Strange World: Disney’s Most Family-Savvy Movie

Here we go again, time to see another Disney movie on opening day (well, I know this post isn’t coming out on opening day… but you know what I mean). I’m gonna admit that I was worried about this one. Lightyear ended up being one of my biggest disappointments with Pixar in YEARS, and while Turning Red was great, it wasn’t meant to be better than Lightyear. Strange World also has something that always, ALWAYS sets the Internet on fire, even though it’s pretty commonplace nowadays. That’s why I try to watch movies I care about on opening day… even though I would prefer them to be on Disney+ as well (at least that’s something they did right with Disenchanted).

In Strange World, the famous explorer Jaeger Clade is ready to make the discovery of a lifetime on the other side of the unconquerable mountain range that looms over his hometown of Avalonea. He drags his son Searcher (and some other people) on this journey. Searcher discovers a radioactive green corn, dubbed Pando, that has enough power to jumpstart Avalonea to a new age. Jaeger, sadly, doesn’t take kindly to this and abandons his son. Twenty-five years later, Searcher starts his own life as a farmer, but must take on the explorer mantle again when Pando mysteriously starts dying off.

So, Strange World is a lot for a Disney movie. I can almost guarantee that kids will have no idea what’s going on until they’re eighteen. On the flipside, this is perhaps the most catered to adults that a Disney animated feature has ever been. As strange as the world in Strange World is, the real strange world is the strange world of family relationships. The entire plot revolves around Searcher, his son Ethan, and Jaeger, who is of course still alive in the titular strange world beneath the mountains.

Before continuing on, I might as well fan-gush over this strange world. Who needs Avatar, which just looks exactly like Earth but plants glow sometimes, when you have the surrealistic wonders put forth by Disney visionaries? The movie explodes with beautiful colors, odd creatures, and epic landscape shots. Too bad Avatar‘s going to eat this movie nonetheless…

Anyway, complaints about Hollywood being jury-rigged against animation aside, the story of the Clades is the heart of the movie. When the three generations of Clade meet for the first time, the drama goes through the roof. Ethan thinks Jaeger is cool, Searcher doesn’t like Jaeger, Searcher doesn’t want Ethan to be like Jaeger (and holds Ethan back in the process of protecting him from his grandpa), and Ethan just wants to be… Ethan. To be blunt, if you’re a seasoned veteran of fiction, Disney movies, and life in general, then you already know all three men’s character arcs from start to finish. Fortunately, this age-old theme is still relevant, as there are certainly plenty of Dead Poet Society-esque parents out there who need a wake-up call. Also, Strange World executes on it really well, not getting too manufactured in favor of shock value while managing to hit home all the same.

Oh, right, there is still the whole dying green corn thing… Well, that debacle ends up having a legitimately clever twist. I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s definitely not human machinations this time. The idea of humans not being a vile plague is always a novelty these days.

Based on how aggressively I talked about the three Clade men up to this point, it sure sounds like they’re the only real characters. Well, they’re the most fleshed out, that’s for sure. Jaeger might be a jerk, but he has some funny moments of being a real grandpa. Searcher is a classic dad character, wanting to protect Ethan and his home. Ethan is just a cool kid caught between a rock (Searcher) and a hard place (Jaeger).

Everyone else is still quite likable, regardless of screentime. This includes that one guy with glasses whose name I don’t know at all; he’s funny. However, he’s not the comic relief supporting character; that would go to Splat, a native of the strange world. Splat is your usual mute, marketable character, who speaks in its own sign language and is very bouncy all the time. Ethan’s mom, Meridian, is perhaps the best. She can do anything and everything, all while being a mom. 

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Strange World has got to be one of the most intricate movies that Disney has put out (even though that’s not saying much). It deals with family… er… family… and… Actually, the entire thing is just one big commentary on families. Wow, good job contradicting yourself. Anyway, my love for it is NOT a contradiction, and I suggest you round up your father and/or son and watch this with them!

The Dragon Prince is FINALLY Back! (Season 4 Review with SPOILERS)

It’s been a long time coming for The Dragon Prince: one pandemic later. In any case, Netflix has given the show four more seasons; four more seasons of one of the best examples of a neo-retro fantasy epic, and one of the most I-feel-like-a-kid-again experiences outside of Disney. As you can see, I decided I’m going to go over it season-by-season. Since each season is only nine episodes, and the show has a really simplistic plot, this post, along with reviews of subsequent seasons, will contain unmarked spoilers so that the entire thing isn’t just “It’s good, I guess.” Read with caution!

Last time we left off, two human boys named Callum and Ezran (until the latter had to step away to be the youngest king ever), and an elf named Rayla, managed to escort (read as: “babysit”) the Dragon Prince, Zim, back to his home in Xadia. Ezran’s late father’s evil royal advisor, Verin, almost stopped them, by turning his followers into veiny-muscle-dudes. However, Verin was defeated thanks to the power of friendship. After a three-year cliffhanger for us and two-year timeskip in the show, we’ll finally get to see what happens next!

