Sunday, May 20, 2018

Thumbelina (1994) and Passive vs. Active Protagonists


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were a few big names in animation.  As always, Disney was in the picture.  They were putting out movies that have become classics that people my age grew up on.  Pixar started their run in the mid-1990s when they made Toy Story.  They had a few shorts before that, but didn’t get the mainstream attention that others got until Toy Story was released.  Then there was Don Bluth.  He started in Disney before going out on his own to build a studio and release movies like The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Anastasia.

One of the other Don Bluth movies was Thumbelina, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story about a girl the size of a thumb.  Thumbelina (Jodi Benson) was peacefully living her life when Mrs. Toad (Charo) came along and kidnapped her.  She excaped the toads and was taken in with Mr. Beetle (Gilbert Gottfried), who tossed her aside when she tarnished his image.  Ms. Fieldmouse (Carol Channing) gave her shelter in the winter and tried to marry her off to Mr. Mole (John Hurt).  During her adventure, the fairy Prince Cornelius (Gary Imhoff) journeyed to rescue her, take her home, and marry her.  There was also a bird named Jacquimo (Gino Conforti) guiding the audience through the story.
Unlike so many of Don Bluth’s other movies, Thumbelina isn’t considered a classic in animation.  It’s easy to see why.  There are a myriad of reasons that the movie ended up being a mess.  The story itself wasn’t all that interesting to watch.  That’s not Don Bluth’s fault.  That came from the source material where it was a tiny girl getting kidnapped before falling in love.  Hans Christian Andersen could be blamed for that.  The weird way that creatures of various species are romantically interested in Thumbelina was also weird.  A frog, a beetle, and a mole were all trying to be with her.  But the one reason that should be focused on more than most was the fact that Thumbelina was not an active protagonist, outside of one moment in the movie.

An active protagonist is a hero in a story that makes choices.  Their journey is of their own doing.  They move along from plot point to plot point because they take an active participation in what they are doing.  They must decide between two difficult choices in order to try and achieve their goal.  A passive protagonist is a hero who doesn’t make choices.  Everything that happens in their journey is because of other people doing things.  They react to what is going on without changing things by their own will.  They hope they’ll get to their goal without ever doing anything to take a step closer.
Thumbelina was a passive protagonist.  She spent the majority of the movie reacting to everything that happened to her.  When she got kidnapped, she didn’t try to free herself.  Jacquimo freed her.  When she was about to go over a waterfall, she didn’t do anything to get to safety.  The creatures of the forest got her out of the water.  The fish knocked her backwards in the river and the insects dragged her out.  She didn’t escape from the beetles.  Her costume came off, they mocked her, and she was sent away.  None of these things were of her own doing.  The other characters were doing things for her, and she went along with it to get through the story.

The problem with this kind of character is that the audience can’t connect with them.  They don’t have to make the tough choices that people make in life.  They go through a journey that nobody has been on and they don’t make any of the relatable decisions that get the audience invested in the most ludicrous of stories.  Say, for example, in the scene with the frogs, Thumbelina had to try to escape while they weren’t looking.  The escape would get her away from them, but then she would have to contend with the dangerous waterfall.  If she got caught, security would be tightened so that she wouldn’t be able to get away so easily.  The choice is left to her about whether or not she should attempt it at that moment.  The audience is more invested.
Dramatic tension.  That is the key element to an active protagonist.  Whenever they make a tough choice, like the admittedly flimsy example I made of the escape that never happened in Thumbelina, the audience becomes a little more anxious.  They don’t know if the choice will be good or not.  Most likely, they’re both bad choices.  At that point, the audience becomes anxious for the safety of the character.  This is the thrill ride that movies should be.  Thumbelina lacked dramatic tension.  For the most part.

There was one scene near the end of Thumbelina where the main character was given a choice to make.  For once in the movie, they were telling the story in a semi-compelling way.  During her time with Ms. Fieldmouse, Thumbelina was set up with Mr. Mole.  They were set to wed.  A wedding happened.  During that wedding, Thumbelina came to a tough decision.  She could marry Mr. Mole and be unhappy that he was not the person she loved, or she could leave Mr. Mole and be alone because the person she loved was dead.  That’s an actual choice.  That’s a decision that the main character had to make to move her story forward.  That was good storytelling.
The worst part of the whole active versus passive protagonist concept that plagued Thumbelina’s main character was that there was another character who had a more compelling story.  Prince Cornelius spent most of the movie trying to find Thumbelina.  He was being active, making choices for himself on his journey.  He overcame obstacles and had a clear goal.  Thumbelina was his damsel in distress, yet we spent the movie following her.  That was a bad decision.

