Posts Tagged ‘Animation’

For the past seventeen years now, summer has—with a few exceptions during the venerable dream factory’s early years—meant one thing, and one thing only: the release of a new Pixar Animation Studios film. For the past three years, I have been able to share this annual occasion with my boyfriend. In fact, the very first film we ever saw together in theaters was Pete Docter and Bob Petersen’s incredibly charming Up (2009). Earlier this summer, the studio released Brave, directed by Brenda Chapman before being handed over to Mark Andrews. Taking place in Middle Age Scotland, Brave centers on Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a young princess who is expected to marry one of three possible suitors from her father King Fergus’ (Billy Connolly) allied clans. Unfortunately, Merida is intent on remaining single, a personal choice her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), cannot understand and refuses to accept. As a result, the two are constantly bickering over the impending betrothal. Seeing no other possible solution to the disagreement, Merida purchases a magical spell from a mysterious, wood-dwelling witch—a spell designed to “change” her mother. Unfortunately, Elinor transforms not into a more indulgent parent, but into a brown bear. Once Elinor composes herself, she and her daughter escape into the forest, where they attempt to reverse the witch’s spell, all the while evading Mor’du, a ferocious black bear who prowls the Highlands.

A few evenings after watching Brave at our local cineplex, my boyfriend and I sat down—in our living room this time—to revisit Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Treasure Planet, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992) fame. As you may gather from the title, Treasure Planet transposes the action from Robert Louis Stevenson’s earthbound classic into space. In Clements and Musker’s reimagining of the tale, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a delinquent who comes into possession of a mysterious sphere. Toying around with it, the sphere projects a holographic map appearing to point the way to Treasure Planet, the purported hiding place of legendary pirate Captain Flint’s “loot of a thousand worlds.” Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), a dog-like friend of Hawkins’ mother, decides to finance an expedition to the planet. He hires Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), a feline-esque alien, to man a spaceship christened the RLS Legacy, and a crew led by John Silver (Brian Murray), a cyborg cook. Sent down to work in the galleys during the interplanetary trip, Hawkins begins to bond with Silver. Little does Hawkins know, however, Silver and his crew are conspiring to commit mutiny, bent on stealing Flint’s treasure for themselves.

While watching Treasure Planet, it dawned on me that it and Brave share several similarities. Both films are considered by critics to be two of Disney and Pixar’s (respectively) weakest efforts. Further, both films feature at their core a relationship between a child and a parent or parental figure, and present the audience with a backstory that either informs or fuels the principle storyline. (Incidentally, the two films also feature voice-work by the talented Emma Thompson.) Comparing the two films, however, it becomes evident that Treasure Planet succeeds where Brave fails: that is, in the all-important areas of character and backstory development. Indeed, I believe that Treasure Planet, whatever its shortcomings, is undeservedly underappreciated. While Brave is not nearly as incompetent as critics have made it out to be (see, for example, Berardinelli, 2012), it nevertheless remains artistically wanting, due perhaps to the controversial mid-production directorial swap.

Some critics have noted similarities between the plot of Brave and that of Disney’s Brother Bear (Blaise & Walker, 2003). While it is true that both stories bear superficial resemblance to each other—pun half-intended!—Brave and Treasure Planet share similar foundations, as previously explained. As such, I choose to compare these two particular films, to explore some of the many elements that contribute to not only competent, but also satisfying character and backstory development.

Character Development

Having escaped their castle following Elinor’s nighttime transformation from an elegant royal into a giant animal, Merida and her mother take shelter under a boulder in a nearby forest. At this point in the film, the mother-daughter pair have two issues to resolve. The first issue is the one that brought Merida to inadvertently turn her mother into a giant animal in the first place: Merida and Elinor must learn to communicate. Neither has ever listened to the other, and been willing to do so without judging or attempting to change the other’s opinion. This is conveyed in an especially clever sequence at the beginning of the film, which cuts between the two characters as they express their frustration with one another. The second issue directly results from Merida’s actions: Elinor must learn to trust her daughter again. The mother-daughter relationship has suffered a serious breach: Merida knowingly put her mother’s safety in danger by purchasing a spell from a strange woman, and casting it upon her. Along with learning to trust her daughter again, Elinor may even have to accept some level of responsibility for bringing her to commit such a desperate act.

