Motivation: Like Fred said: “This is a revenge story.” Callaghan lost his daughter who volunteered for a portal experiment. Said experiment was led by Alistair Krei, a devil-may-care tech billionaire. Krei noticed a discrepancy in the experiment but continued anyway. The portal blew up and his daughter was lost, presumed dead. Callaghan rebuilds the portal machine and, through the use of stolen microbots, intends to destroy Krei’s new fancy building and Krei himself in the same manner. It’s actually a pretty understandable motivation, one that any one of us might do in the same circumstance. IMO, those are the best kind of villains. That doesn’t make it right.
Character Strengths: Like a lot of villains, he keeps his cards close to his chest in terms of revealing his true power. He even makes our heroes think he’s someone totally different without trying. Given that robotics and mathematics/science are his top skills, the powers of perception are also up there. When he saw Hiro’s microbots, he thought “I can use that to kill Krei” and then set off a distracting explosion to make people think he had died so he could carry out his vengeance. Very crafty and self-righteous.
Evilness: Well, he stole a young boy’s invention. Set off a fire in an act of domestic terrorism. Said explosion killed one of his own young prodigies. Then used the stolen invention to destroy a city block and attempt to murder a prominent businessman. I’d say he’s going to jail for a long time.
Tools: This guy might win the award for best tools. Those microbots aren’t just useful, they’re cool and innovative. It’s not something we’ve ever seen before and it’s all based on real science people are working on right now. They can be used for transportation, construction, shielding, throwing punches and hammers at people, and anything else he can think of. Because he controls them with telepathy (which just by itself should be a revolutionary invention), it’s like having a T-1000 for a pet or magic Legos. You’re only limited by what you can pay attention to.
Complement to the Hero: As Callaghan, he’s warm and fatherly, something Hiro never had growing up. As Yokai, he’s grim, serious, and silent, something Hiro is totally not. It’s like Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker. And both have similar origin stories–Hiro lost his brother, Callaghan lost his daughter. But Big Hero 6 is not a story about the villain like 101 Dalmatians or Peter Pan. Callaghan is used as a foil to demonstrate what happens when you can’t let go of grief.
Fatal Flaw: If anything, Callaghan’s only weakness is that he’s so focused on his mission of vengeance (as revengers often do) that he fails to see alternative paths. Hiro knows his own invention and knows that the microbots are a finite resource (especially when they start getting sucked up into the portal). Callaghan becomes too dependent on them, which leads to the Big Hero 6’s victory. Plus the fact that they’ve come together as a team and learned to look at things from a different angle. Like Tadashi taught Hiro, Hiro teaches them. This shows us that no one is truly dead when their spirit lives on in us.
Method of Defeat/Death: When Callaghan uses up his microbots, he can’t do anything. Then Baymax crushes the mask and the portal crashes to the Earth. (Then there’s kind of a second part to the climax where Hiro must truly prove he is capable of saying goodbye to those he loves, but that’s not about the villain). The last we see of Callaghan is him getting arrested and put in a police car. But he sees that his daughter is safe, so that’s all right with him.
Motivation: Penny is a cash cow. An asset to be exploited. I don’t know anything about Hollywood agents–they tend to get portrayed as scummy despots, like dentists or salespeople or gym teachers. We get a glimpse of his true motivation at the end when he says he’s thinking of “executive producer” credit for Penny’s story.
Character Strengths: The Agent is pretty charismatic, but he’s terrible at lying. He never really convinces Penny to stop waiting for Bolt and to go on with the show. But he does succeed in getting her to the press junkets and photoshoots. And he never stops working, even when Penny’s in the ambulance he’s thinking of how to make money off this deal. Because that’s his sole job–he doesn’t get paid unless Penny gets paid.
Evilness: He seems pretty unpleasant to me. Not much sympathy or empathy for either Penny or her situation. Although I’m thinking how degenerate that studio has to be with no fire safety standards. When you’re dealing with live fire–even a single candle–you’ve got to have a fireman on set.
Tools: Well, he doesn’t have underlings or magic powers. All he’s got is a clipboard and a snappy suit. But he does have that “let’s put a pin in that” cliche that seems to be the key to sweeping Penny’s negative thoughts under the rug. His duty is to keep Penny working and happy (or at least not sad).
