Soul: Pixar’s Most Existential Film

I’m not one of those vocal people who thinks things like “2020 is the year of suffering” because of the media’s scare tactics regarding COVID-19, and their ability to withhold anything legitimately positive. Despite me knowing the actual facts about COVID, it was hard on me as well. Even as someone who’s not active on social media, I am around a number of people who are, and they happen to only focus on one side of the story. So yeah, I’ve broken into tears at least once a week all year. Overly long preface aside, Pixar decided to give us a Christmas present: Soul. I didn’t know what it was about, but I had to see it.

Mild spoilers in this paragraph, if you have no idea what the movie is about. In Soul, a man named Joe Gardner dreams of playing jazz with the big boys—wait, wrong movie—some lady named Dorthea Williams. He manages to land a gig, but dies on the way over to the venue. Now that he’s in purgatory, he’s gotta find a way back into his body. And his only ticket is in a literal wayward soul named Twenty-Two, who wants nothing to do with life.

Boy, this movie is sure… something else. First off, it’s definitely a twist for Disney to have a movie about one of its many, many, MANY deceased characters instead of someone who’s, well, alive. It’s kind of hilarious, actually. In any case, Pixar’s interpretation of the afterworld is more than just a world of never ending happiness where the sun shines both day and night; it’s that usual Pixar sense of imagination. Also, this movie shows just how much more lenient we’ve become with cursing in front of kids. They say the words “hell” and “crap”, which were more than enough to earn you a trip to the former back when I was a kid. Well, Disney was also the first to depict a clergyman and humanity itself in villainous roles in animated media, so… yeah.

Soul has your usual Pixar magic in terms of the storytelling. It knows how to bounce between being hilarious and emotional without feeling inorganic. This one knows how to hammer in the feels, but it gets bizarrely terrifying at times. It’s not outright horror; think along the lines of one of those psychological indie games like Arise: A Simple Story

Like any Disney or Pixar movie, Soul is definitely not new in terms of social commentary. Not to spoil it, but the takeaway is definitely something you’ve seen before, unless you’re literally the target demographic of the movie and have never seen it before. Once again, it’s something that anyone can relate to. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we HAVE to go to work and pay our bills, Soul‘s message will probably be forgotten as easily as the other times the message has been communicated.

The characters are some of the better in Pixar’s filmography. Joe Gardner is an interesting case, not just because he dies, but because he’s the oldest lead protagonist I’ve seen in a Disney animated feature. Given the nature of the movie, his journey is a bit more spiritual than most Disney flicks; definitely keeping up the trend of abandoning the tired “good vs. evil” themes of their past. As you can expect, his father is dead. Big surprise for Disney. But honestly, I feel like this is the first time a Disney parent’s death actually meant something to the plot since Bambi. That’s something at least.

Other than Joe, we have the aforementioned Twenty-Two, who’s the sarcastic and rambunctious type. She and Joe end up learning the same life lesson through each other. Running purgatory is/are a bizarre being named Jerry, along with what serves as the main antagonist: Terry. They’re pretty deadpan, but have some of the better lines in the movie. 

I shouldn’t even bother discussing visuals because Pixar pretty much always nails it. Soul is simply stunning, as good at looking both photorealistic and undeniably cartoony as any Pixar film. The movie does, at least, showcase some of the most abstract and experimental visuals I’ve seen in their entire career. Soul honestly feels like a Pixar short but as a feature film instead. I’d say that they did a great job considering COVID separated the whole team, but this movie was probably in post production since 2018.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Soul is one of the best Pixar movies I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is impeccably executed, and is definitely what the doctor ordered for this year. I recommend Soul if you want a straight-up great movie, especially if you’re a Disney fan.

And P.S.: Disney, can you please do the whole “release movies on Disney+ the same day they would’ve come out in theatres” more often, maybe forever?

A True Isekai Pioneer: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Novel Review

I don’t know what compelled me to do this. Isekai is one of my favorite genres (even though 99% of them are ass), so it only made sense for me to read a classic isekai: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I recall watching the movie in a film class. All I remember is that Judy Garland is adorable, and that the movie itself is incredibly lackluster with the exception of the [aged] technical effects. The books (yes, books. There are fourteen Oz books actually) are sure to have much more substance, right? After all; the book is better than the film.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a girl named Dorothy is just chilling at her rinky-dink home in Kansas when a CYCLONE LIFTS HER HOUSE. She is abnormally calm during the situation and falls asleep while still in the eye of the storm. Dorothy (with dog, Toto) wakes up in Oz, where she is praised for having murdered the Wicked Witch of the East with her house. In order to get home, she must find the titular Wizard of Oz.

Thanks to this, I finally know where most modern Japanese isekai get their lack of depth. The writing in this book is as archaic as the time period. We get the bare minimum description of anything, and no sense of scale for any architecture in this world (also, get used to some unexpected usage of the word “queer”). There is next to no worldbuilding; stuff is just there for the sake of being there. Also, Dorothy has plot armor out of her ass thanks to a kiss from the Witch of the North. It’s sad that a lot of literature has not evolved since the turn of the 20th Century.

At the very least, the book has momentum. It doesn’t waste any words, and scenes that would normally take ten years to read in a modern isekai can be completed in minutes. The Witch of the North would be an exposition dump character, but thankfully, she only tells Dorothy what’s actually RELEVANT to the plot at the current moment. 

Unfortunately, the original source novel wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. Normally, I don’t really care for super cynical stuff, but given the time period, I figured that the story would be really dark. But other than a few isolated scenes, such as the Tin Woodman’s backstory, it’s just about as lackadaisical as the movie. Oh, and in case you’re a fan of the movie, literally NONE of the famous lines are in the original. No “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” no “Lions and tigers and bears”; not even the cultic chant that the Witch of the West’s guards use when patrolling.

Furthermore, I did not like the cast of the book at all (surprise, surprise). They were not just boring but inconsistent. The worst of them is the Tin Woodman, who acts like he can’t kill anything but doesn’t hesitate to create an admittedly gorey mound of wolf corpses. And before you argue “Um people were super religious then and they didn’t really think animals have souls because God gave man dominion over animal”, just keep in mind that Mr. Woodman cries when accidentally stepping on a beetle. A beetle. 

And holy heck, this is apparently where the “real treasure was the friends we made along the way” trope came from, because these characters are about as brainless as the Scarecrow. They all want these specific traits, but they end up already possessing said traits. Normally, this would be meant for an epiphany at the end, but it doesn’t turn out that way (it’s actually kind of weird what happens). I feel like Baum didn’t put any more thought into this than a typical crappy Japanese isekai author. 

Another issue lies not just in the content of the story, but the publication. I got the 100th Anniversary edition, with gold pages, which made me think “This should be really well presented.” Wrong! This edition displays a large assortment of… uh… illustrations, but their placement is all wrong. Sometimes, you’ll see one before the actual depicted scene happens. But more often than not, they’ll SUPERIMPOSE TEXT over them. Who in their right mind thought this would be a good tribute to Baum’s legacy?!

