Of all cinematic forms, animated films are the purest. They don't copy our world by photographing it; they dream up--draw up--worlds we were too timid to imagine. From the early work of Walt Disney (a pen draws a cute mouse) to the computer stylings of Pixar's John Lasseter (a mouse draws a toy cowboy), a good animator is a true creator--almost the Creator--and animation is God's breath; it makes movies move. Kids knew this: their first film was often a Disney animated feature. In the dark cathedral they giggled, cried, were transported. It was a good place to learn astonishment.
Animation in feature films was special in part because it was rare: a Disney epic every few years and not much else. Now Hollywood shovels out half a dozen animated features a year, from the studios of Disney and Pixar, DreamWorks, Nickelodeon. Still others that don't look animated are: great chunks of them, anyway (Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes). We won't even mention--it's too, too depressing--the great ruck of live-action movies, starring your son's favorite buffoons, the Schneiders and Sandlers and Greens. These slob comedies play like long, stupider versions of Itchy & Scratchy.
So the miraculous has become mundane. Nothing new there: it is in the nature of pop culture to allow the vagrant innovation, then stretch it into a trend by pounding it into a formula. In the Disney cartoon "renaissance," the excitement of the first ones, from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, ultimately faded, whether the studio stuck to the master plan (as in the 1997 Hercules) or tried to stretch it (as in the new Atlantis the Lost Empire).
An Indiana Jones film with handsomer graphics, Atlantis has almost exactly the same plot as the Angelina Jolie film Tomb Raider. Linguist-hero accompanies suspicious expedition to legendary hidden shrine; hero kills rogue male villain, vindicates visionary dead male ancestor. (Can't an action hero ever have a mother fixation?) Atlantis adroitly mixes 2-D and 3-D animation but is short on emotional heft and depth. It would be Disney's rotten luck this summer if its big-budget cartoon loses the tween market to an inferior live-action film with a boy-pleasing secret ingredient. Tomb Raider is Atlantis in a D cup.
The movies' new ani-mavens can also ply their trickery in live-action films that mix animation with furry machines. In the wake of Dr. Dolittle and Stuart Little come DR. 2 and Cats & Dogs. Is the Dolittle sequel obvious and puerile? Hey, does a bear fart in the bathroom? The Eddie Murphy movie is like a wacky trip to the zoo; the laughs (such as they are) come from seeing how the computer can make animals do things--talk, dance, behave badly--that used to require a trainer with a sharp stick.
Hollywood wants to believe that today's animators have barely opened their toolboxes. An early clue to the new direction will come in July with the opening of Final Fantasy, which attempts to bring photo-realistic accuracy to the computer animation of humans. Will this make living actors obsolete? Or is the whole process a bad idea in its awkward infancy--the cyberage version of colorizing?