RSS

Monthly Archives: January 2017

(Reviews) DisneyFest: Cars, Meet The Robinsons, Ratatouille

Entertainment 150It’s strange to think that we’re now in the recent history of Disney and Pixar. Cars was the last production on Pixar’s original contract; negotiations were tense, but ultimately resulted in Disney buying the studio and merging it with its own. In 2007, Disney was beginning to come out of its nadir with Meet The Robinsons, an overlooked film that feels like it was dismissed by association. Pixar released Ratatouille just three months later, dashing any hopes for recognition Disney’s cartoon might have made. The three films are a little strange, reflecting two animation studios struggling to reconcile their relationship with each other and pushing the borders of subject matter for kids’ movies in general.

Cars (2006)
This is one weird movie. Cars is set in a universe of anthropomorphic vehicles where busses, trains, ships and planes are living beings. This raises all kinds of questions that the movie nimbly dodges; it just asks you not to think about the rules too hard and have a good time. On the other hand, there are a lot of jokes and set pieces that practically beg further explanation, like how vehicles can fill the role of people AND animals at the same time. Trying to think through the ramifications of the tractor-tipping scene is really difficult.

cars-pixar

Seriously, is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world, or…?

So, superstar-racer Lightning McQueen is a young up-and-comer on the international racing circuit. His flashy driving (running?) and catch-phrase has captured the imagination of the race-car world and earned him a shot at the season’s championship with two other cars, the veteran Strip Weathers and eternal second-place finisher Chick Hicks. In order to get there in time, Lightning orders his friend (and big-rig pack mule) Mac to drive all night; this ends in disaster, separating the two and stranding McQueen in the dying Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Lightning has to learn how to slow down long enough to make things right while also winning the big race. Can he do it?

Despite the fact that this movie is straight-up baffling, it has a charm that wears better than I remember it before. The plot is pretty thin but well-told, and Cars is populated with a garage-full of characters that you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with. The production team went out of their way to stock the movie with a wide variety of car models, from super-fast coupes to puttery, sagging Volkswagens. What’s really interesting is how the animators actually imbue each vehicle with a distinct personality that feels organic to their form; you can tell what kind of “people” these are on sight, and the way they move (drive?) reveals a lot about how they see the world and interact with it.

Cars somehow managed to get all kinds of people for their voice cast; Owen Wilson serves as the primadonna Lightning McQueen, with Larry the Cable Guy as his sidekick (and breakout star) Mater. Paul Newman (in his last dramatic role), Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Michael Keaton and Jeremy Piven all lend their talents to the movie as well. Race car drivers and car aficionados even make cameos! It’s strange, in hindsight, that so much talent threw in with this movie. By then, the Pixar brand was golden, so I guess everyone wanted to be part of it.

It was Pixar’s lowest-reviewed film at that point, but critics still liked it; it opened well, made a ton of money at the box office and absolutely slayed with merchandise. To this day, the reputation of Cars is something of a debate with Disney fans. Some people dismiss it as juvenile fluff, while others see it as an underappreciated, or at least misunderstood, film.

I’m somewhere in between the two. It’s not as shallow or empty as its detractors make it out to be, but next to other Pixar films it’s dwarfed by its simple story and straight-forward performances. The animation feats are largely hidden, but can we just talk about how hard it is to build an entire world around anthropomorphic cars? And also, how hard it is to take CARS — inanimate objects that are gigantic and heavy — and make them move, speak and have their own body language in a way we could recognize? It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about that alone; the character design is an even bigger feat than the undersea denizens of Finding Nemo.

All of that is in service to a movie that I’m not sure merits that much work. However, considering the scads of money Pixar has made off the movie and its related merchandise, I’m sure the animation studio would disagree.

Meet The Robinsons (2007)
For Disney, getting it right with computer animation was a bit of a process. With Dinosaur, the lush environments were blown up at the end of Act 1 and replaced with drab, beige backgrounds for the characters to trudge through. In Chicken Little, all of their creative energy went to designing the title character and everything else (including plot, dialogue and supporting character design) was an afterthought. With 2007’s Meet The Robinsons, though, they get it mostly right — the animation is sunny and appealing, the plot carries a great message with sure-footed ambition, and most of the characters are people you like spending the time with.

Lewis is a precocious and smart 90s child right out of central casting in a situation you almost never see in children’s movies. He has the messy blond hair, the oversized geek glasses, and the bright smile — but he also lives in an orphanage with a pale, strange kid who loves to play baseball even though he’s terrible at it. Lewis and “Goob” are old hands; between Lewis’ inventions and Goob’s general oddity, they’re having a hard time getting placed in a home. This causes something of a personal crisis for him, and so his latest invention is a memory scanner that he hopes will unlock the only clue to her identity — his infant memories. At the school science fair, a kid claiming to be a cop from the future and a long, lanky man in a bowler hat both try to steal Lewis’ invention and the chase takes them all the way through traveling in time.