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Final Verdict: 6.75/10

Call me an uncultured swine, but I didn’t find The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be all that wonderful. No worldbuilding, no consistency, no visual descriptions, flat dialogue… this might’ve been groundbreaking at the time, but things have changed in 120-odd years. While some classics, like Dracula, age pretty well, this one has not, and I hate it when people act like all literary classics are still objectively great even by modern standards. 

However, I am at least curious as to what the rest of the series has to offer. Each installment seems to be pretty self-contained, so I hope to possibly review all fourteen books over a long course of time. I imagine that they get more and more effed up (the cover of the final book has people on fire in the background), and it might be fascinating to see. But as far as recommendations for the original classic are concerned… I’d hold off on it. There are better things out there, with better writing.

The Storm Runner Trilogy: Percy Jackson but with Mayan Folklore

The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.

The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff. 

Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.

This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me. 

The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.

Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.  

Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!” 

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Final Verdict: 7/10

I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).

Why It’s Okay for Disney to be Mainstream: A Rant

I’m not one to enjoy massively popular media, so you’d naturally think I’d despise the Walt Disney Company, at least in their current, mainstream-savvy form. Despite that, I ended up giving Frozen 2 and Onward overall positive scores, in complete disregard to how much I criticized them. Why is that? Get ready for a rant!

The main reason for my claim is that most of their movies- at least the good ones- have a lot more substance than most mainstream content. There are a lot of popular things I’ve consumed that basically go down a checklist of what people inherently love and don’t do anything remotely inventive. One manga example is Kimetsu no Yaiba, which barely gets the benefit of the doubt because the author ended it when it was at its peak (relatively speaking) instead of milking it.

Although their main demographic is children, Disney at least saw ahead and made sure that those same viewers would enjoy their movies in adulthood. This is something I learned five years ago, when I watched The Incredibles during a Movie Under the Stars event at Walt Disney World. As a kid, I had seen it so many times, I basically had the movie memorized. However, when I saw it at age nineteen that night, I saw it for the first time ever. As an adult, I was actually able to understand what makes it one of the best Pixar movies of all time, in ways that I couldn’t have comprehended as a kid. It was an amazing experience, and it stays across most core Disney movies (MOST of them; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, you haven’t really aged well, narratively speaking…). 

One of the things that makes Disney movies enduring is that they have strong supporting characters besides the cliched main ones. I don’t really like Snow White or Ariel as much as some of my actual waifus, but the Seven Dwarves and Sebastian are timeless. There’s also characters like Olaf, the ultimate Disney husbando. And of course, there’s nothing like a good Disney villain. They have iconic personalities and exude intimidating auras thanks to their brilliant animators. The Evil Queen, Maleficent, Lady Trumain, Ursula… and also Hades and Yzma, who have gotten a billion times more popular in recent years; they are among the most memorable antagonists of all time (except Hans in Frozen). These days, most people are probably looking forward to them more than the good guys (who actually watched The Little Mermaid Live for any reason other than fangushing at Queen Latifa?).

And of course, there’s the MUSIC. Disney has had master songwriters that don’t get talked about too often, but they’re real geniuses, writing songs that people still sing to this day. I don’t think the ENTIRE Disney discography is perfect, but a lot of it—especially the newer stuff—is really, really good. The other important factor is that ever since they had the brilliant Howard Ashman work for them, the songs also contribute to plot progression in a very Broadway-esque manner. I still listen to songs from Frozen casually (PS: ‘Let It Go’ deserves all the praise it got, fight me), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended). And just when you think they’ve run out of ideas, something like ‘Lost in the Woods’ from Frozen 2 comes up. I remember thinking, “Oh boy, a bad, melodramatic Krifstoff song shoehorned into an already shoehorned subplot”, at first. But when you hear that eighties guitar riff out of nowhere, it’s like, “What the crap?!” It’s safe to say that Disney would have not made it this far if they didn’t turbo-charge their films with amazing music! 

I also love the Walt Disney Company itself, more so than the movies. For starters, they are pretty much one of the few bastions of goodwill left in the world. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Most other companies are too selfish and/or corrupt to even try to do better for the world, and others have pretty much given up on even trying. They don’t just make movies, they help animals and the earth through the Disney Conservation Fund, the use of environmentally friendly buses, and massive solar panel farms. To accomplish so much, they need a LOT of funding. These people don’t just need movie budgets, but they need to be able to manufacture merch of literally ALL kinds, as well as paying the millions who are working at several theme parks AND cruise ships. So, yeah, some of their movies might be riskless cash grabs, but they kinda need it once or twice in a while. If it weren’t for their vision, I would probably accuse them of pandering just as easily as any crappy hack writer.

And as much as I hate to say it, I must acknowledge the value of being able to relate to the main protagonists. They’re generic to a fault, but they definitely had an impact on cultures around the world. Their arcs (and the narratives of the movies in general) are not marred by any sort of cultural barrier, making them lovable to anyone. I also can’t deny that they have saved a lot of young’uns from torment, especially in the case of Frozen. They also handle wish fulfilment themes in ways that are genuinely good, at least recently. Most of the time, the tropes say, “You’re special for no reason now go be a wizard Harry.” Disney merely says “You’re you,” which is a lot better. In fact, as much as I said I loved good Disney villains, they seem to be moving towards complete abandonment of main antagonists in the favor of developing their protagonists, which I’m interested to see moving forward. But you know what, if you only love Disney movies because of the relatability aspect, then I feel genuinely sorry for you; you’re missing out on some really well thought-out, detail-oriented media.

And seriously, they are detail-oriented, in a way that transcends OCD. It’s made readily apparent if you go to Epcot and look at the architecture. Everything is authentic and accurate right down to the last brick. That same attention applies to their movies. If you watch the behind-the-scenes of some of this stuff, you’ll see them have board meetings over a three-second shot. It sounds excessive, but they need to do it because they know that those details make or break the whole picture, even if it’s stuff that no casual viewer would even think to look at.

So, in conclusion, I’m willing to bet that most people really do just enjoy Disney movies because of their eye-catching visuals, and the audience’s innate desire to see “themselves” in the narrative. But from a professional standpoint, they’re decent movies, with great soundtracks, from a team that’s constantly moving forward. While I still don’t entirely enjoy the wish fulfillment themes that they perpetuate, they at least have substance, and that’s something that makes them stand out from the rabble.

The Adventurers Guild Trilogy: Social Commentary for Kids!

Sometimes, the title of a series is so generic and unremarkable that I almost feel like it’s a red herring. I ask myself, “It’s trying so hard to look boring, but does that mean it’s actually legitimately good?” That’s a gambit that I hoped would pay off when I read through The Adventurers Guild series, written by Zack Loran Clark and Nicolas Eliopulous.

A half-elf boy named Zed and a typical human named Brock are ready to join one of Freestone’s many Guilds. They are picked for the Mages and Merchants Guilds respectively; however, this series isn’t titled The Adventurers Guild for nothing. Alasabel Frond, the leader of the titular Guild, yoinks them right out of their respective Guilds and drafts them into the Adventurers Guild. Now they have to protect the world from monsters known as Dangers, and like true warriors, they get nothing for it!

