Maleficent, Cinderella III and Intentionality

So, last weekend, I saw Maleficent because you gotta keep your hand on the pulse of the modern fairy tale if you plan on writing one.  And yes, I want to talk about it this week.

This post will have spoilers.  You have been warned.

I went in with very low expectations due to the fact that
A) I have opinions about who Maleficent is that spawn from my deep reading of fairy tales, and the blurb about the movie on Google did not meet those opinions.
B) I remember not liking that gritty reboot of Peter Pan that Disney did a while back
C) Angelina Jolee has been in a lot of bad films

B and C turned out to be pretty much unfounded.  The movie is beautiful, and considering how often Angelina Jolee stares at something off screen and still manages to convey emotion, her acting is pretty impressive.  She does her damnest to sell Maleficent, and she does a good job at it.  The score is fine– it’s not obtrusive, if not particularly memorable.  At least it isn’t just hours of drumsplosions, which seems to be where Marvel is taking their scores these days.

The writing, however, had problems.  There is only one character in Maleficent, guess who.  Everyone else in the film is a foil, and an obvious one.  Stephan is a foil to Maleficent’s own darkness and rage, Aurora a foil to Maleficent’s carefree childhood.  The pixies foil Maleficent’s intellect and prowess.  The bird who’s name I don’t remember doesn’t actually make it to foil status, he just sorta wines sometimes and carries out her orders.

No, seriously.  He throws a bit of a temper tantrum in the middle of the movie, and I still have no idea why.  (Not the “you turned me into a wolf!” one, the “you can turn me into whatever you want, idgaf” one– yes, this character is a bit of a whiner).

So, clearly, this movie was written with one star, and so it is up to Maleficent herself to carry the film.  And, as stated before, Angelina does a damn good job of it.  But, well…

I don’t agree with this story being a Maleficent tale.  It’s a fine story of betrayal in love, and redemption in learning to love again.  There is nothing technically wrong with it– hell, the story is not the typical angle of learning to love via romance, but learning to love over (for all intents and purposes) a family member.  It’s even very Disney in that aspect, as its Aurora’s goofy enthusiasm that warms Maleficent’s heart.

But, read that sentence again.  Warms Maleficent’s heart?  Really?  We gave the Star Wars prequels shit about Darth Vader, and we’re going to let this one slip by?  Look, say what you want, but bad guys are always more badass.  And, evil is at it’s most badass when it doesn’t have a reason– I can’t recall the exact source, but Steven King has written about how horror ends the moment you reveal the monster.  But, now we’re going a step further– not only are we revealing the monster, but we’re also revealing how it looked when it was 2 years old and slinging oatmeal everywhere.

Maleficent was one evil lady– even in the original fairy tale of Little Briar Rose, she’s just a bad apple.  No accounting for it, she just is.  Take The Lion King as an example– we know that Scar is ambitious, but we never know why.  He’s just an evil lion with dreams for power– he looses that aura of mystique when you reveal that he acted this way because he had to drink after Mufasa at the watering hole.  Or something.

But, this is a personal gripe.  Learning the background behind a villain can cast them in a sympathetic light, which can also be amazingly powerful.  It’s the give and take between Sid in the Toy Story series and Lotso the Hugable Bear.  Sid still kinda freaks me out, but Lotso is the more complex villain.

I probably would have been ok with learning about Maleficent’s innocent past if this wasn’t a redemption story, more of a epic “rise of the villain” tale.  Like a badass Dr. Horrible.  But Maleficent’s wings get restored and I sighed and hey, at least it looked pretty.

So that’s my review… but that’s not what’s really interesting about the film.  Essentially, Maleficent is a concept I don’t like executed very well (outside some shoddy writing).  Disney actually has the exact opposite hiding under a shelf– Cinderella III.

Yes, I’m going to compare them.  Hold on to your hats, people.

Cinderella III asks the question no one else was asking, outside of one really lonely fanfic writer– what if the evil stepmother got a hold of the fairy godmother’s wand?  I submit to you, dear reader, that is a ballin’ premise.  I want to know more about that story.  The evil stepmother is ambitious, cunning and just creepy as all getup.  Now, lets give her magic– how the hell is Cinderella gonna win now?  Her side levels in druid to charm small animals aren’t going to be much help.

There is even the cool framing device of having the stepmother rewind time back to the point that the slipper didn’t fit one of her children, and then uses magic to make it fit.  The prince wasn’t entirely blind, and know’s something is up because an ugly stepsister is not who he danced with.  In addition, we get an interesting bit of character focus– what’s life like for an ugly stepsister?  We know that her mother dominates all her personal decisions in the name of selfish gain, so what are her ambitions?  Aspirations?  Who is she?

Does this not sound like an amazing film?  I know how this story ends, and I want to re-watch Cinderella III.  Sadly, the movie is a goddamn train wreck.  This is the title song–

 

You can see the good movie trying to escape gimmick ridden, bland and sloppy animated nightmare.  This is probably the best clip from the film too, outside of the pumpkin sequence, so it really only goes downhill from here.  It’s a fantastic movie to watch after a couple of cocktails.

Maleficent is the exact opposite of that– but intention is the smaller of the two sides of the coin.  You can go see a movie who’s concept you don’t agree with, but if it’s done well, you can still call it a good time.  Sure, the angel symbolism is stupid in Maleficent, but did you hear the prince’s lines in that opening song?  “Would my perfectly perfect wife put on her perfectly fitting shoes?”

I feel bad for copying that line.  Heaven forbid I actually left it in a script for a movie.  Hopefully, enough people are interested in our concept, but the lesson here is this– a good idea is only the start.  The real important battle is making that idea so good that  the most your haters can say is, “eh.  Not the story I wanted, personally”.

This title will be written as soon as I get off TV Tropes

Disclaimer: TV Tropes is one of the more notorious black holes on the Internet.  A common tale of woe told around monitors is that of a man who goes to TV Tropes and the next thing he knows is it’s a week later and he’s got Cheetos stains on everything.  You have been warned.  I’m a professional– don’t browse TV Tropes at home kids.  It’s dangerous.

Things that you run into when you write any type of fiction: tropes.

Defined by the authority on tropes, TV Tropes:   “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.  On the whole, tropes are not clichés.”

A cliché is a trope gone to far– one that’s been done to death and back and no one wants to hear that bit again.  However, even the most trite and overused tropes often get reinvented to add fresh air to an old concept– we’re still telling damsel in distress stories, after all, but in modern fiction (or, I should say, good modern fiction– trashy dollar store novels will use every hack in the book) it’s rare to see the textbook example.  Everyone has read that textbook already, thank you.

So, to understand our source material a little better, I browsed through its entry on TV Tropes.  I was saddened to find out that TDP isn’t a trope namer for any tropes, nor is it the first example of any trope.

Several tropes can get thrown out as unimportant– the fact that TDP, in the version we’re basing things off of, has no named characters is nice, but irrelevant.  Disney movies have characters with names.

Per our preliminary notes, we’re already including a big, fancy castle, massive numbers of siblings, a protagonist that starts out pretty poor and some sort of dance.  I’m currently scribbling down on a notepad what the basic consequences of having these sorts of tropes does to the narrative and characters.  For example, seeing that large families these days are kinda rare, and households are having less and less children,  how did it happen that a political figure in the far future has twelve daughters?

Magic?  Strange political reasons?  Really bad luck?  Taking advice from rabbits?

Aside: Oh my god, I want to write that scene where the king, is his awkward youth, gets dating/relationship advice from a magical talking rabbit.  I’m giggling just picturing that.  Probably doesn’t fit into our story or target audience, but still.  *snicker*

I’m not looking for a particularly compelling reason, or a rational one, or even one that I’m going to explicitly point to.  Just food for thought.  Another one:  Dancing might be pretty rare, so it helps the princesses motivations along– they love dancing (get it from their mother) but this is the year 20XX.  No one dances anymore.  It’s a dying art.

Other things to look at are tropes that have become clichés (but weren’t done to death when the tale was written down) that we’re going to want to subvert or ignore.  Everything isn’t better with a traditional princess, but I’m hoping to subvert that a bit.  Personally, I’d like to bring out the political side of being next in line.  The royalty in our story, I think, is going to hold actual political power, and Luna (and probably the next oldest, Zorya) are going to be expected to rule themselves one day.

That’s a heavy responsibility– it’s like being the President, but you can’t blame things not working on congress.  Being a princess is not all fun and games and being frail and waiting for a white knight– that doesn’t feed people.  Ruling feeds people.

There are several tropes in TDP that I hadn’t considered at all before looking over the tropes page.  In the tale, the princesses evade getting caught through slipping drugs in wine to put the people sent to find them to sleep.  The protagonist gets around this with some discrete drink disposal.

Even though I haven’t really thought about it, we can throw some quiet nods to both tropes all in two scenes.  Maybe in our version of the tale, our protagonist (who’s name is Ivan, by the way), is the first person to try and figure out what the princesses are doing every night and one of them comes up with a knee jerk reaction to roofie him.

Our protagonist evades the ruse with the help of his animal sidekick, or his robotic arm (preliminary notes put Ivan as a cyborg.  And of course he has a sidekick, this is a Disney movie) and the tale goes on as normal.  I don’t know how important exactly the drugged drink is, but it is very important to note that the princesses do not want to be caught.

This helps tie into our already established themes about Luna– she starts the tale so resistant to leave the nightly dancing that she’ll resort to chemical warfare to keep things the way they are.  By the end of the story, she’s the catalyst of change.

Other things we haven’t covered at all– the hero in the fairy tale gets help from a magical shady lady in a forest.  I, personally, kinda dislike this trope.  It’s a derivative of Deus ex Machina, which came about because the ancient Greeks sometimes wrote themselves into a plot holes and were kinda lazy (I think.  It’s been a few years since I had to sit through an ancient Greek lit class).  Unless we decide the story needs it, I’d be more than happy to never touch on this facet of the tale, and let Ivan win his battles on his own.

Ok, two more.

First– the ubiquitous rule of three shows up in TDP– the protagonist has three days to figure out where the princesses are going every night before he gets murdered by the king.  His first two trips down to the hidden underground castle are pretty much the same, his last time down there has a twist.  The twist, at least in TDP, is rather minor– the solder takes an extra cup along with him for proof to show the king.  I almost want to ignore the pattern outright, but it’s such a common fairy tale rhythm that not using it feels wrong. Repetition is a tricky beast in stories– amazingly powerful when done right, but boring as hell when done wrong.

Finally, the fairy tale does do a bit of subversion– the youngest child doesn’t win.  However, the youngest princess is totally onto the protagonist the entire time he’s spying on the princesses.  You get the feeling he chooses the oldest as a bride because she’s a few light bulbs short of a full set and he knows he can outwit her.  However, we want people to leave the theater with Luna as a confident princess, ready to take on the throne.  What do?

Well, rather than just ignoring the subversion, I think we can play homage to it.  Cassiopeia (our youngest princess) can find the evidence that starts Luna’s change of heart, thus keeping true to the spirit of both characters, while still letting us focus on the older one without making her kinda dumb.

This helps add dramatic tension as well– Cass doesn’t know the gravity of the evidence she brings to Luna (or even that it’s a bad thing), and when Luna uses it as a reason to stop the dancing, Cass can naturally resist, rebel and ultimately feel like it’s her fault for pushing her sister away.

Awww, yeah.  Just what I like in my fictional characters– development and personality.  Damn gurl, you look fiiiiine with all that character.

_____________ Waltz (working title)

We might be bad at titles.

Progress on the writing front continues.  Slowly.  I blame the speed of writing on this being the last two weeks of school before the summer.  But, I’m here to talk our fairy tale of choice, how that choice helped us start to flesh out a character and how our setting is totally not related to anything.

However, I have other cool things to talk about– I’ve asked a friend who is an aspiring composer to see about writing some music for us.  As we’ve covered here, Disney movies work on a strong emotional level, and as such, I wanted to bring in a composer as soon as we had the fairy tale and setting nailed down.  More on that front later in the post.

In addition, I have a tentative ‘yes’ from another friend who does pretty pictures that move.  This job is more colloquially known as an ‘animator’.  No, we’re not going to try and do an entire movie, because that is madness.  Therein lies the abyss, and as Nietzsche wrote, “..as you gaze at Disney princesses, they gaze back at you.”  Or something like that.

The reason behind this is that some concept art and concept music will probably influence the writing.  Maybe that’s not a thing you worry about with screenplays, but as stated before, I’m not the part of this collective with a film degree.  Plus, the more people I can get excited about this project, the greater chance I have of convincing people I’m a high functioning adult.  Also, the greater chance this turns into something even more awesome than an epic script.

So, it’s past time I started actually talking a bit about what we’re writing.  We will be adapting the Grimm fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (TDP for the rest of this post.  Blame all the academic writing I’ve had to read recently).  The merchandising potential should be immense.

Shannon and I both compiled a top three list fairy tales, in no particular order, and one honorable mention.  Both our lists contained the same tales– TDP, RumpelstiltskinPuss in Boots, and The Brave Little Tailor.

I promise you we aren’t the same person.

Anyway, I pushed for TDP over the other films because 1) both Puss in Boots and Rumpelstilskin have been done to varying degrees recently and 2) The Brave Little Tailor seemed trickier to adapt.

So, what’s important in TDP?  What can’t we, as adapters, change?  Why has this tale been handed down through time, and adapted for countless cultures?  Hm, tough question.

Well, the most obvious examples of things that need to be in the Disney movie are in the title– there are twelve princesses, and they are going to dance.  There is really no way to adapt this tale and not have either of those things present.  In particular though, we get some help from the tale– ten out of twelve princesses can be foils/background characters.  We only need to focus on two of them, the youngest and oldest.

I’ve settled on some names to call them while we hash out plot details– Luna is our oldest, Cassiopeia is our youngest.  All of them have names vaguely related to celestial bodies that also have Russian/Slavic roots (well, Luna has its roots in Latin, but it’s also the Russian word for moon).  You’ll see why the roots are important later.  The names are almost certainly subject to change as we keep writing.

The fairy tale is told from the perspective of a male protagonist.  I don’t see this as an essential element of the tale, but it’s certainly a perfectly fine place to start.  Besides, it’s a fairly unique perspective for a Disney movie.  I’m not denying Aladdin exists, I’m just saying that there are more Snow Whites in the library.  That brings our number of characters up to three– a male protagonist and primary point of view, the oldest princess and the youngest princess.

The other really important thematic element is shoes.  The give away for the princesses sneaking off to dance every night is their footwear– shoes are to this tale what the lamp is to Aladdin.  

The other thematic elements are harder to pin down– most of the fairy tale has curiosity as a motivation for characters.  The downside is here is that curiosity is not a very strong motivator– think of Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  When she goes to explore the west wing, she’s spitting in the face of danger for no better reason than, “But what does this button do?”

I’d claim that curiosity works best as either supplemental motivation, or as a way to get a character to trigger a good inciting incident.  Ariel doesn’t trade her fins for legs because she’s curious about the human world, she does it because her curiosity helped her to fall in love with prince Eric.

Alice in Wonderland, for another example, starts with curiosity being the driving force behind Alice’s actions– she has an insatiable need to know what the rabbit is late for (… did I just do innuendo there?  I feel like I did).  Her curiosity slowly brings wisdom in the trippy-est sense of the word, and transforms into a desire to get back to reality as she finds out that her fantasies don’t always work out for her.

