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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 6.7/10

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

Imitation and Flattery to the Nth Degree: Icon of Sin — Self-Titled Album Review

I know you shouldn’t judge a band by its record label, but I’ve had a good enough track record doing just that. A lot of my favorite bands of all time are signed to Napalm Record, for one thing. And conversely, a number of my biggest disappointments have been signed to Frontiers Records. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve been ignoring artists that I would be interested in, such as former Styx vocalist Dennis DeYoung’s solo career, and former Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate’s new band Sweet Oblivion. The only band of theirs that has remotely impressed me is the young and fresh Brazilian unit, Icon of Sin.

Icon of Sin is heavily influenced by the classics, specifically the 1980s. According to Frontiers, vocalist Raphael Mendes is a popular YouTuber who does metal vocal covers. That must be true, because—as per my nature—I had no idea who he was up to this point. In any case, he’s got a band now.

But first things first, album cover art! Normally, I’d give debuts the benefit of the doubt, but that’s not necessary here, because HOLY CRAP this album looks lit! It’s so cool… a gruff, forty-something-year-old man, with his car parked in the middle of the road (which hopefully talks), fighting demons coming out of the maw of Satan from within some vaguely Tokyo-ish city. The combination of red, black, and purple makes the album stick out like a sore thumb, and it has the feel of a turn-your-brain-off popcorn flick. I love how this thing looks… Let’s hope it sounds at least just as good.

What immediately jumps out is Mendes, and I’m not necessarily sure I mean it in a good way. Technically, his singing is very, very good. However, he very disturbingly sounds exactly like Iron Maiden’s legendary vocalist, Bruce Dickinson. Like, wow. I got used to Todd La Torre in Queensrÿche faster than I could get used to Mendes. I mean, being influenced by someone is one thing, but emulating them to that point is just… I don’t know. By comparison, Seraina Telli and Laura Guldemond, the former and current vocalists of Burning Witches respectively, both clearly try to be Rob Halford, but they manage to be something that isn’t quite him that is entirely their own thing. What Mendes does is absolutely astounding, but it feels like it’s something more tailored to a YouTube career, not a music career. I want to hear Mendes’ voice, not Dickinson’s. Unless, what, was he just naturally born with a singing voice that sounded exactly like Dickinson? 

Fortunately, I warmed up to the music fairly quickly. Icon of Sin is what it says on the tin; classic metal and 1980s culture (except for the one track called ‘Pandemic Euphoria’. I have a strange feeling that it has nothing to do with the ‘80s). Not all the songs are, as the young’uns say, “bangers”, but I thoroughly enjoyed a number of the album’s tracks. Favorites include ‘Road Rage’, ‘Virtual Empire’, and ‘Arcade Generation’.

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Final Verdict: 7.75/10

I’m sorry for the disgustingly short review, but there really isn’t much to say about Icon of Sin’s debut other than what’s been said. It’s safe, clean metal that does what it sets out to do. If you like the classics, this band will likely strike your fancy. While I didn’t find Icon of Sin to have started out on the best foot, a lot of these types of “emulate classic” bands take more than one record to not come off as knockoffs of their idols. Even Ghost’s first album was just them getting their feet wet before ascending into something more than just emulation. Here’s hoping Icon of Sin’s follow-up ends up being a good one!

The Road to Oz: Worst Book Since the First Book

Well, time to head down the rabbit hole that L. Frank Baum created during the turn of the Twentieth Century! Today, I passed the one-third point (give-or-take, since they’re not a multiple of five) in the Oz series: The Road to Oz. Let’s see if I can be mildly impressed like the last couple books.

In The Road to Oz, we are thrown right into a conversation between Dorothy and a Shaggy Man who is lost. When trying to help him get un-lost, they both end up in some weird limbo that is neither our world nor Oz. And, well, they just wander aimlessly to find Oz.

