Monthly Archives: January 2018

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.

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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.