Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lessons from Don Bluth, Part Two

I've been talking about the different categories of conflict, desire, and fear that Don Bluth films tap into to create interesting storytelling. Continued from Monday's entry, here.

3. Don Bluth films don't flinch at the seedy underbelly.
This is what turned me off of a lot of the films as a kid. I remember the scene toward the beginning of All Dogs Go to Heaven where Charlie goes to a casino to bet on the rat races; the place looks just terrible to be in, and while there's a sense of some camaraderie, you feel like everyone (every dog) there has pretty much ruined his life. Plus, Charlie just got out of dog jail. Plus, his old partner concocts a plan and succeeds in having Charlie killed. This is where the movie starts

In An American Tail, too, there's plenty of smoking, boozing, and underground dealings. The films are not shy of these things--and they probably get away with it because they also make it look really unappealing to be a person who does any of these things. But the seediness is interesting in that it often seems to give the characters a real and at least slightly appealing alternative to their own (morally purer, but equally terrible) lives. No one wants to be the villain in a Disney movie. On occasion the villains are sympathetic, and on occasion their motives come across as pure enough even if their actions are not. But in Don Bluth films, there's often a chance that the hero will go along with or turn into their nemesis. Not because they're the same inside, or whatever--"You and me, we got more in common than you think"--but because the villain has a visibly better life. So not only does the hero have to shun that life; they have to collaborate with others to destroy it, so that no one can have it at the expense of others. That's a little better, I think, than the generalization that occurs when we pretend we're all the same inside, and that we're all just a stepping stone away from making bad decisions instead of good ones. Probably we all make both, and the thing that's interesting is which ones we make when.

4. Victory in Don Bluth films doesn't come from just the main character.
My last lit course in grad school was a Shakespeare course. (This was also true during undergrad.) One thing I noticed while in that class was that Shakespeare pretty regularly uses persuasion as a way of creating conflict and thus setting events in motion. Often the primary power women characters get comes through their persuasion, and more specifically their rhetorical skills; their ability to consistently steer the conversation toward (or sometimes away from) a particular mission or aim is often what wins them favor or good fortune. Of course, someone, usually a male in a position of high power, has to recognize and grant that this has happened, and provide the earned reward.

In Don Bluth films, the power of persuasion is usually minimized. Characters do not generally win others to their side, at least not through the strength of their self-presentation. Fievel is not a mouthpiece; when he comes up with the plan to get rid of the cats, it's not his voice that delivers or directs the decision. When he says he's looking for his family, it's not an act of persuasion but a lone act of perseverance that others gradually take up as a cause worth aiding. Rather than insisting, then, on the power that comes with being able to move and direct others--whether through words or behavior or strength or rank--the films often seem to hint at a different kind of power, one that comes when enough people who are used to doing their own jobs opt to help others out for a while. Sometimes that means losing something valued, as it does in All Dogs Go to Heaven. Sometimes that means going unnoticed, or being reduced for a time to impotence, as it does in The Secret of NIMH, or in An American Tail.

This sounds, as I write it, so academic I kind of want to throw up. I think it's right. But here's what seems really important to me about all this: Literary stories are governed, more than they'd like and more than they realize, by Disney, and by formulas native to children's stories. Because they are stories--tales of things that happen--they must create a sense of achievement, or realization of goals, and a sense of opposition. Also because they are tales of things that happen, they must begin and end, meaning they must create some sense of necessity, or desire, and some sense of resolution, or fulfillment. It's not that these constraints demand sap, or sentimentality, or a big show--there is no danger to these basics at all, and no need to undercut them (though we always have the freedom to try). If anything, the differences between Don Bluth films and those from Disney show that formula is a really robust tool. Victory doesn't have to name a single hero. Resolution doesn't have to eliminate mystery. Most important, I think, is that audience expectations, and the formulas that describe them, aren't so frail and shallow as the word has generally been used to imply. Formula is an important part of our work. There's a lot of room to show off, to be smart, and to play.

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