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EducationalFeature Film

Know Your Feature Animation Cliches: “This is Me” Opening Narration

“Who are they talking to?,” asks animator Jacob Kafka, the compiler of this YouTube video. Used with the right motivation, the “This is me…” first-person opening narrative can be an effective tool for screenwriters. Bill Peet used the trick marvelously in 101 Dalmatians by adding a surprise twist—the narrator turns out to be the dog, Pongo, and not the human Roger. Pongo’s narration is constructed with ironic wit—the dog considers the human to be his ‘pet’—and his commentary propels the story forward while simultaneously revealing the personalities of two different characters.

By contrast, most contemporary usage of this technique in feature animation comes across as artless and lazy. It becomes a shortcut for telling the audience about a character instead of showing the character’s personality through engagement with his environment. The video below will help you understand the technique and recognize its abundant usage in animated films.

Clips are from the following films:
101 Dalmatians (1961)
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)
Ratatouille (2007)
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
Megamind (2010)
Tangled (2010)
Brave (2012)
Wreck-it Ralph (2012)
The Croods (2013)

  • hash

    if it works it works. screenwriters don’t take the opening moments of their screenplays lightly

    • Karl Hungus

      Apparently they do. If they felt the need to work hard on the opening, then they all wouldn’t be copping out in the exact same manner. Artless and lazy indeed.

  • Anson J

    There’s a lot of this kind of lazy exposition in animated films these days. Telling the audience how they should feel about something instead of just letting them feel it. One of the most annoying and pervasive of these is the reaction shot to a piece of scenery or architecture. You can’t sit through an animated movie these days without a shot of somebody staring at some scenery, with a cut to a close-up of someone wide-eyed saying, “Wow.” or “Whoa.”

    • Jay

      The reaction of a character doesn’t necessary means what you need to feel the same, cutting to a close – up to show reaction of a character is to show what their feeling, not yours. I think you are going a bit off track here.

      • bob

        characters are deliberately used to tell the audience how to feel. It’s a device.

  • I wonder if this also just comes out of the economic need to keep animated films under 100 minutes? Or to make sure that the story is clearly established so kids aren’t lost? Some of these movies cut through a lot of exposition with their voiceovers that could have taken much longer to establish without it. In cases where that’s really necessary, then I think the first-person voiceover can be a better device than third-person narration, since you also get to establish character. Ratatouille and Wreck-It-Ralph I think used narration pretty well. I agree with Kafka’s view though that it is probably getting to be overused when maybe it’s not necessary. (As a Billy Wilder fan I think sometimes voiceover gets an unnecessarily hard time from critics. If voiceover helps tell the story faster and in an entertaining way, it can work. Film doesn’t just have to be visual storytelling.)

    • Rufus

      Counterpoint example: the opening of Disney’s Tarzan. Clear back story communication, short, to the point, no voice over.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        On the other end of the spectrum, Disney’s The Jungle Book, where Bagheera has to do the opening narration setting up the story’s beginning for the audiences, though less “this is me” and more “how I played a role” going on.

      • Lazy

        So Phil Collins singing a “This is Me” or “This is how we must feel” speech?
        Those scenes were great, but I feel the lyrics redundant to the message it’s communicating through imagery.

    • Marina

      I agree with your second point. The thing about Ratatouille is that he was telling the story to other rats (which we realize at the end), so it’s not like the beginning was there for nothing. The minute I read this article title I thought of Ratatouille. I think this cliche is understandable since we get to see Remy’s life quickly. If he just ran around and saw the TV and suddenly wanted to be a chef I don’t think that would work as well storywise. It can be overused, but sometimes it is necessary for time.

  • YoungFred

    Next up: The “This is Me” ending narration, where they repeat the same speech as the opening, but we see how much the protagonist’s life has changed for the better over the course of the film… then all the characters dance to some pop music.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Oh boy (rolls eyes).

