Monday, June 30, 2014

Extradiagetic: Peter Pan

Peter Pan is Disney’s fourteenth animated feature and a big success after the under-performing Alice in Wonderland.  While the film carries the name of Peter Pan, the movie is really more about Wendy.   The story begins and ends with her, and her arc is the most prominent one.  The other children never want to grow up, and she doesn’t either, at least at the beginning.  By the end she’s come around and realized it’s time to move on.  The movie doesn’t dwell on this story arc, instead preferring to focus attention on the exploits of Peter Pan himself.  But it remains the primary arc for the story, and makes Wendy more of a protagonist than Peter Pan.

Wendy’s story arc begins as the narrator introduces the Darling family.  She is devout believer in Peter Pan and tells stories to her brother’s about his exploits.  When her father declares that it’s time she grow up and move out of the nursery Wendy wants to have nothing to do with it.  

That evening Peter Pan shows up looking for his shadow and meet Wendy in person for the first time.  She excitedly agrees to join Peter Pan in Never Land when the opportunity arises, though she does hesitate to consider what her mother would say.  This prompts Peter Pan to ask what a mother is.  She begins to explain it as someone who loves and cares for you and tells stories.  As soon as she mentions telling stories Peter Pan declares that Wendy can be his Mother.  This suggestion begins a repeated theme of Wendy taking on the role of the adult with Peter Pan and the other boys.  In attempting to escape adulthood she finds herself naturally falling into the role. 

The rest of the children are awoken by the commotion and they all travel to Never Land together.  After a few small adventures they all return to Peter Pan’s hideout where Wendy falls into the adult role she had hoped to avoid, telling John and Michael to clean up and get ready for bed.  She begins to sing a song to the boys about what a mother is, prompting them to attempt to return immediately. As they leave they are waylaid by pirates and take to their ship while Captain Hook leaves a bomb for Peter Pan

On the pirate ship Captain Hook offers them all the dubious choice of joining his crew or walking the plank.  When all the boys rush to join up Wendy again takes the role of adult, halting them with a word and the clap of her hands.  She chides them much like an adult and refused to join Captain Hook’s crew.  She stoically walks the plank and is rescued by Peter Pan.  After quick battle they return to London.  The parents return home, her father with his attitudes switched.  George now decides his earlier edict that she leaves the nursery was too rash, but is taken by surprise when Wendy announces to them that she’s ready to grow up.  

In her attempt to escape her future, Wendy ended up walking the same path naturally.  She realized from her experience that she was already more grown up than she realized.  This isn’t to say there isn’t some character development elsewhere.  Notably, after the explosion and near death of Tinker Bell, Peter Pan goes from sulking that Wendy is leaving, to escorting her back to London himself on a flying pirate ship.  But the main story of Peter Pan really is Wendy coming to terms with growing up.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Extradiagetic: Alice in Wonderland

Stories are usually about interesting characters. But there are times where it’s better to have a more mundane protagonist. Alice in Wonderland is one such story.   

It’s easy to overlook the importance of the ordinary in stories. After all, it’s the fantastic and exciting that captures the audience’s imagination; that grabs them and keeps them interested. But for the fantastic and exciting to stand out, it benefits from juxtaposing it with the mundane.

The titular Alice is the mundane in Alice in Wonderland. Characters often begin from simple origins and start as ordinary people.  That’s part of the hero’s journey.  Alice however doesn’t really change throughout the story; instead she acts as an anchor to reality in the strange world of Wonderland. She provides a baseline against which the strangeness of the world can be measured.   Wonderland’s ability to repeatedly confound her attempts at logic and reason highlight the strangeness of the world.

There’s a sliding scale between the mundane and the extraordinary. The more ordinary the world, the more extraordinary the protagonist should be. This creates contrast so that the main character stands out. If the world is extraordinary and so is the character, neither will seem all that impressive.   

Ultimately the reason for the bizarre world and Alice’s own subdued reactions to it become clear with the revelation it was all just a dream. Stories that end with “It was all just a dream” are tricky, because they can leave an audience feeling cheated. The adventure they had just joined in on was suddenly rendered moot, and without meaning. And that can leave a bad taste in an audience’s mouth.   Alice in Wonderland however, is the perfect story for that ending. It’s so strange and so bizarre that a dream makes perfect sense. Additionally, very little actually ends up happening plot-wise in Wonderland. There are no epic morality plays between good and evil. No great lessons to be learned. There is just a peculiar journey of an ordinary young girl.

Alice in Wonderland is a lesson in contrast. A story needs ordinary characters for the audience to relate to and provide contrast. The more fantastic the world, the more ordinary the character should be. Alice in Wonderland pushes this contrast to the limit with a supremely bizarre environment for a supremely ordinary protagonist to experience.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What I Really Think: Cinderella

Growing up Cinderella was my favorite of the pre-renaissance princess films.  The mice really help carry the movie, keeping things active and interesting, especially for a young boy.  Cinderella is also the most interesting of the three original princesses.  She’s much more proactive than Snow White or Aurora.  She tries to stand up to her step-mother several times.   The step-mother may not have evil magical powers, but she’s imposing nonetheless. 

