Thursday, February 21, 2008

Everything Old Is New Again...Or Something Like That

I've been watching a lot of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies Cartoons lately. One in particular sparked a weird parallel in my mind between the cartoon shorts of the 1920's/1930's and today's feature-length computer animated films. The short in question is the Hugh Harmon-Rudolph Ising produced It's Got Me Again (1932 - on Disc 2 of Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3).

As the short begins, a mouse emerges from the now stereotypical arch hole in the baseboard to the metronome rhythm of a grandfather clock. The mouse bears a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse, which was not unusual at this time. Isadore 'Friz' Freleng - according to the limited credits - handled half of the animation and was previously a Disney employee. So were Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising. As a result, in this and other non-Disney cartoons during this period, redundancy in character design was common. [Also interesting to note is, one-minute and twenty-three seconds into the short, the Mickey clone even speaks in a Mickey-like falsetto.]

Those were the early days of animation when everybody was either learning (and in some cases, inventing) the art form or looking to make a quick buck (Leon Schlesinger being a famous example) or both.

But what's the excuse of today's media-conglomerate-owned, studio-subsidiary, computer animation filmmakers? Why are the CG films currently being made almost indistinguishable from one another at quick glance?

If you use Toy Story as the marker of the dawn of the feature-length, computer animated film, more questions arise. Like why is it, that thirteen years later we still essentially have a single "house style," consisting largely of oversized taxidermy eyes and shared by practically all major studios? Is this really part of some long learning curve? Perhaps a bizarre limitation of the medium? Or are the filmmakers simply victims of their corporate parent asking for 'another (fill-in-the-blank with a known film property)'? Or could it be a heavy cross-pollination of animation professionals throughout the industry bringing with them established design sensibilities?

I guess it could be said that characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, et al all shared/share some similar design features (again, largely eyes - vertical ovals - and gloves) even after their personalities had evolved. But that's exactly what separated them in the end: personality; And often in spite of the fact that many were voiced by individual, elastically-talented voice-over artists (especially in Warner cartoons). Today, if a celebrity like Robin Williams gets voice-over work it's Robin Williams doing the voice. There's no distinction between FernGully's Batty Koda, Aladdin's Genie and Happy Feet's Ramon and Lovelace. It should be noted that Pixar did try to draw a distinction between their product and some of the current CG saturation (especially motion capture) during Ratatouille's credits:

In the end though, maybe everything in life really is cyclical.

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