Man, you guys do love your animated fantasies from the late seventies/early eighties don’t you? In fact, I’ve now reviewed enough of these things that they’re starting to run together. Which animated fantasy centring on wizards and a war between science and magic with seriously dodgy gender politics is this again? Nit?
This review was requested by patron Allison. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Way back in the before times I reviewed Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, an important step on my journey to realising that Ralph Bakshi is a pretty terrible filmmaker, his importance in the animated canon notwithstanding. Well, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (BLOTR, henceforth) was originally intended as part one of a two part series but United Artists never actually got around to making the sequel, despite the first movie turning quite a tidy profit. So Rankin-Bass, proud purveyors of “good enuff” animation, bought up the rights to Return of the King. Rankin-Bass had previously done a made-for-TV version of The Hobbit (which I haven’t seen but have it on good authority is good enuff) and together with that movie and BLOTR they form a kind of loose trilogy, albeit the kind of trilogy with wildly different animation styles, voice actors and plots that only have a tenuous narrative continuity. Still, if you were living in a pre-Peter Jackson world and didn’t want to have to sit through three chapters of Tom Bombadil humble-bragging about how hot his girlfriend is, it did the trick.
This review was requested by patron Amelia Mellor. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Okay. Okay. I see. Alright.
Okay. Yup. Yup. Uh huh. Okay.
Sorry. My bad. I see I haven’t been clear enough on this topic. So let me be frank.
STOP ASKING ME TO REVIEW PIXAR MOVIES. STOP IT. JUST CUT THAT OUT.
You want to know what I think about Inside Out? It’s PERFECT, okay?! IT’S GODDAMN FICKETY FUCKETY FLAWLESS! IT’S A FRICKIN’ GOAT! IT’S THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF ITSELF. THERE IS LITERALLY NOT ONE SINGLE THING I CAN THINK OF THAT WOULD IMPROVE IT.
So what (excuse me) but what the FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY ABOUT IT? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CRACK WISE? YOU’VE HANDED ME THE CEILING OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL AND SAID “HERE, MAKE WITH THE FUNNY”. I CAN’T MAKE WITH THE FUNNY BECAUSE IT’S ONE OF THE GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY AND I HAVE A SOUL, YOU MOUTH BREATHING HEATHENS!
Ohhhhhhhh oy vey oyvey okay.
Inside Out. It’s the Pixar movie of Pixar movies. It makes other Pixar movies look like Dreamworks movies and Dreamworks movies look like pimply butts. It slays all that come before and after it. It’s so good, such a triumph of writing, design, animation and performance that honestly it’s a little intimidating and hard to love. It’s never going to be one of those movies that I just have on in the background because when I’m doing housework I usually prefer something that’s not going to break me emotionally like an egg.
I never used to cry at movies. Not really. I distinctly remember crying at the end of Michael Collins and that being a big, shocking thing. And that was a special case, because he’s like the George Washington of this thing and he was a real guy who really died (spoiler). But crying at movies just because they were sad? No. Not a thing.
That all changed with the arrival of somebody.
Becoming a dad did something to me, people. Messed with my brain chemistry like a mad scientist juggling beakers and cackling. Now, when I watch a movie I cry if someone stubs their toe (unless its Adam Sandler, because my empathy can only stretch so far).
Researching this movie I learned that writer Pete Docter based it on observing changes in his daughter’s emotions when she reached eleven. I mean, I learned it, but I already knew it. This movie is so perfectly observed that it could only be drawn from real life.
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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!!!
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:
- Respecting her ancestors.
- Protecting her family.
- 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.
The future is the present, but moreso.
This is has been the guiding principle of futurist science fiction since the genre was invented; take the current status quo and extrapolate logically and presto, you have a plausible future setting for your story. Early British sci-fi is all about the ethics and difficulty of maintaining a vast empire (don’t worry lads, won’t be a problem long term). Star Trek had space hippies and an interstellar Cold War. Eighties sci-fi is really worried about these Japanese guys. Trouble is, the course of history is less an elegant upward line and more like a panicky chihuaha on meth that keeps running off in different directions. For example: The USA and USSR are locked in an inexorable arms race that can only end with nuclear anni…
Well, the Japanese economy is an unstoppable behemoth that will crush its Western rivals and establish a new world order of corporate hegemony…
Awesome, history is over and now America as the world’s lone superpower will rule over an endless long peace…
Ah jeez, America has moved inexorably to the right and the Republicans will maintain dominance for generations, slowly turning America into a paranoid police state…
Racism is over everybody! Peace love and kumbaya for all!
This is why it’s almost impossible to write science fiction that accurately predicts the future, because the present won’t sit long enough to have its picture taken. Even the works that do get props for accurately predicting the future tend to only get certain details right while getting the rest very wrong. William Gibson came damn close to predicting the internet, but he also predicted that the world would be ruled over by several competing mega-corporations when of course in reality it’s only ruled by one.
Which is why, as a good rule of thumb, if you’re writing sci-fi you should set it far into the future so that when you are inevitably proven wrong, you’ll be long dead and no one will be there to laugh at you (unless they use their futuristic magic tech to resurrect you purely so they can laugh at you which would be incredibly petty and, going on current trends, entirely probable).
Strange Days was released in 1995 and sets its tale of sci-fi dystopia in the misty far off time of…December 1999. That’s ballsy.
And yet, it honestly feels more prescient than any science fiction film I can recall seeing.
Yeah, so I realise the movies I’m been reviewing lately have been a little more racy for a blog that rarely reviews fare rated harder than PG. Truth is, this is a review I’ve been trying to find the time to do for almost three years now (it’s one of the Joanna VR requests). This is one my friend Roger Courtney requested because he feels that it’s a ridiculously under-appreciated movie that I should review and everyone should see.
It is, I did and they should.
Let’s take a look.
A Disney reviewer was asked by his brother to review a movie by the infamous Troma studios, and you won’t believe what happened next!
Actually, you probably will.
It’s garbage and I hated it.
So let’s talk about bad movies. Roughly speaking, bad movies can be broken into the following categories.
1) Bad movies. Pretty simple. A movie that tries to be good but just fails. A comedy that is not funny, a thriller that is boring, a romance where you want all relevant parties to die in a fire. They’re common as muck and less useful.
2) Good Bad movies. Movies that try to be good but are so bad that they’re entertaining. The Room, Plan 9, Birdemic what have you. Rare enough, but glorious.
3) Good Good Bad movies. Okay, these are super rare. These are movies that are trying intentionally to ape Good Bad movies and do so in a way that makes them as entertaining as the real thing. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace would be a perfect example if it wasn’t a TV Show.
4) Bad Bad movies. These are less movies than acts of assault. The makers purposefully tried to make the most offensively awful movie possible just because. Serbian Film, The Human Centipede…if, for some reason you don’t know what those are, don’t google them, trust me.
5) Good Bad Bad movies. A Bad Bad movies that’s actually so baroquely excessive and ridiculous that you can’t help but be entertained by it.
6) Bad Bad Bad movies. And here is where they did it and it’s just gross and pointless and really, really boring.
The Toxic Avenger belongs in that final category. If it was just a little more competent I’d probably be doing an epic all caps takedown and trying out some of my most ingenious, Rube-Goldberg like profanity. But here’s the thing. You ever see Little Shop of Horrors? You know the bit where Steve Martin’s a sadistic dentist and Bill Murray is the patient who gets off on tooth extractions? It’s just no fun if the movie’s into it. I’m watching the movie and the movie is yelling “LOOK AT ME! I SUCK! DON’T I SUCK?! LOOK AT HOW BAD I SUCK!” and I’m just there half watching while scrolling through my Facebook feed muttering “Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah. You sure do suck.”. I mean, why am I even here? The movie critiques itself.
Alright, so who are Troma? They were founded in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Herz and Satan (he’s a silent partner). Since their founding they’ve dedicated themselves to making independent films outside of the restrictions of the studio system, executive meddling, corporate pandering, technical competency, artistic talent and human decency. Troma have a reputation amongst their fans as plucky underdogs striking a blow against the bland corporatized studio system. A reputation that is utterly bullshit, by the bye. Firstly, Troma is a frickin’ merchandizing machine. For fruck’s sale, the Toxic Avenger had a Saturday morning cartoon with its own toyline!
Secondly, Troma is not the Anti-Hollywood, it’s Hollywood without any of its redeeming features. Like the very worst Hollywood fare Troma’s films traffic in senseless violence, casual misogyny, homphobia and racism. They just do it worse. If Hollywood is a McDonald’s, Troma isn’t a friendly little local Mom and Pop artisanal burger joint, it’s a cheap knockoff McDonald’s where the burgers are even worse for you and chef won’t stop taking a dump in a the deep fat fryer. That said, much like Roger Corman, Troma has been responsible for giving many screen talents their first break, with folks like James Gunn, Vincent D’Onofrio and Samuel L. Jackson all making their bones with the studio. Y’know, kinda like how WW2 was terrible but at least it gave us computers and space travel. The Toxic Avenger is by far Troma’s biggest hit and the face of their brand.
How bad is it? Let’s take a look.
Okay, before we even start the starting I need to talk about Azula.
Azula, for those of you who knoweth not, is Avatar’s secondary antagonist. She’s the daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, the main villain, and the brother of Zuko. She’s an incredibly skilled fire-bender, a brilliant tactician, and a straight up psychopath.
Now a good few years ago I remember I got talking to some dude at a party about Avatar, and we were just fanboying over it as you do, and he looks me straight in the eye and says three words: “Azula. Best villain.” And he didn’t mean “best villain in the show”, he meant “best villain in any piece of fiction, period.” And I nodded at that, and didn’t even really consider what it was that I was agreeing to.
And it’s ridiculous, when you think about it, right? How could the greatest villain of all time be from a frickin’ Nickleodeon show from the early 2000s? It’s stupid on the face of it.
And then I re-watched the series for these reviews and a slightly scary thought started to creep over me:
Azula. Best villain.
Something happened here. Something happened in the planning, creation and execution of this character. Doubtful if any of the parties involved tried to replicate it again it would work but…goddamn they hit something when they created Azula. I’ve spent far too much time obsessing over this one character and why she work and far too little time thinking about Sozin’s comet (full disclosure, I was in hospital this week with yet another of my periodic bouts of intestinal insurrection so this review might be a little short) but I want to just set out why I think Azula works so well.
From the very beginning, I’ve always maintained that a good villain is an absolutely crucial element in whether a story works or not. Some movies don’t have antagonists, that’s true, but most do. And when they do, whether or not the villain works is a pretty reliable yardstick as to whether the movie works too. But what makes a “good” villain, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron? Well, there’s no one way to be a good villain but there are, broadly speaking, three.
- Be entertaining. These are the flamboyant moustache twirlers. Not particularly deep, but by God they have style. Think of Jafar, Maleficent, Hella from Thor: Ragnarok. You can practically hear little children hissing whenever they’re onscreen.
- Be believable. Here we have your down to earth villains. They’re real people, with understandable, compelling motivations. They’re evil, sure, but in a way that’s perfectly logical for a person in that situation. Usually found in gritty kitchen sink dramas. If a villain reminds you of someone you’ve encountered in real life, they probably belong here.
- Be absolutely fucking terrifying: Straight up monsters. The kind of characters that tap into deep, primal fears. Xenomorphs, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers.
Thing is, most great villains manage one of the above. Some of the true titans manage two (Heath Ledger’s Joker is a solid 1 and 3). But it’s almost impossible to find a villain who fits into all three categories. In fact, it sounds almost impossible. How can a villain be entertaining and grittily realistic and absolutely terrifying? It would take an incredible feat of writing and performance to make a character like that seem anything other than poorly defined and schizophrenic.
There’s a scene in the first episode of Season 2 of Avatar that sums up how all three elements of great villainy combine in Azula. She’s been sent by the Fire Lord to tell her brother Zuko and her Uncle Iroh that his banishment is over and that he’s to come home. But in reality, Zuko and Iroh are to be executed for treason. She tells Zuko that he can come home and Zuko says nothing, rendered speechless upon hearing that his banishment is over at last and his father wants him back.
“You should be happy.” Azula says coldly “Where’s my “thank you”? I want my thank you.”
It’s funny, in a dark way, that Azula is so psychotic that she wants gratitude from her brother for luring him to his unwitting death. But there’s nothing campy about it. There’s something just so chillingly believable about Grey De Lisle’s vocal performance. You know this girl. And if you don’t, you are damn lucky.
And lastly is the sheer menace that the character exudes, with more than a little assist from the excellent score.
