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.
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.