Pixar Review 2: Luxo Jr

luxo3So now we get to review our first ever actual Pixar branded short, Luxo Jr.  In 1986 Steve Jobs bought the computer animation division from Lucasfilms and branded it Pixar.

John Lasetter was borrowed from Disney and he was being trained on how to build models.  As his source material he started to look at a luxo lamp he  had on his desk because “it was geometric and would show the shadow algorithm well”.  At this time computer animation was done with equations and ‘art school math’ as Lasetter puts it.

As he attempts to actually animate his lamp Lasetter grows increasingly more frustrated with the math:

“I’m sitting there with a hand calculator at these expensive computers trying to figure it out using my art school math if a ball is this size how far would it move and I was like ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ so I went to Eben [Ostby] ‘please can you do something with the computer to help me with this?  And that was the beginning of our procedural animation so I just animated the path of the ball and this amazing program Eben developed made it so the ball rotated accurately”

Sounds like we should all be grateful to Eben Ostby for some art we’ve gotten since 1986!

Here he is

Lasseter also got some key inspiration that we can see in his later leadership while making Luxo Jr from a man named Raoul Servais.  At first Lasseter just wanted to make a “plotless character study” of his lamp.  Servais told him “No matter how short it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Don’t forget the story.  You can tell a story in ten seconds”.

So that’s what he does.  As you will see in Luxo Jr we get a clear story.  Most of these early shorts are like silent movies with no dialogue but a clear beginning, middle and end.

It’s a charming little short and did great things for Pixar.  Lasseter said in the audio commentary the hardest part was getting the cord right “It was the cord.  I will never forget.  The cord was so hard.  The rolling of the ball was such a pain.  [Eben’s program] didn’t help with the cord.  The ripples in the cord were done by hand and it was painful!”

Never forget the cord! 🙂

What Lasseter is able to do in Luxo Jr is create emotion extremely quickly and establish a relationship between the two lamps, something that when I  write it sounds insane and yet there it is.  Some say it is a mother and baby lamp.  Lasseter has said it is a father son lamp but either way it is amazing any such connection can be made with a lamp!

luxoThis little short, Luxo Jr, “sent shock waves through the entire industry- to all corners of computer and traditional animation.  At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer.  They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist’s kit” (Edwin Catmult, Computer Animation: A Whole New World)

Luxo Jr also became the first computer animated short to be nominated for an Oscar in 1986.

So it’s another of these shorts that is simple on the surface but anything but when you consider its influence in the world of animation.  In many ways it may be the most important animated short since Steamboat Willie.

You got to give it an A+.  It has emotion where it shouldn’t.  It tells a sweet simple story.  It was groundbreaking and it is completely charming.  It also became the face of Pixar from then on.

pixar-animation-studio-logo

Is Hand Drawn Animation Dead?

I just wanted to share this video with all of you from the Cartoon Palooza.  He covers the history of the transition from hand drawn to computer animation.  This is a divisive topic but I will share some of my thoughts after the video.

I’ve said it a number of times I think 2014 has been one of the best years for animation in the last 20 years.  It is thrilling to see so many different voices and visual styles being told.  Everything is out there from Book of Life to The Lego Movie to Big Hero 6. And I’ve liked at least on some level every animated movie I’ve seen this year except for Legends of Oz and The Nut Job. It’s an exciting time to be an animated movie fan and part of the reason we are able to have such variety and creative output is because of computer animation.

It is just a fact that the average studio can put together a computer animated film faster than hand drawn.  Disney just admitted as much when they changed their upcoming release Moana from 2D to CG so it could be finished 2 years sooner.  2 years is a long time for a studio to hold out a film just for artistic integrity that will probably not show as any benefit in the box office (of the top 5 biggest animated films ever at box office only 1, Lion King, is hand drawn).

Cartoon Palooza makes a good point about Tangled but the reason why that film was so expensive was not because of the animation.  It was all the rewrites, reshoots and it being their first 3D film. If a studio can make a movie 3D than they are going to make more profit and computer animation looks better in 3D than hand drawn.

Now we are getting hand drawn movies from the Studio Ghibli team and other smaller studios.  This December we get Song of the Sea which looks stunning.

What I want is good quality movies and if computer animation makes more people jump into the game than I think it is great.  If I was just going on personal preference I’d pick hand drawn but not a strong preference.  I love the artistry of the Pixar films.  Ratatouille, for instance, has some of the most gorgeous backgrounds of any movie I’ve ever seen.  So it just depends on the movie.

ratatouille-paris-pixar-dvdbash

Or how about this scene from Wall-e?  It’s stunning.

Most importantly I just want to be entertained whether it is 2D, 3D, hand drawn or stop motion.  So if CG allows for more than 2 players to be in the game of animation and we get more years like 2014 I am a happy girl.

