The Bad Dinosaur, Part 2

Did you miss Part 1? If so, go read that first and then come back here for the finale of my first official movie rant. 

Alas, my hopes for the rest of the film were instead dashed on the superbly-animated rocks, for the remainder of the film had a lot of story problems, all of which violated Pixar’s 22 Rules. Perhaps the film was existentialist in nature (so to speak), but the writers certainly used a lot of coincidences and cliches. For example, when Arlo gets himself stuck under some boulders, Spot returns to dig Arlo out- despite the fact that he had no reason to help the dinosaur and every reason to stay away. Why would he come back? Because the writer wrote himself into a quandary he couldn’t solve, so he had to employ deus ex machina (definition: cheating).

Again, at the beginning of the movie, the pterodactyls killed and ate a little critter on-site, but when they capture Spot with the same intent, they hesitate to kill him just long enough for Arlo to come rescue him. This is what Blimey Cow calls “the chatty bad guy cliche.” The villain has no reason to delay except that the hero (and by that I mean the writer) is too lazy to find any other way to fix the problem, thus the villain has to play the fool and give the hero a chance to thwart his plans.

Yet again, at the climax- which is supposed to be the very worst point of the story- Spot and Arlo happen to survive the plunge over a hundred-foot waterfall. There’s twenty feet of fresh powder down there; it’ll be like landing on a pillow! Hopefully. Let’s leave aside the fact that if people went over a waterfall like that without a barrel or other such protective device, they would die.

None of these plot devices has any place in any story- except, it seems, in a story designed to represent the true hardships of real life. Right? I’m sorry, it just doesn’t make sense. None of these coincidences stands up to the test of reality; why on earth would they even pass as acceptable in a film by the number one family filmmaker?

Then there were so many smaller cliches within scenes, two of which stand out as painfully obvious. How about this refreshingly original dialogue at a pivotal scene? Arlo: Where are we going? Poppa: You’ll see. Or, when asked if he wants to sell Spot to some farming Tyrannosaurs, Arlo gives the completely unexpected response: “Actually, the droid’s not for sale.” Just think, he could have gotten forty portions for selling the kid. 

The final problem I had with this movie runs much deeper than amateur storytelling or cliches; I am concerned about the ethical views presented in the movie. In one needless scene, Arlo and Spot discover some decayed berries on the ground, and, after trying them, experience bizarre hallucinations that make them laugh hysterically. Nothing more is said about such opiates, leaving kids with the assumption that hallucinogens are funny and harmless. Elsewhere, the farming Tyrannosaurs use a swear word- the one starting with S. Hmm… Notice something here- it’s not the villainous pterodactyls or hyena-like creatures who use vulgar language; it’s the heroes, the ones who previously saved Arlo and Spot from death.

You may say I’m ridiculous; who cares about one half-finished cuss word and a silly scene lasting thirty seconds? Well, I turn around and ask you: who in 1939 cared about one expletive at the end of Gone With the Wind? But 74 years later, we are surprised at the 935 f-bombs in The Wolf of Wall Street. Who knows? In 70 years, you might be wincing at a graphic you-know-what scene in Toy Story Rebooted. Norms change, and it is “harmless” films like The Good Dinosaur who set those changes in motion.

And even if you don’t care about expletives and hallucinogens, you ought to care about how Disney and Pixar have just dropped the bar for all other filmmakers. Not only are we going to see an increase in the junky content, we’ll see a decrease in solid, plausible, edifying storytelling. Why? Because Disney is the trendsetter. They just set a bad storytelling trend for the kids, and today’s kids are tomorrow’s storytellers and audiences.

I will say this much for Pixar’s latest feature film: The climax was mostly well-developed, as it forced Arlo to make the difficult choice to face his fear and rescue his friend Spot, rather than fleeing to save himself. And of course the CGI was indescribably beautiful; if you had removed the cartoonish characters from any screenshot of the movie, I would have believed it was a photograph of a romantic South American landscape.

But decent climactic scenes and top-of-the-line graphics do little to remedy the other problems of any movie, and Disney/Pixar’s newest release does indeed have problems. If you need a Disney or Pixar fix, go rewatch an old classic like Toy Story or Cinderella. Kids need good movies, too, so don’t waste your time on the bad ones. Indeed, The Good Dinosaur is nothing short of Bad. 

What’s your verdict? Did The Good Dinosaur live up to its title?

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The Bad Dinosaur, Part 1

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” C.S. Lewis

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). I recently watched The Good Dinosaur with the rest of my family, and though I went in with low expectations, yet I still came out disappointed. Disney has been on my bad list for some time (ever since Good Luck Charlie and Modern Family, actually), but never before had I been so disappointed with a Pixar film in my life.

Now let’s leave aside all the Weltanshauung problems like existentialism and evolution and forget the fact that the plot feels suspiciously like that of The Lion King. I’ll even forgive the composers for ripping off the Braveheart soundtrack. Other Christian reviewers like Plugged In and Christianity Today can discuss such elements.

What I want to emphasize today is that kids deserve good movies, too, because someday those kids will grow up. Pixar seemed to forget about that.

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My thoughts exactly. (credit)

Let us begin with Arlo- one of the most un-empathetic protagonists for children that I have ever encountered. I can understand having a little bit of fear, but that fear should never define a character at the expense of other character qualities and quirks. For example, according to Martin Freeman, Bilbo Baggins “is scared all the time,” yet Bilbo is never defined exclusively by that fear. He possesses other characteristics that contrast with his fear and give him a sense of realism. Have you ever met a person who is so afraid that they have no other dimensions to their personality? Neither have I- so why should a screen character be different?

Again, the characterization seemed off-beat with Arlo’s Poppa. One scene, he is the all-wise and understanding mentor giving Arlo advice on how to be brave, and the next, he is angrily driving his son through a slippery mountain range in a lightning storm. Yes, I realize that breaking and combining stereotypes in fiction is a good idea, but the writers didn’t offer enough development for Poppa to justify such a split-second change. Trying to reconcile those two extremes is like trying to say that there is no fundamental difference between Gollum and Smeagol.

Then the scenes themselves didn’t make any sense. In one particular scene, Arlo is standing in the garden, yelling at his mean older brother- but his intentions seem somewhat mixed. “I’ll make my mark! You’ll see!” Two seconds later: “I don’t care about my old mark anyway!” *stalks off like an angry baby elephant* So what is it- does he want to make a mark, or not?

The logical problems only piled up. I still can’t understand why the older brother was such a bully; what kind of person fakes his death in a chicken coop just because his little brother caused him a minor inconvenience? Later, why were the pterodactyls so flamboyantly cruel? The answer to both: because it makes the story more emotional.

Ah, the mark of a true professional.

I kept my hopes up that the movie would improve as the story progressed. This was Pixar, after all; maybe the story had something better in store for the end. Beginnings are bumpy, especially in an alternate-history story; maybe Pixar could get the thing off the ground in the second half of the movie.

Which, of course, must wait for next week…

What do you think? If you were one of the few people who went to see The Good Dinosaur, I want to hear your take on the beginnings.

Swords, Soapboxes, and Why Rey Never Gave a Fig

I’ve been thinking lately.

And all the people said “Oh no.”

This time, I have been thinking mostly about Rey from The Force Awakens. She is by no means a typical character (ie archetype) for the big screen these days, but that does not necessarily mean she is a good character. Originality does not guarantee excellence; just take a look at the uniqueness of the junk on television every day. Then again, originality is not necessarily bad; if Rey is so different from the majority of characters on screen, chances are that she and I have a lot in common.

But… to determine if anyone fits a definition, we need to know what that definition is. So here is my claim: a strong character needs neither a sword nor a soapbox to be a well-rounded, dynamic role model in a story. Get it? Got it? Good.

Let us begin with “well-rounded.” Well… yes, Rey is well-rounded. In fact, of all the characters in the movie, Rey is the most developed. For all you Myers-Briggs enthusiasts, my guess is that she’s an INFJ. She is hard-working (competent at her job of scavenging) and she is loyal and organized (keeping a record on her wall). At the same time, she has a sentimental side; don’t tell me you didn’t see the little flower on her kitchen table and the old doll on her shelf.

Still of Kiran Shah and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Hey! Did you know that the alien is played by Kiran Shah? (image credit)

Further into the movie, Rey proves that she can be tough without losing her gentleness. She can scare off a freaky-little-alien-thing riding a freaky-big-alien-thing with her staff, but she does it to rescue poor BB8 from being scrapped. She attacks Finn, but only because BB8 accuses Finn of killing his friend Poe. She isn’t afraid to cry when her friends are killed or injured. And I dare anyone not to chuckle when her face lights up and she says proudly, “I bypassed the compressor!” Yes, I’d say she has depth to her character.

Secondly, Rey is a dynamic character. She isn’t turned into another flat soapbox like Tauriel the redheaded activist (ugh), but she grows in her feminine confidence without turning feminist. More tangibly, at the beginning of the story, Rey refuses to take Finn’s hand, claiming that she can run by herself. Well, duh. It’s the old boys-opening-doors-for-girls problem. Maybe we are feeling a little bit insecure about ourselves, Rey?

Yet I had judged her too soon. By the end of the movie, Rey is the one grabbing Finn’s hand and borrowing his jacket in a snowstorm. Don’t believe me? Look at this. And all this just makes sense; if a guy was in Rey’s place, he would be dragging his friends away from danger and accepting a coat when a blizzard starts, too. It’s not chauvinism; it’s common sense. And all this is to mirror her development as a powerful Jedi who fights evil in the galaxy (which we had better see in the next movie!). Rey learns to be confident with who she is and where she is going, and thus she becomes a stronger character.

Finally, Rey is what I generally call a “role model.” This is what most qualifies her as a strong character. Remember when Finn is getting dragged away by a really-big-freaky-alien-thing aboard Han Solo’s freighter? Of course you do. Rey figures out how to close the doors just in time to free Finn from the tentacles. Nice. The scene is intense, awesome, and undeniably original. But- did you notice what Rey said to Finn after rescuing him from imminent death? Just “That was lucky!”

In many other stories- and even at the beginning of Rey’s story- the girl might have replied with something along the lines of, “Yes, I know. I’m the one who did it, because I am a smart empowered female. I know how things work.” (Yes, I just took a shot at Tomorrowland. I’m not sorry.) That is what makes the difference in Rey’s character: she has a certain maturity, a unique sort of strength, that intensifies over the course of the story. I no longer have to squirm when my sister dresses up as Rey or chooses her for a Disney Infinity character; I know that Rey won’t be influencing her or any other girls to become self-absorbed featherheads who worry about all the wrong things.

At the end of the day, a strong female character (as well as any male one!) should be able to stand on her own feet. She shouldn’t have to stand on a soapbox to look taller, nor should she need a sword to make a point. Both puns were very much intended. If you want to write a strong female character, stop worrying about proverbial glass ceilings and start worrying about how you will write a strong character who will make all of your readers admire her and the rest of your work. Be like J.J. Abrams.

That is, unless you would rather be George Lucas.

So- is Rey a strong female character or not? Comment below and share your thoughts. 

AND I have one quick announcement: I’ll be sharing a few first-draft snippets from Alen’s War on Facebook this week. You can check that out here– and definitely do so because you won’t want to miss all these wonderful sneak peaks. 

Top 10 Villains

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Last week, gretald tagged me for the Top 10 Villains post. With cheering and trumpets moderate excitement, I now accept. And, Greta, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, thag you very buch.

So here are the rules. (Because what is fun without rules?)

  1. Post the button.
  2. Thank the blogger who tagged you.
  3. List your top ten favorite villains (they can be from movies or books).
  4. Tag ten other bloggers.

I will probably end up breaking #4, but so did Greta, so I am not too concerned about that one. One more thing you should know is that I am terrible at making “top ten” lists like these, as my favorite kind of anything tends to change weekly. I will probably reread an old favorite book next week and smack myself for not putting that particular bad guy on this list… but here it goes anyway. In no particular order, here are my top ten villains of all time.

Spoilers will necessarily follow…

Morgoth from The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

If you see this guy on the street… run. Just run.

Tolkien knows how to write Dark Lords. As bad as we thought Sauron was, his boss Morgoth is even worse.  He is evil personified. Dragons? Spiders? Balrogs? Torture chambers? You name it, he has it. Darth Vader and the Emperor have nothing on this guy- and he is dead set against the free peoples of Middle-earth. He is the villain, and he wants Silmarils! (history geek reference)

Richard from King Richard III (William Shakespeare)

“Villains, set down the corse; or, by Saint Paul, I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.”

Leave all historical debates aside on this one; Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard is terrifying. Hunchbacked and hated, Richard believes that his only chance of fulfillment lies in the throne of England. A terrifying yet understandable villain drawn from English history? Duh, yes. Besides, I appreciate his dark sense of humor, which is much like my own.

Gru from Despicable Me (2013)

“Pause for effect…”

I’m chuckling evilly to myself as I type this. I. Love. This. Guy. He’s been equipped with gadgets and weapons and cool cars, more dark humor, a bizarre accent, many layers of complexity, and backstory which never fails to elicit an “aww, poor Gru.” Plus, he is one of those few sympathetic INTJs like me. So he doesn’t exactly play the role of Bad Guy in the story, but this a list of “villains,” not “antagonists.” He deserves a place with the best of the best.

Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

And he loves games!

What can I say? Gollum is simply adorable, and half the time he’s nothing worse than a Stinker. All he ever wanted was his Precious. I think we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Gollum sometimes: we all want to do good, but we have to fight with our darker side to do it.

Brian de Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)

Hey- there is a movie?

You cannot possibly understand the depths of my hatred for de Bois-Guilbert. The overweening Templar tries to seduce and then abuses the Jewish girl Rebecca while she is a prisoner in his buddy’s castle, only desisting when the house is burned to the ground. And even then he drags her off into the forest so that Ivanhoe can’t get at her. What sort of horrible person does that?

Loki from Thor (2011)

It seems he has an affinity for glowing blue things.

As overrated as the film itself may be, Loki is a believable, even sympathetic baddie. He starts out as a friendly little brother, and then his world is shattered by the news that he will never be a king, only “the monster that parents tell their children about at night.” You might say he was just a victim of bad parenting- even if the horns and super glowstick are a bit much.

Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman Begins (2005)

I recently discovered Christopher Nolan’s film. Let us just say that I now have another favorite movie.

Ninja swords, tragic backstory, and Liam Neeson. ‘Nuff said.

Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

FYI, finding a picture of this guy isn’t the easiest task in the world.

Ugh, just thinking about wicked Simon Legree makes me shudder. I hate him for all the reasons I hated de Bois-Guilbert, except that no chivalrous knights stopped him from destroying the lives of two young girls and killing his other slaves. No wonder Stowe’s novel had such an impact in the 1800s; Legree is one character that you can never forget.

Baroness de Ghent from Ever After (1998)

She had a snazzy sense of fashion, too.

I hated the stepmother from the original Cinderella because she was so irrationally evil, but I loathe the Baroness even more because she has reasons for being so terrible. Her husband died and left her with a headstrong daughter who threatens the wellbeing of her own children. Who wouldn’t turn a little bit nasty about that? And she is indeed nasty. Sometimes it almost seems as if she wants to love Danielle as a daughter, but she suppresses that tenderness and instead punishes the girl as a wicked servant.

Scar from The Lion King (1994)

Scar is not impressed. He is never impressed.

As terrible as it sounds, I identify a little bit with Scar- that is, his cynical humor, meticulous mind, and unforgettable lines. He is never at a loss for words and always has a plan. And of course he is evil; Scar has no qualms about wreaking havoc on the whole kingdom so that he can take over it. Just like Richard III, and Loki, and Morgoth, and Gru… maybe I do have a favorite kind of villain after all.

Now for the tags. I don’t know many other bloggers who do villain posts, but, like Hans, I will do what I can.

Finally, if you are a blogger and want to take the tag, go right ahead- just let me know so that I can read about your top ten villains. Let’s see what y’all come up with. 🙂

A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Bad

“Whenever you take on playing a villain, he has to cease to be a villain to you. If you judge this man by his time, he’s doing very little wrong.” -Colin Firth

Everyone agrees that a supervillain should be antagonistic, amoral, willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want, and for the most part, these sorts of villains are easy to write. Darth Vader. The Joker. Sauron. These are terrifying characters that you never forget, but for all their scariness, they are surprisingly easy to write. Put them in a dark suit, give them an army, and strip away every quality that made them relatable, and you have the Dark Lord.

What isn’t so easy is writing a villain who is still a human.

What I love about a sympathetic villain is that he or she is still evil, but on an understandable level. With this kind of villain, we know why the baddie does such horrible things, sometimes even identifying with those motivations, and thus we are invested in a whole new facet of the story- that of the antagonist.

It’s a whole new subplot to follow. A sympathetic villain first frightens the readers, then confuses them, and at last wins their unfailing approval. All in all, a humanized villain keeps the audience’s attention and ultimately makes them think. Plus, feelz.

So here are a few ways I like to “humanize” a villain. Minor spoilers may follow…

kylo-ren

Show him to be human. Honestly, this was the element in The Force Awakens which scored the most points with me. For most of the movie, Kylo Ren is literally faceless, just like Darth Vader; as Rey says, he’s just a monster. But then this monster pulls off his helmet.

