Let the Sweet Nice Things Be

I watch cartoons. I know that’s a bit of a weird thing for a twentysomething to admit, but I’m not ashamed of it. “Grown-up” television just doesn’t appeal to me as much, if I’m honest, and the “grown-up” shows I do watch tend to have elements of the fantastic that are present in the animated shows I love as well.

One of my favorite cartoons at the moment is Steven Universe. It’s a sweet science-fantasy show with a diverse cast, incredible worldbuilding, and excellent character development. It’s maybe only one of the mainstream cartoons on today where there are more female characters than male characters, and even though the main character is a boy, he eschews many of the traditional tropes of boyhood seen in such cartoons.

The thing that most sticks out to me about SU, though, is its fundamental kindness. Scary, sometimes dark, things happen. One of the current overarching plots involves the murder of a powerful Gem by Steven’s mother long, long before he was born. But always, every time, the show resorts to kindness and compassion first and foremost. Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, is often talked about in tandem with love—love for the planet Earth, love for her friends, love for all living things. That love is evident in Steven’s character as well, and it colors almost all his actions. Love is a powerful force in all the characters’ lives, and its importance is one of the bedrocks of the show’s themes.

Steven Universe is, in short, a sweet, nice thing. It never gives in to despair. Even the antagonists have more to them than meets the eye.

So what I don’t understand is people who insist that all that is just a facade for a darker, nastier story.

I saw a post on tumblr today with a theory to this end: it held that Rose Quartz was abusive and manipulative towards Pearl (one of the show’s main characters, who is in love with Rose as well). It said that Rose manipulated Pearl into committing the aforementioned murder, and that Rose had Steven to escape the mess she made. (I should note here that Rose is an alien who could only give birth to Steven by giving up her physical form.) And while the show is dealing with the consequences of Rose’s past actions in many ways, it has never posited something like this.

What I’m driving towards is a larger point: why do some fans insist that sweet, nice shows (many of them made for children) are actually dark and unpleasant and mean? What drives that cynicism, that something kind is actually a lie?

Cynicism is not a foreign concept to me. I live with dysthymia and I’ve had major depression in the past. I understand thinking nice things are lies to cover up nastier things. But when I find something good, and sweet, and kind, I have never immediately jumped to the conclusion that it’s all a lie, and the REAL story is much darker. When I find nice things, I want to keep them, because sometimes my life lacks those kinds of things.

I suppose some of it comes from young people who want to seem mature. The person who wrote that theory I mentioned above wasn’t very far out of their teens. I had a lot of story ideas about people dying or being traumatized and such like when I was a teenager. I thought the edginess made me seem older, I’m sure. Darkness and edginess and cynicism are seen as “cool” in some ways: you’re grown up because you can see the world as it really is, you think.

But the world isn’t just dark and cruel, though in times like these it certainly seems so. Good things happen just as often as the bad ones, and there are more kind people in the world than nasty ones. That’s what I believe, anyway. We need more things that see through to that kindness and bring it into the light. Making them dark because it’s “cooler” invalidates everything they stand for, in my opinion.

Kindness and compassion are brave, not childish and pointless. Steven Universe underlines this again and again, and I hope as the show goes on that more and more people will realize this.

On the Virtue of Letting Things Be Things

So a trailer came out for Guillermo del Toro’s new movie:

Needless to say, I am pretty excited. Del Toro always has such great monsters, and already this has the feel of a non-traditional fairy tale. December is a long time to wait, but I’ll make it.

But then I perused the comments of the video.

About every other one was seizing on two things:

  1. The fishman in the trailer is played by del Toro vet Doug Jones.
  2. Del Toro previously directed the two Hellboy films, which feature as part of the cast the character Abe Sapien, a fishman played by Doug Jones.

This, to many of them, clearly meant that the fishman is somehow connected to Abe Sapien, and that therefore The Shape of Water is a prequel or otherwise connected to del Toro’s Hellboy films.

You hear that sound? That was my eyes rolling out of my head and across the abyssal plain of the oceans.

I sort of understand this compulsion to connect things up. Humans are good at seeing patterns, and many times we will see patterns where there actually aren’t any. The past decade’s spate of cinematic universes and extended universes and so on hasn’t helped things. People can and do and are encouraged to pick up on the slightest detail and demonstrate how it connects to something that may in some ways be unrelated.

But I think we’re losing something when we do that. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I think it’s fine and dandy for what it is. But not everything has to be connected.

It is okay to just let things be things.

Let things exist on their own. They don’t have to be connected to an overarching universe to be good or interesting or worthy of our time and attention. Original stories are not bad. They’re actually very good, and del Toro is one of the few directors today who’s interested in providing those kinds of stories.

Another example of this ridiculous “everything is connected” nonsense is the people who insist, loudly and at length, that all the Pixar movies take place in the same universe. This because, for example, Pixar has snuck the Pizza Planet truck into all their films in some form or fashion. A signature reference is somehow proof that there is an overarching universe.

