Roger Ebert’s Comments on The Last Airbender and Animation

It’s been established that I don’t really like film critics. It’s not a personal thing, for the most part, I tend to disagree with the way they review things. Having said that, I do hold certain ones in high regard, Roger Ebert being one of them. He’s pretty much seen everything at this point so he knows what he’s talking about when he says a film is pants. That’s not to say that you too will find it horrible, heck, he only gave one thumb up to How to Train Your Dragon and I absolutely loved it!

I am not certain whether or not Ebert is partial to animation or not, suffice to say that he does review almost all animated films being widely released. However, he is spot on with his review of The Last Airbender. He nails the movie itself, but his commentary on why it shouldn’t have been live-action hits the bullseye.

Leaving aside his thoughts on 3-D, the actors and the script, Ebert dives straight to what he sees a a fatal decision on behalf of the producers:

The first fatal decision was to make a live-action film out of material that was born to be anime. The animation of the Nickelodeon TV series drew on the bright colors and “clear line” style of such masters as Miyazaki, and was a pleasure to observe.

I tend to agree. Animated TV shows normally have a tough enough time succeeding on the big screen in animated form. To ask them to simultaneously make the jump to live-action is beyond even the best cartoons and Avatar is no exception.

Ebert declares his admiration for the clean, anime-influenced style of the cartoon. While it didn’t exactly set the animated world on fire, the show did draw deserved praise for its clever mixture of western animation skills and eastern looks. To the best of my knowledge, you can’t do something similar with live-action, unless of course your name is Quentin Tarantino.

Ebert also notes:

“It’s in the very nature of animation to make absurd visual sights more plausible. “

Which is why we can relate to a family with yellow skin and a talking sponge among other things. However, when taken to live-action, it is a tall task to ask audiences to accept circumstances and settings as being real. Sure we know they aren’t, but at least in animation we don’t expect them to be, in live-action we do. And no matter how technically perfect they appear, they still don’t seem real.

Would an animated version of The Last Airbender have been a better idea? Perhaps. It would certainly appeal to more fans of the original show and I am certain that it would not age as much as this new film surely will (think how old Lord of the Rings is starting to look, despite the bleeding edge technology that it used during production). As Ebert notes at the end of his review:

This material should have become an A-list animated film.

Except it isn’t. Let’s remember that animated films of animated TV shows make much more sense than live-action drivel.

Anomaly Appraisal: Neighbors From Hell

Yes, this is a tad late but I would rather have to wait and watch it online than cough up for cable every month. There were a few somewhat scathing reviews put out in advance of the show’s premiere a few weeks ago, namely in Variety, where the reviewer pretty much shot it down before it even left the gate. Not here though, oh no. On this blog we believe in positive criticism and looking on the bright side of life and all that.

FIrst of all, the setting: a family of demons get sent to Texas to stop a giant drill from getting all the way to hell. So far so ordinary. The twist is that what the Hellmans see on the surface simply does not compare to what they do underneath. It’s far worse!

The first episode is so clearly a pilot episode. There is the standard introduction of characters, the monologue about why they are where they are and of course, a convenient plot that introduces the audience to the setting and ancillary characters. It’s a pilot, so there’s not point getting too worked up over the plot. Every show must have an introductory episode of some sort and the producers here clearly decided to do that straight out of the gate. Nothing wrong with that, but it does not provide the best platform on which to measure a series.

The music in the show is rather standard fare really. There is nothing remarkable about it except to say that yes, it does contain some heavy metal. If it didn’t, I would have a lot of questions about a show supposedly centred on a bunch of folks from hell.

The animation was done using Toon Boom software, which I posted about waaay back when. It certainly provides for a much higher standard of animation than flash although it stil falls short of true hand-drawn animation. That’s not a problem though. The animation is remarkably smooth and certainly does not suffer from the jerk, puppet-like movements that flash is so susceptible to.

The character design is pretty darn good actually. There are plenty of cable shows where nickel and diming has resulted in character designs that look like they only got one pass through the saw and skipped the finishing table altogether. The designs are split into two groups: The Hellmans and everyone else. The family seems to fit in despite the fact that they are green.