That said, maybe John Lasseter could set aside a few animators that could work on something over time like a Lilo and Stitch- not a big expensive epic just a simple story with hand drawn animation?  Something that would keep the medium alive?  Or it would be great if studios came to be known for hand drawn like Laika with stop motion animation.  Someone could make it their nitch and at least do well enough to keep the studio profitable.  If they are careful about release dates (which has been brilliantly timed for all the animated movies this year.  Only one stinker at the box office Legends of Oz) than it will probably do quite well.

Maybe a way to go is to use characters from an animated series like reclaiming the Avatar series after what Shyamalan did to it?    That way you would have a natural fan base to tap into? If they can pump out the hand drawn for the shows maybe it wouldn’t be too hard to make them into a movie?

Again, thankfully we do have Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon putting out quality, if not American, hand drawn films.  So it is not a totally dead art.

The way I see it animation has gone through different periods.  We went through the Xerox phase in the 60s and 70s and there were some good one’s (Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, Winnie the Pooh) and some bad one’s (Aristocats, Sword in the Stone, Black Cauldron). Now we are in the CG phase and there have been hits and misses but all it takes is that one big movie to hit with hand drawn and people will be back on the bandwagon.  So, no I do not think the medium is dead. Like I said Song of the Sea is coming out this year so it is being made by smaller, foreign studios.  Even a moderate hit will prick the executives ears and they will make hand drawn again. It goes down to supply and demand.

But like I said to me what matters most is being entertained.  I want to see art, music, and a great story in any medium. I hope hand drawn is not dead but I understand why studios don’t want to take the risk. From a business decision it does often make sense, and they are after all businesses first.

 

Addition-

Here’s something I think shows what I am trying to say.  For years we would get 1, maybe 2 animated films a year.  This is the result of hand drawn animation. As glorious as those films could be and could not be it was just not a venture every creative thinker could do.

If we look at the 100 best reviewed films on rotten tomatoes we see the following.  You will notice that in the 90s during the renaissance there was only 1 film that made the list for most of the years.  It wasn’t until 1998 when we got both Antz and Bugs Life that things start to pick up in numbers.  The largest number is 2012 with 9 films that critics at least gave the highest scores too. My point being with computer animation more ideas and projects are able to get greenlit and that’s a good thing.

People are still making traditional animated films.  Even if it is not the big studios there are 2 releases this year so they exist. I can totally see a studio like Liaka emerging with the hand drawn niche. There will be 2 more added to 2014 by the time the reviews come in for Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to this list . That will mean that 2014 will have as many critically lauded animated movies as the highest year 2012. That’s a good thing for the future of animated films. Plus, all of the animated films in 2014 made money except Legends of Oz. That’s also a good thing. People feel inspired to take creative risks when they know there is a population that wants to see said movies. So if you want hand drawn movies than support the one’s that do come out. It’s as simple as that.

1991 1
1992 1
1993 1
1994 1
1995 1
1996 1
1997 2
1998 4
1999 5
2000 3
2001 6
2002 4
2003 3
2004 2
2005 4
2006 4
2007 4
2008 6
2009 8
2010 7
2011 6
2012 9
2013 3
2014 7

Now you can debate whether critics were duped by certain movies and the blogosphere knows better but the output has without a doubt increased. I like hand drawn but if computer animation means we get more stories and things as beautiful and different as Book of Life or as funny as The Lego Movie than sign me up.

I hope the big studios will make hand drawn animation but I don’t agree that it is dead, and like I said, I think the state of animation is in an amazing place.

But again this is just my opinion but it’s my blog and so I call it like I see it. Feel free to disagree. Just do so politely.

Movie 27: Oliver and Company

This post couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.  It is 9/11/2014 and what do I see from this Disney movie?:

twin towersWhenever I see a movie with the old skyline and the twin towers my heart hurts a little bit.  Almost feel I could end the review there with that image…

But I will push forward 🙂  Let’s talk about Disney’s 27th animated classic, Oliver and Company.

Production-

For me watching Oliver and Company is like Christmas Eve.  It’s fun and all but partly because I know what is coming!!!  The Disney Renaissance is next up and Oliver and Company, while commonly considered a lesser Disney entry did make some contributions to the upcoming movement.

It’s interesting because when they first started Pixar they gathered the animators and had a retreat and brainstormed a list of ideas that led to Toy Story, Bugs Life, Finding Nemo, Wall-e etc.  I have no doubt that John Lasseter got that idea from the Disney animators in the late 80s.

After the failure of Black Cauldron Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg had a similar retreat and came up with ideas like Little Mermaid, Aladdin and even as far reaching as Treasure Planet.

