On Narrative

As noted, I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at the moment. One of the things he talks about early on is the narrative fallacy, which involves our need to create narratives and see patterns to explain the world around us. This seems a good chance to talk about the meaning and purpose of narrative.

There are two fallacies to fall into here; the first is the skeptical fallacy, which overrates randomness and attempts to eschew all narrative as illusionary impositions upon a fundamentally chaotic and meaningless world. This one is rather popular these days, at least in a superficial form.  

The other is the Narrative or what Taleb calls the ‘Platonistic’ fallacy, which involves being overly certain of a particular narrative, to the point where we ignore contradictory instances and assume that the narrative is the reality it describes. In this way we make false predictions and are caught off guard by what he terms ‘Black Swan’ events; major events that that narrative considered impossible or vanishingly unlikely, but which the actual course of events brought about.

Note that these fallacies, while directly contradictory, are often practiced by the same person, depending on how well his argument is holding up.

To settle the first fallacy first, one fundamental truth we must get straight if we are to think sense about reality is this: there is no such thing as randomness.

‘Random’ refers to a lack of knowledge, not to an actual cause. When we say a given event was random, it means that we either do not know the cause that led to it or that it was of a kind that we could not control or predict. Viewed ‘internally’, however, the event is as logical and predictable as any other. When you role a set of fair dice, the outcome is ‘random’ because the cause of their landing thus or thus is the force and angle with which they are thrown. A person with perfect muscle control could, theoretically, cause the dice to land anyway he wanted by providing just the correct force at just the correct moment.

Or, in another instance, say you are walking down a path in the woods and a dead branch drops off of a tree and hits you on the head. This is ‘random’ from your point of view. But if someone were watching that particular tree and knew its whole history – that is, if he had a correct narrative of the tree – he would understand that the branch had died at such a time and of such a cause and has been weakened in such a way that it necessarily would break under those circumstances.

What this amounts to is that the world around us is fundamentally ordered and logical; events do not happen in a vacuum nor come from nothing. The appearance of chaos is a consequence of our lack of knowledge. It is random to us on account of our limitations, but not on its own account. We have no experience of a truly ‘random’ event, an event severed from logical causation. Randomness does not and cannot produce a single event (which means that ‘luck-based powers’ are pretty much sheer nonsense, but that’s another story).

Sorry, Longshot

Therefore, everything that happens is, in fact, consistent, which means that meaning is derived from the world and not simply imposed upon it, however mistaken a particular interpretation may be. Though one derived meaning – one ascribed cause of the event – is false, yet there must be some cause and therefore some meaning.  

(Note: I have heard that events at the subatomic level appear to be uncaused and random. But this seems to me far too uncertain a proposition to taken into serious account. We cannot observe these events directly much less observe any sub-subatomic events or forces that may be influencing them. As a rule, things on the extreme edge of what we know ought not to be part of a philosophical discussion, since they must be speculative and unconfirmed. Moreover, to prove randomness seems to me impossible, as it would require us to disprove any logical causes. That is, to prove a negative).

The second fallacy is the rather more interesting one. As Taleb points out, we have a strong need to discern patterns and create narratives to explain the events around us. In part this is a survival mechanism; we immediately recognize certain images and sensations as danger signals (e.g. a snake) and react instinctively. That is, we have automatic thought patterns that run unconsciously, producing immediate emotional reactions. Something similar happens in habits, morals, and similar matters, as we noted earlier. Information is costly to acquire, costly to store, and costly to manipulate. Simply put, careful, logical thinking takes too much time and too much energy to practical most of the time, so our brains create little bundles of thought: pre-built conceptions and conclusions (rather like the objects in programming, or like the prepared spells in DnD) to make the process easier and to direct us in day-to-day activities.

So, it is one thing to study a snake and discern its nature; it is quite another to recognize ‘snake=danger=do not tread.’ But the two are not unrelated as we must first have some idea of a snake and that it may be dangerous before we can form that pattern at all (whether this idea is learned or comes ‘ready-made’ as instinct). Moreover, that pattern can be adjusted or overwritten by further understanding of snakes. All this goes back to what I was saying about habits and thought processes; it all comes down to how we think, including the immediate, unconscious thoughts that drive our emotions.  

Footage of the mind at work

Now, here we have to explain something about how we perceive the world. When we perceive a given object, there are two factors involved; the object itself and our idea of it, and the latter will always be less than the former. Our idea of, say, a tree is not the tree itself, but more in the nature of a diagram or summary of the tree that we create in our minds and can never comprise the entirety of the tree.

