Cartoon break: 20 live-action movies with one animated scene

Cartoon break: 20 live-action movies with one animated scene

1. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
It’s common enough for films to mix live-action and animation onscreen at the same time (going back to 1914’s “Gertie The Dinosaur”), or to alternate between live-action and animation (à la Song Of The South or Pink Floyd: The Wall), or to toss a handful of animated sequences into a largely live-action movie for color (like Better Off Dead or Eagle Vs. Shark), or to animate the opening or closing credits (like Ruthless People or A Series Of Unfortunate Events). Much less common: A purely live-action film that finds just one scene worthy of animation, generally in a radically different style from the rest of the film. It’s usually a sign of an alternate reality taking hold, whether it’s a fable, a flashback, a drug trip, or just a straight-up visual joke. In the first half of the penultimate Harry Potter film, it’s either a fable or a flashback, depending on perspective: When a character tells the story of three magical items, the eerie animation style that takes over the film suggests a spooky fairy tale, appropriately enough for events where Death itself is a character. But there’s also apparently some reality to the history, given that the three objects ultimately appear, and play a major role in the end of the franchise. Either way, the animated sequence lends creepy gravity and a mythic quality to a bedtime story that could otherwise be considered a little silly.

2. Priest (2011)
Traditionally, animation has been an expensive, labor-intensive method of filmmaking compared to live-action. But once in a while, a filmmaker will want to tell a story that’s ambitious and far-reaching enough that animation is actually cheaper and easier—especially considering today’s computer-enhanced methods. That might well be the case with Priest, which opens with an animated prologue that sums up the history of the man-vs.-vampire wars, skimming from medieval times (with castles and horses) to a more modern era (with guns, tanks, and massive explosions) to the future (with entire steaming dystopian cities and big bloody battles). It’s as though the filmmakers figured, “We’re paying for animation anyway; we might as well get the most out of it. Especially since practically nothing else in the movie will be on this kind of a scale.”

3. The War Between Men And Women (1972)
When cinematic stories-within-stories are animated, it’s usually to provide a sharp, distinctive break from the rest of the story, to accommodate fantastical elements, or to set a particular tone. The sad short story Jack Lemmon tells in The War Between Men And Women fits both categories: As a writer and cartoonist, Lemmon’s character is trying to communicate ideas about the conflicts in his life and the larger world to one of the angry, frustrated, needy children of the woman he’s gotten involved with. So he writes her a story that sadly illustrates the nature of humanity, which keeps nearly wiping itself out without visibly learning from its mistakes. That story—James Thurber’s “The Last Flower”—adapts Thurber’s art for his fable into animation, both to pay homage to his original work and to make the metaphor broadly symbolic as well as personal, as Lemmon’s character intends it to be. The film was largely inspired by Thurber’s writing and his own personality and history, but the animated sequence most directly presents his work.

4. Hollywood Party (1934)
MGM’s Hollywood Party is an example of a lost, largely forgotten genre: the studio movie as variety show. These films got made because the big studios used to have performers under contract, and could phony up reasons to put them to work on “all-star” productions between their big jobs. Hollywood Party is one of the stranger, mangier examples of the form. Jimmy Durante, playing a movie star whose specialty is a Tarzan knock-off, stages a big party so he can upgrade his act by buying some fresh lions from Jack Pearl, a radio star known as “Baron Munchausen.” The other guests, who take turns making entrances and doing their acts, include Laurel and Hardy, “Mexican spitfire” Lupe Velez, June Clyde, Charles Butterworth, and the Three Stooges and their trainer, Ted Healy. The biggest surprise comes when the guests have assembled at Durante’s mansion, and up pops Mickey Mouse to introduce a five-minute color Disney cartoon, “The Hot Choc-late Soldiers.” Did Mickey lift this from the Disney vault so he could get past the bouncer, did Uncle Walt owe Louis B. Mayer a favor, or did he contribute this segment just to be neighborly? Whatever the case, Disney holds his end up as well as Moe, Larry, and Curly.

