Cold Comfort

The good news is that by all reports, Black Friday is dying, at least as an in-person event. The bad news is that it’s likely to take stores at least a decade to give up on it. I predict we’ll start seeing major retailers go through a transitional period where they heavily promote a “Buy your goodies online and pick them up in the closest store” approach. That’ll last a few years before Black Friday moves entirely online and stores just run regular hours and prices.

Moving on.

Spoilers ahead, but the movie has been out for a couple of weeks.

We went to see Frozen II last night. It was a strange experience.

Because of our often unsynchronized work schedules, we often go to late night showings, so we’re used to small audiences, especially when it’s a film nominally aimed at children. But yesterday was the first time we were the only people in the theater.

It’s not an ideal situation.

Aside from the large screen, it feels too much like watching a movie in your own living room. The theater experience should be a shared one. Shared laughter, shared gasps of surprise, shared tears.

No, we didn’t miss the inevitable screaming child who needed to be taken outside. But we did miss the emotional amplification effect of having a couple of dozen other people around us.

That said, the movie itself was better than the movie-going experience. Whatever Disney may have said after Frozen became a massive hit, Frozen II was inevitable. It could have been a routine, by-the-numbers repeat of the original. So props for all concerned–especially screenwriter Jennifer Lee–for trying to do something a bit different and largely succeeding.

Where the original movie was largely future-focused (How will Arendelle survive?) the sequel looks backward (How did we get here?) It might have been better had the writers found some element of the first film to springboard the new story, rather than having to essentially retrocon the critical element–Iduna is Northuldran–into the structure. Doing it this way raises questions that weren’t answered: Why was it necessary to hide Iduna’s origins for so long? Why did they have to conceal the purpose of their ill-fated and fatal sea expedition?

But perhaps that’s too far down the rabbit hole for the film’s intended audience–or just too much to fit into a hundred-minute movie.

Viewed independently of the original, Frozen II holds up well. The story is consistent, doesn’t leave too many loose threads dangling*, and provides a satisfying–if predictable–ending.

* The biggest, naturally, being what the heck the Arendelle soldiers have been doing for the last thirty-plus years while trapped in the forest. Unless they’ve been exclusively focused on hiding and finding food, wouldn’t natural attrition, regardless of the ongoing war with the Northuldrans, have killed them all off long before Anna and Elsa showed up?

It’s not perfect. It spends a little too much time on character development at the expense of the plot–but that’s probably inevitable. The only character who could have been shorted in that respect is Kristoff*. And cutting his big growth scene would have killed what I considered the film’s best song.

* There’s an argument to be made for spending less time on Olaf’s development, especially since he doesn’t change as much as the other lead characters. But that’s necessary to position him as a contrast to the others. He’s a creature of magic and his existence is totally dependent on Elsa. In a sense, he’s a part of her (consider how his expectation that he’ll know everything and be totally confident when he gets older mirrors her uncertainties about her ability to lead the kingdom and do what’s best for her people).

I could pick some plot nits, small and large. Some of the anachronisms (most notably “I’m blocking out your calls” and “This is fine”) stand out far more than they should. If the soldiers believe Elsa is dead, wouldn’t they assume Anna was the new queen and follow her orders, rather than her having to convince them to help destroy the dam? Would the ending have been stronger if Elsa had failed to keep the flood from destroying Arendelle–would it have helped her reach the realization that she’s not the right person to be queen, and given Anna a path to build an actual ruler/subject relationship with her people by leading the reconstruction, rather than just trading on her family’s somewhat inexplicable popularity?

But again, maybe I’m thinking in terms of a different audience. And, nits and all, Frozen II does work.

Except, largely, for the songs. I agree completely with other critics who have said the new movie doesn’t have a real blockbuster song like “Let It Go”. “Show Yourself” and “Into the Unknown” try, but perhaps too hard.

“Lost in the Woods” comes off better, IMNSHO, because it’s not trying to be the big winner. It succeeds in its mission: showing Kristoff’s coming to terms with his growing recognition that Anna is always going to be–arguably–more focused on her sister than on him. And the song’s presentation within the film, with its echos of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t hurt any either.

