Well, well...onto my report back on the long-awaited (at least by us) Jack the Giant Slayer movie.
:::sigh::: What to say. Hollywood, Hollywood. :::head desk thunk:::
I had so wanted/hoped/expected to report back in with a glowing rave review of the new (March release) movie, Jack the Giant Slayer. Unfortunately, like the weather in the Northeast this time of year, this one was a mixed wintry bag for me.
The actors were great, the special effects were pretty amazing, and the movie in general, I thought, was fun. But the writers, in my humble opinion, should be smacked upside the head with a copy of Robert McKee's STORY or any other how-to writing book that you have on hand, because they have apparently never heard of things like Inner Conflict and Emotional Stakes.
I hate to say that, because I am not big on criticizing people, especially other writers. After all, I don't like it when people criticize me. So I'll try to be as constructive as possible and make it into what they call a Teaching Moment for any of you who are interested in writing, and explain where exactly I think these guys missed opportunites that could've easily taken this movie from "pretty good" to "awesome."
First, here's the official trailer for Jack the Giant Slayer. Visually and in its overall tone, a fun family movie...
That may be the most brilliant I've ever seen - I'm still digesting it - but plan to see it again before I blog about it. Suffice to say, I should probably be sympathetic to JACK simply because The Hobbit is still out and no average movie is going to be able to stand up to one that's destined to be a cultural icon for decades to come.
Still, the screenwriters for JACK didn't even seem to have their heads in the game. (According to their bios on IMBD, they are not even fantasy writers. The head writer is a crime movie specialist, writer of The Usual Suspects; another of the 3 guys was most famous for some raunchy druggie comedy, and the only one who's written for kids penned one of the forgettable Shrek add-ons, not the main movies, which we loved. I don't think these writers know the family fantasy audience...At. All. Wid all due respeck!) I also read that they changed writers in the middle of the process, so that tells you there were problems going on with the script.
I would hazard a guess that part of the problem was starting with a fairytale. Everybody loves fairytales - so do I - but the main characters in fairytales are "Everyboy" or "Everygirl." They don't have unique personalities for the most part. This is why they're so universal; anybody can imagine him/herself in the key roles of a fairytale. That's kind of the whole point. Works fine in a little story that's just a few pages long.
But to carry a long work like a novel or a movie, the audience will grow bored, bored, bored, unless the Everyboy lead character is fleshed out into a real person. This is the writer's main job before it's ever handed over to the actor to continue the process even more richly. Since the movie used some of the best actors out there, I certainly don't blame them. I think these actors did the best that could be done with the flat, simplistic, lame-o script they were given.
Special effects, amazing sets, and funky costumes simply can't make up for solid storytelling, and two of the most important ingredients in good storytelling are CHARACTERIZATION and CONFLICT.
Characterization is the process by which a writer builds up layers within characters to make the people in the story interesting and compellling. If the story-people don't seem real, let alone likable, then the audience isn't really going to care what happens to them.
The first layer is the foundation, and that's the main character's GOAL. What he/she wants or needs that drives them to dive into the action of the story. A character needs a really good reason or "motivation" as it's called, to get involved in the adventure, because they're putting their life in danger. Only an idiot risks his life for no good reason.
Also, as audiences, we like a motivation that's ADMIRABLE. It doesn't have to be, good movies have been made about characters who get involved for selfish reasons (think Han Solo in Star Wars I). But it feels good to watch a movie or read a book about a character who's doing something scary for noble reasons. We can really root for a main character like that. (Think of Frodo. He offers to take the ring to Mordor because all the other guys at Lord Elrond's meeting in Rivendell are ready to tear each other apart over the ring and are just not getting it. He does. Admirable.)
Only one secondary character in this movie seemed to have a strong goal and motivation. That was Ewan MacGregor's character, playing the manly-man Captain of the Guard or something. Goal: "Save the Princess." Why? Motivation: "Because it's my job, I'm her bodyguard. I'm the local hero warrior, it's who I am." (We see him protecting her earlier in the movie.) Jack just kind of tags along, but I'm not sure why. He barely knows the princess so it can't be love, and if it's only for adventure, then he's stupid, because the giants are horrible and he has no fighting experience.
