When Film Analysis Goes Bad

Sometimes you just get it wrong. The purpose of in-depth story analysis should be to uncover the truths that make great storytelling timeless, not to prove how brilliant the analyst is. It is with that in mind that your humble StoryFanatic confesses to having made yet another mistake.

Children of Men. The Prestige. The Wrestler. These are but a small sampling of the films that were misinterpreted by yours truly over the past five years (at least, these are the only public ones I’ll admit to…). Written with such fervor and published with such unflappable confidence, these original articles ultimately proved to be plain wrong. Looking back on them now it is clear where the inaccuracies are, but during the course of their execution the belief was that these were, in fact, correct.

What is it about time that clarifies understanding?

That Initial Feeling

There is something magical that happens when a mind first encounters a story, what some refer to as “the willing suspension of disbelief.” The first time one sees a movie rarely compares with the thirteenth. Beyond mere memorization and anticipation of key moments, there grows an understanding of what the Author was originally trying to say. This purpose, which upon first viewing was only felt, can now be seen with clarity and appreciation.

As we’ll discover in the following article, that initial experience of a story on-screen is often filled with so much noise and spectacle that it can obscure the true intention behind a work of art. It is only through time that these initial spikes of visual and audio luster fade away, and the true story points, the true meaning behind a piece, rise to the surface.

This is what happened to me with Toy Story 3.

Toy Story 3

In my original analysis of this beloved film I only gave it 2.5 stars out of 5 for Structure–an indication that I thought there were problems with how the story was put together. But before you think me totally nuts and zip over to the Back button in your browser, know that I did give it 5 stars for Entertainment, a reflection of how enjoyable the film was on a subjective level. Regardless of my personal opinion though, I still couldn’t come to terms with some choices that didn’t quite gel with my understanding of story.

In the case of Toy Story 3, the most significant emotional moment of the film comes when Andy finally decides to let go of Woody. After all, this is the sequence many point to as the place where so many grown men cry and the one point many will refer to in their recollections of this film. Like Pixar’s previous film, Up and its sequence of the two gentle hearts growing old together, this moment of separation between Andy and Woody stands out because it has significant emotional meaning. But whereas Up’s most prevalent sequence on Apple products is all backstory, this scene in Toy Story 3 is played out as a moment of Crisis–a place where the true meaning of the film is revealed.

Andy decides to let Woody go, and in doing so satisfies a meaningful story’s need for one of the principal characters to transformationally change. Giving that little girl his favorite toy is not something he would have done at the beginning the story, thus this moment reflects a transformation of character. This works nicely with Woody’s apparent steadfastness, even Andy himself says something to the effect that Woody is always there for you when you need him. Great stories work this way–one principal will transform while the other maintains their resolve.

Only problem is there is little to no emotional development between Andy and Woody throughout the rest of the film, therefore granting this analyst reason for saddling the film with a low structural score. The Change comes because it is supposed to, not because of challenges to Andy’s resolve over the course of some ninety-odd minutes. The growth simply was not there.

But the even bigger issue was the obvious fact that this didn’t bother a single soul. Toy Story 3 is the highest-grossing animated film of all time. While box-office success does not always guarantee a well-structured story (see Avatar and the Broken Main Character), it more often than not is a clear indicator that the story is complete.

So what was I missing?

Problems with Reception

In the same way that your cable company can screw you over when it comes to the final moments of an NBA final game (thanks TimeWarner), so too can your mind obscure and scramble the Original Intent behind a work of fiction. It is not enough to slave away feverishly for months on a screenplay, trudge your way through the marshes and deep undergrowth of the Hollywood development cycle, and then finally shelter it through the actual production process; when it comes to projecting it on the screen a writer still has to deal with those varied minds scattered throughout the theater.

Something has to interpret those sounds and pictures flashing before them.

As I reflected about the disparity between my interpretation and the entire rest of the world, I asked Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley for any insight he might have into the reasons behind my apparent dilemma. He offered up two possible reasons: Audience Bias and Story Chatter - both problems of reception that can interfere with a story’s purpose.

Audience Bias

Chris went on to describe the first reception problem:

By audience bias I mean the expectations and frames of reference the audience brings to the story - - the box it unthinkingly tries to fit the story into. Rather than examine a story on its own merits and by its own standards, an audience typically positions the story as they expect it to play out. If expected story beats or development flow are not presented in an anticipated manner, the story does not seem to “fit” the audience’s expectations. The audience then sees the equivalent of a square peg trying to fit in the round hole of their expectations.

For those who have read any of my other articles, clearly I have my own bias, resting firmly as it does in the Dramatica theory of story corner. Others think everything should fit into the Save the Cat! model. Still more hold strong to the idea that everything is a Hero’s Journey. Everyone has their own particular bag of tricks they ascribe too. Even those who claim they don’t still have their own preconceptions about what a particular genre of film should and shouldn’t have and are easily repulsed when the film doesn’t deliver. Everyone is prejudice to some degree.

While I can enjoy a film without trying to analyze it (like I’m doing right now with Christopher Nolan’s amazing Inception), I tend to judge the success of a story based on whether or not it fulfills the theory’s interpretation of what makes a complete story. Time and time again the pattern has played out–if a film resonates with audiences on a level that far surpasses others, 99 times out of 100 that film is a complete story (and by the way, Inception is too!). You can’t argue with success.