Complement to the Hero: Penny is sweet and innocent. The Agent is grimy and slimy. They’re pretty much opposite, but they don’t have very much screen time together, so their characteristics boil down to stereotypes.
My bigger beef is that this movie is based around a silly premise–that the dog is such a great actor that the studio has to keep it convinced the peril is real. My dog only knows the difference between the outside and the inside. Bolt is like a doggy version of The Truman Show. Wouldn’t it be more expensive to execute a one-take stunt spectacular like in the beginning than to just use CGI and editing. Who cares about the nuances of the dog’s performance? They don’t even have the facial muscles to express emotions like we do.
Fatal Flaw: Either he misunderstands that Penny and her mom are greedy like him, or he overestimates how much bullshit people will take. I don’t think they liked him or the Hollywood life much in the first place. But if that’s the case, I just want to say it’s ironic that Penny is voiced by Miley Cyrus.
Method of Defeat/Death: After Penny is rescued from the studio fire, The Agent slides into the ambulance with them and starts talking about how good this will be for them and their image, predicting tabloid appeal and selling story rights (of which he’ll get a percentage, of course). He is promptly punched out the back door (presumably by Penny’s mom) and never seen again.
Motivation: Buck Cluck was the town baseball star, responsible for the sleepy town’s only little league championship. But that’s all he has. After the first town panic, he does everything he can to preserve what little reputation he has around Oakey Oaks. My question is, what does this past reputation serve him? It doesn’t seem like he’s getting anything out of it anymore. Maybe the memory of his glory days is the only thing keeping him going.
Character Strengths: He’s pretty good at deflecting blame or avoiding responsibility towards his son. He has his eyes turned to the town, and so when he says something they tend to believe him (or do they?). This is a guy who peaked during high school, and as Wil Wheaton said once “If you win at high school, you lose at life.” I guess you could put some blame on the town for being so co-dependent on him, but there aren’t enough fingers on one hand to point at that many people.
Evilness: Buck Cluck is depressed. If this wasn’t a Disney movie, the only place you’d see him is in his armchair, nursing a bottle of booze and watching baseball. He lost his wife and has no idea how to raise his son. Personally, I think one of the greatest sins is parents who are unkind or evil to their kids. He even jokes about his bad parenting at one point. At best, he’s a “fair weather father”, which is not an option when you’re a widower and you’re kid’s still young enough to be in elementary school. You gotta step your bitch-ass up and dedicate yourself. Instead, he puts himself as far away from his son as possible, so as not to get any of the fallout. The very beginning of the movie, he tells Chicken Little he should basically disappear.
Tools: Not much to put here. This movies not about gadgets or doohickeys. It’s about family, and the effect that neglect and troubled parenting have on the young.
Complement to the Hero: This one’s easy. We’ve got a jock dad and a nerd kid. The nerd kid is always nervous, friends with with unpopular kids, bad at sports, always getting in trouble. At the beginning of the movie, they hammer the point home (unsubtly) that his son is nothing like him. I think Buck just has no idea how to deal with a person like that. But when it’s your own kid, you gotta learn.
Fatal Flaw: Fear of embarrassment, passiveness, obsession with order, need for towns approval. Fortunately, unlike a lot of villains, Buck realizes his fatal flaw before it’s too late and he’s eaten by hyenas. He’s not so far gone that he can turn back and realizes getting the love from the town is not worth as much as the unconditional love from his son.
Method of Defeat/Death: When his son runs away during the alien invasion, they have a confrontation at the movie theater. Chicken Little tells him what he’s feeling and Buck realizes how he’s been pushing his son away through his abuse and neglect. Chalk it up to men being emotionally stunted. It’s a heartfelt moment that belongs in a sitcom, not a movie.
Motivation: This movie is, in a word, messy. There are too many protagonists and each has their own motivations (Elsa has wanderlust, Anna wants things to stay the same, Kristoff wants to propose, Olaf wants to be relevant to the plot). So how can the antagonist not be equally messy?
As far as I can figure, Ahtohallan chose that particular moment in time to call out to Elsa (just in time for the second movie to start). It wants Elsa to learn the truth so that the dam can be broken and the river can flow again. But it does this in the weirdest way.
