Here be spoilers for The Wolf Among Us. Because I want to talk about the ending to season 1, and ya know, gotta talk about everything if you want to talk about the end.
So, Telltale games (most famously known for The Walking Dead games) has done a series of point and click adventure games based on the Fables graphic novel/comic series. I had read the first book of the series before playing The Wolf Among Us, based on the recommendation of a friend. Anyway, the universe the game (and the comics. And the novels. And short stories. And, and, and…) takes place in is a 1980’s-esque New York in Fabletown.
For those of you not from New York, that isn’t actually a burrow. In Fables, fairy tales have been forced out of their homelands and into our reality. They live in a secret community called Fabletown, passing for humans through the use of magical glamours (and those of the community who can’t pass for human, live on an annex to Fabletown called The Farm. Everyone hates the Farm). It’s pretty hilarious to see one of the three little pigs take a smoke.
Anyway, you play as Bigby Wolf (you know him as the Big Bad Wolf), the sheriff of Fabletown, as he tries to keep the peace. The plot is very solid, generally ending each episode on a great cliffhanger and keeping a rapid, snappy pace. The entire setting is 1980’s noir, except with Mr. Toad and Ichabod Crane. It’s fantastic. The characters are twisted variants on the fables they come from, sorta kinda. Snow White is nothing like the girl in the tale, but Beauty and the Beast are a painfully sappy, yet always bickering married couple you know that centuries of marriage would make them.
So, why did I bring this up at all? Because plot twists, man.
The Wolf Among Us is a detective story, and as anything in the genre, it has a twisty bendy plot with Bigby slowly filling in the holes as he goes. Most of the time, the twists are great– several come way out of left field (as in a ‘shit, wait what now?’ sense not a ‘pole vaulting the shark’ sense), and the explanation for the twist is usually also a twist. Twists in twists in twists. Good times.
The problem comes in at the very end of the game, after you’ve made your final big decision. The big bad hath been vanquished, and there are only one real question left on the plot:
Why the hell where the Faith’s and Lily’s heads left on the doorstep to The Forrest?
Nerissa beckons Bigby over and we get the last bit of information– she was the one to leave the heads out for Bigby to find, so that he’d start investigating the murders, and eventually take down the Crooked Man. And, one more twist, we find out that Nerissa lied at the mob hearing– she never actually heard the Crooked Man give the order, she just hated his guts. She walks away, the player realizing that Nerissa was manipulating Bigby to strike back at the Crooked Man for killing her friends, bread-crumbing hints when leads got cold and generally doing everything she could to get her revenge.
It’s a great last twist, wrapping up the plot details while showing a side of a character we hadn’t seen before. The problem is, it’s not the last little twist.
Nerissa leaves the overhang with the same parting words Faye gave Bigby at the start, “You’re not as bad as everyone says you are.” This triggers a spurt of memory magic in Bigby, as he remembers pretty much every line he’s had with both Nerissa and Faith, and also the fact that we have a dangling plot thread in Faith’s body– the Dr. Swineheart had it last, but no one has checked up on his autopsy of it as other things took precedence.
The game never says it, but at this point it’s heavily implied that Faith and Nerissa were glamoured as each other at one point, and it’s one of them is walking away from you and the other is dead, and the one that’s alive is the same one that interacted with you at the start of the game.
Or, even more mindfucky, the Nerissa we’ve been interacting with _is_ Faith, and the little mermaid was never in this story. The dead girl was a prop, glamoured to look like Faith and Faith then glamoured herself to look like Nerissa and has been leading you on ever since.
All of these things are over the top, and silly. Mostly because it doesn’t matter. So what if the girls played swapsies? One of them is still dead via ribbon decapitation and the other is a master of deception. We already knew that.
If this is just a cliffhanger (what did Bigby realize? OMG!!11!!!) to lead into the next game, it’s a silly one. We have enough characters to use as introductory elements to any game– Snow, Beauty, Beast, King Cole, etc– we don’t need to add some extra layer to an already very complex and layered character. Let Nerissa/Faith breathe, and go make someone else more complicated.
All in all, it takes a masterful ending (they could have even used that cool noir fade-to-black-esque trope with the damsel in distress walking away) and then tries to add one more twist as either a ‘gotcha’ or as a lead in, and it totally doesn’t need that. The entire game is structured around episodes and seasons anyway, and there is still so much more of Fabletown to see (why does everyone hate the Farm? Does it really suck that much?), we don’t need a breadcrumb to grab the next game.
