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Monthly Archives: June 2016

(Movie Reviews) A Hunchback, a Demigod and an Only Child Walk Into a Bar…

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the “Dark Ages” of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you’ve been sleeping on them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo’s classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn’t know what it’s doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies — it’s that good.

Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to “care for” Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church’s bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that “you will only see in the world what you see within yourself”.

Frollo’s mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I’ve felt the strongest emotional connection with.

And perhaps that’s because Frollo is so horrific. His “villain’s song” is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You’re still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo’s fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That’s frightening because it’s so common in our world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda’s song, “God Help The Outcasts,” is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.

Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. “The Bells of Notre Dame” is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; “Out There” is an amazing “I want” song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo’s awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; “Hellfire” is nothing short of an epic villain’s war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character’s motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.

The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he’s every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn’t stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn’t really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.

Hercules (1997)
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997’s Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio — basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what’s essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.

Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society — but for an entirely different reason. He doesn’t know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn’t given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn’t have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.

When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.

Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn’t come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there’s something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn’t quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don’t spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we’re in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.

The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It’s certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it’s a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.

I think that’s the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really — most of Disney’s films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there’s almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.

And that’s what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don’t seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn’t that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don’t root for him because he’s an exceptional specimen who just won’t fail. Here, he’s a Greecian Superman, and it’s always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.

Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.

Still, this is a pretty good movie — there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn’t have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that’s all it really is.

Mulan (1998)
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen — it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.

Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn’t fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn’t have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She’s accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a “lucky cricket” who serves as Mushu’s sidekick.

Mulan’s problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don’t fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn’t want to be demure and quiet; she’s smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What’s interesting is how Disney doesn’t pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I’m impressed by Disney’s careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.

The story isn’t perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn’t need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.

But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character’s facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous “A Girl Worth Fighting For”. It’s a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.

The third act is a wonderful set-piece that’s both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there’s just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone’s changed by their experience.

Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that’s only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it’s another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Review) Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1-6

Reading 150When Marvel resumed their regular universe in the wake of Secret Wars last November, they released a really great line-up of diverse comics under the “All-New, All-Different Marvel” banner. I wrote a little about the titles I was most interested in here, and it’s taken me a little time to get to most of the titles. Still, they’re in my pull box and I’ve been steadily making my way through. So, how are they faring eight months later?

Not well, I have to say. Red Wolf, Howling Commandos of SHIELD, and Weirdworld have been cancelled already, and a lot of the other fledgeling comics aimed at diversifying their line-up in either character or tone have been consistently soft-sellers for your local comic shop. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the diversity initiative is a failure; with a more diverse readership comes way more diverse ways of reading, so while a lot of the audience for these books might not be heading to the LCS to pick them up they might be getting them somewhere else — digitally through the Marvel or Comixology app, or in graphic novel form through their local bookseller or on Amazon. Still, the Diamond sales figures reported from comic shops is essentially the Nielsen rating that comics titles live or die on, and the big two publishing houses still use that as a key figure of success.

So let me preface this review by saying that if you’re a comics fan who has been championing more diversity in superhero stories, it’s vitally important to offer feedback to the companies giving it to you in a way they understand. Visit your local comic shop, pre-order the title or buy it off the shelf. A lot of these businesses are locally owned and operated, and they can certainly use the patronage (and the proof that broadening the tent of the superhero story is bringing in new and diverse fans).

MG and DD

One of the titles I was most intrigued by is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which wrapped up its first arc last month and released its first graphic novel collection. Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare have been doing some great work here, establishing Lunella Lafayette as a next-generation Peter Parker who just so happens to have a supernatural dinosaur as a best friend. Lunella’s story is relatable and engrossing, even when the more ridiculous elements dominate the scenery. It’s grounded in street-level concerns, coming off a bit like Netflix’s Daredevil — a look at how the high-minded heroics of the Marvel universe affect the working stiffs who have to deal with the fallout.

