Borrowed Time, a short animated film made by some Pixar talent has been making the rounds recently, and people are eating this “bold” and “dark” animated short up for some reason.
And if you like it, fine, more power to you…but it’s really not all that good of a story. It’s emotional, sure, but it’s all surface. And that’s because it’s missing a very basic part of narrative.
Let’s go through the short to see if we can’t notice it:
- We open on the Sheriff looking downtrodden as he overlooks a cliff face.
- We then flashback to the Sheriff as a child, riding in a wagon with his father, whom gives him his hat and a pocketwatch.
- As the Sheriff approaches the cliff’s edge in the present, we continue the flashback to see the young Sheriff and his father being chased by bandits.
- When the Sheriff reaches the edge, the flashback shows his father falling off that same cliff after the bandit chase.
- Continuing in the flashback, we watch as the young Sheriff tries to help his father up from the cliff, only to accidentally cause his father to fall to his death.
- Back in the present, the Sheriff leans over the edge of the cliff, preparing to take his own life.
- But, before he can, the rising sun reflects off of his father’s old pocketwatch – which is still in the dirt – distracting the Sheriff.
- The Sheriff, picking up the old pocketwatch, finds a picture of him and his dad, and decides not to kill himself.
It’s a tight little story about guilt and grief, but there’s something very important missing that severely weakens it: Why does the Sheriff decide to commit suicide today?
Before we answer that, I will admit that Borrowed Time is successfully sad. The music is slow and somber, the animation more than competently conveys how the Sheriff is feeling, and the death of a loved one – especially when you feel responsible for it – is traumatic. Those are all sad things, but not even all of those things together makes a sad story. There’s no cause and effect there.
That’s a bit much. There is one causal relationship: We know that his part in his father’s death caused the Sheriff to feel guilt – guilt enough to take his own life. What we don’t know is why he waited so long to do it.
Judging from the age difference between the Sheriff in the flashback and the present, we can guess that at least twenty years have passed between the day of his father’s death and today, which begs the question: if he feels this guilty, why has he waited at least twenty years to do this? What has the Sheriff been doing for the past twenty-odd years that kept him from the cliff?
This isn’t to say that childhood trauma can’t have a lasting effect on people. Let’s look at another fictional character for an example: Batman. Traumatized by the murder of his parents when he was a child, Bruce Wayne decides to dedicate his life to fighting crime as an adult. But, we also know that Bruce Wayne spent the twentyish years between his parents’ murder and becoming Batman training to become Batman. There’s no gap. The childhood trauma leads directly to his adult actions.
Presumably, if he hasn’t killed himself yet, it means that he has some sort of life beyond this cliff, but we’re not even given a slight hint as to what that life was, or what the process was behind leaving that life behind to come to the cliff. We know he’s a Sheriff, but we don’t know what that entails. Is he a good Sheriff, or a failed Sheriff? Does he have a family? We’re not even led to believe that these are repressed memories, so that’s out of the equation. We’re also not given that the Sheriff has t
We know that the Sheriff is deeply traumatized by what happened to him as a kid. But why did he wake up and decide “today is the day I kill myself?” What causes him to leave his normal life behind? Why does this story happen now?
I learned that that bit of the story, the thing that causes a character to start the story, is called “the ticket to the ball.” The name comes from Cinderella: the reason that she’s able to escape her terrible life and start her story is because she’s given a ticket to the Prince’s ball. It’s not exactly the inciting incident of your story, but it’s the part that tells the audience why the story is happening, and its a basic building block of good narrative.
In-story, “The ticket to the ball” should be the thing that convinces the protagonist to participate in the story. Apollo Creed chooses randomly Rocky to fight him for the championship. Mario gets a letter from Peach telling him to come to the castle. Hamlet’s father visits him as a ghost. The “ticket” doesn’t have to be connected to a character’s backstory, it doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t even have to be a decision; all it really has to to is tell the audience why this story is happening now opposed to any other time before or after this moment.
For Borrowed Time, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Maybe his girlfriend left him. Maybe he just got a letter that his mother passed. Maybe the bandits from the flashback were recently caught. There has to be something there that connects the Sheriff’s grief from the past to the current day that causes him to go back to the cliff. That’s all it would take to turn this story with sad parts into a legitimately sad story.