Noblesnake Reviews: My Little Pony

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Thoughts on ‘My Little Pony: the Movie’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brief Thoughts on Danny Phantom

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Danny Phantom is one of those shows that I’d heard a lot of people praising, so recently I watched through it. The story is of a kid who gets ghost-like powers and uses them to fight ghost monsters, while trying to maintain his normal life. So, very similar to Spider-Man. That’s fine; I have no problem with standard set-ups, especially for superhero storylines, in fact I prefer them. Overall, though, I thought it was just okay: not bad, but not really all that good either. It’s frustrating, because I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I can see that the potential was there to make a really fantastic show instead of something rather standard (kind of like Frozen, now that I think about it).

Maybe I’m just spoiled from watching Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy, and My Little Pony one after the other, not to mention coming off of Spectacular Spider-ManAvatar the Last Airbender, and the whole DCAU. My standards for animated TV shows are really high right now. But, even so, I wasn’t all that impressed. The characters, with one or two exceptions, weren’t all that interesting or well-developed, the gags were pretty standard, and the plotting was kinda weak. The animation was pretty lame too; very standard Nickelodeon ‘sharp angles, ugly backgrounds, wonky movements.’

And there was some standard PC shibboleths, like the boilerplate feminism, environmentalism, goofy stupid father character, that kind of stuff (though the father at least got some good redeeming moments). One episode flat out made me angry: it was a really stupid, feminist anti-beauty-contest deal with dosage of anti-Medieval snobbery. I haven’t hated a cartoon episode that much in a long time.

That said, the show was pretty good overall; the set-up’s creative and the hero’s powers are very cool. There are some good relationships (especially between the hero and his love interest), and the main villain is great for the most part (he gets a really lame ending, though). I laughed a fair amount (I especially liked a character called ‘The Box Ghost’ who was so minor a threat that his wanted poster read “$2.50 or Best Offer”). There are some really good episodes. I really liked one two-parter featuring the hero’s evil future self. Basically, I’m not sorry I watched it, but I don’t think I would watch it again.

One of my biggest problem with it is that I think it could have been a LOT better if it had been less standard. Like, if they had a more original animation style, more development on the ghosts and the ghost world, made it a little spookier and more gothic, and took things a bit more seriously and didn’t go for the joke quite so often. I’m working on my MLP video review right now, and one of the things I mention is that that show takes itself fairly seriously, in that the characters all act like what they’re doing is important and that they really care about the outcome. There are a lot of jokes, but we always feel like there’s something at stake and that it really matters what happens (even when it’s something as simple as deciding who to take to a party, the fact that it’s clearly important to the characters keeps us engaged). Now, of course the characters on Danny Phantom care about what’s happening and they do get serious at times, but they go for the joke much too often, and a lot of the time it just feels like a lark.

Again, for a show about ghosts, there’s very little atmosphere to it. The haunted house that Phineas and Ferb made to scare Isabella felt more gothic than almost everything here. The colors are too stark, the lighting is too uniform, and the angles too sharp to create any kind of spooky feelings. Yeah, it’s for kids so you don’t want it too scary, but it should be at least atmospheric. There are some exceptions, like there’s an abandoned hospital in one episode that’s pretty good, and a decent Halloween-centered episode that had some good imagery, but for the most part the design wastes the premise. It’s a story about a kid who is half-ghost, whose best friend is a goth; this should be like Saturday-morning Tim Burton instead of just bland, normal cartoon superhero.

Speaking of which, there’s another thing, something I’ve noticed in a lot of stories, which is the self-styled ‘independent, individualist’ characters who are actually completely standard. So, a bit of a big deal is made about how ‘different’ the female lead is, when actually…she’s just a Goth. As a general rule, if your persona has its own subculture, it’s not a sign of your extreme individuality. Now, she’s not a bad character, and like I say I liked the relationship with her and the hero (the idea of a goth chick falling for a ghost is great, though they didn’t really play up that angle much), but the idea that she’s some kind of extreme individualist or drastically original character is just silly. I see that a lot in fiction (and in real life), where ‘daring and original’ generally means ‘might have been daring and original about fifty years ago.’ Like, one of the marks of her individuality is that she’s a vegetarian. Um…how shocking?

Now, compare this with a character like Melissa from Milo Murphy’s Law.

She actually is a very unique and individual character. She’s a stellar student who has “a tremendous portion of my self-esteem wrapped up in my grade point average,” but has such a strong personality that she’ll just tell people to give her money and they do it. She’s sarcastic and highly capable, but is completely unathletic, forgetful of everyday things, and is absolutely terrified of roller-coasters. Her stated career goal is ‘Journalist / Queen of the Universe,’ and she’s memorized the blood type of every US President. So, she’s at once a valedictorian in the making and a junior-high crime boss (though one of the heroes). But there’s not a big deal made of her being ‘different:’ actually, she’s the popular one of the group. You see, she doesn’t have to talk about being highly individual; she just is.

So, Danny Phantom was okay, but just okay. I really liked the premise and I think it could have been a great show with different art direction and stronger writing, but what we actually got is something just above average.

 

Dunkirk Thoughts

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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.