Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Finding Nemo

The time factor

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Concept art for Toy Story 3

Earlier this week, my daughter saw Toy Story for the first time. Not surprisingly, she loved it—she’s asked to watch it three more times in two days—and we’ve already moved on to Toy Story 2. Seeing the two movies back to back, I was struck most of all by the contrast between them. The first installment, as lovely as it is, comes off as a sketch of things to come: the supporting cast of toys gets maybe ten minutes total of screen time, and the script still has vestiges of the villainous version of Woody who appeared in the earlier drafts. It’s a relatively limited film, compared to the sequels. Yet if you were to watch it today without any knowledge of the glories that followed, you’d come away with a sense that Pixar had done everything imaginable with the idea of toys who come to life. The original Toy Story feels like an exhaustive list of scenes and situations that emerge organically from its premise, as smartly developed by Joss Whedon and his fellow screenwriters, and in classic Pixar fashion, it exploits that core gimmick for all it’s worth. Like Finding Nemo, it amounts to an anthology of all the jokes and set pieces that its setting implies: you can practically hear the writers pitching out ideas. And taken on its own, it seems like it does everything it possibly can with that fantastic concept.

Except, of course, it doesn’t, as two incredible sequels and a series of shorts would demonstrate. Toy Story 2 may be the best example I know of a movie that takes what made its predecessor special and elevates it to a level of storytelling that you never imagined could exist. And it does this, crucially, by introducing a new element: time. If Toy Story is about toys and children, Toy Story 2 and its successor are about what happens when those kids become adults. It’s a complication that was inherent to its premise from the beginning, but the first movie wasn’t equipped to explore it—we had to get to know and care about these characters before we could worry about what would happen after Andy grew up. It’s a part of the story that had to be told, if its assumptions were to be treated honestly, and it shows that the original movie, which seemed so complete in itself, only gave us a fraction of the full picture. Toy Story 3 is an astonishing achievement on its own terms, but there’s a sense in which it only extends and trades on the previous film’s moment of insight, which turned it into a franchise of almost painful emotional resonance. If comedy is tragedy plus time, the Toy Story series knows that when you add time to comedy, you end up with something startlingly close to tragedy again.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II

And thinking about the passage of time is an indispensable trick for creators of series fiction, or for those looking to expand a story’s premise beyond the obvious. Writers of all kinds tend to think in terms of unity of time and place, which means that time itself isn’t a factor in most stories: the action is confined within a safe, manageable scope. Adding more time to the story in either direction has a way of exploding the story’s assumptions, or of exposing fissures that lead to promising conflicts. If The Godfather Part II is more powerful and complex than its predecessor, it’s largely because of its double timeline, which naturally introduces elements of irony and regret that weren’t present in the first movie: the outside world seems to break into the hermetically sealed existence of the Corleones just as the movie itself breaks out of its linear chronology. And the abrupt time jump, which television series from Fargo to Parks and Recreation have cleverly employed, is such a useful way of advancing a story and upending the status quo that it’s become a cliché in itself. Even if you don’t plan on writing more than one story or incorporating the passage of time explicitly into the plot, asking yourself how the characters would change after five or ten years allows you to see whether the story depends on a static, unchanging timeframe. And those insights can only be good for the work.

This also applies to series in which time itself has become a factor for reasons outside anyone’s control. The Force Awakens gains much of its emotional impact from our recognition, even if it’s unconscious, that Mark Hamill is older now than Alec Guinness was in the original, and the fact that decades have gone by both within the story’s universe and in our own world only increases its power. The Star Trek series became nothing less than a meditation on the aging of its own cast. And this goes a long way toward explaining why Toy Story 3 was able to close the narrative circle so beautifully: eleven years had passed since the last movie, and both Andy and his voice actor had grown to adulthood, as had so many of the original film’s fans. (It’s also worth noting that the time element seems to have all but disappeared from the current incarnation of the Toy Story franchise: Bonnie, who owns the toys now, is in no danger of growing up soon, and even if she does, it would feel as if the films were repeating themselves. I’m still optimistic about Toy Story 4, but it seems unlikely to have the same resonance as its predecessors—the time factor has already been fully exploited. Of course, I’d also be glad to be proven wrong.) For a meaningful story, time isn’t a liability, but an asset. And it can lead to discoveries that you didn’t know were possible, but only if you’re willing to play with it.

