22 March 2014

The Face of Serenity

Hush now! A child is sleeping!
The shape of the mountains tell her story
The plashing river sings her song
I implore you, my friend: Do not wake her.

Do you see the smile on her face?
She is dreaming of things that man is not permitted to see
Till the end of time.
For the Lord of Heaven and Earth has hidden these things
From the wise and intelligent
And revealed them to little children.

Know it well.
That is the Face of Serenity
Worn only by the angels and the child you see before you
Who know the Secret.
Few men have seen it.
Fewer remember.

Remember the Face of Serenity, my friend
It is a calm in which no storm ever proceeded
A vestige from the regions where there is only life and therefore
All that is not music
Is silence.

Is this a poem? I haven't decided yet. For copyright's sake, that last line ("all that is not music is silence") is owed to the great Scottish writer George McDonald. I clearly could not have come up with something that brilliant. Also, the "hidden things" were the words of Jesus from Matthew 11:25.

A little background: I wrote this little diddle/poem/thingy to precede a book I've been writing. You can see an early draft of it here.  None of the names are the same (Christopher Robin, Rockie, Isabelle, etc.) but it's the same premise. I've been looking for an illustrator, so if happen to have explosive artistic skills or knows someone who does, please let me know in the comments!

-The Minstrel Boy

07 March 2014

Why Frozen is so appealing

I haven't met anybody, save a couple cynics, who hasn't liked Disney's Frozen.  In fact, the reaction is beyond even what I expected. It ranks 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and passed the 1 billion mark worldwide, the second animated feature ever to hit 1 billion since Toy Story 3 and the 18th highest grossing film in the world (just below The Dark Knight and The Hobbit).   I guess that you could say that For the First Time in Forever, Disney has struck gold. Frozen has made history in the world of animation.  We might as well face it: almost everybody loves Frozen.  I found this really interesting because, as much as I loved it, it was certainly not particularly remarkable, or even anything new.

Don't get me wrong, I loved Frozen. It was charming, hilarious and adorable. But if you go and watch it for yourself (and I recommend you do) you will probably see as I did that it was neither original nor brilliant. It's the same story you always get when you go to a Disney movie, and save a couple plot twists, the general feeling you get walking out is basically the same. Unlike Toy Story 3, which sent you out crying, and Avatar, which sent you out with sensory overload and a headache, Frozen merely sent you out feeling happy and the general feeling that life isn't so bad after all.  Sometimes a Disney princess movie is just what we need.

I think what fascinates me about this movie is that it's paradoxical. It's greatest weakness is it's greatest strength. Let me go over the big problems first, and then you'll see what I mean.

Here's the plot in a nutshell (don't read any of this if you don't want spoilers): There once were two princesses, one normal and one with magical ice powers, and both of them are really cute. The ice princess (Elsa) has tried to hide her powers her whole life to keep from hurting anyone, but accidentally lets out the secret on the day of her coronation. In fear, she flees to the mountains and builds an ice castle to live in isolation, freezing the kingdom in her wake. Her sister (Anna) goes after to her to have a chat, and somehow convince her to undo the curse of eternal snow. In the end they find that only and act of true love can undo the curse and they become closer sisters and live happily ever after.

Okay, now there's several problems with that right off the bat.  The film offers no explanation as to how Elsa got her powers.  I know some people will say "it's magic, just go with it", but this is no excuse. "Magic" still demands logical consistency. There is a very important, unspoken rule of storytelling that you will find in any successful fantasy novel: You can create anything you want as long as it is consistent. You are allowed to make your own rules, but you are also obligated to abide by them.  For example, if you created a world where there is no gravity, you could not, in the end, have the villain plummet off a cliff to his death. No matter how fantastic your fantasy world is, it must remain true to the inner laws that you have created.

"Believably, not realism" is one of the most common mottos at Pixar.  If you ask any of the leading Pixar artists how they create worlds like Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, they will always tell you that they do not glorify the impossible but merely create worlds where such things are possible, thus allowing you to temporarily suspend your disbelief. You say to yourself  "I know this isn't real, but I'll believe it for the sake of this story".

