The New Golden Age of Animation

June 10, 2009

Up

The lovely big wigs at Disney, who’ve almost entirely homogenized animated film for the past 50 years, can once again reap the benefits of what is undoubtedly the industry’s smartest partnership of the past few decades.  Pixar’s Up, Disney’s saving grace in terms of commercial success and artistic innovation, proved to be a huge financial success, earning $68.1 million in the box office its opening weekend.  As of June 9, its domestic gross is a commendable $141.9 million.

The film continues Pixar’s tradition of exploring new narrative and thematic territory.  Between its devastating opening scenes and its jarring action sequences, it is undoubtedly the most poignant and emotionally exhaustive in the studio’s repertoire.

Since Toy Story, the first feature length composed using entirely Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was released theatrically in 1995, Pixar have dominated in what some are professing is the new golden age of animation.

Wall-E

Wall-E

Last year, Wall-E set the standard with its daring script and painstaking attention to detail.  The remains of an unsustainable Earth are portrayed with arresting realism.  Everything, down to the dirt and rust on our wide-eyed artificial hero, appears tangible.

With Up, the rendering of the real-life has improved.  We see the intricate stitches and wrinkles of fabrics, the unkempt stubble on an old man’s face, and the incredible subtlety of shadows and lighting.  Never before has a computer animated film felt so full of life.

In terms of integrity, few commercially successful filmmakers present themselves as worthy contemporaries to Pixar’s animation team.

The most talked about is probably Hayao Miyazaki and his film company, Studio Ghibli (whose American distribution rights are controlled by none other than Disney).  Miyazaki’s introduction to the American mainstream, the wonderfully imaginative Spirited Away, was met with awe and enthusiasm in 2001.  In many ways he improved with 2004’s film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle.  Miyazaki’s latest, and purportedly his last, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is scheduled for American theatrical release this August.

While Miyazaki is undoubtedly the most celebrated of Japan’s animated filmmakers, U.S. audiences have been notably entranced by the genre as a whole.  Mad House studios is another buzzworthy contributor, specificially the work of Satoshi Kon.  In 2001, he unleashed an animated drama of epic proportions, the brilliantly concieved Millennium Actress.  As good as anything Miyazaki has ever made, it tells the story of a woman whose life in the “golden era” film industry is characterized by an unclear distinction between reality and fiction.  While arguably Kon’s masterwork, it was his follow-up, the offbeat Tokyo Godfathers, that really got American audiences talking.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Other parts of the world are contributing their unique visions.  In 2003, French traditional animator Sylvain Chomet achieved minor international success with The Triplets of Belleville.  He also has an anticipated new feature length in the works, The Illusionist, which features an unfinished script from legendary french mime and filmmaker Jacques Tati.  The realized feature is scheduled for release this year.

Fellow French animator/director Marjane Satrapi offered another unique, and markedly more adult perspective in the medium with the autobiographical and critically lauded Persepolis in 2007.

There’s also been a market for animation of the stop motion variety, largely driven by the work of UK-based Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), and reaching a whole new level with Henry Selick’s magical Coraline, released in 3D this past February.

Despite high acclaim in film and animation circles, Pixar dwarfs these filmmakers in terms of monetary draw.  Dreamworks is the studio’s top commercial competitor.  Their Shrek series dominates the top 5 of the highest domestic grossing animated features of the past 30 years.  But when it comes to critical reception, the studio has mixed success.

That said, the influence of Pixar can not be understated.  And if their last 3 films are any indication, the mainstream moviegoer appears to be accepting a more grown up approach in animation – where things like death and personal loss are just as palpable as life and self actualization.  The possibilities in the field have not seemed so limitless since 1937.  Dare I say, things are looking up.