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I saw ‘Dunkirk’ over the weekend. Briefly put, my reaction is that I thought it was an amazing film; probably one of Christopher Nolan’s best (which is saying something). It was completely unlike any other war film I’ve seen, punishingly intense, and engaging all the way through.
A few things to note:
- Though I thought it was a fantastic film, it’s probably not for everyone. It takes a very stripped-down, intimate approach to the story; the characters, with one or two exceptions, are more archetypes than they are people. The soldier we follow for most of the film is never even named: he’s just ‘the Tommy,’ a typical English soldier trying to find a way to survive. Likewise the non-linear approach to the story may turn some people off, as it can be tricky to keep track of what’s happening when.
- The film is entirely about this one crisis in the war. We almost never see the Germans, nor are they mentioned by name. It’s just about the events at Dunkirk.
- As with previous films, Mr. Nolan demonstrates that graphic violence is unnecessary. He conveys the horror, intensity, and grim cost of war with hardly a drop of blood on screen. All you need is the right camera angles, music, and sound-effects. It reminds me of classic war films like Sink the Bismarck or The Longest Day, which likewise conveyed the terror and intensity of the modern battlefield with little or no gore.
- Even in the midst of this intimate, minimalist approach, Mr. Nolan finds space for scenes of the old-school heroism and honor that also typify war, most notably from an RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy and a British Admiral played by Kenneth Branagh.
- The scene where the makeshift flotilla finally arrives nearly brought tears to my eyes, because dear Lord, we feel just what it meant to those soldiers.
In summary, I thought it was a great film, further cementing Mr. Nolan as possibly the best director working today. I highly recommend it, though with the caveat that it’s not for everyone and probably isn’t going to be the film you expect it to be.
When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.
The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).
So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.
As for me, I’m glad we have it.
This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.
There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works; we very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.
At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and irritating characters.
The leads here, meanwhile, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they’re pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.
More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.
The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to defend the American way of life from the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.
The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the values they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.
On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of those values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there can be no peace between them.
In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.
The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).
I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.
Pete’s Dragon, like Cinderella or The Jungle Book, is a remake of a classic Disney film that not only improves on the original, but also manages to be a refreshingly individual film in its own right. Here’s a movie that doesn’t so much defy formula as simply ignores it; it’s content to simply tell its own story, without any kind of heavy handed message or attempt to appeal to mass audiences. Probably not everyone will like this movie; it has a leisurely pace and little ‘action,’ and the humor is low-key and elicits smiles rather than laugh-out-loud moments.
That, to my mind, is part of what makes the film special. Against all odds, this isn’t just a media giant attempting to cash in on a familiar title; it’s an honestly good story told by people who clearly cared a lot about the finished product. To me, it feels a lot like a classic children’s book; the kind that adults look forward to reading to their kids.
When five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegly) is orphaned in a car crash in the Pacific Northwest, he finds himself unexpectedly adopted by a friendly, furry dragon whom he christens ‘Eliot’ after the main character of his favorite book. Six years later, he’s discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who, together with her father, Meachem (Robert Redford), her fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), slowly comes to realize that Pete comes with an unexpected level of magic.
Like I say, the film moves leisurely, spending lots of time just hanging around with its characters, especially Pete and Eliot. Their relationship is obviously at the heart of the film, and plays out rather like that of a boy and his dog. Only, of course, this dog is twenty feet tall, can fly, and can turn invisible. The relationship is charming, and Eliot is cute without overdoing it (one detail I especially liked was that Eliot has several noticeable battle scars, hinting that the dragon isn’t just a cuddly pet). Needless to say, the effects that bring the dragon to life are excellent, and I applaud the decision to make Eliot a mammalian dragon rather than your standard scaly beast. Not only does this make him more cuddly (and make his devotion to Pete more plausible), but it also makes him feel more at home in the Pacific Northwest setting (you don’t find pythons or crocodiles in Washington state or Canada). If there are dragons in those woods, I would expect them to look more like Eliot than, say, Smaug. Some might complain this makes his color-changing ability a bit harder to swallow, but then again, who’s to say it isn’t just magic? Put it this way; I found Eliot’s invisibility powers far easier to swallow than those of the last monster to share a screen with Miss Howard.
