Animated Film Plot, 80s & 90s

why I think animated feature films of the 80s and 90s were good. An analysis of plot.
April 29, 2010
This is my first article, I've lurked on Retro Junk for years, reading articles and the forums but I almost never commented on anything. Anyway I figured it was time to write an article.

The 1980s saw a steady increase in animated feature-length films which lasted through most of the next two decades. This era saw many of the best and most successful animated movies to grace theaters and television screens, slowing down by 1998 and ultimately ending in about 2001 as animation transitioned to a new style of both art and story. The focus of this article is on what I believe is main reason for the success of animation in what I will call the Near Modern Era: plot from the perspective of characterization. Hollywood movies can often get away with poor acting, bad stories, and nothing but action. However, many animated movies tend to be more like books and need a great plot to intrigue viewers and investors. I think the plot characterization in the Near Modern Era was magnificent and the primary reason for the quality found in these movies. For the purposes of this article, I'll define plot characterization as how the plot affects characters and how characters affect the plot. In other words, I'll focus on emotions, decision-making, conflict, character dynamics, and life conditions. This Near Modern Era (NME) boasted five major players: Rankin & Bass, Don Bluth, Miyazaki Hayao, Disney, and Pixar, among others. By the way, watch out for spoilers.

Rankin & Bass

Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass

The first reel of great movies belong to Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, famous for the series of 1960s Christmas movies including Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman. In 1982 two movies directed and produced by Rankin and Bass were both released. The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn did not manage the same success as many of the movies later in the NME, but each has a strong cult following. The Last Unicorn in specific has a very detailed, and, at times, very dark plot.

Do not be fooled, the plot is not so bright and cheery

This is a better portrayal

The Last Unicorn is a tale very closely based on its namesake by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. Although not directly related to the plot, I think it is important to note that the art was done by Topcraft, from which many members went on to create Studio Ghibli. Back to the story... A Unicorn hears that she is the last of her kind and leaves her forest to find others. Schmendrick, a clumsy magician is traveling with a witch who chances upon the unicorn and takes her captive. Schmendrick frees her and discovers that she is on a journey to find the other unicorns which have gone missing. Another characer, Molly Grue, joins with them on their way to find the Red Bull responsible for holding the unicorns captive. When they confront the Red Bull, Schmendrick mistakeningly turns the unicorn into a beautiful woman in order to escape, but he is unable to turn her back. Given the name Amalthea, they weasel their way into the care of Prince Lir, whose father King Haggard is an old hag. Not Only is Haggard wrinkly and dead-eyed, but he is obsessed with keeping all the unicorns. Lir, who is the adopted son of Haggard, has the good-natured heart of a hero. After several grand attempts by Lir, Amalthea falls in love with him by a whimsical song of poetry, moving the story towards a climax. It is rare for the hero to be introduced this far along in a plot, and for him to never become the main character. As Amalthea slowly forgets herself, her life as a unicorn, they finally find the way to the Red Bull's lair. This is where the movie comes to a dramatic conclusion. All of the characters have such dynamics to them, especially Schmendrick and the Unicorn; even a minor character, a drunkard skeleton watching over a secret passage, is well-developed. For anyone interested, Beagle wrote a short sequel to The Last Unicorn.

Significant Plot Points:

-Unicorn turned into woman --- This is the turning point in the story. If the movie had been split into two parts, this would mark the beginning of the second part. The two unique halves of the plot is a good way to reinvigorate the story.

-Amalthea falls in love with Lir --- Romance does not have to be fulfilled. The main goal is to fulfill the plot, romance should not create breaks in the plot, but flow with it, even if the romance must end.

-Schmendrick goes from clumsy and uncertain to a good magician --- This simple transition helps to drive the plot. He is the one who turns the unicorn into woman. He also turns amalthea back into a unicorn, and is only able to because he has improved as a magician. And it is the unicorn's love of Lir, from her experience as a woman, that motivates the unicorn to defeat the Red Bull.

-Conversation --- There is a conversation near the end of the movie, before the final confrontation with the Red Bull, that represents the full essence of the plot. I am not sure how much of this conversation can be directly attributed to the novel, it has been five years since I've read it, but it is still an entailing few minutes. By this point, Amalthea has become so attached to her love for Prince Lir that she begs to remain a human. Previously, she had been fearful of dying and only concerned with freeing the other unicorns. Within a plot, no matter how creative, nothing can ultimately substitute for dialogue.

