Tag Archives: Pocahontas

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.

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Response: The First Few Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Impression Failures: Pocahontas

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

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

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

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

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

Not Quite Right: Frozen

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

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

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

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