Paranorman, Brad Bird, And The Virtues of Life Experience

I’ve noticed an increase in traffic on my blog since I posted my thoughts on Paranorman on Cartoon Brew.  So for those of you who have been coming back the last few days, welcome!  If you participated in the CB discussion and might have responded to some of my posts, I appreciate your comments even if you disagreed.  But I also appreciate those of you who have an interest in my opinions, and this is definitely the place for it.  Since the Paranorman talkback is now closed, I just wanted to do a quick recap and try to answer a few questions I keep getting.  There are some people out there who believe that my goal was to only focus on the negative aspects of Paranorman, as if to try and bring the film down.  Not true.  I want everyone to know that I do acknowledge the positive aspects of Paranorman, and I admire how much of a technical achievement it is (I didn’t need to mention it really because most of the other talkbackers already mentioned those aspects for me).  It is a very beautifully crafted film, and there were some moments visually that just took my breath away.  My intention wasn’t simply to call out this film because of its story issues, it was a call out to all animated films in the last 8 to 10 years that I believe suffer from the exact same issues as Paranorman.  When I bring up a film as great as The Iron Giant as an example and comparison, here’s what I was trying to say.

Brad Bird set the bar very high, with both The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.  And yet its like nobody in the industry seems to believe they can ever meet that challenge.  Most people will say, well, Brad Bird directed it, and the guy’s a genius, so of course most other movies aren’t going to be as good.  As somebody said, if all movies were like The Iron Giant, there would be no bad movies.  Well…yeah.  Maybe that should kind of be the goal.

But Brad’s not simply a genius.  He struggled for 20 years in the industry before he made The Iron Giant, and even then that film was a failure at the Box Office.  The Simpsons became his training ground as a filmmaker (he worked for the first seven seasons of the show).  On that show he had to work fast and just make decisions without over thinking them because they were working on a weekly show with strict deadlines.  It was film boot camp for him.  When The Iron Giant was made, the production schedule was just over two years, not a long time at all for making an animated feature, which normally takes 4 years.  But look at what a masterpiece that film is, a result out of all that struggle, toil, and training he went through having worked in television.  He didn’t simply start at a studio like Pixar and work his way up until they allowed him to direct a feature.  Pixar came to him.

Brad took the path less trodded.  He learned screenwriting through live action (check out episodes he wrote for Amazing Stories and his feature script with Matthew Robbins, *batteries not included).  I’ve followed his career before The Iron Giant came out through the Simpsons, and it wasn’t until I saw Family Dog and The Simpsons episode he directed “Krusty gets Busted” that I first saw the sparks of his unique vision.  Another classic he directed was “Bart gets an F”, one of the first emotional turning points for Bart Simpson that for the first time made us believe The Simpsons had depth.  I remember as a kid the very first time I watched “Krusty gets Busted” and how I felt, and even the ominous laugh of Sideshow Bob when he’s revealed to be a villain.  When Brad made The Incredibles, that film is all about his personal struggle in raising a family while he struggled to launch his filmmaking career.  The character Bob faces that challenge to either answer the call to his career or being present for his family.  There’s personal wisdom you learn, from struggle and strife that is of value to your own artistic vision.

The problem I have with most feature animation directors today is difficult to say.  I can only site as an example the kind of people I’ve known during my time at Cal Arts, with a few who became TV show creators and some who have worked their way up the ladder in feature.  But its a combination of issues I have with most of these people who wind up becoming directors for feature.  There is a lack of a voice in animated features, and the films may have their moments, but they are most commonly struck down with pretentious morals that preach to their audience (my big problem with Paranorman).  For those films that do get preachy (and there are a lot of them) I owe this to a lack of life experience on the filmmakers part.  I see it as a detriment, because especially people from Cal Arts, who graduate from school and climb the ladder until they get their shot to direct…but as storytellers, to always be within the studio system, never being able to leave your friends from collage because they all work at the same studios…it’s like there’s this clique, this group mentality trapped in time…and I’ve known former Cal Arts students who can’t stand the thought of breaking away from that.  But to always have that influence of your college friends and never really breaking off to the outside world to figure out what you have to say, and what’s REALLY important in your life…well then your just holding yourself back.  And with those people always surrounded by the influence of their friends who wind up directing these features, I rarely feel like I’m hearing the true voice of the filmmaker.  Brad Bird broke off from the industry.  So did John Lasseter when he started experimenting and pioneering animation on computers. I’m not saying Brad or John are the only directors who had to fight and suffer for their work, there are others who have made great works based on the strength of their own life experiences because they actually got out of the basement and discovered their own truth that influenced their voice.  But for most people directing features now, how do you understand that deeper life experience when you’re always surrounded by your peers from art school, who may have dedicated their lives to getting into Pixar/Disney/Laika, etc. but have never really personally struggled in their adult life and never really had those life experiences they were able to apply it to their own work?  Are you going to fight for your vision?  Or are you going to play by the rules?  Either is okay depending on the person, but if you’re compelled to fight for your own vision, it usually means there’s something deeper inside you calling out to be heard.

By life experiences, I’m not simply talking about the usual things people go through…a death in the family, death of a friend, traumas from childhood.  I’m talking about experiences outside your career…the adventure of life and the deeper struggle to find what it is you most want for yourself and what’s really important to you (which is what makes The Incredibles so potent and real).  The message of Paranorman is all on the surface.  Tolerance for others is a nice message, don’t get me wrong, but its not fueled by anything deeper than that.  The emotions I might have felt from the characters of the film to me didn’t feel like they were coming from the characters themselves, it was just a reaffirmation of my own belief system regarding the message.  Nothing the characters did in the film really justified how they were able to come to their own conclusions.  Its not truthful, but most filmmakers have gotten very good at making you believe you did go on a journey and have an emotional experience when nothing really happened at all.  I don’t think the filmmakers are doing it on purpose.  But this is exactly what I mean by filmmakers having that lack of life experience, and why it keeps their films from being as good or superior to, say the films of Walt Disney, Ralph Bakshi, Will Vinton, Rankin/Bass, Brad Bird…they all fought and suffered for their own vision.  Because the truth is, out of the ashes comes great art.

I have more to say about life experience and young artists as well, which I will post at a later time.

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