Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Cartoons Are Judged

An interesting issue arose in response to tryanmax’s Toon-arama article last week and I think it’s worth discussing. The question was this: if Wreck-It Ralph had focused more on a videogame narrative instead of shifting to a fairytale princess narrative, would that have turned people off? I think the answer is no. Here’s why.

In the adult world of films (not be confused with adult films), people select films based on the specific genres and subgenres that interest them. If you like burly muscle men (no, we still aren’t talking about adult films), then you will grab an action film. If you’re into drama and court rooms, then a legal drama will appeal to you. Sounds simple. But what if you like spaceships?

Well, this is where it gets tricky. If you like your science fiction to be more fantasy, then you gravitate toward something like a Star Wars, where fantasy worlds collide and people with superpowers lightsaber it out as totally unrealistic spaceships scream by overhead. But if you prefer your science fiction “hard” (stop thinking about adult films) or more cerebral, then you gravitate toward something like 2001 or Apollo 13, where the premium isn’t on the action but on the correctness of the technical specs of what is going on. And fans of these two subgenres, often don’t like each other or each other’s films (seriously, nerds, get a life).

So when these films go looking for an audience, there is a serious problem that audiences quickly self-select. Hence, a remake of 2001, let’s call it 2001.1, automatically loses anyone who isn’t a science fiction fan the moment the trailer begins, and it loses the fantasy nerds the moment they don’t see a blobby thing spitting fire. And if the film doesn’t stick to their genre conventions... and only those genre conventions, then they get angry... Green Hulk Angry. You would like them when they’re angry, and have access to a keyboard from an anonymous location.

Anyway, cartoons aren’t like that.

Cartoons are a genre unto themselves. They have their own conventions, which will be employed no matter what type of story is being told. Whether the story takes place on a spaceship, in a castle, in a forest, in a sewer, in the past, in the present, or in the future, and whether it involves people or aliens or rabbits or roadrunners, you will get the things you expect from a cartoon.

Because of this, it is the rare film-goer who will decide that a cartoon doesn’t appeal to them because of the genre supposedly being depicted. In other words, few people will avoid Bambi because they don’t like nature films, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame because they don’t care for that period in French history, or Duck Dodger because they prefer their science fiction to be “hard”. People don’t judge a cartoon the same way they do a normal film... they judge it on its merits as a cartoon.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some cartoons that won’t interest people or that somehow people are incapable of distinguishing between cartoons. People still look at the animation style, the history of the company, and the story itself to see if it will interest them, but they aren’t judging the film by the conventions of genres outside of cartoons, they are judging the film on whether or not they think it will be a cartoon they find appealing.

This actually raises an issue that I see with a lot of modern cartoons. I struggle to enjoy modern cartoons. In fact, it’s the rare recent cartoon that I find at all entertaining. To me, the problem is exactly this: these cartoons are abandoning the conventions of cartoons in the name of realism. They are trying to tell live-action stories that have been animated rather than making cartoons.

Hence, when you smack a modern cartoon rat with a frying pan, he screams and the person who smacked him (accidentally of course) apologizes profusely. Blech. That’s not how “cartoons” work. When you smack someone in a cartoon, their entire body should deform, they should see stars, and the being that hit them should display maniacal glee. Cartoons are about cartoon physics, which mocks the normal laws of physics, not about real life physics. They are about fantasy problems, not real life problems. They are about larger-than-life villains who get their comeuppance in insane ways.

Even more realistic films like the Disney films still follow these rules. Their stories may be animated versions of classic tales, but they still use cartoon physics and rely on larger-than-life melodramatic actions.

Modern films don’t do that, and this trend toward making animated life-action films rather than cartoons throws away the very thing that keeps people from judging cartoons on the basis of their plots and settings... like regular movies. In fact, the reason I liked Despicable Me was that it was a good Steven Carrell films, not because I thought it was good cartoon. As a cartoon, it was a waste. As a comedy that competes against Get Smart and Dinner for Schmucks, it was top notch. Similarly, the reason I couldn’t give a rats ass about Ratatouille is because I have no interest in a story about a French sous chef who wants to prove his worth. Perhaps, if the film had been a cartoon instead of an animated film, I would have cared. But as it wasn’t, so I didn’t.

This is something Hollywood should consider. The further they drift from cartoons being cartoons and toward just being films that saved a ton on sets and costumes by animating their characters, the more they run the risk of being judged by different standards... the same standards that have led to fragmented, fickle adult audiences... no, not that kind.


tryanmax said...

