Monday, July 21, 2014

What I Really Think: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

(spoilers ahead)

Overall, I really enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.   I liked that the political situation between apes and humans and within each group was complex.   Each had their own factions and individuals working within them.  Nobody was a mustache twirling bad guy. The intentions of the villain were understandable and occasionally sympathetic.  It’s a storyline that could’ve been told without talking apes.  Indeed, much of the point of the movie is that the apes and humans really aren’t so different.  But I appreciate that they took what could’ve been a straight up action movie and made it smart.

I liked the previous movie in this series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a lot more than I expected.  This movie feels like a worthy successor.   Not retaining any of the original human case feels like a bold move, but also makes sense.  It’s unlikely any of them would’ve survived, and they weren’t really the main characters of the last movie.  It’s really all about Caesar. 

I would recommend seeing this movie even if you haven’t seen the previous one.  Is stands alone well enough that jumping in with it won’t diminish your enjoyment.  There are no critical references to the earlier film.  So, if you’re looking for something to watch, give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a try.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Extradiagetic: Peter Pan

Peter Pan is Disney’s fourteenth animated feature and a big success after the under-performing Alice in Wonderland.  While the film carries the name of Peter Pan, the movie is really more about Wendy.   The story begins and ends with her, and her arc is the most prominent one.  The other children never want to grow up, and she doesn’t either, at least at the beginning.  By the end she’s come around and realized it’s time to move on.  The movie doesn’t dwell on this story arc, instead preferring to focus attention on the exploits of Peter Pan himself.  But it remains the primary arc for the story, and makes Wendy more of a protagonist than Peter Pan.

Wendy’s story arc begins as the narrator introduces the Darling family.  She is devout believer in Peter Pan and tells stories to her brother’s about his exploits.  When her father declares that it’s time she grow up and move out of the nursery Wendy wants to have nothing to do with it.  

That evening Peter Pan shows up looking for his shadow and meet Wendy in person for the first time.  She excitedly agrees to join Peter Pan in Never Land when the opportunity arises, though she does hesitate to consider what her mother would say.  This prompts Peter Pan to ask what a mother is.  She begins to explain it as someone who loves and cares for you and tells stories.  As soon as she mentions telling stories Peter Pan declares that Wendy can be his Mother.  This suggestion begins a repeated theme of Wendy taking on the role of the adult with Peter Pan and the other boys.  In attempting to escape adulthood she finds herself naturally falling into the role. 

The rest of the children are awoken by the commotion and they all travel to Never Land together.  After a few small adventures they all return to Peter Pan’s hideout where Wendy falls into the adult role she had hoped to avoid, telling John and Michael to clean up and get ready for bed.  She begins to sing a song to the boys about what a mother is, prompting them to attempt to return immediately. As they leave they are waylaid by pirates and take to their ship while Captain Hook leaves a bomb for Peter Pan

On the pirate ship Captain Hook offers them all the dubious choice of joining his crew or walking the plank.  When all the boys rush to join up Wendy again takes the role of adult, halting them with a word and the clap of her hands.  She chides them much like an adult and refused to join Captain Hook’s crew.  She stoically walks the plank and is rescued by Peter Pan.  After quick battle they return to London.  The parents return home, her father with his attitudes switched.  George now decides his earlier edict that she leaves the nursery was too rash, but is taken by surprise when Wendy announces to them that she’s ready to grow up.  

In her attempt to escape her future, Wendy ended up walking the same path naturally.  She realized from her experience that she was already more grown up than she realized.  This isn’t to say there isn’t some character development elsewhere.  Notably, after the explosion and near death of Tinker Bell, Peter Pan goes from sulking that Wendy is leaving, to escorting her back to London himself on a flying pirate ship.  But the main story of Peter Pan really is Wendy coming to terms with growing up.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Extradiagetic: Alice in Wonderland

Stories are usually about interesting characters. But there are times where it’s better to have a more mundane protagonist. Alice in Wonderland is one such story.   

It’s easy to overlook the importance of the ordinary in stories. After all, it’s the fantastic and exciting that captures the audience’s imagination; that grabs them and keeps them interested. But for the fantastic and exciting to stand out, it benefits from juxtaposing it with the mundane.

The titular Alice is the mundane in Alice in Wonderland. Characters often begin from simple origins and start as ordinary people.  That’s part of the hero’s journey.  Alice however doesn’t really change throughout the story; instead she acts as an anchor to reality in the strange world of Wonderland. She provides a baseline against which the strangeness of the world can be measured.   Wonderland’s ability to repeatedly confound her attempts at logic and reason highlight the strangeness of the world.

There’s a sliding scale between the mundane and the extraordinary. The more ordinary the world, the more extraordinary the protagonist should be. This creates contrast so that the main character stands out. If the world is extraordinary and so is the character, neither will seem all that impressive.   

Ultimately the reason for the bizarre world and Alice’s own subdued reactions to it become clear with the revelation it was all just a dream. Stories that end with “It was all just a dream” are tricky, because they can leave an audience feeling cheated. The adventure they had just joined in on was suddenly rendered moot, and without meaning. And that can leave a bad taste in an audience’s mouth.   Alice in Wonderland however, is the perfect story for that ending. It’s so strange and so bizarre that a dream makes perfect sense. Additionally, very little actually ends up happening plot-wise in Wonderland. There are no epic morality plays between good and evil. No great lessons to be learned. There is just a peculiar journey of an ordinary young girl.

Alice in Wonderland is a lesson in contrast. A story needs ordinary characters for the audience to relate to and provide contrast. The more fantastic the world, the more ordinary the character should be. Alice in Wonderland pushes this contrast to the limit with a supremely bizarre environment for a supremely ordinary protagonist to experience.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What I Really Think: Cinderella

Growing up Cinderella was my favorite of the pre-renaissance princess films.  The mice really help carry the movie, keeping things active and interesting, especially for a young boy.  Cinderella is also the most interesting of the three original princesses.  She’s much more proactive than Snow White or Aurora.  She tries to stand up to her step-mother several times.   The step-mother may not have evil magical powers, but she’s imposing nonetheless. 

Still, for me, it really feels like it’s the supporting cast that keeps thing really interesting.  The mice, the king and grand duke and even the step-sisters are all amusing to watch.  Cinderella may be the title character, but it’s the rest that really give the movie form.   

Although Cinderella ranks low when compared to some of the more modern classics, it’s still a high point of the era. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

What I Really Think: How To Train Your Dragon 2

(Spoilers Ahead)

I was never the biggest fan of the original How To Train Your Dragon.  I liked the setting and themes but the third act always felt a bit flat.  Still, I went into this film with high expectations, and I would say this movie met them.   

One of the things this movie and the original do well is build an interesting world that feels like it has depth.  It’s a very interesting idea to have dragons as friendly and commonplace, instead of rare and fearsome.  There’s a lot of untapped potential there, and this movie dives deep into the possibilities.  

I liked all the stuff with Hiccup’s mother.  In particular I liked that they didn’t try to push any drama into it.  It would’ve been easy to put some conflict there.  To have one or more parties upset at the others.  But instead everyone is just happy to be together again.  Of course, it’s clear why they play it this way when Stoic dies.  It creates a bigger emotional impact.  But it was nice to see while it lasted.
The third act again felt a little weak.  It was a little too short to me.  But it was pretty solid, and overall I liked how it was handled.  

Overall a good movie.  Probably ranks in the lower end of my top five for this year.  I’d recommend it even if you haven’t seen the first one.  I don’t think there’s anything from the first one you really need to know to enjoy this one.