When my sister was interested in animation in high school, we would watch a lot of animated shows. They were usually targeted to young kids and young adults. We watched movies from Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, Universal Pictures and more. There always seemed to be something different about these films aimed at a younger demographic than those that were marketed to adults in theaters.
What made Megamind or The Incredibles different from any of the Marvel superhero movies? How is Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas different than the Pirates of the Caribbean series? While these movies are exactly alike, they have similar genres: superhero and swashbuckling adventure. However, they have different approaches to similar stories which produce very different styles. It’s not just being kid-friendly that makes them different; here are a few things you can learn from media marketed to children:
The core of every children’s film is the theme. Movies focused on kids usually center around a premise that is a moral or life lesson that young minds should understand. How to Train Your Dragon had themes of celebrating individuality, teamwork, and courage which are all good lessons for children. Unlike most films in theaters today that are PG-13 or above, these films are deeply rooted in their themes. While Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has its own themes and morals of standing for what is right and conservation, what keeps the audience hooked is the thrill of dinosaur fights and suspense of what action will happen next, not so much in developments of the theme.What brings adults to watch Fast and the Furious? The racing and destruction, not so much the values of family and bonds of friendship. As for kids, parents like to pick films with family values. There is a heavy importance on the morals for the children to learn, so films like Cars is more than just racing, it teaches kids the importance of humility and slowing down every now and then. With themes taking the forefront of the film, they are the best films to watch to understand structure of story. There’s a reason The Incredibles is used as the backbone of our intro screenwriting courses, because it follows Campbell’s monomyth with stunning results. These are films that the whole family can enjoy due to their beautiful design.
Since characters are animated, they are literally designed with their character in mind. Live action doesn’t have this option. Think of Gru from Despicable Me. Large shoulders, daunting height, and dark clothing give him the villainous aspect, but his disproportionate body, comical pointed nose, and scarf lend a softer, awkward detail to him that makes him lovably evil. This is difficult to do in live action without being unintentionally comedic. A lot of focus is put on characters and their motives because those feed into the themes. Look no further than a family-friendly animated film for prime examples of character design.Why is animated so special? Just because of design? Character is something that jumps out more in animated films because you see a character that’s never been seen before. Actors can have “typecast” baggage that comes with them and so a certain actor always used in action and spy films will always have that feeling to them. Some actors are able to keep themselves from it, others embrace it, but it makes it difficult sometimes to flesh out the nuances of a character if it’s the same actor from a similar film. Ever wonder why Doctor Strange made you think of Sherlock Holmes? Because Benedict Cumberbatch played the same character style: a brilliant and intelligent man with a huge ego. It’s difficult to remove that, but with a well-written fully fleshed out character, any actor who has played that role dozens of times should find enough unique qualities to have a totally different persona.
As writers, we need to design our characters almost like animated characters. Make them an entirely different being, not a role made with an A-list actor in mind. There are 7.6 billion people in the world, all different from each other. So why have a character we’ve all seen before? In animation, characters are not developed individually, they are a network that support the story. They are a team. It’s common for there to be a protagonist, an antagonist, and supporting characters that are sidelined the moment they fulfill their importance to the protagonist. However, animation is expensive. No one wants to create a character that’s barely used. The final product we see has gone through an incredibly fine mesh to make it the best and most entertaining story with intricate themes. How does this work?Let’s look at The Road to El Dorado. What makes Miguel and Tulio a great team? They’re complete opposites. Not in looks, like the comedic trope of the smart short fat man and the tall skinny less intelligent man, but on the Personality Type A/B scale. While this scale started as a way to gauge the amount of stress put on a heart by someone, it is often used to describe really relaxed people (Type B) and those that stress more often (Type A). Tulio plans and focuses on the future of his actions while Miguel follows wherever his current state of mind takes him, making them the perfect pair to create and solve conflict. Their adversaries, Chief Tannabok and high priest Tzekel-Kan, whom they have to convince they are gods or perish, are also reflections of this same dynamic except that they are at odds with each other. Why? Because by being confronted with these two characters who are like them, but conflicting, they realized the conflicts of their own relationship. This realization kept the theme of the strength of friendship and that of embracing differences at the forefront of the minds of the audience. It’s this carefully woven web of characters that makes the character structures in animated films so intriguing. If you have a child that wants to watch Frozen for the hundredth time, notice how all characters are connected to the theme and to each other.
Details, Details, Details
As I’ve mentioned before, animation is expensive! Months are spent on storyboards before anything else is started and even while animation is ongoing, storyboards become fine-tuned because every frame is important. Animators are experts on guiding your eye to follow the main action, but if you take a look in the background, you’ll notice small details. These can support characters, themes, or the plot, but don’t have to be noticed to make sense of the story, it’s just flavor. However, these writers and animators think of everything. They create a complete world and in-depth characters so they can draw you better into the world. They have to know how to decorate this house for this character, even if they’re only going to be in there for one scene.
Think Zootopia. They not only had to create a whole world, but they had to make it something recognizable and familiar while making it fit for animals. Transition scenes where Judy enters the city are full of mesmerizing and creative ways to show that this is a place where all manner of creatures co-exist. While she is stunned in awe of the city for the first time, so are we. It doesn’t stop there. Throughout the entire film, there are little crumbs of interesting animation designs specifically made with the magical “what if?” in mind that make watching the film over and over only get more interesting. Writers that commit this much to world building can have a more in-depth and intriguing world, even if we only see a fraction of it.This is only a portion of what animated children films can teach writers. If you’ve been thinking about seeing The Incredibles 2, Sherlock Gnomes, The Isle of Dogs (stop motion animation is just as intensive, if not more), or any other animated film in theaters, think about the intricate connections of characters and themes. At the very least, acknowledge the effort and skill that goes into making these timeless stories.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.
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