Animation and Plasmaticness of Contour: Princess Mononoke, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia

by Junyoung Choi, Haina Lu, and Adayan Munsuarrieta

Introduction

Walt Disney once said, “Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.” In this way, animated films can serve as a powerful bridge between reality and fiction; by perceiving reality with a specific lens and bringing in those “real” aspects into its world of fantasy, magic, or science-fiction, the animated film can provide impactful social commentary on the world outside the screen, without having to document reality via live-action. Within the film, the audience may encounter details of the animated world that is ostensibly far-removed from reality, but resonate with certain socioeconomic struggles, political injustices, or relevant changes (whether it be technological or natural) that occur just outside the screen. 

Animated films have come quite a long way since cel animation, where the artist would draw thousands and thousands of frames by hand. With traditional hand drawn animation, simulated pans or tilts were relatively easier, but simulated forward tracks were incredibly labor intensive. Whereas many of Studio Ghibli films directed by Hayao Miyazaki still insist on the fundamental traditions of animation––carefully hand-drawn frames put together to create motion, many Western animated films of the modern era use CGI. The integration of CGI evinced in many of the more contemporary Disney films like Big Hero 6 and Zootopia has allowed for a much more dynamic range of tilts, pans, and even tracking as well as the simulation of diverse lighting schemes via 3D animation. The ability to animate freely, whether it be through drawing or 3D technology, allows within such films the use of plasmaticness of contour, which Eisenstein refers to as “a rejection of once-and-forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to assume dynamically any form.” Though this reliance on plasmaticness has taken a back seat with the more recent animated films that began following a rather realist animation style like in Zootopia, the spirit of plasmaticness seems to persist in not only some modern Disney animations like Big Hero 6 but also many of Hayao Miyazaki’s iconic Ghibli films including Princess Mononoke. Many of the creatures in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Calcifer from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo from Ponyo (2008) are also cases in point regarding Miyazaki’s love for plasmaticness. 

Princess Mononoke exhibits Ghibli’s easternized adaptation of Eisenstein’s concept of plasmaticness, showcasing many thoughtful uses of plasmatic transformation to demonstrate an overarching theme. Using Miyazaki’s style of plasmaticness, the film makes poignant commentary on the destruction and decay of mother nature, which appear to be a more and more relevant threat that confronts all of humanity. 

Big Hero 6 retains some of the traditional elements of plasmaticness, while deviating from that fluid form at some key moments of the film. By juxtaposing elements of plasmaticness with highly advanced science-fiction technology, Big Hero 6 is able to warmly welcome its viewers into a world full of dream-like progress in robotics while effectively communicating the power of friendship and solidarity. 

Zootopia, interestingly enough, also contains many traditional elements observed in many Disney films, such as the humanized animals who walk and talk. However, the animated film does not feature much of Eisenstein’s concept of plasmaticness of contour, in that the inhabitants of Zootopia do not visibly break the laws of physics or cast magical spells. Instead, the film relies on cinematographic techniques such as lighting, staging, and camera angles to expose the inherently broken social binary of predator and prey prevalent within the ostensible paradise of Zootopia. 

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, Princess Mononoke is hand-drawn and animated frame by frame. The film paints a beautifully tragic struggle between the conflicting visions of the guardians (or gods) of the forest and the increasingly industrialized villages that contaminate the nature surrounding the villagers. The lingering impacts of industrialization and human settlement are presented as the suffering of the forest’s guardians; within the film, the transformations of said guardians into vengefully cursed creatures are some of the most prevalent adaptations of Eisenstein’s plasmaticness of contour into Miyazaki’s style. 

The film begins with the guard spotting something odd oozing out from the forest near the village. The clearly dark and demonic creature that creeps out of the forest puts the viewer at unease immediately, as there is a clear disturbance in the natural order of things as well as the environment. The giant boar covered in slimy creatures that resemble writhing slugs attacks the villagers, and the young prince Ashitaka comes to the defense of his people. Though he is able to kill the monstrous creature, he pays the price of having his own arm infected by the slug-like creatures that once wrapped the giant boar. 

Expressing the wrath of nature with plasmaticness of contour, Miyazaki forebodes the viewer of the film’s overarching conflict between industrialization and nature from the very first scene. As Ashitaka journeys toward the land of the West, he realizes that the growing infection on his arm has given him superhuman strength. This cursed mark on Ashitaka’s arm is a powerful metaphor for human industrialization. Much like the rapid expansion of industrialization, the area that the mark covers rapidly spreads up his arm; like the industrial advances that allow for humans to make enormous changes in lifestyle, the mark gives Ashitaka incredible power; but in the long run, both industrialization and the mark end up hurting the users who rely too heavily on them. 

Further into his westward journey, Ashitaka encounters ‘Kodamas,’ or tree spirits. He is relieved to see several of these spirits, as their presence suggests that the forest is healthy. 

Though a simple one, this is a great exhibit of Miyazaki’s adaptation of plasmaticness. These ‘Kodamas’ continue to reappear throughout the rest of the film, at times shaking presumably due to human expansion into and exploitation of nature, and in other instances trembling from the uncontrollable fury of the forest gods who blindly sabotage humans and forests alike. 