Each character is only a small bit stylized and whose design most certainly matches their character. Therefore we have the father with his jacket, the mother with a somewhat attractive red dress, the daughter in dressed prim and proper (although this belies her demeanour) and the son in a T-shirt.

Pazuzu is perhaps the most interesting, mainly because he doesn’t really look like a goblin, more of a wild-eyed boisterous dog. His wide eyes and huge grin suggest a character that really is Balthazar’s best friend.

The characters are your usual nuclear family. The oafish father Balthazar tries his best his best to do right for his family as well as his wife. He gets in trouble with the boss, he betrays his best friend (a goblin named Pazuzu) and has plenty of pop-culture references in his catapult. He’s a likeable fellow overall.

His wife, Tina, is a somewhat more interesting character. Despite being a housewife, she is easily superior to her husband. She is driven and more than capable of fulfilling her own ambitions.

The daughter, Mandy, has the coolest head in the family. She is not above using violence against her brother though and is especially skilled at getting people to do her bidding. The son, Josh is your standard teenage boy. He’s always up to mischief and getting himself into awkward situations. It is hinted that he has a temper a well.

Much remains to be seen as to whether the characters become as richly developed as their backgrounds suggest. A common problem I find with the likes of Family Guy and more recently The Simpsons, is that hardly any episodes are devoted to the kids and their development. For the most part, they are fill in characters that come and go as needed but are rarely seen to have their own lives with their own problems. Hopefully later in the season, we will see a few episodes where the kids get a chance to mature as characters.

A character of note is Satan, if only for his voice-actor, the very funny Steve Coogan. It’s fantastic to hear him again, especially as he is hardly ever seen outside the UK. For those that don’t know, Steve is one of the funniest comedians of the last 20 years and created one of the most memorable characters to grace TV screens in Alan Partridge. He adds an awful lot to the character of Satan which in turn made the show much more enjoyable (at least for me).

Overall, I liked the show. It’s not the most fantasic animated TV show ever made (because that is currently airing over on Comedy Central and is back to what it does best) although it deserves to succeed on tbs. Could the jokes be improved a wee bit? Sure. They stray dangerously close to the gratuitous at time, I mean c’mon, do we really need to see horses going at it? The allusion should be more that enough for the viewer to get the message. Humour like that suggests a lack of finesse and the easy way out. It may be good for a cheap laugh onec, but it does not stand up during repeated viewing (for the most part).

Neighbors From Hell is a show thatis trying to prove that animation can indeed be marketed to adults. It deserves to succeed in that regard. I recommend you watch it at least once.

Animation and Civil Engineering: The Similarities and the Differences

As you may (or may not have noticed), I am not an animator. Never have and have never really had any desire to be one either. Why I have such a deep passion for animation is still beyond me. I suppose my response to the question why cartoons has always been the same as Frederator’s: "Because we like cartoons. They’re fun." They are fun and I like fun things, so that makes perfect sense.

Not being an animator means I must be something else. Which is true. I am in fact, a civil engineer by trade. Do you know a civil engineer? I doubt it. We can be a very boring bunch at times, in fact civil engineering has been considered the most boring of the engineering professions. So I guess that’s the first difference between animation and civil engineering: only one is exciting!

I suppose another difference is that animation allows folks to work on personal projects in their spare time. Sure a couple of my lecturer’s in college did some moonlighting on the side, but for the most part civil engineers don’t do much civil engineering outside of work. Animators on the other hand are more than able to indulge in personal projects after hours. As I’ve mentioned before, animators can do much more than just animation and I certainly admire them for that. I on the other hand can’t exactly go out and design my own road or bridge or whatever late at night and show off to the public upon completion!

The other difference is that civil engineers generally become professional. In other words, they’re skills are recognized by a professional organization. Besides, it’s required in just about every country around the world that as an engineer, you must pass a proficiency test to ensure that you know what you are doing. We’ve had enough examples of engineering oopsies with the likes of Tacoma Narrows. Of course, those were signed off on by a registered engineer, not a guy barely three years out of school! Animation on the other hand, has no such professional recognitions. Sure the union may recognize experience in their pay scale, and promotion to a more senior position is surely a sign of your talents. But there is no yardstick by which these skills are measured. This is surely because as an artform, animation skills vary greatly between individuals. Some may get it right straight out of school, such as Pendleton Ward with Adventure Time. Others can take a couple of years to get there such as Larry Huber with ChalkZone. Yeah I know, he isn’t an animator, but the same logic applies.

