Disney vs. the Beat Sheet

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.


3 Responses to “Disney vs. the Beat Sheet”

  1. Falbert Forester
    April 2nd, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

    Haven’t seen Frozen yet, myself, and I find, from various reviews, that I’m regretting not seeing it in the theater while it was here.

    Since you’ve written this article, I’m hoping to go into the movie with an appreciation for a break from the beat sheet.

  2. Josh
    November 14th, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

    I can probably beat out both Tangled and Frozen off the top of my head right now:


    1. Opening Image: Rapunzel is taken from her parents as a child. This contrasts the closing image perfectly.

    2. Theme Stated: When Will My Life Begin? Rapunzel yearns to know what the world is like.

    3. Set-Up: Flynn is a traitorous thief, Rapunzel is an innocent, naive little girl. They couldn’t be more different. We look forward to seeing their paths cross.

    4. Catalyst: Flynn stumbles into Rapunzel’s tower by accident and is knocked out and hidden in the closet.

    5. Debate: Rapunzel prove to Mother Gothel that she can handle herself by revealing Flynn in the closet….

    6. Break Into Two: …but Mother Gothel refuses to hear her out. Rapunzel then lies to her “mother” and tricks her into leaving for 3 days.

    7. B Story: Rapunzel and Flynn officially meet. Flynn wants the crown back, Rapunzel wants to see the world. They strike a deal.

    8. Fun and Games: Rapunzel experiences the outside world (pub thugs) and survives a near death experience with Flynn.

    9.Midpoint: Flynn and Rapunzel have a heart to heart conversation at the campfire.

    10. Bad Guys Close In: Mother Gothel GIVES Rapunzel back the crown and mocks her faith in Flynn.

    11. All Is Lost: Mother Gothel engineers an awful scheme to make Rapunzel think Flynn has abandoned her.

    12. Dark Night of the Soul: Rapunzel is back home and WORSE OFF than when she started the journey. Nothing but broken dreams lay behind her. Flynn is set to be executed.

    13. Break Into Three: Rapunzel realizes she is the lost princess.

    14. Finale: Flynn escapes prison with the help of the pub thugs and sacrifices his life for Rapunzel when Mother Gothel chains her up.

    15. Resolution: Rapunzel is reunited with her parents and is married to Flynn/Eugene.

    and I think they did an actual beat sheet for Frozen at SaveTheCat.com.

  3. Julia
    November 4th, 2016 @ 5:41 am

    “Major themes are stated by speakers and and then (sometimes quickly!) contradicted by outcomes.”
    I think you might be confused about how this works. A movie doesn’t just play out the stated theme. That would be boring since there would be no conflict. A movie plays out the argument (thesis) and its counterargument (antithesis) – that’s the point of the theme being contradicted. It generally does this over and over again before hitting a victory for the theme (happy ending) or the counter-argument (sad ending) or a synthesis (deep ending.) Think Forrest Gump: are we floating around accidental like on a breeze, or is there destiny? His conclusion: maybe it’s both.

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