Sunday, December 2, 2012

It's all in the writing

There are others in the game, but it's safe to say that the two current titans in animation are Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks. We can lump Disney and Pixar together because a) Disney owns Pixar, and b) when combined, their output about equals that of Dreamworks.

(Sorry, Universal/Illumination Entertainment -- I'm not inviting you to this party for the disappointing Despicable Me and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. I'll also now make a dutiful mention of Fox' Ice Age movies.)

Although I certainly prefer the animation styles of Disney/Pixar, I'm not going to credit them with having a significant technical advantage over Dreamworks in that department.

And so, when/if Dreamworks does poach employees from Disney/Pixar, they shouldn't be poaching the animators. They should be poaching the writers.

The writing is why Dreamworks is Pepsi to Disney/Pixar's Coke.

The latest example is Rise of the Guardians, the movie I accidentally saw on Thursday night. I had gone to the Sherman Oaks Arclight for an 8:00 showing of Lincoln, but was denied as the result of an apparent sell-out. Although the "big board" did not list the movie as sold out, neither could I purchase a ticket to it at one of the kiosks. And I was close enough to start time not be able to wait behind over 20 dodos who didn't realize you can also buy tickets from the machines. Even if I did, the wait might only confirm what I already suspected about the paucity of available tickets.

Since it started only five minutes later, Rise of the Guardians was an obvious Plan B. (Though I first made sure that Anna Karenina wasn't playing anytime soon.)

My response to this movie was sluggish from the start. That's not to say I thought it was poorly made. As I said before, I prefer the character designs in Disney and Pixar, but I could easily recognize the virtuoso work on display here. I just wish it weren't so manically dizzying, is all. So frantic with color and action and general zaniness. "You can tell they worked really hard on this" was the backhanded compliment that kept occurring to me.

It was really the writing that let me down. The inability to make me care about the characters. The inability to give them depth. The inability to fill me with wonder. The inability to make me laugh.

That was the thing that surprised me most about Wreck-It Ralph, which I saw a couple weeks ago. Not surprised that I cared about the characters or was infected with the contagious sense of wonder, but that I was laughing hysterically. I'm sure it has something to do with the fact that the movie was perfectly tailored for a child of the 1980s to get its references, but Wreck-It Ralph may have been the hardest I've laughed at a movie this year. (I'll also note that I saw it with two friends who are the same age and have the same references, which certainly helped.)

I didn't laugh once during Rise of the Guardians. Not once.

I might consider Wreck-It Ralph an anomaly if not for the fact that Disney's previous non-Pixar animated release, Tangled, gave me the hardest single laugh I can remember having in the theater. That's a bold statement, but it may be true. I distinguish this hard laugh from other hard laughs because I kept giggling about this particular line of dialogue for minutes afterward. If you've seen the movie, it's when the thief turned hero, Flynn (voice of Zachary Levi), finds himself in an improbable sword fight with a horse, backing up toward the edge of a long dropoff. Yelling above the ruckus, Flynn tells the horse (who, true to nature, can't speak), "Just so you know, this is the strangest thing I've ever done." I'm almost starting to laugh now, just typing this out.

As a comparison, let's look at the other recent Dreamworks movies that didn't make me laugh: How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda ... well, maybe once or twice each. I did laugh at Monsters vs. Aliens, but that stands out as an exception that I attribute more to the vocal actors than the writing. I'd say its third act gives a good idea of its structural failures from a script perspective.

Why are there so many recent Dreamworks Animation movies I'm not even mentioning here? Because I didn't even deem them worth seeing. That list includes the last two Madagascar movies, the second Kung Fu Panda, the last three Shrek movies, Puss in Boots and Megamind. I did really enjoy Bee Movie back in 2007, but had a much more negative impression of it on second viewing. (That also probably speaks to the writing, as that script is all over the place.)

Pure Pepsi, I tell you.

Now, I haven't seen Pixar's last two movies, either. But I do expect to catch Brave in the coming weeks. I'm probably saving Cars 2 for when my son inevitably goes crazy over the Cars movies, which will happen just as soon as we expose him to the first one.

I do realize that the claims I'm making here are rather broad. In fact, if I looked up these movies, I'm sure I'd find their scripts credited to dozens of different writers, multiple per movie in most cases. Naturally, a group of dozens of different writers have varying strengths that should seem to operate independently of whatever studio is employing them.

Except Pixar and the last two Disney films do have a certain unifying force that gives them a consistent quality: John Lasseter. You know, the guy who basically founded Pixar and directed the first two Toy Story movies. (We won't mentioned that he also directed what many people considered three of the lesser Pixar movies, A Bug's Life and the two Cars movies. For the record, I do really like the original Cars.)

I can't be sure to what extent Lasseter meddles in the day-to-day operations of these movies, but I have to think that his fingerprints are all over Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, which certainly qualifies as a good thing. In fact, it seems as though he's putting more of himself into making really good Disney movies than really good Pixar movies, as Brave seems likely to be the second straight Pixar movie not to win the Oscar for best animated feature. (If you were asking me today, I'd bet on Wreck-It Ralph to win this year.)

Assuming that he does meddle (and that this is a good thing), it's probably not standing over the shoulder of an animator, grabbing his mouse arm and operating the animator like a puppet, showing him the right way to give texture to individual hairs on a character's head. Nope, I'm thinking he's in the writer's room, figuring out just the right way to give the characters texture, dimension and heart.

The results speak for themselves. Disney/Pixar movies feature characters and scenarios you care about, which lead to exciting and poignant narrative climaxes.


With Rise of the Guardians being a particularly valid example, Dreamworks movies are just a big light show. 

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