Brave’s Blunders and the Cult of Pixar

I saw Brave earlier this week and it was, like I expected, just okay. That was especially disappointing because in the wake of Cars 2 (which was flat out not good) everyone was kind of hoping for a return to form for the studio, but if anything this movie hammered home the opposite reality, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Everyone’s criticisms of Brave are pretty much spot-on. It tells a very small story of a princess who “wants more” and all that, but it isn’t anything we haven’t really seen before, except with a much stronger emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship. Yet if we’re comparing it to, say, the father-son themes in Finding Nemo or the family dynamics in The Incredibles it falls very short, coming off as simplistic while failing to resonate strongly enough to justify the thematic backbone of the entire movie.

The whole story structure is noticeably off, which most would say is really bizarre for a Pixar movie. Something happens almost halfway through the film that wasn’t revealed in the trailers or marketing when really it should have been Brave’s entire selling point, except that it happens too late in the story, so that by the time it’s resolved the whole emotional payoff doesn’t feel truly earned.

That the humor isn’t as mature as other Pixar fare and the characters very one note and prone to slapstick doesn’t help.

Some sequences manage to really click—the opening, the (underused) witch, the salmon fishing scene—but the connective tissue just isn’t what audiences think of as “Pixar,” and that brings me to my main point, which is that it’s time to stop looking to the studio as this masterpiece factory that can do no wrong.

They can. They have. They’re too big to produce only flawless gems, and with their increasingly sequel-rich, film-a-year output, we have to remember that there’s no one creative mind behind Pixar. It’s a group of people doing what they love with mostly great success (Brave is by no means bad and the Cars movies have plenty of redeeming qualities), but it might be more useful to stop looking at these only as “Pixar movies” and pay a bit more attention to who’s in charge of which projects. Is Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up) directing? Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)? How about Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille)?

The directors of Brave were more from the Disney side of things, having never helmed a Pixar film before, and it shows. Is that too big a problem? Only when audiences are expecting a certain level of resonance based on the studio’s reputation, which isn’t really the best indicator, or at least it isn’t anymore.

It just does no one any good to deify this or any other studio—in any medium—as a monolithic entity that can produce no wrong. Keep expectations reasonable, look into who’s making what, and know what you’re getting.

And I’ll readily admit you could do plenty worse than seeing Brave.

But you certainly don’t have to just because it’s Pixar.

The Korra Finale

Well that was a terrible blogging drought. Fixed now, thanks to The Legend of Korra‘s first season coming to an end and necessitating that I reflect on it.

After the phenomenal build-up in “Turning the Tides” I had some pretty high expectations for the finale. They weren’t entirely met, yet I’m still strangely satisfied. I suppose that’s because Korra’s strengths and weaknesses, both in terms of story and character, have been fairly consistent, so I knew what to expect.

The relationship stuff is better than what you’re going to find in a lot of animated fare, which is saying something considering how dreadful I find the Korra/Mako/Asami love triangle. I like Korra and certainly sympathize with Asami, so the two of them being interested in the same guy could have really worked if Mako weren’t the show’s weakest character by far. He’s, what? A kinda stoic, good-looking guy who neglects/cheats on his girlfriend. I have no further opinion, and I can’t really get why two much more compelling characters are so set on him. Emotionally, he’s an idiot, and that the show dedicated more time to whether he’ll end up with Korra than Airbender did with Aang and Katara is easily the biggest flaw in the series.

General Iroh worked fine. Dante Basco probably shouldn’t have returned to voice him (especially when he clearly has zero range) but he’s still the show’s best male firebending character.

Asami and her dad were, again, alright. I never found either of them fascinating enough to really carry too much of the series, but their relationship got the resolution it deserved.

And then there was the good stuff, what’s always been Korra’s greatest triumph: Amon and the equalists. The reveal that he was Tarrlok’s brother wasn’t shocking, per se, but it was also something I hadn’t guessed beforehand that made complete sense. That Amon was actually just the greatest bloodbender ever wasn’t as earth-shattering a revelation as I was hoping for, but it definitely fit. Good thing bloodbending is insanely cool.

His final confrontation with Korra and Mako was sublime. Taking Korra’s bending (that was shocking), dispatching the Lieutenant (who I actually hope wasn’t murdered; it’d be great to have him show up in some capacity next season), and Korra finally airbending was long overdue. I almost wish he’d fought a bit more after he was unmasked, but it made sense that he’d run after Korra shattered his facade.

That allowed for the best scene of the finale—and perhaps the entire season—when Tarrlok committed murder/suicide on Nickelodeon. Crazy, especially after all those equalist pilots parachuted to safety. It was beautiful.

Then things got wrapped up quickly. It was hugely apparent that twelve episodes is all that was originally commissioned, because there really couldn’t have been more finality to the last couple of minutes, with a potentially suicidal Korra finally connecting to her past lives and entering the Avatar State, complete with all her bending. A bit annoying that she can now give everyone’s bending back, but we’ll get to see more of Lin being awesome, so I can’t complain too much.

I really have no idea where they’ll take the series from here. Maybe out of Republic City? Hopefully they can come up with a great conflict, because the truly fantastic villain who more or less anchored the entire season just exploded.

