Comedy

Disney(ish) Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse: Mulan 2

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Oh hey, here’s a nice uncontroversial question: Is Mulan feminist?

To which of course the answer is IT’S A TRAP YOU FOOL RUN!!!

Image result for running from explosion gif

You see, the question presupposes that everyone agrees on what a feminist movie is, and that you can even have a feminist movie in the first place and you’d be surprised how little agreement there is on these points.

Now as to whether Mulan is feminist, personally, I say “Yeah, sure”. It centres its story on a female protagonist whose story is treated as being of equal or greater importance to those of the male characters and it doesn’t reinforce any misogynist tropes. Boom. Let’s go out for ribs. But there are differing schools of thought.

For example, when Fury Road (a movie that, for my money, wears its feminist politics as openly and proudly as a movie can while still working in its own right as a narrative) came out, Anita Sarkeesian claimed that it couldn’t be considered feminist because the main characters still resolved their problems with violence. In an action movie.

Which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that the only way a movie could succeed at being feminist would be if it failed utterly as a movie. Which…no.

So for the sake of argument, let’s accept that Mulan (as much as it can be given that it’s a movie that’s enjoyable and therefore a tool of the patriarchy) is feminist. But Mulan is not. By which I mean, the character herself should not be considered feminist because she lives in a pre-industrial, pre-mass literacy honour culture where anything even remotely resembling modern feminism is not only unknown but literally impossible. And here’s the thing that I think people often miss about this character. She doesn’t dress up as a man and join the army to give the middle finger to the expectations and traditions of her culture, but to honour them. Let me explain.

Mulan’s father teaches her that the three most important things in life are:

  1. Respecting her ancestors.
  2. Protecting her family.
  3. Safeguarding her family’s honour.

Now, ideally these three priorities should be in alignment. But when Fa Zhou is called up to serve in the Imperial Army, those three priorities are suddenly in competition. If Mulan lets her father go to war, she will be respecting his wishes (Respecting her ancestors) and ensuring that the family’ honour is intact, but she will not be protecting her family because her father will almost certainly die. But, if she somehow prevents him from going she will be protecting her family but disrespecting her father and bringing shame on the family. Mulan’s dressing up as a man and joining the army in her father’s place, while seemingly staggeringly transgressive, is really the only way Mulan has of resolving this paradox and ensuring that all three of her obligations are met. This is why Mulan is brilliant and why Mulan is brilliant. It gives us a story that is progressive and inspiring to a modern audience, but is still rooted very much in the culture and Imperial Han milieu of the heroine (or, y’know, the Disneyfied version of it at least). It gets to eat its cake and have it. This is why Mulan is my favourite Disney princess along (along with Moana, who has a similar story). She’s not about adventure in the great wide somewhere, she’s the “get shit done” Princess. She’s not riding out there upsetting gender norms for poops and giggles, she’s doing it because she’s got a job to do and she’s going to do it, dammit. And if a couple of hundred thousand Huns got to get put in the ground, well, eggs and omelettes.

Lotta people don’t get that. Some of them got together and made a movie.

Well. A “movie”.

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5 Centimetres per Second (2007)

“Mouse-san!”

“Oh, hello Otaku Oceania.”

“I am so, so glad to hear you’ve decided to review Makoto Shinkai’s instant classic Five Centimetres per Second!”

“Oh?”

“You bet! I mean, in your last few animé reviews you’ve been beating up pretty hard on my favourite genre! In fact, I was this close to running you through with my limited edition Masashi Kishimoto autographed samurai sword! Ha ha ha!”

“Ha ha.”

“But a glowing review of 5 Centimetres per Second should smooth everything over and where are you going!?”

 

“It sucks! Soz!”

Ohhhh I’m gonna catch a beating for this one. I’ve given bad reviews to popular movies before but, holy moly, 5cmPS is a full on critical darling. It was released in 2007and received rapturous responses, with the film press instantly hailing director Makoto Shinkai as “the next Miyazaki”, an accolade I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Hiyao Miyazaki was the only animé director any of those mouth breathers knew by name harrumph harrumph harrumph harrumph harrumph!

“I didn’t get a harrumph out of that guy!”

“Give Mouse an harrumph!”

“Harrumph!”

“You watch yer ass!”

I’d never heard of the movie before I was requested to review it but I went in expecting to love it. I mean, there is a halo around this thing and all the screenshots I could see looked absolutely smurges. I mean, look at this.

  

But…it…just…movie…good…is…not…

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“This is the building where our uncle lived. Where our father killed him.”

There are so many different places you could start with a review of Black Panther. I could go heavy and political, exploring the importance of the most famous black superhero in these troubled times. I could go historical, discussing how the character was conceived and developed over the decades. Or I could go personal, explaining how I personally discovered the character.

Instead, let’s talk about Batman.

Batman was created in the Golden Age of comics, where many of the genre’s tropes and visual languages were codified. And the Silver Age that followed was in many ways the second draft of the superhero genre, where the old characters were taken and what worked was enhanced and what didn’t work was discarded.

With the obvious exception of the Original Human Torch, who was perfect in the sight of God.

Often, this was quite literal. The Silver Age at DC saw new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern that were basically the same as their Golden Age counterparts but with some of the clunkier aspects of them sanded down. And as a Golden Age character, Batman definitely has some aspects that could be troubling.

Look, I love Batman. Don’t get me wrong. One of the greatest superheroes ever created. But, as I’m hardly the first one to notice, the image of a billionaire WASP donning a bat costume to beat the ever-living tar out of the city’s poor and disenfranchised with the tacit blessing of the police can be a difficult sell. It’s not an insurmountable problem, by any means and many different writers have found different ways to deal with it.  Grant Morrison largely keeps Batman away from muggers and car-jackers and has him mostly fighting crazed supervillains. Other writers emphasise that Bruce Wayne isn’t just helping Gotham by being Batman but also contributes hugely to the city with his humanitarian work. And Frank Miller just shrugs and says “Yeah, he’s a fascist, whadyagonna do?”

“Hello chums!”

But still, that’s always going to be an issue with the character that has to be dealt with. And I would argue that the second draft of Batman that addressed these problems wasn’t created at DC at all, but at Marvel. Actually, scratch that. Marvel didn’t make an improved Batman. They made three:

Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of being a rich kid raised by his butler he was a dirt poor Irish Catholic boy with a hardscrabble working class upbringing in the roughest neighbourhood in New York who had to put himself through law school despite being blind.

 

Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of everyone pretending that dressing up in a costume and beating up muggers wouldn’t make you a lunatic and kind of an asshole we just acknowledge that he’s a lunatic and kind of an asshole.

Okay, he’s Batman. But he’s black. And smarter. And richer. And a king.

Like the Golden Age that preceded it, the Silver Age was initially whiter than white. But even in the early days at Marvel you can see a recognition of this and the halting, occasionally cringe-worthy but always well-motived attempts by Stan Lee and his co-creators to open up their fledgling universe to non-white characters. And undoubtedly their greatest achievement in this regard was the introduction to the Marvel universe of T’Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda.

Tsk. Buncha SJWs.

T’Challa first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 where Reed Richards and his family are invited to the mysterious African Nation of Wakanda by its equally mysterious king. The FF consistently underestimate the technology and skill of the Wakandans until they are faced with the mysterious Black Panther who manages to best one of the most powerful superhero teams in the world single-handed. Then, the Black Panther reveals himself to be T’Challa, and explains that he had to lure them to Wakanda to test his abilities against them. This first story, I think, encapsulates what’s made the character so enduring:

He’s kind of a dick.

Which doesn’t sound like a selling point, but hear me out. Too often, when white creators are trying to create positive black characters they make them a little too um…what’s the word I’m looking for?

Bagger Vancey.

Like, really friendly, eager to please, completely unthreatening and ready to lay their lives down for whitey at a moment’s notice.

Black Panther is very much not that. He may be a good guy, but he’s not your good guy. He has his own mission and agenda which is protecting Wakanda. If your agenda and his align, great. If not, he will not hesitate for a second to slit your throat if that’s what it takes to keep his people safe. He’s aloof, unknowable, one of the three of four smartest human beings on the planet, and you can never quite be sure how much you can trust him. He is a black man who is the hero of his own story, not a supporting character in someone else’s.

If there was any doubt that there was a real hunger for this kind of character, then the roaring rampage this thing cut through the global box office put it to rest. No MCU movie has flopped…

Image result for inhumans movie

No MCU movie that counts has flopped and most of them have been big hits. Some of them have been massive hits. But Black Panther was a full on cultural event. Dialogue and characters from this movie saturated the pop culture. Athletes started dressing in Wakanda inspired outfits and making the Wakandan salute. Schools and churches organised trips to see it and some commentators compared its release to cultural touchstones like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and the election of Obama and okay guys, c’mon. It’s just a movie. But, after all the fanfare and thinkpieces, does the movie hold up? This looks like a job for an opinionated white guy on the internet! Let’s do this.

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Wizards (1977)

Ah Bakshi, the man they couldn’t tame.

I’ve reviewed two of Ralph Bakshi’s movies now, and even though my feelings on them were, oh let’s just go with “mixed” I have to say I have been looking forward to this one quite a bit. Why? Well, partially it’s because the animation reviews tend to be more fun to write, and also because, even if I don’t think they’re necessarily good films, they’re always a hell of a trip and fascinating to watch and talk about. Look, the guy walked into mainstream animation and just started throwing petrol bombs and I’ve always said I’ll take fascinatingly bad over dully competent any day.

And yet, the more I read up on Wizards (Papa Bear Bakshi’s third feature) the more anxious I got. Wizards is Ralph Bakshi’s most popular movie, and the one that, by Bakshi’s own admission, no one gave him shit over and genuinely seemed to like. This is the movie that even the squares seem to dig.

“You sold out, man.”

“Fuck you, man.”

Could that work? Could Ralph Bakshi actually make a standard, mainstream animated film? Or would his movie lose that inherent grungy Bak-shit insane quality that’s really the only thing that makes his output interesting? What happens when Ralph Bakshi shaves and puts on some damn pants? Let’s take a look.

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“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”

I had a weird sensation watching X-Men The Last Stand for the first time in many years. I found myself, initially, sort of enjoying it.

“Huh, that’s weird,” I thought to myself “I remember hating this. So why am I sorta finding this to be okay?”

The reason, dear reader, is because this movie is a treacherous snake.

It does a passable job of masquerading as a decent X-Men movie. The cast is all here minus Alan Cummings’ Nightcrawler (because the makeup took frickin’ forever to apply and Alan Cummings was all “Fuck this, Alan Cummings’ got shit to do”) and the new additions to the cast were mostly excellent. Ellen Paige as Kitty Pryde? Who could say “no” to that? Kelsey Grammer as Beast? Perfect. Just perfect. You could not cast that role better. Also, like X-2, the movie stakes two very well regarded X-Men stories and works them into a single story, specifically the seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga” by Chris Claremont and Joss Whedon’s “Gifted” story arc from the early 2000’s. Alright! Great cast, strong source material, what could go wrong? Why, God himself couldn’t tank this film!

“RATNER! RIGHT AHEAD!”

Yeah, so how did that happen? Alright, so Fox quite naturally wanted Bryan Singer to come back for X3 but Singer had been lured by the siren call of the Distinguished Competition.

Singer had done a little preliminary work on X3 before he left Fox for that tramp Superman, which would have been a re-telling of the Dark Phoenix with Sigourney Weaver as Emma Frost (oh fuck yeah). With Singer gone, the suits at Fox held an emergency meeting to decide who would replace him, with the understanding that they had to get someone lest they had to settle for Brett Ratner, a desperate last resort in the form of a man. And what’s really tragic about this is that they tried. They really did. A veritable directorate of directors were approached for this movie and any one of them could have made a great X-Men flick.

Darren Aronofsky’s X-Men? Sign me up.

Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men? We got it a few years later and it was awesome.

Joss Whedon’s X-Men? Oh, he could have done it in his sleep.

Zak Snyder’s X-Men?……

Alex Proyas’ X-Men? He made Dark City so he’s alright by Mouse.

But a combination of bad luck, scheduling conflicts and ego all conspired against Fox and they were left with a choice: A Brett Ratner directed X-Men movie, or no X-Men movie at all.

They chose wrong.

“That’ll teach you to believe you deserve better.”

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Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land (1959)

A thought occurred to me going into this review: I’ve probably written more about Donald Duck than any other cartoon character. Throughout the life of this blog he’s been following me around like a little, white, feathery stalker:

Saludos AmigosMelody TimeFun and Fancy Free, Der Fuehrer’s FaceAdorable Couple, Fantasia 2000, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and of course The Three Caballeros, the movie that turned a regular dime-a-dozen review blog into the seething cauldron of madness it is today.

And I think that speaks to the character’s versatility. Donald’s got layers, man. He can be a skirt-chasing lady’s man, a plucky underdog, a swashbuckling adventurer, a child-like innocent, a scheming trickster, an acerbic straight-man, a devoted and loving parent, a hard-ass authoritarian or a cow-murdering psycho killer and it all feels like the same character. He’ll fit into a lot more situations than Goofy, say, while at the same time retaining a distinct personality and never succumbing to samey genericness like Mickey. That probably explains why he’s the hardest working cartoon character around, he can do it all. Even teaching kids about maths.

“You mean “math”.”

“I mean SHUT YOUR BURGER HOLE YANKEE PIG DOG!”

“Wow, that escalated quickly.”

“Hey who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“Who’s this new continent, what’s he gonna do?”

“Um…I’m North America? I’ve been here for ages, guys.”

“North America what?”

“Uh…North America the continent?”

“No, no, no, you need a gimmick. Like Gangsta Asia, or Otaku Oceania or Gullible Latin America.”

“I thought I was Handsome Latin America?”

“Of course you are.”

“Oh good.”

“Come my friend, it’s continent makeover time baby!”

“Guys, c’mon, I got a review to do.”

“Yeah. And we’re padding things out to hide the fact that it’s only 28 minutes long, you have no idea how to start this review and you don’t know anything about maths.”

“It’s math.”

“SILENCE YOU EAGLE FONDLING RUNNING JACKAL!”

Which brings me neatly to Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.

“Smooooth…”

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“Have you tried not being a mutant?”

When X-Men was released in the summer of 2000 on a modest $75 million budget, it had the highest opening weekend for a superhero film, surpassing even Batman: Forever despite its complete absence of Jim Carey in green tights or Tommy Lee Jones hating everything and everyone.

“You fucking people.”

So the folks at Fox backed a crazy hunch superhero movies might be a big deal in the 21st century and immediately greenlit X2, a title chosen tboth to appeal America’s hardcore algebra fans and to keep signage costs to a minimum.

The script this go round was to be written by Zak Penn and David Hayter…

“David Hayter?”

Yes. David Hayter, who is perhaps most famous for voicing Solid Snake in the Metal Gear

“Metal Gear?!”

“NOW CUT THAT OUT!”

Anyway, Penn and Hayter both wrote separate screenplays which were then integrated with the strongest elements from each, which I was very surprised to learn because that would typically be a recipe for a shambling, Frankenstein’s monster of a script whereas here the script is one of the very strongest elements of the whole movie. I mean, it’s not Shakespeare or anything but it is a remarkably well structured piece.

The story largely draws from the 1982 X-Men tale God Loves, Man Kills written by Chris Claremont during that least-discussed era of comics history, the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is usually dated as having begun with the seminal Death of Gwen Stacey in Spider-Man and saw a new generation of  comic book writers inject a more mature and morally complex outlook into classic comic books. The Bronze Age was, ironically enough, something of a Golden Age with all time classics like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Killing Joke. Unfortunately, less talented writers took the grittiness and mature themes of those books but left the humanity and artistic merit on the shelf which is how the Dark Age happened.

Shadowhawk. He had AIDS.

But anyway, God Loves, Man Kills is very much a Bronze Age book, that leans hard into the X-Men’s role as a stand in for oppressed minorities while commenting on the rise of televangelism and the burgeoning cultural alliance between political conservatives and religious evangelicals that worked out great for everybody. It’s an extremely well-regarded story and an excellent choice for the X-Men’s sophomore film. And, because everything has to be about Wolverine, there’s also some Weapon X thrown in for seasoning.

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“Piss off ghost!”

Brothers will fight

and kill each other,

sisters’ children

will defile kinship.

It is harsh in the world,

Whoredom rife

—an axe age, a sword age

—shields are riven—

a wind age, a wolf age—

before the world goes headlong.

No man will have

               mercy on another.

               And a vessel built for orgies

               Shall enter the devil’s anus

                                                   Prophecy of the Volva

 

Pity Joss Whedon.

I mean okay, he’s a hugely successful film and TV professional with a devoted fanbase and more money than a fabled king of old so don’t pity him too much but….yeah, squeeze out a tear for the guy.

See, Age of Ultron was an absolute nightmare for Whedon, not least because of Marvel’s insistence that he grind his movie to a halt several times to painstakingly set up the dark, gritty, epic, Thor 3. Ohhhh it was going to be so dark and gritty, you guys. Look! Heimdall’s blind! That’s how dark we’re talking. And there were snakes and dark, gritty, sexy dancing.

What exactly does this have to do with robots destroying the world?

And then Marvel gave the job of helming the movie to Taika Waititi, celebrated fim-maker and Māori god of mischief and trickery and he was all “Hee hee! I shall use none of this! And I have cast a spell on your wife and swopped faces with her, for she is beautiful and I am ugly! Ha ha!” And then he transformed into a bird and flew out the window, leaving Joss Whedon to wonder what the fuck just happened and thinking that maybe making DC movies for Warners wasn’t actually the worst idea in the world.

INCORRECT.

Anyway, the Vikings were a bunch of monastery razing, monk-stabbing, Battle-of-Clontarf-losing assholes but I’ll give them this; they knew how to do series finales. The tales of the Norse gods end with a big, stonking climactic battle where pretty much every major god dies including the really popular ones like Thor, Odin and Loki because the Vikings were not overly concerned with action figure sales. Ragnarok (or Ragnarök when it’s got its little hat on) is the most famous of all these tales, and not surprisingly, the Thor comic has retold it many times over the years, usually when sales are a little slack. And typically, these stories tend to be pretty grim affairs like the sagas they’re based on. And I totally thought that’s where they were going with this movie. Heck, for a long time I bet Marvel thought that’s where they were going with this movie. Everything was set up for it. The Dark World ends with Odin seemingly dead, and Loki secretly ruling Asgard. Age of Ultron seemlessly and organically (hah!) hinted at a desperate Götterdämmerung for Thor and his homies.

We knew what to expect. It was not this.

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Spirited Away (2001)

Great art isn’t east. The great artists simply make it look easy.

Princess Mononoke is many things. A work of art. A masterpiece.  One of the biggest box-office successes of Japanese cinema.

But for Hayao Miyazaki it was an absolute nightmare, a gruelling, punishing slog of back-breaking labour which may have had something to do with his insistence on practically drawing the entire damn thing himself but what do I know?

So awful was the experience that when it was over, Miyazki threw up his hands and yelled “FUCK THIS! FUCK ANIMATION! FUCK EVERYTHING ABOUT IT! FUCK ITS ENTIRE HISTORY FROM WINSOR MCCAY THROUGH TO DISNEY AND RIGHT UP TO THE PRESENT DAY NOT FORGETTING THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF NON-WESTERN GIANTS OF THE MEDIUM SUCH AS OSAMU TEZUKA! FUCK SQUASH AND STRETCH AND THE ILLUSION OF MOTION GIVEN BY RAPIDLY CHANGING STATIC IMAGES! HAYAO ALPHONSE MIYAZAKI IS DONE! I AM RETIRING! FUCK YOU ALL AND PEACE OUT!”*

And everyone said “Uh huh. Suuuuure you are.”

Because Hayao Miyazaki has been talking about retiring since digital watches were still nifty and he can’t stay away. Five years after The Wind Rises, his really-no-fooling-this-is-it-I’m-really-doing-it-you-won’t-have-Hayao-to-kick-around-any-more final film, he’s got another one due for release in 2019. The dude can’t quit.

Thank Christ.

Because every day I wake up, behold the beauty and majesty of God’s creation and say: “Needs more Miyazaki.”

Long may he continue working.

“But you’re killing me…”

“Yeah. Well. Eggs and Omelettes.”

Today’s movie came after Miyakzaki had retired for like the seventh time or something, when he decided to make a new film after meeting the young daughter of one of his friends. Which shows just how committed he was to his retirement. I mean, what else could convince him to come out of retirement than an encounter with that rarest of creatures, a human child? I mean, you could go your whole life without seeing one! So Miyazaki came back and was all “Okay, okay, one more movie” and everyone was all “Whatever helps ya sleep at night, man” and he went and made Spirited Away, a nice, safe, uncontroversial pick for GREATEST ANIMATED MOVIE OF ALL TIME.

Does it live up to its reputation?

“Yeah, s’aight.”

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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

Okay guys, this is going to be a short one. Firstly because I fell waaaay the damn behind schedule with this review and secondly because I review movies by recapping the plot and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron has less of a plot and more of an outline. Very, very little happens and less of it is of interest. Because once again, I have tried to love Dreamworks and it has repaid me with treachery.

Thou false jade.

You see, I had never seen this one. In fact Spirit was the last of the early traditionally animated Dreamworks films I hadn’t seen and I was all set to continue my concerto writing meth dealer analogy from the last review, arguing that Dreamworks could have surpassed Disney as the greatest American purveyors of traditional animation if audiences hadn’t been seduced by the glossy CGI succubus (Pixelitia! How I curse thee!) and then…ugh.

So true story, I sat down to watch this with Mini Mouse and at around the hour mark she turns to me, rolls her eyes and says:

“Daddy can we PLEASE watch something else?”

Dreamworks? She’s a five year old girl. If you can’t sell a five year old girl a cartoon with horses, you have FAILED. You have failed more totally than it should be possible for human beings to fail. You have created a masterpiece of ineptitude. You broke the damn scale.

What went wrong? Let’s take a look.

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