Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hayao Miyazaki

Flowers of evil

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Note: Spoilers follow for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The best way to start talking about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which is a movie that I liked a lot, is to quote from one of its few negative reviews. It’s the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production company founded by veterans of the legendary Studio Ghibli, and it’s impossible to watch it without being reminded of its predecessors, as the critic David Ehrlich notes on IndieWire:

Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be a great film—it occasionally struggles just to be a good one—but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run…Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect—a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth…There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and [director Hiromasa] Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is…Borrowing liberally from [Studio] Ghibli’s signature iconography, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib…There’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.

Ehrlich concludes with a note of paradoxical praise: “There’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.” I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower a lot more than Ehrlich did, and I don’t agree with everything that he says here. (For instance: “The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem.” Yet when it comes to the Ghibli style, cheapness is in the eye of the beholder. When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in this country, Leonard Klady of Variety wrote dismissively of its “adequate television technical craft,” and it isn’t hard to see how he reached that conclusion about one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) But Ehrlich’s argument is also fundamentally sound. Watching Mary awakened me to the extent to which the qualities of the films of Hayao Miyazaki are vulnerable to imitation, or even parody. It isn’t just their nostalgic settings or young female protagonists, but their pacing, which inserts extra beats of quiet into scenes that most movies tend to skip entirely. The characters in a Miyazaki movie are always pausing to absorb or react to what they hear and see, and they always wait until the others are done talking before they speak for themselves. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is full of such moments, and in a medium that is acutely conscious of timing, this can’t be accidental.

This may seem like a minor point, but every movie is the sum of countless small touches, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower gets so many subtle things just right that it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft and technique involved. It’s about an ordinary girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a school of magic, but unlike certain other stories in the same vein, it doesn’t conclude with her embracing this new world. Instead, after realizing that its inhabitants are borderline sociopaths, she rejects it and returns gratefully to her old life. (At the end, when she tosses aside the flower of the title, it reminded me of Dirty Harry throwing away his badge.) This is a startling choice, but the movie earns it, mostly through some surprisingly understated design work. Mary’s home village is every bit as enticing as the ones in Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service—you can’t help but want to live there. The magical Endor College is grotesque by comparison, as Ehrlich writes:

It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale…The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential.

Yet he also complains: “There’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world…We don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there.” But if I had to decide between her village and Endor College, I know which one I’d choose.

And what I liked the most about Mary and the Witch’s Flower was how it quietly repurposes the tools of Studio Ghibli as a statement against a certain kind of storytelling. Miyazaki often draws inspiration from other works of art—Ponyo is essentially a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and Spirited Away has touches of Lewis Carroll—but the result usually seems to refer to nothing but itself. Mary isn’t just a refutation of Harry Potter, but of all the children’s movies that offer the consoling fantasy that we’d be able to solve our problems if only we had access to magic, and that the answer to heartbreak in this world lies in escaping from it entirely. The best of the Studio Ghibli movies end with a return to everyday life, but it’s weirdly encouraging to see a studio of younger animators applying this lesson in defiance of all the forces that might encourage them to make other forms of entertainment. Miyazaki is old enough at this point to do whatever he likes, and Studio Ponoc is willing to follow his example in ways that aren’t obvious. The great temptation with Mary and the Witch’s Flower must have been to imitate only the attributes of its models that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising. What it really achieves is something richer and more subversive, and in positioning Miyazaki’s values so directly against those of its rivals, it amounts to a declaration of purpose. Mary may be a knockoff, but its heart is in the right place, and we need it now more than ever.

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “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.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

Moana and the two studios

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Concept art for Moana

If the history of animation had a portentous opening voiceover, it would probably say: “In the beginning was the storyboard.” The earliest animated cartoons were short and silent, so it made sense to plan them out as a series of rough thumbnail sketches. Even after they added sound and dialogue and became longer in length, the practice survived, which is why so many of the classic Disney movies are so episodic. They weren’t plotted on paper from beginning to end, but conceived as a sequence of set pieces, often with separate teams, and they were planned by artists who thought primarily with a pencil. This approach generated extraordinary visual achievements, but it could also result in movies, like Alice in Wonderland, that were brilliant in their individual components but failed to build to anything more. Later, in the eighties, Disney switched over to a production cycle that was closer to that of a live-action feature, with a traditional screenplay serving as the basis for future development. This led to more coherent stories, and it’s hard to imagine a film like Frozen being written in any other way. But another consequence was a retreat of visual imagination. When the eye no longer comes first, it’s harder for animators to create sequences that push against the boundaries of the medium. Over time, the movies start to look more or less the same, with similar character designs moving through beautifully rendered backgrounds that become ever more photorealistic for no particular reason.

