Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Rewatch 3: A Critical Anaylsis of Hercules

So, Disney’s Hercules is a bit of a weird movie. Even weirder for a Disney animated feature. I mostly added it to our watch list because it’s streaming on Netflix. But, I’m actually really glad that I did. It kinda tanked at the box office, but honestly, it’s not that bad. So what went wrong and what went right?

Technical Breakdown of Hercules

Act 1: The story opens with the Muses, filling in a narrator role, and singing to the audience that this will be the story of Hercules (very similar to the opening of Beauty and the Beast, but more like Aladdin). The “Gospel Truth” is an homage to the classical Greek chours modernized with a gospel spin and attempts to set the tone, a modernized classic. Then we flashback to Hercules birth. Hades attempts to kill the son of Zues as a baby by turning him mortal because Hercules will thwart his plan to overthrow Olympus in 18 years (such a specific number). This establishes the central conflict – Hercules vs Hades. The assassination doesn’t quite work, unbeknownst to Hades. Hercules is cast out of Olympus and raised by mortals. As an awkward teen, Hercules discovers that he is the son of Gods, and to become a God himself, the subplot, or B-Story*, he must become a True Hero. Act 1 ends with the number “Go the Distance” and the establishment of the Hero Theme. Act 1 is almost entirely exposition and characterization of both Hercules and Hades. I also suspect a secondary theme of Place in Society.

Act 2: Hercules meets Phil (who desires to be a Hero by association), and together they prep Herc for becoming a Hero through a musical montage “One Last Hope.” Now, properly trained, and just a bit older, Phil and Herc head to Thebes to prove himself a hero. On the way, he saves a damsel who wasn’t really in distress. Meg is unimpressed by Herc, but finds his naivety charming, creating a romantic subplot. After Herc leaves, it is revealed that Meg is an agent of Hades, putting her in direct conflict with Herc. Herc and Phil make it to Thebes, where Herc battles the Hyrdra. Upon success, Herc is catapulted into fame and wealth in the “Zero to Hero” musical montage, though, he has not become a True Hero. Interestingly, Herc has  a new Place in Society, polar opposite to what he was before. Herc has found his place, but it does not fulfill him. Meanwhile, Meg is sent by Hades to uncover weaknesses, where she “Won’t say [she’s] in Love.” Hades, realizing that their love is actually Herc’s weakness leverages it against Herc. If Herc gives up his strenght, than Hades will release Meg. Herc agrees, though, feels betrayed upon learning Meg worked for Hades all along, combining the romantic subplot and main plot together.

Act 3: Hades releases the titans, and powerless, Herc goes off to face them. He is all but defeated, when Meg sacrifices herself to save him from a falling pillar. Her sacrifice undoes Hades’ deal, and Herc then proceeds to stop the titans, preventing Hades’ take-over, and resolving the main plot. Hades, seeing his shot at revenge, takes Meg’s soul, and once again leverages it over Herc. Herc can save her if he can reach her in the River Stix. Of course, it’s a death trap. Herc agrees, and it’s his sacrifice that ascends him into godliness, resolving the True Hero theme. Leaving Hades utterly defeated, Hercules and Meg ascend to Olympus where Herc learns that he cannot be a god and be with Meg. He chooses her, resolving the romantic subplot and redefining his role and its theme.

In terms of structure, Hercules is really complex. Several plotlines are expertly woven together. A story of being a hero. A story of finding one’s place. A story of love. It deals with a fascinating take on the definition of a Hero.

The Heroic Theme: What’s Amazing about Hercules

In fact, thematically, Hercules may be one of Disney’s greatest films.

Hercules’s journey from “Zero to Hero” is quite complex. He starts as an good-meaning but awkward youth. His unnatural strenght makes him an outcast, and eventually he learns that he is an outcast because he has a greater purpose. Initially, it’s his desire to fit in, become part of something, is what propels his good deeds. After growing, he learns to control his awkwardness, then proceeds to do good deed to please his father, Zues. Herc is seeking a traditional sense of being a hero: saving others from great evils. His drive to be a hero comes from his desire to find his place in the world.

Slaying the monsters and completing his own trials aren’t enough to make him a God/True Hero, and he finds it unsatisfying. The standard expectation of heroic actions do not fulfill the True Hero requirement. This could be because he is doing heroism for someone else, for apporval. His motive for his actions are selfish. This is also paralleled in Phil’s desire to create a hero. Phil drives Herc on because PHIL desires fame.

Finally, Herc is put on the line when he loses what defines him as a hero – his strength. In what is his most heroic action thus far, Hercules enters a no-win situation against the Titans. There is another interesting phenomenon going on too. The people of Thebes have come to rely on Hercules, meaning they no longer flee during danger. They view him as a savior, and they nearly are destroy because of their reliance on him.

His strenght isn’t restored until Meg commits an her own act of Heroism, saving Herc from death, and resulting in hers. Herc will later parallel this action. His sense of duty to his Godly family and his destiny compel him to defeat the titans before attending to Meg (and ultimately missing her last moments). Yet, defeating the Titans isn’t what makes him a Hero. At this point, defeating monsters is really more of a job. Heroism is not defined by career.

