Monday, May 30, 2011

Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders: Exploring the Future and Challenging the Past (Part 1)

When students ask me to assess the current state of contemporary storytelling and articulate the greatest threat to storytelling as a whole, I never cite the external mechanistic "usual suspects." I think it is very easy to perceive threats from outside of ourselves: corporations, studios, a lack of audience sophistication, etc. as the most immediate threats to the art of storytelling.

Espousing these things is a cliché of response (however popular) and this line of thinking is undercut by the realities of an ever-changing system of financial resources, delivery mechanisms, demographics, and zeitgeist. There is no attempt, in citing these examples, to explore the overarching concepts that speak to the threat posed by some of the human psyche's most dangerous tendencies when telling stories. It's not unlike addressing humanity's preoccupation with mortality by studying bodies at the morgue and determining the cause of death. If humanity's preoccupation with our mortality could be addressed by a technical analysis of biological material and physical causes, the subject could be easily put to rest by means as simple as the definition of death that Wikipedia provides: "Death is the termination of the biological functions that sustain a living organism." There would be no need for spiritual or philosophical inquiry or the creation of art and narrative exploring human mortality. Identifying the real threats to storytelling as a vital art form depends more on an understanding of the human psyche than on an analysis of industry's mechanisms and the perceived shortcomings of "the masses."

I would identify two of the greatest threats to storytelling as the following: the over emphasis on nostalgic reflection and the fear of the future.

Storytelling must offer us a way forward, and effective storytelling is never about nostalgia for the past. If the past is effective in storytelling it is only because it speaks to and offers solutions for the reality we are living in the present.

Two artists, out of an exceptional many, who confront these threats are Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. I am citing them specifically because, in the two major works they have co-directed, they have directly confronted the perils of romanticizing a nostalgic past and the futility of fighting the inevitable change that comes with the future. More importantly, the two examples of their work I will cite were created within large corporations and directed at one of the more convenient targets of the cynical storyteller's ire: the "family film" audience.

"Lilo and Stitch" (Walt Disney Feature Animation, 2002) and "How to Train Your Dragon" (Dreamworks Animation, 2010) are prime examples of narratives wherein the characters succeed triumphantly after grappling with a love of tradition and the past, only to realize that they are trapped by many of its dogmatic perceptions and arbitrary temporal artifacts. In this post, I'll explore how "Lilo and Stitch" accomplishes this.

In "Lilo and Stitch" the crisis that Lilo Pelekai and her big sister Nani find themselves in is caused as a direct result of the conflict between their desire for a successful life after the loss of their parents, and their desire to cling to what remains of the life they knew before their parents died. After their parents die in a car accident (hinted at in the movie), the two sisters struggle to maintain what's left of their past life by living in their parents home and attempting to live as if nothing has happened. As a result of this, they are wilting under the weight of the past.

The metaphors in this film (however unintentional or intentional) are so rooted in mythology and psychology it is astounding. Joseph Campbell would have been pleased.

At the opening of the film, Lilo is swimming in the water of the ocean (a metaphor for her unconscious self) off the shores of Hawaii where she lives and where the story takes place. The use of an island as the film's setting is an appropriate metaphor for the isolation Lilo feels. She is in the ocean to feed a fish(a metaphor for the power of life within her) she has named "Pudge"and she is feeding it the wrong food (a sandwich) which mirrors her feeding of her own unconscious self. When she arrives late to dance class dripping with the water of her metaphorical swim, she tries to join the ritual dance (a metaphor of social harmony) and she causes the other young dancers to slip and fall.  When Lilo tries to explain to the teacher why feeding "Pudge" is so important, she states, "Pudge controls the weather" ("weather" is a common metaphor for emotional state).  What Lilo needs, is to understand the unique and authentic power within her that is manifest at first by a crude doll she has made named "Scrump" and finally as the alien "Stitch" known as "experiment 626" (6 and two 6's would give us 666). When her friends express their negative view of the doll, she initially rejects it, but finds herself running to embrace it. Likewise, when her older sister Nani rejects Stitch, she does the same.

Nani, her big sister is a prisoner of the new adult duties she assumes when her parents die. She is incapable of fulfilling those duties and so she is deemed a failure as an adult, and at the same time she is unable to express her needs as a young woman that are represented by the character of her romantic interest "David." When Nani fights with Lilo after a disastrous visit by the social worker (male parental authority figure) named "Cobra Bubbles" (snakes being a metaphor for change agents as they shed their old skin to welcome the new), Lilo asks her sister, "Then why don't you sell me and buy a rabbit instead?" Rabbits are a common metaphor for reproductive capacity, which, in this case is a metaphor for Nani choosing to pursue David, a much more appealing option for companionship to Nani than caring for her troubled little sister.

