Tag Archives: character

Showing Emotional Pain

Here be spoilers to Guardians of the Galaxy. Turn back if you don’t wish to have things ruined. Onto the post!

Part of things you need to do when you’re writing a movie is to watch current movies–
especially movies that fit the genre you’re writing for so you can do the things that people will like, and don’t do anything that Battlefield Earth did.  So, I guess that puts Scientology out of the picture?

Anyway, if you don’t know, everyone is still fawning over Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s latest sci-fi superhero movie on their disturbingly fast movie release schedule.  And, you might be aware, I’m trying to write a sci-fi Disney film.  I saw Guardians, and came back with, well, questions.  So, I decided to go see it twice to see if anything made more sense on a repeat watching.

Also, I wanted to see it in 3D because I have a weakness for eye candy.

And now I’m gonna write about it, because Disney owns Marvel.  Boom.

So, lets kill the most important elephant in the room– the 3D was excellent.  I have gone on record having said that 3D sucks and will always suck, but if you have even a little bit of cash to spare for the more expensive ticket, I highly recommend it.  Yep, eating my words.  There are times when it gets flashy (I winced from exploding debris, in actual surprise and fear, not cheese), but there is actually a touch of subtly to it, and it turns out that makes the whole experience way better.

With that out of the way, lets talk about why I felt the need to re-watch the film.  Namely, my spirit animal, Rocket Raccoon.

No, not a regular raccoon.  Regular raccoons suck.
No, not a regular raccoon. Regular raccoons are the worst.

I know that everyone loves Groot, but my favorite character is Rocket.  Groot makes a close second (but more on that in a bit).  There is a problem with this.  Rocket (at the very least, maybe also Groot) is entirely CGI– not even supported with motion capture work ala Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings.

I was not ok with this revelation.  There are three Guardians that are played by real people, and I found the talking raccoon to be the best character?  That can’t be right.  Better re-watch.

And on re-watch, Rocket is still the best.

In an old draft on this post, I spent many, many paragraphs talking about acting and CG in acting and all sorts of things that are very much not writing.  I’m a writer.  This blog is about writing.  So, lets just say that Rocket (and Groot) are just as well acted as the rest of the cast and just look at the writing.

When it comes to characters in GotG, everyone gets what I’m going to term as a ‘heroic beat’.  One of the underlying themes is that this is, indeed, a ragtag group of A-holes, but in each character there lies something heroic.  Perhaps its deep down, but it’s there.  Everyone gets a scene where they find that bit of heroism in themselves, and react accordingly.

And these beats are not all written equally.

Of particular weakness is Drax’s beat, which somehow violates “show, don’t tell” in a movie, which feels impossible.  It’s when he realizes that all his actions were really just a mask for the loss he felt– and just sorta announces this to Rocket and Groot.  Yes, it fits Drax’s character to make this announcement.  Yes, the movie points out why it’s stupid a second later.

Gamora has her heroic beat while a lot of other things are happening.  She goes into the Collector’s place ready to sell whatever the orb is (and she knows it’s a weapon) for all the money so she can escape her shitty past. She comes out of the Collector’s place after the Infinity Stone does its ‘wreck the shit out of everything’ thing, ready to go back and get thrown in prison to put the Infinity Stone in safe keeping.  It’s not really shown– she goes in, purple sparkles (more on that in a bit as well)– and comes out heroic.

Quill’s beat is kinda cliched.  He makes the choice to sacrifice his life to keep Gamora alive, and the whole thing is set up the exact same way it’s been set up hundreds of times before.  We see the emotional turmoil as he realizes he can’t just sit there and watch Gamora die.  Yes, it slots in with his character nicely, and the movie makes fun of it later, but still.  

Now, lets look at Rocket and Groot’s beats.  Rocket’s beat is the “beating up a tuft of grass” line.  He wants to let go of these people he sees as a liability, but he can’t.  We actually see him emotionally deal with the consequences of realizing he can’t walk out on this one– with rage.  He hates this new-found compassion in him.  It totally sucks to be a hero.

Groot gets the best beat out of everyone– Groot’s heroic beat comes right as the big black bad ship is falling out of the sky.  The ‘We Are Groot’ line.  The discovery of something heroic to enable his sacrifice.  It’s still a painful moment for him– he starts to cry, after all, being a hero is hard.

