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)!

Disney’s Frog Isekai: Amphibia Season 1 Review

If you’re reading this, then that means I’ve decided to get a bit experimental with my blog. While I would normally review a TV show in its entirety, I decided to review Disney’s Amphibia (created by Matt Braly) season by season. Having already caught up to season two (which was still airing while writing this), I realized how different the show was after season one. So, yeah, let’s hope season three ends up being a drastic tone shift or this idea will end up sucking hardcore.

Amphibia doesn’t beat around the bush, as it starts with its main protagonist, Anne Boonchuy, already in the titular other world, specifically in the town of Wartwood. She runs into a little frog boy named Sprig, and they hit it off pretty quickly. Anne wants to go back home, but instead of trying to haul ass out of there, she kinda just hangs out in Wartwood (hey, another isekai tradition!).

What immediately jumps out (no pun intended) about this isekai is its setting. For starters, almost every animal, from cows to birds, is either a bug or a worm of some kind. Amphibia uses a crap-ton of yellow, blue, and green in its aesthetic that is very appealing. Although the opening sequence shows a massive, lilypad-shaped world, this season is mostly confined to Wartwood. It would be a nice town, except that it’s intentionally not a nice town. The motto is, literally, “Slow to accept, even slower to respect.”

In terms of story, Amphibia operates like most modern cartoons. It starts off with a series of episodic stories, the conflicts of which have absolutely no prior context or foreshadowing, and teaches us an assortment of valuable, American life lessons. As with most shows of its kind, this first season gets us acquainted with the main cast through these Saturday morning cartoon antics. Many of these episodes are extremely predictable if you have experience with this kind of show, and having to see these needless conflicts unfold is about as truly cringe-worthy as any other cartoon.

The biggest hurdle in this season is the cast of the show. I know that no character should be flawless, but the level of smooth-brain in modern cartoon characters makes Patrick Star look like a genius (without the need for brain coral). Anne is perhaps one of my least favorite cartoon protagonists ever. Not only does she continuously make poor judgements regardless of how many lessons she learns, she also loves trashy TV shows, reads clickbaity headlines, and even dabs! DABS! Oh, and a small trigger warning for some people: she hates pineapple pizza. Sprig, on the other hand, is just about as bad (minus the pineapple pizza thing), except he’s a frog. 

At the very least, Polly and Hop Pop end up being the best of the main group. The former is just a tadpole, but she’s a fierce and furious young’un who somehow ends up being the voice of reason. And when Polly’s not the voice of reason, Hop Pop is. He’s your typical “old fart”, but he very much cares for his family. And similar to a certain Grunkle in another show, he’s got some plot-twisting secrets stuffed up his booty. Despite being more tolerable, Hop Pop and Polly end up having their smooth-brain moments because EVERYONE NEEDS TO LEARN THEM ‘MERICAN VALUES!

Similar to Gravity Falls, the locals of Wartwood are quite likeable (even if the town’s slogan says otherwise). From Wally the village weirdo, to the guy who grows tulips, the little stinkhole is full of colorful characters. Even the lousy mayor, Toadstool, ends up being pretty entertaining in a weird way.

As you can expect, the plot decides to kick in for the season finale. It’s not THAT amazing, but it is a good precedent for the stuff that’s to follow. The only weird part about it is what feels like a very out-of-place use of ‘Lean on Me’. But hey, maybe it was meant to be unfitting on purpose.

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Verdict: 7.65/10

Like many-a cartoon, the first season of Amphibia lays the groundwork, and gets you ready for next season with a tone-changing finale. You have to get through a lot of episodic hijinks that you have probably seen before, and since it does the “two short episodes” formula, it’ll feel twice as long even though the season is forgivingly short. From what I’ve seen in the next season, I think it’s worth it… provided you actually enjoy childrens’ cartoons as an adult.

Raya and the Last Dragon: Disney’s Equivalent of Dr. Stone

If anything good came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that movie studios have started streaming premieres. And one quarter into 2021,with the vaccine still underway (which is totally necessary and definitely not a moneymaking scheme), it looks like they’re going to keep at it. At least Disney is, because Raya and the Last Dragon IS STREAMING ON DISNEY+ WITH PREMIER ACCESS AND I GOT TO WATCH IT AT FIVE IN THE MORNING! Let’s effing GO with this review!

In Raya and the Last Dragon, we are taken to the formerly great realm of Kumandra. There was a big plague called the coronav—I mean—the Droon, which turned people to stone. When the titular last dragon, Shisudato, used some gem thing to imprison the Droon, people went batshit crazy over it, and divided Kumandra. When the Droon is unleashed once more (because of course it would be), Raya has to find the last dragon and fix the MacGuffin.

Since the turn of the 21st Century, Disney has had a track record of making several movies that adhere to their traditional “movie musical” formula, then breaking it up with something darker, more violent, and with no singing. Raya is the latest in the latter part of the equation. The world here is effed up beyond belief. Everywhere she goes, there’s strife and discourse. 

It’s also cynical, very cynical. Raya, narrating the opening exposition, straight-up says that the fighting over the gem started because of “people being people”, as if humans are born evil (instead of being influenced by lousy parents and the media). There’s a load of Top Ten Anime Betrayals, just to shape what a hopeless mess everything is.

As I said before, Raya is also quite violent. There’s martial arts, swordfighting, and more throughout the movie. But compared to Atlantis and Treasure Planet, Raya is perhaps one of the most anime Disney movies ever; probably more than Big Hero 6. There’s crazy jump-cuts, parkour, and a sword that’s also a grappling hook. 

Anyway, since American cinema just HAS to be influenced by its social climate, Raya is more about racism than the coronav—I mean—the Droon. Sure, the actual source of the conflict, in the context of the movie, is greed or whatever, but that’s just what you call “subtlety”. Throughout the movie, there’s a consistent theme of “Hey maybe if we just shut up and talk to each other”, which Raya ignores, and resorts to violence instead. It’s a symbolic, hopeful message that more-or-less applies to every problem that humanity has had with itself. But of course, considering what happened last year (and the fact that constantly talking about the issue of racism is why it’s still ongoing), even Disney should know that it’s not THAT simple. 

But of course, it’s a Disney movie. Even their darker animated features adhere to the usual traditions to an extent. If you have experience with their filmography, then you know how Raya will turn out, start to finish. It tries to be grimdark, but it still has the marketable mascot, along with explosive diarrhea beetles and kung-fu babies. Also, there’s still humor, even though it’s all dark and stuff.

Keeping all that in mind… I’m just gonna be frank: I LOVE THIS MOVIE. It goes completely off the rails in every way. There is personality injected into every single shot. Honestly, it’s redundant having to keep reiterating Disney’s unique attention to detail when it comes to animation. I’m just going to put that paragraph here, since I’m sick of making a separate one for it. Anyway, the movie is gorgeous yadda-yadda, it’s Disney.

Normally, I resent most of the characters in anything, but not this time (what a surprise!). Raya herself is a fierce, but still relatable, young girl who fits almost too perfectly with the current month (Disney, are you being P.C.?). She has a real arc where she’s all like, “Distrust and violence will never end bleeeeeeh”, and inevitably has to learn how life actually works (and by “life”, I mean that sentimental crap that’s in those hopelessly optimistic self-help books that aren’t The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (which you should buy because it’s really good)).

Raya finds Shisu very early on, and good thing, since Shisu is Best Girl. She has a lot of the funnier lines in the movie, and is a hopeless optimist who clashes with Raya’s mindset. The two also gain a number of really lovable allies,of wildly varying age ranges. I kinda don’t want to talk about any of them, just so you can experience them for yourself. Unfortunately, the weakest character in the movie is the mascot, Tuk Tuk. Eff that thing. Disney, just stop making these, please. You already reached the zenith of mascot with Hei-Hei from Moana; there’s no point in making any more!

Last, but definitely not least, is Nemari, with her Cammie Gilbert hairdo. Disney movies might have abandoned villains, but they haven’t abandoned antagonists. Like a lot of characters in the movie, Nemari loves her people and wants to protect them from the Droon. She’s just about as much of a badass as Raya is. But sadly, her character arc is quite predictable, if you have experience.

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Final Verdict: 9.1/10

Raya and the Last Dragon is a really great movie. It has definitely and absolutely dethroned Atlantis: The Lost Empire as my favorite of the darker variations of Disney animated features. It might go over your young ‘uns heads, but since this generation is being forced to become adults overnight (thanks COVID), Raya will probably help them with that transition instead. It goes without saying that any diehard Disney fans should watch it, just for the sake of completion (and the fact that it’s a banger of a film). 

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.

