Screenwriters in animation are, like animators and directors and storyboard artists, the unsung champions of animated films. But they are unsung champions for wholly different reasons.
Take a moment and reminisce about your favorite moment from any animated film you watched. While animators are often heralded for creating those moments – particularly sequences of high emotion – it’s easy to forget that before any animators were involved, those scenes were born in the mind of writers who had to realize these moments with nothing more than typewriter (or in today’s world, a word processor) and a vivid imagination. Before anything else, those writers had to do the heavy work of making those moments sing on paper before they were brought to life through the production process. This is almost quite literal, since writing for feature animation requires screenwriters to be more descriptive than for live-action.
Think about it, how would moments like Mufasa’s death in The Lion King resonate if Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton weren’t there to hit the right emotional notes needed to make that scene hit home. How in the world would something like the ‘Forbidden Friendship’ sequence from How to Train Your Dragon be pulled off – without dialogue – if Will Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders couldn’t realize it in a way that took advantage of the animators’ visual storytelling.
That’s how important screenwriters are to the process of developing an animated film. It’s all well and good for a story to come alive with through an animator’s touch, but that magic also needs to come alive through words.
Today, in a rare return to the saturated arena of ‘listicles’, I’m going to highlight six screenwriters who who are responsible for crafting some of your favorite animated movies. This list isn’t really meant to be definitive, but I feel it’s a strong sampling of some of the best screenwriters working in feature animation today.
Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, Lilo & Stitch)
I already mentioned him in my introduction, so I might as well get him out of the way first. If you are a long-time reader, it’s no secret that I love Dean Deblois as a director, and I definitely admire him just as heavily as a storyteller. Even when he made his screenwriting debut as a co-writer on Lilo & Stitch, the story possessed a few noticeable flourishes that would soon become his trademarks – a strong focus on family issues, character-driven plot turns, layered themes, and a notable talent for creating scene-stealing critters who become the face of a franchise.
Those trademarks would crop up again when he and collaborator Chris Sanders teamed up for How to Train Your Dragon. Here, he would use said trademarks to build one of the most effective executions of the ‘boy and his X’ story that I’ve ever seen. Then, in How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dean DeBlois essentially ‘comes of age’ as a writer as he marries those talents with his sure-handed skills as director. The result is a blockbuster-level animated fantasy spectacle, and one of the best animated films of the decade (in my opinion).
What’s even more remarkable about Dean’s work with the Dragon films is how his writing has inspired something rare for animation: a franchise that thrives on a singular vision and is incredibly lore-driven, with ongoing arcs that weave through films, shorts, TV shows, and (eventually) graphic novels. By the time How to Train Your Dragon 3 comes out, Dean DeBlois will have constructed one of the most intricate animated film sagas of all time, and he will have done it with the knowledge that he was able to maintain his creative imprint as a storyteller across all three!
Bryan Lynch (Puss in Boots, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets)
You have movies like this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, that give viewers a richly-crafted and unapologetically mature piece of animated storytelling. Then, you have films that don’t aim as high and just want you to come in and enjoy the show (turning your brain off might be a factor as well). We get maybe two or three of those films every year (this year’s top examples: Angry Birds and Storks). So, wouldn’t they be easy enough for a screenwriter that they could write those movies in their sleep? Not exactly. Animated movies of that caliber still need to hit the notes they need in order to be worthwhile or else they turn into Norm of the North. So, who’s really the best at writing this type of animated movie? I’ll make the case for Bryan Lynch.
Lynch, who hails from the world of comic books, made his bow as a co-writer on Hop (yeah). But it wasn’t until he became co-writer of Puss in Boots that he really showcased his talent for making an animated film that was simply ‘entertaining’. I should know, as someone who went into Puss in Boots expecting to hate it and came out with a grin on my face. And while I have my issues with Minions and The Secret Life of Pets, Lynch’s knack for buoyant pacing and great action sequences put him at least a notch or two above his lesser-skilled peers (again, see: Norm of the North).
I still don’t think that Bryan has written his ‘breakout’ movie, but he must be doing something right with these movies if even a divisive film like Minions can score a billion dollars at the box office.
Jared Bush (Zootopia, Moana)
This man has only written two animated films to date. But it’s a testament to his strength as a screenwriter that both those movies were smash hits in a year full of smash hits. Yes, I’m talking about Jared Bush and his work on Zootopia and Moana.
In Zootopia, Bush took the talking animal sub-genre to its logical extreme and did so by using it as a means of saying something meaningful about the current relationship between police and minority groups. Similarly, with Moana he took audiences to a new world with a new mythology and a different kind of Disney princess (well, not really a princess).
Bush hails from the world of television, best known to some as the co-creator of Disney XD’s Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero. He’s definitely made an entrance into feature animation if he’s honed his skills that well in TV and applied them to feature animation. Definitely mark this guy down as one to watch.
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda trilogy, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Trolls)
I mentioned this elsewhere before, but Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are an underrated commodity in feature animation. They are both capable of crafting quality franchise films through a mix of action-y set pieces, well-executed humor, and creative world-building. Not least of all, they are reliably good at it, which helps if you want place a franchise film (or in the case of Trolls, a potential franchise starter) in steady hands.
They even surprise in areas where you normally wouldn’t expect to derive any enjoyment from. For example, Monsters Vs. Aliens is one of DWA’s lesser films, but it was made watchable by way of some funny moments and cool action sequences. Meanwhile, They took what could have easily been a ‘phone-in’ job and made The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water into a passably entertaining diversion.
Also, much like Dean DeBlois, Aibel and Berger did something unique with the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. They crafted what may be the most narratively and thematically complete trilogy of animated films in recent memory. That alone illustrates how valuable they are as a ‘package deal’.
Jennifer Lee (Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen)
Jennifer Lee, like Jared Bush, is relatively newer to animation as a screenwriter. But she too has made an impression with the two films she has written thus far.
Wreck-It Ralph was something unique for Disney at the time, stepping outside the usual studio conventions to deliver a unique and lovingly-crafted adventure film and a love letter to video games. And while everyone is entitled to their own opinion about Frozen, you can’t deny that Lee had done what few other newcomers did: craft a female-led monster hit off the back of a script full of immediately iconic characters and moments.
What makes her success that much more important is that she’s achieved it all as one of only a few major ‘big name’ female creators in feature animation. That carries with it the hope that she will continue to carve a path for other female creators to get involved in feature animation (in screenwriting and elsewhere).
Well, that was my list of top screenwriters in animation! Again, it’s by no means definitive, so be sure to tell me who your favorite screenwriter in feature animation is in the comment section below. If you don’t have a favorite, pick a moment you liked from an animated movie and give credit to the writers who wrote that scene!
What do you think? Do you have a favorite screenwriter in feature animation?