The Adventurers Guild isn’t quite as generic as it looks (key words: “quite as”, but we’ll get to that later). They at least put some good effort into the magic system. Each element is tied to a specific spiritual plane (or something), and they all have a signature that Zed can detect. The writers also pull no punches when it comes to the Dangers’ designs; get used to tentacles coming out of faces and other areas. The prose is also all-around great, but V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic taught me that good writing and good storytelling are two completely different talents. 

A lot of things irked me about The Adventurers Guild. One is that—like every modern fantasy and its grandma—there’s social commentary on a lot of bad -isms in society (none of which are commercialism). In addition to my problem with how heavy-handed it gets, The Adventurers Guild makes it unrealistic. And while I normally don’t mind a lack of realism, this case isn’t merely “Ooooh, magic! What is physics again?”; it’s a clash with the human mind itself. 

You’d think that people’d get their sh** together to fight a one-dimensional evil alien threat to the whole species. And yet, the bad -isms are still in effect in the world of The Adventurers Guild! Every authority figure in Freestone tries to get Frond arrested because of sexism. And when a group of elves seeks refuge at the start of the second book, they’re treated with unconditional racism. It felt so arbitrary, that the bad -isms were only there for the sake of bad -isms. I’ll acknowledge that the hatred against Zed is justified to an extent. A half-elf warlock is what caused the Dangers in the first place, giving the whole race a bad rep. But that doesn’t excuse the cases of sexism or anything else, really. 

Alright, alright. For the sake of argument, let’s just take the bad -isms at face value: a conflict in the story that needs to be resolved. But what is there to talk about? The thing with The Adventurers Guild is that beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting. Dangers are out there, go kill ‘em. That’s really it. 

But it damn well tries to be different, that’s for sure. It succeeds to an extent in the two main characters, Zed and Brock. These two both have secrets that they keep from each other, and it’s all “Ooooooh” and stuff. Unfortunately, they have very plastic and flat personalities. The rest of the characters… are just as flat. They’re relatable, which—if you’re not anal about writing—would make them super-duper amazing and lovable. But besides the occasional dumb “kid-like” interactions they have with each during their down time, a lot of their dialgoue feels forced. For someone like me, who has grown to love narcissists like Senku from Dr. Stone, I couldn’t care less about the cast of The Adventurers Guild. I had to do ridiculous things like picturing a character as Lord Don’ator to not fall asleep! The third book does introduce a pretty witty new character, who exists for sarcastic comments, and shows up too late to offset everyone else. 

And speaking of the third book, let’s talk about it in the least spoilery way possible. Remember when I said “beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting”? Well, that shows. Night of Dangers completely does away with social undertones and becomes a tedious slog that’s just as cliché as anything else, despite how the trilogy desperately tried to avoid it. The only saving grace is the admittedly enjoyable climax, but saying that it offsets everything else is a stretch. One character even deflects from the main issue super intentionally and it’s never explained why. 

Speaking of intentionally, that word is everything wrong with The Adventurers Guild. Virtually none of it felt natural; each story beat was 110% deliberate. As much as having a plan for the narrative is good (in fact, it’s essential), you can’t plan literally everything. You need to have a stream of consciousness effect when writing, which allows some aspects of the story to tell themselves. And if you end up needing to pull something out of your ass, go back and edit earlier parts so that it has proper context. I can’t describe exactly why, but I just felt in my writer-brain that this whole series was… wrong.

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Final Verdict: 6/10

The Adventurers Guild tried a lot of things, and it all felt flat to me. In the end, I have no idea what the takeaway of this series is. Is it that racism is bad, or that you shouldn’t keep secrets? Whatever it is, there’s definitely something out there that’s conveyed it better. While this isn’t the worst series on the market, it is still just about as bland as its name implies.

Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers is a Needle in a Haystack of Straight-to-DVD Cash-Grabs (Retrospective)

The early 2000s were not Disney’s best era. A lot of it was plagued by the notorious, straight-to-home-video sequels. Fine, I’ll admit that I loved them as a kid (my whole generation did probably), but nowadays, they are generally accepted as guilty pleasures at best. But among those sequels was something that I held near and dear to my heart. It was an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Three Musketeers, with a slap of Mickey on it, simply titled Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers. I NEVER hear this one brought up, AT ALL, making it one of the more remote and obscure projects to feature Mickey Mouse in Disney history. Nonetheless, I loved it as a kid. However, both my DVD player and the DVD broke around 2005-6, rendering me unable to watch the movie for all time. At least, that’s what I thought, until it plopped into Disney+’s catalogue completely unannounced. As of the writing of this post, I hadn’t watched it in FIFTEEN YEARS. It’s time to see if it’s an underrated gem or if it deserved to be discarded!

…Is what I would say if I didn’t have some concerns writing this post. Normally, a retrospective is written under the assumption that the person reading has seen the media and knows it well. That’s why I was able to spoil the crap out of March of the Wooden Soldiers when I covered it. But despite Mickey Three Musketeers being well-within the “Okay you can spoil it because everyone knows the story already” range, I’m pretty damn sure that next to NO ONE knows this story. As a result, I’m going to color any spoilery parts as white, leaving you to spoil yourself by highlighting them. Oh, and for the record, since I’m both a millennial and an uncultured swine, I never actually read the source novel, so I’m not going to be evaluating this movie from an adaptation standpoint.

Following an arbitrarily meta opening sequence, we enter a France of yesteryear and focus on three plebs named Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. After being saved at a young age by some local Musketeers, they slave away as janitors with hopes of being able to achieve glory as Musketeers themselves. Well, they get a good shot at it when Captain Pete plans to mousenap Princess Minne, that’s for sure.

The standout thing with Mickey Three Musketeers is that it’s very much an homage to the classic cartoons from the very beginning of Walt Disney’s career. This excited me because I always thought that the ones that starred Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as a team, such as Clock Cleaners and Moving Day, were the absolute best. Furthermore, this is the last piece of media featuring all three characters as major protagonists that I know of (and Kingdom Hearts doesn’t count because they’re accompanied by a bunch of anime turds in that). In any case, the humor and hijinks of the classic cartoons ring true throughout this movie, and they were a very welcome treat for me.

Another thing done old-school is the music. Much like cartoons of the past, background music didn’t just create mood, but sound effects as well. It had a lot of energy that most movie soundtracks lack these days. Unfortunately, in the case of the musical numbers, there is a drawback to doing the music old-school. I had no recollection that this movie had them, and for good reason; they are among the most forgettable in Disney history. They’re all arrangements of classical pieces; which are fitting for the period, but wholly unoriginal. The only one that I enjoyed was when Goofy—of all people—becomes a lady killer and seduces Clarabelle.

Since this is sort of an ode to the classics, you must keep in mind that there are no such things as stakes in Mickey Three Musketeers. I recalled this being like a Tolkienian epic when I was a kid, but through the wizened eyes of an adult, it was short, straightforward, and predictable. There’s even a part where Mickey almost drowns to death (the one scene I remembered distinctly after all these years), and I didn’t even bat an eye at it. Any sense of drama is resolved in mere minutes, typical of most mainstream Disney flicks sure, but still an important thing to mention nonetheless.

