The greatest stories and films of all time are those with memorable protagonists and antagonists. Usually these forces square off directly with each other. After all, this conflict is the entire reason the story exists in the first place. But sometimes, there’s a little something in the middle of things. That item, that character, or that idea around which the conflict coalesces. The good side wants it, and so do the bad guys. Maybe the good guy is trying to keep it from the villain. Or maybe there is no bad side, and it’s all about the protagonist’s quest for the ultimate prize.
This very specific treasure – that thing so feverishly sought after – is what filmmakers call a MacGuffin. In this two-part series, let’s explore some of the popular MacGuffins in the Disney universe.
What Exactly Is a MacGuffin?
The term MacGuffin was coined by British screenwriter Angus MacPhail, and popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s.
Hitchcock explained the term MacGuffin using an example of one: “It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’.” In other words, according to Hitchcock’s explanation, a MacGuffin could be anything, as long as it has enough value to drive the story.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a MacGuffin as an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.
Note the term “usually.”
Contrary to Hitchcock, filmmaker George Lucas believes a MacGuffin should be something that the audience cares about as much as the characters do.
Enter R2-D2. This little droid and his tagalong friend C-3PO changed the course of the Star Wars universe. I’ll save those details for a bit later in this article. Point being, whether or not the audience is in the know, the MacGuffin is the linchpin of the plotline and underlines the motivation.
MacGuffins in Literature and Film
The use of MacGuffins as story-driving devices in literature and film predates the term itself. It could be a sacred relic, a magical sword, or the fountain of youth. The Holy Grail may be considered a classic Macguffin. It is represented in various stories, from Arthurian legend to comedies, as an object with miraculous powers and the secret to eternal youth. Because of these values, the Holy Grail is coveted by those who seek it. This is the primary attribute of a MacGuffin.
Classic examples of MacGuffins in popular films and literature include $40,000 cash in Psycho, the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings series, Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the Sorcerer’s Stone in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the Falcon Statue in The Maltese Falcon.
There are many notable MacGuffins in Disney’s film history as well. Let’s look at those now.
MacGuffins in Disney Films
For our look into some MacGuffins in the Disney universe, let’s use George Lucas’ broader interpretation. The MacGuffin can certainly be unimportant to the audience, but it could also be the most crucial element in the film. In any case, it’s the item, the character, or the idea that drives the plot – regardless of how important it is to the audience.
“Phenomenal cosmic power! In an itty-bitty living space…”
Aladdin HAS it. Jafar WANTS it. The Genie IS it! Whoever possesses this fabled lamp is granted three wishes of their heart’s desires. This lamp is not only an incredibly powerful tool, it is also an excellent reflection of character, as the act of selecting the three most important desires reveals the character’s true personality.
Indiana Jones (Basically All of the Treasures)
Pop culture’s most famous archaeologist – Indiana Jones – owes his entire livelihood to the MacGuffin.
The treasure Indy seeks is always equally sought after by an opposing (and evil) party. The Ark of the Covenant? Keep it away from the Nazis. The Sankara Stones? Mola Ram’s out for them. The Holy Grail? Nazis again. The Crystal Skull? This time it’s the Russians. These treasures are of immense archaeological importance to Indy, but they also contain real power, which attracts all those ne’er-do-wells.
Moana – Heart of Te Fiti
Most MacGuffins are being sought by the story’s characters. But remember, seeking these treasures is not part of the definition. These items simply need to be of importance to the characters. In Disney’s Moana, the Heart of Te Fiti is a magical item that is possessed by Moana herself, and she needs to return it to its rightful owner Te Fiti.
Instead of a quest for wealth, glory, or fame, Moana’s goal is to repair past mistakes and restore a purity that was stolen long ago.
Whoever said there could only be one MacGuffin in a film? How about two, or three, or…a hundred and one?
Yes, every last one of these spotted cuties can be considered a MacGuffin. They are loved and valued by Roger and Anita, yet they are sought after by Cruella De Vil for their furry hides. Therein lies the conflict. The chase is on (just watch out for Cruella’s crazy car. She’s a bad driver).
