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.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz: The Best—I mean—Least Bad Installment Yet

Oz has had ups and downs. In fact, the previous two books, The Road to Oz and The Emerald City of Oz, were absolutely awful in my opinion. At the end of my rope, I turned toward The Patchwork Girl of Oz with next to no expectations. How much worse could it get?

In The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a munchkin boy named Ojo and his uncle(?), Unc Nunkie, head off to find food. On the way, they meet this magician, Dr. Pipt, who tries to bring a patchwork girl of his wife’s creation to life. He succeeds, but petrification juice gets splashed all over said wife and Unc Nunkie. With the help of the Patchwork Girl, named Scraps, and an incredibly sassy Glass Cat, Ojo sets out to find the ingredients for an antidote. 

When I asked “How much worse can it get?” in the intro, I was fortunate that that question would not be answered today. For you see, Patchwork Girl is actually pretty damn good. First off, CONTINUITY. The chemical that brings Scraps to life is, indeed, the same Powder of Life from book two, and Pipt is the very magician who created it. Finally!

There is also a drastic improvement in new characters. Ojo is unremarkable at first, but ends up being the first morally ambiguous character in the series (even if his arc is rather lackluster compared to more modern protagonists). By comparison, Scraps and the Glass Cat are on another level, at least for Baum. 

Scraps is bright, jovial, and very optimistic, like an innocent child. Unfortunately, she’s kind of a dichotomy. She’s created with the intention of being a servant, which is as sexist as you’d expect for the time. However, because Baum can never be consistent, she actually manages to become a strong, independent woman. The 19th Amendment wouldn’t come to pass for seven more years, but the movements in favor of women’s right to vote were probably present at the time. Was Baum the first author to be worried about political correctness?

In stark contrast to Scraps’ peppiness, the Glass Cat is very egotistical, always eager to remind you about her ruby heart and pink brains (you can see ’em work). Unfortunately, the Glass Cat ends up being annoying very quickly, and this is coming from someone who likes Senku from Dr. Stone. The Glass Cat’s entire personality is its catchphrase. Imagine a character with a catchphrase, then imagine that phrase being the ONLY THING THEY SAY. While I love it when Senku says “ten billion percent”, I only love it because it’s just one part of a very charismatic guy. The Glass Cat is fun at first, and then stops being fun.

Other than that, it’s the usual Oz antics. Like in many installments, there are random, self-contained encounters that have absolutely no significance to the plot and are not entertaining. This far in, it feels very clear that Baum has been pulling Oz out of nowhere since the very beginning.

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Final Verdict: 6.8/10

Geez, I’m awful. Halfway through one of the most beloved literature franchises of all time, and I still haven’t scored a single one higher than a 7/10! Hopefully, it’ll get better from here.

Blood Like Magic: A Family Drama With a Cyberpunk Twist

I don’t consciously try to read books about racism. But when I began Liselle Sambury’s new series opener, Blood Like Magic, I was greeted with a disclaimer that basically said: “This book is about racism.” Well, let’s see how soul-grinding this one is.

In Blood Like Magic, families of witches get magic by having their periods (and Westerners think anime should be banned?). A young’un named Voya Thomas just had her period, and the next step after that is to have her nigh-impossible-to-fail Calling. Assuming you’ve had experience with urban fantasy before, what do you think happens when it comes to the main protagonist attempting some sort of magic test that everyone else in the world could do just fine? If you think Voya fails, you’d only be half-right. She calls Mama Jova, who—of course—happens to be the Dark Souls of the Thomas family.

So, the disclaimer at the beginning implies that Blood Like Magic is even more heart-rending and brutal than any other urban fantasy out there. It’s not. There is one scene (arguably two?) where racism is referenced at all. The scene in question is brutal, but it’s extremely out of left field. The reason for it is because Blood Like Magic is set twenty-eight years in the future, and in this future, racism isn’t that prevalent. Voya says that she has never been called a racist slur, nor conditioned to feel ashamed of being Black.

However, the book is still—to some extent—about racism, or at the very least, the fancy term known as “systemic racism.” Despite it not being in-your-face like in Legendborn, it still abounds in society itself. An example is showcased by NuGene, a big genetics company with a lot of weight in society. Apparently, if your genetic code implies that you might have a violent personality, you’ll be treated like a serial killer without even committing any crimes (or something), and this just so happens to be more punishing when it comes up in a Black person. The company’s employees insist on doing the whole “use gender identity at the end of their names” thing, but it turns out they’re hypocritical homophobes, which is shown when Voya’s transgender cousin is given the wrong set of chromosomes in their official record. 

