Sunday, July 08, 2007

WHAT IS A STORY?

Julie: "What's all this talk about animated features needing a good story? What is a good story anyway?"
Ray; "A good story? Well, that artsy stuff is hard to define. Good stories in the modern sense are a fairly recent invention, maybe...um...maybe only a few hundred years old! Greek and Norse mythology, Homer, Tristan and Isolde, The Death of Arthur -- they're all good stories alright, but they're not good in the sense that "Hamlet" or "The Maltese Falcon" is good."
Betty: "Outside of plays I'm not aware of any truly compelling stories, ones that keep the reader on the edge of his seat wondering what will happen next, till the 1800s."


Montgomery: "Sorry! I have to answer the call of nature! If you can still hear me outside the door, I think that episodic, rambling stories like "Tom Jones" were good stories. Jones was written somewhere around 1750.
Modern stories are more streamlined and goal-oriented but for me they have to have some of the "you are there" feel of Jones or else they feel too contrived. That's why Dickens was such a good storyteller. He had strong plots but he mixed them with the gritty, first-person feel that the 18th century novels had."



Ann: "Ah, we're getting to something interesting here! How does an animated film like say, "Ratatouille", fit Montgomery's criterion? Does Ratatouille combine a real page-turner 0f a plot with folksy, real-life experience like the kind you find in Tom Jones?


George: "Ann, I'm sorry to turn my back on you but you're talking nonsense! Comedy is more anarchic than that. It follows rules that are intuitive and...well... musical! Your Tom-Jones-plus- Maltese-Falcon formula doesn't fit comedy. Either do comedy pure or figure out some way to merge it with the other two things! Just don't water it down!"


Eleanor: "But Ratatouille is a cartoon. Cartoons have to follow structures that lend themselves to funny drawings. Maybe cartoons shouldn't try to tell dramatic stories."


Burt: "I think the guy writing this is getting sleepy. Let's pick this up later. Um... Montgomery, you're gonna open a window in there, right?"







32 comments:

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

My question is: why should Ratatouille be defined as a cartoon instead of an animated film? A cartoon is more a genre to me. Ratatouille is animated, but fits more in the family film genre, mixing drama, moral and humor.

"Cartoons have to follow structures that lend themselves to funny drawings." I doubt Pixar or Bird look at their films as films that lend themselves to funny drawings. That's why their mantra is "story first". So shouldn't it by (your) definition be in a different category than cartoons? If it's a good film, but not a cartoon, should it be judged by cartoon "rules" simply because it's animated and caricatured?

Though I didn't necessarilly feel you were judging it by cartoon rules in your previous post. Nor can I say or deny that Ratatouille fits Montgomery's criterion, since I haven't seen it. It's just a thought.

John A said...

A story is just the who, what, when, where and why. HOW the story is told is what brings the story to life. The funniest joke in the world delivered by a person who can't tell a story is painful to endure. On the other hand,almost anybody can get a quick easy laugh by shouting out an expletive,a catchphrase,or some odd non-sequitor at an inappropriate time. Thats why modern cartoons are full of that stuff, it's an easy time filler.

Some of the best animated cartoons (and live action ones too) have very simple stories.For instance: Two dogs meet,they run off together, they eat spaghetti,who would pitch a movie like this? It took a lot of special talents to bring that story to life.

Anonymous said...

de Schrijver is right. "Ratatouille" is a film, a feature-length movie. It's animated and it makes great use of animation. It has the best character animation in any CG film so far.

Whether live action or cartoon a short is another type of filmed entertainment.

There's no reason to put "Pinocchio" in the same grouping as "Kitty Cornered" any more than there is to put "Roman Holiday" in the same category as "You Nazty Spy". There are way more differences than similarities between one animated feature and another animated cartoon. Also, a Bugs Bunny cartoon is meant to be funny, period. If asked no cartoon director of the golden age would say he's making a dramatic short film or an educational short film. He'd say he's making comedies.

"Ratatouille" wasn't planned as a comedy the way that "Evan Almighty" or "Knocked Up" were. It's a movie with comedy, with action and with some drama-even if it's mild, lighthearted drama. Even so, there were plenty of opportunities for funny posing and they were in abundance in there. Where they were needed.

Did you think you were going to see a comedy because it was animated?