Herc only achieves his True Hero status by facing impossible odds to save the person who matters most to him. His sacrifice for Meg, when no one is watching, when there’s no expectations are what makes him a hero. The movie defines his sacrifice by saying that it’s not grandiose gestures, or physical strength, that make someone a hero, but rather the small ones. The strength of one’s own will. The gestures no one sees, and done without reward. A True Hero doesn’t need super strength.

Then he gives his new found godliness up because he learns that being a hero isn’t what he wanted anyway. He just wanted his own place, which he’s now found, and it’s not on Olympus.

This theme is deep and thought provoking. Almost every scene in the movie works towards this theme. Heroism is questioned and criticized throughout, until it makes it final statement at the climax. Then it continues through the resolution because what it’s not the rewards of being a hero that ultimately makes Herc happy. The theme is so integral that it cannot be separate from the story.

So why did it fail?

Because it does fail. Hercules is not considered on of Disney’s great films. It wasn’t a runaway box office success. It didn’t spawn numerous sequels or successful TV series. I believe I know why.

It’s the source material that causes everything to fall apart. By choosing to adapt an ancient Greek myth, it’s pigeon-holed into a setting that doesn’t really fit it. The Gospel musical style and Greek Urn artistic style are at odds.The Greek design doesn’t really come across either. I’ve been to Greece, and nothing in that movie makes me think of it or its aesthetics.

Look at Herc’s character design. What he hell is he wearing? No matter how you spin it, it looks like he’s wearing a gold dress. And his red hair and superman curl? Um, not feeling very Greek at all to me.

Who approved this? He never looked good.

The movie continues to struggle to fit its Greek mold by giving us iconic Greek monsters. Then bastardizing the mythology. At the time of this film, Hercules: The Legendary Journey was quite successful. And while that show may not have stayed true to the myths, it didn’t butcher them like Disney did. It also meant that Geek myth was at the top of everyone’s mind in the mid-90s.

Hercules is at it’s heart a superhero movie. If you changed the setting, and set it someplace like, I don’t know, New York? Got rid of the mythological trappings, and gave it a radioactive burst, and you’d have Superman. If it had just changed its setting, relinquished the Greek inspiration and accepted that it’s a superhero movie, I think Hercules could have been one of Disney’s best. But it didn’t, so we have an odd mix of awkward animation and excellent storytelling.

Adaptations– the Art of Removing the Icky Bits

I love Tangled.  Straight up, its one of my favorite Disney movies of all time.  I think I’ve re-watched Tangled more than any other Disney movie.  This probably does not paint me in a positive light.  Whatever.

I’ve been working through Grimm’s fairy tales, I obviously bumped into ye olde version of Rapunzel, the fairy tale that Tangled is based off of.

And depending on the version you read, because kings are never given names and sometimes editors like to throw ‘the’ instead of ‘a’, the fairy tale can read like Game of Thrones.  But none of the epic dragon bits, or cool battles, or smart-ass midget– just the weird incest bits.

Oh, and the prince (who might be Rapunzel’s brother, maybe?) also gets stabbed in the eyes and wanders around blind for an unnumbered amount of years.  It doesn’t exactly scream “Disney magic”.

However, the important parts of the story still shine through in both adaptations.  Gothel steals Rapunzel away (movie: actual theft, fairy tale: part of deal) due to Rapunzel’s mother needing a plant (movie: so she doesn’t die, fairy tale: so she doesn’t die, with a side order of gorging herself on flowers).  Rapunzel is locked away in a hidden tower so her parents can’t take her back.

Both adaptations have the ‘let down your hair’ bit.  Rapunzel hoists Gothel up and down in both versions (still don’t know how anyone got in or out when Rapunzel was young).

However, our male lead is drastically different (we’re ignoring the weird maybe incest.  Oh, you were already ignoring it?  Good).  Both men fall in love with Rapunzel, however Flynn isn’t a prince, whereas our unnamed fairy tale hero is.

In the movie, this happens over the course of Rapunzel’s and Flynn’s adventures to go see floating lanterns.  Aside: I’m gonna assume floating lanterns are a lot cooler when fireworks haven’t been invented yet.

In the fairy tale, Rapunzel and unnamed prince totally get their mack on in the tower, several times while Gothel is away.  After Rapunzel leaves the tower in Tangled we get a lot of things that aren’t in the fairy tale.  However, the conclusion of the movie continues to remember the tale that it came from, Flynn does his best prince impression when he cries for Rapunzel to let down her hair.  Gothel, in both versions, lifts Flynn/the Prince up into the tower into a trap.

Rapunzel heals the male lead with her tears in both versions.  And both end with a happily ever after.

The fundamentals of the tale are the same in both versions.  The symbols are the same. Stuff happens in the same order. The parts that the movie does not include aren’t really needed to tell the story– instead of having Gothel transport Rapunzel to a desert and having the male lead fall out of the tower, go blind and wander around for a few years to find her, Gothel just gets her stab on and kills Flynn.  This sets the same scene, Rapunzel crying over the male lead’s body, a lot more efficiently.

