While the Toronto International Film Festival hasn't historically been a hub for animation fans, industry or gossip (the annual Annecy, France, and Ottawa fests, and San Diego's Comic-Con are the top destinations), this year, three features and shorts offer a cross-section of styles and stories, and a well rounded perspective of the genre's roots, art and audience.
A Town Called Panic (part of the Midnight Madness program) is a raw, surreal Belgian stop-motion tale featuring characters that look like cheap toy figures. It follows Horse, Cowboy and Indian's quest to nab pointy-headed sea creatures who stole their house. My Dog Tulip (Discovery) is veteran animation artist Paul Fierlinger's funny and touching hand-drawn (with the latest paperless computer software) adaptation of J.R. Ackerley's beloved book about his 14-year relationship with an adopted Alsatian. Then there's Waking Sleeping Beauty (Real to Reel), a juicy insider look at the dramatic, game-changing renaissance and executive tussles of Disney's floundering animation studio in the 1980s - not strictly a cartoon but a key work in understanding the current boom.
Fierlinger, who has won a Peabody and every award the Ottawa International Animation Festival bestows, may not be a household name, but his work in the seventies and eighties for Sesame Street, including the stop-motion series Teeny Little Super Guy, helped shape the cartoon sensibilities of teeny viewers in households around the world. The son of Czech diplomats, Fierlinger began his career in late 1950s Prague and produced 200 films (ads, shorts, kids' TV) before escaping communism in 1967. "My most profound influence from Czechoslovakia was the importance of being original, and the whole purpose of creating art was to stand out in your own way," he says. "When I came to America I was shocked to find just the opposite.
"People imitate others and take pride in it," he continues. "My first encounters with advertising agencies, they asked, well, can you do Disney or Terry Gilliam? And that notion exists to this day." (Interestingly, Gilliam uses CGI to "imitate" the look of his famous seventies cut out-and-collage work for Monty Python in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.)
My Dog Tulip, which features the voices of Christopher Plummer and Isabella Rossellini, is set in postwar Britain and delivers the animated antithesis of the Disney canine hero. "I wanted to show not just how dogs can be endearing but what people have to put up with, all the bodily fluids and humping," says Fierlinger, a Jack Russell owner. "I wanted to create the opposite effect of 101 Dalmatians."
But the pervasive cultural impact of Disney animation was not always so. The "euphoria and horrible fear" of rescuing the department from oblivion and launching it into the blockbuster stratosphere is charted in Waking Sleeping Beauty, directed by Don Hahn, who produced many of the studio's groundbreaking successes ( Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), and produced by Peter Schneider, a former Disney animation exec whose theatre background was key in introducing the Broadway musical vibe to Disney toons.
"In the 10-year period covered in the film we had a monopoly at Disney," recalls Schneider. "Once it was established there was an audience and that you could spend millions and get your money back, every other studio went into the business, and now the animated movie is a staple of the product line. It changed from a kids' to a movie business."
Indeed, recent releases Coraline, Monsters Vs. Aliens and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs have all seen brisk business. Last week saw the release of CGI sci-fi action feature 9, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs opens this Friday. Also coming soon are: Wes Anderson's stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox, Disney's 2D musical The Princess and the Frog and Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis's 3-D performance-capture film A Christmas Carol. Perhaps the biggest sign that animated films are now counted among the big leagues, celebrities traded their designer shades for 3-D glasses at the Cannes Film Festival this year, which chose the Disney-Pixar film Up as the opening-night film.
"The bittersweet ending of Waking Sleeping Beauty is that we started repeating ourselves and audiences will tire of that," says Hahn, currently developing Tim Burton's stop-motion feature Frankenweenie. "If you look at the boom now, there's not a lot of new styles. I'm hungry to reach out to new visual ideas. There was a time when Disney was the avant-garde, then Pixar, so I'm looking for that next direction."
Copperheart Entertainment's Steven Hoban, co-producer of Oscar-winning animator Chris Landreth's acclaimed CGI short The Spine (part of TIFF's Short Cuts program), sees 3-D as the next frontier - pushing its creative boundaries far beyond today's fare. Since producing Cyberworld in 2000 with Imax, the format's first fully 3-D animated movie, Hoban has set his sights on working with filmmakers that will take it there.
"Commercial 3-D films haven't used the technology in a new way, it's still a gimmick," says Hoban, who's new film with Landreth, Lovecraft, took part in the TIFF-related International Financing Forum. "Where 3-D is really going to take off is a new kind of storytelling.
"When [Russian film director Sergei]Eisenstein cut up films and edited in a new way people had never seen before, some thought it would confuse audiences, but it created a whole new film language," he continues. "Animation offers more opportunity than live action for that. And now is the time to do that with films that are commercial but push the medium forward and Chris, who was initially not interested in 3-D, is exactly the kind of director to do that."