In 2013, Blue Sky Studios released the film Epic. Though it did badly at the box office, it got a 65% on Rotten Tomatoes. The story follows a 17-year-old girl, MJ, as she goes to live with her divorced father after her mother dies. It’s revealed that her father has been living out in the woods and studying what he believes to be an advanced civilization in the forest. First, he’s written off as crazy but then the audience is shown that there is, in fact, a whole network of beings. They then dive into a crazy adventure of attempting to save the life of the forest from the villains, the Boggans.
This charming little film seemed to be a small journey of whimsical fun. But after several viewings, I started to notice some rather interesting things about MJ’s character arc. It’s all based around her recruitment to the Leafmen cause.
The first thing that really works to inspire people to join a cause is a sort of prodigious beginning. Great campaigns are built on great starts. If you can convince your target recruits that they are continuing the work of some noble order, it works to install a sense of loyalty in them. This can be seen several times through real life and fiction. For example, the Jedi order. There’s very little that we see in the movies that would inspire the reputation they have. And yet, they are seen as the best in the galaxy, defenders of peace and freedom. This same theme goes into the Leafmen legacy. They are referred to as the MI6 of the forest. Everyone seems to be one or want to be one. When MJ joins the cause, they make it more than clear that the Leafmen are the best of the best. They leave no doubt in her head that they are the protectors of the forest and that if she wants to do the ‘right’ thing she will help them.
With the portrayal of being the best of the best, it also makes your cause holy. Paint the picture that whatever your doing will save the earth. For example, the way the US interjects into countries and portrays that it’s fighting for the freedom of that space. The Leafmen convince MJ the same thing, telling her she will save the forest. The pod is the life of the forest, so her quest to protect it is truly to protect everyone. Excluding the wretched villains of course.
The next theme that emerged was convincing MJ that the Boggans were the villains. Smear campaigns are always good for business. If you can convince all your recruits that the enemy is terrible, monstrous or not even human it will help when you want them to fight. Epic did this really well when depicting the Leafmen vs. the Boggans. The Leafman convinced not only MJ but themselves that the Boggans weren’t them. The audience gets to see the Boggans perspective as well though. We get to see the leader and his son, and their complex relationship of love and pride. And when the Leafmen murder his son, we get to see the fathers pain. And his desperate attempts to replace his loss with new life. The Boggans only fought for their right to survive. And yet, the Leafmen do an excellent job of portraying them as the scourge of the earth. That since they were this dark rot (something they couldn’t control), they didn’t seem like they had the right to live. And it just worked to make MJ realize that the Boggans needed to die so that the Leafmen could conquer.
Another great idea for inspiring loyalty is to flaunt your grandness to your recruits and everyone. This is used pretty prevalent in the modern day. North Korea has giant parades to show of military vehicles to the civilians. And it no doubt shows the rest of the world their power as well. This sort of showing off is seen almost immediately with the start of the movie. The queen is supposed to choose a new queen to take over. But instead of just doing this quietly they have a humongous parade. Full of every kind of creature and vehicle. There's a giant float pulled by uncountable bugs. They ride through the forest to the cheers of their civilians. This sort of flaunting does great things to anyone still on the fence about your power.
A more hands-on approach to recruiting people would be to give them no other sensible option but to join. The way this can work and how Epic did it was quite simple when you break it down. The first step would be to just completely bewilder them. You want all hopes of their previous life dashed and you as the only one to help them. In Epic this is when MJ finds the pod and is suddenly shrunk into a completely new world. And when this metamorphosis happened the only one there to lend a hand - you could probably guess it - was the Leafmen. Once you have them relying on you, you then have the power to do with them whatever you want. The Leafmen used this to further their agenda with pitting MJ against the Boggans. They explained everything in their terms, as one would. This was the beginning of MJ's whole involvement with the Leafmen cause. And once you have the loyalty of your recruit, you can start the real work.
Now that you have the person on your side, you need to continue to fuel their loyalty. The quickest and most effective way to do this is to give them a mission. Give them a specific goal to work towards that they can see will help the cause. Let them know or show them that their work will benefit the cause as a whole. The Leafmen do this by telling her to protect the pod. They continue to have her take care of the pod and this installs her with a personal goal as well. To catalyze this sort of loyalty, give them friends. Give them one more reason to fight for you. And that reason will be in the brothers they fight alongside. And if you’re good enough at recruiting this group can be other recruits. The Leafmen give MJ a little crew as well: Ronin, Nod, Mub, and Grub. They become her closest friends, which in the shock of being in such a new situation must have given her endless feelings of support. Just one more reason for her to protect the Leafmen cause with her life.
Once your recruit has been successful and you have their loyalty, don’t forget to congratulate them. Once they finish a mission reward them likewise. Shower their success in gratitude and show them how they’ve helped. Fan their ego as much as necessary to keep them wanting more. And make it clear that though they did well, the fight is not over. Show them how much more there is to do. Make it seem like a lot but show them that with similar success to theirs, it is accomplishable. This will not only want them to crave the same success but also inspire them to fight even harder. In Epic this is how the movie ends. With the “good” side winning the battle and restoring the monarchy. But it is still seen that the rot exists and leaves room for another fight at another day. But now the Leafmen have MJ on their side, a large than life recruit that would no doubt give her life for them.
Though the movie Epic seems to be targeted as a fun little adventure movie it really does give a perfect layout for recruitment. From the very beginning, MJ is groomed to be completely loyal and it pays off in the end. There are just a few examples in the article and I’m sure there are many more that can be found both in the movie and real life.