Is a second Golden Age of animation upon us?
In a year when "The Iron Giant" was tragically overlooked by family audiences and "Pokemon: The First Movie" was giving Japanese animation a bad name, here come two movies that prove once again how ingenious, artful and flat-out entertaining animation can be. In radically different ways, "Toy Story 2" and "Princess Mononoke" bring the art form back to its roots as a medium meant for for general audiences, not just kids. (There was a time when every grown-up movie was preceded by a cartoon short.)
They also serve to remind us of animation's original premise, that the animated two-dimensional image may have more expressive latitude and physical flexibility than live-action film. This idea is explored to its full potential in "Toy Story 2" and "Princess Mononoke," both of which know that all the technical sophistication in the world can't make up for two essential principles as old as Mickey Mouse (b. 1928): story and character.
Following in the footsteps of such greats as Frank Tashlin, Ollie Johnston, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, the makers of "Toy Story 2" and "Princess Mononoke" have animated the two-dimensional image with such clarity, acumen and expressiveness that they bring entire worlds to life.
Where "Toy Story 2" is bold and broad, "Princess Mononoke" is subtle and shaded. Where "Toy Story 2" is a simple story well told, "Princess Mononoke" is a sometimes over-complicated story featuring myriad characters of complex motivations. Where "Toy Story 2" is clearly meant for children, all the while making sure their adult companions are similarly entertained, "Princess Mononoke" is clearly meant for teenagers and grown-ups.
What both films share is a refusal to pander to youngest-common-denominators (see "Pokemon"), and that never lets whiz-bang technical wizardry take the place of narrative integrity. "Toy Story 2" features souped-up computer graphics that make dust bunnies dance on bookshelves and make the menagerie of toys able to smile more gracefully than in the 1995 original. Filmgoers won't notice this, nor should they. What they will notice is that all of the wit, intelligence and sharp characterization that made the first one such a hit is here.
They'll notice that Woody and Buzz and the gang aren't just grappling with a nifty adventure when Woody is kidnapped by a greedy toy dealer, but that they confront such issues as identity, loyalty and mortality. (The two most terrifying words in toyland? Yard sale.) And they'll notice that director John Lasseter evinces a keen appreciation for what's gone before. If "Toy Story 2" is anything it's a celebration of the past. When Woody discovers he's actually a 1950s collectible, it gives Lasseter a wonderful chance to pay homage to the children's toys and TV shows of the 1950s, a less litigious time when a Stinky Pete the Prospector doll could come "with its own pick axe!"
There are moments of breathtaking technical skill, especially a sequence during which Woody is spiffed up by an elderly repairman (this kindly, wizened gentleman will be known to anyone familiar with "Geri's Game," another terrific animated film from Lasseter's Pixar Productions).
When the bespectacled gent meticulously sews an arm back on and gives a boot a new coat of paint, filmgoers will need to remind themselves that he was created by a computer -- not exactly a medium we associate with this kind of love, tenderness and care.
As a lovely bonus, Lasseter precedes "Toy Story 2" with "Luxo, Jr.," his first short film, produced in 1985. An example of computer animation at its crudest, this charming study in bringing two desk lamps to life also illustrates that what makes the "Toy Story" franchise so extraordinary has less to do with gimcrackery than with Lasseter's gift for creating empathy and quiet humor in otherwise inanimate objects.
Quiet of a different kind lies at the heart of "Princess Mononoke," Hayao Miyazaki's epic myth set in feudal Japan. From its very first moments, when a shroud of mist parts to reveal a dense forest underneath, it's clear that Miyazaki's movie -- his first to be released in the United States -- will have less to do with broad strokes and blustery action than with nuance, ambiguity and contemplation.
The story of a young man who tries to bring peace to warring factions of human industry and embattled forest gods, "Princess Mononoke" won't be easily pigeonholed by American audiences, who aren't used to seeing animated features targeted to adults. ("Princess Mononoke" was Japan's biggest box office hit in history until "Titanic" washed its record away.) Unlike the completely computer-animated "Toy Story 2," "Princess Mononoke" was created almost entirely by hand, its imagery harking back to traditional Japanese pen-and-ink drawings as well as the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa.
With a Luminist's attention to light, water, shadow and smoke, Miyazaki creates an epochal story born of history, myth and Shinto animism. Helped enormously by Joe Hisaish's lush orchestral score, Miyazaki creates an enchanted bower where tiny wood sprites click their heads back and forth reassuringly, and where a god's footstep creates an imprint of colorfully unfurling flowers.
This is a twilight world in which dragonflies flit over rippling ponds, and in which no character is pure good or evil. Lady Eboshi (imperiously voiced by Minnie Driver) runs an iron ore mine that rapes the land around her, but her forge employs lepers, former prostitutes and other social outcasts. The title character, a feral girl raised by white wolves in the forest, has nobly committed her life to saving the natural world, but her courage and passion sometimes give way to a less noble vengeance. Our first and most indelible impression of Mononoke is of her cooly wiping blood from her mouth. (It says something about Hollywood that the most substantive roles for women on screen this year are cartoon characters.)
"Toy Story 2" careers into theaters as a supremely American testament to the possibilities of technology. "Princess Mononoke" introduces American filmgoers to the apotheosis of Japanese animation by the acknolwedged master of the form. Together, these two classics prove that animated images can be more than just a Phil Collins video.
'Toy Story 2'
Rated G Running time: 85 minutes
Released by Walt Disney Pictures
Sun Score: ****
Starring: the voices of Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Jada Pinkett Smith
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Rated PG-13 (images of violence and gore)
Running time: 133 minutes Released by Miramax Films
Sun Score: ****