From the Zoetrope to Toy Story: Is Animation a Broken Art Form?

ZoetropeVacations with a toddler are never complete without the viewing of a few animated movies, as any parent knows.

My recent foray into the land of lazy summer days was no exception.

Lately, however, my son and I have grown somewhat weary of the seemingly endless parade of computer-generated features that are high on technical bravado and lacking in artistic merit (Flushed Away comes immediately to mind).

So we’ve been going back in time and discovering some animated classics, most of which seem to come from Disney.

Along the way we’ve learned that just because a film is built using computers doesn’t mean it’s better.

Instead, that can often be a drawback.

Pretty much every new animated feature film today is developed on computers.

In 1995 the then-independent Pixar Animation Studios pioneered this method of filmmaking with their classic, Toy Story.

More than just being a showcase for a new technique, however, Toy Story had everything required in a truly great film: outstanding plot, memorable characters, and award-winning performances from its actors.

It seems that the producers of many contemporary animated films that are generated by computers forget that their work requires these other elements to be even borderline bearable.

Last year even my son grew frustrated with the clumsy and distinctly unfunny Barnyard and insisted we leave part-way through — an action I fully endorsed.

So it’s been with great relish that we’ve been consuming classic animated features like Peter Pan, Tarzan, and Lilo & Stitch lately.

It’s indisputable that each of these Disney pictures has the basic makings of great cinema that I mentioned before.

But what’s more, and what differentiates them from even great computer-generated flicks like Finding Nemo, is that, visually, they have the human touch.

In the backgrounds of Lilo & Stitch, for example, at times you can make out actual brushstrokes that are clearly the result of a physical human process. And there are sequences in that film that literally sing with the fluidity and grace that only the human hand can bestow on animated characters.

I particularly love watching Bambi. The story is bold and emotional. The scenery is painted with a strong expressiveness that I’ve never even seen attempted in a modern animated film.

The entire being of the film emits the tension of young Bambi’s struggle to come to terms with his place in the cruel reality of his forest home.

And although the film is populated solely by animals, every scene in the film radiates with the pure humanity of its message and craft.

I’m not knocking computer-generated films here.

In fact, Pixar’s 2001 masterpiece, Monsters, Inc., is probably my favourite animated film.

It just seems to me that contemporary animated cinema is stuck in a rut. The past couple of years have borne witness to an endless rash of computer-generated animated films, most of which are, well, totally lame. (Does any other word describe Shark Tale?)

It seems that the animated film industry is being drawn onto the rocks by the siren call of a fancy technology. The call of those mythological sea nymphs? “Make it look really, really, really, really real!”

Works like The Polar Express and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within clearly demonstrate this effort.

But if you consider the origins of the craft of animation, was reality ever a quality it aimed to capture?

3-D computer generated animation, after all, is really just another way of practicing an art that is arguably nearly 2 centuries old (if you can consider George Horner’s Zoetrope a form of animation).

20th Century animation spent most of its time trying to draw audiences as far away from reality as possible, into fantastic, impossible realms where unbelievable events occur. Fantasia is really the culmination of this.

Nowadays animation seems to be all about the manufacturing of synthetic realities at the expense of good storytelling and filmmaking.

It just seems time that animators step back from their medium and re-evaluate the computer’s role in it. Is impressive, hyper-realistic imagery the ultimate goal for animation in feature films? Or do they want to express something more than just their technical wizardry?

In Pixar’s Cars, the VW bus character, Fillmore, sports a bumper sticker that reads, “Save 2D Animation!” It’s an honest cry for help emanating from a world that seems to have been manufactured from glow-in-the-dark sugar-plastic.”

In 2010 Disney and Pixar will release Toy Story 3. Lets hope they can craft the film to capture the spirit of Disney’s animated film legacy and combine it with what made the original Toy Story so groundbreaking: that perfect combination of technology and art.

And, heck, here’s to hoping we see some hand-drawn sequences that will remind us of the people behind the craft. I’ll look forward to enjoying that with my son.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 31, 2007.

3 thoughts on “From the Zoetrope to Toy Story: Is Animation a Broken Art Form?

    • Hi Brian. Unfortunately, I don’t believe PDF reprints are available. It was originally published in the Yukon News (, so you may want to contact the staff there and see if they can help you out.

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