Lunella, for example, is a ten-year-old super-genius whose parents simply can’t afford to send her to a school worthy of her intellect. Worse, her repeated applications to the prestigious Future Foundation are rejected. So she’s stuck at her local elementary school where she fights off crushing boredom and disconnection by working on a problem that’s complicated enough to engage her and personal enough to motivate her: finding a way to keep the Terrigen Mists making their way around the globe from turning her into an Inhuman. She knows she has these dormant genes locked up inside of her, and exposure to the Mists will activate them, turning her into a different person. Of course she doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a normal girl. So, she tries to hunt down a Kree artifact in the hopes that it will tell her how their experiments worked. Maybe if she gets an explanation, she can reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, both Devil Dinosaur and a tribe of early hominids called the Killer Folk are displaced through time after a fight; when Lunella finds the artifact that sent them into the modern day, she becomes the Killer Folk’s new target.

This is my first exposure to Devil Dinosaur, though I’ve seen his name pop up here and there in various Marvel cartoons and games. I suspect I’m not alone in this, especially if this particular comic book is meant to draw in readers who would have never gotten into the Marvel universe some other way. I’m intrigued by his back-story, even though I don’t think we’ll get much explanation of it here; the first arc is all about Lunella making sense of her world and the crazy things she gets caught up in and DD is very much a sidekick. But it feels like his fight against the Killer Folk reaches back across the eons, especially since the inciting incident involves a ritual that the Killer Folk perform a blood sacrifice and the dinosaur’s original companion — Moon Boy — is *also* an ancient hominid. What’s going on here? And how does it tie in with Lunella’s life beyond the Kree connection? Maybe that will be answered in future arcs.

MG and DD coverThis one, though, is a lot of fun. We’re introduced to Lunella, her family, her school, her neighborhood and problems through these intensely disruptive influences that reshape them quite a bit. We see Lunella’s fearlessness as she draws her strength in the face of adversity; how she gets that from a mother willing to do what it takes to protect and provide for her family; and how her work ethic comes from a father who sacrifices his time and attention to make ends meet, but still does his best to be present for a daughter he doesn’t really understand. Lunella, on some level, recognizes the good intentions of her parents even while she knows they can’t possibly get what she’s going through. That tension between love and isolation is well-drawn here; and it informs so many of her decisions. She puts up with the teasing from her classmates, the impatient hostility of her teachers, the dismissive ignorance of the world at large — not because she thinks she’s better than they are, but because she knows how her differences sets her apart from just about everyone. If her own family doesn’t understand her, how can she expect anyone else to?

I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it is. Lunella is a great heroine because she doesn’t let this fundamental disconnection get her down. She still believes in the people around her, she still wants to be a part of the world. The first arc of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur establishes that desire while also showing her that she can embrace the full oddity of who she is and how she relates to the world around her. Seeing that is a true joy and ultimately inspiring.

We don’t see black heroines who are smart, fearless and devoted to excellence all that often. Most of the time we see them as tough powerhouses who don’t take shit from anyone (see: Zoe Washburne, Amanda Waller, Miss America, etc.). And while that’s awesome, Lunella is in a class all by herself. She gets by on her brain, and her strength comes from her ability to stick through a tough problem until she finds a solution. She just doesn’t give up. That willpower is her birthright, and she’s applying it to the problems that we face in the 21st century. Ours is a complex, interconnected and quickly-changing world, and just when you think you’ve got things down the landscape shifts under your feet. Lunella is simultaneously firmly rooted in who she is and adaptable to whatever the world lays at her doorstep. She’s incredible.

The art from Amy Reeder and Natacha Bustos is a big part of this comic’s appeal. It’s bright and dynamic, capturing the lightness of childhood perfectly blended with the hard edges and long shadows of living in a big, dangerous city. They’re able to run the gamut of grounded scenes at the family dinner table, the primary-colored chaos of an elementary school classroom, the neon-and-shadow contrast of a city at night, and the traditional craziness of big superhero action without sacrificing their style; it’s consistent and balanced, simple but extraordinarily capable. This book isn’t only a pleasure to read, but so many of the panels are a joy to look at as well.

I really love this comic, and I think a lot of you out there will, too. And, as much as I hate to say this, it’s important that you find it. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur debuted in November 2015 with nearly 39,000 copies sold; sales figures have since dipped into the 12K range — beneath Contest of Champions, Star-Lord and Hyperion. It’s not quite into “automatic cancellation” territory, but it’s close. The most recent issues of Weirdworld and Red Wolf have only pulled 9K and 7K copies, respectively; Marvel’s top ongoing comics generally pull around 75K copies.

