Personality vs. Character
Copyright (c) Mark Mayerson
From Apatoons #107
"But I think that seeing the world clearly and figuring out what you're going to do about either the world's limitations in regards to you or your limitations in regards to the world is a huge part of life. In the Catholic religion, and I think you see it in Scorsese's movies sometimes, which are more Catholic than mine, you need temptations and occasions of sin in order for you to be a good person. If everything was fine and there were no temptations, you wouldn't sin, but it wouldn't count for anything. You have to be tested. I think when you're talking about character, many of the themes, even in Shannon's Deal, are about characters presented with those moral choices, or moments when they get to show a lot of character or crap out on themselves. And that's the victory. So it's an area of drama that interests me more than who shot who and whether the hero escapes at the end. The Fugitive was extremely well made, but it doesn't have a big character shift in it. There are some nice turnabouts, but it's really about 'Can this guy clear his name?' I guess there's character in that he just doesn't give up, but he's a hero after all."
- John Sayles, Sayles on Sayles, edited by Gavin Smith. Pages 206-
I've spent an awful lot of time asking myself if Toy Story 2 was better than the original. My answer is now no and it's based on the issues of character complexity and character growth.
In the original, both Woody and Buzz had their world views shattered and each had to come to terms with a new set of circumstances. Buzz was clearly delusional and his realization of it was one of the strongest sequences in the original film for me. Woody had to come to terms with no longer being Andy's favorite toy and in doing so, had to accept his reduced status within his community. There's nothing in the new film that can compare with this radical shift in character attitudes.
Woody is tempted to go to a museum and become the object of attention of many instead of the love of one, but he ends up resisting. His world view is challenged, but his original point of view reasserts itself. Where the first film forced growth, the second relapses into the status quo. Buzz has nothing in this film to challenge his world view at all and he is a
much less satisfying character as a result.
The one figure who experiences something similar to Buzz and Woody in the original film is Jessie the cowgirl. Having been deprived of human contact for years, she's too hungry to allow Woody to return to Andy. She's too blinded by her own needs to allow for anybody else's. Just like Woody's case, though, she doesn't grow. She's allowed to return to a previous world view and doesn't grow into a new one.
For the purposes of this piece, I'm going to posit a difference between personality and character. Personality is a collection of traits that are easily describable, but they're relatively shallow. Character is having to adjust your view of the world based on circumstances. Goofy is a personality. Grumpy in Snow White is a character. Groucho Marx is a personality. Chaplin's Tramp is a character. Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2 is a personality. Buzz in the original Toy Story is a character.
Comedy thrives on personality. The shallowness is one signal to the audience that things will not get too deep or threatening. You can laugh at Bob Hope's cowardice, knowing full well that he isn't going to die. You never worry about Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.
Pixar is just excellent at creating personality. Even the secondary toys like Mr. Potato Head or Rex the dinosaur are well thought out and entertaining. Many other studios are incapable of creating personalities with the same audience appeal. However, animation studios that can create real characters are much rarer. Disney accomplished it in Snow White, Pinocchio and Dumbo. It failed to do it after 1950 until the retirement of the 9 old men. The new Disney has attempted to use it more, but is still inconsistent. It's there in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mulan to varying degrees, but missing in other films. Tarzan is a perfect example of a figure who gets to have his cake and eat it. Instead of Tarzan having to choose between the human and the animal, it all comes to him in the end with no strings attached.
I should acknowledge that The Iron Giant becomes a character. Over the course of the film, the giant comes to understand the violent aspect of his personality and has to struggle to contain it.
Pixar had character in the original Toy Story. A Bug's Life doesn't achieve it. Toy Story 2 just flirts with it. What's so disturbing to me is that character is not something that mysteriously develops or doesn't. Just as John Sayles can summarize it in one paragraph, any writer can put it into a script. For reasons that I don't understand, however, animated film makers don't seem to be aware of when they've got it or not. It's a giant blind spot. This is why the conception of most animated films is so shallow and why adults find the films so unsatisfying.
The more I think about Toy Story 2, I see it as entertaining in spite of the odds. The kidnap plot has been used many times in animated features. A Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Aristocats, Raggedy Ann and Andy (more toys!) and now Toy Story 2. As a structure, it's inherently conservative. The film starts off in paradise, the kidnapping destroys paradise, paradise residents set out to retrieve the missing person and the return of the kidnap victim restores paradise. Another part of the structure is that outsiders are invited back into paradise with the kidnap victim. You've got those extra dalmatian puppies, O'Malley, the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees and in Toy Story 2, Jessie and Bullseye. The Aristocats is slightly different because nobody sets out to find the cats. The character they encounter, O'Malley, is their rescuer instead.
In all these films, the villains are motivated by greed, whether it's for a dalmatian coat, an inheritance, a paramour (that's Raggedy Ann and Andy if you don't know) or cash. Al, the main villain in Toy Story 2, is shallow. He's played as a stereotyped geek slob. He's weakened by the fact that he has nobody else to play off of.
As somebody who's collected comics for a lot of years and hung around comics stores and conventions, I've seen guys like Al. Almost all start out with a genuine interest in a hobby and maybe a love for it. When they start to do it for a living, they're forced to a degree to become business men. However, there's still some personal interest in their merchandise. In Al's case, he's old enough to have played with the cowboy toys in his own youth. Is it possible that after spending years collecting Woody memorabilia, he'd have a twinge over giving it up? Since a major theme of the movie is the importance of toys to children, is there no part of Al that's nostalgic? The film plays him as somebody who is hungry for cash and that's all. I think it was a missed opportunity.
The other villain, Stinky Pete the prospector, has spent too many years in the box. For him, the toy museum is a guarantee that he'll never be touched. Here's another figure who could have grown but instead is defeated and discarded.
It's a tribute to the folks at Pixar that their ability to plot, gag and pace a film is so amazing that the audience doesn't notice the hole. I'm not belittling these abilities. Audiences are clearly happy with Pixar's films and Pixar's abilities in story are not easy to duplicate. We have new proof of that whenever we go to the movies. But for me, character depth and growth are necessities.
When figures appear in more than one project, they often calcify into just personalities: catch phrases, body language and a stock set of attitudes. At some point, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse stopped developing and just did variations on established material. The Toy Story figures may have reached this point.
There's a tension in comedy, especially, over this issue. Some comics manage to incorporate growth into their figures on-screen. Chaplin and Woody Allen are the examples I always come back to. Many great comics do not: Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, etc. In the case of the Marxes, Irving Thalberg tried to give them the illusion of growth by having them come around to helping the romantic leads. It's a strategy that sometimes worked but it was a delicate balance that MGM couldn't sustain.
TV figures, in particular, end up being locked down. They may grow through a few seasons but eventually they freeze. A few more seasons and the audience has lost interest due to their predictability. There are all sorts of strategies used in TV to freshen shows: have a baby, bring in new supporting characters, change the main character's job, etc. MASH lasted as long as it did because the range of story material was wide enough to reveal new facets of the characters. In addition, there was a steady turnover of actors, all of whom added their own flavor to the show.
The Toy Story figures have the potential for a long life. I suspect that they will be considered too lucrative to retire. There's a Buzz Lightyear drawn animation series on the way from Disney. I'm betting that somebody is already working on a story for Toy Story 3. The big question for me is whether the toys will continue to grow as characters or if they'll calcify into personalities and become like The Muppets, inhabiting classic stories like Treasure Island and trotting out their usual shtick.