Horton Hears a Who! and Chicago 10, both opening today, and that international hit Persepolis demonstrate what animation lovers have known for a dozen years. The resurgence of full-length cartoons, like that of documentaries, owes less to technical innovation than to artists' - and audience's - needs to extend the range of contemporary moviemaking.
The result has been features that try to slake our thirst for poetic ways of escape - and for transformative visions of reality.
Since 2001, when Richard Linklater made Waking Life, animation has been moving on dual tracks, between the jolly, zoolike landscapes of most computer-generated animation - Horton is an ebullient example - and the brooding or eccentric textures of drawn artwork mixed with CGI or hybrid techniques like computer rotoscoping and motion capture, which digitize real physical performances - as in Chicago 10.
The earthy, prickly side of new animation found an early masterpiece in Waking Life. In primitive rotoscoping, such as Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings (1978), artists traced cartoon images from live-action footage. But in Linklater's interpolated rotoscoping (Bob Sabiston developed the technology), computer-animation software enables the director to get wilder and crazier in the imagery as well as introduce subtle or bravura brushstrokes to the portraiture.
It provided the perfect look for Waking Life, a movie about a search for the meaning of dreams and the meaning of life. And the advanced version of the process that Linklater used for A Scanner Darkly (2006) permitted Linklater to blur lines between character and caricature in images the way Charles Dickens did in words, creating figures that are, simultaneously, flesh and jet-black fantasy.
Motion capture does something similar - it samples actors' movements and enables computer artists to use them to animate a 3-D model. In theory, it's an apt technique for directors who want to create an artificial world with live characters. It's a goal that recalls Marianne Moore's definition of poetry: "The art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads."
Rotoscoping as well as "performance capture" (as film directors like to call motion capture) can be more offputting than intriguing: Who doesn't flinch at those imitation-of-life insurance commercials on TV? When director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, 1994) used a motion-capture system to make The Polar Express (2004), the characters looked bizarre in unintended and unsettling ways. When Zemeckis made Beowulf (2007), motion capture empowered him to orchestrate outrageous acts that would have been unthinkable with live actors, but it also kept us from seeing his characters as figures of actual, not virtual, emotion. Maybe he'll get the balance right in his next project - a new version of Dickens' heartwarming yet sometimes horrific A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey playing Ebenezer Scrooge and three spirits of Christmas.
Motion capture proves a mixed bag in Chicago 10: Director Brett Morgen employs it to animate the Chicago Conspiracy Trial and integrate the results with archival footage of the demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention. The gap between the live-wire expressiveness of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in 1968 newsreels and the burlesque masks they wear in the cartooned courtroom proves jarring.
Tony Richardson's exploitation of 2-D cartooning in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) was more revolutionary than what Morgen does in Chicago 10: It enabled Richardson to depict great movements of history in a form at once surging and satirical. Just think of how involving Chicago 10 might have been if Morgen used animation not just to fill in gaps but to slash through the tumultuous record of anarchism in America.
Yet no matter how severe their flaws, all these movies make brave attempts to use new forms to fit fresh content - or rejuvenate old chestnuts. And some recent blends of animated styles have come out just right. The antic computerwise guys behind Horton Hears a Who! make inspired incursions into traditional animation (Horton the elephant initially imagines Whoville in two dimensions) and manga (he imagines himself as a Japanese superhero). The Triplets of Belleville (2003), mostly a victory for old-fashioned draftsmanship and Gallic whimsicality, has scenes that marvelously mixed hand-drawn images and computer dazzle, such as the sequence putting together a clubfooted, indomitable grandmother, a ravenous dog named Bruno and a Queen Mary 2-sized ship.
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis, an Iranian girl's coming-of-age story, finds its own triumphant animation style with an odd, punk-streaked rigor and authority, like a comic-book version of a Persian frieze. Satrapi threads the movie with anecdotes that render shifting loyalties and allegiances during national upheaval with enthralling complexity. It's a devastating stroke that a movie shot through with shades of gray should be drawn in black and white.
It's also a testament to the versatility and depth of contemporary animation.