I’m not going to pretend Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur will ever pull that many numbers, but it’s important for us to show Marvel that there’s room in their universe for heroes like Lunella Lafayette. Now that the first collection is out, go to your local comic shop and pick it up. If you like it, make it a point to grab individual issues every month. I know that the feedback model is bogus — digital and bookstore sales absolutely need to be given more weight — but let’s deal with things as they are. Now that Marvel has listened to us and given us diverse and compelling heroes, it’s up to us to show our appreciation with our wallets and words.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Comic Books, Reading, Reviews

 

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(Reviews) The Circle of Life, The Colors of the Wind, The Virtue of Playing Nice

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are holding a weekly film festival where we watch the entire Disney animated canon in chronological order, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way to Zootopia. Currently, we’re up to the latter half of the studio’s first Renaissance. Here are my reviews of the latest batch of movies!

The Lion King (1994)
I held a poll on my Twitter account a little earlier this spring about which movie people considered to be the best in the Disney Renaissance, and this one won by a landslide. At first, I thought the results were slightly skewed because so many of my followers are furries, but then I watched this movie again and HOLY CRAP YOU GUYS THIS IS THE BEST MOVIE OF THE DISNEY RENAISSANCE.

Little Simba is the prince of his pride; his father Mufasa and mother Nala serve as King and Queen of the Pridelands. Before his father can teach him everything there is to know about being royalty, Simba is framed for the murder of Mufasa by his scheming uncle Scar and runs away to avoid the punishment. Even though he’s embraced a more carefree and irresponsible way of life, destiny comes calling to right the wrongs of his people. Can he heed the call?

Even now, more than 20 years later, the ambition and imagination of this movie is staggering. The opening alone, featuring a newborn Simba being presented to the beasts of the Pridelands for the first time, still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. The prologue sequence makes a statement about the scope and ambition of this movie, and they do their best to deliver with just about every song, every action scene, every introduction of a new character.

I was continually surprised by the musical numbers. Remember the fascist overtones of Scar’s “Be Prepared”? I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, and it almost always shocks me whenever I see it. The playful inventiveness of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is enough for me to forgive it for being a relatively weak song; and “Hakuna Matata” is one of those songs that’s fun, catchy and sneaks the pivot of Simba’s plot from exiled youth to carefree young adult effortlessly.

The movie is exquisitely choreographed and tightly plotted. Scenes move with a Swiss-watch precision, forming a new link in a chain that depends on what’s come before. When it’s job is done, it’s time to move on. The Lion King also bounces between the kid-friendly broad humor of Timon and Puumba and the surprisingly dark scenes with Scar and his hyenas really well. It’s ability to juggle so many disparate characters is perhaps its most impressive feat.

This is a prominent gem in the crown that marks Disney as the king of American animation studios. When they’re at the top of their game, there’s simply no one better.
Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is smack-dab in the middle of the Renaissance; it’s the last Disney movie before Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story (more on that later), and signals a pivot away from the really traditional fairy-tale adventure that marked the first half of their resurgence. In a lot of ways, it feels like the studio went back to the riskier stuff that didn’t work out so well in the 70s and 80s; this time, however, the studio is a lot more confident in its vision and far more proficient at pushing itself to new feats of movie-making.

The reputation of Pocahontas is a curious one; most Disney fans don’t talk so much about it, and critics largely sniffed on its release. Fair enough — when Disney is coming off the run that it had in the last six years, expectations for its next film had to be monstrous.

But with the passage of time, it’s easier to see Pocahontas as an ambitious movie in its own way. The story alone is a bit of a hard sell. A young Native American woman is at a crossroads in her life; she’s come to the age where she has to stop seeking an adventurous future and accept her place among her people. This means marrying one of her tribe’s strongest hunters and upholding the traditions and expectations of her culture. However, when she meets a European who comes to this strange “new world” for riches (and partly to kill any Native Americans who cause trouble), she falls head over heels for him. Their relationship makes both of their positions complicated, especially as the natives and Europeans circle ever closer to war.