Beyond this, there is also a third factor: the words we use to describe it, which will likewise be inadequate to the idea, because the words are a representation of a representation. The skill of a Shakespeare or a Dante is inadequate to conveying, not just the thing itself, but even their own idea of a thing.  

Toward the end of his life, the great St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God and never wrote another word of his masterful ‘Summa’, saying that all his brilliant philosophizing was ‘as straw’ compared with the reality he had witnessed. Reality is always more than we can perceive, which is always more than we can describe.

This is actually fairly simple when you think about it; the tree that you perceive is an external nature unto itself regardless of whether you perceive it. You perceive it by its interactions with your senses, which form a composite idea of it in your mind, but since that idea is only derived from sensory impressions of the object, it is always less than the object, because our senses do not take in the totality of what they perceive.  

However, at the same time (and this is vital), a very inadequate diagram may still be an accurate diagram, as far as it goes, and may be more accurate than another. A crude picture of a tree may nevertheless be more like the tree than another, similarly crude drawing. Likewise, whether a summary of a book is adequate is a separate question to whether it is accurate. So, Nicholas Nickelby could be accurately summarized as “a naïve young man tries to make his way in the world while opposed by his wicked uncle.” It could not be summarized as “The vengeful form of a drowned child preys upon visitors at an old summer camp.”  

Pictured: Not Nicholas Nickelby

Nor, incidentally, would it be accurate to summarize Nickelby as “a young man takes up with a provincial theater company.” Because while that does happen in the book, it is not the main thrust or point of the story, but only one incident among many. The first summary would give you a better idea of what the book is about than the latter. This even though the latter is more specific to something that happens.

An accurate summary, therefore, encompasses the object as a whole, not a specific element of it, and though it is necessarily less than the object itself, it may be a more or less true image of it.

A ‘narrative’ is our image or summary of a series of events, up to and including the history of the world. It is the pattern that we describe within those events. A scientific theory, for instance, is a narrative to describe observed natural phenomena. We look at fossils and create the narrative of evolution to explain them. We look at the motions of the planets and create the narrative of the solar system.

But, as was pointed out by Aristotle and Aquinas and dramatically demonstrated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these narratives are always contingent upon the unknown. If an observation is made that contradicts the narrative, then either the narrative is inadequate or even false or the observation itself is mistaken.

As noted above, people instinctively form narratives, and they ought to because everything does have a true narrative to it. Randomness is not a cause, which means that every event is causally linked, which is to say part of a narrative. The example of the tree branch that falls on your head was part of the narrative of that tree’s existence, which had a beginning, middle, and will have an end. If you knew that tree intimately, the branch breaking under just those circumstances would not be at all surprising to you.

Likewise, the whole world does proceed on a narrative, though it is one of immense complexity far beyond our capacity to understand in its totality (I can only wonder at people who believe they have discerned the pattern of human society to the extent that they can control or re-engineer it).

Put simply; there is an objective narrative or pattern to reality. Our conception of it will never be adequate or even anything like it, but it may be more or less accurate.

The necessary inadequacy of our perceptions and consequently of the narrative pattern we discern is the source of what Taleb calls the Black Swan event; the unexpected but impactful event that is understandable in retrospect, but not in prospect. Because what we perceive is not the totality of what is there, and the narrative we create from that perception is even further removed from what is actually present. So there are always currents of events happening of which even the most astute observer is unaware.

There are couple things to derive from this. To me, the more I read of The Black Swan the more it seems to me to be Dame Fortuna re-ascendant. This lady loomed large in the Medieval imagination, thanks in part to Boethius, and with her wheel or ball was held to be the mistress of this world; whether triumph or adversity, sickness or health, prosperity or penury came upon one was considered due less to one’s efforts and more to the whims of Fortune. But the point was that her gifts were ephemeral and worthless to begin with; don’t go chasing after the strumpet, but seek wisdom and virtue and other goods that were outside her power.

I would like to go into it more someday, but it seems to me that Christians found this image so appealing in part because there is an element of uncertainty and the incomplete knowledge of the world baked into the Christian claim. The very nature of Revelation grounds the most important points of reference beyond our own knowledge and asserts right at the foundation that we do not and cannot know everything about the world (this, by the way, is why “it’s not in revelation” is not a valid argument against the existence of ghosts, fairies, or aliens).

Setting those weightier matters aside for the time being; remember that patterns of thought determine emotional responses and actions. Narratives are the framework within which we create those patterns. Therefore the narrative by which someone understands the world plays a large role in how he will feel and act. Most of us have a dozen contradictory narratives exercising petty dictatorships over different aspects of our lives.

