Disney’s Mulan was Respectful to Chinese Culture

The Mouse is drunk on live action remakes. I don’t know why people keep going to watch them myself but it is what it is. If glitzy wannabe Broadway is your preference to the excellent hand drawn animation of the Disney golden age then by all means check it out, I’ll be happy to stay home. But I was pretty upset to hear my third favorite Disney film was undergoing major story changes to become more “respectful” to its native culture. As you’ve already guessed from the title, I’m talking about the upcoming remake of Mulan.

Now, all we’ve got to go on so far is a trailer and that’s not much. Especially if you compare the original trailer for Mulan to the end product. So 2020’s Mulan is by no means a ship that’s sailed. But I’m still pretty upset to hear about some of the changes, like cutting Mushu. He was a fun, memorable and quotable character. He gave a bit of recognizable American flavor to a film lacking many cultural touchstones for its primary audience, much like Timon in The Lion King.

But the charge in general really grated at me.

At its heart Mulan is a story about the foundational Confucian values, filial piety, humaneness and ritual. The first is at the heart of the story, because it is Mulan’s unshakable loyalty to her family that drives her to the heights of her achievements. Her father will go and fight – and given his age and injuries, certainly die. So Mulan takes his place. Everything that happens after hinges on her familial devotion.

Humaneness is demonstrated in a particularly Disney fashion, by having Mulan anthropomorphize and sympathize with her animal friends. This is a common Disney trope but it is always used to show a kindness and gentleness in leading ladies and it happens to synchronize perfectly with this Confucian value. Of course, humaneness also applies to how we deal with other people and in this Mulan is also exemplary, showing an insight and compassion for her fellow soldiers that could probably only be matched by the Emperor himself.

Finally, ritual is something Mulan engages in many times, from painting her face and going to the Matchmaker, to the relentless drilling of her military training. You can’t really get away from ritual in Chinese society so perhaps the film has too little of it but that’s hardly disrespectful it’s just one of the realities of storytelling.

Significantly, while Mulan embodies each of the Confucian values it’s also important to note that they are mirrored back to her as well. Her father won’t reveal her and bring her home because it will put her in more danger than letting her go. His loyalty to family surpasses his duty to Empire. Humaneness is also echoed by Mulan’s father and mother at first, by (oddly enough) Shan Yu when he tries to send her home and spare her death in war (this isn’t how conscripts worked back then), and finally by the Emperor of all China. And many of the rituals Mulan takes part in aren’t things you can do alone, she has to do them with others. So it’s not like these things are confined to her – they’re part of the warp and weft of the story.

But that story is a universal one. That’s part of what makes films like Aladdin and Mulan so brilliant. They’re totally understandable and relatable stories steeped in unfamiliar cultures. Mulan is a misfit who tries to do something big for someone she loves. She starts out with the odds stacked against her but a good training montage brings her in to step with the comrades who didn’t trust her and teaches her the ropes. She immediately goes out and realizes how far she’s still short of the mark and has to make it up on the spot. The final setback leaves her alone – now she has to be the hero when it’s hard. And she gets justice – she’s exposed as a liar. But she’s also seen for the fullness of her dedication and talent.

It’s hard to judge based on one trailer, as I said, but what I do see worries me. The original Mulan was as solid as it gets. This new version shows… troubling changes (beyond no Mushu). Mulan appears to already be proficient in martial arts, she seems to have something to prove in the army, she seems to chafe at the bonds of her family. The filial piety and humaneness of the original are nowhere in evidence. Ritual seems more a restraint than the lubrication of social life it should be. It’s only 90 seconds of a feature length movie. Not all of it may make the final cut.

But I’m deeply concerned that, much like the unfortunate Alita film from this year, the very real cultural respect the original Mulan film had at its heart has been pushed aside for the sake of modern, trendy shibboleths. And that would be truly ironic, since there’s nothing more disrespectful than stealing a few names and some clothing from one culture, draping them over your own ideas then selling it as authentic. The jury’s still out on this one… but I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE – Inbetween writing and publishing this (and boy am I have this problem a lot lately) new drama erupted around Liu Yifei, the actress playing Mulan in the upcoming live action version. These aspects don’t have any direct bearing on my points here about either version of the story. While I feel her remarks on Hong Kong were foolish and stupid that’s no reason to boycott the Mulan remake. Just don’t go see it because it looks lame. That’s the end of my remarks on that.