Thumbelina was a problematic movie.  From the basic story to the interspecies love, there were issues all over it.  The most notable, however, was the lack of an active protagonist.  The passivity of her actions made for a story that felt like it was moving along with the character following, instead of the character pushing it forward.  Audiences aren’t as attached to these movies because it doesn’t feel like they, or the characters, are involved in anything that’s happening.  There’s a disconnection.  That all begins with the main character.  Thumbelina needed to make choices.  She didn’t, and the movie fell flat.
Maybe these notes will have more bounce to them:

  • Thumbelina was suggested by @ImPABLO_i_WRITE, who also suggested Cabin Boy (week 173).
  • The voice of Neil Ross was featured in Thumbelina.  He also worked on Son of the Mask (week 207).
  • Other animated movies included in the Sunday “Bad” Movies include, but are not limited to, Foodfight! (week 143), A Car’s Life (week 2), Delgo (week 148), and How the Toys Saved Christmas (week 158).
  • Have you seen Thumbelina?  What did you think?  Are passive protagonists as much of a problem as I think they are?  Let me know in the comments.
  • The comments and my Twitter page can be used to let me know about the bad movies I haven’t seen and should check out.  There are many out there that just haven’t come to my attention, and if you let me know about them, I might look out for them and add them to the schedule.
  • When I’m watching movies, I sometimes share clips from them on my snapchat (jurassicgriffin).  Add me if that sounds interesting.
  • Next week is a big week.  A new Star Wars movie is coming out.  As such, I’ll be watching some old Star Wars.  Specifically, I’ll be checking out The Ewok Adventure.  I’ve not seen any Star Wars outside of the theatrical movies, so this should be a fun one.  We'll see this time next week.  Come on back now, y’hear?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Best Night Ever (2013) and Some Issues with Found Footage


Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer were two of the six writers of Scary Movie.  Every movie that they made after that had marketing that made sure you knew.  It also helped that their movies have mostly tread on the same spoof and parody territory.  Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Superfast! all parodied different movies in the way that Scary Movie took on the horror of the late 1990s.  As their career progressed toward what would be their worst movie, The Starving Games, they became less invested in spoofing a concept and more focused on referencing as many pieces of “current” pop culture as possible (current is in quotes because they were current when the movies were made but out of date when they were released).  They had lost any effort that had once been put into their work.

That changed in 2013 when the writing and directing pair released Best Night Ever, their first movie that didn’t seem to be a spoof of anything.  Sure, it was playing on an idea similar to The Hangover, but the movie was its own thing, telling its own story.  Four friends went to Las Vegas for a bachelorette party.  When they didn’t have the money to pay for their penthouse suite, they found a cheap motel and new ways to entertain themselves.  There was stripping, robbery, wrestling, and sex as they had the craziest, yet best, night they had ever had in their lives.

That’s not to say that Best Night Ever was a great movie.  It was okay.  It had a lot of problems, with the biggest being how it used the found footage style in which it was filmed.  Found footage shooting and storytelling needs to be carefully considered in order to work well.  There must be many specific details met in order to get people invested in something done in the found footage style.  If any of those requirements are not met, the entire concept could collapse, leaving audiences confused, or even worse, bored.  That’s why there are so few successful found footage movies.  It’s difficult to get them right.

