Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

RWBY Might Just be the Most Cynical Animated Program of All Time (Second Impressions, Volumes 1-8)

When I did my first review of Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, I watched the first five seasons and walked out of it pretty stoked to finish the series. It had flaws, but not enough for me to be leaning on the side of the series’ very loud critics. Now, as of being caught up with everyone else… I can finally say I am one of those critics. I touched upon my feelings regarding RWBY in my small dissertation on cynicism, but here, I will elaborate on my change of opinion in more detail.

In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust, and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.

Like any show that’s entirely CG, RWBY takes a hot minute to get used to… especially the first season. The movements are janky and the backgrounds are dull. However, by the third or fourth season, the models get more polished, and the quality is substantially improved in all areas. Most importantly, they incorporate more of the subtle mannerisms that I actually give a crap about in animation as a whole. The fight scenes are also really appealing, even if they violate all forms of actual fight choreography, and have the camera swing like it’s attached to the end of a yo-yo.

The team at Rooster Teeth really understood what it takes to make a good battle shounen. The first two seasons are genuinely hilarious. The comedy is on point, and the spectacle-driven fight scenes really help sell the sense of fun that the show tries to provide. One of my favorite scenes was at the beginning of season two: an over-the-top, epic food fight in the school cafeteria. That scene really showed what a great gag shounen RWBY can be.

However, if you’re no stranger to shounen series, you know that RWBY wouldn’t be all about the LMAOnade forever. It happens to a lot of them, from Yuyu Hakusho to Dragon Ball. Around the halfway point of its third season, RWBY takes itself more seriously. MUCH more seriously. At the time, RWBY‘s original creator tragically passed away. And while I could just yell “They ruined Monty Oum’s legacy!”, I won’t do that because I don’t believe there was any documentation of what he actually wanted to do.

Fortunately, the show stays pretty consistent on committing to a more serious atmosphere, unlike series such as Re:ZERO. The plot does get more involved, but it maintains a relatively solid sense of cohesion, which is something that most shounen can’t do. With better animation, it’s much easier to take the show seriously because they actually have a good chunk of money to spend on it.

However, the transition isn’t made without a few bumps in the road. This is also common among shounen, but RWBY had it particularly rough. It didn’t just become a more involved version of what it already was; it tried to become a seinen. Seinen is a term used to describe manga and anime for mature audiences, and they tend to be everything that shounen is not. Taking a gag shounen and turning it into a seinen is literally like transforming an apple into an orange.

I sound like I’m just dissing it for being a genre change because it’s not goofy like it was before; a common criticism apparently. However, I’m someone who’s enjoyed something silly like Spy X Family about as much as something serious like Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. I’m not criticizing the change in RWBY because I’m not too big a fan of cynicism (even if that is a bit of a factor), but because it’s not… interesting. The story goes from novel to typical. It’s practically a generic YA fantasy with boring, ham-fisted social commentary on first-world problems. Oh, and the cherry on top is that any attempts at horror elements consist of predictable (but effective because eff the human mind) jumpscares. 

One example of this is the Faunus. They’re a race of animal people that are—surprise, surprise—harshly discriminated against. And, well, the symbolism with said discrimination is practically spoon-fed to you. They live on an island called Menagerie that segregates them from humans (Native American reservations),  they were used as slaves in the past (African slave trading), and there’s an anti-racism extremist group called the White Fang (oh, and by the way, Rooster Teeth didn’t predict the protests from two years ago because Black Lives Matter had already formed at this point). I mean, how much more ham can you pack into that fist of yours, Rooster Teeth?! I get that the issue of racism is important, but at this point in human society, what is the take-away of showcasing it for the billionth time (besides virtue signaling that is)?

No matter how awry the plot goes, what kept me going were the characters. And I’ll admit it: RWBY has a solid cast. To a point. The four girls are all likeable to some extent, plus they get genuine character development to boot. I liked Ruby the most because I tend to default to the “lovable idiot” trope of shounen protagonists. On the flipside, Blake ended up being my least favorite, because she does the most whining and brooding.

