The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some’][o9 spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.

Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.

Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.

While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.

Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of  strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.

School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.

With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.

Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.

Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.

Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.

Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.

Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.

The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.

Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.

The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of  2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.

Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.

Final Score: 8/10

 

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Marvel at Comic-con 2019

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I have not gone to San Diego Comic-con in over a decade, and of course not Hall H. I frankly don’t miss all the crowds and the annoying press of people , especially for Hall H where it can get really packed and  bit hot. And it seems that a lot of studios are not going for the big wall to wall presentations anymore like that have done before. Warner Brothers and DC had nothing to bring  to comic con this year. And originally, neither did Marvel. But  Kevin Feige being the smart marketer that he is, realized that this year was the perfect opportunity to dominate the geek news cycle with Marvel news. So on Saturday, July 20th, Feige and Marvel brought the boom to the room.

Since I could not be there personally, I had to rely social media feeds and YouTube streamers who were also watching social media feeds. It was actually kind of fun. The slate of announcements were for many things were already expected. However there were a few surprises such as casting, and a major reveal in the end.

Obviously if you are not up to date on the most recent Marvel films, including Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, there will be spoilers ahead.

The Eternals

I know that most fans know very little to nothing about the Eternals. And I highly doubt that anyone out there were thinking “Yeah! Eternals! This is what I’ve always wanted.” And in the history of Marvel comics, they were not a top tier title,  or middle tier for that matter. But their existence as the early inhabitants of earth feeds into that History Channel Ancient Astronaut itch. Their inclusion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be huge, though. For one thing it is possible this lays down the foundations on why some people become super powered instead of getting killed by, say gamma rays, a radioactive spider, or a super soldier serum.

The Eternals are not exactly a superhero team, they are a race of beings that have existed on earth since the beginning of time. Marvel’s panel introduced audience to the cast: Angelina Jolie will star as Thena alongside Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Lia McHugh as Sprite, and Don Lee as Gilgamesh.

That is a huge stable of talent. And I looks forward to seeing what they do with this. For a more informed take on the significance of The Eternals and what the implications are for the MCU, I recommended Robert Jefferson of Comics Explained to break it down for you.

 

Thor: Love and Thunder

Gracing Hall H were Chris Helmsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman. Now Ms. Portman has had very little to do in the Thor movies since the Dark World and even her scenes in Avengers Endgame was previously shot footage with some post audio recorded by her. That would beg the question on why she is there. Director Taika Waititi was a fan of Jason Aaron’s comic run of The Mighty Thor where Jane Foster assumed the mantle of Lady Thor. I don’t know how they are going to handle the handing over of ther mantle because the circumstances are unique in the comics and the way the MCU is set up now, it doesn’t seem to be going in the same direction. For the film, though, Jane Foster will be known as Mighty Thor.

Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Yeah, I know a lot out there have no clue who Shang Chi is but I have to say I have never been more dreading and excited. I am excited because Shang Chi was one of my favorite comics in the 70s and especially when artist Paul Gullacy was drawing the comics where he straight up modeled Shang Chi after Bruce Lee to the point that Marvel probably told him to cut it out.

Now, Shang Chi comes with some baggage and the big one is of course that he is the son of Fu Manchu which is possibly one of the worst racist Yellow Peril Stereotypes in history. Marvel lost the rights to the Sax Rohmer characters a few years back. And now they have cast Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as the true Mandarin who had been hinted at as a character since Iron Man and did wrong in Iron Man 3. Now the Mandarin is still a problematic character as far as race, but the name doesn’t have the racist baggage that Fu Manchu has.

Newcomer, Simu Liu was introduced as Shang Chi who had only received news that he got the part four days before the panel.  But Mr. Liu is not a stranger to Marvel Studios as he had been campaigning for an Asian superhero before Shang Chi was ever officially announced as a project. He seemed to interact really well with the crowd and has a natural charming personality.

I’ll have more thoughts on Shang Chi in an future post. But Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot riding on it that casual fans may not be aware of.

Black Widow

After the events of Endgame, many cynics hve coiced the opinion on why people would want to see a Black Widow movie. Which begs the question of why not? Just because Tony Stark dies in the finale of Endgame does not mean that there is no reason to watch the previous movies with Iron Man. Black Widow is no different. And make no mistake, this is going to be an origin. Joining the cast besides Scarlet Johansson  will be David Harbour as Alexei, the Red Guardian.

This looks to be a more grounded film as well as a spy thriller. Besides the Red Guardian which is essentially Russia’s version of Captain America, will be Taskmaster who is a master mimic of fighting styles, making him very difficult to defeat.

WandaVision

Coming to Disney Plus. When the creators outright say that the show is going to be strange, they probably. It will feature Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, and Vision who we last saw dead in Avengers Infinity War. And it will take place after the events of Avengers endgame.

