I recently watched the latest Disney animated film, Encanto, which tells the story of a most magical family. Each member of the Madrigal household has been gifted with some unique and fantastic power…except for one. For some reason fate chose not to give Mirabel any special ability, which produces an awkward tension between her and the rest of the family.
Like many other Disney animated films, the movie begins by introducing the characters, their interpersonal relationships, and the flaws that are holding them back. But then, where most of Disney’s animated works would then introduce a life-threatening villain, Encanto does not.
It wasn’t only until I reached the halfway point of the film that I realized I should stop waiting for the big baddie to appear. Clearly this film was aiming to do something different.
Perhaps the most common formula for films today, and certainly the formula for most Disney animated features, is that we meet our characters, learn of their flaws, but then all of that gets interrupted by the onset of a life-threatening villain. Our heroes must stretch themselves to overcome that villain, and that effort ends up resolving their personality issues as well.
This is Mulan, in which we are introduced to a Chinese girl who is unable to follow the rigors of provincial feminine tradition, and who is certain she will never be able to bring honor to her family. This problem is seemingly put on hold when the Mongol horde invades China and Mulan joins the army to fight him. Through this path, though, she finds a new role that she is well-suited to, one that can still bring honor to her family.
This is Aladdin, where a poor, street waif longs to stop stealing scraps of food and wield some real power for a change. There comes a chance encounter with a magical genie that allows him to pretend to be a prince, but then a terrifying wizard emerges, and Aladdin is bested by him because of his reliance on his false identity. Only when he embraces his street-smart roots is he able to outwit the foe and find peace with the hand fate dealt him.
And this is also Hercules, where a god is kidnapped from Olympus and turned nearly mortal. He has lost his immortality, but regained a portion of his divine powers, leaving him in an awkward middle ground where he doesn’t fit into either world. Then enters Hades, the arch-villain seeking to kill Zeus and take over the entire cosmos. Though he is not himself a god, Hercules enters the battle and stops Hades, along the way finding a place and a person to whom he can truly belong.
And, of course, this same template applies to countless other stories as well. This is Star Wars, Rocky, Jurassic Park, and The Wizard of Oz. The idea in each of these stories is that the characters we are introduced to at the beginning need to evolve in some way, and the arch-villain is the necessary crucible that gets them through that transformation.
But what if a story accomplished its character development without the use of fantastic elements? What if the interpersonal tensions were introduced, as in the heroic narrative, but the arch-villains were left out? What if the driving force was not one of physical combat, but a war of conversations and ideas? What if the hero experienced profound change, but only through the same sorts of experiences that we do in real life?
Well, then we would have a drama. We would have a story that was all about personalities and relationships, where dramatic intrigue was the driving force that brought the audience from start to finish, not fantasy. It might be that the drama is centered around an extraordinary situation, but the people and their relationships feel as nuanced and relatable as those in our own lives.
This is the case in the King’s Speech, a biopic about King George VI, who struggled to deliver his speeches due to a speech impediment. We follow his relationship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who became his close friend and confidante. And yes, there are turns and shifts in the story, there are sympathetic and antagonistic characters, but there is never an ultimate dragon to be slain. It is simply a story about a King who learns to work through his stammer by also working through his personal traumas in the home of a friend.
A Beautiful Mind is another biopic and a drama, this one about mathematician Josh Nash. Interestingly, this film behaves as though it is working up to some great arch-villain as Nash is hired by the United States Department of Defense, and danger begins to escalate around him! He even finds himself in the middle of a shootout with KGB agents at one point! But then we find out that all of this is in Nash’s head. He truly is a brilliant mathematician, but everything about cracking codes for the Department of Defense and run-ins with soviet spies are nothing but the side-effects of schizophrenia. Then Josh Nash’s true battle begins. Not against spies and assassins, but against his own mind. His quest changes from saving the nation to saving his marriage.
And while there were elements of magic in Encanto, the driving force behind it was also dramatic intrigue, not fantasy. This was a bold direction for the film to go in, because dramas are typically more difficult to pull off. Fantasy is inherently more sensational, while drama must rely on subtler techniques to hold an audience’s attention. Fantasy is an easy way for a writer to hide their weakness in developing characters and relationships, whereas a drama lives or dies by those abilities. This isn’t to say that a fantasy cannot be an excellent piece of work, just that a drama can be a truer yardstick of a writer’s raw skill. And to be honest, Encanto revealed a few weak points in its drama, but also had quite a few highs.
My Fantasy Drama)
In my latest story I took a story that would be a heroic epic fantasy, in which the main character set off from his childhood home to travel an immeasurable distance for a miracle, and I turned it into a drama. I did this by setting the story at the end of the journey instead of the beginning. This meant that we were already past any of those fantastic crucible moments that would have transformed my protagonist. Instead, the story is about the qualities of the man as he is today, which are laid bare by his long conversation with King Taq’ii. And, at the same time, my strengths and weaknesses in character portrayal and conversational intrigue are laid bare for all to see.