The side characters are a mixed bag. In my First Impressions, I stated that my favorite character was Ruby’s frequently-drunk uncle, Qrow (angstily misspelled of course). However, as the show went on, Qrow came off as less of the bad-ass old timer, and more of a Debbie Downer; the minute things don’t go the squad’s way, he’s all “We should give up and crap” and the girls have to pull a nakama power speech out of thin air to tell him otherwise (and don’t get me started on that “relationship” he has in the seventh season). My new favorite ended up being the underdog, Jaune. He literally begins the series being called “Vomit Boy”, but over the course of the story, he grows and matures into one of the best supports for Team RWBY. A kid named Oscar tags along as well, and while he starts out as baggage, he ends up growing into a man rather quickly.

Unfortunately, there are some less-than-remarkable folks on their team as well. Out of the main group, a stoic boy named Ren ended up on the bottom. He was pretty boring normally, and what little character development he has is covered in its entirety over the course of three episodes. And after that, the characters act like the experience never even happened. His companion, Nora, isn’t that much better. She’s likeable for the same reasons as Ruby; she’s ditzy and bouncy and fun, but it’s to the point where she basically is another Ruby. 

One of the worst is an android named Penny. You’re expected to fall in love with her as soon as you hear her first “Salutations!”, but remember that this is Rooster Teeth. They do that because she’s the punching bag of RWBY. She suffers to no end, being framed for crimes committed by the villains, discriminated against as an android, and even “killed” once in season three (before eventually being rebuilt of course). I’d feel bad for her, but RWBY sucked out any empathy I can have for anyone in it by this point. 

The following passage contains spoilers, because I can’t not bring up the squandered character arc of James Ironwood. He starts out as that gruff, military Mr. Magoo, but doesn’t return until the seventh season. By then, he has a slow descent into madness. At first, it’s compelling because there are necessary sacrifices to be made for an edge in the war against the Grimm. However, in between seasons seven and eight, someone didn’t get the memo that RWBY isn’t a shounen anymore. In the most recent season, Ironwood basically becomes Hitler, allowing for no fascinating moral debates; a decision that could’ve been made in part due to pandemic stress, and since it feels like all American media is politically charged these days.

And my disappointment doesn’t stop there. RWBY’s antagonists have the one-dimensionality of most shounen villains, but none of the appealing personality. The first antagonist introduced, a one Roman Torchwick, is a legitimately entertaining villain, but if you know anything about the first antagonist of a shounen, it’s that they don’t tend to last. A staple antagonist ends up being a woman named Cinder, and other than trying too hard to be sexy, she’s very boring with a really basic backstory that tries too hard to tie into the show’s uninteresting edgy fairytale symbolism. Cinder has minions in these two kids named Mercury and Emerald, and they have no personality other than owing their whole existences to Cinder because of their incredibly basic tragic backstories. Cinder reports to the main antagonist of the series, a witch named—get a load of how creative it is—Salem. She is also very boring; basically just Maleficent without any of the charisma. 

No shounen antagonist gets by with just three minions! In addition to Cinder and Co., Salem has three more cohorts… of lacking substance. In fact, I even forgot two of their names, and hereby designate them as Pedophile McSwordArtOnlineVillain, and Mustache. Those names are them in a nutshell, more-or-less. The third person, Hazel (henceforth known as Hazelnut), ended up being my favorite villain. He was just about as boring as the rest, but his voice actor’s performance was a hilarious to me. For some reason, American audiences seem to think that all male actors should speak in deep, gravelly voices. Hazelnut takes that mindset to such an extreme that I laugh every time he speaks! Oh, and for the record, all of the villains, except this umbrella lady named Neo, have the least interesting character designs in all of RWBY.

Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 7/10

While I normally love hating popular things, I really didn’t want to do it to RWBY. To be honest, I think both its diehard fans and most toxic critics are in the wrong. However, in their defense, the way the series flops can catch you off guard if you’re not as familiar with battle shounen tropes as someone who’s seriously deep in the otaku hole. 

Unlike most battle shounens, however, I am particularly mad at RWBY for a unique reason. From the beginning, I could tell that Rooster Teeth weren’t “casuals” who watched Dragon Ball and the other internationally beloved anime. They really seemed to understand it on an intimate level. They should’ve seen how their favorite series drove themselves into the ground, and worked to avoid it. Maybe they could’ve taken inspiration from something like One Piece, which has only gotten better after twenty-plus years. But no, they followed the genre to the Nth degree. They didn’t only make the same mistakes; they did it with that distinctly American cynicism. 

To be clear, I am not mad at RWBY’s more serious arc because it’s darker. I’m mad at it because the ideas going into it become stale. They resort to contrived teen drama, smooth-brained judgements, and the writers being extremely arbitrary in various aspects of the story. After the tone shift, everything about RWBY feels meh. I. Stopped. Caring. 

