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One of the more pleasant side effects of having children is that once the child reaches the age of, oh, two or so, one suddenly becomes much more well-versed on the subject of animated movies. One gains the ability to quote entire passages from Dumbo, Aladdin, Snow White, et cetera. Of course, it helps if one actually likes animation to begin with. Fortunately, I have always loved animation….although some of the films don’t bear up upon many, many, many viewings as well as others (I think I can safely live to the age of 71 before I feel the need to watch The Rescuers again).

Anyhow, in recent weeks we have made liberal use of our Blockbuster card to catch up on some animated films we haven’t seen yet, and we actually saw a new one at the theater.

:: Shrek. Yes, somehow we failed to see this movie when it was out last year. It’s every bit as delightful as the reviews and box office receipts implied. It’s a warm and funny film, with a lot of heart but also with a hearty helping of satire and humor. The tone is most similar to the classic film The Princess Bride, in that it constantly walks a fine line between telling its own story and parodying others. The story, about an ogre who claims to crave solitude but really desires love and acceptance, is a wonderful little fable. What makes the film so endearing is its heart and its humor. In one scene, the villain — Lord Farquaad — attempts to extract information, through torture, from a helpless Gingerbread Man, using methods such as prolonged submersion in milk. Later on, the Lord is trying to get information from a Magic Mirror. The Mirror tries to hem and haw, until Farquaad gestures to one of his guards — who holds up a hand mirror and smashes it with a gaunleted fist. The Magic Mirror quickly falls in line after that. The film is full of these kinds of jokes, some of which are quite dark indeed — witness the bird that explodes when the lovely Princess Fiona’s voice attains a too-high note. The film’s music score is a combination of pop tunes and ordinary orchestral underscore, all of which somehow works. Shrek is a pleasure.

:: Atlantis: The Lost Empire. This is Disney’s foray into a new type of animated film, where the emphasis is on story and action as opposed to song and dance. It’s an intelligent move for Disney to make, as its musical films in recent years have felt a bit thin. It’s almost as if Disney’s best writers have been working on the PIXAR films (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., A Bug’s Life). Atlantis‘s story is really nothing new, in itself; in fact, the film could almost be a reworking of Stargate. A nerdy archaeologist has eschewed traditional studies for unpopular esoterica, and he claims to have discovered the key to finding the lost city of Atlantis. Of course, this gets him nearly fired from his museum job, but a mysterious and rich benefactor personally finances his expedition, which he undertakes along with a crack team of other experts. There is the crusty military man, the eccentric dirt expert, the French demolitions man, and so on. They embark on their journey, eventually arriving at Atlantis after a number of adventures — and a number still to go, as certain persons on the mission are revealed to have other agendas at work. None of this is particularly surprising, but it is still highly entertaining because of the freshness of the animation — a lot of which is based on techniques developed in Japanese anime — and the wittiness of the script. (One notable line comes from the submarine’s public address announcer: “Tonight’s meal will be baked beans, musical performance to follow.”) The film’s climactic action sequence is something to behold: it is a battle between Atlanteans (and some of the good guys) in flying-airships that are shaped like fish (one character says, “Do you have anything sporty, like a tuna?”) and the bad guys in miniature biplanes, centering on a hot-air balloon that is attempting to depart through the crater of an extinct volcano. The animation during this sequence is nothing short of amazing — never is the action anything but crystal clear. If Atlantis: The Lost Empire breaks no new ground in terms of story, it is still an enormously entertaining film and may point the way for traditional animation in the future.

:: Mulan. This is the oldest of the films that we’ve recently seen. It is also the most uneven of them. The film tells the tale of a Chinese girl who, desperate to bring honor to her family, disguises herself as a man so she can go off to war against the Huns. While this is different subject matter for Disney, it is clear that a need was felt to “Westernize” certain aspects of the tale. This being the case, the film doesn’t really create the sense of time and place that the best of the Disney films evoke. Mulan simply isn’t Asian enough; despite a few very nicely done sequences, this film still feels like a Western take on China rather than China itself. The songs aren’t bad at all, but they are very un-Oriental in their tone (especially the horrible pop-tune that closes out the film’s end credits); the film’s music score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is very good but still doesn’t push the Asian envelope enough. The film’s voices are well-selected, with many of prominent Asian actors — George Takei, Pat Morita, Soon Teck-Oh (one of my favorite character actors and a frequent Magnum, PI alumnus) and Ming-Na in the title role — but somehow the film still feels like the Epcot version of China rather than the real thing. The villains are nothing more than robotic killing machines. Mulan is an enjoyable film, but it can’t compare with a film like Princess Mononoke (yes, I know that Mononoke is set in Japan and not China, but the point stands).

:: Finally, we saw Lilo and Stitch last week. What an entertaining film this was. At first glance, one expects a Disney-fied version of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. A diminutive alien is stranded on Earth, where he meets a young person from a broken family and then both proceed to learn valuable lessons about family and love. The similarities end there, though, because the alien — Stitch — is actually a genetic creation by an alien scientist who is literally programmed to do nothing but destroy. (In one scene, he creates a miniature model of San Francisco so he can trample, Godzilla-like, through the city.) The girl — Lilo — is rough around the edges; she gets into fights and purposely sabotages her sister’s attempts to convince the social worker (a huge, black man named Cobra Bubbles and voiced by Ving Rhames) that she is an adequate guardian. The film is animated in wonderful style, making prominent use of pastel shades and watercolors for a look that is quite different from the usual Disney boldness. The music blends traditional Hawaiian song with, believe it or not, Elvis Presley (who apparently is quite revered in Hawaii). The film employs some wonderful humor: when the aliens simply decide to vaporize Earth to rid themselves of their escaped weapon, a life scientist pops up and explains that Earth is the sole habitat of that precariously-endangered species, the mosquito. Lilo and Stitch is a terrific film.

I am starting to wonder if some kind of Golden Age of animation might not be in the offing, between the continued excellence of traditional animation (recently renewed by the adoption of anime techniques), the increased appreciation of anime in general, and the continued evolution of computer-generated animation. There is still life in Disney….but it’s not all Disney. And that’s all to the good.

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