The Declaration of Independence
“I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.” That statement is not to be taken lightly, but Benjamin Franklin Gates does exactly that. However, this MacGuffin is not the final prize. America’s most sacred historical document contains a secret map leading to the film’s real Macguffin – an actual treasure (gold, silver, and other shiny stuff).
Fun fact: Justin Bartha, who plays Ben’s friend Riley Poole in the film, played the role of a Macguffin in another film – The Hangover. Bartha’s character Doug went missing early in the film. His friends’ quest for the soon-to-be-married lost lad drove the film’s plot to hilarious hyjinx, which included stealing a tiger from Mike Tyson’s house!
Who wouldn’t want to fly? In this undervalued Disney film, Cliff Secord discovers an experimental jetpack and uses it to defend the people of 1930s Los Angeles.
What Cliff didn’t realize is that many others are after this same jetpack, including the FBI, Howard Hughes, gangsters, and Nazis. The idea of stumbling on some advanced technology that enables you to become a superhero is an incredible fantasy. Plus – it looks pretty cool!
Marvin Acme’s Will
Who killed Marvin Acme? Judge Doom would have you believe it was the zany, fun-loving Roger Rabbit. But like so many innocent souls, he was framed!
It took some serious (and seriously frustrating) sleuthing work by private eye Eddie Valiant to keep Roger out of Doom’s target. But it took Roger’s inner romantic to stumble upon the will that proved his innocence, and saved all of Toontown.
How is Stitch – the main character of the 2002 film Lilo & Stitch – a MacGuffin?
Well, he’s constantly being chased by alien authorities, yet he is loved and cherished by his ‘Ohana Lilo. It might be a stretch to call Stitch a MacGuffin when he actively drives so much of the plot as a character himself, but since he checks most of the boxes, we’re including him here.
A MacGuffin doesn’t need to be fought over by opposing forces. In Tangled, Mother Gothel cherishes Rapunzel’s hair, while Rapunzel is barely aware of her fraudulent mother’s dependency.
This proves itself when Rapunzel sets out on the adventure of her lifetime (escorted by Flynn Ryder) while having essentially zero idea that Gothel was trying to chase her down.
Kermit the Frog
Kermit – the charismatic host and symbol for the entire Muppets franchise, is not a MacGuffin in and of himself. But in 1979’s The Muppet Movie, he is sought after, chased, captured, and almost cooked – all by failing restaurateur Doc Hopper. He checks all of these boxes, all while being the main protagonist in the film. Thankfully Kermit accumulated a colorful group of friends along the way, who proved to be all the support he needed to stay off Hopper’s dinner plate!
1981’s The Great Muppet Caper also featured a very pricey MacGuffin during the last act of the film – the Fabulous Baseball Diamond!
The Missing Bank Shares Certificate
There’s something about Mary – Mary Poppins, that is. When Mary returned to Cherry Tree Lane in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, it wasn’t George Banks who needed help – it was his now-grown son Michael. The recently widowed dad hadn’t a clue where his missing stock shares were located, and without them he could no longer afford to keep their home.
The bank’s chairman (and Michael’s unsuspected adversary) William Weatherall Wilkins had a vested interest in making sure Michael didn’t find his valuable shares. Through wonder, whimsy, and luck (and a bit of song and dance) Mary and the Banks children were able to help Michael find his missing shares and set things right – just before the stroke of midnight.
How could we forget our top mouse’s top mouse? Minnie has stood steadfastly by Mickey’s side for over 95 years. But in many of the earlier (and even some more recent) Mickey Mouse short films, Minnie has been a source of struggle and contest between Mickey and others.
The primary contender for Minnie’s hand has usually been Pete the Cat, though at times Mortimer Mouse has tried to charm his way in between the love birds. Even Goofy – in his previous incarnation as Dippy Dawg – was once ordered to marry Minnie, in 1933’s Ye Olden Days. Did you ever think of Minnie as a MacGuffin?
Coming Soon: Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars MacGuffins
What do you think will make the MacGuffin list for Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars stories? Let us know with a comment below, and check out Part 2 to complete your MacGuffin treasure hunt.
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