RWBY, I just… don’t know. For what it was, it remained consistently cohesive and had great directing. But alas, it just didn’t feel like, well, anything. If you’re an adolescent teen, then you will probably think RWBY is the greatest thing ever, and you won’t even notice any of the mistakes it made. Otherwise… enter if you dare. Side effects include major depression and mood swings.

The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

Blood Scion: This Might be the Most Brutal YA Novel of All Time

Other than the amazing cover art, I honestly don’t know why I decided to read Deborah Falaye’s Blood Scion. Sure, I’ve read many books that deal with the topic of racism. However, with the exception of Tristan Strong, I can’t tell you if my glowing reviews of books like Legendborn and Blood Like Magic were based on the actual quality, or the guilt-stricken White man who’s tried to run from his American heritage his whole life. Also, I’ve been getting more and more into folk metal. Thanks to this sub-genre of music, I’ve begun to feel like these diverse books give off an understandable but grim rage and hatred that have caused me extreme mental anguish these past two years. Yet, here we are, with you reading my review of this book.

Why do I even bother going over the premises of these kinds of books? If you’ve read any of the aforementioned books, this’ll sound familiar: a girl named Sloane Shade is Yoruba, a race of innocent folk whose lives were turned upside down by the White supremacist Lucis menace. What’s worse is that she’s additionally a Scion, descended from Shango, the Orisha of Fire; Scions are an extra no-no in this world, and the Lucis do not hesitate to off them. She, like her mother before her, has stripped herself of her culture and heritage to keep her rinky-dink little village (and grandfather) safe from the Lucis, who tend to execute the relatives of those they deem criminals. And if it couldn’t get any YA-er, she gets drafted into the Lucis military to fight as a child soldier against the Shadow Rebels, who are Scions that refuse to hide. Cool. Might as well infiltrate their archives and get to find out what happened to her presumably dead mom!

Are people so P.C. that everything has to give a disclaimer warning? This is the third book I’ve read that’s done it, and the other cases came out in 2021 at the earliest. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, Blood Scion checks off a lot of items on humanity’s laundry list of social issues that give me despair from the fact that they’re all still ongoing. In case you’ve never read a YA novel that deals with these issues before, let’s go over them thoroughly. 

The big one is racism. The Lucis persecute the Yoruba, and treat them as slaves. Some are taken from their homes to rot on literal plantations. This also technically counts as colonialism, since the Lucis are invaders who happen to have better technology. On top of that, we also have what I believe is called internalized racism, since the Yoruba have been brainwashed into hating their own heritages. There’s also mysogyny and sexual assault, since the Lucis are very much portrayed as rapists, such as one who tries to do such a thing to Sloane in the first chapter before he gets burnt to death by her power.

There’s also the child soldier thing. Yeah, that’s a bit messed up, especially since Sloane has essentially been drafted to kill her own brethren. Anyone who goes A.W.O.L. gets shot dead, plain and simple. Basically, it’s Divergent but harsher. The final cherry on top is cultural appropriation, which is shown when the Lucis queen, Olympia, is casually wearing Yoruba garb for shits and giggles.

Despite how fascinating West African culture is, I feel like a lot of authors who dabble in it paint a pretty bland picture. In fact, Tristan Strong paints the only picture I would call lively. Fortunately, Blood Scion isn’t “just take typical Western fantasy tropes and change the name” like a lot of other novels. There is a bit of a science fiction spin on worldbuilding, since the Lucins have electricity and whatnot, while the dark skinned villagers don’t have crap. *Sniff* Aaaaaah… the fresh reek of colonialism. Thanks I hate it.

Blood Scion is written as you’d expect any YA novel to be; verbose, full of adjectives, and in the present tense. It’s effective, but doesn’t at all stand out from its contemporaries, especially when compared to Xiran Jay Zhao. Nonetheless, “effective” means “effective.” Blood Scion sinks the dagger into your heart and twists for maximum laceration. Falaye hams in the brutality of how Sloane’s people are treated; a brutality that you don’t have to look too hard to find in the real world.

I thought that with COVID, the war in Ukraine, and this being the eighth-or-so book of its kind that I’ve experienced, that I would be desensitized to Blood Scion. Nope, that didn’t happen. I found myself overcome with the all-too-familiar, soul-crushing despair caused by White supremacy.

