Many writers called 2009 the greatest year in the history of animation, or the equivalent to 1939 in Hollywood history. One writer commented that animated movies have become more mature, while live-action movies have grown less mature. What makes me really happy about this new "renaissance" is that it's made up of films from all corners, i.e. they're not all computer animated, 3D spectaculars. Case in point is the new The Secret of Kells (20 screens), which surprised everyone when it turned up as a recent Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature in place of Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo and other contenders. I watched it with folded arms, convinced that the Academy had gone mad, but soon whatever magic enchanted the voters enchanted me as well.
Set many centuries ago in a remote outpost, it tells the story of a young boy, Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), who is never allowed to venture outside the compound's walls. The boy's uncle and guardian, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), keeps building the walls higher to keep out attacks, and life keeps getting drearier, until Brother Aidan (voiced by Mick Lally) turns up and introduces Brendan to the power of books and illustrations. The rest of the movie concerns their efforts to continue writing in, and protecting, the book.
Happily, the movie's gorgeous, glorious, hand-drawn animation reflects the passion and beauty of the illustrations in the book. The animation far outweighs even the story and characters, luxuriating in shapes, patterns, light, shadows, crowded frames, empty frames, silences and sounds. Frankly, computer animation just wouldn't have worked on this one.
The same goes for the wacky French animated film A Town Called Panic (3 screens), which uses stop-motion animation with what looks like a collection of toys. The movie's mood and quirky, dry humor totally depends on its presentation. It feels like a kid playing with toys, but making up a story that just gets weirder and weirder.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (18 screens) is another example of execution perfectly matching its subject matter. The stop-motion Mr. Fox is trapped halfway between suffering a human crisis of conscience and giving in to his animal instincts. His rigid, hesitant, thoughtful form absolutely compliments this. Even better, he's the opposite of the almost totally absurd world he lives in, from the things the three farmers eat to the "Whack Ball" game; the juxtaposition of the conflicted, intelligent fox and the weird backdrops makes just about every scene funny.
The Oscar-winner, Up, also makes stunning use of animation. The house, floating on a cloud of colored balloons will be one of the great, indelible images of 2009, and the movie creates an amazing impression of weight, height and open air. It feels totally plausible that a house of that size could be carried on that many helium balloons.
But computer animation is still a relatively young medium, and filmmakers are still learning. As of now, everything that is not already produced by Pixar more or less copies Pixar, including that same kind of frenetic humor, presented in nicely-timed fits and starts. Up eventually sinks to normal levels when the talking dogs show up. They're funny ("squirrel!!!") but they're pretty ordinary in terms of animation, and compared to the opening hour.
Of course, the computer animated stuff has all the attention and all the box office, but it does my heart good to know that other kinds of work is getting equal respect. Back in 1995, when Toy Story came out, it sounded like computer animation was going to take over totally. But as long as there are human beings behind the movies, every single one will have its own personal form of expression.