Mediocrity vs. Cliches
Around this time last year, when we were young, innocent, and oblivious of the horrors of 2020, people in internet circles were loosing their minds over a movie called Klaus. You have probably never heard of it, but if you had, it would have been by stumbling across it on Netflix or from hearing a YouTube reviewer singing it's praises.
The main reason people loved it was that it was traditionally animated. In fact, it's director, Sergio Pablos, worked on several Disney Renaissance films, and it shows. The animation is gorgeous. The character designs are stylized and unique. What I found the most pleasing was the color palette, which I would describe as pastel watercolor. The film is set in the Far North, and the dour scenes feel cold and depressing while the heartfelt scenes look warm and cozy. The film was a visual delight.
The story? Eh, it was ok.
The reviewers I watched tended to focus on the beautiful return-to-form animation that we rarely see in the days of 3-D animated films while not noticing, or ignoring, that the story was kind of blah. It was a typical "rich-kid-layabout will get cutoff if he doesn't prove himself", with a heaping helping of "The Liar Revealed", which is one of the most annoying tropes in the history of narrative, but we'll get to that later. There's also a subplot that's basically the Hatfields and McCoys, and a randomly villainous matriarch who decides to keep being the villain because... conflict, I guess? Sure, there were a few original ideas—mostly involving Klaus's wife and the couple's struggle with having children—but overall nothing to write home about. The "feelsy" moments were unearned; I felt nothing.
Now, you'll notice that in the previous paragraph, I described many cliches, but I would not describe Klaus as cliche. I would describe it as mediocre. As I said, it was an ok story, but only ok. The problem was that it took its cliches and painted by numbers, which is why it could never rise above mediocrity. A film that knows how to play with cliches—not even necessarily subverting them, but just getting creative with them—can rise to greater heights.
Cliches as Genre: Road to El Dorado
Let's look at another gorgeously 2-D animated film: The Road to El Dorado. This film, too, is rife with cliches: Europeans being mistaken for gods by a non-western civilization, a witch doctor (basically), going native, the Leyenda Negra, and so on. It also features the cliche of two scoundrels going on what is basically a buddy-comedy adventure. The thing about many of these cliches is that they are part of the genre. That genre is as general as "Adventure fiction", where it's not unusual to encounter witch doctors and native tribes and such, and as precise as "Road to" comedies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, which El Dorado is unarguably a pastiche of. Simply read the "running gags" section about these films on Wikipedia and you have a blueprint for El Dorado.
And that's the point. El Dorado follows a number of cliches because those are staples of its genre. Cliches, contrary to popular opinion, are not only not an automatic flaw in, but are often essential to, a work, especially when those cliches are what make a story a recognizable example of the genre in question.
El Dorado, however, plays with it's cliches. Most notably, it portrays the natives as normal human beings, which, lets be honest, a lot of old-timey adventure fiction didn't do. Miguel, one of the two main characters, sees the beauty of the culture he and Tulio, the other lead, find themselves in. The "white men mistaken for gods" trope is also played with in that the chief of the tribe figures out rather quickly (or possibly always knew) that Miguel and Tulio are just normal men like himself.
Thankfully, the film never strays into noble-savage territory, which lesser stories stumble into in their attempt to make up for the racism of the past. The natives have personalities, flaws, and vices. Chel, the female lead, is a floozy and a thief who happily joins the con that Miguel and Tulio are pulling, which she sees through immediately. Tzekel-Kan, a priest of a human-sacrifice-loving religion, is not only a zealot, but also a murderer, in that he sacrifices his own assistant to summon up a Jaguar spirit to hunt down the two false gods (yeah, that happens. Seriously, if you haven't seen this movie, you're missing out!). The characters, both white and POC, are fleshed out and three dimensional.
Finally, there is the story itself, and it's conclusion. Let's compare it to Klaus.
For those who never saw it, Klaus ends with a Liar Revealed scene where the scheme of the main character, Jesper, is revealed, and all his friends frown at him despite him obviously having changed by that point. Then a chase scene happens so Jesper can prove he's really changed, then a reveal that there was no good reason for the chase scene to have happened, then the main character is forgiven for his honestly-not-that-bad previous lies.
The whole story boils down to rich-kid learns a lesson and opens his heart, giving up his richness for the true treasure of generosity. Unfortunately, a lot of that was derailed by the weird Hatfields-McCoys subplot, which felt cartoonish next to the heartfelt-ness the rest of the film was trying (and maybe failing...) to achieve. It felt forced, in that the film needed that subplot so the chase could happen, and they only needed that so the Liar Revealed could make up for his Revealed Lies. Bleh.
El Dorado was more organic. Miguel and Tulio, by the last third of the film, have grudgingly decided to go their separate ways, with Miguel deciding to stay in El Dorado (the city), which he has fallen in love with, and Tulio and Chel going off with a shipful of gold that they presumably sail back to Spain ("And buy Spain!"). These are not happy conclusions, as it means a break in their inseparable friendship.
But then, Cortez, the Big Bad, shows up! Note, unlike the Hatfield-McCoys in Klaus, he is introduced in the beginning of the film as an actual threat, and has an understandable goal: conquest and gold. Miguel and Tulio, knowing this, decide he has to be stopped. That's when Tulio—the objectively more greedy, in-it-for-himself, not-gone-native of the pair—realizes that the only way to save the city is to crash his boat into the columns at the city entrance. It's a good plan, but will mean that he has to sacrifice what he wants: gold. But he makes the sacrifice, because he has become more that just a guy lying about being a god for money.
But then the boat isn't going to make it fast enough because the sail is stuck! It's gonna crash, and not in the way they wanted! Miguel, who had fallen in love with El Dorado and was willing to part ways with his friend and treasure to stay there, as to ride out on his horse and jump onto the mast to unfurl the sail. He knows the ship will then whoosh towards the columns and the only entrance to his beloved city with be destroyed, stopping Cortez, but also blocking him from the city forever. But he makes the sacrifice, because he cares enough about the people in El Dorado to let them go, and enough about his friend to not let him smack into the columns and die.
The Liar Revealed: Why It's Bad
Those were the conclusions to each movie, but not the conclusion to this blog. We still haven't discussed why the liar revealed is so lame, and how to fix it.
First, what is it? Basically, Main Character lies about something—his motives, his identity, etc.—for a large chunk of the story, then somewhere around the third act, his lie is revealed! Usually, this means that all the other characters turn their back on him, literally and figuratively, because they can't imagine how he could do something so terrible. Then, he does something to prove his mettle and his heart, and then everyone forgives him.
And I hate it. I hate it for three particular reasons.
First, it is just a different version of the thing that happens in romcoms where the main couple should declare their love for each other, but because the writer wouldn't know what to do at that point, they introduce a stupid misunderstanding that could be cleared up in two seconds if the leads talked like grown-ups. The Liar Revealed is that stupid, tired trope, but for kids.
Second, the lie is sometimes understandable, or not even that bad. In Klaus, Jesper claimed to be trying to spread hope and good cheer by sending kids presents, but in reality, he was trying to rack up the number of packages/letters he sent to prove to his dad he wasn't a useless layabout. How... despicable? Is it though? And can't he do both? He literally did, and he could have said so, except that the movie pulled a romcom and he got seperated from his friends before being able to explain that it started out mercenary and then quickly grew into the real deal. Even if it hadn't, though, like... is wanting to prove that your not a gutless layabout a bad thing? I don't get it.
Third is when the lie might be bad, but it's too late to care. In A Bug's Life, the colony learns that the so called warriors that Flik brought them are actually circus performers, so they have a reason to be miffed. Then again, they learn this on the eave of the day the grasshoppers will come to murder them all, and as Flik says, his bird doohickey will work. Not only does the colony have no reason to doubt this, they have no better options. Get all frowny and turn your backs on him after you lose the battle tomorrow, cause you have no time for such romcom drama tonight.
The Liar Revealed: When It's Good
Now, just because the Liar Revealed is awful doesn't mean that we can't keep having liars who eventually prove that they've changed in our fiction. But we don't have to follow the same tired trope.
For example, Over the Hedge has the Liar of RJ the Raccoon be Revealed, but saves the fallout between him and the other animals for a later action sequence, with hilarious results. Watch Schaffrillas Productions's video for a more detailed explanation of how this trope is dealt with in this film.
Or we have Tangled, where Eugene, by rights, should follow the Liar Revealed trajectory. He starts off scruffy and selfish, then slowly falls for Rapunzel and her good and pure outlook on life. He goes to give the Stabbington brothers the swiped crown that he no longer desires, but gets conked on the head by Gothel, who tells Rapunzel that he left with it cause he was just using her. We have a misunderstanding; we have a Rapunzel sadly walking away from the "liar"; we have the trappings of the last act of a romcom. But then, the real liar is revealed: Mother Gothel! And as soon as Rapunzel knows this, she never doubts Eugene, because that would be boring and nonsensical.
Finally, we have Road to El Dorado, with two liars, Miguel and Tulio, who are pretending to be gods to get wealth and adventure. They change over the course of the film to care about something more. They prove this change in a climactic scene We have all of the Liar Revealed, except for the reveal. There is no scene where everyone in the city frown and turns their backs, because that's not needed. The story isn't about the characters earning the forgiveness of the community like in Klaus, or proving themselves like in A Bug's Life. It's about two dudes who are scoundrelly friends going on an adventure, becoming a little less scoundrelly, and remaining friends. In the end, they both gave up what they wanted, but that's ok, because they have each other. Is it cliche? You bet! But that's way better than being mediocre.