Despite how brutal Blood Scion is, it still has a lot of the tropes that occur when the main protagonist is sent to some kind of disciplinary facility to train in some form. In order to make an underdog story, Sloane starts out as a bad apple in a bunch of cosmic crisps. On top of that, we have the “impenetrable fortress” with the most convenient blind spots. It takes suspension of disbelief when they have spotlights, guards, and trained jaguars patrolling the place, yet they magically don’t get caught when sneaking out one night. Also, everyone and their grandma has smuggled some kind of weapon into the camp, meanwhile when they see Sloane they’re like “Oh my god, TEA LEAVES?! Nope, we gotta confiscate that.” 

The biggest flaw of Blood Scion is its cast, in that if you’ve read any YA novel besides Iron Widow, you’ve seen them all before. Sloane is literally Bree, Zélie, Rue, and Voya; yet, to my luck, she’s probably the weakest among them. Like many YA girls, she’s all talk and next-to-no walk other than random, arbitrary spurts of badassery. Like I said before, she gets pummeled in camp in order to make her an underdog. On the other hand, Best Girl Zetian would’ve just torched the place and been done with it. Sure, there is an actual stipulation in that Sloane can’t risk getting caught, but she still ends up using her power at least once, to save someone who just so magically happens to be Yoruba as well. Most notably—minor spoilers—there is no catharsis with her character arc, at least not at present since there is a forthcoming sequel and all. The training regimen is meant to strip kids of their humanity, and sadly, that’s inevitable with Sloane. I don’t even want to say any more about this, lest I puke.

On to all the other relatable and wholly unremarkable characters! Malachi is a bully who at least has a believable motive to hate Sloane; his parents died in a fire she caused by accident. However, all that does for him is make him a Saturday morning cartoon bully who is interchangeable with literally any YA male of his kind. Sloane’s supporters are relatable teens named Izara, Nazanin, and Jericho. Beyond their tragic backstories, they’re kind of deadweights.

Among the White supremacist Lucis, we have the somewhat human Dane Grey. He isn’t the most racist guy at camp; instead of killing Sloane, he just humiliates her instead. The rest of the Lucis? From Lieutenant Faas Bakker, to Queen Facism herself, they’re monsters, and I hate them. I hate them because they exist in this world, and are running it to the ground.

There is a silver lining here. Blood Scion really goes off the rails toward the end. Falaye legitimately caught me off-guard with a lot of developments, and pulled off things that I didn’t think any YA author had the gall to do. It also really showcases how convoluted the issue of race has become.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Is this even an impartial score? Despite its flaws, Blood Scion was pure pain and suffering for me. It was full of such sadness and rage, and Sloane didn’t even feel like a particularly empowering character (although that could be because any YA protagonist other than Zetian feels like crap). In all honesty, I don’t even know if I have the mental fortitude to read the sequel, let alone any more books on this topic. Is this really supposed to help with racial healing? If you wanna try and find out, then be my guest.

Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

Ashes of Gold: The Sequel Curse Strikes Again

J. Elle’s Wings of Ebony was one of my favorite books of 2021. As someone who loved it, I would naturally want to read its sequel, Ashes of Gold. However, what other plot points could there be to explore? Only one way to find out!

Rue’s first year at Ghizon’s magic school was pretty lively. She ran away almost immediately, reconciled her relationship with her father, captured a White supremacist Ghizoni general, and—most importantly—made out with a strapping young man. Of course, the job isn’t done. She still has to take down the Chancellor, a.k.a. the mastermind behind it all. 

To be perfectly honest, I already had concerns for this one right out of the gate, simply because I wasn’t grabbed immediately like in the first book. It starts with Rue and Co. getting captured by the Chancellor’s goons, sure. However, Rue ends up displaying the tired trope of “doing a reckless thing and screwing up”, which ends up haunting her throughout most of the novel. This is one reason why I felt like she was downgraded in Ashes of Gold, which will be elaborated on later.

Fortunately, they escape pretty early, but they still have a mean ol’ White supremacist to take down. The goal ends up being to use a spell to bring back the Ghizoni people’s ancestors (sorry, Ancestors) and have them restore their descendants’ magic. Pretty simple, right?

However, that wasn’t exactly the case. A lot of Ashes of Gold is Rue and Co. traipsing around town and seeing how beat-up it is now, giving us more and more reasons to hate the Chancellor. Unfortunately, that’s about it for half the book. There’s some action, but it felt less impactful this time around.

