Jessica Helfand | Essays

How Hollywood Nailed The Half-Pipe

Scrat from Ice Age 2: The Meltdown. Twentieth Century Fox, ©2006.

When I was a child, back in the pre-Playstation dark ages, entertainment was rather a simple affair. TV meant network TV — no cable, no satellite, no dishes on the roof — and cartoons were what you watched on Saturday morning: Underdog, Huckleberry Hound, Tom and Jerry, Josie and the Pussycats. Of these, nothing was so rivetting as Road Runner, the Speedy Gonzales of the animal set, a creature whose superpower (supersonic speed) was comically offset by his interminable run of bad luck. My most enduring memory as a child is of sitting watching Road Runner while my mother gently (and constantly) reminded me that in real life, you don't actually bounce back to normal after a 10-ton anvil falls on your head.

Naturally, my children think this is ludicrous. They've grown up with Jimmy Neutron and Billy and Mandy, and, well, far be it from me to remind them that there's no proof that the Grim Reaper has a Jamaican accent. (Though I do, indeed, try.) As for warning them of real-life dangers, it seems that Pixar and Animal Logic have pretty much taken care of that. They've mastered a particularly persuasive (and as it turns out, rather literal) form of spin that makes Road Runner look about as scary as dryer lint.

It's the Hollwood half-pipe. And kids can't get enough of it.

We first saw it back in the Ice Age movies, where the impish Scrat careens in snowy spirals hoping to hang onto a single acorn. We saw it underwater in Finding Nemo, where sea creatures big and small engage in a bubbly ballet of loops and spins. And in the recent Animal Logic release, Happy Feet, it's pretty much taken over the whole film. Here it's a slapstick move: the loop-de-loop of the classic half-pipe plays out on a slick surface of snow and ice, the dancers waddle and flip (I should mention that they're penguins) and as the perils increase, the dance numbers do, too. Critics have praised Happy Feet's incongruous plotlines, a welcome deviation from the formulaic storylines of most cartoon movies and one which is amplified by an eclectic soundtrack clearly intended to keep parents awake. There are some inspired casting choices, like Robin Williams channeling his inner Charo and a fat-cat evangelical penguin, also voiced by Williams in a pitch-perfect rendition of Barry White. Ethnic diversity aside, the common language here is the half-pipe: they all do it, and they do it constantly, so that by the end of the film, the encroaching evil-doers seem somehow disabused of their menacing intent because the audience knows better. Ergo, the penguins slip-slide right on past the big, bad industrialists to their flap-happy, G-rated and triumphant end.

Animals have long been the protagonists of choice for children. Along the way, they've been crafted by assuming human qualities — and not just in the Western canon: from Anansi the Spider to Peter Rabbit, children thrill to the notion of a seemingly implausible character solving a problem of some visible consequence. (Obviously it is far better for little people to see a bunny in danger than to see, for example, a five-year old child held hostage by Mr. Macgregor. That's no fairy tale: that's a felony.) But in feature-length cartoons like Happy Feet, the animals assume other, more subtle and crafty qualities, too. They flirt. They fret. They exhibit passive aggressive tendencies. There are political stalemates, generational divides, economic hardships, environmental perils. In the end, there's a kind of Disney-esque resolution, suggesting that dancing is the antidote to adversity. (I'm tempted to relate this to recent events in American politics, but suffice it to say that there's a kind of loosely political "walk the walk, talk the talk" shorthand at play in this movie that's mildly discomfitting.) There's a weird mash-up going on here, and it's not just the soundtrack. Imagine channel-switching between C-Span and Dancing With the Stars. You get the idea.

Meanwhile, the film endlessly riffs on a cinematic sequence that adoringly and ineffably recalls the art of the half-pipe. Was it deliberate, this choice to recreate the graceful moves, the gravity-defying lift-off that summons images of the snow (or skate) boarder? Was it intentional, this extension of the sleek surface, from a manageable half-pipe to a menacing mountain range? (Wasn't it enough in Nemo and Ice Age? Or did somebody call market research and find out this is just — pardon the pun — the tip of the iceberg?) It is likely that there's a bankable (and at times inverse) relationship between special effects and fear: in other words, the more fun it looks, the less dangerous it will seem to viewers. (And the more concerning it will be to parents.)

I promised myself that if I had children one day, I wouldn't admonish them, as my mother did me, about the real, live dangers inspired by cartoon derring-do. But faced with the lure of the Hollywood half-pipe, I'm not so sure any more. I thought I was using good judgment opting for G over PG-13. And hey — they're cute, those penguins. But the more human they get, the less kids remember that they're birds. You don't need an anvil dropped on your head to see where this could lead. In the meantime, the animation is beautiful, if a bit vertigo-inducing. And isn't it time the cartoon-length feature veered away from water and ice, onto plain old solid ground?