The movie spends its time, not in hairs-breadth escapes or high adventure, but in setting moods and encouraging us to enter into the feel of the scene: playful when Pete and Eliot are rollicking through the forest. Peaceful and serene when Grace is walking through the forest. Warm and comfortable when we’re sitting in Jack and Natalie’s house. Wonder and amazement when Eliot reveals himself to the other characters.
Though, of course, there is a story, and things do happen. Pete, having spent so long in the woods, at last begins to find himself tempted back to civilization, first by a chance encounter with Grace, then by another with Natalie (thus, he’s drawn out by beauty; a very nice touch). Of course, once it’s discovered that there’s a little boy living alone in the woods, no self-respecting adult is going to just let him stay there. Pete’s first encounters with civilization are very well done, as we’re allowed to feel his confusion, disorientation, and desperation to get back home, and then his growing comfort under the loving care of the family he stumbles into. The only problem is…what’s going to happen to Eliot? Especially when Jack’s troublemaking brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sets his sights on the beast.
Among the film’s bold moves is to avoid having a real villain. Gavin serves as the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just an ordinary, flawed human being. He’s presented as kind of a jerk, but his actions, though selfish, are by no means unreasonable and he has more than one redemptive moment. In fact, all the characters here are refreshingly ‘normal.’ They’re not generic Hollywood character types, but individuals of their own time, place, and milieu. I cannot stress enough how relieved I am that the film isn’t yet another rural-bashing story about small-minded villagers who hate whatever they don’t understand (a trope I have grown to loathe so much that it makes me cringe even in otherwise brilliant films like Beauty and the Beast). Everyone here is basically a decent person, and the small-town rural setting is presented with real affection.
I also like that the movie doesn’t feature any modern technology like cell phones or computers, and that the time period is deliberately left ambiguous. It could be modern day, or the eighties, or even the seventies. This helps give the film a timeless feel that fits perfectly.
Thematically, the movie tackles the rich and deceptively complex theme of belief and magic, a theme previously given scope in the writings of C.S. Lewis and, especially, J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories. Imagination, wonder, and the humble enjoyment of the secret glories of creation are woven throughout the film, not only in the presence of the dragon but in the joy the characters take in the forest and the delight of working with your hands and spinning tall tales. Eliot in particular brings magic with him, but the encounter with him deepens and enriches an experience that was already ‘magical’ in effect.
These ideas are drawn out in broad strokes primarily by Meachem (a wonderful performance by Mr. Redford). He’s a wood-carver who spins tall-tales about an encounter with “the Millhaven Dragon,” but whose stories turn out to have a core of truth to them. He insists that seeing the dragon brought with it a kind of “magic” that has never left him.
“It changes the way I see the world,” he tells Grace. “The trees, the sunshine, you.”
Reinforcing this is a folksong, played over the opening and sung later in the film by one of the characters, telling of the ‘dragons’ who live in the forest, calling to mind hic dracones and the primeval human tendency to fill unexplored regions with fairies and monsters. Later, Pete and Natalie have a thoughtful (though entirely childlike) discussion of imagination and reality.
I remembered C.S. Lewis’s comments in On Writing for Children; “Fairyland,” he says. “Arouses in [the child] a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him, to his lifelong enrichment, with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods. This reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Pete’s Dragon is a film that not only explores this idea, but is itself a shining example of it. It rings with the love of nature, not in silly half-pagan environmentalism but in humble joy at the beauty of creation.
Like The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon is another movie that ignores parochial themes for deeper, timeless ideas that seek to enrich the viewer rather than instruct him.
Though I enjoyed the movie immensely, I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, at least not that would fit in a review. This isn’t the kind of film where a whole lot happens, so that you can say ‘here’s how this scene went’ or ‘I liked this bit.’ Rather, it’s a film that is best just seen and enjoyed.
I feel as though there are two Disneys at work today. One is the giant money making machine, pumping out films of varying quality, but all very much catering to the tastes of the filmmakers and the audience; no different from any other media empire.
Then there’s the Disney of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon (and, on the small screen, of Phineas and Ferb): the Disney that is still animated by the spirit of Uncle Walt, that has his audacity, his love of storytelling, and his ability to reach right down to the roots of our common humanity to inspire wonder and joy in the audience. I can only hope that this latter Disney continues to produce films like this.