Disgust Kills Creativity

The arts in America are dying. If anyone is to save them, then the first thing they must do is overcome disgust.

Psychology breaks human personality down into five basic aspects: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Extroversion and Neuroticism. What we call art or creativity is rooted in our openness to experiencing new things, which in turn dictates how much material we have to draw on when we endeavor to create something of our own. We can experience in many ways, ranging from reading books and talking with other people, to traveling new places and eating new foods.

The primary obstacle to experiencing new things is neuroticism, the tendency for the mind to focus on negative circumstances or outcomes. Neuroticism dictates how aware we are of fear and disgust, the part of our minds that warns of potential danger to us or those we care about. The stronger our neuroticism, the more things wrong we will see in a new experience, the more bad outcomes will dominate our expectations.

Neither neuroticism nor openness to experience are inherently good or bad. Overindulging in either one can have bad consequences, ignoring either one can have equally bad consequences. But in the arts, a little less neuroticism than normal is undoubtedly a good thing.

In just the last year of creative work, I have been in theater productions that involved incredible amounts of sweating and bad smelling costumes (as one friend of mine memorably put it, “Fame is stinky”), spent days with ink stains on my fingers from failed experiments in illustration and researched dozens of unpleasant subjects ranging from medical realities to nasty tribal rituals for stories I am percolating. Creative endeavors are rarely scary – although some forms of performance art can be – but they are very frequently gross before they are beautiful. The lotus flower flourishes among muck and grime. Famed animator Don Bluth once said you can show children pretty much anything, no matter how scary or gross, and they’ll be fine as long as you give them a happy ending. Unfortunately, we now live in a society that would rather be spared disgust than struggle through to the beauty at the end.

There’s a new spirit afoot in our culture, a spirit of disgust and revilement. You can see it at work every time we cower before media like Goblin Slayer or Shield Hero that shows us the unpleasant aspects of the human experience, every time artists like Kevin Hart have old statements now outside the orthodoxy used to run them out of jobs or off platforms, every time performers like Chris Pratt are taken to task for their social circles or personal beliefs. Overcome with disgust, our culture shuns these stories, these people, and either runs from them or attacks them. What they won’t do is engage with them, try to learn from their stories or performances, good or bad.

As a result our culture is suffering.

There’s a lot of disgusting things in the great works of literature. 1984 and Brave New World were rife with sexual exploitation, Shakespeare’s works were incredibly crass (for their time, and even now in some respects), Edgar Allen Poe was fascinated with the ways people abuse and torment one another, even Disney films show us a mother murdered before her child’s eyes. And for the love of all that is good, have you seen that pawn shop scene from The Brave Little Toaster? But there were hard lessons in those dark warnings about human nature, and the bright points that frequently followed them took us to heights far above the depths. Art gains its power from truth, and the truth is disgusting and frightful as often as it is glorious and joyful.

There are just not as many powerful but messy stories coming out these days. A film like Casablanca that portrayed the contradictory, often messy characters who couldn’t bring themselves to fight Nazis until after the climax of the movie, who in some cases were willing to give up the fight just to get a little personal satisfaction, would not find much approval today. Now, Nazis are gross and everyone knows better. It’s easy to forget how complicated and messy things were in the late 1930s, and how unclear the evil to come was. 

Neither could a film like Blazing Saddles be made. There was a movie grossly insensitive to the stereotypes and prejudices of its day. By acting so callously, that movie managed to turn demeaning caricatures into a joke, fighting to rob them of power and put them in perspective, suggesting things will work out better if we just stop taking ourselves so seriously. Good humor is a weakness now, blinding us to the fact that we’re being made impure. Then it was a weapon in the face of absurd notions others held, and we can’t bear to think of the days we engaged with those notions at all.

We’re starving our culture, thinking we’re keeping it pure. In the end, we’re just whittling it down. While I love some of the Marvel movies, they’re practically the only movies of note being made today. And they’re by and large bright, shiny, optimistic movies, less concerned with the frailties of the human condition than with its zenith. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a diet of only bread leaves you with scurvy. Our arts have been purified. There’s nothing disgusting in them anymore. And it’s left our creativity horribly stunted.


