A Mass of Faces)
It was once a selling point for movies to show a huge mass of people on camera at the same time. Epics like The Ten Commandments or Gone With the Wind would proudly boast of having “a cast of thousands.” And to be sure, it must have been quite a feat getting so many extras costumed, placed, and rehearsed.
Sometimes it wasn’t just extras, though. Some films would go to great lengths to pack one cameo into their film after another. Films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and How the West Was Won sold themselves on having a “star studded cast.” We still see shades of this today, where the latest Avengers films work every major star of the franchise into a single, epic package. Of course most of these stars are only side-characters. Once you start writing primary motivations and arcs for more than four characters, things become exponentially more difficult.
This was one of the core pillars of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, though. The series was known for not only having a wide cast, but a cast that all had very specific, very mutually exclusive objectives. Each of them crosses the others in a multitude of ways, and it becomes a daring feat just to keep track of it all.
In the first film the intricacy was limited to the competing motivations of Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann, Captain Barbossa, and Admiral Norrington. By the end of the third, though, you can add to that list Davy Jones, Tia Dalma, and Lord Beckett, as well as several secondary characters with individual objectives, such as Governor Swann, Bootstrap Bill, and Captain Sao Feng. It’s very impressive that the writers were able to keep track of them all, but also it becomes overwhelming in some cases. A common complaint of the later films was that it was impossible to keep track of everyone’s motivations, and why exactly they were doing the thing that they were doing at any particular moment.
Of course a large cast is not the only way to add complexity to a story. The Lego Movie has a more standard-sized cast of characters. Emmett, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, and Lord Business are your main crew, with support from Batman, Good Cop/Bad Cop, and Finn. But what sets this movie apart is how it is bursting with style and ideas.
The animation is frequently chaotic, with so many pieces moving across screen that it is impossible to track them all. Settings change at a blistering pace, too, from a modern city to the old west to a cloud paradise to an evil businessman’s lair to a live action basement in modern suburbia. The dialogue and the jokes come rapid-fire as well, hardly ever allowing a moment for the audience to settle before being whisked off to the next piece of humor.
Yet for all this complexity the film is not incomprehensible. For while the periphery is in constant motion, the underlying story is relatively straightforward. Emmett is believed to be a prophesied chosen one, come to save the world from the oppression of a tyrant. To do so he must learn a special set of powers, as well as overcome his own insecurities. In other words, it’s a classic hero’s tale, one that the audience is abundantly familiar with. It does add a unique wrinkle or two to that formula, such as Emmett not being the chosen one and him befriending the villain rather than destroying him, but its ideas are still so grounded that we are able to follow along in spite of all the visual pandemonium.
Chaos for It’s Own Sake)
But would it work for a story to change its settings as constantly as The Lego Movie, with a cast as wide as Pirates of the Caribbean, and refusing any sort of grounding narrative to carry the audience through?
As horrible of an experience as that might sound, Monty Python and the Holy Grail fits the tumultuous bill and remains a very satisfactory piece even so.
To begin with this film is nothing more than a series of comedic skits, one after another after another. They are tangentially related to a central quest for the holy grail, but are all still very disjointed from one another. Every scene goes to a completely different setting, with absolutely no attempt to place it in the broader landscape. They all introduce new characters that are absolutely central to that one skit, but then dropped afterwards. Whole plot threads are begun without ever being concluded…including the film’s central quest of finding the holy grail!
At the very end of the film the band of knights may or may not have found out where the grail is being held, and either way they decide to have an epic battle on the matter. Thousands of soldiers appear on either side of a wide field, with a shout they surge towards one another with weapons raised…and then get stopped before they can clash together by the police and are all arrested. The End.
It is the film’s final joke, a way to make clear that this whole thing is not about the quest, nor about the narrative thread, nor about the character development. It’s about the skits. And that’s it. And if you liked them then that’s great, but if you wanted a more traditional narrative experience you’ll have to go look elsewhere.
I would say that my current story has fallen under that same category of being about its individual moments instead of an overarching narrative. The reason to read about these children playing pretend is because you like to read about children playing pretend. There really hasn’t been a greater plot or character development or greater message to it.
I have thought about adding one. I toyed with the idea that Mavis could be moving away and this is his last hurrah with his friends. But honestly I think that would distract from the central idea of having fun for it’s own sake.
What Monty Python does well, though, is not overstay its welcome. Playful indulgence remains a delight for only so long. It is best when consumed as a nice, little bite. The Time Travel Situation used to be a great deal more longwinded, it was on track to be as much as eight posts long. But thanks to writing these a couple weeks in advance I had the opportunity to go back and trim it down a great deal. Hopefully it will be fun and rambunctious, but then leave before it becomes too much. Come back on Thursday as we follow it into its final setting.