So, you know, don’t do that. I’m all for ambiguous endings, but if you want to play it that way, make the ambiguity very important to the narrative– Inception is a good modern example.
The other case is that we get this weird scene because we never do figure out what happened with Faith’s body. If that’s why you’re writing something like this, then stop. You don’t have to resolve every plot thread. You can let some hang. That’s ok. Real life doesn’t give us nice, clean, perfect resolutions. Let the minor stuff be ambiguous. If it really becomes an issue for your fanbase, then you just found yourself a sequel. Congrats.
It was only a matter of time before we got here– to the land of things you can not script out but are important for any good film. Much like Moses and the Promised Land, this is a place I can only view from far away on top of a mountain, never allowed to actually go there.
I want to talk about one far off building that seems to have gotten a lot of traction these days– visual storytelling. The idea that we can tell large parts of a story not through dialogue, or even action, but in how things look. Often, we use what’s on screen to augment parts of the plot or highlight particular aspects of characterization. Sometimes its super subtle.
For example, Carl Up starts the movie with more rounded facial features and after his wife dies, regresses into a bitter old man who also looks more square-ish. He’s the square peg that refuses to conform to the round hole his life has become– he’s all stuck in his ways and unable to give up the past. It’s not until that boy scout comes along– who is also more roundish– helps Carl learn and smooth out the edges.
Pacific Rim is the poster child for this as large parts of that film are only told visually, but I only ever saw Pacific Rim drunk at a New Years party, so i can’t actually reference it (or remember large chunks of it, outside of GIANT ROBOT SMASH MONSTER THROUGH BUILDING, HELLS YEAH). But I can give you an example– Tarzan, and Jane’s attire through the movie.
Jane starts out the movie on the run from stealing Belle’s dancing dress in Beauty and the Beast:
As the movie progresses, Jane starts realizing that a ball gown is not exactly strong jungle attire, and decides to switch over to the outfit she stole from The Wild Thornberrys:
Then, while Phil Colin’s croons, Jane realizes that actually, sleeves are horribly restricting and really hurting her ability to get her lady boner on for Tarzan:
Yet, when it’s time for her to go back to England, the ball gown comes back on:
However, after Jane finally makes her choice to stay in the jungle, fuck clothes:
To put it very succinctly: when Jane makes the correct decision according to the movie, she shows more skin. We can chart her entire character progression based on that. As she falls in love with Tarzan, and in doing so realizes her place is the jungle, she goes away from formal attire and more towards her mini-skirt/sports-bra combo. When she decides to go back to England, it’s back to Belle’s clothes with her.
Her trend is far more gradual than Tarzan’s– who goes directly from loincloth to suit and back to loincloth, because this movie isn’t paced super well. At any rate, you can look at this in a few ways:
1) we are shown Jane’s gradual acclimation to the jungle. She can pass from England to the jungle because she slowly becomes part of the jungle– she sheds off the layers of high society to become more like Tarzan.
2) we are shown a visual aid to how Jane and Tarzan feel about each other. As they fall in love, they start to dress more like the other– Jane gradually, and Tarzan all at once. By the end of the film, they’re in love because they dress the same.
It’s probably the first idea over the second– after all, the movie hardly needs any visual help to show it’s love plot, and Jane comes about three degrees too close to molesting a blackboard sketch of Tarzan long before she drops the sleeves on her shirt.
However, that still leaves us with the thematic problem of Tarzan being unable to leave his place (the jungle) and Jane being allowed to leave hers (England) for reasons that are never shown. I never said the thematic elements were good, just that the visuals support them.
There is more to dig into here as well– the fact that Jane stole her dress from Belle is on purpose. The movie is playing at undertones– the story of Tarzan has similar themes to Beauty and the Beast. Tarzan is a wild gorilla man… sure, he starts higher on the screw-ability curve (unless you’re into that, and from comments I’ve heard about Robin Hood, there are more people into that than you might expect), but there is a theme of Jane bringing civilization, manners and, well, gentleing (ooh, I made up a word) out the wild Tarzan.
Unlike Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan doesn’t want to focus on how this process brings out other sides of Tarzan’s personality for Jane to fall in love with, because Tarzan decided to use it’s runtime for an extraneous music number about gorillas trashing a camp.
These are probably considerations that’ll get pushed to the back burner in favor of more pressing matters (Guys, how do I write a romance scene for a Disney film that isn’t the most cliched thing ever? This is really hard), but it is cool to pick up on.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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).
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:
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?
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:
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.
