Thursday, November 17, 2011

More on Caricature and Creating a Believeable World

More on this idea of "Creating a Believeable World" and how the level of caricature and exaggeration can affect the emotional range of the movie. Animation is a wonderful medium because you can create any kind of amazing world for your characters to inhabit. But the animated films I love the best create a world with a lot of control and consistency so that the audience can relate to it and project themselves into that world, believing in it and relating to the characters as real, living breathing characters.

 Animated animals are a good way to illustrate varying levels of caricature in Disney movies. Maximus in "Tangled" is a horse, first and foremost. He has some human traits that make him entertaining, but he's always a horse. He doesn't talk, he doesn't stand on two legs, he doesn't drink tea from a teacup....first and foremost, he's a horse. Although he has human-esque expressions and emotions, we buy that because we all have a tendency to look at animals and project human emotions onto them. So we're primed to believe this already.

People get choked up at parts of "Tangled" and are able to engage with the characters, emotionally. Now maybe it's just me, but I honestly think that if Maximus stood up in the middle of the movie and started speaking, it would be very jarring within that world and it would throw the audience off. I think that would destroy the credibility of the world of "Tangled" so much that many viewers wouldn't be able to engage emotionally with the end of the movie when things start to get very serious.

"Lady and the Tramp" is another good example, where the animals talk and express emotions, but stay enough in the "realistic" world that we buy them and the world they live in. Sure, the dogs in that movie talk....but only to each other. Which isn't that much of a stretch for us to buy, because anyone who's seen two dogs interact with each other can tell that they have a wide array of body language and vocalizations that are universal and makes them able to communicate with each other very clearly. So they already seem able to "talk" to each other in real life. It doesn't take much for us to believe it within the film.

However, if, within the movie, they could talk to not just dogs but people as well, we would be confused and we wouldn't believe in the world of the movie. We wouldn't invest in it emotionally and wouldn't feel anything for the dogs and their problems.

And I think the emotion in the movie works like gangbusters. SPOILER ALERT!

I love the ending of "Lady and the Tramp", starting with the part where Jock thinks Trusty has lost his sense of smell, and how offended Trusty gets when Jock mentions this....that's such an amazing moment to me, when Trusty gets offended and is taken aback for a minute...then just puts Jock's offensive comment aside and gets back to work to save his friend Tramp. That's such a great moment of thinking, feeling character animation that works because of the way the characters have been set up in a believeable way, and because you buy the reality of the world, you really believe the gravity of the situation: Tramp's life is at stake.

The part in the end where Trusty gives his life for Tramp (or so you think) is very emotional for me as well. And again, I think the way the world was handled and how realistically the dogs are treated really helps me relate to them and worry about them and feel empathy for them...and all that makes the emotional beats in the movie work really well.

If you're interested in the climax of "Tramp", start at about four minutes in on the clip below. This sequence is handled phenomenally on every level, one of my favorite sequences from any Disney movie.

For counterpoint, I love the Disney film "The Wind in the Willows" but I don't feel the same range of emotions as I do when I watch some of the other Disney films. The world of Mr. Toad is totally different from the world of "Tangled" or "Lady and the Tramp". In Mr. Toad's world, humans co-mingle with animals, animals wear clothes and live in houses, etc. In contrast to Maximus, Cyril in "Willows" is a horse who is really a cross between a person and a horse. Sometimes Cyril pulls a carriage like a horse, and other times he wears clothes and even gives testimony in a trial. I love the world of "Mr. Toad" and I love that movie, but I don't feel much emotion during the movie (to be fair, it doesn't try to play much, either) and I can't imagine that, if there were a heavy emotional scene in Mr. Toad, that I would feel much. It's just not that type of movie. There's nothing at all wrong with that. But the worlds of "Tangled" and "Mr. Toad" are built to tell two totally different types of stories.

