes where he breaks stuff because he's OMG FAT! were gratuitous and 99% of the time unfunny.

Still, if ASIFA-Hollywood doesn't bring the screener around Annie time, I will likely go out and buy a copy. But I will likely be content with the screener.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Boy, that song really sucks!"

This was the line of patter from the album Illegal, Immoral and Fattening by Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylin), two funny guys who used to perform with Frank Zappa, who did a few of their own unique comedy music albums. The song was "Kung Fu Killer," which began with the opening line of a current Top 40 radio song...and this patter...

"Ev'rybody was Kung Fu Fight-ing!" (off key music)

"Boy, that song really sucks!"(laughs and applause)

"You know, we could be of different races and background and stuff,
and we might not have anything at all in common except one thing...
that song su-uuuuuks!

"So if you didn't buy it...and I know I didn't buy it, who the **** bought it?"
(off key music)

"Chinese Negroes, that's who! Watch out for them!"

The problem with Kung Fu Panda is that it does not suck. But it isn't anywhere as good as it should be. And part of it lies in the use of Kung Fu Fighting (with modernized lyrics) as the song over the closing credits. That song is a cliche. So is the story.

It's the same "guy discovers the hero inside him" that is the plot of half the animated features made today. And pretty much all of the Jack Black live-action films as well. Black is the voice of Po, a fat and clumsy panda noodle chef with dreams of being a martial artist, who is selected to train in the supreme dojo. There are already five masters there, with Tigress, Snake, Monkey, Crane and Mantis more-or-less mimicing the real-world martial arts forms named after them.

The master trainer is Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a creature I can't identify, but who looks like a furry Yoda. Just before the senior master of the temple, a turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) shuffles off this mortal coil in a cloud of cherry blossoms, he commands Shifu to train Po, despite Shifu's supreme annoyance at the fat boy. If you've seen any DreamWorks film you know what will happen, especially when a motivation-free bad guy appears.

The best reason for staying with this film are the performances. Black and Hoffman bring chemistry to their relationship. And so do the animators. Shifu finally finds a way to train Po in the martial arts, all involving dumplings, and it's one of the best animated sequences I can recall in a DreamWorks CGI film.

The animation in the rest of the film often runs too fast. This is a martial arts film, and it isn't enough to see a blur of color and motion. You should be able to see the strikes and dodges the characters are performing, no matter how fast it's supposed to occur. (This blurring may disguise Michelle's traditional gripe about DreamWorks animation, the lousy physics of objects in motion.) There's also problems with the background characters. There's a lot of rabbits and geese in the Valley of Peace, and they all seem characterless. Disney's mass-animated mobs from Hunchback of Notre Dame seem to repeat mass motions, but they have more character than the beasties in this film.

There are actors in this film, good actors, playing good characters, who just don't get enough screen time or interactions in the main story. DreamWorks has been guilty of selling films with the actors' names, which I've complained about before. And in a way, it's a good thing that these names were NOT blasted all over the posters for the film:

Angelina Jolie as Tigress
Lucy Liu as Snake
Jackie Chan as Monkey. Yes, Jackie Freaking Chan.
James Hong as Mr. Ping (the goose that's Po's "father")

But...but...BUT! (I'm sputtering now.) Any two of these actors deserve to be the stars of their own animated film! Their characters are fleshed-out and very appealing. I especially liked Tigress, a perfect blend of femininity and ferocity. And Mr. Ping, the noodle restaurant guy, was touchingly honest as the father who didn't understand Po's dreams, but helps him accomplish them anyway.

When the film ended, I missed the supporting characters more than Jack Black (who was playing, as he always does, Jack Black). DreamWorks hasn't had an animated TV series since the disasterous Father of the Pride. Which means that I won't see these guys again in Kung Fu Panda: The Series.

I left the theater with a friend who raved about how wonderful the film was. But I was troubled. These were great characters, great actors, better-than-normal DreamWorks CGI...saddled to a plot strictly for children. With this capability, with these fine performances, why does DreamWorks keep churning out "believe in yourself" stories intended for little kids? Why can't they stretch their horizons to more complicated and interesting plots?

Kung Fu Panda will entertain an animation fan. But like too many animated films, it's a vehicle to get kids to buy Happy Meals and cheap plastic toys from Evil*Mart. And yes, it's ironic that those toys of Chinese heroes are being made by Chinese slave labor, and sold in a way to make all of us Americans slave labor as well.

One film can't change the economy (although voting for principled candidates in the next election would help). But another change for the good might be if DreamWorks, and a few more animation companies, made films that didn't treat us all like deprived first-graders that needed self-esteem lessons. It's time for good characters like these to start appearing in much better stories.

Good singers, good appearance, good choreography. But boy, that song really sucks.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Something to tide you over...

...until the next CG podcast goes live.

Bakshi Exhibit opening, Meltdown Comics, Hollywood, CA, US from Michelle Klein-Hass on Vimeo.

One added note: Vimeo rules. Higher quality than YouTube, a strict "creator content only" policy, and a strong freedom of speech policy with regard to socially or politically controversial but not sexual or violent content. I used to like Ning but Vimeo makes Ning look like a spit-and-bailing-wire hack job. Vimeo will be the new home of any Cartoon Geeks video blogging.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

New podcast on the way...however...

The most SHOCKING animation-related news in years slipped over our transom while Tom Reed, our newest Cartoon Geek Donald Burr, and I were chatting over Skype.

Mike Judge.

May do.


In the immortal words of Beavis: "This sucks. Change it." Or in the equally immortal words of Ren Hoek: "Don't do eet, maaan!"

I mean, come on, we have already seen this before.

Please. No. Don't do it, Mike. We'd love to see another animated B&B movie. But please, not a live action B&B. Please.