With none of these "laws" or "rules" that set up the premise of Frozen, it makes no sense whatsoever to assume that two perfectly normal humans (the King and Queen) would produce one normal girl and another that can magically shoot ice out of her hands.  Compare this to Rapunzel's magical hair in Tangled. She got it from a drop of sunlight from the sky that grew into a flower that possessed the power to heal, which was used to save her dying mother. Bizarre, yes, but believable. In the case of Frozen, if there had simply been some simple accident during childbirth (a witch's curse, for instance) I could buy this premise. But there was nothing. Even by the laws of fantasy, the initial setup of Frozen is impossible.

The reason for this setup (as I will be getting to later) is simply because Disney rarely thinks about Inner Laws and logical consistency anymore. They are a commercial enterprise and have very little of the scientist in them required to make their fantasies truly livable. But more on that later.

The second problem is that the film offers no supporting cast.  You may think this is picky, but 21st century storytellers do not understand how extremely important secondary roles are.  You see this in films like Gravity and other "survivor" films. They call it a "minimalism" but it's really just artistic laziness. The two are very different. Secondary roles drive the plot forward and validate the importance of the hero/heroine's journey.  The hero almost never speaks for himself.  It's the supporting cast that defines what the stakes are, they are the ones who determine what will happen if the hero fails. 

The moment Elsa flees the kingdom, Anna hops on her horse and goes after her (how's that for pacing?) Nearly the entire film is made of Anna's personal journey up the mountain along with a mountain man named Kristoff and a talking snowman.  What's her motivation? "If I don't talk to my sister about this, the Kingdom of Arendell will be cursed in eternal winter forever!"  

Wait, you've only been gone for a week, darling. How do you know Arendell is cursed in eternal winter? How can we visualize the stakes if there is no collective reaction to the main inciting incident? There is exactly ONE scene where some of the townspeople complain of being hungry, but nothing more.  It's like if Frodo and Sam had gone to Mordor with no Fellowship, no Council of Elrond, no  Saruman, and no Gandalf.  No matter how many times they said "But we really have to get this Ring to Mordor!" it would be pretty hard to take them seriously.  Frozen, like most modern movies, is a self-referentially incoherent story with no external forces driving it forward. It's like some invisible magician is setting up a series of convenient coincidences so that everything will eventually work itself out within an hour and thirty minutes. This also destroys believability and logical consistency. 

On an unrelated side-note, WHAT SORT OF PERSON GOES HIKING IN THE MOUNTAINS WITHOUT WEARING SLEEVES!!?!?!!! I'm still wearing seven layers in February, and it's not even at freezing temperatures. And she's in the SNOW. I don't care what universe you come from, that is COLD. You. Will. Die.

(She didn't bring any food either. Or water. She is clearly of royal blood.)

Okay, so we have an unbelievable premise (Elsa's powers). Next we have a lack of external force (no supporting cast). But we also have a lack of internal force. At the beginning of the film, one of the characters draws a pretty obvious metaphor: "Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart."  Finally we have some grasp at some Law or logical consistency by which this fantasy world abides by. These laws (which you will always find imbedded in every story) act as a promise, and you expect that promise to be delivered later in the story. On the whole, that promise is safely delivered. Anna undoes the "eternal winter" by acting out of love for her sister. But the promise implies something deeper, something more subtle, and this secondary meaning is dealt with very clumsily.

Earlier in the film, Elsa accidently shoots a sliver of ice into Anna's chest, injuring her badly. Kristoff's friends the trolls (a good use of external verification) tell her that the ice is freezing her heart, and if she is not cured, she will turn into ice entirely. Often people use the term "frozen heart" to refer to a person who is calloused and unsympathetic.

That same metaphor is pretty heavily implied in the film, so when the sliver of ice begins to freeze Anna's heart, I couldn't help from asking myself "but why is she still so....nice?"

I kept on expecting Anna to grow cold and apathetic towards her task--perhaps even snap at Kristoff or Olaf--to heighten the drama and the increasing pressure for her ultimate success. In fact, that is EXACTLY what happened in the original Hans Christen Anderson fairy-tale, and if they changed everything else, they should have kept this one detail. We are expecting a consistency with the implied metaphor, which necessarily requires a deterioration in Anna's spiritual health as well as her physical health. But no change is seen in Anna's personality at all.  She becomes weak and frail, but she is still Anna.  By nature of all Good Stories, she simply isn't suffering enough. One of the great advantage of the fairy-tale genre is this special marriage of the spiritual and the physical. Just look at something like Beauty and the Beast, the story of a prince who becomes as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. Anna needs to have a moral struggle as well as a physical one. It's not her fault, it's merely the unfortunate law of the world she is in. 