Best Night Ever highlighted two of the problems that found footage flicks commonly have.  It did not have the same “how did someone get a hold of that footage?” issue that people have with movies that end in the characters’ implied deaths.  It had different issues that chipped away the immersion it tried so hard to create.  One of the problems created confusion.  The movie was sometimes tough to follow because of it.  The other problem was a simple technical issue that might only be noticeable to people who work in some sort of movie related business.  Both were troublesome and could have been avoided were the movie not made in the found footage style.
The first problem, which was confusing when it happened, was the point of view.  There were four main characters in Best Night Ever.  The woman getting married was Claire (Desiree Hall).  She brought along her sister Leslie (Samantha Colburn), her friend Zoe (Eddie Ritchard), and her dog groomer Janet (Crista Flanagan).  Between the four of them, there was one camera.  In most found footage, one character is the camera person and they remain the camera person until something happens to them.  In REC and Quarantine, that person was the cameraman for a news crew.  In Cloverfield, it was the guy who was filming his friend’s party, and decided that he should then film everything going down in New York.  Even when multiple people are filming, there’s usually something done to clarify who has the camera.  Chronicle did a fairly good job of making sure the audience always knew who was behind the camera when many cameras were being used.

Best Night Ever didn’t have that touch.  It wasn’t always clear who was holding the camera.  In one scene, one character would have it, and when it cut to the next scene, that character would be on screen.  Then it as a wait and see who you could see so that you could do a process of elimination and figure out who had the camera.  That’s a startling thing that audiences won’t react well to.  The immersion is broken when an audience is spending as much time trying to figure out who has the camera as they do actually watching the movie.  Best Night Ever didn’t try to bring clarity to the camera operator.  It just tossed characters into that role and left it to the audience to clear it up themselves.
The other problem with the found footage in Best Night Ever was something that might only be noticed by viewers who study movies.  If you only watch for entertainment, you might not notice what was wrong.  As someone going through film school (take a drink, I mention this almost every week), I noticed that the editing didn’t line up with the format of the movie.  Found footage done with multiple cameras can have cuts between things that are happening at the same time.  Paranormal Activity 2 was able to have this cutting because there were cameras set up throughout the home’s security system.  When there’s only one camera, the J and L cuts common in many movies should not be possible.  (J and L cuts are when the video transitions to the next clip before the audio, or the audio before the video, instead of a simultaneous cut).  The camera in a single camera found footage film should have to pan to capture the full conversation.

Early in Best Night Ever, this editing rule was broken as the characters were talking in their car on the way to Las Vegas.  One character would be talking and the camera would be on them.  Another character would start talking and then there would be a hard cut to that character instead of a pan over.  That wouldn’t be able to happen with the single camera found footage because there wouldn’t be the extra footage of the first character to overlap while the second character is talking.  There isn’t the added angle being filmed by a different camera.  The conversation should not be able to be broken up the way it was in the movie, especially since it’s continuous.  The only way editing would occur would be if there was some filler being removed, which there wasn’t.

Both of these issues in Best Night Ever kept it from being as good as it could have been.  They broke down the found footage aspect of the movie, through confusion and jarring cuts.  Not establishing who was holding the camera makes for a struggle for the audience because they need to figure out who the cameraperson is.  Cutting from one angle to another when there’s only a single camera is breaking the realism of the movie.  They were two simple mistakes that, if fixed, would have made for a stronger work.  It would have been more entertaining, easier to follow, and better.  Best Night Ever, as it is, is just okay.  That’s all it is.  It could have been more, but it’s just okay.
Now for some notes:

  • Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer directed Best Night Ever, as well as Date Movie (week 164) and Superfast! (week 229).
  • Amin Joseph was in Best Night Ever.  He was also in Freelancers (week 14) and Superfast! (week 229).
  • Best Night Ever was the second Sunday “Bad” Movies appearance for Paul Nygro, who was previously in Parental Guidance (week 27).
  • Nick Steele returned for another appearance this week.  He had been in Date Movie (week 164) before Best Night Ever.
  • Finally, Jena Sims showed up in Best Night Ever.  She was in 3-Headed Shark Attack (week 165).
  • Have you seen Best Night Ever?  What are some other problems with found footage movies?  Leave any of your thoughts in the comments.
  • I like to take suggestions for the Sunday “Bad” Movies and put them into my scheduling.  If you know any movies that I should be checking out for the blog, let me know on Twitter or in the comments.
  • When I watch bad movies, I sometimes share clips of them in my Snapchat story.  If that sounds interesting, add me (jurassicgriffin).
  • Next week, I’ll be heading back into the world of animation.  Don Bluth was one of the biggest animation names in the 1980s and 1990s.  In 1994, two movies he directed were released.  One of them was Thumbelina, which will be the next movie to be covered in the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  Come back in seven days’ time to see what I have to say.  I hope to see you then.