Everyone remembers that moment in life where you learned that you could make your own cartoon flip-book. We doodled in the corners of notebooks or wasted entire pads of Post-Its in attempts to make stick people walk around. After the amazement wore off, we realized there really was more to animation than flipping the corners of notebooks. We had to draw the same image over and over, well enough for it to be recognized with each flip AND bring it to life. My stick people never looked very interesting and their walk was so stiff.
Being a kid of the 90’s and raised off of what my mom had recorded off the Disney channel, I’ve seen a wide array of classic animation. To this day, I have wonderful moments of déjà vu whenever I see an old Silly Symphonies cartoon. Just yesterday I found The Old Mill on my Bambi Blu-ray. I didn’t remember it, but I recognized so many images from that short. The cattails hitting the fence like a xylophone. The two birds huddled together in the window. The bird who built her nest in an unfortunate spot. I’m guessing I hadn’t seen that cartoon in over fifteen years, yet my mind knew these images.
The images from cartoons were always more than they seemed to me. Only in animation could a tree branch be hands as well, or animals have charmingly human qualities. Babe comes close, but its realism always keeps me at a distance. No image has scared me as much as Ursula at the climax of The Little Mermaid. And every time I watch Fantasia, I keep tissues standing by in case the mix of imagery and music catch me off guard. With just the audio track, I feel fine.
To make a series of inanimate images come to life and evoke a variety of emotions is an amazing power. Even something as easy and accessible as a Flash cartoon is hard to breathe life into. I can make it move, but it all feels so cold and calculated.
Without the achievements of Disney and his studios, I doubt we’d be making flip books or have computer animation software. I’m still in awe when I think of Disney’s multiplane-camera and other innovations he made in film making technology. Things only became more complex from there and today animation is looking very realistic in every studio. Yet, the Oscar statistics for animation have only started to rise.
To date, there has only been three animated features nominated for Best Picture: Beauty and the Beast (1991), Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010). It was not until 2002 that a category was created to name the best animated feature at the Academy Awards. This is probably because Disney didn’t always have an annual animated feature in theaters, and didn’t have much competition until DreamWorks started to consistently create new animated films in the late 90’s. I do lament this category not coming in the 80’s or early 90’s, where it could have given higher status to such films as The Last Unicorn, The Land Before Time, An American Tale or The Lion King. And just imagine what it would be like if Yellow Submarine were an Oscar nominee.
Even without the recognition of an animated Oscar category, Disney pushed for excellence in his films that lasts to this day. The animators studied animals, their behaviors and how they moved to create them in films like Bambi and The Jungle Book. That same practice was a model for The Lion King. And the artists at Pixar working on Up traveled to South America to more accurately bring to life the landscape of a tepui.
Often times, I feel that animated films were counted out by the Academy. They can too easily be written off as “kids stuff” and rarely casted big named actors, especially in Hollywood’s golden age. But as I study film deeper, I appreciate animation more and more. There is simply a level of artistry you will not find in any live-action film. In addition to the Oscar-snubbed films, I invite you to come along as I review some animated classics that I believe deserve more recognition. As always, suggestions are welcome.