You’d think I don’t need to do any character passages, but for the sake of completion, I will anyway. These guys have been the United States’ best ambassadors for almost a hundred years, and there’s a good reason for that. Mickey is arguably the first ever Gary Sue (until you watch the last segment of Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas and realize that he’s just as capable of being a temperamental piece of sh** as Donald), but he’s pure-hearted and legitimately hard to not love. Best Boy Goofy is as perfectly derpy as always, nothing more to say there. My least favorite character, in the case of this movie, ended up being my boy Donald. For some reason, they give him a character arc where he starts off as a complete wuss. He’s a detriment to the plot, and he just magically changes into his regular self two-thirds into the film like nothing ever happened. I don’t know why they did that but I also don’t know why they made so many low-budget sequels to their classic films at the time.

Fortunately, good ol’ Pete shows why he is one of the most enduring Disney villains of all time (with his legacy ending on a poor note in Epic Mickey: Power of Two). He’s a perfect combination of being funny and pure evil, and—dammit—I miss the sumbi****! Appear in more things, Pete! Anyways, the most pleasant surprise was the aforementioned Clarabelle. She’s the sexy secretary who ends up getting reverse-Stockholm Syndrome for Goofy, and she was real fun for her brief amount of screentime in the movie.

Unfortunately, the other women suffer. Minnie (and—to an extent—Daisy) are breathing MacGuffins and nothing more. They offer no resistance to assault, which can trigger some… people who respect women as individuals. If they could criticize Hamilton for being historically accurate, then they can criticize this movie, too.

Last but not least, the visuals. It’s a straight-to-DVD, but it’s enough. The film isn’t gorgeous, but since it feels like a cartoon, it’s okay. Because of this, they were able to go hog-wild with all of the noodly limbs and such. The art is simple and bright, making it easy for the young’uns to comprehend.

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After All These Years: 8/10

Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers is great, though it’s nothing compared to 21st Century cult classics, such as The Emperor’s New Groove. But you know what, it’s reminded me that Treasure Planet is on Disney+ and that I haven’t seen it in just about as many years as this. I might do a retrospective on that… by next year at the earliest (don’t expect it honestly). As far as this movie is concerned, I recommend it if you want some old-fashioned cartoon hijinks, and don’t have the priceless Walt Disney Treasures DVDs to experience it the vintage way.

The Dragon Prince is as Epic as it is Choppy (First Impressions, Seasons 1-3)

I’ve been using the extra free-time from COVID-19 to watch some TV shows for the first time in my life. I just finished watching stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe, and those had some pretty emotional baggage. I’m caught up to DuckTales, and I needed something “dumb and fun” to watch after the tumultuousness of Steven. So, I turned to the first and last Netflix Original I’ll ever watch, The Dragon Prince. Made by some of the original creators of Avatar, I hoped that it would be as dumb and fun as I wanted it to be (for the record, it’s apparently really popular but I only heard of it when Netflix recommended it to me after I started Avatar. Hooray for my patented living-under-a-rock powers!). I thought I had watched 75% percent of the show after the first three seasons; but apparently, there’s going to be seven. So, let’s see if the show is worth the big investment.

The Dragon Prince starts out with a truly draconic exposition dump. Basically, there was this land of Xadia that had all this cool magic and stuff. But once one single person discovered evil dark magic, the elves took it out on the ENTIRE human race and forced them to move west. A powerful dragon named Thunder guarded the border, but everything changed when the Human Nation attacked (had to; it’s supposed to be comparable to Avatar). They used dark magic to slay Thunder, and killed his little egg bearing his heir, the Dragon Prince. War between the two halves of the world was just a shot away.

In the present day, we have two princes who live in a fancy schmancy palace by the name of Callum and Ezran. Life is all well and good, but everything changed when the Moonshadow Elf Nation attacked. So, they get sent away for their own protection. Meanwhile, an Elf girl named Rayla whiffs the chance to kill a human and now all of her friends hate her. The three kids inevitably cross paths, and it is revealed that the Dragon Prince is miraculously still alive. I guess we’re hoofing it to Xadia, then!

Before we can discuss the content of the narrative, this is one of those shows where it’s important to discuss the visuals first. The Dragon Prince is a fully CG show, similar to RWBY, and that tends to put off a large number of people. As the first show of this type that I watched, I found it to be pretty tolerable. The backgrounds appear to be fully hand-painted, like with Avatar, and the lighting and particle effects really help the world pop. The real issue is the character design. They have a cel-shaded style that doesn’t look all that bad, but for some reason, everyone moves at a very choppy and inconsistent framerate. I imagine this must be a stylistic choice, since I figured Netflix being rich enough to allow for models to move at 60 fps (also the fact that most modeling software these days function at that rate as well). But regardless, it’s definitely better to look at than most CG I’ve seen in anime and stuff.

So, I wanted The Dragon Prince to be dumb and fun, and boy, did I get what I wished for! This show is a kind of adventure fantasy that just isn’t common enough these days; too many of them are busy being political, dark, brooding, and in a lot of cases, ripping off Harry Potter. But nope, The Dragon Prince is a good ol’, “ragtag team of kids against the world” kind of fantasy, just like Avatar, except with a more modern sense of humor. There are some politics, but it’s incredibly clear-cut as to what the correct solution is, and it’s very explicit as far as which figures are smart and which are manipulable idiots.

However, just because The Dragon Prince is both dumb and fun, that doesn’t mean the latter is enough to justify the former for some people. While I am enjoying the show a lot thus far, the story is simplistic on a near child-like level. While it does try to be morally ambiguous by having the war be kind of the fault of both races, individual characters’ moral structures are written all over their sleeves. They don’t even try to hide the evilness of The Dragon Prince’s main antagonist, which is definitely a turn-off to those who like those layer-caked villains. The show can also be hard to take seriously even when it tries to be serious. In fact, the episode loading screen on Netlflix shows a screenshot of the fully hatched Dragon Prince, which spoils that he survives almost dying of hypothermia at the end of season one.

I’ll at least give them some slack for even remotely original worldbuilding. Instead of the tired Four Good Ol’ Elements, the world of The Dragon Prince comes packed with the Six Primal Sources, such as the Moon and the Stars. But functionally, they really aren’t that much different from the same elements of Avatar. It’s similar to how Trails of Cold Steel calls dark magic “Time Magic” and stuff. Look, don’t expect super originality from this thing, okay?

Especially not the cast. The leading male protagonist, Callum, would be unremarkable if it didn’t sound like he was voiced by the voice actor of Sokka from Avatar (he even makes the same wry comments as Sokka at times). He’s the stepson of the king, which would normally make him the victim of many a bully, but the issue seems to have next to no plot relevance; I can at least be thankful that they didn’t paint by numbers THAT much. Meanwhile, his stepbrother, Ezran, is- despite being the youngest- the moral support of the trio. Whenever drama unfolds in the group, he makes things right, almost in an overly convenient, Steven Universe kind of way. Furthermore, Ezran gets some genuine growth starting in the third season.