Why do the spirits keep attacking them? The little salamander sets fire to the camp, the wind spirit assaults Olaf, the water spirit horse attacks Elsa, the Earth Giants nearly kill Anna with rocks. Who are they working for? Why don’t they want to help? Don’t they want the land to be freed as well?
Character Strengths: When you’re talking spirits of nature, you’re talking about all the destructive power that goes along with it. Earth giants can throw boulders. Salamanders can scoot around and set everything ablaze. Wind spirits can whip you around in a tornado. Of course, the question is, do they hold a candle to Elsa’s power?
The answer is no. Elsa dispatches the tornado by bringing down the temperature, smacks the little fire lizard around, tames the horse and… well we don’t see her interact with the rockbiters. But if she did, I bet they’d get a walloping.
Evilness: Like nature, I don’t think the spirits are evil or good. They simply are. They do what they do. Of course, that’s a petty excuse, because once you anthropomorphize something, you’re giving it a modicum of free will. Meaning I have no idea what the spirits want. They have power, but what are they using it for, besides giving our protagonists some obstacles. They don’t gain anything by keeping Elsa from the river of Ahtohallan. Wouldn’t the spirits want to work in conjunction with Ahtohallan? Is there a jealousy thing here?
Tools: Each spirit, like the cliche expects, has its own weapons according to its specialties. Fire can set things on fire, wind can blow things over, etc. Just imagine any X-Men, but Disneyfied (wait, doesn’t Disney own X-Men now?)
Complement to the Hero: Ironically, as we find out in the ending (spoilers), Elsa is the Fifth Spirit. The one who acts as a bridge from the natural world to the human world. So they are both cut from the same cloth. (Literally, as one of the Northuldra uses a cloth to demonstrate this.) Of course, none of this explains how Elsa got cursed/blessed, what she did to deserve it, who did it, and so on. Nor does it explain why the spirits keep trying to kick her out. What are they afraid of?
Fatal Flaw: I’m not sure what to put here because the spirits are pretty mindless. I don’t understand their motivations, their evilness, so I can’t think of what their fatal flaw might be. Ignorance? Lack of understanding? This movie is a mess. I’d make a case for the movie’s writers to be the real antagonists. Do you see how many questions I’ve asked in this article?
Method of Defeat/Death: Well, they aren’t really defeated either. Anna teases the rock monsters to destroy the dam. This opens up the river, lifts the fog, and frees everyone inside. Yet the spirits are still around. One even acts as a mail carrier. Another acts as a highly merchandisable pet, but we don’t talk about Bruni.
Motivation: To be played. I guess the biggest thrill in a video game character’s life is when a little boy a girl puts that quarter in, much like a toy in the Toy Story universe. I guess it’s nice to have a purpose. And terrible when that purpose goes away. All of us eventually get used up or replaced by younger, newer, fancier models that better fit the changing times. Some of us can accept that. Some of us can’t.
Character Strengths: The most diabolical thing about King Candy is his sincerity. He’s not wrong about Vanellope–a glitched character, one that allows the player to cheat, could bring down the world and condemn her to death (whatever “death” means in the video game world). This fact allows him to convince anyone who hasn’t already been corrupted (by manipulation of the game’s code helps to cement) that he is who he says he is.
Evilness: So King Candy (in his previous persona of Turbo) invaded a video game, glitched it, and got all of its characters unplugged, which I guess is like sentencing them to death. That’s pretty bad. It’s like infiltrating a gang, then getting them all arrested. But beyond that, King Candy/Turbo took over ANOTHER racing game, but learned from his mistakes. He replaced the main character’s code (Vanellope) with his own, detached her from the game, then locked everyone’s memory so no one knew the difference. Seems like the perfect crime.
Tools: King Candy was smart enough to take over a world with a little more character development than “Out Run“. That means he was able to find a racing game with a world full of minions at his command. And when you can insert yourself as the leader of those minions with a few simple button taps, what’s going to stop you? (A Donkey Kong expy, that’s who). He has what’s basically the key to Matrix-ing the world.
Also, he turns into a giant cyborg insect. That doesn’t help.