Still, for me, it really feels like it’s the supporting cast that keeps thing really interesting.  The mice, the king and grand duke and even the step-sisters are all amusing to watch.  Cinderella may be the title character, but it’s the rest that really give the movie form.   

Although Cinderella ranks low when compared to some of the more modern classics, it’s still a high point of the era. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

What I Really Think: How To Train Your Dragon 2

(Spoilers Ahead)

I was never the biggest fan of the original How To Train Your Dragon.  I liked the setting and themes but the third act always felt a bit flat.  Still, I went into this film with high expectations, and I would say this movie met them.   

One of the things this movie and the original do well is build an interesting world that feels like it has depth.  It’s a very interesting idea to have dragons as friendly and commonplace, instead of rare and fearsome.  There’s a lot of untapped potential there, and this movie dives deep into the possibilities.  

I liked all the stuff with Hiccup’s mother.  In particular I liked that they didn’t try to push any drama into it.  It would’ve been easy to put some conflict there.  To have one or more parties upset at the others.  But instead everyone is just happy to be together again.  Of course, it’s clear why they play it this way when Stoic dies.  It creates a bigger emotional impact.  But it was nice to see while it lasted.
The third act again felt a little weak.  It was a little too short to me.  But it was pretty solid, and overall I liked how it was handled.  

Overall a good movie.  Probably ranks in the lower end of my top five for this year.  I’d recommend it even if you haven’t seen the first one.  I don’t think there’s anything from the first one you really need to know to enjoy this one. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Extradiegetic: Cinderella

For any story, it’s important to quickly establish the boundaries of your story.   The first few scenes should set the tone, and inform the audience what sort of things are and are not possible.  People bursting into song, talking animals, magic; these are all things that audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief for, but not if they’re suddenly presented halfway through the movie.  Disney’s return to full length animated movies with Cinderella has a lot to set up, and it does it very smoothly and quickly.   

Cinderella begins like Snow White, with a literal storybook opening.  A brief narration establishes Cinderella’s backstory.  As is typical of Disney princesses of the era, she possesses nearly unlimited optimism and is a friend to all living things.  The opening scene is easy to overlook, but it conveys a lot of information about the movie very quickly.  As the movie begins we see she lives at the top of a tower, both separated from, and above the rest of her family.   The view moves into her room, sparsely decorated with secondhand and broken furniture.  Patches spot her bed sheets.  These visual cues set up her current position as a servant in her own home.  It speaks to the attitudes of the Stepmother, only allowing Cinderella to use what has already been thrown away by them.  

Next, Cinderella is woken by a pair of birds.  They don’t speak, but they are wearing bits of clothing.  This in addition to their actions establishes that the animals are intelligent.  A fact quickly reinforced as we see many other animals acting with greater than natural intelligence, including the mice who can even speak.  Once awake, Cinderella quickly moves into singing “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”, thus marking this as a musical movie, where people break into song.  

Within five minutes of the film opening (including credits) the audience is set up to expect a fairy tale musical in which animals are intelligent and songs are commonplace.  This is clearly not the reality of our world, but because these facts are established so early on the audience has no problem believing these things for the rest of the movie.  This sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and gives the viewer a frame of reference for what is and is not possible.  

Much like Snow White before her, much of Cinderella’s strength is in her ability to make friends.  Her freeing Gus from a trap then clothing and naming him demonstrates her kindness and her ability to make friends with even those others would ignore at best, and consider pests at worst.  This friendship with the animals pays off throughout the movie, but especially at the end where they free Cinderella just in time. While Cinderella might not seem active, it was her actions early on that set her up to succeed later when she’s otherwise powerless.

Gus also provides the role of outsider, giving the other characters an excuse to explains things to audience.  This role is very common in stories and is often filled by the protagonist, when they are suddenly thrust into a new situation by the plot.  Since Cinderella is already in an established situation, not having a character to explain things to could result in characters speaking to each other in unnecessary detail about things they already know. This logical inconstancy that can take the viewer out of the native.

When Cinderella goes down to the kitchen she finds Bruno, the dog, dreaming of chasing Lucifer, the cat.  After singing about how great dreams are, she now chides Bruno for his dreams and tells him that his dream is bad.  This is an ironic mirror of her own situation, as her dreams are suppressed by the Stepmother, so she is doing the same thing to Bruno.  But, ultimately it is Bruno following his dream and chasing Lucifer that literally frees Cinderella to follow her own. 

The magic of the fairy godmother is a sudden shift in what is an otherwise non-magical world.  Presenting magic this late in a story can be problematic, but Cinderella has a few things helping it out.  First of all, it’s not unreasonable to expect the audience to familiar with the genre of fairy tales.  And magical intervention is a common occurrence in them.  Additionally the characters themselves treat the magic as something unusual and exceptional.   Because it’s novel to them, it’s okay for it to be novel for the audience as well.  The audience doesn’t feel like they should’ve known like something like this was possible.  

How to start a story is an important consideration, with many factors to balance.  Cinderella is an excellent example of how to quickly give the audience an understanding of what sort of story to expect.  When someone comes into a story for the first time, they come in willing to accept things that would otherwise be illogical.  This brief openness allows the writer to create fantastic worlds.  But this period of acceptance is quick to close.  An early foothold is necessary for people to take a story seriously.    Without that solid foundation, you risk losing the reader later.