Thursday, November 02, 2006

A MainStream Media Rant About Animated Features

Dave White at MSNBC bemoans the recent empty, imitative tendencies of big-time animation studios:

This year alone major studios have released eight animated features about talking animals. There’s also been at least one independent animated feature with seals re-enacting “Romeo and Juliet” (it was called “Romeo & Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss,” if you don’t believe me) and two more major studio releases about anthropomorphized cars and baseball equipment, respectively. It’s like we’re all geese and you’re force-feeding us candy 24/7. You won’t harvest paté made of money this way. You’ll just make us throw it all back up. Audiences need a rest, no matter how much you all think you can’t take a break from picking their pockets.

Next, please begin wrapping your minds around this truth: you are creatively bankrupt. There’s more than one plot in the world but you’d never know that from the movies that get green-lighted. So you must declare a decade-long (at least) moratorium on the fish/lion/bear/mouse/insect-out-of-water thing.

I think Mr. White speaks some truth here, but he is overly harsh...

Animation's creators don't start out to all make the same picture at the same time. I mean, we're all familiar with the actual truth: artists come up with a gang-buster story idea that management likes a lot. It goes into development. Then, little by little, bit by bit, the gang-buster idea gets taffy pulled, often over artists' objections, into the good old "fish/penquin/bear out of water" scenario. Why? Because it's led to boffo box-office before. And management, half consciously, half unconsciously, usually gravitates to the tried and true. (To be fair, creators also take cues from the story models that have gone before.)

Then, of course, there's the reality that story ideas have lengthy gestation periods, and so what appears to be the same movie (or almost the same movie) being released six times by six companies over six months really isn't. It's more like a confluence of disparate events that only makes it seem that way.

But anyway. Everyone's known since Shakespeare was scratching plays out with a feathered quill that there are only six plots. We've just got to start using the other five, that's all.

Update:Kevin K. just let me know that Cartoon Brew and Animation Nation have been chewing over Mr. White's screed for a little while now. Sorry I didn't notice that earlier. Guess I've been doing too much running around.


Anonymous said...

Steve, you were a story artist right?

Pardon my ignorance, but does every story artist try consciously to mold a plot into what's known as "the Hero's journey"?

I went to a talk where a story artist, who shall remain nameless, talked about Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey and all that. He seemed to be a fan of Joseph Campbell.

My question really is, if all the artists mold the story to this 'formula', how do you expect to avoid a movie from feeling formulaic. Even Pixar's movies are starting to suffer from this.

Just a question.

Anonymous said...

Mr. White is not overly harsh in the least. he is dead on.
this recent glut of animal pictures is EMBARASSING.

even if you adhere to the "only six stories truth" (Cassavettes thinks there are about 10), it would be expected to have at least three different stories represented in animation movies in one year - not the same story over and over and over again.

no risks are being taken in the animation industry - and thats sad and pathetic. the output of horrendous movies this year is going to result in one thing: stagnation and backlash. exactly like what happened in the mid nineties with the glut of 2D features with the same formula. studios are going to reign in their animated features department and lots of people are going to get the lay off.

when studios don't take risks, don't push boundaries and don't inject challenges to the viewer, their movies are stale and unwatchable. i can't imagine why anyone would defend such gutless line towing as these execrable furry animal and penguin pictures.

Anonymous said...

Joseph Campbell's points on a Hero's Journey have existed in literature since the writing of Aristotle. He just formulated them in a coherent way that makes sense. They are worth studying and even more, compare them to some of the great classic films that have been made from Wizard of Oz to Star Wars to Lord of the Rings.

I'd rather study Joseph Campbell than Robert McKee.

Reel Fanatic said...

I think he's definitely on to something, but it spreads way beyond animation .. with the tentpole mentality of today's major studios, no one is willing to take any risks, so all the ideas tend to sound a lot alike .. The worst animated animal flick I've seen recently was Chicken Little, which just made me want to claw my owne eyes out to make it stop

Anonymous said...

The real chances are taken in indie films (whether animated or not). When you have a project with a large budget and lots of people (financiers, execs, investors, etc) to make happy, you can't rock the boat.

The problem isn't in the animal theme, it is in the stories themselves. The Wild sucked w/ or w/o Madagascar as a predecessor. Open Season was refreshing (imo), but Over The Hedge, Everyone's Hero, Barnyard, Ant Bully were all crap.

Anonymous said...

Pardon my ignorance, but does every story artist try consciously to mold a plot into what's known as "the Hero's journey"?

I'll only speak to my ten years at Disney: Reitherman didn't pay any attention to forumulas (I don't think he was even consciously aware of them.) With Woolie, it was building the sequence, getting in some comedy, working to keep the characters alive. He was very good at focussing and editing action stuff.

When Eisney and Jeffrey K. arrived at Disney, it was more about story arcs and three acts and the forumulas brought over from live-action.

To Jeffrey's credits, he was a quick study about animation story and I think the improving arcs of the Disney animated features in which he was involved evidences that. He was willing to change has he learned (for example, one of the first edicts and Eisner and Katzenberg laid down when we had meetings with them in '85 was: "no period stories, everything will be MODERN."

You'll note that they quickly moved away from that template after they got their feet wet.

Steve Hulett said...


But of course! A fresh new take on "Alice in Wonderland!"

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