"Director, my ass!" a porn starlet named Beautiful tells her director Jimmy the Freak in the megascatological Korean cartoon Aachi & Ssipak. "You call an animator a real director?" And with his dying breath, Jimmy whispers, "Yes, I do."
I'm with Jimmy. I grew up on animation, I respect the medium's artistry and dote on its jokes. This week, while on vacation, I watched a few animated films: the Pixar movie Ratatouille, which opened yesterday in nearly 4,000 North American theaters; the Japanese science-fiction epic Paprika, now playing in 20 major cities; Aachi & Ssipak, which is playing at the New York Asian Film Festival; Queer Duck: The Movie, the tres gay comedy that's available on DVD; and for old times' sake, this year's Oscar-winning, made-in-Australia animated feature Happy Feet.
Some of these movies (Rat, Feet) I loved; some (Paprika, Aachi) I studied with a cooler, appraisal admiration; and Queer Duck I thought just silly, sublimely so. But often, as I watched, I wondered: Why can't the makers of live-action films take one-tenth the care these guys did? Why are so many animated features bursting with wild imagination, coherent characters, glorious visualizing all we should expect from film and "real" movies aren't?
Vladimir Nabokov wrote that reality is "one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes." The same with calling live-action films real movies. I watch these things for a living, and it's a great job, but any critic knows that the average film is basically photographs of people talking, walking or hitting something. The process is pretty simple: actors pretend to be real people; they get their pictures taken while they say their lines a few times; and later, watching the assembly of these scenes in a theater or at home, you laugh, cry or shrug.
Animated features cartoons, to the less respectful can provide, for a start, just about everything a live-action film does. You already know how George Miller's Happy Feet matches music and story, political message with emotional heft. But can animation deliver persuasive action and ultra-violence? Sure. Jo Beom-jin's Aachi & Ssipak unloads more artillery than were fired in three hours of the Pacino Scarface, and with fewer moral scruples; and its climactic chase, inspired by the runaway-cart scene inside the mountain at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, tops that Spielberg spectacle for sheer stunt ingenuity.