We saw Rogue One on Wednesday, and I thought I didn’t have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review (certainly not as much to say as John Scalzi had), but after a little discussion on Facebook I think I do have a few things to say. But after the jump, as there are spoilers.
Read on, Macduff! »
Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.
(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.
Read on, Macduff! »
We finally went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens today. It’s fun! Action-packed. Great special effects. And Max Von Sydow!
But it’s by no means a perfect film. I wonder if it’s even worth reviewing a Star Wars film, because historically they’ve been either fun-but-not-very-deep, or utter crap. But I’m not going to let that stop me, so: Spoilers ahoy!
Read on, Macduff! »
Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.
In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)
What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.
Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.
Read on, Macduff! »
We watched the premiere of the new Supergirl TV show last night. I’m not sure why I decided to watch this one while I sat out The Flash last year. Maybe because Supergirl isn’t up against shows I already watch (my interest in Gotham is somewhere south of zero), and I sometimes feel like I watch too much TV anyway.
The pilot episode’s first act was the closest thing I can recall seeing on TV to a true cinematic experience: The staging, the pacing, the effects, even the particular wittiness of the dialogue, all felt like I was watching a movie. If that’s what they were going for – and, frankly, I thought it worked really well – then they nailed it.
I’ve seen a little criticism that Kara’s secret identity is too close to that of Clark Kent’s, but I’m okay with it, especially since Melissa Benoist carries the role off with a fair bit of nuance (I actually liked her better as Kara than as Supergirl). Of the people at her workplace, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen is the clear standout. I haven’t seen Man of Steel so I have no idea how much Supergirl’s world matches up with that one, but I thought this was the best portrayal of Jimmy Olsen since, well, maybe the 1970s (thought the version in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman was also pretty good). Calista Flockhart has a one-note role (in this episode, anyway) as Cat Grant, and Jeremy Jordan is fine as her cow-orker and would-be romantic interest Winn Shott.
But the episode kind of went to pieces in the second act. Already overburdened with too many oblique references to Superman, the series throws us both a spaceship of criminals who have escaped onto Earth (with the attendant feelings of guilt since they followed Kara out of the Phantom Zone, not that she had any control over any of that), and the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) works for. Presumably intended to provide some structure to the first season (giving Supergirl some people to work with and also feel suspicious of, and some people to fight every week), both of these elements are really just cheap contrivances, and it immediately made the show feel more run-of-the-mill. If the series turns into monster-of-the-week even for just a few episodes, its quality is going to sink like a stone. And I’m so done with Superman and his cast being threatened by menaces lingering from Krypton long after it’s destruction. Doing away with all that was one of the best parts of the 80s reboot of the comic book, and staying away from it (except for Brainiac) was important in the Superman cartoon of the 90s. Just say no.
Also, while I don’t mind repurposing names of minor comic book characters for a new medium, the fact that Winn Shott and Hank Henshaw both ominously share names with Superman villains is not at all welcome. Another thing that sucks the life out of adaptations like this is the slow reveal of some character we know about from the original material. (This is one reason I have no interest in Gotham.) If Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) turns into the Cyborg Superman, you’ll know the series has jumped the shark.
The third act was a fairly run-of-the-mill “heroine overcomes self-doubt” resolution, with a lot of punching and things blowing up. Which is not bad – before seeing this episode I felt the keys to the series would be a witty script and not welching on the superhero action (which is what sunk Lois and Clark back in the 90s). But the back end of the episode did not live up to the execution of the first 15 minutes.
Overall it was a pretty good episode, but I think they missed the boat by throwing Kara into the mess of the DEO and the ship of escaped criminals, which essentially prevents her from finding her own way to being her own hero. The premise is already burdened by her living in the shadow of her famous cousin without being able to ever show him on-screen in a satisfying manner. So the show should be about her establishing herself and building her self-confidence, not rounding up someone else’s criminals or worrying that the DEO is going to capture her again. I think it’s going to try to do both, and I worry that it’s not going to work.
Welcome to my review of the worst season of Doctor Who since the Colin Baker era. Yes, even worse than last season, which did not have a lot to recommend it.
