Pixar vs. The World #2: Show, Don’t Tell

If there were Ten Commandments for writing fiction, the “show, don’t tell” rule would probably be at the top of the list.  It’s a sentence that gets thrown around a lot, especially on the Internet, when critiquing a fictional work that feels subpar.  But why is it so important?

Generally, it’s a lot easier to get an emotional reaction out of an audience when you show them why a character acts or thinks the way he does, instead of just telling everyone the reason.  Simply having a character inform the rest of the group that “Mr. Mean Man had a terrible childhood” probably won’t invoke the same response as actually showing the audience some flashbacks of Mr. Mean Man’s terrible childhood.  By showing the situation, instead of making a statement about what it is, people can get a better idea of what the writer really wants to convey.

By now, you’ve probably already guessed that I’ll be using this post to talk about how Pixar gets this right while other companies don’t always meet this challenge.  But first, I should warn you that this post will contain major spoilers for Toy Story 3 and Kingdom Hearts II.  If you’re not familiar with one of them, but you’re planning to see/play it some day, you might want to stop reading.

Still here?  Awesome!  So, today we’re going to look at two characters who turn out to be pretty complex within their respective stories: Axel, from Kingdom Hearts and Lotso from Toy Story 3.  Both are not what they seem to be at first glance, and both have tragic backstories, but one was shown, and the other was told.  And that made all the difference in how I viewed both characters when I first watched their stories unfold.

Axel and Lotso

"Wait, the PINK BEAR is the one that's supposed to be evil?!" (Images taken from the Kingdom Hearts Wiki and the Pixar Wiki)

Axel first showed up in Chain of Memories as a member of a group called Organization XIII, who served as the main villains in the Kingdom Hearts series for a few games.  The most memorable aspect of his character was the way he constantly stabbed people in the back, to the point that nobody could figure out whose side he was truly on.  Then, Kingdom Hearts II was released and everything changed.  KH2’s story takes place about a year after Chain of Memories, and a few hours into the game, the player finds out that he used to be best friends with one of the protagonists, Roxas.  But then Roxas decided to leave the Organization, the Organization doesn’t accept resignations, Axel’s usually the one they send out to kill people who disagree with them, and…yeah.  Axel’s in quite a predicament.  He ends up going rogue and spends the majority of Kingdom Hearts II popping in and out of the story, until he finally sacrifices his life to help the heroes.

Now, let’s look at Lotso.  In a way, he’s the polar opposite of Axel because he starts out looking like a cute, cuddly bear that cares about his fellow toys…but he’s actually cruel and merciless.  His anger comes from a perceived abandonment by his original owner, Daisy.  She accidentally left him behind while her family was on a picnic, and by the time he had journeyed back to her house, her parents had bought her a new, identical Lotso’ Huggin’ Bear.  The thought that his beloved owner didn’t love him anymore made Lotso snap, and when he arrived at Sunnyside Daycare, where our heroes find themselves after Andy prepares for college, he basically turned it into a terrifying dictatorship ruled by him.

The tragic nature is similar in both Axel and Lotso’s stories: their lives become chaotic after they are each seemingly abandoned by a person they deeply cared about.  But in Axel’s case, it look a long time for me to actually feel sorry for his predicament, mostly because his past friendship with Roxas is told, not shown.  Players get to see one flashback- that’s right, one– where Roxas is actually leaving and Axel quietly admits that he’d miss him.  But what is he missing?  Why did they become friends?  Why did they stop being friends?  What the heck happened?  Most importantly, Axel’s transformation from evil, manipulative backstabber to a character who’s deeply conflicted is pretty jarring, and the game never bothers to show its audience how that character development took place.  We’re just supposed to accept that it did happen and move on.  (And yes, this issue was sort-of resolved in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days…but that doesn’t change the fact that that game was released about four years after KH2.)

Thankfully, Pixar has yet to break the holy “show, don’t tell” rule and they show their audience Lotso’s backstory in their usual expertly-crafted way:

Imagine if that scene had never been in the film, and instead, Chuckles said to Woody, “Yeah, Lotso’s evil.  We used to belong to the same owner but she lost us one day and replaced him with another bear, so now he’s evil.  You’d better go back and save everybody from Sunnyside.”  Wouldn’t that have severely lessened the quality of the story?  Sure, one could argue that it’s Woody and Co. that we’re supposed to care about, not Lotso.  But, like Axel, Lotso’s transformation is very jarring at first.  In order to understand why the adorable pink teddy-bear is suddenly an evil beast, some explanation is required.  And in my opinion, Pixar did an absolutely brilliant job showing us what happened to Lotso.  Nice work, Pixar!  Keep up the awesome storytelling!

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Mulan: Clash of the Genders

Mulan is my favorite traditionally-animated Disney film, and Mulan herself is definitely my favorite of the Disney female protagonists.  She represents a balance between helpless, passive damsels, and action-driven, perfect superwomen who don’t really need help from anyone.  And there’s plenty to like about the movie itself (the scene where thousands of Huns come stampeding down the mountains towards Shang’s much smaller army is gorgeous and chilling), but one part that I like in particular is how Mulan handles being a woman in a man’s world.