Also, Rapunzel doesn’t have twins in the movie.  She totally does in the fairy tale, while she’s in a desert.  Yeah.  I’m gonna assume childbirth isn’t super Disney.  Things that are also not super Disney: a life in squalor while Rapunzel waits for her blind prince.

What does the movie add?  Character!  Most fairy tales aren’t long enough to really develop their characters.  Why would anyone fall for Repunzel anyway (outside of her voice, which is all we get from the brothers Grimm)?  Tangled tries to answer that.  Why would Gothel take Rapunzel away in the first place, what kind of flower is worth a child?  Disney movie.  What kind of person is willing to make that trade?  Disney movie.

And in making the characters more complex, some occupations changed.  The elements of magic where shifted from Gothel to Rapunzel.  However, the core symbols that everyone associates with the story stayed.

How do you know what are the core symbols of a fairy tale?  Great question!  Part of the reading I still need to do are several Rapunzel adaptations* from the YA section of the library.  Fairy tales have been adapted to death and back, so its a simple as identifying what every single adaptation keeps.

However, Shannon and I did talk a bit about this on Skype.  The rough consensus was that the core symbols of a fairy tale are those that jump to mind the moment you think of the fairy tale in question.  Hunchback  drastically changed its source material (I’m hazy because recalling details from the one time I tried to read the source material is like trying to recall the details of a suicide), I don’t think Phoebus even exists** in any capacity in the novel.  The core elements, however (a grotesque mockery of the human form falling in love with a woman who skirts on the outside of civilized society), remain.

And I seriously doubt any version of anything would keep awkward-maybe-incest.  I’m sorry, I just can’t drop it.

*I picked out the books that had the most reviews on Goodreads that were covered in gifs.  I know how Tumblr works.  I’m on to you, YA romance readers.

** Turns out I am in fact a silly duck.  From someone who does remember the Hunchback novel better than I do:
“Phoebus actually totally does exist in the novel. The difference is that in the book he never changes sides.  Which is funny because Frollo does try to kill him, similarly to what happens in the movie. But he manages to frame Esmeralda for it.”
Thanks, Facebook friends!

Response: The First Few Minutes

Johnathan posted The First Few Minutes, and he brought up some excellent points. I was going to expand in the comments section, but my comment quickly spiraled out of control. So I made it my own post.

In cinema and screenwriting theory, there is a term for this: the First Ten Pages(or First Ten Minutes). This refers to the importance of the first pages/minutes of any movie. Producers use this rule as a way to quickly decide if a movie is producable/marketable. If the first ten pages/minutes attract their attention, then they read the whole script. Otherwise, it gets passed on. In advanced stages, marketers have noticed that the audience gives the filmmaker around 10 minutes before they decided if they’re going to change the channel/walk out on the movie or not.

And for reference, youtube audiences give videos 30 seconds to a minute.

Additionally, Blake Synder refers to this as “The Opening Image.” He says that the opening scene is the first “beat” of the movie. It establishes tone, mood, and scope. These are the moments that typically decide if your audience will watch or not.

When developing the story, it’s crucial to focus in on this beginning. Characters, tone, conflict, setting, all must be defined quickly. All great movies do this. All great books too.

In the world of publishing, it quite typical for agents or publishers to request the first 10-30 pages of a manuscript. They use it as a measure of the story as a whole. If it doesn’t start off good, chances are it won’t magically become good. Many books, readers know they’re going to like it from the first line.

Johnathan couldn’t remember the first line of several of his favorite books. I remember several of mine:

  • “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” – The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (ok, this is actually my mom’s favorite.)
  • “Our story begins where countless stories have ended in the last 26 years: with an idiot … deciding it would be a good idea to go out and  poke a zombie with a stick.” – Feed by Mira Grant

Each of these lines set the tone, and adds intrigue to the book. The Graveyard Book is accompanied with a illustration of a two page black spread with a single hand holding a knife. It’s dark, scary, and full of potential. Is this a murderous knife? Is this a defensive knife? Is this a knife that’s going to make a sandwich? After reading that line, you immeadately have to turn the page. Of course, you learn that it’s a murderous knife, who’s killed a family. Yet, it’s target, a baby, has escaped.

Harper Lee’s classic, holds just as much intrigue, yet, has a completely different tone. You can instantly feel the Southern, youthful, feel of the book. This is a book documenting the events leading up to something moderately awful. The summer Jem broke his arm. Well, how does Jem (an unusual name) break his arm? We have to read the entire book to find out.

Feed opens with a bit of humor. This is a beginning that starts where most stories end. It’s narrator’s voice is quickly established, and we instantly know two things: it’s about zombies, and zombies have been around a generation. The tone and scope are instantly set, and damn, I need to know what happens when her brother pokes the zombie.

I totally gauge a book on how it opens, and I use that as my basis for choosing a book to read. Often, I read the first chapter to see if I’m interested, and only give a book about 50 pages before I decide if it’s for me or not.

