Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

x538            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.

Reviews: Pete’s Dragon

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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.

 

 

Reviews: Suicide Squad

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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.

Small Gems: Sonic Boom

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.

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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!”).

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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.

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A Plug for Tom Stranger

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I really love the work of Larry Correia, New York Times Bestselling Author, endlessly amusing and interesting blogger, International Lord of Hate, and man mountain. I first became familiar with him after stumbling across his opinion on gun control (summary: he has certain reservations about it). His Grimnoir Chronicles are some of my favorite recent books (and feature one of my all-time favorite heroines), and his Monster Hunter International series is great fun too. He’s also one of my writing inspirations: reading his articles was one of the key events that made me realize that I actually could be a writer for a living.

Now I want to draw your attention to his latest audiobook, which is available for free until June 21st. It is titled The Adventures of Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, and it began life as a series of goofy blog posts written for the entertainment of his fans. The premise is that every decision ever made creates a distinct dimension. Sometimes dimensions are threatened with destruction from other dimensions, which is why they take out insurance policies to protect themselves. Tom Stranger is an interdimensional insurance agent, defending covered worlds from interdimensional attack and providing excellent customer service.

Of course, to get the right idea of the story, it’s necessary to inform you that the story includes, at various times, a massive mech-suit attacking an alien armada led by “Gorblak the Deathslayer,” a gun that has a “Kill All” button that results in an explosion visible from space, an invasion of Nazi Dinosaurs led by Hitlersaurus Rex, a gratuitous cameo by Lord Humongous, a dimension where they worship the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (where even the most dastardly villain fears to tread), and a dimension in which R. Lee Ermey is the Secretary of Defense and Adam Baldwin is the President.

Did I mention that Adam Baldwin also narrates?

The author himself is present in two distinct characters: both as the unquestioned ruler of one dimension (where he is wealthy enough to have purchased both the Koreas in order to rename them so people would stop misspelling his name) and as a beleaguered science-fiction author who is imperiled when the forces of Hell invade a science fiction convention (it takes a fair amount of time for the convention goers to notice).

Basically, this book is hilarious insanity; the result of an immensely creative mind just doing whatever he wants without the slightest concern for plausibility, copyright laws, or…well, really anything at all except being thoroughly entertaining. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed this much at anything. At one point I was laughing so hard that I actually thought I might pass out.

And it’s only about two hours: the length of your average film. Plus, again, it’s voiced by Adam Baldwin: one of the coolest, most talented actors working today. And it’s Adam Baldwin voicing himself from an alternate dimension where he became President of the United States following the five-season, three film runaway success of Firefly. And, again, it’s currently free, so there’s really no excuse for not giving it a listen.

Well, maybe one. As you may have gathered from the above, Mr. Correia is, shall we say, opinionated in some respects, and he doesn’t shy away from expressing his opinions. Me, I mostly agree with him, so I went through the whole book without really being offended once, but if you are of a certain non-conservative political persuasion, you probably won’t be so lucky. You’ll most likely still laugh yourself hoarse if you have any sense of humor at all (again, Hitlersaurus Rex! What kind of person doesn’t love Hitlersaurus Rex?), but you won’t like Joe Biden’s cameo or Tom Stranger’s assessment of Gender Studies.

On the other hand, if I can love Parks and Recreation, you can certainly love Tom Stranger.

In any case, if you don’t mind some liberal-bashing jokes (and some cartoonish gore: this is a Correia book after all), you absolutely should go download this audiobook while it’s still FREE and bask in the magic of a collaboration between one of the most entertaining writers and one of the most talented actors working today.

P.S. I do not recommend eating, drinking, or driving while listening to this book.

Reviews: The Jungle Book

 

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I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book. It’s a classic, to be sure, and it’s not in the least a bad movie, but it’s very light fare: just a simple coming-of-age story, and one in which the protagonist is little more than a prop being carted back-and-forth between the supporting characters (sometimes literally). Not to mention that Walt Disney’s budget woes certainly showed through with the unimpressive animation, some of which gets reused in the same film (the exact same animation is used to conclude both the Kaa sequences with nothing but a change in lighting to indicate that it’s supposed to be a different scene). All in all, it’s not one of Uncle Walt’s better films. The best part, I thought, was the ending, which has a greater emotional impact than anything else in the film and ends the story on a high note (also ending Walt Disney’s career on a high note, as he died during production).

With all that in mind, I had high hopes for Jon Favreau’s semi-live-action remake, and I’m pleased to say that they have been thoroughly justified, as almost everything about this film is a serious improvement on the original. The story is better. The themes are better. The characters are better. The visuals are much better. It’s just all around a much, much better movie.

In the jungles of India, a man-cub named Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) has been raised by a pack of wolves, led by the level-headed Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), who have accepted him as one of their own, even though he’s hopelessly outmatched by his brothers in everything a wolf needs to do to survive, and he disturbs them by his preference for ‘man tricks’ like drinking water from a shell. Still, he’s part of the pack and is well liked by all of them, especially his mother, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o). As Mowgli grows up, the wise old panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) does his best to mentor the young cub in the ways of the jungle.

But then, one day, the tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), comes into the wolves’ territory in search of the man cub. Shere Khan hates man with a passion and insists that Akela turn Mowgli over to him. With the fate of the whole pack jeopardized by his presence, Mowgli volunteers to leave and seek a new home for himself. Bagheera, however, knows that the only thing that can protect him is to return to his own kind.