But not before I reverse a cardinal sin I committed in the previous review: I never ONCE mentioned the boys’ Aunt Amaya! She’s the Best Girl! She’s the typical Awesome Aunt trope: swole, and takes no prisoners, but loves her family to pieces. Speaking of loving someone to pieces… her ship with the swole elf, Janai, is officially set to launch this season. More on that later though.

This whole season has been built up as “The Mystery of Aaravos”. However, I’m pretty sure we knew one thing about him: he’s the Avatar. If I remember correctly (as someone who never bothered rewatching the previous seasons), Rayla mentioned an Aaravos who could control all six Primal Sources. What we learn of him in this season is that he’s the typical “bad guy who manipulates powerful people and causes wars from the shadows because evil”. There’s most likely more to his story.

Fortunately, despite the long break, the show hasn’t missed a beat. The Dragon Prince is still whimsical, funny, and epic. I couldn’t help but smile for most of the season, and that’s just how I like it. 

Of course, it’s not all roses and picnics, especially not considering what the real world has gone through in between seasons. Racism has always been a theme, but was played off as something with an easy solution; typical “kids are always right and adults are always wrong” kind of stuff. The inverse is evident when Amaya gets hitched with Janai; their ship sailing would spell disaster for what’s left of the proud Sunfire Elves. It doesn’t matter that they love each other. 

This is even more evident in the party that Ezran plans, in which the Dragon Queen herself visits Katolis (is that how you spell the place?), and ideally, no one tries to kill each other. His speech in episode three hit me harder than possibly anything else I’ve experienced in 2022. It was at that moment that I realized how much I relate to him; we’re both kids who believe in peace, and just cannot understand why hate comes so naturally to the vast majority of people. What he said in it really hit home for me. As much as I’ve gone with the logic of “all the people involved in those conflicts are dead now”, it really wasn’t true at all. Like Ezran said, we must keep the hatred within us alongside the love somehow. Unfortunately, as simple as The Dragon Prince is, even it knows that there is nothing simple about this. In fact, I understand humanity even less now, especially since no practical “how” for Ezran’s process is brought up whatsoever; it’s just something “you gotta do.”

Aaaaanyway, despite how complicated it is, Aunt Amaya makes it look easy. On her end, an ignorant human does something really offensive to a Sunfire Elf. Amaya, being the badass that she is, convinces them to reduce the perp’s punishment from death to community service. It’s a very powerful scene, and something that politically correct people should keep in mind. 

However, it doesn’t end there. The one universal constant with marriages is that in-laws are the worst, and in Amaya’s case, it’s Janai’s brother, Karim. He is basically the elf equivalent of that snobby guy from season three who wanted Ezran to declare war on Xadia for no particular reason, i.e. he’s an utter jackass. He’d rather humans and elves continue to be racist to each other. At first, it seems like he’s simply concerned about his people, considering that there aren’t too many of them left. However, as Amaya and Janai continue to move forward and do good things, he just wants to yank the whole encampment backwards. 

At the very least, he doesn’t try to kill her. Well, sure, he challenges her to a duel to the death, but he wanted her to forfeit so he can win by default. That’s exactly what happens, but he gets arrested instead because the duel is supposed to be illegal (his arc is definitely not over yet). Janai says this awesome thing about people’s history not defining how they are in the present, which—wait—isn’t that kinda the opposite of what Ezran said in episode three? Well, in any case, that’s also something that politically correct people need to keep in mind.

While that’s all nice and dandy, the overarching plot of the show at this juncture involves Claudia going through a whole rigmarole to release Aaravos. Callum and Co. literally catch wind of this, and that means it’s time for adventuring once more! Our old pals Callum, Rayla, Ezran, Zim, and now Sorin! What’s not to love?

Actually, the answer may surprise you: Callum and Rayla. Their ship sailed back in season three, but in the name of shock value, her metaphorical crew has a saboteur. In between seasons, Rayla left to find Verin’s body (or something?) but to no avail. Callum, naturally, is hit hard by this, since he loves her. However, when she returns, he… hates her guts? Well, he definitely behaves like an utter jackass, that’s for sure, suddenly acting like her ex and not her current partner. I really don’t get this AT ALL. I’m not sure if Rayla’s departure was shown at the end of season three (it definitely wasn’t in the recap), but there really is no context so I can’t tell who is more at fault. It’s one thing if she never told Callum, but it’s still indecent for him to be such a turd-monkey to the girl of his dreams. The cherry on top is that he’s set up to be one of Aaravos’ future thralls. Oh goodie.

Speaking of characters changing, no one changes more in this season than our antagonists. As I implied before, Sorin is a good noodle and he’s great as always. However, Verin and Claudia both do a big 180. Verin literally comes back to life after his big fall from season three, and he’s a mess. He doesn’t want to touch his staff or use dark magic, or be evil. He even has panic attacks and a new fear of heights. I was really surprised by this, because I was certain that he was the evil human mage shown in the very, VERY beginning of the series, staying young by snorting those butterflies as seen in season one. He might still have a connection with that dude, since his staff isn’t really his; Claudia uses it in ways that he never knew existed. 

