It’s beginning to seem like the only way for adults to enjoy themselves at the movies these days is to pretend they never grew up. For years now, ever since Beauty and the Beast, really, I’ve looked forward to new animated movies with eye-popping expectation. And what wonders are upon us! Last year we had two of the best, Finding Nemo and the hand-drawn Triplets of Belleville, and before that Hayao Miyazaki’s instant-classic anime Spirited Away; Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, with its painted-over digital-video imagery; Pixar’s computer-animated Toy Story films and Monsters, Inc.; and marvelous doodles like Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. These films have more going for them—in terms of visual energy, story, comedy, emotion, even performance—than most of the current live-action fare. They’re just about everything we want from “real” movies but aren’t getting. Even their running times are, blessedly, shorter.
Inevitably, there are disappointments, too. DreamWorks’s Shrek 2, for instance, manages to undo much of what made its predecessor such a computer-generated joy ride. (More on that later.)
The hallmark of the computer-animated comedies, for all their elegant effects, is rock-solid narrative—precisely what most live-action movies now lack. Feature animation can take up to five incredibly painstaking years to produce, and so the script that undergirds everything had better be sturdy. (I must confess that ever since I made an animated short in summer camp, where it took me something like 4,000 hours to animate a stick figure crossing the street, I’ve been sheepish about criticizing even the feeblest professional effort.) With live-action Hollywood movies, on the other hand, barely completed scripts often get rushed into production whenever a star becomes available. (No wonder so many movies seem like first drafts.) Perhaps this is why Shrek and Toy Story and Finding Nemo, by comparison, seem so (pleasingly) old-fashioned; they bring us back to a time when movies actually told stories, and told them well. A big reason these films are so popular with kids is that they satisfy a child’s basic desire to find out what comes next. The same holds true for adults, of course. Great animation dissolves age categories.
Another way to put this is, adults don’t care what audience a film is aimed at as long as it’s fun—and smart. Many of the animated comedies have a knockabout wit and a Buster Keaton–like appreciation for building a gag, as in the scene in Toy Story where the earthbound Buzz Lightyear, in a happy accident, gets launched into a giddy series of aerial loop-de-loops. The dialogue is often as sharp as the gags, which is why performers like Ellen DeGeneres (as Dory, the ineffably dopey blue tang in Finding Nemo) and Eddie Murphy (as the motormouth Donkey in Shrek) are as good as they are—better, in fact, than in most of their live-action work.
I’ve never subscribed to the purist notion that true animation is all about the visuals—who would want a mute Bugs Bunny?—but it must be said that the artwork in the computer-animated films is every bit as well-conceived as the scripts. There’s a marvelous buoyancy to the underwater imagery in Finding Nemo, for example—Dory and Father navigating through a burst of pink jellyfish is a triumphant demonstration of what can be done with a CG palette. I don’t begrudge the ascendancy of computer graphics over the traditional style, especially when so much of the recent two-dimensional work, such as Sinbad and The Prince of Egypt and Treasure Planet (which had 3-D backgrounds), has been so dramatically inert. Digital animation has its own radiance, and besides, these trends are usually cyclical.
“A big reason these films are so popular with kids is that they satisfy a child’s basic desire to find out what comes next. The same holds true for adults, of course.”
Hand-drawn animation, of course, is still potent. Easily the most visually inventive movie of any kind last year was Sylvain Chomet’s almost dialogue-free Triplets of Belleville, which calls up virtually the entire history of animation, from Winsor McCay and the Max Fleischer shorts right up through Disney, anime, and beyond. It’s a visionary fantasia, and the moment-to-moment shifts in logic, at first so confounding, always end up seeming magically right—like the giant luxury liner splitting the seas like a sky-high hatchet blade. Spirited Away, which takes a 10-year-old girl through a mindscape worthy of Lewis Carroll, has a deep feeling for the terrors and astonishments of childhood, and images of great delicacy—a rainstorm at night, a spectral train gliding along underwater tracks. With films like these, it’s possible to believe that movies can indeed depict anything we might dream up.
So what of Shrek 2? the animation is more nuanced than in the first film, where the characters looked a little rubbery, but the script, which has Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) traveling with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) to the kingdom of Far Far Away to meet her mother (Julie Andrews) and disapproving father (John Cleese), is a wan mix of inspirationalism and in-jokes. The kingdom is a faux Beverly Hills, with Romeo Drive subbing for Rodeo Drive, Farbucks standing in for Starbucks, and so on. (A product placement by any other name … ) The royal ball is treated like the Oscars, with Joan Rivers doing Joan Rivers on the red carpet. The filmmakers betray the essentially childlike appeal of Shrek by piling up all these too-hip Hollywood references aimed at adults. It’s not just kids who will feel cheated.
An equally big miscalculation is that for a long stretch Shrek is turned into a human hunk and Fiona is back to being her bland non-ogre self. (In general, there are way too many bland humans in this movie.) The laborious point of these transformations is to show us that beauty is only skin deep, which isn’t exactly news to anyone who saw the first film. Inevitably, Shrek and Fiona will revert to what they really are: beautiful on the inside. Fine—but meantime we’ve been gypped of all that beautiful ugliness on the outside. Even Donkey isn’t what he was; he becomes a white steed, which may do wonders for his ego but does little for the audience.
Director Andrew Adamson has said that Shrek was about the ogre learning he was lovable, whereas Shrek 2 is about how the ogre learns to love. This is a disservice to the first film (which Adamson also directed): Shrek already knew how to love by the time it was over; you could see it in the way he gazed meltingly at his trumpet-eared bride. The new generation of animators is capable of doing so much—Shrek itself helped pave the way. So why play it safe? Is it because Shrek has become just another franchise? If there is going to be a Shrek 3, its creators will need to get back in touch with their inner ogre.