Complement to the Hero: It’s hard to know whether to compare him to Ralph, who is the more direct protagonist, or Vanellope, who is the more direct complement. After all, he’s taking Vanellope’s place as ruler of the Candy Kingdom. But in this case, I think it can be both. Both is good. He can overpower Ralph with intellect and Vanellope with charm (and minions). Both King Candy and Vanellope are confident they have a place in the game world. It’s much the story of a usurped princess and her knight in shining armor.
Fatal Flaw: King Candy’s been playing his role for so long, I think even he forgot he used to be Turbo. He looks surprised when the glitch transforms him for a second. You might call it denial, you might call it an inability to accept reality. Maybe a little bit of vanity/ego in there as well.
Method of Defeat/Death: So after King Candy is eaten by one of the cybugs he gets all their strengths and weaknesses. Like Aladdin said: “phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space”. His new Cybug powers include an insatiable drive to go towards the pretty light that’s essentially a nuclear candy blast. I do love those ironic deaths.
Oh my god, am I really doing new ones? It’s been so long since I wrote this series and times, they do a-change. I’ve seen some of the films I originally skipped, new ones have been made, and people have actually made a few requests. So let’s waste no words.
Motivation: Abuela’s actions are rooted in staying worthy of the miracle that allowed to escape the marauders that forced her from her hometown. She received a second chance when her husband sacrificed himself for his people and his family. That chance is in the form of a candle that indicates the “health” of the magic.
And she is so afraid of losing that magic, she expects perfection out of her offspring. Except for Mirabel, who has nothing to offer. Her motives are so strong they trickle down to the family, so that Luisa can’t relax, Isabela can’t grow anything but beautiful flowers, and Bruno has to exile himself when everyone perceives his prophecies as doing damage (but we don’t talk about Bruno).
Character Strengths: There is a certain something to be said for stubbornness. As the matriarch of her family, it gives her equal parts nurturing and respect. You don’t want to disobey Abuela, but you don’t want to disappoint her either. After all, she led you to a protected place, gave you a magic house, and provided you with a special superpower. I’d call her on her birthday if I were you.
Evilness: Not very. That’s what I like about Encanto–there is no real bad guy. The bad things people do are done with excellent reasoning behind them. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Abuela would welcome you in with a cup of coffee and a healing arepa and never harm a hair on your head. But if you’re not pulling your weight as part of your family, you’ll be scorned so bad.
Tools: These are some of the most interesting tools I’ve seen. She’s got a rockin’ candle that never goes out. As long as it stays lit, her offspring have superstrength and weather control. In fact, they’re kind of like henchmen, doing her bidding. Even if that means babysitting and fetching goats, it’s still bidding.
The magic is also the fuel for Casita, an enchanted house that seems to have consciousness, a little like Howl’s Moving Castle, except, you know, it doesn’t move. But it can reform itself (generally)–move objects by rippling the floor, change staircases, communicate non-verbally. But it seems to be beholding to the magic of the candle because it was not in control of Mirabel’s non-gift. Surely if it was, it would have offered an explanation.
Complement to the Hero: Mirabel and Abuela are reflections of each other. Abuela is hard as a rock, stiff. She’s seen some shit. Mirabel plays it looser. You can see it in their animation styles. Mirabel’s always moving her head, her shoulders, her limbs, nearly every word she says. Abuela stands stiff as a board. Unyielding. But if their positions were switched, Mirabel could easily become Abuela and vice versa.
Fatal Flaw: Fear. Maybe coupled with some paranoia. It’s not like it’s not justified. She had to run away from her hometown, saw the love of her life killed before her eyes just after giving birth to triplets. This makes her stern, firm, but also quick to see the worst side of the scenario.
However, everything has been berries and cream since then and it’s been, what, forty years? Fifty? How old does Bruno look? It’s hard to tell in a cartoon (we don’t talk about Bruno’s… social security). You can add in a little denial there too, because she doesn’t believe Mirabel that Casita is cracking (maybe because she already assumes the worst in her).
Method of Defeat/Death: First Disney villain to be defeated with hugs. Mirabel and Abuela come to an understanding at the river, where they realize they both want what’s best for the family. But she was too hard on them because she was so afraid of losing the miracle by failing to earn it. And it wasn’t fair for her to take out her fear on the family. She was burdened by the evil that men do, but her children and children’s children hadn’t. And after all, isn’t that what we all want for our families? To live a better life than we had?