Claudia, on the other hand, stops being the derpy, adorable teenage girl, and becomes quite cold. She has some of her charm, but she’s done a LOT of dark magic, and will cast as many spells as it takes to free Aaravos, who can make her father’s living-mumbo-jumbo spell permanent. Also, somehow, evil Claudia wins the heart of some elf named Terry. He’s cute and funny, and kills someone literally for the first time in his life this season. I bet he’ll be her moral compass for a while.

Let’s end this discussion by reflecting on how the season ended (since this is a spoiler-filled review after all). The teams on both sides journey to the mountain of Umber Tor to find Rex Igneous, who has a clue to Aaravos’ whereabouts. It’s literally carved into his tooth. To build tension, each party of course arrives at the same time, confronts each other, and the bad guys escape with the prize. Our heroes are safe from the grumpiest dragon ever (also I got the entire backstory of the series wrong in my first review apparently, even though I wrote that overview minutes after watching the first episode? Well, good thing I’m not official in any way), but they didn’t have silly putty nor the ability to obtain the map. So… they’re in a bind right now. Also, Verin uses his staff and seems to revert back to his old self, albeit with dark magic veins covering his face. Wait… IS he that dark mage from the VERY beginning? In any case, there’s still more to this that we don’t know, such as Ezran possibly having a connection with the human who thwarted Aaravos in the past, who is implied to have had the same Rubik’s cube that Callum has now. Also, that staff of Verin’s is referred to as “the Staff of Xiod” (I’m guessing that’s how it’s spelled). Xiod might be that dark mage, regardless of whether or not Verin and him are one and the same. 

In conclusion, this new season was as amazing as ever, and I already miss it. I’m not going to give a rating this time, because I feel like that won’t be necessary until the series as a whole is concluded (which, hopefully, will go swimmingly). If you haven’t watched The Dragon Prince, then I’m sorry for spoiling the entire series up to this point (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Also, if that’s the case, you should watch The Dragon Prince.

Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is Baby’s First Crash Course in Shinto

I’ve known about Netflix and Tonko House’s project, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, since its initial announcement in November 2019. Over the course of the three years it took for the show to drop… a lot has happened, on both a global and personal scale. We have at least seen an explosion in diversity lately, but I feel like a lot of it just becomes clout instead of doing anything substantial for the good of humanity. Despite that, I decided to watch Oni anyway; it’s short, so it’s not like I had to worry about time.

In Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, a bunch of yokai (who are actually kami because the terms are technically one and the same) live together to protect the world from the Oni. A large dude named Naridon enters their domain with a child. He lives there and raises his kid, Onari, who trains to fight the Oni. However, she doesn’t exactly have any powers (referred to as kushi) because Naridon is a bit of an oddball. Sounds like the perfect setup for a coming-of-age story!

Before discussing the story at all, I must praise Tonko House for their absolutely stunning job with the visuals. Tsutsumi brings that experience as a former Pixar animator to the table for sure. Oni, being in brand with the studio, is an ode to stop-motion animation, and simply put, it’s the most beautiful display of the style I have ever seen. Every motion and detail is perfect and full of life. I can’t really express how visually appealing the show is; you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Furthermore, the show does a better job presenting a mythological world than almost any other case I’ve experienced in Western culture, especially compared to the literature department. It hits all the right notes, and teaches you the basics of Japanese culture and Shinto folklore in memorable ways, instead of mindless exposition dumps that insult the viewer for not having encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff going into it. If only there was more soulful stuff like this out there to teach children about other cultures.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. However, it’s told with much more chutzpah than a lot of the crap that spews out of our screens these days. Oni isn’t exactly deep or profound, but it’s not mind-numbingly predictable either. It showcases the strictness of Japanese society all too well, with how much pressure the children are given to excel, especially for poor Onari, who doesn’t know what her power is. It’s not heavy all the time, though; there’s plenty of adorable humor sprinkled throughout.

Being only a four episode miniseries, Oni doesn’t exactly have time to tell its story. While it kind of sucks that I waited this long for such a short show, the length is to its benefit; if it was allowed to go on longer, it could’ve easily gotten boring. Oni, especially in the first half, is basically a character study. There isn’t much adventuring whatsoever, and there’s a lot of dialogue. Honestly, it would have been a REALLY bad show if it went on for twenty-four-plus episodes. Fortunately, it does what it needs to do in the time given.

As you can expect from a program aimed at kids, the characters are quite simple, and are hard-carried by how they are presented in execution. Unsurprisingly, the studio did a great job making them memorable and likable (well, except for the people who aren’t meant to be likable). Onari herself is plucky and full of energy, and as the main character, is the one who must find herself. However, the real star of the show is the tragic hero, Naridon. Although he’s doofy and the least expressive character in the show, I was somehow able to tell that he carries a lot of baggage. If Tonko House actually meant for you to pick up on that, then kudos to them. 

Out of Onari’s classmates, the only one who isn’t a jerk is her kappa friend… Kappa. He’s the socially awkward and sensitive kid that you just want to hug all the time. Unfortunately, everyone kind of exists to fill the class and be, as I said, jerks. Even her teacher, Tengu-sensei, is kind of one too. Once it’s found out that Naridon is a big hotshot, he puts too an unfair amount of stock into Onari; they couldn’t give George Takei a better character to voice? Even Naridon’s brother, Putaro, is kind of your typical jealous younger sibling. Holy crap, I said the cast was great, but in retrospect, a lot of them really aren’t. Well, props to Tonko House for clearly telegraphing whom the audience is meant to root for. At least the school principal is a cool dude.