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [31]

I'm pretty sure Speedy Gonzalez was of the animal set, and you may be confusing Road Runner with Wile E. Coyote in the bad luck department.

I don't know what this article is actually about. Really. I read it to the end thinking you were going to tie it all together... but no. I have no idea.
steven h

I got it. Parenting, etc... Good stuff Mrs. H.

joe m

On the day I graduated from kindergarten, I was throwing rocks off a bridge in our neighborhood into something called Wolf Creek. I lost my balance and went over the edge myself.

To this day, I distinctly remember attempting to reverse myself in midair and "run" back to the edge. I knew this maneuver was an option because I had seen it performed successfully by the Road Runner many times.

Needless to say, I fell the ten feet anyway. Hairline skull fracture, two weeks in the hospital. I didn't take my physics lessons from cartoons after that.
Michael Bierut

I'm going to have to agree with the first two comments.
John Ellis

NPR did a nice little piece on Charlie Brown today - noting how real untrained children's voices uttered ruminations on adult themes like materialism and faith (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6545283). I think the smart mix of animated characters today (animal or blobby human - think South Park) and tricky themes can be more revealing than live action... For, in super-human cartoon form a viewer (even a child viewer) can find a place to insert his/her imaginative alter-ego and experience the fantasy experientially.

I think the arc that Charlie made with his body as he flailed from missinig the football that Lucy snatched away is the harbinger of all things half-pipe today.

Jessica Gladstone

My brother and I would take off our shoes and go into the kitchen and run like Scooby Doo and Shaggy on the tile floor. Stocking feet going really fast before "take off."


Joe Moran

Growing up my family would go camping in eastern Washington. I remember inner tubing down the river many times fantasizing that I'd end up floating into the 'Land of the Lost'. Of course I'd then be chased around by the 'Sleestak' and hang out with 'Chaka'.

Thank you Sid & Marty Krofft for all the memories.
Von Glitschka

I woke up this morning and walked down to the bus stop where I normally catch my bus. It was slightly late, but I wasn't too worried as it had been slightly late before, and I'd still managed to get to work on time. When it arived, I got on and paid my fare and went and sat in down. The bus went it's usual route and I got off at my usual stop, before walking the short distance to work. I was on time!
Dr Eary

She does have a point. A worn-out one, but still a point. Whacky Cartoon characters, kids, responsible parenting in America, etc. But the problems are in the details. Look at the introduciton. She obviously doesn't really know either Speedy Gonzales or Road Runner. No problem there. But she tries to sound like they're her beloved familiar characters. Why did she do that? I wonder if that's a habit.

I agree with the remarks about the opening paragraph. I'm only 22 and I still grew up on Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera. One should get there cartoon characters straight before referencing them.

If anything, G rated cartoons have gotten a lot more tame since the WB predecessors.

Do you honestly think one Pokémon blasting another in the face with a shotgun à la Elmer Fudd would be rated TV Y nowadays?

I personally think parenting is the issue not the cartoons. On a side note Happy Feet was a very good flick.

Pardon my ignorance, but are we trying to coin a new term? The last time I checked, a half pipe is used for skateboarding. I have never heard it used in relation to entertainment strategies, tactics or gimmics. Maybe you could do a little softshoe and explain it for me?


"The Speedy Gonzalez of the animal set"? That's hysterical.

It gives the impression that the writer may have heard someone discuss these cartoons, acquiring some vague notion of the characters without ever having actually watched them.

It's like my college professor who wrote scholarly articles on film history, referencing obscure films she had never seen, thinking no one else ever would either.

Absolutely hysterical.

robert d, Derek, David, John Ellis, joe m, steven h, and jesse...

Are you people for real?

The real Joe Moran.

Really & Respectfully/
Joe Moran

I agree with the first two comments, and with d's point about a half-pipe (?). What a mess.

Dear Ms. Helfand,

Respectfully, I believe the word you were searching for was discomforting, and not 'discomfitting'. Also, as noted by others before, Speedy Gonzales was a mouse, and therefore quite animal. Roadrunner never got the anvil on the head, but rather Wile E. Coyote.

Agreeably, the half-pipe and/or ski jump is often used in animation. It has been there since before the skate-board culture, as seen in the aforementioned Roadrunner cartoons, Disney's Goofy, and others.