Now, how they bring Vision back from the dead has not been revealed but there are no shortage of theories as to how this can be done. Most likely it has to do with what Shuri did at the last minute in a scene in Infinity War.

I had also been promised that other MCU characters would make appearances in the show as well. The rumors that the show would take place during the 50’s was a bit off. It will apparently have a 50’s feel to it, whatever that means. But it will explore the nature and powers of Wanda more. That brings us to her joining Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

“Just because Quentin Beck made up lies about the multiverse, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”  Declared Kevin Feige. Director Scott Derrickson promises that this will be the first Marvel Studios horror movie. Benedict Cumberbatch showed up and received a belated happy birthday from the host and audience.

The title itself opens up a lot of possibilities and it has also been confirmed that not only will Benedict Cumberbatch be reprising his role as Strange, but that he will be joined by Elizabeth Olsen reprising her role as Scarlet Witch. My personal theory which is total speculation is that an event will happen within the WandaVision series that will lead up to being resolved in Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

And it could all lead to Marvel’s House of M, which would be epic. Robert Jefferson is once again, on hand to give an in depth explanation to one of the major storylines to shape the Marvel Comics universe in his four-part House of M videos. Part 1 is below.

Falcon and Winter Soldier

Coming to Disney Plus in 2020 will be Falcon and Winter Soldier in their own limited series. It’s not Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Let me say why this title really works and just may shot down the nerdy theorist out there. Just because Steve Rogers gave his shield to Falcon does not mean he is Captain America. In my opinion, these things may work in the comics where you have month to month to sell the transition. I may even work as a television series. This series is only supposed to be six episodes, however.

From a storytelling standpoint it makes sense that public wants Wilson to be the new Captain America, and maybe he even tries to assume the mantle for a while. But Sam Wilson is not Steve Rogers and he has to come to terms with his own identity too. This really

What If

For Disney Plus, this has the potential to be the most fun and experimental of any series they have on their table or even their movies. What if? was a comic series that was popular for some time in the 70s through the 80s which were usually one issue speculations such as “What if Conan was in the Modern Age?” “What if Mary Jane were Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?” The comics would start with an introduction by a Watcher who basically served as the Rod Serling of the series.

Jeffrey Wright, who has been seen in such big franchises as The Hunger Games, Westworld, and Boardwalk Empire will be providing the voice of The Watcher.

Hawkeye

Also coming to the Disney Plus streaming service is a Hawkeye series. Apparently it will be focusing on Renner’s Hawkey character training Kate Bishop to be the new Hawkeye. “I get to teach someone else how to be a superhero without super powers.” They used the same graphic as the title graphic for Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye, which Io9 called one of Marvel’s greatest comics. Yes, there will presumably be a female takeover of the Haweye mantle. Cue anti SJW outrage. But I am intrigued.

Loki

So some bloke named Tom Hiddleston showed up for the announcement of a show that was no secret. Loki will be a limited series streaming on Disney Plus although he had died in Avengers Infinity War, he was very much alive in the time travel portion of Avengers Endgame. And we saw that he had an out. And the version of Loki that will be on the show is going to be the evil Loki, not the chaotic good one that we saw at the end of Thor Ragnarok and the beginning of Infinity War.

Blade

Two-time Academy Award winning actor Mahershala Ali came out on stage at the very tail end of the Marvel presentation. At this point, everyone on stage and in the audience were handed Black Widow hats, but Mr. Ali did not have one. WHen Kevin asked him why he did not have a hat on, he said he brought his own. He put it on and it had a newly revamped logo for Marvel’s Blade. Mic drop of the con.

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Blade had a decent following and had some success as a film franchise starring Wesley Snipes. This would mark Marvel Studio’s foray into the darker universe. The original movies were rated R and Bob Iger, CEO of Disney has said in no uncertain terms that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not be rated R. Deadpool would be on his own at Fox. It is not impossible for Blade to be rated PG-13. The original comics were written under the outdated days of the Comics Code.

Nevertheless, the it will be some time before we see Blade on screen as Kevin Feige said after the presentation that it would not be part of Phase 4 but rather Phase 5. So many things can happen behind the scenes. Maybe Bob Iger will change his mind.`

Fantastic Four and More

A reboot of Fantastic Four was essentially name-dropped as the panel was closing as well as mentions that Black Panther 2 and Captain Marvel 2. We know the sequels are coming, but there is no release time frame set but it is inevitable. They were name-dropped as well as Fantastic Four. And like Blade, these sequels look to probably be in Phase 5.

Final thoughts

Now, if you think this is Marvel’s mic drop, remember that their appearance at Comic-Con was a last minute decision. And there is still D23 coming up in August which is the major convention run by Disney which they have been promoting for some time to supplant San Diego. Expect to hear more details on Black Panther’s sequel, Captain Marvel, and expect a team-up film to close out the phase. I am sure Marvel has a lot more news to make and more details on the films already mentioned.

