Monthly Archives: March 2014

I wanted to write about Frozen but then wrote way too much

There seems to be some confusion, so lemme clear this up and also get this out of the way at the start.

Frozen is a good movie and everyone should go see it.  You should also totally go take your kids to see it.  It is currently one of the highest grossing animated films of all time.

And it deserves that money.  I’m even excited that Frozen is currently making _all_ the money right now.  Considering one of the alternatives people could be spending their money on is The Croods*, I’m more than happy to report that we are not all entirely brain dead when it comes to entertainment choices.

Score one for the home team.  I own the deluxe soundtrack.  T-Fury ran a Calvin and Hobbes and Frozen crossover shirt, and if I wasn’t worried about things like ‘eating food’ I would have bought it in a heartbeat.  I’d buy the blu-ray if I had a blu-ray player.

After finding out the quote feature is just a way to make some text really big and super pretentious, I won’t go into the Chesterton quote I wanted to use, so we’ll skip the freshman English paper and go right to the heart of the matter.

In order to even get the drive to improve something, you’ve kinda gotta fall in love with it first.  It’s why I’d never think about writing a Disney movie after, say, Dinosaur, because that particular movie makes me want to do something else– namely drink heavily, or write C code to simulate a computer drinking heavily.

If you put things on too high of a pedestal, they essentially can’t inspire you because they’re too good.  You’re too starstruck to actually want to create things.  Sadly, any example I give here is going to have far to much math for you to care about, because I find math pretty.  Beautiful, even.  I got your back, Euler’s identity, even when the kids in the parking lot are making fun of you.

To get inspired to improve something means you need to see something special about the original, so much that you want to wipe the flaws off of it and make it even better.  This project isn’t quite ‘lets write Frozen better!’ because it turns out, that’s not fun.  Instead, the fact that Frozen was still good (despite cracks) inspired me to think, “Well, hell, if you can still be good even with some flaws… I can do that!”

And so, we get to Frozen, which for those of you who don’t remember, was the movie that sparked this entire adventure off.  I have problems with Frozen.  I still like it– hell, I still love it, but I do not think it is perfect in every way.

Keep this in mind, as I’m gonna be pretty blunt with some things.

Oh, and one more thing– let us not forget I’m mostly a computer geek who has seen far to many movies about princesses.

This is the closest I get to a critical analysis.  Oh, yeah… Spoilers, ahead, I guess?

Now that we’re done with preamble, lets talk about this guy:

"Oh, so all Germans are evil now?  THANKS DISNEY." -- not what I'm going to say.
“Oh, so all Germans are evil now? THANKS DISNEY.” — not what I’m going to say.

Hans is the “villain” of Frozen.  And he is really bad at it.  The idea is that he’s evil because he wants to marry Anna and murder Elsa to become king of Rivendell Arendelle.    Which is a rather evil plot, I won’t lie.  However, Frozen gives you this reveal in the third act, as a Shyamalan styled plot twist.

And like most things Shyamalan has done, it’s bad.  Don’t imitate that guy, Disney.  Don’t.  No one likes him.  It’s like trying to be more like the kid that collects far, far to many firearms or the kid that flays squirrels in his free time.

See, here is the thing about plot twists– they need to be set up.  You gotta give the audience some hints that someone is about to change their colors.  You don’t have to tell us outright (although, that is a useful way to heighten tension), but give us something.

Hans goes bad out of nowhere.  Anna goes to kiss Hans to not get frozen to death and Hans pulls back, revealing that he never loved her after all, thus becoming less of a character and more of a plot device in less time than it took for me to write that sentence.  This also makes Hans’ earlier actions in the movie beyond puzzling. For someone who wants to make a power-play for Arendelle, he does a fantastic job of making sure the sisters stay alive and don’t get vilified by the community.

I mean, its not the worst villain Disney has ever done (I’d nominate Edgar Balthazar, but not with any confidence).  It’s just frustrating because he could have been the most chilling villain ever.

If you want to go the villain route, then the scene where Hans goes after Anna and Elsa just needs a single modification.  It’s the perfect time for him to hint that he’s got bigger plans than falling in love with Anna.  He’s isolated from the rest of the cast, outside of that ineffectual old guy who, I’m convinced, exists only to throw a sly Arrested Development reference in the movie (and also to help keep the stupid pump fake alive for the villain).

frozen-ad-5 frozen-ad-6

 

I’m on to you, Disney.

This is the perfect time for him to hint at his true colors.  In fact, this is when good Disney films actually do perform their villain reveal.  In The Lion King, Scar unveils his murder plot when he’s separated from the rest of the main cast (with song).  In Hunchback, Frollo unveils his rape plot when he’s separated from the rest of the main cast (with song).  In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston unveils his plot to win the heart of his true love when he’s separated from the rest of the main cast (with song).

Instead, Hans looks and acts like he is really concerned about Anna (like, maybe, he actually cares?), and is generally a pretty good ruler in the midst of the current crisis.  If he were to clue us in, at this point, than his very heroic actions at Elsa’s ice hotel are more believable as cover.  

Also, for members of the audience that catch that Hans is the villain at this point, the ice hotel battle royal gets an extra dose of tension and meaning.  What’s Hans going to do once he has Elsa?  Oh shit, the camera faded to black, did he just kill her?  Did she just die?  No, he couldn’t have killed her because he stopped those two other guys from killing her, but what if she got trapped under the ice chandelier and he left her there?  He totally would do that because he really wants the throne, and Anna doesn’t even know and oh my god, SHOW ME THE NEXT SCENE.

And then when Anna is galloping back to the castle, half the audience that missed the clues are like, But he won’t help you!  KRISTOPH IS YOUR TRUE LOVE, TRUST THE SENTIENT ROCKS, THIS IS A DISNEY MOVIE.  ALWAYS TRUST THE SENTIENT ROCKS. And the other half is like TURN BACK.  He’s gonna use you Anna!  HE’S ALREADY USED YOU.  But you also have to go back and save Elsa, he’s gonna kill her and/or let the town people kill her!  WAIT NO.  WAIT.  WHAT DO?

There is a pretty solid explanation as to why they ran Hans as a villain the way they did.  We’re supposed to emphasize with Anna as she’s freezing to death, locked in a room.  We got played by Hans too, Anna.  We feel your pain.

But that’s not really how movies work.  Or books, for that matter.

The reader, or the audience, can’t be a true participating member of the action on-screen.  We get a different angle of insight on the characters– either too much (we know things that the characters don’t know about)  or too little (the characters discover something that isn’t shown to us, see all of the detective genre).  We also don’t spend enough time with them to really develop emotional bonds.

Aside: You know how little kids can be best friends in like, 3 seconds?  You ever think that maybe the reason why they respond so heavily to onscreen things is that they literally form a stronger bond with the characters in the time we see them, because they form interpersonal bonds faster?

Back to my main point: as such, we aren’t going to sympathize with a character that way– tricking the audience doesn’t make us feel pity towards a character who also go tricked.  We can relate a character being tricked to a time when we were tricked, in our own lives.  That’s how you generate an emotional response and sympathy– you set it up to something the audience has experienced in reality and can relate too.

So, we don’t feel Anna’s pain.  If, however, we knew Hans was evil all along, then we could relate to Anna’s distress, as more of a mentor/teacher/confidant.  I knew this was going to happen to you.  He was rotten from the start, Anna.  Just like Jeremy was when he dumped me, so that he could murder my Dad and take over the family bank.  He also dumped me because he judges women by breast size.  I bet Hans and Jeremy will die alone and no one loves them.  Fuck them.  Lets get a drink.

Anna still has the same problems in this version though– which brings us to my big second point.  Frozen has this other character, perhaps you’ve seen her:

princess_anna_frozen-wide

Now, I have no problems with Anna at a start.  But, any good character should grow and develop through a film, especially one that is going to have some moral teaching attached to it, because Disney films always do.  Especially because we spend most of the film with Anna as our protagonist.  Anna… isn’t so big on the character arc concept.

Anna’s supposed to be kinda derpy, a do things first think later kinda girl, who is desperate for love because she’s been locked in a castle for most of her– huh.  That’s funny.  Totally thought I was writing about Rapunzel again for a second.

Her arc is set up to teach her a) love,  b) maybe think for like, three seconds before you do things?  Kristoff’s comments to her (“I don’t trust your judgement!”) and general reaction to Anna’s Impulsive Decision Making Process (trademarked) make it pretty clear this is not a trait we’re supposed to approve of.