There is not much point in focusing too much on the differences. Both professions after all allow folks to earn a living and pursue a rewarding career. So what are the similarities? Well, I’m going out on a limb here, so if you see any mistakes, please feel free to comment.

The first is school. Many students study animation not so much to learn the necessary skills, but to learn how to use them effectively. School plays a very important role, in fact a necessary one for civil engineers. The days of getting hired and working your way up are practically over. Today, a Bachelors degree is a key requirement to getting hired. Animation is similar for the most part. A degree in animation can certainly help you land a job and schools more often than not give students the resources to create their own projects in addition to their schoolwork. I have seen a good few examples of student’s schoolwork helping them launch a career for themselves afterward. In fact, Cartoon Brew is currently holding their first ever student film festival and so far, the results have been fantastic.

Another similarity, is that both professions undertake paid work that is for other parties. In my case it is often for the state of federal government. I do the work, I get paid for it and they take the finished product and do what they need to do with it. Animation is very similar, especially if one works in a studio on a production either for the studio itself or its client. At the end of the day though, it is exciting for both to see the finished product, be it a TV show, feature film or the W-beam crash barrier you put in front of the light pole.

The most important similarity is networking. I can’t emphasize it enough. I know in civil engineering oyu can land a job based on your merits, but you stand a much, much better chance if you know somebody. Why this is, I cannot say. I kinda wish more was placed on what skills you have, but we are humans after all and as such we’re a very social, personal bunch. That’s not to say that you have to be part of an old boys club, oh no. As with animation, networking can open many opportunities that you otherwise would not have known about. Perhaps someone you know casually mentions that a position has opened up at their firm and they think you would be a good fit for the job. Or someone you know needs you to give them a reference or vice versa. In both civil engineering and animation, there are many events that you can meet new people. Professional organizations in both areas are a great starting point and also help you connect with people who have similar interests to yourself.

So there you have it. Civil engineering and animation. Two professions that may appear far apart at first, but actually have plenty in common.

The Economist on Pixar's Long Term Plans

I subscribe to The Economist, yes that one, the same "adult magazine" that Homer Simpson subscribes to. In last week’s issue, the regular column Schumpter discussed Pixar and the different way that Ed Catmull and John Lasseter had set the company up so as to ensure it would live on after they had left. I highly encourage you to read the article first, I’ll wait :).

Back? Great. The article is pretty straightforward in its analysis and the point it makes is an important one. Both Catmull and Lasseter have been the guiding force behind the studio for a long time and to an extent so has Steve Jobs, although that is not surprising seeing as he owned it for a long time.

There are many similarities between Apple and Pixar beside Mr. Jobs. Both companies are extremely product focused. Both believe that if they put enough effort in the will be rewarded with consumer acceptance. This is true to some extent but I can’t help but feel that right now, both companies are running on flywheel inertia: Pixar with its slate of upcoming sequels and Apple with the slight upgrade to the IPhone software. Dreamworks has proven that they too can make solid, entertaining films and other mobile phone companies have upped the ante recently with the latest group of Android powered phones.

What worries me though is how well the setup at Pixar will last. The article mentions the collaborative environment in Emeryville and how a lot of effort is put into fostering projects from the ground up rather than the top down. I’m sure Pixar is in Emeryville for a reason, being a tad less than arms reach from Burbank. However, physical separation does not mean a lot if the people calling the shots are not from there. Sure right now Lasseter is, but once he retires, where will his replacement come from? I doubt it is from Pixar.

All this effort to set up a different system may be for nought if Pixar continues with sequels. I am not sure whether the plan is to increase the size of the studio or keep it as it is, putting out one film a year or so. Dreamworks have upped their rate to three films a year, which may be more sustainable for what Jeffrey Katzenburg wants.

I have similar worries about Google. Sure right now, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are keeping an eye on the privacy aspects of the business (albeit somewhat unevenly) but once they are gone, what will happen then once the people running the show no longer have a personal interest in the company or its users?