One immediate plus is the new cast of characters… to a point. I only enjoyed the Shaggy Man because I decided to picture him as none other than the classic cartoon character, Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo franchise. As funny as that depiction is, the Shaggy Man himself is kind of a jackass (which becomes quite literal as the book goes on). They are also accompanied by Button-Bright, who doesn’t seem to know anything. Too bad Scrooge wouldn’t come out for forty-three more years, or I could’ve made a reference. In addition to that clod, we have a half-girl, half-rainbow(?) character named Polychrome. Unfortunately, the idea of her being “The Rainbow’s Daughter” is the only likeable thing about her; she’s pretty colorless in terms of personality.

Since we’re suddenly on the characters section, I might as well say this: I effing resent Dorothy. She doesn’t hesitate to call people stupid right to their faces. While I would normally like this in a girl, she’s still presented as a lovely bubbly little thing despite how condescending she is. I also want to bring up a quote from her, which was also quoted in the afterword so it’s more like quote-ception: “The queerness doesn’t matter, as long as they’re friends.” She says that despite her homophobic reaction to Billina, who’s queer in the most literal sense of the word (I know that “queer” meant something else back then, but it’s just ironic when you look at it nowadays). 

We can’t seem to have a Baum novel without an accidental prophecy! So far, he’s predicted the acknowledgement transgender people with Ozma’s character arc, and social media with the name of Tiktok. This time, he predicts… Furries. Yep, literal anthropomorphic animals. And to top it off, these animals transform the heads of some of our intrepid heroes into those of animals, making them look right at home in the world of Beastars! So yeah… if you’re triggered by Furries, then Oz is not for you.

As I alluded to in the title, Road to Oz, well, sucks. There are no real stakes in this one, beyond one random chapter where they have to fight these head-throwing men. The towns they visit are small and bland, nowhere near as neat as the previous book’s setpieces. Also, there’s a Deus ex Machina where the Shaggy Man is inexplicably able to summon a mechanic who can build anything, and it’s never foreshadowed nor explained.

Similar to the previous book, a good chunk of The Road to Oz is just hanging out in the Emerald City. It’s Ozma’s birthday, as a matter of fact. And while this would be a good time for someone to assassinate her, none of it happens, and the whole thing is just… there. Unlike the last hangout, this one has purpose. Baum invents crossovers and shameless plugs during Ozma’s birthday. He introduces us to characters from a whole slew of other books he wrote outside of Oz. But while people at the time would’ve been fan-gushing at this, there’s a darn good chance that we have no idea who the heck any of these assholes are. Hooray for the passage of time!

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Verdict: 6.65/10

The Road to Oz sucks. But you know what, with a fourteen-book series, at least one or two of them have to be utter crap. Hopefully, this is not an indicator for what the rest of the books are going to be, or else I’m in for a real treat.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz: In Which Baum Tries to be Jules Verne

The afterword of the previous Oz book stated that L. Frank Baum had finally gotten his act together and fully intended on making a whole franchise of Oz. Since they had been, weirdly enough, gradually getting better, I had a vague sense of hope. Let’s see what the fourth book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, has in store for us.

In this installment, Dorothy visits California to see some other uncle of hers. However, she, her cat Eureka, and some kid named Zebediah (and his horse, Jim) get caught up in an earthquake. Said earthquake sends them falling straight to hell, which in Baum’s mind is apparently a glass city inhabited by vegetable people called Mangaboos.

Starting out, Wizard in Oz is actually not too bad. The setting is relatively creative, for starters. Plant people aren’t a remotely new concept, but it’s done so literally that it gives these plant people a complete disregard toward death; after all, you can just plant a new version of that person. 

To be honest, most of the book stays enjoyable. There’s no jarring smooth-brain plays nor outstanding cases of sexism and the like. Unfortunately, it still has Oz’s ongoing problem of having nonsense worldbuilding. While the setpieces are certainly imaginative, especially for the time, I don’t feel immersed or engaged in any of it. Sadly, I have a feeling that this issue will not be resolved, since Tolkein is the one credited for making the first believable fantasy world, and that wouldn’t be for forty-odd more years. 

