Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Geeking out over animation

Well, Miss V has gone to Utah for Thanksgiving with the fam, while Captain Midnight and I stay put. (In days of yore, a much younger V would ask us what we did with ourselves during the times she was gone, and we'd claim we sat around the house sobbing and crying out despondently, "Where's our V?" As she grew older and less credulous, we switched tactics and told her that the minute she left our sight, we'd put on our party hats and yell, "FUN!" So these days she doesn't believe anything we say about our extracurricular activities. Mission accomplished.)

What we actually did this evening was prep a few dishes for Thanksgiving dinner -- Not Just Ordinary Carrots, come to mama -- while CM put the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on Netflix. It's been some time since I watched this movie, and I still maintain it's a weird choice of story for an animated film intended for families with young children. Granted, the Disneyfied version of the tale is a far cry from Victor Hugo's grim original, but it has darker, more adult themes, violence and occasional language than one would expect from a G-rated film.

That doesn't mean the movie is entirely without merit. I really listened to the musical numbers this time, and although you can practically tell an Alan Mencken score blindfolded and from 100 paces away -- he uses specific leitmotifs over and over again in his compositions -- he and Stephen Schwartz work well together; this film features better songwriting than I gave it credit for the first time around. At their best, they've produced some Broadway-quality songs.  It also doesn't hurt that the company cast some great voice talent; Tom Hulce (as Quasimodo) and Paul Kandel (as Clopin) are standouts, with fine, expressive, sensitive voices.

But here's the thing I love about Hunchback -- it was the first animated movie where I discovered it's possible to identify the work of a specific animator through his or her characters.

As I watched the film for the first time, I was weirdly mesmerized by Clopin. Even though I knew I'd never seen the character before, something about him seemed tantalizingly familiar -- his lanky character design, his body language, his facial expressions, his overall theatricality -- where else had I seen that recently? Who did he remind me of?

And then one day it occurred to me:

Oh yeah. Him.

I checked the IMDb, and as it turned out, Michael Surrey was the lead animator for both Clopin and Timon. You can see similarities of character design even in these stills, but it's even more obvious when you watch the characters in motion. You can see similar expressions, gestures, everything. I guess it shouldn't be that surprising, especially when you consider that animators are essentially actors who draw their performances -- and many of them will use their own facial expressions and body language as reference material to bring a character to life.

Since noticing the Clopin/Timon relationship, I've been able to pick out the distinctive work of a few other animators based on their characters. Brom Bones (of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and Peter Pan have similar roguish expressions in specific scenes, and Roger Radcliffe (of 101 Dalmatians) and Wart (of The Sword in the Stone) have similar gawky body language; all were animated by Milt Kahl. Little John, Baloo and Thomas O'Malley are essentially the same character in three different films; not only were all voiced by Phil Harris, they were all animated by Ollie Johnston. James Baxter's work is evident in the design and movement of Belle and Ariel as well as Jessica Rabbit. Bud Luckey's distinctive character designs are easy to recognize, whether they show up in his old hand-drawn animations for Sesame Street or in the Pixar film A Bug's Life. I could go on, but I won't try your patience; suffice to say that if you watch carefully, you can spot a specific animator's style just as surely as you can spot a specific character actor in a film.

Yeah, I know, I'm geeking out over cartoons. Still think it's pretty cool, though.