A couple of weeks ago I sat down with my kids to watch an underappreciated movie from 15 years ago called Titan A.E. They loved it and I enjoyed revisiting it. It was fun.
This post is not about Titan A.E.
Instead, it is about cel animation.
My kids – all born since 2005 – noticed right away that something about Titan A.E. was different. It didn’t look like all the “cartoons” they are used to. The lines were less sharp. The textures were suggested rather than clearly defined. The facial features on the humans were more stylized.
I realized that for my kids, animated movies have always been completely produced inside a computer, CGI extravaganzas with 3D-friendly action set pieces and slow-mo shots of girls tossing their carefully-textured hair.
Look at the difference between Pixar’s Brave and Titan A.E., from Don Bluth:
Now, don’t get me wrong – there have been lots of animated films in the past twenty years that have been just fantastic. And there were many, many duds from the 80s that are really best forgotten. But the tone of 80s cel-drawn movies was entirely different. Darker, more moody and atmospheric. There were no zingy one-liners or mildly-risque jokes aimed at the parents.
I had some favourites, of course.
The Secret of N.I.H.M. (Don Bluth again!) from 1982 is one I remember vividly as being both scary and fascinating. I loved it, and it still holds up today – it’s a dark, intense film that never once talks down to the audience. It deals with very heavy themes; the main character is Mrs. Brisby, a widowed mouse who lives in a cinderblock with three very young children. One of the children becomes dangerously ill at the same time that she is about to need to move to a new home. For help, she reaches out to a colony of super-intelligent rats – they knew her late husband, and as the movie progresses it becomes clear that they owe him a considerable debt. In this movie we get a stern and graphic message about the cruelty of animal testing; some honest-to-god unrequited sexual tension between Mrs. Brisby and the dashing Justin; a truly-scary villian in Jenner (and don’t even get me started on his sidekick Sullivan; that relationship is legitimately disturbing); the possibility that kids can die; murder; and betrayal.
Every Easter weekend my family sat down together with baskets of chocolate and watched Watership Down (because rabbits? I guess?) Talk about dark! This one was actually released in 1978, but I didn’t see it until the advent of home VHS, so it feels very 80s to me. Based on the book by Richard Adams, it tells the story of a small band of rabbits that flee their warren one step ahead of developers. The movie is very faithful to the book, so there is an extended sequence showing the effects of poison gas on the crowded rabbit warren; one of the main characters ends up in a snare; rabbits tear each other to pieces with claws and teeth. DON’T LET THE BUNNIES FOOL YOU, PEOPLE. This movie is not adorable in any way. Want to know how the original small band knows to leave? It’s because one of the rabbits is psychic – he has visions that always come true, but they have also left him a scrawny, trembling, anti-social mess. By the time the talking seagull shows up, we are all desperate for the comic relief. And if you can hold it together when Hazel is shot – Art Garfunkel’s sad ballad Bright Eyes playing as he gasps for breath – well. You have a heart made of stone, that’s all I can say.
In 1988 came Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a great movie that (in my opinion) laid the groundwork for the current crop of animated films. Combining cel animation and live action so seamlessly that it still looks convincing, Roger Rabbit was marketed at kids but was truly an adults’ movie, a film noir with ACME bombs and one very kinky game of patty-cake at the centre of an old-style murder mystery. Let’s not forget the terrifying villian – Christopher Lloyd chewing up the scenery as the ‘toon-killing Judge Doom. My parents took us to see this one in the theatre – I was 10, my sister was 7, and my baby brother was 2. To this day, he can’t watch the final scene where Judge Doom reveals himself as the squeaky-voiced murderer with the crazy eyes.
The 80s were all about trauma, folks.
What kids’ movie has stuck with you since you were a child?