I would have to disagree a little about Despicable Me. There was definitely a larger-than-life aspect that live action wouldn't do justice. Not to mention the Minions. If it competes at all against other Carell vehicles, it's because his films tend to cartoon it up.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I personally see it just another Carell film, but you could be right. For whatever reason, that one stands out to me when almost nothing else does these does. Even films involving animals or inanimate objects as the characters still feel like animated real-life films to me rather than cartoons.

Cars II is a good example of this. The story is about living cars, so it should feel cartoony, but it feels too human to me because the cars obey to same laws of physics human actors do.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. The Minions were great.

tryanmax said...

The Cars franchise is interesting. The first one was sorta cartoony. Not very, but enough. It certainly wouldn't have worked with people. Still, it was a very poor showing for PIXAR.

Even so, it did develop a very ardent fan base, unsurprisingly close to the NASCAR demographic. So how do they reward this loyal cadre of fans? By trying to shove some internationalist eco-tripe down their throats in the form of a poorly told spy flick that didn't really have anything to do with cars or Cars at all.

Meanwhile, you have the Cars Toons series of shorts starring Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) which actually take great advantage of the cartoony nature of anthropomorphic cars.

I haven't seen Planes yet, but seeing as Disney Animation Studios usurped that from PIXAR, I have low to middling expectations. It's a very disjointed enterprise.

AndrewPrice said...

I haven't seen the series, but I have seen the movies, and I totally agree about the sequel. It's so different than the first, the message feels heavy-handed and imposed, and it just comes across like a film that was taken out of a box rather than made from scratch. It feels like they absolutely did not like their audience and wanted a new one.

K said...

RE: Cars 2 - most sequels just do "more of the same" so I give props to Pixar to take the Cars story in another direction - concentrating on playing off Larry the Cable guy - I mean Mater - against Michael Caine et al.

As for Planes, it's strictly a Disney direct to disk offering that got promoted due to the success this summer of other animated hits. IT also happens to synergize with the Anaheim theme park's California Adventure CARS land.

K said...

“the point is, animation is not a genre. It is a method of storytelling. People are constantly analyzing it and misanalysing it as if it is a genre. It isn’t a genre. It can do horror films, it can do adult comedies if it wanted to, it could do fairy tales, it could do science fiction, it could do musicals, it could mystery, it can do anything.”
~ Brad Bird, 1997

People have to be taught to "read" art. Animated films employ character caricatures but also story caricatures in order to tell a story. Being able to "read" those stories is important to the process of enjoying animated films. It's an acquired taste, like beer.

Jim said...

Did you mean "Apollo 18"? Because Apollo 13 is a historical drama, not sci-fi, to me.

KRS said...

The best frying pan gag in all of film history is to be found in the Disney movie, "Tangled."

That said, I think there's a balance to be achieved in some of these things. For example, I thought the effort to provide some visually realistic aspects in "Cars" was a great plus - the opening sequence is very engaging. The cartoony aspects remained because, well, windshieds are eyes and John Ratzenberger does a voice over.

Same with "How to Train Your Dragon," there are visual nods to realism that help engage you in the world building, and much that is totally cartoon absurd - the flight sequences are aerodynamically flawless (I think?), but there's no way a human is staying on the dragon's back through all of that.

But I'm talking visuals exclusively. When it comes to story, I'm right there with you, Andrew. And a bad 'realistic' story is typically one that the writer intends as a learning experience: from "Fern Gully" to "Cars II," we have innumberable examples.

A good contrast to illustrate the point is "A Bug's Life" vs. "Antz." And it is no wonder that Woody Allen does a voice over in the poor one. Whereas John Ratzenberger has a voice over in the engaging one.

I was going to say, "follow Ratzenberger," but then I remembered he was in "Ratatouille" and "Brave." Oh, well.

AndrewPrice said...

K, True, Cars 2 did do more than the original and I can't object to that. My point though is that the film just didn't feel like a cartoon to me... it felt like it could just as easily have been done with live actors driving cars without any real changes.

AndrewPrice said...

Jim, It is technically a docudrama, but it won a Hugo award because this film is right up the alley of hardcore science fiction fans -- the ones who look for technical details and dislike fantasy... even if it is historical.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Some of the visuals are incredible today. They've really gotten great both at making cartoons look real and at creating realistic fantasy worlds.