Mowgli thus reluctantly sets out for the man village, though he has no idea how to be a man and wants nothing more than to stay in the jungle, especially after he befriends the jovial sloth bear, Baloo (Bill Murray). But Shere Khan has no intention either of letting the boy remain in the jungle or of letting him return to the safety of the man village.

The first thing The Jungle Book does right is the jungle itself, which is not just a background setting but a living, breathing community, with its own law, customs, cultures, and subgroups. The animals refer to the distinct species as “peoples,” each of which have their place in jungle life, and all (or most) of which honor the law of the jungle. There are jungle customs, such a the ‘water truce’ that opens the film: if, during the dry season, the waters recede enough that the ‘peace rock’ emerges, all hunting comes to a halt, as “drinking comes before eating.” There’s even a religious aspect to the jungle life: not in the sense of silly imitation of man’s ritual, but in the deeper, more basic sense that the jungle animals have a tradition of where they come from and how they fit into the hierarchy of nature (more on that later).

What we have here is, I was somewhat astonished to find, a largely non-anthropomorphized jungle. True, the animals talk and joke and have laws, but they’re convincingly animals with a distinctly non-human perspective on the world. Tools are strange and disturbing to their thoughts. The idea of hunting and being hunted is simply a part of life. And above all else, they fear fire, which is man’s great weapon. I was more than once reminded of Watership Down, which is pretty much the benchmark for presenting non-humanized animals.

In this, and in many other ways, The Jungle Book is an unusual experience, especially nowadays. Few filmmakers would have any interest in (or, to be blunt, sufficient courage for) presenting such a world or using it to explore the ideas that this one does. I can imagine almost any other filmmaker turning this into a tired environmentalist allegory, or misanthropic commentary, or perhaps even an anti-colonialism tale. Thankfully, Jon Favreau does something much more interesting and much more challenging: he uses it to explore the question of what separates man from the rest of nature.

As an ardent admirer of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, I was delighted to discover that the film includes the opening lines of The Law for Wolves, which the pack recites in a prayer-like daily ritual. Other lines from the law are referenced at key points, as when Akela accuses Shere Khan of killing for pleasure contrary to the law. While watching, though, I kept thinking of another clause (unfortunately never mentioned in the film itself): Seven times never kill man.

Again and again, the movie emphasizes that Mowgli, as a man-cub, is something alien to the jungle: something that doesn’t fit in among the other beasts. Man is not just another animal, but something entirely different and, to the jungle creatures, strange and frightening. Even the monkeys, led by the oversized King Louie (Christopher Walkin), can’t do what he does, nor understand how or why he does it. Louie admires man, and envies him, squatting in the ruins of an ancient temple, surrounded by trinkets made by human hands, but he can’t be a man, because he isn’t. He doesn’t really understand or use the manmade artifacts that surround him (he calls the collection his ‘treasure,’ but amusingly enough, there doesn’t seem to be anything that a real man would consider particularly valuable: it’s mostly just rusting metal pots and the like. Though, in a very amusing allusion, he does have a cowbell).

At once point Bagheera and Mowgli observe a passing herd of elephants. Bagheera orders Mowgli to bow in reverence, as the elephants, he says, are the creators of the jungle. “They made everything that belongs. But they did not make you.”

The idea of man being something other than just another animal is all-but anathema these days. We moderns trip over ourselves to insist that man is nothing special. Indeed, only a couple weeks ago Batman v. Superman had professional atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson commenting that first Galileo showed us we weren’t the center of the universe and then that Darwin showed us we were just another species of animal (showing that history, logic, and basic observational skills are not his strong suit). The Jungle Book takes it for granted that man is unique among the animals and the whole film is about Mowgli learning to come to terms with and begin to embrace his nature as a man.

It is a sign of how the world has deteriorated since Kipling’s day that this notion that one cannot escape one’s own nature has become rather daring. No matter how much Mowgli wants it, he cannot be a wolf because he simply isn’t one. He can’t change what he is, which is a man. His ‘identity’ is determined by his birth, not his choice or his image of himself. He is a man, and he has to come to grips with that fact if he is to survive and triumph over Shere Khan, who certainly will treat him as a man no matter what.

And the fact is, Mowgli makes for a terrible wolf. He can howl, but he can’t keep up with his brothers, nor can he hunt with his teeth and claws. He simply couldn’t survive as a wolf, no matter how much the other wolves may love and help him.

But when he embraces his human nature, Mowgli not only is able to survive, but to thrive. He can do things that no other animal can. As a wolf, he’s all-but helpless. As a man, he’s a force to be reckoned with.

(I can’t resist: contrast with Disney’s last film, Zootopia, with its “If you want to be an elephant, you be an elephant” nonsense).

The key ‘man trick,’ of course, is mastery of fire (“Man’s red flower” as the rest of the jungle calls it). Fire is man’s birthright, and his greatest weapon against the creatures of the jungle. “Fire is what makes you a man,” King Louie tells Mowgli. The shadow (so to speak) of fire hangs over the whole film, as the true sign of Mowgli’s manhood. By taking up fire, he will forever claim his nature as a man, and not a creature of the jungle. If he does that, there will be no going back.

These are rich themes, rich and eternal, giving the movie roots in the great common stream of human experience. Here’s a movie that completely ignores the parochial concerns of the day in favor of wrestling with concepts that have haunted mankind from his earliest days. How many modern films, even the supposedly ‘prestigious’ ones, can say that?

But I’m making the movie sound more serious than it is. These themes run through the film, but at heart it’s a family adventure film of the kind that almost isn’t made anymore: something akin to Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island: a film that children (and especially young boys) will love to grow up on, filled with humor, action, menace, and fun. As is to be expected from the director of Iron Man, there are some great action sequences here, especially the climactic showdown with Shere Khan. And, more than that, this is a great adventure, full of travelling to new places, meeting new people, seeing new sights, and reaching a new level of maturity and enlightenment in the process.

There’re even a few monsters (love me my monsters). While most of the animals we see are real denizens of the Indian jungles, we also have the likes of King Louie, changed from an orangutan in the original film to a gigantopithecus (because orangutans aren’t native to India, so the filmmakers decided it’d be more realistic to have a creature that isn’t native to anywhere anymore. They would have been better off just saying “because it’s cool, okay?”), making him look like Mighty Joe Young’s evil cousin. As for Kaa the snake (Scarlett Johanssen), who knows why she seems to be about a hundred feet long, though to be fair, that is more or less how the character was described in the book, and if, like the original, she’s supposed to be the oldest creature in the jungle, that might make sense, since snakes grow throughout their lives.

I’m a little disappointed by Kaa, though purely for personal reasons. I really wish they had made her more in keeping with Kipling’s version, who was one of Mowgli’s friends and mentors and was revered as the oldest and wisest creature in the jungle. Sadly, though, with Sterling Holloway’s version so ingrained in the public mind, that probably wasn’t an option. This version is something of a cross between the Kipling and the animated character: she’s still a villain intent on eating Mowgli, but she’s no longer the comic, ineffectual character from the cartoon. This Kaa retains the literary Kaa’s vast knowledge and power, showing Mowgli a vision of where he came from while she prepares to constrict him.

My personal qualms aside, it’s a pretty cool and creepy sequence, and I wish Kaa had had more screen time. Hopefully the sequel (already in the works) will make more use of her (I’d really love to see them adapt one particular story where Mowgli has to go to Kaa for advice on how to deal with a looming threat to the wolf pack).

Baloo likewise is entirely in the mold of his animated version rather than the Kipling character, as if there were any doubt that Disney would alter the most beloved character from the original in any serious way. And who better to play a lovable slacker than Bill Murray? Granted, he doesn’t have the bear-like voice of Phil Harris, but he does have his own immense talent to contribute, and, well, he’s Bill Murray: what’s there to criticize?

I also like that Baloo is much more of a bear here. In the original, he was basically just a human in a bear suit: he even spent almost the whole movie walking on his hind legs. Here, for all his geniality, he’s established from the get-go to be a very powerful creature and a fierce protector of Mowgli’s (I like the bit, as they finish singing ‘the Bear Necessities,’ when Baloo senses something in the bushes and orders Mowgli to get behind him). His climactic fight with Shere Khan, purely comedic in the original (robbing the climax of much of its emotional power, by the way), is played completely straight here.

Similarly, Bagheera is a much more serious character than he was in the original, where he mostly served as the recipient of whatever unfortunate occurrence or prank was in the offing. Here he’s considerably more of a badass. I remember when I first saw the trailers showing that there would be at least one fight between him and Shere Khan thinking that that was something I’d always wanted to see in the original: we knew the wolves and Baloo were no match for the tiger, but what about Bagheera? He seemed pretty monty: what would happen if he fought the tiger? Now we know, and it’s very satisfying.

His role as Mowgli’s mentor is expanded upon here, and like Baloo he gets several good action sequences showcasing how dangerous he is (I also like how the other animals get nervous when he shows up at the water truce, establishing that he’s a feared predator in his own right). And of course, I’m always glad to see the great Ben Kingsley in a good role, something that happens with depressing rarity. I knew from the start that he would be the absolutely ideal choice for this role, and he doesn’t disappoint.

As for Shere Khan himself, George Sanders’s performance was one of the best things about the original film, but again, the character is even better here. He was cool in the original, but he wasn’t really scary. We knew that the characters feared him, but we didn’t. But oh boy, we sure do here!

The original Shere Khan was just a particularly dangerous predator. This Shere Khan is more than that: he’s an obsessive, savage, utterly lawless beast whom the whole jungle hates and fears, not just for what he can do to them, but because he doesn’t give a damn about the jungle law except insofar as it suits him. He’s an aberration in the jungle, almost as much as Mowgli himself, except that he has the power to do as he likes, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Shere Khan is scary because you really have no idea what he might do in any given scene. He has the power to murder any of the other characters, and it’s established early on that he will do so if he thinks it will get him what he wants. It’s been a long time since a villain has made me as nervous as Shere Khan, just for the sheer fact of wondering what he’ll do next. Of course, a fair amount of this stems from the wonderful Idris Elba’s pitch perfect performance. If a tiger ever speaks to me, I’ll expect it to sound like him.

The wolves, meanwhile, actually get characters in this version. In the original the wolf pack was more or less just backstory. We never got to know any of them, and they only really had the one scene. Mowgli didn’t seem especially fussed by having to leave them, and in fact, as far as I can recall, never even mentioned them at all after the first scene.

Here Mowgli’s relationship with the pack, and especially with his mother, Raksha, is front and center. He thinks of himself as one of the pack, and when he leaves it’s obviously a hard thing for him to do. Akela and Raksha both obviously love their strange adoptive cub, and they wrestle with the question of what to do about Shere Khan. The pack is a presence throughout the film, and their fate is almost as important to us as Mowgli’s. Raksha in particular is a cool character: we sense her strength and nurturing nature, even as she is forced to give way before the threat of the tiger. Whatever else Mowgli is, he’s her son, and nothing’s going to change that.