We’ll see how things play out. I don’t want to do too much crystal ball gazing. Both John Lasseter and Ed Catmull deserve a lot of credit for building Pixar into a strong studio with a solid brand of work ethic that has ensured that every single film they have put out has been a success, not just in box office numbers, but on the story and visual side of things too.

The Return of Futurama…Again

What do I need to say that hasn’t already been said. Futurama is a show with more lives than a cat. Not only that, it is also, by far, my favourite animated TV show of all time. OK, I admit it, I tend to lean towards the geeky side of life, and I do tend to get some of the more intelligent jokes that the writers ever so craftily put into the show.

Tomorrow night (Friday) sees the third dawn for a TV show that under any normal circumstances would have been mothballed aeons ago and left at that. However, as we’re all well familiar with, just because a TV show has been cancelled does not mean it is as dead as you might think. Family Guy set the gold standard simply because fans went out and spent their hard earned money on the DVDs. Why did they do that? The show was damned funny, that’s why!

Futurama would follow a similar pattern, although as you may not be aware of, due to the arcane release “windows” that many (if not all) of the TV networks instigate, Futurama DVD boxsets were on sale in Europe months (if not years) before the US, where the show was still in the syndication “window” of its release.

Having said that, it was this system of syndication that may have helped save the show (and Family Guy too). Cartoon Network stepped up and began broadcasting episodes every night at 10 o’clock. It was strong ratings for these broadcasts that eventually resulted in a full-scale bidding war for the rights after [adult swim]’s deal expired.

Comedy Central was a winner and they immediately commissioned new episodes that were subsequently rounded up into 4 DVD movies before being broadcast. Strong sales of these movies (I do own all four) convinced the good people at Comedy Central that a proper series was needed.

Thus we come to today (or rather tomorrow) when the first of these new episodes will be broadcast. The show has come a long way since 1998 when it blasted onto the FOX network. Always the sister to The Simpsons, it was constantly pushed around the schedule, which in my opinion significantly contributed to the (supposedly) low ratings. A similar fate befell Family Guy until it’s return when it set up shop at a dedicated time. It has enjoyed good ratings ever since.

After the original cancellation (actually, the commentaries on the DVDs mention that the show was never actually “cancelled” in the traditional sense, it’s contract was simply never renewed), there was much talk about how it was a result of being a sci-fi show and how it didn’t match up to The Simpsons in terms of humour and so forth. Nothing could be further from the truth! In reality, Futurama has been able to maintain it’s high standard of quality jokes and storylines in stark contrast to the sharp fall the Simpsons has experiences of late.

With an order of 22 episodes, there will be plenty of new Futurama to come for quite a while. It’s fate after that is still uncertain, but I hope that this, the third attempt, will see Futurama be successful enough for a proper conclusion to the series. That’s all I have to say on the matter for now. I’ll post a review of the season thus far in a couple of weeks.

Initial Thoughts: Dreamworks Developing Troll Movie

Some toys are notoriously subject to fadism, where they seemingly overnight become massively popular before rapidly fade into the background rarely to be seen again. Remember Furbys? Yeah, like that.

It comes a as a bit of a surprise to hear that Dreamworks is developing a new film based on the (surprisingly mature) line of Trolls dolls. Things could go either way for the film. Some of you out there may well remember the 80s, where it seemed like every cartoon on TV was using a line of toys as their inspiration.

Creativity suffered as a result, writers and animators were limited by what the toy companies dictated the characters could and could not do. While people remember those cartoons with fondness today, in the grand scheme of things, they don’t hold a candle to the likes of SpongeBob Squarepants.

Personally, I believe that cartoons should drive the merchandising. They are a stronger starting point and allow for a far wider choice of products, or at least potential products. This case, however, is probably more closely related to Toy Story than anything from the 80s. There is an established set of toys (read, everyone in Toy Story besides Woody and Buzz) who can be worked into almost any story and have a line of merchandising ready to go.

It would have been ideal if Dreamworks would have decided to develop an entirely new set of characters. Time will tell which celebrities are drafted in to voice the little guys. Anyone want to give odds on Tom Cruise? The film has only just been announced so there are still a few years until we even see anything close to resembling animation. That’s an awful long time in animation and a lot can happen in the meantime.