Except it totally works out for her, like, all the time.  Of all the decisions Anna makes on the fly, how many come back to bite her?

One.  One of them.  Maybe.  The entire wolves scene is Anna being better than Kristoff at everything, despite his experience.  Snow giant fight scene?  Again, it’s the quick, “DO THIS THING” type decision making that saves her.  And Anna’s saving grace at the end?  Split second decision to throw herself over her sister.

The movie does laud her rapid fire decision making process.  In fact, she tends to make worse decisions the more time she has to think about them.  So, that’s out.  And on the love side?  Surely she learns about love?

Not quite.

Why does Anna leave the castle when she is freezing to death?  If you answered, “To seek out a true love’s kiss from someone she met two days ago”, you’re correct!  Good job. We made a whole lot of progress on the ‘learn about love’ front during this journey.  She has some evidence that Kristoff might care for her by coming back (or that he’s really looking out for his ice business), but how does she know that she loves him?  You just got dumped by someone you swore you were in love with, that’s a pretty intense about-face to pull after five minutes.

In fact, Anna doesn’t even believe it (“What do I know about love?”) while she’s freezing to death.  It’s Olaf (sigh) that suggests that Kristoff loves her, and she just decides, whelp, its either that or a freeze to death.  Might as well go kiss the same lips a reindeer may or may not have kissed.

“Well, the trolls just tried to get them hitched,” you reply.  Because love is something other people tell you to feel?  Right.  Sure.  Don’t start pointing fingers at me, I know I’m being hypocritical.  Just keep reading, I promise I make sense eventually.

Anna makes a trademark split second decision to sacrifice herself for her sister, which is the catalyst for Elsa’s big character moment, which thaws out the entire kingdom.  Anna learns, after the fact, “oh, check it.  Elsa loved me after all,” and gets to do nothing with this new nugget of wisdom.  Laaaaaaammmmme.

Speaking of, lets talk about the most beloved character to ever eat a carrot after it had been in a reindeer’s mouth:

Frozen-2013-Kristoff (1)

Man, Kristoff.  You’re… tricky.  Kristoff doesn’t really develop much as a character either… unless we want to run his development parallel to Elsa’s.  One of the things I love about Frozen is the unmentioned extrovert against introvert personality types the movie showcases.  Anna is a very strong extrovert.  Elsa is a very strong introvert.  Hans, Anna’s love interest, is a very strong extrovert.  Kristoff is a very strong introvert… but Elsa doesn’t get a love interest.

Shannon and I have talked about the theory that Kristoff is a holdover from an earlier version of the film where Elsa does get to find love (They even match hair colors!  That’s adorable), but I’ll let her talk about her own theory.  In order to really get the subtext of personality types across, Anna or Elsa need to interact with someone of their opposing personality type.  Elsa can’t interact with Hans, because Hans is the villain and wanting to kill people generally ruins genuine interactions.

Anna and Elsa’s interactions tend to end with ice-splosions, so Anna gets Kristoff as an introvert foil until they get to Elsa’s ice hotel.   And that’s about it.  He gets elevated status towards the end of the movie, because someone’s got to get the girl and the magical talking rocks said so.  A pity, because even if his character isn’t developed further, it could be a better foil.  That being said, the seeds for Kristoff to have his own arc that mirrors Elsa’s are in the film, and Anna and Kristoff ending up together at the end of the film can totally make sense.

So… lets try to take the entire third act of the film entirely in the other direction.  Don’t make Hans the villain.  Make his feelings genuine.  Teach a real love story for once, Disney.  First, for all you young ones in the audience, (don’t tell your Mom I swore, ok?  Also, never drink your problems away) love is not that ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling you get when you see someone you like. Your heart fluttering when that special someone touches your hand?  That’s your body having a fun cocktail of hormone overload and a surge of adrenaline from your fight or flight response (Papers with respectable names say so.).

In a nutshell, you just took a hit.  Welcome to being high on “love,” and the people that constantly form new relationships after breaking up with people after a few months?  Junkies.

Now that I ruined that for you, what does Anna’s and Han’s relationship most resemble after they sing Love is an Open Door?  High school kids in love.  Actual love, real love, true love, is something that develops over time.  It can take years to finally come into bloom.  True love’s first kiss is not the same kiss you have on your first date.

