so long, Rocky. so long, Bullwinkle.

Alex Anderson, creator of Rocky & Bullwinkle, passed away yesterday. Jay Ward was more influential to the show itself, but Anderson drew them up and created them, before Ward took off with them on their wacky, absurd adventures that were so ahead of their time. Cartoons got dumbed down for my generation in the ’70s, and by the ’80s they were really just toy commercials. The first cartoon I remember watching was Courageous Cat & Minute Mouse, one of many retreads of Batman done by creator Bob Kane. Memorable for its percussive theme song and the villain “The Frog,” who talked like Edward G. Robinson, it peers back at me through the misty clouds of nostalgia. Barely recognizable.

My true celluloid loves were the Looney Tunes, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, and Tom & Jerry before Chuck Jones got a hold of them. Mr. Jones was very talented, but I found him the most milquetoast of the directors at Warner Brothers, even if he invented my favorite character: Pepe le Pew. Tex Avery and Bob Clampett were truly insane originals who used animation as their bizarre palette for satirizing the world through caricature. Jones did this in his greatest moments, but I always felt he was the Bob Hope of the bunch, while his betters were the Marx Brothers. Insane genius, versus likable wit. Bugs Bunny, the Looney Tunes most enduring character, came to life under Avery. Jones perfected him. Tex is best known these days for Red Hot Riding Hood being so risqué, but he was a true original. Take Screwy Squirrel, a character so annoying that he actually killed him off! People hated him so much that Tex finished him off by pairing him with a big oaf modeled on Lenny from Of Mice and Men, who crushes him in his pocket. This was the original “I will hug him and squeeze him and call him George,” that Jones and others used over and over, to lesser effect.

I didn’t discover Rocky & Bullwinkle until later, thanks to my friend Peter. It’s a good thing, because my sense of sarcasm developed late, and you needed it for that show. So here endeth an era. I remember some cartoons like Dexter’s Lab and Freakazoid being genuinely original and amusing, but what’s out there now, that is actually for kids?

© 2010 Tommy Salami

(Ellie) Up

I wanted to put in a review of Russ Meyer’s Up! as a gag, but I can’t find my copy. Up is the story of an old fart who was once an adventure-loving boy who married an even more adventurous girl. Their dreams were not to be, and after her passing he decides to go seek their childhood hero in the lost world of Paradise Falls, house and all. With Russell the hapless Wilderness Explorer stowing along, oh the places they’ll see!
You’ll be crying and laughing so much you’ll think a mime carrying a puppy got hit by a steamroller. A lot’s already been written about this movie, and I’m a total Pixar fanboy (other than Cars– and I would have loved that as a kid) so I hate to spout the usual “they’ve done it again,” but they really have. It’s so different from Ratatouille, WALL-E, and The Incredibles that it’s amazing that it apparently came from the same brainstorming session.
The movie begins with a newsreel at an old movie, telling us of adventurer Charles Muntz and his discovery of Paradise Falls in South America. A young boy wearing a helmet and aviator goggles is obviously a big fan, and he walks home making airplane noises, lost in a daydream world. This reminded me a lot of myself, except I’d be saying KAPOW!! and driving my rocket-powered Lotus Esprit with laser cannons. Carl, the boy, passes a boarded-up house and inside, finds another helmet and goggled girl, named Ellie. She’s an infectiously curious and daring tomboy with rat-a-tat patter. We immediately like her, and so does the boy. After a brief but very touching silent montage, we meet Carl Frederickson as he is today- a cranky, creaky old man with a quad-cane, the last holdout in his neighborhood who won’t sell to the developers.
Now, before I go on about Russell the Wilderness Explorer, and how he and Carl end up flying his house to another continent, let’s talk about Ellie. NPR has a great point with their article on Up. Where’s HER movie? She’s so likable, with her Adventure Book, chipped front tooth and unruly hair that we don’t just expect, we demand that Carl marry her and grow old with her. She could definitely carry her own movie. We haven’t had as strong a female character in a Pixar movie since Cowgirl Jessie in Toy Story 2. Though Elastigirl in The Incredibles was a nice change of pace, as a believably self-reliant character. After all, she ends up rescuing Mr. Incredible!
Girls need characters other than princesses to obsess over as children, and Pixar is in a unique position to provide one; they’ve given us Eve the kickass ovoid robot, Jessie the Cowgirl, Elastimom… but never a star. It’s high time they did. But enough about that. Up is great fun. Ed Asner plays the curmudgeonly Carl Frederickson, who finds plump plucky Russell at his doorstep one morning, eager to earn his Assisting the Elderly badge. So he sends him on a snipe hunt. Most of these jokes come back later, and when the balloon-festooned home arrives in the lost world of Paradise Falls, there’s a whole ‘nother snipe hunt going on.
But the story is so inventive that I don’t want to ruin it for you. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know there’s a talking dog; he has a collar that translates for him. And the inner workings of the dog mind are very funny, often in the background behind another amusing conversation between Russell, who still has the sense of wonder and adventure, and Carl, who is trying his darnedest to recapture it by bringing the home he and Ellie lived in to the place they dreamed of going.
There is plenty of adventure to be had, but like many of Pixar’s stories, there is a solid foundation of character to give emotional power to it. It may be one of their strangest stories yet, but it’s great fun- almost an Indiana Jones tale with a minor and a senior. It looks like Pixar has made children go see a story about a crotchety old man; now they just need to give us a lead heroine, and end this princess nonsense. They love Studio Ghibli so much, take a hint from Spirited Away, they don’t all have to be princesses. Cough, well there was Princess Mononoke
UP has plenty for both kids and adults. The kids behind us got a little restless but didn’t mind the PG rating- which does include a little blood and plenty of exciting peril.