A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem: A Criminally Underrated Trilogy

American history can be one of the most boring subjects in school. If only there was a more fun way to learn about it, specifically about America in the late 19th Century. While not ENTIRELY accurate, Christopher Healy’s A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem series is perhaps one of the best historical fictions ever.

A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem stars Molly and Cassandra Pepper; a rare daughter and mother pair (respectively). Cassandra’s aspiring to be an inventor, and submit a machine to the 1883 World’s Fair. But you know, sexism, so… she’s SOL. When she and Molly break into the venue to sabotage a competitor’s machine, they discover a Dastardly Plot (book 1 title drop) to take over the world!

The story is incredibly simple. A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem is more-or-less an episodic trilogy where Molly and Co. go on adventures to stop the Saturday morning cartoon villain. There’s no real depth, but unlike those cerebral critics, I’m fine with that. Children’s media has evolved to where people aren’t afraid to expose them to horrific things, from sexual assault to racism to PTSD to the Holocaust, etc. But seriously, sometimes we just need to be entertained, especially since this generation is being exposed to social media, allowing news networks to beat all the despair in the world into their innocent little skulls. 

What brings this series to life is the amazing writing. The descriptions are vivid, and it’s so freaking funny. I don’t think I’ve ever LOL’d so consistently in a kids’ book series ever in my life! The pacing is also lightning quick, with sequences that would normally mark the end of an installment happening less than halfway through instead. Most importantly, the humor is absolutely on fire. But if you don’t like sarcastic comments, you might not enjoy this one.

The characters are also some of the best I’ve seen in Western fiction. Molly and Cassandra have great chemistry together, instead of the mom normally holding the kid back. The male lead is Emmet Lee, and since this is an inventor-themed series, I had to picture him as my boy Senku from Dr. Stone. Healy could’ve made real torture porn out of him, because he’s a Chinese-American living in a country that would ban Chinese immigrants at that point in history, but thankfully he didn’t. The biggest issue with the cast overall is that they sort of have the same delivery when it comes to comedy, despite all being different people…

…Well, except for my favorite character, Robot. Due to story events, an automaton made by Bell ends up gaining sentience, and Molly adopts it and names it Robot. He delivers some of the best lines in the entire series, in that robotic deadpan manner. And by the way, I can’t actually discuss the main antagonist, since they’re identity is a spoiler for book one. Just know that they’re the silly, mad-scientist-type villain.

If there are any real issues, it’s that there are snippets of that Disney-movie-trope of character-drama-that-you-know-will-inevitably-resolve-itself-because-it’s-too-light-hearted-to-not-do-so. Every instance is very short-lived, making it feel like the author put them in as a formality. Regardless, as the reader, you can choose to blitz through that crap and get back to the good stuff in a jiffy. There’s also kind of a bad case of virtue signaling, specifically with Feminism. I wouldn’t normally bring it up, but the difference here is that the story is good enough to not need to rely on the “Secret Club of Empowered Female Historical Figures.”

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Final Verdict: 9.45/10

I know that this is a really short review given that I covered an entire trilogy of books, but like I said before, A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem is a clear-cut, silly little ride. It’s absolutely fantastic (and most importantly, not pretentious… for the most part), and I loved it to the bitter end. I recommend it if you are uncultured enough to want to have fun.

Soul: Pixar’s Most Existential Film

I’m not one of those vocal people who thinks things like “2020 is the year of suffering” because of the media’s scare tactics regarding COVID-19, and their ability to withhold anything legitimately positive. Despite me knowing the actual facts about COVID, it was hard on me as well. Even as someone who’s not active on social media, I am around a number of people who are, and they happen to only focus on one side of the story. So yeah, I’ve broken into tears at least once a week all year. Overly long preface aside, Pixar decided to give us a Christmas present: Soul. I didn’t know what it was about, but I had to see it.

Mild spoilers in this paragraph, if you have no idea what the movie is about. In Soul, a man named Joe Gardner dreams of playing jazz with the big boys—wait, wrong movie—some lady named Dorthea Williams. He manages to land a gig, but dies on the way over to the venue. Now that he’s in purgatory, he’s gotta find a way back into his body. And his only ticket is in a literal wayward soul named Twenty-Two, who wants nothing to do with life.

Boy, this movie is sure… something else. First off, it’s definitely a twist for Disney to have a movie about one of its many, many, MANY deceased characters instead of someone who’s, well, alive. It’s kind of hilarious, actually. In any case, Pixar’s interpretation of the afterworld is more than just a world of never ending happiness where the sun shines both day and night; it’s that usual Pixar sense of imagination. Also, this movie shows just how much more lenient we’ve become with cursing in front of kids. They say the words “hell” and “crap”, which were more than enough to earn you a trip to the former back when I was a kid. Well, Disney was also the first to depict a clergyman and humanity itself in villainous roles in animated media, so… yeah.

Soul has your usual Pixar magic in terms of the storytelling. It knows how to bounce between being hilarious and emotional without feeling inorganic. This one knows how to hammer in the feels, but it gets bizarrely terrifying at times. It’s not outright horror; think along the lines of one of those psychological indie games like Arise: A Simple Story

Like any Disney or Pixar movie, Soul is definitely not new in terms of social commentary. Not to spoil it, but the takeaway is definitely something you’ve seen before, unless you’re literally the target demographic of the movie and have never seen it before. Once again, it’s something that anyone can relate to. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we HAVE to go to work and pay our bills, Soul‘s message will probably be forgotten as easily as the other times the message has been communicated.

The characters are some of the better in Pixar’s filmography. Joe Gardner is an interesting case, not just because he dies, but because he’s the oldest lead protagonist I’ve seen in a Disney animated feature. Given the nature of the movie, his journey is a bit more spiritual than most Disney flicks; definitely keeping up the trend of abandoning the tired “good vs. evil” themes of their past. As you can expect, his father is dead. Big surprise for Disney. But honestly, I feel like this is the first time a Disney parent’s death actually meant something to the plot since Bambi. That’s something at least.

Other than Joe, we have the aforementioned Twenty-Two, who’s the sarcastic and rambunctious type. She and Joe end up learning the same life lesson through each other. Running purgatory is/are a bizarre being named Jerry, along with what serves as the main antagonist: Terry. They’re pretty deadpan, but have some of the better lines in the movie. 

I shouldn’t even bother discussing visuals because Pixar pretty much always nails it. Soul is simply stunning, as good at looking both photorealistic and undeniably cartoony as any Pixar film. The movie does, at least, showcase some of the most abstract and experimental visuals I’ve seen in their entire career. Soul honestly feels like a Pixar short but as a feature film instead. I’d say that they did a great job considering COVID separated the whole team, but this movie was probably in post production since 2018.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Soul is one of the best Pixar movies I’ve ever seen. Everything about it is impeccably executed, and is definitely what the doctor ordered for this year. I recommend Soul if you want a straight-up great movie, especially if you’re a Disney fan.

And P.S.: Disney, can you please do the whole “release movies on Disney+ the same day they would’ve come out in theatres” more often, maybe forever?

A True Isekai Pioneer: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Novel Review

I don’t know what compelled me to do this. Isekai is one of my favorite genres (even though 99% of them are ass), so it only made sense for me to read a classic isekai: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I recall watching the movie in a film class. All I remember is that Judy Garland is adorable, and that the movie itself is incredibly lackluster with the exception of the [aged] technical effects. The books (yes, books. There are fourteen Oz books actually) are sure to have much more substance, right? After all; the book is better than the film.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a girl named Dorothy is just chilling at her rinky-dink home in Kansas when a CYCLONE LIFTS HER HOUSE. She is abnormally calm during the situation and falls asleep while still in the eye of the storm. Dorothy (with dog, Toto) wakes up in Oz, where she is praised for having murdered the Wicked Witch of the East with her house. In order to get home, she must find the titular Wizard of Oz.

Thanks to this, I finally know where most modern Japanese isekai get their lack of depth. The writing in this book is as archaic as the time period. We get the bare minimum description of anything, and no sense of scale for any architecture in this world (also, get used to some unexpected usage of the word “queer”). There is next to no worldbuilding; stuff is just there for the sake of being there. Also, Dorothy has plot armor out of her ass thanks to a kiss from the Witch of the North. It’s sad that a lot of literature has not evolved since the turn of the 20th Century.

At the very least, the book has momentum. It doesn’t waste any words, and scenes that would normally take ten years to read in a modern isekai can be completed in minutes. The Witch of the North would be an exposition dump character, but thankfully, she only tells Dorothy what’s actually RELEVANT to the plot at the current moment. 

Unfortunately, the original source novel wasn’t as dark as I thought it would be. Normally, I don’t really care for super cynical stuff, but given the time period, I figured that the story would be really dark. But other than a few isolated scenes, such as the Tin Woodman’s backstory, it’s just about as lackadaisical as the movie. Oh, and in case you’re a fan of the movie, literally NONE of the famous lines are in the original. No “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” no “Lions and tigers and bears”; not even the cultic chant that the Witch of the West’s guards use when patrolling.

Furthermore, I did not like the cast of the book at all (surprise, surprise). They were not just boring but inconsistent. The worst of them is the Tin Woodman, who acts like he can’t kill anything but doesn’t hesitate to create an admittedly gorey mound of wolf corpses. And before you argue “Um people were super religious then and they didn’t really think animals have souls because God gave man dominion over animal”, just keep in mind that Mr. Woodman cries when accidentally stepping on a beetle. A beetle. 

And holy heck, this is apparently where the “real treasure was the friends we made along the way” trope came from, because these characters are about as brainless as the Scarecrow. They all want these specific traits, but they end up already possessing said traits. Normally, this would be meant for an epiphany at the end, but it doesn’t turn out that way (it’s actually kind of weird what happens). I feel like Baum didn’t put any more thought into this than a typical crappy Japanese isekai author. 

Another issue lies not just in the content of the story, but the publication. I got the 100th Anniversary edition, with gold pages, which made me think “This should be really well presented.” Wrong! This edition displays a large assortment of… uh… illustrations, but their placement is all wrong. Sometimes, you’ll see one before the actual depicted scene happens. But more often than not, they’ll SUPERIMPOSE TEXT over them. Who in their right mind thought this would be a good tribute to Baum’s legacy?!

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Final Verdict: 6.75/10

Call me an uncultured swine, but I didn’t find The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be all that wonderful. No worldbuilding, no consistency, no visual descriptions, flat dialogue… this might’ve been groundbreaking at the time, but things have changed in 120-odd years. While some classics, like Dracula, age pretty well, this one has not, and I hate it when people act like all literary classics are still objectively great even by modern standards. 

However, I am at least curious as to what the rest of the series has to offer. Each installment seems to be pretty self-contained, so I hope to possibly review all fourteen books over a long course of time. I imagine that they get more and more effed up (the cover of the final book has people on fire in the background), and it might be fascinating to see. But as far as recommendations for the original classic are concerned… I’d hold off on it. There are better things out there, with better writing.

The Storm Runner Trilogy: Percy Jackson but with Mayan Folklore

The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.

The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff. 

Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.

This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me. 

The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.

Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.  

Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!” 

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Final Verdict: 7/10

I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).

The Adventurers Guild Trilogy: Social Commentary for Kids!

Sometimes, the title of a series is so generic and unremarkable that I almost feel like it’s a red herring. I ask myself, “It’s trying so hard to look boring, but does that mean it’s actually legitimately good?” That’s a gambit that I hoped would pay off when I read through The Adventurers Guild series, written by Zack Loran Clark and Nicolas Eliopulous.

A half-elf boy named Zed and a typical human named Brock are ready to join one of Freestone’s many Guilds. They are picked for the Mages and Merchants Guilds respectively; however, this series isn’t titled The Adventurers Guild for nothing. Alasabel Frond, the leader of the titular Guild, yoinks them right out of their respective Guilds and drafts them into the Adventurers Guild. Now they have to protect the world from monsters known as Dangers, and like true warriors, they get nothing for it!

The Adventurers Guild isn’t quite as generic as it looks (key words: “quite as”, but we’ll get to that later). They at least put some good effort into the magic system. Each element is tied to a specific spiritual plane (or something), and they all have a signature that Zed can detect. The writers also pull no punches when it comes to the Dangers’ designs; get used to tentacles coming out of faces and other areas. The prose is also all-around great, but V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic taught me that good writing and good storytelling are two completely different talents. 

A lot of things irked me about The Adventurers Guild. One is that—like every modern fantasy and its grandma—there’s social commentary on a lot of bad -isms in society (none of which are commercialism). In addition to my problem with how heavy-handed it gets, The Adventurers Guild makes it unrealistic. And while I normally don’t mind a lack of realism, this case isn’t merely “Ooooh, magic! What is physics again?”; it’s a clash with the human mind itself. 

You’d think that people’d get their sh** together to fight a one-dimensional evil alien threat to the whole species. And yet, the bad -isms are still in effect in the world of The Adventurers Guild! Every authority figure in Freestone tries to get Frond arrested because of sexism. And when a group of elves seeks refuge at the start of the second book, they’re treated with unconditional racism. It felt so arbitrary, that the bad -isms were only there for the sake of bad -isms. I’ll acknowledge that the hatred against Zed is justified to an extent. A half-elf warlock is what caused the Dangers in the first place, giving the whole race a bad rep. But that doesn’t excuse the cases of sexism or anything else, really. 

