So I just figured out how to see where every visitor to my blog is referred from. And I'm linked to by a few screenwriting sites. Oops! Not much of a screenwriting site here.
I knew the concept behind my blog was a little "narrow" when I started it. A story artist is a pretty rare thing and not too many people in the world care much about both drawing and storytelling, I guess. Mostly I talk about drawing because people seem more interested in that here, and it's a lot easier (and less controversial) to talk about.
But I will fufill my story public service duties here for a sec by talking about "Ice Age". I saw "Ice Age 2" last weekend and it reminded me of something that I'm very aware of these days.
Let me begin by saying that I've always avoided talking about contemporary movies and their relative qualities. I don't want to offend anyone, and I'm certainly not trying to pretend like I've worked on the greatest movies of all time and that I am looking down from my ivory tower of perfection on inferior films below me. Quite the opposite! If anyone is interested I will post my resume and I will prove it. Anyway, film is very subjective, every viewpoint is valid, etc. etc. you know all the caveats. I'll just share an opinion here for a sec. Indulge me.
When the first "Ice Age" came out, I really enjoyed it. I was quite impressed with Blue Sky's first movie. Some people at Disney didn't care for it and found it to be a bunch of slapstick gags and some cheap sentiment. Again, that was just their take. I always enjoy hearing other people's opinions. I learn a lot from hearing contrary viewpoints - don't ever shut down and stop listening because someone disagrees with you. Listen up and learn!
So anyway, at the time I was working on "Home on the Range". Our movie had three characters that were pursuing one goal (three dairy cows haeding off into the wild west to save their farm). Many people had made the argument on "HOTR" that when you make a movie about three characters pursuing a goal that they should all be in it for DIFFERENT reasons. The argument went that if they were all in it for the same reason, why have three characters? Why not have just one cow going off to save her farm?
Well, the original "Ice Age" did just that. All three of them were going on a journey together for different motivations (I hope I'm remembering right). It creates instant conflict between the characters, which makes for instant drama. And one of them had a secret - the sabre-tooth was leading the others into a trap, which heightened the drama so much. As they got closer to their goal, the tension mounted and mounted. The audience knew Diego was struggling with whether to betray his new friends or betray his old pack. Great conflict, great drama.
And the whole set-up was so simple and gettable (I haven't seen it since then, so forgive me if I'm fuzzy on the details). But the idea of a lost baby and three animals are trying to return it to his parents - so simple and so visual. See the baby with the parents, see the baby seperated from the parents, see the animals debate whether to return him to his family and decide to go. They have a real, tangible goal and destination. This is the key to creating tension, because you always know how close or far they are form suceeding. You can cut back to the parents from time to time to keep their tension alive and see where they are so we're oriented as to where they are in relation to our three heroes and the sabre-tooth pack. Thsi is a key to drama - be CLEAR about the goal and how close or far away your hero is from it. If we don't know when he's far away and/or on the verge of getting his desired goal, how will you increase tension as you go? And if your desire isn't a tangible, physical thing - if it's a "mental" goal without a physical counterpart - how will there be any tension?
Of course the physical goal is important, but the real "meat" of the story was the relationship between the characters. Like many "road movies" it's about three characters who don't like each other, go on a journey and learn to be friends. The journey is just an excuse to tell this story. If the three of them sat around in a cave and talked through their problems and became friends.......well, it probably wouldn't have made as much money, I'm just guessing here. So the physical journey is just an excuse to tell the emotional story and gives you different places to go and visit and have fun physical obstacles that they can work through together and bond and do entertaining stuff at the same time.
And that baby - it just works really well as a device. The baby's cute (never seemed to get cross over into "cloying" territory, to me) and creates instant empathy - you like the guys who are trying to return it, and the thought of that evil sabre-tooth guy eating the baby creates some instant feelings in an audience. You don't want that to happen.
What I'm trying to say is that the first one was succesful - to me -in creating very real conflict and very real drama. As weird as that sounds. Even though it was an animated film and the goals might SOUND outlandish and cartoony, I bought them.
Will these animals be able to return the baby in time? Will the sabre-tooth tiger betray the Wooly-Mammoth and the Sloth or decide to protect the baby in the end and become friends with them?
It's very gettable and very clear. And I went with it. And if you asked anybody going into the theatre those questions, they already KNEW the answer. We all knew the movie would have a happy ending. We weren't going to see a sabre-tooth tiger eat a human baby right before the end credits. We all knew that. And yet the tension sucked me in and I enjoyed watching the HOW of what happened even though I could have guessed that it would have a happy ending.
But that's what I felt was lacking in Ice Age 2: a sense of real drama to make me get caught up in the story. The goal of Ice Age 2 just feels very contrived and false. A group of animals (including our three heroes) lives in a big canyon. One day they realize that the canyon is surrounded by walls of ice that are melting and then a vulture tells them that in three days the ice will collapse and flood the canyon.
