In my book Perfecting Plot, I discussed the three levels of conflict you can use to enrich a story. They are:
External conflict: the protagonist in conflict with the world
Personal conflict: conflicts arising from relationships
Internal conflict: mental problems, personality faults, spiritual issues, phobias, etc.
Yesterday, I was reminded how popular–and how successful–this approach to story and character is as I saw Kung Fu Panda 3 with my kids (which includes my wife and myself, the oldest kid in the family). Despite being a sequel, I found it enormously entertaining and not just for five-year-olds. Part of the reason the story works is because, instead of relying on bodily function humor and silliness, the writers baked multi-layered conflict into the scenario.
It breaks down like this. To save the world as we know it, Po, the Dragon Warrior panda, must defeat:
External conflict: the malevolent bull who wants to take over the world
Personal conflict: an identity crisis arising when his biological father appears and wants to take him away from his adopted father
Internal conflict: to fulfill his destiny, Po must become a master of Chi (just go with it).
These layers of conflict may not speak to the children in the audience, but they speak volumes to the parents paying to take them there. I thought the personal conflict particularly astute because it metaphorically addresses the modern blending and redefining of the family unit. The two dads of course eventually work together, giving younger viewers a model for unconventional families, blended families, stepdads, adopted dads, gay dads. This is not only clever conflict but a good example of a well-developed and effective theme that doesn’t club you over the head with obviousness or forced morality.