Pete Emslie said...

Eddie, why are you even giving these Hollywood types the time of day? Julie's obviously spent too much time twirling around on Austrian hilltops, Ray's slurring advice while on a weekend bender, and George is too bored to even go on with life any longer. Hah, what do they know about making cartoons!

Rogelio T. said...

>Did you think you were going to see a comedy because it was animated?

Everything in the trailer leads me to believe that they're trying to make it look like a comedy.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>Everything in the trailer leads me to believe that they're trying to make it look like a comedy.<<

The trailer showed Remy trying to escape certain death while scurrying through the restaurant. It had more action than comedy. The only joke is when the waiter first discovers the rat on the service tray.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Montgomery Clift -- Tom Jones does have a series of contrived coincidences at the end of the story. (No spoilers! I won't give it away.)

Ratatouille does have a "you are there" feeling since the film is narrated by him and certain scenes are filmed from a low camera angle so we can identify with his perspective.

Ray Milland -- I'm not sure Eddie likes the Maltese Falcon because it's all tight, streamllined plot with no set pieces.

Ann Sheridan --Tom Jones is a comic adventure, and not so "real-life'. It's also comic without being an all out comedy. (Moreso the book, I recall the 1963 film version occasionally trying for a Richard Lester feel ala "Help!")

George Sanders --For every "rule" in comedy there is an exception. Tom Jones is entertaining without being "pure comedy". Likewise, I find such "pure comedies" like Liar, Liar to be...not so good. I don't think it's a black and white, either/or type of thing.

Eleonor ?? -- Ratatouille doesn't have drawings, since it's CGI. It's more akin to stop motion animation or puppets.

Marlo Meekins said...

great post eddie, where do you find these images? i love that last shot.


i posted more drawings!

I.D.R.C. said...

Who cares what "RAT..." was intended to be? Whether it could've intended to be something more is still a valid question, any stalwarts notwithstanding.

Asked and answered. It could've been funnier. You could've liked it just as much, only more, if anyone had thought that way. If anyone had thought that much of your capacity for mirth.

Or my capacity, anyway.

JohnK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnK said...

Hey Eddie

you should save these topics for my new members-only Wall Of Curmudgeons blog.

For the elite critical thinker cartoonists club.

I'm preparing a big post on how to write animated features the hollywood way right now.

Anonymous said...

"Who cares what "RAT..." was intended to be?"

Well...it matters because the question of whether it's a successful film or not can be judged based on what the filmmaker wanted to DO. If he wanted to be funny in the way Eddie misses he failed. But he clearly didn't. It's worth considering whether it's met it's own aims, isn't it?

I saw it in a full theater yesterday. Everyone laughed hard and loudly throughout-I'd hazard to say in the "funny" places. They also applauded at the end which surpised me.
This was a multiplex theater in suburban Glendale with lots of small kids but also a lot of adults and teenagers. A very mixed crowd in terms of apparent class and appearance. Not a private screening or a bunch of animation elitists.

Sure, anything "could be funnier". But what a waste to spend one's time seeing the glass half empty always. especially when the reasoning and expectations don't make much sense.

Anonymous said...

When people talk about the 'great stories' Pixar films tell it always baffles me. There's nothing that isn't completely contrived about them. While I enjoyed Toy Story 1&2, Monsters Inc and the Incredibles they certainly weren't breaking new ground with story or characters. The only innovations from Pixar are purely technical.

I.D.R.C. said...

It's worth considering whether it's met it's own aims, isn't it?

I'd rather consider if it could've aimed higher. More useful to my goals.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>There's nothing that isn't completely contrived about them. While I enjoyed Toy Story 1&2, Monsters Inc and the Incredibles they certainly weren't breaking new ground with story or characters.

Monsters Inc. has a premise that didn't work for me. (I don't know if I'd call it contrived, though.) However, regarding the first Toy Story movie, that was the first time I'd ever seen an animated kid's film where the main characters learned to live with disappointment -- Woody with the realization that he is no longer the favorite toy, and Buzz with the fact that he is not a real spaceman. Maybe it's not ground breaking (then again how many good movies are?) but it was certainly brave of the filmmakers.

The Incredibles is a tour de force -- a near perfect film. (A few scenes at the end stop it from being perfect for me.)