When he shows a human face underneath that unfeeling stereotype, Kylo ceases to be a robot in our minds and becomes a real person, a character like Finn and Rey. This makes him frightening in a different way from Vader. Even a normal kid like him can become bad. That’s one reason why I liked this Star Wars movie so much better than many of the others- in just five seconds we see the human side of the villain, something that six hours of Hayden Christiansen were never able to achieve for Vader.

And it doesn’t even have to be a literal mask. Captain Hook is malevolent and heartless, even toward little lost children. Forget all this Neverland Pirates business; he replaced his lost hand with a gleaming sharp hook, for crying out loud. He even kidnaps Wendy. What sort of person do you have to be to do that?

But in a conversation between Hook and Wendy, we realize why. All Hook ever wanted was the same thing that Peter wanted: a mother. It’s a very human, childish thing to do, kidnapping a girl just so she can play mom to an orphaned pirate crew, but even the smallest of children can identify with Hook. Everyone wants a mom! Even though he did just kidnap Wendy, Captain Hook seems to lose his terrible pirate mask to look more like the kind of human you meet every day.

Give him a cause. My favorite Shakespeare play is King Richard III. Even though Shakespeare supported the Tudors who had driven the real Richard from the throne, he realized even the infamous Machiavellian humpback needed a motive. People don’t just up and drown their brothers in wine-barrels every day, not without a reason. Why would Richard do such a thing?

Shakespeare decided that the unimportant Duke of Gloucester wanted to be the very best he could be, but caught as he was in a web of complex politics and superstition, his only route to greatness lay in villainy. As Richard says in the opening monologue, “Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.”

Again, when I watched the movie Thor (which was so bad that it deserves its own post), I found myself hoping beyond hope that Thor would die and Loki would win. Isn’t that sad? Of course Thor was flat and didn’t seem to be really doing anything to get Mjolnir back, so it wasn’t worth the effort of redeeming him. But why give a fig about his evil little brother?

After some thought I realized that Loki, and not Thor, had the one thing which drives a story: a cause. Thor was too lazy even to find out how to pick up his hammer, so he spent the film drinking coffee and bothering Jane. Loki, however, wanted to prove himself to the people of his magical star-kingdom-Asgard-thing, and what is more, he was doing everything in his power to achieve that goal. That’s a villain I can appreciate.

Give him the potential to do good. Even my mother, an unflagging non-reader of all fantasy including The Lord of the Rings, loves the little guy on the left. Gollum wasn’t always a wretched cannibal; he used to be Smeagol. He was a hobbit, good and innocent, with friends of his own. In a thematic sense, he was Frodo before the Ring came and corrupted him. Frodo himself admits that he takes care of Gollum because he has to know that someone can still be okay after carrying the Ring for so long.

And Gollum still has the potential to choose between killing and saving. He is truly capable of doing good things, which makes him seem real to us. When he promises to show Frodo and Sam the way into Mordor without being caught, he shows that he still has some of the bravery of a Halfling; when he begs for food, he seems an awful lot like a hobbit. By the end we realize that we care about him.

Image result for lady tremaine cinderella 2015

Make her afraid. Lady Tremaine (or Stepmother, as she is commonly known) starts the film as a normal and even likeable widow who has fallen in love with a wonderful guy. She can even forgive his daughter Ella for being so beautiful- “like her mother.” Yet, even before her honeymoon season is over, Lady Tremaine receives word that her new husband is dead, gone away forever, leaving her all alone in the world with no income and three girls to care for. No wonder she is afraid.

“Where will we go?” she cries. “What will we do?” Oh, but how convenient that the prince is throwing a ball and will choose himself a wife from among the young ladies there. They have a chance of security once again! Now all she must do is make sure that no other beautiful young lady stands in the way of her own daughters…

And I may as well finish with an example from my own book. *nervous laugh* I like creepy villains, and when I wrote Son of Ren, it was easy to make one of my villains, Sardar, an unethical creep without exerting too much imagination. He enjoys war (no, literally enjoys it), uses a really shady kind of sorcery, and manipulates people. Sounds unlikeable enough to me! But there was a lot more to his character that needed exploring… he just didn’t seem real enough.

I was only able to make him human when I realized that he was afraid. In his introductory scene, Sardar can play like he’s big and tough, pretending that he has the upper hand, and he’s got enough armies and magic to outwit Elkay for a little while, but in truth he’s terrified of running out of time. He might even lose what little power he already has. When people feel threatened, they are capable of just about anything.

So that’s the beginnings of a list. Every villain has a human side; we as the writers just need to learn how to bring it out. How do you “humanize” a villain? Do you have any thoughts on making bad guys seem real? Share in the comments.