Thoughts on ‘Mulan’

With the unnecessary and unwanted remake becoming the ‘who the heck thought this was a good idea?’ film of the season (previously occupied by such luminary pictures as Birds of Prey and The Rise of Skywalker), I decided to revisit the original Mulan, which I had not seen in many, many years.

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Mulan came near the tail end of the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, about the time the formula was beginning to wear thin and the films were going into decline. I may attempt a full recap of the Disney canon someday and then it will be time to tackle its place in the series, but for now let’s just consider it by itself as a film.

In Medieval China the Huns (led by the intimidating Shan Yu) have invaded over the Great Wall. In response the Emperor sends out his imperial troops to stop them and orders up conscription; one man from every family to supplement the regular army.

We then meet Mulan, the intelligent, tomboyish daughter of a crippled war veteran. When the call for conscription comes out, her father sets aside his crutch and steps forward, though its plain his fighting days are behind him. Mulan, who loves her father dearly, can see that if he goes to war, he will certainly die. She first tries to talk him out of it, which prompts him to anger, then resolves on the desperate course of disguising herself as a boy and taking his place.

Her ancestral spirits, concerned of the impact this might have on the family, dispatch the demoted ex-guardian Mushu to fetch her back (they try to send the ‘stone dragon,’ but Mushu breaks it. We’ll not try to work that one out). Mushu, however, hits on the idea that he can regain his own lost status if he can make Mulan a war hero and so decides to help her succeed in the army instead.

At the camp, Mulan receives a crash course in the male mode of life and begins training under the young captain Shang, son of the Imperial General. At first she struggles just to keep up with her fellow soldiers (themselves pretty unimpressive), but through perseverance, hard work, and cleverness she and her comrades grow into competent soldiers. Before long she and her ragtag unit find themselves marching into battle against a vastly superior foe.

Watching Mulan, I can see why it’s often considered a rather forgettable, middling entry in the Disney canon. It’s uneven in its tone and the Disney Renaissance formula elements (soulful hero who feels ‘different’ and yearns for something more, cute sidekicks, Broadway-style songs etc.) are sometimes jarringly out of place. Yet, at the same time, I was struck by how much better it is than most of the films being made today. It’s a really good story, for one thing, and the characters, especially Mulan herself, are written with a degree of skill and nuance. It’s, well, a good movie. Not a great movie by any stretch, but a pretty good one.

In particular, the film takes a fairly intelligent approach to Mulan’s situation. She doesn’t put on her armor and immediately become a badass, or find her only obstacle is prejudice or some such nonsense. She runs into many of the problems you would logically expect someone in her situation to encounter. When she first starts her masquerade, she gets tripped up by merely talking to the other soldiers, since she has absolutely no idea how men relate to each other (Mushu’s advice doesn’t help). This causes her to make several bad first impressions, though amusingly enough, it also helps her masquerade a bit, as her apparent incompetence makes it easier for the royal official to believe that her father “doesn’t talk about me much”.

Then when training begins, she’s the most hopeless of the largely hopeless unit, struggling even to master basic tests. But she sticks with it, works hard, and starts finding ways to work in her new environment. Her inventiveness (established in her very first scene) allows her to figure out a particular challenge Shang has set them, and she and her fellow soldiers all grow over the course of training. They not only master the difficult tasks set them, but develop comradery with each other. The soldiers, Mulan included, earn one another’s respect through shared hardship and developing competence.

One thing I particularly like is that she actually is given a chance to go home part way through training. Rather than leaping at the chance, however, she stays and gives the arrow challenge one more shot. This is both very admirable of her and fits perfectly with what’s been established without having to make it explicit. Going home would mean bringing shame on her family and her father for having sent a worthless reject to defend the Emperor. It isn’t just a matter of helping her dad dodge the draft; the family name and honor is at stake. She’s taken it upon herself, and so she has to keep trying to uphold it.

Which is another thing that this film does well; it has the sense to understand that Mulan’s story is not only about her. Her family and her country are also on the line. Her becoming a soldier, even if she’s the best soldier of her unit, doesn’t ultimately mean anything unless she can preserve them.

Of course, the film also makes obligatory gestures toward modern individualism, with Mulan wanting to be ‘who I am inside’ and all that. Though to its credit, when she wrestles with the question of whether that was her real motive, she’s clearly ashamed by the idea of its being so (more credit to the film in giving her such mixed motives in the first place).

In short, Mulan actually takes super-personal matters of honor, familial duty, and feudal obligation seriously and treats them as if they had legitimate claims rather than being mere obstacles to personal development.

On that note, despite its surface-level feminism the story is actually remarkably patriarchal (and I have to clarify, I think that’s a good thing). The whole plot is centered around protecting the Emperor (more on him in a minute), which is reflected in miniature with Mulan trying to save her father.

Her father is a thoroughly admirable character; a former war hero and a kindly man who loves his daughter deeply. After her disastrous meeting with the matchmaker, he doesn’t rebuke her for screwing up but comforts her by likening her to a flower that hasn’t bloomed yet. In his one moment of anger with her (telling her to “know your place”) he’s actually shown to be fundamentally correct. She’s trying to convince him not to go to war, saying there are plenty of young men to fight and he isn’t necessary. He answers, essentially, that it isn’t about him, and that honor – doing what is right – is worth dying for. Which, as noted, pretty much drives everything she does from then on.

Basically, she was right that he can’t go to war – since he’s a cripple and wouldn’t survive in a battle – but she was wrong about what to do about it, which prompts her to take a desperate and unexpected solution to save him.

(There is the fact that he may have just been sent home upon failing training, which arguably is a plot hole. However, I don’t think that actually detracts from the story: the fact that he is a war hero – Shang is impressed upon finding out who ‘Ping’ is related to – means that he probably would have been kept on out of respect if nothing else. And if he were sent home, that would have also brought shame on the family, assuming that he accepted the dismissal, which it’s reasonable to think he wouldn’t have, so it would have been a disaster nonetheless. And finally, we can reasonably assume that, in any case, Mulan wouldn’t have thought of that. So, even if she didn’t strictly have to go, she would have believed she did and once committed to the scheme she would have to see it through to the end).

Her filial devotion to her father is mirrored by China’s devotion to the Emperor. The new troops who are called up are specifically called to serve the Emperor. When they find the Imperial Army destroyed, Shang tells his troops that they’re “the only hope for the Emperor now.” Note the specificity: not China, but the Emperor. Since, of course, he embodies China.

This all gives us a wonderfully positive image of monarchy. The Emperor answers the filial devotion of his people with a paternal love and care for them (at one point he calls them “my children”). Upon learning of the invasion, orders his armies away from his palace to defend the outlying provinces. When Shang meets him after the battle, the Emperor’s first move is to condole with him on the death of his father. Then when Shan Yu has him captured and at sword point, he still calmly and resolutely refuses to bow to the Hun, willing to accept death rather than dishonor his people.

In all this the Emperor is convincingly portrayed as the father and embodiment of his nation, and as a man who takes this role very seriously. He wields absolute authority but tempered with the personal touch of a man relating to other men.

