Unexpected Exceedings: Delightful Details in Film

This is a guest post, written by my good friend, Josh Farmer.


I love films. I love having adventures I’ll never have, seeing worlds I’ll never see, and asking questions I may never have asked on my own.

We’ve been told that it’s the little things that count, and one of the neatest things is when a filmmaker finds a way to express our human experience with little details to which we can relate. Think of them as movie Easter eggs. I’ve collected a few of these delightful details below.

Rise of the Guardians is a movie about holiday personalities joining forces against the evils of disbelief and fear. Santa, Jack Frost, and the Easter Bunny lead the odd pack of good guys. A detail that stuck out to me was how a flower pops up through the asphalt after the Easter Bunny creates a rabbit hole to travel through. We’ve all seen those pesky dandelions in the middle of a parking lot. Now we know how they get there.

Marvel’s Avengers teams up the leads from the last few films as they take on the aliens invading New York. Bruce Banner is goaded to smash a few alien ships with the simple, “Now might be a good time to get angry.” Banner, in a line that harkens back to a tense mid-flight argument with the rest of the team, finally lets us in on his big secret: “I’m always angry.” This tells us more about his real struggles with identity and responsibility than it does his anger itself.

Christopher Nolan’s first major film was a noir mystery and thriller called Following. A brilliant debut by a destined director, the protagonist fancies himself a writer and, by following those he is basing his characters upon, is led into two relationships, some burglaries, a murder, a cover-up, revenge, and much more. His B&E mentor invites him to take whatever he wants from a home, but instructs him to create more of a mess than necessary. That way, he says, the owners know that their most intimate possessions were seen, that their soul hidden in keepsake boxes was viewed in its most brute form — as plain, emotionless facts without context or justification. Against this smash-and-grab backdrop, one clue is said about the way we structure our lives. “I know how long to stay in a home I’ve broken into because they always write their return date on the calendar.” Don’t we all.

(On a side note, Nolan’s directing track record is impeccable: Memento, Following, Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception. Watch one of his if you want a guaranteed-good film but don’t want something seasonal.)

Ever notice that the monkey in Disney’s Aladdin only went klepto on items that were red? You will now.

In order to turn his head, the robot boy in Steven Spielberg’s AI used a two-step process. First he moved his eyes to where he wanted to turn, then he rotated his head to where he was looking.

Many Disney-Pixar films have one or more characters from another Disney-Pixar film, usually from the upcoming one rather than the previous.

Epic puts a miniaturized human into a magical woodland. Whenever the fairies’ arrows strike trees, a knot forms in that spot. So next time you see a knot in a piece of wood, tell your kids that magic happened there.

The Matrix was the genre-expanding philosophical sci-fi flick which explained that déjà vu was a software glitch within the world of the Matrix. If you like the possibilities of a Matrix world but have never read the comics or essays that went with the original 1999 release, you should (full list here, via Wayback Machine). This one, called “Goliath”, has great pacing and the feeling of various Matrix glitches occurring within the story.

The Matrix Reloaded continued the storyline with bigger explosions and with more commitment to functioning across the two worlds. It was panned by most critics, as most part-twos are, but it might have been because they missed the point: The monologues and dialogues are where the action’s at. Greek plays function on this same principle. The conversations push you into the next action sequence, but the philosophy of the Matrix world is preeminent. One detail I liked was how vampires and ghosts are just faulty, banished programs going against their orders, trying to stay alive even if that means embarking upon reprobate adventures.

Downton Abbey uses shaky handheld cinematography when the subject is the servants, but steady and composed shots when the wealthy figures take screen time.

Wreck-it Ralph brought early gaming history to the big screen with a great story. They tackled topics such as equality, sexism, racism, bullying, and of course friendship, loyalty, and destiny. The best little detail for me was the spot-on staccato movements of the people in Ralph’s game. Just perfect.

All these are examples of unexpected exceedings — when we are delighted because someone explains our shared human experiences; when we agree that we’ve done or thought something, but assumed we were the only one; when our philosophy is reflected back to us in a way or from a place we didn’t expect; when we came to be entertained but walked away impressed; when the Easter eggs hatched in our hot little hands.

Through delight, these small glimpses connect us emotionally to the art form. As artists, designers, and ones who produce, we serve others well by exploiting (I do mean this in the best way) the ability to delight.

Unexpected Exceedings: Delightful Details in Film