From the moment that we’re first introduced to Mulan, it’s obvious that she doesn’t really fit in at home, much like Belle, Ariel and the other princesses from the ’90’s.  Unlike Belle and Ariel, however, she doesn’t sing about how she wants to get away from the life that she lives- she just wants to fit in and make her family proud.  Also, unlike other Disney princesses, Mulan’s not an outcast because she has any revolutionary ideas, like having adventures or traveling to forbidden, dangerous places.  She’s just a bit klutzy and tends to say the wrong things at the wrong time.  Whenever she decides to just be herself, people don’t approve.  That’s a problem that plenty of people can relate to, myself included.

Then, when Mulan runs away from home to take her elderly father’s place in the army, she arrives to a new enviornment at the camp, living solely with men for the first time in  her life, and she discovers that…things don’t change very much.  Refreshingly, Mulan still doesn’t fit in right away because she’s not familiar with this kind of society.  However, the difference between Mulan’s experiences at home and her adventures at the war camp is that she has an easier time adapting to life as a soldier, and more room to be herself.  (Which is ironic, considering that she’s pretending to be a boy named “Ping.”)

Nonetheless, Mulan doesn’t possess any rare, unusual skill that makes her better than the men.  Rather, in order to get down to business and defeat the Huns, Mulan uses skills that she learns in the army camp as well as her own ingenuity and cleverness.  While Shang and the other soldiers try to break into the Emperor’s palace to stop Shan-Yu, Mulan realizes that their efforts are fruitless and suggests that they scale the walls- a feat that she learned in the camp.  Then she gets her comrades to disguise themselves as women in order to catch the Hun guards by surprise.  She and her friends need the combined abilities of both men and women in order to succeed.

Some feminist critics complain that any message of female empowerment is ruined by Mulan’s decision to return home to her family and eventually marry Shang, rather than take on a government position for the Emperor.  However, from a story perspective, her decision ultimately fits her character better, and returning to her domestic life does not lessen her own sense of empowerment.  At the conclusion of the film, she has earned the respect of her family, friends, Captain Shang, and the Emperor himself, by embracing her different strengths and weaknesses and using her courage and intelligence to save China.

And here’s a clip of the whole final battle between Mulan and the Huns:

Musical Monday #5: “Missing My Nemesis” and “My Nemesis”

Hi everybody, and Happy (belated) Easter!  This week’s Musical Monday is a double feature, because the two songs go hand-in-hand, and I can’t really talk about one without the other!

First, have you ever read a comic book or watched a television show where a hero and a villain battled each other on a fairly regular basis, to the point that you began to think that deep, deep down, they almost liked each other?  At the very least, there are some hero/villain duos who get bored when they’re not fighting each other, or, if another villain comes along and starts trying to kill the hero, Villain #1 will immediately proceed to beat the stuffing out of Villain #2, because, as he puts it, “Hey!  Killing the superhero is MY job!  Back off!”

Disney’s Phineas and Ferb (also currently known as The Only Really Good Show on the Disney Channel) likes to take a lot of tropes found in entertainment (particularly in children’s shows) and exaggerate or mock them to crazy levels.  And one conflict that they especially like to play around with is the aforementioned question: deep down, do the heroes and villains really need each other to function?

For those readers who aren’t familiar with the show, each episode involves two stories: the main plot, about two step-brothers who do extraorindary things in order to make each day of their summer vacation memorable, and a sub-plot about their pet platypus, Perry, who’s really a crime-fighting secret agent.  Somehow, some way, both plots get connected by the end of the episode, although the boys have no idea that Perry is anything more than their beloved pet.

In this particular episode, “It’s About Time!”, Perry flies off to fight his nemesis, Dr. Doofenschmirtz, as usual.  But when he gets there, he finds a surprise waiting for him: Dr. Doofenschmirtz is already doing battle with another animal, Peter the Panda.  Normally, you’d think Perry would be happy to have an ally, right?  Wrong!

As you can see, Perry doesn’t handle this new change very well.  In fact, the whole episode is hilariously presented as if Dr. D was “cheating” on him and they’re going through a bad break-up.  It doesn’t take long for Doofenschmirtz to miss Perry, and he soon realizes that Peter isn’t the right nemesis for him:

By the end of the episode, they’re back to their usual routine of Dr. Doofenschmirtz creating evil plans and Perry stopping them just in time.  Phineas and Ferb implies, especially in these two songs, that the forces of good and evil aren’t really happy unless they’re fighting each other, and in a weird way, they need and rely on each other.  The show doesn’t really bother to explain why fictional heroes and villains operate that way, but it certainly has a blast poking fun at this conflict!

Musical Monday #4: “Musique pour la Tristesse de Xion”

Or, as it’s better known among Kingdom Hearts fans: “Xion’s Theme.”