It’s exceedingly rare to see a children’s movie tackle the idea of adoption as an important aspect of its plot — at least in the relatively grounded way it comes across here. As an adopted child myself, I really appreciated that aspect of it; the ultimate lesson taken from the film offers a reason for hope in difficult circumstances, and it’s a hell of a lot fun getting there.

meet-the-robinsons-bhg

Bowler Hat Guy for President!

That’s because the plot is a bit twistier than most you’ll find in Disney movies of the era. Adding the time travel element will complicate any story, but it’s well-served in Meet The Robinsons; even if you guess a couple of the surprises along the way, chances are good that there are more you won’t see coming. Even though Lewis does a lot of unwise things that complicate the plot, it’s easy to give him a pass — he’s a 12-year-old boy who’s just learned time travel is a reality, and that’s not something one just plays safe. The villain, Bowler Hat Guy, is the real star of the movie; he is a straight-up vaudeville villain, all waxed moustache and overwrought theatricality. He is so deeply weird and revels in it so much that you almost root for him. Every scene with him somehow made me like him that much more, which is a feat in and of itself.

The titular Robinson family doesn’t come off quite as well. They’re a huge and eccentric clan, full of inventors and free spirits, but the whimsy of their lives comes off a little strained. We don’t spend as much time with them as we do with Lewis, his “future-cop” friend Wilbur, or Bowler Hat Guy, so they’re painted with broad strokes that still feel too flat to be engaging.

Once all the cards are on the table, though, the movie wraps up with a surprisingly effective resolution that’s incredibly sweet. Lewis learns how to look for validation within himself, and that self-confidence promises to propel him into a great life. He also learns how to benefit from his mistakes, improving on each attempt until he eventually succeeds in what he’s trying to do. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for Disney’s CG animation; they learned from Dinosaur and Chicken Little to get to a place that mostly works. The mistakes they made here are simply data points for them to build on with their next feature.

Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille was the third film written and directed by the amazing Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Pixar’s 8th studio film — its first after being bought by Walt Disney. Set in the romanticized and insular world of Parisian high-cuisine, it pulls together so many disparate elements to create something truly unique. Like every Pixar film that came before it, the animators set out to crack an enormous task just to make the film work; this time, it was figuring out how to animate food in a believable and appetizing way. The creation of Ratatouille, like many of the incredible dishes featured within it, required a small army of specialists at the top of their game to produce an experience that would be truly memorable despite being part of one of the most common activities we partake in, watching movies.

Remy is a rat who is a true artist when it comes to food. He has an incredible nose that allows him to detect subtle spices, whether food has rotted, or if something has been treated with rat poison. Unlike the other rodents in his clan, he chooses to walk on two feet instead of four so he can “taste the food, not everywhere he’s been”. And his mind creates connections that produce a symphony of flavors that most wouldn’t even think possible. His inspiration is celebrated Paris chef Auguste Gusteau, who believed that anyone can cook, no matter what. When the food critic Anton Ego eviscerated Gusteau’s restaurant in a review, it lost a star — and the death of its head chef knocked off another star after that. Since then, the establishment has been trying to stay afloat on the Gusteau name.

Coming in to this situation is a kid named Alfredo Linguini, hoping to get a job in Gusteau’s kitchen — he’s signed on as a trash boy. Remy and Linguini become unlikely friends and partners after the rat salvages a pot of soup and Linguini gets the credit for it. They discover an even more unlikely way to keep the charade going; Remy hides under Linguini’s chef’s hat and controls him like a giant marionette by pulling his hair. As the restaurant’s stock rises and Linguini is subjected to increasing pressure to perform, both rat and man must find a way to achieve success in a way that’s true to themselves.

ratatouille

Oh my God, you guys, I forgot about that tiny rat omelette ā¤

Brad’s specialty is creating characters who somehow remain underdogs while still being uncommonly excellent. Remy is no exception; he can be pretentious and demanding, but his passion and love of cooking is evident in everything he does. Linguini is a kid in over his head, but with a good heart and a strong moral compass. The kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant is stocked with a wonderful set of supporting characters, from Colette Tatou (the rotisseur and love interest) to Horst, the German sous chef. The space itself feels like another character, full of life and danger, depending on whether you’re seeing it from Remy’s or Linguini’s point of view. Even mean old Anton Ego, the dour critic who relishes the destruction of restaurants, is charismatic in his own terrifying way.

There are so many things in this movie that impress me regarding its animation. The textures of the rats, the people, the clothes and the food are incredibly well-rendered, giving the world a reality and weight that really immerses you in it. The camera navigates the same scenes from the POV of both protagonists, drastically changing the feel of each; the contrast helps us to understand the wide gulf that exists between the lives of Remy and Linguini in a way that feels remarkably organic. The writing is incredibly smart and earnest, but also allows room for physical comedy; Linguini under the control of Remy is a wonderful thing to behold.

Of course, the thing that makes Pixar’s best movies so special is the story. Remy’s dream forces him to break down a barrier that no one on either side wants to be pulled down; he not only has to fight personal and physical limitations, but deeply-entrenched social ones as well. It’s this willingness to forsake everything he’s ever known to pursue his passion that makes us care about him. He’s not blind to the sacrifice and work it will take to do what he loves, and he’s not afraid of it. He plunges ahead.

The film ends with a wonderful epilogue that feels miraculous yet ordinary. On one small block within the middle of Paris, there is a restaurant that stands as a testament to what is possible with enough dedication and willpower. It is modest, perhaps, but everything it is has been earned through hard work and perseverance. Those who appreciate it know it’s much more than just a place to eat — it’s a small example of the way the world could be, the way it should be. It’s a wondrous note to end on, because it tells us that while following our passions may make our own lives better, it undoubtedly makes the entire world better as well.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , ,

(Politics) Self-Respect as a Form of Protest

Myth 150As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.

Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.

Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.

This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.

When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.

We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.

I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.

This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 
 

Tags: , , , ,

(Monday Fiction) A Letter to Puxineathas Goodfellow (2)

Writing 150I’m not going to lie — the only thing more fun than writing that letter from Pux was researching more about gnomes as they’re settled in Pathfinder. The more I learn about gnomes, the more I feel like I should play them more. This will probably upset My Husband, The Dragon to hear. But the section in the core rulebook on gnomish humor? That is *totally* my jam. I incorporated a little bit of exaggeration in the letter, but I also thought it would be a good idea to have Pux come across as friendly and encouraging through at least the first exchange. As he and Malcolm warm to each other (and I learn more about them), they should let out more of their distinctive personalities in the writing.

Here is Malcolm’s second letter to Puxineathas Goodfellow.

Dear Mr. Puxineathas,

Yo, thanks for the rose quartz! You cut that yourself? I’m really impressed, dude. It looks freaking dope! I brought it in to show my friends at the last RPG Club meeting in school. They liked it, but they said it didn’t come from no gnome and it was probably made in China somewhere. They might be right, but I don’t really care. I love it, and China’s all the way on the other side of the world, so it still came a long, long way.

Thanks for telling me about your Burrow and what you do and everything. It’s pretty cool that you have this job you really like, and that you’re really good at. I bet if I had like, 80 years to study one thing I’d be really good at it too! But we don’t live that long. Some of us don’t even make it out of high school; my friend’s sister got shot last year crossing the street, and about six months ago somebody pointed a gun in my face and tried to rob me. I didn’t get shot, but they beat me up a little bit. I was a little crazy after that. I got real jumpy about loud noises for a while, and I wasn’t sleeping good so I got mad at people really easy. I talked to a counselor at school and she taught me about breathing when I feel upset or scared and sometimes it helps, but not really though.

I don’t know why I’m writing that in this letter, to be honest. I guess it’s just…nobody’s ever given me anything like that before. You were really cool about it, and your letter made me feel a lot better than I felt in a long time. I’m sorry it took me so long to write you back, but I was kind of stressing that mine wasn’t going to be as good as yours and had to build up to it. But then I thought I should just…sit down and write what comes out, you know? So that’s what I’m doing.

Oh! So…I had to do a little research on Baltimore because you asked about it and to be honest I didn’t know that much about it. It was founded in 1729, which is 287 years ago, so like…it’s about as old as a pretty old gnome. What’s weird is that it’s one of the oldest cities in our country, but the United States is a pretty young country in the grand scheme of things, so.
We don’t live underground like you guys do or anything. We have a lot of buildings in different neighborhoods, which are like, little sections where the same kind of people live. It’d be like if all the poor people lived in one part of your Burrow, and rich people in a nicer part, but then you had like, I don’t know, gnomes of all one color living in an entirely different part and sometimes they spoke a different language. Baltimore’s like that. We each have our own little territories, and sometimes we go outside of them but most of the time we don’t.

I really like going to different places, though. One of my favorite places to go is downtown, especially the library. It’s this big, big building that you could just get lost in. Whenever I can, I try to spend the whole day there from the time it opens at 10 to when it closes at 5. I can only do that in the summer, because it gets dark too early otherwise and walking to the bus stop is kind of scary. But man, there are so many books there. I like reading a book and thinking about something else that sounds like it’d be cool to read about and finding whatever other book looks fun. I read a lot. I’m pretty sure I know the library by heart. It’d be cool to get a job there, but I don’t even know how that would happen. Maybe something in the summer.

Anyway, do you have any favorite books? How many do you have? I’ve got 37 books under my bed. They’re mostly role-playing books, but I’m getting a few novels now too. I’m saving up for a copy of Lord of the Rings, which is like, this big story about a bunch of people who have to throw a cursed ring into this volcano or else this bad guy is going to end the world or something. I saw the movies when they came out, and they were pretty tight, so I guess the book has to be better, right?