There is going to undoubtedly be some pushback against Marvel for having such a diverse cast of characters in their upcoming phase of movies and it will probably be from the same corner of the internet that were going to boycott Captain Marvel and drive its box office numbers down, you know, the same ones who thought that Black Panther was pandering to minorities and was going to be a box office failure. Well, they are proving themselves to be nothing more than circular group of people echoing each other. And we know that half these people on YouTube making their little screeds could not care less or really even believe in what they say. They do it for the clicks and the views. And the fact that there is supposed outrage over diversity shows exactly why there is a need to have diversity. Now these movies may fail. But it probably won’t be because of diversity or more representation of marginalized people. If they fail, it will fail because they are just bad.

If I made any errors in the announcements, forgive me. I will make corrections in the comment section if needed.

The Lion King 2019 – Why? Just Why?: A Review

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GHOST If thou didst ever thy dear father love–
HAMLET O God!
GHOST Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
HAMLET Murder!
GHOST Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
HAMLET Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love, 30
May sweep to my revenge.

Disney has a series of nature documentaries labelled as Disneynature. They have a tendency to anthropomorphize the animals in these documentaries. A recent one about Adele Penguins focuses on one specific penguin as the camera crew follows him around and searches for a mate and lives out his year or so why having someone provide internal dialog and one sided conversations with other penguins and animals. That kinda works in short bits and is funny.

I kept thinking of those Disneynature documentaries while watching the latest Disney remake The Lion King. Then they start to talk, and it just feels off.  Now, there is nothing technically wrong with The Lion King, but it does nothing besides being a technological marvel. Director Jon Favreau had quite a bit of success with the Disney remake of The Jungle Book.

After the murder of his father, young lion cub Simba believes he is at fault because of the machinations of his uncle, Scar. He flees the scene and the pridelands where he meets up with the comedic dual of Timon and Pumbaa which brings some much needed personality to the movie by the midway point. They sing, they trot around, they get revenge on Scar, etc. I mean, come on, it’s been twenty-five years and it’s pretty much a shot-by-shot remake, these aren’t spoilers. But in the long run, Timon and Pumbaa are one of the saving graces of the film.

There are shots in this that are phenomenal and look right out of something shot by National Geographic or BBC’s Planet Earth. And for me, when I see CG animation I can never help but look for flaws and that maybe something can be done better. This is a near flawless movie on a technical level. They photo-realism of the animals and the entire computer created environments is astounding. And the crew who created this world along with director Jon Favreau should be applauded for their work. But technical brilliance can only go so far.

As far as the performances go, the actors are more than serviceable. Donald Glover as the adult Simba is fine, not particularly great. John Oliver does well as Zasu. And believe it or not, James Earl Jones, now with an older voice is even better as Mufasa than when he first voiced the role a quarter century ago. Seth Rogen is great as Pumbaa, but he also is basically playing himself. And Beyonce basically does not really do any voice acting so much as play herself as Nala. Chewetal Ejiofor does well enough as Scar, but they did him wrong for his musical moment. This is a hugely talented cast, yet some of the performances come across as flat. And when that happens, it’s not the actor, it is the voice direction. I don’t know wheat happened in the recording studio, but something was certainly missing.

Even if I were to disregard the existence of the original, at a certain point, the marvel of the computer animation wears off and you are taken out of the realism by the fact that these are animals talking and singing. And it also becomes apparent how simplistic the story is.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what I or paid professional critics say, The Lion King is going to make a lot of money. Kids are probably going to dig it, though in my showing I notice some fidgeting for most of the film until towards the end. Disney knows how to make money on remakes. Okay, Dumbo was a box-office bomb. But what does the audience actually want? Do they want a shot by shot remake of what they already own on DVD and Blu-ray? Or do they want an original take on the old story. That debate is currently going on with nostalgic old folks like me about the upcoming Mulan and The Little Mermaid. But with stories like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and even Aladdin, they are stories that can be remade endlessly.

Of course there’s the argument to be made that this is for a generation of kids who may have never seen The Lion King. Really? In this day and age of DVD, Blu-ray, UHD disc, and digital streaming? Plus a whole generation of parents that hold the original in high regard? No, that dog don’t hunt. And speaking of home video, this is probably better served on home video because you can just plain stop after so long or just skip to certain scenes you like. Maybe this is the first time kids will be exposed to The Lion King and ts perfectly serviceable for them, at home. Because seriously it is cheaper to buy the movie than it is to get the kids to the theater, pay for parking, get the popcorn and sodas, and multiple tickets than just waiting a few months for the disc. But if you want to show your kids The Lion King for the first time, the original is available.

Final Score: 6/10

Review: I Believe in ‘Yesterday’

 

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The first record I remember ever playing was by the Beatles. It was a 45 RPM single of “Let it Be” and I played it again and again. I was maybe twelve or thirteen with my little AM/FM with built in turntable. I have been a fan of the Beatles ever since. I distinctly remember the time and place when I heard over the radio about the death of John Lennon and it broke my heart.

Yesterday, a film directed by Academy Award winner, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) poses an interesting , and rather bleak idea. What if the Beatles had never existed? Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling musician who has been working the pub and small club scene in and around Suffolk England for years now, and is about to lose all hope and just pack it in and go back to being a school teacher.

While riding his bicycle back home, there is a power outage…a worldwide power outage which lasts twelve seconds. Jack is hit by a bus and wakes up later in the hospital a bit bruised up, and missing a few teeth. He gets some really nice implants pretty quickly, later. I don’t know if that’s a commentary on British healthcare or not. By his hospital bed, when he wakes up, is childhood friend and manager Ellie played by Lilly James.

When Jack says jokingly, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” she has no idea what he’s talking about, but he lets it go. Later, when he meets his friends, they give him a nice shiny new guitar. Appreciating the gift, he decides not to play one of his own songs, but “Yesterday,” one the most iconic songs in the Beatles songbook. His friends are mesmerized by the song, thinking it was something that Jack wrote and saying they have never heard of the Beatles. Jack thinks the joke has gone on too far and heads home. Looking online, he finds no results for the Beatles of the names of the individual Fab Four. His album collection is missing his Beatles records. At least David Bowie and the Rolling Stones still exist.

It dawns on jack that he may be the only one in the world who remembers the Beatles, so he decides to remember as many Beatles songs as he can, write them down and pass them off as his. What could possibly go wrong? He doesn’t quite achieve instant success, and still plays pubs but manages to get a demo disc made and a TV appearance on a local TV station. It is after the TV appearance that he is contacted by some bloke name Ed Sheeran, played by some bloke named Ed Sheeran. He is invite to join him on a tour as an opener.

Thus begins his journey towards stardom as he is approached by Sheeran’s American agent Debra, played to scene stealing perfection by SNL’s Kate McKinnon to sign him up for a recording contract. But left behind is Ellie who chooses to stay back in Suffolk as a school teacher, but not before admitting herself into the friend zone before Jack had a chance to process her confession.

Debra’s plan is to make Jack a viral hit before his first album is released. before long, his songs are getting huge buzz as they slowly get out into the internet. The early release songs are a hit and he is hailed as a genius songwriter.

Yesterday may not be the most original idea. It has probably been done before in other mediums, but this is definitely full of British humor and sweet charm. Himesh Patel performs the songs and plays the guitar with soulful dedication to the classic songs made famous by the Beatles and there are quite a few amusing scenes of Jack trying to remember words to certain songs. Eleanor Rigby apparently is his most beguiling.

Underlying the road to stardom is Ellie’s relationship with Jack, hiding her love away ever since they were seven years old. Jack goes from clueless to realizing that the only thing he needs is love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can kind of see where this will end up. But even then, the payoff is warm and touching. And speaking of payoff, how he deals with that impeding wealth and fame is straight up fairy tale stuff.

There is no explanation on why the world no longer has the Beatles, or a couple of other things like Coke and Cigarettes. But with most fantasy, we are given the fantastical premise and whether it works for us or not is up to us. To me, a world without their music would be a pretty horrible world.

Yesterday is not a perfect film. It has a few flaws especially with the middle portion of how Ellie and Jack interact, but it is full of charm with of course music that the world loves. Himesh Patel is charismatic, and Lilly James is the perfect girl next door. Ed Sheeran seems to be having fun playing himself. And Kate McKinnon just steals every scene she is in.

Sick of blockbusters, remakes, and sequels? Give Yesterday a spin. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

Review: Aladdin 2019

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Aladdin, like Beauty and the Beast, is one of the more beloved of their animated films which came during a sort of Disney animated comeback that was led by The Little Mermaid. Two-thousand and nineteen will see three remakes of Disney animated films by the year’s end; Dumbo came out earlier, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is so unique that I won’t actually count it as a remake since it is so different from the animated film as well as the source material. On the heels of Dumbo’s financial failure, Aladdin doesn’t come without doubts, chief of which, how can one possibly replace the comedic genius of Robin Williams as the genie?

Will Smith steps into that role with gusto and brings his own style to the role – as well he should. When early promotional pictures first out they were not very flattering to Smith but, you know, come on, it was Will Smith with blue body paint. Later promos showed him as, of course, a motion capped CGI genie which looked better. The reactions were more positive.

As far as the movie as a whole is concerned, it is a good to above average piece of musical entertainment that can be enjoyable for all audiences. It is however a a near beat for beat remake of the animated film. Which begs the question of whether a remake was even necessary.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street rat who has been on his own since he was a child. With his pet monkey, Abu, he’d been living as a thief, fencing stolen items for money or even food. But he, of course, has a good heart and after just eating a couple of dates, gives his whole bag to some starving children.

Parallel to this is a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) who is incognito amongst the common people in the marketplace. While noticing some starving children she hands some bread to them from a merchant’s stall. Unfortunately she does so without permission of the vendor and also has no money on her to pay for it. Aladdin sees her good heart and tries to help. Hijinks ensue and a street chase commences. Once away from the guards, Aladdin susses out that Jasmine because of the way that she is dressed is not only from the palace, but a handmaiden to Princess Jasmine. Oh, he was so close too. In true fairy tale fashion there is a love connection between the two. But jasmine has to make herself back to the palace as a suitor has entered the city to woo the hand of the Princess.

Aladdin sneaks into the palace to return a bracelet that was, uhm…left behind/stolen by his monkey. He is also arrested by Jafar (Marwan Kanzari), the vizier of the palace. For some time, Jafar had been trying to obtain a magic lamp from within the Cave of Wonders, unfortunately everyone that he has sent in is consumed by the lion’s head entrance.  Jafar reveals, that he like Aladdin, was once a common thief himself and offers Aladdin a bargain, riches and the opportunity to woo the princess if he retrieves the magic lamp from the cave. Just don’t take anything but the lamp. So of course while inside, Abu tries to take a big ruby.

Yeah, you can see it coming. Cave collapses, Aladdin gets trapped, Genie appears from lamp, allows him three wishes. Through a technicality, getting out of the cave is a freebie. So Aladdin’s first official wish is to become a prince so that he may be able to woo Jasmine where the law says that she can only marry a prince.

There is much to like about the Aladdin remake being a live action rendition of a well loved animated classic. Some of the musical numbers just pop to life on screen with such numbers as “Prince Ali” with his entrance into Agrabah. It is vibrantly colorful and filled with infectious choreography. It also has the look of a Aladdin themed Disney Main Street parade brought to the big screen. Depending on whether you like Disney Main Street Parades you’ll have a great time. Will Smith’s first number, “Never Had a Friend Like Me” is a fun a different take from the that of the late Robin Williams and that is good. Will Smith is very much his own personality and he is allowed play up his comedic talents.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin is charming enough with an infectious smile and a look in his eyes that actually look like they are drawn by old time Disney animators because they are so expressive. He is a competent enough of a singer for his solo songs, but unfortunately he is overpowered in the famous duet “A Whole New World” by Naomi Scott.

Speaking of Naomi Scott, she is absolutely charismatic Princess Jasmine. Her character above all others has had the most changes done to her characterization. Instead of being a shut-in who has no one to talk too except her pet tiger (even though she still has it). She has a confidante in her handmaiden Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad who not only provides some added levity but support. Jasmine isn’t portrayed as the object for men to pursue, she actually shows why she is different from others. She is smart, has studied not only the politics and maps of the world but has learned leadership from her father. Yet tradition prevents her from becoming Sultan or Sultana. She gets a showstopper new song called “Speechless” which shows off Naomi Scott’s vocals very well. Also, the costume designer must love dressing her as every outfit stands out.

The musical numbers overall are a feast for the eyes and feature energetic Bollywood inspired dance numbers, some of which are very tempting to tap your toes along with. The costumes are vibrant and look to be inspired from various Middle-eastern, Indian, and Byzantine cultures. Despite all the cultural influence portrayed on the screen, though, the Chinese origin of the Aladdin tale does not seem to be present at all. But this is clearly a fantasy story that is inspired by the history and culture of the aforementioned cultures but without using their actual history. It does a better job of not stereotyping characters, but not a perfect one. But at least we don’t get chained up slave Jasmine which just would not was today.

Jafar as the villain has a little more motivation than in the animated film as his background reflects Aladdin’s background as once being a thief himself. Their paths are juxtaposed with the paths they have chosen.

There are several plot threads that are laid out laid out but seem to go nowhere. Jasmine mentions early that her mother is not only dead, but was killed. This never goes anywhere the neighboring kingdom that Jafar is trying to talk the Sultan into attacking is the home kingdom of Jasmine’s mother. There is also no explanation to how Jafar knows about the Cave of Wonders, let alone the magic lamp. It’s also never really explained why Aladdin is the “Diamond in the rough.” There is no explanation of why Jasmine is in the market in disguise either.

Along with our human cast is of course, not one, not two, but three animal mascots. Just as in the anime, Jasmine has a pet tiger named Raja, which is a fairly convincingly rendered big cat. Abu like the animated film’s counterpart is Aladdin’s often troublesome monkey that is much more sentient than any monkey should be unless the Planet of the Apes virus has infected him. Jafar’s parrot, Iago has actually been toned down from it’s chattering wisecracking personality yet can still communicate with his master.

Towards the end, director Guy Ritchie reverts to an almost generic big frantic chase sequence of fetch it for possession of the lamp. It seems a bit contrived but also par for the course for the director that turned Sherlock Holmes (as played by Robert Downey Jr.) into an action video game hero.

Aladdin works fine as piece of family entertainment. It is perfectly enjoyable and whether it will be remembered by future generations as fondly as its animated version will be up to the test of time and the nostalgia of audiences. Recommended

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: Toy Story 4 is a Fitting Finale

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“…One day I’ll be put on display in a toy shop. I’ll be sold as a gift for a very special child who’ll desperately need a secret friend.”

“That’s correct.” Mr. Bodkins smiled and nodded approval. “It will be a little girl or boy who, if he grows up whole and happy, will contribute something of importance to the world. A special child, as you have said. But this will be a child who has to face enormous problems or who must live through a terrible sorrow…But whatever the child’s problems, you will be there to offer comfort, counsel, and love. You must help the child to grow up confident and loving, regardless of what cruelties the world inflicts on him. Because, you see, this special little girl or boy of yours will perhaps become a doctor who saves lives, or a diplomat who negotiates peace, or a teacher … if only he can grow up whole and happy. But if he’s broken by the tragedies he must endure, then he will never have a chance to make this world a better place.

Dean R. Koontz, Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages

Pixar Studios’ first animated film was in 1995 and it revolutionized American film animation forever. That movie was Toy Story and for better or worse, traditional animation has gone by the wayside in the wake of fully computer rendered animation. It’s been twenty-four years since then and nine years since Toy Story 3 and many other great animated films in-between those movies and the years. Toy Story 3 seemed, at the time, a fitting end to the trilogy.  Andy had grown up and moved on to college. The toys had been passed on to a new child, Bonnie, to enjoy.

We are now presented with Toy Story 4, a movie that even I would say was not asked for or needed. The story felt like it was complete at the end of the third film. It’s actually a good thing to be wrong sometimes. Toy Story 4 does more than any other film in the franchise to examine exactly why toys are needed in a kid’s life and how important they are. Not only do the toys need kids to serve a purpose, but kids need toys in their lives. Sure, it’s mentioned that toys need to be there for their kids but it is not until Toy Story 4 that a toy’s true purpose to be there for their kid is best displayed.

In a flashback to nine years previously, Andy is still the energetic fun kid wearing his cowboy hat and playing with Woody and Buzz. During a heavy rainstorm a car pulls up to pick up Molly’s lamp which had Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her little sheep from the previous films is being given away. It was mentioned in Toy Story 3 that Bo Peep was lost, but not why. Now we know she had gone to another home.

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Now with their new kid, the gang seems to be settled in nicely. But Woody (Tom Hanks) finds himself being taken out of Bonnie’s closet less and less. She even pins his sheriff badge on Jesse. When Bonnie finds herself at a crisis point in her young life, namely orientation day at kindergarten, Woody decides on his own that he needs to accompany her to school hidden in her backpack.

While there, Bonnie does feel isolated and alone amongst a room full of other kids she sits alone feeling alienated and alone. During a crafting session, even though Bonnie doesn’t have anything to craft with, Woody sneaks some random things out of the trash, including a spork. Bonnie is inspired enough to create what she will name Forky.

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Sometimes it is the simplest things in our world that gives us delight and the simple creation from trash of Forky not only gives Bonnie delight but also praise from her Kindergarten teacher. While in Bonnie’s backpack, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) comes to life. Now for someone like me, that raises some deep philosophical questions about existence and purpose. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story, he does not believe he’s a toy. Unlike Buzz, he thinks he is trash and has already served his purpose as a spork and must be thrown in the trash. He spends much of the film trying to throw himself in the trash.

There is a certain formula to the Toy Story films and part of that is going on a trip and separation of the toys. It happens here as well. Bonnie’s parents take her on a roadtrip since kindergarten doesn’t actually start for another week, and as typical for Toy Story someone gets separated from the group. Forky jumps out the window as an escape and Woody, who has been trying to keep an eye on him follows.

Woody catches up with Forky and on the way to the RV park that Bonnie and the gang are at, they have a long conversation about being a toy. Well, basically it’s Woody reminiscing about his life with Andy and with the other toys. Forky does begin to understand what he is, though. He is a toy, and because Bonnie made him and that he was there for a difficult time in her life, Forky is the most important thing in her life at the moment.

Of course getting back to the RV that the family has been traveling in would be too easy as Woody spots a familiar lamp in the window of an antique shop, but without the porcelain figures that are supposed to go with it. Woody decides to check and see if an old friend is possibly inside. She’s nowhere to be found, but Woody and Forky do meet another doll from the same era as Woody, Gabby Gabby with her entourage of ventriloquist dummies. Dead giveaway folks, ventriloquist dummies are outright creepy, and an entourage of four identical ones is a sign that you are about to deal with a freaking villain. And Gabby has a really dark side to her. But she is not villainous for villainy’s sake

Woody manages to get out of the antique store but Forky is left behind. Across the road is Bonnie and the gang and parked by a traveling carnival. On his way he gets reunited with Bo Peep. Over the years Bo Peep has changed, though. Finding her time in the antique shop dull and boring she set off on her own and spent the last few years in local park living freely with other other toys. With the arrival of the carnival, she plans to hitch  ride and travel along with it.

All this time, Bonnie has been more concerned with her new toy, upset that it’s missing. So of course, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) decides to go looking for Woody. Along the way we will meet other toys. A pair of them from the carnival are played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. They are a plushy dual of a big bunny and an attached duck, respectively.  Now, Pixar has not exactly been known for their casting diversity and with the comedic talents of Key & Peele, it could have veered too far into the “sassy black” stereotype. In my opinion, I don’t think it did that here. That’s not to say it did not flirt with it. The pair provide some of the best gags and have some interesting plans that involve breaking the toy rules. Listen for a cameo of Carl Weathers as several action figures known as Combat Carl.

In the antique shop, the gang gets some action figure help from Canada’s greatest Stuntman, Duke Kaboom. Another trope of the Toy Story films is the elaborate heist movie plans to escape or rescue another toy.  After four films, this formula has the real possibility of getting stale, but the script and the characters keep it creative. A large part of that fun it is Duke Kaboom who has the most to prove in order to help the gang. Keanu Reeves as Duke Kaboom seems to be having the time of his life portraying what is basically the Canadian version of an Evel Knievel toy while injecting a new catchphrase into the movie lexicon, “Yes I Canada!”

Bo Peep had always been a minor character in the early films. Her porcelain nature may not have been good for the madcap adventures of the other toys. Her fragile nature is actually played for a gag in one bit as she laughs of one of her limbs breaking off and just tapes it back up. And since she was not really Andy’s toy, but his younger sister’s, she ended up being more in the background too. Ultimately it was always about Andy’s toys. But time around, the story tightens and focuses on a lot on not just Woody, but his relationship with Bo Peep. It plays off the little hints of romance we first saw in the original Toy Story.  It’s also good to see more depth to the Bo Peep character and her inherent badass nature.

As par for the course with Pixar films, the quality of the animation is outstanding. There are levels of details here that may be ignored by other studios but are meticulous in its presentation here, such as the presence of dust and cobwebs behind the cabinets of the antique store, or the subtle reflections of objects in the eyes of characters. The scenes of the fair are rendered with such exacting photo-realistic detail, you can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy.

Despite the formulaic nature of the franchise, Toy Story 4 has an exceptionally strong script. It is very emotional at times and if it doesn’t hit you in the feels at least once, you are dead. Even the Gabby, the antagonist, has a deep story that comes to a conclusion by the end. I think this is what makes Pixar films rise above the rest, the belief in strong storytelling. And the Toy Story films are especially good at telling good stories about relatable characters and their relationships with each other. They connect not only with our children, but with us as adults. And the comedy is still darn funny.

With this fourth entry, this does feel like a a true ending for our characters. But if somewhere down the line another one comes along, it’ll be a welcome friend. Highly Recommended.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: The Rising of a Shield Hero Season 1

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In various anime the theme of being transported into another world, under the sub-genre called isekai, is not especially knew, of course. One of my favorite ones was The Vision of Escaflowne from 1996. Modern isekai, for better or worse, have lately been following the formula of not merely transporting the main character or characters from their ordinary mundane lives and depositing them into a fantasy world. Most new isekai now transports the character to a fantasy RPG gaming world — with stat sheets and leveling up quests.

Most of these shows are trash in my opinion. One show I managed to catch last year, and I’ve mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo 2018, was a preview of The Rising of the Shield Hero. This particular show stands above the generic isekai that has lately flooded the industry. Based on a series of light novels by Aneko Yusagi, the anime had a bit of internet controversy which we will get to later but it turns a few fantasy cliches on its head while still following some standard tropes. There is also a series of manga that is adapting the light novels.

Naofumi Iwatani is an otaku college student. One day in the library, he stumbles upon a copy of a book called The Record of the Four Holy Weapons. Believing it is a standard light novel, he begins skimming through it. He sees a description of a world that summons four heroes from another world to battle great waves of evil. He smirks how cliched it is when the heroes are described as a Sword Hero, a Spear Hero, and a Bow Hero. When he gets to the section detailing the different heroes, the entry for the Shield Hero is blank. So of course, magic light happens and he gets yanked out of the mundane world and into another world.

