Author’s Predicament: Let’s begin to look at this film by focusing on the author’s predicament. Say you’re faced with the task of writing this script. What do you think would be the great difficulty that you’d have to overcome?
Clearly these writers are trying to hit all the myth elements. But getting all the elements in isn’t as difficult as making those elements meaningful for a modern audience. Especially an audience that has been inundated with myth-based films. It’s one thing to know the structure of the myth story. It’s another thing to make it unique and subtle.
To see if the writers are able to meet this challenge, let’s begin at the structural end point. Is there a self-revelation in this script? The main character, Willow, learns to be a sorcerer. He learns that he has power and he has to follow his instincts. These are big words. Power. Instincts. Sorcerer.
A big question when you’re looking at a self-revelation is, what does it mean? What am I going to take from this? How will it have an impact on me? And having a character say, “I believe in myself now. I am a sorcerer and am at one with the world of power,” sounds good, but may not mean anything.
This is one of the key problems of the myth story. Because you’re dealing in the big concepts, the concepts often have the form of meaning, but not necessarily any content.
Another problem with this self-revelation is that it doesn’t seem to be moral. When the hero says he is now a sorcerer and understands the ways of power, what does that have to do with how he acts toward other people? That isn’t to say that the hero doesn’t have a moral need. We don’t know yet. But in and of itself, his self-revelation is not moral.
Let’s go back to the beginning and see how this story works.
Ghost: We start off with a kind of ghost. There is an evil queen and a newborn baby who is supposed to cause the end of the queen’s reign. That immediately raises a question. How is this baby going to cause the overthrow of the queen? And the second question: why do we care? This refers to the stakes of the story, and you better be very clear about the stakes. Why should the audience care about the consequences? What will be the effect if this happens or if it doesn’t happen? You have to provide details.
Problem/Need: First , Willow’s got a baby at his doorstep he doesn’t want to deal with. That is a problem. The community is a bit oppressive. Willow seems to owe a debt to the mayor. So he’s got to get his crop in.
What about his need? What is missing inside of this man? Possibly courage, but that’s not established up front. He really wants some position, and it’s clear that he hasn’t been all that confident in the past. He needs to prove himself. That’s a psychological need. It’s not all that well-defined, unfortunately. Because, again, what does it mean not to be able to be a sorcerer, or not to believe in whatever it takes to be a sorcerer?
Is there a moral need established at the beginning of this story? There is a suggestion of a moral need when he is reluctant to take care of the baby that has been placed on his doorstep. But that doesn’t really work as a deep moral flaw. Willow seems to be a pretty good guy. It’s the town that has the moral problem because it’s oppressive, especially the mayor.
By the way, when I first saw the woman put the baby in the basket, I laughed out loud. This being Lucas we’re going to steal from every popular story in history. But the Moses trick is too obvious, and it’s the first sign that this story is going to suffer from Myth 101-paint-by-numbers disease. Myth works best as a story structure when it is under the surface. This film hits you over the top of the head with it.
Desire: First and foremost, Willow wants to be the sorcerer’s apprentice. But that desire doesn’t carry all the way through the story. In fact, it ends pretty quickly. He fails. That’s how they establish that he doesn’t have faith in himself.
So what’s his next desire line? He wants to get rid of the baby, but in a proper way. He wants to take this child to the crossroads to protect his village. Now we’ve got a a problem there. This is not a personal desire. “Here is a strange baby. I must take him to the crossroads because the village says I must.”
Whenever you don’t have a personal desire, your story is going to be considerably weaker. I’m sure the writer knew this problem. So after Willow gets rid of the baby the first time, the writer heightens the stakes. First, Willow finds out the baby was kidnaped. And the woman in white comes down. The kind helper from fairy tales. The woman in white gives him a choice. You can leave this baby, but if you do, the queen will take over, your village will be in danger and your children will suffer. So there’s an attempt to make it a more personal desire by couching it in terms of his children. But it’s still an abstraction because the consequences have been stated but not shown.
Another problem with myth-based stories is that the desire line is not based on the hero’s choice. By saying that it is your destiny to do this, even though it’s presented as a choice, it really isn’t one.
Opponent: The queen and her legions are the main opposition. There are two problems with the queen as an opponent. First, she’s not human. In this type of story you often get an evil queen. But notice in “Star Wars” they detailed that evil opposition better. Darth Vader wasn’t just evil.
Second, the queen is almost never around. We don’t have a unity of opposites here that can build conflict. So she is not a direct or active opponent. She’s always having somebody else do the job.