(This is getting to sappy.  I need a crass joke, stat!)

So, no, even without the trolls priming us to jump for Kristoff as Anna’s true love, no one over the age of say, 17, expects a kiss from Hans to heal Anna.  I’m ignoring any argument that starts with, “But in Disney movies…” for a bit.  We don’t have that experience, we don’t believe it.  Not for one second.  So… what if it doesn’t?  What if the kiss does not heal Anna, but both Hans and Anna still think they love each other?

Well, wouldn’t that be one hell of a moral quagmire for Hans?  We, as the audience, knew Anna’s plan wasn’t going to work.  We know Arendelle is starving to death.  We know Elsa doesn’t believe she can stop the storm.  We know Anna is dying.  If Hans and Anna aren’t in true love, well, it’s pretty doubtful that Kristoff and Anna are.  Not even the trolls thought they were truly in love, they just wanted to set Kristoff up much like how the Italian side of my family is probably talking over how to set me up.  This is… rather bad, isn’t it?

Beat pause.  Linger for a second. Annnnnnnd…. then have Hans decide to kill Elsa.

But, to really make it hit home, have him do it out of fear.  He doesn’t want to lose Anna.  He’s scared, everything is falling to pieces around him.  He takes the only path he sees, because good ol’ panic has got blinders on his face.  Because that’s what panic does.  Good tie in to the themes about fear, incidentally.

He can even tell Anna that he’s off to murder her sister– because he wants to save her.  She can object, but she can hardly walk.  Besides, she’s about to get hit with the revelation of a life time– she loves her sister.  That’s true love.  And hey, Disney, you were able to make the bestiality joke earlier, so I assume a quip about ‘kissing your sister’ is on the table.

Olaf (sigh) comes back in the room, Anna realizes that the one person she’s loved all this time, even as she got doors slammed in her face, was Elsa.  Even after near freezing to death, she still believes in her sister.  And, even given present circumstances, she believes that Elsa loves her.  That’s the feeling she can trust, not this heart-fluttery bullshit.

That also takes some real critical analysis.  Way to think through your problem and analyze your feelings, while everyone else is jumping at the first option that comes to their heads.  Way to think first, Anna.

She goes back outside, looking for Elsa.  Kristoff comes back (more on this in a second), Anna is presented with the same choice.  She can either trust what she knows is true in her heart– everyone else at this point has told her that Elsa’s kinda a loose cannon at worse, extreme introvert at best.  Maybe Elsa doesn’t love her back?  Or, she can trust the trolls– who just tried to set her up with Kristoff.

However, to follow her heart, well, that one comes with a serious gamble.  But she throws herself in front of Hans and saves the day.  Elsa, at this point, gets the same character revelation Anna got as the snow stops and she breaks down, sobbing.  Anna was a reckless fool, sure, but Elsa can’t imagine she’d ever turn Anna away.  Anna thaws, Elsa realizes that love is the opposite of fear and thaws the kingdom.

Kristoff is back, and instead of fumbling over getting kissed, fumbles over asking Anna out.  This is a big moment for him, actually– he hasn’t been in love before (his own admission, earlier in the film), and Kristoff doesn’t exactly do the whole ‘act on your feelings’ bit.  The very fact that he’s asking is a big deal, he’s thawed out beyond that cold ‘people suck, reindeer rule’ exterior.

Internal thawing to mirror external thawing!

Does Anna turn him down and go back to Hans to try again?  Does she say no to both of them?  I dunno, I think both options are more interesting than the sort of love by default we get at the end of Frozen.

My changes aren’t perfect.  The trolls still don’t really fit into the action at all, and the ending is still meh (Oh, so Elsa can just thaw everything now.  Sure.  Ok.), but I sorta think that a lot of people would watch it.

You know what the kick is, and why I’ve written a 3500 word essay on this?  Frozen arguably covers all of these things.  From the lyrics of Fixer Upper, the movie is hinting that the solution to Anna’s problem is to show a little love to Elsa, and Elsa needs to open up to Anna.  All of Kristoff’s character development I’ve “added” is in Frozen, it’s just never explicitly called to light, so its impossible to tell if I’m over-thinking it or if it’s what the movie intends.  You’ll notice Elsa isn’t on here, because Elsa is an awesome character.

