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.