Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I’ve noticed that my recent problem with viewing Disney films is that I judge them all against my favourite movie of all time – Moana. So when I look at Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest animated installment, I put it on a scale of Moana to Not Moana, and find it sitting in the Not Moana category. This oversimplified way of looking at things does this movie no justice. Raya is a really good film, and their best so far since Moana came out almost five years ago.
Her family betrayed and an ancient evil called the Druun released across the land, the princess Raya travels across the desolate landscape in search of Sisu, the last dragon, in the hopes of once and for all vanquishing the Druun from her homeland of Kumandra.
Even from the plot synopsis it’s evident that this movie veers in significant ways from the Disney princess formula, something they had been doing more and more drastically in recent installments. One notable difference from pretty much every movie featuring a princess is that this movie was not a musical. A bold move, likely a calculated play for new audiences, but something this Disney fan personally found lacking, especially considering the rich cultural inspirations the movie draws upon. This whole soundtrack issue isn’t exactly helped by the fact that they hired James Newton Howard to score the music for Raya, his previous Disney projects being in the height of Disney’s second dark ages with Dinosaur, Atlantis and Treasure Planet. So while the lack of new earworms may be seen by some as a welcome relief and by me as sorely missed, overall there is a lot to enjoy in Raya.
The animation itself is absolutely stunning. From the nightmarish Druun, to the landscapes of Kumandra, to the dragons themselves, everything was etched in gorgeous detail. My only regret is that I hadn’t been able to see it in movie theatres in all of its intended glory. What they do with fabric, water and grass in this movie makes you wonder where animation goes from here. But then again, I myself this marveling at the ocean in Moana and here we are with Raya five years later setting new standards.
The outstanding animation also applies to the character design. Raya and Sisu, both in her dragon form and human form (which is basically just an animated Awkwafina with funky hair, something that sounds like it can get really old really fast, but doesn’t) stole the show. Raya felt real, from her hair, to her eyes and to the clothes and weapons, another step in realistic design without crossing into the uncanny valley. Sisu’s face at times gave me strong Nick Wilde from Zootopia vibes but other than that, the dragon was vibrant, elegant and endearing. The supporting cast, too was well-crafted – the characters were original and when they were on screen the eye never tired of seeing them – searching them for new details and appreciating the ones that were already noticed.
The formerly united land of Kumandra with its five existing kingdoms of Heart, Fang, Tail, Spine and Talon was also laid out in intricate detail, each landscape coming off as unique but at the same time forming a coherent whole. This though, is where one notices that the scope of the movie is both too grand and too small. The plot moves through the five lands too quickly, not allowing each location to fully shine for the viewers. Similarly, while Raya faces great challenges, her personal growth does not seem to reflect the scale of the adventure when compared to other Disney protagonists. In fact, Namaari, her foil in the film, undergoes more interesting personal challenges.
A word also needs to be said about Disney’s latest attempt to inject the much-needed diversity into the films they produce. While I don’t come from any of the cultures represented in Raya, so I can’t comment on how well they’ve done, it’s refreshing to see that others may also find themselves reflected in a movie that so many families and children will end up seeing.
Overall, if you’re going to have a family viewing of Raya, or if you’re a hardcore Disney nerd, it’s well worth the $30 price tag. While not one of the undoubtedly strongest entries in their 21st century canon, it is a great reminder that Disney is still there at the forefront of great animation and storytelling.
I’ve made it no secret that we’re a Disney family, which is probably why the only movies I’ve talked about here are Disney animated films or other Disney-produced films. So it should come as no surprise that this weekend we’ve seen Frozen 2, and that I have some pretty strong opinions about.
One of the things I found curious about the sequel before watching it were the critic reviews. By the time we went to see it, it sat at 77% on Rottentomatoes with a 65 on metacritic; a far cry from Disney’s recent huge successes like Moana (96% and 81) and Zootopia (97% and 78). But what was even more concerning for me was that it even lagged behind their other recent sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, who landed 88% on RT and 71 on Metacritic. While I enjoyed Ralph Breaks the Internet, I didn’t find it all that special, so coming into Frozen 2, I was justifiably worried.
