Beauty and the Beast: Ashmann at his Best

Well, a long, long time ago I promised that I would take a closer look at the soundtrack of Beauty and the Beast. It took way longer than expected, partly because of other projects, partly because this turned into a monster of an article.

After all, I mentioned multiple times during my December reviews how well-done the music in it is. I consider it the best of all Disney movie soundtracks, and not just because every piece of music in it is a potential ear-worm. No, I mainly think that way because every single song adds to the story of the movie. So, let’s go through this movie step by step.

We start out with the prologue, which pretty much replaces the Introduction-Song.  The text is narrated over a score piece which from this moment onward stands for “the Beast’s Castle”. This is a very economic way to start the movie because now we know the basics – and we already know what the role of Belle will be in this story. The moment the narrator asks who would be able to love a Beast, the camera pans to Belle. Well, question answered. If it ever was a question in the first place. This movie doesn’t even pretend as if there is much of a doubt what the story will be about, but that is not really what makes the movie work, is it? It is more about the journey than the outcome.

But first we have to get to know the protagonist of the story. I already mentioned the song “Belle” when I talked about “I want”-Songs. Thus said, the “I want”-message is actually just one aspect of the song, which also accomplishes to introduce all the important villagers and the Setting along with Belle. But let’s examine the song step by step this time around.

Belle
Little town, it’s a quiet village

Every day like the one before
Little town, full of little people
Waking up to say

Townfolks
Bonjour! (5x)

“Little” is a word which is in itself a neutral observation. Depending on the perspective, it can be a good or a bad thing. But here the “little town” and “quiet village” is also described like a place, where nothing changes. And as soon as “little” is used in connection with “people”, there is no doubt any longer. “Little people” suggests narrow-minded people, set in their own ways. Something which is underlined even further in the next lines:

Belle
There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Every morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town

In the last two lines are two important information. For one, Belle’s family is not from this town. And two, despite smiling and making the best of the situation, she does not like living in it. The following exchange shows why:

(Speaking segment)
Baker: Good Morning, Belle!
Belle: Good morning, Monsieur.
Baker: And where are you off to?
Belle: The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story. About a beanstalk and an ogre and a –
Baker: That’s nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!
(End speaking segment)

So, what just happened here? Well, here is Belle trying to find a common level with the Baker. She wants to have a conversation with him, but the only reason he talked to her at all is out of politeness. The baker doesn’t really care what Belle does, and she takes it with a shrug which shows that she is used to it.

Townsfolk
Look there she goes, that girl is strange, no question
Dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?
Woman: Never part of any crowd
Man: Cause her head’s up on some cloud
Townsfolk: No denying she’s a funny girl that Belle

We now get the counterpoint to Belle’s point of view. While she sees the townspeople as narrow-minded, they see her as strange because she just doesn’t behave the way they expect her to behave.

Man: Bonjour!
Woman: Good day!
Man: How is your fam’ly?
Woman 2: Bonjour!
Man 2 : Good day!
Woman 2 : How is your wife?
Woman 3 : I need six eggs!
Man 3: That’s too expensive!
Belle: There must be more than this provincial life!

There is it again, the little word which pretty much defines the early 1990s princesses, “more”. Ariel famously wanted more than just having a number of trinkets, Belle wants more than spending her life in this boring little town where she can’t talk to anyone. Well, with one exception.

(Speaking segment)
Bookstore owner: Ah! Belle!
Belle: Good morning, I’ve come to return the book I borrowed.
Bookstore owner: Finished already?
Belle: Oh, I couldn’t put it down! Have you got anything new?
Bookstore owner: Not since yesterday.
Belle: That’s alright. I’ll borrow… this one.
Bookstore owner: That one? But you’ve read it twice!
Belle: It’s my favorite. Far-off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise…
Bookstore owner: If you like it all that much, it’s yours.
Belle: But sir…
Bookstore owner: I insist.
Belle: Well, thank you! Thank you very much!
(End speaking segment)

This dialogue is a stark contrast to her talk with the baker. Without it, Belle could easily come off as arrogant, but here it is shown that a lot of the rift between her and the townsfolk is simply caused by two different world views. Once Belle encounters someone who doesn’t treat her thirst for reading with disregard, the result is a friendly conversation (and notably, the book shop owner doesn’t turn up again, suggesting that he is just as much the odd one out as Belle is). It also tells us a lot about Belle’s preferences. She obviously reads everything she gets her hands on, but for repeated reading she likes fairy tales.

Townsfolk
Look there she goes, that girl is so peculiar
I wonder if she’s feeling well
With a dreamy, far-off look
And her nose stuck in a book
What a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle

This part more or less confirms Belle’s opinion of the town people. For them, everything which is different is not something new to experience, it is something they don’t understand and don’t want to understand either. Instead Belle’s behaviour is treated like an illness. Belle might have trouble to relate to the villagers, but she is content with letting them be. The villagers on the other hand want Belle to be “normal” – whatever that means.

Belle
Oh, isn’t this amazing?
It’s my favorite part because you’ll see
Here’s where she meets Prince Charming
But she won’t discover that it’s him ’til chapter three!

Romance isn’t a strong aspect in Belle’s desires. In fact, she barely talks about it at all. But here she reveals that for all her talk about seeing the world, she also dreams of finding love on a certain level. This becomes important later on when she encounters Gaston, because the audience knows that Belle is not against the notion of romance in itself, but simply not interested in Gaston in particular.

Woman
Now it’s no wonder that her name means “Beauty”
Her looks have got no parallel

Shopkeeper
But behind that fair façade
I’m afraid she’s rather odd
Very diff’rent from the rest of us

Townsfolk
She’s nothing like the rest of us
Yes, diff’rent from the rest of us is Belle!

And there it is, the whole point of everything the townspeople said beforehand. Belle is different than they are, so she is effectively not someone who fits into their circle. With this notion, the song taps into a feeling nearly each of us has experienced at one point, the feeling of not fitting in, being shunned by a group of people on the grounds of being (supposedly) different. This is the reason why Belle is so relatable from the get go. Even if we are not book fanatics, the feeling to be an outsider is familiar to most of us. And for most woman, the experience of being judged based on our looks instead of our brains is just as common.

(Speaking segment)
LeFou: Wow! You didn’t miss a shot, Gaston!
You’re the greatest hunter in the whole world!
Gaston: I know.
LeFou: No beast alive stands a chance against you – And no girl, for that matter
Gaston: It’s true, LeFou. And I’ve got my sight set on that one.
LeFou: The inventor’s daughter?
Gaston: She’s the one, the lucky girl
I’m going to marry.
LeFou: But she –
Gaston: The most beautiful girl in town.
LeFou: I know, but –
Gaston: That makes her the best. And don’t I deserve the best?
LeFou: But of course! I mean, you do! But I –
(End speaking segment)

And here is the villain of the movie. And there is no doubt that he will be that from the get go. The first thing we learn about Gaston is that he is a passionate hunter of the sort who hunts more out of sport than out of need, the second that he is a womanizer. But he has already decided who he wants to marry: Belle. Not because he likes her, but because she is considered the most beautiful girl in town.

Gaston
Right from the moment when I met her, saw her
I said she’s gorgeous and I fell
Here in town there’s only she
Who is beautiful as me
So I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle

It is kind of interesting how this movie undermines the concept of love on first sight. Neither the Beast nor Belle fall in love with each other immediately. But Gaston claims that he did. And yet it is immediately clear that the only person he is really in love with is himself – underlined by the way he looks into every reflecting surface he encounters, even while singing about Belle.

Bimbettes :
Look there he goes
Isn’t he dreamy?
Monsieur Gaston
Oh he’s so cute!
Be still my heart
I’m hardly breathing
He’s such a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute!

Here is a question: Why is Belle considered the most beautiful girl in town? The Bimbettes are everything we usually would consider desirable, blond, curvy and ready to do everything for Gaston. But they are also portrayed from the get go as interchangeable. Unlike Belle, they don’t have character. At the same time it shows how meaningless the concept of beauty actually is. Belle is apparently considered beautiful but while the villagers think that she is a beauty despite her being different, the movie suggests that it is exactly her being different which is the source of her perceived beauty.

Woman 1: Bonjour!
Gaston: Pardon
Belle: Good day
Woman 2: Mais oui!
Woman 3: You call this bacon?
Woman 4: What lovely grapes!
Man 1: Some cheese
Woman 5: Ten yards!
Man 1: ‘one pound
Gaston: Excuse me! Please let me through!
Cheese merchant: I’ll get the knife
Woman 6: This bread –
Woman 7: Those fish –
Woman 6: it’s stale!
Woman 7: they smell!
Men: Madame’s mistaken.
Women: Well, maybe so
Townsfolk: Good morning! Oh, good morning!

Belle: There must be more than this provincial life!

Gaston: Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife!

Notice how the desires of the characters run across each others? There are the townspeople, who are focussed on their everyday tasks and don’t want any change from the status quo, then there is Belle, who wants to leave the village and finally Gaston who wants to marry Belle. Everything is laid out for the future conflict, before the townspeople summon up one last time Belle as a character – or should I say, as an outsider:

 

Townsfolk
Look there she goes
The girl is strange, but special
A most peculiar mad’moiselle!

Women: It’s a pity and a sin
Men: She doesn’t quite fit in

Townsfolk
Cause she really is a funny girl
A beauty but a funny girl
She really is a funny girl
That Belle!

Bonjour! (5x)

Man
Bonjour

Remember, after the prologue, this is the first song in the movie, played during the first sequences. Which makes the Bonjour an implicit invitation to the audience. As I mentioned before, this song is more than just an “I want-song”, way more. It introduces the heroine, the villains (yes, plural, I will explain that one later), the central conflict and it welcomes the audience into the story. One really can’t overstate how important the song is for the narrative of the movie. It is a little bit less powerful during the reprise:

Belle: Is he gone? Can you imagine? He asked me to marry him! Me, the wife of that boorish, brainless …

Madame Gaston,
Can’t you just see it?
Madame Gaston,
His little wife.

No, sir!
Not me!
I guarantee it,
I want much more than this provincial life!

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,
I want it more than I can tell!
And for once it might be grand,
To have someone understand.
I want so much more than they’ve got planned…

It’s not a problem, but as far as reprises go, this one is mostly a repeat of what the audience already knows, except for one line in which Belle adds that she wants someone who understands her. It is this one line which justifies the reprise, because it reveals a disconnect between what Belle thinks she wants and what actually hides behind her wants. For all her talk about going somewhere else and experiencing adventures, what Belle is really looking for is a place to fit in. Similar Gaston’s song explores his motivations even further, but also reveals a lot about the villagers.

Le Fou: Gosh it disturbs me to see you, Gaston
Looking so down in the dumps
Every guy here’d love to be you, Gaston
Even when taking your lumps
There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re everyone’s favorite guy
Everyone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why!

As much as Belle’s song explores her relationship to the villagers, Gaston’s song explores his relationship with them. It is mostly a continuation of what the audience has already seen until that point, but the song emphasis now that Gaston isn’t just popular, he is pretty much the unofficial leader of the town, admired mostly for his masculinity.

No one’s slick as Gaston
No one’s quick as Gaston
No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston’s
For there’s no man in town half as manly!
Perfect, a pure paragon!
You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley
And they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on!

As much as Belle is seen as an outsider for not following gender roles by reading and having an opinion, Gaston is cheered on for following the gender roles. He is big, he is brutish, he is what every male wants to be.

LeFou and Chorus: No one’s been like Gaston
A king pin like Gaston
LeFou: No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston
Gaston: As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating!
LeFou and Chorus: My what a guy, that Gaston!
Give five “hurrahs!” Give twelve “hip-hips!”
LeFou: Gaston is the best and the rest is all drips!

Chorus: No one fights like Gaston
Douses lights like Gaston
In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston!
Bimbettes: For there’s no one as burly and brawny
Gaston: As you see, I’ve got biceps to spare
LeFou: Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny.
Gaston: That’s right!
And every last inch of me’s covered with hair!

Notable none of the “virtues” the villagers list have anything to do with Gaston’s character, they are all about his strength, his good looks, his supposedly manly behaviour. In a way the villagers treat him exactly like Belle, by judging him by his looks alone, except that Gaston bask in it and in his own perceived importance while Belle doesn’t care.

Chorus: No one hits like Gaston
Matches wits like Gaston
LeFou: In a spitting match nobody spits like Gaston
Gaston: I’m especially good at expectorating! Ptoooie!
Chorus: Ten points for Gaston!

The line about Gaston being witty is in this case not meant to be taken seriously. This is the only time during the song that Gaston is not able to demonstrate to be able to do what the villagers are singing about. But when he is supposed to match his wits, he is loosing in checkers and reacting like a little child by throwing the game pieces through the room, demonstrating that the villagers don’t care if something doesn’t fit in the picture they have of him.

Gaston: When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs
Ev’ry morning to help me get large
And now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs
So I’m roughly the size of a barge!

Chorus: No one shoots like Gaston
Makes those beauts like Gaston
LeFou: Then goes tromping around
Wearing boots like Gaston!
Gaston: I use antlers in all of my decorating!
Chorus: My what a guy!
GASTON!

The soundtrack version is a few lines longer, but in the movie the song ends on a last reminder of Gaston’s willingness to kill and the admiration he gets for this from the villagers.

Gaston: LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking
LeFou: A dangerous pastime
Gaston: I know,
But that wacky old cod is Belle’s father
And his sanity’s only so-so
Now the wheels in my head have been turning
Since I looked at that loony old man
See, I promised myself I’d be married to Belle
And right now I’m evolving a plan!
(speaking) If I… *whispering*
LeFou: Yes?
Gaston: Then we… *whispering*
LeFou: No, would she?
Gaston: *whispering* Guess!
LeFou: Now I get it!
Gaston and LeFou: Let’s go!
No one plots like Gaston
Gaston: Takes cheap shots like Gaston
LeFou: Plans to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston!
Chorus: So his marriage we soon will be celebrating
My what a guy
Gaston!

What is really notable is how anti-intellectual those lines are. Gaston is a braggart but the notion that he might not be a big thinker doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, he seems to be proud of it.

But naturally the function of the song is also to create suspense. Up to this point Gaston has been annoying and intrusive, but he hasn’t done anything visible harmful either. This is the point in which he slips from being a brute to becoming a criminal. The audience doesn’t know yet what he has planned exactly, but just the knowledge that he intends to pressure Belle into marrying him pushes him firmly over the line on which he danced up to this point.

Up to this point, all of the songs in Beauty and the Beast have been quite dense with information. The characters, the environment, important plot points, they all have more than one function. “Be our Guest” is a little bit different, struggling the line between a side-kick song and pure filler. I won’t analyse every single line for this one, because most of the text just serves as a backdrop for a Disney Acid sentences. The visuals, and not the words are supposed to be in the foreground. But there is one sequence in which visuals take a small pause, so to speak, giving Lumière the centre stage: 

Lumière:
Life is so unnerving
For a servant who’s not serving
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon
Ah, those good old days when we were useful
Suddenly those good old days are gone

Ten years we’ve been rusting
Needing so much more than dusting
Needing exercise, a chance to use our skills!
Most days we just lay around the castle
Flabby, fat and lazy
You walked in, and oops-a-daisy!

 

There isn’t really that much focus in the movie on what the curse means for the servant. If “Human Again” had made it into the original cut they would have had their own song about their plight, but honestly, I don’t think that it is needed. It is not really their story after all, and there are just enough moments of them looking sad about their fate or excited about the prospect of Belle lifting the curse for the audience to be aware that this isn’t just about the Beast. It is still good that Ashmann uses a moment in “Be our Guest” to shine a light on how trapped the servants are in the castle.

Not so good is the line “Ten years we’ve been rusting”, because if you do the maths, the Beast was eleven when he got cursed. Not only is that a horrifying thought, the picture the Beast destroys shows a young adult, not a child. This could have been easily be solved with a more vague “for years we’ve been rusting”.

Speaking of the timeline, this is one of the weaknesses of Beauty and the Beast. The movie starts with sunny days and reasonable green trees and then, within a few scenes, it is suddenly winter. Watching the movie it feels as if Belle and the Beast spend a lot of time with each other when, if you really think about it, it can’t be more than roughly three days. But the reason why it feels this way is “Something there”, a song, which is half a love song and plays half like a montage song, even if there isn’t much of a time jump happening during it:

Belle:
There’s something sweet
And almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
But now he’s dear, and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

Beast:
She glanced this way
I thought I saw
And when we touched she didn’t shudder at my paw
No it can’t be, I’ll just ignore
But then she’s never looked at me that way before

 

Listening to this song it suggests a slow change in the relationship between Belle and the Beast, when in reality, he just rescued her from the wolves one day before. What we actually see is a major development, with Belle suddenly seeing a more likable side to the Beast, while the Beast is starting to hope that she might, just might, be able to look past his monstrous looks.

Belle:
New and a bit alarming
Who’d have ever thought that this could be?
True that he’s no Prince Charming
But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see

I have to compliment this song for being pretty short overall. There isn’t much more which needs to be said about the change in the relationship between Belle and the Beast. Most of it is instead shown, in Belle and the Beast finding a middle ground during breakfast, in the Beast acting gentle and polite and Belle reacting positive to the change in him. Again, this is an important point in this movie: Belle does not go and try to change the Beast, but once the Beast changes on its own, Belle reacts positively to the change. And the song finds a perfect balance between bringing across the point while avoiding overexplaining it. Instead it relies on the images in a perfect example of show, don’t tell.

