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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Anime Puts Its Best Foot Forward – Children of the Sea Movie Review

A couple years ago, before I even started this blog, I read one of my favorite manga of all time: Children of the Sea. It was a short, beautiful story with a simple message that really puts things in perspective (which is the vaguest way for me to describe it without spoiling you). It felt like a dream come true for it to get a feature film adaptation from Studio 4°C. Everything seemed to check out. “Oh boy!” I exclaimed. “Something legitimately unique and powerful that isn’t just mindless visual spectacle is actually going to get its well-deserved publicity!” However, karma seems to dictate that no truly creative and excellent media can ever get that publicity, for COVID-19 was at its peak panic levels during the month of the movie’s US theatrical premiere. And as such, the movie got downgraded to a straight-to-home-video release, as if it were a bad Disney sequel. 

Because of this, I was concerned, to the point where I had to make a whole new paragraph for the following statement. The straight-to-home-video release made me consider an alarming possibility: Children of the Sea flopped. I don’t know why, but GKids didn’t exactly promote it, like, at all (for example, it was released on Netflix but I haven’t seen them Tweet about it and I was on them like a hawk leading up to this release). I’ve been worried about it not being well-received. Children of the Sea is incredibly abstract, and gets very cosmic very quickly. The fact that a hyperbole-hating guy like myself just used the word “cosmic” shows that this movie is a real trip. Anyway, this preamble has gone on for too long. My copy of the Blu-Ray is here, so let’s just watch the darn movie and stop postulating already!

In Children of the Sea, a girl named Ruka is living a typical life as an outcast among her peers and as a victim of divorce. She visits her dad’s aquarium, which acquires some unusual new specimens: Umi and Sora, two children who were found literally at the bottom of the ocean. Ruka acquaints herself with them, and when fish around the world begin to vanish, the boys are the only ones who can help her figure out why.

Like I said before, the story goes places. It’s so much of a trip that there’s not even a real antagonist nor actual stakes. The first half is basically a slice-of-life with some supernatural intrigue, while the second half is just… art. I’ll get to that last aspect in a bit.

I’m someone who’s consumed a lot of media that I’ve believed is pseudo-intellectual, and at first glance, Children of the Sea has every ingredient to fall into that same category. It has many shots that are framed with absolute beauty for the sake of beauty, as well as a lot of very esoteric dialogue to make them come off as smart, with a dash of real-world science thrown in. But unlike pseudo-intellectual works such as The Fault in Our Stars, Rascal Does Not Dream, and Monogatari, Children of the Sea has a clear-cut tangible meaning (which I choose not to disclose in this review). In fact, you could criticize its writing for being too ham-fisted if anything (but in its defense, this message is difficult enough to get across as it is so they kind of need to ham-fist it). Most of the hard science, which includes marine biology and astrophysics, is… true enough.  Regardless of scientific accuracy, the messages that are conveyed via these factoids are what matter the most, as opposed to something like Rascal Does Not Dream where it’s like “Teenager issues? Have a quantum physics textbook!” just to force symbolism onto you.

“But a social commentary is still a social commentary,” you say, “and you don’t like social commentaries!” Normally, that would be true. From my perspective, most social commentaries are about human things that are already common knowledge by now. Children of the Sea’s message is something on a grander scope that- sadly- ends up going largely unacknowledged. Not to sound pretentious, but I think it’s something legitimately important for everyone to know.

Despite how straightforward the movie seemed, your mileage may vary. It’s not just the fact that I read the manga, but I’ve also been awakened to the same message through different means (Spoilers: through an old mini-series starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and it’s not Cosmos!). So of course the movie would make sense if I already had an understanding of what it was going to say! The anime is no-doubt the more difficult version to experience first. In the manga, you have the ability to stop and take everything in, whenever you want, while the anime moves whether you want it to or not. Sure, you can pause it, but anime Blu-Rays have a problem with making subtitles disappear for a few seconds after you pause them (which would be a non-issue if you watch the dub, you normie). 

Anyways, let’s drastically change the topic and discuss… the differences between the manga and anime (that I remember)! While most of what they cut is trivial, some removed content can mar the movie experience a bit. They completely get rid of the backstory between these two scientists, Jim and Anglade, which gives context to their relationship with each other. But more detrimental is that specific cut content makes a certain scene regarding Ruka’s mother come from way out of left field. In any case, the cuts do help the pacing a lot. I’d rather have a fantastically done movie with some bits missing than a crappy TV anime with all the content.

Let’s move on to the characters, who are by far the weakest aspect of Children of the Sea. Ruka definitely comes off as a YA protagonist; crappy life, gets swept away by two handsome boys, and is arbitrarily chosen to fulfill some great purpose for no reason. Honestly, I can’t really justify her character arc. I have one thing to say, but I can’t say it without spoiling the central themes of the film. So, spoilers: Having someone like Ruka be chosen is a glimmer of hope that any human can regain its innate connection with nature.

Umi and Sora are a bit more likeable… to a point. They also have YA tropes; Umi is the fun, lovable kid, and Sora is the sexy bad boy. They say a lot of esoteric things, and it’s only because of my understanding of the movie’s message that I don’t want to bop them upside the head. Next up are Jim and Anglade, the scientists I mentioned earlier. Due to the cut content, their character arcs got beaten down more than anyone’s. Fortunately, they aren’t that integral to the plot to begin with, even in the manga, so it’s fine. Beyond them, we have Ruka’s parents… who are typical divorcees.