The female lead is the elf, Rayla. She’s a typical tomboy, but she’s also a bit of Mary Sue, since her first revealed trait is the inability to take a life. She’s also tsundere to the max, and it’s almost too obvious that she and Callum are going to be lovers. But despite how brooding she can be, she has some cute interactions with the boys all the same.

But I don’t like the entire crew. My least favorite characters are the animals that tag along: Bait and Zim, the latter of which is titular Dragon Prince who is not at all named after a cult classic cartoon from the early 2000s. Bait is very inconsistent; he’s useful, thanks to his flash ability, but he also tends to be the direct cause of some conflicts. Zim is just ADORABLE, and I do not like him because of that. I can imagine that both of these characters have toys based off of them in shopping malls everywhere. And to top it all off, Bait and Zim sometimes engage in a shipping war over Ezran.

The main antagonist is a geezer named Verin, the king’s royal advisor. Spoiler alert, the royal advisor is a bad man! Never seen THAT before! Fortunately, he is actually pretty interesting, because all of the evil things he’s doing are out of an obsessive devotion to the kingdom, and he genuinely thinks it’s good. I do have some kind of theory about him that has not yet been confirmed, but if I’m correct, his whole character arc could be undermined and he’ll become a typical one dimensional villain.

Other antagonists include Verin’s kids, Sorin and Claudia. They aren’t inherently evil, but they are both very stupid, and end up being easily coerced into following the princes and “accidentally letting them die” without even knowing that it’s a bad thing. But despite their stupidity (or rather, because of it), they have some great spats with each other, which provides some of the best humor in the series, and plus, they are genuinely good kids at heart. Sometimes, I enjoy their scenes more than the main group’s. The second season also introduces an incredibly sexy villain named Aaravos, but there’s not much known about him at this time.

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 8.65/10

I know, I know… I just scored The Dragon Prince .15 points more than Avatar. I’m sorry. I know that Avatar is definitely a better crafted fantasy epic, yet this show was more fun to watch for whatever reason. It has its flaws, but it’s definitely shaping up to be something great. I recommend it to any fantasy fans (unless you like the dark and brooding stuff, in which case, stay the heck away from this show).

When Rock Bands Got Angsty: A Musical Trip Through the Childhood I Never Had

I have made it clear before, but in case you’re new to this blog, I’ll make it clear again: I grew up with classic rock. Nothing else was necessary, and there were some legitimate reasons. First off, the first ever music I heard was from Journey, which kind of feeds into the whole “you’ll pretty much be biased towards media similar to the first ever media you consume” mindset (but in my defense, I’m actually not a particularly big Journey fan these days). The second and third reasons boil down to the same source: the student body of my middle and high schools. I hated them all, which is a typical thing for teens to go through. But I was also socially awkward, so I never joined their brooding circles or whatever. As a result, I missed a lot of the bands that came up at the time (plus, I would have a fear of metal music until I heard Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on a classic rock radio station and had my life changed forever). I was SO edgy, hip, and against the status quo, that I reveled in being an outcast by listening to something that probably doesn’t get many new, young fans these days: the aforementioned classic rock. I continued to reject 2000s music until Japanese music further changed my life by showing me that current music can be good. As a result, I steeled my resolve and used the power of Apple Music to take a trip back to the 1990s and early 2000s, and see what bands I would’ve listened to if it weren’t for my sheltered childhood. Results… varied. Just so it’s not about “me-me-me”, this post will serve as a basic rundown of five bands, in case you never heard of them or were considering giving them a try.


Attempt #1: Slipknot

“Wait, what are you hashtagging the number one for?” you ask. Well, you young’un, the hashtag symbol used to be a symbol that meant “number”, hence “#1” in the example. ANYWAY, the first band I tried was Slipknot. They’re incredibly popular, but being the degenerate I am, I only knew of them thanks to a line in Hotel Transylvania that actually made me scared of them for years. From what I’ve heard so far, it seems obvious that this band helped pioneer the new “edgelord” culture. According to the Apple Music bio, they invented a new metal genre, creatively named “nu metal” (SUCH EDGY MISSPELLING), which seems to be just regular metal but with angstier, on-the-nose lyrics about all the tortured thoughts and experiences teens go through.

If you’re new to this blog, I’ll make it clear that I always have a problem with teen angst, at least in the way it’s portrayed here in the U.S. I get that metal was formed out of anger, but that was… well… a more mature anger I guess? But in the case of Slipknot, it felt like they were a bunch of frat boys instead of grown men. I wasn’t really into them until their third album, which I’ll admit had some very good and varied music composition in it.

But the key words are “music composition”. The lyrics grow angstier and angstier. I get that a lot of teens can relate to the lyrics, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t written in “angst-enese” in such a way that makes me cringe. If you wrote out the lyrics of any Slipknot song, 99/100 times it’d look like a passage in a YA novel, and in case you’re new to this blog… I don’t exactly like YA novels!

To top it off, lead vocalist Corey Taylor has an extremely one-dimensional personality in his singing. He’s not bad… he’s just not good. When it comes to vocalists, little nuances in their delivery make all the difference. From iconic things like David Lee Roth’s weird banshee screams, to minute things like Dee Snider’s evil snicker before the first chorus of Burn in Hell, the devil is in the details, and Taylor seems to disregard that. His vocal range is either “brooding teen” or “screaming brooding teen”. Taylor does try stuff, such as ragged breathing and practically making out with his mic at times, but it hasn’t really gotten to me. It took me until very recently to discover why I don’t like his singing: he feels too human. When it comes to my favorite singers, there’s a distinct feeling of “This is an actual person singing this?” Instead, Taylor comes off as “This is an actual person singing this.” (notice the lack of a question mark?). Maybe that’s what he was going for? Anyway, I’m currently halfway through Slipknot’s discography, and in the process of going back through those albums to see if the band grows on me. If you can convince me that Corey Taylor is a really good singer, then I could probably give the band less flack.


Attempt #2: Disturbed

I don’t even remember how I know they exist. But thank goodness I do, because I’m finding Disturbed to be a huge improvement over Slipknot. They have the same angst in their lyrics, but everything else feels… better for some reason. One big factor is lead vocalist David Draiman. While he’s not top-dollar, he at least has some form of identity with what I can only describe as “his impression of Link from Legend of Zelda” that he frequently does in between lines of lyrics.

The thing that got me most interested in Disturbed was their covers. They do some pretty thoughtful remixes of some stuff well outside their genre, such as Tears for Fears’ Shout. These covers are great, and they help Disturbed to stand out from other metal bands.

Unfortunately, Disturbed seems to have trouble standing out from themselves. I get that not every song can be perfect, but a lot of them have kind of been samey thus far. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but the way Draiman sings verses specifically sounds similar across a lot of their songs. But hey, if that’s the biggest issue I have, then that’s not too bad, especially compared to Slipknot! At the current rate, I’m bound to become a dedicated Disturbed fan.


Attempt #3: Dream Theater

I considered not counting them for this post, because they started in the late 1980s. However, they didn’t gain traction until the 1990s, which I judged would’ve put them just within range of my being exposed to them while I was in high school. Also, if I didn’t count them I’d only have four bands on this post and it had to be three or a multiple of five because I have OCD.