As usual, I’ll start with my ranking of episodes, from best to worst:
- Deep Breath (written by Steven Moffat)
- Mummy on the Orient Express (Jamie Mathieson)
- Robots of Sherwood (Mark Gatiss)
- Last Christmas (Steven Moffat)
- Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Steven Moffat)
- Time Heist (Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat)
- Listen (Steven Moffat)
- Flatline (Jamie Mathieson)
- The Caretaker (Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat)
- Into the Dalek (Phil Ford & Steven Moffat)
- In the Forest of the Night (Frank Cottrell Boyce)
- Kill the Moon (Peter Harness)
Let’s sum it up this way: I own every season of the new series on DVD – but I don’t plan to buy this one. Frankly there is not a single episode I particularly want to see a second time. The best of the season, “Deep Breath”, is barely more than a run-of-the-mill suspense yarn. And it gets worse from there.
Also as usual, my reviews contain plenty of spoilers, and so I’ll continue after the jump…
Read on, Macduff! »
Every year I think, “I didn’t really start reading a lot of webcomics this year”, and every year I’m surprised by how many I did start reading. This year is no exception, and includes one of the comics I’ve had the most fun catching up on from the beginning (The Bright Side), and one which I most look forward to reading new installments every day (Demon), and a whole bunch of others besides. I also recommend Alice Grove, The Specialists, and Sufficiently Remarkable.
As usual I’m just going to write a short piece for each one, and encourage you to check out the strips themselves if they sound interesting.
Entries for past years can be found here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.
- Alice and the Nightmare, by Michelle Krivanek: Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy about a woman named Alice living in a stratified society and not being comfortable with the callous attitude her peers display towards lower class citizens. Only one or two chapters have been published before it went on hiatus in August, and it’s not yet clear to me what the “nightmare” is. Might appeal to fans of Ava’s Demon or Blindsprings.
- Alice Grove, by Jeph Jacques: Known for Questionable Content, one of the most popular webcomics around, Jeph Jacques launched Alice Grove this fall. It’s a long-form science fiction piece in which an alien falls to Earth in, well, a grove tended by a woman named Alice. Alice seems to be the protector of a local town, and recently took down a visitor sporting some serious nanotech. That’s all the know so far. The strip pushes Jacques’ art skills farther than QC generally does (which I bet is part of the reason he started it) and they’re taking a little while to catch up. On the bright side it features some of his whimsical humor. Overall I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next year.
- Bird Boy, by Annie Szabla: Fantasy story about a 10-year-old boy who strays from his tribe and gets caught up in the goings-on of powerful beings who do not have the best interest of humans at heart. The story follows our hero on his mostly-solitary adventures which sometimes threaten to overwhelm him not just physically but emotionally. Szabla knocks the art out of the park, though the story is not bowling me over so far. I’m still in wait-and-see mode with this one.
- Boulet: Boulet is a french cartoonist, and he publishes here strips of greatly varying length. I discovered him because his strip “Kingdoms Lost” got spotlighted, and it’s a terrific story of a warrior and princess who get ousted from their universe and have different outlooks on going back. More cynically there’s “Jurassic Park: Realistic Version”. A new Boulet page usually requires a little time commitment to read, and not every strip grabs me, but it’s good stuff overall.
- The Bright Side, by Amber Francis: I devoured the extensive archives of this strip in less than a week – it’s really, really good. Emily is a girl who saw the personification of Death when her mother died when she was young. She met him again as a high schooler, and they became friends. He’s immortal and can travel through time (he kinda has to in order to do his job of reaping everyone who dies), but he’s a nice guy despite his unique vantage point, even a bit naive since he hasn’t had the human life experience himself. The strip is mostly about them discussing the nature of life and existence, which might sound tedious but once the strip found its legs it actually stays quite interesting. Also thoughtful, touching, and funny.
Time is slowly passing in the strip (maybe a year or two since it started?), so there is gradual progress. For example, Em recently learned the truth about her father, and has gone to visit him and his family. I don’t know whether Francis has an ultimate direction or goal for the strip (there have been a few hints that she does, but they’re ambiguous enough that it needn’t play out that way). I kind of hope she does, but it doesn’t need to come any time soon.