To me though, the issue is the loss of the cartoon-physics, the totally unreal things that happen in cartoons -- like getting flattened when you run into a wall or hanging in the air just long enough to stare at the audience before you fall. Those are the things that I think separate a cartoon from an animated film, the things that take the story out of the realm of reality and put it into the toon world, and I think cartoon companies should think long and hard about how "real" they want to make the experience.

Ty in TX said...

Re: How to Train Your Dragon
I think you're forgetting the scene where Hiccup was working on the saddle so he'd be more secure on Toothless and the later one where he gets some rope and tells the others it's so they can stay on.

KRS said...

Andrew, Ahhhh, I get your point. Guess I agree en toto, then.

Ty, I was writing loosely, but, yep, I remember Hiccup's 'seatbelts' and I think that supports my point: the visual is necessary for an audience that routinely uses seatbelts in order to help them suspend disbelief. But, in reality, maneuvers like those shown would be hitting 4-6 gs and those straps are not going to hold a human on the dragon's back.

But we let all that go because (1) there's a strap for the rider and (2) he's riding a freaking dragon! So. Very. Cool.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, Exactly. I don't think a realistic world is the problem, the problem is with making the characters act like they are in the real world people.

In fact, one of the things that made Roger Rabbit so great was that it took place in the real world and made the cartoons feel real, but it simultaneously let them continue to act like cartoon characters.

Rustbelt said...

When judging cartoons, there's a big pet peeve of mine that makes me reach for my gavel- listing your voice cast in your commercials.

Think about it. Is knowing that Jerry Orbach ("Lennis Briscoe" on Law & Order) and David Ogden Stiers ("Major Charles Emerson Winchester III" on M*A*S*H) respectively played Lumiere and Cogsworth in "Beauty and the Beast" make people want to watch it more? Probably not. Same goes for the fact that Rene Auberjonois ("Odo" from Deep Space Nine) and Buddy Hackett ("The Love Bug," among others) played Chef Louis and Scuttle in "The Little Mermaid." Both films largely stand on their own merits and are not the sum of their parts.

Now, casting big name actors in films is nothing new. Advertising them is. While Disney still seems to refrain from doing so expect in behind-the-scenes promos, Dreamworks always mentions that their latest animated film "features the voices of..." So? we can't see them. And worse, if we can visualize the actor behind the voice, doesn't that actually take away from the experience of paying attention to the character in question?

If memory serves me right, I think one of Dreamworks' films that didn't fare well at the box, "Sinbad," got a rather scathing review along these lines. It featured Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones in prominent voice roles. However, after the film under-performed, one critic said that while moviegoers may be willing to pay tickets to see Pitt and Zeta-Jones, they weren't necessarily willing to go to a film just to hear them.

In short, whenever I see an animated film that has to list its voice cast, I groan. For years- decades, actually- animated films have been judged on their story and animation, with audiences often indifferent as to who the voice cast was as long as they were good. Now that some films have to rely on marketing the voice cast, I wonder, "does that mean the rest of the film stinks?"

My judgement: yes.

Rustbelt said...

Also, Andrew, given the 'thread' running through your article on this thread, maybe you need to get out a little more.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I... couldn't... agree... more!

I hate that they are casting famous people to do the voices in cartoons. Not only does it seem to be a substitute for writing, but it's too easy for me to visualize the actor and the animated character vanishes... the cartoon dies. I also don't like the idea that these people normally aren't very good at doing voices, and the fact this is just more celebrity culture. Ugh.

On the other point, LOL! What thread? ;P

Ironically, I am out and about this week. I'm traveling on business this week.

tryanmax said...

The only issue I take with the voice casting is when the character artists model them off of the actors. To me, it defeats the purpose of animating it. Voice work provides an actor the opportunity to play roles they otherwise could never land.

Of course, this has been a practice with Disney since Snow White but it was never really an issue when dealing with unknowns. It's only lately that we have more characters modeled after recognizable stars.

As to the promotion, I suspect it got it's start in trying to convinced adults to go see the films. It's like saying, "these reputable actors put their talents into the film, so why are you so uptight about watching it?" Of course, that hurdle is pretty much cleared and I think it's done of habit anymore.

Voz said...

Both Kung Fu Panda movies have used the "cartoony" aspect of bending physics rules for the laughs but also told decent stories at the same time...plus they have great visuals...
One thing I love about the computer animated films put out these days is that it allows the director total freedom to suit the environment to the action...such as Dash's running on water in The Incredibles...and Surf's Up, which was an animated mockumentary, did some amazing camera work which I can't explain here, just watch the extra features on the blu-ray and be amazed at how they actually used a real hand held camera in an animated film...first time it had been done before I believe

Kit said...

