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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Animation’s peculiar crossroads

The same tools assisting visionary animators may incite animation’s downfall

Animated cinema diverges at a rather peculiar crossroad. The genre’s potential for varied artistry permits a visual infinity, from embroiled ocean vistas that, at first glance, appear ripped straight from the depths of the Pacific, to the illusory motions of a hand-crafted Sasquatch, slave to Geppetto’s zealous descendants. Its unique propensity for invention lends itself to a form that facilitates even the most fanciful visions. Modern technology has realized this aesthetician dream to an extent exceeding the wildest fantasies of any cinematic, let alone artistic, contemporary.

Tools of the latter-day dreamer permit movies like “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Wall-E” to, in short, exist. Had CGI and motion capture not been contrived and advanced to the astounding reaches available to present animators, films noted for their charm, beauty and reverence would have remained reveries relegated to the rainy-day sketches of wishful composers.

But tools, framers’ intentions be damned, must act at the behest of the hands that wield them. A daydream, realized with a dreamer’s will, is just that — a dream, a story. But for an expedient few, stories become more — aspirant fantasy inflated beyond the screen to store shelves and lunchboxes. An artist, in charming reveries and rainy-day sketches, sees a world. A businessman sees a brand. In this diverging vision, we discover our peculiar crossroads, the fork in a genre ripe for both vibrant storytelling and lucrative empires.

The intersection of art and profit, despite critics’ oft-repeated accusations of corruption and capitalistic duplicity, kickstarts a vital conversation regarding the artist’s role in a commercially-oriented society. Animation’s very best responses straddle the line between consumerism and elegant aesthetics, with “The Lego Movie” and its franchise brethren serving as paragons of an art-business hybrid that, when done well, furthers the reach of corporate marketing while maintaining an indisputable sense of creative integrity.

When these films succeed as art and the shadow of motives remain ephemeral, the question of whether intentions bear relevance upon their artistic virtue is an entirely different debate. But in most cases, the shadow is overpowering, a stifling force at the muse’s throat.

Via the same technological godsends assisting genuine craftsmen, studios can now engage in animated production with ease. Sights that marvel casual audiences are produced with limited budgets and, all things relative, rather mediocre animators. These newfound faculties allow corporations to sponsor and produce what are in all but name feature-length commercials. Some, like the aforementioned “Lego” franchise, stand on their own as movies. But these triumphs comprise a short list. More often than not, audiences are left with the likes of “Boxtrolls,” “Angry Birds,” “Minions” and “Smurfs”; films created to expand pre-existing commercial empires or to catalyze future conquests. Reveries, dreams and fantasies are strangled and spat upon, left to shiver in the rain by focus groups, calculations and algorithms.

Hyperbole aside, audiences do continue to reward imagination at the box office, allowing the eternal brilliance of studios like Pixar and Dreamworks to shine. Notably eccentric efforts in recent years, namely “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse,” “Isle of Dogs” and “Missing Link,” have received vast critical acclaim in tandem with marked commercial success.

Art-business hybrids that emphasize efficiency over imagination are troubling, to say the least. But the dreamers, year after year, continue to dominate mercenary interests with masterfully realized efforts that serve as odes not just to animation, or to film-making, but to art. For the time being, profit remains a mere counterpart to beauty.

I am reluctant to derive some mangled sense of optimism from this trend. At some point, corporations will achieve the same level of artistic competency as the romantic visionaries we hold so dear. The bell tolls three, for dreams, for fantasies, for revery.

Yet, despite my skepticism, doubts and hesitancy, there is something comforting in imagination’s triumph, however fleeting. There is some console in our shared fondness for dreams.

I imagine that the passing years will bring upon us a scourge of men in suits cramming tired stories down our throats. Yet, greed falters in the face of imagination. Men in suits, for all their posturing, will never have that. They will learn to produce an efficient, profitable caricature, some Lazarus of beauty long past. But the dreams will endure in spite of our failings. They will defy the spectres of corporate expediency, conjuring for us visions of ragged seas and puppet strings, idiot oracles that we are.

Written by: Eli Elster — eselster@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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