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Chaste romance - John C. Kirk

Apr. 4th, 2011

01:41 am - Chaste romance

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A couple of months ago I watched Night at the Museum, based on billyabbott's recommendation, and it turned out to be better than I'd expected. Quoting from my Flixter review:

Slow start, but worth watching. If you liked Mannequin or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, you'll probably like this too. The first 20 minutes are just setting up the basic premise, so you can skip them if you've seen the trailer. The next 25 minutes involve a lot of running around, but nothing particularly interesting. It then gets a lot better, and stays good for the remaining hour of the film. I think they could have chopped out the whole subplot with Larry's son and made it a better film. The cast do a good job; in particular, between this and Scrubs, I think Dick Van Dyke has redeemed himself for his accent in Mary Poppins.


This weekend I saw Night at the Museum 2. This film is a lot of fun, and a good example of how to do a sequel right; in particular, they avoided the slow build-up by getting to the point very quickly. The brief blurb I'd heard ("Jebediah and Octavius get transferred to a different museum and Larry goes to get them back") is technically true, but there's actually more to it than that, and the premise makes sense.

There's a good balance between old and new characters. There are several funny scenes, but also a few bits that run deeper. The romantic subplot worked a lot better than in the first film, but I disagreed with one particular aspect of it. This has got me thinking about the way that other stories have handled a similar concept.

Spoilers follow for:
Mannequin (1987)
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Spider-Man: Redemption (1996)
Bedazzled (2000)
Nightwing (2001)
Night at the Museum (2006)
Gargoyles (2007)
Night at the Museum 2 (2009)

The basic concept of Night at the Museum is that there's a magic tablet that makes all the exhibits in the Natural History Museum come to life at night. They turn back to statues etc. at dawn, but if they're outside the museum then they turn to dust. Larry (the protagonist) is the new security guard working nights, so he has to deal with the mayhem that ensues. In the end, he finds a way for all the exhibits to co-exist peacefully.

In the sequel, most of the exhibits are put into storage under a different museum (the Smithsonian), and the tablet goes with them. This means that they all wake up in a new location, and the "local" exhibits also wake up. Larry then gets a panicked phone call, saying that they're in trouble, so he goes to help. When he reaches the museum, and sneaks into the basement, he finds a frozen tableau.

This is an interesting scene, because the viewer has to figure out how everyone wound up in that position. It looked a bit like an SG-1 episode: Kuhmunrah (Egyptian pharoah, the main antagonist) and several troops were surrounding a storage container and brandishing weapons, while Larry's friends were all huddled inside pointing their weapons outwards. Based on that, I assumed that this was pretty much their last stand; they'd been cornered, and they were desperately trying to keep the aggressors out, but they'd only been saved by the dawn. When the sun set, and everyone unfroze, Kahmunrah's troops closed the door and locked the others inside, which wasn't so bad. My theory was quite chilling, particularly for a family film, and it reminded me of the "holding hands" scene in Toy Story 3, i.e. young children wouldn't realise the implications so they wouldn't be upset. On the other hand, it's possible that I just got the wrong end of the stick, and that this is simply my warped imagination. For anyone else who's seen the film, what did you make of that scene?

There are various new characters at the Smithsonian, and I particularly liked Amelia Earhart, even if her portrayal isn't historically accurate. She uses words like "skedaddle" and "moxie", and she explicitly says that she's looking for fun and adventure. She gets on well with Larry, and various other characters assume that they're a couple, but he turns her down. He says that he likes her, and that he liked kissing her, but they can't be together. She seems to be unaware that she's a waxwork (as opposed to the real Amelia), and he's reluctant to break it to her. Since this is a family film, they're careful not to spell some things out, but he's basically saying that they can't have sex because she lacks the relevant orifice(s).

At this point, we have to look at the nature of the magical transformation. In Mannequin, Emmie is made of plastic, and Jonathan actually assembled her. She turns into a real woman when nobody else is around, but then turns back into plastic if anyone else sees her. When she's in her plastic form, it would presumably be quite safe for him to remove her arm and reattach it, but when she's real she's flesh and blood, and the film strongly implies that they had sex. At the end of the film, someone feeds her plastic form (and all the other female mannequins) into a giant industrial shredder, and she only becomes real once she's fallen off the conveyor belt and is dangling above the blades. Jonathan was trying to rescue her, so this was something of a mixed blessing. It meant that she could grab his arm, giving him a better chance at pulling her out; however, if he failed then she would experience a painful death, whereas it wouldn't hurt in her plastic form. (If you want to know what happened, go and watch the film!)

As for the museum exhibits, the dinosaur skeleton remained a skeleton when it came to life: it didn't get any flesh. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln's living statue still looked like stone, and a bronze sculpture of Roosevelt still looked like bronze. From a production point of view, the waxworks were replaced by living actors (rather than CGI), so there was a visible change. However, in the first film a living waxwork of Roosevelt gets cut in half and he doesn't have any internal organs, so that implies that they stay as wax when they wake up. I've been to Madame Tusseaud's, and the waxworks are very lifelike; they're dotted around the building (rather than being on plinths), and there were a few times when I thought that a waxwork was a real person, and vice-versa. So, from the characters' point of view in the film, I don't think that Larry would be able to tell the difference between a "dead" waxwork and one that had woken up but was standing completely still.

