When did our best movies become cartoons?

16 Jul

(Sitting in a Brooklyn apartment and worried about Simone who is fine but just sick enough to keep me anxious and uptight and she isn’t crying which is good but I can hear her breathing through the double doors if I crane my injured neck and my thoughts are crystallizing around the notion that I just might go my whole life with a vague feeling of dislocation and that our childhoods can do immeasurable harm and for some people adolescence never ends and that I write not out of boredom but fear)

One of Simone’s first words is Poppins. She says it when she picks up the case to one of her favorite movies, Mary Poppins. It’s adorable. She runs in a circle and jumps up and down. She spins herself dizzy and shoves the dvd case into my face.

She’s crazy for movies, so much that we had to put a two-week moratorium on watching any, which prompted many of the tantrums I mentioned in an earlier entry.

How many spoonfuls of sugar will let me fly?

(Her other words, for the record, are: apple, blue, balloon, train, spoon, shoes, paper, pancake, papa, ball, more, please [we’re great parents] eye, want that [maybe not so great], and I tired.)

Anyway, it’s been an interesting experience revisiting the children’s movies from my youth. Some hold up well, while others are painful to watch. (I’ve been taking notes.)

But I’ve noticed something.

If you look at the best movies of the 1980s—off the top of my head Blue Velvet, Back to the Future, Raging Bull, After Hours, Ran, Once Upon a Time in America, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Conan the Barbarian, Pixote and Wings of Desire—none of these are cartoons. I suppose Akira could justifiably be on some people’s list, just not mine. And I know Ralph Bakshi has his fans, but all of his movies have problems.

No, Fievel, you're not welcome here. The Cossacks are waiting for you at your old home. Now run along.

Same for the 1990s: Pulp Fiction, Chungking Express, Goodfellas, Deconstructing Harry, Boogie Nights, Bottle Rocket, Jacob’s Ladder and Swingers, again off the top of my head, and no cartoons. Toy Story could be included, but it wouldn’t be on any list of mine.

I wonder why this movie's been forgotten . . .

But, if you rated the best films from the last ten years, half a dozen could be on the list, including Wall-e, The Triplets of Bellville and The Incredibles.  (And an argument could be made for Ratatouille, Shrek II, Finding Nemo, The Secret of the Kells, Up, Antz, A Bug’s Life, Persepolis and Spirited Away, and these are just the movies I’ve seen. Monsters, Inc., Steamboy, Cars and Ice Age are all supposed to be good movies, too.)

Taken as a whole, it’s an astonishing array of quality films, and collectively better than their live-action counterparts. They’re also cooler.

So, what’s going on? When did our best movies become cartoons?

One argument is competition. Pixar and Dreamworks both make quality cartoons, and the competition between them, and Disney, too, now that Pixar has separated from them. Another argument is the prolonged adolescence of so many men these days. The third argument is the market. As our culture becomes more and more youth-centered, movies are, like everything else, moving towards those with disposable income. A fourth argument has to do with television. Cartoons on television were far superior back in the day than they are now. Creators like the artists on the old shows, through innovation and technology, can now make longer, feature-length films.

Worth two hundred Bad Boys II.

But the quality of the films is what makes this an interesting question. The first ten minutes of Up is as moving, touching, heart-rending, and realistic a portrayal of a marriage as any movie ever made. Cartoons these days are funnier (Shrek 2), more thrilling (The Incredibles) and more formally daring (The Triplets of Belleville and Wall-e) than live action films. I hate to say it, but they constitute a movement as important (and interesting) as the French New Wave.

I don’t have an answer. I’m too worn out.

Back to Simone. Her favorite movies at this moment, in order: Shrek, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, and Pete’s Dragon. We tried Wall-e and The Incredibles, but they didn’t do much for her. So it’s back to Poppins. The moratorium for movies had ended, but we’re keeping her to thirty or so minutes once a week. (Which is, of course, a big fat whopping lie, but we try.) Her tantrums have mellowed, her vocabulary is expanding, her personality remains inquisitive and sweet.

Movies might just be good for you after all.

(Just look at me, sitting in a Brooklyn apartment and worried about Simone who is fine . . .)

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One Response to “When did our best movies become cartoons?”

  1. Sean(again) July 18, 2011 at 2:47 pm #

    Ben –

    First – i am really enjoying your blog in general, and in specific. You’ve given me a new go-to list to inspire my Friday night Netflix streaming.

    Point the second – Disney acquired Pixar back in 2006, so there is a lot less competition on that front than at the beginning of the millennium. Interestingly, though, it looks more like a victory for the smaller studio, and Pixar hasn’t allowed Disney to turn their intellectual property into a cash cow.

    Finally, it appears that my role on your blog has grown into pointing out slight inaccuracies pedantically – picking nits, so to speak. It is all done with love, however. 😉

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