Akela’s a pretty cool character as well. Bagheera describes him as ‘just and noble,’ and that pretty much sums it up. He doesn’t really understand Mowgli’s ‘man tricks,’ but he loves his adoptive son and pack member, even if, as a good leader, he also has to consider his responsibility to the pack. He’s perfectly willing to protect Mowgli, but isn’t sure whether he can justify the danger of doing so.

Mowgli, therefore, has two loving and admirable parental figures, not to mention his mentor, Bagheera, and, later on, his friend Baloo. That’s a pretty good set of positive family figures. I also like that three of the four are male characters, and they all, ultimately, present a positive image of masculinity, from the responsible Akela to the wise and disciplined Bagheera, and even the jovial, but protective Baloo. It’s appropriate in a film about a boy embracing the path to manhood that most of his allies and guides are, for lack of a better word, men.

And what of Mowgli himself? Well, perhaps no single element has received, or needed, as much improvement as the man-cub himself. Let’s face it, the original Mowgli was pretty much just a helpless brat who was bounced between one character and another and, inexplicably, couldn’t get it through his head just how dangerous his situation was, and whose chief character development consisted of discovering girls.

This Mowgli, on the other hand, is a worthy protagonist. Significantly, he is the one who volunteers to leave the pack in order to protect them from Shere Khan, and while he doesn’t at first comprehend the danger he is in, he wises up early on. His reluctance to go to the man village is far more understandable this time around (he was raised as a wolf and has no idea how to live among men), and he’s far more able to take care of himself. As I mentioned before, Mowgli struggles throughout the film to come to terms with his human nature and his place in creation. This struggle manifests in his ‘man-tricks,’ something Bagheera disapproves of, but Baloo encourages. And his final show down with Shere Khan, rather than the lucky accident it was in the original, is here a true battle of man versus beast that has the weight of destiny to it.

Basically, Mowgli actually drives the story this time around: the movie is about him, not about his friends, and about how he grows and changes over the course of the film. Much kudos to newcomer Neel Sethi, who is remarkably persuasive in the role. He’s a little stiff at times, as is to be expected from a child actor, but he absolutely sells the character (even more impressive considering that, most of the time, he is the only real thing on the screen). I was also impressed by the physicality he brings to the performance: running, jumping, and climbing through the jungle as if he were born there. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of this young man in the future.

Now, I’m something of a special effects buff. Ray Harryhausen and Eiji Tsubaraya are two of my personal heroes, I have an autographed poster of Tom Savini on my wall, and if someone offered me a choice between a trip to Disneyland and a tour of the Stan Winston Studio, I wouldn’t hesitate a second before choosing the latter. So when I tell you that the special effects in The Jungle Book are some of the best and most astounding I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something.

It’s a cardinal rule of animation that stylized or fantasy creatures are much easier to make convincing than real animals. This is because when you’re dealing with a dragon or a dinosaur, you’re dealing with something that no one has ever seen before. If you say they move a certain way, then, well, who’s to say they don’t? When you’re animating a real animal, on the other hand, the audience has something in their mind to compare it with, and if it isn’t perfect, the illusion will be broken.

Up until now, I can’t really think of any animated rendition of any contemporary animal that really made me think “wow, that looks real.” There’s always something off about it: the way it moves isn’t quite right, or the way it sits in the scene, or the colors are off, or it’s too glossy, or it just doesn’t seem natural.

Watching The Jungle Book, I had to keep reminding myself that nearly everything I saw was digital, and even as I did so I could hardly believe it. The animals all look perfect, or if not then really, really close. Look at the dirt clinging to Shere Khan’s belly. Look at the way his ears twitch at the buzzing of an unseen fly. Look at the way Baloo’s hair waves in the water. Look at the glossy blackness of Bagheera’s fur.

These are the first animated creatures of any kind that really convincingly capture the natural look of real animals photographed in the wild, with all the dust, all the tiny, unthinking movements, all the effects of sun and shade.

I thought I was done being impressed by CGI. After all, at a certain point (I think it was about 2004 or so), you just take it for granted that a big budget film with computer effects will have impressive eye candy, and special effects just don’t really matter anymore. Every now and again you’ll get something that sort of makes you nod with appreciation at the artistry and care put into it, but nothing really blows you away anymore. Then comes a film like The Jungle Book, which does something that you had previously thought to be more or less impossible, and suddenly you’re blown away again.

Put it this way: up until now the benchmark for digital effects has pretty much been Jim Cameron’s Avatar, another jungle-set film that was almost entirely CGI. In terms of spectacle, I’d say The Jungle Book beats Avatar hands down. Its effects are more masterful (parts of Avatar looked more like a very expensive video game), and it’s accomplishment is simply much more impressive for the reason listed above. This is a real jungle, filled with real animals; you know what it’s supposed to look like, and it looks all-but-perfect.

The only effect that comes to mind which didn’t look perfect to me was Kaa. Snakes, I’ve found, seem to be incredibly difficult to render convincing in CG. This, I think, is because real snakes are so glossy and have such stark patterns that already look a little surreal. When animated, that natural strangeness can’t help but work against the viewer and lend an unreal quality to the image. Still, Kaa isn’t by any stretch a bad effect, but she was pretty much the only animal in the film that I could have called as an effect if I had seen her out of context.