A second opponent is the daughter. Actually, she starts off as an opponent but becomes an ally. She’s somebody who you say a few nice words to and bingo, you’ve got her. If only it were that easy. So we don’t get a lot of detailing there either.
Mad Mardigan starts off as an opponent, although he quickly turns into an ally as well. The mayor is an inside opponent, but he disappears pretty fast. So he’s not much of an opponent, either. Then there’s the general. The general is Darth Vader a thousand years ago. But notice that, unlike Darth Vader, the general is not a personal opponent. He is just a character who is doing the queen’s bidding and has no connection to the hero.
In other words, we’ve got a very weak nucleus of an opposition. With Darth Vader you had a much more personal opponent. He’s the hero’s father. And that in itself was worth an awful lot. And what they’re all fighting about, the stakes, which should intensify the opposition, is this abstract thing of a baby who is somehow going to get rid of the queen.
Plan: The plan is fairly clear. Willow is going to take the baby, find the sorceress, and gather an army to beat the queen. So the plan gives us a reasonable line on which to hang the middle of the story.
Next is the journey, which you always have in a myth. A journey automatically creates an episodic middle because the hero covers a lot of territory and runs up against a succession of opponents. There is no one main opponent to unify things.
The next step is to collect the allies. First up is Mad Mardigan, a character out of Japanese movies. He is the Samurai warrior without an allegiance. And in the George Lucas and Japanese samurai world, that is a big sin. A warrior is supposed to have a cause to serve. And this guy Eric says, “Until you quit being so cynical you’re going to rot.” Mad Mardigan’s psychological need is to find a cause and gain an allegiance.
The next allies are the Brownies. These are miniatures. As I say, Lucas uses every trick in the book. A miniature in a story implies the exercise of power. Notice there’s no concept of power here. The Brownies are all equal at a smaller scale. So they don’t really have a structural value except to give a little comic opposition.
There is a good use of snow as a natural setting. One of the things Lucas does best is put characters in major natural settings. Remember in the “Star Wars” movies we have the forest world, the ice world, the jungle world, the cloud world and so on.
Battle: Next comes the castle fight which is by far the best part of the picture. Really outrageous effects and a nice use of cross-cutting. And this is one thing that Lucas always does well. He sets up a number of fight lines and crosscuts them simultaneously so you get a real textured fight. You get the trolls and the dragons, all happening on a number of different levels.
Notice the subworld of the opponent. The queen’s castle is incredible. I would love to find out who the art director was on that place. Unfortunately, it’s a little late in coming. We only get there at the very end of the story. It could have been a fantastic subsetting for this story. But it isn’t used very well.
In the battle, we get a great crosscut between three or four different levels of fighting. But the key question in any battle is: what are they fighting over? This abstract baby that somehow is going to overthrow the queen. Does the baby do anything to the queen at all in this story? No. The queen does it to herself. It’s a self-confirming hypothesis: because I’ve been told that this baby is going to destroy me, I’m going to take these dumb steps to get myself destroyed. All the baby does is provide incredible facial effects. This baby is probably the best actor in the picture. A really unbelievable baby. But the key weakness is: the baby has nothing to do with this story.
Unless you tell the audience what values the two sides are fighting over, the battle is just a lot of noise. This is very well-orchestrated noise, but there’s nothing inside.
Self-Revelation: Which leads us again to the self-revelation. Willow learns to use sorcery, but to what effect we don’t know. He’s apparently a sorcerer at the end. What does that mean? Is he going to go back to his little town and grow crops with his wand? What has it done personally for him, other than to make him more confident?
This film moves quickly and has a lot of cross-cutting battles. But the important thing for writers to focus on is: how do you tell a myth-based story well, especially now that we’ve seen so many of them. The simple-mindedness of these stories is overwhelming.
These are some things to watch out for when writing a myth picture. First, tighten the arena. The more compressed the arena, the better the story will be. This is especially important in a story that covers a lot of territory.
Second, make the main opponent more direct. We don’t want a succession of opponents, each one attacking for a different reason and none of them that powerful or connected to the hero.
Third, make the stakes meaningful to an audience today. I couldn’t care less whether that baby is going to overthrow the queen. If they had shown me this woman’s effects on the people instead of just having her yell and scream, we would have seen how her oppression destroys peoples’ lives. Those are meaningful stakes.
Fourth, and this is especially true in a myth picture where you’re dealing in the big concepts, the self-revelation has got to be defined in detail. You’ve got to show what it really means for the hero to learn whatever he’s going to learn and how it’s going to change his life, preferably in a moral way. Just saying things like, “I’ve now learned my destiny” doesn’t work. These are complex words that are hollow until you show the details.