Thursday, June 12, 2008

From Woody to WALL-E: Top 10 CGI Animated Movies Ever

by Tom Burns

Who knew back in 1982 while we were geeking out over the light-cycle races in Tron that, one day, computer-generated imagery would completely transform Hollywood filmmaking and, in particular, the world of feature film animation? During the '80s, all we knew computers were good for was Global Thermonuclear War or a nice game of chess, but CGI technology soon revolutionized the world of special FX and opened up a whole new world of 3D animation that quickly (and, some would argue, sadly) began replacing traditional 2D hand-drawn animation as the preferred medium for big-screen animated features. In 1995, the first full-length, completely CGI-animated movie was released - an obscure little cult movie called Toy Story - and, since then, Hollywood has never looked back.

And, in the thirteen years following Toy Story, we've seen some entirely mind-blowing achievements in the world of theatrical CGI as well as, let's be honest, a whole lot of crap. While the earliest CGI features, regardless of their content, captured audiences' attention with their "how'd they do that" visual verve, after CG became more common-place and people began realizing that they could animate their own episodes of Jimmy Neutron with 600 bucks worth of equipment from BestBuy, the honeymoon was over. CGI movies became just like any other movies and found themselves judged not only by their visuals, but also on their effectiveness as films on a whole. Gorgeously computer-animated features could be ignored due to their inane stories and humorless tone (looking at you, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), and weak children's movies with lame plots couldn't save themselves by simply investing in some kid-friendly CGI (looking at you, Chicken Little and Ant Bully). CGI animation has become just another medium for cinematic storytelling, which, to be honest, is probably the best thing that could've happened for both the animators and audiences alike.

In honor of the upcoming release of WALL-E, the highly-anticipated new feature from Pixar, the unparalleled and unquestioned kings of CGI filmmaking, The Deadbolt has assembled a list of our ten all-time favorite CGI animated movies - ten films that truly bring together fantastic big-screen storytelling with some of the most kick-ass computer wizardry this side of the Master Control Program.


10. Shrek

Just to get this out of the way - no, we don't think that Shrek deserved to win the very first Best Animated Feature Film Oscar in 2001, particularly since it was up against the far-superior Monsters, Inc. And, yeah, Shrek the Third was pretty disposable. But, even if you're a Dreamworks-hater, you can't deny the cultural impact of the big green ogre on Hollywood. Not only is Shrek a pretty damn good comedy, but Shrek himself is arguably one of the most memorable and recognizable film characters of the past twenty years. We love Pixar here at the 'Bolt, but, aside from Buzz and Woody, there aren't any individual Pixar characters that could probably win a popularity contest against Shrek and Donkey. They've become icons for children around the globe and, even if it annoys you that Mike Myers is just doing his same Scottish accent AGAIN, you can't deny that Shrek is one of CGI's first A-list celebrities. And, to quickly note the movie's technical achievements, the facial animation in Shrek is so flawlessly rendered that each character is nicely imbued with the respective personalities of their vocal counterparts, giving the movie a tremendous helping of charm and character that so many CG movies lack. (Once again, looking at you and your dead-faced leads, Final Fantasy.)

9. Beowulf

Unlike the Academy, we at The Deadbolt don't discriminate between "pure" CGI and motion-capture CGI. In our eyes, animation is animation, and it'd be a shame to discuss the history of CG filmmaking without being able to address certain films like the surprisingly bad-ass Beowulf. Let's hope that that no misinformed soccer moms took their seven-year-olds to see Beowulf in IMAX simply because it was created by the "makers of The Polar Express." If they did, those unwitting tykes witnessed more gore, action, and sexual innuendo than Santa is normally comfortable with. Robert Zemeckis' great achievement with Beowulf - aside from the film's gorgeous visuals - is that it essentially stands as the first "adult" CGI movie. Granted, like Shrek, it deals with legends and myths of old, but it doesn't add in any farting donkeys or singing gargoyles to soften the tale for young eyes. The original Old English poem is one of the most beautifully brutal stories in the history of literature (heck, it's one of the FIRST stories in the history of literature), and Zemeckis gave the story its proper respect by staying true to the tone of the original material and hiring two amazingly literate screenwriters (Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman) to bring it to the big-screen. One of the coolest aspects of CGI animation is that it gives filmmakers an unlimited visual canvas to work with. Zemeckis proved in Beowulf that this canvas can be used to turn some of the greatest and most expansive works of world literature into cracking good films, regardless of whether or not they'd make a good ride at Disneyland.

8. The Polar Express

And landing completely on the other end of the literary spectrum from Beowulf, we have The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis' adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's classic children's picture book. Before you say anything, yes, the dead-eyed little Amtrak passengers totally freaked us out upon our first viewing, but grab any five-year-old in America, mention the movie, and watch their eyes light up as they run to grab you their Polar Express DVD, train set, and pop-up book, all while screaming "Hot Chocolate, oh, Hot Chocolate!" to the high heavens. And the occasional moments of dead-eye oddness can be excused since this stands as the first CGI movie to be filmed completely with performance capture technology - meaning that Tom Hanks really did perform all of those roles (while wearing a ping-pong-ball-covered wet suit) while animators painted over his CGI-captured movements. And those captured performances really do add a vibrant pulse to the movie, creating a tremendous bond between the voices and the final character animation. The film itself is surprisingly fun and moody, standing as an extremely rewatchable Christmas staple, and it acts as a beautiful representation of Van Allsburg's painted layouts in his picture book. Probably the coolest aspect of Polar Express is that it really does look like a picture book brought to life with the animators creating a visual universe that matches with the sensibilities of the original book almost perfectly. Borrow one of your nephew's five copies of the DVD and enjoy.