-Defining the Hero --- Characterization and Screen time is not all that defines a hero. Just as the hero helps shape the plot, plot also defines who and what is a hero. In The Last Unicorn, Lir does not appear until the second half of the film. When he does he attempts to capture the heart of Amalthea by doing heroic deeds such as slaying dragons and other beasts. However, with even these tasks he does not succeed, so that in the plot this does not make a hero. And it is indeed the unicorn who drives the Red Bull away, but only after Lir's sacrifice. Lir is able to make this sacrifice because of the same qualities that define a hero in the movie's plot. Lir is just and loving. The hero in this story is first caring and only second is he brave.

Don Bluth

After Don Bluth left Disney in 1979, he went on to direct a number of highly acclaimed animated movies including Secret of the NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dog's go to Heaven (ADGTH). All of these were released during a lull period for Disney except ADGTH which came out in 1989, the same year as the little Mermaid. Disney's movie had much more success, but ADGTH should not be overlooked, especially plotwise.

Don Bluth

ADGTH starts out with a prison escape, then a gambling house, and then a gangster's crib. Charlie and his friend Itchy are bad to the bone. Carface, Charlie's old partner, wants to get rid of Charlie. Carface gets Charlie drunk and runs him over with a car (What a nice kids' movie). Charlie ends up in Heaven but he is dissatisfied and escapes back to Earth by taking the watch guiding the time of his life at the risk of never being able to return to Heaven. Charlie finds an orphan girl, Anne-Marie held up in Carface's place and takes her with the intention of making money. They go to the horse race track where Charlie and Itchy con Anne-Marie into helping them bet on the right horse and steal money. Anne-Marie is slowly disheartened after they go on a gambling spree, but Charlie again promises to be helpful. Charlie then delivers some pizza to a puppy orphanage and sings a song about sharing right before Anne-Marie finds a wallet he stole. When sleeping that night Charlie has a hellish nightmare. When he wakes up, Charlie discovers Anne-Marie went to take the wallet to its owner. The couple in the house are looking after Anne-Marie when Charlie shows up and tricks her into leaving. Not long after, Carface finds them and attempts to kill Charlie. They escape, but find themselves captured by a rats and a crocodile (what???). Anyway, Charlie is able to get them out, but after trudging about in water, Anne-Marie becomes sick. Meanwhile, Carface and his thugs beat up Itchy, who comes complaining to Charlie about what happened and about Anne-Marie. He accuses Charlie of going soft and Charlie defends his pride as a "bad dog" by harshly down talking Anne-Marie without knowing she was listening. Anne-Marie runs out although she is ill and is then captured by Carface. Charlie goes to rescue her and after his final confrontation with Carface, he drops his watch and must choose between Anne-Marie and his own life.

Significant Plot Points:

-Anne-Marie has a special power --- there is very little focus around this, but the movie makes it clear in the scene at the horse track stable that Anne-Marie is the only one who can talk to animals. There is no explanation for this nor is it seen as unusual. This takes advantage of the viewer's imagination and the assumption that this is normal. All plots must at some point make many assumptions, otherwise every little aspect would have to be explained. Some assumptions, like this one, are stronger and a little more risky, but the plot passes over it smoothly. Anne-Marie's power is very significant to tying in the plot because she was held by Carface (and Charlie, bad dog...) in order to help win bets.

-Charlie's goals change from making money to helping Anne-Marie --- the ultimate goal for a character does not have to remain the same throughout a storyline. As characters change, their goals should change and the plot should reflect that.

-Charlie changes from selfish to caring --- it is important to have dynamic characters, but it is also important to avoid changing characters too much. Although Charlie's change is evident, he maintains his attitude and swagger. Just because he becomes nice and loves Anne-Marie enough to trade his life, doesn't mean he is a good dog. If Charlie became a polite, obedient dog it would be like creating a whole new character. A drastic change like this creates a fissure in plot mechanics and disrupts the viewers connection to the character.

-The Crocodile scene --- I think this scene represents the shortcomings of ADGTH. This is similar to those annoying side-quests in RPGs right before the final boss. There is nothing inherently wrong with the scene, but its placement interrupts the flow of the plot. Perhaps this scene was written in to give Charlie a way to escape from the anchor at the end.

