Suspended Animation

Sinbad? No, Sin Good!

A few house-keeping announcements. Once again I ask for questions. Nobody’s sending them in, so hop to it. What do you want to know or do you already know it all? Secondly, nobody’s been logging onto the message boards, so rush right now to What The Hey! and start posting. Lastly, over at my home site,, I’ve put on a new page I think everyone will get a kick out of seeing. I found in my records the very first, and never before printed, paper where I began to work out the very beginnings of

The New Teen Titans, including my own crudely designed version of Titans Tower. Take a look.

Last week I mentioned seeing a screening of the animated movie, Sinbad, and suggested you do the same. As I said, my wife worked on the film – you can see her credit scroll by almost too fast to read at the end – but that wouldn’t stop me from disliking it, if indeed I had. But I enjoyed Sinbad, and want to encourage others to see it, too, and sooner rather than later. These days, opening weekend grosses dictate how a film will do, and today, Sunday, is the final day of the opening July 4th weekend. Try to see it today or at least this week.

The story is relatively straight forward: Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), Sinbad’s best friend when he was a kid, is now a Prince assigned to bring the Book of Peace back home. Sinbad (Brad Pitt) tries to steal it, but because of the machinations of the Eris, Goddess of Chaos, (Michelle Pfeiffer), he fails to do so. Once Sinbad sees Proteus’ fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he decides to leave the book with Proteus and sail off with his crew aboard their ship, The Chimera. Disguised as Sinbad – in an incredibly well animated scene - Eris steals the book. Sinbad is blamed for the theft and is about to be executed when Proteus, believing Sinbad is innocent, says he will take Sinbad’s place on the chopping block if Sinbad goes to Tartarus but fails to recover the book. Sinbad sets sail, not to Tartarus, but Fiji, not intending to save his friend, when he discovers Marina is on board to make sure her fiancé’s interests are served. This all happens in the first few minutes and is the lynchpin that starts the movie rolling.

The story that follows, filled with all the required action, humor and adventure, is actually based on choice and character and is often surprising. Although we certainly know Sinbad, being the hero, will eventually do the right thing, the question is not will he, but how and why.

Action movies are always a foregone conclusion. We know Luke Skywalker is going to blow up the Deathstar once we know that’s the plan. We know John McClane is going to stop the terrorists, even in his bare feet. We know Sarah O’Connor is going to stop The Terminator. Those aren’t even questions. The only question is – will we enjoy the ride? Are we entertained? Do the characters ever surprise us?

Sinbad is fun. The water siren sequence is breathtaking. The flight from the Roc snowbird is wonderful. And Sinbad and Proteus’ decisions at the end are not the stuff of typical American cartoons. Proteus makes a sophisticated choice that younger kids might not fully understand. Sinbad’s choice is something you’d never see in a Disney cartoon. The outcome is inevitable, but the trip is well worth taking.

Is Sinbad the world’s greatest animated movie? No. There are problems in the story, but it is a helluva lot of fun and I’m betting you will enjoy it, too.

Although Sinbad does have CGI in it, sometimes a bit too obviously done, it is essentially traditional hand drawn animation. Because the last few hand drawn movies have done poorly or didn’t set the world on fire, most of the studios are dropping them in favor of all CGI cartoons like Shrek, Finding Nemo and Ice Age. Disney has already let go of most of its artists. Dreamworks is trying to retrain some of their people.

CGI seems to be the wave of the future, but I believe there is still a place for the kind of lush animation you can get only with hand-drawn and painted cartoons. Sinbad is magnificently animated. The sequence where Eris becomes Sinbad is, as I said, amazing. There are throw away facial expressions throughout the film that stunned me. Even if you do have problems with some parts of the story, Sinbad is, as I’ve been saying, fun.

If you’re an animation fan you need to support traditional animation. It makes it easier that Sinbad is Singood.
The movie is in the theaters. Go see it, and, as I said, the sooner the better.

And, continuing to speak of animation…

Adventure animation has had a problem in this country. Films such as Titan A.E., Atlantis and more recently, Treasure Planet, were poorly done and, consequently, did poor business, which might cast a shadow over any new adventure animation, Sinbad including. Disney, in fact, had to take a massive tax write off on Treasure Planet.

Adventure Animation is usually aimed at boys 8-14, an age when most kids start shunning animation in the movies. They’ve discovered anime and can rent some really cool movies for a buck or two, so why see something that looks like it’s a movie meant for little kids?

