Is Variety the Spice of Life? Animated Settings and Characters

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.

The Incredibles House

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.

12 Responses to “Is Variety the Spice of Life? Animated Settings and Characters”

  1. Ralph Says:

    Really interesting read, as always. You have a knack for cutting to the heart of things. Glad to see you’re posting more regularly now.

  2. Pete Emslie Says:

    Kevin, you make some very valid points here, and you have somewhat won me over, yet not entirely so. Your comments on “Up” are spot on. In hindsight it really does seem like a foreign trip taken by the stereotypical “Ugly American”, who travels to an exotic locale but still craves a hamburger instead of the local cuisine. I agree that South america is lost in this movie.

    I’ll admit that even my favourite animated movie of all time, Disney’s “The Jungle Book” is somewhat guilty of this trend. I absolutely love the lushly painted, exotic Indian jungle backgrounds in the movie, yet I’ll grant you that none of the characters are the least bit Indian. With a cast of voice actors both American and British, this is most definitely a movie about still-colonized India, with some jazzy American swing band music thrown in for extra imported fun.

    I still feel, however, that colourful exotic locales can have appeal to audiences when done in a fun way. I maintain that the Brazilian samba beat combined with the colourful Mexican serapes, pinatas, and costumes of Mexico are a huge part of the appeal of “The Three Caballeros” for me, yet I’ll grant you that it’s all seen through the eyes of that quintessential cartoon “Ugly American”, Donald Duck! Anyway, I really enjoyed your thoughtful dissection of this topic, even if we still disagree a bit on it.

  3. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for the response, Pete. I completely agree about “The Jungle Book” being recast in a palatable, westernized manner. I think it’s of a piece with the “Africa without Africans” group of films.

    And I don’t think we disagree so much. I have no doubt that the elements you cite in “The Three Caballeros” are a major part of the appeal of the film for you, and for those who love the film. It’s just that the settings and cultures portrayed in that film have never had a particularly widespread appeal, and that seems to be even more true today than it was 60 years ago. I think we (as individuals) sometimes make the mistake of assuming that because we enjoy something, a wider audience will also, if it’s just presented in the right way.

  4. scuttlebutt Says:

    To put it more simply, you could say that animated films often combine the familiar with the extraordinary. It’s a pleasing dynamic.

  5. Dhar Jabouri Says:

    Spot on analysis, as always. I was hoping you’d touch on Avatar and the fantastic setting they exposed us to. The part of the “floating mountains of Pandora” especially struck resonance with me who, as a teenager, was exposed to the work of illustrator/artist Roger Dean and his floating islands on the album cover of YES http://asubtleknife.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/roger_dean___floating_islands.jpg

    Familiar on more levels than one?

  6. Jesse Says:

    Hey Kevin- sorry I’m late to the party! I believe much of your gleanings on the familiar tie back into Jung’s ideas concerning archetype, and characters/settings with a “universal” understanding. We’re drawn subconsciously to what we know and understand or have representations thereof.

    In order for us to empathize with a character, we must first have a basis of understanding for the character, even if it’s symbolic. I’ve never seen a lion outside of a zoo, so why do they seem familiar to me? Because of all the stories that have been told using them. It is accepted in the culture as being a strong predatory land mammal, often symbolized as noble and regal, even though my personal interactions with one are practically nonexistent.

    We’ve been exposed to lions, pandas, penguins, eagles, etc. in some way, and have pre-wired understanding of those animals as characters, and thus, some expectation as to how they’ll act/react. You could even say early cartooning was an establishing of archetype in the exaggerated caricatures of what we saw and were aware of. In short, they’ve been added to the western archetypal dictionary.

    So of course the obvious conclusion is that when America becomes more familiar with the world, the more open it will be to different characters and stories. I believe this will happen naturally when/if foreign film becomes popular. We will see the world from a different perspective, and if that perspective becomes accepted (Hong Kong action films, Kurosawa, and anime come to mind), it will become part of the western archetypal dictionary. So I’m not really refuting what you say here, you’re right- the tendency is to focus on the familiar. I simply say let’s get familiar with the world.

