This is without a doubt the most powerful moment in the hero cycle. Also called the dark night of the soul or “the sad part,” this is where the hero, previous victorious over the trials and at a peak in confidence gets slammed down into reality, most often by a combination of a show of strength from the big bad and a crippling character flaw that can no longer be ignored. They sink into the darkness, confront it, and emerge stronger. It is the moment a hero becomes a hero. See, the bad guys go through a hero cycle to, somewhere in their backstory. And their belly of the whale moment is one they never overcame. They sank and kept on sinking. Example: The ending of Episode 3 of Star Wars was Anakin’s belly of the whale. Had he confronted his flaws, embraced them as strengths, and emerged, humble, but stronger, it would have been an entirely different universe.
The most powerful example of this for heroes I’ve seen in a long time is in Inside Out when Joy ends up in the memory dump.
I’ve already talked about how amazing this scene was at length, so I’ll shut up about it now. But there are a lot of other great examples. In Lilo and Stitch it’s the “I’m Lost” moment, in The Croods it’s the Cave Scene, In Finding Nemo, the Belly of the Whale moment happens in a whale.
Actually, let’s talk about Pixar in general. Remember how I said the villain is a would be hero who failed their darkest night of the soul? Pixar often plays with this idea by making, not deeply empathetic villains, but delayed heroes. Marlin goes through a belly of the whale moment when he loses his wife and all the other eggs. Arguably the entire movie from the end of the opening montage on is him crawling out of the abyss and becoming stronger for it. Ditto for Carl in Up. They still get a full hero’s journey once they receive their second call to adventure, but what we witness in the first few minutes of those movies is where their first journey ended abruptly in a pit of despair, leaving them unfinished as characters. It’s a brilliant writing trick that Pixar executed flawlessly.