Love Potions: The Worst Concept Ever Created By Humans

As I said in my Pepé Le Pew post, times are constantly changing, and so too are our perceptions of their subjects. Pointing to derision, mocking, and stalking as evidence that a guy likes a girl is more readily scorned than in previous decades, and, more relevant to today’s discussion, the concept of the love potion becomes less charming and more…creepy, shall we say? Possibly even…the dreaded “R” word?

 

Some might say that the whole idea of love potions was never that great to begin with. After all, romance as a whole is hard to write well, and portraying two people hopeless infatuated with one another often becomes sickening, simplistic, saccharine drivel. It puts one, both, or even multiple characters into a kind of trance, which looks closer to lust than our modern concept of what love is supposed to be, and they digress into illogical, stupid beings with no sense of boundaries.

I would agree there. If a love potion “plot” could be written well, I have yet to see it for myself. But worse still is the still newly-emerging revelation that a character who would willing overlook the thoughts and feelings of another person and simply force them into being with them (explicitly in a sexual way or not) is, quite frankly, a terrible scumbag of a human being.

Think about it: it’s rape in a meta-ethical sense, if not a literal one. A person thinks to himself (or herself), “Gee, I really like this person, but they don’t like me for whatever reason. Let me see if I can override that, whether they like it or not.”

It’s never phrased that way, of course, but that’s the basic subtext.

To keep things even, let’s look at a few notable female examples of this thing being romanticized:

 

Look at something like The Craft. Robin Tunney’s character, Sarah, casts a spell on a guy she likes named Chris, in order to get him to fall in love with her. At one point, Chris becomes so obsessed that he tries to rape her, only for Sarah to escape and her fellow witch and then friend Nancy (played by Fairuza Balk) to come to exact revenge. But despite the despicable nature of this act he tried to commit, no one ever pauses to think that he had limited agency in the overall situation. And I don’t say that to be apologetic; he was literally forced into ‘loving’ Sarah, and the magic just escalated it too far. Chris is punished and killed for something he probably had no control over, but we probably instinctively root for the former (if not the latter) because of our visceral loathing for the act of rape.

 

Let me just say here that I don’t think that having an attraction (physically, emotionally, etc.) to someone is inherently bad or wrong. It’s what you do about it and how you treat that person as a result of it that can cause problems, and the fact that enough people fantasize about forcing someone to fall in love with them that it’s a popular trope in the media makes me very glad that love potions don’t actually exist. Our society would fall into chaos and debauchery, probably just like the golden calf scene in The Ten Commandments.

 

Let’s take another magic movie: Practical Magic. Sandra Bullock’s Sally has a curse that all men who truly love the women of her family will die before their time, and so, as a young girl, she casts a spell that seals her feelings entirely on a man that “doesn’t exist.” She gives him what she thinks are impossible and ridiculous qualities, just so they will never meet and fall in love. But, lo and behold, such a man does meet her over the course of the movie.

 

The idea that Gary is under the influence of a spell and may or may not actually love Sally is never really satisfyingly resolved; at one point, she reveals the truth about her curse and spell to him, and, despite everything he has seen, replies that curses are only real if people believe in them. Sally is still supposed to be likeable, if flawed, but she just decides to take their love on faith, and embraces the man whose agency she took away. He embraces her as well, and they all live happily ever after. The curse did get broken, no doubt allowing Gary to live to a ripe old age, but the spell that binds him to Sally is never really mentioned again. And it’s constantly implied to be romantic because of how sweet and tragic it is!

 

I have some issues with Practical Magic’s overall execution, but that is a review for another time.

In Ancient Athens, stories about infatuation and Aphrodite were regarded as a kind of madness, and the love was basically an object to be acted upon by the “lover.” Gods and other mythical beings mostly got involved with “love” to be dicks and mess with people

 

or because they were arrogant enough to think that they knew better than the people themselves (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream). And yet today, we still see a lot of love potion stories in which we are meant to sympathize with the instigator, for kids no less! (see Breadwinners “Love Loaf” episode and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for just three random but recent examples)

The “safest” method of execution is to have one or more characters try to bring two other characters together, because he/she/they think they should be.

 

Personally, I prefer Garnet’s approach to love in Steven Universe:

 

The gist:

“Love at first sight doesn’t exist. Love takes time and love takes work. At the very least you have to know the other person…”           

I think that’s a much healthier attitude to teach kids, and I wish it would catch on more in the adult world as well. The idea that love always has to be dramatic or turbulent, but “don’t worry because it’s all worth it in the end” frustrates me, but still more is the idea that wanting to control someone else to such a ludicrous extent isn’t abusive, sociopathic, or just straight up objectification. You don’t have to know the person; you just have to want them badly enough, and thus they deserve to be yours, especially if you’re the protagonist. And if you have a way to make it happen, you’ll do so with no second thoughts.