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Disney’s Big Hero 6 released in 2014 was fully 3D computer animated and showcased significant progress in CGI technology used in animations. Primarily a superhero film, multiple aspects of the animated movie distinctly parallel more realistic counterparts, creating something that takes a step ahead in imagining what reality might look like based on the information it has at hand. The main character Hiro is a scientific prodigy, coming up with a billion-dollar industry idea for a school science project. Throughout the film we see him develop the nanobots, troubleshoot Baymax, and develop upgraded weapons for himself and his friends. The technological representation in films is not new, it appears distinctly familiar even though we don’t recognize such technology. Hiro’s cyberdesk operates similarly to the way Tony Stark’s cyberdesk works in the Marvel franchise, and Baymax’s final armor is even similar to that of Iron Man’s. During the production of the movie, a main animation challenge was incorporating these Marvel elements through animation in a way that was not overly redundant. While viewing these scientific innovations in films as an audience member makes us feel detached from the possibility of utilizing such gadgets in real life, the inspiration for them come from current research. Producer Don Hall mentioned that when designing Baymax, the design team visited university labs working on the development of “soft-robotics. Hall stated: “I met a researcher who was working on soft robots. … It was an inflatable vinyl arm and the practical app would be in the healthcare industry as a nurse or doctor’s assistant. He had me at vinyl,” and recognized that the technology “will have potential probably in the medical industry in the future, making robots that are very pliable and gentle and not going to hurt people when they pick them up.” The technicalities of Baymax’s design are highlighted in the film, which emphasize his characteristic as not a menacing but a huggable robot, promoting a feel-good theme throughout the movie. However, the research behind putting such a design into animation and furthering its capabilities can be inspiring to realistic future technology.

Two other important themes highlighted in the film are that of friendship and teamwork. Again, Big Hero 6 is able to promote these values indirectly. The evolution of Baymax and Hiro’s relationship throughout the film emphasizes this focus on friendship. Although Baymax is very much a machine, he is designed to appear as a friend. We see that he has solid, metallic machine parts, but his exterior follows a principle of plasmaticness, being able to assume dynamically any form without abiding by rules of anatomy or physics as described by Eisenstein. This plasmaticness contributes to the detachment from reality, while inviting viewers to like him more because of his funny and unexpected behavior. 

Later on in the film Hiro fits Baymax with a more rigid armor, covering up his huggable appearance as they prepare to fight the villain––a deviation from the plasmaticness seen earlier. Though the appearance of Baymax has undergone a drastic change, Disney is not shy to present the continued friendship between the two: we see Hiro teaching Baymax a friendship handshake immediately afterward. At the movie’s end, this “symbol of friendship” is ultimately what allows Baymax to return.

On top of that, the six in Big Hero 6 stands for the group of six friends who work together to tackle their challenges, emphasizing the theme of teamwork. We see many frames in which the six teenagers (or heroes) stand together facing the villain during periods of action. The physics of the movie are perhaps exaggerated to show the effectiveness of each of their respective abilities when working in conjunction or complimenting each other. Once again stylized elements of the film are drawn out to emphasize the relation of stronger underlying themes to reality.

Zootopia (2016) 

Disney’s Zootopia is an animated film released in 2016 that relies heavily on 3D animation. The film focuses on the corruption discovered by the bunny, Judy Hopps, and her fox partner, Nicolas Wilde, about the seemingly utopian mammalian society they live in called Zootopia. The utopian society is mainly divided into two parts: the 90% prey population and the 10% predator population that are able to coexist. In the film we see how Judy Hopps is able to make history and become the first non-predator police officer and how juxtaposition between the prejudices she was taught and the discoveries she makes expose the inherently broken social binary of predator and prey. Throughout the film, viewers receive insight into the species based discrimination in the form of tokenism, stereotypes, microaggressions, media, and policy-making. These societal problems addressed within the animated film are meant to reflect and comment on many of the racial issues that still exist within the world today. In contrast to the two previous films mentioned, Zootopia veers away from using plasmaticness of contour and instead employs a more realistic aesthetic throughout the film despite the fact that characters are talking animals. In order to convey these heavy messages to children, Zootopia uses traditional cinematographic techniques such as lighting, staging, and camera angles to portray characters in a certain light.

Before the film begins to cast light on the real discrimination that is present within Zootopia, the film works to establish the city as a seemingly perfect utopia where all animals can achieve their dreams. In the first two images the intersection between the reality of the size of animals and the fantasy of them living human lives  come together to convey a sense of inclusivity in the city. In the first image, we see tubes that serve as public transportation specifically designed for smaller animals––and how they use it in order to get to work. Similarly, another shot zooms into an image of a juice shop; the giraffes are able to comfortably place their orders and receive their drinks through the tube. The acknowledgement of the realistic differences in size between the various animals as well as the supportive machinery that helps bridge the gap between these animals establish a sense of inclusivity within the city of Zootopia, at least at first sight.

Within this image of Hopps entering the police station we once again see the use of realistic animation choices support the message within the film. Here, the “camera” is positioned at the same height as it tracks Hopps and draws light to the stark difference between her and her predator peers. The use of loud roars in the following shot helps add to the intimidation Hopps  and the viewer may feel. Here, the use of high-key lighting provides the clear visibility which allows for both Hopps and the viewers to not feel threatened by the predators. However, by contextualizing Hopps’ actual height, the film adds to the sense of “fragility” that characterizes many prey. In other words, through the cinematography and sizes of the animals, it becomes all the more evident that a disparity in power between predators and prey not only exists but is a truly divisive conflict.

In this scene with Mayor Bellwether, we are exposed to the ways in which she leverages the narrative that predators are dangerous savages in order to gain political power. In this shot, we see how low-key lighting makes the Mayor go from being a seemingly innocent prey to an imposing, dark figure. Here, the staging serves to show how she places herself above the predator-prey power dynamic, quite literally––she attempts to manipulate the dynamic from the outside and exploit this divisive nature for her own gain. However, much like the act she has put on throughout the majority of the film, what she is fooled by in the end is just another act Nicolas and Hopps put on in order to trick her into lowering her guard. Such images draw clear connections between the use of lighting, staging, and the realistic aspects within Zootopia that construct how both viewers and the mammals within the city understand predator and prey relations.

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