I’m a little more lax on movies, because I’m more willing to commit to two hours than twelve. Though, I form my opinion of a movie in the first ten minutes. Much like a book, movies need a good opening too. There are several movies that spend way to long setting up. This is the End (which I watched this weekend) is one.

I only vaguely remember the opening image. I think it’s Seth Rogan meeting Jay Baruchel at an airport? I also remember thinking, what the hell is Seth Rogan doing just chilling at the baggage claim at LAX? I spent more time wondering about celebrity normal life than I did wondering what the hell was going on in the movie.

In fact, the entire first act,of the movie is nothing but set up. It doesn’t establish scope, or mood, or even what the hell the movie is about. It establishes the comedy tone and Seth Rogan and crew as characters. Though, like most Fanfiction, we the audience are already familiar with them, and therefore do not need huge amounts of backstory. The world doesn’t start ending until the end of Act 1. And for me, I’ve already lost interest. If I didn’t know this was an apocalypse movie, that would have surprise would have come out of nowhere. (Maybe, it’s because our inciting incident doesn’t have to be what closes Act 1.)

In contrast, Shoot ‘Em Up has one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever seen. In fact, spend the next minute in a half watching it:

In 1.5 minutes everything about this movie has been set. We know the tone from the opening two shoots (satirical and gritty). That intense CU followed by a sharp cut, then completely undermined by the carrot. Because, what bad ass eats veggies? We know our main character is a bit grungy, lives on the wrong side of town, takes the bus, is reluctant, but has a good heart. We know that he’s not involved with the conflict, but chooses to make himself involved because its the right thing to do. We see conflict: Pregnant lady is in trouble. Kinda a universal sign of good – pregnant women. We see our villains: truly evil, I mean, they’re gonna threaten a pregnant lady with a gun. The movie unabashedly sets itself up and carries itself throughout. In the first ten minutes, we have our inciting incident, a birthing scene, and an epic gun fight. The scope and tone are set. The mood is set. Our hero is defined, and he has a dilemma. Even with all this intense action and conflict, Act 1 clearly doesn’t end until the Hero fully dedicates himself to the baby about 30 minutes in.

First Impression Failures: Pocahontas

Why does the movie’s opening not linger? We start in England (scope fail) with our romantic interest (not our hero) followed by a boat ride establishing our secondary characters (John Smith saves Thomas, was there a point?). The tone is actually set rather darkly (someone almost dies), which is sorta indicative of the tone. However, the scope is totally absent. The romantic tone that perpetrates the majority of the movie is absent. Our Main Character is absent. So yeah, no wonder no one remembers it, because well, it really doesn’t set the story correctly.

Getting it Right: The Little Mermaid Does What Pocahontas Tried to Do.

We open with a chorus singing about “mermaids” on a boat with Prince Eric, which are renounced as “sailor tales.” Eric talks about how he is looking for someone, and he feels she’s just under his nose. Then very quickly (we spend like 1 minute with Eric), go below the ocean where we meet the mythical mermaids. We are introduced to 2 worlds very quickly (scope), as well as characterization of the two main characters. Eric wants something more (tone), and he isn’t stuff like Grim (character). Then we learn that Ariel is irresponsible and kinda the odd daughter out because she failed to show up for her coming out celebration. Tone is established quickly – magical adventure with a dash of romance. We know our characters, and we see their conflict. They are looking for each other, but they belong to separate worlds.

In generalization, Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid open the same way. On a boat, with our Male MC, and a reveal of our Princess who is just a little odd. However, they are weighted differently. We are given a teaser of Eric, where John Smith is introduced as our protagonist. This is implied because we spend so much time with him (and he saves someone). In Pocahontas, we even get our bad guy before we learn of our hero. Our conflict between Smith and Radcliff is established before we even get to “the New World.” We don’t even get to our setting before some crazy, irrelevant stuff happens! Stuff that feels critical (someone almost dies), but it really isn’t.

Yet, in the Little Mermaid, we get straight to the point. We are not confused that Eric is our hero. We just know he exists. The minute time frame gives us just enough foundation to recognize him, but not associate him as our MC. It also function as a set up for in about fifteen minutes, Ariel is gonna be saving him. He’s already planted on a boat.

Not Quite Right: Frozen

Since a lot of our inspiration comes from Frozen, I kinda want to point out that Frozen sorta screws up here. Our opening image is the ice workers, cutting the ice, with some weird song.

While this image sets our tone: cold, and our setting: cold, we don’t really get anything else from it. Our scope isn’t really clear. In fact, the icemen don’t really serve any purpose, except they are where Christoff hails from. And Christoff is a secondary character. This is not his story. We spend 3 minutes of irrelevant mood setting. We don’t even get an idea of scope because, well, I’m not even sure where this scene is. Then, this later poses the odd question of why was Christoff raised by the damn trolls?

