If you’ve seen Big Hero Six, chances are that one of the things that stuck with you was Baymax’s “balalala” fist bump. You can see the exact moment in the YouTube clip above. Most people saw that and just laughed at the silliness of it.
Me, I set my watch.
Upon first seeing it, I guessed (correctly) that exact gag would be repeated 2-3 more times in the movie, depending on how well the test audiences had enjoyed it. They would be spaced out for maximum effect, at 20 minute intervals. And that it would be seized upon by the marketing department, either in the trailers themselves, the TV ads, or a twitter campaign (it was, as you can tell by the above video). I even guessed that it was inserted fairly late in production (which, best I can tell from what my Disney friends have said, is also true). I would not be surprised if it was one of many such moments that were tested out.
(yes, I’m a total killjoy. I have a degree in film criticism and I worked in animation for many years. I can’t watch movies like a normal person anymore.)
I don’t have a good word to describe this phenomenon, so I’m going to term it “hashgags.” This is a joke in an animated movie, usually input at the behest of marketing forces, that is used to sell the movie. It’s usually inserted late into production and test screened to within an inch of its life. Some are used repeatedly, some are one-offs that do well with trailers. And it is crippling the entire industry.
Here’s some other examples. First, we have Madagascar 3’s earworm/minstrel show/violation of the Geneva Convention, Afro Circus:
Next, Rise of the Guardians’ Goofy Christmas Elves, who barely feature into the movie:
There’s the progenitor of the current generation, Scrat from Ice Age – who consistently exists in almost a totally different movie from the rest of the characters:
Tossing it in here, because I find it hysterically baffling, Free Birds’ creepy laughing hazmat guys (this one didn’t work, but I can see what they were trying to do):
…but everyone is just chasing the guys who perfected the hashgag — Despicable Me’s Minions:
If you’ve been near a child within the past five years, you’ve probably heard them running around singing “banana” or echoing the “bee-doo, bee-doo” firetruck sounds they make in Despicable Me 2.
So, pop quiz: who made Despicable Me? Not Universal, they were the distribution and financiers. Not Illumination either, they’re basically a shell production company owned by Universal. It’s certainly not Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Blue Sky, Sony, or Laika. Give up?
It was MacGuff.
MacGuff is a French film company whose animation division was acquired by Illumination in 2011. They conspicuously don’t appear in any of the advertising for the film. They’re hardly a household name. Even most people working in the industry don’t know about them. They also, as far as I’m aware (it may have changed since being bought by Illumination), unlike almost every other animation studio in existence, receive none of the profits from the success of the Despicable Me movies. They are (were?) guns for hire.
The Minions themselves are basically the epitome of hashgag. They are cute nonsensical character designs that make zero sense, bolted onto the rest of the movie in ridiculous vignettes. These vignettes can be mass-produced across the globe without concern for continuity or artistry. To me, they reek of the cynical influence of marketing. They are far more popular than any other character in the movie (can you name any of Gru’s daughters? the villain? his wife?), to the point where they are the primary focus of the advertising and merchandising. They’re not even voiced by people who can get voice actor royalties: they’re voiced by the directors.
This is a different phenomenon than the comic relief sidekick we saw in the 90s. Characters like Abu or Flounder were not the focus of the movie’s charm and advertising. Characters like Scrat and the Minions are.
I hate the Minions. I hate them violently, passionately, personally. Their rise to prominence makes sense — their humor is very basic, slipping-on-a-banana-peel nonsense, and it translates well to both young children and people in other countries — but it is tremendously regressive filmmaking, on the order of “Steamboat Willie.” When I approached the animation industry, it was riding high on surprisingly mature moments like the “When She Loved Me” sequence from Toy Story 2:
…but moments like this are harder and harder to get into movies nowadays. Take Po’s recovery of his childhood memories in Kung Fu Panda 2 (spoilers ahead!):
This is a poignant moment, culminated with the somber reclamation of his identity: “I am Po.” It is also immediately thereafter robbed of its entire narrative impact when he continues on to say, in the same breath, “and I’m gonna need a hat.” (this moment is mercifully edited out by the YouTube uploader)
This is timid filmmaking that, in my mind, intermingles with the rise of the hashgag. The character of Po, at the end of Panda 1, was poised for real character growth, beyond his “fat doofus” persona. But as most of the recurring gags in the movie (and the trailers) show, he’s not allowed to outgrow this, despite everything in the narrative pushing him to do so. Somber character moments are kneecapped by cheap laughs, and the movie is polished up to be sold on these merits.
And if what I just said isn’t convincing enough of the marketing department’s timidity consider that none of the trailers are bold enough to mention that the movie features Gary Oldman playing AN ALBINO FUCKING PEACOCK THAT KNOWS KUNG FU.
To be clear: I’m not saying kids’ movies should become a weepfest like the first 15 minutes of Up (no matter how amazing they were). I’m not advocating for gratuitous pathos-mashing like (mild spoiler!) Toy Story 3’s completely unnecessary incinerator scene. I don’t think Baymax’s fist bump ruined Big Hero Six by any stretch of the imagination (I actually liked it). What I’m saying is that the hashgag has turned into a “pull in case of emergency” lever. When, six months out from release, the people behind the movie aren’t confident in how it’s turned out, they pull it, because it’s safe and simple. Problem is, it cheapens the movie. It leads to a homogenization of the genre, where one movie chases the success of another by resorting to panicky, lowest-common-denominator filmmaking.
Lest you think I protest too much, take the example of the most successful animated film in a generation, Frozen. When it was first introduced to the public, what did it lead with? Not “Let It Go,” not “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman,” not even “In Summer.” It led with this:
This is just a trailer of no-dialogue-required gags. It’s not even in the movie. It doesn’t feature any of the main characters. To my eye, it communicates two things clearly: Disney following after the Despicable Me hashgag model, and a total lack of confidence in its own movie. The theory of a lack of confidence is validated by the worldwide shortage of toys following the movie’s release. It seems clear that Disney didn’t think Frozen was going to be a hit. Thankfully they had enough money to be able to construct entire hashgag moments for the marketing department (like the minute and a half teaser above) without inserting them into the core movie itself, but many other companies don’t have that kind of money to blow. They end up inserting it into the core of their movies.
This certainly doesn’t affect every animated movie out there. I can point to any number of movies — most of the Pixar lot, Wreck It Ralph, BoxTrolls, Book of Life — and find those that don’t fall prey to this trend. But the hashgag is a steady trend in moviemaking, and it’s only growing more prominent. As the push for a more vignette-based, story-free mode of moviemaking takes hold, I worry that the hard-fought gains of films like Toy Story 2, Prince of Egypt, and the Ghibli oeuvre will give way, and we’ll backslide into a world where even the big budget movies, the ones supposed to be pushing forward the art, are basically
Tom and Jerry Despicable Me.
Animated movies should be able to stand on their own merits and be their own entities. But if Frozen, of all movies, cannot be sold on its own merits, what chance does any other movie have?