At least having those would be better than just thoughtlessly making it happen in two seconds.

 

Even the most mindless entertainment can actually change the way we view the world, if its messages are constantly reinforced and we don’t get any variation. Somebody has to challenge the current notions if they are ever going to change, and I know it’s difficult. It’s hard to be different, and it’s hard to discern between what you may be overthinking and what’s actually a problem.

Believe me, I know, but ultimately, thinking about it and demanding more from your entertainment can make things better.

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In Defense of Cinderella

I’m not saying it’s the greatest movie ever made. I’m not even saying that Cinderella is that strong of a character. She isn’t, and that’s okay. Not every female character needs to be Gloria Steinem.

What I am saying is Cinderella (1950) and its eponymous character are not nearly as bad as people claim, and the 2015 live action remakes ultimately “updates” very little from it.

Keep in mind that I do still like the remake (for the most part), but much like with the new Beauty and the Beast, I think it gets praised more than it really deserves, especially in contrast to the hate heaped upon its predecessor.

To start off, let’s get a few things out of the way here:

 

Yes, the animated prince gets maybe 4 complete lines in the whole movie, one of which is, “Yawn.” And yes, he has no character.

 

Yes, the mice take up too much time. And yes, a female mouse does in fact say, “Leave the sewing to the women,” and isn’t that so anti-feminist?

 

Got that out of your system? Great. On we go then.

Here is my interpretation of animated Cinderella, backed up by quotes from the opening narration: Her father died when she was very young, and suddenly it’s revealed that her stepmother and stepsisters, her only remaining family, are self-centered, sadistic bitches; “it was upon the untimely death of this good gentleman, however, that the stepmother’s true nature was revealed. Cold, cruel, and bitterly jealous of Cinderella’s charm and beauty.” She is put to work as their house servant soon after, but their house still falls apart because the stepmother is too cheap to hire more help. To quote the movie again, “The chateau fell into disrepair, for the family fortune was squandered upon the vain and selfish stepsisters”.

 

So it can be reasonably inferred that Cinderella was brainwashed and manipulated from a young age. The fact that she hasn’t left home probably means that she can’t, as it would probably leave her homeless and starving (which can sadly happen to runaways in the real world as well, even in modern day). The movie supports this theory with its framing of shots, showing Cinderella constantly inside or at the very least confined to the surrounding property. Aside from the panning shot over the castle, town, and chateau during the opening, we virtually never see the rest of the land (unlike in the remake, if you’ll remember).

It surprises me how many people fail to see the logical flow of events like these. They would prefer to call Cinderella stupid or weak, but I wonder if they could comfortably say the same of abuse victims in the real world, especially children raised in such environments? Think about it.

Anyway, the next thing people love to criticize Cindy for is being boring and simple. A helpless waif with no character and no drive to better herself. Well, aside from referring you back to my interpretation above, let’s look at Cinderella in the movie. She is forced to do every chore in the house every single day of her life, but while she doesn’t let it twist her into someone bitter and truly unkind, she clearly strains her patience very often. Just look at how the animators drew her face, albeit in brief moments:

 

Cinderella doesn’t say much sometimes, and she tends to be pretty reserved, but much like Belle, she conveys a surprising amount through her expressions. You can also hear frustration and determination in her voice, such as when she’s trying to convince herself that the prince’s ball wouldn’t have been that much fun anyway.

I also like how she not-so-subtlety mocks her stepsisters’ performances at their music lesson.

 

See guys? She’s not a complete goody-two-shoes doormat after all. She just copes like every other woman does….quietly and bitchily.

The classic Cinderella moral has always been “work hard and be good and good things will come to you;” essentially “don’t give up.” But I think an even better lesson would be, “don’t let bad experiences change you negatively as a person,” which incidentally would have been a better moral for the new Cinderella as well, retroactively-speaking. Cinderella as a character doesn’t just work hard; she saves the mice, who are even lower on the social food chain than she is, and unlike the rest of her family, she treats those who are lower than her with respect and humanity.

 

She does try to argue with the stepmother (however futile that might ultimately be), so it’s not like she has no backbone. She’s trying to make the best of a bad situation, whether by trying to assert herself, trying to stay positive, or just being silly.

 

In a world of talking mice, horrible relatives, and fairy godmothers, what else can you do but yell at your alarm clock like it’s a person?

When Cinderella talks about the ball prior to going, at no point does she mention the prince or the opportunity to get with him aside from when she was reading the invitation. It sounds more like she just really wanted the excuse to put on a nice dress and have a fun night out. Even after she runs away at midnight, she doesn’t think that the man she danced with was the prince, and later, she is so startled by that revelation that she drops a tea tray.

 

Face it: Cinderella just wanted to get pretty and go to a party. She met a guy while she was there, somehow not realizing he was the prince, and that just made the evening better. Unlike in the remake, the writers don’t explicitly say that Cinderella has no chance with the man she danced with, but I feel like Cinderella would already know that and just have quietly appreciated the experience.

Then, the next day, when she finds out that not only can she be with him, but he’s the prince of the entire country, her first thought is to go clean up and make herself presentable. Her daydreaming blinds her to caution, sure, but she’s clearly elated to be able to marry the man she “fell in love with” (it’s a fairytale. Whatever) and escape her abusive, exploitative family.

And last but not least, do you remember her reaction when the stepmother locks her in her room? She gets upset. She beats on her door and tries to pull it open.

 

When she sees that her mice friends are coming to help and bringing her the key, she encourages them, and despite her usual policy of trying to be nice to Lucifer, she asks the birds to get Bruno the dog just to scare him away.

What was remake Cinderella’s reaction again?…Oh yeah, I remember. She twirled around her room daydreaming about the prince and the ball, singing to herself and totally not caring about what the stepmother might be planning to do to her. Because that’s really smart and empowering, right?

 

Remake Cinderella could ride a horse, speak several languages fluently, was an adult when the step family came into her life, and was shown numerous times to be able to leave the chateau and visit friends, who would probably take her in for a little bit if she asked them to. Hello! The filmmakers love to talk her up like she’s some feminist paragon, and by implication how backwards and weak old Cinderella is, but the climax of the movie completely ruins the image of the former for multiple reasons. The most relevant of which is that she doesn’t even try to get out or help herself, unlike the animated Cinderella. Just because 1950’s Cindy failed to get out on her own doesn’t negate the fact that she actually tried to.

 

That’s all I’m trying to say here. Both movies have their respective flaws and strengths, but the older version is not as bad for little girls as many people would have you believe. And as I always say, you could help your children understand context by watching it with them and talking to them about it, letting them know that it was made 70 years ago and lots of things change in all that time. It’s a little magical thing called context, and it works wonders.

Except maybe things don’t change much over 70+ years, because the remake updates so little and creates more issues than it ultimately fixes, all so that Disney could cash in on nostalgia and modern sensibilities simultaneously.

 

That’s what it’s all about; dress porn for little girls and girls at heart. At least 50’s Cinderella’s was less gratuitous…and way shorter. And less radioactive-looking.

 

You can still like something while admitting it has problematic elements to it. That’s how I can comfortably like both versions of this story. I just see so many people trying to pretend that one Cinderella is way worse than the other, when really, it’s two halves of the same whole. It’s too much selective outrage and modern sensibility, without actually addressing any of the problems they claim so deeply upset them.

Cindy’s not a bad person. Maybe all we need to do is see her in full light.

 

*None of the gifs or pictures in this post belong to me. They all belong to Disney. 

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Alien Covenant: A Step Forward After Three Steps Back

Warning: Plot Spoilers Below

Alien: Covenant. As a prequel to Alien, it’s more of what Prometheus should have been, but it hoists that film’s astounding lack of subtlety and thought with much the same vigor whenever it thinks you aren’t paying attention.

And spoiler alert: I was.

Prometheus had head-scratching, downright insulting simplicity while trying to appear scientific and weighty. Alien: Covenant leaves the poor, abused subject mostly alone, in favor of the tried and true Alien formula: a bunch of bozos in space receive a distress signal, go to investigate it, touch something dangerous and/or infectious, and then horror ensues, as the crew gets whittled down by a rapidly-growing Xenomorph or equivalent. Prometheus changed a few small elements of the formula (where the crew is headed, no distress call, they touch something different for a different reason, etc.), but the stupid writing and poorly-cast, poorly-acted characters relegates those alterations to the background.

 

Thus, Covenant is instantly a way better movie; the acting and casting both fit, and I’m not left wondering what real “scientist” readily, repeatedly disregards basic, commonplace safety and testing precautions just “because.”

The ending of this second sequel is also chilling because it ties into Aliens masterfully, using an established and foreshadowed character that they expanded upon in the movie’s opening sequence. Sure, a few plotholes are carried over, and I’m annoyed that Prometheus was so bad yet can’t really be skipped over if you want to fully understand what happens in Covenant, but it gives me some hope that Ridley Scott is actually learning from some past mistakes, and that he’s learned that there can be more to suspense and horror than quick cuts, darkness, and tight quarters.