This is weird for a couple of reasons. The vulture TELLS them this. They don't figure it out on their own. The vulture even tells them "I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I am. And those of you that don't make it, I'm going to eat!" Weird. Why is he telling them? And anytime you're telling the audience what the conflict is, it's not going to be interesting. The first Ice Age SHOWED you what the conflict was in a clear, compelling way. You saw how the problem developed visually and saw our characters discover it and decide what to do about it. Much better than being told. So after the vulture tells them this, he tells them that they have three days to walk through the canyon and away from danger by reaching a BOAT on the far side of the canyon.
Okay, this didn't seem compelling for two reasons. How does the vulture know the ice will hold for three days? What is he, a geologist? An iceologist? As soon as he said "three days" you thought: why is it always three days in movies? Why not four? Two and a half? Eighty-three?
Kind of preposterous. But maybe you could buy him saying that. But it also seemed weird when he said there was a "boat" at the far end of the canyon that they could use to save themselves. Hearing a prehistoric vulture use the term "boat" was strange (to me). I immediatley wondered: is it really a boat? Or something that he refers to as a "boat" but is just a giant log or something. And if it is a real "boat" how did it get there? Are there people on it? Is this vulture a geologist AND a ship-builder? It raised a lot of distracting questions.
Including: is he lying? He's a vulture. Cartoon vultures are traditionally evil, right? And he SAID he wanted to eat them after they died! So is he just messing with them? Trying to get them to walk themselves to death? And unlike the parents in the first movie, you can't cut ahead to the boat and see where it is, how close the animals are, etc. So you never know if they're close or far away from their goal. And you don't know if their goal is even real! So that takes a lot away from the drama, I think.
And they're not each going for a different reason anymore. Now they're all friends, so there's not much conflict between them. You can tell, because Diego - a great character, and a great voice in Denis Leary - is pretty much absent from the movie. He slinks by in the background and throws out insults at Sid from time to time, but that's about it. So the conflict between the characters is gone, which hurts the conflict and drama of the film. There's a subplot about him being afraid of water and conquering that fear, but it just feels "stuck on" and not organic and compelling like his HUGE arc in the first film.
The other subplot that they added for drama was one in which Manny (the Mammoth) thinks he may be the last one of his species. A very cool idea. I was intrigued by that, and they had a lot of fun making jokes at his expense at first. I thought that was great. But then he meets a female Mammoth.
But, what are you going to do so that he still has a problem? That story is resolved as soon as he meets a female Mammoth, right? Which hurts the drama, so they didn't do that.
The filmmakers decided to make it harder on Manny and they gave the female Mammoth a problem: she doesn't THINK she's a Mammoth. She thinks she's a prairie dog (or something like that - a little weasel-type creature) because she was abandoned as a baby and was raised by these things.
It was really hard to buy that she thought she was one of these tiny creatures when she's like three tons and fifteen feet tall. It made her seem kind of stupid and/or crazy, and either attribute makes me not like a character, usually. And it seemed like her problem could be solved easily - look into a puddle, lady! I didn't want Manny to end up with someone that ditzy. He deserves better.
And she had these two weasel friends she hung out with, that were kind of irritaing. But again, I forgive that stuff when the real drama and the real goal are working. I'll forgive a lot when those are working well. But her problem of thinking she's not a Mammoth seemed contrived and stuck on for the sake of telling the story. It didn't seem compelling or real. I wasn't really rooting for her to solve her problem. And again, it's a problem that's IN HER HEAD, so I don't know when it's going to be solved - how close or far away she is from figuring it out. So it lacked drama and tension.
Anyway, I was struck by those differences in the two movies when I was watching Ice Age 2. There was plenty of great work in both movies and I'm not minimizing that. But to me the story didn't work as well in the sequel as in the first one.
I really don't want this site to become about arguments in taste or movie reviews, and I have always been hesitant to write a post like this. Taste is subjective! Feel free to share your opinion in the comments if you feel so compelled. Like I said, I learn from contrary opinions. I welcome them. Even better: post your comments on your own blog, or start one and write about Ice Age 2 and/or Ice Age if you want. If you do it, let me know - I'll post a link!
It's easier for me to talk about other people's movies than the ones I've worked on because I don't want to offend the people I've worked with or hurt their feelings by criticizing their ideas or decisions. We argue all the time with each other about story stuff all the time at work but I don't want to air our dirty laundry in public. I have a tremendous amount of repect for anyone that makes movies, especially the geniuses I get to work with every day. It's incredibly hard to try (and sometimes fail) in such a public arena. Anyway, as I always say, you get what you pay for on this site. Consider my "Ice Age 2" review in the same context.