Tag Archives: movies

Could Frozen be even better?

I have little kids. I get to go see Disney movies without any shame. I even get to go to the sing along version. (And be the loudest person in the theater. No shame.) We all really liked Frozen (except for my three-year-old, who’s still upset that Elsa told Anna to go away). The story, the characters, the songs, even the plot twists—we loved it.

Elsa-and-Anna-Wallpapers-frozen-35894707-1600-1200But the more I’ve pondered the story and especially the ending, I’ve wondered if it couldn’t be a little stronger. This has nothing to do with the cute reprises of “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” popping up on YouTube.


If you haven’t seen it, the movie revolves around a pair of princess sisters, Elsa and Anna. After an accident in their childhood where Anna is badly hurt, Elsa must hide her magical ice powers from her younger sister. Afraid she’ll hurt her sister again, Elsa shuts her out completely. They spend the better part of their lives separated, even after their parents die, and Elsa’s secret powers continue to grow beyond her control.

On the day of Elsa’s coronation, after a fight with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her powers to the whole kingdom. Elsa flees in fear, setting off an eternal winter in their kingdom. Anna goes to find her sister and convince her to come back, but Elsa freaks out when she finds out what happened in their kingdom. In her fear, she again accidentally freezes her sister’s heart.

Anna leaves, and discovers that she will die without an act of true love. At the climax of the movie, Anna has a choice to kiss her true love or save her sister’s life. As she blocks the death blow of the villain’s sword, Anna turns to solid ice. Elsa is devastated.

In a Disney reversal, Anna’s selfless sacrifice is an act of true love, and it thaws her frozen heart (and body). Elsa realizes that the answer to her out-of-control powers is love. She’s able to harness her magic and end the premature winter.

Okay, super cute, heartwarming, etc., right? It is. But after a while, you look back at that conclusion and wonder . . . didn’t Elsa always love her sister?

It was Elsa’s love of her sister that led to her fear, led to Elsa shutting her out. So why was love all of a sudden the answer?

Completing the character arc

Although the movie does revolve around Anna and her actions, it’s Elsa that has the biggest character arc. At the beginning of the movie, she’s warned that fear will be her enemy, which she (and her parents) take to mean that others will fear her powers and possibly hurt her. This inciting incident sets up her character arc to grow from a place of fear.

Throughout the course of the story, her own fear rules her life. She cuts herself off from everyone but her parents—and eventually won’t even let them touch her because she’s afraid she’ll hurt them. When she’s afraid and upset, her powers rage out of control, and hurt the people she cares about.

The final image of the movie, Elsa, Anna and their subjects playing with her magic, shows that Elsa has successfully learned her lesson and integrated it into her life. But before that, when she says what she’s learned, she only says, “Love! Of course!”

Again, she’s always loved her sister. That isn’t how she’s grown or changed. What she actually learned was a lesson about not letting her fear overrule her love for her sister and her subjects. I think that expressing that, tying the character arc back to the growth that she’s seen throughout the film and the lesson she learned, would have made the movie just a little bit stronger.

How could we express that better? One or two sentences of dialogue would have been enough, since the positive results of her character arc are already shown well through her actions. The line that keeps springing to my mind is straight out of the Bible: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.” She’d let her fears override that love (not completely destroy it). When she realizes that she needs to show her love for her sister and receive her love in return, she’s able to overcome those fears and control her powers.

The answer isn’t just love. If we dig a little deeper, we see that the real theme is that love can conquer fear.

A big musical number to that effect wouldn’t have hurt either 😉 .

I still love it

In all, I do still love Frozen. I’m a writer, and I analyze things—and you’d think I wrote a book on Character Arcs or something. As I was telling Jami Gold in her post analyzing another way Frozen might have been a little better, these criticisms and analysis of the movie are actually a positive thing. I think it says a lot for any story to inspire craft discussion!

What do you think? Did you like the ending of Frozen, or could it be better?

Focusing on themes & audience expectations: Brave

This is a post about fiction. I swear. It just looks like a post about the movie Brave.