The art starts out rough and gradually tightens up, though the style stays sketchy. It’s very expressive, though, which is necessary since there are a lot of subtle things that happen along the way, so the range of facial expressions is invaluable.
Highly recommended. Honestly given its extensive archive I can’t believe I haven’t heard of it before this year.
- Cardboard Crack, by Magic Addict: Gag-a-day strips for people who play Magic: The Gathering, and probably of limited interest to anyone else. The art is very simplistic, somewhere south of xkcd quality, but the artist clearly understands Magic gamers and their foibles.
- Demon, by Jason Shiga: Shiga is an independent comics artist who’s been around a while, but I discovered him through this strip (and then promptly bought most of his catalog at APE this fall). The protagonist, Jimmy, attempts suicide in a strip motel in the first chapter – and wakes up back in the same room. He repeats this several times before he learns what’s going on – and then things get really weird. The reveal at the end of the first chapter is awesome, and the story has had several twists and turns since then, and continues to get more involved and tense. Shiga also brings his trademark cool, analytical approach to explaining how things work in the story. Shiga’s art has a distinct, recognizable style, although his geometric-shape figures sometimes feel a little stiff, but they never really get in the way of telling the story. Demon pages go up 5 days a week and they’re usually one of my first reads each day.
- Dicebox, by Jenn Manley Lee: A high-profile science fiction webcomic following the exploits of Molly and Griffen, friends and lovers travelling around known space and working various odd jobs. It’s strongly character-driven, mainly around Griffen’s idiosyncrasies and complicated back story. The art is complex and gorgeous, but I often feel like the story is not really for me: It feels like it’s a lot of running around and talking, but that the story is largely in the background and is progressing very slowly. I also feel that, despite all the talking, the characters are not very strong – Griffen is really the only one who seems distinct. There are some dryly entertaining moments, but it’s not one of my favorites.
- Dorkly, by Andrew Bridgman and others: Geek humor, broadly told and hilariously illustrated. Dorkly is a geek clickbait site, but the comics are amusing.
- Fowl Language Comics, by Brian Gordon: One- and two-panel observations of the world, full of sarcasm and smartassery. Be sure to read the bonus panel for each strip.
- The Fox Sister, by Christina & Jayd Aït-Kaci: A modern urban fantasy story taking place in South Korea (well, actually it takes place in the 1960s, but that’s “modern” by fantasy standards). Yun Hee is a young woman whose older sister died years earlier. Alex, a visiting American, gets interested in her, and gets caught in a struggle involving an evil spirit and possession. Things moved right along for a while, but updates have been infrequent lately, making it harder to follow. It’s worth reading through the archives, though.
- Happle Tea, by Scott Maynard: Gag-a-day strip focusing on making fun of (mainly) religion, though also pop culture and the supernatural. Oddly most of the jokes involve defunct religions (e.g., Greek or Norse mythology), which I think is less satisfying than skewering contemporary religion. It doesn’t really have an ongoing narrative so you can jump in anywhere. Good art, though the jokes are usually verbal rather than visual.
- LeveL, by Nate Swinehart: This one baffles me a bit. Science fiction in a multi-sectored metropolis, in which a young man named Cael was involved in some sort of disaster, and lives under house arrest for three years thereafter. We also see what happens when a sector gets closed down. But it feels like this is all the very early stages of a much longer story, and it’s not at all clear where it’s going.
- Lovecraft is Missing, by Larry Latham: A long-form horror strip which has been running for several years: In the 1920s, the writer H.P. Lovecraft disappears, and some friends and acquaintances investigate what happened, naturally finding that many things he wrote about are real. The story plods at times (much like Lovecraft’s own work), but it’s pretty good. The real downside is that writer/artist Latham was diagnosed with cancer, had to stop drawing, hired a new artist – and then passed away this fall. So it’s not clear whether the strip will get finished.
- M.F.K., by Nilah: Abbie, a teen girl carrying her mother’s ashes, ends up in a desert village. She also reveals herself to be a telekinetic – unregistered – when a band other other such folks wanders in to terrorize the town. There’s some good stuff here – the art, for instance, and the showdown between Abbie and the others – though the story is on the slow side. No, I haven’t yet figured out what “M.F.K.” stands for.
