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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.