I came out of the movie confused.
For starters, I feel like Frozen 2 makes Wreck It Ralph 2 look like Pocahontas 2. It is what sequels should be – instead of lazily rehashing elements that made the original successful, it moved both the story and the characters forward and explored its own issues in a complex ways. Heck, even the comic relief, Olaf, gets some development and his struggles are used to explore sentience, growth and understanding one’s own emotions.
Frozen 2 takes the first movie, which followed more closely to the Disney formula and was more of a sister story within a fairytale, and flips it into a fairytale within a sister story. The relationship between Anna and Elsa takes centre stage here as the young women try to build a future in which they can shine both individually and as a sibling unit. Stories like this need to be told considering how much of children’s entertainment is filled with only-child orphans and sibling rivalries.
I would be remiss if I at least mentioned the music, which was probably the defining feature of the first movie and the primary method by which it bore its way into our minds and pop culture. You won’t find the next show-stopper like “Let it Go” here and the movie accepts this by not making any cheap replicas. Instead, the songs serve a strong narrative purpose but are more woven through the movie to ensure that the soundtrack is both essential but doesn’t take precedence over the story.
Coming out of the theatre, I was curious to see where the criticism for the movie had come from and found that two common themes were its supposedly meandering plot and bleakness.
I can see why the plot may have felt like a series of sequential steps rather than as a smooth arc, and I do find that the magic lore requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than one is used to, but I think this is a direct result from the movie’s movement away from a particular formula. Rather than being pushed along through a particular set of check marks to a predetermined destination, the characters are forced to react to changing events and revelations and move through darkness towards the light.
Which brings me to the issue of “bleakness”. I’m not sure how we can expect Disney’s storytelling to mature if don’t allow it to take us to places we might not necessarily be comfortable in. The hope that it wants to inspire in us needs to be set against a backdrop of a certain kind of despair.
This is exactly where I feel Frozen 2’s legacy will lie – using their own constructed world to start conversations about indigenous topics in an organic way that doesn’t feel forced. Without getting too deep into revealing plot details that you really should appreciate for yourself, themes of reconciling the past, both personal and societal run deep through Frozen 2. Trauma can reach across generations and the movie highlights how we can take it upon ourselves to right the wrongs of the past and grow in the process instead of being overwhelmed by a history we had no control over. What we do have control over is ourselves, and to echo a common refrain throughout the film, we need to focus on doing the next right thing rather than folding your hands and giving up.
Disney’s approach to handling this important and sensitive topic shows that they can put their money where their mouth. In making Frozen 2, Disney had consulted Sámi parliaments in Norway, Finland and Sweden, created an advisory group that included Sámi artists, historians, elders and political leaders, and crucially provided space for the Sámi to tell their own stories by offering internships to Sámi filmmakers and animators in order to promote their own stories.
Frozen 2 takes a topic that can overwhelm with its grave enormity and makes it more approachable, so I think we owe it to the efforts that the Sámi people have put into this movie to use it to start important conversations with ourselves and with our children.
The impression I leave with is that Frozen 2 isn’t just a good movie, it’s an important movie. It’s the kind of movie that we need more of – where the story takes centre stage to the glitz and glamour but doesn’t fully sacrifice the latter either, and where that story takes aim directly at our minds and hearts so that the world can be just a little bit brighter for the next generation.
I find that I don’t talk enough about the stuff I read. Other than the review of my 2018 reading list in January, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it much, even though I have repeatedly said how important I think reading is to being an effective writer. So I thought I would therefore take a moment and talk about a novel I recently finished and that had more profound effect on me than I had expected.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 novel by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, and acts as a kind of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. I’m about to delve into some heavy spoilers for Jane Eyre so consider this your fair warning.