I recently watched Cruella on Disney+. It surprised me. Better than it had any right to be. It’s a superhero story combined with a few heists.
I thought it would be stupid and silly given the prologue. Her hair isn’t dyed? It’s naturally black on one side and white on the other? What is she, Two-Face? Her mother is killed by dalmatians and that’s why she hates them? Her trouble-making at school is marked by “spots” on her record? The name “Cruella” comes from a joke name her mom called her? I mean, come on.
But as it goes on, the movie justifies these story points, twists them, and turns Cruella into a people’s hero.
The hardest part is reconciling the cartoon version with this version. I mean, this is a prequel. If you know psychology and watch this, you’re going to have a bad time.
Someone like animated Cruella wouldn’t give gifts, wouldn’t have friends, and wouldn’t own her own dog. The movie explains how rose to power, but not her decline. Someone who has no compunction about skinning dogs for coats isn’t the same person who spent her formative years homeless and pickpocketing or tried to go legit working a minimum wage job.
In 101 Dalmatians, she goes to Anita and demands those puppies because she thinks she deserves them because she’s a fashion genius. She never thinks for a minute she’ll be told “no”. Because she’s one of those people who always got what she wanted. And then she blames everyone else when she doesn’t get what she wants.
That is not the behavior of someone who went to boarding school, whose mother died in a tragic accident, who lived on the streets for ten years, then scrubbed floors while getting stepped on by her boss. Animated Cruella is not a person who understands you don’t get everything you want in life.
So what you have to do is forget about that version. Put the 101 Dalmatians Cruella you know into a foggy misremembered drunken haze. You will not learn how Cruella got so narcissistic and entitled because this movie is about a different character. It’s a movie about a misunderstood prodigy struggling against conformity and totalitarianism in a creative industry. A Lady Gaga or Andy Warhol.
If you treat these as separate movies in separate universes, then you’ll have a better time. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are great. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada with a big paint can of black & white “STYLE” poured onto it.
That’s what makes the movie–its style. It’s dripping with it, as you’d expect a movie about a fashion designer to be. Its visual and audio design was made with intent. It seems to take place in the 60s and 70s England, so there’s a lot of “mod” sight and sound, like in Austin Powers. But vampy, not campy. I want to listen to this soundtrack. I still think of the set design, the dresses, the clever acting dichotomy of Estella vs. Cruella.
It’s fun to have a hero who’s not a boy scout, not an eccentric genius inventor, not a super spy… actually just someone female is a boost. There haven’t been a lot of good movies with female protagonists in the past few years. Not only that but she’s a hero who’s a crafter and an artist. Not just a beater-of-ups. She works hard, she puts in the hours.
I think this character might become a new icon, like Maleficent. But she also reminded me of Harley Quinn, especially when she’s whacking people with her cane while wearing an eye mask. (This is a Superhero story, after all.) If Emma Stone wasn’t available, Margot Robbie would have made a great pinch-hitter.
What I don’t understand is why Disney gets totally crazy with its “side-stories” like Maleficent and Cruella and they’re great. But their remakes are dull as dishwater because they either don’t deviate from the source or negate the joy of the original (like Lion King’s expressionless animals or Mulan getting super-chi-powers). It should be reversed. The supervillain origin stories should be by-the-numbers and the remakes need to give something fresh and new, like a cover of a song.
But yes, Cruella. Forget what you may have heard, give it a try. It’s something a little different.
I watched John Carter for the first time (on Disney+) and had some thoughts.
Film buffs like to talk about John Carter. The movie was supposed to be a big new franchise for Disney, but it became a famous bomb.
I don’t think it was poor marketing. Good word of mouth can outdo mediocre advertising and reach. That’s what happened with War Horse and The Greatest Showman and The Blind Side and the new Jumanji and especially Iron Man — no one expected much out of superhero movies after the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four duds.
