Total Recall: Beowulf and Ye Olde Tradition of Animation

Humans and animation mix and match in this week's Total Recall.

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These are heady times for live-action/animation hybrids. This week, Robert Zemeckis updates the Old English poem Beowulf with some help from Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, and a whole mess of technology. Next week, Enchanted, starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey, also adds a heavy dose of animation to its fantasy world. With these flicks in mind, it's a good time to take a look at some other flicks that combine live-action and animation in unconventional ways.

The blending of live-action and animation is nothing new, as evinced by silent cartoons like Gertie the Dinosaur and Max Fleischer's rotoscoped shorts featuring Koko the Clown. Now technology has advanced to the point where some films, like the Lord of the Rings movies, blend technology and live-action so seamlessly it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. What was once a novelty is now relatively commonplace. But before then, rotoscoped animation hit its turning point in the 1970s when director Ralph Bakshi established it as an artistic technique (and not just a trifle or cost-cutting measure) through a series of racially charged, frequently explicit animated movies.

By the mid-1970s, Bakshi was the American king of urbanely ribald animation with features like Fritz the Cat (53 percent), Heavy Traffic (91 percent), and Coonskin. With 1977's Wizards (53 percent), he attempted something a little different. Conceptually, Wizards is a movie Walt Disney could get behind: soulful, beautiful animation (as Bakshi described it) with bright colors, fairies, and even a princess or two. In execution, he delivered post-apocalyptic psychedelia, a bizarre fable about two brothers set millions of years in the future. One brother is healthy and is nice to his mother, the other a mutant who reconstructs 21st century weapon technology and breeds an army with Nazi propaganda. A.H. Weiler of the New York Times calls it "a melange of animation and live footage that [features] mystical, slightly scary and, occasionally, comic tones." Contrasted with its Disney-esque color palette and voice acting, this movie is like the UNICEF Smurfs ad gone feature-length.

Bakshi used rotoscoping for a majority of the large-scale battle sequences, a technique that requires an animator to paint and color live footage. (Beowulf is a sophisticated variation on rotoscopes.) Elegant creatures such as Snow White or Gollum can spring out of rotoscoping, but Bakshi had a unique approach in films like Wizards and 1978's The Lord of the Rings (50 percent): applying just the right amount of detail and fluid motion, he turned objects into grotesque apparitions. Perfect when you feel like animating the monstrosity of war.


The Wizards trailer.

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