I have three kids, aged 6 & under. They’re a great excuse to go to animated movies, and last month we went to see Brave.

I enjoyed Brave, but it’s very different from Pixar’s other movies. Wikipedia says that some people have likened it to a Grimm or Andersen fairy tale, and that seems very accurate. Brave hasn’t been quite as universally loved as previous Pixar classics, and the darkness inherent in “real” fairytales might be part of it.

But I have to say, when I see people criticizing the form of the film, I’m very confused. I’ve seen a few people call the movie “unfocused” or even “plotless.”

It’s neither.

To me, focus in film or fiction is defined very simply: do most of the scenes support the central theme and plot? Brave‘s central theme and plot is a mother-daughter relationship: how Queen Elinor wants Merida to behave (like a lady) and how Merida wants to be free.

I think part of the problem starts right there. Viewers have seen variations on the princess who wants to (to quote her father King Fergus’s assessment [behind her back]) “let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset” before. Several times:

  • Ariel
  • Jasmine
  • Pocahontas
  • Belle
  • Rapunzel
  • Seeing a trend?

It seems like the only kind of princess Disney knows how to write. So let’s look at the trope established by these movies, using another rebellious red-headed princess who wants to be free to follow her heart but her oppressive parent tries to force her to do her duty: Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel rebels. She goes to a witch and gets a spell to get what she wants. So far, so good: Brave‘s Merida follows the same path right down to her hair color.

Yeah, Ariel’s rebellion causes problems, but in the end, she wins. She was right and her dad is punished by being separated from her forever (though they still love and forgive one another, at least nonverbally). The trope is repeated in several movies: princess rebels, gets what she wants, was right all along, shows evil parent how wrong they were. (Exactly the message we need to send to our children!)

Dollars to donuts, that’s the movie people were expecting when they walked in, or at least as we approached the end of Act I. But then the story turns very dramatically, and about halfway through, you figure out, Hey, this movie is about mothers and daughters, not finding true love (which is a scary obsession encouraged by a lot of animated movies—do 4-10 year olds really need romance and marriage marketed to them?). One of Brave‘s greatest strengths was the fact that it’s fresh. But violating audience/genre expectations can result in unhappy audiences.

So some dislike the movie for not following a clichéd trope that we’ve already seen at least half a dozen times. (Come on, like they really wanted to see an Ariel Goes to Scotland retread.) But to call the movie plotless or unfocused? No. Just no.

Every event either developed the conflict or moved the story forward, often by showing character changes. An unfocused story features subplots that don’t support or influence the main plot, focus on characters who are superfluous (okay, the younger brothers did kind of seem that way, but weren’t in all that many scenes), and either no theme or competing themes. In my opinion, Brave did none of these.

Actually, it seemed like Brave was an animated version of a character-driven story. I’ve defined character-driven before as “When the basic story is more about the character’s internal growth and change.”

There is an external plot (and external subplot), and they’re resolved in unexpected (and maybe just slightly too-neat, but it’s an animated film, so hey) ways. But at its heart, Brave is about the growth and change in Merida and her mother Queen Elinor, and how they come to love and accept and understand and change for one another. Did it go over my kids’ heads? Yep, most of it. Will they be able to discover new layers of meaning in the movie in ten years? Yep, most likely.

Was Brave the best movie evar? Probably not. It was good and well-told and unique, and no, not everyone liked it. But I think that probably had more to do with its strengths than its weaknesses.

What do you think? How do you define focus in fiction? How can character-driven stories translate to film? Have you seen Brave?

What does it take to make a good story?

Conflict, of course, is a very basic requirement of a good story. But good stories have a lot more going on than arguing (maybe, like, Larry Brooks’s six core competencies of storytelling).

And this isn’t about that.

Earlier this week, I watched the “making of” documentary on the Finding Nemo DVD. While I’m not a huge fan of Disney or Pixar, I’m very impressed by their storytelling (especially Pixar). And the documentary offered some insight into their story process.

