My Final Answer to the Question

We’ve established that I don’t think story is the end all and be all for successful animated films, and that it might not even be crucial.  And I’ve written that I think storytelling is one factor that is absolutely crucial.  But is there more?  Yeah, I think so, and I think both of these things are separable from story and storytelling.

My answer to the question, ‘What are the three most important things for a successful animated film?’ is,  Storytelling, great characters, appeal. When you’ve have these three things going on, you have a chance unleash a Lion King or a Toy Story or an Ice Age.

Dumbo model sheet

Appeal, as I’ve discussed before, is difficult to quantify, and I’m not going to try here.  We know it when we see it.  The first moment we saw Skrat in the very first teaser for the very first Ice Age, we were hooked.  Regardless of what the story might turn out to be, we were going to that film.  I was turned off a little when I saw the later trailers, which gave a taste of the story and other characters (I recognized the well-used “Three Men and a Baby” story, and wasn’t impressed with Ray Romano’s voicework).  But the appeal of Skrat and his elusive acorn sold me, as I think it did so many others.

Appeal isn’t something that can be tacked on.  I’ve seen quite a few movies (animated and live action) that end with a happy song and dance, sometimes over the credits, to try to leave the audience with that warm fuzzy feeling.  It’s like adding a tasty dessert after a bland meal.  Appeal doesn’t mean happy or bright, and it needs to be integral part of a film’s DNA (Nightmare Before Christmas is a good example of appeal sans warm-and-fuzzy).  Appeal is a crucial element to almost every part of a film, and includes not just story elements and design, but animation, color palate, lighting, surfacing, and so on.

There’s a long list of well-crafted, compelling films with perfectly fine storytelling, but which lack appeal.  Most turned out to be failures.  I’m constantly amazed at how talented creators and producers can embark on multi-million dollar animated productions that are, on their face, unappealing. I’ve had this reaction at several initial crew pitch meetings, and so far my gut instinct meter has been 100%.

It can be as simple as the setting.  When I heard that The Princess and the Frog was set in New Orleans, I worried.  I can’t think of a single film set in New Orleans (and immersed in New Orleans’ classic voodoo culture) that was a significant hit. Much as I’ve enjoyed visiting New Orleans, I’ve always found the cajun/voodoo culture kind of off-putting in film, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

I think Central and South America are also settings that generally aren’t particularly appealing to most north Americans and Europeans, especially if that setting is part of a historical piece involving Aztecs/Incans/Mayans (which few of us have a clue how to tell apart).  So I wasn’t surprised when both The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove (originally Kingdom of the Sun) didn’t find audiences.  Regardless of the reasons, there are some settings and cultures that just don’t seem to be that appealing to general movie-going audiences.  And that’s just one aspect of appeal.

Great characters are the other part of this triad.  Yes, when a story is created, the characters are part of that. But in animated films, characters only partly emerge from the story. The motivations, general description, and dialog might be there, but character crucially encompass character design, acting, voice, and animation.  In CG animation, modeling and rigging and setup are also crucial.  Great characters goes far beyond what is written in the script or story.  I love watching Sean Connery play Bond, yet you cannot pay me to watch Roger Moore do the same role (especially in Live and Let Die, which is partly set in New Orleans!).

There’s no one type of great character.  They can be heros, villians, side-kicks, whatever.  They can be attractive or ugly, likable or hate-able. But they all are specific, distinct characters, with well-observed and idiosyncratic traits, who connect with us in some fundamental way.  I remember visiting family in Kentucky after we finished animating Shrek 2.  The film was a couple of months away from release, and I was tooling around town with my crew t-shirt on.  In those few days, a good half a dozen strangers asked me about the t-shirt, and were thrilled to hear I’d worked on the new Shrek film.  But what struck me wasn’t just that people loved the original film — it was that almost every one of those people wanted me to guess who their favorite character was.  Then they all named different characters.  For one it was Fiona, for another it was Donkey, for another it was Lord Farquhar, for another it was Shrek, and so on.  Some of them went on to recite obscure lines from the film, in character.  I went back to Glendale knowing the film wasn’t just going to do well, but that it would be the hit of the summer.

In animation, if you make a list of great characters, and you’ll also be making a list of beloved cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Skrat, Lilo and Stitch, Wall-E, Shrek and Donkey, Sponge-Bob, Jiminy, Woody and Buzz, Ren and Stimpy, Daffy, Bart, Ariel, Dory, Po, Dumbo, and on and on. Great characters make an incomprehensible story interesting (see The Big Sleep for a noir example), and they make a good story great. Weak, cliched, or annoying characters will turn a good story turn into an unwatchable mess.