A Note on Marketing Animation to Adults

This is a brief post, but the TV was on in the background with Last Comic Standing on. Long story short, there was a tie-in promotion for the upcoming film Despicable Me (which I posted about just last week). There was a fair amount of self-deprication going on, with the hosts going on about the “inevitable” promotion for the film.

It got me thinking though, here was a promotion (however silly) for an animated film in the middle of a TV show clearly aimed at adults (or at least teenagers). Now granted, was probably only to inform parents that there is a fun kids film coming out in a week or two, in which case it’ll probably do the job.

It’s been long known that putting advertisements aimed at adults (like those for lawyers, etc.) on during kids TV shows is effective. The opposite isn’t true of course, there aren’t many kids that watch Jay Leno, but there is no reason why we don’t see more kids films being advertised during adult’s TV time. I just wish it was a bit more inventive.

Anomaly Approved: Asterisk Animation

Blogging, it’s a tough thing to get right at the best of times, heck, I screw it up on a fairly regular basis. There are a chosen few however that excel at the practise. Richard O’Connor is one of them.

Emanating from my favourite city in the whole wide world (New York), Richard writes for the Asterisk Animation blog. In case you didn’t already know, Asterisk is a studio based in New York that turns out many projects for private clients but also undertakes larger stuff, like the superb work they completed for PBS’ film, The Buddha (featuring the handiwork of everyone’s favourite Australian, Elliot Cowan).

Regular readers will note that Richard is not the sole animator blogger in New York, he’s not even the sole daily animator blogger in New York. He shares that distinction with Michael Sporn, a most unique animator whom I recommended just last month!

That is where the similarities end however. There are many differences between the two that serve to provide some fantastic variety in the New York animation scene. For one, Richards focuses much more on the practicalities of animation.

What I mean by this is that we get some original class notes from Tissa David! That is not all however, Richard also posts plenty of tips and tricks on how to create good animation, not just who we should look up to in the industry. Besides that, there are numerous posts filled with seasoned advice that can only come from someone who has been in the industry and has seen it all. Indeed, a series of posts has been posted on the correct way to cost a project. That is advice that can be hard to come by at the best of times and here it is being given away freely!

Richard also posts recaps from various events held in New York. Seeing as one person cannot make them all, it is nice to have a few blogs from where to read how events went. For those of us who don’t live in the Big Apple, these are a blessing.

Being the blog of an animation studio, it would be a crime if there weren’t plenty of posts about goings on in the place. Richard excels at posting about the ins and outs of working and running a studio. Besides that, he gives boatloads of background on many of the projects the studio works on. Although times are slowly changing, it is still rare to see first hand information about the nuts and bolts of a studio coming out on a regular basis.

An interesting aspect of the Asterisk blog is the numerous posts devoted to The Animator, the former newsletter of the trade union in the city. These offer a fascinating insight to the industry as it was many years ago and serve as a great reminder of how much things have changed. They are well worth a read if you have the time to spare.

Of course it wouldn’t be a blog if there weren’t a few personal posts here and there. Richard supplies the goods with posts on varying topics of interest. A notable pair of posts was centred on anime and how it came to be in this country.

As I said at the start, blogging is hard to do right. Doing it every day and getting it right is even harder. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the Asterisk Animation blog is Anomaly Approved.

Lessons From a Life in Showbiz

If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you check out the excellent Scribble Junkies blog written by Patrick Smith and Bill Plympton. Despite it’s young age the wisdom of its authors is clearly evident.

As much as I’d like to do a full “Anomaly Approval” post today, I cannot. The reason? It’s my turn to make the dinner. So instead, here’s a link to the first of four posts posted by Bill containing the many lessons learned by David Brown (produced of “Jaws” among others.

Lessons From a Life in Showbiz

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Anomaly Appraisal: Hercules Part II

This is a continuation of yesterday’s Part I, where I covered the plot and music.

Today I’m going to cover the animation, the characters and the character’s designs. First off, the animation is the same fine quality that we have come to expect from Disney. Everything is polished to perfection and leaves no stone unturned. The film itself is an artful blend of traditional and CGI although for the most part, the two remain in the areas where they excel most.

For the most part, the character animation is the preserve of the traditionalist. Characters are hand-drawn and move with grace around the screen. Special mention should be given to the Muses who are almost constantly dancing around the screen. Their movements are fluid and completely suit their stylized design (more on that later).

