By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood October 21, 2011 at 5:44AM
Bill Desowitz considers the Fall/Holiday seasons animated features, The Adventures of Tintin, Puss in Boots, Arthur Christmas and Happy Feet Two. Which have the right stuff to join Rango as an Oscar contender?
It's obviously been a terrific week for Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, given the mostly positive reviews coming out of Europe timed to the October 26 international release. And judging by the stunning new trailer and the footage I've already seen, the experiment seems to have paid off well for Spielberg and producing partner Peter Jackson. In fact, Tintin could very well turn out to be the performance capture game-changer for animation that we've been expecting, feeding off the momentum from Weta's innovative work on Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Stateside, we still have to wait for the final result (probably sooner than later). But it's become clear that Spielberg has merged his own classical sensibilities (riffing on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hitchcock, and Bond) with Hergé's sense of the fantastic and colorful. And as I've suggested all along, he's created a unique hybrid of photorealism and caricature from the artist's renowned Ligne Claire (clear line) graphic style. But in a powerfully cinematic way: witness the trailer's breathless action, and fluid overlap of time and space. The intrepid protagonist effortlessly moves about like Hitch's "pursued pursuer," and the fiery pirate flashback has a dark flair.
At its core, though, Tintin is pure Spielberg, with its old-fashioned tale of adventure, goodness, innocence, and redemption. He says he's been liberated by the virtual camera and it shows in his sweeping camera moves and hyperventilated excitement. And I'm willing to bet that, in the end, Tintin is as much about the love between a boy and his dog as War Horse is about the enduring relationship between a boy and his horse.
Speaking of lovable animals, also impressive is the set-up of Puss in Boots (October 28), with its dynamic 3-D. It's further proof that DreamWorks has diversified its storytelling beyond the Shrek model and has become more of a filmmaker's studio. Indeed, that's what enticed director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) to Puss in the first place. "Fairy tales are part of the landscape but we're not barbequing those legends," suggests Miller. "We're presenting them in a different light and it is a character piece."
And Puss has benefitted greatly from the involvement of Guillermo del Toro as executive producer. He was drawn to DreamWorks with the promise of more character-driven and stylistically imaginative animated features, and he's delivered an outside the box perspective.
And Puss posed several challenges, not the least of which is distinguishing itself from Shrek. As John Lasseter rightly points out in this week's New York Times, making sequels is a treacherous trapeze act. Well, spinoffs are just as dicey, and Puss manages to evoke the spirit of Shrek while forging its own unique tone and universe. The humor is slightly askew and plays off every obstacle. For Puss's origin story, Miller utilized the persona of Antonio Banderas to the fullest, even riffing on The Mask of Zorro for a swashbuckling yet more vulnerable characterization. You never know where you stand with a cat. They also continued in the naturalistic visual vein of How to Train Your Dragon, which seems to be the hottest way of poaching from live action right now.
However, the heart of the story involves the bad blood between Puss and his old pal, Humpty Dumpty, as they scheme their way into the Giant's bean stalk lair to steal the golden goose. In fact, it was del Toro's idea to make Humpty Dumpty a brilliant inventor, to add a new twist.
And what kind of new twist can we expect from Happy Feet Two (Nov.18), the sequel to the Oscar-winning penguin toe-tapper, in which Elijah Wood's Mumble must guide his choreophobic son? Director George Miller wanted to put a lot of focus on the facial animation, the eye work, and the dialogue beak/lip sync. The idea was that the animators got into the heads of the characters and that the creatures, both large and small, had convincing weight appropriate to their size.
The facial animation certainly looks a lot more expressive, and the movement a lot smoother. This is all the more impressive considering that Miller and producing partner Doug Mitchell set up a new digital studio in Sydney, Australia, Dr. D, in partnership with Omnilab Media.
According to animation director Rob Coleman (Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith), "The software, hardware, pipeline, and processes are all in a new configuration from what we experienced in other studios. But the idea is to build on the 'best practices' from our collective previous experiences and hopefully build something better."
As Aardman director Sarah Smith revealed in last week's column, a "best practices" strategy was also applied to the new Aardman/Sony Pictures Animation partnership on Arthur Christmas (November 23). This may be an original, but how do you spark interest in Santa among jaded moviegoers young and old on both sides of the Atlantic? By taking the shopworn Santa legend head on, as Aardman has done, and revealing how he pulls off Christmas in one night with high-tech razzle dazzle and Old School passion. Never bet against Aardman: their off-center Brit wit and charm rarely fails them, and Sony's now at the top of their game with richly rendered CG characters and imaginative worlds.
"We had to be light on our feet to facilitate Sarah's live-action background," offers Sony's animation supervisor Alan Hawkins. "It was up to us to come at it from a very natural, performance-driven point of view. Ultimately, the product is very unique from what we've done at Sony and from what Aardman has done before. They wanted to go down a new path as well."
Looks like all four films are trying to raise the bar for animation in their own ways, and that Oscar front-runner Rango might have some late season competition. I look forward to seeing them all and figuring out the serious contenders.