Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Complex Characters
(July 3, 2010)

While animation people are constantly yelling, "story, story story," I think that they have a very limited understanding of certain aspects of it. They understand plot and they understand personality, but I think that animation's understanding of character is pretty perfunctory.

Character in animation tends to be linear and go from A to B. Grumpy hates women and ends up loving Snow White. Pinocchio is irresponsible and then he's responsible. The plot moves these characters from one emotional place to another, but their growth is uncomplicated and easy. They don't have to struggle with their emotions in order to grow and don't have to give up anything along the way. It's no sacrifice for Pinocchio to stop being irresponsible. In fact, it's been nothing but a disaster for him.

Pixar has done better than average with their characters. In the original Toy Story, Woody has to give up his position in the toy social world and Andy's affections in order to grow. Buzz has to give up his illusion that he's a space ranger and not a collection of plastic parts. Giving up these things is painful but necessary.

However, in Toy Story 2, Woody has to give up something he never had: the adulation of crowds of children visiting him in a museum. Jessie has to give up her mistrust of people in order to be emotionally alive again, something that may take effort but is hardly much of a loss. In Toy Story 3, Andy is going to go to college whether his toys are in the attic, donated to the daycare or bestowed by him as a gift. While his choice represents his maturity, it isn't necessary for him to grow in life.

For this reason, I still feel that the original Toy Story is the best film of the three. It's the only one where the character growth has real costs .

One of my favorite scenes in The Incredibles is when Bob is leaving to go on a mission while pretending to be going to a business conference. His wife Helen is there to say goodbye. The dialogue is totally innocuous but the subtext is illuminating. At this point in the film, Bob's family takes second place to his egotistical need to be a hero. Helen believes he is having an affair. While she is wrong, the scene does show the the emotional gulf between them and their lack of communication. It's perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a marriage in any animated film.

Complex characters come from the script, not from the animation, which is why "story, story, story" rings so hollow to me. Look at two live action classics that I hope everyone has seen: Casablanca and The Searchers. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart has to give up his romance with Ingrid Bergman in order to grow as a character. However, there's another level present here that's missing in animated films and that's ambiguity. Over the course of the film, the audience learns of Bogart's strong feelings for Bergman but also learns of his hatred of fascism. Bogart rigs a roulette game so that a young wife doesn't have to sleep with a government official in order to buy an exit visa. He approves of the playing of La Marseilles in the presence of Nazi officers. Until the end of the film, the audience is not sure what Bogart will do. There are several possible endings and all of them are believable based on the events of the film.

In The Searchers, the John Wayne character is both attached to his brother's family (in particular his brother's wife) and has a maniacal hatred of Comanches. When his brother's family is murdered, the women raped and his young niece abducted, he spends 10 years searching for her. The audience is not sure what he will do when he finds her. Will he rescue her or kill her for having been "defiled" by living with Comanches?

Animated films tend to be plot heavy and because they are generally family friendly, the endings can be taken for granted. Suspense lies in how the characters will reach the happy ending more than how the characters will grow. Plot dominates character, where in the best live action films, character dominates plot. Indeed, plot should be growing out of what characters want. In too many animated films, the characters are initially passive and simply respond to events the plot sets in motion. That's the case in all the Toy Story films.