Final Rating: 4.5/5: Probably not for everyone, but a film to treasure.
So far the DC Cinematic Universe has been off to an unimpressive start, with the uneven Man of Steel and the God-awful Batman v. Superman. Nevertheless I was cautiously looking forward to Suicide Squad, which from the previews seemed like it would at least not take itself so dang seriously as the other films had, and appeared the most likely to win me over to the series.
Has it? Well, not exactly. On the one hand this is easily the most entertaining film in the DC universe so far, with little of the ponderous pretention that dragged down the previous two movies. On the other, it doesn’t really come together into a coherent whole and the oppressive cynicism of the series saps some of the fun.
The story is that with Superman dead (spoilers for Batman v. Superman, but who cares? It’s not like he’ll be gone long), black ops mistress Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan to turn a collection of incarcerated supervillains into a strike team that will serve to protect the US from meta-human threats. The team will be led by Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and consist of master marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), short-tempered Aussie Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), taciturn flamer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), monstrous Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), escape artist Slipknot (Adam Beach), possessed archeologist Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), swordswoman Katana (Karen Fukuhara), and psycho-woman Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), girlfriend of the Joker (Jared Leto). When a potentially world-ending threat materializes, Waller deploys her team, but things don’t go according to plan.
Call it The Dirty Dozen with supervillains and you wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that it doesn’t quite live up to the premise.
With such a large cast, some confusion is inevitable, though the list is a bit deceiving. Of the team, one goes rogue and becomes one of the antagonists, while another only serves to demonstrate what happens if the team tries to slip the leash. Nevertheless, there’re a lot of informed attributes going around, and some of the team don’t get much to do. Captain Boomerang in particular contributes little except for comic relief (there’s even a running gag with him that just gets dropped without comment midway through). The plot rather quickly spirals out of control, with at least four distinct parties each vying for different objectives and plot holes multiplying one after another. I don’t want to spoil things too much, except that I’ll say Waller is a lot stupider than she ought to be, making me wonder just how she got where she is if she’s so lacking in foresight.
That being said, Viola Davis is at least a lot better suited for the part than Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who played the role on Arrow (if DC doesn’t want me to make comparisons they shouldn’t run two distinct shared universes featuring many of the same characters at the same time). Robinson was far too thin and too attractive for the part: Davis is more of the everywoman and if not the hulking figure Waller should cut, she at least is solidly built. Whatever the flaws in Waller’s portrayal, none of them are Davis’s fault.
I also have problems with Jared Leto’s version of the Joker. He’s not bad, and certainly not the train-wreck that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was. I can accept him as the Joker, just not as an especially memorable version of him. Of course, anyone taking up the role after Heath Ledger is at a huge disadvantage, but even discounting that there’s one major flaw with Leto’s performance: he’s dangerous, cunning, and psychotic, but he isn’t funny. He laughs a lot, but I don’t think he ever made me laugh.
Now, Ledger’s Joker was funny because he was so darn unpredictable; you had no idea what he might say or do at any point in the film, so that half the time you cringe, the other half you laugh because you see the unexpected logic of his behavior. Leto’s Joker isn’t unpredictable; I was never queasily waiting to see what he might do. He’s pretty much just a normal gangster with an eccentric fashion sense (one review I read called him “pimp Joker,” and that’s a pretty fair description).
On the other hand, Harley Quinn is funny and is unpredictable. A lot of her moments were spoiled in the trailers, but she still gets plenty of laughs. And I was so happy that they have her call the Joker ‘Puddin’ and ‘Mr. J.’ I don’t think it was necessary to hyper-sexualize her to the extent that they did (though that did lead to at least one very funny bit when the team is suiting up for battle), and the torture scene with her and the Joker, while it wasn’t as bad as I feared, still doesn’t really make sense and, I think, undermines her character. Other than that, though, she was perfect: perfectly nutty, perfectly dangerous, perfectly the girly-girl psychopath we all know and love. I especially liked a late-game revelation about what she really wants more than anything: a bit that perfectly captures the tragedy at the root of Harley’s character.
That said, there was a lot of superfluous fluff with her, such as a completely gratuitous flashback to her and the Joker having sex in one of the Ace Chemical vats (does he just own that place now or something?). Oh, and you know that scene from the trailers where she smashes a store window to steal a purse? It literally comes out of nowhere and does nothing.
