The greatest Anime studio (fight me) releases a rare miss.
A witch (Sherina Munaf/Kacey Musgraves) leaves her infant daughter Aya/Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa/Taylor Paige Henderson) at an orphanage as she’s being chased by the other members of her coven, promising to return. Ten years later, Earwig, now called Erica, is a mischievous but not malicious child who wants to stay with her friends at the orphanage. However, she is adopted by a strange woman named Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima/Vanessa Marshall) and an inhuman man named Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa/Richard E. Grant). Bella Yaga reveals that she is a witch and that she has adopted Earwig to be her servant. Rather than be upset, Earwig is excited at the possibility of learning magic, only to be disappointed that Bella Yaga doesn’t want to teach her. She and Bella Yaga’s familiar Thomas (Gaku Hamada/Dan Stevens) work together to try and improve their lot under Bella Yaga.
I want to start off by saying that I might have put too much pressure on this film because it’s Studio Ghibli. I mean, they’re the studio that made Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away. Aside from Akira and Dragon Ball Z, this studio is probably the single biggest penetration of Anime into mainstream Western culture. Much like Pixar, I expect the baseline of their films to be “above average.” Unfortunately, by that standard, this is not a good movie.
The biggest problem with the film is that it has so many interesting premises and elements that could be explored, but it perpetually chooses not to do anything with them. Instead, the film just kind of jumps from weird moment to weird moment, often with little to nothing indicating why. The whole film’s motivation appears to be Earwig wanting to get Bella and Mandrake to do what she wants, but even when she works towards that, it usually is indirect. Character motivations are surprisingly thin, particularly since there are really only four characters in the film. I admit that I usually expect a Studio Ghibli film to do a lot of its development through animation and setting, but this film skipped even that and I think part of it is that they just weren’t as experienced in doing subtlety through CGI. I’ll admit that while I think parts of the CGI in this film look great, other parts feel somewhat unfinished or stylized poorly, which means that a lot of the film suffers.
The soundtrack is pretty good, since a part of the bigger arc to the film involves Earwig finding a band called Earwig and enjoying their songs, but it does get a bit repetitive. Even worse, like much of the other stuff in the film, the presence of the band only brings up a bunch of questions that would likely have really interesting answers, but then fails to deliver on any of them. Instead, the film just kind of jumps ahead and wraps everything up in a monologue and a rushed conclusion. Given that the movie (without credits) is only like 70 minutes, I don’t quite understand why the finale had to be so quick. It’s like this movie was just the first half of a film and that the second half got cut for time.
Overall, this is just not a great film and I am so sad to say that.
There’s an adaptation of Mark Millar’s famous Elseworld comic and it’s pretty solid, if short.
In 1934, a rocket landed on Earth from an alien planet… in the middle of the USSR. In the 1950s, the Soviets under Joseph Stalin (William Salyers) reveal that they now have a Superman (Jason Isaacs), which shifts the Cold War arms race from nuclear weapons to superheroes. President Eisenhower tasks Lex Luthor (Diedrich Bader) with stopping the Soviet Superman, which leads to decades long rivalry between the two. As Superman takes control of the Soviet Union, he deals with facing Luthor, interacting with Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall), thwarting the terrorist Batman (Roger Craig Smith), fighting off the alien invader Brainiac (Paul “The Penguin” Williams), and dealing with Lex Luthor’s wife, Lois Lane (Amy Acker).
If you read the Superman: Red Son comic, then you already know the broad outline of this film, but it does do a good job adapting the story without lifting wholesale. It does cut out a lot of the images and subplots from miniseries, as well as a lot of the Easter eggs and references, but keeps the more prominent ones. Part of the cutting is because it’s short, clocking in at just 84 minutes. I realize that’s the standard length for this kind of story, but it still feels like a sizable subtraction due to the density of the source material.
The movie does do a good job of shortcutting much of the backstory by assuming that A) you know most of Superman’s origin story and B) you can apply that onto the new origin that this story is positing. I also appreciate how it doesn’t bother to do a lot of exposition on many of the alternate-version characters that the story presents. Batman, for example, is shown to be a child who lost his family due to Stalin’s gulags and blames Superman for not saving them. You don’t need to know how this version acquired all of his skills and armory, just that he has transferred Batman’s typical dedication to the war on crime to a war on Superman. He still has the same flair for the dramatic that the normal Batman has, but with a more chaotic aim. However, it does feel a little less justified in this movie than it did in the original storyline, where Batman’s parents were executed by Superman’s adopted brother, as opposed to blaming Superman for Stalin’s actions. That’s how a lot of the motives feel in this, like they’ve been abbreviated.
The film does a good job of also addressing the core issue of what the “Red Son” version of Superman addresses: What would happen to a Soviet Idealist with unlimited power? Superman in this series is not evil, although he does have fewer qualms with brutality or things that would normally be cruel to the regular Superman. Instead, this Superman is just convinced that capitalism is flawed and that only through Communism can the world be saved. He points out the natural flaws of the capitalist system (slavery, poor people dying from lack of welfare, exploitation of the vulnerable), things that the traditional Superman seems to accept as natural, but instead ignores the flaws of communism (literally forcing people to obey or be neutralized in the name of equality). Even though Superman has noble goals, the means he uses would never be considered by his normal counterpart.