First, Ratatouille is awesome. One of my favorite Pixar movies.

Rustbelt, I remember Sinbad. It was not exactly a great movie, either. It was very meh.
I mean, does it look good? Trailer

I think Aladdin advertised the voice talent of Robin Williams but that worked because Robin Williams could pull it off, especially when his signature song was this: "Friend Like Me"

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, For me, it's more a matter of them casting an actor I know when I'm really looking for a cartoon character, and I want to see the cartoon character, not the actor.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, Those are some good examples of recent cartoons that did it right as well. Kung Fu Panda in particular felt like a cartoon to me... which was much appreciated.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I found it impossible to be interested in Ratatouille.

Sinbad was deeply uninspired. I hoped for so much more, but it was such a bland, derivative film.

Aladdin is mocked by a lot of people as "the Robin Williams show."

tryanmax said...

Andrew, that's very much the crux of the problem. The only time it works differently is when the actor in question basically is a cartoon, as in the example of Robin Williams or Larry the Cable Guy. (After all, his last name is "the Cable Guy.")

Kit said...

Ratatouille is awesome.

Kit said...

Tyranmax, It seems that if its a comedian playing a cartoon version of himself then it will work.

The first Cars was a fun movie. Not Pixar's best by any means but not terrible. Certainly not deserving of the hate it gets. It had the fun combo of Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy.
Never saw the sequel. It looked dumb.

tryanmax said...

Kit, I don't know why Cars gets so much guff. It performed very respectably, it just didn't stack up to The Incredibles. And it is very re-watchable. I should know. I have a 4-yr-old son.

Cars 2 sucks.

Rustbelt said...

Talented voice actors like Williams are great, provided they give the animators material to work with. Even though I recognized Williams, his work was good enough for me to suspend disbelief.

I think what we're really going after is when they cast celebrities who are simply popular at the time and have marketable names. Live acting and voice acting are two different things and it shows when the actors in question clearly don't know what they're doing.

As for big-name stars who can do it well, um, I haven't seen either 'Cars' movie all the way through, so I can't comment on Larry the Cable Guy.
However, the entire cast of 'Emperor's New Groove'- David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Wharburton- was great, with the film playing to the actors' strengths.
But my favorite example would have to be 'the Great Mouse Detective,' with Vincent Price as the villain Ratigan. The filmmakers apparently gave him carte blanche and he ran with it. (Not a bad move when you have a talent like Price.) In fact, he was so dramatic with his Shakespearean gestures during recording sessions, the animators were brought down to watch his performance and get some ideas. (Price would later say this was his favorite role.)

Unfortunately, truly great performers who know their craft like Price and Williams are few and far between. Most of the time it's run-of-the-mill celebrities who are just collecting their paychecks.

And, Kit, yeah, that trailer for 'Sinbad' couldn't have looked more generic.

Backthrow said...

Kit knows of what he speaks. RATATOUILLE is awesome, better than the TOY STORY trilogy (as great as those films are), and only marginally less-awesome than THE INCREDIBLES, which is as mathematically close to perfection as a modern computer-animated feature can get. Though, I must admit, I'm one of those who thought CARS was kind of 'meh', and didn't bother with the sequel.

Back to the subject of cartoon physics... RATATOUILLE had one of its major running gags/plot elements rooted (no pun intended) in it: our ratty hero was able to control his bumbling cook-staff partner like a marionette by tugging different locks of his hair, while hiding inside his chef hat.

As far as the general lack of cartooniness in most modern animated features, you can kind of lay that at the feet of Walt Disney's classic animated features. There have been exceptions, of course, but Disney, after the early years of very cartoony black & white Mickey Mouse cartoons in the late 1920s and early 1930s (think STEAMBOAT WILLIE as a famous example), started to move away from cartoon surrealism and toward a more semi-realistic style that depended far more on story and characterization than crazy gags. Disney humor, while beautifully-animated (tops in the business) and often amusing, tended to be a lot blander than the typical output of his competitors at the Fleischer Studios in the 1930s, MGM in the 1940s/1950s, Walter Lantz in the 1940s and most notably Warner Brothers in the mid-1930s thru the 1950s. When cartooniness did occur, it was usually in the context of a dream ('pink elephants' in DUMBO), a story being related (the SONG OF THE SOUTH 'B'rer Rabbit' segments), or some special fantasyland (PETER PAN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND).

