Fantasy, Animation, Violence
A little while ago I did some work on fantasy cinema and, while I’m keen to avoid the slightly unedifying spectacle of trawling through that material again, I would like to spend a little time thinking about a couple of its omissions: animation and violence. One reason for visiting these topics now is that I wonder whether violence in fantasy and/or animation may run the risk of not being taken seriously at all, possibly on grounds of realism. If the violence is so obviously signposted as fictional through its animated or fantastical nature, aren’t we missing the point if we start talking about its meaning and significance? It’s a suspicion that is backed up to a certain extent, in the UK at least, by the British Board of Film Classification’s guidelines on how decisions on violence might be made. Here, violence on screen is likely to be ‘treated less restrictively’ for a range of reasons including: if it is in an ‘action or fantasy context,’ if it looks ‘unreal, fake or overly staged’ or if it is ‘comic violence.’ These grounds for leniency are weighed against cases more likely to incur restrictions such as: ‘portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problems,’ ‘heroes who inflict pain and injury’ and ‘characters taking pleasure in pain or violence.’ And, finally, the BBFC states that it will more strictly restrict violence ‘presented in a credible or realistic context,’ which would seem to provide an opposite to fantasy and, indeed, fantasy animation. If we use these guidelines as a starting point, we might reasonably ask whether it’s OK for violence to be depicted as ‘a normal solution to problems,’ for heroes to ‘inflict pain and injury’ or for characters to take ‘pleasure in pain or violence’ as long as it’s in a ‘fantasy context.’ And, of course, these questions lead us to thinking about the meaning and weight acts of violence are afforded in the fictional worlds of these films: what we take to be happening when characters are violent in fantasy and in animation. As a way of getting to these questions, I want to look at three examples from films released within a year of each other. All three films are animated, and feature narratives that can be broadly defined as fantasy.
(1) In its final climactic moments, Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsay, 2012) includes a scene in which the film’s villain, Pitch Black (Jude Law) has been defeated but attempts to exact one last act of revenge on the film’s hero, Jack Frost (Chris Pine). He is thwarted, however, as magical golden threads wrap around his arm and pull him away from Jack. He is dragged to a central coil of glowing strands, from which emerge the character Sandman, who draws Pitch towards him, wags his finger, and then punches him hard, sending him speeding upwards into the air, still tethered by the golden thread that Sandman holds (Fig. 1). With Pitch out of the frame, Sandman magics up a bowler hat and gently bows to the characters in the scene – a collection of heroic mythical creatures and children. This gesture is very much in keeping with the character of Sandman who, up to this point, has been a calm, whimsical and fairly benign presence in the film (indeed, when Pitch apparently destroys him earlier in the film, I find it shocking not least because Sandman is the least aggressive heroic character). The punch is slightly out of character – a vengeful and violent embellishment to a victory that has already been won. It possesses traits of cartoon fantasy, certainly, as Sandman rotates his arm a few times before punching and the impact sends Pitch soaring impossibly skyward. And yet, it possesses the slightly problematic notions that it is legitimate to punish violence with violence, and for characters to gain pleasure and satisfaction from violence. Because, otherwise, the punch doesn’t make much sense as a narrative act to me: it achieves no other aim.
(2) In Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2013), videogame characters Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) find themselves trapped in a pool of ‘Nesquik-sand’. As Felix panics, Calhoun slaps him around the face and a group of vines are heard laughing above them. He realises that these are ‘Laffy Taffy’ vines and are attracted to whatever makes them laugh. He instructs Calhoun to hit him again and, after a little initial reticence, she obliges with a sequence of punches to his face. Each time, Felix ‘mends’ his bruised and broken features with his magic hammer (Fig. 2). Eventually, the vines are low enough for Felix to grab on and launch them out of the Nesquik-sand to safety. The sequence seems motivated primarily by Nestle product placement, which may explain the awkward plotting of the peril by Nesquik and rescue by Laffy Taffy, and as a means of instigating the potential for attraction between two characters (Calhoun briefly looks up affectionately at Felix as he hoists them upwards on the vines). This results in the equating of violence with comedy, but in a way that is not particularly funny (to me, at least, the repetitive punching has so feeble a comic premise that it can never really achieve a pay-off). There is perhaps an ironic reference being made to the kinds of violence found in Looney Tunes cartoons, for example, where characters like Wile E. Coyote or Tom and Jerry suffer extreme violence, only to miraculously recover again. Yet, in this scene, the reference lacks any of the meticulous comic build-up of Looney Tunes and, if anything, simply becomes a weak echo of them. The inclusion of violence as a problem-solving device therefore possesses a muddled logic in lots of ways and, in terms of the film’s plot, could surely be replaced by any number of alternatives. It might possibly provide an opportunity for a female character to behave with non-stereotypical physical aggression, of course, but I’d suggest the scene works against female empowerment in some ways – Calhoun’s actions keep being erased and, ultimately, she is being rescued by Felix.
