To explain about Cars 2, if you’ve seen both movies you’ll note some striking differences. The first movie is all about Lightning McQueen learning to be humble. Everything about the first Cars movie supports this concept and it’s done well. The second movie is a sequel to the first but only sort of. The beloved tow truck Mater is the star of Cars 2. Maybe that’s why it feels “off” but I see it as a story issue because Mater doesn’t significantly change over the course of the film. Change isn’t a requirement for a good story, and Mater does come to accept his silliness and how others see him, but he doesn’t really change. The Mater at the end is the same as at the beginning. In contrast, Lightning McQueen does change. He goes from not wanting Mater around to accepting his friendship whenever and wherever. For Lightning, it’s a story about acceptance and friendship. If the character with the most to learn is supposed to be the protagonist then Lightning should be the protagonist just like in the first movie – but Mater is the star of Cars 2. It’s a strange story structure that seems to have subverted the traditional Pixar emotional story for a James Bond-style plot however entertaining that might be.
So how does Brave compare? My thoughts:
Brave shouldn’t have been titled ‘Brave’. The story really has nothing to do with bravery. Merida is a fiercely independent teenage girl whose actions can be described as defiant, at times assertive or arrogant, but never brave. She does accept responsibility for her actions and asks for forgiveness by the end of the movie which requires courage but it’s a stretch to call that bravery. Maybe the title was a marketing decision. I think “Strive” would have fit the movie better because Merida is constantly striving for something.
The ubiquitous bow and arrow have little to do with the story. They are plot devices. Merida does get into trouble for winning an archery tournament a la Robin Hood style near the beginning. And Merida’s mother does throw Merida’s bow into the fire which triggers Merida to run away, but that is using it as a story talisman. Her excellent bow skills don’t help Merida in her first battle with the bear Mor’du. They are useful for catching fish for her mother’s breakfast but the pair could have foraged for berries just as well. Bottom line, they don’t help her win the final battle in any way and are therefore meaningless to the overall story (unlike another popular female protagonist).
We don’t know who to root for. Merida only half changes as does her mother. Merida accepts responsibility for causing her mother to transform, but never apologizes for her earlier insubordination. Merida’s mother retreats from maintaining the status quo with regards to Merida’s betrothal but never actually apologizes for controlling her daughter’s life. In the end they both come to understand one another by a kind of role reversal but is having two characters only half change satisfying? Perhaps we are supposed to be happy that they ‘met in the middle’.
Brave is two halves of a movie. One builds forward from the beginning while the other reaches back from the end and neither quite fits with the other. The forward-building concepts include destiny, the imagery of the bow and arrow, the title, and the intent to change fate. The back-reaching parts are the stone circle, the concept of falling rocks, the bear Mor’du, and accepting the status quo. Both sets of concepts are fascinating in their own right but neither set is fully developed. What could this movie have been with just the starting concepts? A truly brave Merida using her archery skills to defeat a villainous enemy released in a pandora’s box-style story would have been epic. And this is what sold the movie. However, the back-reaching concepts do not an epic story build.
There should have been five clans. The story would have been much more satisfying if the four current clans were descended from four surviving princes of the ancient kingdom. There could have been five brothers with the eldest becoming Mor’du. The remaining four brothers could have imprisoned him somehow and then become the current clans. Such a simple story fix would have raised the emotional stakes overall and energized the existing connections between Merida and Mor’du. It would also have avoided the need for Merida’s convoluted explanation to the clan leaders while her mother was sneaking back into the tapestry room. The chessboard scene would have had to go but the use of falling chess pieces seemed out-of-character for the always proper queen to me anyway.
The ending doesn’t fit. Yes, Merida and her mother make up. Yes, Merida solves the riddle and fixes the mess she made. But no, it doesn’t fit. The back-reaching story parts seem lifted from another movie, Disney’s Brother Bear. However, Brother Bear didn’t claim to be an epic story about bravery whereas Brave does. Brother Bear is about a human who gets transformed into a bear to teach him that actions have consequences, how nature works, and to not act in anger. It is a surprisingly well done emotional journey through the northern wilderness and should have received more attention, critical acclaim, and box office success than it did. Brave doesn’t start out like Brother Bear yet it has a similar emotional ending and these two halves don’t fit.
