Furious funnies

Jan 13, 1999 at 12:00 am

More questions vex the mind of your scribe. In the past three months, three major animated films have been released. We had a remake of The Ten Commandments, complete with R&B dreck, and two films about bugs, one of which — Antz — couldn’t decide what its message was. What gives?

The easy answer is that Hollywood is a cautious punter. An Armageddon or Godzilla is an acceptable risk now and then, but your ass is pretty well exposed to the caprices of the box office. Far safer are animated features that combine the black-box magic of high-tech companies trading strongly on the NASDAQ — i.e. Pixar — with old-school cartoon drawing. Sign a few big names to do the voices and, voilà, a relatively low-cost potential hit. If only it were that simple.

Even the most occasional television viewer knows that the sharpest commentary on American life can be found in "The Simpsons." Episode after episode, the Ozzie and Harriet "family values," so cherished by the theocrats of the land, take it on the chin. "The Simpsons" always ends at some sort of moral high point, despite the fact that the family never goes to church. It’s as if to say that, yes, the hypocrisies of society and its public figures are a load of bullocks but, in the end, one is left to try to do the right thing in spite of it all. If you are a good person, you will do good, religion or no religion.

"Wait ’Til Your Father Gets Home," set in the free love-Nixon hangover of the late ’60s, blazed the trail for the liberal, prime-time cartoon but, in hindsight, it had more in common with the suburban travails of "King of the Hill" than the anti-Norman Rockwell utopia of Springfield populated by Bart and friends. (The less said about "South Park" the better, except to say that faulty toilet training seems to be the elemental bond between its creators and audience.)

As fiendishly barbed and chaotic as it is, "The Simpsons" illustrates the Faustian bargain of "animation as commentary." Cartoons don’t look like reality; they impose a considerable social distance between viewer and text, allowing viewers to laugh at the cartoon without having to implicate themselves. Before Walt Disney became an arch-Republican, he had liberal tendencies that he was not afraid to flaunt in his films. "Whistle While You Work" in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), for example, is hardly a ringing endorsement for hauling one’s ass out of bed to punch the clock for the Man. But how many audience members took note then or even now?

Animal characters are more problematic. Orwell used the cast of the barnyard for his Animal Farm (animated in a 1955 release), subverting the conventional notions of anthropomorphic characters and thus the happy masking of totalitarian values they can easily accomplish. Again, what if the audience isn’t tuned in, or tunes in only at the edge of the signal?

Despite all the evidence of evolutionary theory, we like to think of ourselves as quite different from the rest of the animal kingdom simply by nobility of birth by a Christian god. We accept the metaphor of animals playing humans only on the surface, because to do anything more would force us to admit that wildness lies in wait below the thin veneer of civilization. Stalin, Hitler, Mao — all human, no? As Saul Bellow has noted, "One is not born human; one must become human."

No animated film has been more successful in narrowing the distance between humans and animals than Watership Down (1978). Adapted from the best-selling book by Richard Adams, the story begins as a bucolic set in the English countryside. The animation is deceptively impressionistic, all watercolor and light, about as threatening as the design on a tea cozy. Some rabbits frolic and thrive in the sweet grass that they have made a pilgrimage to discover. But soon they are set upon by rival rabbits eager for territory and does. A war ensues. And then, after a climatic battle, peace returns.

The whole narrative is rife with an ecological pantheism, including the epilogue in which the aging hero, Hazel, comes to accept death as a natural part of the life cycle within the larger cycles of nature. The rabbits have their own cosmology, based solely upon their immediate environment, small and circumspect as it is. This grounded spirituality is the real beauty of the film. Even the human characters abide by its tenets, living on the land without ruining it.

One can shrug all this off as nonsense from the Joseph Campbell school of New Age theology. Indeed, at the beginning of one of the chapters in the book, Adams does quote Campbell. But is ecology nonsense? Is a spirituality that doesn’t think of nature as an exploitable bounty or God as an old man on a throne in the clouds nonsense? Rather, this is just the sort of thing modern children and adults, addicted to air-conditioning and junk food and aimless consumerism, need to see more of, if not in live action films, at least in animation.