Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

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Ever wish you could watch a movie about some of your favorite vintage video game characters? Well, your wish has been granted (at least, sort of) with Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s original and surprisingly creative 2012 film.  This is another one of those “I never got around to seeing it” Disney films, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had remembered hearing that this had received pretty favorable reviews, but then reviews aren’t everything, and just because the world likes something is no guarantee that I will. In this instance though, it turns out the world was correct.

Wreck-It Ralph stars, you guessed it, Wreck-It Ralph, a villain in a classic arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr.  Ralph has been the villain in his game for 30 years, and he dreams of more.  In a truly creative twist, we get to see Ralph and company travel between games, using their power cords and surge protectors to journey from cabinet to cabinet.  The novelty of this is that while Wreck-It Ralph and his fellow characters from Fix-It Felix Jr. might be made-up, we get to see cameos from plenty of real characters sprinkled throughout the film.  From Qbert and Bowser to Chun-Li and Sonic, there are nearly too many classic characters to count in this film. Sure, they’re not the stars, but my inner gamer was extremely excited to see appearances by so many classic characters.

Aside from these cameos, there’s also a great story in this film. Ralph is on a journey to win a hero’s medal, and along the way he meets Vanelope, a girl from a sickly-sweet-but-I-still-want-to-play-it game called Sugar Rush (think Mario Kart, but with candy everything).  Vanelope is a glitch in the game, meaning she’s not allowed to participate in the actual game play in case her glitching causes the shop owner to think the game is broken and unplug it forever.  The explanation given is descriptive enough to give the film a unique twist, rather than feeling like a typical rehashing of a story we’ve heard a million times before.  A bulk of the story takes place in the Sugar Rush game, meaning we’re met with an onslaught of candy-related puns and humor, yet surprisingly they’re creative and never cross the line of too much. Ralph is torn between searching for his medal and helping the young racer, and the relationship that develops between them is sweet and sassy enough to feel true to the characters.

Without giving too much away, I must say this film is a must-watch.  Mid-way through the movie I found myself idly wishing that there were more appearances by real characters, but upon further reflection I respect why Disney wrote the film the way they did. If real characters played a larger part in the film, it would have morphed into a Mario movie, or a Sonic movie, etc.  Here, we get the nostalgia and enjoyment of seeing characters from real games on-screen, while still allowing Disney to create a film that is entirely their own.  Rather than feeling derivative, Wreck-It Ralph  is a wholly original story, peppered with enough gaming references to instantly send me back to my childhood and reminisce about all of the incredible Nintendo games I played back then (…or played last Saturday, if I’m being honest).

There’s honestly very little for me to criticize with this film, which given some of my recent reviews is surprising.  I just honestly really enjoyed this film from start to finish. In the past I’ve criticized Disney films for straying too far from their roots, trying to be modern instead of focusing on interpretations of classic stories.  Here Disney found the perfect balance, giving a modern twist to “classic” stories in the form of vintage games.  It’s an engaging and enjoyable story, and one that hopefully will influence Disney’s storytelling method moving forward.

-Jess

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Winnie the Pooh (2011)

Image result for winnie the pooh 2011If you’ve read my post on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, you know that Pooh Bear and I go way back.  I grew up with that silly old bear, and he and his Hundred Acre Wood friends hold a special place in my heart.  I never got around to seeing this when it was released back in 2011, so I was excited to finally sit down and see what Pooh of the 21st century would look like.

Needless to say, I was…underwhelmed.

That’s not to say that the movie is bad. It’s genuinely not a bad film. There’s just a part of me that wonders why it needed to be made in the first place.  Winnie the Pooh stays very true to the original film, featuring all of the same characters and generally the same character designs.  The layout of the film is even the same, taking place within the pages of a book, in which the pages and paragraphs appear in various scenes as though the characters are living among them.

