Saturday, January 12, 2008

Conflict and Tension

Having just seen Surf's Up, I was struck by the nature of conflict in the film compared to Ratatouille. Both films have animals who are obsessed with something and that obsession brings them into conflict with those around them. While I enjoyed Surf's Up, the nature of the conflict in that film is much less compelling than in Ratatouille and I think that is one reason for the film's relative failure at the box office. To date, Ratatouille has earned $206 million domestically while Surf's Up has earned under $59 million. Surf's Up also did significantly poorer than Sony's first cgi feature Open Season, which grossed $85 million.

The key issue is how much danger the character's objective creates. In Ratatouille, Remy's urge to cook great meals puts him in mortal danger from humans. The woman who owns the country cottage uses a gun against the rats and Linguini is charged with drowning Remy when he is caught in the kitchen. Furthermore, Remy's desire to cook brings him into conflict with is own family. His father refuses to believe that humans will ever accept rats and it causes a rift between them.

In Surf's Up, Cody's jeopardy is at a much lower level. His desire to surf may annoy his mother and brother, but there is no threat to any of them or their relationship as a result. His desire to win the surfing competition puts him in danger with regard to the ocean, but poses no threat to the wider community.

In Ratatouille, we learn that Remy is a genius cook, but in Surf's Up, we learn that Cody has an unrealistic view of his abilities, so while we root for Remy to overcome obstacles, we know that Cody has to fail before he can succeed. This reduces the tension as the initial failure is inevitable.

The genius of Ratatouille is that the basic situation -- a rat who wants to prepare human food -- immediately puts Remy in conflict with everybody around him. For Remy to succeed, he literally has to change the world, changing the rat perspective on people and the human perspective on rats. The weakness of Surf's Up is that for Cody to succeed, he only has to change himself. The external conflicts he faces are mild and the stakes are low.

Ratatouille relates everything in the film to the central conflict. The question of Linguini's parentage and the ownership of the restaurant don't concern Remy directly but still have an impact on Remy's objective. The business in Surf's Up with Chicken Joe and the aboriginal penguins is a comedic detour that produces laughs but doesn't contribute to the conflict.

Surf's Up is worth watching. Tom Sito and Keith Lango both have good things to say about it. Lango points out the high quality of the acting and I agree. While it's probably wrong to use the word "naturalistic" with regard to surfing penguins, the truth is that the acting is believable and subtle. It doesn't call attention to itself, yet it's as expressive as the voice work, which is of a high quality.

However, dramatic conflict is the mainspring that powers a movie and the danger is that low-key conflict results in a lack of audience enthusiasm.


Anonymous said...

I think you're searching for reasons that don't exist for why one film did ok and the other did poorly. If the first weekend of Surf's Up was decent and then dropped off after that then you might have anargument that the audience wasn't responding to the conflict (or lack of). But since the opening weeken sucked it's more likely the fact that the aidience wasn't interested regardless of what the conflict or story was. Being the 4th penguin movie out sure didn't help their cause any and a dificult (though interesting idea) made it hard to market.

BTW the only danger I felt in watching Ratatouille was for the restaurant patrons by having rats run free in the kitchen and actually touching all the food.

Thad said...

"Surf's Up" looked really bad from the previews. Maybe I should give it a looksie.

"Ratatouille"'s story itself is conflicting. What the hell is Skinner doing there for the second half of the picture? He's kicked out of the restaurant and no longer runs it. He's just noise.

Anonymous said...

I'm detecting some conflict and tension in that first comment... Why is there so much Ratatouille hatred?

I saw both films and I think that you've got a good point Mark: while Surf's Up was amusing, it never made you care in the way Ratatouille did, because there was far less intensity in the situation.

Thad: I think Skinner has to be there for the second half of the film. It makes perfect sense. Most importantly, it wouldn't be in his character to just give up and leave - he is a spiteful little man and it seems natural for him to seek revenge. As well, his activities in the later part of the film are more than just noise. Like what Mark was saying about Linguini's parentage, Skinner's plotting helps build tension because it relates back to the central conflict of a rat being in the kitchen. Skinner is the only one who suspects there is a rat in the kitchen, and at some point you need at least the treat that Remy might be discovered for that conflict to really pay off. That is Skinner's role: to try to spoil Remy's dream by revealing the "infestation" and getting the restaurant shut down. In this way, everything he does from capturing Remy to calling in the health inspector help build tension and contribute to the central conflict leading up to the film's climax.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, a correction to my post above:
I meant to say
"at least the threat that Remy might be discovered" not "the treat".

Ayan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ayan said...

The thought process being quite interesting, doesnt really make believe that was the reason rataouille worked better than surf's up. What I think was teh timing of surf's up releasing to the big screen.
After Warner Bros. movie Happy Feet released and didnt leave quite a good impression . Surf's up just came out after that, which being another penguin movie, didnt work well just for that reason.

Floyd Norman said...

Where's the love, guys?

Both were darn good films. Ratatouille had the stronger story. It's as simple as that.

Anonymous said...

Using box office figures to validate your analysis is pure ignorance.

I'm sure everyone can name excellent movies that did poorly, and crappy ones that did well.

Mark Mayerson said...

You've got it backwards. I'm not using box office figures to validate the analysis, I'm using the analysis to validate the box office figures.

I think the story analysis is valid and I state "I think that is one reason for the film's relative failure at the box office." I'll be happy to admit that story is not the only contributing factor and I never claimed that it was.

Thad said...

Floyd, I enjoyed "Ratatouille" quite a bit. The animation is what made it for me. It's the best CG has been to date. As I remarked last year after seeing it, Skinner looked and moved as well as anything in the [good] McKimson-directed cartoons.

"Ratatouille" had some unmarketable aspects to it as well.. I'm sure a lot of people said "You want to go see a movie about rats in a kitchen?!"

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that both of Sony's animated features (Open Season and Surf's Up) look amazing both in terms of art direction and animation, but have stories that are just not very engaging. It is too bad, because as an artist/animator I want to love these (visually) well crafted films, but as an audience member I just couldn't overlook their boringness.

Virgil said...

true, there wasn't much tension in surf's up, but that's a comedy and a documentary, you judge it from a perspective that movie doesn't care about.

on the other hand, I don't find much tension in ratatouille either, or in kids' movies in general - maybe they shouldn't have much tension anyway. ya don't wanna traumatise them poor kids.

Jenny said...

"...on the other hand, I don't find much tension in ratatouille either, or in kids' movies in general - maybe they shouldn't have much tension anyway. ya don't wanna traumatise them poor kids."

Wow--I have to address this one.

You can like or dislike "Ratatouille" for any number of reasons, but it isn't, wasn't and was never in the least conceived as "a kids' movie" by anyone. As for "don't wanna traumatize those poor kids"--what are you thinking? A shot with dead rats' bodies hanging from traps? A woman with a shotgun trying to kill them? Imminent death by drowning for the main character?
No punches were pulled and the target audience was the usual audience in the filmmaker's heads: first, themselves. Second(and arguably equally important), the paying audience. The whole audience. But I guess with my comments I have two audiences of my own here: the choir(in other words, people who know this already), and people who apparently think that Pixar or animated feature films are made with only children in mind. It simply isn't the case, and if you want a comparison check out the truly "kids only" material produced for film and (mostly)TV--it's very different.

I think your analysis is extremely sharp, Mark. Excellent points.

Thad said...

Reminded by Jenny's description, how did this movie pass as rated "G"? Who are they paying off?