Monthly Archives: June 2009

Eats shoots & robots: Why the Panda trumps Wall-E

Dreamworks recently released their upcoming slate of movies for the next several years, and I notice that Master Po makes a return: “Kung-Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom” is, as Industry toppers say, skedded to bow June 2011.

Reportedly, this sequel will return the original cast to face a new villain who “has emerged with a mysterious weapon so powerful it threatens the very existence of kung fu, but Po must also confront his long lost past.” Original helmers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson are replaced by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, though scribers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger seem to be back for the second round.

No matter how much fun Variety slang makes it sound, the news fills me with neither optimism nor skepticism, but a sort of ambivalence. No matter what pieces of the original they retain, Dreamworks is unlikely to repeat the perfection they achieved with “Kung Fu Panda,” a movie that is, to me, so beyond itself it needs no reprise.

I’ve mentioned here before my somewhat lonely opinion that KFP was a far more Oscar-worthy movie than “Wall-E,” which took the 2008 Best Animated Picture award. Fresh in the flush of my post-“Up” euphoria, it seems like blasphemy to say an ill word about Pixar. They know their stuff, and I know they know their stuff. Heck, Wall-E director Andrew Stanton gave the world “Finding Nemo,” another particularly perfect piece of moviemaking that will still be watched and discussed in 100 years.

But the fam and I, inspired by the fun of “Up,” re-watched KFP this weekend, and I was reminded why my candle of enthusiasm burned at both ends for this flick. I have to get this out of my system. Here’s why the Panda mauls the Robot:

1. Simple story. Kung fu tales tend to be straightforward: “You killed my master. Prepare to die.” That excessive simplicity is one reason fu movies are so easy to dismiss. Even though KFP’s plot isn’t much more complex, it delivers so much more depth: “A very unlikely hero dreams of being a kung fu master. Destiny gives him a chance to be the hero of his fantasy.”

Compare this to “Wall-E.” It began like a wordless dream, with indelible loneliness and yearning, and all the makings of an eternal questing tale for the ages. Then about halfway through, these folks showed up:

"Ray, what did you do?" "I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us...Mr. Sta-Puft."

Our future fat selves brought layers of preachy plot with their layers of flesh. They don’t know what Earth is? Fred Willard originally wanted them to return home but now he doesn’t? And the machines agree with the second Fred Willard, not the first? And if the robots put the seedling in a special Good Machine, that will make the Bad Machines go bye-bye? Bah. Muddy.

2. Theme of lasting value. Kung Fu Panda: “To make something special, you just have to believe it is special.” This gives us a way to cheer our hero —and ourselves —on to our various victories.

Wall-E: “Don’t be lazy, or you’ll get fat. Don’t consume so much stuff; recycle if you can. Also, love is good.” If it had just been a story of love conquering all in its way, maybe this movie would resonate with me more. But as I said: Muddy.

3. Hero’s depth of character. Whatever you think of Jack Black’s goofy man-boy persona, he’s a perfect match for the enthusiastic Po, an outsider who wants inside so very desperately. Black brings Po to life with spirit and spunk, and for all his verbal “hiyaah”s and hijinx, it’s actually quite a nuanced performance. Po is capable of great joy, but also of great disapppointment when he can’t please himself, his master or his persnickety father. Black’s delivery isn’t comedy, it’s just true: He’s the nerdy hero with infectious enthusiasm, but little hope of seeing it pay off. And we all want our enthusiasm rewarded.

Po is a character to believe in, because he’s a character we want to be.

4. Superior action. If KFP’s kung fu choreography were simply a matter of jabbing fists and sweeping legs, it might not be so remarkable. But this movie plays it so much smarter than that. The action makes brilliant use of animal physicality, realistic environment and comedic gags to deliver sequences that are mesmerizing, funny, and memorable.

Mesmerizing like Tai-Lung’s escape from prison (a treat to have seen in Imax)…

When you use flying crossbow bolts to fashion a ladder for your escape, you are officially a member in good standing of the Badass Club.

… funny like a battle for a dumpling using mere fingers and chopsticks …

Battle of the bao bun.

… memorable like a villain completely stymied by his foe’s inelegance and inexperience …

Yes, the panda actually sits on the leopard's face, qualifying for what would normally be an Inexcusable Butt Joke; HOWEVER, this butt joke actually fits its context and fulfills a pretty good joke set-up: "What are you gonna do, Big Guy, sit on me?"

… and for my money, the most satisfying defeat of a villain ever. Without giving anything away, I’ll say I found the defeat of Tai-Lung to be the perfect solution to every overblown, uber-aggressive Act Three Shootout, the ones that set themselves up for so much slambang they can’t possibly live up to their own hype at the final moment of the antagonist’s fall. KFP may be an archetype movie, but it turns the archetype on its ear with a final, funny, fulfilling “ska-doosh.”

The Wuxi Finger Hold is like the kung-fu version of 52 Card Pick-Up.