If there is anything of note to add, it’s what you could argue is the show’s biggest flaw. In essence, it loses its whimsy by the second half. While still excellent all the way through, it’s… well… how do I put it? Basically, in some regards, Tsutsumi isn’t that much different from typical modern writers. Oni has social undertones that have been around since humans put pen to paper, and it kind of sucks that this is just another one of those cases. Fortunately, it’s one of the more respectable instances of it, and they kind of—as the kids say it—jabait you in a way.

Sidebar: I swear if The Dragon Prince becomes darker next week, I’m going to be really angry and sad. However, you won’t be hearing my thoughts on it until November 19th since I’m going to Walt Disney World again!

Actually, hang on, there’s just another small nitpick, and it’s this weird case where subtitles appear to translate text on various background objects that don’t really matter whatsoever. Well, obviously, they do matter as little details to make the world feel alive, but you know what I mean; none of it matters to the plot. Ironically, this DOESN’T occur during the one instance of actually relevant onscreen text.

Well… okay, there’s one more issue I have with the show; not really the show but its circumstances I guess. While it’s nice and all, it doesn’t do Japanese culture any favors. In this age of inclusivity in American pop culture, people seem to think that nothing exists unless observed by the American mainstream. As someone who’s read manga for ten years and studied Japanese culture directly for four, Japanese mythology is alive and well in its actual origin point: you know, Japan itself. From Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan to In/Spectre and beyond, Shinto is everywhere, much to the locals’ famous claims of not being religious. It is odd that, with how common Shinto is, most of those I.P.s fail to break through into the mainstream, with Spirited Away being the only one to have managed it. Not even Oni is mainstream; Netflix really didn’t do much to promote it at all, and I spent two years thinking production was axed by COVID.

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

As far as representation is concerned, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is by far the best portrayal of Japanese mythology in all of Western entertainment (at least out of what I know of). To be less hyperbolic, it’s just a really cute, amazing show that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you wanna raise a kid who will swim outside of the mainstream, then Oni is an easy must-watch. In fact, if you’re a parent, you should probably watch it with them.

Song of the Sea: This Time WithOUT Feeling?

I finally got to see Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells after years of buildup. I loved it, so naturally, I did the next logical step: also watch their second film, Song of the Sea. Time to stop beating around the bush and discuss the movie already! 

In Song of the Sea, a boy named Ben is subject to the classic family tragedy: his mother runs away, and a new baby sister, Cirsha (is that how you spell her name?), is left behind. As you can expect, dad is depressed, and Ben hates Cirsha because he blames her for his mother’s presumed death. Well, things escalate when she starts playing with the magic conch that Ben inherited from mom, because she’s a magical child who’s destined to free all the Celtic spirits from their stony prisons caused by Macha the witch stealing their emotions.

Sound complicated? Well, Cartoon Saloon has clearly upped the ante since The Secret of Kells. The plot is more involved, there’s more at stake, more influenced from Celtic mythology, and they go RIGHT for the jugular, Disney-style. The movie has a much more adventurous feel, since they are shipped off to live with grandma in crappy London (well, that’s how it looks in the movie), and have to hoof it back to their secluded island to reunite Cirsha with her patented magic onesie. 

Oh, right, I almost forgot to remind you of the supremacy of hand-drawn animation. Man, I miss experimental Disney, but Cartoon Saloon at least shows some sign of trying different visual styles. Song of the Sea is set in the modern day, forcing them to use shapes and colors unlike what had been seen in The Secret of Kells. The characters are still made of simple shapes, but there’s a lot more roundness going on, versus the many polygons in the previous outing. As expected, they do wild things with shapes and depth that—not to sound redundant—showcase how awesome hand-drawn animation is. 

Anyway, back to discussing the plot! Despite it being more complicated than the other movie, Song of the Sea is still pretty straightforward for the little ones to follow. Just like last time, the artstyle lends itself to telegraph the mood of the given scene and what certain characters are like without them speaking a word (this helps since Cirsha can’t say anything anyway). Weirder stuff happens, like Ben navigating a tunnel made of facial hair, but it’s pretty standard fare for the most part. The most interesting aspect of the movie is a parallel that can be made between two different characters, and the movie never really states whether or not they are one and the same. It’s something that adults will probably notice their first time through, though.

There is a lot more suspense than last time, as well. The stakes aren’t just higher; Ben has some close shaves as well. When Macha’s owls get the memo about Cirsha being a selkie, they pursue quite relentlessly. There’s also the caveat of Cirsha’s life slowly draining away every second she’s not in her onesie. Good thing dad chucked it into the ocean!

