Tag Archives: cartoons

Some Villains Deserve Better

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I was watching the film EPIC last week, a moderately decent animated feature with a few notable flaws. One of them being having a villain without much in the way of redeemable qualities, who is the yang to the forest peoples Ying. His job in the film is to bring decay to the forest. In a sense he is a bringer of death. The plot goes that he gets bored with his job and wants to bring ruin and death to everything in the forest, making himself ruler of a dead, decaying world. This is not dissimilar to the film RISE OF THE GUARDIANS which came out last year, where the villain Pitch Black (aka the Boogeyman) wants to bring nightmares to children all over the world because he is outcast and bored with his job.

I’d like to address a problem with both these characters that I think is an issue with the whole “good”/ “evil” aspect of storytelling, which I think is becoming more of an extinct concept. For one thing, as I mentioned, there is the ying/yang concept. The light cannot exist without the dark. These “villains” have their job of bringing contrast to the universe. I say “job” quite distinctly because that’s what they’re here to do. In GUARDIANS, Pitch’s job is to bring Nightmares to children, with the effect of bringing more appreciation to the joys of life, such as the sweet dreams brought to children through Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. It’s a bit of a thankless job, but if the bad guy has been doing it for thousands of years, you’d think they’d be above petty concerns such as the insecurities of being loved by the outside world. The same goes for Mandrake, the villain in EPIC who is a bringer of death. What makes things difficult is that the so called Good Guys are not accepting of these characters, and show no appreciation for the work that the darker characters do, because the “bad” guy’s job is important.

The darker element is not something that is meant to be destroyed. It’s something that is meant to bring an appreciation for the better things in life. So it aggravates me when I watch movies like RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, where the GUARDIANS wind up banishing Pitch Black into another dimension where he can’t do any more harm. Well, to be quite honest, I feel sorry for Pitch. I understand how he feels because he is in essence neglected by the heroes of the film. Why was he not asked to join the Guardians? He’s important part as to why the heroes are who they are, and if only they had shown him some respect in return, maybe he wouldn’t be so inclined to ruin everything for everyone else. The same goes for Mandrake who is also deemed a villain because he’s also a guy nobody invites to parties or gets any kudos for his job. Heck, even Hades in HERCULES does not get much appreciation for his work, and never understands his place in the universe.

They shouldn’t be made evil because they do a job that nobody wants. Someday I’d like to see a film where the darker element actually gets a little respect for the job they do, even if it’s to bring contrast to the light of the hero. It’s a misunderstanding between worlds.

When it comes to villains in most animated features, it’s difficult sometimes because there is very little in the way of making them sincere characters. They’re just evil, and it’s usually out of boredom because the heroes never show any appreciation for them. So it’s not surprising they would lash out. It’s one thing when the hero finds some understanding in their life, but to proclaim that the contrasting force is bad when it was actually there to help them, the hero never thanks the villain for helping them, and the villain is usually banished or killed. Villains are much more interesting when we get a peek inside their pain.

What I mean by contrast is that a villain often times is a symbol for the hero when the hero is out of alignment with their inner being. It’s through this conflict and struggle that the hero sees their own reflection through the villain, who is secretly helping them find their true calling and the heroes connection to their highest self. So when the hero gets the message, but then has the villain killed or banished, there is no appreciation for what the villain has helped the hero achieve. Because even if the villain dies, it will come back as something else, in a different form. Because the villain is a reflection. If the darker element is not understood, it will come back in another form until the hero does get the message. Maybe one day there will be an animated hero who will actively show mercy and thank the villain for what they helped them accomplish. A great example of this is HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, where the Witch of the Waste transforms Sophie into an old woman, but when the witch gets punished and aged severely, Sophie changes her outlook towards the witch and treats her with kindness. She feels sorry for her and helps her. There is a mutual understanding there.

I think it’s time for a change in the way we see villains portrayed in movies, especially with the hero much more actively understanding that the villain is not something to be merely destroyed, but is someone, or something to be understood. After all, a villain is finding their way just as much as the hero. With that in mind, maybe the hero could cut the villain a little slack in the end.

MONSTER’S UNIVERSITY (2013) Dir. Dan Scanlon

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Last Friday I went on a renting binge to play catch up on the animated features I had missed in 2013. To my biggest surprise, Monster’s University, while not a hugely spectacular film…I actually walked away feeling some enjoyment from the latest Pixar canon. That’s really saying something because Pixars features over the past 8 years have failed to thrill me in any way. The last great Pixar film in my mind was THE INCREDIBLES, which is where I really feel that the studio peaked in terms of outstanding and sophisticated storytelling.

There’s nothing terribly sophisticated about the plot of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, which borrows from several different college films in the 80’s. Here, the attention is focused on Mike Wazowski, who is made the main character this time. I really liked Mike’s journey through the film. While he never achieves his dream of becoming a scarer, what he does find is a talent for being a coach. In the film he’s pretty much an over achiever, studying every aspect of what it means to be a scarer. The film does address such things as following your excitement and finding your calling.

Sully’s journey through the film is also interesting, as here we find out he was actually an under achiever in school, sliding by on the reputation of his father. Sully as it turns out knows very little about scaring, as his ego brazenly takes over because of the reputation his father holds over the scarers at Monsters Inc. It’s not until he teams up with Mike, and their fraternity OozmaKappa competes that Mike and Sully manage to form a friendship, playing to each other’s strengths to become a winning team.

I also enjoyed the amusing OozmaKappa fraternity, with their tagline, “We are OK.” It’s your typical underdog sports movie, where the most unlikely team has to face tremendous odds to win the day. Surprisingly, most of the competition stuff didn’t stick with me as much as the business with Mike and Sully, although the library sequence where the competitors have to get passed a giant monster librarian was pretty amusing.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is an enjoyable film. It’s on the small scale for Pixar films, but as far as making more original films goes, Pixar could use a “Dumbo” sized film…something that’s more emotional and intimate. Not everything has to be on a grand scale, although there are quite a few sophisticated crowd shots that must of been a chore to animate. But anyway, it’s recommended viewing. Definitely check it out.

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I may have to check this movie out and see if it’s worth recommending. I watched this clip below, and the animation on the angel singer is just extraordinary. Just incredible, beautifully subtle movements. Whoever animated this section is just a master. Now I’m very interested!

Toy Story (1995) Dir. John Lasseter

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I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story.  This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been.  There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation.  What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest.  While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.

I was 14 when Toy Story first came out.  From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field.  I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium.  The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun.  There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film.  It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”.  It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be.  The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape.  Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help.  I can’t help anybody.”  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence.  Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground.  It’s a beautiful scene.  And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.

There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie.  I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys.  The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move.  When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy.  One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story.  The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting.  After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!”  This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other.  For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz.  Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.

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From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie.  The story structure of this film is a solid as they come.  The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here.  A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz.  While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing.  There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys.  Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place.  And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!

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I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me.  It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master.  You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile.  But that’s just what their existence is.  It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on.  I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people.  The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy.  Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts.  All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.

Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs.  The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction.  They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be.  It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does.  It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.

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The Croods (2013) Dir. Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco

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I’ve always liked Chris Sanders as an artist, but I have never been a huge fan of his films.  I like them, I’m just not flat out in love with them or anything.  Lilo and Stitch is a good film.  But I don’t always know whether its done any justice being under the Disney label.  It’s a little weird, which is fun, but I feel like it could have unleashed so much more, which just ends up making it moderately enjoyable.  As for How To Train Your Dragon, again, it’s a good movie.  But my feeling is that the film is a little too on the nose with it’s subject matter.  It’s kind of “Dragons 101” for anyone who wants to know more about their dragon.  In some ways, I almost wish it could have been a little less obvious.  For instance, I kind of wanted to see some boys with some girl dragons and vise versa, not simply seeing the dragons mimic everything about the characters personalities.  Part of the thing is seeing the dragons tell us aspects about the human character we don’t see on the surface.  We get some aspects of that in the film.  But overall the concept just didn’t blow me over.

Which leads me to The Croods.

