If You Like Anthropomorphic Robots, Does That Make You a ‘Botty’?

Posted by Guest Author on Jan 27, 2009 in Animation |

Best Animation Oscar

Editor’s Note: In this essay film critic Joe Strike offers us his insights into the Oscars nominees for best animated feature.

For me, the Oscar I most look forward to during that endless TV show isn’t Best Picture or Best Director, but Best (or Outstanding Achievement In, I guess) Animated Feature (from hereon referred to as BAF). The first straw in the wind was Wall-E‘s Golden Globes BAF win. At that point I was sure the Oscar nominees would be Wall-E, Kung-Fu Panda and (the token intellectual nominee) Waltz with Bashir. Turns out Bashir got a Best Foreign Film nomination (way to go, Avi – nice Jewish boy makes good!) and Disney’s superdog Bolt filled out the third spot. (A fun movie, but not a flick for the ages.)

Anyway, why don’t we save time and just give the damn statue to that adorable li’l robot right now? He’s popped up on so many Best of ’08 lists (and at the top of a lot of them to boot) that it’s pretty much a given. Granted, the film is indeed impressive. No one can create a synthetic reality onscreen the Pixar does. The film’s vistas of an environmentally wasted Earth – copper skies and the abandoned debris of entire civilization – were awesome. . But philosophy-wise, I hope you’ll excuse me if I told you I found the movie more clever than profound.

Pixar Wall*E Poster

We’ve heard its Important Ecological Message before – many, many times. (And just how did that little plant survive inside that refrigerator without any air, water or light? How did the returning humans reforest the Earth once they landed? In fact, how did they even stand upright after spending every moment of their lives up to that point in their floating Laz-E-Boys?)

But I’m sorry, as darling as he was I couldn’t buy Wall-E as an actual personality. For me, he was like a dog doing some clever tricks to impress his owner’s friends. His emotions were simulations of emotions, mechanical body language to convey the feeling of a feeling, and not the real thing. The cybernetic equivalent of eyelids, eyebrows, pupils were all there, working away as best they could, Chaplin in robotics – but I knew Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin was a fave of mine – and Wall-E’s no Charlie Chaplin.

Kung-Fu Panda

You want real emotion in your cartoon characters? Then say hi to the panda. For once DreamWorks gave its pop-culture-gag fetish the day off and took its film’s internal world – and its characters – seriously. Simply put, Kung Fu Panda is DreamWorks’ best film ever (and since it looks like they’re returning to poke-in-the-ribs pop references with Monsters Vs. Aliens, Panda will probably hold that title for a while).

I’ll admit I was worried back when I first heard Jack Black would play Po the panda. (Even the title seemed lazy.) I assumed he’d be a full-fledged clueless yutz, driving the real kung-fu-ers crazy until he saves the day at the last second just by sheer dumb luck.

Surprise! The filmmakers took the opposite tack, making Po a kung-fu fanboy who doesn’t for a second think he can measure up to his idols. But when that sheer dumb luck (or is it? as the film’s mystic turtle keeps remarking, “there are no accidents”) makes him the ‘dragon warrior,’ he tries like hell to measure up. Voila – instead of grinding your teeth at his ‘hilarious’ antics, you’re on his side rooting for him.

I was gonna enthuse at length about the various characters’ character arcs, the surprising amount of emotional depth the filmmakers give everyone, including their villain, but I’ll save it for the moment (along with my usual lament that an adult-oriented animated feature is never gonna win this category). Instead, a question: Wall-E or Po – who’d win in a fair fight? Or even an unfair one?

Joe is an occasional animation scripter and freelance NYC writer covering animation and sci-fi/fantasy entertainment. His work has appeared in the NY Daily News, Newsday, the New York Press and, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle, ‘a host of others.’ He is a regular contributor to the animation industry website awn.com, but it’s much easier to visit joestrike.com to see what he’s been up to lately.

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