I love this. I really do. I loved it about the original and I love that this film wanted to pay homage to it in such an endearing way.  That being said, there were almost too many similarities to make this film meaningful in its own right. Was it just because Disney thought they could cash in by remaking a film from 25 years prior? Did they think today’s kids wouldn’t be interested in the “old” story, so it had to be remade? (And if that’s the case, why keep everything the same? Why not modernize the whole story?)  There were just so many similarities that I found myself wondering what the purpose of this film was.

That being said, there are a few distinct differences between this and the original that stood out to me. Unfortunately, neither are positive.  The first is that all of the characters seem to be engulfed in a cloud of cynicism.  What I loved about the original characters was that they were so innocent and earnest in their naivete.  Here they’re still naive and silly, but when someone makes a mistake or doesn’t know something, the others criticize or insult him.  There is just something about all of the characters that feels edgy, and it didn’t sit well with me.   I prefer to think of these characters as perfectly imperfect, with a sense of childish wonder and amusement that never fades.  This just felt lacking from the newer version.

My second complaint is more superficial, but really stood out to me.  In this film the main antagonist is the fabled Backson, a terrible creature that is responsible for all of life’s little woes.

Um…excuse me…what exactly is wrong with heffalumps and woozles? Are kids today incapable of appreciating the brilliance that is these “scary” creatures?  Half the fun of heffalumps and woozles is saying heffalumps and woozles.  “Backson”, a simple misreading of “back soon”, is not nearly as entertaining.  I would really love to know why this plot point was changed when so many others were kept the same.  Yes, it’s a fairly minor point in the grand scheme of things, but it stood out to me the whole film, and I just couldn’t let it go.

Perhaps that’s my problem with this film as a whole. I’m stuck on my childhood memories of Pooh Bear and don’t want to see anything about him changed or altered in any way.  Maybe today’s generation loves this film the way I love The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and perhaps I’m just not the target audience for this film.  I’m very much attached to the Pooh Bear of my youth, and the thought that he could be changed in any way, however slight, doesn’t sit well.  This review should probably be taken with a grain of salt, because I’m entirely incapable of being unbiased.  It could very well be a great film, but I think I’ll stick with the original.

Long live the heffalumps and woozles.

-Jess

Shazam! Volume 1

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With DC’s 2011 “New 52” relaunch, plenty of characters and titles were revamped and “modernized” to various degrees.  There seemed to be a need to bring a sense of edginess to characters, whether they were historically edgy or not.  Truthfully, I never even thought about the implications it could have on Captain Marvel in the midst of all these changes.  i saw that Geoff Johns was writing a Captain Marvel comic, and the excitement in me took over. I was ready for some fun, old-fashioned Marvel-y goodness.

What I got was…well, definitely not that. It seems Captain Marvel didn’t scrape by unchanged in the midst of all the modernization.  The first and most notable change is his name.  Due to some legal mumbo jumbo, Marvel owns the name “Captain Marvel”, so DC had to title the original comic Shazam to avoid legal ramifications.  Apparently that led to people believing the comic title was actually the character’s name, so they just switched it and now his name is Shazam.

Understandable. I often mistakenly think Batman’s name is Detective Comics, since he’s predominantly featured in that series. *Sigh.  I refuse to accept this name change, so I will continue to refer to him as Captain Marvel because that’s his name. Also, DC coined that name more than 25 years prior to Marvel ever using it, so legalities be damned, it’s more their name than anything.

It was clear that Johns was going for a modern retelling of Billy Batson’s origin.  We still keep the “orphaned” element, but here we get to see him in foster care along with other children, including Mary and Freddy. I can appreciate the fact that Mary is not depicted here as his biological sister, lending itself to the “family is what you make of it” sentiment.  I’m sure they could always swing it back around and reveal that the two are blood relatives, but I didn’t find this change to have much of an impact on the overall story, and so I was fine with it.

What I wasn’t fine with was Billy being depicted as this obnoxious, snot-nosed punk kid who is mean to literally everyone he encounters.  Yes, he’s had a rough life. Yes, he’s been bounced around foster homes. Is that really any reason to completely change his character’s personality though?  I loved Billy’s sweetness and innocence.  It was a welcome relief to some of the more hardened, cynical heroes (looking at you, Batman).  Here, we just get the edgy, modern Billy Batson, who doesn’t even begin to resemble the Billy of older comics.

