Film: Sequel-Free Zone

Now that fall is finally here, I think I’ve earned a souvenir of the excruciating season just past. Perhaps Crisis could buy me a shirt with “I Survived the Summer of Stupid Sequels, and All I Got Was This Crummy T-Shirt” stenciled on the chest? I mean, I’m the one who had to go to those movies. All you have to do is read about them, and I’m going to spare you the gory details. Take my word for it: You didn’t miss a thing, except for the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the decline and fall of Hollywood. Remember Hollywood? That place in southern California where they used to make movies, once upon a time? Ah, yes, it’s coming back to me now .

Anyway, I come not to gripe about Legally Bland XIV but to report that the hottest movie of the summer was a G-rated cartoon about a family of talking fish. Excuse my glee, but Pixar’s Finding Nemo had grossed nearly $313 million at the time of this writing and is still going strong. You can bet that everybody in the film industry noticed that number, though I doubt very many of them understood why Finding Nemo did so well.

The answer, as is so often the case, was both simple and not simple: Finding Nemo is an old-fashioned, well-written heart-warmer that just happens to be animated. It has a basic yet compelling odyssey-type plot (a father searching for his lost son), characterful voiceover performances (Albert Brooks is especially good as Marlin, little Nemo’s overprotective father), and a script salted with just enough adult humor to keep the grown-ups smiling (including a spoof of an AA meeting in which three sharks swear off eating other fish). We’re even spared the exasperating little commercials for tolerance that are by now an obligatory part of most cartoons. Well, not quite all of them—Nemo, it seems, was born with a withered fin but at least the movie doesn’t harp relentlessly on his disability, Disney-style.

Yet something about Finding Nemo left me cold, the same way all of Pixar’s animated features have left me cold. That something is the animation itself, which was digitally generated and looks that way. I don’t mean it’s rigidly mechanical—the character animation is actually quite deft. What bothers me are the fantastically elaborate, hyper-realistic backgrounds. They’re technically impressive, to be sure, but I couldn’t help feeling a nagging incongruity between the film’s characters, who are obviously animated, and their 3-D environment, which is just as obviously meant to look lifelike.

Am I being persnickety? Probably. But every time I see a Pixar film, I think of the dead end down which Walt Disney charged so heedlessly in the Thirties and Forties. Man for man, his creative team packed a greater technical punch than any animation shop in history, but its pictures still grew progressively duller, while the Warner and MGM cartoons of the same era became smarter, wittier, and more vivid. The difference was that Disney’s creative team was fixated on the chimerical goal of realism, whereas Chuck Jones and Tex Avery knew that no matter how well you draw it, a talking animal isn’t going to look real.

This sounds like a debate over modernism, doesn’t it? Well, that’s pretty much what it is. You can’t watch a cartoon like Jones’s “Duck Amuck” or Avery’s “King-Size Canary” without understanding perfectly well that what you’re looking at is a cartoon. Both men accepted the inherent limitations of their medium, thereby freeing their imaginations to run wild. Not so Disney, whose goal was to make his studio’s cartoons look as realistic as possible, meaning that the imagination of the artists he employed got tied up in knots of creative inhibition.

Needless to say, Finding Nemo is good not just because of the way it looks but because of the way it’s written and voiced and scored. In all these departments, Pixar stands head and shoulders above nearly everybody else currently making cartoons. But the best animated feature of the past decade, Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, was just as imaginatively written and voiced and scored—but also made striking use of hand-drawn characters and hand-painted backgrounds that didn’t aspire to Pixar-like 3-D realism. I don’t mean to sound cranky, but I suspect this is no small part of the reason why Lilo and Stitch touched me, whereas Finding Nemo, good as it is, mostly only made me laugh.

If it’s realism you want, the cheapest and most efficient way to get it is to point your camera at human beings. For me, the best movie of the summer was Spellbound, which is really real— it’s a documentary about eight kids who took part in the National Spelling Bee. Documentaries have never done well at the box office, but this one grossed close to $3 million, a huge haul for a low-budget picture.

Again, the reason for its success was both simple and subtle: Jeffrey Blitz, the director, used the National Spelling Bee as a vehicle for exploring the varied lifestyles of eight interesting boys and girls, thus engaging the viewer all the more deeply in the drama of which one would win. And while contemporary documentaries tend to be ideologically heavy-handed, Spellbound made its points by stealth, a refreshing approach. I was particularly impressed by the way in which Blitz walked us through the daily life of an engaging black girl from Washington, D.C., without ever underlining or even mentioning the fact that there were no grown men in her life at all—no father, no grandparents or uncles, not even a teacher. Instead, he left it to us to connect the dots.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Spellbound did so well in part because reality TV has habituated American audiences to the once-unfamiliar notion of nonfiction entertainment (though it had far more in common with “mockumentaries” like Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman than with the witless fare to which the major TV networks are becoming increasingly addicted). By the same token, the main reason why Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide flopped so badly is probably that it was so difficult to pigeonhole. Half cop drama, half Bull Durhamesque adult comedy, it slipped between the commercial cracks. Too bad, because I found it wonderfully agreeable, with Harrison Ford at his best as a middle-aged detective lost at sea in the everything-goes culture of postmodern Los Angeles. “If I take my gingko,” he wryly remarks at one point, “I can still remember where I put my Viagra.”

Lines like that are not calculated to amuse the young, which is why Hollywood Homicide failed to make a dent in the adolescent demographic at which today’s major-studio releases are aimed. The solution? Wait for the DVD—and you won’t have to wait long, either. My guess is that filmmakers interested in reaching adult audiences will eventually forego theatrical release altogether, choosing instead to package and sell their movies in much the same way that publishing houses sell books. No doubt the day will soon come when we can download them straight off the Web. Suits me. I can make my own popcorn.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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