Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

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Mission Marvel and Legit Heroes

On the subject of genuine heroics, allow me to present Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, a crossover special where the Phineas and Ferb cast meet a bunch of Marvel characters.

Now, this sounds like it wouldn’t work; goofy surreal kid’s show meets semi-serious comic book heroes. And it’s not perfect, or even one of the better PnF specials (which frankly says more about just how good the others are than about this one), but there are some key elements that it does really well.

First of all, the difference in tone is actually the main point of the special, with the PnF characters being a little disturbed by confronting a situation much more serious than they’re accustomed to, while the Marvel characters are confused by the more absurdist tone of Phineas and Ferb (it’s actually similar to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein now that I think about it).

By the way, this blending of tones is something a lot of crossovers miss: that it’s not enough to put two different groups of characters together, you have to make it feel like a meeting of two distinct stories with their own special themes and emotional tones (Oddly enough, the best example of this I’ve seen yet is Freddy vs. Jason).

Another thing the special does really well is that it doesn’t just feel like a meeting of worlds, it feels like this is what a kid would hope meeting his heroes would be like. Phineas and Ferb is, in large part about childish imagination brought to life: kids who get to really do what other kids pretend to do. In this case, they get to hang out with some of their favorite heroes and even help them save the day.

But that’s that point: the heroes are still the dominant figures, with Phineas, Ferb, and the rest in support roles, because that’s exactly what a real kid would want. Kids don’t want to show up their heroes, but only to be able to feel worthy of them. The scenario here is perfectly suited to that, with the heroes temporarily deprived of their powers, requiring Phineas and Ferb’s help to get them back while trying to thwart a group of supervillains at the same time. So, the kids can legitimately contribute without diminishing either the heroes or the villains, and the situation is desperate enough that it’s acceptable for the heroes to bring the kids into battle (once the heroes get their powers back, the kids stay out of the fight).

Which brings me to another point: the heroes are genuinely heroic. Remember what I said about legit heroes? The superheroes here count (actually, from what I can tell, the heroes are more heroic here than in the actual comics at the moment).

The heroes here are constantly behind it: either lacking powers or having the wrong powers. Yet again and again, they still step up to the plate and go into battle. Even when they clearly have no chance of winning, they still saddle up to do whatever they can because, as they explain, that’s what they do. Their powers aren’t what makes them heroes, their willingness to do the right thing whatever the cost is.

This also inspires the kids, who join them in battle despite being obviously outclassed. Phineas and Ferb discover early on that their tech is woefully inadequate to fighting real supervillains, but in the final battle they put on their damaged Beak suit and go in anyway. Like any good adventure story, the heroes are constantly being dumped on in one way or another, all the way up until the end, where the heroes and the kids they inspired engage in a mad dog-pile scramble just trying anything and everything they can think of to keep the villains from winning for as long as possible (the action sequences are fantastic, by the way, with really fast, highly detailed animation that encourages multiple viewings to catch everything going on).

So, Phineas and Ferb absolutely nailed what people love about comic book heroes, just another example of how deceptively excellent that show is.

Legit Heroes

Every so often, while watching a show or movie, I’ll think to myself ‘yeah, this character’s a really legit hero.’

The concept seems worth expanding on. Of course, there are a lot of heroes running around in fiction one way or another. But a lot of stories seem to think that ‘hero’ simply means ‘opposes the bad guy.’ I would not call, say, Rey in The Force Awakens a legit heroine; she’s too bland for that. Nor would I necessarily list the average superhero as a ‘legit hero,’ much as I enjoy superhero movies.

A legit hero, to my mind, is one who you can point to and say ‘this character has the heroic mindset; he does the right thing, however difficult and whatever the cost. He’s a self-sacrificing character.’

Now, a character can be admirable and even in a sense heroic without creating this kind of impression. Again, I find this to be the case in a lot of superhero films or action adventures in general. Since I’m about to be citing a few examples from cartoons, I’ll start with Danny Phantom: he’s a heroic character, but I never thought ‘yeah, he’s a legit hero.’ That is, he went through the motions of being a hero without really conveying that sense of selflessness. He was a hero because he helped people and opposed the bad guys, but not so much because it felt like he was simply that kind of person.

