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.

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Godzilla: Monster Planet

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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.

Quick Thoughts on ‘The Big Lebowski’

Last night I finally saw the modern classic The Big Lebowski. It was not good.

I admit, I laughed a good deal. And for about the first half I was enjoying it. Then I started to realize that the film wasn’t going anywhere. Or, if it was, it wasn’t anywhere good. I don’t think I’ve seen such an empty film before. Indeed, the pointlessness of it seemed the chief joke; that the characters just stumble through meaningless and heartless events surrounded by directionless and heartless characters. As it drew on to the conclusion, it seemed to drag on longer and longer and grow more and more nihilistic and mean-spirited. It was like a friend at a party who starts off being funny and exuberant, but as he grows more and more inebriated as the night goes on starts ranting about the Jews or shouting about his ex-girlfriend and becomes unbearable.

It reminded me a bit of Gravity Falls: a show that I mostly enjoyed while watching, but which left me similarly empty and with a mildly bad taste in my mouth. But that show at least had some honest-to-goodness heart to it, even it was strictly limited to the main characters. And it was a lot funnier. Lebowski started off funny, but grew less so over time as we slowly realize that it’s not going to give us anything. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a pot-high: feels good at the time, but has no substance and ultimately leaves you a little emptier and a little bit of a worse person than you were to begin with.

When Reviews Are Meaningless

A lot of times people (myself included) will say of some film that they’re on the fence about seeing ‘it depends on what the reviews say.’ If the general consensus appears to be that it’s worth seeing, then we’ll go see it. If not, we won’t.

When it comes to something like Star Wars, though, the initial reviews are essentially meaningless.

You see, a Star Wars movie is an event: the franchise is so big, its following so devoted, and its name so famous that it’s all-but guaranteed a strong opening reaction, in terms of both box office and critics. Fans are liable to be so excited and, consequently, so invested in having a good time that they’ll enjoy it almost no matter what (don’t think I’m mocking anyone: I’m the same way. If there’s a new Godzilla movie coming out, I’m going to see it and I’m going to like it unless it tries very, very hard to convince me I shouldn’t).

It pays to remember that Phantom Menace got glowing reviews when it first came out (for instance, Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars) and is now regarded as one of the most famously bad films ever made. Likewise Force Awakens still has lots of defenders, but not nearly as many as when it first came out.

Going to see the new Star Wars is like going on a date with Miss America; unless she starts stabbing you with a fork you’re probably going to come away saying you had a good time no matter what happens.

But after the initial excitement of the event wears off, after you’ve dated her for a few weeks and gotten used to the sight of her perfect face and body, that’s when you start to have a serious, sensible assessment of the event.

So, I’m sticking with my decision not to see The Last Jedi in theaters, no matter what the critics say. I’ll check back in a few months, when the excitement has worn off, and see what people are saying then. My guess is that a lot of people who are saying they liked it now are going to be a bit more critical later.

The Star Wars Holiday Special

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One of my personal holiday traditions is to open the season with a viewing of The Star Wars Holiday Special, courtesy of Rifftrax (I’m not insane enough to watch it ‘pure’. People have died that way). In case you haven’t heard of it, the year after the first Star Wars became a sleeper hit, someone had the idea that the way to keep the Star Wars interest alive was…to put on a holiday variety show, including musical numbers and a line of guest stars. It’s a charming, low-key family-friendly program that includes such delightful scenes as a musical number by Jefferson Starship, a holographic acrobatics show by dancers in bizarre costumes, and Chewbacca’s aged father watching a porno film given to him by Art Carney.

You think I’m making that up? How could I make that up? How could any sane person not drugged out of their minds have possibly made that up? In their defense, that seems to be exactly the explanation behind the special: everyone was high as a kite. Carrie Fisher in particular is visibly unsteady on her feet, while Mark Hamill is buried under tons of makeup to cover up injuries from a recent car crash and Harrison Ford can be seen loosing interest in the special as it goes on. Interestingly, the established Star Wars characters actually have very little screen time: Art Carney has a much bigger role than any of them, and it’s mostly just Chewy’s family hanging around their house growling at each other in un-subtitled gibberish (and, again, watching porno films). The whole thing is just…strange. It’s worth watching at least once just to gawk at the sheer madness of it all.

All that said, I will say it has one or two good points. Most notably, of course, is Bea Arthur’s surprisingly effective sequence as the owner of the Cantina bar. She gets a few laughs from her deadpan delivery and actually decent material. I really liked her reaction when the Empire’s curfew forces her to shut down her bar early: it creates a real headache for her and she has to exercise some tact to follow the rule without alienating her customers. She also lends some real emotional weight to the scene where she bids her staff goodnight. The whole sequence feels remarkably honest and human considering all the insanity going on around it.