Alright, alright. For the sake of argument, let’s just take the bad -isms at face value: a conflict in the story that needs to be resolved. But what is there to talk about? The thing with The Adventurers Guild is that beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting. Dangers are out there, go kill ‘em. That’s really it. 

But it damn well tries to be different, that’s for sure. It succeeds to an extent in the two main characters, Zed and Brock. These two both have secrets that they keep from each other, and it’s all “Ooooooh” and stuff. Unfortunately, they have very plastic and flat personalities. The rest of the characters… are just as flat. They’re relatable, which—if you’re not anal about writing—would make them super-duper amazing and lovable. But besides the occasional dumb “kid-like” interactions they have with each during their down time, a lot of their dialgoue feels forced. For someone like me, who has grown to love narcissists like Senku from Dr. Stone, I couldn’t care less about the cast of The Adventurers Guild. I had to do ridiculous things like picturing a character as Lord Don’ator to not fall asleep! The third book does introduce a pretty witty new character, who exists for sarcastic comments, and shows up too late to offset everyone else. 

And speaking of the third book, let’s talk about it in the least spoilery way possible. Remember when I said “beyond the social commentaries, the main plot really isn’t that interesting”? Well, that shows. Night of Dangers completely does away with social undertones and becomes a tedious slog that’s just as cliché as anything else, despite how the trilogy desperately tried to avoid it. The only saving grace is the admittedly enjoyable climax, but saying that it offsets everything else is a stretch. One character even deflects from the main issue super intentionally and it’s never explained why. 

Speaking of intentionally, that word is everything wrong with The Adventurers Guild. Virtually none of it felt natural; each story beat was 110% deliberate. As much as having a plan for the narrative is good (in fact, it’s essential), you can’t plan literally everything. You need to have a stream of consciousness effect when writing, which allows some aspects of the story to tell themselves. And if you end up needing to pull something out of your ass, go back and edit earlier parts so that it has proper context. I can’t describe exactly why, but I just felt in my writer-brain that this whole series was… wrong.

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Final Verdict: 6/10

The Adventurers Guild tried a lot of things, and it all felt flat to me. In the end, I have no idea what the takeaway of this series is. Is it that racism is bad, or that you shouldn’t keep secrets? Whatever it is, there’s definitely something out there that’s conveyed it better. While this isn’t the worst series on the market, it is still just about as bland as its name implies.

When Rock Bands Got Angsty: A Musical Trip Through the Childhood I Never Had

I have made it clear before, but in case you’re new to this blog, I’ll make it clear again: I grew up with classic rock. Nothing else was necessary, and there were some legitimate reasons. First off, the first ever music I heard was from Journey, which kind of feeds into the whole “you’ll pretty much be biased towards media similar to the first ever media you consume” mindset (but in my defense, I’m actually not a particularly big Journey fan these days). The second and third reasons boil down to the same source: the student body of my middle and high schools. I hated them all, which is a typical thing for teens to go through. But I was also socially awkward, so I never joined their brooding circles or whatever. As a result, I missed a lot of the bands that came up at the time (plus, I would have a fear of metal music until I heard Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on a classic rock radio station and had my life changed forever). I was SO edgy, hip, and against the status quo, that I reveled in being an outcast by listening to something that probably doesn’t get many new, young fans these days: the aforementioned classic rock. I continued to reject 2000s music until Japanese music further changed my life by showing me that current music can be good. As a result, I steeled my resolve and used the power of Apple Music to take a trip back to the 1990s and early 2000s, and see what bands I would’ve listened to if it weren’t for my sheltered childhood. Results… varied. Just so it’s not about “me-me-me”, this post will serve as a basic rundown of five bands, in case you never heard of them or were considering giving them a try.


Attempt #1: Slipknot

“Wait, what are you hashtagging the number one for?” you ask. Well, you young’un, the hashtag symbol used to be a symbol that meant “number”, hence “#1” in the example. ANYWAY, the first band I tried was Slipknot. They’re incredibly popular, but being the degenerate I am, I only knew of them thanks to a line in Hotel Transylvania that actually made me scared of them for years. From what I’ve heard so far, it seems obvious that this band helped pioneer the new “edgelord” culture. According to the Apple Music bio, they invented a new metal genre, creatively named “nu metal” (SUCH EDGY MISSPELLING), which seems to be just regular metal but with angstier, on-the-nose lyrics about all the tortured thoughts and experiences teens go through.