It’s also interesting to show Lex Luthor as being more heroic than usual. In many modern takes on the character, Lex Luthor views himself as saving the world from Superman, who keeps humans from solving their own problems. This story takes that a step further by making Lex the nominal “good guy,” even though he is still essentially amoral. However, the story does make him a lot more relatable than the comic counterpart by making his relationship with Lois Lane sincere, rather than just nominal.
Overall, it’s a good film, but it just never quite hits the way it should due to trying to cram three issues into less than 90 minutes.
Harley Quinn gets her own television show and it had all the parts to be amazing without quite getting them together… yet.
Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) is the Joker’s (Alan “Curse this sudden but inevitable” Tudyk) girlfriend. After he uses her to escape from Batman (Diedrich “The Brave and the” Bader), she is locked in prison with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). The pair break out and Harley realizes that the Joker doesn’t really love her, so she sets out on her own and get her own crew. She picks the baddest of the people who couldn’t do better than her: King Shark (Ron Funches), Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale), Clayface (Alan “Were I unwed I would take you in a manly” Tudyk), and Sy Borgman (Jason “I was also Duckman” Alexander). Together, they help Harley get into the Legion of Doom in order to show the Joker that she’s the real villain.
Dear readers, I wanted to love this show. I wanted to scream of its success from the rooftops. I wanted to be able to say, “there is a property in which Harley Quinn is the badass that we all deserve her to be since Paul Dini had that stroke of genius.” Unfortunately, Birds of Prey ended up doing that better than this show, but this show has the potential to do so much more.
This show fell into the same trap I felt like Titans fell into in its first season. You can practically hear the writers’ thought process: It’s rated-R, it’s a mature show, so naturally that means we have to justify it, right? Let’s put in a lot of f*cks and a ton of gratuitous violence and such. I mean, let’s have the Joker wear another guy’s face and rip it off like a mask, because that’s a thing we can’t show on any other cartoon? If we haven’t done it before, that makes it original and therefore good!
Well, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Putting a bunch of people saying “tits” on screen doesn’t make a show mature, it makes it what a 14-year-old boy thinks is mature. Now, I will say that the show definitely got better about this as the series went on, with the violence and the language feeling more organic, but the first few episodes felt really like they were straining to justify a red band trailer. I love some good old ultraviolence as much as the next droog, but make it count, people. Or make it funny. Your main character and her primary antagonist are both derivations of clowns, so I would hope you could make it a little more enjoyable to watch them go apesh*t.
It also doesn’t help that the emotional journey Harley is on throughout the season really seems like she’s just going around in circles a bit. I mean, she claims to be over the Joker, but then spends a season defining herself by trying to outshine him, which is NOT being over someone. Ultimately, I think she learns that lesson, but it feels like they stretched the arc by like half a season in order to make it land on the finale.
And, of course, as several people have brought up online, the show has some issues with how it handles certain topics. Mainly, there were accusations of being anti-Semitic, something that seemed to fly in the face of the fact that Harley Quinn is typically represented as Jewish (and is revealed to be in this series as well). In the second episode, which takes place at Penguin’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, Penguin’s sister-in-law is represented in a manner which was accused of being stereotypical. The same is true of Sy Borgman, who even the creators referred to, jokingly, as “half-man, half-Jew.” Harley’s parents are also not particularly flattering. I think these jokes probably were intended to be part of the “edgy” vibe of the show, but the fact is that they not only will upset people, they just weren’t that funny to begin with. I believe comedy should challenge and, at times, offend, but part of the reason stereotypes have been dropped from comedy routines isn’t just that they’re often inaccurate and offensive, but that they were the basis for comedy for like 50 years and they’re not funny anymore. Just write a real joke, people.
However, aside from these issues, I thought this show did a great job. The animation style is fun. The supporting characters are amazing, mostly because they all have their own fun quirks. Poison Ivy develops an embarrassing crush on a fellow super villain, King Shark is a computer nerd despite being a giant mutant shark/human, Clayface (presumably the Basil Karlo version) is a terrible actor despite having the ability to become anyone, and Doctor Psycho is a misogynist who loses his previous supervillain status for calling Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) the “C-word” on live television. Some of the commentary in the show, particularly the discussions of female villain inequality, are on point. The Queen of Fables (Wanda Sykes) is freaking hilarious. This is one of my favorite versions of the Joker because he seems even more self-aggrandizing and random than usual, while simultaneously having more normal habits, such as loving Reese Witherspoon. Also, just having Alan Tudyk in something gives it an additional Star in my ratings.
The thing is, this show has all the pieces to be great and, at times, is, it just needs to figure out better what’s actually good for a mature show and what’s just pretending to be mature.
I didn’t intend to see this movie. I didn’t really hear much about this film aside from it existing. But, I was walking back past the theater and it was the next film that started that seemed worth seeing. And I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.
So, I loved the original Teen Titans cartoon. I thought it was well-crafted, well-animated, well-voiced, had great characters that were complex while still being relatable, and had some great plotlines that allowed all those things to shine. But, it came to an end and was reborn as Teen Titans Go! which was… different. Truthfully, I only watched like 3 episodes of the new show (one of which was about assembling a sandwich, another about waffles, and another that was about thwarting a pizza boy, so food is clearly a big thing in the show) before stopping because I just didn’t think it was that funny. It was lighter, to be sure, and definitely was supposed to be a comedy rather than a superhero show, but it was not my thing. Even with the same voice actors (WHO ARE ALL AMAZING), it still just didn’t grab me.
Then I watched this movie. If someone could tell me that the rest of the series after I quit watching was like this film, I would probably go binge it all right now. Hell, I probably will anyway, because this was actually pretty well done. Is it perfect? No, but it was funny and original, which is more than I can give most comedies.
SUMMARY (SPOILERS IF YOU HAVE LITERALLY NEVER SEEN A TRAILER)
So, in the Teen Titans universe, every superhero has a movie (and the real ones are parodied and mocked mercilessly) despite also being real superheroes. One person who really wants their own movie is Robin (Scott Menville), leader of the Teen Titans, consisting of Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Raven (Tara Strong), and Cyborg (Khary Payton). The movie consists mostly of them trying to get a movie made, part of which is finding their arch nemesis in the form of Slade (Will Arnett), a villain trying to take over the world, and part of it is convincing Director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) to make the movie.
First off, this movie is a DC Fan’s dream. There are references to DC comics, movies, and TV series in basically every shot of the city, ranging from the obvious (Mr. Freeze Pops) to the obscure (The Challengers of the Unknown are actually a minor plot point!) to the ridiculous (there’s a poster for the film Jonah Rex, a T-Rex version of Jonah Hex that should totally be real). There are animation sequences designed to mimic the live-action movies, the DC Animated Universe, the Arrowverse TV Shows, and even Superfriends. The cameos are so frequent I think it’s harder to think of a property that WASN’T in the movie than one that was. And so much of them are used as in-universe product placements that it really makes me think that this entire world runs on superheros. If you’re like me and you think that postmodern style mashups between all of these properties can be funny, then you will be laughing throughout… often at jokes that nobody else got. Laugh anyway.
Second, there are the meta-gags. There are so many of these sprinkled throughout, like everyone mistaking Slade for Deadpool (because Deadpool was a rip-off of Slade’s identity of Deathstroke) or calling Superman (voiced by Nicolas Cage) a “National Treasure.” There are at least two “this is Nicolas Cage voicing Superman” jokes that I caught and I’m sure there are more. There are countless jokes about how much DC and Marvel are willing to exploit their IP as much as possible. There is a cameo that makes fun of Stan Lee cameos. There are jokes about the fact that people will continually see superhero films at the expense of any other form of entertainment. There’s even a running gag about how overpowered Raven is and lampshading how boring a movie of a character like that fighting villains onscreen might actually be. The jokes just keep coming, sometimes buried under other jokes.
Then there are just the bizarre gags, like having an 80s-style song called “Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life” by MICHAEL FREAKING BOLTON that plays out like you’re on LSD or having the group poop in a prop toilet on a movie set. They’re mostly for the kids but, like I said, sometimes they’re actually just the set-up for a much better joke. And the last line of the film made me laugh for like 5 straight minutes, because it was just such a bizarre shot at children’s movie moralizing. There are also several that I don’t think I got because I didn’t really watch the show, but the fact that they mostly were still entertaining was a good sign.
It honestly made me think of Arrested Development in the way that the humor was just kind of shotgunned at you from every direction. It just wasn’t quite as clever as the writing on Arrested Development, but, again, it’s ostensibly a kids’ movie. Some of the jokes had to be made for kids, but I don’t think they all really speak down to them. Maybe a better comparison is The Lego Batman Movie: you can enjoy it as is and think it’s funny, but the more you know about the property and the world in general, the more you enjoy the movie. Granted, Lego Batman was a better film in general, but that’s a really high bar.
The casting in the movie is perfect, with most of the characters being voiced not by people who would play them in movies, but by people who just love the characters they’re voicing. It gives even the minor cameos a passion that adds something to the experience.
As to the plot, it comes off less as a traditional film and more a collection of 15-minute episodes that loosely interconnect until the 30-minute finale, but, honestly, it worked out great, because you never got bored nor knew exactly what gag was going to come next.
Overall, the only real “problem” with the movie is that it is still a kids’ film. The humor is either referential or juvenile, without a ton of other jokes for people who don’t love DC and are old enough that a 2-minute fart joke is 90 seconds too long. But, I still enjoyed it from start to finish. Hell, there are probably 3 scenes in it that are so funny that I would recommend seeing the movie just to see them.
If you love comic books or have kids, you need to see this movie. Oh, and if *SPOILER* the end credit stinger is true, and we are getting a sixth season of the original Teen Titans show (which Cartoon Network started re-running last year, so it’s very possible), then just finding out about that early might be worth the ticket price.