Because fans should be critical, too

Essays and Rants

Quick Thoughts on “Zootopia”

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Having seen the movie twice, I have a few things to say about Disney’s Zootopia. These are general thoughts, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers. (For the record, I’d recommend everyone see the movie at least once.)

– I don’t think any recent Disney animated feature has left me as cold as Zootopia did. It is probably the most mechanical, by-the-numbers approach to a premise that—as witnessed in its few truly inventive sequences—could have been much more entertaining, and ultimately could have gotten its message across in a more nuanced manner than in its ham-fisted handling in the actual film.

Zootopia wants to do two things: 1) create a funny world of anthropomorphic animals that’s essentially a mirror for modern day society, much like Futurama created a futuristic world to reflect and satirize the present day; and 2) present a serious tale about overcoming bias and stereotypes in order to live in harmony. These two goals are not compatible, at least not under the sanctimonious gaze of Disney and John “Grandpa” Lasseter. After all, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? To admit how stupid the basic premise is—and it’s pretty stupid—would severely undermine the anti-profiling message, which the film wants us to take very seriously.

– But it’s clear that, while making the movie, the creators just couldn’t resist the occasional wisecrack or high-octave silliness made possible by the premise. Not only are those little occasions the best part of the movie, they get to the heart of the prejudice issue better than the scenes that literally deal with the prejudice issue (in those instances, and there are a few of them, the movie stops dead, and you’re not sure whether you want to leave the theater or watch it burn down). Watching the protagonist, Judy Hopps, overachieve as a meter maid or chasing down a thief is a lot of fun because we’re allowed to laugh at the absurdity of it all and cheer on our optimistic hero against these crazy odds (i.e. as the first bunny police officer, her tiny size compared to her huge colleagues is just one of a few handicaps she must overcome). On the other hand, her childhood confrontation with a bullying fox and the montage of her training days, while interspersed with gags, only function to aggrandize our hero and her wonderful qualities that we should emulate. These scenes are obvious, painful, and manipulative, and clearly meant to give our hero’s character arc some gravitas.

– I mentioned Futurama earlier, and Zootopia, at its best, captures the madcap stupid-smart sense of humor of that series and similar works (in fact, one of Futurama’s original directors, Rich Moore of The Simpsons and Wreck-It Ralph, is one of the three directors of Zootopia). Had they pushed that angle to the foreground and stuck with it, Zootopia would probably be one of the funniest animated features ever made. Unfortunately, not only were the creators too ambitious—hence the anti-bias message—but they tried to please everyone, fitting in jokes that, while cute, make little sense in context (at one point, “Everybody Hurts” plays on a radio, and it’s not even a cute animal version, it’s the actual song), outdated parodies (Shark Tale already beat the Godfather jokes to a pulp twelve years ago, and even that was outdated), heartwarming moments between Judy and Nick Wilde, a criminal fox turned partner-in-crime, and, most idiotically, a scientific explanation for how the animals came to be civilized.

– This last point is a key component to the movie’s (oddly effective) mystery plot, so I’ll refrain from spoiling anything if you haven’t seen Zootopia. I will, however, observe that, for a universe founded on the idea that animals were once savage, but evolved past their brutish ways to live in harmony, there is not one single mention of religion. I don’t know whether to applaud or condemn the movie for this blatant omission, especially since it’s a such great missed opportunity for a “lamb of God” joke. (Given the corporate, committee-approved feel of the movie, I have no doubt that, even if such a joke was tossed around a lot during production, it was systematically whimpered out of the final cut to avoid offended Middle American God-fearers.)

– The closest thing to a religious maxim in the film is the central motto of Zootopia: “Where anyone can be anything!”Judy believes this with all her heart, and it inspires her to want to become a police officer. Naturally, this is met with skepticism by everyone, including her parents, her town, and everyone on the police service. The problem with this conflict is that they make it all about Judy being a bunny and not about her being incompetent, a problem which could have been alleviated by having at least one or two other smaller animals in subordinate positions at the station (imagine: a Spalax in charge of surveillance!). We all know Judy will get respect and a promotion in the end, so why make the journey getting there so bloodless and boring?

