Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Movie Third Acts That Worked

It is with scared trepidation that I await The Dark Knight Rises. It's the third movie in a thus-far fantastic franchise. The first, Batman Begins, was a mind-blowing reboot of the Batman story.  The Dark Knight was that rare sequel that was even better than the original. Naturally, we should have nothing to worry about with this third and final movie. Right?

I know you know the answer to that question. We've been down this road twice before with both the Spider-Man and X-men movie series. The first was good, the second even better, the third ruined the franchise so badly that both have since been rebooted. (And those reboots are so far pretty good.)

Even the earlier Batman movies were not immune to this phenomenon, though that time it took four films to take down Batman before Nolan had to reboot it. The question that hangs over the Caped Crusader's cowl like the Sword of Damocles is this: will history repeat itself, or will The Dark Knight Rises be one of those rare third acts that are actually good? We'll all see soon enough.

The good news is that there are some third acts that did manage to work. Sometimes they were just as good as the rest of the series, and on rare occasions they were the best ones of all. Because I prefer hope to despair, optimism to pessimism, I want to talk about the movies that worked. (And if we can all just toss the ones that didn't down the memory hole, that would be great.)

Return of the Jedi

Why it almost didn't work: Believe it or not, the original ending had Lando Calrisian and Chewbacca die as they tried to escape the exploding Death Star. (Which is why Han Solo mentions feeling like he's never going to see his ship again.) Test audiences hated it, and Lucas reshot a happier ending where everyone was still alive except for Darth Vader, the Emperor, and everyone still on the Death Star when it blew. OK, a lot of people still died.

You probably thought I was going to take a shot at the Ewoks, didn't you? Well, I first saw that movie when I was six. I freaking loved the Ewoks, and I always will. Take your Ewok hate somewhere else.

Why it did work: Because it was Star Wars back when Star Wars really meant something. It was the Paul Newman style sting at Jabba's palace and the fight at the Sarlac pit. It was the space battle at the fully operational battle station. It was Darth Vader turning against the Emperor. It was the film that gave us the Akbar meme. Who didn't want a speeder bike after watching this film? And of course, every male 12-18 had the image of Leia in a metal bikini permanently etched into his brain.

Yes, we all agree that Empire Strikes Back is the best of the bunch, but that doesn't diminish Jedi at all. It's still a great third act and a fitting end to the series. I've seen this movie parodied in Lego, Clay, and Family Guy. It's iconic, and you can always spot a Jedi parody the instant you see it. This movie is a part of pop culture, and it still influences us today. For all of its flaws, it worked.

Back to the Future Part III

Why it almost didn't work: They're going to the Old West? Really? It seemed like a silly idea. One of the big themes of the series, besides hilariously uncomfortable almost-incest, was nostalgia. The first and second movies were not only steeped in 50's nostalgia, they tried to imagine what we'd be nostalgic for thirty years later. (In other words, now. Yes, you are getting old.)

But who was nostalgic for the Old West? Were they completely out of ideas? Isn't the Old West where franchises go when they're on their last legs.

Why it worked: Except when it comes to nostalgia, the Old West is perfect. People who grew up in the 50's were nuts about Westerns. Every other show was a western, often about some lawman in the Old West. (They were the police procedurals of their day.) That's why it made sense for the last film to go back to that time.

Besides, juxtaposition can be a great source of comedy when it works. Why do you think Mark Twain did it? Putting Doc Brown and Marty McFly in the Old West made for some silly moments, including the 1800's version of Wild Gunman, the invention of the Frisbee, and everyone mocking the name 'Clint Eastwood.' Marty's "authentic" western wear was also hilarious.

In addition were all the things that paid off in this third act. The car accident. "You're Fired!" Marty's ingenious use of the stove door. All were plot points the second movie deftly set up, and it made rewatching part II that much better when you finally see those little moments you didn't catch the first time around.

Finally, they had the sense to make this movie last one in the franchise, and we can all be grateful that there's not a fourth movie out there doing unspeakable things to our childhood memories.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Why it almost didn't work: Peter Jackson could have included the book's ending in the movie. After a triumphant victory against Sauron, our heroes would have journeyed home to the Shire to find it destroyed. The end. Roll Credits.

Why it worked: Tolkien purists may disagree, but I would argue that Peter Jackson was right to excise the Scouring of the Shire from the final movie. (He was also right to remove Tom Bombadil. Get over it.) By keeping the focus of the films on the One Ring, it helped make an almost unfilmable trilogy into one of the classics of our time.

Even though the movies had a much happier ending, all was not well. While Hobbiton remained intact, now with Sam as its mayor, Frodo still suffered from the Ringwraith's wound. He wasn't happy, returning to his quiet life. So in the end, two friends who went to the end of the world and back had to say goodbye. Sam had to watch as his very best friend in the world sailed away forever.