Bizarrely enough, the characters are a bit more tolerable, and by “characters” I mean “the Wizard and literally no one else.” For some reason, it was weirdly cathartic to see him swoop in on his balloon, seeing him for the first time since the original classic. He’s quite the resourceful fellow, full of all kinds of tricks, and he comes off as more of a badass this time around. 

Of course, no Oz book can be flawless, and this one falls apart at the end. After their adventures in Baum’s version of hell, we see the first instance of some new plot armor: Ozma’s magic belt, which warps them out of danger and into Oz. And when they regroup, the book basically pads itself out. Baum throws together a contrived climax, which basically plays out like one of those Ace Attorney trial days where you spend ninety minutes figuring out something that the witness already knew the whole time. 

Lastly… Well, actually, it’s something about all the Oz books I’ve been hesitant to put out since it’s a referral to someone who might be still alive. The afterwords for these reprints of the Oz books have all been written by a Peter Glassman (whoever he is), with retrospective commentary on the corresponding book. And going off these, he seems like… kind of a Baum elitist. I first got pissed at him in the afterword for Ozma of Oz, when he referred to TikTok as literature’s first robot. That is wrong, for Frankenstein’s monster is literature’s first robot (thanks, Asimov). For Wizard in Oz, he starts by listing off the setpieces and acts like they are one-of-a-kind and could never be reimagined by someone else. How hero-worship-y must someone be to claim something like that, when you can’t possibly take into account the thousands of media that exist out there? Surely one of them must have something similar. In fact, the Koroks from Zelda are similar enough to the Mangaboos, the only difference being that they’re better (Oooooh snap!). The most elitist line yet is at the end of the afterword. During their recap of Ozma’s origin story, Baum—either by accident or design—retcons the story; he changes key points of it and acts like nothing changed whatsoever. And Glassman, well, he praises Baum for being inconsistent. It’s one of those go-to defenses against any sort of criticism: “You just don’t understand the genius at work!” 

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Final Verdict: 6.98/10

For all intents and purposes, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz is the best Oz book yet, and should be rated a 7. However, most of my enjoyment of the Oz books has been ripping into insignificant details as well as Baum’s unintentional power moves, such as Ozma’s gender-fluidity. And as such, I didn’t enjoy this one so much because it wasn’t “wrong” enough. To be honest, I can’t believe I made it this far. Let’s see how much longer I can go.

Ozma of Oz: Literature’s First LGBT Protagonist?

The Oz series has been an absolute acid trip thus far. Book two, The Marvelous Land of Oz, had a startling number of ups and downs, along with all the usual controversies of the time period. However, despite me insulting L. Frank Baum’s intelligence numerous times in my previous two reviews, he wrote a gender-fluid character: Princess Ozma, a girl who had been identified as a boy until magically sex changing back into a girl. So yeah, considering what Baum did to Feminism with the Army of Revolt last time, I can’t wait to see how much he offends a people that he didn’t even know about in book three: Ozma of Oz!

In Ozma of Oz, we reunite with Dorothy, who’s sailing to Australia with her Uncle Henry. After yet another cyclone, she (and a yellow hen) end up in the Land of Ev. It’s like Oz, but… worse I guess? Anyway, she has adventures and eventually meets Ozma.

First, I must once again point out the author’s note in the beginning. Like the previous book, Ozma of Oz was written because of fan mail. However, he wasn’t just compelled to write this book, but actually followed suggestions from said fan mail. It’s almost like a precursor to the Drawfee Show on YouTube, but at the same time, it’s like that guy in Bakuman who tried to write a manga with fan suggestions (and if you read Bakuman, you know how well that turned out).

Fortunately, the novel starts with what I think is the most hilarious development yet. The first monsters Dorothy and the hen encounter are these humans with wheels in place of their hands and feet. And they’re called… the Wheelers. I don’t know anything about Yu-Gi-Oh outside of Drawfee (and other horror stories I heard about the actual card game’s system being BS), but I at least know a character was localized with the name Joey Wheeler, and had a New England accent in the dub. As such, I imagined Dorothy being chased by an army of Joey Wheelers with wheel appendages, and it was quite a laugh.