The director of Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton, also wrote the screenplay. So after working on that for a year or so, he brought it to Pixar, where it would be made into a movie.

And they basically started all over.

Andrew points out that when you write something, you believe that it works, functionally, humor-wise, etc., but you don’t really know until you get some outside feedback, usually from multiple sources. This is why we collect critique groups and beta readers.

But instead of those methods (well, Andrew may have used those while writing, but this is after he was “done”), Pixar has a feature that’s fairly common in Hollywood: the story department.

I don’t know if this is totally accurate, but the impression in the documentary was that these people eat your babies take your screenplay, nearly demolish it, and then make it better. They identify weak points, plot holes, character problems and boring scenes, and find ways to fix them.

And then there are more writers, who make the jokes better and refine the dialogue.

And then there are still issues and scenes and places where you get stuck, and all that helps is long stretches of time with someone to talk things through and bounce around ideas, someone who knows the story and the characters as well as you do (and even if we have beta readers, few of us truly have that).

(And then there are the advantages that visual storytelling has that are a little harder to execute in written storytelling: acting, visual cues, setting that can be taken in in nanoseconds, action that requires no description, etc.)

In all, this story took three and a half years to tell. (So sometimes, all that visual stuff isn’t necessarily an advantage.) It shows in the quality—but man, that’s a lot of patience and stick-to-it-iveness to tell one story.

What do you think? How long do you work on a story before it’s “done”?

Photo credits: clown fish—ecatoncheires; hourglass—Tijs Zwinkels

Why some great books just don’t make good movies: powerful POV

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Deep POV

For some strange reason, The Jacksons: An American Dream was on TV a couple weeks ago (gee, I wonder why). My dad and I got sucked in near the beginning, expecting to understand Michael’s descent into . . . well, madness.

It started off promising. The beginning showed the Jackson 5 practicing their music and dancing, and the rigors of their lives. It showed the psychological relationships of the characters. But instead of delving deeper and deeper into Michael’s psyche over time, the movie seemed to pull back. As Michael seems to push his family away to pursue a solo career, we see less and less of him—and it feels like we’re being pushed away, too. We go from seeing his insecurities and fears to looking in at Neverland from the outside, just like we always have.

Part of the problem was that this movie was made in 1992, after Michael established a successful solo career, but before he began the descent into . . . well, you know. But as my dad and I discussed how disappointed we were with the movie’s lack of depth or resolution, I realized that sometimes our attempts at deep POV do the same thing to our readers. We leave them watching from the outside when what they really want is to be inside the characters, living and understanding them.

I think part of the challenge with writing deep POV, as Alicia Rasley points out in The Power Of Point Of View, is that many of us see the action of a story in a very cinematic way—as if we were watching a movie (185). In a movie, the camera follows a character, but jumps around between perspectives easily. You can be in the front of the courtroom watching Jack McCoy as he questions the witness, then quick-as-a-flash, you’re in the gallery, watching the witness crack.

While this is a powerful technique, point of view has always been a limitation of film. There has never been and may never be a satisfactory adaptation of Jane Eyre or The Great Gatsby, because in those works and in works like them, the experience isn’t just about what we can see happening—it’s about what happens inside the narrators.

Without narration, we can’t see that Gatsby’s smile assumes the best of us, as if he had faith in us. When Robert Redford smiles, it’s attractive, of course, but it’s just a smile—because that assertion, that his smile assumes the best of us, isn’t rooted in empirical fact. It doesn’t come from just what Nick Carraway sees. It’s rooted in Nick’s perception and interpretation of what he sees.

As writers, we can give our readers the connection they want with our characters’ thoughts and feelings. We don’t have to just watch what has played out on the screens of our mind. We are not camera men! We can get into our characters’ heads, show their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, and truly transport our readers so they feel like they’re living the experience with us. This is a strength of the medium—so use it!

But that’s not to say deep POV is always best or even right for our story. Soon we’ll have a guest post on when not to use deep POV!

Photo credits: movie—G & A Scholiers; cameraman: Jannes Glas