Lumière:
Well, who’d have thought?
Mrs. Potts:
Well, bless my soul
Cogsworth:
Well, who’d have known?
Mrs. Potts:
Well, who indeed?
Lumière:
And who’d have guessed they’d come together on their own?
Mrs. Potts:
It’s so peculiar.
Lumière, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth:
We’ll wait and see, a few days more
There may be something there that wasn’t there before
Cogsworth:
Perhaps there’s something there
That wasn’t there before
Mrs. Potts:
There may be something there that wasn’t there before

This is another of those moments in which the audience is subtly reminded what is at stake here, not just the Beast but the fate of everyone living in the castle. This is put across again when the Beast prepares himself for the evening with Belle and everyone does his best to prepare him. The ballroom scene is easily the most remembered moment of the movie. Partly because of the way it was animated, taking full advantage of CAPS. But the song is also basically a summary of what the whole movie is about.

Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Unexpectedly

Well, Ashman is fibbing a little bit here, because Belle and the Beast hardly started out as friends. But the song is not necessarily just about this particular romance, it is about romance in general, describing the moment when two people realize that they actually might have feelings for each other.

Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared
Beauty and the Beast

Again, Ashman conjures a whole scenario with just a few words. Two people, overly nervous, but subtly shifting towards each other. It doesn’t have to be what the audience sees on screen, those lines might tap into a personal memory exactly because they are focussing on feelings and not on a specific scenario.

Ever just the same
Ever a surprise
Ever as before
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise

The constant repeat of “ever” is quite brilliant. It underlines subtly that it is a “tale of old as time” which will play out again and again in different variations.

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

The use of the words “tune” and “song” and later on “rhyme” is quite brilliant. It doesn’t just suggests that the story is as old as time, the song itself is expressing feelings which have been uttered by singers and poets in countless variations. But it also points to the one truths most of those songs would just skip: Relationships change you and in order for them to work, well, you sometimes have to take a good look at yourself.

Certain as the sun
Rising in the East
Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

This is the part of the song which is song again, this time by a chorus, at the end of the movie. That is pretty much a stable of Menken, he likes to go back to either the “I want”-song or the love song at the end of the movie as a kind of bookend – but then, this is a long-standing Disney tradition, too.  It is a good way to remind the audience that the dreams of the protagonists are now fulfilled one way or another.

But there is one song in-between I kind of skipped. The second Villain song of the movie, or the “Mob Song”.

Gaston: The Beast will make off with your children! He’ll come after them in the night!
Belle: No!
Gaston: We’re not safe ’til his head is mounted on my wall! I say we kill the Beast!
Mob: Kill him!

A reminder: Up to this point neither Gaston nor the villagers have even believed that the Beast existed. Meaning the villagers know perfectly well that Gaston knows as much about the Beast as they do, and that is nothing. And yet instead of listening to Belle, who describes the Beast as friendly, they jump immediately on Gaston’s claim that the Beast might kill their children. Never mind that none of their children have been attacked at all at this point and that there is no sign of an actual danger.

Man 1: We’re not safe until he’s dead
Man 2: He’ll come stalking us at night
Woman: Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite!
Man 3: He’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free
Gaston: So it’s time to take some action, boys
It’s time to follow me!

Not only do they readily believe Gaston’s words, they are adding their own fears to them. Again, fears which are completely overblown. And it begs the question: Who is actually the villain here.
Yes, I know, Gaston is the obvious answer. But remember, originally he was just some brute who was happy to be adored. Now he is ready to use his influence over the villagers to get rid of what he perceives as a rival (and a good trophy). But, and it bears repeating here, he doesn’t really trick the villagers in the common sense of the word. The villagers want to be tricked, and they want to be tricked by a person whose personality they helped to shape. They were the one who gave Gaston their adoration, and they were the one who encouraged him when he tried to spring a wedding on Belle (honestly, in what universe is that not an incredible intrusive idea?) and now they are egging him to go after the beast. That is why this movie has two villain songs: One for Gaston and one for the Mob.

Through the mist, through the woods
Through the darkness and the shadows
It’s a nightmare, but it’s one exciting ride
Say a prayer, then we’re there
At the drawbridge of a castle
And there’s something truly terrible inside
It’s a beast!
He’s got fangs, razor sharp ones!
Massive paws, killer claws for the feast
Hear him roar! See him foam!
But we’re not coming home ’til he’s dead
Good and dead! Kill the Beast!

Two lines are pretty notable here: For one that the whole mission they are now on is “one exciting ride”. That is not the point of view of someone who goes into war, afraid of maybe dying. That’s what you might say after watching a horror movie or on a roller coaster. It clarifies that for all the colourful descriptions the villagers have for the Beast, they are actually not afraid of dying. They see this as a save little adventure – even if they do say a prayer beforehand. This is the second notable line, the subtly reminder that those are supposedly good god-fearing people. And yet they are now ready to murder someone basically because they don’t like the way he looks.

[Speech]
Belle: No! I won’t let you do this!
Gaston: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Bring the old man!
Maurice: Get your hands off me!
Gaston: We can’t have them running off to warn the creature!
Belle: Let us out!
Gaston: We’ll rid the village of this Beast! Who’s with me?
Male Mob Member #1: I am!
Male Mob Member #2: I am!
Male Mob Member #3: I am!

“If you are not with us, you’re against us.” is maybe the most polarizing statement in politics. Mussolini pretty much said exactly that phrase, but he is hardly the only one who used it. From Cicero over Bush up to Erdogan, variations of it are pretty common, though the phrase is particularly popular with dictators and during war time. It’s a phrase designed to shut down every possible opposition. The use here is pretty callous, but exactly that makes it so chilling.

Mob: Light your torch!
Mount your horse!
Gaston: Screw your courage to the sticking place!
Mob: We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way!
Through a mist, through a wood
Where within a haunted castle
Something’s lurking that you don’t see ev’ry day!
It’s a beast!
One as tall as a mountain
We won’t rest ’til he’s good and deceased
Sally forth!
Tally ho!
Grab your sword!
Grab your bow!
Praise the Lord and here we go!
Gaston: We’ll lay siege to the castle and bring back his head!

“Screw your courage to the sticking place” is actually a quote from McBeth. And no, I have no idea what the sticking place actually is, even Shakespeare scholars are not sure about it. The point is that there is no room for fear or hesitation in this battle. And the villagers are completely satisfied with the notion, though naturally Gaston has to lead the way because, let’s be blunt here, they are cowards and want him to do the dirty work while they can later on bask in the glory of his actions. Oh, and there is a second reference to religion, just in case the first one was too subtle.

[Speech]
Belle: I have to warn the Beast. Oh, this is all my fault. Oh, Papa, what are we going to do?
Maurice: Now, now, we’ll think of something.

Mob: We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns!
Bring your knives!
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast!

Notice something? In “Belle” or “Gaston” everyone was singing to the same tune, so to speak, even if they were presenting opposite points of view. But here the lines are clearly drawn: Only the villagers and Gaston sing. Belle and her father, they only have speaking parts in the song. Because they are distinctively not in tune with people who would kill out of wilful ignorance. The villagers don’t understand the Beast but just like they didn’t want to connect with Belle, they don’t want to solve the mystery of the Beast either. They just want to get rid of it.

[Speech]
(Cut to Beast’s castle)
Cogsworth: I knew it. I knew it was foolish to get our hopes up.
Lumiere: Maybe it would have been better if she had never come at all.
(Sultan barking)
Lumiere: Could it be?
Mrs. Potts: Is it she?
Lumiere: Sacre Bleu! Invaders!
Cogsworth: Encroachers!
Mrs. Potts: And they have the mirror!
Cogsworth: Warn the master. If it’s a fight they want, we’ll be ready for them. Who’s with me? (Door slams) Hey!
(Outside)
Gaston: Take whatever booty you can find. But remember, the Beast is mine!

And another hint that the outrage of the villagers has nothing to do with heroics and only a little with genuine fear. I mean, why even be there, if Gaston wants to kill the Beast on his own anyway? Oh, yeah, to witness it and fill your own pockets while you are at it. After all hating someone doesn’t mean that you can’t profiteer of him, right?

Castleware: Hearts ablaze
Banners high
We go marching into battle
Unafraid although the danger just increased
Mob: Raise your flag!
Sing the song!
Here we come, we’re fifty strong
And fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong
Let’s kill the Beast!

Now the inhabitants of the castle are starting to match the tone of the villagers, which indicates the upcoming escalation of the conflict. Their perspective is very different, though. While the villagers sing about them being strong in numbers, they sing about danger they have to face.

[Speech]
Mrs. Potts: Pardon me, master.
Beast: Leave me in peace.
Mrs. Potts: But sir, the castle is under attack!

Mob: Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!

[Speech]
Lumiere: This isn’t working!
Fifi: Oh, Lumiere. We must do something.
Lumiere: Wait, I Know!

Mob: Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!

[Speech]
Mrs. Potts: What shall we do, master?
Beast: It doesn’t matter now. Just let them come.

Mob: Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!

Note how the song ends in a screaming of a slogan. It ramps the emotions up for the big finale fight. But, even more important, during the song everything has been set up for it. It establishes where every relevant person in the movie is and what he or she will most do during the climax. Just in terms of function and meaning, the “Mob song” might actually be the best one in the movie, only rivalled by “Belle” in how much it pushes the plot forward while also carrying a message which goes past the love story.

So far I have only alluded to it, but what the movie actually portrays is the sources and the effect hateful propaganda. Replace the Beast with “Mexican Rapist” and you have exactly the same dynamic portrayed in the movie. It is the same kind of fear mongering and the same kind of hatred people indulge in without having to actually confront the so called danger themselves. And is there really much of a difference between “Kill the Beast” and “Lock her up”? Simple phrases to create an “us vs them” feeling.

And it shows how much the environment impacts the individual. The prince was uncaring because he got spoiled by servants unable to stand up to him and so he finally became on the outside the Beast he was at the inside. Meanwhile Gaston got more and more beastly because he grew up in a society in which his toxic behaviour was encouraged. Towards the end of the movie the Beast no longer looks threatening since he found his humanity in his feelings for Belle. But Gaston looks more and more beastly since he lost his humanity in his obsession for Belle.

There are a lot of things which make Beauty and the Beast special. The ground-breaking animation, the catchy soundtrack, the artistic elements, all this plays into it. But what really makes it stand out are the different layers it has, most of which are baked right in the song texts. You can watch it as a simple fairy tale, but once you really consider the juxtaposition between Gaston and the Beast and the role the villagers play in the movie, there is something topical about it which sadly is always relevant. It’s a tale as old as time in more than one sense.

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Marvel Musings: Death and Consequences

I am sorry that I haven’t managed to continue my villain series as planned. Partly this was due to real live concerns (mainly a bout of flu which really hit me hard), but partly it was because the articles I had planned (and even already partly written) were about Hydra, which suddenly made a reappearance in the MCU. This lead me to delaying the articles, and I am glad that I did. I will eventually continue with the series, but a little bit closer to Avengers 4.

Meanwhile though I think it is time to address a notion which has bothered me a while: The idea that killing off characters make a story automatically better. Frankly, I blame The Walking Dead and Games of Thrones for the popularity of this idea. And while I can’t really comment on the former, I have some thoughts regarding the latter. Not in terms of the show, but I actually read the books. Well…most of them. By the time the TV show aired, I had already given up on the series, and one of the reasons was the Red Wedding. It wasn’t the only reason, but it played heavily into the decision (alongside with me being sick of reading about violence against women without no proper exploration of the effect aside from “look how badass our heroines got by surviving”).

Yes, I know, a lot of people think that the Red Wedding is brilliant. They say that they liked it, because it was so unexpected and they like the idea that no character is safe. I never saw it the same way. To me it was the result of an author wanting a cheap shock effect and getting rid of a character he got bored of. Which brings me to my first thesis regarding this matter:

A story in which certain characters don’t have a plot armour doesn’t exist.

There are always those which are more interesting than others, so a writer tends to hold onto them, unless killing them off would allow them a rewarding narrative opportunity. And this is actually a good thing. Because from a reader or viewer perspective, I think there is nothing as frustrating as investing a lot of time into a character and then said character dies for no reason whatsoever. I am ready to bet if the victims of the Red Wedding had been Daenerys, Sansa, Arya and John Snow, the reaction of the audience would have been very different. More along the way the fans reacted when BBC’s Robin Hood killed off Marian.

For the record, I certainly don’t begrudge anyone to be a fan of Game of Thrones. The only reason why I address this at all is because the raising readiness of TV shows to kill more characters than in the past bred the notion that Marvel movies will never be as good as they should if they follow suit – and yes, this is the point at which I will eventually discuss Infinity War, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should stop reading right now.

There is this general notion that Marvel has to start killing characters to create stakes. To which my reaction is: Have you watched the MCU? There have been plenty characters killed since the MCU started, and not just villains. Not counting the TV series, the list of heroic characters dying before Infinity War and staying dead includes Yinsin, Erskin, Howard and Maria Stark, Peggy Carter, Quicksilver, Freya, Odin, the Warriors three, Denarian Sal, Yondu Udonta and Groot (yes, the first Groot died, Baby Groot is NOT identical with him).

And yes, I am aware of the obvious counter argument: Those are mostly mentor or parental figures, or side characters, we need to see one of the main characters die. Do we though? One should never forget that:

A dead character is a missed narrative opportunity

For example, Yondu sacrificing himself for Peter was a beautiful moment, but it also robbed the audience of seeing more of their complicated relationship on screen. And just imaging how many great stories we wouldn’t have gotten if more deaths in the MCU had been permanent. There would be no Winter Soldier. There would have been nobody to attack New York. There would be no Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. To me, a dead character is a five minute shock effect, a living one is an option for even more interesting stories. Hence there is always the need to consider if a death is really worth it. In Yondu’s case, it might have been worth it in the end. It was a tragic and meaningful moment which will resonate through the whole of the GotG franchise. But had they killed Loki in Thor, it would have been an unforgivable waste of a great character.

All this said, there is a danger of overdoing it with holding onto characters, especially if you keep killing and then reviving them. In comics, this is a common problem. More or less every character has been killed and revived at one point. But, I would argue, the problem is not the act of killing and reviving someone in itself, the problem is circular storytelling. I will take Supernatural as an example. Sam and Dean have both been killed multiple times by now. But at what point did those deaths actually become meaningless? I would argue that they became meaningless when there was no story left to tell with those deaths (again, what follows are major spoilers for Supernatural).

Sam dying the first time was meaningful because it lead to Dean sacrificing his soul. Dean not managing to get out of the deal was meaningful because it subverted expectations, but also lead to him spending what felt like years in hell, adding a tragic story to his character. Dean being killed multiple times by Gabriel was mostly done for fun, but also served to explore the dependence between Sam and Dean from Sam’s angle. When Dean and Sam both got shot it allowed for a great episode exploring heaven. But there was eventually a point at which those deaths didn’t happen anymore to create narrative opportunities, but for fake drama during which the audience could get the swelling music and the tears – again! It felt like “been there, done that, can we move on now?”.

A resurrection is only problematic when it becomes repetitive.

So, let’s apply this thought to the MCU and discuss Loki, the master of not-dying. Currently he is up to three deaths, the last of them seemingly permanent. Are those deaths sufficiently different? My answer is yes! The first time is a suicide attempt after he realizes that Odin doesn’t approve his actions, the second time is a deliberate trick and the third time, well, it looks like his action finally caught up to him, but he went out defending Thor. He basically got the death he pretended to have in The Dark World for real in Infinity war.

What is important regarding Loki’s various deaths is not just what we did see, but also what we didn’t see. None of the previous deaths spend a lot of time on Thor’s reaction to it, and what we saw of it played out differently each time. Or, in other words, it was a good decision to make Loki’s death quick but visceral in Infinity War, because we already had the scene of Thor holding a dying Loki in his arms in The Dark World. Doing it again would have been a repetition, hence the writer avoided it. Instead they allowed Thor some time to actually grief over all the people he has lost – finally – hence covering ground the audience hadn’t really seen beforehand.

To be frank, I don’t have a problem with any of the fake deaths in the MCU with the notable exception of the five second loss of Pepper Potts in Ironman 3. Her seemingly falling to her death didn’t really have much of an effect on the narrative, because Tony wasn’t even given enough time to grief properly about it. Nor is this traumatic event ever addressed again. It is the epitome of an utterly pointless fake death.

And that doesn’t mean that I wanted Pepper Potts to die. Nor do I think that the audience would have been pleased if she had died in this manner. The reality is that we tend to get attached to characters and hence we don’t want them to die unless it is done in a way which honours the character. That is what 90% of the discussion surrounding The Last Jedi is about. That’s why the Robin Hood fans were so angry about Marian dying. That’s why Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes back in the day.

And don’t get me wrong here, losing a character can be a emotionally satisfying experience. Yondu is a good example of that. But I would propose that:

The ending of Infinity War works not despite but because we know deep down it isn’t permanent.

Just let’s imagine that those deaths never are reversed and next we see Shuri stepping in as Black Panther, a new Spider-Man and hey, Bucky, after everything he went through, was just snapped out of existence and Cap is giving up on him without a fight again. The audience would be p….. This would be like killing of a main character in the last episode of Enterprise or killing off Arthur the moment he realizes that Merlin has magic. Or, to put it differently, a death is usually a terrible pay-off for years of investments into a specific character or plot-line. That doesn’t mean that it can’t work (most memorable example of it is the series finale of Dinosaurs), but it needs to have a point which is bigger than just a character dying.

