This column was originally published on March 10, 2011 in the IDS Weekend under my column heading ‘Cine’cism
When you went to the movies many, many years ago, you got to see a newsreel, a short film, a feature and if you were lucky, a Mickey Mouse cartoon. That little guy was more famous than Shirley Temple.
Today there isn’t much of a market for animated shorts at the movie theater. That market has moved online in the form of independent viral videos, music videos or remarkable segments from otherwise popular shows.
But the studios once responsible for producing animated shorts for kids and adults the like have focused their attention on churning out poorly made Saturday morning cartoons or big budget, 3-D action extravaganzas with increasingly large sequel numbers on the end.
Now I’ll admit, “Kung Fu Panda” isn’t that bad. Even in loud, frenetic animated films, there is a considerable amount of craft that goes into making that panda somersault through the air, careening into everything, and then fart.
Yet the features that meet unprecedented critical acclaim on today’s standards have a diligently artistic craft that smack you in the face (“The Secret of Kells”), a subtle expression of beauty (“How to Train Your Dragon”) or a genuinely sincere and original moral center (fill in the blank Pixar film).
In comparison, a generally respected list from 1994 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons ever made shares none of those qualities. Most of them actually find a way to be inventive, radical or do something that shatters the fourth wall. They have little plot and are classically cel animated, yet each did something to move animation forward as an art form.
Many of the shorts are familiar titles, and for good reason. “What’s Opera, Doc?” or the “kill the Wabbit” cartoon required tireless effort to create the six minute short, and it parodies more obscure subjects than had ever been touched before. “Duck Amuck” broke the fourth wall by making the animator the biggest cog in Daffy Duck’s mayhem. Disney’s “The Band Concert” predated “Fantasia” with its use of elaborate musical arrangements. Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood” was simultaneously an advertisement and a critique of Hollywood. “Three Little Pigs” was an embedded political message about how to survive the Depression, and “Der Fuehrer’s Face” was American propaganda about the horrors of living in Nazi Germany starring Donald Duck.
This list of 50 consisted almost entirely of films before 1960, and it goes to show that no matter how many “Shrek” spin-offs we get, no one will invest the time or money to make another seven minute short that will be as good and as popular as “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century.”
Today’s exceptions to that rule are Pixar, Nick Park and “Wallace and Gromit,” and the countless aforementioned YouTube stars.
But the system to see their films is broken. The animated short category at the Oscars might mean something if people could see the films ahead of time, but the ones that get nominated may not be as radical or as difficult as some of the things you can find on YouTube.
Last week’s box office champ “Rango,” love it or hate it, is what animated films and shorts could be. For all of “Rango’s” chaotic action, much of the film is filled with an irreverent, trippy and subtly homage based imagery.
Critics who loved “Rango” admired these isolated gems of animated wonder contained within the film. So why can’t Hollywood isolate those moments and package them into juicy shorts to accompany the madcap blockbusters to which they devote all their attention?
That way we’d feel we’re actually getting something extra for our 3-D surcharge.