Technophilia, The Trailer Hitch of Realism: Previewing Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Despicable Me, and Alice in Wonderland

Posted by Charles Reece, July 26, 2009 09:43am | Post a Comment
One thought that never crosses my mind when watching a classic Bugs cartoon is how it could be  improved with a richer palette of colors, more shading for 3-dimensional effect and a better use of perspective -- you know, so it would appear as if this anatomically incorrect bunny might actually exist in our world. Call me crotchety, but I don't like aesthetics being reduced to technology. Just because the average Macbook now has millions of colors at its disposal, this shouldn't matter a whit to a modern audience watching an old Chuck Jones cartoon. But it does, if the average CGI-toon that dominates production is any indication.

When Casper the Friendly Ghost received the CGI treatment, he became a true monstrosity, a virtually embodied horror, the mishapen spectral remant of a literalized infanticide. Yet, it was in a movie aimed at kids and no one seemed to mind. If he'd been covered in blood, I suspect it would've been a different story. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll suggests two major defining features of the monster proper: that (1) the creature be threatening and (2) it be impure. Now, it's probably not much of an overgeneralization to suggest few feel threatened by Casper, not even by his 3D deformity. But he's clearly impure in two ways: First, obviously, he's undead, kind of like a zombie, but one who's rational and apparently takes showers. That is, he violates the cognitive categories we have for what living and dead bodies are supposed to behave like -- mixes the contents. Second, and perhaps less obviously, in the 3D version, he is a violation of the formal abstraction that was part of his 2D cartoon body. This formal impurity wouldn't have existed had the animators decided to go with a realistic form for their adaptation, something like the ghosts in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners.

Perhaps my own revulsion at Casper's (or any) realistic cartoonishness is informed by a recurring childhood nightmare wherein I was trying to escape a carnivalesque labyrinth while avoiding the four-fingered clutches of a monster who looked a lot like Madame sitting in one of those coin-operated fortune-telling machines. Sometimes she would be a cartoon, other times a puppet, but her mitts were always fleshy and grotesque. When the "wish it into the cornfield" episode of Twilight Zone was remade for the movie, with the omnipotent kid (originally played by Billy Mumy) conjuring cartoons into his reality, it dredged up all kinds of phobia for me.

Had the 3D animators chosen to increase Casper's literalism with dashes of gooey blood, the demographic family might've found the style as threatening and horrific as I, even if the character behaved in the same cuddly manner. The second half of these flesh and blood cartoons must remain implicit, because versimilitude isn't ultimately the point -- the wanton display of technology is. It's a despotic aesthetic when style is driven solely by the "because we can" of technology -- nothing but a licentious technophilia. Showing Casper's bloody ties to reality would've actually given the "live action" version a raison d'etre, forcing the realism to serve a darkly comic purpose. Instead, all the computer added to Casper was the ability to watch real people interact with cartoons in a more "realistic" (i.e., technophiliac) style than was possible back in the days of, say, Song of The South. But wasn't the attraction of "old fashioned" cartoons to enter a fantasy where anything was possible? Didn't the moral play of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? teach us that when the twain of physical and cartoon worlds meet, it's because of evil machinations?

I guess not:

Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squekquel

As with the prohibition on blood, unless this film shows the Chipmunks getting laid, what's the point of this monstrosity other than to drag the imaginative potential of fantasy into the quotidian quagmire of physical reality? Yuck. That the first one was popular enough to warrant a sequel makes this a double yuck.

Despicable Me

Despite being fully animated, this film is impure because it mixes realistic art with the Looney Tunes physics of classic cartoons. At least the title is appropriate. But what about the like-minded Pixar? Well, they tell some good stories, but within a horrific aesthetic. The look of their films is best when it approaches a simulated puppetmation, such as UP or The Incredibles.

As with Roger Rabbit, cartoon abstraction can be grounded in realistic detail for a purpose other than mere technophilia:

Alice in Wonderland

Leave it to Tim Burton to realize the true horror behind realistic cartoonishness. Tweedles Dee and Dum are properly monstrous. His Red Queen looks like she came out of my nightmare. Despite another Danny Elfman score, I have hope for this one.

In summary, realism qua technology improves on sexual and violent, but not cartoon, fantasies. The collective forgetting of this aesthetico-moral lesson could only lead to this:

A few more thoughts here and here.

Relevant Tags

Technology (8), Cgi (1), Violence (12), Horror (213), Trailer Criticism (8), Fantasy (23), Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (1), Realism (8), Trailers (4), Alice In Wonderland (4), Despicable Me (1), Animation (11)