Why Horus Matters

I think there's something more important here than another footnote in cartoon history. We're witnessing a moment at the crossroads in Western animation. There's a greater appreciation and attention given to animated movies, from the Oscar category to the great box office success of Pixar and Disney and Dreamworks. The medium has never been more popular with the public. But there are some very fundamental structual problems.

Animation in the West needs to evolve. It hasn't. It's become more technically sophisticated and more profitable for the major studios, but in a lot of ways, it's still stuck in the middle ages. We're still trapped under Walt Disney's shadow, of tired-out phrases like "wholesome," "magical," "enchanting," "whimsical," and that perrenial "fun for the whole family." Why are we still saddled with fairy tales and simple-minded melodrama and preachy, syrupy "moral lessons"? Who decided that a five-year-old is the only acceptable audience for these kind of movies?

Scott McCloud battled against the same stereotypes in Understanding Comics, but at least he could point to Art Spiegelman or Will Eisner or the underground comic artists as a beacon of hope, as proof that the art form could thrive in a commercial setting. What is there for an animation fan to point to?

There needs to be a revolution in this country. There needs to be something more than children's bedtime stories and rehashed sitcom plots. Even the great Pixar studio, which I love dearly, is in danger of becoming trapped by its formulas. And I don't think this can be sustained forever. Audiences who were turned onto Toy Story and The Incredibles for their innovation will lose interest as safe, easy-to-package movies flood the marketplace. Isn't this what happened to Disney in the '90s?

This is why Horus matters. This is why we need to understand just what Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Mori, Kotabe and company achieved. We need to learn the lessons of the Horus Rebellion, and apply them here.

Horus is more than a film that presages Studio Ghibli. It's a film that expanded the emotional range of animation, exploded its consciousness like those '60s acid tests. It asserted that animation could carry a literary quality; that it could draw upon the history of cinema as well as the visual arts. If movies were an extention of photography, then animation is the extention of painting.

Takahata had to battle for every square inch to get his picture made. And even he didn't realize just how far-reaching it was. The character of Hilda, the shell-shocked tragic heroine, dominates the film with a startling degree of psychological depth and complexity. Movement, body language, color and light, the expressionist compositions and backgound artwork - all of these are used to bring us into the mind of the character. Hell, if it was good enough for Van Gogh, it's got to be good enough for us.

Takahata certainly lost more battles than he won. The Toei bosses expected a family cartoon with animals and sing-a-long songs and safe, predictable plots. After all, cartoons are for kids. That's the rule. The running time was cut down to 90 minutes from two hours, because, after all, little kids can't sit still that long. The original title and theme (based on Kazuo Fukuzawa's puppet play about Japan's indigeonous Ainu people) were changed; that would either confuse or bore the audience. And there has to be some cartoon animal sideckicks, becuase that's the way these things are done.

Each of these concessions was a personal slight, a clumsy intrusion. You can see how everyone felt about those kiddy characters, and took their revenge at every turn. It's fun, in a slightly vicious sort of way, to watch Koro the bear introduced as Horus' sidekick, then literally dumped into a wasteland five minutes later and almost left for dead. Flip, the boy, fares worse. He's introduced chasing a rabbit; in the next scene, his fathter is killed. By the end of the movie, both sidekicks nearly freeze, alone in a blizzard.

Notice, also, the counter-attack employed by Hilda's animal sidekicks. Takahata is saddled with a squirrel and an owl, but reimagines them as extensions of Hilda's tortured psyche. They turn from Bambi throwaways to Freudian symbols; the owl, representing the darker side, overpowers the squirrel, torments Hilda, and boasts of the deaths of the villiage children. A cunning bit of jujitsu, but what do you expect? These young rebels wanted to make a film about the political and social upheavals of their era; they wanted to be real artists and true filmmakers.
The idea that the animation medium could ever be anything else never occured to the studio bosses. They never do, it seems. But Horus opened the doors for a whole new style of intelligent, artful animation. It blazed the trail for Heidi, Girl of the Alps, for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, for Anne of Green Gables. The World Masterpiece Theatre classics of the '70s were conceived as children's shows, but with a literary wisdom that challenged viewers of any age. It's impossible to imagine a Heidi appearing in America under the current corporate mindset. Consider the Canadian TV cartoon based on Anne of Green Gables, with all its Disney-fied cliches from head to toe; then compare it against any single episode of Takahata's Anne.

