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The Wages of Sin: Why "Sin City" Should Have Been Animated

by on September 2, 2005

Whatever its strengths or weaknesses as a movie, the universal consensus is that Sin City is the most faithful comics-to-film translation to date. Virtually all its dialogue is lifted straight from Frank Miller’s original text, and the “digital backlot” techniques used to shoot the film painstakingly reproduce the visuals of the comics. At least one sequel is already in the planning stages, which will probably be filmed in almost exactly the same manner as the original. This is something of a lost opportunity, since Sin City would have been better served by the unique strengths of hand-drawn animation.

Simply put, animation is the filmed medium of choice for control freaks. In a hand-drawn animated film, a creator has complete mastery over everything that is on screen, simply because there is nothing on screen that was not deliberately placed there by someone during the process. Mediocre animation does its best to avoid or work around this painstaking effort, usually by skimping on things like backgrounds or movement, or by artlessly re-using certain stock animated sequences. Competent animation hides the amount of work involved, blending it so artfully into a frame that the average viewer will not consciously notice it. It is only the truly great animators who fully exploit the control inherent in the medium to create works with a distinctly personal artistic vision.

It is no accident that some of the greatest animators of all time also have reputations as extremely controlling personalities. Hayao Miyazaki’s unique sensibilities dominate any film he works on, and he was known to inspect and edit or redraw literally every frame of his earlier films. Up until very recently, Bill Plympton hand-drew the frames of every film he made. He also reportedly refused a seven-figure salary to work on Disney’s Aladdin, simply because he did not wish to give his corporate taskmasters the intellectual property he would develop for the film.

Both Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller demonstrate a powerful desire for artistic and creative control in their respective arts. In his early films, Rodriguez’s “guerilla filmmaking” techniques were born out of necessity. However, when Rodriguez continues to write, direct, shoot, edit, score, and do visual effects for almost all of his movies and refuse to work within the traditional Hollywood system, he shows he’s still an artist who values total creative control over money. Similarly, Frank Miller has been a vocal proponent of creators’ rights in the comic book field. He walked away from the big two American comics publishers at the height of his popularity to do a series of creator-owned comics for smaller publishers, which he often wrote and drew himself. Both Rodriguez and Miller would greatly appreciate the degree of control over the final product that animation gives, although they would probably end up creating the entire film themselves.

Most American animation uses this complete control over the on-screen look and feel to defy the laws of physics or as a tool for caricature. But another strength of animation is its ability to imitate the styles of still artists. In 1978, Tony White produced Hokusai: An Animated Sketchbook, an animated 6-minute short film that told the life story of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai using animated versions of Hokusai’s own artwork. More recently, MTV vividly brought Sam Kieth’s The Maxx to life via animation.

Frank Miller’s Sin City has an extremely distinctive visual style compared to other comic books. Its slashing blacks and whites (with occasional shocking splashes of color) suggest texture and shape rather than define it. It is unmistakable to anybody who has ever seen a few pages of Sin City artwork. Getting as close to the visual look of the comics as possible was a primary goal for Rodriguez, which he achieved by diving into innovative “digital backlot” techniques, shooting actors on a green screen and adding computer-generated backgrounds later. Unfortunately, in the process of making the first all-digital film in history, he overlooked the simplest and most direct way of translating Miller’s style to film.

One could argue that 90% of Sin City is already an animated film, since so much of it is computer-generated. Unfortunately, it is that remaining 10% that often exposes the seams in the translation. Nothing in Sin City ever happens halfheartedly. People absorb ludicrous amounts of physical punishment, flying through the air after being hit by cars or getting up after receiving multiple gunshot wounds. All the characters are ravishingly beautiful or hideously ugly. Sex, violence, and melodrama are all amped up to way past 11. Unfortunately, once Miller’s characters are shackled by the unavoidable physical constraints of living people, a tremendous amount of the dynamism that makes them distinctive is lost.

Marv, the first protagonist of Miller’s Sin City, is a hulking mass of scar tissue, muscle, mayhem, and anger wrapped up in psychotropic drugs and some mighty fine overcoats. Mickey Rourke embraces the role with gusto, but he simply can’t achieve the ludicrously oversized physical presence the comic book Marv does. The scene of Marv driving a car while dragging a stoolie through the street is darkly comedic in the source material. Unfortunatley, the same scene in the movie tends to draw unintentional laughter. The scene where Marv blasts his way through a hotel door is less an explosive demonstration of his destructive potential as much as a demonstration of a pretty good breakaway special effects door.

A parallel occurs with The Tick, unique among live-action vs. animated projects in that creator Ben Edlund was behind both. Freedom from the laws of physics and biology meant that the animated Tick could tower over his friends, complete with his ridiculously exaggerated chest, chin, and toothy smile that made him an appealing buffoon. His patrols of the City could fully capture his freewheeling destructiveness. Poor Patrick Warburton, stuck in a big blue suit, simply couldn’t keep up with his animated counterpart, even though he is probably the perfect actor for the part. Consider characters like Chairface Chippendale, Dinosaur Neil, and Blowhole the Long Distance Running Whale — none of whom would succeed effectively in live-action yet — and it becomes clear that only the animated Tick show could fully tap into the lunacy that makes the concept work.

Miho, the deadly ninja assassin of Sin City’s Old Town, carves up her targets with ethereal grace, blinding speed, and a smooth fluidity that would be beautiful if it weren’t so savage. As Miho, Devon Aoki is simply outclassed by her character. She achieves neither the elegance nor the pure menace that her comic book counterpart exudes with ease, even in the relatively simple scenes she is given in the Sin City movie. Heaven help her when Rodriguez gets around to filming Sin City: Family Values, where a rollerblading Miho slashes a bloody path through dozens of mob goons in a matter of minutes. Achieving the same aerobatic and stylized violence on film would require an entire Hong Kong stunt team and months of set-up and filming time, and even then the results might still not achieve the same kinetic grace as a fight scene between Kim Possible and Shego, or even one of Kim’s more vigorous animated cheerleading routines.

As Nancy and Goldie, Jessica Alba and Jamie King do their best to embody the raw carnality and uninhibited sexuality of their comic book counterparts, but they ultimately fall short. As comic book characters, they are hinted at rather than seen, with their abstract shapes allowing readers to fill in any mental gaps to allow them to embody the ultimate heterosexual male fantasy figures they are supposed to be. Klump and Shlubb, possibly the worst two mob enforcers in history, are memorable visual jokes in comic book form with their impossibly opposite physical proportions. Sadly, their movie counterparts would be almost entirely forgettable if not for their distinctive verbal patter. Despite a superlative job by the makeup and costuming crew, most of the live-action denizens of Sin City feel inadequate by comparison.

To be fair, Rodriguez and Miller’s adaptation of Sin City was far closer to its source material than anybody had expected. But this incredible faithfulness ultimately serves as its undoing, by failing to adapt the material to play to film’s strengths and by falling just shy of the same in-your-face, unapologetic unreality that make the comics as enjoyable as they are. The perception of animation as a children’s medium dogged (and largely still dogs) comic books as well, which may be why pure animation was never considered as an alternative for the filmed Sin City. America simply may not be ready yet for a serious R-rated cartoon. However, it took works like Sin City to assertively and abrasively challenge the perception that “comics are for kids.” It’s a shame that the movie was unwilling to take on the same challenge for animation.

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