– Without resorting to spoilers, I’ll say that the mystery plot is actually really intriguing for the entire second act of the movie. It’s resolution, unfortunately, is kind of dumb, and really disappointing. Let’s put it this way: had the movie gone the direction I thought the movie was going in with the mystery, I’d agree with Peter Travers that Zootopia had “balls.” Sorry, Travers, but this movie is as lacking in any discernable genitalia as its animal characters.

– Speaking of genitalia, there is an extended scene revolving around a group of animals who call themselves “naturalists,” meaning they don’t wear clothes. This being a typical cartoon, the animals have no visual genitals, so their nakedness is not offensive to the audience, but in-universe, it’s an affront to poor little Judy’s innocence seeing an animal with no clothes on. Bonus points for the scene taking place in a yoga lounge, so the many suggestive positions the “naked” animals take is the main source of hilarity. If only this was in a smarter movie.

– I take that back. If anything, the movie is too smart and too self-aware. This is the most self-referential Disney film in a few years. At one point, Judy’s boss tells her that life is not some animated musical where all your dreams come true. (And then he ends that thought with three words that I won’t reveal; rest assured, I nearly walked out of the theater.)

– And it’s not just Disney movies being referenced: nearby every clichéd animal character ever designed finds its way into Zootopia, from mice out of a Don Bluth movie to a weasel straight out of a Warner Bros cartoon.

– The weasel (named Duke Weselton, and voiced by Alan Tudyk, aka Disney Animation’s John Ratzenburger) is probably my favorite character in the movie, which is saying something, because I’m usually the biggest Jason Bateman fan, but Nick Wilde comes in second.

– All the vocal performances are great—as per usual for Disney—but I have a minor nerdy nitpick. Good as Ginnifer Goodwin is as Judy (and she’s marvelous), I couldn’t help but feel that she and Amy Poehler had been cast in the wrong movies. Goodwin should have been the ever-optimistic Joy in Inside Out, and Poehler should have been the ever-optimistic Judy in Zootopia. I can imagine Poehler and Jason Bateman be able to trade even sharper jabs at each other. Actually, I have a major nerdy nitpick: why didn’t Kath Soucie (who voices the young Nick Wilde) voice Judy?! Would the forged continuity from Soucie’s Lola Bunny in Space Jam to Judy in Zootopia be too meta for a generation raised on cartoons?

Oh, and that Shakira song sucks.


In Which “The Force Awakens” The Grinch Within…

I can’t say it’s all that surprising that I was disappointed with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I only watched out of “cultural obligation” (and the fact that my friends voted me down when I wanted to see Sisters instead). What completely bowls me over, however, is how unanimous the praise has been from just about everyone else I’ve come in contact with, even from the most hard-nosed Star Wars fans (particularly those who hated the prequels). Everyone I’ve talked to had a very calm and rational explanation for moments I found questionable, characterizations I found flat and uninspired, and plot points I found bizarre and/or recycled from Star Wars: A New Hope. In fact, it’s the very rationality of their responses that leave me in doubt as to whether they actually enjoyed the movie or if they simply convinced themselves that they did.

Still, the enthusiasm I’ve encountered has been genuine, and I only wish I enjoyed the movie as much as they did. Lord knows I wanted to, and I certainly came into the movie with few expectations, positive, negative or otherwise. And yet, the movie threw too many obstacles in the way of my viewing experience for me to be completely engaged with the story and its characters. The feeling, after the movie was over, was one of being let down yet again by someone I’d previously trusted. It’s the same feeling I had with Book One of Korra, Frozen, and, most recently, Spectre (which is not the worst James Bond film I’ve ever seen, but definitely the worst I’ve seen in theaters, and definitely made worse by the fact that it followed the supremely entertaining Skyfall).