That points to another problem with the film: the editing is often a mess. Juggling so many characters and plotlines is difficult, and they couldn’t pull it off, so that sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of who is where doing what and why it matters. Like with Harley’s bit above, some scenes just come out of nowhere, as if they were filmed without any real clear idea where they belonged in the story and just stuck in wherever they could find room.
To be honest, I think the film would have benefited if they had cut the Joker entirely. It would have been tricky to handle Harley’s character that way, but if they had kept the Joker as an unseen force in the background I think the film would have been much stronger for it. The Joker’s scenes don’t really affect the rest of the plot except once, and never in an especially vital way, and they’re just a kind of visual white noise contributing nothing to the story and a lot to the confusion.
I was concerned about Will Smith as Deadshot, both because I’m generally suspicious about casting big stars as superheroes/villains, and because I’m cynical about the practice of switching a character’s race just because you can. That said, I thought he was pretty good. Smith is, of course, an immensely talented and charismatic actor, and though he’s not my idea of Deadshot (again, I thought Michael Rowe on Arrow was much closer to my image of the character, and I can probably come up with a half-dozen actors I think would fit the part better), he’s perfectly acceptable in the role as it stands. Basically, a Will Smith version of Deadshot isn’t a bad interpretation of the character, especially if you’re going to cast him as the lead. Smith captures Deadshot’s contradictory nature as both a loving father and a dangerous assassin (though the character’s suicidal tendencies don’t appear), and he serves well as a strong anchor doing his best to keep the film together. A flashback assassination scene was a ton of fun and perfectly showcased his ridiculous skill level. All in all, I have no serious complaints about Deadshot.
Jai Courtney, as I said, doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Captain Boomerang, but he’s a blast whenever he’s on screen. Likewise with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc, who really comes into his own towards the end and who makes a valiant effort to act through the effects that turn him into a human crocodile. Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flagg, the token ‘good guy’ of the team doesn’t make a whole lot of impression: his job is to sneer at the bad guys and come to respect them over time, and as far as it went, he was acceptable, and he at least had sympathetic motives for undertaking the mission. Karen Fukuhara as Katana doesn’t make much of an impression either; she basically just walks around glowering through her mask and occasionally busting out some sword moves. Ditto for Adam Beach as Slipknot, only minus the mask and sword. Ben Affleck returns for a handful of cameos as Batman, and though it’s not saying much, I thought he was better played this time around (that is to say, he wasn’t psychotically trying to murder people for no reason while ranting about how life doesn’t matter).
Cara Delevingne as Dr. Moon / Enchantress was mostly overwhelmed by the special effects and didn’t make too much of an impression as a character, not to mention that the nature and extent of her powers was extremely vague: an early scene has her travelling to Iran and back in the space of a second, but toward the end she picks up a sword and starts fighting hand-to-hand. Huh?
To my surprise, probably my favorite character was El Diablo, who I had barely heard of before the film came out. His character arc was, for me, the most interesting and credible of the film, and Jay Hernandez shone in the role. He’s about the only one of the bad guys who seems to actually regret his criminal actions, which makes him probably the most sympathetic and interesting character on the screen as he wrestles with his own self-loathing.
That brings me to what, for me, was probably the biggest problem with the film: that the world of the DC cinematic universe is simply too downbeat and cynical to be worth bothering about.
With its colorful cast of antiheroes and its pop-music soundtrack, Suicide Squad clearly seeks to be the Guardians of the Galaxy of the DC universe. But in Guardians all the rough-and-tumble heroes were sympathetic and were shown to be more or less decent people by the end, even if they still cheerfully talk about doing bad things. But even if they’re not the most scrupulous people in the world, they still fought for a good cause and on behalf of good people, and the good people were grateful to them in the end.
In Suicide Squad, while most of the characters are pitiable, there are only two or three who are really sympathetic. Nor is the world they’re fighting to save shown to be really worth saving. Okay, there’s Deadshot’s daughter, but other than that are there any ‘good people’ who need to be saved and who are worth saving?
Practically everyone in the film is to a greater or lesser degree a bastard. El Diablo stood out as the only one who seemed even to understand that he ought to have been a better person: everyone else either assumes that that’s just the way the world works or blames the rest of society for not ‘accepting’ them. When Harley asks “what did the world ever do for us?” My thought was, “girl, you’re a murdering psychopath: you’re not in a position to complain about being ill-treated.”
