This was written in 2003 for Apatoons. I'm posting it because I think it's interesting and it relates to something I'm going to write about the differences between leading and supporting characters.
The conventional thinking these days about film scripts is that you need a main character to actively struggle against obstacles to achieve a goal. Thinking of characters, I found it interesting that some of the most successful early animated features starred passive characters.
Snow White is almost an entirely passive character. She yearns for her prince, but does nothing to win him. She is a victim of the evil Queen and is rescued by the prince. The only positive action that Snow White takes in the film is to befriend animals and to serve as a housekeeper for the dwarfs.
Why should we care about her if she doesn’t struggle to achieve a goal? The reason, so far as I can see, is that we’re sympathetic to her. Sympathy turns out to be a major factor in whether or not an audience roots for a character and based on animation history, the character can be passive or active.
I can think of only three ways to make a character sympathetic. If a character obviously does not have the ability to protect himself or herself, if the character is treated unfairly for any reason, or if the character is attempting to help another, more needy, character. A character who is defenseless, the victim of injustice or altruistic will automatically gain audience sympathy.
The only case I can think of where possibly selfish behavior gains sympathy is a character attempting to be with someone he or she loves. My guess is that love and companionship are seen as necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter. Anyone who is deprived of these is seen as the victim of injustice and not someone who is striving selfishly.
We care about Snow White because she is naïve, someone who has no understanding of the Queen’s jealousy. She has no way of defending herself against a hunter with a knife or against the Queen’s magic. Because Snow White has done nothing to incite the Queen’s jealousy, the attacks on her are all unjust.
There are other characters besides Snow White that are passive yet sympathetic. Dumbo is ostracized by the other elephants. He loses his mother, who is locked up for defending him. He is the victim of Timothy’s plan for the elephant pyramid. He is the victim of the ringmaster’s decision to make him a clown. He unknowingly drinks water laced with alcohol. The only positive action that Dumbo takes in the entire film is to fly without the magic feather at the climax.
Like Snow White, he gains the sympathy of the audience by being a defenseless victim of injustice. Dumbo is a baby, hardly the type of character to have the resources (emotional or otherwise) to fight back. He’s not responsible for his large ears, which provoke taunts and cause him to trip.
Pinocchio is an active character, but again one who is innocent of the world. Because the entire film hinges on Pinocchio telling the difference between right and wrong, he has to make decisions. The fact that Pinocchio puts himself into trouble, as opposed to Snow White or Dumbo, makes him a less sympathetic character. Disney changed Pinocchio from a troublemaker to an ignorant child, so we don’t dislike him. However, the fact that Pinocchio places himself into danger makes him less sympathetic. Perhaps this is why Pinocchio was a relative failure compared to the other early features.
Bambi is another passive character. His first year, he experiences everything for the first time, being shown the world by his mother and Thumper. In his second year, his only goal is to hook up with Faline. The rest of the time, he’s purely reactive: fighting off a rival, hunters, their dogs and fire. Bambi gets our sympathy because as a baby he’s defenseless and has done nothing to provoke the attacks against him.
Note how all the main characters in the early Disney films are children who are undeserving victims. Whether they are active or passive, I think that’s the key to why audiences are sympathetic to the characters. Disney’s use of child characters continued throughout the animated features and the later live action features. Children as protagonists guarantee that the characters are sympathetic because they’re defenseless.
As the Disney features progressed, the characters became more active, but always remained sympathetic.
Cinderella is not quite as passive as Snow White in that she attempts to go to the ball and makes her own dress. However, she is still unable to achieve her goals by herself. She’s another innocent victim. Her stepmother is actively suppressing her in favor of her own daughters, so once again, our sympathy goes to Cinderella, as she is not responsible for living with a selfish stepmother.
In The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, we have female characters who are far more active in achieving their goals than Snow White or Cinderella, but they are still all sympathetic. Ariel is attempting to win the love of Eric and is being prevented by her father (the “selfish” injustice exception). Belle and Mulan both sacrifice themselves to save their fathers, the altruistic path.
101 Dalmatians is an interesting case, splitting the active and passive characters between the dog parents and pups. The parents are active in searching for their children. The children are mostly passive victims. Both have our sympathy. The parents have it because they’ve been robbed of their children. The children have it because they will be killed and turned into a coat. While the kidnapping motif has been used repeatedly in recent animated features, it’s interesting that none of the other cases split up a child and parent. The Rescuers, Raggedy Ann and Andy and Toy Story 2 do not invoke the parent-child bond. Finding Nemo, while not a kidnapping story with the same evil motivation as Dalmatians or The Rescuers, does replicate the parent-child separation and has gone on to great box office success. The film also mirrors Dalmatians in that Marlin is active and Nemo mostly passive (until the end).
Recent Disney films have avoided using children as their main characters and have not evoked much sympathy either. Hercules is an active character who is attempting to achieve the goal of returning to Olympus, but does this make him sympathetic? Can the audience be sympathetic to somebody who feels being human makes him second class? Treasure Planet fails to make Jim sympathetic. The early scene of him as a child with his mother shows that he could be nice, but doesn’t explain the root of his surliness. Is there any reason to feel sympathetic for Milo in Atlantis? Does the fact that Lilo and Stitch has a child protagonist account for some of the box office success relative to Hercules, Atlantis and Treasure Planet?
Another of the cliches of screenwriting is that the audience needs a character to root for. All well and good, but the reason the audience will root for a character is because the character is sympathetic. From what I can see the only way to establish this is to make the character defenseless, the victim of injustice or engaged in an altruistic act.