Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Time and a Place

I've been catching up on some movies lately and three of them have helped sharpen my thoughts on an aspect of animated films.

The Commitments (1991), directed by Alan Parker based on a novel by Roddy Doyle, is set in Dublin and is about a band that meshes well onstage but can't mesh off stage. A Soldier's Story (1984), directed by Norman Jewison based on the play by Charles Fuller, is set in Louisiana in 1944 and is about a murder that takes place on an army base that is home to black soldiers. Mean Streets (1973), directed by Martin Scorcese from a screenplay by him and Mardik Martin, is set in Manhattan's Little Italy and is about young people on the edges of the mob.

What these films have in common is how thoroughly they evoke a milieu. The visuals are obviously a part of it, but the characters' patterns of speech and more importantly their attitudes, place the stories in very particular times and places. You could not drop a character from one of these movies into either of the others and have the character fit. The characters in these films experience the world in different ways and have very different expectations of themselves and their surroundings. Watching these three films is to visit three very different worlds.

The part of milieu that animated films usually get right is the visuals. It has become common for animation studios to send staff on field trips to do research so that the art direction captures the feeling of an environment. However, animation usually stops there. The characters' speech patterns and attitudes are transplanted from California and dropped into a world that looks different, but ends up feeling the same.

How much does Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame have to do with Paris beyond the art direction? How much does DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda have to do with China beyond the choice of local animals and architecture?

While artists are sent on field trips, has any animated feature ever gone on location to record voice tracks? Does the creation of animated stories by committee dilute any sense of a time or place? Does the necessity of making films understandable to children prevent the films from straying too far from what children know?

There are animated films that are successful in evoking a milieu. Bakshi's Heavy Traffic has a lot in common with Scorcese's Mean Streets in evoking lower class New York. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis probably does a better job of evoking Iran through its story and characters than it does through its visuals, the reverse of the typical animation approach. Mike Judge's King of the Hill could only have been created by a Texan. Miyazaki's work is thoroughly Japanese. Each of the animated examples above comes from a director's personal background and while that might seem like an argument for more personal films, it isn't a necessity. Norman Jewison, who has made several films about the American south and its racial tensions, is Canadian.

For live action films, setting is a foundation that the story and characters are built on. For too many animated films, setting is just a way of dressing a story up, like a kid in a Halloween costume. No matter how good the costume is, it doesn't really convince anybody.

(Posting here will probably be sporadic over the next 6-7 weeks as I'll be away at various times.)

6 comments:

Michael Sporn said...

I couldn't agree with you more about the setting of animated films. You have to get into the spirituality of Miyazaki's world, even though we have no connection or context for the gods he animates, to appreciate his films. He pulls us in, and the experience is wonderful.

The placement of live action isn't always better. Norman Jewison's place, to me, was more the social issues he defended, rather than the actual place. He depended on brilliant cinematographers like Haskell Wexler to give a real sense of place - as was done in Heat of the Night.

It's another great subject you pose and has my mind working overtime trying to comment succinctly.

Pete Emslie said...

Great topic, Mark! Of the Disney animated features, the only foreign set film I can think of that does a very admirable job of evoking the location is 101 Dalmatians. To me that film has always felt genuinely British, not only in the casting of mostly British voice actors, but also in it's exploration of character "types" of the British class system. You have the cockney lowlifes, Horace and Jasper, contrasted with the middle class of Roger and Anita, contrasted with the veddy British upper class panelists on the "What's My Crime?" game show. Even the animals are caricatures of distinct English character types, and the whole film feels like the animated equivalent of the types of films the Ealing Studio was making at the time, starring the likes of Alec Guinness and Margaret Rutherford.

Other than that exception, though, I agree that there is usually too much of an Americanization in the foreign set films. In more recent years, I might give some credit to Mulan in Disney's attempt to create the feel of ancient China, however that attempt is marred with the inclusion of Eddie Murphy as the jive talking Mushu. In live action terms, that's as jarring as if Lawrence of Arabia had included a role for Jerry Lewis! Mushu may be entertaining to some, but his character just takes me out of the story, I'm afraid.

Thad said...

I was going to mention One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but Pete beat me to it. In a way, Wind in the Willows is similarly successful too, though that's debatable.

Paul Penna said...

I can sort of see Wind in the Willows as a ramped-up Ealing Studios production. Like The Titfield Thunderbolt after everybody had a couple gallons of really strong tea.

Floyd Norman said...

While a few serious art directors benefited from our "field trips," these excursions were simply paid vacations for certain lucky members of the crew.

I'm not complaining. I'm glad a few artists enjoyed these perks.

All said and done, these trips contributed little to the films in my opinion. But, what the hell. Spend the studio money, otherwise it'll go into some execs pocket.

scott said...

Well, the trip to Peru is the one thing I can look back on and say, After all the schizoid-ness of working for Disney -the absolutely joyful times and the sam blasted times it struck us dumb with fear and anger - and it did, ask anybody who worked there - i got that much, I got that trip and i'll never forget it.
But visavis Time and Place and Getting It Right, Disney never captured England; sorry, pete, Dalmations as great as it looks, is a weird amalgam of English and American. And Robin Hood! and And so very few films have EVER caught that feeling.. Hunchback is a write off,Mulan , Atlantis, they are all sabotaged by American hubris..well, we don't need to do it authentic, it's got to entertain! Everything can look right, but it doesn't sound right, the characters never act like the time or place they are trying to create. they;re all from the san fernando valley! I tried like crazy to get them to put a fedora on Mr. Incredible . Ah,well, there's always Miyazaki!