-Anne-Marie --- Although she has a special power, Anne-Marie's character is given a sense of realism which is the main driving point of the plot. She is easily beguiled by Charlie and Itchy. Her moral temperament makes her leave (or speak of leaving) Charlie a few times, but she was always won back with Charlie's words or actions. The last time she runs out is the trigger for the climax. Her living conditions lead to her catching what is suspected to be pneumonia. She dreams of having parents and nice clothes, and her innocence is what changes Charlie.

Miyazaki Hayao

Miyazaki Hayao posing for the camera

In Japan major feature length animated movies have historically been released with more regularity than elsewhere. However, many of these movies are tied in with stories already established in a manga or on television. Miyazaki Hayao is by far the most well known creator of animated movies in Japan. I mentioned Studio Ghibli because, as many may already know, they do the art for most of Miyazaki's films.

Mononoke Hime, aka Princess Mononoke, is one of Miyazaki's most successful movies. This was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw and probably my favorite. It begins as a demon attacks Ashitaka's village. In the battle, Ashitaka is cursed and must leave the village. He eventually comes upon Iron Town after saving two men in the river gorge. Iron Town has become successful under the leadership of the strong-willed, Lady Eboshi, who is contracted to behead the Spirit of the nearby forest. The wolf god, her two cubs and her adopted human child, San, regularly attack the town attempting to protect the forest. Ashitaka must try to stop the attacks on the village and gain the trust of the wolf clan at the same time. When Eboshi succeeds in taking the head of the Forest Spirit chaos ensues. The Nightwalker, another form of the Forest Spirit, seeks to retrieve its head, taking the life of anything it touches.

Significant Plot Points:

-Ashitaka's life is disrupted by a demon --- something significant must happen to launch a good story, especially one with strict limitations as to how long it can be.

-The movie has no true villain --- Antagonists do not necessarily have to be evil. However, they can still be driven by imperfections, in this case ignorance and greed. The character Jigo is the closest to what might be considered a villain, but his impotence prevents this classification. He is a pawn of the Empreror and no threat to do anything without Lady Eboshi to back him. When San is displayed as an antagonist, she is ignorant of herself, as a human.

-Ashitaka becomes stuck in the middle of two opposing sides. Both sides are at times antagonistic and protagonistic (why is protagonistic apparently not a should be). There is not always a need to make good and bad clear as black and white. It is not this way in reality, so it should not always be this way even in an animated movie.
-Ashitaka falls in love with San --- love is always important. In this case, it is never openly returned at any point in the movie, although it does become apparent that this affection is not one-sided. Romance in a movie does not have to be snuggly. Relationship problems are one of the best ways to drive a plot forward and to connect with the viewers emotionally. Ashitaka's intention to protect Iron Town creates a fault line in his relationship with San that lasts until the end. This conflict boils over so much that San attempts to kill Ashitaka who is protected by his curse (Then they hug with the forest falling apart behind them and everything is a-okay).

-San has stable character development, as opposed to dynamic. However, the circumstances surrounding her character create dynamics. Characters do not always have to be themselves dynamic. Changing their place in the plot can be effective too. San shifts from antagonist to protagonist not because her character changes but because the conditions of the plot change.


Disney's The Lion King needs no introduction. I'll just remark on Mufasa's importance to the plot. Although Simba is the main character, Mufasa is probably the most popular character and is equally important to the plot due to his larger-than-life personality. The viewers know nothing about Mufasa's past, so Mufasa is courage and he is love. This is an excellent way to give a character with less screen time a strong influence on the plot. Whenever Mufasa speaks, whatever he does, it is taken seriously. Even after Mufasa dies, Simba is stuck in the shadow of his father. Mufasa also makes an appearance as a ghost in the clouds to drive the plot towards a climax. When Simba becomes King he does not have this same stature because we saw him struggle with fear and doubt.

Significant Plot Points:

-Simba and Nala's disobedience ---important dialogue is essential to a good plot. However, such dialogue cannot be randomly placed into a scene. In the Lion King Simba and Nala go to the Elephant Graveyard despite warnings from Mufasa, Zazu, and even Scar (kinda...). After Mufasa shows up and saves them from the Hyenas, there is a scene where Mufasa tells Simba about the stars. This scene is only possible because of the event preceding it. The dialogue is shown later to hold a special importance to Simba.

-Mufasa's death –-- not everything about the plot has to be revealed to the main character immediately. That Simba thinks he is responsible for his father's death becomes important later in the story.

-Simba enjoys his life of no responsibility –-- What in this case seems good, Hakuna Matata, helps to hold Simba back from taking his role as King. This does not make Hakuna Matata bad, but great stories require important roles to be filled by main characters.