I don't think there's a better example of where we're creatively stuck now, and where we're capable of going. We should be making our way to the promised land, not some phony corporatist pryamid scheme. Miyazaki once drew a great cartoon, showing the Toei staff struggling to move a giant stone block labeled "Prince of the Sun." They've been blazing trails and creating one animation masterpiece after another for four decades. Isn't it about time that we learned to follow in their footsteps? Isn't it about time we broke the Stepford Family mold and joined the modern world?


Anonymous said...

What do you think Miyazaki and Takahata's political stance or ideology? And, how does it concern their works?
Other example, I think, Italian neo realism was much affected by Italian communism.
Of course, there may be much difference between Miyazaki and Takahata.

Brian Brantley said...

Hm. There's definitely an argument I agree with here, but I don't think american animation is as hopeless as you suggest. Obviously it's becoming a ridiculous market based on Pixar/Dreamworks/Fox 's sucess, but behind the scenes things are changing for the better. One problem we have now and will have for a few years is an insane ammount of copycats. I think there's over double the ammount of CG films we got the previous year. It's jumped that much. Terrible, brain cell-killing, pieces of garbage films. All the while sacrificing the actual animation for cheaper budgets. Look to "Barnyard"(where they can't even figure out male cows don't have utters) and "Hoodwinked". They're developing a cheaper cost-effective method of CG film. CG as a tool for creating an animated film is a great thing if it fits the story, but cheap CG will never allow what could be a beautiful film as cheap traditional animation. Simply on the basis of bad models, lifeless looking characters, rigid movements from the bad models' preplaced joints, and a plastic/puppet look. I'm a big fan of CG done right, but now we're going to see some fo the ugly sides of CG animation with studios always looking to save the precious dollar.

I thought Pixar's film 'Cars' was a step back for the company. Ambitious? Yes. The first time I really enjoyed it realizing going in it would have a simple slow-moving storyline and being no stranger to such films. The 2nd viewing though it's more the film's subtleties that take over for me. How much meat is there on the bone. Suffice to say it wasn't bad but it was frustrating. There were cheap plot points(the way the road got wrecked for one) and some seriously frustrating side characters. There were also good plot movements and solid supporting characters. And one thing I'm set on after a 2nd viewing is the animation choices and actual choice of cars as characters being all wrong. Not because they couldn't be sentimental characters, but because the voice wasn't owned by the face. For the first time in a Pixar film too. Somebody said it best, would you rather see Paul Newman and Owen Wilson together in Cars or a another film if they only had 1 movie together in their career? I just couldn't say Cars. Give me any other 2 characters in a Pixar film and in no way did I feel constricted by their acting shells the way cars made me fill. They were complete and more than satisfying in their performance, not a restraint on the actors. And I'd say these were just details to what matters, the story, if it didn't hurt the sincerity of the film. All elements should support each other - the acting supporting the plot, the plot supporting the characters, the visuals supporting the tone, etc. At some point I felt like they stopped talking to "me", all complaints combined, and that's when the film became something else. However it came about, a lack of bold choices in story or character design, lack of acceptance that the film isn't working, or not a strong enough story/concept frame to begin building upon - it was a bit upsetting.

As I said though, I still don't think they're in trouble. Behind the scenes things are changing thanks to Pixar. Like Ghibli, it's becoming a very director-driven studio. That's what I find most exciting. Brad Bird is possibly the greatest supporter and example of excellence in western animation. Watch his sitcom from '87 available on 'Family Dog'. Just a fantastic show with the idea of a dog's perspective on family, but with real depth and sincerity that elevates it. Or know that he was a story consultant on The Simpsons during their best early years. And most surely see The Iron Giant for a smart and personal tale about a boy with fantasy elements comparable to Miyazaki's balance of fantasy and character. He also did The Incredibles. The next film he's doing, or rather saving, is Ratatouille. The film had problems and he was called in to rework it and became director. So unfortunately we may not get another original film by him for awhile.

