Serious kids’ movies

In which I alienate fans of Labyrinth by arguing that an excellent codpiece by itself doesn’t create the reverence and dread of a real drama.

First the news: I had another hen eaten by a fox on Saturday, so I replaced her with four new birds that I know are female (backstory: a year-and-a-half ago when I got chicks, we accidentally got a Wyandotte rooster, who the kids named R.L. Stine). I have a sequel to Firesage outlined, tentatively called Watermark, and a rough idea for a third book in a trilogy. After some thorough beta reading I have almost got Firesage ready to send to my agent, and I think this one will sell. Despite his wariness that epic fantasy is a “cold genre” I think editors will relate to the primary question of what the main character will do to make a good life for her unborn child. I went to the bookstore the other day to look for comps (and I found some good books), but I always walk away with the feeling that my books are so unique people won’t know what to do with them. I don’t think I have ever read or even heard of a fantasy book that deals with the unique anxieties faced by pregnant women, so I’m hoping that will do it for me (if you have heard of one, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter).

The biggest editing hurdle I had to cross, noticed by a beta reader, was the repetitive actions I had. These were typical Robert Jordan-style repetitions, like his infamous “she crossed her arms beneath her breasts” (not to mention skirt-smoothing, mustache-knuckling, braid-tugging, sniffing and snorting).  Unlike some readers, these things never really bothered me, I never really noticed them, but I do agree that he could have skipped many of them.

I crossed my arms beneath my breasts and sniffed my way to a finished manuscript, with a smile

It’s a mark of a particularly immersive, objective style, that tells the reader absolutely everything that the character does, but the choice I made a while ago was to let the reader fill in those gaps. I do want to follow an immersive style, but somewhere less descriptive with respect to physical action than Melanie Rawn or Robert Jordan. The “actors” in the reader’s head do not need to be thoroughly described, and I mostly have decided to rely on dialogue and adverbs (the horror, the horror) to convey emotions, I suppose a bit more like J.K. Rowling at her best. So, using Emacs regular expressions (my primary editing tool) I was able to kill 138 smiles, 52 laughs, 48 head shakes, and 30 sighs. Considering that the book was about 118,000 words, almost 0.15 per cent of words were some form of smile. In some passages there was a smile in every other line of dialogue. That’s too much, considering that it’s easier to just establish the mood then turn it (if you need to) with a particularly forceful line of dialogue or an action.

In other news, I am thinking of taking up renaissance lute, but I just can’t get my hands on one…

A Serious Movie For Kids?

An intense, dark, and moving film…for kids?

After reading Auston Habershaw’s post about dread in children’s films, I happened to have already scheduled a viewing of The Dark Crystal with my kids for Friday Movie Night. We watched Labyrinth a few months ago, and while I had definitely seen Labyrinth as a kid, I couldn’t remember The Dark Crystal. Labyrinth was disappointing (as an adult) despite a few good moments with David Bowie, particularly the dream masque sequence. The Dark Crystal, in contrast, was just about as serious as you can get with Muppets, and I was quite moved. Auston made the point that it relies to a large extent on dread, as did many other fantasy movies of the late seventies and early eighties, and I definitely see his point. I am more interested in how it so successfully avoided being corny, trite, or sentimental.

The first thing I noticed was the creators, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Brian Froud et al., didn’t shy away from making the characters scary and reverent, the necessary opposites that have to unite. They took them seriously. Jen is a childlike creature, yes, but his childlike gelfling quality doesn’t exist simply to endear him to the audience. It’s handled in the story as something that he has to live with: he knows (mistakenly) that he’s alone in the world, and that he’s lucky to have the Mystics to take care of him. Once he strikes out on his own, he doesn’t do funny dances with mysterious creatures in the forest who disappear at the end of the scene. He has a problem, and he has to solve it, and that directs everything that happens to him along the way. His gelfling naiveté also makes him a target, and since that’s made more and more clear through the story, there’s a tension that just isn’t there in something like Labyrinth. Toby might become a goblin, but who cares?

Another serious quality of the film was the imagery the storytellers employed. They used sacred iconography and symbolism to right away get the viewer into a state that recognizes, from the core of our psyche, the importance of what Jen must do. Long spans of time (a thousand years ago), dying races, a dying world, and an impending astronomical event. We don’t have to be told the significance of these events. They create an instant time bomb (just add danger). Furthermore, the sacred imagery extends to the characters: the Mystics (who don’t even need that name, but it sure helps) are clearly based on Tibetan Buddhist monks, with enough changes that they aren’t trite. For example, the mandala they’re making is close enough to recognize, but not a true mandala (it’s a spiral). Thanks to the image of the crystal itself, I have to wonder if this movie was the result of Henson reading Jungian psychology, or at least Joseph Campbell. There is no clearer symbol of permanence than a diamond, something like the philosopher’s stone.

Too cute for my taste

This is part of an ongoing attempt to figure out where sentimentality comes from, mostly so I can distinguish it in my own writing and avoid it. Labyrinth’s main failing, as I mentioned obliquely, is its picaresque quality: that Sarah encounters a series of obstacles that are not particularly logical in their progression. The action does ramp up, but her task is too simple (get to the middle of the labyrinth), and she doesn’t encounter anything truly unexpected except making a few new friends along the way. Interspersed among these bizarre dance scenes are slightly less bizarre scenes of David Bowie singing, so that we are reminded constantly that we’re seeing (as the trailer tells us) the brilliant minds of Jim Henson, George Lucas, and David Bowie. A couple of those songs are really good, but you might as well just watch the videos or get the soundtrack. Jen in The Dark Crystal, on the other hand, is not anyone we recognize: we see him only in the story, and we don’t ever stop and say “when do we get to the next David Bowie song?”

The Dark Crystal is just a better-told story where all along we know the stakes (what will happen if Jen fails), we know the motivation, we know who the players are. Can you tell me why Toby was kidnapped? Even in the sweet relational moments of The Dark Crystal, like the Dreamfasting, the story never falls into emotion for its own sake. It all serves the story.

The Dark Crystal gets so much right that I wonder how Labyrinth was made by the same people. Maybe it was the “genius” of George Lucas and David Bowie (and Terry Jones!) that screwed things up. They were probably also told that The Dark Crystal was too weird, and crafted a follow-up that was notably more kid-friendly. The way the filmmakers, including Brian Froud, used their imagery and kept to the story was incredibly effective, despite all the temptation to slip into a string of Fraggle Rock scenes. I’m going to have to watch The Black Cauldron again.

Oh wait, David Bowie’s codpiece negates everything I just said.


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