And the thing about narrative, as Taleb points out, is that it is very rarely subject to intellectual attack, even if by its own lights it should be (note how strongly scientists will cling to their pet theories in the teeth of contradictory evidence). It could be, but only if the subject himself tries to change it. Narratives and thought patterns, those ‘prepared spells’ of the mind are not subject to external control. An addict or a criminal has to want to change and has to be willing to put in the effort to change his own thinking.

But, though intellectual attacks don’t usually work, something else does. Just as only a diamond can cut a diamond, so the best weapon against a narrative is another narrative. When I look at most of the big ideas of the past few centuries (e.g. Liberalism, Marxism), I find the intellectual basis is often very weak indeed. Marxism, for instance, rests on the blatantly contradictory idea that a ‘worker’ somehow remains a worker whatever his actual role in society becomes (among other bits of self-evident nonsense). But they have extremely appealing narratives; the oppressed masses rising up and casting off their chains to take control of their own destiny or free and equal men creating a utopia of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is why things like Marxism persist despite its horrific track record; the narrative is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the public psyche (It doesn’t help that its current main adversary – ‘classical’ liberalism or libertarianism – employs much the same narrative of oppressed masses rising against their evil overlords, though that is too large a subject to get into here).  

This is what gives these and other ideas their power and influence, not any intellectual or observational support. That, in fact, often comes later and is celebrated precisely because it supports the narrative. “Great ideas” are usually not the source but the consequence of particular narratives (e.g. the theory of evolution did not create the narrative of progress; the belief in progress elevated evolution to its current quasi-religion status. The narrative came first and embraced the science to support itself).

So, to contradict false narrative, we must provide true(er) narrative. Intellectual arguments are primarily important, as far as changing minds go, in lending support to that narrative once it already exists.  

Again, this is why storytelling is so vitally important; the pattern of a story helps to create a narrative in the mind of the audience. This is all the more effective because, the world being as complicated as it is, you can always find real-world examples to back up any narrative you want to create. So, when you have a myopic, warmongering general trying to weaponize the peaceful scientist’s research, you can always say “well, there are people like that,” sidestepping the question of whether this is an accurate narrative about how the military works as a whole and what values and perceptions are being inculcated in the process. Likewise for your standard intolerant Christian browbeating the innocently brave homosexual, or the white cop abusing the innocent Black man. If you have any familiarity with modern fiction you can probably come up with a dozen examples for each of these. As noted before, this is exactly why the Soviet government spent millions of dollars a year funding agents in Hollywood; control fiction and you control the narrative.

This is why I call something like The Last Jedi an evil film; a large part of it is dedicated to tearing down and destroying the heroic narrative of the original trilogy as embodied by Luke Skywalker, re-shaping the pattern to make him a cowardly old man who ruined everything because he had to be in charge. The narrative being “heroes of the past are worthless; you special person today are the only thing that matters and you can outshine them without even trying,” along with a bunch of others of similar vintage. I probably could do an essay about how well that film embodies the current Progressive mindset, probably better than the filmmakers intended (e.g. it shows how shallow, stupid, and myopic it really is).

But if someone embraces that narrative, if it is inculcated into their heart, then that person is made worse for the fact.

On the other hand, the original Star Wars crafts a narrative of “faith in a higher power and personal loyalties are ultimately stronger than any technological terror or tyrannical government,” among other, similar ideas. Someone who embraced that narrative would be made better for the fact.

Which is the point; it is incumbent on storytellers to try to leave their audience better people than when they found them. That is, to write so that if someone were to take their narrative to heart, it would make them a better person. Needless to say, this is a grave responsibility (and includes the necessity of knowing what constitutes ‘better’ in the first place).

Very clearly, the world around us stands in grave need of better and truer narratives. It’s long-past time to start providing them again.

How to End a World and Save a Franchise

I’m not a Final Fantasy player myself (this is by happenstance, not by choice; the games passed me by as a kid and I haven’t had time to go back and explore them yet), but I would like to share an interesting story regarding the franchise; a story that took place in our own world.

In 2010, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIV, also known as Final Fantasy Online, the first MMORPG entry in the venerable franchise (UPDATE: I’m wrong; it was the second after Final Fantasy XI). It pretty much crashed and burned, with numerous bugs, a user-unfriendly interface, and other problems that rendered it all-but unplayable. The then president of Square Enix, Yoichi Wada, issued a formal apology to the fans (oh, if only more companies would do the same) and promised to fix the problem. A restructured creative team managed to patch some of the problems over the next two or three years, but in the end they found that the code was unsalvageable and the only solution was a total teardown and rebuild. Current players would receive the new game for free, and their characters and stats would be carried over, but the old game was shutting down for good.

