Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

Encanto: Smart House but Cranked up to Eleven

Does anyone remember the one good thing about COVID-19, i.e. when movie studios streamed new movies as an additional option on release? Nowadays, studios are like “Yeah, we can go back to making theaters the only option again”. And guess what, Disney’s Encanto is no exception! As the first animated movie since Moana to have potential future Disney Legend Lin-Manuel Miranda at the helm, risking my life would be more than worth it (albeit a bit inconvenient). 

Encanto begins when the Madrigal family narrowly escapes what I presume to be the Conquistadors. They get saved by a candle, of all things. A candle that creates the enclosed world of Encanto, with a magic house at the center. Over the course of fifty years, every Madrigal is blessed with a gift. And like any media ever with a “gift” system, our main protagonist, Mirabelle Madrigal, gets nothing. And like any media where that happens, it’s the person without a gift who has to save everyone.

Disney movies will always be very predictable, especially since this is their sixtieth animated feature. As soon as you hear Abuela utter the T-shirt-worthy phrase, “Make your family proud”, you know the theme, or rather, themes. Encanto is about family and trauma. Specifically, it’s about how families place burdens on one another because they want to keep things peachy keen.

One of the most interesting aspects of Encanto is its setting. Being enclosed from the rest of the world, the house—La Casita—is where the bulk of the movie takes place. This makes it feel much more compact than most Disney settings I’ve seen. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of Disney magic. La Casita has as many surprises as its personality!

Speaking of personality, the cast is full to bursting with it. Mirabelle is probably one of the best female leads Disney has cooked up. She’s not banging you over the head with feminism (although that was never a Disney issue as much as an issue with Western culture in general), but she shows that she’s a big-hearted girl who loves her family. 

But wait, there’s more! Mirabelle’s family is… big to say the least. Each person, from Best Girl Luise, to drop-dead gorgeous Isabel, have fully realized character designs and flaws. Bruno is likely my favorite character, what with his tragic backstory and quirky personality. Abuela is kind of a weak spot, being a traditional bad Disney parent like Miguel’s grandma in Coco. But you know what, at least Abuela had a more tangible reason to be dense! Hang on, did I say Bruno was the best character? No, that’d be La Casita; the house, like a loyal animal companion, is the only one to actually stand by Mirabelle from start to finish (okay, technically Antonio did too, but he’s not a magic house).

Of course, what always separates Disney from what I’d call the “superficial at best” mainstream is how much stock they actually put in to bring their stuff to life. As expected, every aspect of the movie is intricately well thought out, down to every particle. Also, they once again manage to perfectly border photorealism without ever entering an uncanny valley. 

Last but not least is the one thing I was looking forward to the most in Encanto: the soundtrack. Between Hamilton, Moana, and Mary Poppins Returns, master maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t only crafted top quality numbers, but a high quantity as well. Sadly, Encanto has a whopping not many songs. What’s there is top-notch stuff, but as of writing this review (mere minutes after seeing the movie), I already have withdrawal! Next Lin-Manuel Miranda movie when?

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

Honestly, I don’t remember having been so captivated by an iteration of the traditional Disney formula in quite some time, but that could also be because the last two years have felt like a lifetime. Encanto is a masterpiece of Latinx culture, introspection, and most of all… family! I highly recommend it to any Disney fan, and to anyone who wants a brief respite from the depressant that is being alive during a pandemic.

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!

Monster Girl Doctor Overview (Volumes 1-3)

The monster girl genre of manga has a lot of inherent appeal. They have the same ecchi content that people… er… enjoy, while also giving the girls extra appendages to… do stuff with. Interspecies Reviewers is one of the best in this category. But there’s also stuff like Monster Musume, Yokai Girls, or today’s topic, Monster Girl Doctor, published in English by Seven Seas.

In Monster Girl Doctor, a young lad named Glenn Litbeit is a doctor for monsters. He, along with his assistant and childhood friend, a lamia named Saphentite Neikes, will stop at nothing to cure their patients. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Being a doctor means having to touch certain… areas of other people. And legal or not, the novel wastes no time getting into that ecchi territory. The series opens with him groping a female patient. Plus, Saphentite (who will be henceforth referred to as Sapphee) does not hesitate to wrap her entire snake body around both Glenn and patients alike (and the same goes for their octopus mom of a teacher). Additionally, a lot of Glenn’s patients make… certain noises when he examines them.

Moral values aside, Monster Girl Doctor has some issues. While the writing is just FINE AND DANDY at describing women’s curves, skin colors, and beauty, I couldn’t get a visual on anything else. The city that the story is set in, Lindworm, is apparently a bustling metropolis with a load of districts for different monster races. But for some reason, I never had a good sense of scale.

If you couldn’t tell, this is another no-stakes slice-of-life fantasy. I’ll admit that it does try its darndest to have stakes, but it’s just too hunky-dorey. Even when the story ramps up a lot in volume three, it’s still the same basic formula of “save the waifus”. 

Also, here’s a surprise: I wasn’t a big fan of the characters (well, I suppose it would be a surprise if you aren’t too familiar with my blog)! Glenn is- like any ecchi male protagonist- very generic and unremarkable. Being a doctor makes him a perfect Prince Charming who helps all sorts of waifus. His various patients are… eeeeh. Just like he’s the perfect Prince Charming, they’re the perfect damsels in distress. They’re typical, cute but tortured girls who exist to have people grow emotionally attached to them after hearing their tragic backstories and cry buckets of joy when Glenn saves them. Even if they aren’t written out of the series after he helps them, I still didn’t enjoy them as characters. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s Sapphee. She gets jealous very easily, making her a sort of yandere character. Since she’s Glenn’s assistant, she’s an actual character instead of a waifu to save. 

The art of Monster Girl Doctor is pretty darn good. There isn’t much in terms of backgrounds, but that’s okay, because it makes all the cute monster girls stand out. There’s also plenty of ecchi goodness on each of the illustrations, like when Sapphee sticks her snake tail into a patient’s mouth.

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Verdict: 7/10

Monster Girl Doctor is a good series, but time and money are vital these days, and “good” doesn’t cut it. When it comes to light novels, anything less than an 8/10 is a risk of wasting money, and anything less than a 7/10 IS a waste of money. But regardless of how I feel, the cuteness of the monster girls, as well as how savable they are, will likely make the anime a big hit during its broadcast. Read it if it strikes your fancy.