How two openings of films of the same genre prepare the audience for the rest of the film
Each film, book and play can be categorised under a specific genre, within which it is moulded to a formulaic pattern of content, agenda and above all, its own exclusive narrative structure that works towards the climax and success of these stylised ingredients. The majority of genres intentionally reveal the very core of the entire story by hinting at what type of film it will be; we are given almost a taste or flavour of the content by setting the atmosphere with the first image, graphic or letter that appears on screen.
In this essay I will compare the opening sequences of two films of the same genre, each belonging to the fantasy adventure category. A particular formulaic structure applies to this genre, an extremely literal and graphic ideal that coincides with the target groups; it has a youthful charm of clarity that would appeal to both children and adults alike. To satisfy the audiences of the 1980’s with its mass interest in the weird and wonderful world of fairytales, film demands were met in such pictures as ‘Legend,’ ‘The Last Unicorn,’ Labyrinth’ and ‘The Never Ending Story,’ arose.
They all achieved great success at the box office and on home video. I found the latter two, perfect examples as their narrative structure, atmosphere and most crucially, their opening sequences remarkably identical. They are, however, surprisingly unique pictures, with unique storylines on both sides- the magical and the realistic. But it is the collaboration of the two and how a child’s adventure interweaves and restores an equilibrium between worlds that makes these films a genre in their own right.
It is the mix between dreams and the “real world” that stands the test of time and repetition. This alternative method also caters for most modern audiences who demand the additional humorous element to the classic fairytale; humour as contemporary references become key ingredients within the story and to the new breed of filmmaking. This ‘update’ in the fairytale genre breaks away from the classical formula resulting from the fact that the medieval concepts of princesses and knights on white horses do not apply to or individualise the modern screen.
This change is present in the very first frames of ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Never Ending Story,’; the opening credits both introduce magical elements in the form of the nemesis; they then proceed to the hero/heroine in reality as we know it, this is where the story begins. Simultaneously, the plot reverts back to a concentrated magical content, where the quest commences. This synergy between the opposing ideals represents the juggle that the worlds and characters will experience, therefore suggesting that various transitions from one to the other or disequilibria may occur.
Such mixtures of the two include all elements of the film -hence the literal imagery. (Now in detail we can observe that differences and interpretations of collaborations between the two openings): for example, these modern fairytales tackle realistic issues such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the midst of teenage life.
Sarah, heroine of ‘Labyrinth,’ is obsessed with “the classics” and playacts these stories in her bedroom and in what is very shortly after revealed to be a local park; a mid-shot shows her running through it, over a troll-like bridge wearing a long flowing dress and such styled hair that we would presume she were an innocent maiden in a classical fairytale. But moments after, the spell is broken, the clock strikes and the beautiful and naive maiden turns to her faithful canine friend and proclaims- “Oh my God, Merlin, I can’t believe it- it’s seven o’clock! Together they run rather ungracefully, the lovely Sarah hitching up her nymph-like dress to reveal a pair of jeans. This is the primary example of humour within the film, as the parody of the classical ‘Cinderella’ and the infamous story of the clock striking twelve introduces the modern fairytale. The audience can expect repetitions of such events throughout the film. However, the humour involved should not be regarded as satirical, as these events serve a purpose. In addition to an earlier comment, the films appeal to all age groups as they can all relate to the pressures and ordeals of adolescence.
The object of the quest in both films is material, simply significant as in the classics. But the root of all troubles and disequilibria is a personal affair, one of confusion and isolation. The opening troubles of both characters show their readiness to escape the pressures of the adult world, they both retreat into books and their own fantasies as a method of escapism- the object of their quest is not essentially to “grow-up” but to find their own personal equilibrium between the two worlds, the two extremes, childhood and adulthood, this is the complex resolution.