5 (dead) squirrels out of five

Counting Down the Zeroes: Spirited Away

This post is part of Film for the Soul‘s excellent Counting Down the Zeroes project, reviewing the great films of the past decade.

One more thing to thank Pixar for is helping get Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli some respect in the States. I’ve been a fan since I saw Nausicaa presented at a science fiction convention in the early ’90s; back then was only available on a bootleg VHS with subtitles created by American fans who learned Japanese. Later I saw Princess Mononoke at an Asian Cultural Center in Minneapolis, dubbed for American release. So I thought it was wonderful when in 2003 he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away.

Princess Mononoke was the general American public’s introduction to Miyazaki, and it is practically an action film, with a war between nature and a village of gunmakers; it’s an easy sell. Spirited Away is a disturbing fairy tale about a young girl kidnapped and enslaved by a witch. Instead of an action film we get an Alice in Wonderland set in a strange fairy tale world sprung from Miyazaki’s imagination, melding all sorts of folklore.
It is the tale of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. She is angry at leaving home, and sits petulantly in the back of the car. Her father takes a deep forest road, and they come upon an abandoned amusement park. As they explore, her parents find a room laden with delicious food, and begin eating ravenously. Chihiro senses that something is off, and does not eat; she comes upon a boy named Haku, who warns her to leave with her parents, but it is too late. Her parents have begun turning into pigs, and there is no return. They have entered the land of spirits, and cannot escape.
Rather disturbing, isn’t it? No more than a fairy tale, and that’s what this is. Chihiro follows Haku, who wants to protect her, but soon she is in the thrall of the witch Yubaba, a wizened old woman of bizarre proportions. Her parents are soon in Yubaba’s pigsty and Chihiro must find a way to free them and escape; her only choice is to work for the witch, at her bath house, where all the spirits come to get clean. From there on, we follow the naive yet plucky Chihiro as she works off her debt in the spirit world, making friends and learning the secrets of Haku and Yubaba.
The world is one of mystery and wonder, rooted in mundane work life. Another worker named Lin takes her under her wing- she’s one of the few humans there- and teaches her the ropes. They toil together scrubbing the baths, which are visited by frog men, dragons and “stink spirits.” Some are the spirits of rivers and trees, in other guises; others are pure mystery, such as a cloaked, silent figure in Noh mask who seems a little too friendly and generous. Chihiro learns that Haku is also bound to Yubaba, and hopes to free him as well someday.
The story is slowly paced, but there is always something fantastic going on. The characters are full and believable, whether they are witches or drudges. And as always, the beautiful animation of Studio Ghibli is the backdrop. We see oriental dragons have dogfights in the sky against swarms of paper birds cutting them to ribbons; a spidery man with a dozen gangly limbs operating a coal furnace fed by a tiny army of dust motes; and parades of all kinds of spirits and fantastic creatures as they walk across the bridge to town.
The world has the same grip that the creations of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam, and it’s not all fun and games. Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name as collateral, and renames her “Sen,” as it capturing her soul. A ravenous spirit begins luring the bath house workers with gold nuggets and swallowing them whole. And Yubaba’s minions include a trio of bouncing, grunting, bearded disembodied heads and a beastly enormous baby she dotes over. We get a real sense of danger for little Sen, no matter how resourceful she is.