In fact, the Fleischers' cartoons lost some of their luster when they started emulating the less-surreal Disney style from the mid-1930s onward, and Chuck Jones' early directing work at Warner Brothers (shorts like TOM THUMB IN TROUBLE, and all but the last couple of 'Sniffles the Mouse' cartoons), though lovely to look at, didn't really take off until he eschewed his Disney-esque 'cute' style and followed the wild, cartoony trajectories of his co-workers Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin, and thus gave us all the funny classics he's remembered for today.

Anyway, I believe the general thinking amongst animation studios has been that the really cartoony stuff is harder to sustain in a full-length feature, working counter to the efforts to build deeper characterization and telling the story, whereas it works nicely in a fast-paced 7-10 minute short. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT is an exception, being sort of 'meta' on that score, and notice that they never made a full-fledged sequel to it, despite its critical and financial success, but made three follow-up shorts instead?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, For me, the thing is that I prefer to see films where I believe the characters are who they are rather than being an actor playing a role. When they bring in celebrities, they make it that much harder for me to believe the characters. Then they draw the characters to have the actors' traits and it all goes wrong.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit and tryanmax, I think the hate Cars gets is political. I remember a lot of talk about the film being socialist because it made an oil company a villain or something like that. Or maybe the first one glorified oil and the second glorified green energy. I don't remember which, but it seemed to be a political thing.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, The Incredibles works all around.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Another one who worked well for me (suspension of disbelief) despite knowing who the voice was is Eddie Murphy in Shrek. I think what he and Robin Williams had in common was that both really played the characters. They were wild, crazy and childish in a way. And that made the characters feel real. By comparison, when they cast Ellen Page or Jude Law or etc., they just do the voice as if they were acting the part and it simply doesn't work. It makes me see the actor, not the character, and it gives nothing to the "cartoon" aspect of the role.

Kit said...


The first Cars movie had nothing to do with oil. That was the 2nd one. It was more about a fast-living, big city race car discovering the hidden and simple beauties of small-town America.

And Ratatouille is one of the best Pixar movies made. I don't know if I will say its better than the Toy Story Trilogy. It is actually

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I think there is a difference between making a film based solely on cartoony ideas and stripping them all from films. The middle ground is where the great films lie.

And you're right, Disney certainly reduced the cartoony aspects, but they were still always there in the background.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Then it was the left who was upset about the glorification of cars or something.

As for Ratatouille, it's actually one of the first films which made me think about this issue when I watched it because it just didn't feel like a cartoon to me.

Kit said...

Why didn't Ratatouille feel like a cartoon?

Backthrow said...

As I recall, some of the criticism leveled at the first CARS movie, at the time of release, was that we had already seen that movie before, and it was called DOC HOLLYWOOD... which is okay to do again, except people were expecting more from a company like Pixar. Seemed like a lazy thing for them to do.

Also, the design of the characters, while fine in and of itself, was similarly thought to be something of a come-down, after the increasingly complex-looking characters in the Pixar films up to that point. With the exception of maybe the textures and movement (seems to me they had some kind of graphics breakthrough they were touting at the film's release, though I'm forgetting what, exactly) CARS looked like something they could've almost done around the time of the first TOY STORY. Again, the appearance of laziness, compared to the usual Pixar standard, like it was an easy way to sell CARS toys, rather than make something outstanding/brilliant. And that was compounded by the sequel, which apparently added a political slant to the mix.

Kit said...

And did anyone see Tangled?

AndrewPrice said...

Because of the point of this article... it was basically a live action film that go animated and used rats instead of people as images.

Kit said...

By larger-than-life do you mean this: LINK

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, According to the Wikipedia, it was criticized for having an overly long story and for not having anything special to say.

Kit, Nope.

Backthrow said...


Well, I think we're both right. Lots of people liked CARS, a relatively-painless time-killer they could take their kids to, but it also was (validly) criticized by many people for several different as well as inter-related reasons, which can basically be boiled down to, "it wasn't quite up to the established (high) Pixar standard, which had been on a steady climb up until then".

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow. Yep. Either way, I like Cars. I don't like Cars 2.

KRS said...

Kit, I gave "Tangled" a shout out, but I may be the only one who liked it.

It has one of the most touching moments I have ever seen animated, when the entire community launches the lights in the night and only the audience knows the full story of their importance to all the characters.

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