Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Animated Thoughts: Brave, Cars 2, character growth, and the 'moral message'

'Brave': Proof that Pixar can do princesses just as well as Disney can!
 I've seen 'Brave' twice now and while I enjoyed the film (even moreso the second time than the first since I caught more of the dialogue and visuals), I'm still left with some uneasy feelings about this movie.

Let me start by saying, I'm a serious fan of Pixar's work--have been ever since I saw a small computer generated tablelamp playing with a ball while sitting with my sister in a small theatre in Ann Arbor. With only one exception, every year I gladly shell out cash to see their movies several times in the theatres and I buy their movies on DVD when released (and sometimes on iTunes as well).1 Like their previous films, I loved the voice acting, the character design, the animation, the setting and the soundtrack. But the one thing that I thought was lacking was traditionally Pixar's greatest strength: the story.

On his Scribble Junkies blog, Bill Plympton--the Godfather of American independant animation who has several feature film credits to his name--stated in his review of 'Brave' that the story was lacking when compared to Pixar's earlier films. One of my female friends, who is not involved in the animation industry in any way shape or form, after seeing 'Brave' for the second time said: "I still don't know what the message that they're trying to get across is."

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Plympton that, up until now, the Pixar films have been emotional rollercoaster rides where you reach a satisfying conclusion to the story and then they grab you and propel you along into an even greater conclusion to the story--think the airport scene in 'Toy Story 3' or the ending scene in 'Monsters, Inc.' as Sully opens the door into Boo's room right after the big chase scene through the warehouse of doors. However, the last two films that Pixar produced: 'Brave' and 'Cars 2' left me with the feeling that Pixar may be sending mixed messages to their audience.

One of the great things about Pixar's earlier films, and something that resonated with the midwestern, family-oriented audience (of which I am a part), was that there was a clearly defined moral message at the heart of each film. The message that I walked away with when I saw 'Cars 2' was: "Be yourself. It doesn't matter who gets hurt or who you screw over, if they can't handle you being you, that's their problem." It's a pretty selfish way of looking at life and not the kind of message I would want my kids to emulate.

In 'Cars 2', the person who should've grown and learned the moral lesson was Tow Mater, not Lightning McQueen. After having an adventure without even realizing it, Mater appears to have had the epiphany that he had been acting like an ass in Japan and had embarassed his friend in a professional setting by blundering through situations he had no experience in or knowledge of. A true gentleman in his situation would've been polite, showed restraint, held himself in reserve and followed his friend's lead. Decidely not Mater's behavior in the Japan sequence of 'Cars 2'--which set up the conflict for the moral message. Pixar set the story walking towards this moral message by the letter that Mater had left for McQueen before leaving Japan (even though the letter seemed more self-serving and less apologetic than it could have been). If Mater had shown real growth, during the revelatory scene at the movie's climax, he would've politely corrected Lightning--admitting that he, Mater, was at fault, and apologized for the trouble he caused McQueen, both personally and professionally. That he, Mater, needed to learn how to tone it down so that he wouldn't hurt people's feelings or embarrass them.

That is not what happened in 'Cars 2'.

Pixar led us right up to that point... and then they blew it. In the climax of the film, Mater has a crisis of faith and admits that everyone has been laughing at him his entire life. That's his big revelation. Instead of apologizing to McQueen for how he behaved in Japan, Mater sits there and listens as McQueen gives Mater the "it's not you, it's them" speech. And the moral message of the film was lost, along with a teachable moment between parents and children. The class clown who jumps up and down screaming 'look at me' was funny when we were five years old. He's decidedly less so in college, in church, or at someone's wedding--ask any parent. Mater may have experienced some change in his journey, but he didn't grow as a character.

Which brings us to 'Brave.'

I think that the message of the film was something about a mother and daughter getting to see each other's perspective and accepting responsibility for the consequences of their actions, but I'm not sure. At this point, I've watched 'Brave' twice now and I'm still not sure what Merida is supposed to be "brave" about.

If the message is to be brave enough to admit that you made a mistake, accept the consequences for said mistake, and try to make it right, then yes, I agree, 'Brave' sends the correct moral message to their audience.

If the message is to challenge a tradition that forces you to marry someone you don't know or love when you're clearly not mature enough to be married, then again, yes, I agree, 'Brave' sends the correct moral message to their audience--though a clearly outdated one since arranged marriages have been out of vogue for centuries in the western world--though they still go on in other countries like India. But, it fits within the context of the story. Having personally witnessed several catastrophic marriages where one of the people was forced into it by their parents, I can get behind this message.

