The Younger the Audience, the More Obvious the Performance

Most major animated feature films today are designated “Family” films. But a family is comprised of a number of individuals of different ages and life experiences. Is there really such a thing, really, as a “Family” film? After all, Walt Disney did not make “Family” movies like those we see today. He made movies for kids, and then charmed the adults into coming also. Ed Hooks takes a look at these issues and how they impact on performance animation.

“The younger the audience, the more obvious the performance.” 

I made that adage up a minute ago, but I think it is a pretty good generalization.  Be honest now: When you think about making a short animation, do you have in mind a particular audience?  Do you automatically make a film for other people like yourself?  I have heard it said many times by artists in all fields, “I do what I do just to please myself.  If it pleases me, probably others will like it, too.  But mainly, I just try to please myself.”  That’s cool, but what about if your audience is not like yourself?   Suppose you knew starting out that your audience was going to be comprised of kids under, say, ten years old?  What impact would that knowledge have on the story?  How about the style of animation?  Any difference between animating for an audience of children versus one that is comprised only of adults, like yourself?

These days, the major animation studios make feature films for “Family” audiences.  Let’s stop for a moment and think about that.

When you hear the word “family”, what pops into your mind? I will bet it is a picture of a mom, dad and one to three kids. How old are the kids in your imagination?  For me, they are twelve the oldest, more likely eight or nine.

Whatever the age, it is a dead certainty that the child – or children – in that family is going to have different mental and emotional parameters than those of her parents. So, if you are working on a “Family” movie, exactly which members of the family are you talking to?  Does it matter?  You figure you can tell whatever story you want, and the various members of the family will each take from it whatever they can?  Under that reasoning, there would be no need for grade-levels in school.

Please stay with me on this.  I realize it is a little tedious, but it is closely intertwined with your work as a character animator. 

“The younger the audience, the more obvious the performance.”  Winnie the Poo is a story for little kids. Pixar’s wall-E is a story for adults, the first half of it anyway.  That lovely montage in Up, tracking Carl and Ellie’s lives together, is for adults.  The talking dogs in the second half of the film are for kids. 

Walt Disney did not make “Family” movies.  He made movies for kids, and then he charmed adults into seeing them also, on the grounds that there is a “child in all of us”.  Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are mostly like that. Sometimes I wonder what Walt would have done if he had at his disposal all the animation bells and whistles available today?  His characters, like Geppetto in Pinocchio, and any one of the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White, do not have a lot of emotional nuance.  Geppetto is a kindly wood carver, and that is as far as it goes.  If he ever had a wife that died, we don’t know about it and, to Walt Disney, it would not have made a difference anyway.  Each of the seven dwarfs represents a single character trait, Bashful, Grumpy, Happy and so on. The kids in a Disney audience had very little interest in adult courtship and longevity.  Bambi’s mom got shot and killed, which was a horror, but the kids didn’t need a lot of context to get the point.  She is a deer running wild and free, doing what deer do, and she was killed by men wearing strange hats and shooting guns.

Charlotte’s Web is a classic children’s movie, as is Dumbo.  Take a close look at them some time, and note how simple are the acting choices, how basic the stories.  “The younger the audience, the more obvious the performance.”

A “Family” film is most often a misnomer because a family is a group of individual people of various ages. A movie like Toy Story bridges the age gap because the characters are puppets and the story is pretty straightforward.  If Woody were being groomed to be a government agent, we would have to leave the kids at home. Shrek works for most kids because the characters are goofy, and silly things happen.  Adults are more apt to get all those anti-Disney jokes. The exceptions really are exceptions, though.  The big Hollywood “Family” films seem to be categorized that way mainly because they are certain not to offend anybody in the family.  The kids may not have a clue what is happening on screen, but at least it won’t give them nightmares. Therefore, the whole family can come.

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