As for Mulan herself, I touched on it a bit, but she’s a likable heroine; her evident courage, devotion, and willingness to persevere make her admirable, while her initial clumsiness and warm-heartedness make her endearing. She’s a bit of a common trop – the smart, independent woman chafing in a traditional society that we’ve seen a hundred times – but fortunately the aforementioned piety she shows, as well as her efforts to fit in the military while still having a distinctly feminine personality peeking through the cracks is more than enough to keep her interesting. 

Her heroics are generally excellent. Again, the film is smart enough to know that she cannot hope to match her male allies or enemies in strength and so she doesn’t try. Instead she employs her grace, agility, and cleverness to get around their advantages, as when she uses their one remaining cannon to start an avalanche to take out the entire Hun army, or when she uses her fan (a distinctly feminine article) in her showdown with Shan Yu. But I love that, though she’s fighting in unorthodox way, she is still putting herself on the line for the sake of her comrades and the mission. Her trick with the cannon requires her to get right up to the charging hoard, resulting in her being wounded. In the climax there’s a moment where she has a chance to join her friends and the Emperor, but chooses to forego it to prevent Shan Yu from following them, leaving her and Shang trapped with an extremely angry Hun. The film does an excellent job of showing that in all her schemes and gambits, the mission and her friends always come first for her. This, much more than simply beating the bad guys, is what makes her a worthy heroine.

I also like how she keeps her feminine habits and outlook throughout the film. She’s nearly unmasked at one point because she’s used to regular baths and tries to sneak one in the local watering hole (“There are a couple of things I know they’re bound to notice!” Mushu laments as her new buddies rush to join her). In this scene there’s also a small detail where, when one of her friends tries to shake hands, she instinctively offers hers as though presenting it to be kissed.

It’s clever too that at no point does Mulan actually like being in the army. She makes friends and is able to pull her weight, but she’s clearly feeling awkward and out of place the whole time. Kudos to the animators for making her armor look bulky and ill-fitting throughout, visually cluing us to her discomfort. Even in her most heroic moments, the animators are sure to show that she is frightened, and she does feel out of her depth (I love the bit where she throws her shoe at Shan Yu to focus his attention on her and then fumbles to put it back on so she can run away from him). This carries on to the very end, where even in her final gambit she’s quietly frantic as she tries to get out of the way of the results (“getofftheroofgetofftheroofgetofftheroof…”).

Also, not all of her ‘quirks’ are positive. At the start of the film she’s shown to be kind of lazy: oversleeping, trying to cheat on her test, and getting her dog to do her chores for her. This habit realistically come back to bite her in the army and she has to learn to temper her natural inclinations with discipline and hard work.

Then there are her interactions with Shang, where, as intimidating and stern as he is to her, she still takes the time to reach out to him emotionally when she sees he is down, trying to build him up and support him (that and she can’t help staring when he takes his shirt off and reveals his chiseled physique).

I also have to give the film credit for the logic of how she’s eventually discovered (she’s wounded in battle) and what happens next; Shang actually does seem about ready to execute her, and his (stated) reasons for not doing so make perfect sense. His reaction on seeing her again when she comes to try to warn them are likewise pretty well done. He’s surprised, but he isn’t really angry with her; he just wants her to go away.

Shang himself is a decent character; a tough, capable, masculine hero with his own story arc. He’s established right away as, like Mulan, being very close to his father and wanting to live up to his expectations and uphold the family honor (his introduction also lets us see the good-humored man beneath the commander as he stammers over his thanks for the promotion before collecting himself). We get to see a fair amount of his struggles as well; saddled with green, uncouth soldiers – not to mention an obnoxious bureaucrat who is constantly criticizing him – and trying to whip them into shape in order to live up to the responsibility entrusted to him (though I will say one minor flaw is that he seems to throw away at least one sword too many over the course of the film).

I appreciate that, though Mulan is of course the star, Shang is allowed to be a dashing and heroic figure in his own right. Among other things he rallies his pitiful unit to continue their mission even after finding the main Imperial Army has been wiped out (including his father), ready to fight out the war to the bitter end. He’s also the one who actually saves the Emperor and though he loses to Shan Yu in a one-on-one fight, he does so in a way that shows him be an impressive combatant in his own right (that is, it’s clear he’s simply out-classed rather than unskilled). And when he and Mulan end up facing the Hun commander alone, his first move is to try to protect her and focus Yu’s attention on himself.

Their romance actually works a lot better than I remember it. Her glimpses into his interior life and the compassion she shows him form a believable basis for an attachment. His interactions with her (such as the way he calls for her to come back during the mountain fight) hint that has an idea there’s something different about this particular soldier, though he can’t quite put his finger on it, mirroring how she sees past his commander persona to the human being underneath.

Mulan fans 'fuming' after Disney drops character over #MeToo concerns | The  Independent | The Independent

Kudos again to the animators for his facial expressions after she’s unmasked; in both the scene where he considers executing her and when they meet again in the city they manage to show that a lot more is going on inside him than his dialogue would indicate (again, his surprised and not-unpleased look when he first sees her in the latter scene is particularly good).

Then there’s the villain. Shan Yu’s an interesting entry in the stable of Disney bad guys, in that honestly he could just as easily have stepped out of an anime or even a live-action film. There’s almost nothing ‘cartoony’ about him. He’s a big, hulking monster at the head of a massive army, seemingly looking to conquer China more for the satisfaction of beating the Emperor than for any desire for political power or wealth. He gets a striking introduction, burning the Chinese flag and declaring his delight at the prospect of facing the whole Middle Kingdom. Later he tells two captured scouts to “tell the Emperor to send his strongest armies. I’m ready for him!” He then has one of the scouts killed just because.

Basically, he’s a barbarian through and through, looking for nothing but to prove himself in battle by smashing the best the civilized world can throw at him. This makes him a good foil to Mulan, Shang, and the Emperor, who all are motivated by filial piety and devotion to duty. Mulan fears that she might be only fighting to prove something to herself; Shan Yu actually is fighting for just such a reason, only he never doubts that he’ll succeed. He relies largely on overwhelming strength, while Mulan uses cunning and finesse to get around it.

On that note, I have to say the scene of the Mongol hoard coming over the mountain is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly paired with the awesome music.

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The film really does allow itself to be a war movie, even if a Disneyfied one. The heroes kill people, characters die in battle, and at one point the Huns even massacre a village complete with explicitly killing children (off-screen of course, but it’s still pretty grim. By the way, note how Shan Yu’s sarcastic desire to return the little girl’s doll mirrors and inverts the way Mulan intervenes on behalf of another little girl in the opening musical number by returning her doll from some bullies).

So, overall, the film’s pretty good. My main criticism of it is definitely Mushu. Now, Eddie Murphy is a great comedic talent, and he does a fine job with the character. I laughed quite a bit at his antics. The trouble is that Mushu is simultaneously crucial to the story at several points (including being instrumental in killing the villain) and the rest of the time he’s almost entirely disconnected from it. No one except Mulan seems to see or hear him even when they really, really should, save again for one or two specific scenes. He never interacts with any of the other characters (except in disguise), and his dialogue and behavior are tonally distinct from the rest of the story.

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Contrast this with the genie from Aladdin, who was explicitly an otherworldly being in service to Aladdin, and hence could be seen or unseen as he liked and would be expected to stand out from the rest of the film (also the Genie was central to the plot). Mushu is more or less just along for the ride, except for when he suddenly intrudes on the story to get it out of a difficulty. You could tell exactly the same story without him and nothing would change except for a few specific incidents (e.g. the reason for their being called up to the front).

