The definition of ‘great animation’ of course depends on who you’re talking to. To me, animated films that accomplish the goal they’re aiming to tackle are successful, at least in the understanding of why they’re going the direction they’re going. Its surprising how many animated films lost sight of that very basic goal, substituting style or extravagance for solidity in the areas needed to make a particular story work. Story people elaborate on dialogue without thinking of how it works visually. Animators can create beautiful work but lose sight of *why* to make it beautiful. Sometimes stylized animation favors design over content or readability, especially in fast sequences. It’s easier to let either the script or the visual or sound content lead the way rather than having each area work well with the others.
Note: I’m going to spend a week not talking about Thunderbean! Things are progressing and things going out the door, but thats all to report!
In very short form work (a commercial, experimental or non-narrative short) having one element carry the whole film with a basic idea can work incredibly well; a strong visual idea or quality animation just isn’t enough to sustain a feature film however. Perhaps the approach of a large studio helps to bring this about; there’s already a stated goal of what the animation will look like and who the audience is, so that now leaves the story department to conform to a series of already decided directional decisions. That isn’t to say its impossible to live within parameters, but often they can limit the success of an idea because the structure requires things that don’t always work in developing a story.
To that end, animated sequences in otherwise live action films are, if you can forgive the pun, tricky. It’s no wonder that these ideas were not explored often in older films. If they exist as a single highlighted piece, it’s much easier to make it work since it doesnt have to be believable beyond the moment.In a narrative structure, the important thing is to connect with the audience. Knowing *how* the particular film is going to accomplish that goal is just as important. The narrative films that I think work best never seem lofty in their attempt to get the audience on board; rather, they start the journey, establish how they want you to think about the film, and go from there.
If you look at the films that combine live-action and animation from the golden age of Hollywood (and animation), having an animated character truly integrated in the story was really only tackled by a few filmmakers. One only needs to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) to see how difficult it is to get beyond trickery and establish a believable character.
While it seems that Disney could have accomplished this (especially in establishing a relationship between a live action and animated character), they instead stayed safely away from this form of combination. The sequences in The Three Caballeros (1945) and Song of the South (1946) treat these interactions in a similar way to how most live action films did, as a momentary trick sequence. There are a few exceptions in Song of the South where B’rer Rabbit shares a talk with Uncle Remus, but for the most part these parts of the film are reserved for tricks or songs. The same holds true for Mary Poppins (1964). Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) does a little bit more to integrate the live action and animated characters, but also to somewhat limited effect.
So, all of that said, here are my favorite films that contain Live Action/ Animated sequences. I’m purposely leaving out Bunin’s Alice in Wonderland (1949). I’ll tackle that one later!
Mighty Joe Young (1949):
Brilliant artist and animator Willis O’Brien really should be remembered for so much more than his effects work. He truly was groundbreaking in establishing animated characters that are as believable as the live action ones in a film.
The heart in Willis O’Brien’s animation was apparent in the original King Kong (1933) although at times the imperfections of the technical aspects of the animation can be distracting. Many years later, when Mighty Joe Young (1949) was produced, the addition of young animator Ray Harryhausen’s wonderfully empathetic Joe scenes combined with O’Brien’s idea of story elements make nearly every sequence in this film magical. One has to note that the idea of establishing strong empathy for the animated character is something fairly consistent in O’Brien’s work – really unique in the ‘effects’ world. Its interesting to note that Harryhausen, as masterful as his character work was, had a very different approach to the establishment of character. His films were, for the most part, adventures, with the animated characters serving the story as a novelty rather than emotionally connecting with the audience.
In viewing the whole of Mighty Joe Young, it’s interesting how easy it is to forget that Joe isn’t real as any of the other actors. In the orphanage fire near the end of the film, Joe’s acting carries the entire sequence. While not as technically beautiful as many newer stop motion productions, rarely has animation of any kind been as real in human emotion. This sequence contains animation by both O’Brien and Harryhausen. You can usually tell Ray’s animation by both the fluidity, beautiful arcs and the softness of weight. O’Brien’s work was never as technically polished, but beautiful its own way.
The Devil Doll (1936):
While not animation per-se, this particular sequence shows off the incredible (for the time) combination using mattes and giant sets. This Todd Browning film is a little slow at times, but worth watching to see the really fun effects sequences.
Hollywood Party (1934):
The Mickey sequence with Jimmy Durante is really fun – and, honestly, I enjoy it more than the color short Hot Chocolate Soldiers that is part of this feature. Mickey’s appearance here seems so well suited to me. Here’s a trailer that has a piece of this sequence, starting at :42 in
Hi Diddle Diddle (1943)
There’s fun animation by Leon Schlesinger studios in both the titles of this film and the ending (starting at 1:10:39 in this version).
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Of course Harryhausen’s Skeleton sequence from Jason and Argonauts (1963) is an amazing example of his ingenuity in design as well as animation abilities. Harryhausen animated *all* the skeletons single handedly by himself! It’s an astonishing accomplishment. Of course, as characters, even the live action actors exist to serve the story’s direction only, leaving the action to carry sequences rather than any emotional content.
Pee Wees Big Adventure (1985):
The incredibly unexpected animation in the Large Marge sequence in this film was designed and animated by the Chiodo Brothers. It remains one of the great surprises in a film full of bizarreness. The audience I saw it with in 1985 were still laughing well into the next sequence of the film.
Invitation to the Dance (1956):
I really like the Sinbad the Sailor sequence a lot more. Although it’s quite long, each piece of the animation sequence is entertaining – perhaps its better when viewed in pieces. Here’s an early part of the sequence, with the dragon. The animation here is stunningly beautiful, and perfectly suited for the sequence. Gene Hazelton and Michael Lah are among the many animators that worked on it.
Of course, Gene Kelly Dancing with Jerry in Anchors Aweigh (1945) is more famous:
Song of the South (1946):
I particularly like the How Do You Do? sequence in this film. It works perfectly as a bridge into the next all-animated sequence.
Here is a not too good copy of the film. (There’s a better one floating around I wish I could show!)
Ok – enough of what I like. What are your favorite animated sequences in live action films?