Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Pixar

The prankster principle

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Totoro in Toy Story 3

In an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Ed Catmull of Pixar was recently asked: “How do you, as the leader of a company, simultaneously create a culture of doubt—of being open to careful, systematic introspection—and inspire confidence?” He replied:

The fundamental tension [at Pixar] is that people want clear leadership, but what we’re doing is inherently messy. We know, intellectually, that if we want to do something new, there will be some unpredictable problems. But if it gets too messy, it actually does fall apart. And adhering to the pure, original plan falls apart, too, because it doesn’t represent reality. So you are always in this balance between clear leadership and chaos; in fact that’s where you’re supposed to be. Rather than thinking, “Okay, my job is to prevent or avoid all the messes,” I just try to say, “well, let’s make sure it doesn’t get too messy.”

Which sounds a lot like the observation from the scientist Max Delbrück that I never tire of quoting: “If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the ‘Principle of Limited Sloppiness.’”

Most artists are aware that creativity requires a certain degree of controlled messiness, and scientists—or artists who work in fields where science and technology play a central role, as they do at Pixar—seem to be particularly conscious of this. As the zoologist John Zachary Young said:

Each individual uses the store of randomness, with which he was born, to build during his life rules which are useful and can be passed on…We might therefore take as our general picture of the universe a system of continuity in which there are two elements, randomness and organization, disorder and order, if you like, alternating with one another in such a fashion as to maintain continuity.

I suspect that scientists feel compelled to articulate this point so explicitly because there are so many other factors that discourage it in the pursuit of ordinary research. Order, cleanliness, and control are regarded as scientific virtues, and for good reason, which makes it all the more important to introduce a few elements of disorder in a systematic way. Or, failing that, to acknowledge the usefulness of disorder and to tolerate it to a certain extent.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

When you’re working by yourself, you find that both your headspace and your workspace tend to arrive at whatever level of messiness works best for you. On any given day, the degree of clutter in my office is more or less the same, with occasional deviations toward greater or lesser neatness: it’s a nest that I’ve feathered into a comfortable setting for productivity—or inactivity, which often amounts to the same thing. It’s tricker when different personalities have to work together. What sets Pixar apart is its ability to preserve that healthy alternation between order and disorder, while still releasing a blockbuster movie every year. It does this, in part, by limiting the number of feature films that it has in production at any one time, and by building in systems for feedback and deconstruction, with an environment that encourages artists to start again from scratch. There’s also a tradition of prankishness that the company has tried to preserve. As Catmull says:

For example, when we were building Pixar, the people at the time played a lot of practical jokes on each other, and they loved that. They think it’s awesome when there are practical jokes and people do things that are wild and crazy…Without intending to, the culture slowly shifts. How do you keep the shift from happening? I can’t go out and say, “Okay, we’re going to organize some wild and crazy activities.” Top-down organizing of spontaneous activities isn’t a good idea.

It’s hard to scale up a culture of practical jokes, and Pixar has faced the same challenges here as elsewhere. The mixed outcomes of Brave and, to some extent, The Good Dinosaur show that the studio isn’t infallible, and a creative process that depends on a movie sucking for three out of four years can run into trouble when you shift that timeline. But the fact that Pixar places so much importance on this kind of prankishness is revealing in itself. It arises in large part from its roots in the movies, which have been faced with the problem of maintaining messiness in the face of big industrial pressures almost from the beginning. (Orson Welles spoke of “the orderly disorder” that emerges from the need to make quick decisions while moving large amounts of people and equipment, and Stanley Kubrick was constantly on the lookout for collaborators like Ken Adam who would allow him to be similarly spontaneous.) There’s a long tradition of pranks on movie sets, shading imperceptibly from the gags we associate with the likes of George Clooney to the borderline insane tactics that Werner Herzog uses to keep that sense of danger alive. The danger, as Herzog is careful to assure us, is more apparent than real, and it’s more a way of fruitfully disordering what might otherwise become safe and predictable. But just by the right amount. As the artist Frank Stella has said of his own work: “I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.”

Choose life

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Inside Out

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”

Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)

The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.

Kiefer Sutherland in 24

A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.

A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:   

There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.

And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.

