Monthly Archives: January 2011

Golf claps, and a side of grousing, on the Oscar inevitability of ‘Toy Story 3’

Pixar’s entertainment juggernaut continued its dominance with the announcement of the 2011 Oscar nominations. Like “Up” before it, “Toy Story 3” was nominated in both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature categories.

Like most observers, I believe the history of “Up” will repeat itself as TS3 will miss top honors, but will instead use that nomination momentum to ride roughshod over the competition in the animation category. If any cartoon flick deserved a decent shot at the top Oscar, it was “Up.” If that didn’t win, TS3 won’t.

Not that I object to an imminent “Toy Story” victory in its proper category. TS3 is a powerhouse, a wonder, a you-name-the-superlative. It deserves every little scrap of praise it earns for the way it cranked an old franchise back to life and gave it a moving, worthy send-off like few final-chapter sequels have ever done. Who would have thought you could wring so much emotion from a boy parting with his childhood toys? Plus, who doesn’t marvel at the ingenious mechanics of teeny things traversing a big world? Just opening a door is an epic hero’s quest in the Toy Story Universe, and the animators and storytellers earn my word of highest respect: clever. TS3 is, in so many ways, a great movie.

So with its place in history assured, and with the DVD on continuous loop in my household, now is the time to uncork a few observations:

TS3 milks its drama hard. Too hard. The-udder-is-starting-to-chafe hard. In the climactic scene of toys descending ever lower into a trash-burning inferno, the musical score clang-clangs like an anvil in a forge as Doom. Creeps. Ever. Closer. Music clang-clangs, the toys hold hands, fires get hotter, clang-clang, worried look, hot fire, clang-clang … CLANG CLANG! It was remarkable when I saw it in theaters (“Wow, they’re really hammering this home!”). On repeated viewings, it’s maudlin, manipulative and cheap. We know they’re in peril. Quit clanging me over the head with it.

Martian ex machina. The toys are plucked from inferno at the last moment by three toys that have escaped the camera’s eye and had a little adventure of their own: They have found and learned to operate a giant junkyard “claw” in time to find a needle in a haystack (their friends in the trash heap). On repeated viewings, this last-second save doesn’t feel earned, no matter how clever it is that the Martians — who are famously obsessed with “The Claw” from their origins in an arcade toy-grabbing game — are bringing things full circle with, ha ha, a real claw. “Oh,” I say on second and fourth and sixth viewings, “that was convenient.”

The bowling-ball-on-the-head gambit. Speaking of convenient, I am mildly annoyed that Pixar has to resort to a trope that has been around since the Flintstones: Identity amnesia turned on (and off!) by a blow to the head. The gag starts out great, as Buzz is very neatly compromised by fiends who put him in “Demo Mode,” thus erasing his memory. This is complicated even more neatly when the heroes inadvertently engage Buzz’s “Spanish Mode” while attempting to restore him. Now Buzz has become a flamboyant Latin lover who moves with flamenco passion. Mucho humor follows forthwith. When the story needs to have him turn back into Regular Old Buzz, though, he gets hit in the head. For Fred Flintstone, it was a bowling ball, for Buzz it’s a TV, but either way, the result is the same: Poof! He’s back to his old self! What a convenient, creaky old gag.

Slow-motion, pillow-fighting hobbits. Few people love the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy as much as I. But even I must admit that by the end, when everybody has made it out of the exploding volcano alive, director Peter Jackson took just a little too much advantage of the circumstances by letting his key characters reunite in an over-sentimental, oversaturated hugfest under a Vaseline-smeared lens. Likewise does the denouement of TS3 go on just a tad too long, and it risks turning sweetness to treacle. Yes, it is the most powerful moment in the movie when Andy gives up his toys to a little girl with a worthy imagination. But like our slo-mo halflings, the scene overstays its welcome by nudging us in the ribs: “Didja cry yet? Didja cry yet?” Yes, I am moved. Yes, my eyes are moist. And now I am ready to move on; please join me before I begin to regret granting you this gift of my raw emotion.

I only react to little things like this because I’m so invested in the rest of it. I wouldn’t care so much if the rest of the movie wasn’t worthy. I still shake my head in admiration at all the deft details, from the creative use of a tortilla to the final shot of clouds that perfectly mimics the very first image of the franchise. It’s near-perfection, and I only pick at these nits because I want so much for that perfection to be more than just “near.” Catch me opining this much about “G-Force.”


