Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Hedgehog in the Fog: Characterization

In an earlier entry, I wrote about Barnaby being a special comic strip in part because of its modest, unassuming nature. One of my favourite animated films shares this quality. It's Yuri Norstein's The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975).

Watching this film (or rewatching it) will probably make the follow posting a little more rewarding.






As with any wonderful work of art, there's a number of ways to approach it. But for now (although I might very well return to this film for another posting), I just want to talk about its use of characterization.

Two things happen very quickly in this film, in terms of character. One, we are charmed by the hedgehog. This occurs in part because of the design of the character (he looks like a ball of harmless fluff), but more importantly it occurs because of the how the character is acted. When we first see the hedgehog, he is marching along with great determination. Within a few seconds, in this same shot, he pauses, looks up for a moment, considers the heavens... then continues along on his industrious way. In this tiny bit of animation, (and within seconds of being introduced to this character), the audience has been shown that although he may be well-intentioned, this little creature is easily distracted. He can be swayed from his goal, if only momentarily. He is, quite simply, curious about the world around him. The revealing of these traits implies several things: he has a sense of adventure, he perhaps is inclined to falling into a bit of trouble now and then, and he is fallible, in that he is not capable of driving himself unerringly to whatever he desires (ala Superman, which is why Superman is so boring). This little guy might stumble along the way. He is, if not an underdog, someone we would certainly root for in a conflict. We are on his side. In short, we are charmed.

The other important character consideration that is nailed very quickly grows out of the first. Now that we are charmed by this character, it is much easier for us, if called upon, to willingly align ourselves with him on whatever adventures are about to occur.

This aligning with the hedgehog on our part begins to form something strong as we begin to like him (which happens very quickly), and is further deepened as he is unwittingly stalked by the owl. We can see that the owl is about to get the hedgehog, but the hedgehog has no idea. This puts us in a position of wanting to protect the hedgehog. We want to save him from the threat, but can't. When the threat passes (the owl becomes distracted by its own echo down the well), our desire to protect the hedgehog remains. It doesn't disappear just because the immediate threat of the owl has subsided. The bond between us and the hedgehog has thus been strengthened. What finally and utterly connects us with the hedgehog is the next scene, which finds the camera moving through the bushes in a "hedgehog cam" series of shots. We are literally seeing as if we are the hedgehog. And as we all know from our film studies classes, direct pov shots can dramatically increase the audience's sense of being one with the character whose eyes we are seeing through. This pov technique ends quickly, but its effect remains. We are now deeply connected with the hedgehog. His adventures are our adventures. We share his moments of wonder, of fear, of discovery, of self-doubt, of resignation, and ultimately of contentment.

I think this intense connection between character and audience is partly what makes this film so powerful and magical. Every time the hedgehog discovers the tree, and looks up into its towering branches, I am filled with awe (much as I'm sure our little hedgehog is).

There's much more I could talk about in terms of character in this film, but the last thing I want to point out is the final scene, in which bear and hedgehog are united. Bear happily (and rather dim-wittedly) recites the details of their nightly visits, details we already know about: they will burn juniper branches for the fire, they will sit in their chairs and count the stars. But for hedgehog, something has changed now. He has been through the fog, he has seen the white horse and has wondered about it. He has met bats and owls and snails, and even a hunter's dog. He has seen a giant tree, and his has floated down the river on Someone's back. Hedgehog has changed. He has grown, from his adventures. And this change is made all the more evident by the lack of change that bear exhibits.

What I love about this bit of character development is that the film ends without us knowing what, if any, effect his time in the fog will have on hedgehog. Hedgehog is happy to be back with bear, and he wonders about the horse, and how she is doing in the fog. The world of structure and order has been re-established... but the mystery introduced still remains, and is not only acknowledged but heralded.

Hedgehog can never be the same again, not after seeing the horse. He has changed because he has been touched by the magic in the fog.

And so have we.




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