That’s the second problem. The studios advertise the movies as if they are for little kids even if they are actually aimed at teens and older. Yes, little kids can enjoy them, even as they enjoyed Shrek which was definitely aimed at an adult audience, but the films aren’t by concept aimed at kids, no more than Warner’s Loony Tune shorts were aimed at the youngest members of the audience. They were done for adults but in a way that kids could enjoy them, too.

For example, Spirited Away, released by Miramax, and definitely a movie for us, was advertised to look like it should only be seen by kids. Spirited Away is such a good movie that it won the Oscar for best animated film. This is a great film, yet it actually did fairly poor business. Perhaps if they made it clear that adults would enjoy the movie more would have chanced it, but since it was advertised for kids, only animation aficionados went to see it.

In the same vein, I loved Spirit, Dreamworks’ last animated film. It had the makings of being a classic. But I know many people didn’t see it because they thought it was little more than My Little Pony. But Spirit is not a film aimed at little girls. Spirit is a hard action movie that adults would have loved, but it was advertised as if it was a little girl’s film. Hell, they had the girls at “Whinny!” They needed to advertise it for adults. When friends of mine who refused to see the movie when it was in the theaters, finally did see it on DVD, they thought it was great.

Would kids enjoy both Spirit and Spirited Away? Sure. But the trick is getting the adults in the theater.

Animation movie posters are usually generic and childlike. TV commercials play up silly, childish humor. The movies look young, and no self-respecting teen is going to go to a film for kids. When you hit your late 20s, you can go back to watching kid animation, but it’s anathema when you’re a tweener. So the very audience the studios are aiming these films at is the audience that wouldn’t be caught dead in the movie theater watching them. It’s a deadly Catch-22.

The second problem, exacerbated by special effects, is why make an adventure cartoon when it can be done just as easily today, and possibly cheaper, in live action with CGI monsters? Lord of the Rings is a perfect example. How can you possibly care about drawn animation monsters when you can see live people fighting monsters that look as real as the people do?
The solution is, and always will be, story. Most American action animated movies think that animation alone will bring people in. Those days are gone. Hell, I loved the South Park animated film and those characters barely move. Animation alone isn’t important. People today have a half dozen TV stations that bombard us with animation 24-7-365. The form isn’t enough. You must have great story, and even more important than story, is great characters.

More than anything else, you must care about the characters. You have to get caught up in what is important to them. As I’ve said many times before, if the characters don’t care about what’s happening to them, or they go through the myriad plot devices as if they don’t matter, then the viewer cannot care as well.

Time has to be spent, before the first drawings are done, on making us care. Stories don’t have to be complicated. Shrek was as simple as they come. Beauty And The Beast was a point A to point B story with no stops between. Finding Nemo is simplicity itself, but in all these cases we cared about the characters, first and foremost.

We strive for this in live action movies. Filmmakers know this. They really do, so why do they so often forget, or ignore the basics of story-telling, when it comes to animation? Do they think kids are dumb? Kids may not be sophisticated, but they know when they are being bored.

Movie makers need to know who their characters are and what they want up front. Then they need to compose their stories in such a way that those wants and needs are focused on. In my writing columns, I have often said that anything in a script that doesn’t forward both character and plot – at the same time - needs to be removed.

Animation filmmakers also have to remember the competition isn’t another studio’s animated cartoon, it’s every movie, every TV show and every video game out there. You have to make the audience care or they can go, too simply, elsewhere for their entertainment buck. Treasure Planet wasn’t competing with Ice Age for animation dollars, it was competing with Lord Of the Rings for that movie spending money.

We know what’s important to John McClane in Die Hard. The movie exists to test his needs. We know what’s important to Elliot in E.T., Luke in Star Wars, Rick in Casablanca, Scarlet in Gone With The Wind, etc. Et Cetera. We always know what’s important to the characters in the best movies, and we know those movies will always make those characters work hard to achieve, or, in drama, fail to achieve those needs. Stories that don’t involve you will always fail.

Because kids and adults today are bombarded with entertainment from the moment they wake up until the moment they start snoring away, filmmakers have to remember that the form is less important than the content. Traditional animation isn’t worse than CGI animation which isn’t worse than live action. It’s what you do using those forms that will make a viewer care for your film or discard it.

See you in seven,
Marv Wolfman

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