It’s time to test my theory of computer animated film plots against the latest examples of that form, DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens and Pixar’s Up.

In case you are too lazy to click through, here’s the theory again in its entirety:

After the worst of a long series of well-meaning but destructive deeds, an anthropomorphized creature protagonist is shunned by his community. He enters into a series of adventures in the pursuit of a seemingly impossible task to prove his worth. During this pursuit the protagonist meets a rival and, to the former’s surprise, they have more in common than not. Working together, they defeat a large, faceless, and unbeatable enemy. In the process, the two overcome the protagonist’s flaw, but in a slightly unexpected way. By so doing, the protagonist returns to the original group, and all learn an important lesson about inclusion, family, or community.

Monsters vs. Aliens has destructive deeds, but they are collective rather than individual (the accumulation of havok wreaked by the monsters, requiring their systematic institutionalization). The adventures involve saving the planet from Galaxhor and his giant robot. The rival is General Monger, who had previously imprisoned the monsters as freaks but later allowed them to redeem themselves through heroics. In the process of defeating Galaxhor, Susan sheds from giant form, but then surprisingly chooses to return to said form to save her new monster friends. An important lesson is learned about family, namely the ones who stick up for you may not be the ones you expected.

Up has destructive deeds in the form of the troubles lonely and bereaved Carl Fredricksen imposes on his community. The shunning here is explicit, in the form of a court order to move to a retirement community. The impossible task is Carl’s “cross your heart” promise to his now-deceased wife Ellie to reach Paradise Falls in Venezuela. The rival is Wilderness Explorer Russell, whose opposition comes in the form of nuisance and inconvenience, most notably his adoption of the dog Doug and the bird Kevin, a process which slows down Carl’s task. When faced with the manic, dog-wielding wrath of washed-up explorer Charles Muntz, Carl and Russell must collaborate to save themselves and their new friends. In so doing, someone does return to their home in Venezuela, but it turns out to be Kevin, not Carl. Carl discovers his wife’s notes in her “Adventure Book,” which punctuate the lesson that family life itself can be an adventure.

There you have it.

published June 2, 2009


  1. Troy Gilbert

    Well, if you’re going to be that expansive in your interpretation and application of your generic plot, couldn’t you just say these movies all fit into the classic Hero’s Journey?

  2. Ian Bogost

    The Hero’s Journey is surely an inspiration for many of these films, but its steps are quite different from these. I don’t think the hero’s journey is a satisfactory explanation for the formula we see in CG films. Indeed, these films seem to be greatly abstracted in terms of their structure.

  3. Mark Sample

    The “anthropomorphized creature protagonist” is an effect of what we might call the platform of CG films: for at least twelve of the last fourteen years (going back to Toy Story in 1995), humans, especially their faces, were simply too difficult to render in CG. So Pixar and Dreamworks had to make do with anthropomorphizing Potato Heads, cars, rats, bugs, fish, and so on.

    What I find fascinating about the genre is how the technical limitations of CG transformed the more standard Disney princess story. From the late eighties to mid nineties we had Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. And suddenly, nothing. No more princesses.

    (And what should we make of the fact that post-Toy Story we find the most “othered” princesses: Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998)? Is it a sign of multiculturalism or some sort of reaction to CG, the death rattle of pen and paper animators?)