I had read Jane Eyre when I was undergrad, and recall not particularly enjoying it. I much preferred the works of Jane Austen, and didn’t much care for the gloominess of Jane Eyre, though I suppose that was kind of the point of the genre. In any case, I knew what I was reading was good, but it wasn’t my thing.
What did leave a big impression on me was how much I despised Rochester, the main love interest and the man Jane ends up with in the end. I couldn’t stand the archetypal brooding dark male lead, essentially the human equivalent of a wang-shaped monument to 19th century British patriarchy. And the cherry on top was that he kept his mentally ill wife Bertha locked up in the attic, which given the state of mental facilities in England at the time may or may not have been a mercy, but that’s besides the point. Mr. Darcy he definitely was not.
So what Jean Rhys gave us in Wide Sargasso Sea, is the back story of Bertha (nee Antoinette) and a whole pile of reasons to hate Rochester even more. The novel follows Antoinette’s story – her childhood and adolescence in Jamaica, eventual marriage to Rochester and her precipitous decline into the mental state we witness in Jane Eyre.
Antoinette is presented as someone who is able to rise above tragedy – her family estate is burned down (the colonial aspects of this book are problematic, but it was written in the sixties, after all), her developmentally delayed brother dies in the fire, her mother suffers a break and then dies alone as Antoinette is raised in a convent. Now into her adulthood, she’s ready to reconcile all that has happened her and make the best of her life in Jamaica along with her remaining friends and servants (there’s that colonialism poking its ugly head out again).
But then comes Rochester, here presented as a younger brother who’s unlikely to get a sniff of the family fortune so he’s shipped off to the West Indies to marry rich. It is exceedingly easy to dislike Rochester from the get go. He is whiny, he is suspicious, he is racist, he will literally complain about anything including that the plants are too green. He marries Antoinette, somewhat reluctantly, and shockingly he never once complains about the fat dowry, though his endgame remains largely unclear.
Here’s where I start going into some spoilers, so even though the end of the novel is a foregone conclusion, if you want to maintain some mystery, you can skip to the last three paragraphs of this entry.
Though Antoinette also had her own major reservations about the marriage, she approaches it with her usual attitude of making the best out of her lemons, and she develops what appear to be genuine feelings for Rochester. Her husband, a suspicious man who thinks even the wilderness is out to get him, in turn eats with a spoon any vile rumor he hears about his wife and becomes convinced he’s been given “tainted goods”. Considering he never truly treats Antoinette as a human, this is a disturbing but apt description of his thoughts.
Despite the already less-than-flattering portrait the novel had painted of Rochester, there was still room for more outrage. In fact, at one point I had to set the book in my lap and stare out the bus window before I could regroup and tackle the conclusion of the novel. Rochester fully embraces believing nothing but the worst about his wife, and channels all his feelings into vindictive rage.
He basically attempts to write the textbook on gaslighting, choosing to call her “Bertha”, also one of her given names but one she does like using. He just flat-out states she’s more like a Bertha, and her opinion on the subject of how others should refer to her doesn’t matter. A theme that seems to resonate quite loudly in modern times as well. Oh, and did I not mention that he also sleeps with one of the servants while across a thin partition from his ailing wife, and then basically chocks up anything she does in response as an overreaction. Yeah, he’s swell.
Rochester’s completely demented obsession to hurt Antoinette can be summarized with the following quote: “She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.” That has to send a chill down your spine. Not laugh in the sun again? This paints Rochester’s motivations to lock her up in the attic as a direct attempt to destroy her humanity, to deprive her of simple joy because he can and because he feels justified.
I know Brontë did not intend for him to have such a dark backstory, but Rhys’ version of the character fitted in so perfectly with my own abysmally low opinion of Rochester, that the two have been inexorably linked in my mind. As far as I’m concerned, this is Rochester.