I didn’t expect too much out of the film, at least at first.  But ever so slowly it started to grow on me.  I was amused at the funny introduction where the characters would “hunt” in what ended up being a kind of prehistoric football game with the whole family trying to work together to get an egg from a massive prehistoric bird.  I was a little worried at first because the main characters Eep and Grug seemed like yet another angsty teenage daughter story dealing with an overbearing father, which is so commonplace in animated films.  The one thing that was different about this film though, was the movie turned out to be more about Grug going on a journey to overcome his reliance on fear to stay alive.  I have to say that once the film got underway and the characters started off on their adventure, I completely fell in love with The Croods.  There is just incredible imagination at work here, with the wonderful and whimsical character designs for the creatures that inhabit this world.  The funny thing is that the monsters are so cute and equally terrifying at the same time!  Not terrifying in a way that’s going to frighten children, but they’re enough of a threat to keep you going with the characters, as they search for this uncharted world called “To Morrow”.

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The main reason this movie worked so well on me was the simpleness and uncomplicated nature of the story.  It’s very lighthearted and fast paced.  While I was left concerned for the characters safety, I never felt that we really needed to see any of the characters die to make this more engaging.  It never loses its sense of fun and it never takes itself too seriously.  It gently seems to poke fun at the overused father/daughter storylines we keep seeing in animated films, where Grug basically enforces that anything fun, anything that leads to curiosity leads to DEATH!  I didn’t think I was going to like Nicholas Cage being the voice for an animated character and didn’t believe his voice would be too monotone for animation.  I was wrong, and he does a wonderful job bringing Grug to life as a character, and between the voice work and the animation, he becomes a great, emotional, and well rounded character.

All the characters in The Croods are a joy to watch.  I loved Guy, the cave man who gets all the ideas, and introduces them to fire.  Grugs scenes are also hilarious when he tries to be like Guy and come up with inventions of his own, including “shades”, and then his invention of the “snapshot”, by covering his face in mud, then slamming his face against a rock for the imprint.  Every character has their moment.  What I also loved about The Croods as a family is that they are just hilariously weird and completely zany at times, partially due to the fact that they’re one of the only families left on the face of the earth.  The only character I wish had more development was Grug’s wife Ugga, who is played just a little too straight.  I almost wish there could have been room to give her some more zany attitude and fun like the rest of the family, but part of the problem too is that she kind of fades into the background at times.

Part of the adventure of the film is how the family slowly but surly steps away from Grugs over protective way of life and starts discovering new ways of living in this uncharted world.  Living in caves finally starts becoming unappealing to them, much to Grugs frustrations.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie was where the family gets split up in a canyon and everyone has to find their way out and come up with their own creative method to survive.  Everyone succeeds, except Grug, who is trapped and can’t get through based on his reliance of fear.  It’s not until the final scene, where Grug is ultimately tested when left alone to his own devices, he makes the flight to free himself.

One of the characters that stalks The Croods is a large Saber-tooth cat.  The cat is funny while also being a good threat to our heroes.  But the best scene in the film is towards the climax, where Grug is left alone and the cat stalks him in the caves.  Grug runs for his life holding a torch and being chased by the cat.  At one point the torch goes out leaving him in pitch blackness, and Grug blows frantically on the torch to get the flame back.  As the flame comes back, we also see the cat blowing on the flame trying to get it back as well!  The cat is afraid of the dark!  I died laughing at this moment because it became clear to me what the Saber-tooth cat was for Grug.  The cat is Grug’s dragon.  In this sudden twist, the two of them find each other, and the cat whose been chasing him the entire movie, no longer wants to chase him and doesn’t want to be alone in the dark.  Like Grug.  It was just a lovely, sweet moment.

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The movie almost never deviates from its light comical tone.  In some ways the movie kind of reminded me a bit of The Emperor’s New Groove, a movie that also isn’t meant to be taken seriously by any means.  It’s great to see cartoons like this, because a lot of times when the story gets heavy handed and serious, it looses its focus as a cartoon and loses its spirit of fun that we just want to embrace with certain films.  I just wanted more of the zany fun that The Croods provided, and it rarely ever lets itself get dragged down with heavy story material.  What helps too is that the story was co-written by Monty Python genius John Cleese, and once I found that out at the end credits, I could see the Pythonesque humor scattered all over the film.

The Croods is a joy to watch, and one of my very favorite animated films to come out in a long time.  I have to say that this is probably my favorite of all Chris Sanders films, because it’s a chance to see his weird side completely unleashed.  The animation is terrific, the visuals are stunning, and overall, this is just a really really fun film.  By all means, go see it while its still in a theater!