The cherry on top is that Voya, as narrator, still uses those same race labels, despite the fact that they should be archaic given the context. In a way, Blood Like Magic more cynical than any other books of its kind. No matter how much progress we make, those in power won’t change. In that way, Blood Like Magic has left me emotionally distraught not in the moments of reading it, but when reflecting on it afterwards.

ANYWAY, let’s discuss the actual story! If you’ve read a YA novel, Mama Jova’s task will seem straight out of the edgiest urban fantasy ever: Voya must kill her first love. Fortunately for her, she joined a gene-matching program by the aforementioned NuGene, and was paired with Luc Rodriguez, the sponsor son of NuGene’s CEO. Of course, they hate each other as soon as they first meet. Key word: “first”.

After being given her task, Blood Like Magic becomes part-romcom, part sci-fi mystery as she juggles a classic tsundere relationship with Luc, and this weird stuff her family’s been hiding from her. It’s balanced surprisingly well, especially since YA novels this thick (just under five hundred pages) tend to drag. I read it with my butt clenched waiting for that inevitable conspiracy to be revealed.

Normally, I’d criticize the characters, but this time… I don’t actually hate them even though I should. By themselves, pretty much everyone is either unremarkable and/or very snarky. But together, their chemistry made them among the more tolerable YA casts I’ve seen. I loved Voya and her cousin, Keis, bouncing witty remarks at each other, or Granny—who basically runs the Thomases—asserting her absolute authority. Even what would be a cringe-inducing, formulaic tsundere relationship between Voya and Luc ends up seeming more legitimate and believable than “I hate you! I hate you too! *Proceeds to viciously make out*”.

Despite all its novelty, Blood Like Magic still has a lot of those annoying YA tropes. If you guessed that Voya falls in love with Luc and can’t kill him, then congratulations! You’ve read at least one YA novel! At the very least, the story manages to play out in a way that’s quite unexpected for the genre.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

I’m probably wrong and off-base about a lot of what Blood Like Magic is trying to say. But regardless, the thing to be invested in is without a doubt the families’ relationships. And I use a plural possessive noun because I don’t just mean the Thomases; I’m referring to their relationships with each other, as well as with the other witch families. Overall, I’d recommend Blood Like Magic just for the emotional story of Voya’s family.

Legendborn: This Book Broke Me

I definitely have not hesitated to come down with constructive criticism on stuff that deals with racism. However, I’m only showing one side of the coin. As confidently as I make quips like “It’s too ham-fisted” or “It’s just torture porn”, I don’t entirely feel that way. To be honest, every commentary on racism—no matter how well it’s framed—has broken me, especially after the George Floyd incident. And Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn is no exception. This book made me hate my own existence. In fact, I’ve actually read—and started writing this review—not long after the book was published; I was just so indecisive about how to go about writing it. I still don’t know if the post is proper even now. Oh well, it’s here.

In Legendborn, a girl named Briana Matthews (henceforth known as Bree) has been on an incessantly long road of recovery after the tragic death of her mother. She’s been attending this super-highschool-early-college academy place, and gets herself almost immediately expelled when she joins a dumb teenager-y gathering. During this gathering, a bizarre incident occurs, and she witnesses a strapping young man slay some kind of demon thing. This dude, named Selwyn Kane, is one of many Legendborn, and is able to alter people’s memories. It’s at this point that Bree realizes that they have a connection to the cause of her mother’s death, and with the help of fellow Legendborn Nick Davis, she’s going to find the truth even if it kills her.

As much as I’d like to say that Bree’s Blackness is irrelevant, I can’t because I’d be wrong. It’s ham-fisted, but necessarily so, considering its 2020 release year. Bree is frequently harassed by authority figures and other people in the Legendborn’s secret society of angsty special teens. That’s to be expected, but it goes further when some developments regarding slavery and the Civil War come up later. It’s so on-the-nose that it absolutely crushed my nose, and the momentum from that weight crushed my soul as well. 

But as integral to the plot racism is, the social commentaries feel like a vehicle to make otherwise uninteresting worldbuilding interesting. Beyond the racism, Legendborn’s basic lore is just Jujutsu Kaisen meets Last Round Arthurs. The reason for its resemblance to the latter is the fact that the Legendborn’s Order has King Arthur symbolism. They use lengthy exposition to make it seem like a really deep system, but the basic idea is that some kids are descended from King Arthur and his knights and can awaken those individuals’ powers once the demons decide to reenact the Battle of Camlann Hill (or something). This, along with Bree’s character arc, exists to cater to that fascination that individuals have with their family histories. The Order’s enemies are the Shadowborn, which are the same old “demons that feed off of human negativity” that have been used billions of times.