7. Antz

Ah, Antz. The red-headed stepchild of Dreamworks Animation. Even though it predated Shrek by three years and stands as Dreamworks' first completely CGI feature, you never see the 'Works touting Antz as part of their catalog like they do Madagascar, Over the Hedge, or even the terrible Shark Tale. And that's a huge mistake, because Antz, frankly, rocks. OK, fine, it did get involved with an Armageddon/Deep Impact release battle with Pixar's A Bug's Life, but - even though Bug's Life is a terrifically fun kid's adventure - Antz is (and it pains us to say this) probably the better of the two films. Aside from being the first CGI animated movie to really wow us with their casting - Woody Allen? Gene Hackman? A Dan Aykroyd/Jane Curtin reunion? Stallone? Walken? - it stands with Beowulf as one of the most sophisticated and strangely adult CGI movies ever made. At its heart, this is a movie about self-worth, social rebellion, and genetic cleansing... all told with cute little ants. Antz is a gorgeously subversive little film that features probably Woody Allen's best performance since Hannah and Her Sisters. Releasing Antz as their response to Pixar's Toy Story was a brave choice by Dreamworks, even though, history seems to have proven that, in terms of legacy, it simply couldn't compete with the Pixar powerhouse and the far more accessible Bug's Life. (We've heard conflicting reports over who started work on their "bug" feature first, but nothing conclusive.) Regardless, there's more than enough room in animation history for two bug-based features, so let's finally give Antz its due.

6. Monster House

Beowulf and Monster House are probably the only two movies on this list that certain pundits might characterize as "flops" - both failed to make back their production budgets with their domestic gross, though they more than covered it when you add in the international box office - but neither deserve to be seen that way, especially Monster House. If you were a child of the 1980s, this movie was made for you. It's a brilliant callback to the heady days of Amblin Entertainment, when Steven Spielberg had a hardwired connection into the brains of teens and pre-teens around the world and, as a tribute, gave them darkly hilarious adventures like Goonies, Gremlins, and Innerspace. Director Gil Kenan taps right into that subcurrent of tween coolness with Monster House, delivering a story that could've come straight from the subconscious of any suburban twelve-year-old in America. Monster House succeeds where some other CGI films have failed because it isn't afraid to creep into some dark places and also spends just as much time developing its characters as it did playing with its deliciously high-concept idea. Lastly - and Kenan doesn't get nearly enough credit for this - but the visuals in Monster House are beyond beautiful, vastly trumping anything you saw in Polar Express, and the experience of seeing Monster House in REAL D Digital 3D was magical. THIS is how digital 3D is supposed to look.

5. Ratatouille

We've reached the first Pixar film on our list and, be warned, it's going to be just Pixar from here on out. Why? Because nobody in the world puts more care into every single aspect of creating CGI animated features than Pixar. Not only has Pixar created, unquestionably, THE most visually arresting and skillfully crafted computer-generated images in the history of the medium, but they also bring that same attention to detail to their storytelling as well. Technicians can create photo-realistic CG images, but Pixar employs artists who work to blend both the visuals and narratives of their films into one symbiotic entity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Basically, that's the fruitiest way possible to say they make hardcore kick-ass cartoons, and they kick holy ass better than anyone else in Hollywood. 'Nuff said. Ratatouille, a Best Animated Oscar winner, is one of their finest, and it stands as a great example of how unwilling Pixar is to accept mediocrity. Watching Ratatouille, there are about four or five different places where anyone familiar with traditional Hollywood storytelling would say to themselves, "Oh, I know how this is going to end..." and, in almost every case, they'd be wrong. This is a story that zigs when it should zag, and Brad Bird does an amazing job of keeping audiences on their feet by refusing to succumb to stereotypes and clichés, all while still delivering an emotionally honest and gimmick-free story. A story about a rat wanting to be a chef should either be a). trite or b). gross, but Ratatouille is neither. It's completely original, and that's why we love it.

