Not sure what a Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On movie is? That’s not surprising since it’s a label I invented, but you’ve surely seen many such films. It’s an unofficial subgenre that I am always deeply moved by and includes many of my favorite movies. In fact, this list may mirror my top movie list overall due to my personal connection with many of these examples.
I call them Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On movies (MEAMOs) because they follow a single character or group throughout a journey of some kind, sometimes a quest, sometimes a personal mission, sometimes the key events of life itself. Throughout said journey, they meet various, often quirky characters who somehow affect them or vice versa and move on, sometimes meeting the same characters later. Usually (though not always) there is some climactic reunion or a look back at all those met along the way, and it is this element that especially tugs at my heartstrings with powerful themes of friendship, love, or forgiveness.
It took me a while to realize the commonalities among these movies and why I enjoy most of them so much. My earliest encounter with the Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On, which helped solidify my admiration for such stories, was Kate DiCamillo’s picture book The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, one of my favorite children’s books since it brought me and my mom to tears. Stories like this especially rely on how well they are told, building character in the diverse travelers on the road of life and suffusing increasing meaning and interest into the trip and its destination. Most of these films I count among my favorites, though I’m ranking them on both my personal preference and on how well they fit the criteria of a Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On. I’m always on the lookout for new examples of this personal genre, so feel free to comment! On to the list!
- The Way Back (2010)
Not to be confused with The Way or The Way, Way Back, The Way Back tells the supposedly true story of a group of prisoners, who escape from a Russian gulag in Siberia. They then proceed to walk all the way to India. The journey is incredibly harsh, ranging from frigid taigas to scorching deserts, yet they carry on, supporting each other along the dangerous road. Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Saoirse Ronan are all in top form, and the reunion at the end touched me deeply.
- The Way (2010)
When Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) must travel to France to claim the body of his dead son (director and Sheen’s real son Emilio Estevez), he’s not planning a journey, but he decides to take up his son’s unfinished pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Carrying his son’s ashes, he encounters an overweight Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a snide Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt), all walking for different reasons, along with various other travelers and locals. While Avery first sees the hike as a self-imposed obligation, he transforms over the journey from cynic to pilgrim, and everyone finds realistic catharsis, even if it’s not what they expected.
While this fantastical Brad Pitt opus is a prime example of a meet-‘em-and-move-on film, there are others that I just enjoy more. Adapted by Eric Roth (who also wrote #3 on this list) from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows the titular character throughout a backwards life. Born as an old man, Benjamin grows younger over the years as he meets and learns from his adopted mother (Taraji P. Henson), a brief lover (Tilda Swinton), his first employer (Jared Harris), and of course his true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett). I love how some of the unique characters he meets pop up later in the story, and the final scenes add an epic and magical sweep to all those who touched Benjamin’s uncommon life.
- Taking Chance (2009)
While I was only recently introduced to this underappreciated modern classic from HBO (thanks again to MovieRob), I realized after seeing it that part of its power stems from its MEAMO trappings. Kevin Bacon won an Emmy playing Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, who escorted the body of slain soldier Chance Phelps back home. During the trip, he briefly connects with fellow Americans, who render due reverence and small but meaningful offerings of respect to the deceased and his escort. As Strobl meets and moves on, he experiences the gratitude and grief of a nation.
- Paulie (1998)
A favorite of mine since childhood, Paulie is a film that I like to call a mix of Forrest Gump and Lassie but with a parrot. Many MEAMOs are actually recollections of a main character, and in this case the caged Paulie (voiced by Jay Mohr) recounts his life to a Russian janitor (Tony Shalhoub). Beginning with his first dear owner Marie, who taught him to speak, Paulie describes his separation from her and his ongoing quest to reunite. Gena Rowlands, Cheech Marin, and Mohr himself play his varied owners along the way, who teach him everything from manners to burglary, but Marie is always his goal. This was a personal tearjerker of mine for a long time.
- War Horse (2011)
Further proof that a MEAMO can also follow an animal, even one less anthropomorphized than Paulie, War Horse is modern Spielberg at his best. The bond between English farm boy Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey is established early, and when Joey is sent to serve as a steed in World War I, that bond serves as strength to sustain them through the horrors of war. As he survives where other don’t, Joey journeys between owners, from a British captain (Tom Hiddleston) to two German brothers to a French farmer and his granddaughter. While Joey himself may be seen as a blank slate, he acts as witness to the stresses, reliefs, and camaraderie of battle.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
It may not seem like an obvious fit, but Shawshank is an example of how a Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On can focus on a static character as others drift through his life rather than the other way around. Tim Robbins is Andy Dufresne, a wrongfully convicted prisoner of Shawshank State Penitentiary. While his friendships are mainly with a small group of jailbirds, particularly Red (Morgan Freeman), he also endures cruel inmates, placates hostile guards, and connects with more sympathetic prisoners, whose moving on can be sharply tragic. It does end with a reunion too, so it counts.
