The biggest problem with American animation films, apart from predictability, is that the characters just won’t shut up. I remember going into Ratatouille, and squirming in my seat after the first 15 minutes or so, because the yakking just went on and on and on … It annoyed the hell out of me and took me completely out of the movie, after which the following minutes just felt grating.
Silence is not golden in American animation. And I’ll show you how. Some years ago, I was watching My Neighbour Totoro on a R3 DVD, and had the English subtitles on. During the opening sequence when the family was on their way to their new countryside home, there is hardly any dialogue. But I started noticing subtitles appearing when nothing was said. For instance, when Satsuki hands a piece of candy to Mai, the subtitles said “Thanks!”. But nothing was said in Japanese. At first I thought there was something wrong with the audio track.
It was only later that I realised the English subtitles followed the English dub. When the kids see their new house for the first time, they regard it in silent awe. But the English dub has them saying “There’s so much neat old junk here!” and “Do you think it’s haunted?” When the father stops their car to ask the boy Kanta where his parents were, the boy just silently points to the paddy fields. But the English dub has him saying “They’re over there in the fields.”
The question here is: WHY?
Why add dialogue where there are none? What do those lines add to the story? The scene with Kanta, for example, completely goes against his character when he is made to say that line. My guess is, the fee they have to pay to the voice talents were so high, they felt the need to get their money’s worth. How else to explain this?
And so, I finally caught Pixar’s much-acclaimed Inside Out last week. Apart from the fact that it was rather overrated by critics and fans who embraced its child psychology which to me felt more like a simplified, fast-food version for dummies – but then psychologists have vouched its accuracy – the film also suffers from the same ceaseless yakkity-yak. From the get-go, the “emotions” in the little girl Riley’s mental “headquarters” never stop talking, sometimes all at once. It’s like the filmmakers needed to fill every silent pockets with more and more yakking.
To begin with, Inside Out‘s idea of how we are “controlled” isn’t particularly original. When I was young, I used to read The Beezer, a British comic magazine. And one of the regular strips featured was called The Numskulls, basically about a bunch of little people who reside inside the body of a balding guy and “operate” him. I’m not saying The Numskulls was the first to work this concept, but it was certainly among many.
The moment we’re introduced to the “emotions” in 11-year-old Riley’s head, the characters Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness never stop yakking. Contrast this to the silent opening moments of Wall-E and UP, and you’ll see the why those two movies’ opening sequences work so damn well. Although Wall-E later turns into a boring old chase movie, UP sets up its emotional foundation very strongly with its first few wordless minutes. We identify with the old man character, and it carries through. And that’s the power of silence. Those silent minutes of UP pack more emotional punch than the whole of Inside Out.
The thing about Pixar is, they’ve never really made a film that is better than the Toy Stories. With the Toy Stories, they’d set themselves a bar way too high. Many Pixar fans would disagree with me, definitely, but the thing is, most of Pixar’s other films are a potpourri of pop-culture references. Yes, the Toy Stories are guilty of the same, especially Toy Story 2, but it works for those films while the economies of scale winds down its effectiveness in the later films. It works because the toys are after all, pop-culture merchandise themselves.
And then with Ratatouille, the endless yakking became more prominent.
The Toy Stories and UP remain the best in the Pixar filmography, because of one thing – they’re about old age. The toys, if you think about it, are really ideas about the ravages of age, of time wearing away usefulness and relevance, of being discarded and forgotten by a world breezing by in a whiz. The toy utopia in Toy Story 3 is really a stand-in for an old folk’s home. While UP is essentially not about growing old, but about staying young, it’s still centrally about an elderly man self-imprisoned in his home while the world changes around him, and in the end, encroaches on his hermitage.
Isn’t it strange that the best of Pixar are about old age?
(Another problem I had with Inside Out was with its portrayal of Sadness as short and fat, unlike Joy who is slim and attractive. Something is definitely very wrong there.)