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Films
by Kathi Maio

A Labor of Love—and Thumbs

YOU DON'T have to be a Luddite to distrust technology as the ultimate tool for all human endeavor. Computers make the running of the most elaborate scientific sequences a practical reality (completing the most complex computations while the scientist is still young enough to figure out what they mean). And they do a bang-up job of balancing a checkbook, too.

But as for the art and craft of animated filmmaking, the jury—at least the one I'm sitting on—is still out. Over the years of doing this column, I've marveled, like everyone else, at how far CGI has come, and how well it can now be integrated into live-action films. Although I had my issues with the LOTR trilogy, I was duly impressed by the character of Gollum. The performance-capture (aka motion capture, or mo-cap) of the acting of Andy Serkis, and its translation into a deformed digital character that seemed even more developed than Frodo or Aragorn, was a wonder.

I felt the same way about the impressive performance of Alan Tudyk as the enigmatic Sonny in the otherwise negligible I, Robot. However, is it a good thing that the CGI robot was so much more interesting and believable than the (largely) human protagonist played by Will Smith? I think not. It somehow made the many shortcomings of the film seem even more apparent.

And when more than one significant mo-cap performance is put in a film, it seems to create even more possibilities for failure. Movies like last year's Polar Express showed that populating an entire film with mo-cap characters produces a movie that's downright creepy. (And not in a good way.)

On the other hand, movies like Shrek 1 and 2 and last year's The Incredibles give me new hope for out-and-out computer animation. Cartoons created by talented artists and writers using computer technology can work—and work beautifully. But that doesn't mean I'm ready to abandon the old ways.

There is something about hand-crafted art that lends it a special enchantment. Would Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant work have the same warmth and wonder if it came entirely from cyberspace? Luckily, we will likely never know, since the brilliant Mr. Miyazaki seems intent on making a last stand as a master of hand-drawn cell animation. (Although even he has acknowledged, somewhat philosophically, that his is "a dying craft.")

Much as I hate to disagree with such a great sensei of animated art, I hope that he is wrong about hand-drawn animation dying. And I would hope that many of the traditional crafts of animation will somehow live long and prosper in the twenty-first century. If you'd asked me whether I was hopeful on that score a few months ago, I probably would have said no. But today I am in a much cheerier frame of mind. At least about one form of traditional animation, known as stop-motion.

Born in the earliest days of film, stop-motion model animation came of age in the hands of artist Willis O'Brien (The Lost World, 1925; King Kong, 1933) who helped train the mid-twentieth-century master, Ray Harryhausen (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953; Jason and the Argonauts, 1963). But that was then, and this is now.

Since the sixties, stop-motion work has been more a matter of nostalgia than anything else. Baby boomers and their kids and grandkids enjoy rewatching the Rankin/Bass TV classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). But pulling an old cartoon out of mothballs every holiday season doesn't really foster the continuation of an art.

However, there are two men who grew up watching Harryhausen and Rankin/Bass who were interested in keeping stop-motion alive. And both of them, bless their hearts, released films through major studios in the early autumn of this past year.

Tim Burton, that master of the offbeat and comically macabre, is one of them. Burton, who was trained as an animator, is, of course, much better known for live-action filmmaking. Nevertheless, with the help of director Henry Selick, writers Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson, composer Danny Elfman, and scores and scores of technicians, artisans, and actors, he did create a lovely little film called The Nightmare Before Christmas back in 1993.

Although the film did only adequate box office when it was first released, it is a case study in the glories of film aftermarket. While I am not privy to the financial breakdowns, I am absolutely certain that the film's big money and lasting influence, as well as an insured backing for Burton's next stop-mo feature came from sales of videos and an elaborate line of tchotchkes, figurines, and memorabilia that continue to do very well with the geek-goth crowd to this very day.

Whatever works.

Tim Burton's name is above the title—nay, is part of the title—but he had little to do with the day-to-day creation of Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Although credited as co-director, as well as the co-creator (along with noted animation artist, Carlos Grangel) of the movie's characters, Burton was actually working on his Charlie remake during much of the film's lengthy production. While Burton was immersed in a vat of chocolate, another team lead by director Mike Johnson did the extremely labor-intensive work on creating the feature.

And what a feature it is! Gruesome, yet romantic, it is Dickens by way of Edward Gorey—with song and dance. In short, despite Burton's lack of daily involvement, Corpse Bride is very much a Tim Burton film in both tone and content. That means that very young children may not know what to make of this morbid "cartoon," but adult animation fans and geek-goth audiences worldwide will enjoy themselves immensely.

The film opens as two sets of selfish parents, one aristocratic and penniless, the other nouveau riche merchants (fishmongers, no less), arrange the marriage of their two pallid offspring. Victor Van Dort (voiced by Burton's male muse, Johnny Depp) is a shy, natural scientist. He dreads his role as sacrificial groom until he meets his prospective bride, the gentle and waifish Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson).

It looks like an arranged marriage that just might work out. But poor stressed Victor keeps flubbing his vows, and when he runs off to the nearby spooky-ooky woods to practice them under the stern glances of a murder of crows, he ends up pledging his troth to a young woman, the title cadaverous bride, who lies buried in a shallow grave before him.

