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Toons, loony and otherwise.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 3, 1999:  Animation is the least restrictive cinematic medium—the only limits to the form are limits of imagination. So it's been a drag in the past decade to see big-budget cartooning stuck in a simple-minded, cloying formula that had its heyday in the Disney classics of a half-century ago.

Not all the modern Disney and Disney knock-off films are bad—parts of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin had real zing—but they're all burdened with overbearing morals, schmaltzy songs, and characters designed more for marketing than narrative purposes. Fortunately, what Disney can't do itself, it can buy for distribution, as two recent and very different releases under the mouse-ear logo demonstrate.

The high-profile one is A Bug's Life (1998, G), the second computer-animated feature from Pixar (the Steve Jobs-owned studio that produced Toy Story). The storyline is pretty routine—a misfit ant tries to save his insect community from a group of marauding grasshoppers—but imaginative details and a colorful supporting cast keep things lively. The world it portrays isn't quite as novel or interesting as the universe of Toy Story, and there is still something a little disconcerting about the sleekness of the digital visuals. But while A Bug's Life may have as many merchandising tie-ins as Mulan, it's fueled by a creative vision that sets it several notches above typical Disney fare.

Even better, albeit considerably more reserved, is the Japanese gem Kiki's Delivery Service (1998, G). It's the second film by animator Hayao Miyazaki to be released in the U.S. (the first was the equally enchanting My Neighbor Totoro), and it has a refreshing leisurely lyricism. Nicely dubbed by a voice cast that includes Kirsten Dunst and the late Phil Hartman, the film relates the coming-of-age adventures of Kiki, a 13-year-old witch trying to make a life for herself in a big city. Apart from her talking cat Jiji, who provides comic relief, the characters are surprisingly well developed; nobody in the film is "bad," exactly, but even the most kind-hearted have moments of ill temper. Kiki herself is the most engaging cartoon heroine in ages. And the animation, which is full of breathtaking flying scenes, is full-bodied and naturalistic in a style reminiscent of classic children's book illustrations. Disney has the rights to several other Miyazaki films; here's hoping they release them soon.

One to skip is Antz (1998, PG), a film similar in theme to A Bug's Life but full of distracting celebrity voices (Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone in a kid's movie?), unnecessarily graphic violence, and digital animation that looks downright shoddy next to Pixar's. Skoosh it.

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