It’s been exactly a year since I read Wings of Ebony, and I haven’t reread it since then. As such, I forgot who a lot of supporting characters were. Like, who are Zora, Shaun, or Bati? Was I supposed to remember them? I do, however, want to rectify my failure to elaborate on Bri’s character arc, since it’s kind of fascinating… and uncomfortable. Basically, Bri seems to represent those White people who want to fight racism, but simply don’t understand enough of the issue to contribute substantially. Rue has had to savagely tear into Bri multiple times throughout the duology, and she gets even more hate in this book simply because she’s Grey (a.k.a. the Ghizon’s equivalent of being White). To be fair, she is incredibly dense. One example is of her complaining about poor people stealing food; girl, it’s pretty damn obvious why someone would be reduced to committing those crimes.

I remembered loving Rue in Wings of Ebony. In Ashes of Gold, however, she’s… flawed. Sure, a good character needs some flaws through which to grow. However, Rue seems to be nothing but flaws this time around. She isn’t fierce or powerful, and is constantly hounded by the failed encounter with the Patrol at the beginning of the novel. And instead of bettering herself, she spends the whole book trying to get the damn Ancestors to fix everything for her.

Fortunately, things do pick up toward the end. There are sufficient twists, and the climax is satisfying enough. There are no plot threads left unresolved (as far as I could tell at least).

One thing to consider about me not having overwhelmingly positive thoughts on Ashes of Gold is the fact that I’ve since read Iron Widow. That book is just *chef’s kiss*. It’s so good that it makes a lot of YA novels—including the ones I like—seem like crap. And sadly, J. Elle’s works ended up not being exceptions. With that being said… 

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Final Verdict: 7.85/10

Ashes of Gold is a solid conclusion to a great duology. However, there’s a lot better you can do, such as Iron Widow and Tristan Strong. 

Tristan Strong: The Only Rick Riordan Presents I.P. I Truly Love

I’m a big ol’ weeb, but even then, I acknowledge that West-African culture is no slouch. Disney’s Animal Kingdom introduced me to how beautiful and creative it is. Naturally, I would be all for reading Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong trilogy, published under Rick Riordan Presents.

The titular Tristan Strong is stuck at his grandparents farm out in the boonies when a weird doll thingy steals the journal of a dear friend of his. He chases it, and ends up punching a tree, which releases a demon into the magical world of African folklore. Oops. Now, he has to find this dude named Anansi and fix this mess.

In every YA novel I’ve read, it felt like there was a PSA about how bad racism is on every other page. In Tristan Strong, it definitely rears its ugly head, but in a thoughtful and creative way, such as a living slave ship as the antagonist of the first book. And relatively speaking, that’s the LEAST brutal it gets! Book two deals in violent protesting, which was very impactful during its initial 2020 publication. The final book gets unapologetically brutal; it is straight-up nightmarish (I don’t use hyperbole, so I literally mean that word by definition). 

Going off of Tristan Strong alone, I’ve found African mythology to be one of the most interesting in the world. Tristan Strong really caught me by surprise. I get that there must be some creative licensing, but the African folklore assets felt like more than just “Oh, some gods of such-and-such element.” The implementation of it has more creativity and personality than any of the other Rick Riordan Presents books I’ve read. Anansi the trickster becomes a smartphone app, for example, and there’s a rapping vulture in book two. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!

If there’s any flaw, it’s that the cast isn’t 100% stellar. I wasn’t too big of a fan of Tristan himself at first, but after reading Legendborn, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that he’s got more to him than just the P.C. culture trope of “Hey, I’m Black! Love me or you’re racist!” He has a compelling character arc, a lovable enough personality, and one of the more unique superpowers in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Tristan starts off as generic, but he eventually has to deal with trauma and his own anxieties. 

Sadly, most of the other protagonists feel kind of there, such as female lead Ayanna. Most of the gods, while very cool because of how some of them are historical figures, fall under the Rick Riordan trope of being exposition dumpers who can’t do anything and leave saving the world to a twelve-year-old. There are silver linings, though. Gum Baby, the aforementioned doll thingy, is amazing. She’s sassy, sappy (literally; she vomits tree sap), and memeable. Of course, Anansi is a great supporting protagonist. I felt it fitting to picture him as Miror B from Pokémon Colosseum.