It’s likely that you’ve seen The Force Awakens by this point, but just in case, I’ll refrain from spoilers and state simply my main issues with the movie.

First of all, I found Rey to be a complete flatline of a protagonist for much the same reasons I tended to find Korra rather boring. By trying to make sure she came across as a Strong Female Character™, the filmmakers failed to give her any actual character, as well as provide her with any real obstacles that would have tested that character if she had any. Things come to her just a little too easily for her journey to be of any real interest. Whatever back story she has going for her adds little dimension to her personality. Still, she has agency, a kind heart, can hold her own in a fight, isn’t completely helpless, and played extremely well by Daisy Ridley, which I suppose is good enough for a Star Wars movie–just like Korra’s gymnastics were good enough for an American animated children’s show and the lack of romance in Frozen was good enough for a Disney Princess™ movie (in which “good enough,” of course, translates to “progressive”).

The standard retort I’ve found with Rey is that her story is basically Luke’s, and his character and story arc weren’t the deepest or most believable either. Why that’s license to give Rey even less depth and believability, I’m not sure. At least Luke got his ass kicked every once and a while, and as improbable as his victory in blowing up the Death Star was, that entire sequence had more build-up, tension, reversals, stakes, and excitement than anything that happens in The Force Awakens. (Hell, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what actually happened beat-by-beat in the movie, which is a problem in itself.)

I found both Finn and Poe to be marginally better (again, largely thanks to the performances of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, respectively), but still lacking in terms of actual character. Some of Finn’s comic moments went a little too far for my tastes (a misunderstood head nod from Han Solo is particularly cringeworthy), and Poe–for reasons I’ll leave unexplained–simply isn’t on-screen long enough to make a lasting impression. (Also, the fact that Poe gives Finn his name could have a potentialky racist subtext, but I’m probably just overthinking what should be a bonding moment between these two characters who have just met and are helping each other escape the New Order).

On the plus side, Kylo Ren is a great villain, played surprisingly well by Adam Driver. And isn’t it nice to see Harrison Ford actually having fun in a movie again? (There’s another Korra parallel: the older actors/characters and villains are much more enjoyable to watch than the protagonists!)

Had I liked the characters more, I doubt the rest of the issues I had with the movie would have bothered me too much. Like the fact that it’s filled to the brim with that sort of awkward meta-humor that’s become the norm in mainstream films and that I’ve grown to despise. The first scene between Kylo Ren and Poe–in which Poe points out an awkward silence and then complains about not being able to understand Kylo’s voice through his mask–belongs in a Youtube parody, not the actual movie.

Then there are lines that just should have been left on the cutting room floor. At one point, Finn and the R2-D2 ball named BB-8 (who I otherwise hardly remember in the movie) are arguing about something, and Finn responds with the line, “Droid, please!” I don’t know who should be more ashamed: Boyega for ad-libbing the line, or J.J. Abrams for keeping it in the movie (if, indeed, the line was ad-libbed and not written in the script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, or Michael Arndt, which would be even weirder). Also, when the X-Wing fighters arrive, one of the pilots says to the captain, “Right behind ya, bro!” Since when did “bro” enter the Star Wars lexicon?

Perhaps I’m a fool for letting these little things bother me and stifle what entertainment value could be found in this movie. Perhaps I simply expected too much from a Star Wars movie. Sure, Star Wars has always been cheesy, but it was never stupid. And above all, it was completely sincere and honest about itself. The filmmakers behind The Force Awakens are too smart and self-aware for their own good, injecting a cynical wink-wink quality into a franchise that was successful precisely because such knowing cynicism didn’t spoil the picture. The fact that it not only pervades the new movie but goes by unnoticed–or, at least, completely rationalized–by most people is a fairly grim sign of the times. Back then, it was a miracle that Star Wars could be accomplished at all, let alone also be a good movie. Paradoxically, the ubiquity of Star Wars nowadays makes a new entry into the franchise easy to accomplish, but harder to make worthwhile.

Simply put, I find it hard to believe that this was the best Abrams and company could come up with. We’ve already had Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, two more sequels with even less of a reason for existing than The Force Awakens, and yet both were much more imaginative, consistent, and thoroughly entertaining than they had any right to be. Then again, with George Miller’s recent Happy Feet credentials and Tom Cruise’s ever-fading popularity, maybe those films had more going against them and felt the need to push harder against expectations. After all, The Force Awakens didn’t have to be as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back (or even Return of the Jedi, which is currently receiving a strange, but not entirely unwarranted retroactive backlash upon Star Wars fans); it just had to be better than the prequels.

In other words, it had to be “good enough.” And so it was, much to the world’s delight, and my personal disappointment.

Merry Christmas!


Thoughts on the Series Finale of “Korra”

There are two specific moments in the Book Four finale that resonated with me in contrary, but peculiar ways.

The first moment occurs at the end, and it involves everything with Korra and Asami. Now, let’s say you’re an unsuspecting viewer with no prior knowledge of The Legend of Korra, and you just happen to catch these last few minutes of the series. You’d be excused for thinking this was the culmination of a relationship between two women who’d been through Hell and back together, and now wanted to take some time away with to relax and enjoy each other’s company. On it’s own, it’s a touching moment. (And I agree with JMR that the implications of a lesbian relationship in a kid’s show is pretty damn cool.)

Unfortunately, as seasoned viewers of Korra know, this moment is supposed to be the pay-off to four seasons worth of material. But where was the set-up? Where in the rest of the story did the writers plant the expectation in the audience’s head that these two should be together like this? Perhaps it counts as a hint when Korra and Asami wrote each other letters during the three-year gap between Book Three and Book Four. In one episode, Korra specifically states she only felt comfortable writing to Asami. But even that development comes out of nowhere (though it does get addressed in another episode, which helps). As much as I’d love for this ending between Korra and Asami to work, from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t. It feels forced and unnatural. I can’t go, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” because my brain is making me go, “Where the fuck did that come from?”

Contrast this with the second moment, which occurs right after Korra has saved Kuvira from her own death ray gun, opened a new spirit portal, and transported them both to the Spirit World. Upon entry, Korra is holding an unconscious Kuvira in her arms (in a manner uncharacteristically maternal for Korra, which adds to the effect). Here’s the kicker: Kuvira wakes up, realizes she’s in the Avatar’s arms, releases a genuinely terrified whimper and jumps out of Korra’s arms.

Initially, I expected Kuvira to stay weak and vulnerable in Korra’s arms as they went into the usual spiel of “You saved my life! Why?” That expectation was usurped by Kuvira simply because she’s not the kind of person to allow herself to be weak and vulnerable, especially not in the presence of her greatest enemy, let alone in her arms. (Listen to that whimper Zelda Williams does once Kuvira starts pulling away from Korra. It sounds frightened, but also embarrassed. Since when in the Hell is Kuvira ever embarrassed?)

This little window into Kuvira’s psyche reveals more about her than even the following sob story about her childhood as an orphan (that said, it does make her repulsion at being in such a child-like state in Mama Korra’s arms that much more intriguing). Like the best and most effective bits of character development, our understanding of the character comes from not what she says, but from our expectations being subverted/affirmed by her emotional reality. In this brief little moment, Kuvira has no choice but to be herself, even if it’s completely irrational. In hindsight, what else would she have done?

These two relatively brief moments are the only ones that really stood out to me in the entire two-part finale. Had you checked my pulse throughout the rest of the finale, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was dead. That’s how bored I was. Not that there weren’t nice little touches here and there—the fight between Kuvira and Korra in the head of the Giant Mecha Suit was brilliantly accomplished, and I personally loved everything having to do with Varrick and Zhu Li, but they really deserve their own show—but for the most part, it played out so blandly. Moments that should have been tense and exhilarating don’t have the impact they should. Moments that should be emotional lack characters and motivations strong enough to warrant such investment (particularly bad when it comes to the fate of Hiroshi Sato, who the writers reconnected with his daughter only so he could take part in the final boss battle). Any scene involving the Giant Mecha Suit comes across as silly and non-threatening (watching that thing try to swat away its airborne attackers falls somewhere between being really funny and really stupid). And on top of everything, the level of destruction in these episodes damn near made me sick. This could just be a personal thing, but after enduring Transformers, The Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Godzilla, and especially Man of Steel (one of the absolute worst movie-going experiences of my life), I’m tired of all this reckless property and collateral damage. They should have spent less time destroying Republic City and more time making sure we actually cared about the folks caught in the chaos.

Much like the rest of the series, the finale contains one wasted opportunity after another. As much as I despise the Giant Mecha Suit, it did provide a brilliant conceit: because Kuvira is Metalbending to the Suit, she can feel everything that happens to it. That explains how she could tell Hiroshi was cutting into her leg with the Hummingbird ship (because she certainly couldn’t look down to see it). The idea that Kuvira was personally enduring the damage brought upon the Giant Mecha Suit would have made for some interesting drama, especially in the scene where she rips her right arm off when the gun no longer works. None of this really comes into play, though, probably because they didn’t have time (or the budget, for that matter) to fully realize the potential of all their ideas. What a pity.

Still, what works does work well. Despite the typically stilted dialogue, I rathed liked Korra’s final scene with Tenzin, even though it reminded me that Tenzin was one of the worst casualities of Korra‘s messy, unfocused execution. And it was nice to see Kuvira, if not redeemed, at least surrender on her own terms. And seeing the Bei Fong sisters in action is always fun.

Overall, though, this was the most disappointing finale of the entire series, which is odd to think about. Book One’s finale infuriated me. Book Two’s finale baffled me. Book Three’s finale physically made me sick. And now this finale made me feel almost nothing. Unless I’ve just grown numb after four seasons, I simply don’t understand how this could happen. How could a series with so much going for it from the start devolve into such a mess? How is this a worthy follow-up to Avatar: the Last Airbender? I honestly wonder if creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko just stopped caring at some point, and just wanted to get the whole thing over with. What will their next project be? Will they try to separate themselves from the Avatar universe as much as possible? Or will they be stuck having to make those Avatar comics for the rest of their lives?

Whatever the case, Korra is finally done, and all I’m left with is the nagging regret of someone whose wasted a good part of their life devoted to a relationship that was never really there to begin with. (Now I’m just being dramatic, and I apologize.)

The good news, though, is that now I’m that much more excited to re-watch Avatar!


I Can’t Believe It’s Almost Over…

It’s a bit strange to think that, in just a few days, The Legend of Korra will come to an end. After four seasons and two-and-a-half years, the spin-off of Avatar: the Last Airbender will no longer be around.* No more new episodes to tune in to, on the Internet or otherwise. No more adventures of Korra, who only just started to grow on me this season. No more relevant updates from creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who will probably forever be caught in the existential trappings of a hardcore fandom and anime conventions. No more bizarre developments to bitch and moan about (like that Giant Mech Suit, which I’ll talk about in a moment). No more missed/wasted opportunities to tell a good story within the confines of an American animated children’s program.

I’m actually tearing up just thinking about it.

To alleviate (exacerbate?) my grief, I started leafing through the “Art of” book for Book One of Korra. Every new page made me more wistful than the last. Here I am going through the selected concepts, ideas, sketches, background paintings, key animation sheets, etc., of what will probably be the last great traditionally-animated television show ever produced (and it wasn’t even that good). How did a show with the potential to revolutionize what could be done with American animated children’s programming devolve into such a joyless and pretentious enterprise? How did we go from the Equalists (who, for all their dirty tactics, made some damn good points about the marginalization of Non-Benders in the Avatar universe) to a Giant Mech Suit straight out of C-grade anime?