Desty Nova: A Villain Destroyed

Alita: Battle Angel is a movie about cyborgs punching stuff and the nature of the human experience. The story is theoretically a direct, big screen adaptation of one of my top ten favorite manga of all time, Battle Angel Alita. It’s also a very mixed bag.

This is not a complete breakdown of the adaptation, what I thought was good and what I thought was bad, as that would be an undertaking and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Visually the movie is pitch perfect, but storywise it runs into some deep, deep flaws, tossing aside many of the themes of the source material in order to produce a trite, overused, downtrodden vs oppressors narrative. Nowhere does that failure come through more clearly than in the character of Desty Nova (just Nova in the film). As Alita’s greatest antagonist, Nova was a cruel and capricious character in the manga, and to an extent the film presents him as such as well. But in his adaptation of the manga, James Cameron throws away the questions Nova was trying to tackle and reduces him to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon tyrant rather than presenting him as the dangerous philosophical and moral threat that he should have been.

You see Desty Nova, the manga character, was trying to develop a scientific theory of free will and destiny. To do this, he would find people and offer to help them do anything they desired – unfettered free will – and then observe what happened to them, and whether they could overcome their circumstances – their destiny. In this process Nova was entirely amoral – he was as likely to assist a vicious serial killer like Makaku as a caring brother and conscientious sportsman like Jashugan, and he didn’t really care if he had to do things others might consider amoral to forward his goals. Eventually Nova would become more sadistic and arbitrary in his actions – Makaku and Jashugan seem to have been early and comparatively benign experiments – and he never hesitated to leverage his technical expertise to smooth his way and help himself survive the ever growing horde of people who wanted him dead.

Through Nova’s experiments we get a glimpse at the idea that our own desires can destroy us. He never gives his subjects anything other than what they want, to the extent of his considerable ability. But they invariably wind up self destructing. Makaku gains a robust cyberbody that can survive almost any situation but, with his limited sense of self, he can only understand pain and suffering and only communicates with others through them. He raises trouble until Alita finally destroys him in a tragic act that he perceives as love – affection from the only person who has ever cared about him in any way. Jashugan loves his sister and his sport, but he devotes himself to mastering that sport so fully that he gets his brain remodeled to make him a better player, ultimately leading to his brain shutting down a few years later depriving Motorball of its greatest player and Shimura of her only family. Nova did things for both these men that made their burnouts bigger and more spectacular – but there’s no doubt that they would have wound up in the same place regardless.

But the important thing about Nova is that he was fascinated with free will. He helped his subjects do whatever they wanted, and in turn he did whatever he wanted to get them there. Controlling people was never a part of his character. And Nova was a genuinely curious scientist. He wanted to understand things and answer questions, he didn’t really care about his own status so long as he could satisfy his curiosity. And he loved flan.

The adaptation of his character is practically the exact opposite.

In Alita: Battle Angel Nova is a tyrant. He rules the city of Zalem and oversees a network of servants on the surface to ensure no one there challenges his position. He is capable of controlling the bodies of those servants, completely overriding their free will. And when confronted with Alita herself, the most fascinating experimental subject for Nova of the manga, the foundation of a dozen experiments into free will over the course of decades, movie Nova orders her execution without expressing the slightest shred of interest. Alita is not a way to try and satisfy his curiosity, Nova just wants the power source in her cyborg body so he can make his own position in Zalem secure.

Makaku (or a very similar character with an unpronounceable name in the film) is just a pawn that does Nova’s bidding, we don’t even know why he took up working with Nova in the first place. Jashugan’s part in the story hasn’t come in yet but we do see Nova manipulating the Factory master Vector in much the same way. When these character die it’s a nonevent. They had no meaning, nothing to say about themselves or the nature of Nova’s desires and ambitions. They’re just fuel for spectacle, and props that show Nova is Bad. Hollow shells, nothing more.

It’s disappointing to see something you love translated to a new medium badly. It’s worse to see something that was trying to say something profound boiled down to something trite. In the character of Nova, Alita: Battle Angel manages both.

