I mentioned in the comments previously that Sinbad – Sailor of the Seven Seas might be my least favorite film among those I worked on. I’ve always been pretty good at separating the work from the product — I loved working on Sinbad, and the production was a great experience. I’d been promoted, I was assisting amazing animators (James Baxter and Jakob Jensen), I was getting scenes of my own, the directors and production staff were cool, I was hanging with a great posse of junior animators, the food was free and tasty, life was good all around. But the film? Not so much.
I never really bought into the premise of the film, and ultimately neither did the audience. I could go on at length about some of the story and character failings, but I’ll lay out my thoughts on one major problem. It had the biggest MacGuffin in the history of film. Not just a big MacGuffin, but a MacGuffin that needed to be really important to the story. The first rule of MacGuffins is that they are the thing that the characters care about, but the audience doesn’t.
Alfred Hitchcock is usually credited with coming up with the concept of the MacGuffin, and he certainly used it to the hilt in his films. He understood that audiences really care about characters, and especially characters in extreme situations with complex, shifting relationships, and that audiences don’t really care about whatever physical thing it was that drives the plot. We care about the crusaders, their battles, their lives, but not about the holy grail. The Maltese Falcon in the film of that name, or the microfilm in North by Northwest, are examples of MacGuffins — some object that drives the plot and that the characters vie for. The audience, however, is never really going to care about your MacGuffin, and it was to illustrate that concept that Hitchcock invented the derisive term. The audience cares about the characters.
In films with MacGuffins, you can change the MacGuffin to a dozen different things , and the film will work as well (in Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson’s character has a mystery MacGuffin that is never even revealed, which nicely illustrates how irrelevant it is). Just before filming began on Hitchcock’s Notorious, the MacGuffin was changed from diamonds to uranium. Didn’t matter a whit to the story, which was about two very different men in love with the same woman.
But in Sinbad, the MacGuffin was the Book of Peace, which came with it’s own complex and silly backstory, and which skewed the entire frame of reference for the film. What in the real world is like the Book of Peace, a magical object that guarantees order and peace? Nothing. As a result, we can’t relate to it, and it has to be explained to us.
Explaining your MacGuffin is BORING. On top of that, it’s such a left-field concept that it raises it’s own questions. Why was it even a book, since no one read it? Did it maintain peace, or order? Those are very different concepts. (Eris, who steals the book, was the Goddess of Chaos, not the Goddess of War.) Wasn’t the BoP really some anti-entropy device, because that’s how it actually functioned in the film? Is entropy an idea we want people ruminating on in a fantasy movie? Wouldn’t Sinbad have to be the biggest asshole in the universe to mess with the sole item that maintains the world as he knew it? (Wait, don’t answer that question!)
The whole Book of Peace overlay put the story into the realm of unique make-believe, which might be fine if you’re doing something like Lord of the Rings. But look at how much exposition LotR required for us to understand the power and importance of the Ring and all it’s mythology in that tale — thousands of pages across several books, or a very long film trilogy (actually, four films if we count the upcoming Hobbit).
The early version of Sinbad was actually heavier on exposition, and also had an entire pantheon of gods, of which Eris was but one. Since there’s no room for that in a 90 minute film, most of that exposition, along with all the other gods who gave context to Eris, were cut. Unmoored from that framework, major plot points became confusing.
If Sinbad had been stealing the crown jewels from Proteus, and that theft threated to cause the local society to collapse, the audience would have had a much easier time getting involved in the story. It would all make immediate sense. It would be fantasy firmly grounded in what we know. Creating a BoP didn’t raise the stakes and increase the drama, it merely bounced us into a seemingly arbitrary world we couldn’t relate to, and bored us with extra exposition.
So remember: audiences care about characters. They don’t care about props, and they don’t care how amazing and shiny your MacGuffin is. When you’re constructing your story, whether it’s for a single shot for your reel, or a short, or a whole film, if you find yourself getting tangled up in exposition about the things in your story, and not your characters, you need to do some simplifying.