Space Jam: A New Legacy Review

It may have taken twenty-five years, but Space Jam finally has a sequel. Yes, the Looney Tunes are back on the basketball court in a high stakes game, this time starring LeBron James in place of Michael Jordan, for a more contemporary take on the concept. Though Space Jam: A New Legacy provides some zany fun and ironic entertainment, its profuse emphasis on Warner Brothers properties as a whole (as opposed to just the Looney Tunes) may prevent the film from being the Space Jam follow-up fans have been waiting two and a half decades for.

I guess, to be fair, the original 1996 Space Jam isn’t exactly what you would call a “good movie.” But it’s such a distinctly 90s absurdity that it has a certain appeal: It threw Michael Jordan – the most famous athlete in the world at the time – into a family comedy alongside the Looney Tunes. It was the kind of movie concept that no one seemed to question back in the 90s, but these days could only exist in the form of a nostalgic sequel to those times as evidenced by A New Legacy.

Interestingly, the original also seemed to add to the mystique of Michael Jordan himself. I’m not about to pretend that I know much about sports (I’m a nerd writing a blog about movies and video games, after all), but I do know that Michael Jordan is one of those rare individuals who seems to transcend their craft. Back when I was a kid during the days of the original Jam up to today, Michael Jordan has always been talked about as an almost mythic figure, and Space Jam leaned into that. Not only did it present Jordan as a kind of superhero who was needed to save the beloved cartoon characters, but the movie itself was basically a giant Michael Jordan vehicle. In particular, its soundtrack (specifically “I Believe I can Fly” and “Fly Like an Eagle”) feel more associated with Jordan than they do the film itself. Space Jam didn’t use Michael Jordan to sell itself, it used itself to promote Michael Jordan. Space Jam was effectively just a part of the Michael Jordan legend.

By contrast, Space Jam: A New Legacy kind of just recycles the original template, and features LeBron James as part of it. James is simply thrust into the events of this movie, as opposed to being its nexus. On the plus side, James is probably a better actor than Jordan.

The story here is that the very real LeBron James is having trouble connecting with his very fictional son Dom (Cedric Joe). LeBron wants his son to follow in his footsteps on the basketball court, while Dom wants to create video games. LeBron finds video games to be nothing but a distraction, with the film’s rather weak reasoning for this being that LeBron himself was briefly distracted by a Game Boy before a basketball game as a kid. But after his wife informs him that Dom has nearly finished creating his own game, LeBron starts to take interest in his son’s passion. Dom’s game is “Domball” a very video game-y take on basketball (so it’s basically NBA Jam). Though LeBron and Dom start to connect, a glitch crashes the game and ruins the moment. To cheer up his son, LeBron invites Dom to tag along to a “movie deal thing” with him the next day.

The movie deal is at Warner Bros., which the film is sure to tell us is the “studio behind all the classics” (I think Universal and Disney might have something to say about that). The studio has recently created the Warner Bros. “Serververse” using an AI called Al-G Rhythm (an already weak pun which is only undermined by the fact the movie uses the word algorithm about 50 times). Through an app called Warner 3000, people can use the Serververse to scan digital copies of themselves into the movies. Warner Bros. wants LeBron to be the spokesperson for the Serververse, but the basketball superstar shoots down the idea hard (needlessly hard, really). Though Dom shows that he might be interested in helping with the idea, and also lets it slip that he plans to attend “E3 Game Developer Camp” in the coming week, which naturally conflicts with the basketball camp that takes place at the same time (as we all know, basketball and video games are destined to conflict with each other). This causes LeBron and Dom to butt heads yet again.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) has developed self-awareness, and has taken offense to LeBron’s dismissal of his hard work. Al-G plans to use Dom’s interest in the Serververse to his advantage in his planned revenge on LeBron James. Al-G lures Dom to some high tech secret lab within Warner Bros. Studios (which I’m sure actually exists), and zaps the boy into the world of the Serververse, and LeBron soon afterwards. Al-G then challenges LeBron to a game of basketball. He gives LeBron a full day to find a team of Warner Bros. characters to compete against a team of his own. If LeBron wins, he and his son get to go home. If Al-G wins, LeBron is stuck in the Serververse forever (I guess as its mascot, since he didn’t like the idea of being its spokesperson).

Al-G of course intends to cheat, and plans on using Dom’s game design skills to generate a super team of overpowered characters. He gives LeBron a further disadvantage by dumping the basketball star in the Looney Tunes world of the Serververse, or the “land of the rejects” as Al-G calls it (which seems a bit weird, seeing as Al-G was created by Warner Bros. and the Looney Tunes are the studio’s iconic mascots. Can you imagine a Disney film calling Mickey and friends “rejects?”).

When LeBron lands in the Looney Tunes world (becoming a cartoon himself in the process), he soon learns that Bugs Bunny is the only Tune left, as Al-G separated the Tunes by promising them greater opportunities elsewhere in the Serververse. Bugs Bunny agrees to help LeBron in his quest to find a basketball team, and after hijacking Marvin the Martian’s spaceship, they set out into the Serververse to find the perfect dream team, though Bugs is using this as an excuse to reunite the Looney Tunes.

From here, much of the movie plays out like a big HBO Max commercial, with Bugs and LeBron travelling to the worlds of different Warner Bros. properties and extracting Looney Tunes from them. To be fair, there is some fun to be had here: Having the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote superimposed into Mad Max: Fury Road just feels right. And while an Austin Powers reference may not be most timeless, I’d be lying if I said seeing Elmer Fudd playing the role of Mini-Me didn’t put a smile on my face.

In a way, Space Jam: A New Legacy kind of reminds me of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the unfortunately-titled but otherwise pretty great sequel to Wreck-It Ralph. Though that movie had some fun showcasing different Disney properties, it never lost sight of telling its own story. A New Legacy doesn’t possess that restraint, and instead devolves into one cameo after another just for the hell of it, and the whole “Looney Tunes team up with an NBA star” concept of the series kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Did the world really need another Matrix reference? And I could live a full and happy life never seeing Rick and Morty ever again.

It all just becomes too much. The idea of using Space Jam as a means of a big Roger Rabbit-style crossover of Warner Bros. properties isn’t a terrible idea in concept, and it could have been fun if it played out like a loving tribute to the history of the studio. But the movie becomes so engrossed in the cameos and name drops that it loses the whole “Space Jam” aspect after a while. The film doesn’t even do anything really substantial with the properties, even missing the opportunity to use Warner Bros. villains for Al-G’s team, which would have at least been a more meaningful usage of these characters than simply having them cheer in the audience of the climactic game, which is what the film does end up doing (though respect to the guy giving it his all with his Arnold Schwarzenegger Mr. Freeze impression, complete with the character’s bathrobe from Batman & Robin).

The villains we do get here are the “Goon Squad,” a team of monster-ized versions of basketball players created by Al-G using Dom’s video game and its scanning technology. They include a naga, a birdman, a spider, a water/fire hybrid, and Dom himself, whom Al-G has been manipulating with flattery (and who doesn’t know his father’s freedom is on the line). Although I’m sure some won’t like the CG garishness of them, I do appreciate that the film makes its villains very distinct from those of its predecessor.

Speaking of CG garishness, it should also be pointed out that during the big game in the film’s third act, the Looney Tunes get a CG makeover. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who needlessly complains about CG, but I do have to say it is a little bit of a disappointment that we only get to see either traditionally animated Looney Tunes interacting with a traditionally animated LeBron James, or CG Looney Tunes interacting with real life LeBron James. In this day and age when live-action and traditional animation no longer share the screen together, shouldn’t the Space Jam sequel, of all movies, have been the primed opportunity to bring that idea back? If anything, it would have made the movie standout from a visual perspective in 2021.

Another weird thing about the movie is that the big basketball game at the end isn’t actually basketball. It’s Domball. As in, the video game that LeBron James’ fictional son created. I suppose no one is watching a Space Jam movie for a legit basketball game, and the 1996 film saw the Looney Tunes perform their usual antics within the game (which should surely constitute cheating), so I guess it isn’t a big deal. But Domball is so loose with its rules – which are seemingly made up as they go – that it does take something away from the film’s finale. You kind of have to understand the rules of a game before you can feel the tension in it.

One of the big issues with A New Legacy is its lack of a memorable soundtrack. I can still remember as a kid, how inescapable the soundtrack to the original film was. I mentioned how the soundtrack to the 1996 film added to the ‘legend’ of Michael Jordan. But there’s really nothing here that does the same for LeBron James. Even as I’m writing this, I can’t remember any of the songs or music from the film. The soundtrack doesn’t do anything for the film or for LeBron.

Still, as negative as I’m being in regards to Space Jam: A New Legacy, I have to admit I was entertained at times. LeBron James, like Michael Jordan in the original, has an inexplicable charisma as a movie star, despite not being one in the traditional sense (with LeBron getting extra points for landing the comedy). The movie has some jokes that work, a number of the Looney Tunes get their moment to shine in the big game, and Don Cheadle seems to be having a good time hamming it up as the villain. It’s a fun movie when it wants to be.

The problem with A New Legacy is that its place as a Space Jam sequel can really get drowned out with all the other movies going on around it. The references (and straight-up recreations) of other movies is fun for a while, but they end up feeling like padding after a point. Much like the original movie, it seems like there wasn’t much to the script other than the basic premise. So in between LeBron meeting Bugs Bunny and the big game at the end, the film throws in as many of these other movies as it can as to stretch out the running time. Maybe a little more time dedicated to the main plot could have helped make this a legitimately good Space Jam movie (and filled in some of the gaps in the plot, like why Al-G wanted to separate the Tunes in the first place). As it is, Space Jam: A New Legacy might scratch the itch for a goofy good time in the same vein as the original, though it’s so similar to the first movie in premise, and so busy showing off other movies, that it can’t quite create a charm of its own.

5

Marvel’s Black Widow Review

The old saying “better late than never” gets thrown around a lot, but it is very appropriate when talking about Marvel’s Black Widow, which finally give’s Scarlett Johansson’s titular character her long overdue solo film despite being one of the original big screen Avengers. Though you could also argue that Black Widow’s starring role has come too late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Johansson’s Black Widow debuted in 2010’s Iron Man 2, a year before Thor and Captain America even joined in the proceedings. Though she was a secondary character, and marketed mostly for her sex appeal back then, Black Widow quickly grew into one of the MCU’s more complicated characters. Taken from a young age, brainwashed, and trained as a KGB spy under the “Red Room,” Natasha Romanoff (AKA “Black Widow”) would later gain her freedom and dedicate her life to saving the world, as a means to redeem her tragic past. She would eventually become an Avenger, no less (one of the original six, as far as the MCU is concerned).

Despite not getting her own movie until now, Romanoff had one of the more fleshed-out backstories of the MCU, up there with Iron Man and Captain America themselves. While the MCU hasn’t always done right by Johansson’s character (that forced romance with Bruce Banner that came out of nowhere in Age of Ultron comes to mind), she remained a fan favorite all throughout. And with years of rumblings of a Black Widow solo film, it makes it all the weirder that such a film is only happening now.

As of Avengers: Endgame, Romanoff’s story in the MCU – like many of the original Avengers – is over. As such, Black Widow takes place shortly after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, so I guess it counts as a prequel at this point in the MCU. So here we are, after eleven years, and Black Widow’s long-awaited first solo film is also her last, which seems woefully unfair to the character and to Johansson. I would have enjoyed a series of Black Widow movies.

Still, while a Black Widow movie should have happened sooner, I guess one Black Widow film that serves as Johansson’s farewell to the MCU is better than no Black Widow movie at all. Though the film has its issues, it’s a fittingly entertaining installment in Marvel’s mega-franchise that does give its titular character some additional closure.

Black Widow gives Romanoff that closure by means of finally having her confront the Red Room, the organization responsible for robbing her – and many other women – of their lives by turning them into child assassins (or “Black Widows”). So we finally get to see Natasha Romanoff get some much-desired recompense.

Here we delve even further into Romanoff’s backstory, and learn that, for three years during her childhood, she was part of a family. Well, a fabricated family that was a front by the Red Room. The real identities of her “parents” are Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), a Red Room spy and former Black Widow; and Alexei Shostokov (David Harbour), Russia’s only super soldier, the “Red Guardian,” and thus their answer to Captain America (with whom Alexei claims to have a long-standing rivalry). Meanwhile, Natasha’s younger ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) is destined to become another Black Widow.

Once Alexei finished his undercover mission in America, the ‘family’ was broken up, and the sisters separated. While Natasha was forced back into her old cycle of training and brainwashing, things were taken further with Yelena, who became one of the Red Room’s test subjects of full-on mind control. So while Natasha was eventually able to break free, Yelena didn’t have that ability.

Fast forward to the present (of this particular movie), and things take a turn for Yelena when one of her targets exposes her to a substance called Red Dust, which cures her from her mind control, and she then defects from the Red Room. Taking the remaining Red Dust, Yelena sends it to Natasha, hoping the now-Avenger can help her free the other Black Widows from the Red Room’s control.

Naturally, the Red Room is on Natasha and Yelena’s trail, sending its soldiers after the duo, not least of which being the Taskmaster; a mysterious, masked foe. So the two Black Widows will need allies to take down the Red Room and its leader, Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Keeping in mind that this film takes place after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha is part of the group of Avengers who are now fugitives from the law (some are already in custody, others are in hiding). So she can’t just call for backup here. But perhaps she can reunite her old “family” for help?