The most heartening development in animation in recent years, which we’ve seen in Inside Out and Zootopia and now Moana, is the movement back toward a kind of animated feature that isn’t afraid to play with how it looks. Inside Out—which I think is the best movie Pixar has ever made—remains the gold standard, a film with a varied, anarchic style and amazing character design that still tells an emotionally effective story. Zootopia is more conventionally structured, but sequences like the chase through Little Rodentia are thrillingly aware of the possibilities of scale. Moana, in turn, may follow all the usual beats, but it’s also more episodic than usual, with self-contained sequences that seem to have been developed for their visual possibilities. I’m thinking, in particular, of the scenes with the pygmy Kakamora pirates and the encounter with Jermaine Clement’s giant coconut crab Tamatoa. You could lift these parts out and replace them with something else, and the rest of the story would be pretty much the same. For most movies, this would be a criticism, but there’s something about the episodic structure that allows animation to flourish, because each scene can be treated as a work of art in itself. Think, for instance, of Pinocchio, and how the plot wanders from Stromboli to Pleasure Island to Monstro almost at fancy. If it were made again today, the directors would probably get notes about how they should “establish” Monstro in the first act. But its dreamlike procession of wonders is what we remember the most fondly, and it’s exactly the quality that a conventional script would kill.     

Concept art for Moana

The fact that Disney and Pixar are rediscovering this sort of loose, shaggy energy is immensely promising, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened. (It doesn’t seem to be uniformly the case, either: Finding Dory was a lovely movie, but it was plotted to within an inch of its life.) Pinning down the cause becomes even tricker when we remember that all of these movies are in production at the same time. If so many storytelling tricks seem to recur—like the opening scene that shows the protagonist as a child, or the reveal in the third act that an apparently friendly character is really a bad guy—it’s probably because the same people were giving notes or actively engaged in multiple stories for years. Similarly, the move toward episodic structure may be less a conscious decision than the result of an atmosphere of experimentation that has started to permeate the studio. I’d love to think that it might be due to the influence through John Lasseter of Hayao Miyazaki, who thinks naturally in the language of dreams. The involvement of strong songwriters like Robert and Kristen Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda may also play a part: when you’ve got a great song at the heart of a scene, you’re more likely to think of visuals that rise to the level of the music. Another factor may be the rise of animators, like Moana producer Osnat Shurer, who came up through the ranks in the Pixar shorts, which are more willing to take stylistic risks. Put them all together with veteran directors like Ron Clements and John Musker, and you’ve got a recipe for self-contained scenes that push the envelope within a reliable formula.

But the strongest possibility of all, I think, is that we’re seeing what happens when the Pixar and Disney teams begin to work side by side. It’s been exactly ten years since Pixar was acquired by its parent company, which is just about the right amount of time for a cultural exchange to become consistently visible onscreen. The two divisions seem as if they’re trying to outdo each other, and the most obvious way is to come up with visually stunning sequences. This kind of competition will naturally manifest itself on the visual end: it’s hard for two teams of writers to keep an eye on each other, and any changes to the story won’t be visible until the whole thing is put together, while it’s likely that every animator has a good idea of what everybody else is doing. (Pixar headquarters itself was designed to encourage an organic exchange of ideas, and while it’s a long drive from Emeryville to Burbank, even that distance might be a good thing—it allows the divisions to compete on the basis of finished scenes, rather than works in progress.) It isn’t a foolproof method, and there will inevitably come a day when one studio or the other won’t overcome the crisis that seems to befall every animated feature halfway through production. But if you wanted to come up with a system that would give animators an incentive to innovate within the structure of a decent script, it’s hard to imagine a better one. You’ve got separate teams of animators trying to top each other, as they did on Alice, and a parent studio that has figured out how to make those episodes work as part of a story. That’s a great combination. And I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2016 at 9:13 am