There are a number of sequences in the film where the camera flies about huge sets, that for the most part, are hand-painted backgrounds draped over a 3-D model. These shots work well and add plenty of depth to the film. CGI is also used for the first creature that Hercules fights in the gorge, where it’s use is pretty obvious mainly because after over a decade, technology tends to improve rather visibly. CGI was also used in a few less obvious areas, like carts or the platform that Hercules must pose on for his portrait. These subtle uses blend in perfectly with the hand-drawn surroundings and serve to improve the appearance of the film. The old adage that less is more certainly holds true here.

Character movement within the film is generally excellent. It was nice to see some cartoony elements such as rubberband legs and some squash and stretch popping up here and there. Their limited use was wise as unlike the Genie in Aladdin, there was no character (aside from Hades) that was in need of it.

As you’ve probably noticed, I am not all that great at analysing the technical parts of the film. That’s the result of not being an animator. If I was, I could sit and yap on and on about how God is in the details of a film like this. Where simple character actions such as which way the characters are looking can make all the difference in the world. Hercules is full of such things, especially in the garden scene, but I am not one to be able to comment on their use. Let’s just say I like that they exist.

Moving right along, we come to an area that I do feel I have considerable ability to comment on: character along with character design, starting with Hercules.

First off, the guy comes off as more of a jerk than is perhaps wise for a film where he’s supposed to earn our sympathy. Sure he has it at the start, when he falls from Mount Olympus. he even has it when he detroys the marketplace in the village. When does he lose it? After his training of course. This is where he begins to become a tad pretentious, which by the end of the Zero to Hero montage, is pretty much full-blown. He’s full of himself at this point. He may still pine to join his father, but after the scene in the temple I thought he pulled of the trick of being the world’s biggest crybaby.

He is brash, he believes that he will earn something just because. While he is equal parts confident and cowardly, his successes imbue him with a sense of entitlement. His arrogance towards Phil is exemplary of the kind of character that I personally hate. OK, its understandable that he is angry in that scene, but he is rather self-centred and willing to act without thinking of others. This changes once he falls in love with Meg and is willing to risk life and limb to save her. Alas, this arrives very late in the film with the damage almost already done. Having said all that, Hercules is the hero and the audience does connect with him at the end. He is a strong protagonist but he is upstaged by the more complex people around him.

Hercules is supposed to be the Alpha male albeit a flawed one. His pride is all too obvious and it saps out sympathy for him. After he becomes famous, he’s not unhappy, he loves it, he just hasn’t gotten what he wants and feels he should get it without having to truly earn it. He believes that he is perfect. Hercules is not fatally flawed as he redeems himself by the end of the film, it’s just that it takes until the end of the film for use to accept that he has changed. Creating a flawed character that an audience like means walking a very fine line. For the most part, Hercules stays on the right side, but only just.

With our hero protagonist being so rough around the edges, it is a relief to say that the other main characters are not nearly so unfortunate. Phil is the trainer who just seems to have a string of bad luck with his students. Voiced by Danny DeVito who adds a grough, world-weary tone to the charcter, Phil is the foil to Hercules for much of the film. Phil is definitely the good-guy, even more so than Hercules. He drives Hercules to succeed and shows true compassion when he learns the pain that Meg has gone through. He is rewarded at the end when his dream comes true.

Megara is our damsel in distress, although her distress is much more complex than at first sight. She is the romantic interest of Hercules although it takes a while for her to return the favour. Her relationship with Hades is revealed (too late in the film in my opinion) as one that she deeply regrets and results in her desire to help Hercules clashing spectacularly with her obligations to Hades. She is a character constantly in crisis and swings wildly between the Rock that is Hercules and the hard places that is Hades. She is a girl who was placed all her trust in two men (her former boyfriend and Hades) and ends up being betrayed bitterly by both. All of these aspects combine to make Meg the most interesting character in the film. Even though she is infinitely more flawed than the hero, it is she who we sympathize with the most.

