Every once in a while a contrast in styles and approach provides productive food for thought, and this happened to me after going to see the films Saving Mr. Banks and 47 Ronin. I’ve written before how I believe films, and screenwriting in particular, can be helpful in understanding effective storytelling. The contrast in these two films shows why.
I had low expectations for Saving Mr. Banks, a Disney movie centered on Walt Disney’s wooing of P.L. Travers, the author of the popular Mary Poppins childrens’ books. I thought the movie would be enjoyable but hardly something to wax enthusiastic about. I had somewhat higher expectations for 47 Ronin, a movie I thought would be packed with action.
But Saving Mr. Banks clearly outperformed 47 Ronin, both at the box office as well as in the art of storytelling. Banks was certainly aided by a top level cast, including Tom Hanks providing a competent performance as entertainment mogul Walt Disney and an Oscar-worthy turn by Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers.
A good movie, however, requires more than good acting to be successful. It also needs a good story. Banks shows how two strong personalities clashed over something they both found valuable–Disney bringing a popular children’s story to the screen in an innovative style and Travers protecting the integrity of her characters and story. Banks is a character-driven story, and each plot point pushes them to different points along their character arc. Attention is given to the psychological journeys of several characters, not just the leads. Even the driver shepherding Travers around Southern California for Disney has a clearly defined arc brought out through his interactions with the an arrogant, self-centered author.
The moviemakers also pay attention to visual details to link key ideas and themes. Details such as the metaphorical role of pears and a stuffed Mickey Mouse are carefully linked together throughout the movie to remind viewers of the the changes the characters experience and how their reactions are triggered by important, personal experiences. And each character reaches their own breaking point at different times, giving the plot a pace that keeps viewers engaged in what could easily have turned out to be a boring character sketch. (The film’s modest $35 million budget suggests the producers thought this might be the case.)
The result? Banks is a tight, well designed story that engages viewers through careful attention to interpersonal conflict as each of the major characters winds his or her way to a new place of understanding, trust, and self awareness. Each person is at a different point at the end of the movie than when they started.
47 Ronin, in contrast, is flat. And lumbering. I found just one well defined character arc–the lead samaurai, Oishi, who must overcome his own prejudices against an outcast to defeat a treacherous Japanese warlord. This is unfortunate because the tale of the 47 Ronin is well known in Japanese history, even considered by some the best example of the samaurai code of honor put into practice.
Ronin are rogue samaurai. In Feudal Japan, samaurai were honor and duty bound to serve their Lord. If their Lord fell into disrepute, or samaurai were disavowed by their Lord, they became outcasts. Or rogue. The 47 Ronin is the tale of how samaurai sought revenge against the treachery of another Lord to restore honor to their own.
47 Ronin had a lot of promise as story–plenty of conflict through betrayal, treachery, revenge-based code of honor, and a hierarchical society that punished individualism. The screenwriters added a character, Kai, a half-breed raised by Tengu (roughly translated as mountain goblins), probably to provide a connection to American viewers. And the screenwriters added fantastical elements, including a witch and giants. Unfortunately, none of these elements were well developed, nor were they used to create real tension between characters. As a result, the story falls flat.
The “fixes” are not that hard to find. Kai, the half-Japanese outcast, is a central figure and could have been used easily to bridge the gap between fantasy (Tengu/witches) the real world feudal Japan. The backstory could also explain the unwillingness of Oishi and his fellow samaurai to accept Kai despite his fighting skills and prowess. Instead, the Lord’s samaurai are forced to tolerate Kai (and his pining for the Lord’s daughter, Mika) because he was found near death as a boy. The Lord showed compassion. (A very western value at this point in Japan’s history.)
But these tensions are never really developed. In fact, they are stated, not shown, largely through narration. Kai’s character arc never really takes off, staying flat for the entire movie. He starts the film in love with Mika, accepting his place in the hierarchical feudal society of the Samaurai, and ends at the same spot.
This has the compounding effect of making the romance between Kai and Mika flat and unbelievable. A good story will see love blossom as the lovers face personal challenges and overcome them. Yet, in 47 Ronin, viewers are expected to just accept Kai and Mika’s mutual affection without any real interpersonal interaction or events that establish mutual respect.
The film is surprisingly sparse with its action scenes, too. This should have worked to make the movie stronger. Instead, the dialogue and action often hide important shifts in theme and plot, such as when the ronin shift from traditional samaurai fighting techniques to more stealthy, shadowy ninja tactics and strategies. Most viewers won’t pick up on this unless they are familiar with martial arts or Japanese military history.
Thus, 47 Ronin has a linear plot that fails to engage viewers because it doesn’t engage the characters. Ronin is a plot driven story, but viewers connect with human emotions not plot points.
These two films, Saving Mr. Banks and 47 Ronin, are examples of contrasts. Banks is a tight story that uses interpersonal conflict to move characters are along well defined arcs, engaging viewers. Ronin is a plot driven story that seems to leave its characters behind. In Banks, viewers are treated to a well crafted story. In Ronin, viewers are looking for one.