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What's Wrong with 'Wreck-It Ralph'?

Ed discusses his problems with Wreck-It Ralph as well as the issues of "empathy," "sympathy" and animators as actors with pencils.

Wreck-It-Ralph

This Disney Animation Studio flick came and went in a heartbeat despite being overseen by John Lasseter.  The published production budget was US$165 million, which means the real cost was close to US$200 million.  What the studio got for that investment was the sharpest CG animation in years from Disney and 188 merchandising opportunities.  The animation is brilliant, and the animators that did it deserve more applause than they probably received.  It's not their fault the movie is mediocre. 188 characters 'with names" in a single movie is bound to come up short because the audience can't keep up with them all. Neither Star Wars nor Tora! Tora! Tora! had so many characters.   Let's put aside the discussion about whether or not Wreck-It-Ralph is a variation on Toy Story, which I think it surely is.  The plot involves what happens when the character Wreck-It-Ralph decides he is tired of being the villain.  He goes on a game-jumping quest to be a hero, finally discovering that ("surprise!") one is never a villain in one's own life.  "To thine own self be true."  Ralph's journey includes plenty of maniacle careening around accompanied by loud video game noises.  If empathy was evoked for any character, the moment escaped me.  In other words, Wreck-It-Ralph is a concept in search of a worthwhile story.

"Empathy" vs. "Sympathy"  according to William Safire

William Safire (1929-2009) was an award-winning journalist and author of the popular New York Times Magazine column "On Language".  He was considered an expert on the general subject of etymology and, on September 5, 2008, he took on the distinction between the words "empathy" and "sympathy".  His wisdom deserves repeating.  As I explain in my masterclass, it is okay for the audience to feel sorry for your character, but you had better not hang your hat there because, if you do, the audience will withdraw emotionally.  Here is Mr. Safire: "If you think empathy is the synonym of sympathy, I’m sorry for your confusion. Back to the Greeks: pathos is “emotion.” Sympathy feels pity for another person’s troubles, secondarily a sense of allegiance; empathy identifies with whatever is going on in another’s mind or in a work of art — visual, dramatic, musical — whether merry or morose, hanging loose or uptight. The Greek prefix sym means “together with, alongside”; the verbal prefix em goes deeper, meaning “within, inside.” When you’re sympathetic, your arm goes around the shoulders of others; when you’re empathetic, your mind lines up with what’s going on inside their heads. Big difference; no nuance."

“Is the Animator REALLY an Actor with a Pencil?”   

The short answer is “no, not really”, but I understand why so many people think it.  Chuck Jones coined the comparison back in the 1940’s because he had Bugs, Elmer and Wile E. Coyote doing slapstick comedy, which was at that time a big departure from the Disney Studio’s famous “illusion of life”.  And given that Chuck Jones is still to this day a demi-god in the animation world, what he said became gospel.  I doubt I will change anybody’s mind here, but let me explain why the metaphor is incorrect and potentially confusing for new animators.

The “actor” in an animation is the character on the screen, not the animator.  Mickey Mouse is the actor, and Walt Disney was his first director.  Tarzan is the actor, and Glen Keane was his animator.

This distinction matters because, if an animator seriously wants to understand how acting works, she must learn to see the pretend circumstances of the story from her character’s perspective.  Yes, the animator is a God figure to the character, able to make the character “do” whatever he wants it to do.  However, not all “doing” is acting.  The animator can make his character scratch its head, which is “doing” something from the animator’s perspective but is only “behavior” from the character’s perspective.

We have arrived at a point where cute animated characters with colorful personalities are not enough to put bottoms in the theater seats.  Not to pile on the criticism, look one more time at Wreck-It-Ralph, which has 188 characters with colorful personalities.  Audiences today say, “that’s nice; what else have you got?”  And that is where “the illusion of life” parts ways with actual acting.  It also brings us back to Chuck Jones who, like Glen Keane and Disney’s Nine Old Men, was a darn good amateur actor.  Some people have a natural feel for acting and, even though they may never have studied Stanislavsky’s System or read Aristotle's Poetics, they have a gut feeling about how to make their characters “act”.  Chuck Jones was a genius, and I could give you a list of similar geniuses in animation, but genius is unfortunately not hereditary.  Talent cannot be taught; it can only be encouraged.  Craft can be taught, which is primarily what mentoring is all about.  The fact is that the animation industry – especially since the conversion to CG – is chock full of animators that may be brilliant craft-persons but lack Mr. Jones and Mr. Keane’s (or Mr. Bird’s or Mr. Baena’s) gut understanding of performance.  I contend that it is not helpful to tell these animators that they are “actors with pencils” and then to send them off to enroll in an acting class.  Animators such as I am describing here are not now and never will be actors, but that does not mean they cannot create strong theatrical performances for their characters on the screen.

Just about all character animators are brilliant, IMO.  I cannot do what they do, and I shake my head in wonder that anybody can cause a bunch of pixels on a screen or lines on a piece of paper seem to be alive.  It is a hat trick of the rarest kind.  But here is the point:  Disney’s “illusion of life” is not the same thing as “acting”.  Once you have created a cast of characters in which each possesses an illusion of life, you have a street scene, not a performance.  Even if your characters have tons of personality, you do not have a performance.  Theatrical reality is not the same thing as regular reality.  Regular reality is what you get at a mall or grocery store.  In regular reality, we see 100 percent of everything.  Theatrical reality is compressed in time and space.  We see only the parts of reality that are necessary for advancing a story.  Further, the parts that we select have structure within themselves.  A character must have purpose, an objective, not just energy and emotion.  And there must be obstacle/conflict in a theatrical scene.

Walt Disney gave Mickey Mouse a brain.  That immediately made Mickey able to think, to form values and to express himself emotionally.  Those traits are essential to Mickey’s illusion of life, but if you want to cast Mickey in a story about the day he saved the life of a kitten while overcoming Pluto’s jealousy, he must learn how to act.  The animator is his teacher, director and rehearsal coach.  The animator is a lot of things to Mickey, but Mickey is the one going out on stage. 

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