Despite my nitpicks, I have found Legendborn to be one of the better YA novels I’ve read. They ham in the mother’s death in that blatant “start with a tragic event as an easy emotional hook” scheme, but it’s done exquisitely. The writing is very descriptive, and gives the action sequences some punch that is often lacking in the genre. And although the story is pretty generic, it’s still fun to read. Last but not least, its portrayal of racism and its history is bone-crushing. My soul was broken, and the pieces were ground into dust. To be perfectly blunt, I barely remember how the book ended, mainly because the raw emotion of it took complete hold over me.

Bree is perhaps one of the best YA protagonists simply because she actually is what most YA authors try and fail to make their female leads. Her struggles are real, and her ability to be strong through all this grief is something else. Unfortunately, she is a case of “has unique powers for no reason”, but that doesn’t dampen her arc.

Most of the other characters aren’t that interesting. Nick Davis is an exception; his Prince Charming-esque relationship with Bree feels legit because neither of them exactly wanted the hands they were dealt in life. Selwyn, however, is your super-edgelord, and I have a bad feeling that he will reluctantly be part of a love triangle with Bree and Nick (since there is an upcoming sequel and all). That’s kind of where the likable characters end, as everyone else is either unremarkable and/or racist.

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Final Verdict: 9.2/10

Legendborn is a dime a dozen, but it’s a really, REALLY well-polished dime (wait, is that right? Well, you know what I mean). I am excited for the sequel, but I don’t exactly know what direction it could go in. As of now, Legendborn is more than worthy enough to be in a list of best #BlackGirlMagic books.

The Owl House (Season 1): A Distinctly American Isekai

I had actually started watching The Owl House on a whim around the time the first season came out on Disney+. I was so certain it would be two seasons that I didn’t think I needed to do a season-by-season review. But according to Wikipedia and IMDB, it’s actually going to be two and a half seasons? Well, regardless, the second season has been turning different enough to where I should review The Owl House season-by-season. So yeah, here’s my review of season one!

In The Owl House, a girl named Luz is very eccentric and creatively expresses herself all the time. Of course, we can’t have any of that in America, so her mom decided to ship her off to summer camp to make her more mainstream. Luz instead chases an owl into a suitcase portal, where she ends up in a fantasy realm called the Boiling Isles. With pretty much no hesitation, she decides to live here with a witch named Eda the Owl Lady and a chuunibyou demon named King in the titular Owl House. 

The Owl House is modern, childish, and very one-dimensional. But it’s not just those things; it’s mind-numbingly straightforward. They don’t even try to hide that it’s a pure escapist fantasy, what with the aforementioned summer camp literally being called “Reality Check Summer Camp”, and the first episode showing a prison called the Conformatorium. 

“Well, at least it’s not another Harry Potter clone,” you comment. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true. The initial interest of having someone learn magic through a wanted criminal like Eda gets brushed aside about two-thirds into the first season. Luz discovers a long lost method to do magic, entirely by happenstance, and ends up enrolled in the local school, Hexside.

And it gets more cliché than that simply by being a children’s show. It goes through a lot of the motions, where a protagonist does something blatantly stupid and learns a lesson at the end. It’s just about as clear-cut as any kids’ show, and as a result, The Owl House ends up reinventing the wheel quite often. There is also zero subtlety, as it practically beats you over the head with teasers of things that will happen.

Fortunately, it more than makes up for spoon-feeding you “American values” with sheer entertainment. The show is whimsical, colorful, and builds on itself just about as organically as any good modern cartoon. And speaking of building, the show does have some decent worldbuilding. The Boiling Isles has a lot of creativity going into it, from some guy’s house being held up by a giant hand to school bells that scream bloody murder. It’s meant to look grotesque and terrifying to try and subvert the idea of it being an escapist fantasy realm, but that ends up falling to the wayside because of how charming the Boiling Isles end up becoming. The vibrant and appealing visuals help tie it all together. 

And speaking of charming, the cast—despite being very cliché—ends up being just that. Let’s start with the worst of the bunch first: the main protagonist, Luz (oh, everyone’s going to hate me for saying that, aren’t they?). She’s your typical isekai protagonist through and through. Luz is reckless, tomboyish, and overly easy to relate to. The show tries to make her not seem like a special snowflake, but based on what I discussed earlier, that doesn’t exactly happen.

Fortunately, everyone else is better. Imagine Grunkle Stan from Gravity Falls but ridiculously sexy and you get Best Mom Eda. She’s just about as snarky as Stan, plus she seriously embodies the American spirit. Her tragic backstory is the driving force of the narrative throughout season one, which involves her sister, Lilith (who is also quite sexy but not as fun). King is an adorable little sociopath who tries every angle to assert dominance over others, and it’s fun to see him have melodramatic speeches just from things like climbing to the top of the local playground.