I noticed that you listed Blade Runner as one of your favorite films. I like it too, but let's admit it, you could drive a truck through some of the plot holes in the film. For instance, if the police have records of who the replicants are, then why do they need to perform a Voitcom test on them? (In the book, all printed records have been lost or decayed, thus necessitating the test on the androids.) Do these obvious contrivances stop you from enjoying Blade Runner, though?

J. J. Hunsecker said...

Anonymous,

You've posted some well thought out, nuanced arguments based on real critical thinking. That's why you're being insulted by the likes of i.d.r.c.

I.D.R.C. said...

Yes, I concur. Now let's see who can suck the most fun out of the room.

Anonymous said...

While I love Blade Runner, I'd never say that it's perfect or even has a great story. For me that movie is mostly about atmosphere. There are some interesting moral questions that it raises, but those aren't original either.

My point was really that 'story' isn't as important as being entertaining. Every film is flawed. I just get irritated when people sing the praises of Pixar being 'story' or 'character' driven when they're not really doing anything groundbreaking with either. Even with generic stories and a lot of stereotypical characters I still enjoy some of their films.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>Yes, I concur. Now let's see who can suck the most fun out of the room.<<

You've got the sucking part down.

With all the curmudgeons bitching about a truly entertaining film, I don't know if there was ever any fun in the room to begin with.

I.D.R.C. said...

You tell those stuffed shirts! Way to go!

-Anonymous

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>My point was really that 'story' isn't as important as being entertaining. Every film is flawed. I just get irritated when people sing the praises of Pixar being 'story' or 'character' driven when they're not really doing anything groundbreaking with either. Even with generic stories and a lot of stereotypical characters I still enjoy some of their films.<<

People sing the praises of Pixar films because they are entertaining. That's a difficult thing to do. They do know how to tell a story. There aren't any plot holes, or lapses in logic, in The Incredibles or Toy Stoy 1 & 2.

I also don't see how Woody, Buzz or Mr. Incredible are stereotypes. There's more nuance and depth to their characters than there is in most live action films these days. Look at a real sloppy piece of work like Kill Bill. Those characters aren't even human. They have no real emotions or reponses (like the little girl who doesn't react when she sees her mother has been killed. Is she a robot?), and the story is a ludicrous mess.

I'm also unsure by what you mean by "groundbreaking" -- something like Eraserhead, perhaps? Memento? Citizen Kane?

Actually, the beginning to Ratatouille reminds me of the start of Goodfellas -- both have a freeze frame in mid action, then the characters narrate how the got in that situation, as we jump back in time. Bird also uses jump cuts in his montage of one of the chef's many explanations for his prison term. He also moves the camera around the kitchen like Scorsese does. Maybe not groundbreaking, but certainly not seen much in animated films.

JohnK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Just to be clear my comments are about previous Pixar films. I haven't seen Ratatouille since the trailer didn't pique my interest. After suffering through Cars I'm not going to automatically run to the theater to see the latest Pixar movie. The plot to Cars was a rehash of "Doc Hollywood" and the character designs were watered down versions of Tex Avery's "One Cab's Family". Maybe their next one will appeal to me! The Wall-E teaser doesn't really reveal anything, so I can't tell yet.

I'm not going to argue with you on Toy Story 1 & 2 (Okay, I'd argue that the Randy Newman songs were gay!) or The Incredibles (which is my favorite Pixar film so far). I still wish some of the performances and expressions were less generic, but overall those three were very entertaining to me.

Anonymous said...

Brian, the director of "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" are the same guy, Brad Bird. He also write the scripts for both films. If you liked the first one so much you might want to think about seeing his new film.
"Cars" was by another person entirely, if that makes any difference to you(and it should).

Pixar is a studio. Different people do different films there.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Yes, I'd agree a story/film does not need to be innovative to be good or entertaining. But I'd assume that, since you thought the animation was bland, you felt The Incredibles had an entertaining story, right? That's the thing... they might not be that innovative storywise, but right now, they're the only ones in animation delivering solid, entertaining stories. And they're better at it than most live-action too, let alone have a wider audience/appeal. THAT's why people are singing their praises all the time.

(I didn't really like Cars either, though. The reason it was watchable is because it felt honest... definitly a John Lasseter film, in the most true sense. It just was too been-there-done-that, a bit too contrived and goody-goody, especially for adult tastes.

