To animate inanimates: It must be an assignment the cartoon artists dread. We
know, after all, how people look when happy, and can even get a fair picture of,
say, an eager otter or melancholy cow. But how does a toaster register surprise?
A candlestick sarcasm? A cucumber regret? Mostly, it turns out, with their eyebrows,
neatly painted on to the most suggestive surface of the object at hand, along with
companion eyes, laugh lines, cheekbones, and chin. That is to say, inanimate objects
are generally animated by giving them human faces, human personalities, and human
emotions, so that a lampshade might remind you of Peter Lorre, a saxophone of Jackie
Gleason, an asparagus of Joey Lawrence. This is no great surprise -- who expected
the animators to really get into the soul of an asparagus? -- but nevertheless
it's done in particular style, and with varying degrees of success, each time it's
attempted, and an animator who can't get you to feel your toaster's pain is
an artiste indeed.
Of course, skeletons have been dancing and broomsticks sashaying since animation's
earliest days, and one of the original Silly Symphonies contains a hellacious battle
scene fought entirely by ill-tempered inanimates. You can find "Music Land"
on The Disney Dream Factory, 1933-1938. Music Land is a place fraught with
tension, with the Sea of Discord lying between the Isle of Jazz and the Land of Symphony.
Of course, the young are heedless of such political realities, and a true Romeo and
Juliet scenario soon develops between a dainty violin from Symphony and a lovestruck
sax from Jazz. The saxophone's overeager courtship gives a whole new meaning to the
term "horny," and soon enough the bassoons are scandalized. In short order
a full-blown war breaks out, pitting ballistic sousaphones against ponderous pipe
organs; the action here is at least as dramatic as Saving Private Ryan. "Music
Land" also features dancing ukuleles, bootlickin' music stands, and a metronome
doing duty as a coxswain. It is the first glimpse, as well, of a critical aspect
of animating inanimates: how to use an object's structural particulars -- the
tuning peg on a cello, the mouthpiece on a saxophone -- to best effect.
Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, and Cogsworth: Animating the inanimate in Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast
That lesson, no doubt refined over the years through active imagination and the
liberal use of psychedelics, reached its greatest fruition in Disney's delightful
Beauty and the Beast, in which a enchanted castle full of animated housewares
chatter about and generally run amok. Ostensibly a love story about learning to see
the beauty within, Beauty and the Beast is really just a big hammy stage for
those housewares to do their Broadway best. You'll see agitated ottomans, hapless
hatracks, swooning featherdusters, and wise old teapots -- an all-star cast fronted
by Lumiere the hospitable candlestick and Cogsworth the even grumpier wall clock.
Far more intriguing than the Beast's eventual transformation -- into a dimple-chinned
Michael Bolton, no less -- is the show-stopping "Be Our Guest," a musical
number sung by the entire inanimate cast and led by the ever-arch Lumiere. It gives
a whole new meaning to the term "torch song."
Less successful is Disney's The Brave Little Toaster. Perhaps the most
haunting look to date into the inner life of appliances, The Brave Little Toaster
follows five forsaken inanimates -- a toaster, a radio, a lamp, a vacuum, and
an electric blanket -- as they set out overland to look for their missing owner.
Like any great road movie, there are highs and lows, moments of fear and triumph,
of bravery and malice -- but The Brave Little Toaster has the added difficulties
of power supply and warranty expiration. It's a wholesome family movie, including
the delicate scene where nature and technology meet for a surreal musical number
at an out-of-the-way pond; the resulting harmony proves, if nothing else, that nature
doesn't really abhor a vacuum. (They got along quite well, thank you.) A fine concept,
and affecting at times, but Toaster suffers from an animation style more akin
to Saturday morning reductionism than feature-film realism; as such, it's hard to
work up any real empathy for the likes of Slots, Kirby, and Blankey, no matter how
dire their predicament gets.
"Sunday morning values and Saturday morning fun!" That is the tag line
for Veggie Tales, a computer-animated series centered around the Christian
response to pre-pubescent dilemmas. Hosted by an earnest tomato and a slap-happy
cucumber, centered around the spiritual crises of a family of endearing asparagus,
it is also the most sympathetic cartoon treatment of vegetables since the days of
Popeye. (It is also, in its own way, virtuously realistic -- asparagus
hop rather than walk, cucumbers can't play guitars, peaches are perhaps the only
members of the produce family with a legitimate reason to own a comb.) Story lines
are standard sermon fare with a clever twist: "Where Is God When I'm S-s-scared?"
has a young Junior Asparagus frightened by the movie monster Frankencelery; "Are
You My Neighbor?" includes a Seussian fable of loving all vegetables, even if
they do have shoes on their heads. (Don't ask.) Veggie Tales can veer towards
the cloying and pious -- the "God is Bigger Than the Boogerman" song
is genuine Bible camp material -- but mostly it keeps things fun and remembers
to ask the important questions, such as "Can God squirt slime out of His ears?"
Good animation, sharp dialogue, silly songs, and a Christian pretext: If you
dig all four, or just care enough about the first three to ignore the fourth, you
just might find yourself singin' the infectious theme song:
If you like to talk to tomatoes
If a squash can make you smile
If you like to waltz with potatoes
Up and down the produce aisle ...
Have we got a show for you!
Film Vault Suggested Links
Veggie Tales: Bob & Larry's Favorite Stories
Barney and Friends (tv)
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