Note: those elements are still better than almost everything you see in most modern horror movies.

That said…

It’s the same old Aliens plot, which was starting to stink by Alien 3. And that foreshadowed character I mentioned? The handling is about as subtle as being struck by a wrecking ball, complete with a naked, gyrating Miley Cyrus clinging to the chain.

When will horror writers learn that making a character obviously evil and suspicious just makes the other characters look exceedingly stupid for trusting them? I know that in this case, the crew members don’t have much choice if they want to survive, but they trust everything he says and spread out across his “secured” area like they’re waiting to get picked off.

 

Prometheus actually makes this a bit of a plothole, as the character is a robot (Michael Fassbender’s “David” character) and the events of the movie he originally appeared in happened about 10 years prior to this one. It’s heavily implied by the crew of the Prometheus that synthetic beings are generally distrusted, and this particular model is so lifelike that they find him to be disturbing and uncanny. Even if things have changed during the passage of time, the Covenant crew should be way more wary of David initially than they actually are, especially given their emotional distress at just having been attacked with no warning and having lost several close friends.

 

As with the previous prequel, the dialogue can feel a bit too “exposition-y” at times, but at worst, it just makes you roll your eyes. I wish Daniels had more to do, because I think that as a strong, active female character, she was closer to Ripley than Elizabeth Shaw, both physically and mentally. The scenes where she mourns her husband are touching, even though they happen at the beginning when we don’t really know her yet. And they distinguish her as being more emotionally open than Ripley, but still able to woman up and take charge when the situation requires it of her. There is complexity and balance there, which is at least as admirable, if not more so, than Ripley’s stone-cold bad-assery.

I also like that there’s pretty much no random, out-of-place fanservice moment of Daniels in her underwear. At least not that I can remember.

 

I mostly went to see this film because the effects would allow the Xenomorph to have more fluid motion and scare potential, and I was favorably pleased with what I got. I saw plenty of reveals coming, but the execution was still pretty decent, and as I said before, downright chilling. I don’t get the point Scott seems to be trying to make about peoples’ faith or lack thereof, but it’s extremely clunky and ham-fisted and detracts from an otherwise interesting antagonist. The finger-wagging is not as idiotic and nonsensical as it was in Prometheus, but it’s still pretty obnoxious.

I can’t quite explain how it should have been phrased or emphasized different; all I can say is it broaches Captain Planet levels of condescension and simplicity, and in a film for adults, you’ve got to do better than that.

 

*6.5/10

None of the images used in this post belong to me.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Even Better than the First

Two major spoilers below. Be warned. 

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 fixes a lot of issues I had with the first movie. Now that the origin story is out of the way, we can focus more on character development for more of the characters.

I like that Gamora has more to do beyond being the pretty tsundere arm candy for Peter, and that the nature of her relationship with Nebula is more fleshed out. I like that Nebula herself is made more “human,” giving a better explanation for her cold exterior and her desire for vengeance against both Gamora and Thanos. I like that Rocket has to come to terms with being a raging asshole. I even like that Yondu, a character that I barely registered or cared about in Movie 1, got a backstory that was just shallow enough to not take up too much time, but just deep enough that I actually really started to like him, and I actually cried when he sacrificed himself in the end.

I even like that the aliens look by-and-large more convincing this time around. They seem a lot less like humans in cheap body paint, because now they have expense-looking body paint. Probably a bigger budget for smaller-scale CG effects.

 

The only thing I like better about Guardians of the Galaxy (the first one) is the oldies playlist. This time around, it wasn’t quite as catchy and epic, but it was still pretty good. The regular soundtrack fit the scenes they were set to…I know that seems pretty basic and obvious, but is actually more commonly screwed up than you would think. It’s less deserving of special mention and more like showing up to work on time every day; expected, but appreciated, especially when others around you don’t do so.

Most of the jokes seem to come from Drax and his usual lacking comprehension of nuance and tact, but they always hit home runs. I can’t think of a single joke in the movie that fell flat or otherwise went unnoticed, and it was all-around a good time at the movies. It’s still not the deepest masterpiece of storytelling, of course (the villain’s name is Ego, for Pete’s sake!), but it’s good fun that doesn’t spend a lot of time talking down to its audience, and I really appreciate that. I like not having to go in expecting high art, but neither expecting cheap, boring, or insulting crap, and I walk away perfectly satisfied. It’s almost like watching a more serious Deadpool, which is great as long as the comedy and dramatic tones aren’t constantly at odds with each other.

Go see it. It’s really fun.

 

7/10

*None of the images in this post belong to me. 

