Fear of Flying and Other Matters

The impact of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on animation have yet to be evaluated, but they had a major effect on the Week With the Masters Animation Celebration, scheduled to start at the end of this month in Trivandrum, India. (I am Festival Director for the event.) After a few days, several masters decided to cancel, mostly expressing fears relating to flying and/or traveling anywhere near Afghanistan, Pakistan or the Middle East. As a result, appearances of all the masters were canceled and renewed focus was put on the India & Southeast Asian Animation Competition, a program of films from a local Children's Animation Workshop and the Indian premiere of Shrek.

Another event that is sure to feel the effect of the decline in travel is MIPCOM, in Cannes, one of the major international marketplaces for animation. Lower attendance and thus fewer deals may well temporarily accelerate the current downturn in international television production; with the sometimes wrenching changeover from 2-D to 3-D animation occurring in the feature film arena also going on, these do not seem to be the best of times for the business of animation.

Despite the huge success of Shrek, two of the summer's biggest box office failures in the United States were also animated — Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Osmosis Jones — neither of which deserved the reception they got. So before summer memories fade away entirely, here are some brief thoughts on these films.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by Hironobu Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I guess I was put off by the overblown publicity campaign that seemed to center entirely on the creation of the movie's photorealistic characters (including the number of hairs on the head of each) and the use of motion capture technology, including a bunch of nonsense about “synthespians” soon replacing real-life actors.

While the use of performance animation is indeed well above what anybody else had previously done, the most impressive thing about it was its spectacular art direction. In a sense, it seemed like a high-end video game on steroids, but the important thing was the film's visual energy and excitement did a lot to make an otherwise pedestrian story about an alien invasion worth seeing. This was so, despite some rather indifferent acting by a bunch of handsome synthespians.

Osmosis Jones

On the other hand, if you want to see a model of classical character animation in action, then be sure to see Osmosis Jones, which easily outshines any number of recent Disney films in this regard. It's also a consistently funny take off on the Lethal Weapon films, with a rebellious white blood cell (Chris Rock) and a multisymptom cold tablet (David Hyde Pierce) standing in for Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Much of the credit much go to the spiffy animation direction of Piet Kroon and Tom Sito, which helps Marc Hyman's well-crafted script from seeming too much like a overblown health education film.

The slick style of the animation contrasts a bit too much with the deliberately grungy live-action material directed by the Farrelly Brothers, which accounts for a number of critics praising the animation over the live action. Actually, the Farrellys deliver some funny gags, but the live action and animation seem to exist in two different (stylistic) worlds.

The story about how a white blood cell and a cold tablet save Bill Murray from his unhealthy ways also owes more than a little to Bill Kroyer's FernGully, whose ecological message parallels Osmosis Jones' public health concerns; most striking is the resemblance of Thrax, the deadly virus, to the evil Hexxus who almost destroys FernGully.

Osmosis Jones falls into a remarkable series of animated films, including The Thief and the Cobbler and The Iron Giant, which over the past decade have been backed in part or whole by Warner Bros., and which have had the gross misfortune of also being distributed by Warner Bros. Despite this abysmal track record, Warners is putting out one more animated movie into production, tentatively titled The Looney Tunes Movie; inspired by the success of Space Jam, it will be a live action/animated comedy starring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Stay tooned.

Recent Writings
Finally, do check out my article, “Looking for the Bright Side,” in the October 2, 2001 special MIPCOM issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

—Harvey Deneroff
October 4, 2001

© 2001 by Harvey Deneroff

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