It's Digital. Can You Dig It?

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Are people obsolete in movies? Have we seen the last of actors — actual human beings playing fictional ones — who perform on a set constructed by burly artisans, under lights operated by fellows with quaint guild titles like gaffer and best boy? Maybe we have. Maybe it's time. I mean, if there's one thing that holds cinema back from being a 21st century art form, it's people. So let's go with pixels. They're cuter, cheaper, better behaved. They can simulate funny sea creatures (Shark Tale), re-create 1939 Manhattan or Shangri-La (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), visualize a future dystopia (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence) with a wave of a wand, the click of a mouse.

Traditional moviemaking, a toy of the Industrial Revolution, was a cumbersome machine from the start and remained so for a century. To a generation that got its visual schooling in front of the small, teeming screens of PCs and PlayStation 2s, the old filmic quest to make movies seem like real life, only cooler, is as anachronistic as a telegram in the e-mail age. Now a generation of directors is moving from analog to digital. They want to make films that hit the delete button on reality — films whose highest aspiration is to be cartoons.


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And not your Uncle Walt's cartoons, the creaky two-dimensional kind with hand-made drawings and singing dwarfs and teapots. Even the most familiar looking of our new trio — Shark Tale, from the people responsible for the Shrek megahits — is in the computer-generated mode. Another DreamWorks cartoon that eerily resembles the work of its competitor Pixar (Antz to match A Bug's Life, Shrek to counter Monsters Inc.), this one goes underwater, as Pixar's Finding Nemo did, but with a more urban-contemporary tilt and much less craft and heart.

Oscar the fish (voiced by Will Smith) is a little dude with a big mouth who becomes a hero under false pretenses, by saying he slew a shark — a shark who happens to be the son of Don Lino (Robert De Niro), the sea's feared codfather. To propel the plot, Don Lino's sissy son Lenny (Jack Black) befriends Oscar and his adoring friend Angie (Renée Zellweger). At its jauntiest, as when it shows Oscar at work in a whale car wash, Shark Tale is the Jaws that refreshes, but too often it just piles on the gags. The film has a hectic, sitcom air and a full-of-himself hero who is as likely to grate as to ingratiate.

Sky Captain is every bit as much an animated film as Shark Tale. Kerry Conran's script has a plot lifted and sifted from lots of '30s films — The Wizard of Oz, Lost Horizon and a dozen sassy newspaper comedies. But the technique is the star here: Conran's devising of a Deco-meets-delirium universe that he projected onto a blue screen, in front of which the game, clueless stars — Jude Law as the intrepid flyboy, Gwyneth Paltrow as a plucky news gal — recited their lines.

Granted, they can't bring much life to their characters, since the movie's sepia-toned look almost literally drains the color from their faces, which are shot in light so diffuse they look as if they were painted on velvet. It's more important to Conran that they be figures in a landscape whose tones have the texture of a seeping, seductive gouache. In his vision of moviemaking as essentially a basement activity — a controlled environment as unpolluted as possible by the egos and quirks of performers — Conran is a lot like George Lucas from Star Wars on. Actors are cattle, and he's a vegetarian.

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