Admittedly, the film treads a lot of familiar ground for the MCU, especially echoing the Captain America sequels, which Johansson’s character is already strongly associated with. The entire “mind-controlled soldiers” idea is very Winter Soldier-esque. And with David Harbour’s character literally being the Russian equivalent of Captain America, you really can’t escape the similarities. On the plus side, the Captain America sequels are highly regarded as some of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so Black Widow is at least aiming high with which past entries it emulates.

Black Widow has some strong themes it wants to convey, though they may get a bit lost in the shuffle at times. It’s obviously dealing with many of the same ideas of freedom that the aforementioned Captain America films also dealt with. And it probably won’t be lost on anyone that it’s a man pulling the strings of mind-controlled female assassins (the film makes sure Winstone’s Dreykov is the kind of villain you can’t wait to see get his ass kicked).

Where the film really delivers is in its action scenes. The set pieces of Black Widow feel more akin to those of the recent Mission: Impossible films than the usual MCU fare. Although Black Widow can’t quite reach the heights of the recent Mission: Impossible outings (admittedly a very high mark), the action sequences here are similarly satisfying.

Perhaps the best aspect of Black Widow are the characters themselves. Natasha has been one of the MCU’s mainstays due in large part to being one of its most beloved characters, and Black Widow is a great way to finally focus on her as a character (though sadly also reminding us that this all should have happened much sooner). Yelena is every bit her equal, not just in combat skills but also as a character, showing a strength and depth that should make her one of Marvel’s primary heroes going forward (don’t wait a decade to give her her own movie!). And Alexei is part huggable bear, part dumb lummox; his fabricated family being just another mission to him, but he slowly begins to realize what his ‘daughters’ really mean to him. Melina may be something of the odd woman out in regards to screen time, but I think her character shows enough promise that she can be expanded on in future movies.

“The fact that Chris Evans’ Captain America never shared the screen with David Harbour’s Red Guardian breaks my heart.”

Sadly, the Marvel villain curse rears its head once again in Black Widow. It’s weird how the MCU has done a (mostly) wonderful job in regards to bringing Marvel’s comic book heroes to life, but its villains haven’t been anywhere near as consistent. People remember Thanos and Loki, of course. And some other villains have received quieter acclaim (Michael Keaton’s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming really deserves more praise). But many of the MCU’s villains either mimic the heroes too closely, are too underutilized, or fall back on a disappointing twist.

Though I mentioned Dreykov is effective in making the audience hate him, he falls under the ‘underutilized’ category, only really getting a few short minutes of screen time. Meanwhile, Taskmaster falls under the ‘plot twist’ category, with a reveal that ends up feeling as underwhelming as it does pointless. With a stronger villain scenario, Black Widow may have kicked things into a whole other gear.

Black Widow is one of the smaller-scale films the MCU has seen in recent times (‘smaller’ being a very relative term in regards to the MCU). But that’s kind of what I like about it. Just because the Avengers have saved the universe by this point doesn’t mean all of their adventures have to be taken to such extremes. A big super hero romp can still be a great time even if the stakes are smaller and more personal. Though I suppose it’s all the more of a shame that over on Disney+ we have the obnoxiously apathetic Loki beating us over the head with the idea that nothing in the MCU matters compared to Loki’s wacky shenanigans through space and time. But let’s ignore that show for now (please) and appreciate that Black Widow can make a ‘smaller’ story in the MCU still feel important to it, even after all the places it’s been.

The unavoidable dark cloud when it comes to Black Widow, however, is simply that it should have happened years ago. For all the entertainment it provides, Black Widow can’t help but feel like too little, too late. For this movie to finally happen only after Natasha Romanoff’s story has ended and Scarlett Johansson is leaving the MCU behind her feels deflating, and the movie gives off a “contractual obligation” vibe as a result.

Black Widow gives us some great action set pieces, a good story, and Florence Pugh and David Harbour are great additions to the MCU that hopefully we’ll see a lot more of. It may be a fitting sendoff for Johansson’s agent Romanoff, but it probably shouldn’t have been a sendoff in the first place.

6

Early Man Review

Aardman is one of the most beloved animation studios around. Their lighthearted stop-motion creations have captured the hearts of audiences around the world. At the heart of Aardman’s popularity is animator Nick Park, who created and directed all of the Wallace & Gromit films, in addition to directing Chicken Run and creating Shaun the Sheep. There’s probably only a handful of animators out there who have reached a similar level in both popularity and acclaim.

In 2018, Park directed Early Man, his first time in the director’s chair since the 2009 Wallace & Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, and his first full-length feature since Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005. With a pretty much unblemished record under Park’s belt up to that point, there was a good deal of anticipation surrounding Early Man before its release. That’s why it’s so disheartening that the final film is notably underwhelming.

To be fair, Early Man isn’t an outright bad movie, and the sheer herculean craftsmanship that Aardman puts into its plasticine creations always deserve praise. It’s just that the film ultimately ends up being just kind of okay, and unfortunately forgettable. And this coming from the creator of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep? That kind of hurts.

As the title implies, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, where a tribe of cavemen live in a lush, green valley… surrounded by a volcanic wasteland. The tribe’s chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) leads his people in a simple life of rabbit hunting. But a young man in the tribe named Dug (Eddie Redmayne) wishes the tribe would branch out a bit and be more adventurous.

One day, out of the blue, a tribe of invaders – unlike any that Dug and his people have seen- make camp in the valley. These invaders come from beyond the wastelands, and have advanced into the Bronze Age while time left Dug and his people in the Stone Age. The invaders, lead by the greedy Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), have come to dig up the land in search of more bronze, unflinching to the plight they’re creating to Dug and his people.

Dug soon infiltrates the Bronze Aged people, and learns that much of their culture is built around football (or soccer, as us Americans call it, even though the soccer-type of football is the type of football where the player’s actually use their feet). When it looks like his people are going to be banished to live in the dangers of the wastelands, Dug makes a deal with Lord Nooth: his tribe will take on the Bronze people’s team in a game of football. If the cavemen win, they get to keep their valley. But if Nooth’s team wins, the cave people will be forced to slave away in a bronze mine for the rest of their lives (that’s a bit of a careless bet on Dug’s part, though he doesn’t quite seem to understand what that means when he makes the deal).

And so the stage is set for the cavemen to get an understanding of football so that they might have a fighting chance to keep their valley. Thankfully for them, a young woman of the bronze people named Goona (Maisie Williams) – who knows the game well but can’t play for her own tribe as Lord Nooth doesn’t allow girls to play – has sympathy for the cavemen’s plight, and wishes to join them and teach them the ins and outs of the game.

If you’re at all thrown off by the sudden emphasis of football (or soccer or whatever you want to call it) in a movie about cavepeople, well, you’re not alone. When the film was released, no one really expected this to be a sports movie (that aspect was completely omitted from its advertisements, at least in America). I mean, an animated sports picture that just so happens to take place in prehistoric times isn’t the worst idea out there. And to be fair, Early Man introduces the sport in its opening scene, with the ancestors of Dug’s people inadvertently inventing the game by kicking a recently-crashed meteorite, so it isn’t entirely out of the blue. But the sports aspect of the film seems to completely engulf everything else after a while, making the film’s prehistoric setting feel like a missed opportunity.

There is some fun to be had with Early Man: There’s the occasional joke that sticks the landing and brings a good laugh, the voice work is great (Hiddleston is a particular highlight, making Lord Nooth a snobby Frenchman), and of course, the painstaking work that goes into animating any stop-motion film – especially those with the attention to detail of Aardman – is always commendable. But by the time Early Man reaches its end you can’t help but feel like it could have, and should have, been more. Some of Nick Park’s shorts are ranked among the most acclaimed animated films of all time, while Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were similarly praised as feature films. So for Nick Park’s third feature – and his comeback after a such a lengthy absence – to end up being just kind of okay is a stinging disappointment.

I do have to stress that Early Man is not a bad movie, but it falls short of many of Aardman’s other works, and considerably short of those that had Nick Park at the helm. It’s a visually pleasing, lighthearted entertainment. But this is one instance in which Aardman’s craftsmanship can only take them so far.

5

Space Jam Review

Space Jam is quite possibly the most “90s” movie ever made. Not that I’m saying it’s one of the definitive films of the 1990s, but it perhaps best sums up how outright bonkers movies in the 1990s could be. Known equally for the absurdity of its premise as it is the fact that its original website still remains intact today (only recently being updated for the first time in twenty-five years to feature the trailer for its upcoming nostalgia-fueled sequel), Space Jam is nothing short of a 90s fever dream of a movie.

Trying to summarize the 1996 film sounds like you’re just pulling a bunch of random names and words out of a hat… which may in fact be how the film was made to begin with, come to think of it.

The story revolves around NBA icon Michael Jordan, and how he’s pulled out of retirement by the Looney Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the whole gang) to help the cartoon characters win a basketball game to prevent them from being enslaved by an alien amusement park in space. If you didn’t grow up watching it, that probably sounds like the weirdest idea for a movie ever. In fact, it may sound that way even if you did grow up watching it.

Yes, Space Jam was one of those live-action/animation hybrid movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though that’s about as far as the comparison with a genuine movie miracle like Roger Rabbit should go. Space Jam is a nostalgic favorite for 90s kids, but it isn’t really what I would call a good movie, though it may still be worth a watch for the sheer absurdity of it all.

The movie was a big deal in the 1990s for a number of reasons: partly because it was Michael Jordan’s acting debut, and also because it was a big cinematic return for the Looney Tunes. Though whoever the hell decided those two things should be combined must have been some kind of madman. But I do remember the merchandising and advertisements were everywhere back in the day.

To elaborate a little more on the plot, the story takes place during the time Michael Jordan had retired from basketball and became a baseball player. He’s having trouble adapting to his new career, and feeling out of place. So things start off as a kind of fictionalized biopic. And then we travel to the far reaches of space, where a cartoon amusement park called Moron Mountain is losing business (maybe giving a theme park a name that insults its guests wasn’t the best idea). The boss of the amusement park – a fat, goblin-like alien named Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito, because of course) – wants a new attraction that will bring crowds back to Moron Mountain. At that very moment, Swackhammer’s colorful lackeys happen to be watching Looney Tunes cartoons, and Swackhammer decides the Looney Tunes will be Moron Mountain’s new star attraction. So he sends his goons (diminutive creatures called Nerdlucks) to Earth to kidnap the Looney Tunes. Yes, this is the same movie as the Michael Jordan story.

When the Nerdlucks manage to find the home of the Looney Tunes (which is apparently at the center of the Earth, I guess), Bugs Bunny tricks the aliens into thinking the Looney Tunes are required a chance to defend themselves in a friendly competition before they can be enslaved (with the Tunes picking the competition, since their freedom is at stake). With the Nerdlucks being such small creatures, the Looney Tunes choose basketball as the deciding competition, figuring it will give them an easy win.

“The Nerdlucks steal the talent of the basketball players by turning into purple goo, entering the bodies of said basketball players, then entering a basketball, and then later touching the same basketball. Huh…”

Things look good for the Looney Tunes, but the aliens have a trick up their sleeve. Travelling to the surface world, the Nerdlucks steal the talent from basketball greats of the time: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Patrick Ewing. And thus, the pintsize Nerdlucks transform into the hulking Monstars! This puts the freedom of the Looney Tunes in severe jeopardy, so the Looney Tunes do what any reasonable person in a crises would do: kidnap Michael Jordan through a golf hole! Duh!

It only takes a couple of short minutes for Michael Jordan to be convinced the Looney Tunes are real, and only a few more for him to agree to help them in their basketball game. And so the stage is set.

Oh yeah, and Bill Murray shows up as himself sporadically for some reason (an element which the film itself makes fun of later on). Also Wayne Knight is in the movie as Stan Podolak, a publicist who wants nothing more than to please Michael Jordan, and is strangely the only person who seems concerned when the NBA legend goes missing.

Do you need a minute to take all that in? I don’t blame you if you do. To be fair, the movie is entertaining in its own way, and the enjoyment isn’t always ironic: there’s some good Looney Tunes humor to be had, the blending of live-action and animation is among the better post-Roger Rabbit examples of the sub-genre, and Michael Jordan’s acting is actually pretty decent, considering he was an athlete with no acting experience at the time. The film’s soundtrack was well received (particularly “I Believe I can Fly” and “Fly Like an Eagle”). And Wayne Knight is a highlight of the film whose comedy bits might just outdo the Looney Tunes themselves (but then again, when isn’t Wayne Knight a highlight?).

“Sweet mother of God!”

So I don’t dislike Space Jam, but it is more of a hodge podge of random elements strewn together in a mad frenzy than it is a good movie. This is evidenced by the sporadic pacing of the picture, with a number of what should be key scenes just flying by. An example of this is the aforementioned moment when Michael Jordan meets the Looney Tunes. “You’re a cartoon, you’re not real” Jordan tells Bugs, before the famous bunny proves how real he is by giving Jordan a massive smooch, which is apparently all it takes for Michael Jordan to completely accept this alternate cartoon reality and not question any of it ever again. And when we finally get to the big game, it just kind of suddenly happens with little build. Really, the only thing of note that happens in between Michael Jordan meeting Bugs and the big game with the Monstars is when Bugs and Daffy travel to the surface world to retrieve Michael Jordan’s basketball gear from his house, which kind of tells you how little there was to the plot outside of the key premise (though the subplots with Stan Podolak digging to find Michael Jordan and the NBA players with stolen talent no longer being able to play basketball are kind of fun). But if all you’re looking for is some 1990s insanity, you could do a lot worse than Space Jam.