Not only are the effects brilliant, but the look and design of the film is gorgeous. The Indian jungle presented isn’t exactly real, but it’s perfectly stylize into a storybook version. This isn’t, perhaps, what we would really see if we went to India, but it’s exactly what would come to mind when reading about it. Add to that some striking imagery, such as the eerie, fog-shrouded region where Kaa makes her lair, or the crumbling ancient temple ruled by King Louie. I also loved the fire imagery, especially when Kaa introduced Mowgli to ‘Man’s red flower’ with an image of fire that really does look like a red flower, accompanied by a surreal vision of the destructive power of this most ancient ‘man trick.’

So, the film is thrilling, gorgeous, funny, has deep roots, and features some of the most amazing special effects I’ve ever seen. What’s bad about it? Not a whole lot, to be honest. While it’s funny, some of the dialogue, especially from Baloo, seemed jarringly out of place (“You have never been a more endangered species than you are right now”). I laughed, but I was also taken out of the world a bit. Mowgli has some similar lines (“Check it out!”), but I’m going to put those down to translation conventions. Still, it was one area that could have been improved.

In the run up to the film, a friend and I used to always joke about the idea of Christopher Walkin singing “I Wanna Be Like You.” Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found that he does exactly that. I’m torn on the two songs present in the film (the other being, of course, The Bare Necessities). On the one hand, putting a pair of musical numbers in the middle of what is otherwise a perfectly straight family adventure represents a kind of audacious brilliance that I can’t help by admire, and giving one of them to Christopher Walkin of all people is one of the more wonderfully insane things I’ve seen in a recent movie, akin to the animated characters who pop up in one scene in Deadpool. On the other…it does feel kind of out of place. The Bare Necessities at least was supposed to be Baloo’s favorite song (though why does he know about music, but the wolves and Bagheera apparently don’t?), but I Wanna Be Like You just kind of comes out of nowhere, with Louie just bursting into song.

Louie himself feels a little out of place, partly because he’s explicitly an extinct animal (he even calls himself a ‘gigantopithecus,’ which I’m also going to put down to translation convention), and partly because the name ‘Louie’ simply doesn’t fit in alongside Mowgli, Baloo, Baheera, Shere Khan, and so on. This is because he wasn’t in the book, but was created by Disney for the animated film.

Basically, my main problem with the film is that it sometimes felt shackled to the original: the filmmakers were obliged to be like the animated version, but the animated version wasn’t nearly as good a film as this, so whenever the movie resorts to the original it can’t help but diminish itself some.

Oddly, one of the major changes from the original to this version was the best part of the animated film: the ending. I’ll admit, I was a little flummoxed when I realized they weren’t going to have the animated film’s ending, but on reflection I decided I didn’t mind so much. Mowgli definitely makes strides on his path to manhood, and as the filmmakers were obviously hopping for a sequel, I’ll consider the conclusion to Mowgli’s story to be deferred rather than altered. And after all, there’s plenty of Kipling to go around, and with a whole jungle’s worth of stories to draw from, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what Favreau and his crew come up with next.

As for Disney itself, this is the kind of thing that made the studio great: fantastic stories with deep roots in our common human experience, done with flare, humor, and artistry. Make more films like this and you will do Uncle Walt proud.

 

Final Rating: 4.5/5: A gorgeous, funny, thrilling film with strong roots, which injects Disney with some much-needed Kipling.

Reviews: Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

 

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Whose brilliant idea was it to let the director of Watchmen handle Superman? I thought Zack Snyder was the wrong choice back when I saw Man of Steel, even though I was cautiously favorable of the film. Having seen Batman V. Superman, I not only think he’s the wrong director for this material, but I’m actually starting to wonder whether 300 was a fluke and that Snyder simply isn’t that great of a filmmaker (let’s face it: good as it was, 300 was an exercise in style more than substance). There is just so much wrong here that I have to wonder whether film just fell apart or whether it was designed this way as part of some misguided vision.

The plot is that, eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) remains a figure of controversy, with voices on all sides calling for a reexamination of the unthinking adulation he receives for his acts of heroism. Among the critics is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who was present during the climatic battle in Metropolis and witnessed the destruction and death caused by the battle first hand.

Another critic is the young wunderkind Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), the youthful CEO of Lexcorp. Luthor’s company has discovered radioactive remnants of Krypton that deteriorates Kryptonian DNA and he wants Sen. Finch (Helen Hunter) to allow him to import it as a deterrent in case Superman ever goes rogue.

Meanwhile, Superman himself is living with his girlfriend, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), but is just as dubious of his own mission as everyone else, especially after a quickie rescue of Lois turns out to have unexpected consequences. In Gotham, Wayne begins to think it might be necessary for him, in his alter ego as Batman, to kill Superman as a preemptive strike.

Where, oh where, to begin?

Man of Steel was a deeply flawed film, but it wasn’t a bad one. Its revisionist take on the Superman story left much to be desired, but it was entertaining enough, and despite being way over-plotted managed to maintain a coherent story. The biggest problem was the fact that Superman himself was never the heroic or iconic figure he was supposed to be, not so much because the filmmakers were consciously undermining him, but because Zack Snyder and his writers clearly had no idea how to portray a character like that.

Well, that problem hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s worse here, because the film’s plot is largely predicated on an adored figure that doesn’t exist. We’re told over and over again how people are embracing Superman as a savior, but apart from a brief scene in Mexico City and an even briefer montage, we never see it. Everyone and their dog talks about how dangerous Superman is, how disruptive he is, and how checkered his record of helping people is. Even Superman himself doubts himself. “Superman was never real,” he tells Lois at one point. “He was just a dream of a man from Kansas.”

This is a reference to his foster father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Apparently, Clark’s nostalgia for his dead father has caused him to forget that Jonathan was so against his using his powers to help people that he preferred to let himself get sucked up into a tornado.