The audio and visuals make Children of the Sea complete. The music is absolutely enchanting, and perfectly sells the atmosphere of the movie. But as great as Joe Hisaishi is, he didn’t write the end credits theme: Spirits of the Sea. This little ditty was by the singer Kenshi Yonezu. I’ll discuss Yonezu… in the future, but for now, lemme tell you that Spirits of the Sea is a wonderful, beautiful ballad that really conveys Children of the Sea’s magic. I got to listen to it when he released the single, at the time of the movie’s Japanese premiere, and it is how I discovered Yonezu in the first place. I highly recommend listening to it casually, but also listen to it during the credits; a post-credits scene follows afterward.

And- Holy crap!- the art. A lot of TV anime these days might look… eh, but at least the movies have maintained a high standard for quality. In fact, Children of the Sea is the most beautiful anime I’ve ever seen. They were faithful to the original manga’s linework-heavy artstyle, while also adding their own flourish to it. Studio 4°C also had the manga’s sense of composition; each shot is full of little details, yet it’s easy to identify the main subject at any given time. The animation, use of CG, and particle effects were also top dollar. After reading the manga, I had asked myself, “How the crap are they going to handle the climax?” Well, I’ll just tell you… they did a good job on that end.

Final Verdict: 10/10

I knew that the best case scenario with Children of the Sea was it would become my favorite anime of all time. And guess what: it’s my favorite anime of all time. The stars aligned with this one. Amazing source material, adapted by a studio that really cared. It’s practically perfect in every way. But boy… Children of the Sea got Shrekked hardcore. The COVID-19 pandemic killed its one shot at publicity in a U.S. premiere (outside of Chicago at least), and it made me real salty. This was a rare chance for something obscure, adapted by a talented team, to be unleashed upon the world, and it was all for naught!

This is one of the few pieces of media that I recommend you try regardless of your tastes. I might be sounding pretentious, but understanding the message that it conveys is very eye-opening. I’ve read a lot of books where the blurbs say “This completely changed how I view the universe!” and it ended up being two boring teenagers falling in love. Children of the Sea is not that; it is genuine, brutally honest, and poignant.

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.

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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.

Welcome to the Space Show Movie Review

Hopefully G-Kids will add more anime movies to Kanopy, because the ones I’ve watched have been fifty-fifty. Patema Inverted ended up being an E.T. ripoff on the most superficial, empty level. But conversely, Welcome to the Space Show– today’s topic- ended up being an E.T. ripoff with just the right amount of whimsy to become something with its own identity.

In Welcome to the Space Show, five kids- Natsuki, Amane, Noriko, Kiyoshi, and Koji- go out to search for their missing rabbit when they find an injured dog instead. Of course, this dog is actually a space dog named Pochi. As a reward for saving him, Pochi takes the kids to a massive alien city on the moon. 

To briefly touch on the art style, Space Show has a lot of abstract and bizarre setpieces and scenes. This is where I would normally assume that there’s some pretentious pseudo-symbolism. However, based on the sheer off-the-deep-endness of the movie, that really isn’t the case. The basic theme of Space Show is just weird for the sake of weird, and it doesn’t care if you’re confused.

And it does get confusing. Although there is enough  foreshadowing to have continuity, the way everything all comes together results in a massive “WTF?!” at the end. As expected, the climax is about as absurd and over-the-top as it gets. Saying that they fight a giant cyborg dragon above an autonomous salaryman planet during a livestream being broadcast to the entire universe isn’t even a spoiler, just because describing the plot of Space Show is impossible no matter how hard you try. I could be a critic, and say, “Oh, visual spectacle is technically impressive, but it doesn’t justify the mindless [insert smart-sounding word here] BS”, but I won’t.

It’s because of the main characters that the mindless BS is justified. While these kids aren’t particularly interesting, they are definitely kids at heart. Normally, I’d dislike any “human” protagonists, because of my fierce antisocialness, but kids are an exception. Children, when not tainted by the many adults who seek to manipulate them, are the most pure, innocent, and lovable by far. The other characters aren’t that interesting outside of their designs, and the relationship between Pochi and certain other individuals isn’t entirely clear (i.e. it’s interpretive).

Of course, I can only justify so much. The movie does have some of those eye-roll-worthy tropes that tend to be in a lot of family friendly movies. First off, Kiyoshi has a whole plot line with his dead dad that means absolutely nothing. Plus, there’s the typical “let’s be dejected for fifteen minutes and abruptly bounce back after we say some sappy junk as if we weren’t even drowning in despair in the first place.” It’s kind of something you can’t avoid in these movies, so you’ll just have to deal with it.

Finally, the visuals. Space Show is stunning in every sense of the word. It’s abstract and colorful, with tons of beautiful landscape shots with a myriad of bizarre vistas. The aliens are all kinds of weird shapes (and there are a LOT of kissy lips attached to things). The animation is smooth like water, and all the characters are super expressive. It holds up really well for a decade old movie. Just be wary of anthropomorphic stuff if you’re against furries.

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Final Verdict: 9.15/10

Welcome to the Space Show is a great anime movie, and a great showcase of that childlike wonder that seven billion too many of us lose with age. Seeing it makes me wonder how A-1 Pictures became the mainstream-catering studio that they are generally known as today. I get that anime being by the same studio doesn’t really mean it’s the EXACT same team, but as far as I know, they haven’t made anything as bizarre as this at all in recent years. Well, regardless of the history of A-1 Pictures, Space Show is a fun film, and I recommend it to fans of E.T. and those who want something wiggety-whack.