 

Is Pepé Le Pew a Rapist?

Pepé Le Pew was always my least favorite Looney Tunes character, followed closely by Speedy Gonzalez. Introduced in the mid 1940’s, he’s a skunk obsessed with love, and he always looks for it in all of the wrong places, particularly with the ever-unfortunate Penelope Pussycat.

 

It’s interesting to see how cultural and social attitudes change over the years. While as a kid, I never thought of Pepé as a rapist or sexual harasser, I never found his shtick all that funny. He chases around a poor cat who somehow gets a stripe of white paint down her back in every cartoon, and she gags and squirms violently every time he pulls her close enough to smooch. It’s all the fun of a “will-they-won’t-they” story with none of the suspense or appeal, but three times the annoyance.

I asked a few people from previous generations to explain the “joke,” so to speak, and all of them seemed to give me some variation of, “He’s funny because he’s outrageous and clueless.” …Okay, so he’s a sort of proto-Max Bialystock from The Producers? 

…Yeah, I’m still not buying it.

As I mentioned in my review/comparison of The Producers, the reason we should be laughing (as opposed to horrifyingly shaking our heads in dismay) at Max’s machinations is because they highlight what a pathetic scumbag of a human being he is. There is no question about the wrongness of his actions, and no one person that he hurts or uses (other than the comically neurotic Leo Bloom) is too dragged out or overemphasized. They mostly come and go, or at least provide him with some obstacle or frustration in exchange.

 

What is also very important to remember is that while he has clearly not given up his conman ways by the end of the movie, he failed. He got nothing! He lost! Good day, sir!

However likable he may be, he’s still a louse and a jerk and he gets exactly what he deserves. It’s cathartic, funny, and even contains the slightest bit of commentary.

For a closer comparison, look at Daffy Duck, a fellow Merrie Melody/Looney Tune. He’s a self-proclaimed louse and is often greedy, jealous, and arrogant, but he’s funny because he never succeeds. Bugs Bunny and the other characters always outsmart him, which is good, because he’s usually trying to use or harm them to save himself (see Chuck Jones’s classic hunting trilogy of shorts: Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck!).

Meanwhile, Pepé Le Pew is meant to be a lovable dolt, and with the exception of a few cartoons, he wins or gets away unscathed in the end. Say what you want about Johnny Bravo; he may never have learned his lesson, but at least he got pummeled repeatedly and painfully by every woman within a 15 yard radius!

Newsflash: a guy who won’t take no for an answer is NOT charming. Harassment (whether it be a singular incident or repeated pattern) is an issue that is very real, terrifying, and traumatizing for a lot of women. In some form or another, it all boils down to one basic point; either explicitly or implicitly, a man tells you that you are an object for him to use and act upon. Your personal comfort and feelings are secondary to his whims, if he even acknowledges them at all.

 

Not that I would wish this upon anyone, but men as a group don’t get consistently told the same thing by women. And I’m not meaning to imply that men can’t go through something similar, that all men do this, or that comments about looks are always meant to be hurtful or derogatory. By no means! But it’s the thoughtless nature of a lot of comments and actions that belie these attitudes; this idea that a man is entitled to treat a woman he fancies any way he wants, or lay a claim on her when romantic feelings are not mutually held. And these kinds of attitudes are reinforced over time, typically by peers, family, and media that normalize them…

 

One cartoon in which the tables get turned on our loathsome little skunk friend is the 1949 short Scent-imental Reasons, which is admittedly satisfying, but has, in my opinion, one of the most horrifying sequences in his entire history as a character:

Finding that Penelope has locked herself in an air-tight box, Pepé silently begs her to open it and come back to him. First of all, if this purposeful action of hers isn’t a big enough sign that she doesn’t return his feelings, I don’t know what would be. There is such a thing as too stupid, you know?

Second of all, he clearly throws a tantrum at one point and keeps demanding that she open the box with stern, down-pointing gestures.

Third, when these “charming” and “hilarious” tactics don’t work, he proceeds to pull out a gun and threaten to kill himself, even going so far as to walk off-screen and pull the trigger!

 

Good Lord, what is wrong with you?! I don’t know why suicide was ever considered funny in the first place, 1940’s and 50’s, but what the hell?!!!!

Penelope, like a reasonable person, would clearly want to stop someone from trying to commit suicide in front of her. She unlocks the box and races out to see Pepé, only to be caught in his arms and told, “I missed. Fortunately for you.”

I know it’s a silly cartoon and not an actual situation between two actual people, but I can only forget reality to a certain extent, no matter what I’m watching. It’s suspension of disbelief, or willingness to forgive a character’s flaws because he or she is funny or likable in other ways.