Bottom line: Frozen II is probably the best sequel to Frozen we could have gotten. If you’re a fan, you’ve already seen it, and I doubt you were disappointed. And if you aren’t a fan, but were dragged out to see it, I doubt you’ll want that hour and a half back.

Not a Train Wreck

Let’s talk about Ralph Breaks the Internet (to be referred to as RBtI henceforward, ’cause, you know, lazy.)

As usual when I talk movies, there are going to be spoilers. Don’t want to see the spoilers? Stop reading now and come back after you see the movie.

And, not to spoil the post, I am recommending it. Yes, you need a good high-level grasp of popular culture and internet practices. If you don’t see the humor in Disney princesses discussing their own tropes, this isn’t your movie. Nor is it your movie if you haven’t rolled your eyes at your favorite search engine’s attempts to guess what you’re about to ask it.

If you don’t have a favorite search engine, this is really not your movie.

You don’t need to have seen Wreck-It Ralph to enjoy RBtI, but it will help. There’s a fair amount of world building in the first movie that the second film simply takes for granted. But with a few exceptions, I suspect you won’t be considering RBtI at all if you haven’t seen W-IR.

Anyway.

So yes, it’s good. The jokes are mostly on point, and the pace is fast enough that when one joke does miss, there’s another one coming right behind it. There are plenty of cameos, background gags, and audio jokes to keep you entertained when the main story drags. Which it does a couple of times.

The Disney princesses are a high point in both of their appearances, and I loved the big race scene.

Sure, there are a few things I could quibble about–an eBay with no snipers? Nah! The biggest curb I tripped over, though, is the way the monetary thing was handled. I can live with the idea that BuzzzTube lets you directly convert likes to dollars. It wouldn’t work in the real world, but we’re aiming at kids, so okay, I suspend my disbelief. Where I fall down is on the exchange rate. Ralph’s first video racks up, if memory serves, about a million and a half likes, giving him a balance of $43. That’s a weird ratio. But if we take that as given, the numbers just don’t add up later. Sure, we don’t see all the videos he makes, but the ones we do see show similar like counts. Counting on my fingers, that suggests Ralph had to make something upward of 600 videos. And collect the necessary views in a limited (and apparently rapidly changing) amount of time.

That “spung” sound you just heard was the spring in my suspension of disbelief punching through the cylinder.

But it’s still a quibble, not a major flaw.

RBtI had a couple of significant missed opportunities. (This is the point where you should leave if you don’t want to see me wearing my writer hat.)

Remember how the first movie was Vanellope’s film? Sure, it had Ralph’s name on it, but the heart of the movie was Vanellope coming to terms with her glitch. W-IR got a lot of kudos for the way it handled that part of the story. Along comes RBtI, and that all goes out the window. Vanellope uses the glitch twice (once to evade capture, once to cheat in the big race). Then it blows up on her, taking down “Slaughter Race”. But the solution is just to reboot the server–it’s got nothing to do with Vanellope or what she’s learned during the course of the film.

Sure, this was Ralph’s film–his chance to grow–but it shouldn’t come solely at the expense of the other characters.

I don’t have a solution to this one, but then, I’ve only been thinking about it for a couple of days. The film’s writers had four years (I gather there wasn’t much discussion about possible directions for a sequel until 2014.)

The other missed opportunity is smaller and easier to solve. Vanellope’s “princess song”. Okay, yes, it was a great bit. Gosh, she really is a Disney Princess. I laughed as much as anyone else in the theater.

But.

That song just didn’t work stylistically. Vanellope is caught between “Slaughter Race” and “Sugar Rush” and her song ought to reflect that in the musical as well as the lyrics. Sure, start it off with the stereotypical Disney Princess song and get your laugh. But then give us a nod to the “Sugar Rush” track from W-IR–even just a line or two–and then slide into a verse done as something you might find on the “Slaughter Race” soundtrack. Metal. Hip-Hop. Reggaeton. Something with a serious bite. Come back to the Disney Princess song at the end if you have to, but give us that explicit link to Vanellope’s past and future.

Okay, hat off.

The bottom line? Ralph Breaks the Internet: good, but not as good as it could have been.

Not So Incredible

Obligatory Spoiler Warning. Though the box office says you’ve probably already seen Incredibles 2.

Before I start talking about the movie, though, a couple of comments about the stuff that aired before the movie. No, not the commercials. I ignored them, as I generally do. And I did it so successfully that Maggie had to point out the Hyundai commercial was filmed a couple of blocks away from the house I grew up in.

Do we really need another remake of The Grinch? Apparently someone thought we did. Come on, gang, give it a rest. If you have to do a Suess movie–and I think that’s a perfectly legitimate idea–there are plenty of his books you haven’t touched. I’m not sure there’s enough in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to justify a full-length feature, but how about Bartholomew and the Oobleck (worth it for the title alone) or And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street?

Does it add anything to know the Grinch is down on Christmas because he never had one in the orphanage? No. No, it doesn’t. Sucking pickles and putting them back in the jar isn’t particularly funny. Certainly not enough to warrant that bit showing up in every trailer so far.

The audience seemed disinterested. I regard that as a healthy development, and I hope it means the film bombs come November.

Moving on.

Completely at the other end of the spectrum was Bao, the short film that’s showing before the feature. Despite being aimed more at the parents in the audience than their kids, it drew rapt attention from the entire room. The universal gasp of horror at the climax was the kind of applause that’s better than cheers and clapping because it proves that everyone was invested in the characters. Simply amazing engagement in five minutes of wordless film. And then it nailed the ending as well.

Big kudos to the director, Domee Shi, and the entire crew.

And that, unfortunately, brings us to Incredibles 2. Or rather, that brings us to the “We’re sorry it took us so long to make this film” bit that preceded the movie. “We wanted to make sure we got it right.”

Sorry, guys. I said “unfortunately” because, frankly, you didn’t get it right.

Every reviewer has pointed out that putting the final battle after the emotional climax means the fight comes as an afterthought. The audience doesn’t care by that point. The Parrs have already reconciled.

And then the film compounds the problem by splitting up the family for the supposedly-climactic scene, instead of showing them working as a team. What were they thinking?

Mind you, it doesn’t help that the solution to the big problem–the ship bearing down on the city–was so stupidly done. Stopping the ship was the right answer; turning it was dumb. Can’t get to the engine room door to shut it down? Find a different way in. Bash a hole in the bulkhead. Go through a window. In the worst case, put a giant block of ice in front of the propeller–those things are more fragile than they look–or simply freeze the water around the prop. To be fair, those last solutions don’t give Mr. Incredible anything to do. Can’t have that. But he seems to be nigh-invulnerable. Throw him in front of the prop to smash it. Problem solved, ship halted before it gets anywhere near the city.

Moving on.

Was I the only one who found Screenslaver’s message rather more compelling than it probably should have been? Not the solution (get rid of superheros), but the core complaint about getting someone else to solve all our problems? Does that sound familiar? “Hey, here’s a guy who says he can save our jobs, solve the budget crisis, and make everything sunshine and roses. Go to it, Dude!” How well did that work out?

There were smaller problems, too. Yeah, having the ship come to a halt without destroying the building it was aimed at was obviously intended as a callback to the opening battle against the Underminer. So why didn’t they do that right: don’t slew the ship sideways, bring it to a halt with the bowsprit touching the window glass without breaking it?

For that matter, what happened to the Underminer? Yeah, he got away. Why didn’t they bring him back at the end? Instead of sending the family off after a random carload of gun-firing criminals, wouldn’t it be more satisfying to send them off after the guy who got away because they didn’t work as a team at the beginning of the film? It wouldn’t even have taken a script change. All they would have needed to do was replace that car of anonymous thugs with a drilling machine popping out of the middle of the street. Leave every bit of dialog and every other cel of animation in that epilogue the same. And you still give that final throwaway scene some emotional resonance by providing a little bit of closure.

They did get some things right. Violet’s arc was handled nicely, for instance. No sappy musical interludes (and I loved the heroes’ theme songs playing during the credits).

But when the absolutely unquestioned best scene–Jack-Jack’s epic battle with the trash panda–comes in the middle of the movie, you’ve got serious problems.

I did enjoy the movie. It’s amusing and it held the attention of a theater full of viewers of all ages well enough (though I did see more mid-movie popcorn runs than I would have expected). But it’s not up to the stand Pixar has set for itself.

