Since I’m in a fantasy mode, I did some digging around on Amazon to find a fantasy movie to watch (a lot of “people who watched this also watched this” rabbit trails) and ended up finding one called The Crown and the Dragon. It had a promising start. The scenery was lovely (it seemed to have been filmed in Ireland), the acting was quite good (the cast members don’t have very extensive IMDB listings, so I’m wondering if they were Irish and British stage actors), and I even liked the costumes. Early in the movie, the heroine and her aunt are traveling to take The Thing to The Place (as you do), and we knew the villain was looking for The Thing. The heroine and her aunt are set upon by the villain’s soldiers, who have with them a prisoner. The (handsome, of course) prisoner uses the guards’ harassment of the two women as a distraction to manage to attack his captors and free himself. The aunt is killed in the melee, the heroine grabs The Thing, and the escaped prisoner gets her to flee with him.
This was when I paused the movie to make popcorn because I could see the setup for what I’ve realized is one of my favorite fantasy tropes: the mismatched duo thrown together and having to go on some kind of journey/mission/quest, during which they bicker a lot, but they start to come together as they go through adversity and gain new respect for each other. That’s like catnip to me.
This movie hit all the expected beats. We had the bonding moment after the big ordeal in which they each saved the other’s life, so then they’re sitting by a fire, drying out wet clothes, drinking wine, and getting cozy. We had falling in with a group having a party and having a “moment” while dancing together. And, naturally, we had the moment in which his obligation is fulfilled, but he turns back for her, just in time for the climactic fight.
My favorite thing that fits this mold is Stardust, and this movie wasn’t nearly that good, but it sort of scratched a similar itch. But I found myself trying to think of other examples. If there’s something I love and know well enough to know when they’re hitting the right beats, there should be a lot, right? Other than Stardust, most of the things I could think of are animated films. That’s the Anna and Kristoff part of Frozen, Tangled, the animated Anastasia.
I remembered that there was an item on the Evil Overlord List that went around Usenet in the mid-90s to the effect of “If I’m ever the Evil Overlord and there’s a couple traveling through my realm who cooperate and get along, I’ll ignore them, but if they bicker constantly, except for when they save each other’s lives and have moments of sexual tension, I’ll have them executed immediately because they’re likely to be my undoing.” Or something like that. Anyway, if this was a known trope in the mid-90s and all my examples come from after that, I had to wonder where it came from. The main thing I can think of is the movie Willow, which is another good example (I haven’t seen it since I saw it in the theater when it first came out, so I’m iffy on it, but I recall being delighted with this aspect of it). I think Dragonslayer from the early 80s might also fit. In books, there’s an element of this in the Belgariad series by David Eddings, though my memory of that is fuzzy (not because I read it so long ago, but because I read it relatively recently, after I was already familiar with fantasy, so it didn’t make as huge an impression on me as it might have if I’d read it as a teen). The Elfstones of Shannara sort of fits, throwing in a bit of a romantic triangle, with the girl who has to take The Thing to The Place, the guy whose mission is to get her there, and another girl who joins to help. There’s another one I vaguely recall reading when I was in college that seems to have fallen into this category, with the guy having to get the girl and The Thing to The Place.
But these few things hardly make for a trope to the point of getting put on the “here’s what villains keep getting wrong” list. The TV Tropes site has an annotated Evil Overlord List with links to pages for the tropes, but there isn’t a separate trope listing for this specific thing. They link separately to the people thrown together on a mission trope and the hate to love trope, but the good examples I can think of for the trope I’m thinking of aren’t on the lists. I know it’s a big trope in the romance genre, with lots of books about the guy having to get the girl from one place to another, them hating each other at first, and then falling in love along the way, but they seldom bring down the Evil Overlord while they’re at it. I do think it shows up in a lot of fan fiction. If you think two characters who don’t get along would be hot together, then a story that forces them to team up and travel together is a natural way to explore the relationship.
It’s funny, in the early 90s I came up with my own idea along these lines, started writing it, and even won a contest with the start, but the book didn’t come together very well. I just this week, in thinking in terms of the trope, realized some of where I went wrong with it. Now I’ve found myself thinking about it again, and I’m tempted to give rewriting it a shot. I’ve allowed myself a couple of days to play with the idea to see if it starts falling together, and so far it seems to have done so. I may end up rewriting it. Or writing it again, since I’m not really rewriting the thing I’ve already written. I’m starting fresh with a new execution of the same basic story idea. It’s more a case of gutting a house down to the studs before starting a remodel than a case of repainting and new flooring. I figure if an idea has stayed vividly in my head for more than 30 years, then maybe I should do something with it.