If I’m being honest, I’m not totally up on the Pixar Universe theory (I’d love to see how they justify The Good Dinosaur’s existence in this universe, since that film is pretty clearly an alternate history of Earth). But I despise it to the core of my being. Pixar makes amazing films (more of them could stand to be about girls and women, but). Why can’t those films exist on their own and stand on their own merits? Why do they have to be connected? What’s the point, other than the fact that it allows people to feel smug about “putting it all together”?

I don’t think I fully understand the mentality that leads people to do things like that. I believe there are similar theories about the Disney princesses’ films and it’s just… it boggles my mind. If anything, the show Once Upon a Time is proof of how ridiculous and messy things can get when a million stories all exist in the same universe.

There’s nothing wrong with letting original stories stand on their own. Absolutely nothing. I just wish I could get other people to understand it, because it feels like people are missing the trees for the sake of insisting there’s a forest.

Why I walked out of Beauty and the Beast (2017)

So here’s the thing: Beauty and the Beast (1991) is my very favorite movie. And Beauty and the Beast (2017) is the first movie I ever walked out on.

I’m not that proud of it. I wish I could have sat through the rest of it, but everything up to the point I walked out (when Belle snuck into the West Wing and subsequent conflict from that) was just Too Much, if that makes any sense. It probably doesn’t. Probably I’m just too nostalgic, or too much of a purist, or Too Much myself. But this film is trying so hard to play on viewers’ nostalgia, and to remind viewers of the 1991 original, that I can’t help but think it fell into its own trap. Every attempt to remind us of the animated film reveals what it really is: a pale, cold imitation.

But almost from the very start, the movie was distracting. The prologue’s narrator put the emphasis on the wrong words so often it threw me out of the movie. Emma Watson’s voice, autotuned or not, lacks any of the warmth of Paige O’Hara.  (And she still does that weird stuff with her eyebrows.) That’s something I could say about the “whole” film: it has no warmth, no joy. It’s trying so hard to be like the original that it doesn’t bother trying to do its own thing.

Mind you, I did like the things that were different, the brief flashes of something original: that the castle was locked in eternal winter, and the enchanted objects becoming more inanimate as the rose wilted. I like that Maurice worked in delicate clockwork rather than being a kooky inventor, and that they kept part of the original fairy tale’s reason for the Beast demanding a price from him: he stole a single rose. I thought Gaston and LeFou were quite funny.

But there was so much else wrong that I couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen from sheer embarrassment. Ewan McGregor and Emma Thompson’s accents didn’t do them any favors. The costumes were trying so hard to be Realistic that they fell into this weird uncanny valley of fakeness. As much as I liked the original stuff, the movie aped the animated version so often that it distracted me. Every time they repeated a line from the original, I got jerked out of the movie, and they did it often.

In the end, I just couldn’t stand it. Maybe the second half of the movie was better. Maybe it improved. Maybe the ballroom scene had that sheer awe and love of the animated version. (I doubt it, going by the promo pics of it.) But honestly, I think the whole thing was a calculated money-grab, playing on viewers’ nostalgia to get them into theater seats.

But that’s just me, I guess.

Five Quick Movie Reviews

Before Christmas, I rented a bunch of movies. I didn’t quite manage to watch all of them, but I did watch all the ones I hadn’t seen before, so I thought I’d write some quickie reviews of them for the blog.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

A taut horror film with great sound. Three teenage thieves break into the home of a blind man who’s not as harmless as he seems. The film takes a couple unexpected turns that serve it well, though I really could have done without one element that seemed to be there for its own disturbing sake. 4/5

Mr. Holmes (2015)

An elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) struggles with his failing memory as he tries to remember the details of his last case. McKellen is nothing short of amazing in the title role, and the young boy Holmes befriends is thankfully not insufferable. A great film about coming to terms with getting older. McKellen should have gotten an Oscar nod, though. 5/5

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

A young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car accident, and wakes up in a bunker where John Goodman tells her the world has basically ended. A great thriller, Goodman and Winstead are amazing in their roles. The film isn’t obsessed with explaining everything, and ends without solving some mysteries, which suits me just fine. 5/5

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Another comedy from the Coen brothers, this film follows a day in the life of a studio supervisor (Josh Brolin) in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the events surrounding the kidnapping of the studio’s biggest start (George Clooney). It’s goofy fun, and funny as hell, with delightful performances from a whole host of stars, from Tilda Swinton to Scarlett Johansson. 4/5

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

I’d been meaning to see this one for a while. A young British man is recruited into an independent spy agency by Colin Firth, while Samuel L. Jackson plots something with the world’s rich and powerful. the action here is great, and the film manages to be both funny and serious in the right turns. Still not over the epic church fight. Or what happens to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” (I’d be cruel to spoil it). 4/5

Doctor Who S5E01: The Eleventh Hour

It’s hard to know what to write about this episode, since I really expressed all my thoughts about it a few years ago on my old blog. I love this episode for a number of reasons–for the production design, the cinematography, the clever writing, and the great new actors. It comes together to create one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, and probably one of the greatest episodes of television period. It kicks off what is in my opinion one of the best ‘eras’ of Doctor Who, a period where most of my favorite episodes live.

