Wonderwoman-Maclaren-660x400

In case the title didn’t tell you the big news, allow me to reiterate: Michelle MacLaren will be directing the 2017 solo Wonder Woman movie! But wait, there’s more! MacLaren, most well-known for directing episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones, will also be part of the development stages of the movie, working with the as yet unknown screenwriter(s) to craft the movie from the ground up. And here’s why the news is awesome!

Since WB/DC made the announcement not too long ago that Wonder Woman would indeed be getting a solo film in 2017, following Suicide Squad but prior to Part 1 of the Justice League movie, the question weighing over many a fan-person’s mind was whether or not any women would actually be involved with the movie besides Gal Gadot portraying her on-screen. Not that it was a requirement to have a female director or screenwriter, but given that this would be Wondy’s solo movie, though not her first appearance on the big screen – Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio, and David S. Goyer will be handling that in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – a lot of fans believed the female perspective in filmmaking, still a very underrepresented voice in the action world, would be better suited to 1771250-wonder_woman_40DC’s most recognizable and iconic female superhero. And it seemed WB was finally listening. The short list for Wonder Woman directors included MacClaren as well as The Babadook director Jennifer Kent and Leslie Linka Glatter, director and co-producer for Homeland.

When the rumors began that WB was looking for a female director to helm the film, many lists included pretty much every female director who’s done an action movie within the last decade and beyond. Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2008), was at the top of most lists with Deep Impact‘s (1998) Mimi Leder and Punisher: War Zone‘s (2008) Lexi Alexander showing up as well. There were also mentions of Twilight director Catherine Hardwick, Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl), and even Julie Taymor (The Tempest, Across the Universe). Alexander seemed to be getting quite a lot of attention, but seemed to have no desire to pursue the project, saying:

“Imagine the weight on my shoulders. How many male superhero movies fail? So now, we finally get Wonder Woman with a female director, imagine if it fails. And you have no control over marketing, over budget. So without any control, you carry the fucking weight of gender equality for both characters and women directors. No way.”

[Source: Fast Company]

Alexander isn’t wrong in her summation of how Hollywood’s standards apply to female lead movies and women in the industry. As far as superhero movies go, Wonder Woman is a big deal and anyone tapped to take the reins on the project is going to be under a huge amount of pressure to get the character and the tone right. Even in this world of instant remakes and reboots, especially where the superhero genre is concerned, the Wonder Woman movie has an added layer of expectation weighing it down. We’ve had umpteenth numbers of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men movies, but Wonder Woman’s debut has a finite quality to it, one that is ultimately relying on the solo film to justify the continued existence of the character outside of team-up movies. Granted, a lot of this is pressure we the fans are putting on the project but it’s as much of a reaction to how female lead movies have been perceived by Hollywood and the failure of pretty much every movie starring a superheroine. WW

The choice of MacLaren to direct and develop Wonder Woman is one of the best decisions made by WB since finally announcing a Wonder Woman movie. Though her background is entirely in television, MacLaren has experience directing and producing within multiple genres. Her work on The X-Files, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones gives her a wide berth of experience, something that can only benefit a character like Wonder Woman. Diana’s backstory involves Greek gods and goddesses, Amazons, and the human element of the modern world. There’s as much action as there is fantasy in her neck of the DC Universe, which MacClaren is exceedingly qualified to pull off.

And with the addition of MacLaren being involved in the development of the film, working with the writers and producers instead of just directing from someone else’s outline, there’s plenty of room for her to really mold the character. Yes, we’ll be seeing Diana in Batman v Superman, but it’s more than likely a glorified cameo, which means the solo film is really where we’ll get to see Gal Gadot hopefully shine and MacLaren’s vision for the character realized. There’s definitely a lot riding on this movie, but it’s good to know that WB has at least put the film in the hands of someone we can all rally behind.

Sam records live at the AFK Elixirs and Eatery to talk with Friday Elliott and her daughter Audrey. They talk about tea, custom blends, and hop around from Harry Potter to Supernatural.

Links to Friday:

Friday Afternoon Tea

Twitter

Facebook

Etsy

YouTube

 

Into music: “French Kiss” by Mrs. Howl

A Game of ThronesA Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) by George R. R. Martin

A quick read about how you shouldn’t trust anyone and actually you should probably stab people in the back as a precaution while awkwardly stating the name of the book in the dialog. Also, there’s a wall for some reason.

