Cartooning under the sea with Jim Toomey

This recent talk by cartoonist Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon, is a great example of an artist who not only draws inspiration from the ocean but also uses his art to educate and raise awareness about earth’s largest ecosystem.

As he says, there are things in the ocean that are more strange and bizarre than anything an artist could dream up, and humans are destroying it little by little. You can see more of Jim’s work at his website.

And with this post, I bring my summer ocean theme to an end. I’ve had fun this summer writing about how the ocean has inspired authors, artists and filmmakers all over the world. You can be sure I will return to the sea from time to time, as I’ve only scratched the surface of this vast and deep source of inspiration. Thanks for sharing the voyage with me!

Turner and the art of the seascape

The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner
The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest English painters of land and sea, and far ahead of his time. Many of his works are so wrought with raw color and emotion as to be nearly abstract.

The ocean has always been a subject for artists, though I sometimes wonder how far we have come since the 19th Century. Are any painters still exploring nature with the kind of vision that Turner had? I don’t mean just showing the beauty of nature, but really trying to get to the heart of it, to discover new ways of seeing it.

Many seascapes today are happy depictions of sun-soaked waves and smiling dolphins, which is all well and good, but only shows one side of the teeming, turbulent, mysterious ocean. Turner seemed to be searching for something deeper, trying to discover something that no one had ever seen before. One hundred and fifty years later, his paintings are still remarkable.

Fishermen At Sea - J.M.W. Turner
The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner
The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner
Stormy Sea With Blazing Wreck - J.M.W. Turner
Shipwreck of the Minotaur - J.M.W. Turner
Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner
Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner
Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner
Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner

Animated films under the sea

Many animated films have used the ocean as a setting. It’s a colorful place that appeals to all ages, and has a mystery that lends itself to the imaginings of a creative animator. Crabs can sing, clown fish can converse with sharks, sponges can live in pineapples. Rarely do animated ocean films stick to realistic portrayals, though ironically there are many real things under the sea that are more strange and bizarre than anything Disney ever came up with.

Here are several animated films that take place under the sea. It’s interesting to see how many different ways the ocean can be seen through the eyes of an animator.

Fantasia – Disney, 1940

This film is a classic in the world of animation, and one of the few feature-length films that focus entirely on the artistry of its subject, not on a traditional narrative. The beauty of the animation speaks for itself, and it recalls a time when animation was more unique in the film world, and appreciated for its own sake.

The Little Mermaid – Disney, 1989

See how much Disney has changed in fifty years. This film has been criticized for draining all of the magic out of Andersen’s original story, and replacing it with trite Disney formula. But it does have some creative portrayals of the ocean, and some of the best songs ever written for the movies (by Menken and Ashman) which lift it to emotional heights that the scriptwriters don’t deserve.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie – Nickelodeon, 2004

This movie is just plain silly, and a great example of how creatively you can portray the ocean in animation. Although the focus is on the characters and the sight gags, the ocean is ever-present, and the film mixes live action and animation in unique ways.

Finding Nemo – Pixar, 2003

This film has some amazing ocean animation, covering the bright coral reefs down to the murky depths, and featuring whales, sharks, jellyfish, turtles, and hundreds of other sea creatures. Besides being a great story, brilliantly written, it is like a virtual tour of the ocean and a feast for the eyes. It even sprinkles in some real facts about the ocean.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – 2008, Ghibli/Disney

This film is quite realistic in its portrayal of people and setting, but also the most fantastical of all the films here in its use of mythology and imagination. Ponyo is a magical goldfish who can turn into a human but in doing so offsets the balance of — oh never mind, the story is too complicated, and in a way, beside the point. This is really a visual poem about the human world and the ocean world coming together and making peace. It contains beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring animation of the ocean by one of the world’s greatest animators. (You can read more of my thoughts on Ponyo here.)

So, there are just a few animated films that feature the ocean as a major theme. Out of all of these, I think Fantasia and Ponyo are the ones which provoke the deepest thoughts about the ocean. What are your favorite animated ocean films or scenes? How well do you think animators have done in portraying the ocean, and what new depths are there to be explored? As the ocean becomes more and more of a focus in our shrinking world, I hope more artists choose to explore it through animation.

Whale Rider revisited

The film Whale Rider won acclaim in 2002 for its moving story of a young Maori girl and her struggles to find her place in a changing society. It brilliantly weaves together themes of tradition, family, gender roles, and indigenous culture.  Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is one of those rare cases where a film veers away from the book and yet remains true to the book’s spirit.

At the heart of both is an ancient legend of a man who came out of the sea riding on a whale, and who founded the village where the story takes place. The heroine of Whale Rider is his descendant, and must come to terms with her identity against all the pressures of family and society.

The sea is an omnipresent backdrop to the story, and a powerful symbol of the struggles the characters endure. The book and film evoke the magic of the sea in different ways. The film incorporates stunning images of the ocean and landscape, as well as the music and poetry of the ancient culture. The book delves more deeply into the Maori mythology, and incorporates some beautiful writing about the sea. Here is a brief excerpt, telling the ancient legend:

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

The book skillfully intertwines the modern and the mythical stories, provoking questions about how our ancient stories define who we are. And the film is brilliantly directed by Niki Caro. I recommend the book and the film, which both contain universal themes that will inspire teens and adults alike.


Monsters of the sea

Arion by Albrecht Dürer – 1514

The ocean has always been shrouded in mystery because it is almost entirely hidden. Imagine a time before submarines and scuba gear, before ships ventured beyond the horizon. People literally did not know what was out there, above or below the surface, and had to rely on stories from sailors. It’s no wonder that myths and legends grew up around the sea.

But even as the ocean was a mysterious and hazardous place, it also inspired romantic notions of adventure and discovery. Even as people conjured up visions of sea monsters, they searched the world to prove their existence. The sea represented something just out of reach, something we wanted to know better.

And now in the twenty-first century, do we know the sea better? We know a lot more than we used to, but there is so much that remains a mystery, in some ways we are still like our ancestors, groping around in the dark.

Here are some images from artists long ago trying to depict the creatures of the sea. They come from a wonderful website called Strange Science where you can see more such monstrosities. These days we can photograph any animal we like, though an artist’s depiction can sometimes tell you a lot more, even those that come entirely from the artist’s imagination. Today we still try to imagine the things we cannot see, and probably always will.

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The Big, Blue Ocean

Illustration by Alicia “Kat” Dillman

Summer is here, and for the next six weeks or so, I am going to devote this blog to one of our greatest and most inspiring natural resources, the ocean.

Since ancient history, the ocean has inspired art, poetry and storytelling in every culture. In fact there are so many great works of art and literature about the ocean, I think we’ve taken it for granted as one of those eternal things in life that will always be there, impervious to anything. The ocean is always described as “mighty” and “powerful”, something that humans must battle and which always has the upper hand.

Anyone who has witnessed a storm at sea knows how powerful it is, yet it is not invulnerable, as we’ve learned in recent months. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only the latest and most visible blow to a living ecosystem that is slowly dying. So in the next few weeks, I will be highlighting some famous and not so famous art, books and films inspired by the ocean, to help us all gain a better understanding and appreciation of why it is so unique.

I’d like to start by highlighting a wonderful blog called Ripple started by artist Kelly Light to help animals harmed by the recent oil spill. The images in this post are all from that site, and I encourage you to check it out.

Also, the Smithsonian Institution has a new website called Ocean Portal, which has many cool features about the ocean’s history and ecology, definitely worth taking a peek.

Illustration by Gina Marie Perry
Illustration by Alicia Padron
Illustration by Renee Kurilla
Illustration by Katriona Chapman

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