Another problem highlighted by the comparison is that, in Guardians, the team convincingly came together after some initial friction to form a charming company of friends, so that when Groot said, “We are Groot” it felt earned. Suicide Squad tries to do the same thing, with the squad coming to care for each other, but it doesn’t work. They repeatedly call themselves a ‘family,’ but it doesn’t feel earned, and nothing that happens really convinces me that these characters had any reason to appreciate each other. The Guardians were only broken: the Squad is a bunch of psychopaths and monsters who are only thrown together for the sake of the mission. The Guardians were working together for common ends, even if they were selfish ends at first. The Squad is working together for not other reason than that they’ll be killed if they don’t. They have no reason to really care for each other or to feel any team spirit, at least not so quickly as they do. There was a point where Deadshot is ordered to shoot one of his teammates. As he agonized over the decision, it occurred to me that there was no reason why he shouldn’t, or that I should be rooting for him not to. If anything, I felt like it would be best for all concerned if he took the shot.
The DC universe lays the artificial grit and forced moral ambiguity on way too thick, and while Suicide Squad at least has some fun, it can’t escape being dragged down by the dreariness of the world it inhabits. Whoever decided that the best way to compete with Marvel was to make everything in the DC film world as dark and cynical as possible should be fired as soon as possible, before he has the chance to ruin The Flash or Justice League (it’s probably too late for Wonder Woman).
All that being said, Suicide Squad is a good time. It’s not great; certainly nowhere near as good a Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s easily my favorite of the DC films so far. It’s stylish, often funny, and consistently entertaining, with a colorful cast played well by some talented actors.
Final Rating: 3/5. Not great, but at least it’s actually entertaining, which is a big step up from the DC universe’s last offering.
I have a weakness for video game adaptations. About 95% of them are terrible, but I tend to at least look into them, just out of curiosity. Personally, the best one I’ve seen is the first Mortal Kombat movie, which is just delightful.
Recently, out of curiosity, I started watching Sonic Boom, the latest television adaptation of the Sonic the Hedgehog games. I’ve never really played the games, though I’m familiar with them and their world.
The show is an easy-going sitcom version of the games: brash hero Sonic the Hedgehog (Roger Craig Smith) uses his incredible super speed to battle the evil (or at least very childish and petty) Dr. Eggman (Mike Pollock), defending his small island home from the Doctor’s robot armies. Assisting him are his best friend and sidekick Miles “Tails” Prower (Colleen O’Shaughnessy), a technologically-inclined young fox who can fly by spinning his twin tails like a helicopter; Knuckles the Echidna (Travis Willingham), a super-strong, but none-too-bright bruiser; Amy Rose (Cindy Robinson), a sweet-but-bossy pink hedgehog whose two great loves are Sonic and her trademark giant hammer; and TV-original Sticks (Nika Futterman), a paranoid feral badger who generally gets the best lines and who is cuter than should be allowed.
It’s not a brilliant show by any means; the plots are generally familiar, the writing’s often lazy, and the endings in particular tend to be kinda weak. A few episodes stood out as real clunkers. On the plus side, the individual episodes are short (eleven minutes, packaged in sets of two), so even the bad ones don’t really stick in the craw.
But when the show is good, it’s very good. The cast is cute and charming, I personally found the rather basic CG animation to be kind of appealing, and, most importantly, the show is funny. Even lame episodes typically have at least a few bits that had me laughing out loud, and the good episodes are a riot. Like, one early episode had Tails invent a machine that could translate any language. Trouble was, it kept translating the subtext of what the characters said, much to everyone’s embarrassment (Sonic: “Don’t be offended, Sticks; Knuckles didn’t mean to think that.” Translation: “He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”). Another one had Eggman hiring Amy to redecorate his evil lair in the hopes of getting it featured on a magazine cover (Amy: “Is it so hard to believe that Eggman values my talents?” Sonic: “Well, yeah! Wait, that came out wrong”).
There’s not much depth to the show; it’s mostly the same morals that have been a staple of TV animation for generations: value your friends, be nice to others, work as a team, etc. However, I was delighted to find that at least two episodes actually took swipes at PC culture.