Spirited Away is more than a coming of age folk tale about a spoiled child forced to grow up in a strange world. In part, the bath house is a token from old Japanese culture, “the good old days.” In 2001 when this was made, Japan was undergoing its own economic crisis, and a yearning for the simplicity of old abounded. The familiar Miyazaki nods to nature are subtle, but there; we see a polluted river spirit fly free, once it is freed of the garbage weighing it down. The punishment for the gluttonous parents is obvious; we have grown fat and need to tighten our belts. So in some ways, it is just as poignant for America now as it was for Japan eight years ago.
But lessons aside, this is a great story; at just over two hours, it never drags or feels indulgent. It envelops you, like a good fantasy should. There are mistakes and redemption; people of compassion and greed, selfish vampires, gluttons and the reward of earnest hard work, pride in doing the right thing, and forgiveness for trespasses. We dive deep into a strange yet familiar world, and meet fantastic and interesting characters. We even see someone eat a dried lizard, who makes it look so tasty you wish you could have a nibble.
Spirited Away is the perfect marriage of the more energetic Princess Mononoke and the children’s fairy tale of My Neighbor Totoro, that can be enjoyed by everybody. And while Ghibli has made better films- Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are truly great movies- this is a favorite, and one of the great animated films. You can watch it subtitled, or with the excellent English dub that was released by Disney in 2003. When you see the wonder of WALL-E, know that it stands on Chihiro’s little shoulders.

Wallace and Gromit – A Matter of Loaf and Death

Cracking good toast, Gromit!

I must admit that I love Aardman animation. Wallace and Gromit are two of the great cartoon characters- if you can call claymation a cartoon. A bumbling mad scientist slash glutton of a fellow, and his silent, clever dog, if you haven’t introduced yourself to their adventures– whether it’s rocketing to the moon to mine the green cheese in A Grand Day Out, foiling a jewel thief penguin with robotic pants gone mad in The Wrong Trousers, sheep shearing and propeller plane dogfights in A Close Shave or the lepusthropic gardening hijinks in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit— Nick Park and crew have consistently raised the bar they’ve set for themselves. Even their non-W&G films such as Chicken Run and Flushed Away– the latter using CG animation mimicking their claymation style- they just show how it’s done, when you want an animated film both kids and adults can not only enjoy, but fondly remember.
Sadly, their latest effort, A Matter of Loaf and Death, won’t be coming to theaters. It was broadcast on British television, and isn’t yet on DVD. Clocking in at only half an hour, it was their first release after a fire gutted the studios. It’s worth hunting down, as it lives up to their stellar reputation, and continues the misadventures of hapless Wallace and his lifesaver of a pooch, Gromit.
This time they’re bakers, and 12 other bakers have been found murdered of late. Wouldn’t want to make it a baker’s dozen, would we? At their Top Bun bakery they’re working hard and making the dough, with Wallace’s gadgets helping out- as long as Gromit’s there to save things from going pear-shaped now and then. During a delivery, Wallace saves a Rubenesque gal named Piella when the brakes on her bicycle fail. She has a shy poodle named Fluffles, who is friendly but very concerned. Wallace and Piella – a former pin-up girl for the Bake-o-Lite company- begin a head over heels romance, but Gromit is suspicious, especially when he finds out that her bike’s brakes are just fine….
As usual, Gromit has to save Wallace from peril that he is unaware he’s even in, and the movie references (and the fur) both fly. My only complain is that it’s not long enough; if they’d been able to create their usual feature length story, it would have more of the little touches they’re known for. At 30 minutes, it’s jam-packed and feels a bit rushed at times. They manage to reference everything from The Silence of the Lambs to Aliens, plus all their prior adventures. It gets a bit breathtaking if you try to catch them all. but more importantly, the old wit and charm are both there, and this is a taste of Aardman to hold us over. Until it comes out on DVD, check out their previous films, which are all top-notch.

