June 9, 2016

My detailed analysis of “The Present” video

Here’s my detailed deconstruction and analysis of why The Present video is so touching — what was going on with the puppy, the kid, and also with us the viewers.

The facts:   A boy is sitting home in the dark on a sunny day, intently playing video games. We don’t know why.  His mother gives him a box with a gift inside:  a puppy.  When the boy notices the missing leg, he angrily rejects the dog and throws it to the ground with a dismissive hiss and curled lip.  Momentarily stunned, the puppy spots a ball and bounces up, full of happy busy energy.  He starts pursuing the ball — like any puppy would.  He doesn’t pay attention to the rejection or to his own mobility difficulties.  As the boy watches the dog, the expressions on his face soften, and he decides to take the dog outside.  When he arises, we hear the sound of metal — and see that he has a missing leg.  The two cooperate to open the door and go outside to play fetch.

My analysis of the dynamics:  Basically, the puppy’s joie de vivre was infectious and it changed things.  First it altered the physical environment as well as the emotional tone in the room — and then it altered the kid’s head and his heart.  As things transpired and his view of the puppy started changing, the fact of the puppy’s missing leg (and his stumbles and falls) became less and less relevant/important.

What the kid learned by watching the puppy was that the puppy was determined to enjoy life and have fun, no matter what.  As the boy absorbed the puppy’s joie de vivre, he also noticed how the puppy’s stumbles and falls and momentary pain didn’t stop it from getting right up again — because the puppy was focused on normal puppy stuff:  he REALLY wanted to bounce around, explore, and engage the boy to play with him and the ball.  Its innocent enthusiasm for life warmed the boy’s heart.  The pup’s energetic intention to have fun and DO stuff is what warmed the boy’s heart, energized him, and got him up off the couch.

From a scientific point of view, those dynamics are biologically realistic.  We have learned that watching someone who is happy (or sad) influences our brains, and makes us happier or sadder.  We have “mirror cells” in certain parts of our brains that fire while we are moving an arm, wincing in pain, or crying with sadness — and those EXACT SAME CELLS fire while we are watching someone else do those things too.  Mirror cells are thought to be the source of the inner experience we call empathy — the deep understanding and connection with another living thing’s experience in the moment.

I re-watched the video after learning that it was created by a student team at an animation “college”.  Like some of you, I had failed to notice the missing leg at the same time the kid did.  This time I did see it.  Watching the kid’s and dog’s facial expressions more carefully the second time revealed how artfully they are done.  The dog’s expressions are almost a caricature of generic “enthusiastic puppy” with only two exceptions:  He does express pain one time when he really falls down hard, and he never communicates ANY sign of discouragement.

The really MASTERFUL animation is the human’s facial expressions.   In fact, that’s really the PROFOUND part of this video because his expressions are our window into the kid’s inner experience.  And those expressions are what trigger OUR mirror cells, the reason why WE are touched by what we see.

The transformation in the kid is gradual and we watch while it unfolds.  But, as a testament to the subtlety and power of the artist,  our intellectual understanding of what has happened arises mostly in retrospect after the “punch line”:  the surprise ending when he gets up and we hear, then see, his crutches and his own missing leg.

An original comic strip by Brazilian artist Fabio Coala entitled “Perfection” provided the basis for the video.  It has been translated into English.  The strip makes the kid’s thoughts more explicit.  He rejects the dog initially, saying that it is sick, he hates it, and the dog just exists to make people feel sorry for it.  In retrospect, after we see the last frame, we realize he was projecting his own situation onto the dog, reflecting his own bitter views about the meaning of his own life with a disability. The dog’s refusal to behave that way, to be sad or act pathetic, is what cracks open the kid’s thinking.

The comic strip has also had a profound impact on readers, one of whom spontaneously described what happened to him: “My eyes, they are leaking the salty water. .I am a disgusting mess…whose heart just grew ten times and fell out of my butt. I don’t know how that works but this comic isn’t allowing me to use the rest of my brain for thinking.”  That’s what mirror cells and empathy do for us — enable our “hearts” to feel on a much deeper level than our eyes can see.


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