    • canimal

      True, but I don’t agree that this is always a bad thing. HTTYD is an example of this but I’d argue they do it right because the entire movie is all about parallels. Its not just a random one thrown in at the beginning and end for the sake of hurrying the plot up. Theres parallels throughout the entire film and it fits. Also theres no dance sequence. There are plenty of other movies where I think the narration and even (more rarely) the dance sequence fits from a tonal or storytelling standpoint. Wreck it Wralph and Megamind fall in to that category. I just don’t agree that all cliches should be totally bashed just because many other films have already done something similar. If it fits in the story and they find a way to do it thats a little unique, then I say go for it.

  • Kevin Martinez

    I’m flummoxed that all of these examples are from different studios. This goes a long way in explaining why modern-day features are so samey.

  • Crispy Walker

    I honestly would not have noticed the opening expositions without this video pointing them out… But why only these films? Were there other animated features that opened with the same thing that he left out, or were these the only ones in the vast stretch of feature-films from 1961 on that featured first person exposition as their openings? Cause if so, I’d be hard pressed to say that it’s “the worst cliche”. The prevalence of it over the course of the last 10 years is worrying though.

  • timmyelliot

    I think they’re just using a first personal narrative device. I see it more as a technique than a cliche. Yeah, some of the examples don’t show the best use of the technique, which makes the whole thing look cheaper than it should.

  • Charlie

    I agree… I liked most of these movies, so it doesn’t really bother me that much. I guess if 90% of animated films started doing it I’d be more bothered, but most of this year’s films did not.

    Dance party endings are a worse cliche. In some films they work, but a lot of the time they just smack of “we didn’t know how to end the movie, so here’s a pop culture reference!”.

    • SayFay

      What films have you seen it work in? The only film I’ve ever seen it work in was Megamind, and that’s because he dances 17 times in the film prior to that. But even then, I wish they didn’t cut to the jail cell and show the villain dancing as well. Would have been better if it was just who ever was in earshot of Megamind’s music blaster.

      In both Despicable Me’s, it’s clear they’re trying to merch the Minions and end on a gag note that isn’t note (Then quickly switch gears to heartwarming by having a shot of ‘the whole family’ for 2 seconds).

      Madagascar feels the same way as Despicable Me. ‘We think afro circus was the funniest joke so we’re going to blast it as much as we can to make audiences laugh!’

      “The Wild” is the worst offender of all.

      • SarahJesness

        “MegaMind” was, and still is, the only movie where I tolerated the dance-party ending. It made some sense there, he was the type of character to do that sort of thing so it’s not like it was out-of-nowhere. But hey, I’m just glad DreamWorks had the sense not to do such an ending for “How to Train Your Dragon”.

        • tredlow

          Kung-Fu Panda didn’t have one either, I think.

    • tredlow

      I agree! Dance party endings are the WORST. At least they’re always at the very end, so that we can just stop watching.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        Now you know why people vacate the theater even before the overly-elaborated end credit sequence begins.

      • Funkybat

        My friend, who up until the end thought “Hotel Transylvania” was reasonably entertaining, actually fled the theater when the dance party started at the end. The music was apparently completely intolerable to her.

  • Roberto Severino

    Some of these films are actually good but god, that really is one of the most overused, lazy and inbred cliches I’ve ever heard of. A little exposition is okay when there’s actually some context for it but it can become overkill quickly.

  • Matt Sullivan

    I can’t stand the “characters dancing” thing that seems to infect EVERY animated movie. It’s embarrassing. It’s almost like, “Here, watch these wacky characters be wacky as a feeble attempt to make up for the awful story!”

  • Chris Sobieniak

    At least you came into it with that mindset.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Yeah, those tend to be very over-done just so we leave with that warm feeling inside for having had the ending we expect. I can think of plenty where that’s the case.

  • George Comerci

    I don’t mind the technique much, just as long as the main character usually just describes themselves and not the people around them or their home or such. I think it should be used to introduce the character, and what he/she is like, rather than explaining every single detail about the entire movie and then say, “this is a story of how blah blah blah blah blah” or “my life changed because of blah blah blah, here’s how it happened” but still, I think writers should find new ways to introduce main characters and such. Still, like I said, I don’t mind it, just as long as it doesn’t explain/spoil too much. Wreck-It Ralph and Brave do it right, but I think something like the Croods is a bit overkill, explaining how the story will happen and such.