Frozen, at the end of the day, copped out and shoehorned a traditional ending on a movie that was screaming for something else.  None of what I’m talking about occurs in Frozen‘s first act.  And that’s the cautionary tale– Disney probably would never make a Frozen without the typical ending.

Pixar would, though.  But that’s a post for another time.

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What Makes a Good Character?

So, last week, I watched both Pocahontas  and The Great Mouse Detective with some friends (and not my writing partner), which is why the showing wasn’t live tweeted.

This is another awkward week for me, because I personally think that the one with mice is a better movie, but not adjusted for inflation dollars say otherwise.

I’m also convinced that we can blame one particularly pervy animator working at Disney during the late 80’s for modern furries, but that’s unrelated to the topic I want to talk about.

At any rate, I would maintain that all the characters in both these films are not humans.  Miko, Flick and that stuck up pooch make decent characters in Pocahontas and Basil, Dr. Dawson and Ratigan are oozing with character in The Great Mouse Detective.

However, all these characters are missing one last thing that separates the Elsas of fiction from everyone else.  This intro makes this post sound long… might want to grab a drink before you dive in.

I’ll wait.

Got something with rum?  Yes?  Great.

Lets start by talking about what the humans from Pocahontas are lacking to make them strong characters.  Keeping within the narrow range of Disney films, a character is a person the audience is supposed to relate to.  It’s the characters of the film that allow the viewers to relate to the plot.  Without them, things just happen on screen for reasons.  You can have a badly written character, which would be one that attempts to connect to the audience in a particular fashion and fails (this was covered a bit in context with Beauty and the Beast).

However, the humans from Pocahontas don’t even reach that level for me, and I think it’s because they’re all way to genetic.  Jon Smith is a bland heroic character, Pocahontas is a vaguely rebellious teenage girl and the villain is greed personified (but not in a good way, like Doctor Facilier).  They all have strong character traits, but no personality.  Personality comes from the little quirks that riddle actual people and prevent them from falling neatly into an archetype.

Look at Grandmother Willow, who is a pretty solid character.  When we’re introduced to her, she plays into the “Wise Person Providing Guidance” archetype.  Pocahontas goes to her for wisdom, and she advises our female lead on dreams and listening with your heart and other Disney magical things.

However, later in the movie, we see Grandmother Willow arguably kick as much ass as our leads.  She drives away the men looking for Jon when he steals away with Pocahontas.  She’s old and wise, but she also has a surprising bit of spunk left in her.  It’s that quirk of spunk that prevents her from being bland and makes her a person (we all know that grandparent that rocks despite having two hip replacement surgeries)*.

So, what quirks does Pocahontas have?  Or, to cite some lines from a much better Disney movie:
“What’s his last name?”
“of the Southern Isles.”
“What’s his favorite food?”
“Sandwiches.”
“Eye color?”
“Dreamy.”

Sure, this conversation in Frozen happens in different context (true love, they aren’t having some meta conversation about characters) but the underlying concept is the same.  The audience should fall in love with the characters on the screen.  Pocahontas doesn’t have any of that– she’s more plot device than person, vague strong female lead than character.

All the characters of Pocahontas have this issue, except for maybe the villain who is a bit of a fop (and according to some equally unqualified people, not the real villain of the film at all).  It’s hard for me to care about the action on screen when I can’t relate to the characters that are a part of that action.

So, lets turn this about on its head and take a look at The Great Mouse Detective.  This film only works because of its characters.  The plot is pretty predictable.  The setting is just modern day (when the movie was made, anyway) but with mice and without the cool Rescuers-esque world building.

However, Basil is a wonderful protagonist.  He’s the spitting image of mousy Sherlock Holmes, and just like the detective he is based off of, he is bristling with character quirks.  He’s observant and brilliant, but because his mind works so much faster than the people around him, he comes off as a bit insane.  It’s also obvious he’s worked alone for quite some time– he has trouble relating and talking to other mice.  He’s arrogant (he never learns Olivia’s last name), full of himself and also dangerously obsessed with catching Ratigan.

