In this third of a six-part series, Ellen Besen looks at how we can learn a lot about making good films from bad ones.
I kind of like it when the big studios make bad films. They are often the best teaching aids anyone could come up with. And that is definitely the case with our exploration of how analogy affects story development.
Take, for example, Disneys 1996 live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians. What we can learn by comparing it to the 1961 animated original?
Well, for one thing, that rules, which draw their logic from analogy, really do make a difference. One of the most notable differences between the rules of these two films is that in the animated version, the animals can talk and in the new version, they cant.
This seems like a simple, even unimportant, decision but, in reality, it was a fork in the road that took the two films down very different paths, one leading to the creation of an engaging fantasy, the other to mediocrity. To understand this, lets look at the storys core analogy.
The analogy beneath this story isnt very obvious in fact, I had some difficulty discovering it. The key turned out to be the most exaggerated personality in the film, the wealthy and aggressive Cruella de Vil. I love this character and will come back to her in more detail a little later, but for the moment lets just look at her most defining characteristics.
This is a character who, on the one hand is terribly insecure and on the other hand adores, no, is obsessed with furs. Furs make her feel important and glamorous and they let other people know how rich she is. In other words, the furs help her cover up her insecurity.
Here, then, is a character who is so uncomfortable in her own skin that she drapes herself in the skins of others to make herself feel better and will stop at nothing to get the skins she wants. So who do you pit such a character against? The first thought might be an animal activist but in an animated film, why not the very creature whose skin is threatened? Doesnt that create better contrast and greatly up the stakes?
So the most interesting protagonist for this story is not a human but a dog who would be perfectly happy in his own skin if the humans would leave well enough alone. And this is, essentially, the choice that was made for the 1961 original with the twist that it was not directly his, but his offsprings skins that were at risk.
But in order for it to really be the dogs story, he has to be able to communicate on a sophisticated level. And that leads naturally to the decision that he can talk. From this comes the idea that the story can be told from his point of view.
This then opens up a whole hidden what if world for the storytellers: the hidden lives of animals. What if they could talk? What would they tell us? What are they thinking about when they are with us; what do they do when they are alone? How would they solve problems that humans create for them?
This approach allowed Pongos rescue mission to carry the heart of the story, leading to such delightful inventions as the Twilight Bark and also allowed Pongos wry take on humankind to set the tone for the story and provide a lot of the humor.
By contrast, in deciding that the animals couldnt speak, the 1996 live-action version had to shift the focus of the story to the interaction between the humans. But that interaction was more about the dynamics between workers and bosses and the relative status of fashion designers and game designers than about animals at risk of losing their skins. This significantly weakened the relationship between plot and theme, so productive in the animated version, and never really replaced it with anything else. With the loss of that relationship went the fantasy world with all its action possibilities and interesting POV.
The basic plot, now unpinned from its foundation, could still proceed but the material available for writing it was much more mundane. Predictably that meant lots of wild chases, vats of goop and plenty of pratfalls. Whenever these devices are hauled out, you can guess that you have a story in trouble and wherever you have a story in trouble, there is a good chance there is an issue with the core analogy.
We can also compare these two films to examine the role analogy plays in character development. Sometimes the heart of a character is so closely tied to the theme of the film that he or she or it embodies the core analogy itself. Its interesting to note that this central character can be the hero or the villain. Here, it is the villain, Cruella, that fills this crucial role and what an opportunity it provides for inventive storytelling.
In both versions of the film, Cruella is more or less the same aggressive, fur hungry bully. However, the live-action film underplays the insecurity, leaving a generalized greed as the motivating emotion, which detaches the character from the original analogy. This limits Cruellas characterization to static props, costume, hair (all fabulous, mind you) and a haughty demeanor and tone of voice.
By contrast, the creators of the animated version not only kept Cruella firmly attached to the analogy, they recognized that they could extend the analogy much further.
This process of extension begins by clarifying the roles that different personality facets play within the story. Some traits play a primary role and others a more secondary role. Keep in mind here that the point is not to create a mix and match character, but one with a cluster of related characteristics, which play off each other, and off other characters, in a psychologically believable way, to influence and motivate the story.
In Cruellas case, we can see that her insecurity is the primary trait: without it there wouldnt be any story at all. Connecting that insecurity to the other primary trait, her love of fur, gives us the analogy, which makes the story specific. The secondary characteristics include her wealth, recklessness, aggressiveness, emotional volatility and total self-centeredness. These up the ante by making her powerful, unbounded and unpredictable a dangerous brew when combined with her insecurity.
This is the outline of Cruellas personality. How is all this expressed through analogy? It starts with how she looks. Without the fur coat, shes long and skinny, a walking skeleton. Her design plays on two levels: first, the mantra of mid 20th century fashionable ladies, you can never be too rich or too thin, is taken here to its extreme. But this design is also a literal expression of Cruellas fear that at heart, she is insignificant undressed she almost doesnt exist.
So then they put her into the biggest fur coat in the world and now she is gigantic: the screen can barely contain her. And they give her a prop an always burning cigarette dangling from a pretentiously long holder and the black-and-white hairdo, a lovely expression of a personality that doesnt know the meaning of moderation.
They extend this extravagance into her gestures. She spreads out her long arms, made huge by the fur, and vamps and twirls, and fills the space around her. The cigarette extends her reach even further. She waves it around and flicks ashes into peoples teacups and fills rooms with bilious smoke so thick and noxious that other characters are forced to duck down to get away from it. And, of course, the smoke will linger long after she is gone, a constant reminder of her presence.
The camera angles are chosen to accommodate all this, going wide to take in her broad gestures and extra tight when she closes in on people, trapping them against the edges of the screen.
Finally, the filmmakers look to other objects, which are attached to her, for example, her car. The extra-long stretch limo isnt just another way to show her wealth. She drives it herself and like everything in this film, the way she drives is revealing. She blasts the horn from off screen to announce her presence and then roars down the road, straight at the camera and careens around a curve without braking, pulling up short in front of Anita and Rogers house. Before we have even seen her, we are already nervous.
Now take note that something interesting has happened here: we have moved from analogy not only to story and performance but also to design, camera angles, special effects and layout. The smoke is Cruella dominating the story. The curve in the road is placed there deliberately to showcase her recklessness. Nothing is arbitrary and everything grows logically, naturally out of that core analogy.
This is how analogy both builds the platform and provides the strategies for a meaningful, multileveled show me performance, in which every aspect of the film is directly involved in the storytelling. In the next installment, we will look at a more recent feature which uses analogy successfully and a couple of features that run into problems, as we consider the always interesting, sometimes frustrating films of Pixar.
Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.