Animation Historian Michael Barrier and Myself Put Our Dukes Up

Knowing that I was working on my own piece about George Miller’s latest (aside from all the other bits of attention I’ve lavished upon it, recently), a friend of mine sent me a link to Michael Barrier’s review. Michael Barrier, for the uninitiated,  is an animation historian whose written several shelf-worthy books, including “The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney,” and “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.”

His film criticism is what grabbed me, though – it’s not unusual for specialist film critics to be more debasing of certain things in their medium than more mainstream or unbiased critics, but Barrier takes it to an extreme – judge for yourself, at his site. You may even agree with him. I just think he’s kind of over-abrasive, but that’s me. The best example is, I think, his review of the film in question.

So, I sat down, said ‘what the hey,’ and opened up my mail client (name withheld). Over the past several weeks, this is what has transpired between the two of us. You can also find these and other correnspondence at his site (including a rather interesting one between himself and John Kricfalusi), though I’ve also included the other few emails that were sent back and forth in the tumult.

April 18th, 2009

Reading your Happy Feet review, it seems that your main complaint about the film was its use of photo-realism in place of caricature, like Pixar or any of those. You don’t really seem to elaborate on why it’s a poor artistic choice except to say that the story is dull (although your summary of the story seems less like one thereof and more of just a give-away of the ending, which really is just one part of the whole), but I have to wonder, would you lob the same complaint at Watership Down or The Plague Dogs?

That, and the dialogue—the “wall-to-wall dialogue.” I don’t really have much to say about that—ironically—except that it seems a little silly.

Well, that and that weird bit of kind of overblown defensiveness at Miller’s remark in the Post, which turns into a kind of snide jab at the use of motion capture, where I’d before thought you’d been ambivalent about it.

Actually, there isn’t really a whole lot of “reviewing,” here—it’s just a bunch of snide remarks about the elements of the film, without any elaboration. “Think of the birds as so many lame Las Vegas lounge acts.” Well, alright. I mean—”Neither can I remember when I’ve seen a movie in which so much astounding technical expertise was placed in the service of such puerile ideas.” Well, okay. What are these puerile ideas?

You even—and I may be wrong – seem to contradict yourself, at a point. You say, “That’s sanctimonious nonsense, especially since in their behavior the film’s penguins bear no more resemblance to real animals than do the deer in Bambi.” But, not two paragraphs later, you go on with, “absent the constant chatter, the penguins would be as difficult to tell apart as the birds in March of the Penguins, the live-action documentary released in 2005.”

I’m not going to say the film doesn’t have flaws, because it does—all films do—but, really. This is a bit much. Perhaps it’s just me.

Michael responded, on April 20th:

It’s hard for me to respond to such comments without just saying, “Read the review again.” I think it’s clear, for example, which of the film’s governing ideas I think are puerile, that is to say, foolish or childish (short answer: most of them). And I’ve made clear any number of times, including in pieces I linked to in the review, what I think of motion capture, its limited potential and serious shortcomings.

I don’t know how Watership Down fits in here, but, for what it’s worth, I reviewed the hand-drawn Martin Rosen version in Funnyworld No. 20, back in 1979, and I lamented then that John Hubley was removed from the director’s post. Hubley’s version, we can tell from the little of his work that was used, would have been anything but photo-realistic, and I’m sure it would have been vastly superior to Rosen’s wretched film, with its “realistic” but badly drawn and animated bunnies.

Finally, there’s no contradiction in what I say about the penguins in Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. My point was not that the penguins in one film look and behave like the penguins in the other, but that the penguins in each film look and behave like other penguins in that same film. As I say, it’s only through their dialogue that the penguins in Happy Feet have anything like distinct identities.

April 20th, 2009:

It’s hard for me to respond to such comments without just saying, “Read the review again.” I think it’s clear, for example, which of the film’s governing ideas I think are puerile, that is to say, foolish or childish (short answer: most of them).