It all comes down to seeing the emotional crucible required to go from jackass to hero.  In only two characters do we really see that emotion played out (pssst.  It’s Rocket and Groot.  If you didn’t know.  pssst).  And, part of that is the scenes that were supposed to show a lot of the emotion in two of the three other characters aren’t really written to focus on that.

I might just be too jaded for Quill’s scene.

Could we have seen this emotional turmoil if the characters had been acted better?  Yeah.  The fix could go either way.  This relates back to our Disney film because all of our protagonist’s barriers are emotional ones.  All of the rough stuff we want to throw them through is about making hard choices and living with consequences.

Not that movie doesn’t do cool things with the fact that each character hits the heroic crucible at a different time.  Gamora totally judges the hell out of Quill when he wants to sell the Infinity Stone for money because she’s become heroic and he’s not there yet.  Her moral indignation is actually rather neat.

Now, why do I like Rocket over Groot?  That’s entirely subjective, but mostly because Rocket drinks.

I really don’t want to continue this post, so I’m gonna end it here for now. Perhaps next week I’ll talk about the ending and how GotG’s popularity is a testament to theme trumping logic (because that movie doesn’t even follow its own internal logic).  Or I’ll write some actual script some more and talk about animated Disney things.

The Problem with Tarzan, or Character Motivations

So, Tarzan is streaming on Netflix, and my FB feed has been running amok. I do not have fond memories of this movie as a child because I was just too old for Disney movies by the time this one rolled around. I think at some point I watched it, though, I honestly couldn’t remember anything at all about the film.

Of course, this means that the best way to procrastinate on Secrets is by rewatching this Disney classic.

I could waste my time with a critical analysis of Tarzan, but I won’t. It’s a rather lackluster movie with loads of pacing problems, and generally a bad model for any movie analysis. But, I will talk about biggest problem with the movie, and that’s character motivation.

Characters drive stories. Characters want or need things, and to get those things, they must overcome a series of obstacles. This is the basis of any story. Except, it seems Tarzan.

Tarzan himself has a clear motivation. He wants to belong. He is conflicted because where he wants to be, needs to be, and is are all different. His level of acceptance between gorillas and humans fluctuates driving the main conflicts throughout the movie. This doesn’t sound too bad, right?

Nope

Wrong.

Tarzan may motivate the film, but just barely. His first conflict, he wants to prove himself to the gorillas, is resolved at the end of act 1 when he slays the jaguar, Sabor (huh, that thing had a name). So… no more conflict. Well, let’s introduce Jane, her father, and Clayton. New characters! But, not really any new conflict.

Tarzan longs for Jane, and in a slowly meandering way, realizes he wants to be with his own kind. Act 2 ends with Tarzan choosing Jane and company over his gorilla family. Kala, gorilla mom, makes him choose, but that is a particularly foggy scene and we’ll just leave it at that.

So! Where does that leave the last 30 minutes of movie? Floundering for a resolution. While Tarzan’s motivation drives the story, it’s often quickly resolved and therefore doesn’t actually drive enough conflict.

Why is that? Because conflict is compounded because two people have conflicting motivations. This is why we have villains/antagonists. One character wants one thing, and another character wants something else. Look at Aladdin. Aladdin wants Jasmine because he loves her. Jarfar wants to rule the kingdom. How do their paths meet? Jafar can only become ruler by marrying Jasmine or using the magic lamp. Now, the two characters are in direct conflict, and it becomes the driving force of the film.

Tarzan’s motivation conflicts with, well, no one. There is nothing keeping Tarzan back. In fact, it’s so lacking conflict, the 3rd act is nothing but adding a new conflict so that the film can drag out and reach the conclusion it wanted to make. And not only is no one’s motivation is in conflict with Tarzan, fuck it if I know what the entire supporting cast’s motivation is.

The only characters given any hint at motivation are the Porters and Kala. Jane and her father have a one liner about being there to study the gorillas. Why? No clue. It’s not even implied in the movie. Is there work important? Dunno. Is it just for fun? Probably. Is it Mr. Porter’s dream to be the leading expert on Gorillas? No fucking clue. Why did Jane come along? Your guess is as good as mine.