There's a scene in Beauty and the Beast where Mrs Potts (the enchanted teapot) jumps off the mantlepiece down to the ground. According to the DVD, the animators argued about this, because some of them said: "She can't do that, she'll shatter!" They had to work out what she was made of, since she could move her face around and china isn't known for its flexibility. In the end, they concluded that all the enchanted staff/furniture were made of "Disneyum", which can move around but mimics the properties of what it resembles at any given time, e.g. the teapot would feel like china and the clock would feel like wood. Regarding the mantlepiece, they compromised by putting a cushion underneath to absorb her impact.

I assume that a similar principle applies to the museum exhibits. Quoting from one review: "It's like the family friendly version of falling in love with a blow-up doll." That reviewer also suggested that kissing Amelia would feel "like smooching a crayon" , although Larry didn't seem to have any complaints.

There are other stories that have addressed this issue. In Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker shot Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl) in the spine, and she's been paralysed from the waist down ever since. During Chuck Dixon's run on Nightwing and Birds of Prey, she gradually got closer to Dick Grayson (Nightwing, formerly Robin), but their romance had a few stumbling blocks. Here's some dialogue from Nightwing #38:

Barbara: "For a long time I felt I had to cope with losing the use of my legs. I had to learn to get over it. And I beat myself up for the longest time. I couldn't 'get over it'. I missed walking and running and turning on the bathtub faucet with my toes. It wasn't until I realized that I'd always miss my legs. It wasn't until I realized I'd never not miss them. That's when I could get on with my life. But I had to leave a lot behind. Dancing. Skating. Feeling carpet on bare feet."

Dick: "And me?"

Barbara: "And you."

Dick: "It doesn't matter to me. It doesn't."

Barbara: "It does to me."


Again, they haven't directly addressed the issue, but I think the unspoken assumption is that her paralysis would limit their activities, and I'm glad to see that it hasn't put Dick off. I think that physical intimacy is important in a romantic relationship, but there are several ways to express that. For instance, here's a scene from Spider-Man: Redemption:

Rooftop

That's stuck in my mind ever since I first saw it, because of what it implies: these are two people who are totally comfortable with each other. Coming back to Night at the Museum 2, I think that Larry and Amelia could do exactly the same thing: regardless of her internal anatomy, there's nothing to stop them from hugging, holding hands, etc.

Still, maybe I've misinterpreted it completely, and Larry had a different reason for keeping his distance. After all, she will only be around at night, so it would get complicated if he wanted to introduce her to family and friends. However, I've also come across another example of that: Gargoyles. As the intro says, they were "stone by day, warriors by night".

During the course of the TV series, Goliath (lead gargoyle) developed a close friendship with Elisa Maza (human detective). More recently, there was a comic that continued the story, and these two characters had to re-assess their relationship. Since they're both adults, they agreed that they had to be realistic. In Elisa's case, she wanted to settle down at some point and raise a family; not right away, but that wouldn't be practical with Goliath. Leaving aside the biological problems, they wouldn't be able to have family picnics on a sunny afternoon while he was a statue. As for Goliath, he respected her choice. So, they moved on, and dated other people from their respective species. This was something of a mixed success: they admitted that they loved each other, and basically said "Screw it, we'll sort out all the practical problems later." (As Elisa put it: "We can have a picnic anytime ... and normalcy's so over-rated.") I would have liked to see Larry and Amelia take a similar approach; at the very least, it would be worth a try, rather than rejecting the idea out of hand.

At the end of the film, Amelia admitted that she knew what would happen in the morning, and she was ok with that because she'd packed so much into the night. She flew off into the distance, but it's not clear whether she got back to her museum before dawn. So, either she turned to dust, or she'll stay as a waxwork forever, since the magic tablet went back to the original museum.

There was (apparently) a happy ending: Larry met someone at the museum who looked exactly like Amelia. Since she's human, this avoids all the logistical problems that he would have had before. However, I felt that this was rather unsatisfying. The unnamed doppelganger had a completely different personality to Amelia: she was shy rather than outgoing. So, that implies that any romantic spark was based purely on her looks, which seems quite superficial.

Bedazzled involved a guy (Elliot) selling his soul to the devil in exchange for 7 wishes, and he used these to try and wind up with Alison, a colleague whom he "loved" from afar. Each wish went wrong, and in the end he just wished for her to be happy; this had the serendipitous side-effect of voiding his contract, i.e. he didn't lose his soul. After that, he took the simpler approach of asking Alison out on a date, but she said no. However, he then bumped into someone else who looked exactly like her, and did hit it off with this new lady (Nicole). So, this type of ending can work well, under certain circumstances. The key difference is that Elliot never really knew Alison; they weren't friends, so his attraction was always superficial. That meant that Nicole was an equally good match for him, and it turned out that they actually had more in common.

Having said all that, I'm not a "shipper", i.e. I'm not really bothered about the love lives of fictional characters. However, I like to figure out the mechanics of storytelling, so that I know why some stories work better than others, and there may be a few principles that I can apply to my own life.