What we can learn from: ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2’

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Two weeks ago, we took a look at the 80’s fantasy film, ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom,’ a flawed film that had a lot to teach writers on approaching fantasy tropes. When I saw that a sequel had been made, I was curious to see if it had learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, and after watching I can say that while the end result is… well, while not a classic film, or a well-made one (it features the most obvious rubber snakes in film history), it is an improvement, if only a little. I was especially pleased to see that ‘Wizards 2’ corrects the lack of a focused plot: instead of a vague goal and random events, our protagonists here have a clear, achievable goal from the beginning and a general knowledge of what they’ll face. As a whole, ‘Wizards 2’ is better than the first, including a few genuinely clever ideas, but you’ll probably get the most entertainment out of watching it on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000.’

Now, strap on your sword, and let’s return to the world of Argentian sword-and-magic epics to see what we can learn from the last tale set in the world of Axeholme.

Avoid doing a follow up that invalidates everything your heroes did the last time around

In most stories, victories, triumphs, and success are hard-won, bought with sweat, blood, and tears. Heroes fight, struggle, and strain to achieve their goals… which makes it especially cruel when a sequel invalidates everything they achieved. ‘Wizards 2’ (which has no characters or locations from the first film) starts with the kingdom getting into yet another war, and killing everyone from the first film.

In our own stories, doing a ‘all of it was for nothing’ sequel isn’t the wisest course of action if we want to keep fans satisfied; if a sequel makes the first pointless, who’s to say a second sequel will do the same to the first? It also retroactively harms the previous story, making rewatches or re-reads feel futile, as we know that everything we’re seeing the protagonists do will be for naught.

Consider having a grade Z mentor for your hero

In fiction, having wise, knowledgeable mentors is a standard story trope, both for helping guide the hero on the journey, and for explaining to the audience how the world and its various traits (such as magic) work. One thing ‘Wizards 2’ does well is invert that by having Caedmon – Tyor’s mentor – be not very wise, or even powerful. He’s a discount Obi-Wan who initially doesn’t even want to help Tyor due to feeling inadequate and not up to the task, but still takes up the mantle, even if his magic isn’t all that great (like turning straw into dung instead of gold).

In our own stories, having a mentor be a less-than-ideal candidate adds a unique spin on the typical student and master relationship, in that both don’t really know what they’re doing, and both have to learn and grow during the course of the story.

Consider not dumbing down your bad guys because they’re in a family movie

We’ve seen it so many times: Whenever the Chosen One (inevitably a young boy or girl) comes across an evil lord or a minion of the evil lord, said villains never just try to kill the child, instead gloating, mocking, and all but allowing themselves to be inevitably defeating in an embarrassing way (bonus points if they yell “This cannot be!” in the process). ‘Wizards 2’ is no exception, as the evil sorcerers Tyor faces are… well, either defeated too easily (Loki), give up too easily (Freya), don’t even try to take him on when they’re obviously more powerful (Donar), with only Zarz putting up an actual fight, but not taking obvious opportunities to kill Tyor when the moment arises.

Considering how family-friendly fantasy films wouldn’t take kindly to showing dark lords killing children, and making them incompetent makes the hero’s quest feel too easy, what’s a writer to do? I believe the answer is simple… don’t dumb down the villains. As an example, take what I consider to be one of the best villains ever to appear in a child’s film: Sharptooth from the 1988 film, ‘The Land Before Time’

In both of these clips, Sharptooth doesn’t mess around with Littlefoot and his friends. He sets out to eat them, no matter the cost, forcing Littlefoot and his friends to work together and rely on their wits to defeat him. When they finally achieve their victory, it feels well earned. Now, compare Sharptooth to all the villains on ‘Wizards 2’, and they don’t present any threat, and their inevitable defeats don’t feel earned at all.

Bottom line: Make your villains dangerous. Make them so determined to get their goals that they treat young Chosen Ones as adversaries to be disposed of, not played with, unless it’s to mess with their minds and weaken them.

Consider having characters in a fantasy treat our everyday objects as bizarre, frightening things

In fantasy, writers have the unique opportunity to take the ordinary and turn them into mysterious objects for their characters. A remote control becomes a summoning device for long-gone monsters. A cell phone becomes a holy device to contact the gods, and an ordinary piece of fruit becomes something bizarre and dangerous. In ‘Wizards 2’ ‘s most (intentionally) amusing scene, Tyor tries to turn a rock into a sausage, but accidentally creates a banana, which neither he or Caedmon recognize, and immediately throw away.