5. Natural Born Killers (1994)
For his aggressively postmodern update of the Bonnie & Clyde road movie, Oliver Stone explodes the lessons of Arthur Penn’s film—the erratic, Soviet montage-influenced editing rhythms and chill, Godardian anti-heroes—in favor of a barely coherent mishmash of black comedy, crime flick, and three-camera sitcom, featuring a bunch of different film stocks, and—why not?—animation. And if the cheesy I Love Mallory sitcom segment doesn’t tip viewers off, the animated bit will: Natural Born Killers isn’t supposed to be real, man. It’s, like, a commentary on violence in the media, and its serial-killing star-crossed lovers aren’t meant to be anything more than cartoons. It’s like your undergraduate film-studies research paper is writing itself!

6. The Five Obstructions (2003)
Lars von Trier’s documentary about the joys and sorrows of filmmaking takes a straightforward approach. Von Trier, celebrated director and prankster-sadist of renown, approached one of his heroes, the Danish director Jørgen Leth, and had him make five variations on his 1967 short film “The Perfect Human,” each time working under creative limitations (the “obstructions”) that von Trier imposes. The obstructions are meant to trip Leth up, but each time, he finds he’s able to make something of them. The fourth obstruction is the bluntest, and the one that Leth receives with the most horror: He has to remake his short film as “a cartoon.” Leth does so, with the help of rotoscope technician Bob Sabiston, who was at the time between his work on the similarly visually styled Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Though since there are some grounds for argument over whether a cartoon and a rotoscope animation are the same animal, this may be the one time in the picture Leth fails, albeit on a technicality. If the short is a failure, though, it’s one that’s mighty easy on the eyes.

7. Stay Tuned (1992)
Peter Hyams’ frenetic comedy Stay Tuned boasts a perfectly organic rationale for an animated sequence: The film’s plot sends a pair of bored parents played by Pam Dawber and John Ritter (actors tellingly much better known for their small-screen rather than big-screen work) on a dizzyingly meta journey through the channels on their television set. One click of a magical remote strands the freaked-out couple in an animated short where they’re reborn as luckless rodents in a sequence directed by one of the giants of animation, Chuck Jones, whose distinguished career included long stints at Warner Bros. and MGM. Jones’ work was singled out for praise in spite of the film’s generally dire reviews. If only the entire movie had been animated. 

8. An Invisible Sign (2010)
The Jessica Alba math drama An Invisible Sign establishes a tone of relentless quirkiness with an animated opening involving a magical land where nobody dies—so consequently, it’s ferociously overcrowded. The opening quickly shifts from whimsical to morbid when a family volunteers to sacrifice some of its limbs to help alleviate the overcrowding, but at least the sequence has a certain daft charm, which is more than can be said for the rest of the punishingly maudlin film. 

9. The Groove Tube (1974)
Very much a product of its time—which is okay as it was an interesting time—Ken Shapiro’s sketch-comedy movie The Groove Tube was a pre-Saturday Night Live collection of short bits making dirty-mouthed fun of TV, with frontal nudity whenever possible. The longest, and dullest, part of the movie is a mock urban drama called “The Dealers,” in which Shapiro and a young but already surly Richard Belzer play dopers, the apparent joke being the very idea that dopers could ever be lead characters on a real TV show. The sketch just lies there until Shapiro gets high, and the screen blossoms into a trip sequence animated by Linda Taylor and Pat O’Neill. It’s a natural enough fit to make viewers wonder why more of those late-’60s youth pictures didn’t turn to animators to design their trip sequences, instead of sending the actors to visit the amusement park fun house and jump out of the shadows wearing Halloween masks. 

10. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (2005)
“Do you like brownies? Baked ’em myself!” Given how quickly and deeply Christian Campbell becomes obsessed with the devil weed known as marijuana in the camp musical send-up Reefer Madness, he really ought to be more suspicious when he tries to kick the habit, and “pusher” Steven Weber immediately offers him a seemingly innocuous brownie. Nonetheless, Campbell’s hunger—some would call it the munchies—leads him to dive into the tasty treat, and into a colorful, magical, animated hallucination. Cue spinning pot leaves, dancing baked goods, and, for no apparent reason, several singing fish, all of which are imploring him to “eat the brownie.” Things quickly get weirder as the sequence likens Campbell’s devouring of the sweet treat to bed-bouncing coitus. And it all closes with a shot of a the brownie as a well-endowed woman, shimmying sexily while surrounded by animated versions of the entire cast, all naked but for a thin coating of chocolate. Kids, remember: Drugs are bad.