The ending isn’t satisfying. Pixar is known for making movies with great endings. Great endings resolve the external, relational, and internal stakes of the story simultaneously. However, Merida doesn’t defeat Mor’du. Her mother does. So, again, whose story is it? And what about Merida’s archery skills? Does Merida show bravery in the stone circle during the final battle? At least she makes up with her mother afterwards and accepts her role in causing the disaster but this ending is not great. Enough said.
But there is one more aspect of story that has bearing on Brave.
The ending is satisfying to women. The ending of Brave is a woman’s ending but I don’t mean that disrespectfully. Most movies are for and by men. Stereotypically, men focus on conflict and competition. By contrast, women are concerned with restoring relationships and cooperation. With that understanding, Brave delivers a very satisfying ending in that Merida’s relationship with her mother is completely restored through their cooperative actions. But it still doesn’t match the more male-focused beginning.
While writing this post I ran across the wikipedia article for Brave which noted that Pixar rewrote their proprietary animation software while making this movie. As a computer professional I know how much time and effort such a major undertaking requires. So maybe this movie is an ironic consequence of Pixar’s corporate strive for excellence. Simply put, Brave might be the learning movie for their new software and that’s not a bad thing. It means Pixar’s future movies should return to – and will likely surpass – the level of excellence we know, expect, and love.
And Pixar’s worst film is usually miles ahead of the vast majority of Hollywood productions.
My principal sends out a morning email each school day with information about events that will occur that day. My favorite part is the quote at the end. Today’s was:
Sports do not build character. They reveal it. - Heywood Hake Brown
It made sense but it also begged another question. What builds character?
I tried to brainstorm a list:
Personal hardships – like having to choose between buying food for your family and gasoline to drive to work?
Physical Pain – like from breaking a leg and then discovering which of your friends still want to hang out with you even though you can’t walk.
A living example – like that favorite teacher who understood you in that one moment when it really mattered and gave you a hug.
I thought I spotted a pattern – that internal motivations built character while external reactions showed character – but that doesn’t quite work. All of the externals do reveal character but the internals are nebulous. It also seems these concepts are hard to separate. Where I see the building of character I almost always see a revealing too.
There’s something there but I can’t see it. What I can see is the answer to a long-standing mystery: Why is there evil in the world? For good. Because it reveals character. As we are tested, we reveal what’s inside so God tests us to reveal our character just as scripture states. Note that it is not because He doesn’t know what we are but because we don’t know ourselves.
So, how does this relate to writing? Revealing character is easy. Building character not so much.
(This suggests other questions like, “Does a writer need to build character in the first place?” but that is a topic for another post. We can assume it’s a useful skill a little longer.)
So what builds character? The only thing I can think of that might exclusively build character as opposed to reveal it or involve some combination of the two is to watch another human be a good example. Humans imitate what we see others doing. We want to be like people we like. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but when we do imitate one another it’s evidence that character building has taken place.
Maybe that’s why there are so many father figures and mother figures in fiction. Even more heroes and mentors. As writers, we need our readers to identify with the protagonist and all protagonists need something to live for, some goal to obtain. So if readers get to observe the moment when the protagonist bonds with a likable hero or mentor figure, then readers will more likely bond with the protagonist.
My recent post imitating the excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog garnered such a great response that I’ve decided to start my own series of writing rules. I’ve dubbed it Rules of the Writing Road since the Storyteller’s Rulebook was taken. I intend this to be a collection point for my insights into the craft of writing as I discover them.
House, M.D. and Fringe have something in common. They both started out as excellent shows. House was a medical mystery drama starring a very unconventional doctor. Fringe was a near-future science fiction mystery show in the vein of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.
I started watching them from the beginning and from the beginning I was hooked. I waited eagerly for each new episode to come out. Our Tivo was my best friend. And when a new episode did air I sat gratuitously glued to the one-eyed monster like a mesmerized lapdog consuming every magical moment.
Each episode of House and each episode of Fringe centered around a mystery. I *love* mysteries and while those unfolded I got plenty of character development and world exploration too. They were a joy to watch.
