Tag Archives: aladdin

Save Animation!

Animation, 2D and 3D, works best when it has a distinct visual feel to it, a recognizable palette that forever after becomes synonymous with its name and characters, an array of shapes and motifs that help make it distinguishable from other features. Disney’s 1997 ‘Hercules’, for instance, had ancient Greece etched even into the chins and shins of the characters. In that remarkable work of art, if a pot broke, the puff of dust would be a series of lines right out of a Grecian Urn.

Disney's 'Hercules' (1997)

‘Pocahontas’ also had a very marked sensation of its own. Think ‘Pocahontas’, think bold symmetry and rich texture, think elemental forms and dramatic colours lifted from totemic masks. Inspired by a beautiful culture that strikes me as shy and strongly individualistic at the same time, its straight, heavy oaks and thick beams of sunlight provide a stunning backdrop to the story. These are animated films that my memory stored more in terms of the strong visual impression that they left than anything else. This is not to say that the plot or characterization were weak, it’s just that the first jolt of remembrance usually brings back the most basic, overall feel or flavor of anything. The details unfold only subsequently.

Concept Art from Disney's 'Pocahontas'

Where most animated features of today fail is this domain. They give you fast-paced action, smart-talking characters voiced (and completely possessed!) by celebrities, one-liners, fancy slow-motion sequences, sultry acoustic songs playing where, in the Disney tradition, a whole musical would have taken place, CGI gloss and crispness, a gazillion references to pop-culture, mini-parodies, mini-commercials…almost everything under the sun except for a good ol’ dose of defining, hard-to-forget visual imagery. Take ‘Shrek’, take ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’, even ‘Up’ to some extent. Entertaining. Not exactly memorable. You forget them like that Coke you just had.

And no, their being 3D has nothing to do with it. Hardcore animators like Glen Keane prove that; Disney’s forthcoming ‘Tangled’ is a 3D animation but as grounded in fine art as the 2D films from Disney’s golden age. Its entire feel is determined by Fragonard’s painting ‘the Swing’, a Rococo landmark, fresh and pretty like bright cream squiggles on a sunset-pink cake. From what I’ve seen of ‘Tangled’ stills so far, it’s apparent that this inspiration is never lost. There’s something of ‘the Swing’ in every shot. And, thankfully, the animators have not felt it incumbent on them to interpret 3D as realistic. There is a degree of stylization that has been missing for far too long from the screen!

'The Swing' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. 1767

Production still from Disney's forthcoming 3D feature 'Tangled'

In order to set a tone to a story and bring about any kind of coherence, you need to draw your colours, costumes, makeup, props and sets from the same well. If your story is set in Arab, your characters and architecture, even your skies and trees and flowers and bees need to assert that. If it is China, your tableau needs to have negative spaces as pregnant with force and mystery as those in the most familiar of Chinese watercolour landscapes (makers of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’, kudos!). If your tale has its origins in Celtic lore, you need to get that across unrestrainedly to your audience. You need to not just talk about the designs from a Celtic manuscript, you need to mould the stage and the actors in their shape (hail ‘The Secret of Kells’ for doing precisely this).

Animated films, like their live-action counterparts, need to really be set aside from each other in a world that is growing irritatingly reliant on second-hand storytelling and disturbing computer-generated realism at the expense of artistic achievement.

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Prince of Persia: One Jump Ahead?

What’s princely about it:

  • the hoppity-hop-hop chase sequences. They’re something right out of the earliest, platform-game version I remember playing as a kid. At times, I swear I could almost hear those neat old video-game sounds that accompany a leap or a fall or Mario-gobbling-up-a-coin moment.
  • all that sand! There’s a bronzed glory to all the places and faces. In the absence of strong concept art, the distinctly dusky gold colour palette is the only thing that leaves an impression. By the end you feel like you just dismounted a camel that had been running hysterically across the dunes of Persian deserts in a sandstorm.
  • that winning smile. I don’t know if the resemblance was a deliberate move on Disney’s part, but Jake Gyllenhaal, with his big, round cartoony eyes and disarmingly boyish smile came close to being a live-action Aladdin (or, as the Genie would have said, ‘Al’). He’s absolutely likeable, and pulls off the greasy-haired look almost as well as Viggo Mortensen in Lotr (and that’s saying something!)
  • the selfless-sacrifice-syndrome. Yes, there’s one of these in almost every flick. There were more of these than were necessary in this one.  However, Seso’s heroism in the chamber where the dagger is being guarded by a Hassansin with super-cool-pointy-throwy-things is effective.

What’s not:

  • that wretched dagger! A button? A red button? Really? They could have taken the dagger one jump ahead of the LED toys being sold at sunday-bazaars by maybe going for a more dignified mechansim, like a handle that had to be twisted. And the anything-but-discreet glow that the dagger emitted…well, let’s just say the dagger-seekers wouldn’t ever have had to say ‘Is this a dagger i see before me?’ (‘Macbeth’ fans say ‘Aye!’)
  • the clumsy gaurdians-of-the-dagger lore. You really cannot give a tale epic dimensions just by introducing a vague, scrappy creation-story into it. Mythologies are not spun overnight. If the filmmakers were indeed looking for grand old roots for their story, they should have dug deeper into Persian literature and not just skimmed over it like a seagull in a hurry, fishing out only a couple of names like ‘Dastan’ or ‘Alamut’.
  • Elizabeth Swann cloned (as if one wasn’t enough!) Princess Tamina is a less skinny but equally shrill and scatterbrained version of Elizabeth Swann who, too, starts out as a dignified young lady with her head held high, and ends up as a pile of dirty rags that nags.