Redemption for Mammy Two Shoes

Many of us grew up watching Tom & Jerry on the tube, but if you’re old enough you remember the day Tom’s owner changed from a sassy black lady to a strident Irishwoman. Tom’s owner was never named, but the media latched onto her during the 80’s revisionism craze and called her “Mammy Two Shoes” because we almost never saw her face. People began saying she was a servant, when it was obviously her somewhat ramshackle but dignified home, and MGM had her legs bleached and her voice re-dubbed by June Foray as an Irish stereotype. The original voice, by black actress Lillian Randolph, was rarely heard again.

One of my faves- Fraidy Cat, where Tom mistakes her for a ghost

As a child, I remember seeing some of the cartoons before the axe fell. I never thought she was a maid, and there are very few shorts that put her in a maid outfit- she’s usually in a slipper and housecoat, like a single woman reclining after a long day. In fact, in Mouse Cleaning, you can see her dressed up to go to church. That’s one of the few shorts where you get a glimpse of her face, albeit from a steep angle and her hefty bosom blocks most of it. The other banned cartoon, Casanova Cat, is the only one I recall her being in a maid outfit- it’s a fantasy short where Tom goes to call on his white cat beau, who lives in a penthouse.

Rarely seen- “Mammy’s” face

I’ll be the first to admit that Tom & Jerry’s jokes were crude, but I never felt there was a cruelty in how “Mammy Two Shoes” was portrayed. She does have an accent and inarticulate manner of speech, such as when she tells Tom, “if you is a mouse catcher, then I am Lana Turner! Which I ain’t.” When she clamors for Thomas to “git in here and get that mouse!” when she’s screaming up on a chair, she looks no more ridiculous than any white female cartoon character did when they did the same thing.

Mouse Cleaning

If anything, the old cartoons use of blackface- whether it was Tom & Jerry or Looney Tunes, or anyone else- shames us because it’s so offensive today. But if you look at the history of cartoons, racial caricature is pretty even handed. There’s a Hogan’s Alley of Irish cops and Italian criminals, French gendarmes in the Pepe le Pew cartoons, and even the Dover Boys spoof of college boys goofs on whitebread folks. If anyone should be offended by cartoon caricatures it’s the Japanese, who really got some hateful cartoons made about them during World War 2. The classic cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, shows the evil queen sending hit men who have a sign that reads: Rub outs – 10 cents, Midgets half price, Japs- FREE! In a short full of black caricatures, that ends up being the most offensive part, until you realize the context- it came out in 1943.