Space Jam has had something of a lasting legacy: it introduced Lola Bunny to the Looney Tunes franchise, I Believe I can Fly became one of those rare movie songs that took on a life of its own, and that damn website just won’t die. But like the film itself, Space Jam’s legacy is comprised of assorted bits and pieces, as opposed to a truly memorable whole.

5

Godzilla Vs. Kong Review

Legendary Pictures “MonsterVerse” has all been building to this: Godzilla vs. Kong! Although 2014’s Godzilla seemed like a self-contained reboot, once Legendary acquired the rights to the King Kong character it became obvious where things were headed: a modernized clash of the two most famous giant monsters in all of movies.

Of course, Godzilla and Kong have done battle before, in Toho’s 1962 film King Kong vs. Godzilla. It was one of the earlier Godzilla films, and not one of the better ones in hindsight (the Kong suit looks like it was stitched together from roadkill), but it was one of my favorite movies as a very young tyke, and instilled my love of giant monsters from an early age. So with the two literal giants set to face off once again, this time in a film that could take advantage of modern technologies to give the behemoths the epic showdown they deserve, I’ve been looking forward to this Godzilla vs. Kong for quite some time now.

2017’s Kong: Skull Island introduced the Kong half to this Cinematic Universe (the only one outside of Marvel that I feel has been any kind of successful), while 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters went crazy with fanservice by including Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla’s big bad, King Ghidorah. And now, it all comes to a head in Godzilla vs. Kong, which provides fans (and my inner child) the epic showdowns they’ve been waiting for, though sadly not without its share of bumps in the road.

The first of such bumps is shown during the opening credits, no less. As is series’ tradition, the opening credits are accompanied by news clippings and the like informing the audience of the histories and current states of the monsters (or “Titans” as they’re called in the MonsterVerse). And we quickly learn that Godzilla and Kong are the only known Titans remaining on Earth’s surface. This retcons the ending of King of the Monsters, which had other Titans roaming the Earth, but bowing to Godzilla as the “Alpha Titan” after he defeated King Ghidorah, with that movie’s end credits informing us that some Titans were “converging on Skull Island,” implying that Kong may be getting his own following of monsters to do battle with Godzilla’s band. But no, let’s forget about that. It’s just Godzilla and Kong now for some reason (not even Rodan returns, which sucks double for me because he was my favorite as a kid). So that’s kind of disappointing right off the bat. Don’t promise your audience something in one movie if you can’t deliver on it in the next.

The biggest of the bumps in the road for Godzilla vs. Kong, however, is a returning flaw from many giant monster movies: too many human characters. More specifically, too many human characters who are just uninteresting.

Some might say this is a problem with American Godzilla movies (and it is), but honestly, I’ve watched some of the Japanese Godzilla films and also got bored by how long we often have to wait in between monsters. It’s just that it’s probably a more persistent issue with American films on the whole. The recent Tom & Jerry movie – to name an example outside of the giant monster genre – spent more time on its humans than it did with the melee between cartoon cat and mouse that people actually crave from that franchise.

I understand the reasoning behind this. The people and studios making these movies want to keep audiences invested, and feel that a human element is needed for viewers to have something to identify with for that investment. I get it, but I think movies have failed pretty consistently in trying to hit the balance with human characters and, say, the giant monsters fighting each other that we all came to see.

The funny thing is, the 2014 Godzilla film that kicked off the MonsterVerse actually got the human part right (at least at first), with a human character played by Bryan Cranston giving the film an emotional core that made sense… and then it killed him off before Godzilla even showed up, and the focus shifted on a bunch of other humans who weren’t nearly as interesting (that particular film didn’t even have enough monster action to make up for it). Imagine if Bryan Cranston’s character had stuck around as the recurring human character between these films, and we still got the epic Godzilla showdowns on top of it. One great human character to focus on whenever the monsters settle down. The lost potential is depressing.

Instead, these movies can’t stop adding more and more human characters, very few of which are worth the screen time given to them. Millie Bobby Brown’s character Madison Russell from King of the Monsters returns, and is the only returning human character other than her father (played by Kyle Chandler, though he’s more of a cameo this time around). To be fair to Millie Bobby Brown, she’s a great actor, and having her be the returning hero makes sense. But her character here feels like she’s on a sidequest that, frankly, feels completely unnecessary to the movie as a whole. Worse still, she’s saddled with two insufferable sidekicks this time around: One is Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a paranoid conspiracy theorist podcaster, and Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), one of Madison’s friends who… is just kind of there. I mean no offense to the actors here, but Madison’s new sidekicks really just feel like unnecessary comic relief.

“The movie would have been just fine without these guys.”

They aren’t the only humans though! Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is a cartographer from Monarch (the Titan research group of previous entries) who is studying the “hollow Earth” gobbledygook introduced in the series. Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is a Monarch anthropological linguist studying Kong. Jia (Kaylee Hottle) is a young, deaf orphan from Skull Island’s Iwi tribe, Ilene’s adopted daughter and friend of Kong (and probably the human character you care most for). At the very least, this other group of humans actually feel like they push the plot forward. If Millie Bobby Brown’s character had to return, maybe the filmmakers should have found a way to fit her into this second group, and just streamline the human plotlines.

Then we also have Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), the founder of Apex Cybernetics, a technological company trying to find a way for humans to reclaim Earth from the Titans, his daughter Maia (Eiza González), who accompanies the Monarch scientists, and Walter’s sidekick/henchman, Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), the son of Ken Watanabe’s character from the previous two Godzilla installments of the MonsterVerse.

Gee, do you think that’s enough characters? And all that for a plot that should be pretty straightforward: Godzilla has been at peace with humans ever since defeating King Ghidorah and becoming the alpha Titan (or King of the Monsters, if you will). As stated, the remaining Titans have either been “defeated” or have returned to their subterranean slumber, with Kong still residing on Skull Island, which is now under a “containment center” by Monarch. That is, until one day, Godzilla begins destroying human cities unprovoked by the presence of other Titans.

Godzilla’s sudden rampage has Madison trying to find answers, which leads her to seek out the aforementioned conspiracy theorist podcaster (because that’s the kind of person you want to turn to for valid, reasonable answers), with her other goofy friend in tow. Meanwhile, Apex Cybernetics, who have suffered some severe blows during Godzilla’s destruction, recruit the Monarch scientists for a voyage into the hollow Earth to find some nondescript power source that may help them fix Earth’s Titan problem. So the Monarch team extracts Kong from their containment center in hopes he can instinctively lead them into hollow Earth.

Look, it’s bonkers nonsense, which is fine (though it feels a world apart from the 2014 film that started things off). But if bonkers nonsense was what we were going for in a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong, maybe focus more of that bonkers nonsense on Godzilla and Kong, and less on the humans.

Let’s make one thing clear, when Godzilla vs. Kong hits its stride, it’s really entertaining. The visual effects are great, and most importantly, the fight scenes between its two iconic giants are tremendous fun. Like I said, my love of giant gorilla fighting nuclear dinosaur goes back to my youngest days, so it would be hard for me not to be entertained every time the two monsters clash and knock over entire cities (on that note, I also like how the film points out the cities are evacuated by the time Godzilla and Kong use them as battlefields, so it goes against the Zac Snyder method of using the idea of mass death as part of its spectacle). The movie even had me giggling and clapping with how effective its monster battles are. The first encounter is pretty unique in that Godzilla and Kong do battle at sea, with Kong standing on aircraft carriers to fight the more water-savvy Godzilla. And later – without spoiling too much – Kong even goes into battle equipped with a weapon. And if seeing Kong with weapon in hand out for Godzilla’s blood doesn’t bring a goofy grin on your face, well I don’t know what will.

The issue is that there just isn’t enough of these scenes. This is Godzilla vs. Kong, after all. I think it’s safe to say no one is here for the human characters, but that’s where too much of the runtime goes. Again, I can understand the desire to have a little bit of everything: attempting good story and characters to go with the giant monsters clashing, but we can just never seem to get the right balance. It’s also kind of a bummer how the American approach to Godzilla movies has to be either dead serious at the expense of the monster action (Godzilla 2014), or just fully embrace the sillier aspects of Godzilla to the point where you can’t care for the human characters. It’s another case of finding the right balance.

Imagine a film that could pull off both the fun spectacles of giant monsters fighting each other (like Kong: Skull Island, King of the Monsters and this film), and the human drama Bryan Cranston brought to the early parts of the 2014 film when it just has to shift its focus to the humans witnessing said epic battles and facing their consequences?

We still have to wait for such a film. In the meantime, Godzilla vs. Kong does at least deliver where it counts – with its giant ape having some fun smackdowns with its nuclear dinosaur – but it sorely needs even more of just that. If you’re going to take Godzilla vs. Kong into the realms of pure nonsense, then give us more of the nonsense we came to see, and less of the nonsense of annoying sidekicks and conspiracy theorists.

5

The 1000th Blog!

That’s right, Kevin! The big day has finally arrived! It’s Wizard Dojo’s ONE-THOUSANDTH post! Huzzah!

This has been a long time coming. Both because it took a long time to write 1,000 posts, and also because my updates have been so slow these past few months it really dragged this out. But how great to finally be here, eh?

Here’s the short film “Fresh Guacamole” by PES, the shortest film ever nominated for an Oscar!

Ah, yes. Everything about that short is satisfying.

A big thank you to everyone who reads this blog, and double thank you to the people who have been reading it for a good while and stuck with it. And an additional thank you for the people who read it in the past, forgot about it, and then came back to it. You’re like Palpatine: somehow… you returned!

To quote the great philosopher Herman Munster: “I would like to thank all the little people who helped make this possible… I would like to, but I can’t, because I did it all myself.”

Have I referenced that before? Seems like I have. Ah well, it’s a great quote, and Herman Munster was a badass. So I regret nothing.

Anyway, what are we doing spending so much time on the thank yous? Let’s get down to business (to defeat the huns)! Let’s dedicate the rest of this thousandth blog milestone to a number of things I’ve been meaning to write for a good while, presented as different ‘chapters.’ You know, like Paper Mario. Back when Paper Mario was good.



Chapter 1: My Favorite Film of 2020

Finally! It’s been a long time since I revealed my favorite film of the year before the last few months of the next year. I mean, I’m still really late in doing this, and for that, I apologize. But it’s an improvement.

Go ahead and call me repetitious, but my favorite film of 2020 was an animated film. And no, it wasn’t Pixar’s Soul.

Sure, people might say I’m biased, as every year that I’ve named my favorite film of the year ever since I launched Wizard Dojo, the winner has been animated. But I’d argue that we’re simply in a great era of animated filmmaking. You always hear people complaining that movies these days are “getting worse” or that they’re dumbed down, but I believe people who say such things are ignoring the animated side of things (which, sadly, seems likely). Sure, maybe blockbusters are getting repetitious, art films are getting too self-absorbed, and indie films ironically feel like they’re coming off a conveyor belt. But animated films have continued to shine throughout the new millennium. So fans of animation, such as myself, are witnessing a kind of golden age for the medium.

Is that enough needless justification for my stance? And is it really such a bad thing in the first place? I mean, the Oscars select the same kind of dramas year after year (and continue to lose ratings. I wonder if there could be a connection there). So is it such a crime that some random dude on the internet is won over by animated films time and again?

Anyway, let’s cut to the chase. My favorite film of 2020 is…

Winner: Wolfwalkers

Director Tomm Moore and his studio “Cartoon Saloon” have provided some of the best animated features of recent memory. Although Wolfwalkers is only the studio’s fourth feature film (and Moore’s third), the artistry and craftsmanship that has gone into them ascends them near the very top of the animation totem pole. Moore’s previous film, Song of the Sea, was one of my favorite films of the 2010s full stop, and Wolfwalkers is a more than worthy follow-up, being the best film of 2020 in my book.

Moore, who has appropriately been dubbed the “Irish Miyazaki,” has made three stunningly beautiful, hand-drawn fairy tales that are among the few works that deserve that Miyazaki comparison. There is an emotional depth and sensitivity to Tomm Moore’s films that make you feel for their stories and characters right from the get-go. Here’s a filmmaker who intimately understands fantasy storytelling, and makes films aimed at children that never once talk down to their target audience. They’re equal parts fun and captivating to audiences of any age.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of two girls: Robyn Goodfellowe, a hunter’s daughter, and Mebh, one of the titular Wolfwalkers, a being who takes the form of a wolf when her human body sleeps. While the two girls’ burgeoning friendship that serves as the heart of the story will certainly entertain kids (especially Mebh), the film also has a lot to say from a societal and philosophical perspective. Robyn is continuously forced to toil in a scullery, her proud father is reduced to being the whipping boy of a fanatical general, and poor Mebh and her wolves are in constant danger simply for existing.

I love this movie. It’s deep and beautiful and fun and magical, like all the best animated fairy tales. Pixar’s Soul was a good movie (though far from Pixar’s best), it had some important things to say, but often stumbled in trying to express them. Wolfwalkers didn’t suffer those issues. It’s a film that shows how everyone wants (and deserves) their freedom, though society doesn’t always seem to want that for them. It just so happens that those issues are told within a lovely fable of profuse visual splendor.

Song of the Sea was one of my favorite films of the 2010s (hopefully I’ll make a more concrete list on the subject soon), and seeing as I think Wolfwalkers is the best film of the only finished year of the 2020s as of this writing, I guess that makes it my favorite film of this decade so far. Together with 2009’s The Secret of Kells, Tomm Moore’s output already reads like an all-time great.