Under the boulder in the forest, Merida tentatively attempts to extricate a smile from her mother. A forlorn look in her eyes, Elinor turns around, resting her head on the ground before presumably falling asleep. What is she feeling? Disappointment and hurt, probably. I would assume some sadness and anger as well, however deeply buried. Unfortunately, this is the last we encounter of Elinor’s subjective experience. In contrast, we are able to infer from Merida’s persistent efforts to reverse the spell that she is guilt-ridden, that she deeply regrets what she has done to her mother.

Merida and Elinor’s relationship begins to be mended the following day, before any of the aforementioned issues start to be addressed. (If you think no “family film” could ever successfully deal with such complex matters, see how Pixar’s existentially astute Toy Story trilogy handles the prospect of death.) The best that can be said of Merida and Elinor’s reconciliation is that it begins to happen over one of two lovely songs by Scottish folk-singer Julie Fowlis. Once the song is over, however, Merida and Elinor’s relationship, apparently considered salvaged, takes second place to the spell’s urgent reversal. The key to Merida and Elinor’s relational troubles was to learn to communicate, to listen to their frustrations regarding each other without any attempt at contradicting, and to become more flexible, to genuinely want to address the other’s concerns. Yet, the two fail to have an honest and heartfelt conversation at any point in the film. Indeed, we never get a sense that Merida and Elinor have actively worked through their relational troubles. Sure, they manage to overcome a magical spell together, but unencumbered teamwork is not the same as open communication. Because of this, the resolution at the end of the film comes across as premature, and rings somewhat false. Because Merida and Elinor do not deserve their reconciliation, so to say, we are not convinced it will last.

Hawkins’ father left him and his mother when he was a boy. His dedicated mother has been raising him since, but not without difficulty: Hawkins tends to misbehave and get into trouble with the law. He has stagnated: something is holding him back from living a rewarding, prosocial life. When he meets Silver, he is at first suspicious: the creature that handed him the projecting sphere outside his mother’s tavern warned him to “beware of the cyborg.” Hawkins also comes to resent Silver, who is given authority over him by Captain Amelia. As time goes by, however, the boy begins to invest in the cyborg as a son would his father. Silver encourages him to map his own course, and tells him that he is confident he will grow up to achieve great things. We sense this is the first time Hawkins hears anything of the sort. When Hawkins learns that Silver is a manipulative crook that will say and do anything to get what he wants, he is crushed. The cyborg subsequently attempts to make amends, but the boy refuses to make peace. Quite likely, Hawkins’ disappointment is similar to that felt the day his father left. Angered, he seeks to find the treasure before Silver can get his hands on it.

In the end, Hawkins comes to terms with the person of Silver: he may be imperfect, but, despite his limitations, he remains a good person. Through his relationship with Silver, we feel Hawkins has been able to process his unresolved feelings toward his father. Although the film chooses not to explore this, it is even possible he has forgiven him. Regardless, it appears Hawkins is now at peace with the memory of his father, and that his complicated feelings toward him will, we can rest assured, no longer hinder his progress toward a more satisfying existence.

As is evident in my summary of Hawkins and Silver’s relationship, we see a lot of it. We are not left with too many questions regarding its nature or progression, allowing us to invest in it fully. Indeed, there are at least four meaningful conversations between Hawkins and Silver inserted into the story, including one that evolves into a refreshingly inspired musical montage showing the two characters bonding. (As alluded to previously, Brave also resorts to a musical montage to illustrate the budding relationship between its protagonists; this sequence, however, simply comes across as a lazy shortcut.) These interactions are the pillars of Treasure Planet: when all else fails to impress, it is Hawkins and Silver’s relationship that allows the film to remain aloft. At the same time, the two characters’ experiences regarding each other retain some vagueness, so that there is enough room left onscreen for our own interpretations, a tactic that further promotes audience investment. (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, 2012, pulls its audience in using similar means, only to achieve a more cerebral kind of investment, by proposing religious and philosophical questions to ponder, without ever telling us how the characters are themselves answering these.)

