Thoughts on ‘Ready Player One’

Today I went and saw ‘Ready Player One.’ It was more or less what I expected: shallow pop-culture porn, only not as good. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of it, but the enjoyment was mostly of a very simple nature: ‘oh, hey, this is cool, oh, I recognize this.’ I think there is a great film in there, but the story and character are too generic to make it work.

One of the problems is that neither the game world nor the real world are presented as being desirable: the game world turns people into fantasy-addicted zombies, but the real world is so dreary and hopeless you can’t really blame them. I wasn’t especially invested in the story because I didn’t really buy the world they were presenting and also, again, it’s just so generic: evil corporation wants to take over the world to be evil. They have suits and evil-looking red and black drones and a private military, run virtual prisons (where is the government in all this?), and the CEO is the bad guy from Rogue One. They’re evil because they’re evil and the heroes are good because they’re trying to stop them. Also, the heroes are poor and the corporation has done them wrong.

The visuals aren’t especially creative or interesting either; just standard, usually ill-lit CG environments with a bunch of cameos walking about. Ego’s planet from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was more creatively fantastic than this game, which is supposed to be specifically designed to be creatively fantastic.

The film lives and dies on its pop culture credits, but it misses the point of why people connect to these things in the first place. Or if it not it plays out too generically for it to make an impact. The Greatest Showman captured the importance of fantasy in two lines better than this whole film does (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). Here it’s pretty much just ‘hey, do you remember Gundam? What if a Gundam robot fought Mechagodzilla: wouldn’t that be cool to see’? (by the way, it seems Toho wasn’t one of the backers of this film, since the ‘Mechagodzilla’ on display doesn’t resemble any of the canonical designs and I don’t think they even used the roar). No insight as to what made these stories or characters interesting or why anyone would remember them; just Captain America-style ‘I understood that reference.’

Pretty much as soon as you hear the premise, you can guess the entire story. There’s the loser kid who turns out to be a hero because he’s sensitive and understands the secretive game developer. There’s the super-elite tough-girl gamer chick whom he’ll fall in love with while in no way outshining or having the advantage over. There’s the Black best friend, whose personality is ‘Black best friend.’ There’s a high-stakes competition for control of the world between the scrappy misfit kids and the evil corporation. The corporation will go after the kid in the real world, they’ll have to go back and forth between the two worlds some, and eventually the kid will triumph after passing a secret final test and getting some wisdom from the wise game developer, end on a moral. There is admittedly one twist I didn’t see coming, though it kind of felt like a cop-out more than anything: a way to get them out of a corner they really didn’t need to be in to begin with.

There is some talk about how characters in the game aren’t really like their players in real life, but it doesn’t amount to much: the Black best friend is really a Black woman best friend. The two Japanese players (who are introduced so casually it’s kind of a shock that we’re supposed to remember them when they show up in the real world) are really…well, Japanese players, but one of them is eleven years old. And they all live within a few miles of each other which…come on, really? Not only is that astronomically improbable, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting and more creative if one of them was stuck on the other side of the country and still was trying to help?

Also, the pretty redhead in the game turns out to be…a pretty redhead in real life, only she has a mild birthmark over one eye. Uh, what a shock? Really, I’m fine with that, only don’t try to pretend it’s a twist.

There were some good points there. I really liked the character of the game developer; this awkward, semi-autistic loner who lost himself in fantasy because he was afraid of facing the real world. He’s played by Mark Rylance, who I think is genetically incapable of giving a bad performance.

Honestly, the film would have been much more interesting if someone like that had been the main character: if it had been the story of a pathologically lonely person learning to let go of fantasy and face the real world. That would have had some meat to it, and would have fit in well with the pop-culture references (since the purpose of fantasy is to make us better equipped to face reality). Drop the stupid corporation plot and make it the story of a young man trying to find a way to reconnect with reality by using this imagination-based virtual reality as a springboard.

Apart from that, there are one or two good scenes: I like the bit where the hero figures out, just from his tone, that the villain isn’t really a fanboy despite him knowing all the right details. I also like the bit where, after being forcibly ejected from the game, he comments on how different the real world is, having spent so much time in virtual reality he has almost stopped noticing. I also liked the bit where the redhead meets the Japanese kid, goes to hug him, and he indignantly responds “ninjas don’t give hugs!” It’s a perfect ‘kid’ moment and rare instance of honest humanity in what is otherwise a shallow experience.

I also really liked how the ‘hired gun’ character acts basically like a standard gamer and sounds like he’s about eighteen in real life. That was one instance of the film making a clever use of its premise, though again it doesn’t amount to much since he doesn’t have much screen time or much of a payoff, and they could have done so much more with that idea (just off the top of my head: he has the heroes captured and is about to finish them off, then his Mom calls him away from the game to take out the trash giving them a chance to escape).

On the other hand, it’s really stupid that all these crowds are out in the streets playing virtual reality on the sidewalks: who in their right mind would do something like that? This isn’t staring down at your phone, which we know is bad enough, this is putting on visual and audio blocking gear and running around a city street. Not one of them gets hit by a car or face-plants into a telephone pole?

Basically, this is very much a film that puts style over substance and it doesn’t even understand it’s own style very well. I wouldn’t say it’s terrible, just not very good.

What’s Wrong with ‘Victoria’

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.

The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.

I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.

Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.

Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?

Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.

Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.

The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.

So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.

There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).

Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?

The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.

Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.

However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?

The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.

This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.

Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.

In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.

There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.

For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.

Thoughts on the Greatest Showman

The other day I got out to see The Greatest Showman before it left theaters, which I’d been meaning to do for a little while. I’d known almost nothing about the film before, except that it was about P.T. Barnum and the founding of his circus. Then a month or so into its release I stumbled upon one of the songs and discovered that it was actually a musical! I like musicals, and the trailers looked really cool, so I made a point a point of getting out to see it while it was still on the big screen. And I can say I enjoyed it a good deal.

In first place, I liked the style a lot: there’s a lot of brilliant colors, a lot of interesting sets, and a kind of cool thing where it’s just a little surreal and impressionist. It’s very much like a stage show where things are just kind of set for the duration of the story, and we don’t exactly see how things are done or question how much time is going by, but we’re given an impression of the progress of the story. For instance, we don’t really see any of the circus acts, just the performers dancing and singing in the ring, giving more the impression of a circus show. I think it works pretty well and it keeps the film moving without being bogged down in details.

Hugh Jackman’s really good, of course: I’ve read this was a passion project of his for years and that intensity really comes across in his performance. He absolutely owns the role of Barnum. I really liked the relationship between him and his wife and their daughters: it’s just a lovely image of marriage and family life.

Of course the dancing is fantastic; very fast, very energized, and shot really well, making excellent use of sets and props. Interestingly enough, for all the circus and acrobatics, my favorite dance number is simply Barnum and Carlyle discussing business matters in a bar.

The songs are…okay. There’re very energized, they work well in context, but with the exception of the title number and maybe the aforementioned bar song they didn’t really stick with me (no, I wasn’t especially impressed by the Oscar-nominated ‘This is Me.’ It was okay, but…nothing really special. Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘I exist so you should admire me’ sentiment, though, again, it works in context of the film and the performers claiming their human dignity). They’re a little repetitive and some are a shade too long and travel over too many verses without enough lyrical variety, but they’re enjoyable enough and, taken in conjunction with the story and imagery are thoroughly entertaining. Well…the opera number is a little stale, but it’s kinda supposed to be.

By the way, I friggin’ love one shot in the title song of Barnum and his performers charging the spotlight flanked by elephants. It’s an awesome image that fits the music perfectly and I had to mention it.

All in all, I liked the first half of the film much more than the second. When he’s dreaming up the show, taking audacious risks, making mistakes and learning from them, gathering his performers and perfecting his vision, it’s fantastic. You can feel his energy, his drive and creativity. The scenes of him meeting the ‘freaks’ are excellent. We get to see their suspicion, their uncertainty, their fear of being laughed at again, then their gratitude at finding someone who actually wants to treat them like human beings. I really liked the circus performers and the depiction of their comradery, and kinda wished there’d been a little more scenes of them just hanging out together.

The second half isn’t bad, but it’s not as interesting as we see Barnum losing sight of his own vision as he chases after the approval of the world in general instead of being content with the support of his family and friends and the knowledge that he’s bringing joy into people’s lives. It’s a good theme about how there is never enough social approval to satisfy one who feels marginalized, and how the best thing is to seek fulfillment in family, friends, and worthwhile endeavors, but it kind of drags a bit and it’s just not as much fun.

I also think a bit more time could have been given to some of the subplots. Like the romance between Carlyle and the acrobat is good, but it’s not given enough lead in: he finds her attractive, she says two words to him, the next scene their hands are drifting together and she takes offense when he hesitates. One more scene establishing why they’re so drawn together would have made a huge difference.

But on the whole, it’s really good; I loved the energy, the passion, the celebration of popular entertainment and the urge to make people happy (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). It’s just a really good film musical with a strong will to entertain, and I imagine Mr. Barnum would have approved.

Thoughts on ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’

Today my family and I finally got out to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this season’s sleeper hit. Having seen it, I absolutely can understand why it’s found the success it has, because, yeah, it’s really very good.

The story has four teenagers – nerd, jock, popular girl, awkward girl – being sucked into a video game version of the Jumanji game (the process by which the original board game became a video game is a deceptively brilliant bit of writing: achieving what needs to be done with minimal fuss while simultaneously establishing certain key elements of the Jumanji entity). Inside they have to play as their respective avatars – played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart – to complete the game and escape.

The concept of someone being pulled into a video game isn’t new, but it’s done with particular skill here. The movie takes full advantage of the situation, both to have crazy stunts and action (like having a helicopter pursued by a herd of rhinos) and for a ton of very funny jokes. For instance, the characters they meet in the game are NPCs, meaning they only have a few set reactions and lines of dialogue, which they will cheerfully repeat indefinitely if pressed. The characters each have three lives, a fact they make some very creative uses of.

I was very impressed by the writing. I mean, it’s not extremely smart or extremely clever, but they do a really good job of establishing these characters and giving them credible personalities along with their cliche types. For instance, the popular girl is established almost at once to be both very self-conscious and much smarter than she would seem at first glance, all in probably about a minute of screen-time. Their relationships are all entirely believable and human, as are their developments after they enter the game world.

Meanwhile, the four leads do a simply fantastic job of playing teenagers inhabiting video game avatars, especially Dwayne Johnson as the nerdy kid and Jack Black as the popular girl. I admit, I was a little worried about that element at first – it seemed like a chance for fashionable nonsense about gender – but no; it completely works in context, to the point where you simply accept the character as a girl playing a video game. This is another example of the film making full use of its premise: of course people often play avatars of the opposite sex, and if you were forced to ‘live’ the role, this probably would be the result. Plus, it’s just really, really funny; like an extended burlesque routine. It’s an example of taking an element of contemporary life and doing something genuinely creative with it.

And all the while, in all the over-the-top action and goofy humor, they still keep the focus on the characters and story. There’s a scene where Jack Black has to teach Karen Gillan how to be sexy: that’s funny on about three or four levels, but at the same time it’s also a key point of their character development, with the two of them opening up and becoming friends and the nerdy girl learning how to be more confident.

I also like that all the characters have something to teach and something to learn from each other. And that they all were, at the end of the day, what I would call legit heroes: at different points they were each willing to step up, sacrifice, and make hard calls for each other and for the greater good.

So, yeah, this was a really good movie: an example of really solid, well-done entertainment. It knows exactly what it is and wants to do and does it with energy and skill: exactly the kind of film that Hollywood ought to be making all the time.

Godzilla: Monster Planet

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Cool, huh? Too bad that’s basically all he does.

Being the huge Godzilla fan that I am, I of course had to check out Netflix’s Godzilla: Monster Planet anime, supposedly the first in a trilogy. And…yeah, I didn’t care for it.

The story is that humanity has been driven off the planet by Godzilla and the other monsters, but have failed to find a suitable alternative world, despite the help of two alien races (who are basically the Xillians and the Black Hole aliens from the original series: a cool touch). After searching for twenty years, with their resources depleting rapidly, they decide to return to Earth – which due to relativity has been abandoned for 20,000 years, to see whether they can return.

It’s a pretty cool set-up: a ‘what if?’ scenario for the world of Godzilla that posits a not-unthinkable consequence of the established elements. But there are problems. Big problems.

In the first place, the animation is not very good. Oh, there’s a lot of detail, the characters look nice, and the designs are very good, but it’s too dark. Almost all the scenes are in heavy shadow or fog, so that not only is it hard to see what’s going on, but keeping track of the characters or even telling one from another is next to impossible. Plus the characters all move in a stiff, stop-motiony kind of way, as if they were semi-articular action figures.

There are plot holes too. The idea of Godzilla driving humanity off the planet isn’t a bad one, but it kind of requires some explanation: dangerous as he is, Godzilla can only be in one place at a time. So, why is it whenever humanity has anything important to do, they seem to be doing it right next to him? When they arrive back on Earth, a probe quickly tells them where Godzilla is. So why would they land in the same location? Even if their plan is to confront and kill him, wouldn’t it make more sense to set up somewhere it would take him a few days to get to, so they could be well prepared? I mean, they have the entire planet to choose from here.

And it’s slow-moving. And there’s a lot of repetition in the script: explaining the same things over and over. And things that don’t make sense or are established, but don’t pay off (for instance, it’s explained that a certain plant is as sharp as steel and can puncture a spacesuit. This never comes into play again).

But the biggest problem is Godzilla himself. Hoo, boy, let’s try to explain this:

In the first place, they changed his backstory and basically the entire concept of what he is. That’s not too bad in itself; this isn’t Godzilla the character, but kind of a variation on the idea of Godzilla. I can go along with that, even if I prefer the original. The trouble is, again, the animation. Oh, my goodness, what were they thinking?!

If the human characters look like semi-articular action figures, Godzilla looks like a non-articulate figure. As in, he doesn’t move. At all. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. He’s incredibly stiff and moves extremely slowly, so that half the time it looks like they just have a still image of him that they’re shifting about the screen. I cannot tell you what a disappointment this is.

It seems to me the whole point of doing an animated version of Godzilla is to make him more alive, more natural, more energized; to free the artists to show the full extent of his power and ferocity. Why turn him into basically a statue that occasionally shoots off an atomic ray? Heck, Talos from Jason and the Argonauts – an actual metal statue – was more mobile and seemed more alive than this!

That’s the problem: he doesn’t seem alive. In the live action films, whatever else he is, Godzilla always seems alive, because for the most part, he is. That’s the glory of suitimation; the character is really on screen and really moving the way a living thing should. Even at his stiffest, even when the effects were at their worst, Godzilla always at least felt alive (though I haven’t seen Shin Godzilla yet). Heck, even when he was literally a demonic zombie, he still moved more and had more character than this!

It’s awful, that’s all I can say; the way they portray Godzilla here is awful.

It’s not a waste of time, and I am glad I saw it. The action is kind of cool, the ideas are somewhat interesting, and there are some nice scenes. I especially like when they first arrive back over the Earth and everyone rushes to the windows to exclaim over the sight, especially the people who had been born in space who are seeing the planet for the first time. Then there’s a very interesting and kind of touching conceit involving the ruins of cities.

I suspect I’ll watch the next two films when they come out, since I am interested to see where they go from here. But I’ll go in with lowered expectations: I’m much more looking forward to the second Legendary Godzilla film.

Thoughts on ‘Gravity Falls’

Gravity Falls is one of those shows that I’d heard raved about from several different quarters as being a very smart, very funny, and very mature kids’ show with a lot of dark, creative imagery. So, when I had some extra time (read: was procrastinating again) I watched through it.

My reactions were surprisingly pretty mixed. I enjoyed a lot of it; when it’s good, it’s very good. The trouble is that, like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s bad it’s horrid.

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The set up is that two twin siblings, Dipper and Mabel, are going to spend the summer with their great-uncle (‘Grunkle’) Stan; a grouchy con-man who runs a tourist trap ‘mystery shack’ in the rural town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The town, as the two kids soon discover, is a nexus point of everything weird, supernatural, and unexplained, and they try to uncover the mysteries of the place while dealing with the pressures of growing up.

So, a good set up with lots of potential. Now what else is good about it? Well, first of all, the characters are pretty fun. I can’t say I was especially engaged by any of them (with one exception), but they’re interesting and pleasant company for the most part. The story arc of the two kids growing into adolescence is pretty engaging and realized through some nicely drawn subplots. The relationships are really good too; between the siblings, between the kids and their uncle, between Dipper and Wendy the girl who works the counter, and so on.

The stand out, for me, was the uncle, who’s a fantastic character. When I look back on the show, his scenes are chiefly what I remember and his relationship with the kids was probably the best thing about it. He’s an unabashed crook, grump, drinker, and scoundrel, but nevertheless you know he loves his kids and would do absolutely anything for them. His interactions with the two kids, especially with Mabel, are the most emotionally gripping elements of the story and actually brought a lump to my throat once or twice.

The atmosphere of the show is great as well. There’s a constant underlying sense of secrecy and uncertainty, playing into the mystery element. You’re almost never sure quite what’s going on, who to trust, or what’s going to happen next.

I also like the creativity shown in the creature designs and the supernatural effects (my favorite being an island that turns out to be a floating head). As that indicates, it’s often very dark and pleasantly frightening: sure to give sensitive young viewers nightmares. I liked how it was willing to push the scary and disturbing imagery, and that they weren’t afraid to place the kids in real danger, making for an unusually harsh tone for a kid’s show.

Speaking of danger, the main villain is fantastic: kind of like Freddy Krueger if he were a used car salesman. The exact rules of what he could and couldn’t do were kind of vague, but that’s kind of the point, and he was wonderfully evil in a delightful way.

Oh, and the show is often very funny, with a gloriously dark sense of humor. For instance, an early joke is that Stan’s last outing with the kids involved them helping him counterfeit money (“The county jail was cold”). Basically, any time we see one of his schemes, it’s pretty much hilarious. Mabel’s pretty funny too with her super-cheery, not-quite-all-there perspective, and Dipper gets some great reactions as the nearest-to-sane character present.

Okay, so the show has good characters, great atmosphere, it’s creative, funny. Sounds good. And a lot of the time it is. But the rest of the time…

The first problem is that, though the show has great atmosphere, the animation is kind of hideous. The characters are all lumpy and distorted, and there’s a dreary, unpleasant tone to the art style. And it’s not a matter of being stylized either: a lot of the characters in Phineas and Ferb have much weirder designs than this (Phineas’s head is a triangle), but they don’t create the same impression of ugliness. Maybe it’s because the characters there are done in broad geometric shapes, or because the colors are brighter, but the animation is much more pleasing to the eye than anything here. Gravity Falls is kind of unpleasant to look at, especially the more you watch of it.

Another thing is that I found the writing oddly slapdash. For instance, sometimes plotlines are more taken for granted than actually established. Grunkle Stan supposedly doesn’t believe any of the kids’ stories about the strange goings on. I may have missed something, but I recall maybe one or two scenes of him reacting this way, and both very early on. Then in the opening of the second season it’s suddenly a twist that he knew all along. But…they hadn’t made anything of his supposed incredulity. It didn’t affect the story in any way, at least not that I can remember (contrast in Milo Murphy’s Law, where Bradley’s status as a jealous sourpuss is well-established even though he’s not in very many episodes). And there are a few things like that; elements that are just kind of assumed, but not really established and which don’t affect the story in any way until the writers just decide to resolve them.

Also, the characters don’t always behave believably. There’s a Halloween episode where the twins end up menaced by a Halloween spirit that threatens to eat them if they don’t give him a certain amount of candy by the end of the night (downing a passing child just to prove it’s serious). Dipper spends the night embarrassed to be trick-or-treating and wanting to ditch the effort to go to a party with Wendy. Even in cartoon terms, that’s not believable behavior: he could be entertainingly irritated at being frightened into doing something he’d rather not, but he can’t be just shrugging off a death-threat from a supernatural monster. In other words, there has to be at least an element of fear in his behavior if the scenario is going to work, but there isn’t; he’s just annoyed and trying to find away to blow it off. The way they defeat the monster is stupid as well; just a cheap joke that feels like they were stuck for an ending.

That’s a problem that kind of keeps coming back throughout the show; as I said, the writers are willing to put the kids in real danger, but they don’t always act like they’re in real danger, or even in a cartoonishly inappropriate way. Half the time the characters just don’t seem to be taking their own predicament seriously: and not in an amusingly careless “I’ve seen it all” kind of way, but in a weird “doesn’t matter to me” way. This sort of thing rips me right out of the story: you can’t be both flippantly careless and darkly frightening at the same time because the two tones cancel each other out. It hits the right balance sometimes, but misses badly at others.

Again, contrast this with Phineas and Ferb. It’s a much brighter and cheerier show, and the characters there are very rarely in any danger, or even faced with serious consequences, but whenever they are they act like it. They still joke and banter, but when they need to be serious they get serious. For example, when Candace realizes her brothers have been abducted by an alien poacher, she immediately forgets all about ‘busting’ them and rushes to their rescue. Even as goofy and surreal as the show is, the characters consistently act in a believable fashion. The characters on Gravity Falls don’t, or at least not consistently.

Ironically this means Phineas and Ferb actually does a better job at creating a sense of danger and dread on the rare occasions it tries than this one does as a major part of its makeup. When zombie pharmacists are scarier than child-eating scarecrows, something has gone very wrong with the latter.

This is probably connected with another problem; the show is very cynical, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but it leads the characters to have kind of a myopic worldview. The thesis seems to be ‘the only good thing you can do is be there for your friends and family,’ which plays out in some very strange and kind of nasty scenes. There’s a bit near the end where one character can literally save the world with a single gesture…but he holds off because he’s angry that another character hasn’t shown him enough appreciation. Then the choices the kids make towards the end are likewise kind of…wrong. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but the overall point seemed kind of self-centered to me. Basically, the leads are very loyal to each other, which makes them likable, but it doesn’t seem to translate into either care for others in general or any sense of value for its own sake.

Related to this is that the show often rewards the characters in unearned ways just because the writers decide they should be rewarded. There’s a really stupid episode where Dipper and Mabel are hunting down a centuries-old conspiracy, and Mabel’s random, goofy behavior turns out to be the key to solving each riddle, because the guy who set the puzzle was just as goofy and random as she was, and “being silly is good.” No. Just…no. The hand the of the writers is brutally obvious throughout, rewarding Mabel for no other reason than that they wanted her to be right.

Again, contrast this with a similar situation in a better show. There’s an episode of My Little Pony where Rarity has to solve a mystery on Rainbow Dash’s behalf and apparently spends most of her time changing costumes and getting distracted by irrelevancies. But it turns out everything she focused on was vital to the case (the costumes not so much) and that, in classic detective fashion, she knew what she was doing the whole time. You see, Rarity was able to solve the mystery because she’s both intelligent and very attune to details: traits that obviously lend themselves to solving mysteries. On Gravity Falls, Mabel solves the mystery because she’s ‘silly’ and because her random, goofy behavior just happened to correspond with the mystery author’s random, goofy behavior, which only works because it was specifically set up that way. That’s the difference between an earned solution and a contrived one.

And there are quite a few episodes like that, where the writers are obviously just forcing things to go their preferred way, either because they’ve written themselves into a corner or because that’s just how they want it to be. So between that, the false-seeming behavior, and the often slapdash plotting, I don’t think I can call this a well-written show.

Then there are just stupid things: I praised the main villain, but the secondary one is just dumb and neither a consistent character nor a very entertaining one. There were a fair number of episodes that just plain didn’t work, or had a great set up that they completely undermined for a cheap gag.

In all this I think the central problem is the mindset behind the show. I don’t know anything about the creators, but the show seems to come from a very cynical, almost nihilistic point of view. I may be reading too much into it, but that’s the impression I was left with, though accompanied with some strong emotional connections to and between the characters and a lot of good humor and creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time describing what’s wrong with Gravity Falls because its flaws are mostly structural, down under the surface and tricky to pin down. The show is superficially very strong, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well. Shows like Phineas and Ferb and My Little Pony are not only fun to watch, but get better the more you think about them. I’ve seen Phineas and Ferb all through at least three or four times and I’m still finding new things to like about it and new ideas to draw from it. Gravity Falls is generally fun to watch, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The more I think about it, the more I see the flaws, the gaps, and the wrongheadedness in it, all the more so because it does have such a superficial shine to it that makes me annoyed to find it’s not as good as it tries to be.

I’m an inveterate re-watcher, so one of my main rubrics for judging just about any work of fiction is whether I want to see it again. Phineas and Ferb I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, since it left me so emotionally satisfied that I wanted to go back and see the whole thing again knowing where it was leading. Danny Phantom left me appreciative for the good parts, but with absolutely no desire to watch it again. Gravity Falls is somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, but I feel like I may at some point in the future. The good parts may just be good enough to tempt me back once more, at least to some episodes. It’s certainly a good show in a lot of ways, but I can’t say I liked it very much.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about Gravity Falls. I liked a lot of it, and I disliked a lot of it, and on the whole it left me glad that I had seen it, but with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.