Insider awards, outsider art

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Concept art for Inside Out

I really have no business writing about the Oscars at all. My curtailed moviegoing habits these days mean that I only saw one of the Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road, which was awesome—and for all my good intentions, I haven’t yet managed to catch up with the others at home. (My wife is a journalist, and like all her peers, she’s been a passionate member of team Spotlight ever since she saw the earliest photos of the cast’s painfully accurate khakis, brown shoes, and blue button-down shirts.) I can’t even write about Chris Rock’s monologue, since I was putting my daughter to bed when it aired, although the rest of the telecast struck me as the most professional ceremony in years: it hit its marks and moved like clockwork with a minimum of cringeworthiness, even if there weren’t many memorable moments. The ongoing debate about diversity and representation in popular culture is an important one, and it’s going to be even more central to my life and this blog as I continue working on Astounding, which raises huge questions about our default assumptions about the stories we tell. But today, I’d like to focus on just one issue. Why, in the name of all that is good and holy, wasn’t Inside Out nominated for Best Picture?

Because it’s a real mystery. Inside Out was one of the five most successful films at the domestic box office over the last calendar year, and it was the second most highly rated movie over the same period on Rotten Tomatoes, coming in behind Fury Road by just a hair. (It actually has a higher unadjusted score, but falls back a notch because it had fewer total reviews.) It also comes at the end of a stretch in which the Academy has been uncharacteristically willing to find room for animated features in the Best Picture race, as well as in their own category—as long as they’re made by Pixar. And Inside Out is the best Pixar movie ever made outside the Toy Story franchise, or at least the most visually and narratively inventive: its rousing aesthetic freedom is a reminder that even the best recent animated movies have been bound by gravity and mindlessly realistic texture mapping. Yet in a year in which the Academy Awards embraced unconventional nominees without regard to genre, from Mad Max to The Martian, Inside Out didn’t make the cut. And since there were only eight nominees, there was ample room for two more, according to a confusing sliding scale that I don’t even think most awards buffs understand. It wouldn’t have had to knock any other deserving movies out of the way: there was a slot right there waiting for it. But it was nowhere in sight.

Inside Out

This might seem like a moot point for a movie that won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, made a ton of money, and choked up audiences worldwide. (My wife cried so much when we watched it that she practically went into anaphylactic shock.) But the larger implications are worth raising. It’s tough to analyze the collective psychology behind something like the Oscar nominations, which is why the problem of racism in Hollywood has been so difficult to address: it’s less the result of obvious structural shortcomings than an emergent property arising from countless small decisions made by players acting independently. When you try to find a solution, it slips through your fingers. Still, when the industry votes together, inclinations that might pass unseen on the individual level suddenly become all too visible. And in the case of animated features, when you amplify those tendencies to a point where they result in a concrete outcome, like a nomination or lack thereof, it’s obvious that a lot of voters find something vaguely suspect about animation itself. Thanks in a large part to its history as a children’s medium, it still feels like kid’s stuff, despite so much evidence to the contrary—or the fact that studios are increasingly dependent on a global audience for movies that are either animated or might as well be. It’s treated like outsider art, maybe because it naturally tends to attract visionary weirdos who wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.

This isn’t the Academy’s only blind spot: it also doesn’t much care for subtitles, sequels, or movies that fail to break even. But when you take into account the usual inverse relationship between artistic merit and job creation, the reluctance to recognize animated features as playing a grownup’s game is even harder to justify: these movies can take half a decade to make, employ hundreds of people, and involve the solution of many intractable creative and technical problems. (In fact, the development of Inside Out appears to have been exceptionally difficult: Pete Docter has spoken of how the entire script was junked halfway through, once they realized that Joy had to go on her adventure with Sadness, rather than Fear. It’s the best example imaginable of the Andrew Stanton approach—“The films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them”—succeeding, for once, to a spectacular degree.) And what makes Inside Out such an instructive test case is that everything else was lined up in its favor. It was moving, formally elegant, incredibly entertaining, and it wasn’t a sequel, the last of which probably counted against Toy Story 2, which was also unambiguously the biggest critical and box office success of its year. For an animated film not just to get nominated, but to win, would require both a masterpiece and a sea change in how such movies are regarded by the industry that relies on them so much. And if that ever happens, it’ll be a reason to be joyful.

Written by nevalalee

February 29, 2016 at 10:01 am

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.

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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