Only a decade ago, animation was about as hip as—well, lounge music. Now audiences can’t seem to get enough of it. Antz, a feature-length cartoon “starring” Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and Sylvester Stallone, drew bigger crowds than Oprah Winfrey’s Beloved; three of TV’s smartest sitcoms, Fox’s King of the Hill and The Simpsons and MTV’s Dania, are prime-time cartoons, while two of the most successful musicals on Broadway, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, are live-action versions of Disney animated features.
What happened? Computers. Old-fashioned, hand-inked frame-by-frame animation (the kind you see whenever you watch Bambi or an old Tom and Jerry cartoon) was so labor-intensive that it couldn’t long survive the demise of the Hollywood studio system in the late ’50s. A much less costly process called “limited animation” was used to create such TV cartoons of the ’60s as The Flintstones and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but the results were too cheap-looking to pass muster on the large screen, and theatrical-release cartoons soon went the way of newsreels and double features. By the ’80s, though, computer-assisted animation had become feasible, and in 1988, Bob Zemeckis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a full-length comedy that blended live action and sophisticated new animation techniques to striking effect. Disney’s hugely popular The Little Mermaid followed the next year, and all at once animation was big again.
What appears to be gone forever, alas, is the cameo-like perfection of such six-minute comedy classics of the ’40s and ’50s as Chuck Jones’ One Froggy Evening and Tex Avery’s King Size Canary, though they can still be seen on TV and videocassette. Short subjects make no financial sense in the ’90s, when the big money is in full-length feature films and prime-time TV series; moreover, far too many of today’s animated features, in particular the big-budget Disney musicals, are handsomely executed but artistically insipid, not to mention politically correct. (A word to the wise: if you don’t want your children bombarded with winsomely packaged cultural liberalism, don’t take post-1990 Disney cartoons for granted.)
As for the much-ballyhooed Antz, it turns out to be a talky exercise in watered-down Marxism in which the workers of an ant colony, led by a whiny nebbish (Woody Allen) who falls in love with a saucy princess (Sharon Stone), rise up in arms (or, rather, legs) to overthrow a psychotic fascist leader (Gene Hackman) who plans to exterminate them all and breed a master race. Presumably somebody at DreamWorks thought this was a clever idea, but in fact the results are deadly dull: I laughed out loud just once, and the children in the theater where I saw it were all too clearly restless. The animation, though technically impeccable, is oddly literal-minded and lacking in fantasy, and while it’s briefly amusing to “see” Allen typecast as an insect, his self-parodying vocal mannerisms quickly become tiresome.
My own candidate for best children’s movie of the year has yet to open as I write these words, but I’ll be surprised if Babe: Pig in the City isn’t as disarming as its predecessor. Australian movies are almost always a good bet nowadays, and Chris Noonan’s Babe (1995) was a lovely barnyard fable in which animatronics and live action were combined with uncanny skill. The voices were adorable, the script deliciously fanciful, and James Cromwell couldn’t have been more endearing as the soft-spoken farmer. (A lot of people were startled to see what a sensational film-noir villain he made two years later in L.A. Confidential.) A sequel was both inevitable and desirable, and between Babe: Pig in the City and the long-awaited big-screen release of a newly restored Technicolor print of the original Wizard of Oz, you shouldn’t have any trouble keeping the kids in line this Christmas.