Who in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

The greatest movie theme song ever written is Ghostbusters. It’s fun, swingy and catchy, the kind of tune that crawls into your subconscious mind and emerges whenever it’s most embarrassing. By the same token, one of the greatest TV show themes ever written belongs to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a geography trivia gameshow that I remember fondly from the days of my youth. It was performed by the excellent vocal group Rockapella and it had some of the best wordplay and catchiest melodies on PBS. When the gameshow morphed into a history trivia show with a time travel theme the biggest loss was the theme song and Rockapella.

By the same coin, the one place I’d say Netflix’s take on Carmen Sandiego falls short is in its loss of that theme song.

This new Netflix take on the franchise is not the first attempt to morph the computer adventure games/quiz shows into a story driven animated series. There was a similar take run on Fox Kids in the mid-nineties, and in the spirit of disclosure I should note that I’ve never seen a full episode of that show. Neither have I played any of the adventure games – although we did own the “Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?” board game and I watched a lot of the PBS quiz shows, which gave me some familiarity with the franchise.

For those not familiar, all iterations of the franchise up until Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego have revolved around detectives from the ACME Crimenet trying to locate and capture renowned international superthief Carmen Sandiego, most notable for her snazzy red coat and hat, penchant for stealing outrageous things from unlikely places, and on the nose naming sense. (Her criminal empire goes by “VILE”. Yes, really.) The franchise also tended to be very upfront with the fact that the audience was expected to participate. Players of the computer games were addressed directly, and called “Player” by name. Likewise, in the Fox cartoon, there was a mute figure by a computer who the other characters relied on for information who they referred to as Player, and who would often be left with trivia questions to answer at commercial breaks – with the expectation that the audience would make guesses as they waited for the show to come back on, of course.

The most interesting aspect of the quiz show, for me as a young child, was that Carmen very frequently got away. The challenges of the show were hard and gumshoes rarely made it through the final round successfully and, if they couldn’t finish in time, Carmen eluded them. Likewise, the other iterations of the franchise kept Carmen a step ahead of her pursuers so that she could sneak away to plot a new crime in a new installment. Her henchmen and goals would change but she was a constant. That made her the most well defined, most interesting part of the franchise.

Moving her from the role of villain to misunderstood hero must have been a natural move for the Netflix writing team. By transforming Carmen from a globetrotting crimeboss to a catburglar trying to turn over a new leaf, the latest incarnation of the franchise does a lot to push the story towards a coherent narrative with clear and constant conflict, rather than just a series of random trivia challenges as in incarnations past.

Carmen was always a bit of a mysterious figure, the better to turn up in surprising situations with no clear motive. This new take preserves that mystique by making Carmen’s origins a bit of a mystery to even herself (Orphans! A writer’s favorite kind of child!) but gives her simple and somewhat idealistic motives that make her an accessible protagonist, rather than a distant antagonist.

Fortunately, although the central character is radically reimagined, everything else about the franchise is firing on all cylinders. ACME and VILE are still part of the world; Carmen is a VILE defector and ACME is a spy network dedicated to finding and bringing down VILE. Carmen’s support team is made up of familiar faces. Zach and Ivy, homages to the protagonists of the Fox series, provide Carmen’s field support while her comms and research person is a Canadian white hat hacker who goes only by Player. And VILE’s criminal network still spans the globe and targets cultural artifacts, so the story still travels everywhere and brings up lots of local trivia like local customs, imports and exports and fine works of art.

There are new elements in the mix, like the ACME agents Chase Devineaux and Julia Argent, who are Carmen’s foils on the other side of the law. They’re introduced in a way that almost makes them feel like red herrings – they work for Interpol at first – but slowly grow to be more and more of a pain in her side. Keeping the ACME Chief as the hard faced lady from the quiz show rather than the floating head of the games and cartoon was a nice touch, even if most of the witty dialog that made that character so much fun hasn’t worked its way into the show yet.

VILE is similarly a mix of old and new. Since they basically appeared only as antagonists who players had to find, VILE operatives tended to appear alone or in small groups and never discuss how their organization worked. With the focus now on a former member of that organization, that’s changed. VILE has many more characters here than in days past, and the only familiar one is The Contessa. Pretty much everything else is made from scratch, and they offer an interesting slew of villains to serve as foils for Carmen. They’re interesting characters who manage to avoid being cartoonish villains, but I must admit I miss the likes of Double Trouble or Vic the Slick. They wouldn’t fit quite as organically in Carmen’s new world so I understand why they aren’t there, but it’s still a small disappointment.

However, after watching all of Carmen Sandiego, I still feel there’s something missing. Beyond Rockapella, that is. Carmen isn’t going anywhere, personally speaking. She’s set out to bring down VILE on her own – fair enough. Maybe she has something to prove. Maybe she just wants to definitively turn over a new leaf. But so far what this radical new direction means for her as a character hasn’t been addressed. That keeps the series from being more than just a romp through a nostalgic property, which is too bad because the studio behind it really put in the work to make an engaging show on pretty much every other front. If we were going to delve into Carmen Sandiego as deeply as we delved into world cultures I might be tempted back for another season. As it is, I’m probably going to pass.

Unless Rockapella comes back. Get on that, Netflix.

Lemony Snicket’s Most Unfortunate Event Was the Netflix Ending

Dear reader, if you wish to avoid spoilers for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, then please, look away. Nothing but disappointment waits for you here.

The basic premise of Unfortunate Events is that the story has no happy endings – although it does occasionally have something like happy middles. Indeed, by the end of Daniel Handler’s thirteen book series (written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Baudelaire orphans will have lost just about every person they meet who is kind to them. Most to death, a few to circumstances a little more vague.

This is a children’s book series.

Now, Unfortunate Events is aimed at an audience on the cusp of young adulthood, intended to engage the growing minds of preteens and young teenagers with the kinds of questions that their rapidly maturing brains are starting to grapple with in earnest. What are good and evil? To what extent can people embody those traits? Why do adults do things that seem so incomprehensible to adolescents and children? The series also warns its younger readers of many things to watch out for in life. Authority figures are sometimes too untrustworthy, incompetent or emotionally comprised to be relied on. People are not always what they seem at first. And, of course, there are no happy endings in life – life always ends in death. And that’s rarely happy.

It’s not fair to say that nothing good ever happens to the Baudelaires. Their lives are hard, but they find friends and moments of peace. But they’re always moving on to the next thing, the next attempt to find the truth, the next attempt to find a home, the next attempt to get away from the evil Count Olaf. And by the time we reach the end of Snicket’s recounting of what he knows of their lives, including his own encounter with the Baudelaires, these warnings have proved true time and again, and the questions have found no easy answers. The Baudelaires do get away from Count Olaf.

It’s easy to run from someone who’s dead.

It’s not so easy to forget someone who chased you for years, setting fire to everything in his wake, and who died saving the life of a woman he hated – but loved in the past.

For a little while, the Baudelaires have peace on the secluded island where Olaf died. There’s food, shelter and no enemies to speak of. But there’s no challenge and when body and mind go unchallenged they rot. So they end the diary of their activities there – later found by their tireless biographer, Snicket – and set sail into the unknown. It is the end of their story by virtue of being all that is known to be told. Perhaps they thrived. And perhaps not.

In this mix of hope and melancholy the tale of the Baudelaires is summarized to perfection.

Netflix ruined it, as is their way.

Now I’m going to be very, very hard on the final episode of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but lest you think this means I disliked the production, let me take a moment to praise it. The writing carries over much of the book’s love of wordplay, incredible prose and sense of tongue in cheek fun at the forced dreariness of the story. Nothing in life can be as dull and depressing as Snicket’s take on the adventures of a handful of orphans. Part of the point of the novels is to point out how the endlessly bright and optimistic nature of many children’s books, replete with constant happy endings, is absurd. But rather than push this overbearing optimism to the point of parody, the absurdity is simply turned upside down. It might be easy to miss that and treat Unfortunate Events as something to be played straight. Nothing, from the written dialog to the actor’s performances, the set designs to the musical score, ever makes that mistake.

And speaking of production values, they are incredible. The sets are gorgeous and fun, the music fits the story perfectly and the actors are all spot on. In particular, the delightful Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and the droll Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket absolutely nail their parts, bringing roles that could easily become grating or boring to life with a gentle touch.

The Netflix adaptation is, on the whole, excellent. But their ending undermines the entire premise of the story. You see… the Netflix ending is happy.

Now, I’ve come out in favor of happy endings in the past, particularly in the case of Edge of Tomorrow in contrast to its source material, All You Need is Kill. But the important caveat to that is the change of the core narrative from one of falling into fatalistic resolve to one of discovering hopeful courage – a change to the ending only makes sense with the change in message. Unfortunate Events has no such change in its core narrative.