And this is what Avengers 4 has to deliver. In a lot of ways the ending of Infinity War is a promise for greater things to come. Avengers 4 has to be about the characters left dealing with the consequences and finding the strength for one last battle to set this right again. And, speaking of consequences:

Death is the most boring of consequences

It really is. To use some examples from the MCU: The Vulture dying after having figured out Spider-man’s true identity would have been handy, but having a villain out there who has this information but decided to not use it (yet?) because he owes Spider-Man his live is way more compelling. Bucky falling from the train is a beautiful turning point in The First Avenger, but even better is him being turned into a brain-washed Hydra Assassin who ends up attacking Steve one movie later.

The MCU is full of interesting consequences which, to be honest, enthral me often more than someone dying. What is more dramatic than the truth about Bucky’s action being revealed towards the end of Civil War? What is more heart-breaking than seeing Spider-man trapped under concrete, calling for help like the teenager he is?  Or Bucky having to take the mouth piece, bracing himself for torture? Even Marvel’s arguably best death so far works so well not because Yondu dies, but that he declares himself to be Peter’s dad with his last breath followed by a funeral scene which runs the gambit of all emotions, from anger to sadness to happiness back to sadness.

More often than not a death is a neutral feature – I doubt that many in the audience cared much when the Warrior’s Three were wiped away – and sometimes a character has to die to make room for something else – Odin dying is an example of this, he had to go so that Thor could step up to the throne. And, to be frank, if there is one death in Infinity War they won’t reverse for sure, it is Heimdal’s. Oh, I am sure the character has its fans, too, but overall he was always barely utilized played by an expensive actor. Narratively there is no direction to go in with him.

To be clear about this: I am not saying that a death, even the death of a main character, can’t be a satisfying and meaningful experience. It always depends on what the impact on the narrative is. If the audience will feel cheated, one shouldn’t do it. The death of a popular character should always provide some sort of conclusion for the audience or open up new interesting storyline to explore.

Which is why I am torn about Loki dying in Infinity War. See, I was actually looking forward to seeing the Avengers interact with a somewhat redeemed Loki. And yet I don’t think that they should bring Loki back in Avengers 4, not after Thanos practically turned to the audience to confirm that yes, this time it will be a real. Loki escaping death again after this assurance would be kind of cheating. Plus, I have to admit that the character went full circle. His last act was acknowledging both his ice giant heritage as well as his kinship to Thor, so it mostly worked as a conclusion for his storyline.

But if they bring him back a few movies down the line, maybe this time as kid Loki, I would be all for it! Again, Loki as a character is too compelling to lose him permanently. And, speaking of characters which could be resurrected eventually but not immediately, Vision could be brought back too. He is an android after all, there is a possibility that down the line there will be another version of him. And that would be completely okay, as long as said version is different from the Vision we saw before. Again, it’s the consequences which count, and the narrative opportunity.

Gamora on the other hand, well, I think the audience expects her to play an important role in Avengers 4. But will she be brought back to live at the end of it? Both options work for me (depending on the narrative built around them), though for the record, it would be a shame to permanently lose one of the few relationship between two females in the MCU. And with few I mean the only one left in the movies outside of Black Panther considering that neither Jane nor Darcy will make a reappearance anytime soon.

I guess I went a little bit off the tangent there. So, to summon this up, a death can be a narratively satisfying option, but it is by far not the only way to have stakes in a movie franchise and, imho, it is one of the least creative ways to create suspense. Characters making far reaching decisions and having to deal with the fall-out of said decisions is a way more satisfying approach.

Do I think that the MCU will kill a main character in Avengers 4? Actually, yes, I do, I don’t think that Ironman will survive the movie because his character arc has come full circle and frankly, RDJ is too expensive to stay a part of the franchise. But if Phase 3 ends with a wedding instead of a funeral, I wouldn’t be disappointed either. The only thing I need from Avengers 4 is that consequences of the Snap are felt, and that the reversal of it doesn’t involve reversing the whole of Infinity war. And, to be honest, the less characters die, the better in my book.

 

 

 

 

 


Marvel Musings: The Advantage of the MCU

I really can’t count how often I have seen articles or videos with the title “The Problem with the MCU” or read a critique which bemoaned at length how uniform the MCU movies supposedly are. It’s a notion I disagree on, but I also don’t really see the point in arguing against it. There are so many MCU movies, anyone can take a bunch of them and point to aspects which are similar in them, just like I can take The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy in order to point out the differences. It’s a circular argument which will lead to nowhere.

I also won’t deny that building an overreaching universe comes with some drawbacks, some of which I will address later. But I also think that it comes with a number of advantages which make the project worthwhile – and unique. But let’s first clear up the terminology.

What is the definition of a Cinematic Universe?

Some people would claim that Universals Monster Universe was the first of its kind. I disagree. Despite the name, what Universal actually invented wasn’t the concept of an universe, but the movie crossover. When Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, there has been no built-up whatsoever to the moment. It is just another in a long string of monster movies which just happens to put together two monsters from different franchises.

Which brings me to the first thing which I feel might be the most important feature in an universe: Continuity. And with continuity I don’t just mean that what happens in one movie doesn’t contradict what happens in another movie, I mean  thematic threw line as well as constant character development.

I also think that the story has to follow more than one character. There are a number of franchises out there and some of them even manage to have a proper progression from movie to movie instead of rehashing the same story again and again. But if we stick to basically the same set of characters, it is not a universe, it is one ongoing story.

But sometimes franchises do branch out. What is pretty common, especially on TV, is the Spin-off. To mention a particular long running example: Jag spawned NCIS, which in turn has two additional Spin-Offs. But that doesn’t make it one big universe because other than the occasional cross-over episode, what happens in one show doesn’t influence what happens in the other show at all. They have continuity, but only in their own realm. A Spin-off can be the first step to a universe, but it doesn’t automatically create one.

To summon this up, what a movie universe needs is:

  1. Continuity
  2. The possibility of different characters and places being the focus of a story
  3. Events in one part of the universe influencing what happens elsewhere

And if you put it this way, the list of what can be considered a universe as opposed to a franchise is pretty short. You could argue that Star Trek is one since Deep Space 9 because that was the first time a Star Trek series intertwined with its predecessors on a fairly regular basis. DC’s animated shows and movies work like one, as does the Arrow-verse on CW (mostly). And then there are the Conjuring movies which some claim to be one, but, well, I am not into horror movies at all, so I can’t really judge it. It looks to me like a construct of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, but I might be wrong and there are more connections between the various movies then it seems to be.

Anyway, usually overreaching universes tend to exist in books and not in TV or movies. This is mostly for practical reasons. An author doesn’t have to worry about the availability of actors or budgets or ratings or any of the other factors which force TV and movie writers to keep their stories within specific parameters.

Though even book authors have a preference to stick with specific characters. There are exceptions – for example CJ Cherryh’s Alliance/Union universe is way more focussed on building a world seen from different perspectives than on telling the story of a specific group of characters – but a lot of written universe grow pretty much by accident. And yes, that includes the comic book universes.

I feel that the MCU is unique in structure and scale. It didn’t just come to be, it was planed. It didn’t start on TV but as a movie franchise. And it presents a world which feels bigger more lived in than anything I have seen before. And it is doubly impressive when you consider how it started.

A little bit of history

A lot of people have gotten into the habit of seeing Marvel as the big boy in town, especially since it merged with the oh so powerful Disney company. But we only have to go ten years back to see a very different picture. Then we see a new founded studio struggling to get its first movie off the ground. On the line is nothing less than the TV and movie rights for all Marvel characters the company still owns and the production itself has to fight every step on the way. First it struggles with finding a director ready to bet his reputation on this silly Superhero property with a very limited fanbase, then the shot starts with no finished script, something which could have gone very wrong if Marvel hadn’t bet on a very talented but during that time kind of washed up actor to not fall back into his drug addiction. This is the Hollywood equivalent of doing a tightrope walk over a fire pit during a storm and yet it somehow worked out. Though I am not sure if Marvel studio could have pulled off The Avengers as well as it did without Disney’s backing.

Since we are on topic, we are also in this habit to see Disney as the giant company which towers over everything. This is again a kind of screwed perception (or at least it will be until the Disney/Fox deal is fully implemented). Disney is really good in branding itself, but of the big six, Disney is the only studio which didn’t already belong to the Hollywood giants back in the golden era. If you compare Warner Bros. with Disney, Disney is pretty much the former underdog, the small independent studio which survived in a market place controlled by monopolies and managed to grow to a point that it is able to play with the big boys. Powerful enough that they could afford the purchase of Marvel, betting on the future success of the studio and offering considerable resources to allow the talent behind the MCU to realize its vision.

But what is truly important to remember here is that by the time Marvel studios released Ironman, Warner Bros. had done a number of comic book based movies already, had thrown around the idea for a Justice League movie for years and had already built an overreaching universe with its animated output. But it was Marvel Studios which decided to try its hand in making a group of B-List heroes the big event. They came from behind and are now so far ahead that I nearly feel sorry for Warner Bros. except that I am very aware that the studio had all the resources and the time to be out of the gate first.

But why didn’t they? Well, there are a couple of factors one has to consider.

A little Hollywood history

Honestly, one can’t completely blame studio executives for not believing that an overreaching universe could work in the movies. Because I am pretty sure that only 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked. One has to consider the accessibility of media in the past, and the viewing habits of the audience.

When movie theatres became a thing, serials were pretty common. As were shorts. A typical Saturday evening matinee in the 1920s and 1930s looked like this: At least one Serial, a cartoon, the weekly news, and two main movies (which had a length between 30 and 50 minutes back then). And the serials had a very specific purpose: To ensure that the audience would visit the theatre at least once a week. Granted, those serials couldn’t be too intricate, because if a viewer missed out a week or two he had still to be able to follow it. Most of the times the episodes were really formulaic, but ended on some sort of cliffhanger (often literally – that’s where the word originated) so that the audience was curious to see the solution the following week. And a particular popular and successful subject for those serials were Comic book characters. That Flash Gordon is still that well known today is due to his famous serial putting giving him enough exposure that once a while a new movie or TV show tries to revive the property, and characters like Batman and Captain America made their on-screen debut in serials.

The last serial aired in 1956, but at this point the viewing habits had already changed due to the rise of TV. To clarify something: The film industry survived this change just fine. Most movie theatres didn’t. And we are still in a process of consolidation due to more and more media veering away the attention of the audience, so don’t be surprised if there are less and less theatres around. But in the movie industry a new split happened. Serials and news were now reserved for TV, while the Hollywood movies went for the big epics. The importance was (and still is) that the movie offers something the audience wants to see it on a big screen and not on TV.

For some time, due to the audience not going to the theatre regularly anymore, sequels were usually expected to make less than the predecessor. After all, you couldn’t bet on everyone who watched the first part turning up for the second part and, let’s be honest here, few people would watch a sequel to something they haven’t seen. Consequently sequels were usually a quick cash grab: Throw them out there as fast as possible and hope that they retain enough of the original audience to make some safe money from them. But they weren’t seen as viable long-term investment until, well, until the rise of home video in the 1980s.

Due to people being able to buy the movie they liked, being able to watch it whenever they wanted and not whenever it happened to turn up on TV and, above all, share it with their friends, the likelihood of people who didn’t see a successful movie in theatre discovering it through other channels and then turning up for the sequel grew. Suddenly a sequel became a viable investment which could be used to groom an audience – provided the studio caught on. Let’s be honest, most of them didn’t and to this day still throw out hastily penned sequels with no care whatsoever until the audience gets tired of them and stops turning up. But there were more and more attempts to actually put some effort into the sequel in the hope to retain the audience.

And then the internet happened.

I know it is difficult to grasp for those who grew up having access to the world by mouse click, but the speed with which information currently flows is amazing. And it has thoroughly impacted the way we experience media. Until the 1990s TV shows were still pretty much a “it doesn’t matter if you miss an episode or two” affair, but nowadays a lot of TV shows, especially those written for streaming, feature a tightly written narrative. At the same time, movies have become more of a group experience. It is no longer just about being able to say “yes, I have seen this popular movie” at the water cooler or in the school yard, now there are long online discussions about movies. And while by far not everyone participates in those discussions, they can thoroughly influence the success of a movie. Forget Rotten Tomatoes, nothing kills a movie as fast as bad buzz – or, maybe worse, no buzz at all. And only in this world, in which media is easier accessible than ever, something like the MCU could even exist.

I often read comments of people (and yes, I know I am straw-manning a little bit here, but I need to make the point) who claim that TV shows belong on TV and not in the cinema, or that the tendency of the MCU to set up the next movie in each outing is an inherently bad thing because it destroys the movie experience. Well, newsflash, there is no fixed rule for how the movie experience should look like. It used to be black and white movies with a length around 20 minutes and, if you were lucky, an orchestra to fill the silence instead of a street organ. I tend to define a movie as something which has at least the length of an hour and consider everything less a feature or a short-film, but a viewer from the early 1920s would think me crazy for expecting a movie to be longer than an hour in the first place. And yes, serial storytelling not only belongs into the theatres, it was part of them from day one. It was just absent for a very long time.

This is not saying that there isn’t a bad way to set-up the next movie and a good way of doing it. But the process of setting something up for the future is itself a neutral feature of a movie. And if someone moans that he “wants to watch a movie which isn’t about the next one for a change”, my answer is: Then watch something else. Each year there are a number of stand-alone movies which are released. Complaining about the existence of movies which are part of something bigger is like, well, like me complaining about the existence of horror movies. Just because I don’t like most of them doesn’t mean that they don’t have merit or that I have any right to make a fuss about other people enjoying them.

Granted, the current obsession Hollywood has with the notion of overreaching universes is slightly annoying. But not because so many studios consider the option, but because most of them don’t do a particular good job with it. It is just another fad. Just like it was annoying when the Disney Renaissance lead to a string of movies copying the Disney Musical Formula, when Die Hard lead to a string of movies about cops or soldiers being trapped somewhere with a bunch of terrorists, when Independence Day lead to a string of movies about catastrophes and the destruction of landmarks, when Harry Potter lead to a bunch of progressively worse Young Adult book adaptations, and every single other time a successful movie lead to Hollywood chasing the latest trend. They will eventually learn. Maybe they have already, the enthusiasm for Universes seems to have dimmed considerably. Speaking of which….

What does the MCU right?

It is really not for a lack of trying by other studios that the MCU is still the only truly successful cinematic universe out there. A big factor is time. The MCU needed four years to make the move from a string of stand-alone movies which were hinting at something bigger to a proper universe. Those studios which followed the lead either tried to do the same in one or two movies, or they are still in the growing phase of their universe. Granted, they had six years, someone could have caught up at this point. But, as I pointed out already, this isn’t as easy as it looks. After all, you not only have to make a number of movies to reach this stage in the first place, they also have to be at the very least decent movies in order to keep the audience interested. And when was the last time any studio not named Disney managed to release even three movies in a row for the same franchise without at least one of them not being up to par?

On the other hand, most universes fail with their first or second release already. Usually due to a lack of patience. As I mentioned above, laying some ground-work for the next movie in the franchise is in itself not a bad thing. It becomes a problem, though, when the focus is so much on the next instalment that the current one feels incoherent and unfinished. Marvel had a misstep or two in that regard, but in general they learned early on to take it slowly. First the movie at hand, then the tie in, often as an end-credit tease. And, just in case you didn’t notice, a lot of those teasers from Phase 1 got reconned later on because plans changed and Marvel needed some time to find its footing. But it didn’t matter because they were never part of the main movie anyway.

Also, while the movies and the TV shows are connected and set in the same universe, they all work like a mosaic picture. Meaning that you can just watch the various franchises in the MCU isolated from each other if you chose to – but once you do you immediately get the feeling that you have the rest too, just for the additional information. Still there are people out there who stick to one franchise or one TV show and happily ignore everything else. This has the advantage that everything can become a point of entry to the MCU.

But outside of the marketing advantage, why even bother? Why not simply do standalone movies?

What is the actual merit of a cinematic universe?

Well, for one, is a way more accurate depiction of comic books on the big screen than stand alone movies are. At least regarding Marvel and DC, which both feature multipel universes in their respective comics. But it also offers some rare narrative options.

Let’s start with the obvious one: The writers have to spend way less time to set things up. Every stand alone movie has to use a considerable amount of its runtime to explain the world and introduce the characters. Consequently there are always a number of characters the audience doesn’t really get to know at all because they are simply not that important for the story. But in the MCU, this isn’t really that much of an issue. The various movies tend to spend some time in reintroducing the characters, but can keep it to the basics.

Let’s examine The Avengers as example. One of the major conflicts in the movie happens between Steve and Tony, Steve standing for old fashioned heroism, Tony being a product of a more hedonistic society. The audience really doesn’t need to watch any of the other movies to understand this concept. But if it has watched them, it also knows about the friendship between Howard and Steve and the complicated relationship between Howard and Tony. If it has also watched Agent Carter on top of this, it also has a deeper understanding why Howard was the way he was, how much losing Steve hit him and why he ended up praising him so much that Tony started to resent him.

Then there are the interactions between Thor and Loki. Again, just from watching The Avengers, one can easily gather the basics: That Loki is adopted, that he thinks that his family hates him and that he is on a giant power trip due to his insecurities. But if the audience has watched Thor it also knows how deep Loki’s self-hatred runs and how much of what he does is motivated by internalized racism.

This also works in the other direction. No, a scene in a later movie can’t retroactively make a scene in an earlier movie better, but it can add another layer to it. Knowing Odin’s history with Hela makes him punishing Thor that harshly when he turned out to be too ready for war more than just an angry reaction, but a response born out of deep seated fears. A lot details regarding Thanos and Loki haven’t been revealed yet, but they are bound to play a role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.

Granted, some might feel that the scene of Loki stabbing Coulson has lost its weight due to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I would argue that while the shock effect might be lost knowing that he gets resurrected later on, he also becomes a more fleshed out character in the show. I for my part care more about Coulson getting stabbed now that I know him better than I did back when he was just the corky fanboy agent.