* I haven’t seen any of the other competitors in the Animated Short Film category, but I’m confident in saying the other Pixar entry, “Day and Night” (which appeared before TS3 in theaters), is a jaw-dropper that will win it. I’ve never seen so much innovative story telling as two blobby characters who act as filters through which the real world can be seen at different times of day. Who thinks of this sort of thing? I remain amazed on every viewing.

• “How to Train Your Dragon,” the Dreamworks entry in Best Animated Feature competition, is the latest entry from that company to really rise above its station. What could have been a jokey fantasy one-off delivered more heart than I was expecting from a story of a boy who disappoints his father, while struggling to find his confidence. Against many other Pixar entries, I might have insisted “Dragon” is a more Oscar-worthy entry (you may recall I greatly preferred “Kung Fu Panda” over its rival award-winner “Wall-E”), but even Dreamworks has to tip its viking helmet to the accomplishments of TS3.

• “Tangled” didn’t get a nomination and that’s just rude. It’s every ounce a qualified nominee, even if not quite the winner. I don’t know why this fun tale was left out, unless it’s a reaction to Disney Marketing somehow losing its nerve by not just calling the the thing “Rapunzel.” (Call a spade a spade, Disney; that worked pretty well for “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”) Anyway: Boo, Oscars, you dropped the ball!

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Why I think it’s a crummy idea to stop funding public radio

Like U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), I have deep misgivings about our federal spending. Unlike him, however, I think it’s a weak idea to right our ship by cutting funding from National Public Radio.

I happen to think NPR is one of our country’s most trustworthy and consistent sources of information. You can disagree. Certainly, its firing of Juan Williams for remarks about Muslims raised concerns about how politically correct (read: “ultra-liberal“) the organization really is.

And I understand: A news source that spends a percentage of its coverage on the arts can’t help being perceived as “a little too intellectual” (read: “elitist liberal snobs“). If you don’t like the arts, or people talking about the arts, or people talking about the arts on government-supported radio, then NPR is probably going to chafe your hide sometimes.

Let’s put those disagreements aside and just boil the matter down to what commercial versus non-commercial news coverage really means:

There’s a palpable difference, yes?

It’s not like NPR is any stranger to commercial slumming. In addition to program sponsorships, corporate partnerships and pledge drives, you can even see that Android found a way onto the NPR home page. But what’s important to note here is one news provider is giving us what we want, while another is giving us what we need. That’s the legacy of non-profit news versus news for business.

Is NPR an imperfect news source? Sure. Pure objectivity in news is an unattainable perfection, no matter the organization. And I’m sure it has at least one interview in its archives where yet another celebrity dishes about something vapid.

But while not perfect, NPR is pretty damn good. It’s thorough, reasoned, thoughtful — and in an increasing rarity, calm. It reaches everyone, with news from local to national to international, entirely for free if you choose to partake of it that way. No cable package or newspaper subscription necessary — just a pocket radio. Forcing NPR to stretch out its hat even further reduces our chances of maintianing a truly “fair and balanced” news source.

And if you still don’t buy that, consider this: Fighting over public radio funding will be a contentious slog that would result in almost no perceivable improvement in our budget crisis. Even Colin Powell agrees: Want to fix the problem in a hurry? Trim the fat in the Big Cost Centers, like entitlements and defense. There’s more than enough debate in those two nouns to fill a session or three of Congress.

Anything else is a mere drop in the bucket — and could result in more front-page coverage of reality TV judges … interviewing inconsequential personalities … about fading talk show hosts. If only that Piers Morgan/Howard Stern headline had contained an off-hand Sarah Palin reference, it would have completed its death spiral to triviality. And in times when most Americans are choosing  CNN and Fox News as their most trusted news sources, I’d rather not give up the fight for careful thought.

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An Open Letter to Hasbro Regarding Their Greatest Asset: Ye Olde D&D

Dear Hasbro,

Hey. Hi. You don’t know me at all, but me and you, we go way back. Or me and a part of you, anyway — a division known as Wizards of the Coast, which you bought in 1999, which, in turn, bought my old friend TSR in 1997. What we’re really talking about is a 30-year-old game you now own called Dungeons & Dragons.