When I get some more money, I can send you my favorite book right now. It’s about this unicorn who finds out she’s the last one in the world, but she thinks it can’t be true so she goes out of her forest to find others and has all kinds of adventures along the way. She finds them in the end and they’re all free and stuff, but for some reason the ending is still really sad. I guess it’s because she found all these people who helped her and stuff, and now she has to go back to being alone. That sucks, going out and seeing all this stuff, and then coming back to your own little corner knowing that this is all there is for you forever. I don’t want to be like that.

But it sounds like you’re good where you’re at, and that’s cool. I’d really like to come visit where you live, but I don’t think that would work out too good. The ceiling is probably really low, and I’m pretty sure I can’t get to your Burrow anyway. But hey, maybe I can be a gnome in my next game or something, and you can give me pointers on how to act.

I hope you’re making awesome jewelry. I can’t wait for your next letter!

Sincerely,
Malcolm Williams

 

Tags: , , ,

(Friday Fiction) A Letter to Malcolm Williams

Writing 150I didn’t manage to put together a letter in time last week, so we’ll have to miss one missive unfortunately.

The previousĀ letter was…something I wasn’t quite happy with. I wanted to write it in the voice of someone who just wasn’t used to long, written correspondence but I wanted to make it engaging at the same time. In hindsight, it really would have been a good idea to do some pre-writing instead of coming up with stuff off the cuff. When I get a better handle on writing these ahead of time, I’d like to maybe hit a first draft a month before the scheduled post and *then* do an editing pass a week before to make sure things are as good as they can be. But that day is not today, my friends.

Here is the first response of Puxineathas Goodfellow.

Dear Master Williams of Baltimore,

I am delighted to meet you! Please, do not worry about the “proper” way to write a letter — there are as many ways to communicate through quill as there are through speech. What’s important is finding your way. Well, and making sure you’re understood. Words do us know good if they don’t serve their one purpose, after all!

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mister Puxineathas of the family Goodfellow, seventh of his name in the Burrow of Stone’s Gate. Our clan has lived in these tunnels for over a thousand years, and in that time we have expanded them to reach from the Golden Mist Valley to the east; the borough of Strahdell to the west; from the Stone Kingdom in the north; and the eastern edge of Rexpanse in the south. A thousand years may sound like a long time to you, human, but in reality it is a mere four generations of gnomish time — the equivalent of eighty years, I believe, in your span. We are a young burrow, but in such a short time we’ve grown to become one of the largest in the known lands. I say this, of course, with all due pride and humility before my elders.

Is Baltimore an old town? I am afraid I don’t know much about the realms beyond my burrow. It is one of the reasons I thought it would be nice to correspond with someone so far beyond my experience. I’m sure you have much to teach me, even if you are quite young! Humans fascinate me; they grow so quickly and learn so fast. My grandfather says that you can teach a man anything but patience — your lives are so short that you never have the time to learn it!

I hope that sentiment doesn’t offend you, friend — this is my first time speaking so openly with a man, so you may find me a bit too exciteable to remember my manners! Please, if I speak too coarsely, kindly correct me and I shall not make that mistake again. Others may happen, though, from time to time.

Anyway, as it seems we are equally curious about one another, I shall now tell you what I look like. I am a reasonably young gnome, aged 80 years. If Ferrakus wills it, I shall live to over 300 years. The oldest gnome in my burrow, Rundtitia, has aged 472 years; it is quite possible she has been taken by Ferrakus already and no one knows it, because she hasn’t moved from her chair in around 25 years. We got the idea that it would be rude to disturb her, so generally we let her be.

I have been told by many that I am the color of an autumn tree, with good, rich, brown skin with a healthy hint of slate and a fine head of red and orange hair. Of course, it is styled to the latest fashions and has caught the eye of many lovely ladies; I would woo them, but my apprenticeship must take the entirety of my focus at the moment, so having my pick of potential wives will have to wait until I’ve made my fortune.

You see, I am one of five apprentices under the Master Gemcutter of Stone’s Gate, Abilion Jax; if I prove my worth by the time he has decided to retire, then I will assume the title. That means kings and queens, perhaps even the great dragons, will come from far and wide and beseech me to make them the finest jewelry in the known lands! If he picks another, I will still become Accomplished Gemcutter under one of my fellow apprentices, which won’t be such a terrible life. I, however, know that I am meant for worldly renown and excellence in my profession.

Before Abilion, my grandfather was Master Gemcutter; before that, my great-grandfather. My father had no interest in the family business and left to make his fortune as an adventurer, which is all well and good — he has brought home the most incredible stories! As for myself, I cannot imagine leaving my Burrow. It is the only home I’ve ever known, and the only home I will ever need.

I am sorry to hear, dear Master Williams, that you do not enjoy your life at home. I have heard that the world of man can be cruel, especially to the unfortunate. Perhaps that is why humans are often so driven — they’ve wasted so much of their lives being unhappy, and are looking to make up for that lost time. I truly hope you find the adventure and knowledge you seek in your college, though I don’t understand why you would need to go to one to learn how to care for animals. Are there no farms in Baltimore that will have you as a hand? That is an excellent way to learn all there is to know!

