With an animated film opening the Cannes Film Festival for the first time this week, there is no doubt that the genre has come of age.
Among the premieres lined up for the 2009 Cannes film festival, which starts on Wednesday, was the surprising news that the latest feature-length animation from the Disney-Pixar stable will open the festivities at the French Riviera. Featuring the voices of Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer, Up is a heartwarming comedy about a grouchy 78-year-old who attaches thousands of balloons to his house and soars away into the sky on a magical journey, accompanied by a curious young stowaway.
Up is scripted and co-directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, whose shared track record of previous Pixar hits include Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and Toy Story 2. This is not only the first-ever animation to open the prestigious French festival, but also the first in Disney's digital 3D, the format currently being hailed as the shape of things to come in Hollywood. The presence of Pixar's 10th feature-length animation at Cannes is historically important, the most high-profile launch ever for an animated feature at the world's most glamorous film showcase. There are obvious marketing advantages to staging such a premiere in the movie world's most glitzy, media-saturated goldfish bowl. But this is also a kind of coming-of-age moment for the animation genre. How different attitudes are today compared with just eight years ago, when Shrek made its debut at the same festival, raising more than a few disapproving eyebrows among highbrow European cinephiles.
But since then, of course, a new wave of animated features has earned unprecedented levels of commercial and critical acclaim. Cannes has become a significant launch platform for major studio animations including Bee Movie, Over the Hedge and Kung Fu Panda. In parallel, the festival has also showcased more arty and innovative animated works such as Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir. From Oscar-winning family blockbusters to serious political dramas, animation is clearly no longer just kids' stuff.
A key reason for this shift has been the phenomenal advance in digital technology over the past two decades. Evolving in tandem with computer games, animation is no longer a marginal movie genre but a key element of almost every feature film. Not just in the green-screen cityscapes and synthetic creatures woven into the fabric of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings spectaculars, but also in the subtle visual effects that punctuate even modestly budgeted dramas.
Pixar productions such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Wall-E are technical marvels, famous for their pin-sharp resolution and beautifully rendered detail. But equally important is the heightened attention that animation studios now pay to story and character, making a virtue of strong plots and witty dialogue that appeal to adults as well as children. This is reflected in the mountain of awards and critical respect that Pixar and its studio rivals have earned in recent years.
"This isn't some newfangled thing," the Pixar executive Randy Nelson told Britain's Guardian newspaper recently. "It's the core of what human beings have done for each other forever. No amount of good technology can turn a bad story into a good story, and we just set out to tell a good story as well as we can." Indeed, computer generated imagery (CGI) can hardly be considered newfangled. It has been an increasingly important element of the cinematic toolbox for more than three decades, first appearing as stand-alone special effects in landmark 1970s and 1980s science-fiction movies including Westworld, Tron and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Many of these visual tricks look quaint and clunky now, of course. But by the time the rampaging raptors of Jurassic Park arrived in 1993, the line was beginning to blur between live action and photorealistic digital animation. Many of the computer boffins behind these groundbreaking sequences began their careers working for the Star Wars creator George Lucas at his production company, Lucasfilm, and its special effects wing, Industrial Light and Magic. Some would go on to work for the nascent Pixar studio, which scored its first major success in 1995 with Toy Story.
The first ever wholly computer generated feature, Toy Story changed the game for animation. With its high production values and sharply written script, the film's huge commercial success set the standard for future Pixar blockbusters including A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Wall-E. This winning formula was quickly copied by other big studios, most notably DreamWorks Animation, creators of the hugely lucrative Shrek franchise, Antz, Kung Fu Panda and Shark Tale.
The drivers behind this new boom in animation have been economic as well as technological. All of Pixar's features so far have met with critical and commercial success, even relative underachievers such as Cars. Finding Nemo alone grossed more than $800 million (Dh2.9 billion) worldwide, the studio's biggest earner to date. Hollywood was quick to honour this success by creating a new Academy Award category for Best Animated Feature in 2001. Shrek was the first winner, but Pixar has dominated the running ever since, winning four times - plus another 18 Oscars in other categories. America's Golden Globes and Britain's Bafta awards ceremonies soon followed suit by creating their own animation prizes.