Luz ends up making a few friends in Hexside. Willow starts off as the “my parents want me to do this even though I’m a lot better at something else” character, but that ends up being resolved in the first episode she’s introduced in, and seems like a relatable conflict created just to hook audiences into liking her (which ends up being such a non-issue to the point where we don’t even get to see her parents). But hey, she’s lovable enough on her own. There’s also Best Boy Augustus, who offers a lot of comic mischief without falling into a rut of the same joke over and over again. My least favorite of the Hexside kids is Amity Blight. She’s basically the tsundere, and that’s about it (and now the entire fandom REALLY hates me). On another note, Hexside’s principle is actually pretty great, but he doesn’t show up often enough.

Of course, I must dedicate an entire paragraph to the best character in the entire show: Hooty. He’s a literal door, and is basically a perfect person. 

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Verdict: 8/10

The Owl House is nothing new, but it’s fun, and at least tries harder to be interesting than Amphibia. And from what I’ve seen of season two at this point… yeah, it’s WAY more interesting than Amphibia. I recommend it if you want some Disney magic with a bit of edge.

The Infinity Courts: What If Siri Ran the Afterlife?

I don’t know why I’m still trying to get into YA novels, considering that I tend to not like them. But sometimes, you just have an impulsive, smooth-brain moment. And in this particular impulse, I decided to try Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts, the first in what is—according to Goodreads—a trilogy. I’ve apparently made a habit of reviewing individual installments of book series as of late, so I guess I’ll continue that pattern again!

In The Infinity Courts, a typical teenage girl named Nami Miyamoto is about to have the night of her life: a graduation party, whereafter she and her crush, Finn, will have their happily ever after. But when her dumb friend makes her buy something spur-of-the-moment, Nami has a true isekai-light-novel experience when she is shot in a convenience store and is awakened in a strange world known as Infinity. Everything here is perfect, which means it’s actually not even remotely perfect. And it doesn’t take long for Infinity’s Residents to start hunting her down.

I suppose that, being at most the one-third point of the bigger story, the following statement would be said too soon. But I’m going to say it anyway: if you’re looking for something that’ll make your brain gears whirl, then The Infinity Courts is not it. The world of Infinity is more-or-less that of The Matrix. Just like in those whacky conspiracy theories, our smartphone A.I.s—with this world’s model being named Ophelia—end up ruling the human race and want to brainwash everyone. Nami joins your typical Resistance group in an effort to take Ophelia down.

However, there is at least a bit more creativity this time around. Infinity has a lot of appealing and surreal setpieces, as implied by the map at the beginning. It helps that we get a good enough description of these setpieces; not too much and not too little. A lot of names are just common nouns with uppercase letters, but it’s not as excessive with that trope as other YA novels.

It also helps that Bowman is a legit good writer. Even though The Infinity Courts is a case of “same sh** different day”, I was thoroughly engaged with the story and wanted to know what happened next. It’s not too pretentious with metaphors, like most YA novels tend to be (even if it asks those philosophical questions a lot).

The cast is also surprisingly likable… for the most part. A lot of the resistance people are decent folks who just really prioritize the Colony above all else. However, Nami—despite being named after One Piece‘s Best Girl—is an incredibly hard sell. Like your typical YA female protagonist, she’s self-deprecating, and doesn’t want to fight the Residents even when shown how they enslave and torture humans. And of course, she has mysterious abilities that no one else has, even if this particular instance kind of makes sense, given her weird sense of sympathy with her smartphone in life.

Gil is the other hard sell. He’s a middle-aged, war torn veteran trapped in a teenager’s body, but some of that teenager-y-ness manifests as well. He’s so hard-headed and angsty, and is also that guy who hates the main protagonist just to be an asshole. The other leading lad is Prince Caelan, one of the four Princes of Infinity. He’s, well, Mr. Perfect, and is—for the time being—the only Prince to get an actual character arc. The main antagonist, Ophelia, is your typical robot overlord; she’s all like “humans are all born racist and violent and evil”, and thinks that trying to remove them from Infinity is an objectively good thing.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

The Infinity Courts is not original whatsoever, but it reinvents the wheel in a pleasantly surprising way. I’m more than willing to commit to this series, which is saying something considering how I feel about YA novels. I recommend it if you want raw entertainment, but don’t expect your thoughts to be provoked.