Still, what excites me is a studio where we will have ambitious people like him working and being freed to do what they've wanted to do since they were kids. And with John Lasseter now being the head of story in both Pixar and Disney after the merger, he's bringing these kind of principles to both. Now we're going to have probably the best animator in the last 25 years directing his first film, reigns free, in Glen Keane. We've got other directors given the freedom of choosing CG or traditional animation - choosing by which tool better supports their film. And all of Disney's previous influence on musicals, side characters, and clean simple stories is taken off these directors. Not to say they won't use them, but freedom in making an animated is all we can ask for. Hopefully they make the most of these oppurtunities and we reap the benefits. Maybe it is time for a "revolution" or an evolution in american animation, but that hope is not in vain. Pixar's already given us quite a bit and there's an energy and an optimism throughout Disney that hasn't been felt in years. Maybe we finally see them shed some of Walt's influence, while respecting his triumphs. I think it's possible.

Brian Brantley said...

Oh, and also, the animated short as an artform is and has always been heavily supported by Pixar. Currently giving young guys the perfect proving ground before. One Man Band was really fantastic stuff and their shorts have a rich history. They're also rumored to be bringing it back to Disney I believe - or at least there's a revival on hand. I'm reminded of great shorts in the past, both Western and Eastern alike and think that's an important thing being done right in American animation these days. I'd love to see a short like "Anna and Bella" or "Jumping" come out of Pixar. Geri's Game was an expression in that vain and hopefully they got guys going that route in the future to open the horizon a bit on what a weird expressive canvas the animated short is.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Excellent posts! I am quite excited by what's happening with animation shorts, and I think this may be a real source for innovation. The short form has always been America's best suit, and I think the shorter format and lower (financial) expectations from studios allow the artists and writers more freedom and leeway. Video sites like YouTube also offer a real potential for creators' work to be seen by a wider audience, although the royalties issue still needs to be resolved.

The good thing is that the movie-going public is more receptive to watching short films, and this is always a good thing. Much like teenage garage bands, this could be a real source of creativity, which would, in turn, shape the feature films of tomorrow.

Let's not kid ourselves, this is a great challenge. There are real problems that result when conglomerates take over the movie studios, as Pauline Kael has stated. When all the broadcast media, all the movie studios, and all the radio stations are owned by only a handful of enormous corporations, we as a public will lose a lot of creativity, diversity, and freedom. I'm often reminded of Sidney Lumet's terrific movie Network, and writer Paddy Chayefsky's satiric warnings to us from 30 years ago.

We also need to address the budgets. When any movie costs $100 million or more to produce, there's never going to be any real creative innovation or independent spirit. The studios want to make their money back. It's another key reason why we so so many cookie-cutter clones at the multiplex every summer. But despite this, independent film continues to thrive, and new filmmakers arrive with great movies, driven by a clear vision, not the shareholders' obsession with the bottom line. This also needs to happen with animation. We can expect more, as artists and as moviegoers, than endless explosions and fart jokes and stand-up comedy routines. The Pixar formula, which was truly a breath of fresh air when Toy Story arrived in 1995, has become crusty and cliched, as the major studios pound us into the ground with endless repetitions of the same damned thing. The standard-issue excuse - "these are just cartoons for little kids" - doesn't wash. It's a copout.

We deserve better, and we're capable of better. I've always felt this, and discovering the likes of Heidi, Marco, Anne (the holy trinity of television animation) and the Ghibli films only confirmed those beliefs. We have more options than superhero comics, toy commercials, fairy tales, and amusement park rides. We always have. It's just a matter of realizing this, and then making that a reality.

Anonymous said...

Almost by definition IP-TV will revolutionise much of the TV landscape over the next ten years... it will free up the means of distribution, and allow people far greater creative reign in niche markets than is possible today.

But genrefication is driven by production cost - it is hard to put down 20 million USD in production costs without a really solid justification pointing to some return. Until new techniques come along which bring down production costs, the midsummer blockbusters are likely to stay. Sorry ;)

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