If you’re new to this blog, I’ll make it clear that I always have a problem with teen angst, at least in the way it’s portrayed here in the U.S. I get that metal was formed out of anger, but that was… well… a more mature anger I guess? But in the case of Slipknot, it felt like they were a bunch of frat boys instead of grown men. I wasn’t really into them until their third album, which I’ll admit had some very good and varied music composition in it.

But the key words are “music composition”. The lyrics grow angstier and angstier. I get that a lot of teens can relate to the lyrics, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t written in “angst-enese” in such a way that makes me cringe. If you wrote out the lyrics of any Slipknot song, 99/100 times it’d look like a passage in a YA novel, and in case you’re new to this blog… I don’t exactly like YA novels!

To top it off, lead vocalist Corey Taylor has an extremely one-dimensional personality in his singing. He’s not bad… he’s just not good. When it comes to vocalists, little nuances in their delivery make all the difference. From iconic things like David Lee Roth’s weird banshee screams, to minute things like Dee Snider’s evil snicker before the first chorus of Burn in Hell, the devil is in the details, and Taylor seems to disregard that. His vocal range is either “brooding teen” or “screaming brooding teen”. Taylor does try stuff, such as ragged breathing and practically making out with his mic at times, but it hasn’t really gotten to me. It took me until very recently to discover why I don’t like his singing: he feels too human. When it comes to my favorite singers, there’s a distinct feeling of “This is an actual person singing this?” Instead, Taylor comes off as “This is an actual person singing this.” (notice the lack of a question mark?). Maybe that’s what he was going for? Anyway, I’m currently halfway through Slipknot’s discography, and in the process of going back through those albums to see if the band grows on me. If you can convince me that Corey Taylor is a really good singer, then I could probably give the band less flack.


Attempt #2: Disturbed

I don’t even remember how I know they exist. But thank goodness I do, because I’m finding Disturbed to be a huge improvement over Slipknot. They have the same angst in their lyrics, but everything else feels… better for some reason. One big factor is lead vocalist David Draiman. While he’s not top-dollar, he at least has some form of identity with what I can only describe as “his impression of Link from Legend of Zelda” that he frequently does in between lines of lyrics.

The thing that got me most interested in Disturbed was their covers. They do some pretty thoughtful remixes of some stuff well outside their genre, such as Tears for Fears’ Shout. These covers are great, and they help Disturbed to stand out from other metal bands.

Unfortunately, Disturbed seems to have trouble standing out from themselves. I get that not every song can be perfect, but a lot of them have kind of been samey thus far. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but the way Draiman sings verses specifically sounds similar across a lot of their songs. But hey, if that’s the biggest issue I have, then that’s not too bad, especially compared to Slipknot! At the current rate, I’m bound to become a dedicated Disturbed fan.


Attempt #3: Dream Theater

I considered not counting them for this post, because they started in the late 1980s. However, they didn’t gain traction until the 1990s, which I judged would’ve put them just within range of my being exposed to them while I was in high school. Also, if I didn’t count them I’d only have four bands on this post and it had to be three or a multiple of five because I have OCD.

I only know of this band thanks to one of my favorite YouTubers, NintendoCaprisun. In one video (an episode of Secret of Evermore I think?), he discussed listening to this band, Dream Theater, and he said “it sounded like Rush”. When I was a teen, Rush was the first band I consciously decided to get into, and they were one of my favorites. And yeah… they do sound like Rush.

If you want fantastic prog-metal, Dream Theater’s got you covered. Their songs vary wildly in melody, tone, and lyrics and incorporate synth as well. However, my one concern is that while they are a prog band, they aren’t exactly a prog band. I get that there’s only so much a human mind can create, but prog rock- by definition- has to keep pushing the envelope, and that technically applies to the genre itself. Of course, I’m only at Dream Theater’s earliest albums, so that could change. But for the time being, even “faux-prog” is better than most of the crap that’s popular these days, and as such, I fully intend to become a Dream Theater fan… once I catch up to their umpteenth album.