Baum also makes another unintended prophecy. Forget Orson Scott Card and Philip K. Dick; Baum was the first to predict social media, in the form of a robot named… Tiktok. Yes, spelled that exact same way. Tiktok. 

Baum once again had the opportunity to go further, with the potential to beat Isaac Asimov to the punch. But alas, he drops the ball pretty much the instant Tiktok is introduced. It is explicitly and repeatedly stated that Tiktok isn’t alive, despite the fact that he literally has a setting dedicated to thought. As someone who’s seen the Data episode of Star Trek Next Generation, I groaned at this cop-out. I mean c’mon! I’m pretty sure the phrase “I think, therefore I am” was at least established at the time! It seems someone hasn’t learned from Jack Pumpkinhead in the previous book.

But wait, there’s more! Baum screws up again thanks to the aforementioned pee-colored poultry. The Ozma reveal was brilliant, but the yellow hen ruins it. The hen is a female, and is named Bill. While that in itself is still cool, Dorothy is disgusted by the concept and insists on calling the hen Billina. Why does Baum do this?! If he was just as uncomfortable with breaking gender conventions as anyone else in the 1900’s, then why did he have the Ozma thing in the first place?! This also applies to the sexism issue from the previous book. After I made that post, I remembered that he also had Dorothy kill the Wicked Witch of the West herself in the first book; a real act of Feminism, yet he quashes it in the sequel! I know that most old books are sexist, racist, etc., but at the least they’re consistent.

At least Baum managed to predict one thing properly: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The main antagonist of the novel is the Nome King, who turned the royal family of Ev into antiques since the old king literally pawned them off to him. While the Nomes are arguably a precursor to the dwarves from a novel that wouldn’t be published until forty-three years later, they are most definitely a precursor to the Grinch. The illustrations show them as green fuzzy humanoids; just like the Grinch! I’ll also admit that the Nome Kingdom is the most creative setting yet… is what I would say if we got to see it for more than five minutes. OH! At the very least, Baum predicted Gundam with the giant robot guarding the entrance!

Here we go… the cast, who are about as awful as ever. If you couldn’t tell from the Billina thing earlier, I officially hate Dorothy now (not like I enjoyed her before). Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion come back, but they are pretty much unchanged. Tiktok is also a pile of crap. He’s not just unutilized potential, as discussed before, but he’s about as inconsistent as Baum’s policy towards Feminism. Tiktok says that he cannot harm anything, but ends up doing most of the fighting throughout the novel. YOU HAD ONE JOB, BAUM. 

Fortunately, we have a silver lining. Billina is a pretty decent character, despite caving in to Dorothy changing her name. She’s sarcastic, and lays eggs whenever she darn well feels like it. Additionally, the Nome King ends up being the most interesting antagonist yet, mainly because he’s NOT one-dimensionally evil like a Saturday morning cartoon villain. He’s honest and reasonable, but is also a bit sadistic, given the challenge he gives Dorothy and Co. to save the Evs. Unfortunately, Baum drops the ball by making him 180 into a Saturday morning cartoon villain during the climax. At least he’s learning?

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Final Verdict: 6.95/10

Just a little more, and I’ll rate an Oz book at a seven or above (unless they start to degrade from here)! Ozma of Oz was a lot more creative than previous volumes, even if it still pales in comparison to some modern stuff (and Tolkien). It looks like I’m in it for the long haul for sure. Wish me luck (I’m gonna need it)!

The Marvelous Land of Oz: The First of Many Oz Sequels

I didn’t like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but I was curious about its future installments. However, when I opened up the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, I was immediately presented with an author’s note, straight from L. Frank Baum himself. To paraphrase, it said that he was compelled to write a sequel at the behest of his fans. 