See, that’s the thing, though. It wasn’t, and isn’t. That was the entire point of the message. You’re doing the same thing, here. You’re alluding to them, but you’re not presenting them with any real elaboration.

I don’t know how Watership Down fits in here.

Stylistically, this and Watership Down are very similar (as some reviews noted, eerily so in some places), although this does benefit from a vastly larger budget, and a better director.

Hubley’s version, we can tell from the little of his work that was used, would have been anything but photo-realistic, and I’m sure it would have been vastly superior to Rosen’s wretched film, with its “realistic” but badly drawn and animated bunnies.

I’ll certainly give you “badly animated.” Rosen made a vast leap from this, to The Plague Dogs. Though “badly drawn” is, I think, a bit of a stretch. I’m uncertain why “realistic” is in quotes. There’s a bit of anthropomorphization about the face, as there was here as well, but that’s about it. However, do you really think that an overly caricatured look would’ve worked for Watership Down? It doesn’t seem like it lends itself to that type of story. Because, again—that is what is important, at the heart of it, isn’t it?

As far as Hubley’s work goes, I’m uncertain that that style would have worked for the entirety of the film, whatever hackles the film’s chosen look might raise, or whether it was supposed to in the first place.

Finally, there’s no contradiction in what I say about the penguins in Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. My point was not that the penguins in one film look and behave like the penguins in the other, but that the penguins in each film look and behave like other penguins in that same film.

Geez-a-lou, you’re going to have to make this a little clearer. It’s a little like a Chinese riddle.

As I say, it’s only through their dialogue that the penguins in Happy Feet have anything like distinct identities.

Well, apart from the smaller idiosyncrasies that each of the focal characters has, anyway—that was one of the highlights of the character design, for me. While it may not have been as obvious as you would’ve liked, Miller kept inside the realist approach—at least, visually—while still giving each character (that we care about) a distinct look. The Elder Noah is old, and thin—one critic called him “something chiseled by Rodin”—among other things. Mumble has those blue eyes, and the remaining down. The Adelies all had distinctive head-crests. Each character, while still keeping with the physical combination of King and Emperor (or Adelie or Rockhopper) penguin that was the base, had their own distinct “shape.” And, on and on. But, that was the purpose of giving them such distinct voices, from the first—one of them, anyway. Because of the approach they were going with, and it’s a similarly used technique elsewhere, as well.

You seem to be faulting this film for not being a traditional animation, really—what it comes down to—when, again from the first, the filmmakers had admitted that it wouldn’t be. Multiple times. Myself, I’d love to see Miller do a “squash and stretch” Chuck Jones-esque animated film, really—he mentions in either the Leonard Lopate or the KCRW interview the dinners the two of them had together—in the future, perhaps.

Michael responded, on April 25th:

“Faulting this film for not being a traditional animation”? Hardly. As I say in my review, “the story is, to be charitable, jejune, barely conceivable as a dud funny-animal comic book from the ’50s.” The story would still be hopeless even if it were made as a traditional hard-drawn cartoon—unless it were played for laughs, which obviously was never a possibility. A bad idea can’t be turned into a good idea by dressing it up in fancier feathers; to think otherwise is one example of what I mean by puerile ideas.

The live-action penguins in March of the Penguins look a great deal alike, certainly to human eyes. The penguins in Happy Feet also look a great deal alike; as I’ve said, I think they’re distinguishable from one another mainly through their movie-star voices, which the penguins in March of the Penguins lack. Geez-al-lou (whatever that means), I don’t know how to make that comparison any clearer.

It has been a long time since I read Watership Down and then saw the movie, but my strong recollection is that the movie’s rabbits look and move like no more than approximations of the real thing; they are, in short, “realistic”—that is, intended to resemble real rabbits (see the still below)—but not realistic. I don’t recall anything in either the book or the movie of Watership Down that is at all similar to, or remotely as silly as, the mass tap-dancing and the beak-syncing in Happy Feet. That alone would seem to rule out any serious comparisons between Watership Down and Happy Feet.