11. 200 Motels (1971)
Frank Zappa’s psychedelic cult classic is so weird that its sudden shift to animation for the song “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” may not even make an impact on most viewers. While stoned, Jeff—voiced by Martin Lickert—has a vision of Donovan speaking to him through the television and serving as Jeff’s conscience as he’s being tempted by pint-sized devil Studebacher Hoch to bail out of the Mothers Of Invention (“Why are you wasting your life playing this comedy music?”) and start a more commercial hard-rock band, à la Black Sabbath or Grand Funk Railroad. In the end, Hoch proves the better salesman, and Jeff celebrates his new direction by rolling and smoking a mildewed bath mat and tossing back a few bottles of Schmertz Golden Rot Gut Beer. The segment was helmed by Charles Swenson, who went on to direct the all-animated Down And Dirty Duck, thereby giving several members of the Mothers another opportunity at voice acting. 

12. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
During the course of his long, musically diverse career, Dewey Cox manages to interact with many rock ’n’ roll notables while also parodying key moments from the histories of several others. Both sides of the coin come into play when Cox and his sidemen take a trip to India and cross paths with the Beatles, portrayed by the unlikely (and uncredited) foursome of Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long, and Jason Schwartzman. After enjoying a fab bit of bonding over a few tabs of LSD, Cox drifts into an acid-fueled animated sequence—one which in no way coincidentally resembles Yellow Submarine—where he giddily announces, “Wow, this LSD’s all right! I like being a trippy cartoon!” Alas, in spite of (or possibly because of) George Harrison’s warning to “keep thinking happy thoughts,” Cox has a bad trip, which culminates in a “trippy machete” slicing him in half. His final animated words: “Aw, fuck me: I can see my large colon!”

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13. The Ten (2007)
The Ten’s episodic nature—each segment is based on one of the Ten Commandments—makes it well-suited to an animated interlude. The film’s lone animated scene, titled “The Lying Rhino,” tackles commandment number nine, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” with veteran voice actor H. Jon Benjamin voicing the rhino who finds popularity by gossiping and spreading false rumors. In a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, the entire city dies when none of them believe the rhino’s warning that a pack of wiener dogs who suggest an orgy are infected with a deadly STD. The sequence is as surreal as it sounds; it’s animated by Augenblick Studios, the studio responsible for similarly edgy animation featured on the television shows Wonder Showzen and Ugly Americans. And depicting it as a cartoon fable lets it go to hilarious, extremes.

14. Tank Girl (1995)
Usually, an animated interlude serves some sort of artistic purpose, but in Tank Girl, if co-creator Jamie Hewlett is to be believed, the animated sequence was out of necessity. Based on the cult comic book created by Hewlett and Alan Martin, the film stars Lori Petty as the titular character, and includes several hand-drawn still illustrations as transitions between scenes. It also includes a minute-long animated segment in the middle of the film that begins when Jet Girl, played by Naomi Watts, takes a significant bump to the head thanks to Tank Girl, and the two cruise across the landscape in, well, a tank. There’s nothing particularly gripping about the scene, but in a 2006 interview with Icon magazine, Hewlett said, “They forgot to film about 10 major scenes, so we had to animate them… it was a horrible experience.” That said, the film doesn’t have 10 animated sequences, though it does return to animation briefly while leading into the closing credits.

15. Xanadu (1980)
The infamous roller-disco musical Xanadu had a soundtrack before it had actual footage; unfortunately, the live-action material didn’t account for Electric Light Orchestra’s song “Don’t Walk Away.” To get it in there, Universal brought in animator Don Bluth, who’d recently left Disney and was deep in production on The Secret Of NIMH. After a hurried series of meetings, Bluth’s proposal (reading in part “There will be a series of transformations where they become fish and birds etc., maintaining all the while the coy love chase”) met with approval. With a team of 12, Bluth separated from the NIMH production team, working out of his house. In 12 and a half weeks, they completed just over two minutes of animation, for a sequence that looks miles better than anything else in Robert Greenwald’s visually dysfunctional movie, but still makes as little sense as what’s around it. And it comes complete with an animated Olivia Newton-John predating/predicting Bluth’s 1994 take on Thumbelina


16. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
After some of Quentin Tarantino’s usual timeline sorcery in the first two chapters of his epic revenge tale Kill Bill, Uma Thurman winds up in the back of a gargantuan truck with “Pussy Wagon” on the tailgate, willing her limbs out of atrophy. To spare the audience the boredom of Thurman wiggling her toes one by one, Kill Bill: Vol, 1 sidesteps into the anime-style origin story of The Bride’s first target: Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii. Made by Production I.G., the studio behind the Ghost In The Shell series, the sequence stitches together three moments in O-Ren’s early life that created a hardened criminal boss. At age 9, she witnesses the murder of her parents at the hands of a yakuza leader, and vows revenge. Two years later, she kills him. And as a 20-year-old rising assassin in the capstone of the sequence, O-Ren stands atop a building with a sniper rifle, and a breathtaking bullet-POV shot demonstrates her skill and surgical precision. The entire animated sequence serves as a callback to the Shaw Brothers logo at the beginning of the film, a signal for the shift into an extended kung-fu homage, and the first introduction to the gushing firehose of Kool-Aid blood effects that dominate the film’s climactic battle.

17. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Guillermo del Toro spends most of the Hellboy movies showing that he can put any damn thing he likes on the screen and make people believe it, but he ceded the opening of the sequel to the animators who constructed the prologue that fills in the backstory. It sets the tone for what’s to follow, and, thanks to the conceit that it’s all a story told to the young Hellboy by his adoptive father, it provides an excuse to bring John Hurt back on board without bringing his character back from the dead. It’s strange, though, that the minimalist animation and simple yet richly colored graphic design doesn’t look like the Mike Mignola comic books that inspired the movie, so much as a Gorillaz music video.


18. Grim Prairie Tales (1990)
The oddball Western-horror anthology movie Grim Prairie Tales stars James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif as two strangers who meet up over a campfire and spend the night trading spooky stories. How weird is this film? Of the two leads, Dourif plays the more normal one. The whole movie is sorely afflicted by its low budget and writer-director Wayne Coe’s lack of experience. (It’s the kind of movie where it’s clear that the lack of resources hurt the project, but it’s less clear whether the filmmaker had enough talent that more money would have helped.) It does take flight for a few minutes during the last story, about a gunslinger who can’t shake off his last victim. When he finally lies down to go to sleep, his final nightmare is rendered as a cartoon that’s crude-looking, but benefits from the higher level of control that animation bestows on anyone who’s taken the time to learn the craft. His dream scares him to death, but that’s the only point where the movie feels alive. 

19. Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Michael Moore’s documentary about U.S. gun culture stops dead in its tracks for a cartoon about how the history of the country was driven by conflict, largely because paranoid white folks tried to assuage their many fears with firearms and bullets. The cartoon—which traces the country’s long history of racist feuds—arrives as Moore is trying to make a larger point about how a culture of fear often makes Americans feel more terrified than they need to be. The cartoon achieved notoriety when South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone said it too closely aped their style. Stone is interviewed in the film close enough to the cartoon that many viewers assumed he’d produced it, even though he hadn’t. In return, the two turned Moore into a suicide bomber in Team America.

20. Annie Hall (1977)

“When my mother took me to see Snow White, everyone fell in love with Snow White. I immediately fell for the wicked queen,” Woody Allen laments in Annie Hall. Allen spends much of the film trying to figure out why his character's relationship with the eponymous Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), the best relationship of his life, fell apart, often tracing his problems with her, and the other women in his life, back to neuroses formed deep in childhood, at least some of which can be laid at Walt Disney’s feet. Cut to an animated sequence in which a cartoon Allen, looking a lot like he did in the Inside Woody Allen comic strip, argues with a Snow White-inspired wicked queen with Keaton’s voice. While she looks like she’d be more concerned about keeping order in her magical kingdom, she gripes that she and Allen never have fun anymore, because he’s always leaning on her to improve herself. Even in two dimensions, the arguments remain the same.

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