5. Superior music. Hans Zimmer and John Powell provide a score of subtle beauty and power that moves me as surely as any John Williams march. The songs evoke Eastern melodies without being grating (no Peking Opera gongs!), hokey (no Peking Opera gongs!) or too much like Peking Opera. Instead, the boppy zither tunes and joyful festival-like dances swirl us up in some moments, calm us down in others, and generally place an indelible king’s-signet seal over the whole package of this film. Hummable ditties, all.

Dreamworks had big success pairing modern rock hits with its “Shrek” franchise, but they wisely relegated the obligatory “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” remake to the credit sequence where, incredibly, it matches well with the silly, bouncy visuals.

*********

In other words, “Kung Fu Panda” was the Complete Package, delivering all the heart, all the wish-fulfillment and all the action I could have hoped. It’s so much more than just another kung fu movie … and more than just another talking-animals movie. (Yes, there IS one shot-to-the-nuts joke, but it’s short and not too odious; plus, in a Hollywood first, not one talking animal farts.)

I get some solace knowing that I wasn’t the only one who preferred Po to the trash-compacting andriod. “Kung Fu Panda” shut out its chief competish at the  2008 Annie Awards. Those awards are handed out by an international conglom of animators — specialists who know their stuff — and they saw through these two movies better than anyone. But raise your hand if you tuned into the Annie telecast. And your other hand, if you remember who wore the daring gold lame sausage casing on the red carpet.

Exactly. Everyone remembers the Oscars. Which leaves me to evangelize to the wilderness.

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Three-word review of “Up”

Pixar’s perfect picture.

Captions don't count: Seriously staggering. The best movies, as always, are more than one kind. Action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, documentary, mockumentary, snuff — whatever genres you combine, the sum of their parts exceeds the whole shootin' match when artfully combined, and man ... MAN, does Pixar know how to do this in spades. This movie ranks up there with "Ratatouille" as a story so inventive and original and *true* that I can't believe Hollywood made it at all. Only if we see it by the millions will we ensure that more movies like this get made. (Plus, I submit that the early sequence showing the courtship of Carl and Ellie is the best romance Tinsel Town has *ever* conceived.) Up with "Up!"

Captions don't count: Seriously staggering. The best movies, as always, are more than one kind. Action, comedy, drama, romance, tragedy, documentary, mockumentary, snuff — whatever genres you combine, the sum of their parts can exceed the whole when artfully combined, and man ... MAN, does Pixar know how to do this in spades. This movie ranks up there with "Ratatouille" as a story so inventive and original and *true* that I can't believe Hollywood made it at all. Only if we see it by the millions will we ensure that more movies like this get made. (Plus, I submit that the early sequence showing the courtship of Carl and Ellie is the best romance Tinsel Town has *ever* conceived.) Up with "Up!"

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Newspapers, meet papercraft

I’m about to hand it to the Chicago Tribune twice in as many months. This time, on the Wednesday, June 3, op-ed page, they ran a quarter-page commentary on Sen. Roland Burris, that used not reasoned argument or stuffy rhetoric, but cut-out paper dolls to ridicule the less-than-honest toady who sucked up to power.

Check this:

Aw, look at his wittle hat!

Yes, you’re seeing Roland Burris melded with Pinocchio, right down to a nose that grows. And if this pattern hadn’t been printed on flimsy newspaper, I’m pretty sure you could make this guy. (Fortunately, the Tribune site had a downloadable version; I’m not sure it will always be in the location I found it, so I’ve replicated the download below.)

DOWNLOAD:  BurrisPinocchio by Joe Fournier

See more stuff by Joe Fournier, the designer, here.

I was genuinely stunned, not only because this was a pretty clever use of space on an op-ed page (really, what else can you say about a guy who swears he didn’t talk to backscratchers to get his appointment, before he’s caught on a tape talking to the chief backscratcher’s gatekeeper). Even better than a fresh surprise on a historically humdrum op-ed page, I think it’s just neat that papercraft is coming into the mainstream. As a guy who has publically admitted making miniature superheros out of paper, I can say with authority that I’m excited for the trend.

In fact, CW4Kids (the channel my kids generally watch on Saturday mornings —man, the pickings are slim for Saturday cartoons these days) recently made room for on-air interstitials promoting papercraft versions of their main characters. My kids, who have seen me cut a paper or two, went a little nuts, and suddently we had a family activity for about three weeks. Thanks to the good folks at cubeecraft.com, we had scads of 4Kids characters (and a little more):

Oldest Boy could have a job in window dressing some day. Notice the artfully arranged "chaos emeralds" around Sonic.

Oldest Boy's choices include selections from Gogoriki, Chaotic, Dinosaur King, Marvel comics, and that videogame hedgehog.

Note Second Son's beloved Wrigley Field (pattern courtesy papertoys.com)

Note Second Son's beloved Wrigley Field (pattern courtesy papertoys.com)

Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Boo, the Princess Buttercup!

What else for Only Daughter? Girls and pinks and kitties.

Between cubeecraft.com and papertoys.com, there must be a paper-cutting project you’d be interested in. All you need is a printer and an X-Acto blade. Try it, before Hollywood swoops in with “Papercraft: The Movie” and kills the trend once and for all.

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Post #40: In which Drew fixes everything wrong with ‘Slumdog’

The happy ending. Also, it rained candy and everybody got a puppy.

The happy ending. Also, it rained candy and everybody got a puppy.

I mean, Slumdog Millionaire was good and all, a lovely bit of directing and cinematography and general moviemaking. I truly enjoyed the way director Danny Boyle unspooled his story, having found an ingenious way to thread the story of a man in peril (a game show contestant being tortured so he’ll confess to cheating) with plausible and intriguing reasons to flash backward over this man’s remarkable life.

Boyle loads his movie with a number of striking visuals, and keeps the tension high as it cuts back and forth between Modern Jamal, the lovelorn and literally tortured bootstrappin’ slumdog, and Coming-of-Age Jamal, the Oliver Twist of Mumbai, who grows up staying one step ahead of the authorities, the victims of his grifts, and the human sharks who prey on the weak.

But well-crafted tension isn’t the same as having characters you care about put in a situation you care about, and halfway through this movie I had the sneaking suspicion I was being manipulated. The orphaned Jamal, his protective older brother Malik, and the wayward waif Latika make a compelling trio, facing horrible odds and worse conditions — but before long I could feel my emotions being tugged along by the strings of the story’s contrivances.

Jamal and Latika are clearly Meant To Be, yet they are Eternally Starcrossed, and they face a series of Bad Men Who Would Crush All Hope. Very early in their love story, you could see the rails that were going to carry these two perfectly beautiful people toward their beautifully perfect ending (including the telegraphed importance that The Three Musketeers was going to play in a pivotal moment of Jamal’s gameshow quest. Ugh! We all knew that the Happy Ending was going to hinge on knowing the name of the Third Musketeer — they practically announced it in flashing subtitles. )

So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t a happy ending a worthwhile destination? Can’t we all believe in a guy from the bottom who comes out on top? Of course. And archetypes can still be compelling, rewarding pieces of a story. But not when those archetypes are pushing buttons marked “Will He Ever Find Her?” and “Doesn’t He Know She Loves Him?” and “Will the Prodigal Brother Return?” and “You Will Now Feel a Brief Cycle of Hope-Dismay-Hope!”

Ever since Crash won Best Picture for 2005, I’ve been concerned that Academy voters secretly love having their emotions tripped and triggered like so many switches on a wall plate. Contrivance and coincidence conspire to tell you what to feel and when. Emotions aren’t so much earned as preprogrammed and expected like the drop on a theme park log flume. What’s next Hollywood? A Karate Kid remake vying for top Oscar?

Bah. Bah to manipulation. If you’ve seen the movie, follow along with me while I try, without a lot of rewrite and redo, to shift the movie to a slightly more palatable emotional place for my tastes.

The J. Drew Scott One-Step Plan for Fixing ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

1. Have Jamal lose the game show. Not just lose it, but walk away from it willingly.

In a climactic moment of the film, Jamal calls his brother for a “lifeline” on the quiz show’s final question — but ah! His brother has given the phone to the former caged bird Latika, and — ah! ah! —  it is she who answers his call on live TV. (As a matter of charity, I’m ignoring yet another grossly manipulative moment when the phone is ringing at length while Latika is too far away to answer it. Oh! Will she get to the phone in time? If the answer to that question had been no, maybe we would be getting somewhere. But no, nyah nyah, made ya sweat — she answers Just In Time!)

So there she is, unexpectedly (for Jamal, at least) saying hello to him over the airwaves for the first time as a free woman. She tells him she’s safe; he asks if she knows the answer to the question (Three Musketeers, remember? Remember?), and she says no, she’s never known the answer.

Huh. I wanted her to say something a little less concerned with game shows. Something human. If you’re going to write a romance, have her say something romantic! Like:

Latika: I’m running, Jamal! I’m running and I don’t care what happens as long as I can get to you!

And that’s Jamal’s cue. He admits to the whole world that this game show lark was only a means to finding her. Now he’s won the real prize. So:

Host: Well, what’s your final answer, Jamal?

Jamal: (standing up and ripping off his mike) I don’t care. Keep your money! I’ve got something better now.

Jamal runs off the set.

Suddenly, I can believe in raw human emotion, in the power of love … and not in the Candy Colored Magical Fairy Who Helps People Win Against Impossible Odds. She’s the same Hollywood pixie who helps riverboat gamblers come up with a fourth ace on the final five-card draw, and horses with prosethetic legs win the Kentucky Derby.

Nope, instead, Jamal walks away from the money — won’t even take a guess at the right answer — in order for him to get what he really wants: the woman he’s always loved. The movie can still close the same way, with cheering crowds clustered around TVs nationwide, everyone exulting in harmony with their fellow man, followed by a Bollywood-style Thriller dance. Of course they (and we) would cheer. Isn’t this love story that just played out before India’s eyes on live television more fantastic and feel-good than a guy who guesses his way to the top?

Besides, everybody knows, winning the lottery is just the beginning of real problems. Pressure and public expectation and people coming out of the woodwork with their palms out… Save yourself a ton of headache, slumdog. You got the cookie of your dreams — don’t try to take the whole bakery, too.

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