Upon arrival, Naofumi meets the other summoned heroes who are apparently not only from alternate eras of Japan, but from alternate histories as well. For this first season, that fact hasn’t come into play. Each of the other heroes are armed with their perspective weapons. Naofumi is armed with, you guessed it, a shield. In most games, the shield person is a bit useless and has no offensive capabilities.

It seems that the summoned heroes have no choice but to help the kingdom defeat the monstrous hoards that threaten the kingdom in waves. Their only way of returning is by winning. Not only that, they are low level heroes with zero experience. Yes, in the corner of their vision is their stat sheet which tracks their levels and skills. It is determined that they must level up before the first wave arrives and must do so separately. They are each allowed to recruit a party to join them in their leveling up quests.

Unfortunately for Naofumi, no one chooses to join his party initially. Myne, daughter of the King does decide to join him though and they set out to into the world. He acquires some low-level armor and a bit of coin. And after what he feels is a successful day of adventuring and slaughtering orange balloons, he relaxes with a few pints and spends the night in a tavern.

The next morning, he is arrested and accused of a crime he did not commit, the attempted rape of Myne. While in the court of the king, and in front of the other heroes, it is apparent that not only are the charges false, but a set-up my Myne to discredit him.

Controversy One – Let me take a bit to address this as when this episode first aired, there was quite a bit of internet controversy over the idea a false rape charge. Rape is a very  serious real world horror. In this era of Me Too, something like this is sure to generate controversy. And as far as storytelling is concerned it gives  insight to the personality of Myne, who will go on to be one of the most disliked anime character in years. I don’t believe the creator or the producers were trying to make any sort of statement other than to portray Myne as an evil and devious person. If you can get by that, then the anime is worth watching.

No one believes in Naofumi’s innocence and yet, because of his status a the shield hero he can not be imprisoned, executed or even sent back to his world. Instead, he is ostracized as world spread about him about being some sort or monster.

Here is where the show becomes something special. By the second episode, Naofumi is despised and outcast. He is alone and has the entire world hating him for a crime he did not do. One of his few sympathizers is the weapons and armor shopkeeper, who ends up lending him some armor. Since no one is willing to join him, he resorts to acquiring a slave since he can not trust anyone (in this world, slavery is not outlawed, but still looked down on. They are also bound by a spell that ensures obedience.) But because he can not use offensive weapons, he trains his newly acquired slave, a demi-human named Raphtalia to be his sword to his shield.

Controversy Two – Being American, slavery and it’s legacy are hot issues to this day. However, outside of the United States and historically, slavery was treated differently. That is not to say that it was a positive thing to be a slave. In fact, the show even has the most dislikable characters despise slavery. For a much more in depth analysis of the subject, I recommend this well written and unique (it’s a Christian anime website — that’s unique!) and lengthy article at Beneath the Tangles.

As the season progresses, Naofumi’s character arc undergoes quite a change as he acquires more party members. His distrust of everyone around him makes him a perfect anti-hero and at first he does not care about his quests other than a means of leveling himself up and fulfilling his duty as the shield hero so that he can go back to his own world. As time goes on, mostly under the influence of Raphtalia, Naofumi not only begins to trust, but to become concerned for the common folk of the kingdom.

Before long, it seems that Naofumi is left to clean up the mess left after the other heroes. When the bow hero slays a dragon, its rotting corpse begins to spread disease. He ends up ridding the town of the disease and killing the not-quite-dead dragon.

There is much to like about the series, especially the supporting characters. Well, some of the supporting characters are outright despicable. Even though it relies heavily on the tropes of the genre it is trying to subvert, it has enough original elements in it to rise above the average dropped into another world anime. Not everything is straight forward or as what initially as it seems as the later episodes in the season hint at a deeper complexity to the world than what has been seen so far.

Though we mostly follow the exploits of Naofumi, he crosses paths a few times with the other heroes. But being blinded by Naofumi’s reputation and the lies about him they are not automatically trusting of him, even if they do have the same goals. Although, Ren (sword hero)and Itsuki (bow hero)come across later as more open minded and interested in seeking the truth. Motoyasu (spear hero), however, pretty much stays a douche throughout the season.

This is not a grimdark fantasy like Berserk, however and for good or ill it does have it’s lighter moments, mostly involving Naofumi’s companions. But as the season progresses, he does lighten up a bit. And a par for the course, there is a healthy dosage of cute contenders for best girl. The animation is definitely top notch, with well done battle scenes and a unique magic system that does not seem to b confined to any one class. The music by Kevin Penkin is appropriately epic.

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The final episode of the first season ends on both a good closing point and a cliffhanger which is a foreshadow for things to come. At the time of this writing, there has been no announcement for a second season. So if a second season does not happen, even though there is no indication of that, the first season is definitely worth checking out. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10