Building on the Pixar and DreamWorks blueprint, digital animation technology has continued to make great leaps over the past decade. The much-trumpeted 2001 space adventure Final Fantasy featured the first-ever cast of photorealistic CGI human characters, but the effect was gimmicky and slightly creepy, and the film became a commercial flop. Just three years later, however, The Polar Express became a huge success. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this festive fantasy fable was the first animated feature with a cast entirely created using "motion capture" sensors, which map a performer's face and body movements on to synthetic screen look-alikes.
Zemeckis had previously experimented with mixing animation and live action in his milestone 1988 comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. In 2007, he further perfected his 3D motion-capture techniques on Beowulf, which starred computer simulations of Angelina Jolie, Ray Winstone and Anthony Hopkins. Zemeckis has now launched his own 3D production partnership with Disney, and is currently working on a motion-capture version of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.
Meanwhile, the success of Disney's 2005 feature Chicken Little on 3D screens accelerated industry plans to install new technology in thousands of cinemas across the globe. Disney and Pixar already have a slate of animated 3D releases in the pipeline, and are even planning re-engineered versions of the first two Toy Story films. The debut 3D animated feature from DreamWorks, Monsters Vs Aliens, has been one of this year's box-office hits in the US. The studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg is the most high-profile champion of the "stereoscopic" format, for both animation and live action, predicting that it will change 21st-century cinema in the same way as the arrival of colour film in the 1930s.
"My eureka moment was seeing The Polar Express," Katzenberg told the film magazine Empire last year. "It just blew me away. I found myself plastered to my seat, leaning into a movie in a way I hadn't done before. I came out of the theatre and put down a challenge, saying: that's our future, we need to figure out how to make it work for our movies." But cutting-edge technology is clearly not the only factor driving animation's current renaissance. The defiantly old-fashioned, labour-intensive stop-motion methods favoured by Aardman Animations, the creators of Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films, have also proved hugely appealing to critics, fans and Oscar voters alike. Likewise the highly distinctive stop-motion style of Henry Selick, the director of Tim Burton's 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick's latest dark fairy tale Coraline has done great business at the US box office this year.
While 3D may be Hollywood's latest buzzword, advances in computer technology are also proving to be a useful tool for sharpening up more traditional animation methods, including hand-drawn 2D and stop-motion. Selick even used computers to finesse his puppet characters in Coraline. As a keynote speaker at the US National Association of Broadcasters event in Las Vegas last month, the veteran director claimed "digital technology has helped to revitalise the handcrafted approach of stop-motion animation". Teasingly, Selick also predicted the next evolutionary step for animation: holograms.
In a nicely ironic twist, one of the first decisions of the Pixar boss John Lasseter when he was made chief creative officer of the Disney-Pixar partnership in 2006 was to bring back many of the company's old-school animators. He felt their unfashionable style had been unfairly blamed for the studio's declining returns at the box office. This ongoing revolution in animation looks set to continue well into the next decade. After Up, the Disney-Pixar slate for 2010 includes a more traditional animated feature called The Princess and the Frog, a 3D motion-capture version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and a third instalment in the Toy Story saga. The studio's 2011 schedule will feature a sequel to Cars, the animal saga Newt, plus a trio of historical fairy tales: Rapunzel, King of the Elves and The Bear and the Bow.
Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks may be the biggest players in the animation revolution, but the high standards they are setting have become the industry norm. Given the huge critical and commercial rewards heaped on animated features this decade, every studio wants a slice of this gold rush, especially the dawning era of digital 3D. The Cannes Film Festival is the obvious next step in this push for prestige and global exposure. Like Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, animation is heading to infinity and beyond. firstname.lastname@example.org