Pete Emslie made an interesting point in the comments section on a recent post:
“I particularly believe that films set in exotic locales like South America have a great deal of appeal . . .”
This is consistent with what most of us believe — Variety is the spice of life. We consciously crave variety — at least we think we do. Most of us long to visit exotic places when we’re daydreaming, but when vacation time comes, we’re usually happier to just chill out in our back yards, or travel an hour away to the beach or a favorite resort community. The relatively new field of Happiness Research bears this out. Research shows that more variety doesn’t make us happy, and that we’re actually happiest with what is familiar.
This is about as exotic as most successful animated film settings get.
Put another way, we want variety, but in a much narrower range than most people realize. Someone who loves hamburgers is always on the lookout for a great new hamburger joint; they might talk about investigating that dim sum place in Chinatown, but when their belly is growling, they’ll find themselves steering the car to Bob’s Big Boy.
I think the same thing happens with our taste in movies, especially animated movies. As much as good animated films appeal to the entire audience, if we lose the childrens’ market, we’re facing an uphill battle for success. And any parent knows that children are far less variety-seeking than adults. Ask a child if they want to sit home and watch Ice Age 3 for the 17th time, or go see a new animated movie that just arrived from Netflix, and you’re likely to be watching Ice Age 3 for the 18th time. Adults are more adventurous than kids, but not by much.
I remember seeing a Chinese-menu style list at a studio a few years back, that was meant to generate ideas for animated features. The list had three columns: one listed familiar film plots; another exotic, obscure settings; and the third column listed exotic, rarely-animated animals. The animals were the kinds you see if you watch a lot of nature shows on TV, but that you’d never encounter in normal life. The idea was to find a winning combination of familiar story, unusual characters, and a novel setting. Someone clearly thought that variety would be appealing for the audience. This was a logical approach, but one that misread human nature.
As a former scientist, I’m a natural empiricist. I’m quick to try to look at actual evidence, and there is a lot of evidence when it comes to animated films. To my reading of the data, it appears that exoticness in character types, and in settings, probably hurts the appeal of a film. Let’s look at character types first.
Quick, make of list of animated rodents. There are scores of beloved rodent characters. How many of those rodents are mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, guinea pigs? Now, how many are capybaras, nutria, Patagonian cavies, pacas, and tuco-tucos? Those are all rodents, but we keep coming back to the familiar ones.
How many rabbits, cats, and dogs are cartoon characters, compared to the Chinese giant salamander, the hairy nosed wombat, and the African wild ass? Among bird characters, how many ducks and chickens and penguins? And, of course, the single most common animated character type, at least in the western world, is a human. And almost always a white human. It doesn’t get any more familiar than that.
And so it goes with settings. I took a look at the most successful animated features of recent times, and came up with relatively few common settings:
1. Vaguely-European-fairy-tale-settings. Whether it’s Shrek or one of the many Disney fairy tale films, there’s a long history of films set here. Sometimes there is a nominal actual location, like France in Beauty and the Beast, but these are always idealized, generalized, and vague enough to feel completely familiar. Even Miyazaki has set several of his features in this world that never existed, but that we know so well.
2. Nonspecific, familiar United States. Yes, this is a large, vague category, but here I’m talking about places we’ve all spent lots of time. Small town America, big city America, in a park, whatever. Andy’s home in Toy Story, or the small-town west in Cars, or even the fantasy America of The Incredibles — all grounded in the familiar. Over the Hedge and the first part of Up, Cloudy, and The Simpsons are set here. These films are also usually set in contemporary times — animated films set in the recent past tend to be a dicey affair.
3. Undersea. Here we have Finding Nemo, Shark Tale, SpongeBob, a major portion of The Little Mermaid (with the rest being set in the first category) and (for you history buffs) The Incredible Mr. Limpet.
4. Prehistoric settings. From The Flintstones, to The Land Before Time series, to the Ice Age series, with quite a few more examples, this is evergreen territory. Dinosaurs and cavemen and the classic early mammals are a touch exotic, but what child doesn’t fixate on these characters from an early age. They existed long ago, but their world seems utterly familiar.
5. Africa-without-Africans. Now we’re starting to stretch, but here we have The Lion King, Tarzan, and the Madagascar films (though the original Mad starts in familiar New York City). The key here, I think, is that these films take characters that we’re all familiar with, and set them in safely-exotic Africa, which we’re aso familiar with, but they leave out the messiness of actual native African characters.
Up does something similar with South America — in the film, South America is a land without South Americans, and without South American culture. It’s a visually interesting place, but one where familiar characters do familiar things (and yes, talking dogs are totally familiar in animation). In fact, you could argue that Up is primarily about a man’s conscious claim to want variety (he and his wife obsess about travel), and yet all his actions refute that claim (his wife dies never having experiencing that variety, and when Carl does finally travel, he takes his entire house with him, defeating the purpose of experiencing a different culture). Carl doesn’t so much as travel to South America, as he defiantly brings the familiar to the exotic, and then, without having experienced any of that exoticism, he returns home, with his home.
Carl does change, but what actually changes him is not what an exotic land has to offer. His journey inadvertently forces him to experience a neighbor boy, which he could have more easily done without attaching balloons to his house. That’s not to say the story didn’t work (it definitely does!), but that to read the story as an embrace of the exotic would be false. Like The Wizard of Oz, Up says that the exciting and foreign and exotic aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and that you’ll be happier if you stay in the familiar. Which we all seem to instinctively know, even if we profess otherwise.