Tuesday, July 01, 2008

"Now even our most critically acclaimed films are cartoons ... "


I certainly accept the fact that America's overall cultural tastes have degraded. Serious films for adults, such as The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Graduate, and The Godfather, were all No. 1 box office hits for their respective years. So was Saving Private Ryan as recently as 1998. Seems an eternity ago. Now even our most critically acclaimed films are cartoons: Persepolis, Ratatouille, and The Simpsons Movie.

As though that were a measure of the degradation of cultural taste. The most critically acclaimed cartoons in the last ten years have included movies like Princess Mononoke, The Iron Giant, South Park, the aforementioned Persepolis, Ratatouille, The Simpsons Movie, The Incredibles, and the like.

Using the cartoon as a measure for what is wrong in the arts is one of the biggest ironies in the nature of the medium. Every frame literally is a work of art and there's no sense in which the moving picture is more a set of moving pictures than in a cartoon. I don't think Erik Lundegaard is necessarily going to pine for the days when cartoons were like, say, Heavy Metal, is he?

The old canard that live action is somehow more venerable and serious than animated film in the same way that books are more serious than comic books probably isn't going to die. If you look at the range of story-telling that is happening in international animation over the last twenty years the problem isn't that cartoons are somehow bad. If anything they have reached a level of nuance and sophistication the venerated films of the past were said to get to, while live-action films have become more cartoony and not necessarily because of cartoons.

We live in a highly polarized time and it's one of the ironies of our culture that cartoons seem better able to split the differences and punch holes in expectations than live-action where an art house film is going to be exactly what I expect it to be, the tent-pole film is going to be more or less exactly what I expect it to be. And yet because we have expected so little from them as a culture and have the biases of our assumptions about them being a medium for kids, cartoons, for all the complaints critics sometimes dish out in principle, the reviews and box offices suggest that the best cartoons out there are doing what the other films aren't, surprising us and entertaining us. Is there a film-maker out there that would dare to have the first hour of the film have virtually no dialogue like Andrew Stanton did with WALL-E? Sure, but Angel's Egg didn't exactly get huge distribution, did it? If you're wondering what Angel's Egg is that's my point. Not everyone can make an animated fantasy film in which Noah's ark gets flipped over and have it get distributed anywhere. Not all live action movies can successfully make those risks either.

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