(2 of 5)
How about spectacle? Satoshi Kon's Paprika dives into a splashy dream world for a parade of marching umbrellas, refrigerators and giant dolls that is as grand as it is eerie. Rambunctious comedy? Mike Reiss and Xeth Feinberg's Queer Duck is at least as rude as Knocked Up and yards funnier, whether its titular same-sex mallard is waddling up to the bar to order "a slow comfortable screw up against the wall of a bus station in Passaic, New Jersey," or enduring a spot of gay-bashing in an episode (from the 3min. filmettes on which the feature is based) called "Ku Klux Klan and Ollie."
As for great acting: attend to the gestural brilliance in Ratatouille: Remy the rat's slight hunch of the shoulders and secret smile as he acknowledges that, yes, he has the makings of a great chef; or the face of the severe food critic Anton Ego as he takes a forkful of Remy's signature dish, and his sourness disappears, a beatific smile replaces the sneer, and Ego is transported back 40 years to the sublime memory of his mother's kitchen. "Yes, it's a super-cartoony design on his face," Director Brad Bird told TIME's Rebecca Winters Keegan, "but it's a great performance by an animator."
Typically, animation requires much more work, ingenuity, precision than live action. Ani-makers essentially edit the movie before they shoot it. The process of transferring sketches or computer doodles to the screen is just too expensive, in money and time, that every frame must be conceived, designed and "performed" in advance. That's why their gestation is so long. Aachi & Ssipak took eight years to make; Ratatouille three years with the original director, Jan Pinkava, and two-plus with Bird, his replacement. You need the devotion and discipline of Cistercian monks, hundreds of them, to get a work of animation finished in less than a U.S. presidential term. Even for a 22-min. episode The Simpsons, six months elapses between script and screen.
Except when it doesn't. Reiss (a longtime Simpsons writer-producer) does the Queer Duck scripts on his own, and Feinberg designed and animated the original short films at home on his iMac. It takes all of six days for Trey Parker to write and direct, and with Matt Stone produce and provide most of the voices for, an episode of South Park. James L. Brooks told me that Matt and Trey are the only geniuses working in TV, and who am I to disagree with the guy behind Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi and The Simpsons (and Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News)? Indeed, I'd stack this year's Easter Egg episode of South Park, or last year's Dog Whisperer, or half a dozen of the Butters shows, against nearly any recent film that has won the top Oscar or critics' prize.
But animation directors don't get the respect they deserve. "We're kind of at the kids' table," Bird says. "If I do the most perfect job of directing [an animated feature] in terms of composition, editing, how the performances come down on the screen it's still the same thing [as directing live-action]. You're dealing with close-ups and editing and when to not cut and when to cut rapidly and was the music engaging and how do we know what the characters are thinking. [But] people disregard it. It's sort of an unspoken prejudice." Bird sees the bias in official film history: "I read articles about great first films. I have never seen Toy Story listed. Is that not as impressive as, say [Spielberg's] Sugarland Express?" He also feels animators are ignored at Oscar time: "An animation director has never been nominated for best director. Ever. People don't understand what directors of animated films do."