At the climax of the film, Nani leaves Lilo in the house to go off with David, and this results in its destruction, a painful event that is necessary for the two sisters to break from the past. At the same time, Lilo's family photo of Nani, Lilo, and their parents is damaged. The picture that has been a sacred object and metaphor for the reverence for the old social order (which its square format connotes), is kept under her pillow and clearly symbolizes her desire to go backwards to the past and as a result, eliminates any real chance for her to seize the opportunities of the unpredictable future. By the film's end, the two sisters (with the help of new friends) build a new house, and Lilo utilizes a damaged corner of the photo to add in "Stitch" to the photo. By using the the empty space as an opportunity to expand her world, Lilo metaphorically illustrates how the tragedy she experienced in the past has also opened the door to a future that brings with it new opportunities for happiness.

In the film, there is a menagerie of alien characters that serve as both specific metaphors as individual characters, as well as being used collectively as a metaphor for the unknown potentialities of the future. For the characters of Lilo and Nani, they have their psyche's "shadow" manifest as specific aliens. Lilo's traumatic loss of her parents has been repressed rather than assimilated and it has poisoned all of her future actions. She feels as though she is designed "to wreck things" and that she "can never belong." Stitch is the metaphor for these twisted capacities. After arriving on Earth, Stitch has his first encounter with one of our planet's inhabitants, a frog. The frog is often used as a metaphor for change as the frog undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis in its lifecycle. The frog is so important as a metaphor for change that it comes to the rescue in the film's climax.

Nani is frustrated by her inability to maintain the responsibilities she has inherited from her parents. She feels like a failure in her duties, and she sees Lilo's inability to "fit in" and succeed as the greatest example of that failure. Rather than confront those fears, she directs her frustration at Lilo, and in doing so, Nani fails to address the underlying problems by attempting to suppress Lilo's behavior. Her horrific first encounter with a being that she immediately identifies as an alien is "Captain Gantu," who captures Lilo and threatens to take her away. The horror resulting from that moment is that Nani realizes that not having Lilo to take care of has been her secret desire all along. By seeing her "shadow," manifest in reality, she is forced to realize what a horrific and painful desire she harbors.

Nani has been struggling to keep her sister from being taken away by the social worker(Cobra Bubbles) largely because Lilo is all she has left of her family, but under the surface she also desires the freedom of young adulthood that Lilo forces her to neglect. This paradox is illustrated when Stitch drags Lilo underwater (again, a metaphor for the unconscious self) when they are surfing and Nani kicks Stitch away while attempting to save her sister, in essence leaving that part of her to die. Nani only wishes to save the part of her sister she identifies as valuable. It is David who 'fishes' Stitch out of the ocean(wearing a neclace with a hook on it around his neck).

By the film's end, the two authority figures, one male(Cobra Bubbles) and one female("The Grand Councilwoman"), come together to redefine the family as only judge/authority figures can and in doing so allow the sisters to see both the possibilities of their present lives and the vitality of the future. This future, which dwarfs the painful terrestrial tragedy of losing their parents with the infinity of the cosmos, has many valuable and unimaginable possibilities that they now see evidence of. This realization also offers them the ability to see all of the possibilities that were around them from the start of the film that living in the past had made inaccessible to them.

What started out as a desire by DeBlois and Sanders to tell a small, intimate and unconventional story, like the ones told in films like "Dumbo," led to the creation of a film that challenges convention and teaches the audience the value of embracing the "undiscovered country." The frequently espoused ideals of progressive contemporary storytellers such as: placing female characters in the leading roles, diversifying the definition of the term "family" to be more inclusive, and creating stories featuring characters of color are all present in "Lilo and Stitch." At the same time the story is unafraid to show these characters as flawed and therefore human, and the film includes a scene of a young Lilo attacking a classmate in a rage motivated by the unresolved trauma of losing her parents. The film also makes us see the beauty of a child that values what many would label "ugly" or "unlovable." All of this is accomplished in a film told by two artists working under the banner of an immense multinational corporation. I suspect that these aspects of the film are merely the product of DeBlois and Sanders' authenticity as artists and that the vision and voice we see in the film reflects their appreciation of the complexity and nuance present in the world around them, as well as their understanding of the finer points of the craft of storytelling.


In a future post I will continue my analysis of DeBlois and Sanders' work by examining their film "How to Train Your Dragon." In particular, how that film uses mythology, metaphor and psychology to illustrate the value of exploring new possibilities and the importance of confronting one's metaphorical "dragon." In particular, we will explore how DeBlois and Sanders define the term "dragon" in accordance with Joseph Campbell's definition of the "European Dragon"(a metaphor for the binding of one's self to one's ego).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

4 Artists Paint 1 Tree: A Walt Disney 'Adventure in Art'

This short subject shows how Walt Disney Productions artists Marc Davis, Eyvind Earle, Josh Meador, and Walt Peregoy approach the painting of a single tree, and it offers valuable insights into their individual working methods.