The irresponsibility of both teenagers tempts the fates, with a poisonous mixture of fantasy, parents, responsibility, obligation, hormones, school and dreams. The father figure in ‘The Never Ending Story,’ states that the hero, Bastion, should stop day dreaming, and commands him to get his head out of the clouds. With a possibility that these films with such obvious and media covered hints as to magical content would take a sensible and realistic direction would be impossible; this statement prepares the audience for the exact opposite to occur, we can expect a whirlwind of adventure, colour and excitement!
These characters although considered minor roles play a crucial part at the beginning of both films: they assist creation of mood, anticipation, and in accordance to their stature have the noble task of sending the heroes on their physical quest. They play the stereotypical equivalent of a dispatcher in Propp’s character functions analysis. These essentially insignificant characters accidentally and unknowingly commence the physical quest by voicing their ignorant and realistic views! I say ignorant as such characters do not venture to reach their minds past the boundaries of everyday life, an aspect that must remain if the narrative structure is to remain intact along with the hero’s final acceptance of both worlds. ) They are the first to bring the inevitable to materialisation by tempting fate, a personal issue that is pushed out of proportion until it affects something physical: for example, Sarah becomes intolerant of life with her family and so calls on the Goblin King to rid her of her baby stepbrother, Toby.
He then becomes the physical object of the quest. These characters appear in both pictures as members of the hero’s family- once again the fairytale formula becomes apparent as “your Majesties,” become “Mom and Dad. ” (Another parody is revealed as the stepmother of Sarah actually compares herself to ‘one of the wicked stepmothers in one of her stories. ) They open the film with the first shots of human characters, followed by a few scenes executed with such reluctance that a sense of routine fills the screen; this conveys to the audience the contrast between the character’s two worlds and an atmosphere of tension that awaits the return of a scene filled with all the colour and excitement of the opening credits. This reluctance is continued with outbursts or confrontational behaviour from both characters as Bastion, hero of ‘The Never Ending Story,’ demonstrates a frank opposition to his father’s suggestion, “it’s time to get your feet back on the ground, stop daydreaming. This is a typical comment by such an ignorant dispatcher; its surfacing is immediately recognised as something that lays in opposition to all expectations, all major hints! This is but an additional method to building up suspense for the arrival of magic, mystery and excitement! The audience can expect such references to continue throughout the film, with such imagery and meaning playing a part in plot development and in many cases, the resolution. Any comment or action that lays in direct opposition with confirmed expectations (and therefore being contrasts within the film,) can be expected to repeatedly surface.
Although not by any stretch of the imagination a secondary or insignificant character, Sarah has a trait of jeopardising her own future. The illusive nature of the film ‘Labyrinth,’ leaves this section of the plot slightly unclear (this reflects its tag line ‘where anything is possible and nothing is what is seems. ‘) However, I can determine that we see Sarah almost reading her own adventure, or perhaps a classic that she must relive and reinterpret to reclaim the physical object of the quest.
The mid-shot of Sarah running through the park is sustained as she recites a stanza while making eye contact with the camera. This is not explained or hinted at but the authority the character demands while reciting suggests some future significance, as does the fact that she failed to remember the last line- a fact that she is also aware of. As the plot develops, the audience is introduced to the relationship between the magical content of the poem and her adventure. This is another example of how one seemingly harmless gesture or piece of speech can affect the remainder or future of the film.
These elements almost place the audience on a pedestal, as we are aware of a crucial fact that threatens the equilibrium of both worlds. We feel important and so another dose of anticipation along with concerned feeling for the character is given. Furthermore, I believe that recurring images are incorporated in the opening sequences, by as mentioned before, the physical nemesis. This has additional relativity to the ‘The Never Ending Story,’ as the villain of the piece appears in form as thundering, rolling clouds.
The significance of the dispatcher in the film and his comment is an extension and continuation of the nemesis in the opening. We see ‘The Nothing,’ a complete mass of sweeping and rolling clouds mounting the credits in the background. From the audience’s perspective, fantastical content is confirmed by the combination of such magical elements. The villain in our second film ‘Labyrinth,’ takes the form of a graphical white barn owl -that has been slightly aged by technology- as it encircles the credits. At this point, the audience may or may not be aware of fact that these are indeed the future arch rivals of the piece.
