Paul Dini on Contemporary Animated Films

Do you hate the pedestrian state of storytelling in today’s animated features? Probably not as much as Paul Dini does. Dini, best known for writing on the animated Batman and Superman TV show, has posted a long essay on his blog tearing apart the contrivances of contemporary animated features. An excerpt from Dini’s rant:

“Your primary objective as a modern animation feature storyteller is to get the audience members emotionally charged (i.e., distracted from logic gaps and not thinking too much) so they will be ready for your big finale. This usually consists of the hero defeating the villain (almost always by some initial violent action of the villain that the hero has “cleverly” used to boomerang back on the bad guy; real heroes never being allowed to slay dragons on their own these days) and the villain falling to their death from a great height, the only acceptable way for a baddie to meet their end in a cartoon (Gaston, Frollo, the bear in “The Fox & The Hound,” Scar, the poacher in “Rescuers II”, anyone notice a trend here?). If the villain can trip over the edge while trying to get in one last cowardly stab at the hero, so much the better. The demise of the bad guy puts everyone in a good mood, so the sidekicks fire up the juke box, or strike up the band, or simply break into song, and while the hero and heroine share a modest kiss, everyone rocks out over the end credits.”

(via Mayerson on Animation)


  • http://doubleben.blogspot.com/ Emmett Goodman

    That pretty much sums up most animated features of the last 18 years. I really wish American studios would take some ques from someone like Hayao Miyazaki in terms of storytelling. Mind you, that’s not to say I don’t like some of these cliches. But it would be nice to see some added extra ingredients.

    That’s why I hope independent animated features might gain some notoriety some day. I know it’s wishful thinking, but just think about it. Cleverly disguise your feature with certain cliches, when in fact, its one of the most original stories to be brought to the animation medium.

  • Quiet_Desperation

    I just caught an episode of JLU the other night when I was up with insomnia. It’s amazing how they just fracken nailed it all the way through from the first Batman to the final Justice League episodes. I really wish he and Burnett and Timm and the others were still doing the superhero stuff for Warners. He invented Harley Quinn, you know. Yum. I mean, I dig his work on Lost, but still… we’ll see what happens with Gatchaman.

    —”real heroes never being allowed to slay dragons on their own these days”

    Heh heh. I still recall old Supes delivering the awesome smackdown to Darkseid in the end of Dini & Rich Fogel scripted Legacy.

    Darkseid: “A Final gift my wayward son. A fast death, infinitely preferable to the shame of returning to earth. There your legacy would be one of fear and distrust. A pariah desperately chasing a favor of a world, that cursed your name.”

    Nope, this ain’t the Superfriends. :-) Michael Ironside *was* Darkseid.

  • http://timrauch.blogspot.com Tim Rauch

    I think “animators” as a whole would be a lot less frustrated if they stopped being concerned about what is common practice, started thinking about what they can do themselves, and began doing it. Of course we’re all sick of villains falling to their deaths: we should also all be sick of the wailing and gnashing of our collective teeth against the “villain” of big budget American animation. If you don’t like it, make something else! Or watch something else! It’s an open invitation.

  • http://educatedmetalhead.blogspot.com/ DanO

    ^Wise words from Tim Rauch.

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    Maybe he’s just talking about the features he went to see.

    Where does the villain fall to his death in “Iron Giant”? or “Toy Story”, or “Finding Nemo”?

    In “Home on the range” the villain gets yodeled at but I don’t recall he falls to his death.

  • http://www.spitandspite.com Spit & Spite

    Well I guess someone doesn’t like DreamWorks movies. :-)

    By the way robcat, he actually speaks some about iron giant on his blog comments and even if he didn’t, I’m pretty sure this rant is just against the “current” mediocrity of the animation business in general, which I don’t really think anyone considers Brad Bird a contributor of.