Thus, the Netflix adaptation makes two core mistakes in its final episode. First, it explicitly shows the salvation of a mismanaged group of colonists on the isle. At the time everyone there was suffering from poison. In the novel the Baudelaires find an unconventional antidote but the leader of the colony takes it himself, but doesn’t tell anyone else, instead leading them off the island towards what he says is a place they can find what they need to formulate a conventional remedy. He’s the story’s example of incompetent leadership, contrasted against the Baudelaires’ parents, who leave a diary on the island which the orphans read to find their own solution. In the Netflix adaptation, the colonists set out for the dubious yet conventional antidote before the orphans find the unconventional substitute. We later see the substitute being delivered to the colonists as they row away – making it seem much more certain they survive. In the same sequence we also see a  number of side characters from throughout the series finding the end of their minor goals, giving them happy endings as well, something the novel also avoided. The core idea of Unfortunate Events, that there are no happy endings, is lost.

The second error is like the first.

Incidentally, it’s not Olaf’s Last Act. This tiny moment of redemption offered to Olaf’s character is thematically appropriate. Almost every other character is more complex and conflicted than Olaf is until he takes the time to save Kit Snicket and, by showing this tinge of good will in the character, we see the idea that people are more than what they seem paid off once more. It doesn’t make him a good man. But there was undoubtedly a capacity for good in him that went tragically underused.

No, the final failure of the Netflix adaptation is that, after we see the Baudelaires sail into the sunset to the new and unknown challenges of the rest of their life we come back to poor, lonely Lemony Snicket, who has spent all his time chronicling their life as a final tribute to his lost love, Beatrice, who, in the novels, closed knowing he would never know the end of the story – thematically appropriate because you can never guess the end of your life from the vantagepoint of adolescence – and we cut the knees out from under that moral. Because Lemony meets Beatrice.

Not his lost love, but the little orphan girl the Baudelaires take in themselves, Kit Snicket’s daughter and Lemony’s niece. She comes and finds him, and tells him the Baudelaires are fine. And we get closure, knowing that everything’s going to be fine.

That was not the point.

The point was to tell adolescents that, although their struggles are real and never really go away, they’re also good and they make you a better person. So take the good times when they come and never shy away from the bad things. There’s nothing guaranteed but a wild ride, and that’s okay. The wonder of the ending of Unfortunate Events is the unknown. The refusal to give pat, happy endings was what set it apart. And, in the end, Netflix lost that. It’s not like everything else the show achieved was lost. But it was unfortunate.

The Incredibles 2 – Stasis Hurts

There are many movies that would be good if they stood alone but, produced as sequels, come up short. No one would have blamed Pixar if The Incredibles 2 proved to be one of those movies. The original film was a classic, easily one of the best five films Pixar has done, perhaps one of the top three. Following that kind of an act is hard. Very hard.

But the shortcomings of The Incredibles 2 are more than a little sequel driven disappointment. The film lacks focus, vision and the parts of its characters that we loved the most. As a story it’s disjointed and has no real arc for most of its characters. And worst of all, it feels like it started taking itself too seriously, where the original was so self aware it brought us the term monologing. What am I talking about?

Let’s start with the characters. That’s where the biggest and most egregious errors came from. The only character in this film that has anything that feels like an arc is Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible. That may be unsurprising, given that he was the last film’s main character, but everything else about the story feels like it’s constructed to make Helen the main character. She’s the one out in the world, confronting the driving conflicts. But nearly half of the film is spent on Bob trying to be a stay at home dad to his kids, which is funny and lets us see a lot of the three younger Parrs who were all very fun in the previous film, but the problem is Bob doesn’t really have any conflict here, he just needs to get to know his kids a little. He does, we do, and that’s it.

Now, one of the best parts of The Incredibles was how charming and authentic the Parrs felt, not just as individuals but as a family. And that charm and authenticity is in this movie as well. But in the original, we got to see the Parrs as a family engage with the story and its conflict. In the sequel, the Parrs are a quirky family or superheroes for most of the time, rather than being the quirky family of superheroes they were at the end of the last film. Bob getting more invested in his family is nice, and he rarely seemed deeply involved with his kids in the first film, so this is at least a step forward for his character. It just feels extraneous. The writers at Pixar didn’t take the time to work all these character bits into the story in any way, and that’s lazy because it leaves us with a bunch of stuff in the middle that feels aimless.