The whiteface version

The Tom & Jerry shorts won more Academy Awards than Disney’s or Warner Brothers’, but I feel they jumped the shark when Chuck Jones came along and reworked the characters. I like Chuck- Hell, I have a tattoo of Pepe le Pew in an undisclosed location– but his Tom & Jerry are way too much like a mute Sylvester and Tweety. They lack the great character of the originals, where Jerry was a tiny Chaplin tramp and Tom was lazy and only chased Jerry when Mammy threatened him with sleeping outside. My favorite of all time is perhaps Heavenly Puss, where Tom loses his 9th life and is going to Cat Hell unless Jerry signs an affadavit forgiving him for all his trespasses. It deservingly won the Oscar that year.

You can find many of the original cartoons on youtube, and MGM has released most of them in original form in the Tom & Jerry Spotlight Collection DVD sets. The third set omits two cartoons- Mouse Cleaning and Casanova Cat- and several are edited. But we take what we can get. Warner Brothers has said that they’ll release all the Looney Tunes uncut eventually, and I wish MGM would do the same for the Tom & Jerry toons- even if they make it some special collector’s set with big warning labels on it.

NYC Comicon – Venture Bros. panel

I haven’t been to a Comic con before, but there was a Venture Bros. panel, so I decided to go with Milky and Darth Dross this weekend. While I am still recovering from geek overload, I do not regret it. We began Tick Tock Diner, home of the English Breakfast Burger, Eggs Arepas, and other fine fare. We knew we were close, because a fat Jedi waddled past the window. At the Javits Center, the line to the dealer floor was enormous, but they kept it moving quickly. Soon enough we were in the dealer’s room, with all their wonderful toys.

Things got off to the wrong foot when I saw my old high school pal C.C. Banana while I was on the escalator. I’d seen his website, but I was not prepared for my old friend to be dressed as a giant fruit. We didn’t have a chance to talk, or for me to see his act. Then again, with the amount of grown men dressed as Inuyasha, I shouldn’t single him out. There were plenty of good costumers there, from the 501st Legion- Star Wars costumers- to a guy on stilts as an actual-size Hulk. And of course, plenty of Venture Bros. fans.

I only fanboyed over a few people. Lou Ferrigno was there signing photos, and the Hulk was my childhood idol, as those who know me when I’m angry can attest. It was $30 for a photo with him, so I opted for an autographed one of the Hulk instead. I snagged a photo of him anyway. He was friendly enough, but it’s got to suck making money this way, so I don’t hold it against him.
While I’m more of a fan of the Conan movies and books than the comics, when I saw Will Conrad was there selling sketches, I got one of the Cimmerian. Milky got a headshot of Leonardo the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle from the artists there, too. I also met animator Bill Plympton, one of my favorite animators. His sick sense of humor still cracks me up. He was showing off his newest, Idiots and Angels.
Of course Watchmen was a big thing- Dave Gibbons the artist from the original comic was there- but I was surprised there wasn’t more. No actors promoting it, or anything like that. I guess NYC ain’t as big as the San Diego one yet. Thankfully there weren’t any Dr. Manhattans going around in blue body paint, either. Here’s Milky’s Rorschach costume and a guy dressed as the Comedian.
The panel was very crowded- I had no idea Venture Bros. was this popular! Doc Hammer was there in his multicolor-haired and scrawny-limbed glory (hey, he spent like 5 minutes talking about how a men’s size small fits him like a circus tent, so don’t blame me for commenting on his gangliness). They showed some clips from the upcoming Season 3 DVD and Blu-Ray, the first HD release. The Blu-Ray will come with the soundtrack CD included; DVD set buyers will have to get it separately. The deleted scenes were pretty funny, and I’m sure I’ll be getting the set soon. I wonder how many will convert to Hi-Def to see Dr. Girlfriend in her Mrs. The Monarch outfit.
The panel was good fun- Doc, Jackson Publick, and Michael Sinterniklaas (voice of Dean, among others) answered many questions from fans who are a hell of a lot more obsessive than I’ll ever be. We didn’t learn much about Season 4, as expected. They repeated that #24 was dead so many times that I have an inkling he’ll be returning somehow. You can’t break up a good team like that. One of the more amusing questions was about how they’d cast a live-action movie of the show, and it seems they are big fans of Lost, since Hurley would be #21. And all the fans who lust after Dr. Girlfriend, the voluptuous villainess voiced by Doc Hammer with a throatful of gravel, got taken to task when a guy asked Doc if “he’d do her,” because of her voice. Doc replied, “would you have sex with me if I had a sexy girl voice?”
They did autographs afterward but I didn’t bring anything, and the line was limited to 1 hour- and moved glacially slow. So we went to see Fanboys instead. I’ll post a full review tomorrow, but I loved it. It was hilarious, somewhere between Detroit Rock City and Role Models. Certainly funnier for Star Wars nerds, but even Firecracker liked it. If you’re nerdy at all, you ought to go see it so it’ll get a wider release.