"Alice in Wonderland" is another example of a movie that I personally don't really engage with, emotionally. I'm impressed by the imagination of the artists that came up with all of the crazy stuff in the movie, and I enjoy the look of it, but the "world" that the story takes place in is so crazy - where anything can happen - that I can't really emotionally invest in the characters. When anything can happen at any moment, it's hard to feel afraid for Alice when she's on trial and the Queen is threatening to cut off her head. Because you know you're in an off-kilter, surreal world and you know anything can happen and save Alice's life (which is exactly what happens), you can't really ever get the audience to engage with and feel worried or stress about what might happen to your characters. There's no real tension or conflict in a movie when it takes place in a crazy world where you know things can change at any moment in a completely random way.

Again, I'm not saying there's a "right" or "wrong" to any of this, or that any of these films are better or worse than their counterparts. But their worlds have big differences that influence the types of stories and emotions that can be played. When you're creating a world and the characters that inhabit that world, be aware of the level of caricature that you want to play, and think about if it's appropriate for what you're trying to do.


Jesse Hamm said...

Good points. I feel the same about Alice. If it were Cinderella's neck on the block, we'd be worried!

I read in a book about Ernest Shepard that he had difficulty illustrating The Wind In The Willows, because Kenneth Grahame's descriptions are so inconsistent. Sometimes Toad is the size of a toad, sometimes he's big enough to steal a man's car, etc. Sounds like some of that loose treatment found its way into the animated version.

Tealin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tealin said...

Going by the examples you cite, it sounds like the decision to cast a movie with talking/anthropomorphic animals, or animals talking to humans, is made at about the same time as setting the overall tone of the piece. Wind in the Willows would be a romp even if it had an entirely human cast. You're right that Alice in Wonderland is too absurd to have much emotional weight, but I don't think a really moving cohesive narrative was what Lewis Carroll was after – my impression was that his aim was to write a crazy imaginative diversion for a young friend of his, and in that respect the Disney version is very true to the spirit of the original. Disney's anthropomorphic Robin Hood is by nature a lighthearted romance, and while it may be a flawed film in many regards, I still remember the shock of dread I felt as a child seeing Friar Tuck chained up awaiting execution. Can anyone deny Beauty and the Beast's emotional resonance? Yet that one had fully animate household objects, which it's much harder to imagine have rich social lives in their own world than do dogs or the animals of the forest or savannah. And what about Muppet Christmas Carol? Sure it's got Michael Caine, but he's talking to puppets, and puppets that we're used to laughing at, at that – yet the scene at the Cratchits' after Tiny Tim dies is as moving as any human cast could make it.

I think the ability or inability to carry genuine emotional weight is not so much to do with the mere existence of anthropomorphic animals, or animals talking with humans, but is down to the sort of stories people decide to give them.

mark kennedy said...

Jesse - I think that's very true, that some of the quirkiness of the book made it to the screen. It's a really fun film, though, check it out if you haven't seen it.

Tealin - I'm not really talking about the level of anthropomorphism. That's a different issue. Robin Hood, to me, is a consistent world. It sets a rule and sticks with it: the people in that world are animals that act like people. But, for instance, if there was also a dog that walked on four legs and didn't speak in that world....or if there was a human walking around as well as those animals...well, then I think the consistency of that world is broken and it would be confusing. Personally I think Robin Hood has other flaws that keep it from being emotional but the world is just fine with me.

Beauty and the Beast is a consistent world too. He's a man who has cursed and turned into a beast. He's not an animal.

So for me, anthropormorphism is a completely separate issue and doesn't really affect the consistency of the;s more about setting up a world with relateable rules and sticking with them.

David R said...

Your comments about "Lady and the Tramp" force me to pose a question that I've always had about Disney movies (actually about movies in general). Why do so many have the scene where an important character allegedly dies, but then we find out that they actually aren't? Nemo does this, the Jungle Book, Tangled (to some extent) is there a term for this in screenwriting and is there a large purpose for this other than dramatic effect?

mark kennedy said...