Kala, at least, has some legitimate motive. The brutal murder of her baby leads her to adopting Tarzan. She wants to be a mother. She wants to replace her murdered son, so she adopts a human baby, because that’s healthy. And after the first fifteen minutes, her motives and character are irrelevant.

The rest of the cast? Who the fucks knows what they want. Turk? Uh, yeah, what the hell does Turk want or do besides help/hinder Tarzan? She’s a plot device, not a character. I’m not even going to mention the elephant.

Kerchak! He’s doing something right? He wants… give me a moment here… to protect the gorillas? Uh…maybe? From what I’m not entirely sure…

Why such a gruesome death?

Then there’s my favorite void of motivation: our villain. Clayton is clearly up to no good the minute we meet him. He is the only asshole carrying a gun and shooting randomly. (He also evilly drinks wine! Tarzan sets his down without a sip.) A big surprise reveals that he’s after the gorillas? To capture them I think? (This is all implied because he doesn’t say want he wants, nor does anyone else say what he wants.) Why is he after the gorillas? Fuck if I know. I can’t tell if it’s greed, or pride, or because he’s a vicious sociopath with enough money to hire a army of poachers. He’s clever enough to deceive the heroes (but not the audience) the whole damn movie, but, we never know why. What a waste of a villain.

But someone does develop some motive throughout the film – our lovely lady hero, Jane. Her initial motivation is tacked on with her father’s one liner to “see the gorillas.” She kinda sees them when Tarzan brings her back to camp and they trash the place, so, why the hell does she stay? She should be fulfilled. As far as I can tell, it’s because she seriously wants to bang Tarzan.

Yup...Jane's Motive is Horniness

Yup. Sex. Additionally, her lack of non-hormonal motive actually undermines the entire film. At the end, she chooses to stay with Tarzan. But, the whole point of the movie was something like, you can take the man out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the man? Tarzan can’t return to civilzation because, well, he’s a weird ape man. However, it seems that Jane and her father can just toss everything away and stay in the jungle. (Why did they need to return to England in the first place if they can just flippantly cast aside their lives and live in the jungle? Then the whole, shady third act could have been avoid.)

The unclear motivations of practically every other character in the story certainly hinders the plot. A complexity that makes a lasting story is lost. We don’t know why anyone does anything. Nor do we care. What brought these strangers to the jungle? The movie tries to play if off as unimportant, but it is important. How can Clayton’s betrayal resound if we never knew what he wanted in the first place? How are we suppose to care about Jane if we know nothing about her, other than she clearly wants to bang Tarzan? Or even the importance of giving up her life in England to stay with him? How are we, like Tarzan, suppose to come to love her? To be tempted by the human ways or gorilla ways?

I don’t know. But I do know, that I don’t want the audience of Secrets asking the same questions. Guess that means I need to get back to work.

The Mortality Rate of Disney Parents

There is an off-joked about trend in Disney movies– if you happen to have helped give birth to a protagonist, you better get your will in order.

The number of Disney protagonists with two surviving parents is probably less than a tenth of the cannon*.  I could come up with only a few examples– Rapunzel’s parents in Tangled are around to watch their daughter grow up (although they aren’t really part of the narrative at all), and, um.  uh.  I had another example I was going to use, but forgot it mid sentence.

It’s not very many, is the point.  If you ever see both parents, you can set your watch on the fact that one of them is going to die before the credits roll.  Sometimes, the movie’s gotta troll first (Did you know that Bambi nearly kills the mother twice before she finally gets shot?  It’s almost frustrating to watch), other times they’re just never around and no one bothers explaining why (Beauty and the Beast), or they’ve passed away before the movie begins (Cinderella, Princess and the Frog).

I always thought this was a weird quirk, but never bothered looking into it.  One, because I’m not a parent and actual parents are already doing a great job handling parents in Disney and two, because I didn’t think it was that important.  Parents are hard to write, and if they aren’t needed for character motivation, just hand wave them.  Disney movies are stories about children, no one wants to see adult life.**

Well… protagonist age has increased as Disney has gotten older.  Snow White is a terrifying 7 in the Brother’s Grimm tale, and Disney aged her (in the 40s) to the much more mature 14-ish, which is better but deep in the land of “Seriously?!”