Thankfully, we jump right over to Elsa and Anna where we quickly learn about the two sisters, their bond, Elsa’s secret, and we establish the conflict between them. So, it sorta redeems itself. Wish the movie would have just started here…

Johnathan is completely on to something here. (Also, he gets total props for mention my favorite sci-fi show as a pointer.) Openings are important. They are the first impressions of a story, and we all know how strong those can be. And while they aren’t the key factor in something being good or not, it’s a key factor getting audience to watch in the first place.

The First Few Minutes

You know what the most common advice to aspiring writers is?  I don’t actually know, it’s probably “just write and stop talking about the eventual movie deal already of your unwritten novel already”.

That makes a rough intro.  Hm.  Ok, fine, what’s the most important line in a story?

The first line, obviously.  I’d bet fake money that every writer you asked would give you the same answer.  However, it’s more than just the first line– I can’t recall the first line of any of my favorite novels, except for maybe The Gunslinger.  I’m going to say that it’s really all about ‘the first few minutes’.

The first few minutes is a nebulous time.  It can be anywhere from the first line of a book, to all of chapter 1, from the teaser of an episode on network TV, to the entire first episode, from the level after the tutorial, to the first thirty minutes of a particularly slow movie.   (Aside: You probably should get going if it’s taking that long).  It’s that tricky time when the reader/viewer/player sets up their expectations about the world that your story resides in.

I’ll use Dreamkeepers as an example.  Dreamkeepers is a graphic novel series and the reason why I didn’t get a post out last week.  It currently consists of three books (still ongoing), with new books getting published when the creators feel like they’re ready, and not a moment before.

Also, aside: the first two novels are on the Internet for free, and I think they are worth your time.  The Prelude, a (still ongoing) webcomic that is set before the first novel, is also worth your time because it has children acting like children and they aren’t super annoying.  How Dave and Liz managed that is a post for another time, I think.

Back to the first few minutes, or the first few pages, in this case.  Go over to the website, real quick.  Don’t click anything, just look at the first page and come back here.

Back?  Great.  What kind of website are you expecting to see?  We got a raccoon-esque creature, who is probably a protagonist, with a big smile on his face.  Lots of bright colors, seems pretty cheery.  By the time you click another link, the tone has already been set.  You can’t take back that bright, cheery picture.  Changing the tone too drastically without cause will generate emotional whiplash, and we don’t even know his name. (Or, to be honest, his gender.  But its a he.  And his name is Mace.)  To change tone at this point would be subverting it– something like a trick opening.  You haven’t even been on the website for a minute, and already we’re talking about expectations, what you want out of the website, etc.

This makes a ton of sense– you’ll notice that the website is the primary portal to The Prelude.  What does the first page of The Prelude look like?

From: http://www.dreamkeeperscomic.com/Prelude.php?pg=1
View here!

Bright blue, beaches, chillin’ in hammocks and a bit of slapstick humor.  The Prelude is a pretty lighthearted web comic, tone wise.  There is a very important distinction here– The Prelude still deals with some serious material, even adult material.  There are darker moments in the comic– the tone doesn’t always have to be bright, happy to go lucky wonderfulness.  However, we expect happy endings.  Definitely nothing overtly graphic.  Probably not even a mention of rape, or racism, or slavery or… the list goes on.  There is a limit as to how dark we are willing to let The Prelude be before questioning the ‘new direction’ of the comic, and there are topics that I never expect The Prelude to cover.

But what about the main attraction?  The Dreamkeepers graphic novels themselves?  Well, what does the first page look like?

From: http://www.dreamkeeperscomic.com/GNSaga.php?pg=4
This isn’t stolen, I swear.

Oh.  That’s… different.  This isn’t going to be the same type of story, is it?  I mean, maybe it’ll get subverted and then we’ll establish a lighter tone–

From: http://www.dreamkeeperscomic.com/GNSaga.php?pg=6
I didn’t steal this one either

Oh.  Guess not.  This is three pages in, so we’ve still got a long time before we’ve hit the first few minutes mark, and it is very, very obvious that Dreamkeepers is much, much, much darker than the Prelude.  We’ve already seen graphic murder, so almost everything dark is on the table for Dreamkeepers.  That being said, now, the other side of the spectrum is off limits.  Silly, cartoonish solutions, (very) happy endings… Dreamkeepers can’t go to the realm of say, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or Space Jam.  There is a limit to how bright Dreamkeepers can be.

That being said, Dreamkeepers still employs a bit of slapstick humor and makes jokes.  There are bright moments in the comic, it’s not oppressive.  However, the first few pages set up other things as well.

What we see first is the most important, we tend to remember it better.  For The Prelude, it’s very, very clear that Mace is a protagonist.  We’ve got a website title page and a first page of a comic to back it up.  Mace is established as important.  Also, a chunk of Mace’s character is set in stone.  Mace doesn’t care much for school, and is also pretty young.  He’s the kind of kid that’ll play hooky, and probably pulls lighthearted pranks.  Mace can grow and change over the course of the comic, but that growth and change must be explained by plot and make sense.

There is a page missing from the excerpt of The Dreamkeepers graphic novel that I’m showing here, but I think it’s obvious that the event going on,  is kinda  a big deal. Things are going down.  By book 3, it’s rather apparent that this might be the most important event that has happened in the past three books.  It’s going to stick out in your mind.