(3) Frozen (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, 2013) nears its conclusion with Elsa (Idina Menzel) saving her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), and then her kingdom by magically turning winter to spring. With this resolution in place, the characters become aware of the presence of the villainous Hans (Santino Fontana), who attempted to kill Anna earlier in the film. Another male character, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) begins to move purposely towards him but Anna stops him and continues the journey herself. A puzzled Hans questions: ‘Anna? But she froze your heart,’ to which Anna replies ‘The only frozen heart around here is yours’ and turns her back on him. But then she spins around and punches him hard in the face, sending him flying backwards (with physics-defying force) over the side of the ship they are standing on and into the water below (Fig. 3). The force and speed of the impact seems designed as a sharp, victorious burst – punching a face rather than punching the air in celebration. As with Sandman’s punch in Rise of the Guardians, the action is not essential to the plot because victory is already won. Instead, it serves more as an expression of Anna’s emotions: it gives her pleasure and it gives pleasure to those who witness it (a crowd on the quayside cheer and applaud in celebration). The moment might be equated with female empowerment, more so than Calhoun’s punches in Wreck-It Ralph, especially as Anna restrains Kristoff in order to dispense her own retribution. But that empowerment is surely undermined by its expression through an act of violent revenge and, in any case, Anna and Elsa have already pulled off a far more powerful feat by effectively saving their world through female solidarity and love. And, more broadly, if the film is suggesting that power is the ability to indulge violent urges rather than restrain them, it’s delivering a somewhat dubious message for female or male viewers.
I am conscious that picking out these moments might be construed as a kind of moral crusade against any kind of violence in fantasy and animation. I hope it’s clear that’s not my intention, but I do think there is a disparity between these films’ considerable efforts in creating three-dimensional characters that are emotionally and intellectually complex, and their tendency to include acts of violence that lack the same kind of detailed thought. One obvious rebuttal would be to suggest that I’m taking the films too seriously – that it’s not real people hitting real people on screen so a different set of rules apply. That might possibly be the case, and it’s at least reflected in the BBFC guidance on fantasy violence, but it does remind me of the ways in which fantasy has struggled to be taken seriously more generally (and which I’ve written about before [2011: 75-77]). If one character hitting another character in fantasy animation is taken to have little meaning or weight, what are we saying about animated fantasies? More specifically, what are we saying about the credibility, coherence and significance of fictional worlds in fantasy animation? Even if we entertain the notion that acts of violence in these films bear little relation to the society in which we live, they surely have repercussions for the world of the film. It might be that the makers of Rise of the Guardians wanted to reference the fluctuating morality of Sandman, or that the makers of Wreck-It Ralph wanted to illustrate something about the malicious brutality of its world, or that the makers of Frozen wanted to show that heroes and villains can be united in acts of impulsive self-gratification. Perhaps, but the films hardly exhibit a consistent dedication to such concerns outside of these specific instances. More likely, I think, is that the punch is employed straightforwardly as a visceral point of narrative climax in Rise of the Guardians and Frozen, and as a slightly clunky comedic device in Wreck-It Ralph. For me, these punches stand out as somewhat incongruous events in films that, otherwise, want their characters to be understood as people living within a fictional reality, rather than merely components for plot devices. The actions of characters should have significance because they form part of and help to form that fictional reality. It’s certainly true that the boundaries of plausibility can be set especially wide in fantasy animations, but that’s not the same as saying that anything can happen without consequence, simply because it is an animated fantasy film. Indeed, with the three examples I mention, I think there are consequences for acts of physical violence that take place within the fictional worlds of the films and, more generally, what kinds of attitudes towards violent behaviour are revealed through them.
Walters, James. Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction (New York: Berg, 2011).
James Walters is Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Birmingham.