I've had a sick toddler for the last week and a half, and in between losing my mind, I've been watching the same kids' movies on DVD on high repeat (oddly enough, those two things are related :P). When she's not well, little Miss Two loves to snuggle down with mama and hang out with her favourite animated friends. Over and over again.
A wise friend told me years ago that you should always invest in movies that adults can enjoy as much as kids, because that way you won't find yourself screaming (in your head), "DIE, Elmo, you furry little red bastard! DIE!" on constant loop. And it's just a good thing for all parents that Pixar and Disney have risen to the challenge in recent years and produced some absolutely amazing films.
One thing I've noticed while watching these movies is that they have such a strong sense of story satisfaction, from the very beginning to the very end. I pondered and pondered exactly *what* they had done to be so engaging and fulfilling, and in the end all I could come up with was one word: Unity.
From the very first frame to the very last, everything that happens is relevant. From the smallest detail to the largest, it all means something in the bigger plot. And the bigger plot is driven, almost invariably, by a strong, clear theme. At the end of the movie, you feel like you've both had a good time, and learned something about life. There are obvious reasons why this works in kids' movies- the point needs to be simple and direct- but I think they work everywhere, with a touch of added complexity where necessary.
I wanted to run through a few of my favourite kids' movies at the moment to illustrate my point, because I think it's something all fiction writers can learn from. I'd argue that the following will create a satisfying story that people will remember for a long time to come:
1. A strong, core theme, supported by all aspects of the plot and characters
2. Unity of plots, subplots and character- nothing is in it for the sake of it. Everything means something in the bigger picture; no thread is started without being finished.
3. Characters with extremely clear motivation and strong personalities
So, onto the movies. I picked a couple- there are other brilliant ones out there, like Up (which I only saw last week, and was blown away by), Monsters Inc, and many others, but these three come to mind for being particularly well put together as far as unity is concerned.
1. Finding Nemo (2003)
My daughter's first favourite film has her yelling, "'Emo! 'Emo!" whenever she sees a fish of any kind, or indeed when she goes swimming herself.
The core theme of this movie is about letting go of fear and living life.
In the first scene, Nemo's father Marlin and mother Coral swim about, admiring their new anemone home and sharing their excitement at the impending hatching of their thousands of first baby eggs. But tragedy strikes suddenly in the form of a barracuda attack, leaving Marlin a widowed, reclusive father of just one.
From the very first scene or two, there are dozens of little references that get picked up and carried through the movie. First, Marlin wants to name half the eggs after him, and half after his wife. But Coral likes Nemo, and asks him to keep that name for just one. In the second scene, we see the sole surviving baby fish about to start school- and his name is, of course, Nemo. Immediate emotional punch.
Second, the little egg that survives is damaged in the barracuda attack. Nemo is born with a dodgy fin on that side- they call it his lucky fin, and it becomes a subplot all in itself that mirrors the main story- Nemo must learn, with the help of an older and more experienced reef fish (played by Willem Dafoe- awesome), that there's nothing he can't do for himself, disability notwithstanding.
Third, during the conversation Marlin and Nemo have on the way to school, Nemo is full of excited questions that his dad dismisses- how old can a sea turtle grow? Has he ever met a shark? Both of these questions become major parts of the plot later on.
And fourth, the main plot itself is set up brilliantly- Nemo, tired of being told what he can and can't do by his worrywart father, takes up a dare from some other school kids- and is promptly kidnapped by a diver and taken far away to a tank in a dentist's office. It's everything Marlin has ever feared; his last hope gone. But it's the beginning of a life-changing journey for him as he teams up with an unlikely new friend and pushes every boundary in his life to get his son back.
All in all, the messages in the movie are strong, the characters are perfect, and the subplots are linked to the main plot for maximum impact. I love that movie.
2. Cars (2006)
The theme of this movie is an old classic- pride comes before a fall. Rookie race car Lightning McQueen has natural talent- enough to take him to the top three in his first racing season, challenging the veteran and the pretender for the prestigious Piston Cup. But his talent has made him cocky and arrogant, and his commitment to his sport has left him surrounded by other cars- but all alone when it counts. A wrong turn on the way to the race track finds him stranded in a little backwater town where for the first time, he has to help others before himself. The payoff comes in the final scenes, when Lightning finally learns that working with a team is better than going it alone.
I love the way the opening scene in this movie, as shown in the clip above- a high octane race in which Lightning ignores the advice of his pit crew and suffers two blown tires, causing him to tie instead of win- leads to the final scene in the movie, in which the same three cars race it out again. By the second race, Lightning is a different car- and the outcome is completely different to what he thought he wanted in the beginning, but shows that he's truly changed his old ways, and is much happier for it.
3. Kung Fu Panda (2008)
This movie has a very powerful message- that everyone is special, and you can achieve anything if you just believe in yourself.
At the beginning, panda Po spends all day thinking about his beloved kung fu, and the Furious Five who are the best fighters in the land. His dream is to be one of them, but it's just that- a dream. Po is big, clumsy, and destined for life as a noodle maker, not a kung fu champion. That is until fate intervenes, landing him in the middle of the ceremony to choose the next greatest fighter of them all- the Dragon Warrior- and to the horror of all, Po is the one selected.
Nobody believes in him. Not even he believes in himself. But from the minute he arrives in the halls of kung fu, it's clear to the audience, if nobody else, that Po knows more about kung fu than anyone. He's studied it, absorbed it, loved it from afar- and after that, all he has to do is develop the skills and the self-belief to find his special talent. In the end, his strengths come back to his weaknesses- specifically, food.
One of my favourite parts of the whole movie comes toward the end, when Po is fighting it out with his kung fu master over a bowl of dumplings, finally showing that he's learned the right skills. At the very end, for the first time ever, he bests the master and gets the last dumpling- then says he's not hungry. In a previous scene, one of the Furious Five had told him that the true dragon warrior doesn't need to eat, and this had seemed the proof that Po would never make it.
I also love the fact that he manages to defeat the Big Bad in the end with his other physical skill- being so clumsy that he falls down/ runs into things continually, but gets right back up again.
All in all, these movies are great examples of stories that captivate from beginning to end, with strong characters who have definite goals, and everything portrayed moves toward the conclusion of a clear theme.