This one’s going to run a bit long, I’m afraid. Apparently 2008 is my Year Of The Teal Deer…
For as long as I can remember I have loved the fantastical. The stories I seek and enjoy tend to involve things that are outside the dry, sane, normal world we inhabit. There are limits, of course. I watched “Mirrormask” a while back, and it was just a bit over the top for me. This gives you an idea about my tame boundaries. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I prefer a fantasy well-grounded in solid characterization and sense-of-place and at least a moderately sensible storyline.
Perhaps I’m introducing my topic by way of a tangent. I’m allowed to do that, dammit.
I’m a visually-oriented person when it comes to my entertainment. Listening to music is often just a conduit for my imagination to concoct wild stories with vivid imagery. Reading a story, of course, conjures similar pictures in the mind. So it’s no surprise that I like a good movie or television show, one with good characters and an interesting story and, of course, some element of the fantastic. Now, it’s certainly possible to make such a presentation with live actors and physical sets. They often fall apart, however, when it comes time to introduce the “out there” elements via props or computer-generated graphics or what-have-you. There’s a seam where the people and props and physical sets end and the effects and matte paintings and other glued-on-bits begins. Seeing the boundary between reality and make-believe can take a person right out of the experience.
One way around this problem is to make the entire presentation out of squiggly lines and broad swaths of color. You turn to animation. Cartoons. Sequential-art motion pictures.
Okay, now you’ve leveled the playing field. The people look just as made-up as the magic, or the alien technology, or whatever. There is no more seam to worry about. You can go wild with incredible feats of strength, bizarre locations, amazing powers, and all of that fun stuff without bumping up against budgetary concerns (relatively speaking, animation budgets still exist and must be adhered to but they aren’t as wild as something like James Cameron’s “Titanic“) or further crimes against the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Let’s face it, you have to suspend pretty damned hard to get into an animated story to begin with.
The downside? Fake people and fake places. It’s harder to connect with the characters when they’re obviously not really people. That doesn’t stop us from connecting with characters in a book, so it isn’t really much of a stretch when you think about it. There are some upsides, such as being able to exaggerate features and physical reactions for comedic effect. Also, you only have to worry about paying A-list acting talent the going rate for voice work, and there’s rarely a compelling reason to do so in the first place. You’re not paying them to look recognizable, after all, so what do you need ’em for? In fact, giving a character a too-recognizable voice can break the immersion. Irony, that.
Let’s get down to cases, though. It’s one thing to ramble aimlessly about what’s good and what’s bad about a given storytelling medium, but I should at least try to back all this silly verbage up with some examples.
Take “Avatar: The Last Airbender” for instance. (You thought I was going to go straight for the anime, didn’t you? Hah!) It’s a touching, imaginative, noble and occasionally hilarious adventure story about a boy who can fly, control water, make huge boulders jump, and shoot fire out of his hands and feet. (I know I’m vastly oversimplifying, fellow fans. Bear with me.) Go ahead and tell me how one could reasonably expect to tell an epic story about this kid in a live-action medium without spending billions of dollars in special effects. Yes, I’ve heard about M. Night “I See Dead People” Shyamalan and his impending film project. I also have no idea how he’s going to make it not suck. I wasn’t tossing around the word “epic” for fun, after all. We’re talking about a story that is taking 60 23-minute segments to complete over the course of three years. There’s some filler material, sure, but not as much as one would think. (Keep in mind the difference between “pausing between heavily dramatic or busy segments for the sake of story flow” and “pointless filler to drag things out as long as possible”.) To make a film, huge chunks of the plot will be excised, as will many of the memorable characters and locations. You couldn’t do it on television without an insane effects budget… which means you couldn’t do it without getting canceled partway through the story. I hate when that happens, don’t you? This is less often a problem in animation, since the budget and the broadcast network buy-in usually happens up front, before a single episode airs.
Alchemy. It’s all fun and games until someone creates an abomination and loses a limb. Over the course of 52 televised episodes and a follow-up feature film, “Fullmetal Alchemist” tells the story of the Elric brothers who tried to bring their mother back to life, against the fundamental dictates of alchemical science (human transmutation is strictly forbidden). The first brother is missing two limbs, one spent in the effort to resurrect Mom and the other sacrificed to save his little brother’s soul. His replacement limbs are basically cybernetic, in a steampunk/magical sort of way. The other brother’s soul inhabits an otherwise-empty suit of armor. They start out with a simple goal: To regain their bodies. Along the way, as in any good epic quest story, they learn that what they seek is both more complicated and more expensive than they originally guessed. Let’s not forget the rogue’s gallery of exotic magical villains, and the constant turning of stuff into other stuff just by drawing a magic circle and pouring some energy in. A live-action rendition of such a story may, in fact, be an impossibility. That’s a damned shame, ’cause it’s one hell of a story on which I’d hate to have missed out. It’s true that FMA started out as a manga (comic book, of sorts) but I’ve discovered a weakness within myself, namely that I find action sequences in still-image form to be both hard to follow and generally unsatisfying. If I can’t see the flow of things, the interplay of motion and countermotion, the whole thing falls apart. Also, I like hearing the voices. (It’s better than having every character sound like my own internal monologue.) So I’ll always be more a fan of the anime than of the manga… even though I’ve heard that the manga goes into some different and rather interesting directions. I should look into that some day, indeed.
I’ll give you one more example before I go. One film, more than any other, cemented in my mind the fact that animation is an entertainment field that I would remain loyal to for life. In retrospect it’s amusing that I love this movie so much since my initial experiences of it involved a horribly hacked-up version with an uneven English voice dub track. I’m talking, of course, about “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind“. You can probably also blame this movie for my years of heroine addiction, come to think on it. Take an outspoken warrior princess, have her take the side of nature against the war machines of “progress,” throw in a swarm of gigantic bugs and some aerial combat and oh yeah a massive vaguely-humanoid war robot with the death laser from hell spouting from its maw, and you have a recipe for something entirely relevant to my interests. Well, okay, I don’t like bugs. That’s another reason why Nausicaa works in animated form rather than something made with live-action and props and CGI: I don’t want to look at swarms of realistic-looking bugs! I want my bugs nice and cartoony, damn it all. (I watched “Arachnophobia” once. Once.)
At any rate, I hope I’ve enlightened you all somewhat on what makes animated material so appealing to this little grey duck. Thank you, and good day.