by Brad Brookes |
One sunny afternoon in June last year, I took my kids to see the much-anticipated Toy Story 4 at the cinema...
At three and four years old, it was going to be a big ask for them to sit and watch for over two hours, especially as on this outing I would be flying solo. But they were keen on the idea and I’m always thrilled to share my love of the big screen with the little halflings.
The trip went well. Popcorn and smiles for the vast majority of it. Looking over to see their faces lit up by the projector, I couldn’t help think about how my parents would have experienced the same thing with my brother and me. A rite of passage.
As I’d anticipated, the third act of the movie required me to be a little more hands-on with the kids. Trips to the loo, requests to swap seats, mopping up spilt drinks and so on. One thing I hadn’t anticipated, however, was my reaction to the end of the film (spoiler alert). When Woody made the choice to leave his friends of more than 20 years to live with his true love Beau as a ‘lost toy’, I began to well-up. Then at the point of his farewell, at about the same time my kids were running up and down the aisles and deciding to sit with other families, I began to cry. No, to sob. In seeing the end of a friendship I’d invested in since I was at school, I couldn’t control myself. And for someone who isn’t too big on weeping in public, this was a pretty dramatic turn of events.
In the past, I’d sat staunchly and completely dry-eyed when Kate Winslet watched Leonardo DiCaprio sink to the bottom of the icy deep (even though there was room on that damned door). When Tom Hanks threw the switch on Michael Clark Duncan’s gentle giant, my expression may have mirrored that of somebody listening to the shipping report. Not that I’m cold-hearted or devoid of feeling, I’m simply not that expressive with my emotions. So, why were the waterworks uncontrollably gushing for an animated feature about children’s toys?
Animated films have long captured our hearts. Most of us have a classic Disney film that we hold dear, as it will have defined a joyous part of our childhood. But animation has a tremendous ability to transcend barriers, with all ages finding themselves captivated by the magic of a format that was traditionally aimed at children.
The very nature of animated films means that they have a variety of strengths to leverage that are much easier to harness than in live-action productions. The performance of animated characters is simpler to direct than real-life actors, with animators having total control over their behaviour. There is a licence with animated visuals to exaggerate character expressions that go far beyond what would be achievable in the real world. Put simply - wider smiles and bigger tears mean that emotional moments can be heightened to garner greater audience reaction.
Animated characters are truly immortalised in their one and only image. They will never be anything else, only themselves.
If we compare The Lord of the Rings to The Lion King. Both films feature a sequence where a wise, loving and integral character falls to their apparent death. Gandalf disappears over the edge of a chasm in the underground fortress of Moria and Mustafa plummets from a cliffside into a stampeding heard of wildebeest. Both scenes are upsetting and are designed to pull at your heartstrings. Both leave characters who are in need of protection, left without their beloved protector. However, no amount of devastated hobbits or supremely quotable dialogue will ever top the larger than life expression on Simba’s tiny face as he watches his father fall to his death.
Not only will their heightened expressions play a key role in this, but so will the ultimately relatable nature that animated characters have when compared to their live-action counterparts. Granted, both Mustafa and Gandalf are played by two of the world’s most distinguished actors. Yet, when it comes to character connection, your eye tends to lead the way. In The Lion King, you are watching an emotional moment where the King of the Pride Lands loses his life. However, in The Lord of the Rings, your subconscious might be telling you that you’re watching King Lear or Magneto being grappled over the edge of a cavern by a flaming Balrog.
Animated characters are truly immortalised in their one and only image. They will never be anything else, only themselves. It’s hard not to agree that it would be highly unlikely for Pumba the warthog to get a ten-episode run on Coronation Street.
However, there is also another, slightly darker, end to the spectrum. As well as giving us the opportunity to emotionally connect with a story on a whole other level, animated productions can get away with much more risqué concepts than would ever be allowed in live-action.
Some of the storylines featured in both Family Guy and South Park cut undeniably close the contentious bones of misogyny, homophobia and racism. Although both shows will have drawn many a complaint in their combined forty-plus years on the air, had the gags been performed by live actors, the backlash would have most certainly been much more fierce.
A striking example of this can be found in the levels of controversy surrounding the films Team America: World Police and The Interview. Made almost a decade apart, both films aggressively lampooned the North Korean leader at the time of their release (Kim Yong-il and his son Kim Yong-un respectively). Both films depicted the leaders being killed by the comically over the top American heroes. However, the response to the live-action film was much more dramatic than that of the movie featuring marionettes. The Interview caused so much controversy, it strained diplomatic relations on a global level, with North Korea threatening to take action against the US if the film was ever released. Following this, Sony pictures suffered a data breach and a cyber-attack by individuals purported to be working for the North Korean government. In response, Sony cancelled the theatrical release of the film entirely and it was later launched for download only. Team America: World Police on the other hand, which could be seen as far more derogatory, received very little backlash. Arguably, the use of puppets and animation made the cutting humour seem much less of a personal attack. The farcical nature of the film gave the gags a much softer platform and the associated celebrity roastings were much easier to swallow. Ironically, during The Interview scandal, Paramount pulled Team America: World Police from general release to prevent any associated upset.
Whether we are watching moments of heightened emotion or knee-trembling controversy, animated productions benefit greatly by removing one thing from audiences – the ego. No, not the green-eyed self-esteem monster version of ego, but the invisible compass that connects your subconscious decisions with the reality around you. Because of this subversive little creature, you can tend to draw conclusions and judge others subconsciously before you have even made a definitive choice. You can, of course, mentally override this and make a more rational decision in the moment, but those initial split seconds that your ego is in the driving seat can affect your opinions dramatically. This mental pigeonholing can affect even the most avid cinemagoer.
Whether you’re worried if Tom Holland will ever get over the death of Ironman or if Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is about to drop the people's elbow on an unsuspecting cast member, when you put their voices in an animated character, the ego suddenly stops intruding. If an actor’s role is to convince the audience that they are truly someone else, then their voice roles could easily be considered some of their best work. After all, is there a greater form of method acting than literally putting yourself into another body entirely?
Whatever the reasons we are drawn to animation, our obsession shows no sign of fading. With ten-plus animated films now in the billion-dollar club and many more closing in, a Hollywood animated feature remains one of the biggest draws in the film industry. We all thrive on the feeling’s that films can give us and the level of connection we find in the stories they tell. With human contact somewhat lacking in our current era, it is no surprise that we are escaping into other worlds to get our fix. It would come as no surprise to learn that our viewing habits are slanting toward the kind of content that gives us more ‘feels’. Because of this desire for storytelling, cinema audiences will undoubtedly recover as time goes on. Until then, although wearing a mask to the movie theatre isn’t the most comfortable experience, my personal silver lining is that it will do a fine job of stifling my sobs as next year’s Jiminy Cricket pulls out his violin.
Brad Brookes is a screenwriter and award-winning copywriter based out of the UK. You can follow his latest work at bradbrookes.co.uk.
Image copyright: Disney P