Last Jedi

As with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, two years ago, I don’t see much point in doing a formal review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Not to put too fine a point on it, if you’re planning to see it, you probably already have, and if you’re not planning on going, nothing I could say is likely to convince you.

Even so, I’ve got some thoughts. I’ll try to avoid significant spoilers, but no promises.

First up, Porgs. There weren’t nearly as many of them as I expected, and that’s a good thing. I, like many others, assumed they were strictly an opportunity to sell plush figures, but now we’re hearing that there was a practical reason to include them: apparently it was easier to digitally superimpose a cute, cuddly alien bird over the local puffins than it would have been to digitally erase the real birds.

Fair enough. But if there were puffins invading the Millennium Falcon set, that doesn’t speak well for the production staff’s attention to security and animal welfare. (In other words, adding Porgs to the later on-ship sequences was strictly a marketing decision. In a movie that was already more than two and a half hours long, did we really need Porg reaction shots during a space battle? From a storytelling perspective, I’d argue not.)

We finally saw ships’ shields doing some good. Not in the X-Wing fighters, of course. I’ve already made my feelings known about that. But if they work so well on the good guys’ larger ships, why don’t the bad guys invest in a few shields? Well, it would have made the early “bombing run” scenes rather different. (And, by the way, bombs? In space? Where there’s no gravity to drop them? They were clearly falling, not traveling under some kind of on-board engine.)

I could ramble for a while about light speed engines and regular engines apparently using different fuel–which seems possible, but kind of unlikely–but I’ll spare you.

“Hey, there’s a planet right over there where we can hide out.” (Not only do we see it on screen, but it’s apparently close enough that they don’t need to use the light speed engines to get there.) “They’ll never think to look for us there.” Okay…why not? Like I said, it’s right over there.

Final thoughts. There’s a movement afoot to petition Disney to declare Last Jedi non-canon.

No. That’s not how it works.

“Hey, The Two Towers sucks. It’s slow, nothing really happens. I’m going to petition the Tolkien estate to have it removed from the Lord of the Rings canon.

Everyone’s free to dislike a work of art, but the only ones who get to decide whether it’s canon are the creators.

Don’t like Last Jedi because it “destroys your childhood”? Fine. Don’t see it again. Don’t go see the next movie either, because you probably won’t like it either.

Don’t like it because of the way it treats characters from the original trilogy? Tough noogies. Time moves on, people change. And creatively-speaking, you can’t keep telling the same story over and over.

Again, vote with your dollars. If you don’t like what Disney is doing with Star Wars, don’t buy the merchandise, don’t see the movies.

But forget about trying to turn Last Jedi into expensive fan fiction, because that’s not your decision.

And, bottom line, the movie works on its own merits. Despite the nits I’ve picked (and the ones I could have but didn’t), it still holds together as a story. Yes, it left a lot of questions unanswered, but that’s what happens when you create a series: you have to leave something for the sequels.

I’ll let you all in on a writers’ secret: There are no beginnings and ends. Every book, every movie, and every other narrative is the middle of something. As a writer, you get to decide where to start telling the story, but it’s not really the beginning. You also get to decide where to stop, but it’s not really the end.

As middles go, Last Jedi is a pretty decent one.

Pretty Good Week

It’s been an interesting week so far–and in a good way.

Roy Moore lost his Senate race in Alabama. Granted, it was much closer than I’d have preferred, but as our illustrious president said, “A win is a win.”

Of course, that’s something Mr. Moore apparently doesn’t understand. He’s convinced that God will make sure the absentee ballots still being counted will give him the victory. Does anyone think he’ll reconsider his belief that God is on his side if he doesn’t win?

For that matter, does anyone think his refusal to concede and the likely forthcoming demand for a recount is anything other than a cynical ploy to keep the election results from being certified until after Congress passes the tax ripoff? Keep in mind that yesterday he identified “an enormous national debt” as one of the greatest problems facing America today–right up there with stopping prayer in school, abortion, and transgender rights. And we all know that going deeper into debt is the only way to get out of debt, right?

Ahem. We’ll see how it all plays out, but right now everyone except Mr. Moore thinks the citizens of Alabama have given America exactly the Christmas present they need.

Moving on.