(Maybe I’ve just been out of the game too long, but since when did calling something ‘silly’ become a legitimate argument?)

watership-dow

April 26th, 2009:

Faulting this film for not being a traditional animation”? Hardly.

Actually, that’s what the bulk of your complaints constitute, really. It’s photo-realistic, it utilizes motion capture, and on and on. You even treat its photo-realism as a criminal flaw, and not only for the garbled reason you’ve given me here, but—as in your January posting—because it ‘lacks artistic merit’ (which is paraphrasing, but it gets the point across, in a fix).

As I say in my review, “the story is, to be charitable, jejune, barely conceivable as a dud funny-animal comic book from the ’50s.”

I was there.

The story would still be hopeless even if it were made as a traditional hard-drawn cartoon—unless it were played for laughs, which obviously was never a possibility. A bad idea can’t be turned into a good idea by dressing it up in fancier feathers; to think otherwise is one example of what I mean by puerile ideas.

And, now we’re going in circles, essentially, because you haven’t actually—oh, I give up.

The live-action penguins in March of the Penguins look a great deal alike, certainly to human eyes. The penguins in Happy Feet also look a great deal alike; as I’ve said, I think they’re distinguishable from one another mainly through their movie-star voices, which the penguins in March of the Penguins lack. Geez-al-lou (whatever that means), I don’t know how to make that comparison any clearer.

You are repeating yourself, again without elaboration. It’s still not really clear what you’ve meant, from the first. I even sent that section of your response (and the section of my original message that was its precursor) to a friend of mine, and he’s not even sure what you’re trying to get at—he got out of it that you were saying that the penguins in Feet acted like those in March, but even that doesn’t really seem to make a lot of sense.

“Geez-a-lou” is an expression of exasperation. Whether it’s well-known or not, I’m not sure—but, I picked it up from watching Peter Boyle.

It has been a long time since I read Watership Down and then saw the movie, but my strong recollection is that the movie’s rabbits look and move like no more than approximations of the real thing.

(Well, of course they’d be approximations of the real thing—what an odd thing to say.)

Then you should go and watch it again, I think. The animators paid strong, strong attention to the movements of flesh-and-blood rabbits—but, an even stronger and more obvious example is the dogs from (natch) The Plague Dogs. The principle is the same, but it’s far more apparent there. Where in Watership Down, they added to the behavior of the rabbits—that is, within the parameters they’d set for themselves, they extended and anthropomorphized gestures—there’s none of that in The Plague Dogs.

The screenshot below—what are you referring to, exactly?

I don’t recall anything in either the book or the movie of Watership Down that is at all similar to, or remotely as silly as, the mass tap-dancing and the beak-syncing in Happy Feet.

“Beak-syncing.” I like that.

Of course, being a tap-dancer myself (you see, here’s my bias), I’m not sure whether I should be offended or just laugh at the implication (whether intended or not) that tap-dancing isn’t something that can be taken seriously.

Oh, well.

The next response came in the next couple of days, but was precluded by an email by Barrier, written April 27th:

I’ll be posting your latest, but that will indeed be the last. I don’t care at all for your rhetorical technique, which amounts, at best, to quoting out of context.

(And, here I’d like to ‘back the hypothetical truck up’ and say that, given the method of my response system, this is kind of – well, it seems like it’d be impossible, to me. These are seperate arguments, which I am responding to seperately. I’m not cherry-picking anything from these responses, and – even if I were – his full response can be found on the very site that mine would be on, so there’d be no real point, in the first place.)

