Lost Among Europeans

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Animation’s new clothes

Finally I managed to watch The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which, together with Ponyo and Up, seems to have been one of the great animation films of the past year. It was the one I hadn’t yet seen. The three of them have received almost universal acclaim, and tomatometer scores above 90%, a rare thing. And yet, all three have disappointed me.

Up was very hard to watch whole. After a nice beginning, it went the way all Disney movies seem to go lately: it became a chase movie. The chase, as of late, has become to Disney movies what gratuitous watered-down sex scenes were to the dramas of the nineties. The chase in Up is so exhausting that the villain makes Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction seem pusillanimous.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is much more imaginative, and quite interesting. But I find clay-mation hard to watch. The constant irregularity of the figurines is very distracting to my eyes; exhausting. Many of the jokes are self references to Wes Anderson’s type of film. What would happen if Max, from Rushmore, were a clay figurine? I find Mr. Fox more an exercise in cineculture than a film to enjoy on its own.

Ponyo I have liked better than the recent Miyazaki films. It’s not as overtly metaphoric and moralistic, closer to My Neighbor Totoro than to Spirited Away. The artwork is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen recently, and seems to be made of the stuff of dreams. The weak point for Miyazaki is narrative rhythm. After a very enjoyable beginning and middle, the film is resolved, unconvincingly, in a couple of minutes. But Ponyo is, in my opinion, the best of these three.

What I don’t quite understand is the universal acclaim. Granted, there are not so many good films each year, but I think animation is getting a lot of help from critics. It reminds me of a very good review I read of the movie The Producers, adapted from the Broadway show: “Now, many big musicals represent the lowest common denominator: theme park attractions for tourists. The movie audience, I suspect, is more discriminating.”

I think the same critical blindness toward musicals is affecting animation. Suddenly, every animation film that is not unbearable for adults is lauded as a pearl of art, beauty and wisdom. That screenplay, character development and rhythm are not demanded is a slap in the face to the animation films that are truly good. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, The Jungle Book, Bambi, My Neighbor Totoro, are as good as any film can be. No excuses.