Hades is the bad guy. Given a fantastic lease of life thanks to James Woods who is let free and loose and makes the character very much the fun-loving diabolical villain that he is. His temper is explosive which is emphasised with the fire that is his hair. He is not one to manipulate people, but he no problem using them for his own devices, such as Meg. Pain and Panic are his two assistants. Now these are two characters that for want of a better word, are superfluous. Watching this film 10 years after the fact, they come across as two, very stock, very mid-1990s Disney characters in that they are nervous, clumsy and serves as no more than a plot device in abducting Hercules. Compared to the likes of Iago in Aladdin or Cruella DeVil’s henchmen, they are too comical to take seriously.

The various minor characters in the film are wholesome, although many are not on screen long enough to display any significant personality traits, save perhaps for the Muses. Here are five women who, despite doing little more than linking the various parts of the film together, nonetheless display some strong characteristics. They are straight-talking and make it known. Personally, I like the Muses. They might be mostly narrat
ors but they have a certain amount of [ahem] appeal and play it off on the audience, which is no bad things as far as I’m concerned.

The character designs are a sight to behold. Some are fairly normal in appearance (such a Phil and Pegasus, no big surprises there) and some are extraordinary. There is one average looking bloke who I’ll get to in a minute.

Starting with Hades, here’s a guy with a fiery temperament and what better way to display that than with some fire! Hades’ hair matches his many moods from normal (blue and short) to angry (blue, longer flames) to steaming mad (red, roaring flames shooting straight up). In contrast, when he is happy, his hair turns bright blue and cozily swirls in the air. Hades’ grey appearance matches his home in the underworld and his presence on Mount Olympus could not be more noticeable, with dark clouds persistently hovering over him. His large stature stands in stark contrast the the many skeletal spirits that live in the underworld which helps set him apart in his role as their caretaker.

As interesting a design as Hades is, it is the females in this film where the character design excels. Staring with Meg, who is an interesting mix of sharp edges and curves. Not being the typical Disney image of womanhood works in Meg’s favour. her clothes are plain, she is bereft of jewellery and her face is rather small.

That being said, the way Meg displays her emotions through her movements is unique in the film. She walks with a certain amount of contempt, perhaps because of the former rejection. There is no suggestion of promiscuousness, but rather that everyone except herself can see her beauty. Her eyes play a critical role in this as she often narrows them when talking to someone but opens them wide to show astonishment or happiness.

Meg holds herself in a way that suits her status as a betrayed person. Her arms are often folded and she tends to keep them to herself, with the exception of the garden scene and accompanying song where she lets herself feel much freer as she experiences the closest thing to happiness for the first time in a long time. Ultimately, Meg is the plain Jane girl that manages to capture the heart of the hero through a winning combination of both beauty and her character. Her design is a similar winning combination that emphasis that beauty is more than skin deep.

Our hero Hercules is a curious case. As a baby, he displays all the associated cuteness and playful movements. As a teenager, he has grown taller, is leaner and has the usual teenage issues with clumsiness. By the time he is an adult, he has become a strapping young lad with muscles large enough to match his strength.

Overall, his design is OK. Where Hercules does fall flat is his face. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it would appear to be a combination of his nose and chin. Both are way to large. The chin in particular sticks out like a sore thumb but does not define a strong jaw in the same way that Gaston does in Beauty and the Beast. Combined with a very prominent nose, Hercules come off not so much ugly, as, well, not quite as universally appealing as perhaps he should be.

The most stylized designs of the entire film belong to the Muses and the gods and make both clearly distinct from the humans. The gods are brightly coloured and appear to radiate with light. Their features are more exaggerated either being more delicate (in the case of the goddesses) or pronounced (in the case of the gods).

The Muses take their design from ancient Greek pottery that they interact with throughout the film. They are suitably curvy and move in a similar fashion, which is not surprising seeing as they dance as well as sing. The five of them have their own appearance and character too although this is not developed much in the film. They are full of life and are constantly dancing in ways that suggest they have a real passion for performing. It would seem (from the end credits) that professional dancers were used as reference for the Muses. I’d like to think that while this may be the case, the animators were given enough room to express their skills. The Muses remain the most entertaining aspect of the film, so much so, that I would gladly watch an entire film with just them in it!

Overall, Hercules is not perfect, although in fairness, no film ever is. It is a solid Disney product that was perhaps treated a bit harshly by US audiences on its theatrical release. Personally, I think it is well worth taking the time to watch it again and viewed for its animation and characters if not for its plot.