One of their ideas was a ‘Dog Oliver Twist’.  This is funny because at the beginning of Ichabod and Mr Toad the narrator lists off the great characters from English literature and they include Oliver Twist and Arthur, both now part of Disney cannon.

This is perhaps a bit of a breakaway because you have to go way back to the package films to find source material which is adult turned into children’s entertainment.  Great Mouse Detective was in a way but there was actually a series of books about Basil  of Baker Street.

Oliver and Company is notable for four other reasons.

1. Land Before Time- It was released the same weekend as Land Before Time produced by the Bluth company.  LBT had better reviews and did make more money $84 million to Oliver’s $74.  LBT was also the last collaboration of Don Bluth with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, and aside from All Dogs Go to Heaven he would not have another big hit to challenge Disney’s renaissance.

I wanted to watch Land Before Time for this review because most everyone thinks it is the better film but I didn’t want to distract from this review or give a halfhearted review of LBT.  Will have to go back and review the Bluth films (the good Bluth films) another time.

2. Computer animation- Oliver and Company used computer animation throughout the film not just in scenes as previous 2 films had done.  It also marked the start of the computer animation division at Disney, which was crucial to Little Mermaid and especially Beauty and the Beast

3. Disney Broadway- In some ways Oliver and Company was an experiment to see what the public responded too.  That’s probably why there is a little bit of everything- slapstick, drama, situational humor, celebrity voices, and music.  Growing up Little Mermaid wiped Oliver and Company from my mind but I did remember the music.  Seeing the soundtrack’s appeal Disney would go on to make musicals for the next 12 years aside from Rescuers Down Under.

4. Oliver did well enough Disney decided with the computer animation they could go from producing a film every 4 years to 1 a year and they would keep up that track record for the next 20 years, only missing a handful of years.  Thank you Oliver for giving me a Disney film every year!!

The Story-

I’m not a Dickens scholar but to say this is a loose translation of the classic novel is an understatement.  Aside from character names and pickpockets briefly mentioned there is basically no resemblance in the stories.  So, to enjoy the picture you kind of have to get rid of that expectation right away (want to see a true egregious translation to cartoon watch Gnomeo and Juliet…Sigh).

The opening segment with a song by Barry Mann and Howard Ashman (the latter went on to write for Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast).  It is sung by 80s star Huey Lewis.

Like I said you get the New York skyline and the twin towers and as a lover of New York I loved this intro.

It’s fun to see an 80s New York through the animators eyes.  new york2

Through the song we meet Oliver an orphan who is forced to fend for himself.  Right away he meets a quick talking dog name Dodger  voiced by Billy Joel (huge fan of him) who teaches  him how to steal hot dogs from a vendor.

oliver and dodger

Once they get the hotdogs Oliver wants to share but Dodger explains to his new friends the ways of the street animal. It is without a doubt one of the best Disney pop songs ever.

Even if you aren’t crazy about the movie I don’t know how you can argue it is a catchy tune.  One of Billy Joel’s better vocal performances and like I said I am a huge fan.  Saw him in concert a few years ago- amazing!

Eventually Dodger takes Oliver to meet the crew who works for Fagan.   One thing I like about Oliver and company is how clearly diverse the voice cast is and the characters drawings show that.  There are 2 in the troop, Rita and Francis that are voiced quite obviously by African-American actors and little Tito voiced by Cheece Marin (he’s a cliche but brings a lot of humor so I don’t think anyone will be offended by it?)

dogs

While none of the character animation feels original or artistic (seems pretty standard Saturday morning animation work) I liked some the characters and the feeling of family. In the world of Disney animal movies this just in design is probably at the bottom for me.

After a little more singing Dodger and the other dogs decide to teach Oliver the ways of the world and how to run scam on a limo driver who thinks he has run over Francis.

jenny One of the occupants of the  limo is a little girl named Jenny who’s parents don’t care for her and leave her alone with the butler (seems like such an 80s latch key kid cliche). I was not a big fan of the Jenny character.  I thought she could have been replaced by a million other Saturday morning cartoon girls in both design and personality.  This is random but she also has very short skirts and her hair changes colors dramatically throughout the film

jenny short skirt

.Oliver and Jenny quickly bond and she gives him a license, which if we remember Lady and the Tramp means you are part of the family.

This, however, is very bad news for Jenny’s pompous poodle named Georgette . She introduces herself in a delightful number.  It’s a fun sequence and definitely seems to have that Broadway edge.  The stairs at the end feel especially broadway and since I love broadway I enjoyed it.  Plus, you’ve got to like Bette Middler!

