The weather has turned cold and many of us are preparing for the long winter – filled with hot cups of tea, ill-fated attempts to wear 6 sweaters at once, and spending snowy evenings with your dear friend, Netflix.
And that’s where I come in. I’m a firm believer that Netflix time should be quality time. Until their algorithm improves, I’m hoping to spare you some time searching through their catalog and point you right towards the good stuff. So in this edition of Netflix Hidden Gems, I present you with April and the Extraordinary World.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The US and Japan are not the only countries telling great stories with interesting and dynamic animation. Just a little digging can easily find top-level animation with dubbing performed by both gifted and well-known actors – April and the Extraordinary World is a perfect example of this.
A French-Belgian-Canadian production, April and the Extraordinary World takes place in an alternate reality where scientists are disappearing. Robbed of their genius and technological discoveries, the world remains dependent on coal, wood, and steam. A young girl named April who lost her parents as child, strives to complete their work by recreating a serum that can grant eternal life. With the help of her talking cat, April discovers the truth behind the missing scientists.
I’m not sure I’m giving the story justice here because I didn’t want to give too much away, but I can say that it’s familiar and inventive in the best ways. April’s world is one that is both beautiful and ugly, shining and polluted. The adventure plot elements are energetically paced while the story still provides enough character development to allow the viewer to see the events of the story from differing perspectives. As I watched it, it reminded me of other period adventure stories like Tintin or Indiana Jones. But this time, our hero is a lady…and well, that’s pretty awesome.
The visual style is much like the imaginary world in which it takes place – gorgeous and off-putting at the same time. Styled after Jacques Tardi’s work, the characters have exaggerated features unlike the large-eyed designs you see in major American and Japanese studios like Disney or Ghibli. Instead, main characters have oddly large noses and tiny eyes that almost seem like they were just hastily added at the end. And yet it all works. The expressions remain clear and have a subtlety that I think can be hard to find in animation in general.
That isn’t to say this film is perfect. With a strong cast featuring Susan Sarandon, Paul Giamatti, and Tony Hale, I was surprised that there were a few times when the delivery felt stilted. Whether this was the result of dubbing over the original French or just my own perception, there were some moments when it managed to take me out of the film a bit. It did cross my mind that it might have been a stylistic choice to mimic the delivery and style of acting in classic films, but it wasn’t always consistent enough to make that clear.
Overall, I would argue that this film is a breath of fresh air and a great alternative for those looking to watch something that is both high in quality and a bit different. It’s a solid bit of storytelling and world creation that it deserves your attention. So really, treat yourself and check this one out. There’s a great chance you’re going to enjoy it, and not just because it has that awesome talking cat in it.
There are all sorts of words and phrases from pop culture that have crossed over into the wider vernacular. Some are extremely well known. Others are less so, but still incredibly fun and useful once you know them. These are a few of my favorites.
Watsonian and Doylist
Definition: From the perspective of a person in a fictional world (Watsonian) or from the perspective of an author or reader (Doylist). Useful in discussion of a fiction to clarify if you are talking about “in universe” explanations for something that happened or the “behind the scenes” version of events.
Etymology: The terms have their origins in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and refer to the two different people who could be said to have authored those works. Dr. John Watson is a fictional character in the same world as Holmes. To him, Holmes is a real person capable of acting and thinking on his own. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a real author who sees Holmes as a fictional character whose actions are dictated by a writer and the outside pressures that influence the writer.
French animation isn’t something that’s on a lot of radars in the US. With major houses like Disney, Pixar, Illumination, and Dreamworks (and even Ghibli for a bit) taking up the major real estate in theaters and awards shows, it can often seem surprising when a quiet French animated film starts to get even a little recognition. And when it gets nominated for an Oscar, chances are quite good that the film is going to be worth your time.
When I saw that the English dub of Ernest and Celestine was available on Netflix, it was a no-brainer. The only choice I needed to make was what type of tea to drink while watching.
Based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent and made on a shoestring budget, Ernest and Celestine tells the familiar story of two unlikely friends who manage to create a home and family together. It’s familiar, yes, but it’s also warm, sweet, and perfectly crafted.
Celestine is a young mouse living beneath the streets of a city inhabited by bears. Each night she sneaks into town to steal the teeth that young bears leave under their pillows for the Mouse Fairy. These teeth are then used by other mice to repair their own damaged and missing teeth. Sadly, she’s not great at her job and the dentist she works for threatens to fire her if she doesn’t improve. Desperate to make her quota, Celestine gets caught in the city above and finds herself in the paws of Ernest the bear.