I don’t think it was a lack of star power. I don’t go to see movies to see actors. In fact, I’m more likely to avoid a movie because it stars an actor I hate (e.g. Brad Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, Shia LaBoeuf). I prefer no-name actors because that makes it easier to lose myself in the story. Little harder when Tom Cruise is playing Tom Cruise and not the character he’s supposed to. Well-known crew names might pique my interest, but more often than not, it’s a stamp of unoriginality. A James Cameron film’s gonna James Cameron.
I don’t think it was that the budget got overblown with reshoots. Creative accounting makes it so no movie gains a profit anyway, so budget is a nebulous thing. And Andrew Stanton isn’t a first-time director, just a first-time director for live-action. He made Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Talent like that can’t be squelched by a slightly different medium.
I think it failed because it’s story that’s a hundred years old.
Since the John Carter books were written we’ve had Star Trek, Star Wars, The Black Hole, WALL-E, District 9, Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, E.T., The Martian. Even Plan 9 From Outer Space has had some influence on “off-Earth” science fiction stories.
Don’t Blame Mars
I know I said before that I didn’t believe it was marketing, but I think there is some truth that movies based around Mars do poorly (e.g. Mission to Mars, Mars Needs Moms). That’s why they left the “of Mars” off and we got just a guy’s name (more like a phonebook entry than a movie title).
But Mars is not necessarily a black spot. Total Recall, The Martian, and even Doom (the video game) take place on Mars.
The problem comes from treating Mars the same way H.G. Wells treated it in War of the Worlds a hundred and twenty-three years ago. Back then people weren’t 100% sure there wasn’t life on Mars. Astronomers thought the canals on the planet were water-filled (but this turned out to be false). The whole point of War of the Worlds is Great Britain going “what if someone tried to colonize us?” The queen had taken a dump on nearly every country’s coast at this point, so there was storytelling to mine with the fear of invasion by a bigger bully. And the best candidate for that invader was a species off-planet.
But now, Mars doesn’t hold the same sway. It’s like a neighbor house you thought was haunted, but then you sent in someone during the day and they said it’s just a boring house. Truth is like toothpaste–you can’t squeeze it back in the tube.
It’s easier to say that movies set in a desert do poorly. I know it’s an automatic turn-off for me that few movies pull me back from (Mad Max: Fury Road succeeded in that). Deserts have nothing. You wouldn’t want to be there, you wouldn’t want to explore them. Even applies to non-science fiction movies, like Hidalgo and Sahara.
Just Because Tarzan Worked…
Time is not kind to intellectual property, especially adventure and science fiction stories. This is because A) what thrills and excites one culture or era may not do the same for another. For example, compare our movies to India’s or China’s or France’s. Stories are reflections of the time and culture they live in.
According to Wikipedia, John Carter was in development hell since the 1930s, so Hollywood recognized the cinematic-ness of the Barsoom stories and/or the success of the Tarzan franchise. Too expensive, too unfilmmable, too fantastic. But they still wanted something epic to be the next Star Wars or Last of the Mohicans. Here’s the thing: if you’re in a relationship and you keep breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together, maybe it’s just not going to work out. Maybe you should turn your eyes to something that will work and focus on that.
Some stories seem to be timeless, like A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland. The earliest book I’ve read is Aesop’s Fables (590 BC). Simple children’s stories with clear themes and interesting characters (usually animals). Even Edgar Rice Burroughs’s other book series, Tarzan, remains an often-recreated movie and story. So why shouldn’t we try to movie-fy the other wildly popular book Burroughs wrote?
Well, a few reasons. One, Tarzan didn’t go right from one-hundred-year-old book to tentpole movie. Tarzan’s been reimagined and reinterpreted since its inception, like Batman or Robin Hood or King Arthur. From silent movies, stage productions, radio programs, to the “Weissmüller era” (where Tarzan became the pop culture character he is now), then television series, cheesy movies that starred Bo Derek or Christopher Lambert or Margot Robbie. And then there’s the Disney film. It’s never left the public consciousness. Meanwhile, no one’s thought about John Carter.
Two, remember I just said “reimagined and reinterpreted”? Tarzan’s source material has… some issues. It was written by a white American male. In 1912. Taking place in Africa. Starring a white male. Often set against indigenous African tribes. Who is secretly a British lord. Learns superpowers from apes. Then becomes their king. So to get from a guy who proudly declares he’s a “killer of cannibals & black men” to a Disney film, there has to be some steps in-between.