The environments and settings are the real stars of this movie; they’re simply wonderful, expansive and gorgeous. It really stings when John Smith and his crew — headed by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe — cut down the trees to build a fort and dig up the land in the hopes of finding gold. Pocahontas and her tribe are clearly people of the land, and the movie does such a great job of framing her within that context; everywhere she goes, she blends into the trees, the hills, the rivers. By contrast, the Europeans are frequently the focus of their scenes; nature only exists as far as it’s useful.

What’s impressive about Pocahontas is the clear care that the storytellers used to present the native way of life before America had been settled by the Europeans. It would have been really easy for Disney to fall into the noble savage trope, or to give in to the mystic othering of Native Americans. For the most part, though, they keep it grounded; the supernatural touches within the film are mostly low-key. The one botch is the idea of allowing their heroine to learn English simply by listening to her heart or some such thing. It’s a narrative shortcut that felt lazy, but at the same time I can’t think of a more elegant solution to the problem of getting Pocahontas and John Smith into a dialogue sooner rather than later.

Other than that, the movie mostly sticks the landing. Pocahontas is a wonderful character with a rich inner life; she stands up for herself when she feels disrespected; she sticks her neck out for the the things she believes in. It might not be as loud as The Lion King or as spellbinding as Beauty and the Beast, but Pocahontas is a worthy film that belongs with the rest from this period.
Toy Story (1995)
The cultural impact of this movie is huge — it almost single-handedly killed traditional animation in movie theatres. That’s not something you could fault Pixar for, of course, but man, it really blew the roof off the industry when it dropped this.

Not only is Toy Story the first feature-length animated film rendered entirely in CGI, it’s also a surprisingly good tale. While the visuals haven’t aged that well in the two decades since the film’s release, the strength of the writing, inventive character design and wonderful vocal performance keep the movie from being one of those culturally-important films that really isn’t that enjoyable.

Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, and that makes him the leader of all the playthings in Andy’s room. He runs a tight ship, but he’s a benevolent dictator — as long as his authority is recognized, things go well. That’s a good thing; Andy’s family is moving to another house very soon, and Woody is in charge of making sure no toy gets left behind.

However, all that gets upended when Andy is gifted a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. Woody is cast aside in that way all kids discard their old toys for the latest and greatest; what’s worse, the other toys have taken to Buzz as well. Woody’s jealousy sparks a chain of events that finds him and Buzz forced out of Andy’s home, desperate to make their way back before he leaves forever. Can they make it?

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the voices of Woody and Buzz, respectively; their chemistry carries the entire film. The world of Toy Story is really strange, unlike anything anyone had seen up to that point; hard green Army men move out on reconnaissance missions, able to see through solid plastic binoculars; Mr. Potato Head lives a nightmare existence where his facial features and body parts are just one jostle away from flying off; an Etch-A-Sketch communicates solely by drawing pictures. The setting is incredibly inventive, but it needs its protagonists to ground the action to something relatable. That’s what the two stars do here wonderfully.

Even though the animation is showing its age, the cinematography is actually really impressive. The opening credits offer a toy’s-eye-view of playtime, and at their scale an ordinary house is this tremendous, varied environment. The next door neighbor’s house is practically a world away, and I think it really captures how the world feels to young children. The visual storytelling is subtle but really impressive.

What’s scary to think about is that for all of its strengths, this is actually one of the weaker films in Pixar’s catalogue. Toy Story 2 and 3 are both streets ahead of this one, even though it’s a solid movie that just so happens to feature game-changing animation. When they could have hung their hat on their technology, Pixar stepped up to do so much more. And that’s why they’ve pretty much conquered animation in the years since.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Writing) Ye Olde List of Projects

Writing 150The biggest takeaway from my week of Infomagical is the seriously wonderful idea of narrowing my focus to one or two things and working on them until they’re done. I have a bad habit of saying yes to everything, of getting excited about so many projects and/or collaborations that it becomes really difficult to keep track of everything — let alone actually make time for things.