Eventually Anna ends up saving herself and the entire kingdom by putting herself in harm's way to save her sister, fulfilling the required "act of true love" that was set up earlier.  But still the resolution remains very heavy-handed, building on the plot problems mentioned earlier.  Aside from the theological issues, the hero cannot save himself from himself. It is another example of self-referential incoherence and the need for secondary roles.  Someone else must melt Anna's frozen heart, or we don't really have a story. The most common resolution is to have the Prince come and save her (in this case it would be her love interest Kristoff) but since the feminists will all be throwing tomatoes at that idea Disney decided to go the safe way and keep Kristoff out of it. At least in Tangled, Flynn Rider was saved by Rapunzel's tear:

Which is pretty far-fetched, but still not as far-fetched as Anna saving herself. You may think these are very nitpicky details. They are.  Nevertheless, these are the things that kept a good movie from being great.  It's often these subtle nuances that you find in the most successful fantasy films (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter). It begs the question why Frozen was (from a proportional standpoint) almost equally as successful.

So what made Frozen so appealing? Why do we still fall in love with it? Then answer is simply this: Because it was designed that way.

What you may not have known about Disney artists is that they actually deliberately study the art of appeal.  Everything from the costumes to the eyes to the body language to the lighting, sets, and music are all designed to appeal to you. Did you happen to notice that in Tangled none of the buildings in the kingdom (save the castle of course) are more than two stories high? That wasn't a coincidence, that was intentional. Tall buildings are intimidating, and this kingdom needed to feel magical and safe.

During the production of Tangled, the Disney guys held what was called the "Hot Guy Meeting" where they interviewed all the female animators to find all the features of a man that they found most attractive. Many of them said they liked straight eyebrows and noses, angular jaws, and broad shoulders, among other things. The result was Flynn Rider, the ultimate pinnacle of manly perfection.

In fact, to research Tangled, the Disney artists actually took a trip to Disneyland. They tried to mimic the buildings and atmosphere there to create the same effect (also making it easier to turn into a theme-park attraction).  They also studied the shape languages and architecture of older Disney movies such as Cinderella and Pinnochio to find what gave it its' whimsical charm. (You can read more about this in The Art of Tangled by Jeff Kurtti).

Your first reaction might be, as was mine, "That's so cheap. They're totally pampering to the audience and playing on emotions."

Maybe they are. But here's the kicker: they are GOOD. Really good.  Better than anyone else. Movies like Alvin and Chipmunks and Despicable Me do their best to capture that charm, but (in my humble opinion) their oversized eyes and self-conscious cuteness makes it feel forced and fake. But the Disney artists know that if they push it too much they lose the appeal.

Look at Anna. She's got big eyes, but not so big that it's overly noticeable.  There's always the some little sparkle of light reflecting in them and they are spaced perfectly on her face--not too close, not too far apart. Her pupils are large too--pupils dialate when they are letting in light, and you get the feeling of an open personality, the kind of person who instantly wants to be your friend. Her hair is well dressed but not too perfect--the animators let it fall over her face occasionally and curl over her ear. Not to mention that tiny little nose but not tiny enough to make her pinch-faced, and slightly rosy cheeks dappled with light freckles. Not only that, but her costume is designed and colored to go with her environment. Green goes with blue. Magenta and black goes with white. Her whole body is designed to be liked.

And she is likable. Like Flynn Rider, the artists knew that creating an aesthetically perfect supermodel is not sufficient to make a character appealing. That's why, on top of being extremely pretty, they chose make Anna a little ditzy--socially awkward but anxious to make friends. Just watch this scene and tell me if you can help not liking Anna.

If you're interested, here's a deleted scene of Anna and Elsa that really shows their personalities playing off each other.   The decision to make Anna both physically attractive and yet with a total absence of vanity or consciousness of her beauty is a surefire way to win hearts.  Little scenes like Kristoff talking to his reindeer and the constant comedic relief of the snowman Olaf may be formulaic methods of appeal, but they work.

And it's not just looks and personality. It's costumes too. I'm not too big on clothes, but just take something as simple as Elsa's crown.

