I finally saw a first-run theatrical movie in DC. Oh, I’ve been to the movies a lot since moving here last October, but until last week, I literally had not seen a first-run movie since leaving Wisconsin. The film that broke the streak? The LEGO Movie. This column is not about that movie, but seeing it did remind me of something. You see, pretty shortly into the film, there’s a big action set piece; an escape followed by a big chase, which is made all the better by the characters constantly rebuilding their vehicle to suit their needs. Best of all? It’s an expertly assembled action sequence. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a mainstream film in some time, actually. Why? I’m so glad you asked.
Animation works on a different level than live action, of course. It’s very nearly a different art form. I mean, it’s still film and it still uses the language of film, but it requires a different approach from the director and the performers. What’s best about animation is that you can do literally anything you can imagine. And it’s because of this that action in animated films can be done so well. Now, in order to closely examine this, we will first look to Japan.
Anime. Read that word. Soak it in. Some of you may need to restrain your gag reflex. If that’s you, I implore you to hear me out. I am not what you would call a huge anime fan, but I used to be what you would call a huge anime fan. A combination of aging and dilution of the form has led to my waning interest, but I don’t dismiss the form out of hand, and I still like a lot of what I did when I was younger. At the top of the anime heap in my opinion is Cowboy Bebop.
Cowboy Bebop was released in the late ’90s. It’s a show that was designed to be one season, and works very well in that framework. It’s got a lot of appeal to American audiences, and, as such, when I lived in Japan for the summer of 2004, almost no one I mentioned the show to there knew what it was. Still, it caught on huge here in the US, helped in no small part by being one of the shows in the inaugural Adult Swim lineup on Cartoon Network. A couple of years after the show ended, a theatrical film was released. Known as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door in Japan, it was simply released here as Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, for fear of Bob Dylan, I guess.
The film actually suffers from the one of the most frequent and biggest problems for movies of this ilk. Namely, it just plays like a longer episode of the show. People who were hoping for more insight in to the show’s minimal story arc would be sorely let down. The film is a totally stand-alone story, but it’s better for it. Cowboy Bebop doesn’t have much baggage (only five of the 26 episodes deal with any kind of big picture continuity, a rarity for the genre), so using the movie to add more baggage would be silly. Instead, it’s just another story about the rag-tag crew of space bounty hunters. What the movie does really well, however, is action sequences.
A 24 minute TV show doesn’t leave a lot of room for lengthy fights or shootouts. Those in the show are good, of course, but they’re typically abbreviated, due to the constraints of the budget and time. The film had no reason to keep these sequences short, though. There’s a very competent sequence at the beginning, but the big ones are the fight Spike has with the film’s mysterious female character Elektra (played by Jennifer Hale of Mass Effect fame in the English dub), the shootout and fight on the train, and the final fight with Vincent on the tower. These sequences not only flow wonderfully, but they use the kind of POV shots and lightning fast movement that is very hard to capture in live action.
POV shots in fights and fast action are hardly exclusive to animation. Bruce Lee was known for both. In fact, Bruce Lee was so fast, he had to slow down his movements so the camera could capture them. Animation, of course, doesn’t have this problem. And Spike is able to move as fast as the scene calls for, because he isn’t a real actor. And the speed can be covered with stylistic flourishes, making the action all the more compelling. POV shots are, of course, very difficult in live action, and put the camera and camera operator at risk. No such risk exists in the world of animation. Spike’s blows can be seen and nearly felt in a POV shot with no concern for those things.
This is all to say nothing of fantastic elements. Films like Akira and Vampire Hunter D rely on both body horror and fantastical elements. So, of course, do many live action films, but in the case of live action, they call for effects shots. Effects shots, practical and CG (especially CG), run the risk of interrupting or even destroying the suspension of disbelief. When you see a bad CG shot in something like Transformers or one of its unwatchable sequels, it takes you out of the experience. But even Tetsuo turning into a disgusting giant blob monster in Akira doesn’t disrupt that because it looks like the rest of the movie.
Anime gets a lot of the credit for “adult cartoons,” but the US isn’t left completely out here. Certainly, Japan does it more often in film, but visionaries like Ralph Bakshi have done gritty, adult aimed animation for a long time. My personal favorite of these is the bizarre anthology Heavy Metal. Based on stories from the magazine of the same name, Heavy Metal is alternately funny, creepy and action packed. Produced by Ivan Reitman and directed by Gerald Potterton, it featured the voice talents of many SCTV alumni, including the late Harold Ramis and John Candy, as well as Count Floyd himself, Joe Flaherty. Some of the sequences are played exclusively for laughs, as when John Candy plays a robot who seduces a Pentagon stenographer while an alien played by Ramis gets too stoned on “Plutonian nyborg” to drive the spaceship.
On the other hand, some of the sequences, most notably “Taarna,” the film’s final sequence, trade almost exclusively on action. The action is fairly creative and very bloody, but some of it just doesn’t deliver. There are a few sequences that are Rotoscoped, which invalidates all the advantages of animation, because it requires real actors. However, some action sequences, like the villains’ assault on a frontier town in “Taarna” set to Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules” are tremendous. There are a ton of moving parts, and you don’t risk spotting a lazy extra in the back of a huge battle as you sometimes see in live action. The advantage being, of course, that the artists can draw every person in exactly the position they should be in, without having to rely on either a PA or second unit director to catch an extra daydreaming.
Ultimately, I’d like to see more animated action from North America. Sure, DC has done some great direct to blu-ray stuff lately, but most of the animation the comes from this part of the world is for children. And while I love that, and I did love The LEGO Movie, which is the poster child for a “family film,” I wouldn’t be opposed to more theatrical releases of some grittier fare. DC’s material (and to a lesser extent, Marvel’s, but their animated stuff has been much more family friendly) doesn’t get enough money to do really impressive things for the most part, because they’re not being made for theatrical release. I still recommend them, for the most part (2008’s Gotham Knight is the one to watch, if you want to test the waters), but they don’t have the big feel of a theatrical release like Heavy Metal.
Either way, whether from here or abroad, animated action doesn’t get much attention. It’s totally unique to the form, and when done right, provides the action fan with a great change of pace.