Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Apparently "Princess" won't be the last drawn animated feature at Disney

Right now, The Princess and the Frog is in extremely limited release, showing at the Ziegfield Theatre in New York City and at the biggest screening room at The Walt Disney Company Studio in Burbank. The latter is history-making: the first time the studio has been opened to a public event. However, this Friday is the big day for the movie, the first hand-drawn animated feature for Disney since the ill-fated Home On The Range.

Thankfully it looks like it won't be the last. Disney has committed to at least two more drawn features, and hints are that more will be on the way.

The first one does not sound promising: yet another go-round with Winnie The Pooh. Disney has had more luck than they're entitled to with their bastardization of AA Milne's gentle classics, and the residents of the Hundred-Acre Wood are a bunch of tame characters, albeit tame characters with neuroses.

But the second announced feature is more promising. It is The Snow Queen, the first traditional fairy tale the Disney Animation people have taken on in years. No "attitude," no modernization, no Jazzing it up, this will be a fairy tale taken straight out of the Eastern European classic tale.

A character that elegant and with that much realism would fail horribly in CGI because inevitably it would fall right down into the Uncanny Valley. Animators have found that in order to make an appealing CGI character you have to go the opposite direction from realism into cartooniness. This is why Up's humans succeeded. This is why The Incredibles' humans succeeded. This is why every freaking Zemeckis CGI opus has failed miserably. Even Jim Carrey's rubber-faced brilliance could not save the Zemeckis A Christmas Carol from being a zombie puppet show. It is why I don't hold much hope for Avatar in spite of all the hype and the admittedly beautiful visuals. I was not a fan of the feature-length Blue Sky Pictures version of Horton Hears A Who, but the Dr. Seuss derived character designs were definitely on the cartoony side and worked.

However, drawn animation abstracts us enough from flesh and blood reality to make character designs like that work. One need only look to Japan to see the realistic design of many of their action-adventure characters working brilliantly. I'm thinking of Batou and Kusanagi in Ghost In The Shell and the officers at NERV in Evangelion 1.0. If you remade Eva and Ghost in CGI and kept the same kind of drawing style you'd wind up where Squaresoft took the Final Fantasy movies...right down into the Uncanny Valley.

The Japanese have shown us that drawn animation definitely has a place, no matter what Jeffery Katzenberg says. It's good that Disney is not placing all their traditional animation chips on Princess and the Frog no matter what the speculation up to now has been. It seems like Lasseter and Iger believe 2D has a place in this 3D obsessive world of American animation. And that makes me feel real good about the future of American animation.

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