Also, Mushu never really completes his character arc. He admits to his selfish motives, but he never has to walk them back or offer to sacrifice them for the greater good. He does offer to go back home with Mulan to take his punishment, but at that point they have pretty much no other options (again, contrast the genie offering to let Aladdin use his final wish to become a prince again, even though his motives were much less questionable than Mushu’s ).

Now, I like the idea of a family guardian as the sidekick character, but they needed to integrate him into the story better. You could, for instance, make it explicit that only members of Mulan’s family can see or hear him unless he allows himself to be seen. As it is, his presence feels very forced, almost as though there’s a whole separate film going on with him and the cricket that only occasionally crosses over with the rest of the story through Mulan.

On the other hand, Mulan’s three soldier buddies fit in much better as comic relief, and I’m glad that they were allowed to actually be competent soldiers and put their training to good use when it came to the point. I also liked her grandmother (“Woo! Sign me up for the next war!”), but she has very little screen time.

Meanwhile, the songs are…okay. There aren’t very many of them for a Disney film (four I think), and with only one exception (I’ll Make a Man Out of You) I found them to be pretty forgettable. The big Oscar-bait song Reflection in particular was thoroughly blah, with the lyrics amounting to simply a flat reiteration of the film’s most tiresome and commonplace themes. Also, the movie just sort of stops being a musical about the start of the third act, apart from a very brief reprise. While there’s not a lot of places they could reasonably have fit a song in after that (you really can’t have characters singing on a battlefield, or at least, you’d have to really, really work at it), it once again creates a sense of disconnection, as if the movie is struggling to make its story fit into the Disney formula.

That, I think, is what it comes down to; that Mulan has a very good, classical story at its core, with big, interesting ideas of familial and national piety, honor, and duty. But the filmmakers feel they have to check off certain boxes; they have to include some stuff about personal identity (“Who I am inside”), they have to include some boilerplate feminism, and they have to have cute sidekicks and songs.

Some of these they manage integrate better than others, but they all feel as though the writers had to fit them in rather than being organic parts of the story.

These are flaws, and they detract from the film, but they don’t derail it. As I say, the good parts of the film are very good, and the bad really aren’t awful, just kind of annoying. Overall, I’d call Mulan a worthwhile movie; a very good core story with uneven execution that amounts to a generally charming experience.  

RIP Chadwick Boseman: The First Fallen Avenger

Really shocking news; Chadwick Boseman, most famous as T’Challa / Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe passed away on Friday August 27th from colon cancer at the age of 43. Apparently, he’d been battling the disease for four years. Which means, in retrospect, that most of his involvement in the MCU was done while he was dying.

That demands respect right there.

From all I can tell, Mr. Boseman was a genuinely good guy who took his role as a superhero seriously. Anyone who takes on such a role has to understand that it is more than just a performance; you are associated with that character in the eyes of the fans for life and, in some ways, will have to keep playing it even off screen. Apparently, he used much of his massive earnings on charitable works, particularly helping people in Africa.

If you’ve read my Marvel Recaps, you know I don’t think much of Black Panther the film. You also know that I love Black Panther the character as played by Boseman, particularly his riveting performance in Civil War. But what I think doesn’t really matter at the moment; the important point is that Mr. Boseman was an exceptionally talented actor in his prime who left his mark on one of the most important franchises of contemporary Hollywood. He was also, it seems, a kind, courageous, and generous hearted man. His presence on the silver screen will be sorely missed.

The Avengers have suffered their first casualty.

Eternal Rest grant unto him, Oh Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

RIP John Saxon

At the same time that the last leading lady of old Hollywood passed away, another veteran actor joined the great majority.

Most people probably don’t recognize the name John Saxon, but I guarantee you know some of his films. Saxon was one of those reliable character actors who throve in the world of B-pictures, with nearly 200 film and TV credits to his name in a career spanning from the 1950s (when he played supporting roles to likes of James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, and Debbie Reynolds) to the 2010s. He’s best known for his roles as Nancy Thompson’s skeptical police chief father in the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street films (he then played himself in the meta-horror New Nightmare) and as the gambling addict Roper in the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (John Saxon was a skilled martial artist in his own right).

He also had roles in the horror classic Black Christmas and the action-horror cult-classic From Dusk Till Dawn, plus appearances on just about every notable TV show of the 70s and 80s. Fans of MST3k, meanwhile, will remember Saxon from the classic episode Mitchell, where he played the slimy villain of the B-plot opposite Joe Don Baker’s titular detective (though the cut of the film used on the show inexplicably left out the resolution of his plot line, causing Joel to wonder “Wasn’t John Saxon in this movie?”).

Mr. Saxon never rose high in the film industry, but he was a reliable, professional, hard-working actor who was always a welcome presence in his many, many films. I always have a fondness for that kind of working character actor: the ones who will never headline a blockbuster, but who simply show up, do their job well, and leave the audience glad for their company.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the soul of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (1973)
“Like you said, there’s a point I won’t go beyond.”

The Last Star has Gone Out

Olivia de Havilland, star of Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and dozens of other classic films, has passed away at the age of 104. She was Errol Flynn’s chief leading lady — they starred in eight films together, including his star-making role Captain Blood — one of the principle leads of Gone with the Wind and one of the great beauties of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

She was also the last one. The Golden Age of Hollywood is now officially consigned to the history books. John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, John Ford, Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; they’re all gone. Whatever might be said of that vast cast of filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses, whatever might be said of the studio system that they worked for, they produced some mighty fine stories; stories that remain meaningful, entertaining, and uplifting even when all those who made them have passed away. That, I think, counts for something.

In any case, that era is now over. The last star of Hollywood has gone out.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and the soul of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away
.

Thoughts on ‘King Kong’

Chatting a little while ago with a friend (whose site you should definitely check out and whose work you should buy), we touched on the subject of the original King Kong and its relation to later versions of the story. It got me thinking about the film, and different aspects about it, and so I thought I’d give a rundown of my thoughts on it.

This is one of those films that everyone knows about, and knows the basic story to, even if they haven’t seen it, and Kong is arguably one of the great original creations of cinema. It occurs to me as I write this that it’s actually rather rare to have a genuinely classic story come out of the movies themselves; usually the truly great, pervasive works have their origins in some earlier work outside the movie screen. Even It’s a Wonderful Life started out as a short story, and Casablanca began life as an unproduced play. I’m certainly not going to say that Kong is the only such story, but it’s certainly one of the foremost examples (Star Wars would be another).

The story starts with Carl Denham, a motion picture director (heavily based on writer-producer-director Merian C. Cooper himself) who “makes motion pictures in jungles and places.” He has a unique idea for a new film and is under intense pressure to get started, as he is in a somewhat dicey legal position regarding the explosives he’s bringing. Trouble is, his agent can’t (or won’t) find him a leading lady, so he goes out to find one himself (“even if I have to marry one!”) and happens to run across Ann Darrow, a hungry, out of work actress as she considers stealing an apple. Struck by her looks and feeling for her plight, he offers her the job.

On the long voyage out (Denham doesn’t say where they’re going until well toward the end), Jack Driscall, the tough first mate finds himself reluctantly falling in love with Ann, who meanwhile easily befriends the rest of the crew. When they arrive on the island (“way west of Sumatra”), they find the natives in the midst of a ceremony to sacrifice a girl to ‘Kong.’ The visitors’ presence spoils the ceremony, but the chief spies Ann and decides she must be the new sacrifice (“Blondes are scarce around here”). The native sneak aboard the ship that night, kidnap her, and offer her to Kong, who carries her off into the jungle. Denham, Driscall, and a good part of the crew pursue him, encountering various dinosaurs and other dangers. Kong defends Ann from the other monsters and appears to be, in his own way, falling in love with her.

Driscall and Denham are soon the only survivors of the rescue operation and are separated. Driscall rescues Ann from Kong’s lair, while Denham regroups with the others. Kong pursues them to the village, breaks through the wall protecting it, and goes on a rampage until Denham stops him with a gas bomb. They take him back to New York and put him on display, but he’s enraged by the photographers’ flashbulbs and breaks free, pursuing Ann across the city and finally carrying her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is killed in combat with airplanes.

I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this film, but rewatching it for this review I was struck anew by how good it really is. Sure, there are a lot of things you could pick apart, such as Kong’s deliberately inconsistent size, the question of just how they got him back to New York, and Denham’s laughably understaffed film (which consists of himself as director and cameraman and a single leading lady). The old-fashioned acting is another aspect that some might have trouble with (this was made only a few years into the sound era and the acting style hadn’t quite adjusted yet. Fay Wray in particular never stops moving whenever she’s on camera), though if you’re going to watch old films at all you have to take them in their own style.

But the interesting thing about those plot holes is that they all exist for a definite purpose; they aren’t things that the filmmakers forgot about or didn’t care enough to bother with, they are clearly conscious choices meant to streamline the story. Denham having a more realistically sized crew would have added a lot of extraneous characters (as it did in the Peter Jackson remake). Showing how they got Kong to New York would have stopped the story just as it was reaching its climax, assuming it could have been accounted for at all. And Kong’s size, of course, is just a matter of making him as impactful as possible in each scene. The filmmakers slur over these bits in order to have the story they want, but these don’t detract from the story the way that say a major internal inconsistency would be.

Call it special pleading if you like, but I think there is a difference. Partly because what the film does leave in all pretty much works and works well. Denham’s reason for needing a girl, and why he can’t just stay in New York until he finds one, Ann’s motivations for accepting a dangerous and unclear job from Denham (it’s the Depression and she needs work, not to mention he’s already shown her kindness by sticking up for her before he even saw her face), her interactions with Driscall and the crew, even things like Denham’s reason for bringing her along on their first landing on the island (he wants to be sure to have her on hand in case he can get some filming done). There’s a reason for everything the characters do, and a reason that makes sense and fits with the characters they’ve established. Crazy as the film gets, the plot works and the characters behave like human beings.

That’s really something that needs to be drawn attention to. This is a simple, straightforward adventure fantasy, yet the characters are all quite well drawn. With one exception they’re not super well developed, but they’re clearly people, with all that implies. Driscall’s character’s established right away with his sharp questioning of Denham’s theater agent, and his first interaction with Ann involves him accidentally hitting her on the chin (they laugh about it a moment later, establishing an emotional connection in spite of his gruffness). He’s a tough sailor who doesn’t like having a woman onboard, claiming they’re “a nuisance”. By the middle of the first act, it’s clear that Ann’s a nuisance to him because he’s falling for her (his way of talking to Ann without looking at her says as much as pages of dialogue might have).

Ann herself is a sweet, unaffected girl who seems to enjoy teasing Driscall and gets along well with the whole crew, chatting easily with anyone from the captain to the Chinese cook. I like how she starts off somewhat shy and uneasy (shown by her being bundled up in a jacket while they’re leaving port), but is visibly more relaxed once the journey reaches its end, signaling to the audience how much time has passed, as well as letting us see how the trip is doing her good. Their romance is very lightly sketched, but charming; like a kitten with a big guard dog (another great little detail is how he’s visibly uncomfortable in his tuxedo in the final act).  

Captain Englehorn’s a rather interesting departure from what one might expect, being a dapper elderly gentleman (Ann calls him a “sweet old lamb,” much to Jack’s amusement), but also a thoroughly in-control and experienced captain who knows how to approach native peoples and speaks their languages. That’s the kind of character you really don’t see much these days, but was quite common back then: what might be called the blue-collar gentleman, a sailor or soldier who looks and acts more like he’d be at home in an office or school, but who nevertheless knows his job and can command his men with ease.

 I also really like Charlie the cook, who is amusingly dour (“someday me go back China; never see no more potatoes”), but good-natured and plays a vital role in discovering that Ann’s been kidnapped (how simple is that: he finds native beads on the deck, a very little bit of thought tells him what this must mean and so he takes immediate action by arousing the ship, just like a sailor ought to do in this situation). I’m sure some people would call him a racist caricature because he speaks the way a recent Chinese immigrant working on a merchant ship in the 1930s might be expected to speak, but he’s a very likable character, able to banter with the rest of the crew and being eager to join in the rescue operation (he’s also one of the few characters who returned for the sequel, Son of Kong, which is a whole other story, but at least shows that the writers liked him as much as I do).

Denham’s the standout among the human cast. He’s an enthusiastic high-concept filmmaker who makes movies in remote corners of the world at great personal risk, who takes big chances for big gains, and who has a tendency to shoot off without considering how his actions will affect others (as shown in his first conversation with Ann where he starts talking about how she’s in for “money and adventure and fame…and a long sea voyage that starts tomorrow!” before he’s even told her his name or what kind of job he’s offering her). But the thing is, he’s reckless, slightly myopic, and a little crazy, but he’s not a bad man at all. He places people in dangerous situations without telling them all he knows, but he puts himself on the line to keep them safe and he’s honest as far as he goes; he’ll hold back information, but he won’t lie. After Ann’s kidnapped, he drops all talk of the movie until she’s safe and only then hits on the idea of catching Kong alive. He’s also well-portrayed enough that we can see money isn’t really his object; it’s the achievement that interests him, which is why we don’t doubt him when he promises to share the profits with the whole crew. There’s a good moment toward the end when they’re talking to the reporters. Denham starts by directing their attention to Driscall, who gives credit to Denham, who gives all the credit to Ann. Note the basic, easy decency involved; each character tries to draw attention what the others have done rather than trying to elevate themselves. Again, it fits with what we know of them and reminds us that, for all Denham is making a terrible mistake, he’s still a decent man. Note that he also tries to warn off the photographers when he realizes that Kong’s becoming enraged by their flashbulbs (and I like that he realizes why Kong’s so angry: “he thinks you’re attacking the girl!”).

Most people come away from the film rooting for Kong and hating Denham, but it’s not so simple as that. Denham’s not the villain by any stretch, he’s a basically good man with big ideas who let his ambition outstrip his common sense and created a tragic situation.

I also want to say a word about the natives. They’re what such characters usually were in those days of cinema; which is to say, they’re Black people in grass skirts and coconut bras, who are primitive and superstitious, able to be scared off by gunfire. At first glance, many would probably prefer the terrifying, Uruk-Hai-like natives of the Peter Jackson version, or the unsmiling utopian natives of Kong: Skull Island.