But Square didn’t just quietly shutter the game and pretend nothing had happened. Instead, they took their lemon of a game and squeezed out one of the most spectacular glasses of lemonade in gaming history. They worked the end of the servers and the start of the new game into the game’s story itself; the end of the old game world and the start of the new.

In the months leading up to the closing of the servers, a great red Moon appeared in the skies of the gaming world, while monsters and enemies became steadily more numerous and aggressive. The Moon slowly descended over time, heralding the coming of an unstoppable evil. Then, when the server’s shut down at last, this is what the loyal players were treated to (starts about five minutes in):

 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you keep a fanbase after screwing up.

Incidentally, the new game was released a year later to “overwhelmingly positive” reviews and is still played to this day as one of the most popular MMOs in the world.

Making a Character Prodigiously Powerful Will Not Make Them Interesting

So, I was watching the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi,’ where Luke is telling Rey that he’s only seen her kind of power once before, that she’s amazingly in tune with the Force and so on and so forth and I thought “Man, I am tired of the heroes in these kinds of stories being amazing prodigies.”

Now, I’d like to unpack that a little. First of all, yes, in an adventure or fantasy story the hero ought to be special or extraordinary in some way. Otherwise there’s no point in talking about them. But something about this particular instance annoyed me, and I tried to compare it to some other instances I know about.

First there’s the preceding films, ‘Phantom Menace’ and its sequels, where, again, Anakin was repeatedly built up as Jedi prodigy without equal, and it struck me as similarly annoying (though there it was so buried in an avalanche of other bad storytelling techniques that it was kind of hard to notice).

So, latter ‘Star Wars’ films all have this plot element, and I find it annoying in each case. The originals, however, didn’t have it. Luke had potential and was attune with the Force, but nothing indicated he was anything unusually powerful: the issue was that he had aptitude, and was apparently the only chance for the Jedi to continue. Likewise, Han was a tough, clever outlaw, but not a master warrior or genius strategist. Yet, as we all know, Luke and Han were much more interesting and engaging characters than either Grey – sorry, Rey – or Anakin.

Are there other cases? Let’s consider the other major pop culture stories. The Harry Potter series actually avoids this as well. Harry was never portrayed as an extreme magical prodigy, on par with the likes of Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, or even Snape. He was pretty consistently played as being talented, but not extraordinary: he had natural talent in flying (which he himself points out isn’t especially useful) and was especially skilled in defensive magic, largely because he’d been through a crucible of extreme circumstances almost from day one. The point of the story was that his friends and his fundamental decency were ultimately more powerful than raw magical might.

Obviously in The Lord of the Rings the whole point was that Frodo and his fellow Hobbits weren’t anything extraordinary. Aragorn was, but it wasn’t really his story. Even when we focus on him, he’s not the ‘audience identification’ figure: we’re more meant to admire him as a paradigm than to identify with him.

Then there’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Now, in that one, Aang is uniquely powerful, which works because that’s the premise of the story, and the progression is watching him undergo training to make the most of his vast potential. On the other hand, all his friends are prodigies as well; Katara and Toph are presented as being among the greatest benders in their field, and Sokka is a brilliant strategist and inventor. Now, I love Avatar, but this, I think, is actually one of the few major flaws with the series: the fact that all the greatest Benders in the world are either under eighteen or over fifty: there are no middle-aged or in-their-prime masters on screen. That kind of hurts the suspension of disbelief.

As for My Little Pony, Twilight is presented as a great magical prodigy, but the story isn’t about her magical prowess: it’s about her learning about friendship, at which she’s explicitly portrayed as being below average to start with. Likewise with her friends, Rainbow Dash and Rarity are both played as being naturally very talented, but still needing a lot of hard work and training to reach their full potential, which is ultimately achieved only through a lot of time, sacrifice, and effort. Starlight is also a natural magical prodigy, but this is actually played as a bit of a liability, since her first instinct is always to use magic to solve her problems. Since, again, the point of the story is virtue and friendship, not magic.

Now, Phineas and Ferb is premised on its titular pair being extreme prodigies. But there are two things about that; first, it’s required by the premise and is obviously exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. In the second, despite the title the show is really more about their sister, Candace, whose character arc involves her jealousy towards her extraordinary brothers and her own sense of inadequacy. Thus, the entry point of the show is still an identifiable figure.

Less well known, Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, with its X-Men-meets-Ray Chandler set up (Chandler himself is actually a minor character), also has a preternaturally talented cast. But there, it feels earned. The characters have almost all had intense, harsh lives and extreme training to augment their powers. Like, Jake, the main protagonist, is a WWI veteran who did hard time in a brutal prison, in addition to being naturally intelligent. Another character, Heinrich, grew up in the zombie-infested ruins of Berlin, where he’d have to develop extraordinary abilities to survive. There’s really only one character who is presented as a preternatural prodigy – Faye – and then her extreme talent is a plot point with a large part of the series taken up with trying to find out why she’s so powerful.