And let me make this absolutely clear: I hate Kuriva’s Giant Mech Suit. It fails on every possible level. Aesthetically, it doesn’t match up with the mostly traditionally-animated atmosphere of the series. Viscerally, it lacks any sense of weight and scale necessary to make us feel its terrifying presence. Thematically, it’s silly and obvious. Dramatically, it reduces the human drama to a video game.** Intellectually, all bets are off: Kuvira is most definitely crazy, and beyond redemption and empathy. Emotionally, it’s void: how am I supposed to be invested in something I don’t believe has any right to exist in this universe? How am I supposed to relate to the characters if they can’t even relate to the gravity of their own situation? Not one character seems bothered that a giant robot being controlled by an evil dictator—on the face of it, a gruesomely nightmarish idea—is going to destroy their city. Wouldn’t the very sight of such a monstrosity cause even a hint of shock and awe? By comparison, Seth Rogen’s reaction to the giant, well-endowed demon of Hell in This Is The End was more plausible. Yes, a Seth Rogen comedy about the apocalypse was more believable than this new development in a serious fantasy drama. (And you know what? I bet Rogen’s new film The Interview will contain a much more nuanced portrayal of an evil dictator than we have here in Kuvira.)

Are my tribulations unfounded? Could the last two episodes actually save the series from utter disgrace? Have DiMartino, Konietzko, and company found a way to redeem the many missed opportunities and mistakes they’ve made up to this point?

I honestly don’t think so. History certainly isn’t on their side: every single season finale of Korra has been horrendous, and they’ve gotten worse each season (though I’ll give Book Three a pass because it finally helped humanize Korra in my eyes). First, Aang gave Korra back her Bending when she was in no position to deserve it. That happened in the last three or so minutes. Then, there was the completely nonsensical (or “spiritual,” as Konietzko called it) fight between a giant blue Korra and a giant red Unalaq. That lasted almost an entire episode.

Now here’s a Giant Mech Suit that Korra must find a way to take down (only because she promised Dante Basco that she would). Two episodes to go? What’s going to happen? Will Korra become the Blue Giant again and wrestle it out with the Giant Mech Suit? While that’s happening, will the others and Bataar, Jr. sneak into the suit, find Kuvira, and distract her with Bataar, Jr.’s presence? Maybe Bataar, Jr., having nothing else to live for—he betrayed his family, and now his own lover just tried to kill him—will initiate the second known murder-suicide in the Avatar universe by destroying himself, Kuvira, and the Giant Mech Suit. Maybe Blue Giant Korra will deliver an uppercut that sends Kuvira and her Giant Mech Suit to spend their remaining breathes in outer space. (Now I’m just getting silly.)

If this wild speculation tells you anything, it’s that I hungrily await these last two episodes of Korra. Good or bad, redeeming or damning, tear or rage-inducing, whatever they are, I’ll be tuning. I don’t know if it’s for completionist’s sake (I mean, it’s only two more episodes), or masochism, or plain curiosity to see how much worse (or better!) it could actually get, but facts are facts: for two more episodes, I am a faithful viewer. Only when it’s over will I be able to adequately evaluate what exactly it was I was faithful to.***

*On television, anyway. As far as I know, they’ll still be making Avatar and Korra comics as long as they make money from devoted fans.

**In all fairness, while the Giant Mech Suit itself is beyond idiotic, from a strictly formal standpoint, its reveal was absolutely brilliant. Despite their flaws as storytellers, DiMartino and Konietzko are masters of the element of surprise. Maybe they learned it from working with M. Night Shyamalan.

***On a completely unrelated note, happy 40th birthday, P.J. Byrne!

Take Two:


Quick Impressions of “Kuvira’s Gambit”

Has it come to this? Is this what we were waiting for? Were Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra nothing more than an extended preview to a video game? Have we finally reached the final boss? Will Korra have to hypercharge into her Giant Mega Form (as last seen in the nauseating finale of Book Two)?

