As I’ve discussed before, there’s a common joke-slash-truism in the animation community: What are the three most important things in a great animated movie? It’s a variation on the old real-estate saw: What are the three most important things in selling a house? Location, location, location. In the world of animation, the axiomatic answer is usually story, story, story. Animation, character design, art direction, directorial style, medium, staging, voice work, editing, lighting, effects, and so on are never part of that short list.
A variation on this idea is the commonly stated, “Great animation can’t save a bad story, and bad animation can’t hurt a great story.” In my years in the industry I’ve heard this refrain every time there is a discussion about why a film succeeded or failed. “Of course that movie bombed — the animation and production values were fine, but the story wasn’t strong enough.” So not only does the conventional wisdom hold that story is superordinate to everything in an animated film, but also that character animation (and everything else) is almost irrelevant.
I’ll explore whether great animation can or cannot save a bad story later. That’s a question that’s important to me. But here, I want to look at the question of whether or not Story is the end-all and be-all of a great animated film. Put another way, the central question is, Are major studios foolish to put so much effort and money into art direction, character design, layout, modeling, rigging, animation, editing, lighting, surfacing, effects, sound design, vocal performances, etc., etc.? Because that’s what the ‘Story, story, story’ axiom implies.
Can’t you take a fantastic script, blast through preproduction, ship all the production work around the globe to the cheapest bidders, and save a big fat bundle while making your hit movie? If story is all important, and animation is window dressing, a lot of money is being wasted, isn’t it?
I don’t think so. I think the common “It’s story, story, story” refrain is wrongheaded, and misses the mark.
First, let’s look at what story is.
Story is what happens and to whom, why it happens, and what it means. There are some interrelated but distinct elements that constitute ‘story.’ One key element is plot, which is the causal sequence of what events. Many people confuse plot with story. The plot is the series of events, which usually provide conflict. A plot doesn’t require specific characters or settings or even specific motivations. As Fitzgerald famously said, “The king died, then the queen died” is a plot, while “the king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a story.
Georges Polti reviewed literature up until 1868 and found only 36 ‘dramatic scenarios’. Ronald Tobias has written an influential book summarizing 20 Master Plots (online discussion here). There are other lists of possible plots, some even shorter.
This isn’t surprising. If you look hard, you’ll see that there are many, many movies with almost identical plots, yet the movies aren’t remotely alike. Some are good movies, some not so good.
We get excited when we see a good movie with an intricate plot, and this confuses some into thinking a complex plot, especially with lots of twists and turns, is a key element for a great movie. There are plenty of movies, perfectly enjoyable movies, with unnecessarily confusing plots, overly complicated plots, or ridiculously simple plots. Since the plot supplies the ‘spine’ of a story, a well-plotted movie has a better chance to be a good movie, but there are countless examples of hopelessly muddled plots in beloved movies. I’ve watched The Big Sleep four times. It’s a classic film noir that I love, and yet I can’t begin to tell you what the plot is (it’s famously unclear if either the great director, Howard Hawks, or the screenwriters, William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, knew what was going on in the story, either). The plot is incomprehensible, yet it’s a wonderful film. A great plot is not crucial to a good film.
Theme is another key element of story. Theme is what the story means. In trite terms, it’s the message. The tricky thing about theme is that it can’t really be written — it emerge from stories. Not all movies have much in the way of a theme. Some try to pack in several themes. Many have muddled themes or poorly developed themes, or themes that don’t synchronize with the plot. In general, the subplot often carries the theme, and in a well crafted movie multiple characters will reveal multiple aspects of the theme.
Theme is the area where the classic bloated Hollywood spectacle movie fails. It’s not the emphasis on explosions and gratuitous VFX, or the emphasis on the latest hot celebrity actors, or the illogical overplotted storyline. The film either lacks a distinct theme, or the theme is as superficial as a modern childrens’ book (an obvious message is not quite the same as a subtle, resonate theme). And yet, all too often, movies with muddled or conflicting themes are embraced and successful. And films with beautiful, important, touching themes are often forgotten. So theme isn’t a sufficient element to guarantee a great movie, either.
Character (alternatively characterization) is usually recognized as a key element of story. What’s a story without compelling, well-crafted characters? Let me ask — how many stories, and how many films, feature Sherlock Holmes and his usual cohorts? How many filmed versions are there of the blind swordsman Zatoichi? Are some of them wonderful? Yes. Are some of them terrible? Yep. I’ve read or watched about a thousand individual Spider-Man stories, in comics, in animation, in films. Many have exactly the same characters. Some are entertaining, some not so much. Whether it’s Shrek and Donkey or James Bond, great characters are also, by themselves, insufficient for a great movie.
Setting is usually considered a key element of story. Quick, take your favorite story, and try to imagine it in a completely different time and place. Did that destroy the story? Probably not. Did Kurasawa destroy Macbeth when he transposed it to feudal Japan in Throne of Blood? Did George Lucas destroy The Hidden Fortress, which is set in feudal Japan, when he transposed it to a fantasy future in Star Wars? The list of stories and films that have been redone in entirely different settings is far too long to list, and there are better examples than I’ve given. Is a particular setting, no matter how exotic or how familiar, key to a film’s success? Clearly not.
What about other possible elements in a story? This list includes authorial point of view, story structure (3-act structure, 5-act structure, hero’s journey, etc.), MacGuffins, conflict, reversals, flashbacks, dialog, and on and on. Many of those elements are part of plot, but deserve separate mention. So, how many of those elements appear only in good movies? How many of these elements, if present and well done, put a movie over the top? Again, I think none are sufficient or even crucial.
At this point, I can guess what some of you are muttering. That I’m breaking apart things that have to hang together. A good story is the sum of all those pieces — ALL of the elements I’ve listed above, mixed together in a ‘just so’ arrangement, are what counts. I don’t disagree. But then let me ask, how many films have been entirely remade, with exactly the same story and story elements, yet with very different results?
Some are slavish, shot-for-shot remakes, matching character and dialog and setting, others slightly tweaked, others simply remade in a new language, with domestic actors. There are hundreds of such films, with the same plot/theme/characters/key elements. But they all have different actors, different directors, different cinematographers, different art directors and production designers, different editors, different production values. The story is the same, the execution is different, and the resulting films are fundamentally different.
I remember years ago, a know-it-all friend dismissed the success of The Lion King with, “Well of course it’s a huge hit. They just redid Hamlet, with lions. How can you miss with a great classic story like Hamlet?” I asked him if this was the first film that borrowed heavily from Hamlet? He thought for a moment, and said “No, of course not.” I didn’t need to ask the next question, because he got it — all those other Hamlet-influenced films weren’t necessarily good or successful. Borrowing story from a great play like Hamlet is no guarantee of making a great film.
Ultimately, the key to a fantastic, enjoyable, successful animated feature can be summarized in a few words: entertainment and engagement. Did it engage you, entertain you, suck you in completely? Did it make you glad you spent your $10? Story, in and of itself, cannot do that. Otherwise, a remake of Kung Fu Panda, but with earthworms, animated in Waziristan, and rendered on TRS-80s, would be a blockbuster. Kung Fu Wormy might have exactly the same story, but it likely won’t be as good a movie.
So ponder this for now, and soon I’ll post what I think really is the answer to the question, “What are the three most important things for a great animated movie?” And by the way, when I wrote about this topic a year ago, I was referring to what I considered the most important element in getting an audience to come see your film. I still think appeal is the absolute key to generating viewer interest and having a big opening weekend. Here, I’m talking about something different: among the animated films we bother to see, what makes some of them great, and others not-so-great? What hooks you about a film so much you want to see it again and again?