John K: Why would you only write that post on a private blog? Sure, there'll be plenty of critics, maybe even myself, but I sure as heck would be interested in reading it. I might not always agree with your posts, but if there's one thing you've done for me is make me *think* about animation in a different light, and be much more critical to what we usually get.

paul etcheverry said...

This is great. . . but what would Mischa Auer have to say about this?

paul etcheverry said...

But seriously, Julie, Monty, Ray, Ann, Eleanor and Burt, the only problems I had with Ratatouille were the romantic subplot (didn't buy it, not for a moment) and the coda. The most fun was going with a gourmand friend and watching her reactions.

And I also want to know what Hugh Herbert thinks.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Marlo: The pictures are from a book called "The Image Makers."

Everybody: I was so sleepy when I put up this blog that I didn't realize how silly what I wrote was till the following day. I still think "What Is a Story?" would make a fascinating blog entry. I'll try it again when I have more time to think about it.

I'm not as big a fan of "The Incredibles" as some people on the site are. The good points about it are obvious but it had some problems. The endlessly carping wife was way overdone, the villain wasn't memorable and the force bubble and tripod monsters felt very off-the-shelf. One of the film's assets was the pacing, which in the best scenes was better than I'd ever seen in a 3D film before.

"Ratatouille" is my favorite Pixar film. It would have been a whole lot better if more attention had been paid to set pieces and funny scenes but it was undeniably charming.

Anonymous said...

Benjamin, I didn't think the animation in The Incredibles was bland overall, but their were some scenes that I thought the expressions could have been pushed or more interesting. Even then that was after several viewings. The story was pretty predictable but that didn't stop me from enjoying it at all. I was a such huge superhero and James Bond fan as a kid that it'd be hard for me not to like it.

anonymous, I'm aware that Brad Bird did The Incredibles and took over Ratatouille from Jan Pinkava and reworked it. The whole premise of Ratatouille just doesn't interest me. Maybe I'll catch it on DVD from Netflix later. I'm just not willing to drop ten bucks plus snack money on a movie that I'm not dying to see.

Anonymous said...

Now that Jan Pinkava is the Pete Best of Pixar, let's hope he makes another film. The man absolutely must have a tale to tell, if only of his being let go. And Monty Clift wasn't answering nature's call outside the door, as he wanted us to think, he was mixing demerol with the booze in his hip flask. That boy's headed for one hell of a serious auto accident.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

>>The whole premise of Ratatouille just doesn't interest me.<<

I felt the same way before I saw it. In fact, I had a bad feeling about it when I saw the Japanese trailer. It's a premise that sounds like it could never work, and one that would make audiences run for the door, gagging.

However, I can tell you that Brad Bird pulled it off. The man must be a miracle worker, because I thoroughly enjoyed the story and characters. It was witty and charming, too. It also has the best CGI animation of all the 3D films released so far.

Billy Bob said...

For my two cents, although I do love cartoons. I do see it as a genre. Animation is a way of creating film (or television), a medium, there should be no limit to what type of story you can tell. I believe that the challenge is telling a dramatic story (well written of course) while using animation's advantages of exaggeration and stylization without breaking the believability of the story.

Some (ok it's proportionally very few) of the best japanese works go full force into telling dramatic (non-cartoony) stories. But too often, they skimp on what's really important, THE ANIMATION.

(still go read www,pelleas.net/aniTOP/ for japanese animators that ANIMATE)

As for Pixar films, i can see why people think that they are overratted. Are any of them 4 star films, not really. But given the fact that they fall under that terrible category of "family film" (read kid-video babysitter), they are the best, They don't talk down to their audience, and actually TELL STORIES, few modern disney films told coherent, adequately developed ones. Also they manage to create movies with wide appeal based off of the characters' humanity and not how many pop culture jokes they can cram in.

I also agreed with Eddies rant agaiinst "strong" women in modern stories. With out nuance, they're cartoons. Take Elizabeth from the Pirate movies, She was a stock character made for consumption in this post 60s feminist world of ours. I have nothing against feminism in principle, but human beings are more subtle then this. That template is so tired. I mean you see them in so many movies. It's almost sexist, but i wanna see more simple damsels in distress just to balance them out, they both are equally corny anyways.