Our favorite movies make us feel things. Feelings are hard to put into words. The best way for me to prove this is to go back to the movies that made me feel things, so here we go again.
When I was seven, Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service was enchanting. Kiki was someone I could relate to, even though she is a cartoon. We both have brown hair, for one, and we both wanted to run away from home with our talking cat. My heart swelled every time I watched the opening scene where she glides over rooftops on her broom.
Hayao Miyazaki is often the name associated with Studio Ghibli creations, as the co-founder and lead animator at Studio Ghibli. A little before Miyazaki returned from retirement in 2017, the studio’s lead producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, left Ghibli to form a company of his own called Studio Ponoc. The animation quality of his first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is almost equal to Studio Ghibli’s films. Everything looks the same, from shiny cobblestones to jelly-like starbursts of light. Up until recently, I was convinced Mary and the Witch’s Flower was a work of Miyazaki’s.
Kiki’s Secret Ingredient
Even though both films are well-animated and happen to feature clumsy, kind-hearted girls with witchy powers, Kiki’s Delivery Service is the clear winner. So what is the secret ingredient?
My gut tells me that the most bothersome element in Mary and the Witch’s Flower is Mary herself. I can’t empathize with her. At first I thought a poorly-constructed plot was to blame, because plot dictates how the protagonist spends her time. Actions build identity. Surely, Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t contain enough of the traditional plot elements listed on “how to write a good plot” guides across the internet. This is partially true.
The basic elements of plot are the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution. Both Kiki’s Delivery Service and Mary and the Witch’s Flower include these elements. The girls set out on adventures, face resistance, and overcome it. What differentiates a good script from a great script (get ready, it’s a mouthful) is the degree to which the protagonist’s inner motivations are expressed throughout the story, as well as how developed the relationships between the protagonist and supporting characters are. I have Joe Bunting’s posts on The Write Practice to thank for this sparkly hypothesis, because he emphasizes the importance of the protagonist to the story in his “10 Secrets to Better Stories” article.
Key to Making Decisions
As Bunting puts it, “protagonists make decisions.” The key is why they’re making decisions. We understand how important being a witch is to Kiki within the first ten minutes of the film, when she decides to leave home on the evening she and her father had planned on going camping. We see her father’s shocked expression when she shouts the news to him from her bedroom window, and we feel worse when the luggage tumbles off the car onto him. Kiki is so busy packing, she doesn’t even notice. The lure of adventure has a firm grasp on her.
Kiki’s relatability is not so much in her determination to seek adventure, but in her failure. She doesn’t seem to know how hurtful she’s being to her parents. They support her anyways, which creates a safe, unconditional love feeling that the audience recognizes immediately.
This is an example of how supporting characters work in opposition to the protagonist to shed light on their flaws, but also to prove their love for the protagonist. In order for us to continue rooting for the protagonist, though, we have to understand that they are driven towards a specific thing. Motivation comes first, then the supporting characters come in and make it believable.
At first it seems like Mary is driven to be useful, because she leaps at the opportunity to help others and goes red-faced when her clumsiness gets in the way. Later in the movie, she decides to save her friend Peter. This is certainly useful, but she most likely does so to avoid being “transformed” by the headmistress, who threatens to lock her away in the magical fantasy realm forever if she does not bring what is asked of her. When Mary finally gets to Peter, she embraces him and yells, “I’m so sorry Peter!” between sobs. If Mary and Peter had a more robust history, this would be a tenderer moment. But up until this point, they’ve barely interacted, so Mary’s motivation isn’t rooted in anything.
Motivation comes in many kinds. The motivation to stay alive is different from the motivation to be happy, or to make others happy. There is a deeper form of motivation that dictates a character’s every action and in some ways determines their personality. This kind of motivation is the important one if we’re going to relate to the characters on a human level.
In order for inner motivation to reveal itself, we need to get the sense of some kind of world of thought and observation, or lack thereof, that exists in the protagonist’s mind. We need to be able to see what inspires them, what they yearn for, and what they’re afraid of. My assumption is that if a writer knows these things about their protagonist, it will come out in the writing. Some characters talk to themselves, some don’t. But either way, a character’s actions are dictated by their motivation. If the motivation isn’t there, actions become lifeless and inconsistent.
Because we’re talking about animation, we can’t forget visuals.
Visuals are a great story-telling device, because they show us what is important. Setting is a big one. The setting represents what the protagonist goes up against every day. The more believable a landscape, the more believable a character’s journey is. “Believable” doesn’t have to mean detailed, just specific. The Simpsons is by no means a realistic-looking show, but every object in the Simpsons’ living room has a purpose: there’s the lamp, the couch, the rug. If anything is out of place, we notice it.
This is specifically an animation issue. When creating a landscape from scratch, the script writer has to know everything there is to know about that place. I have no doubt the team at Studio Ponoc know this, but I think they fell short on Mary’s house. Mary lives somewhere in Britain, a landscape of blues and greens. It’s beautifully illustrated, but feels impersonal. This is a huge reason why Studio Ponoc’s first film didn’t hit me as hard as Studio Ghibli’s films do.
Making it Personal
Master animator Hayao Miyazaki is known for making his films personal, as if each floorboard was pulled from memory. Kiki’s Delivery Service is also set in the countryside, and we can see every blade of grass waving in the wind during the scene where Kiki lays on the hill. I can smell wheaty grass every time I watch that scene.
It may seem pointless to run a fine-tooth comb through two almost identical movies, but I can say I’ve learned something. Creating empathetic characters is hard, and takes more than just a coherent plot. I think as long as we understand our character’s inner motivations, though, everything else will fall into place. Moments of defeat will become distressing, scenes of reunion will be steeped in relief, and seven-year-olds across the world will find their idol of the year.