As a counter-example, there’s Dakota of Milo Murphy’s Law. Now, he’s kind of a slacker and generally spends his time cracking jokes at his partner’s expense, but there’s a moment in the special two-parter Milo is Missing where he, Cavendish, and Milo are surrounded by plant monsters (just go with it). Dakota’s first move is to order Milo – a preteen boy – to get behind him. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: Dakota isn’t an especially imposing or skilled fighter, but when faced with a fight the first thing he does is step up to protect the child who has fallen into his care. It’s a very brief moment, but it’s a solid example of what I mean. Slacker though he is, Dakota understands his duty and steps up to the plate when needed.

A more notable example, and the one that really made me take a look at this concept, comes at the end of the first Equestria Girls film. In brief, Twilight Sparkle’s travelled to the human world to try to keep a magical artifact out of the hands of the power-hungry Sunset Shimmer. When Twilight gets ahold of it, Sunset threatens to destroy the portal back to Equestria unless Twilight will hand it over. After a moment’s consideration, Twilight refuses: yes, it would mean losing her home and all her friends, but they could survive without her, while this world might not if she gave Sunset what she wanted. So, to protect as many people as possible, Twilight declares herself willing to give up everything she loves most.

Again, Twilight is willfully and explicitly putting others first, even if it means painful sacrifices for herself. Sacrifice, selflessness, and devotion to duty: these are the marks of the legit hero.

This is, in some ways, a subjective impression: the best I can say is that when I can feel the sacrifice, the putting others first, and when it feels like it’s an essential part of the character, that’s when I say ‘wow, that’s a legit hero.’

Thoughts on ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’

Today my family and I finally got out to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this season’s sleeper hit. Having seen it, I absolutely can understand why it’s found the success it has, because, yeah, it’s really very good.

The story has four teenagers – nerd, jock, popular girl, awkward girl – being sucked into a video game version of the Jumanji game (the process by which the original board game became a video game is a deceptively brilliant bit of writing: achieving what needs to be done with minimal fuss while simultaneously establishing certain key elements of the Jumanji entity). Inside they have to play as their respective avatars – played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart – to complete the game and escape.

The concept of someone being pulled into a video game isn’t new, but it’s done with particular skill here. The movie takes full advantage of the situation, both to have crazy stunts and action (like having a helicopter pursued by a herd of rhinos) and for a ton of very funny jokes. For instance, the characters they meet in the game are NPCs, meaning they only have a few set reactions and lines of dialogue, which they will cheerfully repeat indefinitely if pressed. The characters each have three lives, a fact they make some very creative uses of.

I was very impressed by the writing. I mean, it’s not extremely smart or extremely clever, but they do a really good job of establishing these characters and giving them credible personalities along with their cliche types. For instance, the popular girl is established almost at once to be both very self-conscious and much smarter than she would seem at first glance, all in probably about a minute of screen-time. Their relationships are all entirely believable and human, as are their developments after they enter the game world.

Meanwhile, the four leads do a simply fantastic job of playing teenagers inhabiting video game avatars, especially Dwayne Johnson as the nerdy kid and Jack Black as the popular girl. I admit, I was a little worried about that element at first – it seemed like a chance for fashionable nonsense about gender – but no; it completely works in context, to the point where you simply accept the character as a girl playing a video game. This is another example of the film making full use of its premise: of course people often play avatars of the opposite sex, and if you were forced to ‘live’ the role, this probably would be the result. Plus, it’s just really, really funny; like an extended burlesque routine. It’s an example of taking an element of contemporary life and doing something genuinely creative with it.

And all the while, in all the over-the-top action and goofy humor, they still keep the focus on the characters and story. There’s a scene where Jack Black has to teach Karen Gillan how to be sexy: that’s funny on about three or four levels, but at the same time it’s also a key point of their character development, with the two of them opening up and becoming friends and the nerdy girl learning how to be more confident.

I also like that all the characters have something to teach and something to learn from each other. And that they all were, at the end of the day, what I would call legit heroes: at different points they were each willing to step up, sacrifice, and make hard calls for each other and for the greater good.

So, yeah, this was a really good movie: an example of really solid, well-done entertainment. It knows exactly what it is and wants to do and does it with energy and skill: exactly the kind of film that Hollywood ought to be making all the time.

Larry Correia on Cooking Poor

The incomparable Larry Correia gives us another treasure of a fisk, this time tearing into an article where a guy tries to argue that fast food is actually more economical for poor people than grocery food

Let’s just say the author of the piece fails to put his case beyond reasonable doubt.