Had it been as simply as this, perhaps I could overlook the change. It could all boil down to personal preference and that would be the end of it. Sadly, that’s not the case.  Billy’s entire origin story is predicated on the fact that Billy is a pure-hearted individual, and so the wizard Shazam imbues him with powers.  Here, Billy is considered completely unworthy, and argues with Shazam that nobody is pure of heart, to which Shazam grudgingly agrees and then just gives Billy his powers.  Where’s the worthiness? Where’s the desire to do something good? For all Shazam knows, Billy could have taken the powers and become a conduit for evil.  All Shazam knew was that Billy had the potential to be both good and bad.  Those hardly seem like odds worth staking the fate of the world on.  Billy’s personality shift directly alters his entire origin, and I found it far less compelling when I didn’t believe he was actually worthy of the power he was receiving.

To be fair, I didn’t hate all of the comic.  I loved that Johns managed to sneak in references to Tawny the Tiger, and the end reveal of a future team-up between Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind was really fun.  Still, I couldn’t get past Billy’s characterization, and it wound up distracting me throughout most of the trade.

Perhaps it wasn’t Johns decision. Maybe higher ups in the company dictated how Billy should be written. Or, perhaps Johns was thinking ahead to his Justice League: Trinity War storyline, in which the concept of finding a pure-hearted individual played heavily into the plot. There, Pandora was seeking someone with a pure heart to open her box and contain the world’s evil. In a pre-New 52 universe, Billy would have been the obvious answer.  His moral compass unfailingly pointed north, and he no doubt would have been the solution to the problem.  So, maybe Johns wanted to fill in that plot hole by writing Billy as a more flawed character.  This could be a stretch, but then I wouldn’t put it past Johns to have thought that far ahead. It also helps me resign myself to how Billy’s been characterized, but only slightly. If his entire story has been changed for the sake of one storyline, I just don’t see it paying off in the long run.

The Shazam! trade was relatively brief, as Billy was still adjusting to his newfound powers.  I’m hoping he slowly gains a conscience and begins to shift to being more like his character of yore, but I have a feeling his, “Golly, gee wiz” days are over.  It’s a shame, because I found him to be such a sweet and endearing character.  Portraying him as a cynical, moody teenager feels just a little too…well, realistic for me. Is it really terrible for a comic to linger in nostalgia for a little while, allowing the reader to reminisce about simpler times, however false those memories may be?

I love most of Johns work, and having ready pretty much everything he’s written for DC (at least as far as the beginning of the New 52 so far), I don’t say that lightly.  He knows his stories and always brings a unique and interesting spin to characters. Unfortunately, I just feel he missed that mark with Captain Marvel.  Billy could have been revamped without completely changing who he is or how he responds to the world.  I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who enjoy his newer, modern characterization, but I’ll take his endearing, earnest goodness over the cynicism any day.

-Jess

Tangled (2010)

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I haven’t been too kind to Disney films lately. To be fair, it’s because the films I’m reviewing haven’t been all that great.  From Home on the Range to Chicken Little, Disney has faltered in trying to match the magic and adventure of some of their earlier pictures.  Looking to regain some traction, Disney returned to one of their staple elements: that of the Disney princess.  Of course, this couldn’t be your typical “wait around to be saved by a prince” Princess movie.  Gone were the days in which a princess could sit idly by and allow someone else to do all the work.  Tangled followed in the footsteps of late 90’s Disney heroines, focusing on a young woman who makes her own choices and chases after her own dreams.

Given Disney’s recent track record, this could have been a train wreck. Instead, it wound up being a genuinely great film that is easily on par with some of the greatest Disney classics.  I don’t make that claim lightly though.  There are a number of reasons that this film is so endearing and enjoyable, but nearly all of them have to do with Disney finally striking a perfect balance between classic and modern storytelling.