But even with the Captain of the Guard, the writers screwed that up, too. Because the first time we see Ewan (I don't know what his name was in the movie) protecting the Princess, he comes across as a rotten villain, demanding something from the common people that made it - for me - very sure he was supposed to be a bad guy. And very hard to give him a second chance later.
When we first meet him, he's a knight dressed all in black (uh-oh, bad guy signal!) but then he makes all the common people stop what they're doing and KNEEL DOWN before the princess.
Okaaayyyyy...I know I'm not supposed to hate the princess in this story. She looks embarrassed at him putting all the ordinary people in their place by this revolting gesture of submission, which he orders for no apparent reason other than a show of power.
So that was pretty obnoxious, but whatever. Imagine my surprise later when this same black-clad knight turned out to be the bravest, most charismatic dude in the movie. It was confusing. I don't think that was the writer's intent - to be super mysterious and complex. This wasn't really a movie about "who can you trust." It was just awkward and ill-planned, and rather tone-deaf to show a bunch of commoners (like us, the audience) being forced by armed men to kneel in front of a royal. (And no, he didn't make them do it because he was in love with her. He wasn't. I have no idea why he did it except to enjoy his own higher status. Ew.)
Also speaking of tone deaf, the writers couldn't resist getting a few good bashes in on the Catholic Church, right from the opening. Cuz that's what parents want in a children's movie. Right before Easter.
Monks are blamed for the original evil that created the beanstalk. Those benighted monks just wanted to get closer to God, so they used dark magic to create these magic beans. Hello, MacFly?? Anyone home, Hollywood? Same old, same old. Brainstorm, people.
But I digress.
If Goal and Motivation are the first layer of Characterization, then the second layer is INNER CONFLICT. The complex and interesting character wants, like we all do, two opposite things. This creates constant tension. Just ask Frodo! He wants to carry the ring to Mordor to be destroyed, and he wants to give in to the constant temptation to enjoy the ring and let it become his Precious. But there I go comparing it to LOTR again, not fair.
The most glaring absence of inner conflict that I noticed in JACK was in the giants. Instead of being interesting and complex, they are just mindless, one-dimensional, dirty, hateful, caveman-like cannibals.
The giant king (who for some reason has two heads) was voiced by Bill Nighy (adore him!!! will see anything he's in - such a fabulous actor). But even he could only do so much with this thinly written a character.
While I was watching it, I compared it in my mind to Nighy's probably most famous character - Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Carribbean (y'know, the Squiggly Face guy). Now there's a complex villain. He also voiced the big scary snake villain in Rango, and again, that character (despite being a reptile) was more interesting and more complex than the giant king from Jack. So the giant king suffered all the more from having the same voice as these two other kick-butt Nighy villains.
It's frustrating when these studios spend millions of dollars and you look forward to a movie for months and then go see it and it doesn't live up to the hype because of the writing, of all things. Unlike paying for awesome special effects instead of low-budget ones, writing well doesn't cost any more than writing badly. You just have to think harder and love the genre you're writing in and know the audience.
What bothers me is that the head writer is obviously a smart guy who's won awards. That makes me suspicious that maybe the writing team deliberately dumbed down the script because they were writing for kids. Maybe that's not the case. I hope not, it's kind of infuriating to wonder if it could be.
Kids deserve the BEST storytelling that entertainers can provide, not crude, simplistic tales. So that is way more of a rant than you'd normally ever hear from mild-mannered me. *g* I can't help it. I am passionate about writing and top-quality entertainment for kids.
Anyway... on that note...I just found this on Youtube. It's hilarious and ever-so relevant, considering E and I just uploaded the Giant chapters, including "The Invention Convention" chapter. Check this out!
Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla...
Archie's Favorite Song (PG 13)
Have a good weekend & Happy St. Patrick's Day!