Monday, July 05, 2004

Toons. Gets 'Em Every Time.

I still haven't been able to find or rewrite my last piece on the Warner Bros. TV cartoons of the '90s, so until I do, my short history of those cartoons will have to have "And then WB animation collapsed, the end." However, I did watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit again recently, the movie that kicked off all those Spielberg-produced cartoon nostalgia projects. Terry Teachout, isolating the only sane part of my Tiny Toons piece, has some comments on the film and the way it rekindled interest in the artistry of Hollywood animation.

What struck me on watching Roger Rabbit again is that it works so much better than all the live-action/animation hybrids that preceded or followed it, and that the reason is not one of technique (though the technical achievement was remarkable) but of characterization: this is probably the only live-action/animation movie where the live-action characters are the most interesting. The central character of the movie is not Roger but Eddie Valiant; he's the one who drives the plot, he's the one who changes. Similarly, the most important and memorable villain in the movie is played by a human actor, Christopher Lloyd.

Normally, live-action/animation movies are built around the animated characters; indeed, many of them, like Looney Tunes: Back in Action, use live-action only because the studio didn't have the guts to bankroll an all-animated movie. Looney Tunes: Back in Action was proudly described as a Bugs/Daffy movie that happened to have humans in it, as opposed to the awful Space Jam, where they were just foils for Michael Jordan. But despite the good intentions, it's almost impossible to make the animated characters the "stars" of this kind of movie, for a logistical reason: the live-action is all shot first, and the animated characters are added in to what the live-action director has already shot. So it's the live-action director who's in control, and it's the human actors who define what the animated characters will be doing: the animation is created in response to the movements of the humans, to make eye contact with the humans, to fit in with the live-action backgrounds. And that means that if the humans are boring, as they are in Back in Action, then the cartoon characters will come off as boring too, because their actions are generated in response to, well, not much of anything.

In Roger Rabbit, the scenes work because Roger is reacting to a character (Eddie) and an actor (Bob Hoskins) who does interesting things and therefore creates the potential for an interesting response by the animated character. That's one reason I'm glad that Robert Zemeckis wound up doing the film instead of the wilder directors who were considered, such as Joe Dante (who later wound up doing Back in Action) and Terry Gilliam -- these guys are more imaginative directors than Zemeckis, but what a movie like this needs is not wild imagination, but the discipline to create a solid, well-structured live-action film with good characters who can inspire good character animation. You just know that Dante would have lost interest in Eddie Valiant, just as he loses interest in most of his nominal heroes, just as he has no interest in the human characters of Back in Action. Zemeckis clearly got that Eddie Valiant had to be interesting or the animated characters wouldn't be interesting either.

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