I recently took my four old son to see Up, the new Pixar film. It's very good - well written, beautifully (and expensively) made and very sophisticated in that rather slick way that Pixar seems to have nailed for making films that work just as well for both adults and children. The opening of the film is an astonishing montage sequence that tells the life story of the central character Carl - voiced by Ed Asner - from his first boyhood meeting with his future wife Ellie to his present status as grumpy old widower in five minutes of beautifully observed animation.
The real story then begins, but everything in the opening sequence is necessary to our understanding of the rest of the film. Without spoiling things for anyone who might be planning to see the film, I'll just say that there are several action sequences later on in the film that involve savage dogs. My son got quite upset at these scenes - particularly a night-time one where Carl, his young companion Russell and their canine companion are surrounded by the dogs, who are all under the malevolent control of the antagonist Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). I reassured my son that everything would be alright in the end and we settled down again, but the final showdown on the top of an airship was too much for him and we had to leave – him in floods of tears, me wanting to know how the inevitable ending would be played out. "Up" was clearly following a traditional narrative in which good would triumph over evil – Muntz would be defeated and Carl would find a new place to live - and we were at the stage of the final complication before the denouement. But why would my son know this? Archetypal story structure is clearly something that has to be learned, however inherent it may appear. There are certain rules that must be followed for a satisfying narrative - and there is something satisfying about a well-told traditional narrative – and storytellers know that they mess with these rules at their peril. It would be inconceivable for Muntz to triumph – there would riots in the cinema. The skill in working with archetypal genres is keeping us engaged with how the inevitable ending will be achieved. We know that Gary Cooper will have to win the shoot-out in "High Noon" and that Catherine Bennet will have to marry Mr Darcy, but we don’t know how it will happen. Robert McKee has observed that satisfying films always have a scene that is made inevitable in the minds of the audience by an early occurrence – the showdown between Robert Shaw and the shark in "Jaws" has to happen from the moment he scrapes his nails down the blackboard.
I was telling a friend of mine (who also happens to be a storyteller) about the incident in the cinema and we got talking about context. He told me about some students who had told him that they had been to see “United 93” (about the hijacked plane that crashed on 9/11) with someone who hadn’t realised the context and was completely devestated by the ending – he had assumed this was a straightforward good v. evil film in which, whatever the odds, good would triumph in the end.
Archetypal stories are a source of fascination for me, and Bruno Bettelheim writes persuasively in “The Uses of Enchantment” about their purpose in fairy tales. Archetypes are necessary for us to discover things about the world and to understand how it works: we need the stories to answer the questions we don’t even consciously realise we have - Bettelheim was a Freudian after all - and what better way to find the answers than listen to stories?
(If you haven’t seen Up, find an excuse and go and see it - you can see trailers for it here http://www.apple.com/trailers/disney/up/. If you’re interested in archetypes, try Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” or Joseph Crane’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”; Robert McKee’s book on structure “Story” is very interesting, though primarily about film structure.)