sheen of the nearly real
scene from the animated film The polar Express.
animated films bring together two of my favourite things:
witty adventure comedies and extreme technology. The digital
effigies that populate recent films like Shark Tale, Shrek
2, The Polar Express and The Incredibles begin life as wireframe
drawings on a computer, their expressions and movement given
the spark of life by millions of tiny polygons joined in
a fine mesh that brings an exoskeleton of shape to these
characters and their environment.
Grafted onto that mesh are the skins, the codifications
of character, clothing, hair, flesh and the fine tuning
of expressions that with anthropomorphic wizardry evolve
these digital objects from bits into people.
They may come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours,
but voiced by famous and near-famous actors, theres
no question that these byte-based simulacra are intended
to be more familiar than alien, curiosities that are both
intriguing and soothingly familiar, whether they are talking
toys or fuzzy monsters in search of a good scare.
Remaining at the top of an increasingly busy marketplace
for films featuring humanised fish, toys, and bugs is Pixar,
the 800-lb gorilla of three-dimensional animation. With
a facility for stylish, absorbing films spun out of whole
pixels thats matched with an insistence on robust
stories, Pixar has managed something that studios with the
budgets for expensive actors havent been able to pull
off: an unbroken string of hits, beginning with the endearing
Toy Story (1995).
The studios latest film, The Incredibles, raises the
bar for their animation prowess since its the first
one that has humans (well, superhumans if you want to be
exact) as its lead characters.
After toys, bugs, monsters and fish, Pixar felt ready to
tackle the most difficult animation challenge of all: virtual
flesh and blood. To understand why, you have to look more
closely at Pixars earlier films, in which people were
largely represented by huge, disembodied feet and hands,
like pink Kongs, more looming presence than personality.
Or you could look at Polar Express, an animated film that
seems to consist almost entirely of variations of Tom Hanks,
which depends, to its detriment, on digital representations
of human expression. The stunning train and remarkable scenes
in Polar Express contrast badly with the children and adult
characters, who seem botoxed into submission, their faces
still and contemplative to a degree thats unsettling.
The disconnect between whats being said and what were
seeing on their faces is so vast that it makes the travellers
on the fanciful train seem like zombies too sedated to ask
for a serving of brains.
The reason is found in what game animators call the uncanny
valley, the subtle gap between animated characters
that seem human and those that try to pass for human.
The Incredibles succeeds because its more Fred Flinstone
than Aki Ross (of the ill-fated Final Fantasy) in its animation
style. The superhuman family dashes around with the flexibility
of the Roadrunner and the Acme-armed Coyote, all stretchy
limbs and exaggerated expressions. But even that explanation
gives short shrift to what Brad Bird has done with his tale
of a superhero family on the downlow.
Polar Express is exactly what it sounds like. A trip to
the North Pole that conveys a skeptical child to the wonder
of Christmas. The Incredibles is far more subtle than its
advertising and promotional clips make it out to be. Brad
Birds film is a story about a cloistered family of
superheroes, but its also an amusing but chilling
rumination on the power of mediocrity.
Ive heard quite a few supervillian threats, including
Goldfingers standout exchange with James Bond, but
nothing seemed quite as scary as Syndromes snarling
and when everyone is super, no-one will be.
A lot more films these days wear the trappings of a Pixar
film. Modern technology drives many more animated creatures
through their paces these days, but Pixar keeps delivering
solid, thoughtful stories that keep moving the punters through
the turnstiles. And really, thats the most incredible
thing of all.