Me, I don’t like the natives in either of those films because I think they’re too simplistic and one-note. The ones in this film might be unlike any real native peoples, but they are people. They can be reasoned with, they have clear motivations, and they react to the things going on around them in an understandable way. There are little human details, like how when the chief marches down the steps to confront the visitors, a small child doesn’t get that he’s supposed to move until his parents yank him out of the chief’s way, or the behavior of the girl who was to be the original sacrifice; she isn’t struggling like Ann does, but she certainly doesn’t look happy and she kind of flinches whenever someone touches her. Contrast this with the Jackson film, where they natives are just movie monsters, or Skull Island, where they’re just colonial penance figures (oddly, the only other ‘Kong’ film I’ve seen that achieves something like this is King Kong vs. Godzilla, where the natives have a similar blend of primitive simplicity and frank humanity: “The chief says you can stay, but he will not be responsible if the monster comes down from the mountains and eats you up”).

Of course, the big story here is Kong himself, and my goodness; what an achievement he is! In reality an eighteen-inch, articular model covered in latex and rabbit fur, the genius of Willis O’Brien brings him to startling life, one frame at a time. This is less due to the seamlessness of the stop-motion (it isn’t seamless) than to the personality and expression captured in the character. Kong not only moves but acts. He conveys genuine emotions in his face and actions, showing everything from savage rage to innocent curiosity and playfulness to sadness and confusion (his final moments on the Empire State Building are heartbreaking). This emotive power and personality is a large reason why he remains essentially sympathetic, despite some of the frankly shocking things he does.

Which brings us to the effects in this film, which are truly amazing, not only in their skill, but their scope. Once the characters arrive on the island, the effects are deployed almost non-stop with a prodigality that rivals modern CG extravaganzas. There are scenes that are jaw dropping in their complexity, such as Kong’s lair, which features matte-paintings, two stop-motion characters, separate inserts for two live-action actors, super-imposed smoke, and more, all moving at the same time, and all presented so seamlessly that most viewers won’t even recognize the scene for the masterpiece it is. Or just look at the scene when they’re landing on the island, in a wide beach shot with the wall in the distance and animated birds flying by; quick, almost incidental, until you realize it required two or three different kinds of special effects to pull it off.

Also keep in mind that it took about fifteen hours of work to get a single minute of screen time from Kong, and they essentially had only one take per scene. That this film is so free with its effects, and that they are so intricate, and yet so effective, is nothing short of amazing, especially when you remember that this was made only a few years into the sound era. Every special effects driven film made since has been following in its footsteps, and in a way none of them have topped it since.

But technical skill only takes you so far. It’s the artistry, even more than the talent that makes this film. Simply put, it’s gorgeous and absolutely dripping with atmosphere and imagination. Consider the main setting; an isolated, uncharted island shrouded in fog. An island where the people live on a narrow strip of beach protected by a giant wall so ancient that the natives have “slipped back; forgotten the higher civilization that built it.” On the other side of the island is a mist-shrouded, primeval jungle full of dinosaurs, under the shadow of a mountain shaped like a skull. Once the expedition arrives at the island, practically every frame looks as though it could have been the cover of an adventure novel or a fantasy magazine. The film is truly a visual feast.

Most importantly, it’s quite simply a strikingly good story; one of those rare ones that feels like it could have come from mythology, except that its subject and ideas are so thoroughly steeped in the modern era. The whole thing is centered on the clash of nature and civilization, and it could only have come from a time when man had achieved sufficient and seemingly growing dominance over the natural world. Take the most spectacular creation of nature (a giant gorilla), shown to be able to master any other beast from a T-Rex on down and pit it against modern civilization, the world of movies, airplanes, and New York City.  At the same time, there’s the idea that beauty is the thing that masters both man and beast; all the strength and power of either side is directed for the sake of a woman.

These are universal ideas, appealing to the very nature of man and woman, and of man and nature, and they’re realized with skill and a surprising degree of nuance. Unlike the remake, the film doesn’t really take sides in the conflict; we sympathize with Kong and feel for his plight and even like him as a character, but he’s also a horrifying monster who brutally kills any number of innocent people. Right there is the ambiguity of nature captured with the subtlety and accuracy of those who actually knows her. Cooper, along his co-writer/director Earnest B. Schoedstack had travelled all around the world and had lived in worked in wild places, filming live tigers and elephants in the jungle. Nature was not merely a political cause to them, to be advocated for from the comfort of a news studio as it is for most modern filmmakers; they knew her intimately and had no illusions about her.

Thus they portray the conflict between nature and civilization with a fairness so rarely to be found today that some might not even recognize it. New York is established to be a dangerous and unpleasant place in its own right, as illustrated by Denham’s comments about there probably plenty of girls in more danger then they’d ever see in the jungle, the view of the women lining up for a boarding house, and Ann herself being nearly reduced to theft. The crowds flowing in to seen Kong are likewise portrayed with an amusingly cynical touch (“Gorillas? Ain’t we got enough of them in New York?”), and of course it’s the reporters, acting against Denham’s warnings, that cause Kong to go berserk and break free.

But then, Skull Island is a pure nightmare; no fit place for human habitation. Even the savage natives who have “slipped back” from their own civilization can only survive by huddling behind a massive wall, one that they couldn’t have built and can only maintain. That is to say, even the natives are dependent upon such scraps of civilization as they have to keep nature at bay. There is no sentimental idea of ‘living in harmony with nature’ here. Kong may be capable of benevolence, and he’s a magnificent and even likable creature, but he is still a monster who could never possibly co-exist with people. Appealing as his pseudo-romance with Ann is, he’s incapable of considering her wishes or needs or comfort, and while his love for her makes him sympathetic, it can’t make him human. Once Kong has encountered civilization, his very nature means that sooner or later he will have to be destroyed.

That is precisely the tragedy. Kong’s fate isn’t the result of one or two bad actors, which might have been avoided had they been removed; it’s how things must play out due to his nature and that of civilized man (even if Denham had left him on the island after knocking him out, it would have been only a matter of time before someone else came along). If we’re to ask what would have been best, it would have been best if Kong had never been discovered. But then, we can only know that after he’s already been found. We see and admire the majesty and wonder of Kong, but only for a moment as our very meeting with him heralds his doom. Civilization, in its very admiration of nature, cannot help but destroy the thing it admires (note also the arrogance of Denham’s assumption that they can ‘teach him fear’ and so control Kong).

In the end, though, tragic as it is, there’s not really an alternative, because of the key figure of Ann. She’s both the most thoroughly civilized of the main cast (being a New York actress in a crew of sailors and explorers) and Kong’s first and chief link with civilization. The conflict with Kong is precipitated by the fact that he wants her, and obviously no one’s about to let him keep her if they can stop it.

So, what draws Kong into the conflict is his desire for beauty, and for that particular kind of beauty that only civilization produces. And of course, as a woman, Ann also conveys ideas of domesticity, home, stability, future generations, and so on: the things civilization is meant to guard and provide for.

While modern audiences may find it irritating, it was thematically necessary for Ann to be an extremely feminine, gentle type, in contrast with the strong masculinity of Driscall, the sailors, Denham, and of course, Kong himself. The former direct their strength and skill to her safety and comfort, while the later protects, but also grasps at her. She is ultimately the thing everyone wants and what they’re fighting over, and if we could sum up the point of the film in one sentence, it would be that men are strong and build civilizations all for the sake of keeping women safe from the wild dangers of the natural world.  

But of course, that same beauty is also the great weakness of pure masculine strength, precisely because it commands and directs it. However strong a man or a monster may be, his desire determines how he will use that strength. Thus is the great and startling balance of the world; lover and beloved, man and woman. The lover, the active principle, is in a sense dominant as he initializes the action, but the beloved, the receptive principle, is what draws that strength and so could equally be said to be dominant because she commands his power to the extent that he loves and desires her. The very act of desiring something means that the things desired rules over you to the extent that you desire it. This motive power of loving and being loved was how the Medievals understood God to move the universe, Himself unmoved. Hence, “it was beauty killed the beast.”  

There is a narrative going around that films of the past were simplistic affairs, black-and-white in more ways than one, and that modern stories have a more sophisticated, nuanced view of the world. I find myself that it’s often (not always of course) the opposite: modern stories tend to have a sheen of cynicism or complexity that makes them appear nuanced, but on closer inspection turn out to be rather crudely simplistic bluntly pushing a few ill-considered ideas and claiming sophistication on the grounds of they’re not being what you’d expect to find in an earlier film. There’s no ambiguity at all in, say, Avatar: natives are good, humans are bad, live in harmony with nature. Meanwhile John Ford was showing the ugliness and ambiguity of conflicts with American Indians back in the 1950s (see Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Searchers, all of which, incidentally, were produced by Merian C. Cooper).

The 2005 remake of Kong is another good example (I don’t hate that film, by the way, but it is a massively inferior work), where the whole point basically amounted to feeling bad for Kong and disgusted with civilization. There’s a surface level verisimilitude in the dialogue and characters, but there’s none of the mythic grandeur or sophisticated storytelling or richness of the original. The characters themselves make far less sense (I don’t believe that Denham ever had the clout to film in wild, dangerous places or to have men follow him) and there is no ambiguity to it. The film practically hits us over the head with what we’re supposed to think about the whole thing.

As I’ve tried to show above, the original Kong, for all its gleeful silliness, is a very mature piece of work. It presents its story fairly without giving any easy or comforting answers to how we ought to feel about what happens, touching upon rich, deep themes in the process; ideas that, one way or another, have been with mankind from the beginning. And it’s just plain a really good story told in a very entertaining manner, not to mention being a technical masterpiece.  

There is a reason why the film sticks with you afterwards, and why it’s become such a classic.

I’m going to introduce a new feature with this review, what I call ‘canon status.’ A film or book or game receives this when I think it is not only a great work in itself, but also deservedly part of our culture’s storytelling lexicon. Canon status means that the work ought to be seen and understood and passed on to the next generation as a worthy contribution to the stream of human culture.

King Kong is undoubtedly a Canon film.  

Movies I Will Never Review: The Godfather I and II

My experience with the Godfather films is really a strange one for me. It is usually very easy for me to get invested in a story; any story. I may lose investment afterwards, but I tend to be easily drawn in. But these films left me utterly cold in a way that very few films ever have. The experience was like being at a party full of people you don’t like and who talk on subjects that you have no share in; after a while I found I was just waiting for it to be over.

I don’t really know what it is; they’re excellently made films, obviously. The characters are all horrible people, but I’ve liked other films full of horrible people before now (Goodfellas comes to mind as a thematically similar film that didn’t have the same anemic effect on me). I don’t mind downbeat films either: I saw The Spy Who Came In From the Cold not long ago, and while that’s never going to be a favorite I had a much stronger sense of engagement with it. And to be clear, I didn’t hate the Godfather films; they weren’t actively unpleasant to sit through or anything. I just didn’t care. Nothing that happened in the films seemed to matter to me. As I say, that’s a rare experience for me, especially in a film that I know and can tell is very good (which is mostly why I wanted to mention it). But so it is. You will never see me review these movies, or talk about them much, if at all. They are outside my interest.

The Gods of Progress

Recently, I saw two classic films for the first time; Blade Runner and Network. I enjoyed both, but there was also something intensely sad about them. They both expressed such…hopelessness. They’re very much modern films, that is to say, films made from the perspective of a modernist / progressivist worldview, though a self-reflective one. Blade Runner had some room for wonder and morality; Network was a world ruled by crass commercialism and cynical disillusion. But even Blade Runner could only throw up its hands and take refuge in an agnostic materialism in which death is the inevitable and final end. It too was a fundamentally commercial and material world, but one in which people could still raise their heads and ask why, though no answer was forthcoming.

“I want more life, father.”

Both films sit firmly in a world of progress; of hard-headed materialistic triumph. Science in one, economics in the other. We have androids indistinguishable from humans who wrestle with the same existential questions, spaceships colonizing other worlds, endless cityscapes, we have powerful commercial networks that dream of economizing and entertaining all human problems away, headed by strong, domineering female executives who have shattered the glass ceiling.

And hardly a speck of joy or hope to be found in either of them. Even the sex scenes express no love and hardly any desire (Faye Dunaway’s character in Network keeps talking about her job even while having sex, which I found darkly hilarious). The result of all that is, as William Holden’s character puts it, “shrieking nothing.”

(That’s about as good a description of modernity as I’ve heard)

Films like these make me appreciate what a blessing it is to have faith. When Deckard’s voice over comments that Batty only wanted to know what everyone else does: “Where do I come from? Where am I going?” I found I had an answer: “we come from God and we are going to God. We have a place in this world; a place that is by no means supreme, but it is our own. We are made for infinite happiness.”

But it seems we, as a civilization, didn’t like that answer and so went with the strong gods of progress in the hopes of making our place supreme. The results are expressed in films like these.

“For though I lie on the floor of the world
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

What have the strong gods given,
Where have the glad gods led,
When Guthram sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?”
Ballad of the White Horse, Book III

Thoughts on a Movie I Haven’t Seen

My extreme antipathy towards Rian Johnson left me with no interest in seeing Knives Out, much as I love good mystery stories. I still haven’t seen it, but I have learned the solution from someone who did, and, having confirmed it by a perusal of Wikipedia, I am about to say something about it. Though take it with a grain of salt.

Needless to say, SPOILERS, and spoilers of a mystery, which is worse. However, quite frankly the solution is so stupid that I don’t think it matters.

 

 

 

So, the solution, described by wikipedia, is this:

Unknown to Blanc, after the party, [Christopher Plummer]s nurse, Marta Cabrera, accidentally administered him an overdose of morphine instead of his usual medication and could not find the antidote, leaving Harlan minutes to live. To protect Marta, Harlan gave her instructions to create a false alibi to avoid suspicion over his death; he then slit his own throat. Marta carried out Harlan’s instructions, but Harlan’s elderly mother saw her and mistook her for Ransom.

…After Ransom learned at the party that Harlan was leaving everything to Marta, he swapped the contents of Marta’s medication vials and stole the antidote so she would kill Harlan with an overdose of morphine, making her ineligible to claim the inheritance by the slayer rule. However, Marta actually administered the correct medicine without reading the labels, recognizing it by the weight and viscosity of the fluid, and is therefore innocent of Harlan’s death. After the death was reported as a suicide, Ransom anonymously hired Blanc to discover Marta’s guilt. Fran later saw Ransom stealing Marta’s medical case to hide the fact that the contents of the vials had been switched, and sent him the blackmail note.

So, the trained nurse couldn’t recognize the symptoms of a massive morphine overdose? Neither she nor the old man himself realized that he was wide-awake, perfectly lucid, and mentally alert enough to be able to concoct a complicated plot in the space of a few minutes, despite supposedly getting a lethal overdose of a sedative? In fact, the old man was so convinced that he had mere minutes to live that he cut his own throat some five minutes after getting what he thought was a massive overdose of tranquilizer, enough to kill him within mere minutes?

If he had gotten that level of an overdose, it would have hit him hard straight away and probably left him all-but incapacitated at once, if it didn’t actually put him straight to sleep. He certainly wouldn’t be coming up with elaborate false alibis or cutting his own throat minutes later. It’s a narcotic; you would feel it if you got that much all at once, you wouldn’t be fully functional until the timer runs out like in a video game.

I’ve heard the film compared with the works of Agatha Christie. Dame Christie would have tanned your hide for this. Her solutions were sometimes a little wonky, requiring luck and split-second timing, but they didn’t turn on people simply forgetting how drugs work to the extent that they kill themselves over it. In one of her stories, this would have been the unworkable fake solution disqualified by requiring totally unreasonable behavior on all sides. I can just picture Poirot: “Does a man who has just been given 20 ccs of morphine concoct an elaborate alibi for his nurse and then calmly cut his own throat? Would he even remain conscious long enough to learn that a mistake had been made? And does a trained nurse mistake a wide-awake man who is calmly conversing with her for a man who has just been lethally drugged with a narcotic? No, no! C’est impossible!” 

Why didn’t the grandson just mix the two instead of swapping completely? Blend in an amount of morphine to the medication, and the same result ensues, only without the stupid element of the man coolly and deliberately cutting his own throat because both he and his nurse thinks he’s been given enough morphine to knock out an elephant, and still believe it after five minutes of intense, lucid concentration? Even if they find the mixture, it would be all-but impossible to pin the blame on any one person, and she would still come under suspicion either for incompetence or murder (but you could easily arrange for the mixture to be covered up somehow).

Actually – again, speaking without having seen the film – wouldn’t that make for a better story? She legitimately did kill him, and the detective has to prove it wasn’t her fault?

Or if you wanted this particular set up, just have the medication be something that wouldn’t affect his mind, like the ever-handy digitalin. See, that’s the worst part of this sort of thing; it would be so incredibly easy to avoid this problem with just a little bit of thought. You can have everything the same (though the suicide angle still seems wonky to me), only without the glaring gap in logic. But they didn’t care enough to even do that, apparently.

You know, with so many people praising the film, I thought perhaps that meant that Rian Johnson actually could write a decent story, just couldn’t do Star Wars. But, no; at least as far as the solution goes, this film shows the same level of blind stupidity as The Last Jedi: an inability to think things through or give people logical motivations or reactions. Characters just do what they are told because they’re told to do it because he doesn’t know how to get his desired effects otherwise.

If he doesn’t start to improve, his oeuvre is going to be a treasure trove of “don’t do this” examples for future writers if nothing else.

Call of the CGI Wild

Before seeing Sonic, the only trailer playing was for Call of the Wild, one of the first times I’d even heard that such a film existed.

Honestly, despite the presence of Harrison Ford, I think this looks pretty bad.

The biggest problem is not just that this looks like it only bears the slightest resemblance to the book (which doesn’t lend itself to a live action adaptation in the first place), but more that the dogs appear to be entirely CGI. And not very good CG either. On top of that, but they don’t even act like dogs; they act like cartoon dogs in an otherwise LA environment (and in what is after all supposed to be a rather grim story). That is, they have semi-human expressions and reactions.

Now, there are a couple things to be said. I gave Midway a qualified pass for its equally obvious CGI, but that was for two reasons; one, the film was strong enough apart from it to survive the distracting effects, and two because, ultimately, the cg was just set-dressing. It would have been preferable to use models, but some intensive effects were necessary to create the world.

But here, the CG is being used to create dogs. Real dogs are slightly easier to come by than the Imperial Japanese navy. People are very, very familiar with what dogs look like and how they act. So, when faced with such an obviously fake article, I don’t see how you can react other than to be taken out of the story.

Apparently, the reason for this is partly because they wanted to avoid charges of animal cruelty or endangerment. Okay, but is using obviously fake dogs the only way of doing that? Was it really so impossible to make a movie with dogs without being cruel to the dogs? I mean, most of the book, as I recall, is about dogs pulling sleds, which dogs love to do (from what I hear, when their owners  come to pick dogs for their team, the dogs go absolutely nutsit’s like the mother of all walks to them). There are also some fights, which, okay; cg those if you can’t train the dogs to play-fight. Otherwise, I really don’t see this as a valid reason.

Except that the film has Buck fighting a bear and escaping an avalanche, and other bits of over-the-top action, which obviously they didn’t want to do with real animals (and, again, this apparently made it necessary to have the dogs be CG the whole time, because blending animation and well-trained animals wasn’t an option I guess). So, they first throw a lot of extraneous action scenes, then use that as a reason for making a massively bad choice at the very heart of the film.

The other reason seems to be that people didn’t like the blank, expressionless characters in The Lion King. Except that, again, people are rather more familiar with dogs and their mannerisms than they are with lions or hyenas, not to mention that dogs are generally more appealing and expressive in real life than the aforementioned wild animals. In short, people like dogs, and they like them for being dogs; not for being people in dog suits (I mean, how many films have there been centered around dogs that people watch and enjoy? Just consider Homeward Bound, which was nothing but dogs – and a cat- for most of its runtime). A cartoon is one thing, but a live-action film with semi-cartoon dogs is another.

On top of that, the film seems so different from the book in tone and content (again, the book isn’t really a lighthearted or exciting adventure story but a somewhat grim tale of a pet dog reverting to wild ways under increasing hardships) that I have to wonder what the point was. They probably would have been better off just telling an original story of Harrison Ford and his dog having an adventure. Absent the distracting animation, that sounds like it would be a really enjoyable story. Instead, we have this bizarre and misguided amalgamation of Jack London, Michael Bay, and Industrial Light and Magic’s B-team. How tiresome!

Thoughts on ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

The story behind the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is, in its way, more interesting than the story of the film itself. About a year ago the first trailer dropped, revealing the film’s design for the title character. It should be noted that Sonic is one of the top-draw characters of video-game history. His games are not what they were, but he was one of the big names of the medium’s early heyday, a rival to Mario himself. Everyone of that generation, even though who haven’t played the games, knows Sonic: if Mario is gaming’s Superman, Sonic is its Spider-Man.

So, the trailer dropped, and this was the design they had:

He looks like someone stuffed an emaciated child into a furry onesie and then CGed a piece of bad fan art over his face. It’s as if they weren’t working off of the games so much as off of a cheap live show version of the character.

