Friday, April 16, 2010

If You're Going to Make an Animated Movie . . .

by Stephen Cummings

Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland

Let's get this out of the way up front: the latest version of Alice in Wonderland is not worth seeing. I mean, maybe if you have kids under the age of ten and you want them giggling for an hour and a half over some fantastical creatures galumphing [1] about you could see it, but unfortunately for you and the rest of us, the fantastical creatures don't do anything particularly interesting.

Nor do they look particularly good doing it.

In 1993 — that's 17 years ago, twenty-somethings — Industrial Light & Magic set a new standard for the integration of live-action and digitally generated content with Steven Spielberg's instant classic Jurassic Park. It was incredible. The way those dinosaurs looked like they really were right there with the actors! And about to eat them! And while things have advanced since then, Jurassic Park holds up surprisingly well. Go back and look at it. You can distinguish animated from animatronic because the digital creatures move more naturally, but there are exceedingly few places where you might notice a problem with the lighting or texture (in other words, the thing looking like it's part of its environment). And in fact, the use of both digital and physical versions of the beasts helps to enhance their believability. It's a lesson today's filmmakers should take to heart. While some recent pictures, like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, do combine animation with good-old-fashioned props and suits to stunning effect, too many are relying too heavily on digital imagery, and failing to meet the responsibilities that entails. Remember when Tim Burton used to build sets?

I'm exaggerating, of course, but Burton's latest picture has a serious issue. With so much of every shot being either created or modified digitally, the concern is not so much how to incorporate an animated element into live-action film, as it is how to squeeze Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, and Anne Hathaway into a total unreality. Burton, like so many others, does not meet the seventeen-year-old standard of Jurassic Park, though a more fair comparison might place it with The Phantom Menace, in which it's been noted that 95% of the filmic landscape was created digitally. [2] A still unmet standard, still over a decade old. Clearly, too little effort has been made to bring the animated elements off as "real" — whatever that begins to mean in a film like this — but there are some awkward choices as well. With a head the size of the Queen's, some digital manipulation is obviously necessary, but what about her companion, the Knave? Sure he's a little taller than normal, but Burton's giant in Big Fish was made to look giant without having a fully digital body. And if you're going to animate something as simple as that, why aren't Depp and Hathaway animated too? It has to be admitted that the two look out of place, no matter how made-up they are. And why saddle yourself with the burden of trying to create a photo-real Wasikowska for all those times when Alice does something impossible? When you fail — and Burton did — all you get is a semblance of Alice standing in for the real one. Furthermore, animating the figure provides greater opportunities for stretching and distorting it, but none of the new Alice's transformations are nearly as interesting as those from Disney's 1951 hand-drawn version. If you're not going to take advantage of the freedom offered by animation, why animate? And if you must animate — for . . . budgetary reasons? — why not take advantage? And if you're going to animate just about everything anyway, why not just animate everything? Why not make an animated film?

Like its title character, this film suffers from a confusion over what it wants to be. And it's not just the animation issue. For instance, you might think that with a foundation built of Lewis Carroll's famously bizarre Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with direction by none other than the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands — you might think there must be something a little off about this newest, wonderful Wonderland, something askance, uncomfortable, or disturbed. Yes! the Queen's head is much too large. And Johnny Depp's eyeballs are opaque! Surely there must be something disquieting driving this uneasy place! But there isn't. The Queen's bad, so's the Knave, everyone else is trapped, Alice please save us you're the chosen one, end of story, yawn. If you want complexity, you'll have to look elsewhere.

But that's not to say there isn't a subtext. There's confusion there too. Alice spends her time in this film learning to accept her place in the preordained structure of Underland (as it's been rechristened for 2010). She must fulfill the prophecy and slay the Jabberwock, however much she swears she won't, and in the end she does. Taking this lesson with her to the surface — that is, back out of the rabbit hole — Alice has no choice but to . . . reject her place in the social hierarchy and follow her own path. Wait. What? (Maybe it's about the difference between real responsibility in the imaginary world, and imagined responsibility in the real world?)

Disneyfication these days is worse than it used to be. The most Tim Burtony thing about this film — aside from the obligatory pairing of Depp with Helena Bonham Carter — is Danny Elfman's score, which provides a promisingly eerie introduction to a film that thereafter shies away from true oddness in favor of the non-controversial. And, as the credits begin to roll, whatever mood Elfman had managed to hold on to is totally shattered by Avril Lavigne.

Damn, Alice is empowered now.

So, fate or self-determination? Tim Burton or the Walt Disney Corporation? Make up your mind. And I maintain, if you're going to make an animated movie, do it.

  1. 'Galumphing', by the way, is one delightful word from Jabberwocky which, unless I'm mistaken, did not find its way into the film.
  2. David Norman Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), 106.


  1. What do you think of the animated stylized world of 300? What about Sin City? Films like that, I think, have taken advantage of the available technology in all the right ways, much like Jurassic Park did.

    How do you feel about actors being the basis for ultimately animated characters a la Avatar (with their motion-capture face balls)?

  2. 300 and Sin City accomplished everything they set out to do visually. They're examples of what can be done as the medium comes to it's fullest maturity, wherein truly anything is possible.

    As for the motion capture characters, I have no problem with that. If it's quicker, or cheaper to make a Na'vi that way, why not? Saves the actors from four hours of makeup everyday. The responsibility that comes with this though, is to make everything hang together in a deliberate way (and 'deliberate' can range anywhere from Jurassic Park to Sin City to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). Avatar did a pretty good job, but there were still plenty of moments when things weren't quite gelling together.