There is nothing funny or likable about this moment. Maybe there used to be something to it, but frankly, I’m happy to not be living in that world anymore. This is a despicably low, manipulative move on Pepé’s part; it’s way more screwed up than people realize. If a character like Pepé were created in the modern day, there would be a justifiably loud outcry of protest.

But to swing back around to my question above, no, Pepé Le Pew is not a rapist. Like, at all. Seriously, people on the Internet throw this word around without knowing its meaning, which is “one who commits the act of rape”.

But he certainly is a harasser and a skillful, downright sinister manipulator. I don’t even care that Penelope technically “wins” in the end (and she does so in a few other shorts as well); simply getting a taste of his own medicine doesn’t give this stinker the punishment he truly deserves.

 

Gee, dude, it’s almost like unwelcome advances are unwelcome!

Adults who know better might still get a kick out of Pepé, but kids definitely shouldn’t be watching and laughing at his antics. He’s a flimsy, unlikable character who has been framed poorly since his conception. Penelope doesn’t invite his advances – and in fact she very obviously tries to get away from him – but still he persists, all because he thinks she’s a hot piece of skunk ass. And maybe his smell is her only objection, and maybe it isn’t; these days, someone can refuse a romantic relationship for any number of reasons, and that’s cool. Penelope shouldn’t pursue him if he doesn’t want her to, although through sheer karma and catharsis, I find myself applauding when she gets all pushy back.

Even if new, tamer versions of him come and go (and why not? Speedy Gonzalez is a lot less of a racist caricature these days), I’m glad to see he’s mostly being retired. Arrogance, pushiness, and stupidity are not attractive separately and they are potentially dangerous when put together and labelled “charming” and “funny.” Much like D.W. Read and post-movie Patrick Star, I think Pepé Le Pew is a bad character that should just go away.

 

*None of the images and clips in this post belong to me. Pepé Le Pew is owned by Warner Bros. 

 

 

 

Princess Mononoke: The Best of Studio Ghibli and Maybe Even the World

Princess Mononoke is one of the best movies ever made, bar none. It’s easily in my top 3, and I’m not just talking about animated movies here. I do not say these things lightly.

 

I don’t care if you think “cartoons” is for kids. I don’t even care if East Asian culture seems confusing and impenetrable to you. If you have any respect or love for movies, artistry, or storytelling in general, you should see Princess Mononoke at some point. You can even say you didn’t like it. I won’t be mad.

Hell, go see it right now, if you never have before. Don’t even read this review of it, because there are some spoilers and it’s more organic to come across them on your own.

  

 

In a time where we only seemed to get preachy environmental films and shows about evil man ruining the innocent planet with his mere existence (and I time when my younger self was personally growing tired of Disney-esque black-and-white world views), there was one little-known film from Japan that actually took a balanced look at the issues. Here, nature is a mighty force to reckoned with, and humans can be ambitious while still being caring and sympathetic. Everyone is struggling and clawing to survive, and they will do so by any means necessary.

Though it may seem mystical and fantastic, there are numerous shades of reality to be found there too.

Prince Ashitaka lives in a quiet, hidden village in the far east, the last of the native Emishi people. One day, a giant boar god-turned-demon attacks his home, and while he manages to protect everyone else from its rage and destruction, Ashitaka is cursed when the beast touches his right arm. He is told that it will fester inside of him, cause him great pain, and then kill him, but it also occasionally has a will of its own, and even grants him some of the boar god’s considerable strength.

 

Then, leaving his people forever, Ashitaka journeys west to discover what cursed the boar god and if his own curse can be cured. What he finds is the small but prominent human settlement of Iron Town battling the remaining gods for control of their land, and a plot to kill the heart of the forest itself.

 

The leader of the humans is Eboshi, an ambitious, intelligent, highly-respected, and capable woman. She bought the contracts of numerous brothel girls and gave them a better life working the bellows in Iron Town, and she also took in lepers, who in turn help her by building new guns and weapons. Despite her plans, she is not completely irredeemable. Eboshi is an equal opposing force to the forest gods, who are trying to survive and thrive and protect their own kind just as she does. Other humans desire the rich land that she has painstakingly fought for, and so she faces attacks on both sides, from her own kind and the animals.

 

On the side of the forest is San, the eponymous Princess Mononoke. As a child, she was abandoned by her human parents and adopted by the wolf god Moro. Eboshi believes that San’s soul was stolen by the wolves and is thus no longer human, and once the gods are killed off, she will become one once more. The head of the great forest spirit is also rumored to cure any ailment, so she seeks to claim it to cure the lepers under her care. Meanwhile, San sees Eboshi as greedy and evil, with no love or reverence for the forest and its powers, and seeks to kill her to stop the other humans from destroying more land and the noble gods protecting it. Without the forest spirit, it is also said that the animal gods will become “dumb beasts once more,” leaving humans everywhere with little opposition.

In addition to all of that, the Emperor of Japan believes that the head of the forest spirit will grant him immortality, and promises great wealth to the one who can bring it to him. This draws even more people to the stage, like the amiable but calculating monk Jigo (Jiko-bo).

 

Ashitaka, in his own quest to save himself, also tries to save these two groups from each other. He sees history repeating itself, so he becomes a bridge; not entirely different from San, but more neutral, fighting for both sides to live in peace and compromise.

What I like about this, in addition to the culture and mythology, is how fair and balanced this seems. Nature has divine elements to it, and the movie clearly shows why it is important to revere it. But it is not some innocent thing simply being trampled by man, and unlike in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, it does not really care that there are some nice “men” trying to protect it. It is a force, plain and simple, and like a caged wild animal, it will fight to survive however it can.

 

Everyone in this movie is fighting to survive. Ashitaka is the last prince of his people, and for their sake as much as his own, he does not want to die. The forest gods are the last of their kind, and the forest is their home and a source of strength and vitality. Eboshi’s people were all scorned by society; she creates Iron Town as a safe space for them, and they thankfully, loyally help her achieve her own goals. I can understand and sympathize with them without always necessarily condoning their actions.

Let me put it to you this way: in The Lorax (the 1972 television adaptation), the Onceler asks several very important questions. “What do you want? I should shut down my factory? Fire a hundred thousand workers? Is that good economics? Is that sound for the country?” To which the Lorax replies, “I see your point, but I wouldn’t know the answer.” That is the only other environmental “movie” that seems to realize that there are two sides to every debate, and Princess Mononoke takes it even further by actual making the human “villain” a fully fleshed-out and sympathetic character.

A human being, so to speak.

 

The animation is gorgeous, as the rare bits of computer animation perfectly compliment the cel-shaded, traditionally hand-drawn and painted style. The amount of detail is astounding, especially in the background and scenery; every rock and blade of grass looks different from every other. The action scenes are fluid, making up for the fact that Ashitaka is a calm, relatively reserved character only occasionally prone to real anger.

 

The English voice cast is very well-chosen, and the English script, brought to us by Neil Gaiman, relays the story well without incorporating a lot of local references that would confuse an American audience. Sub enthusiasts might fight me on that point, but some changes have to be made when translating this to a different audience, and if you don’t like it, the original Japanese version is right there for your viewing pleasure.

The Japanese cast is stellar, of course, but I have to appreciate the effort it took to bring this movie stateside. However you feel about English dubbed anime and movies, you can’t deny that it serves as a fitting introduction to the genre for newcomers.

The music…what can I even say about it? It’s Joe Hisaishi. He scores most of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, and they always seem to fit perfectly.

The plot is not eye-rollingly preachy and pretentious. It’s subtler than its friends and neighbors, especially those of the late 90’s; it doesn’t talk down to you or wag its finger disapprovingly, as it ironically kills God knows how many trees just to bring its message to life. It doesn’t give us a villain who is completely greedy and evil, sometimes just for the joy of being evil.

Jigo probably comes the closest to being a “typical” bad guy, but even then, he’s so likable. He is basically the Onceler if he had been a side character, rather than the main antagonist.

San is not the strongest or most commanding person, but she is young and trying to find her way in the world. Both she and Eboshi are fascinating, whether as female characters or characters in general, and they fight tooth and nail for what they believe in. Miyazaki sure came a long way as a feminist since Nausicaawho I would argue is more of an idealized Mary Sue and sacrificial lamb, rather than an actual character.

 

San and Eboshi are flawed, but extremely compelling and admirable.

This movie is just amazing to me, and it makes me sad that it is less known and less appreciated than something like Spirited Away. Granted, that is a great movie and definitely more family-oriented (Princess Mononoke, by contrast, features several men getting their heads shot clean off with arrows, and one unfortunate gentleman who loses both of his arms that way), but it’s not nearly as profound and compelling. It’s a pretty safe, tried-and-true story format with enough “weirdness” sprinkled over it to make it interesting.

Princess Mononoke‘s basic plot isn’t unknown to us either (man tries to save the forest…as well as the people trying to tear it down?), but it isn’t exactly here to make you feel comfortable. It doesn’t point fingers at you in the same way something like James Cameron’s Avatar or Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves would, but neither does it try to placate you and dumb down its message like the 2012 Illumination Entertainment abomination The Lorax. It simply presents an epic, interesting story with two equal and opposing sides, and more readily allows you to take away what you will from it. The conflict is on a smaller scale than some environmental stories, but it feels no less important to the greater world because of its potential consequences.

