So, a McGuffin… Hitchcock’s term for the one thing everyone in a movie wants for their different reasons, and thus you have your plot. Typical example is the Maltese Falcon. (Nearly) everyone in Casablanca wanted the papers.
Lately in movies of… let’s say “moderate dramatic value”… thinking specifically Transformers 2 for example… why have they gone so manically overboard in having not one McGuffin but this long complicated series of things that have to be obtained?
In TF2 the girl’s in danger because she would lead to the boy, who has the symbols that if they could get to someone who can translate them can get them the map that gets them the matrix that goes to the machine…
Pirates of the Caribbean 2 had that too. “Okay here’s a picture of a key. The compass will lead us to the key, which unlocks the chest if we get the chest, which contains the heart, which we take to the ship…”
Is it just a sign of a brainless flick that it has a 10 step McGuffin process?
Having to go from place to place to get various items needed for the resolution has been so overused that it has a derogatory nickname – Plot Coupons.
Yeah, it’s overused. It’s too easy to use the pursuit of Plot Coupons in place of an actual well-thought-out plot.
In some cases of well-used single McGuffins, the McGuffin itself never actually gets used, or gets destroyed. See Foul Play.
The recent dependence on multiple serial MacGuffins, especially in kid’s movies, might also have something to do with the cultural impact of video games. FRPGs and adventure games are all about somewhat arbitrary short-term goals leading to an end goal, and the short-terms are often a simple acquisition or physical destination: “First you need to get the Big Sword of the Ancients and the Amulet of Awesomeness, and those will let you level up so you can access the Scary Castle where the Blind Seer will give you the Widget of Ambiguity so you can kill the Bad Boss Monster and finally win back the Magic Black Valise for the Lawyer Princess!”
Plot Coupons are indeed a lame way to advance a plot. The most obvious case of them are in the National Treasure movies.
A McGuffin is a single object that’s important to the characters. It’s Rosebud in Citizen Kane or the disk containing the spy memoirs in Burn After Reading or the Henry Moore sculpture in An Object of Beauty. But it is generally a single object that the characters are looking for. It still works quite nicely as a plot element.
McGuffins should be simple. The best IMO was the case in Ronin - just the one, and it really wasn’t the point of the story, though the story revolved around it. The story was in the characters, which were very good.