Where the Wild Things Are (spoilers ahead!)  started with tons of appeal and interesting characters.  The opening sequence and introduction to the Wild Things is fantastic.  But in the telling of the tale, the characters became less and less appealing.  The very environment seemed to go grey.  I think it was a fine story, and what I’ve read of the novelization is excellent, but the film ended up leaving me feeling flat.  I think the film could have been just as heavy, just as psychologically informed, if the characters and setting had grown more appealing instead of regressing into a children’s version of Ordinary People.  It stopped being fun, and I stopped caring about the characters, who eventually bored me.  It was like a cake that started to rise, and then didn’t, despite being a well-made film with a perfectly fine story.

As an animator, I’ve been part of productions where it didn’t come together.  A large, talented crew works very hard for a few years, and the film comes out and . . . underwhelms. Despite lots of smart, savvy people having lots of meetings focused on story and plot and character, end up with a whole that is less than the sum of its parts.  Hey, I didn’t say this was easy!  But then, that is the reason smart, talent-filled studios spend so many tens of millions of dollars on animated features. Because it isn’t easy, and there is no shortcuts, no glib answers.  Studios that know what they’re doing don’t just spend a few million on a great screenplay, and have the rest of the crew mail in their work.  No successful animated feature has ever followed that model.

Just take a look at the history of our industry.  In the early days, after the huge success of Snow White, the Disney studio was on the brink.  The studio was in the red after Pinocchio and Fantasia.  It fell to humble Dumbo, a film with such a minimal story that it required the Pink Elephant sequence (zero story value) to pad it barely up to feature length (64 minutes!). But the film exuded appeal, had wonderful characters, and story telling like nobody’s business.  It put Disney into the black, and we still love the film 70 years later.  And that’s my final point.  Want to make successful animated features?  Spend more time looking at films like Dumbo.


9 Responses to “My Final Answer to the Question”

  1. Michael Cawood Says:

    Here, Here! I’ve always put a lot of effort into characters, appealing character and appealing design. Strong characters have often proven to hold up a weak story, and appealing strong characters will sell a movie. Even the Beast is an appealing character!

  2. andy holden Says:

    Hi kevin, good conclusion to this series. All very good reads to set the grey matter going for sure 🙂

    I was gonna argue about characters and storytelling being one and the same but then I suddenly remember about a character such as Jack Sparrow and how much the success of those movies seems to lie in the key points you menrtioned (I’m sure if you read the script from the original he wouldn’t even be half the character as what ended up on screen imho)

  3. Kevin Says:

    Michael, the Beast is definitely an appealing character. In fact, he’s appealing enough that I’ve heard of small children crying at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ when he turns human and ceases to exist.

    Hey, Andy! Jack Sparrow, and what Johnny Depp brought to that character, is a perfect example of how character often transcends story. Great example.

  4. Dave Says:

    This series has been really great, Kevin. Your insights are always sharp and informative (the Roger Rabbit breakdown from a while ago was extremely interesting). I think you are absolutely on track with your observations on storytelling, character, and appeal. Appeal is such an elusive and multi-pronged beast–it often seems to simply be that “it” factor that certain movies, shows, people, products, etc. just have. It’s hard to design it into your short film when it remains such a variable factor, but I’ll keep trying.

    Thanks for this series. Looking forward to whatever future observations you post–I know they’ll be interesting!

  5. Pete Emslie Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Though I agree with most of what you say here, especially in regard to strong appealing characters, I would disagree with your thoughts regarding setting. I particularly believe that films set in exotic locales like South America have a great deal of appeal, depending on how you choose to represent it. If “The Emperor’s New Groove” failed to win over audiences, I would suggest that was more due to Disney changing direction during production, making it more of a jokey vehicle for the sarcastic David Spade instead of sticking to their original “Kingdom of the Sun” scenario. Remember that South America was also the setting for “Saludos Amigos” and (partly) “The Three Caballeros”, both of which celebrated all that hot Latin culture with lush colour and the samba beat. That’s got ultimate appeal in my book!

  6. Kevin Says:

    Dave, thanks for the support. I appreciate it.

    Pete, I think you’re falling into a trap that I’ve seen animation execs fall into — the idea that exotic, colorful locales (and exotic characters) have some kind of increased appeal simply by nature of their lack of familiarity. Yet when you look at it, we see countless examples of the same kind of already familiar settings and characters being popular.