The backlash was, unsurprisingly, intense. Even the original designer of Sonic said he thought it looked awful.  It was to the point that only a few days later the director, Jeff Fowler, took to Twitter to announce that they were going to re-do the entire design from the ground up, pushing the film back from its original November release date to do all the effects over again.

This was the result:

Ben Schwartz in Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Not only is he now about a thousand times cuter and more charming, but it’s also much, much closer to the Sonic that people know and love. You look at the original and you see a strange variation on Sonic. You look at this guy, and you just see Sonic.

But with that taken care of, what about the film itself?

Having just seen it, I can say that I liked it quite a bit. It’s very light, has some extremely glaring gaps in logic, and Sonic’s powers are about as consistent as the average politician’s moral convictions, but it was a very sweet, wholesome kind of film just bursting with goodwill.

One thing that stood out was that the filmmakers very clearly cared about this character. The film is littered with nods and references to the games, from the sound effects to some of Sonic’s mannerisms. The prologue even has him being attack by red echidnas, promising an appearance by Knuckles in a future film (my favorite, being a Nintendo fan, is when Sonic comments on how much he hates mushrooms). More to the point, the filmmakers actually seem to have taken the time to think out what Sonic’s personality is. His essential kindness is established right off the bat, where he saves a turtle crossing the road then, thinking how sad it must be to always have to go slow, takes it on a wild ride to show how exhilarating speed can be. That right there is perfect Sonic; he’s an adrenaline junkie who just loves to go fast, and who, for all his cockiness, genuinely cares about others.

One moment that stood out to me was an early  scene where the extent of his loneliness comes in on him and he expresses his frustration by running as fast as he can. That, it seems to me, is how Sonic would burn off anger; pushing himself to go faster and faster. The bit  leading up to it is very nicely done, playing off of the early gags of Sonic using his speed to pretend he has friends, but suddenly finding that actual human contact – the one thing he really wants – something he can’t give himself, no matter how fast he can run. I also like that the film maintains Sonic’s habit of talking to himself through much of its run time, keeping us aware of his isolation.

Sonic’s presented here as kind of a hyperactive kid; not quite the ‘hedgehog with attitude’ that we know from other sources, but clearly poised to grow into it, and I think it’s certainly an acceptable variation on the character, from what I know of him.

As for the villain, Jim Carey is still not my first choice for Robotnik (I would have gone with Nick Offerman), but again, the film hits his character pretty well and makes him a suitable counterpart to Sonic. Where Sonic is free-spirited and longs to connect with people, Robotnik despises people and prefers his machines, which do as they are told and are never unpredictable or illogical. This fits nicely with the franchise’s motif of live, active animals pitted against cold, crushing technology. Carey is clearly having a blast in the role, hearkening back to his heyday in the 90s (coincidentally, also the time of Sonic’s peak popularity, as I recall), and to be honest, his eccentric, over-the-top arrogance does fit with Robotnik, as I understand him(his boasting and arrogance gives the film plenty of chances to flesh out his character without coming to screeching halt). He’s not nearly fat enough (though the ‘Eggman’ moniker is used in the film, and in a way that makes sense), but he grows into the role, so that like Sonic, by the end of the film he is recognizably the Eggman from the games. And to be honest, seeing these two face off on the big screen after so many years actually did feel like a big deal. The climactic showdown captured the particular tone of their rivalry very well.

The film is structured as an origin story of sorts, showing Sonic growing from basically a runaway living in isolation to the hero we know from the games and other adaptations. He learns his spin-dash, discovers chili dogs, gets his red shoes, and, significantly, learns that he can use his powers for more than just running away. Again, this all feels very appropriate for Sonic. Is it the best possible story they could have told with him? Probably not, but it’s a story that works with his character. The climactic line (heard in the trailers, so it’s not a spoiler) “This is my power, and I am using it to protect my friends,” is a pretty good summation of who Sonic is.

Sonic teams up with James Marsden as a small-town cop who feels unfulfilled with his safe, comfortable small-town life and has tentative ambitions of being a San Francisco cop. He also talks to donuts (“…and eats them if they get out of line”), which I thought was a fun twist on an old cliche. He’s happily married to a very supportive and affectionate wife, and it’s refreshingly charming to see such a patently successful marriage in a family film and not to have any trite ‘relationship crisis’ moments (the only obstacle is her sister, who inexplicably hates him, but whom no one pays attention to. She’s a comedic element that your mileage will probably vary on, but she doesn’t have a lot of screen time). Moreover, their easy-going, familiar relationship, along with the equally easy-going small-town life we see in Green Hills, gives context both to Sonic’s loneliness and Robotnik’s misanthropy. It was vital for this film to have happy connections among its supporting cast to emphasize the plight of its hero. And really, it just warms my heart to have a major Hollywood film championing small town, rural life and happy, mutually supportive marriages over cities, technology, and shrieking misandric single women.

I was impressed by the action scenes, which make full use of Sonic’s speed for some high-adrenaline chases and rapid-fire battles. The climactic chase in particular, with Sonic racing from location to location, dodging Robotnik’s attacks, is exactly the kind of thing you want to see in a movie like this (and for once leaping to famous landmarks actually makes sense, given how the rings work).

I do have to dock points for how inconsistent Sonic’s powers are; his speed basically lets him do anything the script needs at the moment, but not anything it doesn’t need. At one point during a bar fight he runs around the room causing chaos while everyone else is standing completely still. Earlier on, he got shot with a tranq dart because he was caught off guard. Another time he runs from Montana to the Pacific Ocean and back in about ten seconds. When he needs to get to the top of a tall building, why can’t he just run up the side? The climax manages to pull a convenience to allow Robotnik to keep up with him, but it’s still a bit much. Likewise it’s unclear why Sonic gets his heroic second wind in the finale; was it really just the power of friendship (it is magic, after all)? Logic is not this film’s strong suit, so take that for what it’s worth.

Likewise there are a number of plot threads that just kind of fall off at the end. It’s not hard to make surmises about them, but a few throwaway lines or scenes might have helped; like while Robotnik is fighting Sonic, why not have a quick bit of the government trying to reign him in and being ignored to explain why they were so willing to drop the whole thing at the end? Little things like that would have made the film stronger.

As it is, though, I think ‘light, wholesome fun’ sums it up. All I asked of this film was that it be enjoyable and not be morally offensive. That’s a low bar, but so few movies manage to clear it these days. This one soared over it with flying colors (the worst content, as I recall, are a fart joke and a single cut-off swear word). Not great, but worth the time.

The film, and the story behind it, also gives the lie to the idea that fans are impossible to please. When the redesign came out, fans absolutely fell in love with it and the film went from a sure-fire flop to an expected hit. For the most part, I think, fans want to love things associate with the characters and stories they love. Give them just a little understanding, a little good-will, show that you care about the thing they care about, and they will appreciate it. After seeing the writers of Star Wars and the DCEU seemingly going out of their way to belittle and ‘improve on’ the very thing they are supposed to be honoring, basic care and respect come to seem precious.

Between this and Detective Pikachu, I can only hope we are the dawn of a new era for video-game movies, which have had a notoriously bad track record for a long time. But these two films show that they can work, at least when the filmmakers actually care about them. Onward and upwards for Sega and Nintendo!

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P.S. Definitely stay for the credits. This is one film I really hope gets a sequel.