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.
Some of you in the comments have noted that I’ve been a little, shall we say, down on the movies I’ve reviewed this year.
And some of you likewise professed that you enjoyed my review of Batman ’66purely because it was nice to see me actually praising something for once. I get it, I do. Negativity can be draining.
But, if it helps, this review will be less “negative” than “absolutely incredulous”.
What. The. Fuck. Is. This?
You know what’s weird? I remember seeing trailers for this movie! I remember thinking it looked quite good!
This was not some obscure direct to video release, this was in theatres! With a pretty top-tier cast!
This is not an amateur production, this clearly had a lot of money behind it and was released in the early nineties, an absolute golden age for feature animation where even lesser known (or, to be frank, lesser quality) films still have passionate fanbases of ageing elder millennials desperately clinging to the nostalgia of their fading childhoods in the face of an increasingly bewildering and terrifying present (no judgement, we’re all in the same boat).
And THEN I learned that this is the first and only film written and produced by Jon Acevski, a British businessman who decided to make an animated film based on stories he told his son about his toy frog (his son’s toy frog, I mean. I don’t believe Mr Acevski has a toy frog and if he does it is none of my business). And that’s sweet, that really is.
See, the thing about making movies is, they’re very expensive. And the people who back movies usually give their money to people who have demonstrated at least some competence in their field. But every so often, every so often, someone comes along who has no experience with writing, directing or anything really to do with the film-making process. But they do have money.
And when that happens? Oh, my friends, when that happens. That’s when you get the shit that makes my life worth living.
No one wanted it this way. Marvel didn’t want to make a Black Panther without Chadwick Boseman, we the audience didn’t want a Black Panther movie without Chadwick Boseman and I certainly don’t want to give a bad review to a Black Panther movie without Chadwick Boseman.
His loss was first and foremost a human tragedy and if this movie succeeds at anything it’s in bringing across just the sheer, crushing grief of everyone involved in this. It’s not a fun time. It should not be a fun time.
Is it a good movie? I’m sorry, no it’s not.
But, it has good moments and I’ll be sure to highlight those.
It also has plenty of flaws and, well, I’ll be mentioning those too. But rest assured, I will feel like a complete asshole.
The facts of the case, they are simple. Strange World, the youngest heir of a very long, very respectable line of animated features, went missing from the box office in the winter of last year. A few months later, it was found, face down in a cold stream of content. There are many possible suspects. The movie boasted Disney’s 98th first gay character. Perhaps this was a hate crime? Or perhaps Covid 19 was to blame? But no, I believe there can be only one killer. Monsieur Disney, J’ACCUSE!
(Man, I have GOT to write a Knive’s Out style murder mystery with sentient Disney movies, I have to do that.)
You’re all asking the wrong questions, you know.
The mystery is not “Why did Strange World flop?” I can tell you that right now.
Last year I sat down to plot out my review schedule for the next decade or so (I will never, ever, ever auction reviews off again. That was stupid. I was a stupid Mouse).
And this was an honest to God chain of thought I experienced:
Oh hey, I should probably put aside a slot to review the next canon Disney movie.
Oh damn, what even IS the next canon Disney movie?
Oh shit. Strange World? I haven’t heard anything about this. When is it coming out?
Oh fuck. It’s in theatres NOW.
Yeah. I’ve been reviewing the Disney canon since Obama and I both still had black in our hair and even I knew nothing about this thing. It didn’t fail because it as too gay or not gay enough or because every time Disney tries to make a sci-fi animated movie the monkey paw exacts a terrible price, NO. It failed because Disney didn’t market it and bad word of mouth delivered the coup de grace.
But what I can’t really get my head around is why Disney buried this so hard. I mean, it’s definitely bad, but it’s a kind of bad that Disney can and have managed to sell before. To take the most recent examples, Rayaand Wreck It Ralph 2 ate the box office alive and those are both, I remind you, hot effing garbage.
