Posted on | February 25, 2014
It occurred to me the other day that of the three Disney films I’ve seen recently, only Wreck-It Ralph really follows the beat sheet, the much maligned guide to writing movies that came out about ten years ago. In Wreck-it Ralph there’s the opening scene that sets tone, the debate (which really is a debate!), the theme stated, the catalyst, the promise, fun’n'games (“Shut up and Drive”), absolutely the entire beat sheet followed to the letter from beginning to end. It works because it breaks other tropes, because the romance between Ralph and Vanellope (and it is a classical romance, because Ralph initially embraces and then sheds his mask for his essentially good nature, although it’s pretty clear that he’s got it from the start), and because Sarah Silverman.
Tangled weirdly compresses and twists the beat sheet: most of the movie is “Fun’n'Games,” the point in the story where the protagonist embraces the weird new world she’s found herself in and starts to enjoy it. Although if you argue that Flynn is the real protagonist, then it’s a more classical romance: the weird new world is Rapunzel, and fun’n'games is from when Rapunzel enters the city to when Flynn spots the Stabbington brothers (from “Kingdom Dance” through “I See The Light”).
Now that I think of it, that really is the way to see the movie. Despite Flynn’s protestation, this is a story about him, and how he saved a plucky young lady from danger. He’s a classic romantic hero: roguish exterior, romantic interior, and he sheds his outer mask for his inner essence when he decides to dance with Rapunzel in the town square.
In that light, “When Will My Life Begin” is just the set-up; it’s “I Have A Dream” where the theme is stated, and the campfire is the debate and catalyst. It is entirely possible for two characters to have different plots and different beats, and Tangled really manages to match up a traditional beat sheet with a wildly unexpected one, and tells us (explicitly!) to watch the wild one while soothing us with a story that’s traditional and familiar.
Frozen just throws the beat sheet away. Anna gets fun’n'games at the very beginning of the film (“For the First Time in Forever”), but the classic beat sheet “world turned upside down” is in fact not the world where the film occurs: it occurs in a ramped-up version of her old, miserable existence, but with one new piece of knowledge that she thinks will help her escape back to the better world. There’s no debate: every character is propelled not by questions but by answers, sometimes wrong answers. Major themes are stated by speakers and and then (sometimes quickly!) contradicted by outcomes. One promised premise (“Let it Go”) is revamped into a story about isolation; the other (“Love is an Open Door”) is so cruelly twisted I heard eight-year-olds in the theater gasp with murder in their eyes.
I kinda admire Disney for greenlighting a story that, really, is so radically different from everything they’ve done before, that not only dances on so many ancient Disney tropes with ecstatic glee, but is also willing to completely ignore The Formula on which Hollywood has been depending for so many years, and instead try to tell a good story about good characters trying to do the best they can.