- Monster Soup, by Julie Devin: I can’t really summarize it better than the artist does on the site: “A zombie, witch, ghost, werewolf, and a vampire are sentenced to live in a castle. Unbeknownst to them, they all share the same incompetent lawyer and judge who seemed intent on sending them to the same castle.” The five convicts don’t always get along very well, and the castle has secrets which are dangerous even to them. Art is decent, seems influenced by a mix of manga and video games, neither of which has any special appeal to me. It’s been on hiatus since September.
- Next Town Over, by Erin Mehlos: A fantasy western in which shadowy bounty hunter, Vane Black, chases an unscrupulous rogue, John Henry Hunter, through a variety of small towns, the pair wreaking havoc along the way. Neither of the characters is particularly admirable or relatable, and the stories are little more than a series of set-pieces or mayhem and escapades. The art is very good, but after 7 chapters it feels like there’s not really a lot to bite into here.
- Opportunities, by ML Snook & Katie DeGelder: This is a comic I feel I should like a lot more than I do, inasmuch as it’s pretty serious SF stuff involving aliens and humans interacting in the present day in a single spaceport, where a murder occurs. The art is not very sophisticated, but it’s good enough, especially in rendering the backdrop of the grand hotel where events take place. But the cast is sizable, not especially developed, and the story seems to mainly just be characters running around with few notable developments. So I’ve found it hard to get invested in what’s going on, though of course it’s always possible that I haven’t paid close enough attention.
- Scandinavia and the World, by Humon: Humorous strip featuring personifications of various nations (the Scandinavian ones, of course, and some others) and the way they view each others’ peculiarities. The art is on the adorable side, which is a funny contrast to some of the subject matter.
- Sfeer Theory, by Alex Singer & Jayd Aït-Kaci: Fantasy-adventure in a world resembling, perhaps, 18th or early 19th century Europe in which those who master Sfeer Theory can control physical objects. Valentino is a young man with an unusual mastery of these skills, but who has low social status. Also, his kingdom of Warassa is wrapping up a war with a neighbor. Lots of interesting stuff here, but seems to update irregularly. Also, it doesn’t have an RSS feed, which makes it very difficult to keep up with.
- The Specialists, by Al Fukalek & Shawn Gustafson: It’s World War II and the Nazis have developed superhumans. The Americans are trying to do the same, but it’s not going very well. The Specialists are the team of superhumans they have so far, and most of the government regards them as something of a joke. The premise is similar to Kieron Gillen’s comic book Über, but it’s less grim and desperate, with a little more humor. Fukalek’s art is a bit on the rough side, but it gets stronger as the story goes along. The story took a while to get going, but it’s paying off: The team is currently in the midst of their first battlefield test, which has brought several things to a head. Overall a strong strip.
- Spindrift, by Elsa Kroese & Charlotte E. English: High fantasy with different species (some with wings, some with horns), class warfare, cross-species children, family responsibilities, and cultural burdens. Not exactly my sort of thing, and my interest has flagged since updates fell to once every three weeks. The art is attractive, though.
- Stonebreaker, by Peter Wartman: I bought Wartman’s graphic novel Over the Wall some months ago (it’s also available online here), and Stonebreaker is billed as a sequel to it. A girl enters an ancient abandoned city searching for her brother and encounters the demons that live there. It’s still spinning up, it feels like. Nice black-and-white art, especially the details in the background.
- Sufficiently Remarkable, by Maki Naro: Here’s a comic I enjoy more than I expected to: A couple of roommates, Riti and Meg, working through life in New York. Riti is a dreamer who’s constantly bogged down in the mundanity of every-day life, while Meg is a free spirit with little sense of responsibility. The writing could be tightened up a bit as sometimes the story feels a bit aimless, but some of the escapades are funny. The art reminds me a bit of that from Lilo and Stitch.
- Supercakes, by Kat Layh: A series of vignettes about a pair of superhero girlfriends. Updates irregularly (last update was in August), but some fun character bits: A quiet morning, meeting family at the holidays, and a winter adventure against ice giants. Really strong artwork. Looking forward to more, when it arrives.
