I am a little late in reporting my thoughts on Madagascar: Escape to Africa, the new DreamWorks Animation movie directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, and Bolt, the new stereo 3D film directed by Byron Howard and Chris Williams. Madagascar 2, which continues the screwball capers of the original, seems much the better of the pair; the DreamWorks Animation team, under Jeffrey Katzenberg, seem to have gotten their comic formula down pat and now seem able to rattle off the visual and verbal gags like clockwork. I don’t know how much longer they can keep it up without getting tired, but so far they’re doing OK.
Bolt, however, tends to totter around a rather weak premise (a movie star dog who lives in a Truman Show/Buzz Lightyear–like cocoon escapes into real world), which is almost rescued by a good sense of pace and its use of stereo 3D. Like Meet the Robinsons, it use of 3D is much superior to the likes Beowulf and Journey to the Center of the Earth, which seemed to have taken their cue from the cheap stereoscopic effects that made Bwana Devil so popular in 1952. Instead, Bolt manages to avoid throwing things things at the camera and uses the technology to evoke some very credible environments—I was especially impressed with its recreation of the streets of New York and Los Angeles. If the promised flood of stereo movies from DreamWorks and Pixar follows Disney’s lead in this matter, we’ll all be better off.
Speaking of art direction, Madagascar 2, like Kung Fu Panda, uses an extremely rich and detailed tapestry almost unimaginable in the days of 2D animation. At least it was until digital ink and paint came along, which did away with the limitations of the camera stand. (Basically, 2D animators were limited by the size of animation cels, which usually could not be more than 16 field, or 16½ inches wide and 12½ inches high.) This enabled films like The Lion King to easily employ much more detailed imagery than previously thought possible.
The use of CGI further enabled 2D artists to expand their visual horizons. This can be seen in the trompe l’oeil effects used on the periphery of DreamWorks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and in the spectacle of Ron Clements and John Musker’s underrated Treasure Planet. Thus, the visual virtuosity on display of late in the films of DreamWorks and Pixar can be seen as part of the continuing exploration by animation artists of the still new possibilities offered by animation’s digital revolution.