I've been catching up on some movies lately and three of them have helped sharpen my thoughts on an aspect of animated films.
The Commitments (1991), directed by Alan Parker based on a novel by Roddy Doyle, is set in Dublin and is about a band that meshes well onstage but can't mesh off stage. A Soldier's Story (1984), directed by Norman Jewison based on the play by Charles Fuller, is set in Louisiana in 1944 and is about a murder that takes place on an army base that is home to black soldiers. Mean Streets (1973), directed by Martin Scorcese from a screenplay by him and Mardik Martin, is set in Manhattan's Little Italy and is about young people on the edges of the mob.
What these films have in common is how thoroughly they evoke a milieu. The visuals are obviously a part of it, but the characters' patterns of speech and more importantly their attitudes, place the stories in very particular times and places. You could not drop a character from one of these movies into either of the others and have the character fit. The characters in these films experience the world in different ways and have very different expectations of themselves and their surroundings. Watching these three films is to visit three very different worlds.
The part of milieu that animated films usually get right is the visuals. It has become common for animation studios to send staff on field trips to do research so that the art direction captures the feeling of an environment. However, animation usually stops there. The characters' speech patterns and attitudes are transplanted from California and dropped into a world that looks different, but ends up feeling the same.
How much does Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame have to do with Paris beyond the art direction? How much does DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda have to do with China beyond the choice of local animals and architecture?
While artists are sent on field trips, has any animated feature ever gone on location to record voice tracks? Does the creation of animated stories by committee dilute any sense of a time or place? Does the necessity of making films understandable to children prevent the films from straying too far from what children know?
There are animated films that are successful in evoking a milieu. Bakshi's Heavy Traffic has a lot in common with Scorcese's Mean Streets in evoking lower class New York. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis probably does a better job of evoking Iran through its story and characters than it does through its visuals, the reverse of the typical animation approach. Mike Judge's King of the Hill could only have been created by a Texan. Miyazaki's work is thoroughly Japanese. Each of the animated examples above comes from a director's personal background and while that might seem like an argument for more personal films, it isn't a necessity. Norman Jewison, who has made several films about the American south and its racial tensions, is Canadian.
For live action films, setting is a foundation that the story and characters are built on. For too many animated films, setting is just a way of dressing a story up, like a kid in a Halloween costume. No matter how good the costume is, it doesn't really convince anybody.
(Posting here will probably be sporadic over the next 6-7 weeks as I'll be away at various times.)