Of Character and Depth, part 1

I watch an amazing amount of “Kids” movies of late. Friday night is movie night for me and my kids. We did the three Star Wars movies (the good ones), My daughter Sadie kept replaying the kiss from The Empire Strikes Back, Abigail has no interest there, so for her, it is Secret of the Wings, over and over and over.
We also watch “Tangled” and “Brave”, and I like them both. Really, enjoyable, fun, and you’d think really similar. Kids movies, but they deal with some grown up issues – kidnapping, death, magic, mother versus daughter conflict, free choice, growth . . .

It’s the last one to think about.

You see movies are about redemption. We go to a movie to see in the characters something about ourselves. Something we can connect with, because if that character in the movie can change, can grow, can overcome their tragic flaw, then we can too. This is why we root for the underdog, Rocky, Rudy, Luke Skywalker, and so on. Now not every movie is about redemption, but by and large . . .

So we come to characters in the movie, this is how the audience gets involved in the movie. If you look at feature length films, you will notice that it is very rare to have more than one fully developed character. There is a lot to do, there’s character introduction, conflict, growth and change. If you don’t think this is important, let’s quickly look at the two Tomb Raider movies. The first one, a girl in a woman’s body in search of her father. Lots of stunts, special effects, and Angelina Jolie in tight fitting outfits. So we get character introduction, and conflict, but where was the real conflict? Chasing the magic time stopping thing, that ought to have been a McGuffin, which drives the action, but during the chasing of the McGuffin the character must face their flaw, and overcoming their flaw, exhibiting growth and change. That is what fills us, absent that, well let’s just say the first tomb Raider pulled in $131,168,070 domestic but the second one only brought in $65,660,196 domestic. So the first one, didn’t satisfy enough for many people to go back for seconds.

When we connect with the character, and the character overcomes the external conflict, achieves their goal by overcoming their internal conflict , that is when we are satisfied. When we, the audience, are satisfied, that makes a difference.

Tangled– essentially a a re-imagining of Rapunzel. Or from IMDB: The magically long-haired Rapunzel has spent her entire life in a tower, but now that a runaway thief has stumbled upon her, she is about to discover the world for the first time, and who she really is.

Brave – from IMDB: Determined to make her own path in life, Princess Merida defies a custom that brings chaos to her kingdom. Granted one wish, Merida must rely on her bravery and her archery skills to undo a beastly curse.

Both movies are about discovery of self, growing into who you can be, but lets look at what works and what doesn’t. Remember I really enjoy both of these movies, I think they are successful, but for me, Brave is a bit more satisfying than Tangled and here’s why.

In Tangled – At the moment of truth, Rapunzel is willing to sacrifice her freedom to save Finn, the man she loves. In the end Finn sacrifices himself for her. He cuts off her magic hair, and she can’t heal him so he dies. Then there is the moment, she cries and a tear falls on his face and suddenly there is magic blossoming everywhere and he is healed and comes back to life. Beautiful wonderful, hooray, except. Well look the movie is about Rapunzel getting out from under the thumb of her oppressive “mother”, and seeing the world. She doesn’t really look to grow up, and certainly she doesn’t have a problem showing her emotions. Yet that’s the key, when she cries, her tears bring Finn back to life. All the big pretty pictures don’t make up for the fact that nowhere are we set up that she can’t show emotion, that she doesn’t experience sadness, or is distant from others. This poor guy comes to save her, and he sacrifices his life for her. If only the filmmakers had managed to somehow seed the notion that she couldn’t cry. That Rapunzel never learned to feel for another. Then when she cried, she would have grown, faced and defeated her flaw, her inability to connect with another person. Something the audience could identify with. Hey, this isn’t easy stuff. Making a movie is hard, and writing interesting characters, who can share what makes them human with us. This is tough stuff, so much as I appreciate and like “Tangled”, at the end, I am not moved as much as I could have been.

Brave – this is a bit different. The girl (Merida) wants to lead her own life, she fights with her mother, and seeks to escape. In the end, at the moment of truth, it is when she accepts responsibility for her actions, that she overcomes her flaw, and saves her mother. The whole movie is about Merida fighting against her situation and wanting to just live her own life. She finally faces the the consequences of her actions. Instead of running away or blaming others to justifying her outrageous behavior, she grows up. She reaches out to her mom (who is now a bear) and in that moment of reaching out, she invites her mom in, instead of rebelling against her. Throughout the whole movie, she is convinced that life is unfair and she is unduly burdened and insists everyone else is wrong, but when she realizes that she is also wrong, well that’s something we can all identify with.

Same sort of ending – the girl loses someone she loves at the end of the movie, and then they each do something that they haven’t done before, and everything is is fixed. In Brave the change is set up and fulfilled, difficult to pull off, making a child likable, who’s willful and angry. However in Tangled no, we never get directly exposed to the thing that she must overcome, so when she overcomes her flaw, we are not moved. Yeah we are happy, but not satisfied.

Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment.

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