Patreon has canceled the launch of their new fee structure. The announcement and apology is an interesting read. On one hand, it’s rare to see a company say bluntly, “We messed up.” In an era of weasel-worded apologies*, it’s nice to see one that doesn’t mince words.

* Or, worse yet, monetized apologies such as Equifax’s.

On the other hand, it also notes that “We still have to fix the problems that those changes addressed.” (As a reminder, that’s primarily the problem of handling partial-month pledges when a patron first backs a creator.) So the door remains open for a substantially similar approach. ACA repeal, anyone?

I don’t think Patreon could survive another bungled rollout in the near future, and I’m quite sure they think the same. My gut says that if they move quickly, they’ll come up with a different approach; the longer the re-evaluation lasts, the more the final product will look like the one that just fell flat.

To be fair, they’ve been tracking canceled pledges and have built a simple “restore my pledges” tool and are notifying patrons by email. That’s a smart move, in that it immediately helps creators who were harmed by the departures, and it also brings back some of the cash flow Patreon needs to stay in business.

Moving on again.

We saw Coco Tuesday night. I’m not going to do a full review here, mostly because I’m having trouble being sufficiently objective. The big themes–memory, family, and death–have a lot of resonance for me these days, and I suspect that’s tipping my reaction to be somewhat more positive than it would have been.

But that said, I still think it’s an excellent film. Not flawless, no. It drags a bit in the middle with too much running in circles and too many false leads. There are a couple of overly-convenient plot devices (why is there a camera backstage, for example?). But the opening monologue is beautifully done, the first half of the film does a splendid job of establishing the world and the ground rules without bogging down in explanations, and the ending is spot on.

Bonus points, by the way, for not including a lengthy made-for-the-amusement-park-ride chase scene.

One interesting point: the Spanish version of the film includes its own versions of the songs. Judging by the samples on Amazon, they’re not just redubbed versions of the English songs, but separate performances. I’m tempted to go see the movie in Spanish, just to see how it works for a non-Spanish speaker.

Moving on one more time.

So, all in all, a good week so far. But.

As I was writing the above, the FCC just voted on the repeal of their net neutrality rules. And, as everyone expected, the vote was 3-2 for repeal.

We now turn to the courts and to Congress. I don’t expect the Republicans in Congress to be any more enthusiastic about rejecting Ajit Pai than they were about rejecting Roy Moore. After all, the evidence shows that obstructing a criminal investigation is now standard Republican practice.

But with polls showing that less than 20% of Republicans approve of the repeal–and even fewer Democrats and Independents–voting against whatever legislation comes to the floor in the next few weeks may be a tough nut to swallow.

Especially in light of the events in Alabama Tuesday night.

Catnip It Ain’t

Warning: Spoilers abound. But you may not care.

The most noteworthy aspect of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may just be the title. Never before in my experience has a title so accurately summarized everything that’s wrong with a movie.

It’s worth noting that when Maggie and I got home from the theater, the cats wanted to know if we had brought them any valerian. If you didn’t know, valerian (the herb) has a very catnip-like effect on cats. It also stinks to high heaven and tends to depress the human nervous system. The parallel is obvious.

Though, to be fair, Valerian (the movie) doesn’t stink that badly. It just takes a few wrong turns.

Let’s start with that title. Alpha is a “city of a thousand planets” in the same way that New York is a city of eight million stories. It’s a city. In space. With, so we’re told, residents who come from a thousand different species. It’s marketing. Hey, if the main character drops by to visit me in the sequel, we can call the movie “Valerian and the City of Pride and Purpose”. That almost sounds exciting.

Oh, and let’s not forget about Laureline. Although whoever named the film sure did. The original comics that the movie was based on are called “Valerian and Laureline”. And she gets nearly as much screen time as he does. But she’s apparently not enough of a marketing draw to make the title. Which pretty well summarizes her role in the film, come to think of it. When Valerian isn’t around, Laureline is, by and large, a kick-ass character. And as soon as he comes into the room–whether she knows he’s there or not–she turns into the archetypal helpless movie female. Hell, he doesn’t even have to be in the same room: just talking to him on the radio turns her into such a ditz she doesn’t realize she’s holding a map upside down! (Insert laughter here–because the audience in the theater didn’t supply any.)

