In the past I have talked about world building and it’s benefits for creating a compelling story. Recently, this idea has come back into my mind for a number of reasons. Marvel’s announcement about adding Spider-Man to the MCU is chief among them. However, my new year’s resolution this year was to re-watch all of Walt Disney’s theatrically released animated films. I’ll detail the experience more when I have actually finished watching all of the 50+ films. As I watch these films, I get to thinking about world building and it’s use in film. Particularly with how Disney has handled it so far. Before that, let me tell you what I think is needed to build a truly wonderful world.
Most recently, one of the best worlds built from scratch has got to be John Wick. Originally seen as your basic B-level action flick, its masterful world building helped elevate the narrative to another level. What worked so well is that the directors didn’t bother spelling everything out. I’ll do my best not to spoil anything but they essentially introduced elements that obviously had a history but they didn’t tell the audience. They just introduced it as it should be and left it at that. How this helped them is it let the audience to fill-in the gaps.
They introduce a concept such as a currency only mean’t for hitmen and assassins. Instead of giving us some sort of explanation as to how this currency works and its worth, they simply just use it. This currency then becomes this cool gimmick throughout the film that continually piques the audiences interest. It also allows the audience to speculate how these characters gained their varying levels of wealth with this currency. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We are left to wonder how widely this currency can be used. Is it global? Can it be used as bribery for politicians? We are literally left with endless possibilities. To create a successful world, leaving a little mystery to allow your audience to explore is key.
What’s also important is having a distinct visual style. Take Big Hero 6. It’s a world where San Francisco and Tokyo have been merged. Here you get distinct combinations of iconic examples of American and Japanese culture. The visual style, as with just about any animated film, is also very distinct. Characters are more caricatures than realistic with features that support or clash with their personalities.
Go Go Tomago looks like a bicyclist or a sprinter. She has the legs of someone who was always pushing to go faster. I mean seriously, just take a look at what Olympic sprinters look like. Her mentality of a tough, fearless, speed demon is only supported by the way she looks. Wasabi on the other hand has an opposite relationship. He looks like your typical strongman, hulk, bruiser type. Broad shoulders, barrel chested, and just big all around. He looks like someone who is called in when someone needs a buddy to help them out in a fight. However, his personality clashes with this perception. Out of the entire group, he is by far the most neurotic and least likely to want to jump into a fight.
These visual cues, whether directed at characters or scenery, are key to develop a world that the audience can get lost in. It allows the audience to fill in the gaps of what else could be going on in the world.
While having a sense of mystery and a clear visual style is important, nothing can be more important than your question. Every successful world can be boiled down to one question that the world gets shaped around. How would an underground assassin network operate? What would it look if the most advance technologies we have, were accessible and affordable to the entire public? What would the world look like if dragons were real? I bet you can figure out which movies I’m talking about here. This question may not be your starting point, but I believe it is a sign of a well crafted world.
After Earth, while terrible, had a single nugget that piqued my interest. What would the world look like if humans were suddenly at the bottom of the food chain? Starting there I can see a story forming. What if one day we found that the various species on Earth suddenly seemed to turn on humanity. Where not only animals are no longer afraid to actively defend against humans and their machines, but hunt them down. Amazon forest crews would find themselves fighting off hordes of monkeys who have developed poisonous saliva. Cities would find themselves overrun by the natural wildlife as they refused to be scared away. Throw in plants growing more aggressively and you have yourself a situation that would cause humans to want to flee earth. That right there seems to be a start of a more compelling story than what we got in After Earth.
My observations are not an official, peer reviewed basis for a theory that required months of research. I have simply watched a lot of movies and started to to piece these things together. Most films can be observed this, especially that of the animated genre, and I find two ways to break them down. They either have a strong narrative or a well-built world. Not to say they can’t be both, it’s just that they tend to favor one or the other. For instance, most of the Pixar films would land in the narrative category. This makes sense since they have essentially built their company around how to tell a story. On the other hand, the better Dreamworks films tend to have stronger worlds.
Why I bring this up is because Disney tends to ride the line. Sometimes it works out well, other times it doesn’t. It seems they have tried both and mostly have had average success on either side. However, those that do the best are usually those that have a stronger narrative base (Frozen, Lion King). What I find interesting though, is that they have created many worlds that are truly unique. Big Hero 6 is the most recent while Treasure Planet is a place I eagerly want them to revisit.
So in conclusion, before this piece gets out of my hands, Disney has tried many different story-telling styles. From world building to strong narratives they, more than most, have tried both. Recently, they are getting their groove back with John Lasseter at the helm. I can only wait in anticipation to see which side of the line Moana and Zootopia fall on.