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–
No wait, I mean–
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 love Tangled. Straight up, its one of my favorite Disney movies of all time. I think I’ve re-watched Tangled more than any other Disney movie. This probably does not paint me in a positive light. Whatever.
I’ve been working through Grimm’s fairy tales, I obviously bumped into ye olde version of Rapunzel, the fairy tale that Tangled is based off of.
And depending on the version you read, because kings are never given names and sometimes editors like to throw ‘the’ instead of ‘a’, the fairy tale can read like Game of Thrones. But none of the epic dragon bits, or cool battles, or smart-ass midget– just the weird incest bits.
Oh, and the prince (who might be Rapunzel’s brother, maybe?) also gets stabbed in the eyes and wanders around blind for an unnumbered amount of years. It doesn’t exactly scream “Disney magic”.
However, the important parts of the story still shine through in both adaptations. Gothel steals Rapunzel away (movie: actual theft, fairy tale: part of deal) due to Rapunzel’s mother needing a plant (movie: so she doesn’t die, fairy tale: so she doesn’t die, with a side order of gorging herself on flowers). Rapunzel is locked away in a hidden tower so her parents can’t take her back.
Both adaptations have the ‘let down your hair’ bit. Rapunzel hoists Gothel up and down in both versions (still don’t know how anyone got in or out when Rapunzel was young).
However, our male lead is drastically different (we’re ignoring the weird maybe incest. Oh, you were already ignoring it? Good). Both men fall in love with Rapunzel, however Flynn isn’t a prince, whereas our unnamed fairy tale hero is.
In the movie, this happens over the course of Rapunzel’s and Flynn’s adventures to go see floating lanterns. Aside: I’m gonna assume floating lanterns are a lot cooler when fireworks haven’t been invented yet.
In the fairy tale, Rapunzel and unnamed prince totally get their mack on in the tower, several times while Gothel is away. After Rapunzel leaves the tower in Tangled we get a lot of things that aren’t in the fairy tale. However, the conclusion of the movie continues to remember the tale that it came from, Flynn does his best prince impression when he cries for Rapunzel to let down her hair. Gothel, in both versions, lifts Flynn/the Prince up into the tower into a trap.
Rapunzel heals the male lead with her tears in both versions. And both end with a happily ever after.
The fundamentals of the tale are the same in both versions. The symbols are the same. Stuff happens in the same order. The parts that the movie does not include aren’t really needed to tell the story– instead of having Gothel transport Rapunzel to a desert and having the male lead fall out of the tower, go blind and wander around for a few years to find her, Gothel just gets her stab on and kills Flynn. This sets the same scene, Rapunzel crying over the male lead’s body, a lot more efficiently.
Also, Rapunzel doesn’t have twins in the movie. She totally does in the fairy tale, while she’s in a desert. Yeah. I’m gonna assume childbirth isn’t super Disney. Things that are also not super Disney: a life in squalor while Rapunzel waits for her blind prince.
What does the movie add? Character! Most fairy tales aren’t long enough to really develop their characters. Why would anyone fall for Repunzel anyway (outside of her voice, which is all we get from the brothers Grimm)? Tangled tries to answer that. Why would Gothel take Rapunzel away in the first place, what kind of flower is worth a child? Disney movie. What kind of person is willing to make that trade? Disney movie.
And in making the characters more complex, some occupations changed. The elements of magic where shifted from Gothel to Rapunzel. However, the core symbols that everyone associates with the story stayed.
How do you know what are the core symbols of a fairy tale? Great question! Part of the reading I still need to do are several Rapunzel adaptations* from the YA section of the library. Fairy tales have been adapted to death and back, so its a simple as identifying what every single adaptation keeps.
However, Shannon and I did talk a bit about this on Skype. The rough consensus was that the core symbols of a fairy tale are those that jump to mind the moment you think of the fairy tale in question. Hunchback drastically changed its source material (I’m hazy because recalling details from the one time I tried to read the source material is like trying to recall the details of a suicide), I don’t think Phoebus even exists** in any capacity in the novel. The core elements, however (a grotesque mockery of the human form falling in love with a woman who skirts on the outside of civilized society), remain.
And I seriously doubt any version of anything would keep awkward-maybe-incest. I’m sorry, I just can’t drop it.
*I picked out the books that had the most reviews on Goodreads that were covered in gifs. I know how Tumblr works. I’m on to you, YA romance readers.
** Turns out I am in fact a silly duck. From someone who does remember the Hunchback novel better than I do:
“Phoebus actually totally does exist in the novel. The difference is that in the book he never changes sides. Which is funny because Frollo does try to kill him, similarly to what happens in the movie. But he manages to frame Esmeralda for it.”