As part of the process of setting my priority, I thought I’d make a quick note of the projects I’m currently actively working on and where they sit on my to-do list. Of course, I’d appreciate any feedback you have to offer on this list. Do one of these projects excite you more than the others? Think I should be working on x instead of y? Let me know.

This is geared towards making sure I actually finish and submit most of these things somewhere — either to professional print/online publications; here at The Writing Desk; or for free public viewing at Furry Network or SoFurry.

The Cult of Maximus
This is the big one: the first project for the Jackalope Serial Company has been a bumpy one so far, and I’ve only managed to post thirteen parts in the first 24 weeks of the year. Making sure I make good on my promise to post weekly installments of this story until it’s done is my top priority. That means putting more work into plotting out the story, making sure I have a good handle on the settings and really solidifying how the supernatural elements of the world work. More than that, I really want to double back and edit previous chapters to “smarten” them up for posting elsewhere.

By the way, this doubles as a reminder that I have a Patreon for erotic serial stories. They feature M/M content, muscle growth, giants and some violent content. If you’re interested, go here to sign up!

The Writing Desk
I definitely want to make sure that this blog is updated at least three times a week, and I’ve been managing a good pace with that so far. Really, it’s just a matter of making sure I have ideas for articles ready to go when there isn’t anything more pressing to talk about, and doing my best to keep up with Friday Fiction. That’s the feature I’m most excited about here, even if it ends up being my least-read post most weeks. Hopefully, as I get better at flash fiction, that will change.

Short Stories
I would really love to write and submit short stories to all kinds of publications — there is a booming market for POC voices in science-fiction and fantasy, and I think that I have a unique perspective and voice to contribute to that conversation. Right now, I think writing stories to their completion, workshopping and editing them, then putting up polished work online is my best play — but there are still places I would love to submit to. For the time being, working through commissions and requests is the priority here. “A Stable Love” is draft-complete, but needs an edit; and the poor fellow who won my short story prize during last year’s Write-A-Thon is *still* waiting for even a draft. It’s time to get my shit together here.

New Fables
Admittedly, I feel a little guilty about this being so low on the list. If you haven’t heard of New Fables, it’s a wonderful annual publication that features anthropomorphic characters helping us understand the human condition a little bit better. The last issue was published in 2012, and the process of putting up the next one has been filled with stops and starts. It is *well* past time I get on the stick about doing the necessaries to get this next issue published. After that, the plan for the future of the title needs to be solidified.

Pathfinder
I ran a Pathfinder game for several friends some time ago; due to the fact that I had much less idea what I was doing with the system than I thought I did and the fact that I needed to actually plot ahead a lot more than I did, it’s been on hiatus for a little while. However, we’re getting the band back together on July 30th; that means I have a ticking clock to revamp characters and plot out the next phase of the story. There’s certainly work to do, and it can’t be underestimated.

There are, of course, a lot of other projects, but these are the five that I will be working on now. I consider my plate full, and just about everything else will have to wait until I’m done with these.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, folks — here’s to hoping that the focus remains tight until I’ve got a handle on these projects…

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2016 in Furries, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 5: One Priority

Self Improvement 150Yesterday’s Infomagical challenge was to have a conversation at least seven minutes long with someone about a topic important to you, either over the phone or in person. So…how was it? Was it harder than you thought it would be? Easier? What did you talk about? And did you learn anything from the conversation?

I had planned to chat with my husband about his Dresden Files tabletop role-playing game yesterday, but we ended up talking about Warcraft with my husband and my best friend after seeing the movie. They were both not fans, to put it mildly. Which put me in the position of being the film’s sole defender — and even on a good night’s sleep with a bit of hindsight I have to say that it’s not as bad as everyone has been saying. I think Duncan Jones worked hard to ground an inherently cartoonish world and mostly succeeded; it wasn’t perfect, it might not even be good, but I liked it anyway. If you’ve ever had a long period where you were a die-hard Warcraft fan, you should see this movie on the big screen. It is made for you, to put yourself as immersively as possible in the world of Azeroth.