  • Isn’t this a cliche for all movies?

    • tredlow

      Yeah, it’ definitely not exclusive to animated films. But, it’s still a cliche.

  • jhalpernkitcat

    The Emperor’s New Groove actually makes it work because the snarky comments throughout Kuzco’s narration make it really funny. It’s almost as if he’s MST3King his life.

    Wreck It Ralph also makes it work because Ralph is in a support group and is actually talking to a group of fellow bad guys rather than us the audience.

  • Alex Stanlake

    “It becomes a shortcut for telling the audience about a character instead of showing the character’s personality through engagement with his environment.”

    I’d argue that Merida’s apple bite and adorable stroll towards her parents reveals far more about her character than any of the narration. It can serve just as much as a welcome addition than as a shortcut.

    I’ll admit to being fairly biased due to loving each of the shown films that I have seen (all but The Croods), but it seems a bit harsh to lump them all together and say it is cliched – this technique has been a stable of live-action features for a good long while too.

    Many of the examples above use the device somewhat knowingly or uniquely, or are least more loving pastiche than artless cliche.

  • philipwesley

    Hmm.. looking at the examples, I feel it’s a way of getting an audience to react instantly to a plot line. We see this in live action as well. (American Beauty or The Wonder Years. Contemporary stuff like “How I Met Your Mother” uses it too.)

    But, if they must know:

    101 Dalmatians (1961) – This is imitating the book.

    The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) – Fourth wall breaking for humor purposes. It fits the movie and is continued further in the movie. It has a purpose.

    Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) – Since there isn’t much narration in the film later on, I think this was focus tested as a way to instantly nab audience attention.

    Ratatouille (2007) – Remy is telling the story to a group of rats as seen in the end of the film. That is his audience.

    Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) – Think of it as Saved by the Bell style fourth wall breaking. Again, for humor.

    How to Train Your Dragon (2010) – Probably telling this to his kids? We don’t know yet. First movie of three. :-P

    Megamind (2010) – Didn’t watch it. Don’t know.

    Tangled (2010) – “This is how I met your mother, kids!”

    Brave (2012) – Fourth Wall. No audience.

    Wreck-it Ralph (2012) – Ralph is talking to the support group. That is his audience.

    The Croods (2013) – Fourth Wall. No audience.

    So, yeah. All of these have some sort of purpose and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who is being talked to. It’s a knitting needle topic and to call it lazy is a bit droll. It’s a style of story information relay, not a crutch.

  • timmyelliot

    I don’t see the “Party Ending” as a cliche either. It’s just a play on the genre conventions of an old-fashioned comedy, with the characters throwing a party instead of getting married.

  • Jacob Kafka

    Maybe it’s foolish of me to jump into this long comment thread, but now that everybody’s talking about it, I guess I’ll try to elaborate on the thoughts I had when I made this video.

    I like a lot of these movies, and I don’t dislike voiceover. It just feels like in recent years, big studio animated movies have been using it more and more, with less and less story justification – just spouting exposition as fast as possible before the real story starts – and with almost the same lines, said with the same tone, all to tell you about how unique they are. It gets less convincing the more you see it, and it feels unnecessary and lazy.

    It’s especially weird to me when it feels like the character is watching the movie along with you and reacting to it (“oh look, there’s so-and-so”). Especially in a story that takes place before the invention of movies, so you have a character talking from what’s clearly a modern perspective about their life hundreds of years ago – that breaks my suspension of disbelief a bit. Better if the images follow the train of thought of the voiceover (How I Met Your Mother works this way, for example – as does Wreck-it Ralph).

    There are some examples not in the video. Here’s one, the classic teaser trailer for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (not included because it’s only in the trailer – I think this may be common in other trailers as well):

    Another one is this trailer for the new Walking with Dinosaurs movie, I don’t know if it’s the same in the movie because I haven’t seen it:

    There are definitely live action movies that do it too, I’ve just noticed it more in animation (but maybe that’s because I’m an animator). Off the top of my head having seen The Wolf of Wall Street recently – I don’t remember the exact quote but there’s a freeze frame in the opening midget tossing scene as he’s thrown at the camera and Leonardo DiCaprio says something to the effect of that’s not me, I’m the one throwing him.