You better believe graphic novels are not the only form of entertainment to do this.  I can pull examples from novels, to movies, to music, to TV…

Oh.   You want examples.  Bring it.

Babylon 5, a sci-fi TV series that everyone really should watch, spends its first season getting its legs under it.  Season 1 of Babylon 5 is not very indicative of the rest of the show in some respects– it’s more campy than later seasons, and the lightest season overall when it comes to tone.  However, you know what Midnight on the Firing Line is about?  A surprise attack on a research station, which is just one action on a grander scale.  We get, in the very first episode, the fact that Babylon 5 is bigger than this station.  Even if that sense of scope isn’t really developed until later, the first few minutes promise it.  It will come.

Game of Thrones (and, by extension, A Song of Ice and Fire) kills off more main characters than there are flavors of ice cream, and if the Internet is any indication, every time is somehow more surprising and awful than the last.  Yet, what are the first few minutes about?  Some poor sods getting murdered in a forest, by forces far greater than them.

That’s essentially the entire show/book series, with more murder locations.

Harry Potter opens us with wizards moving a young boy in secret, with JK Rowling showing a mastery of making up words that can only be rivaled by Steven King.  This event is due to something bigger than everyone involved, there are hints and expectations of the grand scope the series will eventually embody.  But, it’s quirky too– wizards are almost like us, but not quite.  The vibrant magical world that Rowling has constructed is poking at the edges, a world you know young Harry will eventually be thrust into.  It’s personal as well, with little bits of emotional drama sparkling through the sheer enormity of what has occurred on that night, and a lot of Harry Potter is personal drama.

A whole lot.  Like, all the boring parts of book 4.

Why start the book series there?  Harry doesn’t remember any of this– why not start him at age 11?  Hell, the very next chapter does that fast forward anyway.  Because the first few minutes are the most important.  If we do start the book at chapter 2, Hagrid’s revel to Harry seems super random, and we’d probably end up siding with the Dursley’s, or something.

“How does any of this relate to Disney?” you ask.  Quick check– can you hum the first song from Pocahontas?  It happens in the first five minutes of the movie.  No.  No you can’t, because you don’t remember the first fifteen minutes.

Everything I wrote about the first chapter of Harry Potter?  From memory, and I’ll goddamn bet real money that Hagrid sheds a tear at Harry’s departure, and the entire wizarding world is celebrating the death of Lord Voldamort, and McGonagall is sternly against Harry being sent to this particular family (Also, she doesn’t understand how Harry survived).  I haven’t read book 1 in so long that I can’t actually remember the act reading it.  I remember it contents perfectly fine.

Quick, what are the first fifteen minutes about for Home on the Range?  I don’t fucking know.  Famine, maybe?  Can’t be right… cow snatching?  First few minutes of Lion King?  Circle of Life!  Great song, maybe even the best song in that entire movie.  First fifteen minutes of Hunchback?  The jester tells his story about Frollo murdering some gypsies, right?  I think the song is called The Bells of Notre Dame?

Catching the pattern yet?  We’re still in the quick fire round.  What’s the most memorable thing about Hunchback?  That it has the darkest Disney villian ever.  What’s the theme of the Lion King?  That we all need to find our destiny and take our place.  Scope of the Lion King?  Pretty large, like the entire savannah large.  That’s pretty much at least a small country.  Scope of Circle of Life?  Pretty much the same thing.  Antagonist of The Hunchback?  The priest that killed the family and tried to kill the boy, and locked him in a goddamn tower.  Protagonist?  Hazier.  The misshapen boy locked in the tower?  It’s a good guess, we don’t really know. 

The first few minutes set up the entire world that your story will reside in.

Now, this isn’t an absolute rule.  Nothing, when talking about creativity or story telling, ever is.  The Little Mermaid does not, in fact, start with the downward sweeping ocean shot with Allen Menken being all Allen Menken.  That where it should have started.  It, in fact, starts with some bullshit where prince Eric is on a ship for some reason?  Probably being chastised about not marrying anyone yet, but I don’t remember that part of the movie at all.  I think there is even a song that I couldn’t whistle for you to save my life.

I still really like The Little Mermaid.

For an example on the other side, Breaking Bad has a great first few minutes.  I was totally sold on Breaking Bad fifteen minutes in, the gritty drug dealing world of New Mexico seemed awesome.  I spent four hours (four entire hours!) watching the first four episodes of season 1– despite the fact that I didn’t even enjoy it– based on that promise alone.  By the end of those four hours I realized I hated every single character and kinda just wanted to set fire to all of New Mexico.

The first few minutes are powerful.  It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realized how powerful.

Belle is a Bitch, and Gaston’s All Right: Beauty and the Beast’s Character Problems

As I mentioned in my Beauty and the Beast rewatch post, if you start to look too hard at the story, things really fall apart. This is doubly true for the characters.