Thanks, Facebook friends!
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.
You know what the most common advice to aspiring writers is? I don’t actually know, it’s probably “just write and stop talking about the eventual movie deal already of your unwritten novel already”.
That makes a rough intro. Hm. Ok, fine, what’s the most important line in a story?
The first line, obviously. I’d bet fake money that every writer you asked would give you the same answer. However, it’s more than just the first line– I can’t recall the first line of any of my favorite novels, except for maybe The Gunslinger. I’m going to say that it’s really all about ‘the first few minutes’.
The first few minutes is a nebulous time. It can be anywhere from the first line of a book, to all of chapter 1, from the teaser of an episode on network TV, to the entire first episode, from the level after the tutorial, to the first thirty minutes of a particularly slow movie. (Aside: You probably should get going if it’s taking that long). It’s that tricky time when the reader/viewer/player sets up their expectations about the world that your story resides in.
I’ll use Dreamkeepers as an example. Dreamkeepers is a graphic novel series and the reason why I didn’t get a post out last week. It currently consists of three books (still ongoing), with new books getting published when the creators feel like they’re ready, and not a moment before.
Also, aside: the first two novels are on the Internet for free, and I think they are worth your time. The Prelude, a (still ongoing) webcomic that is set before the first novel, is also worth your time because it has children acting like children and they aren’t super annoying. How Dave and Liz managed that is a post for another time, I think.
Back to the first few minutes, or the first few pages, in this case. Go over to the website, real quick. Don’t click anything, just look at the first page and come back here.
Back? Great. What kind of website are you expecting to see? We got a raccoon-esque creature, who is probably a protagonist, with a big smile on his face. Lots of bright colors, seems pretty cheery. By the time you click another link, the tone has already been set. You can’t take back that bright, cheery picture. Changing the tone too drastically without cause will generate emotional whiplash, and we don’t even know his name. (Or, to be honest, his gender. But its a he. And his name is Mace.) To change tone at this point would be subverting it– something like a trick opening. You haven’t even been on the website for a minute, and already we’re talking about expectations, what you want out of the website, etc.
This makes a ton of sense– you’ll notice that the website is the primary portal to The Prelude. What does the first page of The Prelude look like?
Bright blue, beaches, chillin’ in hammocks and a bit of slapstick humor. The Prelude is a pretty lighthearted web comic, tone wise. There is a very important distinction here– ThePrelude still deals with some serious material, even adult material. There are darker moments in the comic– the tone doesn’t always have to be bright, happy to go lucky wonderfulness. However, we expect happy endings. Definitely nothing overtly graphic. Probably not even a mention of rape, or racism, or slavery or… the list goes on. There is a limit as to how dark we are willing to let The Prelude be before questioning the ‘new direction’ of the comic, and there are topics that I never expect The Prelude to cover.
But what about the main attraction? The Dreamkeepers graphic novels themselves? Well, what does the first page look like?
Oh. That’s… different. This isn’t going to be the same type of story, is it? I mean, maybe it’ll get subverted and then we’ll establish a lighter tone–
Oh. Guess not. This is three pages in, so we’ve still got a long time before we’ve hit the first few minutes mark, and it is very, very obvious that Dreamkeepers is much, much, much darker than the Prelude. We’ve already seen graphic murder, so almost everything dark is on the table for Dreamkeepers. That being said, now, the other side of the spectrum is off limits. Silly, cartoonish solutions, (very) happy endings… Dreamkeepers can’t go to the realm of say, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or Space Jam. There is a limit to how bright Dreamkeepers can be.
That being said, Dreamkeepers still employs a bit of slapstick humor and makes jokes. There are bright moments in the comic, it’s not oppressive. However, the first few pages set up other things as well.
What we see first is the most important, we tend to remember it better. For The Prelude, it’s very, very clear that Mace is a protagonist. We’ve got a website title page and a first page of a comic to back it up. Mace is established as important. Also, a chunk of Mace’s character is set in stone. Mace doesn’t care much for school, and is also pretty young. He’s the kind of kid that’ll play hooky, and probably pulls lighthearted pranks. Mace can grow and change over the course of the comic, but that growth and change must be explained by plot and make sense.
There is a page missing from the excerpt of The Dreamkeepers graphic novel that I’m showing here, but I think it’s obvious that the event going on, is kinda a big deal. Things are going down. By book 3, it’s rather apparent that this might be the most important event that has happened in the past three books. It’s going to stick out in your mind.