- Trekker, by Ron Randall: Trekker was published as a series of comics back in the 80s, and a new chapter was printed recently in Dark Horse Presents. Ron Randall has all of that material available to read here, along with new chapters. Mercy St. Clair is a “Trekker”, essentially a bounty hunter working on future Earth to capture criminals the law can’t keep up with. Though she looks younger, there’s a developing thread of her being older and her body starting to break down on her, though she’s still one of the best in the business. More adventure than hard science fiction or noir, it’s a fun read for fans of that genre. Randall is also a terrific artist so the pages look great, and while Mercy is an attractive woman, there’s not a lot of cheesecake in the strip.
- Unearth, by Mathew Van Dinter: Boy, I am not sure what to make of this strip. Steampunk fantasy in which – eventually – the characters will be burrowing into the Earth, I think, but so far it’s been an extensive set-up largely involving comedies of manners (especially poor manners). The artwork is very quirky, the poses having a weird mix of stiff and expressive. It seems like it has a lot of promise, but it’s taking a long time to get to it.
- Utopia City, by Ron Gravelle: Aeons ago, space gods fought among themselves and eventually called a truce. Today, they empower proxies to fight their battles for them, but in Utopia City one man is working to defeat their minions and ultimately stop the gods themselves. A Kirby-esque pulp superhero yarn told in realistic black-and-white illustrations, it’s loud, hard-hitting, and not at all subtle, it frankly feels decidedly retro in the modern day. The art is good, if somewhat lacking in dynamism. The story hasn’t really grabbed me yet, as it’s light on characterization.
- Witchy, by Ariel Ries: A fantasy ina kingdom of witches where the strength of your magic is determined by the length of your hair – but if it’s too long, you’re judged an enemy of the state are executed. Our heroine Nyneve had her father killed in that way when she was small, and now a teenager she hides the length of her hair to save herself from the same fate. But the day of being tested for entry into the Witch Guard is coming. The story is still in its prologue, building to its first major dramatic turning point, but it’s pretty good so far. The art is on the simple side – not many backgrounds, for instance – but it has some interesting character designs.
If there’s a common thread I notice when putting together these entries, it’s that long-form dramatic webcomics which don’t update regularly are hard to follow and hard to remember. This is compounded if the story doesn’t have memorable characters (either visually or in personality). Hell, it’s sometimes hard to remember what’s going on in Girl Genius, and it updates three times a week like clockwork. There are a lot of strips like that fighting to distinguish themselves from others, and it’s gotta be hard on the artist if they’ve been toiling away for a year or two and haven’t broken out.
Sometimes I wonder if some strips are too ambitious, so that a year or more of strips still feels like the story is in the prologue. Contrast with ongoing humor strips which often start with a small cast and build them out over time. I wonder whether dramatic strips might do better to take the same approach, especially if they update infrequently.
Still, it’s easy to say all that when you’re not doing your own strip, eh?
I was kind of aware of the SyFy mini-series Ascension (no relation to the deck building card game of the same name) because they’d been running ads for it for a few weeks now (mainly promoting it as Tricia Helfer’s return to SF TV). Somehow I stumbled upon the timeline for the story and it got me much more interested.
The premise is that in 1963 the United States launched a generation starship to Proxima Centauri, with a planned mission length of 100 years, and that this was kept from the public. So the ship, the USS Ascension, developed its own society (with only 600 people), cut off from communication with Earth. The series starts in the present day, 51 years after launch, and begins with the first murder on the ship since it took off. The first episode (of three), in particular, focuses on the investigation of the murder, and various red herrings along the way.
The first episode also ends with a big plot twist, and it’s impossible to talk about the story in depth without spoiling it, so I’m going to continue this entry after the jump.
But if this sounds interesting, I suggest watching the first episode, which features some stellar set design and costuming, maybe the best I’ve ever seen in an SF television show. When you hit the twist, you’ll either be intrigued to watch more, or you’ll decide to stop there.
But now, on to the spoilers:
Read on, Macduff! »
Redshirts is just about the perfect vacation book: It’s a page-turner, it’s funny, and it’s thought-provoking.