That, I think, is the main thing that separates the instances that work and the ones that don’t: if it feels earned. With Rey and Anakin, and some others, it doesn’t feel earned: we’re simply told that they’re uniquely powerful and talented, and that therefore we should be invested in their story. But the trouble is, they’re boring characters: there’s no reason to care about what happens to them. Luke, Han, and Leia were great characters in their own right, and were fun to watch. All the other characters I mentioned were also great, fun, interesting characters in their own right. That, I think, is the other thing that I find annoying about the latter Star Wars films and a lot of other contemporary stories: that it feels like a cheap ploy to try to make boring characters seem interesting.

I remember on one writing advice site I perused a while back, one of the principles offered was ‘Superpowers will not make a boring character interesting.’ If the character’s personality, story, and arc aren’t engaging, then assuring us that they’re a genius or a prodigy or amazingly powerful won’t change that.

As you can tell, I’m not looking forward to Last Jedi: I really just don’t care anymore. I didn’t like Force Awakens very much, and it’s gone down in my estimation upon reflection. I don’t buy that this is really ‘what happened next’ in the story: it just feels like they’re rehashing the same plot, only with duller characters. And the assurance that Kylo and Rey (AKA dull and duller) are the most powerful Force users ever only makes it seem even more boring.

In short, I don’t care what happens to these people.

Great Humor, Great Morals, and Why Having Your Heroine Be a Music Box for an Episode Makes for Good Writing

So, this week’s episode of My Little Pony was pretty fantastic (full disclosure: I actually saw it a week or so ago. You see, since FiM is produced in Vancouver, Canadian audiences get to see episodes up to two or even three weeks before the rest of us. The magic of the internet, however, allows some leeway to this). It was pretty much everything the show does best; strong writing, great characterization, solid moral lessons, and some fantastic humor. Season Seven has been mostly strong so far, about on par with the previous season, but I think A Royal Problem is the best one since the season premier.

Among the many, many reasons to love My Little Pony is the fact that it remains remarkably creative, even in its seventh season. Just as an example, this episode had Twilight magically project herself into a music box so as to keep in touch with Starlight on her first mission. So, we have our protagonist as a tiny, mechanical ballerina for most of the episode: who would even think of something like that? This leads to a lot of great gags (“I’m here if you want to talk. Or listen to music!”), culminating in a frustrated Starlight chucking the music box – Twilight and all – into a drawer.

Even better, it’s a gag that fits within the established universe (Twilight’s already projected herself into a book and talked to someone as an illustration a few seasons back) and serves only to enhance what made the character funny in the first place (Twilight’s freak outs are always hilarious, but when she’s a three-inch golden ballerina figure, the fun is doubled). The humor builds on the character and doesn’t feel forced, even in such a ridiculous situation.

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“The one and only thing that I am here to bring is music!”

Finally, from a story perspective, this device also serves the purpose of 1). Giving Starlight someone to talk to, 2). Keeping Twilight involved in the story, and 3). Emphasizing why Starlight, of all ponies, was the best choice for this particular mission even as it seems to be spiraling out of control, and 4). Providing a means to showcase Starlight’s second-guessing and self-doubts, furthering her character development.

All that from what is, at best, a tertiary element in the episode.

Oh, and speaking of great morals, the episode’s climax involves Princess Celestia coming face-to-face with the manifestation of her own darkest desires and temptations. This creature (called ‘Daybreaker’) declares herself to be “everything you want to be” and taunts Celestia with the fact that she could quite literally do anything, if only she stopped caring about other people so much, especially her sister.

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The Mare Mystique

So, a strong female character is rebuked for not making the most of her abilities and is told she can “have it all” (the phrase is actually used) if she would only forget about her obligations to her family, nation, and morality. Said character’s triumph comes in forcibly rejecting this temptation. All in an episode about appreciating the different roles we all play in the world and not assuming you have it worse than anyone else.

Man, this show is awesome.

Reviews: Pete’s Dragon

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Pete’s Dragon, like Cinderella or The Jungle Book, is a remake of a classic Disney film that not only improves on the original, but also manages to be a refreshingly individual film in its own right. Here’s a movie that doesn’t so much defy formula as simply ignores it; it’s content to simply tell its own story, without any kind of heavy handed message or attempt to appeal to mass audiences. Probably not everyone will like this movie; it has a leisurely pace and little ‘action,’ and the humor is low-key and elicits smiles rather than laugh-out-loud moments.

