There is a fourth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as watching Toy Story in your pajamas. It is the middle ground between taste and talent, between sound and vibration, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his pop cultural knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call… THE FOURTH PLANE.
It’s often you’ll meet someone from the generation just beyond the first 1990 birthdays who cares for animation with fondness into adulthood. We were born with the Disney Renaissance, myself days from the premiere of The Lion King. But what sets us apart is the fact that we didn’t grow up with Disney. It’s where we started.
As our cognizance grew of what separated films we liked and films we didn’t, the studio that emerged was– you guessed it, Pixar. Our relationship with the Disney Classics was on home video, but Pixar was cranking original after original in the early two thousands. I recall seeing Finding Nemo in the theatres with my brother, and going with my mom and a friend to see The Incredibles the very next year. And with Pixar came John Lasseter.
There will come a time when I delve deeper into John Lasseter, the man and the boy, but now it’s only important that I discuss what he did besides of course head Pixar, then be pulled onto Disney Animation as well (please, these are two disparate studios. Brave is not a Disney Movie and Wreck-it-Ralph is not a Pixar). One of the most important things he did to bring animation to the forefront of this generation’s mind was by dubbing and releasing Studio Ghibli films.
Before the year Spirited Away beat out Lilo and Stitch at the Oscars, Japanese Animation was only Anime, and in America, Pokemon (not to say I was not absolutely OBSESSED with Pokemon, like so many others… say, is there a correlation… oh well, another time). To this day, if my sister is in the room when I pop in Howl’s Moving Castle to sob a little bit, she’ll tease “Are you watching Pokemon?” To which I’ll take the bait and shout through my tear streaked face “No, this is a MIYAZAKI!” She, of course, was too old to rent it at Hollywood Video (yes, we were that family), and consequently never realized animation was a medium for more than children.
But we did. And look, Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture the year it came out (losing to Silence of the Lambs), and then Up and Toy Story 3 in more recent memory. Isn’t it time for an animation to be regarded as the best, at least in the course of a year? The amount of craft that goes into every frame, yes, I’m even talking about The Penguins of Madagascar, the stellar music, the character arcs. I’ve wept more at cartoons than live action dramas (looking at you, Inside Out)! Japan has awarded their top prize to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Why can’t we do the same?
It goes without saying that ever since the feature length animation appeared in the U.S, it’s been kid fare. Many people mistake this as a bad thing, but I disagree. A wise friend told me that a film that can please kids and adults is much more difficult to make than a gritty drama. And look at the numbers The Lion King got! While Birdman walked away with Best Picture, more families saw Big Hero 6 like it or not.
Animation as a medium has been criminally sidelined in the world, but when you get down to it– animation is, in my humble blogger’s opinion, the most amazing medium out there. There are absolutely no limitations. You can make an audience feel for inanimate objects, animals, emotions, demons, and humans. You can dissolve the lines between fiction and non. I love that animators in the stop-motion and computer generated realm call each character a “puppet,” because both utilize the same suspension of belief as puppetry, allowing the audience to take a leap of imagination with the creators. And animation is just moving art whereas live action is moving photograph. Think of Starry Night by Van Gogh, and imagine if the people in that little village all come up to ride on the stars. To do that in a live action film, you would actually need to animate over the film to accomplish the same contours. Or you could just make it a cartoon.
I’d like to take a week to week glance at animated films with you all, and what work went into each one. Note that I am doing mostly traditional animation, but as I catch up with the timelines, you’ll know that I’m unbiased with CGI versus traditional. Oh hell who wouldn’t find it refreshing to see traditional animation on the big screen (besides foreign studios who never get proper distribution… if I had a nickel…).
In recent years, a lot of people have tried to encompass the history of animation, but I feel that sometimes these function as reviews over explanations. And insofar as reviews go, I certainly am passionate on why I like a picture or not. But I think that we, as the post 90s generation, tend to see a movie as good or bad on whether the plot was good. Plot is an element, not a movie (steps down from soapbox). Be prepared to let go of plot– animation is fickle, and can avoid structure like water a sieve.
My hope is that maybe some of these ideas may make you want to watch some of these pictures again– or for the first time. There are some real duds out there, but there are some splendorous oversights. And who knows? Perchance by the end of this quest, I’ll be discussing the first animated best picture. One can hope. Tune in next week (tune? scroll? Oh. Subscribe) to hear the beginning of a most Shakespearean chapter in the lore of the animated film– the Tragedy of Don Bluth.
Colby is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. He can be found singing with the homeless in his spare time.