Storytelling. Or, rather, the lack thereof.
I’ve been bemoaning the lack of good storytelling in most new movies for a number of years. I’ve even taken to calling it a lost or threatened art. There’s a lot I pile under the general umbrella of storytelling, including characterization, narrative flow, meaningful development and impact, engagement, depth and levels and layers… but it can also be boiled down to “the way a story grips you and engages you.” Good storytelling can take the most simplest of plots and have you so hooked you’re enthralled the whole way through. On the other end, however, it kills me when I watch a movie that has a very interesting premise, interesting ideas, and even interesting sequences and moments, a plot rich with potential… and it falls flat by a lack of good storytelling and leaves me feeling hollow in the end.
And sometimes there’s that really weird feeling where I leave the theatre having been entertained, but every step away from the theatre and the enjoyment fades. The movie ends up being poor (or worse, abysmal), and I’m not left with a sense of anything. Of intensity, of character, of growth, of engagement. Or even of a good narrative. And definitively no desire to see it again. And yet… in the moment… it was kinda… fine? Like sugar water; sweet, but no substance.
It seemed like a dichotomy… could a poorly told story really be so ok in the moment?
Well, HULK to the rescue to help clarify those odd feelings. And to write absolutely brilliantly in deconstructing what seems to be the trend in Hollywood these days, of how many of the big name directors and the big studios have, either inadvertently or advertently, misdirected themselves and have actually lost the thread that makes great stories, well, GREAT.
It’s a long read, and it’s all in CAPS since it’s written by the HULK, and it’s actually his review of The Force Awakens (a movie that also made me somewhat insane). And it’s written with dexterity and carefulness and consideration and a wonderful depth that you might not expect from the HULK. It’s completely worth the read:
There’s so much good stuff in there . Very much aligns with my own thoughts, and great for teasing them out in a way and in ways I hadn’t yet noticed or been able to pinpoint.
I don’t think it is an accidental choice of words when we say a good story is “spinning a yarn”. Because, like yarn, there are many threads that are beautifully woven together. Really well told stories are full of characters versus just a bunch of caricatures, and characters who act, consistently, in line with who they are. They can be rich, they interact authentically, and they grow. A really well told story has a solid narrative (not plot, but the actual narrative) that has connective tissue that engages and flows, rather than a series of moments or action moments hung up on a clothesline. A really well told story says something.
And it’s not a matter of whether it’s an “action” movie or a “comedy” movie versus a “serious” movie. That’s just an excuse to justify a badly made story/movie. Because you can absolutely, 100%, have great action movies that are also strong in the storytelling department. You can have tense action in a sci-fi movie, as this poster on Ars Techica put it:
“The [recent Star Trek reboot] movies haven’t been sci-fi. They’ve been action movies in space. That’s not what Trek is about. Wrath of Khan managed to get some exciting space battles in while still getting at the morality of not one or two but THREE dilemmas brought about by science: Khan’s genetically modified superhuman abilities, the potential for abuse of the Genesis Project, and not keeping an eye on the madman you left behind in an uninhabited star system. Separate from that, it dealt with the concepts of sacrifice and friendship and where they cross.”
This is just one more thing that has me loving Zootopia all that much more. At its basic level, it has an interesting plot (bunny cop trying to prove herself has to team up with a con fox while a conspiracy brews underneath). But it’s the storytelling that truly elevate the movie sky high. A narrative about hidden bias. Two rich, flawed, complex characters who interact authentically, consistent with their characters, along an arc, and who, very importantly, by the end, grow as individuals and together. The scenes progress seamlessly, are interwoven well, and rarely devolve into being used solely for action/excitement/scare/laughs. It’s a tight package.
And best of all, it’s in that category that most often gets so easily excused for poor storytelling: “Oh, it’s just a kids movie.”
There is no reason a movie that appeals to kids cannot also be an amazing story told amazingly. Miyazaki, Pixar and, when they do movies like Zootopia, Disney has shown us it can be done. And very well.
I know to some I may seem harsh or snobbish when it comes to movies, but I am not willing to excuse a lack of good storytelling when it’s demonstratively possible. I don’t say it’s easy – not by a long shot! I’ve written fiction and it takes time and practice to develop the skill. And even the best studios and directors and writers stumble. But it is developable. Also, not every story has to be or will be the most amazing story ever. A solid fair is still really darn good.
This is really a long winded post to just invite you to read that article by the HULK. It hones in on what makes so many movies disappointing and hollow, and I hope we can aim the movie producers back towards a sensitivity and understanding of good storytelling, so that they re-aim their efforts towards that rich and fertile land.
Storytelling is one of the most ingrained and human of our qualities. We need to honour it.