Oh John Carroll

Tag: animation

Paint By Numbers

Wreck-It Ralph

If you’ve read any reviews of Wreck-It Ralph, you’ve likely seen the comparison to Toy Story.  And if you haven’t read any reviews of Wreck-It Ralph, well, you’re reading one now, and just saw a comparison to Toy Story.  The films are a lot alike, in that they involve beloved playthings coming to life and trying to understand the state of their relationships with one another.

It’s a successful formula, and Wreck-It Ralph does it justice.  The film is fun, funny and charming.  But what interested me about it is how it took a seamless Pixar story and produced a film that is nothing but seams.  I couldn’t help but see the mechanics of this film as it played: not just the Toy Story structure, but the ways in which the film built itself to appeal to its various audiences: the arcade game references will fly over the heads of the children, only to be devoured by their parents and by the adults (like me!) who took enough interest in the film to go see it.  There’s innocent potty humor for the kids, and different video game genres to appeal to the various older and younger, male and female attendees.

I certainly wasn’t surprised that a blockbuster animated film would be built this way, but I certainly was surprised in how obvious the mechanics were to me.  Actually, I think it was the combination of seeing the seams and still loving the film that really caught me off-guard.  There’s so much I could be cynical about when it comes to Wreck-It Ralph, but I found myself totally charmed and wowed by the movie — particularly, the voice casting.

John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman voice our two leads, and strike up a wonderful, evocative relationship.  While I could do without the hasty romance struck-up between Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer’s characters, Reilly and Silverman really bring life to two outsiders in search of a new role in their lives.

The animation in the film is really sharp, and brimming with finely observed details in each of the worlds the characters visit.  My favorite such detail: in the Fix-It Felix game, the characters move with a combination of fluidity and 8-bit rigidity.  I’ve seen nothing like it before, and it’s so well-done that it borders on distracting.  In a good way, of course.

These expert details — whether in small animated tricks, or the humanity of the voice cast — allow Wreck-It Ralph to succeed in spite of the obviousness of its structure.  In fact, what’s perhaps so affecting is that the characters themselves (as created, and as voiced) are unaware of the circumstances, and allow us to find that place as well.

Stop Sign

I saw ParaNorman this weekend.  The film wasn’t on my radar, but I couldn’t overlook its positive reception amongst critics I read and respect.  And it’s a well-deserved reception — the movie is smart and funny, and I imagine even more fun for horror genre fans.

After I left the theater, I was thinking about how much I like stop-motion films.  I can’t even recall one I dislike.  Granted, there’s a pretty small sample size, but I think I’ve seen enough that I can dry to draw some conclusions about why I like the form.

I settled on the economy of the form.  For obvious reasons, stop-motion films are usually 75-90 minutes.  And because the amount of work needed for every frame, I imagine there’s  a lot demanded of the script before filming even begins.

Like its predecessors, ParaNorman feels tight.  There is no dawdling, no unnecessary story threads, no time-wasting.  Before the title card even appears, we’re given the basics of the story, from Norman’s background to the man who will set Norman on his journey.

The approach reminded me of something I harp on when teaching my writing classes: mystery is overrated.  I found that many of my students wanted to hide their points until the end, assuming that it would pack a better punch given the timing and element of surprise.  But I always told them to lay their cards on the table upfront: it’s better to make an argument or tell a story by being forthcoming.  When we withhold as writers, we limit ourselves to cheap and often thin thrills — at best.  (Now that I think about it, this is all related to my previous post on how time-shifting affects the way we watch television shows.)

In fact, ParaNorman’s structure would be a good example for those students.  It isn’t revolutionary.  During the third act, I was writing out much of the movement in my own mind.  But the story was whole, and didn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s not an exceptional stop-motion film, but evidence of why the form is so strong.  I won’t let such films fall off of my radar in the future.

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