However, if the message is to be brave enough to rebel against your parents' authority and do whatever you want no matter what the consequences, then I'd have to say that, like 'Cars 2', the moral message is getting lost in the character's struggle for independance. When I was a child, I didn't understand a lot of what my parents were trying to teach me: wash your hands after using the toilet, don't leave your dirty/sweaty clothes piled on the floor, and the ever present: any job worth doing is worth doing well... even if it's a job you'd rather not do. When I got older, I learned about the dangers of bacterial infections, the smelly annoyance of mildew, and the benefits of being a reliable worker (and that rooms don't magically clean themselves).

Yes, in a movie, characters are supposed to be exaggerated in their actions, motives, and behaviors. However, there still has to be an element of believability to the motiviation behind their actions. What I saw in 'Brave' started out being pretty clear: two headstrong, stubborn women who refuse to consider each other's perspective--one who feels bound by tradtion, the other who wants to be free to choose her own path in life. It was clear up to that point. It wasn't until the second act, where Merida flees the castle and heads out into the woods, that the story seemed to struggle. I believe that was where the story started to meander and prevented Pixar from presenting a clear, believable message at the film's climax. In the end, I just didn't believe that being turned into a bear would cause Merida's mother to turn her back on centuries of tradition or completely backpedal on her position regarding how a lady should behave.

Or maybe it's just because the emotional ending of the film was too similar to the one in 'The Emperor's New Groove.'

In 'How To Train Your Dragon', the lead character and his dragon were crippled for life by the end of the movie. In 'Cars', Lightning McQueen sacrifices his chances for glory and a place in history in order to do right by an older race car. In 'Up', Carl Fredrickson sacrifices his home and his belongings to save Russell. In 'Tangled' Rapunzel sacrifices her freedom (but ends up loses her healing power, her blonde hair and her lover until, in the typical Disney ending, he's brought back to life 2). In 'Mulan', Mulan posed as a man and joined the army to save her father's life--fully accepting that her fate would be death, by war or by the letter of the law should she be discovered. In 'Brave', there just didn't seem to be any lasting consequences to Merida's actions. What did she lose? What did she sacrifice to gain what she wanted? The story seemed a little vague on this point. Pride, maybe? Like Kusko, she may have had a journey that changed her internally, but I just didn't feel that the climax of the film displayed enough character growth to justify her receiving everything that she wanted with no lasting consequences to her earlier actions--by the end of the film, she got her family back and she was released from her fate of an arranged marriage.

In his writing lectures, bestselling author Michael Stackpole states that characters must grow, not change. Change is temporary and external -- it doesn't last. Growth is permanent and internal -- a conscious decision to change behavior due to external stimuli. No matter how enjoyable I found 'Brave' to be, I just didn't buy Merida's change of heart at the end of the film. Throughout the film, her actions struck me more as those of a petulant child who was trying to avoid punishment after misbehaving, rather than someone who was accepting responsibility for a mistake that she had made. The final narration about being "brave enough to challenge your fate" simply rang hollow with the story that 'Brave' presented me with. From what I saw, Merida only changed as a result of her journey, she didn't grow as a character.

1. Full disclosure: I didn't see Cars 2 in the theatre, but I did buy the movie on DVD when it was released in stores.
2. And I'm not complaining, I loved the ending in 'Tangled.' I thought it was a great homage to some of the classic Disney films like 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Snow White', and 'Beauty and the Beast'.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Animated Inspiration: The Saga of Rex

Michel Gagné, who's work never ceases to impress me, has released a 30 second animation to promote his previously published graphic novel "The Saga of Rex" published by Image Comics. According to animation historian Jerry Beck, Gagné created this film "single-handedly in 3 weeks" when learning how to use Toon Boom software.

Thanks to Jerry Beck over on Cartoon Brew for posting this film from Gagné.

Next, you can view a beautifully remastered in HD version of my favorite Gagné film: "Prelude to Eden". According to Gagné, he created 'Eden' during the development of the Animo software package which would go on to become the 2d software of choice at DreamWorks and Warner Bros. Feature Animation.1

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5nrEgs8L0s

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Animated Inspiration: Gobelins L'ecole de L'image

Here's a pair of fun little promo films.

The first is called "Holy Sheep", produced by the students at Gobelins L'ecole de L'image  for the 2012 Annecy animation festival.

The second was produced for Annecy 2011 and is titled "Lights Out", also produced at Gobelins.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Animated Quotes: Theodore Roosevelt

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."
~ Theodore Roosevelt