Animating the Criterion Collection

Other than several compilations of partly-animated experimental films by director Stan Brakhage, the 1992 CAV Laserdisc of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) remains the only animation title in the Criterion Collection. The CAV-mode Laserdisc format was phased out nearly two decades ago, so why does Criterion, a company that transitions effortlessly between analog and digital formats, allow a masterpiece like Akira to fall victim to obsoletion? And why are other masterpieces, like those by filmmakers Lotte Reiniger, Jan Švankmejer, Jiří Trnka, Oskar Fischinger, Bill Plympton, and countless others, patently excluded from the Criterion Collection? The omission of animation becomes even more apparent as contemporary mediocrities like Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and even Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) see Criterion releases. If there’s room in a cinephile’s DVD case for Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008) and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010), then surely there’s room for some of the finest animated films ever produced.

Animation is generally marginalized by accepted arbiters of film taste, including Criterion, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the American Film Institute. Animation critics and fans debate the reasons for such neglect, and I have my own speculations, especially in regard to the Criterion Collection. Because the medium is often associated with children’s entertainment, it struggles to achieve the adult-level legitimacy and acceptance granted to most live-action features. I acknowledge that some of the finest animated films are indeed geared toward children and therefore fail to conform with Criterion’s more adult-oriented selections. But throughout the years, numerous experimental animators have proven that cartoons can convey bold political messages, explore erotic themes, and constitute quality avant-garde cinema. Trnka’s banned Ruka (1965), or The Hand, is a sobering indictment of Stalinism—not in live action, but with puppets. Švankmejer’s highly surrealistic films depict the follies of human indulgence in stop motion. And Ralph Bakshi’s traditionally animated works, including Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973), satirize urban sexual trends and practices. The lack of animation in the Criterion Collection reflects the broader cultural devaluation of animation as a cultural form and erroneously implies that animated films do not bear the same social or cinematic significance as live-action films.

Image 1. The Hand

Inherently collaborative in nature, contemporary animation production shirks the auteurist inclinations typical of Criterion picks. However, animation is arguably one of the only filmic modes that allows true auteurist film—that is, a film produced by a single individual. (It is worth noting that the UCLA Animation Workshop still abides by the “one student, one film” mantra.) Many animators construct their films alone, producing “independent cinema” in the fullest sense. Criterion brands films by their auteurs—the company’s Wes Anderson releases come immediately to mind—but Anderson’s films pass through numerous studio hands before being brought to market. By contrast, a Fischinger film exhibits more of Fischinger’s directorial traits and is a realization of his own personal production efforts. Additionally, Criterion has a potent opportunity to show the film-viewing public that not all animated pictures are products of the Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks machine—a common but inaccurate perception. Although I believe many studio films warrant Criterion releases, too many independent animated pieces fly under the cinematic radar and are doomed to obscurity. Criterion, with its admirable dedication to film education and exposure, can change that.

Image 2. Fischinger’s Allegretto

The Criterion Collection’s lack of animation is somewhat ironic given that its mission statement purports that the company publishes “the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience.” By excluding animation, Criterion excludes a century-old medium of artistic expression that spans the globe, utilizes a broad range of visual styles, and constitutes a substantial segment of popular culture. Criterion should embrace animation as a medium even more suited—because of the form’s auteurist qualities, visual appeal, and culture of experimentation—to its mission statement than live-action films. In regard to technology, Criterion prides itself on its exceptional telecine restoration process, which yields crisp images and rich colors in addition to high-quality digital sound. I admit that viewing Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) in its most vibrant visual state is a treat, but highly expressionistic animated pictures like René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) and Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly (2006) are even more magnificent in 1080p. Criterion should follow the example of the restorationists at Triage and EMI who recently released The Beatles’ 1968 psychedelic musical Yellow Submarine on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray’s critical and commercial success proved that restored animated titles are a hot commodity for those cinephiles seeking eye-candy pieces for their collections. Also, the fragile hand-painted cel artwork of many animated films (including Yellow Submarine) necessitates meticulous frame-by-frame restoration, further enhancing the clarity of their DVDs and Blu-rays.

Image 3. Yellow Submarine

In addition to the visual strengths of animation, a significant number of classic features and shorts within the medium remain on ever-deteriorating nitrate film stock and are in desperate need of transfer, refurbishment, and distribution. Of course, numerous live-action titles—especially silent films—are in danger of extinction, but Criterion has made some effort to rescue them, which can’t be said of animation. Many of the deteriorating animated films are independent and experimental and deserve a second look from the folks at Criterion, whose dedication and commitment to film preservation is, in this area, lacking.

Image 4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

I do admire Criterion and believe that the company’s high-definition releases are some of the finest on the market. Those people responsible for title selection at Criterion make a sincere attempt to compile “the most significant archive of contemporary filmmaking available to the home viewer”—but they will not succeed until they incorporate animated titles into that archive. Critic David Ehrlich suspects that more animation may find its way into the Criterion Collection soon enough, likely in the form of a release of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion film. But the speculated release of Mr. Fox will not usher in a new era of animated releases: it will only add to the long list of Anderson films restored by Criterion. Fantastic Mr. Fox would be a fine addition to the Collection, but I can suggest an extensive list of more deserving films that may never boast the company’s symbol on the spines of their DVD cases. My top picks would include Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), Laloux’s Les Maîtres du temps (1982) and Gandahar (1988), and various works by Fischinger, Len Lye, and John and Faith Hubley. Until these films receive the Criterion treatment, however, I’ll continue to flip my Akira Laserdisc.

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Author Bio:

Kelly Lake is a M.A. student in Cinema & Media Studies at UCLA and also works in the animation industry. Her research interests include animation history/practice, digital media literacy, film technology, and experimental cinema. She is a graduate of Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA.

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