Most Black empowerment novels I’ve read had a cartoonishly evil White supremacist as its main antagonist. Of course, Mbalia can write a truly evil villain without having to grab us with an easy hook like that. Tristan’s foe is simply named Cotton. That sumbitch proves himself to be one of the deadliest in any Rick Riordan Presents book—scratch that—in any book with Riordan’s name on it; including Riordan’s own books!

Tristan Strong did to me what few other books I’ve read have done: moved me to tears. While other books are appropriately brutal, they never once made me cry. Tristan Strong did. At some point in the middle of the third book, I just put it down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. It was a necessary meltdown, because Tristan Strong only scratches the surface of the real injustices that have occurred throughout American history.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Tristan Strong is awe-inspiring. Although the first book can be a bit of a slow burn, the series as a whole is practically perfect. It’s so good that the other Rick Riordan Presents books don’t remotely compare. There is only one franchise of Western literature that I enjoy more than Tristan Strong, and I mean that literally. I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who has the heart to care about humanity.

Disney’s REAL Edgiest Animated Feature: Treasure Planet Retrospective

The turn of the 21st Century wasn’t the worst era of the Walt Disney Company’s history, but it sure was one of the strangest. Following their Renaissance Era in the 1990s, they did some weird stuff. First off, they made a lot of cash-grabby, low-budget sequels to existing I.P.s that nobody asked for. In addition to that, any new I.P.s were serious departures from their classic formula, and it wouldn’t be until Princess and the Frog that they went back to the way things were. That era came with cult classics like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (which I covered on its twentieth anniversary last year), The Emperor’s New Groove (which I’d do a retrospective on if I didn’t have it memorized), and… an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island. For the latter, they changed the genre to science fiction, and named it Treasure Planet, which I had not seen in over fifteen years until watching it for this post. Oh, and by the way, being someone who doesn’t read classic literature, I never read Treasure Island, so don’t expect any intellectuality whatsoever here.

Just in case you’ve somehow never heard of Treasure Island, allow me to give you a run-down. A boy named Jim Hawkins finds a map and is like, “Wow! Treasure Island!” He goes on a pirate expedition to find the place. And since the novel is super-old, the product description now spoils that one of the pirates, Long John Silver, is secretly the main antagonist. Treasure Planet is pretty much the same, except he has no dad, and his house burns down because it’s Disney (oh, and it’s in space).

There ended up being a lot more to say about Treasure Planet than I thought initially going into it, and it’s pretty much impossible for my train of thought to not go all over the place. What immediately stands out is that this is probably the edgiest core animated feature Disney has ever put out, even more so than Big Hero 6. This was the early 2000s, and everyone—even Disney—was embracing full edge culture. And as we discuss the various components of the movie, you’ll see just how edgy it is.

One thing I do remember as a kid is how much the setting blew my mind, which isn’t saying much, of course. To be honest, though, Disney was pretty creative with a lot of aspects of the movie. One example is a spaceport that’s literally in the shape of a crescent moon. Also, in trying to blend the pirate and science fiction themes, they ended up inadvertently predicting NASA’s Lightsail project. Just keep in mind that they do some things that require major suspension of disbelief, like when they survive a supernova and escape a black hole from well within the event horizon. The movie has some intense action sequences, in case you couldn’t tell from the aforementioned supernova and black hole. They are some of the most violent in Disney’s animated films, more so than in Atlantis.

Again, I have no idea what Treasure Island was like, but Treasure Planet definitely has some of those beloved Disney clichés. One of the worst is the case of Jim Hawkins’ father, who isn’t dead, but missing. It’s definitely different from Disney’s usual emotional hook of killing the parents, but it feels half-assed here. For starters, his dad doesn’t appear at all at the beginning when Hawkins is a toddler (before he left), so it’s kind of just thrown at you when he turns into an angsty teen. They also never explain what happens, which can technically be construed as something to leave up to interpretation. It’s possible that he tried to go to Treasure Planet on his own, or that Long John Silver could be his father. Since I don’t like to psycho-analyze and retcon Disney movies, it’s one of those things that has to be glossed over. There’s also some other silly hiccups, such as the death of this one red-shirt guy. He’s murdered by a lobster dude, and they pin it on Hawkins, which is later just overlooked (it’s as if that guy was killed for shock value). Lobster guy gets away with the crime, leaving Hawkins to have an abnormally easy time getting over what he thinks is him committing involuntary manslaughter. Other than that, Treasure Planet is pretty straightforward. They go to the titular planet, find the treasure, escape before it blows up, and learn that the real treasure is the friends they made along the way. That last part is quite literal, because the bread and butter of this movie is the relationship between Hawkins and Silver. Due to how I like to do things, we’ll get to that when we discuss the characters.

The worst part of the movie is probably the soundtrack. I don’t remember a single song in the movie, and that’s saying something for Disney. What stands out in Treasure Planet’s soundtrack is its one musical number. Remember ‘Immortal’ from Big Hero 6? That wasn’t the first edgy alt-rock song by a hired band for a core Disney movie, but the second. They have a montage/backstory for Hawkins, and just like everything in the early 2000s, it’s a sad and moan-heavy punk rock ballad that doesn’t fit at all with Disney, even more so than ‘Immortal’. Whatever this song is called, it’s now my least favorite Disney musical number of all time. 

Treasure Planet has a rather wild cast of characters; and unfortunately, a lot of them are now my least favorite Disney characters of all time. Jim Hawkins, for example, has become one of my least favorite—if not, straight-up least favorite—lead protagonists the company has ever put out. He’s brash, whiny, gullible, has no shortage of sarcastic comments, and has a frat-boy’s dream hairstyle. Disney tried way too hard to make an edgy teen protagonist, and I didn’t like him whatsoever. At the very least, one unique quality is that he’s a lead protagonist who gets no romance.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no romance in Treasure Planet at all. This movie’s lucky bachelor is a scientist named Dillbert who is stupid rich and associated with the Hawkins family for some reason. The fact that he’s rich means that he could’ve paid to have Mrs. Hawkins’ inn rebuilt, but he really wanted an excuse to go to Treasure Planet. Thankfully, Dillbert ended up being the best character in the movie. He comes off as the hoity-toity type, but he’s got an unexpectedly large amount of character that made him more fun than the actual comic relief characters (more on those two later). 

His wife ends up being… er… Look, I did a good job remembering the cast of Atlantis last year, but they literally use the lead female protagonist’s name once in the whole movie. And that’s because she’s the captain of the ship, and insists on being referred to as Captain or Ma’am. Whoever she is, imagine Mary Poppins as a pirate and that’s basically Captain Ma’am in a nutshell. On another note, she has either become more or less controversial over the years (I honestly don’t know which) because she’s a cat-girl. So uh yeah, if you’re offended by that kind of stuff, then this movie is not for you. 

Usually, Disney has a good track record of making cute characters who exist for gags, but Treasure Planet has two of my least favorites in that category. The first one is a blob named Morph. Imagine Figment but ten times more annoying. He shapeshifts and stuff, but that’s about it. Most of his attempts at being funny come off as incredibly annoying, and if I had ever found him funny as a kid, then shame on my house and my cow. 

Additionally, there’s B.E.N…. who isn’t much better. Fun Fact: for all this time, I had thought that this guy was voiced by Robin Williams. He has a spastic, spontaneous personality, much like the characters that Williams has played. However, B.E.N. is actually voiced by Martin Short, which was a huge mind-f*** for me. I must say… as much as I like Short, he was pretty screwed with this role. B.E.N. is just very boring. I don’t know, but none of his lines felt funny, even though Short tries his damndest to make them funny. One standout thing is that B.E.N. is a fully CG character among a cast of hand-drawn ones. For 2002, he moved better than something like RWBY, which is both impressive and sad. 

The problem with both Morph and B.E.N. is that they do that thing where they inadvertently work against the protagonists simply because they’re stupid. Well, the former was technically working with Silver, but it’s the same basic idea. Morph constantly busts Hawkins’ chops and steals the MacGuffin, while B.E.N. constantly gets the bad guys aggroing on Hawkins. I can’t really say anything else about them. They just really suck by Disney standards. 

At the very least, they have one of the most subversive—but tragically forgotten—Disney villains of all time: Long John Silver. I have no idea how Silver’s character arc is in the source novel, but Treasure Planet’s Silver is (I presume) the one Disney villain with a redemption arc. He pretends to give a crap about Hawkins, but then actually gives a crap about Hawkins, and years later, someone (probably) writes a long article about how the two are secretly gay for each other. Silver isn’t particularly interesting, and only stands out when compared to Disney villains. As a small side note, if this was how Silver’s character arc originally was, then I hate him because that probably makes him responsible for the whole “villains must be complex no matter what” stigma that everyone thinks is an absolute rule in storytelling. Thanks, Stevenson!

