Unbound by the laws of physics and imbued with a spirit of anarchy and rebellion since its earliest days, animation has always embraced outsider characters as they struggle to find their place in the world.
It’s a theme that resonates especially strongly with kid audiences, who spend their young years trying to figure out how they relate to adults, peers and the society around them — and naturally respond to such stories. Sure enough, such explorations of otherness finds prominent expression in this year’s five animated feature nominees: “ParaNorman,” “Brave,” “Frankenweenie,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.”
“The outsider is very appealing to animators, as we’re all colossal nerds and have always been outsiders ourselves,” says Phil Johnston, who co-wrote “Wreck-It Ralph” with Jennifer Lee. Initially the team had planned to make Felix the hero, “but then we realized that we related more to Ralph — and not just because he’s an outsider but because that also gives him a more interesting journey.”
Adds Lee: “(Ralph) ends up doing the same job, and there’s the sense that even if no one liked him, he’d be happy, because it’s about helping this little girl, Vanellope. And that’s a different kind of lesson from the traditional outsider story, which is what I loved about it.”
“Pirates are outsiders anyway, and it’s a fairly common trope — especially in animation — that you root for the underdog and the misfit,” says author Gideon Defoe, whose “Pirates” screenplay was based on the first book of his pirate adventure series.
Although Defoe’s books were written for adults and feature older characters, the film version was conceived as “family entertainment” and targeted at a younger audience, he says.
“So right from the opening tavern scenes, we established that our pirate society is basically a version of the familiar ‘playground society.’ You’ve got the bullying jock pirates and then the slightly nerdy, not-very-good-at-their-job pirates. And kids can all relate to that idea of the idiot underdogs versus the slicker jocks, and of course — as in all comedy — it’s the underdogs and outsiders who’re much more interesting characters to write and watch.”
That said, while the PG film’s themes about outsider status and acceptance “naturally appeal” to many children, Defoe insists, “We specifically didn’t want to approach it so that only adults might get some of the jokes and ideas. We wanted kids and adults to respond to it all.”
“ParaNorman” writer and co-director Chris Butler says he consciously chose bullying as a theme for his zombie-themed film: “The best children’s fiction deals with all the challenges facing them, and Norman is this isolated, different kid who doesn’t fit in and who’s presented with obstacles he has to overcome.”
Setting out to write a zombie film for kids, Butler says he soon realized, “The best zombie films are also social commentary, and so I focused on bullying, because when you’re 11 and unsure of your place in the world, bullies are far more scary than a zombie.” According to Butler, it was the juxtaposition of the film’s fictional horrors — zombies, witches and ghosts — with “the real horror” of bullying and not fitting in, “that really interested me.”
In “Brave,” which features Pixar’s first starring heroine, the outsider theme “functions on all levels,” says co-director Mark Andrews.
“If you put Merida in the lineup of classic Disney princesses, she does not fit at all. And in her own world — medieval fantasy Scotland — she’s also an anomaly, as no woman would have that much power or say.”
It was the combination of a strong-willed female character and a natural rebel “that really worked for us in terms of the story,” notes Andrews, who also co-wrote the screenplay. “We specifically set out to make a princess-type story with a twist: an anti-princess-type story.”
By taking that familiar genre and subverting it, the filmmakers were able to “redefine what a princess is” and consciously address issues of acceptance and status, Andrews says.
“We have the underdog story with a teenager becoming an adult and that whole attitude of, ‘I don’t want to do it the way my parents did it. I want to do it my way.’ And then she hits the wall that is reality.
“Ultimately, she gets her way,” he says, “but she also causes all these problems that would never have existed if she’d just fallen into line. She upsets the balance of the world, to be able in the end to reset the balance and still preserve herself.”
Rounding out the category is the latest offering from Tim Burton, a director who has essentially branded himself via his outsider image and misunderstood-loner stories.
“This time science is the outsider,” notes “Frankenweenie” scribe John August, “along with the young scientist Victor Frankenstein, and we even have a mob that turns on science.”
For August, the outsider theme is especially timely.
“I wanted to make a very pro-science film that really comments on the current distrust of science, and where science is a good force and helps solve problems,” he says. “While our story has this archetypal isolated-boy-and-his-dog relationship, in which he brings his dog back to life, the subtext could also be about climate change or other current problems facing us.”
Outsider art draws audiences | Shorts love sparks long careers | The sport of animated shorts