Kids are visual learners, swayed by the power of films at a young age. If your child squirms at the edge of his seat during a movie, chances are he’s got what it takes to identify what’s fantastic – and what’s a failure. With the Oscars airing on February 22, now is the time to introduce the budding critic to the components of a successful flick.

Popular Hollywood movies traditionally follow a three-act formula. Consider the beginning of Ratatouille, when Remy the rat, lost in the Parisian underground, sniffs his way into the kitchen of legendary restaurant Gusteau’s. In this first act, we uncover the furry protagonist’s central conflict: he yearns to cook, but being a rodent makes it tricky!

Films can break the three-act structure. James Bonnet, a writing instructor, says if a movie simply focuses on two elements – the action creating the problem, and the action resolving it – it will still work. Regardless of how many acts a movie has, it must have events that advance the plot, or main story – which screenplay consultant Michael Hauge calls turning points – as well as a likable but complex protagonist, or primary character, who has a problem to solve.

Here’s a checklist of elements in an engaging, entertaining film:

Cast of Characters

  • The hero (or heroine) has a unique quality or flaw preventing him or her from achieving a goal. Harry Potter has superpowers unlike anyone else at Hogwarts, which isolates him; while Simba, the heir to the throne in The Lion King, believes he was the cause of his father’s death, which keeps him away from his home for years.
  • The confidants are sidekicks who assist (and sometimes aggravate) the protagonist. Think Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in Harry Potter, EVE in WALL-E, or Dory in Finding Nemo. They offer advice and help the main character with important tasks, or are complementary to the other character, as ditzy Dory is to Nemo’s anxious father, Marlin.
  • An antagonist isn’t simply evil. The most intriguing villain is complex, with a past that explains his or her actions. In The Incredibles, the antagonist, Syndrome, was once Mr. Incredible’s #1 fan and hoped to be his sidekick. Mr. Incredible brushed him off, which explains why Syndrome had grown to detest him.

The Plot

  • The beginning of act one, roughly the first half-hour of the film, sets up the story. The inciting incident, or the event that “hooks” the audience, happens within the first five to 15 minutes, and the central conflict is revealed. In Finding Nemo, the inciting incident occurs when Nemo, defying his father’s wishes, wanders into deep open water and is captured by humans. The remainder of act one shows Marlin acclimating to this situation and deciding how to solve his “fishy” problem.
  • Act two composes the next hour, in which the conflict builds. In the first half, the protagonist reacts to the pressures of his new world, says screenwriter and filmmaker Nathan Marshall. The point of no return is a moment in act two when the character realizes he can’t turn back and must commit to his goal. After Marlin and Dory escape from sharks and stinging jellyfish in Finding Nemo, and continue to swim far from home, their world changes forever. In the second half of act two, however, Marlin begins to take control of his predicament. Likewise, in Harry Potter, Harry defeats his obstacles, from dragons to Quidditch matches, and in Ratatouille, Remy’s culinary creations garner rave reviews.
  • But at the start of act three, the protagonist faces a major setback: perhaps a best friend dies, or someone is captured. In Ratatouille, Remy and Linguini have fallen out just before they must impress Ego, the food critic, and at this point it seems as if all is lost.
  • This crucial moment forces the protagonist to act, leading to a climax: a thrilling high point, oftentimes full of action: the preparation of the ratatouille dish for Ego in Ratatouille, or the battle between Simba and Uncle Scar in The Lion King.
  • The end of act three brings out the resolution: Marlin finds Nemo, EVE and WALL-E are reunited, and Remy lives his dream, cooking in Linguini’s new restaurant, La Ratatouille.

Of course, the resolution doesn’t always entail a happy ending. But questions are indeed answered, problems are solved, and the story reaches a sense of closure, leaving your child to cheer in satisfaction – or boo in disappointment.

Movie Meter

Put this year’s nominees for Best Animated Feature to the test – Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, and WALL-E – by using our rating system. A top-notch flick earns 30 points, while an average film scores18:


1–very poor

  • The movie is full of conflict. The protagonist faces a huge problem.   1  2  3  4  5
  • The plot’s events unfold naturally.   1  2  3  4  5
  • I understand the wants and needs of the characters.   1  2  3  4  5
  • I enjoy the visuals, sounds, and overall style of the film.   1  2  3  4  5
  • The actors and actresses are believable in their roles.   1  2  3  4  5
  • I can identify the messages or themes of this story.   1  2  3  4  5