But the MCU allows more than just additional lawyers to the character. It also allows the writers to explore consequences in a way that even a TV show would struggle to do.

Again, let’s stick with the Battle of New York – which in itself is a direct consequence of Odin hiding the Tessaract on earth which was later used by Red Skull and eventually found by S.H.I.E.L.D. – and its aftermath. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D we learn that a couple of first responders firefighter died because they contracted an alien virus. In Spider-man: Homecoming we learn that Adrian Toomes collected a bunch of alien tech and sold it on the black market after the government regulations screwed him over. And then there are the Netflix shows which spend a lot of time on the socio economic impact. Neighbourhoods which need to get rebuild. People who are angry because their loved ones died. White collar criminals who enrich themselves during rebuilding. A general feeling of insecurity spreading through the city.

Usually when we see the action piece in a block-buster, we only see the heroic aspect of it. We never get to see the fall-out. But in the MCU, we do. And due to all those perspectives being related to the same event, it allows for a way more layered storytelling on a much bigger scale than a stand alone movie or even a TV show is able to provide.

And then there is Captain America: Civil War. A movie like this can only exist in a wider universe. Unlike most Marvel movies this one does expect from the audience to have done its homework – meaning, having at least watched all Captain America and Avengers movie up to this point, but ideally also the Ironman movies and perhaps Ant-man. Some people would see this as a weakness, but it is also a strength. Otherwise it would be utterly impossible to have a fight involving twelve characters with the audience not only knowing what the two groups are fighting for, but also why every single fighter has picked the side their are on.

But maybe even more important, by knowing the backstory of Steve and Tony and knowing how they have developed in the previous movies, there is a sweet irony in their positions. Steve once started out as someone who believed in America, its ideals and its government. He now still believes in the ideals he used to fight far, but he no longer trusts in politics. Tony used to flip the finger at anyone who would try to tell him what to do, but after having made some particularly fateful decision – one of which lead to the destruction of a whole country – he now craves any kind of structure which might prevent him from repeating his mistakes.

Exactly this backstory is what makes their arguments in Civil War so poignant. They not only understand where the other is coming from, they have been in each others position at one point and therefore recognize the underlying dangers in them. And, it bears repeating, the only reason why Civil War works so well is because it is underpinned with years of storytelling and careful character development.

But what are the downsides?

Well, some people (yes, I am strawmanning again, bear with me) would claim it shackles creativity. I don’t quite agree. I think that it pushes creativity in certain directions due to the need to follow a cohesive body of work. Again, this is neither a downside nor an advantage, it is a neutral feature. No writer works in a vacuum, and sometimes having a starting point can actually encourage creativity and yield interesting ideas. Most writers like to bounce ideas off another. But some of them also really like to keep a certain degree of control over what they create.

So, I wouldn’t say that there are downsides to it, but a number of challenges. And sometimes the seams are quite visible. Take the Thor franchise. The first movie ended with Thor being cut-off from earth. But he was needed in The Avengers, so an excuse was made up why this was possible. And then the second movie has an overly clumsy explanation why Thor didn’t bother to even visit Jane between movies. And then this movie sets up yet another cliff-hanger with Loki having replaced Odin, only for this plot point being solved as fast as possible in the third film because obviously Taiko Waititi was more interested in doing Planet Hulk than delving into the set-up at hand. But at least he didn’t turn another movie into a giant plot-hole the way Shane Black did with Ironman 3.

So yes, the MCU isn’t perfect. And, as a general rule, I think the Marvel should really try to keep one franchise within in the hands of the same people as much as possible. One reason why the Captain America franchise works so well is because it has the same writing team from start to finish. Guardians of the Galaxy takes full advantage of the freedom a property set in space has, but it is also safe in the hands of James Gunn. I also have a good feeling about the future of Ant-man, which seems to become palette cleanser for the MCU, following the big block buster with a smaller scale – no pun intended – adventure.

So, to summon this up: While the MCU comes with certain challenges, it also provides a foundation on which new stories can be build. It allows the creation of a long-lasting narrative like a TV show does, but unlike a TV show it is not bound to work within specific parameters. The writers and directors can change genre at will, can go from a big story to a small story and they can explore the same event from as many perspectives at they want. And that makes the MCU an unique breeding ground for stories which simply can’t be told this way in a stand alone movie. At least until someone else managed to built a similar construct.

 

 

 

 


Marvel Musings: Darren Cross

People who paid attention might have noticed that I skipped Ultron, even though he should be dead and is not a Hydra villain. The reason for this decision is that I am not quite sure if the Ultron arc is truly finished yet. Oh, he himself is, but I have a theory or two about the sceptre and how it influenced Ultron which may or may not be addressed in Infinity War. Plus, I would prefer to discuss Ultron back to back with a certain other AI in the MCU, which in turn I would prefer to cover after Hydra so, yeah, we will get back to him later. I know, I am disappointed too. I would rather take him apart than Yellowjacket. But then, I might be too harsh on him. Let’s see how well he scores.

MV7-Yellow-Jacket

 

1. Character Establishing Moment

How well is the villain established in his first scene?

The first time Darren Cross turns up is basically a giant exposition dump – but a really entertaining one. The undertones in his interaction with Hank Pym as well as his overall demeanour do establish him as a serious threat from the get go. Let’s appreciate for a moment what the audience learns in a comparative short scene: That Darren Cross has taken over Hank Pym’s company, that he used to be his protégée but turned against him, partly for lying about the existence of an Ant-man suit, that he managed to revive those old plans and create his own model and that him selling said suit would be a terrible thing for the world. Add to this small touches, like the name of company on the model having changed to “Cross” instead of “Pym”, and there is little to complain about regarding the scene. It is not the most memorable first entrance, but certainly an effective one. 4 Points.

 

2. Motivation

What is his motivation and how creative is it?

Daddy issues are a very common motivation in comic book stories and the MCU in general. Mentor issues are a little bit more rare, but in a way, there isn’t much of a difference, except that in the case of mentor issues, the person in question choose to look up to a specific person. Why did Darren Cross look up to Hank Pym? Because he always thought that the stories about the Ant-man were true? Or did he admire his other inventions? Maybe those questions aren’t that important, though. Still, answering them would add layers to his character. Instead his motivation is used to add complexity to Hank’s character. The notion that he shut out his mentee because he felt that he was too similar to Hank himself is fascinating. It tells us a lot about how Hank sees himself and hints at darker aspects within his personality. But Darren Cross is loosing out in this set up, so I go for 2 points.

 

3. Plan

What is his goal and does his way of reaching it make any sense?

The surface goal is to sell the Yellowjacket and make a lot of money in the process. The actual goal is to hurt Hank Pym by claiming everything which is important to him – his company, his technology and maybe even his daughter. This is why he invents Hank Pym to bear witness to his success, so that he can gloat and see his hurt. And in this context it even makes sense why he wants to sell the shrinking suit and not the laser pistol which turns people into goo. That wouldn’t be akin to claiming Hank’s legacy. What doesn’t make sense, though, is that he goes to Hank’s house to kill him shortly before the launch. Why? There is no reason for him to do this. Nor is there any reason to attack Cassie towards the end. Yes, the movie has hinted that wearing the suit would turn him crazy, but he is wearing it for the very first time. Scott has worn his for weeks and it totally fine. There is even a hint earlier in the movie that the suit is already driving him crazy, but how exactly is that supposed to work? Unless the experiments to built it already had an effect, but why is nobody else loosing his mind? All this is so muddled, I can’t give more than 2 points.

 

4. Success Rate

How successful is the villain overall? 

I guess he gets one brownie point for initially taking over Pym Tech and for capturing Scott briefly. But overall he is mostly successful in driving himself crazy. At the end of the movie he not only didn’t reach any of his goals, he inadvertently created a situation in which Hank is able to bond with his daughter again, which is pretty much the opposite of what he wanted. I give him 2 points.

 

5. Threat Level

How dangerous is the villain in general and to the hero in particular? 

Everything in Ant-man is a little bit smaller scaled (no pun intended) than usual. The danger the heroes have to deal with nevertheless nothing to underestimate. But it is also kind of abstract. I admit, I have a hard time to imagine how a world full of tiny spies would look like. On a more personal level, he feels very threatening though, and he seems to have all the power he needs to realize his plan. And once he goes crazy, he is certainly a threat towards Cassie. So I go for the middle ground with 3 points.

 

6. Foil Factor

How well does the villain figure into the story the movie is trying to tell?

Oh boy, this is hard to answer. The thing is that Ant-man feels as if two different visions are fighting with each other. I think that the movie was originally supposed to be about mentor relationships, and in this movie, Darren Cross would have been a great foil for Scott. But later on the themes shifted to father/daughter relationships. Which still works out great for Scott because this way his relationship to Cassie becomes pivotal, and naturally it leads to Hope becoming more important. But it also leaves Darren Cross kind of disconnected to the larger themes, and he is never even properly contrasted with Scott either. Usually when a Superhero defeats an evil version of themselves, they also symbolically defeat a negative or potentially dangerous aspect of their own personality. But there is nothing of Scott in Darren. Scott’s main problem is acting impulsive and blaming his failures on others. Darren is overly controlled and has obsessed for years over a particular invention instead of giving up on it. I wish I could be more gracious, but 1 point.

 

7. Acting

How well does the actor sell the role?

No complains there. He is menacing when he is supposed to be, generally creepy and finally believably unhinged. It’s not a performance for the ages, but a solid 4 points.

 

8.  Costume

Does the Costume fit the character and does it stand out in general?

It is pretty much impossible to not stand out in a yellow metal suit inspired by an insect. And I have to give Marvel a lot of props to make the suit look genuinely menacing instead of patently ridiculous. Even the extra-appendages look like they have some sort of purpose. On the other hand, though, it is not the kind of costume I would point to and say “yeah, that was a truly great one” either. So, I guess 4 points. Well done, but not outstanding.

 

9.  Entertainment Factor

How strong is the emotional response?

I am kind of neutral regarding him. In the scenes in which he is supposed to be creepy he does make me nervous, but in a very distant way. Him killing the sheep tickles my ire, but it also feels extremely manipulative. But it is not like he is boring me either, so I think 3 points are fair.

 

10. Memorable Moments

How many memorable scenes and lines has the character?

It is weird. On the one hand, I can’t think of a single memorable line Darren Cross utters. And yet, him turning some guy into yellow or experimenting on a cute sheep are hard to forget. And then there is the battle in the suitcase, him being trapped in the insect lamp and the gruesome way he (I assume) dies. Meaning he isn’t quite forgettable, but what is memorable about him is more the weird situations in which they put the character than necessarily his design or dialogue. I’ll go for the middle ground on this one. 3 Points.


With 2,8 points Yellowjacket scores higher than I expected. A lot here is rescued by the performance of the actor and a few memorable scenes and set-ups. Overall though the character suffers because the story the movie is focussing on has little to do with him.


By the Book: The Jungle Book

Disney’s current obsession with live action remakes has a lasting impact on my posting schedule. More often then not I end up delaying an article until I have seen a remake (which is not in theatres), just in case that it might end up being relevant. Usually it isn’t and I end up throwing in my two cents – or a long rant – at the end of a finished article. But I guess there is an exception to every rule. I have finally gotten around to watch The Jungle Book and to my delight Disney not only created for the very first time a sequel which I would recommend, but one worth discussing. And not just in a “By the Book” context, this deserves a “Double Take” article.

So I’ll do the following: I’ll adjust my approach to “By the Book” a little bit to fit this particular situation and compare both adaptations to the source text and each other. But I’ll leave technical aspects and a deeper analysis of the characters and the structure of the respective movies for “Double Take”.  So, don’t expect this one to get too analytical, I’ll focus entirely on the differences this time around.

 

1. The original Jungle Book

Technically there are two Jungle Books, but they are usually published in one book nowadays. Each is a collection of short stories, and between each of the short stories is a poem.  And not all of them are about Mowgli, nor are all Mowgli stories in those books. Mowgli actually makes his first appearance in the short story In the Rukh. It describes an English forest ranger encountering a young man named Mowgli with extraordinary tracking abilities and a strange connection to wolves, eventually discovering that Mowgli was raised by wolves. It further describes Mowgli falling in love, marrying and fathering a son before returning to his wolf brothers.

The two Jungle Books pick up Mowgli’s story again, describing his childhood. There are overall eight short stories covering the events before In the Rukh as well as six related poems: Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack,  Road-Song of the Bandar-Log, Mowgli’s Song that he Sang at the Council Rock when he Danced on Shere Khan’s Hide, The Law of the Jungle, Mowgli’s Song against People and The Out-Song. The short stories which are relevant for discussing the Disney adaptations are Mowgli’s Brothers (which tells the story about how Mowgli was raised by the wolves and his fight with Shere Khan), Kaa’s Hunting (a midquel to the previous story about how Mowgli once got kidnapped by the apes/Bandar-Log) and some elements of How Fear Came (covering the events during a Water Truce). The other five stories, Tiger! Tiger!, Letting in the Jungle, The King’s Ankus, Red Dog and The Spring Running explore Mowgli’s relationship to humans and to his former pack.

One can’t understate the influence The Jungle Book had on literature, especially children’s literature. But it also shouldn’t be unmentioned that Kipling himself is a controversial figure. I mean, what can one expect, he was an Englishman growing up in India during Imperialism, he had attitudes which were certainly questionable. And I certainly won’t go and defend him or his work as a whole. However, I’ll say that I consider it questionable to read imperialistic messages into The Jungle Book, because this approach always ends up with the claim that a specific group of animals supposedly presents a specific group of people, and I find little indication of this in the story. Plus, one shouldn’t forget that Mowgli is representing humanity in the story, meaning humanity is represented by an Indian boy and not (like it is the case in the Tarzan stories) some lost British aristocrat.

Now, the stories which involve other humans, they might be a little bit more iffy, especially once British characters turn up (though that happens only in one story which isn’t even part of the Jungle Book). I can understand why it might not sit right with Indians that some Jingoist writer went and criticized their caste system, as well as portraying them as superstitious and greedy. However, I also don’t think that the stories would get the same scrutiny if they had been written by someone else or maybe even an Indian.

I myself read the stories always more as a collection of morality tales, being an exploration of the relationship between humans and nature (with humans rarely being portrayed all that positive) as well as an exploration of what it means to grew up between two completely different societies. Especially greed and egoism are portrayed in a negative light, but above all there is a heavy emphasis on the need to respect the laws of society. In the book those laws consist of a combination of obedience towards the ones which are older and wiser (or higher on the food chain) as well as acting socially responsible. The emphasis on obedience is a little bit troubling from a modern point of view, but the idea to act for the good of all and not just for your own good certainly isn’t. At the end of the day, though, this are mostly vague ideas and some aspects of them are even discussed in the stories, with no clear cut conclusion made in the end. Which might be why they have endured so long, because whatever Kipling might have thought, the stories are more about exploring concepts than presenting any kind of judgement about them.

2. The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book is commonly considered the last movie Walt Disney has done. In reality, Walt Disney wasn’t really involved in the everyday business of the animation studios anymore when the production on the movie started. But he certainly took an interest in this particular project, more to the ones which came beforehand.

Originally The Jungle Book was supposed to be way closer to the source text. But when Walt Disney saw the first storyboards, he felt that the approach was too dark. He gave the soundtrack to the Sherman brothers with only “Bear necessities” remaining and set a new team of animators on it with the order to ignore the storyboards completely. If you pay attention to the credits you’ll notice that the movie claims to be “inspired” by the Jungle Book, rather than being an adaptation. Because that is what Walt Disney intended.

Consequently it is a little bit pointless to compare the Disney version to the source material. The only thing left is the setting and the names of the characters. It is basically a completely original story based on the same concept. The end result is a movie which is popular but not particularly ground breaking.

I am not sure about the current generation, but back in the day, The Jungle Book was big. Maybe partly because it was released in the middle of what is considered the Dark Age of Animation. Just take a peak into my coverage of the 1960s when I was looking for the winner of the swanpride award. With so few high-quality animated movies being released, The Jungle Book must have looked like a masterpiece. I am not sure how it stacks up compared to the Disney Canon in general. It is certainly a good movie, but I would dispute that it is a great one. It is certainly influential, though. Most adaptations which were released after contain at least some elements and ideas from this one.

Nowadays it often comes up in “Disney is racist” discussions. To get this out of the way, too: This accusation is mostly based on the role of the apes play in the movie, especially King Lois. They are seen as racist caricatures of blacks. Here is the thing though: There was the idea to have a few better known artists doing the songs of the movie. King Lois was supposed to be voiced by Jazz Legend Lois Armstrong and the vultures were supposed to be voiced by the Beatles. But Walt Disney felt that the Beatles would soon be forgotten (well, he was maybe the most visionary producer of all time, but that doesn’t mean that he was always right) and wanted to avoid the unfortunate implication of casting a black man to voice an ape. So in the end, the role went to Louis Prima, the king of swing – apes, swinging, do you get it?

Nevertheless the apes are still often accused of being caricatures of black people even though this was clearly not the intention. And the song “I want to be like you” is sometimes read as a black person wanting to be a white one. Which, to be frank, makes no sense to me whatsoever. Even if we assume that apes acting like apes is supposed to refer to certain racist imaginary in which humans act like apes (though that would beg the question how exactly animated apes should act if not like apes), how exactly does Mowgli qualify as “white”? As I pointed out above, he is an Indian boy and he clearly looks the part. If you take the song out of context maybe you could argue that Jazz music is inherently linked to the Black community, but then there is still the fact that it isn’t sung by a black man, but by an American with Italian roots.