Mr. Correia, in addition to writing fast-paced, well-constructed stories of action and adventure, also frequently gives astute comments on political and economic issues. In so doing, and in apparent contrast to the author of this particular article, he has the advantage of actually having grown up poor. This time he comes to the task of mocking the ignorance of the arrogant armed with his mother, who provides first-hand insights into cooking while poor, as well as astute observations such as “what’s wrong with this asshole?”

Here’s a sampling of what you’re in for:

Article: You swap vegetable oil for olive oil, water for stock or broth, table salt for sea salt, etc.

Correia: My grandma used to run warm water through a chicken and call it chicken soup. I don’t think you’ve got a real strong grasp on what the word “poverty” means.

Read the whole thing.

On that subject, I’ve often noticed that most people of a certain ideological bent, though styling themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden, often speak of poor people not only as if they’ve never met any, but as if the lower classes were a different species that they’d learned about solely through the official website of the local zoo (“The male hog farmer can hit thirty miles an hour when threatened”). There’s often not only ignorance, but a great deal of ill-disguised contempt (contrast the way, say, H.G. Wells portrayed the lower classes with how G.K. Chesterton did).

To the people who advocate a wholly egalitarian society and would overturn civilization in an attempt to eliminate poverty, the poor are ignorant, benighted children who must be awakened to the reality of their situation by their more educated and more intelligent superiors. To those who believe in tradition, Christianity, and the maintenance of order, even hierarchical orders, the poor are dignified human beings with great virtues and wisdom all of their own, who ought to be aided whenever they need it, but left free to manage their own lives whenever possible. This is one reason I’ve never found collectivist, revolutionary, or leftist ideas in general to be very convincing.

Anyway, read and enjoy the difference between actual knowledge and experience and someone speculating wildly in order to make himself look smarter and more enlightened than he really is.

 

A Writing Thought from ‘Victoria’

I’ve started watching ‘Victoria’ recently. It’s pretty good; very well acted, very well designed, so decent writing. It definitely gets overly melodramatic at times, not to mention on the nose, sometimes overdoes the sneering jerkiness of the ‘bad’ characters (I would be very surprised to find that the real King Leopold would actually talk down to Victoria in the way he does here), and it’s clearly trying hard to be the next ‘Downton Abbey,’ but the story of Queen Victoria and her reign is more than interesting enough to keep things going.

Now, I’m only about three or four episodes in, but there was an incident in the last episode I watched that stood out to me. Victoria and Albert (when she’s still trying to make up her mind if she wants to marry him) are walking on the grounds of Windsor when Victoria’s dog Dash gets caught in a snare. Albert takes charge and tends to the dog, which leads…somehow to him shouting at her about the state of the poor, during which the dog is pretty much completely forgotten.

This kind of encapsulates what I think is a problem with a lot of contemporary stories: they focus on the wrong thing. They’re always diverting from the really interesting stuff, like nobility, virtue, courage, and character and getting bogged down in a boring morass of ‘issues.’ But in fiction, even historical fiction, the important thing isn’t the larger issues in the world of the story, but the individual characters and how they react. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but they are the substance of the story. Now, the most interesting thing about this scene is not the plight of the poor in early Victorian London. As far as that goes…well, it’s not exactly a pressing issue for us the viewers at this point. It matters only insofar as it reflects upon Victoria, Albert, and the other characters.

So, we have a scene where Victoria’s beloved dog is injured and Albert takes charge to help. The focus of this scene needs to be on Albert’s actions and Victoria’s reactions to it; he is stepping up to help Victoria in something that has nothing to do with her status as Queen, but is vitally important to her as a person. This shows they are on the same wavelength, that she can rely on him to care for her as a woman and not just as a monarch. But then, out of nowhere, they suddenly turn it to an argument about social justice solely to gin up some patently artificial conflict, while the poor dog is literally forgotten.

Let me be clear: it’s perfectly acceptable to have Albert and Victoria clash over matters of the poor. But not in that scene or at that time. It doesn’t fit what’s going on, the reactions aren’t natural, and, frankly, it’s disappointing. To take a really quite interesting and emotionally on-point scene and turn it to boilerplate social justice talk is like reading a story with a really imaginative and creative opening paragraph that suddenly turns into a political essay. It isn’t interesting to hear another tired variation of how the rich girl doesn’t know how the other half lives; it is interesting to see the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth crying over her hurt dog and watch her princely paramour ripping the sleeve off of his shirt to bandage its leg. That’s got some dramatic meat to it, some romantic weight and encapsulates a lot into very little. In a word, it makes for a good story. Albert and Victoria shouting at each other about the underclass does not make for a good story.