    Anyway, not trying to say this is the worst problem in movies, it’s just something I’ve been noticing for years and no one else seemed to be talking about it, so I thought it would be fun to collect as many examples as I could and put them together. (And frankly, it seems to get more attention when I throw together something like this than when I spend months slaving over a short film, so…)

  • GS

    Show, don’t tell, I was taught in film-school.

    The problem, I think, is related to reality TV. If you watch reality TV, it’s always done in two layers. You watch people doing something, and then you hear the same people doing color commentary after the fact. This has been ingrained so indelibly into people’s minds that they expect to be told what’s happening on screen at all times rather than actually giving your full attention to parsing the language of cinema.

    BTW, the genre where this is pretty much mandatory is rom-coms.

  • SarahJesness

    That seems to be more of a DreamWorks cliche rather than a general animation cliche. I generally find it annoying, though I thought it was appropriate for “MegaMind” since a dance-party ending was in-character for him.

    • Funkybat

      “Chicken Little” more or less had a “party ending” and so did “Hotel Transylvania”, “Despicable Me 1 AND 2” and several other non-Dreamworks films I can’t think of off the top of my head. It is fun sometimes, but at this point it’s gotten more old than musical numbers did in 90s Disney films.

  • ddrazen

    It has a long history. I remember the opening narration to Disney’s Peter Pan; it wasn’t first person but it was a legitimate set-up.

    I think that’s one reason why I’ve always liked the opening of “The Lion King” with the song/shout against the sun boiling up over the plain. The set-up wasn’t being handed to you in English so your brain tells you it may be a good idea to pay attention.

  • Frank Cammuso

    Like all cliches, you need to be creative when using them. Martin Scorsese uses this one quite often.

  • Chris Barett

    Overplayed, but not as insufferable as the cliché of characters flying through the air in slow motion, mouth agape, while epic music plays.

    • Ryoku99

      Lets not forget the nut gags, I swear that every animated film or comedy I’ve seen in the last few years has had a gag where some dude gets hit in the jewels.

  • Gayle

    I do agree! overall it’s a matter of the artistic choices made to the audience that is targeted or the narrative that is being expressed.

    What doesn’t make sense, to me, is how we read and article that would say “Cliche” then decide that it’s negative, or recalling moments that would allow for a negative response. Society runs on cliche it’s in everything we do watch and have. Without it there wouldn’t be a basis in which communication would be establish.

    I find that each story growing up, has impacted many throughout the years with creative narrations and excellent art.

    It’s truly about what is effective, tangible to the audience and flexible to a story. And beside children are growing up into the understanding the cliche in animation / or film.

    The repetitive formulas are definitely recognized throughout the entertainment industry. We can only hope and thank those who find creative ways around it to gain much of an audiences attention.

    Honestly I think our analysis of film animation need to improve. Especially dealing with how media alter our nostalgic experience when it comes to how we felt about our favorite animation.

  • Ray Pointer

    One of the problems I have with some of these “self-reflective” narration samples is that so many of them tell you what you can see instead of offering wit and irony, as Amid mentions.

  • Pink Elephant

    I guess it depends on the film (animated and live action). The show not tell concept works beautifully for Up. But having a narrative that’s catchy and memorable can help a film too–like Trainspotting. But dialogue was essential to Trainspotting, if you ever read the book it’s all about dialect. While Up was more about emotions and subtle actions. There are not too many memorable quotes from Up–just memorable images.

  • Kitter Bunny

    exposition is a cliche for many types of storytelling. Not just animated films. I doubt the creators find it a lazy thing to do.

  • Funkybat

    I found the use of this in “Wreck-It Ralph” to be well done. He isn’t just talking to “the audience” but introducing himself to the bad guy support group. It makes sense why this exposition is occurring, and the 8-bit visuals establish the world before we see it “from the character’s POV” in Glorious Rendered 3D.

  • Aryeh Zucchini

    The World’s End did this better than any other movie I know of. Then again, it wasn’t animated.