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Time to Draw the Line Commentary: Looking for real character development in film? You can pretty much forget live-action, because animation is where it's at.

July 18, 1999|CHARLES SOLOMON | Charles Solomon is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Until recently, if a critic described a live-action film as cartoonish, it was an insult to the filmmakers. Today, it's an insult to animators.

Traditionally, animated films have depicted simple, straightforward characters, while live-action movies offered nuanced performances by actors that revealed complex, subtle emotions. But the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast," the title characters in "Mulan" and "Tarzan," and Moses in "The Prince of Egypt" undergo deep emotional transformations, while the live-action heroes of "The Matrix," "Starship Troopers," "Small Soldiers," "The Mummy," "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Wild Wild West" display an emotional and intellectual development that is rudimentary at best.

"In the era of 'Con Air' and 'Armageddon' and the big, stupid action movies, and in which we're now being subjected to live-action versions of 'George of the Jungle' and 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' and 'Mr. Magoo' and goodness knows what else, cartoons are much smarter than live action," film critic Leonard Maltin says. "If you include television, the sharpest comedy writing in the medium is done for animation--'The Simpsons,' 'Dr. Katz,' 'Bob and Margaret.' Minnie Driver's Jane [as voiced in "Tarzan"] is a richer comedic characterization and performance than anything I've seen in a so-called comedy this year. These deeper, richer characterizations go back to what Walt [Disney] himself was always striving for, to let the audience see what the character is thinking. It's rarely achieved in the medium, but it's certainly true for the character of Tarzan."

Because animation is a medium of caricature, the artists exaggerate their characters' expressions, movements and poses for clarity, but that clarity has often come at the expense of emotional depth: Snow White and Cinderella didn't hide seething emotions beneath their gentle exteriors. But a new generation of animation artists is working to expand the medium by telling stories about more complex and compelling characters. When Tarzan watches magic lantern slides in Jane's camp, his expressions, poses and body language reveal the curiosity of an intelligent but uneducated man discovering new worlds. Moses' horrified realization that his life as an Egyptian prince has been a lie and Mulan's resolve to take her father's place in the army have an emotional believability few recent live-action films can match.

"When I'm animating, I relate to these characters in a very deep way: There's something that's inside of me that I'm trying to put onto the screen," says Glen Keane, who supervised the animation of Tarzan. "When Tarzan sees Jane for the first time, it's a 'flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone moment.' When I was working on that scene, I remember thinking, 'When have I really felt this in my own life?' I met my wife, Linda, in a line at a movie, and it wasn't that kind of a moment, with that element of self-discovery. Then I remembered holding my daughter Claire when she was just 30 seconds old. This tiny little baby was so soft, I felt like she could melt off either side of my hand. I was just awe-struck, looking at her face and seeing the reflection of myself in her. When I animated Tarzan's eyes in that scene, it wasn't Tarzan looking at Jane, it was me looking at my newborn daughter."

Emotionally intense moments can be difficult to put across in animation because they seldom involve much action. The artists may have only a few lines around a character's eyes and mouth to express inner turmoil.

James Baxter, who animated the scenes of Moses discovering his true identity and meeting God at the Burning Bush in "Prince of Egypt," adds: "There were long scenes where Moses didn't talk; another character or God would talk and Moses would listen, which is very, very challenging. It's really difficult to suggest what Moses is feeling and thinking when all you've got to work with are the lines surrounding the eyeball. You want to make it as true, as believable and real as possible, so you can't rely on formulaic head accents and hand gestures, as you could in a more cartoony film."

There's not a hint of chemistry between Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon, the eccentric inventor with a penchant for dress-up, and Will Smith as trigger-happy federal agent James West, who often ends up on the wrong end of those inventions, in Barry Sonnenfeld's misbegotten "Wild Wild West." They take cheap shots at each other but never interact believably, let alone establish the bond the story requires. Nick Park created a far more credible relationship between a somewhat addled inventor and his down-to-earth partner--and set a new standard for nuanced acting of stop-motion figures--in the Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit" shorts, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave."

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