The story whisperer

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Storyboard for Aladdin

If you really want to learn how a story works, you should try telling it to a three-year-old. Over the last twelve months, as my daughter has begun to watch longer movies, I’ve developed a sideline business as a sort of simultaneous interpreter: I’ll sit next to her and offer a running commentary on the action, designed to keep her from getting restless and to preemptively answer her questions. If it’s a movie I’ve seen before, like My Neighbor Totoro, I don’t need to concentrate quite as intently, but on the handful of occasions when I’ve watched a movie with her for the first time in theaters—as we’ve done with The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia—I’ve had to pay closer attention. What I whisper in her ear usually boils down to a basic description of a character’s emotions or objectives, if it isn’t already clear from action or dialogue: “He’s sad.” “She’s worried about her friend.” “He wants to find his family.” And I’ve come to realize that this amounts to a kind of reverse engineering. If a movie often originates in the form of beat sheets or storyboards that the filmmakers have to turn into fully realized scenes, by breaking down the action in terms that my daughter can understand, I’m simply rewinding that process back to the beginning.

And it’s taught me some surprising lessons about storytelling. It reminds me a little of a piece that ran last year in The New York Times Magazine about Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a former interpreter for the United Nations. Like Ajalyaqeen, I’m listening to a story and translating it into a different language in real time, and many of the tips that she shares apply equally well here: “Be invisible.” “Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings.” “Forget pausing to find the right word.” And most of all:

Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. “A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,” says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sen­tences without knowing where they are going grammatically…”Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is—you’re waiting for the verb.”

“Waiting for the verb” is as good a way as any to describe what I often have to do with my daughter: I’m not sure where the scene is going, but I have to sustain her interest until the real action kicks in.

Storyboard for Aladdin

This is a valuable exercise, because it forces me to engage with the story entirely in the present tense. I’ve spoken here before of how a story can best be understood as a sequence of objectives, which is the approach that David Mamet articulates so beautifully in On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read. In practice, though, it’s easy to forget this. When you’re the writer, you find yourself thinking in terms of the story’s overall shape, and even if you’re just the reader or a member of the audience, you often skip ahead to anticipate what comes next. When you’re trying to explain it to a three-year-old, there isn’t time for any of this—your only goal is to explicate what is happening on the screen right now. After you’ve done this for a dozen or more movies, you start to appreciate how this approximates how we subconsciously experience all stories, no matter how sophisticated they might be. A good movie or novel doesn’t just put one scene after another, like a series of beads on a string, but that’s how we absorb it, and it needs to be told with clarity on that simple sequential level if its larger patterns are going to have any meaning. Like a properly constructed improvisation, an engaging story comes down to a series of “Yes, and…” statements. And the fact that it also needs to be more doesn’t excuse it from its basic obligation to be clear and logical with each individual beat.

And talking your way through through a movie like this—even if the three-year-old you’re addressing is an imaginary one—can lead to unexpected insights into a story’s strengths and weaknesses. I came away even more impressed by Zootopia because of how cleverly it grounds its complicated plot in a series of units that can be easily grasped: I don’t think Beatrix was ever lost for more than a few seconds. And when I watched Aladdin with her this morning, I became uncomfortably aware of the golden thread of fakery that runs through the center of that story: it’s a skillful script, but it hits its beats so emphatically that I was constantly aware of how it was manipulating us. (Compare this to Miyazaki’s great movies, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo, which achieve their effects more subtly and mysteriously, while never being anything less than fascinating.) I’ve even found myself doing much the same thing when I’m watching a television show or reading a book on my own. When you try to see the story through a child’s eyes, and to frame it in terms that would hold the attention of a preschooler, you quickly learn that it isn’t a question of dumbing it down, but of raising it to an even greater level of sophistication, with the story conveyed with the clarity of a fairy tale. Anyone who thinks that this is easy has never tried to do it for real. And at every turn, you need to be asking yourself a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

Alice in Disneyland

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Alice in Wonderland model sheet