I wanted to like the movie, even if it was only in a “turn off the brain and enjoy the pretty pictures” way. And for the first ten minutes or so, I thought I might. Opening with a space scene a la 2001 set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was a lovely way to invert a SF film trope. And then the opening narration blew away my suspension of disbelief.

We’re told that Alpha, the space station that grew up around the International Space Station, got so big that its gravity endangered the Earth and it needs to be moved out of the way. This is wrong on so many levels, I don’t even want to discuss it. I may have missed a couple of lines because I was banging my head against the seat in front of me, but the next thing I remember is that after several centuries, Alpha has moved “seven hundred million miles”. Big whoop. That’s not even as far as Saturn. From the perspective of a culture that routinely moves from one solar system to another in minutes, covering 700,000,000 miles in three or four centuries is like me walking up to the mini-mart on the corner.

Yeah, I get it. The film is based on a comic book, something not known for scientific accuracy. But how difficult would it be to change a couple of sentences to avoid the worst clunkers. Send Alpha out on a mission to spread Earth’s culture to the universe, and change “700,000,000 miles” to “7000 light years”. Problems solved–still sufficiently comic book, but not as grating to the ear.

Then there was the mcguffin, the living 3D printer that can create unlimited copies of anything–including fully-powered batteries that hold enough juice to power a spaceship–with no raw materials. And what good is having the critter going to do the Pearls? Unless they can convince it to duplicate itself–something that seems unlikely, given the film’s apparently universal rule that all species have two sexes–someday it’s going to die and take their utopian civilization with it.

And I haven’t even touched on the main plot, which relies so heavily on coincidence and character stupidity that it almost makes Star Trek Beyond seem logical. Almost. At least there’s no motorcycle.

All that said, still, the visuals are spectacular, the set pieces are at least competently executed, and there are some nice auditory jokes hidden in the music. The film’s biggest problems are that it’s too long and its plot not only makes no sense, but brings the film to a screeching halt every time it comes to the fore.

Fortunately, one fix would solve both problems. Trim the film by thirty minutes by simply cutting out the plot. The remaining travelogue and explosions would come in at a comfortable hour and three-quarters, and make a perfectly serviceable late night film.

Going Batty

You knew I was going to have a few things to say about The Lego Batman Movie, right?

Three years ago, I called The Lego Movie “a high-speed roller coaster ride through a story we’ve seen a million times.” Lego Batman turns that idea up to eleven–and if you had to click the link to identify the source of that line, you’re not the sort of person who will enjoy Lego Batman.

Forget about a plot. Lego Batman doesn’t have one. It’s got a couple of tropes loosely stuck together with bubble gum*. To be fair, though, they’re tropes central to the BatmanMythos™

* Speaking of bubble gum, if I never see another trailer for Despicable Me 3, it’ll be too soon. The first two were mildly amusing in an “I don’t want to have to think tonight” way. Judging by the current trailer, however, the franchise has jumped the shark, and it’s going to require actual mental effort to find humor in the third installment. That said–still based on the previews–I’d go see Despicable Me 3 at least a century before I’d risk The Emoji Movie.

What Lego Batman has is a nearly non-stop string of sight- and sound-gags. From Batman’s opening monologue–“All important movies start with a black screen,”–and shameless appropriation of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, all the way through to the closing narration and end credit songs, the film is loaded with pop- and geek-cultural references that only work because they’re superimposed on the image of Batman as the brooding Dark Knight. Because that picture is both the viewers’ mental image and Batman’s self-image, the jokes that should fall flat still elicit laughs.

One case in point: jokes about needing a geek to explain something haven’t worked in at least a quarter-century, if they ever did. But when it’s The Lego Joker telling the audience to ask their geek friends about British robots, it’s honestly snicker-worthy.

Lego Batman also avoids several of the original’s most annoying pitfalls. There’s no reference to the deus ex machina that knocked me right of the The Lego Movie. Barbara Gordon never attains the heights of awesome that early Wyldestyle reached, but she remained her own woman throughout, instead of turning into “Batman’s Girlfriend”. And Robin, the obnoxious sidekick everyone loves to hate, despite his moments of Awesome, is just as delightfully loathsome at the end of the film as at the beginning.