You better believe graphic novels are not the only form of entertainment to do this. I can pull examples from novels, to movies, to music, to TV…
Oh. You want examples. Bring it.
Babylon 5, a sci-fi TV series that everyone really should watch, spends its first season getting its legs under it. Season 1 of Babylon 5 is not very indicative of the rest of the show in some respects– it’s more campy than later seasons, and the lightest season overall when it comes to tone. However, you know what Midnight on the Firing Line is about? A surprise attack on a research station, which is just one action on a grander scale. We get, in the very first episode, the fact that Babylon 5 is bigger than this station. Even if that sense of scope isn’t really developed until later, the first few minutes promise it. It will come.
Game of Thrones (and, by extension, A Song of Ice and Fire) kills off more main characters than there are flavors of ice cream, and if the Internet is any indication, every time is somehow more surprising and awful than the last. Yet, what are the first few minutes about? Some poor sods getting murdered in a forest, by forces far greater than them.
That’s essentially the entire show/book series, with more murder locations.
Harry Potter opens us with wizards moving a young boy in secret, with JK Rowling showing a mastery of making up words that can only be rivaled by Steven King. This event is due to something bigger than everyone involved, there are hints and expectations of the grand scope the series will eventually embody. But, it’s quirky too– wizards are almost like us, but not quite. The vibrant magical world that Rowling has constructed is poking at the edges, a world you know young Harry will eventually be thrust into. It’s personal as well, with little bits of emotional drama sparkling through the sheer enormity of what has occurred on that night, and a lot of Harry Potter is personal drama.
A whole lot. Like, all the boring parts of book 4.
Why start the book series there? Harry doesn’t remember any of this– why not start him at age 11? Hell, the very next chapter does that fast forward anyway. Because the first few minutes are the most important. If we do start the book at chapter 2, Hagrid’s revel to Harry seems super random, and we’d probably end up siding with the Dursley’s, or something.
“How does any of this relate to Disney?” you ask. Quick check– can you hum the first song from Pocahontas? It happens in the first five minutes of the movie. No. No you can’t, because you don’t remember the first fifteen minutes.
Everything I wrote about the first chapter of Harry Potter? From memory, and I’ll goddamn bet real money that Hagrid sheds a tear at Harry’s departure, and the entire wizarding world is celebrating the death of Lord Voldamort, and McGonagall is sternly against Harry being sent to this particular family (Also, she doesn’t understand how Harry survived). I haven’t read book 1 in so long that I can’t actually remember the act reading it. I remember it contents perfectly fine.
Quick, what are the first fifteen minutes about for Home on the Range? I don’t fucking know. Famine, maybe? Can’t be right… cow snatching? First few minutes of Lion King? Circle of Life! Great song, maybe even the best song in that entire movie. First fifteen minutes of Hunchback? The jester tells his story about Frollo murdering some gypsies, right? I think the song is called The Bells of Notre Dame?
Catching the pattern yet? We’re still in the quick fire round. What’s the most memorable thing about Hunchback? That it has the darkest Disney villian ever. What’s the theme of the Lion King? That we all need to find our destiny and take our place. Scope of the Lion King? Pretty large, like the entire savannah large. That’s pretty much at least a small country. Scope of Circle of Life? Pretty much the same thing. Antagonist of TheHunchback? The priest that killed the family and tried to kill the boy, and locked him in a goddamn tower. Protagonist? Hazier. The misshapen boy locked in the tower? It’s a good guess, we don’t really know.
The first few minutes set up the entire world that your story will reside in.
Now, this isn’t an absolute rule. Nothing, when talking about creativity or story telling, ever is. The Little Mermaid does not, in fact, start with the downward sweeping ocean shot with Allen Menken being all Allen Menken. That where it should have started. It, in fact, starts with some bullshit where prince Eric is on a ship for some reason? Probably being chastised about not marrying anyone yet, but I don’t remember that part of the movie at all. I think there is even a song that I couldn’t whistle for you to save my life.
I still really like The Little Mermaid.
For an example on the other side, Breaking Bad has a great first few minutes. I was totally sold on Breaking Bad fifteen minutes in, the gritty drug dealing world of New Mexico seemed awesome. I spent four hours (four entire hours!) watching the first four episodes of season 1– despite the fact that I didn’t even enjoy it– based on that promise alone. By the end of those four hours I realized I hated every single character and kinda just wanted to set fire to all of New Mexico.
The first few minutes are powerful. It wasn’t until I thought about it that I realized how powerful.