A Little Birdie Told Me
The Return of Thelma Scumm
Finding Nemo: Pixar can do no wrong
Michael A. Ventrella · June 7, 2003 | Years ago, I started a magazine called Animato, which has now sadly faded from the scene. I also created a fictional character named "Thelma Scumm" who wrote the "gossip" column in the style of the Page Five rumormongers. Some of it was purely fictional (Tony the Tiger comes out of the closet, changes "They're Grrrreat!" to "They're Faaaaaabulous!") but most of the column had real news skewed by my sarcasm and viewpoints.

This did not endear me to many animators and studios, and I still have the angry letter from Terry Press at DreamWorks and still recall the blacklisting I received from a certain Disney animator as well. Such is the life of the press.

I really didn't try to ruffle feathers, but as the Dixie Chicks know, sometimes there are consequences for stating your opinion.

In any event, I have been given the opportunity to once again impose my skewed viewpoint on the animation community, and I will do my best to be entertaining and enlightening, and all under my true name. I plan on using this forum more to make commentary than dispense gossip this time, but I still look forward to hearing any gossip from industry insiders and encourage confidential email to me at Mike@Ventrella.com. However, for this column, I just want to discuss something dear to me: What makes a good animated film.

At this moment, there aren't a lot of new animated films on the horizon that I am dying to see other than Finding Nemo. Pixar can do no wrong, and the box office proves this and rewards them. And do you know why? Because John Lasseter knows the secret of what makes a good animated film. It's not how great the character design is. It's not how realistic the horses run across the plains away from the evil cowboys. It's now how current the music and haircuts are to make an old pirate story relevant to kids today.

No, what makes a good animated film is the exact same thing that makes a good live-action film: The foundation of a good script, with believable characters you care about, and supplemented by good directing, good acting, and good editing. And Pixar knows this.

One thing I really enjoyed recently was the extra disc in Monsters, Inc. (Hey, remember when we used to have to pay $30 or $40 more in order to get extras like these?), which went through the story process and showed earlier versions of the film. Story is king, and when other animated studios look to Pixar and wonder how they manage to never make anything less than a blockbuster, they might want to take that into consideration.

Spirit ran just a little too free
Compare this to, say, Ice Age, where the plotline was completely predictable without any twists or turns that you didn't see coming a mile away. Or Spirit, where you could walk out 30 minutes into the film and not really care what happened because it rambled all over the place.

Treasure Planet had the basic foundation—an excellent, tried and true book. So why did this one fail? Well, I think pirates had something to do with it. There hasn't been a pirate movie made since The Sea Hawk, with Errol Flynn, that hasn't flopped. Remember Polanski's Pirates? And the huge bomb Cutthroat Island? Argh, matey! As the kids in Bakshi's Mighty Mouse said, "Deliver me lumber!"

Actually, it's not really pirates. Dustin Hoffman's Hook was great, and personally, I love pirates. They're so campy and silly—and Pirates of Penzance is a favorite too. However, I am sure this worry is on the faces of the executives who made the upcoming DreamWorks film Sinbad (and the live-action Pirates of the Carribean). But these should be judged on their own merits. Just because all recent pirate films have bombed is not a reason to think all pirate films will bomb. They just have to be good pirate films.

I'm kind of reminded of how science fiction was treated pre-Star Wars. "SF doesn't sell!" the studios told Lucas. "No one will go and see this! Trust us, we're experts." Of course, the reason SF didn't sell well before Star Wars is because most of the films were not any good. Fantasy films bombed until Jackson's Lord of the Rings came along, and I bet that within a few years we will see a ton of copycat fantasy films as the studios say "That's what the people want! Wizards and elves!"

Well, no, that is not what people want. People want to see good films. It doesn't matter if the films are science fiction or drama or fantasy or animated. If it's good, they will go! (Actually sometimes they will go even if the films are bad, but that's a topic for another column. I don't think many studios intentionally go out of their way to create bad films, although you wouldn't know that by looking at the career of Tom Green.)
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