I have faith. It wasn’t as great as The Last Airbender, but so far Korra has been quite a ride.

E3 2012 and the Video Game Industry’s Immediate Future

For about six years I’ve followed the Electronic Entertainment Expo, tuning into the big conferences for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as well as watching footage and reading demo descriptions for new and upcoming video games.

This year really made it painfully obvious that there are very few people in the industry actually producing content that I consider at all interesting. Microsoft’s conference kicked things off and was, not to put too fine a point on it, an embarrassment. They talked about sports games and their idiotic Kinect while showing off some sequels to their established franchises that did nothing to raise the bar beyond the kind of shooters we’ve all come to expect, which I no longer have patience for. I was hopeful for Tomb Raider, but it just looked like a lesser version of Uncharted. I’ve played Uncharted, thanks. Nothing, though, was more upsetting than Resident Evil 6, wherein you will apparently play as a powerhouse and kill endless hordes of the undead with minimal effort. Not exactly the direction I want the series to take. They ended on the third party Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which was sad. Microsoft has nothing left this generation.

EA is more openly insidious than most entertainment corporations, and sure enough, in their conference they really pushed the idea of games as a thing you subscribe to, paying premiums for more content. You can taste the art. What little was shown of Dead Space 3 was horribly disappointing. The first two are great, and though I understand there’s an expectation for sequels to up the ante, the series has to stay somewhat in the realm of survival horror. Now you have a co-op partner, with whom you fight giant monsters on an ice planet. My, how atmospheric and terrifying. Like Microsoft, they also had games with shooting and guns.

Ubisoft was the big winner. Though their conference presentation itself was juvenile and insipid, their content was unquestionably the strongest, from Assassin’s Creed III actually getting me interested in a franchise after I’ve passed up all the previous installments (a reversal of the trend I was experiencing so far), to their Rayman game beating out everything else revealed for the Wii U. And no game at the entire show laid a finger on Watch Dogs, an original game (and a genuinely surprising reveal) about a master hacker in a world just a little bit into the future that, if it lives up to the mind-blowing demo, is a real step forward. It’s one of two games at the show that appears even remotely interested in exploring themes related to society. It might actually be about something.

Then Sony was easily the best of the big three, which is insane considering they spent about fifteen minutes on the idiotic Wonderbook. Other than that, most of their games hit the mark. Assassin’s Creed III continued to impress. The new God of War looks like more God of War, which I admit I’m still a fan of.Smash Bros. but with Playstation Characters might be a pretty fun party game. A lot of people went a little wild over Beyond, but I’m wary of David Cage. He seems like he’d much rather be making films than games, which is fine, except he’s making games. I recommend healthy skepticism as to whether he can back up his pretensions. Especially since we’ve seen about ten minutes of his new game, and no gameplay. Yeah…but hey, I like Ellen Page. I’m much more confident in The Last of Us, a post-apocalypse with some real bite. Uncharted with brutal seriousness. Count me in.

Then Nintendo came out and basically yelled to everyone, “WE DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOU. YOU ARE NO LONGER OUR TARGET AUDIENCE” as loudly as they could while still keeping up the charade.

Besides that, Star Wars 1313 has a ton of potential, I’m sure Ni No Kuni will be amazing, and there are a few other titles on the horizon I’m interested in, but all in all it doesn’t look like I’ll have reason to play more than the handful of games I find time for every year.

This medium is still in its infancy. The gems are few and far between, but they exist. As much as I rolled my eyes this past week (oh, so very much) I still have boundless faith in what games can achieve, and maintain excitement for the industry’s awkward, painful evolution.

 

Clashing Kings: Valar Morghulis

And that’s it! Game of Thrones is done with for the next ten months.

…Damn it.

But we got a pretty serviceable finale to close things out on. Like last season, the climax was obviously in the ninth episode, with the final hour (or hour and ten minutes in this case) serving to wrap up all the loose ends.

The most contentious scenes were Dany’s, with some fans of the book none too pleased with the way the House of the Undying was depicted. On the page it’s about ten times crazier, with a mess of baffling and horrifying visions of the past and future accompanied by a prophecy, all of which gives a lot of hints as to what the series is actually about. It was done well onscreen, just very different. And that’s okay…for now.

I’m starting to realize that “magic, prophecy, interconnected tapestry of fate” stuff is more what the book series is about. It’s called “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and the narrative underpinnings truly do have to do with whatever the hell that title is referring to, presumably two competing magical forces: The white walker-related ice and the dragon-centric fire.

But the showrunners clearly aren’t as interested in exploring all of that as they are the political maneuverings that dominate the proceedings. Hence the title of the tv series, “Game of Thrones.” Frankly it’s a little hard to blame them, considering the big magical prophecy stuff hasn’t paid off much yet in the books, while the intrigue and backstabbing is always riveting and relevant. The danger, then, is that everything will fall apart in about five years time when they start adapting the elements of the series that haven’t even been written yet, and they have to pay off a lot of things they neglected to set up. Time will tell how they do in that regard.