Arguably, though weakly so, your article fits into the 'Culture' end of Design Observer's mission. Your commentary about parenting and the responsibilities of framing reality for your children are noted. I gather that you rely on your childrens' own intelligences to differentiate the fact and fiction of physics, and the rest will be covered by experience, as Mr. Beirut pointed out in his own anecdote.

These things aside, what unsettles me most about your feature is that in a world becoming increasingly diverse and adverse, Americans are becoming more insular in their belief that they are fjording the annals of culture by discussing its most trivial affectations. Intellectuals are waxing on about nothing, and Americans are eating it up, really believing that they are the heralds of culture in a brave new world.

More poignantly, this rubbish of babble is fueling ignorance of the absolutely malevolent concourse America has set upon the rest of the world. While I cannot attest to your affiliations, political or otherwise, I would like, for the record, to note that you are not contributing to discourse. To the contrary, you are helping to push the stone down the hill onto the village below.

My sincerest hope is that in the future, you and the other directors of Design Observer think twice about feeding the 'American Dream' engine, and rather address what real and tangible elements are behind its red, white and blue veneer.

Do you truly want this to be your legacy?

Raymond Prucher
Raymond Prucher

I must confess that my knowledge of animated cartoon characters and skateboarding terms is sketchy at best, so I was taken aback at the strong responses in the comment list here from people clearly upset about the mischaracterization of Speedy Gonzalez and imprecise use of the term half-pipe. Perhaps because I'm a father of three I was able to follow that element of Jessica's article nonetheless.

I must add I don't think writing about cartoons, parenting or skateboarding is out of character for this site, never mind "fjording the annals of culture by discussing its most trivial affectations." A quick scan of our archives shows articles on a lot of subjects that one might consider "trivial," but which the writers thought afforded some insights to the way design works, for good or ill, in large ways or very small.
Michael Bierut

Dear Mr. Beirut,

I realise that for every big picture there are many small ones, that we all pay bills and the conseqences of lifetimes of actions and reactions. We feed our children, bury our parents, mow our lawns, and change fuses in dark basements. But this isn't design, and it isn't culture. It is too often mistaken for the latter in America, and I propose that we stop kidding ourselves.

The writers of Design Observer are amongst the most lauded in their field, having written many books, some of which I have on my own shelves. You are the voices of design to the world, a role which you accepted for yourselves by contributing to and publishing Design Observer.

Realising that, should there be so many observations about middle-class American ideals, or should the focus rather be outward and about design's role and function in the larger world? The inclusion of Mr. Shaughnessy in its annals leads me to believe that DO is not interested in homogeneity. Instead of the abundance of spit-takes and pratfalls in animation, why not discuss the social negligence of 'Grand Theft Auto', the political impasses of sustainable design, or the astuteness and propagandist abuses of poster art in promoting 'causes' worldwide?

Raymond Prucher
Raymond Prucher

dis·com·fit (dĭs-kŭm'fĭt) Pronunciation Key
tr.v. dis·com·fit·ed, dis·com·fit·ing, dis·com·fits

1. To make uneasy or perplexed; disconcert.

Before you call someone on their word choice, take the time to look it up.

"We feed our children, bury our parents, mow our lawns, and change fuses in dark basements. But this isn't design, and it isn't culture."

By whose definition? Aspects of design feed into all those activities, and they are most certainly manifestations of culture. Unless by "culture" you mean that set of activities -- such as opera, or fine art publishing -- traditionally defined as "high-culture". But that view of culture is, at the very least, anthropologically limiting, and insupportable as framework for understanding the broad range of human activity. DO has traditionally taken this kind of broad approach, as is appropriate for a blog concerned with the designed world.

Having said that, while an admirer of Ms. Helfand's writings, I share some of the misgivings of other commenters about this piece in particular.

N. Woolridge
Nicholas Woolridge

ok so then... what insight does this article offer into the way design works? that's the real problem here. it's not that the subject is trivial -- animation is certainly relevant to design via illustration, motion, creative messages, etc. -- it's that this article's connection to design is so dismally blurry.

careless errors and condescension about the animation industry aside, the article also tanks because it relies on the crutches of 1) "back in my day..." and 2) "my children..." it reads like those articles in the back of airline magazines. enough about your children already, please. there are plenty of other sites for that. nothing is more tedious than people needlessly working their children into things. *yawn* kids are great, but we're adults here for design discourse. come on.

My sincere apologies to Ms. Helfand. I did in fact look up the word discomfitting and had not found it. But I see now that it was used expediently. Thank you, Micah.

And I extend an further apology to Ms. Helfand and Mr. Beirut for any seeming attacks to their characters. My intention was to address the perfunctory nature of the article in particular, and I overstepped my boundaries by mentioning child rearing and personal affiliations.