As with the previous venture, the characters are kind of the weakest part. Simple and effective is once again the name of Cartoon Saloon’s game, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the cast, I’m not entirely willing to slander strangers on the Internet in their names either. Ben is a classic piece of crap kid with a redemption arc who eventually warms up to his sister. Cirsha, on the other hand, is the second best character. She’s cute, and has a lot of character for a mute girl. The BEST character is the dog, Cū. He literally swims across the ocean to unite with the kids after they are taken to grandma’s house. 

Something I failed to comment on regarding The Secret of Kells, which is also consistent with Song of the Sea, is the perfect pacing. Both movies tell their stories effectively, and I never felt like they were rushed nor overstayed their welcome. It’s doubly impressive since they give a lot of time for resolution following the climax, unlike SOME studios. 

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

Song of the Sea is really great. Cartoon Saloon does a fantastic job reminding me of that experimental phase of Disney from way back when. I have one movie of theirs left in this trilogy (and I don’t plan on seeing The Breadwinner because it will probably gut me into oblivion), and I will watch it… someday. When I have time.

Battle Dragons: City of Thieves is basically a Fusion of How to Train Your Dragon and Blade Runner

I’ve known about Alex London’s Battle Dragons franchise since it was new. However, because of the ruthless march of time, I’ve only just gotten around to checking it out. I mean, it’s a cyberpunk with dragons. I know I’ve been disappointed before, but something like this—knock on wood—can’t possibly be crap! Well, let’s FINALLY read the first installment, City of Thieves, and confirm my wild claim. Hopefully.

In City of Thieves, a boy named Abel stays up late to watch the custodial dragons burn some trash. Instead, he sees his older sister parkour her way into his room, where she subsequently gives him a mysterious address and a secret to keep. Apparently, she’s a dragon thief, wanted by gangs and the secret police. Better yet, when Abel checks out this address, he finds—surprise, surprise—a rare dragon, smack dab in the middle of Thunder Wings territory. He is now forced to become its rider and fight illegal battles for the Thunder Wings.

Let’s address the elephant, or rather, dragon in the room: the worldbuilding in this series is actually kind of awesome. I’ve seen so many cases where a cool idea falls flat, and thankfully, this isn’t one of those times. Dragons are everything in the city of Drakopolis, including in the aforementioned illegal battles. Also, like in any cyberpunk works, gangs like the aforementioned Thunder Wings run the city. They aren’t even subtle about it; people in public jobs are openly showing their gangster imagery. Even Abel’s teacher is in a gang!

However, I don’t know what is with American literature in particular, or maybe it’s seriously bad luck on my part, but… well… London’s execution is—surprise, surprise—as aggressively safe as it could possibly be. City of Thieves has a mind-numbingly simple plot, and next to no battles, despite the series’ title. This sucks, since the worldbuilding is so well thought out.

I suppose the “risk” comes with some of the twists that come up. However, can you even call them twists? The story is framed to make you think everyone is a criminal, so when these twists happen, it feels more ridiculous than a case of “Wow! Moral ambiguity!” You might as well throw in one of Team Rocket’s famous disguises while you’re at it.

The story would’ve likely been better if Abel wasn’t the main character. He simply isn’t ABEL to do much of anything, and yet he’s the chosen one of the dragon Lina stole, explained simply as “it loves her so much that it loves her blood relative too.” I was spoiled when looking the book up on Goodreads that Abel has AD-HD (since Goodreaders cannot shut up about representation these days), which is something that is not overtly mentioned in the story. I don’t really know how much that justifies his stupid actions, but I do know that a kid with AD-HD once saved the Greek gods, so… it’s only so much of an excuse. Honestly, what really set me off about him above all else is that he never gets that everyone is a criminal.

This includes his best friend, Roa. In the first of many telegraphed betrayals, Roa reveals themself as a Thunder Wings member. However, it really doesn’t mean crap in the long run. They are still smart, supportive, and a much more capable human being than Abel. The aforementioned gangster teacher, Ally, is probably one of the best characters, but she doesn’t get enough screentime. Even Abel’s mom gets to show that she’s a better character than he is. His older brother, Silas the police officer, is… kind of unremarkable. He’s a one-dimensional stuck-up older sibling, and there’s a plot twist with him that’s so obvious that I legitimately thought it was something that had been established in the opening chapter. 

To be honest, Lina should’ve been the main protagonist. She’s cool, knows parkour, and gets to see so much more of the criminal underworld that readers probably want to see than Abel. London could’ve taken some real risks with her, since she would’ve made a great anti-hero. 

I sure bashed City of Thieves a lot, but it isn’t bad. It’s just, like a lot of American novels I’ve read, safe. The writing is good; it describes stuff well enough, there’s great humor, and the few battles that happen (all two of them) get pretty intense. The book is just not cyberpunk-y enough.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

The first book of Battle Dragons is better than I expected, but still not particularly amazing. I’ll probably read the sequel, since the books are short, and light novels eat wallets for breakfast. At least it’s not as pretentious as other cyberpunks. That’s something, right?

