"Mrs. Doubtfire 2" and the Rules of Sequels

Mrs. Doubtfire Hollywood has informed the world that Mrs. Doubtfire 2 is in the works. I do not want to see it.

It's not that I have a problem with the original film. It's not one of my favorites and I do hold a small grudge against it for a plot point that hinges on a completely inaccurate depiction of voice acting for animation. But it was a fine, entertaining film back when I saw it, and in some ways, it was actually better than I expected. Nor am I automatically opposed to sequels. I just have some very strong ideas about what sequels need to do - and, oddly enough what they don't need to do - in order to work. And while the film might defy my expectations and pull off everything I think a good sequel needs to, I find it very unlikely that it will.

One idea that often shows up when discussing a potential sequel is whether that sequel is necessary. I believe that this line of thinking is not terribly useful. With a very few exceptions, all sequels - good or bad - are unnecessary. Whether it's due to audience preference, studio demand, or just how it works, virtually no movies are written so that they require sequels. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Kill Bill Vol. 1 and that's a film that is really just one half of a very long film that happened to have a six month bathroom break in its original theatrical run. (Credit for that line goes to a regular on a now defunct message board. Sorry I can't remember your name.) Movies can be written with the hope that there will be a sequel, and even lay down a few story threads that might be addressed in a potential sequel. But unless the studio has agreed from the get-go that there will be more films, the original movie is all but required to have a self-contained story arc with its own beginning, middle, and end.

Take Star Wars (original trilogy), for example. In hindsight, it may seem like there's no way the first film could exist without the other two. I like Empire and Jedi. I think the story works better as three films instead of just the one. And George Lucas may or may not have been thinking about a sequel when he made A New Hope. But does A New Hope work on its own, without the other two films? Absolutely. If Empire had never been made, audience could have happily assumed that the destruction of the Death Star turned the tide in the rebels' favor, Luke went on to become a Jedi knight (if he wasn't one already), and the evil Darth Vader was defeated.

The finale of Star Wars: A New Hope

Now Empire does require Jedi to work, but that's because second and third films are bound by different rules. Once a film has established itself as a success and earned a sequel, it is considered perfectly acceptable to create a second film that requires a third one. The studio has likely already approved two more films, so there's no risk of giving viewers a partial story that will never be completed and have no financial viability once audiences realize that they'll never get the whole story.

So if a sequel doesn't have to be "necessary" in order to work, what does it have to do? It has to be better than the original. Not just as good as the original and certainly not worse than the original. Topping the previous film is not optional; it is a requirement for a successful sequel. Why? Because the first movie has already done all the heavy lifting. Characters, settings, rules of the world, and themes have all been laid out in the previous film. And if a sequel is happening, the screenwriter can usually assume that the vast majority of audiences will have already seen that first movie. So there's no need to spend a ton of time rehashing who the characters are and where the story takes place and everything else. The story can hit the ground running, a luxury that the first movie doesn't have. If the movie doesn't take advantage of that leg up it has on the original film, doesn't use that time to jump right in and tell a great new story, then it is wasting that advantage.

My favorite sequel of all time is Toy Story 2. Like most sequels, it is completely unnecessary. I never needed to know anything else about Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and all their friends after the end of Toy Story. I wanted to, but there were no major lingering questions. The story of how Woody and Buzz went from rivals to friends was over. So I was surprised and delighted to find out that Toy Story 2 was a new movie, not just a retread of its predecessor, that built on all the characters and ideas that were established in the first film. Pixar knew that everyone who was seeing their new film would have seen their highly successful first movie and used that to their advantage.

Buzz and Woody from Toy Story 2

So far, the hypothetical Mrs. Doubtfire 2 is hypothetically doing okay. It's certainly not a necessary sequel and while there's no guarantee that it will be better than the first movie, there's certainly the possibility that it could be. The area where I anticipate problems for the movie is in my final rule for what a good sequel needs to do.

A good sequel is a balancing act. One one side, you have everything that people loved about the original film. On the other is a set of completely new ideas. A successful sequel has to simultaneous give the audience the same things they loved about the first film while also giving them something new and completely different from the original film. That's doable, but it's not always easy, and plenty of sequels end up too far on one side or the other. Some sequels do get too far away from what made the original work, pushing the characters into situations and settings that just don't work for them. (”Now they're on the moon!") But more often, movies err on the side of what worked the first time around, to the point of simply making the same movie over again. This is one of my problems with Ghostbusters II, a movie so desperate to restore its main characters' lovable underdog status that it literally takes away everything they gained in the first film before the second movie even starts.

The cast of Ghostbusters II with mood slime

This latter problem is what I'm worried about for Mrs. Doubtfire 2. Part of the issue is that what people like about Mrs. Doubtfire determines part of the plot of the movie. It's not just Robin Williams or his character; it's Robin Williams and his character in drag. Now the first film does give the character a plausible excuse to don a dress again; by the movie's end, Mrs. Doubtfire was the host of a successful television show. (I'm now wondering about the societal implications of a generation of kids learning that their beloved TV nanny was actually a man playing a woman.) But can the sequel give Williams' character a good reason to play Mrs. Doubtfire outside of the TV studio?

What has stuck with me about Mrs. Doubtfire is not the man dressed as a woman jokes or Robin Williams doing goofy voices. It's the fact that, at it's core, it's a movie about a man trying to spend time with his kids after he and his wife get a divorce. And while his strategy for doing that is flat out ridiculous, the movie still manages to do something very surprising: it actually treats the idea of the parents' divorce with some respect. This may not sound like a big deal, but after so many kids' movies where the parents separate for no clear reason and the divorce is just a problem to be solved by the adorable kid heroes of the film, a movie where the parents don't reconcile at the end was kind of a big deal. The message that the movie leaves its audience with is the once that Williams' character ends up learning: sometimes families change and that can be okay. The story of this family going through that change and Williams' character becoming a better parent by dressing up as an old lady is over. So the challenge for the sequel will be to find a reason as compelling as a dad wanting to be with his kids for Mrs. Doubtfire to leave the TV studio for the real world.

Of course, the sequel has only just been announced. It may well get stuck in development hell and never come out. Maybe it will surprise me and be better than the original. But right now, I worry that the people in charge of making Mrs. Doubtfire 2 will focus too much on coming up with funny things for a cross dressing Robin Williams to do and not enough on why he's back in the dress in the first place. As more and more films, some even older than Mrs. Doubtfire, are getting considered as sequel fodder, I just hope that someone involved with making them is really considering why the original movie worked and how to translate that to a new story that will honor what's come before while providing a new experience. I'm hoping, but I'm not holding my breath.