I only know of this band thanks to one of my favorite YouTubers, NintendoCaprisun. In one video (an episode of Secret of Evermore I think?), he discussed listening to this band, Dream Theater, and he said “it sounded like Rush”. When I was a teen, Rush was the first band I consciously decided to get into, and they were one of my favorites. And yeah… they do sound like Rush.

If you want fantastic prog-metal, Dream Theater’s got you covered. Their songs vary wildly in melody, tone, and lyrics and incorporate synth as well. However, my one concern is that while they are a prog band, they aren’t exactly a prog band. I get that there’s only so much a human mind can create, but prog rock- by definition- has to keep pushing the envelope, and that technically applies to the genre itself. Of course, I’m only at Dream Theater’s earliest albums, so that could change. But for the time being, even “faux-prog” is better than most of the crap that’s popular these days, and as such, I fully intend to become a Dream Theater fan… once I catch up to their umpteenth album.


Attempt #4: DragonForce

This was the first band I had never actually heard of until they came up on my Apple Music feed. Yes, the rock I live under is so heavy that I didn’t even know about the “Through the Fire and Flames Band”, nor Through the Fire and Flames itself. I only came across the song during TheRunawayguys Colosseum events, where The8BitDrummer would drum the song… just for the VOD to get muted. Because his other favorite songs were very… memey, I thought Through the Fire and Flames was the same case. But ‘lo and behold, as if it were destiny, I discovered DragonForce.

And boy, what a discovery! In a nutshell, DragonForce has an inspirational, heart-pumping, get-your-ass-out-of-bed mood reminiscent of Survivor, but with a touch of metal. Very fast metal. Part of me even thought that they sped this stuff up in post, but I’ve heard enough talent to know that humans are more than capable of playing like that (also, you know, the fact that The8BitDrummer did just that on a livestream). I can’t help but thump the floor with my feet (since I mainly listen to music sitting down these days) to their psychotically fast rhythms. Plus, their whimsical, positive lyrics, coupled with the members’ choir-like harmonies make any song from them feel like perfect background music for an epic, large-scale fantasy battle.

Of course, such a specific style is going to get repetitive; there’s only so many combinations of chords for this (and tbh the final chorus of every other song is done in a capella). While I’m definitely not complaining about hearing such ridiculous metal, I highly advise against binging their albums. With that in mind, I am finding DragonForce to be my favorite of the bands covered in this post. While some of the others might be more creative, this band has such a fresh identity that they earn a lot of points from me (also the fact that my favorite is the least popular of these five is consistent with my reputation).


Attempt #5: Evanescence

Okay, here’s a confession. I only picked this band for two reasons: one, to make sure this post had a clean five subjects, and two, to share the story of how I discovered Evanescence. Why should you care about how I found this band? Well, because it will likely make you cringe at me. Yes, it’s actually a worse discovery story than learning of Slipknot through Hotel Transylvania.

Earlier this year, around the time that the coronavirus was just starting to spread- before people went crazy over it- there was some sort of collaborative effort with Evanescence and one of my favorite Japanese bands, Wagakki Band (which, for some reason, hasn’t gotten that much publicity despite this event. Good job Japan; you REALLY commit to not promoting your musicians!). I don’t know what happened to that whole thing, but yeah, I learned of one of the most popular metal bands of the 21st Century via a significantly less popular band, when it would’ve been the other way around for literally anyone else in the world.

Assuming you didn’t click off this post, I’ll actually get to my reaction to Evanescence itself. I’m gonna come off as a hypocrite right here, because Evanescence is similar to Slipknot in a way. In YA terms, Slipknot is the brash, loud, and reckless male protagonist, while Evanescence is the snotty, depressed-yet-entitled female protagonist. In fact, Evanescence is so teenager-y, that I initially mistook them as the band that was hired to do the RWBY openings (cringing yet?).

But for some reason, I don’t want to have a cow over this band. The music is angsty, sure, but they kinda have a thing going with their combination of metal, synth, and a sad, sad, ebony piano (all you need now is the world’s smallest violin). Also, their lyrics are a bit more eloquent. To use YA terms, Slipknot lyrics feel like they were written by John Green, and Evanescence lyrics feel like they were written by Maggie Stiefvater. I don’t particularly like either authors, but I definitely prefer the latter (are you REALLY cringing yet?).

The biggest surprise is the proficiency of lead vocalist Amy Lee. While she’s no Ann Wilson, Lee is substantially better than most female singers of this generation. Sure, she might sound whiny, but I think it’s been established that Evanescence is a very whiny band in general. But as much praise I’m singing for them, I only see them in 21st or 22nd in my favorite music artists of all time; barely missing a spot on the big Top Twenty post I’ve been working on. But at this point, I only just started their second album, giving them plenty of time to grow on me like a YA novel that’s so bad it’s good!


Conclusion

For years, I’ve thought that the U.S. and U.K.- the pioneers of rock and metal respectively- have lost their touch. But to quote Genesis’ Land of Confusion (which is on topic because it’s one of the Disturbed cover songs), I can see the fire still alight, burning into the night (now I got the song stuck in your head). Slipknot wasn’t a great first impression, but I definitely found some solid bands, even if I come off as blinded by nostalgia for liking the most eighties-ish of the five, DragonForce, the best.

You’ve probably heard all of these thoughts before, when you were a kid and MySpace was a thing. But regardless, I’d like some feedback. What do you think of these bands, and do you agree with my thoughts? Also, what are other great rock and metal bands of this generation?

RWBY First Impressions (Volumes 1-5)

My job will have fully opened by the time you read this, but at the time of this writing, it was only partially opened. This gave me the chance to squeeze in one more Western animated series while my shift is substantially reduced. But what to pick? Steven Universe was a very emotional show, and I’m still caught up on DuckTales and The Dragon Prince, waiting for new episodes. Since I didn’t find the CG of the latter to be so bad, I thought I would watch a more… (in)famous CG series: Rooster Teeth’s RWBY. Even from beneath the rock I’ve been living under, I’m aware of the heated debates that occur over this franchise. So, because I love controversial media (for some reason), I thought I’d give the show a whirl to see what the hubbub is about.

In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust (which is basically Sepith from Trails of Cold Steel), 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 with Dragon Prince, I must discuss the visuals of RWBY first and foremost. “The Dragon Prince looked great,”  I thought. “RWBY shouldn’t be so bad,” I thought. Oh, how wrong I was. I understood that The Dragon Prince was made with the backing of Netflix, one of the biggest entertainment distributors in the world, and also five years after the premiere of RWBY. But even with that in mind, RWBY takes some time to get used to. While the character designs are fine, everything else about the visuals is horribly wrong. I complained about The Dragon Prince’s choppy and inconsistent frames, but RWBY showed me that the smoother framerates of its animations look more stiff, unnatural, and awkward than in The Dragon Prince.