Spoiler Alert: Winter is coming, so put on a damn coat.
I give it 4 out of 5 Killed Off Characters

Next week’s review, a classic sci-fi book about spice and some giant worms.

Sam and Miguel have a chat with the voice of Korra, Janet Varney. While Legend of Korra is the topic du jour, they also cover the auditioning process, voice over work in general, and Janet debuts her impression of fellow Thrilling Adventure actor Marc Evan Jackson.

Links to Janet:

The JV Club
Janet’s Website
Follow Janet on Twitter

Into music: “French Kiss” by Mrs. Howl

I’m Cara and I read books.  Then I review them in a couple sentences.  So let’s begin …40929

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

An excellent tale about how no one has ever loved reform, shooting things and war on Spain more than Teddy Roosevelt during his rise to the vice presidency.

Spoiler Alert: William McKinley dies at the end.

I give it 5 out of 5 President Terms.

Next week’s review, some book by George R. R. Martin.

21192_900x1350

The urge to name this Love in the Time of Wonder Woman was so strong, but I resisted the impulse. While there was an ease with which the rejected article title came, it didn’t quite capture everything I wanted to cover in talking about the 35 issue run of Wonder Woman. In the three years since the New 52 launched, the creative team of writer Brian Azzarello, artists Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins, Goran Sudzuka, colorist Matthew Wilson, and letterer Jared K. Fletcher crafted a new origin for DC Comics’ first female superhero, one steeped in the old mythology of the Greek Pantheon but intent on forging ahead to create a new mythology with Wonder Woman leading the way.

For the record, though, if you’re looking for a place that will at least consider making references to the works of Gabriel García Márquez….Bam. This girl.

Moving on.

As, presumably, the introduction for new readers via the “soft reboot” of the New 52, the creative team were faced with the task of making Diana’s story within her corner of the DC Universe fantastical, entertaining, and above all else relatable. In order to do so, Azzarello and Chiang dove into the core tenants of Wonder Woman’s character as established by her creator, William Moulton Marston, and used those elements to build a story around two essential questions: Who is Wonder Woman and what does she stand for? The answer lies in the simplest yet most complex word, love. From love springs a multitude of emotions – mercy, compassion, tolerance, anger, rage, and forgiveness – all of which hinder and guide Wonder Woman in her personal journey of discovery, a journey she doesn’t make alone. Though love ends up being the answer, how Diana frames her revelations is within the context of family; her biological family of gods and demigods as well as the family she builds with her friends and rebuilds amongst the Amazons. The consequences of such a framework, however, brings about the destruction of Marston’s “paradise”, but I think that was Azzarello’s intention all along. In lieu of paradise, of some perceived utopia, Azzarello posits that family and community should be the goal and only by understanding and submitting to love can such a goal be accomplished.

wonder-woman1-interiorBefore we go any further, and because this article will mostly be addressing Wonder Woman from a writing and thematic perspective, I wanted to talk about Cliff Chiang’s artwork on the book. Of all the redesigns in the New 52, Chiang’s Wonder Woman continues to be my favorite and is definitely in my top five versions. Chiang manages to capture the Amazon in Diana – tall, athletic, broad shoulders – making us believe that this is a woman who’s trained her whole life as a warrior. Her athletic aesthetics, however, don’t come at the cost of her femininity. Diana is gorgeous but Chiang deftly keeps away from sexualizing not just Diana but most of the book’s female characters.

The modern, or ancient, redesigns of the Greek Pantheon are probably my favorite aspect of the book from an artistic hermes-5Astandpoint. Instead of keeping to the stereotypical depiction of the Greek gods, Chiang makes them the embodiment of their particular territory or job. Hermes the Messenger has the visage of a humanoid bird, Artemis the goddess of the hunt and the moon glows brightly while sporting antlers, looking like a marble statue, and Poseidon, lord of the seas, is a gigantic fish-like creature, a great and powerful reflection of his domain. My favorite design is probably Strife. Though her only otherworldly aspect is her purple skin, Strife looks exactly like her name. The shaved head, heavy makeup, and slashed form-fitting dress give readers an immediate sense of unease, that anything involving her will lead to trouble. Wonder Woman is definitely one of the most beautiful books from DC. It’s vibrant and bursting with energy and color thanks to Chiang and colorist Matthew Wilson.

Okay, back to the rest of the article.