That, to my mind, is part of what makes the film special. Against all odds, this isn’t just a media giant attempting to cash in on a familiar title; it’s an honestly good story told by people who clearly cared a lot about the finished product. To me, it feels a lot like a classic children’s book; the kind that adults look forward to reading to their kids.

When five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegly) is orphaned in a car crash in the Pacific Northwest, he finds himself unexpectedly adopted by a friendly, furry dragon whom he christens ‘Eliot’ after the main character of his favorite book. Six years later, he’s discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who, together with her father, Meachem (Robert Redford), her fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), slowly comes to realize that Pete comes with an unexpected level of magic.

Like I say, the film moves leisurely, spending lots of time just hanging around with its characters, especially Pete and Eliot. Their relationship is obviously at the heart of the film, and plays out rather like that of a boy and his dog. Only, of course, this dog is twenty feet tall, can fly, and can turn invisible. The relationship is charming, and Eliot is cute without overdoing it (one detail I especially liked was that Eliot has several noticeable battle scars, hinting that the dragon isn’t just a cuddly pet). Needless to say, the effects that bring the dragon to life are excellent, and I applaud the decision to make Eliot a mammalian dragon rather than your standard scaly beast. Not only does this make him more cuddly (and make his devotion to Pete more plausible), but it also makes him feel more at home in the Pacific Northwest setting (you don’t find pythons or crocodiles in Washington state or Canada). If there are dragons in those woods, I would expect them to look more like Eliot than, say, Smaug. Some might complain this makes his color-changing ability a bit harder to swallow, but then again, who’s to say it isn’t just magic? Put it this way; I found Eliot’s invisibility powers far easier to swallow than those of the last monster to share a screen with Miss Howard.

The movie spends its time, not in hairs-breadth escapes or high adventure, but in setting moods and encouraging us to enter into the feel of the scene: playful when Pete and Eliot are rollicking through the forest. Peaceful and serene when Grace is walking through the forest. Warm and comfortable when we’re sitting in Jack and Natalie’s house. Wonder and amazement when Eliot reveals himself to the other characters.

Though, of course, there is a story, and things do happen. Pete, having spent so long in the woods, at last begins to find himself tempted back to civilization, first by a chance encounter with Grace, then by another with Natalie (thus, he’s drawn out by beauty; a very nice touch). Of course, once it’s discovered that there’s a little boy living alone in the woods, no self-respecting adult is going to just let him stay there. Pete’s first encounters with civilization are very well done, as we’re allowed to feel his confusion, disorientation, and desperation to get back home, and then his growing comfort under the loving care of the family he stumbles into. The only problem is…what’s going to happen to Eliot? Especially when Jack’s troublemaking brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sets his sights on the beast.

Among the film’s bold moves is to avoid having a real villain. Gavin serves as the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just an ordinary, flawed human being. He’s presented as kind of a jerk, but his actions, though selfish, are by no means unreasonable and he has more than one redemptive moment. In fact, all the characters here are refreshingly ‘normal.’ They’re not generic Hollywood character types, but individuals of their own time, place, and milieu. I cannot stress enough how relieved I am that the film isn’t yet another rural-bashing story about small-minded villagers who hate whatever they don’t understand (a trope I have grown to loathe so much that it makes me cringe even in otherwise brilliant films like Beauty and the Beast). Everyone here is basically a decent person, and the small-town rural setting is presented with real affection.

I also like that the movie doesn’t feature any modern technology like cell phones or computers, and that the time period is deliberately left ambiguous. It could be modern day, or the eighties, or even the seventies. This helps give the film a timeless feel that fits perfectly.

Thematically, the movie tackles the rich and deceptively complex theme of belief and magic, a theme previously given scope in the writings of C.S. Lewis and, especially, J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories. Imagination, wonder, and the humble enjoyment of the secret glories of creation are woven throughout the film, not only in the presence of the dragon but in the joy the characters take in the forest and the delight of working with your hands and spinning tall tales. Eliot in particular brings magic with him, but the encounter with him deepens and enriches an experience that was already ‘magical’ in effect.

These ideas are drawn out in broad strokes primarily by Meachem (a wonderful performance by Mr. Redford). He’s a wood-carver who spins tall-tales about an encounter with “the Millhaven Dragon,” but whose stories turn out to have a core of truth to them. He insists that seeing the dragon brought with it a kind of “magic” that has never left him.

“It changes the way I see the world,” he tells Grace. “The trees, the sunshine, you.”

Reinforcing this is a folksong, played over the opening and sung later in the film by one of the characters, telling of the ‘dragons’ who live in the forest, calling to mind hic dracones and the primeval human tendency to fill unexplored regions with fairies and monsters. Later, Pete and Natalie have a thoughtful (though entirely childlike) discussion of imagination and reality.