Wide Sargasso Sea is also a perfect illustration of the importance of the public domain. While something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is awesomely creative, its mostly a vehicle for light entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m a strong proponent that there is little distinction between entertaining art and “arty” art) and doesn’t necessarily transform the original work. But in this case, it’s such a meaningful expansion of the story – bringing to light a character shrouded in darkness and casting into darkness a character that was supposed to provide the heroine with light.
I’m glad I picked up Wide Sargasso Sea and I would recommend it to anyone who’s read Jane Eyre, especially Rochester-haters like myself.
Between writing, my day jobs, and having two small kids, I go out to the movies once in approximately never, but when I do, I always seem to have a lot to say about them. I think the last movie I had seen was Solo and I immediately went here to defend it against the hordes of fans who hate on any post-Disney Star Wars content. By some weird coincidence that only solidifies the suspicion that I’m a studio shill, the most recent movie I watched was Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck It Ralph 2; may the person who thought of this unwieldy monstrosity of a title get a hangnail, or something.
Any time I watch a Disney film, it’s an event. The previous two that have come out, Moana and Coco, are not only currently sitting as my top 2 favourite animated films of all time, they are both easily in the top 10 favourite movies in general. I think you get the picture. I’ve already previously mentioned that we’re a Disney family but you will eventually learn just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
Anyway, back to Ralph Breaks the Internet, or let’s just go with WIR2 for short. Although it was a very special experience in that it was the first movie my youngest has seen in the theatre, and that my four year old kept his Pikachu stuffy in the cupholder of his seat the entire time except for the scary scenes where he would put down his popcorn and clutch that electric mouse like his life depended on it, I would not call the experience magical, at least not in the same way that I could call other recent Disney experiences.
As far as the Disney Studios animated films, we’d have to dig back as far as Bolt to find one I enjoyed less than this. Now don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a good film and would recommend watching it. When stacked against some other studios that produce animated films this would be a great movie by their standards. But I started to get used to was that films like Moana, Zootopia and Tangled or Pixar ones like Inside Out and Coco, is that the movie itself had left an imprint. I would walk out of those feeling like the movie was a transformative experience because I knew right away that it would influence my writing, or my outlook on life, or simply contain emotional experiences that I would want to revisit over and over again. But WIR2 contained none of that for me.
I could feel something was wrong about twenty minutes in, this discomfort at not being sucked in entirely into the story. In fact, that seemed to be the problem, I was acutely aware that I was being told a story instead of being absorbed by it and taken along for the ride. Granted, I have long feared this movie coming out, not exactly being enticed by trailers or the prospect of a sequel. So maybe some of this initial suspicion was on me, but the feeling never left. Throughout the whole film I felt as though I was being deliberately walked through the elements of the story. Here is their friendship, here is the strain in their friendship, here is the inciting incident, here is a sprinkling of character development. These are of course all legitimate parts to a story but I should not be so aware of them.
I shouldn’t have to listen through dialogue such as “your guys’ friendship is like this” or “you’re my friend, so you shouldn’t do this.” It was all so on the nose that towards the climax of the film a character was basically talking to themselves out loud listing all the things about friendship that they learned throughout the movie. So much of this sounded more like placeholder titles for scenes than actual fleshed-out storyboarding by Disney’s usually brilliant writers.
I think in part due to this lack of naturalness and authenticity, the movie failed to connect with me on that emotional level. Sure, there were emotional scenes but they never quite got to that next level. I think one of the low moments was supposed to have been Ralph reading a bunch of mean comments about himself on social media, but this is a kids’ movie folks, and you and I have probably had waaaaaay worse said about ourselves at some point in our lives. Compare it to the scene in the first one where Ralph, with his bare hands, destroys Vanellope’s car in order to protect her, but being unable to explain himself while she’s screaming in mental anguish about the betrayal and her lost opportunity. That’s emotional. Reading “ralph stinks” is not.