The origin of Diana of Themyscira is often one of the first elements tackled when a new creative team takes over the book or DC feels like rebooting. Unlike Krypton blowing up or Thomas and Martha Wayne being killed in Crime Alley, Wonder Woman’s backstory of being molded from clay and entering “Man’s World” has gone through several iterations since she first appeared in 1941. Because of this malleability, Wonder Woman tends to embody the attitudes of women within the modern world – wonder-woman-6depending on who’s writing – but each retelling and reinterpretation is hit or miss depending on a number of factors, one of the most prominent being the socio-political climate. When Diana lost her powers in the 1960s in order to make her seem more like the modern day woman it was met with scorn from feminists like Gloria Steinem who accused the creative team of taking the most powerful female superhero and stripping her of her powers. The intention may have been to make Wonder Woman relevant to the modern readership, the change was inspired by Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers television show, but the response proved that, like Superman, Wonder Woman’s core audience of female readers looked to her as an ideal, something to strive for and emulate.

William Moulton Marston addressed this need for an iconic hero for women and girls in the 1943 issue of The American Scholar, writing:

Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.

Marston very much believed that the new world order would eventually be run by women and used Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should…rule the world”. Unlike the violent tendencies of men and boys, girls and women had a greater emotional capacity that, he believed, made them stronger and better leaders. Wonder Woman was a figurehead for them to rally behind, a Pygmalion creation meant to embody all that women were capable of. Making Diana the princess of the Amazons who inhabited Paradise Island solidified Marston’s vision of a utopian culture of peace and prosperity run entirely by women. By venturing out into “Man’s World”, Wonder Woman brought those sensibilities captain-sensation-35with her as she fought Nazis and enemies on the home front, teaching and showing girls that violence wasn’t the only option but should more forceful actions need to be taken they were strong enough to break the chains or ropes that bound them. For all of the bondage imagery shown in Marston’s run, there were plenty of metaphors to be gleaned regardless of what “Dr.” Wertham thought.

Since Marston, the depiction of Paradise Island, later named Themyscira in the 1987 relaunch, and the Amazons have gone through as many changes as Wonder Woman. While Marston envisioned utopia with an all-female society, the exploration of Amazonian culture is a fascinating aspect of the Wonder Woman canon since the environment she grows up in acts as a reflection of the character. Some writers have utilized it beautifully (The Circle from Gail Simone, Terry Dodson, and Rachel Dodson) and others not so much (Amazons Attack! from Will Pfeifer and Pete Woods). How much Diana embraces or fights against her Amazonian upbringing is no different than how any person might face their heritage and family. And it’s here where Azzarello’s stamp on Wonder Woman takes a sharp turn for better or for worse.

strifeThe two most controversial aspects of Azzarello’s reboot were the changes made to Diana’s origin and the Amazons. In the New 52, Diana was no longer molded from clay and blessed with life from the gods. Instead it was revealed that she was the biological daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus, making her a demigod. After finding her mother turned to stone and her sister Amazons turned into snakes as punishment from Hera, Diana becomes immersed in her godly family of half brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. In the process, she receives one final revelation about the Amazons: to continue populating the island with female warriors, the Amazons took over ships with men on board, had sex with them, kept the daughters and gave the sons to Hephaestus.

Many a critic and Wonder Woman fan cried foul on this change in particular since Azzarello essentially turned the Amazons into rapists. I’m not here to argue that point because it’s a valid one, but I think I understand why Azzarello made the changes. Again, Marston saw an all-female society as utopia, it’s why he named the home of the Amazons Paradise Island. But anyone who’s studied the concept of utopia knows that it’s never an achievable form of society despite what the creator desires. There are plenty of historical examples and it’s rare that fiction ever depicts a utopian society as anything less than sinister. Azzarello is yet another author in this category. Prior to the discovery of Themyscira’s repopulation program, Azzarello laid the foundation that all was not well on Paradise Island. Wonder Woman was already living in London, away from the island, and her return with Zola and Hermes, plus the appearance of Strife, brings out the underlying antagonism of some of the Amazons towards Diana. Referring to her as “clay” in a derogatory manner, it’s clear that peace, tranquility, and love aren’t always present.