Bottom line, if you want to see racism in it, you will be able to find it.  But I really doubt that there are many people out there who look at this and immediately go “oh, yeah, those silly blacks will never be as good as we white people”.

3. The Jungle Book (2016)

When Disney decided to do a live action remake, was sceptic, but less annoyed than I am usually are. After all, I knew how much of the source material Disney left untapped the first time around. There was a difficult balance Disney had to maintain, though, since this wasn’t just supposed to be a new take on The Jungle Book, but also a remake of the animated movie. The result was an entirely new version of the story, which borrows from both sources and still managed to create something completely new.

To illustrate the point, here some back-to-back comparisons of the three versions:


Original: Mowgli is found by Wolves, who defend him against Shere Khan.

1967: Mowgli is found by Bagheera in a wrecked boat and secretly brought to the wolves.

2016: Mowgli is found by Bagheera after Shere Khan killed his father and openly brought to the wolves.


Original:  Bagheera and Baloo are both Mowgli’s mentors, Bagheera because he was raised by humans and therefore knows about their ways and Baloo because he is old and wise.

1967: Bagheera visits Mowgli from time to time. Baloo his a lazy, go lucky personality Mowgli happens to encounter during his travel.

2016: Bagheera is Mowgli’s mentor. Baloo is both old and wise as well as displaying a lazy, go lucky personality. He becomes a second mentor figure for Mowgli after rescuing him from Kaa.


Original: In order to get to Mowgli, Shere Kahn is convincing the younger wolves in the pack to usurp Akela so that they can send Mowgli away.

1967: Akela decides that Mowgli has to go. Bagheera suggests to bring him to a village he knows.

2016: Mowgli, seeing the pack arguing, suggests to leave himself. Bagheera suggest to bring him to the village. Later on Shere Khan is trying to poison the mind of the young wolves against Mowgli.


Original: Kaa is a wise python, who helps Mowgli multiple times. Hypnose is mentioned, but it is a Cobra who does it to the Apes and Baloo and Bagheera while Mowgli seems to be immune.

1967: Kaa is a secondary villain and comic relief who hypnotizes and tries to eat Mowgli multiple times, but always gets districted long enough that Mowgli can escape.

2016: Kaa is secondary female villain who hypnotizes and reveals the truth about his past to Mowgli and then tries to eat him, but is attacked by Baloo.


Original: Hathi is the leader of the elephants and another mentor figure of Mowgli.

1967: Colonel Hathi is a caricature of English colonialism, acting like a particularly idiotic English officer and constantly talking the story about how he was awarded the Victoria cross.

2016: The Elephants, including Hathi, are god-like creatures in the eyes of the other Jungle animals.


Original: Shere Khan disturbs the water truce and is driven away by Mowgli

1967: No mention is made of a water truce

2016: Shere Khan turns up during the water truce, discovers Mowgli and threatens him.


Original: King Lois doesn’t exist. The apes are outsider in the jungle because they don’t accept any form of authority or rule. They kidnap Mowgli an bring him to the old city simply because they are curious, but he is rescued by Baloo, Bagheera and Kaa, who breaks down a wall to free Mowgli.

1967: King Lois is the ruler of the apes who desires to be like a human and kidnaps Mowgli because he wants to learn how to create fire. When Baloo and Bagreera rescue him, enough pillars are destroyed that the city breaks down.

2016: King Lois is the ruler of the apes and kidnaps Mowgli because he wants to harness the power of the “red flower” and become the most powerful being in the jungle. During the rescue attempt he follows Mowgli into a room in which he destroys enough pillars that the whole building falls down on him.


Original: Mowgli uses the “red flower” to rescue Akela’s life and drive Shere Khan away. But having done so, he has embraced his humanity and can therefore no longer stay in the Jungle. He lives a while in the village but eventually returns into the Jungle, just to leave again and returns to the humans when he is around 17 because he “feels restless”.

1967: After having established Shere Khan’s fear of fire earlier, a convenient lighting stroke provides Mowgli with fire he uses to drive Shere Khan away. At this point Mowgli could stay in the jungle but ends up leaving anyway because, he sees a beautiful girl and can’t resist.

2016: Mowgli steals the “red flower” from the village an intends to use it on Shere Khan, but, seeing how much the other animals fear him, decides to throw the weapon away, showing himself worthy of the jungle. He then lures Shere Khan into the flames, though. At least in this movie he stays in the jungle, but who knows what will happen in the sequel.


There is more, but I those are the main events and I think they bring the point across pretty well.  The 2016 adaptation is closer to the original version than the movie from 1967, but it borrows heavily from both and introduces a number of new elements. Ie the hunt for the honey. The cliff with the bees is mentioned in Red Dog, but in a completely different context, and Baloo is way more cunning than in either the source text (where his main characteristic is wisdom) or the animated movie (where his main characteristic is being extremely laid-back). And thematically, it tells a completely new story. But that is something for the next article to discuss.

4. Other adaptations

Normally I would now judge the movie (or movies) on their merit as adaptation and as movies. In this case, though, this seems to me a at least partly useless exercise. There are a number of adaptations and every single one of them is very different, depending on which story was picked. In addition, a lot of the ones made after 1967 have been influenced by the animated movie one way or another. Disney itself went back to the well multiple times, in both movies and TV shows, sometimes by doing some sort of spin on the animated movie (or should I say TaleSpin?), sometimes by trying their hand at a live action adaptation.

But here is a list of the ones which stick out:

An absolute must-watch is The Jungle Book from 1942, starring Sabu. Loosely based on three of the later short stories –  Tiger! Tiger!, Letting in the Jungle and The King’s Ankus – it is a true gem of classic cinema. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Favreau ends up borrowing some ideas from it for the upcoming  Jungle Book 2.

The closest adaptation is a series of animated movies created between 1967 and 1971 in the Soviet Union. Unlike the Disney take this version takes the source material very serious and doesn’t even try to make the animals look cute.

I guess I should mention Disney’s first live action take from 1994. This one mostly sticks out, though, because it is a terrible adaptation. I suspect the original idea was to do a combination on In the Rukh and The King’s Ankus, but the end results comes off more as Tarzan in India than a Jungle Book story. It’s not the worst movie, but a fan of either the book or the Disney animated movie will certainly feel let down by this take.

Japan naturally did their own take on it in 1989 (honestly, is there any classic children’s book which hasn’t been turned into an anime?).  Jungle Book Shōnen Mowgli follows the original story pretty closely, but with some elements from other adaptations as well as some new ideas thrown in. A particular oddity is Mowgli using a boomerang instead of a knife. Overall, though, it does take the source material serious enough to tackle some heavy material for a children’s show.

 

5. The Conclusion

The Jungle Book offers a lot of material for adaptations, which led to a number of different takes on the story. I think, everybody has to decide for himself what kind of adaptation he wants. For something fun, the Disney version of 1967 is certainly a good pick, while the remake of 2006 offers both, the serious elements from the source text and the fun of the animated movie.

For a deeper analysis, well, tune in next time. For now I hope you have gotten an idea how those two adaptation relate to the source material and to each other.

Baloo-and-Bageera-the-jungle-book-9883216-140-145


Double Take: Pocahontas vs Moana

When I first planned this series, I wasn’t quite sure what I would do about the Disney Princess movies. They are, after all, in a way different takes on similar ideas. But an article comparing all of them didn’t seem feasible so I originally intended to focus on other movies first before making a decision about them.

But then Lindsey Ellis did an excellent video which compared Pocahontas with Moana. Her angle was the question how Disney’s approach to other cultured developed over time and she made a number of good points. Though I did feel that she also missed a few and I considered doing my own take on the same topic, but with a broader focus. There is after all more to a movie than just how it handles sensitive topics. I hadn’t really decided yet if I should do it when I got a reviewer request for exactly that article. Well, I frequently ask my reviewers for suggestions, and I am always pleased when I get one which really calls out to me, so here it is,my personal take on Pocahontas vs. Moana.

Pocahontas-Choice-31. The Princesses

There are naturally some aspects all  princesses have in common – usually with one notable exception. With the exception of Jasmine and arguably Aurora, they are all the leads of their respective movies. With the exception of Merida they all sing and have cute sidekicks. And naturally they are all beautiful and have some sort of goal they want to reach (though the nature of said goals changed a lot over time).

But Pocahontas and Moana have some additional similarities.  Their stories are not based on European fairy tales, but on the culture of native tribes whose way of life was destroyed by colonisation. They both have some sort of connection to nature which gives them access to special power, something none of the other princesses have (Elsa is technically not the Princess of Frozen, Anna is). And they are both the daughter of the chief and conflicted about accepting their position in the tribe.

But there are also a number of important differences, some of them based in their characters, some or them based in the tribe itself. Pocahontas’ big conflict boils down to not wanting to get married to Kokoum. Moana’s dream is to be a sailor, but she is supposed to be a future leader. Pocahontas’ is portrayed as free spirit, spending her time in roaming in the woods. To be honest, she comes off as irresponsible and lazy at times, and I don’t think that this is intentional. Moana on the other hand is shown to be integrated in the tribe, doing clearly her part in society. Pocahontas is deeply connected to the spirits and decides early on to follow her own path, Moana initially looses the connection she has to the myths and history of her ancestors in favour of following the wishes of her father. Both end up leading the tribe on a new path in the end, but Pocahontas points them towards a new future while Moana pushes them to reconnect with their roots.Description-Pocahontas

And now I’ll say something which will most likely earn me a couple of angry comments: I think that both of them are less interesting than they could have been, though for very different reasons. Pocahontas motivations and goals are too vague to really root for her. She is more defined over what she doesn’t want – marrying Kokoum – than clearly stated goals, and her main reason for the actions she takes in the movie is that she literally “feels” that this is the right thing to do. Meaning she has some sort of dream or is guided by the wind, allowing her very little in terms of agency. There is little about her personality which goes past “free spirit connected with nature”, though to her credit, she gets a little bit character development towards the end when she decides to stay with the tribe instead of fulfilling her desire to stay with John Smith. Except I am not sure if this actually is character development and not just another instance of her just doing what the wind tells her.

My issue with Moana is more complicated. In isolation she works fine, especially since the child version of her has so much personality. There are some settled touches I really like, for example her putting the protection of a baby tortoise over her desire to get a beautiful shell. And I really like that her first attempt to go past the reef fails. She first needs the right kind of boat and then she needs to learn how to navigate properly. So, if I like all those aspects, why do I still think that Moana could have been a better character? Because there are a long string of princesses before her which had similar personalities, and most of them were pulled off better.

Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t necessarily mind the concept of a young girl having a dream and coming of age while trying to fulfil that dream. But if you do the same basic concept so often, it should feel organic. Disney has done the “I want”-princesses since the Disney renaissance. But do you know what they had in common? Either their desire is driving the story or the story defines their desire.

If Ariel hadn’t dreamt of seeing the human world, Ursula would have never been able to lay her little trap. If Rapunzel hadn’t wanted to see the lanterns, she would still sitting unhappy in her little tower.  Those are all leads whose desire lead to pretty much everything which happens in the story. But there are also a few for which it is the other way around, where events out of their control lead them an a specific path. Mulan wants to proof her worth, but she certainly doesn’t dream of being a soldier, and yet that is exactly what she becomes. Belle is unhappy in the little village she is living in and longs for adventure, but once she ends up in said adventure, she is everything but happy about the situation, since getting captured by some sort of beast is certainly not what she had in mind. In Tiana’s case it is a mixture of both: Her desire to own a restaurant has no relation whatsoever to Naveen’s plight, but without it, she would have never kissed him.

Moana on the other hand dreams of being a sailor and then is forced to go on an adventure which requires of her becoming one. Wow, this is convenient. There is also no particular reason why that should be her dream. Ariel finds all those strange things the humans create and is fascinated by it. Rapunzel sees the lanterns every year for her birthday. Belle dreams of adventure because she has read all those books and feels uncomfortable in her village. Tiana has all those memories of cooking for her father and sharing her meals with the neighbourhood. Moana likes the ocean because…it is there? And it played once with her when she was a child?

See, usually this wouldn’t be such a big deal, at least not quite (I will get to this later on when I discuss structure). But in the context of the Disney Princess Franchise it feels like Moana wants to be a sailor for one reason alone: Because it is kind of expected for a princess to have some sort of dream and the desire to go against social expectation. It feels like the Disney went for the less interesting story by fulfilling some sort of check list. Moana deciding to brave the waves would be so much more compelling if it were something she decided to do because the stories of her grandmother convinced her that this might be a way to rescue her people. That she is doing something she always wanted to do anyway makes her actions a little bit less heroic in my eyes.

And that is a real shame. Having a protagonist which starts out satisfied with her position in live and then setting out to fight a threat against it while also discovering her own culture on a deeper level would have been a new and fresh approach to the Disney Princess franchise. Instead they fell back in familiar patterns, cheapening the narrative in the process.

2. The Conflict with the FatherHard-knocks-5

I already addressed this point briefly, but let’s analyse this a little bit further. Pocahontas relationship with her father is fraught with clichés. He only wants the best for her, but doesn’t really listen to her desires. He sees her mother in her. And he finally accepts her wisdom. The problem in all of this is that the conflict isn’t really much of a conflict because it is kind of one-sided. Pocahonta’s father isn’t really aware of what she does all day, and when he gets angry with her over Kocuum dying, it is because of the wrong reason. He believes he died because she was careless and has no idea about her relationship with John Smith until the very last moment of the movie – at which point he listens to the wind and immediately changes his mind.

Moana’s father on the other hand knows exactly what her dreams and desires are, and the conflict between them is expressed in arguments instead of two people basically talking past each other. But the movie really drops the ball when it comes to the solution to the conflict. See, there is actually no reason whatsoever why Moana’s father should suddenly change his mind about leaving the island at the end of the movie. Even if he would be ready to believe her story about finding a Demi-god and rescuing the sea, why should he suddenly develop a desire to lead his people away from a secure place? It is like the movie has suddenly forgotten the original conflict.

As sudden as the change of mind of Pocahontas’ father is, at least he has some reasons for relenting, above all seeing a bunch of foreigners with what he knows are dangerous weapons ready to kill his people, and the movie takes its time to show him making his decision. In Moana on the other hand something which was introduced as central conflict is just dropped halfway through the movie and then the story suddenly jumps to it already being solved without really showing the steps in-between.

3. The Villain

So, every princess needs someone or something to overcome. In the past, this tended to be the classic Disney villain. Radcliff falls into the category, and he ticks off the usual boxes: Flamboyant, greedy and scrupulous. More recently though, Disney has started to do the villain with a twist – meaning, they often go for a surprise villain or reveal something unexpected about the villain in question. I am not overly found of this particular trend, partly because I just miss the dramatic, over-the-top performances of the classic Disney villains, partly because I am a little bit too good in spotting the twist from a mile away. So far Disney only got me once and no, that one time didn’t happen to be Moana. That is not necessarily a knock against the movie, though. For one I am very aware that, without wanting to brag, not everyone is as genre savvy as I am, especially not the intended target audience of the movie. And two, I think it is way more important that the villain fits into the themes and the story of the movie.Pocahontas-4-Three-words

So, what are the themes? Pocahontas is not just the story about two star-crossed lovers, it is above all about the clash of two different cultures and overcoming prejudices, making the addition of an outright villain deeply problematic. If you want to say something about the human tendency to see oneself as superior to others, you need to allow the characters to act thoughtless and brutal on their own merits, instead of providing a very relativistic view on the whole process of colonizing America by symbolically putting the guilt over what happened to the native Americans on a few bad white people, thus implicit suggesting that the other settlers were just mislead. And I don’t think that this excuse really flies. The settlers had a lot of reasons to go to America, some more sympathetic than others – it is hard to blame someone who is fleeing from poverty or prosecution for taking the chance of a better future – but no matter what their reasons were, they still took away the land from someone else and they still destroyed countless tribes and their culture in the process. This is the kind of national guilt which has to be acknowledged, not shuffled away by blaming a few especially brutal examples of leadership.Pocahontas-3-villian-quote

In short, the presence of Radcliff undercuts Pocahontas as a movie. He doesn’t even work on a narrative level. The point of a villain like this is that there has to be some sort of emotional relationship between him and the heroine, as well as some sort of final confrontation. But Radcliff isn’t aware that Pocahontas exists until the very end, and he never interacts with her.

Te Kā doesn’t interact with Moana until the end of the movie either, but in this case it works because this is an entirely different kind of villain which fits perfectly into the themes presented. Moana is largely about rediscovering your cultural roots, but above all about identity. Consequently it makes sense that the “villain” needs to rediscover her true identity, too. And it makes sense that Moana’s journey is about following the myths of her heritage, with Te Kā providing the big boss battle for the finale.

There are a couple of problems with this set-up though. Mainly: How is it that Maui doesn’t know about Te Kā being Te Fiti? He was there when she transformed, wasn’t he? Or does he know and just didn’t tell Moana? A question which brings me to…

 

4. The Support

Let’s start with Moana, because that is faster done. After all she is alone with Maui for the majority of the movie. And while Maui isn’t portrayed as love interest for Moana, his role in the story is pretty much the same, minus the kissing naturally. He guides her, he challenges her and they develop a relationship with each other. Maui also has his own arc which plays into the bigger themes by realizing that he shouldn’t base his own worth on the adoration of others. And that he is more than just a magic hook.

Pocahontas-Choice-1John Smith has a change of heart too in that he realizes that natives aren’t savages after all, but considering that this change happens pretty much within one song I hesitate to call this an arc. This is a guy who proudly proclaims that he improved the live of savages everywhere, and that he would gladly shot them if they aren’t appreciate of his improvements – mirroring the typical colonist mind set – and then suddenly does a 180 just because Pocahontas sings about the colours of the wind. I mean – really? And then he is the perfect hero for the rest of the movie. Sigh.

Then there are Nakoma and Thomas. Nakoma’s purpose in the story is to be Pocahontas sounding board. Her role is to voice doubt over the actions of Pocahontas. The problem is that her point of view isn’t given any relevance.

Nakoma-0-with-best-friend

None at all!

 

Both her and Thomas seem to be mostly around to make the protagonists look better. Pocahontas sneaking around leading to Kokoum dying is pretty much laid on Nakoma’s feet because she told Kokoum about the meeting, and John Smith survives the attack of Kokoum without having to kill him because Thomas does the dirty work for him. Consider this, the representation of the colonist mind-set isn’t even allowed to kill in self-defence, which would underline the questionable position of even well-meaning explorers, instead he heroically takes the fall for someone else.Nakoma-6-Name

At the end of the day, the support of Pocahontas had the potential to be the more interesting one,  but falls flat in the end. Moana on the other hand is oddly isolated and Maui is kind of stealing the spotlight from her on multiple occasions. Thankfully Maona also has pretty good comic relief.

5. The Comic relief

Did I ever mention that pigs are my favourite kind of animals? It’s true, I even have a whole collection of pig figures at home. Most of them are from my childhood since I stopped actively collecting ages ago, but I really, really adore pigs. And sometimes I have the feeling that Disney is trolling me about it. After The Black Cauldron, Moana is the second Disney movie which puts a pig into its marketing just to have it off-screen for the majority of the movie. And yes, I get the joke. But I was too disappointed to actually appreciate it. Bad Disney. Bad, bad, bad!

And just because I do get the joke, it doesn’t mean that I think it is a good one. In fact, the self-referential humour and the occasionally modern joke is easily the weakest aspect of the movie. It is very distracting. Heihei for example is absolutely hilarious except for the one scene in which he is used to “tweet”.

But while Heihei is easily the funniest aspect of the movie, I think Tattoo Maui is actually the best kind of comic relief. Not only is he funny, he also tells us a lot about Maui himself. It’s like seeing Maui’s inner monologue play out.

Pocahontas-with-sidekick-5Pocahontas doesn’t do a lot of humour, but what is there fits into the setting. There are no modern or self-referential jokes which take me out of the movie. And I appreciate this. On the other hand, though, the comic relief feels really disconnected. Flit is pretty much useless. Meeko gets a lot of screen time but the majority what he is up to is not at all related to Pocahontas story (with one notable exception). This is worse than the mice in Cinderella, which do take up a lot of screen-time, too, but everything they do is directly related to her. There is also something iffy about native Meeko being portrayed as this thieving raccoon who keeps annoying poor foreigner Percy.

The only comic relief which kind of adds to the story is Radcliff’s servant, Wiggins, who is both funny and a good sounding board for the villain. But, as I already pointed out, since the villain itself shouldn’t even be in this particular story, he is by association entirely superfluous, too.

Even though I prefer the overall style of humour in Pocahontas due to being less distracting, Moana’s comic relief works better for me because it adds to the story. And, to be honest, whenever they don’t go pop culture references, the jokes in Moana are funnier. Or at least speak more to my particular sense of humour.

Pocahontas-8-half-blue-half6. The Power of Nature and the Magical Guide

I already expressed some grievance over the role the wind plays in Pocahontas, especially the way it robs her of her agency. But I have some issues with the ocean, too. It feels a little bit like the writers have put a cheat code into the movie. Whenever there is a situation Moana can’t handle on her own, the ocean turns up and helps her. It would be one thing if this were Moana’s own power she had to learn to control, or if there were a specific set of rules when the ocean can intervene and when not, but nope, there are no rules to it, and if Moana needs some help to bully Maui into teaching her, well, she gets it.

To the credit of the movie, though: The ocean not only allows Moana to make her own decisions and have her own agency, when she throws the heart away even this decision is accepted. When was this ever the message of a chosen one plot? That it is okay to give up and that one shouldn’t face a challenge just because of a prophecy or a vague concept of fate? This sentiment is even echoed by Moana’s Grandmother Tala, who is, btw, a way better spiritual leader than Grandmother Willow is to Pocahontas.

Pocahontas is constantly told to follow signs, or arrows, or dreams or to listen to the wind. There is never any discussion of what the presence of the intruders might mean for the future of Pocahontas’ tribe, or even how the situation at hand could escalate.  Moana on the other hand is constantly told that she has to make her own decisions and accept the consequences of said decisions. She can follow the lead of her parents, but then the island might not have a future. She can leave and try to fulfil her role as chosen one, but there is no telling if she will succeed, no guarantee that this is the right decision. And, most importantly, no judgement if she fails or decides to give up.

7. The StructurePocahontas-Choice-2

On the surface, those two movies have structurally not much in common, but there are a couple of narrative tropes which are present in both of them. Most notably the Hero’s journey, the “All is lost”-moment and the Ticking Clock

I won’t go too deep into the different literature theoretical models for the hero’s journey, but in its very basic it boils down to departure, initiation and return. Meaning the hero – or heroine in this case – hears the call to adventure, faces the trials put in front of him and finally returns home a changed person.

Moana plays this trope pretty straight. Her story could be straight from Greek mythology, with her sailing across the sea and encountering numerous monsters. This has the effect, though, that a lot of what happens in the movie feels kind of random. I’ll be honest here: The first time I watched it, I missed all the explanation about the various monsters in the starting narrative, because I was only paying attention to Moana’s reaction to her Grandmother’s stories and not to what said stories were about. But even with this knowledge in mind, mentioning the existence of some monster is poor way to set up said monster appearing down the line. It’s a little bit like the obligatory scene in the James Bond movies in which James Bond gets a bunch of gadgets from Q, all of which he will conveniently need later on. Just mentioning said monsters doesn’t make their appearance later on more logical, since there is a lot in the narrative which doesn’t really grow out of what happened beforehand.

For example: That Maui needs to go to the world of monsters to steal his hook back makes kind of sense, even if it feels like a detour just throw in to give the two leads time to get to know each other. That Moana jumps after him into a seemingly bottomless hole doesn’t. She is human. How can she even expect to survive this jump? There is no reason whatsoever for her to follow Maui other than her being the protagonist of the story. And then, later on, they encounter even more mythological monsters outside of the monster world. They don’t even feature as part of a hurdle to overcome or inhabitants of a dangerous part of the ocean, they just turn up so that Mana gets a nice little action scene in the middle of the movie.

And, as I mentioned already, the movie more or less skips over the third part of the heroes journey. The return is shown, but only in a fast montage, there is no true weight to it.  And speaking of weight, the same can be said about the “All is lost”-moment.

Some of my readers might now wonder: Wait a minute, didn’t she just praise how Moana handles this moments by not putting pressure on the protagonist to fulfil a specific destiny? And yes, that is true, the Moana overcoming her despair is wonderfully written. But her arrival at this point isn’t. Through the whole movie Moana stubbornly pushes forward to do what her Grandmother wanted her to do. And then she just gives up basically because Maui gives up. Maui having a crisis at this point makes perfectly sense because his whole being is wrapped around the hook. But Moana giving up is completely out of character for her and not really motivated by the narrative. Even if she failed, even if Maui abandons her, the narrative has already established that Moana will always push forward in the end. But it is time for the “All is lost”-moment and Moana, not Maui, is the designated protagonist, so we get to see her having a crisis while Maui’s pivotal character moment happens off-screen.

The ticking clock is similarly clumsily handled. Early on the movie introduces the notion that Moana’s people are in danger because the island is not save any longer. But there is no time-frame give for how long they can survive under the circumstance, nor do we see the darkness creeping further and further into the island. There is one dream sequence to remind the audience what is at stake, but without any notion of how much time Moana actually has or how much the danger has grown at this point, it doesn’t create the urgency it should. This decision by the writers is especially puzzling since showing the slow destruction of the island would be a really good explanation why Moana’s people have to start travelling again at the end of the movie.Pocahontas-9-Last-Scene

Pocahontas’ hero’s journey is more spiritual than physical. She literally hears the call of something new, goes to explore this new world through the eye’s of John Smith and returns home in a sense that she eventually rejects the notion to turn her spiritual journey into a physical one. On its own this is a pretty strong concept which suffers in execution only due to the unwillingness of the movie to seriously tackle the themes it claims to explore.

Consequently Pocahontas’ “All is lost”-moment is a little bit contrived, too. If John Smith were actually guilty of killing Kokoum, even if it were in self-defence, it might make a little bit more sense to not speak up and explain that Kokoum attacked first. And to be honest, it does make Pocahontas’s look a little bit callous because she waits until the very last moment to act, and even then she only does it because she gets a sign that she should. But, to the movie’s credit, it makes the most of the moment.Free-Round-Set-3

Especially by adding a ticking clock which works. If Pocahontas doesn’t reach his father by dawn, John Smith will die. In this case the audience not only has a specific time frame, but also the visuals to match it. It sees the conflict which is about to escalate while the heroine mobilizes all her strength to prevent the catastrophe in the making.

8. The Tune of the Culture

By now I have discussed at length the narrative elements of those movies, but what about the technical aspects? Music is after all an important element of most Disney movies, especially the Disney Princess movies. And in this case, not only are both typical Disney musicals, you can also nearly match up the songs to each other.PC1

Moana starts with “Tulou Tagaloa” (which plays over the Disney logo) and “An Innocent Warrior” to set the mood and introduce the culture. In Pocahontas “The Virginia Company” (which represents the settlers) and “Steady as the Beating Drum” (which represents the Powhatan tribe) fulfils the same function while also introducing the cultural differences between those groups.

“Where You Are” is basically a song about why Moana should be happy with the live she leads.  The Reprise of “Steady as the Beating Drum” conveys the same message to Pocahontas.Pocahontas-C5

Both express their desire for something else in their respective “I want” songs “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana) and  “Just Around the Riverbend” (Pocahontas). Though Moana gets way more mileage out of “How Far I’ll Go” through repetition through the movie than Pocahontas gets out of any of its song, since Alan Menken prefers to use the score once a specific theme is established instead of filling the movie to the brim with songs. Even “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” ends in the familiar reprise of “How Far I’ll Go”. This song is mirrored in Pocahontas with “Listen with your heart” which also happens to contain a message of staying true to yourself.

There is not direct parallel song to “You’re Welcome” in Pocahontas, but John Smith’s lines during “Mine, Mine, Mine” fulfil basically the same function to flesh out the co-lead. And “Mine, Mine, Mine” has in turn an equivalent in “Shiny”, which is also a villain song about greed.Nakoma-5-Fire

The two songs which contrast the most with each other are “Know Who You Are” and “Savages”. Both are played during the respective climax, and both contain the core message of their respective movies. But “Know Who You Are” is a very calm a soothing tune while “Savage” is the exact opposite, created to raise tension. This is not a knock on either of those songs, though, both are a perfect fit for what their respective movie is going for.

Amusingly “If I never knew you”, the one song which doesn’t have a thematic equivalent in Moana, is also the one which eventually got cut from Pocahontas (yes, I know it is back in the extended version, I am discussing the theatrical released version). But its themes is still in the movie itself and it is played over the end credits, so I feel I should mention it here nevertheless. It is no surprise that there is no song to mirror that one, though, considering that this is a love song and Moana doesn’t have an outright romance.

Pocahontas-2-WalkingBut the songs most worth discussing here are “Colours of the Wind” vs “We Know the Way” and “Logo Te Pate”. “Colours of the Wind” has two functions: On the one hand it is a passionate plea for respecting other cultures and nature itself, on the other hand it is a montage song, played while the movie shows the two leads forming a bound with each other while one is teaching the other. Which is exactly what “Logo Te Pate” is used for, too, covering a number of scenes showing Maui teaching Moana how to sail, while “We Know the Way” celebrates the sea faring tradition of Moana’s people.

What is notable is the heavy use of, I think it is Samoan, in Moana’s songs.  Music and language are two of the most essential elements in any culture. They are communication and expression. Which is why it was a brilliant move of Disney to hire Opetaia Foa’i, leader of the Ocean music group Te Vaka, for the soundtrack.

It is not my intention to diminish in any way the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Marc Mancina. Miranda is the current Broadway star and Marc Mancina a reliable Disney composer who has a particular knack for using traditional instruments and tunes in their work. But if you look in the track list for Moana you’ll discover that Opetaia Foa’i is responsible for every bit of Samoan which is sung in this movie, while Miranda is credited for the more Broadway styled elements. And I feel that due to Miranda’s recent success, the contribution of Opetaia Foa’i has been unfairly overlooked. “Logo Te Pate” is entirely sung in a foreign language, but it doesn’t matter, because this is not about the actual meaning of the words, this is about the expression of a culture.

Pocahontas doesn’t really have this. At the very begging of “Steady as a Beating Drum” there are a few lines which are vaguely Powhatan, but overall, the soundtrack is dominated by the Broadway style Alan Menken does best. To be fair, the Powhatan’s approach to music is way less palatable for the American or European ear than Polynesian music is. It is also way more difficult to fuse into a musical due to consisting mostly of drums and vocals. I still think that it could have had a bigger presence in Pocahontas.

Not that Alan Menken’s work is in any way lacking otherwise. Pocahontas is a movie which wasn’t exactly loved by critics, but he nevertheless won two academy awards for his work. Moana only scoring one nomination in this category doesn’t automatically mean that he wrote the superior soundtrack, though. For one, him walking away with academy award seven and eight within five years prompted the academy to change the rules for the consideration of musical scores. And two, Moana faced stronger competition.

At the end of the day, those are two very strong soundtracks. Moana’s songs just do a better job of giving the culture represented in a movie a voice. Quite literally, considering that Opetaia Foa’i sings a lot them himself.

 

Pocahontas-C39. Animation and Artistry

If there is one thing I adore about Pocahontas, it is the background animation, especially in the scenes when it moves from a realistic landscape to something which looks like it was inspired by a Franz Marc painting. Who happens to be my favourite artist. Which in turn might be the reason why I consider this my second favourite background animation Disney has done, after Sleeping Beauty. The colours pop, the details are exquisite, the landscapes are gorgeous! There isn’t anything I would want to improve about it.

If I have one beef with the style, it is the character animation. Partly because I feel that Pocahontas looks too adult for the story they gave her. The question if Disney should sexualize “exotic” characters aside, this is a coming of age story. While the age of some of the heroines has always been a little bit iffy from a modern point of view, especially considering that they tend to fall in love with partners who are at least in their twenties, it kind of undermines the whole “growing up” aspect if the character looks, well, grown up. I always felt that Pocahontas grown-up body is a really bad fit for the story they are telling and hence very distracting.Pocahontas-C3

Another issue I have with the character animation is that this angular style doesn’t allow for much expression in the faces of the characters. Especially the size of the eyes are an issue here, the smaller the eyes the more difficult it is to convey expression through them, hence the need to balance this out in the rest of the face – for example, Mulan’s face switched from female to more male looking just by changing the eyebrows and her mouth allows for a lot of different expressions. But Pocahontas has in addition to the small eyes a mouth which barely allows any movement, hence all her expressions have to be conveyed through the eyebrows (which works well enough in close-ups, not so well from afar) and body movement alone. In the end, it is often the music or the dialogue which does the heavy lifting.

Nearly all the human characters in Pocahontas have this problem to a certain degree, I think the only characters who are particularly expressive are the various side-kicks. Who as a result stick out, and not in a good way. They are so much more cartoony compared to the rest of the animation, it feels like there is a series of shorts cut into the movie at random moments, not just on a narrative but also on a visual level.

Moana has the usual problems which come with CGI movies. The more of the animation is done by a computer, the less individual touch you will find in it. It is a little bit like the difference between having a DJ and listening to a playlist on shuffle. A DJ might have certain preferences, but he will also pick the music based on the audience and sometimes follow specific wishes. With the playlist you sometimes have the feeling that you can predict the next song, and you might even be able to. This is because the order of the songs are based on an algorithm, and while we usually don’t actively try to figure it out, subconsciously we get a sense for the order over time. Watching a CGI animated movie is a little bit the same way, there is just something familiar and predictable about the movements and the designs.

Thus said, the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. Animating water or hair is famously difficult, but Disney crushed the challenge. They also tried out more realistic body shapes. But above all, they went for a proper Disney Acid sequences. I really, really missed those! Even though the mix of CGI and 2D animation looks awkward overall, I give Disney a lot of credit for putting the art back into animation and trying out something different. I hope we will get more of this in the future.Pocahontas-C2

10. The Big Difference

You can point to the number of native people involved in the respective production or to Disney having learned from previous attempts to tackle minority characters as explanation why Moana has been received much better than Pocahontas, but I think the actual difference is the mind-set behind those movies. Pocahontas was created with an eye on a possible academy award for best picture, at the same time the people in charge were not bold enough to try something truly revolutionary and different. As Walt Disney would have put it, they tried to top pigs with even more pigs.

Moana didn’t have any ambitions like this. It only wanted to be the best possible movie about this specific culture. It does stand in the tradition of the Disney Princess Franchise (sometimes to its detriment),  but it also tests out the boundaries of it. In short, the focus is where it should be, on the actual story, and not on some sort of award.

Pocahontas-C4Above all though (and that is a point Lindsey missed in her video), Pocahontas is pretty much the worst story one can pick regarding Native Americans. Because at the end of the day, Pocahontas is not a Native American story. It is a story which John Smith told (and most likely made up) about a young native who was kidnapped, forced into marriage and brought into London society. Meaning it is a story some white guy told about Native Americans. Disney didn’t really put the uncomfortable Colonialist BS into the story, it is inherent to the source material and I actually don’t see how you can remove it – though arguable Disney made it worse by turning it into a bland love story and a message about tolerance and peace. Not that I mind tolerance and peace, but considering what happened to the Native Americans, they might have been better off if they had destroyed every ship which ever managed to reach their shores, thus preventing being overrun by people who had no regard whatsoever for their way of live or their culture – and who brought deadly diseases with them.

Moana on the other hand is based on actual native myths – kind of. The story the movie tells is entirely original, its only nod to Polynesian mythology are the deeds Maui lists in “You’re welcome” and his backstory. But that is pretty much the Disney approach to everything they adapt, especially when it comes to their mythological based movies. And I really don’t buy into the notion that there are different rules depending on from which culture Disney borrows, because at the end of the day, there are two choices: Either you want Disney to go out of the box and tackle something other than Western myths and literature, or you don’t. If you don’t, this is totally understandable – it would be a lie to claim that I am not sometimes a little bit frustrated by the way Disney permanently changed the perception on the fairy of my own culture (no, Snow White wasn’t awakened by a true love’s kiss, damnit!). But if you want Disney to represent your culture too, than you shouldn’t complain about the result being a Disney movie, meaning a reinterpretation and not a simple retelling. Disney doesn’t do those. Like, ever. I can’t think of a single Disney movie which didn’t put a twist or two on the source material.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean that Disney shouldn’t do its research and naturally the rules are entirely different the moment they tackle the fate of an actual person, which is why I feel that Disney should just stay away from actual historical events. Moana is entirely made up, the only historical aspect in the movie, aside from going out of its way to portray details like the clothing, drums, ships and constellations correctly, is that the Polynesians really stopped travelling from Island to Island for a while at one point in history and nobody quite knows why. Disney’s explanation is as good as any other.

I have to give Disney props for the nature of the story they choose to tell in Moana. Pocahontas is at its very core the attempt to acknowledge the arrogance of the first settlers while also trying to find excuses for them. It is not really about the plight of the indigenous people or even about their culture outside of contrasting it to the Colonialist point of view.  But Moana is not just about self-discovery, it is above all reclaiming your own roots. It is not just a movie about Polynesian culture, it is a celebration of it. As it should be.Pocahontas-6-feet

11. Conclusion

While Disney movies are usually timeless, they also tend to reflect the status of society in the period in which they were made. It is therefore not really surprising that a movie which is made today does a way better job respecting foreign cultures than one which was created two decades earlier, when Disney was just dipping its toe into the notion of featuring a different culture in their movies. Regarding the overall quality of the movies in question, both are in their own way flawed.

Not on a technical level, in terms of animation and music both of them shine. But narratively, they both have issues. Pocahontas has an overall solid structure, but a predictable narrative which doesn’t take any chances. Moana takes more risk, but has structural issues which undermine the movie at various points. I feel that both movies would have profiteered from being less beholden to the Disney Princess tropes.Nakoma-Choice3

As I said before, the purpose of this series is not to declare a winner when I compare two movies. And I will stick to it. No, the fact that this movie is full of icon’s featuring Pocahontas is not an indicator of preference, not at all.  Truth is,  since Moana is a fairly new release, I haven’t created any icons featuring her yet, and forcing myself to do some just for this article didn’t feel right. But, as you can see, I have a whole bunch of Icons relating to Pocahontas created back when I was still participating in Icon contests. Which is why I used them freely for this article. And you are free to use them too, if you want to.

I’ll say this about those movies, though: Personally I have an easier time to forgive flaws in a movie which takes narrative risks than in one which goes for a more run-of-the-mill story. But I am also a sucker for artful animation and a catchy soundtrack. Make out of this what you want.

 


Marvel Musings: Ego

I hope I didn’t spoil anything for anyone. But then, if you are interested in Marvel, you should have seen Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 at this point. And yes, I realize that I skipped a few movies, but for one this one belongs in the timeline directly after the first Guardians and two, I feel that it would be better to contrast this one directly with its predecessor. After all, one of the reasons I cut Ronan some slack is because the need to establish multiple heroes as well as doing a lot of world building is inherently more important than having a complex villain. But how does the franchise fare once the basics are established?

MV8-Ego

1. Character Establishing Moment

How well is the villain established in his first scene?

Ego is a supposed to be a surprise villain. As such, the rules for establishing him are a little bit different in that ideally he shouldn’t come off as particularly evil or threatening. Now, was I surprised that he turned out to be the big bad of the piece? No, not really. But there are a lot of things which did surprise me, above all how callous he was regarding Meredith and Peter. I really bought into the notion that the love between him and Meredith was mutual, and while I did expect him to have ulterior motives regarding Peter, I also thought that he saw a little bit more in him that just some human battery. So I would say, mission accomplished. They fooled me just enough that there was a shocking reveal in the end. 5 points for this one.

 

2. Motivation

What is his motivation and how creative is it?

Ego’s motivation is basically “ego”. His whole being is so centred around himself and his own needs that he simply doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. If he were human we would call him an egomaniac or a narcissist. And since he has the power to do so, that means that he wants everything in the universe going his way – as soon as he has gotten rid of all the vermin crawling around on it. It is a logical motivation for a powerful being, but also a little bit run of the mill. So I’ll settle for 3 points.

 

3. Plan

What is his goal and does his way of reaching it make any sense?

He wants to reshape the universe but because he hasn’t enough power to do it on his own, he has spread his seed all over the galaxy in the hope that one of his offspring might share his power. Simultaneously he has left plants on all planet he has visit, so that he can activate them whenever he wants. So far, so good, his plan is easy to follow. I call fool though on the idea that someone is able to plant a particularly alien looking flower close to a populated area and it doesn’t get discovered in over 30 years – and on some planets those weird alien flowers have to have been around for even longer. I think I have to ding a point for this, and give him 4 points.

 

4. Success Rate

How successful is the villain overall? 

He is operating in secret for who knows how long and comes really close to actually reaching his goal. But naturally he doesn’t win in the end and if you consider that he could have gotten to Peter way earlier when Peter was still vulnerable if he had just fetched him himself or at least bothered to do his research when Yondu didn’t deliver Peter, you just have to dock a point from him. So, 4 points.

 

5. Threat Level

How dangerous is the villain in general and to the hero in particular? 

Ego is even more dangerous as Ronan. Being a celestial he is way, way more powerful than any of the heroes. If he hadn’t been so focussed on Peter during the fight, or if Mantis hadn’t decided to side with the Guardians of the Galaxy (and even she was only able to stall him, not to stop him), he could have easily crushed all of them. 5 points

 

6. Foil Factor

How well does the villain figure into the story the movie is trying to tell?

Guardians of the Galaxy is a very theme driven movie. It mostly examines toxic family dynamics, but also how we ourselves can destroy the relationships in our lives if our decisions are driven by, well, ego. Especially in the interaction between Peter and Rocket this theme takes centre stage, and it is very fitting that the Guardians of the Galaxy have to overcome “Ego” in their second movie in order to become the kind of unit they should be.  At the same time, though, Ego is the logical continuation from the first movie. Him being around answers the questions about Peter’s heritage and in a lot of way concludes the second step in Peter’s journey to come to terms with the trauma of his past. For a villain which works both in a narrative and a thematic sense I can’t give less than 5 points.

 

7. Acting

How well does the actor sell the role?

This is a hard one. I am tempted to give Kurt Russell full points for this one, because he is playing a great character and it is not easy to make a character that disgusting charismatic. And yet I do feel that he could be a little bit more intimidating towards the end. He is great playing the typical Kurt Russell character, not so much playing the crazy the maniac. So I’ll go for 4 points.

 

8.  Costume

Does the costume fit the character and does it stand out in general?

I am using costume here in the widest sense, because technically the kind of “cool medieval chick” the human version of Ego is wearing is only a fraction of his actual costume. Considering that Ego’s actual form is the planet, I am taking his celestial/planet form into account. And that one is really impressive. Not only is the CGI practically flawless, the world itself has so many memorable elements, from the flying rainbow bubbles to the structure of the building with the fountain in front of it. Considering that they even throw in a shot in which the whole planet seems to have a face, I can’t give this one less than 5 points.

 

9.  Entertainment Factor

How strong is the emotional response?

I can say without any exaggeration that I have never ever hated a villain has much as Ego. And I don’t mean “hate” in the sense that I wanted something else in place of him, I mean it in the sense that I had the deep desire to jump into the movie screen and punch him into the ground. I am not sure what is worse, him callously admitting that he killed Meredith as if it is no big deal, or him destroying the Walkman, the last connection Peter had to his mother. And yet, there is still something fun and entertaining about Ego. There really shouldn’t be, considering that he is a sociopath hell bend on destroying the universe,  but he does have this rare magnificent bastard charm. 5 points.

10. Memorable Moments

How many memorable scenes and lines has the character?

As I already pointed out last time, Guardians of the Galaxy is a franchise full of memorable characters and moments. But Ego gets his fair share of them. From surfing through the air in an egg-shaped spaceship, to his interactions with Peter, there is little he does which isn’t memorable. Even all the exposition he is delivering is packaged in a memorable way. And then there are naturally his various transformations during the end fight. Plus, he is a living planet. How can I give him less than 5 points?


Ego is such a great villain, a 4,5 points average sounds like it is a little bit low. But it truly isn’t, not in my point system. It will be hard for any villain to beat this score.


Disney and Fox: What’s the Deal? Part 1

Honestly, when I did my little article about the possibility of a deal between Disney and Fox, I didn’t quite expect that we would get definitive news that fast. What I said back then still stands, though, in that it will take some time before the deal comes in full effect. Still, time to discuss what Disney has actually bought. But not in one article, that would be a way too long read. So I will start with movies today, then go into Live Action TV, then into TV animation and finally into everything else in later articles.

Keep in mind though that I am not an expert in this sort of thing. I did basic research, but I can hardly fly to the US in order to look up the relevant sources personally. I need to trust into what is available on the internet. I am basically just laying out information for you other people have researched, and there might be mistakes in my assessment of them. Also, a lot of what I’ll write is pure speculation. There is no way to predict exactly what Disney will do, just some movements which would make more sense than others.

This in mind, what are we actually talking about when it comes to the movies side of things? Well, 20th Century Fox naturally, but not just that. There are also sister companies and subsidiaries. Though some of them are more important than others, and not all of them equal Disney getting their hands on a bunch of properties.


Let’s put three of them aside for the moment: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is simply the home video distribution arm of 20th Century Fox studio, meaning they are not in the business of creating content themselves. Honestly, their whole business will most likely be simply folded into the Disney company. One home video distribution company is enough.  So, if you are wondering if this merger will lead to job losses, this is where most of them will most likely happening. It is mostly the distribution companies which will be hit hard by this.

A second subsidiary I don’t plan to discuss in detail is Fox Studios Australia.  This studio has been involved in a number of movie productions, but that tended to be productions by other companies. Ie the studio worked on the Lego movies, but those are naturally property of Warner Bros. They were also involved in Mad Max Fury Road, but again, not their property. How much what they do translates in revenue and if Disney is interested in keeping them going, I can’t tell. I would need to see the books to make a definitive judgement about it. But considering how much of a hassle it was to lease the former Sydney Showground for the studio, as well as the sheer size of it, my money is on Disney continuing to use the studio one way or another.

And finally there is Fox Star Studios, which actually does produce a lot of content, but for the Indian market. I will get to it when I discuss the acquisition of Star India in a later article. In terms of Hollywood movies, this studio is irrelevant.


That leaves Fox Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios. Meaning the “Oscar bait” and the animation branch of the company.

Let’s be honest here: The whole animation branch is nothing Disney cares about. When it comes to animation they are way ahead of Fox. I am not even sure how to categorize 20th Century Fox Animation, considering that it has only two movies on its name, Anastasia (1997) and Titan A.E (2000), both being Don Bluth movies. As far as I can tell the studio isn’t defunct though, so I assume that it does some sort of animation for Fox. They apparently work with Blue Sky on the regular basis.

And Blue Sky – honestly, this studio might be the biggest question mark in that merger, and of all the production companies it might be in most danger to get shut down. But I have somehow the feeling that Disney will try to resell it instead. Animation has become a huge market – some of the biggest grossing movies in the last years were animated – and while Blue Sky doesn’t have the pedigree Pixar or even DreamWorks has, it has a recognizable mascot in Scrat, and in Ice Age a worldwide successful franchise. Yes, I know, most people feel that this franchise has really overstayed its welcome, and I would agree (hell, I was over it when the first sequel hit the theatres), but studio executives tend to look at the bottom line, and the bottom line is that this franchise made a ton of money, with two instalments easily passing the 850 million mark worldwide. In addition, Blue Sky just managed to produce its first academy award nominated movie with “The Peanuts”.

This in mind both Paramount and Sony might be interesting in purchasing Blue Sky. Paramount because it is the only major studio which doesn’t have its own animation department. Though they used to distribute for DreamWorks and still own the rights to – you know, what, let’s not go into the complicated history of DreamWorks distribution and ownership. Let’s just say that nearly every major studio distributed at one point for DreamWorks and leave it with that. Currently the company is owned by Comcast which also happens to own Universal and Illumination, and whatever rights Paramount has, they are hardly replacing the ownership over an established Animation Studio. If they can afford it and/or plan to branch out in this direction.

Sony naturally already owns an animation studio, but one with a terrible reputation which last year managed the seemingly impossible to get even more tarnished by the Emoji movie. Just like Comcast owns both DreamWorks and Illumination and Disney owns both Pixar and the Disney Animation studios, Sony might have room for an additional studio. Thinking about it, Warner Bros might too. After all their CGI movies are currently still co-productions involving multiple companies. Hell, even Netflix might be interested. They want to produce their own content after all. I just doubt that they have currently access to this kind of money.

But let’s assume that Disney sells Blue Sky with all its IPs (to sweeten the deal). That would leave Anastasia and Titan A.E. with Disney. And no, that doesn’t mean that Anastasia is now a Disney princess. Technically not even Anna or Moana are Disney princesses yet, because there was no coronation ceremony for them. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Disney just buries both properties.


Which means we are now getting to the part Disney was actually interested in, the big movie properties. Let’s discuss Fox Searchlight first though.

A lot of people seem to work under the assumption that Fox searchlight is a production company. That isn’t quite correct. It is a distributer specialised in independent and foreign film productions, with a focus on dramedy, horror and especially art-house movies. But it is the kind of distributor which is also often involved in the financing of said movies.

Currently it releases ten movies every year and the track record is frankly impressive. Part of the catalogue are three best picture winners (Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman), as well as eleven movies which got nominated (The Full Monty, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, Beast of the Southern Wild, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Brooklyn). In 2017 it released A United Kingdom, Table 19, Wilson, Gifted, My Cousin Rachel, STEP, Patti Cake$, Battle of the Sexes, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water. I am not in the business of predicting the award season, but as far as I can tell, there is some buzz around the last two movies.

And this track record is the reason that even though Fox Searchlight is mainly a distribution company, I do think that Disney will not only keep it running, but capitalize on its ability to pick projects which resonate with the critics. Disney has its share of academy awards (in fact, Walt Disney alone won 26, more than anyone else in history), but only four best picture nominations (Mary Poppins, Beauty and Beast, Up and Toy Story 3) and not one single win. Being the only animation studio which ever got nominated in this category at all is a huge deal, but if Disney wants to appeal to the film fan demographic with its streaming service, it needs to drop a share of academy award nominees and winners on a regular basis. Fox turns up on the nomination list nearly every year, often with multiple productions, and in the last ten years it was especially Fox Searchlight which provided the Oscar bait. Disney would be a fool not to capitalize on this.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney mostly keeps the company as it is, except for the marketing. If there is something Disney does really, really well, it is convincing their audience that their name (or Pixar or Marvel) stands for a particular kind of movie in a specific quality. Rebrand the whole business as “Searchlight” or even “Disney Searchlight”, and market it as THE studio/distributor of sophisticated movies, and they might be able to get the target group into the habit of at least checking out a movie released under the “Searchlight”  label, the same way animation fans automatically check out Disney and Pixar movies and Comic book fans won’t ever miss out on a Marvel Studios movie. Simultaneously to letting “Searchlight” be on the look-out for worthwhile productions and perhaps giving it a bigger budget to finance more or the projects they are interested in themselves, they could release all Fox studios productions which seem academy award worthy under this label.

If they do manage to establish “Searchlight” as a brand, they would have the additional advantage of being able to release Oscar bait movie the whole year. Currently most movies of this kind are released close to award season, because the studios expect to make more money if the movie gets award buzz. This results in a shortage of more serious-minded movies for the majority of the year. If Disney manages to convince the audience that a critically acclaimed “Searchlight” movie is a Oscar contender by default, they could start to release those movies whenever they want and, at least regarding this particular demographic, without any direct competition.

Granted, the downside of those more high-minded movies is that they are rarely franchise fodder. Fox has a long library of critically acclaimed movies, many of them seen as true movie classics. They are great to bolster up the library of your streaming service, but they will hardly be enough of an incentive to get people to subscribe in the first place. For that you need the big money makers, the movies everyone wants to see.


Fox has its share of blockbuster movies. Ignoring DreamWorks releases, Star Wars and their more successful Marvel movies, the highest grossing movies include Avatar, Titanic, Independence Day, The Martian, Life of Pie, Night at the Museum, The Day After Tomorrow, The Revenant,  Home Alone, Castaway and Mrs. Doubtfire. Notable Franchises include Alien, Predator, Die Hard, Planet of the Apes, The Omen Film Series and The Kingsman movies. The latter is interesting because Kingsman is a release of Icon Comics, an imprint of Marvel for creator owned work.  But then, I don’t think that there will be another sequel anyway. The last one already made considerable less than the first movie.

