Monday, 26 July 2004

Animated Feature Films

Growing up, I did not see very many animated feature films. On the one hand, there were a lot fewer animated movies being released in the late Sixties and Seventies than there are now. In fact, is seems to me that during the average year, the only animated film that might be released would be Disney's latest outing. On the other hand, my parents never went to the movies. I really don't know why this was, but they simply did not attend the cinema. This means that I missed every single re-release of a Disney feature as a child and every new Disney movie as well. In fact, I didn't go see movies in theatres on a regular basis until I was about 12.

In fact, the only Disney animated feature film I remember from childhood is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which adapted both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows. For whatever reason, they showed it on The Wonderful World of Disney from time to time. Why they showed The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but not the other Disney classics, I can't say. I have heard that Walt Disney did not particularly want his classic films shown on television. Indeed, insofar as I know, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has never aired on TV, not even on the Disney Channel. Regardless, I always loved The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows. The animation is superb and I still find the stories compelling, even as an adult.

Disney did eventually start showing the classic Disney films on television, but by that time I was a young adult. The first Disney feature besides The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad I saw on TV was either Dumbo or Alice in Wonderland. Both aired in the Eighties on The Wonderful World of Disney (or whatever title it was using at that time). I loved both movies and love them still. Of course, the Disney Channel has shown many of the classic Disney movies over the year. It was there that I got to see Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and a few others. And the advent of the VCR has allowed me to see nearly every classic Disney film. It was on VHS that I first saw Sleeping Beauty, perhaps my favourite Disney feature of all time. To me it is an absolutely beautiful movie, with great animation and a good plot. It even has a bit of swordplay! Of course, I did eventually get to see a Disney film in the theatre. On its 50th anniversary re-release I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I thought the movie was quite impressive in terms of story, music, and animation, particularly as it was the first major animated feature ever released. At the moment, I think the only Disney classic I have not seen is Pinnochio. That is a shame, as I understand it is perhaps the best one of them all.

Beyond The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the first animated feature I ever saw was Yellow Submarine (of which I have written in this blog earlier). As a child the movie captured my imagination. I was already a Beatles fan and the Sixties, Pop Art, psychedelic animation style appealed greatly to me. I also loved the story, a loose plot involving The Beatles journeying aboard the Submarine to save Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. To this day, Yellow Submarine is one of my favourite animated films, if not my favourite.

The first animated feature film I saw in a theatre was not suitable for children at all. I was 18 when Heavy Metal was released. Heavy Metal was based on the adult graphic magazine (somehow the word "comic book" just doesn't fit) of the same name. The magazine tended to be very adult in tone, with occasional doses of sex and violence. The movie was no different. Regardless, I was very impressed with Heavy Metal when it first debuted. I thought it was perhaps the greatest animated feature of all time (not that I had seen that many at that point). Having watched it recently, I cannot say that I am quite as impressed. The animation is still very impressive. And the music is still as good as ever. Unfortunately, when it comes to the actual stories, the movie is very uneven in quality. Some of them are quite good. Others are not.

Another animated feature from the same era is the cult film Rock and Rule. Rock and Rule was a Canadian feature that had poor distribution here in the United States. I saw it several times on HBO in the Eighties myself. Rock and Rule took place in a post-apocalyptic future in which an evil rock star/magician (Mok) kidnaps a singer (Angel) whose voice can summon a demon. To her rescues comes down on his luck singer Omar and his band. It has been years since I have seen Rock and Rule, but I recall that the quality of animation is slightly uneven. Some of the animation is quite good, with a real attention to details. Other times it is not so good. What Rock and Rule might lack in animation, it more than makes up for in story, dialogue, and particularly the music. Rock and Rule is essentially a rock opera, with Cheap Trick doing the songs for Omar, Blondie doing the songs for Angel, Lou Reed doing the songs for Mok, and Iggy Pop doing the song for the demon. The musical artists did some of their best songs for this movie, in particular Cheap Trick's "Born to Raise Hell" and the duet between Robin Zander and Deborah Harry, "The Signal." Rock and Rule is not yet available on DVD, although Unearthed Films is supposed to release it sometime. I am hoping that they will do so soon!

Of course, like any sci-fi/fantasy fan, I would eventually discover anime. For those of you not in the know, "anime" is simply the Japanese word for "animation." In English speaking countries, it simply used for any Japanese animation, from TV shows like Astro Boy to movies like Spirited Away. I must point out that to a degree the term is misleading, in that it implies anime is a genre of animation. This is not the case. Anime or Japanese animation has as many genres, if not more, as American and European animation. Anyhow, like most Americans, the first Japanese feature I saw was Akira. I was amazed. Here was a film with great animation, a complex story, and even philosophical implications. To this day I love Akira. It is one of the greatest animated films of all time in my humble opinion. Another great animated film and one of my favourites is Ninja Scroll. Ninja Scroll is a fantasy set in medieval Japan, in which a ninja is forced to cooperate with his archenemy in a plot to usurp the Japanese government. Ninja Scroll essentially plays out like a good action movie, complete with one of the most tragic romances of all time on film. The extreme violence of the film might leave some cold, but I suspect that there are many who would find it quite compelling.

Of course, the past several years have seen the rise of computer animation. Pixar is perhaps the king of computer animation. I have loved every Pixar film to come out. What makes Pixar great is that they remember that behind every great animated film is a great story with great characters. Indeed, the characters in Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo are better developed than in many live action films. Of course, Dreamworks has given Pixar a run for their money. In my opinion, Shrek is one of the best movies to come out in years.

While I did not get to see many animated features as a child, I have become a bit of an animation aficionado as an adult. I can't name how many animated features I have seen--the movies mentioned here only scratch the surface. At any rate, I will continue to seek them out. Even with today's computerised special effects, animation can offer views into worlds that live action films could not possibly capture on film.

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