The Weekend's Television: The South Bank Show, Sun, ITV1
Gandhi, Sat, BBC2
Lunch Monkeys, Sun, BBC3
Time to get animated
Monday 12 October 2009
Here’s a story no Hollywood executive would ever buy. A once great company, a company that built its empire on an mischievous mouse, falls on hard times. In its day, it has been the market leader in winsomeness, the brand name alone enough to draw audiences to its new films. But then the company begins to lose its nerve.
Its executives determine to stay well within the boundaries of its previous successes, unaware that over time those boundaries will shrink around them until innovation becomes impossible. At which point, a saviour arrives on the horizon, destined to re-ignite the fire of anthropomorphism that fuelled the company’s universal reach, and its profits. Is it a bear or a puppy or a lovable rabbit? No, it’s an Anglepoise lamp.
A desk lamp isn’t an obvious kind of hero. It doesn’t have eyes for one thing, or legs, or any of the other physical-contact points that would help an audience generate a sense of empathy. But an animator of genius can put a spark of life into virtually any object on the planet, and when John Lasseter made a short computer-generated film about a lamp called Luxo, as a kind of calling card for Pixar, he demonstrated that the new technique wasn’t just a matter of convincingly bouncing light off physical surfaces, but that it could also convey character. Luxo was a light that bounced because it was over-excited. And at the time it wasn’t clear that he was going to save Disney at all, since Lasseter had been effectively booted out of the company for nagging senior executives about the possibilities of computer-generated imagery.
As The South Bank Show’s film about Disney/Pixar showed, though, you can kick an animator out of Disney but you can’t necessarily take the Disney out of the animator. “Walt used to say, ‘For every laugh there should be a tear’,” said Lasseter, explaining how fundamental the old lessons, about the importance of story and the importance of emotion, were to him. These days Lasseter runs Disney, and the enormous success of the computer-generated films he made for Pixar has allowed him to bankroll a return to the classic hand-drawn animation that built the company.
He was presented here as a kind of exemplary anti-suit – dressed in an Hawaiian shirt and preaching a gospel of creative daring – but he’s clearly enough of a businessman to ensure that the Disney theme parks all got a mention and a pack shot, justifying the advertorial by suggesting that a stint as a tour guide on the Jungle Ride taught him all he needed to know about comic timing. I wasn’t entirely convinced about that myself, but since he’s given us Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Up, I reckon he’s owed some latitude when it comes to telling stories.
Mishal Husain’s series Gandhi this week delivered us Gandhi the military recruiter, a short spell trying to drum up fresh troops to send to the Western Front featuring as one of the less well-known incidents of the great pacifist’s life. Apparently, Gandhi felt dreadful about it at the time and he wasn’t very good at the job – delivering only around a 100 men for the war effort – but itdemonstrated that he wasn’t entirely without a sense of realpolitik.
There were no other obvious breaches with his stated adherence to non-violence but this account of the slow and erratic path to independence did argue that he might not have succeeded without the useful violence of others. Indeed, it presented General Dyer – the Butcher of Amritsar – as an unwitting architect of British withdrawal, since public outrage at the massacre of civilians in the Jallianwala Bagh resulted in a surge of support for Gandhi at a difficult time in his campaign.
Husain retraced the course of Gandhi’s salt march – an act of civil disobedience as knowingly imbued with seat-edge tension as any Disney danger sequence – in the company of a man whose father had served Gandhi as private secretary. In his adoration of Gandhi, and the rapt attention of a class of young girls hearing stories of the Mahatma’s life, you could see how a man – prone to human failures and mistakes – might slowly evolve into something more than human, once everyone who actually knew him had gone.
I tried to think of Gandhi while watching Lunch Monkeys,a squalid office sitcom that occasionally makes you think of marching on Television Centre and setting fire to the BBC3 offices. Lord, it’s depressing, one of those comedies that relies for its laughs (and it’s audience, for that matter) on a collection of implausibly dim-witted people. If you find incontinence, phantom shitters and armpit-farts the acme of wit, you’re in for a treat. But if you prefer a comedy not to have plastic protagonists and offer real human insights, I suggest you rent a copy of Toy Story instead.
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