Toy Story is the only perfect trilogy. There are lots of good trilogies. Fantastic, amazing and incredible stories told through three or more films but only one series where every film was as good as the last. There is no rubbish film, no deadwood or weak link. Nobody shuns Toy Story 2 or thinks Toy Story 3 let the series down.
That’s because, consciously or not, it didn’t break the rules of the perfect trilogy. These are rules that have destroyed some potentially perfect trilogies, making them good, or brilliant, but not perfect. Some broke the rules so badly that it actually destroyed the whole trilogy, ruining the films that preceded it too.
So just in case you ever wanted to make a trilogy or judge a trilogy for yourself, here are the golden rules for the perfect trilogy.
Rule 1 – Make each film a single story.
The worst thing any trilogy can decide to do is try to tell a story across more than one film. The usual scenario is that the first film is brilliant, worthy of sequels with its single, self-contained story. The decision is then made to develop a story further, trying to tell one tale over the remaining two movies. This usually results in a movie where they drag out a tale with convoluted sub-plots, confusing story strands and an almost always disappointing resolution to the whole story.
Its even more infuriating because the second film, the middle of the trilogy and the set-up for the final movie, is usually brilliant. A great film with huge cliffhangers to be resolved. Those cliffhangers are then either resolved too quickly or not resolved as well as your imagination managed to over a whole year.
The exceptions are of course the films based on books or a series of books. It never results in a perfect trilogy though, just a better example of a story told through lots of films. The Hobbit already feels like it’s not worthy of a trilogy and I still feel that elements of the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy let that down too.
Worst offenders; The Matrix Trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean
Notable exceptions; Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter
Rule 2 – Don’t change the essential ingredients.
The reason people loved the first film was because it had a brilliant mix of characters, story and setting. The worst thing to do is to change one of the ingredients and lose the magic completely. This could be focusing too much on an element only introduced briefly in an earlier film (Zion in Matrix Revolutions) or almost changing a character completely (Peter Parker in Spiderman 3).
You could hold on to one element, thinking that it was the best part of the trilogy and lose the magic completely. I don’t think Alien 3 was that bad but it did lose a lot about what made the first such a great film. It focused too much on Ripley and not enough on the Alien and the atmosphere, two key aspects that make the first film brilliant and the second decent.
Worst Offenders; The Matrix Trilogy, Alien Trilogy
Notable exceptions; Die Hard
Rule 3 – Don’t overload the sequels.
This rule is usually reserved for superhero trilogies but others fall victim to this too. For superhero trilogies the worst offense is to add extra villains to establish and explain, trying to give everyone screen time while building upon the action and story developed in the previous films. Spiderman 3 suffered from this mistake worst than any other.
You can also try to do too much in terms of story. Pirates of the Caribbean tried to tell at least three or four separate stories in its final film of the trilogy, causing it to be a mess rather than the fun, action adventure that the first film was.
Sometimes the best idea is to strip the movie down to the simple elements that made it brilliant the first time.
Worst offenders; Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean
Notable exceptions; Dark Knight trilogy
Rule 4 – Know when to stop.
Some trilogies push three films out of a story or setting that only requires one. This means that the subsequent films don’t really link with the first, other than in name or main character, or you end up telling the same story twice, or worst, three times! Jurassic Park should not have had any sequels, let alone a trilogy. It’s essentially the same movie three times. Rush Hour is guilty of the same.
American Pie is even worst. It actually gets lucky with the second film, a movie I think is better than the first, but the third movie bares little to no resemblance to what made the first movie so fantastic. It’s just the same characters in slightly similar situations.
Worst offenders; Jurassic Park, American Pie
Notable Exceptions; Die Hard, Toy Story
Rule 5 – Don’t wait too long to add more.
This is becoming a trend in Hollywood. Going back to try to recapture some of the magic of the past very rarely works. That’s because your stars have aged, movies have generally moved on and people are viewing the original films in the trilogy with rose-tinted glasses.
Indiana Jones has become the worst example of this. Harrison Ford was too old, the format felt slightly tired and the fans didn’t get the film they actually wanted. Its even more worrying that at least two more “older” series have sequels in the works; Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters. I will be the first in line to see these movies, but I’m not expecting them to be as fantastic, or even as good, as the original films that I loved.
Worst offender; Indiana Jones
Notable Exceptions; Die Hard, Toy Story
Overall, these are the five golden rules. You may have gathered that alongside Toy Story, I do love the Die Hard trilogy and continuing series too. It’s not perfect but some films can push past the rules and still manage to be fantastic. You can go back and judge Toy Story, or any of your favourite trilogies, against the five rules and disagree if you want. I can’t find any film trilogies, apart from Pixar’s classic, that doesn’t manage to break at least one rule and ruin the trilogy.