Saturday, November 30, 2013


Directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck
Written by Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Shane Morris
Inspired by “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen

            Anytime I hear people complain about recent Disney movies, I assume they haven’t seen any of them.  Disney has been on a great winning streak since Meet the Robinsons, and there’s really no sign of them slowing down, especially as they branch out into more genres.  We’ve got a video game movie, an animal road trip, and a time travel adventure, right along the princess musicals which continue to ditch ancient tropes and gain more feminist ones.  And Frozen falls into that latter category with an ordinary Disney plot which takes quite a few liberties with “ordinary”.
            After their parents die (seriously, don’t raise your kids in a Disney movie), Elsa (Idina Menzel) becomes heir to the throne, and at her coronation ceremony, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is excited just to have the castle full of life and the hope of meeting her true love.  But Elsa ends up revealing her magic freezing powers, and in fear, retreats to an ice castle…but leaves the kingdom of Arendelle in a permanent winter, unless Anna, with the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a talking snowman, can convince her to thaw the kingdom.
            Frozen’s greatest strength is its eager want to be feminist.  From the beginning, it makes this point clear: the real conflict of the movie doesn’t necessarily come from a villain here.  It comes from the conflict between Anna and Elsa.  Anna is locked out of seeing her sister and believes her sister just doesn’t care about her, while Elsa is left worrying about the dangers of her powers and being seen as a monster.  Their first conversation together at Elsa’s ceremony shows that they’re incredibly awkward together and not really the same sort (right down to Anna’s colorful outfits against Elsa’s more wintery garb), but that isn’t necessarily stopping them from trying to connect.  Elsa ends up being the more realistic of the two, though, knowing that it’s ridiculous for Anna to marry someone the same day she met him but not knowing how to express her feelings.  This is a movie of big snowy landscapes and plenty of silly humor, but the conflict comes down to a surprisingly textured look at two women, and some major moments near the end just help to reinforce that.
            This movie does fall into formula in two notable ways: the comic relief sidekick and the musical numbers.  Olaf fills the role of the former, including his desire to see the summer…without any apparent realization that it will melt him.  He gets plenty of funny lines and slapstick as his body constantly falls apart and gets manipulated.  I don’t really know Josh Gad from anything, but he does a fairly good job here.  The songs here…well, putting it in recent Disney terms, better than Tangled, not as good as Princess and the Frog.  They come fast and frequently enough, especially early on, that there’s bound to be a few you’ll enjoy, a few you could do without.  The two definite best, though, are Olaf’s song, again, all about his desire to see summer, and Let It Go, a showcase for Idina Menzel that boasts beautiful visuals and a Broadway-worthy tune.  Getting it reprised over the end credits is a real treat, and it will undoubtedly be the song of this movie that will be remembered years from now.

            Frozen starts out rather standard and still has some feelings of formula to it, but its well-done character development and feminist themes elevate it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne, and Robert Rodat
Based on characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, and Walt Simonson

            The original Thor was one of my favorite Marvel movies after the first watching, but my recent rewatch did highlight some of the problems with it.  Its uneven tone, reliance on slapstick humor, and iffy camerawork stand out more, even if there’s quite a bit of good movie around it.  Nevertheless, I was still excited for The Dark World, partly because I’m excited by all Marvel movies, partly because of Iron Man 3’s wildly different approach to its own franchise.  And while TDW doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it makes the wheel about as good as it can be.
            Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is still doing her own scientific research, and when she finds a strange anomaly in London, she runs into a portal leading to another realm and the aether, a powerful substance which the dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) once used to try to take over all nine realms.  Now Malekith is reawakened, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Jane, and even Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to stop him.
            One of the themes that seems to be running across the Marvel movies since Avengers is enemies that feel out of place in the world, villains the heroes haven’t prepared for.  Avengers forced normal humans against aliens, Iron Man 3 had a villain that wasn’t another guy in a suit, and here, the dark elves clash with the fantasy aesthetic.  While Asgard’s forces are in armor and fight with swords and spears, the dark elves fly in spaceships, fire laser guns, and throw grenades that apparently warp people out of existence.  And we ultimately expect good to come out of this triumphant, because after all, it’s a superhero movie.  But there’s a dark sense of foreboding throughout, a sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s going to be lasting consequences from what happens here.  It’s not a sense that’s necessarily followed through on (although there are certainly some shocking moments that leave the audience in doubt), but simply having the sense can’t help but change the tone of the movie a little.
            After all, at heart, this is a Marvel movie, and that means big action sequences and big laughs combined together.  And yes, these are some big action sequences.  While previous movies have held off on them and only deliver on them in small doses, Thor fills the screen with some great action pieces.  Standing out in particular are the assault on Asgard and the final sequence, which takes what could be a normal finale and adds in some dimension-hopping action that makes it move even better.  And the humor freely comes in during these moments, not even slowing down the action as it delivers some great jokes.  It creates a movie whose pace falters a little at the start, during some prologue and London-without-Thor action, but once it picks up, it doesn’t stop.  In fact, this may be one of the briskest paces of the Marvel movies.  It’s still a movie that clocks in just under 2 hours, but it’s so exciting it feels shorter.

            Not just another Marvel winner, but a movie that’s even better than the first and shows that Marvel Phase Two is losing none of its steam.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ming Doyle

            Mara is…odd.  Not weird, not bizarre.  I’m forced to think of how I want to even categorize it.  It takes place in a dystopia, but it’s not really dystopian fiction.  There’s some elements of superhero deconstruction, but no more than some standard Superman stories have.  And Mara has its moments of ups, but it simultaneously has its downs which make it hard to say how much I even enjoyed it.
            In a world of constant war, sports have become the distraction of choice, and Mara is one of the best volleyball players out there.  She can carry her team by herself.  And that takes on another meaning when she begins to develop superpowers out of nowhere.
            And I do mean out of nowhere.  I kinda have to spoil something here, but no more than saying that a work has an ambiguous ending: there’s no real explanation for the superpowers.  Or the world.  Or really anything.  You expect dystopian fiction to explain how the world got to the point that it’s at, but it goes no further than “There’s been wars”.  You might expect at least a guess at how Mara got superpowers, but it’s just a mystery that the book doesn’t even make into a mystery.  It’s just…there.  Everything is just there.  Rather than creating a rich world, it creates a world that you want to know more about, but the answer to any question is just a shrug.
            It’s a shame because the book does hit some good points, particularly in its latter half, as it starts to ask the question of whether humanity is good or evil, and Mara’s own personality changes.  Maybe in some world she would be a superhero, but here, she’s just apathetic about doing anything, and the world never gives her a reason to change.  She wants to play sports, but her superpowers suddenly prevent her from doing that.  She ends up distanced from everything.  If there’s one thing that changes this from being a standard superhero deconstruction, it’s that Mara isn’t a violent person lashing out with her superpowers at a violent world.  She’s just a person who wishes she could still just be a normal person.

            Mara uses its themes to make up for what it lacks in world-building.  But lacking world-building still ends up hurting the work, and its pluses can’t quite erase its minuses.  I can’t recommend it, but I also can’t not recommend it.