-Mufasa appears in the clouds --- The main character cannot always be certain and confident. However, something noteble must be used to drive the story and the character to a higher level of confidence. After Nala finds Simba and attempts to bring him back to the Pride, Simba becomes indecisive and unsure of who he is. It is only after Simba confronts the ghost of his father that he is able to accept responsibility as heir to the throne of Pride Rock. This scene is also important because the climax should not come as a surprise. The viewer should not necessarily be able to predict what will happen, but when the climax will happen. This scene does the exact opposite of the Crocodile scene in ADGTH by building towards the climax.

-Scar wants power over the Pride --- evil dudes want power (or money), it's as simple as that, and effective. Thinking too far outside of the box can sometimes hinder the plot. Some people bash Disney's Renaissance Age (1989-1999) movies for their predictability, but it did work and there's no arguing against that.

-Simba vs. Scar –-- Using physical conflict to push plot is another way animated movies deviate from books. Meshing together significant plot points with a fight is difficult to do in a book but a fairly simple maneuver in an animation. When Simba is battling Scar there is an overhanging question within the Pride of why Simba ran away. At first Scar uses Mufasas death to break Simba's confidence and make the pride distrust Simba. But when Mufasa tells Simba the truth, Simba uses this truth as motivation and then tells the Pride, effectively ending Scar's reign.

Wouldn't it be nice if things could stay this way...

But some things are just too important


The works by Pixar follow a different format than its peers. While others focused on serious drama or fairy tales (fantastical stories), Pixar decided to go with a light-hearted perspective. Most movies have a variety of elements, but movies like Pixar's Toy Story are quite evidently more light in tone than the list of other movies during this era. However, Toy Story does have an overtone that gives it a strong plot.

How to get from here...

and here...

to here

Significant Plot Points:

-The introduction of a new character, Buzz Lightyear, disrupts life

-Jealousy and Friendship are the driving forces in this story --- Woody's Jealousy and Buzz Lightyear's ego creates conflict. Their bonding as friends solves the overarching problem.

-Woody and Buzz's antics increase throughout plot --- reusing the same event type while increasing its importance is a common but effective method of moving the plot. Toy Story moves from Woody cracking jokes on Buzz to fighting, and ultimately their antics put them into the hands of Sid.

-More fun, light hearted than other animations --- Of the movies discussed in this article, Toy Story is probably the best example that a movie does not have to be serious. What might otherwise be a grime situation is explored Toy Story's plot in a colorful way.

-Confrontation with a significant problem, event (Sid) can create bonds --- friendships in a movie should not be created spontaneously except when they exist before the start of said movie. Otherwise, the creation of friendship must drive plot.

Other Plot Points

Aladdin storyboard art

Movies, animated and live, are often a showcase for determination. This is one area where animated movie plots differentiate from book plots. It is more difficult for a book to show exemplary Rocky-style determination, especially in regard to plot development. Music and visuals certainly help to create this mood. The moments of greatest motivation usually follow the moments of greatest despair. This near-immediate switch from bad to good is not only difficult to do in a book but also ill-advised. However, it works great in movies when it is time to shift the plot towards a climax. In Balto, Balto is separated from the dog crew and on the point of giving up when a white wolf appears before him. This is significant because, as a half-wolf, Balto is shunned from the other dogs, but this occurrence helps Balto to accept his wolf side.

Singing is much more frequent in an animated film than live movie, even if the animation would not be considered a musical. However, rarely do these movies have songs that do not promote the plot. The Little Mermaid has two songs that I think represent this idea very well, each song with a different purpose. The first is Part of Your World. This song is the basis of the whole movie. It explains what the movie is about and shows how much Ariel wants to be apart of the human world and it is this desire that drives the plot. Nothing explains Ariel's desire better than this song. Her obsession is not a passing interest. The second song is Poor Unfortunate Souls. When Ariel visits Ursala in order to become human, Ursala sings this sing pretty much about herself. But the importance of this song is how Ursala is deceptive because she has no intention of actually helping Ariel. During the song is when Ariel makes her decision to sign the contract. Instead of having a long conversation or leaving the story vague, Ursala sings to convince Ariel. The song also foreshadows the events that happen later in the movie.

Alright, that's it. Whew that was a lot. Thanks for reading. I did this article because I really enjoy great stories with great characters.

P.S. There are a lot of things I couldn't cover in an article like this, even in the movies I mentioned.
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