The same goes for John Carter, a story rooted in a world brimming with “white man’s burden” and colonialism and women who still couldn’t vote yet.
And Now… A Lesson From Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones succeeded because it was based on the movie serials of the 30s and 40s where intrepid heroes race around the world after some maguffin (e.g. Doc Savage, Gunga Din, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Secret of the Incas, Allan Quatermain). In 1981, the people who saw those serials as 10-year-olds were in their sixties now. And nostalgia bites hard. But this time, they boiled out everything that was stupid or boring–the long waits between episodes, the cheesy sets, the lack of a sense of real danger, the poor acting–and maximized entertainment and humor. It’s like the Mario sports games: they remove the boring stuff and leave the fun and craziness.
Then in 2008, they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one told Hollywood that the world had moved on from Indiana Jones. Everyone who remembered the old serials was dead. All that was left were the ten-year-olds who had seen the original in the theaters, and on VHS, and video games, and played it in the backyard, over and over and over, were the adults. We never stopped being exposed to Indiana Jones. But what did Hollywood deliver?
The same ol’ same ol’. They weren’t piggybacking on old serials anymore. They were piggybacking on Indiana Jones. Trying to make us nostalgic for the cold war with Russians and the nuclear scare. Marion (who Jones had a questionable relationship with) comes back from the first movie, and now he Indiana Jones is a deadbeat dad. And his son’s an obnoxious thief who seems like he’s just out of the diner in Back to the Future. Also aliens.
Instead of compensating for the march of time, they gave us the same thing, forgetting twenty years had passed. That tastes had evolved. That stories had evolved. But they gave us the old junk repackaged with CGI.
What does any of that have to do with John Carter? I bring it up because there’s very little new here. Some cities at war, alien tribes, a coliseum, a few flying vehicles. Even while watching I said to myself “oh, another action scene”. I literally cannot tell you who John Carter is. Whereas the Avengers all have their own unique personalities and philosophies. Everyone is distinct.
John Carter is just a basic Superman. He’s doing right because he believes it’s right, which is another thing that rubs me the wrong way, in that colonialism “I’m coming into your yard and fix all your problems because I’m ‘more advanced’ than you.” That would be like me going to Detroit in a mech suit and yelling “We going to war, my bitches!”
Todays good adventure stories are The Fast and the Furious, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lots of superhero stories like Harry Potter and Batman and anything Marvel. Some take place in fantastic worlds, some are down-to-earth, but they’re never about wanting a crown or conquering a world. They’re about stopping bad people in power from doing bad things.
The best way to describe John Carter is Conan the Barbarian crossed with Avatar(in fact, Disney+ even recommended Avatar after I was finished). And I didn’t like either of those movies. Both of them have stories that have either static characters or a story that’s tedious, overused, and cliched, even in our time.
Conan led the way to a lot of cheesy clones like The Beastmaster and He-Man. Avatar was overhyped and over-marketed with the promise of being the next Star Wars with four more movies inbound. Where are those other movies, James?
The best these movies have now is a cult following. And that’s who John Carter is for–a cult audience. One with niche interests (like old stories, desert warriors saving princesses, old-style aliens, etc.). A movie seen fifty times by as many people.
The movie ended up getting a final grade of “mixed reviews”. Which seems about right to me. There is an audience for this movie, but it’s not a majority audience.
So the movie frames Beast as the deuteragonist (or relationship character), Gaston as the antagonist, and Belle as the protagonist. She’s the first character we meet (if you don’t count the prologue). We spend the most time with her. She’s even dressed in a color no other character wears. We’re meant to identify with her. She’s the one who wants something.
“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere. I want it more than I can tell.”
-Belle (Beauty & the Beast – “Belle (Reprise)”)
Nothing subtle about that.
The protagonist should be the one who faces the central conflict. The one who has to accomplish a goal set at the beginning and sticks to it until the end. The antagonist is the person who puts obstacles in front of the protagonist. That’s Gaston–he wants to marry her and turn her into a domestic popping out kids.
The relationship character helps the main character on their journey, maybe imparting some wisdom on the way. This character embodies the theme. Clearly, the theme of Beauty and the Beast is “true beauty comes from within”. This is where these roles start to fall apart.