I am running out of parchment, so I should bring this letter to an end…but I very much look forward to your response! As a token of my esteem, I have enclosed a small sampling of my trade — a rose quartz cut to the shape of a rose. I am quite proud of it, and I hope it will remind you of the many places you have yet to visit!

Warmly,
Puxineathas of the family Goodfellow

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 20, 2017 in Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

Tags: , ,

(Movies) DisneyFest: Home On The Range, The Incredibles, Chicken Little

Entertainment 1502004 – 2006 was a really rough time for Disney. With the diminishing returns on their traditionally-animated movie, they decided to move into computer animation full-time while being walloped by Pixar, DreamWorks and critics for mining their rich history to make a series of terrible direct-to-video sequels. While they were bringing their CG animation studio up to speed, they agreed to distribute a few cartoons from other houses — this is when they dropped Valiant (remember that movie with Ewan MacGregor as an earnest WWII pigeon?) and The Wild (with Keifer Sutherland and Jim Belushi as best-bud lion and squirrel, respectively). Neither one of them did very well in theatres.

In the meantime, Pixar was nearing the end of their original contract but still pushing the envelope of computer animation the entire time. The Incredibles, helmed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant), was the first film directed by someone outside of the company. The gamble paid off — it won two Academy Awards, the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature, and became the first cartoon to win a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. While Finding Nemo was the obvious crowd-pleaser (making over $830M worldwide), The Incredibles was the critical darling that still earned its stripes as a bona-fide blockbuster.

Home On The Range (2004)
This is a strange and frustrating movie, mostly because it almost works. Roseanne Barr stars as Maggie, a prize-winning cow who is forced to relocated to a tiny farm called Patch O’ Heaven after all of her fellow cattle were stolen and her previous owner was bankrupted by the theft. With the help of fellow bovines Mrs. Caloway (Judi Dench) and Grace (Jennifer Tilly), she uncovers the plot to buy up all of the land for nefarious purposes and saves her newfound home. It’s a neat little story that aims for a certain Americana charm — and almost achieves it.

hotr-luckyjack

Look at the rabbit! He’s so awesome!

There’s a lot to like about Home On The Range, actually. Both the prim and proper Mrs. Caloway and the air-headed Grace are really fun to watch as they bicker their way through the story, and the movie is filled with supporting characters who are actually awesome. There’s Buck, the vain stallion frienemy of the cows; Alameda Slim, whose method of stealing the cows is a true highlight; his henchmen, three dull triplets who can’t understand Slim’s schemes for the life of them; and Lucky Jack, a three-legged rabbit who serves as half crazy guide, half old coot. A couple of sequences embrace the madcap Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, and this is when things work best; there’s a wonderfully crazy energy that’s infectiously funny.

But Barr’s Maggie just can’t carry the movie on her ample back. A lot of the dialogue meant to establish her character or endear us to her just falls flat, one pun or one-liner after the other. When a joke actually lands, the script hammers it home enough to kill the cleverness of it. And more than once, characterization is sacrificed for plot with one or more of the three heroines doing something weird just because a beat needs to happen at a particular spot.

It’s a shame, really. I’m not too familiar with the behind-the-scenes conditions surrounding the making of the movie, but the writing was already on the wall by the time Home On The Range was being promoted — I remember it being touted as the last traditionally-animated film from Disney Studios. With a little more time and polish (and perhaps a recast of the lead), it could have been a decent if minor entry into the animated canon. Instead, it’s a trivial footnote in Disney’s history and widely regarded as one of their absolute worst films.

Still, I’m not sure it quite deserves the reputation it’s gotten over the years. It’s inoffensive, perhaps forgettable, but not a complete failure. There are worse ways to spend your time, which is damning with faint praise, I realize.

The Incredibles (2004)
Seven months after Disney bombed with Home On The Range, Pixar dropped The Incredibles. Just like every release before it, this movie took a major leap forward in computer animation technology — this time giving us the best-realized human characters we’ve ever seen, animating clothes of varying materials and realistic hair wonderfully. Since Brad Bird had come from a traditional animation background, it also represented a fruitful marriage of the old and new; Bird brought in several animators who had worked with him on The Iron Giant and tried to incorporate lessons from Disney’s Nine Old Men into the Pixar production model.