To get to that ending, we still had to contend with epic battles, big evil spiders, armies of orcs, and giant Oliphaunts that only count as one. The movie retained all the action and charm of its predecessors and brought the story to a fitting close. Plus it also won the Academy Award for Best picture and tied Titanic with 13 Oscars overall. And they didn't even have to pointlessly kill Leonardo DiCaprio to do it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Why it almost didn't work: It could have been directed by Chris Columbus. Now, before you think I'm knocking him, Columbus did many things right in his first two movies, including casting Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, McGonagall, Snape, Neville, and Malfoy. He also brought John Williams on board to write the now iconic Harry Potter theme. It's not that he did a bad job with the first two movies, it's that this third movie needed someone else behind the camera.

Why it did work: Alfonso Cuaron. Thanks to him, Prisoner of Azkaban is often regarded as the best of all the Harry Potter movies. Yes, I'm still annoyed that they didn't take two seconds to explain who exactly were Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, but that doesn't diminish the fact that this movie was a near-perfect adaptation of the book.

The first thing Cuaron changed was to give Hogwarts a darker, more Gothic feel to match the theme of the story. It never got to the almost oppressive moodiness of the last few movies, but instead struck a balance between being in a world of magic, and that world being a very dangerous place. It didn't mean that there weren't playful notes as well. The Whomping Willow clearly stole the show.

The story itself, one of betrayal and revenge, was a lot more grown up than the last two installments. Perhaps one of the biggest reveals in all of Harry Potter history was the true identity of Ron's rat, Scabbers. I rather enjoyed the time-travel element, and it had a very nice Back to the Future vibe as Harry and Hermione tried to avoid interacting with their past selves. (And no, they couldn't have used the time-tuner to go back and prevent Voldemort from rising. It doesn't work like that, stop bringing it up.)

While the series as a whole is already becoming a classic, this third installment is arguably the best of them all.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Why it almost didn't work: Spielberg could have brought back Kate Capshaw and Short Round for another adventure. Or he could have used the Chris Columbus script that would have seen Indiana Jones go to Africa to fight a monkey prince. (Now I am knocking him.) Instead, Spielberg learned from his mistakes and gave us this movie as a way of apology. (Now if we can just get one for Crystal Skull)

Why it worked: By basically remaking the first movie. We had Nazis chasing after a Biblical artifact and Indiana Jones has to get there first. He's accompanied by Sallah and Marcus Brody as they criss cross the Middle East. What's not to love?

And just to make it even sweeter, who better to play Jones' father than Sean Connery? No one, that's who. Spielberg learned that if you're going to give Indiana Jones a sidekick, you make sure that person is awesome, not incredibly annoying. And if that sidekick happens to be a disapproving father who used to play James Bond, you've got yourself a classic. The best scenes were when Indiana and his father constantly bickered while trying to escape certain death. Even Nazis trying to bring about the end of the world can't stop a father and son from arguing.

The rest of the movie was equally good, from thrilling chases involving tanks and motorcycles, to the three tests to make it to the grail. And of course, who can forget the man who chose poorly? But the best moment of them all came at the very end with the final reveal, making us question everything we had ever believed about Indiana Jones. "We named the dog Indiana."

Toy Story3

Why it almost didn't work: Disney and Pixar were on the verge of parting ways, and Disney had the rights to the Toy Story characters. They would have put all their direct-to-video talents into making this third installment. Thankfully, Pixar and Disney made a new deal and Disney's terrible ideas were shelved.

Why it worked: Let's start with the obvious. It can make grown men weep. Whether it's watching the toys accept their fate in the incinerator, or Andy playing with them one last time before giving them all to Bonnie, it's enough to make you question the humanity of anyone who isn't even slightly touched.

This was an incredibly brave movie, because rather than keep Andy young forever, Pixar acknowledged that time constantly moves forward. More than that, it explored what happens when children outgrow their toys. Do they get sold off, donated, thrown away, or locked in an attic for years? This isn't a particularly happy movie, as the toys are so desperate for any attention from Andy that they resort to stealing his cell phone just so he'll open their box. Toy Story 3 is about growing up, what happens when we do it, and how that affects those around us.

A lot of the audience of the Toy Story movies grew up with these characters, and chances are they wore out one if not several VHS copies of Toy Story 1 and 2. I'm sure many young adults can identify with Andy, themselves leaving home and their childhoods behind.I have a feeling Toy Story 3 will be a favorite among college freshmen for years to come.

Of course, in addition to the emotional weight of the film, it's also very well made. The humor is as sharp as it ever was, particularly with Buzz Lightyear's Spanish mode. The animation was up to Pixar's usual standards, and if you saw it in 3D, you know that they are masters in that medium.

All in all, this was a fitting end to the Toy Story trilogy.

As we can see, it is possible for the third act in a movie trilogy to be good. We've yet to see it in a superhero movie, but there's always a first time. This is the year The Avengers redefined how to make a superhero franchise, so anything is possible.

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