Best Animated Feature

This is part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars.

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is only as old as 2001. Ten years prior, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast broke out of the animation ghetto and was nominated for Best Picture. In the next decade, Pixar would explode onto the scene with Toy Story, a technical breakthrough that ironically brought us back to animation’s sentimental, universal roots. The sequel Toy Story 2 came in 1999, and surpassed the original in both visual and emotional achievements, and in my mind, should have been nominated for Best Picture. It won the Golden Globe that year for Best Comedy/Musical, and I have a niggling feeling that the Academy recognized that animation just ain’t for kids anymore, and that influenced their decision to give them a separate but equal category.
And yes, I chose words with bad connotations for a reason. For while it is nice for animated film to be recognized at the Oscars, it is unfortunate, especially now that CG has become so prevalent, to be shuffled off into their own little category. Is 300 an animated film? Is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Should Persepolis be forced to compete with Ratatouille? Both are excellent films, but one chose a simple visual style over Pixar’s insanely detailed character designs, where you can count rodent hairs, if you want a future job as an FDA food inspector. By pigeon-holing them in the same category, Persepolis is at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps it’s no different than comparing Frost/Nixon‘s simplicity with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s visual excess, and giving Animated Features their own category helps raise awareness for them.
However, the rules for the category seem to favor the big 3. The rules state:

In any year in which 8 to 15 animated features are released in Los Angeles County, a maximum of 3 motion pictures may be nominated. In any year in which 16 or more animated features are submitted and accepted in the category, a maximum of 5 motion pictures may be nominated.

So if fewer than 16 animated films are released in L.A. County, the Academy only nominates 3 films. And if fewer than 8 are released, there’s no category that year. There have not been 5 nominees since 2002, when Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won.

This year it’s just the big three: WALL-E (Pixar), Bolt (Disney) and Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks). The rules are why the excellent Horton Hears a Who! was overlooked, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful films of the year, and certainly better than Bolt and Kung Fu Panda for storyline. And I really liked Panda! Blue Sky Studios, who made the Ice Age movies, did a great job adapting Horton to the big screen and expanding it to feature length. It’s a shame it couldn’t be nominated. Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli soldier’s nightmares after the first Lebanon war, sidesteps the animation cubbyhole by being in a foreign language; Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea didn’t get a U.S. release, so it’s out.

But let’s get on to the Big Three.

1. Bolt
Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as “24 meets Inspector Gadget– he’s a super-powered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist’s daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she’s the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy fuzzball in a hamsterball, has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.

I enjoyed Bolt, but don’t think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!– it’s good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She’s there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She’s nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me. I’m sure the kids loved him.

The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole “He’s a TV star who thinks it’s real!” gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar’s toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There’s a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, and I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!

Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they’ve finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it’s a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove left off.