  • http://www.kwanzoo.com Seven

    One of the things that I love about anime is that it dares to be different. I stopped watching most American animation years ago, the exceptions being marvel and dc animations and a handful of american anime “amerime” type shows, like Avatar. But there is something for everyone, so don’t knock it – just find something else to watch.

  • John Tebbel

    Very astute, all. Favorite metaphor: the envelope, a small thing compared to the universe outside. Stretch it at your financial peril, go outside and risk freezing in the dark.

  • HowardK

    If Dini were so successful at writing features, why hasn’t he written one instead of contributing to the mounds of crap tv writing with its own brand of ridiculous over-wrought cliches and nonstop yammering? His rant is simplistic and not worth mentioning.

  • Gobo

    I agree with Dini on those points, but it’s a little silly to use that blanket argument against “contemporary animated features”, as if they all commit the same sins.

    I don’t remember any villain-falling or sidekick-toting in “Meet the Robinsons”, “Happy Feet”, “Monster House”, or “Ratatouille”. In several of those, they actually fiddle with the exact conventions Dini’s talking about by using anti-villains who turn out to be good guys, or not having a personified villain at all.

    Funny — “Happy Feet” won the Oscar last year and “Ratatouille” is widely tipped to do it this year. Maybe Dini’s formula isn’t how you make a popular, award-winning feature after all….

  • http://afrokids.com Floyd Norman

    I afraid Paul pretty much nails it in his rant. Not much to disagree with here.

    Of course, not all our stuff was all that great in the old days either. But, hell – - at least they were entertaining.

  • Get Bent

    Has Paul Dini been in a coma for the past twelve years? His “observations” don’t apply to Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Lilo & Stitch, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, or Meet the Robinsons. He may not have seen many of those movies (most people didn’t) but that doesn’t mean they follow the same formula.

    About twelve years ago, when all of the stuff he mentions WAS a cliche, everyone in the business and outside of it parodied that fact. There were numerous SNL and Mad Magazine parodies of those kind of animated movies.

    Also, there’s been another company making animated movies for about the past twelve years, called “Pixar”, that doesn’t follow all of those kind of rules. But maybe Paul’s never heard of them. Maybe he’s too busy “reinventing” too many superheroes – by making them all look and sound the same – to notice what’s going on in the outside world.

    And let’s not even discuss how all of the superhero scripts from his shows are exactly the same – bullets everywhere, explosions aplenty, but nobody ever gets hurt or killed. And every show, the bad guy gets put back in the jail and/or asylum only to escape the next day. Groundbreaking!

    Then again, he DID invent Harley Quinn, and who else would have ever come up with the idea of a hot nineteen year old dressed in a skintight suit with the mind of a five-year old? And who would have thought that comic book fanboys would like that kind of character?

    Maybe I’ll come back in 2019 and then I can read Mr. Dini’s latest brainstorm about how all of the Pixar movies are the same.

  • Kevin Martinez

    Lord Farquaad was devoured by the dragon in the first Shrek, right? Plus the villiain in Tarzan was “hung” by the jungle vines.

    The “villain falling to their death” bit is an overused cliche, no argument there (although I’d argue that the “dead mother” one is much worse), but I’d be hard pressed to say that’s the only way a baddie can meet his or her demise in a movie

  • http://www.twitchfilm.net Al Young

    “…real heroes never being allowed to slay dragons on their own these days) and the villain falling to their death from a great height,…”

    Its funny that Paul would mention this because this is what exactly happen in Beowulf which is one of the few exception that doesn’t follow the typical formula. I do understand where hes coming from and I do agree with his points. Beside Beowulf, when was the last animated film where the hero actually kills the villain on his own without any accidental error on the villain part?

    Get Bent: “And let’s not even discuss how all of the superhero scripts from his shows are exactly the same – bullets everywhere, explosions aplenty, but nobody ever gets hurt or killed. And every show, the bad guy gets put back in the jail and/or asylum only to escape the next day. Groundbreaking!”