Fortunately, the visuals improve substantially over time, with it finally looking legitimately good by season 4. The fight scenes in RWBY are when it’s at its best… sort of. The camera swings too wildly for humans to possibly keep an eye on, and it relies entirely on pure spectacle. However, as a fan of over-the-top battle shounens, I love it. The animation is at its most fluid and impactful here. Also, the show is truly anime for one reason: everything is a gun. Scythes, gauntlets, even suitcases; they’re all guns. 

To be honest, the visuals served to make RWBY one of the funniest battle shounen I have ever experienced. The humor was legitimately on point in the show, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they had influence from the best of Weekly Shounen Jump. It’s the kind of stupidity that I’ve grown to love ever since I started reading manga all those years ago. The awkward movements made it even funnier for some reason.

However, despite the anime influences, RWBY is still a Western fantasy, and a modern one at that. And if you couldn’t tell, it is qualified to fall into the Harry Potter knockoff category. In the early seasons, the plot is mind-numbingly simple, with typical gag-shounen-meets-school-drama antics coupled with some YA awkwardness; a very difficult combination of tropes to get used to.

Being a modern fantasy, RWBY does another common thing: making its world an overly obvious mirror to our society, i.e. racism. The people who get targeted for discrimination are the Faunus. They are essentially furries, which ironically, adds another layer of social commentary. Anyway, the big problem with the Faunus is the White Fang, a terrorist organization that has resorted to rather… harsh methods of ending racism (which isn’t at all ten times more relevant in 2020 for any specific reasons). Honestly… I didn’t really care much for this line of narrative. It’s a topical topic for a reason, but this is one of the things I enjoyed The Dragon Prince for not having. I like adventure fantasies the best, and there really aren’t enough of them in this day and age.

Like any gag shounen, RWBY inevitably makes the transition to a more serious and plot-driven story. However, it’s not that simple. During production of the third season, the original creator of RWBY tragically passed away. The rest of the team has been carrying on with the series since, but it’s at this point where the show became the divisive debate-starting show it is today. It makes a transition that’s extremely risky for the genre: from gag shounen to straight-up seinen.

There are a couple of issues with this. One is that the transition is not at all organic. Normally, most shounen start out with short arcs, some of which last only one volume. Then, an arc goes for two volumes to make the reader think, “Finally, they’re actually doing something substantial with these characters and ideas.” Then, there’s an arc that’s really long and is generally considered the best, followed by a unanimously hated slog to the end. I get that not all battle shounen are like this, and RWBY definitely does not follow this pattern either (but in a bad way). There is a very visible instant in which the show completely changes with no build-up whatsoever: Season 3 Episode 6. After that, it packs on the emotional baggage to no end, and it becomes very hard to take seriously if you’re not super-emotional.

Also, Eastern angst and Western angst are two completely different things, and if you’ve read any of my YA novel reviews, you’d know I don’t entirely enjoy the latter’s company. While a lot of edgy stuff from Japan can tackle some uncomfortable themes with surprising elegance (Chainsaw Man, Torture Princess, Tokyo Ghoul, Monster, etc.), I’ve found a lot of the same from Western culture to be pretentious and heavy-handed. Additionally, some of the voice acting has enough gravel to pave a whole interstate highway. At the point I’m at, the few gags they do use feel jarring instead of something meant to break the ice. But in all honesty, it’s not terrible. The show is still enjoyable, and if I had liked the characters better, the feels would’ve actually struck a chord with me. However, due to the fact that it gets more and more controversial from here, I can’t guarantee that my opinion isn’t going to sway drastically in later seasons.

Regardless of the narrative, there is a somewhat great cast of characters to motivate you to keep watching. Each of the four girls are typical tropes: Ruby, ditz; Weiss, tsundere; Blake, YA protagonist; Yang, brash. But they all have genuinely good interactions with each other, and overall truly feel like a ragtag team of young’uns. They go through a lot of character development, even if it makes them come off as typical YA drama queens. Unfortunately, their fellow peers are similarly tropeish but with less… interestingness. A boy named Jaune is a typical underdog, a girl named Pyrrha is a typical hyper-justice-girl, a girl named Nora is Ruby but with a hammer, etc. Even when they all go through big emotional crises in season four, I didn’t care for any of the kids besides the four main ones.

However, the adults make up for it. My favorite character ended up being Ruby’s uncle, Crow. He’s your typical bad-ass, trollish, yet down-to-earth father figure guy, and it’s hard not to like him. There’s also a fast-talking professor named Oobleck, but he’s- sadly- a pretty minor character. Also, this one guy named James Ironwood has the best worst name (I’ll leave society’s many euphemisms to explain why).

I can’t say the same for the villains, though. As much the show really tries to do a moral ambiguity angle, the major antagonists fall under the typical Saturday morning cartoon villain category, at least up to where I’ve watched. This one swindler named Roman Torchwick is entertaining enough, but it’s not the case for the people he’s getting his fat stacks from. He reports to this woman named Cinder, who is literally Azula from Avatar. Her two minions, Mercury and Emerald, are just about as uninteresting. Cinder reports works under the true mastermind of the series, some alien(?) named Salem, but there’s not yet enough information to really say anything about her.

Before I get to my current score, I must clarify that I’m not criticizing RWBY because it stopped being what I wanted it to be; it’s just that the show felt more generic after the tone shift. I wholly understand that not everything can be original, but a lot of the content felt like it was ripped right out of How to Make Your Audiences Bleed Tears in Five Easy Steps with no finesse or variation. Compare the portrayal of the Faunus- which is the same exact allegory to American history that’s been done eleventy other times- to something like Eighty-Six. Both are commentaries on the exact same topic, but Eighty-Six does it in a way that feels much fresher than what RWBY does. 

Television is also a deceptively limiting medium for visual storytelling. Once in a blue moon, you’ll have someone like Satoshi Kon who can do something interesting with film as an entertainment medium, but RWBY is not a Satoshi Kon film; a lot of it had bog-standard cinematography, such as those “hard-cut-to-black-with-some-kind-of-distressing-sound-effect-cliffhanger” techniques. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by manga, which have billions of combinations of panel layouts that all subtly contribute to the mood of a scene, or books, which can use the written word to at times convey more emotion than an image ever could. Also, Legend of Korra taught me that I should be examining television through an entirely different lens, as a lot of things I find typical are less common on TV. I’m even willing to bet that RWBY wouldn’t even have been allowed to air on network television, and could only exist as an indie program, for whatever dumb bureaucratic reason.

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 8.35/10

RWBY is a typical battle shounen in presentation and plot structure. It is great mindless entertainment, and I honestly don’t see why so many people take it so seriously. The food fight at the start of season two shows what I believe RWBY is at its best: over-the-top action with goofy slapstick. Unfortunately, I don’t entirely like the darker turn it took, mainly because it took it too fast. RWBY seems to be trying to be a fantasy epic on the scope of something like Trails of Cold Steel, but without the foundation that those games took time to build. Overall, the show is pretty middle-of-the-road, and I do not understand either side of the arguments with this show (but like I said, that could change). These seasons are stupid short, so I should be able to see RWBY through to the end without much hassle.