  7. Kevin Says:

    Dhar, thanks for the reminder of Roger Dean and his wonderful airbrushed album covers. I have no doubt, given Cameron’s age, that those album covers were integrated deep into his psyche. He might not realize he was referencing them, but that’s often the way influence works.

    As far as the setting goes, as a science-fiction setting, the key is to make it both exotic/otherworldly and still ground it in the familiar. Without that grounding, you risk slipping into a realm where the audience doesn’t want to follow.

    Jesse, thank you for such a thoughtful response. I afraid, however, that I’m less sanguine about how readily the general audience is to becoming familiar with the foreign. Most people simply won’t sit through a film with subtitles. Most would prefer to take a cruise to Cancun than hike in the Andes. Most people aren’t terribly curious, and are instinctively adept at tuning out the unfamiliar, so even when exposed to new ideas and places, they react like Carl in Up. So I love your sentiment (Let’s get familiar with the world!), but I don’t think as filmmakers we can expect that to happen easily.

  8. Mariya Kalachova Says:

    Wow, great read Kevin, really interesting points especially about the exotic locations without the locals, you could say the same for the fairy tale setting though, when’s the last time we saw a fairy tale with some real medievil sickness and street crime in it? I remember a lot of soviet cartoons about a romantic Africa that is dangerous and at the same time dreamlike. The thing that always sticks out to me about fantasy locations is the comfortable feeling of logic. One of the reasons I read fantasy novels.. for that comfortable feeling of logic.
    I had an interesting experience a while ago when I first went to Japan and it felt familiar, homely. I realised it was because I had visited the faux European towns of ghibli films so much, towns that were actually culturally Japanese, and so in turn made that culture familiar to me.
    Sorry I’m going off on a tangent a bit, this article brings out lots of interesting thoughts. I can see so much familiar grounding in creatures like wall-e and eve.
    I’d be interested to know though, so what do you think about Stitch (and other pokemon like anime characters who are intrinsically cute and loveable).. can’t get a more exotic creature than that, although based on ‘doglike’ personality and movement. I’d just be interested to hear your thoughts on how that kind of character became so charming. I have to admit the 6 armed version does feel a lot less love-able.
    Always a pleasure checking on your blog :)

    –Mariya

  9. Kevin Says:

    Hi Mariya! Great to hear from you. Yes, you’re right about fairy tales. We tend to clean them up. Of course, you could argue that most fairy tales were originally told as essentially contemporary stories (i.e., medieval stories told to medieval audiences), so filmmakers can be justified in contemporizing them.

    Great thoughts about the way the Ghibli films make the exotic familiar (the exotic European settings are made familiar to Japanese audiences, and the exotic Japanese culture set in those European settings becomes familiar and acceptable to us).

    Regarding Stitch, he’s a great example of a seemingly exotic character who is utterly familiar. It’s no accident that Stitch and Lilo look so much alike, nor that Stitch has elements of dog/koala/rabbit/bratty child. I think the choice to give him huge eyes (with huge, dilated pupils), soft fur, stubby limbs, and big ears are all cues that he’s really something to cuddle. Imagine if he really had razor sharp teeth, beady eyes, tiny holes for ears, and sickly yellow scales instead, but otherwise had the same behavior. Not so appealing, though certainly more exotic!

  10. vm Says:

    The perfect description of Up, 20 stars out of 10 for that :) I was disappointed with this movie because it seemed to anticipate a great, lush, exotic adventure… and they advertised it as the funniest Pixar movie to date… and I expected to see a flurry of creativity unleashed upon us… and then I go to the movie, I grab my popcorn with great excitement… and my jaw drops at how dull and boring the movie actually is, and how nothing of the above-mentioned is to be found anywhere in the movie. Instead of the exotic adventure, they give me a bizarre conflict between two weird old men?…All because of a bird?…

  11. Kevin Says:

    Haha, sounds like I enjoyed Up a little more than you did, vm. As I said, I did enjoy the film, though I think it was a case where the unconscious storytelling reveals as much as the conscious storytelling.

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    [...] Koch has another really interesting article on his website.  This time he talks about variety being the spice of [...]

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch