Today my kids and their cousins were watching Robin Hood, which reminded me of this post, which I wrote for an old blog of mine. This one is for the writers and story analysts out there. Enjoy!
My son has been watching Disney’s Robin Hood lately. A lot. As in, every day if I’d let him.
There are certain advantages to the three-year-old tendency to stick to familiar things. I’ve had plenty of time to study this movie. Conclusion?
Robin Hood has fantastic plot structure.
get away employ certain jokes Disney could never make now—I told my son that he’s never, ever allowed to cat call a woman, no matter how funny it is when the foot soldier whistles at Little John in drag—but the movement of its plot line is pitch perfect. I’m learning a lot, watching it.
Let me go scene by scene. I’ll be referring to both Michael Hague and Larry Brooks’ plot structures.
1) Introduction: Robin and Little John walking through the forest, being chased by the Sheriff’s posse.
This is the hooking scene. It also shows Robin, Little John, and the Sheriff in a characteristic moment. We know that Robin is an outlaw, that he and Little John are friends, that they have a good sense of humor (which makes them immediately empathetic), and that the Sheriff is their enemy. We have conflict, but we do not have the direct presence of the story’s main antagonist, Prince John, which, according to Larry Brooks, is just as it should be.
2) Robin and Little John talking up in the tree, having escaped pursuit.
Here we have the set-up. There’s a bit of light conflict as the two converse—Little John asks, “Are we good guys or bad guys? You know, our robbing the rich to feed the poor?” to which Robin objects, “We never rob.” The first scene establishes the story’s stakes, and this scene establishes their moral character, motivations, and skill—Robin’s playful display of his archery skills, an important part of the plot.
Their decision to rob whatever trumpet-blaring procession is passing by constitutes the 10% opportunity, or (according to Michael Hague) the 1st Turning Point leading in the New Situation. To cite the usual examples, this is Thelma and Louise deciding to head out of town for a girls’ weekend away, or Luke accidentally finding the message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi and deciding to go in search of him.
3) Prince John and Sir Hiss in the carriage, discussing taxes and usurping King Richard’s crown.
Enter antagonistic force. The previous scene establishes the protagonist’s motives and backstory, this one establishes the antagonist’s.
4) Robin and Little John putting on disguises in order to rob Prince John.
Conflict: once Little John realizes who they’re going to be robbing, he doesn’t want to. Establishes stakes.
5) Robin and Little John rob Prince John.
The inciting incident: Robin and Little John incite the action by choosing to rob Prince John. This scene makes Prince John aware of their presence—until then, Robin Hood was not on his radar screen.
It also establishes the antagonist’s motives for the 25% Turning Point—not only did Robin Hood steal Prince John’s money, he left him humiliated, in his underwear, wet in a muddy puddle.
6) Narration; the Sheriff versus the people of Nottingham, Part One: Friar Tuck and Otto the blacksmith dog.
We enter the next scene, set in Nottingham (up until now we’ve been in Sherwood Forest), focused in on the new reward poster. In a few lines of narration, the Rooster moves us through the 25% Plot Point: Prince John wants to capture Robin Hood, and Robin Hood decides to ignore it and keep robbing the rich.
Now we’re introduced to secondary characters and the direct, visible motivation for Robin’s actions: the poor people themselves versus the heartlessness of the tax-collecting Sheriff. As Otto says, pious puppy-dog eyes lifted to Heaven, “God bless Robin Hood.”
The Sheriff of Nottingham is Prince John’s puppet and part of his antagonistic force.
We also see Friar Tuck in a characteristic moment: he loses his temper. It is a character trait that advances the plot, later in the story.
7) The Sheriff versus the people of Nottingham, Part Two: Skippy’s birthday present.
The Sheriff interrupts little Skippy the bunny’s birthday party and swipes his birthday gift (“One whole farthing!”) for the tax collection. Definitely an action aimed right at the heart of our youngster movie-watchers. Now we all understand Robin Hood’s motives.
Here is Brooks’ “pinch point”—the driving antagonistic force halfway between the 25% and 50% points.
At this point, only Robin Hood is fighting back against the Sheriff. The people are in doormat mode—an important point, as this changes later in the story.
Robin Hood himself enters the scene and rectifies the sad birthday situation, as well as temporarily relieves Mother Bunny’s money situation, further establishing him as the hero of our story.
At this point, Robin Hood is fighting the antagonistic force, but not well—more stemming the tide than solving the problem. Larry Brooks calls this the “wanderer” phase of Act II—while Robin’s decision at the 25% point locks him into conflict with his antagonist, he has yet to effectively fight him.
8) Skippy shoots his arrow into Prince John’s backyard; we meet Maid Marian.
What a cute scene. We need an introduction to Maid Marian, whose presence is important to forwarding the plot, and this does the job splendidly.
The scene has clear conflict: Skippy needs his arrow back, but it’s in forbidden territory. Maid Marian is there, and in a characteristic moment: playing badminton (so upper-class) and laughing with her funny lady-in-waiting, Lady Kluck. Immediately we know she’s good-natured, young, refined, and, if not exactly a woman of action, her playing a game of badminton shows her be alive. When Skippy enters the scene, we immediately see that she she is “awful nice” and loves children. Finally, when the kids ask her about Robin Hood, we see her faithfulness in her love for him.
In short, an Ideal Woman, and worthy of the affections of our hero.
9) Maid Marian and Lady Cluck on whether or not to give up hope.
A short scene and, coming off a scene with the children, a peek into grown-up life and grown-up love. Conflict: Marian thinks he’s forgotten her, and Lady Kluck thinks not.
10) Robin burning the chow.
Domestic scene back at Sherwood Forest, and a setup scene for the all important Midpoint. Conflict: Robin thinks Marian has forgotten him and wouldn’t have him, regardless. Little John thinks not.
Enter Friar Tuck with news about the archery tournament Prince John is hosting. Motivation: Marian will give a kiss to the winner. (The Prince has instinctual knowledge of Robin’s internal motivations: pride in his skill and love for a woman.)
11) Prince John’s trap: the Archery Tournament.
This is a long and complicated scene, this midpoint scene. What makes a midpoint scene? The hero is drawn out of himself to take a huge risk, fighting the antagonist, in order to achieve a particular goal, the action of which changes the entire course of the story. It’s the Point of No Return. This scene does this brilliantly.
What does Robin want? Marian’s kiss.
How will he achieve it? In disguise. It’s the path with fewest risks.
Does he get these things? Yes. But not without Robin becoming undisguised and entering into open battle with Prince John… the Point of No Return.
It also involves Robin’s first martyrdom. He’s arrested and ordered to die for his actions, but it’s his, “Long Live King Richard!” that puts Prince John over the edge. While he doesn’t choose martyrdom, he forwards it along by acting according to his principles.
(Midpoint martyrdom. Paging Christopher Vogler!)
This scene effects the entire cast—because, of course, everyone shows up to the party as a good Midpoint would have it. We have main protagonists against main antagonists, secondary heroes against secondary villians, and, by the end, the whole of Nottingham has joined in the fight, on one side or another. This battle royale (heh) transforms Nottingham from passive victims to active fighters. Even the refined women have tossed in their lots, with Marian choosing Robin and Lady Kluck’s football player antics. I doubt they were let back into the castle after that.
12/13) Lovey-dovey and a party.
These don’t really constitute scenes, as there’s no conflict, but they do function as a “little resolution” following the Midpoint. Plots need these down times, especially here, after the Midpoint. Go-go-go action is exhausting after a while; the quieter plot moments set the stage for more elevated conflict.
Two things are established: 1) Robin and Marian love each other, and 2) the entire town is now joined in their efforts against Prince John, who’s now an object of open mockery.
14) Prince John fights back.
When Prince John learns of the town’s open mockery from Hiss and the Sheriff, he reasserts his power by raising taxes in revenge. Pinch Point #2.
15) Townspeople in jail.
Again, not so much of a scene (conflict is implicit) as showing the results of Prince John’s decision.
16) Friar Tuck gets arrested.
Here is the 75% point, the lowest of the lows for our heroes. The conflict is between Friar Tuck and the Sheriff over the money in the poor box. Friar Tuck, angry and raging, calls Prince John a number of names and then attacks the Sheriff with a pole. The Sheriff arrests him for high treason.
As Hiss makes us aware in the next scene, this is the height of evil, a step gone too far—they’ve arrested and plan to execute “a man of the Church.” I suspect the full implications of this are lost on today’s audience; it seems Prince John has inherited his father Henry II’s penchant for overstepping Church-State boundaries.
17) Prince John stews, then plots.
Moving toward the climax—the antagonist makes the first move. Prince John decides to use Friar Tuck as bait to capture Robin Hood.
18) The Sheriff makes a gallows; Robin Hood finds out about Friar Tuck
Conflict: Robin Hood needs information about what is going on. He obtains it in disguise from the clueless Sheriff, but not without having to turn aside the suspicions of his guard. It moves the plot forward.
19) The Jailbreak. The Treasury-break. CLIMAX.
I’m going to count the entire jailbreak episode as one scene. It could be broken up into a series of smaller conflicts, each with their own resolution, for or against Robin Hood. But I think it functions as a whole.
The entire climax moves from heightened conflict to even more heightened conflict, to the pinnacle of conflict—literally so, as Robin Hood is driven to the top of the castle and forced to jump down into the moat to escape—forced to jump to his probable death. In the end, Robin Hood chooses martyrdom.
(Act Four martyrdom. Paging Larry Brooks!)
The scene is an appropriate response to the set-up preceeding it—we’re prepared and anticipating this specific conflict. It’s the most direct; it’s also both the protagonistic and antagonistic forces at their fullest.
Plus, the stakes are high: rescuing the innocent, who are now at risk for death (they’re being shot at!), and robbing Prince John of his unjust wealth motivate the heroes to risk their lives for others. We know from the previous scene that Robin’s capture will entail “a double hanging”—his and Friar Tuck’s.
In the end, our hero emerges from the moat water victorious, and Prince John’s actions have destroyed his entire self, as represented by his “mother’s castle.”
King Richard returns, fixes everything, Robin gets married. Happily Ever After.
See? I told you it was a near-perfect plot. 20 scenes and not a one of them out of place, all working toward the end goal: defeat Prince John. The pacing is great, the goals/motivations/conflicts are great, and the motion from Orphan, to Wanderer, to Warrior, to Martyr is perfect.
But that’s what Disney does, right?
And this is what I think about while my kids rot their brains out in front of the Boob Tube.