Chapter 2: Some Changes

Wizard Dojo has been around a few years now, and in that time I’ve written hundreds of reviews for video games and movies. I originally used a .5-based 1-10 rating scale when this site launched in 2014. In 2018 I converted to the more streamlined 1-10 scale using only whole numbers (and altering every score accordingly). Sometimes I miss the ol’ 9.5s and 8.5s, and wonder if I made the right choice. But then I remember that any of the “.5” scores below that are insanely arbitrary, and that confirms I did indeed make the right choice. I mean, what the hell is a 3.5, anyway?

What I’m getting at here is that I’m no stranger to altering some scores when need be. And I do feel that, with this 1,000th blog milestone, I may use this as an opportunity for another soft reboot of sorts. I have been tempted to change the scoring system again (like an A to F scale or something), or even omit it entirely, but I’m not going to do anything that drastic right now. But I do think I will be reviewing some of my past reviews (review-ception!), and altering them every here and there.

Some might say that’s unprofessional to change scores. But come on, people’s opinions change, they might see things in new lights. It’s not like I’m grading algebra papers and there are definitive right answers here.

Interestingly (to me, anyway), this all mostly applies to the video game side of things, though there may be some movie review score I might adjust. I guess there’s just something about the interactivity of games that makes it all more flip-floppy.

Some video game scores I’ve already altered. Others I may have to replay a bit so I can make the proper changes to the written review itself (which is the actual review, after all. The scores are just numbers to easily sum it all up). Though keep in mind it may take some time to get around to re-writing.

Some games whose scores have been altered include:

Kirby’s Dreamland 3 (SNES) – Promoted from an 8 to a 9/10: It’s the best Kirby game, and one of the most charming games ever made. Also one of the greatest (and tragically underrated) art styles in the medium’s history. Why haven’t the Animal Friends introduced here made subsequent appearances? Nago the cat is my home skillet!

Tetris Attack (SNES) – Promoted from an 8 to a 9/10: Honestly, Panel de Pon is one of the best falling block puzzle games of all time (even if the blocks don’t actually fall, but rise). The addition of the Yoshi’s Island characters, story and music of its Tetris Attack incarnation makes it the best version of the game. If only this version could see a re-release…

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA) – Promoted from an 8 to a 9/10: I say this as a Nintendo fan, but when it comes to Metroidvania, I actually prefer the Castlevania side of things. Though Symphony of the Night is (rightfully) hailed as the best entry in the series, Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance comes closer than you might think. For a game to reach similar heights and depths to Symphony of the Night with the limitations of a handheld console in 2003 is one hell of an achievement.

Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin (PS4) – Demoted from an 8 to a 7/10: Despite the extreme views fans of the series may have, Dark Souls 2 is not a disgrace to the series. But I will admit it is the weakest entry of the SoulsBorne series nonetheless. The limited spawns of enemies can make it difficult if you need to pick up additional souls and items, but can also be a strange combination of easy and tedious if you re-light the bonfires after the same few enemies over and over just to exhaust their spawns and clear your path. And don’t get me started on the Shrine of Armana. Beautiful to look at, but the worst area in the entire series to play. Blech!

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (Switch) -Demoted from an 8 to a 7/10: Mario + Rabbids is a good game. The simple fact that it’s a good game involving the Rabbids is some sort of small miracle of its own. No one expected much out of it when it was released in 2017, but it ended up surprising people, myself included. While I still think it’s a good game, in retrospect I think maybe that surprise factor may have boosted our opinions of it. Yes, it’s a fun tactical RPG, but when I started replaying it some time ago, its flaws were more apparent. Primarily, its trial-and-error approach, which may work in a faster paced game. But in a turn-based, tactics RPG? It makes things a little too slow. Still a good game, I want to stress that, but not one of the best Mario spinoffs.

Battletoads (NES) – Demoted from a 5 to a 3/10: Ah, Battletoads! I seem to keep going back and lowering my score to this one. I feel kinda bad about that, since some people still swear by this game. But the sad truth is that the so called “legendary challenge” of Battletoads is more accurately described as “poor game design.” The game presents its levels as challenges that require one-hundred percent accuracy, yet the actual mechanics of the game are so stiff and clunky, that they just don’t allow the precision that the game demands. Some might say I just need to “git gud.” But if you don’t mind my bragging for a second, I get the platinum trophies in Fromsoftware games. I’m fine with a steep challenge. Battletoads is just a bad game. At least the music’s good. And I hear that newer Battletoads game is actually decent.

Some games whose scores I’ve been thinking of changing include:

Bloodborne (PS4)- Upping it from a 9 to a perfect 10/10: Honestly, Bloodborne is probably the best entry in the SoulsBorne series by Fromsoftware. And being the best in a series that has to be the most influential in the medium for at least the last decade has to amount to something. Maybe I just didn’t have enough insight the first time around to give it a perfect score?

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U/Switch)- Upping from a 9 to a perfect 10/10: Have I bragged up any game more on this site than DKC: Tropical Freeze? It’s hands down the best 2D platformer since the genre’s heyday in the 16-bit generation, has some of the best level design I’ve ever seen. And it has an all-time great soundtrack. Sure, I still wish there were more variety in the bonus rooms, and that there were more Animal Buddies other than Rambi, like in the old DKC games. But is that really enough to deny what is otherwise one of my favorite games of all time a perfect score?

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Gen) – Upping from an 8 to a 9/10: The most acclaimed Sonic game of all time, and the most popular Sega Genesis game of all time. It was also my favorite entry back when I was a kid. Though as I’ve gotten older, I do think Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were improvements. And Sonic Mania probably deserves the crown as the best in the series now. So basically, the reason Sonic 2 is an 8 is because I think it has similar but superior sequels, meaning it’s not the best such game to play today. Still, considering Sonic 2 has held up as well as it has after all these years, am I wrong to not rate it higher than I did?

I have also been considering changing some scores on the movies I’ve reviewed. Namely, depending on how I want to continue with how strict I want to keep my grading, Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, Ponyo, and Princess Mononoke are all worthy of perfect 10/10s (Castle in the Sky, in particular, is probably the best animated action film ever made). The only reason those films sit at 9s is because I’ve currently been doing the whole “minimal perfect scores” things by means of comparing a creator’s works, and only giving their absolute best perfect scores. And since Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are both at perfect 10s, the above mentioned are at 9s. But the more I think about it, that’s pretty bogus. Am I just denying deserving movies of perfect scores just so I look more strict? That’s kind of pretentious of me. Perhaps being more open with my grading is the way to go, at least with movies. Video games seem more appropriate for stricter scoring, for whatever reason.

Or maybe all this is proof that I should do away with all this scoring nonsense…


Chapter 3: 2021 Video Game Awards

Huzzah! I’m getting my video game awards done at the same time as I named my favorite movie of the year! And it only took until mid-June of the next year. I’m really catching up!

As always, my video game awards are presented in mostly-traditional categories. So without further ado… here they are!

Best Sound: Demon’s Souls (PS5)

Is it cheating to award Best Sound to a remake of a game from 2009 that used pretty much the same sounds now that it did back then? If so, well then give this award to Crash Bandicoot 4. If not, then Demon’s Souls has to win.

From Software’s “SoulsBorne” games simply have the most atmospheric sound design in video games. And it all started here with Demon’s Souls. Clanking armors, the shrieks and grunts of some horrible monster around the corner, it’s all here, crisper and clearer than ever. Even the sounds that emanate from the PS5 controller are satisfying.

Given that I’ve awarded Best Sound to Dark Souls II, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III and Sekiro in the past, it seems only fitting that the game that started the Souls lineage should triumph in this category as well.

Best Music: Hades

Supergiant Games are no strangers to memorable soundtracks, and their most recent work, Hades, is no exception. Although the music of Hades isn’t quite at the forefront of things as it were in, say, Bastion, It still provides a mix of atmosphere and heat-pumping action that is more than fitting for the game.

Best Visuals: Demon’s Souls (PS5)

I don’t care if it’s an upgrade of a game originally released on the PS3 in 2009, the Demon’s Souls remake is gorgeous! Perhaps now that we’re deep into 2021, the Playstation 5 has seen more titles that are stronger showcases of the console’s graphical power. But there’s still none that I like to look at more than the Demon’s Souls remake. The textures, the colors, the lighting, everything. New PS5 games be damned. When it comes to pleasing aesthetics, Demon’s Souls has them beat.

Best Multiplayer: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout

It’s such a shame so much of Fall Guys’ thunder was stolen by Among Us shortly after release. For one, Fall Guys is a much better game than Among Us (Fall Guys actually has gameplay, which is a bonus), but it’s also sad that such a cute and charming game was on its way of becoming the new biggest thing in gaming, only to be spearheaded by a two-year old game that isn’t half as good.

Still, while Fall Guys’ popularity may have taken a hit, the sheer fun of it hasn’t. I’ve heard some people complain that Fall Guys doesn’t have enough depth to it, but that’s kind of what I like about it. It’s a throwback that suggests that *gasp!* fun gameplay might be enough to have players coming back.

Taking the popular battle royal genre of today, but giving it a lighthearted, platforming twist inspired by shows like Takeshi’s Castle and Wipeout, Fall Guys is always good fun. I still pick it up from time to time and have a blast every time.

Best Remake: Demon’s Souls (PS5)

When I originally played Demon’s Souls, it was after the other Souls games. As such, Demon’s Souls felt like it was lacking in certain areas, and it was easy to see where its successors improved on the experience.

Well, for whatever reason, the PS5 remake won me over much more strongly. Granted, there are some obvious improvements (excess items automatically going to your character’s storage is a huge improvement), but not so many obvious changes that it makes the source of my newfound appreciation for the game too apparent. It’s still very much Demon’s Souls, and there are still some areas that could have used some updating to be more like the subsequent Souls games. Yet somehow, I love the game way more now.

Simply a case of right place, right time? I don’t know. Maybe. But the point is the PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls made me see the game in a whole new, more positive light. I originally thought of Demon’s Souls as the weakest entry in the Souls series by a wide margin. And while it still may not be Dark Souls or Bloodborne, I now feel like Demon’s Souls can more properly be talked about in a similar light. That’s quite the improvement. As such, Demon’s Souls gets Best Remake!

Best Remaster/Re-release: Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Yes, it’s true, Super Mario 3D All-Stars is NOT what it could have been. Nintendo missed the opportunity to really spruce up the visuals of the games, as opposed to simply giving them a coat of HD gloss (which is what they did). The fact that the game lacks any extra features for players to delve into or read up on Mario’s history is questionable. Sunshine’s countless unpolished elements are left untouched. And where the hell is Galaxy 2?

Basically, if one series deserves better, it’s Super Mario.

Even if it were something of a missed opportunity, Super Mario 3D All-Stars still includes two all-time greats in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and a decent third game in Super Mario Sunshine. You simply can’t go wrong.

Yes, Super Mario 3D All-Stars should have been something more. But considering that 64 and Galaxy are already so much more than most games, maybe we’re asking too much?

Best Content: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I know that the PS4’s “Dreams” would seem to fit the bill here, considering that people can potentially create entire games within it. But “potentially” is the key word there. As initially amazed as I was with Dreams, it quickly became apparent that the majority of content people made was unfinished at the best of times, and outright crap at its worst. Sure, people made a lot of crap with Super Mario Maker, but you’ll find a lot more excellent Mario Maker stages than you will Dreams creations.

So yeah, Dreams doesn’t win this.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons does win this, however, for the sheer number of tasks you can do at any given time. And in traditional Animal Crossing fashion, you can go about it at your own pace. Between fishing, bug collecting, crafting, digging for fossils, diving, visiting other players, having other players visit you, there’s just always something to do in Animal Crossing. No matter how big or how small.

Between lengthy play sessions and small bursts of play, my total playtime in Animal Crossing: New Horizons stands tall over any other game on the Nintendo Switch. New Horizons is simply a treasure trove of fun things to do.

Best Gameplay: Hades

Hades is a game of surprising depth. Its rogue-like setup and hack and slash gameplay make it instantly engaging, but you’ll constantly be surprised by just how much there is to pretty much every aspect of the game. The six primary weapons, as well as the acquired upgrades and items you get along the way, would already give the game great variety, but combine it with all the powers you gain (and lose) with every run through the underworld, and Hades is a game that’s always changing and evolving.

With so much variety on top of what is already smooth and fun action, Hades is one of the most addicting action games in years.

Best Indie Game: Hades

See above.

Supergiant Games are no strangers to making acclaimed independent titles, and Hades is most likely their best work to date. An engrossing, action-packed indie classic that also manages to have a pretty interesting narrative.

Best Handheld Game: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Now that I’m including Nintendo Switch titles for the title of Best Handheld Game, this was a really tough choice between Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Hades. In the end, I went with Animal Crossing, simply because it can be easier enjoyed in short bursts as well lengthy play sessions, which seems ideal for gaming on the go, while Hades is a little more demanding of your time. Hey, I had to pick one, okay!

New Horizons may not be the first handheld Animal Crossing, and I understand the complaints some have that it’s lacking some of the features of its 3DS predecessor. But New Horizons is still a prime example of why the series works so well on handheld platforms. Its relaxing “play at your own pace” gameplay, and the hidden depth therein, make it a perfect fit for gaming on the go.

Best Platform: Nintendo Switch

Uh oh, I gave the nod to Nintendo over Sony. According to the internet, that makes me a blind fanboy. But c’mon, the PS4’s biggest game of 2020 was an overhyped sequel to 2013’s most overhyped game, and the new, state-of-the-art PS5’s best game was a remake of a PS3 game. 2020 may not have been the Switch’s best year, but Animal Crossing and Hades alone really helped propel it.

Maybe a B+ year for Switch overall, but it still managed to shine brightest.

Game of the Year 2020: Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I only played Hades more recently, and that recency bias almost forced my hand to name it Game of the Year. It certainly would be a deserving choice, to be sure. However, I started thinking about those first few months Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out, the countless hours I poured into it, and how it basically ruled the minds of all those who played it.

Importantly (and go ahead and call this cheating), those first few months coincided with the first months of the dreadful Covid-19 pandemic. In such a dark time, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was that tiny ray of light that brought some happiness and normalcy to the world. That’s something that can’t be taken for granted.

Both Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Hades are worthy for the title of best video game of 2020. But due to unprecedented circumstances, it’s the latest iteration of Animal Crossing that I feel deserves to take the honors.

Though even without said circumstances, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has so much going for it. Yes, the coffee shop and a few other features from the 3DS version are absent, but what is present represents Animal Crossing at its peak. Collecting items, building up your island, visiting friends, hording those sweet, sweet bells. Few series provide such simple enjoyment as Animal Crossing, and New Horizons provides it better than the series has before.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my island and pull some weeds…

Runners-up: Hades, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time


Chapter 4: Somehow Palpatine Returned

No, I don’t care to elaborate.


Chapter 5: Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads

First, some apologies. I’m sorry my site has really slowed down with the updates since the last quarter of 2020. Things looked like they would improve in 2021 when I reviewed all five Oddworld titles (before SoulStorm’s release) in January. But since then, I’ve slowed right back down again. For the first time since I launched this site, May of 2021 was the first month where I didn’t post a single update. And for this slowness, I apologize.

On the plus side, as I’ve been writing this 1000th post, I’ve also written a few additional reviews, which I will make public in the days following this celebratory post.

I’m hoping that my updates will once again pick up in the coming weeks and months, though I do have to admit my actual reviews for movies and video games may not be as frequent as they once were. Simply put: I can’t keep up with them all. As much as I would like to review every game that catches my eye and every movie I see, that’s just not possible, unless this were to somehow magically become a full-time job.

By this I mean that, in the past, I would often buy games (sometimes when I really didn’t have the money to spare) just so I could get an extra review on this site. To give myself a compliment, I feel that commitment to something (in this case, creating content for a website) is admirable. But if I’m being realistic, I just can’t keep up with that pace (notice I still need to actually write my reviews of the aforementioned Animal Crossing: New Horizon and Hades). Partly because of life, and partly because (as I’ve complained about so many times) modern video games are just too damn long. And of course they’re expensive. As for movies, well, there’s just so many of them, and while I appreciate movies of all kinds, I admit there are certain types of films that I certainly enjoy writing about more than others (or, at the very least, where the writing comes to me more naturally than others).

Don’t worry, I still hope to pick up the pace and get a steady flow of content in the future. But, aside from my 400th video game review milestone (which I’m just so close to already), I won’t be rushing myself to get to the next big milestone for a while. Maybe expect a small handful of reviews every month, and maybe an additional piece of writing and (hopefully) a top 5/10 list. I’ve been meaning to catch up on making such lists, so maybe an easier flow of reviews will help me finally get to those lists.

Another reason why I may not be racing to get as many reviews done as possible is – as I’ve stated so many times in the past I’m now kind of tired of saying it and not pulling through with doing it – I would like to get started on other creative endeavors. Doing something in a video format would be interesting, and something I’ve given a lot of thought into for quite some time, so maybe it’s time I finally do it (I could always post those videos here as well). And more importantly, I really need to start delving deeper into learning video game development. I’ve never been one who could just simply enjoy things like movies and video games. I’ve always wanted to make my own creations, ever since I was a kid.

While I will continue to update this site as much as possible, suffice to say if I were given the choice between reviewing stuff made by other people, or making stuff of my own, the latter option is the one I would describe as my dream come true. So it’s about time I started taking the appropriate steps to making that dream a reality.

So don’t worry, Wizard Dojo isn’t going anywhere. I just have other things to do, and places I need to be.


Chapter 6: Top 10 Video Game Launch Titles (2021 Edition)

Here we are at the THIRD edition of my list of the best video game launch titles. The first time I did it was a simple top five (with runners-up) that I posted on the launch day of this site. The second was a proper top 10, and happened in 2018, when I did a sort of “soft reboot” for this site. Since I like to think this 1000th post constitutes another kind of new beginning for Wizard Dojo, it seemed appropriate to include a third edition here.

So here now is a (slightly) updated installment to my list of the best launch titles in video game history. The games that released right alongside their console (sometimes in the same box!) and set a high standard right out of the gate. Oh, and keep in mind these entries were all released on the same day as their consoles, so even though Super Smash Bros. Melee and Pikmin are often considered launch games for the GameCube, they were only released around the same timeframe, not the same day. So they aren’t here.

So here now – again – are my top 10 video game launch titles!

10: Demon’s Souls (Playstation 5)

The Playstation brand has produced some great consoles. But you know something, they’ve never really been too good with launch titles. Every time I think of great video game launch titles, I can’t say a whole lot of games from Sony’s consoles come to mind (and by that I mean none do). Well, it looks like the PS5 has finally given the Playstation brand it’s first truly great launch title… and all they had to do was remake a Playstation 3 game from eleven years earlier.

Okay, perhaps Demon’s Souls on PS5 is a little something of a cheat. But it’s also the first time a Playstation console has had something truly great right out of the gate, so that has to count for something, right?

Although some of Demon’s Souls’ design choices may be rough around the edges when compared to the subsequent Souls games, the PS5 remake does a great job at streamlining some of the more cumbersome elements of the original 2009 game to bring this influential title a bit more up to date.

Sony may still be waiting on that launch game that really encapsulates what its console is all about, but Demon’s Souls’ intricate combat, deep design, and unforgettable world make it the best game to launch alongside a Playstation console to date.

9: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii)

In its earlier years, Nintendo would use its star franchise, Super Mario, to ring in a new console. But in more contemporary times, it’s Nintendo’s other premiere franchise, The Legend of Zelda, that simultaneously ends one console and ushers in the next. This unique trend started in 2006, when The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess closed the door to the GameCube and helped bring about the age of the Wii.

Like Demon’s Souls on PS5, Twilight Princess was perhaps not the best showcase of the Wii for this reason (the motion controls were kind of tacked on, but still fun), but the sheer quality of the game itself has to earn it a spot on the list. It’s certainly the ‘biggest’ of the traditional Zelda titles, featuring terrific dungeon design and some of Link’s greatest gadgets and gizmos.

With the two follow-up console titles in the series trying to change up the Zelda formula (to varying degrees of success), Twilight Princess is kind of like the last traditional Zelda game. That gives the game something of a bittersweet appeal in hindsight. But if Twilight Princess were to be the last traditional Zelda title, it was a high note to go out on.

Perhaps Twilight Princess isn’t the most “Wii” of Wii games. But its still one of the biggest and best Zelda titles, and Wii owners didn’t even have to wait to play it (unless they played a certain other launch title first).

8: SoulCalibur (Dreamcast)

Yes, SoulCalibur was originally in arcades. But its port to the Sega Dreamcast as part of that console’s launch was considered a nearly-perfect port of the weapons-based fighter. Considering even the likes of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were considered to have sacrificed some quality in the transition to home consoles, it’s quite the achievement.

SoulCalibur was to 3D fighters what the aforementioned Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were to 2D ones. Intricate combat coupled with a varied cast of characters made for a deep fighter. And with the Dreamcast version losing nothing from its arcade counterpart, SoulCalibur was, at long last, the “arcade at home” experience fans had been looking for. It’s still one of the most acclaimed video games of all time! Also, jiggle physics!

Sonic Adventure was another memorable launch title for the Dreamcast. Though I’d be lying if I said Sonic Adventure stands the test of time, even with my nostalgia for it. SoulCalibur, on the other hand, has held up surprisingly well. Considering SoulCalibur was a pioneer in the 3D fighter genre, that timelessness is all the more impressive.

The SoulCalibur series may not be as acclaimed as it once was. But rest assured, the original’s place in video game history is well secure.

7: Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox)

Dang, it hurts to put Halo at only number seven on this list. Honestly, it’s at this point where things got reeeally hard to rank, even this third time around. Make no mistake about it, however, Halo’s placement is no indictment of anything it did wrong as a launch title. It’s only a testament to the accomplishments of the remaining games on this list.

Without Halo, would the Xbox brand be such a prominent force in gaming today, twenty years later? I honestly don’t think it would be. Remember, the original Xbox was competing with the white hot Playstation 2 (and to a much lesser extent, industry mainstay Nintendo with the GameCube). Without something truly memorable at launch, the Xbox brand may have been doomed to have just been “that other guy” in the video game console equation.

Thankfully for Xbox, it had Halo.

Goldeneye 007 may have been the game that made first-person shooters work on home consoles, but it really has nothing on Halo.

Halo streamlined what needed fixing in the genre (only two weapons at a time, so no more endless cycling through your arsenal to find the weapon you’re looking for), and also added so much to it. The multiplayer of course speaks for itself. Anyone who owned an Xbox spent countless hours with friends and family in deathmatches and capture the flags. But for a great change of pace for the genre, Halo even included a great single-player campaign that was worth playing again and again. You could even play said campaign with a second player!

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of good games on the Xbox, but suffice to say Halo’s appeal transcended all of them. It wasn’t until its own sequel hit store shelves three years later – with added online functionality – that Halo: Combat Evolved was usurped as the biggest game on the console.

6: Wii Sports (Wii)

Maybe I just shouldn’t make these lists, because placing Wii Sports at number six is kind of killing me. No, it’s not the deepest game on this list, but it – perhaps more so than any other game – expresses exactly what its console is all about. Sure, Twilight Princess filled the need for a new installment in a beloved Nintendo franchise, but it was also originally conceived as a GameCube title. But Wii Sports was the Wii game.

Wii Sports is good, simple fun. Anyone, no matter their prior experience with video games, could pick it up and play. You had five sports included (tennis, golf, bowling, baseball and my personal favorite, boxing), all of which were played with motion controls. Simply move the Wii remote, and the character would move accordingly. It’s kind of weird how so few other games (on Wii and elsewhere) would end up utilizing motion controls half as well. Wii Sports came right out of the box, and got everything so right.

Oh, and you can’t forget the Miis. These simplified, player-created avatars became such a staple for Nintendo, that they continue to this day on Nintendo Switch, surviving long after the Wii name itself. Wii Sports just wouldn’t have been the same without them. Seriously, imagine the same concept of a game, but with a realistic looking baseball player. It’s just not the same, is it?

Wii Sports was just that perfect storm of components. Its simple, addictive, player-friendly gameplay combined with the innovation of the console itself made it an unforgettable experience. Even with a new Zelda ready and waiting, Wii Sports was the first place most Wii owners went to on their homepage (well, maybe after the Mii Channel).

No doubt the appeal of Wii Sports helped the Wii become the phenomenon that it was, which in turn helped gaming as a whole become more accepted as a mainstream pastime.

5: Tetris (Game Boy)

Although Tetris actually predates the Game Boy, it’s on Nintendo’s original handheld juggernaut where it became a phenomenon. It was a match made in heaven: Tetris’s simple gameplay of aligning falling blocks worked perfectly for the handheld console. Tetris was the kind of game you could play for a few minutes or for hours at a time (provided you had the batteries).

Sure, being on the Game Boy may have brought Tetris worldwide recognition, but I’d argue Game Boy was the real beneficiary for having Tetris be a part of it. No doubt the infectious, deceitfully deep gameplay of Tetris helped boost the Game Boy’s sales early on, and even throughout its lifetime.

Other titles such as Super Mario Land, Kirby’s Dream Land and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening helped the Game Boy continue to grow, and the Game Boy is one of the only consoles (maybe the only one) to get a second life when it was supposed to be at its end, due to a little game called Pokemon. But the Game Boy would have never made it to Pokemon if it weren’t for Tetris. This falling-block puzzler even went on to transcend the Game Boy and consoles themselves, being released on virtually any available electronic and digital platform in existence at this point.

To this day, Tetris remains one of the best games of all time. The Game Boy may have helped Tetris in its ascension towards world domination, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Nintendo’s long dominance in the handheld gaming market (which even continues today with the Nintendo Switch) owes a lot to the fact that Tetris was available on the Game Boy right from the get-go.

4: Super Mario Bros. (NES)

I have to stress this every time: if we’re going by influence alone, Super Mario Bros. would top this and every other list. Although it may seem hard to believe nowadays with how far video games have come since, but no game showcased a bigger leap from what came before than Super Mario Bros. did in 1985.

The sheer fact that Mario could start one level on land, enter a pipe, and then be submerged in water with accompanying mechanics, was unlike anything else at the time. Before Super Mario Bros., if a game was going to be underwater, then that’s what the game was in its entirety, all on a single screen.

Super Mario Bros. brought adventure to video games. Even better, it did it while also having pitch perfect gameplay. It set the standard of forward-thinking ideas and flawless execution that would come to define the series. It singlehandedly made the NES the console of the 80s and set the stage for Nintendo’s many other franchises to follow. Not to mention it did it all during something of a dark age for the video game medium. Its impact and influence can’t be overstated.

Sure, there are plenty of better Mario games now (a couple of which you’ll be seeing on this list), but the original Super Mario Bros. remains a timeless classic in its own right. Which is no small feat for an NES launch game.

3: Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)

If one of a launch game’s biggest jobs is to showcase what a new generation can do that its predecessors could not, than no game has ever matched Super Mario 64 in that regard, and I don’t believe one ever will.

Super Mario 64 wasn’t the first 3D video game, but it may as well have been, as it was the first to truly bring the concept to life. For the first time, a character could roam freely in a 3D environment, player’s could go about the game world as they pleased. And thankfully, the exquisite design Super Mario had been known for remained fully intact.

Just as Mario reinvented video games in 1985 with Super Mario Bros., he did it all over again with Super Mario 64, this time elevating 3D gaming from a mere novelty into being the direction the medium would traverse going forward.

It may be hard for some to appreciate these days with how far gaming has come, but the sheer act of moving Mario around the courtyard of Princess Peach’s castle was a revelation. Mario now had acrobatic moves, like a triple jump, a wall jump and a punch/kick combo. Some of his moves (like that weird crouching, breakdance-like kick) seemed to exist just because they could in Mario’s new 3D environment. Never before had the sheer act of controlling a character in a video game felt so special, and it’s seldom been approached since.

Sony’s Playstation was the new kid on the block at the time. It may have been the “cooler” console with the fresher faces. But it was one of gaming’s oldest icons who paved the way for the future.

2: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)

History repeated itself in 2017 when – just like Twilight Princess simultaneously ended the GameCube era and ushered in the Wii eleven years earlier – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, after many delays, closed the book on the ill-fated Wii U and started a new chapter for Nintendo with the Switch. Though this time, instead of a hefty traditional Zelda title, we had one that reinvented its series.

At the expense of saying something controversial, Ocarina of Time had held the Zelda series back for too long. While Mario was constantly changing the rules of his series, Link’s adventures felt like they didn’t want to walk too far out of Ocarina’s shadow (itself kind of an extension of A Link to the Past’s shadow, if we’re being honest). They remained great games, to be sure. But their more conservative tendencies may have prevented them from building stronger individual legacies.

Thankfully, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild changed all that, rethinking and rewriting the rules of how Zelda games are played. Hyrule was now a vast open world, Link has a constantly changing arsenal of weapons, he learns all of his key abilities right out of the gate, you can even go straight from the beginning of the game to the final boss, if you’re brave or fool enough.

Nintendo previously seemed to think making such drastic changes to The Legend of Zelda would have been sacrilegious, but the changes Breath of the Wild brought with it should only restore faith into the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild is as fun and deep as any entry in the franchise, but is swimming in ideas and concepts that are all its own.

Yes, it was originally planned as a Wii U exclusive, and who knows how that system’s fortunes may have differed had things gone to plan. But like Twilight Princess, its late-game transition to the next console in line gave it that special feeling that only the best launch games can generate. And Breath of the Wild is so good, it should rank near the top of any list of launch titles.

But there is one greater still…

1: Super Mario World (Super NES)

On the surface, Super Mario World may seem like it’s “merely” a bigger sequel to the NES Mario games, but it shouldn’t take long to realize it’s so much more than that.

While Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced the world map into the equation, Super Mario World turned the world map into a level itself. Now stages included multiple exits, the map featured branching paths, there were secret worlds, and secret worlds inside of secret worlds! You could unlock new paths in earlier levels within the later levels of the game, and find warps to travel to different points in the world map. You could try to find the quickest route to take down Bowser, or uncover every last one of Super Mario World’s many secrets, essentially creating both speedrunning and completionism as we know them today in one fell swoop.

Levels were no longer completed simply by going left to right. Now, Mario often had to travel upward, downward, over and into the levels themselves to find every hidden exit. Metroid and Castlevania (the collective “Metroidvania”) understandably get credit for their emphasis on exploration, but Super Mario World kind of beat them to the punch.

World refined the flight mechanics introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3 through the now-iconic Super Cape power-up, which allowed Mario to travel and explore levels like never before. More importantly, Super Mario World introduced us all to Yoshi! The adorable dinosaur was a (literal) game-changer, and became so popular he starred in games of his own soon after. Has any character addition in a video game sequel ever had a bigger impact?

Something few people seem to mention about Super Mario World these days is that it was the first example of a new entry in a beloved franchise launching new hardware. Though Mario is a constant presence in gaming now, Super Mario World had to prove that to be the case. If the game failed, the Super Mario series may have faded with the NES. So Super Mario World had a hefty task at hand in proving Mario wasn’t simply a product of the 80s. Suffice to say it passed the test with flying colors.

Super Mario World showcased nex-gen capabilities in a way not dissimilar to Super Mario 64 (Yoshi simply wasn’t possible in the NES Marios), and features the same kind of franchise reinvention that would later define Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And it ensured Mario was here to stay.

30 years ago, Super Mario World showed us the best way to introduce a new console. And now, 30 years later, it hasn’t been matched. The best launch game of all time.

Honorable mentions: Sonic Adventure (Dreamcast), Luigi’s Mansion (GameCube), Nintendo Land (Wii U), New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U)


Chapter 7: The Last One

Did I say the chapters in this post made it like Paper Mario? But I only made it to seven chapters, as opposed to eight… So I guess it’s more like Bug Fables. Still better than Sticker Star, Color Splash or Origami King. That’s for damned sure!

Yes, sadly, we come to the end of my one-thousandth post. There were some other things I wanted to include in here, but seeing as it took me so long just to get this done, they’ll have to wait for another day. I mean, I haven’t posted anything in two months! I can’t keep delaying this.

So I wasn’t able to make this 1,000th blog post everything it could be, but I hope you had some fun despite this. I’ll keep those additional ideas handy, either as their own posts (which might get them more traffic anyway, come to think of it), or as part of my Christmas Special or some other such post. Hopefully this site won’t have another draught like that between my review of Raya and the Last Dragon and this 1,000th post for quite some time.

Thankfully, I have a few movie and video game reviews that I’ve completed as I wrote this in bits and pieces. They’ve just been waiting for me to post this 1,000th post (so that it would actually be the 1,000th post). So now I can start posting those reviews in the coming days.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be off now. There’s more writing to be done, and all of that other stuff I mentioned earlier, too.

Once again, a very big thank you to everyone who reads this site. It’s been a fun ride, these past 1,000 blogs. Here’s to one-thousand more. And a lot more after that. It’s not like I plan to stop at 2,000 or anything. Why am I explaining this to you? You knew that “here’s to one-thousand more” doesn’t mean “and that’s it.”

Thanks for stopping by! Keep on keepin’ on! And have a nice day!


Secret Bonus Chapter: Chapter 8: Ranking the Paper Mario Games!

Wait? You mean there are eight chapters here? Well then, I need to think of something to write…

I got it! With the above mention of Paper Mario, here is my “unofficial” ranking of the Paper Mario games (unofficial in that I haven’t played some of the entries in many a year, and am mostly going by memory). Hopefully I can get around to replaying the entries I haven’t reviewed (including slogging my way to the end of Origami King), as I would like to properly review them all some day.

Anyway, here’s my ranking of the Paper Mario series.

7: Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Tragically, Sticker Star kind of marked the end of Mario RPGs. The Mario & Luigi series would continue with two more entries afterwards, but both Dream Team and Paper Jam (the latter of which served as a crossover between Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario) were watered down disappointments of what came before (Dream Team at least still had some original characters, but Paper Jam went all in with the bizarre “No more originality allowed!” mentality that Sticker Start started). This isn’t about Mario & Luigi, though, it’s about Paper Mario.

That’s the sad thing about it though, Sticker Star effectively killed everything people loved about Paper Mario. No more RPG elements, no more partners, no more original characters, no more strategy, no more…anything really.

But at least it had that sticker gimmick! Guh-hyuk! Let me see if I can make any sense of Paper Mario: Sticker Star’s Sticker mechanic: Instead of Mario and a partner having their own moves for battle, all of Mario’s actions used consumable stickers. Because this game hates RPGs (while still using a turn-based battle system), you didn’t gain experience points and level up to get stronger. Instead, your rewards for winning battles were either A) more stickers or B) coins…for buying more stickers. So you use these consumable items in battle, so that you can get more of these consumable items for battle… There’s absolutely no point to the battle system.

Worse still, boss fights could only be won by using very specific stickers (I think they were referred to as “Things.” The creativity is just astounding). Without those “Things” the boss fights were literally unbeatable. So again, no strategy, just use the boss-specific “Thing” and that’s it, you win!

Honestly, I think Sticker Star is up there with the likes of Metroid: Other M as one of the worst games Nintendo has ever made. It killed the Mario RPGs. That right there is heartbreaking.

6: Paper Mario: The Origami King

It was tough deciding which game was worse between Color Splash and Origami King. While Color Splash continued with Sticker Star’s nonsensical formula, it at least improved it somewhat. But Origami King tried to (needlessly) change up the Paper Mario formula once again, and created something that was every bit as pointless as Sticker Star (though with maybe some added charm). So I decided Origami King is the worse of the two.

The thing that really irks me about Origami King is how it pretends like it’s trying to reach out to fans of the original Paper Mario games. It acts like partner characters are back, except these partners are controlled by AI, have literally one attack (which usually misses anyway), and are characters like a generic Bob-omb named Bob-omb! The Bob-omb named Bob-omb even mentions that he used to have a friend, a fellow Bob-omb who was also named Bob-omb! Isn’t that totally funny? It’s not like it’s an example of the many drawbacks that come with the series’ bizarre enforced limitations to not introduce original characters or anything.

Then there are the battles. Origami King would have you believe proper turn-based battles made a comeback, but again, it’s just a huge gimmick where you have to line up enemies in a set amount of time, and though the items aren’t one-time consumables anymore, they still wear out eventually and you have to replace them. Naturally, you don’t gain experience points or level up for battling, you just get coins to buy more items for battling that wear out during battle. Again, what’s the point?!

And don’t get me started on boss battles, where you have to move to a certain space on the board in order to attack the boss, but the bosses can often change the board around as you’re moving, rendering your strategy pointless.

All the more baffling is that these changes were made to supposedly make the game more kid-friendly. But it’s so convoluted I can’t imagine very many kids would have much fun with it. Kids seem to like the RPG elements of Pokemon, so what was so bad about Paper Mario being an RPG again?

5: Paper Mario: Color Splash

The Wii U edition of Paper Mario was revealed to little fanfare. Probably because it decided to go the same route as Sticker Star, and Nintendo knew people wouldn’t be happy about it. It’s one of the most obnoxiously stubborn video games ever made.

At the very least, Color Splash is an improvement over Sticker Star, even if it shares many of its poor design choices (consumable items for battle, no partners, bosses that require the use of a specific item). Though at least this time around, there was some semblance of character progression, since Mario needed to paint the environment with his hammer, and battling could result in Mario levelling up his hammer to have more paint. Hey, any improvement over Sticker Star is something.

I suppose at the very least, Color Splash’s insistence in following suit with Sticker Star meant it didn’t pretend like it was trying to bring back old fans as well, like Origami King would eventually do. Stubborn though it may be, at least this entry was honest.

4: Super Paper Mario

I’m going to be a little controversial here, because some people absolutely love this game to death. But I feel like Super Paper Mario is where things started to go wrong for the series. Now, it’s not a bad game like Sticker Star, but it did start the trend of Nintendo and Intelligent Systems way overthinking what changes needed to be made to Paper Mario.

Change can be a good thing, of course. The mainline Mario series is always changing, and it’s a big reason why I think it deserves its praise as gaming’s best series. But did Paper Mario really need to change so drastically by its third entry?

To be fair, at the time, Super Paper Mario’s changes were a one-off experiment. That’s fine, but it’s a shame Nintendo decided from then on out, Paper Mario needed to be completely revamped.

I have fond memories of Super Paper Mario. It was fun, funny, and contained some original ideas. It abandoned the turn-based nature of the previous two Paper Marios in favor of a platformer with RPG elements. It’s not a terrible idea, though the fact that the mainline Mario games are already platformers does make the change a bit questionable. Maybe a more Symphony of the Night-style Mario action game would have justified the change more? But I digress.

The issue with Super Paper Mario, though, is that despite the change to a much faster paced genre, it has even more story and dialogue than the previous Paper Mario games. One reason why stories, cutscenes and dialogue boxes work for turn-based RPGs is because they’re already a slower paced genre. But turning an RPG into a platformer, while doubling down on the RPG storytelling seems conflicting with itself. I’m not saying platformers can’t have stories, but when Super Paper Mario has more story than the RPG Paper Mario games, it brings the platformer side of thing down to a crawl.

I remember enjoying Super Paper Mario, and hopefully I’ll revisit it in the near future. But it was the game that made the cracks in the foundation of the series.

3: Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling

And now the quality ramps up considerably.

Nintendo fans have made it no secret that they crave the return of the original Paper Mario formula. And for some unknowable reason, Nintendo continues to ignore them. So a small independent studio who were fellow fans of classic Paper Mario decided if Nintendo isn’t going to listen, they’ll just make their own Paper Mario instead.

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling really is classic Paper Mario in all but the names and faces. A wonderful (kind of) return to form for something fans have been starved of for far too long. It should also rank alongside games like Undertale, Shovel Knight and Hades as one of the best indie games around (and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Does that count as indie?).

Turn-based battle system with action commands? Check. Paper-thin characters but no overbearing paper gimmicks? Check. Character progression? Check. The only thing missing are partner characters, but that’s because Bug Fables has a set team of three characters right out the gate. That’s fine. It had to do something different to stand out.

I think my only real issue with Bug Fables is that the difficulty can be a little inconsistent. I actually found some earlier segments to be more challenging than some later stages of the game. It’s not a big deal, but I guess you’d ideally want a game’s difficulty to gradually increase as you go (though it’s not an RPG, Donkey Kong Country 2 is probably the best example of a game increasing in difficulty piece by piece. So look to that for inspiration).