However, their threatening appearance suggests much significance, and a technique that captures the innocence of the child’s movie and the complexity of the modern fairytale; the method that is used in both opening sequences is ingenious because of its direct approach. There is no anxiety within the audience, the battlefield is set, the opposition has already entered the ring! The audience now is left only with a sense of excitement -for the hero to walk into battle,- and anticipation for the true form of the nemesis to materialise.
The opening inclusion of both villains is but a taster of their power and true form; suitably placed for a gap to spread, time to build anticipation for the owl to transfigure back into the towering silhouette of The Goblin king, and ‘The Nothing’ to be revealed as the absence of human belief in fantasy. As the audience, we are prepared to deal with such immense entities by being given a diluted version, hence awaiting a shocking revelation. Images within the opening sequences and their narrative structures begin the entire story of the film. They all re-surface throughout the film, we call this a recurring theme.
The image of the white barn owl enters the first scene which depicts Sarah in her maiden costume. Both ‘diluted’ equivalents of the villains are used to dramatic effect in their own unique way. The owl is seen to follow and watch her wherever she ventures, his image appearing on clocks and household objects; this close relationship so early on in the film perhaps suggests an intimate relationship between the two characters. Although it is a very subtle hint of chemistry, the audience can expect this relationship to develop in relation to the human appearance of the Goblin king.
His manifestation into human form is well anticipated from the very first opening frame: this is continued until his arrival after Sarah calls upon him for his service. The depth and emotion in her speech is reflected by the subtle undertone of thunder, as violent blue lightning flashes in the background, mixed and contrasted with the low key lighting tones. The heroine speaks of the Goblin King’s confessed love for herself (although referred to by herself in the third person), the storm steadily increasing in velocity outside.
The entrance of the Goblin king is imminent, showered in a new ultra blue blast of light, dark drapes and a black cloak swishing around him in the darkness. This villain has all the characteristics of a classical fairytale nemesis, emphasised by extravagant cinematic effects: a wide-pan shot at a slightly upward angle to exaggerate the majestic nature of the character, a contrasting jangle of bells to compliment showering glitter (to convey his magical existence and the increased level at which he stands out. )
I have spent a great deal of time comparing the ironic and narrative structure of both pieces to emphasise the symbolism of magical and realistic elements. This particular genre uses a fairly strict formula to which the hints of the remainder of the film are included in the structure of events, not the mood, atmosphere, lighting or camera angles. This is because the films use hardly any metaphors or symbolism; the use of pathetic fallacy in ‘Labyrinth,’ does not symbolise the transition between the realistic and the magical, it is the transition between the two worlds!
As lightning strikes, the Goblin king makes his entrance and sweeps our heroine into a world of fantasy and struggle. There are no bigger meanings or suggestions conveyed through lighting techniques, only recurring themes and images that return to affect the resolution! However, there are some aspects of film technique that apply to the opening sequences of both films, primarily the use of colour.
Distribution of the spectrum is used to great cinematic effect, as the colours are the primary clues as to the transition between both worlds. The sequence of the opening credits uses such recurring images, while suitable and fantastical tones are integrated. The leap back into the world as we know it adopts a duller pallet, thus emphasising the perspective of both main characters. It is evident the naturalistic lighting is exaggerated with use of this limited pallet.
We can observe that pathetic fallacy is a classical fairytale technique used to convey the emotions of the central characters in an obvious and visually stimulating concept, therefore demonstrating that the world within the film is manipulated and is sub-humanly linked with them: the world that we see on screen is the world through the eyes of the central character. As dawn sweeps over the twilight of the world of the labyrinth, over Sarah who stands at its gates, the scope is filled with dusty oranges, ambers and shimmers with glitter- a new pallet is revealed.