Meanwhile Dodger and the group think Oliver is unhappy in the rich house and create a plan to get Oliver out- a plan which Georgette is only too eager to get behind.

georgette

Through some funny scenes, particularly with Tito, Oliver is put in a sack and taken back to the docks.  I found this plot point to be a little odd.  They are pickpockets . Wouldn’t they take stuff from the mansion?  And they haven’t been the most selfless group up to this point (Dodger wouldn’t even give Oliver a hotdog) and yet all of a sudden they will risk life and limb to get him back? That didn’t make sense to me .  A scheme where they got Oliver back and scored serious loot would have been more in keeping with the characters.

Rita
Rita
Tito was a funny character.
Tito was a funny character.

Unfortunately Fagan, the drifter who owns the pets, comes in and see’s Oliver’s license.  He develops a scheme to extort money from Oliver’s owner by putting Oliver up for ransom.  I actually not sure why they made Fagan likable?  It’s a shame really because I think having a villain around the dogs more would have helped with pacing of this movie .

Speaking of villains, this movie’s version is super lame.  His name is Sykes and most of the time he is in shadows and bullies Fagan about the money he has loaned him.  He has no real personality and isn’t even on screen that much . His dogs are scarier looking to me, but again we don’t see them for long.

Bill_Sykes_and_the_Dobermans_by_Kabocha24

Jenny goes out searching for Oliver and somehow ends up down by the peer where she meets Fagan.  She promises to pay for Oliver and gives him her piggybank.  Not the ransom he was hoping for but touched Fagan gives Jenny her cat.   Just then Sykes swoops in and nabs Jenny (stop with these little girl abductions please . At least this is brief).

faganThe dogs then end up chasing Sykes down in a great segment in the Subway and on a train tracks.  All of the characters including Tito and Georgette have moments which I liked.  This isn’t like the Duchess who waits for others to rescue her.  I liked Georgette!

Some of this subway scene is a little dated but considering it was so new to computer animation it is pretty impressive:

With Sykes gone all are reunited and we get a reprise of our favorite song

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I have a friend who loves this movie.  I can respect that.  However, for me it has nice moments but doesn’t quite work as a whole narrative.  I liked the music.  I liked the backdrops of New York.  I liked the Subway scene at the end.  I loved the vocal performances but the story was weak, which is a crime since it starts with one of the great stories of English literature.

Some of their choices are odd.  For example, why make Fagan so bland?  He is voiced by Dom DeLuise (who is in almost all of Bluth’s films) and who is a brilliant voice actor and could have done interesting things with the character.  As it is, he kind of mopes around fearing the worst.  He doesn’t even have a strong bond with the animals.  Fagan is a manipulative beast in the novel so why they turned him into such a bore here I will never know.   I never felt any real tension in the hostage storyline and since Fagan is around the characters the most it would have worked better if he was the main villain like he is in the book.

When I say he was bland what I mean is there wasn’t enough growth or story happening to him.  He just kind of observes and makes a few choices but no real drama, which left the movie feeling slow and a little boring.

The most interesting thing about the main villain Sykes is the way he dies.  He felt like a standard 80’s cartoon villain, like Prof Claw in Inspector Gadget.  Same thing with Jenny.  Her animation felt sloppy and standard 80s Punky Brewster style little girl.  She has some spunk going to find Oliver, but we don’t get to know her well enough to feel concern or care for her like we do with other Disney little girls in peril (how strange that is a category).   Jenny does sing a rather bland song called Good Company (honestly I forgot about it when I was writing the earlier part of the review.  Clearly forgettable!).   As much as I dislike The Rescuers, the little girl, Penny, gets a whole backstory.  We know her.  She’s an interesting character.  That’s what makes it hard for me to watch when she is treated so poorly.  Jenny I didn’t feel that same connection too.  She reminded me of the little kids in the Care Bears movie which is never a good thing.

Oliver-Company-oliver-and-company-4133856-1024-768

That said, a lot of the characters I liked.  I liked Dodger, Rita, Tito and Georgette.  There is a nice diversity in the cast and the group feels like the pound sequence in Lady and the Tramp but with a little more edge.  I enjoyed their family feel.  Oliver is cute but kind of bland.  Bette Middler hams it up in her song and scene and Billy Joel is great as Dodger.  Tito is funny but it can get a little old at times.

And ‘Why Should I Worry’ is a great song.  I can picture dancing with my nieces to it and having a ball .  There is nothing offensive or problematic for small children; although older children might get a little bored with the story.  It’s pretty predictable and slow.

So, in the end, Oliver and Company has good moments and I’m glad I watched it.  I was entertained.  The music is great.  However, sections drag and there are too many bland characters with an especially bland villain which hurt the picture.  A mixed bag for me.

Overall Grade- C-

Little Mermaid is coming!!!!!!!! I feel like I should host a sleepover or something!