Sunday, 23 November 2008

Why I didn't like Waltz with Bashir.

As I mentioned, I've been going to lots of film festivals lately, and I'm going to do some writings about them all soon, but I saw a preview of Waltz with Bashir at encounters and felt it merited an entry of its own since it's just been released in (selected) cinemas and has been getting lots of press.

A forewarning: I'm not really going to be talking about what's good about it, because you can go almost anywhere else for that. I'm pretty much just going to talk about the issues I had with it. If you're likely to be offended by a big curmudgeon like me nitpicking what is essentially a pretty good but flawed movie please stop reading here.

Now, the reason I didn't particularly like it basically boils down to one thing: the character animation. It can't be denied that, static, the film looks very nice, but I found myself thinking as soon as I saw the first shots, "Wow, how the hell are they going to animate that?" Unfortunately, it seems to me they never fully solved that fundamental problem. They didn't use the rotoscoping approach of A Scanner Darkly, instead using filmed footage as reference, and animating with what looks like a combination of frame-by-frame drawing and tweening in After Effects or a similar program.

Now, tweened animation can look pretty goofy at the best of times. It's generally best used in an ultra-stylised context (that is, in terms of character design). When used with very realistically drawn characters like this it tends to make them look like poorly handled puppets, or even like a parody of themselves (this animation style is, for me at least, intrinsically associated with parody). It's exacerbated by the fact that there's almost no ease in or out in any of the tweened motions, so as well as looking a little silly the characters often look robotic and stiff. Ironically, things are at their best when there are difficult, complicated movements in 3D, or camera moves, as these necessitate more drawings, so it becomes more like full animation.

Even worse than this, however, is the faces. Drawn in a distinctly over-careful fashion, they'd be acceptable in a comic book, but in motion it quickly becomes apparent that they're completely incapable of displaying any sort of emotion. Of course, I'm not saying they should have been made cartoony, but there's a complete absence of even subtle nuance here. I thought the lip-sync was incredibly mushy and half-arsed as well (particularly apparent in the scene this shot is from). Overall the characters sit, for me, very much in the uncanny valley. This was somewhat of a hindrance to the sympathy and pathos that the subject matter was supposed to evoke (as an aside, I also felt the personal journey of the narrator didn't really reach a convincing conclusion, and the big reveal at the end failed to be much of a surprise).

Most of the best animation occurs when humans aren't involved. The sea and vehicles in particular (a scene where a tank forces its way through narrow streets, crushing cars and knocking chunks out of buildings, is especially notable). The naked-blue-lady dream sequence is pretty good, too. If anything, though, these occasional really nice bits just accentuate how dodgy the rest of it is.
As I said above, it is, for all my complaints, a pretty good film. Its vision is a truly admirable one, and there ARE very well done bits. The details I'm complaining about are details that 99% of people won't be so bothered by. I think I just tend to be frustrated by a really good concept marred by poor execution, whereas I can enjoy a mediocre concept done well, even if only in some areas. The former is a disappointment, but the latter a pleasent surprise (which might explain why I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda more than Wall-E). If you've wanted to see it you certainly shouldn't be put off by my moanings, I just wanted to voice them.

Tomorrow I go off to Manchester for exposures, the last of my festival trips this year. After that I'll go through all the dozens of films I've seen and pick out the best ones for review. I'll probably comment on the individual festivals, too.

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