Growing up, my Godfather would renlentlessly tease me about how Gaston was the hero. He would sing, “I want a guy like Gaston!” horribly off key. He would go on and on and on about how Gaston was noble, and the Beast was awful and deserved to die. As a smarty pants six year old, I would correct him and tell him that no, Gaston was the villain. However, as I grew up, I started to think, maybe Uncle Bob wasn’t so wrong.

Our perceptions of Beauty and the Beast’s character roles are establish by tone and the placement of the character. Beast is the first person we’re introduced to. We are told that he is a prince (all princes are obviously heroes) in disguise (and our hero has a problem), and the scene ends with the words “For who could ever learn to love a beast” ringing in our ears. Cut to Belle exiting her house. The answer to the question left from the narrator is answered visually, by a beautiful girl asking for a better life. This means, that when we met Gaston, the audience is forced to associate him as an antagonist. Belle must end up with the Beast, because the story dictated it.

Gaston is introduced with a gunshot and a dead bird. While there is nothing wrong with hunting, the way it’s presenting sets a dark tone around Gaston’s character. We see Gaston step from the shadows. Characters in shadows are associated as evil. Compile that with the image of Gaston killing a duck, we know that he can’t be up to any good. Then Gaston says, “I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle.” Now, he’s in conflict with what we know Belle must do. She must love/marry the Beast. Because of Gaston’s motive and his intro visuals, we assume that Gaston must be our villain.

But looking past the visuals and tones, when we look at the actions of the characters themselves, we get a different picture.

Belle is a Bitch. Oh, what? You don’t believe me? She’s the smart princess! And not vivacious, and a brunette! She’s totally the outcast. By those traits, she should be my favorite Disney princess (she’s not). But, when you really watch Beauty and the Beast, you start to notice something. Belle is a terrible person. Just take a moment and really watch “Belle’s” number:

“There must be more than this provencal life.” She wonders around basically singing about how much better she is than everyone else. That their normal lives, perfectly good lives, aren’t good enough for her. Then, because she can’t be interrupted reading, she kinda rampages through town. She fucks with someones sheep; she knocks someone out; and basically disrupts the entire towns morning. (And while the town people may think she’s odd, they are not mean towards her at all. In fact, they don’t seem to mind her fucking up their morning.)

But, Belle is smart because she reads! Yes, and so do Twihards. She reads the same book over and over.

“That one? But you’ve read it twice!”

“I know, it’s my favorite.”

If the librarian (because I refuse to call that place a bookstore) recognizes she keeps taking the same book, then, well, she’s taken it a whole lot. I’m an avid reader, and I have favorite books. But I don’t constantly re-read them.

We don’t really see her read anything else. Nor does she seem to reference her experience with some literary character, which bookish people do. Besides the opening scene, and an insert where we see her read to the Beast. She spends a great deal of time trapped, and she doesn’t ask for a book. What avid reader leaves the house without a book, or is stuck for several hours without looking for something, anything to read.

*As a side note, there’s this little gem. Belle describes her “favorite part because you’ll see.” Such an articulate reader huh?*

Then let’s just get to how rude she is throughout the majority of the movie. She rarely says please or thank you, even when people are doing nice things for her. She constantly disobeys orders. “Don’t go in the West Wing after my captor so nicely moved me from a jail cell to a suite? Nah…”  She talks back to the Beast and blames him after he saves her life because she was a dumb ass that ran out into the night.

Let’s look on that example for a minute. Belle offers herself up in exchange for her father. Then, when offered something better than a prison cell, she basically balks. The Beast tries to ask her to join him for dinner, and when she says no (which, really is quite stupid. She’s in this predicament herself, and it seems smart to get to know your captor, or you know, eat), he then demands her to join him. She doesn’t, yet doesn’t receive any real punishment from the Beast.

Then she and the servants continue to disobey Beast and make her a lavish dinner. Then she wonders through the castle, and decides, that instead of exploring the whole freaking thing, that she’ll go looking into the one place she expressly forbidden. I mean, she has a whole CASTLE, and on her first night, she goes where she isn’t suppose to go. Because, she’s a bitch. She didn’t look for an escape, like a rational person, nope, she goes into the dangerous place. As far as I can tell her motive is just to piss of the Beast. Then, when the Beast gets mad at her about it, she escapes the castle, breaking her sworn promise. (All right, so we know Belle isn’t worth her word for anything.)

Because really, she only made that promise she was bored. Yup. Boredom. After spending the entire opening of the film bitching about how boring her life is, she then takes the first opportunity for something new. It just happened to be something good, like saving her father. And to prove that it isn’t heart felt, she abandons her promise as soon as things get a little hard (because let’s be real, a fancy manor and free range at a castle isn’t really punishment). And later, when offered a similar choice (marry Gaston and save her father or refuse and dad is committed/imprisioned), she chooses to refuse. Because she never liked Gaston, and well, marrying him would be a prison to her. As much as she loves her dad, she loves herself more. Oh, and to top it off, because she can’t be wrong, she reveals the Beast, and basically starts the manhunt. I mean, come on Belle, use some common sense! You were frickin’ petrified of him like a week ago, why would this “provincial” townspeople, who are so below you, be any different?

