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Posts Tagged ‘Pixar’

I have noticed a disturbing trend in my media of late. At least, it’s disturbing to me.

Maybe it’s the stories.

Maybe it’s the theme.

Maybe it’s writers who are too proud. Or directors afraid to offend. Or editors, producers, and publishers. But…

Characters aren’t admitting their guilt anymore.

I’m not talking about the villains. I’m talking about the heroes.

I’m of the old school in which a person who commits a crime or is guilty of some fault is expected to admit their guilt as proof of their change-of-heart and this must happen before their status with their community is restored. But I’m not seeing it play out like this anymore either in the movies I watch or the books I read.

This concept is the heart of the Christian conversion experience and has been a staple of media in western culture for centuries. Heroes typically change over the course of their stories so this concept is tailor-made for them. Usually, a bit of dialogue is all that is required because change can usually be shown. However, it seems the modern incarnations of our heroes are taking a lesson from the villains’ playbook and never admitting to anything anymore.

Maybe I’m not watching the right movies or reading the right books, but I think this is a trend nonetheless and I think a bad one.

Brave Logo
If you’ve already read my post on Pixar’s latest movie, then you may remember my complaint that neither Merida nor her mother ever fully apologizes for their behavior. Merida’s rebellious attitude goes unrecognized and unpunished. Her mother’s anti-social behavior too.

Why?

My best guess is that it’s a symptom of modern culture. Because in everyday life even our President, someone who I largely support, has not prosecuted the wall street professionals responsible for taking our economy to the brink of destruction. I applaud him for moving us forward and seeing us through some very difficult times, but part of me wants Justice. Accountability. Revenge too, if I’m being honest. And now that our most pressing issue  – the US economy – is being dealt with I’d like to see these troublemakers get their comeuppance but it hasn’t happened yet.

Personally, I have more respect for baseball players like Mark McGwire who admit their drug use – even if it is years after the fact – than those who continue to hide their faults. (Better late than never but also better early than late.) Of course the irony of modern culture is that all publicity is good publicity. The fact that we know certain names and not others has little to do with morality and lots more with what makes a story news-worthy.

As for me, I plan on having my characters admit their guilt if doing so is in keeping with their character. It is easy as a writer to avoid the hard conversations, but it is those types of conversations where honesty prevails that are most memorable and true to life.

The following statement was issued by Mark McGwire on January 11, 2010 admitting to steroid use during his career:

“Now that I have become the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, I have the chance to do something that I wish I was able to do five years ago.

“I never knew when, but I always knew this day would come. It’s time for me to talk about the past and to confirm what people have suspected. I used steroids during my playing career and I apologize. I remember trying steroids very briefly in the 1989/1990 off season and then after I was injured in 1993, I used steroids again. I used them on occasion throughout the ’90s, including during the 1998 season.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.

“During the mid-’90s, I went on the DL seven times and missed 228 games over five years. I experienced a lot of injuries, including a ribcage strain, a torn left heel muscle, a stress fracture of the left heel, and a torn right heel muscle. It was definitely a miserable bunch of years and I told myself that steroids could help me recover faster. I thought they would help me heal and prevent injuries, too.

“I’m sure people will wonder if I could have hit all those home runs had I never taken steroids. I had good years when I didn’t take any and I had bad years when I didn’t take any. I had good years when I took steroids and I had bad years when I took steroids. But no matter what, I shouldn’t have done it and for that I’m truly sorry.

“Baseball is really different now — it’s been cleaned up. The commissioner and the players’ association implemented testing and they cracked down, and I’m glad they did.

“I’m grateful to the Cardinals for bringing me back to baseball. I want to say thank you to Cardinals owner Mr. DeWitt, to my GM, John Mozeliak, and to my manager, Tony La Russa. I can’t wait to put the uniform on again and to be back on the field in front of the great fans in Saint Louis. I’ve always appreciated their support and I intend to earn it again, this time as hitting coach. I’m going to pour myself into this job and do everything I can to help the Cardinals hitters become the best players for years to come.

“After all this time, I want to come clean. I was not in a position to do that five years ago in my congressional testimony, but now I feel an obligation to discuss this and to answer questions about it. I’ll do that, and then I just want to help my team.”

(Source: ESPN)

Note that McGwire didn’t issue this statement as a player. Nor did he admit to using drugs during a congressional hearing. He issued this statement after accepting a new position as hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. In other words, his conscience was bothering him and he admitted his guilt honestly from feelings of remorse. That’s why his fans believed him. That’s why he got a standing ovation prior to the Cardinals home opener on April 12, 2010 – four months after his admission.

His statement before the house committee on government reform is illuminating too:

Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem. If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations…My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself. I will say, however, that it remains a fact in this country that a man, any man, should be regarded as innocent unless proven guilty. (Source: CNN)

This is reality. Why aren’t we writing more material that includes scenes like this?

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Pixar is an amazing company.

Thirteen releases and thirteen critically-acclaimed box office hits.

As Scott Myers says on his excellent Get Into The Story blog, let that sink in for a moment.

Thirteen releases and thirteen hits. Wow. This is the holy grail of Hollywood and no other studio has ever come close.

Now fast forward back to reality. Some say Pixar dropped the ball with Cars 2. Personally, I enjoyed the movie but it’s true that the story and character motivations were a little off.

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.

Brave Logo

So how does Brave compare? My thoughts:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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’.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

  1. 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.

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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).

Bridesmaids (2011)

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.

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Source: 11 WRITERS LATER: How 20th Exec Alex Young Lost Control Of ‘The A-Team’ by Nikki Finke.

Wow. Just read it. And if you’re a writer, weep.

Here’s the money quote (which is not from this article but quoted in it):

Beginning with the sound era, studios and films producers have longed for a way to eliminate the screenwriter from the filmmaking process. By and large, writers are prickly personalities who absorb too much time, demand too much credit and need to be kept clear of the set, where they might interfere with the director, who is, after all, the real auteur of the film. With The A-Team, a Fox film derived from a 1980s TV series, this dream now is a reality. The film seems nearly writer-free. Absolutely no time gets wasted on story, character development or logic.

Ouch.

Learn and above all remember the lesson of Pixar.

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