I love how this episode sets out to be its own thing. It isn’t defined by what came before it (thank god). It’s a soft reboot, essentially, creating its own visual language and storytelling style. We don’t, for example, get a montage showing us how Amy is Just Like You and Me–she’s different from the start. We meet her as  a child first, and when we see her again as an adult, she’s jaded, and all because of the Doctor. She doesn’t believe all the amazing things she sees, not at first.

I can’t get over how different this episode is from what came before. It doesn’t rely on silliness in the way the RTD era sometimes did. The plot is big without going too over the top, and it sets the tone and mood for everything that would follow it. There’s a sense of fairytale magic to it all, particularly the opening with little Amelia, which reads almost like the beginning of a children’s book. A lonely home life and a mysterious stranger, tied off with the promise of a grand adventure? It’s straight out of a storybook.

Of course, you can’t talk about this episode without talking about the Eleventh Doctor. After hitting a nadir of self-involved melodrama, the Doctor is a new man. While he shares some similarities with the Tenth Doctor (like relying a lot on his reputation), he’s also a refreshing departure. Though perhaps that’s a topic for a later days, since he’s more the quintessential Doctor here than thoroughly the Eleventh. Still, Matt Smith puts in a marvelous performance, silly and serious in all the right moments, and already showing his unnatural ability to look like an old man in a young man’s body.

I suppose what I love most of all about this episode is the way it makes me feel. I thought I’d lost the thread of enthusiasm when it came to Doctor Who, but all throughout my rewatch, I was almost giddy. This is the best example of everything I love about Doctor Who, particularly Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. It’s funny and smart and visually stunning. The Doctor is reassuring and kind most of all. The companions are intelligent, resourceful, and brave.

It’s good stuff, and I love it to death.

Doctor Who and the Tides of Fandom

I found Doctor Who in June of 2011. I watched the first five and a half series in about a week, and by then I was basically a fan. And now, five years later, I’ve sort of tapered off in my fandom. I wonder what happened to me.

Well, I kind of know what happened – I missed episodes, and subsequently lost interest. I was able to follow events passably well from gifsets on Tumblr, and that served as good enough. I’ve been keeping up with news on the series as a whole, but that’s about it – I’m excited about Pearl Mackie, sad about Steven Moffat’s imminent departure, and hopeful that Chris Chibnall can maybe bring his Broadchurch game to Doctor Who. I’m planning to watch this year’s Christmas special, at least (I wrote this on December 23). I want to love the show again, and be as excited about it as I was five years ago.

That’s why part of my plan for the new year is start up doing Doctor Who reviews again, this time covering Steven Moffat’s run in full. I kind of tapered off on my old blog with these; I guess my righteous fury at the end of RTD’s era only got me so far. I want to explore what made me like the series in the first place, and maybe in the process get back into loving it again.

Which sort of brings me into the secondary topic of this post – the tide of fandom. I don’t know if everyone experiences this, but I’ve found that my loves as far as fandom goes tend to change over time, sometimes even the point where I don’t like the thing I loved anymore. The Nickelodeon cartoon Danny Phantom was my first fandom, but nowadays I don’t think I could stomach the series’s silly humor, even for the parts of it I really liked. I can’t forget the show, or say that I hate it – I have two of my best friends because of it – but I don’t really consider myself a fan anymore, either.

I worry the same thing is happening to me with Doctor Who. My interest seems to have faded, and I don’t do the things I used to do with regards to the show, like writing fanfic. (Then again, that could be because my fanfic never got much attention, but that’s a rant for another time.) I still like it, there’s no question, but I want the passion and fervent fanaticism I had in the early days back again. That feeling where everything is new and exciting is rare, and I want to feel it again with this show, because it’s always changing, so it’s always new.

It’s possible my passions have moved on, of course. My favorite show right now is Steven Universe, a show on Cartoon Network that’s doing a lot of interesting and exciting stuff, and has awesome storytelling to boot. My love for it is a topic for another post, but here I wonder whether I’m always just going to have a favorite show, and that that favorite is going to change over time. I’ll always like the things I like, but I won’t like them with the same passion I had in the beginning.

And here’s where I wonder if this whole post is just a metaphor for getting older and the worries one has about not being able to do the same things or feel the same way one did when one was young. And for crissakes, I am twenty-seven, I am not ancient, I am not withering away. I will be just fine.

I’m going to start watching Doctor Who again, starting with this year’s Christmas special. I’ll watch Series 10 when it comes out, and catch up on what I missed in the meantime. Maybe the new companion will spark my interest again, or maybe I’ll just like the show in the way I like a lot of things. It doesn’t really matter, so long as I never forget what I love about it.