I always discuss visuals last for some reason, and the visuals in Treasure Planet are stunning. This thing has CG everywhere, and it’s aged pretty well. It doesn’t look as jarring as you’d think for something that turns twenty this year (eighteen as of when I actually watched it for the post). And as you’d expect, the characters have that Disney attention to detail which makes them feel alive, even if none of them are particularly interesting.

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After All These Years: 8.6/10

Other than a few dumb plot contrivances (and lackluster soundtrack), Treasure Planet is a tragically underrated Disney movie that deserves a bit more love. If you’re one of those people who only follows Disney because they own Star Wars and Marvel (which Disney didn’t ruin, because they were already ruined well before being bought out OOOOH SNAP), then Treasure Planet is an easy recommendation. Just don’t think you can use it to write a book report on Treasure Island without reading it.

Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.

Encanto: Smart House but Cranked up to Eleven

Does anyone remember the one good thing about COVID-19, i.e. when movie studios streamed new movies as an additional option on release? Nowadays, studios are like “Yeah, we can go back to making theaters the only option again”. And guess what, Disney’s Encanto is no exception! As the first animated movie since Moana to have potential future Disney Legend Lin-Manuel Miranda at the helm, risking my life would be more than worth it (albeit a bit inconvenient). 

Encanto begins when the Madrigal family narrowly escapes what I presume to be the Conquistadors. They get saved by a candle, of all things. A candle that creates the enclosed world of Encanto, with a magic house at the center. Over the course of fifty years, every Madrigal is blessed with a gift. And like any media ever with a “gift” system, our main protagonist, Mirabelle Madrigal, gets nothing. And like any media where that happens, it’s the person without a gift who has to save everyone.

Disney movies will always be very predictable, especially since this is their sixtieth animated feature. As soon as you hear Abuela utter the T-shirt-worthy phrase, “Make your family proud”, you know the theme, or rather, themes. Encanto is about family and trauma. Specifically, it’s about how families place burdens on one another because they want to keep things peachy keen.

One of the most interesting aspects of Encanto is its setting. Being enclosed from the rest of the world, the house—La Casita—is where the bulk of the movie takes place. This makes it feel much more compact than most Disney settings I’ve seen. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of Disney magic. La Casita has as many surprises as its personality!

Speaking of personality, the cast is full to bursting with it. Mirabelle is probably one of the best female leads Disney has cooked up. She’s not banging you over the head with feminism (although that was never a Disney issue as much as an issue with Western culture in general), but she shows that she’s a big-hearted girl who loves her family. 

But wait, there’s more! Mirabelle’s family is… big to say the least. Each person, from Best Girl Luise, to drop-dead gorgeous Isabel, have fully realized character designs and flaws. Bruno is likely my favorite character, what with his tragic backstory and quirky personality. Abuela is kind of a weak spot, being a traditional bad Disney parent like Miguel’s grandma in Coco. But you know what, at least Abuela had a more tangible reason to be dense! Hang on, did I say Bruno was the best character? No, that’d be La Casita; the house, like a loyal animal companion, is the only one to actually stand by Mirabelle from start to finish (okay, technically Antonio did too, but he’s not a magic house).

Of course, what always separates Disney from what I’d call the “superficial at best” mainstream is how much stock they actually put in to bring their stuff to life. As expected, every aspect of the movie is intricately well thought out, down to every particle. Also, they once again manage to perfectly border photorealism without ever entering an uncanny valley. 

Last but not least is the one thing I was looking forward to the most in Encanto: the soundtrack. Between Hamilton, Moana, and Mary Poppins Returns, master maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t only crafted top quality numbers, but a high quantity as well. Sadly, Encanto has a whopping not many songs. What’s there is top-notch stuff, but as of writing this review (mere minutes after seeing the movie), I already have withdrawal! Next Lin-Manuel Miranda movie when?

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

Honestly, I don’t remember having been so captivated by an iteration of the traditional Disney formula in quite some time, but that could also be because the last two years have felt like a lifetime. Encanto is a masterpiece of Latinx culture, introspection, and most of all… family! I highly recommend it to any Disney fan, and to anyone who wants a brief respite from the depressant that is being alive during a pandemic.