More on Caricature and Creating a Believeable World

More on this idea of "Creating a Believeable World" and how the level of caricature and exaggeration can affect the emotional range of the movie. Animation is a wonderful medium because you can create any kind of amazing world for your characters to inhabit. But the animated films I love the best create a world with a lot of control and consistency so that the audience can relate to it and project themselves into that world, believing in it and relating to the characters as real, living breathing characters.

 Animated animals are a good way to illustrate varying levels of caricature in Disney movies. Maximus in "Tangled" is a horse, first and foremost. He has some human traits that make him entertaining, but he's always a horse. He doesn't talk, he doesn't stand on two legs, he doesn't drink tea from a teacup....first and foremost, he's a horse. Although he has human-esque expressions and emotions, we buy that because we all have a tendency to look at animals and project human emotions onto them. So we're primed to believe this already.

People get choked up at parts of "Tangled" and are able to engage with the characters, emotionally. Now maybe it's just me, but I honestly think that if Maximus stood up in the middle of the movie and started speaking, it would be very jarring within that world and it would throw the audience off. I think that would destroy the credibility of the world of "Tangled" so much that many viewers wouldn't be able to engage emotionally with the end of the movie when things start to get very serious.

"Lady and the Tramp" is another good example, where the animals talk and express emotions, but stay enough in the "realistic" world that we buy them and the world they live in. Sure, the dogs in that movie talk....but only to each other. Which isn't that much of a stretch for us to buy, because anyone who's seen two dogs interact with each other can tell that they have a wide array of body language and vocalizations that are universal and makes them able to communicate with each other very clearly. So they already seem able to "talk" to each other in real life. It doesn't take much for us to believe it within the film.

However, if, within the movie, they could talk to not just dogs but people as well, we would be confused and we wouldn't believe in the world of the movie. We wouldn't invest in it emotionally and wouldn't feel anything for the dogs and their problems.

And I think the emotion in the movie works like gangbusters. SPOILER ALERT!

I love the ending of "Lady and the Tramp", starting with the part where Jock thinks Trusty has lost his sense of smell, and how offended Trusty gets when Jock mentions this....that's such an amazing moment to me, when Trusty gets offended and is taken aback for a minute...then just puts Jock's offensive comment aside and gets back to work to save his friend Tramp. That's such a great moment of thinking, feeling character animation that works because of the way the characters have been set up in a believeable way, and because you buy the reality of the world, you really believe the gravity of the situation: Tramp's life is at stake.

The part in the end where Trusty gives his life for Tramp (or so you think) is very emotional for me as well. And again, I think the way the world was handled and how realistically the dogs are treated really helps me relate to them and worry about them and feel empathy for them...and all that makes the emotional beats in the movie work really well.

If you're interested in the climax of "Tramp", start at about four minutes in on the clip below. This sequence is handled phenomenally on every level, one of my favorite sequences from any Disney movie.

For counterpoint, I love the Disney film "The Wind in the Willows" but I don't feel the same range of emotions as I do when I watch some of the other Disney films. The world of Mr. Toad is totally different from the world of "Tangled" or "Lady and the Tramp". In Mr. Toad's world, humans co-mingle with animals, animals wear clothes and live in houses, etc. In contrast to Maximus, Cyril in "Willows" is a horse who is really a cross between a person and a horse. Sometimes Cyril pulls a carriage like a horse, and other times he wears clothes and even gives testimony in a trial. I love the world of "Mr. Toad" and I love that movie, but I don't feel much emotion during the movie (to be fair, it doesn't try to play much, either) and I can't imagine that, if there were a heavy emotional scene in Mr. Toad, that I would feel much. It's just not that type of movie. There's nothing at all wrong with that. But the worlds of "Tangled" and "Mr. Toad" are built to tell two totally different types of stories.

"Alice in Wonderland" is another example of a movie that I personally don't really engage with, emotionally. I'm impressed by the imagination of the artists that came up with all of the crazy stuff in the movie, and I enjoy the look of it, but the "world" that the story takes place in is so crazy - where anything can happen - that I can't really emotionally invest in the characters. When anything can happen at any moment, it's hard to feel afraid for Alice when she's on trial and the Queen is threatening to cut off her head. Because you know you're in an off-kilter, surreal world and you know anything can happen and save Alice's life (which is exactly what happens), you can't really ever get the audience to engage with and feel worried or stress about what might happen to your characters. There's no real tension or conflict in a movie when it takes place in a crazy world where you know things can change at any moment in a completely random way.

Again, I'm not saying there's a "right" or "wrong" to any of this, or that any of these films are better or worse than their counterparts. But their worlds have big differences that influence the types of stories and emotions that can be played. When you're creating a world and the characters that inhabit that world, be aware of the level of caricature that you want to play, and think about if it's appropriate for what you're trying to do.