Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gumby and Avatar: Lessons for Communicators

How ironic that I saw the film “Avatar”
the same weekend that Art Clokey passed.

Mr. Clokey’s name is not as familiar as that of his famous creation, Gumby, the flexible toy and cartoon character. But that’s because Gumby lived for decades in many incarnations. He was first famous in moralistic cartoons from The Lutheran Church. Later his fame was revived by comedian Eddie Murphy on “Saturday Night Live” as a vulgar, cigar-chomping show business loudmouth.

“Avatar,” of course, is the feature film phenomenon from creator James Cameron that is earning record revenues worldwide, the most since… well, since Cameron’s previous blockbuster, “Titanic.”

How are these seemingly disparate works similar? Both use film technology (admittedly, sophisticated vs. primitive) to create stunning and unique worlds that defy our notions of the physical world. And this appeals to the child in all of us. Consider these words by playwright William Kozlenko, from his essay, “The Animated Cartoon and Walt Disney”:

“The psychologist will undoubtedly tell us that this interest in make-believe reveals a desire to revert to an adolescent state; an inclination to escape from the rigors of a disordered existence. From another point of view, this interest may be traced to a latent desire on the part of adults to relive the imaginative experiences of their childhood. In either case, however, the element of escape is perhaps the touchstone of the whole matter. The uniqueness of the animated cartoon lies in the fact that, of all film forms, it is the only one that has freed itself from the restrictions of an oppressive reality.”

Said differently, animation allows us to soar and dream. Look at the way Gumby experiences space travel in this clip from the mid-1950s.

Now look at the world created by Cameron in this trailer from “Avatar.”

In both cases, the artists put their characters in the worlds of their own creation, unencumbered by material and logical conventions.

We as communicators — speakers, story tellers and media artists — have the same opportunities. We can insert our audiences in a separate time and place through the brilliance of our language, the vibrancy of our stories, or the luminosity of our visuals. It is why Art Clokey’s Gumby, in its simplicity, lives on today with affection and why James Cameron strikes gold around the world with striking images that speak to many people across their disparate cultures.

For those of us with only language in our arsenals, it tells why the work of such disparate wordsmiths like Shakespeare, Shalom Aleichem and Martin Luther King live on today. Even without the tools of celluloid or pixels, such artists reach deep into our minds and souls to make their messages shine brightly.

Godspeed, Mr. Clokey, and thanks for passing this way. Continued good luck to you, Mr. Cameron. You bet big and you win big because you know how to tap into our most basic needs.