Hello everyone. Recently I decided to get back into acting and I’m going to be appearing in a production of Comedy of Errors in two weeks time as Dromio of Ephesus aka the best Dromio.
Also, Spouse of Mouse is on a business trip leaving me with two orphans crying plaintively for their mother night and day.
Also, I have a really tight writing deadline to meet this week.
Ergo, review short. Soz.
Normally, a film like John Carter is exactly the kind of movie that I dread to review.
It aroused no strong feelings in me. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. But honestly, the more I watched it the more I realised…this is kinda good? I mean, the elements are really strong. For being a decade old, the effects hold up a lot better than most of what Disney is putting out today.
The cast is full of actors I love or at least have no ill will towards (I like Taylor Kitsch, y’all are just mean). The script is nothing spectacular but perfectly solid. There was clearly a lot of thought and love and creativity and subtle world-building that went into the design of its fictional Martian setting. And there’s some strikingly beautiful cinematography. Like this scene where John Carter is fleeing on horseback across the Arizona Territory pursued by Union Soldiers:
Just gorgeous, old fashioned film-making. There is a lot to like in John Carter.
And yet, and yet…something isn’t working here. Some wheel just ain’t clicking.
Hey kids, know what time it is? It’s “Mouse uses his folklore degree” time!
I know, I know, I’m excited too.
So, do you want to know what the difference is between a myth, a legend and a fairy tale (or “wonder tale” as the cool kids call them)?
A myth is a narrative relic from a now defunct religion. Thor, Odin, Zeus etc were all once worshipped, so any stories relating to them are myths.
A legend takes place in a real place and time, and may feature real historical figures but is nonetheless fictional or even fantastical. So, Saint Patrick casting out the snakes from Ireland is a legend. He was a real person, Ireland is a real place (I mean, I hope) but the events described are fictional. That’s a legend.
And lastly, a wonder tale takes place in a far off land in an unspecified time and is wholly fictional. Anything that begins with “Once Upon a Time, in a Land Far Far Away” will be a wonder tale. So Snow White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, you get the idea.
Pinocchio is a book. With an accredited author. Published just a century before I was born. It is not a piece of ancient world folklore. So when Pinocchio and Gepetto showed up in Once Upon a Time, a series puportedly about “fairy tale” characters, I was a bit confused because they have about as much in common with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as Hermione Granger. But of course, we all know why they’re actually here. Because this is a Disney show (well, an ABC show) and Disney made Pinocchio in 1940 (AND WISELY NEVER TRIED TO MAKE IT AGAIN).
And look, I’m sorry, I’ll get into the merits of the show in a bit, but something about this makes me deeply uneasy. Okay, here’s the premise of Once Upon a Time:
In a magical Fairy Tale Land, Prince Charming wakes Snow White and they get married. But the Evil Queen puts a spell on them that pulls them all into the real world and places them in a town called Storybrooke (sigh) where they spend decades living the same lives and never age. Only the Queen’s adopted son, Henry, seems to know the truth, as he has a magic book of fairy tales and has been able to piece together which fairy tale character everyone in town actually is. So what’s my problem?
Well, let’s take Grumpy. Grumpy is just one of the seven dwarves who we see in the background as Snow White’s story plays out. Now, this is very clearly not the 1938 Disney Snow White. The characters all look different, sound different, are costumed differently.
This is not based on the movie but a new version based on the original folk tale, right? All the elements we see here, Snow White, the Prince, the Queen, the magic mirror, the dwarves, are all from the original story. I mean, that’s the clear implication. But here’s the thing.
Grumpy is a Disney character. They created him. In the original story, the dwarves don’t have individual names or personalities. The famous names we know today were all Disney’s invention. And by including original Disney characters like Grumpy and Jiminy Cricket it feels like Disney are trying to Trojan horse them in to the canon of European folklore. It feels like an attempt to make Disney’s Snow White the ONLY Snow White, subtly implying that their version is the definitive one. And yeah, I know that it probably wasn’t intentional. I know the creators probably just thought “hey, we have the rights to Elsa from Frozen let’s use her”. But when has giving Disney the benefit of the doubt worked ever out well for anyone?
If you’ve spent any time reading about animé you will have come across the name “Osamu Tezuka”, almost certainly accompanied by the phrase “Godfather of animé/manga”. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Tezuka absolutely kickstarted post-war animé as a genre. But…it kinda feels like we’re missing something, doesn’t it? How exactly did we get from this:
Well to understand that we need to talk about the other godfather of manga and animé. For Osamu Tezuka created animé as a beautiful, innocent garden. But into that garden, there came a serpent. There came Go Nagai.
Hired as a writer and illustrator for Weekly Shonen Jump in 1968, Nagai became an instant cultural lightning rod and enfant terrible of manga with his series Harenchi Gakuen. An erotic comedy set in a school, the series attracted massive controversy in Japan (damn prudes!) with its boundary smashing depictions of nudity and sexuality in a comic ostensibly aimed at children (sometimes have a point!). Nagai’s entire career has been one long game of seeing what he can get away with. His work is categorised by coarse humour, extreme violence, body horror and a pessimism often bordering on nihilism.
Also, Nagai is notorious for a, shall we say, somewhat cavalier attitude to the ethics of depicting sexual assault against women. To put it another way, much of his work is rapier than a full orchestral production of Blurred Lines at the Global Fencing Championships. Shit. Gets. Messed. Up. And his influence cannot be overstated. If you’ve ever watched some disreputable animé late at night and found yourself wondering…why?
Go Nagai. Go Nagai is why.
Go Nagai is why so much of animé is so violent, so weirdly horny and frequently so goddamned awesome. It’s a…complex legacy, to be sure. And much of Nagai’s work is definitely not for me. But he also blazed a trail that was followed by many of the most important and respected creators in the medium, like Katsuhiro Otome and even (I would argue) Miyazaki.
Now, the most important part of Nagai’s oeuvre is the massive Devilman franchise, a constellation of manga, animé adaptations, remakes and spin-offs. There’s a lot of overlap and differences between the various iterations but it usually goes like this; Akira Fudo is an ordinary Japanese schoolkid who gets recruited (or sometimes just duped) by his childhood friend Ryo Asuka into a war to protect humankind from demons. In order to do this, Ryo has Akira become possessed by an ancient warrior demon named Amon to fight other demons. Akira then becomes a superhero named “Devilman” (pronounced “DEEEEEEVILMAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNN!!!!”). From there, the story usually proceeds through a few monster of the week episodes with certain series-standard demons appearing to get the ever-loving demonic shit kicked out of them before taking a sharp left turn with humanity becoming aware of the existence of demons whereupon things get fucking dark.
Very violent. Very horny. Not for everyone. Go Nagai.
Now, there have been several animé adaptations of the original 1972 manga. There was the ridiculously toned down seventies Toei series which was kinda like if The Human Centipede was remade as a Saturday Morning Cartoon about a bunch of people who change into a giant centipede to fight baddies through the power of friendship. Then there was the far more faithful (and pretty damn kickass) OVA in the eighties, a couple of other OVAs in the nineties and early aughts and finally the subject of today’s review Devilman Crybaby, a mini series created by Science SARU for Netflix. Now, one of the reasons I pushed this review back to Halloween (other than just to have a horror themed review for Halloween) was that I knew nothing about this franchise and had a suspicion I would need the extra prep time. And I’m glad I did. Devilman Crybaby was an absolute juggernaut when it was released, becoming one of the most watched and successful animé series in years with a rabid fanbase. The kind of thing you really need to research and read up on before you come out with something like “I watched it and I didn’t really care for it”.
A rule I really, really try to stick to in reviewing movies is this: never criticise someone else’s work unless you can articulate what you would have done differently. This is not to say that I have no constructive criticism of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. I would, in fact, venture that I have quite the stack, teetering precariously in the corner as I write these words, ready to crush my tiny little mouse bones at the slightest inopportune breeze. And yet, I can’t help but feeling that a lot of what I am about to say might come across as a touch hypocritical if you are a long time reader of this blog.
So I kinda feel like I’m not reviewing this in good faith. I mean, is this movie a travesty of Carroll’s original work, crunching it into a generic Lord of the Rings rip-off slathered in a thin veneer of anachronistic corporate feminism to appeal to the broadest possible global audience so that Disney can bank another €1 billion dollars for the death ray fund?
Yes. It is that thing I said.
But how the hell am I supposed to make that argument? If this is a bad Alice, then what would meet my definition of a “good” Alice, considering I can’t stand the source material? (It occurs to me that I haven’t actually read either of the novels in two decades. I may need to go back and give them another go).
Well, I suppose it would be a movie that was able to do what the 1951 movie did, make me like the story of Alice through sheer artistic brilliance. I love the ’51 Alice not because it’s an Alice movie, but because it’s a Disney movie, possibly the most Disney movie of that era.
You’ve got Mary Blair on backgrounds. Verna Felton, Ed Wynne, Sterling Holloway and J. Pat O’Malley on vocals. The Nine Old Men directing animation. Music by Oliver Wallace. The movie works because it takes Carroll’s novel, sands off the creepier and more unpleasant elements, and uses the episodic nature of the story to allow some of the most talented men and women to ever work in animation to go buck wild. So I suppose, that’s what I want from an Alice in Wonderland adaptation. Something that can overcome the weaknesses of the source material by just being really, really beautiful.
“Hey Mouse, what do you think about all these live action Disney remakes?” is a question I have never been asked because I am a relic of the 2010s internet and have been irrelevant to fandom discourse for quite some time.
But if they did ask for those opinions, boy, do I have opinions! Nuanced and interesting opinions? Not really, by and large I think they’re hot garbage at best and actually morally reprehensible at worst.
I hate the whole scene, man. I hate the lazy nostalgia milking. I hate the rehashing of old songs and characters in ways that are always inferior to the originals (the 2016 Jungle Book is, I admit, a pretty fine movie but I’ll be deep in the cold ground before I say it’s an improvement on the ’67 cartoon.). I am real sick of Disney cynically trumpeting minor gay characters whose presence would have been real daring thirty years ago to earn gushing publicity. And I really hate that the biggest entertainment company in Western history is apparently unable to understand the simple fact that just because a character is a great villain doesn’t make them a great protagonist. In fact, it means the opposite of that.
That said…I’ll admit the announcement of 2015s Cinderella provoked a lot less bile and profanity to gush forth than it usually would. Mostly that’s a lack of skin in the game. The 1950 Cinderella is a film with which I am on perfectly cordial terms, but it’s not and never will be as important to me as something like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King. Plus…it’s Cinderella, you know? The Disney Cinderella may be the most famous film version but it’s certainly not the definitive version, because there isn’t one and never will be. Cinderella is one of the absolute pillars of world folklore, with versions spanning thousands of years across the breadth of Europe and Asia. And there have been Cinderella movies as long as there has been film. The earliest version I found was from 1913 (called, hilariously “A Modern Cinderella”). Cinderella has been played by everyone from Julie Andrews to Brandy to Betty Boop to Jerry Lewis. It’s a timeless story that’s remained popular despite decades of bad, pseudo-feminist critique (the story is not, and never has been, about marrying a prince. It is, and always has been, about escaping poverty and domestic slavery). So, whatever, I say. Disney want to make another Cinderella movie? Fine.
I am willing to acknowledge this movie’s right to exist, Disney. All you gotta do is make a good movie.
Going in, there were more red flags than a China versus Vietnam World Cup Final. A straight-to-DVD CGI movie I’d never heard of from a studio I’d never heard of helmed by one of the directors of Shark Tale? Yeah, let’s just say I went into this in full Anton Ego mode.
But I dug a little deeper and I started seeing a few green shoots of hope. For you see, director Bibo Bergeron (of, I believe, the Sackville Bergerons) is not just the co-director of Shark’s Tale. As an animator he worked on Fievel Goes West, A Goofy Movie and The Iron Giantwhich is a pretty damned impressive filmography before you even factor in that he co-directed The Road to El Dorado!
Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the Wolverine from snikting with a juicy bone. Clean away the electrified toads. Shutter the Department of Redundancy Department. Roll up the carpet under which we swept away the allegations against Bryan Singer. The X-Men are dead. Long live the X-Men.
And yet, in a very real way, we already have covered the final X-Men movie, as Dark Phoenix was actually filmed after New Mutants. New Mutants long stay in purgatory while Disney tried to figure out what exactly to do with this malformed creation that Fox had hurriedly thrust in their arms is now well known and need not be re-hashed here. Between the Fox/Disney merger and Covid has any movie had worse luck in terms of timing than New Mutants? Yes, almost certainly. But learning about them would take time and I’m feeling lazy today.
Anyway, like Dark Phoenix I’m feeling oddly charitable to New Mutants, maybe because of its rough upbringing, or maybe just because, deeply flawed though it is, it’s trying to do something that I’ve been saying superhero movies needed to do for years.
And so, after a long journey we finally reach the last main series instalment of the Fox X-Men films, a once proud dynasty now culminating in the flabby, five-chinned inbred monarch we see before us (in this analogy, New Mutants is the secret bastard child the king fathered on a tavern wench and then hid in a dungeon for three years).
And sure, the odds were against Dark Phoenix. It was released after the Disney/Fox merger all but assured that this series and its continuity would shortly be scrapped, giving the whole enterprise an inescapable stink of futility. It follows in the wake of Age of Apocalypsewhich was the cinematic equivalent of someone pissing up your nose for two hours. And it tries again to tell the story of the Dark Phoenix saga despite being written by the same dude who ballsed it up last time.
And yet…maybe it’s the contrarian in me. Maybe it’s the fact that the DVD yelped and recoiled in fear when I opened the case. Maybe it’s the fact that that the critical consensus on this film, that it’s the worst X-Men movie (it has less than half Apocalypse’s score on Rotten Tomatoes) is just flatly wrong.
Maybe it’s that I went in with expectations lower than a snake’s ballsack. But dammit, I kind of enjoyed Dark Phoenix. It’s bad, but it’s bad in weird and surprising ways and I never felt as horribly bored as I did with The Last Stand, Wolverine: Origin…to hell with it, I’m just going to say it. I would watch Dark Phoenix over any of the other bad X-Men movies. So there.
The video game adaptation has proven a particularly alluring siren for Hollywood over the years. The medium is stacked to the gills with beloved, household name properties with huge fanbases of teens absolutely filthy with disposable income. But, like any siren, it’s probably best to assume that the relationship is not going to end well and skedaddle before you run aground on the jagged rocks of box office disaster. Oh yes, traveler, many studios have tried for the successful video game adatation.
So what’s the problem? Why can we adapt frickin’ LORD OF THE RINGS successfully but not Super Mario Brothers? Well, because your typical video game adaptation is working towards two mutually exclusive goals. On the one had, and apologies for this harsh and mind-blowing truth I’m about to drop on your poor innocent sensibilities, but studios don’t greenlit video game adaptations because the muse demands that they bring Dead Or Alive: Beach Volleyball to the big screen so that the story can be truly appreciated as God intended. They don’t care about the material, they just know these games have large fanbases, and they want those fans to buy tickets in droves. But those fans will rebel and stay away if the studios change too much about the source material. And here’s the big problem: 99% of the time, if you don’t change the source material, you’re not getting a good movie.
That’s because video game plots are like dreams. They’re wonderfully exciting and immersive when you are the one experiencing them, but to an onlooker (or anyone you describe the dream to) it’s alienating and deeply dull. And that’s because people play games and watch movies for very different reasons.*
For example, right now I’m playing Darkest Dungeon. Again. After a month since my last playthrough where I probably sunk the guts of fifty hours. I am rather partial to that game like methheads are rather partial to meth. The premise is, you arrive in a dilapidated hamlet cursed with ancient evil and have to lead waves and waves of heroes into the titular dungeon to finally defeat the Lovecraftian horror that dwells below. And your heroes die. A lot. They get sick, they go mad, they get murdered in countless unspeakable ways. It’s a gruelling, grinding quest where you face constant failure. But every so often, you defeat a significant monster or earn enough to upgrade one of your buildings and it all becomes worth it. The grind and the tedium are what make it satisfying because you, personally, are achieving something. But, much as I love Darkest Dungeon, if I hear that anyone is trying to make a movie of it I will frame that person for murder because that is a terrible, awful idea and would make a terrible, awful movie.
So it’s not simply that video game adaptations are being handed off to talentless hacks. I mean, obviously, that does happen (see everything Uwe Boll has ever done or touched). But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated there are real structural reasons why video game adaptations almost never work.
So, how the hell did Detective Pikachu pull it off? Well, it probably helps to have all the money in the world.
By this point I have the formula for these X-Men review worked out like, well, a formula. A brief look at the history of the characters and storylines that inspired the movie in question, a few thousand words of recounting the plot with a couple of puerile gags masquerading as legitimate film criticism, wrap up, score, bing bang boom.
But goddamn, I do not want to talk about Cable and X Force.
Obligatory disclaimer: No bad characters. Only bad writers. Yes, there have been good Cable stories. Yes, I have enjoyed those stories. Yadda yadda yadda.
But ultimately Cable is not so much a character as an icon. You know, like a bio-hazard sign. He’s the perfect poster child for everything that was just plain bad about the X-Men universe specifically and comics more broadly in the nineties. Masculinity exaggerated and distorted to the point of unwitting caricature. A backstory as incoherent as it is overly complicated. An emphasis on violence and “ends justifies the means” morality that walks riiiight up to the line of outright fascism. Guns, guns, guns. Pouches pouches pouches. Hell, considering Cable’s central role in fuelling the Comics Speculator Bubble it’s fair to say that this character very nearly killed Marvel comics.
Five. Million. Copies. Sold.
But okay, quick and dirty history of X-Force and Cable. By the early eighties, the X-Men comic book had gone from a weird little also-ran to a sales powerhouse under the creative direction of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. I’m actually currently in the middle of reading the entire X-Men run in order and, having gotten to this era I can confirm that, yeah, it absolutely lives up to its reputation. But by this point the X-Men had drifted pretty far from its original conception as a school for mutants. The main cast were almost entirely adults and, apart from the fact that they were mutants and therefore faced increased suspicion and prejudice from the normies, they were just a standard superhero team not much different from the Avengers or the Fantastic Four. Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter ordered Claremont to create a new team of young mutants and he came up with the New Mutants. Story goes, Professor Xavier is in mourning for the death of the X-Men (don’t worry, didn’t take) and gets guilted by his ex into recruiting a new team of teenage mutants. The New Mutants was a moody, introspective little book with a cast of emotionally damaged teens learning to cope with depression, trauma and isolation. And then Rob Liefeld took it over and turned it into X-Force, a book about a rip-off Terminator trying to prevent the future by shooting it in the face
Cyborg with glowing eye travels back in time to prevent a bad future. I feel like this doesn’t get talked about enough.
So when in the stinger of Deadpoolwhere Deadpool’s all “Guess what, CABLE’s going to be in the next one!”? Personally, my reaction was: