The Movie that Told Us to Just Keep Swimming: Finding Nemo 20th Anniversary Retrospective

This movie turns twenty this year. Holy crap, we are so OLD. I still remember watching this religiously when I was a kid. However, I haven’t actually watched it since my teen years. This seems like the perfect time to re-experience one of Pixar’s most enduring classics!

In Finding Nemo, we have the classic case of one Disney parent dying, and the survivor becoming unrealistically overprotective of the kid. In this instance, a clownfish named Marlin manages to save one of his deceased wife’s eggs: Nemo. He’s worried that Nemo’s first day of school will end in a gruesome death, but in his defense, Nemo gets pretty close. As a result of his own hubris, Nemo accepts a triple dog dare from his classmates and tries to touch a butt, only to be kidnapped by a human and taken to Australia. Marlin’s only hope is to—well—find Nemo, and with the help of a reckless, forgetful female named Dory.

First off, how the hell does the movie still look so good? Sure, I watched it in HD, but seriously, it’s beautiful. I religiously watched the behind-the-scenes of Finding Nemo, and I recall an interview where someone said that they actually dialed down the photorealism; it would’ve been too scary to keep it. That was a great call, and it’s probably why this movie aged so well twenty years later (a lesson that The Polar Express people failed to learn).

Second off, FINDING NEMO GOES FOR THE THROAT! Sure, Disney parents always die, but it has never been alongside HUNDREDS OF UNBORN CHILDREN. Marlin is rightfully traumatized, but more on his complex hero’s journey later, because I need to really iterate how visceral this thing is. Where to even begin?! The barracuda and the fishnapping are the tip of the iceberg. Marlin survives a minefield explosion, a nightmarish angler fish encounter, eating thousands of volts of electricity from jellyfish, being thrown through a rip current, getting eaten alive… and that’s just what happens to Marlin. Nemo almost gets ripped to shreds by a fan in a claustrophobic space, has his body shaken violently, gets flushed down a toilet, and almost gets fished with a bunch of other losers we don’t care about. How the hell did any of us watch this thing all the way through as kids?!

Otherwise, it’s a standard Pixar movie. I remembered WAY more dialogue than I thought, despite it being over a decade since my last watch, and that just shows how rock solid the dialogue is. It’s not too tryhard, but still has that great Pixar charm. From vegan sharks to covetous seagulls that only speak the word “mine”, Finding Nemo still oozes personality to this day. Sidebar: one of the lines I just noticed as an adult was when one of the sharks says “humans think they own everything” and the hammerhead remarks “probably American.” How apropos.

The characters are pretty simple for the most part, but Marlin is probably one of the most nuanced Pixar characters, and I only just realized it as an adult. His trauma is real, and his devotion as a dad is truly tested. However, it’s his Freudian slip late in the movie, when he accidentally calls Dory Nemo, that really says a lot about him. It shows that, despite how much he dunked on her, that he really cared about her and saw his own son in her. It’s pretty obvious to pick up on this, but as a kid, I was like “Herpaderp are they gonna find Nemo yet I gotta go poopy now.” The scene when other fish talk about Marlin’s exploits is one of my favorites for some reason. I dunno… it just really shows how far Marlin goes to be a dad.

Also… uh… how do I discuss Dory? Is her voice actor still a controversial figure? Well, regardless, her role as Dory is—to this day—a stellar performance. Dory is a spaz, with some of the most memorable lines in Pixar, and her memory issues are actually pretty thoughtfully used instead of making it a shock value thing. Of course, her legacy will be immortalized in the iconic, nonsensical whale song she sings. It’s better than most of today’s pop songs, that’s for sure.

Nemo is… well, kind of a brat. I mean, the situation was kind of both their faults… look, I’m just trying to have a witty sense of dry humor in this thing. Anyway, he is raised with the idea that he can’t do anything to save his life, and—lo and behold—turns out that Marlin was wrong in that regard. Of course, they reconcile, and it makes you wanna play the chorus of ‘Cats in the Cradle’ (yes, I know that song is about a son who ultimately abandons his father but it’s still the definitive anthem of dads).

The supporting cast mostly consists of the fish in the tank that Nemo ends up with. Gill is the only plot-relevant one, being the guy who actually comes up with the convoluted plan to get them all out. However, the real charm comes from everyone else, with unique, quirky personalities. Also, Robert from Everybody Loves Raymond voice acts as one of them; what’s not to love?

Of course, our favorite supporting character is none other than Crush, a sea turtle going strong even at one-fifty. He’s basically the guy who teaches Marlin his lesson regarding when his metaphorical bird is old enough to leave the metaphorical nest. It’s also a brilliant move to make the character who teaches Marlin this lesson a sea turtle; the species known to abandon their offspring at birth. Crush’s easy-going personality and Californian accent makes him a righteous dude. Also, the A.I. that has gotten closest to reaching sentience is built in his image, so there’s that. Hopefully it doesn’t get any more advanced.

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After All These Years: 9.7/10

As much as I love the show-stopping spectacle and ingenuity of many foreign animated features that only exist to be stepped on at the Oscars, I still love Disney and Pixar. Finding Nemo remains one of the all-around best films by this team of visionaries. It’s not existential like Soul, or action-packed and deceptively complex like The Incredibles, but it does what it needs to do without being half-baked nor excessive. It goes without saying that every dad must watch this movie… and listen to ‘Cats in the Cradle’ one more time.

Strange World: Disney’s Most Family-Savvy Movie

Here we go again, time to see another Disney movie on opening day (well, I know this post isn’t coming out on opening day… but you know what I mean). I’m gonna admit that I was worried about this one. Lightyear ended up being one of my biggest disappointments with Pixar in YEARS, and while Turning Red was great, it wasn’t meant to be better than Lightyear. Strange World also has something that always, ALWAYS sets the Internet on fire, even though it’s pretty commonplace nowadays. That’s why I try to watch movies I care about on opening day… even though I would prefer them to be on Disney+ as well (at least that’s something they did right with Disenchanted).

In Strange World, the famous explorer Jaeger Clade is ready to make the discovery of a lifetime on the other side of the unconquerable mountain range that looms over his hometown of Avalonea. He drags his son Searcher (and some other people) on this journey. Searcher discovers a radioactive green corn, dubbed Pando, that has enough power to jumpstart Avalonea to a new age. Jaeger, sadly, doesn’t take kindly to this and abandons his son. Twenty-five years later, Searcher starts his own life as a farmer, but must take on the explorer mantle again when Pando mysteriously starts dying off.

So, Strange World is a lot for a Disney movie. I can almost guarantee that kids will have no idea what’s going on until they’re eighteen. On the flipside, this is perhaps the most catered to adults that a Disney animated feature has ever been. As strange as the world in Strange World is, the real strange world is the strange world of family relationships. The entire plot revolves around Searcher, his son Ethan, and Jaeger, who is of course still alive in the titular strange world beneath the mountains.

Before continuing on, I might as well fan-gush over this strange world. Who needs Avatar, which just looks exactly like Earth but plants glow sometimes, when you have the surrealistic wonders put forth by Disney visionaries? The movie explodes with beautiful colors, odd creatures, and epic landscape shots. Too bad Avatar‘s going to eat this movie nonetheless…

Anyway, complaints about Hollywood being jury-rigged against animation aside, the story of the Clades is the heart of the movie. When the three generations of Clade meet for the first time, the drama goes through the roof. Ethan thinks Jaeger is cool, Searcher doesn’t like Jaeger, Searcher doesn’t want Ethan to be like Jaeger (and holds Ethan back in the process of protecting him from his grandpa), and Ethan just wants to be… Ethan. To be blunt, if you’re a seasoned veteran of fiction, Disney movies, and life in general, then you already know all three men’s character arcs from start to finish. Fortunately, this age-old theme is still relevant, as there are certainly plenty of Dead Poet Society-esque parents out there who need a wake-up call. Also, Strange World executes on it really well, not getting too manufactured in favor of shock value while managing to hit home all the same.

Oh, right, there is still the whole dying green corn thing… Well, that debacle ends up having a legitimately clever twist. I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s definitely not human machinations this time. The idea of humans not being a vile plague is always a novelty these days.

Based on how aggressively I talked about the three Clade men up to this point, it sure sounds like they’re the only real characters. Well, they’re the most fleshed out, that’s for sure. Jaeger might be a jerk, but he has some funny moments of being a real grandpa. Searcher is a classic dad character, wanting to protect Ethan and his home. Ethan is just a cool kid caught between a rock (Searcher) and a hard place (Jaeger).

Everyone else is still quite likable, regardless of screentime. This includes that one guy with glasses whose name I don’t know at all; he’s funny. However, he’s not the comic relief supporting character; that would go to Splat, a native of the strange world. Splat is your usual mute, marketable character, who speaks in its own sign language and is very bouncy all the time. Ethan’s mom, Meridian, is perhaps the best. She can do anything and everything, all while being a mom. 

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Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Strange World has got to be one of the most intricate movies that Disney has put out (even though that’s not saying much). It deals with family… er… family… and… Actually, the entire thing is just one big commentary on families. Wow, good job contradicting yourself. Anyway, my love for it is NOT a contradiction, and I suggest you round up your father and/or son and watch this with them!

The Dragon Prince is FINALLY Back! (Season 4 Review with SPOILERS)

It’s been a long time coming for The Dragon Prince: one pandemic later. In any case, Netflix has given the show four more seasons; four more seasons of one of the best examples of a neo-retro fantasy epic, and one of the most I-feel-like-a-kid-again experiences outside of Disney. As you can see, I decided I’m going to go over it season-by-season. Since each season is only nine episodes, and the show has a really simplistic plot, this post, along with reviews of subsequent seasons, will contain unmarked spoilers so that the entire thing isn’t just “It’s good, I guess.” Read with caution!

Last time we left off, two human boys named Callum and Ezran (until the latter had to step away to be the youngest king ever), and an elf named Rayla, managed to escort (read as: “babysit”) the Dragon Prince, Zim, back to his home in Xadia. Ezran’s late father’s evil royal advisor, Verin, almost stopped them, by turning his followers into veiny-muscle-dudes. However, Verin was defeated thanks to the power of friendship. After a three-year cliffhanger for us and two-year timeskip in the show, we’ll finally get to see what happens next!

But not before I reverse a cardinal sin I committed in the previous review: I never ONCE mentioned the boys’ Aunt Amaya! She’s the Best Girl! She’s the typical Awesome Aunt trope: swole, and takes no prisoners, but loves her family to pieces. Speaking of loving someone to pieces… her ship with the swole elf, Janai, is officially set to launch this season. More on that later though.

This whole season has been built up as “The Mystery of Aaravos”. However, I’m pretty sure we knew one thing about him: he’s the Avatar. If I remember correctly (as someone who never bothered rewatching the previous seasons), Rayla mentioned an Aaravos who could control all six Primal Sources. What we learn of him in this season is that he’s the typical “bad guy who manipulates powerful people and causes wars from the shadows because evil”. There’s most likely more to his story.

Fortunately, despite the long break, the show hasn’t missed a beat. The Dragon Prince is still whimsical, funny, and epic. I couldn’t help but smile for most of the season, and that’s just how I like it. 

Of course, it’s not all roses and picnics, especially not considering what the real world has gone through in between seasons. Racism has always been a theme, but was played off as something with an easy solution; typical “kids are always right and adults are always wrong” kind of stuff. The inverse is evident when Amaya gets hitched with Janai; their ship sailing would spell disaster for what’s left of the proud Sunfire Elves. It doesn’t matter that they love each other. 

This is even more evident in the party that Ezran plans, in which the Dragon Queen herself visits Katolis (is that how you spell the place?), and ideally, no one tries to kill each other. His speech in episode three hit me harder than possibly anything else I’ve experienced in 2022. It was at that moment that I realized how much I relate to him; we’re both kids who believe in peace, and just cannot understand why hate comes so naturally to the vast majority of people. What he said in it really hit home for me. As much as I’ve gone with the logic of “all the people involved in those conflicts are dead now”, it really wasn’t true at all. Like Ezran said, we must keep the hatred within us alongside the love somehow. Unfortunately, as simple as The Dragon Prince is, even it knows that there is nothing simple about this. In fact, I understand humanity even less now, especially since no practical “how” for Ezran’s process is brought up whatsoever; it’s just something “you gotta do.”

Aaaaanyway, despite how complicated it is, Aunt Amaya makes it look easy. On her end, an ignorant human does something really offensive to a Sunfire Elf. Amaya, being the badass that she is, convinces them to reduce the perp’s punishment from death to community service. It’s a very powerful scene, and something that politically correct people should keep in mind. 

However, it doesn’t end there. The one universal constant with marriages is that in-laws are the worst, and in Amaya’s case, it’s Janai’s brother, Karim. He is basically the elf equivalent of that snobby guy from season three who wanted Ezran to declare war on Xadia for no particular reason, i.e. he’s an utter jackass. He’d rather humans and elves continue to be racist to each other. At first, it seems like he’s simply concerned about his people, considering that there aren’t too many of them left. However, as Amaya and Janai continue to move forward and do good things, he just wants to yank the whole encampment backwards. 

At the very least, he doesn’t try to kill her. Well, sure, he challenges her to a duel to the death, but he wanted her to forfeit so he can win by default. That’s exactly what happens, but he gets arrested instead because the duel is supposed to be illegal (his arc is definitely not over yet). Janai says this awesome thing about people’s history not defining how they are in the present, which—wait—isn’t that kinda the opposite of what Ezran said in episode three? Well, in any case, that’s also something that politically correct people need to keep in mind.

While that’s all nice and dandy, the overarching plot of the show at this juncture involves Claudia going through a whole rigmarole to release Aaravos. Callum and Co. literally catch wind of this, and that means it’s time for adventuring once more! Our old pals Callum, Rayla, Ezran, Zim, and now Sorin! What’s not to love?

Actually, the answer may surprise you: Callum and Rayla. Their ship sailed back in season three, but in the name of shock value, her metaphorical crew has a saboteur. In between seasons, Rayla left to find Verin’s body (or something?) but to no avail. Callum, naturally, is hit hard by this, since he loves her. However, when she returns, he… hates her guts? Well, he definitely behaves like an utter jackass, that’s for sure, suddenly acting like her ex and not her current partner. I really don’t get this AT ALL. I’m not sure if Rayla’s departure was shown at the end of season three (it definitely wasn’t in the recap), but there really is no context so I can’t tell who is more at fault. It’s one thing if she never told Callum, but it’s still indecent for him to be such a turd-monkey to the girl of his dreams. The cherry on top is that he’s set up to be one of Aaravos’ future thralls. Oh goodie.

Speaking of characters changing, no one changes more in this season than our antagonists. As I implied before, Sorin is a good noodle and he’s great as always. However, Verin and Claudia both do a big 180. Verin literally comes back to life after his big fall from season three, and he’s a mess. He doesn’t want to touch his staff or use dark magic, or be evil. He even has panic attacks and a new fear of heights. I was really surprised by this, because I was certain that he was the evil human mage shown in the very, VERY beginning of the series, staying young by snorting those butterflies as seen in season one. He might still have a connection with that dude, since his staff isn’t really his; Claudia uses it in ways that he never knew existed. 

Claudia, on the other hand, stops being the derpy, adorable teenage girl, and becomes quite cold. She has some of her charm, but she’s done a LOT of dark magic, and will cast as many spells as it takes to free Aaravos, who can make her father’s living-mumbo-jumbo spell permanent. Also, somehow, evil Claudia wins the heart of some elf named Terry. He’s cute and funny, and kills someone literally for the first time in his life this season. I bet he’ll be her moral compass for a while.

Let’s end this discussion by reflecting on how the season ended (since this is a spoiler-filled review after all). The teams on both sides journey to the mountain of Umber Tor to find Rex Igneous, who has a clue to Aaravos’ whereabouts. It’s literally carved into his tooth. To build tension, each party of course arrives at the same time, confronts each other, and the bad guys escape with the prize. Our heroes are safe from the grumpiest dragon ever (also I got the entire backstory of the series wrong in my first review apparently, even though I wrote that overview minutes after watching the first episode? Well, good thing I’m not official in any way), but they didn’t have silly putty nor the ability to obtain the map. So… they’re in a bind right now. Also, Verin uses his staff and seems to revert back to his old self, albeit with dark magic veins covering his face. Wait… IS he that dark mage from the VERY beginning? In any case, there’s still more to this that we don’t know, such as Ezran possibly having a connection with the human who thwarted Aaravos in the past, who is implied to have had the same Rubik’s cube that Callum has now. Also, that staff of Verin’s is referred to as “the Staff of Xiod” (I’m guessing that’s how it’s spelled). Xiod might be that dark mage, regardless of whether or not Verin and him are one and the same. 

In conclusion, this new season was as amazing as ever, and I already miss it. I’m not going to give a rating this time, because I feel like that won’t be necessary until the series as a whole is concluded (which, hopefully, will go swimmingly). If you haven’t watched The Dragon Prince, then I’m sorry for spoiling the entire series up to this point (don’t say I didn’t warn you). Also, if that’s the case, you should watch The Dragon Prince.

Blood Like Magic: A Family Drama With a Cyberpunk Twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

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

Luca: Kaiju Plus Italian Food Equals Success!

By this point in human history, most of the United States will have been freed from the pandemic that definitely warranted EVERY SINGLE mandate taken against it. Theaters are open, but despite that, Pixar once again elected to squander the chance to actually profit off of one of their movies. Yep, their newest film, Luca, is included with a simple Disney+ subscription, just like with Soul. At least one good thing came from that whole incident!

In Luca, the titular sea monster (or as I would prefer to call it, Kaiju) boy is having a crap life herding fish-sheep with a dream to see the human world. Naturally, he’s forbidden to live said dream. Fortunately, all it takes is a chance encounter with a sassy teenage Kaiju named Alberto for him to completely disregard his parents and head there anyway.

The first interesting thing about this movie is the setting: Italy. This is, to my knowledge, Disney’s first movie to represent Italian culture, and as an Italian myself, it feels… underwhelming? From what I understand, kids of different heritages are supposed to feel some sort of solace in learning about where they came from. And before you tell me that my apathy is because Italians are White, allow me to tell you that Italians were just as much victims of racism in the early 1900s as any minority group. In any case, you can probably chalk up my lack of an existential and cultural awakening to my neuro-atypical brain. If you’re Italian (and not me), you’ll probably fan-gush your butt off at this setting.

What brings said setting to life is Pixar’s long-running expertise in visual presentation. Outside of a few dream sequences, the movie isn’t as abstract as Soul, but it still looks beautiful. It blurs the line between cartoon and realism thanks to its noodly characters contrasting against the extremely detailed environments. The devil is in the detail as usual, especially when it comes to those quintessentially Italian hand gestures.

Also expected from Pixar is Luca‘s very simple plot. The main conflict is that Luca and Alberto want to obtain a motorcycle to travel the world with, the problem being that they need cash. The best opportunity to get cash is to win the Porto Rosso Cup, and luckily enough, they meet a human girl named Giulia who wants to win the Cup as well. Of course, the whole Kaiju thing complicates matters.

For me, the movie’s biggest strength is in its cast of characters. Luca is kind of generic, but he develops some interesting relationships with Alberto and Giulia. Alberto is an interesting case. He has an assertive policy that inspires Luca to explore the human world, but he does it a bit to the Nth degree. This is shown throughout the movie, and is—in recent memory—one of the few organic buildups to that classic “Disney argument”. Giulia is that best friend type who’s proactive and ambitious; she’s not complex but it’s hard not to like her. I have a strange feeling that, given the month that this movie came out in, people will not be pleased at how Luca and Alberto’s relationship turns out in the end.

The parents—for once—manage to both have proper arcs and not die. Luca’s parents are dense as you can expect at first, but eventually have to acknowledge that their little Kaiju’s grown up. In the meantime, they eventually head to the surface to search for him and have some hilarious escapades. Luca’s grandma is much more likable, but she doesn’t get significant screentime. Fortunately, Giulia’s awesome dad makes up for that lack.

The weakest character ends up being the main antagonist (whose name I’m probably spelling wrong), Erkele. He’s the first Disney “villain” in like a decade, and he kind of shows that maybe they should stick with not having villains. He’s very expressive and funny, but he gets no real arc other than to be a jerk and impede the protagonists.

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Final Verdict: 9.25/10

Luca is a great Pixar movie as usual. I don’t quite think it’s as good as Soul, but it’s definitely easier to rewatch since—for the time being—everything from last year is kind of cursed. In any case, Luca is great, and I want to stay at Disney’s Riviera Resort now.

Time Castaways: Steins;Gate but for Kids!

We all know time travel is iffy. It’s especially iffy in literature, since it’s something that could get needlessly convoluted very quickly. Despite all that, I looked at Liesl Shurtliff’s Time Castaways book series and thought: “This actually looks good.” Let’s see (and hope) if I was right.

In Time Castaways, three siblings by the names of Matt, Ruby, and Corey Hudson, take the subway to school and end up on the Vermillion, a time machine. Yeah, I don’t get it either. They join the crew, led by Captain Vincent, for literal shits and giggles, and they go on various time missions through time-space. 

This story sounds like one of those “edutainment” series, where the whole point is showing how much random historical trivia the author knows. Fortunately, about halfway into the first book, things escalate rather quickly. The established rules regarding time travel are quite simple, and it never goes to complete and utter BS territory, even towards the end where things would normally get out of hand.

And, well, that’s because the plot is extremely simple. Time Castaways more-or-less follows all the usual clichés of the time travel subgenre. Even the biggest revelation, shown at the end of book two, is incredibly obvious from the start. If you have experience with this kind of stuff, it’ll likely feel very cringe-worthy.

What makes Time Castaways stand out, however, is the power of family. Normally, the parents are like “Time travel? You kids need to go to the place with the nice guys in white suits for a while!” and the mom steals some MacGuffin from the main protagonist as punishment for sneaking out of the house so often. But here, the whole family ends up deeply involved in all the mumbo-jumbo, earning their spots as plot-relevant supporting protagonists.

The second book, unfortunately, suffers the same curse that most midpoints in trilogies have. It’s more-or-less a wild goose chase. It introduces the main MacGuffin of the trilogy, sure. But other than that, there aren’t any real developments until the climax.

Fortunately, unlike many-a YA novel, the final book is insane. It’s slow at first, but things go absolutely off the rails as everything comes together. If you find yourself emotionally invested in the cast, your heart will break into a million pieces at many points in the final book.

However, becoming emotionally invested in the cast is quite difficult. Matt’s only real trait is that he has seizures, and being adopted. His level of suffering is about on par with Okabe in Steins;Gate. But unlike Okabe, who has a whacky personality, Matt is… a kid. RELATABLE (*sarcasm*).

His siblings aren’t much better; in fact, they’re arguably worse. Ruby pretty much exists for an unfunny meme where she arbitrarily gets tossed around by the Vermillion, and that’s pretty much it. Corey, meanwhile, is a turd. He’s both the comic relief, and the “always jumps to conclusions” guy. Pretty much every rift in any relationship in the trilogy has him involved, and it’s annoying.

I think boringness runs in the family, because I didn’t particularly care for ANY of the Hudsons. They’re, well, family, I guess. As cool as it is to have the family be important, the characters themselves aren’t really that fun. I dunno, I’m probably spoiled by the utter god-tier level of Spy X Family’s wholesomeness.

Wow, half of this review is the cast! In addition to the Hudsons, we have the crew of the Vermillion. The only one who matters is Jia. She’s the waifu. It’s not even a spoiler that she turns Matt from a boy into a man. That’s about it. Brocco and Wiley are pretty much there. Albert exists to be an utter ass. His motive is supposed to be that he’s a British kid from the late 1770’s, who would naturally hate Americans, but that never comes up again in his character arc. Lastly, there’s Pike, who’s basically a wild card that they tease as someone super mysterious, but she’s more-or-less forgettable.

Finally, we have the main antagonist, epically named “Vincent.” Okay, so technically, saying he’s the villain is a spoiler for book one, but it’s extremely obvious that he’s the villain (he has a pet rat for one thing). He’s not a well-written antagonist. He’s one-dimensionally evil, with no strings attached. His motive for everything is literally him being jealous of someone else dating the same girl that he liked; what a brat! I’m not like those who think that EVERY villain MUST be complex and layered, but I like some fun personality to make up for it, and Vincent has none of that.

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Final Verdict (Whole Series): 8.5/10

Time Castaways is great. It sucks that it’s not that popular, since it’s so much better than what actually IS popular. The books have flaws, but they’re very fun, emotional, and full of family wuv. I recommend it to anyone who likes time travel and actually wants to see it done well.

Weeb Reads Monthly January and February 2021

I didn’t think I’d have to lump multiple months together AGAIN. Geez! Only two volumes (excluding debuts) piqued my interest in January; nowhere near enough to put it in a Weeb Reads Monthly. So, here we are. Hooray for being relevant.


WATARU!! Volume 2

Holy crap!!! Another volume of the masterpiece, WATARU!!! …said no one except for me. MyAnimeList doesn’t exactly have a page for this series, and I haven’t read any reviews on WordPress, if there are any. But honestly, I can say with full confidence that I’m in the minority in loving WATARU!!! I mean, it’s so simple and superficial with no story; all violations of the arbitrary rules of good literature!!!

But if you are one of my fellow uncultured swine and love the first volume of WATARU!!!, then the second volume is just as good. There’s more insane hijinks and meta-humor than ever. They also introduce a new character named Elphabell. It seems like she could become a yandere in the future, but she’s not even remotely as insane as Best Girl Aria. According to the afterword, WATARU!!! isn’t too successful, which kinda sucks. Light novels can get axed just as easily as manga, so there’s a chance that this could be the end.

Verdict: 9.65.10


The Bloodline Volume 2

“Wait, why’d you use the first volume’s cover as the thumbnail?” you ask. Well, for whatever reason—be it the licensing or the artist being lazy—the cover of the second volume is just a zoom-in of the first cover!

In any case, my feelings for the volume are mixed. The first half is slow and boring, with a lot of uninteresting dialogue. There’s a really contrived development, thanks to Nagi being smooth-brained, and a ridiculously predictable Top Ten Anime Betrayal. The ending of the volume has a clever twist, but… there’s a chance that this is the end of the whole series. BookWalker doesn’t say “Completed” or anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the series is ongoing. I admit I’m curious about what could happen moving forward, but it’s just as likely that it’s over. If it is, then I’ll just say that The Bloodline had some good ideas marred by boring writing.

Verdict: 7.25/10


Konosuba Volume 13

I was concerned about Konosuba slowly falling apart, and honestly, I might be correct. The first half of this volume is almost the same as the first half of volume twelve: more shipping war stuff. As much as I love these characters, their interactions are getting incredibly redundant, and this is coming from someone who loves One Piece. The second half of the volume concerns Wiz, and this guy stalking her. The way it turns out is as silly as you can expect. But at this point, it’s obvious that the endgame plot is looming and it’s just a matter how long the author can beat around the bush leading up to it.

Verdict: 8.25.10


Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?! Volume 8

The first thing you see when you open up this volume is a group of idol moms. Despite how silly that first impression is, this is actually the most emotional volume yet! If you recall from last time, we learned that Porta is the Fourth Heavenly King of the Libere Rebellion. To be honest, it should’ve been obvious, since we’ve strangely never seen her mother.

Fortunately, that gets rectified in this volume! The mastermind behind the whole thing is actually Porta’s mom, who is also one of the key devs behind the game world. Porta feels obligated to join the Libere Rebellion, despite the fact that her mom seems to be a real b****. Ahhhhh, familial bonds!

The theme explored today is independence. In fact, that’s the whole reason behind the Libere Rebellion itself. Porta’s mom hardcore believes in the philosophy of letting the child grow entirely on their own. And as such, we learn of the point that every mom has to deal with: when to let their kids go. Overall, it’s a perfect storm of emotion and humor, making this my favorite volume up to this point. One concern I have, however, is that this is pretty much the end of the Libere Rebellion plot thread, yet the series is confirmed to have three remaining volumes. After the cliffhanger ending, I can’t imagine how it would go beyond a ninth volume.

Verdict: 9.25/10


ROLL OVER AND DIE Volume 2

This volume immediately begins with a discussion between several high-ranking demons, where we get more context for the series’ lore and the purpose of those crazy Uzumaki things. After that, Flum stumbles upon some strange child named Ink, who raises even more intrigue. 

The main conflict of this volume revolves around Dein Phineas being an ass, as well as the church’s latest monstrosity attacking the town. I’m not even going to describe this calamity, but it follows in the last volume’s footsteps by being incredibly effed up and gruesome. The ridiculous part of the scenario is that the church’s evilness is so well known that even the nuns acknowledge it. This series is really ham-fisted on dissing Catholicism, which I’m okay with as an agnostic, but some subtlety would be nice.

Verdict: 9.75/10

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Conclusion

When it comes to light novels, this is definitely a great start to 2021 (*insert pretentious and not-at-all overstated comment about how it’s better than last year even though nothing’s changed here*). Since I’m going to take a month’s hiatus in early March in order to avoid Attack on Titan finale spoilers, I’ll be lumping March and April’s posts into one. Hooray for that!

Wings of Ebony: I Can’t Come up With a Clickbaity Headline because it’s SO DARN GOOD

It takes a lot for me to pick up a YA novel. What compelled me to pick up J. Elle’s Wings of Ebony was not because of the main character being Black, but because the cover looked badass as f***, and the title wasn’t just “Noun of Other Noun and Other Other Noun”. The irony in my saying that is because I JUST SO HAPPENED to have read it during Black History Month, which I swear is a coincidence!

In Wings of Ebony, a girl named Rue is forcibly removed from her family through two methods. 1) Her mother is brutally shot to death, and 2) her dead-beat dad whisks her away to some magic continent, and away from her little sister, Tasha. Rue is—you guessed it—a special snowflake, who has magic genes and is the only Black girl on campus. You can probably imagine how things will play out…

…But you wouldn’t be entirely correct. I don’t normally go over character first, but Rue is what makes Wings of Ebony stand out amongst its massive ilk. She’s more-or-less unbreakable. Now, normally, when you have these YA girls who make like Melissa Bonny and be all “I Am the Storm”, they tend to break out into tears the minute something goes awry; just in time for the love interest to get them back into shape! That’s not the case for Rue, however. Ain’t no mountain high enough, and no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough! She’s fierce, angry, driven, angry, steadfast, ANGRY… Oh, and she loves Tasha. More on Rue later.

Another plus is that Elle knows full-well that we’ve seen this song and dance hundreds of times. As a result, she cuts out all the middlemen. The book opens after Rue’s first year in magic-land, with her having broken out to contact Tasha. Normally, this sequence would just be the first chapter; get us all confused, and then spend the bulk of the first book showing us how she got to her current situation via flashback. But nope, that doesn’t happen either. We get a few flashbacks, they’re all short and exist to introduce specific story beats when necessary. By cutting out all the stupid “high school drama” crap, we get right to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, nothing’s perfect, especially not in a YA novel. There are a fair number of grammatical errors and typos. I know that happens to be best of us, but it felt like there were more than usual. I also noticed at least one instance of an inconsistent character description. The n-word ends up presenting itself a lot, but Rue ends up being the one who uses it the most often.

Minor flaws aside, the writing in Wings of Ebony is some of the best I’ve seen in a YA novel. It’s fast, it’s impactful, and it hurts. It has a lot of the same clichés that most YA novels have, but the prose greatly offsets it. Even the death of some random red shirt has genuine emotional impact.

The characters are also some of the better I’ve seen in YA… at least for the most part. Rue, as discussed earlier, is a legitimately headstrong YA protagonist. At first, I thought she’d be so empowered that it would be pushed to the Nth degree. But don’t worry; she has a couple of breakdowns to show that she’s just a teenage girl. And these are real, necessary breakdowns, not the stupid “Oh my God, this palace is so luxurious! Trash like me doesn’t deserve this crap! Look at me I’m definitely not a self-absorbed brat!” which permeates most YA novels. Rue’s dad, Aasim, is also more than just the “lousy dad who abandons his kid so that kids with divorced parents can relate to the main protagonist”; he ends up being a pretty chill guy once you get to know him.

Unfortunately, that’s about it for the good characters. Most of the others are plot devices. Tasha exists to motivate Rue, some old lady from Rue’s neighborhood exists to hide Tasha, Rue’s wizard friend Bri exists to supply helpful gadgets, etc. The main antagonists are more-or-less your textbook racist White guys, and they don’t get any real characterization nor substance because we all know we’ll automatically hate them because racism.

And speaking of racism, the worldbuilding is perhaps the biggest disappointment. The secret magical continent of the week is called Ghizon, and it’s… there. They’re super racist against regular humans, the reason of which I don’t even recall being addressed. Furthermore, the big “secret history” of the place is extremely predictable through various context clues. I get that a lot of this stuff is meant to be this way for the sake of social commentary, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s been done about eight hundred times before.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Wings of Ebony was a pleasant surprise. Luckily for me, there’s at least one sequel coming up. While I would normally post single reviews of the whole kit and kaboodle for these kinds of series, I think I’m going to take a risk and post a review of Wings of Ebony by itself. I have a feeling that the sequel will be very different, for better or for worse (hopefully, it’s different enough for at least six paragraphs). I recommend this book if you’re a young person who needs empowerment, or to anyone who actually wants to experience a legitimately great YA novel.

P.S. which has spoilers of the ending

Okay, I love this book, but screw Jehmal. Rue knows him for about ten minutes, and yet, she’s practically having sex with him at the end of the book. I hate it when they introduce a character who isn’t a love interest just to make them into a love interest at the last minute because “sex sells”. This is probably going to color my impressions of the sequel by quite a lot.

Kakushigoto First Impressions (Volumes 1-4)

When reading ecchi or hentai manga, sometimes it makes you wonder, “What would the mangaka’s relatives think? Do they even have kids?” Well, that topic is explored quite thoroughly in the manga about a mangaka, Kakushigoto: My Dad’s Secret Ambition, published in English by Kodansha Comics.

In Kakushigoto, a dad by the name of Kakushi Goto (wow, title drop), is a famous mangaka… of hardcore ecchi. The problem is his little daughter, Hime. Will he be able to protect his secret? Or will his princess (literally, because that’s what the word “Hime” means) be scarred for life?

Surprisingly enough, Kakushigoto proved to be a much more confusing read than I thought. For starters, the opening pages of each volume show Hime already having discovered her father’s secret. It took me a while to realize that these are flashforwards, which shows that he’s going to be fighting an uphill battle throughout the manga. Another issue, which is moreso a nitpick, is that the chapters are really short. I’m not someone who understands manga serialization… but according to MyAnimeList, Kakushigoto runs in a monthly magazine, which sounds really counterproductive for something with such short chapters. The third and final quirk with it is that the chapters… weren’t compiled correctly (at least not in the North American release)? At certain points, the chapter count will randomly reset midvolume. The first time this happens is towards the end of volume two, where it says “Volume 2 Issue 1”. The entirety of volume three is still considered volume two which seriously bugged me.

But as far as content is concerned, Kakushigoto certainly has a wild sense of humor. Unlike father-daughter manga such as Yotsuba&!, this one goes a bit more out of left field. In the first volume alone, Kakushi goes bananas over one of his editors wearing a lewd shirt in front of Hime, and he also ends up getting hunted down by Hime and her friends because he saved some cat with a life preserver. 

However, Kakushi’s secret isn’t the only sitcom situation going on in the manga. Kakushi builds a harem of sorts without even realizing it. Because he has a terrible way with words, a number of women think he’s hitting on them. He has no idea that this is happening, and it’s funny to see how they interact with him and each other. 

The manga can also be strangely depressing. The content of this narrative is supposedly based on the author’s real life experiences. It portrays a number of things, like the feeling of not being popular, or the state of the industry itself. Kakushigoto makes fun of this stuff just as often as it’s brutally honest about it. The mangaka also has a lot of rants throughout the volumes as well that go deeper into their psyche.

The characters prove to be surprisingly enjoyable. Kakushi is just a single dad who wants all the best for his little (*cough* marketable *cough*) daughter, and he goes to crazy lengths to be the best dad he can. His co-workers also have lovable personalities. They’re all quirky enough to have substance, but not to the point where they’re not “unrealistic like those battle shounen trash protags”. 

The art may be off-putting to some. Kakishigoto is drawn in a minimalistic, vector-like style. The shading appears to be entirely through a preset tool in Clip Studio, and the proportions are definitely odd. However, the girls are uniquely cute looking (even if they have same-face syndrome), and the characters are surprisingly expressive.

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Current Verdict: 8.25/10

Kakishigoto: My Dad’s Secret Ambition is definitely a different slice-of-life. It’s a weird combination of wholesome and cynical that’s definitely not seen too often. I recommend it if you want a father-daughter slice-of-life that isn’t just “Hey look at my moe blob and buy my stuff!”

Spy X Family First Impressions (Chapters 1-17)

It’s pretty typical for some niche manga to make MyAnimeList’s Top 100. But it’s wild that Spy x Family (published in English by Viz), placed around the halfway point of the manga list in less than a year after its launch. Time for me to board this hype train and see if it’s worth it!

In Spy x Family, a spy named Twilight is among the best in the business. But when his latest mission requires him to marry and have a child, he’s positively flummoxed. His solution is to establish a pretend family, with an orphaned telepathic girl named Anya, and an assassin named Yor Briar.

The thing about Spy x Family is that it’s not a rom-com with spies, but a sitcom with spies. Twilight and Yor don’t know of each other’s professions, nor do they know about Anya’s telepathy. However, Anya does know both of her “parents’” professions due to her mind-reading ability. Normally, I’d cringe at such a dynamic, but the fact that it’s done in a comedic way instead of a romantic way (like in Marissa Meyer’s Renegades) makes it more enjoyable.

And seriously, this manga is enjoyable. Spy x Family’s formula is simple, but it somehow works wonderfully. The comedy is done seriously well, with almost every page making me laugh out loud. But it’s not just a gag manga; there’s an actual overarching story as well.

The main goal of the series is for Twilight to get close to this really important politician named Donovan Desmond, whose son, Damian, is attending a prestigious school called Eden Academy. Twilight’s solution is to have his “daughter” enroll in the school and get close to Damian. But Anya’s kind of a ditz… and getting by in such an elite school is considerably easier said than done.

What makes Spy x Family so great is its cast. Twilight comes off as rugged, but slowly warms up to the fake family that he makes. Yor is, besides being gorgeous, someone who genuinely wants to be a good mom for Anya. She does NOT hesitate to use her skills in public to help her daughter. But the piece de resistance is Best Girl Anya. She looks like one of those typical moe blobs who exist just to be cute, but she’s got a real personality. Since she’s aware of her father’s mission, she actually tries to do a good job for his sake… but ends up getting carried away very often. When this happens, hilarity and genuine adorableness ensue.

There’s a curveball in Yor’s brother, Yuri Briar. He’s a secret service officer, whose mission is to find Twilight. He doesn’t know that his target is pretending to be married to his sister, nor does he know that she’s an assassin. Just more layers onto the cake of secrets.

The art in Spy x Family is very cute and appealing. The characters are very expressive, and their designs are quite memorable. The action scenes also look great for a slice-of-life manga. But most importantly, the panel flow is spot-on, which allows the comedy to fire on all cylinders.

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Current Verdict: 9.75/10

Spy x Family is already one of my favorite comedy manga of all time. In fact, it’s probably the funniest manga I’ve read, more than my previous favorite comedy, Grand Blue Dreaming. Grand Blue’s comedy relies entirely on super visceral, over-the-top facial expressions, but Spy x Family is much more clever than that. I’d recommend Spy x Family to pretty much anyone!