Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Totoro and the Absence of Traditional Story Structure

As anyone who has tried to finance a film knows, Hollywood has very clear ideas about what sort of film is marketable in this country. And very, very clear ideas of what sort of ANIMATED film makes money in this country. And since they are very specifically in that business to make money, they attach a lot of importance to these rules.

Among the rules are these: (a) an animated film will have frequent breaks with music for the small children in the audience, (b) an animated film will not be over a certain length, and (c) an animated film will rarely if ever have a female protagonist, and if it does, she shares center stage with a male protagonist. From there, Hollywood goes on and applies a number of other rules and requirements about story structure, most of these ae applicable to other types of films as well, and includes certain things about the types of conflict in the film, the pacing, the reversals, the climax, etc. Hollywood has a strong opinion on these matters. It is one reason so many Hollywood films seem the same, one giant robot or alien invasion after another. That is because they are the same at one level of abstraction.

My favorite animated film however follows none of those rules. It has no happy songs, it is much longer than average, and the protagonists are two little girls, one about three years old. It goes on from there in its eccentricity. It is not clear that there is a villain in the film, except perhaps whatever it is that is making their mother sick such that she must stay in a hospital. There is one homage to standard story structure: the climax of the film involves the youngest girl running away to see her mother, and the effort to find her.  This could be seen as a classic 3rd act rescue mission.

What's up in the scary attic?

The film did not do well at first in the Far East, where it was made. But eventually the toys got marketed and that fed back to the film until it became successful there. The film found no distribution in this country (1) until, unusually, a firm with no experience in this genre picked it up, added English subtitles and tried a theatrical release in N. America. I believe it did not do well, and the film disappeared, except to the few who knew of it and loved it, until Disney, at John Lasseter's urging, picked up all the films of this director and started marketing them in this country.

The director of course is Hayao Miyizaki and the film is My Neighbor Totoro (1988).

This is my corn and you are not going to take it from me

The company that attempted the distribution was Troma, a firm better known for making and distributing films such as "Surf Nazis Must Die" and "The Toxic Avenger". But in this case, they spent their own money bringing Totoro to the notice of Americans and, I think, lost their money. I happened to see it because my friend Chris Casady, owner of Roto Efx of America, had worked for Troma in the past and was invited to the screening at the DGA and invited me along.

I have excerpted my favorite scene from this film and put it at Youtube.  Well, I had put it on Youtube but it seems that someone is blocking it.  So you will have to review the pictures below, or of course, rent the video, which is what they want you to do which is fine with me.

Its an umbrella

On another occassion we will discuss the issues of trying to make a 3D character from one designed for 2D and review all the reasons that is hard, using two characters from this movie: the dust spirits and Totoro himself. Here are some images of these characters which I hope will set you thinking about why doing them in some sense in 3D (as in modelled in geometry) would be very difficult if you wanted to keep the essence and charm of the characters. And if you would not want to keep their charm, then why oh why would you even bother?

My Neighbor Totoro on IMDB

Miyazaki on Wikipedia


1. Most animated films, indeed most films, made in the Far East never see formal distribution in this country or North America. There have been a few exceptions and some of them are quite notable, e.g. many Kurosawa films would find some independent distribution here. This is especially true for animation made in the Far East, where many of their best and most successful films traditionally never made it over here, except in a very limited form marketed directly to fans of the various genres.

By way of counterexample, Bruno Bozzetto's Allegro Non Troppo did get distribution of some sort in this country.  I am not sure how that happened, but that does show that it is possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment