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.  

Happy St. Valentine’s Day: Some Favorite Couples

And Saint Valentine said [unto the Emperor Claudius]: Certainly Jesu Christ is only very God, and if thou believe in him, verily thy soul shall be saved, thy realm shall multiply, and he shall give to thee alway victory of thine enemies.
The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day 
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
Chaucer, The Parliament of Foules

Happy St. Valentine’s Day, “when every bird chooses himself a mate.” In celebration, I present a sampling of a few of my personal favorite animated couples:

-Robin and Starfire, Teen Titans
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These two make for a great ‘opposites attract’ couple: super-sweet, innocent, naive Starfire, who is emotionally vulnerable and embraces every new thing she encounters with delight, and brooding, ultra-serious, single-minded Robin, who was raised by Batman and who obsessively focuses on the mission. The two balance each other wonderfully: Starfire brings joy and sunlight into Robin’s dark life, while Robin acts as an emotional anchor whom she can always rely on to guard her and keep her focused. Plus I love the fantasy aspect that he’s an orphan from the circus and she’s a princess from another world.

-Kim and Ron, Kim Possible
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Amid all the gadgets and spy antics, the heart of Kim Possible is the relationship between Kim and Ron as it grows from lifelong friendship to romantic love. Again, they are very much an ‘opposites attract’ kind of couple: Kim is an overachiever, straight-A student, and boasts that she “can do anything.” Ron is an underachiever, slacker student, and can’t seem to do anything. But all the while underneath they’re actually much closer than they appear: Ron is shown to be very capable when he needs to be, suggesting that his problem is more a lack of confidence, while Kim is actually very self-conscious about her image and puts up something of a false front to try to maintain her status (there’s a significant episode where they’re both hit by a ray that forces them to tell the truth: Ron’s success soars while Kim’s takes a hit). Again, the two complement and support each other very well, with Kim encouraging Ron to improve himself and Ron preventing Kim from taking herself too seriously.

-Phineas and Isabella, Phineas and Ferb
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One of the many running gags of Phineas and Ferb is that Isabella, the super-cute leader of the Fireside Girls, is head-over-heels in love with Phineas and not at all subtle about it, but Phineas somehow never notices. He likes Isabella a lot, regarding her as his best friend outside the family, but he really doesn’t get the whole ‘girls’ thing very well (e.g. his idea of a romantic dinner for two involves dumping a huge pile of rose petals onto the table). So, it isn’t that he doesn’t return her feelings, it simply that he doesn’t think about it. Unlike the previous two couples, these two are more of a ‘birds of a feather’ matchup: both are overachievers, eager to make the most of life, with a great love of learning and creating, and they share a wonderfully natural, easy relationship. Isabella isn’t as brilliant, but more attune to normal life and emotions than Phineas, which means that in the rare times when he gets into a funk, she’s usually the one the pull him out of it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

AMDG

The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

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Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

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You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

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Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

Multilevel Motivation:

Today I want to talk about a characterization trick I’m going to call multilevel motivation. This is where a character’s actions are driven by several different and often conflicting motives at the same time, creating a more psychologically complex and realistic storyline.

Let me explain with an easily understood, but very well done example: the episode What About Discord from My Little Pony.

Brief summary: Twilight emerges from a weekend alone to find that her friends have apparently had a fabulous time with the local trickster god, Discord, and are bubbling over with shared jokes and stories of their escapades. Twilight’s confused by this, since, except for Fluttershy and maybe Pinkie, none of her friends have ever gotten along well with Discord, as he’s kind of a jerk. She naturally suspects that something is up and sets about trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Now, let’s take this apart: Twilight tells her friends that her motive is to better understand their bonding experiences so that she can use that knowledge in her friendship studies. To that end, she has them go through the whole thing again with her watching so that she can figure out what they found so enjoyable. At the same time, she’s suspicious of Discord, since he seems to be acting slightly out of character and she knows he likes to cause trouble. So she wants to find out what he’s up to.

But there’s a third thing going on, which is simply that she regrets having missed the good times and is jealous that her friends now have these experiences and jokes that she can’t share in. This is the motive that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, even to herself, as it conflicts with her values and role as a princess, but which is the real driving force behind what she does in the story.

So, in summary, there is the motive she claims to have, the motive she thinks she has, and the motive she actually has. That creates an engaging internal conflict, as she wrestles with feelings she thinks she ought not to have, and instead of putting them aside she claims an alternative motivation that she feels could satisfy her actual needs without having to acknowledge the feelings she’s ashamed of. Since it’s still not one that would go down well with her friends, she works up a plausible alternative, which perhaps she wishes was the actual motive.

All this works in to make Twilight an interesting, three-dimensional character. It shows her struggling with natural, human feelings that conflict with her morals and role in society and trying to find a way to deal with it. She does so by telling herself that her real feelings are something different and more altruistic.

But that’s not all: there is a similar and parallel characterization going on with Discord, who also has a multilevel motivation. The end of the episode reveals that he specifically arranged for the others to not let Twilight know about their upcoming fun weekend, purposefully cutting her out of it.

He claims his motive was simply to let Twilight alone and not bother her. It’s not very convincing, and almost no one believes him. He then all-but says that his real motive was to teach Twilight a lesson about the need to face and acknowledge her less savory emotions (with the added nuance that this is a lesson Twilight legitimately needs to learn). That’s the motive he thinks he has, and perhaps actually does make up part of his actions. But, at the same time, the actual motive is simply that he likes making trouble and jerking Twilight around. Like with Twilight, this showcases Discord’s three-dimensional characterization: though now a good guy, he still has the habits and instincts he had as a villain, which keep bubbling out subconsciously. Thus, he still wants to torment and trick Twilight, but she’s supposed to be his friend and he is honestly trying to turn over a new leaf. This is his way of trying to have his cake and eat it: to still indulge in his favorite vices while telling himself that he’s actually trying to help her.

So, the episode sees Discord and Twilight wrestling with their respective flaws and dealing with them by trying to tell themselves that their real motives are something more honorable. Only their actual motives can’t help but shine through and their fake motives can’t bring the satisfaction they want, forcing them to confront the reality of their behavior (and just to make it more nuanced, Discord never actually acknowledges his true motives, leaving us the audience to discern them from his behavior and our knowledge of him). It’s a psychologically complex set up centered around two very interesting and engaging characters.

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You see how it works? The character have selfish, but understandable motives, ones that conflict with their own values, so they try to convince themselves their real motives are something quite different, while maintaining yet a third motive to the people around them in order to try to make the other two motives work out to the same conclusion. It brings their interior conflict into focus, further fills out their characterization, and creates some interesting character based drama.

 

 

Doofenshmirtz and Identity Politics

Phineas and Ferb is one of those shows that, though simple on the surface, lends itself to endless fascinating interpretations. Like so many great works of fiction, it tells the truth merely by trying to tell a good story.

One of the chief themes of the show is the balance between childhood and maturity: Phineas and Ferb are trying to make the most of their childhood – symbolized by the summer vacation – by learning as much as possible, making as many friends as possible, and having as much fun as possible. By contrast, the ‘evil’ Doctor Doofenshmirtz had a miserable childhood, which seems to have left him emotionally stunted and for which he is constantly trying to get revenge or recompense. Balancing the two extremes is Candace, who is caught between adolescence and adulthood and is unsure how she fits in either, which manifests by trying to ‘bust’ her brothers: a childish and immature attempt to assume adult responsibilities.

So, to sum up, Phineas and Ferb revel in their childhood, Candace makes a clumsy effort to grab at adult responsibility without understanding it, while Doofenshmirtz tries to avoid responsibility until he’s settled with his lost childhood. The final main cast member, Perry the Platypus, is more or less the only adult in the room, seeking to balance his responsibilities both to his family and to his job.

For today, I want to focus on Doofenshmirtz and his arc. This will involve spoilers, by the way.

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The thing about Doofenshmirtz is that he’s a man who is completely obsessed with his own backstory. He has an endless series of gripes from his miserable childhood, each of which he considers enough to justify a complicated and often enormous and dangerous machine. He once made a giant, spacefaring robot just so that he could show-up the kid who beat him at shadow-puppets. Another time he decided that if he had one more bad date, he’d use a ray to eliminate romantic feelings from the entire Tri-State Area (in the end, the only one it hit was his own date).

The interesting thing is that Doof truly did have a terrible childhood, and was treated completely unfairly by his parents. Many of his gripes are perfectly legitimate. This is a guy whose father forced him to work as a lawn gnome and then disowned him after he choked on the high-dive, and whose brother was given presents he didn’t even like just so that Doof wouldn’t have them. Basically, his parents took an inexplicable disliking to him at birth and made sure he knew it every day of his life (it actually would be pretty grim if it weren’t so hilariously over-the-top).

However, the show is clear that none of this justifies Doof’s behavior. Yes, he was treated inexcusably by his parents and peers, but that doesn’t mean he can take it out on the world in general, or even on the people who were involved after all this time. There’s one episode where he decides to get back at the girl who was always dumping water on him as a child by dropping a huge bucket of water on her party in the park. He discovers too late that, one, the girl’s grown up to be very attractive, and two, the dumping water had been her way of saying she liked him. When Doof awkwardly has to confess to what he was planning, she’s understandably infuriated, pointing out that she was eight years old and that it’s insane that he still holds a grudge at the age of forty.

But not only does Doofenshmirtz feel the need to seek revenge for past wrongs, he also feels entitled to getting his own way in the present. If he wants something, his first instinct is to cheat. If he’s going to run a telethon to trying to gin up more cash, he makes a machine to preempt every other show and force people to watch. Even when he has a real chance of winning legitimately, he still tries to stack the deck just to be sure (as seen when he entered his scrumptious family meatloaf recipe in the annual meatloaf contest and invented a “Rotten-inator” to ruin everyone else’s entries). His main overarching goal is to take over the entire Tri-State Area, mostly in order to show up his younger brother, Roger, who is the mayor and was far his parents’ favorite. Basically, he thinks he’s entitled to everything Roger has simply because Roger was treated well by their parents and he wasn’t. But the thing is, that wasn’t Roger’s fault, and even if he’s a bit of a pompous jerk that still doesn’t mean Doof has a right to anything. What Doof can justly lay claim to has nothing to do with how he or anyone else has been treated by life.

There’s an interesting bit where Doofenshmirtz invents a ‘Luck-inator’ to give himself unnaturally good luck, intending to use the reverse setting on Roger to give him bad luck. Roger, however, is unconcerned, basically saying that luck is a matter of attitude and forethought. Doof answers that he prefers to “Inator my way to success.”

In short, Doofenshmirtz feels that the injustices he suffered in childhood entitle him both to recompense for past wrongs and to success in the present, and that he can cheat his way to getting them regardless of how it affects other people (“Sure it’ll be hard for brain surgeons, and people driving…”). But the truth is that, though he has indeed suffered injustice, his actions are also unjust. He is either taking his anger out on people who had nothing to do with his problems, grasping at things he has no real right to, or trying to get back at people decades late for things they probably don’t even remember and which really weren’t all that important to begin with.

In the end, though, Doof’s heart isn’t really in his bad behavior. He’s not really evil; he just thinks he is because he believes that being evil is the proper response to a past like his. As his daughter Vanessa tells him in the finale, he’s “basically a nice guy who’s pretending to be evil.” He pushes away the idea of taking responsibility for his own life, of letting go of the past and focusing on the present, because he somehow feels that this would be betraying his backstory. The fact that his heart isn’t in doing evil is shown by the fact that he seems to expect and even rely on Perry the Platypus foiling his schemes (he specifically designs his traps so that Perry can get out of them with a little effort), and that whenever he teams up with genuinely evil villains, he very quickly turns against them. Unlike his rival, Rodney, who is truly evil and tries to cause real harm, Doofenshmirtz’s schemes mostly amount to the nature of childish pranks. It’s all just his confused attempt to find satisfaction for the wrongs he suffered in the past.

Now, I think you might see where I’m going with this: Doof is, in his own way, in much the same position as just about any ‘marginalized group:’ smarting over past injustices and expecting some kind of recompense as well as smooth sailing in the future to make up for it. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Past injustices suffered do not ‘cancel out’ present injustices committed. Nor does having suffered entitle you to, well, anything except sympathy. Recompense can be demanded of an individual who has wronged you – you take my money, I can demand it back. You insult me I can demand an apology – but not of whole societies. This isn’t to belittle what has been suffered, only to say that creating even more injustice is not the path to healing.

Doof’s healing doesn’t come from seeking revenge or finally beating his brother: when he does take over the Tri-State Area in the finale, he finds it unsatisfactory. Healing comes when he finally decides to let go of his past and focus on what he has: his beloved daughter, his friends, and satisfying work. When we look in on him ten years hence, he’s so happy that he has to make an inator when he wants to experience a midlife crisis.

Identity politics, you see, aren’t evil just because they divide people: they also take people’s eyes off of the things that can actually improve their lives and fix them on things that will never bring satisfaction and which probably can’t even be cured. The endless and ridiculous expansion of things to feel aggrieved by only serves to demonstrate how futile such efforts are. And, of course, since you can’t solve a problem that depends on personal interpretation, there will always be a justifying excuse; you can always say “ah, but if only we eliminate x, y, and z, everything will be fine. They don’t want us to because they hate you. It’s only one more proof…”

Interestingly, the genuine evils Doofenshmirtz has suffered in the past lead him to take everything unpleasant that happens to him as just one more injustice. Having honestly been treated horribly and unfairly, he takes any and every setback, offense, or even just annoyance as a personal attack. Again, similar to how sources of ‘racism’ grow ever more ridiculous and petty (though even Doofenshmirtz never saw coded insults in his dinner) . People who have suffered genuine injustice tend to expect injustice and see it everywhere, which ironically leads them to commit injustices in their turn.

This is one of the biggest problems with Identity Politics: it simply ignores and excuses this phenomenon. Identity Politics, or critical theory essentially would argue that Doof is perfectly justified in, say, shooting a giant tire at the guy who ran over his foot. Because he was wronged, that means he cannot do wrong, or that any wrong he does is really the fault of his parents or brother. But not only does this excuse and encourage Doof’s harmful behavior, but it actually denies him the possibility of improving his own lot. And since what his parents did is in the past, they can’t undo it, even if they wanted to, meaning that it’s not a means to achieve anything, only to prop up an ultimately intolerable situation.

Doofenshmirtz spends almost the whole series trying to force the world to conform to his wishes, whether it wants to or not. His triumph comes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to; he has to change his own perspective and actions. He overcomes his past suffering by ceasing to allow it to control him.

 

Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

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.

A Quick Word on the Beauty of ‘Phineas and Ferb’

I’m rewatching Phineas and Ferb again at the moment and just finished the episode Magic Carpet Ride. During the song sequence, it suddenly occurred to me that this really is a microcosm of just what makes this show so special. It’s that it manages to be both absurdist and sincere at the same time. It simultaneously makes you laugh and warms your heart.

The scenario here is that Phineas and Ferb’s father has been watching his favorite childhood show and laments that the ‘magic carpet’ tie in wasn’t as magical as he remembers. So the boys turn the living room carpet into a flying carpet to give him a real magic carpet ride. What follows is a genuinely beautiful sequence of them flying around town, accompanied by a song that includes lyrics like “it’s aerodynamics are highly advanced / and its weave is so tight and so soft.”

Seeing the kids casually flying around town on a carpet, complete with sofa and TV, is obviously absurd and prompts some ridiculous imagery. But it also has some really sweet scenes like Phineas and Isabella sitting together in rapturous delight at the view below, not to mention the whole thing was two kids trying to cheer up their father.

This blend of the sincere and the ridiculous is pretty much in the show’s DNA. Even the animation style hits this balance of being both surreal and actually very beautiful at times. The scenes of them flying around the town are gorgeous and enlivened by little moments of innocent emotional power.

I don’t like a lot of modern art, like Picasso and Duchamp and so forth. I think their work is frankly hideous. The excuse generally made is that they did something different and original, but something like Phineas and Ferb puts the lie to that plea. The animators here create a unique, stylized, and surreal art style, but do it without sacrificing beauty. Likewise the writers make something creative, funny, and satirical without being in the least cynical or mean spirited.

So, this goofy kid’s show puts the lie to the vast majority of modern and post-modern art and literature; you can be as different, creative, and original as you like without being nihilistic, ugly, or mean. That’s why I have little patience for works that strike me as such, because, well, it could have been otherwise if the creators had wished it. The fact that they didn’t says something about them and their work that I don’t care for. And as long as there are works like Phineas and Ferb around, I’ll know where to go instead.

 

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.