Steven Universe Full Franchise Review (Main Series, Movie, and Future)

I have a confession to make. Steven Universe, which I only finished just recently, is the first Cartoon Network show I have ever watched. I never watched Dexter’s Lab, Powerpuff Girls, Pickle Rick… nothing! I didn’t even watch anime on Adult Swim. So, with that out of the way, let’s check out Steven Universe!

It seems that Steven Universe just throws you in, right from season one, episode one. Basically, the titular Steven is a half-human, half-gem-boy; a product of his late mother, Rose Quartz, and this fat old guy named Greg. He lives with three gem ladies- Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (AND STEVEN! Sorry… had to reference the opening)- and they protect the world from monsters and stuff.

If you couldn’t tell, Steven Universe is confusing. In my process of watching the show, I realized that the episodes seem famously difficult to watch in chronological order. The episodes weren’t just aired slightly out of order, but streaming services additionally have a number of massive continuity errors with the way they’re listed. Fortunately, the wiki has an episode list (in addition to a very comprehensive Reddit post) that you can use. Hulu is by far the best place to watch it, because it has the episodes listed individually, and not in two-episode sets, which avoids a bulk of the ordering issues.

But even if you watch it in the proper order (which I presume I did?), it really does throw you right into everything with no context, like I said before. Speaking of context, it’s almost as if the show expects you to figure out what’s going on THROUGH the context of what happens. I feel like that’s too much of an expectation for a cartoon, especially since 2010s cartoons have more involved narratives. But hey, the first few episodes do a good job at establishing a basic aspect of the premise, and how the series works in general.

Disregarding the confusion with the watching order, how good is Steven Universe anyway? Well, for starters, it is perhaps the slowest burn that I’ve seen in a cartoon. The first season more or less has all my problems with season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender; a lot of self-contained narratives, and not a lot of core narrative. The first episode set with a real sense of plot progression is episodes 25 and 26, but after that, it’s business as usual for a while.

One thing I noticed in Steven Universe was that I didn’t exactly find it funny. A lot of the humor, other than stuff from the gem ladies, is kind of flat. Apart from a couple of blips of cleverness, I didn’t exactly laugh all that much. But maybe… the show was not meant to be funny.

The big surprise is that Steven Universe has a bizarrely engaging core narrative. When the show actually tries to ramp it up, it’s a darn good time. There’s a lot of interesting stuff that they build up to when it comes to Rose Quartz’s backstory, as well as the lore of the gems themselves. The show also builds a more and more involved narrative over time. My biggest problem with it is that the gem world ends up being this super-dystopian society where there’s no free will, and they end up being all like “Wow, Earth and humans are so special and wonderful, my world sucks!” It bothered me as someone who doesn’t want to believe that humanity is unique in the cosmos, but in the end, it’s not that big of a deal.

Steven Universe also tackles one of the most relatable themes in human existence: identity. The most interesting mechanic of the gems is their ability to fuse with each other, creating new and powerful gems with their own fused personalities. In addition to that, Steven is technically his own mother, whose past ends up getting… rather tumultuous. Plus, there are multiple of the same gems that exist at one time. The show begs asking questions about “what is the self” and all that pretentious junk, but Steven Universe kind of just shows the fusion for what it is instead of waxing its own poetic. 

More than in any cartoon I’ve watched, I was seriously caught off guard by the characters. Steven starts off as your typical, overly-optimistic kid. But after a while, he ends up involved in some of the best and most emotional scenes in the series. However, he is kind of a Gary Sue. One running theme with the show is that he resolves a lot of conflicts verbally. While it does fit with the core themes of the story, as someone who had finished Kimetsu no Yaiba– with its overly righteous main protagonist that everyone, even his enemies, loves- I was a bit bothered by Steven when he’d wax sentimental mumbo jumbo.

Steven’s father, Greg, is also a great character who’s constantly had to live with the loss of Rose Quartz. The lead female human is a girl named Connie. She initially comes off as that “outcast girl who has the main character walk into her life and BOOM! all girls want to be her”, but her relationship with Steven is a lot cuter than that contrived romance. She ended up growing on me more than I thought she would. There are also a wide variety of other townsfolk, from Ronaldo the conspiracy theorist, to the enigmatic Onion, who all have memorable personalities.

But the real gems of the show are, well, the gems. Pearl seems cool and collected, but she has some serious O.C.D. Amethyst is the fun, rambunctious one who also happens to be an outlier of the trio. And Best Girl Garnet is very deadpan, but sometimes has some of the best one-liners. However, underneath their hard outer shells (pun intended) are some surprisingly well-fleshed out characters. They go through some serious issues, and unlike other cartoons, it actually felt engaging to, well, engage in their character arcs.

But they’re not the only gems. After season one, we see some new faces, such as Lapis Lazuli and Peridot. Lapis is kind of the tortured waifu who needs to be taught happiness by the main character, and is probably my least favorite gem. Peridot is a typical tsundere, but it’s funny to see her misinterpret aspects of human culture. There are many other gems, but. I won’t mention them because they don’t show up until over halfway through the story.

When it comes to visuals, Steven Universe is very appealing. The fights are well-animated, and everyone has memorable character design. The one complaint I have with this aspect is that people’s nostrils look kind of like slits instead of nostrils. But hey, a nitpick is a nitpick.

And speaking of nitpicks, I’m about to destroy my reputation in one fell swoop. Steven Universe has a good amount of musical numbers. And to be honest… I’m not a big fan of most of them. I know I just said something awful, but hey, I said “most”. There were a couple of songs that I liked, but I won’t name them, specifically because I don’t know what any of their names actually are (for the record, at least one of the songs I do like is the fan-favorite in the series).

But if you noticed the title of this post, you’d know that Steven Universe is not over, even if you finish the final episode of the main series. Set two years after the finale (and thanks goodness it is; Steven’s voice doesn’t sound whiny anymore), Steven Universe: The Movie initially comes off as cash-savvy filler, but has just as much plot relevance as the main story. Overall, it’s a fun movie that also has some of the better (and more abundant) musical numbers in the series. It can theoretically be skipped, but one of its characters appears late in Steven Universe Future, the concluding mini-series of the franchise.

Following the movie, Future attempts to bring final closure to Steven’s character arc, and teaches a number of additional life lessons. It tackles a lot of his emotional insecurities as his powers start becoming as unstable as his mental state. It starts off kind of hit-or-miss, but it ramps up to the highest emotional state in the entirety of the series. It’s kind of stupid that (at this time) the only way to watch Future all the way through is to buy it on Amazon Prime Video, but it’s well worth spending, provided that you sufficiently enjoyed the main series.

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Final Verdict (Average of all Media): 8.5/10

Normally, I cannot stand narratives that deal with timeless, “relatable” themes like growing up and identity. But Steven Universe tackles them in a thoughtful and honest way that isn’t merely just mooching off of people who want to see themselves in a fictional setting. I’ve grown to be able to respect Cartoon Network because of their willingness to air a show like Steven Universe. And if it weren’t for the end of COVID-19, I probably would’ve tried watching stuff like Rick and Morty. But alas, it was not meant to be; TV isn’t my primary calling after all. Anyways, I recommend Steven Universe to those who want a different cartoon, one that isn’t there just to numb your children with fart jokes.