On not-horrible movies and the nature of dreams

So among other things (like catching up on laundry and email and getting outside more), finishing a book tends to mean taking in some mindless movies. I don’t watch movies much in general, but there’s a certain pleasure, in a certain mood, in hitting a second-run theater alone and kicking back with low expectations and some popcorn by your side.

Turbo, the story of a snail who dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500, seemed about up to the task.

It was by the numbers, but more or less successfully by the numbers, and I bought in enough to care about the title character’s success. Along the way there were characters of color in central roles; and while the movie didn’t come anywhere close to passing the Bechdel test it didn’t fail spectacularly, and there were random background women of all species as well as slightly more than the token minimum of foreground women–though I did have issues with a snail being mistaken for a girl passing as humor because, well, girl. And, yes, I was sold on the idea of a snail in the Indy 500–I actually think that’s a brilliant whack idea.

But one of the things the movie was by the numbers about was having big dreams and achieving them, and there are two things about this formula in particular that I found myself wanting to talk back to as I watched.

1. To achieve your dreams, you just have to want it badly enough and to never give up.

The problem here is the “just” part.

Because heart and belief are crucial … but they aren’t enough. You also have to put in the time to develop the skills, no matter what natural ability you bring to the table. We see the title snail (it makes me happy to type “title snail”) dreaming big dreams, and despairing of reaching them, and receiving encouragement and discouragement, and ultimately finding within himself the strength to succeed. What we don’t see, for the most part, is the snail working to up his skills, practicing, learning–and repeating what he’s learned over and over again until the learning becomes habit. It’s not just the dream that you have to never give up on; it’s the striving to master the things it takes to make the dream real, as well as the practicing and always trying to be better even when you think you’ve already learned all you can.

Heart will get you started, and stubborness will keep you from giving up too soon, but if all you’re being stubborn about is reminding yourself how much you want it … that isn’t enough. The day-in, day-out trudge of working at one’s sport or one’s writing or one’s craft of any sort doesn’t always make for compelling fiction (though it can), but, well, that’s what training montages are for. Instead we get heart and yearning and a bite by a radioactive spider drag-racing car, though to be fair that last isn’t what saves the day in the end.

“You just have to want it bad enough” also implies that if you don’t succeed at whatever you set out to do you didn’t want it bad enough, which is a whole other problem.

2. Winning is all or nothing.

The movie makes clear that if our snail doesn’t win the Indy 500, it’s over, his dreams have failed, he goes home with his head tucked inside his shell.

Except. Dude. This is the first snail in the Indy 500. If he came in second, he’d still make news and make history and draw attention to his human companion’s dream of running a successful business. He’d do that if he came in seventeenth, too, or last. He’s a snail in the Indy 500, he’s run faster than any snail has ever run before, and the world really isn’t going to yawn and say, “But he came in second.” In fact, it would take some serious media spin and suppression of footage to make the world think this is anything but awesome.

It’s like yawning and saying, “But she only won a Newbery Honor.” Newbery Honor books regularly go on to sell and to be at least as well-beloved as Newbery winners, sometimes more so. Books that have never won any award in their lives go on to do this, too. For most things, there really isn’t a single one “make or break” moment or a single way to succeed. And even in sports where technically there is only one first place, there are other ways to be awesome and/or capture the hearts and imaginations of those around you.

The idea that it’s all about one moment and one winner taking all not only isn’t true, but is a myth that regularly stresses out people putting their all (heart, belief, stubborness, effort) into any number of things.

Okay, one more thing. This one has nothing at all to do with the nature of dreams.

3. Evil corvids

Epic did this too, though to be fair Brave did not. What’s up with assuming the corvids are the bad guys in kids’ movies? The self-centered, tricksy, out-for-their-own-best-interests guys, sure. But that’s not the same thing.

One thought on “On not-horrible movies and the nature of dreams”

  1. For a movie where the main characters don’t reach the all-or-nothing goal but win anyway (as opposed to learning winning isn’t everything, which is a different sort of story), The Muppets is one of the few examples that comes to mind.

    ETA: And just saw The Heat, which (in addition to being rather good) managed this in a way that didn’t feel like a failure or undermine the main character in any way, too.

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