Thursday, July 27, 2006


Of all the things in all the world that I've ever experienced--people I've known, places I've been, things I've seen--there is nothing, nothing, nothing that I love more than the 1952 Warner Bros. cartoon Feed The Kitty. In just under seven minutes, the great director Chuck Jones and his ace team of collaborators tell the story of the unlikely bond that develops between a gruff bulldog named Marc Anthony and a stray kitten he adopts. This cartoon is by turns joyous, hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. The expression on Marc Anthony's face when he thinks his buddy has been killed--baked into a cookie, in fact!--makes me weep uncontrollably every time I see it, and believe me, I've seen it plenty.

I'm not just crying out of sadness--there's a joy I feel watching this film, an exhiliration from seeing artists in their prime, an admiration for the range of emotions Jones and his animators--Phil Monroe, Lloyd Vaughan, Ben Washam and the peerless Ken Harris--could conjure from lines drawn on paper.

It's impossible for me to remember a time in my life when I wasn't devoted to Warner Bros. cartoons--they aired constantly on TV. I certainly don't remember the first time I saw Feed The Kitty. It's as though I came into this world loving it. I wasn't very old when I realized that Warner Bros. cartoons were better than any other cartoons I was seeing, and that most of the ones I liked best (like A Bear For Punishment or From A To Z-z-z or The Hypocondi-cat--do you have all day? Because I could keep this up all day...) had the name Chuck Jones on them. I was seven, eight. I had no idea what a director did, much less a director of animation. But as I watched Jones' work, I noticed certain formal qualities to his work, not just of character design and animation, but in staging of scenes and portrayal of character, that stood out. So in a very real sense, most of my education in the things that matter to me--film, animation, art in general--came from Chuck Jones.

I'm mentioning all this mostly because the animation community is in a bit of an uproar over a review by Mick LaSalle in The San Francisco Chronicle of the new movie Monster House. This was animated--no, that's not the right word--this was made using a process called motion capture, in which live actors are filmed wearing goofy full-body suits covered with dots, which are then fed into a computer to capture realistic movement. This process doesn't exactly eliminate animators, but it does reduce them to mere technicians, filling in the details over what is already there, rather than creating something wholly from their imaginations.

To LaSalle, this technology is a breakthrough--finally animation can render complex emotions! His example of the wonders of motion capture is so patently ridiculous--"If an actor is bug-eyed, the character will be bug-eyed"--it makes you wonder if LaSalle has ever seen any hand-drawn animation in his life. (A cartoon character with bug eyes? I've never heard of such a thing!) Unfortunately, many film critics for major media outlets these days have no real understanding of the basics of filmmaking. Clearly, LaSalle either read a press release or did an interview with someone or was in some way told that motion capture was the New Great Thing, and he believed it. Not a big deal, in and of itself.

Problem is, a lot of other people seem to believe it. In Hollywood, hand-drawn animation really is, for all intents and purposes, a thing of the past. Kids are into computer animation, according to studio heads, and won't sit still for that "old-fashioned" stuff. An odd assumption, since hand-drawn animation is still popular on TV and DVD. For that matter, the first artistic medium most kids use is still a pencil or crayon, not a mouse and a keyboard. It might be nice for kids to grow up appreciating how eloquent a simple line on paper can be. That's the sort of thing that could actually fuel imaginations, instead of providing the empty sensation of the likes of Monster House.