But something went wrong. After a few seasons, both shows changed their formula of building the episodes around a mystery and both shows fell flat for me.
You see, the problem is that viewers (including me) engage in an unspoken contract with writers. If I want mystery stories and the writers agree to provide them then I will watch. If-Then. Those mysteries were what hooked me and millions of other viewers on both shows. When the writers changed the formula they also broke the unwritten contract and I lost interest.
For me, House devolved from a medical mystery drama to a near-pure drama with only a weak medical mystery component. In some episodes there was no medical mystery, just the main characters working through some internal or relationship struggle. That’s not what I signed up for.
Fringe did the same though I don’t recall ever watching an episode that was completely devoid of all semblance of a mystery plot. Rather, Fringe’s mysteries were completely transformed. They began as discrete, tightly-constructed but loosely-connected mysteries and became a single, epic, interconnected mess. The show went from unraveling a single mystery per episode to consuming more than an entire season to partially explore one grand saga which never fully tied up all the loose ends. Again, I lost interest.
If it wasn’t already obvious, here is the rule: Keep your promises to the audience. How you get them is how you keep them as most marriage counselors know. Courting viewers is the same as courtship before a marriage. Just because you’re past the point of establishing the relationship doesn’t mean you can change the rules after the fact. Again, how you act during courtship is how you are expected to continue to act after marriage. When people make this mistake everyone suffers. Ratings fall, viewers tune out, shows get cancelled early, and writers lose their jobs.
This undated form rejection from Essanay Film Manufacturing Company (which was in existence from 1907-1925) is a sweet little snapshot into the mores of the time — and the bits that haven’t changed since. According to the Old Hollywood Tumblr, “[Essnay is] mostly remembered today for its series of Charlie Chaplin films.”
I recently discovered the excellent Cockeyed Caravan blog. The author, Matt Bird, has been on a journey to discover what makes movies tick and, oh my soul, has he uncovered some great insights. It’s rare I subscribe to anything anymore, even rarer that I go back to the first post and work my way forward in time to sniff out all the insightful goodness that I missed, but that’s what I’m doing. If this were a magazine, I’d be reading it cover to cover.
In the spirit of his excellent series, the Storyteller’s Rulebook, I offer this post (because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).
Let’s talk about Lazy Writing.
There is a certain movie that has received a lot of hype recently called Bridesmaids. I got to watch this movie because my wife set our DVR to record it without being aware of the hype surrounding it. Then, on one of those rare occasions when our girls had fallen asleep early, we turned it on.
Unfortunately, we didn’t finish it. We got to the part with the wedding shower where the heroine met the usurper and cut it off during the next scene. Every third word was a curse or a not-veiled-at-all sexual reference and that’s not what we expected. It was a major turn off for us which brings me to the topic of lazy writing: Using foul language to fill out dialogue is lazy writing.
Now, cursing can be used effectively. Curse words convey powerful emotions so they can be used in circumstances where this is warranted. During moments of extreme duress or tragic circumstances, for example when discovering the death of a loved one, using strong language can successfully convey that strong emotion. Curse words were invented because humans are capable of feeling powerful emotions and thus need to purge those emotions in some way. This is what writers call catharsis and it is one of the primary reasons we watch movies and read books: to experience an emotion and consequently purge it.
But casual cursing is just stupid. It’s like the writers, actors, and director are trying to emphasize every bit of dialogue. However, the end result is that if everything is being emphasized, then everything has equal emphasis and nothing is really being emphasized over anything else. It’s lazy writing.
Pixar’s feature films don’t incorporate curse words. The entire Harry Potter book series includes just one. (It’s during the end battle when Mrs. Weasley discovers Bellatrix attacking her daughter Ginny.) So if these very successful stories can be successful without using foul language or very judicious use of cursing, then why must stories like Bridesmaids use them? I think such stories are successful not because of their language content but in spite of it.
UPDATE: My wife and I recently watched a very fun romantic comedy called Revenge of the Bridesmaids starring Raven-Symoné and JoAnna Garcia Swisher. It came out in 2010 (one year before the other movie) and it’s a better movie by far. I recommend it.