David- If there are two cliches that occur in Disney movies, a false death would be number one followed by the character that only has one parent.I can't speak to why so many Disney movies do that because I haven't worked on all of them, but I would say that some Disney films do it unnecessarily and then it becomes a tiresome cliche. In "Tangled", it felt necessary. Our ending is Rapunzel sacrificing the thing she wants more than anything (her freedom) and Flynn doing the same...he doesn't have anything else to sacrifice for her except his life (and that's the biggest sacrifice he can make anyway). SO Rapunzel is offering to give up her life for his safety (metaphorically) and he is offering his (literal) life so she can have want she wants. So it felt like a death was necessary to the story.

David R said...

I would agree that Flynn's death is necessary, especially when you start the movie off with, "This is the story of how I died."

Actually, that was one of the few where I didn't automatically figure out what was going to happen. It was very much a "now what?" moment for me. Good screenwriting.

I have also noticed that Rapunzel's age - 18 - works really well to set up the movie as a metaphor for adolescence. Leaving the tower and getting away from an overprotective parentis how a lot of kids that age feel about going to college. Gothel is now many kids see their mother; Rapunzel is who all girls want to be.

Rodney Baker said...

I really enjoyed that. Thanks!

Peter said...

Curiously, the 'false death' cliche isn't a feature of as many Disney animated features as I thought it was. It really begins with "Pinocchio", where after the climactic escape from Monstro the Whale the mood of relief turns to sorrow when we find that Pinocchio 'hasn't made it'! While this is deliberately manipulative, it is an integral part of the story, because it is by this ultimate 'self-sacrifice' that Pinocchio is 'redeemed', and becomes a (resurrected) real boy. Rather heavy on the religious symbolism, but it resonates with the audience and packs a punch.
They dared to go with this emotionally charged set up because of the success of the emotional conviction in "Snow White", when after the climactic death of the Wicked Queen we were faced with the grief of the dwarfs gathered around Snow White's body. That they were able to move the audience to believe in the deep sorrow of seven cartoon figures of fun was the proof that Disney's dream was possible - to make cartoons that could be as moving as live action features.

Bambi's mother is a real death, and very well handled - letting the audience imagine Bambi's emotions without trying to 'perform' them. I don't think there is another 'false death' until Trusty in "Lady and the Tramp", and here it feels really dishonest. We had come to trust Disney to show us real joy and real sorrow, so this sentimental trick feels like a betrayal. And finally they use it again in "The Jungle Book" (the first Disney animated feature to dispense with earnest story telling in favour of a more post-modern self-mocking approach). Here it is even more of a cheap trick, being done as much for humorous effect as emotional manipulation.

There may be other examples in later films, but I think the cliche was driven into the ground by other non-Disney cartoons and films that exploited the tear-jerking moment as part of a checklist of formula filmmaking.

David R said...

Good explanation. My kids are seeing "Puss in Boots" right now - I'll have to ask them if it's in there.

Jesse Hamm said...

Peter, I think there are more false deaths than you recall. In addition to the four you cited, consider:

*Sleeping Beauty "dies" temporarily

*Ichabod Crane briefly appears to be slain at the end of Sleepy Hollow

*In Peter and the Wolf ("Make Mine Music"), Sasha the Duck appears briefly to have been eaten by the wolf

*In Peter Pan, Tinker Bell is apparently blown to bits by Hook's bomb

*In 101 Dalmatians, Lucky the pup is temporarily stillborn

So, false deaths in nearly half the features up to Jungle Book, plus lots of subsequent instances: Robin Hood, Fox and the Hound, Black Cauldron, Great Mouse Detective, Beauty and the Beast...


Speaking of which, in Rapunzel, I was unsure why Flynn didn't wait to chop off her hair until AFTER it saved him. Seemed like the sort of thing an enterprising rogue like him would do....