Do This, Not That (Dreamworks Edition): Writing Tone and Consequences (How to Train Your Dragon vs The Croods)

Once in a while, though not often, the onus of friendship and previously poorly chosen viewing material leads me to the position of watching a movie that would not be tops on my viewing list. In this case it was The Croods (a Dreamworks picture about a prehistoric family, heavy on the ‘dad learns to let daughter live her own life’ theme), and I was probably still making up for the weaker episodes of Samurai Flamenco. And in both Film Friend (who is often quite skilled in the choosing of entertainment) and the movie’s defense, it was hardly the excruciating experience I was expecting: there was probably enough energetic creativity, earnestness, and gorgeous visuals to fill a strong 30-40 minute short film (tragically, the actual running time is 90 minutes). And it certainly didn’t leave me in the same excruciating pain as Shark Tale.

But ever since How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks doesn’t get a pass on pleasantly mediocre, and so I found myself trying to reverse engineer the little niggling bothers that kept jabbing at me. And thus my thoughts kept coming around to two factors: one more specific to stories that write from a strong POV, and the other possible anywhere but particularly relevant to comedies and animation.

Stay True to the Story’s World

And by that I don’t just mean, “but seriously, why is that jungle cat wearing lipstick” (although that particular moment did serve as the straw breaking the cliché’s back). Writing a time period isn’t just about making sure there aren’t space ships in your western shoot out (unless that’s the point) or that no one is wearing miniskirts earlier than they actually came into fashion (unless you’re Xmen First Class and not especially concerned with making your 60s movie feel like the 60s). Basically, this is a tone thing: unless the goal of the work is to be deliberately arch or anachronistic, the jokes and ideas that come out of the characters should feel believable based on what they know.

shades

This scene is making me feel comparatively positive about Kanye
That’s where we’re at, people

And actually, for the first and final thirds of the film The Croods is especially good about this: the nuclear family unit makes sense based on the survival premise, cutesy naming devices are kept simple and utilitarian rather than playing up the unlikelihood of arriving all of a sudden at the modern term for something, and the typical Disney ‘teen girl wants more from life, which eventually translates into/is brought by an appropriately aged male’ is couched fairly well within the scenario. Playing these sorts of things conservatively sets a believable tone while also letting the comedy tease the boundaries of the fourth wall (a ferret-like pet named ‘Belt’ that holds up one character’s pants, the actually occasionally amusing mother-in-law gag) without feeling too much of a need to wink obnoxiously at the audience.

Then there’s a collective point in the middle (which is also the reason we’ll be discussing our other point), that you can feel the screenplay beginning to sag under its own unnecessary weight. There’s this tortuous second act section wherein Nicolas Cage (did I mention Nicolas Cage is in this movie?) begins to feel overshadowed by his daughter’s new inventor-y not-quite-boyfriend, and attempts to prove he has similar skills. And then the script falls right into the pit of winking at the audience that I mentioned it side-stepping before. (i.e “Hey! Shades! Huh, huuuuuh? Do you get it? Cavemen don’t need sunglasses, am I right?”). Like most one-sided jealousy subplots it’s forced all around, pushed from tolerable into grating by breaking from its own reality.

dragons

I know you can create a world that is both fun and takes itself seriously, Dreamworks.
No more pity compliments

Which, before someone thinks to chime in with ‘but it’s a kid’s movie’ (a paltry and patronizing defense if ever there was one), is the point: while it might not land on a conscious level or one the average viewer would know how to verbalize, the incongruousness of it irritates unconsciously, lessening the viewer’s charity toward the story. They become less likely to forgive improbabilities, and to suspend their disbelief. Acing the small details when building a world, whether it’s a dying prehistoric earth or a lushly imagined fantasy/speculative setting, is absolutely critical when it comes to asking the audience to take larger leaps. To use an example from the very same production house, executed far more flawlessly, we believe the existence of Toothless because we’re so entrenched in the mundane details of Hiccup’s world: the charcoal he draws with, the bellows of the armorers, the translation of the social system. So by the time we get to semi-doglike dragons, we’re ready to believe.

landscape
Okay, it is really pretty. Like a blue meth chandelier

Make the Threats Stick

When attempting to get an audience to engage in a story, it’s pretty important that they have some manner of investment in the characters (even if it’s just to see how they’ll die, as in a Jason film). And unless it is said Jason film, part of the investment is hoping that the characters will be safe from fatal (emotional or physical) harm. But what does that count as? In animation particularly, there can be different levels of what a character can take before we should start being concerned about their safety. This is why it’s critically important for a story to establish rules relative to itself – the early parts of the story present situations that can serve as a yardstick for what ‘normal’ is, so that the audience knows what to set their expectations against.

So once again we come back to The Croods, and that extremely flabby middle section. The entire basis of the beginning of the film, as well as Nicolas Cage’s character, is that our main characters are fairly fragile: falling from tall heights can kill them, being crushed, or an attack from a single predator (there’s this great bit with a horde of carnivorous, locust-like birds) if they aren’t painstakingly careful. Physics aren’t stretched too far beyond ‘realism’ (what the audience might take as plausible in real life, whether that technically checks out with science or not), and even when slapstick is used it’s within the bounds of what has been shown to be survivable.

And then we come along to that ‘disgruntled dad feels replaced,’ bit, and all of a sudden Nicolas Cage is being regularly mauled by a giant tiger, dropping from tall heights, and even being struck by lightning for the sake of a montage gag. Not only are the jokes lacking in terms of intrinsic strength, but they violate what we’ve come to think of as the movie’s reality. So when the time comes for the big, nail-biting climax, and the film wants you to honestly think some of the characters are going to die…there’s no bite to it. The film has shown its hand, putting a skeptical undertone to any serious danger it attempts to place its characters in thereafter. Because if the story can change its rules to suit the whims of the moment, then there’s no suspense – there’s only the deus ex machina waiting to pull the protagonists out at the last minute, the fact of whether they’ve plausibly grown and learned the skills to survive up to that point negligible. As with before, it becomes a matter of selling the small in order to buy the large: stay consistent as to how the characters react to their world, and even in the rigorous plot of a children’s movie you’ll keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

leg
An admirably gutsy move – even Adventure Time took notes
(Give it another ten years, and Hollywood might tentatively consider doing the same)

To go back to our good example, How to Train Your Dragon spends an extensive amount of time establishing the dragons as a threat so that Hiccup has legitimate fears to debunk in the villagers, and a tangible sense of threat while training Toothless. Those threats also shape his skills as a dragon rider, and the two combined keep the climax on edge – we know that the enormous dragon is an exponentially larger threat but also that Hiccup has grown as a character, and we are invested in seeing which power will prove the stronger. And the rules of Hiccup’s reality remain in force: he suffers permanent injury in the loss of his leg, proof that in order to gain something there must always be loss or sacrifice that makes the victory worthwhile. A victory with no stakes or loss hardly feels worth celebrating, and losses greater than gains can be bleakly painful. Keeping balance and consistency, from the smallest to largest factors, is what will leave an impression on the audience’s hearts.

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