We’ve got the Disney princess motif, always a big money-maker.  They’ve also dug up a classic children’s story that they hadn’t adapted yet.  Somehow, even though they tend to completely veer away from the original source material in these instances, it works out incredibly well (and results in fewer traumatized children, I’m sure). On top of that we’ve got a return to the traditional Disney musical. Yes, there have been songs featured in recent Disney releases, but this was the first in quite a while to actively feature characters singing within the narrative of the movie.  You don’t realize how important they are to a Disney picture until they’re not there.

These classic tropes help ground Tangled in Disney’s past, while the creative team was able to likewise give the characters a more modern spin (without making them too modern and of their time, which could only lead to them seeming “dated” in a few short years).  Gone are the one-dimensional characters of yore.  Here, instead of nameless and boring Prince Charming, we get Flynn Rider, a roguish and somewhat selfish thief who stumbles upon Rapunzel hidden away in a tower.  Here we see a pivotal shift in the story as well: in the original story, the prince climbs Rapunzel’s hair and rescues her…and that’s it.  She’s a pretty passive princess.  Here, Rapunzel was kidnapped as a baby and doesn’t even know she’s a princess, and literally blackmails Flynn to taking her to the city to see the mysterious “floating lights” she’s been mesmerized by her whole life.

Blackmail and a dream will take a girl far.

While the ensuing story is fun and sweet enough all its own, what really stands out are the details. All of the supporting characters have their own personalities. Yes, some are more fleshed out than others, but they all lend something to the story.  The villains are truly unlikable, while the heroes and sidekicks are actually worth rooting for.

Speaking of sidekicks.  Thank you Disney for bringing back the animal sidekick.  Pascal, the adorably expressive chameleon of Tangled, is one of the cutest things ever.  Go ahead, try and tell me I’m wrong. He doesn’t speak, but his face conveys emotion so well that he’s one of the biggest highlights of the film.  When a speechless side character can leave a mark like that, you know you’ve got a winner.  I don’t think I’ve loved a sidekick so much since Pocahontas’s Meeko, and that’s saying something.

I’m hesitant to reveal much of the plot here because, unlike the older films of my (and likely your) youth, this is a much newer release, and it’s possible fewer people of my generation have seen it yet. I don’t want to ruin the whole story (although spoiler!: there’s a “happily ever after” ending, because this is Disney and that’s what you do).  Suffice it to say that Tangled marks a turning point in my view of Disney’s animated films.  After years of searching for the perfect balance between fun and sentiment (and let’s be honest, chasing after the brilliance that is Pixar), the studio finally managed to produce a truly great story.  I actually feel bad for Tangled, as it seems to be too often overshadowed by the insanely popular Frozen, released just a few short years later (but more on that in another post).  This is a sweet, funny, entertaining film that finds the perfect blend between magic and reality, classic and modern.

The “too stinkin’ cute for words” chameleon is just a bonus.

-Jess

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

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It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve watched a decent Disney film that The Princess and the Frog was a breath of fresh air.  After the less-than-stellar previous films the studio released, they seemed to want to return to their roots, building a huge promotional campaign around the fact that this would be a hand-drawn animated picture. Of course, that’s partially true. There are still computer generated graphics and backgrounds in the film, but the characters themselves are hand-drawn, lending a sense of classicism that has been missing from recent films.

The Princess and the Frog is loosely (very loosely) based on “The Frog Prince”. We all know the story: princess kisses frog, frog turns into handsome prince, they live happily ever after. Obviously, this would have been a pretty short movie if they stuck to the original tale, so Disney altered it quite a bit (after all, that’s sort of Disney’s M.O.).  In their version we meet Tiana, a strong-willed, driven young woman with dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. Enter Naveen, a spoiled and penniless prince who gets wrapped up with a magician who turns him into a frog.  Naveen seeks out a princess to turn him back into a prince, but instead finds Tiana. Mistaking her for a princess, they kiss, but Tiana is turned into a frog herself, leading the two to journey across Louisiana’s bayous in search of a way for them both to change back.

The premise alone is cute, but then most Disney films sound cute in theory.  What’s nice is that this one actually follows through on that cuteness, providing a fun and magically animated escape for viewers.  The animation, especially in the bayou scenes, is great, with fireflies flitting across the water and just enough magic sprinkled throughout to remind us that this is Disney.

What stood out to me most about this film was that Tiana is not a princess; she’s just a hard-working girl with a dream.  She’s not looking to get married or have someone take care of her.  Instead, she works two jobs to save up every penny she needs to make her dreams a reality.  It’s admirable, and a far better role-model for young girls than some of the earlier Disney princesses (looking at you, Aurora).

That being said,  both Mistah J and I admitted that we preferred the scenes that bookended the film; that is, the scenes where Tiana is human.  The frog portion is fun, but her human story is so much more compelling, and more about her.  As a frog she finds love and realizes there’s more to life than success, which is all well and good, but her drive towards her goal is what really gives the film heart. Not only is it a great story, but it’s so progressive by Disney standards that it can’t help but stand out.  I honestly would have preferred to watch an entire movie about Tiana working towards her restaurant opening, without any love interest being included (sorry Naveen).

All things considered, I really enjoyed this film. It’s not perfect, of course: the bad guy isn’t really fleshed out enough to feel like a real threat, and seems to just exist in the background so that the film has an antagonist.  Frankly, Naveen’s selfishness could have filled this role just as well, but I suppose we needed some explanation as to why people are turning into frogs… The Princess and the Frog is certainly a big step in the right direction for Disney’s animation.  By simply stepping back and reassessing what made them so popular in past decades, they were able to craft a film that has the perfect blend of magic and realism, hearkening back to the height of their film-making.  It’s a wonderful feeling, as though the company is returning to the classic storytelling methods of my childhood, making me excited to work my way through their newest films.

-Jess

Batgirl: Batgirl Rising

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I’m going a bit rogue, posting about comics out of continuity order, and ones I read quite a while back on top of that.  I’m taking a more lackadaisical approach to the blog, writing about whatever comic I feel like, regardless of its place in continuity. I’m still reading the comics in continuity order to keep up the overall narrative, but why limit myself to writing about everything in order? It keeps it more fun this way.

Okay, on to the comic at hand:

I really, really like Stephanie Brown as Batgirl.  Watching her begin as Spoiler, progressing to her all-t00-brief role as Robin, her death, the reveal that she was alive all along, and finally taking up the mantle of Batgirl has been quite a roller coaster.  I was hesitant when Cassandra Cain took on the role; I liked Barbara and wasn’t thrilled when Cassandra took over. Then Cassandra left and Stephanie adopted the role, which was likewise a bit troublesome.

Yes, I was a bit attached to Barbara as Batgirl, and given how violently Barbara’s role as such ended, how could I not be a bit upset that the character was moving on without her?

Stephanie’s story was the best of both worlds, with Barbara’s Oracle mentoring and helping Stephanie as she adopted her new mask.  The two shared a believable, sisterly bond, sometimes arguing and disagreeing but ultimately caring for one another and working together when it mattered most.  More than anything, both young women felt incredibly relatable and real, no easy feat when dealing with masked vigilantes.

Not only does Stephanie deal with being Batgirl, but she gets to address plenty of other issues that typical teenagers might face. Breaking up with her boyfriend (Tim Drake), wanting Batman’s approval (no doubt a substitute for her absent father): these are all realistic scenarios that readers can relate to, while still providing escapism in the form of nightly crime-fighting.  I’m a fan of this balance in stories, helping ground otherwise fantastical comics in our own reality.

Sadly, Stephanie’s tenure as Batgirl was all too brief.  There are only a few short trades collecting her run as Batgirl before New 52 hit, altering continuity and making Barbara Gordon Batgirl once again, and this is the only trade from that run collected on “the shelf”.  I haven’t come across any reference to Stephanie in the New 52 yet, either as Batgirl or otherwise, wondering if I will at all.  It’s too bad, really. Stephanie was such a great addition to the Bat family, flawed and unsure, trying to come to terms with her own identity even as she attempted to craft one for herself.  There was a humanity to her character that was all too real, and that went a long way in helping create a truly engaging, likable comic.  I’m hoping at some point down the road, perhaps Stephanie will return.  With Barbara back it seems unlikely, but I’m holding out hope that maybe she’ll come back in some capacity. She’s much dynamic to be kept out of the fray.