This further cements my original point with the first book. Similar to modern bad isekai, the writing was bare-bones, the characters were brain-dead and inconsistent, and the world lacked any semblance of rhyme or reason. And the cherry on top… he’s making it up as he goes along! Well, as someone who loves battle shounen, I can’t immediately rule out the possibility that Marvelous Land could be enjoyable. So without further ado, let’s begin!

In The Marvelous Land of Oz, a boy from the northern parts named Tip has a crap life. He’s stuck slaving away for Mombi, an annoying old coot that nobody likes. As a prank, Tip creates a vaguely humanoid figure with a jack-o’-lantern for a head (creatively named Jack Pumpkinhead by the way). Mombi uses this Powder of Life she (illegally) bought and brings Jack to life, after which Tip grabs him and they haul ass to the Emerald City.

Right off the bat, most of the issues from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are present here. The story is, once again, incredibly haphazard, with every action feeling incredibly arbitrary. In fact, Tip and Jack don’t even know why they want to go to the Emerald City in the first place. 

I can at least appreciate the gumption that Baum had at the time. The creation of Jack, followed by the eventual creation of the saw-horse (a log with a horse-shaped head) is a pretty direct defiance of God. Frankenstein, which was a hip new novel at the time, did the same thing. But since this was a kids series, what Baum did was much more controversial. And while Frankenstein is supposed to be a social commentary on how humans shouldn’t play God, Baum doesn’t even remotely make any ethical quandary out of Jack and the saw-horse. Of course, now that every other fantasy world has an evil religious cult, the ballsiness of Baum’s efforts are kind of… non-existent by modern standards.

But you know what, there was something else about Marvelous Land that can be considered pretty groundbreaking. The main conflict of this novel ends up being the Army of Revolt, who usurp Scarecrow from his throne at Emerald City. The big humdinger about this is that the Army of Revolt are all women, tired of sexism. Unfortunately, like before, this is another case of an already-existing novel for older audiences conveying themes better. Feminism was already a thing thanks to Jane Eyre (thank you, Friends episode, for teaching me that without me having to read it). 

Also, Feminism is presented poorly in this novel. First off, the Army of Revolt is incredibly stereotypical. Their primary motivation for storming Emerald City is to use its tax money on clothes and jewelry. Plus, their weapons consist entirely of knitting needles, which can definitely hurt, but are still very “womanly”. Furthermore, the reader isn’t allowed any form of interpretation or moral ambiguity when it comes to the Army of Revolt; they’re antagonists, which means they’re evil.

One of my biggest issues with Marvelous Land in particular is one scene that, honestly, makes me question whether or not Baum ever received an education. Tip and Co. obtain a magic item, and the conditions to activate it require them to count to seventeen in increments of two. Since seventeen is an odd number, this seems impossible. One logical solution is to count by halves in increments of two, thus counting in increments of one whole number as a result, which sounds like the solution that actually gets proposed. However, they count to .5, then to one, then just count in increments of two from there. I reread their explanation for how that’s supposed to have worked at least five times and I legitimately did not get that logic. Does the magical item round to the nearest whole number when decimals are worked in? If you’re a calculus major or something, then please comment as to how that’s supposed to work.

Fortunately, this novel has a far better sense of humor than the previous novel… I think? The thing about media from decades’ past is that we modern people find things funny that weren’t at all intended to be funny. One line of dialogue I actually chuckled at was them encountering some asshole, and Jack casually commenting “What a nice guy!” It was funny because I had no idea if it was actually supposed to be sarcasm or not (since Jack was just born). Also, someone needs to make an Oz tier list fast. In the previous book, we learned that winged monkeys are SSS-tier, even more so than any of the Witches of the Cardinal Directions. In Marvelous Land, we learn that twelve mice are more powerful than professionally trained military personnel. Again, I have no idea if it was meant to be funny or if Baum was off his rocker (since the whole story was improvised). 

The characters are also much better… to a point. Jack would be an interesting “robot” character, but he’s pretty much sworn absolute loyalty to Tip; add breasts and he’d be no different from your typical objectified waifu. Since he considers Tip his father, it’s probably a consequence of that fact that dad was the end-all-be-all alpha-and-omega of the household at the time. Sadly, that’s about it for the cast. Tip and Mombi aren’t too interesting, and Jinjur—the leader of the Army of Revolt—is too contradictory for her ilk.

However, there is a potential silver lining. Of all the returning Oz characters, the most interesting ends up being Glinda the “Good.” Notice the quotation marks? Since she’s Miss Helps Everyone, Tip and Co. end up asking for assistance to deal with the Army of Revolt. Bizarrely enough, violence is her first solution every step of the way, despite how good she’s supposed to be. This could be setting up for a very complex character later on (since she’s the star of that ominous-looking final book and all). Unfortunately, I could be reading too deeply into this. After all, this was the time when extremism in Christianity was more prevalent, and it was understood that any heinous crime is justified as long as the victim is “evil.”

One of the biggest redeeming factors comes at the end. Of all the gutsy things Baum tried thus far, the big reveal in Marvelous Land is legitimately huge, putting the book about a century ahead of its time. In fact, I don’t even think Baum himself knew how significant it would be when he was writing it!

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Verdict: 6.85/10

The Marvelous Land of Oz isn’t great, but it’s better than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (also, the illustrations are no longer superimposed over text). It at least gives me hope that the series will gradually get more and more trippy (and better) moving forward. Here’s hoping that I’m not wasting my time!

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.

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.

March of the Wooden Soldiers Retrospective

Promotional artwork for the movie (on IMDB)

Holiday movie traditions have been a thing since television. But over the years, I’ve come to question the quality of some of these “classics.” On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s take a modern look at a Laurel and Hardy favorite: March of the Wooden Soldiers (or Babes in Toyland, originally), a Thanksgiving tradition on the East Coast that started since 1963, when WPIX11 would broadcast this film every year since then. There will be spoilers.

So, the premise (even though we should all know it already). In the fantasy world known as Toyland (that was built right in front of the gates of hell. Great location, guys), the local tax collector, Silas Barnaby, is more than willing to evict the Old Lady who Lives in a Shoe from, well, her shoe, unless she sells her daughter, Little Bo Peep, to him. Well, not if Stannie Dum and Ollie- Ah, screw it, we never call these two by their character names. They will always be Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and they set out to stop Barnaby!

The movie starts out with Mother Goose singing the most cynical opening ever about how adults lose all semblance of childhood without exception as a big book opens up and introduces the cast of characters. The little video-pictures give a good visual clue of what each person is like, but it gets undermined by captions like “Barnaby’s the meanest man in town, just so you know, in case you were too stupid to tell from the fact that he’s an old hunchback creepozoid.”

Man, this movie was sure state-of-the-art for the time period. I’m sure the kids these days are watching this and being all like, “Wow, the CG was really bad back then!” Well, guess what, movies back then were filmed on “sets,” which means, a physically existing site, where they- yes- had to BUILT all of this crap. I always admired when people actually had to make magic with science back then, instead of just doing it on a fancy machine. I’ll never understand the appeal of those films that are done entirely with a green screen.

Watching this movie again really shows how unremarkable most of the actors are. Key Word: MOST. Similar to Hocus Pocus, we put up with all this crap (like that cringe-inducing Tom-Tom and Bo Peep subplot) just to see the actors that were on the poster, with this case being the irreplaceable Laurel and Hardy. Any scene that doesn’t have these two in it is really boring, but unlike Hocus Pocus, these guys are actually in most of the movie. It’s really amazing how well their humor holds up, with scenes like Laurel’s amazing pee-wee skills, to him dropping a rock on Barnaby and telling him to look out, and- of course- “So far, so good.” “It wasn’t so far!” “Goodnight Ollie.” “Goodnight Stannie- OOohhhhhhh…”

Out of the actors besides Laurel and Hardy, Barnaby’s actor really takes the cake. People were still coming out of the Silent Era, and this guy’s expressive mannerisms help make Barnaby a real conniving mo-fo. Well, okay, maybe there are better antagonists in more modern works, but he’s still a fun character (Side Note: The real bad guy is that stupid toymaker. Screw that guy).