Azzarello is no stranger to tackling the darker side of comic book characters. Some of his best works for DC are Joker, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and Superman: For Tomorrow, all of which highlighted essential aspects of the characters from Azzarello’s point of view. With Wonder Woman, Azzarello is arguing that Marston’s utopia is fallible and a myth in its own right. An all-female society is no less effective than an all-male society. The Amazons are, after all, still human. By distancing themselves from “Man’s World” they’ve lost their hold on an inclusive community. This is what makes Wonder Woman so WW-30dessential. She’s the bridge between the Amazons and the outside world, but only through taking the journey of coming to terms with her own identity and what it means to be Wonder Woman, a demigod, the God of War, and the new Queen of the Amazons, does she possess the wisdom to rebuild her family on Themyscira. She cannot separate these worlds any more than she can separate her identity. They’re all parts of a whole and by melding them she’s made stronger. It’s why she pleads with her sister Amazons to accept their brothers and protect Zola and her baby against the First Born’s army. They will be stronger as a whole, as a family, and it is simply the right thing to do.

LoveThroughout Azzarello and Chiang’s run, love is shown to be the root of Diana’s decisions and at the center of the conflict between her and the First Born. In their final confrontation, Diana ties it all together from a thematic perspective when she tells the First Born that his demand for love and power will never result in victory because he doesn’t understand that love is about submission. There have been several instances in the book where Diana was put into a position of submission – marrying Hades, tricking Artemis into “winning” a fight, the First Born’s proposal – but none of them were made out of an actual act of love. Compare this to what Diana has personally done out of genuine feelings of love; protecting Zola and her baby, forgiving a mortal Hera, helping Hades learn to love himself, and reuniting her sister and brother Amazons. She shows compassion, mercy, and forgiveness towards others because, at her core, her love for all living things is infinite. Fittingly, her last act in the final issue is an actual submissive plea to Athena to spare Zola’s life. By submitting to love and appealing to Wisdom, Wonder Woman shows us her true heroism.

I know I’m not the only one who has strong feelings towards Azzarello and Chiang’s run on the book, but I feel it’s been consistently one of the strongest coming out of DC and I’m sad to see the creative team go. There’s certainly plenty to unpack within those 35 issues, but this is just a portion of what I’ve taken away from it. But I’m interested to know what other people think.

Just, ya know, be civil. We’re all friends here.

Sam and JP have a chat with Alan Kistler about all manner of things concerning the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universes as well as the television universes of Arrow, The Flash, and Gotham.

I’ve been mulling this one around in my head for some time now, mostly because I wasn’t sure if this was something I necessarily wanted to share with people, but fuck it, a website is nothing if not a platform for narcissism, so here I go!

For my and the preceding generation, The Simpsons was appointment television. At its best, the show lampooned the American Family with a combination of slapstick, satire, and sheer madness. As a kid, watching Homer fall down a canyon a couple times was hilarious. But as a teenager and an adult with a fair amount of education under my belt, references to movies, books(“Here’s the grapes. And here’s the wrath!”), music, history (“We had quitters during the Revolution, too. We called them…Kentuckians.”), and politics made me realize how smart the show was, which made me enjoy the show even more! Though, nowadays, the show makes me chuckle or smile every once and a while, there hasn’t been an episode since about 1998 that’s made me laugh from the gut and instilled in me the desire to quote it relentlessly.

And quote it I do! A lot! Fortunately, I’ve managed to find a group of friends with a similar inclination and nothing makes me happier than walking into a room, speaking the smallest piece of a Simpsons quote and knowing someone’s going to pick it up and finish the quote or laugh their ass off because I’ve reminded them of that particular episode. And thus begins either a discussion of how freakin’ awesome The Simpsons is or a sharing of quotes. Either way, fun to be had by all!

And while I could probably write a whole blog devoted to how great The Simpsons is, that’s not the point of this article. Instead, I’d like to talk about what happened after a viewing of an episode I hadn’t seen in years: Moaning Lisa.

 

The plot, for those who haven’t seen it or those who need a refresher, is split between the A Story and the B Story. In the A Story: Lisa is dealing with an existential crisis. She wakes up and just feels sad, unable to muster even the smallest bit of interest in anything. Unable to express herself and her feelings to her family, she finds an outlet through jazz with the help of Bleeding Gums Murphy. The B Story focuses on Homer’s obsessive competition with Bart over a boxing videogame. The B Story is there to balance out the A Story with a heavy dose of humor because the A Story is especially hard-hitting on an emotional level…at least it was for me this time around.

I don’t watch The Simpsons as religiously as I used to. Though I catch the occasional rerun, I usually have to wait a while until the station gets back to the earlier episodes since I have little interest in watching reruns of the newer seasons. And even then, I tend to avoid the first two seasons of The Simpsons mostly due to the rough animation, which is hard to watch sometimes. However, on this particular night, after a long day at work, I decided to just leave the show on in the background even if it was from the first season.