The way I identify a protagonist is I ask myself “who’s the one that changes the most from beginning to end?” In The Hunger Games, Katniss was content to live under the Capitol’s thumb, never caring for anyone but her family. But when they come for her sister, it gets personal. She grows more rebellious and more compassionate through the novels. Harry Potter gains confidence and maturity as he accepts his place in the big chess game everyone’s set out for him. And some PTSD as the trauma of each book embeds in his adolescence.
Beast is the one that changes the most, both literally and figuratively. And that’s his story goal besides. Beast doesn’t want to change, but he knows he has to or he’ll stay ugly forever. But, in the way, you’ve got years of solitude and telling himself that “they’re right about me, why should I prove them wrong”.
Belle has the vague goal of “wanting more”… like every Disney Princess in that time period–Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, Aurora, Alice.
Does Belle change? A little. When Beast saves her, Belle is about to turn around and ride back home, leaving him to die in the snow and be eaten by wolves. Why shouldn’t she? He was a monster toward her. He kidnapped her father. But she changes her mind.
She realizes he could have let her go, but he put his neck on the line to save her from the wolves. It would have been quite “beastly” to leave her to die–no skin off his nose–but he reflected on his reaction, regretted it, and came back to make amends. So he can’t be that much of a monster. Not totally. So she takes him back to the castle and tends to his wounds
The problem is we don’t know whether she would have left him in the dirt before. She doesn’t seem the type to kill the spider to save the butterfly.
Her willingness to compromise is demonstrated when she sips the oatmeal from the bowl after seeing Beast having trouble with the silverware. Did she ever show an unwillingness to compromise before? No, I don’t think so. She was always presented as selfless and sympathetic and logical and fearless.
So she changes a little. Does that mean she’s the relationship character? I think so. To Beast, at least. Does that make Beast the protagonist? I think so. And that makes Gaston the antagonist to… Beast? Not really. At least not until the ending.
This is why Beauty and the Beast is a great movie. Gaston is Belle’s antagonist at first. Then Beast is Belle’s antagonist. And Belle is Beast’s antagonist. It’s a fantastic triangle.
Another possibility–Belle’s a pinball protagonist, like Charlie Bucket and Bilbo Baggins. She raises her hand to “accept the call”, but she’s basically bounced around from one perilous situation to another. She doesn’t start the story or move it along, she just reacts and gets dragged along by others. In the game of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is not a player, she’s the ball.
Does that make her like Applejack in The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000) (basically a “John Henry” pastiche)? This is a story where two flim-flam artists (their names are literally Flim and Flam) throw down the gauntlet of their mass-produced cider against Applejack’s hand-crafted (but low in supply) cider. What Flim and Flam produce tastes like crap and they’re run out of town. And Applejack’s friendship lesson?
But Belle’s not a deuteragonist and not a sidekick. She’s not supporting the protagonist, although it may look like it. It looks like she’s helping Beast towards his goal, but she doesn’t know it. She has a story and she has an arc. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be crying at the end, clinging to Beast’s body. The problem is her end doesn’t match her beginning. She starts with “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” and ends up imprisoned in a castle with a monstrous beast. I guess she gets adventure, but not like she asked for. So if she doesn’t get her “I want”, maybe she gets her “I need?”
But the movie never demonstrates that what she needs is to “look beneath the surface” or “learn to love someone for what they do, not what they look like”. It’s never apparent that this is a fatal flaw or personal obstacle to be overcome. (In fact, it’s Gaston’s flaw.) Nonetheless, this is a lesson she needed to learn and she learns it.
It’s not like Ariel or Aladdin or Simba who go through some profound changes. For the most part, she’s the same Belle that started the movie. Whereas Beast has gone through some profound differences. In fact, he’s learned traits from Belle–like selflessness and sympathy (or at least eliminating the un-Belle-like traits, like anger and brooding and cynicism and self-loathing).
So I don’t know if Beast is the protagonist in Beauty and the Beast. But I’m pretty sure that Belle is not. And I’m quite certain that neither of them is the antagonist. They might be each other’s for a brief time in the story, but Gaston is definitely the bad guy.