Perhaps I’d be more open to accepting this new plot development if the Giant Mecha Suit looked like it belonged within the Avatar universe on at least an aesthetic level. As executed in the episode, this lumbling CG travesty looks like it was imported directly from a PlayStation 2 release. Where were the Miyazaki-inspired intuitions of creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko when this came into development? (Or maybe they were thinking of Neon Genesis Evangelion.) Maybe this would have played out better with a cinema-level budget, as opposed to the comparatively meager budgets of television animation. Then again, this isn’t the first time something was compromised by Book Four’s budget cut. Remember the clips show episode “Remembrances?”

Forgive me if I dwell too much on my hatred of the very existence of this Giant Mecha Suit. My judgment of this entire episode has been clouded by it. I could have sworn that the rest of the episode played out like video game cut scenes, complete with strategies on how to defeat the giant boss (for the multi-player effect), and even a concept for a stealth level: kidnapp Bataar, Jr. and bring him back to the hideout.

Speaking of Bataar, Jr., my tribulations with voice actor Todd Haberkorn’s performance have proven justified. The entire sequence in which his love for Kuvira proves to be his undoing –she’d rather lose him trying to defeat the Avatar rather than save him to secure a happy relationship during peace time–loses much of its power thanks to his unconvincing slimeball delivery. (Zelda Williams, on the other hand, provided just enough nuance to her short lines with Bataar, Jr. to make you feel her dilemma.) Had Haberkorn been up to snuff, this could have been a nice little scene. It may have even redeemed the stupidity of the Giant Mecha Suit by attaching it to an emotional beak of the story.

I’m afraid, dear readers. We only have two more episodes to go. Every season finale has gotten longer and more horrible. Book Two’s finale was twice as bad (and lasted much longer) as the Book One finale. We’re approaching the finale of Book Four. Will this finale be twice as bad as Book Two’s? Mathematically, it seems feasible. What are we in for?

Maybe I’ll just being silly. What did you all think of this episode?


Quick Impressions on “Beyond the Wilds”

Let’s start with the good news.

The good news is that the final four episodes of The Legend of Korra will be on television! There’s a slight compromise here–they’ll be on Nicktoons instead of the official Nickelodeon channel–but don’t let that cloud the issue. Korra is back on the televised grid, and that’s cause enough for celebration.

The bad news has to do with “Beyond the Wilds.”

The problems I have with this episode have been addressed in one way or another in previous reviews, and to address these now, with four more episodes to go in the series, would be unseemly. And let’s face it: after the horrors of “Remembrances,” the series can’t possibly sink any lower than that. As such, I’ll try to refrain from nipping at poor formal choices unless something truly egregious happens.

So for now, I’ll just discuss what’s good about “Beyond the Wilds.” And there is plenty.

For one thing, the reunion of Korra and Zaheer came as a complete surprise, yet made perfect sense within the logic of the story. Even more remarkable is that it is he who is responsible for helping Korra out of her spiritual block, thanks to their shared goal of ending Kuvira’s reign of power. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but seeing Korra finally get back into the Spirit World after all this time was actually cathartic. I haven’t been this happy for Korra in a long time.

Actually, I’ve never been happy for Korra before. Guys, I think this girl is starting to grow on me! (And only four more episodes to go? How cruel!)

Meanwhile, Varrick and Bolin have made it to Republic City and gone their separate ways. The dynamic duo may have split, but at least they’re still very funny (if John Michael Higgins and P.J. Byrne had a podcast, I’d listen in, no matter the subject matter).

All-in-all, a good episode. Let’s see what next week has in store for us.

Before I end this, I do have a quasi-criticism that I’ve been meaning to address for some time now: what is the deal with Opal? She seems so…angry and narrow-headed, especially towards Bolin. She strikes me like one of those college-level environmental activists who just recently became an environmental activist, with all the passion and none of the poise of a veteran activist, spouting their beliefs and statistics, guilt tripping unsuspecting passerbys with almost fascist glee. And what’s with that ultimatum that Bolin can “win her back” (what is this, the 50s?) on the condition that he helps her rescue her family? Bolin, buddy! You need to stop falling into these unhealthy relationships!