So, my point is that, when telling stories, it’s the characters who are interesting; the larger surrounding issues are important only insofar as they reflect upon the characters. That, and you should know when and how to fit your de rigueur blow-up argument between the romantic leads into the story so that it neither feels forced nor leaves an injured puppy dog forgotten on the ground.

 

Godzilla: Monster Planet

godzilla-monster-planet-trailer-3

Cool, huh? Too bad that’s basically all he does.

Being the huge Godzilla fan that I am, I of course had to check out Netflix’s Godzilla: Monster Planet anime, supposedly the first in a trilogy. And…yeah, I didn’t care for it.

The story is that humanity has been driven off the planet by Godzilla and the other monsters, but have failed to find a suitable alternative world, despite the help of two alien races (who are basically the Xillians and the Black Hole aliens from the original series: a cool touch). After searching for twenty years, with their resources depleting rapidly, they decide to return to Earth – which due to relativity has been abandoned for 20,000 years, to see whether they can return.

It’s a pretty cool set-up: a ‘what if?’ scenario for the world of Godzilla that posits a not-unthinkable consequence of the established elements. But there are problems. Big problems.

In the first place, the animation is not very good. Oh, there’s a lot of detail, the characters look nice, and the designs are very good, but it’s too dark. Almost all the scenes are in heavy shadow or fog, so that not only is it hard to see what’s going on, but keeping track of the characters or even telling one from another is next to impossible. Plus the characters all move in a stiff, stop-motiony kind of way, as if they were semi-articular action figures.

There are plot holes too. The idea of Godzilla driving humanity off the planet isn’t a bad one, but it kind of requires some explanation: dangerous as he is, Godzilla can only be in one place at a time. So, why is it whenever humanity has anything important to do, they seem to be doing it right next to him? When they arrive back on Earth, a probe quickly tells them where Godzilla is. So why would they land in the same location? Even if their plan is to confront and kill him, wouldn’t it make more sense to set up somewhere it would take him a few days to get to, so they could be well prepared? I mean, they have the entire planet to choose from here.

And it’s slow-moving. And there’s a lot of repetition in the script: explaining the same things over and over. And things that don’t make sense or are established, but don’t pay off (for instance, it’s explained that a certain plant is as sharp as steel and can puncture a spacesuit. This never comes into play again).

But the biggest problem is Godzilla himself. Hoo, boy, let’s try to explain this:

In the first place, they changed his backstory and basically the entire concept of what he is. That’s not too bad in itself; this isn’t Godzilla the character, but kind of a variation on the idea of Godzilla. I can go along with that, even if I prefer the original. The trouble is, again, the animation. Oh, my goodness, what were they thinking?!

If the human characters look like semi-articular action figures, Godzilla looks like a non-articulate figure. As in, he doesn’t move. At all. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. He’s incredibly stiff and moves extremely slowly, so that half the time it looks like they just have a still image of him that they’re shifting about the screen. I cannot tell you what a disappointment this is.

It seems to me the whole point of doing an animated version of Godzilla is to make him more alive, more natural, more energized; to free the artists to show the full extent of his power and ferocity. Why turn him into basically a statue that occasionally shoots off an atomic ray? Heck, Talos from Jason and the Argonauts – an actual metal statue – was more mobile and seemed more alive than this!

That’s the problem: he doesn’t seem alive. In the live action films, whatever else he is, Godzilla always seems alive, because for the most part, he is. That’s the glory of suitimation; the character is really on screen and really moving the way a living thing should. Even at his stiffest, even when the effects were at their worst, Godzilla always at least felt alive (though I haven’t seen Shin Godzilla yet). Heck, even when he was literally a demonic zombie, he still moved more and had more character than this!

It’s awful, that’s all I can say; the way they portray Godzilla here is awful.

It’s not a waste of time, and I am glad I saw it. The action is kind of cool, the ideas are somewhat interesting, and there are some nice scenes. I especially like when they first arrive back over the Earth and everyone rushes to the windows to exclaim over the sight, especially the people who had been born in space who are seeing the planet for the first time. Then there’s a very interesting and kind of touching conceit involving the ruins of cities.

I suspect I’ll watch the next two films when they come out, since I am interested to see where they go from here. But I’ll go in with lowered expectations: I’m much more looking forward to the second Legendary Godzilla film.