And I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. From the moment Lisa sighs her way through a day at school, uncaring, searching for an outlet through music only to be squashed creatively by her music teacher to the friendship she forms with Bleeding Gums Murphy, I could not focus on anything but the episode. Something clicked in my head and I felt the deepest and most sincere empathy for Lisa because, at one point in my life, I was just like her.

I’m not saying I was an eight-year-old genius with a talent for music. No, like Lisa, I too experienced undefined sadness. Coupled with some anger issues, my teenage years, let’s say…13 to 19, were not the happiest years of my life. I was fairly sensitive, hadn’t quite formed the thicker skin I sport now, had few if any friends, and some unresolved bullshit from my childhood decided to creep its way into my psyche at the most inopportune moment. Needless to say, there were several days that resulted in me bursting into tears for no apparent reason. And it freaked me out! I have some control issues (okay, a lot!), so a three-day crying jag that had, at the time, no discernable origin did nothing but exacerbate my sadness and anger. And thus, a vicious cycle was formed! And though I am a sensitive control freak, I am similarly, if not more so, stubborn as all hell! So, after a year of therapy and dealing with what was really bothering me head on, I stopped being sad all the time and the anger subsided…somewhat. I became a happier person for it, able to enjoy life more and roll with the punches.

So, with those experiences behind me and learned from, I was shocked at how easily I identified with Lisa and her struggle to find happiness. The episode aired on February 11, 1990, four days after I turned six-years-old, but only now, two decades later, do I truly understand. When Homer tries to tell Lisa to stop playing her saxophone and she bursts into tears simply because she’s sad, my heart ached because I was once Lisa in that moment.

Homer and Marge equally remind me of the struggles of not only my parents, but most parents with a child going through a similar ordeal. Homer attempts to help Lisa the only way he knows how: bouncing her on his knee and trying to wash over her sadness with advice only a father can give to a child experiencing something he doesn’t quite understand. In the same scene mentioned above, when Homer is about to tell Lisa to stop playing her saxophone, when Lisa bursts into unexplained tears the sheer devastation on Homer’s face is heartbreaking. It’s a father who doesn’t know how to help his daughter who’s obviously in pain. And the only thing Homer can do is tell Lisa to keep playing. Marge, though her intentions are good, tries to force Lisa into smiling for the day, hoping that the outside will eventually influence the inside…and take the heat off Marge for maybe being a bad mother according to some advice Mother Bouvier gave her when she too was a sad little girl. But when Marge witnesses how her daughter is mistreated just for being herself, she reneges her earlier advice and says to Lisa:

“Lisa, I apologize to you, I was wrong, I take it all back.  Always be yourself.  If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you.  And when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there.  From now on, let me do the smiling for both of us.”

It’s the sagest advice any parent can give their child and it reminds me of many conversations I had with my own mother. Never did she tell me to knock it off or suck it up. My mother let me be sad, hopeful and confident that I would figure things out eventually. And I’m all the better for it because I had someone in my corner who understood.

What it boils down to is it’s less about the cartoon and more about the experiences that have shaped me into the person that I am today. Had I not gone through what I went through, I wouldn’t have felt as strongly as I do about the episode. And for a cartoon to create what is essentially the first Lisa-centered episode based around the character’s inherent sadness and struggle for acceptance is gutsy, to say the least.  But it’s satisfying to know that, before the zaniness of later episodes, the creators and writers of The Simpsons wanted Lisa’s perspective to always be slightly left-field of her family, yet still identifiable to the viewing audience. More so, I think, then Bart, Lisa Simpson is iconic for the struggles she faces and more clearly defines the feelings of a generation then her lovable scamp of a brother.

So, there you have it. It’s possible I’m over-thinking the matter or over-analyzing the episode, but it means something to me to share this with others. The fact that The Simpsons can still speak to me as a (mostly) mature adult gives me a greater appreciation for a show that is more than just a cartoon but a mainstay for anyone in need of laughs, wit, and heart.

 

But what about the rest of you out there? Ever come across something and identify with it more as an adult? Thoughts on the Simpsons? Always glad to get feedback!

