Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Legend of Korra (First Impressions)

The legend continues...

I have to admit, once upon a time I totally dismissed Avatar: The Last Airbender before I even watched a whole episode. But really, can you blame me? An American cartoon borrowing crazy heavily from anime during a point when crappy faux anime was clogging up Saturday mornings may have caused me to already have doubts. Then you tell me it was done by Nickelodeon, a cartoon company best known for jokes involving slime, goo, or some other gross-out humour, and you may get why my expectations were so low for this show. So you can imagine how my expectations were thoroughly dashed once my friend actually forced me to watch the first couple episodes. Quite simply, I fell in love.  The adventures of Avatar Aang and his quest to learn all the elements to defeat an evil dictator was epic, fun and skillfully crafted to create many memorable characters and moments. The animation, the voice work, the music, the backgrounds, the humour, the choreography: all of the elements came together (pun intended) to make one of the biggest breaths of fresh air in a long time for action cartoons. And one of the best things about the series? It ended. Unlike many other western cartoons (and western television in general, actually) it didn't continue until it was unprofitable and stale. There was a set beginning, middle and end, and it all was so skillfully planned and paced. But of course since the show got so popular, Nickelodeon couldn't let go of such a hot property. So how in the world do you follow such a great show?

...with a horrible live-action movie by M. Night Shyamalan, of course!

Curse you Shyamalamadingdong!!
But ignoring that mess (and I believe that's just what Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko did) it was only a matter of time before we revisited this amazing world. And luckily that's just what we get in this sequel series, The Legend of Korra (now dropping the "Avatar" title. Thanks for nothing, James Cameron.) Taking place 70 years after the original show, The Legend of Korra feels like a wonderful jumping on point for newcomers, but for veteran fans of the show it feels just like like coming home to family. 

Korra: Badass in training
Thus far I've only seen the first two episodes: Welcome to Republic City and A Leif in the Wind. What I've noticed most about these two episodes is that it does something all good sequels should do; it should seem familiar, yet different. And familiarity shouldn't be limited to characters and setting, but in theme and tone as well. While there are many references to old character and plot points for fans, the series wisely chose to focus on the new characters such as Korra and the airbender Tenzin (Aang's son, who now has a quirky, energetic and ever growing family.) Actually, so far only one character from the original show is even present. And honestly, that's all that's needed because these new characters are so likeable and have so many ties with the old cast of characters (both actually and thematically) that they are instantly a cast I'm invested in.

Pro bending: another new addition to the world of Avatar
What I'm mostly happy to say is that this series still has the same feel of the old series, just slightly older and more mature and also (mostly) taking place in a completely new setting. There's still excellent character moments, wonderfully choreographed fights and even some oddball slapstick humour, but it's not just a rehash of the same plot with different characters. While the original series had Avatar Aang traveling all over the globe, the issues that Korra faces in this new series are much more centralized on one big city. Instead of fighting wars against nations, Korra has to fight crime and corruption. It's something new that the series hasn't tackled, and I can only imagine how things will progress. Even some of the world's style has evolved with the flow of time between shows. Having an apparent industrial revolution talking place in the past 70 years brings about a slew of new stylistic choices to the show such as having technology like radios and cars. Again, familiar because it's in the same world we know and love, but different with the progression of the world's technology.

The start of this series, in my opinion, couldn't have gone better artistically. Much like the show's tone, the art direction has only grown and matured over time, bringing to this series an even greater amount of detail in the art and animation. Quality voice actors have been thoughtfully brought in and casted (something I can't say for every Nickelodeon production.) And the music is still top notch, even having some sort of "Chinese jazz" being played in some of the city's segments. Very cool stuff indeed.

H'oh yeah. This is one good lookin' show
All in all, these two episodes left me wanting more and thinking about what's to come, which is exactly what good episodic storytelling should do. If you're an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan, I don't need to tell you to watch this. Heck, chances are you already have. But if you're new to the series, or in need of some refreshing and creative action/adventure animation, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find a show better than this one. It's a great jumping on point for new watchers, and hopefully it'll hook them enough to also go back and watch the wonder that is the original series as well. Welcome back Avatar! I greatly look forward to the adventures to come!

Highly recommended!

- Moo

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Lorax (A Review)

A feature of The Lorax, finally at last!
They're adapting a favorit book from my past!
To say I'm a fan of Seuss would be true,
I'm a master of fish counting, of both red and blue
(If you got that reference, you're a Seuss fan too!)

So I saw the flick, and it was a bad show
But to my surprise, only I thought so.
I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore.
This movie, I saw, was a total bore.

They padded the feature, yet shortened the best part!
And compared to the book, there was very little heart.
The message was muddled, the songs were a pain.
So much pointless cuteness, it damaged my brain,
To the point where I thought that I turned insane!
Yet, the audience liked it. This I cannot explain.

They liked the whole movie. They liked it a lot,
Despite the lame characters, and it's week plot,
They liked the villain, ripped straight from Captain Planet.
They even liked the obnoxiously fat bear, goddamn it!

Am I the only one who sees this as wrong?
Who's annoyed by the forcibly hip Once-ler song?
And also, The Lorax doesn't speak for the trees,
But trips to your iHop in new SUVs.

This movie was bad, but what to do now?
I must stop more tickets from selling...but how?
I have some issues with this film, it's true,
So allow me to rant in the following review

So much like the movie, I'll drop the rhyming scheme,
To better explain and show you what I mean...

Speaks for the trees, and new SUVs!
First of all, I'm not going to go into great length about the horrifically hypocritical marketing they've tied in with this film. Yes, ads have the Lorax, the spokes creature of all things environmental, advertising disposable diapers and SUVs, but I won't go into detail about that here. Instead, I'm focusing this review on the quality of the movie itself. But let me just say that if this movie does indeed speak for the trees, then they definitely need to hire a new translator.

Now for those not in the know, The Lorax is one of Dr. Seuss' less popular books, mostly because the book deals with a rather loud pro-environmental message and it does end on a bit of a downer. With those two things combined one would think a movie adaptation of The Lorax would be a bit of a hard sell, but hey! This is Hollywood! They'll adapt anything, and honestly that's not always a bad thing. Hell, when Disney adapted an amusement park ride we ended up with one hell of a nice Pirates movie. But there is a right and a wrong way to adapt things, and sadly Seuss' properties have never really transitioned all that well to feature films, with movies ranging from piss poor (Cat in the Hat) to "meh" (Horton Hears a Who, which was adapted to the big screen by the same guy who wrote The Lorax's script, Ken Daurio.)  The Lorax isn't the worst Dr. Seuss adaptation out there, but sadly it does get a bit more wrong then it does right.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the fact that it's narrated by the story's antagonist, The Once-ler, to a blank slate of a young child, representing the reader. But since the movie needs to be lengthened to make it a respectable feature length, the obvious choice was not to expand on The Once-ler's story, but of the kid's side. So the kid is now given the name Ted (played by Zac Efron,) and his own conflicts outside of the original story. I have nothing wrong with this choice, making the actual "Lorax" story more of a story within a story. But as a result, the film creates a lot of really cool ideas with very little overall thought on how that changes the message and theme of the original.

Ted's town is designed well...maybe too well...
So about half of the movie is about young Ted, as he lives in his town of plastic and rubber, completely devoid of any actual plant life. And while it's cool to see the design of the town, and it is indeed a very cool design, I still have to ask "why should anyone care about trees?" Because honestly, this town looks bitchin' without real trees. Everyone seems to not only survive, but thrive without them in this town. The movie shows all the citizens having fun: downhill skiing, barbecuing, enjoying forgettable song and dance numbers (seriously, I'm having trouble remembering anything about the opening number.) The only downside is people in this town need to buy their fresh air "Spaceballs" style from a rich air tycoon named O'Hare (who of course is a villain who is laughably short, has a Napoleon complex, and whose major character trait is an unreasonably unquenchable greed. What? Were you expecting some sort of originality? Too bad!) And really, this air transaction is hardly viewed as a nuisance, and even further from being an actual problem. No one is having issues paying for air. There isn't an air shortage. So again, why should we care that this town has no trees?

Hey baby! I'd like to plant my roots into you anyday!
Because young Ted has the hots for his neighbour, that's why! And his neighbour Audrey (Taylor Swift)  seems to have a thing for truffula trees. But not for any environmentally conscious reasons, God no! She just...likes them...cause they look nice...and pretty...and they look good in murals. Again, the reason for needing trees is mighty paper thin. But nevertheless, wanting to score some sort of PG-rated action from this clich├ęd "girl next door" crush, Ted goes off to look for any news on how to get a truffula tree. Which leads him to the wasteland out of town and the old Once-ler (played with surprisingly enjoyable "shut-in" quirkiness by Ed Helms) who begins to tell him the tragic story of him and the gardian of the trees, The Lorax. Which finally leads us to the events in the book...sort of...

In the flash back, the Once-ler is somewhat changed as well. First of all giving him a face (guess it was too hard to leave him in the shadows for the whole movie,) then making him a "cool" guitar-slinging teen for the older demographic, then finally adding a one-demential overbaring mother. It mostly felt like filler to me, but then we actually got to the valley where the Once-ler first lays eyes on the tuffula trees and oh man! Speaking of filler, let's talk about the cute animals!

The fat bear eats more cuz he's fat! LOLOLOLOLOLO!!
Cuteness is a powerful tool. It can melt hearts, make you laugh, and create memorable moments. What I noticed most people mention when they say they've enjoyed this movie was "it was cute." And I won't deny the cuteness of the animals; I'm not made of stone. But there was no substance to the cuteness. It was cute for the sake of being cute, and that's it. I don't mind a little of that, but this movie, oh man, it was a cuteness overload to the point of being obnoxious. Every shot in the Once-ler's story had to have some sort of animal gag in it. Weather it be the cute squawking birds, the harmonizing fish, or the fat bear....ohhhh, how I loathed that fat bear. After two Kung-Fu Panda movies I thought animated features would be sick of fat jokes; how wrong I was. But maybe I should've seen this coming. This movie is done by the same folks that did Despicable Me: a movie (and upcoming sequel) whose whole advertising campaign consisted of frickin' adorable high-pitched yellow things being adorable. And did anyone else notice the fishes in The Lorax having the exact same squeaky voices as Despicable Me's minons? Just sayin'.

You may have noticed my review of The Lorax so far has been rather sparse on any mention of the actual Lorax (who was fittingly voiced by Danny DeVito.) That's because while the book mostly involved a constant back and forth debate between the eager corporate Once-ler and the nagging, tree-hugging Lorax, the movie mostly involves Lorax just bugging the Once-ler. Bugging, and pestering and trying an oddly cruel scheme to rid the Once-ler from the valley.  Yet the Lorax never really gives him a solid reason for not chopping down the trees. He warns that cutting down trees is bad, and he should stop doing it, but doesn't give him reasons. That's what made the book compelling! The book didn't talk down at its kid-centered audience, or try to distract them with lame animal gags; it addressed the issues of deforestation in a straight forward and creative way, letting both sides have a back and forth discourse until the situation got out of hand. Most of the events of the book (the expanding of the Once-ler's shop and the individual goodbyes to all the wildlife) happens within the course of a 3 minute song (called "How Bad Can I Be? ...very subtle movie...) I guess instead of bringing up intelligent points about deforestation and the economy, we needed more forced visual gags with the cute forest critters. The whole result seems oddly paced: padded and stretched at the beginning and end, and then rushed in the middle to get most of the book's events over in 3 minutes.

The Lorax: photoed here being mildly displeased.
I know that feeling, bro.
If you think I'm being overly critical of this movie, it's probably because I know that there is a right way to adapt The Lorax. In fact, that version was already made in 1972. It was produced by Looney Tunes veteran Friz Freleng and Dr. Seuss himself, and as a result it just felt more...well..."Seussy." The cartoon kept a lot of elements that the 2012 version seemed to scoff at, such as fun rhyming schemes and Seuss' trademark nonsensical logic. For example, the only time I heard the Lorax call the bears "barbaloots" in the 2012 version was shamefully under his breath, almost as if it was a swear. And while there was some rhyming in the 2012 version, most every time they tried to fit in a rhyming scheme the "hip" characters would shrug it off, as if this juvenile nursery rhyme stuff was beneath them.

The 1972 version: with 98% more rhymes and 20% more wah-wah guitars.
The 1972 cartoon, however, embraced the elements that made Seuss great, and to top it all off it only ran under 30 minutes, and hell, even that felt stretched with songs and such (not stretched nearly to the extent of the 2012 version.) But at least the 1972 version was faithful, keeping all the major plot points that needed to be hit. Again, I have nothing wrong with lengthening the story, giving the Ted character and his plastic town its own arc and even ending the film with a more lighthearted note, but their execution of these ideas were sloppy. Much like the Once-ler getting caught up in expanding his business that he fails to consider the consequences, it felt like the writers were in such a rush to make this movie longer that they didn't stop to think about the pacing or more importantly the impact of the film's message.

I hate to be such a downer on a movie that is actually trying to get a worthwhile message to children, and from what I'm understanding kids are getting some degree of environmental education from this film. But from where I stand, the message in this film feels neutered and only a fraction of what it could have been. Which is a shame, because when the film finally slows down from it's A.D.D. pacing and takes in a quite moment, the animation takes over for some very powerful scenes. Moments like when Ted first ventures out into the deforested wasteland, or the first and last truffula trees being chopped down. The film is great at wringing out every ounce of emotion in these parts. But those are only fleeting moments in an otherwise mucky film. This movie could have been a truly powerful force of nature, but instead it's just a very week, very soft reminder that trees are good because...well, because the film said so, that's why.

And then I thought a thought I didn't think before,
Maybe this movie sucks, because I know more.
I've seen the original and what it can do
Making my view on this film all wonky and askew.

This film has made millions, what else can I say?
The people have spoken, they're willing to pay.
I'm fine with their choices, I'll speak what I please
About this week movie that "speaks for the trees."

So what if the masses are in love with this flick,
I'm happy ranting and raving and being a dick.


- Moo