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Hand-drawn animation lives on in 'Ponyo,' Disney's 'Princess and the Frog'

Computer animation may have taken control of the big-screen cartoon world, yet two of the world's animation masters remain committed to the hand-drawn form.

LOS ANGELES - Computer animation may have taken control of the big-screen cartoon world, yet two of the world's animation masters remain committed to the hand-drawn form.

Japan's Hayao Miyazaki - whose 2002 fantasy "Spirited Away" won the Academy Award for feature animation over computer-generated front-runner "Ice Age" - has returned with his latest hand-crafted tale, "Ponyo."

Miyazaki, whose films include "Princess Mononoke," "Howl's Moving Castle" and "My Neighbour Totoro," has used computer animation to embellish hand-drawn images. But before "Ponyo" went into production, he shut down the computer-graphics department at his Studio Ghibli, opting to work solely in hand-drawn images."

"I realized that by using computers, what we were doing is that people who could draw by hand, the computer somehow entered in their heads," Miyazaki said through a translator during an interview. "So they were starting to draw to fit the computer images, and I thought that was the wrong way to go."

Among the executive producers for the English-language version of "Ponyo," which opened Friday, is John Lasseter, whose "Toy Story" was the first computer-animated feature film.

While Lasseter's Pixar Animation remains focused on digital stories such as "Up," "WALL-E" and "Ratatouille," he and Pixar colleague Ed Catmull also oversee animation for their company's parent, the Walt Disney Co., which is returning to its hand-drawn roots this fall."

Disney's fairy tale "The Princess and the Frog," due in theatres for the holidays, is the studio's first hand-drawn animated film in five years.

"The day that Ed Catmull and I walked into the Walt Disney animation studio, we said, 'We're doing hand-drawn animation again.' And everybody said, 'Yay!"' Lasseter said in an interview alongside Miyazaki. "I never understand why everybody goes, 'Oh, well, now that computer animation is so successful, no one wants to watch hand-drawn animation.' I think that's ridiculous. I mean, you watch his films. They're just so exquisite."

Miyazaki's latest presents the "Little Mermaid"-type story of "Ponyo," a tiny sea creature who gets a taste of life above the surface, falling for a spirited young boy and embarking on a frenzied quest to become human.

The voice cast for the English-language version includes Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon and Tina Fey.

Computer animation has become the big-screen standard with such blockbusters as Pixar's "Finding Nemo," "Cars" and "Monsters, Inc." or DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek" films."

Compared to the near photo-realistic detail that computer animation can achieve, Miyazaki opts for trippy images that reflect and bend reality, including a segment where Ponyo races along the ocean surface during a fierce storm.

"That whole sequence is amazing," Lasseter said. "He said that he wanted to keep the animators that were animating all the water very loose, so it's very impressionistic. And it was very kind of rough in the way that they did it. I think it really added to how special that sequence was."

Miyazaki has had a steady partner in Lasseter, who helped usher English-language versions of several of his films to theatres and DVD.

With a pioneer such as Lasseter at the vanguard of computer animation, Miyazaki said he feels free to stay with what he loves best.

"I think I can leave the computer animation to him," Miyazaki said. "I think we should do hand-drawn animation in a more kind of casual, haphazard way to trick people. What we call tricksterism. So that's what we should stick to."

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