On a related note, I like that we actually get a view of how the Empire looked from the point of view of the ordinary people in the galaxy. There is a real sense of the characters having to tiptoe around the Imperial troops and maintain a low profile or pay the price. Incompetent as the special is, it really does create a sense of people living under an oppressive government and making the best of it. In other words, it does a better job of conveying a sense of danger and consequence than the prequel films did, which never convinced us that there would be anything lost if the villains triumphed.

I also rather enjoyed the commercials included in the Rifftrax version, including a few short newsbreaks. I find that sort of thing fascinating; like going back in time.

You will note that I’m citing the commercials as one of the highlights of this special, which gives you an idea of how painful it is. Of course, Mike, Kevin, and Bill turn all that pain into sheer entertainment (“Finally, the humans are gone and the twisted, depraved rituals of Life Day can begin!”), and I think it’ll remain a staple of my holiday viewing for a long time to come.

Happy Life Day, everybody!

Making a Character Prodigiously Powerful Will Not Make Them Interesting

So, I was watching the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi,’ where Luke is telling Rey that he’s only seen her kind of power once before, that she’s amazingly in tune with the Force and so on and so forth and I thought “Man, I am tired of the heroes in these kinds of stories being amazing prodigies.”

Now, I’d like to unpack that a little. First of all, yes, in an adventure or fantasy story the hero ought to be special or extraordinary in some way. Otherwise there’s no point in talking about them. But something about this particular instance annoyed me, and I tried to compare it to some other instances I know about.

First there’s the preceding films, ‘Phantom Menace’ and its sequels, where, again, Anakin was repeatedly built up as Jedi prodigy without equal, and it struck me as similarly annoying (though there it was so buried in an avalanche of other bad storytelling techniques that it was kind of hard to notice).

So, latter ‘Star Wars’ films all have this plot element, and I find it annoying in each case. The originals, however, didn’t have it. Luke had potential and was attune with the Force, but nothing indicated he was anything unusually powerful: the issue was that he had aptitude, and was apparently the only chance for the Jedi to continue. Likewise, Han was a tough, clever outlaw, but not a master warrior or genius strategist. Yet, as we all know, Luke and Han were much more interesting and engaging characters than either Grey – sorry, Rey – or Anakin.

Are there other cases? Let’s consider the other major pop culture stories. The Harry Potter series actually avoids this as well. Harry was never portrayed as an extreme magical prodigy, on par with the likes of Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, or even Snape. He was pretty consistently played as being talented, but not extraordinary: he had natural talent in flying (which he himself points out isn’t especially useful) and was especially skilled in defensive magic, largely because he’d been through a crucible of extreme circumstances almost from day one. The point of the story was that his friends and his fundamental decency were ultimately more powerful than raw magical might.

Obviously in The Lord of the Rings the whole point was that Frodo and his fellow Hobbits weren’t anything extraordinary. Aragorn was, but it wasn’t really his story. Even when we focus on him, he’s not the ‘audience identification’ figure: we’re more meant to admire him as a paradigm than to identify with him.

Then there’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Now, in that one, Aang is uniquely powerful, which works because that’s the premise of the story, and the progression is watching him undergo training to make the most of his vast potential. On the other hand, all his friends are prodigies as well; Katara and Toph are presented as being among the greatest benders in their field, and Sokka is a brilliant strategist and inventor. Now, I love Avatar, but this, I think, is actually one of the few major flaws with the series: the fact that all the greatest Benders in the world are either under eighteen or over fifty: there are no middle-aged or in-their-prime masters on screen. That kind of hurts the suspension of disbelief.

As for My Little Pony, Twilight is presented as a great magical prodigy, but the story isn’t about her magical prowess: it’s about her learning about friendship, at which she’s explicitly portrayed as being below average to start with. Likewise with her friends, Rainbow Dash and Rarity are both played as being naturally very talented, but still needing a lot of hard work and training to reach their full potential, which is ultimately achieved only through a lot of time, sacrifice, and effort. Starlight is also a natural magical prodigy, but this is actually played as a bit of a liability, since her first instinct is always to use magic to solve her problems. Since, again, the point of the story is virtue and friendship, not magic.

Now, Phineas and Ferb is premised on its titular pair being extreme prodigies. But there are two things about that; first, it’s required by the premise and is obviously exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. In the second, despite the title the show is really more about their sister, Candace, whose character arc involves her jealousy towards her extraordinary brothers and her own sense of inadequacy. Thus, the entry point of the show is still an identifiable figure.

Less well known, Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, with its X-Men-meets-Ray Chandler set up (Chandler himself is actually a minor character), also has a preternaturally talented cast. But there, it feels earned. The characters have almost all had intense, harsh lives and extreme training to augment their powers. Like, Jake, the main protagonist, is a WWI veteran who did hard time in a brutal prison, in addition to being naturally intelligent. Another character, Heinrich, grew up in the zombie-infested ruins of Berlin, where he’d have to develop extraordinary abilities to survive. There’s really only one character who is presented as a preternatural prodigy – Faye – and then her extreme talent is a plot point with a large part of the series taken up with trying to find out why she’s so powerful.