One of the things I came away from the conversation with is the idea that disagreement doesn’t have to be a personal attack. Even though I think a lot of the criticisms that have been lobbed at the movie (yes, even from my husband and best friend) are a bit unfair, I see where they’re coming from. And hey, just because I like — or even love — something doesn’t mean I can’t at least recognize its flaws, or the points where it leaves people cold, right? So yeah, good talk guys. I can’t wait to talk movies with you again sometime.

Today is the last day of our Infomagical week. If you joined me for these last five days of challenges, thanks! I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about how you interact with technology and where your relationship with it can improve. If you’ve just been reading these posts, thanks to you too! I hope you’ve gained something from reading about my experience. Or at least found it interesting.

The challenge for today is to take what we’ve learned about ourselves, how we consume information and that feeling we get when we’re chasing our goal and wrap it all up in one wonderful burrito of purpose. (I really want a burrito for lunch, you guys.) Today, we think about the lessons we’ve learned this past week and figure out how to apply it to the rest of our lives moving forward. What is the one big thing that we want to change in our lives as the result of this experience?

For me, the big lesson is the value of focus and prioritization. I have this tendency to say “yes” to way too much stuff, and even discounting the chronic depression, ADHD and poor time management skills there’s simply no way I’ll be able to get to everything in a timely fashion. Focusing squarely on single-tasking Monday gave me a window into a world in which I sit down with one project until it is finished, working hard on a single thing to make it the best thing it can be. That felt good! I want more of that in my life.

So, from now on, I’m going to shrink my focus down to the most important things to me. If there isn’t time for other things that are distractions anyway, so be it. I’ll read less Cracked articles, or spend less time on Facebook. I’ll stop reading articles on professional wrestling. (Well, maybe not, but I’ll read fewer of them.) What I do with my time and my technology will hopefully push me towards becoming a better and more complete storyteller, someone who knows the value and transformative potential of stories, someone who uses them for a very real and tangible benefit.

The Infomagical podcast for today is definitely worth a listen if you have about 15 minutes; it talks about the value of priority in your life and the cold reality that you must make conscious, difficult choices about where you choose to spend your time and energy. Tech, it’s mentioned at one point, makes a wonderful servant but a poor master.

So if you’re bouncing from Facebook to Twitter to blog to blog to blog — stop. That’s allowing yourself to be mastered by technology. Instead, make a conscious choice when you sit down at the computer, or take out your phone. Every moment brings a new choice; what is the best one to make? That’s something only you can decide, and if you want your tech to be a tool instead of a tyrant, it’s worth it to spend some time thinking about your decision.

Here’s the full list of blog posts and Infomagical challenges this week. I’m not sure if the page will be up next Monday, but if it is you can sign up to take the challenge here. Thanks so much for following me on this experience.

Day 1: A Magical Day / Zen and the Art of Single-Tasking
Day 2: A Magical Phone / The Minimalist Phone
Day 3: A Magical Brain / You Shall Not Pass, Meme!
Day 4: A Magical Connection / The Art of Conversation
Day 5: A Magical Life / One Priority

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 4: The Art of Conversation

Yesterday’s challenge was to avoid any meme, article, video or other link that didn’t take you closer to your information goal. For me, that was making sure that any content I consumed online made me a better and more focused storyteller. I’m not going to lie, this was the hardest challenge this week; I didn’t realize just how much I liked reading stuff online until I placed a restriction on myself.

I can’t say I did all that great, though I definitely gave it my best shot. There’s just too much great stuff out there you guys — and especially with the news being what it is and this election cycle being as outrageous as it is, the desire to keep on top of what everyone else is talking about is a lot stronger than I thought it would be. Chances are I’ll be trying to master this challenge again in the coming days and weeks, restricting my attention to the things that will make me a better writer.

How did you folks do? Did you find restricting your attention to just a few things as hard as I did, or did you have an easier time with it?

Today’s challenge is a little different; instead of honing our focus to one task or one wonderful minimalist screen or one topic of interest, we’ll be reaching out to someone else to have a meaningful conversation about something we care about. In person or over the phone, the goal today is to have a conversation at least seven minutes long about a piece of information you learned sometime this week. It could be about an article that helped you be more creative, or something you learned that made you a little more knowledgeable about the topic you wanted to know about this week, or simply…catching up on the life of someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. The topic is yours to decide, but you have to draft a friend to talk about it with for at least seven minutes.