For now though, they’ve certainly more than got a handle on all of the developments in King’s Landing; Tyrion’s fall from power was heartbreaking and Sansa’s brief elation at freedom from her betrothal to Joffrey was perfect.

Theon was the other highlight of the episode. His utter loathing of the horn blower was hilarious, and he delivered an incredible speech. It truly convinced me that his men were willing to follow him to their certain deaths. I should have known better. Their betrayal was as fitting as their casual murder of Maester Luwin was brutal.

The Varys and Ros scene was well done, and I’m actually impressed they managed to introduce their own seemingly inconsequential character at the beginning of the series and keep her around so long. The show really plays up the Varys vs. Littlefinger angle whereas it’s far more subtle on the page. I approve.

Robb marrying Lady Telisa was fine, I suppose. He’s not that interesting to begin with, but at least I believe her as a character.

Brienne is very harsh in her onscreen characterization, where as written she’s easily among the most honorable characters in the series. She would never imagine causing someone unnecessary agony as a kind of poetic justice. The lead-up to that particular murder, though, was spot-on. It’s going to be nice seeing more of Jaime and Brienne together next season.

Arya and Jaqen disappointed me a bit. Her storyline is probably my favorite in all of A Clash of Kings, and though the actor playing Jaqen was a wonderful choice, and her interactions with Tywin were brilliantly written, the show still cut out a lot of what made her time in Harrenhal compelling. She didn’t even murder a guard during their escape, which irked. I was also really looking forward to a solid face-changing effect for Jaqen, but I guess they chose not to delegate the budget to that particular scene. Ah well. Still very solid stuff, so I can’t complain too much.

I’m fairly certain they’ve mishandled Jon more than any other character. By making him both older and significantly less competent, he’s just not very compelling to watch. His defeat of Qhorin (which, the show did a perhaps intentionally poor job of communicating, was exactly according to the elder Ranger’s plan) was fine. Hopefully they can salvage Snow for next year.

As for the closing scene of the army of white walkers? Yeah. Yeah that worked. And hey, a dead horse to end things on! Gotta love it.

Until next year, then.

If you enjoyed these weekly reflections, I’ll likely do the same for Breaking Bad when it returns later this summer. Thank you, golden age of television.

And thank you Game of Thrones, for existing, against all odds. May winter come ever closer.

Further Korra thoughts and Criticisms (Korracisms?)

In the aftermath of The Legend of Korra‘s seventh episode, “The Aftermath,” I was chatting with some friends about the series and determined its biggest problem.

In a nutshell: Mako and Bolin don’t have the depth of the characters from Last Airbender. They’re kind of just the goofy guy and the serious guy.

But it’s a more layered issue than that. I get the sense that since the characters are older than they were in Airbender, we’re seeing them almost fully formed, whereas we got to see Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko grow into themselves.

With the twelve episode approach, though, Korra is definitely going for a tightly packed, streamlined narrative over creating relationships between the core cast that make us want to be their friends, which is a desire I had with Airbender more overwhelmingly than any other piece of fiction. I wanted to hang out with all of them. Here, I don’t really get that. I want to see where the story is going.

And on that front the show is really successful. The conflict with the equalists has way more nuance than the war ever did. Azula was a great villain because of who she was and the way she acted. Amon, on the other hand, is insanely compelling because of what he’s trying to do and why.

Korra and Tenzin are also great characters, and Lin has really grown on me as well.

But I have to admit at this point that Mako is boring and Bolin’s humor works when it works (about half the time) but when it misses the mark he’s just annoying. And Asami is…fine, I guess.

Essentially, this means that whenever the younger characters interact, it’s not that enjoyable because Korra herself is the only one of that core group who really feels fleshed out.

The villains and the other adults are all wonderful (and luckily we spend a lot of time with them) but the Avatar’s peers, so far, seem to be the show’s biggest weakness. And if that’s the case, I’m forced to admit that no matter how great the series looks, how exciting the action is, or how incredibly involving the actual storyline may be, The Legend of Korra, at the end of the day, won’t be able to conjure up that sense of magic you get when you’re watching a group of characters who feel like genuine friends. A feeling that makes you wish you were right alongside them. In that regard, The Last Aribender is still untouchable.

That said, I still have to say I absolutely love the show. It reaches crazy heights, and every week has something great (although the less said about “The Spirit of Competition” the better).

The fact that I don’t feel like I’m friends with the characters is by no means damning criticism, because frankly it’s only happened in Airbender and Harry Potter to the extent that I’m describing. And it felt more personal in Airbender than anything else because that was my thing (or so it felt) whereas everyone was into Harry Potter. It was just lightning in a bottle scenario. Avatar the Last Airbender is my Star Wars.

I’d say the biggest things we can learn from Korra (so far): How to build on an already established world. How to create compelling villains. How to tell a story people want to keep watching. Why story and conflict are great to advance at a lightning pace, but character development needs breathing room.

And most of those thoughts were hashed out before the most recent episode, “When Extremes Meet” which was easily one of the two or three best installments yet, if only for the last four minutes and completely unexpected ending. If next week is the flashback-intensive episode it’s almost guaranteed to be, I think we might be in for something amazing.