Surely you know what I’m talking about, though I’d wager D&D is just a fraction of a fraction of a balance sheet entry to you. Wizards of the Coast is probably more well-known in your boardrooms for its lucrative “Magic: The Gathering” card game franchise. I doubt D&D comes up much in conversation around Hasbro HQ, especially when there are Play-Doh and NERF earnings to recount.

But to me, D&D has meant quite a bit more.

When I was 11 or 12, my parents took us to Pizza Hut (our typical Nice Dinner Out). After we ordered, and before the food came, I requested my usual leave to browse the next-door bookstore. And that’s when I feasted my peepers on this:

What was it? I had no idea. But I knew it would be mine. Those pages! Illustrated with swords and knights and mages and beasties, filled with intricate tables as mesmerizing as they were incomprehensible. I had recently finished “The Hobbit” and was currently halfling-deep in “Lord of the Rings,” so I knew this genre was a toy box full of epic stories to be plumbed. I wanted in.

It was 20 or 30 bucks, something big. I asked my parents immediately for a loan and got laughed out of our Pizza Hut booth. It was a lot of scratch for a middle school kid in 1981.

Somehow I saved enough to plunk down cash for it — this thing was still so mysterious I had no idea it was not the starting point for  a D&D newbie. (That would be the Player’s Handbook. Another classic cover to a classic book. And a second expensive purchase to pinch pennies for.)

It took some time to  really understand the concept of “role-playing game”: Roll dice to generate characters — heroes — who appear in stories of your own telling. Roll dice to generate bands of wandering monsters for these heroes to face. Roll dice to see if their longswords cut through the hides and shields of said monsters. Roll dice to dice to generate random piles of loot that litter the underground lairs of these freshly slain monsters.

Roll dice; tell a story. I don’t know what it is about this magic combination that transfixes us, we hordes of nerds and brainiacs. Like many fledgling geeks my age, I fell in with like-minded friends who debated rules, created more characters than could ever fit in a dungeon, theorized about which of the chromatic dragons would win in a cage match, and, occasionally, actually played the game.

But then high school rolled along. I dropped out of the D&D orbit — dropped the fantasy books, too — as I attempted to leave behind childish things.

Don’t take it personally, Hasbro. I may have broken things off, but D&D was never far from my heart. Despite my new pledge to be More Adult, I continued to sample genre fiction and action movies and increasingly elaborate board games, all kindred souls of our storytelling RPG.

Then something unexpected happened. When you released the third edition of the D&D rules about 10 years ago, a group of my friends caught wind, and they had an idea: What if we rekindled some of the mirth of middle school? What if we came back to D&D?

As pre-mid-life crises go, it was hardly a Ferrari. But it was a youthful hoot nonetheless. I also realized that I never really understood the rules to begin with. “D&D is hard,” I said at the time.

But when properly understood, it is fun, Hasbro. You guys should try it. It’s more than just a set of random rolls and tables, it’s a collaborative event where everybody contributes ideas and solutions and new wrinkles. Want to race across the rooftops to pursue the thief? Let’s do it. Want to convince the goblin chief you mean no harm so you can infiltrate his lair and steal his loot? Go get ‘em. Want to drink too much at the tavern and wager your weight in gold with a one-eyed dwarf over a game of darts? Bring it.

Our wives would tease us by asking things like, “Did you win tonight?” but we laughed back that they were utterly missing the point: everyone wins this game if everyone has a mind to.

Which brings us to the modern age. I don’t know if you knew this back in your Pawtucket campus, Hasbro, (after all, those WOTC offices are a continent away in Seattle), but the current keepers of the D&D brand recently launched the “fourth edition,” as an attempt to renew the brand for younger generations: the “red box” starter set, which looks so much like the boxed sets of yore, it really warms the cockles of an old gamer’s heart.

And here’s me with a 10-year-old son of my own with a penchant for goblins and orcs and other fantastical fictions. So I bought him a copy. At $14 on Amazon, it was impossible not to. When the box arrived, I set it out on the counter, and said, “Oh, hey, here’s this thing. Maybe you’d like it? I dunno.” Within hours, the result was this:

Drawing up his first character. Every scrap of paper from the box has been strewn strategically for easy cross-floor reference.

Hasbro, your designer guys had a kind of genius idea. They made the starter kit look deliciously intricate while reducing the proceedings to something simple. So simple, it reads like a choose-your-own-adventure story, and at the end, you’ve got a stat sheet full of numbers and attack powers and a hook to go on a little quest.