Her arrival here is new, the world is new, the rising sun symbolises that this is a strange land to our heroine. Sarah’s thoughts and emotions are once again integrated onto the screen through the choice of colour, symbolised with a new and unpredictable use of colour. The audience can expect such symbolic behaviour with the use of colour, bending and altering with the hero’s perspective. This is also true to the subject in ‘The Never Ending Story. ‘ The theme song adjacent to the film is one that includes numerous relative themes with such lyrics as ‘… here upon the rainbow,’ and ‘unfold beyond the clouds. ‘ This is again an introduction to the perspective of the central character. Fantasia is the “world of human fantasy” this is Bastion’s fantasy of fantasy, therefore his perception of the magical realm is one of swirling, flying colour, every shade of the rainbow in fact! An alternative example of use of colour to illustrate a character’s interpretation is the use of technicolour film in the classic picture ‘The Wizard of Oz. There is an intentionally obvious jump between the grey film used to depict Dorothy in her home town of Kansas and the technicolour used to shoot the fantastical land of Oz. The modern fairytale cannot escape its innocent roots, as colour is the primary technique of conveying the literal difference between our lives and the world of our dreams. The simple truth is that our lives will never reach the exuberance of our imagination. The material or emotional things that are desired by humans everywhere are demonstrated and designed in fairytales with colour used to symbolise the significance of the object.
In ‘Labyrinth,’ the object of the quest is symbolised by his clothing, a baby-grow slashed with a striking contrast of colour, in bands of red and white. Tight stripes are often associated with an obscure theme, goblins and mazes of which fit this description. The red for desire (he is sought by various parties) and white for innocence. Such colour association is present from the very opening frames, and prepares the audience subconsciously to be aware of any symbolism that may compromise the sequence of events. The opening credits, scenes and sequences of these two films follow a formulaic structure, to one common end.
Their agendas until the physical quest is begun is none other than to introduce the modern fairytale, and the key element that brings the films into the 2oth century, the transitions of characters, perceptions, plots and morals between the fantastical and the “real world. ” When this foundation is set, and the audience has become accustomed to the pitch of this particular film genre, the film can then move on to tackle the characters and their struggle in the physical quest and the ingredient that makes these films a modern fairytale, the juggle between both realities, between adulthood and childhood.
Both films share the same complex resolution, however, I believe it is the slight age gap between the heroes of our story that varies the mission statement of the entire film. I believe that both opening sequences equally prepare the doting audience although one remains clearer in an explanatory context: the equilibrium that heroine Sarah finds, is one of acceptance and the will to embrace adulthood at last. The adventurer inside her will always remain, as she admits in a particular scene (or the recognition in accordance to Propp’s theory of the film).
But her age will take her onto the next stage in her life, becoming a woman, facing what she was so dreading. Meanwhile Bastion lies on the brink of his teenage years, his equilibrium is also one of facing his fear, although he uses magical assistance in his revenge against the bullies at his school. Bastion at this age wants to experience this juvenile satisfaction; experience the highs of childhood, something he was never able to do; taste the sky, fly through the clouds (literally).
Bastion’s journey is one of experience, the joys of youth, while Sarah’s is one of courage and self-growth. This variation is apparent at the beginning of the films, when in ‘Labyrinth’ images such as water, mirror images, crystal balls, images of illusion and doubt appear and ‘The Never Ending Story,’ shows the swirling clouds falling away as if someone were flying above them. The particular choice of pallet to symbolise something new, illusive, dynamic or unpredictable and establish a specific mood contrasts the general medley of rainbow colours, a vivid perception of Fantasia.
It is these elements that combine to convey to the audience an overall sense of meaning and intention. Such films require an immense amount of detail and consideration, to an extent that every frame of the camera, every syllable of speech and every beam of light is of some significance. We read films as we read books, our subconscious absorbing all the hidden messages that work in harmony to prepare us for the revelation, for the end.