Attempt #4: DragonForce

This was the first band I had never actually heard of until they came up on my Apple Music feed. Yes, the rock I live under is so heavy that I didn’t even know about the “Through the Fire and Flames Band”, nor Through the Fire and Flames itself. I only came across the song during TheRunawayguys Colosseum events, where The8BitDrummer would drum the song… just for the VOD to get muted. Because his other favorite songs were very… memey, I thought Through the Fire and Flames was the same case. But ‘lo and behold, as if it were destiny, I discovered DragonForce.

And boy, what a discovery! In a nutshell, DragonForce has an inspirational, heart-pumping, get-your-ass-out-of-bed mood reminiscent of Survivor, but with a touch of metal. Very fast metal. Part of me even thought that they sped this stuff up in post, but I’ve heard enough talent to know that humans are more than capable of playing like that (also, you know, the fact that The8BitDrummer did just that on a livestream). I can’t help but thump the floor with my feet (since I mainly listen to music sitting down these days) to their psychotically fast rhythms. Plus, their whimsical, positive lyrics, coupled with the members’ choir-like harmonies make any song from them feel like perfect background music for an epic, large-scale fantasy battle.

Of course, such a specific style is going to get repetitive; there’s only so many combinations of chords for this (and tbh the final chorus of every other song is done in a capella). While I’m definitely not complaining about hearing such ridiculous metal, I highly advise against binging their albums. With that in mind, I am finding DragonForce to be my favorite of the bands covered in this post. While some of the others might be more creative, this band has such a fresh identity that they earn a lot of points from me (also the fact that my favorite is the least popular of these five is consistent with my reputation).


Attempt #5: Evanescence

Okay, here’s a confession. I only picked this band for two reasons: one, to make sure this post had a clean five subjects, and two, to share the story of how I discovered Evanescence. Why should you care about how I found this band? Well, because it will likely make you cringe at me. Yes, it’s actually a worse discovery story than learning of Slipknot through Hotel Transylvania.

Earlier this year, around the time that the coronavirus was just starting to spread- before people went crazy over it- there was some sort of collaborative effort with Evanescence and one of my favorite Japanese bands, Wagakki Band (which, for some reason, hasn’t gotten that much publicity despite this event. Good job Japan; you REALLY commit to not promoting your musicians!). I don’t know what happened to that whole thing, but yeah, I learned of one of the most popular metal bands of the 21st Century via a significantly less popular band, when it would’ve been the other way around for literally anyone else in the world.

Assuming you didn’t click off this post, I’ll actually get to my reaction to Evanescence itself. I’m gonna come off as a hypocrite right here, because Evanescence is similar to Slipknot in a way. In YA terms, Slipknot is the brash, loud, and reckless male protagonist, while Evanescence is the snotty, depressed-yet-entitled female protagonist. In fact, Evanescence is so teenager-y, that I initially mistook them as the band that was hired to do the RWBY openings (cringing yet?).

But for some reason, I don’t want to have a cow over this band. The music is angsty, sure, but they kinda have a thing going with their combination of metal, synth, and a sad, sad, ebony piano (all you need now is the world’s smallest violin). Also, their lyrics are a bit more eloquent. To use YA terms, Slipknot lyrics feel like they were written by John Green, and Evanescence lyrics feel like they were written by Maggie Stiefvater. I don’t particularly like either authors, but I definitely prefer the latter (are you REALLY cringing yet?).

The biggest surprise is the proficiency of lead vocalist Amy Lee. While she’s no Ann Wilson, Lee is substantially better than most female singers of this generation. Sure, she might sound whiny, but I think it’s been established that Evanescence is a very whiny band in general. But as much praise I’m singing for them, I only see them in 21st or 22nd in my favorite music artists of all time; barely missing a spot on the big Top Twenty post I’ve been working on. But at this point, I only just started their second album, giving them plenty of time to grow on me like a YA novel that’s so bad it’s good!


Conclusion

For years, I’ve thought that the U.S. and U.K.- the pioneers of rock and metal respectively- have lost their touch. But to quote Genesis’ Land of Confusion (which is on topic because it’s one of the Disturbed cover songs), I can see the fire still alight, burning into the night (now I got the song stuck in your head). Slipknot wasn’t a great first impression, but I definitely found some solid bands, even if I come off as blinded by nostalgia for liking the most eighties-ish of the five, DragonForce, the best.

You’ve probably heard all of these thoughts before, when you were a kid and MySpace was a thing. But regardless, I’d like some feedback. What do you think of these bands, and do you agree with my thoughts? Also, what are other great rock and metal bands of this generation?