    Are you kidding me!?! Batman TAS was groundbreaking stuff, especially at a time when most “cartoons” were dumb-down and sugarcoated for the lowest denominator. The stories were edgy/adult oriented and it had real character depth. The only reason nobody ever gets really hurt or killed is because the writers were restricted from the studio executives. Check out Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker to see how far Paul is able to push the envelop interims of level of violence and mature subjects.

    HowardK “If Dini were so successful at writing features, why hasn’t he written one instead of contributing to the mounds of crap tv writing with its own brand of ridiculous over-wrought cliches and nonstop yammering? His rant is simplistic and not worth mentioning.”

    I hardly would call his TV writing crap and for the record, Paul is working on the upcoming animated film Gatchaman from Imagi studios.

  • Get Bent

    Al – If “it sucked because the executives ruined it” is a valid excuse to dodge criticism, then Dini loses the right to crab about animated features, because they all sucked as a result of executives monkeying them to death.

  • Jorge Garrido

    Wouldn’t it be cool if an animated feature ended with the hero just beating the villain to death, or chopping his head off or something? Talk about subverting expectations!

  • Michael

    I’ve got an idea Mr. Dini. Travel back in time to 1995, and you might be one of the first dozen or so people to make these complaints. Also, while you’re there, please take some notes on your original Batman animated series, and why it was so good so that you can bring that back into your current superhero work (hint: it didn’t have anything to with continuity nods to characters that appeared in one issue of Adventure Comics in 1964, but more with the mood and story quality of the episodes. And for crying out loud, would it kill you to write Superman well, just once?).

    But let’s look at this a little more closely, shall we? I’m going to assume Mr. Dini was addressing his complaint towards the Disney studio as, according to some animators, the Disney studio is the cause of all pain and suffering in the world.

    Little Mermaid- Ursula gets stabbed in the stomach by a giant $%^ing splinter.

    Beauty and the Beast- Ok, Gaston falls, but he’s tiptoeing on the roof of a castle in the rain. It’s hard to keep your footing under those circumstances

    Aladdin- Villain gets trapped inside magic lamp forced to do the bidding of the next person who finds him.

    Lion King- Scar gets killed by marauding hyenas in the middle of a huge fire.

    Pocahontas- Ratcliffe is tied up and brought back to England (man, that’s rough)

    Hunchback- Ok, here’s another falling death, 3 features and 5 years later.

    Hercules- Hades gets overrun by the souls in, well, Hades (believe it or not, this is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of the Greek belief of life after death)

    Mulan- Villain gets blown up be fireworks

    Tarzan- Clayton gets hanged by a vine. Granted, he does, fall, so I suppose we can count this as a falling death.

    TENG- Villain gets turned into a scout cat.

    Atlantis- villain turns into crystal and blows up. Would’ve been really cool if the movie preceding it had been a bit more coherent.

    Lilo and Stitch- Um…who’s the villain in it? That shark guy? Well, he just gets arrested and brought back to…wherever he was originally from, I guess.

    Treasure Planet- Bad guy becomes a good guy, or at least and ambiguous guy.

    Brother Bear- No villain that I find. Just a series of misunderstandings between the principal players. In fact, that was kind of the point of the movie.

    As for Pixar, most haven’t had a clear villain, but the that have had villains, none of them fell to their deaths. Eaten by a bird, beaten by rednecks, pulled into a jet engine, yes, but falling, no.

    And Pixar had it’s own set of cliches for awhile. Up until Brad Bird went in, all their movies had been mismatch buddy movies (Woody and Buzz, the Warriors and the Ants, Sully and Mike, Dorie and Marlon)

    And anime has it’s own set of cliches as well, they’re just different cliches from American animation.