Backstory Development

In Brave, Elinor attempts to convince Merida to conform with what is expected of her by telling her daughter the story of four princes who were to have their kingdom evenly split between them. Wanting the kingdom all to himself, one of them ultimately plunges it into chaos. Later in the film, we learn that this story is more than mere didactic fiction: Mor’du’s very origins can be traced back to the events relayed within it. Because we are not told enough about the princes and the fall of their kingdom, and because Mor’du is so rarely talked about and makes so few appearances, the legend feels appended to Merida’s story more than an integral part of it. During the film’s climax, we are even asked to empathize with the insurgent prince. Given we have been told so little about his past, not to mention his evolution since the rampage of his own kingdom, this is asking too much.

In Treasure Planet, the legend of Captain Flint and his loot of a thousand worlds is seamlessly integrated into the main narrative. Not only does the legend propel the main narrative, the main narrative also elucidates some of the legend’s mysteries in ways that further the requirements of the plot. It is this mutual relation between backstory and principal storyline that contributes to the successful integration of the former into the latter. It is not for nothing the movie is titled after the treasure’s mythical location!

Final Thoughts

While Treasure Planet handles character development and the device of backstory with a deft hand, Brave falters in both areas. From a technical standpoint, however, Brave upstages Treasure Planet in many respects. Pixar’s latest effort features beautifully rendered scenery of the Scottish countryside, and richly immersive environments. Character animation is also detailed and fluid. That being said, some of the character designs (e.g., the housemaid) come across as a little generic and could have benefited from further development. I did nonetheless appreciate the Miyazaki-esque quality of the more original designs: indeed, the wisps, the witch and her crow could very well have escaped from the parallel world in Studio Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001). (Enrico Casarosa’s short La Luna, which plays before Brave, also draws from the Miyazaki universe: for example, the sequence where the boy is suspended in midair.)

Despite making some appealing use of Deep Canvas technology, which allows background artists to “paint” moving sets, Treasure Planet features a more often than not distracting combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated technology, taking one’s focus away from the story. Still, the film manages to fashion a unique and imaginative world blending futuristic elements with old-world ones. Take, for example, the RLS Legacy, a rocket-propelled galleon. (This blending of styles was used to similar effect in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002-2003), a fantasy television series with a western motif.)

While definitely showing strengths in both areas, Treasure Planet does not handle everything to do with characters and narrative perfectly. For example, the progression of the story is at times encumbered by an overreliance on sight gags, and a reluctance to slow down during moments that do not involve Hawkins and Silver. Treasure Planet also appears to fear silence, as evinced by a crewmember that speaks “Flatula” (i.e., in farts) and the loud-mouthed robot B.E.N. (Martin short). Still, the film at least feels complete. Conversely, because Brave weaves, but never fully brings together, various character arcs and narrative strands, the film feels somewhat unfinished. In a way, viewing Brave is akin to watching an early, in-progress reel bound for further reworking.

Brave can be forgiven for mishandling its backstory. In fact, I can forgive a movie a lot, even a generally awkwardly told story or substandard dialogue. Poor visuals, even. I am only able to do this, however, if I am brought to care about the characters and their relationships. For me to care, I must be given the opportunity to eavesdrop, as an audience member, on private moments that reveal to me the inner landscape of each character, or, to keep the metaphor going, the border where two characters’ inner lands meet. But because Brave fails to provide its audience with such moments, I am less inclined to revisit it, despite other aspects of the film mostly meeting my expectations. Treasure Planet, on the other hand, successfully integrates such moments into its narrative. Thus, despite its many problems, the film remains, at the very least, emotionally satisfying. And so, I cut it some slack and willingly revisit it with pleasure.