The first sees Sonic being the target of a ten-minute hate by the villagers for refusing to bring Knuckles’ annoying new friend along to a battle because “He’s just a guy” (unlike Sonic and his super-powered friends). After his comments become the subject of twenty-four hour news coverage, he’s forced to go through a humiliating sensitivity seminar. To apologize, he invites the guy along to the next battle, and subsequently is attacked again when the guy ends up getting hurt. Then when he calls the villagers out for their hypocrisy, they attack him for that (because he angrily referred to them as “You people,” which was insensitive). Sonic finally loses his temper and points out that he saves the village on a regular basis and that it’s idiotic for people to turn around and attack him for using moderately harsh language. Unfortunately, there’s a small gesture at the end towards the idea that the guy was heroic (because he warned Sonic of an impending attack), but the main thrust of the episode is clearly directed against the practice of treating minor insensitivity as a criminal offense.
In another episode, Sonic and his friends are given awards for being the best role models in town. After their normal behavior results in a few complaints, they end up forced to follow the directions of an obnoxious image consultant, who, among other things, forbids Amy from cooking because it’s a gender stereotype (even though she likes cooking…and is the only one who knows how) and forces them to try to resolve their conflict with Eggman by using “I statements” (“Eggman, when you shoot lasers at me, I feel sad.”). They can barely move without him blasting his whistle to alert them that they’re doing something wrong. Sound familiar? If not, you haven’t read as many internet comments as I have, and are probably all the happier for it.
Another episode mocks government corruption and overreach when Knuckles becomes mayor for the day and mindlessly approves every law that comes across his desk, quickly going mad with power (“Could you stamp some sort of universal healthcare law?”). Not only that, but everyone instantly becomes completely dependent on his ill-considered new programs and takes offense when it’s suggested they should do without them. The satire is light, but I enjoyed it.
I also like how all the characters (with the possible exception of Tails) have glaring personality flaws. Sonic’s brash, reckless, and egotistical; Knuckles is an idiot; Amy’s bossy and overbearing; and Sticks is just nuts. They’re all lovable, but it’s nice to see the show acknowledge that everyone has flaws rather than, say, making the girls over perfect so that they could be good role models. And I like that, when there is a girls-vs.-boys challenge, the girls win for solid character reasons (Sonic’s hubris and Knuckles’ brainlessness means that they don’t prepare properly) rather than just to make some shallow point about gender roles. I also like how Amy’s would-be feminism is mostly played for laughs (“I’M A WOMAN! I’M REFINED AND ELEGANT LIKE A DELICATE FLOWER, YOU JERK!”). Neither sex takes it on the chin, and everyone gets to be the butt of the joke sooner or later.
What about the villain? Eggman’s as amusing as anyone else, and gets at least as much screen time. He’s less an evil villain than he is an elementary school bully who never grew up. He and the heroes have more the vibe of rival players than actual mortal enemies; they pass each other at the local restaurant on a regular basis, sometimes participate in town events together, and if Eggman ever gets into trouble, Sonic and his friends are there to bale him out. One episode even had Eggman crashing on Sonic’s couch while his lair was being rebuilt. Their relationship is rather charming and reliably entertaining. I especially like the way they’ll sometimes break out their notebooks in order to schedule their next battle. Besides, Eggman probably comes in just behind Sticks in having the best lines in the series (“Come back here and eat that cookie, you mutant blue rat!”).
Eggman is ably supported by his two robot sidekicks Orbot and Cubot (Kirk Thornton and Wally Wingert, respectively), who serve as the eternal whipping boys of the series (“Must every random observation circle back to insult us?”). As idiot villain sidekicks go, they’re pretty darn funny. It helps that Orbot is actually one of the more sensible characters in the show, but is constantly undercut by the other two.
In short, Sonic Boom is a consistently entertaining, occasionally hilarious video game adaptation (actually, from what I understand, it’s considerably higher quality than most of the Sonic games that have come out recently). I’m glad to hear that it’ll be renewed for a second season. Personally, I’m hoping that they’ll revisit some of the plot points of this season. I’d like to see more of Tails’ girlfriend, for instance. And I’d like them to bring in more classic characters, especially Rogue the Bat, who I think would be a blast playing against Knuckles. Tighten up the writing a bit, and yeah, this is a series I’m looking forward to seeing more of.