    And for the record, I don’t think a lot of these are necessarily cliche as much as conventions. The distinction between the two isn’t a clear line, though. There’s only so many options people have at their disposal for story structure and character traits, because there are only so many ways for people to grow. We are finite, limited creatures, and necessarily tell finite limited stories. A cliche would be taking something familiar to a genre, like a secret identity to a superhero, and doing nothing original with it. It’s just ther because it has to be. Whereas a convention would be taking something familiar so that people can recognize something for what it is, and then proceeding with why this one is different (the superhero has a secret identity, but his secret identity is of a criminal, as an example). I would argue that Pixar’s films, and a lot of the early modern Disney Films have their own unique identity and enough difference between them that, for the most part, they’re not cimply falling back on cliches. Also, keep in mind, when you have the same artists, making movies together over and over again, you’ll no doubt get similarities between their works. Why? Because artists have individual tastes and things that they like better than others and hence use them again. We have a color called Titian because Titian liked that color so much. You can look at any Picasso painting and tell it was painted by Picasso, so it doesn’t shock me that you can look at a Disney film and tell it was made by Disney, anymore than looking at a Pixar film or Ghibli film tells me that those films were made by their respective studios.

    Then again, what do I know? Maybe I just have too much time on my hands waiting for the next semester to start up again.

  • Chuck R.

    Dini’s right about too many villains falling. (It started with the first feature: Snow White (and yes, she did try to get a little stab in before the plummet!)

    He needs to take Scar off the list though: Scar was done in by his own hyena thugs —it’s implied, but still pretty bold for a family picture.

  • http://www.spitandspite.com Spit & Spite

    I think it’d be cool if people would realize you can only push so much in an after school animated show whose target audience is CHILDREN!

    I do agree though that most things, yes even Disney’s (GASP) new stuff, seems pretty formulaic. The people commenting against it probably don’t know much about story other than what they remember at their base level. Good guy good, bad guy bad, good guy get girl, bad guy get his come uppins, weeeee…

    Think about it, Finding Nemo is formula all the way. Hell, I actually love it for that. It’s a great testament to how animation, timing and great filmmaking can still pull you in even when you know what’s coming next. It’s a perfect teaching tool to understanding the rules before you can go and twist them, and if you don’t think it’s formula driven, whether that was purposeful or just some damn talented story oriented artists (which I’d like to believe), go read The Writer’s Journey and watch that film again.

    So, all in all, formula isn’t always bad, it can just get annoying when done poorly which seems to be happening more and more lately.

  • Pete

    Brian De Palma also threw the villain to his death in “The Untouchables”, just prior to the animated feature boom.

  • Aaron

    Don’t forget Darth Maul and Palpatine.

  • purin

    Yeah, that whole falling down/getting done in by own greed thing is overdone as a whole, but I’d have to say that there is something satisfying to a villain’s villainy nature being part of his own downfall. There’s a way to do it effectively without the formula showing through (no, Tarzan, don’t try to help–just watch Clayton kill himself wondering WTF he’s thinking).

  • http://zekeyspaceylizard.blogspot.com Zekey

    If I recall, one of the main villains in Titan A.E. was murdered brutally onscreen by having his neck snapped by one of the other antagonists.
    Of course, noone mentions that film since its the black sheep of the Bluth films for silly reasons.

  • Patrick

    If you go back a little further…what about “Fire and Ice”? Not quite your standard animated feature…and anything Frazetta put his hands on is noteworthy. I can’t fault Dini his opinions though, American feature animation has always struggled to free itself from being “Disney-fied”. Anime became a cruicial influence, as Japan has a totally open view of comics/animation as an art form. There are all varieties for all ages/tastes. Disney cornered the feature animation market so early and completely, that until very recently, if at all, American audiences have been unwilling and unable to give anything harsher than a G-or maybe PG-rating a fair chance. In fairness, Mask of the Phantasm and Sub-Zero were excellent efforts to bring the WB animation series’ takes to the big screen. Some have had limited success in other venues such as HBO(Spawn), Cartoon Network(Hellboy) and newer projects like The Matrix segments and the new Batman:Gotham Knights.
    As an animator, Dini’s frustration has been shared by many in his craft for some time now, with pioneers like Bakshi being bright flashes of trailblazing, though sadly with few others to join him.