Bob Parr is an insurance agent and a retired superhero who used to go by Mr. Incredible. Public opinion had turned against supers some years before, forcing them to give up costumed crime-fighting and disappear into private life. Frustrated by his lack of purpose and forced deference to broader social conventions, he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Mirage for “freelance” superhero work. Bob leaps at the chance to become Mr. Incredible again, but he gets more than he bargained for and finds his entire family quickly embroiled in a fight against evil borne from past mistakes.

the-incredibles

A fantastic four

For a long time, this was my absolute favorite Pixar movie; while its ranking has fallen on subsequent viewings it’s not because it’s not as good as I thought it was — other movies are just that much better. Even still, The Incredibles is truly a feat of animation; the character and setting design establishes a world that’s both relatably contemporary and retro-futuristic; the themes are well-baked into the plot, which is driven by the characters instead of the other way around; the dialogue is brisk, clever and profound enough that character motivations are discovered in different places on subsequent viewings. Every member of the Parr family gets a moment to shine, and it’s especially great to watch the young children grow into their legacy as super-powered individuals. Just about everything works here, even though the movie is complex and intricate. Writer and director Brad Bird had a distinct vision for what the film should be, and achieved it nearly flawlessly.

In retrospect, though, the themes of The Incredibles have problematic implications. One of the central ideas is that extraordinary people should be allowed to be the best they can be, and that’s a compelling argument. But the way it’s presented doesn’t quite address the feelings of the normal people who have been relegated to bystander status in these god-like struggles. Syndrome because a super-villain because he was roundly rejected by Mr. Incredible, having no powers of his own and being just a kid. While Bob and his wife Helen relate better to children many years later (there’s a particularly great scene where Helen lays out the stakes for her son and daughter, telling them that these people will try to kill them), they also never acknowledge their part in creating the situation they’ve found themselves in. Syndrome oversteps his bounds in typical supervillain fashion, but the kernel of the point he’s trying to make is…actually sound.

But here’s the thing: the fact that The Incredibles raises these concerns and invites these kinds of arguments speaks to the calibre of its story. Really great superhero stories often get us thinking about the individual’s role in society and explore the tension between the freedom to be who we are and the responsibility each of us owes to our fellow man. This movie belongs in the pantheon; The Incredibles isn’t just a great animated film, or a great Pixar movie — it’s a great superhero story, too. It really is something special.

Chicken Little (2005)
This is the worst film Walt Disney Animation has ever made. The character design (with the exception of the protagonist and a few others) is generally awful, the dialogue is groan-inducing, the story is nonsense — though the twist almost works, and almost every decision made is a mistake that takes the entire production further from where it needs to be. You get the feeling that Chicken Little was Disney’s attempt to get with the times, but it really never understood why people gravitated towards DreamWorks’ brand of pop-culture-skewering, post-modern humor. It is the film equivalent of Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat and skateboard.

steve-buscemi-kids

Chicken Little is a tiny little chick with a big imagination. In the prologue, he causes a panic by saying that the sky is falling, only for his “evidence” to disappear once the townsfolk gather around. He’s been living down the embarrassment — and trying to make his father proud of him — ever since. At school, he’s bullied by the star athlete, a vixen named Foxy Loxy, and supported by three misfit friends. Despite Foxy being the breakout player of the season, Chicken Little hits a home run during the championship game and is hailed as a hero and receives all he ever wanted. Which is just about the right time for the sky to fall again.

There are the makings of a good story here. There’s nothing wrong with telling a fable about learning to believe in yourself, even when you are forced to take action alone. The slow, awkward way that Chicken Little and his father learn to connect through the course of the movie could be emotionally resonant for a lot of families in the audience. And with a lighter touch, the movie’s self-referential humor could have been mildly clever. The big twist — the sky is falling because it’s an elaborate camouflage constructed by space aliens — could have been a bonkers development that spins the story off into great and unexplored territory that also forces the protagonists to complete their arcs and deal with the situation. But none of that happens, and none of that is true. It just stinks.

The worst part (and thanks to My Husband, The Dragon for pointing this out) is what happens to Foxy Loxy. Even though she’s set up to be a clear secondary antagonist and she’s kind of bitchy to Chicken Little, she also works really hard to be good at baseball and busts through gender stereotypes to follow her passion. She’s living the life that Chicken Little is afraid to because he’s chasing external validation instead. During the alien invasion, her brain is scrambled so that instead of being an exuberant, kind of jerky tomboy she becomes a petticoat-wearing belle who loves singing old pop songs that are cheap to buy usage fees for — just like Little ally Runt (an enormous, nervous pig). When the aliens offer to change her back, Runt says “No, she’s PERFECT this way.” And then they LEAVE HER LIKE THAT.

It’s one thing to make a movie that fails on so many levels, but it’s quite another to send the message that girls who are driven and athletic would be so much happier being the constructed fantasy of a misunderstood boy. It’s astonishing that no one in the writer’s room (there were twelve of them in total) caught the message this sends and thought the better of it. This is what puts it over the top, beyond merely “bad” and into “fucking terrible”.