If you’re not familiar with the Kingdom Heart series, here’s the best way that I can explain it briefly: it’s a video game series, developed by Square-Enix, where a boy named Sora travels to various worlds with Donald Duck and Goofy, in order to protect the universe from monsters called the Heartless, which devour people’s hearts.  The worlds that he visits are mostly the worlds of characters from popular Disney movies (i.e. Agrabah, from Aladdin, Halloween Town, from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and “Castle of Dreams,” from Cinderella).

…it’s a LOT better than it sounds.  Trust me.  And it’s also my favorite series of video games, so I’ll probably be talking about it a lot in upcoming posts.

Anyway, here is Xion’s theme, as a piano arrangement.  She’s a character from one of the games that got released for the Nintendo DS, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, and her reception from fans was very mixed.  So, it really says a lot about this piece of music when even people who think she was an annoying, useless character have nothing but absolute praise for her theme.  Some even said that it made them cry.

Because these games originate from Japan, I heard this theme several months before I could play the actual game, so I didn’t know much about Xion’s character, but I was still struck by the beauty of this piece of music.  It didn’t make me cry, but it did leave me feeling a little sad.  And just by listening to it, I could tell that Xion’s story wasn’t going to have a happy ending and she ultimately wasn’t going to get what she wanted.  (But I won’t spoil her story any further in case any blog readers want to try the games themselves!)

I think Xion’s theme best illustrates how a composer can communicate to people through simple music and how music can affect people emotionally even if they don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.  That’s why I love it so much.  It sounds beautiful and melancholy, and for fans of the game, it highlights the tragedy of Xion’s story perfectly, even for fans who never completely warmed up to her character.

Pixar vs. The World #1: Marriage

Confession Time: I am a Pixar loyalist.  My relationship with their films got off to a very rocky start when I first saw Toy Story in theaters (long story short: I was a little kid, and Sid’s character traumatized me), but after watching A Bug’s Life and loving it, I gradually developed a lot of love and respect for this filmmaking company.  They have always produced films that I found both intelligent and entertaining.  As an aspiring writer, I’ve come to really admire their commitment to telling a good story.  So, I decided to dedicate some of my posts to explaining why the writing at Pixar tends to rise above the rest of Hollywood’s standards.

When looking at generic examples of Hollywood, I’ve noticed that marriage and dating tends to fall under two extremes: the happy, sunshine-rainbows-and-puppies Disney romance, and the couple that fights so often, they seem like they’re on the brink of divorce.  I’m not saying that ALL cinematic romances play out like this, but examples of both stereotypes are very easy to find.  Then you have the clichéd reasons behind the couple’s fights: “a workaholic husband needs to appreciate his family more,” “an independent superwoman learns to stop hating romance and start dating that One Special Guy,” “our heroes can’t stand each other and are opposites in practically every way, but somehow they fall in love anyway,” etc.

We see the “workaholic husband” cliché turn up in another Disney film: The Haunted Mansion.  I actually like this movie, but the conflict between Jim Evers and his wife really grates my nerves.  Supposedly, Jim loves his real estate job and tends to put family plans on hold so that he can sign some more deals and earn more money for them.  His wife finds this very frustrating.  But wait…isn’t the company called “Evers and Evers Real Estate?”  Aren’t the husband and wife supposed to be a business team?  Sara isn’t just some disgruntled housewife- she’s supposed to be his business partner too!  Why is Jim the one who works all the time?  Doesn’t Sara work too?  Can’t they split their work load so that Jim can spend more time with their kids every now and then, while she pursues business calls?  Such questions are never really addressed.

Now, let’s compare that to Bob and Helen Parr from The IncrediblesThe Incredibles plays around with these clichés a bit, as Bob wants nothing more than to go back to being a superhero, and Helen’s main concern rests with keeping their family together.  But their marital conflict reflects one of the larger conflicts presented in the story: should exceptional individuals (like the superheroes forced into retirement) be acknowledged and rewarded for their talents, or should they conform and try to be “just like everyone else?”  And to be fair to Helen, she doesn’t really want to end her crime-fighting days either; she just proves to be better at adapting to the change than Bob.

A typical day for Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (Picture from Yahoo! Movies)

But most importantly, Bob and Helen are equally-flawed characters who need each other in order to overcome their problems, and even when they fight over different ideals, the audience is never left doubting that they care about each other.  In fact, much of their disagreement is rooted in how much they care about each other.  Helen doesn’t want Bob doing “hero work,” because she worries about the impact it will have on their family.  And while Bob’s fixation with “reliving the glory days” is more self-centered, it’s still clear that he loves his family and they are his most important obligation. 

I find this portrayal of marriage to be very refreshing, especially for Disney, who doesn’t often look at marriage beyond, “And they all lived happily ever after.”  The Incredibles addresses life after marriage and suggests that happiness and a stable relationship are obtainable, but only when Bob, Helen, and the rest of the family work together to resolve their individual dilemmas.