The first Happy Feet (2006) told the story of Mumble (Elijah Wood), an Emperor penguin who, because of in vitro trauma, could not sing like the rest of his kind. He could, however, dance like a pro, an ability that—initially at least—invited only contempt from his colony. When the Penguin Nation’s food supply finds itself threatened by industrial overfishing, Mumble, thanks to his unusual gift, is able to attract the attention of the human world, which eventually comes to the penguins’ rescue. In Happy Feet Two, another environmental catastrophe, this time prompted by global warming, assails Mumble’s people: a mobile iceberg has trapped the penguins inside their mating grounds. It is up to Mumble, off retrieving his wandering son Erik (Ava Acres) when disaster struck, to help them escape. Erik, it should be mentioned, cannot dance. While all of Emperor Land has, since the original film’s events, taken a liking to dancing, the young chick confesses he does not know why to dance, that he has no reason to. Along with Erik, we learn by the end of the story that while solo dancing to one’s personal tune may definitely have value, dancing together to the tune of the public good can sometimes be just as satisfying…

In Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, director George Miller has created something undeniably unique: a two-part animated jukebox musical featuring Antarctica as a principle location, photorealistic penguins who sing and dance to everything from Stevie Wonder’s Tell Me Something Good to Giacomo Puccini’s E lucevan le stelle, live-action humans, and an explicit environmental message. The involvement of “lifelike” characters that are neither fully good nor fully bad is also refreshing. Whether this strange combination of elements comes together is a matter of opinion. I, for one, think it does. But whatever you may think of the Happy Feet recipe, you cannot fault Miller for offering us something totally different that, storytelling polish aside, rivals any title from the Pixar canon. (To wit, Happy Feet beat out Cars, Lasseter, 2006, for the 2007 Best Animated Feature Oscar.)

While Happy Feet brought to light the problem of environmental degradation, Happy Feet Two asks how we can resolve the situation, as symbolized by the Emperor penguins’ confinement. More specifically, the sequel focuses (through a collection of subplots featuring a bevy of characters from various species) on the behaviors that stand in the way of environmental conservation. Some of the behavioral barriers scrutinized in the film are: magical thinking, apathy, false promises and selfishness.

Early in the film, we meet Sven (Hank Azaria), a charismatic Atlantic puffin with thousands of fanatical Adélie penguin followers. He professes that willing can make anything come true: “Will it, and it will be” is his motivational motto. As illustrated by the film’s conclusion, however, saving our planet will not only take good intentions, but also collective effort, concrete and sustained actions in the direction of our intentions. Bryan (Richard Carter), an elephant seal, refuses to move backwards when he bumps into Mumble and Erik on a narrow bridge of ice. Reversing the damage we have inflicted on our planet may, in fact, require us to revert to less indulgent and resource-demanding lifestyles. When Mumble helps save Bryan, whose stubbornness has caused him to fall from the bridge into a precipice, the grateful colossus promises his diminutive rescuer a favor. As soon as Mumble calls upon Bryan to fulfill his promise (by joining an interspecies effort to save his people by causing a section of the aforementioned iceberg to yield), Bryan backs down claiming he is too busy with other matters. Needless to say, empty promises will get us nowhere, and saving our planet will involve some level of sacrifice.

Happy Feet Two relegates the theme of environmental degradation that so permeated the original film’s second act to the background, to focus on our individual attitudes toward environmental change, and the impact our behaviors can have. (Besides the catastrophic event that sets the story into motion, the most we see of global warming’s effects during the film is a brief glimpse of a polar bear teetering in the middle of the ocean on a small chunk of ice as a killer whale approaches in the distance.) This is a sensible choice, conferring a sense of urgency upon the proceedings: if we do not wise up soon, what seems for now to only be happening in the background of our lives—on newspaper headlines and such—will eventually come to bear on us in ways that are inescapably prominent. To avoid this fate, Happy Feet Two suggests we band together: communal solidarity, in service of our planet’s (and ultimately all its inhabitants’) survival, and unencumbered by individuals’ tendencies toward behaviors that slow down or downright halt progress toward this goal, will in the end save the day.