It takes place in a Star Trek-like universe, in which crew members of the starship Intrepid find that they are at great risk of being killed whenever they go on a mission with one of five key officers. So much so that most of the crew tries to look busy whenever they can’t avoid the officers outright. Our hero Andrew Dahl and his friends – all recent recruits to the Intrepid – try to unravel what’s going on, and find that not only is there a high fatality rate, but that the officers’ adventures are filled with near-impossible levels of coincidence, as well as events which seem flat-out impossible violations of the laws of physics. Eventually they convince themselves of what must be happening, and hatch a plan to try to fix things and save their own lives in the process.
If you’re familiar with the central conceit of the book, then I’ll discuss it at more length after the jump below. If you’re not, then I’m not going to spoil it here. And it’s either going to work for you, or it isn’t. It worked for me (for the most part), and the story is a fine example of characters backed into a corner and struggling as best they can to get out of their predicament. It’s also at at-times touching story for certain characters who realize what’s been happening to them (in some cases for years), and for certain other characters whose confrontation with the fantastic events causes them to reflect upon and change the course of their lives.
Scalzi is, no doubt about it, a fantastic wordsmith. His light tone doesn’t always work for me (and I can easily see it turning off some readers), and he has to thread the needle here to not lighten the tone of the often-gruesome first half of the book without making it feel inappropriate, and then switch gears to the more serious second half without it becoming maudlin. He succeeds at this quite well, and I was constantly impressed with how funny the book was, but also how clever it was.
As I said, the similarity to Star Trek is deliberate, but it’s not – as I’ve seen a few observe – fan fiction by any reasonable measure. It’s also not metatextual in that it’s not really commenting on Star Trek or similar shows. (If it’s commenting on anything, it’s poking fun at the bad writing that creeps into – if not pervades – most TV shows which have to crank out 20+ episodes per year.) It’s using the basic framework of Star Trek to tell its own story, and I think by-and-large it is respectful of the genre while still being realistic about its sillier aspects.
Unless you take your Star Trek too seriously, or can’t connect with Scalzi’s writing style, I think Redshirts is well worth a read.
Some more spoiler-laden discussion after the jump:
Read on, Macduff! »
Recently we watched the three most recent Disney animated films, and I wanted to write a few words about them.
The Princess and the Frog (2009), based on the fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, takes place in New Orleans in the 1920s where Tiana (Anika Nona Rose) wants to open the restaurant her father – who died in World War I – always dreamed of. Her plans are derailed when Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town intent on marrying into money, and the villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David) turns him into a frog in a scheme to get rich himself. The twist is that when Tiana kisses Naveen, she too turns into a frog, and the pair embark on a quest of personal and mutual discovery as they try to get changed back.
This film has bold and flamboyant characters somewhat reminiscent of Aladdin – particularly the jazz-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) – and the dialog crackles effectively. Debbi liked the music a lot, and I enjoy it but felt they were bending over backwards a bit far to cover all the kinds of music in New Orleans and Cajun territory. I also felt there was a little too much “frog time” and not enough “people time”. I kind of felt like there was a story about Tiana as an adult woman rather than a transformed frog which I’d rather have seen. But it’s an enjoyable film, and the climax and denouement are both worth cheering for.
(I did wonder a few times during the film about how it willfully ignores the fact that slavery would have been in the living memory of people in the 20s, and the film’s awkward predecessor among Disney films with black characters, Song of the South. But of course it’s not in Disney’s nature to consider such things.)
Tangled (2010) is probably the weakest of the three films. Based on the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, it features the character of that name (Mandy Moore) being the daughter of a king and queen who is spirited away by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) who is using the magical properties of her hair to keep herself young. She keeps Rapunzel trapped in a tower at the edge of the kingdom, where Rapunzel sees the floating lanterns released each year on her birthday, and she longs to go see them up close. One day a thief, Flynn (Zachary Levi), stumbles upon her tower while on the run from both the law and his partners whom he’d double-crossed, and she captures him. She then extracts a promise from him to take her to see the lanterns, and they set out on a journey pursued by his ex-partners, by Mother Gothel, and by the King’s men.
Worst things first, I felt the songs in this film fell flat. None of them stood out to me or really stuck in my head after watching it. I also felt the villains were pretty weak, in particular Mother Gothel needed to be more of a big bad than just a schemer and manipulator. Not that seeing her defeat wasn’t satisfying, but she just didn’t feel very threatening. Maybe if she’d been a true wizard, or even the queen of a rival kingdom she might have had the necessary weight.