The biggest opportunity this trope presents to writers is letting us play around with everyday items, allowing us to either get a good look at how silly they can be, or, better yet, get an opportunity for some great humor. We, the audience, know the true nature of everyday, harmless objects, but characters don’t, and that can lead to some good laughs.

Consider limiting the number of places that must be freed/ bad guys that must be fought

‘Wizards 2’ takes the well-tread trope of having its characters go to three separate places to gather three separate things, and defeat three evil characters in each. Nothing wrong with such an idea, but the problem comes that the movie is only an hour and twenty minutes, and we don’t have much time to get to know each location before heading off to the next kingdom/item.

In our own stories, consider limiting the number of kingdoms to be liberated, dark lords to be fought, and items to be gathered. If there are too many, we risk rushing the story, never giving the audience the chance to slow down and take things in before the ending shows up. Perhaps there’s only one kingdom to save, or there’s only two bad guys, and only one item to find. The fewer we have of each, the more time can be spent on them.

Don’t have your Chosen One have everything given to him

An important part of any quest, Chosen One or not – is having the protagonists grow from their experiences, whether they end in success or failure. As in life, it’s okay to give them advice from other people in the story, but there’s a fine line between helping and telling them what to do in every situation that comes up. ‘Wizards 2’ has a problem with Tyor’s allies bailing him out, and even telling him exactly what he needs to do instead of letting him figure it out himself. While it makes sense to save his life when he’s in mortal danger, having a disembodied voice say “No, do this’ or ‘No, do that’ feels like cheating. It’s especially egregious at the climax, where Caedmon has numerous opportunities to actually fight and stop Zarz, but doesn’t, instead telling Tyor to arm himself instead of whacking Zarz or setting his robe on fire to distract him.

In our own stories, by all means, have allies help the protagonists, but also leave room for your main characters to try their own things and learn from their own experiences. They may reach victory more quickly if they’re shown the path, but it’s more satisfying for them to put in the effort and figure out the way to it.

Consider forcing your characters to defeat a villain without using violence

My favorite moment in ‘Wizards 2’ comes at the climax, where Tyor faces Duran and Zarz, but has a delima: if he kills them, he’ll become evil and join them, forcing him to try and find a way to win without resorting to violence. This presents an interesting challenge, where the key to Tyor’s victory lies in his wits, cleverness, and morals, instead of strength and bloodlust.

While audiences expect the climaxes of fantasy films to include fighting and weapons slamming into one another, trying something different can help make your story stand out. Having to do something other than violence helps authors come up with creative victories and resolutions, and I would argue that giving Tyor this situation is ‘Wizards 2’ ’s most creative moment… had the movie not proceeded to ignore it and have Tyor kill both Duran and Zarz without any consequences. Whoops.

Consider having the student become the master to her/his mentor

In an amusing twist, Caedmon becomes the student to the now powerful Tyon at the end of the film after defeating the sorcerers and reuniting the Powers of Creation, leaving the two set off on more adventures together. It’s not everyday we get to see this kind of inversion, especially when the mentor survives the story (can you imagine Obi-Wan becoming Luke’s student at the end of ‘A New Hope’? Me neither). Because of its uncommon nature, it opens up all sorts of interesting avenues and ideas for a relationship between two individuals, making the story as a whole more interesting.

The Takeaway

Be very careful choosing to do a sequel to a story that invalidates everything the protagonists did (but if said story wasn’t too good, you can turn this to your advantage). Regardless of what you choose, consider having your protagonists be baffled by everyday objects common to us, be mentored by a less-than-ideal mentor, and face off against villains who won’t treat young, ‘Chosen Ones’ differently than any other enemy, while limiting the number of those villains and their kingdoms to a reasonable amount to avoid rushing through all of them. When the time comes for the final conflict, consider forcing the hero to try and resolve it without killing, while not telling the protagonist everything he needs to do, and then switching positions between the mentor and the student to mix their relationship up

What we can learn from: ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’

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Ah, the 80’s. A magical time for fantasy cinema. From that era we got such classics as ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ ‘Krull,’ and ‘Dragonslayer.’ But every golden era has it’s… not-classics, films that end up becoming snark bait on Mystery Science Theater 3000. ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom’ is one of those films. Made in 1985, ‘Wizards’ feels very much like a movie made to cash in on the fantasy fad, and while it’s no classic of the fantasy era, writers looking to create their own sword and sorcery epics will find a lot to learn from its mistakes, so let’s dig in and see what this Argentinean epic has to offer.

