THE NEW YORK TIMES
By CHARLES SOLOMON
Published: March 19, 2006
CALL them cellphone films: in “Chicken Little,” “Madagascar,” “Hoodwinked” and other recent American animated features, the characters chatter incessantly, as if they’re trying to use up their last 500 minutes from Verizon. The audience isn’t subjected to this barrage of words and jokes because the characters have something to say, but because filmmakers and studio executives are afraid to let them be quiet.
In “Robots,” eager young Rodney Copperbottom, on arriving in Robot City, meets Fender, voiced by Robin Williams. All the wonder the audience should feel as Rodney beholds the Erector-set metropolis of his dreams is crushed under Fender’s nonstop shtick. The characters in “Hoodwinked” natter constantly, even as their unfortunate mouth movements reveal inadequacies in the design of their faces. And if the trailer is any indication, “The Wild,” coming from Disney on April 14, with voices by Kiefer Sutherland and Janeane Garofalo, among others, looks like yet another gabfest.
American animation wasn’t always like this. Some of its most memorable moments have no talking: Mickey Mouse dancing with the brooms in “Fantasia”; the Seven Dwarfs weeping at Snow White’s bier; Bugs Bunny riding in as Brunhilde on a white charger in “What’s Opera, Doc?” Animation is often funnier, more dramatic and more powerful when words aren’t distracting the viewer’s attention from the stylized expressions and movements.
Walt Disney often made his artists prepare their storyboards with only pictures; dialogue was added at the end of the process, when they determined how few words were actually needed to tell the story. In 2001, Joe Grant, who did key story work on “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” and other Disney features, said in an interview: “Walt was a great advocate of pantomime. He would stand in front of the boards and re-enact the scene. You could see the reflection of him in the film: his pantomime was beautifully followed through. Today it’s all talking heads.”
During the 1940’s and 50’s, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera won seven Academy Awards for their Tom and Jerry cartoons, done almost entirely in mime. The Warner Brothers director Chuck Jones similarly reduced audiences to hysterics with Wile E. Coyote’s doomed efforts to capture the Road Runner, which took place in a silence broken only by music, sound effects and an occasional “beep-beep.”
In a 1988 interview, Mr. Jones said that he and fellow Warner director Friz Freleng previewed all their cartoons without sound. Referring to the producer Leon Schlesinger, he said: “Leon wouldn’t let us hire anybody to make test reels, so Friz and I both learned how to splice — it was the only way we could get to see a test, but we never saw them with sound. We didn’t want to; we wanted to see if the pictures worked without sound, music or anything else.”
Silence in animation isn’t entirely a thing of the past. Recent films have proved that nonspeaking animated characters can express powerful emotions. When the title character dons a disguise to take her father’s place in the army in Disney’s underrated “Mulan,” her silence heightens the emotional intensity. The audience sees her wince as a sword slices off her long hair — words would be superfluous. But the characters in Disney’s “Brother Bear” and “Home on the Range” never seem to stop talking.
Filmmakers in other countries are less intent on filling the soundtrack with verbiage. Sylvain Chomet’s wonderfully outré “Triplets of Belleville” earned an Oscar nomination, although it has virtually no dialogue, and its few words weren’t translated from the original French for the English-speaking audience. In the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” which comes from Britain, the directors Nick Park and Steve Box show that the mute Gromit can be touching, when he tenderly cares for his giant zucchini, or hilarious, when he is forced to perform bumps and grinds to make a giant rabbit decoy dance.
No one understands the power of silence better than the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, and there are wordless moments of extraordinary beauty and terror in his “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away.” But the most famous example of Mr. Miyazaki’s nonverbal storytelling occurs in “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), recently released on DVD in a new English dub.
While their mother is hospitalized, 10-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei move with their professor father to a ramshackle old farmhouse. Late one afternoon, the sisters go to meet their father’s bus in the rainy woods. Time passes slowly: shots of a frog in a puddle and of water droplets slipping from pine needles capture the feeling of a summer storm. Mei falls asleep and Satsuki has to hold her. When Totoro, the benevolent, furry forest spirit, joins the girls there’s no chattering, no fanfare and no song. He just walks up and stands quietly next to Satsuki, watching over her and her sister. The sequence lasts almost seven minutes, but has just over 100 words of dialogue: it’s one of the most magical moments in any recent film, animated or live action.
Pixar’s creative leader, John Lasseter, has often said Mr. Miyazaki’s work has been inspirational to him and his fellow artists, so it’s not surprising Pixar also uses quiet effectively. When Dash flees the villains in “The Incredibles,” he discovers he’s so fast he can run on water. He flashes an amazed grin at the audience that says, “I’m doing something really neat!,” then takes off even faster. The grin lasts only a fraction of a second, but it makes Dash’s speed a shared experience, rather than a showcase for special effects.
With Disney’s purchase of Pixar, Mr. Lasseter will become the creative head of Disney’s beleaguered feature animation studio. Under his leadership, Disney films may regain the strengths and silences audiences enjoyed under Walt — and during the renaissance of the late 80’s and early 90’s.
For Mr. Lasseter appears to understand a core truth about animation: Its characters are often more eloquent when they’re not speaking than when they are. Their moments of silence remain fixed in the viewer’s mind, long after the nattering in lesser films has faded into the cacophony of daily life.