Superman is never the grand, heroic, or even likable figure that he ought to be. He’s just a sullen, self-pitying non-entity with little personality and no obvious virtues to speak of. Rather than an honest farm boy with the power to fight injustice and always save his girl, he comes across as a weary, confused cipher just going through the motions because he lacks the interest or character to do anything else. This movie is so bent on deconstructing the iconic figure of Superman that it forgets to actually construct it in the first place.

Batman isn’t quite as bad, though that’s only because he was already a dark, complicated figure, so there’s only so much deconstruction they can do to him. But they give it the good ole college try. This version of Batman has no qualms about killing and apparently thinks nothing of blowing up bad guys with the Batmobile’s firepower. Out of his vehicles he largely restrains himself, though he thinks nothing of branding a Batsign into the skin of the criminals he fights, ensuring that they’ll be beaten to death once they get to jail. He’s no more certain of his mission than Superman is, telling Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that criminals are like weeds, and that therefore his actions as Batman are effectively meaningless. The only real legacy he thinks he can leave is to remove the threat of Superman.

You know, the other day I commented that Deadpool, for all it’s cheerfully over-the-top content, was not a nihilistic film. Well, guess what? This one is. The movie constantly puts forth the message that heroics are ultimately meaningless, or that they just cause problems for someone else instead. The world is a zero-sum game in which people just suffer, and the only choice is who will suffer, and heroes are, at best, well-meaning failures, at worst jack-booted thugs imposing their will on the world.

Who the Hell thought this was a good theme for a Superman movie?

Again, for all his psychopathic behavior, Deadpool at least believed in what he was doing. He had something he was fighting for, and it was, as far as it went, a good cause. He wanted to be reunited with/rescue the woman he loved and stop the man who ruined his life from ruining anyone else’s. While he was merciless to bad guys, he was decent enough to innocent people, and even evinced an inconsistent kind of chivalry through such things as protecting a teenage girl from a stalker and spending his purchased time with Vanessa trying to get to know her as a person rather than just using her for sex.

That means that, at the movies this year, Deadpool is a more admirable hero than either Batman or Superman.

I could end this review right there. I mean, once you’ve established that, what else needs to be said?

Oh, but there’s more. Lots more. I haven’t even gotten to the worst element of the movie: Lex Luthor.

When I heard that Jesse Eisenberg had been cast, I thought it was a mistake. They were obviously shooting for a Mark Zuckerberg type for Lex, which I thought was completely for the character, but I was willing to at least give it a chance. Then when the trailers came out and I began to see bits of his performance, I was even less convinced. Well, bad as the trailers made him look, he’s even worse on screen. He wasn’t scary, he wasn’t funny, and he certainly wasn’t imposing or dangerous or commanding or anything else that Lex Luthor ought to be. He was just annoying. It got to the point where I honestly had to fight the urge to shout at the screen for him to shut up already.

Eisenberg plays Luthor like he really wanted to be playing the Joker, and specifically Heath Ledger’s Joker. In fact, that’s really the best way to describe it: it’s a bad imitation of Heath Ledger’s Joker, only it’s supposed to be Lex Luthor, who (as the filmmakers evidently forgot) is a completely different type of character. This is by far the worst depiction of Luthor I have ever seen; even worse than Gene Hackman’s version. At least Hackman was a convincing evil genius and had a real motivation for getting rid of Superman. He was a kind of light Bond villain, which wasn’t a good characterization, but at least an acceptable one. This…this is just a train-wreck of a performance. Hell, the version of Luthor on Challenge of the Superfriends was a better rendition than this.

Let me describe Luthor as I see him; he is the Randian Superman brought to life. By sheer force of will and talent, he has become one of the most powerful men in the world, able to flaunt the law at will and living only to reshape the world in his own image (for an example of this character done right, see Clancy Brown’s excellent portrayal in Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League). Then Superman shows up, and he’s more powerful than Lex ever could be without even trying. That is why Luthor hates Superman so much: because he’s someone that he can never beat, and not only that, but he takes all that power and uses it to help people and even dares to try to put limits on Lex himself.

It’s often said that Luthor is a man fighting a god, and in a way that’s a good image: if Superman is a Christ figure, then Luthor is the devil, eaten up with envy that he will never occupy such heights and resentful that his own precious will is being in any way curtailed.

What’s Luthor’s motivation here? It’s never really spelled out, but as near as I could gather, he hates Superman because he stirs up memories of how he lost his faith as a child because God never saved him from his abusive father.

Ahem.

WHAT!?!??!?!?!??!

They have one the greatest comic villains of all time, one of the iconic antagonists in modern fiction, and that is what they come up with!? That’s their reason for the great battle between the smartest man in the world and the Man of Steel?!

And that is the only motivation he’s given. Luthor and Superman never even meet until after Luthor begins his campaign against him, so he can’t be blaming Superman for standing in his way. In fact, as far as we know, Luthor never even committed any criminal actions until he decided that Superman needed to go. He, apparently out of the blue, determined to commit numerous acts of terrorism, murder, and so on, crafting a convoluted scheme to discredit and kill Superman (a plan that any idiot would realize is likely to result in, at the very least, his own death and possibly the end of the world) all because Superman’s existence dredges up his daddy issues?

Oh, and to make matters worse, it was Luthor’s father who built the company: Lex himself just inherited it. In fact, we have no evidence that he has any real talent or brilliance of his own. And far from making himself Superman’s greatest foe through sheer force of will, here he’s a mass of neuroses and can’t even keep it together long enough to make a simple speech at a charity event.