He might be one of my favorite Disney characters.  He gets strengths and flaws in equal measure, and I totally know people exactly like him (heck, I’ve worked with Basils in software engineering).  The movie also mirrors it’s protagonist and antagonist very well– a lot of Ratigan’s strengths are Basil’s strengths, and a lot of his flaws are Basil’s flaws.  Ratigan is also brilliant (he’s evaded Basil’s attempts to capture him time and time again and comes dangerously close to lethally outsmarting the protagonist in the film), full of himself (he gets a harp solo in the middle of his own song, which he uses to bitch about his problems) and dangerously obsessed with killing Basil.

There is a defining difference in both these characters– one of virtue.  Basil does want to help people in his own, round about way.  Ratigan murders his own henchmen.  However, both these characters are effective because of their quirks.  Ratigan is just as greedy as the villain from Pocahontas, but he comes across as less of a plot device and more of a character.

So, we see the difference is that characters with little quirks are more believable than ‘pure’ characters.  Have another example: Elsa from Frozen loves chocolate, along with her sister, Anna.  It’s a one line gag, but it helps flesh out both characters.  That’s all it takes to establish a little quirk.

However, obviously, Elsa is a great character for more than just this one line.  In fact, Elsa is a cut above all the characters from both these films because she develops as the film progresses.  The events of the plot change who she is, she grows with the viewer.  Over the course of Frozen, Elsa goes from a girl terrified of her powers to a queen able to control them.  Along the way, she learns about what fear (and its opposite) truly are as well as how to appreciate and accommodate her extroverted sister.

It’s a powerful character arc, one that carries the movie.  Both films I watched last weekend did not have character arcs.  Heck, The Great Mouse Detective goes out of its way to remind us that Basil has not changed, at all, over the course of the film.  Pocahontas has character change (Jon Smith), but because he was never a fleshed out character to begin with, his growth isn’t a potent as Elsa’s.

In fact, without the ground work, his transformation over the course of the film isn’t effective, at all.

So, what to take away from all of this?  Characters are important, complicated things.  They need some good qualities, some questionable qualities and if we really want them to stick with an audience, they need to grow.

So, characters are basically my vegetable garden back home, except with less weeds.

*It is interesting to note that this “old person with spunk” has become a bland archtype.  It may have been a bland archtype at the time Pocahontas first came out.  However, I happen to still enjoy it, so this doesn’t bother me too badly.  It’s still something to note of having been done before, and maybe even done to death.

Treasure Planet, Women’s Restrooms and Keanu Reeves

So, another Disney film we’ve recently watched is Treasure Planet, because in order to appropriate some sunshine, you need some rainy days.

No, actually, we watched it because Treasure Planet is one of two Disney films that has science fiction-y elements, and we have some rough plans for science fictiony things maybe.

And, Treasure Planet is… well, it’s one of the weaker Disney films.  It’s not, say, Dinosaur bad, but it’s not particularly good either.  It tanked really hard and it is up to us to figure out why!

I haven’t read the source material for Treasure Planet (the novel Treasure Island) in a very long time.  That being said, I want to say that this is one of the most spot on adaptations of a Disney film.  There are scenes lifted from the novel and transplanted directly into the film.  I’m pretty sure the romance between the good doctor (whose name I can’t remember) and the captain (whose name I can’t remember) was added on, but that’d be about it.

So, it is pretty accurate as far as adaptations go (Disney has strayed far further away from source material).  It also looks beautiful.  The space port reveal shot is animated scenery porn, and not the bargain bin brand either.  The world the story takes place in is actually rather awesome.  I like space pirates, the way they travel through the galaxy is cool.  The score is… acceptable (it’s not obtrusive, at any rate).

So, where does the movie go wrong?  Well, lets talk for one more second about where the movie goes right, before we break into it’s glaring flaws, which really all stem from one pivotal problem.

The supporting cast is (for the most part) decent.  I can’t remember names, because I suck with names, but the captain, the doctor, the cyborg– all of these people have personality.  They have quirks, flaws, conflicts– I’d go drinking with them.  They aren’t phenomenal characters, but they have enough personality to sell me.  I can believe in them.  They even have some character growth– falling in love, or realizing they have a soft side, etc.

