On January 17, 2008, comics,live-action and animation scribe Paul Dini posted the modern feature animation template. Recognize it?
While answering a question about Musical Dance Number Endings in animated features, I decided to explore the subject in depth here. Yes, the MDNE has become a cliche of modern animated films, but no more than other tired contemporary animation storytelling devices. Note them, copy them, hold fast to them like a gila monster’s jaws to a screaming Cub Scout’s leg and you too can have a career in scripting/storyboarding animated features.
Trust me, this process is so simple you could break out the Crayolas and storyboard the whole thing yourself using nothing more complicated than stick figures and tracings of your own hand. Be warned however, most studio execs don’t have the attention span to follow the most energetic and entertaining of storyboard pitches for more than three minutes before they start checking their Blackberries for their lunch reservations. If you write your ideas as a treatment or script, the execs can make their readers read it and give them coverage. The good news is these story elements are so tried and true (translation: stale) that even the simplest of readers will get it and enthusiastically pass it along to their boss, who still won’t read it but will take credit for all the amusing gags once he sees the completed picture.
Anyway, let’s begin. Most cartoon features begin on the plot set-up, usually a revelation of the villain (or villainess) and their plan (usually take over a kingdom, or kill a rival, or get rich or a combination of all three) then establish your hero or heroine, usually a likable loser if male (Aladdin, the guys in Treasure Planet or Atlantis, that dumb panda that’s already showing up everyhere), a comically-scattered, sweet, smart, ugly duckling type if female (Belle, Anastasia, the girl in Enchanted) and the obligatory wacky sidekicks, always one, sometimes as many as three (Flounder, Scuttle, Timon, Pumbaa, monkey, flying rug, etc., etc.). The villain also usually has a sidekick, either the bungling nincompoop type (Kronk) or the loudmouthed asshole (Iago) or very rarely, some actually sort of threatening creatures (the hyenas in Lion King.).
The screen action lumps along for 80 minutes or so, consisting of initial skirmishes between hero and villain, the set-up of the traditional hero/heroine love story (these days they usually hate each other at first sight, snark back and forth until the end, then inexplicably fall into each other’s arms), songs that explain what the hero, the villain and the heroine each want, a vomit and/or fart joke or two from the sidekicks, and action sequences designed to pad out what could usually be a story told in 10 minutes.
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.
Any key dangling story points are lazily and cynically tied up in quick “funny” cut-aways during this sequence. In well-written movies, those points would have been melded skillfully into the plot, but most modern animation execs don’t want the audience to have to mentally process new information that close to the picture’s end. They want to send their audience out on an emotional high, so kill the bad guy, cue the music, and get in the next load of kids. If the villain has been more funny than evil, a credit sequence cut-away reveals he has survived the fall and is either plotting a return, or is in another comical predicament we can all laugh at before we cut back to the heroes gettin’ down with their bad selves to an old Motown song. If a villainous sidekick has been found not all that bad, like Kronk, he is also given a inter-credits tag that shows he was really an okay guy all along and will likely be back as a good guy in the sequel. A few more credit cut-ins handily wrap up whatever the heroes’ sidekick’s big dream was (“Ah always wanted to fly in a helicopter.” Right, explain that one to me), or bring about some family healing between the leads and their respective parents, or provide one last gag with that squirrel-weasel trying to open his nut.
Viola! The perfect contemporary animated movie template. Be sure to thank me when you’re collecting your Oscar.
Also note – this template can be used for most current comedies and any Bruce Willis action picture.