Mickey Mouse first ripped off Buster Keaton to impress the kiddies in 1926’s “Steamboat Willie,” and it wasn’t long after that that Bugs, Elmer and the merrie melodymakers were sketching out more sophisticated yuks for little ones and adults alike. Nowadays animated films in the U.S. have largely devolved into cheap babysitters, too cloying for parental consumption. It’s a step in the right direction that the Hollywood machine has absorbed high-quality ‘toon houses like Pixar and Aardman Studios, but for every acclaimed “Finding Nemo” or “Wallace and Gromit,” three more strident “Madagascar” knock-offs have barreled down the pipeline. Is there any hope for grown-ups and older kids with refined tastes to appreciate the art of animation without a squealing farm/zoo/wildlife animal in sight?
You betcha, and the key word there is “art.” Finding life along the major festival circuit and even some noteworthy theatrical releases across the country, a fresh crop of animated features are demonstrating darker, more mature, and downright arthouse sensibilities. First, let’s not forget (even if its buzz has long waned) this past spring’s “A Scanner Darkly,” Richard Linklater’s lysergic, quite literate adaptation of sci-fi demigod Philip K. Dick’s paranoid drug-noir classic, which utilizes a rotoscoping technique to transform Keanu’s scruff and Winona’s breasts into vibrant surfaces with wiggly contours. That it barely left a box-office dent is probably attributed less to its queasy illustrations than to its high-brow plottings, an alienating no-no in the stupidity-embracing sociopolitical climate we seem to be living under. (Maybe part-time animator Mike Judge should make a movie about said idiocracy? Nah, that would never get released.)
Less bubbly but just as hyperstylized in its motion-capture renderings, Miramax’s gorgeous French import “Renaissance” opens this weekend in New York and L.A. Sold to its producers based on a four-minute screen test, director Christian Volckman’s cyberpunk conspiracy-thriller takes place in the labyrinthine sprawl of Paris, 2054, a daunting tech-tropolis as bleakly expressionistic as it is 19th-century retro. Critically speaking, neither its McGuffin-lite intrigue nor A-list voiceovers (led by Daniel 007 Craig) are half as fascinating as the film’s stencil-sharp palette and virtuosity, which manage to convey visual depth and human emotion with only the colors black, white and nary a delineating shade of grey. Forget about “Sin City” this is what a two-tone Frank Miller graphic novel might actually look like transposed to the big screen.
It seems impossible to bring up inventive pixel-making without invoking the name Hayao Miyazaki, but the Japanese master was too busy building “Howl’s Moving Castle” to add his ink-and-cel genius to “Tales From Earthsea” (a/k/a “Gedo senki”), which premiered earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival. Still, Studio Ghibli lives on through the family line as Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s eldest, mildly estranged son) makes the leap from a background in forestry and museum design (?) to helm his feature debut. Largely sourced from the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s popular fantasy series, this somber-faced parable of Japan’s youth culture chronicles a bloodstained prince’s journey through a realm of wizards, dragons and alt-medieval tropes. Rumors say that what this potentially G- or PG-rated fable lacks in capriciousness, it makes up for in family-friendly crossover appeal, so expect a celeb-redubbed American version to entirely negate it from this round-up in 2009. Oh yeah, that’s the soonest the film can play in the U.S., after the Sci-Fi Channel’s copyright on their own “Earthsea” series expires.
Coming ’round the bend next is the 44th New York Film Festival, whose notoriously snooty selection committee somehow found it in their elitist hearts to include the Japanimated “Paprika” in their programming schedule. Directed by the always-interesting Satoshi Kon (“Perfect Blue,” “Tokyo Godfathers”), this heady exploration of perception, memory and the controlling powers of the subconscious focuses on the titularly nicknamed female detective and an experimental device allowing shrinks to enter their patient’s dreamscapes. Those familiar with Kon’s past work (especially his crackerjack “Millennium Actress”) should expect shifting realities, identities and logic systems, but what’s to make of the baffling NYFF synopsis that describes it as a “head-on collision between Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick?” Most will have to wait and see after fest reviews roll in over the next few weeks, or check it out for yourself when Sony Pictures shakes out its spices in early 2007.
Most decidedly not for kids of any age, Danish first-timer Anders Morgenthaler’s “Princess” is a sex-industry psychodrama that avoids the label “exploitation film” because it’s, um… actively against exploitation? A guilt-ridden priest returns home after his porn star sister dies of a drug overdose, then goes on a brutal crusade with his abused five-year-old niece to rid the world of all pornography involving his sibling’s likeness. Deeply distressing and yet deliriously entertaining, this anime-inspired commentary on the consumptive evils of commercial smut is a paradox of themes as well as form: though 80% of the film is animated, the remaining 20% consists of live-action flashbacks, and all 100% opened the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes this year. Can it be, two decades after “Akira” began America’s love affair with anime, that the medium is capable of intellectually and emotionally transcending its fanboy pegs? At the very least, Tartan will prove they’ve got a pair when “Princess” opens in U.S. theaters next year.
On a final related note, the most gonzo animated feature yet heard of has to be Joe Bum-jin’s “Aachi and Ssipak,” a futuristic South Korean comedy that takes place in a world powered by human poop and anally surveilled by a government that rewards everyone with addictive popsicles. No word yet on when this MTV-licensed insanity will be unleashed upon us, but the official recipe looks to be a mix of one part “Rugrats” (stay with me on this), two parts “Akira,” and cooked under a Ralph Bakshi glaze. Official site here, if you dare.