Mitch Albom’s ingenious novel deserved a good adaptation, and this Hallmark film delivered it in a truly affecting style. After Eddie (Jon Voight), an aged amusement park maintenance man, dies from an accident, he meets five key people from his life, which is unveiled through flashbacks of his childhood, his service in World War II, and his seemingly worthless life afterward. These five people serve to emphasize the theme of many MEAMOs, that people leave unexpected influences on those they meet and one cannot fully know in life how they have affected others for good or ill. Seeing this made clear to Eddie is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and the reunion at film’s end is one of the few things that can still bring me to tears.
- Finding Nemo (2003)
While not the only animated MEAMO, Finding Nemo is the best, following the familiar but unparalleled formula of separation, journey, and reconciliation. Marlin the clownfish (Albert Brooks) loses his son to human divers and must brave the entire ocean to save him. Accompanied by lovable Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), he encounters a multitude of marine acquaintances, from sharks to sea turtles to jellyfish to whales. By the end, the journey has transformed his relationship with Nemo in all the best ways. I can only hope that next year’s Finding Dory can even come close to this Pixar classic.
- Forrest Gump (1993)
The quintessential example of a Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On film, Oscar winner Forrest Gump follows Tom Hanks’s devoted dimwit from rural Alabama to the jungles of Vietnam to the shrimping waters of Louisiana. All the MEAMO elements are here: a key protagonist, quirky adventures, acquaintances who pop up again later on, and a longed-for reunion (though that part isn’t as prominent as in other films). In addition to the fictional characters Forrest meets and moves on from, he also bumps into various historical figures during his life, leaving an impact on them and vice versa. This is the film that helped me to define what it is I love about this kind of movie, and it’s one to which I keep returning time after time.
- Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
As much as I love Forrest Gump, Mr. Holland’s Opus still edges it out. Another example of a stationary protagonist, this is the story of a music teacher (Richard Dreyfuss), who inspires class after class of high school students while struggling with his deaf son and personal lack of fulfillment. The teacher-student relationship is a perfect example of how one’s actions can have a far-reaching influence on another’s life. When Mr. Holland’s full impact is revealed to him along with the culmination of his musical aspirations, it’s one of the most satisfying lump-in-the-throat scenes ever.
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)
Imagine my delight when I realized that my favorite movie trilogy fits into my favorite genre. Since the MEAMO might simply be considered a quest movie, Frodo’s quest to destroy the one Ring definitely qualifies. He and fellow hobbit Sam meet dwarves, elves, men, monsters, Gollum, more men, a giant spider, and more orcs, and in true MEAMO fashion, these comrades and enemies tend to fall away and resurface as the quest continues. Once the Fellowship breaks up, there are actually three intertwining “quests,” and though there are separations and returns aplenty, the final reunion is nobly poignant, enhancing the sense of just how far these characters have come on their journey, which is what Meet-‘Em-and-Move-On movies are all about.
Here are some other examples of the MEAMO style, in alphabetical order. I don’t particularly like a few of these, and some barely qualify, but thanks to the power of the genre, they all have their potent moments.
A League of Their Own (1992) – This dramedy about women’s baseball is a rather tenuous example, but the reunion at the end seems to make it fit the mold.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) – The inspiring life of an African-American woman is traced from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement.
Big Fish (2003) – Tim Burton’s take on the genre is a little too out there for me but still good.
Brave Story (2006) – This anime quest gains depth as it continues, though it’s somewhat reminiscent of a video game.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices (2011) – Another anime quest with beautiful animation and emotion.
The Color Purple (1985) – This adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel features one of the most touching reunions ever filmed.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) – This affecting drama follows a boy who scours New York City and interviews many citizens for any clue about a key left by his father, who died on 9/11.
Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) – Two dogs and a cat travel over mountains in search of their owners.
The Killing Fields (1984) – This real-life drama about Communist Cambodia isn’t exclusively a MEAMO, but the latter half has elements of it.
Life of Pi (2012) – Again, the lifeboat scenes don’t quite fit the mold, but the colorful lead-up stories do.
Little Big Man (1970) – Something of a Western precursor to Forrest Gump, with an age-spanning performance from Dustin Hoffman.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012) – A sentimental tale of a perfect son with leaves.
Over the Garden Wall (2014) – An Emmy-winning animated miniseries with a basis in fairy tales; overly weird in spots but with a unique style.
The Power of One (1992) – An occasionally cruel but touching drama set in South Africa.
Secondhand Lions (2003) – A sweet and quirky tale of a boy sent to live with his two grumpy great-uncles with colorful pasts.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – Best Picture winner with a feel-good ending, even if the rest doesn’t always feel good; another good example of minor interactions influencing the main character’s journey.
The Straight Story (1999) – A rather boring but pleasant tale of a man’s cross-country trek on a riding lawn mower.
Watership Down (1978) – Another animated example with rabbits in search of a new home.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Dorothy’s journey through Oz is as classic as classic can be.