Animated Word

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A Night to Remember

Last year, I made the remarkable discovery that the Annies, ASIFA's annual award ceremony for animated works, sold tickets to the general public. Fairly shocked, as I figured it to be an entirely insider event (and it still is, essentially), I immediately bought tickets for myself and a friend and enjoyed my first experience of being utterly, unequivocally starstruck - that is, to people who are not generally considered "stars". I still remember being so utterly confused and embarrassed to even be there that I didn't talk to a single person until Jeffrey Katzenberg bumped into me. Only after the show did I have the temerity to go and say hello to anyone. I vowed it would be different for next year.

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Little did I realize quite how different things would be. I am, of course, referring to the insane developments in the industry amongst those in power over the course of 2003. In fact, with so much happening in January of 2004 itself, my expectations for the Annies' tone and tenor was changing daily. I really didn't know what to expect. Last year, while some of the folks joked about the supposed destruction of cel animation (I believe it was Futurama's Rich Moore who said, "And to those talking about the demise of traditional animation, all I can say is please don't rub it in."), the fact remained that it was a fairly red-letter year for traditional animation. Despite Monsters, Inc.'s presence at last year's Annies (a holdover from the odd eligibility construction that they just fixed), 2002 was represented almost entirely by traditionally animated features, with just Ice Age chiming in for the computers. Lilo & Stitch was a significant success, and Miyazaki's Spirited Away was being hailed by critics all over for its brilliance. True, they were also just coming off of the failure of Treasure Planet, but the "rewards" for that would come later. Suffice to say, in February 2003, things were still feeling mighty okay. But the rest of 2003 would bring so much sound and fury from Stainton, Roy, Jobs, and Eisner that I was worried the Annies might incite a riot amongst the angry artists. Yes, that's a gross exaggeration, but that's how I was reading the upheaval at the time.

As someone who was there, though, I can tell you that this was most definitely NOT the case. Indeed, given how much BS the industry has had to deal with in recent months, the tone for this evening was most definitely "taking the high road". Indeed, the few mentions of the undercurrent of conflict within animation these days were confined to either tension-breaking jokes or noble acknowledgements of art itself. Steve Marmel, who presided over last year's ceremony with his sinister wit, broke the ice pretty early with this gag: "Maybe last year, I was a little too hard on Disney, and this time, I want you to catch me each time I go too far. So when you hear me talking about Disney, I want you to think lay off. There is no fun employed in that humor. Shut it down!" If anyone was uncomfortable after that first part, they were loving it by the time he got to Shut it down. Roy Disney, of course, had a chance to speak (and got an immediate standing ovation, saying more than any Michael Moore-ish call to arms could), but he remained a penultimate gentleman, keeping his entire speech based upon John Hench, who had passed away only a few days earlier. He did throw in a perfect little barb, though, when he mentioned that John could read palms: "I apparently had a major division in 1984. [people already laughing] Now I'm looking for another one. [entire audience laughs]" (This is a reference to the changeover in Disney leadership in 1984 that resulted in Eisner, Katzenberg, and so forth gaining the reins of the company.) The moment that seemed to sum it up for everyone, though, was when Andrew Stanton took to the stage one last time for Nemo's win for Best Animated Theatrical Production, and dedicated it to "all of those who continue to produce art in the face of such oppressive commerce". Mr. Charlie Adler, the great voice actor/director, mentioned that speech to me as his favorite moment from the show. I quite agree.

In regards to the wins for that evening, that also felt to me like an expression of how the show seemed to take the high road in regards to the situations in the industry. Certainly an event like the Annies, with the voting from ASIFA being so blatantly insider, could be prone to honor works that can be appreciated more from their perspective than that of the general audience's. (One such example would be the Best Character Design win last year for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. While other characters might be more intriguingly or excitingly designed, it is common knowledge amongst the animation industry that horses are the most infuriating animals to draw - thus resulting in a greater insider appreciation for that film's designs than the typical masses would give.) I wondered whether Brother Bear might be surprisingly acknowledged in several categories out of sheer spite. "Fire these guys, will you, Eisner?! Well, take an award, boys! Piss on you, Eisner!" There had to be at least some desire to do so. But apparently not enough, because Pixar utterly swept every award. On one hand, it is a supreme recognition of what has become one of the most popular, if not THE most popular, animated films of all time, even at the expense of recognizing the artists at other studios who are less known and less appreciated. Of course, on the other hand, this may also be ASIFA's way of smacking off Eisner's clumsy grab to credit Nemo's success as proof of the superiority of his studio and his way, by pointing out just how much this film's success truly belongs to the artists. In both cases, I'd say this is a better way to go than awarding anything out of spite. Thusly, the Annies have demonstrated with sheer aplomb who the goodguys are in the battle being waged. The artists are the gentlemen, the truthful ones, the souls who subscribe to good manners and real dignity in the face of opposition. Maybe there weren't as many happy surprises in wins with Nemo around, but more was said that night than merely which film was better than the others. Oh, and for those who wonder, I did do better about not being a frightened little fanboy this time. I spoke with so many wonderful people this time: Bob Peterson, Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton, June Foray, Roy Disney, Charlie Adler (as mentioned earlier), Jerry Beck, Anthony De Rosa, Patrick Warburton, Alexander Gould, and Mr. Eric Goldberg and his family, who surprised me as much as I did him.

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 29, 2003

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