The same can not be said about our protagonist, Jim.  But that’s because Jim is supposed to be me, or rather I’m supposed to project myself unto Jim and become Jim.  What I’m trying to say is that Jim is the Keanu Reeves of animation, and Keanu Reeves is the uncanny valley of acting.

That paragraph made no sense, I’m gonna take a few steps back.  And to do that, we need look at a graphic novel called Understanding Comics, or alternatively, a Cracked After Hours episode.  Another alternative reading would be Revealing Phantasms, depending on how into academic reading you are.

The basic idea is that we can rate all art on a scale.  On one end is the Mona Lisa, on the other end is the women’s bathroom sign.  Both these ends have merit, because they both represent characters.

The Mona Lisa is a fully-fleshed out character.  People have written comics featuring her (The Far Side comes to mind), we’ve written fan fiction on her backstory (I’m assuming that it exists on the Internet), academics have done historical research into who she was.  However, despite her personality, there is something that the Mona Lisa can’t do– she can’t be you.

Which is something the sign on the woman’s bathroom totally does.  It’s because the sign is so generic– any female (ok, ok: female in the society/culture in which the bathroom sign exists.  Don’t send me hate mail) intrinsically knows that the little stick person in a dress is her.  That sign means that she can go in the special room.  And that stick person in a dress does this for hundreds of millions of people, every day, all the time.

That little stick person has no character.  She has no personality.  Her face is a neutral mask; she’s a hollow shell of a character, which sounds like another protagonist I saw recently–

Neo

No wait, I mean–

Jim-Hawkins-Treasure-planet-disney-35597000-640-960

Outside of the cheapshot on Keanu, what he’s doing makes some sense.  It’s the same strategy that Twilight took– and one of the reasons Twilight got so popular.  Bella doesn’t have a personality, she’s a hollow shell that we’re supposed to project ourselves into so we can live out whatever vampire fantasies we happen to have.

Neo is playing the same role, but the fantasy we’re supposed to live out is different.  In The Matrix, the fantasy is all about being special, about having some unique knowledge and ability that no one else has.  Keanu is bland and emotionless because we, as viewers, are supposed to treat his emotions like a fill in the blank problem.  How do you feel when fighting your robot overlords?  Great, that’s how Neo feels.

And, I think, that’s what Treasure Planet  was going for with Jim.  Jim doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, really.  He rarely talks about himself or his backstory.  His one point of character development is during a montage with the Goo Goo Dolls, in which the main chorus is something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m still here”.  Whelp.

Jim’s backstory can be summed up with “shit happened, but I’m still kicking”, which is probably the most genetic backstory ever.  Anyone, even someone who is rich beyond belief, can identify with that.

Jim’s minimal character arc is basically him discovering that he’s awesome.  But, twist, he was awesome the entire time.  Just like you, random viewer!  You’re awesome.  And you know it. Go you.

The problem is that we don’t watch Disney movies for the the same reason we watch Fast and Furious XVI.  (My years of playing Final Fantasy have trained me to always use roman numerals when referring to sequels.)  Disney probably took the neutral mask protagonist approch because they were adapting a swashbuckling, action story.  But we don’t watch Disney movies for that– we watch Disney movies because of the characters.  Why has Frozen done so well?  Elsa is a brilliant character (also, the soundtrack).  The Little Mermaid?  I’d hope you aren’t projecting onto Ariel, because Ariel is kinda dumb.  However, being optimistically dumb is a pretty strong character trait (and it even makes sense in context, considering Ariel’s privileged upbringing).

Not all Disney movies have done this, some of them have used the blank mask (Snow White I’m looking at you).  But, when you look at the most successful Disney movies (from a make all the money perspective), none of them have had a blank mask protagonist.  Fairy Tales in general do not have blank mask protagonists– they don’t develop a lot of character (because they have like, three lines of text to do so), but fairy tale characters have their own sort of charm.  They’re a bit absurd.

Also, writing a blank face protagonist doesn’t sound fun.

So, safe to say, this is not a tactic we will be using.  Disney has used it (more often than you’d expect), but despite its usefulness, I’d like my Disney movie to be a bit more than the lady on bathroom doors.

I’m vain, whatup.

Light in Hunchback

Another week, another time I don’t write a post for the blog.  I’m a slacker.