Nature should be preserved and tended, and not just because we benefit from its existence. Man should not be blind to the world around him. Hatred, rage, and arrogance don’t tend to solve all of your problems. Sometimes it is the simplest messages that need the most repetition, but they can be conveyed in ways that aren’t stale, boring, and completely predictable.

This movie is damn brilliant and beautiful and deep. To steal a quote from Pulp Fiction, “What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to f#$%ing acknowledge it!”

 

*9/10

Note: The images used in this article do not belong to me. Most belong to Disney and Studio Ghibli. Jeff Goldblum, uh, belongs to Jeff, uh, Goldblum. 

 

 

Shrek is a Big Fiery Ball of Rage and Hatred

 

Oh come on, guys! Don’t look at me that way! I’m sorry!

 

Damn it, Puss! You’re going to make me cry! This isn’t even your movie!

Don’t get me wrong; I still really enjoy this movie. It’s just not a particularly timeless parody, due in large part to the pure, vitriolic hatred of one jilted former Disney employee: one of Dreamworks SKG’s three founders, Jeffery Katzenberg.

Examples of this are rife from the very beginning; in the opening scene, Shrek reads from a children’s storybook, a clear reference to how Disney opened many of its early fairytale adaptations, only to then tear out a page and implicitly use it to wipe his ass.  Cue the Smash Mouth song (not particularly timeless either, and not even embracing the new decade), and  Shrek kicks open the door of the outhouse, looking very pleased with himself before the montage of grossness and credits.  Right away, you know the tone of the film: irreverent and mocking.

It’s funny in a shocking way, like a child-friendly proto-Borat, and you have to admit that Shrek makes a few good points. Disney is a company, after all, and one that is driven just as much by profit and marketability as it is by its “artistic” creations.

 

Hell, people have been pointing out issues with Disney’s format and branding strategy for years! How it doesn’t particularly challenge girls to make something of themselves, and how it paints pretty, young people as good but older and uglier people as evil, just to name a few.

So yes, Disney is by no means a perfect company beyond all reproach or criticism, but look at something like Frozen. While it was made by Disney, the characters frequently poke fun at old tropes from past movies while not heavily distracting the viewer. Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff keep their ribbing gentle and vague, not calling out any previous movie in particular, but it still works well, makes good points, and the jokes don’t take you out of the story and its own unique world. Believe it or not, that is pretty hard to do well.

 

Enchanted is similar to Frozen in some aspects, but it’s more flawed because, as you might expect of an earlier attempt at a loving parody, it goes out of its way to reference specific movies and characters. It’s too pointed; Giselle is not really her own person, but rather a mush of several different Disney Princess characters, most notably Snow White. She exists basically as a version of one of the older, more naive princesses, who will have her childish innocence taken away from her so she can then go live in the “real world,” which is harder but more rewarding.

So not only can it not really stand on its own, Enchanted is kind of confused in the message it wants to offer to its viewers. You can’t really be your own whimsical fairytale if you are constantly telling people they should grow up and live in the real world. Frozen stands on its own and is still a good fairytale story in its own right, and that is how you typically do a good, decently timeless parody: there has to be some love involved.

Shrek has passion, I’ll give it that, but it’s a passion devoted to tearing down Disney and taking a dump all over it. And while I sympathize with Mr. Katzenberg and think he was treated very poorly, after spending a while trying to copy and race the very studio that he left

 

he then decided to go the extra mile and give them a more definitive middle-finger in movie-form.

 

Take that, Disney! Here’s what Jeff thinks of you!

And like I said, it’s still funny…in the same way listening to little kids throwing insults at each other is funny. The insults are silly but hit a mark of some kind. The overall effort is misguided, but it seems cute and harmless enough. Plus, it’s got Eddie Murphy wanting to make waffles when he has no hands!

Shrek has a good message at the end about being yourself and loving it no matter what, but Shrek 2 is better in my personal opinion because it spent less time flipping off Disney and more time developing its own world and characters. It’s still not particularly timeless, but I think it’s funnier and the references are a bit less intrusive. It also further develops Shrek and Fiona’s chemistry as a married couple, beyond happily ever after, something that Disney usually doesn’t do (unless it’s a cheap direct-to-video sequel).

That, in and of itself, is a better overall critique of Disney than its predecessor was.

 

*5.5/10

Note: The images used in this post belong to Disney and Dreamworks. I own nothing.

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