Which is something to keep in mind. A few of those Franchises aren’t exactly posed to make profit through additional instalments in the future. Die Hard, Alien and Predator are all pretty much on their last leg, and I am not sure how much the audience is still interested in Planet of the Apes after the last movie underperformed. Home Alone and its sequel will always be holyday classics, but the later instalments better stay forgotten. The Omen series seems to be pretty much dead already, while the remake was a modest success, there was no follow up and the TV show Fox launched based on the franchise was cancelled after one season. Independence Day thoroughly botched its attempt at becoming a franchise with the sequel.

That doesn’t mean that Disney won’t find a way to squeeze money of those franchises down the line, maybe through a remake or by exploring a new angle, but currently the only ones of those properties which look like they could produce a string of blockbusters down the line are Avatar and the Marvel IPs. And I am not even sure about Avatar. Maybe I shouldn’t doubt James Cameron after topping the highest grossing movie of all time list twice, but I am not quite sure if the interest in Avatar is really that big anymore. Avatar is the kind of movie people saw for the spectacle, not for the characters or even overall quality. But then, that is exactly what Jurassic World was about, too, the spectacle. If Cameron can dib into the concept again, Avatar could become a huge deal. And, to be honest, I believe that Avatar has a bigger chance of impressing the audience if Cameron has the experts at Disney to back him up. Which they will, they didn’t invest in theme park rights for Avatar to see the franchise fail.

But then, how many blockbusters can Disney actually release each year? Currently they do two, rarely three animated movies (ideally one Pixar and one from the animation studio, but the schedule got kind of messed up by the delay of The Good Dinosaur and Zootopia), one live action remake, one Star War movie and the schedule for Marvel is currently up to three movies a year (counting the Sony releases in the MCU). There is the possibility that they step it up to four Marvel movies each year and I guess they will squeeze in Avatar for the years in which they don’t have a live action remake scheduled. Meaning we end up with at least eight nearly sure money makers each year.

Is there still room for other blockbusters? Sure there is. The good thing about those truly big franchises, at least from a scheduling point of view, is that they tend to make most of their money within the first two weeks. Plus, those animated movies aren’t quite addressing the same demographic. Nor does the majority of Fox other productions. This is exactly why Disney bought the company in the first place, to cover the kind of movies they aren’t known for already.


Which includes r-rated material. To be very clear about this, even though it ended badly in the case of Miramax, Disney has dabbled in r-rated material before. Even in some X-rated stuff. And they could easily continue to do so and just release it under some brand name which allows Disney to stay invisible. But I don’t think that this is in Disney’s interest. They want everyone to know that they are the master of all possible movie genres, not just of family entertainment. And while the so called “edgy” approach of Miramax (as well as some other aspects of the company) were a bad fit for Disney, Fox’s kind of risk taking is more up the alley of what Disney has tested out with Touchstone.

Thus said, a lot depends on if the deal includes the Fox name. If Disney purchased the studio including name, fanfare and everything else, and it will be the Fox TV channels which will change their name eventually, Disney will most likely just allow Fox Studios to continue on its path with a few adjustments to improve revenue. Honestly, after all the scandals in the last year which resulted in Fox news getting hit hard in advertising revenue, they might want a fresh start anyway, and 20th Century Fox is certainly more worth with the tradition-laden name, even if the association to Rupert Murdoch has tarnished it. Otherwise though, Disney will have to rebrand in a way which clarifies “this is our level of quality but in a different style than you are used to”. Maybe by reviving the Touchstone brand, maybe by coming up with something new.


To summon up what I said so far: I think that once the deal has gone through properly, Disney will do some serious rebranding. In the end, the movie division of Disney will look like this:

  1. The Disney Animation Studios and Disney Pixar will cover family friendly animation, with Pixar continuing to create originals and franchises based on said originals, while Disney Animation focusses on loose adaptations and the Disney Princess Franchise, with an occasional original along the line of Zootopia or Wreck-it Ralph thrown in. I hope though that with Disney Animation sequels will become the exception, not the rule.
  2. Walt Disney Pictures for family friendly entertainment. That covers the live action remakes, the Park Ride based movies and the occasional children’s book adaptation.
  3. Lucasfilm for Star Wars. And maybe Indiana Jones. Let’s be honest here, outside of those two franchises Lucasfilm is responsible for maybe a dozen movies, and it doesn’t look like they intend to do anything original anytime soon. It is worth to keep it as a separate entity, not just because of Star Wars but also because of the technical expertise assembled at Lucasfilm
  4. Marvel Studios for Comic book movies. Maybe even comic book movies in general, but I’ll address the future of Marvel in another article once we know a little bit more about their plans.
  5. Searchlight for Oscar Bait.
  6. Fox studios as a big umbrella for everything else, from more adult themed movies to some more experimental stuff.
  7. Maybe – just maybe – they will also take Fox’s various horror franchises and built a brand around them. Recently horror movies have proofed to be low-risk money makers, so it might be worth to establish a horror brand or franchise. Maybe something along the line of what Paramount is currently doing with the Cloverfield movies, doing movies under a familiar label without them necessarily having to connect too tightly with each other aside from a familiar theme.

The Bottom line here is: I don’t think that 20th Century Fox has much to worry about when it comes to the production division of the company. Disney didn’t buy the movie studio to shut it down, but because it was honestly interested in the kind of content it produces, the kind of content which is a perfect addition to what Disney is already doing. There might be a little bit reshuffling and renaming in the future, but at the end of the day, Disney isn’t in the habit of meddling in a working concept. With one exception: Disney will most likely put the Marvel rights under the control of Marvel Studios. This means that 20th Century Fox will loose some of their most reliable franchises. But this might actually a win for the audience in the end, because (even if Comic book movie fans don’t like to hear it) it will ensure that the Comic book movie market doesn’t end too oversaturated each year, and it will push Fox to look for other alternatives instead of focussing on a Gambit movie next to nobody cares about or a Fantastic 4 movie nobody wants to see outside of the MCU.

There is also the possibility that Disney will release the Avatar Franchise under the proper Disney name. After all, there will be a park ride based on it and Disney has earned a reputation of providing great blockbusters in a way Fox does not. Fox on the other hand has a reputation of providing great low to middle budget movies, making it the perfect match for Disney.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Marvel Musings: Ronan the Accuser

Theoretically Ronan is a henchmen for Thanos in GotG, but since the story is about his goals and plans while Thanos just sits around in the background, he is the actual main villain of the piece. Plus, it would make no sense to discuss Thanos before even watching Infinity war. So, let’s focus on Ronan for now.

MV5-Ronan

 

 

 

1. Character Establishing Moment

How well is the villain established in his first scene?

Ronan’s introduction scene is a work of beauty. I just dig the dramatic set-up of him emerging from his ritual bath, being prepared by his aids in an elaborate ceremony. The monologue is a little bit much, but then, it is a good way to summon up his point as view for the audience immediately. And it is immediately punctuated with Ronan acting on his fanaticism by killing a prisoner – and letting his blood flood into his ritual bath. I think a lot of people just miss the implication that Ronan is literally bathing in the blood of his enemy to use it as foundation for his ritual makeup.  Trust Disney to get crap past the radar! Pointwise I am between 4 and 5, but since I only give 5 for perfection and the monologue is a little bit over the top, I’ll go for 4 point.

 

2. Motivation

What is his motivation and how creative is it?

Ronan is basically a fanatic terrorist, driven by the desire for revenge but also pure hatred for another culture. For a villain who is operating somewhere in space his motivations really hit close to home. Which makes judging the creativity aspect a little bit complicated. On the one hand, there is no denying that fanatic terrorists are dime to dozen as possible villains. On the other hand, they usually don’t turn up in space operas. The standard space villain is usually interested in power and conquering the galaxy, having a space terrorist is in a lot of ways a new approach. Which is why I settle for the middle ground with 3 points.

 

3. Plan

What is his goal and does his way of reaching it make any sense?

Ronan wants to destroy Xandar with the help of the power stone. It doesn’t get more straightforward than this. 5 points.

 

4. Success Rate

How successful is the villain overall? 

Let’s see, he kills the enemy, he manages to initially defeat the Guardians and take the stone from it, he does great damage to Xandar, destroying its whole fleet in the process and comes very, very close to destroying the whole planet. He looses a point though for allowing Gamora to manipulate him into sending her after the stone and then loosing the trail. He really needs better minions. Without Drax’s drunk call, he might have never caught up with them. So I settle for 4 points.

 

 

5. Threat Level

How dangerous is the villain in general and to the hero in particular? 

Despite Thanos calling Ronan a “pouty child”, there is not one point in the movie in which I don’t believe fully that Ronan isn’t just extremely dangerous, but also way more powerful than our group of heroes. Mostly because Ronan doesn’t even really care what the Guardians are up to. They don’t survive the first encounter with him because they outsmart Ronan, but because they are too insignificant in his mind to make sure that they – or at least Drax – are dead. When the finale battle starts, I don’t doubt for a second that they are going up against a nearly undefeatable opponent, and that the only reason they do it is because they have no choice if they don’t want to run away from Ronan wrecking havoc on the Galaxy for the rest of their lives. On pure power-level alone, Ronan is freaking terrifying, even before he has the stone. He swats Drax away as if he is a fly. And let’s not forget that he kills Groot as well as the whole Nova Corps fleet. 5 points.

 

6. Foil Factor

How well does the villain figure into the story the movie is trying to tell?

Thematically, not at all. The overreaching theme with the Guardians is that they are all people who were ripped out of their normal live by circumstances out of their control (or in Rocket’s case, never had a normal live to begin with). They are people who live at the fringe of society not necessarily by choice but because that was the hand which was dealt to them, but who have also stopped caring a long time ago. Ronan only exists to provide an opportunity for them to “give a shit” for once and do something more than survive. But honestly, it is kind of refreshing to have a villain who is not a reflection of the hero and who has totally different abilities. Also, I am kind of okay with the villain not really being the focus of the story. There is only one thing a villain really has to be and that is a believable threat. Which, as we just established, Ronan actually is. So while I doesn’t necessarily add to the story, he fulfils his role within it perfectly. 4 Points.

 

7. Acting

How well does the actor sell the role?

I know that a lot of people will disagree, but I dig this performance. It is naturally totally over the top, but exactly that makes it perfect for that particular setting. I especially love how serious Ronan takes himself while he prances around like a diva. This could easily look ridiculous, especially when an actor doesn’t really commit to the role or doesn’t take it serious enough. Here we have the perfect balance between hamming it up and still respecting the character itself. The result isn’t a performance for the ages, but I have trouble to imagine anyone else in this role. 4 Points.

 

8.  Costume

Does the Costume fit the character and does it stand out in general?

It’s a great costume. As I mentioned beforehand, I especially dig the ritual make up. The idea that Ronan permanently walks around coated in the blood of his victims is disgustingly awesome. And the costume which goes with it is appropriately dramatic. The only issue I have with it is the colour. Yes, I know, black always looks menacing, but it is also a little bit the easy way out and it kind of results in Ronan looking like a Darth Vader copy. A little bit dark green or blue would have done some good here. Still, the result is memorable enough, so 4 Points.

 

9.  Entertainment Factor

How strong is the emotional response?

Outside of the fear factor, not particularly strong. This is, I guess, the biggest weakness of Ronan as a villain. His status as a terrorist is kind of academic since he commits his most heinous acts off screen. Him killing Groot certainly causes an emotional response, but since this isn’t really a direct act and more something which happens as a result of his actions, this emotional response isn’t as connected to him as it should. On the other hand, I was kind of disappointed when he died because his overdramatic demeanour was kind of fun to see. I guess I go with the middle ground, 3 Points.

 

10. Memorable Moments

How many memorable scenes and lines has the character?

Well, there is the ritual bath scene, then the one in which he breaks with Thanos and finally the ending. His face when Peter starts to dance is just hilarious. In a movie full off strong characters is a little bit overshadowed at times, though. Plus, Peter, Rocket and Drax are hogging the best one-liners. But I think I can give him a solid 4 Points.


And this results in a 4 Star rating….and yes, I know that a lot of people will disagree with me on this one. Not everyone enjoys the more hammy villains, and his role is very understated in favour of fleshing out the heroes of the piece. But I think this was the right decision for this particular movie. And I think that is what counts in the end.


Marvel Musings: Malekith

Somehow starting with the villains who didn’t survive their movies ended up with me having to go through the weaker villains first. Well, I guess this is a good thing. After all, it would be a shame if Marvel routinely killed off the compelling villains while leaving the forgettable ones alone. Speaking of forgettable, remember Malekith?

MV4-Malekith

1. Character Establishing Moment

How well is the villain established in his first scene?

One should think that a scene which is paired with narration would at least establish the basics of the character, but it actually leaves more questions than answers. Why exactly was there  a war? Why does Malekith think that self-destruction is an acceptable reaction to a lost battle? Why are the other dark elves still follow him after that? I just don’t get it. 1 point.

2. Motivation

What is his motivation and how creative is it?

Honestly, if I could, I would give him zero points for this category. I have honestly no idea what Malekith actually wants aside from some vague spreading darkness over the world nonsense. Why? Even if I assume that Dark Elves don’t suffer sunlight partifularly well, there is apparently a whole empty world they could live on if they wanted to. 1 point.

3. Plan

What is his goal and does his way of reaching it make any sense?

Okay, he wants the aether for…something, convergence, something, reality (honestly, how is that related to spreading darkness?). And he can apparently sense where it is, so he needs to break into Asgard. In order to do so, he sends the Kursed in as some sort of living bomb so that he can open the shields – I guess. I am actually not sure if the Kursed is actually doing something aside from creating a distraction. Anyway, if Malekith can feel the aether and it following his call, why exactly is he then fooled by an illusion of Jane? After all, he has no idea how Jane even looks like or that the aether is in her. Shouldn’t he go straightforward to the aether instead of caring about the illusion of a random person? And after he has to leave Asgard without getting what he wanted, he is sulking around until Thor conveniently brings Jane to him. In short, not only do Malekith’s plans suck, they don’t even make much sense once you think about them. 1 point.

4. Success Rate

How successful is the villain overall? 

Well, he does manage to break into Asgard, but even then he doesn’t get what he actually wanted. I guess I should give him credit for actually getting his hands on the aether, but that doesn’t happen because of anything he did, it is Thor who decides that Jane’s live is more important than keeping the aether as far away from Malekith as possible. So…1 point.

5. Threat Level

How dangerous is the villain in general and to the hero in particular? 

Not dangerous at all. In fact, the Kursed is actually the dangerous one. He is the one who creates chaos in the dungeons, he is the one who kills Freya when Malekith fails to do so and he is the one who secures the aether and keeps Thor and Loki from immediately following Malekith. And even when Malekith has one of the most powerful things in the universe in his hand he is still defeated by a bunch of humans with tripods. The whole movie is a string of Malekith trying to do something and loosing. First against Bor, then when he tries to steal the aether the first time, loosing half of his face in the process and then again at the very end. He has to be one of the most ineffective and non-threatening villains ever. 1 point.

6. Foil Factor

How well does the villain figure into the story the movie is trying to tell?

Malekith feels more like a distraction. Partly because Loki’s story is way more interesting than whatever he is up to. But above all because Malekith doesn’t really have much of a relationship with any of the heroes, not even with Odin, since the Asgardian king he fought against was Bor. I guess he has a beef with Asguardians in general, but not even Thor is that concerned about him, he mostly cares about what the aether does to Jane. Even though Malekith is supposed to be the big bad of the movie with the world destroying plan, none of the conflicts seem to be directly related to him. Even Loki seems to feel that he has gotten his revenge for the death of his mother when he kills the Kursed and then blissfully leaves it to Thor to clean up the rest. There is just something wrong with a film when the big dimension hopping battle feels like an afterthought instead of the big event. So, you guessed it, 1 point.

 

7. Acting

How well does the actor sell the role?

I said it before: I really hate to lay into the performance of an actor. Especially in this case because selling this role is a nearly impossible task. The character is just badly written from start to finish. And the elfish doesn’t help. It is just harder to emphasis specific words when you are speaking in a made-up language and the audience is focussed on the subtitles anyway, and not on your performance. But I also think that there are moments in the movie in which a little bit scene chewing would have helped. In a role like this, you go big even at the risk of going down, but in this case the performance is extremely understated. It feels as if the actor is just there for a paycheck and deep down considers the role beneath him. So, 1 Point.

 

8.  Costume

Does the Costume fit the character and does it stand out in general?

I actually like the basic design of the dark elves. I am aware that some think that the alternative designs would have been a better pick, but I disagree. They are supposed to be elves, not some sort of power rangers. Thus said, I have a number of nit-picks with the designs they went with. For starters, those masks. I know they are supposed to look terrifying, but the movie is too bright and colourful for that to truly work. Those masks are perfect for a darker setting but since Swartalfheim is more greyish than actually dark they kind of blend into the environment. The other thing which bothers me is Malekith’s strange helmet. It seems to press the head down into the high collar of the costume. But this aside, at least I remember the costume and it fits the character, so I go for 3 points.

 

9.  Entertainment Factor

How strong is the emotional response?

Zero. But I can’t give out a zero, so 1 Point.

 

10. Memorable Moments

How many memorable scenes and lines has the character?

Honestly I can’t come up with a single memorable quote or moment. 1 Point.


Well, this was more a rant than a review. Sorry, but I think Marvel really dropped the ball with this one. 1,2 Stars, a result which will hopefully never be repeated.