Originally published at Noise Shark Media

GARDEN-videoSixteenByNine1050

The path of a fairy tale, like those of myths and legends, rarely runs smooth. Though a happy ending is the goal, it’s only achieved by braving the challenges that lay ahead and finding your way through the darkness. In the end, something has changed and you’re never the same. Depending on the fairy tale, this is either good or…bittersweet. Fairy tales in the times of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen were morality tales, teaching tools mostly designed to scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of children and ensure obedience. They weren’t without their moments of whimsy, though, spinning stories of far away lands, princes and princesses, and mysterious creatures in need of slaying. Or, should a more realistic setting be required, adventure could be found (and lessons be taught) by simply journeying outside the safety and security of home. Over the Garden Wall, the first mini-series produced by Cartoon Network, is the modern kin to the fairy tales we grew up with as children. Channeled through the medium of animation, Over the Garden Wall throws us into a world of imaginative whimsy but isn’t afraid to tackle the darker aspects of venturing into the unknown.

Airing two chapters over five consecutive days, Over the Garden Wall, adapted from creator/writer Patrick McHale’s short, Tome of the Unknown, follows brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Gregory (Collin Dean), with the aid of a cursed bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), as they try to find their way home. Heeding the words of an old Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), the boys try their best to avoid the Beast (Samuel Ramey) that stalks the forest, though his influence is never far from them as they meet all manner of folk along the way. It’s only in facing the darkness do Wirt and Gregory discover how far they’re willing to go for each other before they can return to the world they know.

Wirt and GregLike the fairy tales and folklore from which it draws inspiration, Over the Garden Wall is more about the journey than it is the destination. Wirt and Gregory are as different as two brothers can be: Wirt is a fretful, bumbling teenager unsure of himself in almost every way while Greg is an unabashedly gleeful child who questions very little about the absurdity surrounding them. The strength of their bond as brothers, however, is where the heart of the mini-series lies. Wirt assumes the more traditional hero’s journey – the denizens of a tavern go so far as to label him a Pilgrim. Along the way, as he tries to get himself and Greg home, he gains the confidence needed to match his cleverness, becomes slightly more assertive, but ultimately accepts his role as an older brother with all the maturity and responsibility that goes with it; laying aside blame, resentment, and embarrassment in order to protect Greg – unless it’s comedically suitable for him to runaway in fear, abandoning his brother to a feral dog. Greg doesn’t necessarily go through the same journey as his brother, but his time in the woods still imparts a measure of maturity into a carefree child who would follow the wind if he thought it would lead him to something fun.

Described as a “comedy-fantasy”, Over the Garden Wall maintains a level of absurdity and the fantastical reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Animals act like humans, attending school or riding a riverboat like the well-to-do, and humans sing ridiculously long songs about lost loves to teach the alphabet or build enormous mansions that end up running into each other. There’s also a darker underlying tone to the mini-series that invokes classic Americana and folk tales. Skeletons dressing up in pumpkins, the woodsman grinding trees for oil to keep his frogslantern lit and his daughter’s soul alive, and an old woman in possession of a pair of scissors capable of turning birds into humans by cutting off their wings are unsettling and frightening images. Which is kind of the point. Neither comedy nor fantasy implies everything will be sunshine and rainbows. There’s plenty of humor to be had, a lot actually, but it’s needed to balance out the darker moments of the story. Over the Garden Wall doesn’t go so far as to have limbs cut off or use gore to frighten the audience, but the imagery of the Beast with his antlers and glowing eyes in the darkness is what sticks with you long after the credits roll. And once you find out which garden wall the title is talking about…well, some things are better left unsaid.

rsz_the_beast_-_2_4613The humor of the mini-series is multi-layered, containing slapstick, quick asides, and straight up nonsense. Beatrice and Wirt exchange quick-witted barbs while Greg goes about his business renaming his pet frog, throwing out candy from his pants, and trumpeting his presence as he marches through the woods with a teapot on his head. My favorite bit, though, belongs to Fred the Horse (voiced by Fred Stoller). In need of money to take the ferry to Adelaide, the Good Woman of the Woods’ house, Beatrice and Fred insist that stealing money from the possibly mad, but very wealthy Quincy Endicott (voiced by John Cleese) is the only option available. When Wirt believes Fred should do as he pleases, he’s free to do as he wants, Fred reiterates this fact. He is free. Free to steal.

Tying everything together is the animation and the music. Based on the designs of Mikkel Sommer, the characters all dress in a manner that has an Old World feel ranging from 19th century European to early 20th century American styles. Until we jump back to see how Wirt and Gregory actually got lost in the first place, any indication that they come from the modern world is moderately doled out over the course of the series. For all intents and purposes, Wirt’s young David the Gnome outfit and Greg’s “elephant” costume fit right in. The art direction from Nick Cross and the animation borrow from multiple styles as well. Though the initial inspiration was Gustave Doré and the “Alice Comedies”, there are deliberate allusions to Hayao Miyazaki in the form of Auntie Whispers (voiced by Tim Curry) and an entire dream sequence in the style of Golden Age cartoons like Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies. Like the animation, the music jumps around from the operatic singing of Samuel Ramey to ragtime and folk music with the occasional earworm jingle like “Potatoes and Molasses” and “To Adelaide”.

For their first foray into animated miniseries, Cartoon Network picked a good one to start with. Over the Garden Wall is well paced, funny, and contains a world full of likable and fearsome characters that should delight children of all ages. The show doesn’t talk down to its audience, trusting young ones and adults alike to see the nuances or just enjoy themselves. It’s definitely a fairy tale worth watching over and over again.

The Book of Life

When you walk out of a movie, any movie, smiling it’s definitely a win, but after the end of writer/director Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life not only was I smiling, I was practically vibrating with anticipation for a sequel because I honestly didn’t want to leave the world of San Angel. There’s a lot to be said for the cultural landscape of animation when you find yourself crying out, “Yes! More of THAT!” because The Book of Life shows us just how much we’re missing out on, how many stories have gone untold. It took Gutierrez fifteen years to get the film made, and those years worth of passion and love for his home country shows in the vibrant, kinetic, and joyous story that is unrelenting in its dedication to throwing the windows wide open on what it means to be Mexican. The Book of Life is Gutierrez’s – and by extension producer Guillermo Del Toro’s – love letter to Mexico and Mexican culture via the celebration of one of the country’s most revered holidays.

Celebrated from October 31st – November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is the embodiment of Mexican culture as families gather in remembrance of their deceased loved ones by building altars and leaving offerings around their graves. But it’s not a somber affair by any means. Music, food, and colorful decorations ensure that death is not something to be feared but is a natural part of life. And it’s through the rituals of the holiday that Mexicans strengthen familial bonds and remain spiritually connected, keeping the memories of those they’ve lost alive. The Book of Life honors those themes while crafting a beautiful fairy tale that will most definitely cast a long shadow over subsequent animated films.

Reading the BookWhen a group of rowdy children show up at a museum, they’re greeted by the unfazed Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) who, in celebration of the Day of the Dead, shows them the Book of Life, which contains all the great stories of Mexico. She relates one in particular, using a set of carved dolls to tell the story of Maria, Manolo, and Joaquin. In the town of San Angel, the three children are playing among the gravestones during Dia de los Muertos when La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, make a wager about which of the two boys Maria will marry. If Xibalba wins and Joaquin marries Maria, he gets to rule the Land of the Remembered, but if La Muerte wins and Manolo marries Maria, then Xibalba will have to leave the humans alone.

Unbeknownst to La Muerte, Xibalba gifts a young Joaquin with a medallion that will make him invulnerable, which he realizes soon after when Maria frees a bunch of pigs from being slaughtered and he effortlessly defends her and the town from an angry boar. Manolo is no slouch either, revealing his gift as a matador to stop the beast and save the little pig Maria sought to free. Angered at his daughter’s feisty and unladylike sensibilities, General Posada (Carlos Alazraqui) sends Maria to Spain to be educated. Before she leaves, Maria gets a final goodbye with her friends, gifting Manolo a new guitar inscribed with the phrase, “Always play from your heart.” Manolo gifts her the little pig, Chewie (also Carlos Alazraqui), and promises to wait for her. Joaquin, lacking a present, vows to always fight for her as the train speeds away.

Years later, Manolo (Diego Luna) has been trained by his father, Carlos Sanchez (Hector Elizondo) to be a bullfighter like his ancestors before him, including his grandmother, though his true desire is playing guitar with his mariachi friends. Joaquin (Channing Tatum), thanks to the medallion, has become a great soldier and hero like his father before him, returning to San Angel the same day as Maria (Zoe Saldana) returns from Spain. The two men both vy for her love and her hand in marriage, but when Xibalba believes he’s losing the bet he makes sure Manolo isn’t even a contender. From there it’s a race for Manolo to return to the Concept Artliving world to be with Maria again and save the town from the dreaded bandit Chakal (Dan Navarro) who’s out to get his medallion back.