And my son took your bait.

He pored over the book and laid out the map, reading and referencing and asking curious questions. When he had his first character drawn up, an elven thief named Shuk-tai (where did he come up with that?) we sat down and followed the adventure that came with the kit. With me running the monsters and a few companions, an amazing transformation came over him on the first roll.

Do you know that scene in “Jack Jack Attack,” the DVD extra on “The Incredibles,” where young Jack Jack hears Mozart for the first time and his eyes refocus ever so slightly — a moment that awakens all his latent superpowers? That was my son with his first D&D encounter. Gone went his aimless observations and restlessness and lack of focus. In their place was a kid with a singular purpose: a pressing need to, as Samuel Jackson may have put it, get all these mutha%@$# goblins outta this mutha%@$# dungeon. He planned our attacks, dictated not just what his character would do but how (down to hand gestures and full body re-creations), and even offered helpful suggestions for how his opponents were going to act, react, speak and meet their untimely ends. He immediately created a new character for our ranks, a female slayer (a girl? really?) with anger management problems. It turned out that “Arien” likes to provoke her quarry with insults and taunts before pursuing them to their inevitable grisly ends, working out all manner of pent-up tween frustration in the process.

“I like playing Arien,” he told me. “She says all the stuff I’m never allowed to say.”

Here’s a small indication of how engaged my son is with your product, Hasbro. One monster in our inaugural encounters threw an ax at Arien and missed. My son immediately countered with, “Can I catch that and throw it back at him?”

I responded, dumbstruck: “Yes. Yes, you can. If this game is about anything, it is about catching handaxes and throwing them back upon your enemies.” We instantly instituted HOUSE RULE NO. 1: If an enemy attempts to attack with a thrown weapon and rolls a 1 , you are considered to have caught the weapon and can make an immediate thrown attack as a free action.

Later, I taught him the rules for flanking, which grant a bonus on attack rolls when two allies stand with an opponent in between them. (You’ve simplified the rules a lot, Hasbro, but there are still an ever-loving crapload of them.) He could have been bored by all this rule-mongering, but instead my boy had another brainwave: “Could I duck out of the way so the two flanking guys hit each other?” HOUSE RULE NO. 2: If a flanking enemy rolls a 1 on his attack roll, the attack is considered to have hit the guy on the other side.

Later still in our first adventure, we faced a wily dragon that clearly was meant by the writers to be a Thing That Cannot Be Killed — in other words, it was to teach the common D&D lesson that some problems should not be stabbed away, but reasoned with. After learning the hard way that we would not prevail in a fight, we walked (ran) away. He continued to mull over how he could get at that dragon’s fat lewt and soon his muse struck.  As we were beset by yet more foes, my son lowered his weapon and tried to convince them that it was in their best interest to help us defeat that dragon. He argued persuasively, and I granted him bonuses to a few skill rolls — and before long, we had not just a party of four but a party of  eight ganging up on a mighty white dragon that until so recently had been Unkillable and was now just more cuts of exotic meat. (My boy thought to collect the head and carry it with us as a trophy to strike fear in all who would defy us. So far it has worked wonders.)

This is beautiful.

You may not see it that way, Hasbro, except as the beauty of more sales, but to me it’s as pretty as a sunset. My son has discovered his inner storyteller, as well as an aptitude for thinking creatively on his feet. In the real world, he is presented with problems and all too often shuts down rather than solves them, or uses inelegant tools like whining and avoidance to deal with them. In D&D, he is learning the opposite: Problems are conquered, creativity is rewarded, and everything you get must be earned.

We’ve enjoyed our time so much, that he has roped in a few friends, and their dads have been joining us for some afternoons of laughing and slaying. A new generation has heard the call of Dungeons & Dragons and come a-running.

Recently I saw you had introduced another product for the beginner, a set of sturdy cardboard tiles for building a dungeon map on the fly. (At $14, it would be a crime not to invest…) I placed the box on the counter. “Oh, hey, here’s this thing. Maybe you’d like it? I dunno.”

You be the judge:

We have a gamer for life, Hasbro. I render him, and much of his disposable income, unto you now. Reward him well.

Thanks, Hasbro, for all the memories you’ve peddled at me over the years. And for all the ones yet to come.


Drew “Groggi Greatbeard, dwarven warpriest” Scott


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