And I feel as though Disney failed to provide their stars with a proper supporting cast. Granted, they avoided a common sequel pitfall in that they didn’t just milk the side characters for the same jokes without any character development, and left Fix-It Felix Jr. and Calhoun on the sidelines for almost the entire movie. But if you’re going to do that, you need someone memorable to replace them with, and sadly, that was lacking. Yesss and Shank were cool characters, but that was pretty much where their merits stopped – neat concept with a slick execution.
And no offence to Gal Gadot, I absolutely loved her in Wonder Woman, but I’m not entirely sure that voice acting was the right choice. For folks like John C. Reilly (Ralph), Jack McBrayer (Fix-It Felix) and Jane Lynch (Calhoun), their voices are very distinct, but when they’re playing their characters, I still hear the characters and not the actors behind them. Yet with Gal Gadot, the whole time I was like, oh, there’s Gal Gadot doing a Gal Gadot character. Maybe it’s because the character she was given to bring to life was as two dimensional as the old Fix-It Felix Jr. arcade game, but that’s just how I felt.
Again, I feel obligated to pause here and say that I still enjoyed the movie. This post is more just the ramblings of an overly-invested fan. The movie was much better than I thought it might be. Okay, fine, that doesn’t sound like a glowing recommendation, but seriously, I had a lot of fun. The internet jokes are at risk of becoming dated, but in this day and age they weren’t groan or cringe worthy. What a time to be alive when “screaming goat videos are back” is a reference that moviegoers actually get.
They heavily-promoted Disney princess reunion had just the right amount of meta and self-aware jokes to be funny, and given the premise of the movie it didn’t feel forced. After all, Vanellope is a princess in a Disney movie and is yet shut out of the club when Merida gets to hang out like one of the crew.
The movie took some great characters and moved them forward and actually added to both the world and the story, unlike a lot of sequels. But here I am wanting something more and I’ve convinced myself that I didn’t get it.
So this probably puts me on Mickey’s naughty list, but hopefully I get to keep my fan card. I’ve gotten quite vested in their movies after not having grown up on them, and Moana, which also intersects with another obsession of mine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is probably one of the most influential pieces of storytelling in my life. So hopefully I’m just making a tempest in a tea cup here, but with the next scheduled movie being Frozen 2, colour me a little apprehensive.
From someone in my generation ,it’s not exactly exceptional that I like Star Wars. Tempted as I am, it’s not necessary to delve into my life story setting out exactly what part of my childhood, and now adulthood, Star Wars has formed. Suffice it to say I can tell my Bossk from my Dengar.
I’m also one of those fans that doesn’t take the most critical eye to the franchise. Sure, I will laugh at every cringe-worthy moment in the prequels, but The Phantom Menace was the first movie I saw in a movie theater, and just because I think Attack of the Clones is the worst Star Wars movie doesn’t mean I won’t watch it when it’s on without shame (that’s a lie, shame is involved). So I suppose I’m an exception to the adage “No one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans”. It’s no surprise then that I’ve generally enjoyed the Disney-era Star Wars movies. Some more than others, but you won’t catch me standing on a street corner yelling about how The Last Jedi did unspeakable things to my childhood.
So if you’re looking for a review of Han Solo that fits a certain narrative, you won’t find one here. But if you want to accuse someone of being a cultist or a studio shill, I’m your man. Although I gotta say, I wish someone would pay me to shill, I have hobbies I need to sponsor.
I went into the movie keeping a lid on my expectations. This was an origin story I didn’t really think we needed, and the well-known issues with the directors, as well as the rumours about the acting didn’t give me any particularly high hopes. So honestly, when I saw initial reviews clocking in the low 70s on Rotten Tomatoes, I was pretty pleased. I knew that for someone like me, it would be a decent ride.
And a decent ride it was. Now, I’ve heard that the first hour has pacing issues and it feels disjointed. Unfortunately, I’ve got a hard time wrapping my head around those terms. That’s like hearing from someone that the chocolate ice cream I just ate tasted bad. No, I tasted the bloody thing, and I liked it. So honestly, I have no idea what they’re talking about.
I liked hopping from planet to planet – it made the galaxy feel big, which is what I find some of the recent movies have been lacking. And then the movie picks up steam and off we go, with me sitting literally on the edge of my seat for most of it. Not so much because the “Oh my God what’s going to happen next?” feel of it, but the “Oh my God this is the Star Wars I love” feel of it. A mix of familiar ships and cool new designs, new characters mixing with old favourites who are given new life.
Kudos to Alden Ehrenreich no matter what anyone says. He didn’t set out to do a Harrison Ford impression and I don’t know why anyone expected as much. He played a young Han Solo, not a young Ford, and I think he did it well. Just a bit more naïve and happy-go-lucky than the experienced smuggler we first meet in A New Hope. And I don’t even know where to begin with Donald Glover as young Lando, stealing every scene he was in. Now any time I’ll watch Billy Dee Williams as the iconic character I will see him in his youth. The two have completely merged together in my mind.
But don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my own complaints, too, places where the movie doesn’t quite feel as necessarily Star Wars as I would have liked. Although it makes sheepish attempts to get out of it, it still seems to lack the gratuitous presence of most of the alien species established in the first six films. It’s hard to make it feel like the same galaxy when the supposedly ubiquitous Twi’leks (which apparently I can spell correctly from memory - what is wrong with me?) are nowhere to be found. I should have to geek out when there’s a momentary sighting of a Rodian.
And I still haven’t felt that we really got to know a place like we did with Tatooine, Bespin, Naboo or Coruscant. The new locales still appear as snippets to be filed away, instead of actual worlds. But that just might be my own nostalgia talking. We’ll see what happens when my kids grow up, if they end up being Star Wars fans. Maybe to them Corellia would be just as real as Dagobah is to me.
In any case, no matter the movie’s flaws, I had fun, and I wish more people had fun, too. I know the feeling some of them decry. It isn’t *my* Star Wars, either. But I’m not a kid anymore. If I keep chasing that feeling, I don’t know if I’ll ever find it. If I do, I’ll know it, and it’ll be magical. And if I don’t, then that’s alright, because I’m willing to sit back and enjoy the ride in the meantime.
For those of you who haven’t watched the movie yet, look away now because I’m about to dive into some spoilers.
The thing about a Han Solo prequel, is that you either don’t touch anything that was previously established, or you better be telling us how he met Chewbacca, got his blaster, and did the Kessel Run. Okay, so all three happened in the span of what, 48 hours, but that’s alright.
The mutual rescue between him and Chewbacca and the seeming elimination of the life debt from the Expanded Universe may not please die-hards, but I actually welcomed the change. Gives much more meaning to the reason that a two hundred year-old former leader of the Kashyyyk defence, friend to Jedi, is hanging out with a loser like Han. It gives their friendship more agency instead of it being a social contract Chewie couldn’t get out of even if he wanted to.
There was one piece of lore that was particularly silly. When Han was asked his last name by the Imperial recruitment officer and he didn’t have a response, I stiffened up a bit. Then Han said he was all alone, and I was just giddy with anticipation. And then I watched the origin of “Solo” materialize right before my eyes with a stupid smile on my face, ‘stupid’ probably being the operative word here.
Oh, and of course, how can I not comment on the reveal in the last few minutes of the film? The moment that hologram came online I knew this was going to be good. Then I saw the robotic legs of the speaker and had to restrain myself from shouting out my guess in the theater. And then there he was, the most underrated and then redeemed by further material villain of the movies, making a triumphant comeback. And then he just had to ignite his lightsaber for no discernible reason other than “lethal glow sticks are fun”. Ah well.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.