I must give a shout out to Disney Dreams for all the wonderful screencaps. Much more than a repository, the site is very much a superb source for Disney fans with everything they could possibly need.

Animaly Appraisal: Hercules Part I

Sooooo, having just finished watching Disney’s Hercules, here are some initial thoughts that will be concluded tomorrow. Released in 1997, Hercules continues the Disney tradition of releasing a “classic” film every year/couple of years which in the preceding years had borne witness to Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pochahontas. Many people will agree that things began sliding downhill with the departure of Jeffrey Katzenburg for greener pastures prior to Pochahontas. I tend to agree but I would say that the slide was more the result of weak leadership rather than problems in the creative department. That debate is for another time. Today, I’m focusing on the plot, the songs and the background design. Tomorrow it’ll be animation, characters and character design.

Starting with the plot, the basic set-up is that Hades, the brother of Zeus hatches a plan to take over the world but first he must eliminate Zeus’ son Hercules. Through his incompetent minions who fail to finish the task, Hercules doesn’t die but instead turns mortal. We then get a short scene where we discover how he does not fit in with those around him. Once Hercules meets his father Zeus, he goes to find Phil, his trainer. After some training, Hercules is not a striking young lad with enormous strength.

Before he can become a true hero ad return to Mount Olympus, he must first prove himself. Enter Meg, whom he saves from a monster. As it turns out, she’s in the pocket of Hades because of some deal she did with him back in the day and must obey his every whim if she’s ever going to get her soul back. So, to wrap up the entire thing, the planets align and Hades begins his assault on Mounts Olympus. Hercules fights him and saves the day, only for Meg to die along the way and descend into Hell (or whatever the Greeks called it). Hercules offers to swap himself for Meg and in the process regains his immortality and becomes a god. In the end, he decides to stay on earth with Meg after falling in love with her. The End.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward. There are no intricate twists save for Meg’s relationship with Hades. As far as being accurate goes, you’d bet better off watching that Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry cartoon. Of course there is no need for it to be accurate, it’s just a story. If we are willing to believe that a guy can lift a house, we can surely believe that Zeus put Hades down below instead of them casting lots for it.

One things that I absolutely loved about the story was the use of the Muses as sometime narrators and, well, muses! Although they make the film seem more like a play (which really changes the pitch of the film) they add some spice to what could have been just another movie.

Interestingly enough, this was the first Disney movie to be based on mythology rather than the usual fairytale. This choice of source material makes a great change from the many films that went before. No princesses in this movie! it is a shame that they haven’t really returned to it since as Greek plays have been a source of entertainment and creativity for millennia.

With that, onto the songs! I’ll just say it straight out, Aladdin is my all-time favourite when it comes to songs. With that in mind, I rate every film against it and while I try to remember that different films require different musical styles, I have yet to fins one that comes close. The songs in Hercules try to convey the many conflicting emotions being felt by the characters. Be it Hercules wanting to fit in, Phil debating whether to train another hero, the Muses montage in the middle, or Meg’s song where it becomes clear she’s fallen in love.

The key thing to all these songs is the singalongability, which I would rate as OK. Granted the songs match the overall serious tone of the film, but you don’t hear people singing those songs for a reason.

Which lead me on to the score itself. Leaving aside the usual orchestral score that does its job in the dramatic parts, it was great to hear some stuff that could have come straight out of the 1950s. If you know your Ren & Stimpy, you’ll know that John K. resurrected a lot of similar music for his show. Which makes it all the more surprising to hear similar music in a film like this. Be it the clarinet solos, the blares of trumpets or the quick tap of a xylophone. They add enormous emphasis to the lighter parts of the film that could otherwise have been so easily accomplished with an orchestra the same as the rest of the film. This music serves to divide the film into two parts: the fun part and the serious part and makes an excellent, if somewhat sub-conscious contrast between the two.

Personally, I think we need to see much more of this type of music in animated films. The Incredibles score makes some fantastic use of 60s brass and percussion that equals the best that James Bond put out.

Tomorrow, the more interesting stuff. Like backgrounds! Characters! Character designs! (try and guess my favourite).