A few weeks ago, I noted that watching the Disney movies available for streaming on Netflix is like seeing an alternate canon with high points like Snow White and Pinocchio stripped away, leaving marginal—but still appealing—films like Robin Hood and The Aristocats. Alice in Wonderland, which my daughter and I watched about ten times this week, lies somewhere in the middle. It lacks the rich texture of the earlier masterpieces, but it’s obviously the result of a lot of work and imagination, and much of it is wonderful. In many respects, it’s as close as the Disney studio ever got to the more anarchic style of the Warner Bros. cartoons, and when it really gets cooking, you can’t tear your eyes away. Still, it almost goes without saying that it fails to capture, or even to understand, the appeal of the original novels. Part of this is due to the indifference of the animators to anything but the gag of the moment, a tendency that Walt Disney once fought to keep in check, but which ran wild as soon as his attention was distracted by other projects. I love the work of the Nine Old Men as much as anyone, but it’s also necessary to acknowledge how incurious they could often appear about everything but animation itself, and how they seemed less interested in capturing the tone of authors like Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, or Kenneth Grahame than in shoehorning those characters into the tricks they knew. And it was rarely more evident than it is here.

What really fascinates me now about Alice in Wonderland is how it represents a translation from one mode of storytelling—and even of how to think about narrative itself—into another. The wit of Carroll’s novels isn’t visual, but verbal and logical: as I noted yesterday, the first book emerges from the oral fairy tale tradition, as enriched by the author’s gifts for paradox, parody, and wordplay. The Disney studio of this era, by contrast, wasn’t used to thinking in words, but in pictures. Movies were planned out as a series of thumbnail sketches on a storyboard, which naturally emphasized sight gags and physical comedy over dialogue. For the most part, Carroll’s words are preserved, and they often benefit from fantastic voice performances, but most of the scenes treat them as little more than background noise. My favorite example here is the Mad Tea Party. When I watch it again now, it strikes me as a dazzling anthology of visual puns, some of them brilliant, built around the props on the table: you can almost see the animators at the drawing board pitching out the gags, which follow one another so quickly that it makes your head spin. The result doesn’t have much to do with Lewis Carroll, and none of the surviving verbal jokes really land or register, but it works, at least up to a point, as a visual equivalent of the density of the book’s prose.

Cheshire Cat model sheet

But it doesn’t really build to anything, and like the movie itself, it just sort of ends. As Ward Kimball once said to Leonard Maltin: “It suffered from too many cooks—directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product.” Walt Disney himself seems to have grasped this, and I’d like to think that it contributed to his decision, a few years later, to subordinate all of Sleeping Beauty to the style of the artist Eyvind Earle. (That movie suffers from the same indifference to large chunks of the plot that we see elsewhere in Disney—neither Aurora nor Prince Philip even speak for the second half of the film, since the animators are clearly much more interested in Malificent and the three good fairies—but we’re so caught up in the look and music that we don’t really care.) Ultimately, the real solution lay in a more fundamental shift in the production process, in which the film was written up first as a screenplay rather than as a series of storyboards. This model, which is followed today by nearly all animated features, was a relatively late development. And to the extent that we’ve seen an expansion of the possibilities of plot, emotion, and tone in the ongoing animation renaissance, it’s thanks to an approach that places more emphasis on figuring out the overall story before drilling down to the level of the gag.

That said, there’s a vitality and ingenuity to Alice in Wonderland that I miss in more recent works. Movies like Frozen and the Pixar films are undeniably spectacular, but it’s hard to recall any moments of purely visual or graphic wit of the kind that fill the earlier Disney films so abundantly. (The exception, interestingly, is The Peanuts Movie, which seems to have benefited by regarding the classic Schulz strips as a sort of storyboard in themselves, as well as from the challenges of translating the flat style of the originals into three dimensions.) An animated film built around a screenplay and made with infinite technological resources starts to look more or less like every other movie, at least in terms of its staging and how all the pieces fit together, while a film that starts with a storyboard often has narrative limitations, but makes up for it with a kind of local energy that doesn’t have a parallel in any other medium. The very greatest animated films, like My Neighbor Totoro, somehow manage to have it both ways, and the example of Miyazaki suggests that real secret is to have the movie conceived by a single visionary who also knows how to draw. Given the enormous technical complexity of contemporary animation, that’s increasingly rare these days, and it’s true that some of the best recent Pixar movies, like Toy Story 3, represent the work of directors who don’t draw at all. But I’d love to see a return to the old style, at least occasionally—even if it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Written by nevalalee

November 25, 2015 at 9:04 am

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.

Totoro and I

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My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

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