Boy meets Ghoul and is immediately whisked to an underworld that is both more colorful and more lively than the gray and repressed land of the living above. Death really doesn't look so bad. Not on Emily, the corpse bride (Burton's own bride, Helena Bonham Carter), anyway. With her lively personality and blue-hued beauty, it is clear that death becomes her. (And what's not to love about detachable limbs and a Peter Lorre-ish pet maggot who pops out of her eye for a bit of commentary?) Emily's Blithe Spirit makes the ensuing love triangle a more difficult choice than you'd think.

Corpse Bride is a bit less operatic than Nightmare Before Christmas, but frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman still contributes several songs that serve the plot well, even if they aren't particularly memorable numbers.

All in all, Corpse Bride's story is both involving and amusing. However, those looking for traditional cartoon slapstick and hijinks should look elsewhere (like a few paragraphs further in this column.) The ending, too, is far from the wacky upbeat finales we have come to expect from most American studio animated features. The conclusion here is sweetly elegiac, and quite moving.

But it is the look of the film that most impresses. Burton's many collaborators have made significant strides in stop-motion animation. Some digital enhancements were utilized, but in most instances the film was still hand-crafted through painstaking frame-by-frame puppet animation. It's just that new silicon skins make the figures used seem even more eerily lifelike. And a more modern internal joint and gear works have made facial expressions all the more subtle and body movements more fluid. Production designer Alex McDowell and associates also deserve kudos for the film's thirty-five highly atmospheric settings.

A stop-mo movie this beautiful to look at would be worth watching no matter what it had to say. But the fact that the film tells an engaging story that delves into Tim Burton's favorite themes makes it all the more meaningful. Like Beetlejuice back in 1988, Corpse Bride tells us that the Dead R Us, and that's nothing to fret about. Furthermore, misfits (needless to say, the most interesting folks around) can eventually find sustenance, even happiness, when they find one another.

Two odd blokes who make a formidable and endearing team can also be found in the film work of Nick Park. Many years ago, while a student at Britain's National Film and Television School, young Mr. Park molded a bald and big-toothed gent named Wallace (always voiced with folksy English charm by Peter Sallis) and teamed him with a long-suffering (and much brighter) hound named Gromit. The two mismatched housemates have appeared in several short films over the last sixteen years—two of which, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" won Oscars as best animated shorts.

When Park, one of the leading lights of the Aardman animation studio, joined forces with DreamWorks in LaLaLand, he was initially reluctant to commit his beloved Wallace and Gromit to the Hollywood feature treatment. So Park's first feature was Chicken Run (2000), a brilliant homage to The Great Escape featuring the brave and resourceful inmates of a stalag-like chicken coop.

Now, finally, we have a Wallace and Gromit feature. And it was worth the wait. In its own way, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is also a homage to old movies. In this case, old Universal creature features, as well as schlocky British horror. Park has said that his is the first vegetarian Hammer Horror flick. For the filmmaker's monster is a giant bunny who lays waste to village gardens right before the Giant Vegetable Competition at the estate of the animal- and veggie-loving Lady Tottington (like the Corpse Bride, voiced to perfection by Helena Bonham Carter).

On the bunny trail, hoping to guard all "veg," large and small, is the intrepid Wallace and faithful Gromit. They now run a humane pest control business called Anti-Pesto, and they suck up all errant rabbits with their Bun-Vac 6000, another of Wallace's zany inventions. The Bun-Vac works quite well, without harming a single little fluffy. Wallace's new brainwashing device is much less successful, and leads to the complications of the plot.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a traditional cartoon, full of puns and pratfalls, fever-pitched chases, and generally goofy goings-on. It is also gloriously traditional in terms of its stop-mo production values.

Although Park, co-director Steve Box, and their extensive crew, like Corpse Bride's creators, make judicious and very limited use of computerized CGI, there is a purposeful low-tech and roughly hand-hewn look to this delightful film. Park has called this slightly lumpy and uneven look "thumby," and you really get a sense of fingers working Plasticine as you watch Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The craft isn't hidden or smoothed away here. Yet, surprisingly perhaps, the exposed technique makes the movie even more magical.

Like Burton, Nick Park also has ongoing themes in his films. And many of the filmmaker's repeating motifs are designed to encourage humans to show animals a little compassion and respect. These ideas are most obviously expressed in Park's Academy Award-winning rumination on zoo confinement, Creature Comforts (1989), as well as the aforementioned Chicken Run. But the themes are also ever-present in the relationship between Wallace and his silent and wise canine companion. And in Were-Rabbit, there is the added conflict between the humane Anti-Pesto team and the blood-thirsty villain of the piece, a slimy, aristocratic hunter named Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), who wants nothing better than to blast the bunnies to kingdom come.

Compassion isn't a value most cartoons can boast. It's nice to see it openly expressed in the works of Nick Park. And it's even more satisfying to see the imprint of his thumb in the side of Wallace's bald pate.

When it comes to animation, the old ways are still very fine ways. It does my heart good to see that two well-respected filmmakers are keeping a proud tradition flourishing.

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