Beyond good and evil

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Ponyo

First, a toddler movie update. After a stretch in which my daughter watched My Neighbor Totoro close to a hundred times, she’s finally moved on to a few other titles: now she’s more into Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s other great masterpiece for children, and, somewhat to my surprise, the original Disney release of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. All, thankfully, are movies that I’m happy to watch on a daily basis, and seeing them juxtaposed together so often has allowed me to draw a few comparisons. Totoro still strikes me as a perfect movie, with a entire world of loveliness, strangeness, and fine observation unfolding from a few basic premises. Ponyo is a little messier, with a glorious central hour surrounded on both sides with material that doesn’t seem as fully developed, although it’s not without its charms. And Winnie the Pooh impresses me now mostly as an anthology of good tricks, gags, and bits of business, as perfected over the decades by the best animators in the world. It’s sweet and funny, but more calculated in its appeal than its source, and although it captures many of the pleasures of the original books, it misses something essential in their tone. (Really, the only animator who could give us a faithful version of Milne’s stories is Miyazaki himself.)

And none of them, tellingly, has any villains. Beatrix hasn’t been left entirely innocent of fictional villainy, and she already knows that—spoiler alert—Hans is “the bad guy” and Kristof is “the good guy” based on her limited exposure to Frozen. Yet I’ve always suspected that the best children’s movies are the ones that hold the viewer’s attention, regardless of age, without resorting to manufactured conflicts. You could divide the Pixar films into two categories based on which ones lean the heaviest on scripted villains, and you often find that the best of them avoid creating characters whom we’re only supposed to hate. The human antagonists in the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo are more like impersonal forces of nature than deliberate enemies, and I’ve always been a little uneasy about The Incredibles, as fantastic as so much of it is, simply because its villain is so irredeemably loathsome. There are always exceptions, of course: Toy Story 3 features one of the most memorable bad guys in any recent movie, animated or otherwise. But if children’s films that avoid the easy labels of good guys and bad guys tend to be better than average, that’s less a moral judgment than a practical one: in order to tell an interesting story without an obvious foil, you have to think a little harder. And it shows.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

That said, there’s an obvious contradiction here. As I’ve stated elsewhere, when I tell my daughter fairy tales, I tend to go for the bloodiest, least sanitized versions I can find. There’s no shortage of evil in the Brothers Grimm, and the original stories go far beyond what most children’s movies are willing to show us. The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is as frightening a monster as any I know, and I still feel a chill when I read her first line aloud. The wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother whole, and as his punishment, he gets killed with an axe and sliced open with sewing shears. (At least, that’s what happens in the version I’ve been reading: in the original, Little Red Riding Hood herself proposes that the wolf’s belly be filled with heavy stones.) The queen in “Snow White” attempts to kill the title character no fewer than three times, first by strangling her with a lace bodice, then with a poisoned comb, before finally resorting to the apple to finish the job. And when you sanitize these stories, you rob them of most of their meaning. As I noted in my original post on the subject:  “A version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless.”

So why do I value fairy tales for their unflinching depictions of evil, while equally treasuring children’s films in which nothing bad happens at all? I could justify this in all kinds of ways, but I keep returning to a point that I’ve made here before, which is that the only moral value I feel like inculcating in my daughter—at least for now—is a refusal to accept shoddy or dishonest storytelling. Miyazaki and the Brothers Grimm lie on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they’re unified by their utter lack of cynicism. One might be light, the other dark, but they’re both telling the stories they have in the most honest way they can, and they don’t feel obliged to drum up our interest using artificial means. In Miyazaki, it’s because the world is too magical for us to need a bad guy in order to care about it; in the Brothers Grimm, it’s because the world is already so sinister, down to its deepest roots, and the story is less about giving us a disposable antagonist than in confronting us with our most fundamental fears. When you compare it to the children’s movies that include a bully or a bad guy who exists solely to drive the plot along, you see that Totoro and “Hansel and Gretel” have more in common with each other than with their lesser counterparts. There’s good in the world as well as evil, and I don’t plan on sheltering my daughter from either one. But I’m going to shelter her from bad storytelling for as long as I can.