For example, you say in your first response that I’m complaining about the motion capture in Happy Feet (which is actually obvious from your mention and derision of Miller’s interview with the Washington Post, which was – again – what I was referring to); later you say I imply that tap-dancing can’t be taken seriously. But in the second paragraph of my review I say: “As I’ve indicated in writing about Polar Express and Monster House, I don’t have a problem with motion capture as such. The idea of seeing a wonderful tap dancer like Savion Glover transformed into a twinkletoed beast is actually appealing.”

(Sorry, Michael. But, you also said – earlier in our correspondance and even in your original review – that your feelings about motion capture have been made clear several times before, and they have: you’ve referred to it as a dead end technology numerous times, among various other things, and that’s to say nothing of your Janaury 2007 railing against the film – which I was referring to – where you actually do, in fact, mention this very same thing, among any number of the other posts – including your otherwise positive “The Polar Express” and “Monster House” reviews, as well as the rest of  your “Happy Feet” review.)

Whenever you want to make a serious argument, as  opposed to picking apart an opposing view in misleading fashion, I’ll be happy to hear from you again.
Michael responded, on his site, the very same day:

“As I’ve told Henry Baugh by email, I don’t care at all for his rhetorical technique, which amounts, at best, to quoting out of context. For example, he claims in the first part of his response that I’m really attacking George Miller’s use of motion capture in Happy Feet. But in the second paragraph of my review I say: “As I’ve indicated in writing about Polar Express and Monster House, I don’t have a problem with motion capture as such. The idea of seeing a wonderful tap dancer like Savion Glover transformed into a twinkletoed beast is actually appealing.” It’s only because Henry’s method permits picking apart an opposing position in highly misleading fashion, as an exchange veers further and further away from the review that provoked it, that my views could be so badly distorted.

To summarize: The techniques that George Miller uses are not what I find so objectionable about Happy Feet. Rather it’s Miller’s use of motion capture and computer animation’s photo-realism (I object – again, citing your January 2007 blog post, which is centered around this very thing), among many other things, to coat a contemptibly silly story with a veneer of seriousness.

Just for the record (and as should be obvious from the preceding quotation from my review), I do think tap dancing can be taken seriously, especially when the tapper is as gifted as Savion Glover. How anyone could watch the Nicholas Brothers and not take tap seriously is beyond me. And good animation is never “an approximation of the real thing.” In one way or another, it is itself “the real thing.”

(An argument from semantics like this seems like it would be something unverifiable, but – alright.)

I sent him this letter of thanks for the debate, the same day:

“The thing is, none of them are out of context. Each argument is a seperate one from the one that came before it, which was a trend I started in my first letter and that you continued. Because I responded to it in kind (in kind of my own kind, really) says nothing about my own’s validity.

But, sure. You didn’t really confront anything substantial that I’d written (which that last paragraph really, really wasn’t, yet the entire second half of your response seemed almost dedicated to it), but – well.

I am happy to have had this debate with you, Mr. Barrier.”

Alternately, I could’ve  just said “bite me, you poof,” but that’s not how we do things, here at The Filmist. We keep it classy.

Michael Barrier’s site can be found here (and, is linked to earlier, as well).

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2 thoughts on “Animation Historian Michael Barrier and Myself Put Our Dukes Up

  1. RIchard says:

    Both that penguin film and watership down were pretty awful. Pointless, and not very entertaining. They seemed more like a wankfest for the directors than anything an audience might want to see or care much about. And plague dogs was just a piece of trash.

    • henryjbaugh says:

      This reminds me of an Ebert quote, which is – itself – a quote of another quote. I think it applies, here.

      “It reminds me of a helpful lecture I supplied to a young film critic for a Chicago TV station who was new at the job: “Film criticism is all opinion, and always subjective. There is no right and no wrong. That having been said, Phil, it is nevertheless WRONG for you to state that ‘The Valachi Papers’ is a better film than ‘The Godfather.’ ”

      But, you commented, and for that, I thank you. Though, given the popular opinion of all three films, I’m not sure if the audiences – both old and new – would agree with your assessment.

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