Somewhat hilariously, Bug Fables made its way to the Switch mere months before Origami King. While the latter may have boasted the Paper Mario name, Bug Fables was the Paper Mario you’d been looking for.

Oh, how wonderful it was (and is) to play a game like this again. Why oh why can’t Nintendo see why people love this so much?

2: Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

The second entry in the Paper Mario series seems to be the fan-favorite: Partly because it was a fantastic game, and partly because it was the last time Paper Mario was the Paper Mario we knew and loved. Like many great sequels, The Thousand-Year Door is bigger than the original in almost every way: the story is darker and more serious, the writing is more colorful and witty, there’s more sidequests. Overall, a great sequel.

With that said, I do find some of the partners to be a little bit of a downgrade from the first game (the first few partners even come across as the B-team counterparts to those of the N64 original), and while there’s nothing wrong with the battle system, there’s nothing wrong with it because it was basically just carried over from the first game. My point being that The Thousand-Year Door is bigger than the first game in pretty much every way, but maybe not as innovative in the little details. But now I’m being nitpicky.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, I suppose. It certainly beats the “we know fans love the original, but we’re choosing to ignore that and strip away everything they loved from the series” mentality of later entries.

It’s easy to see why The Thousand-Year Door remains so beloved. It took the foundation of the original Paper Mario, and made it into as grand and epic of a journey as any Mario has ever seen. It should rank highly among any list of Nintendo RPGs (a category which I feel doesn’t get the credit it really deserves).

Of course, I think I’ve made it obvious what my number one pick is…

1: Paper Mario

Sometimes, you just can’t beat the original. Though I guess in this case, Nintendo stopped trying to do that long ago. But again, I digress.

What makes the original Paper Mario still stand out twenty years on is the purity of it all. This is the most “Mario” of the Mario RPGs. But I mean that in a meaningful sense, not in the “it can only have characters from the main series and nothing original” sense of the newer entries. It’s the most “Mario” in that it feels like a mainline entry turned into an RPG: Bowser is the villain, but there’s a twist in that he now possesses the wish granting Star Rod to make himself invincible. Peach still needs rescuing, but there are moments between Mario’s adventure where the player takes control of her which prove her resourcefulness. Classic Mario enemies return, but often as friendly NPCs and even Mario’s party members. And while its battle system is turn-based, the action commands make it still feel like a traditional Mario game.

Granted, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars beat Paper Mario to the punch on the whole (and at the expense of undermining this whole ranking, I think Super Mario RPG is the superior game. But it’s also like my favorite game of all time so no harm there, I suppose). Though Super Mario RPG kind of feels like its own thing (one that Nintendo and company really should revisit someday, mind you), whereas Paper Mario feels like it could be part of the mainline Mario series, despite its change in genre.

Paper Mario may have been the only noteworthy RPG on the Nintendo 64. But if the console could only have one, it was lucky to have this one. It’s probably my favorite Nintendo 64 title (though Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Tooie need to be mentioned), one of the system’s few truly timeless games, and one of my favorite RPGs.

The Thousand-Year Door may have added to it. Bug Fables may have paid homage to it. And subsequent Paper Mario games have done… whatever the hell they’ve done to it. But whenever I think of Paper Mario at its best, I always go back to the N64 original.


Chapter 9: The Actual Last One

Well, that last chapter certainly was totally planned from the start and not hastily written at the eleventh hour. Okay, so actually it had been planned for this 1,000th post, then it was one of the ideas I dropped from this celebratory post so I could get it done. But then, like the madman I am, I decided to add the Paper Mario ranking in here after all at the last minute.

There are, however, still those few extra ideas I had that will have to wait for another day. I actually mean that this time. They’ll have to wait. Hopefully you like them in the not-too-distant future.

So yes, now I’ll leave you with a big, fat T H A N K Y O U ! Thanks for your readership, whether it be continued or first time readership. And also thanks to movies and video games for being so great and giving me something I want to write about.

It took a while to get to this 1,000th blog, but I enjoyed every minute of it (well, except maybe when I reviewed CrazyBus and Super Man 64. Those were hard times). Here’s to many, many more!

Stay beautiful!

Raya and the Last Dragon Review

Raya and the Last Dragon is the fifty-ninth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In recent years, Disney has seemingly reclaimed their crown from sister studio Pixar as the leading force in animated blockbusters, reaching new critical and commercial heights with the likes of Zootopia, Moana and, of course, Frozen. Disney Animation has never been as creatively robust and varied as they are now, and that remains true of Raya and the Last Dragon, which sees Disney try their hand at an action-adventure film with greatly entertaining success.

Disney has admittedly attempted some action-oriented animated features in the past, most notably in the early 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Though it’s safe to say neither of those films are remembered as Disney classics. But with Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney seems to have found the right balance of making a satisfying action film with all the making of a Disney classic.

Perhaps I should say “most” of the makings of a Disney classic, as Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a musical, like most of Disney’s best works. But as far as Disney’s animated non-musicals go, Raya and the Last Dragon is among the best, maybe even the best of the lot.

Set in the Southeast Asian-inspired world of Kumandra, the story of Raya and the Last Dragon begins five-hundred years before Raya herself enters the picture: Kumandra was once a unified continent in which humans lived in harmony with magical dragons. This all changed when evil spirits called “Druun” appeared, and turned every living thing they touched to stone. The Druun spread like wildfire, engulfing human and dragon alike. Eventually, only one dragon remained, Sisu (Akwafina), who concentrated all her magic into a gem that cleansed the world of the Druun and revived all the humans, though the dragons remained stone, and Sisu herself disappeared. The people of Kumandra then had a power struggle for the “Dragon Gem” and split into five tribes, each named after part of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Heart, being the epicenter of Sisu’s last stand, is where the gem remains.

Fast-forward five-hundred years, and the other tribes still envy Heart over its possession of the Dragon Gem. Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart and protector of the gem, still believes in a unified Kumandra, and hopes to make peace with the other tribes. Benja invites the leaders of the other tribes to Heart for a feast as a sign of goodwill. All seems to be going well, with Benja’s daughter, a young Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) becoming fast friends with the princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan). But after Namaari wins Raya’s trust, Raya – who is training to be the Dragon Gem’s next guardian – shows Namaari the location of the gem. Namaari alerts the other members of Fang, and when Benja goes to defend the gem, the other tribe leaders follow him. A struggle ensues between the tribes for the gem, which results in Benja being injured, and the gem being broken into five pieces. Each tribe takes a piece, but the damage has been done, and the gem’s fracturing has reawakened the Druun, who once again begin turning humans to stone, including chief Benja himself.

The remaining members of each tribe use their gem pieces to repel the Druun, and find refuge around water (which the Druun also hate), but the majority of people have already been turned to stone. Fast forward six years, and Raya, now a young woman, has been on a quest to track down Sisu, who is rumored to still be alive, in hopes that the dragon can fuse the gem back together and heal the world.

Given that the name of the movie is Raya and the Last Dragon, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Raya does manage to find the resting spot of Sisu, and summons the dragon. After filling Sisu in on the situation (the dragon still thinks it’s the same day from five-hundred years prior upon awakening), Raya and Sisu set out to claim the other pieces of the Dragon Gem so they can set the world right. All the while, Namaari, hearing of Raya’s quest, hopes to stop Raya and claim the Dragon Gem for Fang.

That may seem like a lot of backstory for a Disney movie, but I kind of like that about Raya and the Last Dragon. Between Raya and Frozen II, Disney seems to be giving their films legitimate worldbuilding and lore (while not letting such things get in the way of the story at hand, which is crucial). We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when everything in a Disney movie was built around the moment when two hot people would make-out.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon from this point has a simple adventure structure, but there’s nothing wrong with that when things are executed this well. And in typical Disney fashion, the film introduces us to a number of memorable characters, and has a nice message about trust to boot (having been betrayed by Namaari, resulting in the world’s ruin, Raya has a hard time believing in her father’s more positive outlook on the world, which clashes with Sisu’s childlike optimism).

Along their adventure, Raya and Sisu are joined by different colorful characters from the different tribes: Boun (Izaac Wang) is a ten-year old boy from Tail who captains the group’s boat, which also doubles as a restaurant. Noi (Thalia Tran) is a baby from Talon who, along with her three monkey-like companions, is a con artist. And Tong (Benedict Wong) is a warrior with a heart of gold from Spine with a peculiar manner of speech. And of course Raya has her own animal sidekick in the form of Tuk Tuk, a kind of giant armadillo/chipmunk hybrid whose sounds are provided by Alan Tudyk (because who else would it be in a modern Disney movie?).

This may seem like a lot of characters to juggle, and while some of them could do with a little more screen time, Raya and the Last Dragon actually does a nice job at giving this diverse group of ragtag heroes their own distinct personalities.

The characters are a lot of fun, and so is the adventure they find themselves on. Disney has long-since showcased that animation is the ideal medium for the film musical, but Raya and the Last Dragon is among the rare animated films – like Castle in the Sky or even the Kung Fu Panda movies – that shows that action sequences may also be best suited for animation. The real world has its limitations, and special effects can get distracting, but animation creates a reality of its own, allowing for the action to only be limited by the filmmakers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s one-on-one fight scenes or chase sequences, Raya and the Last Dragon provides some exhilarating set pieces. And it’s all perfectly suitable action for younger audiences too. More cynical people might balk that such things would dumb the action down, but that isn’t the case. Children deserve a variety of movies as much as anyone, so it’s great that something like Raya and the Last Dragon can produce these elaborate, creative set pieces and still present them in an accessible way for its target audience. Atlantis and Treasure Planet could feel like they were “trying to be cool” through their action, which might explain why they don’t exactly feel timeless. But Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it has the heart of a Disney classic, but presented in an action-adventure film, as opposed to the musical we’re accustomed to. Raya should prove to be an exciting movie for audiences of all ages.

The animation is similarly captivating. The visuals of a lot of big budget animation studios can kind of blur together these days, but Disney has found a way to still make its character designs stand out. And with the Southeast Asian-inspired setting, the world of Raya has a distinct beauty from other Disney fare. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, especially when Sisu is performing one of her feats of magic.

Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney’s current hot streak of modern animated classics, and does so in a way that makes it stand out from the pack. It may not be the best film Disney has put out in recent times, but Raya and the Last Dragon is that rare, satisfying action film that still manages to have a beating heart. That in itself is worth celebrating.

8

Tom & Jerry (2021) Review

Tom & Jerry are arguably the most prolific of the classic cartoon stars. Sure, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny may be more widely known, but in terms of the short films themselves, I think it isn’t too far of a stretch to say Tom & Jerry boast the most acclaimed resumes (at least in the days of their MGM shorts. We could all do animation history a great service by forgetting the era when Tom and Jerry were thrown into those poorly-animated Czech shorts). While Mickey may have had a role in Fantasia, and Bugs Bunny has starred in a movie or two (including 1990s fever dream Space Jam), Tom & Jerry have never had a feature film deserving of their names. Though that isn’t for a lack of trying.

1992 saw the release of the aptly-named Tom & Jerry: The Movie, an animated feature so misguided that it gave its titular cat and mouse duo cutesy cartoon voices! The less said of that disaster, the better. During the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s, Tom and Jerry were thrown into cash-grab straight-to-video movies that featured gimmicks like pirates, wizards and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory thrown into the mix. 2021 finally saw Tom & Jerry return to the big screen (which was given a simultaneous streaming release on HBO Max) with a film simply named after the franchise itself. Could this finally be the Tom & Jerry movie that does justice to its two iconic cartoon stars?

In short, no. It isn’t. Though this live-action/animated hybrid film is an improvement over Tom & Jerry’s previous feature-length efforts, it will surely be a disappointment for anyone hoping to see the slapstick royalty of Tom & Jerry stretched into a 90 minute film.

Some might say that Tom & Jerry, the tale as old as time of a cat and mouse wanting each other dead, wouldn’t work as a feature film. But how could we know, since no one has ever actually attempted that simple transition? Studios always feel the need to include human characters or some big plot that Tom and Jerry somehow find themselves entangled in. Yes, movies are a storytelling medium, but storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to mean plot. The classic Tom & Jerry shorts could provide top notch entertainment by the situations the cat and mouse’s rivalry would take them to. We can’t know if their schtick can carry a feature film if no one tries.

Shaun the Sheep is a series of fifteen minute animated shorts about a sheep and a dog doing human-y things behind the farmer’s back, with no dialogue outside of some animal noises and mumbles. I bring this up because Shaun the Sheep has now had two feature length films that utilize the same formula as the show, and they’ve been some of the best TV-to-movie transitions I’ve seen. If Shaun the Sheep can carry two movies, why has no one had enough faith in Tom and Jerry to carry a single movie by themselves? Why do there always need to be humans and their troubles and bigger stories thrown into the mix?

The primary human here is Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz), a resourceful young woman who manages to fudge her way to a job at the Royal Gates Hotel after passing someone else’s resume off as her own. A big problem with the film is that it spends far too much time on Kayla’s work life in the hotel and her trying to avoid the suspicious event manager, Terence (Michael Peña), and not nearly enough time on the chaotic battles of Tom and Jerry. Though credit where it’s due, Chloë Grace Moretz is always charming, and she does a good job at making the audience care about Kayla.

Things get more complicated for Kayla, when Jerry moves into the upper-class hotel. The Royal Gates Hotel is set to host a major celebrity wedding, and the hotel staff worries a mouse living in the hotel could ruin their image before the big event. Kayla attempts to catch Jerry herself, but when the mouse proves craftier than she expected, she ends up getting Tom a job at the hotel as well, so that he might help catch Jerry.