Violet also shows a little character growth in this film. Where in the first film she was too shy to talk to her crush Tony, now she’s putting a little too much of her own value in holding on to that achievement and when it slips away from her she’s crushed. By the end of the film we see her a little more confident in her own standing, willing to leave Tony on the street corner while she rushes off to help her family with a quick bout of hero work. Likewise, at the start of the film she’s irritated with being left in a defensive role but by the end she realizes that her skillset makes her more suited to play support than anyone else in the family and makes peace with it. These are both good character beats for Violet but we don’t see anything but the beginning and end of them, whereas the previous film clearly shows violet’s struggle with being confident and the very moment when she stands up and takes control of her fate on Syndrome’s Island. Also tying both of her character arcs back to Tony is kinda lame.

Beyond these poorly executed character arcs no one in The Incredibles 2 changes or grows. Dash’s desire to test himself from the first film was one of the most understandable and relatable things in the original, and he even got to formulate one of the film’s core ideas, that if everyone is special no one is. In the sequel he just gets distracted by gadgets. And Helen has something that could be a character arc, doing much of what Bob was doing in the last film and trying to push Supers back into the limelight, but again that doesn’t seem to challenge her in any way. Other than lampshading how it makes her a bit of a hypocrite, the story does not force her to justify what she’s doing in anyway or admit to Bob that he was right about how necessary bringing Supers back was. Likewise, while she misses JackJack’s first power, that’s never presented as a heavy moment for her. Helen just goes out, does some heroing, and comes home. It lacks weight.

In fact, the whole conflict in the film lacks weight. The original film made it seem like Supers were coming back already, a whole second film about making superheroes legal again feels extraneous. And the fights with the Screenslaver also lack weight. It’s not gory or in your face but the fact is, in The Incredibles people tried to kill each other and died quite a bit. There’s a suicide attempt in the first two minutes. Mr. Incredible finds the corpse of one of his friends rotted to a skeleton in a cave. A lot of Syndrome’s minions meet with fiery ends. That kind of immediate danger feels absent from The Incredibles 2 with its low impact mind control plot and general lack of menace. Perhaps that’s meant partly as a reflection on Evelyn, who is a pretty lackluster villain, but mostly it feels like the movie is just going through the motions.

There was an interview with Brad Bird which I recall reading in which he said the studio was open to making another Incredibles film so long as they could come up with a good story. At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant. Now, I suspect that he had set out to tell a story he had strong feelings about and had worked out all the details for, but once it was over he had nothing more he really wanted to say there. The problem was, people (Bird included) loved the characters and world that came out of that story. So Pixar cast about for ideas about what to do with them next, and over time half formed ideas drifted together and formed the core of this sequel. Pixar is an excellent creative studio, so they were able to grasp all the charm and heart of those characters. But without a story to drive them forward a part of the magic was lost. The Parrs remain in very much the same place they were at the end of their first film and it’s painful to see. Maybe they didn’t need a sequel. Maybe there is a better format to try this with. But for now, I’m content to consider the Incredibles franchise complete. If Bird is wise he won’t reopen it until he has somewhere to go.

The Shield Hero Complaints – Delete Anime Critics

I swear, I just wrote this post.

No, that’s not true. The problems with the Goblin Slayer reaction sprang at least in part from a failure to pick up on the symbolic threads of the story – and probably a few missteps on the part of the production staff. This time around there’s no real excuse, the people complaining about the story of Rise of the Shield Hero are just being stupid. Worse, they are guilty of dereliction of duty. If you complained about Shield Hero incorporating a false accusation of rape into its story then you missed the mark so badly you should never review anything again. Hang up your hat and go do something useful with your life.

This post is not aimed to my usual audience (although please read it if you enjoy reading me yell at people who aren’t you). It’s aimed at every vapid, intellectually lazy, useless idiot who saw the first episode of Shield Hero and immediately spouted the Culturally Approved Party Line. You should all be replaced with a thirty second propaganda video on loop because that would have the exact same value to the discourse.

Listen, I’m going to explain this to you slowly, in small words, in the hopes that some part of you can register what I say and process it enough that you might up your game, just a little bit, at some point in the future.