-Jess

Wonder Woman Volume 1: Blood

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Amidst DC’s relaunch with the New 52, every title in their collection was restarted at issue #1, with numerous changes to continuity being established and laid forth in the ensuing comics.  Some things have changed, many remain the same, and some characters and events are as yet unknown as to how they play into this new multiverse.

I’d already read the first three trades of the newest Superman, so I knew that even the most seminal of characters would be facing some changes.  That being said, reading this Wonder Woman trade has only further proven to me that there is an inherent flaw in the way writers choose to tell Diana’s story. There have been numerous continuity shifts throughout the run of DC comics, but for the pillar characters of Superman and Batman, much of their mythology remains unchanged.  Superman was sent to Earth from a dying Krypton by his parents; Batman watched his parents be gunned down in Crime Alley.  The minor details may shift over the years, but these basic tropes are kept in place.

…And then there’s Diana. Over the years her origin has been rewritten countless times. She was the shaped from clay, she was Hippolyta’s child brought forth by the Gods.  Now, it is revealed that she is the daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus.  These constant changes to the core being of a character as seminal as Wonder Woman have helped keep her from attaining the same mythological weight as her fellow heroes.   With so many changes, Diana’s history feels uncertain. Whereas Batman and Superman have certain facets of their history that remain unchanged, Diana’s is more blurry. Yes, she’s always an Amazon who travels to man’s world, but her motives and backstory vary enough to keep a clear image of her purpose from forming.  It leaves her character feeling uneven and ungrounded, something that is not true of the other key DC heroes. While Batman and Superman’s stories can generally be read as a single narrative despite the reboots and continuity shifts, Diana’s are often completely rewritten, making it difficult to align her stories into one cohesive history.

This leaves us with little choice but to approach each run on the title as self-contained. That being said, Brian Azzarello’s run so far has been quite well done. Wonder Woman, upon learning that Zeus is her father, strikes out on her own and attempts to defend a young girl (pregnant with Zeus’s child) from Hera’s wrath.  The goddess has vowed to destroy her husband’s mistress and unborn child (obnoxiously blaming the young girl who didn’t even know she was sleeping with a god rather than blame her philandering husband).  Diana does what she can to stop Hera, though facing off against numerous gods proves to be difficult.

I appreciate the fact that Azzarello enlists less common gods for his story. We get to see lesser names like Hermes and Strife, rather than solely focusing on the biggies like Ares and Zeus.  I enjoyed seeing Wonder Woman branch out within the mythology, acknowledging that there are more than just a small handful of gods to work with.  That being said, one minor issue I took with the story was the fact that Azzarello bounces back and forth between the Greek and Roman naming of the gods.  Within one scene, the same character refers to the king of the gods as both Zeus and Jupiter, and while both are technically the same name for one being, the inconsistency bothered me. Perhaps it was intentional to keep from locking in to a single mythology, pointing out that these are the gods of numerous civilizations. Nevertheless, it was a small detail that bugged me while reading, and took me out of the story a bit.

Overall Aazarello’s story was engaging and enjoyable, but at the same time I still can’t get over the fact that Diana’s story over the years is so disjointed. This is no fault of Azzarello’s, but rather the result of numerous writers reworking Diana’s origin, motives, and history.  Her story has a much less solid foundation than Superman or Batman’s, providing less for future writers to build upon.  Though one of the core three, Diana’s continues to remain the weakest of the three stories. It’s a shame, because it really feels like there is so much there to work with. No one can seem to agree on how she should be portrayed though: fierce warrior ready to fight at any given moment, proponent for peace who believes all life is sacred, or a combination of both?  Only when this motivation is worked out once and for all will her character be able to gain a more firm footing within the continuity.

-Jess