Honestly, the only other villain I can think of who hits all three elements so perfectly is, well…
Animation history is full of odd twists and turns and weird connections but one of the weirdest is that you can trace a direct line between this:
Rankin Bass is most famous for its stop motion Christmas specials but from the late sixties onwards they dabbled in feature length traditional animation. The Rankin Bass filmography is like an unfinished rollercoaster, a madcap frenzy of highs and lows before it all ends in the bloody, limb mangling, fiery catastrophe of 1999’s The King and I.
But they did produce what is, by fairly solid consensus, a true classic with 1982’s The Last Unicorn, based on Peter S. Beagle’s book of the same name. While Rankin/Bass produced the film, the grunt work was actually farmed out to a Japanese company called Topcraft who’d later be hired by Hayao Miyazaki to animate Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and the rest is history.
I get the feeling this movie was a much bigger deal in the States than it was in Ireland. I never saw it growing up, and I don’t remember anyone talking about it. But that pedigree alone was enough to make me curious.
Let’s take a look.
I was once a mouse of honour.
Once I had a code.
My very first post on this blog, half a goddamn decade ago, set out some rules that I swore I’d follow come hell or high water:
No direct to video Disney sequels.
So here we are. Come and witness as my last scrap of virtue is torn away. Today, I review a direct to video Disney sequel, the cinematic equivalent of hiring a prostitute to dress up like your high school sweetheart, something beautiful and pure rendered tawdry and mercenary.
Oh come, come, Mouse, I hear you cry. Are they really as bad as all that? Well…
Okay, real talk time. None of the direct to video sequels made for the canon movies are as good as or better than the movies they are based on. Not one. By definition, really. I mean. If Disney Toons had somehow made a sequel to The Little Mermaid that was even better, they wouldn’t have released it straight to video, right? They’d have given it a full theatrical release and made it an official entry in the canon like The Rescuers Down Under or Winnie the Pooh (is Winnie the Pooh still in the canon? Disney?)
But, y’know. I’m fair. I’m a fair mouse. Everyone says so. Believe me. And while all of the Disney cheapquels are objectively worse than the movies they were based on, that doesn’t mean that they were entirely without merit. In fact, let’s play the game that’s taking the globe by storm, Mouse Says Nice Things About Disney Sequels For As Long As He Can!
Return of Jafar: Obviously (OBVIOUSLY) not as good as Aladdin but it actually did some interesting stuff plot wise by giving Iago a character arc and actually leaving a real, lasting change to the status quo by having him become a hero. Maybe not a great movie but a very decent pilot for a better than decent TV show.
King of Thieves: Robin Williams back as the genie, some much needed delving into Aladdin’s backstory and a fairly satisfying conclusion to the story of the Agrabah gang.
Lion King 1 ½: As a sequel it busts the original’s continuity straight to hyena infested hell buuuuut…great cast, really nice animation, some genuinely funny gags and Diggah Tunnah is honestly a good enough song that it could have been in the original movie (and a good song in a Disney sequel is a rare, precious thing indeed).
Bambi 2: Patrick Stewart as the Prince of the Forest. It’s truly sad when a Disney Sequel is making better use of Patrick Stewart than the actual canon movies.
Cinderella 3: A Stitch in Time: Faced with the task of making a second sequel to Cinderella and with the imminent closure of their studio, Disney Australia went all in on a batshit insane time travel caper. They went out fighting. They went out weird. And we salute them.
And as for today’s movie…
Okay, look. We need to take a minute to talk about the plight of a certain persecuted minority. A proud people who have suffered indignity after indignity in the face of a hostile and uncaring majority.
I refer, of course, to Pocahontas fans. And I am sorry that I must add to their legacy of suffering, because the truth is this:
I prefer Pocahontas 2 to the original.
No, I’m not joking.
No, I’m not just trolling you.
No, I’m not being contrarian.
No, I haven’t suffered some kind of head injury.
Here’s the thing, if you love Pocahontas you probably love it for the music and the animation and I’m obviously not going to pretend that Pocahontas 2 holds a single solitary candle to the original in either of those categories. But in terms of story…
Okay. It’s not perfect. It’s not even particularly good. But. This is the story of a young Native American woman who most leave her home, travel across the sea and navigate the intrigue of a strange and hostile foreign court with the survival of her entire tribe hanging in the balance. And that, to me, is automatically more compelling than the warmed-over Romeo and Juliet plot of the original.
Let’s take a look.