Heeeeeeeey.  Wait a minute—

Let’s not deal with curiosity, but the deal with the knowledge that curiosity brings.  If you want to go poking at the edges of a bit of fabric, the whole thing can start to unravel on you.  What if it does?  What if you learn something you can’t keep to yourself, and that knowledge forces you to act?  What if it’s the last thing your sisters want?  What if it turns your whole world upside down?  What if it makes you do something hard?

Oooh.  Luna is starting to shape up into something character-like.  So, what is she curious about?  What does she learn?

Well, the nightly dances seem to be an obvious place to start.  Clearly, the princesses enjoy them in the tale, so what if they were malicious in some other, unknown way?  Through the course of the tale, then Luna is going to learn about some dark design behind the dancing, and will have to reject her nightly bliss to do the right thing.  She’ll have to reject the fantasy and face the reality.

Yeah, it’s pretty Lion King.  I said this was rough, didn’t I?  What is the sinister plot?  Umm.  Magic?  We’re working on it.

Speaking of magic, our setting is a futuristic Russia.  I told you it wasn’t related to anything else.  Most of the motivation here was just, “what hasn’t Disney done?”., with the follow-up, “What hasn’t Disney done well?”

The idea is to invoke the shit out of Clark’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from [Disney] magic.  As such, we’re going to go in the other direction than something like Terminator or Deus Ex.  This isn’t a gritty future, this isn’t hard sci-fi based on actual science of today.  This is a whimsical, magical future.  This is the future of Meet The Robinsons.

But maybe not with that much whimsy, because holy shit does that movie has whimsy.  That about wraps up all I wanted to talk about, so that’s what– a character teaser and some setting information?  Sounds about as much as you’d get from a teaser trailer.

Anyway, on to other things!  The composer who I’ve asked to write pretty music (or not pretty music, if that’s what this script needs), is Kaelee, who is based somewhere out of the greater Seattle Metro area.

You can listen to selections from her work in progress musical, Starshine, on YouTube here.  The track linked in question is “What I Am”, and is pretty goddamn fantastic.

The animator is Steven, who might be the most Internet famous of all of us because he’s made it to io9.  He’s currently doing animation things in Los Angeles, and I’ll be sure to edit in a referral link as soon as I remember to ask for one.

June should be a very fruitful month for writing, as we actually get a real outline on the page and maybe even a first draft (so all these other fantastic people have the ability to work with something more than our outline of questions divided into acts).

Tune in next week for a hopefully more complete post about our protagonist, or maybe our villain, or maybe the youngest princess or maybe more on our setting.  Or maybe how Answer Set Programming should be combined with genetic algorithms, if I get tired enough and have both the blog and my class notes open at the same time.

There is something fishy in Atlantis (it’s not the linguistics)

So, last week we watched Atlantis and The Rescuers.

Wait, you want to know how script writing is going?  Have a hint: Vladimir Putin.  No, but seriously– we’ve got a bunch of pages of notes and have realized that we both are kinda sorta awful at planning things.  When things settle down a little bit for me, I plan on getting a real post about it out (I might have missed a week, maybe?).

Anyway, lets talk about Atlantis because this was a movie I’ve seen twice recently and I mis-pegged it the first time around.  Oh, it’s still bad.  Atlantis bombed in the box office, and although Disney has done worse, it’s not exactly a movie I recommend.  Which is sad, because look at how cool that submarine is.

Pity it gets like... 5 minutes of screen time.
Pity it gets like… 5 minutes of screen time.

I’m used to this problem by now, because I work with computers, but if you’re a linguist and you want to see Atlantis… get ready to cringe.  Also, feel my pain.  However, I’m pretty used to professions being magic in Disney movies, so I don’t think this is where the film fails.  I’m sure sewing is too complicated for actual mice, but I won’t poke that hole in Cinderella.  You got to buy into some baseline amount hand waving/magic.  In this case, linguistics (much like friendship) is magic.

So, that’s out.

I gotta give credit where credit is due– the movie is hilarious.  Hands down, the supporting cast’s one liners are comedy gold.  And, hey, all the cast members get a bit of back story, except for Mole because you don’t ask about Mole’s back story.

Most of each back story snippet is, in fact, a little quirky and interesting.  The demolitions expert wants to open a flower shop, the mechanic was pressured into being great at repairing things by a father who wanted sons, the doctor got into war medicine from being drafted.

I had originally thought that Atlantis’ great failing was it’s protagonist.  Milo Thatch falls under the same problems as Jim from Treasure Planet.  Namely, that sometimes protagonists are less people and more just shells that we the audience are supposed to project ourselves into.

However, on re-watch… I no longer buy into that theory.  Milo is a fleshed out character.  He adores his father who perished before the outset of the movie.  He has a dream, and is willing to sacrifice everything on it.  He’s that ubiquitous awkward nerd type.  Now, he just needs a good character arc and he’s set.

Unfortunately, the plot to Atlantis is about as ramshackle as they come.  Lets start with character motivations, shall we?

It isn’t through any achievement of Milo’s that he gets to hang out with the cool kids (aka the rest of the cast).  They just get bored of teasing him, and then everyone is friends, apparently.  They continue to tease Milo after he’s proven his specialty in gibberish is useful, and then just sorta… stop.

Milo’s lack of arc is not helped by his love interest.  Which, by the way, can we just say it’s really awkward when Disney goes for sex appeal?  I mean, at least it isn’t a stripping mouse this time (go watch The Great Mouse Detective if you don’t believe me), but come on.  It’s even worse in the fact that Kida doesn’t do a whole lot– she’s basically just there to look nice, and then be a plot device.

"See, Sailor Moon, I can make adolescent boys confused too!"

No, but seriously.  Most of Kida’s dialogue is during her “date” ( which is going pretty badly, based on the conversation) with Milo.  Also, that scene is painfully bad– the running gag isn’t funny, and it just makes you wonder if Kida suffered a blow to the head during that whole apocalypse 8500-8800 years ago.

Other than that, she delivers exposition to Milo, spurs on his already well established curiosity, and gets turned into a crystal.

Also, although our supporting cast has back story, they don’t really develop.  They pull a pretty random about-face when they realize that their actions will lead the entire Atlantean population to die (at least the movie is willing to lampshade it).  And the villain will eventually turn on his compatriot for no apparent reason.

And I think that pokes at the huge flaw here.  Things just happen because they do, and explanation is hard to come by.  How is Atlantis’ culture dying?  Never explained.  How did an entire population forget how to read their own script? Never explained.  Why does the crystal only feel threatened when they kick a tiny pebble somewhere close to it?  Not explained.  Outsiders can’t see Atlantis and live, so did the King plan on murdering them after letting them restock their supplies and spend the night, or did he just assume that they’d eventually starve to death looking for a way back to the surface?

So many plot holes, so many questions.  So, despite a strong grounding with a really cool setting (look at that sub picture again), some great characters (I’d watch a TV series that’s just the crew just putting around, exploring places), the lackluster plot really hurts this film.

We shall do better!

Audience Participation

Hi!

I haven’t written a post in a month and a half, and that is bad and I feel bad.  In my defense, I spent the first week of April on a boat, and the rest of April unable to believe that I spent the first week of April on a boat, and the last two weeks catching up on all the work I should have done in April when I was boat-shocked.

That isn’t entirely true, but it’s close enough for government work.

At any rate, two weeks ago, I invited some friends over, cracked out the nice booze and re-watched some more Disney films, bringing The Little Mermaid and Tangled up to the good ol’ analysis block.

Both of these films are remarkably similar (and both performed well at the box office).  So similar, in fact, that they might as well have been the same film, done slightly differently for different generations of viewers.  I’m not insane in this idea– The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, and Tangled  came out in 2010.  That’s a 21 year difference, and generations usually span about 24 years (looking at a wikipedia article, anyway).

I know that this doesn’t hold serious water– people are starting to have kids older and older (in the US, at any rate)– but just run with me for a post.  Mostly because I think we can start to see a vague outline of a Disney archetype, and the flaws and strengths of that archetype.

Tangled and The Little Mermaid both have female leads.  I’d tentatively classify both leads as strong.  Ariel is on a quest for a man, but she does almost all the heavy lifting on her quest for her true love.  Eric just looks pretty, misses the point, gets enchanted, but then stabs Ursula with a ship.  So, he spends most of the film as pretty incompetent, but manages to get a crowning moment of awesome.

Rapunzel beats people with frying pans and has an eidetic memory.  It’s clear she’s a strong lead, however, her love interest also isn’t astonishingly competent.

“But, he steals the crown from under the king’s nose!” you decry.  Well, yeah, but he had help from the Stabbington brothers.  In fact, if it wasn’t for Flynn’s little quip about allergies, they might have gotten away totally clean.  Flynn stumbles into Rapunzel completely by accident, and spends the rest of the movie getting helped by Rapunzel’s singing ability, Rapunzel’s hair and a den of thieves with aspirations.  When he tries to save Rapunzel, he gets stabbed.

It’s actually an important part of the movie– Flynn, as Flynn, is playing an act.  It’s all bluster, and that mask isn’t the person Rapunzel falls in love with.  Rapunzel, who can read people surprisingly well for having no social contact her entire life, aptly notes, “I like Eugene better.”  A great way to get us, as an audience, to like Eugene better is to make Flynn a bit of an idiot.

Alright, but it’s not like Rapunzel and Ariel are the same character or anything… right?

Well… they both have the same initial motivations.  Both want to escape an environment that they feel is trapping them.  In Rapunzel’s case, it’s an actual imprisonment.  For Ariel, it’s just wanderlust.  Both of them are naive about the worlds they will go explore– Ariel tries to comb her hair with a fork, Rapunzel recoils from a rabbit.  Both of them find love in the middle of the movie (to contrast against, say, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White where the protagonist finds love early on).

The plots even follow the same basic order– In our introduction to Ariel and Rapunzel, we are shown about their fascination with the world they wish to explore. This fascination brings them into conflict with a parental figure, and they are both ordered to never go near that world.  Both will sneak away and go explore that world anyway, and in doing so, find love.  The parental figure in question will disapprove of said love, and attempt to forcibly separate the female lead from their love.  The female lead will find a way around this separation.  However, just at the moment when the pair is about to profess their undying adoration for each other, disaster strikes and drives the pair apart.  Both female leads have a revelation, and decide to fight for their love.  The films end in a climatic battle, where the leads defeat the villain that drove them apart, and live happily ever after.

Bam.  Two Disney movies in a paragraph.  That sucker reads like something out of TVTropes.  I could go into how Mother Gothel is an Ursula/King Triton mash up, but you get the idea.  These films are remarkably similar– however, they aren’t the same.  I’m not arguing that Disney’s just rehashing old classics for money (although, they could and we wouldn’t even notice because I saw a trailer for Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day two days ago on YouTube).  I think that Tangled is a modern retelling of The Little Mermaid, and it’s the differences in the films can tell us a lot about the audiences that went to go see them.

Rapunzel is much more of a go-getter.  She doesn’t mess around with plucking flowers, or whining about how her mother is a horrible controlling monster.  She gets work done with a frying pan, tames a palace horse, and sings a band of murderers and thieves into working with each other.  She’s direct with her complaints, choosing to directly argue with Mother Gothel several times rather than bitching in her cave.  In the underground princess cocaine fighting ring, I put money on Rapunzel over Ariel.

Don’t google that.

Actually, both our leads in Tangled just feel older than the leads in The Little Mermaid.  Rapunzel doesn’t have the ‘school girl in love’ reaction to Flynn that Ariel has about Eric.  It’s not until the end of the film, when she’s sobbing over Eugene’s corpse that she says, “I love you.*”  Ariel is all over Eric within approximately three seconds of seeing him for the first time.

There is no pressure on Flynn to find love, unlike Eric, who has that old guy nagging him pretty constantly to find a wife.  Rapunzel is returning to the world she was born into, rather than leaving the one she was born into like Ariel.  Tangled still has that wonking great plot hole that is covered by shoddy writing (oh, you can remember an event from when you were a single year old.  I don’t believe you.) whereas, in The Little Mermaid seems to do a pretty spot on job with events following each other in a believable manner.

But, I’m just rambling right now.  I prefer Tangled because I think it treats love more maturely than The Little Mermaid, and as stated before, I’m not a fan of typical Disney love stories– and I think that’s the big difference.  Tangled is more focused on personal discovery, and love comes out of that discovery.  In The Little Mermaid, love is front and center, right from the get go.

I want to say that this parallels feminism things, but I’m probably wrong, so I won’t go there.  It does parallel the fact that people are getting married later and later though.  Funny how this came full circle.

Tune in next week as I talk about why I can’t figure out why I hate Atlantis!  (I lied: it’s plot is awful.)  But, more importantly, this text message exchange!

Lets Do This Thing
We’ve got a fairy tale picked out and we’re going to start script writing.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

*Actually, I might need to get a clarification on that.  I know she admits that Eugene was “her new dream”, and I’m pretty sure she chokes out an “I love you” over his corpse, but the caffeine does not seem to be with me today**.

**Goddamn, Disney is dark when you just talk about plot elements with no context.

I wanted to write about Frozen but then wrote way too much

There seems to be some confusion, so lemme clear this up and also get this out of the way at the start.

Frozen is a good movie and everyone should go see it.  You should also totally go take your kids to see it.  It is currently one of the highest grossing animated films of all time.

And it deserves that money.  I’m even excited that Frozen is currently making _all_ the money right now.  Considering one of the alternatives people could be spending their money on is The Croods*, I’m more than happy to report that we are not all entirely brain dead when it comes to entertainment choices.

Score one for the home team.  I own the deluxe soundtrack.  T-Fury ran a Calvin and Hobbes and Frozen crossover shirt, and if I wasn’t worried about things like ‘eating food’ I would have bought it in a heartbeat.  I’d buy the blu-ray if I had a blu-ray player.

After finding out the quote feature is just a way to make some text really big and super pretentious, I won’t go into the Chesterton quote I wanted to use, so we’ll skip the freshman English paper and go right to the heart of the matter.

In order to even get the drive to improve something, you’ve kinda gotta fall in love with it first.  It’s why I’d never think about writing a Disney movie after, say, Dinosaur, because that particular movie makes me want to do something else– namely drink heavily, or write C code to simulate a computer drinking heavily.

If you put things on too high of a pedestal, they essentially can’t inspire you because they’re too good.  You’re too starstruck to actually want to create things.  Sadly, any example I give here is going to have far to much math for you to care about, because I find math pretty.  Beautiful, even.  I got your back, Euler’s identity, even when the kids in the parking lot are making fun of you.

To get inspired to improve something means you need to see something special about the original, so much that you want to wipe the flaws off of it and make it even better.  This project isn’t quite ‘lets write Frozen better!’ because it turns out, that’s not fun.  Instead, the fact that Frozen was still good (despite cracks) inspired me to think, “Well, hell, if you can still be good even with some flaws… I can do that!”

And so, we get to Frozen, which for those of you who don’t remember, was the movie that sparked this entire adventure off.  I have problems with Frozen.  I still like it– hell, I still love it, but I do not think it is perfect in every way.

Keep this in mind, as I’m gonna be pretty blunt with some things.

Oh, and one more thing– let us not forget I’m mostly a computer geek who has seen far to many movies about princesses.

This is the closest I get to a critical analysis.  Oh, yeah… Spoilers, ahead, I guess?