4. The Incredibles

Forget Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, Iron Man, Richard Donner's Superman, or the two or three other "good" superhero movies. Prepare to get your knickers in a twist, fanboys, because The Incredibles is THE greatest superhero movie ever made. Yeah, yeah, nerds may gripe about the similarities between The Incredibles and the Fantastic Four (thanks to the stretching and invisibleness and whatnot), but place Brad Bird's movie and Tim Story's FF movie next to each other, and you tell me which one is the better film. The Incredibles works so well because it brings together the family dynamics and comedy of a high concept Hollywood comedy with groundbreaking action that could make Jim Cameron weep tears of joy. Aside from being a reverent and hilarious dissection of the superhero genre, The Incredibles stands as probably the first CGI animated action movie. Other CG movies have used action as a set dressing (like Shrek's escape from the dragon), but The Incredibles is perhaps the first to really work the pulse-pounding energy of action flicks like Lethal Weapon or Terminator 2 into their plot in an organic (and awesome) way. In fact, the "100 Mile Dash" sequence (in which the young speedster takes down some red-shirted bad guys) stands as one of the coolest action scenes of the past twenty years. From the tremendous voice work by Craig T. Nelson and Jason Lee to Michael Giacchino's kick-butt score, The Incredibles is best thing to happen to superheroes since bad guys started monologuing.

3. Monsters, Inc.

Lots of people love Monsters, Inc., but not enough people give the movie credit it deserves for the originality of its concept. Look at Pixar's other movies - "Hey, what if your toys could talk? Or what about fish, bugs, rats, cars, superheroes, etc..." And then here comes Monsters Inc. out of left field with a buddy movie about two middle-class monsters, working in a factory devoted to scaring the bejeezus out of kids, who find themselves saddled with a lost little girl, a chameleon-esque adversary, and a world-wide energy crisis riding on their backs. It sounds bizarre as hell, but it might be one of Pixar's most universally accessible and beloved movies thanks to the brilliant execution of its key themes of friendship, empathy, and the power of laughter. Plus it needs to be said that Monsters Inc. features some of the most inspired character design - particularly Sulley and Mike Wazowski - since Jim Henson first sketched out Grover and Oscar the Grouch. Like the Muppets, Monsters, Inc. works on multiple levels, appealing to kids with its slapstick and good humor, while offering adults one of the funniest buddy comedies since Midnight Run. This is a movie filled with so many ideas that it almost bursts at the seams, and that kind of visionary fun just has to be applauded. (It also doesn't hurt that it's the funniest movie Billy Crystal's been associated with since Princess Bride.)

2. Toy Story/Toy Story 2

The grand-daddy of the CGI animated genre, Toy Story deserves all of the praise it gets. Director John Lasseter did so much right in bringing Toy Story to the big screen, but perhaps his most significant contribution to feature animation as a whole was proving, with Toy Story, that CGI animation could build worlds just as skillfully as Walt Disney and his nine old men, if it was used in the right hands, that is. And, apparently, Lasseter has the hands of a surgeon, because Toy Story is about as flawless as they come, both in terms of visuals and storytelling. The concept is one of those ideas that you can hardly believe had never been made into a movie before - what if your toys came to life every time you left the room? - but, after watching Toy Story, it's hard to imagine that story set anywhere but within the CGI boundaries of Andy's bedroom. Lasseter turned what could've become a lame gimmick comedy (looking at you, Small Soldiers) into a hilarious comedy of manners with the hierarchy of the bedroom, led by the kindly cowboy Woody, secure in his position as the favorite toy, completely turned on its ear by the arrival of the new hi-tech toy of the year, Buzz Lightyear. Granted, there are some choice "toy jokes" sprinkled throughout (Don Rickles' Mr. Potato Head is beyond inspired), but the core of the story is the interaction between Buzz and Woody, a relationship that Lasseter develops as well as any previous opposites-attract pairing in film history. In the end, Toy Story achieves two amazing (and strangely contradictory) accomplishments - it makes you believe that the CGI characters are as real as any human and it convinces you that CGI is the only way this story ever could've been told. And we're also including Toy Story 2 because a). it's a great continuation of the story, b). many regard it as superior to the first one, and c). it allows us to cheat and sneak another Pixar movie into this list.

1. Finding Nemo

Lots of parents wince at any mention of Finding Nemo because children so revere the film and everything about it that many households are stuck playing the movie on a continuous 24-hour loop, feeding their kids a constant supply of Nemo in the same way that heroin addicts require methadone. And do you know why children love Nemo so much? Because they have good taste. Finding Nemo stands as the apex of Pixar's cinematic output, existing as probably the most perfectly balanced film the studio has ever produced. There is, simply, something for everyone in Nemo - comedy, drama, tragedy, a breathtaking visual palette, an eclectic cast of engaging characters, action, adventure, family, and, first and foremost, a damn good story. While we might have small quibbles with other Pixar films, moments we preferred over others, it's almost impossible to find a place where director Andrew Stanton's film could've been improved. So much more than a talking fish movie, Finding Nemo takes the world-building that John Lasseter originated in Toy Story and applies it to an ocean of the most fully developed characters in animation history. While Pixar's other movies have all been memorable, Stanton's perfectly tuned balance of comedy and truly moving family tragedy in Finding Nemo really does elevate the film into the pantheon of such eternally beloved animated classics as Bambi, Dumbo, and Pinocchio. There's a brilliant emotional depth to Nemo that audiences have connected with, both young and old alike, and thanks to that resonance, some beautiful visuals, and a little Albert Brooks hilarity, Finding Nemo remains as perhaps Pixar's - and CGI animation's - finest achievement to date. The fact that Stanton is finally returning to the big screen with this summer's WALL-E is something to be very, very excited about.

-- Tom Burns

Original here

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