That, I think, is the main thing that separates the instances that work and the ones that don’t: if it feels earned. With Rey and Anakin, and some others, it doesn’t feel earned: we’re simply told that they’re uniquely powerful and talented, and that therefore we should be invested in their story. But the trouble is, they’re boring characters: there’s no reason to care about what happens to them. Luke, Han, and Leia were great characters in their own right, and were fun to watch. All the other characters I mentioned were also great, fun, interesting characters in their own right. That, I think, is the other thing that I find annoying about the latter Star Wars films and a lot of other contemporary stories: that it feels like a cheap ploy to try to make boring characters seem interesting.

I remember on one writing advice site I perused a while back, one of the principles offered was ‘Superpowers will not make a boring character interesting.’ If the character’s personality, story, and arc aren’t engaging, then assuring us that they’re a genius or a prodigy or amazingly powerful won’t change that.

As you can tell, I’m not looking forward to Last Jedi: I really just don’t care anymore. I didn’t like Force Awakens very much, and it’s gone down in my estimation upon reflection. I don’t buy that this is really ‘what happened next’ in the story: it just feels like they’re rehashing the same plot, only with duller characters. And the assurance that Kylo and Rey (AKA dull and duller) are the most powerful Force users ever only makes it seem even more boring.

In short, I don’t care what happens to these people.

Thoughts on ‘My Little Pony: the Movie’

Just got back from seeing My Little Pony: The Movie (yes, opening day. I am not ashamed). And some thoughts:

-Overall, I’m giving it a ‘good-not-great’ rating: a solid 3-3.5/5. I enjoyed it, it’s still the same great characters, voices, writers, and world that I’ve grown to love. The animation is really good, I laughed a lot, and there were some surprisingly heavy moments, like a heated exchange between Twilight and Pinkie Pie that genuinely felt like a shot to the gut. The emotional power that the show is capable of may not be at its fullest, but it’s still there.

-That said, one of the biggest problems I had was that the show’s fantastic supporting cast is almost entirely sidelined. It’s pretty much just the Mane Six and Spike. Celestia, Luna, and Cadence appear, but they get taken out of the story pretty early. Even Starlight, who’s pretty much a main cast member now, doesn’t even get a single line of dialogue. I found that especially annoying since one, I really like Starlight, and two, I think they could have done some really cool things with her here; like have her and Trixie leading a resistance movement back home while Twilight and the others went to get the macguffin; have her join in the final battle, and so on.

-Meanwhile, another major supporting character, Discord, is absent for a much more understandable reason; that he’d pretty much break the plot. Still, I think they should have bit the bullet and confronted the issue head-on by having him present, but be taken out straight away (it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch; he has a history of underestimating his opponents and getting sucker-punched). Because as it is, I kept thinking “Well, you know, there’s Discord. Rips-the-fabric-of-reality-at-will, totally-in-love-with-Fluttershy-do-anything-for-her Discord. Maybe get in touch with him?” I think they were aiming to make the film accessible to non-fans by minimizing the amount of back-knowledge needed, but still, I think the balance could have been better.

-Surprisingly, but appropriately enough, the supporting cast member with the most important role after the princesses is…Derpy.

-Most importantly, the characters they do have are all recognizably themselves, and they all get pretty good-sized roles. Fluttershy’s probably in it the least, but she’s still present and contributes. I like how they don’t stretch things either; one of the Mane Six is primarily responsible for recruiting each new friend they meet, but they limit it to three or four rather than trying to force a ‘one apiece’ ratio. Moreover, their recruitments (especially Rarity’s) all make sense given the characters and situation.

-I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Twilight’s role here. Without giving it away, it kind of feels like she’s taken a step back character wise. But on the other, she is under enormous pressure, and it’s perfectly in character for her to overreact under stress, especially when she feels the whole thing is her responsibility. Basically, we get to see her at her worst here, but in a way that fits with everything she’s going through. So, on the whole, I think it works. Likewise, it’s completely in character for Pinkie Pie or Rainbow Dash to get caught up in the moment and do something foolish.

-I’m also glad that the film stayed true to the themes of the show; where the day is saved, not by an epic battle, but because Twilight chooses to show mercy to her enemy. And because all throughout their journey they’d taken the time to offer kindness and help to those around them.

-On the whole, the film feels more like a side-story than a culmination: sort of a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the Mane Six went on an epic adventure?’ And, yeah it is, but it doesn’t really feel like a continuation of the story of the show. More like the MLP cast crossed paths with a different story entirely. So, not bad; a lot of good stuff, but could have been better.