Two Ends of the Animated Spectrum: The Avatar and the Frog

Over the last two weekends, I did something I hardly ever do nowadays. I went to the movies.

I don’t have kids, and generally I have time to go. For me, not going to the theater is all about the quality of the experience. Netflix and a reasonably nice TV trumps a crappy quality version of the film (you know, with all that schmutz flying by on the FILM!), sitting behind talking people and being charged 3000 times more than the bucket of popcorn is worth. So, if I go, I tend to be critical. I want the experience to blow me away.

So what did I see? Two ends of the animated spectrum: The Princess and the Frog and Avatar.

Have to say, neither one of them really engaged me much. Both were absolutely beautiful films. I liked the story of Frog better, mostly because I liked the characters more. Disney (the company whose theme parks I work for) did a nice job reinventing the classic princess story. I respected Tiana and her belief that hard work was way better than any magical spell. And I really like contrast they set up between her and Charlotte, who happens to be exactly the spoiled, cliched princess the movie is aimed at skewering. Charlotte is one-dimensional and yet not painted as worthless or evil. That’s tricky to pull off.

What’s regrettable is that the music in Frog is so … meh. I can’t say I remember any of it. No “Be our guest, be our guest…” here. Despite a nice number for the villain, and the swinging zydeco bit for the HSAs (happy, singing animals). Randy Newman’s effort just doesn’t cut it here, which is a shame considering the movie is set in New Orleans, which is really a paradise of music. (If you’ve never been there, and you like music, why not?) There’s just something too Disney and not authentic enough in this soundtrack.

Overall, Frog was enjoyable. A good movie, just not a great one. That left me especially sad, because I really wanted this movie to prove that the difference between success and failure in animation has nothing to do with traditional 2D versus shiny round 3D. Frog is a gorgeous movie. It deserved to be richer in story and song.
Avatar. Hrm. $300 million for that movie confuses me. Let me start by saying, I am firmly in the “3D is a gimmick” camp. After about 15 minutes wearing the glasses annoyed me. This may be partly because I have had 20/15 vision most of my life, and wearing the glasses feels like an imposition. But I also feel like 3D depth in a movie is mostly wasted on me. If it’s not John Candy’s old cheap 3D tricks from SCTV, I don’t really see the point.

Part way through the movie, I got tired and tilted my head and half the screen went blurry. Yeah, call me when you don’t need glasses.

Avatar’s a TREMENDOUS achievement in terms of special effects. There are some shots that are just amazing mixes of the real and the virtual. And there’s also some stuff that reminded me a lot of the old video games that had full motion video in them. It had that, “shot in the same warehouse” feel that those did. Maybe it was the 3D, but some of it just looked sort of cheesy.

Reading the WIRED article about how Cameron was reinventing effects made me hope we might now have a cheaper way of making movies of the “unfilmable” fantasy novels out there. Watching the densest credits ever roll by at the end, I realized this movie was great because they spent a TREMENDOUS amount of time, effort, and money on it, so I don’t know how much of an improvement it will be for people who can’t command the incredible budgets Cameron can.

Story? There’s a document making its rounds on the net that satirizes the fact that Avatar is basically Disney’s Pocahontas. That pretty much speaks to it for me. The sci-fi elements were unique, but they weren’t particularly challenging or thought-provoking. The characters were pretty thin and cliched too, which made it really hard to want to identify with anyone strongly.

So I’m back to my monastic Netflix existence until the next big event pictures come out.

The End (And I Like It That Way)

My roommate and I in college once had a big argument about books.

We both loved the “Apprentice Adept” trilogy by Piers Anthony. We bonded over those books, which was good because we didn’t always have a whole lot else in common.

Apprentice Adept Series Collection
Apprentice Adept Series Collection

But then, the unthinkable happened. Piers Anthony wrote a sequel.

My roommate was ecstatic. He raced out to the bookstore and brought it home. Held it before me like he’d claimed the grail. He cleared his calendar, scampered to the top of the loft, and buried himself in his sleeping bag and the book.

For me, it was like he’d just brought home a copy of the Venus de Milo, but with groovy arms cemented on, and painted to look realistic.

“That series…it was over. There was an ending,” I said to him, and he looked up from his book, startled.

“Yes! And now there’s more!” And he plunged back into the book, nestling deeper into his sleeping bag.

Over the ongoing days of his reading the book, it ate away at me. But the ending was beautiful. The entire reason for the story disappeared, closed, done forever. No possibility of sequel. The story was over. Everything was tied up in exactly the way that life truly and exactly never is. Happily ever after achieved, check the box and close the curtains.

All of this I argued at him, on and off as he read it.

And all he would say was, “You have to read it, though.”

Eventually, I did. At least the first 50 pages or so. But every word was like a slap in the face to your fairy godmother. I mean, come on…you told me everything worked out the way it worked on. And now, you’re saying, “Oops, I was wrong?”

I think Anthony even had an author’s note at the end of his book, where he said something like, “Hey, the fans wanted more.” I know an artist has to please the audience, but really, writing more Xanth, or something new, probably would have achieved the same thing.

I never finished the book. I sold it at a used bookstore some months later. Probably bought more Xanth novels with it.

I still have the original Apprentice Adept books. To me, they’re the only ones that exist in that series.

I guess I just like to believe in the “ever” in happily ever after. What about you?