I’m not going to lie — this actually sounds kind of hard. For those of us who are shy around people or have gotten used to superficial conversations, really digging in to a topic and exploring all sides of it won’t come easy. But it’s worth it; just think of how much closer you’ll feel with your conversation partner, having gone on this adventure together!

He doesn’t know this, but I plan on having a seven-minute conversation with my husband about storytelling through role-playing games tonight before going to see Warcraft. He just leveled a doozy of a twist last night in our Dresden Files game, and I’m itching to pick his brain about how he came up with it and planted seeds for it in previous sessions. Fun stuff!

Our week of challenges designed to combat information overload is almost over, but don’t worry — it’s not too late to join in! You can go back and read previous posts this week and take any challenge you’d like today. If you’d like, I’d appreciate a note or two about your experience so I can compare.

Day 1: Zen and the Art of Single-Tasking
Day 2: The Minimalist Phone
Day 3: You Shall Not Pass, Meme!

If you’re curious about what this is all about, head on over to Note to Self’s Infomagical page to get up to speed.

See you tomorrow, folks. Consume mindfully.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(#Infomagical) Day 3: You Shall Not Pass, Meme!

Self Improvement 150Yesterday’s Infomagical Challenge centered around the joy of tidying up your phone. The idea was to take a look at every app on your smartphone and think about whether or not it made you happy and productive. If it didn’t, see ya! The app is gone and your home screen is a little less cluttered. The remaining apps were then all placed into a single folder that made your phone a sparkling monument to minimalism.

The first time I took the challenge, I couldn’t bring myself to stuff all of my apps into one folder — but I did bring it down to six: iPhone Apps, Google Apps, Self-Improvement, Entertainment, Capitalism, Other. And it wasn’t a bad system. I pared down so many of my apps and seriously cut down on the number of times I got an app just to try out for something. But still, I couldn’t quite understand how much pushing my phone to its bare minimum would change my experience with it.

Now, I have to search for every app that I want to open. I have an iPhone, so there’s a Spotlight-type feature that brings up a search bar, my most recently opened apps, and a few other “suggested” items from Siri. It actually works quite well — if I’m dipping into Twitter or Telegram via my phone it’s right there, but if I want to play a game or dig up a utility app it forces me to engage the experience with intention and purpose. Which is great. It cuts down on the ease with which I can distract myself through my phone, which makes me pay attention to not only how often I have that impulse, but how often I act on that impulse.

Kondo PhoneHere’s my home screen now. Beautiful, simple, with just the cutest face staring back at me reminding me to “Be mindful.” I may not keep my phone like this forever, but I’ll definitely aim to cut down on the clutter.

Now that I’ve conquered my phone, I’m thinking about doing the same with my tablet and desktop — minimalism for all of my devices! Making sure that there’s only one application open at a time will help with single-tasking, and getting rid of the ‘default’ apps on my taskbar will help remove distraction and cut down on automatic behavior…which is the whole point of the Infomagical Challenge. For someone like me, this is a godsend.

Which brings us to today. The challenge is to avoid memes, articles, videos and anything else online that does not get you closer to your information goal. If your goal is to be more creative, anything that stirs the muse within you is fair game — but nothing else. If your goal is to become more knowledgeable on a topic, read or watch to your heart’s content…as long as it’s about the topic you’re trying to learn about. Everything else? Resist it. Imagine there’s a little Gandalf holding the bridge to your attention. And the Big Bad Balrog of Distraction is trying to consume your precious synapses. Will Gandalf let that slide? HELL NO. And neither will you. Engage with the Internet mindfully today. With a single-minded productive purpose. See how it feels to confront your fear of missing out. It might not be so bad!

If you’re just learning about the Infomagical Challenge, here are a couple of links that will get you up to speed really well:

Day 0: The Case for Infomagical
Day 1: Single-Tasking
Day 2: A Magical Phone

Also, shout out to Note to Self (a wonderful podcast) for organizing the Infomagical Challenge as well as their previous project, Bored and Brilliant.

See you lovely folks tomorrow! Did you minimalize your phone or desktop? Share a picture with me. 🙂

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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