2. Kung Fu Panda

I reviewed this in great detail here. I loved Kung Fu Panda, despite it being another Dreamworks film chock full of celebrity voices, because it has heart. It takes a standard kung fu story that could be a Sammo Hung movie, with a fat panda who works in his father’s noodle shop, but wants to be a Shaolin warrior. When he tries to spy on the choosing of the legendary Dragon Warrior at the Temple, he gets inadvertently chosen by the Master for training, and hilarity ensues. Can a clumsy, goofy fat glutton save the village from Tai Lung, the sinister snow leopard?

Dreamworks learned that you don’t need to recognize the voice actors to get asses in seats. Jack Black does his Jack Black thing, but everyone else blends into their character and doesn’t go all Robin Williams wacky on us. Seth Rogen and David Cross are delightfully amusing as Mantis and Crane; Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu have understated spots as Tigress, Monkey and Viper. As you can see from the animal choices, they did some kung fu movie research before they made this, as the “Furious Five” are modeled after the 5 Animal Styles of Shaolin Kung Fu. And while much of the gags are on panda’s big belly and goofy nature, when Master Shifu- played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman- decides to train the big galoot, the fantastic “chase the dumpling” sequence is as exciting as any such “battle” from a real kung fu film.

They even inject some emotion into the tale with Mr. Ping (the always-excellent James Hong), Panda’s unlikely father, who is a duck. I expected this to be forgettable but fun, and it ended up surprising me. I would not mind being forced to watch this a dozen times with kids, and while Jack Black may grate on my nerves on the sixth viewing, Dustin Hoffman’s wizened red panda and James Hong’s hilarious duck characters will keep endearing the story to me. And the tragic character of Tai Lung, voiced by Ian McShane, is not your typical villain. It also helps that the animation is gorgeous; if this is the first kung fu film you’ve seen since critics told you to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

My full review has plenty of gushing, so I’ll try to hold back. Imagine a simple story about a trash-compacting robot in the far future, the last of his kind still dutifully cleaning up our mess on Earth. His only friend is a cockroach, until one day he gets a visitor from above. And for the entire first act of the movie there is no real dialogue. Now imagine being in a theater full of kids watching this first act, with few if any big splashes or booms to keep them occupied. I thought it would be a nightmare of squalling and kicking and whining. But when I saw WALL-E at an early show, the kids were silent. It was as gripping for them as it was for me, watching this comical little robot go through his daily routine of crushing junk, saving little doodads that caught one of his mechanical eyes, finding Twinkies for his cockroach pal to sleep in, and watching a battered VHS tape of Hello Dolly. When Eva, a flying robot seemingly designed by Apple’s SETI division arrives, we get a touching cybernetic love story that brought tears to my cynical old peepers.

It’s so damn effective that you almost don’t want WALL-E to have his adventure, where he meets the apex of human consumerism on a space ark where they await Earth’s renewal. This was a terrific gamble, sticking such an obvious jab of social commentary in such a sentimental film. Chaplin did it, but he was Chaplin. Well, Pixar got away with it because they’re Pixar- I think they only people who complained were Fox News and the Fat Acceptance wackos who envied the Buy-n-Large hoverchairs. The movie doesn’t give us easy solutions or perfect endings, which is even braver. It says that fixing things will be hard work, but we can do it. It speaks volumes more than the insipid Oscar-bait of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and if I had my druthers it would be competing there instead of this category.

So, my conclusion?

This year Pixar has it cinched- WALL-E is not only a new masterpiece on a visual and technical level, but simply one of the best stories this year, animated or not. If people think The Dark Knight got screwed out of a Best Picture nomination, WALL-E fans should be even angrier at the Animated Feature category. At least the Globes separate Comedy/Musical from Drama, which seems a bit more fair. I think as more movies like Beowulf, 300, and Sin City blur the lines between animated and traditional film, this category may disappear, or perhaps used for only traditional hand-drawn animation. Time and technology will tell. Disney is returning to traditional feature animation with The Princess and the Frog this year, and both Kung Fu Panda and Ratatouille have credit sequences that seem to yearn for the old days of hand-drawn. Let’s hope we see more of it, and this category can get more than 3 nominees in the years to come.