I remembered C.S. Lewis’s comments in On Writing for Children; “Fairyland,” he says. “Arouses in [the child] a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him, to his lifelong enrichment, with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods. This reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Pete’s Dragon is a film that not only explores this idea, but is itself a shining example of it. It rings with the love of nature, not in silly half-pagan environmentalism but in humble joy at the beauty of creation.

Like The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon is another movie that ignores parochial themes for deeper, timeless ideas that seek to enrich the viewer rather than instruct him.

Though I enjoyed the movie immensely, I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, at least not that would fit in a review. This isn’t the kind of film where a whole lot happens, so that you can say ‘here’s how this scene went’ or ‘I liked this bit.’ Rather, it’s a film that is best just seen and enjoyed.

I feel as though there are two Disneys at work today. One is the giant money making machine, pumping out films of varying quality, but all very much catering to the tastes of the filmmakers and the audience; no different from any other media empire.

Then there’s the Disney of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon (and, on the small screen, of Phineas and Ferb): the Disney that is still animated by the spirit of Uncle Walt, that has his audacity, his love of storytelling, and his ability to reach right down to the roots of our common humanity to inspire wonder and joy in the audience. I can only hope that this latter Disney continues to produce films like this.

Final Rating: 4.5/5: Probably not for everyone, but a film to treasure.

 

 

Another Illustration

Another way of demonstrating my idea from the last post: the ‘Princess and the Dragon’ motif (Chesterton used this to describe melodrama in Charles Dickens).

Phase One: meet the princess. The hero encounters the princess and falls in love with her. But he cannot court her because there is some kind of threat over hanging her or some kind of obstacle in the way of their relationship.

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Phase Two: the Dragon Emerges. Now the threat manifests itself. The ‘princess’ may be forever removed from the hero’s reach. Desperate measures are required, because if he fails, he will lose his true love for all time.

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Phase Three: the Marriage. The hero has successfully slain the dragon, removing the threat to his beloved and destroying the obstacle that kept her from him. He is now free to marry her and live happily ever after.

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A hopeless courtship, through a desperate battle, to finally claiming his true love against all odds. That is the pattern of melodrama.

Three Phases of a Good Story

Great stories, or at least a certain kind of story, work by proceeding along the following path: from false order through disorder to true order.

Before I go any further, I’m by no means an expert; this is just my personal observations and ideas, for whatever those are worth, presented for consideration.

As I said, false order through disorder to true order. What do I mean by that?

A story starts in apparent peace: things seem good, or at least tolerable. The community is intact, its institutions standing firm. Yet there is a problem; the protagonist’s life is, in fact, built upon sand. The problem is not immediately before us, but sneaks in, as it were, from around the edges. The community is in fact threatened or undermined by secret or exterior forces.

Then comes disorder. The threat manifests itself, no longer being hidden, but open. The institutions crumble or prove impotent and the protagonist is thrown upon his own resources. It no longer becomes possible to restore the integrity of the community from within, but requires unusual effort and atypical behavior to solve the problem.

Finally, the problem is solved and true order is established. The threat that undermined the apparent order has been removed, the fault lines have been filled, and the institutions are reestablished, having been purged of their impurities.

To take an example: consider the Harry Potter series (Spoilers ahead). We begin with false order: the wizarding world seems a wonderful, magical place; a haven from the stultifying world of the Dursleys. It is where Harry’s friends and interests all reside. There are threats, but they are external: Voldemort is in hiding and his followers have to act by cunning and secrecy. The institutions stand firm: Hogwarts, the Ministry, and so on all seem strong and safe.

Yet even now there is hidden disorder, not only in the continuing threat of Voldemort, but also in the structure of the wizarding community itself, which we begin to understand is rife with corruption and bigotry.

Then comes disorder. Voldemort returns. The Ministry is torn by corruption. Hogwarts becomes, not the triumphant heart of the wizarding world, but a fortress under siege. Harry and his friends are increasingly forced to work outside the normal patterns of behavior and even outside the law. Finally the community collapses entirely with the fall of the Ministry and Harry becomes an outlaw, culminating in a full-on battle royale.

But, at the end, true order is restored. Voldemort and his followers are defeated, the wizarding community is rebuilt on more humane grounds, having been partially purged of its imperfections by the war, and Harry and his friends take their place as hardworking citizens. The wizarding world is what it was supposed to be from the beginning.