Andrew Stanton and the world beyond Pixar

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Art is messy, art is chaos—so you need a system.

Andrew Stanton, to the New Yorker

For the second time in less than six months, the New Yorker takes on the curious case of Pixar, and this time around, the results are much more satisfying. In May, the magazine offered up a profile of John Lasseter that was close to a total failure, since critic Anthony Lane’s customary air of disdain was unprepared to draw any useful conclusions about a studio that, at least up to that point, had gotten just about everything blessedly right. This week’s piece by Tad Friend is far superior, focusing on the relatively unsung talents of Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. And while the publication of a fawning New Yorker profile of a hot creative talent rarely bodes well for his or her next project—as witness the recent articles on Tony Gilroy, Steve Carrell, Anna Faris, or even Lasseter himself, whose profile only briefly anticipated the release of the underwhelming Cars 2—I’m still excited by Stanton’s next project, the Edgar Rice Burroughs epic John Carter, which will serve as a crucial test as to whether Pixar’s magic can extend to the world beyond animation.

Stanton’s case is particularly interesting because of the role he plays at the studio: to hear the article tell it, he’s Pixar’s resident storyteller. “Among all the top talent here,” says Jim Morris, the head of Pixar’s daily operations, “Andrew is the one who has a genius for story structure.” And what makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that Stanton seems to have essentially willed this talent into existence. Stanton was trained as an animator, and began, like most of his colleagues, by focusing on the visual side. As the script for Toy Story was being developed, however, he decided that his future would lie in narrative, and quietly began to train himself in the writer’s craft, reading classic screenplays—including, for some reason, the truly awful script for Ryan’s Daughter—and such texts as Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. In the end, he was generally acknowledged as the senior writer at Pixar, which, given the caliber of talent involved, must be a heady position indeed.

And while the article is littered with Stanton’s aphorisms on storytelling—”Inevitable but not predictable,” “Conflict + contradiction,” “Do the opposite”—his main virtue as a writer seems to lie in the most universal rule of all: “Be wrong fast.” More than anything else, Stanton’s success so far has been predicated on an admirable willingness to throw things out and start again. He spent years, for instance, working on a second act for Wall-E that was finally junked completely, and while I’m not sure he ever quite cracked the plot for that moviewhich I don’t think lives up to the promise of its first twenty minutes—there’s no question that his ruthlessness with structure did wonders for Finding Nemo, which was radically rethought and reconceived several times over the course of production. Pixar, like the rest of us, is making things up as it goes along, but is set apart by its refusal to let well enough alone. As Stanton concludes:

We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.

The real question, of course, is whether this approach to storytelling, with its necessary false starts and extensive rendering time, can survive the transition to live action, in which the use of real actors and sets makes retakes—and thus revision—drastically more expensive. So far, it sounds like John Carter is doing fine, at least judging from the trailer and early audience response, which has reportedly been encouraging. And more rides on this movie’s success or failure than the fate of one particular franchise. Pixar’s story has been extraordinary, but its most lasting legacy may turn out to be the migration of its talent beyond the safety zone of animation—assuming, of course, that their kung fu can survive. With Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and John Carter in the wingswe’re about to discover if the directors who changed animation at Pixar can do the same in live action. The New Yorker article is fine, but it buries the lede: Stanton and Bird are the first of many. And if their next movies are half as entertaining as the ones they’ve made so far, we’re looking at an earthquake in the world of pop culture.

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