    You defend the appeal of Central/South American settings with “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.” “Saludos Amigos” came out in 1942, a time when travel films were far more popular than they are now. It was a success only relative to it’s low costs (the film served as PR/propaganda for the US relationship with South America, which was tenuous during WWII, and the film was given federal loan guarantees at a time when cash flow for the studio was very tight). The government literally paid Walt and some key artists to travel to South America to develop the film. Despite your love of the film, “Saludos” was only rereleased once (as part of a “Dumbo” double bill), while most Disney animated features were rereleased repeatedly and to increasing popularity.

    “The Three Caballeros” came out two years “Saludos” (1944), and likewise was inexpensive to produce and partly backed by the US government. It was never popular enough to even get a full rerelease in later years. Both these films are almost unknown outside of the world of animation fans and animation history buffs.

    Ultimately, I don’t think those two slightly successful 60+ year old films prove any particular popularity for South/Central America. In fact, I think they support my case. Also, my understanding is that “Kingdom of the Sun,” which was heavily grounded in the region’s history and setting, was completely changed to “Emperor’s New Groove” because “Kingdom” wasn’t tracking at all. It had the makings of a huge bomb. We’ll never really know how it would have done if it had been finished as “Kingdom of the Sun,” but claiming it would have been a hit is speculative in the extreme.

    I’d love to see a list of relatively recent films set in Mayan/Incan/Aztec settings, or that are immersed in South/Central American settings, that were successful in the North American and European markets. I can find lots of counter-examples in both live action and animation. And I think it’s the same for films immersed in New Orleans culture — lots of misses, and only a few marginal hits.

    Or make an opposite list — what settings and time periods have been used in the most successful animated films? Here are four broad classes of settings that have been used time and again: Vaguely-European-fairy-tale-settings (including several by Miyazaki), nonspecific U.S. (usually contemporary), Undersea, and Africa-without-Africans. Rule those four broad groups out and you eliminate the majority of the most successful animated films.

  7. anonymous Says:

    Interesting ideas. But there is I think there may be an aspect of the slippery fish we call ‘appeal’ that we can perhaps nail down,
    and it has to do with satisfying expectation.

    For example, with regard to location, I wonder if the appeal factor is really as simple as a mere contest between the exotic vs. the familiar.

    Or more precisely, if appeal does have something to do with the exotic vs. the familiar, and I think it may, then perhaps the battleground is not at the level of geography, but rather something deeper: genre.

    If we broaden the scope to include live action as well as animation, we find that audiences do indeed favor the familiar-

    -Familiar genres of storytelling.

    And a genre is defined by a combination of character type, story type, and location- these are the rules of each genre. While honoring those rules will not guarantee a successful picture, you do I think, violate them at your own peril.

    In terms of location, a few examples- The Big City of the Film Noirs, The Old American West of the Westerns, Outer Space and the Exotic Worlds of Science Fiction.

    Now, there are sub-genres, and even combinations of genres, that play familiar elements off each other- the hybrid horror voodoo/detective noir that is “Angel Heart” comes to mind with regard to The Big City and New Orleans, and the Science Fiction/Western/Fairy Tail “Star Wars” with regard to Space, The Old American West, and the Evil Castle.

    But the locations, exotic or not, exist in a framework of familiar genre settings. The Death Star was not a familiar location to most people in the late spring of ’77. But, the Evil Castle had been a familiar convention in the Fairy Tail genre long before then.

    Why this may be- why audiences enjoy selecting from a menu of genres with pre-established ‘rules’, including rules of location as well as character and story, is the larger question that gets at what we all enjoy in a good movie- what we call ‘appeal’.

    Whatever the reason, its the same reason that a child says, ‘Tell me that story again!’.

  8. Kevin Says:

    I wonder if the appeal factor is really as simple as a mere contest between the exotic vs. the familiar.

    Well, I certainly don’t think appeal is a contest between the exotic vs. the familiar, and I hope my writing was clear enough to indicate that. My argument was that the commonly held idea that the ‘exotic’ is intrinsically more appealing than the familiar is false. Both the exotic and the familiar can be appealing, or unappealing, but exoticism for its own sake is more likely to be off-putting than welcoming to audiences. Exotic/familiar is also a continuum that includes geography, but extends to a wide variety of other attributes that we can ascribe to films (including, as you point out, ‘genre’).

    I like your discussion of genre, though I’m not sure that your three criteria (character type, story type, location) are either necessary or sufficient to define every genre (e.g., the biopic is a genre, and is one that can have any setting, any character, and a story that is entirely dependent on the subject). It also tends to be difficult to neatly categorize many films into any single genre, or even into a small set of genres. Not to mention that some genres (‘comedy,’ ‘drama’) are sufficiently vague as to be almost meaningless. I do think you’re right that genre-bending films are often a harder sell to audiences, and I think that does relate to the comfort audiences have with the familiar, so I definitely agree with that.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch