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.

The Legend of Korra Full Series Review

Before I get into this review, I must say that the fact that I watched Legend of Korra is super ironic. I specifically waited for Avatar to come out on Netflix so I didn’t have to pay Amazon to watch one show. Now, I ended up doing just that to watch one show, when I could’ve used it to watch two shows months ago. Sure, I could’ve watched the first half of Korra on CBS All-Access, but I just didn’t feel like relying on two services to watch a single show (let’s see how long it takes for them to announce Korra coming to Netflix).

While I didn’t think Avatar: The Last Airbender deserved to be lauded as one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed it when I recently watched it (link to that review here). I enjoyed it enough to watch the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, the day after. But one difference in my experience was that I had some basic idea of what Avatar would be like. As for Korra, all I’ve seen is one screenshot- with no context- that looked like it was trying to reference Steins;Gate. The 2010s were the start of an ongoing point in time where cartoons became more naturally influenced by anime (perhaps thanks to Avatar), so I was really curious as to how this show would play out. Let’s see if it improves upon its predecessor or suffers from the timeless “sequel curse”.

In Legend of Korra, set seventy years after the original Avatar, Aang inevitably bites the dust. Replacing him is a new Avatar named Korra, who already knows three of the elements. When Korra follows Aang’s son, Ten Zin, to the futuristic Republic City, she gets more than she bargains for!

I went into Korra expecting it to be so anime, that it wouldn’t be a cartoon. But when I saw the updated version of Avatar’s classic opening, I was surprised by how familiar it felt instead. However, that doesn’t mean Korra is a repeat of the original Avatar. In fact, season one starts with her having to learn Airbending, the one element that has not been touched upon before. They also try some genuinely interesting new ideas, including telling the backstory of the entire Avatar world from the perspective of the first ever Avatar (which ends up retconning the whole lore of the animals being the first benders and stuff but I won’t discuss that at length).

To be brutally honest, Korra is definitely a lot more anime than Avatar ever was. First off, the plot is much more focused right away. While most episodes have self-contained narratives, each of them has a fluid connection to the overarching story. This means less filler, woohoo! 

The show is also more anime in terms of its visuals. While it still behaves like a Saturday morning cartoon, a lot of aspects- from the textures, to color palettes, to lighting effects, etc.- feel very distinctly anime. It also helps that they outsourced the show to some actual Asian studios (I know I always talk about visuals last but it just flowed better for me to put it here, okay?). But in the end, the facial expressions and mannerisms show that this is the same Avatar that we’ve always known; it’s just a more organic union of Eastern and Western animation.

But sometimes, it does lean too far into the anime territory. On paper, that’s not inherently bad. However, in Korra‘s case, it ends up falling for some battle shounen shortcomings. Specifically, there are times where the show abandons the well-choreographed fights based in real-world martial arts for pure visual spectacle. This has happened in stuff like Dragon Ball and Naruto before, much to many people’s dismay. I’m pretty tolerant of mindless spectacle (“Boo, you filthy casual!” you think), but that’s only the case if the show sets that as an expectation. It’s jarring to go from the kind of battles in Avatar to stuff that resembles a Godzilla film in Korra. Also, I’ve never cared much for spectacle in TV form; animation doesn’t move me like really good manga art does.

When it comes to worldbuilding, the world of Avatar has definitely changed. There’s a lot of modern technology and politics in the  world now (typical fantasy mumbo jumbo). Even the recaps are done through early 20th Century-style radio broadcasts. But despite this, a lot of familiar elements, from the White Lotus, to bison, to- well- the elements, are still present and accounted for. They even found a way to integrate the cabbage guy meme into Korra!

On the flipside, it could be argued that they tried too hard to make the world feel like that of the original series. While the visuals are still a better marriage of anime and cartoon, the writers seemed to not know if they wanted to make the show feel profoundly different or nostalgic. At times, the results make Korra come off as a fanfic, especially with the cabbage reference I mentioned earlier. There’s also a lot of contrived throwbacks, like having characters such as Ten Zin’s brother, Bumi- named after Aang’s old friend- who happens to have the exact same personality as the original Bumi, or having a minor character voiced by Zuko’s actor. The occasional flashback to future Aang’s past (wow, that sounded like an oxymoron), where you see characters like Sokka and Toph as adults felt really cringey, and made me ask, “Was this really made by the same team?” 

As much as we can argue about Korra’s worldbuilding, there’s still the story itself to get into. With no Fire Nation, who’s there to fight? Well, in Korra, it just so happens that everything changed when the Equalists attacked. The Equalists are muggles, led by a masked man named Aman, who wants to do away with benders for good. Yes, this is the same “rich vs poor” theme that’s been in 999/1000 fantasy narratives, but it’s been a timeless theme for a reason (that reason being that it’s an overly-obvious parallel to our own society, and social commentaries are always “smart”). But that’s just season one. 

Another battle shounen trope Korra pulls is the “well that was a pretty satisfying conclusion to end on, but hang on this series is actually pretty popular, so I guess I gotta just keep it going somehow” that’s prevalent in many manga of the genre. I suppose that contradicts what I said about there being more focus, but that statement more so applies to the individual arcs themselves. This is due to circumstances around Korra’s development. The show was put through production hell, to the point where Nick ended up airing the final season online instead of TV. They did the show in this arc-based structure because if they didn’t, the show could’ve gotten axxed without warning, with cliffhanger endings unresolved.

This immediately makes Korra‘s narrative inferior to Avatar’s for one reason: lack of anticipation. The finale of Avatar was exciting because the show built things up over the course of its three seasons. But due to the episodic structure, Korra couldn’t do that. None of the final battles felt particularly exciting to me, even if they excelled in the visual department. Fortunately, the show somehow manages to maintain a consistent theme: balance. Like Ten Zin says in the intro, “Only the Avatar can master all four elements, and bring balance to the world.” It was pretty cut-and-dry what Aang had to do to restore balance, which was to get rid of Zuko’s bad dad. But in Korra, it’s not as clear. Every antagonist’s motive revolves around bringing the world into a new era that they genuinely think will be good (well, maybe not as much in the case of the season two villain…), and the show tries to make the villains more complex than Ouzai. There are two issues with this. One, like with the Equalists Arc I mentioned earlier, these narratives aren’t particularly original. And two, like in many battle shounen, the villains’ sound arguments are rebutted by the typical “No, that’s wrong!” of the nakama-powered protagonist, which doesn’t exactly leave stuff open to interpretation. But hey, kudos to them for working with what little they had.

They do go off the rails in the final season (which, by the way, has a recap episode almost identical to its counterpart to The Ember Island Players episode of Avatar). Despite the season being titled “Balance”, a lot of it tackles PTSD, in addition to a conflict formed by perhaps the most unsubstantiated antagonist in the entire Avatar universe. Seriously… this antagonist was a random guard in season three who didn’t even have a name, and that’s assuming they weren’t a random shoehorn. But like any shounen manga that loses its way, I found the final season to be an utter slog, which culminates in a theatrical, but unsatisfactory finale that felt empty due to the aforementioned lack of proper buildup.

In addition to the narrative, the cast shows more immediate issues than the previous Avatar. Korra starts off as a muscular Katara (which would be a more apt analogy if Katara wasn’t still alive as a gram-gram); a brash, overly tomboyish girl who thinks entirely with her stomach. Furthermore, she acquired a classic reverse harem in Bolin and Mako. Bolin is the cute, down-to-earth, funny guy (basically a Sokka clone but with less character development). Meanwhile, Mako is a dream boat that Korra likes, yet he friend-zones her for a Twinkie from the city.

Said Twinkie is a broad named Asami Sato. She’s a typical empowered, gorgeous, and idealized woman. There is NOTHING wrong with her, whatsoever, at least in terms of her personality. While she is very plot relevant, she happens to cause an annoying shipping war that governs much of seasons one and two. I would believe that her main purpose in Korra was specifically to trigger said shipping war… except her REAL purpose is not evident until the end of the series (and no, it didn’t make me like her any more as a character).

“Now, now,” you say, “don’t jump to conclusions. You yourself said in your own Avatar review that the characters started out lackluster, but became a lot better in later seasons. These same issues with the cast of Korra are no doubt minor kinks that they need to work out.” I was perfectly aware of that possibility, so I was willing to give Korra the benefit of the doubt. However, the cast doesn’t exactly work through their shortcomings. While Korra’s shipping war with Asami does conclude by the end of season two, she remains a brash, reckless drama queen to the bitter end. They tried to give her character development in season four, but they waited too long to do it, and thus it felt crammed in at the last minute to me. And while we learn more things about Mako and Bolin, they remain very unentertaining characters (and the latter is still a Sokka clone).

Another issue is that I never felt a sense of growth in terms of power. The original Avatar always made sure we saw some good training every so often. But in Korra, it feels like she just gets new powers thrown in her lap without her having to work for it. It’s typical plot armor, and I definitely acknowledge that Aang had some on him as well. In Avatar, the plot armor was from something that was established ahead of time, like Katara’s special water. But in Korra, there are some cases of random BS magic, and it’s definitely a step backwards from Avatar.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. One of Japan’s rules is to respect your elders, and this shows in some of the older folk. Ten Zin comes off as a rigid sensei who screams “Don’t do this reckless thing!” while the main protagonist proceeds to do it anyway, and to an extent, he is. But he’s a great family man and has a surprising sense of humor who also learns some lessons of his own. We also have a hot grandma named Lin Beifong. Yes, she’s Toph’s daughter, and she packs the same sass and power as her mom. There’s also the aforementioned Bumi, whose eccentric personality- inspired by his namesake- makes him a chuunibyou; very anime. And while not technically elderly, an eccentric entrepreneur by the name of Varrick proves to be quite the wild card… and ended up being my favorite character in the series.

Final Verdict: ??/10

Writing everything in this review up until now was easy; after all, I’m merely just listing the pros and cons of the topic like I always do. But never in my not-even-one year of blogging have I ever had such a hard time giving the final score. My feelings about The Legend of Korra were divided well after the final episode’s credits rolled, even when taking the circumstances into consideration.

Recall how I kept saying that certain aspects of the show didn’t stack up to Avatar; some of the fights went for spectacle over choreography, there was no long buildup, there wasn’t as much character development, etc. One of the biggest arguments when critiquing a sequel is how to properly compare it to its predecessor. After all, some shows, like Steins Gate 0, explicitly went for entirely different vibes than the original, but because it wasn’t exactly like the original, it got burnt by some critics (for the record, criticizing a sequel for retcons is an exception). I was essentially doing the same to Korra. Is that really fair? If Korra wasn’t the sequel to Avatar, I’d view it as a typical shounen anime, complete with all the genre’s shortcomings. But because its predecessor had character development and great fights, I criticized Korra despite it being, ironically, more within my ballpark than Avatar.

Sequel or not, there are some elements of Korra that are bad in any context, and ones that Avatar did not have. First off, the shipping was awful. Even when the Korra-Asami-Mako thing was resolved, more ships took its place. Bolin has ships with SEVERAL women throughout the course of the series, as well as one of Ten Zin’s daughters. The one thing that they have in common is that they’re constructed too hastily; for the most part, characters are pretty much dating within the same episode or the following episode after they meet. Sure, this is another consequence of the production issues, but bad romance is bad romance.

There’s also the fact that I’m an adult man who’s been spoiled by a lot of the really good content I’ve seen over the years (and by watching it in 2020), and have not touched modern cartoons, a medium with entirely different standards than what I’ve been used to. Apparently, a lot of the appeal of Korra was that it did a lot of controversial stuff (at least according to an old article in Vanity Fair published the day after the finale aired). A lot of Korra felt typical to me, but apparently, cartoons sucked at that time; after all, a lot of the other influential cartoons of the decade, like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe, had only just begun. However, I don’t factor a show doing something for the first time in a given medium into the final score; I rate based on entertainment value alone. It’s the same issue I had with Chainsaw Man: the medium it’s sold on versus the medium that it behaves as. What I mean is as follows: my thing with Chainsaw Man was that it was super-gorey, with layered characters, and one scene where its main protagonist is straight-up offered free sexual intercourse. All of these are typical of seinen manga, which are targeted toward older teens, but because the manga is in Weekly Shounen Jump, a magazine for preteens, it felt a lot wilder as a result. In Korra’s case, a lot of tropes typical of anime, JRPGs, and even some children’s novels, are included in a cartoon. Should it be given a higher score just because cartoons in particular wouldn’t normally have content like that? Anyways, this post has gone on long enough. After much deliberation, I decided to give this show a…

Final Verdict: 7/10

Regardless of it being a sequel, The Legend of Korra had a lot of flaws that cannot go unpunished. And the reason why I don’t give it the benefit of the doubt as much as my favorite shounen manga is that Korra is a TV show. In a manga, a lot of shounen tropes are trivialized by the sheer fact that manga are books. If an arc is boring, I can speed through it. But in a TV show, I cannot. This applies to anime too, and why I watch them so infrequently. But in the end, Korra did enough good to earn a slightly-above-average score. I recommend it to battle shounen fans as well as fans of Avatar.

The Map to Everywhere and Magisterium Full Series Reviews

Escapist fantasy is often panned by critics and cynics as “childish crap for babies who want to avoid their real life issues.” But, you know, sometimes it’s important to just turn your brain off and stretch your neural legs in some fantasy world. The Map to Everywhere series, written by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis and published by Hachette Book Group, is just that; escapism at its finest.

On paper, Map to Everywhere is a pretty generic isekai. Marill Aesterwest is worrying about her sickly mother when she follows her cat to an abandoned drug store. In the parking lot is a magic body of water called the Pirate Stream, and she ends up going on a journey with a cool wizard guy and the unremarkable Fin to find the pieces of the Bintheyr Map to Everywhere. And even when they complete the it, that’s only the beginning.

If you couldn’t tell from the names I mentioned, the Map to Everywhere has a lot of clever word puns in it. It doesn’t stop at the words either; the multiverse of this series is one of the most imaginative that I’ve seen in a while. The Pirate Stream connects a whole mess of different worlds together, and they’re all very interesting setpieces, including an ice cap that’s so cold your breath will freeze into the words you say, and a sinking city that’s constantly reconstructing itself. Additionally, the Map itself is also more than just a couple of MacGuffins. The pieces of the Map actually have very meta functions, such as the compass rose finding other pieces, or the margins being able to hold impossible structures together.

The characters are also pretty darn good. I’ll get to Marill later, so let’s discuss Fin first. Fin is generic, but the authors twist the trope by making his genericness into a superpower; everyone he sees forgets about him. However, Marill doesn’t forget about him because… of love, I guess (their dynamic is my least favorite in the entire series). Supporting them is the wizard Ardent, shipwright Coll, and eventually the sassy Naysayer. But out of the bunch, my favorite character is Remy, introduced in the second book, City of Thirst. Remy is Arizona’s best babysitter, and she ends up tagging along on the Pirate Stream. She is the only other person who remembers Fin, and it’s simply because she’s a babysitter and not something as contrived as love. 

The writing is pretty solid, with a lot of dynamic font style changes to represent different things. However, the multiverse of Map to Everywhere also shoots itself in the foot. While the setpieces are inventive and descriptive, sometimes they’re just too insane to describe in human language. One of the worst offenders is a place that has chunks of land literally getting sucked into a whirlpool, and the gravity fields there make Super Mario Galaxy look logical.

The multiverse of Map to Everywhere itself also has issues. Magic in modern fantasy often violates its established ruleset, and they end up expecting you to suspend disbelief because “it’s magic.” Map to Everywhere constantly tells you that the Pirate Stream behaves however it feels, and this enables the authors to kind of do whatever they want and get away with it.

But the biggest problem is freaking Marill! She’s not just generic, she’s also annoying. Her entire driving force in this series is to be able to cure her dying mother’s sickness, but her drive gets way out of hand. There are a lot of times where she argues with Fin over whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and it’s as contrived as heck. It only gets more ridiculous in the final book, along with an additional Mary Sue stipulation, and ultimately solidifies how much I didn’t like her.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

The Map to Everywhere is a flawed, but fun and corny fantasy romp that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s sure a heck of a lot better than stuff like Five Kingdoms! As long as you don’t require any insightful, intellectual life message to enjoy something, then there should be no harm in picking up the Map to Everywhere series.


Before I get into this post, I should remind you that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is one of the most popular franchises in the world. And popular means marketable. Therefore, many other authors have tried to duplicate the series’ success. Some of these Harry Potter wannabe cases have resulted in book series such as Keeper of the Lost Cities and The Unwanteds, which are only appealing on extremely superficial levels. But sometimes, a little touch of a thing called “thought” can actually give a Harry Potter knock-off some of its own merits. Let’s see if that’s the case with Holly Black and Cassandra Clare’s Magisterium series, published by Scholastic.

In the modern world, magicians select random adolescents to test for magic potential. Anyone who tests positive is taken to Magisterium to learn to fight the Enemy of Death and his Chaos magic. Callum Hunt is taught to fear Magisterium, and is compelled to throw the examination. But he doesn’t just fail; he fails so spectacularly, that he passes with flying colors, and it’s off to Magisterium for him!

As much as he’s told to resent Magisterium, it doesn’t take long at all for that Stockholm Syndrome to set in, for the school isn’t just “Hogwarts-again”. While it’s not as defined in terms of its layout, Magisterium at least has a well defined (and simple) system. The years are labeled Iron, Copper, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, in that order, which also happens to be the order of the books, making it easy to remember. 

There is also the magic system: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Chaos (spoiler, the fifth one is evil magic). It’s not very inventive, but it’s at least not like Keeper of the Lost Cities‘, “Hey, let’s have five billion different types of magic at once, because Sophie needs to be POWERFUL so that all the teenage girls will be inspired to be like her or whatever.” As you can expect, Chaos magic is the dark-type magic that can corrupt souls and junk.

The final decisive advantage that Magisterium has over the rabble is… that it’s SHORT! Hallelujah, holy shit! There are only five books in the series, at approximately 250 pages apiece, much better than Keeper’s “Lord of the Rings x10” length. This means that it can focus on just plot progression (i.e. what we actually care about), and not stuff like Keeper‘s stupid Sophitz Vs. Foster-Keefe drama, or Harry Potter‘s own #SaveTheDobbies subplot. And it’s actually a good plot to boot. The writing wasn’t the best, but it was at least enough to keep me wanting more.

Unfortunately, the short length also means that things end anticlimactically. Harry Potter had an epic final battle, involving so many characters that we’d seen since the very beginning finally duke it out with Voldy’s Death Pimps. But since the Magisterium books are so short, climaxes are here and gone. It’s not like Monogatari where they talk for so long that they forget to fight in the first place. There are battles, they’re just short and unceremonious. This also includes, sadly, the final battle, which I calculated to be around 15-20 pages in total. But hey… silver lining. Being short is still the better outcome.

In order to discuss the characters, I must spoil a reveal about our boy, Callum. This is a spoiler for the climax of the first book, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t wanna read it. The thing about Callum is that he does not exist. At the end of book one, he is told that he is harboring the soul of Constantine Madden, who happens to be the Enemy of Death. This puts him through quite the moral conundrum; something that not even Harry Potter had to go through. Being the “bad guy” would seem to make him super unrelatable, since the kiddies want to project themselves onto the “righteous hero”, but he’s actually relatable in a different way, as he’s constantly suffering an identity crisis (typical of most kids as well).

We also have Aaron, who isn’t actually a Ron Weasely clone. Aaron ends up being a Makar, which is not the guy from Wind Waker, but instead the term for a Chaos magic user. The policy in Magisterium is “fight fire with fire,” as only another Makar can fight the Enemy of Death (I guess?). Call has to be his counterweight, which basically means that he has to make sure Aaron doesn’t get consumed (easier said than done). 

The female lead is Tamara, and she’s basically Hermione, minus being smart. She’s kind of a typical tomboyish girl who doesn’t really have anything interesting going for her. The final main character is Jasper, who is basically Malfoy, except he actually becomes an ally after a certain point. But other than his frequent, unfunny jabs at Call, he’s not too interesting either. 

In the end, the moral conundrum that they try with Callum falls flat. Sure, he has to deal with his whole crisis, but there’s always a defined antagonist to make him look good. Like I said in my review of Arc of a Scythe, not having a villain that the readers can sympathize with makes writing morally gray narratives really hard. Because of this, it never really feels like Callum has any issues whatsoever. I’ll admit that they do some stuff with Aaron later that’s pretty interesting, but it feels meh in the long run.

The only reason why there’s a moral conundrum is because Magisterium is run by twelve-year-olds. I get that it’s intentional, but it’s still dumb how the faculty are next to worthless. When Callum’s issue is inevitably revealed, at least half of them are like, “He’s a murderer, throw him in jail, arrgh!” with no hesitation. It makes sense for other students to be jerks about it, but the adults should’ve had a more rational approach because they’re… ADULTS. There’s also the policy on the Devoured, which is when a person gets too into their element. The Magisterium says that being Devoured turns you into a rampaging monster, yet EVERY SINGLE Devoured that appears in the story is WELL in control of their humanity. I get that’s also intentional… but that just makes it arbitrary.

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Final Verdict: 7/10

Despite all its flaws, Magisterium is still the best Harry Potter knockoff I’ve read to date. The authors try some interesting ideas, but once again, it seems that teaching young’uns about moral ambiguity is impossible. No! Kids must be raised believing that there’s only one-dimensional good and one-dimensional evil in the world! Well whatever… Magisterium has decent entertainment value. If you were threatened at gunpoint to read through all of a Harry Potter knockoff, then pick this one.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Full Series Review (Yes, this was my first time watching the show)

My whole life, I’ve lived with the baseless impression that Western culture- specifically that of the United States- looks upon Japanese culture with disdain. Part of this is from the factual translation and- in some cases- censorship issues that plagued Japanese media when it first came overseas (for example, the One Piece dub that shall not be named). For these reasons, I completely ignored Nickelodeon’s fantasy epic, Avatar: The Last Airbender, despite it being lauded for the past fifteen years- by devout anime fans- as a true bridge between Eastern and Western animation. Well, it’s on Netflix now. I have no more excuses.

The only thing I knew about this show going into it was its simple premise. Four nations, each of which control the elements of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, have existed together just fine. Then- to quote the show’s intro- everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. The only one who could save the world was the Avatar, but he apparently disappeared because that ALWAYS happens in these kinds of fantasy series. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation- I mean- when two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, found a balding boy named Aang, and his- giant pet platypus?- inside of a block of ice. Spoiler alert, he’s the last Airbender, and he embarks on a quest to become the Avatar and beat up the prepubescent prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko (among others). It’s pretty simple, tbh. I don’t know why they need to remind you in every single episode.

I guess it was a precaution for any kids who came into Avatar mid-season, but since it follows anime traditions, it has to be watched in chronological order (I get that newer cartoons have similar continuity, but I’m pretty sure that no other cartoon at THIS point in time had a continuous story). Wow, that was all one sentence. Anyhoo, the thing that’s impressive right off the bat is the fact that a large number of kids were able to put up with Avatar as it aired. It takes two episodes for any real action to occur, and for a kid, that’s like a year. I definitely would’ve turned away if I had seen the pilot episode on launch date. But at the same time, DBZ and Naruto were also airing, so relatively speaking, Avatar had to have felt like a rollercoaster ride.

Enough rambling! Since Aang needs to know all four elements to actually BE the Avatar, he’s gotta go to the other locations and learn them all! As such, the show is neatly split into a single “book” (season) for each remaining element to learn. The basic structure of Avatar is to go from Point A to Point B, train in Point B until he learns the element, fight something, and move onto the next one. Simple, right?

No, actually, it’s not. Appa Airlines (patent pending) is not a very efficient transportation service. And as such, the crew needs to make a number of stops along the way. This results in some episodes being less-than plot relevant. I can imagine that this was done with the intention of meeting viewers halfway, by marrying both the episodic and continuous narrative story structure of Saturday morning cartoons and anime, respectively. Look, I get that something like this had never been done before, but the execution still results in a very unfocused narrative. Sure, some of these stops are worthwhile, either for actual plot relevance, or giving us insight on one or more of the characters. But much of the time, it’s a series of self-contained, uninteresting plots.

Like any fantasy epic, Avatar doesn’t fire on all cylinders right away. My expectations for the show were shot by the end of season one. I’d even say that season one was straight-up bad overall. Fortunately, once season two starts, the show gets significantly more involved, with almost every episode having legitimate plot relevance.

The key word here is “almost”. While the story does follow a more coherent narrative after season one, there are still blips of those Saturday morning cartoon trappings. Due to how much more infrequent the filler gets, it stands out way more when it actually decides to rear its ugly head. These episodes can contain cute interactions, but break the pacing of the plot, especially when they occur immediately following a super intense episode with a cliffhanger (btw, who was the GENIUS who decided to put one of these episodes IMMEDIATELY before the FINAL ARC?! (but for the record, it was actually a pretty great episode)). But you know what, I’ll take even the worst episode of this series over the entire seasons’ worth of filler from the long-running anime that had been airing at the time. 

I must say that the show’s worldbuilding surprised me a little. While I didn’t really care much about the lore, they do some cool, clever stuff with the elements. It’s simple enough for kids to understand, but flexible enough so that it doesn’t become repetitive. If there’s any problem I have with the world of Avatar, it’s the fact that the evil Fire Nation is likely to be based off of Japan (maybe my baseless impressions were right after all…).

My biggest concern going into Avatar was if I’d laugh at the comedic bits. After all, it’s been a decade and a half; our sense of humor has changed a lot, especially compared to the 2010s cartoons I’ve seen lately. Overall, I found the humor to be kind of hit-or-miss. While I acknowledged a lot of the humor as funny, I didn’t laugh out loud anywhere near as often as, say, Gravity Falls.

Another concern was that the cast wouldn’t be so great. I figured that it would take a while to get me warmed up to most of the characters, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. While most of the cast did end up growing on me, the attempt wasn’t exactly as successful as with Gravity Falls or DuckTales.

I’ll admit that they did a good job making Aang conform to shounen protagonist tropes; he’s very aloof, and tends to let his body move ahead of his brain. Furthermore, the show consistently reminds you that he’s just a kid, and that he’s been forced to do something much bigger than what his bald head can comprehend. Conversely, the Western aspect of the show makes him fall for some of the sitcom-like tropes of cartoons, such as the classic “hears negative things from his peers, leaves the room, said peers immediately say a positive flipside to those negative statements, but since he didn’t hear that particular part, he does something stupid”.

The Water Siblings are worse. Sokka is the better of the two, since he brings the bulk of Avatar’s humor to the table, and is ironically the most rational of the group. But the biggest issue with him is how they handle his character arc. Everyone has their own shortcomings to work through, but Sokka’s issues feel the most arbitrary. The first big moment in his arc rides entirely on a ship that was intentionally built to sink, and it’s pretty uninteresting during the brief time that it stays afloat. I’m sure that Sokka must’ve felt like a pitiable, tragic hero to the ten-year-olds who all related to him back when the show aired, but once you get to my age- and more modern times- the telltale signs of a NOTP are too obvious to ignore. Fortunately, it becomes a non-issue by season three.

And Katara… I don’t know what they were trying to do with her. I feel like they wanted to make her into a tsundere, but had a hard time because they weren’t allowed to use ecchi in their relationship. I appreciate that she has multiple sides- from being an absolute b**** to a complete waifu- but overall, I didn’t really enjoy her company for some reason, making her my least favorite character overall.

If I was spoiled by anything in Avatar, it was the addition of a loli to the main troupe. I gotta say I’m impressed that they hit that particular anime nail on the head, since it’s more so a niche community trope than something prevalent in the mainstream battle shounen anime at the time. Anyways, said loli- introduced in season two- is named Toph, and she’s a real wild card. With sassy one-liners and the perfect height, Toph is easily the best of the main protagonists… at least after the others work out the major kinks with her at the start of their relationship.

Then there’s Zuko. Hoo boy. First off, I reaaaaaaally didn’t like how his voice actor portrayed him; I used the word prepubescent to describe him for a reason. As a result, I may be biased in my criticism of the boy. He beats your face in with his one-dimensional irritability. But me, I put up with Bakugo… so, I had a feeling that I’d eventually like him better over time. And that feeling was correct. By season two, there’s a lot of big turning points in his character arc that show he’s much more emotionally distraught than what it looks like at first glance.

Abrasiveness seems to run in the Fire Nation’s royal family. Introduced in season two is Zuko’s sister, Azula. She’s rude, but unlike Zuko, who’s misunderstood, she’s fully aware of it, and enjoys it. Azula also has help in Aang hunting with her buddies, Mei and Tai Li. These two have fun spats with each other, but other than a certain scene late in the series, they aren’t too remarkable.

I saved the best character for last. Out of all the characters, I grew attached to Zuko’s uncle, Iroh, faster than just about anyone else. Most of my favorite scenes in the series are, tbh, interactions between him and Zuko. He supplies some of the best humor, but he’s also great when it comes to being serious.

If there was one thing they got right when it came to anime, it was the following mindset: spend money when it counts. Similar to anime, a lot of the animation in Avatar is kind of lacking. But when actual fights are happening, it looks excellent. Battles are incredibly well choreographed, especially for a kids show, and they pretty much always use the environment in some way. I can imagine that parents got angry over this show when it was airing, and I probably would’ve killed myself pretending to be a bender if I had watched Avatar as a kid. The hand-painted backgrounds also have a weirdly nostalgic look to them. The biggest issue with the art style is that although the character design is memorable, it is a bit bland. They could’ve done a lot more combining cartoon and anime styles; in fact, a lot of manga out at the time- such as One Piece– did a great job in that regard. Oh well, it’s just a nitpick anyway. Overall, the show still looks great, even when watching it in 480p and 4:3 aspect ratio.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

It’s predictable. It’s corny. Its sense of humor is dated as all heck, and it spews sappy lessons of friendship just as about as often as any battle shounen series. But despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time (even if I must respectfully disagree with anyone who calls it one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time; One Piece is still higher up there). I must also give the team appreciation for creating what was perhaps the most loving marriage of cartoon and anime at the time. It must’ve been mind-blowing for kids watching this while it aired, since I’m pretty sure it was the first cartoon of its kind. As much as I don’t like saying America is better at something that originated in another country (what is this, Beat Bobby Flay?), I must concede that Avatar is among the better “anime” I’ve seen. I recommend it if you like battle shounen anime, and/or youthful, silly fantasy with a number of wholesome life lessons.

Kill Six Billion Demons First Impressions (Books 1 and 2)

I found 5 Worlds okay, The Witch Boy less than okay, and before them, I tried Amulet and Cleopatra in Space, to little success as well. I have been at my wits end to find a good Western graphic novel. But now, through a publishing medium that I didn’t know about until just recently, I might have just found a GN that I can seriously enjoy. And that GN, or webcomic rather, is Abbadon’s Kill Six Billion Demons.

In Kill Six Billion Demons, a young woman named Allison is enjoying some… er… quality time with her boyfriend when they are rudely interrupted by an assortment of demons. They kidnap her boyfriend, and stuff a weird thing into her skull, which transports her to another world. Yeah, it’s pretty simple.

First, in case you decide to read the original web version, I should give some pointers about the site to save you some headache. For some reason, when you select a chapter from the drop-down on the left, it displays all the chapter pages in reverse order. So unfortunately, you’ll have to scroll down to the very bottom of the webpage, and likely click to a second web page in the archive to view the actual beginning. It’s faster than going back to chapter one and clicking the chapter skip button over and over again! 

If you couldn’t tell from the intro paragraph, KSBD is a rootin’ tootin’ good time. It’s a bit expositiony at first, but it’s legitimately good exposition about Throne, the world it’s set in. It’s a very interesting and creative place, full of weirdos of all shapes and sizes. The creation story of Throne is very wild and complex, and it seems to integrate literally every religion known to man in its lore. It’s borderline overwhelming, and it makes a pretty straightforward plot seem more convoluted than it is.

One issue I did have- and it’s one that’s entirely my fault- is that I had a very hard time following a lot of the dialogue. For the most part, Allison’s portion of the story was fine. But whenever White Chain or literally anyone else came up, they pretty much spoke like the Bible met Shakespeare and had a kid. It is definitely very eloquently written, but like I said, it’s a SERIOUS mouthful.

My other issue ended up being with the cast. While they are by far the best graphic novel cast I’ve seen so far, they are high in abundance… and weird names. Allison starts out kinda whiny, but after the end of book 1, she stops messing around and becomes very spunky. White Chain is much more complicated… to the point where I don’t quite know what to think of him (or her?) yet. So far, my favorite character is Cilo, a blue devil who ends up tagging along with Allison and offers a lot of sass. Most other characters appear for about five seconds… and have some seriously weird names that went in one end of my brain and immediately out the other.

Overall, the story is seriously good. Just because my pea-brain was too small to comprehend it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. The author really gave it their all when making this narrative and the world it’s set in. There is so much lore that it begs for rereads just so you can soak it all in. It can easily take over an hour just to get through half a book because of how much content there is.

Also, I finally read a Western comic with really good art. KSBD has an abstract and twisted style that suits itself perfectly. The character design is incredible, and much better than the other GNs I’ve read at this point. KSBD also seems to have a better grasp of actual PANEL FLOW than those others that I read. I don’t know why it was so much better, but it just was. While motion lines are still sparse, the illustrator uses perspective and gesture drawing to give the action scenes legitimate sizzle.

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Current Verdict: 8.5/10

It’s not perfect, but Kill Six Billion Demons is definitely the best Western comic I’ve read thus far. But since it’s a webcomic, updates will likely be sporadic, making it difficult to commit to the long haul. I’m willing to finish it; it’s just a matter of when. For now, I recommend it for fans of edgy stuff.

Gravity Falls Full Series Review

The coronavirus of 2020 ended up giving me an opportunity to do something that I didn’t think possible: binge-watch an entire television show. I was going to settle for Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it turned out Netflix didn’t have it (thanks for sucking at having any animated programs as always (oh, and for the record, it wasn’t on Hulu either)). So instead, I chose Disney’s Gravity Falls. From what I know, Gravity Falls has become a modern cult classic; almost unanimous critical acclaim, but ultimately getting overshadowed by Phineas and Ferb and other, more “accessible” Disney IPs (the damn show doesn’t even have Disney Parks merch!). In this review, I see whether or not I made a mistake watching Phineas and Ferb while it aired instead of this.

In Gravity Falls, a pair of twin siblings by the name of Dipper and Mabel Pines are sent to the titular town in scenic Oregon to live with their great uncle, Stanford (known otherwise as Grunkle Stan). They mainly laze around his gift shop of urban legend junk, until Dipper finds some weird book detailing all kinds of strange phenomena in the town. Of course, it’s inevitable that they get involved in said phenomena.

The show follows the typical, episodic formula of any American, Saturday morning cartoon, but with a sense of chronology more befitting of a TV anime. The plot of each episode tends to be stand-alone, but it also lays the groundwork for a bigger story in the process (like when Grunkle Stan enters some secret base at the end of episode 1). They also make nods to earlier episodes throughout the show, further giving it a sense of continuity. One example is a piece of graffiti on the water tower; it’s only brought up once, but its image remains throughout the entire series.

Despite them frequently getting attacked by monsters, ghosts, manly minotaurs, and an evil visual novel that predicted the existence of Doki Doki Literature Club, Gravity Falls maintains a sense of lightheartedness, and I’m thankful for that. Based on the praise I had heard of the show, I thought it was going to be an incredibly pretentious, pseudo-intellectual cartoon with weird symbolism placed just to evoke a sense of deepness when there isn’t any.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t weird voodoo at all. First off, there are secret codes that appear in the end credits of each episode that apparently either foreshadow later stuff or bark nonsense. There was also a real-life scavenger hunt while the show was airing (or so I was told), but I can’t exactly do that now. I’m glad that this was all the show does in terms of secret hidden lore, instead of rubbing its “genius” in your face like Monogatari. Of course, that will probably not stop series’ fans from calling you (or me) a filthy casual for not “appreciating the genius hidden meeting that makes Gravity Falls transcend modern media and human comprehension” or whatever, but that’s a given with any fandom.

Gravity Falls also has a great sense of humor that’s just about on par with that of Phineas and Ferb. I actually found myself laughing pretty consistently throughout, which was a pleasant surprise. There are also some great humorous details, the most notable of which is the Mystery Shack that they live in. Grunkle Stan’s job is to scam people from within the rundown cottage. The S in “Shack” frequently falls off, which both gets across the fact that the building is old, as well as the fact that Stan is a “Mystery Hack”. I dunno, little things like that are just great to me. Just keep in mind that this show is early 2010s… and that some dialogue is not up to the standards of the new resurgence in feminism. Basically, there’s a lot of gender stereotyping in Gravity Falls. It’s just your usual “boys like punching sh**, girls like boys and shoes”, but hey, I don’t know what sets people off these days.

The characters are also surprisingly solid. Although Dipper only has his frequent sarcastic remarks to save him from being a generic adolescent male, Mabel is Best Girl for sure. Her ditziness and general weirdness make her incredibly entertaining. The issue with them is that they have some “eye-roll-worthy” flaws, such as Dipper’s love for Wendy, one of Stan’s employees, along with Mabel’s annoying ability to fall in love at first sight. There are also cases of sitcom-like melodrama that occur between them, and this is where Gravity Falls feels the most trope-ish (and for the record, such tween drama is the entire reason that the final arc of the series is even instigated in the first place).

Grunkle Stan is also a very entertaining fart with great character development late in the series (even if he single-handedly doubles the length of the final episode for similar drama reasons), along with his other employees, Soos and the aforementioned Wendy. They’re pretty typical “big brother” and “big sister” archetypes, but they’re still likeable and have a lot of memorable lines. 

But hey, Gravity Falls is a town, and that means it has townsfolk. There are a number of very memorable, minor characters who appear at a very consistent rate, and make the area feel more like an actual community instead of an implied community. All these characters have quirky personalities and very distinct character designs, making their company very enjoyable. It’s amazing how much they all, including Toby, warmed up to me.

Unfortunately, the weakest link is in the antagonists. Gravity Falls has two major antagonists, the first of which is lil’ ol’ Gideon. He’s a posh, pompadour-wearing boy who is the Plankton of Grunkle Stan’s Krabs (wait, I think I messed up that analogy… ah, you get what I mean). Underneath his cheruby face is a conniving little turd who seriously wants Stan wiped off the face of the Earth.

Introduced at the end of season 1 is Bill Cipher, an Illuminati symbol with arms and legs. He has some strange motives that don’t come into play until pretty late into the series, well after his introduction. Just by looking at him, I can tell that most of the series’ hidden lore lies within him. I bet that the symbols on his “Illuminati Wheel” can be found in specific frames throughout the entire series, and reveal some sort of secret that will change all of humankind (and not at all mean what it’s intended to mean in the actual story).

Overall, these two are pretty entertaining, but ultimately fall short of beating villains like Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb (wow, I just made every fan of Gravity Falls angry). Doof comes off as a mad scientist trope, but becomes the most lovable character in the whole series as you progress through the later seasons. Gideon and Bill are just one-dimensional villains that are basically there out of obligation. Sure, maybe the “hidden lore” gives us more context for Bill than what they tell us, but it also might not at the same time.

The last point to discuss, as always, is the visual presentation. As expected, even for a TV show, Gravity Falls looks incredible. The animation is fluid (even if there are glaring cases of CG), and the color palette makes everything in the show pop. It’s definitely a nice step up from the hyper-budgeted TV anime that I’m used to.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

It might not be quite as good as Phineas and Ferb (“Boo, you filthy casual!” you exclaim. Look, it’s only the musical numbers and the superior antagonist that makes Phineas and Ferb better, okay?), Gravity Falls is definitely a fantastic cartoon. I’m kind of glad I didn’t watch it while it was airing, or I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it from an adult standpoint. Regardless of if there’s some hidden metaphorical message in it, it’s still fun to enjoy at face value. I highly recommend it to anyone who has Disney Plus (as it’s probably not worth trying to catch it on reruns).

Fantasia Movie Review

I believe that a true classic is something that can still feel fresh and unique to anyone who experiences it, regardless of how many years it’s been since it was first released. And Walt Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia, is one such classic (yes, I know about 2000, but we don’t talk about that era of sequels). Here’s a surprise: this is a review, and not a retrospective, because this is being written as of the first time I’ve ever seen it in my life, eighty years after its release.

If there’s anything I knew about Fantasia going into it, it’s its premise (wow, take a shot for every time I say “it” in this review). In Fantasia, a live-action man, named Deems Taylor, walks you through some very unconventional visual interpretations of various famous classical music pieces (conducted by Leopold Stokowski). Since it’s structured this way, I’m basically going to discuss my thoughts on each segment per paragraph. As this movie is eighty years old, I believe I have the right to write spoilers without warning (I also had to write down what the songs were because I know nothing about classical music). 

But first, I must discuss the one thing that all the sections have in common: they’re effing GORGEOUS. The visuals in Fantasia were, historically, beyond anything that Walt Disney had ever created at the time, and they still hold up today. These people had no computers, no nothing. Somehow, they managed to create all kinds of beautiful particle effects by themselves, and I honestly have no idea how. I recognized some instances of the multiplane camera, but the ingenuity of most of the film is beyond me. Holy crap.

The movie opens with Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which is a Bach song (and I was too dumb to write down the composers of any of the other songs besides this one. Oops). It starts by showing the silhouettes of the live action orchestra bathed in various colored backdrops before gradually fading into abstract shapes that vaguely resemble instruments floating in a bright void. This is a great showcase of how easily the human mind can bring itself out of reality, and perfectly sets the tone for what’s to follow.

Next, we have the Nutcracker Suite, entirely bereft of nutcrackers. This one is a showcase of nature… or something. It starts off with a bunch of fairies creating various natural phenomena, and by the way… FULL FRONTAL NUDITY WARNING! “Dude, you’re overreacting,” you say, “they’re just fairies.” Well, congratulations on being open-minded. Yeah, sure, I doubt anyone reading this will have not already seen Fantasia, but I can’t take any chances here. Anyways, this sequence goes through the different seasons of nature. Due to the nature of the whole thing, they employ a lot of different colors and particle effects, making this one of the most beautiful and whimsical parts of the film.

Of course, not even I could’ve avoided not having already seen the most iconic part of Fantasia: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice section. This is the famous debut of what is considered to this day to be the de facto form of Mickey Mouse. We all know what happens: Mickey takes Yen Sid’s hat, uses it, floods the place, and gets spanked in the end. There are a couple of small logical issues, like the fact that Yen Sid was dumb enough to not take his hat to his room, or the fact that the fountain that Mickey was supposed to take the water from somehow contained enough water to fill the entire cave. But hey, it’s magic. Due to the fact that it has an actual narrative, and Mickey Mouse, this is definitely the most accessible segment of the movie, and probably the part that you all fast-forwarded to when you were a kid. Oh, also, epilepsy warning apparently; there are some instances of flashing light effects, and I’m pretty sure that counts as an epilepsy warning, right?

After this is the Rite of Spring, a classical piece originally intended to showcase primitive human life. Of course, Walt Disney took a step ahead- or back, rather- and used it to showcase the origin of life on Earth. In this, you get to see life begin from single-celled organisms to the dinosaurs to the dinosaurs’ mass extinction. This one is brutal to watch. There’s no gore, but it very much shows creatures getting eaten alive left and right. Also, the slow death of the dinosaurs by dehydration is brutally honest and a stark contrast from the Nagito-levels of hope-loving that we understand Disney to be in recent years. If I was a kid, I would be traumatized by this.

According to my notes, the next one is called the Pastoral Symphony, set in Ancient Greece. It’s a fun section that shows various creatures frolicking until Zeus literally rains on their parade (he gets a lot softer once he’s a dad, apparently). Although… based on what I understand about today’s culture, this one is also very controversial. First off, we have these cute centaur girls, who reek of FULL FRONTAL NUDITY. But it doesn’t stop there; they also doll themselves up in order to sell their bodies to male centaurs, which I’m pretty sure is a case of sexism as well. And depending on how old they are… there could also be an instance of minors drinking (thanks Dionysus). But otherwise, this section is very fun and colorful.

The semifinal segment is the Dance of the Hours. It’s a pretty on-the-nose depiction (at least, according to what the live action guy said), where dancers that represent daylight get attacked by dancers represent nighttime. Of course, the dancers this time are animals. They picked the perfect animals to do ballet dancing because you’re not expected to think that hippos and stuff would be good at ballet. Overall, the animation is very fluid and bouncy, but it’s also the least abstract of the sections. There are also more antics in this part than any other part of the movie. Due to how silly it is, this is no doubt the second most accessible section of the movie.

The final section of the movie is a two parter, the first of which is Night on Bald Mountain. This is the other part of Fantasia that I knew about beforehand, where Chernabog makes some ghost people pop up. This part is SCARY if you’re a kid, as it has jumpscares and assorted terrifying imagery. The lighting effects on Chernabog make him hands down one of the scariest Disney villains ever drawn, and the effects on the ghosts are fantastic. Fortunately, the guy spends his time tormenting his own minions (most of which are nude) as opposed to any “living” humans, but it’s still very dark for Disney. But hey, before long, Ave Maria kicks in and shuts Chernabog up real good. After this, the remainder of the movie is a very long procession of nuns before the movie abruptly ends at a gorgeous landscape shot (well, it’s about as landscape as you can get in a 4:3 ratio). This is probably because I’m not a religious person, but Ave Maria was perhaps my least favorite part of the movie, and most likely a part that I would’ve fallen asleep during as a kid.

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

Man, I really miss this form of Disney. The vast majority of Fantasia would likely alienate people who are more used to the straightforwardness of most Disney films. It’s very experimental and ballsy when compared to the embodiment of mainstream that Disney has become in recent years (well, the live-action Mulan movie is probably their ballsiest project in a long time, but you get what I mean). 

I enjoyed it, but due to its two-hour length, I doubt I’d watch it again. But as far as recommendations go (assuming that you haven’t watched it)… I can’t easily recommend it. Fantasia doesn’t just have a lot of controversial and dark imagery, but it’s entirely devoid of dialogue and an actual defined plot (outside of Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and I can’t imagine any kid who wouldn’t fall asleep within minutes of starting the film. I can only recommend it to adults with a very open-minded palette of tastes, or to diehard Disney fans who want to know everything about the company’s history.