When Disney Decided to Dig a Little Deeper: Princess and the Frog Retrospective

Well, I kind of cheated with this one. Basically, I got to rewatch Princess and the Frog during a movie under the stars event in Disney and decided to write a retrospective on it, in advance of its twentieth anniversary. However, I got impatient and instead decided to post it now. In any case, this review was written after watching the movie for the first time in over two years, so I should be able to break it down pretty impartially.

In Princess and the Frog, a girl named Tiana dreams of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. But since it’s Disney, her father dies early on and she gets screwed out of a vacant property right when she saves up enough money. What’s worse is that she runs into Prince Naveen (*smack* of Maldonia), a strapping prince who happened to be visiting the States, and the two of them turn into frogs.

Princess and the Frog was the start of a new trope for Disney’s female leads. They would no longer be damsels in distress who were swept away by some hunk. In fact, a lot of these Disney women would start off on bad terms with their husbando-to-be. Princess and the Frog also starts a trend of Disney lessons that are practical to real life, unlike previous ones which were like “If you cry hard enough some magic grandma will come save you.” The movie shows you the line between wants and needs, as well as work and play. I hate saying that something is good solely from being relatable, but Princess and the Frog is really easy to relate to, whether you’re some greedy hoarder, a workaholic, or anything in between. Heck, it’s something I still need to learn while juggling this blog and a full-time I.R.L. job.

But as far as the story itself, Princess and the Frog is about as straightforward as any mainstream Disney flick. The bulk of the movie is Tiana and Naveen goin’ down the bayou to reach Mama Odie, who supposedly has the ability to turn them human again. And of course, when they get to her, she’s all like “stuff Mufasa said probably” and sends them back to New Orleans so Naveen can make out with Tiana’s BFF. As you can expect, she gets the best of both worlds in the end. 

Fortunately, if you like classic Disney, then you’ll find Princess and the Frog to be one of their best. All the personality and Disney magic is still present, even though the behind the scenes for this movie has one of the producers saying “the world had grown too cynical for fairy tales” (which is more true now than ever thanks to social media and, well… last year). It’s lighthearted, funny, emotional, and bursting with color and heart.

The characters are among the most likeable in Disney’s repertoire. Tiana and Naveen aren’t that interesting by themselves, but it’s their relationship that brings out the best of them. They are two extremes; with Tiana being extreme work and Naveen being extreme play. To my knowledge, this is the second time in Disney history with a tsundere Disney Princess (the first being Belle). But unlike Beast, who saves Belle’s life and gives her Stockholm Syndrome as a result, Tiana and Naveen’s values clash in some bizarro way that results in the true wuv that we all care about (and them learning how to properly manage their lives).

Like I said in my Disney rant, people don’t care about the leads as much as the other characters. Louie the crocodile is your typical comic relief character. However, as lovable as he is, he’s not that funny. The most hilarious part about him is the sheer concept of a crocodile who wants to play jazz with the big boys, and the only funny bit is him not knowing “the geography and the topography” of the bayou. Of course, people (and myself) love Raymone to bits and pieces. The interesting part is that he’s one of the few Disney protagonists to die towards the end of the movie, as opposed to the parents who don’t even live for half an hour (such as Tiana’s dad). As desentized to Disney deaths as I am, I admit that seeing him be reincarnated as a star right next to his waifu in the sky is pretty moving.

A sadly unutilized character ends up being Best Girl Lottie. She’s loaded thanks to her father, John Goodman. Being a rich girl, her deep friendship with a low-income girl like Tiana could arguably inspire hope for  kids to this day. Regardless, she’s hilarious in every scene she’s in, even if those are low in number.

The antagonist, Facilier, is—to my knowledge—the last true Disney villain. After him, they would get less and less presence in the movies, and now, they pretty much don’t exist. With that in mind, what a banger to end on! He’s become a modern fan-favorite for a reason, and it’s because he’s constantly oozing charisma. He’s really intimidating for such a skinny guy, and his death is perhaps one of the scariest out of the Disney villains.

Being a Disney Princess movie, Princess and the Frog has a phenomenal soundtrack. I don’t like jazz at all, but I’m always surprised by how many different atmospheres and moods that they can convey with the genre in this movie. Also, Facilier’s number is probably one of the best villain songs in Disney history.

Princess and the Frog hasn’t aged a day, despite its use of traditional hand-drawn graphics. It’s a visually stunning film, with both nostalgia and modern flair. They make New Orleans look just about as fantastical as any Magic Kingdom, that’s for sure. The behind-the-scenes said that they’d occasionally like to return to hand-drawn graphics every now and then, but they still have yet to do it. WHY?!

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After All These Years: 9/10

Princess and the Frog is really damn good! There’s nothing else to say besides that. If you like Disney, then you should have no problem with this one.

The Emerald City of Oz: Somehow, a Volume with a Literal War in it Has Next to NO Action

L. Frank Baum’s Oz books had been steadily getting better, up until the fifth book, The Road to Oz. I really hope that it was just a fluke. Well, the only way to figure out if the series is getting better or worse is to continue it! Let’s jump into book six: The Emerald City of Oz.

In this installment, Dorothy’s aunt and uncle are S.O.L. And while a good therapist would tell you not to run away from your problems, Dorothy suggests to do just that! She has Ozma invite them to live in Oz forever. And what a time to move in, as the Nome King is planning to invade.

Up to this point, the government of the Emerald City has been well-established. However, when Baum gave us the recap of how it worked, I realized another prophecy of Baum’s. But this one, er… Well, to sum up, everyone has equal money in the Emerald City. Oz is a Communist kingdom. Aaaaah, American culture, you never cease to baffle me.

Anyway, the basic structure of this volume alternates POVs, from Dorothy showing her relatives around Oz, while the Nome King’s general recruits followers for his cause. I initially looked forward to this, because I thought, “Hey, we can reintroduce some of the minor antagonists from earlier in the series! Continuity!” However, I was once again an ignoramus for having hope in Baum. Instead of doing that, we are suddenly introduced to a number of one-dimensionally evil races, one of which is a literal race of furries (different from the ones in The Road to Oz). 

Not only are there new bad guys in this volume, but there are also brand new denizens of Oz. Classic Baum, constantly adding new things instead of expanding upon existing things. Because it’s whacky! The new races are as imaginative as usual, such as a race of people made out of puzzle pieces. There’s also a race of paper people, all created by a single girl—once again, Baum unwittingly stuffs sacrilege into kids’ brains. At least he has balls. 

But no matter how creative Baum gets, it seems I just cannot get immersed in this world. Everything in it is just distributed, and doesn’t feel… like anything. People still love this series so much? How? I can only see this being good at the time, before Tolkein raised the bar (a bar that is definitely not met even these days). It takes so much more than ideas to have good worldbuilding, and I expected more out of such a beloved series. I guess that’s one thing that it has in common with most modern stuff (Oooooh snap).

Honestly, I have nothing else to say. The climax is boring and rushed, possibly shoehorning in a new plot device that I’m supposed to have believed was in the Emerald City from the very beginning (I say “possibly” because it could’ve been mentioned and I forgot because I was bored). Oz researcher Peter Glassman, once again, acts as if this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this time, his reasoning seems to entirely rest on the fact that Emerald City has alternating POVs. This is what I hate about classic literature as a whole. People just laud them for being the first at doing something, as if that makes it better than any later stuff that does the same thing better. By comparison, I can at least say that Dracula is one of the best vampire stories ever. It was a no-nonsense thriller, where the vampires were real monsters that didn’t glow with shoujo sparkles. Oz is not Dracula.

It’s not all bad, though. There were a couple of interesting bits that I feel like should be brought up. First off, there is a place (I forgot what location was called), where its people had anxiety attacks over literally every possible negative eventually, even the super improbable ones. Baum, arguably, predicted the slowly deteriorating mental health of America. It’s exaggerated, but I actually related to these people, since I’m living in a world where the media will make everything out to be the end of days. There is also another case of Glinda the Good being not-so-good. They meet these rabbits who have been forcibly evolved to a civilized state completely against their will, and only because Glinda felt like it. That final book looms ever ominously before me, man.

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Final Verdict: 6.7/10

Emerald City of Oz gets a slightly higher rating since it has some of the more inventive ideas (even if they are superficial). Overall, this book sucks. I would be glad to be finished with it, as it was meant to be the final Oz book. However, we are not even halfway. I’m suddenly Han Solo, because I have a bad feeling about this.

The Last Fallen Star: My First Ever Impression of Korean Culture

As someone who’s been alive within the last ten years, I have borne witness to the sudden rise of South Korea’s influence on the world’s entertainment industry. And considering I’ve been into Japanese culture for a long time, I’ve basically been jealous of Korea to this day. Anime have been out internationally for decades, and only a handful of them are accepted by your garden variety “all-American”. In my experience, it feels like Japan has only gotten more disdain as facets of their culture continue to come into the fold. And yet, all it took was ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ for South Korea to be welcomed with open arms. Nowadays, manhwa and webtoons seem to be eclipsing Japan’s manga industry, and BTS the biggest active music group in the world, with their other K-Pop compatriots not far behind. Eventually, I just lost it, and absolutely HAD to know if I was missing something. And my voyage into Korean culture begins with Graci Kim’s novel, The Last Fallen Star, one of two Korean I.P.s from Rick Riordan Presents.

In The Last Fallen Star, you have your usual secret coven of witches. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the main protagonist, Riley Oh’s, problem is. …Did you guess that she has no magic? Yep, that’s exactly the case. The other old beans in the clan try to act like they don’t think she’s just baggage, but it’s not a particularly good facade. So, what does Riley do? She and her sister, Hattie, perform an illegal spell that has a chance to give Riley temporary powers. I’ll give you three guesses as to what results.

If you guessed that it goes horribly wrong, then that would be correct, but also an understatement. In fact, Riley’s parents end up in a position where they decide if they or Riley get permanently ejected out of the clan. Riley decides for them, and boots herself out, afterwhich the sisters perform ANOTHER illegal ritual that puts Hattie’s life at stake. Of course, the solution is for Riley, and her friend Emmet, to find a MacGuffin. Why wouldn’t it be?

Positives first. The story, unlike other Presents books, doesn’t waste time. The premise being entirely centered around MacGuffin-finding screams padding, but it’s actually relevant to a much bigger plot. It’s much more dialogue-driven than other Presents books, but not having random Korean monsters attack just for the sake of action is another plus for the pacing.

Sadly, that’s about where the positives end. The Korean-mythology-based worldbuilding is pretty typical. It’s your garden variety urban fantasy, with the different portals to witch-land in the middle of unassuming public areas, various rituals, and really dense-headed coven bigwigs. The specific legends used in the story, such as Korea’s creation legend, are… alright, I guess. Even taking my Shinto bias in mind, it’s your usual “the world is created perfectly and then someone does something stupid.”

The cast also leaves something to be desired (big surprise coming from me). Riley, being adopted, magicless, and wanting to be included in social circles, ticks all the boxes on the “relatable” checklist. I also dislike her for using the word “amazeballs”. The male lead, Emmet, is your typical best friend, and his arc revolves entirely around his response to the inevitable big plot twist reveal. We don’t get to see many gods—in fact, we only see one—and she is not as memorable as she could’ve been.

The only other issue I have is with the climax. It’s a good climax from a sheer entertainment standpoint, but I feel like some stuff happened solely for shock value. Also, the final twist feels like Kim trying to make readers feel that participation-trophy-specialness, which—according to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—leads to mental health disorders.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

The Last Fallen Star is the second best Rick Riordan Presents book I have read thus far, which is not saying much considering that I don’t like most of them. And even then, I still didn’t love it like I do that one series I will be covering at some point. I’m willing to finish this series, but I don’t think I’m going to learn why people like this particular brand of mythology.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: Read it Before Ragnarök

Lately, I’ve been questioning my admiration toward Rick Riordan, the author of Percy Jackson, a.k.a. “The Storyteller of the Gods”. I read Percy Jackson over ten years ago, and needless to say, it helped me become who I am today. I would’ve never wanted to study Japanese culture to the Nth degree if it weren’t for Percy. But I haven’t reread Percy to this day. In 2017, I attempted to read Trials of Apollo—completely skipping over Heroes of Olympus—and I never finished it. With every Apollo book, I liked it less and less. Furthermore, I kept getting disappointed at the books published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint; books that all had to get his seal of approval. With me questioning the tastes and talents of one of the most defining people in my life, I was tempted to do a Percy Jackson retrospective. However, that series is five stinking books long, and I had so much crap to do as it was. Instead, I turned to another series of his: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. It was only three books, so it was doable. Although Norse mythology is the second most overused template for fantasy worldbuilding, I at least had some vague familiarity with some of its more nuanced aspects, thanks entirely to one of my new favorite bands, Brothers of Metal. Without further ado, let’s see if I can like something by Rick Riordan!

In Magnus Chase, the titular character has been homeless ever since his mom died in a fire. After living in the slums of Boston, he gets your typical visit by a long-lost, mysterious relative. This time, it’s his Uncle Randolph, who tells him the usual: he’s the son of a Norse god. Magnus gets this fancy sword thing that’s been lying in the Charles River, but then he dies. He awakens in Hotel Valhalla, where he must join the other halfbloods on adventures.

Rick Riordan is at least good at jumping into the action. All that I just described happens in the first forty-seven pages, when most books would take almost a hundred to start in earnest. And like in Percy Jackson, you get acclimated to Hotel Valhalla while everyone there shits on him and his Valkyrie friend, Sam. As expected from Riordan, he does a great job of blending Norse folklore with the modern day in his own signature style. Riordan’s snarky sense of humor is also very prevalent.  

While there are a number of obvious similarities to Percy, Magnus Chase is a bit different. Due to the power of red herrings, it’s never clear who’s on whose side. All we know is that Ragnarök = Bad, and that some people want it more than others. Sam ends up being the daughter of Loki, who’s supposed to be the bad guy, and she gets ejected from Valhalla for bringing Magnus in. Is she sus and working for Loki? Is Loki sus? Whoooooo knooooooooows?!

In terms of writing, Magnus is actually not bad. Riordan is about as talented of a storyteller as I remember, even if I didn’t take the story as seriously as my younger self did Percy. I could easily visualize everything as it appeared, which most authors fail doing. One thing I noticed is how wordy the books are most of the time. Well, it’s kind of a thing I’ve noticed in most Western literature, and it kind of fascinates me for some reason. I know that flavor text can bring more life to the story, but sometimes it feels excessive. As an aspiring writer, my problem ended up being that my stuff was too short. I’ve taken inspiration from the 1952 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which Leonard Maltin described as “understatement and restraint.” That’s why I try to not go for BS hyperbole on my blogs. Anyway, sorry for that tangent; let’s get back to the review.

Since middle grade books have to be dummy thick, Riordan does have a number of scenes that don’t seem necessary. I had problems with this in The Storm Runner and a certain other Percy-influenced franchise that I’ll be reviewing in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Riordan at least has the ability to make the filler fun in its own right. Instead of dumb, arbitrary trials that tell stuff about the characters that we already knew, Magnus has more fun and varied activities, like fishing up Jormungandr and bowling with giants.

If there was another thing I could always trust Riordan for was his research. Readers are expected to recognize Thor and Loki (thanks to the M.C.U.), and perhaps Yggdrasil and stuff since everything in every JRPG series is named after Norse mythology. But me, I had Brothers of Metal. I recognized the Norns, Heidrun, and more. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t help me pay attention to the story when they come up. I know it sounds bad, but I couldn’t help it. A lot of the time, I was just thinking of this:

And I may or may not have come up with the post just to plug the band.

Like with more-or-less everything I’ve ever experienced, the characters—once again—don’t quite win me over. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them. If you’re familiar with Percy Jackson, then you’d probably like them just fine. But that’s the thing; they pretty much are Percy Jackson characters in every way. I don’t 100% recall how the Percy characters were, but at least going off of my nostalgic memory, the cast of Magnus is inferior in a number of ways. Magnus himself is that typical wish fulfilment character, with his initial homelessness as an added bonus. At least he’s appreciative of being whisked away to the lap of luxury, for once?

Sam is pretty much Annabeth, which I suppose is inaccurate, since Annabeth herself is actually Magnus’ cousin (apparently, every religions’ gods coexist in the same universe?). Basically, she’s a tomboy and has not much else going for her. Sam’s sibling, Alex Fierro, ends up packing much more sass. As the offspring of good ol’ Loki, their whole character arcs revolve around getting over their abusive pa. Magnus’ other main cohorts end up being Blitz and Hearth, a dwarf and elf respectively. They’re good dudes.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t fond of everyone. There are several other kids in Magnus’…  er… class(?), but they have no presence at all. They crap on him super early on, but they just suddenly stop doing that, and I can only assume Riordan did that initially for shock value. Even with more of a role in the final book, they feel like half-assed characters, especially by Riordan standards. 

The assorted Norse mythology characters, as expected, end up being the cast’s strong suit. They’re full of sass, as well as having the duality of being ancient characters who are in touch with the modern world (something that would lose its novelty if someone were to write a series based on Japanese mythology, since that duality is already part of their culture). Sadly, I was the most disappointed in Loki. SPOILER ALERT, the god of tricksters is—in fact—the main antagonist. While he is an entertaining villain, his role doesn’t exactly shed a new perspective on Norse mythology in the way that other series try with their villains (even if those books fail at the attempt). The only attempt in Magnus’ case is made towards the end of the series, where Loki just says the same old “there’s no real good and evil” schtick that I’ve only seen in stories that fail to actually convey that through context. I’m sorry, but wanting to jumpstart the end of days for no reason seems to be pretty close to one-dimensional evil, just saying. 

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I don’t think Rick Riordan deserves to be hailed as the Storyteller of the Gods, but he is a very capable writer (even if his references are pander-ously mainstream). Magnus Chase isn’t life-changing, nor(se) does it subvert Viking culture, but it’s nonetheless a solid action-adventure trilogy. It’s also taught me how shallow a lot of the Rick Riordan Presents books feel by comparison, where they merely seem to emulate what people find appealing in Riordan’s books instead of finding their own voices. I recommend Magnus Chase if you like Percy Jackson, or if you want an actually good urban fantasy for once.