Another example: Pride and Prejudice (again, spoilers). We meet the Bennet family, things are in a semblance of order. The family is not especially happy (with an ill-matched parental pair and three “very silly” youngest sisters), but they are respectable, reasonably well-off, and the household bumps along well enough. They are an integral part of the community and are generally well-liked and respected among their neighbors. Yet, this pleasant existence is built on a foundation of sand, as Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed on the male line, and the family has no son. Once he dies, the estate will pass to his obnoxious cousin and the fate of his daughters will be shaky indeed. Thus, one of them has to marry. But this brings us to the other faultline under the Bennet household: the fact that at least half of it is very stupid, thoughtless, and ill-bred. When Jane, the eldest and prettiest of the daughters, falls in love with a rich and easy-going man, the rudeness and stupidity of her mother and younger sisters cause the man’s friends to quietly remove him from her company.

So, the Bennet daughters have to marry, but the foolishness of their mother and of some of their sisters make it unlikely. At the same time, there’s the hidden danger of Mr. Wickham; a charming, but completely amoral young man who has lately become acquainted with the young ladies.

Then comes disorder: Lydia, the youngest daughter, elopes with Wickham and lives with him for a time without marrying him. This threatens to cast the Bennet’s out of all society forever, and certainly to dash their hopes of marrying well. In the face of this threat, ordinary concerns fall by the wayside. Mr. Bennet rushes to London in a wrath, and, unbeknownst to him, so does Mr. Darcy: the fabulously rich, but socially-awkward young man who has fallen in love with Elizabeth, the second eldest Bennet daughter, and who is Wickham’s old enemy. Darcy hunts up and down London, dealing with the lowest kind of scum, until he traps his enemy and, to save the Bennets, takes him under his financial protection under the condition that he marry Lydia.

Finally comes true order: Jane and Elizabeth, against all odds, marry the men who have always loved them, being thus set up for life and ensuring the family fortunes forever. The threat of the entail is destroyed, Wickham is effectively neutralized, and the insipidity of Mrs. Bennet no longer matters.

A final example: Toy Story (still Spoilers). At first, everything seems idyllic. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy and the de-facto leader of the bedroom. He’s respected by his friends, and, apart from some minor bickering, they all get along fine.

But there is a hidden fault line in the arrangement, and it comes from Woody himself: he’s become so used to his exalted position that he doesn’t really know how to live without it. Unfortunately for him, that question is forced on him when Andy become infatuated with Buzz Lightyear, a flashy new action figure.

For a while, the community holds, though in a strained form. Then Woody’s jealousy leads him to go too far, sparking a crisis that drags both him and Buzz far from the safety and familiarity of the bedroom and threatens them both with destruction. Woody’s personal failures have brought disorder into his life and the lives of all his friends.

The only way they can restore order turns out to involve not only facing their own flaws, but also breaking the rules of being a toy. At the beginning, part of the life of a toy means returning to your proper place and freezing whenever a human comes near. Now, however, they not only break that rule but actually show their ability to move and speak. The institutions of the toy community will no longer avail them and they have to look to their own resources to restore order.

Finally comes true order: Woody has learned his lesson, he and Buzz have reconciled, and the toy community is stronger than ever, with no more fear of being replaced. The faults that threatened the stability of the community have been identified and corrected.

This pattern obviously doesn’t play out everywhere, but I come across it more often than not. It’s very useful in terms of reader investment; the first phase gives us a chance to get to know the world and see that it is something worth preserving. It makes us care. We care about the wizarding world because, with Harry, we see it as a fun, glorious escape from the boring and humdrum world of the every day. We care about the Bennet family because we like Elizabeth and Jane and we sense the real love that exists between the sisters and their worthiness to come through in the end. We care about Woody because we see how much Andy loves him and vice-versa and because we sympathize with the fear of being displaced by someone else.

The second phase threatens the thing we’ve come to love. The wizarding world might be turned into a nightmare and all the colorful characters destroyed. The Bennet family may be ruined forever and the beautiful, worthy elder sisters condemned to a life of spinsterhood. Woody and Buzz might be lost forever, depriving a nice little boy of his two favorite toys. The threats have become real and require our protagonists to stretch themselves and grow in order to escape. It rests on them to avert the disaster and save the thing we love.

Finally is the satisfaction of true order: having passed through the storm, our heroes are permitted to come to rest in a world freed from the threats that destroyed their initial contentment. Harry and his friends grow up, marry, and raise their own families in a world freed from the dangers they had to face. Elizabeth and Jane each end up with a wonderful man who not only loves her passionately, but who is wealthy enough to support the rest of the family if need be. Woody and Buzz become friends and assume joint leadership over the other toys, who have learned from their experience and no longer fear being replaced. The thing we love has been preserved, and we are assured that it won’t be threatened again, at least not in the same way. The problem has been solved, the community restored. All is right with the world.