However well intentioned, Happy Feet Two is not without problems. As in the original film, the animation is a mixed bag, being at its weakest when relying on motion capture to convey movement. (To be fair, animated penguins moving like real humans are not nearly as strange and distracting as animated humans moving like real humans; see, for example, The Polar Express, Zemeckis, 2004). That being said, the environments within which the characters interact are gorgeously rendered, making effective use of lighting to give scenes texture. There is not one location in the Happy Feet universe that does not feel like an actual place, as opposed to simply an extraordinarily detailed digital rendition of an actual place. Further, in trying to accomplish its principally didactic purpose, the film’s structure somewhat suffers: the film has an episodic feel to it, focusing on a character facing a particular challenge meant to make us consider the legitimacy of a particular environmental attitude, then on another, and on and on until the conclusion. Thanks to swift editing, however, the pacing remains even, which serves to mitigate the broken up quality. Despite the preceding problems, Happy Feet Two features one of the most satisfying endings to an animated musical. And so, while the sum total of the film may leave you a little disappointed, the rousing, inspirational climax will make sure you step out of your living room with at least a pleasingly warm feeling in your heart.

Now, of the seeming contradiction between the first and second chapters of the Happy Feet saga… A.V. Club reviewer Tasha Robinson (2011) writes in her review of the latter: “[Where] Happy Feet touted the importance of confident individualism, Happy Feet Two laughs that attitude off at every turn in favor of messages about the value of community.” It is true that, at first sight, the first film’s message stands at odds with that of the second. Assuming that individualism and collectivism are not mutually exclusive philosophies, it seems to me the sequel simply builds upon its predecessor’s themes, acknowledging the limits of individualism, however valuable at times, and the potential benefits of collectivism, however detrimental at times. I think what both films together are trying to tell us is that, to be sure, change is more often than not prompted by the individual: that is, the individual may realize that something about the way the collective thinks or behaves is wrong, begin to alert others that change is required, and mobilize others to enact change. But however powerful the individual may be in sparking a movement, movements, by definition, require masses. In other words, only the community, as enticed by the individual, can ultimately give life to and sustain change.

The subplot of Will (Brad Pitt), a krill who has separated from its swarm, nicely ties the two films’ themes together. Will has grown tired of being “one in a krillion.” Because he feels his community has prevented him from fulfilling his true potential, he decides to pave his own path. He escapes his swarm with his nervous friend Bill (Matt Damon), and begins to search the (sea)world for opportunities to be who he is truly meant to be. His independence of spirit is ultimately rewarded when he realizes, thanks to his outside vantage point, that his community is inadvertently destroying itself by going about business as usual. In the end, Will realizes that his true purpose might actually lie within the very confines of the community that initially constrained his ability to self-fulfill. That is, the most meaningful difference he can make may just be to rejoin his people and contribute to their newfound effort (which he instigated as a rebellious and freethinking individual) to collectively carry on and flourish in less self-destructive ways.

Happy Feet Two argues that when individuals assemble into communities that decide to act as one toward a common goal, they should be driven not by irrationality and narrow self-interest, but by Love. Trying to comfort an angry Erik, his mother Gloria (P!nk) sings to him: “Love can build us a bridge of light.” The film even ends with these lyrics from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure: “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” As philosopher Bertrand Russell acknowledges in his easily accessible, counter-religious essay What I Believe (1925/1957), Love is indeed a crucial ingredient in the recipe for the Good Life, or a life lived responsibly. Because Love on its own can easily become harmful, however, he recommends it be restrained using Knowledge. Likewise, Knowledge, being neutral, requires direction when applied, direction which Love can appropriately provide. Since Love and Knowledge make such effective bedfellows, I thus recommend adding Knowledge (derived, here, from Environmental Science) to the Love Happy Feet Two wants us to elect as our guide in the quest to save our planet, our fellow animals, and ourselves.

Reference

Bertrand, R. (1957). What I believe. In P. Edwards (Ed.), “Why I am not a Christian” and other essays on religion and related subjects (pp. 48-87). New York, NY: Touchstone. (Original work published 1925)

 

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