Was it really the fact that the main character is gay? I’ve always found that line of thinking flawed and conspiratorial. If a studio doesn’t want to release a movie with a gay main character, they can just, y’know, not make the movie and save the estimated €180 million dollars. But in this case…I dunno, maybe? It definitely feels like Disney has dropped bigger turds than this and yet was able to convince a sufficient amount of the population that it was selling them chocolate ice-cream. And hell, the reviews for this were actually very positive (not from me, I’m gonna dance on this thing’s fucking head) but most mainstream critics dutifully cooed “representation”, dropped a handful of stars and clocked off for lunch. It really was the audience reaction to this that was sharply negative. Maybe that was a homophobic backlash? Or maybe it was just the burgeoning realisation that most of Marvel/Disney/Pixar’s recent output has been trending worse and worse and people are now treating the brand less as a mark of quality than a warning label.
I don’t know and I’m not going to try to guess. I am DONE trying to game this kind of stuff out. Back in my Raya review I said that the age of Disney movies being big, unifying cultural events was over only for Encanto to come along and be that exact thing. I cautiously mused that Encanto might be the Disney ship righting itself only for Strange World to come along, cough once and die on my carpet so fuck it. I am just going to review the damn movie and leave the big pronouncements to people who actually know what they’re talking about.
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?
It’s probably a testament to just how jaded I am that my first thought when watching The Polar Express was “actually, this animation isn’t half bad”. The Polar Express is notorious for being the start of Robert Zemeckis’ turn to the dark side, where one of the most respected directors of genre cinema became a professional corporate necromancer.
And The Polar Express was his first attempt at making an all CGI mocapped film and is infamous for being utterly, skin-crawlingly unsettling in its depiction of human characters. And yet, maybe it’s because I‘ve seen the absolute depths to which this accursed path would lead Zemeckis I found myself not minding the animation too much, for the most part at least. It just looks like a computer game cutscene. And, if I’m being scrupulously fair, there are even shots that I think are honest to God beautiful.
My, this review is trending rather positive isn’t it? I wonder if that will last.
Heavy Metal began in 1977 as an American translation of Metal Hurlant, a French science fiction fantasy magazine that featured seminal work by such legendary creators as Moebius, Enki Bilal and Jean Claude Forest and had a massive influence on the entire comic book medium because TITS.
Was there some genuinely thought provoking and visually spectacular sci-fi in its pages? Absolutely! Playboy also published plenty of great articles, what’s your point?
Heavy Metal, the 1981 anthology animated film that adapts many of the magazine’s most iconic stories, has tits. It has many tits. It has big tits and small…actually no, it only has big tits. In the ancient swamp of the pre-internet age, that really was enough. The marketing campaign could literally have been the words “CARTOON BOOBS, YA DIG?” plastered on every available surface and this movie would have been a success.
But for a jaded, modern reviewer who sees boobs once (maybe even twice) a month, it’ll take more than that. So, is there more to Heavy Metal than awesome bewbage? Let’s take a look.
Imagine you go to a Burger King and the guy at the counter serves you with a smile, promptly brings the food to your table, thanks you kindly for your custom and wishes you a good day. Someone, in short, who doesn’t have to put nearly this much effort into their job but does it anyway because, gosh darn it, if you’re going to do a job you might as well do it well.
That’s Nelvana. Nelvana is an extremely prolific Canadian animation studio who produced basically any cartoon you saw in the eighties or nineties that wasn’t made by Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation or Warner Bros. They’re probably most famous (if you’re my age, at least) for their many, many licensed animations for properties like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Pet Monster. Nelvana were front and centre in the saccharine, corporatised swamp that was the American TV animation scene in the Reagan era. Like many of their peers, Nelvana had to make ends meet in the burger joint by cranking out barely concealed animated toy commercials. Unlike many of their peers, Nelvana actually seemed to give a damn. Their shows were, broadly speaking, better than they needed to be and demonstrated real skill and craftsmanship in their animation. There were always hints that, if given time and a budget and a premise slightly less anodyne than “Will Grumpy Bear ever get that stick out of his ass?”, Nelvana had the talent to make something truly special. And, if ever there was a time to do it, it was the early eighties.
The late seventies/early eighties were the “Warring States” period of American Feature Animation. The senile old king, Disney, had fallen from his throne and seemingly every animator who could hold a pencil was scrambling for the crown. This was the heady time when Rankin Bass, Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth battled for control of the artform, right up until 1989 when the old king came back and was like “I’m feeling a lot better now everyone, thank you for your concern“.
But all that was in the future. Nelvana was formed in 1971 by Patrick Loubert, Clive Smith and Michael Hirsh with the stated intent of creating a Canadian Disney.
After several well received Christmas specials and animating literally the only part of the Star Wars Holiday Special that deserved to be spared the flame (the cartoon that introduced Boba Fett), the studio began work on their first feature length animation; Rock and Rule. It’s an obvious passion project, clearly made by a young team just bursting with talent and ambition and love for what they were doing. It’s also something that was very obviously begun without a complete script or even a set plot. It’s weird. It’s uneven. It’s a wild, uncontrolled shambling mess of eighties animation that failed when it was dumped into theatres with no marketing by a distributor that neither loved nor understood it. Which obviously means that it was made for me, Mouse, personally.
In a sparring programme, Captain Thadeus of the Zion hovercraft Osiris and his first mate (in more ways than one) Juen swordfight while blindfolded. This doesn’t, as you might expect, result in horrific injuries but instead with them just getting progressively more naked.
They’re interrupted when the Osiris comes across an army of half a million machine sentinels and a big fuck-off drill, burrowing into the Earth’s crust right over Zion, the last human city. Rushing to warn Zion, the Osiris flees the pursuing sentinels. Juen volunteers to enter the Matrix leave a message in a dropbox. The sentinels overpower the Osiris but Juen manages to relay the message before the ship is destroyed and she drops dead.
How was it?
Probaby the least “animé” of all the shorts, this one feels most of a piece with the original trilogy. Everything from the score to the colour scheme to the dialogue feels like it could just slot very neatly into the films. One thing I really admired about the Wachowskis was their commitment that everything mattered. There was no “expanded universe”, every part (whether film, short film or computer game) was equally canon. Sure, you don’t have to see Osiris to make sense of Matrix Reloaded but if you have seen it you’re never in any doubt that it happened in this universe. The events here are referenced and are always consistent with the rest of the franchise. I like that. The animation was some of the most jaw dropping CGI I had ever seen in 2003 and in 2022 it holds up amazingly well. Sure, the sword striptease might seem like shameless pandering (and it is) but it’s also a demonstration of technical power. The flesh of these characters moves realistically and organically, these bodies tense and flex and sweat organically. It’s mighty impressive today. Twenty years ago it was bloody witchcraft.
It’s light on story, lighter on dialogue and pretty insubstantial. But as a visually stunning, slick little thriller it gets the job done.
Well, okay, it’s not. But it used to be. In those weird few years surrounding the turn of the millennium the Matrix was an absolute phenomenon, genuinely one of the most influential movie franchises of all time. In fact, I’d argue that it was a victim of its own success. Its aesthetic was so instantly iconic and easily replicable that it quickly became cliché. Movies don’t look like the Matrix anymore because so many movies released around that time aped its look and suddenly it wasn’t cool anymore. And make no mistake, the Matrix was all about being cool. Less a story than a vibe.
No, that’s not fair. The Matrix’s intellectual depth may have been exaggerated but if you’d never heard of Descartes it could and did give an entry point into various philosophical ideas. Its language and concepts have filtered into our discourse (red pills, bread pills) and has gone on to inspire many a modern science fiction writer (DID I MENTION RECENTLY I WROTE A BOOK?). It’s a damn impressive legacy for a series that, if we’re brutally honest, consisted of one good (if by no means flawless) film, two mediocre sequels and a filmed cry for help.
Oh, and it also gave us the subject of this years Shortstember, the Animatrix. This is an anthology series that came about when the Wachowskis visited Japan to promote the first Matrix and visited some of the animé studios that had been such a huge influence on their work. They then commissioned those studios to create nine short films set in the world they had created, which were then released on DVD and on online to promote the second film, Matrix Reloaded. For something basically created as an advertisement for another movie, The Animatrix went on to become the most critically acclaimed part of this entire franchise with the exception of the original film.
So join me this Shortstember as we review the Animatrix. Which ones are good, which ones are bad, and which ones are like wiping your arse with silk.