Mr. Woolridge, you are correct in stating that these activities fit into culture in an anthropological sense of the term. Duly noted.
Raymond Prucher

My further apologies for the misspelling of Mr. Bierut's name.
Raymond Prucher

The critiques of this post regarding confusion between Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote aside, Mr. Prucher fundamentally seems to simply want us to write about other things, so as to avoid "fjording the annals of culture by discussing its most trivial affectations." It is fine that you wish we'd write about things less middle-class than a movie that a million people will see. You live and teach in a place where there are clearly other issues.

We will occasionally write about Africa and sustainability and "propagandist abuses of poster art." But we write about things we know.

Since you care so deeply about other issues, we'd encourage you to start a blog and to start writing. We'd be happy to occasionally blog your posts. But please do not project your desire for your content and your subjects onto our forum. It's not leading to a dialogue about design, or what are appropriate design topics. It's simply a non sequitur on this particular post...

(And, I wish you'd joined in on David Stairs recent post about African furniture design. That post could have used your insights.)
William Drenttel

Thank you for directing my attention to Designers Without Borders. I am encouraged by their work.
Raymond Prucher

The post seems to suggest that the representation of animals in children's entertainment is becoming subtly more anthromorphic. Really? Have Pixar made animals more human than Aesop? Than the Jataka Tales or the Anwar-i-Suhaili? Than the stories of the various Native American tribes? It doesn't seem that way to me...

What I find more interesting is the continuity here. New and impressive technologies allow animators to do pretty much anything their imaginations can embrace. So why do they still give us talking creatures? Could it just be that the animal fable responds to something deep in the human psyche? Something that crosses cultures and languages with impunity? Talking mice skipping between the prairies of Dakota and the forests of Norhern Europe is surely a much more impressive 'half-pipe' than anything John Lasseter can conjure up.
james souttar

"So why do they still give us talking creatures?"

Questions of anthropomorphism in contemporary animation often lead us into the Uncanny Valley. Worth a detour.

Michael Bierut

For anyone who thought that this story was trivial, I would encourage you to read the work of the scholar John Fiske. Fiske writes eloquently about popular culture, describing, for example, how and why the New Newlywed Game brought cultural agency to the women who watched it. It is a convincing read, and there is much similar work about the ways that producers, writers, and yes, designers contribute in significant ways to mediated culture. There are many different kinds of readers and watchers out there, and designers can only benefit from learning more about how and why people use the material that they consume. Whenever anyone allows me to see an alternative and convincing cultural perspective, whether it concerns fact, fiction, or fantasy, then I am all ears. Thank you, Jessica.
Stuart McKee

To Raymond Prucher et al.: This is my first visit to this blog, so I am not familiar with the the typical level of civil discourse on this site. Perhaps the nits you pick are critical to an alternative ideology you are building over a longer term. Two details I'd like to point out, overall, in terms of civility and language use: First, "fjording" takes advantage of slide between the more standard option of "fording" and the noun "fjord," which is not typically used as a verb. I take this to be, rather than a mistake, an example of metonymic play. Note to whom the benefit goes. Second, "discomfort" is not a verb. Note this time how prescriptive such a correction seems.

Ms. Helfand: Do you see the half-pipe as a structure, in addition to being a theme? It could be an intriguing way of rereading the episodic nature of cartoons.
Kimberly McColl

Incidentally, I discover that poor Sr Gonzalez has become a victim of modern sensibilities. Because, apparently, he might upset Mexicans he has been 'disappeared' (a strangely Latin American kind of fate to meet a Hollywood star - is that nasty character from Roger Rabbit running some kind of death squad now?). Have a look on the Warner Brothers site, and you'll find all the 'Toons' there - except Speedy. He has been airbrushed out of cartoon history.
James Souttar

"(1) the social negligence of 'Grand Theft Auto', (2) the political impasses of sustainable design, or (3) the astuteness and propagandist abuses of poster art in promoting 'causes' worldwide?"

1. This would be based on the bogus premise that GTA and games like it had a social responsibility that, say, roller coasters or professional wrestling don't.

2. Important topic -- but aren't economic impasses more important?

3. Can you be more specific? You're not talking about those 'obey giant' posters, right? Whatever legitimate or illegitimate message it might have, its main effect is self-promotion, though you could say this about any poster.

I was not blown away by this article, but these suggestions are just as potentially frivolous (or important). Even if the author didn't successfully convey the dangers of half-piping, I wouldn't assume that her point wasn't a legitimate one, or that it wasn't worth making.
in defense of the author

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