Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Genuine Cuteness Vs Contrived Cuteness

I've been thinking a little about why Disney's 'Frozen' didn't work for me and I've realised that - equally grating as the bad Broadway-style pop songs - is the way little children are presented at the start of the film. Specifically the toddler version of Princess Anna, whose big round face, massive eyes and constant shrill giggling feel like the product of somebody typing the word CUTE into some sort of character generator machine. Make no mistake, children are (or at least can be) cute. Real children, that is. Children are one of the hardest things to get right in media - films and video games in particular - because there is a really fine line between genuinely cute movie children and cynically cute children, born of contrivance and engineered to manipulate an audience.

The difference between the two should be clear, but I'm going to provide video examples anyway to illustrate my point.

First, here is a clip of Mei from Miyazaki's 'My Neighbour Totoro':

Mei is cute because she behaves like a child. The animation is subtle and perfectly observed. She is dumpy and clumsy in a very realistic way that causes you to recall actual children you know, and her one, loud, exaggerated shriek of delight in the above clip also rings very true. The clip I really wanted, but could not find, was perhaps the best example of this genuine, organic cuteness born of creating a compelling, young character (as opposed to going about it in reverse): the bit where she puts on an oversized straw hat, picks up a trowel, slings a big bag over her shoulders and tells her dad she's "just off to run some errands". Perfect. Just the sort of strange thing a child might actual say.

Here is what happens when it all goes horribly wrong. Here is an egregious example of contrived cuteness...

I didn't know this character was called "Agnes", but immediately found loads of clips and pictures by typing "Despicable Me cute girl" into Google. This is appropriate, because Agnes is not a character. She's a high-pitched voice and big eyes, saying the word unicorn every second line. She isn't designed to resemble an actual child. She's designed to appeal to people who go "awwwww" when they see a picture of a particularly photogenic animal.

Disney usually don't fall into "The Agnes Trap", but young Princess Anna is exactly this way. Yes, I'm fixating on something really small at the start of the film, but I expect better of Disney animators. Rant over. Return to your cat pictures, internet.

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