The job of a critic of fiction is to take a work of fiction and think about it in the context of the culture it was made in and what the author(s) of that work were trying to accomplish with it, then examine how well the author accomplished those goals and, finally, explain all that to their audience. For an anime critic in America that job comes with the added responsibility of translating the foreign culture of Japan into terms that makes sense to American audiences, not always an easy task given the very large gaps between what makes sense to us and what makes sense in Japan.

Except. In the case of Shield Hero that isn’t difficult at all. So listen, ignorant and stunted critics, for I am about to do your job for you.

Japanese culture values appearances very highly and, once you lose face, it can be nearly impossible to recover. The consequences of a single misstep can ruin a person for life, and damages the prospects of everyone associated with that person as well. Worse, it doesn’t require an actual misstep to ruin some people, just rumors, particularly if that person is from the bottom end of the social scale. Like in American literature, good and bad, confronting injustice is a running theme in Japanese fiction, and Shield Hero is no different.

The story of Shield Hero starts with a very worn premise about a normal person transported to a fantasy world, a bit like the Chronicles of Narnia. In this case, the hero is transported with three other strangers and each of these men (and they are all men) find themselves attached to a magical weapon. They have been summoned with the hopes that they will be able to save the world. As you might guess from the title, our protagonist is attached to a powerful magical shield. His fellows sneer at him for being stuck with a worthless looking “weapon” and none of the champions native to the world join to help him prepare for the coming dangers.

None, except for a woman who seemingly takes pity on him and helps him get ready for his work. But after a single day with him she steals his money and turns him over to the local constables as a would be rapist then runs of to join forces with one of the other summoned heroes, leaving our protagonist despised, scorned and traumatized by the betrayal.

That’s the beginning of Rise of the Shield Hero and, as you might expect, it leaves the hero at his lowest point so he can –as the title implies – rise up to greatness. It’s also not the whole story.

You see, the Shield Hero has a unique standing in the world he arrives in. Tradition speaks of him as a particular ally to demihumans (essentially a despised ethnic minority in the country where he arrives). In addition, it turns out that the woman who framed him is second in line to the throne. We see other characters in the world do equal or worse things than those the Shield Hero is accused of but since they target the weak or the despised, or they themselves are simply powerful, they suffer none of the indignities that the Shield Hero must go through.

This builds greater and greater resentment and anger in the Shield Hero, creating problems beyond the physical danger he must face and the social ostracization he faces. His very hatred is a danger to him and the small handful of allies he manages to collect. The story is as much about him recovering his own sense of self as it is about his overcoming the social and physical dangers he faces.

Astute commentators will note the biting commentary this story offers on Japan’s standards of social punishment, which are rarely applied equally. They might even go so far as to draw parallels between this storyline and works of American Literature like To Kill A Mockingbird or perhaps just known historical cases that bear superficial resemblance to the inciting incident of Shield Hero like the lynching of Emmett Till. The truly daring might bring up the fact that the way Title IX has been applied in the past several years has resulted in more and more minority men being run off of college campuses under very dubious circumstances, many of whom have later found some small solace in collecting millions of dollars in court damages from the colleges that wronged them, and how Shield Hero is an easily digestible warning to examine ourselves and make sure we’re not going down the wrong path.

But I’m not going to do any of those things.

Instead, I’m going to point out how you dissolute wastes of Internet bandwidth who have the gall to claim the title of Critic behave just like the villains of Shield Hero. Just as the nation where the Shield Hero arrives revels in its religiously granted superiority over demihumans and dismisses all their trials out of hand, demeaning their champion because he is a morally inferior entity without reflection on themselves or his circumstances, you have rushed to mouth your preapproved condemnations about disbelieving survivors so you can claim the moral high ground over misogynists who just want to get away with raping women. There can’t be any kind of nuanced discussion or examination of cultures or parallels, or even what the author might have originally been intending with his story, because you already have the gospel truth and that proves you’re a good person.

Well, if there was any justice in the world your total failure at meaningful criticism would result in your being driving off the Internet by jeering masses that see you for the self-righteous drones you are. But, as Shield Hero points out, there is rarely justice in this world. And that means that, while you may hate it, The Rise of the Shield Hero is the anime you deserve. I hope you choke on it.