The story itself is actually quite simple. While there’s a lot of window dressing with gods, realms, and world-shattering consequences, it really boils down to being true to yourself – a common premise in family films. But through the lens of The Book of Life being true to yourself, standing up for what you think is right and what you believe in – whether it’s defending your town from banditos or choosing the guitar over the sword – is what solidifies how we are remembered. Both Joaquin and Manolo live in the shadows of their family legacies and in trying to live up to those standards they ultimately set the stage for the chaos that follows. Maria, in contrast, is very aware of who she is and it’s her encouragement and love that leads the two friends down their desired paths. She too has a legacy to uphold and she proves herself to be every bit the leader the Posadas desire. Not only is this a hero’s journey, it’s the journey of an entire community.

The simplicity of the story allows for the film to revel in the culture of Mexico, using the bright colors, energetic music, and stunning art to build the worlds of the living and the dead. Jorge Gutierrez has been quoted saying that he wanted the film to look as beautiful as the art book for an animated film looks and my God did Reel FX Creative Studios deliver. The settings are grand and gorgeous and the designs of the characters are distinct and wonderfully original. Because Mary Beth is using carved figures to tell the story, the people of San Angel look like wooden figures, which shows in the angular build of the characters and the static movement of hair and clothes. The designs, however, don’t limit the characters or the settings. In fact, the choice to tell the story through doll-like figures allows for more detail. The many medals on Joaquin’s uniform, the intricate carvings in Manolo’s guitar, as well as La Muerte’s catrina visage and Xibalba’s Aztecan armor all invite closer scrutiny. You should want to press your face to the screen in order to take it all in.

La Muerte and XibalbaThe cast alone should be reason enough to see the film. Other reviews I’ve read have claimed Channing Tatum’s performance stands out the most and I’m inclined to agree. It isn’t hard to see where the story is going and who Maria will end up with, but Tatum’s Joaquin never lacks personality despite being the overconfident jock to Manolo’s sensitive musician. There’s a surprising amount of depth to his character and Tatum does a wonderful job of capturing Joaquin’s arrogance as well as his deep love and affection for Maria and Manolo. Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana aren’t slackers by any means. Luna’s Manolo is charming, mischievous, and lovable. There’s a believable earnestness and sincerity about the character that is entirely Luna’s making. And Saldana’s Maria is more than just the pretty love interest. She’s a capable woman with a mind of her own and she isn’t afraid to speak out when she’s offended. But she also knows how to have fun, sporting a laugh that’s delightfully infectious. However, I’d have to say that Kate del Castillo and Ron Perlman steal the movie for me as La Muerte and Xibalba. The characters and their actors have great chemistry, bickering like an old married couple (which they are) that just happen to be otherworldly gods. Both possess fiery tempers, literally, but both are just as easily soothing and calming. I mean, it’s Ron Perlman. C’mon! Filling out the cast are fantastic actors like Cheech Marin, Gabriel Iglesias, Danny Trejo, Grey DeLisle, Miguel Sandoval, Placido Domingo, and Ice Cube as The Candle Maker.

Like the designs and the brilliant color palette, the music in The Book of Life is just as important in telling the story and shows how specific cultural influences can affect songs and their meaning. The soundtrack to The Book of Life is mostly pop songs, sung by the actors, ranging from Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” to Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”. It’s an eclectic mix of songs with two originals written by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla. At first I was a bit put off by the jukebox musical unfolding and, to be honest, I’m still not certain Radiohead’s “Creep” was the most appropriate song for a film like this, but I give a huge amount of credit to Santaolalla for the movie’s score and the fusion of Latin American music and pop songs. Though the audience seeing the film may not be of Hispanic, Latin American, or Mexican descent, music is a shared language and many of us remember these songs, which gives audiences a THE BOOK OF LIFEcommon ground through which to relate to the story and the characters. There are also little pieces of music that show Santaolalla’s cleverness, like the nuns singing “Adios, Maria” in the style of “Ave Maria” or the use of Kinky’s “Más” whenever Joaquin goes into super soldier mode. It’s a soundtrack and score that has a distinct identity, something that other animated films tend to lack.

Hopefully The Book of Life will become a classic of the holiday season because it deserves the attention of children, parents, and really any fan of animation. It’s a cultural celebration of life and death, bringing families and friends together to remember the ones we love and giving us all permission to “play from the heart.”