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The Miyazaki Principle

Posted by Dirck on 10 March, 2014

This is a long way off topic, in so much as I still have topic here, but it’s something that I need to vent about publicly.  Those who don’t care for the grinding of axes in the region of children’s entertainment might want to go and get a refreshing beverage.

My family got around to watching Turbo over the weekend, and while I generally recommend it, I have a particular problem with an element of it.  To vent properly, I’m going to be both giving away spoilers (so much as that can be done with a kids’ movie) and talking about events in the film as if the reader has already seen the thing.  Those for whom these items present a problem will probably be happier by the drink machine.

Turbo, then.  A snail who is fascinated by Indy-car racing and who, having been bitten by a radioactive street-rod gains the powers to realize his long-held dream.  We’ll overlook the point that realizing your dreams relies on acquiring super-powers; the sooner the kids have a hint that that’s how life works, the better they’ll get along in life (yes, the cynicism index is rather high today).  What bites at me is the interaction between the title character and his own idol, the multiple winner of the Indy Cup, Guy Gagné.  It bites me because the way it plays out in the film is both needlessly grim and rather clichéd.

Initially, Gagné supports the entry of Turbo into the race.  He makes much of having risen to his current fame and sponsorship-supported comfort from the place of an outsider, a little guy.  This is good.  I like this.  But the moment it happened, I knew how the thing was going to play out.  Gagné would, I saw, turn brutal on the track, and only a minor miracle would see Turbo to his dramatically-necessary triumph in the face to Gagné’s efforts to sabotage and even flatten him.

Well… the sabotage at least stayed in the box.  Otherwise, it’s a story we’ve all seen before, with slightly different relationships of worshipped and worshipper.  This is the minor objection, since we all know that there’s a limited number of stories in the world, and that number drops when the audience is under 12.

The major objection is the grimness.  That cynical noise I made above notwithstanding, I’m a big advocate of letting kids have a childhood; a time of lightness and joy, untrampled by the ugly realities life will eventually heap on the plate.  This is utopian, I know, and the prospects for a lot of kids are indeed very grim, but where the possibility of the ideal exists, why work to undo it?  I compared Turbo to the works of Hayao Miyazaki, and I saw how the same movie could easily have been made without a villain but also without losing the excitement of the competion.  A narrative thrives of contest, I agree, but it need no be a contest to the death.

So, in the film where Turbo sneaks into Gagné’s trailer and is this engaged in a rather one-sided conversation (a nod to realism or the sense kids have of not being listened to– people can’t hear the snails talk) is the first point at which change for the better could appear.  As it plays out, this scene gives us the first sense that Gagné will really play the villain, in as much as he makes some only-lightly veiled threats regarding the next day’s race and his willingness to do whatever is needed to win, a willingness he attributes to all the other racers.  In the Ghibli version of the scene I envision, the thrust is the same, but the threats are absent.  Gagné can once again dwell on the parallels between himself and the snail at similar points in their respective racing careers, and can even go on about how everyone on the track has winning as the foremost consideration.  But instead of leering and suggesting that this will certainly lead to Turbo’s demise, carrying on in a tone of peer-to-peer respect and explaining that the snail can’t expect special treatment on the track, because by going onto the track he accepts that he is accepted as an equal would lay the groundwork for a hard-fought contest but one without rancor.  They’re not trying to hurt Turbo, you see, but they expect him to see to his own safety just as they’re seeing to theirs.  He’s not a villain, he’s a Dutch uncle.

Coming from that scene, the race then plays out essentially as it does.  Turbo’s size, a disadvantage from a squishing perspective, has a balancing advantage in being able to do unlikely maneuvers.  Good lesson for the kids.  No way is made for him, but, until a certain point, no specific effort is made to do away with him.  And then we have the end of the race, in which Gagné makes specific efforts as least three times.  And that, to me, sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the hero vs. villain narrative is a good one, and I like to see the hero have to struggle to overcome the villain (which is why I rather liked the season 2 and 3 finalés of Sherlock and why I cannot allow a Steven Seagal film in my house).  However, I think that inserting a villain where one isn’t needed is a silly thing to do.  You’ve proposing to have a snail compete in the Indianapolis 500; why do you need a mean man who wants to stop him?

Recasting the climax of the race, then.  Leave off the effort to mash Turbo between tire and track wall.  A contest of skill leads to the amazing, catastrophic crash just shy of the finish.  The same exhortation to Turbo by his brother still fits.  The same effort to finish by both the snail and the man are made; Turbo stripped of his powers by the accident and creeping at full standard gastropod speed, Gagné somehow managing to tow his disintegrating car through the strength of his own limbs (and tell me that doesn’t rate as a heroic effort).  The finish line inches nearer, the contest remains in the air until… let us say Gagné stumbles, falling, and the passing of his shadow startles Turbo into the race-winning tuck and roll, crossing the line just before the toppling human and the nose of his car.

And then we can have Gagné make a face, the brief anger of not winning passing through him, before he says something like, “I told you you’d have to try as hard as the rest of us.  See you next year?”  Not necessarily friends, but equals on good terms; as someone who occasionally participates in a contact sport without referees, I have a real-world basis for this sort of attitude.  The same amount of plot tension without the defeat of the chap in second place having to be a humiliation.  After all, none of the other thirty-one contestants managed to lift a car.  That shouldn’t be something he gets beaten up by a tiny hairdresser about.

Utopian.  Monday-morning quarterbacking.  Yes.  And yet, I can wish that such things might come to pass.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Today’s pen: Pilot Vanishing Point
Today’s ink: Calamo Deep Blue

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