Rats! Poo! Duck!

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Disney / Pixar


"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.

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