Flynn and Rapunzel are both fun characters, but the story ultimately belongs to Flynn. Partly because it’s the more flamboyant character, but also because he’s the one who grows and changes and gains redemption – and who ultimately is the one who makes the big sacrifice in rode to thwart the villain. Rapunzel is on a quest to discover who she is – because at the beginning she isn’t anyone – but the growth of a more complex character like Flynn just flat overshadows her arc.
The highlights of the film are generally the action sequences, which are very well-staged. Also Flynn’s act of sacrifice. But while it’s worth watching, it’s not one of the classics.
Then there’s the surprise breakout animated film of recent years, Frozen (2013), inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”. A pair of princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are best friends as children, but Elsa was born with the power to generate cold and snow. After almost accidentally killing Anna, Elsa is put into seclusion by their parents, and Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers are removed. Alas, their parents die at sea and Elsa grows up to become the new queen, but she’s unable to control her powers during her coronation, and takes herself into exile, also inadvertently dropping a magical winter over the land. Anna heads out to find her, and is helped by an ice farmer, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and an animated snowman, Olaf (Josh Gadd). Elsa’s powers again threaten Anna’s life, and a plot to take over the kingdom threatens all of them.
Frozen captured peoples’ attention partly for its soundtrack, which is surely very good. “Let It Go” has been almost unescapable in pop culture over the last nine months, and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” has also been popular. (For my money, the best song behind “Let It Go” is “Fixer-Upper”.) The other songs, and the orchestral music, are also quite good. If anything I think some of the tracks are a little under-orchestrated – one can rarely say that anything in a Disney film isn’t enough over-the-top.
It also grabbed some headlines because both main characters are female, and ultimately they solve their own problems (though Kristoff helps a little). The characterizations suffer some from both of the women being relative ciphers. To some extent they suffer from the same problem as Rapunzel, since both have grown up in isolation and they don’t have much in the way of backstory or personality. Anna’s central conflict prior to the coronation is that she wants something – anything – to happen to her. Elsa just wants to be normal and is frightened by who she is. This is enough to drive the plot, but it makes their motivations and characters pretty one-dimensional.
Like Tangled, Frozen involves a lot of running around, and at least the running around is fun and well-staged, which is good because there’s just not that much to the plot. But as with the other two films Frozen does stick the climax and resolution (even if its “true love conquers all” approach to solving Elsa’s dilemma doesn’t make any more sense than it usually does).
Reading about the film’s development, it does sound like fundamentally it suffered from not knowing what kind of story it was telling, and changing direction along he way. Even the core story between the sisters changed (for a while Elsa was apparently going to be a flat-out villain). It might have felt like a deeper film is Elsa had already become queen and something went wrong with her powers (a villain exposing her for his own gain, perhaps), adding more sophisticated elements to Anna’s coming-of-age story (because the coming-of-age story doesn’t really seem to fit Elsa).
I feel like I’m only saying bad things about Frozen, but it’s certainly not a bad film. It’s just kind of strange from a story construction perspective, but it is trying something outside of Disney’s usual comfort zone so perhaps it’s not surprising that it feels awkward (the supposed villains, for instance, feel basically bolted on, if not outright redundant). Anna’s quest and growth along the way are enjoyable and work fairly well, and have a number of entertaining set-pieces.
If you’re curious about the difference between a Tony-award-winning Broadway singer and a Disney pop princess, compare the cinematic version of “Let It Go” sung by Menzel and the music video sung by Demi Lovato.
Oh, on the Blu-Ray release don’t miss “The Making of Frozen”. Really, don’t miss it. Really.
Anyway, three Disney films. All of them flawed, two of them trying substantially new things for Disney’s oeuvre, and both feeling not entirely comfortable in doing so, but the more traditional one (Tangled) feels less artistically successful than those other two. But they’re all worth watching. Worth watching, that is, if you enjoy Disney films, because the stretching that the two films do isn’t enough to make them feel substantially different from what we’re used to from a Disney animated feature.