However, we did watch more Disney movies two weekends ago, and that went really well.  We’ve finally watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame (and the less popular Treasure Planet).  Now, Hunchback  is tricky to talk about, at least for me.

According to this poorly designed websiteHunchback did not exactly do well in theaters.  Part of the idea behind this project is to write Disney’s next masterpiece, which sorta kinda implies commercial success.

Despite that, I really like Hunchback.  The movie has a lot going for it– all the characters seem decently fleshed out, the music (for the most part) is fantastic, and the film has quite a few beautiful moments in the art department.

But, I want to talk about something a little more subtle.  Hunchback does a great job of guiding the viewer through it’s story, so that you can get all the subtext as long as you’re paying attention.  One of the more potent threads woven in is the theme of light.  The explicit theme statement comes with the Heaven’s Light/Hellfire sequence.

Anyway, take a listen.  It didn’t hit me until we rewatched it for the project that I realized
A) How different both these songs are
B) How brillant it is that they go back to back

Heaven’s Light is very explicit with its imagery, because there is no reason to hide it– like all Disney protagonists, Quasimodo is looking for love, and despite knowing better, can’t help but have feelings for Esmeralda.  In fact, Esmeralda is the subject of both songs, however, Hellfire puts an entirely different spin on things.  Esmeralda is the subject of Quasimodo’s love, however, she is also the subject of Frollo’s lust.

And Frollo doesn’t fuck around (ha!  I made a pun).  Either Esmeralda will sleep with him, or she will burn alive.  Also, lets set fire to Paris because why not?  So, lets talk light.

When Quasimodo sings about it, he talks about people emitting light, being wrapped up in it.  The light here is gentle, it’s good, it illuminates his dark tower.  Quasimodo calls the light he sings about as a “warm and loving glow”.

To counter this idea, Frollo brings an entire new twist to light– fire.  Literally burning with light, light that scorches, light that destroys.  Light that drives him insane.  Both these characters are using light as a metaphor for how they feel about Esmeralda, both of them identify her as the source of light.

Both of them also want Esmeralda to feel for them how they feel for her.  In movie thematic terms, both characters sing about how they want Esmeralda to feel the light they feel: Quasimodo by association– pairs of people feel the light he feels, Frollo is more explicit about wanting Esmeralda to burn with hellfire.

Pretty brilliant, eh?  Considering that Esmeralda will dump both of them and hook up with someone who’s name means ‘Sun God’,  I think I’m on to something.  However, this isn’t the only time light is used as imagery for love.  It’s actually more general.

Think back on the festival of fools sequence, or go rewatch it.  When do both men fall in love with Esmeralda?  For Frollo, it’s when she’s dancing on the podium, getting her sex appeal on.  For Quasimodo, however, I’d argue that it’s when she rescues him– she is surrounded by light, while the soundtrack plays that really catchy choral line that I can’t find on the Internet because “catchy choral line from Hunchback that plays as the introduction to the thematic element of light as love” doesn’t give any hits from Google.

Or, even if he isn’t aware, Quasimodo has felt heaven’s light.  Sure, it isn’t love how he hopes it is, but Esmeralda does care for him.  That’s the light Quasimodo is chasing after, the light he’s dreaming about– the light of care from a good person.

And it’s obvious who are two good people are– Esmeralda and Phoebus spend a large chunk of the movie dressed in white, which if you haven’t ever looked at a single bit of art ever, is a color of purity.  Also, I think they might be the only two people in the movie that don’t attempt to murder Quasimodo.  They’re both wearing white during the Heaven’s Light reprise, during the climax of the movie, and during the last scene when Quasimodo goes back outside during the day.

To keep pounding this horse into the dust (it isn’t part of the theme unless it’s beaten into your skull), the last scene has Quasimodo coming out of the shadows of the cathedral into the blistering sunlight of the square.  He winces from the light, but as he walks all the way into it… he is embraced by the crowd.  Quasimodo has brought light to the people of Paris, and they accept him rather than throwing perfectly good fruit and vegetables at him.

I could go on, but I think I’ll stop here for now.  There is a ton more to dig into– we could go deeper into the use of fire, or exactly why Guy Like You is bad (because they wrote themselves into a hole), or how the soundtrack is goddamn brilliant and helps enforce these themes, but I gotta save posts for dry weeks.

See you guys next week.