Consider having a nobody take on the most powerful bad guys in your story

He’s barely in the film, but king Tyler manages to get the most impressive background of anyone we meet: the opening narration tells us that armies of wizards and sorcerers were fighting each other, but it wasn’t a powerful warrior, or a good wizard who defeated them, but a simple peasant who united the common folk and took them out.

It’s common to have underdogs take out much more powerful antagonists in fiction, but it’s all the more impressive when a person with no magical or extraordinary powers manages to do so against characters do have those abilities, and giving such a backstory – or showing it – makes for an interesting character. Indeed, Tyler is the most intriguing character in ‘Wizards’ based off that intro… which makes it a pity that he has less than two minutes of screentime before being killed.

Avoid rushing the first act of your story

There’s something to be said about leaping into a film and getting right to what the audience wants. Heaven only knows how, as a kid, I got bored about how many movies seemed to take forever to get going. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize the value of setting up a story, characters, and necessary background in the first act.

‘Wizards’ has to be credited for getting going right out of the gate. After the opening voiceover that sets up the backstory, we’re off and running with Simon, the young wizard, as he sets out to save his kingdom from Shurka, an evil wizard. The problem? The first act lasts only thirteen minutes, and we have barely any time to settle in before the main quest begins. While that’s impressive from a time perspective, it gives us barely any time to know anyone in the story or understand what the main problem is, and why we need to be invested in it. It’s like heading out on a hiking trip, but you only get thirty seconds to meet everyone before being dumped on the trail with only the faintest idea of where you’re going. It’s disorienting, makes you wonder if taking this trip is a good idea, and ‘Wizards’ feels the same way.

In our own stories, there’s no problem in getting going right away, but be sure to lay the foundations for your work. Audiences will want to know what they’re getting into, and taking the time to give them even the most basic of information about the world, characters, and story will get your story off to a good start. When in doubt, it’s better to take your time and let the audience settle in, than to rush and leave them wondering what on earth is going on.

Give your main character a goal

It’s one of the most basic storytelling rules, but it cannot be understated: one of the keys to an interesting character is giving them a goal, something they want and need to work towards. Simon, by contrast, only wants to get back to the castle and stop the wizard. While wanting to save a kingdom is a noble goal, the problem is that he doesn’t make the choice to do so: he’s told by his wizard father, and, like a loyal dog, sets off on his quest. Compare Simon to Luke Skywalker: Luke was bored living on his moisture farm and wanted to leave and find adventure in his life. He had a motivation for leaving, and after his aunt and uncle were barbecued, he had the new goal of fighting the Empire to stop them from committing any more atrocities. Compared to Luke, Simon is a chess piece being moved across the board without making any decisions on his own.

When it comes to doing your own characters, their own goals don’t have to be big, but just having something they want to achieve makes them feel like a person, instead of a robot just doing what it’s told to do (though to be fair, having a robot set off to save a magical kingdom could make for an interesting story on its own).

For the love of all that is holy, think twice before making your ‘chosen one’ a teenager

If there’s one story trope that’s been done to death, resurrected, beaten, killed again, and brought back to life over and over, it’s the idea of a youngster chosen by fate to save the day. While the trope itself isn’t bad, Simon is the embodiment of its most cliched portrayals: he’s whiny, hardly does anything on his own, and is a brat at multiple points. In his favor though, the film does show why Shurka would want him dead, by demonstrating that Simon can give life to inanimate objects and raise the dead… pretty fearsome powers indeed.

If you’re going to do your own chosen one who’s a teenager, then try flipping some of the cliches Simon has: Have your character be confident, but aware that he has a lot to learn. If he’s going to whine, have him whine at characters who are slacking off or not doing their jobs instead of how hard life is for him. Show him taking the initiative and doing as much as they can on their own, even if they’re afraid or aware that they aren’t going to succeed, and show some of the skills they have that are key to winning the day, even if they aren’t fully developed yet.