Of the 56 (so far) Disney animated features, Chicken Little is the one that you can skip and be perfectly fine missing. Don’t see this movie. It even features the worst song of the Barenaked Ladies.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Movies, Pop Culture

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

The Inauguration of Donald Trump

Politics 150This Friday, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. As painful as that sentence was to read, I can assure you it was at least equally painful for me to write it. We’ve had two short months to get ready for that day, though most of that was spent retreating into the comforting ritual of the holidays. (At least, it was for me.) But this Friday, President Trump stops being a thing that we dread and hope against hope will never happen; unless something extraordinary happens, it will be our new reality. Beginning with the Inauguration, though, we can make our voices loud and clear that all of the forces that brought Trump into power — and all of the things those powers stand for — will never be our new normal.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried hard on Election Night when it became clear that Hillary Clinton would not become our nation’s first female President. I was shocked that so many people could vote for a man so openly hateful and incompetent, so unprepared for the enormous job he was applying for, so willing to advocate bullying and violence against people who disagreed with him. I realize that Trump didn’t win the popular vote — the certified totals have Clinton besting Trump by 2.9 million — but that doesn’t change the fact that 60 million of my fellow Americans saw Trump’s statements, behaviors, and beliefs over the past 18 months and still thought he was the best choice for President. That is far too many.

Since then, the shock and sense of doom keeps coming in waves that are spaced further and further apart. My anxiety about the future has been sharpened and focused into action; I have donated to the organizations that stand for what I believe in and will fight against the Trumpist influence in our politics, and I will keep speaking out against every bigoted act, every display of incompetence, every maneuver that disenfranchises the poor and vulnerable further. I will not tolerate terrible things done to powerless people in the name of American democracy, and I refuse to normalize the blatant lying, subterfuge and intimidation that Trump has made part of the fabric of our country, that so many voters wanted to install.

At the same time, we must remember not only what we’re fighting against, but what we’re fighting for. Many Trump supporters claim that because I’m a liberal I must hate this country and that I don’t make up the “real America”. A common refrain after the election was “If we take California out of the equation, Trump would have won the popular vote”. People who support Trump — and every horrible thing he’s about to do — claim that because I live on the coast I’m out of touch with what America is really about.

But I’m not. I’ve lived in inner-city Baltimore. I’ve lived at a tiny liberal-arts college next to a Navy base in southern Maryland. I’ve lived in small-town Arkansas, where Wal-Mart was born. I know what it’s like to live in “real America”. I’ve been afraid to be open about who I love; I’ve been called a “nigger”; I’ve been exposed to more subtle and insidious forms of racism too. I chose to live in a place that takes so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, cultures, races and nationalities, and blends them together in a functioning and caring society. Don’t get me wrong — California has its share of problems, too. But I’ve seen what it’s like all across the country, and there is no place I’d rather be than right here.

Many Trump supporters mistake being “out of touch” with being fed up with the small-mindedness and hypocrisy that could lead someone to believe such a ridiculous thing. “Real” America isn’t the gauzy, inaccurate view of some golden era that never was. And it isn’t the white supremacy that Trump and his allies aim to restore. Real America is you and me. It is California, and Arkansas, and Maryland — it is what made it possible for me to go from sea to shining sea to find the man that I love.

The America I’m fighting for is one that recognizes and celebrates our differences. The America I fight for is a country that leaves no one — even poor rural whites who would like me to simply cease existing — behind. The America I fight for is one in which love, in all its forms, is something to be celebrated and not made illegal or discriminated against. The promise of this country is that no matter who we are, we can be who we truly are and find happiness in that. We are a patchwork of identities, a microcosm of the world, an example of what the entire human race can achieve when we embrace our individuality and use that to lift up ourselves, our communities, and our whole species.

We can be smart, kind, wildly different, responsible, open and grounded. We can choose the traditions of our forefathers or we can blaze our own trails. We can be a people without limits. But we can’t do that if we allow a two-bit idiot to appeal to our worst impulses because it’s easier than doing the hard work necessary to overcome our challenges. We can’t do that if we allow those in power to stick our heads in the sand for us so they can reach into our pockets and rob us blind. We can’t do that if we allow these injustices to continue without speaking up, loudly and ceaselessly, that we are going in the wrong direction.

On Friday, I will be open about my shame that we as a country have allowed this to happen. I will also be open about my disdain and rejection of the status quo his administration will try to usher in. I will fight for the real America, the one without limits, and I invite you to use this inauguration as an opportunity to stand up and do the same.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on January 16, 2017 in Politics, Self-Reflection

 

(Fandom) My Mental Health Game Plan for FC 2017

Myth 150Further Confusion 2017 begins tomorrow! I’ll likely be in downtown San Jose Thursday evening registering at con because I completely spaced on pre-registering like some kind of silly guy — hopefully the wait won’t be too terribly long! If you see me staring at my phone and playing Marvel Puzzle Quest, feel free to pull me out of my addiction and say hi!

As you know, I’ve become increasingly focused on the intersection of mental health and fandom culture. Like so many subcultures — especially in the United States — these issues can often be overlooked and poorly understood. While we’ve taken great strides in illuminating what these issues are really like, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure those of us who are coping with mental illnesses have the tools and support we need to take care of ourselves. I thought it might be a good thing to talk about my own experience, and what I plan to do for self-care at the convention.