It's very small and light for a crown. A big heavy European crown would have been distracting, but this crown actually enhances her face and hair instead of bringing attention to itself.  It almost looks Elvish made.  All of this is made in the name of character appeal.

AND THE SONGS!  I think there's something about these songs that invalidates the fact that we've all heard them a million times before. And yes, I know that Disney is just treading the beaten path.  That's why, initially, I could not understand why my heart began soaring when Princess Anna began belting out "For the First time in Forever".  I don't care if I've heard For the First Time in Forever for the Millionth Time since Forever, seeing that it's pretty much exactly the same "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid, "Little Town" from Beauty and the Beast,  and exactly the same as  "When Will my Life Begin" from Tangled.  Not to mention the first four notes of the chorus are exactly the same as "And at last I see the light". 

But I fell in love with it anyway. Later I realized it was because of the Appeal I've been talking about. No matter how many times it's been done before, the Disney animators have not failed to capture that spark of life that makes you feel like you're hearing it for the first time. I was with Anna in that moment, experiencing those feelings with her and seeing the world like it was completely new. 

And who hasn't raved about Indina Menzel singing "Let it go"? (Okay, a lot of people are sick of "Let it Go" by now, I am mostly referring to the first ten minutes of its' internet debut). I myself have shamelessly learned it by heart. There's also an amazing acapella performance at the beginning of the movie that I really wish I could have heard more of.  The thrill I got hearing this is just indescribable. 

But as I said at the beginning, it's greatest strength is it's greatest weakness. The Disney artists are so good at character appeal that they are not willing to sacrifice it for the story. As a result you get the story problems I mentioned earlier.  Giving a princess magical powers is appealing, which is why they neglected the Inner Laws of fantasy, valuing appeal over believability.  That is also why they stubbornly refused to give up Anna's warm personality even when the story demanded it.  They were afraid people would stop liking her and empathize with her more if her struggle was strictly physical. This is where they were wrong. People in real life struggle with the frozen heart, and this is what they want to see portrayed. This would have elicited the real emotional response.  Injuring Anna on the spiritual level would have increased her appeal, not taken away from it.

As much as I care about Anna's well-being, I care about her soul far more, and from a storyteller's perspective, the way you express the value of something is by threatening it's existence. The whole point of "It's a Wonderful Life", is how precious life is and how horrible it is to throw it away. Of course we like George Bailey, but would we love him as much as we did if we didn't see him struggle? Would we empathize with him if we never saw what his life looked like if he was never born?

In taking away Anna's charm the audience would discover for themselves how much the liked her before (like George Bailey) and thus making the longing for her eventual restoration and redemption infinitely more intense. I find it so frustrating that the writers did such a good job with these small artistic details but were so ham-fisted with the story-line. Frozen could have been the so much better.  But instead it was only pretty good. 

Nonetheless, it set records at the box office, and audiences of all ages and backgrounds absolutely loved it. Not just ten-year-old girls, but ten-year-old boys, even teenagers and parents. The simple Christian themes such as "Love casts out fear" and "don't judge people by their outside appearance" and "put others before yourself" are very explicitly stated in the movie.  Making a film that is innocent, likable, and genuinely funny is a long-lost skill in Hollywood, and even the most rudimentary attempts at it ought to be commended. It is possibly the riskiest business Disney has undertaken in a long time. There was the real possibility that the days of animated musicals were long gone. But Frozen has shown that this is not so.  And choosing to release it while the countries all over the world bristle on the brink of war and the hearts of men and women are freezing below zero is certainly a brave thing to do. 

A similar thing happened years ago at the birth of the Walt Disney company (although it was much riskier back then) when Mr. Disney decided to release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the middle of the Great Depression. There was no reason to believe that anyone would be in the mood for a children's movie, but it turned out that was exactly what they needed most. Because, as Tom Hanks's Walt Disney said in the movie Saving Mr. Banks: 

"That's what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again."

All though the money-hungry corporate owners of modern Disney have long since lost their pluck, I'm glad to see that there are a few who are still trying to follow in the shadow of the great genius.  It may be the last dying spark or the beginning of a new era in Disney animation, I don't know. Probably the former. But hopefully the latter.

Because a spoonful of sugar can do a lot of good in the world.

-The Minstrel Boy