Warning! Here there be spoilers, in great measure. Also, plot dissection and narrative breakdown.
As I have mentioned, I’m pretty out of touch with Hollywood, and the first I knew of the new movie Rise of the Guardians was seeing someone’s fan art of Jack Frost on Facebook. It was pretty good fan art, so it got my attention. Who was this Square-Enix-looking kid, and what was this movie?
As it happened, the movie opened later that week, and the premise hooked me. I guess I’m a sucker for mythological figures and personifications of natural phenomena duking it out. I got to see it opening night.
It was beautiful – I guess I’m also a sucker for SquEnix style bishounen and iridescent draco-horses — but it wasn’t enough, and the movie was unsatisfying. As credits rolled, I thought, “Wow, that was really pretty, but I wish they’d pried Save the Cat out of the screenwriter’s hands.”
Save the Cat is an oft-recommended book specifically on screenwriting, but useful for writers of all types and genres, on pacing and “beats” of a story. Like Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey or Aristotle’s plot arc, Save the Cat spells out the necessary formula for a good story.
The problem with writing formulas, though, is that they should be more like guidelines, really. The story should flow naturally and happen to include the essential beats, rather than jumping obviously from one to the next. While watching Rise of the Guardians, however, I found myself actually counting out and calling new beats.
Theme Stated – Jack’s Exposition Hat monologue to the moon about his need to know his purpose
Fun & Games – the tooth-collecting contest
Midpoint – false defeat, the destruction of Easter
All is Lost – Jack’s staff is broken, he is left helpless in Antarctica
Dark Night of the Soul – Jack bemoans his uselessness and misery to Baby Tooth
Final Image opposing Opening Image – Jamie runs into Jack to hug him, as opposed to through him as usual (to be fair, I think this could have been a great image if the rest of the beats had not been so unsubtle)
Not a good thing, this conscious counting of beats, because it meant I was well out of the story myself. And all of this could have been done more smoothly, with subtlety, and then it would have worked well.
I was briefly reminded of the Act Three pep talk in the animated film Bolt, in which the language grew so stilted as the music dramatically swelled that I actually expected the film was lampshading the scene and it would end with a comic self-awareness – but it didn’t.
I heard someone say the movie’s villain was lame, which crippled the story, but I disagree. Pitch Black the Boogeyman has a bit of style and pretty iridescent draco-horses. He even has some motivation – he wants to be “believed in,” which is what makes these mythological creatures more real (though there’s a bit of inconsistency there); he wants recognition and purpose.
The problem is with how the conflict is carried. Pitch begins by converting the Sandman’s dreams into Nightmares and then goes on to kidnap the Tooth Fairy’s fairies and steal the entire stock of teeth, destroy the Easter holiday, and murder the Sandman.
Jack Frost and the Guardians respond by getting some kids to say they don’t like Pitch and aren’t (very) afraid of him. Not quite on the same level. And somehow, despite those kids even having a conversation with Pitch, that results in them not believing in Pitch and he goes back to being invisible to humans.
To be fair, Jack also frosts a couple of Nightmares and pulls Force Lightning on Pitch, but overall, that’s the game report. Not only is that an incredibly uneven exchange in battle, but the whole conflict boils down to this:
PITCH: “We’re both invisible, Jack. I want to be believed in, just like you.”
JACK: “Nope. I’m gonna get kids to believe in me, but not you.”
(Argue all you want that Pitch is a bad guy because he scares kids, but given that Jack is a prankster who nearly gets the kid Jamie killed at the start of the story, it’s a fine line to walk.)
So we have a hero and villain who want the same thing, and the villain actually works toward his goal, but the hero gets it because he’s the hero. Sketchy storytelling.
Jack Levels Up
And Jack does get stuff just because he’s the hero. No explanation at all is given for his leveled-up powers (“How did you do that?” “I didn’t know that I could”), his magical staff without which he is helpless (is he a Guardian, or just a kid with a powerful artifact?), or the other children believing in and seeing him after he recruits Jamie to believe in the Easter Bunny.
And at the end, when Jamie announces to the other kids, “I know what we have to do!” the kids do nothing. Our best guess is they go off, hold hands, and believe in the Sandman, which would justify the Sandman’s return immediately afterward, but there’s no explanation of that (nor how the kids would even know the Sandman had died). Again, stuff happens because the script demands it, not because the characters act to make it happen.
And this is why, while the movie is lovely, everyone I know who’s seen it has felt it was missing something.
My take-home message? Check subtlety on my story beats. They need to be there, but even the best formula shouldn’t feel formulaic.
|Save the Cat is the classic guide to screenwriting and story arc.|