Animated Word

Presenting an in-depth look at the current state of Animation

An Examination of Formula

When criticisms are levied on animation as a whole, there is one complaint that comes up more often than not, and that is "everything is so formulaic". Critics of animation like to point out the common threads and oft-used devices of animated films as examples and signs of the lack of imagination and creativity behind the films. Formula is what businessmen like Eisner and Katzenberg use to churn out animated films year after year, with none of them being distinguishable between each other, critics say.

Do their arguments hold any water? Possibly - it certainly does seem that every animated film involves a duo, trio, or more of comic relief characters. They all seem to heavily rely upon music and songs for storytelling. The heroes are good, and the villains are mean, unpleasant, and just plain bad. Love is almost always a main concern of the story. I guess the real question is if these common threads constitute a formula. I will not refute the fact that animated films do share many, many similar elements outside of the basic art form itself; in many ways, that is why animated films are considered a genre unto themselves. But is there formula involved, and more importantly, what effect does "formula" really have?

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Firstly, it's worth noting that if there's a formula, then good ol' Uncle Walt is the one who started it. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is composed solely of those previously mentioned elements. That film doesn't even make the effort to impose a theme or deeper message on the story; the love exists between Snow White and the Prince purely for love's sake. If this film were to be made today, then there is no doubt that critics would jump all over it as the worst form of cheap formula imaginable. The only thing protecting Snow White is being the first one.

But nobody blames the "classics" for suffering from formulaic elements. These are criticisms reserved solely for things made now. In looking over the recent output of Disney animated films, from The Little Mermaid in 1989 to now, I find four types of formula use in these animated films: formula ruining a film, formula placed in a film that could do without it, formula being used perfectly well, and a blatant rejection of formula.

Yes, formula has ruined a Disney animated feature, and that feature specifically is Pocahontas. This is the most clear-cut example of formula being used to make a movie where one didn't exist in the first place. The story of the young Native American girl saving the elder British colonizer could be told within the space of three sentences. This does not a movie make. Thus, love is introduced where it flat out couldn't before, and it's accomplished by distorting facts as rock-hard as their very ages. Totally unrealistic comic relief characters are introduced, like a raccoon and a hummingbird that look after Pocahontas (yeah, right) and a talking willow tree (.....what?). A villain is fabricated into the character of Ratcliffe where one is generally unnecessary; isn't the theme of prejudice strong enough without a terribly obvious jerk mucking things up? Not that the story would have worked as a film anyway, but all of these elements made it even worse. Formula ruined this film.

Sometimes, there have been animated films that have worked in spite of being slightly formulaic. This time, I am thinking of Beauty and the Beast, which does suffer from moments conducted out of pure adherance to formula. For instance, the comic relief characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts are a little over-used, despite their logical place in the story. They speed the film up too much; I personally would have liked to see Belle and the Beast discover their love without so much interference. Gaston, as well, adds conflict to the story, but is somewhat accessory to the real story and theme of Beauty & The Beast. Did he really need to be there? What he did worked for the film, but this is what I mean by the film succeeding despite its ties to formula.

Can formula work for a film, as opposed to against it? Yes, as evidenced by The Lion King. Here, the comic characters of Timon and Pumbaa have an edge to them; they may be damn funny, but Simba's continuance to remain under their metaphorical wings would end in Scar's victory. The hyenas serve as a counterpoint to Scar's massive intelligence, and also serve as a comment on the idiocy of those who follow a demagogue. In this film, the hero and the villain are not drawn from standard lines. Scar is not typically villainous with his veneer of friendliness; even his slinky look is altered when we see him "getting along" with Simba as a cub. Even better, Simba is barely a hero; he stumbles upon his heroism once the fog of doubt is lifted from his eyes. To date, his struggle is more compelling than any other animated hero's.

Finally, the recent crop of animated films from Disney have been very experimental, once the "animated musical" started to go out of vogue. While the best experimental film has been The Emperor's New Groove, that film is more of a parody of formula. It does not giddily throw formula out the window like Lilo & Stitch does. In Lilo & Stitch, we have two totally new conflicts for animated cinema; Lilo must come to accept her sister as a worthwhile family in and of herself, and Stitch is fighting against his very nature of destruction. These themes, unlike many of the animated films, are handled very lightly, with no commonly-made villain in sight. Only Captain Gantu comes close, who is really just doing his policing job with the joy of a cop who is picking up his least favorite criminal. Nobody serves comic relief more than serving a place in the story, even Jumba and Pleakley. Even the musical style is amazingly different - an animated film sporting the musical stylings of the King?

What does all this prove? I think it proves that formula can be a friend when used right. Animation is not the only genre to benefit from formula; many Shakespearean plays are cut from a very similar cloth. Greek tragedies follow a very rigid structure. In fact, the very distinctions of both "comedy" and "tragedy" denote some very specific formula elements that must be followed. A break from formula is always an acceptable choice, but even stuff that doesn't seem like anything else can be utter crap. In the end, it's not what reminds you of something else when put in the plainest of generalizations. It's the amount of reason, creativity, and artistic truth behind each element that justifies its presence, "formulaic" or not.

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Nov 13, 2003

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