So, yeah, her entire altruistic sacrifice is undermined.

Meanwhile, Gaston is actually not that bad. Ok, maybe he’s bad, but he’s completely understandable. Which is probably why he’s a great villain.

Yes, Gaston is chauvinistic. I’m not going to pretend otherwise. He has very clear cut ideas about the place of a woman in the world, that lines up very much with the time period of that movie. But before we get all high and mighty, look over at the Beast’s castle. Women don’t really have it much better their either. We have Belle, the prisoner and basically wife figure (who wouldn’t have to be in the kitchen cooking because she has servants), the Feather Duster and the maid and sexual object, and Mrs. Pott’s who works in the FUCKING KITCHEN and has to be the mother figure too! (And we don’t really even know what role Lumiere and Cogsworth play, though, they are probably more advisory than servantly.) She’s probably the nanny for all the damn castle babies. So yeah, women’s roles in Beauty and the Beast, no matter where they are aren’t particularly progressive. But Gaston is called the asshole because he just openly acknowledges it. At least I know where I stand with him instead of being given the false illusion I’m something more.

Yet, as chauvinistic as Gaston says, he actually proposes to Belle, and goes out of his way to make it special for her. In that time period, it would be totally legit for Gaston to completely bypass Belle and just get her father to marry her off. In real life, Maruice would have been honored to pass Belle off to Gaston because Gaston is the most respected and revered person in town. (Not to mention it doesn’t seem like Maurice is making a whole lot of money, and Belle is basically just an extra mouth to feed.) But, back to Gaston. Then he prepares an entire celebratory engagement party for her, with music and food and general happiness. So what if his ideals are antiqued to a modern woman, he show us that he’s actually quite romantic.

(And for the record, Belle doesn’t come out and say no, and when dealing with marriage proposals, that needs to be explicit. It’s probably because she knows that he’s probably her best option.)

Plus, after Belle publicly humiliates him with her rejection, Gaston goes on to be quite unhappy. He sulks over her. For all of his pig-headedness, he does seem to genuinely care for her. I mean, come on, he can have the hot triplets, but he chooses bitchy Belle. I do believe that he does genuinely love her, though, it may not be the Disney-ied true love we want our characters to end up with.

Which brings me to my next point: Gatson is kinda the town role model. He’s handsome, and he’s an excellent hunter. Gauging from how sharply dressed he is, he’s probably pretty well off. He’s the equivalent to of the modern day star quarter back. He has an entire number dedicated to his qualities: handsome, manly, the strongest, the best hunter, and he’s great at expectorating. So yea, totally the quarterback figure.

Let’s backtrack a little. I want to point out, that while Gaston seems to belittle women, it seems to be only with their role in society. He doesn’t actually hurt women, or is rude to them.  He doesn’t do that with anyone else in town, either. In fact, he is quite polite. In the opening number, Gaston constantly asks, “excuses me” and “please let me through,” and doesn’t shove anyone out of the way. In fact he goes out of his way to avoid causing anyone an inconvenience.

Besides his low opinion of women’s roles, and his high opinion of himself (which by society we are told are bad things), his only two “acts of villainy” are his plot with Maurice and his lynch mob. Both of which are totally understandable.

Let’s face it, Maurice is kinda crazy. I mean, he build a death contraption that cuts firewood. And to Gaston’s defense, he only conspires against Maurice after the guy storms into the bar and spouts crazy talk. While I wouldn’t say that it’s the best of plans, being nice didn’t seem to get Belle’s attention either. And really, is coercing Belle into being a wife really any worse than the Beast holding her prisoner? Yet, we forgive the Beast.

His second “trecherous” act is his ralleying against the Beast. Which, honestly, is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Belle shows him an image of a monster (which only Belle and the audience know isn’t so bad at this point). The Beast is howling, and kinda on a rampage in the castle. Gaston draws the conclusion that the monster that locked Belle away and is currently rampaging is a threat. Yup, it’s the same conclusion we drew at the beginning of the movie. If falls in line with the “crazy talk” Maurice was spewing earlier in the movie. So, while Gaston may have a deeper motive of jealousy, his initial motive isn’t unreasonable or villainous. I mean, the Beast did kinda hold Belle hostage, and Gaston loves her.

Ultimately, yes, Gaston is a villain of the movie. He is a villain because he doesn’t learn to look beyond the surface. His failure to the theme is ultimately what makes him the bad guy. Not so much his actions. And Belle is a hero because she fulfills the theme and sees the Beast as more than a monster. (I guess she does? She kinda doesn’t do anything.) Though, I’m not really sure she really learns to look beyond the surface, because she only sees the Beast (who a damn prince, which is obvious to deduce because he lives in a castle!) as better. Her conclusions don’t apply to anyone not magically enchanted. Still, the characters’s actions contrast with their roles. We praise Belle as a stuck up bitch, and villainize Gaston as the worst kind of human ever. The movie so successful uses visuals, tone, and score, our opinions of the characters are dictated by the direction of the story, not their personalities.