I cope with chronic depression that manifests as emotional and physical exhaustion, deep feelings of guilt and shame, and a deep-seated belief that I simply have no redeeming qualities. I can’t communicate in a way that people find interesting or relatable, I’m too aloof and fake warmness that I don’t feel, and I’ll never be able to get myself together enough to fix any of this. When I’m at my worst, a fatalism takes hold; there’s no point to trying anything because I know I won’t be able to sustain the effort or finish anything I start. When depression takes hold, I believe that I am stupid, lazy, boring and annoying.

I also cope with generalized anxiety disorder that manifests as an almost pathological avoidance of things I find difficult. For the longest time, I never finished my writing or tried to do anything I really cared about because I was certain of failure. I would make commitments as a way of forcing myself to do the things I was afraid to do, but when the time came to do them I found myself physically unable to concentrate on them. At work, deadlines crept by with work half-finished or completed with only the most basic objectives. I developed a habit of putting things off until it was simply impossible to put them off any longer. My relationship with work has been atrocious for most of my adult life, and it’s something I’m only now beginning to fix; of course, that means a lot of the goals I set for myself aren’t met.

I also cope with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; this manifests in an extremely distractable nature and an inability to focus on any one thing for too long. If I find my current project too difficult, then I’ll find something else to do by falling into Twitter or Wikipedia for a certain length of time. At conventions, this is especially bad; I’ll often leave conversations in the middle of a sentence to say hello to someone passing by. The visual and auditory stimulation in most meeting spaces can be too much for me to handle because of so many distractions. The more my attention shifts, the more effort it takes to get back to the task at hand. In a convention setting, it often feels like I’m being pulled by a string towards whatever feels the most stimulating. It’s a real problem.

These conditions interact in various ways all the time; my low self-image brought on by my depression makes me extremely anxious in situations where something’s at stake, and my instinctive reaction is to distract myself (or anyone else) with something that can grab our attention long enough to make us forget whatever it was we were doing. Convention days, as fun as they are, can be exhausting. I’m fighting against my own brain to keep focused, ignore the voices that tell me I’m fucking things up, and settle down to have the deep conversations I’d really love to have with the people I meet.

In order to make sure that my problems with focus and anxiety don’t cause huge problems at conventions, there are a few things I need to do every day to give my brain its best shot at coping with its flaws. Here’s my plan for the convention.

Remember my medication. I take Prozac for depression, Adderall for ADHD and ashwagandha (an herbal supplement) for my anxiety. All three help me immensely in keeping an even mood, and I feel tremendously fortunate to have access to them. There is a lot of misinformation about medication for mental health, and while it’s true that finding the right prescription is a bit of a process, when a medication works it helps your brain work better. Period. We don’t demonize medication that regulates our blood pressure, insulin levels, or cholesterol — we shouldn’t demonize medication that regulates our brain chemistry.

Get enough sleep. I’ve been going to enough conventions to know that I will never catch every cool and fun thing there is to do and see, so I’ve shifted my focus to having quality experiences over staying for a long time, hoping that a good time is right around the corner. Sleeping for seven hours — even during a convention weekend — helps me reduce my inclination for stress, keeps my brain sharper and more resilient, and makes it less likely that my mood is going to crash sometime in the evening. I don’t mind being the old man who starts thinking about bed before midnight; the convention will be waiting for me in the morning.

Pay attention to my appearance and grooming. My taste in clothing and personal style has changed a lot over the years, but one thing that remains constant is the connection between how I look and how I feel. If I’ve missed a shower or go out without shaving or brushing my hair, I feel a lot more self-conscious and prone to the negative self-talk that triggers my depression and anxiety. On the other hand, putting on clothes that I like and making sure I’m so fresh and so clean makes me feel better about myself and makes me less likely to spiral through the day. It’s an often overlooked aspect of self-care, especially during conventions, but it makes enough of a difference that I’m going to start planning my outfits for FC right now.

Take social breaks. There are times where my social battery gets awfully low during a convention. I’m overstimulated, and the constant noise and movement makes it impossible for me to calm down. During those times, I might take a walk to a coffee shop or find a relatively quiet corner of the convention to chill for a moment or two. While it’s awesome to hang out with as many people as possible for as long as I can, the fact remains that I’m an introvert; I’m going to need to hide somewhere and recharge at some point. And there’s no shame in that.

So that’s my game plan for the convention — keep current on my medication, make sure I sleep enough, make sure I look and smell great, and take some time for quiet contemplation. This should get me through the weekend with enough focus and energy to have the best time, and I’m genuinely looking forward to the craziness of the next five days.

Now, it’s over to you — what practices, tips and tricks do you recommend for convention survival? What sort of things do you do to keep your mood up? Are there any particular issues that you have to prepare for ahead of time? Let me know!

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 11, 2017 in Furries, Self-Reflection

 

Tags: , ,