Am I the only one who feels this way about Opal? Or this episode, for that matter?


Happy Anniversary to the “Avatar” Blog!

As of this past Sunday, I’ve been running this Avatar: the Last Airbender blog for three years. Is three years a long time? It certainly seems like it, especially to have been committed to maintaining a blog devoted to a single animated children’s show. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about Avatar, but don’t let that cloud the issue. Avatar is a very special show deserving of higher praise and analysis than I think it gets on average, and I’m eager to revisit it after The Legend of Korra has come to an end.

In other words, I’m much more excited to spend the time and effort needed to keep this blog alive than I’d been, say, a year ago. I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot since then—it’s hard to tell—and what I’ve learned, I’d liked to apply to this blog, making it better than it’s been in the past. How? I’m not entirely sure, but a key word that comes to mind is openness. This openness involves both myself and my general readership.

For me, I’m making a conscious effort to open up my critical approach. Tox, a relatively new commenter on this blog, has illuminated some rather glaring flaws in my writing process (flaws which, upon brutal self-reflection and extemporaneous readings, I now recognize as having seriously hindered a respectful analysis of Avatar and Korra). To fix these issues, I’ll need to write more, while remaining conscious of where my biases and lack of knowledge gets in the way. I won’t totally abandon my more subjective, more personal approach, but it won’t be as egregious as it’s been in the past (I’d hate to hold up “The Southern Raiders” as the greatest episode without any objective and formal evidence to support my claim, regardless of my personal feelings).

As for the general readership: I can’t remember who suggested this, but I love the idea of making the Avatar reviews much more democratic. As opposed to the old model—in which I give my full thoughts on an episode, with little room for dialogue—perhaps the way it’s been going lately (with the quick impressions, followed by further discussion and elaboration from commenters) should be the standard for the future. Everyone here is so civil and articulate, even in disagreement, and I’ve really loved the responses to the individual episodes of Book Four. I think such a dialogue can only improve once our attentions are focused on the entire series in the retrospect (and in lieu of the production history). I’m still pondering this one, but it feels like the right way to go.

In the meantime: 1) there are still a few more episodes of Korra to go before the franchise comes to an end (and, judging by Korra‘s eventual slide out of the time slots of cable television, there will be no further on-screen stories or developments in the rich and intriguing Avatar universe), and those have to be dealt with as they come; and 2) among other things, the Frozen video review is still underway and taking up much of my free time. How much time? Enough to realize that my issues with Frozen go way beyond the movie itself—which is a typically well-made, moderately entertaining American feature-length animated movie—to the culture that surrounds it and made it such a massive success. I can’t say anymore that, since I want to save it for the actual review, but I will repeat a single observation: it’s frightening how thoroughly this latest generation has been swayed by nostalgia for even the most insipid products of our childhoods in the midst of late capitalism. [This has also affected the Avatar franchise, resulting in episodes like “The Headband” and “The Beach,” which pay awkward homage to the 80s films that creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko grew up with. The terrible love triangle of Book One and Two of Korra also hints at this postmodern self-indulgence (ominously calling to mind a belief of film critic Pauline Kael that a collaboration, or a “joint authorship…usually means a shared shallowness”).]

In a way, the issues I have with both Korra and Frozen are one in the same: their inherit progressive potential is squandered by their poor storytelling. Who knows what affect Korra could have had on the public consciousness had its creators fully adhered to the pragmatic needs of good narrative and entertainment. Who knows how much more meaningful Frozen could have been had it been conceived as more than a self-conscious continuation of the “Disney legacy.”

Maybe all these things and more will be speculated in the following year. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m excited to see where we go from here. I hope you all are, too.