The Secret of Kells: Yes, I’ve Finally Watched it for the First Time

I’ve wanted to watch Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore movies for a good while, even more so after getting into European folk metal. COVID is the reason why I took this long to get around to it! In case you didn’t know, the studio’s third movie never premiered in theaters. And so, GKids, for some ungodly reason, exclusively streamed it on Apple TV+, which—to be fair—I could’ve got a free trial and canceled it after watching the film. However, my consciousness didn’t want to. It also wouldn’t solve the fact that the other two movies aren’t up for streaming anywhere. So, I recently stumbled upon the environmentally friendly Blu-ray box set containing all three movies, and decided to get that through Amazon. Sure, Cartoon Saloon still wouldn’t get a cent of commission off of it, but I at least trust Amazon, for they seem to be the only ones capable of shipping anything in this day and age. Anyway, without further rambling, let’s review the studio’s first movie: The Secret of Kells!

In The Secret of Kells, a boy named Brendan lives in the titular town of Kells, run by his anal Uncle… uh… Abbot? Crap, I already forgot his name. Anyway, said uncle wants to build a wall that could trump Trump in order to protect them from Vikings. However, things get interesting when an old geezer named Aiden (and his cat) moves into town, with a magic book that is just one page short of completion. Aiden is too old to finish it. Guess who gets hoisted with the big responsibility.

Whenever I’ve reviewed Disney movies, I never know what to say about the visuals. As aesthetically striking as they are, I admit that the films are quite samey. The Princess and the Frog is probably better looking than most of the company’s films, and that’s because of something that a lot of millennials and boomers can agree on: hand-drawn animation. While it can look crappy and cheap (i.e. TV anime), Cartoon Saloon shows just what the art form is capable of. 

There’s so much to say about it, I can dedicate a real paragraph to talk about it! While it’s not as anatomically correct as even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Secret of Kells has its own sense of beauty. Characters are made of basic shapes, which allows them to get really creative with the designs. The way people look lends to their personalities; Brendan is small and cute, while you already know his uncle is a big fat meanie from his height and stiffness. Beyond the cast, the movie does some wild things with the backgrounds; stuff I don’t want to spoil for your sake. It’s colorful, whimsical, and in 2022, still looks timeless. The Celtic world of Ireland really shows through in the natural splendor of the forest outside of Kells. If only Disney kept at the hand-drawn biz; who knows how their newer movies would have looked then!

As my first ever film outside of a natively English-speaking nation other than Japan, I was curious about if there was a sub or dub, like with anime. The answer is that there’s no such thing; it’s English through-and-through, but thankfully, it’s authentically European. Over there, other countries are like states to them, and it’s easy to be exposed to a myriad of tongues. In essence, this means that they can speak English but still have the beautiful accents of their respective regions. It really helps make the movie awesome, although that could just be the pagan weeb in me talking.

Anyway, despite the movie being artsier than Disney, it’s got about as straightforward of a plot. It boils down to Aiden and Brendan working together, under Uncle’s nose, to finish the miraculous last page of the book, and with an inevitable Viking assault capable of occuring at any moment. That’s more-or-less it; Brendan is pretty much just Aiden’s errand boy. Someone probably has a deep analysis of how the movie is an allegory to chauvinist postmodernism (whatever that is), but I definitely didn’t notice it if it was there.

The hardest part of a feature film is writing characters that you’ll grow attached to in that short time, but thankfully, The Secret of Kells does a good enough job with that. Brendan has that childlike wonder, and also becomes like Crockett Johnson’s Harold at one point. He meets Best Girl Ashley, a strange child who lives in the forest and is quite the tomboy. Aiden is a fun and eccentric old man, and conversely, Uncle is—well—we’ve established him. Thankfully, Uncle isn’t exactly a bad Disney parent; in 2009, Cartoon Saloon subverted a trope that it took Disney until—what—Encanto to subvert themselves? Wow, way to sound pretentious. Look, I love Disney, but being the embodiment of the mainstream can bite them in the rumpus room sometimes.

Kind-of-spoiler here, but I’m at least glad that The Secret of Kells doesn’t take the obvious route of making humans evil. Sure, there’s Vikings, who are all polygonal,  black, and have red fire, but they are clearly established as their own entity that don’t represent humankind as a whole. Also, this legendary monster that is supposed to be suffering and malice incarnate… most people would just make it a 40-something-year-old man. However, it’s actually just a monster… for once. I hope I’m not wrong about that, or else I’ll look stupid!

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Surprise, surprise—The Secret of Kells is a really good movie, and I’m stoked to watch the other two. If I wasn’t already sold on Europe via its metal scene, then this might’ve been what did it instead. I recommend it to anyone who misses hand-drawn animated movies.

Ten Years of Changing Fate and Mending Bonds!: Brave Retrospective

Pixar’s Brave turns ten this year. Who’da thunk that’d ever happen? Since I’ve done many-a Disney movie retrospective, I thought it’d be time for me to tackle Brave! It’s one I remember fondly, but as someone who hadn’t seen it in at least five years, I can’t exactly go off of that. As such, it’s time to see what it’s like from the perspective of a hyper-critical adult!

In Brave, we are taken back to the good old days in ancient… er… Scotland(?). Princess Merida learns to be a badass from her dad, much to the chagrin of her protective mother. Oh, and dad almost gets offed by a bear in that classic Disney fashion. When Merida becomes a teen, mom gets REAL overprotective. Merida hates this, and in her blind rage, makes a deal with a witch to change her fate (you of course have to read those last three words in a Scottish accent). The witch’s spell turns mom into a bear, and the only way to reverse it is to mend the bond torn by pride (oh, and same for those last six words as well).

I sure didn’t appreciate the Celtic atmosphere when I was younger, but for a pagan metal junkie like myself, I was able to enjoy Brave‘s setting more than I ever have. Europe really is something else, and Pixar—as always—knocks it out of the park when making magical locales. This is the perfect opportunity for some Celtic folk-inspired musical numbers…!

…All two of them. The first is a song I guarantee most Disney fans only know the chorus of; you know, it’s the one set of lyrics that they always use every time Brave comes up in a Disney park attraction. Unfortunately, upon hearing the full song for the first time in years, I found it to be one of Disney’s weaker numbers. The iterations of it that appear in the aforementioned Disney attractions have way more weight and impact than its original use in the movie. The other number is a cutesy, sentimental piece used during a mother-daughter bonding montage. I had completely forgotten about it until seeing the movie for this retrospective, and forgetting a Disney song ever existed is a sure sign that it’s not particularly likable. I really feel like they squandered an opportunity here. While their next Disney princess movie (which also turns ten next year) is set in Scandinavia, most of the songs in it aren’t exactly inspired by pagan folk music. 

In case you couldn’t tell, the plot is pretty straightforward. While Merida struggles to mend the bond, she and her mom learn to get along with each other. Things go awry, the dad ends up rallying up the other clansmen to try and kill his own wife, mom realizes that she was being REALLY dense, and the power of love turns her human again. Oh, and they have a run-in with the evil bear from the beginning, who happens to have been a previous customer of the aforementioned witch. Like I’ve said numerous times, you generally don’t see Pixar movies expecting something mind-blowing. 

However, there is something VERY unexpected that I felt quite flummoxed by. There’s implied nudity, including during the brief moment after Merida’s very young brothers turn back from bear to themselves, and even the old fart clan leaders ogling Merida’s naked mom when she turns back into a human. There’s also a scene of one of the brothers swan diving into a very traumatized maid’s cleavage. I’m not joking; there’s even a zoom in right into her bosom. If you’re familiar with hentai, this’ll seem like nothing. However… This is a movie for children; a Pixar movie. Man, how different things would become in just four years after Brave‘s release.

While the plot itself isn’t too interesting, it’s one of the more digestible Pixar movie plots thanks to the movie’s seriously star-studded cast. Most Disney characters are super expressive, but to be perfectly real, they were REALLY expressive in Brave. Every character, and every mannerism, were just so memorable. I enjoyed their interactions way more than when I saw the movie the first time! 

Merida and her mom are the stars of the show, for they are the entire plot. Merida’s cool and all, albeit a bit immature, but her mom is actually one of the best Disney parents… eventually. She’s insufferable at the beginning, but has some amazing moments throughout, such as when she just ear-grabs her husband and the three clansmen to resolve a fracas. Also, the way she tries to act human even when she’s a bear is just perfect as well. Merida’s dad and her brothers are also very silly and rambunctious. The brothers don’t say a single word, and they’re just as bursting with character as everyone else.

The clansmen and their sons are additional comic relief. They all have very distinct character designs, and are—as expected—full of mannerisms. I wish they had more screentime, but it makes sense why they didn’t.

The weakest character is its main antagonist, Mordu the evil bear man. Like I said with The Princess and the Frog: Facilier was the last true Disney villain. In the transitional phase to Disney’s current system, we get some unremarkable Disney villains like Mordu who seem to exist just to spice things up (and we’ll be seeing another example in that other movie that I said would be turning ten next year). He’s at least got good foreshadowing, but he just seemed to be a plot device for the whole movie.

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After All These Years: 9.35/10

I’m gonna be honest, I thought I was going to revisit Brave, and walk out of it thinking it wasn’t a particularly remarkable movie. However, it might be one of my favorite Pixar movies of all time. It’s not groundbreaking, but it just does what Pixar does really, REALLY well in sheer execution. It’s aged really well in every department. I recommend it to kids and Disney nerds.

The Genesis Wars: It’s More Anime Than Its Predecessor, Therefore It’s Better

Holy crap… I forgot that YA novels don’t always have social undertones. Well, technically, Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts asked questions about the self and smartphone A.I., but since—like many cyberpunks—it comes off as pretentious and ham-fisted, the book ended up being a perfect mindless romp. Now, we have its sequel: The Genesis Wars. Let’s hope Nami actually lives up to the amazing One Piece character she’s named after!

When we last left our intrepid hero, Nami Miyamoto was betrayed and her friends were captured. Now she’s hanging out with a secret collective of different Clans (with a capital C) of warriors who have been hiding from the Residents. As you can expect, seventy-five percent don’t want to fight back because it’s too wisky-woo-woo. As such, she trains up to potentially go and save her old friends on her own. 