So, in summary, this version of Lex Luthor is not a master businessman, not a man who rose to the pinnacle of human achievement through sheer force of will, not the greatest criminal mind of our times, but a whiney git who had everything handed him and decides to destroy the world because he can’t deal with his bad childhood.

For Pete’s sake, that’s not Lex Luthor: that’s Doctor Doofenshmirtz!

Obviously, they were trying to make Luthor into a Mark Zuckerberg type, except that Zuckerberg at least has genuine accomplishments to his credit. That means that, as a corporate bad guy, this version of Luthor is actually less impressive than Mark Zuckerberg. Superman vs. the Social Network would have been preferable to this!

Okay, okay; enough about Luthor. What about Ben Affleck as Batman? Well…he’s not bad. As I said, Batman is less botched than Superman, though he’s nowhere near as cunning and intelligent as he ought to be (but as far as that goes, why single out Batman?), and comes across less like a hero fighting a lonely battle against corruption than a manic depressive who channels his psychosis into beating up people he can get away with hurting. When Batman has lines like “The only thing my parents taught me was dying in a gutter for no reason,” it’s a sure sign that things have gone off the rails. Nothing he says or does makes me think this is a guy who would dedicate his whole life to this campaign. I mean, why would he when he himself considers it to be pointless?

I think Affleck makes a better Bruce Wayne than Batman, and the opening scene with him trying to save his employees during the battle in Metropolis is probably his best moment and one of the best scenes in the film. That said, he does everything to announce that he’s Batman short of having a bumper sticker that says “My Other Car is the Batmobile: No Kidding!” Really, Bruce Wayne, famous billionaire playboy, shows up in an underground prizefight and chats up a Russian crime boss and no one, ah, bats an eye?

About the one person here who actually plays his role on the right note is Jeremy Irons as Alfred. He’s never seen serving as butler (Bruce apparently let Wayne manor fall into ruin, so they’re living in a smaller house on the property. I’m going to pass over how wrong that is because I don’t want to be here all day), but otherwise the characterization is perfect. Alfred is Batman’s tech support, common sense, and conscience, and Irons suits the role well. The film capture’s Alfred’s snarky, yet respectful attitude and he gets most of…no, all the good lines.

About the only other person who I really buy as their character is Amy Adams as Lois Lane, though Lois doesn’t have as much to do this time except be the one person who actually believes in Clark. An early sequence, in which Lois goes after a story, gets in over her head, and Superman flies in to rescue her, is pretty much perfect…except that they immediately go and undermine it, because that’s what they do. Of course, the removal of the Lois Lane-Clark Kent-Superman triangle has robbed the relationship of much of its drama, so their romance doesn’t really inspire much interest here. In any case, she’s recognizably the feisty, brave, heartfelt, oft-endangered girl reporter we all know and love.

Holly Hunter as Senator Finch doesn’t really have a reason to be here, but she plays the role well as probably the smartest and most believable character in the film. She wants Superman brought to account, but she knows better than to trust Luthor either. Though it was kind of weird for me to hear Elastigirl talking about how suspicious she is of superheroes.

Diane Laine as Martha Kent is a definite step-down from last time. Here she tells Clark “You don’t owe this world a thing.” What the heck is with this family? Old-fashioned Kansas values aren’t what they used to be, I guess. Oh, and Kevin Costner appears in a dream sequence to reinforce the idea that heroism is ultimately pointless, which is at least consistent with his characterization last time.

By the way, that dream sequence is only one of several, each one stupider than the last. The worst, and perhaps the most ridiculous part of the film, comes when Bruce dreams that Superman conquered the world and that he, Batman, is in the resistance, only they get captured, and somehow Batman killed Lois, so Superman kills him…except that Bruce doesn’t know who Lois is at this point, meaning that it’s implied to be a psychic message from someone, but we never find out who sent it or why, and anyway it never comes into play again, so what was the point of the whole thing? To establish that Bruce doesn’t trust Superman? The film had barely been talking about anything else the whole time! To set up something for the Justice League films? Who spends five minutes of an already-overstuffed movie vaguely setting up something that has nothing to do with this one but might come into play later? It’s just a gratuitous, silly waste of time. Really, I haven’t seen this many pointless dream sequences since Jaws: The Revenge. Yes: I went there!

There are a lot of sloppy little things, too. Like, for instance, what was the point of Clark clashing with Perry White (Lawrence Fishbourne) over Clark’s refusal to write the stories Perry wants him to? This is just one more little stab into Clark’s characterization: the Clark I’m familiar with would never flout his boss like that for something so trivial as a difference of priorities. As a matter of fact, if he’s so insubordinate, how does he even still have a job? Perry also contributes to the nihilistic tone of the movie by commenting that “America’s conscience died with John, Martin, and Robert,” making me slightly sick at the notion that the frickin’ Kennedy brothers were the keepers of America’s conscience (Side note: Baby Boomers, JFK’s assassination was not the earth-shattering event you think it was: it just seemed that way to you because you were young at the time). He repeatedly dismisses the idea that the public wants the press to try to right any wrongs and sneers at the idea that people care about Batman’s criminal actions. With all these people talking about how futile their chosen endeavors are, I’m wondering whether Zack Snyder is trying to tell us something about his own opinion of this movie.