Now that we’re done with preamble, lets talk about this guy:

"Oh, so all Germans are evil now?  THANKS DISNEY." -- not what I'm going to say.
“Oh, so all Germans are evil now? THANKS DISNEY.” — not what I’m going to say.

Hans is the “villain” of Frozen.  And he is really bad at it.  The idea is that he’s evil because he wants to marry Anna and murder Elsa to become king of Rivendell Arendelle.    Which is a rather evil plot, I won’t lie.  However, Frozen gives you this reveal in the third act, as a Shyamalan styled plot twist.

And like most things Shyamalan has done, it’s bad.  Don’t imitate that guy, Disney.  Don’t.  No one likes him.  It’s like trying to be more like the kid that collects far, far to many firearms or the kid that flays squirrels in his free time.

See, here is the thing about plot twists– they need to be set up.  You gotta give the audience some hints that someone is about to change their colors.  You don’t have to tell us outright (although, that is a useful way to heighten tension), but give us something.

Hans goes bad out of nowhere.  Anna goes to kiss Hans to not get frozen to death and Hans pulls back, revealing that he never loved her after all, thus becoming less of a character and more of a plot device in less time than it took for me to write that sentence.  This also makes Hans’ earlier actions in the movie beyond puzzling. For someone who wants to make a power-play for Arendelle, he does a fantastic job of making sure the sisters stay alive and don’t get vilified by the community.

I mean, its not the worst villain Disney has ever done (I’d nominate Edgar Balthazar, but not with any confidence).  It’s just frustrating because he could have been the most chilling villain ever.

If you want to go the villain route, then the scene where Hans goes after Anna and Elsa just needs a single modification.  It’s the perfect time for him to hint that he’s got bigger plans than falling in love with Anna.  He’s isolated from the rest of the cast, outside of that ineffectual old guy who, I’m convinced, exists only to throw a sly Arrested Development reference in the movie (and also to help keep the stupid pump fake alive for the villain).

frozen-ad-5 frozen-ad-6

 

I’m on to you, Disney.

This is the perfect time for him to hint at his true colors.  In fact, this is when good Disney films actually do perform their villain reveal.  In The Lion King, Scar unveils his murder plot when he’s separated from the rest of the main cast (with song).  In Hunchback, Frollo unveils his rape plot when he’s separated from the rest of the main cast (with song).  In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston unveils his plot to win the heart of his true love when he’s separated from the rest of the main cast (with song).

Instead, Hans looks and acts like he is really concerned about Anna (like, maybe, he actually cares?), and is generally a pretty good ruler in the midst of the current crisis.  If he were to clue us in, at this point, than his very heroic actions at Elsa’s ice hotel are more believable as cover.  

Also, for members of the audience that catch that Hans is the villain at this point, the ice hotel battle royal gets an extra dose of tension and meaning.  What’s Hans going to do once he has Elsa?  Oh shit, the camera faded to black, did he just kill her?  Did she just die?  No, he couldn’t have killed her because he stopped those two other guys from killing her, but what if she got trapped under the ice chandelier and he left her there?  He totally would do that because he really wants the throne, and Anna doesn’t even know and oh my god, SHOW ME THE NEXT SCENE.

And then when Anna is galloping back to the castle, half the audience that missed the clues are like, But he won’t help you!  KRISTOPH IS YOUR TRUE LOVE, TRUST THE SENTIENT ROCKS, THIS IS A DISNEY MOVIE.  ALWAYS TRUST THE SENTIENT ROCKS. And the other half is like TURN BACK.  He’s gonna use you Anna!  HE’S ALREADY USED YOU.  But you also have to go back and save Elsa, he’s gonna kill her and/or let the town people kill her!  WAIT NO.  WAIT.  WHAT DO?

There is a pretty solid explanation as to why they ran Hans as a villain the way they did.  We’re supposed to emphasize with Anna as she’s freezing to death, locked in a room.  We got played by Hans too, Anna.  We feel your pain.

But that’s not really how movies work.  Or books, for that matter.

The reader, or the audience, can’t be a true participating member of the action on-screen.  We get a different angle of insight on the characters– either too much (we know things that the characters don’t know about)  or too little (the characters discover something that isn’t shown to us, see all of the detective genre).  We also don’t spend enough time with them to really develop emotional bonds.

Aside: You know how little kids can be best friends in like, 3 seconds?  You ever think that maybe the reason why they respond so heavily to onscreen things is that they literally form a stronger bond with the characters in the time we see them, because they form interpersonal bonds faster?

Back to my main point: as such, we aren’t going to sympathize with a character that way– tricking the audience doesn’t make us feel pity towards a character who also go tricked.  We can relate a character being tricked to a time when we were tricked, in our own lives.  That’s how you generate an emotional response and sympathy– you set it up to something the audience has experienced in reality and can relate too.

So, we don’t feel Anna’s pain.  If, however, we knew Hans was evil all along, then we could relate to Anna’s distress, as more of a mentor/teacher/confidant.  I knew this was going to happen to you.  He was rotten from the start, Anna.  Just like Jeremy was when he dumped me, so that he could murder my Dad and take over the family bank.  He also dumped me because he judges women by breast size.  I bet Hans and Jeremy will die alone and no one loves them.  Fuck them.  Lets get a drink.

Anna still has the same problems in this version though– which brings us to my big second point.  Frozen has this other character, perhaps you’ve seen her:

princess_anna_frozen-wide

Now, I have no problems with Anna at a start.  But, any good character should grow and develop through a film, especially one that is going to have some moral teaching attached to it, because Disney films always do.  Especially because we spend most of the film with Anna as our protagonist.  Anna… isn’t so big on the character arc concept.

Anna’s supposed to be kinda derpy, a do things first think later kinda girl, who is desperate for love because she’s been locked in a castle for most of her– huh.  That’s funny.  Totally thought I was writing about Rapunzel again for a second.

Her arc is set up to teach her a) love,  b) maybe think for like, three seconds before you do things?  Kristoff’s comments to her (“I don’t trust your judgement!”) and general reaction to Anna’s Impulsive Decision Making Process (trademarked) make it pretty clear this is not a trait we’re supposed to approve of.

Except it totally works out for her, like, all the time.  Of all the decisions Anna makes on the fly, how many come back to bite her?

One.  One of them.  Maybe.  The entire wolves scene is Anna being better than Kristoff at everything, despite his experience.  Snow giant fight scene?  Again, it’s the quick, “DO THIS THING” type decision making that saves her.  And Anna’s saving grace at the end?  Split second decision to throw herself over her sister.

The movie does laud her rapid fire decision making process.  In fact, she tends to make worse decisions the more time she has to think about them.  So, that’s out.  And on the love side?  Surely she learns about love?

Not quite.

Why does Anna leave the castle when she is freezing to death?  If you answered, “To seek out a true love’s kiss from someone she met two days ago”, you’re correct!  Good job. We made a whole lot of progress on the ‘learn about love’ front during this journey.  She has some evidence that Kristoff might care for her by coming back (or that he’s really looking out for his ice business), but how does she know that she loves him?  You just got dumped by someone you swore you were in love with, that’s a pretty intense about-face to pull after five minutes.

In fact, Anna doesn’t even believe it (“What do I know about love?”) while she’s freezing to death.  It’s Olaf (sigh) that suggests that Kristoff loves her, and she just decides, whelp, its either that or a freeze to death.  Might as well go kiss the same lips a reindeer may or may not have kissed.

“Well, the trolls just tried to get them hitched,” you reply.  Because love is something other people tell you to feel?  Right.  Sure.  Don’t start pointing fingers at me, I know I’m being hypocritical.  Just keep reading, I promise I make sense eventually.

Anna makes a trademark split second decision to sacrifice herself for her sister, which is the catalyst for Elsa’s big character moment, which thaws out the entire kingdom.  Anna learns, after the fact, “oh, check it.  Elsa loved me after all,” and gets to do nothing with this new nugget of wisdom.  Laaaaaaammmmme.

Speaking of, lets talk about the most beloved character to ever eat a carrot after it had been in a reindeer’s mouth:

Frozen-2013-Kristoff (1)

Man, Kristoff.  You’re… tricky.  Kristoff doesn’t really develop much as a character either… unless we want to run his development parallel to Elsa’s.  One of the things I love about Frozen is the unmentioned extrovert against introvert personality types the movie showcases.  Anna is a very strong extrovert.  Elsa is a very strong introvert.  Hans, Anna’s love interest, is a very strong extrovert.  Kristoff is a very strong introvert… but Elsa doesn’t get a love interest.

Shannon and I have talked about the theory that Kristoff is a holdover from an earlier version of the film where Elsa does get to find love (They even match hair colors!  That’s adorable), but I’ll let her talk about her own theory.  In order to really get the subtext of personality types across, Anna or Elsa need to interact with someone of their opposing personality type.  Elsa can’t interact with Hans, because Hans is the villain and wanting to kill people generally ruins genuine interactions.

Anna and Elsa’s interactions tend to end with ice-splosions, so Anna gets Kristoff as an introvert foil until they get to Elsa’s ice hotel.   And that’s about it.  He gets elevated status towards the end of the movie, because someone’s got to get the girl and the magical talking rocks said so.  A pity, because even if his character isn’t developed further, it could be a better foil.  That being said, the seeds for Kristoff to have his own arc that mirrors Elsa’s are in the film, and Anna and Kristoff ending up together at the end of the film can totally make sense.

So… lets try to take the entire third act of the film entirely in the other direction.  Don’t make Hans the villain.  Make his feelings genuine.  Teach a real love story for once, Disney.  First, for all you young ones in the audience, (don’t tell your Mom I swore, ok?  Also, never drink your problems away) love is not that ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling you get when you see someone you like. Your heart fluttering when that special someone touches your hand?  That’s your body having a fun cocktail of hormone overload and a surge of adrenaline from your fight or flight response (Papers with respectable names say so.).

In a nutshell, you just took a hit.  Welcome to being high on “love,” and the people that constantly form new relationships after breaking up with people after a few months?  Junkies.

Now that I ruined that for you, what does Anna’s and Han’s relationship most resemble after they sing Love is an Open Door?  High school kids in love.  Actual love, real love, true love, is something that develops over time.  It can take years to finally come into bloom.  True love’s first kiss is not the same kiss you have on your first date.

(This is getting to sappy.  I need a crass joke, stat!)

So, no, even without the trolls priming us to jump for Kristoff as Anna’s true love, no one over the age of say, 17, expects a kiss from Hans to heal Anna.  I’m ignoring any argument that starts with, “But in Disney movies…” for a bit.  We don’t have that experience, we don’t believe it.  Not for one second.  So… what if it doesn’t?  What if the kiss does not heal Anna, but both Hans and Anna still think they love each other?

Well, wouldn’t that be one hell of a moral quagmire for Hans?  We, as the audience, knew Anna’s plan wasn’t going to work.  We know Arendelle is starving to death.  We know Elsa doesn’t believe she can stop the storm.  We know Anna is dying.  If Hans and Anna aren’t in true love, well, it’s pretty doubtful that Kristoff and Anna are.  Not even the trolls thought they were truly in love, they just wanted to set Kristoff up much like how the Italian side of my family is probably talking over how to set me up.  This is… rather bad, isn’t it?

Beat pause.  Linger for a second. Annnnnnnd…. then have Hans decide to kill Elsa.

But, to really make it hit home, have him do it out of fear.  He doesn’t want to lose Anna.  He’s scared, everything is falling to pieces around him.  He takes the only path he sees, because good ol’ panic has got blinders on his face.  Because that’s what panic does.  Good tie in to the themes about fear, incidentally.

He can even tell Anna that he’s off to murder her sister– because he wants to save her.  She can object, but she can hardly walk.  Besides, she’s about to get hit with the revelation of a life time– she loves her sister.  That’s true love.  And hey, Disney, you were able to make the bestiality joke earlier, so I assume a quip about ‘kissing your sister’ is on the table.

Olaf (sigh) comes back in the room, Anna realizes that the one person she’s loved all this time, even as she got doors slammed in her face, was Elsa.  Even after near freezing to death, she still believes in her sister.  And, even given present circumstances, she believes that Elsa loves her.  That’s the feeling she can trust, not this heart-fluttery bullshit.

That also takes some real critical analysis.  Way to think through your problem and analyze your feelings, while everyone else is jumping at the first option that comes to their heads.  Way to think first, Anna.

She goes back outside, looking for Elsa.  Kristoff comes back (more on this in a second), Anna is presented with the same choice.  She can either trust what she knows is true in her heart– everyone else at this point has told her that Elsa’s kinda a loose cannon at worse, extreme introvert at best.  Maybe Elsa doesn’t love her back?  Or, she can trust the trolls– who just tried to set her up with Kristoff.

However, to follow her heart, well, that one comes with a serious gamble.  But she throws herself in front of Hans and saves the day.  Elsa, at this point, gets the same character revelation Anna got as the snow stops and she breaks down, sobbing.  Anna was a reckless fool, sure, but Elsa can’t imagine she’d ever turn Anna away.  Anna thaws, Elsa realizes that love is the opposite of fear and thaws the kingdom.

Kristoff is back, and instead of fumbling over getting kissed, fumbles over asking Anna out.  This is a big moment for him, actually– he hasn’t been in love before (his own admission, earlier in the film), and Kristoff doesn’t exactly do the whole ‘act on your feelings’ bit.  The very fact that he’s asking is a big deal, he’s thawed out beyond that cold ‘people suck, reindeer rule’ exterior.

Internal thawing to mirror external thawing!

Does Anna turn him down and go back to Hans to try again?  Does she say no to both of them?  I dunno, I think both options are more interesting than the sort of love by default we get at the end of Frozen.

My changes aren’t perfect.  The trolls still don’t really fit into the action at all, and the ending is still meh (Oh, so Elsa can just thaw everything now.  Sure.  Ok.), but I sorta think that a lot of people would watch it.

You know what the kick is, and why I’ve written a 3500 word essay on this?  Frozen arguably covers all of these things.  From the lyrics of Fixer Upper, the movie is hinting that the solution to Anna’s problem is to show a little love to Elsa, and Elsa needs to open up to Anna.  All of Kristoff’s character development I’ve “added” is in Frozen, it’s just never explicitly called to light, so its impossible to tell if I’m over-thinking it or if it’s what the movie intends.  You’ll notice Elsa isn’t on here, because Elsa is an awesome character.

Frozen, at the end of the day, copped out and shoehorned a traditional ending on a movie that was screaming for something else.  None of what I’m talking about occurs in Frozen‘s first act.  And that’s the cautionary tale– Disney probably would never make a Frozen without the typical ending.

Pixar would, though.  But that’s a post for another time.

What Makes a Good Character?

So, last week, I watched both Pocahontas  and The Great Mouse Detective with some friends (and not my writing partner), which is why the showing wasn’t live tweeted.

This is another awkward week for me, because I personally think that the one with mice is a better movie, but not adjusted for inflation dollars say otherwise.

I’m also convinced that we can blame one particularly pervy animator working at Disney during the late 80’s for modern furries, but that’s unrelated to the topic I want to talk about.

At any rate, I would maintain that all the characters in both these films are not humans.  Miko, Flick and that stuck up pooch make decent characters in Pocahontas and Basil, Dr. Dawson and Ratigan are oozing with character in The Great Mouse Detective.

However, all these characters are missing one last thing that separates the Elsas of fiction from everyone else.  This intro makes this post sound long… might want to grab a drink before you dive in.

I’ll wait.

Got something with rum?  Yes?  Great.

Lets start by talking about what the humans from Pocahontas are lacking to make them strong characters.  Keeping within the narrow range of Disney films, a character is a person the audience is supposed to relate to.  It’s the characters of the film that allow the viewers to relate to the plot.  Without them, things just happen on screen for reasons.  You can have a badly written character, which would be one that attempts to connect to the audience in a particular fashion and fails (this was covered a bit in context with Beauty and the Beast).

However, the humans from Pocahontas don’t even reach that level for me, and I think it’s because they’re all way to genetic.  Jon Smith is a bland heroic character, Pocahontas is a vaguely rebellious teenage girl and the villain is greed personified (but not in a good way, like Doctor Facilier).  They all have strong character traits, but no personality.  Personality comes from the little quirks that riddle actual people and prevent them from falling neatly into an archetype.

Look at Grandmother Willow, who is a pretty solid character.  When we’re introduced to her, she plays into the “Wise Person Providing Guidance” archetype.  Pocahontas goes to her for wisdom, and she advises our female lead on dreams and listening with your heart and other Disney magical things.

However, later in the movie, we see Grandmother Willow arguably kick as much ass as our leads.  She drives away the men looking for Jon when he steals away with Pocahontas.  She’s old and wise, but she also has a surprising bit of spunk left in her.  It’s that quirk of spunk that prevents her from being bland and makes her a person (we all know that grandparent that rocks despite having two hip replacement surgeries)*.

So, what quirks does Pocahontas have?  Or, to cite some lines from a much better Disney movie:
“What’s his last name?”
“of the Southern Isles.”
“What’s his favorite food?”
“Sandwiches.”
“Eye color?”
“Dreamy.”

Sure, this conversation in Frozen happens in different context (true love, they aren’t having some meta conversation about characters) but the underlying concept is the same.  The audience should fall in love with the characters on the screen.  Pocahontas doesn’t have any of that– she’s more plot device than person, vague strong female lead than character.

All the characters of Pocahontas have this issue, except for maybe the villain who is a bit of a fop (and according to some equally unqualified people, not the real villain of the film at all).  It’s hard for me to care about the action on screen when I can’t relate to the characters that are a part of that action.

So, lets turn this about on its head and take a look at The Great Mouse Detective.  This film only works because of its characters.  The plot is pretty predictable.  The setting is just modern day (when the movie was made, anyway) but with mice and without the cool Rescuers-esque world building.

However, Basil is a wonderful protagonist.  He’s the spitting image of mousy Sherlock Holmes, and just like the detective he is based off of, he is bristling with character quirks.  He’s observant and brilliant, but because his mind works so much faster than the people around him, he comes off as a bit insane.  It’s also obvious he’s worked alone for quite some time– he has trouble relating and talking to other mice.  He’s arrogant (he never learns Olivia’s last name), full of himself and also dangerously obsessed with catching Ratigan.

He might be one of my favorite Disney characters.  He gets strengths and flaws in equal measure, and I totally know people exactly like him (heck, I’ve worked with Basils in software engineering).  The movie also mirrors it’s protagonist and antagonist very well– a lot of Ratigan’s strengths are Basil’s strengths, and a lot of his flaws are Basil’s flaws.  Ratigan is also brilliant (he’s evaded Basil’s attempts to capture him time and time again and comes dangerously close to lethally outsmarting the protagonist in the film), full of himself (he gets a harp solo in the middle of his own song, which he uses to bitch about his problems) and dangerously obsessed with killing Basil.

There is a defining difference in both these characters– one of virtue.  Basil does want to help people in his own, round about way.  Ratigan murders his own henchmen.  However, both these characters are effective because of their quirks.  Ratigan is just as greedy as the villain from Pocahontas, but he comes across as less of a plot device and more of a character.

So, we see the difference is that characters with little quirks are more believable than ‘pure’ characters.  Have another example: Elsa from Frozen loves chocolate, along with her sister, Anna.  It’s a one line gag, but it helps flesh out both characters.  That’s all it takes to establish a little quirk.

However, obviously, Elsa is a great character for more than just this one line.  In fact, Elsa is a cut above all the characters from both these films because she develops as the film progresses.  The events of the plot change who she is, she grows with the viewer.  Over the course of Frozen, Elsa goes from a girl terrified of her powers to a queen able to control them.  Along the way, she learns about what fear (and its opposite) truly are as well as how to appreciate and accommodate her extroverted sister.

It’s a powerful character arc, one that carries the movie.  Both films I watched last weekend did not have character arcs.  Heck, The Great Mouse Detective goes out of its way to remind us that Basil has not changed, at all, over the course of the film.  Pocahontas has character change (Jon Smith), but because he was never a fleshed out character to begin with, his growth isn’t a potent as Elsa’s.

In fact, without the ground work, his transformation over the course of the film isn’t effective, at all.

So, what to take away from all of this?  Characters are important, complicated things.  They need some good qualities, some questionable qualities and if we really want them to stick with an audience, they need to grow.

So, characters are basically my vegetable garden back home, except with less weeds.

*It is interesting to note that this “old person with spunk” has become a bland archtype.  It may have been a bland archtype at the time Pocahontas first came out.  However, I happen to still enjoy it, so this doesn’t bother me too badly.  It’s still something to note of having been done before, and maybe even done to death.

Treasure Planet, Women’s Restrooms and Keanu Reeves

So, another Disney film we’ve recently watched is Treasure Planet, because in order to appropriate some sunshine, you need some rainy days.

No, actually, we watched it because Treasure Planet is one of two Disney films that has science fiction-y elements, and we have some rough plans for science fictiony things maybe.

And, Treasure Planet is… well, it’s one of the weaker Disney films.  It’s not, say, Dinosaur bad, but it’s not particularly good either.  It tanked really hard and it is up to us to figure out why!

I haven’t read the source material for Treasure Planet (the novel Treasure Island) in a very long time.  That being said, I want to say that this is one of the most spot on adaptations of a Disney film.  There are scenes lifted from the novel and transplanted directly into the film.  I’m pretty sure the romance between the good doctor (whose name I can’t remember) and the captain (whose name I can’t remember) was added on, but that’d be about it.

So, it is pretty accurate as far as adaptations go (Disney has strayed far further away from source material).  It also looks beautiful.  The space port reveal shot is animated scenery porn, and not the bargain bin brand either.  The world the story takes place in is actually rather awesome.  I like space pirates, the way they travel through the galaxy is cool.  The score is… acceptable (it’s not obtrusive, at any rate).

So, where does the movie go wrong?  Well, lets talk for one more second about where the movie goes right, before we break into it’s glaring flaws, which really all stem from one pivotal problem.

The supporting cast is (for the most part) decent.  I can’t remember names, because I suck with names, but the captain, the doctor, the cyborg– all of these people have personality.  They have quirks, flaws, conflicts– I’d go drinking with them.  They aren’t phenomenal characters, but they have enough personality to sell me.  I can believe in them.  They even have some character growth– falling in love, or realizing they have a soft side, etc.

The same can not be said about our protagonist, Jim.  But that’s because Jim is supposed to be me, or rather I’m supposed to project myself unto Jim and become Jim.  What I’m trying to say is that Jim is the Keanu Reeves of animation, and Keanu Reeves is the uncanny valley of acting.

That paragraph made no sense, I’m gonna take a few steps back.  And to do that, we need look at a graphic novel called Understanding Comics, or alternatively, a Cracked After Hours episode.  Another alternative reading would be Revealing Phantasms, depending on how into academic reading you are.

The basic idea is that we can rate all art on a scale.  On one end is the Mona Lisa, on the other end is the women’s bathroom sign.  Both these ends have merit, because they both represent characters.

The Mona Lisa is a fully-fleshed out character.  People have written comics featuring her (The Far Side comes to mind), we’ve written fan fiction on her backstory (I’m assuming that it exists on the Internet), academics have done historical research into who she was.  However, despite her personality, there is something that the Mona Lisa can’t do– she can’t be you.

Which is something the sign on the woman’s bathroom totally does.  It’s because the sign is so generic– any female (ok, ok: female in the society/culture in which the bathroom sign exists.  Don’t send me hate mail) intrinsically knows that the little stick person in a dress is her.  That sign means that she can go in the special room.  And that stick person in a dress does this for hundreds of millions of people, every day, all the time.

That little stick person has no character.  She has no personality.  Her face is a neutral mask; she’s a hollow shell of a character, which sounds like another protagonist I saw recently–

Neo

No wait, I mean–

Jim-Hawkins-Treasure-planet-disney-35597000-640-960

Outside of the cheapshot on Keanu, what he’s doing makes some sense.  It’s the same strategy that Twilight took– and one of the reasons Twilight got so popular.  Bella doesn’t have a personality, she’s a hollow shell that we’re supposed to project ourselves into so we can live out whatever vampire fantasies we happen to have.

Neo is playing the same role, but the fantasy we’re supposed to live out is different.  In The Matrix, the fantasy is all about being special, about having some unique knowledge and ability that no one else has.  Keanu is bland and emotionless because we, as viewers, are supposed to treat his emotions like a fill in the blank problem.  How do you feel when fighting your robot overlords?  Great, that’s how Neo feels.

And, I think, that’s what Treasure Planet  was going for with Jim.  Jim doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, really.  He rarely talks about himself or his backstory.  His one point of character development is during a montage with the Goo Goo Dolls, in which the main chorus is something along the lines of “Yeah, I’m still here”.  Whelp.

Jim’s backstory can be summed up with “shit happened, but I’m still kicking”, which is probably the most genetic backstory ever.  Anyone, even someone who is rich beyond belief, can identify with that.

Jim’s minimal character arc is basically him discovering that he’s awesome.  But, twist, he was awesome the entire time.  Just like you, random viewer!  You’re awesome.  And you know it. Go you.

The problem is that we don’t watch Disney movies for the the same reason we watch Fast and Furious XVI.  (My years of playing Final Fantasy have trained me to always use roman numerals when referring to sequels.)  Disney probably took the neutral mask protagonist approch because they were adapting a swashbuckling, action story.  But we don’t watch Disney movies for that– we watch Disney movies because of the characters.  Why has Frozen done so well?  Elsa is a brilliant character (also, the soundtrack).  The Little Mermaid?  I’d hope you aren’t projecting onto Ariel, because Ariel is kinda dumb.  However, being optimistically dumb is a pretty strong character trait (and it even makes sense in context, considering Ariel’s privileged upbringing).

Not all Disney movies have done this, some of them have used the blank mask (Snow White I’m looking at you).  But, when you look at the most successful Disney movies (from a make all the money perspective), none of them have had a blank mask protagonist.  Fairy Tales in general do not have blank mask protagonists– they don’t develop a lot of character (because they have like, three lines of text to do so), but fairy tale characters have their own sort of charm.  They’re a bit absurd.

Also, writing a blank face protagonist doesn’t sound fun.

So, safe to say, this is not a tactic we will be using.  Disney has used it (more often than you’d expect), but despite its usefulness, I’d like my Disney movie to be a bit more than the lady on bathroom doors.

I’m vain, whatup.

Light in Hunchback

Another week, another time I don’t write a post for the blog.  I’m a slacker.

However, we did watch more Disney movies two weekends ago, and that went really well.  We’ve finally watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame (and the less popular Treasure Planet).  Now, Hunchback  is tricky to talk about, at least for me.

According to this poorly designed websiteHunchback did not exactly do well in theaters.  Part of the idea behind this project is to write Disney’s next masterpiece, which sorta kinda implies commercial success.

Despite that, I really like Hunchback.  The movie has a lot going for it– all the characters seem decently fleshed out, the music (for the most part) is fantastic, and the film has quite a few beautiful moments in the art department.

But, I want to talk about something a little more subtle.  Hunchback does a great job of guiding the viewer through it’s story, so that you can get all the subtext as long as you’re paying attention.  One of the more potent threads woven in is the theme of light.  The explicit theme statement comes with the Heaven’s Light/Hellfire sequence.

Anyway, take a listen.  It didn’t hit me until we rewatched it for the project that I realized
A) How different both these songs are
B) How brillant it is that they go back to back

Heaven’s Light is very explicit with its imagery, because there is no reason to hide it– like all Disney protagonists, Quasimodo is looking for love, and despite knowing better, can’t help but have feelings for Esmeralda.  In fact, Esmeralda is the subject of both songs, however, Hellfire puts an entirely different spin on things.  Esmeralda is the subject of Quasimodo’s love, however, she is also the subject of Frollo’s lust.

And Frollo doesn’t fuck around (ha!  I made a pun).  Either Esmeralda will sleep with him, or she will burn alive.  Also, lets set fire to Paris because why not?  So, lets talk light.

When Quasimodo sings about it, he talks about people emitting light, being wrapped up in it.  The light here is gentle, it’s good, it illuminates his dark tower.  Quasimodo calls the light he sings about as a “warm and loving glow”.

To counter this idea, Frollo brings an entire new twist to light– fire.  Literally burning with light, light that scorches, light that destroys.  Light that drives him insane.  Both these characters are using light as a metaphor for how they feel about Esmeralda, both of them identify her as the source of light.

Both of them also want Esmeralda to feel for them how they feel for her.  In movie thematic terms, both characters sing about how they want Esmeralda to feel the light they feel: Quasimodo by association– pairs of people feel the light he feels, Frollo is more explicit about wanting Esmeralda to burn with hellfire.

Pretty brilliant, eh?  Considering that Esmeralda will dump both of them and hook up with someone who’s name means ‘Sun God’,  I think I’m on to something.  However, this isn’t the only time light is used as imagery for love.  It’s actually more general.

Think back on the festival of fools sequence, or go rewatch it.  When do both men fall in love with Esmeralda?  For Frollo, it’s when she’s dancing on the podium, getting her sex appeal on.  For Quasimodo, however, I’d argue that it’s when she rescues him– she is surrounded by light, while the soundtrack plays that really catchy choral line that I can’t find on the Internet because “catchy choral line from Hunchback that plays as the introduction to the thematic element of light as love” doesn’t give any hits from Google.

Or, even if he isn’t aware, Quasimodo has felt heaven’s light.  Sure, it isn’t love how he hopes it is, but Esmeralda does care for him.  That’s the light Quasimodo is chasing after, the light he’s dreaming about– the light of care from a good person.

And it’s obvious who are two good people are– Esmeralda and Phoebus spend a large chunk of the movie dressed in white, which if you haven’t ever looked at a single bit of art ever, is a color of purity.  Also, I think they might be the only two people in the movie that don’t attempt to murder Quasimodo.  They’re both wearing white during the Heaven’s Light reprise, during the climax of the movie, and during the last scene when Quasimodo goes back outside during the day.

To keep pounding this horse into the dust (it isn’t part of the theme unless it’s beaten into your skull), the last scene has Quasimodo coming out of the shadows of the cathedral into the blistering sunlight of the square.  He winces from the light, but as he walks all the way into it… he is embraced by the crowd.  Quasimodo has brought light to the people of Paris, and they accept him rather than throwing perfectly good fruit and vegetables at him.

I could go on, but I think I’ll stop here for now.  There is a ton more to dig into– we could go deeper into the use of fire, or exactly why Guy Like You is bad (because they wrote themselves into a hole), or how the soundtrack is goddamn brilliant and helps enforce these themes, but I gotta save posts for dry weeks.

See you guys next week.

 

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.