Cognitive dissonance set in during the weeks following Toy Story 3’s release. Public sentiment aside, I felt for certain that Pixar’s streak had been broken. Fifteen years of complete storytelling had finally come to an end with this confusing mis-step.

Only problem was, this mis-step was a creation all my own; an unconscious refusal on my part to see the film within its proper context.

Two Stories in One

Like Finding Nemo and its two stories of Marlin and Dory searching and Nemo and Gil escaping, Toy Story 3 seeks to provide two separate meaningful arguments. The first is that of letting go and concerns itself with Andy’s ultimate decision to say goodbye. This transformation comes as a result of his recognition of that his friend was always there for him. Woody resolved to remain steadfast, Andy resolved to change.

The second, also dealing with letting go, concerned itself with the emotional argument carried out between Woody and the Toy Family (Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm, Buzz, etc.). Woody’s attitude always centered around “being there for Andy” while the other toys firmly believed in “being there for other kids.” These conflicting attitudes hashed it out throughout the course of the film until ultimately, it is Woody that changes and accepts the Toy Family’s position. The toys are the ones who remain steadfast in this story–made perfectly clear during that final sequence in the furnace.

I was so taken with the first story, that the second completely slipped my mind.

In fact, it wasn’t until Karel Segers outlined in precise detail the events of Toy Story 3 that it finally began to dawn on me the error with my original analysis. Of course Woody changed, how else can one explain the connection between Woody’s refusal of Buzz’s outstretched hand before the close of the first Act and his acceptance of the same during the final? That is a classic textbook device for character transformation!

With this new understanding in place, the dissonance I felt between my appreciation of the film and that of others began to finally make sense. The first story, that of Andy saying goodbye to Woody, appears to be the final act of character growth between the two when seen in context of the entire Toy Story trilogy. The third film appears as if it was intended to be the last ever; what better way to tie it up then to connect emotionally with the previous two?

The second story–what many will consider the actual story of Toy Story 3–while painted in lighter strokes, is still there and thus accounts for the overwhelming audience reaction. If the running time had been greater, perhaps there could have been more scenes that approached the emotional complexity of the first Toy Story–Woody and Buzz under the semi or the scene with Woody trapped under the crate and Buzz strapped to the rocket. But it doesn’t seem like too many people were complaining about the missing parts as it is.

Guess I’d just prefer if all the boxes were filled in nice and neat.

Story Chatter or What You Might Call Fun

What about that second problem with audience reception, story chatter?

Turns out if a story is chock full of storytelling elements, it becomes harder to separate out the actual meaning of a story. Storytelling is seen different from story structure here in the same way that Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are told differently, yet still maintain the same meaning. Their structures are the same, yet the storytelling varies. An overabundance of storytelling can sometimes obscure the actual message.

This happens when two stories find their way into a single work–especially one that hovers around ninety minutes. Typically you need about two hours to tell a complete story. Narrowing that down by thirty minutes and putting another one in there will tend to compromise the original message. The interference pattern between the two will also contribute to the overall noise level of the piece thus confounding the message even further.

And Toy Story 3 is noisy to say the least.

Ken’s fashion show, the mushroom cloud of monkeys, Buzz’s newfound dancing skills–these are all fantastic moments, yet don’t contribute to the overall meaning of the piece. They reflect an emphasis on storytelling over story structure. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, movies are supposed to be entertaining, right? But scenes like this do add to the level of story chatter and thus exacerbate any problems one might have in successfully deciphering the real message behind a story.

But then again, not everyone is as fanatic about stories or about making sure that their true intent is heard loud and clear.

Some just like to have fun.

I have a greater appreciation for this film now and its ability to weave two stories into the space of 102 minutes. Trying to get one right is hard enough. Being able to touch on two while simultaneously delighting audiences the world over is a feat that few can claim.

Toy Story 3 is a film that has touched the hearts of audiences everywhere. It has moments of great laughter, moments of intense drama, and moments of heart-wrenching separation. Films, and the stories that propel them, are the only source of entertainment that can deliver all of these in a way that lightens the hearts of those that receive them.

Perhaps in the final analysis that is all that matters.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica makes a distinction between four different levels of a story: StoryForming, StoryEncoding, StoryWeaving, and StoryReception. StoryForming deals with the actual meaning of the piece, StoryEncoding determines how that meaning will be described, and StoryWeaving is the process of deciding which part comes first and how the events will be told. The final step, StoryReception, is the subject matter of the above article.

Most writers only concern themselves with the first three, leaving the last to chance. It can be good practice though to assume the position of the audience and determine whether or not the message is being accurately received. Because the process of writing is such and intense and deliberate experience, this can only be accomplished by putting the manuscript down and leaving it locked away for several weeks at a time. Upon returning, the Author often finds that they have now assumed the role of the Audience and can look upon their work with new eyes.

If the meaning is clear, then by all means full steam ahead. If for some reason there is confusion or static in the transmission, then it becomes necessary for the Author to choose Save As and start a new draft.

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