Large chunks of the plot are utterly pointless. What was the point, for instance, of Luthor trying first to smooth talk, then to discredit Sen. Finch? He was apparently going around her back the whole time anyway. What was the point of Lois’s investigation into Lex’s conspiracy, given that he eventually just captures her and explains it? And was Superman supposed to have quit for a time? Near the end Lois smiles and says “You came back” after he catches her once more. Uh…had he left? Why did Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) steal Bruce’s big data-mining gadget to recover a photo from Luthor? I mean, what did she think he was going to do with it? Track her down? Evidently, he can already do that, with or without the photo. And if it’s such a big deal to her, why did she allow herself to be photographed in the first place?

What’s that? I haven’t mentioned Diana Prince AKA Wonder Woman yet? Yeah, there’s a good reason for that: because there was literally no point to having her in this movie. She makes zero contribution to the plot, save for joining in with the big battle in the end (which also provides the one (1) instance that she shows the slightest personality: after taking a massive hit from Doomsday, she cracks a satisfied grin before going back into the fight. It’s a good moment, but far too little too late). With a little re-choreographing, you could easily cut her out of the whole movie and not change a thing. Venom in Spider-Man 3 was better utilized and more integral to that film than Wonder Woman is here (hell, she actually creates a bit of a plot hole regarding how the end battle plays out).

A climactic shot of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman standing side-by-side would have been awesome if I gave a damn about any of these characters. Seeing Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America standing side-by-side in The Avengers sent chills down my spine because I had already seen them in their own films and was genuinely interested in how they would interact; I knew them, I liked them, and I knew how cool they could be on their own, so seeing them all together was awesomeness cubed. Here, instead of three tried and trusted heroes, we get two characters who can barely muster the will to get out of bed in the morning, plus one of the background extras. Big flying deal. The shot is about as impressive as a piece of fan-art depicting the same thing.

Wonder Woman’s presence is just the most glaring example of the desperation that went into this thing. There is no passion, no creativity, just “how can we pack the seats? Well, let’s have Batman fight Superman. And then lets jumpstart the Justice League by bringing in Wonder Woman and teasing Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash. Then let’s bring in Doomsday, and…” The whole movie is a soulless hodge-podge of familiar elements from the comics, done by people who neither care about the characters nor have anything interesting of their own to offer in exchange, as portrayed by actors reading bad, pretentious dialogue amid bad, pretentious direction.

I’m kind of glad that I saw this film right after Deadpool, because in many ways it’s the exact opposite of that film. Deadpool was a passion project made by people who loved the character and who went all-out to entertain their audience. Batman V. Superman is a desperate cash-grab made by people who obviously have a degree of contempt for their material and who seem primarily interested in showing off how sophisticated and artistic they think they are. Deadpool was a cheerful exercise in crude, gory fun; Batman V. Superman is a joyless exercise in despair. Deadpool had no pretension; it just wanted to entertain. Batman V. Superman seems to think it’s making some kind of important statement about heroism, humanity, and God (in fact, it’s every bit as shallow as Deadpool, only it doesn’t know it).

It’s not completely worthless. There are individually entertaining scenes. I really liked the sequence introducing Batman, which is suitably gritty and dark to demonstrate how criminals see the Dark Knight. A few of the action scenes have a degree of interest to them, especially a late one in which Batman storms a building full of thugs, and I did like how Lex dropped the name ‘Doomsday.’ Oh, and at the very end there is what I suspect is a tease for Darkseid, which I admit would be really cool. There are one or two funny lines (mostly from Alfred), and some impressive images. The Batmobile in particular is a seriously cool vehicle and managed to combine the best of the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan versions.

But what about the title fight? Well, it was kind of cool, but ultimately, it was a disappointment. For one thing, there simply was no emotional weight to it. Batman and Superman aren’t friends; in fact, they have no relationship whatsoever, so what does it matter if they come to blows? We in the audience are familiar with them from other sources, but in this movie neither of them comes across as especially important. The film doesn’t bother to build up to the fight in any meaningful way; instead it just kind of pushes itself there, does its thing, and moves on. Besides, we aren’t invested in this Batman enough to really be interested in what he’ll do to stay in the fight, and we don’t believe in this Superman enough to fear that he’ll put up enough of one. And without spoiling how the fight ends, I don’t buy it. Among other things, it was another example of how these characters just aren’t who they’re supposed to be. To put it broadly, Superman is too careless and stupid; Batman is too brutal and psychotic (there hasn’t been nearly enough going on to put him over the edge like that, if he is who he’s supposed to be). This isn’t how a fight between these characters ought to go.

(For a contrasting example, see Freddy vs. Jason, which actually took the time to build up the title fight within the context of the film itself, clearly established what was at stake, and had it proceed based on who the characters were and what they would do in that situation before ending in a way that didn’t compromise the figure of either combatant. Of course, that was written by people who actually gave a damn about the characters they were working with, so…).

And as for what happens next, well, frankly, it’s just stupid. A rushed, unengaging ending that seems to be a desperate attempt to coax fans back for the next film, and which starts to collapse the moment you think about it (i.e. what, exactly, did Luthor plan to do with Doomsday if his first plan had worked?). There is no emotional impact to what happens because a). it’s far too early in these characters’ careers for this to really mean anything and b). we’ve seen no reason why the majority of these people should react the way they do, or, frankly why we should care. See, that’s what happens when you spend all your time deconstructing your myths: they stop being mythic, and so stop being interesting.

So, in summary, I did not enjoy this film. I went in with low expectations, but the movie somehow managed to limbo under them. It’s just a complete mess, and I am not at all looking forward to having to endure more of this universe down the line.

Final Rating: 1.5/5. A few cool moments and a few decent supporting characters are about the only mitigating factors in this Justice-League-sized disaster of a film.