This weekend we went out to see The Prestige, which was quite good. The next theater over was running The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D, and we figured, what the heck? After the first movie, we got tickets for another.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite movies, but for some reason the 3D release didn’t really interest me when I first heard about it. It felt too gimmicky, like when they project a regular movie on an IMAX screen even though the movie itself isn’t really made for that format.
I got a little more interested when I read an article about how they did it. ILM essentially re-did the entire movie as a computer-animated film, matching each frame exactly, then shifted the virtual camera over a bit. One eye gets the original film, and the other eye gets the CGI copy.
I was astonished at how seamlessly they matched. I couldn’t remember which eye got the original, and I honestly couldn’t tell. Most CGI-animated films have a cartoony, sort of vinyl look to them, which would not blend at all, but ILM is used to matching their CGI to photographed actors and sets, which I suppose makes them the ideal animation studio for this sort of thing. It had to be the most effective reformatting of a film that I’ve ever seen—compare it to colorizing movies, or the Star Wars special editions (which were done by the same effects house, but with older technology)—because it didn’t detract (or distract) from what was there in the first place.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I stopped looking at the technical merits and just settled into watching the movie.
It looks like the media is still viewing Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in terms of 3-D computer animation vs. 2-D hand animation. I still think they’re missing the point.
Disney’s new golden age started with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and ran through The Lion King in 1994. Pixar’s unbroken string of hits started with Toy Story in 1995. Disney has continued to release at least one animated movie each year, but hasn’t had a hit on the same level. It’s tempting to say “Well, Disney’s doing 2-D animation and Pixar is doing 3-D animation, so that must be the reason.” But Disney’s own Chicken Little did only passably well at the box office.
I’ve maintained all along that the issue isn’t the animation style but the quality of the movie as a whole. Yes, Pixar is very good at 3-D animation, but they’re also very good at story. Let’s look at Disney’s recent films for a moment—just the films, not the competition, and not the box office take. Has anything from Pocahontas onward been as good as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin? Or has the quality dropped off? I don’t mean just the animation—the animation is still top-quality in the ones I’ve seen. I mean, is the story compelling? The characters? The premise? Would the average moviegoer look at Home on the Range and say, “I have to see this!”
I think there’s plenty of life in both 2-D and 3-D animation. Disney’s in-house animated features didn’t “lose” to Pixar because they were 2-D. They lost because Disney got boring. Switching from hand animation to computer animation isn’t going to change that.