Speaking of other actors, I wanna bring up the cat and the mouse. Screw the bogeyman; THESE are the stuff of horrors. The fur on the cat is just not fluffy enough, plus- GAH!- he still has his human eyes. Wh-why?! The less scary of the two is the monkey-mouse. This is perhaps the first instance of riding on someone else’s success that I personally have experienced in cinema. It was 1934, and Mickey Mouse was just starting his world conquest (with Snow White three years away from following suit). So, the most logical move for competitor M.G.M. was to take a monkey, dress it up as Mickey Mouse, and pander to the kiddies. Since the costume sucked, the creature looked just derivative enough from Mickey so that it wouldn’t violate whatever copyright laws existed at the time, but still looked enough like Mickey so that the kids would think it really was him. On a side note, the Three Little Pigs also look really creepy. The bogeymen that we were all scared of still look scary in a way, but nowadays it’s more of a “It’s scary that a design team actually gave the okay on such bad-looking costumes.”

Let’s also discuss the background music next. I think truly good background music had sort of died, with John Williams and the peeps at Disney seeming to be among the few who actually know how to make it work. The whole “sound” thing was still new, and at this point in time, music had to convey everything, and March of the Wooden Soldiers is no exception. I’m sure you still have an earworm playing Laurel and Hardy’s “doo-doo-doo-doo-DOO-doo-DOO,” or Barnaby’s “duuuuuuuuuh-DUH, duuuuuuuuuh-DUH, duh, duh-duh-duh-duhduhduhduh.” It’s such a good example of show-don’t-tell, but that’s also undermined by the captions in the picture book in beginning.

I’ve discussed a lot of the positives, but since the analytical process has skyrocketed to such heights in recent years, it’s impossible to not notice some issues in March of the Wooden Soldiers. It is a lot of small suspension of disbelief stuff, but it stacks. Why is the King such a dictator and an idiot? Why is the toymaker an ass? Why are there TAXES in such a peaceful kingdom? Why does attempted larceny result in ducking and banishment to Bogeyland, but kidnapping and murder- a far worse crime- result in just the banishment? And WHY IS BOGEYLAND RIGHT NEXT TO TOYLAND?! If it’s symbolism of the adult world (“Once you cross its borders, you will never return”), then- geewillickers!- this is such a dark movie! Other issues also include Tom-Tom and Bo Peep. Uuuuugh… I’m pretty sure nobody liked their chemistry, and it still sucks today (but hey, it’s still a better love story than Twilight). And why oh WHY did Tom-Tom think that falling asleep in that hellhole was a good idea (yeah, I know the sandmen did it but he started serenading Peep way before then)?!

But in all honesty, the movie’s biggest flaw is probably its age. The movie is still great and all, but the evolution of cinema and entertainment in general has transcended March of the Wooden Soldiers. I also don’t enjoy movies as much anymore; I’d rather read manga or play videogames. Also, the climax of the film isn’t really as cathartic to watch anymore, in comparison to something like an epic One Piece moment. It’s still a good scene, though, and it’s at least foreshadowed properly. The only real flaw is that it makes no sense that it showed the first soldier only being able to walk forward, while the others are perfectly autonomous golems that can easily fight off an army of hairy old men.

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After All These Years: 7.5/10

March of the Wooden Soldiers is still a good movie, but it’s not an indisputable masterpiece. Heck, I don’t even think it’s the best Laurel and Hardy movie (that one’s called Way Out West). It doesn’t hit like a cannon full of darts anymore, but out of all Thanksgiving traditions, March of the Wooden Soldiers still beats that parade in New York by light-years (especially if you’ve seen a Disney parade, like me).