The Genesis Wars starts off kind of… badly. We are thrown right into her life in the Clans almost a year after she initially found them, because timeskips are fun. There are MANY characters casually introduced as if we’ve known them since the first book, and you have to adjust to these new faces on the fly. Seriously… is it just me or does this happen a LOT in sequels?

This seems like the perfect set-up for a boring sequel where Nami complains about them not doing anything, and we spend eighty percent of the book complaining that nothing happens. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Before long, Nami packs her bags and leaves the Clans behind, which honestly, makes the whole thing seem like padding in hindsight (at least you don’t have to worry about picturing most of the Clan people). In any case, she goes off to War, which is the kingdom of Prince Ettore that is basically every YA dystopian world all rolled into one.

It’s a nasty place, but for the story, it really takes off. Nami finds a group of rebellious humans camping around in War, and unlike the schmucks at the Colony and Clans, these people are actually DOING SOMETHING. Thanks to this, The Genesis Wars has actual wars in it, especially in a place called WAR. There is no end to anime-like, adrenaline-pumping action sequences once the ball gets rolling.

Naturally, the cast improves as well. Nami gets… better-ish. She’s still kind of whiny, but she’s much stronger. She can really pull her weight in Infinity, and most importantly, she looks awesome while doing it. Also, Nami gets a familiar whom she can telepathically control at will. That’s VERY anime, which is always good for YA novels.

We meet many new faces in War, the edgiest of whom is Ozias, a Clan turncoat who wanted to fight the Residents. Like many of the rebels, he is very proactive. Of course, he has some semblance of moral ambiguity so readers can be asked the classic question of “Are the [insert antagonistic entity here] or humans the real monsters?”

Oh, right, there’s Prince Caelan, and he’s still an enigma. We had no idea what his motives were back in The Infinity Courts, and we still don’t know them now. At least there’s a scene where he’s topless. That alone EASILY bumps up the score of the book by at least one point.

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

The Genesis Wars is a rare sequel that’s better than the previous book. There’s more action and intrigue than before. Let’s hope beyond all reason that the forthcoming third—and presumably final book—will be great. If so, then this might become one of my favorite YA series of all time.

Atlas Shrugged: The Sci-Fi Dystopia Novel That’s Also a Self-Help Book

I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.

This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.

Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.

Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.

Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything. 

You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks. 

The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.

Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make. 

Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.

The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.

Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.

If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.

Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you. 

Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.

If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.

The Last Fallen Moon: The Main Protagonist Dies in this One

Graci Kim’s The Last Fallen Star was one of the better series openers from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s only natural that I would be anticipating the sequel, The Last Fallen Moon. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the notorious sequel curse. 

When we last left off, Riley narrowly managed to save the world from a vengeful goddess. However, it cost her whole clan’s ability to heal, and almost everyone’s memories of her existence! Now she’s as miserable as the main protagonist of a YA novel. After a brutal attack on her household, she’s fed up, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Riley ingests a potion that temporarily stops her heart, effectively rendering her dead, so she can go to the heavenly realm of Cheongdang and find Saint Heo Jun and convince him to become the new patron of her clan to restore their powers. 

So, we have another installment set in the underworld. Classic. In Korean folklore, hell is known as Jiok, and to be honest… I wasn’t exactly impressed with Kim’s vision of it. If you’ve seen Coco, then it is basically the same idea, where modern bullcrap like customs and long lines are integrated into the mythological space. Jiok bears a striking resemblance to New York City, or rather vice-versa, which seems cool on paper, but the critic in me considers that Kim did this to avoid the logistics issues with figuring out where landmarks are relative to each other. The most creative aspect is how Kim retconned the crap out of the different punishments, where they go from chambers of torment to vacation getaways. It’s also a big aspect of the overall story, so it’s not just there for the lols.

Speaking of the story, the plot at least felt like a step up from before. There’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, sneaking, and stealing during the course of Riley’s journey through Jiok and Cheongdang. There’s also a lot more at stake this time around, although I cannot say exactly why, due to spoilers.

Unfortunately, any positives I might’ve had about the cast are kind of out the window. Three protagonists are in focus this time: Riley, Hattie—who is comatose and able to visit the spiritrealm as a result, and newcomer, Dahl. Is it just me or is it a trope for character arcs to reset in between books? Riley Oh is whinier than ever this time around! In fact, most of the book is basically the Riley Oh Torture Porn Train; a lot of it feels orchestrated specifically to dump on her.  

We at least get some more screentime with Hattie, but she has some moments that I felt like were there for shock value. Dahl is perhaps the best character thus far. He’s slick and smooth, but has many, MANY secrets underneath. He was born in the spiritrealm, and naturally, he wants to be human because what else would an immortal being want? At least his fascination with toilets is adorable.

With this being the spiritrealm, we get a lot of exposure to characters from Korean folklore. Unlike the Cave Bear Goddess from the previous book, they have way more personality, and better dialogue to boot. Sadly, I can’t discuss any of them due to spoilers. 

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

The Last Fallen Moon is a big step up from the previous book, even if it is still rough around the edges. Even as a Japanese culture nerd, who’s always been jealous of South Korean culture for being more accepted by the West, I’ve been able to enjoy this franchise quite a bit. Hopefully the next (and final?) book will be even better!