Honestly, that’s a fair setup for a Tom & Jerry movie. Take their usual antics, but put it in a big, fancy location as a means to distinguish it as a “bigger” motion picture makes sense. The issue is, again, that Tom and Jerry’s actions are often in the background, and the film dedicates too much time to its subplot of the celebrity wedding. I can accept a human character like Kayla being added to the proceedings, but the film should have stuck with her, Tom and Jerry. Instead, the celebrity couple and the rest of the hotel staff members become players in the plot. It’s just so unnecessary.

Now, Tom and Jerry do get a few moments of slapstick battles and chase sequences, but they are too few, too brief, and too spread out. The movie even teases a big, chaotic finale on the day of the wedding, but when it occurs, it’s over with as quickly as it begins.

I don’t want to sound completely doom and gloom in regards to Tom & Jerry’s 2021 outing though. I admit there were some bits that made me laugh (though I could live without the bathroom humor centered around Spike, who here is the pet dog of the celebrity couple). I also liked the look of the film. Though it would have been nice see Tom and Jerry hand-drawn as they were back in the day, the film does the next best thing by giving the CG characters a cel shading that makes them look like their painted past-selves. In fact, all the animal characters in the film are cartoon characters, which is a nice little touch. With all the big budget sci-fi and super hero movies we have these days, live-action and animation have never coexisted as regularly as they do now. Usually, however, the animation is used as a special effect to enhance the visual look of a live-action world. So a movie like this, where the animated characters are blatantly animated characters interacting with real humans, has become something of a rarity. And call me a sucker, but I appreciate some of the film’s sentiment and the little lessons it has to say to younger audiences (even if some of these lessons feel a bit shoehorned in). Maybe I’ve grown a bit soft, or maybe the rough times the world is currently living in has just made me appreciate these things more in movies, even when they have shaky execution.

Though I may be going a little easy on this 2021 Tom & Jerry (young audiences might really like it), I can’t deny that the film misses the point of Tom & Jerry. Just because something is family entertainment doesn’t mean it has to be sentimental. And if any cartoon duo should be allowed to go the Godzilla route and simply have their movie “let them fight,” surely it’s Tom and Jerry.

4

Rango Review

Rango is something of an animated anomaly. Released in 2011 by Nickelodeon Pictures (if you can believe it), directed by a usually live-action filmmaker (Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame), with animation by visual effects studio Industrial Lights and Magic. Rango is an American animated film aimed more at the adult movie buff, but is still kid-friendly enough to not be completely niche. Even watching it today, a decade after its release, Rango still feels like a delightfully surreal experience. One that, sadly, the movie world hasn’t really seen since.

Rango tells the story of a pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who prides himself as something of a thespian, though that might be a cover for his ongoing identity crises. The chameleon’s life gets thrown into chaos when his terrarium flies out of his owner’s car during an accident, stranding him in the desert. He meets the cause of the accident, a sagely armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who points the chameleon in the right direction to survive the brutal heat of the desert.

The chameleon eventually finds himself in the old west-style town of Dirt, populated by various desert animals. Realizing being a stranger in a new place is the opportunity to “be anyone” that he’s been looking for, the chameleon takes on the name ‘Rango,’ and concocts an elaborate backstory as a badass gunslinger who can take on anyone and anything, which the town humorously accepts with very little question.

The newly-named Rango is quickly put to the test when a hawk invades the town. Due to sheer luck, Rango survives the encounter with the hawk, with the townsfolk comically interpreting his bumbling and lucky circumstances as some kind of ingenious strategy. So the people of dirt arrange for Rango to meet the mayor (a tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty), who appoints Rango as the new sheriff of Dirt.

But all is not well in Dirt, as the town has been suffering a severe draught, to the point that the townsfolk have resorted to using water as currency (even depositing water into their local bank). The water used to flow into the town every Wednesday, but it has suddenly stopped. A local woman – a desert iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher) – has noticed water being dumped in the desert, and suspects a conspiracy. She and Rango then set out to investigate the cause of the missing water. Meanwhile, an additional threat looms over Dirt. With his natural predator the hawk dead, notorious outlaw Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) might return to Dirt.

Honestly, any synopsis I give can’t do Rango justice. It’s a Blazing Saddles-style western spoof while simultaneously being a genuine western in the vein of Sergio Leone. It’s an animated film with talking animals in which none of the animals are ever made to be cute (in fact, they’re wonderfully ugly). And it’s filled with enough movie references to make Quentin Tarantino blush.

Even ten years later, the animation of Rango is something to behold. The film finds the perfect balance of making things look both realistic and caricatured. Take, for example, Rango himself. His finer details (such as his scales) evoke a real chameleon, but his eyes are comically asymmetrical, and his crooked pencil neck should not be able to carry that bulbous head of his. There’s a lot of imagination at work in the character designs in making them weird, gross and interesting. It’s just a fascinating film to look at, and the results are still captivating a decade on.

The biggest joys of Rango, however, are the characters and writing. The voice acting is top notch (with Bill Nighy being a particular highlight, making Rattlesnake Jake a truly memorable villain despite relatively little screen time). Rango is a funny film, but in a much different way than most animated fare. There’s no particular comic sidekick designed to be the fan favorite, instead, the film manages to squeeze humor out of all of its characters (sans the villains, who are dead serious), no matter how small and inconsequential their part may be in the story. While there is some slapstick at play, most of the humor in Rango stems from the characters themselves. Whether it’s their eccentric personalities (Rango’s dimwittedness being mistaken for heroism is another highlight) or just the strange things they say (“It’s like a puzzle! Like a big mammogram!”), Rango’s is an off-beat sense of humor that still stands out.

That’s one of the best things about Rango: It’s intrinsically funny because of its weirdness. Sure, there’s still some bathroom humor and the occasional wink to the adult crowd, but it never feels reliant on such things in the same way a lot of modern animated comedy does. The film could bring out a smile or laugh out of someone simply by the way it and its characters go about things (such as Dirt’s weekly ritual of celebrating the arrival of water, which includes the townsfolk dancing and slapping each other, because why not). It’s funny by being itself, which is always a rare treat for any movie.

Despite garnering critical acclaim, Rango never quite caught on. It seems to have fallen a bit into obscurity these past ten years, being remembered for winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and not being a Pixar movie) but rarely being brought up outside of that piece of trivia. That’s a real shame, because Rango was certainly one of the more original animated films to come out of the early 2010s (scratch that, one of the more original films of that timeframe, period). Studios and filmmakers would have done themselves well to take a page or two from its book.

I like that Rango exists in this weird space where it’s like the adult version of a kids’ movie. It’s aimed at the older crowd but isn’t really inappropriate for kids, either (maybe a bit scary for younger children at certain points). It’s an animated film that respects its audience, young and old, and doesn’t feel like it needs to dumb itself down for the former or lazily fall back on sexual innuendo for the latter. I honestly don’t know why such a concept is as hard to find in western animation as it is.

Rango may not quite be an animated masterpiece (the more dramatic aspects of Rango’s journey of self-discovery can get a little lost in the silliness), but it is a consistently fun and funny motion picture that deserves far more attention than it gets. It’s stunningly animated (its craftsmanship making its ugly characters somehow beautiful to see in motion), complete with some great action sequences. And its personality is entirely its own.

Rango isn’t really a kids’ movie, but it isn’t exclusively for adults. It’s just a movie. And a pretty great one. How about that?

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Pixar’s Soul Review

Soul is the twenty-third feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, a studio that needs no introduction by this point. Though Pixar hit their first rough patches during the 2010s (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur), for the most part, they’ve had a nearly-unprecedented streak of classics. As such, the release of a new Pixar film usually serves as one of Disney’s tentpole releases of any given year. That was to be the case for Soul as well, with Disney heavily promoting it alongside the likes of Frozen 2 a year before its planned 2020 release. Of course, like so many 2020 films, Soul saw a number of setbacks and delays, before finally being made available as a streaming exclusive to Disney+ on Christmas Day.

Soul is directed by Pixar’s new head honcho Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, effectively making him Pixar’s most imaginative and whimsical filmmaker. While most of Pixar’s films are easily identifiable by a specific theme (toys, cars, fish, bugs, etc.), Docter’s films tend to be more abstract or ethereal (Monsters, Inc. probably fit in more with Pixar’s usual “themed” films, though even then the concept of closet monsters makes for more imaginatively fertile ground than the others). This was made most apparent with Inside Out, a film that presented the inner emotions of a little girl as its leading characters, as they ventured through different avenues of the human mind. In a sense, Soul is like a spiritual follow-up to Inside Out, using a similarly existential idea as the basis of its story. While Inside Out took audiences into the world of thoughts and emotion, Soul takes things a step further by exploring the human soul itself.

Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher who has always dreamed of becoming a jazz musician. He doesn’t hate his job as a teacher, but does feel stuck and held back by it. His seamstress mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) objects to his musical aspirations, further dampening his attitude towards his life’s situation.

Things start looking up for Joe, however, when a former student – who now plays for jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) – informs Joe that there’s been an opening in Dorothea’s band. Joe makes an impression in his audition, and he’s personally asked by Dorothea to perform with her band later that night.

Ecstatic that his dreams could finally be coming true, Joe is a bit careless on his way home to prepare for the gig, and ends up falling down an open manhole. Joe now finds himself as a blobby, blue soul, riding a kind of escalator to transport him to “the Great Beyond.” Refusing to accept death on the day his life finally started to turn around, Joe stumbles off the escalator and finds himself in “the Great Before,” the place where souls gain their personalities before they go to Earth.

Here, the unborn souls are watched over by cosmic beings who all go by the name “Jerry” (abstract creatures who are simultaneously two-dimensional and three-dimensional). The various Jerrys mistake Joe for a “mentor,” an experienced soul who takes an unborn soul under their wing before the former ascends to the Great Beyond and the latter makes their journey to Earth. Joe decides to play along until he can find a way back to his body on Earth, and winds up as the mentor to a troublesome soul named “22” (Tina Fey), who has spent millennia in the Great Before as countless mentors (including Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa) have failed to instill 22 with the inspiration she needs to find her ‘spark,’ which is required before she can go to Earth.

I feel like I can’t divulge any more of the plot without spoiling the specifics, but suffice to say that Joe has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to reconnect with his body and help 22 find a reason to live. Their adventure will span both this incorporeal realm as well as a few trips back to Earth (in unexpected ways), and takes a number of twists and turns.

Visually speaking, Soul is among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The human world looks more realistic than the usual Pixar fare (with the humans still having a cartoonish and exaggerated look), while the afterlife (or ‘betweenlife’ or whatever you want to call it) is a serene, visually arresting animated world, the kind you know will long stay in the memory. The aforementioned “Jerrys” as well as the “lost souls” should rank near the top of Pixar’s best character designs.

Like Inside Out, Soul seems to be having a ball exploring its concept. Not just for the visual splendor of it, but also for the creativity of its story and humor. We learn that passionate artists in the living world enter an ethereal plain simply called “The Zone” when they get lost in their art, but that the Zone can also transform souls into their “lost” selves, should obsessions and anxiety take hold. There’s a sign twirling guru named Moonwind (Graham Norton) who is willingly able to travel to the Zone through meditation. And the Jerrys question why they send so many souls into the pavilions that teach self-absorbtion. I don’t think Soul quite reaches Inside Out in making the most out of its concept, but like any of the Pixar greats, it certainly does bring a lot of charm and creativity out of it.

I feel like I’m referencing Inside Out a lot, but I feel the comparison is close to unavoidable, given that Soul is Docter’s follow-up feature to Inside Out, and that its concept makes it feel more inline with Inside Out than any other previous Pixar picture. And I’m afraid it’s in that sense that I feel Soul falls a bit short. For all the merit Soul does have, I don’t feel like it ever reaches the same heights as Docter’s previous masterpiece, whether through emotion or story.

Perhaps I set my expectations too high in regards to Soul. After all, I consider Inside Out to be Pixar’s greatest film full-stop. But again, it’s hard not to make the comparison, given the similarities between the two in both narrative DNA and as the works from the same filmmaker.

I suppose it’s not too critical of a complaint to say Soul falls short of what I believe is Pixar’s best effort, but there is that extra something missing from Soul that prevents it from sitting alongside Pixar’s very best. It’s hard to say what it is exactly, since I don’t think that Soul does anything particularly wrong, so much as it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have.

Inside Out used its concept to strip Pixar films to their bare essence, exposing their heart and soul (ironically enough). Pixar films have often been noted for bringing audiences to tears, and Inside Out basically expressed what every Pixar film aimed to achieve emotionally. I feel like Soul has similarly deep and meaningful things to say about life and why our passions may not necessarily be our purpose, but I feel like it doesn’t always know how to express these themes. I admit it actually took two viewings for me to appreciate what Soul was trying to say, though even now I don’t feel it in the same way I did for Inside Out.

Soul is a great movie on its own merits, don’t get me wrong. It tells a great, imaginative story with some of the best visuals Pixar has created. It has terrific vocal performances, a strong musical score and – like Ratatouille and Coco before it – has an infectious love of music and the arts. And yes, I even think the message of the film is potentially as profound as any Pixar has done. It’s just in the way that Soul often stumbles in conveying that message that holds it back from reaching the same staggering heights of some of its Pixar predecessors. With that said, even with its flaws, Pixar’s Soul is, much like Pete Docter’s previous work, a beautiful movie, inside and out.

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