First things first, the animation is gorgeous. With hand painted watercolor backgrounds and matching Flash animation, the soft tones result in a visual style that is extremely enjoyable to look at. Everything feels soft, cozy, and dreamy. It’s a children’s book come to life with mice scurrying across pages and bears quite literally lumbering around. Yes, it’s very cute, but it’s never cutesy or sickeningly sweet. The tone and the stylistic animation complement each other, and it works just as well during the darker moments as it does during the lighter ones.
Additionally, this movie is funny. It’s hard to explain why, but there is something about the slapstick and physicality of the characters that made me smile a lot. The timing and pace never feel heavy, so when a character trips or runs into a wall, the audience is given just enough time chuckle without feeling as though the movie is waiting for you to congratulate it on how clever and funny it is.
Lastly, the voice acting in this film is great. The cast is filled with distinguished, talented, and familiar names like Forest Whitaker, Lauren Bacall, and Paul Giamatti. Celestine herself is voiced by Mackenzie Foy, who does a charming job of making Celestine both empathetic and brave.
So, go ahead and add Ernest and Celestine to your Netflix queue and maybe someone other than me will start gushing over it to her friends and online. Hey, it could happen!
Already seen Ernest and Celestine and looking to expand your horizons when it comes to animation? Specifically French films? Here are a few recommendations (many of which can be found on Netflix):
Modern pop culture is filled with terms that try to describe the media we consume. With new phrases and new definitions emerging all the time, it can be difficult to know what the new terminology actually means, even when you hear it frequently. We Ladies like to provide some clarity by defining some of these commonly heard terms that people may not fully understand. We did it with “Mary Sue” and now we’re tackling the “uncanny valley.”
This is probably the last post I’ll write before I go to see Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast, which comes out on March 17th. As a huge fan of the original film, I look forward to the remake with a mix of excitement (Emma Watson is perfect casting), worry (still not loving the computer animated enchanted objects), and the knowledge that the quality of the new film does nothing to change the first one and the way I feel about it. The impending premiere also has me revisiting some of the interesting details I’ve learned about the original movie and its creation. This includes a few answers (or near answers) to some of the Internet’s burning questions, which is what I’m going to share with you today.
Confession time. I’m not a huge Christmas person. I like it fine; I’m not full-on a Grinch, but I don’t get overly excited about it. That said, there are a few traditions I enjoy, like cookie decorating, a yearly trip to to get my Drink on, and less-christmasy Christmas movies (it’s kinda like how I don’t care about sports but like movies about sports—eh, go fig). By this I mean movies where the holidays are in the background, not the main focus. I’m sure most of you know some of the more popular less-christmasy Christmas movies like Die Hard, Gremlins, and The Ref. In these movies, Christmas is the background character rather than the star.
This year, while we trimmed the tree (and yes, I do insist on a real tree because having a tree inside your home is cool), I suggested we delve a little deeper into the less-christmasy Christmas genre and watch Christmas horror! Am I a little one note? Maybe. But I watched these movies partially for you too, in the spirit of giving! So, get your eggnog or mulled wine, and buckle up those sleigh bells ’cause it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
This is part 2 of my review of the new DC animated film of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. If you are looking for part one, you can find it here.
Part 2: Mark Hamill is a National Treasure
If you read the first half of my Killing Joke review, you will have learned that I am not a huge fan of the original comic. I am, however, an INSANE fan of Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker. No seriously, if I had the means, I would hire him to sit at my desk and read selected emails from my work clients aloud. I just know that those automatic system reminders and employment verification requests could be so much more nuanced with the right delivery and some maniacal laughter thrown in. But I digress. Back to the film.
We last left off with Barbara hanging up her cowl and the movie has now switched its focus to the actual source material for which it is named. Or at least it will once it pushes through a rather clunky transition where Batman is brought in to investigate some bodies that turned out to be victims of the Joker a couple years earlier. For some strange reason, these few bodies drives Batman to ask Gordon for access to visit Arkham and confront Joker face to face. Now this might sound nit-picky, but I always believed that the comic took place later in Batman’s career. And that he is tired, worn, and that this was a long time coming. However, in the film it doesn’t feel that way at all. We were so focused on Barbara that this sudden need for Batman to have a heart to heart with the Joker kinda comes out of left field. Why now? I mean sure, we get a lot of “this can only end in us killing each other” and all that stuff, but without a prior knowledge of Batman in general, it feels forced and almost jarring. For a guy who had little to say to Barbara after sleeping with her, he sure is chatty now.
From this point forward, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to hash through the plot. Most of us are pretty familiar with it anyway. The screenplay doesn’t add much additional filler from this point on. In fact, it is one of the most faithful adaptations of a graphic novel I have seen perhaps since the original Sin City film. I do have to give credit where credit is due because this is where the film truly delivers.
Take a look for yourself:
It is also in the second half of the film that we finally hit some emotional notes. Aside from the fact that no one (and I mean no one) can Joker monologue like he does, Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker’s life before he hit that tank of acid is compelling to watch. The characterization Hamill gives us is a complicated one. While we feel for this unnamed struggling comedian, you can’t help but see moments that make us a little uneasy. His voice is softer and almost meek at times but builds and becomes more familiar as he struggles with his own feelings of failure. Is this guy all there? Does he really have his family’s best interest at heart? Or is there something darker lurking under the surface? And just what needs to happen to finally push a person over the edge of reason and humanity? Here in the film is where we really start to see the examination of what madness is. And that is what The Killing Joke is famous for. This is worth a watch, if nothing else.
As I try to sum up this review, I really find myself torn. The easy answer for me would be to suggest that everyone skip the first half and just watch the second, but that feels unfair and frustrating. I wanted Barbara to have her chance to be more than a object to drive the story line, more than a woman whose fate it determined by the men around her. I didn’t get that at all. But the second half of the film still managed to pull me in. The animation and the performances are just that solid. And you can’t deny that no matter how you feel about this story, it is iconic and will continue to be included in conversations about Batman’s mythos for years to come.
So I guess this is when I turn things over to you guys. Did you see it? If so, what did you think? Not going to see it, why not?
Due to the length of this review and how the film is so clearly broken into two parts, I will be posting part 1 today, with part 2 to follow up in a few days.
Part 1: Batgirl and her Insufferable Feelings!
I was never a huge fan of The Killing Joke. It was sold to me as “the ultimate Joker story” back when I was only just starting to read mainstream comics. I found it disturbing, and confusing. Fans of the book might argue that I wasn’t ready to read it, that I wasn’t knowledgeable enough about the DC universe to “get” it. Well, I simply decided that I liked my Joker animated and went back in search of other stories that I would find were more to my taste.
Fast forward several years. I discovered that not only would DC Animation be releasing a film version of The Killing Joke, but they would also casting Mark Hamill as the Joker. This is my Achilles heel. I made it a point to watch it and see how I would feel about it so many years after reading the original story.
I’ve read that there are people out there who have found the film to be a complete failure. And while I will agree that there are some very serious problems with the narrative, characterizations, and even style choices, I am reluctant to throw it out the window. I think that there is a lesson to be learned here and if we take the time to talk (rather than yell) about what those issues are, perhaps this can be seen as more of a teaching moment about what happens when intentions are good, but understanding of the real issues is flawed.
Before I go any further, I am going to put a spoiler alert right here. Not only am I going to talk about the part of the film that is directly lifted from the comic book, but I am also going to talk about the prologue featuring Batgirl. Strap yourselves in my friends, this is going to take a while.
When producer Bruce Timm had his often quoted interview with Empire , he stated that expanding Barbara Gordon’s story in this film adaptation would add to the emotional hit of her arc. We would like her, and then when she is shot, we would feel more deeply for her because they were going to flesh her out as a character. Here is my main gripe about this idea: when we are talking about a story that is so clearly focused on Batman and Joker, how does making us like Barbara add more to the story? How can or would this prevent her from simply being a tool or catalyst to drive Batman to his confrontation with Joker?
Simple answer: it doesn’t. Oh, and to make matters worse, it makes for poor narrative.
Barbara’s story feels like we have seen it before. She is working with Batman and in his typical MO, Batman/Bruce is overprotective, tells her what her own limits are, and is about emotionally available as a cheese sandwich. This feels familiar because Batman has this dynamic with pretty much everyone. The story hits on new territory when bad guy Paris Franz takes a particular interest in Batgirl. This interest quickly reveals itself to be a dark obsession as we see Paris hire a red-haired prostitute he asks to dress as Batgirl. He then leads Batgirl on a potentially life threatening scavenger hunt when he tells her that he has a special “gift” for her. Not only does Barbara mention that this is flattering, she knowingly walks right into Paris’s trap…thus proving Bruce’s earlier man-splaining about how Paris is objectifying Barbara to be woefully accurate. *audible sigh*
Barbara’s frustration with Bruce continues. Using an odd yoga teacher and student analogy, she complains to her friends that she is the best student Batman/Yoga teacher has ever had and yet he still pushes her away. When she finally confronts Bruce about his behavior and her feelings about her role as Batgirl, rather than reaching any resolution, the two of them have sex on a rooftop. That ends about as well as we can expect. So rather than taking this as an opportunity to explore both Barbara’s and Bruces’s feelings about what happened, and I dunno…develop them both as characters, they continue to focus on Paris instead.
Finally in a scene that could have redeemed Barbara and shown her as a woman driven by something other than her emotions, Batgirl helps Batman confront Paris. Sadly, she is too overpowered by Feelings. Rather than proving to the men around her that female empowerment is more than yelling and making demands, she instead pounds Paris’s face into ground hamburg before walking away from her role as Batgirl.
A few days later, Joker shows up at her place and shoots her in the abdomen. Fade to black on Barbara’s story and the film abruptly switches over to the main action in the Killing Joke. Batgirl is back on the sidelines and we have nothing to show for her having been around at all. Except now (maybe?) Batman is extra angry at Joker for shooting the woman that he turned away.
Before I talk about how the Joker/Batman dynamic was handled in the second half of the film, there is a lot that I want to talk about with Barbara still. Barbara’s story-line is not new, and while I honestly think that the writer might have thought that he was writing a strong woman character, I am flummoxed over how we are going to get people to understand that creating a well-rounded and strong female character is not simply checking off boxes for things like – enjoys sex, talks about what she wants, punches guys in the face, and has awesome fighting skills. None of these things work without proper context. And they certainly won’t work if the character is inconsistent. It would have been possible for Barbara to show her worth through her actions. For her to outsmart Paris and use his obsession against him. For her to match or even surpass Batman in certain skill sets. Heck, they could have just made her try to pull Bruce out of his shell more gradually, because you don’t get much of a sense that they had any relationship to begin with anyway. So where does her attraction to him come from? I mean, remember that cheese sandwich I mentioned earlier? Is it because he opened her eyes to the thrills and the action of crime fighting? Seriously writers, pick one. I could keep throwing out ideas. All I ask is for the follow through.
Whenever I write these pieces, I worry that my arguments come off as too fragmented and too ranty. I think that might be a sign that while I insist on writing about these things and talking about how women are written, I’m also tired of having to do so. This is especially true when the solution is such a simple one. Companies need to hire better writers and those who are doing the hiring need to be able to identify the good portrayals from the bad ones. I am not demanding that every female character be perfect, nor am I saying that only females can write well-rounded female characters. What I am asking is that companies, publishers, and writers need to start a dialogue. Read what the fans are writing about your work, listen to what they are saying, and maybe start a discussion rather than a confrontation (see Comicon panel). Believe me, I get it. You want my money, and I would be happy to give it to you. All I ask is that you provide me with a quality product…and maybe something a bit more substance than a stale cheese sandwich.
Next Time: Part 2, the Actual Killing Joke
2016 has already had more than its fair share of notable deaths, from legends of the music world to beloved actors to genius comics artists who left us far too soon. But there’s one passing I’d like to recognize here. On May 19 at the impressive age of 96, actor Alan Young died of natural causes. Most of the obituaries I’ve seen focus on his time playing the straight man to a certain talking horse. But to Disney fans, he was and ever shall be the voice of Scrooge McDuck.
Though there’s no shortage of obscure Muppets in the world, there are also Muppets who just about everyone knows. But even these most famous of our felted friends didn’t start off as household names. Here’s a look at the early careers of some of the Muppet stars.
Kermit the Frog
One of the earliest Muppet characters, Kermit got his start on Jim Henson’s very first TV show Sam and Friends. Each episode was five minutes long and usually consisted of characters lip-synching to a popular song or short scenes like “Visual Thinking” above. Kermit – who was not yet identified as a frog – was the breakout star of the show. He continued to appear in various Henson specials and short segments on other shows after Sam and Friends ended, slowly gaining a more frog-like appearance. Kermit’s thirteen point collar – one of his most recognizable features – evolved from a minstrel collar he wore in an unaired pilot that may have stuck around because it helped to hide the division between Kermit’s neck and body.
Kermit’s personality also went through an evolution. Early on, he was more of a smart-aleck. But in his appearances on Sesame Street – the show that made Kermit a true celebrity – he developed into a calmer and more sincere character with a flustered streak. The Muppet Show cemented Kermit’s stardom and introduced the frequently frazzled frog-in-chief we know today.