Consider having your character summon incredibly powerful allies who want nothing to do with their quest

One of the best parts of the film involves Simon coming up with the clever idea of summoning several dead warriors to help him take out the evil wizard and save his kingdom. And, amazingly enough, he actually pulls it off, awakening the corpses of four dead warriors… who have no interest in fighting whatsoever and almost immediately sink back into the earth.

The genius of this scene comes from the buildup: the idea of summoning legendary dead warriors to fight off an evil wizard makes sense, and there’s a lot of potential for interesting interactions with them as they trudge back to the castle, which makes the audience expect those warriors to stick around. Having them have no interest in fighting at all and wanting to go back to sleep is a nice twist on our expectations, and is… kind of pathetic, really, which makes it amusing.

Save the comic relief for the first half of the story

A little bit of humor in any story is always welcomed. But, like all things in life, there’s a time and place for it. ‘Wizards’ has a sequence near the end of the second act where Simon’s protector, Kor, is captured by a cyclops and threatened with death if he doesn’t marry his sister, who Kor ran away from after apparently getting engaged. While some parts of the scene are amusing (primarily the one soldier who runs away via sped up footage ALA Benny Hill), the problem is that the scene feels out of place. We’re coming up on the climax of the story, and things are supposed to be getting more focused, tighter, and more serious. Pausing the story to have a sequence that doesn’t advance it is not a good idea. If anything, this sequence should have been earlier in the film, shortly after Kor and Simon met: Helping Kor out of his jam would have shown Kor that Simon wasn’t just a whiny, pink shirt-wearing useless kid, and that helping him out would be a worthy cause.

In any case, be very careful where you put comedic scenes in non-comedic movies. While there’s no rule saying you can’t put them later in the film, it’s generally better to have them take place earlier on, and, more importantly, have them advance the story instead of being a side trip that doesn’t add anything to the movie.

Consider how many secondary characters you need, and set them up

No film is complete without a supporting cast, but making sure that cast contributes to the plot is vital: ‘Wizards’ features two characters, Gulfax the… shag carpet monster thing, and Hurla the gnome, neither of whom contributes anything to the story. Gulfax is a clear Chewbacca stand-in who’s only contribution is to whack someone in the head, and Hurla guides Simon and Kor to the fearsome Suicide Cavern the promise of helping him again… which he doesn’t. Both could have been easily cut from the story without any ill effect.

Granted, not all side characters have to do big, mighty things: Chewbacca, in ‘A New Hope,’ mainly helps fly the Millennium Falcon and assists in freeing Leia from the Death Star, but his contributions feel important. If Gulfax, for example, had acted as a guide to Simon on their journey back to the castle, and the gnome been mentioned earlier as someone who can give Simon vital help in stopping the sorcerer, their roles would have been more substantial and meaningful.

In our own stories, don’t pad your story with characters just because you can. Each of them needs to play a role, and the more you have who don’t do anything is less time you can spend on the characters that do matter.

Avoid a random-events plot, and have all your scenes and locations contribute to the story

For all of ‘Wizards’ flaws, perhaps the most glaring is that it the story feels unpolished. All the events are in place, but don’t have the narrative glue binding them together, making the story feel like a bunch of random events taking place between the beginning and the end. Very few of these scenes add anything of value to the story, and those that could have don’t live up to their potential: The Suicide Cavern, for example, could have let us see what Kor and Simon are afraid of, and then have them work to overcome them, and strengthening their bond in the process. Instead, they just sing songs and pass through easily. After several more of these scenes, we finally reach the climax, and then the movie’s over, leaving us with the feeling that we don’t know anything about anyone, or why it all happened in the first place.

How can you avoid this mistake? When doing your own story, take the time in the first act to set up everything that’s coming afterwords. If your characters have to go on a quest, tell them where they’re going and why they’re going there. Warn them of the dangers they might face, and allies who might be able to help them, so that we, the audience, has an idea of what’s coming. While we want to be surprised by something unexpected, there’s still great value in anticipating something exciting or frightening coming our way.

The Takeaway

When doing a story, it cannot be overstated how important it is to give your characters (one of whom is hopefully not a teenager ‘chosen one’ who whines all the time) goals and motivations, to have every scene and character contribute to the story, and to set everything up in the first act so the audience has a good idea where they’re going and what to expect. Once you get going, limit comedic scenes to the first half of the story so the second can focus on the climax.