There are a few things I could quibble about–Batman being arbitrarily imprisoned without a trial for having the temerity to arbitrarily lock up The Joker without a trial, for example, or the truth that someone can be a jerk without being a villain.

But even the movie’s greatest misstep–for much of the run time, it’s easy to forget that this is a Lego movie; filming it in live action would have worked almost as well–doesn’t detract from its overall success.

If you have any shred of geek credentials, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Watch for the visual jokes. Listen to the song lyrics–the ones written for the film, not the licensed pop tunes. You’ll enjoy yourself.

Sing Out

One more movie review–or perhaps “commentary” would be a better word–to round out the year. No, not Rogue One. It’s on my list, and was even before the news about Carrie Fisher broke, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Back when I was in library school, one of the big debates was “Should libraries carry the books people want to read or the books they should read?” I’d be willing to bet it’s still a hot topic in library schools, even though the answer became obvious several decades ago: “Yes”.

Sing is the cinematic incarnation of the books at the heart of that debate. Think The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Baby-Sitters Club, or Goosebumps.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It sets out to appeal to a very specific audience, and by and large, it succeeds. The thing is, that audience is kids. The plot is formulaic, yes, but how many versions of it will the average ten-year-old have seen already?

The characters are anthropomorphic animals, not as commentary on the human condition, but because kids like cute animals. There are plot holes you could throw an elephant through (sorry), but the kids aren’t paying attention to that: the plot is just an excuse to stage the set-scenes they expect. And so the sudden switch from a furry America’s Got Talent to a furry interpretation of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” trope passes unremarked by the target audience.

It is possible to make a movie catering to the pre-teen audience that also appeals to adults–see my comments on The BFG, for an example–but that’s not the direction Sing chose. And it works beautifully for the target audience. We saw Sing in a theater full of kids, mostly between eight and twelve, and they had a grand time, laughing in the right places, and applauding at the end.

And the creators did use a commendable amount of restraint. There is a flatulence joke–but only one. There are body image jokes, but far fewer than I expected, and mostly in the mouths of characters who are supposed to be obnoxious. There’s a running joke about the characters who don’t speak English*, but the joke isn’t run into the ground. (Parenthetically, if someone with more knowledge of Japanese than I have wants to translate the insult Buster Moon reads out of his phrase book, I’d appreciate it.)

* The red panda idol group’s songs are by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, but the color-coded outfits reminded me more of Momoiro Clover Z.

Bottom line: if you’ve got kids in the target age group who want to see Sing, you won’t need tranquilizers to get through it. Crank your suspension of disbelief up to eleven, turn off your facility for critical thinking, and go. It won’t do you or the kids any permanent damage.

Moana

Spoiler time!

Yeah, I actually got to see a movie during the first week of its release. Don’t get used to it; I doubt it’ll happen again.

Let’s bypass the discussion of cultural appropriation in regard to Moana. It’s relevant, but let’s face it: as a privileged member of the dominant culture, i.e. a white male, anything I say on the subject is automatically going to be suspect. And, to be honest, I don’t know enough about the culture in question to comment on whether it was used respectfully.

So, with that said, I can say that the legend of Maui as presented at the beginning of the film, and later revisited when we meet the hero, is self-consistent and feels like a unified whole, not something that was cherry-picked and grafted onto a pre-ordained plot. Kudos to the staff there.

A few things surprised me in how well they worked.

Based on the trailer, I feared that the pig and chicken would get tiresome. But the filmmakers used them sparingly: the pig only appears at the beginning and end of the movie*, and the chicken spent most of its time confined off-screen, only emerging to satisfy necessary plot points. Best use of a cute animal sidekick in a Disney film I can recall.

* I do have to wonder how the pig survived, though. With no fish and no coconuts, what did the villages eat while Moana was on her quest? It’s not like the film shied away from incorporating death–Moana’s grandmother and, in flashback, her father’s best friend–so why not one more? Handling it sensitively for the benefit of young viewers would be tricky, granted, but an element of “not all endings are completely happy” would have been an interesting evolution for Disney.

I was also worried about Maui’s tattoos. Again, based on the trailer, I thought they would be a distraction from the main story. Instead, they worked very nicely, serving as a way to bring out Maui’s internal monologue.