In contrast, Anna is 18 during most of the action of Frozen and Elsa is 21.   My little brother is younger than the protagonists of a movie that is ostensibly marketed to people younger than him.  Disney movies are happening to older and older people– so, you know, these aren’t entirely stories about children anymore.  Hell, at the rate we’re going, maybe we’ll have a Disney movie about a parent soon.

What I’m trying to get at is that Disney movies are growing up with the audience that fell in love with them.  And part of that is that we can’t just ignore parents– but, after starting to write my own Disney film, I can say with confidence that we will, and here is why:

Fairy tale parents are insane.

We’re adapting The Twelve Dancing Princesses, which only references one parent, the father.  Fine, I guess, considering that have 12 children with one woman seems like… well, painful, so the King was probably had a kid or four out of wedlock and we’d want to leave that to a humorous quip, if we bring it up at all.

Fine.  However, upon realizing his children are sneaking somewhere every night, the King’s reaction is, “Better put a bounty on my daughters!”

Look, I don’t have kids, but I get the feeling that that is pretty awful parenting.  Reconciling that with anything is just… it’s hard.  Think about the levels of father/daughter trust failure that need to happen:

1) The daughters need to decide that it’s better to sneak out than ask their father, or else the King would know that dancing was the reason why the shoes were worn down every night, he just wouldn’t know where.
2) The king asks his daughters what’s going on, and they’re so afraid of him that they refuse to tell him, despite the fact that the act of dancing doesn’t seem to impair them in any way.
3) Instead of trying to get to know his children better and earn their trust, the king hires a PI/compels the police to figure this problem out.
4) Upon that failure, the King still decides that random people just living in the kingdom are his best bet.  Rather than, you know, talking to his children.

And he’s a king, not a low-functioning alcoholic!  To make matters tricker, most of what I’ve written for Luna factors on the king being a competent ruler, as she struggles to find the courage to fill his shoes.  This man clearly can not exist… but he does and I have no idea how to write it.

What do?

Well, actually, the solution so far has been pretty easy– pull a Dumbledore.  Dumbledore doesn’t actually do a whole lot in the early Harry Potter books.  He kinda just delivers exposition and ties up loose plot threads.  Sure, he’s a powerful wizard, and his knowledge and ability probably would have saved some Hogwarts’ student’s lives, but he’s always just unable to help for whatever reason.  The King is our Dumbledore, at least at this point in this draft.

So far (and we’re about 20 pages in) the King has not actually shown up.  We see a lot of advisors to the king, but the man himself is kinda like this mythical creature that we never really show.  By keeping the king an arms length away from the action– he’ll always be just unable to help, Luna can both idolize her father and her father can be a horrid parent at the same time.

If we never bring attention to it in the narrative, hopefully the slight of hand will work– viewers will remember the king for how the other characters see him, rather than by his actions.  Just like early book Dumbledore.

The other option is to highlight the fact that the king is an isolated, shitty parent because the kids were primarily raised by mom.  But, we don’t want to point attention there either, because, you know, 1 parent, 12 children.  Ouchies.

Also, by writing a blog post about it, I totally kill the magic.  I’m a wizard that reveals how the trick works before showing you the trick.  Thank god this is just a rough draft.

*This ended up sparking a lively debate with some friends.  We’ve so far come up with 6 out of the 52 movies in Disney’s main animated canon where the parents live.  I’m also being unfair– many Disney movies feature protagonists that can’t have parents without it getting weird (Wreck-It Ralph, for example).  However, in a lot of movies where the parents are around, they get forced away from the action, either because of the plot (Mulan) or because they really subscribe to Laissez-Fare parenting (Peter Pan).   In, eh, about half of these films, the plot breaks down if the parents happen to be great parents– Wendy would never want to run away if her father hung out with her more in Peter Pan, and if Herc’s foster parents in Hercules were able to integrate Herc into society better, there goes that movie.

Essentially, successful parenting undoes the basic framing of a Disney movie– going on an adventure to learn a moral, because that moral would have been passed down along with some really awkward Dad joke.**

**However, all of this is kinda moot because 101 Dalmatians exists.

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.