Abra Kadabra

Wall-E is terrific, but I also really liked the Pixar short, Presto, beforehand.

There have been some attempts to recapture the spirit of the classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons over the years. As far continuing series go, I liked both Pinky and the Brain and Freakazoid, but they were really creations unto themselves, only vaguely reminiscent of the best work of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones or Robert McKimson. Later revivals of the original characters and situations also have ranged widely, but even at best have seemed tired, such as “The Duxorcist”. Then there’s utter crap like Space Jam or The Loonatics. I think one of the problems with even the best of Warners’ own efforts at updating their animation is a kind of Chuck-Jonesification. Some of Jones’ most realized cartoons with Bugs Bunny et al are my absolute favorites that the studio ever produced, but they also created a kind of template (visual and situational) for revivals that made the characters too round, too smug, too polished, too self-aware.

Presto is like a shot of pure Tex Avery into the Pixar sensibility, though. It’s antic, witty, an instant classic. It really feels like it ought to be stuck onto a future Looney Tunes Golden Collection as a kind of epilogue or metacommentary.

As long as I’m at it, also some cheers for Kung Fu Panda. It’s not anywhere near as visually or thematically interesting as Wall-E, but it’s entertaining nevertheless. It only took about eight utterly dismal retreads of Shrek filled with lots of poopy and fart routines and already-obsolete pop culture in-jokes for the Dreamworks guys to actually make an entertaining, tightly scripted animated film. Not so impressed on the learning curve there, but however you get it done. There is no secret ingredient: just make a good movie.

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5 Responses to Abra Kadabra

  1. I agree with you about Presto. Not only is it terrific, but , as you said, it’s a really terrific dose of the classic Warner Brothers seamless circuit of gagosity. What I particularly like is the it’s mostly variations on a single gag premise, the two magical hats.

    I’m still trying to figure out what I like about WALL-E. I do like it and all that. But I don’t think it’s the second coming, as some folks seem to. I don’t know quite make of all the “oh, wonder of wonders, 40 minutes and no dialog and they actually pull it off!” Wonderful, yes. But is this really all that surprising. Maybe if you were only born yesterday, and under a bushel basket. Otherwise, gimme’ a break from all this faux surprise.

    Some folks at the Brew have remarked about the incongruity of live action from the past. I hardly even noticed it. But I was a bit surprised at the smoooothnesss of those bloated humans. That seemed a big incongruous given the gritty textures on earth.

    I’ve been thinking a bit about the character design of WALL-E and EVE in psychological terms, the cues they make available, the poses, etc. You’ve got a ratty cube and a sleek egg when both are in their “closed-up” state. I’m guessing if you put stills of those before just about any one and asked which is the male, which the female, you’d get the same answer.

    & you’re right about KFP, a big step forward for Dreamworks.

  2. Bob Rehak says:

    Glad to hear you liked Wall-E — I’m seeing it tomorrow. For me, going to Pixar movies is one of those rare activities that perfectly blends research and play: as a student of CGI, I “need” to see them, but I also (with the exception of Cars, which I was just not in the target audience for) *want* to see them.

    What’s always interested me about Pixar is how decisively the studio branded itself as a reliable purveyor of a particularly old-fashioned kind of movie entertainment. I’ve lost count of the times reviewers of Pixar films have made a rhetorical move along the lines of “Despite the high-tech digital animation, the secret charm of [insert title here] is its characters / plotting / storytelling.” It’s as though *good* filmmaking exists in dialectical relation to the cutting edge; we expect CG feature films to be soulless crap, but Pixar bucks the trend. And bucks it *reliably*, which is the real trick in the media marketplace, where genre functions to steer audiences to the kinds of films they will (probably, statistically) enjoy.

    It seems to me that Pixar has managed to meta-brand itself as a quality-deliverer in a way that no other studio has since the very very old days of classical Hollywood, when RKO, United Artists, MGM and so on each fulfilled a particular niche in terms of packaging styles / genres / scripts / directors / stars. It’s wonderfully ironic that Pixar’s high-tech mode of production has come to seem like a throwback to an earlier, better way of doing things — even to the extent of resurrecting the pleasures of Warner Brothers and Tex Avery. Strikes me as the most impressive piece of “technology” in the studio’s toolkit — a technology, in this case, of commercial and popular discourse rather than polygon-pushing.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. And what’s interesting is that they set out to do it that way from the start. Arguably, this is what Eisner was being attacked for within Disney, pissing away the reputation capital that Disney had built up with its animated films with a ton of (money-making) straight-to-DVD/video sequels to the studio’s holdings.

  4. Hmmmm . . . Both Ratatouille and WALL-E came out with a lot of buzz and worry about how they might not make it because of eweee ick a rat! and holly molly no dialog, respectively. I wonder how much of that was studio-initiated hype. You lower the daring threshold and then, when you succeed, you earn extra reputation points for integrity and boldness. I mean, would those two films have been made if there’d been deep doubts? Was that danger level comparable to that of the seven year march to Snow White, when no one had made a feature-length cartoon, ever, and it was the most expensive movie ever made?

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