There’s no perfect creation, however, and Moana does have its faults. I’ll mostly refrain from nitpicking (millenia-old sailing canoes that need no repair work to be seaworthy?), but I do want to talk about Tala, Moana’s grandmother. My apologies to voice actress Rachel House and whoever the voice director was, but whatever effect you were going for, I didn’t think you found it. Specifically, I didn’t think Tala sounded elderly; to me she sounded constrained, as though she feared speaking. It put me off the character and in a couple of places, threw me right out of the story.

That’s unfortunate, but a worse problem had to do with her role in the story. It was fine in the early scenes: she served well as the necessary counterpoint to Moana’s father. And her illness and (off-screen) death and transformation into a glowing manta ray were well-handled, serving nicely as the final push to put Moana in motion and literally guide her outside the island’s reef.

But bringing her back at the climax of the story, especially in full-blown Obi Wan Kenobi mode, complete with blue glow, was unnecessary. Worse, it detracted from Moana’s final transformation from failed-quester-about-to-give-up to victorious hero. At that point, she shouldn’t need a push from outside; remember, she’s already heard all of the sentiments Tala presents here. How much more powerful would the scene have been if those same ideas had come from Moana herself? A trigger would be necessary, certainly, but not something that hands Moana her motivation on a platter. Perhaps the sight of a normal black manta ray as Te Fiti’s heart sank down through the water would have reminded Moana of her grandmother, leading her to remember those same key scenes from before and during her quest.

Despite my complaints, though, I will say that Disney has given us a rousing version of the Hero’s Quest tale, refreshingly free of a romantic subplot. There are only a couple of real audio attention grabbers–I’ll nominate Shiny and You’re Welcome as the most enjoyable–but the soundtrack as a whole is certainly above average, with no absolute stinkers to knock you out of your cinematic immersion.

Moana is well worth your time and admission.

Eat Up!

A smattering of food-related items for you today. No, I’m not on a diet–at least no more so than usual. Why do you ask?

First up: Some of my friends have been talking about the Fondoodler. The what?

Think of it as a hot glue gun optimized for kitchen use. Shove in a chunk of cheese, wait for it to come up to temperature, and pull the trigger. Spluuuuuuuuuuuurt!

This is one of the stupidest culinary devices I’ve ever encountered. You need to slice your cheese into small chunks to fit. The nozzle is tiny and only does string shapes. You can’t use it to melt anything other than cheese. There are three separate pieces that need to be washed.

If you want melted cheese, you can do it on the stove just as quickly.

So why do I want one?

Ahem. Moving on.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend at restaurants. An obnoxious trend. I’m talking about the increasing use of inappropriate plates.

Excuse me. “Plates.”

It started with serving fries in a cone. What’s the point of that? All the salt and spices rub off of the fries and wind up in an unappetizing pile at the bottom of the cone. You can’t put ketchup on them.

Then it got worse.

Who thought using shoes, shovels, and random pieces of wood as serving vessels was a good idea? Far too many people, apparently.

Fortunately, there’s one brave soul out there chronicling the ugliness. We Want Plates is dedicated to shaming those who serve food “on bits of wood and roof slates, chips in mugs and drinks in jam jars.” Despite their deplorable prejudice against the Oxford comma, the site is well worth your time.

The Lego breadbasket is bad enough–who wants to risk the ire of the poor busboy who has to reassemble the basket after you succumb to the urge to play with your plate–but then there’s the avocado syringe. And the beef wellington on a guillotine. And, of course, prawns in a tree–with a rabbit.

I think I’m starting to understand how the Fondoodler could gain such a grip on the minds of the unwary.

Moving on to something more positive.

Juzo Itami’s 1985 film Tampopo is currently getting a new theatrical release with a restored print. Huzzah!

Tampopo is one of my favorite movies, and several lines have become family catch phrases.

A comedy, yes, but seasoned with just the right amount of tragedy.

If you haven’t ever seen Tampopo, you should be ashamed of yourself–and you should be checking for a showing near you.

Side note: Don’t let Fandango’s synopsis (“Milk-truck drivers (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken Watanabe) help cook (Nobuko Miyamoto) with her noodles”) put you off. No matter what they suggest, this is not a film about cannibalism.